Monday, October 23, 2017

Nonfiction Mode in October

While probably ninety percent of my reading is fiction, a heavy dose of novels, augmented by short stories, I venture into all the genres. In fact, when I checked the best seller lists in yesterday's New York Times Book Review supplement, I was surprised to find I'd read more of the current nonfiction list than fiction. (Admittedly a couple of the works of fiction are on my "want to read" list.)

I listened to Trevor Noah's Born a Crime on audio, a good choice since he actually does the reading himself. I didn't know much about Noah, since I'm not much of a talk show viewer.  Okay, since I'm not much of a television viewer. The book, though, was a selection this fall by my book club. Even though I wasn't able to make the discussion, I read it anyway. I'm still thinking about the book. He takes on some serious topics with just the right dash of humor. I'll admit that I fell in love with hi mother, despite some of her poor choices that affected her children as much as they did her.

So much of what Noah shares should be common sense--if anyone was interested in common sense.  He challenges the "Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime," pointing out that someone may just need to give the man a fishing pole!


I knew I had some drive time ahead, so I also picked up Anne Lamott's latest book Hallelujah Anyway  on CD, even though I have a print copy too. I'm glad I do because I plan to go back and re-read just so I can write down some of her memorable lines. In the book, Lamott begins with the verse from the prophet Micah in which he tells us what God requires: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord. Her focus in the book is mercy, not only mercy from God but that we bestow on others--and ourselves. She is such an unconventional writer, living out her Christianity in unexpected ways. Her revelation about her fight against her own alcohol dependency resound with honesty.

I have used parts of her classic writing text Bird by Bird in comp classes and in my own writing. She can take something intangible and share practical steps to take, usually advice she's gleaned from others-especially counselors.  I was so moved by her memories of her father's failure to respond to another man's disparagement of her hair when she was four, a encounter that shaped her self awareness. Eventually, she was advised to invite someone she considered a comforter and someone who represented strength into that memory to confront both men and to change the effect on her. It may seen a little "woo woo" but I like to think I have a battalion of supportive people who could do the same for me if I had similar bad memories that wouldn't leave.

I'm already back into fiction now (with a small dose of Car Talk stories from Click and Clack from NPR), but I'm glad I've added a dose of nonfiction to my reading brain.
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Monday, October 16, 2017

Micro-Memoirs: Beth Ann Fennelly's Heating and Cooling

When I read some books, I can't put them down. Each chapter, I'm thinking, "Well, maybe one more. . . ." Other books I have to savor slowly--dark books that haunt me if I overload the images, dense books that require concentration, retention. Sometimes I have to stop while reading a particularly engrossing book to call or write someone else who needs to read it too. Right now.

But some books make me want to write. I can't finish even a short chapter without digging out my little notebook to write down the scrap I recalled in response to what I'm reading or opening my laptop and laying down a few lines.

I'm in the middle of at least two books right now--on on CD, another for book club on the iPad, but after hearing Beth Ann Fennelly reading from Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs at the Southern Festival of Books this past weekend, I had to dive right in.

After finishing her book project The Tilted World with husband-novelist Tom Franklin, she found herself unable to write poetry but filling her notebook with fragments. She sifted through and published the pearls, the ones she said she kept thinking of later. Some are only a sentence or two; the longest may be four pages. They pack a wallop.

But as I read them, I keep having my own little micro-memoirs surfacing, tiny but meaningful experiences, family stories, overheard or stolen bits and pieces. Fennelly has a doctor story; I have a doctor story. She has a neighbor raising chickens; my mother started raising chickens in her late seventies.

Meanwhile, I drift over to Facebook where more and more of the women I know are posting two single words: Me too. And I know that what silences, what saves us is our shared histories, as different as we might be.
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Friday, October 13, 2017

Lucky Thirteen: Louse Penny's Newest Novel in the Three Pines Series

Since today is Friday the 13th, I have had to reexamine my own light case of superstition. If I really were concerned about this day's reputation for bad luck, I should be comforted by the number of four-leaf clovers crumbling in books throughout my house.  I thought it a funny coincidence, though, that on the 13th, I finished reading Glass Houses, the thirteenth in Louse Penny's Three Pines series. I do count it a stroke of luck that I started her books with Still Life a few years ago.

I'll admit that I had a preconceived idea about what to expect --a little light reading, a beach book. In fact, listening to the author interview at the end of the audiobook, I heard Penny describe readers telling her they thought she was ready now for literary fiction, as if what she writes isn't quite serious enough. I beg to differ.

I admit that I don't generally seek out mysteries, and I am reluctant to engage in a series--even one with just three of four books--because I don't want to overcommit. When I read these books, though, I feel intellectually stimulated, my senses are fully engaged, and yet, I also feel as if I am re-visiting characters I know well. The complex relationships between the characters are so insightful, delightful. Of course, I love Inspector Gamache, who has accepted the position of Chief Superintendent of the Surety du Quebec,  but I also love his wife Reine-Marie. I honestly believe Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache's son-in-law and second in command, may be the character I find most intriguing. He's such a foil character to his patron, and he's so complex and multi-dimensional. When he went through a dark period in one of the earlier novels, I felt almost physically ill.

In this book, the narrative opens with Gamache testifying  in a murder trial during a heat wave. The defendant remains unnamed for much of the story, as the back story develops. Among the usual villagers, Clara and Myrna, the poet Ruth and her pet duck Rosa, new characters have come to town. Four old college friends have returned for a reunion. Two new employees--a baker and a dishwasher--have come to the bistro and the boulangerie.  Once the body is found, everyone comes under suspicion.

In this story, though, the murder is almost secondary. First Penny introduces an oddly dressed stranger dressed as a cobrador, explained as a "debt collector" from Spanish lore. Woven into the story, though, is Gamache's challenge with the growing drug trade, particular heated this close to the United States border.  Some of the characters who have always stood for justice and right have to test that standard against what Ghandi referred to as the higher court: conscience.

Once again, Penny has kept me on edge and has left with with hope as Gamache ends the tale, whispering words of kindness to one of his own team, whom he regards as family. I am also left with hope that Penny keeps writer. I dread waiting a year for the next installment.
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How to Work a Book Festival 101

No one who knows me is surprised to see how worked up I get when a book festival comes to town. One bonus of living in Nashville, then, is the 29th Annual Southern Festival of Books, which kicked off today in downtown Nashville with sessions in the lovely Nashville Public Library and all kinds of vendors with books and book-related merchandise on the plaza, along with tents set up for book signings and for musical artists.

I plot my way through a book event in a method similar to my old junior high reading habits, when I would find one another and then read everything I could find that he or she wrote. I might not be able to judge a book by its cover, but by its author, more likely.

So when I arrived today, I went to hear Jennifer Egan reading from her new book Manhattan Beach because I had loved her book A Visit with the Goon Squad, and I heard Beth Ann Fennelly discussing and reading from Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs because I liked Tilted World, the novel she wrote with her husband novelist Tom Franklin.

Denise Kiernan discussed The Last Castle, the story behind Asheville's Biltmore House; she had been our visit writer at Caldwell Community College's Writers Symposium discussing The Girls of Atomic City, so I knew I'd enjoy hearing her again. I wanted to hear Rodney Jones, whom I had seen first at University of North Alabama back when I was working on my master's.

Tomorrow, my plan is similar: I want to hear Wiley Cash talk about his new book because I liked A Land More Kind Than Home and The Dark Road to Mercy--and because I had liked him when I'd heard him read or talk before.  Likewise, I want to hear Gabrielle Zevin talking about Young Jane Young because I loved The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, but I may have to miss her to hear one of my all-time favorite writers, North Carolina's Ron Rash. Of course, I also want to hear Radney Foster and Peter Cooper, even though I've been lucky enough to hear them both discuss their newest books here in Nashville. I see Robert Olmsted is on a panel discussing Western Novels, and his Coal Black Horse was one of my favorites when I read it. Nicole Krauss' The History of Love was moving and haunting, so I am eager to find about her newest book.

I can't wait until Sunday, when Clyde Egerton will be celebrating "Twenty-Five Years of Raney and Floatplane Notebooks. I have a shelf full of his books, well-read, often shared.

Along the way, I'll run into my reading friends--people I know from teaching together or from book club or church, kindred spirits, and they'll tell me about a great session they've seen--that I missed.
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Monday, September 4, 2017

In Rilke's Footsteps: Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer

I had the pleasure this summer of working with a group of teenagers to help them start a writing group. Their writing goals and genres were varied but they shared the desire to write and they exhibited such mutual respect for one another. Now that they're back in school, I realize that some English, journalism, and creative writing teachers are going to feel so fortunate to have their spark in the classroom.

This week I listened to Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer, a title he borrowed from Rilke . I'm a great fan of McCann's novels, Transatlantic and Let the Great World Spin, so I trusted that he would have something valuable to say. I was right. I also appreciated that he acknowledged that his "young writer" might, indeed, be any age.

Since McCann read the audiobook himself, I got to enjoy his lovely lilt, but I hadn't made it far through the CDs before I realized that I probably need a copy for my own library shelves. Each chapter begins with a quotation from a great writer--living or dead. I wanted to write them down and stick them to my mirror or over my desk (if I had one) or on the dash of my car.

The advice is practical enough that an individual writer or a  writing group could spend time working chapter by chapter. McCann doesn't claim to have all the answers, but he dispenses wisdom in a straight-forward, sometimes self-deprecating way. He acknowledges that no one can TEACH you to write.

He kept the book short, too, letting readers get back to the role of writers, following his strongest bit of advice: get your arse in the chair.
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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

When Alabama author Gin Phillips' new novel Fierce Kingdom started popping up in all my favorite book publications, I took notice. I'd read her first novel The Well and the Mine and then found Come in and Cover Me an especially good reading experience. In that book, she has an archeologist, who made her reputation on a pottery find, called to the location where pieces evidently made by the same Native American artisan were found--far from the first. She manages to work in a little touch of supernatural without losing the reader.

I realized, too, that both books stood alone as works of literature without being so obviously the work of one writer.

This newest novel Fierce Kingdom carves out its own place as well. The story, set in a zoo in early fall, introduces Joan, a mother having an outing with her young son Lincoln. As closing time nears and they head toward the exit, she hears loud popping noises, then sees what she eventually recognizes as bodies--and shooters. She heads deeper in to zoo to hide and await the police.

What follows is a suspenseful story, introducing other secondary character--including two teenage shooters and other zoo visitors trying to escape them.  At the heart of the story is Joan's relationship with her son as she draws from all her resources, mental and physical to keep her son safe in the most harrowing of experiences.  She faces some difficult ethical decisions along the way as well.

Phillips' novel sets itself apart from other "airplane books" as the reader is privy to Joan's interior thoughts, the writing moving from straightforward to desperate. Small details, even the items in her purse, gain significance as the plot develops.

At times I was reminded of Ron Koertge's novel-in-verse The Brimstone Journals, told in a multitude of voices at a high school, including a misfit like Ronny, the shooter that readers get to know best. Having spent much of my teaching career in the high school classroom, I recognize the vulnerability of some young people who are hungry to belong. One nice touch in this book, in fact, involves one of the potential victims, a retired teacher whose memory and people skills are called into play.

Through the course of the book, I found myself as present in that zoo as if I had been there. The physical location of the action was so artistically drawn that I experienced the smells, the textures, the chill, even the pain of injuries. I think I'll be more circumspect the next time I visit the zoo.



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Friday, September 1, 2017

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

Just in time for all the documentaries on television commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, William Kuhn published a charming novel with Queen Elizabeth as one of an ensemble cast of characters. I had read Alan Bennet's An Uncommon Reader, which imagined the queen happening upon the bookmobile while walking her corgis, stepping in to look around and becoming an avid reader. I was amused to learn that the Queen in Kuhn's novel was aware of that book too.

In this particular story, the queen is wrestling with her place in Great Britain and the world. She's still stung by the reaction to her during the period following Diana's untimely death, and she even suspects she, like Diana, may be suffering from a touch of depression, the reality of which she was late to recognize during Charles and Di's marriage.

Kuhn interjects a number of quirky and interesting characters--her equerry and butler, her personal dresser and a lady-in-waiting, two women on whom she depends but who have no relationship themselves. He also includes Rajiv, a young Pakistani clerk at the local cheese shop and Rebecca, the girl who works at the Royal Mews.

When the Queen learns that Parliament is considering defunding the royal train, after already placing her yacht in dry dock, she goes gets a hankering to visit the yacht and strikes out with her handbag, but wearing a hoodie lent to her by Rebecca when the queen appeared in the stables not dressed for the weather.

The self-deprecating humor of the monarch as she wrestles with her own obsolescence is particularly charming. When she finds herself seated with a blind man, his almost blind wife, the guide dog, and a pierced and tattooed young man, they note her striking resemblance to Helen Mirren, but afford her the opportunity to spend a day in the midst of her subjects without threat.

Kuhn avoids being either over-sentimental or judgmental toward the Queen; instead, he shows her vulnerable human side. She finds herself caught with an audience of a performance of Shakespeare's Henry V, which she has learned from Rajiv only during this short time to appreciate. When the play is interrupted with the announcement of a nearby terrorist attempt, she gets the chance to follow her own mother's royal example, choose an appearance among the injured over her own safety.

The chapter titles, all yoga positions, point to the Queen's own yoga practice, an image that amuses, just as it also humanizes the octogenarian. I loved all the characters so much I hated for the story to end.
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