Friday, March 24, 2017

News of the World: Paulette Jiles

Since I'm in two book clubs, I often read books from someone else's list. It's worth it to me to be part of a community of readers, even if my reading selections are not solely my own. In fact, I make some wonderful discoveries that way. This week has been one of those serendipitous reading experiences as I read Paulette Jiles' newest novel News of the World. When I stopped in Parnassus to browse titles, one of my favorite bookstore employees Nathan told me that this had been the favorite of one of the publishing company representatives who had spent some time working with them in the store.

Since most of my reading started late at night, I got off to a slow start with this one, but then suddenly Jiles had me hooked, and I found myself reading late into the night, knowing my alarm would be sounding at 5:30 a.m.

The protagonist Captain Kidd is a Civil War veteran, now in his seventies, living in a quite uncivilized Texas, where the political division reminds me of--writes and encourages them to join him. Circumstances have also forced him to close his printing business, so he makes a paltry living going from small town to small town, renting a hall, and reading selections from newspapers around the world, charging a dime a listener.

As the story opens, he's approached by a freighter who has a ten-year-old white girl who was kidnapped four years before by the Kiowa who killed her family. She's been ransomed, but the freighter, a black man, knows he can't risk traveling with the girl to her German aunt and uncle, so he convinces Kidd to return the girl.
Jiles takes the reader along town after town as Kidd, whom the girl calls "Kep-dun" faces double challenges: finding a way to communicate with the girl he calls Johanna and avoiding the threat of Indians and outlaws along their route. The girl, who considers herself Kiowa, fights his attempts to civilize her, but the two warm to one another during their forced time together.

Over the course of the narrative, Jiles develops these two characters and the mixed bag of good and bad folk they encounter without hokey tricks or stereotypes. The setting is described so clearly, I felt as though I had traveled all the way from Wichita Falls to the girl's first home. 

Even the author's notes at the end sent me turning back through the book, retracing my steps--and those of the "Kep-dun" and "Cho-henna"--back and forth across Texas. I have my book club to thank for the delightful journey.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My YA Fix: The Sun Is Also a Star

    I have long been an unapologetic Young Adult fiction fan. When I taught high school, I found it helpful to know what my students might be interested in reading--and then to keep a good supply on the shelves in my classroom. To be honest, though, I mainly read them because I enjoy them. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, lots of books by Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Paula Danziger crossed my field of vision, particularly since I heard them read at NCTE conferences over the years.

    Nicola Yoon's new novel The Sun Is Also a Star caught my attention in time to take the audiobook on a recent road trip. Binge listening worked perfectly, since the book itself takes place, except for the epilogue, in less than a twenty-four-hour period.  Yoon--or Fate--throws together two characters on a particular significant day.  Natasha is a Jamaican immigrant in her high school senior year when her father's DUI brings the family's undocumented status to the attention of authorities, and they are going to be deported that evening. Natasha is determined to find some way to stop the deportation.

   Daniel is a first-generation Korean, the second son on his way to an admissions interview for Yale, which his parents consider the "second-best college." After living in the shadow of his older brother--who has recently had to leave Harvard, Daniel isn't so sure he wants to follow his parents' plan for his life to go to medical school.

  Daniel wants to be--is--a poet; Natasha, on the other hand, wants to pursue science, looking at everything from a pragmatic, logic-centered perspective. A series of coincidences bring them together as they collide on their way to their two destinations, Natasha to a lawyer purported to be the best at fighting Deportation, Daniel on his way to the interview--with the same man.

  They end up moving through New York City together, with stops at the Black Hair Products store run by  Daniel's father and Natasha's apartment, where her family is packing to leave.

  Yoon weaves in chapters from other characters, giving the back story, for example, to the security guard at the Immigration office, the lawyer both are meeting, a taxi driver, and Natasha's father, a frustrated actor who feels his family responsibility has ruined his chances at his dream career.

  No lightweight romance, the story had me genuinely caring about the two protagonists and their families--and even the minor characters that cross their paths. Soon touches on all kinds of current topics with a light hand, rendering the characters three dimensional instead of stereotypes.

  One clever thread through the story is the article I had read earlier in the New York Times reporting research claiming people could fall in love by answering a series of questions and looking deeply into one another's eyes for four minutes. Whether the questions themselves made Natasha fall in love with Daniel or not, I found myself loving them both.


Friday, March 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow: My Favorite Recommendation

It's not unusual for me to start encouraging others to read a book before I'm even finished reading it. Some books just seem perfect for  my reading friends. When I started Amor Towles' latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow, I felt that way--but even more so. I was ready to recommend it to my book club based on just a few chapters. I called my mother and told her to read it. Meanwhile, I kept reading, and I was not disappointed. This book is probably my favorite in awhile, which  is particularly significant because it's not dark, disturbing, or esoteric. It's not one of those books that some people just won't get.

The book opens during the Bolshevik Revolution as Count Alexander Rostov is called before a tribunal for the simple crime of being an aristocrat. Either despite or because of the measure of fame he's achieved through poetry, his judges decide that instead of putting him before a firing squad, they will sentence him to house arrest at Moscow's Metropol Hotel. The Count has already been living there for awhile, but he is moved out of his suite and forced to "downsize"--settling into a small attic room. Towels presents the details so clearly over the course of the tale, I imagine I've visited the Count's room.

During the course of his stay--the novel covers at least thirty years--he encounters delightful characters among the guests and the staff of the hotel, some ambiguous, and some straight-out antagonists. He first meets Nina, a young girl staying with her family at the Metropol who asks him about "rules for princesses." He also befriends the wait staff at the finest restaurant in the hotel--and then joins them.

Nashville novelist Ann Patchett has admitted that she just writes the same book over and over: a group of people, nothing alike, are thrown together. Towles has tales the formula and perfected it. Readers will hate "the Bishop," an inept waiter who, via the Peter Principle, manages to climb the management ladder at the Metropol. They will find delightful Anna Urbanova, the Soviet actress with her dubious back story, will  fall in love with Sofia, whom the Count raises as his daughter, and they will be amused by the Russian who comes to Rostov to be tutored in languages and culture, but ends up Brando watching films, particularly Casablanca. 

From his limited point of view, Count Rostov has a window view on Moscow--and the world. His knowledge of food, wine, and music is eclipsed by his understanding of human nature. Towles has produced a multi-layer narrative that does much more than charm the reader. The author also gives just enough of Alexander's past, especially the story of his sister's death, to give even more insight into the man.

For now, I anticipate happily the opportunity to discuss the book with others--and then to pick it up and read it one more time.

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.

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.

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

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.