Friday, February 17, 2017

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

Back in the fall, when I attended Nashville's Southern Festival of the Book, I came home with a long reading list and a number of actual books. I managed to hear Yaa Gyasi twice, once sitting on the row with her proud family. The book, written when she was twenty-two, resulted from a trip to Africa to see where her family had originated. (Gyasi actually grew up in Huntsville, Alabama.)

The novel she ended up writing wasn't the story she expected to find on her travels, but she put together a beautiful, masterfully told story set on the Gold Coast of Africa that begins with two daughters of the same mother, each unaware of the other's existence. One is taken as the wife of a white slave trader, living in the castle on the coast under which captive tribes people are held until placed on ships for passage to America. The other becomes a slave.

Rather than tell the full story of her characters, Gyasi gives just enough to make her characters real before moving to the next generations. She gives a picture of the tribal rivalry, spurred on by European slave traders. While history books sometimes imply the role African tribes play in the captivity of their rivals, the novel gives a clearer, fairer explanation of this complicated chapter in history.

Gyasi brings the characters all the way up to modern times, even bringing together a couple who will never be aware of their connection, many generations removed.

Much as Colton Whitehead managed to do in The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi manages to put real faces on the characters set in this historical backdrop. Her characters are multi-dimensional, their flaws laid bare along with their virtues. In the end, readers close the pages of the book with a large cast of believable, sympathetic characters taking up residence in our long-term memory.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jessie Burton's novel The Muse

Even when I have a big stack of books to read and a backlog on my iPad, sometimes a book muscles its way to the front of my list without rhyme or reason. I had read Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, but when I came across her latest book The Muse at the library, I knew nothing at all about it. Based on the back cover copy, I gave it a chance. I'm so glad I did.

The book opens in London in the late 60s, as Odelle Bastien, a young immigrant from the Caribbean, finds herself working at a small art gallery, after leaving a job selling shoes with her best friend. An aspiring writer, shy about sharing her poems and stories, she catches the attention of Lawrie Scott, a young man who technically crashes Odell's friend Cynth's wedding party, and then of Margery Quick, one of her employers at the Skelton. When Lawrie tracks her down at her work, bringing with him a painting that represents his only inheritance to his recently dead mother, the mystery of the painting's history piques the curiosity of Odelle and of everyone at the Skelton.

Burton then takes readers back in time to the 1930s, when young Olive Schloss has just moved with her English mother and Austrian father to the Andalusian region of Spain. When two young locals, Isaac and Teresa Robles, illegitimate children of a Spanish man with power and reputation in the community, Olive is drawn into both romance and unlikely friendship with the two.

Olive withholds the news from her parents that she's been accepted at an art school in London, especially when she learns that the handsome Isaac also considers himself an artist. Young Robles, involved with a group of rebels opposing the current government, is trapped by a deception about the art Olive produces, signing Isaac's initials.

Throughout the novel, Burton maintains a careful balance between the two story lines, which read almost like two separate novels until the story lines merge.  Odelle's story is sometimes reminiscent of Chris Cleaves' Little Bee, while the Spanish narrative has some echoes of Kingsolver's Lacuna. In fact, the description of the paintings that tie the two stories together sound like something Frida Kahlo might have painted.

The author manages to keep Odell's writing achievements nearly woven into the story, maintaining the mystery of her true muse Margery Quick and convincing readers with Odelle's insight, self-awareness, and attention to detail, that she could indeed work magic with the language.
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Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: A Year in Books

One of my favorite rituals at the end of each year is compiling my list of books I have read.  I've been keeping notes on my wall calendar for quite some time, and I transcribe them here and in my Bookwoman notebook. I read once that Art Garfunkel has kept his list like this since he was about sixteen. I wish I'd started then.

The books I actually get around to reading, the ones that press their way to the top of the pile, get there in a variety of ways.  Being a part of a book club has been important for me, encouraging me to read books I might otherwise pass by--Just Mercy, for example, and When the Moon Is Low. Some books make the list when I hear the author at a reading. This year, I heard Kimberly Williams-Paisley,  Jane Hamilton, Louise Erdrich, and Ann Patchett, to name just a few. Living in Nashville now, I am fortunate to be able to attend lots of book events thanks to the Nashville Public Library (Salon @615) and Parnassus Books.

I still rely on recommendations from my favorite fellow book lovers out there--Carol Jago and Amber Owens fall into that group. A few are assignments, books I'm reviewing for journals or authors I'm introducing at readings. Some books I find through pure serendipity, prowling the shelves at book stores and the public library. I must confessed that I abandoned several this year--especially audiobooks. I may give a few of them another try, but I'm unapologetic for opting out, considering how many more I may never get around to reading.

I discovered author Louise Penny last year (Thank you, Brian Faucette), and she's certainly over-represented on my list this year. I'm not usually one to read mysteries or series. Her books are both, and yet I find myself caught up and waiting for her to finish another. I have rarely found a set of characters about whom I cared so much. Over the course of her dozen or so novels, I have come to know the residents of Three Pines and their regular visitors. I keep telling anyone who'll listen to read them--but to be sure to read them in order, so as not to spoil surprises. I also read the next in the Flavia deLuce novels by Alan Bradley, and End of Watch the third in Stephen King's trilogy.

I re-read a couple of books, Life after Life, a book club selection I enjoyed again. Many of my favorite go-to authors have lived up to expectations--Patchett, Ron Rash, Anna Quindlen. As always, I have a number of poetry collections on my list. To be honest, I've read more than I've listed. I am sure. I'm also partway through books by friends--Scott Owens and Jeff Hardin for instance.

This year my husband and I also completed the Bible, using the MacArthur Daily Bible. I read it through with friends a few years ago, and my paperback copy is held together by duct tape, so I downloaded the eBook on my iPad. I like the arrangement: every day offers a selection from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, the Psalms and Proverbs. Leviticus is much easier to read, knowing one of the Gospels will follow.

I'm already making a list for this year, and I'm almost through Wally Lamb's I'll Take You There. On the sofa beside me, I've made check marks beside the New York Times best sellers I've read and a W beside the ones I "want to read."  If I've learned anything, though, it is this: the books I finish aren't always the ones I planned to read. New titles just keep butting their way in.

My 2016 list:

Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace
Chris Scotten, Secret Wisdom of the Earth
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Lisa Genova, Inside the O'Briens
Judy Blume, In the Unlikely Event
Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Rachel Cusk, Outline
Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month
Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy
Lee Smith, A Guest on the Earth
JD Crowe, Half Thunk Thoughts and Half Fast Drawings
Kevin Kwan, China Rich Girlfriend
Nadia Hashimi, When the Moon Is Low
Matthew Neill Null, Honey from the Lion
Judith Richard, Sounds of Silence
Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil
Tim Peeler, Rough Beast
Joseph Mills, Exit Pursued by a Bear
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Joshilyn Jackson, The Opposite of Everyone
Louise Penny, The Brutal Telling
Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Jenny Lawson, Pretend This Never Happened
Louise Erdrich, LaRose
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, The Nest
Kim Boykin, Echoes of Mercy
Stephen King, End of Watch
Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue
Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead
---. The Hangman
---. A Trick of the Light
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
Jane Shlensky, Barefoot on Gravel
Allen St. John, Clapton's Guitar
Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible
Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery
---. How the Light Gets In
Kate Atkinson, Life after Life
Kimberly Williams-Paisley, How the Light Gets In
Emma Straub, Modern Lovers
Ron Rash, The Risen
Anna Quindlen,  Miller's Valley
Louise Penny, Nature of the Beast
Beth Revis, A World Without You
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Chris Cleaves, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
Jonathan Safron Foer, Here I Am
Liane Moriarty, Truly, Madly, Guilty
Colton Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Alan Bradley, Thrice the Brinded Cat Has Mewed
Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning
Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs
Martha Hall Kelly, The Lilac Girls
Lauren Goff, Fates and Furies
Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
Susan Thurston, Sister of Grendel
Amy Ash, The Open Mouth of the Vase
The MacArthur Daily Bible
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Friday, December 23, 2016

Fates and Furies: Two stories under one cover

I may be late to the party, since Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies has been out awhile, but it's one of the books I've enjoyed this year that lived up to its promise. The rule of thumb for how long one must keep reading a book before giving up on it is 100 pages minus your age. Many times I've been rewarded for hanging in there when a book is a slow start. This book, however, drew me in quickly, not just with the story and the characters but the writing.

Divided into two parts (Fates and Furies--hence the title), the novel begins with the marriage of Lancelot ("Lotto") Satterwhite and his wife Mathilde at 22, just days after they first meet. Groff tells what could be considered a full story, tracing Lotto's life from before his birth, when his mother performing as a mermaid in Florida meets and marries his father, who becomes a bottled water magnate. The story follows twists and turns in their marriage, as Lotto fails to fulfill his early promise as an actor but finds success as a playwright. Geoff bring in and out of the story a large cast of characters--childhood friends, Lotto's agoraphobic mother, the twin brother of his first lover, college friends.

When the story shifts in the second half to Mathilde's life, readers may be surprised not only how much they didn't know about her, but how we failed even to be curious about her back story, just as fascinating as his, maybe more. When Groff weaves in the details of the famous art forger who, during WWII, fooled even Hitler's inner circle by painting his faux Vermeers over mediocre works on ancient canvases, it seems obvious that she overlays Mathilde's story over Lotto's.

Even before exploring the mythological allusions the title implies, I was drawn into the story with its surprises which I realize, on retrospect, were always laid out perfectly through the telling of this story of love, deceit, and revenge.
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Friday, December 9, 2016

Another War Book

Often my reading list is dictated not by mere whim but by the selections of others.  Since I enjoy the social aspects of reading either with friends or in book clubs, I will often read a book I might not have otherwise chosen. And that's a good thing.


All too often, I'm the one assigning the texts, so turn about is fair play. I know that no matter how hard I try to choose a book that is suitable for a wide readership, someone is going to hate it.


Sometimes the readings align in an interesting way. This semester for the literature class I've been teaching as an adjunct for the community college, I was assigned a novel to teach, Maisie Dobbs, a novel set during and after World War I in England. Around the same time, my daytime book club has been reading a World War II novel, The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and my evening book club is reading Chris Cleaves' novel (also World War II London) Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.


My attitude toward Maisie Dobbs could have been better. It felt too lightweight for me, and I longed for a little more literary richness. The title character is likeable, even admirable, a girl born into lower working class who advances first through reading. When the wealthy, albeit liberated, woman for whom she works discovers her in the family library reading in the wee hours before her work begins, the woman gives her the breaks that make advancement possible. The book moves from the present, with Maisie working as a detective and using skills she learned from her mentor, to the past as she leaves college to volunteer during the war.


I used one of my favorite strategies in my class after the students finished the novel, with the students leading the discussion as I silently observed. They brought the reading to life, not only having a lively discussion of the plot but going on, with no prompting from me, to discuss the writer's choices.


I haven't met to discuss the two book club selections yet, but as I read The Lilac Girls, I struggled. Wells follows three main characters: Caroline, a  privileged socialite living in New York and working with the French Embassy before the United States enters the second world war; Kasia, a young Polish girl arrested and sent to Ravensbruck for her involvement in the underground; and Herta, a German doctor who works on some of the horrific medical experiments on the female prisoners at Ravensbruck.


The story was so full of descriptive details and historical information that I suspected the author had heavily researched the period and couldn't let go of any of it. My biggest problem, though, was that I disliked the characters. Certainly, it was easy not to like Herta, but even Caroline, the do-gooder, drove me crazy with her vacuous observations, and especially her pining away for her married French lover. It's hard to sympathize with a girl who feels a little let down to learn that her lover's wife didn't actually die in the concentration camps after all.  Even Kasia, certainly a victim, had such a bitterness that she hurt others as much as she hurt herself.


At the end of the book, though, the author fills in the reader on how she wrote the book, based on real characters. Caroline was real, actually admirable; her French lover was a fictional plot device. Herta was real--and she was actually released early before she completed her twenty-year sentence, thanks in part to some political maneuvering by the U.S. government. Kasia and her sister, though invented characters, was based on actual sisters held at Ravensbruck. I'm glad she told me her background into the book. It made me a little more forgiving of what I might otherwise have found annoying. She also made me want to read more about these Ravensbruck girls and about the real Caroline Ferriday.


Of the three stories of women during wartime, my favorite was Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleaves. I fell in love with his writing when I discovered Little Bee, with one of the most engaging narrators ever.  In this book, the protagonist Mary North is also a young woman of privilege, but against her parents' wishes, she enlists soon after the war begins, but is surprised to be assigned to teach school children. When her students are evacuated, her approach to her students leads to her being sent back to London. There she meets her first lover Tom, head of the local school board and not at all in her social league. The plot also follows Alistair, Tom's roommate who does go to war.


Cleaves manages to develop characters that are both flawed and sympathetic. They have a self-awareness that adds to their charm and believability.  The author also builds some of the most suspenseful scenes with a small cast of characters, not only on the battlefield, but back in London during the bombings. This is a story I can't wait to talk about at book club--and it's one I can't wait to recommend to anyone who loves a good story well told.




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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Colton Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

Toward the end of the calendar year, I’m always thinking back on all the books I’ve read during the year, trying to decide which I liked best, which I would recommend to whom, which I would read again. Whenever online book sites try to recommend books for me based on what I’ve bought from them, I have to laugh. I don’t think there is an algorithm to decipher my reading preferences. I prefer literary fiction, but I read all kinds of books--autobiography, lots of poetry, spirituality, self-improvement.

I will confess, too, that I while I am a picky reader, I am no reading purist. Yes, I love to hold a book in my hands, to turn the pages, to write in the margins, but I also keep a book going on my iPad all the time, along with one in the CD player of my car. Just give me stories; just give me words.

I still have several books I plan to mention in coming posts, but I just finished Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, so I must share.  I heard Whitehead speak at Parnassus Books a few weeks ago and found him an engaging, entertaining speaker. I particularly liked his premise, writing about the Underground Railroad the way he imagined it as a child—a real train running on underground tracks. Ann Patchett, when asked who would win the Pulitzer Prize this year, predicted this one would "win it all."

Whitehead begins the book in Georgia, where Cora, a slave who still resents her own mother for running and leaving her behind, is invited to escape with Caesar, another slave on the same plantation, purchased after his Virginia owner died, failing make good on her promise to free him at her death. The master's death has left them in the hands of a particularly cruel son. Things can only get worse.

The two go first to South Carolina, deceptively safe for awhile. She works first in the home of a local family, and then at the history museum’s live exhibit, sometimes reenacting live on the plantation, sometimes on the slave ship. Then her past threatens to catch up with her.

Their next stop takes them to North Carolina, where state laws have recently closed the doors on all blacks, free or slaves, with a gruesome Friday night ritual she witnesses from the attic where she hides, virtually enslaved again.

Always just over her shoulder is the infamous slave catcher still bitter over failure to find and return Cora’s mother. Eluding him, she ends up in Indiana at a rather Utopian community of blacks, some freedmen, some mixed race members who have, at times, passed as white, and many former slaves.


Whitehead manages to weave in the first person accounts of others in Cora’s story, filling in pieces along the way. His final product is the story of one slave that translates to the story of all slaves, balancing hope and hatred, the past and the future.  Those who played a role in the real underground railroad become three-dimensional characters who might be our own neighbors. They might be ourselves. I suspect the story will haunt me for a long, long time.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air

Some books are a harder sell, particularly when the subject matter seems so dark and cheerless. I know that I lean toward fiction already, so when someone recommends a work of nonfiction written by a doctor diagnosed with cancer, the recommendation has to come from some powerful directions. Fortunately, the reading friends who suggested Paul Kalanithi's memoir When Breath Becomes Air had an excellent track record.

Kalanithi opens the book with his suspicions and diagnoses of lung cancer, already metastasized, during his final year of residency, where he trained as a brain surgeon. He confesses that his marriage was already under a strain because of the hours devoted to his training.

Then he takes readers back into his early developmental years that made him the man he became. The son of a doctor, he didn't plan to go into medicine. Once he entered college--a prestigious Ivy League school--he double majored, adding a literature degree to his pre-med studies. Kalanithi's love of language won me over quickly, particularly his awareness of how language defines who we are. This sensitivity he brought into his medical career, remaining acutely aware of the choices his patients faced, the choice he had to treat patients and their families impersonally or to communicate in the most humane fashion.

Through his ordeal, he shared the reality when the doctor becomes the patient. His doctors presented him with his options, giving him their support to finish his education and to consider a future. He and his wife also opted to have a child--a daughter--even knowing how little time he would be able to spend with her. Ultimately, his realistic appraisal of the amount of time remaining led him to write this book, even when he required special gloves to protect his skin as he typed on his laptop.

In many ways, the book is incomplete--at least in the way any story is, when the narrator's exit comes before The End; however, his wife Lucy, also a physician, provides an afterword that pays a beautiful tribute to her husband and the grace with which he lived out his final days.

Through his humanity, his faith, his practicality, Paul Kalanithi faces his own death with grace and acceptance, leaving behind an example for how to live and how to die.
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