Monday, February 29, 2016

Lila - Marilynne Robinson

I always told my customers not to feel like a lump if they were slogging through a book that everyone else just loved. "There's a reason more than one book is published every year!" I'd exclaim. I meant it then, and I still do. "Sometimes," I'd go on, "it's not about the book itself; it's about what is going on in your life while you're reading it. Put it down before you decide you hate it, and go back to it later."

As often as I gave that advice, I rarely took it myself. Surrounded by new books from which to choose virtually every day, I never made good on my best intentions to go back to any book I'd put down, even the ones I sensed were worth the effort. 

One of the best books I've ever read in my whole life, one that filled every cranny of my reading desires, was Marilynne Robinson's magnificent Gilead. It was the first in what would become the John Ames trilogy. For reasons that escape me now, I never picked up the second book, Home, but when the third volume, Lila, showed up I was downright gleeful. I had wanted to know more about her, John Ames' young and unusual second wife, since reading Gilead

I grabbed up the ARC that had been sent to the store, cleared my decks, and then..... just stalled out. I could not get beyond the first 25 pages or so. I kept it next to me for months, and would pick it up again, every time I'd finish another book. And every time, I'd be stuck again. It finally, regretfully, wound up in my giveaway pile. 

But I ran across the accursed copy again as I was cataloging my home library, and decided I would give it one more go. It is not an easy read; there are no chapter divisions, and very few natural breaks in the narrative. Sitting with Lila is a commitment. 

Lila, stolen as a child by a woman named Doll, is raised in the midst of a pack of drifters, where right and wrong exist on a different spectrum than they do for most of us. It's a culture in which salvation comes at the tip of an oft-used knife as often as it does on the banks of a baptismal river. When Lila is ultimately left to her own devices she makes her way to the small town of Gilead, where she happens in on the Pentecost service led by widower Preacher John Ames.There is nothing subtle about Lily; she speaks her mind and owns her heart. But there is nothing subtle about the gentle and soft-spoken love of John Ames, either. That these two set their faces towards an uncertain future together is an act of will and courage on both their parts. 

The most brilliant passages, though, deal with the questions that Lila has about the very nature of God. When presented with the notion of judgment and condemnation to Hell after death, even for those who have not had an opportunity to repent, Lila is struck by the thought that her beloved Doll will burn forever, 

Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her,
no bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven. 

Here is Ames' response to her worries. 

Thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. It's still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can't see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption.
 And presumption is a very grave sin.

What I loved most about the character of John Ames in Gilead holds true in Lila as well. He is a good man, one given to continued and thoughtful reflection about the exercise of faith about which he might have once been squarely decided. It's what mature faith requires of us all, I think. 

Just like Gilead, this book is not for every reader. Those who require a plot driven novel won't be able to find purchase here. Lila tells her story her way, full of looping back and standing in place, and every thought she has inspires a memory to which we become privy. It is bedeviling, and beautiful. 

I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to Lila, but I'm so very glad I did. 


Published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2014
Published in trade paper by Picador, October 2015

Friday, February 26, 2016

Beyond the Written Word, 2/27/16

A weekly-ish look at stuff I had fun doing or finding or thinking about this week, mostly outside the pages of a book. 


If I have any advice for you this week, it would be this: when you have an opportunity to put yourself in the path of good people doing good things, use it. 

To that end, I attended a concert this week given by the Side by Side Singers of First United Methodist Church's Adult Respite Ministry.  This program provides care, several hours a day several days a week, for those with Alzheimers' and other forms of dementia or memory disorders, and it enables caregivers to have some hours away for themselves confident in the knowledge that their loved one is in the hands of compassionate and well-trained volunteers. 

The Side by Side Singers grew into being when Jack Horner, the recently retired Minister of Music at my church and his sidekick, pianist Mickey McInnish, invited those in Respite Care to come sing--side by side--with their caregivers and others who just love singing, too. I don't know all their stories, but I am sure some of these beautiful people were once pillar and post in church choirs or civic chorales. This photo essay by photographer Luke Lucas captures so many of these wonderful relationships. 

It is impossible for me to describe what sitting in that audience felt like, but whatever emotion the words pure joy summons up in you would come close. Music memory is profoundly powerful; we've all experienced that in some way. I got a real dose of it myself when I realized that words to songs I learned many decades ago during elementary school music assemblies came back to me as though I'd been rehearsing them daily. And what I also knew, sitting in that audience, is that were my Mama still living she would have eaten this with a spoon. I happily imagined sitting there with her, Side By Side.

This ministry deserves emulation. If a program like this is something your community needs, I hope you will consider being in touch with its director, Daphne Johnston.


Since embarking on this practice retirement of mine, I've made good on a promise to do more letter writing and note-sending. While written responses in return would be lovely (hint, hint!) that's not really been the point. This week one of those letters bore fruit, via phone call, from one of my Mama's cousins. His mother, my Great-Aunt Lena, was just about my favorite person and her summer visits were true highlights of my childhood. She was the Postmaster of David, Kentucky, and one didn't dare call her "Postmistress," because as she said once in my earshot, "I do not carry on with the mail." I hadn't been in touch with Cousin Joe for years, and wasn't even sure the address I'd finally found for them was still valid. But I wrote, and took a $.44 chance that it might be. Well, Cousin Joe called this week! We had a wonderful conversation, and made promises to remain in touch - via letters and phone calls. 


And finally, I've been very deliberate about trying new foods in recent years. There was a time not long ago when I would not eat asparagus, okra, tomatoes, oatmeal, or strawberries, and now they are such mainstays in my diet I can't imagine what I did before. (Okay, I'm still struggling with tomatoes, but I've come a long way.) Yesterday I had lunch with my sisters-in-law, and there was something that looked very diet friendly on the menu: Seared Tuna on a bed of Cauliflower Tabbouleh. Huh. I knew what all these things are, of course, but I don't like cauliflower, and couldn't figure out how they made tabbouleh from it. But heck -- why not? And my goodness, it was good! Even better, when I got home to plug it into my WeightWatchers journal I discovered that it is incredibly points-friendly, and there's even a recipe for it on their website. I will be trying this at home, but please -- nobody tell my husband because he will not eat it if he knows what he's eating. 

Somebody who knew this was a thing should have told me, so I'm telling you in case you don't know.

You're welcome. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Only Love Can Break Your Heart - Ed Tarkington

When I was still making a living as a bookseller I read every book not only for myself but also with my customers in mind. To whom would I be eager to sell this? Which customer has been asking for something like this, and which folks do I already know it wouldn't suit?

That's a lot of people to have up in your head when you're trying to read, as welcome as their company was for all those years. For all that time, part of the fun of reading a great book was being excited about getting to the store so I could start selling it to my favorite customer-people. 

Since the beginning of the year I've read some books I liked, a couple that were just meh, a couple I could not force myself to finish, but until I turned the last page of Only Love Can Break Your Heart I had not had that same feeling of excitement.... only this time with nowhere to put that feeling except here. 

We meet Rocky at age 8, a young boy who idolizes his older half-brother Paul. Paul is that cool guy--Rocky describes him as being like The Fonz, except that you never saw The Fonz with a cigarette. Rocky's adoration survives a cruelty visited on him by Paul, one that leads to Paul's exit from the family home. When, many years hence, he turns up again it is not without consequences for everyone he left behind. 

This is a novel about love felt and experienced imperfectly but deeply, the lies it can force us to believe, and the beautiful truths that are hidden until a heart can break open. 

I've always found a Bildungsroman, as this one is, a particularly satisfying framework for a novel. The writing must be incredibly well balanced; the voice of the protagonist as a child must be authentic, even when you know the story is being narrated from their perspective as an adult. Too many writers seem bent on providing debriefings all along the way rather than letting the story unfold naturally. Tarkington, however, gets it all exquisitely right. 

Publisher:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publish Date: January 5, 2016


I'd be much obliged if you'd share this blog with anyone who might find it interesting. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Best (Mostly) Non-Book Stuff This Week

I will say -- straight up and unashamed -- that I am stealing this weekly best sort of thing from one of the best bloggers in America today, SuziQ of Whimpulsive . In my defense, I think I asked her how creepy copy-catty this would be, she muttered something that sounded like the Pacific Northwest's version of Bless Your Heart. 


I hate cleaning my bathtub. 

But I am here to testify that I found something at the store a few weeks ago that promised to make scrubbing through that nasty almost-invisible soap scum a breeze. I finally used it this week, and HONEY, let me tell you it may have changed the way I feel about cleaning the bathtub from Please, just pull my tooth instead to I still hate to do this but it'll only take a minute and then I can go have a glass of wine or something. 


During my practice retirement, I have begun to enjoy planning our menus a week at a time. I've used a grocery app for a long, long time, but I have found myself making much more thorough use of it these past couple months. I've tried lots of them, but for my money (and yes, I have the paid version) Anylist is the best, hands down. Not only is it easy to customize to your own grocery store, you can have separate lists for more than store. I currently have lists for the drugstore, Bed, Bath, & Beyond (for stuff that it occurs to me I need for the house) and Costco. But even better is the web extension that allows you to add recipes from most websites with one click and save them into your Anylist Recipe file. From that file, a tap on an item needed for the recipe puts it into your shopping cart. Yes, there is a time investment upfront (sorting your store aisles correctly, for instance), and there are always some items that Anylist places in an aisle that doesn't make sense, but moving it for future reference also happens with one click. 


I've been traveling on the road of good intentions for a long time, the one about getting around to reading classics that I somehow missed reading all these years. I've loved to read since I was a child, but even so, seemed not to have gravitated to the same things others did. I'm embarrassed to share the full list of childhood classics I never got to, but I'm resolved to start chipping away at the list. The only problem is that I didn't want to take undue time away from other, more timely books I have stacked around. When I ran across Serial Reader in this past weeks list of featured apps, I decided to give it a whirl. You select a classic and each day at a time you set yourself, you are sent one chapter to read. I picked 7:00 a.m., figuring I could knock out a chapter kind of like reading a devotional. Further, I chose Anne of Green Gables, a book I vaguely remember having checked out from the library when I was little, but of which I have no memory of ever having read. (I must hasten to add here that I do not enjoy reading via my phone or iPad, but I thought I'd give it a whirl for this project of mine.)

Serial Reader's choices are limited, but for the time-being it's fine for this little experiment of mine. All the books they have available are free to read and they are all classics; you won't find anything published in this century among its offerings.  

You know how it is when you get to the end of a book you really, really love and you just do not want to put it down? And you want to hug it and you go around telling people that you could have eaten it with a spoon? So does my grandson.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Hanging Girl - Jussi Adler-Olsen

I'm just going to cut right to the chase here. If you are already a fan of Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q mysteries but have had a drop-off in enthusiasm for him, The Hanging Girl is his way of powering his way back on to your Must Read list. 

The cold case, that of a young woman whose body was found suspended from a tree, had haunted the lead investigator for years. He makes a desperate call to Department Q's Carl Morck in an effort to have their team take it on, but Morck rebuffs him. 

Circumstances (and Rose, the ever-present thorn in his side) compel him to take the case on, however, and once Adler-Olsen gets us going there's just nowhere to stop and take a breath. This is a good thing. 

Cold case mysteries are so much fun to read. Over time witnesses' memories fade or they move or die, physical evidence is lost or altered by time, and the threads that would have helped an investigator piece together a case a decade or more sooner have often unraveled to the extent that they aren't even in the same guilt-quilt any longer. Adler-Olsen is so, so good at starting a novel with what seem like wildly divergent story lines that are compelling in their own right, but the closer he brings you to the conclusion the more rapidly the seemingly disparate story lines begin to converge. 

The additional treat here is that we continue to learn just the slightest bit more about the mysterious (and hilarious) Assad, whose continued inability to grasp the concept of idioms is as funny as it was in their first outing, and Rose still has a surprise or two in store for us, too... if it is Rose.  There is even an unexpectedly moving bit of character development that had me a bit emotional, as well. 

Honestly, y'all, this is the best in the series since the first two, The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Absent One. 

Published by Dutton
September 2015

Monday, February 15, 2016

Revelation by Dennis Covington

In the early 1990's Alabama's First Couple of Letters was Dennis and Vicki Covington. They were young and beautiful and smart and damned good writers, and whether they liked it or not waters tended to part when they'd walk in a room. 

She wrote lyrical homebound novels; his work was a bit quirkier but lovely in its own way. The notion that these two people and all those extraordinary words lived and loved together was the stuff of which dreams can be made. 

But you wake up from dreams, sometimes in a cold sweat, which is what happened when they wrote, together, the story of the coming apart of that marriage in their book Cleaving. It was painful to read. We had hoped they weren't so flawed, so mortal. 

After publication of that book in 1999, the two of them went quiet. I'm certain that those in the inner literary circles of the state have had a clue what's been going on with them. What I know the rest of us have hoped was that they had found reasons to be happy and sober and that they would write again. 

When the advance reading copy of Dennis Covington's Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World showed up just weeks before we closed the doors to the bookstore, I was elated. Dennis wrote about faith and his dance into and around it years ago, in the stunning Salvation on Sand Mountain. I was glad to see that he was still wrestling with the angels. He writes about that very, very well. 

From the jacket, this: 

Looking not for rigid doctrines, creeds, or beliefs...(Covington) sought something bigger and more fundamental: faith, faith in goodness, kindness, and the humanity of the smallest moments in the most difficult times. 

Covington searches for those evidences of faith both close to home and farther afield, often in the most dangerous places in the world. How do people who daily witness the very worst life has to offer continue to believe whatever it is they believe, and have faith for a better future?

The very nature of faith makes it difficult to pin down in words. If you are not a person given to it, nothing I or anyone else can say can explain what it feels like to have it, or lose it, or to find it again. One hopes, though, that a person as gifted with words as Covington can at least get you close. 

That was the hope for me, anyway. I live a pretty peachy existance. The most frightening prospect in my life at this moment is the potentially rabid raccoon who has decided to take up residence in our attic, who has, as of now, eluded capture. Despite a wave of gun violence in our culture, I don't experience fear in my day to day life. The only explosion I have ever witnessed was a carefully controlled one designed to demolish an abandoned prison facility. Even so, with no reason at all ever to fundamentally question my faith in Someone who is in benevolent charge of us all, I find myself doing so. It's a paradox understood to all those who believe that the more you question your faith with an open heart, the more deeply you find yourself embraced by it. 

What I wanted, when I picked up Covington's book, was to have his beautifully articulated words say what my clumsy ones fail to say.

What I found instead was a mostly unsatisfying travelogue that only occasionally allowed a glimpse of what I believe Covington wanted us to experience with him. Most of what he writes about here are his temporal experiences, and the most he seems to say about the role of faith is that (a) some people have it, (b) some people pervert it; and (c) it brings great comfort to those who keep it, despite their circumstances. Hardly new ground. In fairness, I don't think anyone who has ever written about faith in the face of fear has ever come up with anything different. I just always want them to tell it with words I cannot find. 

I was glad to have read it, though, if only because it answered many of the questions I and others have had about where he has been, and what he's been doing all these years to have remained so largely silent. 

On sale date: February 16, 2016
Published by Little, Brown and Company

Saturday, February 6, 2016

In Praise of the Library

Y'all remember that old news story about Daddy President George Bush making a trip to the grocery back in 1992, and being filled with wonder by the UPC scanners? When it broke, it was used by his opposition to prove how out of touch with the world he was. 

I didn't think it was fair; my father would have been similarly awestruck had he ever gone to the grocery store when those fancy things began to be installed. My Daddy was not stupid or uninformed or out of touch with the harsh realities of the world. What he was, though, was a man who'd lost his grocery store privileges years before when my mother tired of his coming home with multiple cans of sardines. He had to eat them on the back porch, and because I loved them, too, the two of us would grab a can and a couple oyster forks and head out. 

So I found Mr. Bush's childlike wonder sort of charming, and recently found myself sharing a similar experience when I visited the main branch of our public library. 

I had not stepped foot in it since my youngest child, now nearing 30 at alarming speed, was in junior high school. I accompanied him there to do a little research. We didn't stay long, and there wasn't any point to browsing for pleasure reading because I spent every working day surrounded by every book I could ever want.  

I never had a to-be-read stack of books at home, either. Books I wanted to read would just be waiting for me in the little yellow building at the corner of East Fairview and Woodley Terrace whenever I wanted them. 

What a comeuppance this closing of the bookstore has been. 

I was out running errands a couple days ago, and after having heard that the main branch of our public library was open again after renovations, I decided to pop in for a visit. 

I needed to replace my lost library card first, though. My information was still in their system, but I gladly forked over $2 to have a replacement card issued. Perhaps it's a sign of our changing society, but the librarian actually laughed out loud when I told him I still lived at the same address they had in their system and that my phone number had not changed.

New card in hand, I decided to at least take a look around. This building holds some vivid memories for me. When I was growing up, visits to the library were just part of our routine, and gosh, I remember how amazing it was to walk out of there with a dozen worlds in words in my hands, and the blessed-beyond-measure feeling that would wash over me as I'd carry them out to Mama's station wagon, as though they were elements of communion. 

Until the early 1980's the Museum of Fine Arts was housed on the second floor. When I was a child, a trip up the winding staircase led to a tableau of an agricultural family and their mule, lifesize and cast in wax. I was at once delighted and terrified by the thought of what might go on up there when the lights went out at night. 

That second story now houses fiction, reference works, and research areas complete with computers and WiFi access. I ambled over to the fiction shelves and wasn't there 2 minutes before I found a book that I had just added to the Stacks app on my iPhone. I was near to overcome with emotion when I realized I could pick that book up and take it home with me FOR FREE. 

I'm here to bear witness that when you've not had any reason to avail yourself of this treasure trove for nearly three decades, you just forget how amazing this whole library thing is. 

I find myself on a learning curve, though. In all those years, things have changed. Patrons now have free online access to ebooks, audiobooks, movies, classic television, and music through a service called Hoopla, and you can ask the library to hold a book for you when it returns to circulation, via the internet. 

I panicked a bit when I realized that there wasn't any CARD in the books. I was sure I'd left without having everything done the right way until I discovered the chip attached to the inside of the back cover. 

I know now exactly how President Bush felt in that moment at the grocery store. 

Because y'all? I haven't been this excited since Alabama flawlessly executed their onside kick in the National Championship game. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Bishop's Wife - Mette Ivie Harrison

My fascination with religious cultures that are different from my own continues, and an endorsement from Julia Spencer-Fleming that this one was "(a)n insider's nuanced look at the workings of the Mormon church..." was all I needed to choose it. 

Linda Wallheim is a devoted Mormon, and when a young woman in the ward for which her husband serves as bishop goes missing, her desire to play detective gets the best of her. In one of many leaps, she soon stumbles on a long-hidden murder that may have been committed by a man whose grieving widow is her only real friend. 

Let me just get straight to the point: Harrison, herself a Mormon, does share some pretty interesting things about the church and its beliefs and believers, but these tidbits often come from contrived plot turns and conversations between characters that are forced in order to serve up a fact about the church. 

A well-written first-person narrative is a treat, but Harrison's character becomes increasingly more unlikable and unsympathetic the more she tries to persuade you how clever and progressive and deep she is. Early in my reading, I jotted this down: skates on the edge of Stepford Wives, but can't help but like her. 

I changed my mind by the time I was finished. And yes, I finished it. I wanted to find out the resolutions to the mysteries, and despite the sometimes tortuous narrative I was still interested in what I was learning about the practice of the Mormon faith.

I was skimming by the end, though. 

Have you ever accepted an invitation to do lunch only to realize before the salads get to the table that not only do you not have anything in common with your table mate, but that you don't want to?

So, yep. That about sums it up. 


Soho Press
Published 2014