Monday, September 4, 2017

In Rilke's Footsteps: Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer

I had the pleasure this summer of working with a group of teenagers to help them start a writing group. Their writing goals and genres were varied but they shared the desire to write and they exhibited such mutual respect for one another. Now that they're back in school, I realize that some English, journalism, and creative writing teachers are going to feel so fortunate to have their spark in the classroom.

This week I listened to Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer, a title he borrowed from Rilke . I'm a great fan of McCann's novels, Transatlantic and Let the Great World Spin, so I trusted that he would have something valuable to say. I was right. I also appreciated that he acknowledged that his "young writer" might, indeed, be any age.

Since McCann read the audiobook himself, I got to enjoy his lovely lilt, but I hadn't made it far through the CDs before I realized that I probably need a copy for my own library shelves. Each chapter begins with a quotation from a great writer--living or dead. I wanted to write them down and stick them to my mirror or over my desk (if I had one) or on the dash of my car.

The advice is practical enough that an individual writer or a  writing group could spend time working chapter by chapter. McCann doesn't claim to have all the answers, but he dispenses wisdom in a straight-forward, sometimes self-deprecating way. He acknowledges that no one can TEACH you to write.

He kept the book short, too, letting readers get back to the role of writers, following his strongest bit of advice: get your arse in the chair.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

When Alabama author Gin Phillips' new novel Fierce Kingdom started popping up in all my favorite book publications, I took notice. I'd read her first novel The Well and the Mine and then found Come in and Cover Me an especially good reading experience. In that book, she has an archeologist, who made her reputation on a pottery find, called to the location where pieces evidently made by the same Native American artisan were found--far from the first. She manages to work in a little touch of supernatural without losing the reader.

I realized, too, that both books stood alone as works of literature without being so obviously the work of one writer.

This newest novel Fierce Kingdom carves out its own place as well. The story, set in a zoo in early fall, introduces Joan, a mother having an outing with her young son Lincoln. As closing time nears and they head toward the exit, she hears loud popping noises, then sees what she eventually recognizes as bodies--and shooters. She heads deeper in to zoo to hide and await the police.

What follows is a suspenseful story, introducing other secondary character--including two teenage shooters and other zoo visitors trying to escape them.  At the heart of the story is Joan's relationship with her son as she draws from all her resources, mental and physical to keep her son safe in the most harrowing of experiences.  She faces some difficult ethical decisions along the way as well.

Phillips' novel sets itself apart from other "airplane books" as the reader is privy to Joan's interior thoughts, the writing moving from straightforward to desperate. Small details, even the items in her purse, gain significance as the plot develops.

At times I was reminded of Ron Koertge's novel-in-verse The Brimstone Journals, told in a multitude of voices at a high school, including a misfit like Ronny, the shooter that readers get to know best. Having spent much of my teaching career in the high school classroom, I recognize the vulnerability of some young people who are hungry to belong. One nice touch in this book, in fact, involves one of the potential victims, a retired teacher whose memory and people skills are called into play.

Through the course of the book, I found myself as present in that zoo as if I had been there. The physical location of the action was so artistically drawn that I experienced the smells, the textures, the chill, even the pain of injuries. I think I'll be more circumspect the next time I visit the zoo.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

Just in time for all the documentaries on television commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, William Kuhn published a charming novel with Queen Elizabeth as one of an ensemble cast of characters. I had read Alan Bennet's An Uncommon Reader, which imagined the queen happening upon the bookmobile while walking her corgis, stepping in to look around and becoming an avid reader. I was amused to learn that the Queen in Kuhn's novel was aware of that book too.

In this particular story, the queen is wrestling with her place in Great Britain and the world. She's still stung by the reaction to her during the period following Diana's untimely death, and she even suspects she, like Diana, may be suffering from a touch of depression, the reality of which she was late to recognize during Charles and Di's marriage.

Kuhn interjects a number of quirky and interesting characters--her equerry and butler, her personal dresser and a lady-in-waiting, two women on whom she depends but who have no relationship themselves. He also includes Rajiv, a young Pakistani clerk at the local cheese shop and Rebecca, the girl who works at the Royal Mews.

When the Queen learns that Parliament is considering defunding the royal train, after already placing her yacht in dry dock, she goes gets a hankering to visit the yacht and strikes out with her handbag, but wearing a hoodie lent to her by Rebecca when the queen appeared in the stables not dressed for the weather.

The self-deprecating humor of the monarch as she wrestles with her own obsolescence is particularly charming. When she finds herself seated with a blind man, his almost blind wife, the guide dog, and a pierced and tattooed young man, they note her striking resemblance to Helen Mirren, but afford her the opportunity to spend a day in the midst of her subjects without threat.

Kuhn avoids being either over-sentimental or judgmental toward the Queen; instead, he shows her vulnerable human side. She finds herself caught with an audience of a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V, which she has learned from Rajiv only during this short time to appreciate. When the play is interrupted with the announcement of a nearby terrorist attempt, she gets the chance to follow her own mother's royal example, choose an appearance among the injured over her own safety.

The chapter titles, all yoga positions, point to the Queen's own yoga practice, an image that amuses, just as it also humanizes the octogenarian. I loved all the characters so much I hated for the story to end.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Graeme Samson: The Best of Adam Sharp

I discovered Graeme Simsion when his first novel The Rosie Project was first published. I remember sitting in many a parking lot, listening to the audiobook, reluctant to turn it off and go inside. The book made me laugh out loud, as did its sequel, The Rosie Effect.

With this newest book The Best of Adam Sharp, Simsion has made quite a departure from his first two novels. The title character is an IT consultant working part-time while caring for his ailing mother, watching his twenty-two year relationship with his partner Claire deteriorate. He spends a couple of nights a week playing bar trivia, for which he serves as music expert.

Through flashbacks readers learn that early in his career, he spent some time working on a project in Melbourne, where he often plays piano at a local bar. One evening, a young woman comes in, requests a couple of songs they end up singing together, before her escort--who Adam learns is her husband--hurries her out (as Adam plays, "You're Gonna Lose That Girl.")

He discovers she is Angelina Brown, star of an Australia cop show, and they end up having a brief love affair before he leaves the country. She's never far from his mind, though. Music is particularly evocative throughout the novel.

It is just as he's approaching fifty and feeling unsettled that Angelina sends a few short test emails, resulting in an invitation to spend a week with Angelina--and her husband Charlie--during their vacation in France.  Charlie, a foodie and wine connoisseur, is unusually tolerant of Adam's presence, and some of what occurs is not for the squeamish.

Adam's dilemma at this juncture keeps readers painfully on edge, but the musical threads woven throughout this entire novel are enough to inspire a playlist. In fact, bar trivia buffs may find themselves honing their skills--at least for the music category--before the book's end.

Euphoria by Lily King

When I first saw the title of the book Euphoria by Lily King on our bookclub reading list, I'll confess that I was expecting some kind of steamy romance. Instead, I found myself drawn into a fascinating story--and a love triangle--featuring a husband and wife team of anthropologists relocating to a new tribe in New Guinea after an unsettling time in another location. They encounter Bankston, a British anthropologist, who helps them locate a new place from which to work, down river from his base, promising to visit them soon.

For different reasons of their own, Nell and husband Fen are eager for his return, and disappointed that he waits so long. The narration moves between Nell's perspective and that of Bankston. Setting up housekeeping with more than the usual trappings one would expect in such private environs, Nell works feverishly, while Fen seems not to be taking notes at all. Fen's jealousy that Nell has already published and has been recognized for her work is apparent.

In a society in which the women seem to be dominant, Nell eventually is brought into their circle of trust. Some of the customs, particularly treatment of babies, are disturbing. The tribe also follows the custom of cutting off their own fingers at times of grief.

The novel, while taking great license, is based loosely on the life of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, and readers are likely to be interested enough to dig deeper into her story. However, the novel stands on its own as a fascinating, well-told tale.

Here Comes the Marathon of Reviews

I've read lots this summer but posted far too rarely, something I plan to remedy starting now.

 One particularly surprising book was Kathleen Rooney's Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, the story of a woman who, as an advertising copywriter for R. H. Macy's during the 30s, was the highest paid woman in America. Loosely based on poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback.)

The story moves back and forth between Lillian's daring, independent young adulthood and New Year's Eve 1984 as she strikes out alone through New York City. In her early adulthood, she challenged expectations for woman to marry and have a family, choosing instead to work, writing and publishing poetry, and generally having a good time. In the chapters featuring Lillian, still spunky as an old lady, she reminisces about Max, the man who won her heart, marrying her, fathered a son, and then divorced her.

Never maudlin, often charming, the story presents one woman's life in a world that changes drastically. She keeps her pride, while touching the lives of strangers, often becoming the recipient of simple kindnesses along the way.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer Reading Update

I"ve had more time for reading that posting, it seems, this summer--with family weddings, graduations, bridal showers, and birthdays. I've managed to read several that appear on some of the Best-Seller lists, particularly when the authors make appearances in Nashville. David Sedaris' Theft by Finding is on my nightstand ready for me to pick it up. His appearance at Parnassus was so much fun--and it was my first time to see him live after tuning in to This American Life for years.

I had read Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, but I hadn't heard about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley  until my friend Emily told me she's read it--one of her First Editions Club selections. The narrative moves back and forth between the life of Loo Hawley and her father, who is raising her after her mother's "drowning death." The narrative structure is built around flashbacks in which readers learn the story of Hawley's twelve bullet scars.

Tinti skillfully keeps readers guessing, trying to recognize the fine line between truth, lies, and mind games. Although Hawley, Loo's father, gets title billing, in many ways, the story is Loo's. Named Louise at birth, she has moved from place to place with her dead, leaving each temporary home with short notice. They finally settle in her mother's hometown where Lou gains some protection from the principal, one of her mother's high school admirers, after suffering from bullying.

She also finds a boyfriend in the son of a local woman going door to door trying to stop the over-fishing of the cod in the local waters, making an enemy of all the locals who derive their living from fishing.

The telling keeps readers barely a step ahead of Loo in finding out the real back story of her father and her mother Lily. The author reveals the dark side of Hawley's criminal life and the difficulty of breaking free and living clean, even when solely responsible for a child.

Even though the book has characteristics of a page turner, I found myself stopping to mark passages I found especially insightful, and I kept thinking that even though Loo's life seems hard to believe, many young people live with the fallout of their parents' prior choices. I found Loo one of the most sympathetic engaging young characters I've met in awhile.

Another "best-seller" recommendation, Noah Hawley's Before the Fall also kept me whipping through pages to unlock the mystery inside. No spoiler alert here--all of this is revealed in the opening pages--the book opens with the crash of a small private plane, eighteen minutes into a flight from Martha's Vineyard.

Of the eleven people on board, including the crew, only two survive, through the heroics of an unsuccessful artist invited to join the flight when he encountered the owner's wife at the island's farmer's market. Because two of the passengers were high profile individuals, network news goes crazy, speculating on what really caused the plane to crash--and why this unknown artist was on board.

Hawley moves back and forth between the aftermath of the plane crash and flashbacks into the lives of everyone on board, exploring the possible answers to the mystery of the crash. Readers will sympathize with Scott, the painter, who just wants to maintain a low profile as his life is affected by the media circus following the crash. The focus is intensified since the plane's owner is a media mogul who owns one of the nation's more conservative TV news networks.

Just as sympathetic, though, is the surviving four-year-old boy whose life is turned upside down, leaving him as his wealthy parents sole heir, plunked down into the home of his aunt and her unlikeable, greedy husband. Hawley handles the narrative structure to keep readers guessing the truth up until the end of the story.

I'll be posting again soon, covering some recent nonfiction books and my re-reading of poetry collections by some of my favorite poets. Until then, I'd love to know what you're reading too.