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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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Graeme Samson: The Best of Adam Sharp

I discovered Graeme Simsion when his first novel The Rosie Project was first published. I remember sitting in many a parking lot, listening to the audiobook, reluctant to turn it off and go inside. The book made me laugh out loud, as did its sequel, The Rosie Effect.

With this newest book The Best of Adam Sharp, Simsion has made quite a departure from his first two novels. The title character is an IT consultant working part-time while caring for his ailing mother, watching his twenty-two year relationship with his partner Claire deteriorate. He spends a couple of nights a week playing bar trivia, for which he serves as music expert.

Through flashbacks readers learn that early in his career, he spent some time working on a project in Melbourne, where he often plays piano at a local bar. One evening, a young woman comes in, requests a couple of songs they end up singing together, before her escort--who Adam learns is her husband--hurries her out (as Adam plays, "You're Gonna Lose That Girl.")

He discovers she is Angelina Brown, star of an Australia cop show, and they end up having a brief love affair before he leaves the country. She's never far from his mind, though. Music is particularly evocative throughout the novel.

It is just as he's approaching fifty and feeling unsettled that Angelina sends a few short test emails, resulting in an invitation to spend a week with Angelina--and her husband Charlie--during their vacation in France.  Charlie, a foodie and wine connoisseur, is unusually tolerant of Adam's presence, and some of what occurs is not for the squeamish.

Adam's dilemma at this juncture keeps readers painfully on edge, but the musical threads woven throughout this entire novel are enough to inspire a playlist. In fact, bar trivia buffs may find themselves honing their skills--at least for the music category--before the book's end.
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Euphoria by Lily King

When I first saw the title of the book Euphoria by Lily King on our bookclub reading list, I'll confess that I was expecting some kind of steamy romance. Instead, I found myself drawn into a fascinating story--and a love triangle--featuring a husband and wife team of anthropologists relocating to a new tribe in New Guinea after an unsettling time in another location. They encounter Bankston, a British anthropologist, who helps them locate a new place from which to work, down river from his base, promising to visit them soon.

For different reasons of their own, Nell and husband Fen are eager for his return, and disappointed that he waits so long. The narration moves between Nell's perspective and that of Bankston. Setting up housekeeping with more than the usual trappings one would expect in such private environs, Nell works feverishly, while Fen seems not to be taking notes at all. Fen's jealousy that Nell has already published and has been recognized for her work is apparent.

In a society in which the women seem to be dominant, Nell eventually is brought into their circle of trust. Some of the customs, particularly treatment of babies, are disturbing. The tribe also follows the custom of cutting off their own fingers at times of grief.

The novel, while taking great license, is based loosely on the life of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, and readers are likely to be interested enough to dig deeper into her story. However, the novel stands on its own as a fascinating, well-told tale.
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Here Comes the Marathon of Reviews

I've read lots this summer but posted far too rarely, something I plan to remedy starting now.

 One particularly surprising book was Kathleen Rooney's Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, the story of a woman who, as an advertising copywriter for R. H. Macy's during the 30s, was the highest paid woman in America. Loosely based on poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback.)

The story moves back and forth between Lillian's daring, independent young adulthood and New Year's Eve 1984 as she strikes out alone through New York City. In her early adulthood, she challenged expectations for woman to marry and have a family, choosing instead to work, writing and publishing poetry, and generally having a good time. In the chapters featuring Lillian, still spunky as an old lady, she reminisces about Max, the man who won her heart, marrying her, fathered a son, and then divorced her.

Never maudlin, often charming, the story presents one woman's life in a world that changes drastically. She keeps her pride, while touching the lives of strangers, often becoming the recipient of simple kindnesses along the way.


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Monday, July 10, 2017

Summer Reading Update

I"ve had more time for reading that posting, it seems, this summer--with family weddings, graduations, bridal showers, and birthdays. I've managed to read several that appear on some of the Best-Seller lists, particularly when the authors make appearances in Nashville. David Sedaris' Theft by Finding is on my nightstand ready for me to pick it up. His appearance at Parnassus was so much fun--and it was my first time to see him live after tuning in to This American Life for years.

I had read Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, but I hadn't heard about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley  until my friend Emily told me she's read it--one of her First Editions Club selections. The narrative moves back and forth between the life of Loo Hawley and her father, who is raising her after her mother's "drowning death." The narrative structure is built around flashbacks in which readers learn the story of Hawley's twelve bullet scars.

Tinti skillfully keeps readers guessing, trying to recognize the fine line between truth, lies, and mind games. Although Hawley, Loo's father, gets title billing, in many ways, the story is Loo's. Named Louise at birth, she has moved from place to place with her dead, leaving each temporary home with short notice. They finally settle in her mother's hometown where Lou gains some protection from the principal, one of her mother's high school admirers, after suffering from bullying.

She also finds a boyfriend in the son of a local woman going door to door trying to stop the over-fishing of the cod in the local waters, making an enemy of all the locals who derive their living from fishing.

The telling keeps readers barely a step ahead of Loo in finding out the real back story of her father and her mother Lily. The author reveals the dark side of Hawley's criminal life and the difficulty of breaking free and living clean, even when solely responsible for a child.

Even though the book has characteristics of a page turner, I found myself stopping to mark passages I found especially insightful, and I kept thinking that even though Loo's life seems hard to believe, many young people live with the fallout of their parents' prior choices. I found Loo one of the most sympathetic engaging young characters I've met in awhile.

Another "best-seller" recommendation, Noah Hawley's Before the Fall also kept me whipping through pages to unlock the mystery inside. No spoiler alert here--all of this is revealed in the opening pages--the book opens with the crash of a small private plane, eighteen minutes into a flight from Martha's Vineyard.

Of the eleven people on board, including the crew, only two survive, through the heroics of an unsuccessful artist invited to join the flight when he encountered the owner's wife at the island's farmer's market. Because two of the passengers were high profile individuals, network news goes crazy, speculating on what really caused the plane to crash--and why this unknown artist was on board.

Hawley moves back and forth between the aftermath of the plane crash and flashbacks into the lives of everyone on board, exploring the possible answers to the mystery of the crash. Readers will sympathize with Scott, the painter, who just wants to maintain a low profile as his life is affected by the media circus following the crash. The focus is intensified since the plane's owner is a media mogul who owns one of the nation's more conservative TV news networks.

Just as sympathetic, though, is the surviving four-year-old boy whose life is turned upside down, leaving him as his wealthy parents sole heir, plunked down into the home of his aunt and her unlikeable, greedy husband. Hawley handles the narrative structure to keep readers guessing the truth up until the end of the story.

I'll be posting again soon, covering some recent nonfiction books and my re-reading of poetry collections by some of my favorite poets. Until then, I'd love to know what you're reading too.
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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fiction for Foodies

 There's no coincidence that the expression "Whatcha got cookin'?" is often metaphorical. In literature, as in life, the kitchen is where the action is. Two of my recent reading adventures have centered around the bigger world of cooking. First, I read Delicious! by Ruth Reichl, famous for her food writing. In this story, her main character Billie Breslin gets a job as executive assistant at a food magazine (Think Gourmet or Bon Appetit) whose offices are located in a gorgeous historic home.  For reasons not quite clear at first, readers learn she has culinary talents but she's reluctant to use them. As she works to survive, taking a second job at a local family-owned delicatessen, she sees the owners pull the plug on the magazine production. In order to keep the magazine's long term promise to subscribers, Billie is left to answer the phone for a duration, responding to readers' questions--particularly those of one particularly disagreeable cook who fails to follow recipes then complains about failed results.

Reichl builds a second story line when Billie discovers in a secret compartment in the house a hidden stash of letters between a young girl Lulu and chef James Beard written throughout World War II. An unlikely romance develops between Billie and one of the deli customers (also cantankerous). She submits to a makeover (a plot device that's a little too  soap opera for me). She also discovers underlying truths about her sister's tragic death and goes on a journey to solve the Lulu-Beard mystery as well.

Billie's recipe for her mother's gingerbread, included in the volume, may be worth the price of the book.

In another twist on the culinary world, Laura Dave's protagonist in Hello, Sunshine--whose parents really named her Sunshine--and her sister Rain--is an online sensation celebrity chef with fans, best-selling cookbooks,  and a television show in the works until her online account is hacked and someone starts leaking the truth to her public: she isn't really the cook at all but a front for her producer's wife. The hacker isn't content to stop there, though, and spills the story of Sunshine's one-time indiscretion, costing her marriage as well as her career and sending her back to her childhood home where she must make peace with her sister and land a wait staff job with a demanding chef as she tries to regain her authentic identity.

Both books weave food and family into a plot full of twists. While both are lightweight reads, they're not only entertaining, but they may send readers in to the kitchen to see what they might whip up.




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Friday, May 19, 2017

Johnny's Cash & Charley's Pride: Peter Cooper's stories of Music City Legends

One of my biggest challenges in keeping up posts on what I'm reading is that sometimes the book I have just finished insists on jumping to the front of the line. I had a busy reading month in April, and I have several books I still plan to introduce here. This week, though, I went to Parnassus Books to hear Peter Cooper read from his new book Johnny's Cash & Charley's Pride.

Cooper was the music writer for the Tennessean for a long time, which gave him the opportunity to meet and interview so  many legends of country music.  He's also a singer-songwriter and, as I learned this week, he's quite a storyteller.

Of course, the book covers the best known figures of country music--Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard--but he also shares great stories about "Cowboy" Jack Clement, Don Light, Jimmy Martin, and even Ann Soyars, who took up money at the door of the Station Inn for years.  Best of all, he gives a glimpse into the way the lives of the famous and not-yet-famous intertwined with those who were not famous at all. 

This is one of those rare books that sets the synapses jumping in my brain, reminding me of my own stories and of the music that's been playing since I was sixteen, maybe younger. After the book event, I started building a playlist, and as I read, it grew and grew--favorite songs, great music I hadn't discovered yet, some music I have in vinyl but not in any more updated format. I'm listening to Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, Lee Ann Womack, and Irene Kelly, Chris Stapleton, and of course Kris Kristofferson.

Now that I've sped through the book, I can't decide whether to share it with a friend first or to start back over and read through one more time. It's that much fun.


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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Books That Make Me Think about Resolution: Andrew's Brain and Today Will Be Different

 I don't have to have my literature with tidy endings, though I do love an author who can end a book in a way that satisfies, even when it surprises. Sometimes though, in literature as in life, the endings are more complicated. Two of my most recent reads have been almost unsettling in that way that keeps me thinking about them. Nevertheless, they bear almost no similarities otherwise.

Maria Semple, who wrote Where'd You Go, Bernadette? has followed with a "one day in the life" story of Eleanor Flood, a wife and mother beginning her day making a commitment to be a better person. She's called away from her private poetry lesson when her son complains of illness--again--to the school nurse. She and her son Timby discover that her husband, whom she saw holding his head at the breakfast table, is not only not in his office but that he
has told his employees he's on a week vacation. Suspecting the worst, she and Timby engage in a series of adventures across the city. Flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inform readers of her career writing for a popular television series, her far-too-prolonged book deal, and her estrangement from her sister, the other "Flood Girl." At times, Semple shifts to husband's Joe's point-of-view as well.

At story's end, after much "madcap adventure," she discovers (spoiler alert) that her husband--a former Catholic and avowed atheist--has become part of a Christian congregation after the team chaplain on the sidelines where he serves as orthopedist on call begins to help him address personal problems. While at book's end Eleanor and Timby seem eager to join Joe as he goes to seminary in Scotland, she doesn't seem to make any kind of peace with his conversion. In fact, she says he has gone from being the most interesting person she knows to the most boring. That seemed problematic at least to this reader.

In Andrew's Brain, the last novel by the late E. L. Doctorow, the entire narrative is revealed as the title character engages in a dialogue with someone he refers to only as "Doc." Through these conversations, the details of his life are teased out: After his failed marriage to Martha, following the death of their only child, he ends up appearing on Martha's doorstep bereft, holding the infant child of his second wife Briony, his much younger former student, who has apparently died. (This is not a spoiler. That much is revealed early. The full story emerges only in bits and pieces.) While Andrew may not be a totally unreliable narrator, his tendency to withhold details, even entire incidents, until he feel the time is right, keeps readers guessing before he delivers one-two punches.

I kept thinking of a favorite old Young Adult novel by Robert Cormier, I Am the Cheese, also a tricky little tale told in much the same fashion, but with an ending that sent me immediately back to chapter one. Andrew is complicated but engaging, and his observations about people in his life are intriguing. Everything about him, though, is revealed indirectly. (As Emily Dickinson suggests, "Tell the truth but tell it slant.").

Both of these books kept me interested but left me a bit unsettled, thinking about them long after I came to the conclusion. Maybe that's not such a bad reading experience.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Fall of Lisa Bellow: A Novel by Susan Perabo

Some books fall so clearly into the Young Adult category, and others are unquestionably adult novels. In her new novel The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan Perabo manages to reach both audiences with can best be called a family story--and a page turner at that. Her main character, Meredith Oliver, is an eighth grade girl whose older brother Evan lost the sight in one eye--and his baseball prospects--with one bad baseball pitch during batting practice. Their parents are doing their best to maintain normalcy, even insisting on keeping up their breakfast ritual of setting goals for the day.

Meredith deals with typical middle school angst, finding herself and her two best friends in the middle tier of popularity comparing themselves to the popular girls, with the eighth grade queen bee Lisa Bellow.

On the day of a math test, when Meredith stops by the local sandwich shop after school to reward herself with a root beer, Lisa Bellow is there too. A man enters wearing a face mask and a long hoodie to rob the store, and Meredith finds herself lying on the floor face to face with Lisa. The man's apparent split second decision to make Lisa leave with him sets Meredith's world on a tilt.

Perabo balances Meredith's story with the perspective of her mother. Claire Oliver and Meredith's father Mark are dentists in practice together. Over the course of their marriage, Claire has confessed both large and small errors of judgment that Mark took more seriously than she expected him to do. Both of them, however, are baffled by how to treat their daughter who wasn't kidnapped, as she eventually returns to school with the awkward distinction of being the last person to see Lisa alive.

Lisa Bellow's friends and her mother reach out to Meredith, and she moves into their inner circle, distancing herself from her two best friends, but she doesn't tell anyone that she imagines she can see what's going on in the apartment where Lisa is being kept.

The story itself is gripping, and Perabo using some particularly clever narrative twists to keep readers guessing about what is real and what is imagination. She presents a believable depiction of middle school and of family life in the midst of trauma--in the case of the Olivers, the double trauma of Evan's injury and Meredith's close call and the aftermath.

Perabo's characters are flawed, complex, but sympathetic. Readers can't help pitying Miss Bellow, Lisa's single mother, while still wanting Meredith to be safe from the pressure from outsiders as a result of the ordeal. Even with unanswered questions, Perabo leaves her audience--no matter what age--hoping for a family to be healed.



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Friday, March 24, 2017

News of the World: Paulette Jiles

Since I'm in two book clubs, I often read books from someone else's list. It's worth it to me to be part of a community of readers, even if my reading selections are not solely my own. In fact, I make some wonderful discoveries that way. This week has been one of those serendipitous reading experiences as I read Paulette Jiles' newest novel News of the World. When I stopped in Parnassus to browse titles, one of my favorite bookstore employees Nathan told me that this had been the favorite of one of the publishing company representatives who had spent some time working with them in the store.

Since most of my reading started late at night, I got off to a slow start with this one, but then suddenly Jiles had me hooked, and I found myself reading late into the night, knowing my alarm would be sounding at 5:30 a.m.

The protagonist Captain Kidd is a Civil War veteran, now in his seventies, living in a quite uncivilized Texas, where the political division reminds me of--writes and encourages them to join him. Circumstances have also forced him to close his printing business, so he makes a paltry living going from small town to small town, renting a hall, and reading selections from newspapers around the world, charging a dime a listener.

As the story opens, he's approached by a freighter who has a ten-year-old white girl who was kidnapped four years before by the Kiowa who killed her family. She's been ransomed, but the freighter, a black man, knows he can't risk traveling with the girl to her German aunt and uncle, so he convinces Kidd to return the girl.
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Jiles takes the reader along town after town as Kidd, whom the girl calls "Kep-dun" faces double challenges: finding a way to communicate with the girl he calls Johanna and avoiding the threat of Indians and outlaws along their route. The girl, who considers herself Kiowa, fights his attempts to civilize her, but the two warm to one another during their forced time together.

Over the course of the narrative, Jiles develops these two characters and the mixed bag of good and bad folk they encounter without hokey tricks or stereotypes. The setting is described so clearly, I felt as though I had traveled all the way from Wichita Falls to the girl's first home. 

Even the author's notes at the end sent me turning back through the book, retracing my steps--and those of the "Kep-dun" and "Cho-henna"--back and forth across Texas. I have my book club to thank for the delightful journey.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My YA Fix: The Sun Is Also a Star

    I have long been an unapologetic Young Adult fiction fan. When I taught high school, I found it helpful to know what my students might be interested in reading--and then to keep a good supply on the shelves in my classroom. To be honest, though, I mainly read them because I enjoy them. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, lots of books by Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, Paula Danziger crossed my field of vision, particularly since I heard them read at NCTE conferences over the years.

    Nicola Yoon's new novel The Sun Is Also a Star caught my attention in time to take the audiobook on a recent road trip. Binge listening worked perfectly, since the book itself takes place, except for the epilogue, in less than a twenty-four-hour period.  Yoon--or Fate--throws together two characters on a particular significant day.  Natasha is a Jamaican immigrant in her high school senior year when her father's DUI brings the family's undocumented status to the attention of authorities, and they are going to be deported that evening. Natasha is determined to find some way to stop the deportation.

   Daniel is a first-generation Korean, the second son on his way to an admissions interview for Yale, which his parents consider the "second-best college." After living in the shadow of his older brother--who has recently had to leave Harvard, Daniel isn't so sure he wants to follow his parents' plan for his life to go to medical school.

  Daniel wants to be--is--a poet; Natasha, on the other hand, wants to pursue science, looking at everything from a pragmatic, logic-centered perspective. A series of coincidences bring them together as they collide on their way to their two destinations, Natasha to a lawyer purported to be the best at fighting Deportation, Daniel on his way to the interview--with the same man.

  They end up moving through New York City together, with stops at the Black Hair Products store run by  Daniel's father and Natasha's apartment, where her family is packing to leave.

  Yoon weaves in chapters from other characters, giving the back story, for example, to the security guard at the Immigration office, the lawyer both are meeting, a taxi driver, and Natasha's father, a frustrated actor who feels his family responsibility has ruined his chances at his dream career.

  No lightweight romance, the story had me genuinely caring about the two protagonists and their families--and even the minor characters that cross their paths. Soon touches on all kinds of current topics with a light hand, rendering the characters three dimensional instead of stereotypes.

  One clever thread through the story is the article I had read earlier in the New York Times reporting research claiming people could fall in love by answering a series of questions and looking deeply into one another's eyes for four minutes. Whether the questions themselves made Natasha fall in love with Daniel or not, I found myself loving them both.


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Friday, March 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow: My Favorite Recommendation

It's not unusual for me to start encouraging others to read a book before I'm even finished reading it. Some books just seem perfect for  my reading friends. When I started Amor Towles' latest novel A Gentleman in Moscow, I felt that way--but even more so. I was ready to recommend it to my book club based on just a few chapters. I called my mother and told her to read it. Meanwhile, I kept reading, and I was not disappointed. This book is probably my favorite in awhile, which  is particularly significant because it's not dark, disturbing, or esoteric. It's not one of those books that some people just won't get.

The book opens during the Bolshevik Revolution as Count Alexander Rostov is called before a tribunal for the simple crime of being an aristocrat. Either despite or because of the measure of fame he's achieved through poetry, his judges decide that instead of putting him before a firing squad, they will sentence him to house arrest at Moscow's Metropol Hotel. The Count has already been living there for awhile, but he is moved out of his suite and forced to "downsize"--settling into a small attic room. Towels presents the details so clearly over the course of the tale, I imagine I've visited the Count's room.

During the course of his stay--the novel covers at least thirty years--he encounters delightful characters among the guests and the staff of the hotel, some ambiguous, and some straight-out antagonists. He first meets Nina, a young girl staying with her family at the Metropol who asks him about "rules for princesses." He also befriends the wait staff at the finest restaurant in the hotel--and then joins them.

Nashville novelist Ann Patchett has admitted that she just writes the same book over and over: a group of people, nothing alike, are thrown together. Towles has tales the formula and perfected it. Readers will hate "the Bishop," an inept waiter who, via the Peter Principle, manages to climb the management ladder at the Metropol. They will find delightful Anna Urbanova, the Soviet actress with her dubious back story, will  fall in love with Sofia, whom the Count raises as his daughter, and they will be amused by the Russian who comes to Rostov to be tutored in languages and culture, but ends up Brando watching films, particularly Casablanca. 

From his limited point of view, Count Rostov has a window view on Moscow--and the world. His knowledge of food, wine, and music is eclipsed by his understanding of human nature. Towles has produced a multi-layer narrative that does much more than charm the reader. The author also gives just enough of Alexander's past, especially the story of his sister's death, to give even more insight into the man.

For now, I anticipate happily the opportunity to discuss the book with others--and then to pick it up and read it one more time.
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Friday, February 17, 2017

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

Back in the fall, when I attended Nashville's Southern Festival of the Book, I came home with a long reading list and a number of actual books. I managed to hear Yaa Gyasi twice, once sitting on the row with her proud family. The book, written when she was twenty-two, resulted from a trip to Africa to see where her family had originated. (Gyasi actually grew up in Huntsville, Alabama.)

The novel she ended up writing wasn't the story she expected to find on her travels, but she put together a beautiful, masterfully told story set on the Gold Coast of Africa that begins with two daughters of the same mother, each unaware of the other's existence. One is taken as the wife of a white slave trader, living in the castle on the coast under which captive tribes people are held until placed on ships for passage to America. The other becomes a slave.

Rather than tell the full story of her characters, Gyasi gives just enough to make her characters real before moving to the next generations. She gives a picture of the tribal rivalry, spurred on by European slave traders. While history books sometimes imply the role African tribes play in the captivity of their rivals, the novel gives a clearer, fairer explanation of this complicated chapter in history.

Gyasi brings the characters all the way up to modern times, even bringing together a couple who will never be aware of their connection, many generations removed.

Much as Colton Whitehead managed to do in The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi manages to put real faces on the characters set in this historical backdrop. Her characters are multi-dimensional, their flaws laid bare along with their virtues. In the end, readers close the pages of the book with a large cast of believable, sympathetic characters taking up residence in our long-term memory.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jessie Burton's novel The Muse

Even when I have a big stack of books to read and a backlog on my iPad, sometimes a book muscles its way to the front of my list without rhyme or reason. I had read Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, but when I came across her latest book The Muse at the library, I knew nothing at all about it. Based on the back cover copy, I gave it a chance. I'm so glad I did.

The book opens in London in the late 60s, as Odelle Bastien, a young immigrant from the Caribbean, finds herself working at a small art gallery, after leaving a job selling shoes with her best friend. An aspiring writer, shy about sharing her poems and stories, she catches the attention of Lawrie Scott, a young man who technically crashes Odell's friend Cynth's wedding party, and then of Margery Quick, one of her employers at the Skelton. When Lawrie tracks her down at her work, bringing with him a painting that represents his only inheritance to his recently dead mother, the mystery of the painting's history piques the curiosity of Odelle and of everyone at the Skelton.

Burton then takes readers back in time to the 1930s, when young Olive Schloss has just moved with her English mother and Austrian father to the Andalusian region of Spain. When two young locals, Isaac and Teresa Robles, illegitimate children of a Spanish man with power and reputation in the community, Olive is drawn into both romance and unlikely friendship with the two.

Olive withholds the news from her parents that she's been accepted at an art school in London, especially when she learns that the handsome Isaac also considers himself an artist. Young Robles, involved with a group of rebels opposing the current government, is trapped by a deception about the art Olive produces, signing Isaac's initials.

Throughout the novel, Burton maintains a careful balance between the two story lines, which read almost like two separate novels until the story lines merge.  Odelle's story is sometimes reminiscent of Chris Cleaves' Little Bee, while the Spanish narrative has some echoes of Kingsolver's Lacuna. In fact, the description of the paintings that tie the two stories together sound like something Frida Kahlo might have painted.

The author manages to keep Odell's writing achievements nearly woven into the story, maintaining the mystery of her true muse Margery Quick and convincing readers with Odelle's insight, self-awareness, and attention to detail, that she could indeed work magic with the language.
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Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: A Year in Books

One of my favorite rituals at the end of each year is compiling my list of books I have read.  I've been keeping notes on my wall calendar for quite some time, and I transcribe them here and in my Bookwoman notebook. I read once that Art Garfunkel has kept his list like this since he was about sixteen. I wish I'd started then.

The books I actually get around to reading, the ones that press their way to the top of the pile, get there in a variety of ways.  Being a part of a book club has been important for me, encouraging me to read books I might otherwise pass by--Just Mercy, for example, and When the Moon Is Low. Some books make the list when I hear the author at a reading. This year, I heard Kimberly Williams-Paisley,  Jane Hamilton, Louise Erdrich, and Ann Patchett, to name just a few. Living in Nashville now, I am fortunate to be able to attend lots of book events thanks to the Nashville Public Library (Salon @615) and Parnassus Books.

I still rely on recommendations from my favorite fellow book lovers out there--Carol Jago and Amber Owens fall into that group. A few are assignments, books I'm reviewing for journals or authors I'm introducing at readings. Some books I find through pure serendipity, prowling the shelves at book stores and the public library. I must confessed that I abandoned several this year--especially audiobooks. I may give a few of them another try, but I'm unapologetic for opting out, considering how many more I may never get around to reading.

I discovered author Louise Penny last year (Thank you, Brian Faucette), and she's certainly over-represented on my list this year. I'm not usually one to read mysteries or series. Her books are both, and yet I find myself caught up and waiting for her to finish another. I have rarely found a set of characters about whom I cared so much. Over the course of her dozen or so novels, I have come to know the residents of Three Pines and their regular visitors. I keep telling anyone who'll listen to read them--but to be sure to read them in order, so as not to spoil surprises. I also read the next in the Flavia deLuce novels by Alan Bradley, and End of Watch the third in Stephen King's trilogy.

I re-read a couple of books, Life after Life, a book club selection I enjoyed again. Many of my favorite go-to authors have lived up to expectations--Patchett, Ron Rash, Anna Quindlen. As always, I have a number of poetry collections on my list. To be honest, I've read more than I've listed. I am sure. I'm also partway through books by friends--Scott Owens and Jeff Hardin for instance.

This year my husband and I also completed the Bible, using the MacArthur Daily Bible. I read it through with friends a few years ago, and my paperback copy is held together by duct tape, so I downloaded the eBook on my iPad. I like the arrangement: every day offers a selection from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, the Psalms and Proverbs. Leviticus is much easier to read, knowing one of the Gospels will follow.

I'm already making a list for this year, and I'm almost through Wally Lamb's I'll Take You There. On the sofa beside me, I've made check marks beside the New York Times best sellers I've read and a W beside the ones I "want to read."  If I've learned anything, though, it is this: the books I finish aren't always the ones I planned to read. New titles just keep butting their way in.

My 2016 list:

Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace
Chris Scotten, Secret Wisdom of the Earth
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Lisa Genova, Inside the O'Briens
Judy Blume, In the Unlikely Event
Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Rachel Cusk, Outline
Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month
Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy
Lee Smith, A Guest on the Earth
JD Crowe, Half Thunk Thoughts and Half Fast Drawings
Kevin Kwan, China Rich Girlfriend
Nadia Hashimi, When the Moon Is Low
Matthew Neill Null, Honey from the Lion
Judith Richard, Sounds of Silence
Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil
Tim Peeler, Rough Beast
Joseph Mills, Exit Pursued by a Bear
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Joshilyn Jackson, The Opposite of Everyone
Louise Penny, The Brutal Telling
Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Jenny Lawson, Pretend This Never Happened
Louise Erdrich, LaRose
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, The Nest
Kim Boykin, Echoes of Mercy
Stephen King, End of Watch
Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue
Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead
---. The Hangman
---. A Trick of the Light
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
Jane Shlensky, Barefoot on Gravel
Allen St. John, Clapton's Guitar
Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible
Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery
---. How the Light Gets In
Kate Atkinson, Life after Life
Kimberly Williams-Paisley, How the Light Gets In
Emma Straub, Modern Lovers
Ron Rash, The Risen
Anna Quindlen,  Miller's Valley
Louise Penny, Nature of the Beast
Beth Revis, A World Without You
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
Chris Cleaves, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
Jonathan Safron Foer, Here I Am
Liane Moriarty, Truly, Madly, Guilty
Colton Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Alan Bradley, Thrice the Brinded Cat Has Mewed
Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning
Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs
Martha Hall Kelly, The Lilac Girls
Lauren Goff, Fates and Furies
Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
Susan Thurston, Sister of Grendel
Amy Ash, The Open Mouth of the Vase
The MacArthur Daily Bible
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