Dallas and her husband Fleming joke that they were the last single people left standing in Nashville and found each other by default. This was a few years ago, of course, before the current youth invasion. First date to wedding day: 9 months! I’d say they were meant to be. Dallas enjoyed a demanding career before motherhood and still challenges herself all the time; the hardest lesson she’s learned lately is that she’s too old to take up ski racing. She claims a fiercely independent streak from an early age, and I believe her! She brings tremendous vitality and light-up-the-room energy to everything she does – playing golf (or cards, charades, or Bethump’d), planning major fund-raisers, serving on boards, building a house – and being a friend. Today, she reviews the new novel by Nashville author Katie McDougall, The Color Wheel.
From Dallas: I have been blessed to be in a book club with my mother for 18 years. At the pace of one book a month, that means I have read about 216 books…total. Some of the women in the book club read that number of books in a single year, which is why I love the book club so much! While I barely make it through the chosen tome by the time we meet each month, the other members have read several additional books and have effectively culled out anything I might struggle to finish. As more of a math gal, I am the least qualified person to write a book review, but Jennifer was kind to think of me, and I am thankful that she is providing great book reviews so I can contribute to our monthly book selection process.
This year, our book club is focusing on local authors. We have loved having authors like Ann Shayne (Bowling Avenue) and Jeanne Ray (Julie and Romeo, Step-Ball-Change, Eat Cake) come visit our club in the past, so we thought we’d spend the year reading other local authors in the hopes of more visitors. Our first book this year was The Color Wheel by Katie McDougall. Katie grew up in Nashville and went to Harpeth Hall. She graduated from Colorado College with an English degree and received her MFA in Fiction Writing from Colorado State University. This is Katie’s first novel.
The Color Wheel spans a period of time from 1969 to 2006 and is set in several western towns from Oregon to Colorado to New Mexico. I don’t know if it was the fact that the timeframe mirrored my life span or the fact that I love all of those places that helped me connect so much with this book, but I definitely loved reading it. The Color Wheel is written in short chapters (good for my ADD brain) that bounce back and forth (bad for my ADD brain) between years and locations. The character development is extraordinary, but there are lots of characters to take in, so I would recommend reading this book when you have plenty of uninterrupted time to dive in.
The book revolves around an artistically frustrated plein air painter, Missy, who is trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, while uncovering bits and pieces of her past and that of her parents. There are so many twists and subplots that happen in relatively short periods of time that I swear it felt like I was living through my teens and 20s again! One of the recurring themes with all of the characters is the notion of and the quest for Happiness. Missy’s dad has spent his academic career studying and writing about Happiness and its antithesis – Dissatisfaction. Missy’s mom has spent her lifetime chasing “truth” in one hippie commune after another, only to find “that after forty years of going from one life that’s not a life to another, she had no place to call home.” Even the great communal leader, Javier, who seems like someone even I might be apt to follow for a couple of hours, weighs in with some fabulous food for thought like, “Life is weird and apocalyptic snowstorms can turn into things of beauty, things that make dreams happen” or “Beware the calls of the migratory birds. That which calls loudest is not always wisest.”
The Color Wheel is a fantastic philosophy and poetry primer, reminding me, painfully, that I should have taken more philosophy and English courses and fewer accounting classes in college. The book contains so many stimulating quotes that I don’t have space to include them all, but a few made an indelible impression:
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” –Voltaire
“It’s damn hard to be happy all the time.” –Missy’s Dad
“When you put complementary colors next to each other, they pop. But if you try to blend the complements to make a color, you’ll just end up with mud.” – a nod to the title and to so much of life
“You have to be careful…Life, love – they’ll present you paths…Choose your paths wisely because, I’m telling you, mistakes of the heart kill you bit by bit…And it hurts.” -Missy’s Aunt Agnes
And then the one that just shoots straight from the hip as Missy recalls one of her Dad’s favorite sayings:
“Life’s greatest tragedy was that we couldn’t make camp among the stars every once in a while so we could look down and see the jillion specs of humanity we are, each believing in the enormity of his or her own imperfect love lives, hurt feelings, broken-down cars, lower back pains, and every absurd push and pull, pinch and sting that makes our lives feel so grandiosely tragic. From that celestial vantage, he’d say, we’d see how shamefully insignificant our woes are, and maybe we’d all get over ourselves.”
Oh my, the last line of that one might be my favorite! In addition to the respective characters’ quest for purpose and authenticity over several decades, another theme abounds: that of doing what you’d like to do versus what you think you ought to do. It is the age old struggle between heart and head, practical vs. impractical, free-wheeling vs. responsible. Katie uses the word “itchy” so well it makes me want to scratch. You know that feeling when your blood and your skin just don’t feel right? We’ve all had it, but not everyone reacts to it the same way. In The Color Wheel, Missy’s mom always responds to the itchiness by fleeing the situation, even if it means sacrificing being with her daughter. She hides behind the notion of following her passion for art, music or helping the Sandinistas, as she escapes the itchiness that Missy’s dad has already begun to identify as plain ol’ Dissatisfaction.
All of these themes are beautifully interwoven as the lives of these seemingly unrelated relatives unfold. And this book made me think…a lot.
My mother was definitely a wannabe hippie as evidenced by her hand-crocheted bikini and long braids in a Polaroid from 1971. I’m sure there was a musical commune that would have loved to have her join their “gig” with one or more of the 37 instruments she can play, but she chose instead to become a computer programmer for actuarial specialists (Yeah, I know, right?) so that she could help pay for my dance and music lessons. And though I probably could have cobbled together a career dancing and singing on Broadway (Ok…OFF Broadway) and would have LOVED it, I staged a preemptive strike and stopped dancing and playing music cold-turkey so that I could focus on becoming a computer programmer and accountant in an effort to pay for the almost certain music and dance lessons for my then imagined children.
And this is where I get itchy. Are you really only supposed to do what you love? Or is it ok to do what you’re good at in an effort to be afforded time with people you love? This topic caught my attention in a recent New York Times article entitled “Life beyond ‘Do what you love’.” Perhaps I was intrigued by the title because I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to “be” when I grow up, but the fact that we are instilling in our children the notion of only “doing what you love” may be esoteric at best, elitist at worst and probably downright impractical. I love one of the passages in The Color Wheel when a professor is critiquing Missy’s dad’s dissertation on Happiness. At a point in the dissertation where he is arguing for authentic purpose and explaining the joy and relative low blood pressure that comes after the daily dose of “giggin’ time” at the commune, the econ professor comments, “And who pays the bills? How’s his blood pressure?” Touché.
But when you meet Katie McDougall in person, you realize there may be some people who have figured out how to truly do what they love and love what they do, and it is infectious. In addition to her writing and teaching, Katie is a co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a non-profit literary center dedicated to fostering creative writing through workshops and events. She’ll be doing a performance of readings from The Color Wheel alongside songwriter pal Lauren Hagan at Mad Donna’s in East Nashville on July 1st at 7:00 p.m. as part of the East Side Storytelling Series. The Color Wheel is available at Parnassus and is currently co-owner Karen Hayes’ staff pick. You can also find out more on Katie’s website at katiemcdougall.com.
The Color Wheel really is a wonderful and thought-provoking book that our entire book club enjoyed, and it’s a pretty discerning crowd of voracious readers! Two other local authors that we are excited to read are J.T. Ellison, who will be joining us next week to discuss her book, When Shadows Fall (which is up next on my bedside table), and my friend from high school, Don Winston, who has just completed his second novel, The Union Club: a Subversive Thriller. Don lives in Hollywood now, but I’m still classifying him as “local” and am hoping to convince him to come home to Nashville for a visit in the fall.
To continue the family book club tradition, I have recently started a new book club with my 10-year-old daughter. So far, she has recommended (as in “Mommy, you have GOT to read this!”) Wonder by R.J. Palacio and One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt; I’ll have to say she’s two for two so far. I’m thrilled that she loves to read and I’m glad that my mother and my daughter are holding me accountable for at least 2 books a month now. I’m also glad that my mother taught me to treat itchiness with cortisone instead of track shoes. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than where I am right now. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll take what I’ve learned from The Color Wheel and the Times article and stop worrying so much about “finding my passion” and instead, find something that needs to be done and do it passionately.