Saturday, February 16, 2019

There There by Tommy Orange: More than A's and Raiders in Oakland

There must be particular challenges for any author who tries to represent his or her own culture. Lean too far one way, and you run the risk of romanticizing; the other, and you may be accused of airing dirty laundry. Tommy Orange, in his novel There There manages a careful balance as he presents a slice of Native American culture rarely represented in literature.

Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, by contrast, have given keen views of life on and around the  Reservation. Orange, though, brings together a vast assortment of individuals, not stereotypes, living in urban Oakland, California.

As he weaves together so many lives that at first seemed connected only because they are Native Americans, Orange connects the dots. His protagonists are flawed and vulnerable. While some are victims of their circumstances, others have made painful, even disastrous choices.

Readers looking for the connection between the numerous narratives begin to see everything moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow, a celebration of Native culture to be held in the Oakland Stadium. Opal will attend because she realizes that one of the grandsons of her sister Jacquie, whom she has been raising, plans to compete for the big prize, wearing the regalia she has hidden. Dene Oxendene will be there, continuing his interviews for which he was awarded a grant. Blue, the daughter Jacquie gave up for adoption will be there, having moved to Oakland after escaping an abusive marriage.

In fact, Blue's escape by bus, with her husband pursuing closely, threatening her even as she hides in the Greyhound station ladies restroom, is one of the most suspenseful passages in the novel.

The tension throughout the novel builds as readers realize that a handful of young men plan to rob the powwow, using guns made on a 3-D printer, aware the prizes will be awarded in the form of gift cards. This cannot end well.

Just as Urea's House of Broken Angels presents the many facets--good and bad--of one particular Hispanic family living in the U.S., Orange builds portraits of individuals in community, in family, living out modern history. He even chronicles Opal and Jacquie's experiences living with their mother on Alcatraz during the takeover during the 70s.

Orange succeeds in piecing together a closeup view of one group of Americans, individuals intricately connected.
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Friday, February 8, 2019

Sightseeing on Others' Literacy Journeys


In my fifth semester as an adjunct at Lipscomb University, teaching University Writing, I have been guiding my students for the last few weeks on a look back at their "literacy journeys." They have reflected on how they learned to read and write--and in far too many cases, how they lost their love for reading.

As long as I have taught, I have been particularly interested in how to preserve or rekindle the love for pleasure reading. When I ask students when they quit loving reading, two themes emerge: the Accelerated Reader (AR) program and force-feeding of assigned books, followed by objective tests over the minutia. Conversely, when I ask the ones who love to read about their positive influences, they invariably mention parents who read aloud to them and teachers whose own passion for books and for students rubbed off on them.

I can honestly admit that sometimes I resisted required reading. (The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd the Sailor come to mind.) Even some of my best students admitted to reading just enough to pass the test, although one of my most clever students said she finally read the ones she'd skipped--after graduation. They were great, she admitted.

This week, I've held conferences with students, looking over their drafts together before the final essay is due. The titles that keep coming up are often books I've loved--Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, The Things They Carried, Nancy Drew mysteries, the Harry Potter series. Some of the books they read weren't around when I was younger--The Magic Treehouse series, Geronimo Stilton, Percy Jackson.

Some of them flourished most when they had the opportunity to choose some books on their own. One students who had a bad experience in class was invited by the same teacher to join a summer book club with a group of girls her age. Another became part of a bookclub started by friends when the teacher discouraged their reading the Hunger Games series. As I long suspected, nothing lights a fire to read for young people like telling them not to read a particular book or series. Conversely, nothing extinguishes the flame like assigning a text as if it's something teachers do to students. (Take this book: It's for your own good--like bitter medicine.)

In a happy coincidence, my thirteen-year-old granddaughter called me while I was still on campus to tell me her teacher had given them a list of classics from which to make a selection. She was so excited and wanted my advice (and access to my book stack.) I couldn't wait to get home and comb through my shelf and bring her a sack of books. I'm hoping she might choose Little Women, the first classic I remember reading, one I haven't read in so long that I've already been thinking of reading it again. In fact, in my car's CD player, I'm listening to Anne Boyd Rioux's  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. 

Maybe while I'm at it, I'll write a thank you note to Margaret Epperson, my elementary school librarian and my earliest mentor other than family members. I'd better get busy now. In a few days, I'll have 63 essays to read.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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