Monday, June 10, 2013
Without question, I need to read Khaled Hosseini's new novel And the Mountains Echoed. I loved his first two, so I can't wait to read this one. I see too that Neil Gaiman has a new novel, his first adult book in awhile, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Personally, I love his YA books. Colum McCann, who wrote Let the Great World Spin, another favorite from a couple of years back, has just published Transatlantic.
After her two wonderful memoirs, Jeanette Walls has written a novel, The Silver Star. I enjoyed a recent article about her that dealt quite a bit with her relationship with her mother. She is proof, in my opinion, that someone can survive a dysfunctional family and become an amazing adult.
On sale tomorrow is The Astronaut Wives Club, a true story. My favorite line in the movie The Right Stuff, based on the Tom Wolfe novel is when one of the wives (Mrs. Grissom, maybe), disappointed and angry that she doesn't get to meet the first lady, calls her husband a "squirming hatch-blower."
For now, I'm working my way through Kent Haruff's Eventide and listening to Game of Thrones on audio (although I don't know if I can afford enough gas to drive long enough for the whole book, much less the series.) On the iPad (for reading while I work out) is The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.
I'm reasonably sure that I won't succeed in reading everything I wish to read this summer (any more than I will master all the projects and challenges I'm tackling in the rest of my life), but it's still early June. I might surprise myself.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
I finally managed to pull my copy of All Over by the Shoutin' off my shelf this week, resisting the urge to choose an eBook instead for a little road trip. I am so glad I did. The book gives an up-close look at Bragg, from his childhood through his early career success (including his Pulitzer Prize), but he would be the first to tell anyone the book is really about his mother. To be honest, it's almost a love letter to his mother, a good country woman who survived tough times, always putting others--especially her sons--before herself. Bragg tells how he took his one strongest talent--storytelling--and built a journalism career that took him to the New York Times and a fellowship to Harvard. He describes reporting on the chaos in Haiti, the Susan Smith murder case, and the Oklahoma City bombing.
He admits to avoiding long-term commitments and always fearing his success would disappear. That fear led to his delay of the one promise he made to himself--eventually to buy a house for his mother, who had always lived in houses owned by someone else.
Throughout the book, reveals as much about his own writing style as he does about his life. He managed to plop me right down in the middle of Alabama in a time that was all too familiar, even though I was fortunate not to have lived with all the limits he faced. If he comes across as jaded, even bitter at times, he is also honest. While he demonstrates a lifelong suspicion of those he encountered from the other side of the tracks, he also admits to genuine friendship, kindness, and acceptance from unexpected places.
For the record, he presented an insider's view of Alabama football. At times, I had to stop and read out loud.
Since I'd heard Bragg read at a book event in Nashville a few years ago, I could imagine I was hearing his voice as I read, a distinct advantage. Sometimes, I imagine my own audiobooks.
Sunday, June 2, 2013
The story is told by Andy Barber, leading district attorney in a town just outside of Boston, who is investigating the stabbing death of a fourteen-year-old boy on his way to school--until Barber's own son, one of the victim's classmates--is charged with the murder. Placed on the opposite side of the court system, Barber and his wife Laurie not only must convince the court of Jacob's innocence, but their own as well.
Andy must admit to his wife Laurie that he has kept secret his own family's past, bringing up the nature-versus-nurture debate. The defense lawyer has the family meet with a counselor who explores new DNA evidence of a potential "murder gene" and diagnoses Jacob as having more than ordinary adolescent angst and social awkwardness. The charge against Jacob affects his parents' marriage, the family's relationship with their neighbors and friends, who distance themselves after the accusations are made public. Readers will realize that whether guilty or innocent, anyone charged with such a heinous, public crime will be changed forever--as will the family.
In order to avoid spoilers, I can only say that Landay continued to throw curve balls through the tale, a real narrative rollercoaster ride. I suspect I will be thinking about the story and its conclusion for a long time.
Posted by Nancy at 11:28 AM
Friday, May 31, 2013
I haven't seen the new Gatsby yet, but not for lack of desire. It has just been such a busy summer so far. I will admit that I worry that I will be comparing it to the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version I fell in love with back in high school. I'll add that I am aware that it does bear the ear-markings of the seventies when I see it now. I've already heard that there's an undercurrent of rap in the new movie, which will probably trouble me. When it gets right down to it, though, I'm more likely to say what I always say: the book is better.
Meanwhile, I have been getting my Fitzgerald fix while on the road this past week reading Therese Anne Fowler's new novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Several years ago, at our state English conference, we had an actor who performed a one-woman show about Zelda. We might have expected lots of jazz and the Charleston, but she portrayed the dark side too, intimating that Scott mined Zelda's writing--her letters, her journals, even her stories--and took them as his own.
That detail of her fiery death at a mental institution here in North Carolina put a bit of a damper on her life story too.
Fowler's novel is told from Zelda's point of view, relating her life from the time she met Scott when he was stationed in her home, Montgomery, Alabama, when she was a headstrong seventeen-year-old girl from a prominent family. The story she tells shows the impact of the alcohol-fueled lifestyle of the literary and artistic bright stars of their time, which Fitzgerald (or Stein) called "The Jazz Age."
While Scott is portrayed as a talented but flawed man who was as concerned about his literary reputation as most prominent politicians are concerned about their legacy today. He comes across as jealous, petty, and manipulative. Zelda is a talented woman discouraged or prevented from exploring her own talents, eventually destroying her physical and mental health.
Having read Paris Wife, the story of Hemingway's first wife, I was especially intrigued by the story of Hadley and Hemingway at this juncture in their failing--and then failed--marriage. The name-dropping of the circles in which they moved, first in New York, then in Paris and other parts of Europe, is particularly amazing because it is true--Cole Porter, Mencken, Picasso, just about everyone who was making a mark in the cultural world between the two world wars.
In her afterword (where she mentions having written part of the book during writing residencies at the Weymouth Center for the Arts in Southern Pines), Fowler admits that her research was sometimes split between "Team Scott" and "Team Zelda." I'm glad that Zelda got her say this time.
Monday, May 27, 2013
Strout has a knack for writing about flawed characters with far-from-perfect families in such a way that readers can't help but care for them. In this novel, the Burgess boys are two grown brothers living in New York City, one more successful--at least on the surface--personally and professionally, who learn that their sister's teenage son Zach, living in their small Maine hometown Shirley Falls, has thrown a pig head through the door of the local Muslim temple. Readers learn that the boy is a socially awkward boy who acted less in malice that for attention. The publicity given the case nationwide--particularly because of the influx of Somali refugees to the small town--is pressuring local, state, and even federal officials to consider pressing charges for a hate crime.
Running alongside the boy's plight, however, the narrative observes the complicated family dynamics among the three siblings and their families. Jim, the more successful lawyer, has always seemed the more charasmatic of the three. Bob's marriage has failed, and he lives in an apartment his brother ridicules. Strout reveals that Bob has had to live with responsibility for an accident that killed their father when he was very young. His mother, rather than blaming him, had seemed to favor him. The tensions come to a head as the two brothers deal with their nephew and sister's legal plight and their own relationship.
If Tolstoy is right about happy and unhappy families, it may also be true that as readers we are drawn to other families' problems, enjoying our status as observer as we watch them face trouble and conflict, then fight, think, or talk their way out of it.
Posted by Nancy at 4:49 PM
Saturday, May 25, 2013
I hadn't gotten far into the book before I knew it was one I'd suggest to several of my reading friends. As the story opens, Harold Fry, a 65-year-old retiree, receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, a woman with whom he worked many years ago, letting him know she is in hospice care with terminal cancer. Harold struggles with what to write her in response, then walks out to mail the letter--and he just keeps walking. After meeting a young woman in a gas station (to whom he refers as the "garage girl") he decides he is going to walk all the way (500 miles at least) to visit her to save her. He eventually calls his wife to let her know his plans.
The back story follows Fry's relationship with his wife (now cool at best) and his estranged relationship with his son David. As he walks, wearing his yachting shoes the whole way, he meets a variety of interesting characters and recognizes the innate kindness of most humans. His wife, in his absence, realizes she actually misses him and begins to recognize her own responsibility for the deterioration of their marriage.
I got so caught up in the book and cared so much about the characters that I felt the blisters on poor old Harold's feet. I also felt such irritation at the self-seeking crowd that joined him on his pilgrimage once he received some unwanted publicity. I was glad, too, that his wife didn't have to end up as the antagonist in the book, but became a sympathetic character herself.
I loved the quaint travelogue feel of the book, and I grew to love the sweet, flawed man Harold Fry.
Posted by Nancy at 9:18 AM
Saturday, May 11, 2013
In the meantime, though, I plan to catch up on reviews of several good reads I've enjoyed lately--not necessarily in the order in which I read them. One I must mention is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. This book popped up on my reading radar, and I'm glad I read it. The story takes place back and forth between 1962, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were filming Cleopatra and beginning their on again, off again romance that led to more than one marriage. The main characters, though, are Pasquale, a young Italian man who has inherited the family business, The Adequate View Hotel, in a sparsely populated, practically inaccessible location, and Dee Moray, a young actress who arrives by boat believing she's suffering from stomach cancer. Their stories intertwine with a number of characters, Michael Deane, a big Hollywood figure about to venture into reality television, his discouraged assistant, a writer down on his luck ready to pitch a script based on the Donner party, and the son born to Dee after leaving Italy.
The novel is built on layers of stories--the characters' individual stories, the movie script, even the one chapter written by Alvis Bender, an American who comes to Pasquale's hotel each year to write--only working and reworking the single chapter. A real bonus, though, is the material after the novel, including an interview with the author about how he wrote the novel and his own explanation of the long process (fifteen years) of writing this novel. Walters' notes on the novel provide many valuable lessons for writers wanting to home the craft. In fact, this novel is one I would suggest to my own students to "read like writers."
Stay tuned this week for the next in my "catching up" series.
Posted by Nancy at 5:26 PM