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Friday, December 11, 2015

The story of a marriage plus a woman's life

Dear readers, I have had a busy fall with teaching and writing and reading and travel. In fact, it's been so fun-filled that I haven't stopped to reflect on the books I've read.  I need to share a list at some point, but here are two books I've enjoyed recently. Both by young women and both intriguing in different ways.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. Happy reading!

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (library) was one of the best books I've read in a long time (and I've read some great books this fall). Masterfully written, the novel tells the story of a marriage from two points of view - first the husband's and then the wife's.   

"Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you'd crush them to paste," one character says. Mathilde was a good wife to Lotto. They were a golden couple. He was a well-known playwright and she was his beautiful wife.  But, of course, that was just the surface.  A life and a marriage consists many layers.  This book exposes all of them with many twists, secrets and surprises. And sometimes the secrets are what keep a marriage strong.

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits (library) is hard to describe. It's a diary, a chronicle of everyday life of a wife, mother and writer. The entries are not chronological but the events do build on each other. The book is playful, mundane at times and philosophical at others. Julavits starts each entry with "Today I…" "Today I received a text from a woman I have never met" and "Today I went to the doctor for a physical" and "Today I gossiped with a new friend about the illness of a woman we scarcely know." Today we marched in our town's Fourth of July parade" and " Today I tried to console my son."  Julavits makes unexpected connections and mediates on time and much more.  Each entry is really an essay that is so interesting that you want to read the next one. Try it and see what you think.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Old People Have Sex, Too

Okay now that I have your attention…let me tell you how much I loved Kent Haruf's latest and last book, Our Souls at Night (public library). This beautifully written short novel shimmered with its simplicity and grace. Neighbors find companionship and love in their later years in Haruf's fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Addie and Louis, both 70, have known each other casually for many years and their spouses have been dead for many more years, but they don't really know each other's stories.  The book opens as Addie knocks on Louis' door one evening and makes a proposition. She doesn't sleep well and yearns for a man next to her in bed, not for sex (she says she is long past that desire) but just to talk to as she goes to sleep. Louis mulls it over briefly but goes over to her home and her king-sized bed the next evening.  Their life stories unfold and their daily life becomes richer and fuller as told in Haruf's simple prose.  He was such a skillful writer that he manages to make the most ordinary tasks shine with beauty. I listened to this book and loved the narrator's voice. I teared up at times and felt tense when things got tough for Addie and Louis. The ending is tender and authentic, but I won't say more here. But let me assure you that the book is not about sex. But I do like stories about older couples with the wisdom of the years.

This book should prompt you to read more of Haruf, if you haven't already. He gets in a mention of his most popular novel, Plainsong, as Addie and Louis are considering going to see a play in Denver from a script written from Haruf's 2014 novel, Benediction (which really was made into a play and performed in Denver as the last of the Holt trilogy).  Louis said the story in Plainsong of two Holt farmers taking in a pregnant girl didn't ring true to him.  Addie replies, "People can do the unexpected." She goes on to say, "We're no more improbable than the story of two old cattle ranchers." And that is really the theme of the book: as my former minister at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church always said in his benediction, "Expect the unexpected - anticipate miracles - and know through God all things are possible." These two may not believe in God. They don't believe in church anyway. But both of them, through Addie's gentle guidance, grow to believe in grace and the small miracles that make up every day life. People can do the unexpected. It's a perfect last book, and Haruf's quiet voice will be sorely missed. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Avoid The Shore

 As those of you who read this blog know, it's rare that I meet a book I don't like. And I don't think I've ever given a book a negative review on this blog, but since I received this book for free from Blogging for Books, I need to give it an honest review. 

First let me say, that there are things to admire about The Shore by Sara Taylor. The characters are complex and the dialogue keeps the action moving along. It's ambitious book of interconnected stories with different voices in each chapter. Taylor has a knack for capturing a character's unique voice and period of time. The female characters are strongly portrayed. She has kindly printed a family tree of these two related families in the front of the book.  The setting of the small islands (The Shore) just off the Chesapeake Bay is a constant strong character threading through this debut novel.  So you can see, I appreciated this young writer's mastery of her skills. I was actually in awe of her talent, but the story was just too harsh for me. Normally (you can see other reviews where I demonstrate this), I appreciate novels that shine a light on a dim situation. I don't require a happy ending in my fiction. But this was just too desolate.  Many its all the bad news I've been hearing lately - murders, refugees, children suffering - but this book was just dismal. I need a glimmer of redemption in my novels. I found little here.  I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Visit Your Local Library

Dear friends,
When possible, visit your local library or independent bookseller, PLEASE, not Amazon books. After reading the recent article about Amazon in the New York Times, I want to encourage my readers here on Words+Ideas to make every effort to check out my recommendations at their local library or purchase from the nearest independent bookseller.  The way employees are treated at Amazon is just frightening.  In future, I will change my links to books I recommend on this site to the excellent WorldCat link which shows you the nearest library to find the book, just as Maria Popova does on her excellent site, Brain Pickings. At times, I will still use my Kindle (I love reading in the dark with my Paperwhite Kindle) and occasionally order from Amazon for convenience's sake. I'm not perfect, but I do try to do the right thing. So I am urging you all to try to keep libraries and booksellers alive while supporting your habit. Thank you.
Your favorite book blogger

Friday, July 17, 2015

Killing a Mockingbird?

As an active book blogger and huge fan of To Kill A Mockingbird (public library), I feel compelled to write my review of Go Set A Watchman (public library) as soon as I've finished it. My friend Evelyn and I were first in line at our local independent bookseller earlier this week here in Houston when the book was released on Tuesday, July 14.

Actually we were the only ones in line. And no one else showed up the whole time we were there. Both booklovers from Mississippi, Evelyn and I thought for sure, in such a big city, we wouldn’t be alone. But we were the only geeks who got up early on a Tuesday to get the first copies of the controversial, long awaited second novel from the reclusive 89-year-old Harper Lee.

I started reading the book that very evening, and was drawn into the story of a grown up Scout coming home from New York City to Maycomb, Alabama at age 26. Even though I'd read the reviews and was prepared, I had the same reaction as Scout on page 103, now called by her given, Jean Louise, when she said,

"Citizens' council? In Maycomb?" Jean Louise heard herself repeating fatuously.  "Atticus?"

Atticus? I was in as much shock as Jean Louise. But as the story continued, I felt very comfortable with the situation. It felt so much more real to my experience of the South. I was born in 1959, so I’m much younger than Harper Lee and her fictional Jean Louise. But the men of Meridian, Mississippi were much more like the Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman than the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. My father included. There was an Attticus in our town, but he was pragmatic, I’m sure, just like this new version of Atticus.

The book is about Jean Louise Finch coming home and seeing the South and her revered father, Attitus, in a new light. Jean Louise worshipped her father, who taught her to be color-blind and treat every human equally. She is literally sick to her stomach when she discovers her father at a Citizens Council meeting during her visit home. Harper Lee does a beautiful job of showing all the nuances of the situation in the South in the mid-1950s. The content is important for us all to read today in light of the racism that seems worse in some ways now in this country.

Readers will have the same repugnant reaction as Jean Louise, but you mustn’t let it stop you from picking up this very enjoyable book. Harper Lee weaves a great story with flashbacks and engaging dialogue and small town humor.  I cried and cried at the end. I guess daddy issues are something most of us can relate to. Jean Louise’s emotions touched something deep in me. I remember that feeling of disgust toward my South (and also my father at times) when I was in my 20s and my reluctance to stay in the South to fight to make things better.

Another reason I really enjoyed reading Watchman is that I kept thinking about how it was a first draft. This was the manuscript that young Harper Lee took to her editor originally. The editor asked her to ditch that narrative and write a new novel about a younger Jean Louise (Scout) and the trial of the wrongly accused black man that was mentioned in Watchman.  The original manuscript was probably too controversial in the early 1960s. So the whole time I was reading the book, as a writer, I was very interested in how Lee took the thread of the young Scout shown in this book and turned it into To Kill a Mockingbird. This increased my appreciation of Harper Lee as a truly great writer.I'm proud to add this first edition on my bookshelf, next to my signed first edition of Mockingbird.

So read your copy (I know you pre-ordered one) and enjoy the story and re-visiting old friends - Scout, Atticus and Maycomb – and remember it's just fiction. Forget the controversy and enjoy the book. Go Set a Watchman doesn't Kill the original Mockingbird, it just adds to the story we all love.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Race in America(nah)

I’ve been a busy bee reading this summer on all my travels to this date. But probably the best book I’ve read so far is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had just heard of Adichie a few days before when my daughter bought a book of her popular Ted talk called “We Should All be Feminists.”  I watched her talk and was intrigued by this outspoken young woman. Then a favorite young adult friend posted an Instagram photo of the book Americanah and said how much she liked it. I happened to be staying above a bookstore at Rosemary Beach and promptly went downstairs the next morning and bought the book and took it to the beach with me.  Not exactly beach reading, but the book became waterlogged and salty during the next two days on the sand. I couldn’t stop reading. The novel weaves both an epic love story of two young Nigerians and insightful social commentary on being black in America.

I was transported far from the beaches of South Walton to Lagos and Princeton – the two worlds of Ifemelu, the young woman who becomes a well-regarded blogger on race in America only to realize the limitations of her American freedom.  The life of an undocumented alien in London contrasted with that of a wealthy successful Nigerian man encompasses the story of her lover Obinze. Their paths come together in middle school in Lagos and later depart and converge as the story unfolds.  Ifemelu’s commentary on race through her blog is interspersed with the very gripping story of the two young lovers.  In this novel, Adichie holds nothing back in her thoughts on race and class and immigration through the fictional Ifemelu’s blog posts. Here’s an example:

As I have said before, I read novels because they help shine a light on a way of life that I could never understand unless I have experienced it. I want to understand the world and get insight into other people’s reality. This is a love story, which has a universal appeal and helps me to see what it’s like to be a non-American black and an immigrant. Adichie is an important writer who needs to be read and heard.

In the novel, a character says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them…have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race…”

I think Adichie makes it clear that this novel is about race. In the fictional blog, the character Ifemelu says, “In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters.”

After last week’s hideous shooting in Charleston, conservatives first labeled the shootings as anti-Christian, serial killings, everything but what they were. Until finally the racial motivations for Dylann Roof entering Emanuel AME church and killing nine black people after watching them in a Bible study were clear: He is racist and hoped to start a racial war. Now everyone wants to take down the Confederate flags. That definitely needs to happen, but don’t we need to go many steps further? We need to sit down with our black brothers and sisters and understand the realities of what they face. Black mothers fearing their sons will be unjustly accused of crimes. Young black men are being shot and innocent young black women are being thrown to the ground at a pool party.  Are you watching all this?  We are racist in these big ways and also in more subtle ways. This madness must stop,  but things will only change if we can name the evil lurking in our society.  Adichie helps do this in her brilliant book.  I hope she will keep speaking the truth in the darkness.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Southern Gothic

Under Magnolia, A Southern Memoir, was a great surprise. I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy reading yet another novel about growing up in the South. But Frances Mayes (known for her Tuscany books) used poetic images and elegant prose to describe growing up in Georgia in the fifties. Passages like this one "…Listening to women - playing bridge, shelling peas, visiting the dressmaker - those who were dead seemed present…" - evoked the women of my own childhood in Mississippi in the sixties. But like all Southern families I know, this  story was not without its damaged characters and twists in the plot line.   Her parents, unhappy with each other and small town life, drank and fought in the background and sometimes foreground of her childhood.  Her father died while she was in high school and her feelings about him were even more complicated after his passing.  His death left her alone in the house with her mother throughout her difficult teen years and their relationship was fraught with emotion. But her tribute to her mother later in the book is one of the most beautiful I've ever read.
Mayes' mother, Frankye 

"She will never lean toward the light, moisten the thread between her lips, and thread the needle. She'll never throw one sheet on the floor and pile on the dirty laundry. Brush her hair a hundred strokes….no more - placing blue hydrangeas in a glass bowl, scraping her rings on the inside of the black mailbox, boiling jars for peach pickles, dabbing a bath powder puff under her arms, refusing catfish because they're bottom feeders, bidding grand slams, pulling meat off the bone for chicken divan, hand washing a peach silk slip, surrounding the birthday cake with pink camellias…" This describes my mother and probably some of your mothers as well, if you grew up in the South. 

Mayes never directly says why she has never written about her family of origin and her place of origin. Her beloved Tuscan books certainly evoke a strong sense of place and identification of the culture of that place. Yet, I, for one never knew about her Southern upbringing.  Once Mayes moved to California with her first husband in her early twenties, she never looked back on her past.  California is a place of re-invention and Mayes did just that.  She says, "When I left the South at age twenty-two, the force that pushed me west was a powerful as the magnet that held me."  She went on to later buy the home in Tuscany and began to write her many books about Tuscany. Her genre is memoir and essay, so this book at age 75 is a long-awaited remembrance for her fans.  She did write a novel, set in Georgia, called Swan, published in 2002, but I think this memoir is Mayes at her finest with strong imagery and boldly accurate descriptions of small town Southern life.

In the preface, Mayes shares what made her decide to write a book about her childhood. She was in Oxford, Mississippi, one of my favorite places, for a reading at Square Books, one of my favorite bookstores, and the feeling of being in a small town in the South brought back memories she had avoided for years. In fact, she said, "For years when I went back home to visit, I broke out in hives." As she wanders through Oxford and even visits Faulkner's house, the smells and sounds of the South that she had ignoring for years drew Mayes back in. She had long known the resemblances of Tuscany and the South - "the complex interconnections of family and friends, the real caring for one another, the incessant talk, emphasis on ancestors, the raucous humor, the appreciation of the bizarre, the storytelling, the fatalism, the visiting, the grand occasions…"  Now she realized that she wanted to go back to the South, to re-look at her past and to even live in the South. At the end of that visit to Oxford, Mayes called her husband and told him, "I want to move back South."  They did indeed move to rural North Carolina and Mayes wrote this lovely memoir about the South. Thank you Oxford and Square Books!  I was pleased to receive this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Past Binds to the Present

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is a haunting book about memory and uncovering the past.  I feel it was a literary fiction “sleeper” because I had not heard of it through any of my usual book sources. I selected it through my affiliation with Blogging for Books. I was entranced by this novel and read the last three-quarters this past rainy Saturday afternoon. This book combined a historical mystery with a modern tragedy. The plot felt a bit thin at times, but it propelled me along enough to stay interested. 

An archivist in a small London museum, Jane Standen, becomes interested in a Victorian asylum and an old estate separated by woods she had wandered in as a teenager.  For the second half of the book, she is re-visiting this spot outside of London as her past and her present come together. The Victorian era mystery is linked to the modern tragedy through a chorus of ghost like creatures that lurk alongside Jane throughout the novel.  These spirits from the past floating in Jane’s life fascinated me and helped hold together the story. Aislinn Hunter has published stories, poetry and a novel previously in the UK, but this is her first U.S. publication. I look forward to seeing more from her. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, May 15, 2015

More Books Fed to Me as A Child

As a child, manners were important in my home.  My mother tried, as best she could, to teach us how to act in the different situations we would face in life. Two of the children’s books that best prepared me for life were SesyleJoslin’s two classics – What Do You Do, Dear? (Subtitled: Proper Conduct for All Occasions) and What Do You Say, Dear? (A Book of Manners for All Occasions).  What Do You Say Dear was a Caldecott Medal Honor book in 1959, the year I was born. What Do You Do gives such wonderful advice as the following:

You are in the library reading a book when suddenly you are lassoed by Bad-Nose Bill. “I’ve got you,” he says, “and I’m taking you to my ranch, pronto. Now get moving.” What do you do, dear?

Walk through the library quietly.

Each situation is wildly improbable but the reader is given practical advice like “wash you hands before you eat” or “cover your mouth when you cough.”  I can still remember as a child the awe I felt at the crazy situations described with such handy solutions. Both books are called “A Handbook of Etiquette for Young Ladies and Gentlemen to be Used as a Guide for Everyday Social Behavior.” With illustrations by Maurice Sendak, the books are delightful and very useful for teaching manners and how to act in different situations, even the Princess’ ball or London to see the Queen. I used the Queen scenario with my children so much that they believed that they were actually going to London to see Queen Elizabeth. Sadly, we never have met the Queen.

Another book that really stands out from my childhood is Big Susan by the wonderful children’s book author, Elizabeth Orton Jones (Prayer for A Child and Twig). Even after I became a teenager, I would re-read the book every Christmas Eve. First published in 1947, Big Susan was out of print for many years and I had to really search to find a copy for my own children when they were small. I think it frightened by girls with the thought that their dolls came alive every Christmas Eve, but it always enchanted me. The book Big Susan made me believe that miracles can happen anytime if only we believe.

Lastly, I cannot pay tribute to my favorite children’s books without recognizing Charlotte Zolotow. I have already written about her on this blog when she died in late 2013 at age 98. But two of my childhood favorites (still on my shelves along with all the others mentioned here) are The Sky Was Blue (out of print) and Over and Over. I received them in 1963 and 1962 respectively. My mother read to these books to me over and over. I still hear her voice when I re-read them and see the timeless illustrations by Garth Williams.  Both books give reassuring stories of how life goes on and the same values remain through the seasons of the year and through the generations.

Zolotow herself said, “All of my books are based on an adult emotion that connects with a similar emotion that I had as a child. I like each of my books for a different reason, because each comes out of a different emotion. If a book succeeds in bringing an emotion into focus, then I like that book very much. “  I think that is why Zolotow’s books, as well as my other beloved books, are so special to me as an adult. These books helped me understand emotions.