Sunday, July 7, 2024


 One of my strongest-held beliefs is the power of fiction to increase our empathy as we inhabit others' lives. I'd go so far to say that reading fiction is, at least for now, the best way to time travel. Books have taken me to places I might eventually visit, but they have also taken me to other decades and centuries.

I read There, There, the earlier novel by Tommy Orange for which his latest, Wandering Stars, serves as both a prequel and sequel, when it first came out. Now I feel the urge to read it again, even though some parts of the novel are embedded in my brain. 

Wandering Stars starts after the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, with the story of Jude Star, ancestor to the characters that make up most of the narrative. Orange helps to fill out the complicated history of the country's attempt to "reeducate" Indigenous children, purportedly to "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." 

The stories of extreme abuse in these boarding schools where families were forced to send their children can be found in a number of other novels. Orange follows the family lineage, picking up after the shooting at the Oakland powwow chronicled in There, There. Orange picks up with story lines of some of the characters in that story, but focuses on Orville Red Feather, now dealing with addiction to pain meds after being shot there. His friend Sean, an adopted boy who has recently lost his mother to cancer, finds through a DNA test that while he always assumed he was Black, he has a percentage of Native American blood. 

The novel deals with addiction, while examining identify and family connections. What struck me as I read, particularly since I have read such a range of books this summer, was how beautifully Orange tells the story. Even the references to the wandering stars--literal and figurative--are woven in with such a subtle hand. The book is also a reminder of the power and the necessity of reading books that make the reader uncomfortable.


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Friday, June 28, 2024

Summer Is for Reading

 Summer reading has so many connotations. While, for most adults, summer doesn't necessarily have more time for pleasure reading than any other time of the year, the idea of lazy days under a beach umbrella with a good book is still appealing. For those of who living on the academic calendar, summer means a break from boning up on required reading--and especially from reading stacks and stacks of student papers. 

My list of what I want to read next far extends the number of days and hours, but I have made a valiant effort to make the most of reading time. One of the best surprises for me so far has been Monica Wood's novel How to Read a Book, not to be confused with the nonfiction book of the same title by Mortimer Adler.)

This novel opens in a women's prison, where 23-year-old Violet Powell attends a book club while serving time. The narrative shifts perspectives between Violet, Harriet Larson, the retired English teacher who moderates the book club, and Frank Daigle, a retired machinist whose life is inextricably linked to Violet's. 

As a book clubber and English teacher, I loved Harriet's effort to find reading material that will appeal to her motley crew of woman. While the women bond over their supposed antipathy for the book selections, they are won over by poetry, particularly Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology. 

The book takes interesting turns, especially as Violet tries to start a new life "in the Outs." Wood's story affirms the power of forgiveness, friendship, and second chances. I was already recommending the story before I finished it, knowing I'd need to talk to someone about it as soon as I finished.


Wrong Place Wrong Time
by Gillian McAllister, one of the selections from Reese Witherspoon's Book Club, is a suspenseful novel that makes a perfect summer read. As the book opens, Jen Brotherhood is waiting for her 18-year-old son to get home by curfew. She sees him arrive as a man approaches. To her horror, she sees her son stab the man. She and her husband Kelly go through the nightmare of his arrest, forced to leave him in the jail cell. The next morning, she is shocked to see her son at home--until she sees on her calendar that she has over back to the prior day. 

I will admit that I am a sucker for time travel stories. In this story, Jen is moving backward, first a day at a time, and then with larger leaps. Is the butterfly effect in operation? She has to deal with the frustration of knowing that anything that happens, anything she tells anyone will have no impact as she moves backward. McAllister managed to keep me guessing through the entire story. 

I finally got to read the latest Kristin Hannah novel The Women that so many people have been talking about. To be honest, the writing is what one would expect from the romance genre--far too many coincidences, too predictable in places, and nothing so well worded I had to stop and make notes, BUT having lived through the Vietnam era and aftermath, I was interested in this story of the often overlooked women who served as military nurses in country. Frankie McGrath has grown up in wealth and comfort, but has always been haunted by the "hero's wall"--curated by her father who had not been able to serve. 

When Frankie, a trained nurse, joins the Army and volunteers for Vietnam, her parents react in shock. The description of the horrors, the friendships, even the music, the protests, and the inconsistent news reporting bring the historical period to life. Hannah has done her research. In the afterword, she says despite her interest in telling the story decades earlier, she had to wait until she was read to tell the story.
The novel is worth reading, even if only to discuss the era with others. I'm curious as to whether the recurring motifs of cheating death, chance encounters, and dishonest lovers was an obstacle to other readers. 







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Saturday, June 8, 2024

When a Book Needs a Playlist

 

I enjoy reading about music almost as much as I like writing about music; it always makes me want to listen to more music too. In recent days, I've picked up a variety of books related to music I enjoy. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone, the story of the Carter Family had been on my bookshelf for quite awhile, but I took it back down after  Brian Oberlin, mandolinist for the bluegrass band Full Cord, mentioned reading the book while visiting Maces Springs and being inspired to write a song by that same for their current album Cambium.

While most fans of traditional country music know some of the Carter Family story, Zwonitzer and Hirschberg's book goes into such interesting narrative detail. There was much I didn't know about their interaction with other iconic performers. 

I also listened to Lucinda Williams' memoir Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You on a recent road trip. She narrates the book herself, and she includes the book, the bad, and the ugly. Someone told her to be sure to leave out the part about her childhood---advice she ignored. Williams first came across my radar with the 

release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I've seen her perform, twice since the stroke that left her singing from a stool while someone else accompanied on guitar. 

Her father, the poet Miller Williams, wrote some of my favorite poems. (Please read "The Curator" if you haven't. Then search the internet for photos inside the Hermitage Museum in WWII when the paintings had been removed from their frames for safekeeping.) The tensions resulting fro her mother's struggles and her father's remarriage are told in detail, but Williams draws clear lines between her personal life and the impact on her on singing and songwriting. 

Anyone familiar with her music will not be surprised by the book. Lucinda Williams in life and art doesn't flinch from telling her own secrets.

John Cowan's new book Hold to a Dream is part interview, part memoir. The origin of the book traces back to a series of interviews Cowan conduct

conducted for WSM radio several years ago--with some of his former bandmates in New Grass Revival (including Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, as well as other musicians he admired and respected. Some, such as Leon Russell (usually known as a reluctant interview subject, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson. However, he also interviews Gordon Stoker, tenor for the legendary backup group The Jordannaires, Californians such as Chris Hillman and Bernie Leadon, and--tying back to the Carter Family--John Carter Cash, who has taken up the mantle of preserving his family's history.

Even more than the other two, Cowan's book calls for a play list. In fact, he occasionally adds footnotes advising readers to listen if you aren't familiar with certain recordings or performers. What struck me in this book was Cowan's acknowledgement that he came to music--and to these interviews--first as a fan. 

I should note that writer Jimmy Schwartz collaborated on the project, helping to turn the book into something more than a series of interviews, instead encouraging Cowan to weave in his own story and his connections to the people on whom he focuses. At their Parnassus Books launch, Schwartz encouraged readers to start with the Epilogue and then to read the book. I took him at his word.


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Monday, April 29, 2024

Three Books Suggestions for Three Different Kinds of Readers.

Nothing pleases me more than the chance to talk books with fellow bibliophiles. I realize, though, that when someone asks for reading suggestions, my answers are never one-size-fits-all. I read--and enjoy--such a variety of books, but what might suit one reader wouldn't suit another. That is part of the underlying message of Erica Bauermeister's novel No Two Persons.  The title refers to the saying, "No two persons read the same book." The book is called a novel, but could also be considered a series of interlocking short stories. 

The book opens with Alice Weir, the aspiring writing whose story finds her, in the character of Theo. Readers meet Lara, the young mother working through the slush pile, looking for the book that will establish her credibility--and it is Theo. Readers also meet the actor who turns to narrating audiobooks after a skin condition ends his career. The book publisher, a diver, an artist, and a high school student trying to keep her homelessness secret until she can graduate high school. Bauermeister creates a unified, satisfying whole. 

I was slow coming to Verghese's The Covenant of Water, even though I remember loving Cutting for Stone. I will admit that the length of the book led me to slide it down the stack--until I decided to take along the audiobook on a beach trip. This was. one of those books I wanted to recommend to other people before I even finished it. Spanning the first three quarters of the twentieth century, this story starts with the arranged married of a fourteen-year-old girl to a widower in his forties who needs a mother for his son.

While that scenario on its own could have gone so wrong, the marriage becomes a real one

The story is set in a village in India that is part of the community known as St. Thomas Christians, tracing their lineage to one of the twelve apostles believed to have made his way to the country. The narrative had me moving swiftly from laughing to weeping in short order. I also had to keep a pen and paper nearby to jot down some of the beautiful lines.

Verghese introduces interesting characters, including Digby Kilgour, a Scottish doctor who moves to India to practice medicine. The leper colony where he eventually lands is a rich part of the narrative. The title refers to a condition in the main family of the story. The young bride quickly recognizes her husband's unnatural avoidance of water, learning that "the condition" has been present in the family for generations. 

These characters face loss, betrayal, disease, accidents, and disappointments, but the story is one of redemption nonetheless. It was worth the more than thirty hours of listening.


 James Goodhand's novel The Day Tripper, set in London, uses a similar plot device to Margarita Montimore's Oona Out of Order, which I read a year or so ago. The protagonist in this story Alex Dean is about to beat the odds, with acceptance to Cambridge offering escape from his life of poverty, never able to live up to his father's expectations. He has met a girl--a medical student--who seems the perfect match, when an encounter with an antagonist from his past leads to a fight--and he wakes up not only in another place, but another time. 

The pattern continues, with him waking each day in a different time and location. Sometimes he is at rock bottom; sometimes he has glimpses of hope. Every day he has to learn quickly from context. Then he meets a man--a high school teacher--who has some inkling of his situation. 

What begins as a frustrating tale turns into story of the fragile balance between fate and free will. Alex finds that he not only can but must pull against the weight of history. The dramatic irony is both nerve-wracking and great fun. I dare say the book is about hope.


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Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Urrea's The Hummingbird's Daughter


 When I first encountered Luis Alberto Urrea, I read his novel House of Broken Angels, and was particularly fascinated with how well he wrote from women's points of view. The book was a modern family tale complicated in the way families are. I went on this year to read Goodnight Irene,  the story influenced by his mother's experience as one of the Red Cross "Donut Dollies" during WWII.

I stumbled across The Hummingbird's Daughter and started listening to the audiobook, unaware when the book was written. Only after I finished did I learn that it had been awarded the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize in 2006--not a new book after all. But this one is another sprawling tale, this time set in Mexico in the late 19th century. Teresita, the main character, was born to a poor 14-year-old Indian girl and abandoned with her abusive aunt before Huila, the local healer--considered by many a witch--takes her in as her apprentice

Eventually, she comes to the attention of Don Tom├ís Urrea, the wealthy rancher. The relationships between the different social classes is complicated since Urrea, a philanderer, is the apparent father not only of Teresita but other children as well. The book is reminiscent of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When she is fatally attacked but returns to life before her burial, the attention draws swarms of pilgrims hoping for healing. 

Urrea worked almost twenty years on the novel, based on historical characters to whom he may share kinship. He explains in the afterword that in some areas Teresita is still revered as Saint of Cabora. The writing is particularly strong, with well-drawn, layered characters and details both powerful, painful, and at times, humorous. 

Before I was halfway through the book, I was thinking of friends to whom I needed to recommend it. That's the ultimate reading experience--one I want to share.


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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Catching up on My Tar Heel Writers

 

With the recent news of the passing of Fred Chappell, the former North Carolina poet laureate and a true gentleman, I re-read his lovely book I Am One of You Forever. Chappell wrote poetry as well as fiction and was so generous with his support and encouragement of aspiring writers. This particular book, set on a farm around the time of World War II, is a family story, told with such a gentle hand. 

Jess, the protagonist, is ten when the story opens. Central to the story are his parents and Jonathan, an orphaned teenager who comes to work on the family, sharing a room with Jess, before  

 enlisting. A number of family members visit--particularly colorful uncles with quirky appetites and massive beards.

Chappell doesn't adhere to strict chronological order as he arranges his chapters. Rather than setting up some events as flashbacks, he just shares an earlier narrative event as if, perhaps, he had just recalled it. I know so many authors have chosen to write a coming of age story. Jim the Boy by Tony Earley (also a native North Carolinian) is another excellent example. Other successful writers I won't name fall short of the bar Chappell established when they attempt to tell a nostalgic story from a young protagonist's perspective. 

While I was on my North Carolina streak, I also discovered that Lee Smith had a new novel Silver Alert. This story, set in Key West, Florida, focuses first on Herb, aging and unhealthy, but trying to care for his beloved wife Susan at home, even though her dementia makes it a difficult challenge. A manicurist who calls herself Renee comes to the house and has a calming effect on Susan, endearing her to Herb. As his children stage an intervention, insisting Susan belongs in a facility where she can be better cared for, Herb takes Renee on a last adventure in his sports car, and they end up heading toward Disney World. Whether I am listening to an audiobook or reading, I always hear Smith's voice as I read--full of humor but still so tender in her treatment of her characters.

Last, I had the opportunity to hear North Carolina's Jill McCorkle read from her short story collection Old Crimes at Parnassus Books. Like Smith, McCorkle has such a distinctive writing voice. These stories have some subtle overlapping of characters, while each stands alone. One quirk she noted is the multiple appearances of belts of all kinds in the stories. A teacher myself, I always particularly enjoy McCorkle's stories told from a teacher's perspective. One in particular reminded me of a favorite scene in her novel Life after Life.  I may be re-reading that one.


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Monday, January 15, 2024

Fiction: Two for 2023


When I get multiple recommendations from readers I trust for a book by an author whose books I have loved, I go for it. Geraldine Brooks' novel Horse is a case in point. I especially loved People of the Book, with its reverse chronological timeline. This latest novel moves back and forth between the South during the slavery era and current Washington D.C. In present day, the two main characters are Theo, a Nigerian American  studying historical equestrian art, and Jess, a scientist at the Smithsonian who becomes aware of the skeleton of an important race horse stored in the institution's attic. 

In the back story, Jarrett is an enslaved son of a freed black horse trainer who forms a special bond with a horse he has known from its birth. The narrative delves into the politics of race and horse breeding across centuries. As readers discover in the epilogue, Brooks based the story on fact, particularly the racehorse Lexington, which went on to be one of the nation's most prolific sires.

I also learned a lot about equestrian artists of the day, preserving for posterity what would eventually be accomplished by photography. Through her characters, Brooks presents the complicated and many layered perspectives on race, slavery, war, and ultimately, human nature.

Another book that surprised me this past year was R. F. Kuang's novel Yellowface. If I were teaching a literature survey course, this novel would give me the ideal example of an unreliable narrator. The story opens with June Hayward, an aspiring writer yet to achieve the success for which she longs. After a dinner with her former classmate, rising star Athena Liu, she is invited to go back to Athena's apartment, where she discovers that her peer is not only achieving fame for her current publication, but she has a completed manuscript in her office. 

Early spoiler alert: When Athena chokes to death in her presence, June can't avoid the temptation to take the manuscript for herself. The drama that develops as she convinces even herself that the edited work is her own is heightened as she is challenged both anonymously on social media and directly, particularly by those who accuse her of appropriating the story of Chinese laborers in World War I. That she allows her editor to convince her to use her first and middle name, Juniper Song, falsely suggested Asian roots, further complicates the plot. As June takes actions that make readers squirm, thinking, "Surely not!" she becomes increasingly delusional and paranoid. Kuang's story may add to the dialogue about who has the right to tell what story, but at its core, the story is a psychological thriller as well.


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