4 Other Books I Read in February 2021

Last week I blogged about four of the books I read last month. Today, I write about the other four books I read in February.


The Unwilling, by John Hart

The Unwilling, by John Hart

John Hart being a southern piedmont North Carolina writer, I looked forward to his new novel, The Unwilling. It did not disappoint. I listened to it on CD. It is a slice of American history when we were divided over the Vietnam War.

It is a riveting story about three brothers. Two were in the military and served in Vietnam. One didn’t survive the war, and the other one came home with problems for the rest of his life. Their youngest brother, Gibby, is the main character. At 18 years old, he is struggling to find his way in life. His mother is over-protective, and his father is a police detective in Charlotte. His parents want him to stay away from the middle brother, Jason, but Gibby can’t help but idolize him and is drawn to hang out with him. This leads to untold trouble.

The seedy, corruptive underbelly of the prison systems comes into play in a gruesome way. This novel is not for the squeamish, but the story really drew me in, and I couldn’t stop listening to it because I wanted to know what was going to happen next to Gibby and Jason. If you like a coming-of-age story wrapped in a police thriller, set in the winding down years of the Vietnam War, with some troubled family dynamics and prison time thrown in, this should be your next read.

Mr. Hart’s inspiration for this novel was Hugh Thompson, the US Army helicopter pilot credited with stopped the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968. It is not a war story per se but is the story of what a soldier sees and does that follows him or her home — the things those who have not been there cannot imagine; but more than that, it is a story of a small city in which the evil one fears isn’t always faraway but sometimes just up the street.


Southern Writers on Writing, edited by Susan Cushman

Southern Writers on Writing, edited by Susan Cushman

This delightful book is a collection of 26 essays by Southern writers, each giving their unique take on writing and how The South influences their writing.

One of my favorite essays in the book is “Southern Fiction: A Tool to Stretch the Soul and Soften the Heart,” by author Julie Cantrell.

Ms. Cantrell hails from Louisiana and writes vividly in her essay about the extremes of life in her home state. I love what she writes about Southern fiction about halfway down page 53 in the book:

“In literature, the South works as a lure by tapping all the senses. When we set a story here, we not only deliver a cast of colorful characters, we share their sinful secrets while serving a mouth-watering meal. We draw readers in with soul-stirring music and landscapes that would make anyone want to disappear beneath the mossy oaks. The South offers a fantasy, a place where time slows and anxieties melt like the ice in a glass of sugar cane rum.”

On page 54, Ms. Cantrell writes: “Many in life say the earth is our mother. If that’s the case, then the South is the lap into which we all crawl to hear her story…. The South is nothing less than a sanctuary for story. It is the porch swing, the rocking chair, the barstool, the back pew. It is everything that made me and shaped me and saved me. As a southern writer, I aim only to invite my readers to enter this sacred space.”

And then I read “The Burden of Southern Literature,” by Katherine Clark. She concisely explained how Southern literature came to be – how the South was looked down on after the Civil War and why would anyone want to read about such a place? Southern writers were weighed down by the region’s history. Writers like William Faulkner struggled to “strike a chord with a national audience.” Then, Faulkner and other southern writers learned to embrace the South and their southern-ness.

Ms. Clark writes on page 56, “Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the writer in the South is not plagued by the burden of southern history, but by the burden of southern literature. Our literary tradition is revered all over the world and has produced many of the best writers to come out of our country. Southern literature is the strongest tradition in American literature, and one of the greatest gifts that American culture has given the world.”

What the southern writer is left with today is the burden not so much of the history of the South, but the wealth of literature that has come out of the South. To paraphrase Ms. Clark, it is inspiring and intimidating. I can vouch for that!

I also liked what Ms. Clark writes about not wallowing in what she calls, “southern-ness.” Here’s a little of what she writes on the topic:

“Whereas 100 years ago, writers had to learn to embrace the differences of the South, nowadays the tendency can be to positively wallow in the eccentricities and grotesqueries of the southern experience, usually of an earlier era. We shouldn’t be wallowing in southern-ness, and we don’t need to embrace it either, because that’s been done. That’s a given now, thanks to our great literary ancestors. Our job today is not to stick to the foundation they laid for us, but to use it as a springboard launching us in the new and different directions demanded by a changing culture.”

River Jordan, another author contributing to Southern Writers on Writing, writes the following about how she can tell when she’s reading the work of a southern writer and when she’s reading the work of New York writer: “…when I read a writer from say New York I think, oh, they are so smart. I could swear I actually hear their brain ticking. But when I read a southern writer I can feel their heart beating. That’s how I know it’s southern. By the heartbeat.”

Ms. Jordan also writes the following about the danger of southern writing disappearing as our lifestyles change: “When the porches all finally disappear, when the backyard steps are replaced with the kind of yards manicured to perfection, then the days of real southern writers will shift and slip away. Assimilation will be complete and southern will be no more.”

I hope she’s wrong, but I worry about the assimilation. I worry as I hear aspects of southern accents disappearing. I worry when I notice that my great-nieces in metro Atlanta sound much less southern than I do.

Speaking of southern accents, the next contributor in Southern Writers on Writing is Lee Smith. I love to hear her talk. Her contribution to the book is from her book, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading five or six years ago. Ms. Smith is southern through-and-through, and her writing oozes “southern.”

About writing, Ms. Smith writes, “Whether we are writing fiction or nonfiction, journaling or writing for publication, writing itself is an inherently therapeutic activity. Simply to line up words one after another upon a page is to create some order where it did not exist, to give a recognizable shape to the chaos of our lives.”


30 Short Stories, by Laleh Chini

30 Short Stories, by Laleh Chini

My blogger friend, Laleh Chini, just keeps writing books. You may recall in last week’s blog post (4 Books I Read in February 2021) I told you about her new novel, Soroosh. Also, I’ve blogged about her book Climbing Over Grit in my November 5, 2018 blog post, Many Good Books Read in October!

Laleh is a fantastic storyteller. 30 Short Stories is her new picture book. I don’t often read picture books now, but I just had to purchase and read Laleh’s. Although written for children, this book can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Each of the 30 stories teaches a life lesson. My favorite was the last story in the book, “Racism.” In it, Laleh relates a story of how as a Muslim from Iran she experienced racism in a store in Canada, where she has lived for decades. It’s heartbreaking.

In the spirit of cultural acceptance and respecting and valuing people, no matter their ethnicity or religion, I recommend this book to everyone who is open to seeing that people are just people. We need to take a step back and stop making snap judgments about people just because they are of a different culture than ours.


Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey

Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey

From TV interviews, I know that actor Matthew McConaughey is a good storyteller. Wanting to hear his book in his own voice, I got on the waitlist for the CD edition of Greenlights at the public library as soon as it showed up on the online catalog.

I must admit that listening to Greenlights on CD was probably not the best way to read the book. Mr. McConaughey is an enthusiastic storyteller, and he relates many very entertaining stories in Greenlights; however, as a good storyteller is prone to do, Mr. McConaughey varies the volume of his voice greatly as he spins a yarn. This can create discomfort while listening to the book on CD.

I read a review on Goodreads.com that gave the book a very high rating and recommended listening to it instead of reading it but with the caveat that it should be listened to in a quiet environment. That’s good advice. I would also say you shouldn’t attempt to listen to it with headphones or earbuds. Also, trying to listen to it in one room while someone is trying to sleep in the next room is not a good idea. Just sayin’.

I also admit that I have moderate hearing loss, but I don’t think that was the root of the problem I had in listening to Greenlights. If I set the volume to a comfortable level for the shouting, I could not hear much of the rest of the book. This meant I couldn’t hear the near-whisper parts at all. I had to constantly adjust the volume, so the CD edition of the book was a great disappointment.

Early on, the book talks about Mr. McConaughey’s home life as a child and teen. His parents had a volatile relationship, which couldn’t help but have a profound effect on him. He relates some very funny experiences he had as an exchange student in Australia. In fact, that was my favorite part of the book. He tells interesting and humorous stories about his world travels and how he more or less fell into the occupation of actor.

The overriding theme of the book is that we should learn from all life’s experiences. Don’t let the obstacles in life keep you down. Learn from them and keep going.

If you’re a Matthew McConaughey fan, you’ll enjoy reading the book. Listening to it? Maybe not so much.


Since my last blog post

I’m still reading good books and working on my historical novel manuscript for a partial critique by a professional editor.

I got my second Moderna Covid 19 shot on Saturday. I’m grateful that I live in a country where such things are available, and I’m grateful to all the people who worked to develop and distribute the vaccine. I had some unpleasantness for about 48 hours after the shot, but it surely beats contracting a bad case of Covid-19.

On Wednesday night, I enjoyed participating in the third virtual gathering of a group discussing Janet Givens’ book, LEAPFROG: How to have a civil conversation during an uncivil era. We had an interesting conversation about racial prejudice and our common humanity. I mentioned Ms. Givens’ book in my blog posts on January 18, 2021 ( Fictional Characters Can Take on Lives of Their Own), on December 14, 2020 (Favorite Books Read in 2020), and on April 13, 2020 (LEAPFROG and The Immoral Majority.)


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, and I’m reading Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am. Other library books are piling up and calling my name. What a wonderful “problem” to have!

I hope you have some time for creativity and hobbies this week.

Wear a mask and get vaccinated as soon as that’s possible for your age and location so we can rediscover “normal.”

Janet

“I can’t breathe!”

I planned to blog about point-of-view in fiction writing today. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been able to settle my mind around point-of-view in fiction the last couple of weeks and especially not in the last seven days.

I don’t take lightly what I’m posting here today. I’ve wrestled with the words all weekend. I take no joy in saying what is on my heart.

I live in the United States. This is a watershed moment in this country. We are beginning to come to grips with social and racial injustice which has existed in America since its very founding. I will blog about point-of-view in fiction writing at another time when it seems more appropriate.

What happened May 25, 2020

On May 25, 2020, a police officer murdered Mr. George Floyd who was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. He might not have even known the bill was counterfeit. Three other officers were there. Two were new on the job, so I can’t help but think the officer in charge was making a show for them.

Mr. Floyd was slammed to the pavement. One police officer held his knee on the man’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Part of the time, two other offices held the hand-cuffed man down by pressing down on his back. One of the officers asked his superior officer twice, “Shouldn’t we turn him over?”

Among the last words Mr. Floyd uttered were, “I can’t breathe!” He lost consciousness and died on the scene. The police officers were white. Mr. Floyd was black. It was all captured on a 17-year-old young woman’s cell phone video.

This type of thing has happened over and over again. One would think it would have stopped when the police knew that there’s always someone nearby with a cell phone, but this has happened repeatedly in the United States even as rogue police actions are captured on camera.

I want to believe that most police officers are honest, fair, and people of good character; however, we all know that there are officers who represent the worst in our society. There are “good” people and “bad” people among us and in every walk of life.

But the problem is more systemic than that. As police departments have been weaponized more and more since September 11, 2001, I think there has grown within that brotherhood more of a military mindset than existed before.

As a white woman, I’ve had several bad experiences with police officers. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel to be a person of color dealing with a police officer. White people like to think, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” Sadly, that’s not the reality that black people live every day in the United States.

For black people in America, doing the right thing and being compliant when stopped by a police officer isn’t necessarily enough. Mr. Floyd didn’t resist arrest, as far as can be seen on the video. That wasn’t enough to save his life.

What happened to Mr. George Floyd on May 25 was tragic and abhorrent. “I can’t breathe!”

Black Lives Matter
Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

In response to this incident, there have been peaceful protests by hundreds of thousands of people of all colors across the nation. (My favorite sign in the photo above is the one that says, “If you’re not angry, you aren’t paying attention.”)

"God marches with us" sign in peaceful protest in the US in June 2020
Photo by Andrew Winkler on Unsplash

In some of the cities, a violent element has emerged and committed acts of violence and looting of businesses. The few looters give the peaceful demonstrators a bad name and they draw attention away from the real issues.

I was horrified to watch the murder of Mr. Floyd on television. I was saddened and angered to watch the looting on television. The rioting and looting only served to take the spotlight off of Mr. Floyd and the other black men and women who have died at the hands of rogue cops. The looting of businesses hurts the very people for whom the peaceful protesters are marching.

Insurrection Act of 1807 Threat

Last Monday, Donald Trump threatened to enact the Insurrection Act of 1807 and, in the process, turned the police against a group of peaceful protesters with tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets so he could stage a photo-op across the street from the White House at a church. I heard the Attorney General of the United States say it wasn’t tear gas. He said it was pepper spray. He went on to say that pepper spray is not an irritant. And so it goes. And so it goes.

Mr. Trump went on the threaten to deploy the US military into states if state governors didn’t put an end to the protests. He essentially said that if the governors didn’t take care of the problem, he would.

For those of you who are not US citizens, I want you to understand how despicable Mr. Trump’s threat is.

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra



Since Washington, DC (District of Columbia) is not a state or in a state, the president has the authority to call in the US military into that city; however, he does NOT have the authority to order the US military into states if the governors don’t put a stop to the protests in their states. He cannot legally do that. Under the Insurrection Act of 1807, the president can only mobilize the military in a US state at the request of that state’s governor.

What has happened over the last two weeks has made me sick to my core. I cannot find the words to adequately express my anger, sadness, disappointment, shock, sorrow, or fear.

The US military is supposed to protect us, not beat us into submission! Mr. Trump’s idea of “law and order” is to quell anyone or any group that dares to speak out against him.

The list of retired US military officers who have spoken out against Mr. Trump’s threats last Monday continues to grow. Several have used strong language such as saying Mr. Trump is “a threat to the Constitution.”

Use of a Church and the Bible just as props

The icing on the cake was when Mr. Trump posed in front of a church and held up a Bible. Then, he called his all-white White House staff to stand with him for another photo-op with the Bible.

Numerous religious leaders have spoken out against what Mr. Trump did in front of St. John’s Church last Monday. He held a Bible in the air and looked stone-faced into the cameras. He didn’t read from the Bible, he didn’t pray, and he didn’t call for prayer for our country in crisis. He offered no words of consolation for all the hurting people. He didn’t mention Mr. George Floyd.

Still oblivious, on Friday Mr. Trump said “George” (not “George Floyd” and not “Mr. Floyd”) was probably looking down on us and saying it was a great day because the unemployment rate in the US dropped to 13.3% in April. He failed to mention that unemployment rates for black Americans increased to 16.8%.

My hope and prayer

I pray that people will think long and hard before they vote in November on the national, state, and local levels. Every four years, Americans tend to say, “This is the most important election in our lifetimes.” I’ve thought and said that myself. It was certainly true about the 2016 election but, if the 2020 presidential election goes the way the 2016 election did, there will be a real constitutional crisis in store for us.

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

The United States Senate had a chance in January to impeach Mr. Trump and remove him from office. The Republican majority caved. They’ve been predictably silent throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and the president’s mishandling of the current racial injustice crisis.

Mr. Trump’s answer has been to make threats and have layer after layer of fencing and concrete blockades built around the White House in the past week. He got an expensive education, but it’s sad he wasn’t given a history or civics lesson. The White House is “the people’s house.” It’s not his house. It’s his, rent-free for four years.

It was never my intent to use my blog as a political platform, but I have this internet platform and I would be remiss if I ignored what is happening in America. It is way past time for all Americans to look within ourselves and honestly recognize our prejudices. I believe we all have prejudices. Each of us has flaws and faults.

If I see injustice and I don’t speak out, I’m complicit. I’m part of the problem. There is racism in the White House. There is racism in the US justice system. There is racism within city and county police departments.

Until people in all positions of authority and those of us who are not in positions of authority recognize and name our prejudices, the problem of social and racial injustice in the United States will remain with us.

Until we embrace these words in the US Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” our country can’t reach its full potential. Until Americans of all colors can reach their full potential, our country can’t reach its full potential. I sincerely hope 2020 is a turning point for the good of the whole of the United States.

“I have a dream…”

Martin Luther King, Jr. statue, Washington, DC
Photo by Sonder Quest on Unsplash

I pray that the day will come when the words of Dr. Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech August 28, 1963 become a reality. Dr. King said, in part, the following:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We’ve come a long way since 1963, when I was 10 years old, but I’m appalled to realize how far we still have to go before Dr. King’s dream can become a reality. It’s been 57 years since his speech. Let that sink in for a minute. Fifty-seven years.

I thank God I live in a country where I have the right to criticize the government and political office holders without fear of retribution. I pray it will remain so today and especially after the November 2020 election. Free speech is a fragile thing.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I suggest you make a conscious effort to read a book written by a person whose skin color is different from your own. Ask for a recommendation at your local library or bookstore.

Continue to stay safe during the Covid-19 pandemic. Care for one another. Wear a mask to protect others.

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Be an instrument of God’s peace. Seek ways in which you can work for social justice.

Janet