Friday, December 18, 2020

Booker Prize Winner: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

 Douglas Stuart's debut novel Shuggie Bain opens with the title character at 16 living on his own and working before taking a detour back to his childhood in 1981 Glasgow, living with his alcoholic mother Agnes, his taxi driver father "Big Shug," and his siblings, all in his mother and father's home. 

While the story is without question Shuggie's, Stuart alternates at times between Agnes and Shug's perspectives, and even his half brother and sister Leek and Katherine. Knowing he is planning to leave Agnes, Shuggie moves the family to Pithead, a dried up mining town, and never even unpacks. 

Young Shuggie, despite practicing walking and acting like a "real boy" under Leek's tutelage, has a soft spot that leaves him vulnerable. As the older siblings plot their escape, Katherine to marriage and a life in South Africa and Leek to work, hoping some day to attend art school, Shuggie carries the weight of responsibility for his mother.

Stuart continues to plant seeds of hope throughout the novel, perhaps his intention in starting with Shuggie surviving independently. The most bittersweet part of the story comes when Agnes joins AA (again) and stays dry for a year. She begins dating a ginger taxi driver she met on the night shift while working in a convenience store. The promise of a future, however, is not strong enough to withstand Agnes' alcohol addiction.

The novel has drawn comparisons to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and rightfully so. The characters are tragic without becoming caricatures. Agnes' resoluteness to "keep herself up," always feeling superior to the neighbors is all the more painful through Shuggie's eyes.

Not lost amid the plot is Stuart's deft use of language, producing sentences that will stop the reader cold. He even manages to suggest the power of friendship without the least bit of sentimentality. 

I saw comments on one book review site asking if the book was too depressing to read. It's certainly sad, but it's a beautifully told story of a boy's surprising strength and the power of his love.


Sunday, December 13, 2020

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood


As I reviewed favorite books I've read this year, I was surprised to realize that I hadn't shared one of my favorites, The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood. I can't remember who had recommended the book to me, but I had filed it away in the back of my mind until it popped back up on my radar--and I'm so glad it did.

One of my favorite assignments with my college freshmen is three interviews, ideally with their oldest living relative or someone of that generation. I am always so gratified when I find how much the assignment meant to many of my students. Some who didn't know their grandparents well ("I just thought of him as that grumpy old man at our house during holidays.") who discovered someone with common interests and experiences, with special stories worth preserving.

The book opens with an 11-year-old boy who has been assigned as part of the troop activity to do chores for Ona Vitkus, a 104-year-old Lithuanian immigrant. The boy has his tape recorder with him for these Saturday visits as he interviews her for a fifth-grade project. She has much to tell from a rich, full life.

The boy is unusual in some ways, but particularly in his fascination with the Guinness Book of Records. Once he realizes Ona's age, he becomes obsessed with helping her to break a world's record.

Spoiler alert: The reader learns early in the story that something has happened and the boy is no longer living. His father Quinn reports to finish his son's responsibilities. He has been an absentee father since he and the boy's mother Belle divorced, so he carried a load of guilt. 

Moving back and forth between the Saturdays with the boy interviewing Ona Vitkus and the days his father begins showing up, Wood brings all of the characters to three-dimensional life, flaws and virtues, in this painfully beautiful, haunting story.


Saturday, December 12, 2020

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro: on a Whim


When Dani Shapiro appeared on a panel at the 2019 Southern Festival of Books, the novelist/memoirist had a unique story to share that may be playing itself out in other people's lives now too.

My own experience with Ancestry has given me specifics on my own forebears but no big surprises like the one that shook up Shapiro's world. She did the "spit in a cup" test on a whim without giving much thought, but when her results showed that she was not related to who she had thought to be her half sister, she and her husband started scouring the internet. The appearance of a first cousin on her Ancestry page, identified only my initials, was a clue that opened the way for more discoveries.

A fair-haired, blue-eyed blond, Shapiro had always felt something wasn't right about her place in her family, the daughter of observant Jewish parents. She says she grew up always having to convince people of her parentage. She was in her fifties before making the discovery that her the father who raised her wasn't her biological father at all. While the news didn't surprise her, it had a profound effect on her. 

The story she tells in Inheritance, her memoir that unfolds traces her attempts--frustrating at first--to contact her biological father, who had been a medical student and sperm donor when her parents traveled to Philadelphia for what was new infertility treatment. She was able not only to find the identity of the man but to see pictures and even video clips of him, showing remarkable resemblance and even familiar gestures and speech patterns.

While tentatively establishing a connection to him, she also reached out to anyone--rabbis, family friends and relatives--trying to discover just how much her parents actually knew about the truth of her conception. She also learned of networks of children seeking their sperm donor fathers, many finding dozens of half-siblings.

Shapiro's story is her own. With in vitro fertility treatment common now, many families feel less compelled to keep the details secret from their offspring. She candidly deals with her own set of questions as she seeks to answer that essential question: Who am I?


Monday, December 7, 2020

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

 Of all the World War II books I've read (and I've read a'plenty), Molly Guptill Manning's 2014 nonfiction work told a story I hadn't heard. Set against Hitler-inspired book burnings in Nazi Germany, the story follows the true account of an American response, providing American soldiers with reading material.

The first step was the Victory Book Campaign, a move started by an organization of librarians to collect book donations to send overseas. The campaign collected a huge number of books, some more appropriate for battlefield reading than others.

Realizing the difficulty of traveling in war time with hardback books, American publishing companies were convinced to work together to produce American Service Editions (ASEs) of popular titles and classics in a small enough size to fit in back pockets. 

The books were such a success that their delivery to servicemen was awaited impatiently. Soldiers who had never considered themselves readers found that books gave them a sense of escape, a chance to laugh, a way to temporarily time travel back home.

Manning addresses some political maneuvers that resulted in censorship during the election year as Roosevelt ran for his last term. For awhile, books deemed the least bit political were forbidden. At a time when the nation was working through how to let soldiers vote, they were for a time barred from reading books to which people back home had easy access.

There were descriptions of books found in operating rooms and foxholes. Despite their inexpensive production, the readers took care so that they could be enjoyed by as many readers as possible. Among the favorites was Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith received a regular flood of fan mail throughout the war.

Manning also details the beginnings of the G. I. Bill that allowed returning soldiers to complete their education, another process that took some tweaking along the way. I admit I'm glad they didn't have the Netflix option, which might have prevented so many from becoming lifelong readers.

Even though it's hard to imagine such a program being so popular now, I am reminded of one of my former high school students who emailed occasionally from the Middle East for reading suggestions. Now that I have a number of veterans in my composition classes, I find that many of them admit that they picked up a reading habit during their tours of duty too. I suspect that helps to explain why they make such great participants in our learning community.

At the end of her book, Manning pointed out that the ASEs printed during WWII outnumbered all the books burned by the Nazi regime. She referred to the Empty Library in Berlin, a memorial to that time. Perhaps, she suggested, we need a counterpart in the United States to commemorate this most powerful response. 


Sunday, December 6, 2020

Richard Powers, The Overstory


I remember reading an interview with Barbara Kingsolver several years ago in which she explained why she had moved from writing about science and world politics to writing fiction. She had realized she could interest people in topics she cared about through fiction who would never think to pick up a nonfiction book on the topic.

Richard Powers' 2019 Pulitzer Prize-wining novel The Overstory certainly has the potential of touching readers and teaching them, all the while weaving several narrative threads into one of the most unforgettable books I have read. Long before I had finished the book, I was recommending it to other serious readers.

I had been noting mention of the book by other readers and writers. I wasn't far into the story before I knew why. Powers begins what seem to be several unrelated short stories; the only common factor was trees. (I thought at first of Tom Hanks' short story collection Uncommon Type, which has a manual typewriter in every story.) Gradually, Powers' characters cross paths.

Douglas, as a young man, agrees to participate in an academic experiment, putting him in prison for a set period of time, much more challenging than he could have anticipated. In Vietnam, his life is saved by a banyan tree. Later, he meets Mimi Ma, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who committed suicide when she was a girl, when he tries to stop a municipal tree-cutting carried out under the cover of night before protestors have a chance to appeal the decision.

Ray and Dorothy begin their courtship by trying out for roles in a community theatre production of Macbeth (the only trees in their first story were the moving Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane). Their sometimes contentious marriage ends with their strongest connection the trees outside their home after he suffers an aneurysm.

Neelay, from a Indian family, becomes a paraplegic as a boy but builds an empire of virtual reality gaming.

One of the most sympathetic characters is Patricia Westerford, whose hearing impairment affected her speech but certainly not her intelligence. She makes an early discovery of communications among trees, which she publishes to much scorn that drives her for awhile out of the academic world. While she is working in anonymity in forestry, her work is rediscovered and given new credence.

 Olivia, a college girl, meets Neil, an aspiring artists, who buries what remains of his family treasures and goes with her, joining a group of protestors trying to stop the cutting of the giant redwoods. The nine or so main storylines gradually come together. 

Powers moves readers along through his rousing, character-driven story, along the way teaching us more about botany and the inter-related life systems of our world than any biology class. The book he has crafted subtly pulls together science and great storytelling. 


Thursday, December 3, 2020

Day 3: Megha Majumdar's A Burning

 One of the books that has stayed in my mind longer than most this year is Megha Majumdar's novel A Burning. The story begins when Jivan, a young Indian woman, is bringing some of her textbooks to tutor Lovely, a transgendered street person who aspires to be an actress. Jivan witnesses a train explosion that kills several people. By coincidence her misfortune to be at just the wrong place, carrying a package, along with her social media activity--a chance comment and a chat with someone she doesn't realize is an alleged terrorist--brings her under suspicion.

The narrative moves back and forth between Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir, the gym teacher at the school she attended on scholarship. While these two might have the opportunity to help clear Jivan, their own aspirations get in the way. PT Sir, after stopping to listen in at a political rally, finds himself caught up in the party opposing the current administration. Lovely's chance to play a film role is at odds with the possible negative publicity.

Even Jivan's court-appointed attorney has conflicts of interest, and his client is never his priority. Because it's an election year, Jivan's case--abetting a terrorist!--gets pulled into the fray. A strong point of the narrative is Majumdar's development of the character of the women in the prison with Jivan.

Reading this novel is a little like watching a train wreck about to happen. You can't look away, as painful as it is. As you read, you'll be thinking that if you were in the place of any of the other characters, with the opportunity to take up for Jivan, you'd do the right thing.


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Carol Burnett: In Such Good Company

 One of my favorite audiobook sources recently offered Carol Burnett's memoir of her years on television In Such Good Company. Last year when she appeared at the Ryman Auditorium, my sister and I took our mom for the show and loved it. Tim Conway had just died, so she had such a loving tribute to him as a colleague and friend.

This whole book, read by the author, is written in that same generosity of spirit. To prepare for writing the book, Burnett says she re-watched ever single episode of the show, which ran from 1967 to 1978. In her remembrances, she offered personal stories and inside views of the regulars on the show: Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Lyle Waggoner, as well as the people behind the scenes. 

I especially loved the stories about Bob Mackie, having gotten to know him when he spent a couple of years with a furniture collection with Clayton Marcus. During the entire run of the show, Mackie was responsible for about 60 costumes every week. Burnett said sometimes she didn't know how she was going to play a character until she saw how Bob dressed her. He is also credited with the iconic Scarlett O'Hara scene where Burnett literally wore the curtains--rod and all.

When the show ran, they had a dress rehearsal and two live shows every week. She says the first live show was run exactly on script. Once that one was a wrap, the actors had the freedom to engage in the ad libs for which the show was best known.

In her stories of the regulars and the guests, Carol Burnett is always positive and complimentary. She left out names in the very few negative details.  For someone who rubbed elbows with all of Hollywood's stars, she has remained remarkably humble, her integrity intact. 

This book will likely have readers searching the internet for tapes of the show. Burnett points out that when they were first released for syndication, they were cut to 30 minutes, eliminating the often elaborate dance sequences. Now the internet has made the full-length shows available for watching again--and again and again. The humor holds up.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

December Challenge: Catching up on Voracious Reading

I'll confess I've been delinquent in posting, but not because I haven't been reading. When I started an educational leadership doctoral program, I feared my pleasure reading would take a hit. What I've found is (1. the required reading is engaging and (2. my power-reading gene has kicked in. I've read more books in 2020 that in the last several years. 

Between now and the end of the year, I'm going to post a book review a day, starting today with one I had to wait to finish.

Lisa Wingate's The Book of Lost Friends came as a recommendation from a friend whose reading taste I know I can trust. I'd read Before We Were Yours by the same author, but this one seemed quite different. I had downloaded the book from our library website, and when I wasn't finished at the end of my fourteen days, I wasn't allowed to renew because someone else was waiting for the book. I ended up having to wait a few weeks before I could resume reading.

The story is told with two plot lines. One follows Benny Silva, a first-year English teacher in a challenging school in Augustine, Louisiana, in 1987. The other plot line focuses on Hannie Gossett, a former slave and now a sharecropper on Goswood Grove plantation in 1875. 

Hannie has been separated from her mother and siblings on their way to Texas as the war is nearing an end. She ends up on something of an adventure with her former master's two daughters--one legitimate and one the daughter of his French Creole mistress--as they try to find him after he disappears. They learn about the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a newspaper circulated among Black churches after the war in which letters were published by people trying to reconnect with lost family members and friends.

Benny rents a house that was once part of the Goswood Grove plantation and discovers records in the old family home that inspire her to involve her students in an oral history project. Her early frustrations and her genuine desire to do the best for her students is almost painful at first. The conflicts she encounters from the local cities and the school administration when the project looks like it is getting off the ground is all too believable.

Wingate tells a story that is both painful and hopeful. Her characters are layered and interesting. Readers may learn about  unfamiliar aspects of history along the way.


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

M. O. Walsh: The Big Door Prize

 I had already read M. O. Walsh's earlier novel My Sunshine Away before he appeared on the virtual reveal party for the Southern Festival of Books. When he talked about his new novel The Big Door Prize, he had me at John Prine. For the unfamiliar, the title of the book is a line from "In Spite of Ourselves," Prine's duet with Iris DeMent. Several of the chapter titles are song titles, and I caught so many other references. (There's a casual mention that a local couple, Donald and Lydia, are divorcing.)

Yes, you can enjoy the novel without knowing anything about the late great singer-songwriter (although I'd recommend remediation if that's the case.) The novel follows Douglas Hubbard, a high school teacher, whose "midlife crisis" reaction to turning forty is to sign up for trombone lessons.

His wife Cherilyn is keeping busy painting birdhouses to sell at the centennial celebration of their small town, Deerfield, Louisiana. But the appearance of a DNAMIX machine at the local grocery shakes up everyone, including this generally happy couple. This machine, which appeared without explanation, for the price of $2 and a cheek swab will reveal anyone's destiny. The problem is that the read-outs not only defy logic, but also send many of the locals on a widely divergent path.

When Cherilyn grows weepy, attributed to her destiny card, Douglas resists the urge at first to see for himself what his DNAMIX reading might be. What will it mean, after all, if his happy marriage is a fluke that put both of them on a path that leads them away from their destiny? 

In a parallel story line, one of Hubbard's students who recently lost his brother in a wreck after a party finds his brother's former girlfriend pursuing him. Likewise, the school principal is taking early retirement after reading her destiny card.

The novel is less about the supernatural that about how people choose their own destinies and make their own happiness. Walsh takes readers along for a fun ride--one that has its own playlist. His session at the Southern Festival of Books is sure to be fun.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

 “Write what you know” is a bit of writing advice that Ron Rash follows consistently. Whether in modern day or during the Civil War, his novels, stories, and poetry are set in the mountains and foothills of Western North Carolina. 

In his latest book, In the Valley, a collection of short stories and a novella, he opens with a story set near the scene of the Shelton Laurel incident, where tensions between Unionist and Confederate sympathizers came to a head with the killing of thirteen Union sympathizers, one a young boy. Rash explored these dark pages of history in his novel The World Made Straight and returns to the rural landscape in “Neighbors.” In this story, a widow is confronted by soldiers purportedly hunting for men loyal to the union, while taking scarce food and livestock. Dependent on neighbors for survival, Rebecca, the protagonist, must keep her late husband’s loyalties secret to avoid jeopardizing herself and her young children.


“When All the Stars Fell,” set in more modern hard times, shows a son in a caught in a dilemma between his father’s unswerving integrity and his own need to get even with what he sees as just one more wealthy, powerful man taking advantage of their family construction business because he can.


Several of Rash’s protagonists are measuring others’ sorrows and losses against their own. The narrator of “Sad Man in the Sky” a helicopter pilot taking tourists to view the changing colors in the mountains, bends the rules to let a broken man rain down gifts on his former stepchildren, unearthing memories of his own service in the Vietnam War. 


Jake, a Brevard art professor, in “L’homme Blessé,” is still reeling from his young wife’s sudden death a year earlier when Shelby Tate, a former student, asks to show him the primitive paintings with which her late great uncle covered his walls after returning from the service in Europe in the mid-40s.When  Jake recognizes the strange animal images from photographs of the Pech Merle cave in France, he goes with Shelby to visit an old man who had served in the war with her uncle to solve the mystery.


In small towns just off I-40, Rash peoples his stories with the broken, the lawless, people caught between good and evil, between helping others or looking the other way. While his stories all have a darkness, they give a glimmer, sometimes just a hint of light. Often the stories end without clear resolution, letting readers imagine what the characters might find just down around the corner.


Opening the pages of In the Valley, Rash’s fans have to fight the temptation to turn to the end of the book to reach the title novella “In the Valley, “a shorter sequel to Serena, his novel from 2008. The title character Serena Pemberton returns to the timberlands she has left for clearing as the deadline for the project completion nears. Many of the characters from the novel—the ones that survived—return for this narrative. In this tale, less a retelling of Macbeth this time, but no less Shakespearean, Rash’s timbermen are forced to work at a deadly pace, with too little food or rest. Serena’s henchman Galloway and his blind mother, with her evil gift of second sense, doom any who oppose Serena or try to escape her reach. Aware that Rachel Harmon and her child Jacob, the illegitimate son of Serena’s late husband, may not have put enough distance between themselves and the amoral timber baroness, Ross, a minor character in the early novel, sees his options narrow.


While the novella, like the earlier novel, lacks stereotypical heroes and antagonists, Rash leaves no question about the true villains and victims in his story.

One of the perennial favorites at Nashville's Southern Festival of Books, Rash will appear in this year's virtual festival.



Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Sarah Clarkson's Book Girl: A Rich Resource for Readers

Mike, one of the members of my book chat group, always expresses his concern that what he reads may not appeal to the rest of us. He's usually wrong about that. One of the best parts of having a book group that has a mix of gender and ages is the variety of reading to which we are exposed.

Recently he sent me a link to an interview with Sarah Clarkson on the Word on Fire Institute website entitled "Books, Evangelization, and the Transformative Power of the Reading Life." Clarkson studied at Oxford University after what she calls her twelve-year gap year. She had always dreamed of studying there in part because of her love of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. One cannot underestimate the influence of her reading family either.

In the interview she mentioned her book Book Girl, in which she describes her own reading journey, sharing list after list of book recommendations for different circumstances. Her chapter titles include "Books Can Foster Community" and "Books Can Impart Hope." I couldn't wait to start reading it for myself. Her research on reading confirms my own beliefs about the power of literature to shape the mind and the heart.

Her recommendations range from works by Lewis and Tolkien, of course, to classics and childhood favorites--the Anne of Avonlea series by Montgomery, books by George Eliot, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson and more. She also includes annotated lists of books more overtly spiritual or theological.

As a general rule, I love a book list that affords me the opportunity to check off all I have read. Clarkson, however, introduced me to authors I hadn't read yet and to new books by authors with whom I was at least familiar.

She also reminded me of books I've read long ago and need to read again, including Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, a past favorite I recently recommended to a friend to read with his wife and her 97-year-old father.

In Book Girl, Clarkson reminds me to slow down and read thoughtfully and contemplatively. I also become more aware of the need to be selective in my reading, since I can't possibly get to all the books I'd like to read.

I also wish every young family could recognize the value in modeling and encouraging a reading life for children. After all, Clarkson's mother read to her in utero, and during the writing of the book, Sarah confessed to reading to her soon-to-be born daughter, a little book girl of her own.

One word of advice: Don't take the title too literally. There is so much food for thought for men as well as women of all ages. I expect to keep my copy close enough for reference the next time I'm choosing a book to read.

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Sound of Summer Running

Living  life on a school calendar, I have always been aware of how fast the summer goes, speeding faster as it reaches the end. I always play Alison Brown's beautiful instrumental piece "The Sound of Summer Running" in classes that first week. Even without words, it evokes that feeling. This year, I'll have to add John Prine's "Summer's End" from his last CD.

As I face creating my syllabus and reading for my classes, I realize that my time to read for pleasure will be more limited than it has been since mid-March. For that reason, I select carefully. Recently, I returned to an old favorite, perfect for summer reading, Ran Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Written in little vignettes, the book gives readers the perspectives of brothers Tom and Douglas Spaulding, as they consider some complex matters: I am alive. Things change. People leave. We all die eventually.

Living right beside their grandparents, with a great grandmother living as well, the boys learn from others' experiences as well. As they help their grandfather bottling dandelion wine, they imagine the summer captured inside that amber liquid.

They live in that world when neighbors all knew each other, but they still faced fears and sadness.
Part reminiscence, part magic realism, the book has touched many of the students I've taught. One told me, years ago, he planned to read it every summer for the rest of his life. I hope he followed through.

Some years, I collected old bottles and corks, and we placed memories inside to set on the classroom shelves. As far as we are removed from Green Town in 1928, at the core, what remains is true.

As a side note, the title of Brown's song, "The Sound of Summer Running" is a Ray Bradbury title as well. Both, perhaps, give a nod to Andrew Marvell's "time's winged chariot."

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

More Summer Reading: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

Clare Clark's novel In the Full Light of the Sun is set in 1920s Berlin, when the German people are suffering from the after effects of WWI--skyrocketing inflation and food shortage--and Hitler and his Nazi party are rising to power. The political tension at first serves in the background of this story, but increases in intensity throughout the narrative.

I am drawn to works of fiction that deal with the art world, particularly the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I loved the novel Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann, which accounted for Van Gogh's time aspiring to a career in the ministry, serving in a coal-mining town. I also encourage (beg) anyone who hasn't seen the amazing film Loving Vincent to do so--preferably on the big screen.

Van Gogh is not a character in this novel; his paintings, however, take center stage (or lots of museum wall space). Clark pulls together a number of characters. The story opens with Julius, a wealthy art critic, whose wife leaves him, taking their son and his prized Van Gogh painting. The blank spot on the wall torments him. He develops a professional relationship bordering on friendship with Rachmann, an art collector who opens a gallery with his brother. They manage to collect before unknown Van Gogh painting from a mysterious source in Spain. Rounding out the narrative is Emmeline, an art student in Berlin despite her mother's wishes whose path crosses with both men.

bBased on actual events, this one of many intriguing art stories that come out of Europe around the time of the second world war, when forgery was a crime on par with the stolen art of this time period.  Clark captures the human dynamics when money and egos are at stake and greed, deception, and attraction intersect.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: The Vinyl Detective--Written in Dead Wax


Sometimes my reading overlaps with my other interests. Such was the case as I read Andrew Cartmel's first book in his The Vinyl Detective series: Written in Dead Wax. The "vinyl detective" is a young British record collector who specializes in jazz music. He scours charity shops and jumble sales for rare finds, which he resells to pay the rent, hoping eventually to improve his heating system.

A striking young woman shows up at his door with an assignment to find a particularly rare LP, the 14th and last from an obscure label.  She joins him on the search, spending more and more time in his flat as well, charming him and his pair of cats.

Evidence indicates a mysterious collectors' vinyl is appearing around town, but as he and Nevada, his charming sidekick, search for the album in question, a pair they call the Aryan Twins, seem to be just a step ahead of them or right on their trail. His best friend, with a tendency to fall down his own stairs, becomes a casualty.

In the second part of the novel, after he achieves what seems like success, he meets a young American woman whose grandmother sang on the record in the quest. She invites him along for further intrigue.

Much of the story is a little incredible (in the literal sense). A number of murders don't seem to draw much attention or else the police aren't making the connections. Still, the quirky characters, the specificity of the music details, and the twists and turns of the story all make for a fun read--just the kind summer is meant to include.


Monday, August 10, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman


In some ways, I've lost track of time since the Covid-19 quarantine began in March. As spring gave way to summer--and it's always easy to tell the difference in Middle Tennessee--I have been able to read more and more without a trace of guilt. Summers are made for reading.

Never at a loss for a book to read, I still find myself moving back and forth between the unread books on my shelf and the ones I have popping up from my library holds. I am even revisiting Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury right now, a perfect summer book if ever there was one.

Over the weekend, I read Louise Erdrich's latest novel The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s when a bill was proposed in Washington to renege on the agreements made with Native American tribes. Thomas, the title character, works night shift as a security guard in a jewel bearing plant, sleeping maybe 12 hours a week and obsessively reading, writing letters, and gathering support for a trip to Washington to address Congress on behalf of the inhabitants of the Turtle Mountain reservation.

His niece Patrice, whom most people call Pixie--to her dismay--works at the plant to help provide support for her mother and brother, since her dad, a violent alcoholic, has left town. They haven't heard from her sister Vera, who moved to the Cities. Their dreams and visions, however, suggest she is alive but in danger, so Patrice takes a train trip to search for her.

Erdrich peoples all her novels and stories with interrelated characters, including Barnes, the white teacher who is attracted to Patrice, a pair of Mormon elders trying to make inroads with the people they call Lamanites, and the families of the reservation who practice Catholicism without abandoning their own spiritual ways and mysticism. 

The prologue and epilogue reveal that the story is based on experiences of Erdrich's own family, pointing me to a rabbit trail of research I am bound to follow. 


Friday, August 7, 2020

Camron Wright's novel The Rent Collector: A Favorite Book of the Summer of 2020

 I know I have a good book when, before I'm halfway through it, I'm thinking of people to whom I want to recommend it. I read some books that are quirky enough for me but are not for all sensibilities. During this summer, I have found myself reading more books that usual--and that's saying a lot. One that might not have come into my sights was a book club choice by my friend Barb. Camron Wright's novel The Rent Collector is set in a garbage dump in Cambodia, not exactly the kind of setting one would expect to be an uplifting book. Trust me; it was. 

The protagonist Sang Ly lives with her husband Ki Lim in the Stung Meanchey dump where her husband works as a "picker," going through the daily loads of trash, hunting for items of value that can be resold. Their young son Nisay is chronically sick with diarrhea, a continual source of concern. The story picks up when Ki Lim's finds include a picture book. When Sopeap Sin, the disagreeable woman who collects rent, sees the book, Sang Ly sees her reaction and realizes the woman can read. She bribes her with alcohol to teach her to read and discovers there is so much more to the woman that she could have imagined. For Sang Ly, reading is transformative. 

A story of survival, The Rent Collector is told almost in parables, as Sang Ly discovers the power of literature. The story is so beautifully told as the characters realize the power of books to change lives. Wright also demonstrates what can happen when we realize the layers that make up individuals we encounter. 


Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Celebrating Summer Reading: Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel

One mark of a good writer is the capacity to follow one engaging novel with another without reusing the same patterns or retelling the same tale. Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven was both engrossing and haunting, following a troupe of actors in a post-apocalyptic world.

Her newest novel The Glass Hotel is set firmly in this world, but it grabs readers early and doesn't let go. Mandel begins the book with three minimal glimpses of events from later in the story. They are vague enough not to reveal the characters involved, but specific enough in their imagery to remain like a bookmark for the reader.

The narrative first follows Paul, back at his father's home after his step-sister Vincent's mother disappears while boating alone, and then as he becomes infatuated with a female singer at a bar before giving her and her colleagues what end up being tainted drugs to one of her band members. Needing to get away to avoid any responsibility, he takes a menial job at the hotel to which the title refers, where Vincent works as bartender. An elaborate hotel on an island near Vancouver, it accommodates wealthy guests who want all the comforts and pleasures, while completely isolated from the world.

The focus moves away from Paul to his sister Vincent, when she meets one of the wealthy guests who actually owns the hotel, Jonathan Alkaitas, recently widowed. She next appears in tabloids as his wife--a fiction the two create to allow her to play a needed role in his life, while letting her to live as she pleases, with her new persona, shopping and dining without concert for credit limits.

The story takes a sharp turn when Alkaitas' business collapses, revealed as a Ponzi scheme, landing him in prison, from which a portion of the narrative is told.

Mandel introduces minor characters, then weaves together the cast of characters and their storylines, using what at first seem to be minor details--messages etched on windows, Vincent's habit of filming five-minute videos. The details come together to produce a story that is fresh and suspenseful. Not once did the story recall Station Eleven. Anyone who reads both novels will be tempted to look for her earlier works until her next novel is published.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Virtual Format for Southern Festival of Books Reaches Broader Audience

This is such a season of misgivings. The only reason my calendar isn't bare is that I had already recorded all the plans I had before all the cancellations--MerleFest, James Taylor and Jackson Brown at Bridgestone, Americana Fest, Swannanoa Gathering, the IBMA's, even Sing-along Sound of Music at the Nashville Symphony: Cancelled or Postponed.

This week, though, Humanities Tennessee hosted the reveal party for Nashville's annual Southern Festival of Books on Zoom. Some of the authors who will participate in the virtual festival October 1-11 were on hand to read or speak to the nearly 200 people who logged on for the virtual event. Cinelle Barnes introduced A Measure of Belonging, an anthology of new writers of color, with Nashville's own Tiana Clark reading from her essay in the collection. 

Another favorite Nashville writer Ruta Sepetys, whose latest novel Fountains of Silence is a crossover bestseller appeals to adult and young adult readers, participated, noting that she is thankful  she won't have a conflict this year--no matter where she is.  

Poet Nikky Finney also joined the meeting from South Carolina to talk about her new book Love Child's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, with other material, including photos and notes from her years of journals, joining her poetry. 

Some favorite authors are returning: Yaa Gyassi will discuss her novel Transcendent Kingdom, due out in September. Erik Larsen will be discussing The Splendid and the Vile. Alice Randall will be reading from Black Bottom Saints. The charming and funny Southern writer Lee Smith will return to talk about Blue Marlin.

Ron Rash, a perennial favorite at the festival, has a new novel In the Valley coming out soon, which he will be discussing this year. The current National Poet Laureate Joy Harjo will participate, as will 2012 Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway. 

One of the most engaging writers on the Zoom meeting, M. O. Walsh, author of My Sunshine Away has a new novel that is already getting advance attention. Dedicated to the late John Prine, the book also gets its title The Big Door Prize from Prine's song "In Spite of Ourselves," which Walsh said he and his wife chose as their wedding song. 

While a virtual Southern Festival of Books may be a letdown to regular attendees and volunteers who invariably go home with armloads of new books--signed by the authors, Parnassus Books has promised to do their part to make the festival a success in the new format.Other good news is that book lovers who might not be able to get to Nashville for the festival otherwise will have access now, and as the directors reminded everyone, the festival is always free. That's just one more reason to mark the first days of October 2020 on the calendar--in ink.


Reading Books from My Own Shelves

Book lovers can justify adding to our book collections at a pace faster than we can match in our reading. The idea of finishing one book without another to start next is a minor terror. 

We voracious readers fantasize about being stuck at home with nothing to do but catch up on reading. Snow storms--we're prepared! Pandemic--ditto! 

While I use my public library account continually, placing holds on the waiting list for new releases, I have focused on books I've missed on my shelf in the last few weeks and months. 

I loved Austin Kleon's little book Steal Like an Artist, so when he visited Parnassus Books last year, I picked up another of his books, Show Your Work. In it, he points out that one's "work" is more than the finished product; it's the process too. It was one of my June reads, and in this book, he includes some of his "black out poems" --  created by removing all but the operative words on a page of prose.

I also had a copy of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's for years without having read the book. It's actually "a short novel" with three other stories, one of which, I was delighted to discover was his beautiful story "A Christmas Memory." When I read the title story, though, I came across a page that set my 2020 alarm bells. The narrator and Holly go shopping -- or shoplifting -- and pick up masks. It seemed perfect for a blackout poem:
I'm probably one of the few people in America--at least of my generation--that hasn't seen the Audrey Hepburn movie, so I was able to read the story with very few preconceived ideas. Now I can watch the film and complain, "The book was better."

I also located Mark Mills novel Amagansett, set in an east coast fishing village shortly after WWII. The novel opens with a pair of fishermen pulling in a net and discovering the body of a woman identified as Lillian Wallace from a wealthy, powerful family.

Mills follows some of the major characters involved in the aftermath of what may or may not be an accidental drowning. Readers learn that the protagonist Conrad Labard, a first-generation Basque fisherman and war veteran, had a connection to the dead woman. 

Deputy Chief Tom Hollis, recently transferred to the East Hampton Town Police Department, has a gut feeling that doesn't accept the coroner's ruling of accidental drowning, to the dismay of his supervisor Chief Milligan.

There's a wedge between the long-time local fishermen and the moneyed new arrivals, whose development is encroaching on property and fishing rights, so Labard and Hollis follow their own suspicions separately. The death of another local girl in an unsolved hit and run before Hollis' arrival in town presents a clue to Lillian's death.

With glimpses into the past of major and secondary characters, Mills weaves a plot that is both suspenseful and character driven. 

Another book I found waiting on my shelf was Elizabeth Berg's The Art of Mending. I had read Berg before, most recently the charming The Story of Arthur Truluv. This book follows the protagonist Laura, a seamstress who makes unique quilting projects, setting the stage for the controlling metaphor in the book. She and her immediate family are joining her brother and sister for a reunion in their parents' hometown for the Minnesota State Fair. 

While they are together, Caroline, her sister, wants to confront her family with claims of childhood abuse. Then a family crisis arises that makes the confrontation more difficult, especially since Laura and their brother had no memories aligning with Caroline's.

While I continue to read new releases and book club selections, I am happy to know other promising stories are already waiting in my study.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

One of the benefits and challenges of belonging to a book club is the expectation to read someone else's book choice. I feel fortunate that in my book clubs (yes, I'm in more than one), the members are good sports about reading and coming prepared to discuss such a variety of books, even when these might not have been our personal first choices. We learn as much about each other as about the books themselves.

This month for one book club, I read The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki, a well-researched work of historical fiction that I might not have considered reading otherwise. I will admit that I had a little bit of trouble with the first pages. A debut novel, the introduction felt a bit clunky. I also caught myself looking up words the characters used (such as surreal) to confirm my suspicion that they were a bit anachronistic.

Nevertheless, this novel about a Bavarian girl Elisabeth (called Sisi) who married Emperor Franz Joseph of the Habsburg dynasty, when his empire, in addition to Austria, included Hungary, Italy, and France, introduced me a part of European history that was totally unfamiliar. Sisi was raised without the strict upbringing of a royal court. She loved riding horses and spending time out of doors. Originally, she wasn't intended to be the wife of her first cousin Franz. (Yes, there's that cousin issue.) Her older sister had been selected by Sophie, her aunt that became her mother-in-law.

Marrying Sisi was one of the rare occasions when Franz bucked his mother's plans. After the marriage, though, she took charge. And when the couple's children came alone, Sophie took over them too. Surrounded by ladies in waiting who reported her every move, Sisi fell into a depression and focused on her appearance, spending hours on her hair and skin.

While the discomfiting details Pataki shares about Sisi's life are supported by research, to the people in her husband's kingdom, she was beloved. She is credited with some of her husband's political successes.  Her diaries also provide much insight into her life. Partake also goes into detail about an alleged romance between her and Andrassy, one of the powerful figures in Hungary.

As I read this novel, I found myself searching the and Youtube videos--to learn more about the most interesting powerful woman. I found that yes, she was known for her elaborate hairstyles and her corseted 18-inch waist. I also found that there is so much more to her story, which explains why Pataki has written a sequel.

When our book club met to discuss the book, one of the members, originally from Germany, told us that when she grew up, Sisi was their Cinderella. They knew all of the wonderful things about her. I couldn't help making my own connections to Princess Di and to Jackie Kennedy--and most recently, Meghan Markle. All these women's stories are a reminder that a royal lifestyle leaves much to be desired--especially for strong women with minds of their own.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson: A Novel I Never Expected Her to Write

I've been reading Southern author Joshilyn Jackson's novels since I discovered Gods in Alabama with my book club. The Florida native, educated in Georgia, knows the South. Her writing is pitch perfect whether she is discussing football, scandal, or church dinners.

I recently read (and wrote about) Almost Sisters, but didn't even know Never Have I Ever had been published until I got a recommendation from a friend who pointed out that it was not like anything Jackson had written. Still firmly set in the South, this book is more of a suspense novel that a Southern family story.

Amy Whey, the protagonist of the novel, is hosting the monthly neighborhood book club, organized and run by her best friend Charlotte, when a new nearby renter Roux floats in and takes over, generously raiding Amy's liquor cabinet to serve the book club members while introducing her game: What's the worst thing you've done today...this week...this year...ever.

Readers then travel by flashback to Amy's past when, as an overweight, unhappy outsider in high school, she is involved in a fatal accident. She eventually transforms her life, has a new husband, baby, and a stepdaughter she loves, but she keeps her secrets.

Roux's handsome son pays more attention to Amy's stepdaughter than she finds comfortable. Then when Roux turns her game into a blackmail scheme, Amy has to decide how to extricate herself while protecting herself, her friends, and especially her family.

Amy's own transformation came when she learned to dive, a hobby she has turned into a teaching career. While I know almost nothing about scuba diving, Jackson's details are convincing as she takes readers along on a dive into a shipwreck off the Florida coast. Just as realistic is her psychological exploration of a woman who has much to lose and must rely on her wits to win against a diabolical woman.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam

Books don't fit into a true diagnosis of hoarding; that's my firm conviction. While I admit to waves of guilt when I rearrange my shelves and see books I haven't quite managed to read yet, I still give them a place to wait. Too many times to mention, when I've finished one book without another pestering me to read it, I've scanned my shelves and landed on just the right book at just the right time.

During this period of quarantine, I've had access to the library's electronic collections, both audio and print. Sometimes, I have found my time limit up before I've finished reading, and the book is whisked away to the next reader on the waiting list.

I'm also thankful that Parnassus Books still continued to deliver book orders, after having to abandon curbside pick-up.

My own book collection, though, has been a treasure trove through spring and into summer. Early this week, I was drawn to Jane Gardam's novel Crusoe's Daughter, which has been waiting for several years. The book, originally published in 1985, arrived by post a few years ago with a few others from the Europa Editions, including Old Filth, another novel by Gardam. It too had to wait its turn, richly rewarding my efforts when I finally decided to read it.  Likewise, Crusoe's Daughter hadn't come up in a single book discussion, so I'm not sure why I decided to read it now.

Set in a remote, marshy area of England in the first half of the twentieth century, the novel follows Polly Flint, a motherless child left with her two old aunts when her father leaves for sea, where he dies. Along with Mrs. Woods, their boarder, Polly meets a parade of people, housemaids, delivery boys, the local nuns, and the Ziets, a wealthy German family with children near her age, building a second home nearby.

Despite the title's suggestion, this is not a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe's abandoned offspring. Instead, Polly, who never attends school formally, is taught languages and music by her aunts and Mrs. Woods but spends much of her time reading and rereading Dafoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, eventually translating it into German and French and writing volumes of critical response.

While distanced from both world wars, Polly and the other residents of the Yellow House feel its effects in increasing but subtle measures. Not only does the novel unveil the evolution of Polly's character, but it also examines the structure of the English novel as well.

Crusoe's Daughter exhibits the subtlety one expects from a decidedly English novel, springing clever surprises, playing with language, and sending me searching for a pencil so I can make note of passages I want to recall or to discuss with the next person with whom I share this delightful book.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Follow-up Novels: Reading the Next Book

 All my reading life, I've enjoyed finding an author whose work I enjoyed and then plowing my way through their complete works. There's very little pattern to my "author reading" either. In junior high, I read everything by Daphne du Maurier after loving Rebecca.  I was surprised to learn she lived until 1989, since she quit publishing around 1972, right when I was reading her novels. I also read Lloyd C. Douglas' novel The Robe and then read all of his books, first the sequel The Big Fisherman and then the series set in more modern day.

If I like a first novel I read by an author, I'll willing to get another one a shot. What I love best is an author who can follow up with something just as good
but original. While I've had a little more reading time lately, I picked up two books from my "to read" list from that category. I had loved Euphoria, a novel that draws from the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, a story of love and intrigue set in remote villages in New Guinea. When her novel Writers & Lovers came out with rave reviews and a
recommendation from Ann Patchett on the Parnassus website, I was sold.

Casey, the protagonist, has finished a writing program and has been working on her first novel for about six years. She is overwhelmed with college loans, living in a garden shed, and doing restaurant work to keep her head above water. Her friend Muriel takes her along to a reading by Oscar, a relatively famous writer. Casey can't afford to buy his book, but she recognizes him when he comes to her restaurant with his sons he is raising after losing his wife to cancer. His is moved by her kindness to the boys, who plan to pay for their father's meal as a birthday surprise--for which they are for woefully underfunded--and the two end up developing a relationship.

By coincidence, she is also seeing another aspiring writer, a young man in Oscar's critique circle who also teaches high school. On the surface, the story--something of a love triangle--seems ordinary, but the development of the characters, the clever details (that would certainly ring true to anyone who's worked in a fast-paced restaurant setting), and the satisfaction of the way loose ends are tied up make it something more.

Here's my confession: I started reading the novel on my iPad while working at a blood drive. I was surprised when I saw how many pages I had read. Only as I neared the end did I have the nerve to check to confirm what I suspected: I had somehow skipped a good chunk. I read to the end then skimmed the beginning until I got to the part I had missed. It explained a lot, but honestly, I think I enjoyed the novel as much as I would have if I'd read it correctly. I do think anyone who's ever wanted to write and publish will be struck by her experiences and the reactions of those who try to feed her on doubt. (Her landlord, learning that she's an aspiring writer, says he is surprised she thinks she has something to say.)

Another second read by a novelist I enjoyed the first time was Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. I had loved her novel A Good Hard Look set in Milledgeville, Georgia, during the Kennedy era. In that book, Flannery O'Connor (with her peacocks) is a secondary character.

Her latest novel is a complete departure from that one. Edward, a 12-year-old boy, is the only survivor of a plane crash as his family is flying to their new home in California. He is taken in by his mother's sister and her husband, an infertile couple facing their own grief. The story alternates between the flight leading up to the crash and the boy's attempt to return to some kind of normalcy.

Both of these books were so unlike the predecessors, but I enjoyed reading both. Now I have a newly arrived copy of Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (who wrote News of the Day.) I am eager to get started.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

What to Do During the Long Days of Long Months? READ

If we aren't reading anything else during this l-o-o-o-n-n-g pandemic, we are reading memes. Nothing makes tedium intolerable like humor. I've seen several variations of the idea that we can no longer say, "If I ever had time, I'd. . . ." because we have it and we aren't. Since I'm not in the car as often as I usually am, I don't get through all the audiobooks checked out from the library before they disappear from my devices. During this long stretch of time with my calendar virtually cleared, though, I am finding time to read.

One of the most uplifting books had been on my list for awhile: The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede. I had heard the story, even from personal accounts, of the passengers on international flights headed to the U.S. on 9/11 that were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. The passengers on more than sixty planes almost outnumbered the residents of the town, yet the "Newfies" put out the welcome mat and did everything they could to make their stay not only tolerable but pleasant.

Defede follows the stories of passengers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and local citizens as their lives came together. Two families were on their way home after international adoptions; they were weary and just wanted to go home. One family knew their son, a firefighter near Ground Zero, hadn't been accounted for. A major executive for Hugo Boss was on his way to Fashion Week and, at first, was discomfited by lack of access to comfortable underwear. When people within his corporation planned to have him picked up on a private jet, he declined, choosing instead to wait it out with fellow passengers.

While the book jogs memories of those days we all spent in from the our television screens that fall, it also reminds us how difficult times often bring out the best in people. When people nearby notice a rabbi and his companions not eating, they realize the lack of kosher food and arrange to provide food and an appropriate kitchen. Local citizens offered the stranded passengers rides, meals, and even places to sleep. A couple of women, on a break from their own families, bought camping gear and set up outside the community building where many of the others slept.

The story reminds me that once the pandemic ends and our "shelter in place" orders are safely lifted, we too will have stories emerging that give us hope in human nature.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Lethal White: Discovering Another Series

After living in the world of Harry Potter for so long, I was curious to see what kind of writing J. K. Rowling would produce once she left that hugely successful run. I read A Casual Vacancy and found it rather dark (which doesn't necessarily scare me away.)

I began the first in her Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo's Calling, not knowing it was a going to be a series, and I found her two protagonists, Strike and his protege Robin Ellacot, completely engaging. Strike is a private detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan. The first novel opens when Robin responds to an ad for a temp receptionists. She's young, attractive, and engaged to be married. She has also harbored an interest in police work for years. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, develops the camaraderie and even the spark between the two, as their partnership and friendship grows.

The fact that Robin's fiance Matthew isn't keen on her working with Strike adds some delicious tension to the stories, as Robin uses her wits to help Strike solve the crimes that land on his desk. This month, I finished the fourth in the series Lethal White, in which Strike is drawn to investigate the veracity of a story brought to his office by an unbalanced young man about having witnessed the burial of a small child.

As the story opens Robin, who has been let go by Strike after an assignment led to injury and near death, has just married Matthew, after prior delays in their wedding. She makes discoveries about her husband's deception that cast a shadow not only on the wedding but the marriage, particularly when Strike asks her to return as his partner in the business. Robin goes undercover working with a member of parliament being blackmailed. This story is set in London as the city prepares to host the Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, a socialist organization that opposes the Olympics seems to have more that just disruption in their plans.

This story brings Cormoran and Robin to government offices and to the shabby country homes of the horsey set, landing them in the midst of at least one murder investigation.

While the audience for these novels is quite different from the Harry Potter fans, the author balances her expertise at character development with her suspenseful plot structure, delivering another satisfying reading experience. Best of all, she has the next installment in the series ready for a 2020 publication.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Reading While Sheltering in Place: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I usually wait until January 1 to write down the titles of the books I've read and recorded on my wall calendar. However, I wanted to take stock of the first quarter of this most unusual year.  Since time "sheltering in place" has placed me within easy reach of the unread books and bookstore and library links allow me to download ebooks and audiobooks, I've had the delightful dilemma of what to read next and what to recommend from those I have been able to read.

I finally picked up Kiley Reid's novel Such a Fun Age, after hearing her read at Parnassus shortly after the book debuted. The story follows Emira Tucker,  a 25-year-old young African American who hasn't made the transition to adulthood as successfully as her some of her friends have. She works part time as a sister for 3-year-old Briar, whose father is a newscaster in Philadephia and mother Alix has made a career on social media out of the art of letter-writing, just as she has re-invented her own life.

The book, which shifts between Emira and Alix's points of view, opens as Emira is asked to leave a party and take Briar out of the house following a disturbing incident of vandalism resulting. While Emira is with Briar in Whole Foods, a security guard accuses her of kidnapping the young girl, creating an incident another shopper records on his phone.

Reid narrates the aftermath, as Alix tries to make a start on the book she has a contract to write, as she begins to live vicariously through Emira, regularly sneaking peeks at her sitter's phone screen to catch snatches of texts with her friends and new boyfriend.  Reid maintains reader suspense with some unexpected turns, particularly in the world's most awkward Thanksgiving dinner, when Emira's fight home is delayed and Alix invites her to bring her new boyfriend to join them.

While the book obviously deals with racial issues, Reid does so without cliches or easy answers. Her characters are also fully fleshed out--not stereotypes or easy targets. Her protagonists have flaws, and even those that could be considered villains have redeeming qualities. What results is a page turner that will keep readers thinking (and locking their phones) for a long time.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Books for Times Like These: Not for the Faint of Heart

As the news of the Coronavirus has literally gone viral, I have noticed an odd spectrum of factual, medical, hysterical, and--yes--humorous information coming across the World Wide Web.  I confess that I get a kick out of some of the cartoons and memes poking fun, for example, at the way shoppers have stripped the shelves of toilet paper and Amazon has hiked prices of hand sanitizer. I remember right after the first space shuttle explosion reading a psychological explanation of why we joke about serious news item. Rather than being a sign of our callousness, it represents more of a coping strategy.

In that vein, then, I shared the Facebook warning that books might be in short supply, encouraging people to rush to their local new and used book shops to stock up on reading material in case this "social distancing" lasts long. Someone suggested we treat the experience the way we do snow days: use common sense and stay inside. I always loved the part of snow days that left me at home with time on my hands to read. (I also have inexplicable urge to bake bread. But I digress.) Part of my justification for stockpiling books is for times like these when I might be caught at home--with no March Madness or Masters golf tournament to distract.

One book in my "to read" stack was Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers. I heard Walker at the Southern Festival of Books and, intrigued,  picked up a copy. Without offering any spoilers, I will tell you that the story begins on a college campus when  a coed comes back to the dorm after a late night of partying, falls asleep, and then doesn't wake up. The inexplicable "sleeping sickness" begins to spread, beginning in the dorm where quarantine is put into effect at an attempt at containment. The similarities between their story and the one unfolding here is uncanny.

Walker is not a newcomer to these kinds of scenarios. In her previous book, The Age of Miracles, the earth's rotation gradually slows, throwing off the clock, the calendar, the seasons. Her tendency to explore the "what ifs" makes for a fascinating read.

Having taught British literature for much of my career, I've always been fascinated with tales of the Black Death that took such a human toll across Europe during the Middle Ages.  Two novels published closed to the same time dealing with that plague are Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, which focuses on one small town and attempts at containment, and the second novel in Ken Follett's trilogy that began with Pillars of the Earth. In World Without End, Follett applies his narrative skills in a sweeping epic set in the same fictional cathedral town, this time as the Black Death takes its toll.

I must include a YA novel, the debut work by Alison Kemper, my teaching colleague in North Carolina.  Her novel Donna of the Dead details a zombie outbreak that opens with the protagonist on --of all places--a cruise ship.  Kemper's tongue-in-cheek humor, rare in this genre, made it a fun read.

I know some people would prefer some escapist literature--and there's plenty of that to go around. Even Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, is blogging encouraging words from her safe place.  If, however, you prefer to look into the mouth of the lion, to explore pandemics in a fictional setting, here are a few from which to choose. Try to buy them from a brick and mortar bookstore while you can. They're going to need your business.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Joshilyn Jackson's Southern Voice: Almost Sisters

After painfully making my way through a couple of audiobooks set in the South but read by decidedly unSouthern narrators, what a breath of fresh air to listen to Joshilyn Jackson reading her own novel The Almost Sisters. I've been reading her books since Gods in Alabama, and she always weaves a great story line with quirky but believable characters.

This novel opens with Leia Birch Briggs, a comic book artist and self-proclaimed nerd, discovering that a one-night stand with a man dressed as Batman (or is it The Batman to purists?) at a comic book convention has left her pregnant with a child she decides she will raise on her own.

She delays telling her family, however, finally deciding she'll first tell her beloved grandmother Birchie, who still lives in the small Southern town of her family origin. She gets the news that her grandmother has been keeping a secret, with the help of her best friend Wattie, the daughter of the family's former black maid: she has a form of dementia known as Lewy bodies. (Yes, it's a real illness.) The dementia revealed itself at a church social when Wattie wasn't able to keep Birchie from spilling town secrets, particularly the extramarital shenanigans going on in the choir room.

Meanwhile, Leia learns that her half-sister--always the perfect one--is in the middle of a marital crisis, and Rachel's young teenage daughter witnessed the blow-up. To get her out of the middle of the crisis, Leia takes her along to Birchville.

As she tries to make the hard decisions about moving her grandmother to a safer place, Leia discovers that the secrets Birchie let fly at the Baptist Church were nothing compared to her own secrets she's been keeping--or hiding--in the family home.

Jackson uses the experiences of many of the characters to explore the impact of a father's absence--either by choice, loss, or pure ignorance. Leia's father died when she was too young to remember him; her stepfather was a loving parent, but early on, Rachel prevented Leia from calling him Dad. Rachel's teen daughter connects with two local teen boys whose mother's infidelity was exposed, and Birchie's father issues emerge through the course of the story, as Leia has to make decisions about how much--or if--to tell Batman she is carrying his baby.

Jackson builds a story that is at once a romance, a coming-of-age story, a family saga, and a comedy. No, she doesn't relegate Batman to his early cameo appearance as the story opens--and he is anything but the stereotype readers might expect--unless they know Joshilyn Jackson's fiction, that is. While I know the story would read just as authentically Southern off the pages of the book, hearing it narrated by the author is an audio treat.