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"Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn

July 29, 2014 by PatLeach
Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I recently finished "Johnny Cash: the Life" by Robert Hilburn.

I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself losing track of time while I read it. Hilburn crafts a compelling story. From Cash's upbringing in Dyess, Arkansas, to his drug-drenched superstardom to his final days as a national icon, HIlburn keeps the story's thread strong.

Hilburn's reliance on extensive interviews brings many voices into the narrative. The people closest to Cash testify to his artistry, his addictions, the immense physical pain in his final years, and his remarkable love for June Carter Cash. A music critic, Hilburn gives frank assessments of Cash's performances, puts them into context, and keeps the music central to the story.

I grew up in a home where we seldom missed "The Johnny Cash Show." This book looks deeply into and beyond what was seen onstage.

My late husband played a quirky mix of music, and one of his oft-performed pieces was Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" sung in French, with his own accordion accompaniment. People--all kinds of people--loved that song. I kept humming it as I read this book.

I've recommended this to several readers who are interested in popular music generally, or country music more specifically. I see it having ample appeal beyond that, because Hilburn weaves plenty of insight  into this portrait of a complicated man who become an American icon.


Tagged in: JohnnyCash, nonfiction, biography, Notables,
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"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

July 23, 2014 by PatLeach
I read much of "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while on a brief family trip to Forth. I admit to bowing out of some family time to dip back into this novel of a contemporary woman's journey from Nigeria to the United Sates, then back.

Much of the story is framed as flashbacks while Ifemelu is having her hair braided for her return to Africa. She reflects on her early days in Nigeria, and her friendship with a young aunt who becomes mistress to a general. When power changes hands, that aunt leaves quickly, ending up in America. Ifemelu follows soon after. Ifemelu's initial depression, and resorting to performing sex acts for money, contrast with her later success. To her great good fortune, she lands a nanny job with a rich family. She becomes involved with rich and educated men. Thus she has much experience with race and class, and she pulls all of that into a blog that becomes remarkably profitable.

Meanwhile, Obinze, the love of her young life, experiences his own migration story, entering England legally but staying long after his visa expires. After living and working without documentation, he is deported. His fortunes rise in Nigeria as a successful businessman. He comes to see that his marriage, his family, even the way in which he makes money, do not reflect who he wishes to be. He seems not be living by the values his mother nurtured in him.

Adichie reveals and explores a remarkable variety of issues here--race, color, class, shame, and trust. I keep returning to the image of hair braiding as I consider how she does it, weaving together people, places, and politics. I tend to prefer novels that are pared down to just a very narrow chute. Adichie introduces all kinds of minor characters to push the story along. They leave as quickly as they appear. She also provides remarkable detail about clothing, about hair, especially African hair, and about food. It all seems a little messy, maybe too untidy, and yet it works.

I'll recommend this to book groups who don't shy away from 500-plus pages. I finished the book with the satisfying sense of a story well told, a better appreciation for the adjustments that immigration requires, and a distinctive view of race and class in America. I'm not surprised "Americanah" landed on this year's Notable Books list.


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Chammanda Ngozi Adichi, "Americanah",
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"The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma

July 07, 2014 by PatLeach
There's a special pleasure to a book that's read on a trip. I certainly sensed this in "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma, which I started and finished during a recent trip to Chicago for a library conference.

It makes a perfect example of why I love reading the titles from the Notable Books List each year--I come across fabulous books that I would have missed otherwise.

Basically this novel circles around an unnamed narrator and his two most important friends. The story opens as the narrator describes how his mother, a flight attendant, often left  him in the care of vendors at the airport. His ability to fit in, especially to mix among wealthy people, leads to a lifelong pattern of dishonesty. He meets the man who becomes his best friend in their college English class. That friend soon writes a fabulously successful novel, though his life is shadowed by addiction and mental illness. Through that friend, the narrator meets the woman he loves but can never marry. Much of the energy in this novel is generated as the three of them come together, then fall apart.

Each of the ten chapters could stand alone as a short story, focusing on a particular time and place. Jansma's genius is how he uses these pieces to pull the whole story together, how an image introduced in one place returns in another.

How does a writer avoid revealing what others don't want shared? When should a writer betray a friend to further success? What are the chances for success when relationships are built on lies? How can broken friendships be mended? When is honesty required?

I was surprised by how readable this book was, given those heavy questions. I credit Jansma's clever eye for detail and ability to draw attention to a new place. The book goes from the East Coast to New York City to India to Africa and many places between. Part of the pleasure in the reading was just learning where it would take up next. Meg Woltitzer aptly used the phrase, "playfully weird" about this book. I would add "playfully smart." I know that I missed many well-placed literary allusions.

I have confessed before to my Pollyanna-ish hope that at last one person will learn and grow in a novel, and end up a better person. That happened here, though it wasn't easy or pretty.

I'm not aware of many  people who've read this.  I'm hoping a few of my friends will do so soon, so that we can discuss it. I'll recommend this to people who like literary fiction, especially if they don't insist on the work being too dark and pessimistic. In the heart of this story of friendship, betrayal, and love, stands that critical question--CAN a leopard change its spots?


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Kristopher Jansma,
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"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

July 01, 2014 by PatLeach
After a break to dip into the One Book One Lincoln finalists, I've returned to the Notable Books List, and "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" by Daniel James Brown.

It's the story of the 1936 Olympic rowing team, essentially the team from the University of Washington. Brown extensively interviewed rower Joe Rantz not long before Rantz died a few years ago, and it is Rantz who stands at the center of this story. Around him are his crewmates, his remarkable coach, Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, a boatbuilder and rowing guru. As as a group they exemplified how a successful team far exceeds the sum of its parts.

Brown creates the context of America in the Great Depression, and more specifically, the lives of working class people at that time. Rantz and several teammates worked back-breaking jobs to afford their classes, and Rantz was often teased about his ratty clothes. In addition, Rantz was abandoned by his father, learning to make his own way. Brown contrasts their situation with that of teams from the Ivy League or Europe.

The strong narrative thread of "The Boys in the Boat" helps it cross over for people who typically read fiction. Brown incorporates information about rowing, history, and politics without losing the thread of the plot. He builds credible characters from interviews and contemporary articles. This book employs a rhythm typical of sport stories, with background information framing descriptions of contests.

This team became magical at crucial moments, when all nine men in the boat pulled together, worked together, and won together. Brown explores Rantz's decision to trust, truly trust, that his teammates would do what needed to be done even though his own family life taught him reasonably to trust only himself.

I'll recommend this to a variety of readers, both of fiction and nonfiction. Fans of strong sports stories should dig into "The Boys in the Boat," especially readers interested in the storied 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This makes an excellent book group choice, with its universal themes of history, purpose, and success against great odds.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, rowing, Daniel James Brown,
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"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

May 15, 2014 by PatLeach
It took some time, but I finally finished all 771 pages of "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt, very likely the longest novel on this year's Notable Books list. This book has received plenty of attention. I felt like I was arriving a little late to the ball.


It's the story of Theo, whose mother dies in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when Theo is 13. In fact, he was with her that day. In the ensuing chaos he ends up in possession of a priceless Dutch painting, "The Goldfinch." The course of Theo's life once his mother is gone includes his stay with a rich classmate's family, a drug-colored exile in Las Vegas where he meets his best-friend-for-life, Boris, and a return to New York where Theo goes into business with one of the warmest-hearted men in America. The novel ends where it begins, Theo in Amsterdam with blood on his hands.

I found myself surprising intrigued by all of this. One reviewer called the book "Dickensian," and that helped me put the unlikely and usually crazy characters, not to mention the unlikely plot, in perspective. I liked how people seemed to come and go. Another reviewer referred to the books' "bewitching urgency." I found myself liking Theo despite his passivity and alarming tendency to make poor choices over and over and over. I enjoyed the long riffs on art history and furniture restoration. I didn't take the whole thing seriously, but read it more like an educated romp.

Some of my friends found it lacking. Few books could live up to the hype of "The Goldfinch." There seems to be general agreement that Tartt would have improved the novel had she edited out a hundred or so pages. Sometimes key information seemed to missing even in a section filled with dense detail.

Looking back on it, I see that even though I read it from a shallow place, I was touched by Theo's descriptions of his grief and loneliness, by the painting's impact on his sense of himself, by my ragged hope that his friend Hobie really was as warm-hearted as he seemed. I made myself slow down for Tartt's final-chapter reflections on the impact a piece of art can have, and found them true to my own experience.

In the end, I recommend it. Not as the Great American Novel, but as a one-of-a-kind work that pulls together a remarkable collection of personalities, topics, and places. I salute Tartt for her writer's mind that chose it all, then wove it all into place.


Tagged in: "The Goldfinch", Notable Books, novels, Donna Tartt,
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