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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Thursday, August 8, 2019

The War to End All Wars--and the Next One: The Alice Network and the Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

 I can't always call them coincidences--those occurrences when I find myself encountering similar elements in more than one book I am reading. (For the record, everything I've read recently has mentioned migration patterns of monarch butterflies and the activities of hummingbirds.)

When I started reading Kate Quinn's novel The Alice Network, I was just following up on recommendations from several friends. (Thank you, Mary June!) This novel follows Charlie St. Clair, a flighty American girl who, after coming home from college pregnant, is taken to London by her parents to take care of her "little problem." She has other ideas, though, since her closest cousin has disappeared. She traces her to a crusty anti-social woman with maimed hands who at first   refuses to help her, but then agrees
to pursue leads, driven a handsome, rough-hewn ex-com in her employ.

The story then shifts back and forth between Charlie's search and the back story of Eve Gardiner, who had served as a spy in what was called "The Alice Network" in German-occupied France.

Simultaneously, I had started reading The Impossible Lives of Great Wells by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Andrew Sean Greer. This novel followed a woman who undergoes electro-shock therapy in 1985 after losing her twin brother to AIDS and her lover, who simply leaves her for someone else. As she goes through the series of treatments, she is sent back first to 1918 and next to 1941. While she's the same person, surrounded again by her brother Felix, her lover/husband Nathan, and even her favorite aunt, she sees her live unfold differently each time, set against the back drop of WWI and WWII.

As she moves between lives, she realizes that her other selves are moving into the lives she has left. While I don't like gimmick for gimmick's sake, I enjoyed Greer's take on how one change in our lives can have ripple effects and how changing our time and place can cause changes in us as well.

Both novels--so different from one another--gave me a look at the effect of both great wars both on the front and on the home front.
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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl:

Anyone in Nashville who loves books and good writing has probably heard the name Margaret Renkl. Her book launch at Parnassus Books was an event! With the release of her book Late Migrations, plenty of other readers should know the name soon. I read one of the short pieces from the book in the Oxford American magazine, "The Imperfect Family Beatitudes." I was hooked.

The book, which can be classified as part flash memoir, part essay collection, digs back into Renkl's family history, recording stories told by her grandmother (e.g., "In Which Grandmother Tells the Story of the Day She was Shot), making inferences about the author's mother's depression, and chronicling events from her childhood (e.g. "Things I Knew When I Was Six" and "Things I Didn't Know When I Was Six.")

With none of the essays or sketches more than three pages, she also weaves in her keen observations of plant life, Monarch butterflies, and--literally--the birds and the bees. And while each piece is short, this is not one of those books to be stacked with the Readers Digest copies in the powder room for quick reads. I found myself turning "one more page, one more essay" without a break. She makes use of specific but unpretentious language to describe the world around her--from Lower Alabama to Nashville.

Her occasional literary allusions are delightful for literary sorts without being off-putting to any of her readers. As a result, she has produced a reading experience that will have readers ticking off a list of people who must read the book next.
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Monday, June 24, 2019

Louise Erdrich's Future Home of the Living God

Louise Erdrich never writes the same book twice. That should go without saying of any author, but plenty seem to write a variation of the same book over and over. (I'll not name names for diplomatic reasons.) Her most recent novel Future Home of the Living God starts as the story of a young woman Cedar Songmaker exploring her roots and meeting her birth mother. She does find it odd that as the child of a Native American mother, a non-native family had been able to adopt her, usually prevented by law to maintain ethnicity.

She meets Mary Potts, Senior. (since her own birth name was Mary Potts), Mary's husband,  and her own half sister, a troubled teenager with a drug habit whose clothing seems more like costuming.

Readers learn early that Cedar is pregnant and single, though she reveals some details about the baby's father early in the tale. Gradually, though, Erdrich's tale takes a dystopian turn, first merely suggested, and then explained for fully: Something has gone wrong in nature and evolution seems to be reversing. Not only are plant and animal life affected, but something strange seems to be happening with pregnancies and the delivery of new babies. In fact, as government control increases, pregnant women are expected to turn themselves in or to be arrested and held at special hospitals--conveniently housed in prison facilities.

Cedar is challenged to protect herself and her unborn baby, drawing on help and support--often by stealth--from both the family that raised her and the family of her birth mother. The biggest challenge is learning whom to trust, particularly as citizens are granted incentives to turn on one another.

One interesting thread in the novel comes as Cedar embraces Catholicism, the faith of her birth mother, despite her Songmaker family's agnostic or atheistic beliefs. She observes other-worldly visions by Mary Potts, Senior, and other members of her community.

Erdrich is at her best when she puts her characters into complicated situations that force them to decide between trusting themselves or the members of the network they have built around them. For someone wanting a light summer read, this isn't it; for anyone wanting to be unsettled and engaged, this is a good choice.
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Saturday, June 22, 2019

I haven't re-read Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's classic, in years. Unless my memory fails me, I read it the first time in the first grade. I have always found reading a social activity, so I want to read what my friends read. Honestly, these days, I want my friends to read  what I  read. In elementary school, my favorite bookish friend was Elaine. I've surely mentioned her and her mom, our elementary librarian, many times here on this blog, particularly since the title Discriminating Reader is an allusion to what Mrs. Comer wrote in my 3rd grade yearbook. Many of the classics I encountered as an early reader were influenced by the friendship--The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte's Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins--to name a few.

Recently, I read Anne Boyd Rioux's nonfiction work Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Matters. She had researched Alcott's life and how it related to her novel, as well as the history of the book, the movies, and even the other works influenced by Little Women. Around the same time, my granddaughter came home with a list of classic novels from which to choose. The only stipulation was she couldn't re-read. It had to be a new book to her. I just happened to have a copy (or three) of the novel. I got to see her culminating response to the book, a video she produced with the help of some of her neighborhood friends.

Todd's novel The Spring Girls makes no bones about its being a retelling of the story, particularly since almost none of the names are changed. (Marmie becomes Meredith, but the girls' names and even Laurie are the originals.)  In this case, though, they are living in military housing in Louisiana while their father serves in Afghanistan. The book opens on Christmas day with the same line from Little Women: "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents." Jo is still the central character, a tomboy with aspirations of going to New York to become a writer.  Beth  is a recluse, home-schooled by choice.  Meg, the oldest sister, is trying to outrun a bad reputation in their previous hometown, hard to do in the days of social media. Feisty little Amy is young enough that her aspirations vary according to which older sister is her model for that particular day.

The book also has its share of romance in bloom--between Jo and Laurie, Meg and her recent West Point graduate John Brooke and the Middle Eastern son of her employer (a wealthy woman who keeps Meg around to do her makeup.) Meanwhile, their mother whom they call by her first name Meredith is so distracted by her husband's absence and then by his injury (which should not be a spoiler if you read Little Women) that she sometimes seems to overlook what her daughters are going through. Her loose expectations of her girls certainly diverge from what Marmie might have taught her four daughters, not batting an eye when Meg spends the weekend with her newly returned boyfriend (whom she hopes will become her fiancé) at a fancy New Orleans hotel.

As Rioux noted, plenty of other variations on the story have been produced. A retelling or adaptation doesn't take away from the first experience of reading the novel. I just wonder if knowledge of how the Jo-Laurie romance ends up--after this book closes--might have affected my reading.
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Friday, June 21, 2019

Summer Solstice: Summer Reading

Diane Setterfield's latest novel begins and ends at the summer solstice at the Swan, a tavern on the Thames known for its storytellers. The owner Joe is in poor health but his wife Margot and their daughters (whom everyone calls the little Margots) keep the place running. Their only son Jonathan, born with Down's Syndrome livens up the place, hoping to learn to tell stories well himself.

On this particular June day, though, a man injured beyond recognition appears at the door, holding what appears to be a rag doll but is actually a four-year-old girl, presumably dead. When Rita, the local nurse is summoned to attend to the two victims, she is surprised when the girl begins to breathe again.

Having read and loved Setterfield's Thirteenth Tale many years ago, I was eager to read this one, but I struggled at first because of the many threads to the story. The girl is claimed by the Vaughans, whose daughter Amelia had disappeared from her bed two years before. His wife is so relieved to recover the girl that Mr. Vaughan hides his own skepticism about the girl's identity.

Also drawn into the tale are Robert Armstrong and his wife Bess. A large black man, Armstrong is the son of a young nobleman who fell in love with his maid. Though a marriage was out of the question, Robert was provided with support and an education. Around the time the nearly drowned girl appears, he has learned of a child of his stepson Robin and investigates to see if the girl might be his and Bess's grandchild.

Meanwhile Lily White, something of a hermit who cleans the parsonage, believes  (quite improbably) the drowned girl was her sister Anne.

As Setterfield weaves the threads of the story, building multi-layered, engaging characters, she draws the reader in further. She also adds a light touch of fantasy, including the mythical character called Quietly, the boatman believed either to ferry people across the river to the afterlife or to return them if their time has not come. With the motif of storytelling in the tale, the little elements of fantasy are rendered credible.

Adding to the charm of the well-developed plot, Setterfield pens memorable lines I found myself wanting to write down to consider again later.  Looking back on the book, I realize that nothing can keep me engaged in a story, even one that starts slow, more than good writing--the best words in the best order, Coleridge's definition of poetry.
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: With a Little Help from Reese Witherspoon

More than one author has said that point of view is one of the most crucial decisions a writer makes when crafting a novel. In this spring's "it" novel Daisy Jones & the Six, author Taylor Jenkins Reid alternates points of view of a wide range of characters. Occasionally readers are reminded that these are fragments of interviews, with the questioner out of sight, but the reading experience is more like an intimate glimpse into the lives as they unfold.

The plot develops as a successful band started by brothers Billy and Graham Dunne, but when their opening act Daisy Jones is brought into the band, the tensions are palpable. While Daisy and Billy compete not only for front man/woman for the band, they also have an equal role as protagonist of the novel. Set in the seventies, readers who lived through that music and culture could easily imagine Daisy Jones & The Six as a real band from the era. The drug culture and the sexual revolution are in full swing, but some of the members of the band are more susceptible to the negative effects.

One of the strongest characters in the novel, Billy's wife Camilla provides some light even in the darkest parts of the book. Knowing from the start that she was marrying a rock musician, she fights for her marriage and family, choosing hope and yet demonstrating incredible maturity and empathy.

Reid also presents a convincing look at the dynamics of songwriting, the give and take between two creative artists, Billy and Daisy, with strong wills but a love for their art. The scenes in the recording studio, as well as on- and off-stage performances and interaction between the band and their fans, are credible as well.

The opportunity to experience vicariously the creation of an album will make music lovers who grew up in that era feel a bit nostalgic about the days when we slit the plastic on a new album and slid out the liner notes reading every word.

Reese Witherspoon has highlighted the novel in her book club,  now I hear that she is involved with Amazon's plans for a limited series based on the book. We may be comparing the movie to the book the way we compare a video to the recording.
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