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.

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."


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


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.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Barbara Martin Stephens: Telling the Truth about Jimmy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, March 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Crop of Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Great Alone: Kristin Hannah's Alaskan Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Column of Fire: Follett's Kingsbridge Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci: Getting to Know the Real Renaissance Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

My Favorite Nonfiction in 2017

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

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

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

Greg Boyle, Tattoos in the Heart

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

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

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

Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway

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

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

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

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

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

Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

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

Bill Browder, Red Notice

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

J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

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

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Favorite Fiction of 2017

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

Paulette Jiles, News of the World  

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

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

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

Louise Penny, Glass Houses

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

Lily King, Euphoria

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

Joy Jordan-Lake, Tangled Mercy

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

Gin Phillips, Fierce Kingdom

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

Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star

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

Hanna Tinti, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

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

William Kuhn, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

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

Frank Conroy, Heart and Soul

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

Lisa See, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

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