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.