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Friday, December 26, 2014

Holiday Thoughts

Reading a book on the Kindle is a strange experience. Strange in several ways actually… but one of the most disconcerting things is that you can't see how far you have left to go in the book by the way it looks in your hands. Instead, you have to go to the bottom of the "page" and see the percentage you have read. 

I was just reading Richard Ford's latest book, Let Me Be Frank With You, and I looked down to see that I was 85 percent complete. I told my husband, "I can't believe I'm almost finished with this book and nothing has really happened." Then I read the part near the end of the novel where Frank Bascombe encounters the local minister when visiting a sick friend. Fike, the priest, comments that he is enjoying listening to Frank read a V.S. Naipul book on the local Reading Radio for the Blind program and he says, "Not much happens there, wouldn't you say?" To which Frank replies, "That's the point, Fike. You have to be available to what's not evident." 

That's true of this novel, as well. The book of four linked short narratives ends on Christmas Eve with Frank's encounter with an old friend.  Frank, my old fictional friend through three previous Ford novels - TheSportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land - has grown older and is contemplating life in this funny, but quiet, book.  I first met Frank, now 68, almost 30 years ago (hard to believe!) in The Sportswriter and we have grown old together (even though he’s 12 years old than I).  One cannot help compare Frank Bascombe to Harry Angstrom in John Updike’s four Rabbit books. Both are middle class modern mystics.  And you definitely have to appreciate the underlying story in both books.

Richard Ford, born in my home state of Mississippi, sums of his linked quartet of novels with this quote,  “In my view,” Frank says, “we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that.”  And "what we think about all that" is what Ford is richly gives us in this book through Bascombe, in his quiet, contemplative way. It was especially nice just before my own Christmas Eve.

And don't worry, I really don't read on the Kindle too often. The device is perfect when I'm traveling because I can always have new books at my disposal. With just the stroke of a key, I can have a fresh novel to read. I love that when I'm on the road, but for the rest of the time, nothing beats holding a book in my hands.  I can't wait to dig into my new Christmas books - Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins, Small Victories by Anne Lamott, All the Light We Cannot See by Antony Doerr and Family Furnishings by Alice Munro. Poetry, essays, literary fiction and short stories. My cup runneth over!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tired of Waiting

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?

8.6 million people re-tweeted that line from a poem by Langston Hughes last night after the grand jury in St.Louis did not charge the police officer in Ferguson who shot and killed an unarmed black man last summer. The world seems so unfair. Is there no justice? Will black men continue to be gunned down in the streets of our country?

These are all questions that Jesmyn Ward asked in her most recent book, Men We Reaped:A Memoir. She said, “Demond’s family history wasn’t so different from my own, did that mean we were living the same story over and over again, down through the generations? That the young and Black had always been dying, until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”

I just finished Men We Reaped yesterday; the same day the grand jury in St. Louis announced their non-conviction.  As I watched the riots in Ferguson and the peaceful protests across the country on television last night, I felt only despair. Like the words by Langston Hughes, I am so tired of waiting. Demond (in the quote above) could be Michael Brown or any one of countless numbers of unarmed black men killed by authorities

As a White woman from Mississippi, I felt guilt and shame as I read this painful memoir by Ward, just like the shame I felt hearing the grand jury decision last night.  The Men We Reaped was a difficult book to read, not because of dense or confusing writing, but because of the sad, sad story this young woman was compelled to tell. Jesmyn Ward is the National Book Award winning author of Salvage the Bones, one of my favorite books. That novel tells the fictional story of a south Mississippi family living in abject poverty during Hurricane Katrina. Men We Reaped is not fiction as Ward pays tribute to five young men, including her brother, who died within four years in her south Mississippi hometown of Delisle. These beloved young men’s deaths were all separate incidents and had different causes, yet the history of poverty and racism in her hometown compelled Ward to look at why they died and see a connection. “Death spreads, eating away at the root of our community like a fungus.”
In her last chapter, Ward shares some of the statistics about “what it means to be Black and poor in the South.” Thirty five percent of Black Mississippians live below poverty level, compared with 11 percent of Whites. And one of every 12 Black Mississippi men in his 20s is an inmate in the Mississippi prison system. And poverty, lack of education, and poor social support contribute to as many deaths as heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer in the United States. All these statistics don’t tell the story as well as Ward’s very honest tribute to each of these young black men in her community that died between 2000 and 2004. I read the last chapter in tears as Ward said, “By the number, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”

Ward describes the despair she felt for years after the death of her brother by a drunk driver was followed by the deaths of four other good friends in her home town. The drunk driver who killed Ward’s beloved younger brother received no DUI, no manslaughter charge, only a conviction for leaving the scene of an accident. He never paid restitution and only served three years in jail.  Is this fair? How long must we wait?

I can only imagine how emotionally demanding it must have been for Ward to write this book. I heard her speak in Houston a couple of years ago and she talked about this book being one she had to write. She said this book was the most difficult thing she had ever written. She is brave and honest in depicting her life and the lives of her family and the people in her community.

Ward writes: “We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

Everyone should read Men We Reaped. Unless we try to understand the world these young black men inhabit and acknowledge their darkness, we will all keep waiting for Langston Hughes’ beautiful and kind world. I am praying for Ferguson this morning and for the mothers who lose their children too young and for courageous writers like Jesmyn Ward who shine the light in the darkness.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Mind Bending Look into the Future

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks is a fantastical journey forward in time. Told in several engaging voices, the stories of Holly Sykes and Hugo Lamb and Crispin Hershey begin to overlap and merge and get more far fetched as the reader is drawn further into the future. 

I was completely engaged and engrossed in Mitchell's most recent novel. He creates a new metaphysical world with forces of good and evil on the other side of the earthly realm as we know it.  His characters are both ordinary human beings and extraordinary reincarnations from the past.  This book could definitely be classified as science fiction. But don't let that turn you off if you don't think of yourself as a sci fi person. The characters are real, especially Holly Sykes who is a salt of the earth daughter of a pub owner in Kent. You are drawn to her story as she fearlessly moves through her life.

Time travel, mind reading, predicting the future, this book takes the reader through many centuries and around the world and beyond. You don't have to read David Mitchell's other books before you read this one. But you may recognize a few characters and places, if you have. I've read Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green and dearly love those. My friend, the high school English teacher, has her students read Black Swan Green every year.  If you haven't discovered David Mitchell, maybe it's time you do. And if you already love Mitchell, then hurry to read The Bone Clocks.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Discovering a Small Gem

This summer during my book store visits, a book caught my eye (as often happens) because I saw the name Ann Patchett on the cover. I had been on sort of an Ann Patchett kick. Earlier in the summer, I had happily soaked up every word of This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, her recently published book of essays. Loving her straightforward, conversational style, I read Run, one of her older books (1977) that I had missed. I loved it and have to recommend all her books with State of Wonder (or Bel Canto?) being my favorite. Needless to say, I am a big fan of Ann Patchett (who, I might add, is married to a wonderful man from my hometown, Meridian). So, when I spotted Ann Patchett's name on the cover of a book at Book People in Austin, I snatched it up. The All of It was a wonderful surprise. Really a novella, this gem of a book shares a whole life in the most concise way.  Beside her husband's deathbed, a Irish parishioner shares her story with her priest.  The tale is shared from the priest's point of view and we see him as a flawed, conflicted man.  Likewise, the reader is able to empathize with the woman's sad story of suffering and redemption. I won't say more, but it's a book that you do not want to put down until you read "the all of it." 

The author, Jeanneatte Haien, published this book, her first, in her mid-60s, in 1986. She was a pianist and a music teacher for her entire career. This book won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1987, but apparently was not widely read and quietly went out of print.  Many years later, on vacation Ann Patchett just happened to visit a very tiny used bookstore with a friend in the summer of 2010. They were walking out empty handed when her friend went bonkers over a battered paperback she found in a box of books just by the door. The book was The All of It.  Her friend urged her to read it. Ann Patchett said, "I have a habit of listening to my friends," and even though the book was so mildewed that it made her sneeze, she was immediately enthralled.  In the new introduction, Patchett said, "One of the many things that makes The All of It so remarkable…is its calculated construction…I had the sensation of not wanting to put the book down for fear of disrupting her narrative."

Patchett was so excited about the book that she approached the publishers to reprint this gem and offered to write an introduction. This is the book I found, re-published in 2011, in Book People in Austin this summer.  So, like Ann Patchett, trust me on this one. Read The All of It

Monday, August 18, 2014

Peace. Love. Books.

When I travel, I make it my personal mission to visit either a bookstore or library in each place. I strongly believe in supporting independent bookstores, starting with my local favorite, Blue Willow Books, in Houston. So today, I want to give a shout-out to some of the bookstore bests from my travels so far this year. 

In late December (I'm counting this as 2014 since the visit was on the cusp of the new year), my niece took my daughters and me to the stellar Elliott Bay Book Company in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. With high ceilings and wooden floors, the bookstore felt airy and light. We spent a pleasant hour making our selections on a Sunday morning after a delicious brunch next door at Oddfellows.

Of course, I made several visits and purchases at my Mississippi favorite, Square Books in Oxford. The bookstore has THREE locations on the Square in Oxford - a young people's store, Square Books, Jr.; a discount store, Off Square Books; and the venerable two-story location on the prime corner in this literary city. Richard Howorth, the owner and a friend, is often around and it's wonderful to talk books with him.  This spring I bought a very special book there titled, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists by my old professor, William Ferris. This wonderful collection includes a CD and DVD.

I was lucky enough to go to Asheville, NC a couple of times this year and no visit there is complete without stopping in Malaprops, my favorite of the SEVEN bookstores this amazing city. I visited this bookstore with a dog! Yes, my friend was able to take her dog with us to Malaprops because they are dog friendly. This was a first for me – selecting books with a dog.

Over spring break, I visited Portland, Oregon for the first time and was able to go to Powell's City of Books with my sister. The store was everything I had hoped for and more: a whole city block and the world's largest independent used and new bookstore in the world. I was in book heaven wandering around to my heart's content. While there, I picked up The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, a book I enjoyed very much just recently.

During our Easter visit to New Orleans, we stayed within walking distance of my favorite spots in the Crescent City, Octavia Books. I bought a neat book of maps of New Orleans, called Unfathomable City: A New OrleansAtlas.  This wonderfully illustrated book sits in a place of honor on my coffee table, a reminder of the city I love.

This summer, I took my older daughter to my favorite Austin bookstore, BookPeople, after eating lunch at the Whole Foods flagship store on N. Lamar. We wandered and book looked for an hour, both purchasing books. I look forward to reading The All of It by Jeannette Haien with a forward by Ann Patchett.  I'll admit, I was attracted to it because of Patchett's name on the cover (I've had a Patchett obsession this summer - see future blog post), but I can't wait to start it. 

Last weekend, both of my daughters finally got to see my sister's home in Moscow, Idaho and enjoyed a visit to Bookpeople of Moscow, a gem of a bookstore in this small college town. This bookstore is one of the reasons my sister, a librarian at the University of Idaho, loves her new town so much.  

Independent bookstores are alive and well. These little lighthouses shine for all and keep many book lovers nourished and fed in this fast-paced world.  What wonderful bookstores have you visited recently?