Saturday, May 31, 2014

Historical Fiction Takes a Look at Little Known WWII Events

I don't get to Southern Pines, NC, nearly as often as I'd like, but when I do, I make sure to stop in at the Country Bookshop there on the main street. I've seen some authors reading there, and I never leave empty handed.  I have learned one thing about all indie bookstores:  the people who work there--particularly the owners--care about books.  While there, I've eavesdropped on the conversations the gentleman at Country Bookshop as he guided shoppers, asking just the right questions before pointing out a book or two.

On a visit a few months ago, he pointed out Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer, a novel based on events that occurred near where the author grew up in the Arkansas delta: a Japanese Internment Camp. The narrator Chess Morton is a young girl raised by her Italian mother, living next door to the landed parents of her father who died when she was very young.  Schiffer sheds light on the levels of racial prejudice not only the black-white conflicts associated with the South, but toward Italian immigrants and especially after Pearl Harbor, toward the Japanese-Americans.  Even the class difference between Chess's mother and her in-laws, wealthy landowners who sold the land for Camp Nine, is apparent.

When Chess's mother volunteers to teach in the camp, Chess goes along and develops a friendship with the two Matsui brothers, one who ends up going into the army, and the other more rebellious son who slips out of camp where he befriends a local blind musician Cottonmouth Willie.  The Matsui family faces conflict when the father doesn't answer yes to two questions 27 and 28 on the "Application for Leave Clearance" required of all the Japanese-American citizens, resulting in his arrest and the mother's shame.

Other books, including Snow Falling on Cedars by Guterson, have dealt with the shameful treatment of these American citizens during WWII, resulting in loss of homes, property, businesses, but this is the first I knew of such relocations to the American South. Schiffer handles the fictional account in what I found an evenhanded way.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Two Writers, One Voice: The Tilted World

I'm sometimes reluctant to read a book--particularly a work of fiction--that is co-written.  I remember one rather forgettable book that had an inviting plot idea, but the collaboration had gotten in the way. I could almost hear the authors' fingers clicking on the keys, imagine them hammering out a scene--or a compromise.

When The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly arrived in the mail, I didn't have quite the same concerns. First, I was already familiar with Franklin's novels--Hell at the Breach and  Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter--and I was aware that fennel is not only his co-author and an award-winning poet, but his wife as well.

The novel, set in Mississippi during Prohibition in the year of the sometimes forgotten Great Flood of 1927.  The plot introduces Dixie Clay Holliver, a young woman who marries the charming Jesse with his mismatched eyes before she realizes he isn't all he seems.  While he's a successful bootlegger, she realizes she has the skills to be the better moonshiner.  It doesn't take much detective work to realize when he's away from home, he's not spending his nights alone. In fact, when their baby boy dies, she has to summon him from a brothel.

In a second thread of the plot, revenue agents Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll are sent to Hobnob, MS, by Herbert Hoover--expected to be the next president of the United States--to discover the whereabouts of two missing agents.  On their way, they chance upon a store after a robbery and find a live baby with his dead parents.  Not willing to leave the child along, Ingersoll (raised in an orphanage himself) promises to catch up with Ham in Hobnob as soon as he turns the baby over to authorities.  In Greenville, though, he doesn't like the alternatives available to the baby and keeps moving, asking until a storekeeper suggests the name of a woman who might want a baby, having lost her own--Dixie Clay.

As the entire efforts of the town are focused on building the levee, trying to hold back the raging Mississippi, the town is split between those who want to save the town and those who want to accept an offer to flood it and move own, taking the proceeds offered.

Reading the story, I rarely had cause to think of the writers at all.  Occasionally, though, a fresh metaphor or a particularly apt turn of phrase reminded me that a poet's hand--or head--was part of this creative process.  The pair's skills blended the way sibling harmony works differently from any other.

 The story was gripping enough that I read at least half of it between two and four in the morning--unable to sleep, drawn to the story, wanting to know what happens next.


Monday, May 26, 2014

On Reading All the Way to the End

        This morning, I sat down with the rest of the Sunday papers; I subscribe to both the Charlotte Observer (daily) and to the Sunday New York Times.  On Sunday morning, with my coffee, I start sorting through.  My first priorities are the "Living" and the local section of the Observer and the NYT Book Review.  I browse first, then start the crossword puzzle. For the record, the Sunday puzzle is the only one I work faithfully.  It requires a certain twist of thought, not simply recognition and recall.  I work on it all the way to and from church, and keep returning throughout the afternoon.  Anyone who works this puzzle knows that the subconscious keeps working on the baffling clues until--ding, ding, ding!--the light goes on and the letters fall into place.  I do not cheat. I do not google.

     I first skim the Time' book section, always reading "By the Book," an interview (actually more of a Q and A, since I suspect the subjects are given the questions to answer at their leisure) and looking through the other articles and essays.  I read the various bestseller lists--fiction, nonfiction, hardcover, trade and mass market paperbacks, and more.  I usually put a checkmark or X by the ones I've read, an H by the ones I have but haven't read yet, and W by the ones I want to read. Later I'll mine the rest of the section to add to my want-to-read list and to cut out articles I want to file at home or school

     During the school year, it may take all week to get through all the other sections of the paper, but I usually turn every page (except ads and sports sections).  In the summer, I have Mondays.  Ahhh! Summer--the reason we teach.

     Today, I began an article on the front of the "Sunday Review" section, "Faking Cultural Literacy" by Karl Taro Greenfeld, which touched a lot of my buttons. The. author points out that with access to the internet, many people feel free to comment on books, movies, and cultural events not based on actual experience or knowledge but from what they glean in social media.  He refers to the NPR April Fools' Day prank, posting a web story called "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?" which went viral. It was posted and reposted, often by people who never actually clicked on the link to find only the "revelation that the whole thing was a prank."

    I discussed this with my younger son this weekend.  He knows I think an unwieldy print newspaper is the only kind that counts; he reads online.  My theory (firmly held belief) is that people who read online miss the serendipitous articles and other content they would discover while paging through the actual paper.  At one point he told me that his generation was exposed to so much knowledge that it sometimes nudges them to middle ground politically and otherwise.  I suggested that the more accurate word was "information," which is not exactly the same as knowledge.  I think that's part of Greenfeld's point.

     Furthermore, I have caught myself reading headlines, skimming the first paragraph or so, and then moving on--even when an article interests me.  Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows dealt with the way he believes technology re-programs our brains to be distracted, not to be able to concentrate fully, to move forward to the end.  More and more, I am pushing myself to break that bad habit.  For the record, I read every word of Greenfeld's article--and many more.  This weekend, I also took the time to read an entire article about a doctor at Duke who, after visiting Haiti, has been challenged to develop a device to help doctors there and in other developing countries to diagnose and cure cervical cancer.  Certainly, with the "inverted pyramid" structure of most journalistic pieces--the 5 W's and the H in the first paragraph and  stopping points along the way--I could have gleaned enough to chat socially on the topic, but I would have missed a lot. In fact, I'm sure the author didn't write the piece with no expectation of full readership.

     I notice this past week that several people responded on Facebook to a notice of one of my posts here.  I could tell who had and who hadn't read the blog post by their responses.  (You know who you are--or in this case, aren't).

I'd say more, but there's a good chance that many readers abandoned this post several paragraphs ago. I may never know.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Nothing Lost in Translation

While looking through the audiobooks at the public library this week, it dawned on me what odds an author faces. Without the good fortune of book advice, we often have to judge a book by its cover. And while I can always find a book to read, I have more trouble sifting through the audiobooks. Even when I can download them through NC Digital Library (and if you haven't tried it, you should), I usually have to wait.  I'm 15 of 18 on the waiting list.

This week, though, I knew I'd be booking some road time and I needed a new book to read, so I ended up selecting The Dinner by Herman Koch, a book in translation set in the Netherlands.  I'm still trying to process what I read.  Most of the narrative takes place as two couples (whom I learn after a bit are two brothers and their wives) are meeting for dinner at an excluding restaurant. The narrator Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are meeting his sister-in-law Babette and his brother Serge, who has arranged the meal--waiting to call the day of the meal to show he can bypass the usual three-to-five months wait because he's a candidate and presumably a shoo-in for prime minister.  At one point early in the evening, Serge says, "We need to talk about our children."

Gradually through flashbacks and Paul's interior monologue, readers learn that Paul and Claire's only child, their son Michel has gotten into some kind of trouble with his cousin--Serge and Babette's natural son Rick--and that their adopted African son Bo is somehow involved.

Only over time to readers begin to doubt the narrator's reliability--and mental health, in some ways.  Just how much each of the parents knows, and whether they know how much the others know is information parceled out little by little.  Though Paul seems obsessed with the idea of being a happy family, the likelihood becomes more and more doubtful.  Even the way the narrator withholds information--as if talking directly to readers--sets one on alert. He withholds the name of the restaurant, the name of the city, the nature of an illness Claire underwent when Michel was four.

The story also shows the different ways in which parents gauge the consequences of their children's actions and misdeeds: some are more interested in their children's future; others, their own.  Most interesting, few of the characters seem concerned with what is right and wrong.  At times, Paul even refers to the more lax legal consequences in Holland. He seems aware that other nations don't take the Dutch seriously.

Throughout the narrative, he also seems particularly interested in genetics: what do we pass on to our children? What would we do with prior knowledge?

I'm not sure the author actually wanted the reader to identify with Paul. While he is, at times, a sympathetic character, he gives enough glimpses into his mind to make readers doubt his mental clarity, even his conscience.  Not exactly a feel-good read, but I suspect I'll be thinking of the story for quite a while.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Santini and Son

Prince of Tides was the first of Pat Conroy's novels I read, and I still have some of the scenes (the unconventional use of the statue of the Christ child, the tiger) burned in my memory.  Since reading that novel, I've noticed that most of his books have at least one chapter that would stand alone as a sport story.  This one had a high school football game shortly after school integration. (By the way, if you've never seen the movie, skip it. Read the book--unless you are a really really big Barbra Streisand fan.)

Since then I've gone on to read The Water Is Wide, a book that strikes a chord with any teacher, Beach Music, Lord of Discipline (which has one of my favorite passages, the "great teacher theory").  I read Conroy's memoirs too--My Reading Life (which confirmed my own experience meeting Alice Walker--twice) and My Losing Season, the story of his own experience at the Citadel (in which one of his fictional characters makes a cameo appearance.)  When Conroy came to Hickory as part of Lenoir Rhyne's Visiting Writer Series, he stirred up a controversy that was part misspeaking, part misunderstanding, but he also made such an impact on one of my high school students who, at the time, had applied to the Citadel.  During the book signing before his reading, he took time to talk to Scott about his future plans.  Another student I taught, after being accepted to the Citadel, received a congratulatory letter form Conroy.

Each time I read one of his books, I find myself surprised by the impact of the story.  When I read The Great Santini, he got me in the beginning with the story of the road trip (not stopping for rest stops, intentionally targeting turtles on the road)--especially the children's almost blasphemous parody of a Marine festive event.  When I read of the interesting relationship between father and son as years went on, I was amused, to say the least, to learn that Don Conroy--Santini himself--attended signings with his son who had made him famous.  He reportedly told Pat, "I should have beaten you more--made you a better writer," to which his son replied, "If you'd beaten me more, I'd have been Shakespeare."

In this latest family story--he says his last--he starts at the beginning and pulls together the threads of the family. So many of the stories before have been a tribute to his mother.  This story gives a great deal of attention to conflicts with his sister Carol Ann, the poet in the family.  His account of her behavior at their parents' funerals is a perfect example of dark humor.  While giving his father a measure of grace in the book, Conroy makes no attempt to gloss over his own shortcomings and reveals much about his own demons--the depression and suicidal tendencies that haunt many of the family members.

I'm not sure what vein Conroy will tap next, but I expect it, too, will join the others on my shelves.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Quick Question: I'd Love Your Response.

While I'm thinking of books and reading, I wasted to pose a question.  One idea that kept surfacing in The Storied Life of AJ Fikry was the importance in a relationship of sharing interests.  In fact, some of the romances in the story are made or broken on that basis.  Not only the title character, but others in the novel recognize a dead end when a date or potential partner can't satisfactorily answer, "What's your favorite book?" or even "What's the last book you read?"

The same discussion has come up in conversations with friends, colleagues, and even with my students.  I used to advise my high school students that they should be readers so they wouldn't end up having to marry boring spouses.  I suspect that for many of us, disdain or apathy about reading would be a deal-breaker in a relationship. Too picky?  I think not! What do you think?

Southern Surprise

Frances Mayes' newest memoir has been sitting on my shelf since October when I visited Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville and walked away with an advanced reader copy.  Packing for my beach trip, I knew I needed a paperback to read outside, since several of my other options are my signed first editions from Lemuria. In other words, my selection process is sometimes more practical than methodical. Random chance rewarded me.

I was familiar with Mayes from the moving version of her book Under the Tuscan Sun and from her novel Swan, but my familiarity stopped there. By the first chapter--actually the prologue-- I was hooked.  While the book is primarily an account of growing up in a dysfunctional Southern family, it is also a love letter to the South.  She begins by describing a visit to Faulkner's South that convinced her it was time to come home after living in Italy and ending up in California.

Mayes grew up in Fitzgerald, Georgia, a town created by Southern and Northern soldiers after  the Civil War. Surrounded by extended family, she was raised by volatile parents whose fights were often fueled by alcohol. Her account however, is not a whining tome of self pity.  Instead it is woven together with prose that often merited reading aloud (Sorry, Claudia!)

I was tickled to learn that Mayes ended up in Hillsborough, North Carolina, unquestionably fertile soil for literature.  In the acknowledgements, she mentions one of my favorite Southern gentlemen Allan Gurganus, as well as husband and wife authors Lee Smith and Hal Crowther.  

I'm always fascinated to learn what factors lead some people to a writing life.  On my way back home from Florida, as we drove past the exit for Fitzgerald, I was tempted to stop and drink the water.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Parallel Stories: Orphan Train

I've always had strong feelings about older adolescents in foster care, particularly as they get closer to aging out.  Christina Baker Kline's new novel moves back and forth between the present-day story of Molly Ayer, a seventeen-year-old girl who's been moved back and forth from one foster home to another. While her foster father seems motivated to care for her, his wife is more than resistant. (Kline tends to make her something of a caricature of the religious right, a weakness of the narrative.)  When she is caught trying to steal a copy of Jane Eyre from the library--a paperback, the worst copy of three in the library--she has two choices--community service or juvenile detention.  Her boyfriend helps her land a job working for the elderly woman who employs his mother as a housekeeper.

Vivian Daly, over ninety years old, lives in an old mansion, and her attic is full of boxes from her life.  Molly's job, at least at the outset, is to help her clean out the attic.  Instead, she goes through the items form a lifetime as Vivian recounts her own story, an Irish immigrant who loses her family in a fire shortly after their arrival in the United States.  She becomes part of a group of orphans taken by well-meaning groups by train from town to town--following advance advertisements--to find families.  Most of the families are looking not for additional children but farm workers or child care.

Vivian goes through two "failed adoptions"--horrendous experiences--before ending up with a couple who own a store and need her help.  Despite their kind detachment, they offer Vivian opportunities of education and a job at which she excels.

She shares the story with Molly--as part of a "portage project" in her Native American studies class. I learned that  Maine is the only state that has Native American history as a curriculum requirement.  Molly finds Vivian a perfect subject for the project:  Interview someone who has moved, asking about decisions concerning what to take along and what to leave behind.

Molly softens under Vivian's roof, particularly since the elderly woman doesn't react to Molly's external attempts to rebel--hair, jewelry, clothes, attitude.  In what becomes a mutually satisfying relationship, Vivian gives Molly a second chance, and Molly opens up to her the world of the internet, helping her to track down what survives of her family she though she had lost forever.

While the premise of the "orphan train" seems farfetched, Kline provides historical background on her website.  Between 1854 and 1929, more than 200,000 children were part of the project, intended to give these children, many of them from Irish immigrant families, a chance to find work, education, and families.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fairy Tales

Over the last several years, my sister Amy has begun to rival me in her reading.  Since we live hours apart, our phone calls have grown longer and more frequent. In addition to discussing our children, our siblings, and our parents, our talks frequently turn to books.  Some of my reading suggestions come from her and her book club in Jasper, AL.

I'm making a serious attempt this summer to read more "real books"--not because I think eBooks are any less literary. In fact, I suspect the current debate between the two is on par with the scroll-manuscript-Gutenberg debates of old.  I'll take my text any way I can get it.  To be honest, I have too many unread volumes on my shelves that I need to get around to reading--because the number keeps growing.  Still, I find that my iPad is my best reading choice when I'm on the treadmill or exercise bike, so I keep one loaded all the time.

Now that I've gone around the world there, back to Amy's recent suggestion:  While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell.  The story is told by Elise, a young girl whose mother once worked at the nearby castle before finding herself pregnant and being forced to leave. Once she learns the cold man who has raised her and her siblings is not her biological father, Elise follows her mother's lead and heads to St. Elsip, where the castle is located, to find work.  In surprisingly short time, she becomes the lady's made to Queen Lenore and becomes particularly close to Princess Rose, the child the royal pair finally conceive after years of disappointment.

Blackwell introduces a number of darker characters, including Millicent, the king's sister, bitter at her birth before women were considered possible heirs to the thrown. She uses her dark arts to manipulate and threaten.  The king's younger brother, disappointed to be deprived of the throne--news delivered in a way that doubles his humiliation, also joins the cast of antagonists.

Blackwell keeps her focus on Elise, who must choose between duty and her heart's desire. She has a maturity that serves her well, but she remains a believable girl who cares very much about the people around her and who recognizes her own vulnerability.

While the novel has touches of the familiar fairy tale elements--including the threatening spinning wheels, the castle's descent in to a long thorny sleep is presented more metaphorically during a time of war. Now that Hollywood is casting Angelina Jolie as Malificent--presumably the Millicent figure--this is a good time to revisit the old classic tale. Sometimes a prince's kiss may not be the only salvation.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Immersed in Books: Let the Summer Begin

I've always done my best not to let everyday life get in the way of my reading. Even when I was going through the certification process for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards--a tedious, demanding year-long process--I managed to read for pleasure.  As a matter of fact, back when I went through certification, the Board provided a suggested reading and viewing list--and I am a girl who loves a book list.

Without a doubt, though, with summers off, I do plenty of catching up on my unwieldy book stack.  May is halfway through, graduation took place nine days ago, and I've read six books and listened to two already this month. Spending a solid week on an island off the coast of Florida without TV or wi-fi (or stores or restaurants), I was in reader heaven.

I want to take time to post about all of these books in the next few days, but I have to start with Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. I kept seeing the cover on book catalogs, magazines, and flyers.  As a general rule, I've learned to trust the Indie Booksellers' suggestions.  This book was like a love letter to reading, a love story for readers.  The title character is the thirty-something recently widowed owner of the Island Bookstore on Alice Island in Massachusetts.  He's prickly, opinionated, heart-broken and well on his way to alcoholism when a few events line up to change his life.  Each one brings him in contact with Police Chief Lambiase, the same officer who delivered the news of AJ's wife's death and the man who eventually points out to him that everything is a matter of good timing or bad timing.

Timing almost ruins his chances with book rep Amelia Loman, and what seems like the worst possible circumstance--the theft of his copy of Tamarlane--one of fifty copies of the first novel published anonymously by Edgar Allan Poe--results in the appearance of a foundling child--Maya, deserted in the bookstore by her mother.

What might be a predictable, maudlin tale isn't:  the laughter-to-tears balance is spot on.  For book lovers, this novel pushes all the buttons--real books or e-readers?  TV or books? novels or short stories?  Just what qualifies as a novella? Are books clubs for everyone?  In this case, the most successful book group ends up being the Chief's Choice, once AJ gets Chief Lambiase hooked on books, moving him from mass market crime thrillers to literary fiction.

Anyone familiar with this blog knows I'm a huge champion of audiobooks--and this was my listen for the long car trip home--but now I know I must have my own copy just to see if the author provided a book list. (In fact, I tried to find the hard copy in the library today)  Already, I'm ready to expand my reading of Raymond Carver, but, like Fikry, I'm willing to forego Moby Dick and Proust.  The jury's still out on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. 

Best of all, I can't think of a better book to have chosen for the beginning of my summer vacation.  It may reshape my to-read-next stack considerably.

Here's one of the links I came across for anyone interested in further reading: NPR: Storied Life Comes with a Reading List