Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ann Patchett's The Dutch House: This Fall's Must Read

I was an Ann Patchett fan before I moved to Nashville--probably even before I realized she lived in Nashville. I first discovered her when I read Bel Canto, which remains a favorite. Since she partnered with Karen Hayes to open Parnassus Books, one of the best independent bookstores anywhere, she has kept busy not only writing her own books but championing those of other writers here in Nashville and elsewhere.

When I first meet the college freshmen I teach, I give my soapbox speech about balancing academics and the other aspects of life. Don't live in Nashville and never leave campus, I advise them. I suggest they discover all the freebies and good deals for college students. They need to visit the Frist Art Museum (frequently), Cheekwood Mansion and Botanical Gardens, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Ryman Auditorium. And they need to discover Parnassus Books, within an easy walking distance of campus (something I know, having attended Lipscomb when freshmen weren't allowed to have cars. I walked or biked to Green Hills before Green Hills was cool.)

Patchett's most recent novel The Dutch House lives up to the high expectations of her readers. Told by Danny, this is the story of two siblings brought up by their father in a grand and unusual house in the suburbs outside Philadelphia when their mother abandons the family. The story takes a Cinderella turn when their father remarries and then dies suddenly, leaving Danny and his sister Maeve without family or a home.

Whenever Danny returns as an adult to visit his sister, the two of them invariably find themselves parked across the street from their former home, still occupied by their stepmother. Over time, they grow more nostalgic over the shared time in the car than in the house.

I sometimes had to remind myself that Danny's voice was the creation of a female writer. Everything about his character was believable. The dynamics of his relationship with Maeve was genuine without being over-sentimentalized. I liked them both. The other characters in the story--the two sisters who kept the Dutch House, as well as Fluffy, Danny's baby nurse who lost her job for striking the boy with a spoon, were believable and endearing. Even the stepmother Andrea and Elna, their long-absent mother, are much more than one-dimensional stereotypes.

While conventional wisdom advises against judging a book by its cover, the illustration on this particular novel, a rendering by a Nashville artist of the painting of young Maeve described in the book is both beautiful and haunting. When I think of iconic book covers, I expect this one to join the list; I also think this novel will be on reading lists for years to come.



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Friday, October 25, 2019

Tales of Second Wives: Rebecca and Varina

 With such a backlog of books waiting to be read, I am often reluctant to re-read anything, even books I loved. Sometimes, as recently for me, the motivation is external. When my book club decided to choose a classic as we prepared our 2019 reading list, we opted for Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, a book that had kept me on the D shelf in the fiction section of the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library back in junior high.

I loved the book so much that I read everything I could find by DuMaurier--Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, and a personal favorite, The House on the Strand.  I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had loved her works too, adapting this novel for the big screen, as
well as her short story "The Birds," which became one of Hitchcock's best-known film. (Who doesn't think of it whenever spying a flock of blackbirds?)

When we decided to read Rebecca, a first read for some members of the group, I wondered if it would hold up. I remembered so many vivid memories--the first glimpse of flames, appearing like the sunset on the wrong side of the sky, the opening line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. Every time I approach a majestic house at the end of a long drive, I recite them.

I'm still amused to recall that the narrator was never given a name other than Mrs. deWinter, one already used when she took it over. I still imagine the sight of Rebecca's signature in book dedications and household documents. I remember practicing writing that slanting R myself, even though I didn't have an R in my name.

A more recent re-reading experience brought me back to Charles Frazier's Varina, the fictionalized story of Jefferson Davis's wife. Long a fan of Frazier's writing, particularly his first novel Cold Mountain, I had selected Varina as our book club read when I hosted. Since only two of us are Southerners and several members have origins outside the United States, I was eager to lead a discussion that centered on the complicated history during and after the Civil War.

Frazier's novel, inspired by historical details of the wife of the only president of the Confederacy, took a minor character, a black boy taken in by the Davises and raised along side of their children. Pictures still remain of young Jimmy, and little is known after he was taken from the family upon their arrest after the war. Frazier took the liberties to imagine a grown-up Jimmy, having his own childhood memories reawakened upon reading a book mentioning his existence in the Davis household. He seeks out Varina, called V throughout the novel, and has her recount his life and her own.

My experience reading Frazier for a second time recalled the same experience with Cold Mountain. I read both novels straight through for the story, shortly after publication. A second reading made me more aware of Frazier's use of language and detail, his ability to explore the gray areas and the ambiguities.

Only upon reflection did I realize that both novels centered on the lives of second wives, living in the shadow of their husbands' first wives. Jefferson Davis had been married to Knoxie Taylor, whose father went on to serve as President of the United States. She died quickly of an illness shortly after their marriage and he only relinquished his mourning clothes in time to court Varina, many years his junior. If Frazier's details are accurate, he stopped by her grave with Varina on their honeymoon. In the novel, she speculates on his happy reunion with his first wife in the afterlife.

While the narrator of Rebecca spends much of her early marriage under the mistaken belief that her husband had adored Rebecca as much as everyone else did, only late in the story does she learn how wrong she was. On this second reading, I was particularly struck by her easy acceptance of how Rebecca died. Even Hitchcock had to make some revisions to the screenplay to minimize Max's culpability in his wife's death.

Now I'm happily moving on to my stack of new books, but I'm reminded that a second--or third or fourth--reading of a favorite book is seldom a waste of time.
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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Southern Festival of Books: Nashville Has More than Music!

Even before moving to Nashville in 2016, I found ways to get here in October for the Southern Festival of Books presented by Humanities Tennessee. This free event, held in the downtown Nashville Public Library and extending up the hill to War Memorial Auditorium is a feast for book lovers. Between the two edifices are booths--books vendors, authors, writing programs--and stages featuring music, poetry and more.

Now that I am settled here, I have to study the schedule, choosing between so many excellent sessions, many in the same time slots. Opening the first session in the library auditorium was country singer Rory Feek, who lost his wife and singing partner to cancer a few years ago. He opened his session with songs, then read from his memoirs about his courtship and marriage to Joey, as well as The Cow Said Neigh, his children's book. He invited his young daughter Indiana to join him on stage, and she promptly curled up in his lap and fell asleep, a perfect visual for his newest children's book The Way God Made You.

Discussing Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South, Samia Serageldin, who first dreamed up the anthology was joined by Marshall Chapman and Belle Boggs, two of the authors who shared the stories of their mothers in the book. Serageldin first conceived the idea for the book when her mother died in Cairo the same day another friend lost her mom. She mentioned the possible project to author Lee Smith, who ran with it, bringing in more stories than they had room to include.

Each of the women read from her own story: Serageldin told the story of a hypercritical mother; Chapman shared details about the woman whose daughter called "a great human but terrible mother.
Boggs, whose mother is still living and whose daughter Beatrice sat on the front row, read her essay considering her daughter as a reincarnation of her mother. With twenty-seven authors, many of them from my former home state of North Carolina, contributing stories of their mothers, the book not only promises poignant reading, but will likely evoke readers' memories of their own mothers.

A crowd lined up waiting for the doors to open on Saturday morning for the WNBA sponsored "Breakfast with the Authors," with Mary Laura Philpott interviewing Alexi Zentner (Copperhead), Anissa Gray (The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls), Karen Thompson Walker (Dreamers), and Taylor Jenkins Reid (Daisy Jones and the Six). One Instagram worthy feature of the breakfast was the miniature cupcakes topped with sugary miniatures of each of the four authors' novels--too pretty to eat.












While some audience members seemed to direct questions to Reid, whose novel was a Reese Witherspoon Book Club selection, all four books were so appealing that audience members had to debate whether or not to miss the next session in order to line up for the book signings that followed on the War Memorial Plaza.

Another particularly popular session featured Nashville: Scenes from the New American South with photographer Heidi Ross and Nashville writer and bookseller Ann Patchett, who wrote the captions and one of the essays in the book. The assignment came from New York editor Liz Sullivan, who had not actually been to Nashville, but who had a particular vision for the book: Nashville in present tense, not a retrospective--and plenty of white space. Even Ross and Patchett found that they had separate versions of Nashville, which occasionally overlapped.

They described their pleasure that so many people they invited to participate agreed to be photographed. Ross told particular stories of some of the photographs--a session with Al Gore in the same green room where he had once learned that he had lost the presidential race. She particularly prizes a picture her husband snapped in the room of her photographing the former vice president. Just as touching, though, was her account of a photograph she took of a homeless man--with his permission--when she dropped her camera and broke the lens.

The two women and their editor had to wrangle over some of the choices. Patchett thought there were too  many murals; her editor loved them.  The had to fight Sullivan to include the Predators photo, not just because it matched the color palette of a photograph of monks on the facing page, but because they believed the book would be incomplete without the team. ("They thank us at ever game," Ross quipped.)

After facilitating the earlier session, Philpott returned to share the stage with Dani Shapiro, discussing her  collection I Miss You When I Blink, a memoir collection whose narrative arc examines her attempts to break free of the perfectionism laid on her by her mother. Shapiro's latest book Inheritance also tells her own story, in this case the aftermath of a DNA test she took "recreationally," revealing that the man she considered her dad was not her biological father. Since the discovery came after the death of her parents, she had to decide to pursue the truth about her origin.

Ann Patchett shared the stage of War Memorial Auditorium with Margaret Renkl, a Nashville writer who contributes essays to the New York Times. Her recent publication Late Migrations, a collection of very short pieces that combine naturalist writing, memoir, and family history, is causing a storm in the publishing world. Not only is the writing brilliant, but the illustrations by her brother a collage artist make the book a library addition worth collecting.

For book lovers--whether they prefer fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or even cookbooks--the Southern Festival of Books should be a annual event. With Nashville musicians performing throughout the weekend, the festival is a sampler of  the best Nashville has to offer.
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Friday, October 4, 2019

Where Those Interviews Can Go: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

One of my favorite assignments in the English composition class I teach to college freshmen asks them to conduct three interviews, ideally with their oldest living relatives. I offer to let them "borrow a senior citizen" if they don't have candidates either in their own families or at least those of their friends or roommates. Invariably, when they write their end-of-semester reflection, they mention the interview experience as a highlight of the semester.

When I mentioned this project to a book club friend, she told me I had to read The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. The protagonist Joe Calvert is fighting the odds after a difficult family life. He never knew his father, and his mother is an alcoholic who often leaves his autistic half-brother unattended, putting increasing pressure on Joe. But he has worked to save money for college, where he ends up in a biography class with a course-long assignment, similar to mine. Since he knows none of the older generation of his family, he goes to a local nursing home seeking a subject to interview.

Resistant at first to his project, the personnel match him up with Carl Iverson who, after spending thirty years of a life sentence for the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, has been paroled, when he reaches the final stages of cancer. While Joe at first finds him repugnant, based on Iverson's alleged crime, he begins to see holes in the story that led to his sentencing and begins to investigate the crime himself.

He ends up working with his neighbor Lila, who ignored him but befriended his brother Jeremy. Over the course of the narrative, he struggles to keep up his studies and hold down his job in a bar, with obstacles from his alcoholic mother, who often leaves Jeremy alone and defenseless.

Eskens weaves an intriguing story that reminds readers that everyone has a story--and it's not usually the story we expect to hear.
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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Review of Cathleen Schine's The Grammarians

Of course we judge books by the cover! Not since elementary school have readers been satisfied by those library-bound generic blue and green covers. I'm often drawn to cover art, and I've even heard that books with blue on the cover sell better than others. I have also heard plenty of evidence that the human eye is drawn to text. (Why else do I lean in close to try to read strangers' tattoos?)

For my people, though, Cathleen Schine's recent novel The Grammarians appealed to me strictly on the basis of the title. The novel tells the story of twin sisters Daphne and Lauren Wolfe, who shared a private twin language from the time they were babbling infants, as well as an intense fascination with language. Their philology only increases when their father brings home a huge used copy of Webster's New International Dictionary, which he places on the stand the girls call an altar. Ironically, they discover the volume is missing the page where the word altar would have been defined.

Schine's chapter divisions are marked by entries from Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language,  often words strangely related to their unique relationship. As the girls grow up, much of the time sharing an apartment and even wearing matching clothes into young adulthood, they also make awkward attempts to separate. Laurel has a nose job, which Daphne takes as a direct affront. They have a double wedding--challenging since Daphne isn't even dating anyone when Lauren becomes engaged. Daphne lands a receptionist job at a small newspaper, where she moves first into a copy editing position, and eventually becomes a language columnist writing for Vogue. Laurel, lacking any actual qualifications, lands a job teaching kindergarten at a private school until she turns lines from government publications into found poetry.

Sometimes the jumps in time are surprisingly abrupt, skipping years, even decades. Shine surrounds the girls not only with loving, quirky parents but with an extended family and a set of work friends and spouses that often serve as ideal foil characters.

The best part of the book for me, the part I want to discuss with other readers who also love words, is the girls' razor sharp fascination with language. The longer I read, the quicker I anticipated the girls' response to misuse of words and phrases. While I am often disappointed when a plot line is predicable, my own recognition of the Wolfe girls' sensitivity to language gave me the satisfaction of an omniscient narrator. "I knew you'd catch that one!" I wanted to cheer each time the girls homed in on some misuse or when they found themselves fascinated by the flexibility of words with multiple meanings. In fact, by the end of the book, I'd made a list. Now if only I had a twin with whom to share it.
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Monday, September 9, 2019

Tom Hanks' Uncommon Type: A Study in Voice

I picked up the audiobook of Tom Hanks' short story collection Uncommon Type on a whim. I knew he'd been in Nashville promoting the book, but I hadn't heard much about it from my reading circles. Since the narrator of a book can make or break the experience, I was pleased to note that Hanks was reading his own work.

Just as the audience has to suspend disbelief when seeing the same actor in different roles--think Forrest Gump, Big, You've Got Mail--hearing the familiar voice delivering these stories might have been a distraction. It wasn't.
The first story "Three Exhausting Weeks" introduces a four characters that reappear in a couple of later stories, four friends who couldn't be more different from one another. The narrator has minimal pressure to work, having inherited money after his mother's death, leaving him time for adventures with his friends: Anna, the only female in the group, and two males--Steve Wong, a prodigious bowler and new citizen MDash.

Hanks manages to inject a little magical realism and time travel in some stories, while the others are realistic, even nostalgic. In only one story does the narration shift from Hanks alone to a cast that comes across like reader's theatre, or an episode of "Guy Noir, Private Eye."

The sole element that unites the story is the presence of at least once vintage manual typewriter in each story. I found myself listening for it the way Hitchcock fans kept an eye peeled for his cameo shot in each film.

The stories stand on their own with out the celebrity factor. In fact, the dramatist's eye for the specific and tangible, as well as his ear for clever dialogue made for a surprisingly pleasant reading experience.
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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Furious Hours: The Book Harper Lee Didn't Write

Since I've never denied that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is on the short list of my favorite books--to read and re-read as well as to teach--I was eager to pick up Casey Cep's book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.

The books begins not with Lee but with the story of Willie Maxwell, who returned to South Alabama after military service first to do work in a local plant and then to become the Rev. Willie Maxwell. The book details a series of mysterious deaths--two wives, a neighbor (and the late husband of wife number two), a nephew, and a step daughter. In each case, he was never convicted, thanks primarily to his lawyer Tom Radney.

Cep shifts between main characters, describing Radney's political career, including an unsuccessful run for Alabama Lt. Governor. The author deftly weaves together her extensive research on the parties involved in the trial before turning her attention to Lee.

The ironic twist comes when Maxwell is killed at the funeral of his step-daughter (and yes, Maxwell was the obvious suspect). Who defends the shooter Robert Burns? Maxwell's lawyer Radney. The trial held in Alexander City draws lots of attention, but most significantly that of Harper Lee. The author, already well-known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, sat through the trial and gathered extensive research of her own, intending to overcome her writer's block and turn it into her second book.

Cep takes the reader through Nell Harper Lee's history before, during, and after there writing of Mockingbird. This including her lifelong connection to Truman Capote first as childhood friends and later as collaborators as Lee assisted Capote in his research for In Cold Blood. She paints a complex and candid picture of the author's life and even her struggle with alcohol.

Eventually, Cep manages to do what Lee could not: find a way to tell this complicated story that evoked as much rumor and innuendo as fact.
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Thursday, August 8, 2019

The War to End All Wars--and the Next One: The Alice Network and the Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

 I can't always call them coincidences--those occurrences when I find myself encountering similar elements in more than one book I am reading. (For the record, everything I've read recently has mentioned migration patterns of monarch butterflies and the activities of hummingbirds.)

When I started reading Kate Quinn's novel The Alice Network, I was just following up on recommendations from several friends. (Thank you, Mary June!) This novel follows Charlie St. Clair, a flighty American girl who, after coming home from college pregnant, is taken to London by her parents to take care of her "little problem." She has other ideas, though, since her closest cousin has disappeared. She traces her to a crusty anti-social woman with maimed hands who at first   refuses to help her, but then agrees
to pursue leads, driven a handsome, rough-hewn ex-com in her employ.

The story then shifts back and forth between Charlie's search and the back story of Eve Gardiner, who had served as a spy in what was called "The Alice Network" in German-occupied France.

Simultaneously, I had started reading The Impossible Lives of Great Wells by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Andrew Sean Greer. This novel followed a woman who undergoes electro-shock therapy in 1985 after losing her twin brother to AIDS and her lover, who simply leaves her for someone else. As she goes through the series of treatments, she is sent back first to 1918 and next to 1941. While she's the same person, surrounded again by her brother Felix, her lover/husband Nathan, and even her favorite aunt, she sees her live unfold differently each time, set against the back drop of WWI and WWII.

As she moves between lives, she realizes that her other selves are moving into the lives she has left. While I don't like gimmick for gimmick's sake, I enjoyed Greer's take on how one change in our lives can have ripple effects and how changing our time and place can cause changes in us as well.

Both novels--so different from one another--gave me a look at the effect of both great wars both on the front and on the home front.
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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl:

Anyone in Nashville who loves books and good writing has probably heard the name Margaret Renkl. Her book launch at Parnassus Books was an event! With the release of her book Late Migrations, plenty of other readers should know the name soon. I read one of the short pieces from the book in the Oxford American magazine, "The Imperfect Family Beatitudes." I was hooked.

The book, which can be classified as part flash memoir, part essay collection, digs back into Renkl's family history, recording stories told by her grandmother (e.g., "In Which Grandmother Tells the Story of the Day She was Shot), making inferences about the author's mother's depression, and chronicling events from her childhood (e.g. "Things I Knew When I Was Six" and "Things I Didn't Know When I Was Six.")

With none of the essays or sketches more than three pages, she also weaves in her keen observations of plant life, Monarch butterflies, and--literally--the birds and the bees. And while each piece is short, this is not one of those books to be stacked with the Readers Digest copies in the powder room for quick reads. I found myself turning "one more page, one more essay" without a break. She makes use of specific but unpretentious language to describe the world around her--from Lower Alabama to Nashville.

Her occasional literary allusions are delightful for literary sorts without being off-putting to any of her readers. As a result, she has produced a reading experience that will have readers ticking off a list of people who must read the book next.
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Monday, June 24, 2019

Louise Erdrich's Future Home of the Living God

Louise Erdrich never writes the same book twice. That should go without saying of any author, but plenty seem to write a variation of the same book over and over. (I'll not name names for diplomatic reasons.) Her most recent novel Future Home of the Living God starts as the story of a young woman Cedar Songmaker exploring her roots and meeting her birth mother. She does find it odd that as the child of a Native American mother, a non-native family had been able to adopt her, usually prevented by law to maintain ethnicity.

She meets Mary Potts, Senior. (since her own birth name was Mary Potts), Mary's husband,  and her own half sister, a troubled teenager with a drug habit whose clothing seems more like costuming.

Readers learn early that Cedar is pregnant and single, though she reveals some details about the baby's father early in the tale. Gradually, though, Erdrich's tale takes a dystopian turn, first merely suggested, and then explained for fully: Something has gone wrong in nature and evolution seems to be reversing. Not only are plant and animal life affected, but something strange seems to be happening with pregnancies and the delivery of new babies. In fact, as government control increases, pregnant women are expected to turn themselves in or to be arrested and held at special hospitals--conveniently housed in prison facilities.

Cedar is challenged to protect herself and her unborn baby, drawing on help and support--often by stealth--from both the family that raised her and the family of her birth mother. The biggest challenge is learning whom to trust, particularly as citizens are granted incentives to turn on one another.

One interesting thread in the novel comes as Cedar embraces Catholicism, the faith of her birth mother, despite her Songmaker family's agnostic or atheistic beliefs. She observes other-worldly visions by Mary Potts, Senior, and other members of her community.

Erdrich is at her best when she puts her characters into complicated situations that force them to decide between trusting themselves or the members of the network they have built around them. For someone wanting a light summer read, this isn't it; for anyone wanting to be unsettled and engaged, this is a good choice.
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Saturday, June 22, 2019

I haven't re-read Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's classic, in years. Unless my memory fails me, I read it the first time in the first grade. I have always found reading a social activity, so I want to read what my friends read. Honestly, these days, I want my friends to read  what I  read. In elementary school, my favorite bookish friend was Elaine. I've surely mentioned her and her mom, our elementary librarian, many times here on this blog, particularly since the title Discriminating Reader is an allusion to what Mrs. Comer wrote in my 3rd grade yearbook. Many of the classics I encountered as an early reader were influenced by the friendship--The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte's Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins--to name a few.

Recently, I read Anne Boyd Rioux's nonfiction work Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Matters. She had researched Alcott's life and how it related to her novel, as well as the history of the book, the movies, and even the other works influenced by Little Women. Around the same time, my granddaughter came home with a list of classic novels from which to choose. The only stipulation was she couldn't re-read. It had to be a new book to her. I just happened to have a copy (or three) of the novel. I got to see her culminating response to the book, a video she produced with the help of some of her neighborhood friends.

Todd's novel The Spring Girls makes no bones about its being a retelling of the story, particularly since almost none of the names are changed. (Marmie becomes Meredith, but the girls' names and even Laurie are the originals.)  In this case, though, they are living in military housing in Louisiana while their father serves in Afghanistan. The book opens on Christmas day with the same line from Little Women: "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents." Jo is still the central character, a tomboy with aspirations of going to New York to become a writer.  Beth  is a recluse, home-schooled by choice.  Meg, the oldest sister, is trying to outrun a bad reputation in their previous hometown, hard to do in the days of social media. Feisty little Amy is young enough that her aspirations vary according to which older sister is her model for that particular day.

The book also has its share of romance in bloom--between Jo and Laurie, Meg and her recent West Point graduate John Brooke and the Middle Eastern son of her employer (a wealthy woman who keeps Meg around to do her makeup.) Meanwhile, their mother whom they call by her first name Meredith is so distracted by her husband's absence and then by his injury (which should not be a spoiler if you read Little Women) that she sometimes seems to overlook what her daughters are going through. Her loose expectations of her girls certainly diverge from what Marmie might have taught her four daughters, not batting an eye when Meg spends the weekend with her newly returned boyfriend (whom she hopes will become her fiancé) at a fancy New Orleans hotel.

As Rioux noted, plenty of other variations on the story have been produced. A retelling or adaptation doesn't take away from the first experience of reading the novel. I just wonder if knowledge of how the Jo-Laurie romance ends up--after this book closes--might have affected my reading.
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Friday, June 21, 2019

Summer Solstice: Summer Reading

Diane Setterfield's latest novel begins and ends at the summer solstice at the Swan, a tavern on the Thames known for its storytellers. The owner Joe is in poor health but his wife Margot and their daughters (whom everyone calls the little Margots) keep the place running. Their only son Jonathan, born with Down's Syndrome livens up the place, hoping to learn to tell stories well himself.

On this particular June day, though, a man injured beyond recognition appears at the door, holding what appears to be a rag doll but is actually a four-year-old girl, presumably dead. When Rita, the local nurse is summoned to attend to the two victims, she is surprised when the girl begins to breathe again.

Having read and loved Setterfield's Thirteenth Tale many years ago, I was eager to read this one, but I struggled at first because of the many threads to the story. The girl is claimed by the Vaughans, whose daughter Amelia had disappeared from her bed two years before. His wife is so relieved to recover the girl that Mr. Vaughan hides his own skepticism about the girl's identity.

Also drawn into the tale are Robert Armstrong and his wife Bess. A large black man, Armstrong is the son of a young nobleman who fell in love with his maid. Though a marriage was out of the question, Robert was provided with support and an education. Around the time the nearly drowned girl appears, he has learned of a child of his stepson Robin and investigates to see if the girl might be his and Bess's grandchild.

Meanwhile Lily White, something of a hermit who cleans the parsonage, believes  (quite improbably) the drowned girl was her sister Anne.

As Setterfield weaves the threads of the story, building multi-layered, engaging characters, she draws the reader in further. She also adds a light touch of fantasy, including the mythical character called Quietly, the boatman believed either to ferry people across the river to the afterlife or to return them if their time has not come. With the motif of storytelling in the tale, the little elements of fantasy are rendered credible.

Adding to the charm of the well-developed plot, Setterfield pens memorable lines I found myself wanting to write down to consider again later.  Looking back on the book, I realize that nothing can keep me engaged in a story, even one that starts slow, more than good writing--the best words in the best order, Coleridge's definition of poetry.
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: With a Little Help from Reese Witherspoon

More than one author has said that point of view is one of the most crucial decisions a writer makes when crafting a novel. In this spring's "it" novel Daisy Jones & the Six, author Taylor Jenkins Reid alternates points of view of a wide range of characters. Occasionally readers are reminded that these are fragments of interviews, with the questioner out of sight, but the reading experience is more like an intimate glimpse into the lives as they unfold.

The plot develops as a successful band started by brothers Billy and Graham Dunne, but when their opening act Daisy Jones is brought into the band, the tensions are palpable. While Daisy and Billy compete not only for front man/woman for the band, they also have an equal role as protagonist of the novel. Set in the seventies, readers who lived through that music and culture could easily imagine Daisy Jones & The Six as a real band from the era. The drug culture and the sexual revolution are in full swing, but some of the members of the band are more susceptible to the negative effects.

One of the strongest characters in the novel, Billy's wife Camilla provides some light even in the darkest parts of the book. Knowing from the start that she was marrying a rock musician, she fights for her marriage and family, choosing hope and yet demonstrating incredible maturity and empathy.

Reid also presents a convincing look at the dynamics of songwriting, the give and take between two creative artists, Billy and Daisy, with strong wills but a love for their art. The scenes in the recording studio, as well as on- and off-stage performances and interaction between the band and their fans, are credible as well.

The opportunity to experience vicariously the creation of an album will make music lovers who grew up in that era feel a bit nostalgic about the days when we slit the plastic on a new album and slid out the liner notes reading every word.

Reese Witherspoon has highlighted the novel in her book club,  now I hear that she is involved with Amazon's plans for a limited series based on the book. We may be comparing the movie to the book the way we compare a video to the recording.
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Thursday, April 18, 2019

An American Marriage: Tayari Jones


I prefer to get my book recommendations from friends, book lovers I know and trust, not Oprah or Reese Witherspoon. And since I'd heard mixed reviews of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, I was hesitant to start it.

Once I got started, though, I understood what all the hype was about. Jones has written a novel whose characters are many-layered. She follows that perfect formula for a novel in one way. Let the reader know the characters enough to care, and then get them into a lot of trouble. For Roy O. Hamilton, Jr., and his wife Celestial, the trouble--big trouble--comes just one year into their marriage.

Roy, a young black man who grew up in a small, poor Louisiana town first met his wife Celestial when they were in college in Atlanta. They were introduced by Andre, Roy's neighbor in his college apartment but Celestial's "boy next door" since childhood. They meet again in New York City when she's a rising artist and he's a young successful businessman with a bright future ahead. On a trip to visit his parents, one about which she had misgivings from the time they started out, Roy is falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to twelve years in jail.

Their time apart, particularly as Celestial's boutique business selling handmade dolls takes off, leaves Roy desperate for a lifeline to his former life. Told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre, the novel is beautifully written. Jones not only has a deft hand as she develops her complicated characters, but she uses the language so beautifully--without calling attention to the writing.

Jones also manages to deal honestly wth the plight of young African American men not only caught in the U.S. justice system but in the New South and the Old South, where their two world intersect. The book comes across as more than African American literature; it reads as an American story of an American marriage.


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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Crying Fire in a Crowded Library: A Real Horror Story

I keep hearing about college professors expected to offer "trigger warnings" when covering material that might traumatize fragile college students. Sometimes I find my way into a book that should come with warnings too. I'm just starting to read The Library Book by Susan Orlean, and mere pages into the book, I discover I am going to be reading about the most extensive library fire in the United States, caused by arson in 1986.

I can handle all kinds of horror in my reading, but somehow reading about destroyed books gets me at my core. I once missed my son's first soccer goal of the year because I was caught up in a New Yorker article about libraries getting rid of books. (Don't tell him. He may not have known.)

The author admits that after a lovely childhood spending hours in the public library, she had switched to purchasing books (something I certainly endorse). She rarely went to a library other than for research. Her return to the library came when her son was assigned to interview a city official. He chose a librarian instead of a policeman or fireman. That's where she first encountered the story of the Los Angeles library fire, a story obscured in the national news by the Chernobyl incident.

I'm barely into the book, right in the middle of the fire. I know there's a First Folio of Shakespeare inside, and I don't know yet if it will be saved. I do know that I value public libraries for so many reasons. I got my Nashville library card my first or second week here. I know my way around at least three local libraries--the one closest to my home, the one closest to campus, and the downtown library where most of the Salong@615 events are held. I was there Monday to hear author Greg Iles, a delightful evening.

I still buy books, even though I've far exceeded bookshelf space here at the house, but I use the library for books--in print and audio. I've "checked out" seeds in the spring, and I watch for all their programs. I bring my grandchildren along when I can. I remember what a magical place my hometown library was for me. If it hadn't moved to a new, nice building, I could still walk to my favorite shelves on any of the floors.

To honor the memory of the experience, I'm going to keep reading The Library Book, hoping for a happy ending.
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Where Crawdads Sing: Testing My Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Move over, Oprah! Reese Witherspoon's book selections are taking over  the New York Times bestseller lists now.  What first novelist doesn't love a promotion like this--and the movie deal too?

Delia Owens' debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing has certainly reaped benefits from Witherspoon's attention. It's a book club darling right now, and readers are loving the story.

The book is rich in language. The description of the flora and fauna of the North Carolina marsh are particularly evocative. I also cared about what would happen to Kya, known by the people in town as "the Marsh Girl."  While I had a little trouble believing an unschooled girl could eventually become a successful nature writer and illustrator, as well as (SPOILER ALERT) poet, I could imagine her watercolor illustrations of the birds, the marsh grasses, the seashells.

I'll confess, though, that I had a problem with the geography from the beginning. When Tate tells her he lost his mother and sister in a car accident when they were driving to Asheville to buy a bicycle for his birthday, I wondered why she didn't just buy it at Chase's father's Western Auto Store--or stop in Wilmington or Raleigh or Greensboro. Even Hickory would have been closer.

I checked Mapquest. It's over 300 miles--a five and a half hour drive.

I might have thought this was a fluke, but Kya's father goes to Asheville to deal with the VA office (while I feel certain there was a closer office). Then one of the attorneys in the trial central to the novel was wearing a tie he "had bought over in Asheville."

I asked a friend, "Didn't she have a fact checker?"

She responded, "Didn't she have a map?"

I am always drawn back to Tony Earley's Somehow Form a Family when he describes writing a piece about the night after the first moon walk, when his father took all the family out to the back yard to look through his telescope at the full moon, knowing it now had human footprints.

The only problem, Earley's fact checker pointed out, was that the moon wasn't full that night. (I checked it on Google. It wasn't.)

In University Writing recently, we've talked about the concept of ethos, developing one's credibility. It's a tough standard to get everything right. Readers may not notice when you do, but if they catch you in one error, they'll be wary of others.

Maybe by the time the movie comes out, the director will move the shopping trips a little closer to the coast.


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Saturday, February 16, 2019

There There by Tommy Orange: More than A's and Raiders in Oakland

There must be particular challenges for any author who tries to represent his or her own culture. Lean too far one way, and you run the risk of romanticizing; the other, and you may be accused of airing dirty laundry. Tommy Orange, in his novel There There manages a careful balance as he presents a slice of Native American culture rarely represented in literature.

Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, by contrast, have given keen views of life on and around the  Reservation. Orange, though, brings together a vast assortment of individuals, not stereotypes, living in urban Oakland, California.

As he weaves together so many lives that at first seemed connected only because they are Native Americans, Orange connects the dots. His protagonists are flawed and vulnerable. While some are victims of their circumstances, others have made painful, even disastrous choices.

Readers looking for the connection between the numerous narratives begin to see everything moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow, a celebration of Native culture to be held in the Oakland Stadium. Opal will attend because she realizes that one of the grandsons of her sister Jacquie, whom she has been raising, plans to compete for the big prize, wearing the regalia she has hidden. Dene Oxendene will be there, continuing his interviews for which he was awarded a grant. Blue, the daughter Jacquie gave up for adoption will be there, having moved to Oakland after escaping an abusive marriage.

In fact, Blue's escape by bus, with her husband pursuing closely, threatening her even as she hides in the Greyhound station ladies restroom, is one of the most suspenseful passages in the novel.

The tension throughout the novel builds as readers realize that a handful of young men plan to rob the powwow, using guns made on a 3-D printer, aware the prizes will be awarded in the form of gift cards. This cannot end well.

Just as Urea's House of Broken Angels presents the many facets--good and bad--of one particular Hispanic family living in the U.S., Orange builds portraits of individuals in community, in family, living out modern history. He even chronicles Opal and Jacquie's experiences living with their mother on Alcatraz during the takeover during the 70s.

Orange succeeds in piecing together a closeup view of one group of Americans, individuals intricately connected.
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Friday, February 8, 2019

Sightseeing on Others' Literacy Journeys


In my fifth semester as an adjunct at Lipscomb University, teaching University Writing, I have been guiding my students for the last few weeks on a look back at their "literacy journeys." They have reflected on how they learned to read and write--and in far too many cases, how they lost their love for reading.

As long as I have taught, I have been particularly interested in how to preserve or rekindle the love for pleasure reading. When I ask students when they quit loving reading, two themes emerge: the Accelerated Reader (AR) program and force-feeding of assigned books, followed by objective tests over the minutia. Conversely, when I ask the ones who love to read about their positive influences, they invariably mention parents who read aloud to them and teachers whose own passion for books and for students rubbed off on them.

I can honestly admit that sometimes I resisted required reading. (The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd the Sailor come to mind.) Even some of my best students admitted to reading just enough to pass the test, although one of my most clever students said she finally read the ones she'd skipped--after graduation. They were great, she admitted.

This week, I've held conferences with students, looking over their drafts together before the final essay is due. The titles that keep coming up are often books I've loved--Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, The Things They Carried, Nancy Drew mysteries, the Harry Potter series. Some of the books they read weren't around when I was younger--The Magic Treehouse series, Geronimo Stilton, Percy Jackson.

Some of them flourished most when they had the opportunity to choose some books on their own. One students who had a bad experience in class was invited by the same teacher to join a summer book club with a group of girls her age. Another became part of a bookclub started by friends when the teacher discouraged their reading the Hunger Games series. As I long suspected, nothing lights a fire to read for young people like telling them not to read a particular book or series. Conversely, nothing extinguishes the flame like assigning a text as if it's something teachers do to students. (Take this book: It's for your own good--like bitter medicine.)

In a happy coincidence, my thirteen-year-old granddaughter called me while I was still on campus to tell me her teacher had given them a list of classics from which to make a selection. She was so excited and wanted my advice (and access to my book stack.) I couldn't wait to get home and comb through my shelf and bring her a sack of books. I'm hoping she might choose Little Women, the first classic I remember reading, one I haven't read in so long that I've already been thinking of reading it again. In fact, in my car's CD player, I'm listening to Anne Boyd Rioux's  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. 

Maybe while I'm at it, I'll write a thank you note to Margaret Epperson, my elementary school librarian and my earliest mentor other than family members. I'd better get busy now. In a few days, I'll have 63 essays to read.
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Friday, January 4, 2019

The Kingdom of the Blind: Louise Penny Does Not Disappoint

When Louise Penny publishes the next novel in her Three Pines series, I imagine I feel a little bit like young Harry Potter fans did when J.K. Rowling rolled out the next book. I might even risk hyperbole and draw comparisons to the new iPhone or Michael Jordan Nikes.

I got my hands on her latest, Kingdom of the Blind, the week it was released when she appeared at the Lipscomb campus as part of the Nashville Public Library's Salon@615 series. With the semester end, the holidays, and a family wedding pressing, I made myself wait to read.

I even considered waiting until the audiobook was available for checkout, since I have found all of her books ideal for listening. Even when the death of narrator Ralph Cosham, I was able to make the transition to Robert Bathurst (although admittedly with an unusual measure of grief for someone I only knew through his voice.)

In that lovely week between Christmas and New Year when I forget the day of the week, I found more time to read guiltlessly, so I picked up Kingdom of the Blind. Even reading words on the page, I heard the voices of the characters I have grown to love. One mark of a great writer, after all, is the ability to render voice with mere words on a page.

When I heard Penny speak in Nashville, I was struck by her clever wit. It should be no surprise, then, that her characters and their dialogue are so gripping.  In this novel, she picks up the thread from the previous narrative, when Gamache has won the war against a new insidious drug by losing some of the battles.

As this book begins, Armand has been summoned mysteriously to a vacant house as a snow storm builds. Also summoned by letter are Myrna Landers and a new character, a young builder, all selected as executors of the will of a woman they've never met. Of course, one can't have a murder mystery without a murder, and this book is no exception. As Gamache, his neighbors in Three Pines, and his family try to discover why they have been chosen for this odd responsibility, son-in-law Jean Guy has his loyalty tested as the department investigates Armand's role in the recent drug crisis.

While in theory each of these books could stand alone, the real charm is reading them in order, since some of the characters readers grow to love appear from one book the the next. (How can one explain Ruth and her duck to anyone who hasn't read these stories?) Loose threads from one storyline are picked up again. Meanwhile new characters--in this case, a female accountant--are introduced and developed. In secondary narrative lines, Penny leaves readers wonder sometimes just who the good guys and bad guys are.

Most surprisingly, as I read her books, I find myself wishing to revisit the whole series, even knowing how each will end. Her writing, I believe, is just that good.
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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Little Light Reading

Never one to shy away from a tough read or challenging subjects, I nevertheless enjoy simply a feel-good fun book. Light reading can be, should be well written. Even when the prose isn't Pulitzer worthy, authors can still develop engaging characters, ones we love and hate, and put them into interesting plots.

Jojo Moyes' Still Me, the third in her series, follows Louisa Clark across the pond, as she takes a job as a personal assistant after the death of paraplegic Will Traynor and after finding love again with the Sam the paramedic. Moyes gets Lou in and out of trouble, building suspense through misunderstandings and jumping to conclusions.

I also enjoyed Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv. Since every book about an old person these days is compared to A Man Called Ove, I'd have to say this is the book you might have gotten if Ove hadn't been such a curmudgeon from the start. Arthur (real last name Moses) hasn't adjusted to life with Nola, so he visits here grave every day, carrying on conversation with her and her "neighbors" in nearby graves. He meets Maddy, a high school outcast who escapes the cafeteria to eat lunch in the cemetery, and develops an unusual connection. He also expands his circle to include nosy neighbor Lucille, recognizing her loneliness. The story is more life-affirming than life-changing, but who doesn't need that kind of read now and then.

I've already written about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, another character-driven story that takes readers along with the title character (who is more like Ove than Arthur). She's awkward and hard to like; fortunately, her co-worker Raymond looks past her oddities and includes her as he rescues a stranger and expands his--and Eleanor's--circle of family and friends. The rollercoaster ride through Eleanor's lows can be painful for readers. Thank goodness for the Raymonds of the world.

Other novels appearing on the bestseller list this year didn't quite live up to their potential. Rebecca Serle's The Dinner List was built on such a lovely premise. One of my favorite parts of the Sunday New York Times "Book Review" section is "By the Book," in which current authors answer a number of standard questions--What's on your nightstand right now? What kind of reader were you as a child? The question What authors, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party? always sparks some interesting groupings with the potential for interesting conversation across the table. Sabrina, the novel's protagonist, lives out this fantasy on the evening of her thirtieth birthday. Her guests include her best friend, her estranged father, her long-time love Tobias, her favorite college professor, and Audrey Hepburn. It turns out Hepburn is not the only dinner guest no longer living.

Serve takes readers back and forth between the dinner party and flashbacks involving the characters in her life (Hepburn only on film). The book had a made-for-movie feel about it, but never quite lived up to my expectations. If I'd read it at another time, I might have felt differently, I admit.

If I only read light fare, I'd probably always be hungry for m ore. Reading over my year's list, I realize that some books barely touch me, while others never leave me. Sometimes I'm captivated by the language of a book; at other times, though, I fall in love with a character or a place. Either way, I'll keep reading.
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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My 2018 Reading List

Once again, I'm tallying the books I read this year, recorded on my kitchen calendar before moving into my official Book-Woman  journal. While I have more to say about a lot of these books, for today, I'm simply sharing the list:

1. Walter Isaacson, Leonard da Vinci
2. Rachel Joyce, The Music Shop
3. Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
4. Ken Follett, Column of Fire
5. Barbara Martin Stephens, Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler
6. Radney Foster, For You to See the Stars
7. Nathan Hill, The Nix
8. Gabrielle Zevin, Young Jane Young
9. Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia
10. Kristin Hannah, The Great Unknown
11. Ron Hall and Denver Moore, Same Kind of Different as e.
12. Rebecca Hornaki, Seven Days of Us
13. Ann Head, Morningstar
14. Thirty Omrigar, Everybody's Son
15. Alan Bradley, The Grave's a Fine and Private Place
16. Shani Lapina, The Couple Next Door
17. Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book
18. David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
19. Lee Smith, The Last Girls
20. Jonathan Miles, Anatomy of a Miracle
21. Charles Frazier, Varina
22. Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists
23. Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours
24. Rick Bragg, My Southern Journey
25. Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars
26. ---. Wade in the Water
27. Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink
28. Jo Nesbo, Macbeth
29. Paula McLain, Love and Ruins
30. Monte Cox, Significant Others
31. Michael Bishop, Murder in Music City
32. Elizabeth Berg, The Story of Arthur Truluv
33. Jane Gardem, Old Filth
34. Edward Rutherford, Paris
35. Peggy O'Neal Peden, Your Killing Heart
36. Julie Schumacher Dear Committee Members
37. Sara Gruen, At the Water's Edge
38. Anna Quindlen, Alternate Side
39, Pam Munoz Ryan, Echo
40. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
41. Tara Westover, Educated
42. Mark Sullivan, Beneath the Scarlet Sky
43. Bren McLain, One Good Mama Bone
44. Tass Saada, Once an Arafat Man
45. Luis Alberta Urea, House of Broken Angels
46. Peter McDade, The Weight of Sound
47. Frances Mayes, Women in Sunlight
48, Min Jim Lee Pachinko
49. Barbara Kingsolver Unsheltered 
50. Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire
51. Anne Tyler, Clock Dance
52. Jonas Jonasson, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared
53. Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
54. Annie Chapman, The Mother-in-Law Dance
55. Sharon McCrumb, Prayers the Devil Answers
56. Rebecca Serle, The Dinner List
57. JoJo Moyes, Still Me
58. Terry Wait Klefstad, Crooked River City
59. Combs, Hogue, and Reish, John Hartford's Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes
60. Frederick Backman, Elanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
61. Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

That's my list so far--and it doesn't include the one I finished early this morning, my first book of 2019. Now I can study book lists of my other reading friends to see what to add to the stack on my nightstand.
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