Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Here I Am: Jonathan Safran Foer Does It Again.

 I read so many different kinds of books that it's only natural that my reaction varies form one to the next. Sometimes I breeze through one and hardly remember it a year later. Some books challenge me to become that kind of writer; sometimes I even think, "I could have done that." Sometimes an author is so heavy-handed, so present that I can almost imagine the fingers clicking on the keyboard--and it bothers me.  I love to lose myself in the world of a book, to imagine the plot is unfolding and I'm present as a witness.

Some authors work a kind of magic, a balancing act that defies my imagination. Love it or not (I did), Kate Atkinson's Life after Life was a feat I can't even imagine undertaking. Since that whole story moved back and forth between alternate possibilities, she must have kept a huge chart on the wall over her desk to keep all the threads of her story straight.

Jonathan Safran Foer's novels leave me reeling. Although I have to look up the title every time I mention it, trying to keep the adverbs and adjectives in the right order, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with its young narrator and broad scope of family history, was a novel I not only enjoyed but admired.

I have just finished his latest novel, Here I Am, which began as what might have been an ordinary story of a relatively secular Jewish family, preparing for their son Sam's bar mitzvah, Sam's great grandfather's last wish. Jacob Bloch and his wife Julia are raising their three sons, wrestling with their marriage, dealing with their parents, neighbors, and visiting relatives from Israel.

Technology takes a central role in the story. Sam is immersed in an alternative world video game in which he has created Samanta, his female avatar. His father Jacob has acquired a second cell phone he uses to communicate with a female co-worker. (The explicit texts appear in the book before readers realize what they are reading.) Sam finds the phone and leaves it where Julia discovers it, pushing their uncertain marriage into further crisis.

Somehow, though, Foer's characters' conversations and especially their thoughts take the themes of the story to a level not achieved in a typical airplane or beach read. The eulogy delivered at Jacob's grandfather's memorial service surprised me as much as it did Jacob, who didn't think the rabbi actually knew his grandfather. That passage itself is one I'll go back and read again.

About halfway through the novel, though, a natural disaster occurs in the Middle East that affects the entire world. Jacob's cousin Tamir visiting from Israel is unable to get home. Their late night conversations about Israel and Jewish identity, about marriage and family, keep replaying in my head.

I read sometimes for escape, but I love to read a book that makes me think and that puts me into the lives of people who are and are not like me. Even though some of the characters' words and thoughts felt so familiar and personal, I cannot imagine how Foer assembled this novel as he did.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

After the Book Festival: Time to Catch Up

I only managed to attend the Southern Festival once while living in North Carolina, so living here at the time of this annual celebration was just one more benefit of moving to Nashville.

I've been power-reading a lot lately, so I'm far behind in my book posts. This week, I plan to add posts about Ron Rash's latest novel The Risen, Jonathan Safron Foer's Here I Am, my most recent book club selection Truly, Madly, Guilty, Beth Revis' YA novel A World Without You, Emma Straub's Modern Lovers, and Anna Quindlen's Miller's Valley.

Today, though, I am processing all the great sessions I attended yesterday and the interactions with readers, authors, and booksellers.

Whenever I'm around events like this one, I can tell I'm with "my people." For years, when I attended the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, I watched the way participants plotted out the sessions we would attend. People who arrived with colleagues played "divide and conquer," each attending a different session, being sure to pick up handouts, promising to share when the conference was over. We worked the exhibits, adding to our already over-the-top book collections and picking up posters, book marks, teaching tips.

This weekend, I saw some of the same behavior; in fact, I ran into a small group of teachers from Chattanooga I knew from a conference in Mississippi almost two years ago. They had their schedule mapped out. My own reading friends crossed paths frequently, but we each had our own priorities, and we promised to share once the festival ended.

I sat in on sessions with Curtis Sittenfeld, whose novel Eligible I had read this year. I learned that she had been approached by the British Austen Society about writing the book, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, in the first place. She was on a panel with three other authors whose books I hadn't read (yet): Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First; Adam Hadley, whose book Imagine Me Gone was told in five first person points of view, and Yaa Gyasi's first novel Homegoing. I made a point to make it to Gyasi's reading later in the day as well and found myself sitting by her parents, who immigrated from Ghana to Alabama.

I also heard one of my Lemuria First Editions Club author Brad Watson read from Miss Jane. A special treat, though, was the session with Peter Furalnick, author of the book about Sam Philips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hank Klibanoff from my hometown Florence, Alabama. Guralnick said that when he started interviewing Phillips, he told him that the story wasn't in Memphis; it was in Florence. I had the opportunity to visit the Sam Phillips exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame with members of Phillips' family earlier this year, so I felt as if I had a little inside look at this story already.

I also made a point to attend a session of poets reading from the anthology Hard Lines: Rough Southern Poetry. Poet William Wright had to cancel his appearance (and that's twice I've missed him at events where he was scheduled) but my colleague Jeff Hardin stepped in, along with Allison Adelle, Ed Madden, and Amy Wright. Each read on of his or her poems from the collection, along with a poem by another poet each admired.

As a festival volunteer, I was the host of the session with Beth Revis, YA author of A World Without You, a novel set in a school for troubled teens--a detail readers must infer as the story builds. Revis, who lives back in my old stomping grounds of Western North Carolina, had told me in our initial communication that this story had a particular person connection. In the session, she told a lot about the process from birthing a book idea, to pitching, writing, and then going through the grueling editing process. She had planned her presentation meticulously so she could control her emotions during the session, reading just enough from the book to make her points without spoiling the experience for anyone who hadn't read the book yet.

I left the festival site with a little heavier bag and a much longer list of "must-read" books. Like a person with a song stuck in my head, I can't wait to pass my list on to you.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

When the Author and the Bookseller Are the Same Person

I became a fan of Ann Patchett's fiction long before I moved to Nashville. In fact, after I read Bel Canto, the first book of hers to come across my radar, I wrote a review that was published in English Journal, the secondary education professional publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. What I found in that book was a work of literary fiction I could recommend to readers who wanted a suspense novel. The novel and its characters stuck with me the way many books never do.

Since then, I have read everything Patchett writes, fiction or nonfiction. When she joined partner Karen Hayes to open Parnassus Books in Green Hills after Davis-Kidd closed, I always looked forward to trips to Nashville. This independent bookstore was a nice size with a healthy book to other stuff ratio. Obviously, the employees didn't just work there; they loved books. They talked books.

Upon moving to Nashville, I got my library card just a few blocks from Parnassus, but I headed to tho the bookstore often enough to purchase books I needed to own, not just to read. Then I discovered Salon@615, a library partnership with the bookstore that presents so many great writers at their frequent events.

Last week, the author was Ann Patchett, debuting her new novel Commonwealth.  She was getting ready to start her book tour (beginning at the airport bookstore the next morning before flying out of town. She certainly gave her audience a nice preview to the novel, reading from it and talking about how it was different from and similar to her other books.

Then she started giving suggestions of other people's books. I had my pen poised and ready. She always has a book she's revived and is sharing with others. Right now, it's Lucy Dawson's Dogs as I See them, from the 1930s. It was for sale on the table right alongside Patchett's in the lobby.

She also predicted that Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, the current Oprah Book Club selection, will win everything this year--Pulitzer, National Book Award, everything. She also mentioned his earlier book The Intuitionist, which she also loved.  Other favorites this year she mentioned several authors whose earlier books I'd loved--My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stout (Olive Kitteredge) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Rules of Civility). 

Discussing Whitehead's novel, Matthew Desmond's Evicted, and others, Patchett referred to what she calls the "Hamilton Principle": an author takes a story--World War II and the Holocaust, slavery--we all think we know and makes it new and fresh.

She also recommended Louise Erdrich's new novel La Rose. Earlier in her talk, Patchett had admitted that all her books are really the amen book: a group of strangers are thrown together in an isolate place and form a family.  Erdrich has a formula too, she said: something unspeakable always happens in the first eight pages, and the rest of the book deals with it.

She also said that one of her favorite recent novels was Jane Hamilton's The Excellent Lombards, her most autobiographical novel so far.

She also mentioned Elena Ferrant's Neapolitan novels, a quartet beginning with My Brilliant Friend. She said that anyone buying the first one must also buy the second because you will "go down that rabbit hole" and not come up until you've finished them all. She says after finishing the first one, you will have to start the next one immediately. She also recommended Edward St. Albans' Patrick Melrose novels.

Among the nonfiction she mentioned were Susan Faludi's In the Dark Room (and she also recommended her earlier book Backlash), Hope Jahren's Lab Girl, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

I left the reading clutching my new hot-off-the-press copy of Commonwealth, a bigger reading list than ever, and a new friend I met in line. I couldn't be happier.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Club Beginnings

Recently at a dinner party with a particularly congenial group of friends, someone suggested we needed a book club. Even though some of us are already part of a book group that meets during the day, several of the women's work schedules don't allow for daytime meetings, so we decided to try an evening group too.

Tonight we have our inaugural meeting at the home of one of the women, so I'm thinking a lot about how to get started on the right foot.  I know some of the problems with keeping a group going--scheduling conflicts, book selections, too much focus on the refreshments, life in general. I also know how rewarding friendships can be when they revolve around reading for pleasure and mental stimulation.  I wish I'd cut out the article by a former book editor for the Charlotte Observer who said that while her husband read, he didn't want to discuss his reading with her. (He does not, she complained, "give good book.") I love book talk.  One of the greatest pleasure after reading a good book (or any book for that matter) is discussing it with someone else.

I've been going through my computer files for documents I've created for my NC book club (I miss you all!). One is a compilation of questions from the "By the Book" segment of the NYT book supplement, one of my favorite sections every Sunday. While answering them all would be daunting, they certainly delve into the reader's psyche:

What books are currently on your nightstand? Which books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

And what’s the last truly great book you read?

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

Whom do you consider the most overlooked or underappreciated writers?

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And steer clear of?

And what are your favorite books of all time? What’s the best love story you’ve ever read?

Who is your favorite novelist of all time? And your favorite novelist writing today?

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

Is there a certain type of book you try to steer clear of as a reader? And a type of story you’re drawn to?

What are your literary guilty pleasures? Do you have a favorite genre?

What kind of reader were you as a child? Have you ever gotten in trouble for reading a book?

What was the last book to make you laugh? The last book that made you furious?

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

If you could meet any author, dead or living, who would it be and why?

If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

What’s one book you wish someone else would write?

Which books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

What book do you find yourself returning to again and again?

What do you plan to read next?


Monday, August 8, 2016

Clapton's Guitar by Allen St. John

I love it when I'm reading a book and can hardly finish it for wanting to talk to someone else about it. That's exactly how I felt while reading Clapton's Guitar, journalist Allen St. John's story of convincing Virginia musician and guitar builder Wayne Henderson to complete the guitar he'd had on order for at least a couple of years for Eric Clapton.

I'd heard Henderson play while living in North Carolina, and at the most recent MerleFest at the "Mando Mania" session, as the artists discussed their mandolins, one was a Wayne Henderson model.

What readers never learn is whether St. John eventually got a coveted guitar for himself from the master builder. In the book, though, he describes the process and the workshop in such detail I felt as if I had been there with the men--and yes, he realizes, this is almost exclusively a boys' club. The people who come in and out of the workshop by Henderson's home are the jokers and story tellers, the neighbors and festival planners.

Along the way, St. John also clearly distinguishes old time music from bluegrass, and both from anything else. I found myself building a playlist as I read, since he refers not only to the tunes I know best, "Blackberry Blossom" or "Deep River Blues," but other tunes one would be more likely to hear at a fiddler's convention than at Carnegie Hall--both of which Henderson plays.

Through the book, I developed a new respect for luthiers and a broader knowledge of the history of Martin guitars.  The footnotes were interesting too.  For example, I learned that Nazareth, mentioned in the Band's best known song, "The Weight," refers not to the town where Jesus was born, but the Pennsylvania town where the Martin factory is located.

I read the electronic version of the book, but I'd recommend the paper copy for anyone who wants easier access to the extensive glossary. I also kept flipping back to the opening pages, where he includes a clearly labeled graphic of a guitar.

The book, though technical in many ways, is infinitely readable, developing a wide cast of characters set in a unique setting. For good measure, he includes a buzzard and possum story one won't forget soon.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Some of the stories from Jhumpa Lahiri's story collection Unaccustomed Earth still haunt me, so I was eager to immerse myself in her most recent novel, The Lowland. This book opens in a village outside of Calcutta in the late 60s, with two brothers Subhash and Udyan who live just outside the wall of an exclusive golf club. While Udyan becomes involved in the political movement Naxilism, Subhash moves to the United States for his education, and their lives take diverse paths.

Lahiri present the narrative from the points of view of Udyan, his wife Gauri, widowed after Udyan's involvement leads to his death, and Bela, their child he never knew, but the older brother Subhash remains the main focus of the story.

After finishing school, Subhash remains in Rhode Island, rarely returning to his childhood home and failing to live up to his parents' expectations. Instead, he marries Gauri to save her from her secluded live with his disapproving parents and raises his brother's daughter as his own child.

Since much of the story takes place in the United States during the Vietnam war, readers may be surprised to realize that the unrest in India at the same time failed to register on the American consciousness. Lahiri weaves a story steeped in diverse cultures, yet produces characters with universal struggles--coming to terms with disappointment in others and oneself, telling and accepting truth, finding love.

The story with its embedded flashbacks comes together like a puzzle, and despite all the personal conflict between the characters, Lahiri draws them with such shades of dark and light that readers don't have to choose sides. I found myself wishing redemption for them all.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

End of Watch: Stephen King wraps up his latest series

I'll confess that I'm not one of those readers who gobbles up everything Stephen King writes. In fact, the first novel of his I read was Misery, back during the Iran Contra hearings on television while I was home with a new baby. I liked his writing, but there were so many books on my list, I didn't get hooked.

Then I read his excellent book on writing. It was one of those most borrowed (or stolen) from my classroom book shelf. After November 22, 1963, I had to admit that King was as varied as he was prolific.

Then I started Mr. Mercedes. I don't know what led me to choose this one--in audio at the library, but I immediately loved Hodges, the retired detective at the center of the story and Jerome and Holly, the unlikely sidekicks he picks up along the way to solving the horrific City Center event when a driver plowed into a huge crowd of people camping out at an employment fair. When Finders, Keepers, the sequel came out, I was on the waiting list again. I loved the technologically challenged, aging detective, his partner, the socially inept but computer savvy Holly and Jerome, originally the teenager who does Hodges' yard work, but eventually tackles his computer issues.

With the publication of the final book in the trilogy, King made an appearance in Nashville. The event tickets were snapped up in four minutes. I didn't get any. But I happened into the library when the book was on the "Lucky Day" shelf--new releases available for 14 days only.

In this book, the Mr. Mercedes killer is still in the brain damage ward of the local hospital, but Hodges' partners have stages in intervention, convincing him to quit visiting Brady Hartsfield, whom he suspects is faking to avoid prosecution. When one of the seriously injured City Center victims and her mother are found dead of apparent suicide, Hodges' former partner, about to retire himself, calls him in for his opinion.

The novel that results balances 95% realism with that 5% creepy supernatural King does so well. Using retro handheld game devices, someone (Hodges suspects Hartsfield) is setting off a rash of successful and attempted suicides.

I was glad I kept reading through the epilogue and acknowledgments, where King points out to readers that while the story is fiction, suicide is real and serious. He provides the suicide hotline number and encouragement for anyone considering suicide to give things time to get better because, as he points out, they eventually do.

While I felt the ticking of the clock as I power read the book, trying to finish it in time to return it to the library for the next lucky reader, I lost myself in a well-told story. I'm missing Hodges and his friends already.