Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Other Book

It's been awhile since I read Robert Hicks' first novel (as far as I know), Widow of the South, a story set in and around the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) when the McGavock's home became a makeshift hospital and the lady of the house took it upon herself to bury and account for all the dead, rather than to let them be left anonymously where they fell.

Hicks' next novel, A Separate Country, also historical fiction, takes place after the war, but in New Orleans, rather than Middle Tennessee.  While he tells his story from a number of perspectives, they are all connected to the Confederate General John Bell Hood.  According to this story, near death from the "yellow jack" that also took his wife and oldest daughter Lydia just days earlier, he calls Eli Griffin, a young man he met during the war, and asks him to help him set his story straight.  According to the narrative, he's given the draft of his war novel Advance and Retreat (which he did actually write) to Gen. P. T. Beauregard, but now has second thoughts and wants the book destroyed. In its place, he has written an account of his life since.  At the time, Griffin finds the journals of Hood's late wife Anna Marie, letters written to their daughter Lydia.  Between the two stories, Griffin is able to put together what has really passed.

The marriage of Anna Marie Hennen, the socialite daughter of a prosperous New Orleans family, to Hood, bearded, with a useless arm and a missing leg, souvenirs of his war experience.  He fails in every business he attempts, in part because of lack of business acumen, in part because of the yellow fever epidemic that keeps merchandise from reaching the city.  Instead, he loses himself in a movement--perhaps just a drop in the bucket--to help the city's black residents to escape the miasma of the city.

Hicks' characters include three childhood friends of Annamarie, two orphans--a dwarf and a young white-skinned man with just enough blood to be considered black in the post-Civil War South--and a former street tough Michel, who has become the priest Father Mike.  Hood has also been haunted by Sebastian LeMerl, a New Orleans native of French descent who served under Hood and killed ruthlessly during the war.  His one gift, killing, has not deserted him in the years since.  It is he, however, to whom Hood wants his book delivered to see if he has cleared himself of his demons.

The novel not only paints curious, interesting characters, but a portrait of New Orleans--the sounds, the smells, the action.  I could not wait to look into the life of Hood, finding that the historical details are true and his reputation as a military leader who took unnecessary risks remains intact. I couldn't help wondering how many other famous men and women, having published memoirs with much of their lives remaining, would wish to have rewritten or amended their stories.

Note that misspelling of proper names (which I will edit when I look closely at my print copy of the book) are a direct result of my audiobook experience.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Junot Diaz: What is youth good for?

Living in this part of the state, I am presented with so many amazing opportunities to hear great music and brilliant writers.  This week, Junot Diaz, the Domincan-American author and Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University as part of their top-notch Visiting Writers Series, just celebrating its twenty-fifth year.

As much as I enjoyed his reading a selection from his Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was even more moved by his earlier comments, based on his experience as a teacher.  He asked the question: What is youth good for?  What can be done when you’re young? 

He suggested the answer: Adventure. He also pointed out that no parents told their children, “Move out! Major in whatever the hell you want.”  In fact, he says the 17 to 19-year-olds he encounters have been socialized to think like 68-year-olds. Their baseline is fundamentally FEAR.  He said even at MIT, where he teaches students considered the best and the brightest, those who should be most confident, they exist in waves of fear:  (Need to think every day about how to get a career, to make money.)  Adults, he said, know that there’s no controlling your world. Young people should have horizons, not fear.

He says the only way to become an artist is to begin at that place without fear—a hopeful place.  The artist, he says, imagines despite culture that what he or she is doing is irrelevant (“You’ll go broke.  Nobody cares what you do.”) Artists, he said, must have a “tremendous, almost evangelical hope.”  By contrast, people are geared toward “instrumental” vocations.  He said he wishes schools would put more art near students.  When we read the books we love most, he said, art grants us back to our better selves.  We create a safe harbor for our souls.  To trust what’s most important to anybody else, he says, is a bad idea.

He went on to say that the point of college is to be utterly transformed.  The fearful know nothing about compassion.  He says that his students so rarely have compassion for themselves.  They need to know, despite being told otherwise, that it is okay to fail. “The voyage of discovery is not possible without failing,” he said.  “The only way you discover anything new is by first being lost.”  There can be no life or learning without failure. 

Growing up in military family, he lived in a “culture of respectability.”  He says you “smoke the culture’s crack or you rebel.”  You have to grow and practice those [truth-telling] muscles.  He said, “I had to learn to tell the truth.” 

By the time he read from his work, the audience was his.  As he read a passage from the point of view of a young girl whose mother finds a lump in her breast, we were ready to suspend our disbelief and enter that world. As I left, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about how to help my own students overcome their fear.  Maybe I’ll start by surrounding them with more art—visual, literary, and musical.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Lookaway, Lookaway

Most Southern family stories are set in small rural towns in the distant, if not the faraway, past.  Wilton Barnhardt's newest novel Lookaway, Lookaway is plopped down right in the middle of Charlotte, North Carolina, over the last decade, and the family Johnston and Jarvis families at the center of the story are far removed from tales of sharecroppers and hardscrabble living.  Instead, he shifts back and forth among the members of a family at the center of Charlotte society but at the end of their fortune.

The book opens as the younger daughter Jerilyn heads to UNC in Chapel Hill, determined against her mother's wishes to pledge a sorority--and not even her mother's staid sorority but the edgy Sigma Kappa Nu, referred to as Skanks, even by the members themselves.  If the first chapter or two reads like an episode out of the movie American Pie or Animal House, readers can expect it to zig and zag quickly.  Jerilyn's parents, Duke and Jerene Jarvis Johnston are living in a home in moneyed Charlotte, where he has a Civil War room holding his collection of guns and collectibles from the period.  He actively organizes and participates in a reenactment of a minor Skirmish just over the state line in South Carolina, and financial pressures move him to collaborate with developers who convince him they plan to preserve the field as a historical landmarks, keeping houses tastefully distant.  The agreement is closed with a gentleman's handshake, but these men are not gentlemen.

Barnhardt introduces every possible current controversy, particularly those hotbed topics in the South, with each new character.  While Jerene manages the family's trust at the Mint Museum of art, her brother Gaston Jarvis churns out a series of highly successful but hardly literary Civil War novels, failing to live up to his early promise, and never actually writing the novel he and his brother-in-law and college friend Bo Johnston dreamed up in Durham, Lookaway, Dixieland.  He spends his days in the bar at the country club to which he gained membership because of his Johnston family connections.

The Johnston's gay son Josh works in a men's clothing and searches the internet for potential  African American liaisons, usually under the watchful eye of his closest friend Dorrie, a black lesbian woman with an attraction to white society women. Meanwhile, his brother Bo pastors a prestigious Presbyterian church, aided by his wife Katie, who's just a bit too rough around the edges for her mother-in-law's tastes.  Rounding off the Johnston's siblings is the older daughter Annie, working through her third unsuccessful marriage as she builds a high profile real estate business in Charlotte.

The plot winds through the banking turmoil festering in Charlotte, the mortgage and housing decline, all with a balance between dark humor and tongue-in-cheek wit.  Barnhardt and his cast of characters manage to address race, gender, society, religious, financial scandal, literary rise and fall, university life, and politics.  At the heart, though, it is a family story.  With the huge ensemble cast, readers may find themselves reaching the final pages before deciding this is Jerene Jarvis Johnston's story most of all, particularly since she gets the literary last word.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

On Book Clubs, Literary Fiction, and Independent Bookstores

I have a number of book review to post, but I thought I might take a moment to add a few miscellaneous book notes.  First, while I was in Southern Pines last weekend on a retreat with my writing group, we went to the sixtieth anniversary celebration of The Country Bookshop downtown.  Entering an independent bookstore poses dangers for me.  I see so many books I already know I want to read, and then I discover new ones.  I did walk away with a signed copy of Allan Gurganus' new novel Local Souls.  I enjoy his work and I love to hear him speak too.  At the checkout, though, the gentleman working recommended another book, and I was sold.

I also had the honor or presenting a program for the "No Name Book Club" in Hickory Tuesday.  The members of the group each get to choose one book for the club to read, and Helen selected by poetry chapbook Let the Lady Speak.  I was especially pleased to get to talk poetry with readers who generally choose fiction--or at least prose.--because I have a pending poetry project with book clubbers in mind. I have always been amused to hear which poems of mine appeal to different readers.  Since I could at least assume most of them had read the chapbook, I hated just to read the poems to them, so I first shared a couple of other poems by poets I admire that I thought would also appeal to them.  I also talked about hos many of my poems were "born."  They asked me to read some particular poems they'd enjoyed. I also loved to hear what others are reading, so naturally, I left with a few additions to my "to read" list.

Finally, I wanted to comment on a recent article I read in the Charlotte Observer about some research on the "Theory of Mind" that indicates the positive cognitive effects of reading literary fiction.  The study confirms my gut feelings.  They found that "reading literary fiction helps improve real-life skills like empahy and understanding the beliefs and intentions of others" (Belluck).  Those who read literary fiction scored better on tests than readers of popular fiction and of nonfiction. With so much emphasis on teaching "informational texts" (see Common Core), many schools are making the mistake of replacing literature with these other nonfiction prose texts (analogous to the "education lottery" money that didn't add to education coffers but freed up what had gone to schools for something else, leaving school budgets no better at all.  Oops.  I've climbed up on a soap box again.)

I'll be signing on again in a day or so to share my review of Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt--and maybe a few other recent reads. Stay tuned.