Friday, January 4, 2019

The Kingdom of the Blind: Louise Penny Does Not Disappoint

When Louise Penny publishes the next novel in her Three Pines series, I imagine I feel a little bit like young Harry Potter fans did when J.K. Rowling rolled out the next book. I might even risk hyperbole and draw comparisons to the new iPhone or Michael Jordan Nikes.

I got my hands on her latest, Kingdom of the Blind, the week it was released when she appeared at the Lipscomb campus as part of the Nashville Public Library's Salon@615 series. With the semester end, the holidays, and a family wedding pressing, I made myself wait to read.

I even considered waiting until the audiobook was available for checkout, since I have found all of her books ideal for listening. Even when the death of narrator Ralph Cosham, I was able to make the transition to Robert Bathurst (although admittedly with an unusual measure of grief for someone I only knew through his voice.)

In that lovely week between Christmas and New Year when I forget the day of the week, I found more time to read guiltlessly, so I picked up Kingdom of the Blind. Even reading words on the page, I heard the voices of the characters I have grown to love. One mark of a great writer, after all, is the ability to render voice with mere words on a page.

When I heard Penny speak in Nashville, I was struck by her clever wit. It should be no surprise, then, that her characters and their dialogue are so gripping.  In this novel, she picks up the thread from the previous narrative, when Gamache has won the war against a new insidious drug by losing some of the battles.

As this book begins, Armand has been summoned mysteriously to a vacant house as a snow storm builds. Also summoned by letter are Myrna Landers and a new character, a young builder, all selected as executors of the will of a woman they've never met. Of course, one can't have a murder mystery without a murder, and this book is no exception. As Gamache, his neighbors in Three Pines, and his family try to discover why they have been chosen for this odd responsibility, son-in-law Jean Guy has his loyalty tested as the department investigates Armand's role in the recent drug crisis.

While in theory each of these books could stand alone, the real charm is reading them in order, since some of the characters readers grow to love appear from one book the the next. (How can one explain Ruth and her duck to anyone who hasn't read these stories?) Loose threads from one storyline are picked up again. Meanwhile new characters--in this case, a female accountant--are introduced and developed. In secondary narrative lines, Penny leaves readers wonder sometimes just who the good guys and bad guys are.

Most surprisingly, as I read her books, I find myself wishing to revisit the whole series, even knowing how each will end. Her writing, I believe, is just that good.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Little Light Reading

Never one to shy away from a tough read or challenging subjects, I nevertheless enjoy simply a feel-good fun book. Light reading can be, should be well written. Even when the prose isn't Pulitzer worthy, authors can still develop engaging characters, ones we love and hate, and put them into interesting plots.

Jojo Moyes' Still Me, the third in her series, follows Louisa Clark across the pond, as she takes a job as a personal assistant after the death of paraplegic Will Traynor and after finding love again with the Sam the paramedic. Moyes gets Lou in and out of trouble, building suspense through misunderstandings and jumping to conclusions.

I also enjoyed Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv. Since every book about an old person these days is compared to A Man Called Ove, I'd have to say this is the book you might have gotten if Ove hadn't been such a curmudgeon from the start. Arthur (real last name Moses) hasn't adjusted to life with Nola, so he visits here grave every day, carrying on conversation with her and her "neighbors" in nearby graves. He meets Maddy, a high school outcast who escapes the cafeteria to eat lunch in the cemetery, and develops an unusual connection. He also expands his circle to include nosy neighbor Lucille, recognizing her loneliness. The story is more life-affirming than life-changing, but who doesn't need that kind of read now and then.

I've already written about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, another character-driven story that takes readers along with the title character (who is more like Ove than Arthur). She's awkward and hard to like; fortunately, her co-worker Raymond looks past her oddities and includes her as he rescues a stranger and expands his--and Eleanor's--circle of family and friends. The rollercoaster ride through Eleanor's lows can be painful for readers. Thank goodness for the Raymonds of the world.

Other novels appearing on the bestseller list this year didn't quite live up to their potential. Rebecca Serle's The Dinner List was built on such a lovely premise. One of my favorite parts of the Sunday New York Times "Book Review" section is "By the Book," in which current authors answer a number of standard questions--What's on your nightstand right now? What kind of reader were you as a child? The question What authors, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party? always sparks some interesting groupings with the potential for interesting conversation across the table. Sabrina, the novel's protagonist, lives out this fantasy on the evening of her thirtieth birthday. Her guests include her best friend, her estranged father, her long-time love Tobias, her favorite college professor, and Audrey Hepburn. It turns out Hepburn is not the only dinner guest no longer living.

Serve takes readers back and forth between the dinner party and flashbacks involving the characters in her life (Hepburn only on film). The book had a made-for-movie feel about it, but never quite lived up to my expectations. If I'd read it at another time, I might have felt differently, I admit.

If I only read light fare, I'd probably always be hungry for m ore. Reading over my year's list, I realize that some books barely touch me, while others never leave me. Sometimes I'm captivated by the language of a book; at other times, though, I fall in love with a character or a place. Either way, I'll keep reading.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My 2018 Reading List

Once again, I'm tallying the books I read this year, recorded on my kitchen calendar before moving into my official Book-Woman  journal. While I have more to say about a lot of these books, for today, I'm simply sharing the list:

1. Walter Isaacson, Leonard da Vinci
2. Rachel Joyce, The Music Shop
3. Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
4. Ken Follett, Column of Fire
5. Barbara Martin Stephens, Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler
6. Radney Foster, For You to See the Stars
7. Nathan Hill, The Nix
8. Gabrielle Zevin, Young Jane Young
9. Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia
10. Kristin Hannah, The Great Unknown
11. Ron Hall and Denver Moore, Same Kind of Different as e.
12. Rebecca Hornaki, Seven Days of Us
13. Ann Head, Morningstar
14. Thirty Omrigar, Everybody's Son
15. Alan Bradley, The Grave's a Fine and Private Place
16. Shani Lapina, The Couple Next Door
17. Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book
18. David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
19. Lee Smith, The Last Girls
20. Jonathan Miles, Anatomy of a Miracle
21. Charles Frazier, Varina
22. Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists
23. Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours
24. Rick Bragg, My Southern Journey
25. Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars
26. ---. Wade in the Water
27. Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink
28. Jo Nesbo, Macbeth
29. Paula McLain, Love and Ruins
30. Monte Cox, Significant Others
31. Michael Bishop, Murder in Music City
32. Elizabeth Berg, The Story of Arthur Truluv
33. Jane Gardem, Old Filth
34. Edward Rutherford, Paris
35. Peggy O'Neal Peden, Your Killing Heart
36. Julie Schumacher Dear Committee Members
37. Sara Gruen, At the Water's Edge
38. Anna Quindlen, Alternate Side
39, Pam Munoz Ryan, Echo
40. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
41. Tara Westover, Educated
42. Mark Sullivan, Beneath the Scarlet Sky
43. Bren McLain, One Good Mama Bone
44. Tass Saada, Once an Arafat Man
45. Luis Alberta Urea, House of Broken Angels
46. Peter McDade, The Weight of Sound
47. Frances Mayes, Women in Sunlight
48, Min Jim Lee Pachinko
49. Barbara Kingsolver Unsheltered 
50. Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire
51. Anne Tyler, Clock Dance
52. Jonas Jonasson, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared
53. Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
54. Annie Chapman, The Mother-in-Law Dance
55. Sharon McCrumb, Prayers the Devil Answers
56. Rebecca Serle, The Dinner List
57. JoJo Moyes, Still Me
58. Terry Wait Klefstad, Crooked River City
59. Combs, Hogue, and Reish, John Hartford's Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes
60. Frederick Backman, Elanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
61. Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

That's my list so far--and it doesn't include the one I finished early this morning, my first book of 2019. Now I can study book lists of my other reading friends to see what to add to the stack on my nightstand.

Monday, December 31, 2018

2019: The Year in Music

As one of my favorite year-end rituals, I  transfer my list of books completed from my kitchen calendar to my Book-Woman journal, which I began in 1997. At some point in January, I share the entire list here as well. For now, though, I've enjoyed looking for patterns.

Occasionally, I'll find a book that left absolutely no impression on me at all. Others invite me to re-read. Even though I consider myself a fiction reader first and foremost, I find some other common threads.

My love of music is no secret to anyone who knows me. In 2018, I enjoyed my share of festivals, concerts, and conferences. Friends I met at the SPBGMA conference in February became lifelong friends and introduced me to a number of singers, songwriters, and authors.

I finished this year with a couple of books that expanded my playlist. Back in October, I met Terry Wait Klefstad from Belmont's School of Music and Bill Pursell, the subject of her book Crooked River City. Her book describes the crooked path of his life as a professional musician. Classically trained, Pursell ended up as a Nashville session musician much in demand. He has played on such classics as Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." At the same time he was playing piano for other artists who were creating what became the Nashville Sound, he was also playing regularly for the Nashville Symphony and composing for them as well. He rounded out his career as a professor at Belmont, even completing the doctorate degree he abandoned decades before.

In a different vein altogether, John Hartford's Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes, compiled by Matt Combs, Katie Harford Hogue (Hartford's daughter), and Greg Reish. This book would be a treasure even without the rich text that tells the story of this uncommon musician and his pure love of music. Perhaps remembered more--at least by the public--for his dancing banjo style, Hartford had a passion not only for creating his own backlog of fiddle tunes but for collecting those of all the best fiddlers, such as Ed Haley, preserving old-time music for the future.

What will bring readers back again and again to this book is the visually appealing record of Hartford's music taken from his notebooks compiled over years. The editors of the book interviewed so many of his colleagues and bandmates, who described his obsession with 3x5 notes on which he recorded song ideas, observations, and drawings.

Hartford's music fans may be unaware of his background in graphic arts, but his distinctive line drawings throughout the book show another aspect of his creative ability.

Many of the songs Hartford composed went unrecorded. Repeatedly, interviewees commented on his passion for jamming, his open-door policy, welcoming musicians and other Nashville icons or passers-through to his home on the Cumberland River for what often turned into two or three day jams. Reading prompted many a detour to YouTube or to my own music collection, where he often appears on other people's albums.

I can hardly believe it was less than a year ago that I met Barbara Martin Stephens and read her memoir, Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler, the story of her life with Jimmy Martin, the "King of Bluegrass," which also tells about her experience as the first female booking agent in Nashville.  I especially enjoyed the audiobook, read by the author.

A fictional work with a music theme, Peter McDade's The Weight of Sound, was one of the many excellent books I discovered through Shari Smith's Trio Project. This novel follows the life of a young man who finds his path in music in his teens, and then weaves the story from the perspective of bandmates, family, and friends.  The novel was particularly suited for TRIO, which pairs each book with a graphic artist and a songwriter, who produce works inspired by the book.

Rodney Foster's For You to See the Stars, another TRIO selection, was released as a short story collection and CD of the same name. Foster wrote and recorded a song accompany each story. While the stories and the songs stand alone on their own merits, listening while reading creates the ideal experience.

A look at my to-read stack for 2019 reveals a few other books with musical angles.  My senses can prepare to be stimulated again.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Kate Atkinson: Reading Back Titles

During the days between Christmas and the beginning of the new school year, that time when we lose track of what day it is, I love the luxury of guilt-free reading. I don't have to worry about the holiday shopping or cooking (maybe the cleaning--which never ends); I have my syllabus ready for my spring classes. I can just kick back with a book.

The biggest challenge, though, is deciding which book to read next. I don't follow any kind of logic; I just pick up what seems most appealing. I have several books still unread, but I had picked up a copy of Kate Atkinson's older novel Case Histories at the library's book sale back in October.  I have loved her books I've read--Life after Life (which I read twice) and Gods in Ruins. This one, though recommended by one of my favorite reading friends, had eluded me until now.

Atkinson's books never follow a simple plot line, but she never follows the same path twice. In this novel, she moves between three or four plots lines that seem unrelated: Olivia, the youngest of four girls who disappears from the tent where she and a sister are camping; Jackson Brodie, a recently divorced former policeman who has opened a private investigation office; Vic, an obese man whose favorite daughter Laura was murdered while working temporarily at this office, a newlywed forced to deal with her stepchildren and her judgmental new mother-in-law. Each of the plot lines involves unsolved or unexplained murders.

Brodie becomes the center of all the stories, as he is contacted by two of Olivia's sisters, now middle-aged and finding their sister's Blue Mouse doll after their father's death. They want to know the truth about their sister's disappearance. Vic too wants to find his daughter's killer, only identified by his yellow golf sweater.

In a fashion readers come to expect from Atkinson, details and characters are often not what as first appear. Since she shifts between the perspectives of several characters, readers feel almost like detectives, piecing together missing details as they are revealed. All of the characters have flaws; all hide secrets; all have a certain self-awareness.

Atkinson's writing sets the bar high. Readers may have a harder time settling for simple plots and characterization after inhabiting her narratives. Fortunately, readers don't have to wait for her next publication, since her new novel Transcriptions is one the bookstore shelves now.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Two Willas: Kingsolver and Tyler's 2018 Novels

Since I usually keep one audiobook in my car while I read another in print, occasionally I experience overlap between the two. When Barbara Kingsolver appeared in Nashville last month as part of the library’s Salon@615, she not only talked about Unsheltered,her newest novel, but about the whole body of her work. She remarked on the disconcerting feeling when a fan told her that one of her first novels was her best book ever. Ann Patchett was conducting the interview, and the two of them agreed that their favorite book was usually the most recent. They expressed a hope that their writing had matured and improved.

Kingsolver noted that over time her writing had become, she hoped, more economical. She indicated an awareness that she didn’t have patience for extraneous details in a story at this point in her life.

When I discovered that the main character in the modern section of her new novel was named Willa, as was the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel Clock Dance, my current audiobook, I could not help drawing comparisons.

Unsheltered is set in the same house in Vineland, New Jersey, both in the current day and in the period following the Civil War. Willa Knox and her husband have moved into the house as he continues his futile quest for tenure. Just as their lives begin to fall apart around them, they find that their house also is built on an inadequate foundation. Living in the house with them is their daughter Tig (Antigone), who has returned from Cuba sporting blonde dreadlocks, ready to take on the system. They are also caring for her father-in-law, whose extreme conservative views not only conflict with the rest of the family but are at odds with their need to sign on to Obamacare and Medicaid to afford his medical care. When it seems life couldn’t get any more complicated, their son’s partner, after giving birth to his child, commits suicide, leaving him grief-stricken but responsible for a newborn.

In the earlier time period of the book, Thacker Greenwood has recently married a woman whose social status surpasses his own, but whose marriages provides a home for her recently widowed mother and her spunky sister. Thacker finds himself an outsider in the town originally designed as a utopian experiment, history Kingsolver has researched. As he crosses horns with his employer over his desire to teach Darwinian principles to his students, he befriends Mary Treat. Kingsolver discovered the historical Treat in her research, a fascinating woman who conducted correspondence with Darwin, as well as Asa Gray and other prominent male scientists and thinkers of her day.

At the core of both stories, Kingsolver paints a picture of the fragile state of middle class Americans when both their employment and their actual home begins to crumble around them. 

In Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, she takes a different approach from Kingsolver’s economy of narrative, focuses instead on the life of one woman—from childhood into her sixties—in microscopic detail. Her narrative opens with Willa a young girl in the home with a volatile mother, prone to disappearing, and a more stable, gentle father. Tyler takes readers along through Willa’s life, marrying her first college sweetheart, which deters her from finishing college. As a mother of two young sons, she experiences tragic loss, but moves on with her life, remarrying and settling into life. 

Willa’s life seems a series of disappointments—or at least a life of settling—until she gets a phone call from Baltimore, the setting of most of Tyler’s fiction. The woman who calls tells Willa she needs to come and take care of her granddaughter, whose mother has been shot. But Willa doesn’t have a granddaughter. She puts together the details and realizes the girl’s mother is her older son’s former girlfriend. Even without a real family tie, though, she decides to fly to Baltimore to take care of nine-year-old Cheryl, much to her husband’s dismay.

As her inexplicable sense of responsibility keeps her in Baltimore even after her husband decides to return home, she develops a stronger sense of family and belonging in the neighborhood where she is staying. She eventually finds the truth behind the seemingly random shooting, a contrast to an odd scene in the novel, when her seatmate on her first airplane flight tells her he has a gun against her ribs. In that case, no one even seems to believe her story or take it seriously.

Willa recalls a conversation with her father after he finds himself alone after her mother’s death:

I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?” “Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still. “I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.” She thought that over. “But…” she said. He waited. “But…is that enough?” she asked him. “Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.” 

Willa inevitably has to decide how much is enough in her own life. Tyler writes not economically but with a close eye to the many details that add up to one’s life.

Just as Kingsolver has shifted her focus, streamlining her narrative over her career, I find that I am sometimes less patient with too much attention to detail. Sometimes, though, my patience as I read pays off, as it did with Tyler's Clock Dance.



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Happy Here in Book Land

My scarcity of book posts recently has more to do with my crowded schedule than the lack of subject matter. Here in Nashville, I have great book opportunities everywhere I turn. One of the real treasures here is the Southern Festival of Books, held here each October spread out between the downtown Nashville Public Library and War Memorial Auditorium.

I was particularly eager for this year's even because my friend Barbara Martin Stephens was going to be presenting a session about her book Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler with three other authors writing about the Nashville music scene. I had the good fortune to introduce the authors in that session. Barbara's book tells the behind-the-scenes story of her life with Jimmy Martin the "King of Bluegrass." The story gives a candid look into their often difficult life together, but she also tells about her own experiences as the first female booking agent on Music Row (as well as other key areas where she and Jimmy lived and worked.

Michael D. Doubler also shared his book Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story, part of his own family history. Don Cusic shared photos and music from his gorgeous coffee table book Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline for which he gives much credit to Olivia Beaudry, who helped collect the photographs.

Rounding out the panel, Terry Wait Klefstad of Belmont University discussed her book Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville's William Pursell. She shares the story of one of Nashville's often overlooked studio musicians. A contemporary of Floyd Cramer, Pursell was a classically trained pianist who came to town and played on many of Nashville's biggest hit recordings, while also playing with the symphony. As a special treat, Pursell, now 92,  accompanied Klefstad to the reading and participating in the Q & A.

Several other favorites were in town for the Festival. Long a fan of Charles Frazier, I couldn't miss the opportunity to hear him talk about his latest novel Varina. Although I read it as soon as it came out, I realize that I need to read it again, slowly this time, savoring his style.

I also made a point to hear Luis Alberto Urrea, since I had so loved listening to the audiobook of his novel House of Broken Angels, which he narrates. He was charming and entertaining. The book is so obviously a family love story, but hearing him talking about the lines where his life and the narrative cross was such a treat.

One panel of authors discussed their varying relationships with the late Pat Conroy, sharing some of the pieces in Our Prince of Scribes, a collection in which many writers, booksellers, and friends shared their own stories of Conroy. Bren McClain, whose novel One Good Mama Bone just won the 2017 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, was on the panel, as well as Cliff Graubart, whose Atlanta bookstore Conroy made famous in My Reading Life.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor charmed audiences as she talked about the children's and young adult book of her life story. To the discomfort of her Secret Service men, she moved into the audience giving most of her attention to the young people in the audience.

I could probably fill as much space writing about the authors I didn't get to hear, since the schedule was so full. At least I have a full to-read stack, and I know the Festival will return next year.