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.
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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Column of Fire: Follett's Kingsbridge Trilogy

I first read Ken Follett's novels years ago, starting with Pillars of the Earth. It remains on my short list of favorite books, especially since I enjoy historical fiction that covers a long span of time--including works by James Michener and Leon Uris.

When I traveled to Europe with students and visited some of the great cathedrals, a colleague insisted I read Pillars. I'm glad I did, and I've seen how the book has touched so many other people close to me. For example, I have a brother-in-law in the building profession, he says, because he read this book. Another teaching colleague recalled the impact of one of the early scenes, which brought him to tears since he read it when his own first child was still a baby.

I enjoyed several of Follett's suspense novels too--The Key to Rebecca and Eye of the Needle. It took him years to get back to writing epics, first World Without End, the sequel to Pillars of the Earth, and then the Century Series.

A Column of Fire, the third of this trilogy, is set in and around Kingsbridge, the fictional town where Tom the Builder first started his cathedral, but these characters spread across Europe as well.  Set primarily during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in England, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish Armada, this book gives a close look at the impact of the division between Catholics and Protestants.

The main character Ned Willard comes from a family of tradesmen with Protestant sympathies, but early on, he falls in love with Margery Fitzgerald, the daughter of a prominent Catholic family. When her family pushes her instead to marry Bart, next in line to become Earl of Shiring, she complies after a lecture by the priest about her duties to her parents.

After Ned's family loses everything because of some legal maneuvers of Margery's brother Rollo, Ned ends up serving Queen Elizabeth under Walsingham. For most of his life, Ned fights for the principle of tolerance, working to make Elizabeth I's  goal that no one die for faith in England become a reality.

A second narrative thread follows despicable self-promoter Pierre Aumand, an illegitimate offspring of the Guise family in Paris, who through deception maneuvers himself into a position of power, which he uses again French Protestants, including the strong, sympathetic character Sylvie Palot, a member of a Protestant family of printers who work to smuggle religious texts in French into the country.

Through the novel, Follett follows Ned's brother to the New World, where he falls in love with Bella, a Hispaniola rum maker. He also traces the life, marriage, and death of Mary, Queen of Scots and her fictional lady-in-waiting and childhood friend Allison.

Any student of this historical period will appreciate the attention to detail--including the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English navy, beheading of Mary, and the uncovering Gunpowder Plot. In the epilogue, Follett lets readers know which characters are real and which are his creation.

After experiencing the decades of Ned Willard's life, I had a glimpse of the possibility that there might be a fourth book in the sequel, as his grandson Jack, a Puritan, makes plans to head to America.
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Monday, February 5, 2018

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Love Song of Miss Queen Hennessy, I was happy to discover a new novel.  I loved the way Rachel Joyce brought together such unlikely combinations of characters. The Music Shop is no exception.

The story is set in a neighborhood in a declining section of London as the streets up and down the street are being forced to close their doors, some selling out to pushy developers. In 1988, Frank, the owner of a music store, refuses to give in to music trends. He has resisted cassette tapes and now refuses to add CDs, to the dismay of the music sales reps. Frank loves vinyl. He also has a gift for matching up just the right music for each customer--part retailer, part counselor.  He has a listening area set up in a repurposed piece of furniture. He employs an accident prone young sales assistant, and he interacts with the neighboring business owners--twin brothers running the family funeral business, a former priest selling (only occasionally) religious icons and bookmarks, and an eccentric female tattoo artist with a not-so-hidden attraction to Frank.

Resistant to love, Frank's life changes when a lovely woman in green passes out just outside his store--and then disappears. Claiming ignorance on the topic, she pays Frank to give her lessons in music outside of store hours. The only obstacle is her fiancé.

Joyce also develops the back story of Frank's childhood, the son of a quirky single mother, negligent at best. Readers learn his mother is the reason he can't bear to hear "The  Hallelujah Chorus."

The Music Shop may not be the stuff of literature classes, but it is a fun reading experience--especially for music lovers--with a nice love story. As an added bonus, the author provides a play list on Spotify: bit.ly/TheMusicShopPlaylist.  Who doesn't love a playlist that ranges from Chopin and Handel to "Stairway to Heaven" and Aretha Franklin?
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Monday, January 8, 2018

Affirmation from Fellow Readers

Not only do I like reading, but I enjoy reading about reading. My bookshelves provide plenty of evidence, as do my file cabinets.  Whenever I have my students working on a research topic, I model with one of my own. My favorite topic to study is the value of reading. I confess that I don't enter the research with a blank slate, wondering whether or not reading really is valuable. I know it it. I just want others' research to confirm and support what I already know.

I've found plenty of research that shows that reading literary fiction has more positive effects on the brain than any other kind of reading--even if one doesn't enjoy it. The research on the connection between reading and empathy is equally powerful. I've long told students in my literature classes that books can take them places they might never visit--the jungles Africa or frigid Antarctica, but even if they are adventurous enough to reach those parts of the world, only in a book can they travel to Renaissance Italy or to London during the blitzkrieg of World War II.

An article entitled  "The Need to Read"  popped up in my feed today from the Wall Street Journal by Will Schwalbe, who wrote The End of Life Book Club, about shared reading with his mother during her chemotherapy treatments. He has written other books about books, and what he has to say resonates with me.  I think it will give you food for thought too. A bonus is that this piece also serves as a book list, you can check off the ones you've read (and loved) and add to your to-read stack.
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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci: Getting to Know the Real Renaissance Man

I find it amazing that biographer Walter Isaacson could write a 1100-page book (at least it's that long as an eBook) that tells me so much about an artist I think I knew. What I knew already barely scratched the surface of this true Renaissance Man.

Isaacson did extensive research of the previous biographies of Leonardo, but some of the best details come from the abundance resource of the notebooks left behind. While he followed the great man's life chronologically, from his birthplace to Florence, then Milan, then back to Florence before eventually moving to France, he filled out the story not only with what Leonardo was doing or creating, but what he was thinking.

Perhaps the biggest charm of the notebooks is the randomness, the seeming lack of connection between items on the page. Yet, right there on the page where he explored the many muscles controlling the mouth, we find an early glimpse of what may be Mona Lisa's smile.

Thanks to popular culture (and Dan Brown), many of us know about Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Virgin on the Rocks. What we may not know about are all unfinished works of his career. He turned down what would have been lucrative commissions and left other potential masterpieces unfinished.

Even more amazing, I learned, he made discoveries that remained on his pages, waiting for others to discover them, sometimes centuries later. He was one of the first to understand the way the aortic valve closed, for instance.

And while we know about his Vetruvian Man and his drawing of flying machines, we know less about his wide range of interest is diverting water or studying the flight of the dragonfly.

In the final chapter, Isaacson relates the life lessons we can all take from da Vinci. Some of my favorites:
Be curious, relentlessly curious.
Seek knowledge for its own sake.
Start with the details.
Go down rabbit holes.
Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Avoid silos.
Let your reach exceed your grasp.
Take notes, on paper.

Then in the coda, he brings readers back to one of Leonardo's notes to himself: Describe the tongue of the woodpecker. In two paragraphs, Isaacson shares the result of the description. It was worth waiting for.
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Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Favorite Nonfiction in 2017

For someone who claims to prefer fiction (and I do), I seem to read a lot of nonfiction. In fact, I've started the year halfway through the 1100-page biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Here are some of my favorites from this year.

Peter Cooper, Johnny’s Cash and Charlie’s Pride

One of the best readings I attended at Parnassus Books this year featured Peter Cooper, singer-songwriter and former Nashville Tennesseean music writer. The book, aside from its clever title, is full of stories from Music City, not only about the most famous characters--Johnny Cash and even Taylor Swift, but others known more by insiders, including the owners of Station Inn. My only regret is that I bought only one copy. I needed one to keep and at least one to share.


Greg Boyle, Tattoos in the Heart

The title of this memoir might have been enough to drive me away if it hadn't been a book club choice. It does have the ring of a romance novel, doesn't it? But Jesuit priest, Father Greg Boyle's story of his work with gang members fascinated me. I loved learning about the practical ways, through his Homeboy Industries, he developed to help men and women leaving gangs or coming out of prison--jobs (which he sometimes helped fund), training, even tattoo-removal service when appropriate. 

Not all of his stories have happy endings. In fact, so many don't. He can help individuals leave the gang life, but he can't rid the area of gangs entirely, so many of his "homegirls" and "homeboys" still fall victim to gang violence. I most appreciated the way he helped me past external appearance to recognize each individual as God's creation, worthy of love and redemption.  

Boyle will be appearing in Nashville this month, and I've already made plans to be there.

Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway

While I knew Lamott first through Bird by Bird, one of the best books on writing, I have discovered her quirky, unconventional books on faith just as engaging. I passed along her earlier book Help, Thanks, Wow (her three essential prayers) to so many people I care about. This particular book is her particular spin of the psalmist David's attitude of praise not only because of the blessings but in spite of whatever life throws at us.

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

Since I'm not much of a television addict, I didn't really know much about Noah, so his memoir was a great introduction. Another book club selection, this one tells about his birth to a black mother and white father in South Africa when interracial relationships were illegal.  I listened to the audiobook with the author reading, and it was excellent.  I've read several books about South Africa before and after Apartheid, so I especially liked learning from one individual's perspective. Some of the incidents were amusing, while others were horrifying. Noah's relationship with his mother, a committed Christian, was poignant, especially when she is shot in the head by Trevor's step-father. One advantage to reading a memoir is knowing the author had to have survived to tell the story. I'm glad he did.


Beth Ann Fennelly, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs

I wrote about this tiny little book right after I read it, but it's one book I have recommended to readers and writers. I even chose this as my "Dirty Santa" gift at the Christmas party for English department employees and English majors. I love having a book of short pieces I can dip into (especially as a break when I'm reading one door-stop-weight book and listening to another. I wanted to read small segments out loud to friends, and I wanted to sit down quickly and write my own stories that resurfaced as I read.


Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

I have enjoyed McCann's novels, so I was tempted by this one, whose title he took from Rilke. Since I'd spent some time this summer working with some high school writers, I loved what he had to say. I also recognized that most of the advice is pertinent, regardless of one's age.  It belongs on a writer's reference shelf.

Bill Browder, Red Notice

This true story of an American who grew an investment business in Russia, at great personal and financial risk, chilled me. I knew some of the incidents he relates from the news (including the poisoning death of a journalist associated with Browder), but the book delves so deeply into the corruption still going on. 


J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

This book follows Vance's family, Kentucky natives who move back and forth between home and the "Rust Belt" for work. He gives insight into poor whites, often overlooked in fiction and nonfiction. Having taught in Western North Carolina when many displaced furniture workers were enrolled in the community college to retrain for new careers, I recognized so many of the situations Vance describes--the self-doubt, the self-fulfilling prophecies, the learned helplessness. He strongly conveys the power of family to overcome.



C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I regularly need to dip back into the writings of Lewis, both his theology and his fiction. He approaches faith with logic and intellect. I've long been interested in his own life and his conversion to Christianity. I discovered William Nicholson's play Shadowlands, Lewis's love story and shared it with anyone who'd take the time to read it.  The Hollywood movie was a disappointment, almost a parody of the play, but the BBC version holds up.  I think Screwtape Letters or Surprised by Joy may make my 2018 reading list.

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Favorite Fiction of 2017


I figured out a long time ago that the books I love aren't necessarily the ones I can recommend to just anyone; similarly, I have to be careful criticizing a book I don't enjoy because, sure as the world, someone I love will have liked it.  Even though my reading list is quite varied, I have always favored novels over most other reading. I'll start with just a few words about the ones that made my list of favorites:


Paulette Jiles, News of the World  

This book didn't necessarily start slowly, but it was understated at first, as readers are introduced to Captain Jefferson Kidd in 1870. After his printing business failed, he spends his time going from town to town, reading aloud from a collection of newspapers from across the country and the world, changing twenty-five cents a head.  He is asked to return a ten-year-old white girl to her surviving relatives after she has been held captive by Kiowa long enough to identify as a tribe member. I was drawn in quickly by the conflicts he and the girl face as she slowly learns to trust him and to communicate. When I hosted my book club to discuss this book, I had a playlist of fiddle tunes and other period music referenced in the book. 

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

I read and loved Towles' earlier novel Rules of Civility, even finding myself in D.C. at the National Museum with Walker Evans' subway portraits on display as I was just beginning to read the book in which they play a part. The storyline and characters of new novel are so different that I could forget they were written by the same author. When I read A Gentleman in Moscow, I couldn't wait to convince others to read it too. Count Alexander Rostov, the protagonist, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel because of some of his poetry deemed subversive. He is moved from his comfortable, even luxurious quarters to a small attic room. Over the years of the story, he encounters a number of characters who cross his path, in particular a young girl Nina who engages him in conversation and then exploration. He has a camaraderie with most of the employees of the hotel, but finds one particularly incompetent worker his nemesis. This book so charmed me that I still find myself remembering particular scenes. I've almost convinced myself that I've been to the Metropol myself.


Louise Penny, Glass Houses

One of my best discoveries in the past couple of years was Penny's mystery series set in the fictional village of Three Pines.  Usually I am reluctant to start a series, knowing the reading commitment; I don't gravitate toward mysteries either. But Penny's writing has captured me as one loyal reader. I always advise people to read her books in order, starting with Still Life. She gives enough exposition that any of the books can be read as a stand-alone, but reading in order feels like getting to know a whole community of real people. Inspector Gamache, the protagonist of the series, has taken on a new role in the law enforcement of Quebec and is coming  under criticism for failure to deal with serious crime. The story involves his colleagues, including his son-in-law Jean Guy Beavoir, and the colorful locals I've come to love. Since I've read all thirteen books in the series, my wish for 2018 is that Penny is busily writing away on the next novel.


Lily King, Euphoria

This book also caught me by surprise. King took details of the life of Margaret Mead and transformed the characters, placing a married couple, both anthropologists, in New Guinea in the 1930s. The story is strong enough without a knowledge of the fact behind the fiction, something of a love triangle that develops in this rather competitive marriage and professional partnership. 


Joy Jordan-Lake, Tangled Mercy

Nashville writer Jordan-Lake started this novel, set in Charleston both pre-Civil War during a failed slave rebellion and in 2012, several years ago.  The modern protagonist takes a leave (practically going AWOL from her academic career) after the death of her parents, whose separation left her with unanswered questions. The back story, dealing with the plot of rebellion, follows a slave who words as a blacksmith, allowing him a small small amount of autonomy. Through the book, she moves back and forth between the two time settings, gradually weaving the stories together. She revealed at her book launch that current events forced her to rework the novel. The results make for good reading.


Gin Phillips, Fierce Kingdom

I've always loved zoos, particularly the one in Birmingham where we often took our children when they were small. Even though Phillips never directly names the zoo at the center of her story, I know she hails from Alabama with her family in the area, so I take imaginative liberties. The story begins with a young mother and her son enjoying an outing. As they head toward the exit at closing time, though, they hear gunfire and are forced to take cover as a live shooter incident unfolds. I've read and enjoyed other novels by Philips, and I expect big things from this one. I understand a movie may be in the works.


Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star

I'm an unapologetic fan of Young Adult fiction, and I loved this one. The story brings two characters together on a pivotal day for them both. Natasha and her family are about to be deported to Jamaica after her father is involved in a driving incident. She sets out to find someone who can help her avoid the move. She runs into Daniel, a Korean American second son, on his way to a college interview for the "second best" university after his older brother fails to live up to his family's expectations. In this pressure-cooker situation, their friendship develops quickly over less than twenty-four hours.  Natasha is a pragmatist; Daniel, a poet. I loved the way Yoon works in the questions that help people fall in love (from a New York Times piece I saved in my clippings file.)

Hanna Tinti, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

This book presents the story of Loo, a girl raised by her father who moves from place to place, keeping the girls' dead mother's mementos in something of a shrine.  The twelve lives to which the title refers are the twelve bullet scars on Samuel's body.

William Kuhn, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

Several years ago, I enjoyed Alan Bennett's slender volume, An Uncommon Reader, in which Queen Elizabeth discovers the Bookmobile as she walks her corgis. This novel is a similar fiction treatment of the Queen's daily life, in this case as she begins to take a measure of her life. Kuhn introduces a number of characters, including an Indian teenager working at the cheese shop, the young woman who cares for the horses in the royal stables, and a number of palace employees. Kuhn builds tension,  along with a measure of sympathy for the queen, as much she has taken for granted is being taken from her, all delivered with both humor and tenderness. 

Frank Conroy, Heart and Soul

I've been meaning to read this book for years. My husband read and loved it first and then accidentally left it on an airplane. I knew only that it was about music--piano music.  One doesn't have to be musically knowledgeable or talented to enjoy this novel, but an interest makes the story so much more engaging. The main character, a young boy raised in a dysfunctional home by his single mother, discovers his own innate piano genius. A music store owner takes him under his wing and introduces him to teachers who can help him develop his unparalleled talent. 



Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

I've read most of Lisa See's novels, and this one was especially enjoyable. The story begins in a remote area of China famous for its tea. As she does in many of her books, See explores how traditions have such a hold on people, particularly on daughters. The story also explores adoption of Chinese daughters by American parents. Reading the book was not only a character study but also "steeped me" (pardon the pun) in knowledge of the intricacies of the small family tea industry.

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