movie: Muscle Shoals

muscle shoalsFollowing up on The Secret to a Happy Ending that we watched the other night, I finally found the time to watch this 2013 documentary, too. I’ve been hearing about it for the last two years and knew I needed to see it, and now I’m passing it on: go see this film now.

Muscle Shoals is about the town in Alabama of the same name, a small place, a backwater, where some of the greatest American music ever has been recorded. It’s full of beautiful cinematography portraying the natural beauty of the place, and full of impressive musicians talking about the special magic made there. The list of contributors is formidable: Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Rick Hall, David Hood (Patterson Hood’s dad), Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Ed King, Spooner Oldham, Keith Richards, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton… and that’s a who’s who of who is in the movie, not who recorded there. That list is longer and more impressive. There are also video footage and audio tracks from back when history was being made at FAME Studio and later at Muscle Shoals Sound. The whole thing is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. You can view clips here; but really, you want to go find the whole thing.

The morning after, I ran out to my local record store and bought albums by Etta James, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. What will you buy?

Rating: 9 tragedies in Rick Hall’s life, whew.

Call Me Home by Megan Kruse

A family story, in multiple voices, of pain and love and the journey to safety.

call me home

In her debut novel Call Me Home, Megan Kruse undertakes sprawling topics including guilt, sex, domestic violence and the complicated love of siblings, parents, children and lovers, in settings across the United States. These ambitious themes and clearly wrought characters are gorgeously rendered in feeling prose.

Amy moved from small-town Texas to small-town Washington state as an 18-year-old newlywed, before he began to beat her. The action of Call Me Home begins years later, alternatingly told in the third-person perspectives of Amy and her son Jackson, and first person by Jackson’s little sister Lydia. Amy tries to leave with her children, repeatedly, but to permanently escape her abusive husband she has to choose just one child to save. Eighteen-year-old Jackson finds himself on the streets of Portland, Oregon before taking work on a construction crew in Idaho. Amy and Lydia hide out at a shelter in New Mexico, then find their way to Amy’s hometown, where 13-year-old Lydia meets her grandmother for the first time. Flashbacks throughout the narrative also portray Amy’s marriage and abuse and the children’s early lives.

Call Me Home offers lovely descriptions of natural settings in Washington, Idaho and Texas, but central are the powerful themes and ugly realities of domestic violence, Jackson’s challenges as a gay teen navigating unfamiliar streets and country, and the shared and unique traumas of Amy, Lydia and Jackson. Kruse’s evocative, often lyrical language serves her subjects well, so that what results is not unleavened pain but painful beauty, even hope.

This review originally ran in the March 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 garbage bags.

Teaser Tuesdays: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This is one of those I fear to even say much about, because I might ruin its perfection. Best book of 2015 so far, for sure.


I have one sentence for you today:

You could, as Dave many times had, just sit there in the sun with your back against a tree and watch and listen to the river sprint and thurble and trip and thumble; you had to invent words for the ways it raced and boiled and dashed and crashed, and indeed Dave had once spent an afternoon trying to write one long word that would catch something of the river’s song and story when it was full of itself like this, not yet the shy trickle it would be in summer and fall, before the Rains came on All Souls’ Day, and then the dim chamber of winter, when snow fell slowly all day every day for weeks at a time, and the woods were filled with soft slumps and sighs as trees shed their loads.

I love so much about this sentence: how it acknowledges what words cannot do, and then uses words to do so much; how its length mirrors the length of the failed word of the river’s song and story; how it encompasses four seasons; the lovely sounds of it. Are you convinced?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

movie: The Secret to a Happy Ending

From the band’s website:

This is a film about the redemptive power of rock and roll; it’s about the American South, where rock was born; it’s about a band straddling the borders of rock, punk and country; it’s about making art, making love and making a living; it’s about the Drive-By Truckers. This film documents the band and their fans as they explore tales of human weakness and redemption. With unparalleled access, this documentary encompasses three critical years of touring and recording as the band struggles to overcome trauma and survives a near breakup, in a persistent search for a happy ending.

secret to a happy endingThe Drive-by Truckers are one of my favorite bands and one that has had an impact on my life and how I look at my world. It is a love I share with the Husband. We saw this movie in a theatre when it came out to town, back in Houston. We bought a copy of it on DVD, too, and now I am in this writing class and working on a long essay about the Truckers and what they mean to me; so as research, we watched the movie again at home.

Obviously and basically, I love the movie because it is a distillation of the band. The filmmaker was lucky to have the Truckers’ cooperation, and followed them to several shows, recording live footage; and interviewed all the band members repeatedly, as well as some of their families. Cultural authorities like a university professor (and obvious DBT fan) and music writer get screen time as well. This is a fan’s documentary, and I think fans can’t help but be pleased by it. Non-fans are liable to become fans… but then, I’m biased.

I like that the movie captures a moment in the life span of this long-lived band, reviewing the early years (including the band Adam’s House Cat, where the two lead men, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, originally played together) and then getting into a few difficult years, when bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell divorced, and Isbell left the band. (He’s had an impressive solo career since. Look him up.) One of the things I’ve come to love about DBT is how many layers there are to love, investigate, and appreciate – like the people involved. The story of Shonna and Isbell breaking up is maybe none of my business; but you can bet all the band’s fans followed it and had feelings about it, nonetheless. For the record, I blame no one and wish them both the best.

It’s a hell of a good movie, and even if you’re not a Truckers fan, I think it’s a fine documentary about rock-and-roll (and other things too). It pulls my heartstrings.

Rating: 9 songs.

I hope this is not too off topic, but I want to share a short piece that didn’t make it into my longer essay about the Truckers and their impact on me.

I have a large tattoo covering my right arm and shoulder: a tree and its surroundings and inhabitants: fallen logs, grasses and flowers and mushrooms, a bunny rabbit, a snake, a squirrel, a turtle, a weasel, a fat yellow songbird. On the front of my shoulder, the tree’s branches part around a Cooley bird. Around the back of my shoulder, wrapping onto my back, a black owl with red eyes flies away, departing. It’s the same owl that my husband Chris has tattooed on his left bicep, flying above a leafless tree on a burnt yellow desert and under a spooky moon that looks down with knowing eyes and a slight smirk.

These tattoos borrow images from Wes Freed, a Virginia-based artist who has drawn all the art for all the Drive-by Truckers’ albums, posters, website art, promotional material, backdrops, and etc. since time immemorial (or at least the Southern Rock Opera album of 2004). He is the band’s brand. In a documentary about the Truckers called The Secret to a Happy Ending (whose cover art he also created), he says: “It’s always about the music. The music is the most important thing. But there’s so much going on with the records. It’s cool to be able to have the opportunity to illustrate the songs. That’s cool.” Wes Freed. I love that his named is a sentence: Wes Freed; or else a description: Wes, Freed. And the songs are themselves filled with dark and toothsome images. I did my own (very poor) copy of Freed’s illustration of “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a song based on true current events in which a Tennessee preacher’s wife kills her husband: in court, her lawyers then displayed “them high-heeled shoes and that wig he made her wear,” as evidence of how abused she had been before she just snapped. Freed portrays a woman in a see-through negligee and high-heeled pumps, blue hair piled and stacked high, holding a shotgun whose smoke swirls around to caress her against an enormous yellow moon. A monkey in a fez cavorts behind her. I’ve looked and looked for Freed’s illustration of this song on the internet, but it seems to have disappeared; all I have is my poor imitation.

Thanks for reading.

book beginnings on Friday: Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


I’ve only just begun this one, but it’s good from the get-go. How about this opening paragraph:

A well-rowed shell is art in motion. It moves smoothly. Stroke after stroke, oars drop in the water and come out together. The rowers’ bodies swing back and forth in sync, performing the same motion of legs, backs, arms at the same instant; no extraneous shrug of shoulders, flick of the wrist, turn of the head, shift of the seat. The result – perfectly spaced swirls of water trailing the shell’s wake – offers the only visual cue of the speed these on-water dancers live to create.

I’m a sucker for poetic praise of athleticism, and it looks like this story has a few other points in its favor, too. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

A companion to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and every bit as affecting, sweet and sad.

love song

Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry won many fans with its bumbling but likable protagonist and his improbable journey across England and through his own troubled life. Harold appears off-screen in The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, in which Queenie replies to the postcards he sent her in Pilgrimage. Readers will be delighted to rediscover the action of the first book, from a very different perspective and with considerable added detail on Queenie’s side. Those considering Pilgrimage should definitely start there, as Love Song comprises one big spoiler. However, it’s not necessary to have read the first to enjoy this second novel.

Love Song begins when Queenie receives Harold’s first postcard. She has written to him from hospice care, sharing the news of her impending death. Harold sets out to visit, asking her to await his arrival. Queenie is startled and alarmed. She has kept an old secret from Harold that she had intended to take with her; she now decides she needs to come clean.

Joyce alternates among three timelines: in real time, as Queenie waits for Harold while composing a long letter of explanation; their separation 20 years ago, when she fled life’s complications; and their original meeting and developing friendship. While the present-day setting is inarguably dour, the action in all three stories is fresh, compelling and deeply emotional, and Queenie’s fellow residents create a charming little world of their own. Just as in Pilgrimage, a major revelation at the end amplifies the impact of an already powerful book.

This review originally ran in the March 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 painted nails.

Tug-of-War by Judith Somborac

This touching story plainly told provides a captivating view of wartime Serbia, its tensions, and its effects on ordinary working people.


Judith Somborac’s Tug-of-War follows the fictional experience of one young woman’s coming-of-age in World War II Serbia. Teenage Miriana sees upheavals to the size and shape of her household, grasps for fortitude, and glimpses hints of love. Her war years are stressful but formative, and the resulting tale is compelling and heartfelt.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published on March 3, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.


My rating: 6 Christmases.

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