Sunday, August 31, 2008

Clear Springs by Bobbie Ann Mason

In this wonderful memoir, Bobbie Ann Mason writes about her family (the narrative of three generations) on their farm in Clear Springs. Water was right under the ground, that's why they called it Clear Springs.

The land is part of the Jackson Purchase of 1818 when Andrew Jackson signed a treaty with the Chickasaw Indian nation and the states of Kentucky and Tennessee were enlarged by approximately 2,000 and 6,000 square miles respectively. About half of the settlers were of English/Scots/Irish descent.

The charm of this book is that Mason is such a talented writer that when she concentrates her attention on her home place and home folks the lessons learned there are surprisingly applicable to the world beyond those borders.

Bobbie highlights a way of life that is fast disappearing. She talks about her ancestors being lured over the ocean to America by what she calls false advertising: "The Promised Land". Once here, they discovered they had to work hard, clearing rocks and stumps, raising livestock, killing hogs, breaking new ground, gathering dried corn in the fall, herding cows with dogs, churning, quilting, etc. Bobbie's Mother uses idioms that are dying out along with those small family farms.

Bobbie's generation left home and abandoned the old ways. They succumbed to the highway calling and the radio calling. They wanted to go places and find out what was there. They didn't want to be slaves to nature. They had found out that maintaining the Garden of Eden was too much work: hoeing, mending fences, baling hay, milking cows.

She questions this. Why wasn't it satisfying? Why did they lose their knowledge of nature? The problem with leaving is that you have to keep looking back to see where you've been. What about the charms or idealized portions of that existence? You did have to know about the Earth and her seasons; the wind, weather, and soil. What about the slow enduring pace of regular toil and the habit of mind that goes with it? The habit of knowing what is lasting and of noting every nuance of soil and water and season. She bemoans the fact that what her ancestors know is gone and only idioms linger.

These are things that we would do well to pay attention to, since Kentucky is an agricultural state ranking 4th in the nation in the number of family farms. And she concentrates on the central dynamic of the area, which is the tension of holding on to a way of life and letting in a new way. When land is spoken of these days it's in an opportunistic tone about a buck to be made. But the big money always seems to be made by someone else, not the people who know the land. There was an interesting dichotomy involved in her growing up on the farm. Though her family was clearly very self sufficient and quite capable she always felt like the country clodhopper and very inferior because they worked the soil.

Bobbie traveled around the south as president of the Hilltoppers Fan Club, spent a year in New York City, but basically spent the decade of the sixties in school. And with the 60's came the dramatic shift in society. Suddenly everything that she had strived for were the wrong goals and with the racial violence and bigotry that flooded the newsmagazines she was even more ashamed of being from the south, the home of so many lynchings. But the counterculture saved her and she met her husband and turned back towards home.

Eventually Bobbie learned to draw on that same culture that made her feel inferior and turn it into her wellspring. She became a writer and her mother was her chief inspiration. She and her husband bought a place in Kentucky and she returned to her home state because she said she had unfinished business. But she did not move all the way home to her homeplace. The land they bought was a long way from Mayfield. She had thankfully escaped the hardship of the old ways, but she wanted to live near an airport. She wanted to keep some distance and keep her options open.

When Bobbie's father dies, she has to come to terms with what to do about her Mother. All her mother's widow friends tell her the old farm is too much for her that she'd be happier moving to town and getting a smaller more manageable place. When they talk about the old times and how hard they were, her mother says "The men didn't see any need in making life easier for the women. I look back and see how women were treated and what we put up with, and I just wonder why we did it. I'm amazed." "Then don't you think it's high time you had a little something for yourself?" Bobbie answers. "Well, I'm too used to the old ways, I guess," her mother replies. Her mother manages alone for a few years, and Bobbie takes her around to look at other smaller places in Mayfield that she knows well. But her Mother finds fault with each one, and Bobbie comes to realize how important it is for her mother to keep the place in the family. It is the place where she was raised and she raised her own. It's home. She wants them to care about it and inherit it and carry it on somehow, as they used to in the old days. It is the value and meaning of the homeplace to her.

So they compromise and buy her Mom a house so that she won't have to sell the farm. She can still have her garden and go fishing and they'll rent out the farmhouse and continue to lease the fields. The farm will remain in the Mason name.

This is a wonderfully heartfelt book about home, and leaving, and coming home again, and all those life lessons learned along the way. Bobbie's prose is lyrical, like this excerpt about her parents:

"I read so much into my parents. I read the character and history of America in them as if they were a book. I read them in the ground, in the patch of grass where their barn used to be, in the sentinel yuccas by the driveway, in the lightning-scarred oak trees at the edge of the woods. I link them to the early journeys over the ocean, the revolving generations, the plow turning the furrow. While riding the rows on his tractor, Daddy mulled over the way the world works, just as I've done while sitting at the controls at my desk. I reach to know his mind, as I grab for a post, an anchor. But I always knew where my center was--here, on this land. This is my parents' greatest gift--this rootedness, this grounding. It is what has let me roam. I've been like a hawk on a gyre, flying off, ranging as far as I can--yet always spiraling back, securely tethered to home."

This is a lovely book about home and hearth, family and roots, and a touching tribute to Bobbie's mother, who was at the center of it all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Entertainment Weekly's 100 Best Reads from 1983 to 2008

1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006) Loved this book. Love Cormac McCarthy
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000) OK, who hasn't read Rowling
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)
11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)
12. Blindness, José Saramago (1998)
13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)
14. Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates (1992)
15. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
16. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)
17. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez (1988)
18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)
19. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)
20. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding (1998)
21. On Writing, Stephen King (2000)
22. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2007)
23. The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1996)
24. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry (1985)
25. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan (1989)
26. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
27. Possession, A.S. Byatt (1990)
28. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)
29. Bel Canto, Anne Patchett (2001)
30. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (2004)
31. The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien (1990)
32. Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch (1988)
33. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2005)
34. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold (2002)
35. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
36. Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)
37. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003)
38. Birds of America, Lorrie Moore (1998)
39. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)
40. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
41. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1984)
42. LaBrava, Elmore Leonard (1983)
43. Borrowed Time, Paul Monette (1988)
44. Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene (1991)
45. Eva Luna, Isabel Allende (1988)
46. Sandman, Neil Gaiman (1988-1996)
47. World's Fair, E.L. Doctorow (1985)
48. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998) Love all things Kingsolver
49. Clockers, Richard Price (1992)
50. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)
51. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcom (1990)
52. Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan (1992)
53. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
54. Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware (2000)
55. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2006)
56. The Night Manager, John le Carré (1993)
57. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1987)
58. Drop City, TC Boyle (2003)
59. Krik? Krak! Edwidge Danticat (1995)
60. Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich (2001) I love muckraker books
61. Money, Martin Amis (1985)
62. Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick (1994)
63. Pastoralia, George Saunders (2000)
64. Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
65. The Giver, Lois Lowry (1993)
66. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace (1997)
67. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (2003)
68. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (2006)
69. Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
70. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
71. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Ann Fadiman (1997)
72. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon (2003)
73. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989)
74. Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger (1990)
75. Cathedral, Raymond Carver (1983)
76. A Sight for Sore Eyes, Ruth Rendell (1998)
77. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
78. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
79. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
80. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney (1984)
81. Backlash, Susan Faludi (1991)
82. Atonement, Ian McEwan (2002)
83. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields (1994)
84. Holes, Louis Sachar (1998)
85. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004)
86. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts (1987)
87. The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)
88. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995)
89. Close Range, Annie Proulx (1999)
90. Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl (2001)
91. Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003)
92. Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (1987)
93. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991)
94. Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (2001) Another muckraker...great book
95. Kaaterskill Falls, Allegra Goodman (1998)
96. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003)
97. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992)
98. The Predators' Ball, Connie Bruck (1988)
99. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman (1995)
100. America (the Book), Jon Stewart/Daily Show (2004)

When I came across this list recently, I thought I would add it to this blog. It might be fun to compare your own Best Reads list to EW's. I have listed in red the ones I've read from the list. Just keep in mind, it is from Entertainment Weekly, so don't feel too bad if your list doesn't match up. I only scored 23 out of 100.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sweet Man is Gone by Peggy Ehrhart

Peggy Ehrhart is a former college English professor (her academic specialty being medieval literature) who in mid life bought an electric guitar (a red Stratocaster) signed up for guitar lessons and formed a band (The Last Stand Band). Based on those experiences, she has now written a sweet little Cozy Mystery in which her amateur detective, Maxx Maxwell, the smart, gutsy, talented and gorgeous lead singer of Maxximum Blues takes center stage.

Maxx lives in a scruffy little apartment in Hackensack, New Jersey and works at a waitress job that she really doesn't like very much (and is driving her crazy), but needs in order to make ends meet. Her band is finally getting some recognition, thanks to the talents of guitarist, Jimmy Nashville, who Maxx would be totally in love with if she hadn't sworn off guitar players. Which is probably just as well, because Jimmy seems to have a sea of girlfriends.

Then Jimmy plunges to his death from the window of his 9th floor apartment. Police seem inclined to believe it is a suicide, but Maxx resolves to sort out the mystery on her own. Maxx's quest to unravel the mystery takes place amidst a backdrop of blues and bar music scenes that really ring authentic and true and the blues lover will easily recognize the many references to blues tunes sprinkled liberally through the book. As Maxx digs deeper into the mysterious past of Jimmy Nashville, another death occurs, and despite a skeptical cop involved in the case and some surprising developments Maxx manages to persevere until the puzzle is solved.

With a likeable spunky sleuth and quirky characters, this book is the perfect blend of music and mystery and manages to strike just the right chords. Let's hope that this debut book is just the first of many to star Maxx Maxwell. Now, you'll have to excuse me while I go search for my blues CD's. Reading this book made me realize just how much I love that musical genre.

Monday, August 18, 2008

America! What's my Name?: The "Other" Poets Unfurl the Flag Edited by Frank X Walker

This book reminds me a little of slam poetry, a style that has become very popular among teenagers, as one of its goals is to challenge the authority of anyone who claims absolute authority over literary value.

In the Introduction to this book, Frank X Walker writes: "America needs poetry more than it needs prisons; ill-conceived government policies, inadequate schools, political spin, or exit polls. Poetry, when used correctly, is the most democratic thing we own. It belongs to the people. It is for the people and it rings truest when written by the people." So he offers this poetry anthology as a whole grain bread offering for the hungry to balance out the elitist caviar mystique of the writings of dead white males promoted by university professors and academics.

These poems range from the angry (the opening poem called "will [my] America know me when i land?" was written by Kathy Wilson before jumping from a 2nd-story window, and it is a fiery bombastic piece that is truly magnificent in its ire) to the passed over and forgotten ("Of Refuge and Language"). One of my favorites was a post 9/11 poem called "The Letting Down of Milk" which beautifully illustrates a mother's horror as she watches the skyscrapers accordion into sidewalks. There is even love interwoven in its pages with a sweet poem called "Bandit Memory".

These poems showcase angry powerful voices that cry out against gender bias, political bias, and cultural bias. As one of the poems called "Reality" says, "What we have killed in this world will rise up against us." And yet there is hope interspersed here as well, as one of the poems titled "Mother Love" says...

I lay my bones down
upon the earth
to the voices
of all my relations
their lyric melodies
filling the empty places
inside of me
I lay
my bones
upon the earth
I rise

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bare Bones by Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs is a practicing forensic anthropologist for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in the state of North Carolina and for the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Medecine Legale for the province of Quebec. She is one of only 50 forensic anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and is on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Academy of forensic sciences. The Fox TV program "Bones" is based on her life. Pretty impressive credentials don't you think? What's more amazing to me is that she has the time to write quality books starring her fictional forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. This book is her sixth Brennan novel.

It's a sizzling summer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Temperance is looking forward to her first real vacation in years. A vacation that she hopes will have some romantic moments in store for her. But before she can leave a newborn's charred remains are found in a woodstove, a small plane crashes in a North Carolina cornfield, and bones (many of which seem to be of animal origin) are discovered at a remote farm outside Charlotte. So everything is put on hold until the bones are examined. At the same time that all this comes about, Temperance is dealing with her daughter Katy's new boyfriend (who she takes a dislike to) and trying to sort out her personal decisions about emotional commitment. Then someone starts trying to keep Tempe from discovering the answers. Someone is following her and her daughter and that someone needs to be stopped before it's too late.

I had always heard it said that if you like Patricia Cornwell, you'll love Kathy Reichs...that she actually does Patricia Cornwell better than Patricia Cornwell. I think I would have to agree. I like Cornwell's writing, but Reichs is undoubtedly a master crime-writing star. The book is fast paced, the dialogue engaging, and you flip the pages engaged fully in the story and curious as to how it's all going to play out. Being a forensic anthropologist must be a pretty grim job at times, and Reichs does a good job describing what those days are like. At one point in the book, Temperance says "Sometimes I think goodness and charity are racing toward extinction faster than the condor or the black rhino...Greed and callousness are winning out...Love and kindness and human compassion are becoming just a few more entries on the list of endangered species." Well said.

The other aspect of this book I really loved was the glimpse into the trade in illegal wildlife. Another direct quote from the book..."Fifty thousand plants and animals become extinct each year. Within half a century one-quarter of the world's species could be third of all U.S. plants and animals are at risk of least 430 medicines containing 80 endangered and threatened species have been documented in the U.S. alone--at least one third of all patented Oriental medicine items available in the United States contain protected species...deer are killed for their antler velvet, Siberian tigers are hunted for their bones and penises, sea horses are killed to help men grow hair, and rhinos are shot, electrocuted, and driven into pits lined with sharpened bamboo stakes so men in Yemen can make dagger handles." That's enough to cause even the most casual animal lover to have fits of outrage.

I recommend this book highly as an entertaining and riveting read. I know I'm going to read more by Ms. Reichs now.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This author's debut work has been called an enchanting Goth for the 21st century, and I think that's a pretty apt description. Gothic literature, a style that was popular during the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, portrayed fantastic tales that usually dealt with dark subjects. It was named apparently because of the influence of the dark gothic architecture on the genre. And in addition, many of these tales took place in such surroundings. They could combine elements of horror and romance, and are believed to have been invented by the English. I have always liked gothic literature, from the time that I discovered Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" and Shelley's "Frankenstein", and have continued to read it off and on.

I wanted to read this book because there is a love of reading, books, and stories that permeates and saturates it on every page. Let me quote a couple of passages to show you what I mean.

"There are times when the human face and body can express the yearning of the heart so accurately that you can, as they say, read them like a book."

"As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so. For it must be very lonely being dead."

"He removed the thermometer from my mouth, folded his arms and delivered his diagnosis. You are suffering from an ailment that afflicts ladies of romantic imagination. Symptoms include fainting, weariness, loss of appetite, low spirits...However, unlike the heroines of your favorite novels, your constitution has not been weakened by the privations of life in earlier, harsher centuries. No tuberculosis, no childhood polio, no unhygienic living conditions...I reached for the prescription. In a vigorous scrawl, he had inked: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages, twice a day, till end of course."

The plot itself revolves around this love of a story well told. Vida Winter, England's most popular and reclusive writer, is dying. But before she dies, she wants to reveal the long-held secrets of her extraordinary life. She engages a young biographer, Margaret Lea, who has a few secrets of her own. This sets the stage for a multitude of plot twists and surprises that include ghosts, murder, and mayhem, and a wonderful tying up of loose ends at the end of the ride. Ms. Setterfield knows how to use the english language and her descriptive scenes remind me of a renaissance painter putting layer after layer on his canvas until just the right picture unfolds.

This is a haunting novel, rich in language, that will keep you guessing as you peel away the layers of the story. It will grab you and won't let go until the last shocking secret is revealed.
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