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
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
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
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
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.”