Friday, June 28, 2024

Summer Is for Reading

 Summer reading has so many connotations. While, for most adults, summer doesn't necessarily have more time for pleasure reading than any other time of the year, the idea of lazy days under a beach umbrella with a good book is still appealing. For those of who living on the academic calendar, summer means a break from boning up on required reading--and especially from reading stacks and stacks of student papers. 

My list of what I want to read next far extends the number of days and hours, but I have made a valiant effort to make the most of reading time. One of the best surprises for me so far has been Monica Wood's novel How to Read a Book, not to be confused with the nonfiction book of the same title by Mortimer Adler.)

This novel opens in a women's prison, where 23-year-old Violet Powell attends a book club while serving time. The narrative shifts perspectives between Violet, Harriet Larson, the retired English teacher who moderates the book club, and Frank Daigle, a retired machinist whose life is inextricably linked to Violet's. 

As a book clubber and English teacher, I loved Harriet's effort to find reading material that will appeal to her motley crew of woman. While the women bond over their supposed antipathy for the book selections, they are won over by poetry, particularly Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology. 

The book takes interesting turns, especially as Violet tries to start a new life "in the Outs." Wood's story affirms the power of forgiveness, friendship, and second chances. I was already recommending the story before I finished it, knowing I'd need to talk to someone about it as soon as I finished.

Wrong Place Wrong Time
by Gillian McAllister, one of the selections from Reese Witherspoon's Book Club, is a suspenseful novel that makes a perfect summer read. As the book opens, Jen Brotherhood is waiting for her 18-year-old son to get home by curfew. She sees him arrive as a man approaches. To her horror, she sees her son stab the man. She and her husband Kelly go through the nightmare of his arrest, forced to leave him in the jail cell. The next morning, she is shocked to see her son at home--until she sees on her calendar that she has over back to the prior day. 

I will admit that I am a sucker for time travel stories. In this story, Jen is moving backward, first a day at a time, and then with larger leaps. Is the butterfly effect in operation? She has to deal with the frustration of knowing that anything that happens, anything she tells anyone will have no impact as she moves backward. McAllister managed to keep me guessing through the entire story. 

I finally got to read the latest Kristin Hannah novel The Women that so many people have been talking about. To be honest, the writing is what one would expect from the romance genre--far too many coincidences, too predictable in places, and nothing so well worded I had to stop and make notes, BUT having lived through the Vietnam era and aftermath, I was interested in this story of the often overlooked women who served as military nurses in country. Frankie McGrath has grown up in wealth and comfort, but has always been haunted by the "hero's wall"--curated by her father who had not been able to serve. 

When Frankie, a trained nurse, joins the Army and volunteers for Vietnam, her parents react in shock. The description of the horrors, the friendships, even the music, the protests, and the inconsistent news reporting bring the historical period to life. Hannah has done her research. In the afterword, she says despite her interest in telling the story decades earlier, she had to wait until she was read to tell the story.
The novel is worth reading, even if only to discuss the era with others. I'm curious as to whether the recurring motifs of cheating death, chance encounters, and dishonest lovers was an obstacle to other readers. 


Saturday, June 8, 2024

When a Book Needs a Playlist


I enjoy reading about music almost as much as I like writing about music; it always makes me want to listen to more music too. In recent days, I've picked up a variety of books related to music I enjoy. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone, the story of the Carter Family had been on my bookshelf for quite awhile, but I took it back down after  Brian Oberlin, mandolinist for the bluegrass band Full Cord, mentioned reading the book while visiting Maces Springs and being inspired to write a song by that same for their current album Cambium.

While most fans of traditional country music know some of the Carter Family story, Zwonitzer and Hirschberg's book goes into such interesting narrative detail. There was much I didn't know about their interaction with other iconic performers. 

I also listened to Lucinda Williams' memoir Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You on a recent road trip. She narrates the book herself, and she includes the book, the bad, and the ugly. Someone told her to be sure to leave out the part about her childhood---advice she ignored. Williams first came across my radar with the 

release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I've seen her perform, twice since the stroke that left her singing from a stool while someone else accompanied on guitar. 

Her father, the poet Miller Williams, wrote some of my favorite poems. (Please read "The Curator" if you haven't. Then search the internet for photos inside the Hermitage Museum in WWII when the paintings had been removed from their frames for safekeeping.) The tensions resulting fro her mother's struggles and her father's remarriage are told in detail, but Williams draws clear lines between her personal life and the impact on her on singing and songwriting. 

Anyone familiar with her music will not be surprised by the book. Lucinda Williams in life and art doesn't flinch from telling her own secrets.

John Cowan's new book Hold to a Dream is part interview, part memoir. The origin of the book traces back to a series of interviews Cowan conduct

conducted for WSM radio several years ago--with some of his former bandmates in New Grass Revival (including Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, as well as other musicians he admired and respected. Some, such as Leon Russell (usually known as a reluctant interview subject, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson. However, he also interviews Gordon Stoker, tenor for the legendary backup group The Jordannaires, Californians such as Chris Hillman and Bernie Leadon, and--tying back to the Carter Family--John Carter Cash, who has taken up the mantle of preserving his family's history.

Even more than the other two, Cowan's book calls for a play list. In fact, he occasionally adds footnotes advising readers to listen if you aren't familiar with certain recordings or performers. What struck me in this book was Cowan's acknowledgement that he came to music--and to these interviews--first as a fan. 

I should note that writer Jimmy Schwartz collaborated on the project, helping to turn the book into something more than a series of interviews, instead encouraging Cowan to weave in his own story and his connections to the people on whom he focuses. At their Parnassus Books launch, Schwartz encouraged readers to start with the Epilogue and then to read the book. I took him at his word.