Friday, April 19, 2019

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: With a Little Help fro Reese Witherspoon

More than one author has said that point of view is one of the most crucial decisions a writer makes when crafting a novel. In this spring's "it" novel Daisy Jones & the Six, author Taylor Jenkins Reid alternates points of view of a wide range of characters. Occasionally readers are reminded that these are fragments of interviews, with the questioner out of sight, but the reading experience is more like an intimate glimpse into the lives as they unfold.

The plot develops as a successful band started by brothers Billy and Graham Dunne, but when their opening act Daisy Jones is brought into the band, the tensions are palpable. While Daisy and Billy compete not only for front man/woman for the band, they also have an equal role as protagonist of the novel. Set in the seventies, readers who lived through that music and culture could easily imagine Daisy Jones & The Six as a real band from the era. The drug culture and the sexual revolution are in full swing, but some of the members of the band are more susceptible to the negative effects.

One of the strongest characters in the novel, Billy's wife Camilla provides some light even in the darkest parts of the book. Knowing from the start that she was marrying a rock musician, she fights for her marriage and family, choosing hope and yet demonstrating incredible maturity and empathy.

Reid also presents a convincing look at the dynamics of songwriting, the give and take between two creative artists, Billy and Daisy, with strong wills but a love for their art. The scenes in the recording studio, as well as on- and off-stage performances and interaction between the band and their fans, are credible as well.

The opportunity to experience vicariously the creation of an album will make music lovers who grew up in that era feel a bit nostalgic about the days when we slit the plastic on a new album and slid out the liner notes reading every word.

Reese Witherspoon has highlighted the novel in her book club,  now I hear that she is involved with Amazon's plans for a limited series based on the book. We may be comparing the movie to the book the way we compare a video to the recording.
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Thursday, April 18, 2019

An American Marriage: Tayari Jones


I prefer to get my book recommendations from friends, book lovers I know and trust, not Oprah or Reese Witherspoon. And since I'd heard mixed reviews of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, I was hesitant to start it.

Once I got started, though, I understood what all the hype was about. Jones has written a novel whose characters are many-layered. She follows that perfect formula for a novel in one way. Let the reader know the characters enough to care, and then get them into a lot of trouble. For Roy O. Hamilton, Jr., and his wife Celestial, the trouble--big trouble--comes just one year into their marriage.

Roy, a young black man who grew up in a small, poor Louisiana town first met his wife Celestial when they were in college in Atlanta. They were introduced by Andre, Roy's neighbor in his college apartment but Celestial's "boy next door" since childhood. They meet again in New York City when she's a rising artist and he's a young successful businessman with a bright future ahead. On a trip to visit his parents, one about which she had misgivings from the time they started out, Roy is falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to twelve years in jail.

Their time apart, particularly as Celestial's boutique business selling handmade dolls takes off, leaves Roy desperate for a lifeline to his former life. Told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre, the novel is beautifully written. Jones not only has a deft hand as she develops her complicated characters, but she uses the language so beautifully--without calling attention to the writing.

Jones also manages to deal honestly wth the plight of young African American men not only caught in the U.S. justice system but in the New South and the Old South, where their two world intersect. The book comes across as more than African American literature; it reads as an American story of an American marriage.


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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Crying Fire in a Crowded Library: A Real Horror Story

I keep hearing about college professors expected to offer "trigger warnings" when covering material that might traumatize fragile college students. Sometimes I find my way into a book that should come with warnings too. I'm just starting to read The Library Book by Susan Orlean, and mere pages into the book, I discover I am going to be reading about the most extensive library fire in the United States, caused by arson in 1986.

I can handle all kinds of horror in my reading, but somehow reading about destroyed books gets me at my core. I once missed my son's first soccer goal of the year because I was caught up in a New Yorker article about libraries getting rid of books. (Don't tell him. He may not have known.)

The author admits that after a lovely childhood spending hours in the public library, she had switched to purchasing books (something I certainly endorse). She rarely went to a library other than for research. Her return to the library came when her son was assigned to interview a city official. He chose a librarian instead of a policeman or fireman. That's where she first encountered the story of the Los Angeles library fire, a story obscured in the national news by the Chernobyl incident.

I'm barely into the book, right in the middle of the fire. I know there's a First Folio of Shakespeare inside, and I don't know yet if it will be saved. I do know that I value public libraries for so many reasons. I got my Nashville library card my first or second week here. I know my way around at least three local libraries--the one closest to my home, the one closest to campus, and the downtown library where most of the Salong@615 events are held. I was there Monday to hear author Greg Iles, a delightful evening.

I still buy books, even though I've far exceeded bookshelf space here at the house, but I use the library for books--in print and audio. I've "checked out" seeds in the spring, and I watch for all their programs. I bring my grandchildren along when I can. I remember what a magical place my hometown library was for me. If it hadn't moved to a new, nice building, I could still walk to my favorite shelves on any of the floors.

To honor the memory of the experience, I'm going to keep reading The Library Book, hoping for a happy ending.
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Where Crawdads Sing: Testing My Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Move over, Oprah! Reese Witherspoon's book selections are taking over  the New York Times bestseller lists now.  What first novelist doesn't love a promotion like this--and the movie deal too?

Delia Owens' debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing has certainly reaped benefits from Witherspoon's attention. It's a book club darling right now, and readers are loving the story.

The book is rich in language. The description of the flora and fauna of the North Carolina marsh are particularly evocative. I also cared about what would happen to Kya, known by the people in town as "the Marsh Girl."  While I had a little trouble believing an unschooled girl could eventually become a successful nature writer and illustrator, as well as (SPOILER ALERT) poet, I could imagine her watercolor illustrations of the birds, the marsh grasses, the seashells.

I'll confess, though, that I had a problem with the geography from the beginning. When Tate tells her he lost his mother and sister in a car accident when they were driving to Asheville to buy a bicycle for his birthday, I wondered why she didn't just buy it at Chase's father's Western Auto Store--or stop in Wilmington or Raleigh or Greensboro. Even Hickory would have been closer.

I checked Mapquest. It's over 300 miles--a five and a half hour drive.

I might have thought this was a fluke, but Kya's father goes to Asheville to deal with the VA office (while I feel certain there was a closer office). Then one of the attorneys in the trial central to the novel was wearing a tie he "had bought over in Asheville."

I asked a friend, "Didn't she have a fact checker?"

She responded, "Didn't she have a map?"

I am always drawn back to Tony Earley's Somehow Form a Family when he describes writing a piece about the night after the first moon walk, when his father took all the family out to the back yard to look through his telescope at the full moon, knowing it now had human footprints.

The only problem, Earley's fact checker pointed out, was that the moon wasn't full that night. (I checked it on Google. It wasn't.)

In University Writing recently, we've talked about the concept of ethos, developing one's credibility. It's a tough standard to get everything right. Readers may not notice when you do, but if they catch you in one error, they'll be wary of others.

Maybe by the time the movie comes out, the director will move the shopping trips a little closer to the coast.


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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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