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.