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.