Friday, December 9, 2016

Another War Book

Often my reading list is dictated not by mere whim but by the selections of others.  Since I enjoy the social aspects of reading either with friends or in book clubs, I will often read a book I might not have otherwise chosen. And that's a good thing.


All too often, I'm the one assigning the texts, so turn about is fair play. I know that no matter how hard I try to choose a book that is suitable for a wide readership, someone is going to hate it.


Sometimes the readings align in an interesting way. This semester for the literature class I've been teaching as an adjunct for the community college, I was assigned a novel to teach, Maisie Dobbs, a novel set during and after World War I in England. Around the same time, my daytime book club has been reading a World War II novel, The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and my evening book club is reading Chris Cleaves' novel (also World War II London) Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.


My attitude toward Maisie Dobbs could have been better. It felt too lightweight for me, and I longed for a little more literary richness. The title character is likeable, even admirable, a girl born into lower working class who advances first through reading. When the wealthy, albeit liberated, woman for whom she works discovers her in the family library reading in the wee hours before her work begins, the woman gives her the breaks that make advancement possible. The book moves from the present, with Maisie working as a detective and using skills she learned from her mentor, to the past as she leaves college to volunteer during the war.


I used one of my favorite strategies in my class after the students finished the novel, with the students leading the discussion as I silently observed. They brought the reading to life, not only having a lively discussion of the plot but going on, with no prompting from me, to discuss the writer's choices.


I haven't met to discuss the two book club selections yet, but as I read The Lilac Girls, I struggled. Wells follows three main characters: Caroline, a  privileged socialite living in New York and working with the French Embassy before the United States enters the second world war; Kasia, a young Polish girl arrested and sent to Ravensbruck for her involvement in the underground; and Herta, a German doctor who works on some of the horrific medical experiments on the female prisoners at Ravensbruck.


The story was so full of descriptive details and historical information that I suspected the author had heavily researched the period and couldn't let go of any of it. My biggest problem, though, was that I disliked the characters. Certainly, it was easy not to like Herta, but even Caroline, the do-gooder, drove me crazy with her vacuous observations, and especially her pining away for her married French lover. It's hard to sympathize with a girl who feels a little let down to learn that her lover's wife didn't actually die in the concentration camps after all.  Even Kasia, certainly a victim, had such a bitterness that she hurt others as much as she hurt herself.


At the end of the book, though, the author fills in the reader on how she wrote the book, based on real characters. Caroline was real, actually admirable; her French lover was a fictional plot device. Herta was real--and she was actually released early before she completed her twenty-year sentence, thanks in part to some political maneuvering by the U.S. government. Kasia and her sister, though invented characters, was based on actual sisters held at Ravensbruck. I'm glad she told me her background into the book. It made me a little more forgiving of what I might otherwise have found annoying. She also made me want to read more about these Ravensbruck girls and about the real Caroline Ferriday.


Of the three stories of women during wartime, my favorite was Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleaves. I fell in love with his writing when I discovered Little Bee, with one of the most engaging narrators ever.  In this book, the protagonist Mary North is also a young woman of privilege, but against her parents' wishes, she enlists soon after the war begins, but is surprised to be assigned to teach school children. When her students are evacuated, her approach to her students leads to her being sent back to London. There she meets her first lover Tom, head of the local school board and not at all in her social league. The plot also follows Alistair, Tom's roommate who does go to war.


Cleaves manages to develop characters that are both flawed and sympathetic. They have a self-awareness that adds to their charm and believability.  The author also builds some of the most suspenseful scenes with a small cast of characters, not only on the battlefield, but back in London during the bombings. This is a story I can't wait to talk about at book club--and it's one I can't wait to recommend to anyone who loves a good story well told.




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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Colton Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

Toward the end of the calendar year, I’m always thinking back on all the books I’ve read during the year, trying to decide which I liked best, which I would recommend to whom, which I would read again. Whenever online book sites try to recommend books for me based on what I’ve bought from them, I have to laugh. I don’t think there is an algorithm to decipher my reading preferences. I prefer literary fiction, but I read all kinds of books--autobiography, lots of poetry, spirituality, self-improvement.

I will confess, too, that I while I am a picky reader, I am no reading purist. Yes, I love to hold a book in my hands, to turn the pages, to write in the margins, but I also keep a book going on my iPad all the time, along with one in the CD player of my car. Just give me stories; just give me words.

I still have several books I plan to mention in coming posts, but I just finished Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, so I must share.  I heard Whitehead speak at Parnassus Books a few weeks ago and found him an engaging, entertaining speaker. I particularly liked his premise, writing about the Underground Railroad the way he imagined it as a child—a real train running on underground tracks. Ann Patchett, when asked who would win the Pulitzer Prize this year, predicted this one would "win it all."

Whitehead begins the book in Georgia, where Cora, a slave who still resents her own mother for running and leaving her behind, is invited to escape with Caesar, another slave on the same plantation, purchased after his Virginia owner died, failing make good on her promise to free him at her death. The master's death has left them in the hands of a particularly cruel son. Things can only get worse.

The two go first to South Carolina, deceptively safe for awhile. She works first in the home of a local family, and then at the history museum’s live exhibit, sometimes reenacting live on the plantation, sometimes on the slave ship. Then her past threatens to catch up with her.

Their next stop takes them to North Carolina, where state laws have recently closed the doors on all blacks, free or slaves, with a gruesome Friday night ritual she witnesses from the attic where she hides, virtually enslaved again.

Always just over her shoulder is the infamous slave catcher still bitter over failure to find and return Cora’s mother. Eluding him, she ends up in Indiana at a rather Utopian community of blacks, some freedmen, some mixed race members who have, at times, passed as white, and many former slaves.


Whitehead manages to weave in the first person accounts of others in Cora’s story, filling in pieces along the way. His final product is the story of one slave that translates to the story of all slaves, balancing hope and hatred, the past and the future.  Those who played a role in the real underground railroad become three-dimensional characters who might be our own neighbors. They might be ourselves. I suspect the story will haunt me for a long, long time.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air

Some books are a harder sell, particularly when the subject matter seems so dark and cheerless. I know that I lean toward fiction already, so when someone recommends a work of nonfiction written by a doctor diagnosed with cancer, the recommendation has to come from some powerful directions. Fortunately, the reading friends who suggested Paul Kalanithi's memoir When Breath Becomes Air had an excellent track record.

Kalanithi opens the book with his suspicions and diagnoses of lung cancer, already metastasized, during his final year of residency, where he trained as a brain surgeon. He confesses that his marriage was already under a strain because of the hours devoted to his training.

Then he takes readers back into his early developmental years that made him the man he became. The son of a doctor, he didn't plan to go into medicine. Once he entered college--a prestigious Ivy League school--he double majored, adding a literature degree to his pre-med studies. Kalanithi's love of language won me over quickly, particularly his awareness of how language defines who we are. This sensitivity he brought into his medical career, remaining acutely aware of the choices his patients faced, the choice he had to treat patients and their families impersonally or to communicate in the most humane fashion.

Through his ordeal, he shared the reality when the doctor becomes the patient. His doctors presented him with his options, giving him their support to finish his education and to consider a future. He and his wife also opted to have a child--a daughter--even knowing how little time he would be able to spend with her. Ultimately, his realistic appraisal of the amount of time remaining led him to write this book, even when he required special gloves to protect his skin as he typed on his laptop.

In many ways, the book is incomplete--at least in the way any story is, when the narrator's exit comes before The End; however, his wife Lucy, also a physician, provides an afterword that pays a beautiful tribute to her husband and the grace with which he lived out his final days.

Through his humanity, his faith, his practicality, Paul Kalanithi faces his own death with grace and acceptance, leaving behind an example for how to live and how to die.
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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ron Rash: The Risen

I have favorite novelists, favorite poets, favorite short story authors. Then there's Ron Rash, who manages to excel at all three forms. A colleague recommended his first novel One Foot in Eden, right after it was given Charlotte's Novella Award. Then I heard him read from  Eureka Mills, one of his poetry books, at the local college, and he brought his skillful way with words to his poems.

Since then, I've had the chance to hear him read and talk about his craft in a number of events. What I learned was, first, that he exercises the kind of writing discipline that results in finished writing projects. He can talk about writing, adjusting to his audiences smoothly, addressing his readers warmly, but one gets the sense that he'd rather be writing.

I've enjoyed sharing his short stories with my community college students, many of whom recognize some of their own experiences and their own families in his stories set in the western Carolinas.

Rash's latest novel The Risen moves back and forth between 1969 and present in the life of his troubled protagonist Eugene Matney. As a sixteen-year-old, he and his brother Bill meet a bewitching girl who has been sent from Florida to live with relatives after getting into trouble back home. She introduces both boys to temptations and then leaves, presumably running away to join her friends near the beach.

While Bill goes on the a successful law career and marriage, Eugene pursues a writing career, but is cut off from his own daughter as he struggles with alcoholism. During her stay in the mountains, the girl Ligeia drives a wedge of secrecy between the two brothers; the discovery of her body forty-six years later raises even more troubling questions.

In his dark, bewitching style, Rash has developed a protagonist at once distant and sympathetic, scarred by  family secrets.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Here I Am: Jonathan Safran Foer Does It Again.

 I read so many different kinds of books that it's only natural that my reaction varies form one to the next. Sometimes I breeze through one and hardly remember it a year later. Some books challenge me to become that kind of writer; sometimes I even think, "I could have done that." Sometimes an author is so heavy-handed, so present that I can almost imagine the fingers clicking on the keyboard--and it bothers me.  I love to lose myself in the world of a book, to imagine the plot is unfolding and I'm present as a witness.

Some authors work a kind of magic, a balancing act that defies my imagination. Love it or not (I did), Kate Atkinson's Life after Life was a feat I can't even imagine undertaking. Since that whole story moved back and forth between alternate possibilities, she must have kept a huge chart on the wall over her desk to keep all the threads of her story straight.

Jonathan Safran Foer's novels leave me reeling. Although I have to look up the title every time I mention it, trying to keep the adverbs and adjectives in the right order, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with its young narrator and broad scope of family history, was a novel I not only enjoyed but admired.

I have just finished his latest novel, Here I Am, which began as what might have been an ordinary story of a relatively secular Jewish family, preparing for their son Sam's bar mitzvah, Sam's great grandfather's last wish. Jacob Bloch and his wife Julia are raising their three sons, wrestling with their marriage, dealing with their parents, neighbors, and visiting relatives from Israel.

Technology takes a central role in the story. Sam is immersed in an alternative world video game in which he has created Samanta, his female avatar. His father Jacob has acquired a second cell phone he uses to communicate with a female co-worker. (The explicit texts appear in the book before readers realize what they are reading.) Sam finds the phone and leaves it where Julia discovers it, pushing their uncertain marriage into further crisis.

Somehow, though, Foer's characters' conversations and especially their thoughts take the themes of the story to a level not achieved in a typical airplane or beach read. The eulogy delivered at Jacob's grandfather's memorial service surprised me as much as it did Jacob, who didn't think the rabbi actually knew his grandfather. That passage itself is one I'll go back and read again.

About halfway through the novel, though, a natural disaster occurs in the Middle East that affects the entire world. Jacob's cousin Tamir visiting from Israel is unable to get home. Their late night conversations about Israel and Jewish identity, about marriage and family, keep replaying in my head.

I read sometimes for escape, but I love to read a book that makes me think and that puts me into the lives of people who are and are not like me. Even though some of the characters' words and thoughts felt so familiar and personal, I cannot imagine how Foer assembled this novel as he did.
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Sunday, October 16, 2016

After the Book Festival: Time to Catch Up

I only managed to attend the Southern Festival once while living in North Carolina, so living here at the time of this annual celebration was just one more benefit of moving to Nashville.

I've been power-reading a lot lately, so I'm far behind in my book posts. This week, I plan to add posts about Ron Rash's latest novel The Risen, Jonathan Safron Foer's Here I Am, my most recent book club selection Truly, Madly, Guilty, Beth Revis' YA novel A World Without You, Emma Straub's Modern Lovers, and Anna Quindlen's Miller's Valley.

Today, though, I am processing all the great sessions I attended yesterday and the interactions with readers, authors, and booksellers.

Whenever I'm around events like this one, I can tell I'm with "my people." For years, when I attended the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, I watched the way participants plotted out the sessions we would attend. People who arrived with colleagues played "divide and conquer," each attending a different session, being sure to pick up handouts, promising to share when the conference was over. We worked the exhibits, adding to our already over-the-top book collections and picking up posters, book marks, teaching tips.

This weekend, I saw some of the same behavior; in fact, I ran into a small group of teachers from Chattanooga I knew from a conference in Mississippi almost two years ago. They had their schedule mapped out. My own reading friends crossed paths frequently, but we each had our own priorities, and we promised to share once the festival ended.

I sat in on sessions with Curtis Sittenfeld, whose novel Eligible I had read this year. I learned that she had been approached by the British Austen Society about writing the book, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, in the first place. She was on a panel with three other authors whose books I hadn't read (yet): Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First; Adam Hadley, whose book Imagine Me Gone was told in five first person points of view, and Yaa Gyasi's first novel Homegoing. I made a point to make it to Gyasi's reading later in the day as well and found myself sitting by her parents, who immigrated from Ghana to Alabama.

I also heard one of my Lemuria First Editions Club author Brad Watson read from Miss Jane. A special treat, though, was the session with Peter Furalnick, author of the book about Sam Philips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hank Klibanoff from my hometown Florence, Alabama. Guralnick said that when he started interviewing Phillips, he told him that the story wasn't in Memphis; it was in Florence. I had the opportunity to visit the Sam Phillips exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame with members of Phillips' family earlier this year, so I felt as if I had a little inside look at this story already.

I also made a point to attend a session of poets reading from the anthology Hard Lines: Rough Southern Poetry. Poet William Wright had to cancel his appearance (and that's twice I've missed him at events where he was scheduled) but my colleague Jeff Hardin stepped in, along with Allison Adelle, Ed Madden, and Amy Wright. Each read on of his or her poems from the collection, along with a poem by another poet each admired.

As a festival volunteer, I was the host of the session with Beth Revis, YA author of A World Without You, a novel set in a school for troubled teens--a detail readers must infer as the story builds. Revis, who lives back in my old stomping grounds of Western North Carolina, had told me in our initial communication that this story had a particular person connection. In the session, she told a lot about the process from birthing a book idea, to pitching, writing, and then going through the grueling editing process. She had planned her presentation meticulously so she could control her emotions during the session, reading just enough from the book to make her points without spoiling the experience for anyone who hadn't read the book yet.

I left the festival site with a little heavier bag and a much longer list of "must-read" books. Like a person with a song stuck in my head, I can't wait to pass my list on to you.
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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

When the Author and the Bookseller Are the Same Person

I became a fan of Ann Patchett's fiction long before I moved to Nashville. In fact, after I read Bel Canto, the first book of hers to come across my radar, I wrote a review that was published in English Journal, the secondary education professional publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. What I found in that book was a work of literary fiction I could recommend to readers who wanted a suspense novel. The novel and its characters stuck with me the way many books never do.

Since then, I have read everything Patchett writes, fiction or nonfiction. When she joined partner Karen Hayes to open Parnassus Books in Green Hills after Davis-Kidd closed, I always looked forward to trips to Nashville. This independent bookstore was a nice size with a healthy book to other stuff ratio. Obviously, the employees didn't just work there; they loved books. They talked books.

Upon moving to Nashville, I got my library card just a few blocks from Parnassus, but I headed to tho the bookstore often enough to purchase books I needed to own, not just to read. Then I discovered Salon@615, a library partnership with the bookstore that presents so many great writers at their frequent events.

Last week, the author was Ann Patchett, debuting her new novel Commonwealth.  She was getting ready to start her book tour (beginning at the airport bookstore the next morning before flying out of town. She certainly gave her audience a nice preview to the novel, reading from it and talking about how it was different from and similar to her other books.

Then she started giving suggestions of other people's books. I had my pen poised and ready. She always has a book she's revived and is sharing with others. Right now, it's Lucy Dawson's Dogs as I See them, from the 1930s. It was for sale on the table right alongside Patchett's in the lobby.

She also predicted that Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, the current Oprah Book Club selection, will win everything this year--Pulitzer, National Book Award, everything. She also mentioned his earlier book The Intuitionist, which she also loved.  Other favorites this year she mentioned several authors whose earlier books I'd loved--My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stout (Olive Kitteredge) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Rules of Civility). 

Discussing Whitehead's novel, Matthew Desmond's Evicted, and others, Patchett referred to what she calls the "Hamilton Principle": an author takes a story--World War II and the Holocaust, slavery--we all think we know and makes it new and fresh.

She also recommended Louise Erdrich's new novel La Rose. Earlier in her talk, Patchett had admitted that all her books are really the amen book: a group of strangers are thrown together in an isolate place and form a family.  Erdrich has a formula too, she said: something unspeakable always happens in the first eight pages, and the rest of the book deals with it.

She also said that one of her favorite recent novels was Jane Hamilton's The Excellent Lombards, her most autobiographical novel so far.

She also mentioned Elena Ferrant's Neapolitan novels, a quartet beginning with My Brilliant Friend. She said that anyone buying the first one must also buy the second because you will "go down that rabbit hole" and not come up until you've finished them all. She says after finishing the first one, you will have to start the next one immediately. She also recommended Edward St. Albans' Patrick Melrose novels.

Among the nonfiction she mentioned were Susan Faludi's In the Dark Room (and she also recommended her earlier book Backlash), Hope Jahren's Lab Girl, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

I left the reading clutching my new hot-off-the-press copy of Commonwealth, a bigger reading list than ever, and a new friend I met in line. I couldn't be happier.



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