Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Francesca Hornak's Seven Days of Us

As I've often admitted, I am not a reading purist: I love to read a "real book" with the heft of the volume in my hand, but I'm just as content to read an electronic book. I also take exception to those who don't think audiobooks count as reading.

I freely remind them of the children of Israel who only knew the Word from listening as it was read aloud. Who am I to discount that experience?

Honestly, I can't go for long without a book on CD loaded in the car, and the only way I can remember if I read or listened to a book is that I can sometimes recall the excellence of the reader.

To fuel my fix, I'm often scanning the local library shelves, starting with new arrivals and then scanning the shelves for something I might have overlooked. I also make regular use of the hold option, drawing from the whole local library system.

Recently, while I was waiting on a couple of requests, I ran across Francesca Hornak's novel Seven Days of Us. The back cover description caught my eye, and I decided to give it a try, even though I had not heard anything about the book.

The novel, set in England during Christmas follows several members of the Birch family, forced to spend the week of the holiday in quarantine when their daughter Olivia returns from Liberia, where she was one of a group of doctors providing humanitarian aid during an outbreak of the deadly, highly contagious hog virus. Olivia soon learns that Sean, her Irish colleague with whom she's formed a relationship--against protocol--has come down with the virus. She's unable to reveal her concern to anyone since their relationship broke no-touch regulations, meant to safeguard them and those with which they came in contact.

Meanwhile, the younger Birch daughter Phoebe, her father's favorite, has just become engaged, plunging her into wedding planning frenzy. To add to the tension, their father Andrew learns that he fathered a son Jesse years ago, when he and Emma were first dating. Although Andrew has achieved a certain level of fame as a snarky food critic, he formerly served as a war correspondent, where he and Jesse's birth mother enjoyed a brief tryst.

Hornak manages to balance the humorous and serious over the course of the seven days the Birches spend together in the old country home that once belonged to Emma's family. As they are joined first by Phoebe's fiance' and then Jesse, readers soon learn that each of the characters is harboring secrets. No single character appears particularly villainous: each has noble points and flaws, making them both sympathetic and believable characters. The shifting dynamics of the family during their imposed quarantine keep readers engaged, sometimes squirming with them, sometimes cheering or laughing aloud, and sometimes grieving.

In whatever format one chooses, the novel provides at least a good seven days of reading entertainment.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Parnassus Readings: Nothing Beats a Local Indie Bookseller

I'll admit that the local music events often fill my calendar, but almost every week, Parnassus Books in Green Hills offers another book event that's hard to pass up. This past week, I joined Gail and Premi, a couple of my book club friends, to hear New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner interview his friend, author Jonathan Miles (Johnny to his friends and family, we learned). Miles is touring with his latest novel Anatomy of a Miracle, the story of a veteran who returns from Afghanistan a paraplegic, until one day, outside a Biloxi, Mississippi, convenient store, he inexplicably stands.  What follows is the investigation by everyone from his doctor to reality TV hosts to the Vatican.

I was familiar with Miles from his earlier novel Dear American Airlines, the tale of a man stranded at the airport while trying to reach his daughter's wedding. I did not know, however, that he's also a regular contributor to Field and Stream. He claimed that his journalism work had been a seed bed for his fiction, which fed off it. Journalism, he said, had granted an all-access pass to so much of life.

Though originally from Ohio, Miles feels he came into his own as a writer in Oxford, Mississippi, certainly a hotbed of literature. There he developed friendships with such writers as Barry Hannah and Larry Brown (in whose writing shed he worked on his fiction.)

The interview--or conversation--between Miles and Garner veered toward Miles' writing process and his journey toward novel writing. (When he married his wife, he told the audience, he was a landscaper.) He describe fiction writing as "this assemblage of fibs that somehow adds up to something true." He quoted Doctorow about the writing process: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way" and Russo, who said it's like throwing a pebble in to a pond--and then you have to swim around until you find your pebble.

Asked about the humor in his writing, Miles said he had been called a comic writer and wondered if he could consider it praise.  Larry Brown told him, "You never want anything in front of the word 'writer.'"

When Garner pointed out that there were some some surprises in the novel, including some intensive war writing, Miles said that one of the joys of writing is the research. He called writing a novel "this fantastic crammed eduction.  He also compared it to the worst drug in the world: 99 times out of 100 it makes you feel worse, but that one time . . . .

He discussed his writing process and answered the question about a word limit, saying he sometimes wrote zero words but other times, 8000.

Miles, when asked whether he believes in miracles, called himself a "fundamentalist agnostic." He referred to "that sense of not knowing and wanting to ask these questions and find something to believe in.  What novels do best, he said, is to ask questions, make those questions deep, put flesh on them.  After all, to be a good novelist, there's a certain level of empathy required.

"Nobody reads the same book anyway," he said. He recalled reading Reynolds' Stone Fox after losing his grandfather and crying more tears over the story than over his own loss.

I'd be willing to bet that after the Parnassus event, I wasn't the only audience member who was eager not only to go home and read but to write as well.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Barbara Martin Stephens: Telling the Truth about Jimmy

At last month's conference of the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA), I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with Barbara Martin Stephens, who has recently published a memoir about her life with Jimmy Martin, known as "The King of Bluegrass," called Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler.

The book is in turns a work of love, a confessional, and an unblinking look at her tumultuous life with Martin. She describes meeting Jimmy when she was still a teenager, but already widowed. Her first husband, the father of her son Michael, had been killed in the Korean War. She describes her attraction to Martin as an "addiction." Even when she knew how volatile he was, she kept returning to him through her whole life.

The life they shared was characterized by his drinking and womanizing. Even though she was working, he controlled all their money, becoming angry if she spent anything on herself without permission.  Though her education stopped with her marriage, she has managed to move through a number of successful careers. In fact, she was one of the first female music booking agents, lining up engagements for Jimmy and for other acts as well.

The story moves from such everyday details of her life as learning to cook to the harrowing attempts to escape from Jimmy's physical and mental abuse, resulting in losing her children to him. A high point in her story is her eventual reunion with their four children and with the son from her previous marriage he would not allow to live with them.

The story Barbara Martin Stephens tells could be the story of any woman who has endured an abusive relationship and lived to tell about it, except that hers is star-studded. Beginning with Jimmy's revolving cast of band members, readers rub shoulders with J.D. Crowe, the Osborne Brothers, Patsy Cline, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Merle Haggard, Earl and Louise Scruggs, and more. They aren't appearing on stage through most of this narrative, however; they are in kitchens, in cafes, and at wakes. I suspect quite a few copies of the book will be sold to those living whose names are mentioned in its page.

One question the author seeks to answer through the course of her book is why Jimmy Martin, despite his fame and talent, was never inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. According to Barbara, his bad behavior kept him out. The Opry, she points out, has always striven to have a wholesome family atmosphere. During some of his guest performances there, she reveals, he had to be moved off stage because of his drinking and speech. She does reveal what she believes is the main reason, though, for his being blackballed, even though other performers on the Opry have less than stellar personal reputations: Jimmy's on-going affair with Bill Monroe's daughter Melissa. She says Bill swore he'd see to it that Martin was never inducted to that group, a slight that pained Martin until his death.

In the end of the story, as she reveals the complications during the last days of Martin's bout with cancer, she shares the conflict that arose among family, friends, and especially lawyers over his will, not only tying up his estate but depleting thousands in court costs.

Despite all the pain and bitterness, she ends her story by pointing out the good that came of her life with Jimmy. She confesses that she would not have chosen a different life.

In the audio recording of the book, Barbara Martin Stephens does the reading. The effect is the impression of sitting across the kitchen table or cozied up on the sofa, listening to a friend share the stories of her life--the good and the bad--but certainly a full, rich life.


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Books with a Sound Track, Part 1: Radney Foster's For You to See the Stars

 Back during the Americana Fest this past fall, I had the chance to hear Radney Foster reading and singing at Grimey's Books and Records. I was especially eager to hear from his collection of short stories, published by my friend Shari Smith's Working Title Farm.

Foster has been a successful singer-songwriter for years, so the addition of storytelling to his repertoire is no surprise. What's unique about his short story collection For You to See the Stars is the way he paired each story with a song from his new CD of the same name.

At his appearance, Foster exhibited the ability to do justice to his own work, not always a given with authors. Some of the stories had an autobiographical feel to them, many set in Texas, Foster's home state, as he relates childhood stories set at the time of the Kennedy assassination or tales of the heartbreak of teenage love and heartbreak. But Foster also takes some literary leaps obviously not based on his life.  One of the captivating stories opens with the feel of a Civil War story, until readers realize instead it's set in a future United States, when the concept of equal rights is challenged. In another, a father reunites with his daughter, with whom he lost touch because of his high security, high danger job.

Like most short story collections, Foster's hold up well when read singly, but I decided to take the time to read through the collection as the author intended, stopping to play the CD of songs paired with the stories.  I'm glad I did.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Crop of Authors

Within a few weeks, I've run across two novels that use the "Choose Your Own Adventure" model in parts of the story to advance the narrative. I have to wonder if this is a coincidence or if it says something about the age of the authors.

I had read two other novels by Gabrielle Zevin before I picked up Young Jane Young. Her novel The Storied Life of A J Fikry is a book lover's book. I listened to it on audio and then bought a hard copy, hoping she'd provided a list in the back of the books referenced in the novel. Her YA novel Elsewhere gives a picture of the afterlife quite different from the one in The Lovely Bones. In her latest novel Young Jane Young, Zevin tells the story of a mother and daughter--or two sets of mothers and daughters. The title character adopts this new name after reaching the kind of infamy associated with Monica Lewinsky. Midway through the book, the narrator begins to instruct, "If you think she...turn to page..."

When I read Nathan Hill's debut novel The Nix, the author tells another tale, weaving the story of a son and his mother, follow childhood and adulthood of both Samuel Andreson-Anderson and his mother Faye Andreson-Anderson. The story opens as Faye is arrested for throwing a handful of gravel toward a political candidate, earning her infamy in the news as the "Packer Attacker." Meanwhile, Samuel, the son the abandoned when he was young, is an adjunct literature professor wrestling with a study guilty of plagiarism but unwilling to accept the rap. Meanwhile, he has made no progress on the novel for which he has already spent the advance money. He spends far too many hours playing the video game Elfscape. Hill uses the same Choose Your Own Adventure technique following Samuel's choices.

Flashbacks introduce readers to Samuel's childhood spent with his friend Bishop, falling for Bishop's twin sister Bethany, a violin prodigy around the time his mother leaves. Hill also takes the story back to Faye's teenage and college years before she dropped out of college barely into her first semester to marry Samuel's father Henry.

The novel casts a wide net, bringing together a cast of characters that pull the story lines together. Pwnage, one of the notorious members of the Elfscape online gaming community meets Samuel in real time.  Samuel learns eventually that his literary agent, under another name, was part of Faye's life too.

 Protest marches, often turning violent, appear in at least three different times of the story. Faye is caught up in a march in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. One particular entertaining side story shows Hubert Humphrey obsessed with bathing to rid himself of the stench from the nearby slaughterhouses. Later, Samuel joins Bethany in a march, carrying mock-up caskets, to memorialize American soldiers killed in the Middle East, including his old friend Bishop.

Both Zevin's and Hill's novels move through both time and place to round out multi-generational narratives rich enough to grab hold of  readers' memories and to give them plenty of adventure ripe for the choosing.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

What Blogs Should I Be Reading? Staying a Step Behind in Social Media

I get it! Facebook is for old people. I read it in the newspaper (also for old people, according to one of my comp students). What about blogging though?

I confess that while I try to stay current on my reading posts, I had not checked my favorite blogs list in awhile. Sure enough, more than half had been abandoned. I would still prefer to having a few places to go for book suggestions and such without having to sift through my backlog of emails.

My question, then, to those who take time to read what I write: Are there blogs you read regularly or often? I don't necessarily need more book suggestions. I could be snowed in for months without running out of reading material. But I enjoy book suggestions, book lists, book chat. I am also interested in other bloggers who have something to say worth reading. Humor is a plus. I'd like your feedback.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Great Alone: Kristin Hannah's Alaskan Adventure

When I heard Kristin Hannah had a new novel, I was expecting something like The Nightingale, her last book set during World War II. Instead, she tells a story that begins in 1974 with Leni Allbright, a young girl whose father has returned a changed, broken man after released from captivity as a POW in Vietnam.

Throughout the story, I'm reminded of how much the world has changed, how much we know now that we didn't when I was a teenager. This tale is set in a world in which PTSD is still considered "shell shock"--if considered at all. Abused women have no legal defense if they take action against their abusers. DNA testing isn't an option in the event of a crime, and it's not yet possible to track down someone simply by Googling.

Leni and her mother Cora walk on eggshells around Ernt, her father, who wakes with night terrors and the slightest thing can cause him to snap violently. When a friend he lost in Vietnam leaves his cabin to Ernt and the family, the family makes the decision to move to remote Alaska. They arrive completely unprepared for life in a small town without indoor plumbing or even electricity in most places.

Leni finds herself torn when she falls for Matthew, the only boy her age in the small school and the son of the relatively wealthy family that first settled the town. Her father connects with the family of his lost friend, a branch of survivalists preparing for the inevitable showdown they refer to as WSHTF. He despises and resents Tom Walker, Matthew's father, and Cora's evident attraction adds fuel to the fire.

Hannah peoples the town with many colorful characters, a crazy man who claims to be married to his duck, and a former lawyer calling herself Large Marge, who befriends and helps the Allbright women as they learn to survive. Leni has to learn to farm and to hunt. She has to be wary of bears and other predators. She has to be wary of her father's sudden mood shifts.

As they have to work fast and hard to store up food for the long winter, Leni and her mother realize that the extended darkness will bring out the demons in Leni's father.  He becomes increasingly physically abusive toward Cora, whose toxic love keeps her from pressing charges or leaving him.

Throughout the story, the author maintains tension as the characters, even levelheaded Leni, make wrong moves with dire consequences. What develops is a love story for the wilds of Alaska, and the complicated love/hate story that many children--and adults--endure.

As in The Nightingale, Hannah sometimes tests the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief," and her heavy use of parenthetical expressions sometimes made me want to suggest that she should trust her readers to recognize the significance of these side details.

Without adding any spoilers, I must say that I wrestled with some of the plot resolution, but the narrative kept me turning pages long after time for lights out.