Monday, October 17, 2016

Fiction | Old Money, New South

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I wrote two months ago of my plan to blog only on what inspired—to not feel pressured to reflect on every single book I read, struggling to muster up a passionate response for a reaction I did not have or feel. But for one book in particular I read last May, it's that exact passionate reaction that has left my mind blank of words. Isn't it the worst when you have so much to say but don't know how to start?

Well, it's finally gotten to the point where it's actually stressing me out to have this still lingering on my mental check-list. The very thought of composing the first words and sentences has felt too daunting to tackle. How do you convey the beauty and brilliance of one author's words when you know your own will be sub-par, unable to do it justice? Usual descriptions fall short, feeling trite and inadequate, trying too hard to emulate the power and precision of the very words you're trying to praise.

(Can you tell I'm stalling here?

Okay, okay; I'll just dive in.)

Wilton Barnhardt's Lookaway, Lookaway is the saga of one positioned, old-money, North Carolinian family. The matriarch of the Johnston clan, Jerene Jarvis, basically considers the family legacy her top priority and manages it by means only common to the old Southern elite. Her husband, Duke, is heir to a Confederate general's legacy, an All-American golden-boy turned politician whose career has floundered and has become a near-caricature Civil War re-enactor. The four kids—Annie, Bo, Joshua, and Jerilyn—are as different as they could come, almost comically so, considering the image and stature Jerene tries so hard to maintain. They're almost like a omnipresent curse on Jerene's perpetual PR campaign of the Johnston name, put in this world to make her job more complicated as they constantly threaten to shame the family name. Oh, but then there's Jerene's brother Gaston, the very definition of boozy, weird uncle—a local author renowned for his fluffy historical sagas, constantly using the stereotype of "eccentric uncle" to mask his embarrassing escapades.

So at the foundation of this novel's structure, you have this family that constantly seems to be falling apart, saved only by the influence, persuasion, and social rank of Jerene. But further up, Lookaway, Lookaway profoundly reveals the tenuous society in which the Johntson clan lives and reigns. The Antebellum period has long left North Carolina's history, but its claws dug into certain parts of society and refuse to let go. The Johnstons live in a world in which old southern ideals, money, and status still play a huge role in creating and defining the social hierarchy. But 150 years have passed since the "glory days" of the Old South, and money and power are no longer determined by a family name. The nouveau riche and opportunists threaten the Johnston position of preeminence, one they have earned by maintaining a certain way of life for decades prior. As their fortunes falter, so, it seems, does the hierarchy that defines their very identity.

It's as if, thought Annie, some wicked masculine committee in charge of Life had known the women would worry their pretty little heads over all this rigmarole and thereby leave the running of the big important world to the men, who would look upon all the flounces and frills, tears and hysteria, with a knowing wink, a nudge in the side, Told you that'd keep 'em occupied.

What I loved about this book is how brilliantly Barnhardt captures this weird, complex, complicated entity known as "the South." I found my breath nearly taken away by certain passages that just—YES!—perfectly capture its world of contradictions. In most modern cities and towns, particularly in the South but really anywhere, it's easy for history to be pushed to the background, often nearly forgotten as the present continuously redefines; people evolve, as do the places they live.

But in some pockets of the South, the relationship with history is ever-present, so deeply ingrained in a place's identity that one cannot exist without the other. Nashville is a bustling, modern metropolis that takes great pride in its history, yes. But take a drive through Mississippi's Delta region, where two-lane highways pass through towns nearly forgotten if not already abandoned, and it's so clearly obvious that the present is a direct result of the past—that this area is still defined by its Civil War way of life, that no modern influences have shifted its story in a new direction.

I don't think Barnhardt's setting is quite so dismal and dire as this but it does successfully illustrate the social complexities existing in this lower region of the country with a dark past, complexities that are often simplified or stereotyped in fiction and culture. Combined with an intriguing cast of characters, each of whom we follow closely through that alternating-perspectives format, these observations paint a dynamic portrait of a place and people holding on tight to an identity, despite its extravagant flaws.

Southerners. Such literate, civilized folk, such charm and cleverness and passion for living, such genuine interest in people, all people, high and low, white and black, and yet how often it had come to, came to, was still coming to vicious incomprehension, usually over race but other things too—religion, class, money. How often the lowest elements had burst out of the shadows and hollers, guns and torches blazing, galloping past the educated and tolerant as nightriders, how often the despicable had run riot over the better Christian often cities had burned, people had been strung up in trees, atrocities had been permitted to occur and then, in the seeking of justice for those outrages, how slippery justice had proven, how delayed its triumph. Oh you expect such easily obtained violence in the Balkans or among Asian or African tribal peoples centuries-deep in blood feuds, but how was there such brutality and wickedness in this place of church and good intention, a place of immense friendliness and charity and fondness for the rituals of family and socializing, amid the nation's best cooking and best could one place contain the other place?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Fiction | Behold the Power of Books

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Let me tell you how hard it is to find a good book club.

I had a four-year run with the Idlewild Book Club back in New York that was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my post-college adult life in NYC and definitely one of the things I miss the most. Since moving back to Nashville, I've looked on and off for a new book club and tried a couple. My first experience was at our most prolific indie bookstore and while the meeting was enjoyable, the store is in the MOST annoying part of town, traffic-wise, and, being owned by an author, I'm not totally trusting on the motive behind the book choices. (The month I attended, the book just "happened" to also be released in paperback.) I'd give it another shot, but really, I just hate driving to and from that side of town.

Last month I tried one hosted by my local public library branch. It's close, which is a perk, and I've liked their book selections--less typical "book club" picks, a little more literary. My first meeting was last month for Astronaut Wives' Club, and this month we read Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I'm still not totally loving the vibe and setting (we sit in a semi-circle around a projector screen, which makes it feel more like a lecture than discussion, and the questions are on a PowerPoint, which totally stilts the casual/natural flow of discussion, though I understand it's to help the harder of hearing), but I guess I'll keep at it for now, as long as the books are good!

Anyway, about the book...

A.J. Fikry owns and runs Alice Island's only independent bookstore, Island Books. He's a total curmudgeon and book snob. He hates bestsellers, genre fiction, and cloying memoirs; he loves literary fiction and short stories. A lot of his attitude comes from the death of his wife. She grew up on the island and they ran the bookstore together. She was the yin to his yang, but since her death, he's been in a downward spiral of negativity where he drinks, judges, and complains too much. He's mostly shut out life, but living on a small island is much like living in a small town; you see the same people every day, and everyone knows your business. It's hard to isolate yourself when people won't leave you alone.

Life is about to change for A.J. Fikry, though, and a series of seemingly unrelated events sets the change in motion. A lovely new sales rep comes to the island, persistently pushing her publisher's most sentimental titles despite the bookstore owner's rude response; A.J.'s most prized possession, a rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe poems, is stolen during one of his drunken black-outs; and then, most significant, an abandoned child appears in the bookstore with a note asking the proprietor to take care of her. Maya is a bright, loving child who quickly falls for A.J. and who quickly warms his heart as well.

So actually, reflecting on this book, it's not all that literary in nature. It's sentimental and a bit emotionally cloying. But it's also very evident that the author is writing this, essentially, as an ode to books. It avoids some of the predictable, trope-y plot twists common in narratives, and it seems pretty self-aware about that intent (meaning, it actually has successful plot twists and not just standard, predictable ones).

At the start of book club, we listened to an NPR interview with the author in which she stated her opinion that someone who says they're not a reader just hasn't found the right book yet. In her story, A.J. is such a book snob, believing certain types of books are superior to others. But the changes in his life, and the people that enter it, inspire a new open-mindedness that not only affects his opinions on books but extends beyond the page into his interactions with and opinions of the world around him. Zevin obviously believes that books have power, and I agree. Connect the right book with the right reader, and lives can be changed.