Thursday, July 12, 2018

Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv: The Case for Intergenerations

I have certain reading friends whose book recommendations I jump on without question. They know (and love) books--and me. Recently, I got a short text recommending Elizabeth Berg's novel The Story of Arthur Truluv. I hadn't read anything by Berg in awhile, but I was just between books and reading for a road trip when I'd be reading and riding, not driving. It was short and sweet. Perfect.

Much of the story is set in a cemetery. The main character, whose name is actually Arthur Moses, visits the grave of his late wife Nola, carrying on conversations with her  and vividly imagining the lives of people buried around her. During his visits, he strikes up a friendship with Maddy, a high school outcast who sneaks out of school to spend her lunch hour in the cemetery. She lives with her father, who holds her at least partially responsible for her mother's death shortly after her birth and keeps her at an emotional distance. Maddy gives Arthur the nickname Arthur Truluv after witnessing his devotion to his late wife.

Another engaging character is Lucille, the next door neighbor who has tried to develop a relationship with Arthur, but who tends to annoy him. When she loses a second chance at love, she turns to Arthur and Maddy for surrogate family.

The turns of events that bring these three (and Arthur's aloof cat Gordon) together make for a genuine, heartwarming story. I've seen comparisons to Zindel's The Pigman and even to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteredge. Unlike the protagonist of A Man Called Ove, Arthur is a lovable, sympathetic character from the beginning. His willingness to expand his home and his life to include others, despite the demands and life changes they bring, make him one of the favorite characters I've met on the pages of a book in a long while. Thanks, Jane, for the recommendation!
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Monday, July 9, 2018

I don't know if I can ever write a student letter of recommendation with a straight face again. Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members has been on my to-read list a little while. Now it will be on my recommendation list--at least for my teaching colleagues. The epistolary novel consists solely of letters written by Jason Fitger, in the Engli_h Department (yes, the S is missing from the departmental sign, only one of the grievances he expresses about the department offices). A teacher of literature and creative writing, with three novels to his credit (all out of print), Fitger now seems to be writing primarily on behalf of students--former or current--or colleagues seeking job positions, admissions to writing seminars, scholarships, funding, promotions, and more.

The letters he writes should be a caution to anyone so desperate as to seek a recommendation from someone if unsure about the quality of the reference. Fitger adamantly refuses to complete online references that require box checking. (I'm going to borrow a page from him there. Who can honestly say if a student falls into the top 10% I've ever taught--over the course of 28 years?) He also points out grammar errors on the application site, giving gentle lecture on its and it's, and other misuses of apostrophes.

Woven through the letters, though, are Fitger's genuine attempts to help a promising student with a book in progress (a modern retelling of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Nevada brothel). He tries to get the young man acceptance into the writing seminar program, a work-study with funding, anything that will help the increasingly desperate young writer.

The letters also reveal his ongoing often contentious relationship with his ex-wife and former lover (both on staff at Payne University, a name from which Fitger gets a lot of mileage.) The sacking and pillaging of the English Department (indeed, any of the departments not deemed prestigious) rings all too familiar now that STEM is king. Currently, Fitger and his English colleagues are living through construction in which hazmat suits might be advised, while he imagines gold leaf, hot tubs, and climbing walls being added to the economics department upstairs.

Schumacher manages to  develop Fitger fully into a character both clever and sympathetic, aware of his own foibles and the way others respond to him, while self-effacing enough to bury his own ego when trying to help those who deserve better a lifeline.
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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Old Filth: A Good Surprise off the Shelf

I don't know if there is a word similar to ambidextrous to describe one who navigates easily between eBooks, audiobooks, paperbacks, and hardbacks, but if there is, I an one. On a recent vacation, though, I knew I needed some paperbacks for beach reading, since sun and sand don't work well with screen reading. I scanned my bookshelves for titles I had put away for another day. All too often, my supply exceeds demand (or at least my ability to read them all) and some good books risk being lost. Maybe they are just waiting for the right time.

This time, I picked up Jane Gardem's novel Old Filth, a book that had been sent to me unsolicited. Subsequently, it was recommended by readers I trust. It ended up being such a great read. The title refers to an acronym coined by the protagonist: Failed In London Try Hong Kong.  A "raj orphan," Edward Feathers had been sent away from Malaysia by his father, who has shown no interest in the boy after the mother died from childbirth complications. He ends up first in Wales with a couple of female cousins, then private school and Cambridge, eventually becoming a very successful barrister. Only gradually does the narrative reveal some of the events of the past that continue to haunt him.

As the book opens, he is retired, his wife has just died suddenly, and he is wrestling with memories of childhood experiences. He ends up taking a road trip to find the cousins. In the narrative, Gardem  moves back and forth between the elderly Feathers and young Edward, with some poignant scenes at the home of his best schoolfriend, where he is treated like family until the war and illness disrupt their lives.

Old Filth--or young Feathers--evolves as an engaging, sympathetic, unforgettable character, a survivor. The author's description creates vivid settings which serve as anything but filler or fluff. The telling of the story provides enough dramatic irony to keep readers' wheels turning.

I may have to resume my junior reading habit--finding an author I like and then reading anything else she has written.



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Friday, July 6, 2018

Love and Ruin: Another Mrs. Hemingway

In May, when Paula McLain appeared with Charles Frazier to be interviewed by Ann Patchett at Nashville Public Library's Salon @615, she said that after writing Paris Wife, the story of Hemingway's first wife Hadley, she hadn't planned to write about any of the other Hemingway women. In a dream though, she saw a woman she recognized from her earlier research as Martha Gellhorn, the fiercely independent journalist who became wife number three. The story would not let her go.

Taking available facts and imagining the missing lives of historical figures is nothing new for McLain. After Paris Wife, she wrote the novel Circling the Sun, based on the life of female aviator and adventurer Beryl Markham, a missing piece of the puzzle in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa.

In this latest novel, McLain introduces readers to a young woman, an aspiring writer, who meets Hemingway, already famous, during a visit to Key West with her mother. When he heads to Spain to cover the civil war there, she gets a commission from Collier's to do the same. While there, his mentoring, almost fatherly attitude toward her transforms into a love affair.

The story follows them as they build a home together in Cuba and travel together--often with his sons--while waiting out his contentious divorce from second wife Pauline. Hemingway's patterns of serial marriage are no surprise to most readers familiar with the novelist, but Marty Gellhorn is something of a surprise. She stands out as the only wife who ever left Ernest. The story reveals their ups and downs, resulting in part from his drinking and from his resentment of her independent insistence in having a life and career of her own.

Marty has to deal with critics' refusal to take her writing at face value. Instead, they persist in comparing her writing to Hemingways' and focusing on their relationship, implying that he has opened doors for her. As he is basking in his best successes, she continues trying to find her own voice in her fiction while covering war in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

Even though their divorce and his remarriage aren't news to anyone even remotely familiar with Hemingway, some may be surprised to learn in the afterword that Gellhorn continued to write, covering war zones into her eighties. McLain gets into the mind of a unique character, showing her as much more than a footnote to a bigger literary life.
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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Macbeth as Summer Reading: No, Not That One!

Having taught high school seniors for many years, I can't even count how many times I have read Shakespeare's great tragedy Macbeth. Far too many of the lines trip off my tongue from simple repeated exposure. Yet I never tired of it.  Like most of the Bard's plays, too, I find so many connections to current events, politics, popular culture.

Jo Nesbo, known for his dark Scandinavian thrillers has taken the story, the characters, plot, and even some of the lines, setting the story in the late 1990s in a Scottish town that has lost is main industry, resulting in a boom in crime and drug trafficking.  At odds with law enforcement are Hecate, a local drug lord who has created his own narcotic product known as "Brew," and his main competition Sweno, the head of a drug trafficking motorcycle gang.

Macbeth is the head of SWAT, working for police commissioner Duncan. His (common law) wife, known as Lady runs the most exclusive casino in town, the Inverness. Duff, his colleague is especially intent on stopping Sweno, giving the impression of ambition.

Nesbo builds the backstory, with Macbeth having met Duff after both boys landed in an orphanage after losing their parents. Banquo, an older policeman, had taken Macbeth into his own home, like a son, even before he and his wife have their own son Fleance.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's tragedy knows the basic plot, but will still find the way the story unwinds fascinating. It's worth noting that even when the play was new, the audience at the Globe knew the basic story before it even began, even though the playwright took liberties with the accounts in Hollinshed's Chronicles. Shakespeare's real talent was not so much plot as characterization and theme. Nesbo develops many of the same threads: meaning (or meaninglessness) of life, loyalty, ambition--and the ongoing question: Can people really change?

As I read, I realized that readers who don't know a thing about the play on which it was based can read this novel as the suspense thriller it is. The dramatic irony as one reads, anticipating but dreading the inevitable, creates a perfect summer reading experience.
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Monday, June 18, 2018

A Murder in Music City by Michael Bishop

On television, at any given time, I can find plenty of those whodunnit true crime stories. Last week, though, at the Author! Author! even at Brentwood Country Club, a benefit for the Adult Learning Center of Williamson County, I was introduced to Michael Bishop's book A Murder in Music City.  He joined the panel with Peggy O'Neal Peden and Joy Jordan-Lake. I'd met Joy earlier at Parnassus and loved her novel A Tangled Mercy, set in Charleston, and I'd heard of Peden's book because of her Lipscomb connections. I knew almost nothing about Bishop or his story, but I was intrigued.

When I had him sign the book, he offered a friendly warning: When you start reading, make sure you have time to read straight through. I attributed the comment to hyperbole or ego, but I'll confess that I read several chapters in the middle of the night sitting on the bathroom floor of the guest room where we were visiting.

Although Bishop had no law enforcement experience, legal expertise, or journalism background, he became interested in the story of the murder of Paula Herring in February of 1964 after hearing about a number of unsolved or questionable Nashville crimes.  Herring's murder was one of the first after Nashville and Davidson County merged to form the nation's first Metro government. Home from college during her freshman year at UT, she was babysitting her young brother while her mother was out on the town. The murder occurred in the Crieve Hall area (just a few blocks from my daughter and son-in-law's first home) during a time when other crimes were reported in the area. One of the most suspicious details was the young brother's presence in the house. He was not harmed, and he seemed not to have heard any gunshots.

John Randolph Clarke was arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime after a five-day trial in Jackson, Tennessee, where the case was moved because of the publicity in Nashville. Despite Clarke's reputation as a philanderer, his lawyer and his wife never believed he was guilty.

Bishop tells the story through his own search for evidence, research that took him about fifteen years. He repeatedly hit dead ends as neighbors, friends, and potential witnesses said they weren't interested in talking or reliving the crime. The timing of the murder and the research required Bishop to dig through archives and to search through old phone directories and records. Along the way, he learned a lot about the psychology of the interview and about body language.

Nashville residents, especially those who were in the city during the early years of Metro, will find the names and places mentioned familiar. Much of the action takes place around Vanderbilt, particularly the stretch of road between Rotier's and Elliston Soda Shop. At the luncheon, Bishop joked about having to watch his back.  The more I read, the more I understood the fear. He names names--high level government and law enforcement officials (some with streets named for them).

The details of the Jackson trial--and the party atmosphere at the hotel where defense, prosecution, jury and media stayed--would be hard to believe in a work of fiction. By the time Bishop brings the truth to life, most of the players and long dead. In fact, only Paula's brother Alan survives. The colorful characters on the good and bad sides of the story, some involved with other high profile crimes around the United States, make for a fascinating read. Yes, it's one that might keep you up at night reading through to the end.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon

Today I'm full. My book club met at my house to discuss David Grann's nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In this book club, we try to serve food to fit the book. (We decided no more books about prison because bread and water make for boring book club meals.) I tried to do my research, so we had bison patties, "three sisters" salad with beans, corn, and squash, wild rice and cranberries, and fry bread with wojapi (blueberry gravy). 

With this group of readers, though, the food (or the drink) isn't the main point. We have spirited discussions of the books each month. The big question we all addressed this time was "Why didn't we know about this?"  David Grann used journalistic research to tell the story of outright murder and suspicious deaths among members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s. At the time, members of the tribe had great wealth because of "head rights" for oil on their property. Many of them lived ostentatiously with big cars, fine houses, and other extravagance.  

Grann begins with the death of Anna Brown and follows the subsequent life of her sister Molly Burkhart, married to a white man. In addition to Brown's brutal murder and other similar cases, more and more members of the community were dying from what appeared to be poison. 

Tom White, one of the early agents of the FBI and a former Texas Ranger, is brought to the investigation after a great deal of bungling, handpicked evidently by J. Edgar Hoover. At this time, the bureau was relatively new. Americans had been resistant to anything that appeared to be a national police force, but some crimes had a federal nature requiring law enforcement with a larger jurisdiction. What White uncovers is an extensive network of greed and murder for gain. 

When the Osage came into the fortune, the powers that be didn't deem them capable of handling the financial responsibility and assigned guardians--white men in the community. While some acted in the best interest of their wards, the evidence is clear that far too many acted systematically to deprive them of their wealth and their lives. Since the perpetrators were highly placed members of the community, they were able to cover up the crime during the pretense of investigating. While some served time, many walked free.

In the last chapters of the book, Grann tells his own story of digging deeper into records decades after the crimes were laid to rest. He found the records of guardianships with a disproportionate number of wards listed as "dead."

While this story has unique characteristics, it's far too similar to other wrongdoing that has occurred throughout history--and still occurs--when one group is able to see another as inferior, even less than human. 

Grann writes that "history is a merciless judge"; in the telling of this story, he helps citizens to be more aware. And as G. I. Joe always said, "Knowing is half the battle."

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