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.