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.


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.


Thursday, January 11, 2024

A Favorite from the End of 2023: Ken Follett's The Armor of Light


My first encounter with the writing of Ken Follett was his first sprawling tale Pillars of the Earth, published in 1989, which I read at least twenty years ago. While some books I read just months ago have escaped my memory, this one remains firmly planted. He begins in Kingsbridge, a fictional English village, during the Middle Ages, introducing Jack the Builder, who aspires to build a great cathedral. 

Follett not only brought the actual construction to life, but he created some of the best-drawn memorable characters. His protagonists, even when flawed, are endearing. His villains are despicable, even though he often builds the back story that explains why they act the way they do. The story is steeped in history, presenting the conflict for the British throne, and leads up to the murder of Thomas Becket in Winchester Cathedral.

More than twenty years passed before Follett published World Without End, the next in the series, followed by Column of Fire. In the meantime, he has written thrillers, as well as another series, the Century Trilogy. The Armor of Light is the fourth in the Pillows of the Earth series picking up in the same area in the late 1700s, focusing on the weaving industry and the impact of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the Napoleonic Wars.

Again, I learned a lot about a part of history that was less familiar to me, while meeting a cast of characters I loved and hated. Sal Clitheroe, a spinner, loses her husband through an accident for which his employer Will Riddick is responsible. A survivor, she ends up being forced to leave the village with her son Kit, because of Riddick. Amos Barrowfield is a forward-thinking cloth merchant who champions the cause of his spinners. David Shoveller (known as Spade) is a clothier, whose life is intertwined with the characters as well. Alderman Hornbeam is the major antagonist of the novel, with his brand of justice never allowing for even a glimmer of mercy.

Follett has a knack for developing suspense. Only the most optimistic reader would not anticipate some of the heartbreaking events of the story, but Follett shines a light on some of those who use their intellect to overcome, not only for themselves but others.

Follett's books are always weighty tomes that would serve well as doorstops, but I never grow tired of them whenever I visit this part of world history.


Sunday, December 31, 2023

My 2023 Reading List

Now that New Year's Eve has arrived, with only a couple of hours before the ball drops, it's safe for me to post my list of books I read this year. I don't think I'll have time to read one more. I fell a few short of my last year's total (86), but I also completed (and published) my dissertation this month, so I think I'll give myself a pass. 

Compiling the list I am reminded pleasantly of books I loved, and occasionally I have trouble remembering the plots of one or two. Some of the books on the list (especially the poetry) are written by friends. I suspect I may have failed to add a few poetry collections or chapbooks that I read. 

Over the next day or so, I will give some brief reviews of my favorites. I look forward to comparing my lists to those of other readers whose taste I trust. (You know who you are.)

2023 Book List

1. Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

2. Louse Penny, World of Curiosities

3. Rick Bragg, The Best Cook in the World

4. Kimberly Belle, The Marriage Lie

5. Dana Malone and Laura Suzanne, Mother, Grave, Ghost (poetry)

6. Fredrick Backman, Us Against You

7. Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures

8. Annie Lyons, the Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett

9. Fredrik Backman, The Winners

10. Patti Callahan, Once upon a Wardrobe

11. Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life through Food

12. Matt Haig, How to Stop Time

13. Aanchal Malhatra, The Book of Everlasting Things

14. Rachel Joyce, Maureen

15. Jane G. Garrett, My Fractured Life

16. Jennette McCurdy, I’m Glad My Mom Died

17. Andrew Sean Greer, Less Is Lost

18. Ana Reyes, The House in the Pines

19. William Kent Kruger, The Levee

20. Ann Napolitano, Hello Beautiful

21. Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

22. Jeanette Walls, Hang the Moon

23. Donna Tartt, The Secret History

24. Kevin Wilson, Now Is Not the Time to Panic

25. Wayne Flynt, Afternoons with Harper Lee

26. Gin Phillips, Family Law

27. K.B. Ballentine, Spirit of Wild (poetry)

28. Charles Frazier, The Tracker

29. Clyde Edgerton, Walking across Egypt

30. Tom Hanks, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture

31. Luis Alberto Urrea, Goodnight Irene

32. Ada Limon, Carrying (poetry)

33. Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

34. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

35. Ian McEwan, Nutshell

36. Lynda Rutledge, West with Giraffes

37. Elizabeth Berg, Earth’s the Right Place for Love

38. Hendrik Gruen, Two Old Men and a Baby

39. David Brooks, The Road to Character

40. N.T. Wright, After You Believe

41. William Martin, The Lincoln Letter

42. John McPhee, Tabula Rasa, vol. 1

43. Raymond Carver, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love

44. Ann Patchett, Tom Lake

45. Wiley Cash, When Ghosts Come Home

46. Christine Galib, Etched in Stone

47. Brendan Slocumb, The Violin Conspiracy

48. J. Ryan Stradel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest

49. Jessica George, Ma’ame

50. Matthew Mumber, Attending (poetry)

51. Kevin Wilson, Perfect Little World

52. Hadley Vlahos, The In-Between

53. Harrison Scott Key, How to Stay Married

54. Lisa See, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women

55. Kevin LeMaster, Mercy (poetry)

56. Dolly Parton & James Patterson, Run Rose Run

57. Lindsay Lynch, Do Tell

58. Geraldine Brooks, Horse

59. Annabel Smith, Whiskey and Charlie

60. Melody Wilson, Spineless: Memoir in Invertebrates (poetry)

61. Ron Rash, The Caretaker

62. Thrity Umrigar, Honor

63. Richard Osman, The Last Devil to Die

64. Linda Parsons, Valediction (poetry)

65. J. Ryan Stradel, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club

66. Sheila Johnson, Walk through Fire

67. Dolly Parton, Songteller

68. Lydia R. Hamessley, Unlikely Angel: The Songs of Dolly Parton

69. R.F. Kuang, Yellowface

70. Scott Owens, Prepositional (poetry)

71. Allison Pataki, The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post

72. Ammon Shea, Reading the OED

73. Ken Follett, The Armor of Light

74. Margaret Renkl, The Comfort of Crows

75. Sigrid Nunez, The Vulnerables

76. Charlie Lovett, The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge

77. F. Lagard Smith, ed. The Chronological Daily Bible


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Ron Rash: The Caretaker

As close as I follow book news, I am rarely surprised when one of my favorite writers publishes a new book. I had been disappointed when I checked to see if Ron Rash would be appearing at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October and did not see his name. 

Then I had a message from a friend and former teaching colleague, telling me to be sure to read his latest novel, The Caretaker. I didn't hesitate. 

I have read everything Rash has written--full-length fiction, short stories, and poetry, since his novel One Foot in Eden won the Novella prize at the Charlotte festival. Though there is often a darkness in his stories, it is never gratuitously so.  He also has the power to evoke some of the most memorable images of anyone I have read.

My students always responded to the stories in his collection Burning Bright. A favorite former student who discovered a love for reading after graduating high school read Saints at the River and The World Made Straight, then contacted me to say thanks for the recommendation.

This new novel by Rash is set during the Korean conflict, set in part on the battlefield, but primarily in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Blackburn Gant, the caretaker at the local cemetery, is semi-reclusive after his facial disfigurement, a result of polio, makes his the victim of stares at best and mockery from some of his more cruel peers. 

Initially, Jacob Hampton appears to be the protagonist. He disappoints his parents first by choosing to work in his father's mill rather than attend college. Then, against their wishes, he marries 16-year-old Naomi, who came from Tennessee for work in the Blowing Rock Inn instead of the local girl everyone expected him to marry.

Rash's artful plot timing keeps suspense throughout the novel. He also keeps his characters' integrity (or the lack thereof) consistent through the story, even when readers might expect a sharp plot twist. As I finished, I felt satisfied that Rash had been true to the people he created.


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.