Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Sarah Clarkson's Book Girl: A Rich Resource for Readers

Mike, one of the members of my book chat group, always expresses his concern that what he reads may not appeal to the rest of us. He's usually wrong about that. One of the best parts of having a book group that has a mix of gender and ages is the variety of reading to which we are exposed.

Recently he sent me a link to an interview with Sarah Clarkson on the Word on Fire Institute website entitled "Books, Evangelization, and the Transformative Power of the Reading Life." Clarkson studied at Oxford University after what she calls her twelve-year gap year. She had always dreamed of studying there in part because of her love of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. One cannot underestimate the influence of her reading family either.

In the interview she mentioned her book Book Girl, in which she describes her own reading journey, sharing list after list of book recommendations for different circumstances. Her chapter titles include "Books Can Foster Community" and "Books Can Impart Hope." I couldn't wait to start reading it for myself. Her research on reading confirms my own beliefs about the power of literature to shape the mind and the heart.

Her recommendations range from works by Lewis and Tolkien, of course, to classics and childhood favorites--the Anne of Avonlea series by Montgomery, books by George Eliot, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson and more. She also includes annotated lists of books more overtly spiritual or theological.

As a general rule, I love a book list that affords me the opportunity to check off all I have read. Clarkson, however, introduced me to authors I hadn't read yet and to new books by authors with whom I was at least familiar.

She also reminded me of books I've read long ago and need to read again, including Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, a past favorite I recently recommended to a friend to read with his wife and her 97-year-old father.

In Book Girl, Clarkson reminds me to slow down and read thoughtfully and contemplatively. I also become more aware of the need to be selective in my reading, since I can't possibly get to all the books I'd like to read.

I also wish every young family could recognize the value in modeling and encouraging a reading life for children. After all, Clarkson's mother read to her in utero, and during the writing of the book, Sarah confessed to reading to her soon-to-be born daughter, a little book girl of her own.

One word of advice: Don't take the title too literally. There is so much food for thought for men as well as women of all ages. I expect to keep my copy close enough for reference the next time I'm choosing a book to read.

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Sound of Summer Running

Living  life on a school calendar, I have always been aware of how fast the summer goes, speeding faster as it reaches the end. I always play Alison Brown's beautiful instrumental piece "The Sound of Summer Running" in classes that first week. Even without words, it evokes that feeling. This year, I'll have to add John Prine's "Summer's End" from his last CD.

As I face creating my syllabus and reading for my classes, I realize that my time to read for pleasure will be more limited than it has been since mid-March. For that reason, I select carefully. Recently, I returned to an old favorite, perfect for summer reading, Ran Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Written in little vignettes, the book gives readers the perspectives of brothers Tom and Douglas Spaulding, as they consider some complex matters: I am alive. Things change. People leave. We all die eventually.

Living right beside their grandparents, with a great grandmother living as well, the boys learn from others' experiences as well. As they help their grandfather bottling dandelion wine, they imagine the summer captured inside that amber liquid.

They live in that world when neighbors all knew each other, but they still faced fears and sadness.
Part reminiscence, part magic realism, the book has touched many of the students I've taught. One told me, years ago, he planned to read it every summer for the rest of his life. I hope he followed through.

Some years, I collected old bottles and corks, and we placed memories inside to set on the classroom shelves. As far as we are removed from Green Town in 1928, at the core, what remains is true.

As a side note, the title of Brown's song, "The Sound of Summer Running" is a Ray Bradbury title as well. Both, perhaps, give a nod to Andrew Marvell's "time's winged chariot."

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

More Summer Reading: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

Clare Clark's novel In the Full Light of the Sun is set in 1920s Berlin, when the German people are suffering from the after effects of WWI--skyrocketing inflation and food shortage--and Hitler and his Nazi party are rising to power. The political tension at first serves in the background of this story, but increases in intensity throughout the narrative.

I am drawn to works of fiction that deal with the art world, particularly the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I loved the novel Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann, which accounted for Van Gogh's time aspiring to a career in the ministry, serving in a coal-mining town. I also encourage (beg) anyone who hasn't seen the amazing film Loving Vincent to do so--preferably on the big screen.

Van Gogh is not a character in this novel; his paintings, however, take center stage (or lots of museum wall space). Clark pulls together a number of characters. The story opens with Julius, a wealthy art critic, whose wife leaves him, taking their son and his prized Van Gogh painting. The blank spot on the wall torments him. He develops a professional relationship bordering on friendship with Rachmann, an art collector who opens a gallery with his brother. They manage to collect before unknown Van Gogh painting from a mysterious source in Spain. Rounding out the narrative is Emmeline, an art student in Berlin despite her mother's wishes whose path crosses with both men.

bBased on actual events, this one of many intriguing art stories that come out of Europe around the time of the second world war, when forgery was a crime on par with the stolen art of this time period.  Clark captures the human dynamics when money and egos are at stake and greed, deception, and attraction intersect.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: The Vinyl Detective--Written in Dead Wax


Sometimes my reading overlaps with my other interests. Such was the case as I read Andrew Cartmel's first book in his The Vinyl Detective series: Written in Dead Wax. The "vinyl detective" is a young British record collector who specializes in jazz music. He scours charity shops and jumble sales for rare finds, which he resells to pay the rent, hoping eventually to improve his heating system.

A striking young woman shows up at his door with an assignment to find a particularly rare LP, the 14th and last from an obscure label.  She joins him on the search, spending more and more time in his flat as well, charming him and his pair of cats.

Evidence indicates a mysterious collectors' vinyl is appearing around town, but as he and Nevada, his charming sidekick, search for the album in question, a pair they call the Aryan Twins, seem to be just a step ahead of them or right on their trail. His best friend, with a tendency to fall down his own stairs, becomes a casualty.

In the second part of the novel, after he achieves what seems like success, he meets a young American woman whose grandmother sang on the record in the quest. She invites him along for further intrigue.

Much of the story is a little incredible (in the literal sense). A number of murders don't seem to draw much attention or else the police aren't making the connections. Still, the quirky characters, the specificity of the music details, and the twists and turns of the story all make for a fun read--just the kind summer is meant to include.


Monday, August 10, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman


In some ways, I've lost track of time since the Covid-19 quarantine began in March. As spring gave way to summer--and it's always easy to tell the difference in Middle Tennessee--I have been able to read more and more without a trace of guilt. Summers are made for reading.

Never at a loss for a book to read, I still find myself moving back and forth between the unread books on my shelf and the ones I have popping up from my library holds. I am even revisiting Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury right now, a perfect summer book if ever there was one.

Over the weekend, I read Louise Erdrich's latest novel The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s when a bill was proposed in Washington to renege on the agreements made with Native American tribes. Thomas, the title character, works night shift as a security guard in a jewel bearing plant, sleeping maybe 12 hours a week and obsessively reading, writing letters, and gathering support for a trip to Washington to address Congress on behalf of the inhabitants of the Turtle Mountain reservation.

His niece Patrice, whom most people call Pixie--to her dismay--works at the plant to help provide support for her mother and brother, since her dad, a violent alcoholic, has left town. They haven't heard from her sister Vera, who moved to the Cities. Their dreams and visions, however, suggest she is alive but in danger, so Patrice takes a train trip to search for her.

Erdrich peoples all her novels and stories with interrelated characters, including Barnes, the white teacher who is attracted to Patrice, a pair of Mormon elders trying to make inroads with the people they call Lamanites, and the families of the reservation who practice Catholicism without abandoning their own spiritual ways and mysticism. 

The prologue and epilogue reveal that the story is based on experiences of Erdrich's own family, pointing me to a rabbit trail of research I am bound to follow. 


Friday, August 7, 2020

Camron Wright's novel The Rent Collector: A Favorite Book of the Summer of 2020

 I know I have a good book when, before I'm halfway through it, I'm thinking of people to whom I want to recommend it. I read some books that are quirky enough for me but are not for all sensibilities. During this summer, I have found myself reading more books that usual--and that's saying a lot. One that might not have come into my sights was a book club choice by my friend Barb. Camron Wright's novel The Rent Collector is set in a garbage dump in Cambodia, not exactly the kind of setting one would expect to be an uplifting book. Trust me; it was. 

The protagonist Sang Ly lives with her husband Ki Lim in the Stung Meanchey dump where her husband works as a "picker," going through the daily loads of trash, hunting for items of value that can be resold. Their young son Nisay is chronically sick with diarrhea, a continual source of concern. The story picks up when Ki Lim's finds include a picture book. When Sopeap Sin, the disagreeable woman who collects rent, sees the book, Sang Ly sees her reaction and realizes the woman can read. She bribes her with alcohol to teach her to read and discovers there is so much more to the woman that she could have imagined. For Sang Ly, reading is transformative. 

A story of survival, The Rent Collector is told almost in parables, as Sang Ly discovers the power of literature. The story is so beautifully told as the characters realize the power of books to change lives. Wright also demonstrates what can happen when we realize the layers that make up individuals we encounter. 


Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Celebrating Summer Reading: Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel

One mark of a good writer is the capacity to follow one engaging novel with another without reusing the same patterns or retelling the same tale. Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven was both engrossing and haunting, following a troupe of actors in a post-apocalyptic world.

Her newest novel The Glass Hotel is set firmly in this world, but it grabs readers early and doesn't let go. Mandel begins the book with three minimal glimpses of events from later in the story. They are vague enough not to reveal the characters involved, but specific enough in their imagery to remain like a bookmark for the reader.

The narrative first follows Paul, back at his father's home after his step-sister Vincent's mother disappears while boating alone, and then as he becomes infatuated with a female singer at a bar before giving her and her colleagues what end up being tainted drugs to one of her band members. Needing to get away to avoid any responsibility, he takes a menial job at the hotel to which the title refers, where Vincent works as bartender. An elaborate hotel on an island near Vancouver, it accommodates wealthy guests who want all the comforts and pleasures, while completely isolated from the world.

The focus moves away from Paul to his sister Vincent, when she meets one of the wealthy guests who actually owns the hotel, Jonathan Alkaitas, recently widowed. She next appears in tabloids as his wife--a fiction the two create to allow her to play a needed role in his life, while letting her to live as she pleases, with her new persona, shopping and dining without concert for credit limits.

The story takes a sharp turn when Alkaitas' business collapses, revealed as a Ponzi scheme, landing him in prison, from which a portion of the narrative is told.

Mandel introduces minor characters, then weaves together the cast of characters and their storylines, using what at first seem to be minor details--messages etched on windows, Vincent's habit of filming five-minute videos. The details come together to produce a story that is fresh and suspenseful. Not once did the story recall Station Eleven. Anyone who reads both novels will be tempted to look for her earlier works until her next novel is published.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Virtual Format for Southern Festival of Books Reaches Broader Audience

This is such a season of misgivings. The only reason my calendar isn't bare is that I had already recorded all the plans I had before all the cancellations--MerleFest, James Taylor and Jackson Brown at Bridgestone, Americana Fest, Swannanoa Gathering, the IBMA's, even Sing-along Sound of Music at the Nashville Symphony: Cancelled or Postponed.

This week, though, Humanities Tennessee hosted the reveal party for Nashville's annual Southern Festival of Books on Zoom. Some of the authors who will participate in the virtual festival October 1-11 were on hand to read or speak to the nearly 200 people who logged on for the virtual event. Cinelle Barnes introduced A Measure of Belonging, an anthology of new writers of color, with Nashville's own Tiana Clark reading from her essay in the collection. 

Another favorite Nashville writer Ruta Sepetys, whose latest novel Fountains of Silence is a crossover bestseller appeals to adult and young adult readers, participated, noting that she is thankful  she won't have a conflict this year--no matter where she is.  

Poet Nikky Finney also joined the meeting from South Carolina to talk about her new book Love Child's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, with other material, including photos and notes from her years of journals, joining her poetry. 

Some favorite authors are returning: Yaa Gyassi will discuss her novel Transcendent Kingdom, due out in September. Erik Larsen will be discussing The Splendid and the Vile. Alice Randall will be reading from Black Bottom Saints. The charming and funny Southern writer Lee Smith will return to talk about Blue Marlin.

Ron Rash, a perennial favorite at the festival, has a new novel In the Valley coming out soon, which he will be discussing this year. The current National Poet Laureate Joy Harjo will participate, as will 2012 Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway. 

One of the most engaging writers on the Zoom meeting, M. O. Walsh, author of My Sunshine Away has a new novel that is already getting advance attention. Dedicated to the late John Prine, the book also gets its title The Big Door Prize from Prine's song "In Spite of Ourselves," which Walsh said he and his wife chose as their wedding song. 

While a virtual Southern Festival of Books may be a letdown to regular attendees and volunteers who invariably go home with armloads of new books--signed by the authors, Parnassus Books has promised to do their part to make the festival a success in the new format.Other good news is that book lovers who might not be able to get to Nashville for the festival otherwise will have access now, and as the directors reminded everyone, the festival is always free. That's just one more reason to mark the first days of October 2020 on the calendar--in ink.


Reading Books from My Own Shelves

Book lovers can justify adding to our book collections at a pace faster than we can match in our reading. The idea of finishing one book without another to start next is a minor terror. 

We voracious readers fantasize about being stuck at home with nothing to do but catch up on reading. Snow storms--we're prepared! Pandemic--ditto! 

While I use my public library account continually, placing holds on the waiting list for new releases, I have focused on books I've missed on my shelf in the last few weeks and months. 

I loved Austin Kleon's little book Steal Like an Artist, so when he visited Parnassus Books last year, I picked up another of his books, Show Your Work. In it, he points out that one's "work" is more than the finished product; it's the process too. It was one of my June reads, and in this book, he includes some of his "black out poems" --  created by removing all but the operative words on a page of prose.

I also had a copy of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's for years without having read the book. It's actually "a short novel" with three other stories, one of which, I was delighted to discover was his beautiful story "A Christmas Memory." When I read the title story, though, I came across a page that set my 2020 alarm bells. The narrator and Holly go shopping -- or shoplifting -- and pick up masks. It seemed perfect for a blackout poem:
I'm probably one of the few people in America--at least of my generation--that hasn't seen the Audrey Hepburn movie, so I was able to read the story with very few preconceived ideas. Now I can watch the film and complain, "The book was better."

I also located Mark Mills novel Amagansett, set in an east coast fishing village shortly after WWII. The novel opens with a pair of fishermen pulling in a net and discovering the body of a woman identified as Lillian Wallace from a wealthy, powerful family.

Mills follows some of the major characters involved in the aftermath of what may or may not be an accidental drowning. Readers learn that the protagonist Conrad Labard, a first-generation Basque fisherman and war veteran, had a connection to the dead woman. 

Deputy Chief Tom Hollis, recently transferred to the East Hampton Town Police Department, has a gut feeling that doesn't accept the coroner's ruling of accidental drowning, to the dismay of his supervisor Chief Milligan.

There's a wedge between the long-time local fishermen and the moneyed new arrivals, whose development is encroaching on property and fishing rights, so Labard and Hollis follow their own suspicions separately. The death of another local girl in an unsolved hit and run before Hollis' arrival in town presents a clue to Lillian's death.

With glimpses into the past of major and secondary characters, Mills weaves a plot that is both suspenseful and character driven. 

Another book I found waiting on my shelf was Elizabeth Berg's The Art of Mending. I had read Berg before, most recently the charming The Story of Arthur Truluv. This book follows the protagonist Laura, a seamstress who makes unique quilting projects, setting the stage for the controlling metaphor in the book. She and her immediate family are joining her brother and sister for a reunion in their parents' hometown for the Minnesota State Fair. 

While they are together, Caroline, her sister, wants to confront her family with claims of childhood abuse. Then a family crisis arises that makes the confrontation more difficult, especially since Laura and their brother had no memories aligning with Caroline's.

While I continue to read new releases and book club selections, I am happy to know other promising stories are already waiting in my study.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

One of the benefits and challenges of belonging to a book club is the expectation to read someone else's book choice. I feel fortunate that in my book clubs (yes, I'm in more than one), the members are good sports about reading and coming prepared to discuss such a variety of books, even when these might not have been our personal first choices. We learn as much about each other as about the books themselves.

This month for one book club, I read The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki, a well-researched work of historical fiction that I might not have considered reading otherwise. I will admit that I had a little bit of trouble with the first pages. A debut novel, the introduction felt a bit clunky. I also caught myself looking up words the characters used (such as surreal) to confirm my suspicion that they were a bit anachronistic.

Nevertheless, this novel about a Bavarian girl Elisabeth (called Sisi) who married Emperor Franz Joseph of the Habsburg dynasty, when his empire, in addition to Austria, included Hungary, Italy, and France, introduced me a part of European history that was totally unfamiliar. Sisi was raised without the strict upbringing of a royal court. She loved riding horses and spending time out of doors. Originally, she wasn't intended to be the wife of her first cousin Franz. (Yes, there's that cousin issue.) Her older sister had been selected by Sophie, her aunt that became her mother-in-law.

Marrying Sisi was one of the rare occasions when Franz bucked his mother's plans. After the marriage, though, she took charge. And when the couple's children came alone, Sophie took over them too. Surrounded by ladies in waiting who reported her every move, Sisi fell into a depression and focused on her appearance, spending hours on her hair and skin.

While the discomfiting details Pataki shares about Sisi's life are supported by research, to the people in her husband's kingdom, she was beloved. She is credited with some of her husband's political successes.  Her diaries also provide much insight into her life. Partake also goes into detail about an alleged romance between her and Andrassy, one of the powerful figures in Hungary.

As I read this novel, I found myself searching the internet--history.com and Youtube videos--to learn more about the most interesting powerful woman. I found that yes, she was known for her elaborate hairstyles and her corseted 18-inch waist. I also found that there is so much more to her story, which explains why Pataki has written a sequel.

When our book club met to discuss the book, one of the members, originally from Germany, told us that when she grew up, Sisi was their Cinderella. They knew all of the wonderful things about her. I couldn't help making my own connections to Princess Di and to Jackie Kennedy--and most recently, Meghan Markle. All these women's stories are a reminder that a royal lifestyle leaves much to be desired--especially for strong women with minds of their own.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson: A Novel I Never Expected Her to Write

I've been reading Southern author Joshilyn Jackson's novels since I discovered Gods in Alabama with my book club. The Florida native, educated in Georgia, knows the South. Her writing is pitch perfect whether she is discussing football, scandal, or church dinners.

I recently read (and wrote about) Almost Sisters, but didn't even know Never Have I Ever had been published until I got a recommendation from a friend who pointed out that it was not like anything Jackson had written. Still firmly set in the South, this book is more of a suspense novel that a Southern family story.

Amy Whey, the protagonist of the novel, is hosting the monthly neighborhood book club, organized and run by her best friend Charlotte, when a new nearby renter Roux floats in and takes over, generously raiding Amy's liquor cabinet to serve the book club members while introducing her game: What's the worst thing you've done today...this week...this year...ever.

Readers then travel by flashback to Amy's past when, as an overweight, unhappy outsider in high school, she is involved in a fatal accident. She eventually transforms her life, has a new husband, baby, and a stepdaughter she loves, but she keeps her secrets.

Roux's handsome son pays more attention to Amy's stepdaughter than she finds comfortable. Then when Roux turns her game into a blackmail scheme, Amy has to decide how to extricate herself while protecting herself, her friends, and especially her family.

Amy's own transformation came when she learned to dive, a hobby she has turned into a teaching career. While I know almost nothing about scuba diving, Jackson's details are convincing as she takes readers along on a dive into a shipwreck off the Florida coast. Just as realistic is her psychological exploration of a woman who has much to lose and must rely on her wits to win against a diabolical woman.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam

Books don't fit into a true diagnosis of hoarding; that's my firm conviction. While I admit to waves of guilt when I rearrange my shelves and see books I haven't quite managed to read yet, I still give them a place to wait. Too many times to mention, when I've finished one book without another pestering me to read it, I've scanned my shelves and landed on just the right book at just the right time.

During this period of quarantine, I've had access to the library's electronic collections, both audio and print. Sometimes, I have found my time limit up before I've finished reading, and the book is whisked away to the next reader on the waiting list.

I'm also thankful that Parnassus Books still continued to deliver book orders, after having to abandon curbside pick-up.

My own book collection, though, has been a treasure trove through spring and into summer. Early this week, I was drawn to Jane Gardam's novel Crusoe's Daughter, which has been waiting for several years. The book, originally published in 1985, arrived by post a few years ago with a few others from the Europa Editions, including Old Filth, another novel by Gardam. It too had to wait its turn, richly rewarding my efforts when I finally decided to read it.  Likewise, Crusoe's Daughter hadn't come up in a single book discussion, so I'm not sure why I decided to read it now.

Set in a remote, marshy area of England in the first half of the twentieth century, the novel follows Polly Flint, a motherless child left with her two old aunts when her father leaves for sea, where he dies. Along with Mrs. Woods, their boarder, Polly meets a parade of people, housemaids, delivery boys, the local nuns, and the Ziets, a wealthy German family with children near her age, building a second home nearby.

Despite the title's suggestion, this is not a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe's abandoned offspring. Instead, Polly, who never attends school formally, is taught languages and music by her aunts and Mrs. Woods but spends much of her time reading and rereading Dafoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, eventually translating it into German and French and writing volumes of critical response.

While distanced from both world wars, Polly and the other residents of the Yellow House feel its effects in increasing but subtle measures. Not only does the novel unveil the evolution of Polly's character, but it also examines the structure of the English novel as well.

Crusoe's Daughter exhibits the subtlety one expects from a decidedly English novel, springing clever surprises, playing with language, and sending me searching for a pencil so I can make note of passages I want to recall or to discuss with the next person with whom I share this delightful book.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Follow-up Novels: Reading the Next Book

 All my reading life, I've enjoyed finding an author whose work I enjoyed and then plowing my way through their complete works. There's very little pattern to my "author reading" either. In junior high, I read everything by Daphne du Maurier after loving Rebecca.  I was surprised to learn she lived until 1989, since she quit publishing around 1972, right when I was reading her novels. I also read Lloyd C. Douglas' novel The Robe and then read all of his books, first the sequel The Big Fisherman and then the series set in more modern day.

If I like a first novel I read by an author, I'll willing to get another one a shot. What I love best is an author who can follow up with something just as good
but original. While I've had a little more reading time lately, I picked up two books from my "to read" list from that category. I had loved Euphoria, a novel that draws from the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, a story of love and intrigue set in remote villages in New Guinea. When her novel Writers & Lovers came out with rave reviews and a
recommendation from Ann Patchett on the Parnassus website, I was sold.

Casey, the protagonist, has finished a writing program and has been working on her first novel for about six years. She is overwhelmed with college loans, living in a garden shed, and doing restaurant work to keep her head above water. Her friend Muriel takes her along to a reading by Oscar, a relatively famous writer. Casey can't afford to buy his book, but she recognizes him when he comes to her restaurant with his sons he is raising after losing his wife to cancer. His is moved by her kindness to the boys, who plan to pay for their father's meal as a birthday surprise--for which they are for woefully underfunded--and the two end up developing a relationship.

By coincidence, she is also seeing another aspiring writer, a young man in Oscar's critique circle who also teaches high school. On the surface, the story--something of a love triangle--seems ordinary, but the development of the characters, the clever details (that would certainly ring true to anyone who's worked in a fast-paced restaurant setting), and the satisfaction of the way loose ends are tied up make it something more.

Here's my confession: I started reading the novel on my iPad while working at a blood drive. I was surprised when I saw how many pages I had read. Only as I neared the end did I have the nerve to check to confirm what I suspected: I had somehow skipped a good chunk. I read to the end then skimmed the beginning until I got to the part I had missed. It explained a lot, but honestly, I think I enjoyed the novel as much as I would have if I'd read it correctly. I do think anyone who's ever wanted to write and publish will be struck by her experiences and the reactions of those who try to feed her on doubt. (Her landlord, learning that she's an aspiring writer, says he is surprised she thinks she has something to say.)

Another second read by a novelist I enjoyed the first time was Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. I had loved her novel A Good Hard Look set in Milledgeville, Georgia, during the Kennedy era. In that book, Flannery O'Connor (with her peacocks) is a secondary character.

Her latest novel is a complete departure from that one. Edward, a 12-year-old boy, is the only survivor of a plane crash as his family is flying to their new home in California. He is taken in by his mother's sister and her husband, an infertile couple facing their own grief. The story alternates between the flight leading up to the crash and the boy's attempt to return to some kind of normalcy.

Both of these books were so unlike the predecessors, but I enjoyed reading both. Now I have a newly arrived copy of Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (who wrote News of the Day.) I am eager to get started.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

What to Do During the Long Days of Long Months? READ

If we aren't reading anything else during this l-o-o-o-n-n-g pandemic, we are reading memes. Nothing makes tedium intolerable like humor. I've seen several variations of the idea that we can no longer say, "If I ever had time, I'd. . . ." because we have it and we aren't. Since I'm not in the car as often as I usually am, I don't get through all the audiobooks checked out from the library before they disappear from my devices. During this long stretch of time with my calendar virtually cleared, though, I am finding time to read.

One of the most uplifting books had been on my list for awhile: The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede. I had heard the story, even from personal accounts, of the passengers on international flights headed to the U.S. on 9/11 that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. The passengers on more than sixty planes almost outnumbered the residents of the town, yet the "Newfies" put out the welcome mat and did everything they could to make their stay not only tolerable but pleasant.

Defede follows the stories of passengers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and local citizens as their lives came together. Two families were on their way home after international adoptions; they were weary and just wanted to go home. One family knew their son, a firefighter near Ground Zero, hadn't been accounted for. A major executive for Hugo Boss was on his way to Fashion Week and, at first, was discomfited by lack of access to comfortable underwear. When people within his corporation planned to have him picked up on a private jet, he declined, choosing instead to wait it out with fellow passengers.

While the book jogs memories of those days we all spent in from the our television screens that fall, it also reminds us how difficult times often bring out the best in people. When people nearby notice a rabbi and his companions not eating, they realize the lack of kosher food and arrange to provide food and an appropriate kitchen. Local citizens offered the stranded passengers rides, meals, and even places to sleep. A couple of women, on a break from their own families, bought camping gear and set up outside the community building where many of the others slept.

The story reminds me that once the pandemic ends and our "shelter in place" orders are safely lifted, we too will have stories emerging that give us hope in human nature.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Lethal White: Discovering Another Series

After living in the world of Harry Potter for so long, I was curious to see what kind of writing J. K. Rowling would produce once she left that hugely successful run. I read A Casual Vacancy and found it rather dark (which doesn't necessarily scare me away.)

I began the first in her Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo's Calling, not knowing it was a going to be a series, and I found her two protagonists, Strike and his protege Robin Ellacot, completely engaging. Strike is a private detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan. The first novel opens when Robin responds to an ad for a temp receptionists. She's young, attractive, and engaged to be married. She has also harbored an interest in police work for years. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, develops the camaraderie and even the spark between the two, as their partnership and friendship grows.

The fact that Robin's fiance Matthew isn't keen on her working with Strike adds some delicious tension to the stories, as Robin uses her wits to help Strike solve the crimes that land on his desk. This month, I finished the fourth in the series Lethal White, in which Strike is drawn to investigate the veracity of a story brought to his office by an unbalanced young man about having witnessed the burial of a small child.

As the story opens Robin, who has been let go by Strike after an assignment led to injury and near death, has just married Matthew, after prior delays in their wedding. She makes discoveries about her husband's deception that cast a shadow not only on the wedding but the marriage, particularly when Strike asks her to return as his partner in the business. Robin goes undercover working with a member of parliament being blackmailed. This story is set in London as the city prepares to host the Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, a socialist organization that opposes the Olympics seems to have more that just disruption in their plans.

This story brings Cormoran and Robin to government offices and to the shabby country homes of the horsey set, landing them in the midst of at least one murder investigation.

While the audience for these novels is quite different from the Harry Potter fans, the author balances her expertise at character development with her suspenseful plot structure, delivering another satisfying reading experience. Best of all, she has the next installment in the series ready for a 2020 publication.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Reading While Sheltering in Place: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I usually wait until January 1 to write down the titles of the books I've read and recorded on my wall calendar. However, I wanted to take stock of the first quarter of this most unusual year.  Since time "sheltering in place" has placed me within easy reach of the unread books and bookstore and library links allow me to download ebooks and audiobooks, I've had the delightful dilemma of what to read next and what to recommend from those I have been able to read.

I finally picked up Kiley Reid's novel Such a Fun Age, after hearing her read at Parnassus shortly after the book debuted. The story follows Emira Tucker,  a 25-year-old young African American who hasn't made the transition to adulthood as successfully as her some of her friends have. She works part time as a sister for 3-year-old Briar, whose father is a newscaster in Philadephia and mother Alix has made a career on social media out of the art of letter-writing, just as she has re-invented her own life.

The book, which shifts between Emira and Alix's points of view, opens as Emira is asked to leave a party and take Briar out of the house following a disturbing incident of vandalism resulting. While Emira is with Briar in Whole Foods, a security guard accuses her of kidnapping the young girl, creating an incident another shopper records on his phone.

Reid narrates the aftermath, as Alix tries to make a start on the book she has a contract to write, as she begins to live vicariously through Emira, regularly sneaking peeks at her sitter's phone screen to catch snatches of texts with her friends and new boyfriend.  Reid maintains reader suspense with some unexpected turns, particularly in the world's most awkward Thanksgiving dinner, when Emira's fight home is delayed and Alix invites her to bring her new boyfriend to join them.

While the book obviously deals with racial issues, Reid does so without cliches or easy answers. Her characters are also fully fleshed out--not stereotypes or easy targets. Her protagonists have flaws, and even those that could be considered villains have redeeming qualities. What results is a page turner that will keep readers thinking (and locking their phones) for a long time.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Books for Times Like These: Not for the Faint of Heart

As the news of the Coronavirus has literally gone viral, I have noticed an odd spectrum of factual, medical, hysterical, and--yes--humorous information coming across the World Wide Web.  I confess that I get a kick out of some of the cartoons and memes poking fun, for example, at the way shoppers have stripped the shelves of toilet paper and Amazon has hiked prices of hand sanitizer. I remember right after the first space shuttle explosion reading a psychological explanation of why we joke about serious news item. Rather than being a sign of our callousness, it represents more of a coping strategy.

In that vein, then, I shared the Facebook warning that books might be in short supply, encouraging people to rush to their local new and used book shops to stock up on reading material in case this "social distancing" lasts long. Someone suggested we treat the experience the way we do snow days: use common sense and stay inside. I always loved the part of snow days that left me at home with time on my hands to read. (I also have inexplicable urge to bake bread. But I digress.) Part of my justification for stockpiling books is for times like these when I might be caught at home--with no March Madness or Masters golf tournament to distract.

One book in my "to read" stack was Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers. I heard Walker at the Southern Festival of Books and, intrigued,  picked up a copy. Without offering any spoilers, I will tell you that the story begins on a college campus when  a coed comes back to the dorm after a late night of partying, falls asleep, and then doesn't wake up. The inexplicable "sleeping sickness" begins to spread, beginning in the dorm where quarantine is put into effect at an attempt at containment. The similarities between their story and the one unfolding here is uncanny.

Walker is not a newcomer to these kinds of scenarios. In her previous book, The Age of Miracles, the earth's rotation gradually slows, throwing off the clock, the calendar, the seasons. Her tendency to explore the "what ifs" makes for a fascinating read.

Having taught British literature for much of my career, I've always been fascinated with tales of the Black Death that took such a human toll across Europe during the Middle Ages.  Two novels published closed to the same time dealing with that plague are Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, which focuses on one small town and attempts at containment, and the second novel in Ken Follett's trilogy that began with Pillars of the Earth. In World Without End, Follett applies his narrative skills in a sweeping epic set in the same fictional cathedral town, this time as the Black Death takes its toll.

I must include a YA novel, the debut work by Alison Kemper, my teaching colleague in North Carolina.  Her novel Donna of the Dead details a zombie outbreak that opens with the protagonist on --of all places--a cruise ship.  Kemper's tongue-in-cheek humor, rare in this genre, made it a fun read.

I know some people would prefer some escapist literature--and there's plenty of that to go around. Even Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, is blogging encouraging words from her safe place.  If, however, you prefer to look into the mouth of the lion, to explore pandemics in a fictional setting, here are a few from which to choose. Try to buy them from a brick and mortar bookstore while you can. They're going to need your business.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Joshilyn Jackson's Southern Voice: Almost Sisters

After painfully making my way through a couple of audiobooks set in the South but read by decidedly unSouthern narrators, what a breath of fresh air to listen to Joshilyn Jackson reading her own novel The Almost Sisters. I've been reading her books since Gods in Alabama, and she always weaves a great story line with quirky but believable characters.

This novel opens with Leia Birch Briggs, a comic book artist and self-proclaimed nerd, discovering that a one-night stand with a man dressed as Batman (or is it The Batman to purists?) at a comic book convention has left her pregnant with a child she decides she will raise on her own.

She delays telling her family, however, finally deciding she'll first tell her beloved grandmother Birchie, who still lives in the small Southern town of her family origin. She gets the news that her grandmother has been keeping a secret, with the help of her best friend Wattie, the daughter of the family's former black maid: she has a form of dementia known as Lewy bodies. (Yes, it's a real illness.) The dementia revealed itself at a church social when Wattie wasn't able to keep Birchie from spilling town secrets, particularly the extramarital shenanigans going on in the choir room.

Meanwhile, Leia learns that her half-sister--always the perfect one--is in the middle of a marital crisis, and Rachel's young teenage daughter witnessed the blow-up. To get her out of the middle of the crisis, Leia takes her along to Birchville.

As she tries to make the hard decisions about moving her grandmother to a safer place, Leia discovers that the secrets Birchie let fly at the Baptist Church were nothing compared to her own secrets she's been keeping--or hiding--in the family home.

Jackson uses the experiences of many of the characters to explore the impact of a father's absence--either by choice, loss, or pure ignorance. Leia's father died when she was too young to remember him; her stepfather was a loving parent, but early on, Rachel prevented Leia from calling him Dad. Rachel's teen daughter connects with two local teen boys whose mother's infidelity was exposed, and Birchie's father issues emerge through the course of the story, as Leia has to make decisions about how much--or if--to tell Batman she is carrying his baby.

Jackson builds a story that is at once a romance, a coming-of-age story, a family saga, and a comedy. No, she doesn't relegate Batman to his early cameo appearance as the story opens--and he is anything but the stereotype readers might expect--unless they know Joshilyn Jackson's fiction, that is. While I know the story would read just as authentically Southern off the pages of the book, hearing it narrated by the author is an audio treat.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I've taken awhile to write a review of this novel, hoping the hubbub would die down and people would read it first without being influenced by the controversy surrounding the book. Everyone who had read the advanced copies of the novel commented on how powerful yet painful the book is, so I was eager to hear Cummings read at Parnassus Books the week the book was launched, and I was just as eager to read her novel.

Jeanine Cummins pulls in readers from the opening pages, when her two main characters, a young boy Luca and his mother Lydia in Acapulco are able to hide and survive a mass killing of 16 members of their family at a birthday cookout, obviously the work of members of a notorious drug cartel. The hit is undoubtedly a response to an expose of the particular cartel, Los Jardinieres, written by Lydia's journalist husband Sebastian.

Immediately after their escape, aware that many of the local law enforcement officers are in the pocket of the cartel, Lydia takes Luca and flees toward the U. S. border. What follows is a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, bone-weary journey, as Lydia and Luca join others making that same route. Along the way, they are shadowed by a young man bearing a tattoo marking him as a member of the Los Jardinieres who has killed. While he tells her he is leaving to escape that life, his tendency to keep appearing leaves her more than wary.

Two of the most sympathetic characters they encounter are young sisters, one of them strikingly beautiful, who have fled to escape a controlling relationship in which the elder sister became entangled that now threatens to control the younger sister too. They are able to show the mother and son the ropes as they slip onto trains bound north, and they become more like family to Luca and Lydia.

Ignoring the inflammatory buzz about the book, I will say that American Dirt has the power to engage readers with neutral or negative attitudes about immigrants heading to the border. Certainly she shows the characters they encounter as individuals as varied as any one would expect to meet under such circumstances. In some towns, they find themselves fed and cared for, and in others, they have to lie low, avoiding any attention that might connect them to Javier, the cartel leader.

I'm wondering if Atticus Finch would fault Cummins with attempting, after much research, to portray as human beings characters that are often wrongly stereotyped.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Markus Zusak's I Am the Messenger

When an author scores a home run, writing a major novel that makes school reading lists and book clubs too, the pressure to follow the success must be intimidating. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief was that kind of a publishing success, read by several generations of readers. His choice of Death as his narrator--a benevolent narrator at that--worked on more than a gimmicky level.

The story line was captivating and the creativity with which he developed it made it one of my favorite books.

I Am the Messenger is not Zusak's first novel after The Book Thief, but it came to my attention on Book Page, where I read that it was the one book a particular bookseller recommended to everyone this past year.

The novel opens during a poorly executed bank robbery, where the narrator Ed Kennedy and his three best friends are introduced--Marv, Ritchie, and Audrey. A nineteen-year-old cab driver (who had to lie about his age to get the job) considers himself something of a loser, especially in comparison to his siblings. He often spells out the inventory of his shortcomings. Ed spends his free time in card games with his friends who aren't exactly setting the world on fire either.

Then Ed gets a mysterious playing card in the mail with three addresses written on it but no directions. He has to figure out just what is expected of him. The strange assignments take him through sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartwarming interactions, usually with complete strangers.

One of the best characters is his coffee-drinking, smelly old dog he has named The Doorman. While at times readers may wonder if there might be a little touch of the supernatural, the book remains believable. The ensemble of secondary characters is handled deftly by the author as well.

In one episode he helps a priest in a rough neighborhood to increase church attendance, in part by offering free beer at an after-church social.

Never during my reading did I find myself comparing the novel to The Book Thief. I found myself so caught up in this story that I didn't have to keep looking back down the library shelf.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

2019 Highlights: Reading to Be Discomfited

A few years ago, I read about some research on the "Theory of Mind"--understanding the mental states of others--particularly the positive benefits of reading literary fiction, in comparison to reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. One doesn't have to deal in psychological research to realize how such reading can increase one's ability to empathize with others, as well as to make inferences.

I have often pointed out to my students that they may have the opportunity to travel to remote parts of the world, but they can never travel far into the past or the future--except in a book.

While my own reading choices vary widely, I sometimes identify patterns. This year in particular brought me some fiction that challenged me to empathize, even when doing so felt uncomfortable. One of the powerful books I read this year was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.  I had heard him at a reading in Nashville when Underground Railroad was first published and added that to my reading list. His latest novel The Nickel Boys follows the story of a young black man whose life takes a turn for the worst because of horrific timing and coincidence. Elwood, a high school student with a hunger to learn, had the opportunity to take college classes, but the driver with whom he hitches a ride is stopped and found to have contraband in the car. Assumed guilty as well, Elwood is taken to Nickel Academy, a segregated school for boys, where the adults in charge cruelly overstep their bounds.

Whitehead opens his story in the present after the school's closing when unmarked graves are discovered--based on the actual case of the Florida School for Boys, where just such a discovery was made in 2011. He then moves back in time to explore Elwood's story and that of some of the other boys he encounters during his time at Nickel.

I also made time to read Angie Thomas' YA novel The Hate U Give, a heartbreaking story told through the eyes of Starr Carter, a young black girl living in a poor neighborhood but attending an exclusive private school. When shots are fired at a party she's attending with her friend Kenya (with whom she shares a half brother), she takes a ride home with Khalil, a friend from childhood. When he is pulled over by a policeman, the stop goes very wrong, leaving Starr struggling to make sense of the two worlds whose line she straddles.

Thomas doesn't tie up loose ends in a pretty bow. In fact, the verdict is reminiscent of the one following the court room scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it results in riots that nearly destroys the neighborhood of the angry rioters. Thomas depicts her characters as many-layered. Starr's father spent time behind bars but has put gang life behind him and runs a successful local business. Her Uncle Carlos, who raised her while her father was imprisoned, is a policeman who must deal with the repercussions of antagonism toward law enforcement in general.

Right on the heels of The Hate You Give, I read Zadie Smith's most recent publication, Grand Union, a collection of short fiction. Her settings shift between Europe and the United States, and many of her characters not only deal with preconceptions based on skin color but nationality as well.

While most of us need more than two or three works of fiction to see the world through the eyes of others unlike us, reading is a good way to start walking in others' shoes.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Matthew Dick's Twenty-One Truths about Love: A Clever Twist with Lists

If I tried to make a list of the factors that lead to my selecting one book over another to buy or to read, I couldn't do it. I do know that when I visited Parnassus Books, Nashville's excellent independent bookstore, right after Christmas, Twenty-One Truths about Love by Matthew Dicks had my attention even though I saw plenty of other books on my "What to Read Next"--and  I have plenty of perfectly good books waiting, unread, on my shelves at home.

In this case, my gut instinct was right. More than just a clever gimmick, the book is told told entirely through lists. These lists are compiled by Daniel, who quit teaching English (at the school where he met his wife in a faculty meeting) to open a bookstore. This is, admittedly, the dream job of almost everyone I know who has taught (or teaches) English, so the book also serves as a warning.

Through his lists, readers discover that the bookstore is losing money, something Daniel hasn't summoned the nerve to tell his wife Jill. In list fashion, he introduces all his characters--his best and worst employees, his family, even the elderly gentleman he meets at Bingo games who becomes his best friend.

Having spent plenty of time in the classroom, I especially appreciated some of the school-related humor: Jill's text messages from faculty meetings, the baby names they reject because of former students with those names. Any teacher understands.

Some of the most poignant details have to do with Jill's deceased first husband Peter, a presence in their marriage with which Daniel has to cope.

After speeding through this book, my booklist just got longer:

1. Anything else written by Matthew Dicks.