Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorainrevealed layer after layer of fascination. The cover notes let you know what to expect: young woman grows up in the Australian outback, goes on to a distinguished academic career, and ultimately serves as President of Smith College. 

Jill Ker Conway is a thoroughly engaging writer.  She brings to this already exotic outline evocative description of time and place and penetrating analysis of herself and others.  She puts us on the sheep station where she grew up and makes us feel the landscape, the characters that inhabit it, and the highs and lows of life at the margins of the social and economic world of Australia in the 1930s and 1940s. She memorably describes the Australian national myth as exalting “epic failure,” typified by her family’s struggle against natural forces that would inevitably prevail.  

Against that often bleak landscape, Conway shows the evolution of her family’s complex relationships and her own growth in awareness and competence.  When extended drought pushes her family to move into the city, she has already formed a solid base of independence and curiosity.  Building on that, Conway vividly describes her experiences through high school and university that impelled her into a distinguished academic career as a historian.  Ultimately the limited academic opportunities and sexual discrimination she encountered in Australia led her to leave for graduate school at Harvard.  

The Road from Coorainis the first of three autobiographical works. It is followed chronologically by True North, covering a decade of academic work in Toronto, and A Woman’s Education, dealing with her time as the first female President of Smith College and a reinvention of women’s education.  — Bill Smith

[*]Full disclosure:  My mother, sister, and daughter attended Smith.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, by Sharyn McCrumb

The Hangman is a rock formation in Wake County, a rural community in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. In this charming natural setting, Sharyn McCrumb creates the second book in her Appalachian ballad series, a mystery surrounding the murder of four members of one rural family. She introduces us to a loose-knit community of independent yet interdependent locals who live along a carcinogenic river full of toxins from a paper plant and in hills once covered by chestnut trees that were all killed by a blight decades before.

This is a story about humans and nature, trials and resilience, destruction and resurrection, change and adaptation.

But who is the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter?

Could it be Nora Bonesteel, the woman who lives on the top of Ashe Mountain, who knows her neighbors’ news before they do because she has The Sight? No, not Nora. She is an incomparable character, but the description “beautiful daughter” falls a little short of incapsulating her rare personality and her inimitable power.

Or maybe it’s Laura Bruce, who ends up taking over her husband’s ministerial duties when he is sent to the Gulf War? No, she is a bit of an angel of mercy, rescuing kids of all ages from floods and fires and human suffering. But, again, “beautiful daughter” doesn't capture her. She’s more the mother.

How about Maggie Underhill, one of the two surviving children of the slain family? No, Maggie is an important character, but not a main force in the book. Sadly, like her mother, she tends to be a follower until, at the end, her life depends on forging her own way.

None of these women feels right as the Hangman’s child. If not them, though, who?

The clue to that puzzle is in McCrumb’s love of folklore and folk music, which she weaves throughout this and her other ballad novels, and in the music of a band that shares her Scottish roots. In 1967, 25 years before this book was published, the Incredible String Band, self-described as a “Scottish psychedelic folk group,” released an album titled Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. At the time. singerMike Heron explained the title: "The hangman is death and the beautiful daughter is what comes after.”

Death does permeate this novel, yet the book ends up being about life. About what comes after. This is not a grim read, but a loving, hopeful one.

McCrumb introduces bits of history and geography that add depth and intrigue to her tale. She explains that, while people in the nearby cities fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War, those in the mountains supported the Union. They had their land, their sustenance, and they wanted to keep it and to be left alone. Yet they got embroiled in the war and in what came after.

As a side story, McCrumb introduces Tavy and Taw, childhood friends, now retired, who are embroiled in a fight with the paper mill. Tavy has been diagnosed with incurable cancer that the doctor ties to the toxic river on which he has spent his life fishing. Turns out the Tavy and Taw are also the names of two rivers in Cornwall, which some locals say are enchanted.

Plus there’s Laura’s baby and Nora’s prediction and the sheriff’s fixation on Naomi Judd and her retirement from music because of hepatitis. In the end, the community pulls together, survivors helping survivors. Thanks to the generosity of his dispatcher, the sheriff sits in bliss watching Naomi in concert.

The book was written in 1992 and the themes of environmental degradation have only gotten worse. But Sheriff Arrowood would be happy to know that Naomi has gotten much better. 

— Pat Prijatel, with thanks to Jeanie Smith for asking the original question, "Who is the hangman's beautiful daughter?" and to Annie Waskom for her research on 1960s psychedelic folk bands and rivers in Cornwall.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Our Recommendations for Next Books

1984 by George Orwell
All The President's Men by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
Faith: A Journey for All by Jimmy Carter
Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamottt
Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek by Annie Dillard
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by 
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class, by Elizabeth Warren
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLeod
I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt  
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (book set at WDM library)
Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett 
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb
The Swimmer by Joakim Zander
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger  

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

A gorgeous, elegant, wise, and heartbreaking book, destined to become a classic. The author is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In poetic prose, she shows how Native-Americans understand botany on a personal level. 

Her intricate essays explain that the land feeds and heals us and, when it is healthy, so are we. But when it is broken, we are as well. 

I kept thinking, "what if" throughout the book. What if we had followed Native American custom and respected the land, returning as much as we have taken, and giving thanks for the gifts of nature, instead of seeing it only as something to use for our own gain? — Pat Prijatel

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Between the World and Me, by Ta Nehisi Coates.

This book is a letter addressed by the author to his 15-year-old son: Samori. 

Ta Nehisi Coates relates the fears of his youth while growing up in West Baltimore. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid..… The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats… which was their armor against their world. “

Everybody knew someone who had lost a child or adult life violence, jail, or drugs. “I saw it (fear) in my own father, who loves you.” But if the young Coates got in trouble, which he often said he did, his father would crack the belt, “which he applied with more anxiety than anger. “

Coates tells his son that “fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into a television sets. “

The author explains that the law did not protect the Black community. “And now in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping in frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. “

Coates repeats several times in his letter that he had been a curious boy. His mother taught him to read and write when he was very young. His father was a research librarian at Howard University; his father loved and owned many books by and about Blacks.

Coates suffered at the hands of both the streets and the schools. He believed the schools “were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance…. When the elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning, but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Schools did not reveal truths, they can concealed them. “

Ta-Nehisi questioned the need for school: “Their are laws were aimed at something distant and vague.” It was not the classroom but the library that he loved. “The library was open, unending, free. “

Coates wants his son to ask many of the same questions as mother had put to him: “Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher; why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect; how would I want someone to behave while I was talking?” author goes on to state that his mother’s assignments did not curb his behavior, but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness… she was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing— myself. “

It was later at Howard University and especially The Mecca, that Ta-Nehisi he was formed and shaped. 
The Mecca: A machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body… We have made something down here. We have taken the one drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. Here at the mecca under pain of selection, we have made a home as do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, violence, and hopscotch squares. As do black people dancing it out at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded like the survivors of catastrophe.
—Lauri Jones 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

In an author interview at the end of The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh says of her inspiration for the novel, “I’d been a foster parent for many years, and I felt it was an experience that had not been described well or often…. With Victoria, I wanted to create a character that people could connect with on an emotional level—at her best and at her worst—which I hoped would give readers a deeper understanding of the challenges of growing up in foster care.” As someone who worked for seven years with kids in foster care, some of whom aged out like Victoria, and as someone who was briefly a foster parent, I think Diffenbaugh does a terrific job.

We meet Victoria on her way to her “last chance” placement with Elizabeth. “I pressed my forehead against the window and watched the dusty summer hills roll past. Meredith’s car smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was mold on the strap of the seat belt from something some other child had been allowed to eat. I was nine years old. I sat in the backseat of the car in my nightgown, my cropped hair a tangled mess. It was not the way Meredith had wanted it. She’d purchased a dress for the occasion, a flowing, pale blue shift with embroidery and lace. But I had refused to wear it.”

Diffenbaugh’s language as she tells Victoria’s story is full of this kind of rich sensory detail that puts the reader in the backseat with Victoria when she shows us the mold on the strap of the seat belt. And that one tiny, dirty, carefully observed detail suggests larger truths about the foster care system. For that trip to her “last chance” Victoria is still in her nightgown. Because we all feel vulnerable in our nightgowns, we take Victoria’s vulnerability into our own sensibilities.

Victoria is a very specific girl; she’s not a type, and that’s where the charm and intelligence of the story lies. She is memorable. She speaks the language of flowers. She burns down the vineyard and lies to the judge. Against all odds, she becomes a successful business person with her language of flowers. She lives in weird places. The scene where she wraps her baby in moss to give to Grant is such a wonderful, fresh, memorable scene. As is her almost Homeric battle with Hazel to get nursing routine under control. I will never forget Victoria, just as will never forget Dellarobbia in Flight Behavior. 

Yet Diffenbaugh also achieves her goals of giving readers an understanding, generally, of the hardship of growing up in foster care. Victoria’s anger (which is really a mask for terror), her ravenous hunger (a sign of her emotional emptiness), her inability to learn in a normal school setting are normal behaviors of foster kids. The kids are usually terrified, emotionally drained, and unable to concentrate. Victoria makes these generalities specific in the most compelling way. 

We say goodbye to Victoria when she’s a mother and a small business owner and on the cusp of beginning a new and hopeful life with Grant, Hazel, and Elizabeth. And the journey from hello to goodbye is steered by the language of flowers. Victoria finds that language clear and unambiguous—Hazel means reconciliation; moss means maternal love; purple hyacinth means please forgive me. And where there is ambiguity, Victoria sorts it out, nails it down, and records it on two cards. One for her; one for Grant. The language of flowers, which Elizabeth introduces her to, connects Victoria to Elizabeth, Grant, Hazel, and her customers. And that’s where her hope lies at the end of the story. —Sharelle Moranville

Saturday, June 23, 2018


Published in 1975, Ragtime is an amazing tapestry capturing the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century & WW1, when … “patriotism was a reliable sentiment … everyone wore white in the summer… the only thing more irritating than immigrants is black folk, specially when they start acting like they was white folk.”

It’s aptly titled too, for Doctorow manages to capture the ragtime music energy of the era. A quote by Scott Joplin, a famous ragtime musician, at the beginning of this novel, affirming that “It is never right to play Ragtime fast”, gives away the style and tone.  It starts very slowly, with descriptions of the main characters, where they live, and what they do., and then proceeds forward.

This colorful semi-historical novel is jam-packed with a myriad of characters, some fictional and some real-life, revolving around the fortunes of three families; a white family who are unnamed (simply referred to as father, mother and mother's younger brother), a Jewish immigrant family and a black family. Their lives intersect in both happy and tragic ways. Interspersed are a cast of real life authentic figures such as magician Harry Houdini, Admiral Peary, tycoons Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan, anarchist Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, and even a brief mention of Tom Thumb.

There is no inkling of a plot or hint that the book will be anything more than disparate descriptive passages for several early chapters. When interconnections between the characters intermingled with their encounters with some of the famous historical personages of the age begin to appear, these are the first indications that it will evolve into the veneer of a novel. 

These strange characters are inextricably linked by unexpected and unforeseen events seemingly outside their control; the young boy’s uncle is in love with a woman who meets a revolutionary who is arrested for creating anarchy when a criminal holes up in J.P. Morgan’s library after his fiancĂ© is killed when she leaves the house of the mother of the young boy’s uncle. And so on.

Maybe it is Doctorow’s genius that he can link together as many characters as he chooses, keeping them intertwined in the fine fabric of turn-of-the-century New York. Or maybe it is because this bedlam and turmoil is intentional, reflecting perfectly the chaos and confusion of the era.

There is an undercurrent of radicalism in the novel and a strong sense of the inequality of society. What I found most stimulating was the fictional character of Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist, and his fight for his rights stands out against an obvious injustice. His fanatical pursuit of justice drives him to revolutionary violence at a great cost to himself, but also to those he loves. It’s about this time that the book begins to become very interesting, and his story dominates the rest of the novel.

Ragtime definitely delivers. This is extrovert writing – witty, active voice, strong verbs, present tense. It is beautifully crafted, a stylistic tour de force, ingeniously pulled together and craftily presented, worthy of the era it captures, and should be enjoyed by anyone interested in the period.

“Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your
headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L Doctorow

By Ken Johnson, June 23, 2018