Monday, December 31, 2018

2019: The Year in Music

As one of my favorite year-end rituals, I  transfer my list of books completed from my kitchen calendar to my Book-Woman journal, which I began in 1997. At some point in January, I share the entire list here as well. For now, though, I've enjoyed looking for patterns.

Occasionally, I'll find a book that left absolutely no impression on me at all. Others invite me to re-read. Even though I consider myself a fiction reader first and foremost, I find some other common threads.

My love of music is no secret to anyone who knows me. In 2018, I enjoyed my share of festivals, concerts, and conferences. Friends I met at the SPBGMA conference in February became lifelong friends and introduced me to a number of singers, songwriters, and authors.

I finished this year with a couple of books that expanded my playlist. Back in October, I met Terry Wait Klefstad from Belmont's School of Music and Bill Pursell, the subject of her book Crooked River City. Her book describes the crooked path of his life as a professional musician. Classically trained, Pursell ended up as a Nashville session musician much in demand. He has played on such classics as Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." At the same time he was playing piano for other artists who were creating what became the Nashville Sound, he was also playing regularly for the Nashville Symphony and composing for them as well. He rounded out his career as a professor at Belmont, even completing the doctorate degree he abandoned decades before.

In a different vein altogether, John Hartford's Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes, compiled by Matt Combs, Katie Harford Hogue (Hartford's daughter), and Greg Reish. This book would be a treasure even without the rich text that tells the story of this uncommon musician and his pure love of music. Perhaps remembered more--at least by the public--for his dancing banjo style, Hartford had a passion not only for creating his own backlog of fiddle tunes but for collecting those of all the best fiddlers, such as Ed Haley, preserving old-time music for the future.

What will bring readers back again and again to this book is the visually appealing record of Hartford's music taken from his notebooks compiled over years. The editors of the book interviewed so many of his colleagues and bandmates, who described his obsession with 3x5 notes on which he recorded song ideas, observations, and drawings.

Hartford's music fans may be unaware of his background in graphic arts, but his distinctive line drawings throughout the book show another aspect of his creative ability.

Many of the songs Hartford composed went unrecorded. Repeatedly, interviewees commented on his passion for jamming, his open-door policy, welcoming musicians and other Nashville icons or passers-through to his home on the Cumberland River for what often turned into two or three day jams. Reading prompted many a detour to YouTube or to my own music collection, where he often appears on other people's albums.

I can hardly believe it was less than a year ago that I met Barbara Martin Stephens and read her memoir, Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler, the story of her life with Jimmy Martin, the "King of Bluegrass," which also tells about her experience as the first female booking agent in Nashville.  I especially enjoyed the audiobook, read by the author.

A fictional work with a music theme, Peter McDade's The Weight of Sound, was one of the many excellent books I discovered through Shari Smith's Trio Project. This novel follows the life of a young man who finds his path in music in his teens, and then weaves the story from the perspective of bandmates, family, and friends.  The novel was particularly suited for TRIO, which pairs each book with a graphic artist and a songwriter, who produce works inspired by the book.

Rodney Foster's For You to See the Stars, another TRIO selection, was released as a short story collection and CD of the same name. Foster wrote and recorded a song accompany each story. While the stories and the songs stand alone on their own merits, listening while reading creates the ideal experience.

A look at my to-read stack for 2019 reveals a few other books with musical angles.  My senses can prepare to be stimulated again.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Kate Atkinson: Reading Back Titles

During the days between Christmas and the beginning of the new school year, that time when we lose track of what day it is, I love the luxury of guilt-free reading. I don't have to worry about the holiday shopping or cooking (maybe the cleaning--which never ends); I have my syllabus ready for my spring classes. I can just kick back with a book.

The biggest challenge, though, is deciding which book to read next. I don't follow any kind of logic; I just pick up what seems most appealing. I have several books still unread, but I had picked up a copy of Kate Atkinson's older novel Case Histories at the library's book sale back in October.  I have loved her books I've read--Life after Life (which I read twice) and Gods in Ruins. This one, though recommended by one of my favorite reading friends, had eluded me until now.

Atkinson's books never follow a simple plot line, but she never follows the same path twice. In this novel, she moves between three or four plots lines that seem unrelated: Olivia, the youngest of four girls who disappears from the tent where she and a sister are camping; Jackson Brodie, a recently divorced former policeman who has opened a private investigation office; Vic, an obese man whose favorite daughter Laura was murdered while working temporarily at this office, a newlywed forced to deal with her stepchildren and her judgmental new mother-in-law. Each of the plot lines involves unsolved or unexplained murders.

Brodie becomes the center of all the stories, as he is contacted by two of Olivia's sisters, now middle-aged and finding their sister's Blue Mouse doll after their father's death. They want to know the truth about their sister's disappearance. Vic too wants to find his daughter's killer, only identified by his yellow golf sweater.

In a fashion readers come to expect from Atkinson, details and characters are often not what as first appear. Since she shifts between the perspectives of several characters, readers feel almost like detectives, piecing together missing details as they are revealed. All of the characters have flaws; all hide secrets; all have a certain self-awareness.

Atkinson's writing sets the bar high. Readers may have a harder time settling for simple plots and characterization after inhabiting her narratives. Fortunately, readers don't have to wait for her next publication, since her new novel Transcriptions is one the bookstore shelves now.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Two Willas: Kingsolver and Tyler's 2018 Novels

Since I usually keep one audiobook in my car while I read another in print, occasionally I experience overlap between the two. When Barbara Kingsolver appeared in Nashville last month as part of the library’s Salon@615, she not only talked about Unsheltered,her newest novel, but about the whole body of her work. She remarked on the disconcerting feeling when a fan told her that one of her first novels was her best book ever. Ann Patchett was conducting the interview, and the two of them agreed that their favorite book was usually the most recent. They expressed a hope that their writing had matured and improved.

Kingsolver noted that over time her writing had become, she hoped, more economical. She indicated an awareness that she didn’t have patience for extraneous details in a story at this point in her life.

When I discovered that the main character in the modern section of her new novel was named Willa, as was the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel Clock Dance, my current audiobook, I could not help drawing comparisons.

Unsheltered is set in the same house in Vineland, New Jersey, both in the current day and in the period following the Civil War. Willa Knox and her husband have moved into the house as he continues his futile quest for tenure. Just as their lives begin to fall apart around them, they find that their house also is built on an inadequate foundation. Living in the house with them is their daughter Tig (Antigone), who has returned from Cuba sporting blonde dreadlocks, ready to take on the system. They are also caring for her father-in-law, whose extreme conservative views not only conflict with the rest of the family but are at odds with their need to sign on to Obamacare and Medicaid to afford his medical care. When it seems life couldn’t get any more complicated, their son’s partner, after giving birth to his child, commits suicide, leaving him grief-stricken but responsible for a newborn.

In the earlier time period of the book, Thacker Greenwood has recently married a woman whose social status surpasses his own, but whose marriages provides a home for her recently widowed mother and her spunky sister. Thacker finds himself an outsider in the town originally designed as a utopian experiment, history Kingsolver has researched. As he crosses horns with his employer over his desire to teach Darwinian principles to his students, he befriends Mary Treat. Kingsolver discovered the historical Treat in her research, a fascinating woman who conducted correspondence with Darwin, as well as Asa Gray and other prominent male scientists and thinkers of her day.

At the core of both stories, Kingsolver paints a picture of the fragile state of middle class Americans when both their employment and their actual home begins to crumble around them. 

In Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, she takes a different approach from Kingsolver’s economy of narrative, focuses instead on the life of one woman—from childhood into her sixties—in microscopic detail. Her narrative opens with Willa a young girl in the home with a volatile mother, prone to disappearing, and a more stable, gentle father. Tyler takes readers along through Willa’s life, marrying her first college sweetheart, which deters her from finishing college. As a mother of two young sons, she experiences tragic loss, but moves on with her life, remarrying and settling into life. 

Willa’s life seems a series of disappointments—or at least a life of settling—until she gets a phone call from Baltimore, the setting of most of Tyler’s fiction. The woman who calls tells Willa she needs to come and take care of her granddaughter, whose mother has been shot. But Willa doesn’t have a granddaughter. She puts together the details and realizes the girl’s mother is her older son’s former girlfriend. Even without a real family tie, though, she decides to fly to Baltimore to take care of nine-year-old Cheryl, much to her husband’s dismay.

As her inexplicable sense of responsibility keeps her in Baltimore even after her husband decides to return home, she develops a stronger sense of family and belonging in the neighborhood where she is staying. She eventually finds the truth behind the seemingly random shooting, a contrast to an odd scene in the novel, when her seatmate on her first airplane flight tells her he has a gun against her ribs. In that case, no one even seems to believe her story or take it seriously.

Willa recalls a conversation with her father after he finds himself alone after her mother’s death:

I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?” “Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still. “I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.” She thought that over. “But…” she said. He waited. “But…is that enough?” she asked him. “Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.” 

Willa inevitably has to decide how much is enough in her own life. Tyler writes not economically but with a close eye to the many details that add up to one’s life.

Just as Kingsolver has shifted her focus, streamlining her narrative over her career, I find that I am sometimes less patient with too much attention to detail. Sometimes, though, my patience as I read pays off, as it did with Tyler's Clock Dance.



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Happy Here in Book Land

My scarcity of book posts recently has more to do with my crowded schedule than the lack of subject matter. Here in Nashville, I have great book opportunities everywhere I turn. One of the real treasures here is the Southern Festival of Books, held here each October spread out between the downtown Nashville Public Library and War Memorial Auditorium.

I was particularly eager for this year's even because my friend Barbara Martin Stephens was going to be presenting a session about her book Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler with three other authors writing about the Nashville music scene. I had the good fortune to introduce the authors in that session. Barbara's book tells the behind-the-scenes story of her life with Jimmy Martin the "King of Bluegrass." The story gives a candid look into their often difficult life together, but she also tells about her own experiences as the first female booking agent on Music Row (as well as other key areas where she and Jimmy lived and worked.

Michael D. Doubler also shared his book Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Dave Macon Story, part of his own family history. Don Cusic shared photos and music from his gorgeous coffee table book Nashville Sound: An Illustrated Timeline for which he gives much credit to Olivia Beaudry, who helped collect the photographs.

Rounding out the panel, Terry Wait Klefstad of Belmont University discussed her book Crooked River City: The Musical Life of Nashville's William Pursell. She shares the story of one of Nashville's often overlooked studio musicians. A contemporary of Floyd Cramer, Pursell was a classically trained pianist who came to town and played on many of Nashville's biggest hit recordings, while also playing with the symphony. As a special treat, Pursell, now 92,  accompanied Klefstad to the reading and participating in the Q & A.

Several other favorites were in town for the Festival. Long a fan of Charles Frazier, I couldn't miss the opportunity to hear him talk about his latest novel Varina. Although I read it as soon as it came out, I realize that I need to read it again, slowly this time, savoring his style.

I also made a point to hear Luis Alberto Urrea, since I had so loved listening to the audiobook of his novel House of Broken Angels, which he narrates. He was charming and entertaining. The book is so obviously a family love story, but hearing him talking about the lines where his life and the narrative cross was such a treat.

One panel of authors discussed their varying relationships with the late Pat Conroy, sharing some of the pieces in Our Prince of Scribes, a collection in which many writers, booksellers, and friends shared their own stories of Conroy. Bren McClain, whose novel One Good Mama Bone just won the 2017 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, was on the panel, as well as Cliff Graubart, whose Atlanta bookstore Conroy made famous in My Reading Life.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor charmed audiences as she talked about the children's and young adult book of her life story. To the discomfort of her Secret Service men, she moved into the audience giving most of her attention to the young people in the audience.

I could probably fill as much space writing about the authors I didn't get to hear, since the schedule was so full. At least I have a full to-read stack, and I know the Festival will return next year.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Starting and Stopping: What to Read Next

Honestly, I could stay in my house for a couple of years without having to leave to find something new to read--even without an internet connection. That hasn't ever stopped me from adding to my collection of books or from regularly visiting libraries and bookstores. I'm always on the prowl for the next good read.

I'm not a one-book-at-a-time kind of reader either. I regularly keep one traditional print book going, along with one audiobook in the car and one eBook on my iPad. It doesn't confuse me any more than talking to more than one person in a day would.

Occasionally, the stars align just so, and I find myself at the end of all three at once. This month, my book club decided to abandon a book choice (I won't mention the title. I'll just whisper the words "Pulitzer Prize") because most of the ladies just couldn't get through it. These are hardcore readers, too--not lightweights. I was about to start reading it but decided this many women can't be wrong. We opted instead to discuss a book I've already read, one I loved. Now I'm free to pick whatever I want to read.

Meanwhile, the audiobook I chose at the library hasn't caught my attention, and I am perusing my shelves to decide what volume I've overlooked too long. It's a nice problem to have, I'll admit. For now, I'm listening to music in the car. The Americana Fest is going on in Nashville this week, so I don't have much time for reading anyway--other than constantly scanning the schedule to choose my next concert or showcase.

I know that in a few days I'll be back into my reading/listening rhythm, lost in another good story--or three.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The House of Broken Angels: Anticipating the Southern Festival of Books

Sometimes a book just keeps presenting itself to me until I give in and read it--at no one's suggestion, after little more than a glimpse in a book review or its appearance on the library shelf. I'll admit than the first time I saw the book cover for The House of Broken Angels, the "unimportant words" were so small, I thought the title was House-Broken Angels. When I found myself casting about for an audiobook to feed my habit, I found it on the library shelf and gave it a try. In the past week, I have found myself coming up with excuses to drive to the store or sitting in the garage, listening just a little longer.

Urrea, who will appear in Nashville's Southern Festival of Books in October, has written a lovely, sprawling family story. The novel opens on the day of Big Angel de la Cruz's mother America's funeral, short of her hundredth birthday. As the family patriarch, Big Angel has arranged the timing so that his extended family can stay over for his seventieth birthday--his last birthday-- the following day. Suffering from terminal cancer, Big Angel is more and more dependent on his wife Perla and their daughter Minerva, whom the family calls Minnie--after the Disney mouse.

The cast of characters in this Mexican-American family in San Diego is so large that upon finishing the audiobook, I have considered buying a print copy and creating a family tree, like that Little Angel, the protagonist's half brother, keeps in his pocket notebook to keep the family straight.

While the story opens on the day of the matriarch's funeral, Urrea provides flashbacks to Big Angel's childhood in Mexica. He also shifts perspective in the story told in third person, giving Little Angel an increasing perspective, but also developing the many characters that assemble for the funeral and the birthday celebration.

Even the murdered children of Big Angel's wife Perla and her sister, called La Gloriosa, are given a place in the story. Big Angel and Perla's children, even the absent step-son Yndio, are drawn to the family circle, where Little Angel, a literature professor in Seattle is disappointed to find a birthday meal of pizza and spaghetti instead of the home-cooked Mexican fiesta he had anticipated.

With the lightest hand, Urrea gives an honest look at border politics and ethnic identity, full of flavor in its language and detail. At its heart, he has drawn a beautiful family story. Big Angel faces imminent death with a weight of guilt from his past. He is briefly visited by the ghost of his father, a former policeman who left two families in his wake, but the presence of his little brother gives both men a chance to clear the air of their old grievances.

In one of the most poignant scenes, after they have survived what could have been a disaster, his children and brother crawl into bed with Big Angel, as his "Perla of great price" stands at the bedside. What could have been a sad and somber story has woven into it humor, warmth, and the loveliest, most tender romantic scene possible between aging spouses looking into the face of death.

Since the author reads the audiobook with such verve, I am more eager than ever to hear him when he appears at the literary festival next month. In the meantime, I'm going looking for his earlier stories.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Different Story from WWII: Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Most book club members I know note that we ended up reading so many books from World War II. We think we've learned all we can about that period of world history--and then something new comes along. Such was the case with Mark Sullivan's tale Beneath the Scarlet Sky, a novel based on the life of Pino Lella, a teenager in Milan thrust into the middle of the war on the Italian front. Sullivan came upon Lella's story at a point when he was doubt his own ability as a writer. By the time they met, Pino was an old man with a full life behind him. The story he shared fills in a part of the war that is often overlook. 

Students of history learn about Mussolini--Il Duce--and the Fascist army, but often forget that the lines drawn are often unclear. As the war was escalating in Europe, Pino's family sent him and his brother Meimo to a Catholic school for boys in the mountains near the Swiss border run by Father Ray. During that time, Pino and his brother were enlisted to help Jews escape through the treacherous mountain passes to safety. They often ran into conflict with partisans who acted more like the Southern Home Guard during the Civil War, using their cause as a front to extort and to kill.

As Pino approached his eighteenth birthday, his father forced him to join the Nazi army to avoid being drafted into the Italian troops who were sent to the Russian border where they were basically cannon fodder. By chance, he ended up as a driver for General Leyers, a Nazi reporting directly to Hitler. This position gave Pino the opportunity to work as a spy, but he had to face the derision of his closest friend and his brother, whom he could not tell the truth.

This is also a love story, as Pino finds that Leyers' mistress's maid Anna is a young woman to whom he had been attracted before he left to join Father Ray. Six years his senior, Anna had a tragic story herself, and as their relationship blossoms, she offers the only light in his life.

Throughout the reading, I am constantly reminded that Pino is a teenager during the course of the story. He sees more death and horror than most people can imagine. Firsthand, he witnesses the Nazis use of slaves for force labor, often working them to death. He also Leyers' receipt of gold bars, presumably put away for safekeeping as insurance for his future at the war's end.

Problematic for some readers is Sullivan's necessity to fill in the details, to imagine conversations, as he reconstructs a life from details he learns decades later. Some questions, particularly relating to Leyers, remain unanswered and troubling. 

I get the overwhelming sense of what it must have been like to balance one's integrity and safety during a time when death was always a possibility. Pino's story also shows readers the lifelong effect of guilt and loss. 

Shortly after 9/11, I once heard an NPR commentator say, "War is how Americans learn geography." Sometimes the geography lesson comes with a history lesson as well.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Bren McClain's One Good Mama Bone

At a recent book club meeting, there was some discussion about what makes a book a "good book." Sure enough, I find that I often enjoy a story or--in the case of nonfiction--I enjoy learning something new, but I really long for a good story well told, well written.

Another challenge I find is sifting through all the hyped books--those with big publishing companies' budgets behind them--in order to find the jewels. Small independent book stores are usually some of the best places for finding new authors and books that might otherwise be overlooked.

At the final TRIO 3 show at Parnassus Books last month, I left with a couple of books I hadn't read--or even heard about until that night. This particular event is Shari Smith's brain child for which she assigns about 15 books--one each to an artist and a songwriter--for creative response. Quite a few of the authors, singers, and artists were present that evening, and I had the pleasure of meeting author Bren McClain before the show.  After hearing her talk about the book, I knew I had found my next read, One Good Mama Bone, moving it to the top of my stack. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop.

The main character of the novel, Sara Creamer, has lived through rejection by her mother, betrayal by her husband and best friend, and is now trying to raise the boy her husband named Emerson Bridge, with her only income from her seamstress skills. When she learns of the annual 4-H Fat Cattle competition, she sees a chance for a break, buying a steer born to a heifer she calls Mama Red, long past prime time for birthing calves. Separated from her young steer, she breaks through fences to find her bawling baby.

Emerson Bridge's biggest competition in the cattle competition is his classmate Little LC Dobbins, who lost the previous year, spoiling the winning streak of his older brother' Charles. LC's father Luther wants to be respected as a cattleman, but most of his success has been through others' efforts. Over the course of the story, Dobbins' wife Mildred, whom he married for her family money, develops a friendship with Sara, a blessing to both women.

Ike Thrasher, one of the many interesting secondary characters, the son of the original landowner, was also rejected by his father. He has given up his preaching career and is trying to prove himself a man, partnering with the Creamers to raise the steer the boy names Lucky.

In what on the surface,might be described as a book about cows, McClain builds a tale about what it means to be a mother, a father, a man. At the heart of the story, giving the novel its title, is Sara's memory of her mother's declaration that Sara didn't have "one good mama bone." What at first seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy becomes a challenge instead.

The story takes on issues of race and class, particularly examining what can happen when someone rises above his circumstances, but never feels accepted or vindicated. In a way, Luther Dobbins is one of the most tragic figures in the story. He has the desire to connect with his younger son, but he fails to act on his best instincts. His concerns for appearance and admirations always undercut his best intentions.

Emerson Bridge also carries with him his father's final words of advice about acting in kindness, reinforced when the boy becomes a member of the Roy Rogers Riders Club, whose pledge includes treating animals with kindness.

Throughout the story, McClain sometimes shifts to the perspective of Mama Bone the cow and her baby, providing an element of dramatic irony. She also uses Sara's confessional monologues to Mama Bone to fill in some of the background details leading up to Emerson Bridge's birth.

I can think of a few other books in which the animal characters were as engaging as the humans--Watership Down  and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for example. The highlight of this novel was the relationships between humans and animals. These relationships often prompted most of the human characters to act with greater integrity and kindness. With a light hand, McClain doesn't just tell a story, she crafts a pitch perfect narrative.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

As I'm getting ready to kick off a new semester and to meet three classes of college freshmen tomorrow, I remind myself what I probably didn't consider when I was in their place: access to a good education is such a privilege.

I'm used to reading about girls in other countries deprived of the right to go to school, either because of politics or economics; I forget how many girls and boys, young men and women here in the United States also face obstacles.

Tara Westover's memoir Educated gives a surprising look at one family's experience. Westover was raised, along with several siblings, in an extreme fundamentalist Mormon family. Her father, whom readers learn as his daughter does, is evidently bipolar, has such extreme anti-government views that he avoids any interaction with the government, always fearing plots to control their lives.  The family refuses medical care, neither routine checkups or emergency treatment.  Tara's mother trains as a midwife and then builds on her knowledge of herbs, eventually providing the family's financial support. Westover's father spends most of his life in the junk business, resulting in severe burn injuries for Tara's brother and for himself. All the children are pressed into the junk business as well, and Tara has to learn to anticipate her father's moves to avoid death or maiming.

The children aren't sent to school, but homeschooling is more of a theory than a reality in their home.
Only when Tara's older brother decides he wants to go to college and begins a self-study program to pass entrance exams does she recognize the limits of her own education. Her understanding of math, a big part of the testing, is severely limited. Through hard work, she ends up in college in Salt Lake City, finding that her knowledge of history and current events is even more lacking. Asked to read aloud in class, her professor interprets as sarcasm her unfamiliarity with the word "Holocaust." She is also shocked to find that even among other Mormons, her family's attitudes are extremely conservative.

She also has to deal with one brother's physical and emotional abuse and her parents' silence or complicity.

Spoiler alert: the way Westover overcomes her background and goes on to achieve not just a college education, but degrees from Cambridge and even a Ph.D. from Harvard is inspirational, to say the least. Over the course of the book, readers see her growing awareness of the manipulation of truth in which she has been steeped. She sees her family members choose to reject the obvious in order to stay in the family circle. Only through sacrificing her family ties is she able to come to terms with the outside world.

When I face my new freshmen this week, I hope to encourage them to ask questions, to test what they are taught as truth. I'll repeat my mantra:  The truth will stand up to questioning. Maybe I can even encourage them to be grateful for the education before them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan: Why I Still Read YA Novels

I keep a running list of reading suggestions from friends, often forgetting exactly from whom the recommendation first arrived. Such is the case with Echo, the Newbery Award-winning novel by Pam Munoz Ryan (author of Esperanza Rising.)

The narrative structure brings to mind books such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which traced a Vermeer painting from the most recent owner, back through its numerous owners to the painter himself.

This book, which opens with a fairy tale style of narrative, follows a harmonica from one owner to the next--Frederich, a young boy in Nazi Germany; Mike, trapped in an orphanage with his younger brother; Ivy, the daughter of a migrant worker in California; and Kenneth, a young Japanese-American soldier whose parents are in an internment camp. Each narrative stops at a suspenseful point, with a suggestion of tragedy or disaster; the resolution ties the threads together, explaining the path taken by the harmonica.

Much of the story can be considered a historical novel, exploring the way World War II affected people in a variety of situations and setting. One surprise detail was the existence of harmonica orchestras in America during this time period (perhaps rivaled by ukulele bands today). A real bonus of the audio recording of this novel is the inclusion of a number of lovely songs throughout the story. A major theme of the story is the transformative power of music to heal and to unite. Relationships between parents, children, siblings, and neighbors are also explored through the story.

Ryan follows the tried and true narrative method: get your characters into trouble and see how they get out of it. The young adolescent characters are realistically naive at times. They jump to conclusions and try to take action themselves, often without considering the consequences.

I realize that I read plenty of novels set during World War II, but this one is particularly accessible to younger readers and gives a number of varying viewpoints to these pivotal years in world history. I wish I could remember whom to thank for the recommendation.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Another from Sara Gruen: Not Elephants or Apes but Monsters

Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants was a big enough success to have drawn me to read two more of her books. I'm tempted to give her a rest. Ape House was just silly and improbably (in my not-exactly-humble opinion). I was encouraged to read At the Water's Edge, and the Loch Ness monster angle intrigued me. The problem: I didn't like the characters.

After the sad little prologue in which a woman loses a baby and gets (false) news that her husband has been killed in the war, so she pulls a Virginia Woolf, the main characters are introduced--Maddie, a young bride married to Ellis, the son of a wealthy family, but with no money, skills, or job of his own. They are constantly in the company of Ellis' best friend Hank who (spoiler alert) lost Maddie to his friend in a coin toss.

Set in 1944, the characters barely register the effect of World War II on others. Shaming the family by their drunken revelry at a high profile party, the two men convince Maddie to come with them to Scotland to disprove charges that Ellis' father pulled a Loch Ness hoax years before.  The three take incredible risks traveling in waters where German submarines lurk. Once they arrive at the inn where they lodge, the young men behaving boorishly. Gruen allows poor neglected Maddie to evolve as she sees her husband and his friend through the eyes of the locals they scorn and treat as servants.

The plot developments seemed just too contrived for my liking. Even the justice meted out to poor foolish Ellis was far too convenient. At least there were no apes.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

I've enjoyed Anna Quindlen's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, for years.  Some of her turns of phrase have found their way into my file of favorite quotes, particularly those related to reading and memories. Her latest novel Alternate Side deals on the surface with parking issues most particular  to New York City, though an increasing challenge in any growing city. Nora Nolan, the protagonist, loves living in the city, even though her husband Charlie wants her to consider relocating somewhere else. He even takes her to Asheville, NC, as part of his project.

They live on a cul-de-sac, where Charlie finally lands a prized parking space in the lot on their block.  While Nora lives among the more affluent local New Yorkers, working at a surprisingly successful jewelry museum, a vanity project of the woman who established it with her own collection, she also interacts with the residents of a single residency building; Charity, the housekeeper who helped raise her now grown twins; Ricky, on whom they depend for odd jobs on their street; and even Phil, the panhandler near her work who only pretends to be homeless.

When a neighbor attacks Ricky for blocking the parking lot entrance with his work van, sending him to the hospital, neighbors and family members draw lines and take sides. Everything about the neighborhood dynamic is affected.

At the heart of the story, though, is the examination of Nora and Charlie's marriage. In fact, throughout the novel, Quindlen through Nora has so much to say about marriage. When Nora considers her father and step mother's marriage, Quindlen writes:

      She thought that people sought marriage because it meant they could put aside the mascara, the  
      bravado, the good clothes, the company manners, and be themselves, whatever that was, not try
      so hard. But what that seemed to mean was that they didn't try at all. In the beginning they all
      spent so much time trying to know the other person, asking questions, telling stories, wanting to
      burrow beneath the skin. But then you  married and naturally were supposed to know one another
      down to the ground, and so stopped asking, answering, listening. It seemed foolish, fifteen years
      in, to lean across the breakfast table and say, By the way, are you happy? Do you like this life?
      Familiarity bred contempt, she'd read somewhere, or at least inattention, but sometimes it seemed
      more like a truce without a war first: these are the terms of engagement, this is what is, let's not
      dwell on what's not.

As I read, I remembered a book I started (and abandoned) recently in which the couple, marking their tenth anniversary together, are told by their primary care physician that with changing longevity expectations, they might have 63 more years together. What was meant to be good news was not received as such.

Over the course of this novel, Nora takes a look at the trajectory of her life, considers her options and those any changes will affect. What results is an evenhanded narrative of adult life after the empty nest and a subtle suggestion that one should consider that those around us live much more complicated, layered lives than we can ever observe.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv: The Case for Intergenerations

I have certain reading friends whose book recommendations I jump on without question. They know (and love) books--and me. Recently, I got a short text recommending Elizabeth Berg's novel The Story of Arthur Truluv. I hadn't read anything by Berg in awhile, but I was just between books and reading for a road trip when I'd be reading and riding, not driving. It was short and sweet. Perfect.

Much of the story is set in a cemetery. The main character, whose name is actually Arthur Moses, visits the grave of his late wife Nola, carrying on conversations with her  and vividly imagining the lives of people buried around her. During his visits, he strikes up a friendship with Maddy, a high school outcast who sneaks out of school to spend her lunch hour in the cemetery. She lives with her father, who holds her at least partially responsible for her mother's death shortly after her birth and keeps her at an emotional distance. Maddy gives Arthur the nickname Arthur Truluv after witnessing his devotion to his late wife.

Another engaging character is Lucille, the next door neighbor who has tried to develop a relationship with Arthur, but who tends to annoy him. When she loses a second chance at love, she turns to Arthur and Maddy for surrogate family.

The turns of events that bring these three (and Arthur's aloof cat Gordon) together make for a genuine, heartwarming story. I've seen comparisons to Zindel's The Pigman and even to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteredge. Unlike the protagonist of A Man Called Ove, Arthur is a lovable, sympathetic character from the beginning. His willingness to expand his home and his life to include others, despite the demands and life changes they bring, make him one of the favorite characters I've met on the pages of a book in a long while. Thanks, Jane, for the recommendation!

Monday, July 9, 2018

I don't know if I can ever write a student letter of recommendation with a straight face again. Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members has been on my to-read list a little while. Now it will be on my recommendation list--at least for my teaching colleagues. The epistolary novel consists solely of letters written by Jason Fitger, in the Engli_h Department (yes, the S is missing from the departmental sign, only one of the grievances he expresses about the department offices). A teacher of literature and creative writing, with three novels to his credit (all out of print), Fitger now seems to be writing primarily on behalf of students--former or current--or colleagues seeking job positions, admissions to writing seminars, scholarships, funding, promotions, and more.

The letters he writes should be a caution to anyone so desperate as to seek a recommendation from someone if unsure about the quality of the reference. Fitger adamantly refuses to complete online references that require box checking. (I'm going to borrow a page from him there. Who can honestly say if a student falls into the top 10% I've ever taught--over the course of 28 years?) He also points out grammar errors on the application site, giving gentle lecture on its and it's, and other misuses of apostrophes.

Woven through the letters, though, are Fitger's genuine attempts to help a promising student with a book in progress (a modern retelling of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Nevada brothel). He tries to get the young man acceptance into the writing seminar program, a work-study with funding, anything that will help the increasingly desperate young writer.

The letters also reveal his ongoing often contentious relationship with his ex-wife and former lover (both on staff at Payne University, a name from which Fitger gets a lot of mileage.) The sacking and pillaging of the English Department (indeed, any of the departments not deemed prestigious) rings all too familiar now that STEM is king. Currently, Fitger and his English colleagues are living through construction in which hazmat suits might be advised, while he imagines gold leaf, hot tubs, and climbing walls being added to the economics department upstairs.

Schumacher manages to  develop Fitger fully into a character both clever and sympathetic, aware of his own foibles and the way others respond to him, while self-effacing enough to bury his own ego when trying to help those who deserve better a lifeline.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Old Filth: A Good Surprise off the Shelf

I don't know if there is a word similar to ambidextrous to describe one who navigates easily between eBooks, audiobooks, paperbacks, and hardbacks, but if there is, I an one. On a recent vacation, though, I knew I needed some paperbacks for beach reading, since sun and sand don't work well with screen reading. I scanned my bookshelves for titles I had put away for another day. All too often, my supply exceeds demand (or at least my ability to read them all) and some good books risk being lost. Maybe they are just waiting for the right time.

This time, I picked up Jane Gardem's novel Old Filth, a book that had been sent to me unsolicited. Subsequently, it was recommended by readers I trust. It ended up being such a great read. The title refers to an acronym coined by the protagonist: Failed In London Try Hong Kong.  A "raj orphan," Edward Feathers had been sent away from Malaysia by his father, who has shown no interest in the boy after the mother died from childbirth complications. He ends up first in Wales with a couple of female cousins, then private school and Cambridge, eventually becoming a very successful barrister. Only gradually does the narrative reveal some of the events of the past that continue to haunt him.

As the book opens, he is retired, his wife has just died suddenly, and he is wrestling with memories of childhood experiences. He ends up taking a road trip to find the cousins. In the narrative, Gardem  moves back and forth between the elderly Feathers and young Edward, with some poignant scenes at the home of his best schoolfriend, where he is treated like family until the war and illness disrupt their lives.

Old Filth--or young Feathers--evolves as an engaging, sympathetic, unforgettable character, a survivor. The author's description creates vivid settings which serve as anything but filler or fluff. The telling of the story provides enough dramatic irony to keep readers' wheels turning.

I may have to resume my junior reading habit--finding an author I like and then reading anything else she has written.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Love and Ruin: Another Mrs. Hemingway

In May, when Paula McLain appeared with Charles Frazier to be interviewed by Ann Patchett at Nashville Public Library's Salon @615, she said that after writing Paris Wife, the story of Hemingway's first wife Hadley, she hadn't planned to write about any of the other Hemingway women. In a dream though, she saw a woman she recognized from her earlier research as Martha Gellhorn, the fiercely independent journalist who became wife number three. The story would not let her go.

Taking available facts and imagining the missing lives of historical figures is nothing new for McLain. After Paris Wife, she wrote the novel Circling the Sun, based on the life of female aviator and adventurer Beryl Markham, a missing piece of the puzzle in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa.

In this latest novel, McLain introduces readers to a young woman, an aspiring writer, who meets Hemingway, already famous, during a visit to Key West with her mother. When he heads to Spain to cover the civil war there, she gets a commission from Collier's to do the same. While there, his mentoring, almost fatherly attitude toward her transforms into a love affair.

The story follows them as they build a home together in Cuba and travel together--often with his sons--while waiting out his contentious divorce from second wife Pauline. Hemingway's patterns of serial marriage are no surprise to most readers familiar with the novelist, but Marty Gellhorn is something of a surprise. She stands out as the only wife who ever left Ernest. The story reveals their ups and downs, resulting in part from his drinking and from his resentment of her independent insistence in having a life and career of her own.

Marty has to deal with critics' refusal to take her writing at face value. Instead, they persist in comparing her writing to Hemingways' and focusing on their relationship, implying that he has opened doors for her. As he is basking in his best successes, she continues trying to find her own voice in her fiction while covering war in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.

Even though their divorce and his remarriage aren't news to anyone even remotely familiar with Hemingway, some may be surprised to learn in the afterword that Gellhorn continued to write, covering war zones into her eighties. McLain gets into the mind of a unique character, showing her as much more than a footnote to a bigger literary life.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Macbeth as Summer Reading: No, Not That One!

Having taught high school seniors for many years, I can't even count how many times I have read Shakespeare's great tragedy Macbeth. Far too many of the lines trip off my tongue from simple repeated exposure. Yet I never tired of it.  Like most of the Bard's plays, too, I find so many connections to current events, politics, popular culture.

Jo Nesbo, known for his dark Scandinavian thrillers has taken the story, the characters, plot, and even some of the lines, setting the story in the late 1990s in a Scottish town that has lost is main industry, resulting in a boom in crime and drug trafficking.  At odds with law enforcement are Hecate, a local drug lord who has created his own narcotic product known as "Brew," and his main competition Sweno, the head of a drug trafficking motorcycle gang.

Macbeth is the head of SWAT, working for police commissioner Duncan. His (common law) wife, known as Lady runs the most exclusive casino in town, the Inverness. Duff, his colleague is especially intent on stopping Sweno, giving the impression of ambition.

Nesbo builds the backstory, with Macbeth having met Duff after both boys landed in an orphanage after losing their parents. Banquo, an older policeman, had taken Macbeth into his own home, like a son, even before he and his wife have their own son Fleance.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's tragedy knows the basic plot, but will still find the way the story unwinds fascinating. It's worth noting that even when the play was new, the audience at the Globe knew the basic story before it even began, even though the playwright took liberties with the accounts in Hollinshed's Chronicles. Shakespeare's real talent was not so much plot as characterization and theme. Nesbo develops many of the same threads: meaning (or meaninglessness) of life, loyalty, ambition--and the ongoing question: Can people really change?

As I read, I realized that readers who don't know a thing about the play on which it was based can read this novel as the suspense thriller it is. The dramatic irony as one reads, anticipating but dreading the inevitable, creates a perfect summer reading experience.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Murder in Music City by Michael Bishop

On television, at any given time, I can find plenty of those whodunnit true crime stories. Last week, though, at the Author! Author! even at Brentwood Country Club, a benefit for the Adult Learning Center of Williamson County, I was introduced to Michael Bishop's book A Murder in Music City.  He joined the panel with Peggy O'Neal Peden and Joy Jordan-Lake. I'd met Joy earlier at Parnassus and loved her novel A Tangled Mercy, set in Charleston, and I'd heard of Peden's book because of her Lipscomb connections. I knew almost nothing about Bishop or his story, but I was intrigued.

When I had him sign the book, he offered a friendly warning: When you start reading, make sure you have time to read straight through. I attributed the comment to hyperbole or ego, but I'll confess that I read several chapters in the middle of the night sitting on the bathroom floor of the guest room where we were visiting.

Although Bishop had no law enforcement experience, legal expertise, or journalism background, he became interested in the story of the murder of Paula Herring in February of 1964 after hearing about a number of unsolved or questionable Nashville crimes.  Herring's murder was one of the first after Nashville and Davidson County merged to form the nation's first Metro government. Home from college during her freshman year at UT, she was babysitting her young brother while her mother was out on the town. The murder occurred in the Crieve Hall area (just a few blocks from my daughter and son-in-law's first home) during a time when other crimes were reported in the area. One of the most suspicious details was the young brother's presence in the house. He was not harmed, and he seemed not to have heard any gunshots.

John Randolph Clarke was arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime after a five-day trial in Jackson, Tennessee, where the case was moved because of the publicity in Nashville. Despite Clarke's reputation as a philanderer, his lawyer and his wife never believed he was guilty.

Bishop tells the story through his own search for evidence, research that took him about fifteen years. He repeatedly hit dead ends as neighbors, friends, and potential witnesses said they weren't interested in talking or reliving the crime. The timing of the murder and the research required Bishop to dig through archives and to search through old phone directories and records. Along the way, he learned a lot about the psychology of the interview and about body language.

Nashville residents, especially those who were in the city during the early years of Metro, will find the names and places mentioned familiar. Much of the action takes place around Vanderbilt, particularly the stretch of road between Rotier's and Elliston Soda Shop. At the luncheon, Bishop joked about having to watch his back.  The more I read, the more I understood the fear. He names names--high level government and law enforcement officials (some with streets named for them).

The details of the Jackson trial--and the party atmosphere at the hotel where defense, prosecution, jury and media stayed--would be hard to believe in a work of fiction. By the time Bishop brings the truth to life, most of the players and long dead. In fact, only Paula's brother Alan survives. The colorful characters on the good and bad sides of the story, some involved with other high profile crimes around the United States, make for a fascinating read. Yes, it's one that might keep you up at night reading through to the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon

Today I'm full. My book club met at my house to discuss David Grann's nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In this book club, we try to serve food to fit the book. (We decided no more books about prison because bread and water make for boring book club meals.) I tried to do my research, so we had bison patties, "three sisters" salad with beans, corn, and squash, wild rice and cranberries, and fry bread with wojapi (blueberry gravy). 

With this group of readers, though, the food (or the drink) isn't the main point. We have spirited discussions of the books each month. The big question we all addressed this time was "Why didn't we know about this?"  David Grann used journalistic research to tell the story of outright murder and suspicious deaths among members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s. At the time, members of the tribe had great wealth because of "head rights" for oil on their property. Many of them lived ostentatiously with big cars, fine houses, and other extravagance.  

Grann begins with the death of Anna Brown and follows the subsequent life of her sister Molly Burkhart, married to a white man. In addition to Brown's brutal murder and other similar cases, more and more members of the community were dying from what appeared to be poison. 

Tom White, one of the early agents of the FBI and a former Texas Ranger, is brought to the investigation after a great deal of bungling, handpicked evidently by J. Edgar Hoover. At this time, the bureau was relatively new. Americans had been resistant to anything that appeared to be a national police force, but some crimes had a federal nature requiring law enforcement with a larger jurisdiction. What White uncovers is an extensive network of greed and murder for gain. 

When the Osage came into the fortune, the powers that be didn't deem them capable of handling the financial responsibility and assigned guardians--white men in the community. While some acted in the best interest of their wards, the evidence is clear that far too many acted systematically to deprive them of their wealth and their lives. Since the perpetrators were highly placed members of the community, they were able to cover up the crime during the pretense of investigating. While some served time, many walked free.

In the last chapters of the book, Grann tells his own story of digging deeper into records decades after the crimes were laid to rest. He found the records of guardianships with a disproportionate number of wards listed as "dead."

While this story has unique characteristics, it's far too similar to other wrongdoing that has occurred throughout history--and still occurs--when one group is able to see another as inferior, even less than human. 

Grann writes that "history is a merciless judge"; in the telling of this story, he helps citizens to be more aware. And as G. I. Joe always said, "Knowing is half the battle."


Monday, June 11, 2018

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

I am thankful for the highlighting function on iBooks.  I'm a reader who marks in her books. While I keep some books relatively pristine (Is that modifier possible?), I do tend to make notes as I read. I am more hindered in reading by the lack of a pencil or pen than by the inability to locate any of the dozen pair of readers I keep lying around.

Most recently, I had Rachel Kadish's novel The Weight of Ink loaded on my iPad for a road trip. I had started the first chapter earlier and then had been distracted, moving to another book (probably one assigned by a book club). When I started again, though, I couldn't stop reading.

The book opens around 2000 in Richmond (outside of London), where Helen Watt, a history professor has been summoned by a former student she barely remembers. He and his wife are remodeling or restoring a home she inherited from an aunt or grandmother when an electrician discovers what he thinks are Arabic writings under the stairs, stopping construction. Closer inspection indicates these papers are written in Hebrew and date back to the seventeenth century.  Watt is on the brink of retirement and experiencing some serious health problems she keeps private. Her department chair recommends Aaron Levy, a brash American student stalled in his dissertation work, to help her. When her university purchases the treasure trove of letters and documents, she and Aaron must the clock, under the watch of the library's "two Patricias," as other scholars are allowed access as well.

The second thread of the story follows Ester Velasquez, a young girl sent to London after her parents' death by fire. She ends up in the home of a rabbi blinded for his faith during the Inquisition in Portugal. During the time of novel, Jews have just been permitted in England again the during Restoration Period when Charles II regains the throne. While the rabbi has a few reluctant male pupils, Ester shows a unique ability and interest, becoming his scribe, going again, at the very least, convention.

Kadish's narrative in the seventeenth century covers conflicts and divisions within the Jewish community and between the Jews and Gentiles in London, the plague, and the Great Fire of London. In the 21st century sections, the author also weaves back stories of romance for Helen and for Aaron. All the characters wrestle with faith, scripture, identity, loyalty, and person values.

My initial reading also convinced me how rich a close study of the book would be: Kadish weaves symbolism of ink and ash with martyrdom and the Masada. While her major characters are fictional, her afterword assures readers that she carefully researched the periods in question. She even reveals a couple of instances in which she took minor poetic license to shift facts.

The book presents three particularly strong female characters and a number of men and women of integrity conscious of their own flaws in search of truth. When I go back to my notes and bookmarks, I'm due a some searching of my own.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: Yes, Indeed She Is.

I love to be surprised by a book. It happened with Fredrick Backman's  A Man Called Ove; one of my favorite librarians told me, "I've put this book on hold for you." When I first started it, as I was introduced to the old curmudgeon, I was baffled. But he grew on me.

I picked up Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout on a hunch with no information about it at all. Over the course of the interwoven short stories, I learned to love Olive.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was on my list of books to read--but for the life of me I can't remember how it got there. Sure enough, dear odd Eleanor was not easy to like at first. She was socially awkward and she lacked a filter, so she quickly spoke her mind, alienating her from her co-workers. But over the course of the story, Eleanor seemed to get to know herself better as I learned more about her.

As Honeyman reveals, Eleanor has good reasons for her awkwardness and mistrust of others, revealed gradually in the story. When the new IT guy, Raymond, initiates a friendship with nothing but good intentions, he also helps her good side to emerge.  Early in the novel, Eleanor reveals that she's found the man of her dreams, a local pop singer she's heard once and never met.  she begins a self-improvement course.  Meanwhile, her interaction with Raymond leaves the two of them as partners in heroism when they witness a man having a heart attack. Raymond invites Eleanor to visit Sammy in hospital, leading to other invitations from his family to cookouts and birthday celebrations.

Most poignant, readers realize that Eleanor bears burn scars from an incident in her childhood to which she only vaguely refers. She also has to deal with her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, a particularly cruel woman with a hold over Eleanor.

As Eleanor faces depression, disappointment, and self-doubt, readers can't help cheering her on all the way. The real hero of the story, though, is the unkempt, lovable Raymond. We'd all be better off with a Raymond in our lives, someone who ignores the worst in us, expects the best, and follows through on his good intentions. In fact, more of us should be Raymond to others around us. Gail Honeyman manages to craft a lovely story about the least likely of protagonists without the least bit of sermonizing. I just wish I knew whom to thank for the recommendation.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Anatomy of a Miracle

Right about the time I heard Jonathan (Johnny) Miles at Parnassus in the spring, my preacher sent an email asking for accounts of actual miracles. I expect the answers to find their way into a sermon soon.

In this novel--and rest assured, despite the subtitle (The *True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, A Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace) and the Afterword and Acknowledgements, the book is (as the asterisk relates) a novel--paraplegic veteran Cameron Harris, after four years in a wheelchair, stands in the parking lot of the Vietnamese owned Biz-E-Bee convenience store and walks.

His doctor Janice Lorimar-Cuevas rejects the concept of a miraculous healing but cannot find a scientific explanation. Scott T. Griffin comes from Los Angeles to create a reality television show out of the whole circus. The Vatican sends an investigator, since at least one parishioner had asked prayers of a priest one miracle short of sainthood. Social media explodes.

Without taking sides or even attempting to solve the mystery, Miles cleverly presents the tensions that  occur in the wake of Cameron's inexplicable miracle.  A man dying of cancer walks from Alabama with a blow-up crux and takes his place in the parking lot, waiting for a miracle of his own. The couple who own the convenience store, who have been reluctant to open incoming mail because of debt, find themselves doing a brisk business in relics and miracle kitsch.

Cameron's sister Tanya, who has cared for him long before his injury, when their mother died in a car wreck, long after they had been abandoned by their father, is pushed into the role of comic relief in the television series in progress. They siblings are both given new cars, new clothes, and more directing in their personal lives that they can bear.

Because the story switches points of view, the writing style also shifts. The account of Cameron's experiences in his time prior to the explosion that paralyzes him is some of the most vivid writing I've read about this particular war, rivaling some of the best writing about Vietnam, in my experience.

The section involving Dr. Lorimar-Cuevas' father, a successful writer, is another gem in the book, as he explains how story is most important.

The story takes interesting and complicated twists and turns as Cameron's character and history develop. As Miles keeps up the suggestion of a true story, he allows readers to explore all the different What if? angles that Cameron's recovery presents.

Like the characters, I'm not sure about Cameron's miracle--but I'm ready to be drawn into the conversation.


Monday, May 28, 2018

Rick Bragg and Lee Smith: Southern Journeys.

Rick Bragg's  recent appearance at Nashville Public Library to discuss his newest book The Best Cook in the World prompted me to load his older book My Southern Journey  in my CD player for a weekend road trip. I can't keep my own copies of Ava's Man and All Over but the Shoutin' because I keep sharing them with anyone asking for book suggestions. Even people who aren't familiar with his books know him for the last page of each issue of Southern Living. This book is a collection of his essays that have appeared in this and other publications.

Bragg comes across as a what you see is what you get kind of Southern man--opinionated and direct. Much of his humor is at his own expense, but he also manages to balance the humor with genuine sentiment. In this book, he touches on all the areas of life, especially Southern life--food, dogs, family, and football.

As an Alabama native myself, listening to Bragg's stories kept ringing all the bells and pushing all my buttons. His opinions on food and how it should and should not be served paralleled my own. His memories of Paul "Bear" Bryant (so good they named an animal after him") were so genuine and tender, I almost had to pull the car to the side of the road. Yep. Roll Tide. But rather than simply parroting the same tired old cheers, he also discussed some pivotal changes in race relations in SEC football.

When Bragg talked about the 2010 tornadoes that tore through Tuscaloosa, I recalled not just the news coverage, but the visual details provided by my niece and nephew, students at the time who were touched by the damage and by the human toll. Bragg recalled how people came together for the recovery; I remembered my nephew Jeff and his friends whose graduation was cancelled but who remained behind, helping to search for bodies and survivors, preparing and delivering food to residents and rescue and clean-up workers. They too saw not only the horror of a natural disaster but the dignity and compassion in the wake.

Without intentionally planting myself in the literary South, I next picked up Lee Smith's novel The Last Girls, which has been sitting on my shelf for awhile. I never know what prompts me to read a particular book at any given time, but I'm often surprised by the parallels. This book follows two journeys made by friends at a Southern women's college, one on a raft down the Mississippi River during their college years, another years later on a riverboat following the same path.

One of the key characters Harriet Holding is a teacher who now works with adults. She has never married, but her recollections of her own unusual childhood help to explain her resistance to intimacy. Courtney Hurt is successfully but unhappily married. On this trip she is torn between loyalty to her husband, now showing some signs of early dementia, and her lover who is pushing for commitment. Anna Todd, a successful romance novelist, uses the trip to write the next in her series of  novels, each set in a different Southern state. She romanticizes the young man who handles her luggage and straightens her room, inserting him into the novel, but she is slower to reveal her own back story to readers, one she never reveals to her old school friends. Catherine Wilson is the only member of the group bringing her husband along on this reunion trip. After escaping two unhappy marriages, she's now feeling uncertain about this one. These two live in Tuscaloosa. Smith gives the husband a chance to tell his side of the story, including their Tuscaloosa tornado experience, allowing readers a chance to hope for a happy ending.

The character absent only in a physical sense from the story is "Baby" Ballou. The one of the college friends who lived dangerously, she had ironically been paired as a roommate with Harriet, forging an unlikely sisterhood and giving Harriet the chance to live vicariously through Baby. Now the "girls" are charged with leaving some of Baby's ashes in the Mississippi River before they reach New Orleans at their journey's end.

Smith's title comes from the realization that these were the last females called "girls" with impunity. Nowadays, they note, they'd be called young women. They recognize they are living on a cusp. The novel leaves them without carefully tied up stories. Instead, readers are able to imagine what might come next for women who have a lot of living left to do.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Charles Frazier Returns to the Civil War Period

Charles Frazier's first novel Cold Mountain is on my short list of favorite books. I read it the week it debuted on the recommendation of Donald Secreast during his appearance at the Writers Symposium at Caldwell Community College in 1997. I went on to teach the book in my senior English APP and AP classes, even taking a couple of groups to find and climb the real Cold Mountain after we finished reading.

I loved Thirteen Moons as well, so when I heard he had a new book set--at least in part--in the Civil War South, telling the story of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, I ordered the copy from Parnassus Books before its release. When I picked it up, I was even happier to learn Frazier would be coming to Nashville for the library's Salon@615. He appeared with Paula McLain, who is promoting her new novel Love and Ruins (next on my reading list), interviewed by Ann Patchett.

I was especially curious to see how much of the book was fiction and how much was researched. I remember the book I, Varina in my high school library, but I hadn't remembered much of the history of this woman who played a secondary role in history. In this novel, Frazier brought together his title character and James, a grown African American man who had been raised alongside the Davis's own children, but who was separated from the family when the Davis's fled at the war's end.

Frazier explained that James is based on a real boy, but that no record survives of his life after separated from the Davis family. He just imagined a future for him, providing an effective structure for the novel. Piecing together his own memory and finding mention of himself in a book about the Davises sends him in search of Varina, now an older woman living in New York at what is evidently a hotel for "rest cure." His questions provide the avenue for flashbacks that tell the story of V, as she's called in the novel, before she met Jefferson Davis, still a grieving widower and throughout their not-always-happy marriage.

Because Frazier writes novels, not history, he deftly uses the historical fact to weave together a powerful story. As he admitted in the interview, he wasn't interested in writing about Civil War battles. Just as in Cold Mountain, the focus stays on the individual characters, providing plenty of rich details and dwelling in the grey areas.  The novel also has the advantage of Frazier's rich prose, engrossing dialogue, and description that readers are not tempted to skim.

And once again, he's omitted quotation marks.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Francesca Hornak's Seven Days of Us

As I've often admitted, I am not a reading purist: I love to read a "real book" with the heft of the volume in my hand, but I'm just as content to read an electronic book. I also take exception to those who don't think audiobooks count as reading.

I freely remind them of the children of Israel who only knew the Word from listening as it was read aloud. Who am I to discount that experience?

Honestly, I can't go for long without a book on CD loaded in the car, and the only way I can remember if I read or listened to a book is that I can sometimes recall the excellence of the reader.

To fuel my fix, I'm often scanning the local library shelves, starting with new arrivals and then scanning the shelves for something I might have overlooked. I also make regular use of the hold option, drawing from the whole local library system.

Recently, while I was waiting on a couple of requests, I ran across Francesca Hornak's novel Seven Days of Us. The back cover description caught my eye, and I decided to give it a try, even though I had not heard anything about the book.

The novel, set in England during Christmas follows several members of the Birch family, forced to spend the week of the holiday in quarantine when their daughter Olivia returns from Liberia, where she was one of a group of doctors providing humanitarian aid during an outbreak of the deadly, highly contagious hog virus. Olivia soon learns that Sean, her Irish colleague with whom she's formed a relationship--against protocol--has come down with the virus. She's unable to reveal her concern to anyone since their relationship broke no-touch regulations, meant to safeguard them and those with which they came in contact.

Meanwhile, the younger Birch daughter Phoebe, her father's favorite, has just become engaged, plunging her into wedding planning frenzy. To add to the tension, their father Andrew learns that he fathered a son Jesse years ago, when he and Emma were first dating. Although Andrew has achieved a certain level of fame as a snarky food critic, he formerly served as a war correspondent, where he and Jesse's birth mother enjoyed a brief tryst.

Hornak manages to balance the humorous and serious over the course of the seven days the Birches spend together in the old country home that once belonged to Emma's family. As they are joined first by Phoebe's fiance' and then Jesse, readers soon learn that each of the characters is harboring secrets. No single character appears particularly villainous: each has noble points and flaws, making them both sympathetic and believable characters. The shifting dynamics of the family during their imposed quarantine keep readers engaged, sometimes squirming with them, sometimes cheering or laughing aloud, and sometimes grieving.

In whatever format one chooses, the novel provides at least a good seven days of reading entertainment.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Parnassus Readings: Nothing Beats a Local Indie Bookseller

I'll admit that the local music events often fill my calendar, but almost every week, Parnassus Books in Green Hills offers another book event that's hard to pass up. This past week, I joined Gail and Premi, a couple of my book club friends, to hear New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner interview his friend, author Jonathan Miles (Johnny to his friends and family, we learned). Miles is touring with his latest novel Anatomy of a Miracle, the story of a veteran who returns from Afghanistan a paraplegic, until one day, outside a Biloxi, Mississippi, convenient store, he inexplicably stands.  What follows is the investigation by everyone from his doctor to reality TV hosts to the Vatican.

I was familiar with Miles from his earlier novel Dear American Airlines, the tale of a man stranded at the airport while trying to reach his daughter's wedding. I did not know, however, that he's also a regular contributor to Field and Stream. He claimed that his journalism work had been a seed bed for his fiction, which fed off it. Journalism, he said, had granted an all-access pass to so much of life.

Though originally from Ohio, Miles feels he came into his own as a writer in Oxford, Mississippi, certainly a hotbed of literature. There he developed friendships with such writers as Barry Hannah and Larry Brown (in whose writing shed he worked on his fiction.)

The interview--or conversation--between Miles and Garner veered toward Miles' writing process and his journey toward novel writing. (When he married his wife, he told the audience, he was a landscaper.) He describe fiction writing as "this assemblage of fibs that somehow adds up to something true." He quoted Doctorow about the writing process: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way" and Russo, who said it's like throwing a pebble in to a pond--and then you have to swim around until you find your pebble.

Asked about the humor in his writing, Miles said he had been called a comic writer and wondered if he could consider it praise.  Larry Brown told him, "You never want anything in front of the word 'writer.'"

When Garner pointed out that there were some some surprises in the novel, including some intensive war writing, Miles said that one of the joys of writing is the research. He called writing a novel "this fantastic crammed eduction.  He also compared it to the worst drug in the world: 99 times out of 100 it makes you feel worse, but that one time . . . .

He discussed his writing process and answered the question about a word limit, saying he sometimes wrote zero words but other times, 8000.

Miles, when asked whether he believes in miracles, called himself a "fundamentalist agnostic." He referred to "that sense of not knowing and wanting to ask these questions and find something to believe in.  What novels do best, he said, is to ask questions, make those questions deep, put flesh on them.  After all, to be a good novelist, there's a certain level of empathy required.

"Nobody reads the same book anyway," he said. He recalled reading Reynolds' Stone Fox after losing his grandfather and crying more tears over the story than over his own loss.

I'd be willing to bet that after the Parnassus event, I wasn't the only audience member who was eager not only to go home and read but to write as well.