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.


  

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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.
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Friday, September 14, 2018

Starting and Stopping: What to Read Next

Honestly, I could stay in my house for a couple of years without having to leave to find something new to read--even without an internet connection. That hasn't ever stopped me from adding to my collection of books or from regularly visiting libraries and bookstores. I'm always on the prowl for the next good read.

I'm not a one-book-at-a-time kind of reader either. I regularly keep one traditional print book going, along with one audiobook in the car and one eBook on my iPad. It doesn't confuse me any more than talking to more than one person in a day would.

Occasionally, the stars align just so, and I find myself at the end of all three at once. This month, my book club decided to abandon a book choice (I won't mention the title. I'll just whisper the words "Pulitzer Prize") because most of the ladies just couldn't get through it. These are hardcore readers, too--not lightweights. I was about to start reading it but decided this many women can't be wrong. We opted instead to discuss a book I've already read, one I loved. Now I'm free to pick whatever I want to read.

Meanwhile, the audiobook I chose at the library hasn't caught my attention, and I am perusing my shelves to decide what volume I've overlooked too long. It's a nice problem to have, I'll admit. For now, I'm listening to music in the car. The Americana Fest is going on in Nashville this week, so I don't have much time for reading anyway--other than constantly scanning the schedule to choose my next concert or showcase.

I know that in a few days I'll be back into my reading/listening rhythm, lost in another good story--or three.
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Sunday, September 9, 2018

The House of Broken Angels: Anticipating the Southern Festival of Books

Sometimes a book just keeps presenting itself to me until I give in and read it--at no one's suggestion, after little more than a glimpse in a book review or its appearance on the library shelf. I'll admit than the first time I saw the book cover for The House of Broken Angels, the "unimportant words" were so small, I thought the title was House-Broken Angels. When I found myself casting about for an audiobook to feed my habit, I found it on the library shelf and gave it a try. In the past week, I have found myself coming up with excuses to drive to the store or sitting in the garage, listening just a little longer.

Urrea, who will appear in Nashville's Southern Festival of Books in October, has written a lovely, sprawling family story. The novel opens on the day of Big Angel de la Cruz's mother America's funeral, short of her hundredth birthday. As the family patriarch, Big Angel has arranged the timing so that his extended family can stay over for his seventieth birthday--his last birthday-- the following day. Suffering from terminal cancer, Big Angel is more and more dependent on his wife Perla and their daughter Minerva, whom the family calls Minnie--after the Disney mouse.

The cast of characters in this Mexican-American family in San Diego is so large that upon finishing the audiobook, I have considered buying a print copy and creating a family tree, like that Little Angel, the protagonist's half brother, keeps in his pocket notebook to keep the family straight.

While the story opens on the day of the matriarch's funeral, Urrea provides flashbacks to Big Angel's childhood in Mexica. He also shifts perspective in the story told in third person, giving Little Angel an increasing perspective, but also developing the many characters that assemble for the funeral and the birthday celebration.

Even the murdered children of Big Angel's wife Perla and her sister, called La Gloriosa, are given a place in the story. Big Angel and Perla's children, even the absent step-son Yndio, are drawn to the family circle, where Little Angel, a literature professor in Seattle is disappointed to find a birthday meal of pizza and spaghetti instead of the home-cooked Mexican fiesta he had anticipated.

With the lightest hand, Urrea gives an honest look at border politics and ethnic identity, full of flavor in its language and detail. At its heart, he has drawn a beautiful family story. Big Angel faces imminent death with a weight of guilt from his past. He is briefly visited by the ghost of his father, a former policeman who left two families in his wake, but the presence of his little brother gives both men a chance to clear the air of their old grievances.

In one of the most poignant scenes, after they have survived what could have been a disaster, his children and brother crawl into bed with Big Angel, as his "Perla of great price" stands at the bedside. What could have been a sad and somber story has woven into it humor, warmth, and the loveliest, most tender romantic scene possible between aging spouses looking into the face of death.

Since the author reads the audiobook with such verve, I am more eager than ever to hear him when he appears at the literary festival next month. In the meantime, I'm going looking for his earlier stories.
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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Different Story from WWII: Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Most book club members I know note that we ended up reading so many books from World War II. We think we've learned all we can about that period of world history--and then something new comes along. Such was the case with Mark Sullivan's tale Beneath the Scarlet Sky, a novel based on the life of Pino Lella, a teenager in Milan thrust into the middle of the war on the Italian front. Sullivan came upon Lella's story at a point when he was doubt his own ability as a writer. By the time they met, Pino was an old man with a full life behind him. The story he shared fills in a part of the war that is often overlook. 

Students of history learn about Mussolini--Il Duce--and the Fascist army, but often forget that the lines drawn are often unclear. As the war was escalating in Europe, Pino's family sent him and his brother Meimo to a Catholic school for boys in the mountains near the Swiss border run by Father Ray. During that time, Pino and his brother were enlisted to help Jews escape through the treacherous mountain passes to safety. They often ran into conflict with partisans who acted more like the Southern Home Guard during the Civil War, using their cause as a front to extort and to kill.

As Pino approached his eighteenth birthday, his father forced him to join the Nazi army to avoid being drafted into the Italian troops who were sent to the Russian border where they were basically cannon fodder. By chance, he ended up as a driver for General Leyers, a Nazi reporting directly to Hitler. This position gave Pino the opportunity to work as a spy, but he had to face the derision of his closest friend and his brother, whom he could not tell the truth.

This is also a love story, as Pino finds that Leyers' mistress's maid Anna is a young woman to whom he had been attracted before he left to join Father Ray. Six years his senior, Anna had a tragic story herself, and as their relationship blossoms, she offers the only light in his life.

Throughout the reading, I am constantly reminded that Pino is a teenager during the course of the story. He sees more death and horror than most people can imagine. Firsthand, he witnesses the Nazis use of slaves for force labor, often working them to death. He also Leyers' receipt of gold bars, presumably put away for safekeeping as insurance for his future at the war's end.

Problematic for some readers is Sullivan's necessity to fill in the details, to imagine conversations, as he reconstructs a life from details he learns decades later. Some questions, particularly relating to Leyers, remain unanswered and troubling. 

I get the overwhelming sense of what it must have been like to balance one's integrity and safety during a time when death was always a possibility. Pino's story also shows readers the lifelong effect of guilt and loss. 

Shortly after 9/11, I once heard an NPR commentator say, "War is how Americans learn geography." Sometimes the geography lesson comes with a history lesson as well.

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Saturday, September 1, 2018

Bren McClain's One Good Mama Bone

At a recent book club meeting, there was some discussion about what makes a book a "good book." Sure enough, I find that I often enjoy a story or--in the case of nonfiction--I enjoy learning something new, but I really long for a good story well told, well written.

Another challenge I find is sifting through all the hyped books--those with big publishing companies' budgets behind them--in order to find the jewels. Small independent book stores are usually some of the best places for finding new authors and books that might otherwise be overlooked.

At the final TRIO 3 show at Parnassus Books last month, I left with a couple of books I hadn't read--or even heard about until that night. This particular event is Shari Smith's brain child for which she assigns about 15 books--one each to an artist and a songwriter--for creative response. Quite a few of the authors, singers, and artists were present that evening, and I had the pleasure of meeting author Bren McClain before the show.  After hearing her talk about the book, I knew I had found my next read, One Good Mama Bone, moving it to the top of my stack. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop.

The main character of the novel, Sara Creamer, has lived through rejection by her mother, betrayal by her husband and best friend, and is now trying to raise the boy her husband named Emerson Bridge, with her only income from her seamstress skills. When she learns of the annual 4-H Fat Cattle competition, she sees a chance for a break, buying a steer born to a heifer she calls Mama Red, long past prime time for birthing calves. Separated from her young steer, she breaks through fences to find her bawling baby.

Emerson Bridge's biggest competition in the cattle competition is his classmate Little LC Dobbins, who lost the previous year, spoiling the winning streak of his older brother' Charles. LC's father Luther wants to be respected as a cattleman, but most of his success has been through others' efforts. Over the course of the story, Dobbins' wife Mildred, whom he married for her family money, develops a friendship with Sara, a blessing to both women.

Ike Thrasher, one of the many interesting secondary characters, the son of the original landowner, was also rejected by his father. He has given up his preaching career and is trying to prove himself a man, partnering with the Creamers to raise the steer the boy names Lucky.

In what on the surface,might be described as a book about cows, McClain builds a tale about what it means to be a mother, a father, a man. At the heart of the story, giving the novel its title, is Sara's memory of her mother's declaration that Sara didn't have "one good mama bone." What at first seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy becomes a challenge instead.

The story takes on issues of race and class, particularly examining what can happen when someone rises above his circumstances, but never feels accepted or vindicated. In a way, Luther Dobbins is one of the most tragic figures in the story. He has the desire to connect with his younger son, but he fails to act on his best instincts. His concerns for appearance and admirations always undercut his best intentions.

Emerson Bridge also carries with him his father's final words of advice about acting in kindness, reinforced when the boy becomes a member of the Roy Rogers Riders Club, whose pledge includes treating animals with kindness.

Throughout the story, McClain sometimes shifts to the perspective of Mama Bone the cow and her baby, providing an element of dramatic irony. She also uses Sara's confessional monologues to Mama Bone to fill in some of the background details leading up to Emerson Bridge's birth.

I can think of a few other books in which the animal characters were as engaging as the humans--Watership Down  and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for example. The highlight of this novel was the relationships between humans and animals. These relationships often prompted most of the human characters to act with greater integrity and kindness. With a light hand, McClain doesn't just tell a story, she crafts a pitch perfect narrative.

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

As I'm getting ready to kick off a new semester and to meet three classes of college freshmen tomorrow, I remind myself what I probably didn't consider when I was in their place: access to a good education is such a privilege.

I'm used to reading about girls in other countries deprived of the right to go to school, either because of politics or economics; I forget how many girls and boys, young men and women here in the United States also face obstacles.

Tara Westover's memoir Educated gives a surprising look at one family's experience. Westover was raised, along with several siblings, in an extreme fundamentalist Mormon family. Her father, whom readers learn as his daughter does, is evidently bipolar, has such extreme anti-government views that he avoids any interaction with the government, always fearing plots to control their lives.  The family refuses medical care, neither routine checkups or emergency treatment.  Tara's mother trains as a midwife and then builds on her knowledge of herbs, eventually providing the family's financial support. Westover's father spends most of his life in the junk business, resulting in severe burn injuries for Tara's brother and for himself. All the children are pressed into the junk business as well, and Tara has to learn to anticipate her father's moves to avoid death or maiming.

The children aren't sent to school, but homeschooling is more of a theory than a reality in their home.
Only when Tara's older brother decides he wants to go to college and begins a self-study program to pass entrance exams does she recognize the limits of her own education. Her understanding of math, a big part of the testing, is severely limited. Through hard work, she ends up in college in Salt Lake City, finding that her knowledge of history and current events is even more lacking. Asked to read aloud in class, her professor interprets as sarcasm her unfamiliarity with the word "Holocaust." She is also shocked to find that even among other Mormons, her family's attitudes are extremely conservative.

She also has to deal with one brother's physical and emotional abuse and her parents' silence or complicity.

Spoiler alert: the way Westover overcomes her background and goes on to achieve not just a college education, but degrees from Cambridge and even a Ph.D. from Harvard is inspirational, to say the least. Over the course of the book, readers see her growing awareness of the manipulation of truth in which she has been steeped. She sees her family members choose to reject the obvious in order to stay in the family circle. Only through sacrificing her family ties is she able to come to terms with the outside world.

When I face my new freshmen this week, I hope to encourage them to ask questions, to test what they are taught as truth. I'll repeat my mantra:  The truth will stand up to questioning. Maybe I can even encourage them to be grateful for the education before them.
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