In early October, I found myself and my two cats evacuating with neighbors from Atlantic Beach, FL, to Orlando, to escape hurricane Matthew. On the laIn early October, I found myself and my two cats evacuating with neighbors from Atlantic Beach, FL, to Orlando, to escape hurricane Matthew. On the last Thursday of November, I will sit down with these same neighbors to share a Thanksgiving filled with gratitude: my neighbors and I (and the cats) were spared the hurricane’s wrath. Along with pumpkin pie and a bottle of wine, I’m bringing to the celebration author Melanie Kirkpatrick’s excellent book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. I intend to share with guests passages written by famous Americans taken from one of the book’s several sections, “Readings for Thanksgiving Day.” I’m leaning toward firsthand accounts by William Bradford and Edward Winslow of the Pilgrims’ feast in Plymouth in 1621, but I’m also drawn to author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of a childhood lesson learned from the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. There’s no question but that I will share with my neighbors F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Turkey Cocktail Recipe” (“To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.”). I may also challenge guests to guess which president tried to change the holiday to an earlier date from the traditional last Thursday in November and how that went over (hint: there was a national uproar). Kirkpatrick’s writing gift and talent for making history come alive have combined to give us a fine account of our nation’s beloved holiday. It is a book I know will engender good conversation, and I am eager to bring it to the celebration....more
Growth in 'dark, wintry, dug-up times' Only a gifted artist can lead others into the pathway of a broken heart and move them to find in its darkest chaGrowth in 'dark, wintry, dug-up times' Only a gifted artist can lead others into the pathway of a broken heart and move them to find in its darkest chambers a light, a shared humanity. Author Melinda Worth Popham does this in Grace Period: My Ordination to the Ordinary, a memoir describing the circumstances of her life that led her to Yale Divinity School: a beloved teenage daughter suffering an intractable depression who rejected Popham, a husband who emotionally withdrew from the marriage, their divorce, and an adored son who left home for boarding school. She honors her readers by revealing her life with its missteps and flaws, its searing loneliness, and she does it with gentle humor, muted sorrow and honesty, always offering insights that stun with their truth. She is a great writer: her language yields analogies that are luminous as an icon, some extending for paragraphs before ending in utter perfection. The author has been down on her knees more than once and her soul has passed through fire: the wonderful part is that through her story she comforts, heals, and gives courage and hope to the rest of us by deepening our understanding of being.
Reviewed by Elle Thornton I just finished reading Johnnie Come Lately and immediately returned to page one so I could have the pleasure of reading agaiReviewed by Elle Thornton I just finished reading Johnnie Come Lately and immediately returned to page one so I could have the pleasure of reading again this bighearted story about the Kitchen family of Portion, Texas. Quite simply I do not want the story to end. And I’m glad to learn author Kathleen M. Rodgers is writing a sequel. I love the characters in Rodger’s novel, the generous voice of the story, its language, insights and humor, the wise descriptions of emotion, the plotting, the perfect-pitch tension, pacing, and drama in even the smallest scenes. It was so easy to identify with the Kitchen family and the sorrows, failures and challenges in their lives, but most especially it’s easy to fall in love with Rodger’s engaging protagonist, Johnnie Kitchen. Johnnie has come a long way since the days early in her life when her emotionally unstable mother disappeared and the terrifying eating disorder bulimia nearly killed the vulnerable young girl. We meet her after she’s married and become the mother of three young people in various stages of taking wrong turns and finding themselves. But the focus is Johnnie and her quest to make sense of old family secrets and tragedies, her desire to win her husband’s forgiveness and her longing to find her mother and learn the identity of her father. Throughout, she’s stalked by the terrifying demon of self-destruction. This novel is a little like a spring day in Texas beneath storm clouds and slanting rays of sunshine, where, alongside a gritty highway, millions of exquisite wildflowers bloom. ...more
Truman Capote’s opening paragraph to In Cold Blood includes a description of white grain elevators rising from the hard Kansas land “as gracefully as Truman Capote’s opening paragraph to In Cold Blood includes a description of white grain elevators rising from the hard Kansas land “as gracefully as Greek temples.” The ending of the book comes in a cemetery where four members of the slain Clutter family are buried. The wooded cemetery is on a slight plateau overlooking wheat fields, and their graves are away from the trees not far from the fields. On a visit to the burial ground, the solemn lead detective in the case turns from the grave-site toward his home. Capote writes this concluding sentence; it must be among the most beautiful in American literature: “Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”
Linking Greek temples to Kansas grain elevators sets the tone for what’s about to unfold between the beginning and the end: it is an American story possessing elements of Greek tragedy: Nobility and dignity in the face of death, the slaughter of a family considered among the very finest in the community, the tragedy spurred by a grotesque mistaken notion on the part of the killers.
Capote’s descriptions of the land, the people, the blood-soaked events, his mastery of the kind of detail that brings humans to life on paper, even those long dead, detail that shows us the men who committed the murders so that we might know them, carries this book to the height of literary accomplishment. This book is a true masterpiece. ...more
I know I’m in the presence of fine writing if I find myself studying how the author achieved a passage’s clarity and rightness, its emotional weight.I know I’m in the presence of fine writing if I find myself studying how the author achieved a passage’s clarity and rightness, its emotional weight. And I know I’m in the presence of a great story if I cry over it. I experienced both as I read Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr., a narrative of the lives of three former slaves, a Yankee woman and her adopted African-American sister at the end of the Civil War. A Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper columnist, Pitts unfolds dramatic scenes and dialogue that sounds just the right emotional notes: gravely formal, restrained, ironic. I found myself admiring equally the author’s use of period detail along with the kind of flesh-and-blood descriptions that make an historic novel live, make it breathe. A case in point: his handling of names that white masters arrogantly attached like clothespins to their slaves as opposed to using a man or woman’s actual name. It’s worth noting that Pitts doesn’t simply mention this and move on: he develops a touching scene so that I felt the dehumanizing impact of an evil system that turned even names into raw pain and degradation. Yet Pitts shows the subtleties and contradictions that existed, then as now, in our tangled lives: for example, the slave-master who, albeit briefly, appears to sense the humanity of his one-time slave through a common loss. As I followed the emotional and physical journey of his characters in the ravaged South, Pitts succeeded in making me feel the cruelties, the disappointments, confusion and painful loss that newly freed men and women bravely faced at the end of the war. The author’s prose is unadorned and taut, and it generates near unbearable tension as we travel into a world where freedom is filled with danger. And yes love and hope. I highly recommend Freeman most of all because it is a wonderful, moving story. ...more
In Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, characters roam the streets on foot at night passing windows that frame squares of yellow lamplight. Her stark night scenes almost seem to’ve come straight out of Edward Hopper’s paintings: ones like Night Windows (1928), Drug Store (1927), and perhaps his most famous work, Nighthawks (1942). McCullers’ writing suggests the preference that Hopper felt for “our familiar everyday world, in all its ugliness, banality, and beauty.” The quote is from the late Lloyd Goodrich, Hopper’s friend and former director of the Whitney Museum in New York, in his book Edward Hopper. I look at the hardscrabble faces in Nighthawks, and I see the faces in McCullers’ novel published two years earlier. While both artists make considerable use of darkness and light, Hopper’s shadows seem to show off the radiance. But even though at the novel’s end one of the character's waits at the New York Café for sunrise, we never see it, and the impression of darkness, not light, is what for me remains.
From reading this book years ago, I still remember my appreciative laughter, how floored I was to meet such a bizarre character as Ignatius and to disFrom reading this book years ago, I still remember my appreciative laughter, how floored I was to meet such a bizarre character as Ignatius and to discover that a book like this one, like no other, existed. This second time around was a much different reading experience, not because I didn’t laugh. I did. But without intending it, I found myself listening closely to the range of voices Toole creates: each character has a truly distinct sound. Given the number of characters in Toole’s book, this to me is a measure of his giant talent. I’m sure it’s been written already, but it seems to me the music of these voices echoes the brass instruments in street carnival marching bands, the richness of rock & roll and New Orleans jazz. And somehow the voices all work together. The second time around I’ve come to admire this book even more than I did on my first reading because of its range of lasting voices. I've also come away from this second reading thinking about Ignatius's moustache. It's mentioned only a few times elsewhere in the book, but Toole ends his novel with Ignatius pressing Myrna's pigtail to his'wet moustache'. He's not drinking a Dr. Nut. So maybe it's wet from the New Orleans humidity. His sweat. Or from his tears....more