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Archive for the ‘New books’ Category

birds-art-life-9781501154201_hrThroughout the past couple of months, I’ve been reading Kyo Maclear’s memoir, Birds Art Life (Scribner, Jan. 3). It covers a year in her life, and as you might expect, is divided into seasons, beginning and ending with winter.

“That was the winter that started early,” she writes of the first one. “It snowed endlessly.”

It was also a time when Maclear found herself “with a broken part. I didn’t know what it was that was broken, only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked.” Her father had had two strokes, one of them nearly fatal, and the “sense of incipient loss” flattened Maclear and stopped her from being able to write. Her response was to take up bird-watching.

Maclear is new to me, though she has written two books for adults, The Letter Opener and Stray Love, and five illustrated books for children. Born in England, she moved to Toronto as a child (her father is the journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear). She’s also a visual artist, whose ink-and-brush sketches of birds and artists seem to alight on the page.

Birds Art Life came along at a time last summer when I was too busy to do much more than flag it for future reading, which meant it sat alluringly on my coffee table for months—somehow I knew I wanted to read it all the way through, and not in bits and pieces. It was November before I finally picked it up again and read the opening lines, about a musician whose depression fell away when he fell in love with birds: “He had discovered his joy was bird-shaped.”

Maclear chose birds because she, too, wanted an antidote to her father’s health crises, a distraction from the writers’ block. For her, birding—“the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art”—allows her a breather: “The rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in that river.”

But the book is about so much more. Each chapter essay explores a different theme, including:

  • The frailty of humans and birds
  • What it means to alter your course in life
  • Smallness in art and life: “I don’t know when I began to prefer small things. Drawings of the small moment, nearly microscopic sculpture, compact stories, animated shorts, airy novellas, little gardens, economical studios, cozy dinner parties, small days of small demands that allow small increments of writing time.”
  • Things that fill us with regret
  • Growing up with a London-born father (a foreign correspondent) and a Japanese mother (a sumi-e artist)
  • Her relationship with her father (“who likes things distant and serious, [who] thinks I write too close and peculiar”)
  • Cages v. freedom
  • Purposeful waiting
  • The idea of “spark” birds—one that turned a person from being interested in birds to being a serious birder—which inspires Maclear to poll friends for books that “ignited” their love of reading

Each essay intimately blends home life, birding, literature and art, questioning how each aspect of life informs another. In the midst of what felt like one of the most unstable, threatening political climates I’ve ever known, these inquiries into how to balance vulnerability with strength, grief with hope, and anxiety with courage became a lodestar I turned to each day.

Kyo Maclear

Kyo Maclear

Not only was it comforting to escape into Maclear’s world to counteract election-year stress, but because the trouble she was having putting words down on paper mirrored my own, her book gave me hope. I had come to a point with writing where I couldn’t go any further, where the words I reached for sounded false and silly. Reading of her similar struggles with writing, I wondered if I needed, like Maclear, to go off the grid, find a way to write smaller.

“If I am guilty of hiding among tinier people in a tinier parallel world, it is because I am searching for other models of artistic success,” she writes. “The small is a figure of alternative possibility, proof that no matter how much the market tries to force consensus, there will always be those making art where the market isn’t looking.”

When Maclear reaches a hiatus in her birding activities—the end of spring migration—she explores this “lull” as it occurs in the lives of artists, noting that many fear that “creativity will flatline without constant practice. Confidence will wane, muscles will grow flaccid,” and that what began as a break might turn into a break-down. “What starts off as a lull will become a rut. The muse will flee.”

Her book reassures us that a breather needn’t be fatal. In one chapter headed On altering your course, sliding between disciplines, and leaving the door open for the unknown, Maclear riffs off “side loves” that inspire and feed our artistic lives: Bob Dylan’s welding, Sylvia Plath’s beekeeping, Emily Dickinson’s gardening, John Cage’s mushroom hunting—“intentional roaming” that results in what Maclear calls “fence-jumping knowledge.”

finchWhen I finished the book, it was mid-December. In one of her last essays, Maclear offers a list of what the bird-watcher/musician had taught her, and concludes that there is “no one person who can give you a map for living.” Instead, she suggests we make our own, with help from the dozens of writers, musicians, painters and bird-lovers quoted here, from Pete Seeger to Sei Shonagon to Rosa Luxembourg to famed New York City birder Starr Saphir.

“What he really taught me,” Maclear says, in a nearly perfect description of her own book, “was that the best teachers are not up on a guru throne, doling out shiny answers. They are there in the muck beside you: stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, and enlivening the questions.”

.

You can read some of Maclear’s recent blog posts and find out more about her children’s books here.

You can also go here, to read more about Birds Art Life.

 

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Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.

Here they are in order of publication dates:

January

Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young

This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)

 

The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan

Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)

 

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard

Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)

 

Shame and Wonder, David Searcy

In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)

 

February

What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light

Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)

 

Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce

Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)

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Barefoot to AvalonIn the beginning, when novelist David Payne heard the voice in his head urging him to write about his younger brother who had died six years earlier, his “first thought was that it might be something wistful, elegiac, something like A River Runs Through It.”

His mother, who knew better, begged him not to.

But Payne was drowning. “My single-jigger vodka had become a double and I was often having double doubles and, on bad days, triple doubles…” His marriage was on the rocks, and worst of all, he had become his father: a manipulative, angry husband who drank.

“Everything I vowed not to repeat I have repeated,” he realized, and the life he had built in Vermont to escape his past had begun to look a lot like what he was running from. So he set to work on the story that began long before his brother, George A., volunteered to help Payne move back to North Carolina in 2000.

Their relationship was fraught with jealousy, rivalry and David’s long-standing resentment of George A.’s dependency on their mother as a result of a bipolar disorder that left him unable to work. But they had bonded again during the week of packing up David’s belongings.

“We picked it up where we’d dropped it somewhere long before, as if no time had passed at all. In the middle of a bad thing, I got my brother back.” And then, on the second day of their drive, David watched helplessly in his rear view mirror as his brother’s car and trailer jack-knifed across the interstate, and George A. was killed.

Out of that day, and the grief, guilt and desperation that followed, comes Barefoot to Avalon (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 304 pages) a memoir as raw, intimate and courageous as a series of midnight confessions fueled by a bottle of vodka. The story is loosely chronological, though Payne lays out much of what’s to come in the opening chapters, then goes back, relentlessly and often, to gather evidence in an attempt to understand George A.’s illness and “who my brother was and who we were together.”

Between Payne’s revisiting of the wreck, which bookends the memoir, he opens the vein of his family relationships with unswerving, bitter intensity. He examines his childhood and his parents’ marriage — a grim and violent affair marked by his father’s drinking, threats and broken promises — for clues to his brother’s madness and his own demons.

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Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob MarleySeven years after her acclaimed novel, Strange as this Weather Has BeenAnn Pancake returns with a bravura collection of short fiction, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley.

In two novellas and nine stories largely set in her native West Virginia, Pancake explores the consequences of one of the most brutal industries in America — coal mining — and its collateral damage: poverty, drug abuse, domestic abuse, suicide, child neglect, alcoholism and violence.

What a joy it is to hear her wild, true-blue voice again. Now based in Seattle, Pancake grew up in Romney, a town that in so many ways — all of them portrayed here, in these keenly felt tales about the loss of Appalachian identity and culture — she has never left.

The book opens with “In Such Light,” a novella about a troubled college freshman desperate to escape her rural background. Home for the summer, by day, Janie’s a “popcorn girl” at a once-glamorous theater; by night she hangs out with her mentally disabled uncle Bobby and his neighbor, a local bad-boy with a mean streak Janie mistakes for sensitivity.

Though she relies on Bobby for company, his freakish behavior and peculiar speech patterns embarrass Janie, who sees in them reflections of her own limitations. In both characters, Pancake hints at the damning legacy of Big Coal’s greed and waste. Janie’s impressions of the still functioning parts of her uncle’s brain, though, evoke an enduring ethos no amount of environmental devastation can wipe out:

“Some parts had melted in the heat … tarnished and clotted together like clock guts after a fire — the part that did numbers, the part that managed cause and effect, the part that gauged how funny things really were — while other parts in that dark crowded space still gleamed and whirred, unscathed — the part that could sustain a conversation, the part sensitive to her grandmother’s tireless social skill drills, the part that remembered things.”

As the weeks pass, her uncle’s poignant search for companionship and love reconcile Janie to values buried deep in their shared past. Their relationship, like so many others in Me and My Daddy, echoes the characters’ unbreakable attachment to the land and to family.

All of Pancake’s characters undergo some form of haunting. In the endearing “Mouseskull,” 10-year-old Lainey wears the still-decaying titular skull round her neck as an amulet against the ghosts that haunt her family home, with its “few rooms that comfort, many that scare” — including the one her grandfather killed himself in several years earlier. (more…)

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Rain, Cynthia BarnettIt’s raining as I write this, a drumming, crashing downpour that sounds like it could float the house away. In central Texas, that’s exactly what it’s doing, in a record-breaking downfall that has caused catastrophic destruction and loss while simultaneously bringing relief to the area’s years-long drought.

Which makes it an appropriate day to be reading environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett’s captivating new microhistory, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown Publishers, $25, 368 pages).

In the British Isles, says Barnett, this type of torrential rain “[comes] down in stair rods.” In Denmark, it’s “raining shoemakers’ apprentices,” in Greece, “chair legs,” or “wheelbarrows” in the Czech Republic. Here in the American South, where there are more than 170 descriptions of rain, it might be “a tub soaker, log mover, a lighterd knot floater, a milldam buster, [or] a potato bed soaker.”

Whatever you call it, the vapor that fights to stay alive in earth’s fiery atmosphere in Rain‘s cinematic prologue survives to become a fascinating player in our global history. Barnett charts its effects on civilization from the rise and fall of ancient cultures to the climate shifts that brought plague and famine to Europe, from the origins of weather forecasting and “modification” up through America’s parched Dust Bowl years, and ending with the latest urban efforts to trap rain and purify it in an era of increasing shortages.

A veritable cloudburst of everything-you-didn’t-know-about-rain make this highly readable, science-laden biography anything but dry. We learn that the scent of rain comes from the “metallic zing” of ozone; that the familiar smell of earthy streets after rain comes from a compound called geosmin. Barnett traces the development of the mackintosh back to its beginnings as a fabric coated with a soupy mix of “shredded rubber [and] naptha,” and she profiles at length that most inventive charlatan, the traveling rainmaker of the drought-ridden 1930s.

In explaining climate extremes such as the five-century long “Little Ice Age,” she describes the gruesome fate of “thousands of accused witches” held responsible for “the devilish rains, snows, freezes, floods, harvest failures … and other miseries that plagued Europe” between 1560 and 1660. (more…)

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Almost Famous Women for blog“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”

Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.

The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.

Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.

In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich. (more…)

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My back pages

thoughts-31You know how they tell you everything stays on the internet forever? It’s true of that annoying People story from 1987 about the Ga. Satellites that makes me sound like a dork, and the recipe for mulligatawny soup I asked Rainbow Grocery to share about ten years ago. But sadly, it’s not true for most of the book reviews linked to 8 Hamilton Ave., that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has taken off their website. I might try to resurrect these if I can dig up the old copies on my computer, and transfer directly onto this site. For anyone interested in the archived lists, bear with me. Meanwhile, take a look at my recent reviews of a couple of books that are making this year’s Best Of lists all over the place: Ugly Girls, by Lindsay Hunter, and Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce. And sorry about the snow; I haven’t figured out how to turn it off yet.

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