Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ann Patchett's The Dutch House: This Fall's Must Read

I was an Ann Patchett fan before I moved to Nashville--probably even before I realized she lived in Nashville. I first discovered her when I read Bel Canto, which remains a favorite. Since she partnered with Karen Hayes to open Parnassus Books, one of the best independent bookstores anywhere, she has kept busy not only writing her own books but championing those of other writers here in Nashville and elsewhere.

When I first meet the college freshmen I teach, I give my soapbox speech about balancing academics and the other aspects of life. Don't live in Nashville and never leave campus, I advise them. I suggest they discover all the freebies and good deals for college students. They need to visit the Frist Art Museum (frequently), Cheekwood Mansion and Botanical Gardens, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Ryman Auditorium. And they need to discover Parnassus Books, within an easy walking distance of campus (something I know, having attended Lipscomb when freshmen weren't allowed to have cars. I walked or biked to Green Hills before Green Hills was cool.)

Patchett's most recent novel The Dutch House lives up to the high expectations of her readers. Told by Danny, this is the story of two siblings brought up by their father in a grand and unusual house in the suburbs outside Philadelphia when their mother abandons the family. The story takes a Cinderella turn when their father remarries and then dies suddenly, leaving Danny and his sister Maeve without family or a home.

Whenever Danny returns as an adult to visit his sister, the two of them invariably find themselves parked across the street from their former home, still occupied by their stepmother. Over time, they grow more nostalgic over the shared time in the car than in the house.

I sometimes had to remind myself that Danny's voice was the creation of a female writer. Everything about his character was believable. The dynamics of his relationship with Maeve was genuine without being over-sentimentalized. I liked them both. The other characters in the story--the two sisters who kept the Dutch House, as well as Fluffy, Danny's baby nurse who lost her job for striking the boy with a spoon, were believable and endearing. Even the stepmother Andrea and Elna, their long-absent mother, are much more than one-dimensional stereotypes.

While conventional wisdom advises against judging a book by its cover, the illustration on this particular novel, a rendering by a Nashville artist of the painting of young Maeve described in the book is both beautiful and haunting. When I think of iconic book covers, I expect this one to join the list; I also think this novel will be on reading lists for years to come.



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Friday, October 25, 2019

Tales of Second Wives: Rebecca and Varina

 With such a backlog of books waiting to be read, I am often reluctant to re-read anything, even books I loved. Sometimes, as recently for me, the motivation is external. When my book club decided to choose a classic as we prepared our 2019 reading list, we opted for Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, a book that had kept me on the D shelf in the fiction section of the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library back in junior high.

I loved the book so much that I read everything I could find by DuMaurier--Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, and a personal favorite, The House on the Strand.  I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had loved her works too, adapting this novel for the big screen, as
well as her short story "The Birds," which became one of Hitchcock's best-known film. (Who doesn't think of it whenever spying a flock of blackbirds?)

When we decided to read Rebecca, a first read for some members of the group, I wondered if it would hold up. I remembered so many vivid memories--the first glimpse of flames, appearing like the sunset on the wrong side of the sky, the opening line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. Every time I approach a majestic house at the end of a long drive, I recite them.

I'm still amused to recall that the narrator was never given a name other than Mrs. deWinter, one already used when she took it over. I still imagine the sight of Rebecca's signature in book dedications and household documents. I remember practicing writing that slanting R myself, even though I didn't have an R in my name.

A more recent re-reading experience brought me back to Charles Frazier's Varina, the fictionalized story of Jefferson Davis's wife. Long a fan of Frazier's writing, particularly his first novel Cold Mountain, I had selected Varina as our book club read when I hosted. Since only two of us are Southerners and several members have origins outside the United States, I was eager to lead a discussion that centered on the complicated history during and after the Civil War.

Frazier's novel, inspired by historical details of the wife of the only president of the Confederacy, took a minor character, a black boy taken in by the Davises and raised along side of their children. Pictures still remain of young Jimmy, and little is known after he was taken from the family upon their arrest after the war. Frazier took the liberties to imagine a grown-up Jimmy, having his own childhood memories reawakened upon reading a book mentioning his existence in the Davis household. He seeks out Varina, called V throughout the novel, and has her recount his life and her own.

My experience reading Frazier for a second time recalled the same experience with Cold Mountain. I read both novels straight through for the story, shortly after publication. A second reading made me more aware of Frazier's use of language and detail, his ability to explore the gray areas and the ambiguities.

Only upon reflection did I realize that both novels centered on the lives of second wives, living in the shadow of their husbands' first wives. Jefferson Davis had been married to Knoxie Taylor, whose father went on to serve as President of the United States. She died quickly of an illness shortly after their marriage and he only relinquished his mourning clothes in time to court Varina, many years his junior. If Frazier's details are accurate, he stopped by her grave with Varina on their honeymoon. In the novel, she speculates on his happy reunion with his first wife in the afterlife.

While the narrator of Rebecca spends much of her early marriage under the mistaken belief that her husband had adored Rebecca as much as everyone else did, only late in the story does she learn how wrong she was. On this second reading, I was particularly struck by her easy acceptance of how Rebecca died. Even Hitchcock had to make some revisions to the screenplay to minimize Max's culpability in his wife's death.

Now I'm happily moving on to my stack of new books, but I'm reminded that a second--or third or fourth--reading of a favorite book is seldom a waste of time.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Southern Festival of Books: Nashville Has More than Music!

Even before moving to Nashville in 2016, I found ways to get here in October for the Southern Festival of Books presented by Humanities Tennessee. This free event, held in the downtown Nashville Public Library and extending up the hill to War Memorial Auditorium is a feast for book lovers. Between the two edifices are booths--books vendors, authors, writing programs--and stages featuring music, poetry and more.

Now that I am settled here, I have to study the schedule, choosing between so many excellent sessions, many in the same time slots. Opening the first session in the library auditorium was country singer Rory Feek, who lost his wife and singing partner to cancer a few years ago. He opened his session with songs, then read from his memoirs about his courtship and marriage to Joey, as well as The Cow Said Neigh, his children's book. He invited his young daughter Indiana to join him on stage, and she promptly curled up in his lap and fell asleep, a perfect visual for his newest children's book The Way God Made You.

Discussing Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South, Samia Serageldin, who first dreamed up the anthology was joined by Marshall Chapman and Belle Boggs, two of the authors who shared the stories of their mothers in the book. Serageldin first conceived the idea for the book when her mother died in Cairo the same day another friend lost her mom. She mentioned the possible project to author Lee Smith, who ran with it, bringing in more stories than they had room to include.

Each of the women read from her own story: Serageldin told the story of a hypercritical mother; Chapman shared details about the woman whose daughter called "a great human but terrible mother.
Boggs, whose mother is still living and whose daughter Beatrice sat on the front row, read her essay considering her daughter as a reincarnation of her mother. With twenty-seven authors, many of them from my former home state of North Carolina, contributing stories of their mothers, the book not only promises poignant reading, but will likely evoke readers' memories of their own mothers.

A crowd lined up waiting for the doors to open on Saturday morning for the WNBA sponsored "Breakfast with the Authors," with Mary Laura Philpott interviewing Alexi Zentner (Copperhead), Anissa Gray (The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls), Karen Thompson Walker (Dreamers), and Taylor Jenkins Reid (Daisy Jones and the Six). One Instagram worthy feature of the breakfast was the miniature cupcakes topped with sugary miniatures of each of the four authors' novels--too pretty to eat.












While some audience members seemed to direct questions to Reid, whose novel was a Reese Witherspoon Book Club selection, all four books were so appealing that audience members had to debate whether or not to miss the next session in order to line up for the book signings that followed on the War Memorial Plaza.

Another particularly popular session featured Nashville: Scenes from the New American South with photographer Heidi Ross and Nashville writer and bookseller Ann Patchett, who wrote the captions and one of the essays in the book. The assignment came from New York editor Liz Sullivan, who had not actually been to Nashville, but who had a particular vision for the book: Nashville in present tense, not a retrospective--and plenty of white space. Even Ross and Patchett found that they had separate versions of Nashville, which occasionally overlapped.

They described their pleasure that so many people they invited to participate agreed to be photographed. Ross told particular stories of some of the photographs--a session with Al Gore in the same green room where he had once learned that he had lost the presidential race. She particularly prizes a picture her husband snapped in the room of her photographing the former vice president. Just as touching, though, was her account of a photograph she took of a homeless man--with his permission--when she dropped her camera and broke the lens.

The two women and their editor had to wrangle over some of the choices. Patchett thought there were too  many murals; her editor loved them.  The had to fight Sullivan to include the Predators photo, not just because it matched the color palette of a photograph of monks on the facing page, but because they believed the book would be incomplete without the team. ("They thank us at ever game," Ross quipped.)

After facilitating the earlier session, Philpott returned to share the stage with Dani Shapiro, discussing her  collection I Miss You When I Blink, a memoir collection whose narrative arc examines her attempts to break free of the perfectionism laid on her by her mother. Shapiro's latest book Inheritance also tells her own story, in this case the aftermath of a DNA test she took "recreationally," revealing that the man she considered her dad was not her biological father. Since the discovery came after the death of her parents, she had to decide to pursue the truth about her origin.

Ann Patchett shared the stage of War Memorial Auditorium with Margaret Renkl, a Nashville writer who contributes essays to the New York Times. Her recent publication Late Migrations, a collection of very short pieces that combine naturalist writing, memoir, and family history, is causing a storm in the publishing world. Not only is the writing brilliant, but the illustrations by her brother a collage artist make the book a library addition worth collecting.

For book lovers--whether they prefer fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or even cookbooks--the Southern Festival of Books should be a annual event. With Nashville musicians performing throughout the weekend, the festival is a sampler of  the best Nashville has to offer.
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Friday, October 4, 2019

Where Those Interviews Can Go: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

One of my favorite assignments in the English composition class I teach to college freshmen asks them to conduct three interviews, ideally with their oldest living relatives. I offer to let them "borrow a senior citizen" if they don't have candidates either in their own families or at least those of their friends or roommates. Invariably, when they write their end-of-semester reflection, they mention the interview experience as a highlight of the semester.

When I mentioned this project to a book club friend, she told me I had to read The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. The protagonist Joe Calvert is fighting the odds after a difficult family life. He never knew his father, and his mother is an alcoholic who often leaves his autistic half-brother unattended, putting increasing pressure on Joe. But he has worked to save money for college, where he ends up in a biography class with a course-long assignment, similar to mine. Since he knows none of the older generation of his family, he goes to a local nursing home seeking a subject to interview.

Resistant at first to his project, the personnel match him up with Carl Iverson who, after spending thirty years of a life sentence for the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, has been paroled, when he reaches the final stages of cancer. While Joe at first finds him repugnant, based on Iverson's alleged crime, he begins to see holes in the story that led to his sentencing and begins to investigate the crime himself.

He ends up working with his neighbor Lila, who ignored him but befriended his brother Jeremy. Over the course of the narrative, he struggles to keep up his studies and hold down his job in a bar, with obstacles from his alcoholic mother, who often leaves Jeremy alone and defenseless.

Eskens weaves an intriguing story that reminds readers that everyone has a story--and it's not usually the story we expect to hear.
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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Review of Cathleen Schine's The Grammarians

Of course we judge books by the cover! Not since elementary school have readers been satisfied by those library-bound generic blue and green covers. I'm often drawn to cover art, and I've even heard that books with blue on the cover sell better than others. I have also heard plenty of evidence that the human eye is drawn to text. (Why else do I lean in close to try to read strangers' tattoos?)

For my people, though, Cathleen Schine's recent novel The Grammarians appealed to me strictly on the basis of the title. The novel tells the story of twin sisters Daphne and Lauren Wolfe, who shared a private twin language from the time they were babbling infants, as well as an intense fascination with language. Their philology only increases when their father brings home a huge used copy of Webster's New International Dictionary, which he places on the stand the girls call an altar. Ironically, they discover the volume is missing the page where the word altar would have been defined.

Schine's chapter divisions are marked by entries from Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language,  often words strangely related to their unique relationship. As the girls grow up, much of the time sharing an apartment and even wearing matching clothes into young adulthood, they also make awkward attempts to separate. Laurel has a nose job, which Daphne takes as a direct affront. They have a double wedding--challenging since Daphne isn't even dating anyone when Lauren becomes engaged. Daphne lands a receptionist job at a small newspaper, where she moves first into a copy editing position, and eventually becomes a language columnist writing for Vogue. Laurel, lacking any actual qualifications, lands a job teaching kindergarten at a private school until she turns lines from government publications into found poetry.

Sometimes the jumps in time are surprisingly abrupt, skipping years, even decades. Shine surrounds the girls not only with loving, quirky parents but with an extended family and a set of work friends and spouses that often serve as ideal foil characters.

The best part of the book for me, the part I want to discuss with other readers who also love words, is the girls' razor sharp fascination with language. The longer I read, the quicker I anticipated the girls' response to misuse of words and phrases. While I am often disappointed when a plot line is predicable, my own recognition of the Wolfe girls' sensitivity to language gave me the satisfaction of an omniscient narrator. "I knew you'd catch that one!" I wanted to cheer each time the girls homed in on some misuse or when they found themselves fascinated by the flexibility of words with multiple meanings. In fact, by the end of the book, I'd made a list. Now if only I had a twin with whom to share it.
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Monday, September 9, 2019

Tom Hanks' Uncommon Type: A Study in Voice

I picked up the audiobook of Tom Hanks' short story collection Uncommon Type on a whim. I knew he'd been in Nashville promoting the book, but I hadn't heard much about it from my reading circles. Since the narrator of a book can make or break the experience, I was pleased to note that Hanks was reading his own work.

Just as the audience has to suspend disbelief when seeing the same actor in different roles--think Forrest Gump, Big, You've Got Mail--hearing the familiar voice delivering these stories might have been a distraction. It wasn't.
The first story "Three Exhausting Weeks" introduces a four characters that reappear in a couple of later stories, four friends who couldn't be more different from one another. The narrator has minimal pressure to work, having inherited money after his mother's death, leaving him time for adventures with his friends: Anna, the only female in the group, and two males--Steve Wong, a prodigious bowler and new citizen MDash.

Hanks manages to inject a little magical realism and time travel in some stories, while the others are realistic, even nostalgic. In only one story does the narration shift from Hanks alone to a cast that comes across like reader's theatre, or an episode of "Guy Noir, Private Eye."

The sole element that unites the story is the presence of at least once vintage manual typewriter in each story. I found myself listening for it the way Hitchcock fans kept an eye peeled for his cameo shot in each film.

The stories stand on their own with out the celebrity factor. In fact, the dramatist's eye for the specific and tangible, as well as his ear for clever dialogue made for a surprisingly pleasant reading experience.
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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Furious Hours: The Book Harper Lee Didn't Write

Since I've never denied that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is on the short list of my favorite books--to read and re-read as well as to teach--I was eager to pick up Casey Cep's book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.

The books begins not with Lee but with the story of Willie Maxwell, who returned to South Alabama after military service first to do work in a local plant and then to become the Rev. Willie Maxwell. The book details a series of mysterious deaths--two wives, a neighbor (and the late husband of wife number two), a nephew, and a step daughter. In each case, he was never convicted, thanks primarily to his lawyer Tom Radney.

Cep shifts between main characters, describing Radney's political career, including an unsuccessful run for Alabama Lt. Governor. The author deftly weaves together her extensive research on the parties involved in the trial before turning her attention to Lee.

The ironic twist comes when Maxwell is killed at the funeral of his step-daughter (and yes, Maxwell was the obvious suspect). Who defends the shooter Robert Burns? Maxwell's lawyer Radney. The trial held in Alexander City draws lots of attention, but most significantly that of Harper Lee. The author, already well-known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, sat through the trial and gathered extensive research of her own, intending to overcome her writer's block and turn it into her second book.

Cep takes the reader through Nell Harper Lee's history before, during, and after there writing of Mockingbird. This including her lifelong connection to Truman Capote first as childhood friends and later as collaborators as Lee assisted Capote in his research for In Cold Blood. She paints a complex and candid picture of the author's life and even her struggle with alcohol.

Eventually, Cep manages to do what Lee could not: find a way to tell this complicated story that evoked as much rumor and innuendo as fact.
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