Thursday, February 15, 2024

Catching up on My Tar Heel Writers

 

With the recent news of the passing of Fred Chappell, the former North Carolina poet laureate and a true gentleman, I re-read his lovely book I Am One of You Forever. Chappell wrote poetry as well as fiction and was so generous with his support and encouragement of aspiring writers. This particular book, set on a farm around the time of World War II, is a family story, told with such a gentle hand. 

Jess, the protagonist, is ten when the story opens. Central to the story are his parents and Jonathan, an orphaned teenager who comes to work on the family, sharing a room with Jess, before  

 enlisting. A number of family members visit--particularly colorful uncles with quirky appetites and massive beards.

Chappell doesn't adhere to strict chronological order as he arranges his chapters. Rather than setting up some events as flashbacks, he just shares an earlier narrative event as if, perhaps, he had just recalled it. I know so many authors have chosen to write a coming of age story. Jim the Boy by Tony Earley (also a native North Carolinian) is another excellent example. Other successful writers I won't name fall short of the bar Chappell established when they attempt to tell a nostalgic story from a young protagonist's perspective. 

While I was on my North Carolina streak, I also discovered that Lee Smith had a new novel Silver Alert. This story, set in Key West, Florida, focuses first on Herb, aging and unhealthy, but trying to care for his beloved wife Susan at home, even though her dementia makes it a difficult challenge. A manicurist who calls herself Renee comes to the house and has a calming effect on Susan, endearing her to Herb. As his children stage an intervention, insisting Susan belongs in a facility where she can be better cared for, Herb takes Renee on a last adventure in his sports car, and they end up heading toward Disney World. Whether I am listening to an audiobook or reading, I always hear Smith's voice as I read--full of humor but still so tender in her treatment of her characters.

Last, I had the opportunity to hear North Carolina's Jill McCorkle read from her short story collection Old Crimes at Parnassus Books. Like Smith, McCorkle has such a distinctive writing voice. These stories have some subtle overlapping of characters, while each stands alone. One quirk she noted is the multiple appearances of belts of all kinds in the stories. A teacher myself, I always particularly enjoy McCorkle's stories told from a teacher's perspective. One in particular reminded me of a favorite scene in her novel Life after Life.  I may be re-reading that one.


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Monday, January 15, 2024

Fiction: Two for 2023


When I get multiple recommendations from readers I trust for a book by an author whose books I have loved, I go for it. Geraldine Brooks' novel Horse is a case in point. I especially loved People of the Book, with its reverse chronological timeline. This latest novel moves back and forth between the South during the slavery era and current Washington D.C. In present day, the two main characters are Theo, a Nigerian American  studying historical equestrian art, and Jess, a scientist at the Smithsonian who becomes aware of the skeleton of an important race horse stored in the institution's attic. 

In the back story, Jarrett is an enslaved son of a freed black horse trainer who forms a special bond with a horse he has known from its birth. The narrative delves into the politics of race and horse breeding across centuries. As readers discover in the epilogue, Brooks based the story on fact, particularly the racehorse Lexington, which went on to be one of the nation's most prolific sires.

I also learned a lot about equestrian artists of the day, preserving for posterity what would eventually be accomplished by photography. Through her characters, Brooks presents the complicated and many layered perspectives on race, slavery, war, and ultimately, human nature.

Another book that surprised me this past year was R. F. Kuang's novel Yellowface. If I were teaching a literature survey course, this novel would give me the ideal example of an unreliable narrator. The story opens with June Hayward, an aspiring writer yet to achieve the success for which she longs. After a dinner with her former classmate, rising star Athena Liu, she is invited to go back to Athena's apartment, where she discovers that her peer is not only achieving fame for her current publication, but she has a completed manuscript in her office. 

Early spoiler alert: When Athena chokes to death in her presence, June can't avoid the temptation to take the manuscript for herself. The drama that develops as she convinces even herself that the edited work is her own is heightened as she is challenged both anonymously on social media and directly, particularly by those who accuse her of appropriating the story of Chinese laborers in World War I. That she allows her editor to convince her to use her first and middle name, Juniper Song, falsely suggested Asian roots, further complicates the plot. As June takes actions that make readers squirm, thinking, "Surely not!" she becomes increasingly delusional and paranoid. Kuang's story may add to the dialogue about who has the right to tell what story, but at its core, the story is a psychological thriller as well.


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Thursday, January 11, 2024

A Favorite from the End of 2023: Ken Follett's The Armor of Light

 

My first encounter with the writing of Ken Follett was his first sprawling tale Pillars of the Earth, published in 1989, which I read at least twenty years ago. While some books I read just months ago have escaped my memory, this one remains firmly planted. He begins in Kingsbridge, a fictional English village, during the Middle Ages, introducing Jack the Builder, who aspires to build a great cathedral. 

Follett not only brought the actual construction to life, but he created some of the best-drawn memorable characters. His protagonists, even when flawed, are endearing. His villains are despicable, even though he often builds the back story that explains why they act the way they do. The story is steeped in history, presenting the conflict for the British throne, and leads up to the murder of Thomas Becket in Winchester Cathedral.

More than twenty years passed before Follett published World Without End, the next in the series, followed by Column of Fire. In the meantime, he has written thrillers, as well as another series, the Century Trilogy. The Armor of Light is the fourth in the Pillows of the Earth series picking up in the same area in the late 1700s, focusing on the weaving industry and the impact of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the Napoleonic Wars.

Again, I learned a lot about a part of history that was less familiar to me, while meeting a cast of characters I loved and hated. Sal Clitheroe, a spinner, loses her husband through an accident for which his employer Will Riddick is responsible. A survivor, she ends up being forced to leave the village with her son Kit, because of Riddick. Amos Barrowfield is a forward-thinking cloth merchant who champions the cause of his spinners. David Shoveller (known as Spade) is a clothier, whose life is intertwined with the characters as well. Alderman Hornbeam is the major antagonist of the novel, with his brand of justice never allowing for even a glimmer of mercy.

Follett has a knack for developing suspense. Only the most optimistic reader would not anticipate some of the heartbreaking events of the story, but Follett shines a light on some of those who use their intellect to overcome, not only for themselves but others.

Follett's books are always weighty tomes that would serve well as doorstops, but I never grow tired of them whenever I visit this part of world history.


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