Saturday, March 3, 2018

Barbara Martin Stephens: Telling the Truth about Jimmy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, March 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Crop of Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Great Alone: Kristin Hannah's Alaskan Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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:  Who doesn't love a playlist that ranges from Chopin and Handel to "Stairway to Heaven" and Aretha Franklin?