Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bill Clegg: Did You Ever Have a Family?

I maintain a keychain full of library cards, granting me borrowing privileges at every institution to which I have legal access. As I frequently remind my students, though, the most valuable resource in any media center--as libraries are now called--is the personnel. I have a fondness beyond words for that special class of librarians who see their mission as that of matchmaker, bringing together books and their best readers.

Even though I regularly frequent larger libraries in the area, I return again and again to the small Granite Falls Branch Library of the Caldwell County system.  Years ago, I discovered their audiobook collections, and I have since maintained a relationship with the staff there. They not only listen to my recommendations, but they order them.  Best of all, when I'm there returning or checking out, they frequently tell me a title they not only recommend but will place on hold for me.  Most recently, I discovered Bill Clegg's novel Did You Ever Have a Family? just this way.

The novel, told from a number of perspectives opens as a teenage boy smokes pot in his upstairs bedroom becomes aware of an uproar downstairs because of a nearby house fire.  Gradually, the story unfolds of a family, broken in the clearest sense of the word but coming together for a daughter's wedding--until most of the key members of the wedding party die in the fire--all the inhabitants of the house but the bride's mother June.

This is a story of the survivors--two mothers from vastly different situations handling their grief, loss, and guilt in the only way they know how--alone. June, who has lost her young boyfriend Luke in the fire as well, leaves town. Luke's mother Lydia, an outcast in the Connecticut town for years, deals with the loss and the accusatory whispers in her own private way.

Pulling their stories together, though, Clegg introduces secondary and minor characters who have moved in and out of their lives. Readers are introduced to the family of the groom, a pair of women running a small hotel in Washington state and the woman who cleans the rooms, the natural father of one of the deceased, who never knew of the son's existence, and even the caterer and florist who were never even paid for their services.

The question in the title is posed as an answer or explanation by one of the survivors, an attempt at one time to explain her unsettled life. For anyone who can answer yes--and that's all of us--the story Clegg spins, moving back and forth between Connecticut and Washington, shows the possibility of moving past guilt and loss, even with scars and hurt intact.

This is just the kind of book to pass along to any reader who wrestles with the mingled joys and sorrows that come with loving a family. And that's all of us too.

Friday, October 9, 2015

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann: The Great World Keeps Spinning

When I abandon a book I'm reading, I rarely return to it, but when I do, I'm usually rewarded. Such was the case with Colum McCann's TransAtlantic. I had loved Let the Great World Spin, and with the new movie about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, I've been thinking back to that particular novel, in which the author wove together a number of stories.

While McCann's earlier novel captures life in New York City over a short period of time, TransAtlantic crosses not only the ocean but a broad span of time, perhaps 150 years. He opens with the story of two pilots making the first Atlantic crossing with much media attention, then flashes back to a visit to Ireland by Frederick Douglas.

The remaining story moves back and forth between England and Ireland, between Ireland and the United States. While the pilots and Douglas play important roles in the story, McCann particularly follows the lives of several generations of women, beginning with an Irish woman working as a maid in a house visited by Douglas and the daughters and granddaughters that follow.

McCann's telling of the story, though, holds back the connections between characters at first, so that when they are revealed, readers get the sense of completing a puzzle. This lineage of Irish American women are imbued with a strong sense of independence, pioneers in photojournalism, world travelers.

Through the interwoven narratives, McCann's writing style sometimes verges on poetic, at other times almost reportorial. He uses the historical backdrop, peopled by real figures--Douglas, British pilots Alcock and Brown, Senator George Mitchell at the center of the  Northern Ireland Good Friday peace accords--crossing paths with Lily Duggan, her daughter Emily, granddaughter Lottie and her daughter Hannah, an unopened letter that had made that historic trans-Atlantic flight,passing from hand to hand.

The small scenes McCann crafts, placing his characters in situations of heartbreak and endurance, continue to echo with readers like memories.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War

I've always been fascinated by people who make a living as photographers.  With the exhibit of Steve McCurry's startlingly beautiful photographs from National Geographic on display at the Hickory Museum of Art, I try to imagine the lifestyle of professional photographers who travel the world, breaking into the bigger media markets against what must be overwhelming odds.

Lynsey Addario's story, however, is more than a glamorous travelogue, since she made her mark in some of the most dangerous areas of the world. In her memoir, she describes traveling first to Afghanistan before the rest of the world paid much attention, then returning after 9/11, eventually as an imbedded photojournalist for the New York Times

She reveals a side to the Middle East conflict from a rarely told perspective, particularly as a female trying to do her job without attracting too much attention. She describes harrowing experiences, at one time caught in a fire fight while working with another female reporter who was trying to disguise her pregnancy.

Addario doesn't try to editorialize as much as she simply presents the details she witnessed and experienced.  Through the course of her narrative, she introduced readers to her own family, to men she loved, and to the man she eventually marries, one secure enough to let her do her dangerous job.

At times her story is as dramatic as any adventure movie. Knowing she had survived to write her own story at least gave me some ease as I read about a period of time when she and her colleagues were held captive, fearing for their lives and enduring assault stopping just short of rape.

Just as reading Becoming Odyssa made me admire Jennifer Pharr Davis but did not make me want to hike the Appalachian Trail, reading Addario's experiences as a "conflict photojournalist" inspired admiration for the guts she has to advance into dangerous parts of the world in order to tell the stories of civilians there, but she did not motivate me to follow in her footsteps. For now, I'll keep my camera right here with me at home.