Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Ordinary Grace: Guest Post by Beth Alexander

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I asked today’s guest writer, Beth Alexander, for a photo to run with her post. “Don’t you think people have seen enough of me lately?” she asked – laughing, half serious. (She and Patti Smallwood have been hard to miss, it’s true, as Swan Ball co-chairs).

Maybe you can send a few historical photos, I suggested…

 

The truth is: We can never get enough of you, Beth! You bring your best self to all that you do – and bring out the best in others. You lead and you follow. You laugh at yourself – and with others. You walk through the world with extraordinary grace.

Bacon readers: please enjoy Beth’s wonderful essay on Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger, and keep reading for Beth’s delightful answers to my Bacon interview questions that follow.

From Beth:

I’m partial to children’s stories. Not the kind written for children, although I like those too, but those that use a child as the reliable voice. Books like The Goldfinch, All the Light We Cannot See and, perhaps the prototype, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, illuminate the impact of events that transpire around the characters and the deception of dependable adults who are loved and trusted. The inspiring resourcefulness of the guileless and the gradual dawning of unsought knowledge build tension and dismay.

Another classic in this genre, To Kill a Mockingbird, is author William Kent Krueger’s favorite book. Like those novels, his 2013 novel Ordinary Grace is more than a mere coming of age story. Told from the perspective of Frank, the elder and more adventuresome of two brothers—10-year-old Jake is more cautious—the book reflects the two sides of conscience in each of us. Their adored older sister Ariel is the pride of her parents, an accomplished pianist on her way to Juilliard. Her relationship with her boyfriend Karl is complicated in unexpected ways that become clear after Ariel doesn’t return home from an mid-summer party.

Make no mistake, although told from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy, this is not a kid’s story. A rare mystery with finely drawn characters, Ordinary Grace opens with the death of a child. It’s also the story of a family struggling with secrets they dare not share. Set in small town Minnesota in the ’60s, it could have taken place in the Alabama of my own childhood. Its provincial customs—marking a death with donated casseroles, listening with respect when an adult speaks, the smell of summer rain when sleeping with windows open—seemed familiar, true to an unenlightened decade that released its grasp on innocence through growing turmoil. Which is exactly what happens to these children. After the story’s pivotal crisis, I read more and more slowly because of the increasingly lyrical narrative and because I couldn’t bear to let go of these wise and wonderful characters.

The adults, especially their mother, are complex because of assumptions they’ve already accepted from life, true or not. Being the wife of a minister is confining in a society that already has fairly narrow behavioral expectations. Speaking to Ariel in a moment that seems ordinary, her mother says those words every young person hates to hear –

“Oh, sweetheart, you have so much to learn.”

“You throw my age at me like it was some kind of handicap.”

“It is in a way. Someday you’ll see that.”

Both Ariel’s and her mother’s humanity are revealed through their musical talents. Krueger takes your breath away when the elder sits down at the piano in the home of a grieving friend. In a heartbreaking moment, she plays and sings “Unforgettable,” the Nat King Cole standard. Son Frank, awed by her performance, says,  “She played flawlessly and sang in a way that was like a pillow inviting you to rest all the weariness of your heart upon it.”

Dad displays empathy more openly and, true to his profession, more authenticallly. Speaking at a funeral (no spoilers!), he says, “Whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”

Jake, at age 10, is given lines of dialogue that ring with empathy: “I just think we should let things go, maybe put everything in God’s hands is what I’m saying, and hope for some kind of regular miracle.”

Who doesn’t thirst for nuggets of insight like this? And lest you think this is some kind of crazy religious story, this is about the existential struggle between good and evil in us all, however you define it, and it wrestles with questions of empathy, prejudice and acceptance. Long suppressed fury and guilt slowly give way to redemption.

My own childhood tugged at me because the characters behave and speak to each other as people did in the ‘60s—with refreshing and almost courtly courtesy, even when making accusations or an arrest. Not every bad person is brought to justice, and many very good people are deeply flawed. In the contradictory world he is growing into, Frank discovers there is no such thing as a true event.

William Kent Krueger

And yet, it’s a book filled with delight. The final chapter is so deeply rewarding, it’s tempting to cite its thematic truths here. I hope it’s sufficient to confess that I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a very long time. Ordinary Grace received the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America as the best novel of 2013. Krueger’s bread and butter is his series of Cork O’Connor mysteries, none of which have I read. Number 17, Desolation Mountain, will be released this month. I can’t wait to get to know its characters.

*       *       *

Bacon Interview

Thank you so much for stopping in at Bacon today, Beth! We all know that you’re a powerhouse at CapStar Bank and served as managing editor at NFocus before that. Many know you’re married with two grown sons and two darling granddaughters. Not everyone knows that you were an English major – but many might guess. In today’s interview, I’d love to share some other fun facts….here we go!

What’s your favorite breakfast?

Fat blueberries, a little yogurt with granola and a croissant.

Favorite snack?

Dark chocolate covered almonds.

Favorite libation?

Most pedestrian, I’m afraid: Lipton diet lemon ice tea mix with a splash of cranberry juice. I make it by the gallon every day.

Favorite weather?

Sweater weather

Favorite day of the week?

Thursday, the bonus party day

If you had a day with no obligations, what would you do?

Read books and play with grandchildren

What did you like to read growing up?

Fairy tales from all cultures

Did you ever read books you weren’t supposed to?

My parents owned a bookstore and never forbid any book, but my favorite reading as a pre-teen was advice on raising teenagers.

Who are your favorite authors or favorite books right now?

I have a huge crush on Julia Reed who makes me laugh even when I’m feeling sad or worried.

Do you always finish a book once you’ve started it?

Oh yes, usually (sigh).

Latest book that aggravated you?

The Perfect Mother, which is the cause of my sigh, above. I am over reading about the travails of young mothers. I don’t care whether you nursed your baby today or not.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure?

The Review section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal. {Mine too!!}

Is there a chore you secretly enjoy or openly despise?

Despise: filing expense reports. Enjoy: laundry.

What are you good at?

Listening.

What do you want to be good at?

Interrupting.

What are you bad at?

Tidying up; it’s hard for me to throw away paper or anything drawn or written by a child or grandchild.

What do you practice at?

Making choices. I really prefer having options, but then you never get to the movie.

What brings you contentment?

Reading books to my children when they were growing up is surely one of life’s greatest and deepest joys.

What annoys you?

Certainty.

How do you relax?

Reading is best but I have to earn it by doing a little chore first. Any chore will do. Putting in a load of laundry is enough.

Do you like to exercise?

Not really.

Do you hate to exercise?

It’s just a thing I have to do in order not to buy a bunch of new clothes.

Is yoga exercise?

I have no idea.

Do you play games?

I prefer conversation as a group activity.

Did you play on a team as a kid?

No, I’m a girl who grew up in Alabama in the ‘50s. There were no female team sports. We danced and learned to play the piano.

Are you an avid sports fan now?

It shames my children, but no.

What do you learn from your children, if anything?

Everything important that I know.

What do you hope your children learn from you?

I hope they look for the unique spark of the divine in each person they encounter.

What’s the hardest thing about being a parent?

Your children leave. Over and over again.

What’s the best thing about being a parent?

Learning about dinosaurs, coding, politics – whatever it is your child is passionate about.

What did your parents do right?

They loved reading and music and shared those joys with us.

What is your advice to parents with teenagers?

Don’t worry too much. The girls won’t always be bitchy, and the boys won’t always stink.

Is childhood or adulthood more fun, and why?

Adulthood because of the perspective and childhood because of constant discovery.

Did you have a happy childhood?

My parents ran a small bookstore that I used as my personal library. My parents weren’t wealthy, but in the best ways, we had everything.

Do you have a pet?

Sweet Pea is a black lab/chow mix, a rescue dog that originally belonged to my older son. When he and his wife moved to California, she stayed with us. Now that they’re back, I can’t do without her.

What do you learn from your pet?

Patience.

What did you learn in college, if anything?

The big things I learned were how wonderful Nashville is, how smart and funny the people here are, and the fact that I wanted to live here forever.

What were your formative educational years?

The 3½ years I spent at Vanderbilt.

What kind of music do you listen to most often?

I like a mix of old and new; old because it’s fun to sing along and remember the misery and ecstatic joy of youth, and new because your ears need novelty.

Do you volunteer?

Oh yes, I volunteer madly. It’s my favorite way to spend time with friends and make new ones.

Do you work outside the home; if so, where & why?

Yes, originally because I wanted to pay for my own clothes and make my own charitable donations. That was a long time ago. Now I have to go to work every day because the work is stimulating and because I love the people I work with.

How long have you been married?

40 years!

Does your spouse have any annoying habits?

Like Mary Poppins, he is a practically perfect person.

Do you have any annoying habits?

Laziness?

Do you like to cook?

I like to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

What is your greatest accomplishment in the kitchen?

Being so incompetent that my husband took over dinner duties about a dozen years ago.

Do you need time by yourself every day?

I really do.

How much?

A little time to decompress after work and a little time to read before going to sleep. In the morning, I need about an hour and a half to have coffee, read a bit of yesterday’s WSJ and make a plan for the day.

Would you rather get up early or stay up late?

Wouldn’t it be fun to do both?

Do you watch any TV shows regularly?

Loved Mad Men and Breaking Bad; can’t wait for the rest of Game of Thrones!

Is the movie ever better than the book?

There was one, and I can’t remember it.

Who inspires you?

Joelle Phillips, Jerry Williams, Julia Reed

Are you a person who makes New Year’s resolutions?

Not really. If you need to improve, shouldn’t you start today?

How does that work out for you?

It means every day is New Year’s Day.

I have goals but I don’t trust speaking in the future tense for largely superstitious reasons that probably have to do with an Irish heritage. When I’ve achieved something, you’ll know.

We do, Beth!!

Thank you again for everything today. xoxo

17 Comments

  1. I don’t know which I liked better: Beth’s beautiful summary of Ordinary Grace or the wonderful interview with Jennifer. I love how a conversation about books lets us get to know a person in a specific, beautiful way.

  2. Great post! And totally agree on Julia Reed, always makes me smile or just laugh out loud with her stories! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great book review by Beth Alexander Jennifer! I’m going to add the book to my ever-growing list of books to enjoy!

  4. Fabulous book review and delightful interview! You two are the BEST!!

  5. Beautiful, fun, and inspiring post!

  6. Beth- Enjoyed your review ! I will add this book to my wish list to read!
    Hope all is well with you and yours!
    Pam

  7. I just adore you, Beth~ You are smart, clever and love life. We are blessed you stayed in Nashville.

  8. Goodness Beth Alexander what an absolute treat to come upon this lovely interview. It’s been much too long since our paths have crossed and so I really treasure this little bit of a “visit” with you

    • One of the joys of this marvelous website is being able to introduce it to JL friends all over the country! Jennifer Puryear manages this with such heart and intellectual generosity, it is always a pleasure to read. I miss you, Anne, and think of you so often!

  9. Loved, loved, loved this thoughtful review of one of my favorite books and the inspiring interview and adorable pictures of one of my all time favorite people. Beth, as I’ve always told you, you are sheer perfection-a shining star.
    I burst out laughing at your annoying habit however!

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