Friday, September 14, 2018

Starting and Stopping: What to Read Next

Honestly, I could stay in my house for a couple of years without having to leave to find something new to read--even without an internet connection. That hasn't ever stopped me from adding to my collection of books or from regularly visiting libraries and bookstores. I'm always on the prowl for the next good read.

I'm not a one-book-at-a-time kind of reader either. I regularly keep one traditional print book going, along with one audiobook in the car and one eBook on my iPad. It doesn't confuse me any more than talking to more than one person in a day would.

Occasionally, the stars align just so, and I find myself at the end of all three at once. This month, my book club decided to abandon a book choice (I won't mention the title. I'll just whisper the words "Pulitzer Prize") because most of the ladies just couldn't get through it. These are hardcore readers, too--not lightweights. I was about to start reading it but decided this many women can't be wrong. We opted instead to discuss a book I've already read, one I loved. Now I'm free to pick whatever I want to read.

Meanwhile, the audiobook I chose at the library hasn't caught my attention, and I am perusing my shelves to decide what volume I've overlooked too long. It's a nice problem to have, I'll admit. For now, I'm listening to music in the car. The Americana Fest is going on in Nashville this week, so I don't have much time for reading anyway--other than constantly scanning the schedule to choose my next concert or showcase.

I know that in a few days I'll be back into my reading/listening rhythm, lost in another good story--or three.
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Sunday, September 9, 2018

The House of Broken Angels: Anticipating the Southern Festival of Books

Sometimes a book just keeps presenting itself to me until I give in and read it--at no one's suggestion, after little more than a glimpse in a book review or its appearance on the library shelf. I'll admit than the first time I saw the book cover for The House of Broken Angels, the "unimportant words" were so small, I thought the title was House-Broken Angels. When I found myself casting about for an audiobook to feed my habit, I found it on the library shelf and gave it a try. In the past week, I have found myself coming up with excuses to drive to the store or sitting in the garage, listening just a little longer.

Urrea, who will appear in Nashville's Southern Festival of Books in October, has written a lovely, sprawling family story. The novel opens on the day of Big Angel de la Cruz's mother America's funeral, short of her hundredth birthday. As the family patriarch, Big Angel has arranged the timing so that his extended family can stay over for his seventieth birthday--his last birthday-- the following day. Suffering from terminal cancer, Big Angel is more and more dependent on his wife Perla and their daughter Minerva, whom the family calls Minnie--after the Disney mouse.

The cast of characters in this Mexican-American family in San Diego is so large that upon finishing the audiobook, I have considered buying a print copy and creating a family tree, like that Little Angel, the protagonist's half brother, keeps in his pocket notebook to keep the family straight.

While the story opens on the day of the matriarch's funeral, Urrea provides flashbacks to Big Angel's childhood in Mexica. He also shifts perspective in the story told in third person, giving Little Angel an increasing perspective, but also developing the many characters that assemble for the funeral and the birthday celebration.

Even the murdered children of Big Angel's wife Perla and her sister, called La Gloriosa, are given a place in the story. Big Angel and Perla's children, even the absent step-son Yndio, are drawn to the family circle, where Little Angel, a literature professor in Seattle is disappointed to find a birthday meal of pizza and spaghetti instead of the home-cooked Mexican fiesta he had anticipated.

With the lightest hand, Urrea gives an honest look at border politics and ethnic identity, full of flavor in its language and detail. At its heart, he has drawn a beautiful family story. Big Angel faces imminent death with a weight of guilt from his past. He is briefly visited by the ghost of his father, a former policeman who left two families in his wake, but the presence of his little brother gives both men a chance to clear the air of their old grievances.

In one of the most poignant scenes, after they have survived what could have been a disaster, his children and brother crawl into bed with Big Angel, as his "Perla of great price" stands at the bedside. What could have been a sad and somber story has woven into it humor, warmth, and the loveliest, most tender romantic scene possible between aging spouses looking into the face of death.

Since the author reads the audiobook with such verve, I am more eager than ever to hear him when he appears at the literary festival next month. In the meantime, I'm going looking for his earlier stories.
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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Different Story from WWII: Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Most book club members I know note that we ended up reading so many books from World War II. We think we've learned all we can about that period of world history--and then something new comes along. Such was the case with Mark Sullivan's tale Beneath the Scarlet Sky, a novel based on the life of Pino Lella, a teenager in Milan thrust into the middle of the war on the Italian front. Sullivan came upon Lella's story at a point when he was doubt his own ability as a writer. By the time they met, Pino was an old man with a full life behind him. The story he shared fills in a part of the war that is often overlook. 

Students of history learn about Mussolini--Il Duce--and the Fascist army, but often forget that the lines drawn are often unclear. As the war was escalating in Europe, Pino's family sent him and his brother Meimo to a Catholic school for boys in the mountains near the Swiss border run by Father Ray. During that time, Pino and his brother were enlisted to help Jews escape through the treacherous mountain passes to safety. They often ran into conflict with partisans who acted more like the Southern Home Guard during the Civil War, using their cause as a front to extort and to kill.

As Pino approached his eighteenth birthday, his father forced him to join the Nazi army to avoid being drafted into the Italian troops who were sent to the Russian border where they were basically cannon fodder. By chance, he ended up as a driver for General Leyers, a Nazi reporting directly to Hitler. This position gave Pino the opportunity to work as a spy, but he had to face the derision of his closest friend and his brother, whom he could not tell the truth.

This is also a love story, as Pino finds that Leyers' mistress's maid Anna is a young woman to whom he had been attracted before he left to join Father Ray. Six years his senior, Anna had a tragic story herself, and as their relationship blossoms, she offers the only light in his life.

Throughout the reading, I am constantly reminded that Pino is a teenager during the course of the story. He sees more death and horror than most people can imagine. Firsthand, he witnesses the Nazis use of slaves for force labor, often working them to death. He also Leyers' receipt of gold bars, presumably put away for safekeeping as insurance for his future at the war's end.

Problematic for some readers is Sullivan's necessity to fill in the details, to imagine conversations, as he reconstructs a life from details he learns decades later. Some questions, particularly relating to Leyers, remain unanswered and troubling. 

I get the overwhelming sense of what it must have been like to balance one's integrity and safety during a time when death was always a possibility. Pino's story also shows readers the lifelong effect of guilt and loss. 

Shortly after 9/11, I once heard an NPR commentator say, "War is how Americans learn geography." Sometimes the geography lesson comes with a history lesson as well.

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Saturday, September 1, 2018

Bren McClain's One Good Mama Bone

At a recent book club meeting, there was some discussion about what makes a book a "good book." Sure enough, I find that I often enjoy a story or--in the case of nonfiction--I enjoy learning something new, but I really long for a good story well told, well written.

Another challenge I find is sifting through all the hyped books--those with big publishing companies' budgets behind them--in order to find the jewels. Small independent book stores are usually some of the best places for finding new authors and books that might otherwise be overlooked.

At the final TRIO 3 show at Parnassus Books last month, I left with a couple of books I hadn't read--or even heard about until that night. This particular event is Shari Smith's brain child for which she assigns about 15 books--one each to an artist and a songwriter--for creative response. Quite a few of the authors, singers, and artists were present that evening, and I had the pleasure of meeting author Bren McClain before the show.  After hearing her talk about the book, I knew I had found my next read, One Good Mama Bone, moving it to the top of my stack. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop.

The main character of the novel, Sara Creamer, has lived through rejection by her mother, betrayal by her husband and best friend, and is now trying to raise the boy her husband named Emerson Bridge, with her only income from her seamstress skills. When she learns of the annual 4-H Fat Cattle competition, she sees a chance for a break, buying a steer born to a heifer she calls Mama Red, long past prime time for birthing calves. Separated from her young steer, she breaks through fences to find her bawling baby.

Emerson Bridge's biggest competition in the cattle competition is his classmate Little LC Dobbins, who lost the previous year, spoiling the winning streak of his older brother' Charles. LC's father Luther wants to be respected as a cattleman, but most of his success has been through others' efforts. Over the course of the story, Dobbins' wife Mildred, whom he married for her family money, develops a friendship with Sara, a blessing to both women.

Ike Thrasher, one of the many interesting secondary characters, the son of the original landowner, was also rejected by his father. He has given up his preaching career and is trying to prove himself a man, partnering with the Creamers to raise the steer the boy names Lucky.

In what on the surface,might be described as a book about cows, McClain builds a tale about what it means to be a mother, a father, a man. At the heart of the story, giving the novel its title, is Sara's memory of her mother's declaration that Sara didn't have "one good mama bone." What at first seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy becomes a challenge instead.

The story takes on issues of race and class, particularly examining what can happen when someone rises above his circumstances, but never feels accepted or vindicated. In a way, Luther Dobbins is one of the most tragic figures in the story. He has the desire to connect with his younger son, but he fails to act on his best instincts. His concerns for appearance and admirations always undercut his best intentions.

Emerson Bridge also carries with him his father's final words of advice about acting in kindness, reinforced when the boy becomes a member of the Roy Rogers Riders Club, whose pledge includes treating animals with kindness.

Throughout the story, McClain sometimes shifts to the perspective of Mama Bone the cow and her baby, providing an element of dramatic irony. She also uses Sara's confessional monologues to Mama Bone to fill in some of the background details leading up to Emerson Bridge's birth.

I can think of a few other books in which the animal characters were as engaging as the humans--Watership Down  and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for example. The highlight of this novel was the relationships between humans and animals. These relationships often prompted most of the human characters to act with greater integrity and kindness. With a light hand, McClain doesn't just tell a story, she crafts a pitch perfect narrative.

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

As I'm getting ready to kick off a new semester and to meet three classes of college freshmen tomorrow, I remind myself what I probably didn't consider when I was in their place: access to a good education is such a privilege.

I'm used to reading about girls in other countries deprived of the right to go to school, either because of politics or economics; I forget how many girls and boys, young men and women here in the United States also face obstacles.

Tara Westover's memoir Educated gives a surprising look at one family's experience. Westover was raised, along with several siblings, in an extreme fundamentalist Mormon family. Her father, whom readers learn as his daughter does, is evidently bipolar, has such extreme anti-government views that he avoids any interaction with the government, always fearing plots to control their lives.  The family refuses medical care, neither routine checkups or emergency treatment.  Tara's mother trains as a midwife and then builds on her knowledge of herbs, eventually providing the family's financial support. Westover's father spends most of his life in the junk business, resulting in severe burn injuries for Tara's brother and for himself. All the children are pressed into the junk business as well, and Tara has to learn to anticipate her father's moves to avoid death or maiming.

The children aren't sent to school, but homeschooling is more of a theory than a reality in their home.
Only when Tara's older brother decides he wants to go to college and begins a self-study program to pass entrance exams does she recognize the limits of her own education. Her understanding of math, a big part of the testing, is severely limited. Through hard work, she ends up in college in Salt Lake City, finding that her knowledge of history and current events is even more lacking. Asked to read aloud in class, her professor interprets as sarcasm her unfamiliarity with the word "Holocaust." She is also shocked to find that even among other Mormons, her family's attitudes are extremely conservative.

She also has to deal with one brother's physical and emotional abuse and her parents' silence or complicity.

Spoiler alert: the way Westover overcomes her background and goes on to achieve not just a college education, but degrees from Cambridge and even a Ph.D. from Harvard is inspirational, to say the least. Over the course of the book, readers see her growing awareness of the manipulation of truth in which she has been steeped. She sees her family members choose to reject the obvious in order to stay in the family circle. Only through sacrificing her family ties is she able to come to terms with the outside world.

When I face my new freshmen this week, I hope to encourage them to ask questions, to test what they are taught as truth. I'll repeat my mantra:  The truth will stand up to questioning. Maybe I can even encourage them to be grateful for the education before them.
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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan: Why I Still Read YA Novels

I keep a running list of reading suggestions from friends, often forgetting exactly from whom the recommendation first arrived. Such is the case with Echo, the Newbery Award-winning novel by Pam Munoz Ryan (author of Esperanza Rising.)

The narrative structure brings to mind books such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which traced a Vermeer painting from the most recent owner, back through its numerous owners to the painter himself.

This book, which opens with a fairy tale style of narrative, follows a harmonica from one owner to the next--Frederich, a young boy in Nazi Germany; Mike, trapped in an orphanage with his younger brother; Ivy, the daughter of a migrant worker in California; and Kenneth, a young Japanese-American soldier whose parents are in an internment camp. Each narrative stops at a suspenseful point, with a suggestion of tragedy or disaster; the resolution ties the threads together, explaining the path taken by the harmonica.

Much of the story can be considered a historical novel, exploring the way World War II affected people in a variety of situations and setting. One surprise detail was the existence of harmonica orchestras in America during this time period (perhaps rivaled by ukulele bands today). A real bonus of the audio recording of this novel is the inclusion of a number of lovely songs throughout the story. A major theme of the story is the transformative power of music to heal and to unite. Relationships between parents, children, siblings, and neighbors are also explored through the story.

Ryan follows the tried and true narrative method: get your characters into trouble and see how they get out of it. The young adolescent characters are realistically naive at times. They jump to conclusions and try to take action themselves, often without considering the consequences.

I realize that I read plenty of novels set during World War II, but this one is particularly accessible to younger readers and gives a number of varying viewpoints to these pivotal years in world history. I wish I could remember whom to thank for the recommendation.
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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Another from Sara Gruen: Not Elephants or Apes but Monsters

Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants was a big enough success to have drawn me to read two more of her books. I'm tempted to give her a rest. Ape House was just silly and improbably (in my not-exactly-humble opinion). I was encouraged to read At the Water's Edge, and the Loch Ness monster angle intrigued me. The problem: I didn't like the characters.

After the sad little prologue in which a woman loses a baby and gets (false) news that her husband has been killed in the war, so she pulls a Virginia Woolf, the main characters are introduced--Maddie, a young bride married to Ellis, the son of a wealthy family, but with no money, skills, or job of his own. They are constantly in the company of Ellis' best friend Hank who (spoiler alert) lost Maddie to his friend in a coin toss.

Set in 1944, the characters barely register the effect of World War II on others. Shaming the family by their drunken revelry at a high profile party, the two men convince Maddie to come with them to Scotland to disprove charges that Ellis' father pulled a Loch Ness hoax years before.  The three take incredible risks traveling in waters where German submarines lurk. Once they arrive at the inn where they lodge, the young men behaving boorishly. Gruen allows poor neglected Maddie to evolve as she sees her husband and his friend through the eyes of the locals they scorn and treat as servants.

The plot developments seemed just too contrived for my liking. Even the justice meted out to poor foolish Ellis was far too convenient. At least there were no apes.
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Monday, August 6, 2018

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

I've enjoyed Anna Quindlen's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, for years.  Some of her turns of phrase have found their way into my file of favorite quotes, particularly those related to reading and memories. Her latest novel Alternate Side deals on the surface with parking issues most particular  to New York City, though an increasing challenge in any growing city. Nora Nolan, the protagonist, loves living in the city, even though her husband Charlie wants her to consider relocating somewhere else. He even takes her to Asheville, NC, as part of his project.

They live on a cul-de-sac, where Charlie finally lands a prized parking space in the lot on their block.  While Nora lives among the more affluent local New Yorkers, working at a surprisingly successful jewelry museum, a vanity project of the woman who established it with her own collection, she also interacts with the residents of a single residency building; Charity, the housekeeper who helped raise her now grown twins; Ricky, on whom they depend for odd jobs on their street; and even Phil, the panhandler near her work who only pretends to be homeless.

When a neighbor attacks Ricky for blocking the parking lot entrance with his work van, sending him to the hospital, neighbors and family members draw lines and take sides. Everything about the neighborhood dynamic is affected.

At the heart of the story, though, is the examination of Nora and Charlie's marriage. In fact, throughout the novel, Quindlen through Nora has so much to say about marriage. When Nora considers her father and step mother's marriage, Quindlen writes:

      She thought that people sought marriage because it meant they could put aside the mascara, the  
      bravado, the good clothes, the company manners, and be themselves, whatever that was, not try
      so hard. But what that seemed to mean was that they didn't try at all. In the beginning they all
      spent so much time trying to know the other person, asking questions, telling stories, wanting to
      burrow beneath the skin. But then you  married and naturally were supposed to know one another
      down to the ground, and so stopped asking, answering, listening. It seemed foolish, fifteen years
      in, to lean across the breakfast table and say, By the way, are you happy? Do you like this life?
      Familiarity bred contempt, she'd read somewhere, or at least inattention, but sometimes it seemed
      more like a truce without a war first: these are the terms of engagement, this is what is, let's not
      dwell on what's not.

As I read, I remembered a book I started (and abandoned) recently in which the couple, marking their tenth anniversary together, are told by their primary care physician that with changing longevity expectations, they might have 63 more years together. What was meant to be good news was not received as such.

Over the course of this novel, Nora takes a look at the trajectory of her life, considers her options and those any changes will affect. What results is an evenhanded narrative of adult life after the empty nest and a subtle suggestion that one should consider that those around us live much more complicated, layered lives than we can ever observe.
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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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Monday, June 11, 2018

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

I am thankful for the highlighting function on iBooks.  I'm a reader who marks in her books. While I keep some books relatively pristine (Is that modifier possible?), I do tend to make notes as I read. I am more hindered in reading by the lack of a pencil or pen than by the inability to locate any of the dozen pair of readers I keep lying around.

Most recently, I had Rachel Kadish's novel The Weight of Ink loaded on my iPad for a road trip. I had started the first chapter earlier and then had been distracted, moving to another book (probably one assigned by a book club). When I started again, though, I couldn't stop reading.

The book opens around 2000 in Richmond (outside of London), where Helen Watt, a history professor has been summoned by a former student she barely remembers. He and his wife are remodeling or restoring a home she inherited from an aunt or grandmother when an electrician discovers what he thinks are Arabic writings under the stairs, stopping construction. Closer inspection indicates these papers are written in Hebrew and date back to the seventeenth century.  Watt is on the brink of retirement and experiencing some serious health problems she keeps private. Her department chair recommends Aaron Levy, a brash American student stalled in his dissertation work, to help her. When her university purchases the treasure trove of letters and documents, she and Aaron must the clock, under the watch of the library's "two Patricias," as other scholars are allowed access as well.

The second thread of the story follows Ester Velasquez, a young girl sent to London after her parents' death by fire. She ends up in the home of a rabbi blinded for his faith during the Inquisition in Portugal. During the time of novel, Jews have just been permitted in England again the during Restoration Period when Charles II regains the throne. While the rabbi has a few reluctant male pupils, Ester shows a unique ability and interest, becoming his scribe, going again, at the very least, convention.

Kadish's narrative in the seventeenth century covers conflicts and divisions within the Jewish community and between the Jews and Gentiles in London, the plague, and the Great Fire of London. In the 21st century sections, the author also weaves back stories of romance for Helen and for Aaron. All the characters wrestle with faith, scripture, identity, loyalty, and person values.

My initial reading also convinced me how rich a close study of the book would be: Kadish weaves symbolism of ink and ash with martyrdom and the Masada. While her major characters are fictional, her afterword assures readers that she carefully researched the periods in question. She even reveals a couple of instances in which she took minor poetic license to shift facts.

The book presents three particularly strong female characters and a number of men and women of integrity conscious of their own flaws in search of truth. When I go back to my notes and bookmarks, I'm due a some searching of my own.
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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: Yes, Indeed She Is.

I love to be surprised by a book. It happened with Fredrick Backman's  A Man Called Ove; one of my favorite librarians told me, "I've put this book on hold for you." When I first started it, as I was introduced to the old curmudgeon, I was baffled. But he grew on me.

I picked up Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout on a hunch with no information about it at all. Over the course of the interwoven short stories, I learned to love Olive.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was on my list of books to read--but for the life of me I can't remember how it got there. Sure enough, dear odd Eleanor was not easy to like at first. She was socially awkward and she lacked a filter, so she quickly spoke her mind, alienating her from her co-workers. But over the course of the story, Eleanor seemed to get to know herself better as I learned more about her.

As Honeyman reveals, Eleanor has good reasons for her awkwardness and mistrust of others, revealed gradually in the story. When the new IT guy, Raymond, initiates a friendship with nothing but good intentions, he also helps her good side to emerge.  Early in the novel, Eleanor reveals that she's found the man of her dreams, a local pop singer she's heard once and never met.  she begins a self-improvement course.  Meanwhile, her interaction with Raymond leaves the two of them as partners in heroism when they witness a man having a heart attack. Raymond invites Eleanor to visit Sammy in hospital, leading to other invitations from his family to cookouts and birthday celebrations.

Most poignant, readers realize that Eleanor bears burn scars from an incident in her childhood to which she only vaguely refers. She also has to deal with her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, a particularly cruel woman with a hold over Eleanor.

As Eleanor faces depression, disappointment, and self-doubt, readers can't help cheering her on all the way. The real hero of the story, though, is the unkempt, lovable Raymond. We'd all be better off with a Raymond in our lives, someone who ignores the worst in us, expects the best, and follows through on his good intentions. In fact, more of us should be Raymond to others around us. Gail Honeyman manages to craft a lovely story about the least likely of protagonists without the least bit of sermonizing. I just wish I knew whom to thank for the recommendation.
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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Anatomy of a Miracle

Right about the time I heard Jonathan (Johnny) Miles at Parnassus in the spring, my preacher sent an email asking for accounts of actual miracles. I expect the answers to find their way into a sermon soon.

In this novel--and rest assured, despite the subtitle (The *True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, A Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace) and the Afterword and Acknowledgements, the book is (as the asterisk relates) a novel--paraplegic veteran Cameron Harris, after four years in a wheelchair, stands in the parking lot of the Vietnamese owned Biz-E-Bee convenience store and walks.

His doctor Janice Lorimar-Cuevas rejects the concept of a miraculous healing but cannot find a scientific explanation. Scott T. Griffin comes from Los Angeles to create a reality television show out of the whole circus. The Vatican sends an investigator, since at least one parishioner had asked prayers of a priest one miracle short of sainthood. Social media explodes.

Without taking sides or even attempting to solve the mystery, Miles cleverly presents the tensions that  occur in the wake of Cameron's inexplicable miracle.  A man dying of cancer walks from Alabama with a blow-up crux and takes his place in the parking lot, waiting for a miracle of his own. The couple who own the convenience store, who have been reluctant to open incoming mail because of debt, find themselves doing a brisk business in relics and miracle kitsch.

Cameron's sister Tanya, who has cared for him long before his injury, when their mother died in a car wreck, long after they had been abandoned by their father, is pushed into the role of comic relief in the television series in progress. They siblings are both given new cars, new clothes, and more directing in their personal lives that they can bear.

Because the story switches points of view, the writing style also shifts. The account of Cameron's experiences in his time prior to the explosion that paralyzes him is some of the most vivid writing I've read about this particular war, rivaling some of the best writing about Vietnam, in my experience.

The section involving Dr. Lorimar-Cuevas' father, a successful writer, is another gem in the book, as he explains how story is most important.

The story takes interesting and complicated twists and turns as Cameron's character and history develop. As Miles keeps up the suggestion of a true story, he allows readers to explore all the different What if? angles that Cameron's recovery presents.

Like the characters, I'm not sure about Cameron's miracle--but I'm ready to be drawn into the conversation.



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Monday, May 28, 2018

Rick Bragg and Lee Smith: Southern Journeys.

Rick Bragg's  recent appearance at Nashville Public Library to discuss his newest book The Best Cook in the World prompted me to load his older book My Southern Journey  in my CD player for a weekend road trip. I can't keep my own copies of Ava's Man and All Over but the Shoutin' because I keep sharing them with anyone asking for book suggestions. Even people who aren't familiar with his books know him for the last page of each issue of Southern Living. This book is a collection of his essays that have appeared in this and other publications.

Bragg comes across as a what you see is what you get kind of Southern man--opinionated and direct. Much of his humor is at his own expense, but he also manages to balance the humor with genuine sentiment. In this book, he touches on all the areas of life, especially Southern life--food, dogs, family, and football.

As an Alabama native myself, listening to Bragg's stories kept ringing all the bells and pushing all my buttons. His opinions on food and how it should and should not be served paralleled my own. His memories of Paul "Bear" Bryant (so good they named an animal after him") were so genuine and tender, I almost had to pull the car to the side of the road. Yep. Roll Tide. But rather than simply parroting the same tired old cheers, he also discussed some pivotal changes in race relations in SEC football.

When Bragg talked about the 2010 tornadoes that tore through Tuscaloosa, I recalled not just the news coverage, but the visual details provided by my niece and nephew, students at the time who were touched by the damage and by the human toll. Bragg recalled how people came together for the recovery; I remembered my nephew Jeff and his friends whose graduation was cancelled but who remained behind, helping to search for bodies and survivors, preparing and delivering food to residents and rescue and clean-up workers. They too saw not only the horror of a natural disaster but the dignity and compassion in the wake.

Without intentionally planting myself in the literary South, I next picked up Lee Smith's novel The Last Girls, which has been sitting on my shelf for awhile. I never know what prompts me to read a particular book at any given time, but I'm often surprised by the parallels. This book follows two journeys made by friends at a Southern women's college, one on a raft down the Mississippi River during their college years, another years later on a riverboat following the same path.

One of the key characters Harriet Holding is a teacher who now works with adults. She has never married, but her recollections of her own unusual childhood help to explain her resistance to intimacy. Courtney Hurt is successfully but unhappily married. On this trip she is torn between loyalty to her husband, now showing some signs of early dementia, and her lover who is pushing for commitment. Anna Todd, a successful romance novelist, uses the trip to write the next in her series of  novels, each set in a different Southern state. She romanticizes the young man who handles her luggage and straightens her room, inserting him into the novel, but she is slower to reveal her own back story to readers, one she never reveals to her old school friends. Catherine Wilson is the only member of the group bringing her husband along on this reunion trip. After escaping two unhappy marriages, she's now feeling uncertain about this one. These two live in Tuscaloosa. Smith gives the husband a chance to tell his side of the story, including their Tuscaloosa tornado experience, allowing readers a chance to hope for a happy ending.

The character absent only in a physical sense from the story is "Baby" Ballou. The one of the college friends who lived dangerously, she had ironically been paired as a roommate with Harriet, forging an unlikely sisterhood and giving Harriet the chance to live vicariously through Baby. Now the "girls" are charged with leaving some of Baby's ashes in the Mississippi River before they reach New Orleans at their journey's end.

Smith's title comes from the realization that these were the last females called "girls" with impunity. Nowadays, they note, they'd be called young women. They recognize they are living on a cusp. The novel leaves them without carefully tied up stories. Instead, readers are able to imagine what might come next for women who have a lot of living left to do.
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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Charles Frazier Returns to the Civil War Period

Charles Frazier's first novel Cold Mountain is on my short list of favorite books. I read it the week it debuted on the recommendation of Donald Secreast during his appearance at the Writers Symposium at Caldwell Community College in 1997. I went on to teach the book in my senior English APP and AP classes, even taking a couple of groups to find and climb the real Cold Mountain after we finished reading.

I loved Thirteen Moons as well, so when I heard he had a new book set--at least in part--in the Civil War South, telling the story of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, I ordered the copy from Parnassus Books before its release. When I picked it up, I was even happier to learn Frazier would be coming to Nashville for the library's Salon@615. He appeared with Paula McLain, who is promoting her new novel Love and Ruins (next on my reading list), interviewed by Ann Patchett.

I was especially curious to see how much of the book was fiction and how much was researched. I remember the book I, Varina in my high school library, but I hadn't remembered much of the history of this woman who played a secondary role in history. In this novel, Frazier brought together his title character and James, a grown African American man who had been raised alongside the Davis's own children, but who was separated from the family when the Davis's fled at the war's end.

Frazier explained that James is based on a real boy, but that no record survives of his life after separated from the Davis family. He just imagined a future for him, providing an effective structure for the novel. Piecing together his own memory and finding mention of himself in a book about the Davises sends him in search of Varina, now an older woman living in New York at what is evidently a hotel for "rest cure." His questions provide the avenue for flashbacks that tell the story of V, as she's called in the novel, before she met Jefferson Davis, still a grieving widower and throughout their not-always-happy marriage.

Because Frazier writes novels, not history, he deftly uses the historical fact to weave together a powerful story. As he admitted in the interview, he wasn't interested in writing about Civil War battles. Just as in Cold Mountain, the focus stays on the individual characters, providing plenty of rich details and dwelling in the grey areas.  The novel also has the advantage of Frazier's rich prose, engrossing dialogue, and description that readers are not tempted to skim.

And once again, he's omitted quotation marks.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Francesca Hornak's Seven Days of Us

As I've often admitted, I am not a reading purist: I love to read a "real book" with the heft of the volume in my hand, but I'm just as content to read an electronic book. I also take exception to those who don't think audiobooks count as reading.

I freely remind them of the children of Israel who only knew the Word from listening as it was read aloud. Who am I to discount that experience?

Honestly, I can't go for long without a book on CD loaded in the car, and the only way I can remember if I read or listened to a book is that I can sometimes recall the excellence of the reader.

To fuel my fix, I'm often scanning the local library shelves, starting with new arrivals and then scanning the shelves for something I might have overlooked. I also make regular use of the hold option, drawing from the whole local library system.

Recently, while I was waiting on a couple of requests, I ran across Francesca Hornak's novel Seven Days of Us. The back cover description caught my eye, and I decided to give it a try, even though I had not heard anything about the book.

The novel, set in England during Christmas follows several members of the Birch family, forced to spend the week of the holiday in quarantine when their daughter Olivia returns from Liberia, where she was one of a group of doctors providing humanitarian aid during an outbreak of the deadly, highly contagious hog virus. Olivia soon learns that Sean, her Irish colleague with whom she's formed a relationship--against protocol--has come down with the virus. She's unable to reveal her concern to anyone since their relationship broke no-touch regulations, meant to safeguard them and those with which they came in contact.

Meanwhile, the younger Birch daughter Phoebe, her father's favorite, has just become engaged, plunging her into wedding planning frenzy. To add to the tension, their father Andrew learns that he fathered a son Jesse years ago, when he and Emma were first dating. Although Andrew has achieved a certain level of fame as a snarky food critic, he formerly served as a war correspondent, where he and Jesse's birth mother enjoyed a brief tryst.

Hornak manages to balance the humorous and serious over the course of the seven days the Birches spend together in the old country home that once belonged to Emma's family. As they are joined first by Phoebe's fiance' and then Jesse, readers soon learn that each of the characters is harboring secrets. No single character appears particularly villainous: each has noble points and flaws, making them both sympathetic and believable characters. The shifting dynamics of the family during their imposed quarantine keep readers engaged, sometimes squirming with them, sometimes cheering or laughing aloud, and sometimes grieving.

In whatever format one chooses, the novel provides at least a good seven days of reading entertainment.



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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Parnassus Readings: Nothing Beats a Local Indie Bookseller

I'll admit that the local music events often fill my calendar, but almost every week, Parnassus Books in Green Hills offers another book event that's hard to pass up. This past week, I joined Gail and Premi, a couple of my book club friends, to hear New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner interview his friend, author Jonathan Miles (Johnny to his friends and family, we learned). Miles is touring with his latest novel Anatomy of a Miracle, the story of a veteran who returns from Afghanistan a paraplegic, until one day, outside a Biloxi, Mississippi, convenient store, he inexplicably stands.  What follows is the investigation by everyone from his doctor to reality TV hosts to the Vatican.

I was familiar with Miles from his earlier novel Dear American Airlines, the tale of a man stranded at the airport while trying to reach his daughter's wedding. I did not know, however, that he's also a regular contributor to Field and Stream. He claimed that his journalism work had been a seed bed for his fiction, which fed off it. Journalism, he said, had granted an all-access pass to so much of life.

Though originally from Ohio, Miles feels he came into his own as a writer in Oxford, Mississippi, certainly a hotbed of literature. There he developed friendships with such writers as Barry Hannah and Larry Brown (in whose writing shed he worked on his fiction.)

The interview--or conversation--between Miles and Garner veered toward Miles' writing process and his journey toward novel writing. (When he married his wife, he told the audience, he was a landscaper.) He describe fiction writing as "this assemblage of fibs that somehow adds up to something true." He quoted Doctorow about the writing process: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way" and Russo, who said it's like throwing a pebble in to a pond--and then you have to swim around until you find your pebble.

Asked about the humor in his writing, Miles said he had been called a comic writer and wondered if he could consider it praise.  Larry Brown told him, "You never want anything in front of the word 'writer.'"

When Garner pointed out that there were some some surprises in the novel, including some intensive war writing, Miles said that one of the joys of writing is the research. He called writing a novel "this fantastic crammed eduction.  He also compared it to the worst drug in the world: 99 times out of 100 it makes you feel worse, but that one time . . . .

He discussed his writing process and answered the question about a word limit, saying he sometimes wrote zero words but other times, 8000.

Miles, when asked whether he believes in miracles, called himself a "fundamentalist agnostic." He referred to "that sense of not knowing and wanting to ask these questions and find something to believe in.  What novels do best, he said, is to ask questions, make those questions deep, put flesh on them.  After all, to be a good novelist, there's a certain level of empathy required.

"Nobody reads the same book anyway," he said. He recalled reading Reynolds' Stone Fox after losing his grandfather and crying more tears over the story than over his own loss.

I'd be willing to bet that after the Parnassus event, I wasn't the only audience member who was eager not only to go home and read but to write as well.



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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.




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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.
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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.
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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.
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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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