Thursday, December 3, 2020

Day 3: Megha Majumdar's A Burning


 One of the books that has stayed in my mind longer than most this year is Megha Majumdar's novel A Burning. The story begins when Jivan, a young Indian woman, is bringing some of her textbooks to tutor Lovely, a transgendered street person who aspires to be an actress. Jivan witnesses a train explosion that kills several people. By coincidence her misfortune to be at just the wrong place, carrying a package, along with her social media activity--a chance comment and a chat with someone she doesn't realize is an alleged terrorist--brings her under suspicion.

The narrative moves back and forth between Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir, the gym teacher at the school she attended on scholarship. While these two might have the opportunity to help clear Jivan, their own aspirations get in the way. PT Sir, after stopping to listen in at a political rally, finds himself caught up in the party opposing the current administration. Lovely's chance to play a film role is at odds with the possible negative publicity.

Even Jivan's court-appointed attorney has conflicts of interest, and his client is never his priority. Because it's an election year, Jivan's case--abetting a terrorist!--gets pulled into the fray. A strong point of the narrative is Majumdar's development of the character of the women in the prison with Jivan.

Reading this novel is a little like watching a train wreck about to happen. You can't look away, as painful as it is. As you read, you'll be thinking that if you were in the place of any of the other characters, with the opportunity to take up for Jivan, you'd do the right thing.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Carol Burnett: In Such Good Company


 One of my favorite audiobook sources recently offered Carol Burnett's memoir of her years on television In Such Good Company. Last year when she appeared at the Ryman Auditorium, my sister and I took our mom for the show and loved it. Tim Conway had just died, so she had such a loving tribute to him as a colleague and friend.

This whole book, read by the author, is written in that same generosity of spirit. To prepare for writing the book, Burnett says she re-watched ever single episode of the show, which ran from 1967 to 1978. In her remembrances, she offered personal stories and inside views of the regulars on the show: Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Lyle Waggoner, as well as the people behind the scenes. 

I especially loved the stories about Bob Mackie, having gotten to know him when he spent a couple of years with a furniture collection with Clayton Marcus. During the entire run of the show, Mackie was responsible for about 60 costumes every week. Burnett said sometimes she didn't know how she was going to play a character until she saw how Bob dressed her. He is also credited with the iconic Scarlett O'Hara scene where Burnett literally wore the curtains--rod and all.

When the show ran, they had a dress rehearsal and two live shows every week. She says the first live show was run exactly on script. Once that one was a wrap, the actors had the freedom to engage in the ad libs for which the show was best known.

In her stories of the regulars and the guests, Carol Burnett is always positive and complimentary. She left out names in the very few negative details.  For someone who rubbed elbows with all of Hollywood's stars, she has remained remarkably humble, her integrity intact. 

This book will likely have readers searching the internet for tapes of the show. Burnett points out that when they were first released for syndication, they were cut to 30 minutes, eliminating the often elaborate dance sequences. Now the internet has made the full-length shows available for watching again--and again and again. The humor holds up.



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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

December Challenge: Catching up on Voracious Reading


I'll confess I've been delinquent in posting, but not because I haven't been reading. When I started an educational leadership doctoral program, I feared my pleasure reading would take a hit. What I've found is (1. the required reading is engaging and (2. my power-reading gene has kicked in. I've read more books in 2020 that in the last several years. 

Between now and the end of the year, I'm going to post a book review a day, starting today with one I had to wait to finish.

Lisa Wingate's The Book of Lost Friends came as a recommendation from a friend whose reading taste I know I can trust. I'd read Before We Were Yours by the same author, but this one seemed quite different. I had downloaded the book from our library website, and when I wasn't finished at the end of my fourteen days, I wasn't allowed to renew because someone else was waiting for the book. I ended up having to wait a few weeks before I could resume reading.

The story is told with two plot lines. One follows Benny Silva, a first-year English teacher in a challenging school in Augustine, Louisiana, in 1987. The other plot line focuses on Hannie Gossett, a former slave and now a sharecropper on Goswood Grove plantation in 1875. 

Hannie has been separated from her mother and siblings on their way to Texas as the war is nearing an end. She ends up on something of an adventure with her former master's two daughters--one legitimate and one the daughter of his French Creole mistress--as they try to find him after he disappears. They learn about the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a newspaper circulated among Black churches after the war in which letters were published by people trying to reconnect with lost family members and friends.

Benny rents a house that was once part of the Goswood Grove plantation and discovers records in the old family home that inspire her to involve her students in an oral history project. Her early frustrations and her genuine desire to do the best for her students is almost painful at first. The conflicts she encounters from the local cities and the school administration when the project looks like it is getting off the ground is all too believable.

Wingate tells a story that is both painful and hopeful. Her characters are layered and interesting. Readers may learn about  unfamiliar aspects of history along the way.


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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

M. O. Walsh: The Big Door Prize


 I had already read M. O. Walsh's earlier novel My Sunshine Away before he appeared on the virtual reveal party for the Southern Festival of Books. When he talked about his new novel The Big Door Prize, he had me at John Prine. For the unfamiliar, the title of the book is a line from "In Spite of Ourselves," Prine's duet with Iris DeMent. Several of the chapter titles are song titles, and I caught so many other references. (There's a casual mention that a local couple, Donald and Lydia, are divorcing.)

Yes, you can enjoy the novel without knowing anything about the late great singer-songwriter (although I'd recommend remediation if that's the case.) The novel follows Douglas Hubbard, a high school teacher, whose "midlife crisis" reaction to turning forty is to sign up for trombone lessons.

His wife Cherilyn is keeping busy painting birdhouses to sell at the centennial celebration of their small town, Deerfield, Louisiana. But the appearance of a DNAMIX machine at the local grocery shakes up everyone, including this generally happy couple. This machine, which appeared without explanation, for the price of $2 and a cheek swab will reveal anyone's destiny. The problem is that the read-outs not only defy logic, but also send many of the locals on a widely divergent path.

When Cherilyn grows weepy, attributed to her destiny card, Douglas resists the urge at first to see for himself what his DNAMIX reading might be. What will it mean, after all, if his happy marriage is a fluke that put both of them on a path that leads them away from their destiny? 

In a parallel story line, one of Hubbard's students who recently lost his brother in a wreck after a party finds his brother's former girlfriend pursuing him. Likewise, the school principal is taking early retirement after reading her destiny card.

The novel is less about the supernatural that about how people choose their own destinies and make their own happiness. Walsh takes readers along for a fun ride--one that has its own playlist. His session at the Southern Festival of Books is sure to be fun.


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Sunday, September 27, 2020


 “Write what you know” is a bit of writing advice that Ron Rash follows consistently. Whether in modern day or during the Civil War, his novels, stories, and poetry are set in the mountains and foothills of Western North Carolina. 

In his latest book, In the Valley, a collection of short stories and a novella, he opens with a story set near the scene of the Shelton Laurel incident, where tensions between Unionist and Confederate sympathizers came to a head with the killing of thirteen Union sympathizers, one a young boy. Rash explored these dark pages of history in his novel The World Made Straight and returns to the rural landscape in “Neighbors.” In this story, a widow is confronted by soldiers purportedly hunting for men loyal to the union, while taking scarce food and livestock. Dependent on neighbors for survival, Rebecca, the protagonist, must keep her late husband’s loyalties secret to avoid jeopardizing herself and her young children.

 

“When All the Stars Fell,” set in more modern hard times, shows a son in a caught in a dilemma between his father’s unswerving integrity and his own need to get even with what he sees as just one more wealthy, powerful man taking advantage of their family construction business because he can.

 

Several of Rash’s protagonists are measuring others’ sorrows and losses against their own. The narrator of “Sad Man in the Sky” a helicopter pilot taking tourists to view the changing colors in the mountains, bends the rules to let a broken man rain down gifts on his former stepchildren, unearthing memories of his own service in the Vietnam War. 

 

Jake, a Brevard art professor, in “L’homme Blessé,” is still reeling from his young wife’s sudden death a year earlier when Shelby Tate, a former student, asks to show him the primitive paintings with which her late great uncle covered his walls after returning from the service in Europe in the mid-40s.When  Jake recognizes the strange animal images from photographs of the Pech Merle cave in France, he goes with Shelby to visit an old man who had served in the war with her uncle to solve the mystery.

 

In small towns just off I-40, Rash peoples his stories with the broken, the lawless, people caught between good and evil, between helping others or looking the other way. While his stories all have a darkness, they give a glimmer, sometimes just a hint of light. Often the stories end without clear resolution, letting readers imagine what the characters might find just down around the corner.

 

Opening the pages of In the Valley, Rash’s fans have to fight the temptation to turn to the end of the book to reach the title novella “In the Valley, “a shorter sequel to Serena, his novel from 2008. The title character Serena Pemberton returns to the timberlands she has left for clearing as the deadline for the project completion nears. Many of the characters from the novel—the ones that survived—return for this narrative. In this tale, less a retelling of Macbeth this time, but no less Shakespearean, Rash’s timbermen are forced to work at a deadly pace, with too little food or rest. Serena’s henchman Galloway and his blind mother, with her evil gift of second sense, doom any who oppose Serena or try to escape her reach. Aware that Rachel Harmon and her child Jacob, the illegitimate son of Serena’s late husband, may not have put enough distance between themselves and the amoral timber baroness, Ross, a minor character in the early novel, sees his options narrow.

 

While the novella, like the earlier novel, lacks stereotypical heroes and antagonists, Rash leaves no question about the true villains and victims in his story.


One of the perennial favorites at Nashville's Southern Festival of Books, Rash will appear in this year's virtual festival.

 


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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Sarah Clarkson's Book Girl: A Rich Resource for Readers

Mike, one of the members of my book chat group, always expresses his concern that what he reads may not appeal to the rest of us. He's usually wrong about that. One of the best parts of having a book group that has a mix of gender and ages is the variety of reading to which we are exposed.

Recently he sent me a link to an interview with Sarah Clarkson on the Word on Fire Institute website entitled "Books, Evangelization, and the Transformative Power of the Reading Life." Clarkson studied at Oxford University after what she calls her twelve-year gap year. She had always dreamed of studying there in part because of her love of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. One cannot underestimate the influence of her reading family either.

In the interview she mentioned her book Book Girl, in which she describes her own reading journey, sharing list after list of book recommendations for different circumstances. Her chapter titles include "Books Can Foster Community" and "Books Can Impart Hope." I couldn't wait to start reading it for myself. Her research on reading confirms my own beliefs about the power of literature to shape the mind and the heart.

Her recommendations range from works by Lewis and Tolkien, of course, to classics and childhood favorites--the Anne of Avonlea series by Montgomery, books by George Eliot, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson and more. She also includes annotated lists of books more overtly spiritual or theological.

As a general rule, I love a book list that affords me the opportunity to check off all I have read. Clarkson, however, introduced me to authors I hadn't read yet and to new books by authors with whom I was at least familiar.

She also reminded me of books I've read long ago and need to read again, including Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, a past favorite I recently recommended to a friend to read with his wife and her 97-year-old father.

In Book Girl, Clarkson reminds me to slow down and read thoughtfully and contemplatively. I also become more aware of the need to be selective in my reading, since I can't possibly get to all the books I'd like to read.

I also wish every young family could recognize the value in modeling and encouraging a reading life for children. After all, Clarkson's mother read to her in utero, and during the writing of the book, Sarah confessed to reading to her soon-to-be born daughter, a little book girl of her own.

One word of advice: Don't take the title too literally. There is so much food for thought for men as well as women of all ages. I expect to keep my copy close enough for reference the next time I'm choosing a book to read.
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Monday, August 17, 2020

The Sound of Summer Running

Living  life on a school calendar, I have always been aware of how fast the summer goes, speeding faster as it reaches the end. I always play Alison Brown's beautiful instrumental piece "The Sound of Summer Running" in classes that first week. Even without words, it evokes that feeling. This year, I'll have to add John Prine's "Summer's End" from his last CD.

As I face creating my syllabus and reading for my classes, I realize that my time to read for pleasure will be more limited than it has been since mid-March. For that reason, I select carefully. Recently, I returned to an old favorite, perfect for summer reading, Ran Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Written in little vignettes, the book gives readers the perspectives of brothers Tom and Douglas Spaulding, as they consider some complex matters: I am alive. Things change. People leave. We all die eventually.

Living right beside their grandparents, with a great grandmother living as well, the boys learn from others' experiences as well. As they help their grandfather bottling dandelion wine, they imagine the summer captured inside that amber liquid.

They live in that world when neighbors all knew each other, but they still faced fears and sadness.
Part reminiscence, part magic realism, the book has touched many of the students I've taught. One told me, years ago, he planned to read it every summer for the rest of his life. I hope he followed through.

Some years, I collected old bottles and corks, and we placed memories inside to set on the classroom shelves. As far as we are removed from Green Town in 1928, at the core, what remains is true.

As a side note, the title of Brown's song, "The Sound of Summer Running" is a Ray Bradbury title as well. Both, perhaps, give a nod to Andrew Marvell's "time's winged chariot."
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