Friday, August 4, 2023

Ann Patchett's Latest Novel: Tom Lake


I am predicting an uptick in readers of Thornton Wilder's Our Town now that Ann Patchett's new novel is out. The play is central to the novel's plot, first as Laura (who becomes Lara) decides at the last minute to try out of the role of Emily in a local production of the play after seeing the abysmal auditions of the other potential Emilys and then as she goes on to play the role in summer stock theatre in Michigan. 

Now in her late fifties, Lara is telling her three daughters, in episodes, about that experience at Tom Lake near the cherry orchards of Michigan. The three grown daughters are waiting out the pandemic at their parents' home, something Lara admits to herself she enjoys. Central to the narrative is one of her co-stars, Peter Duke, with whom she had a summer fling. Duke has gone on to achieve movie star status, leading to curiosity of her girls, particularly Emily, the oldest, who at one point believed he might have been her father.

The full role of the girls' actual father Joe, who has inherited the Nelson orchards, becomes more apparent as the story unfolds. As one would expect in a story woven around a play, Patchett has assembled a curious cast of characters--Lara's understudy Pallace, a Black dancer to whom Duke's brother "Saint Sebastian" is drawn; Uncle Wallace, a former TV star now playing the Stage Manager; Mr. Ripley, who chanced to discover Lara while watching his niece in the play and brought her to Hollywood for a movie role.

The three daughters are also distinctly rendered--Emily has been preparing her whole life to take over the family farm along with Benny, literally the boy next door. Maisie has not completed veterinary school, but the neighbors call on her for all their animal emergencies from birth to death. Nell, the youngest, wants to be an actor.

The impact of story--those we want to hear, those we are expected to tell--is an important part of the novel, including the impact of different perspectives on the interpretation of an event--or of a play. Lara says, "I learned so many things that summer at Tom Lake, and most of those lessons I would have gladly done without." 

Perhaps the most universal lesson, both for the novel and for the play it is wrapped around, is the one Patchett noted at her book launch: Life is so brief, just a piling up a little moments. Before you know it, you're in Act 3.


Saturday, July 29, 2023

More Reasons to Love Historical Fiction


My reading this summer has been as eclectic as ever, but I find that when asked to recommend a book to someone, I often turn first to historical fiction. Often I am not sure until I finish and read the author's notes whether the story is based on fact. A good story can stand on its own, after all, but the historical basis gives me a good excuse to do a little digging.

One such novel I particularly enjoyed is Lynda Rutledge's West with Giraffes, a journey tale in the spirit of Towles' The Lincoln Highway or Krueger's This Tender Land--or Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Set during the Dust Bowl, with a frame story in the near future, this is the story of Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Nickels, who as a boy left his Texas home after losing his family, victims of the Dust Bowl. He makes his way to New York to find a cousin about the time a hurricane hits the area. 

At the same time, two giraffes on their way to the San Diego Zoo are caught in the hurricane, which injures the female "Girl." Woody, at not quite sixteen, convinces the zoo employee charged with taking the exotic beasts across the continent in a rickety truck that he is capable of driving them. Rutledge also introduces a female photographer desperate to publish her photos and stories of the trip--one of many items on her bucket list--who follows the truck and strikes up a friendship with Woody.

In the frame story, Woody at 105 lives in a nursing home where he fantasizes images of the giraffes peering in his window while he works desperately to write his story before his time runs out. 

Even without the historical basis, Rutledge weaves a compelling story. Background details (and photographs) of the giraffes en route, as well as details about the iconic Belle Benchley, the zoo's first female director, accessible online, add to the story's charm.

When I heard Luis Alberto Urrea had a new book, I was eager to read it, having thoroughly enjoyed his novel The House of Broken Angels. One thing that struck me about the earlier novel was his convincing portrayal of his female characters. 

In Good Night, Irene, Urrea draws from his own mother's experience as a "Doughnut Dolly" working for the Red Cross about a Clubmobile during World War II. The title character Irene is a city girl who leaves behind a wealthy but abusive fiancĂ© to join the war effort. She is paired with Dorothy, strong-willed and sharp-witted Midwesterner. 

Rather than staying back out of harm's way, the women follow the troops through France after D-Day, often witnessing horrific warfare at risk to their own lives. While Urrea includes a cast of characters, these two friends are central to the story, and they are evidence of the author's skill at characterization.

Again, the author's notes that follow the narrative explain how much of the story was inspired by Urrea's mother's story, offering a glimpse into one of the rarely highlighted roles in keeping up the spirits of the troops. With Urrea's skill at taking inspiration from his own family experiences, his readers will hope he has a vast well of stories from which to draw for his next novels. 


Thursday, July 6, 2023

 Like most voracious readers, the last thing in the world I need is to add to my "to read" list, but I can't resist someone else's reading suggestions. This week, at the bottom of a list of suggestions of short books, I came across mention Ian McEwan's novel Nutshell. I have no idea how it escaped my attention this long, since it was published in 2016.

The protagonist of the novel is Hamlet--as a fetus--in modern-day London. He is the ultimate insider--pun intended. The action covers two or three days in the last couple of weeks before his mother Trudy is due to deliver. Young--very young--Hamlet, with his ear pressed against the uterine wall, is privy to the conniving of his mother and her lover Claude, whom he realizes is his father's brother.

His father John is a poet who runs a small publishing house, while his younger brother has more financial success. As the book opens, Trudy has moved her husband out of the house while she is "on a break." 

One could probably read and even appreciate the novel with only passing familiarity with what is arguably Shakespeare's most famous play, but for those who have studied the play or taught the play (dozens of times), the pleasure of recognizing not just lines lifted from the play, but suggestions of themes. Hamlet's world-weariness is, in this case, fed by secondhand exposure to his mother's podcasts. He also experiences secondhand exposure to her increasing alcohol intake as the situation grows more complicated. 

Considering the book was published pre-Covid, some of the references to current issues are fascinating--including conflict between Russia and Ukraine, gender ambiguity, climate issues, and increasing violence. McEwan's unborn protagonist with his astute sense of observation, self-awareness, and impressive vocabulary comes across as far more than a gimmick. 

I am glad I encountered the audiobook first, but I suspect I will need to add a hard copy of the book to my library so I can revisit the story to see how many allusions I missed.


Friday, June 16, 2023

Gin Phillips' Family Law

I've been reading Gin Phillips' books since  The Well and the Mine, her debut novel. I'm fascinated that the Alabama author writes such a range of fiction. Come in and Cover Me is centered primarily around an archeological dig, with the protagonist collecting remnants of pottery of a particular indigenous woman. That novel incorporated elements of magical realism and Springsteen lyrics. Phillips' novel Fierce Kingdom places the protagonist and her son at a zoo (I'm assuming the one in Birmingham) with an active shooter on the loose.

Her latest novel Family Law is set in Alabama in the 70s. The primary protagonist Lucia is a successful family lawyer, a role that often puts her in the crosshairs of angry spouses. 

Rachel, a girl whose mother comes to the law office to discuss the possibility of a divorce, finds Lucia's home and the two develop a friendship, putting both of them, as well as Lucia's husband, in danger. 

Once Rachel is introduced, Phillips alternates between her point of view and Lucia's. Rachel's navigation of high school dynamics and life with her distracted mother show a mature but believable self-awareness.

Phillips develops interesting characters and addresses challenges to a woman who chooses a career path unusual for females at the time in history, but she doesn't make her characters into stereotypes. The nuances in her marriage are well-drawn. Even Lucia's dog has a significant role. 

This book will appeal to readers of Joshilyn Jackson, who also reads the audiobook of Family Law, a bonus, in my opinion.

I will confess that I was particularly intrigued when one of Rachel's school friends shared a name with one of my former students, a young woman who just happens to be a friend of Gin Phillips. Coincidence? I think not.



Thursday, June 15, 2023

Fear Not! I'm Still Reading

 First, let me allay any fears that I have abandoned reading. Not so. I am ashamed that I have fallen so far behind on posting about my reading exploits though. I'm at that stage in my dissertation process that when I write, it's often academic. The end is in sight, though.

I may not be sharing what I am reading, but I never stop reading. I admit I have relied on audiobooks more, taking advantage of time in the car, at the gym, working around the house to listen. My latest such experience gave me a chance to hear audiobook reader extraordinaire Tom Hanks.

I had already enjoyed his reading his collection of short fiction Uncommon Types, as well as Ann Patchett's The Dutch House. While he has other actors reading parts for this newest book, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, including his wife Rita Wilson, he does most of the reading, and he does it well.

We've all heard the old advice, "Write what you know." Hanks certainly followed that rule, pulling together disparate threads to weave the story of Knightshade: The Lathe of Firewall, the movie adaptation of a comic book, looking back at the late 40s childhood of the graphic artist and the uncle for whom he was named but who made himself scarce after returning from the way. In present time, readers meet Bill Johnson, the producer/director of the film, and a delightful cast of characters--literally. 

Some of the best characters in the story are women, particularly Alicia (Al) McTeer, Johnson's assistant director, whom he discovered working at a Garden Suites, and Ynes Gonzales-Cruz, a rideshare driver, who lands a job with the production. Both have found success by being good problem solvers in what might have seemed dead end jobs. Equally well-drawn are the lead actors in the film as well as such minor characters as the makeup artists, spouses, and bit actors.

While Hanks' strength is his character development, he also has a filmmaker's eye for sensory details. Lone Butte, the North California town where the movie is filmed, becomes so real, I think I could find Clark's Drug Store. He also has a knack for building suspense, but sometimes letting his characters elude disaster without use of deus ex machina. 

Most refreshing is the way characters genuinely care for one another. Yes, there are antagonists, but most often, those in power take the high road or give opportunities to people they might have overlooked, This may not be an accounting of "the making of every major motion picture," but I like to think the process could be more like the one in the story.


Saturday, February 25, 2023

Home Cooking: Rick Bragg and Stanley Tucci

I have always loved cookbooks. I even turn first to the recipe section when I read Southern Living or, for that matter, the Costco ad booklet. When food makes an appearance in books I love, all the better. 

My teaching friend Valerie on the North Carolina coast organized her summer school English class around food last year, inviting guest readers to share favorite food writing. I joined them by Zoom to read passages from Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain.  I believe I chose Inman's cooking a bear cub he had hoped not to kill. I could have chosen the goat woman chapter. 

 Since that time, I continue to find great food writing I could have selected. A favorite book club nonfiction choice a few years ago was Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. I wanted to visit her New York restaurant.

Two food memoirs crossed my radar this year. I love Rick Bragg's writing, whether he is telling his own family tales or writing about Jerry Lee Lewis. I had his book The Best Cook in the World for awhile--waiting its turn--when my sister started raving about the audiobook. If there is anything that can improve on reading Bragg's writing, it's hearing him read it himself.

Going back at least three generations, he weaves stories and food throughout, noting that the two are rarely separate. Since his family lived along the Alabama-Georgia border and he is almost my age, the connections were palpable. The food he is describing is the food of my people. In many ways too, his people were much like my own. I might  have finished listening sooner if I hadn't kept stopping rewinding and making whoever was around me listen to Bragg's singular delivery of his prose.

When I mentioned Bragg's book to reading friends, Tucci's food memoir invariably came up. I chose to listen to him read his story as well. The son of an Italian American family rooted in the Calabrian region, he describes in delicious detail the meals he enjoyed as a child (even explaining how the evening's meal ended up in his daily school lunch, which he sometimes exchanged for his classmate's sandwich of marshmallow creme on white bread.) He also describes his own cooking experience and favorite restaurants--so many out of business.

Tucci peoples his book not only with his parents and grandparents but he also introduces his children. His story includes his first wife's cancer death. He tells how he created a new blended family and moved to England with his second wife. He shares his own cancer ordeal, which threatened his life, his acting career, and his ability to enjoy food.

I know I'll end up adding a hard copy of Tucci's book to my library, but I'm not sure where it will go on my bookshelves. I may need a new section for food memoirs.


Thursday, February 16, 2023

Backman's Book Two and Three: Nothing Lost in Translation


I can trace my first Backman novel to A Man Called Ove. One of my favorite public librarians met me when I entered and said, "I've held this one of you." Anyone who has read the novel knows that it takes a while to warm up to Ove. As I read the first chapters, I wondered why she thought of me. Then as I read, I figured it out.

Anxious People, a story nothing like Ove, captured me immediately too. Backman caught me by complete surprise in that book, and I couldn't wait to talk to someone else about it: "Did you guess?!"

I listened to the audiobook of Beartown a while ago, but somehow missed the second in what would become a series, Us Against You, until book three The Winners was added to my book club list for 2023. I knew I needed to read the second book first.

Even though I cheer for the Nashville Predators, I am by no means a big hockey fan. But reading this book no more requires that I be than reading Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin requires that I know or care much about video gaming.

Backman knows how to develop characters--complicated,  flawed, multi-layered characters. The Andersson family is at the center of much of the narrative, but the threads that connect all the characters, even across the rival towns borders, are so complicated: Ramona at the Bearskin Pub; Teemu and the Pack who control the standing area of the rink, the grocer Tails, Bobo and Amat, Mumble and Alicia, the young prodigy who finds an alternate family in the hockey club.

As I barreled my way through these two books, hardly able to slow down, I kept reminding myself that I was reading in translation from Backman's original Swedish. How interesting, then, that I have probably taken more notes of favorite quotes from these books than many others I've read recently. 

Backman is also the master of the red herring, doling out just enough information to give the reader a smug sense of dramatic irony (or a foreboding sense of what may have just happened) and then spinning the story. The third book The Winners open with this sentence: "Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew him well enough to call him Benji, probably knew deep down that he was never the sort of person who would get a happy ending." Then readers have to wait for it. Because we do feel like we know him well enough to call him Benji.

Backman balances the foreboding by letting us know a few will make it. Maya will have her music career, for example. Alicia will go on to be a hockey champion.

Us Against You had much to say about masculinity. The Winners examines family relationships, the never-finished job of parenting, the phases of a long marriage, the identify of home, family ties that develop without the biological benefit of blood kin.  At one point, the narrator points out that this is "a story that was like organ donation."  Maybe that's it: painful, sacrificial, but live-giving.