February 14, 2015 by Reader's Connection
Thomas Wiggins was born into slavery in 1849. Born blind, and considered mentally incompetent, he astonished everyone with his musical talent. His piano-playing became a community novelty, and then, in the hands of various managers, Tom became a traveling celebrity. His performances were a sort of freak show, and various manipulators made a great deal of money. (It was author Ishmael Reed who came up with the Michael Jackson comparison)
Jeffery Renard Allen’s novel about “Blind Tom,” called Song of the Shank, is its own sort of astonishment. The story leaps around in time, transports the reader geographically, and is written sometimes in the present tense and sometimes in the past tense.
In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories, 1982, John Gardner complained about the fashion in present-tense fiction.
When Faulkner wrote fiction in the present tense, it was startling . . . But present-tense narration has now reached plague level . . . No one denies that a passionate writer can use the present tense to set the page on fire, but most writers who adopt this style do not make burning pages their primary goal.
Jeffery Renard Allen is out to set every page on fire, whatever the tense of his narration, and I think he does wonderfully. Yes, it can be hard to return to the book, once you’ve set it down, just as it’s hard to return to an encampment surrounded by flames. I had to skip ahead, at one point, and then circle back. But I’m grateful for the whole experience. Allen’s story–which encompasses pre-Civil-War secessionists (Tom’s owner was one of those), the war, the 1863 New York City draft riots (from which Tom had to flee) and the “strays” (freed slaves with nowhere to go) in the war’s aftermath–is a fireworks display, with some great explosions and some slow sizzlers, and with Blind Tom providing the accompaniment.
There is a nonfiction account of Wiggins’s life, The Ballad of Blind Tom by Deirdre O’Connell, but thus far I’m only checking its index for characters from Allen’s novel. The publisher’s note on Song of the Shank‘s cover claims that Allen “blends history and fantastical invention,” and I’m occasionally curious as to which is which. (To me the word “fantastical” seems misleading.)
Here is Allen’s account of one of Tom’s recitals. We are in the mid-1850’s and Tom is between five and eight years old. A party-crasher named Perry Oliver, who hasn’t a musical bone in his body but who will become Tom’s first travelling manager, is at the home of James Neil Bethune, Tom’s pro-secessionist, pro-war owner. Oliver has crashed the party simply because Bethune is a powerful man.
Bethune’s wife makes an announcement: “This is our prized attraction for the evening, Mary Bethune said, our boy, Tom.” Tom begins to play, and Perry Oliver can’t believe it.
It went on this way, Tom fingering one song after another. Perry Oliver could not recognize any of the melodies let alone the titles because he knew little about music. His entire life he had been uncomfortable with sounds. He knew this much: the disparate lines of the party–the chattering, the laughter, each guest’s clever or stupid remark, every grace and gesture, the shoes and clothing made of the simplest materials or the most fancy, the attendees in all of their perfections and defects–took pattern and form in the melodies, chords and rhythms of Tom’s piano. the more Tom played, the more frenzied he became. He turned his blind eyes and face to the audience and shouted “Look at me!” or “How about this?” or “Let’s see you do that!” or “Straight now!” or simply “Hey!” Perry Oliver may have been mistaken, but he would have bet money, and plenty of it, that Tom was expressing the comments for Perry Oliver’s ears alone.
With a great rising, waving, and falling of his hands, Tom closed a song and immediately stood up from his stool and took a stagy sort of bow. All of the objects in the room returned to their customary place, piece by piece, as did the various layers of Perry Oliver’s skin. (A week later, two weeks, he could still hear the music buzzing softly at the back of his skull.) The audience greeted the finale with a standing ovation that caused Tom to begin bowing again and again, like some well-oiled or broken machine.
I’d like to reprint Allen’s account of another of Tom’s performances, during which he sings in (I think) German, a language he has heard for the first time a few minutes earlier. (He’s repeating a song, note for note and new-language word for word.) But this post is already too long. Like Tom, I don’t always know when to stop.
You should take the whole tour. Song of the Shank.
Song of the Shank is also available as a downloadable e-book.
February 12, 2015 by Reader's Connection
The Rufus & Louise Reiberg Reading Series for Spring 2015 begins with a visit from novelist Emily Gray Tedrowe. Her first novel, Commuters (2010), was named a Best New Paperback by Entertainment Weekly, and her new novel, Blue Stars, comes out this month.
Emily Gray Tedrowe
Thursday, March 5, 7:30 p.m.
University Library Lilly Auditorium
755 West Michigan Street
Well into their 70s, Winnie McClelland and wealthy Jerry Trevis have fallen in love, causing consternation among their extended family. Jerry’s daughter, Annette, in particular, feels financially threatened when her newlywed father moves from Chicago to a small town in New York State, where he’s purchased the largest, most ostentatious house in Hartfield for his bride; worried that her inheritance might go to Winnie’s family, Annette sues to freeze her father’s assets. Meanwhile, Winnie’s daughter, Rachel, has asked her new stepfather for a sizable loan to help deal with her ill husband’s overwhelming health-care bills. Annette’s son, Avery, a recovering drug addict and promising young chef, is also looking to Jerry for the resources to start up his own restaurant. Further conflict arises from Winnie’s plans to cut down a historic tree for a new front-yard swimming pool, a move that threatens to alienate the entire town. Tedrowe . . . shows great promise in her compassionate, nuanced depiction of love–among the old and young alike–and her confident handling of alternating, multigenerational narrators. — Publishers Weekly
Ellen–an English professor in Madison, Wisconsin, longtime widow, and Edith Wharton expert–would never have met Lacey, a personal trainer with a wild streak, living just outside New York City, if men in their lives hadn’t gone to war in Iraq. [Ellen is] shocked and frightened when Mike, whom Ellen took in when he was a homeless teen, joins the marines . . . Lacey, a single mother, married army officer Eddie in the hope of a more stable life, but instead she is lonely and still poor. When Mike and Eddie are seriously injured, they end up at Walter Reed Hospital, where Ellen and Lacey, characters of gratifying moxie and complexity, find themselves struggling with fear, sorrow, upheaval, infuriating bureaucracy, and deplorable accommodations. Tedrowe, a deeply perceptive observer of family dynamics complicated by social and moral concerns, offers staggering insights into the struggles of military families and the ghastly conditions at Walter Reed that erupted into scandal in 2007. — Booklist
All readings in this series are free and open to the public. Visitor parking is available in the North Street Garage, 819 W. North St. and the Vermont Street Garage, 1004 W. Vermont Street. For parking information on the IUPUI campus, visit http://www.parking.iupui.edu/Visitors/VisitorHome.aspx. For more information about the series, contact Terry Kirts at (317) 274-8929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
February 9, 2015 by Reader's Connection
Nomination time is here. I have nominated an author for the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, and sticking up for this wonderful writer has filled me with a sense of well-being.
If there’s an Indiana writer who in your opinion should be recognized as a national, regional or emerging author, nominations will be accepted through March 20th.
Click on our blissful gnome, so happy in his reading, for guidelines and a link to the nomination form.
May the most deserving Indiana authors win! And may all of them go on writing!
February 6, 2015 by Reader's Connection
Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and there is no better time to cuddle up with a romantic book or movie. For those hopeless romantics out there or for those who just want to be moved by a great story, here is a list of romantic books and their movie adaptations. From those timeless classic romances to the modern love stories we know so well, there is something here for the romantic in us all.
A Walk to Remember
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Gone with the Wind
How Stella Got Her Groove Back
The movie with Mia Wasikowska & Michael Fassbender
The movie with Zelah Clarke & Timothy Dalton
The movie with Ruth Wilson & Toby Stephens
The movie with Samantha Morton & Ciarán Hinds
The movie with Charlotte Gainsbourg & William Hurt.
Love in the Time of Cholera
Must Love Dogs
P.S. I Love You
Pride and Prejudice
Terms of Endearment
The Importance of Being Earnest
Waiting to Exhale
Water for Elephants
What Dreams May Come
Discover all of these titles and more at the Indianapolis Public Library!
February 5, 2015 by Reader's Connection
As announced in a previous post, Newberry Medal Winner Lois Lowry will appear at Butler University as a part of this spring’s Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Author Series.
But the event has been moved to Clowes Memorial Hall, and free tickets are now required. The tickets are available at Clowes Hall box office or at Ticketmaster.com (fees apply at Ticketmaster). Group tickets are available by emailing Shannon Rezek at email@example.com.
That’s March 4th at 7:30 p.m., Clowes Memorial Hall.