Sunday, August 28, 2011

Three Good Novels

I just finished A Good Hard Look (Penguin, 2011) by Ann Napolitano. Perhaps you've heard of it, since there has been a lot of buzz about a book daring to introduce writer Flannery O'Connor as a fictional character. But actually she is not on stage in this novel very much, crippled by lupus, homebound at her mother's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, writing her novels and stories, sitting out on the front porch surrounded by her raucous brood of peacocks and other birds. Instead, the main characters are mostly townspeople, some who have regular contact with Flannery, some none at all. Yet their lives very much resemble one of her short stories, full of tragedy and rare moments of grace. Although I couldn't totally buy some of the goings-on pertaining to these characters, I very much admired Napolitano's portrait of Flannery. Her stubbornness, bluntness and lack of sentimentality are a few of the characteristics that really rang true for me. Although I have found reading O'Connor to be something like a daunting, scream-filled roller coaster ride, years ago I went through a stage of literary curiosity where I dipped into The Habit of Being, O'Connor's collected letters, so I know enough to say that Napolitano truly called forth the writer's essence. Never mind the other characters -- my favorite scenes involved Flannery and her peacocks. "The birds soothed her; their bright colors and disdainful expressions were precisely what she wished to see." (p. 288)

Solomon's Oak (Bloomsbury, 2010) by Jo-Ann Mapson is the kind of domestic fiction I think of as my bread-and-butter reading. Recently widowed Glory Solomon lives on a farm in California where an two hundred year-old large white oak tree reigns supreme. Photographers and seekers from around the world often stop by asking for permission to hang out under the tree's branches. Glory's husband built a small chapel near the tree, and she has started offering catered weddings there. Her finances are so tight she also holds down a job at the local Target store. She is also a dog trainer. Against her better judgement, she takes in a pierced and tattooed foster child, Juniper McGuire. Their rocky relationship is bettered when photographer Joseph Vigil, a former cop recovering from a painful gunshot wound, becomes a regular visitor to the farm. All three characters are suffering. And I found I very much cared what happened to them, which for me is the essence of a good read.

I've been meaning to catch up with Sarah Addison Allen ever since I listed Garden Spells as one of my favorite books of 2008. I picked up The Girl Who Chased the Moon (Bantam, 2010) in an airport a few months ago, and by the end of a long day of travel, that book was fully consumed. Emily Benedict is seventeen years old when she meets her (eight foot tall) maternal grandfather for the first time. She moves into his home in Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to learn more about her deceased mother. Instead she has stepped into a fairytale; the wallpaper in her room changes much as a mood ring might, and ghost lights appear in the yard. She becomes friends with Julia Winterson, a baker whose cakes represent all her hopes in the world, having aromas so powerful they seem to rise up off the pages. For more sweetness, there are romantic elements. And of course, secrets bubbling under the surface of the town. Add it all up and you've got a frothy, offbeat fun read. If you like Alice Hoffman, you'll enjoy Sarah Addison Allen.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Those Loveable Waltons

I am deep into Season Six of The Waltons. At the end of Season Five, John-Boy had his first novel published and moved to New York City. He was moved to tears at leaving Walton's Mountain and I admit it, my eyes were not dry either. My IRS tax refund gift to myself this year was a complete set of The Waltons tv series. My husband keeps asking me what I'll do when I finish the series, which runs to nine seasons. I truly don't know, for I find an hour or two of Waltons daily to be most satisfying.

I've written before about my enjoyment of books that have homespun appeal. Much of Earl Hamner's oeuvre, including books, film and tv, has that Depression-era, down to earth, homespun quality. But did you know he also wrote for The Twilight Zone and Falcon Crest? Not to mention the screenplay for Charlotte's Web (1973). Somewhere in my Hamner research and reading, I came across an anecdote where Earl Hamner answered the phone from his desk where he was finishing up his Charlotte's Web script. The caller asked why he sounded choked-up. His answer: "A spider just died."

But back to The Waltons. One of the things I appreciate is the religious differences between Oliva (Michael Learned) and John Walton (Ralph Waite). She is a Baptist and he is unchurched, although he does go along to church every once in awhile to keep the peace or see his children perform. At various times in the series he is called to explain that life is a great mystery, and that we are all a part of it. He walks his own walk, which matches his talk, and he is an archetypal good father. Not that Olivia doesn't keep hoping and trying to convert him to her faith! I also love the way the family has its squabbles but always manages to come together. Yes, that might be a little idealistic, but there is also a great deal of realism involved in depicting the whole 1930s and 40s era rural Virginia way of life. Butter gets churned, pennies pinched and treasured, wood chopped, hand-me-downs worn and made over into quilts.

For me, the Waltons are salt of the earth type folks, exemplifying common decency and compassion for others, be they human or animal. Grandpa Zeb Walton (Will Geer) is a walking encyclopedia of mountain ecology, folklore and family history. His wife, Esther (Ellen Corby) is one of tv's most delightfully vinegary characters. The entire clan is based on Hamner' own family, including a preponderance of red hair amongst the children. Richard Thomas is brilliant as John-Boy. I admit it, I have trouble believing these characters are not real. I care deeply what happens to them. And so I treasure watching each episode, down home on their mountain, no matter that most of the filming took place on some Hollywood lot. The wonderful voice-overs introducing each show are read by Mr. Hamner himself.

In 2002, Earl Hamner and Ralph Giffin came out with the book Goodnight John-Boy: A Celebration of an American Family and the Values That Have Sustained Us Through Good Times and Bad (Cumberland House), which I have enjoyed consulting as I work my way through the series. Some day I would like to visit the Walton's Mountain Museum in Schuyler, Virginia. I'm all ears for any view-alike type recommendations of what to watch when the last goodnight sounds from that cozy Walton's homestead. To close, here is an exemplary quote from the series.

Olivia Walton: [after John Boy has read her a poem for her birthday] "John Boy, those words were just like listenin' to music. I don't really understand what the poem meant, but I think those were just about the most beautiful words I ever heard."
John Boy: "Well, I think the poem has a meaning, um, to me; it means that some things which may seem too simple, or unimportant, or even just downright plain, those things are really every bit as important and every bit as beautiful as the most magnificent things in the whole world." - from Season 2, episode 13, The Air-Mail Man.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason

I sometimes have to be talked into reading World War II fiction. It is perhaps too easy to dismiss the topic, thinking we've heard it all before. But when one of my favorite authors, Bobbie Ann Mason, came out with The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, 2011), I stepped up to the challenge, and am here to report it was well worth the effort. I felt the same way last year when I read The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Knopf, 2010), a title included on Texas Library Association's 2011 Lariat List. Both seduced me with their Parisian atmosphere and brooding, troubled characters.

Come to think of it, I've probably learned more about World War II from fiction than from reading history. Maybe some of that knowledge is a little less than factual, but I'd like to think I've gone deep into the whole worrisome gestalt of the time period and gained both compassion and insight. One of my library customers, a World War II vet, read nothing but World War II books for the twenty-something years I was privileged to be his librarian, and sometimes he shared small remembrances of the war with me. Also I will never forget a Holocaust Museum Houston program we hosted at the library where a Holocaust survivor came to tell us his story of concentration camp survival and release.

Mason's The Girl in the Blue Beret was inspired by the wartime experience of her father-in-law, Barney Rawlings. The novel closes with a selected bibliography as well as acknowledgements to the many experts and survivors she interviewed and corresponded with during the course of writing the novel. Although I'm no authority, the novel felt extremely authentic and well researched. It took me awhile to warm to retired jumbo jet pilot Marshall Stone, the novel's main character, but I felt interested in his quest to return to France and bind up the loose ends left hanging for decades since the wartime when his B-17 was shot down and crash-landed in Belgium near Nazi-occupied France.

Stone and his surviving crew members were hidden and helped by members of the French Resistance. He especially recalls a teen-aged school girl named Annette, who wore a blue beret and led him around Paris. Her family hid and helped many such Americans, forging false identification papers for them, making sure they were guided across the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. When Marshall finds Annette, now a widow, the whole tone of the novel deepens and finds sure ground. The back story of what happened to Annette's family and other brave members of the Resistance who helped Marshall and others, brings all the barbarity of the war into sharp focus. Marshall will be forever changed by what he learns from Annette and others. He realizes how little he really knew back then when he was just another cocky flyboy. "He had been ignorant. Maybe he had never learned anything truly important until these last few days."

Reading The Girl in the Blue Beret, we are witness to all that was horrible and all that was heroic from that time in occupied Europe. Annette shrugs it off, but I for one, was immensely moved by both her story and unforgettable spirit. Bobbie Ann Mason blew me away back in 1985 with her Vietnam War-related novel, In Country, and she's done it again with The Girl in the Blue Beret, and for that I am thankful.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Costa Rica!

Eight days in Costa Rica gave my camera a real workout! I wish Blogger would let me write about each photo directly underneath it, but no luck there...(if anyone knows a way to get around this limitation, I'd love to hear about it). Although most of my photos were family snapshots, here are a few others in homage to a beautiful country. My favorite things about Costa Rica were: the incredible tropical foliage, the wildlife, the people, the food and art. One by one from the top, here are the photo descriptions:

1. A Pacific Ocean sunset as seen from the deck of El Avion restaurant, Manual Antonio.

2. My camera batteries gave up on me right after this shot of a monkey climbing onto our tour boat during a mangrove swamp tour. They were white-faced capuchin monkeys, and they scampered back and forth from our boat to the shore when the tour guide offered them coconut meat. One even scampered over my head!

3. A ubiquitous Coca-Cola sign.

4. Rather dreamy foliage as seen through a van window during light rain. (This is the rainy season in Costa Rica. How I wish we could divert some of that rain here to Houston.)

5. My encounter with a toucan at La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

6. Sarongs for sale at market in Manual Antonio. My sisters-in-law and I bought plenty of those!

7. Heliconia plants in the rainforest.

8. Tree canopy -- so lacy and green. Someone told me this is called the monkey tail tree, but I'm not 100% sure of that.

Eco-tourism is certainly a big part of the Costa Rican economy. At times I felt there were a few too many tourists everywhere we went, even though the rainy season is said to be the slow season. Being a tourist is always a little uncomfortable for me, but all the Costa Rican people (known as Ticos) were so warm and welcoming, I had to get over that. Going green is a natural for Costa Rica. They have plenty of beauty to preserve. So much of their food is locally grown: bananas, pineapple, coconut, coffee, etc. As a librarian, I was impressed to learn they had a 96% literacy rate. Many people speak both Spanish and English. Their national brand is "Pura Vida", the pure life, and is also used colloquially meaning full of life, the good life, going great, etc. Heres to la pura vida!

photos by KAO