Monday, January 22, 2018

The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writer's Life, by Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s mother believed in ghosts and curses and lived her life expecting bad luck. A typical maternal warning:
"Don't ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself.”
Her father was a Baptist minister who was guided by his Christian faith. His approach:
"Faith is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us even though we still cannot see it ahead of us."
So Tan lived her life amid contradictions, in a home full of invited and uninvited ghosts, holy and otherwise.

After reading this compilation of essays about her life, it’s easy to believe that the connection between other worlds is far more tenuous than most pragmatic Americans like to believe. Tan has used bits and pieces of her life in her fiction, especially her relationship with her mother, But she was holding back some of the most bizarre elements of her story:

•Her friend and classmate Pete was brutally murdered when they were in graduate school. Amy communicated with him in dreams so vivid she learned the names of his killers. And he told her to leave school and start a career in writing that ultimately led to her novels, which include The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and The Kitchen God’s Wife.

•Tan’s mother spent three years in a Chinese jail for having an affair while she was married. When she got out, a chance meeting reunited her with the man with whom she had an affair, and the two got married and became Tan’s parents. Her father died young, of a brain tumor, only months after losing his son and Tan’s brother, also to a brain tumor. 

•Tan’s mother’s morbid obsession with death no doubt stemmed from watching her mother kill herself by eating raw opium.

Because the book was built out of existing work—magazine articles, speeches, introductions to other books, even long emails—it is a bit disjointed, with repetition of several stories and too little details on others. It came out a year after Tan was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which weakened her physically and mentally. Perhaps she felt she would not recover well enough to write a formal memoir. 

She rrecently published Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, another series of essays, although she’s not comfortable with being a memoirist. In an interview with The New York Times, she said:
"It’s like taking the mask off, taking your clothes off, and having people say, oh my God. It’s nonfiction, and people can make fun of the way you think or say, oh that was trivial."

Clearly, her life has been remarkable and far from trivial, but it’s possible she might be accused of being unbelievable. As she notes in The Opposite of Fate, her truth is far stranger than fiction.—Pat Prijatel

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, by Anne Lamott

For people who have read Anne Lamott’s previous writings on faith and life, this book will come as no surprise.  It continues her own confessions, struggles, insights, longings, and gropings toward understanding herself and a fuller relationship with God and with her fellow human beings.

For those who have not read any of Lamott’s earlier books, pick this one up.  Lamott writes with humor and unfailing honesty as she confronts her own (and our) human greed and selfishness and love and honor and, yes, mercy.

Woven throughout are her own takes on various Bible passages and people that may well resonate with the reader.  They certainly do with me.  Listen to her about St. Paul with whom I have long had a difficult relationship:

“Putting aside the little problem with all the people he had killed, he was annoying, sexist, stuffy, and theoretical.  He was not a great storyteller like the Gospel writers. He often got preachy, and his message was frequently about trying to be more stoic, with dogmatic ‘Shape up’ and ‘Shame on you’ talks.  He was cranky, judgmental and self-righteous, worse even than I.  Yes, he had moments of genius and light, but then he’d start wagging his fingers again.  Yet, he knew my heart, he knew the struggle with our dark side:  ‘I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’  And he preached the willingness to be loved and included, as is.  He knew that people like me would want to have the willingness to have the willingness, but that this is scary and hard.  He knew that it comes from the pain of staying the way we are, cut off from ourselves, squandering our lives, envying others, bingeing on whatever, terrified of making mistakes.”

Lamott explains that it is mercy – the promise to offer and receive relief and forgiveness – that lies at the heart of all great faith traditions and our own spiritual identity.  Mercy gives us the chance to “soften ever so slightly” so that we can understand one another more deeply.  Mercy is, in her words, “the medicine, the light that shines in dark places.”

This book is beautiful, with so many wonderful passages that beg to be read and savored, pulled close into your heart and pondered there.  Read it.  You won’t be disappointed.—Jeanie Smith

Friday, January 5, 2018

Suggested Novels to Read Next

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson
Hardcover, 264 pages
Published April 13th 2010 by Algonquin Books
For Paul Gustavson, a hack writer for the wildly popular For Morons series, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has suffered a debilitating stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his overachieving brother has invested his parents' money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State bar, a steady line of cocktails, a new pair of running shoes, and Stella. Beautiful Stella. With long sleek legs, kind eyes, lustrous blond hair. Their relationship is the one true bright spot in his world. She offers him sage advice on virtually every topic. And she only wets herself every once in a while. 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng 
Hardcover, 338 pages
Published September 12th 2017 by Penguin Press
Goodreads Choice 2017 Winner
Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. 
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principal is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett 
Paperback, 232 pages
Published April 5th 2007 by Milkweed Editions
A supermarket clerk in a small dusty town, 22-year-old Libby is full of dreams but lacks the means to pursue them. When her younger sister Tess becomes pregnant, Libby convinces her not to have an abortion by promising to raise the child herself. But then Tess takes off after the baby is born and Libby finds that her new role puts her dreams that much further away. Her already haphazard life becomes ever more chaotic. The baby's father, a Christian rodeo rider, suddenly demands custody. Libby loses her job, her boyfriend abandons her, and her own mother harps on how stupid she was to make that promise to Tess. More than a story of a single mother overcoming obstacles, Sky Bridge is a painfully honest, complex novel that leaves readers with a fresh understanding of what it means to inhabit a world in which dreams die, and are sometimes reborn.
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt  
Paperback, 219 pages
Published April 25th 2006 by Yearling Books
Not only is Turner Buckminster the son of the new minister in a small Maine town, he is shunned for playing baseball differently than the local boys. Then he befriends smart and lively Lizzie Bright Griffin, a girl from Malaga Island, a poor community founded by former slaves. Lizzie shows Turner a new world along the Maine coast from digging clams to rowing a boat next to a whale. When the powerful town elders, including Turner s father, decide to drive the people off the island to set up a tourist business, Turner stands alone against them. He and Lizzie try to save her community, but there s a terrible price to pay for going against the tide."

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 
Hardcover, 462 pages
Published September 6th 2016 by Viking
With his breakout debut novel, Rules of Civility , Amor Towles established himself as a master of absorbing, sophisticated fiction, bringing late 1930s Manhattan to life with splendid atmosphere and a flawless command of style. 

A Gentleman in Moscow
 immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose. 

My Antonia by Willa Cather
Paperback, 232 pages
Published February 20th 2000 by New Millennium Library (first published 1918)
 Through Jim Burden's endearing, smitten voice, we revisit the remarkable vicissitudes of immigrant life in the Nebraska heartland, with all its insistent bonds. Guiding the way are some of literature's most beguiling characters: the Russian brothers plagued by memories of a fateful sleigh ride, Antonia's desperately homesick father and self-indulgent mother, and the coy Lena Lingard. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching, free-spirited Antonia.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Paperback, 432 pages
Published May 2nd 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published 1998)
Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquín Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of northern California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealth. Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.

As we follow her spirited heroine on a perilous journey north in the hold of a ship to the rough-and-tumble world of San Francisco and northern California, we enter a world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever. A society of single men and prostitutes among whom Eliza moves--with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chien--California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence for the young Chilean. Her search for the elusive Joaquín gradually turns into another kind of journey that transforms her over time, and what began as a search for love ends up as the conquest of personal freedom.

Monday, November 27, 2017

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, by Daniel James Brown

Brown’s robust book tells the irresistible story of the University of Washington’s rowing team and their epic quest for a gold medal in the 1936 Olympics. I must admit that, before starting on the book, I was a little skeptical, primarily because I didn’t think there was much to rowing—a little arm exercise pretty much summed it up for me. You know what Mark Twain said about golf—a good walk ruined.  Well, I thought rowing was a good paddle ruined…

And, while the book itself could be a little plodding early on, perhaps providing too much detail for me, I did come to enjoy it very much, particularly when Brown described an early race, I could feel the splash of the oars. More important, perhaps, I learned that rowing is a very complicated, precise, and interesting sport that, contrary to my previous view, uses practically every muscle. It became clear that readers do not need an interest in competitive rowing to be captivated by this remarkably crafted history.

Brown offers a vivid picture of the relentlessly demanding effort of the rowers and the precision that goes into the making of a first-class boat. Mentored not just by visionary Coach Al Ulbrickson, but by the genius of eccentric boat-builder George Pocock, the teammates learned to trust themselves and to row with grace, unmatched precision, and power. Their collective result was perfection, as was the book by Brown.

At the heart of the book is a heart-warming story of Joe Rantz, who was abandoned by his father -- left to fend for himself at a very young age, but who as a resourceful teenager won back his dignity to become an ideal hero by employing his determination to overcome the odds. Neither he, nor his team was ever expected to defeat the elite teams on the east coast, nor to have the opportunity to go on to shock the world by defeating the Germans in front of Adolf Hitler.

More than just a sports story, Boys in the Boat is a fascinating work of history. The reader gets a vivid picture of the depression era, the building of the Grand Coulee dam (where Joe worked during the summer to earn tuition money), the dust bowl, Hitler’s rise to power—all culminating in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. I was reminded somewhat of Bill Bryson’s One Summer, which similarly covered a variety of momentous events during the summer of 1927.

I also enjoyed reading about Leni Riefenstahl, the genius who directed Hitler’s propaganda films for the world, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, which won many awards. And I really enjoyed the conversations our book club had over a three-week period. I believe we all came away with a deep appreciation for the sport, and Karen Lynch’s added perspective as a coxswain for and member of the University of Iowa rowing team put the icing on the cake. 

“Harmony, balance, rhythm; A symphony of motion,” said the legendary designer of racing shells George Pocock. “There you have it. That’s what life is all about.” And that’s what this book is all about.—Ken Johnson 

NOTE: An episode of PBS's American Experience was based on the book, titled The Boys of '36. You can livestream it through them or Netflix.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

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
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Early Warning by Jane Smiley
Glass Houses, by Louise Penny
Island: The Complete Stories, by Alistair MacLeod
Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann
Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly
John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman
My Antonia by Willa Cather 
Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek by Annie Dillard
Tattoos On The Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood 
The Recognitions by William Gaddis 
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep: A Novel by Joanna Cannon. 
This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class, by Elizabeth Warren
Traveling to Infinity by Jane Hawking
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Members' Recommendations from Local Library Book Club Sets
Loving Frank Nancy Horan (WDM)
Patty Jane’s House of Curl Lorna Landvik (WDM)
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee  (WDM)
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood (WDM)
The Language of Flowers Vanessa Diffenbaugh (URB) (DSM)
Beautiful Ruins Jess Walter (DSM)
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (DSM)
The Orchardist Amanda Coplin (DSM)
Peace Like a River Leif Enger (DSM)
Still Alice, Lisa Genova (DSM)

The Songcatcher, by Sharyn McCrumb


“And  where she’s been and what she’s seen, 
     no living soul may know, 
And when she’s come back home, 
     she will be changed—oh!”
"The Rowan Stave” Ballad

Lark McCourry is a popular folk singer whose tours regularly take her across the country.  But her roots and strong family ties are in the small town in the mountains of North Carolina where she grew up and learned to love folk music, especially ballads— and most especially The Rowan Stave ballad.  Lark moved from the mountains to the big cities to build her singing career.  But she continues to be haunted by the memory of the The Rowan Stave ballad.  She knows the song has been in her family for generations and finally feels compelled to leave her singing tour and travel back to the mountains to begin her journey to find it and restore a piece of her family’s past.  Her quest leads her to her estranged father, now a lonely and angry old man living alone, and dying, in the North Carolina mountains. 

She also meets Nora Bonesteel, a wise mountain woman who talks to both the living and the dead, and who may be able to help with Lark’s search.  Nora believes that old, lost songs are a touchstone to the past, and so is eager to help Lark.

Songcatcher is the story of Lark’s journey.  But it also is the story of the lyrical, haunting ballad that has woven its way through generations, across oceans and mountains, from Scotland and Ireland and England to the hill country of North Carolina.

The first settlers in the North Carolina mountains brought the folk songs they’d sung in their homeland with them to their new home and sung them to their children, then to their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

The ballad was first heard in 1759 by a nine-year-old boy after he was kidnapped from the shores of his home in Scotland and taken aboard an English ship as a slave.  His name was Malcolm McCourry and during his 10 years on the ship, of all the songs he heard sung or played by his captors, “The Rowan Stave” ballad was the one he liked best.  The “strange and terrible” story in the ballad haunted him and also reminded him of home. He learned it by heart and for many years taught it to others he met on his travels.

Malcom’s other remembrance of home was the small white pebble, the “magic rock,” his mother gave him when he was just a toddler to keep him safe from drowning, a fear she’d had since a “wise woman” terrified her with a prophesy when Malcolm was born that “The sea will take him.”  He kept the small rock safe during all the years he traveled. 

But when he lost his “magic” rock, he was afraid to sail without its protection.  So he jumped ship and settled in Morristown, New Jersey because he liked the “little village.”  The song went with him when he apprenticed with an attorney, became an attorney himself, and married Rachel, the daughter of the attorney who had befriended him.  It was with him when he fought bravely in the American Revolutionary War, and came home suffering from serious wounds and exhaustion.  He sang the song to his wife, then to his young son, Zebulon.   

Tragically Malcolms son, Zebulon, was left an orphan after both Malcolm and Rachel died of Typhoid Fever, leaving their baby son to be raised by an uncle on his farm. Young Zeb enjoyed entertaining visitors to his village with ballads he’d learned, especially his favorite, “The Rowan Stave.” 

As time went on, the ballad was shared with sons and siblings, with children and grandchildren, then continued to weave its way through generations, becoming a part of McCourry family history.

But as families grew and spread from the mountains to the and farms and small towns across the country, this ballad and other ballads and old songs— beautiful songs telling wonderful stories— began to be forgotten, replaced by new songs played in music halls and concert houses.  But the old songs were not lost to those who settled in the North Carolina mountains.  They had brought the music with them in their heads. Music was an important and constant part of their lives. And there were no concert houses or music halls in the mountains to introduce the new and different music to them.

As we follow Lark’s journey to find the ballad and her family’s legacy we learn the colorful, intriguing stories of other McCourry family members and how their lives impact each other. 

Author McCrumb is a master storyteller knitting the fascinating stories of the McCourry family together with the history of The Rowan Stave ballad and other songs carried across oceans and mountains. It’s a book that held my interest and imagination from beginning to end!

P.S.  In her notes, author Sharyn McCrumb shares with us the surprising and wonderful fact that Malcolm McCourry is the author’s “four-times great grandfather.” —Gail Stilwill