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.

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.

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.