Moving on Down the Road

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Dear Readers,

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been lately, it’s because I forgot to tell you that I’ve moved Coast to Coast Books to my brand-spanking-new website! Now you will see that besides being a reader, I’m also a writer with a new book about to be launched later this month! 

Find new Coast to Coast Books posts and all sorts of other good stuff here:

As a quick update, I’m hanging out in Maryland right now having just finished Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons and am about to pick up something by John Barth. Loving my time in Maryland so far!

I hope you’ll stay tuned to my literary road trip in its new place–you can sign up by email over there…. 

Happy reading!

Rachel

 

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I Thought You Were Dead!

IThoughtYouWereDeadI’m a dog lover. That’s probably why I chose to read Pete Nelson’s book, I Thought You Were Dead as my second Massachusetts book. I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Seattle’s own rock star author Garth Stein, but had to wait a couple of years to read it since its publication date followed too closely after the death of my precious Golden Retriever, Maddy.

I loved the beginning of the book. The protagonist, Paul Gustavson, getting home late one night, fairly drunk, fumbling with his keys by the light of his front porch, as the snow falls heavily around him. His dog, Stella, greets him with “I thought you were dead!”  Paul explains that since dogs have no sense of permanence, Stella believes he’s dead whenever he’s not around. Okay, must get this off my chest early. If one believes this about dogs, one cannot also believe that dogs are as intelligent, philosophical and conversational as Stella proves to be throughout this book. I know it’s a nit-pick, but it bothered me from page one.

That said, the book is great.  At the outset, Paul is a mess. He drinks too much, his job—writing a series called, Nature for Morons— is not fulfilling, he’s been unlucky in love, and his father has just had a stroke. Could things possibly get worse?  Not really. But over the course of the novel, we get to know Paul and root for him as he works his way through a new (difficult and possibly doomed) relationship, struggles with  impotency, maneuvers through the family dynamics of dealing with aging parents and finally comes to terms with himself. I Thought You Were Dead is a coming of age sort of novel where the main character’s best friend, confessor and confidant, is a dog.

Paul and Stella have conversations about love, sex and impotency, drinking and stress. WatchingTheir witty repartee had me laughing out loud. Like this conversation about drinking and impotency. Stella has just explained what everyone who has ever slept with a dog in their bedroom understands: she has been watching. From Stella’s point of view, here is Paul’s problem:  And what I’ve seen with my own two eyes, as a noninvolved observer, is first you get sad or stressed and then you don’t get a boner, or first you get happy, and then you do. And drinking makes you sad. That’s my observation. So Paul sets out to drink less and exercise more.

But the poignant parts of the story involve Paul trying to connect with his father after his stroke. Paul’s job is to communicate with his father through computer chatting because Paul lives in Northampton, Massachusetts and the rest of his family is in Minnesota. His father can hit a yes or no key on the keyboard so Paul’s sessions with his dad become like therapy — Paul does the talking and his father can only agree or disagree. Through these intimate sessions, we get inside Paul’s head and learn his deepest thoughts.  We discover how confused and frightened they both are at these different stages of life:  Paul, at the thought of losing his father and the grim trajectory of his personal life, and Paul’s father, at the thought of losing his memory and control of himself.

I Thought You Were Dead is a very good read. The writing is sharp and intelligent, sometimes funny and often moving. The themes here are universal, and exploring them through Stella’s eyes is a bonus.

What about the sense of Massachusetts that comes through the narrative? Well, it seems this story could take place in just about Anywhere, USA. However, when Paul first takes up running, we get a very thorough feel for Northampton as he runs down Main Street past a furniture store, a high-end clothing shop, a lingerie shop, a diner, several used book stores, importers of third-world knickknacks, a dozen ice cream parlors “dairy being the last vice the local Birkenstockers allowed themselves,” He passed a laundromat, the “Healing Cooperative” complete with homeopathic remedies and “a pamphlet rack by the door offering flyers for all the various local shamans and magical practitioners and caregivers.” Typically, he tells us, he would run past “petitioners getting signatures . . . girls’ soccer teams collecting donations, and New Age people offering incense or poetry, and disturbed zanies  . . .  Main Street was generally alive, seven  days a week and year-round with trust fund mendicants, panhandlers and mooches, crow babies and white Rasta kids in Jamaican black, yellow, green, and red knit caps, Goth waifs and death punks who asked for spare change to make ‘phone calls,’ and one-time, a kid squatting on the sidewalk with a sign that read, PARENTS SLAIN BY NINJAS — NEED MONEY FOR KUNG FU LESSONS!”

Now I get the picture. Here’s a fairly typical New England college town—

Smith campus, Northampton  http://www.collegiatevideo.com/Smith.html

Smith campus, Northampton

though Northampton’s website would beg to differ. There, the town’s mayor describes Northampton as a slice of paradise. And it looks lovely to me—the Connecticut River on one side and Mt. Holyoke on the other, home of Smith College, former home of Amelia Earhart, Calvin Coolidge and Sylvia Plath, among others.  I’d love to visit.

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The Celestials

celestialsThe Celestials by Karen Shepard takes place in the town of North Adams, Massachusetts, in 1870.  It’s the story of Julia and Calvin Sampson —she, a childless woman in her early forties grieving the recent loss of her thirteenth pregnancy, he the wealthy owner of the town’s shoe factory responsible for bringing seventy-five Chinese young men “the Celestials” to town to work in his factory.  The Celestials are strikebreakers but don’t understand that until after they arrive. Three hundred members of the largest labor union in the country, The Order of the Knights of St. Crispin “a force to be reckoned with” await the Chinese workers on the train platform as the book opens.  Surprisingly, an altercation is avoided between the two groups. Sampson has paid a large contingent of constables to keep the peace and the Chinese foreman, Charlie Sing, has proven quite capable of protecting his charges during the train ride east.

At the end of the nineteenth century, North Adams was “the largest manufacturing thecelestials1center in the Berkshires, boasting thirty-eight factories and two hundred cotton mills.”  According to a local historian of the time, it was “the smartest village in the smartest nation in all creation: The concentrated essential oil of Yankeedom.” But, of course, one third of the town’s citizens were foreign workers:  Irish, French Canadian and Welsh. The Chinese though, proved to be the most “foreign” of all. Shepard’s novel portrays the difficulties inherent in cultural assimilation, but especially for the Chinese.  She reminds us that the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively stopped Chinese Immigration into the United States after 1882.

Immediately I am drawn into the world of the novel. Shepard paints a clear and nuanced picture of this place in this time.  And, too, I am drawn into the unlikely love triangle which develops between Julia Sampson, Calvin Sampson and the Chinese factory foreman, Charlie Sing. Charlie is caught between two cultures from the outset.  He wears the traditional Chinese braid and embroidered silk shoes at home, but Western clothes in public and has converted to Methodism.  And, although Charlie claims to be descended from a European Duke and taken in by missionaries in California, he was more likely a son of poor peasants who made their way to California seeking a better life. And while Calvin

and Julia Sampson have never been able to have children of their own, these Chinese workers seem to bring out the paternal instincts in Sampson. He asks his wife to help organize a school for them — Sunday school to teach English, but also the teachings of the Methodist bible. Ironic, of course, that Calvin has to coax Julia into a relationship with the man who becomes her lover and sad that she will abandon her Celestial once she has the one thing she has been longing for all of her married life – a child.

The baby is born with clearly Asian features and Julia returns to North Adams (from an extended trip to visit relatives in Michigan during her pregnancy) with her new baby in her arms and proudly refuses to hear any gossip about the child’s paternity.  In fact, Julia manages to silence the gossips and convinces her husband to accept the child as his own – no small feat at any time, but astonishing in a small town in nineteenth century New England. Charlie Sing, of course, is confused and bereft but powerless to claim his paternity under the circumstances.  There is a scene late in the book where the girl goes into her father’s shop and they spend time together.  The moment is lovely, but it is brief.

Along side of the story of Julia, Calvin and Charlie is the parallel narrative of Alfred Robinson, his sister Lucy and her friend Ida – their stories of love and loss. They come toChineseHistorical North Adams from Virginia looking for work and a better life where their lives become intertwined with the Sampsons’ in an Upstairs, Downstairs kind of way.  Alfred is a former employee of Sampson’s factory, a union man; Lucy eventually goes to work in the Sampson’s home as a servant and Ida ends up with Charlie Sing. For me, their stories are not always as compelling as the Sampsons’.  Maybe that’s just my nature –more fascinated by the lives of the rich than the lives of the poor. I found the stories of Alfred, Lucy and Ida sometimes confusing – possibly because it is the framework on which Shepard hangs much of the history embedded in the narrative.

The Celestials is a novel of a cultural prejudice and assimilation. It is also a love story and a convincing tale of life in a factory town in New England in the late nineteenth century.

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Massachusetts!

YankeeMagMy Google search for best bookstores in Massachusetts sends me first to an article in Yankee magazine by Suzanne Strempek Shea—yet another author I have never heard of—who has written five novels and three memoirs.  One of those books, called Shelf Life, is about the year she spent working at a local independent bookstore in Western Massachusetts.  The article lists her favorite New England bookstores based on her experiences visiting and reading in them.  Find the Yankee article here:

Two of Shea’s recommendations are in Massachusetts, so I check them out.  The first, Broadside Bookshop in Northhampton, has an easy site to navigate, say they’re committed to customer service while offering online ordering and free shipping.  Nice.  Then I looked at The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.  I was first taken in by the description in the article: An errand to pick up a single book can easily turn into a personal odyssey for hours as you explore the two floors. Now that’s what I’m looking for!  I went to their website — love it!  It’s colorful, featuresOdyssey-bookshop-Frong lots of great looking book covers, highlights events sponsored by the store and their mission statement says they are passionate about the written word and want to share their love of reading with the community. Now I wish I could be immediately transported there.  I want to browse the two floors, I want to go to the event the store is featuring at Mt. Holyoke College with the author with long pink hair who has written three young adult novels.  And I wonder what Emily Dickinson would think about that.  Yes, yes, I’m especially drawn to this bookstore because they have a relationship with Emily Dickinson’s college.  And I think that if Emily Dickinson had been born in a different time she, too, might have pink hair.  Think how great it would look with all those white dresses!

Okay, off on a tangent now.  Back to bookstores.  Because I’m slightly compulsive, I decide that I have to look beyond someone else’s recommendation of the best bookstores in Massachusetts, so I dig a little deeper in my internet quest and come up with another bookstore that I love—Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich.  Now, here’s a place I’d like to visit too.  It just has such a Gatsby-esque sound, right?  East Egg, West Egg, East Sandwich.  So, turns out Titcomb’s has a fabulous website.  I can even take a virtual tour of the shop.  Find it here:  From the tour I learn that the shop has been owned by the same family since 1969, that the shop started in a carport off the historic seventeenth century home but was re-built in a barn-like structure later. It’s three stories and beautiful.  There are new and used books and some rare first editions and historical books.  And just outside the shop on the highway “Historic Route 6A” is a metal sculpture of an old bookseller made by one of the owners and used now as a photo op for authors who have readings in their shop.  What a great bookstore!  I hope I get to visit it some day.

But, still, I’m drawn to South Hadley and decide I want my own personal Massachusetts odyssey there.  So I call them up. After I explain what I’m looking for—a book or two by Massachusetts authors that will give me a sense of Massachusetts as a place. The girl I’m speaking with—I’m pretty sure she said her name was Emily — says: This is just the kind of project we love!  But she wants to talk to some of the other booksellers too and call me back.  Excellent!  When Emily calls me back, she tells me they have enjoyed the project and that she has a stack of eight books to tell me about — I can choose which ones I want her to send. I wish I had noted down all of her suggestions but as luck would have it I was sitting in a car on my way to the ocean when the call came in so I wasn’t able to take notes.  No, I wasn’t driving.

From Emily’s suggestion, I choose an historical novel, The Celestials, by Karen Shepard, which is the story of Chinese workers who come to the town of North Adams, Massachusetts in 1870 to work in a shoe factory (as strike breakers.)  I know many Chinese came to Seattle and San Francisco at that time, but had no idea that any Chinese workers travelled as far as Massachusetts.  I’m looking forward to learning about that. The next book I choose is called I Thought You Were Dead, by Pete Nelson.  It’s a kind of coming of age story featuring a guy and his dog. Okay, I’ll admit it.  I’m a dog lover and a sucker for books about dogs ever since I read our local rock star author Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain.  So, with my choices made, I await my package from Massachusetts.

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The Ice Storm

theIceStormRight away in Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, I get a sense of what the author thinks of New Canaan, Connecticut ­— the novel’s setting:  It is “the most congenial and superficially calm of suburbs.  In the wealthiest state in the Northeast.  In the most affluent country on earth.”  And he places us in time:  “Three years shy of that commercial madness, the bicentennial.”  Okay — 1973.  And the next paragraph is a long list of things that don’t yet exist in that time:  “No answering machines.  And no call waiting.  No Caller ID.  No compact disc recorders or laser disks or holography or cable television or MTV.”  The list goes on and on, but you get the picture — a very dramatic picture.  I remember 1973 quite well but this novel plunks me back in that time so vividly that I almost have to remind myself that over forty years have passed since then.  Moody does this in many ways throughout the book, but perhaps most effectively through his references to the music of the time — and not just the top ten pop songs but some of those songs that make me smile and think, wow, I forgot all about that one.  Helen Ready singing Delta Dawn, Cat Stevens singing anything.  Watch and listen to Delta Dawn here:

Turns out I’m close in age to the teenage protagonist, Paul Hood, who narrates this story of a disastrous ice storm which is the backdrop for his family’s implosion.  Of course his parents’ marriage has been rocky for some time — his father, Benjamin Hood is having an affair with a neighbor and his mother, Elena, cannot get enough self-help books to find her way out of a deep depression.  In the Midwest, in 1973, I didn’t know of anybody’s parents having “key parties” — where the men drop their car keys into a bowl as they walk in the door and at the end of the night, the women choose a set of keys randomly from that bowl.  Here is the man she will go home with, have sex with, no strings attached.  It might have happened.  In New Canaan, in 1973, we learn, key parties happen all the time.  And all this sexual promiscuity trickles down to the children — even the pre-teens are experimenting with alcohol and sex when they’re not playing with dolls, eating junk food and watching endless television.  Now that seemed very familiar to me.

Okay, the book is depressing.  No doubt about it.  But, too, it’s darkly funny.  It begins like this:  “So let me dish you this comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up.”  So, 1973cover-OurBodiesyou’re expecting humor but right away Moody hits you with other emotions:  nostalgia, embarrassment, fear of aging, desperation.   Anyone who has been through adolescence can relate to Paul Hood’s all-consuming crush on the most popular girl in school.  And in the early seventies, in the middle of the sexual revolution, we were all still trying to figure out how to deal with “free love” and wanting all relationships to be “relevant.”   It wasn’t the beginning of married couples having affairs, but it sure became a whole lot easier, after birth control became readily available and cheaper than it had been before.  The collective consciousness was open and searching.  Or so it seemed at the time.

The Hood family members are all searching too, trying to make sense of their comfortable suburban upper class lives.  They’re all pretty selfish, kind of hard to like — except for the voice of the teenage boy, Paul, Rick Moody’s voice, which catches everyone with their pants down.  Their individual self-absorption and petty concerns are magnified by the enormity of the ice storm, wreaking havoc and ultimately real disaster in their cushy neighborhood.  As Mother Nature is powerful enough to destroy life through major events, ice-stormice storms and hurricanes and mudslides, so too is our flawed human nature capable of destroying lives and relationships and families.  But, like the cleaning up and moving on that inevitably happens after natural disasters, human beings are resilient and can do the same.

In the Afterword to my edition of The Ice Storm is an essay by Rick Moody entitled: The Creature Lurches from the Lagoon:  More Notes on Adaptation, I discovered that this novel was made into a movie.  Of course, I couldn’t wait to see it and really enjoyed reading the authors thoughts about that process.  The thing that most interested me was that the film, by Ang Lee, has an original score.  What?  I wasn’t going to hear all those old seventies tunes?  But I trust the author when he says that the score, though it sounds kind of Eastern (lots of gamelan in it), it is mournful and for him brings up  “waves of regret about the past.”

So I watched it.  I recommend it.  But read the book first, especially if 1973 is stored in some of your own memory synapses.  But, be warned.  You may just be tempted to dust off some of your old vinyl.

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Ghosts and Glass Slippers and Drugs — Oh My!

SkylightConfessionsAs Alice Hoffman’s novel, Skylight Confessions, opens, Seventeen-year-old Arlyn Singer has just lost her father to a long illness.  With no mother or siblings, Arlyn alone nursed him through his final days and listened to his stories about people he met during his career as a ferry boat captain.  Her favorite story is about a tribe in Connecticut who looked like normal people until the boat went down or when they needed to escape — then they sprouted wings, flew away and saved themselves.

After her father’s funeral, Arlyn stands on her front porch and looks out into the unknown distant future, promising herself that she will marry the next man she sees.  Three hours cottageWithPorchlater a young man, John Moody, pulls up in his beat-up Saab and tells Arlyn — still standing on the porch — that he’s lost.  He’s a senior at Yale studying architecture on his way to a party.  Arlyn looks at the directions and agrees that he is very lost — the party is four towns over.  As in a fairy tale, the strange young man suddenly notices how tired he is and Arlyn invites him in to rest.  He stretches out on the sofa and falls into a deep sleep. Arlyn watches him for a while then goes into the kitchen and rustles up the first meal she has eaten in the three days since her father’s death.  Then she tidies up the dishes, takes off all her clothes and waits for John Moody to notice.  Now, although she’s never even been kissed before, she takes John Moody to bed and knows he is her destiny.  They stay in bed for three days.  Early on the fourth morning, John realizes what he’s done and slinks off in the dark to go back to Yale.

BridgeportFerry But Arlyn is not to be trifled with.  She’s a doer, driven to take control of her future.  So she sells her father’s house, packs up all her belongings and takes the ferry to Bridgeport and on to New Haven to track down her man.  Shocked at her arrival, John tells Arlyn to leave, but she is so certain, so “young and insistent” that he lets her stay, “just for one night.”  But while he studies, she waits for him in bed and the sex is even hotter than he remembers: “he was in a fever, he was acting like a man in love.”  But when he falls asleep, he has nightmares of  “houses falling down, broken windows, women who hold on and don’t let go.”  In a panic, he gets up early and leaves her a note:  “Have a good trip home.”  He takes his exam and then stops for a couple of beers before driving to his parent’s house near Madison, Connecticut.  But Arlyn gets a ride to John’s parents’ house and arrives half an hour before he does.  As John approaches the house, he sees Arlyn in the kitchen with his mother cutting up carrots for their dinner.  Third time’s the charm — John surrenders to his destiny.

Flash forward and the couple have a baby and live in graduate student housing at Columbia University.  Eventually they move to John’s parents’  house in Connecticut — the Glass Slipper.  It’s a famous house built by John Moody’s father, an acclaimed architect whose reputation John can never live up to.  But John and Arlyn’s marriage is lonely.  John is not interested in his son while, for Arlyn, it seems Sam is the only thing she is interested in.  Not a great combo.  The boy turns out to be a strange solitary child with no friends besides his mother and a baby squirrel he finds and carries home in his pocket.  Soon Arlyn falls into an affair with the window washer (this glass house needs window washing every week!) and John with the next door neighbor.  Arlyn conceives a child with her lover, quickly develops breast cancer, and dies within months.

Flash forward again and John Moody is visiting a psychic medium in New York because he’s being haunted by Arlyn.  Enter a young woman, Meredith, who can see the ghost of Arlyn following behind John Moody.  She’s intrigued enough and lost enough herself to want to know more about this man and his ghost so she shows up unannounced at the Glass Slipper.  When Meredith arrives, Sam is standing on the flat part of the roof, as if he will jump or thinks he can fly.  (Remember that strange flying Connecticut tribe?) And now, in another of the more and more difficult points in the novel when the reader is asked to suspend disbelief, this twenty-eight-year-old, Brown University educated young woman decides to stay with the Moody family and become the live-in nanny for Sam and his half sister Blanca.  Sam Moody is now sixteen — a difficult, messed up teenager who has a problem with drugs and with life.  The story moves forward, Meredith develops a deep relationship with the Moody children, John marries the next door neighbor.  But no one can save Sam from himself and his eventual addiction.  And Sam, apparently not being from that tribe that can fly away, cannot save himself either.  But Meredith does meet a young physicist with whom she can discuss her experiences with Arlyn Moody’s ghost.

By now, I’ve lost interest in this story and I’m not sure why.  Maybe because of all that not-so-willing suspension of disbelief I’ve engaged in throughout; maybe because none of these characters is likeable or believable enough for me; or, maybe because I keep waiting for Sam Moody to fly away and save himself or for Arlyn’s ghost to stop haunting the man she didn’t love in life and to intercede with the son she loved so desperately.  But, apparently, ghosts haunt the person who can’t let them go and for some inexplicable reason, John Moody can’t let the dead Arlyn go when it seemed he couldn’t wait to get rid of her in life.

Turns out Sam does believe that he belongs to the Connecticut  race who can fly, but for him flight means escaping through drugs.  His end is tragic, as it was predestined to be. Blanca escapes from Connecticut to run a bookshop in London that sells only fairy tales.  Of course.  The themes of fairy tales and ghosts, especially confronting one’s ghosts, is a theme that Hoffman plays with throughout this novel.  For me, though, the story covers so much ground in so few pages that I don’t feel connected enough with any of the characters and it ends up feeling more Grimm than hopeful.

Sadly, too, I do not get any real sense of Connecticut through Skylight Confessions.  I  that many of the characters in this story can’t wait to leave — that it’s a place in which it’s easy to get stuck, just as Arlyn’s ghost has been stuck.  I know that “The lanes here in Connecticut  were winding, green, shadowy. There were fields with stone walls . . . built a century earlier when cows roamed the pasture.”  Sam Moody sums it up for Meredith as “green and boring” but she stays on in Connecticut for exactly that reason, she says, “Connecticut felt safe, a bubble floating above the real world.”  She wants “The bubble. The green lawn. The blackbirds.  The quiet.”  One can stay in the bubble for a while but ultimately, like Meredith, we must all confront our own ghosts.

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Connecticut and R. J. Julia Booksellers

From Inside Madison

From Inside Madison http://insidemadison.com/photos/

I know Connecticut is beautiful — from the countryside to the shore.  I’ve seen it myself.  My online search for an independent bookstore here pulls me to the shore and specifically to Madison, Connecticut, home of R. J. Julia Booksellers.  Find them here:  http://www.rjjulia.com/  I fell in love with this bookstore as soon as I saw their website.  The masthead of the shop is a quaint rendering of the storefront in summer — all old-fashioned window panes, gas lamps and tables of books out front.  And their motto:  A Great Place to Meet Books — I love that!  I find myself clicking around to find out about the store’s history.  R. J. Julia has been around for over twenty years. The owner Roxanne Coady and her husband Kevin purchased an abandoned old brick building on the main street in Madison, Connecticut which, in an earlier life, was home to Nick’s Bar & Grill.  With the goal of moving permanently to Connecticut and turning the old building into a place where words matter, where writer meets reader, where the ambiance and selection and merchandising of books creates an atmosphere that is welcoming and presents the opportunity for discovery.  Nice.  And when I read this:  We are fiercely committed to putting the right book in the right hand, I give them a call. rjjulia

The woman who picks up the phone is pleasant and courteous. I explain my project and she’s interested but asks if she can call me back since there’s is a line at the checkout.   I hear convivial murmuring in the background and imagine myself in that line.  Of course, I say, and give her my number.  When she calls back, I’m at the office and a little distracted.  Nevertheless, she’s excited about my project and quite clear about the books she’s recommending.  First, she mentions Wally Lamb’s I Know this Much Is True and I think about that but reject it because I tried and rejected an earlier novel of his a few years ago as too depressing.  I’ll probably give this acclaimed author another chance, but not right now.  Next, she mentions SkylightConfessionsAlice Hoffman and I perk up — I have read something by Hoffman and ask which one she’s recommending.  It’s called Skylight Confessions (haven’t read it)  it takes place right in Madison, Connecticut where R. J. Julia is located, and that sounds great to me.  Next, she recommends The Ice Storm by Rick Moody.  Another author I have not read but feel I should know, since this novel of his has also been made into a movie.  We agree that she will send those two along and we chat briefly about her community, Madison, which she theIceStormenthusiastically suggests I visit.  You’d love it!  She assures me and I believe her.  When I look at a map of Connecticut, I discover that Madison is right next to Guilford and realize that I must have passed very near to this place a few years ago when my brother and his new wife took us to the shore not too far from their house.  Funny how the longer I live, the more I feel like a character in a Russian novel — all those chance meetings and coincidences.

I find myself returning to R. J. Julia’s website frequently as I wait for my package of books to arrive — it’s filled with recommendations, lists of events (over 350 per year) and bios of the booksellers.  Now I’m sorry I didn’t ask the name of the person I spoke with.  Note to self — in the future, find out who you’re talking to!  The owner of the shop, Roxanne Coady, also writes a column, Dear Reader, and I find myself returning to that more than once because I like the tone of her writing and because it makes me feel a little more connected to this place which is almost three thousand miles from where I’m writing.  Now for the best part — unpack those books and get reading!

 

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Reluctant to Leave Georgia

I know this is a book blog.  And yet…  Whenever I mention books set in Georgia, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt,

Midnight_in_the_Garden_of_Good_and_Evil_covercomes up.  I didn’t choose to read that book while passing through Georgia because it’s not, strictly speaking, a novel — it’s based on the true story of the shooting of a male hustler by a wealthy antiques dealer and the subsequent murder trials.  But I knew that a movie had been adapted from the book, so I looked it up.  Turns out it has two of my favorite actors in it — John Cusack and Kevin Spacey.  How can I resist?  I can’t, of course, so I rented it and watched it the other night.  What a great film!  Right away, I’m fascinated by the atmosphere of Savannah’s rich and famous at play — the magnificent Mercer House, home of the antiques dealer character Jim MercerHouseWilliams (Kevin Spacey) the way the journalist Berendt (John Cusack) is taken in by it all.  And I’m taken in too by the colorful characters — Minerva, the “root doctor” who is inextricably connected to the characters and their stories and the drag queen, Lady Chablis, is fabulous playing herself in the movie.

The book spent an unprecedented 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Southern Book Award for Nonfiction.  See:  The New Georgia Encyclopedia:  http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/midnight-garden-good-and-evil  Of course, this book is now added to my must-read list.

Midnight-picBySamEmersonThat said, I’m so glad I saw the movie before reading the book.  Everyone I’ve talked with who read the book first thought the movie was a big disappointment.  I get how that can happen since I usually find books are better than the movies adapted from them.  Once I’ve visualized those characters and scenes in my imagination, the actors and cameras usually fall short.  But I love both books and films and appreciate the impossibility of any filmmaker flawlessly transferring book to screen.  But that misses the point.  A film can stand alone and sometimes even rise above a book in the hands of a brilliant director and talented actors.  Okay, now I’m going off on a tangent.

Suffice to say, I think the movie got bad reviews because readers wanted it to be just like the book and so many people read that book.  According to The New Georgia Encyclopedia article, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sold more than three million copies, has been translated into twenty-three languages, and has brought hundreds of thousands of tourists to Savannah.  But I haven’t read it and so for me, the movie was brilliant.  All that Johnny Mercer music, the visual opulence of Savannah and its quirky characters were fascinating.  I’m highly recommending it.

But it’s time to leave Georgia for my next stop — Connecticut.  I have been to Connecticut.  My brother lives in Guilford, but I have only been there once — because the way in which my family is unhappy is that my brother no longer speaks to me.  But that’s another story.

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Be Careful What You Wish For – Ravens by George Dawes Green

RavensThe Boatwright family is in trouble.  Creditor’s send bills to their workplaces, they’re in danger of losing their house to foreclosure, the mom, Patsy, has a drinking problem, the dad, Mitch, is religious, passive and ineffectual and their youngest son, Jase, is just a kid — clueless and mostly tuned into video games.  There may be some hope for their eldest daughter, Tara (yeah, like the plantation) she’s going to night school and taking organic chemistry with the dream of finding a way out of Brunswick, Georgia.  And then the worst possible thing happens – they win the Georgia mega-millions lottery.  That’s three hundred and eighteen million dollars.

Turns out Patsy Boatwright has been buying lottery tickets for years, parking herself on the sofa on Wednesday nights to watch the drawing with a steady flow of gin & tonic’s.  Chapter one ends with Patsy holding the winning ticket, yelling “GRACE OF GOD! GRACE OF GOD! GRACE OF GOD!” while rocking back and forth in front of the television.  Enter Shaw and Romeo, young tech support workers from Dayton, Ohio, driving through Brunswick on their way to Florida.  On their way, that is, until they stop at a convenience store, the very store which has sold Mitch Boatwright the winning lottery ticket.  When a pretty young clerk rebuffs Shaw’s advances, and lies to him about knowing who won the jackpot, “a shaft of anger” opens up inside him, into which the seed of a plan begins to germinate.  It’s a plan to terrorize the Boatwrights into giving him and his buddy Romeo half of the jackpot.

The plan seems far-fetched at first – Shaw overhears the convenience store

clerk talking about who bought the winning ticket, then he does a little online sleuthing to find out who the family might be.  Of course, it’s frighteningly easy for anyone with a little bit of knowledge to find out a whole lot about anyone over the internet – that’s the point here.  Shaw is quickly on the scent of the Boatwrights.  He scares up the most information from Tara’s MySpace page.  Shaw’s character is well drawn – multi-faceted and increasingly frightening.  He’s strange at first and angry and says some weird things:  “Here’s this universe filled with power, right?  These energies, all around us, in every molecule.  And you and me, we’re smart, we’re capable, we’re clever.  . . . But we might as well be ghosts.  We can’t seem to get hold of a fucking thing. . . Everything goes to someone else.”  So Shaw decides it’s time he gets hold of the Boatwright’s windfall.

After cleverly inveigling his way into their home by pretending to be from the Lottery Commission, Shaw sets forth his scheme:  he will take half the winnings and leave them alone once he has it. In the meantime he will live with them, they will concoct a believable story about how he came to know them and bought the winning ticket with Mitch but if anyone tries to stop him or tip off the police, he will kill their loved ones one by one.  For emphasis he has them turn out the lights and look out the window at his partner, Romeo, skulking under the chestnut tree in the front yard, lit by a streetlight.  He’s the partner and designated killer should anything go wrong.  And right then, just after threatening them, Shaw tells the Boatwrights about his dream, “all this love; I want to bring kindness and truth and virtue to the world.  But I’ve never had the tools before, and here a tool is set down before me—.“  The tool, of course, being the Boatwrights’ windfall.

The cover story is that Shaw met Mitch Boatwright when Mitch was in Greenville, SC at a training course for work.  Mitch volunteered at a crisis center through his church, Faith Renewal, and Shaw was a desperate suicidal man.  Mitch had saved his life.  They convince everyone that Mitch and Shaw were buddies, that Shaw came to Brunswick to visit Mitch and they bought the lottery tickets together.  And here’s where things get all Southern Gothic.  The Boatwrights are, of course, good church going Christians.  At the press conference announcing the winners, Shaw tells the bogus story about their meeting, how Mitch saved his life and then Shaw stuns the crowd by saying he plans to give most of his share of the money away.

The rest of the novel plays out with Romeo stalking the Boatwright’s loved ones while an old cop, Burris Jones, nicknamed Deppity Dog, who has been in love with Tara’s Grandma, Nell, since they were in high school together, continues to sniff around and investigate, like a dog on a bone.  And Deppity Dog smells a rat.  The family becomes more and more terrified and yet strangely drawn to the charismatic and clearly crazy Shaw as he achieves rock star status in their little town and especially in the Faith Renewal church community.  He begins to have followers, pilgrims, so many want to hear Shaw speak about the miracle of winning the mega-millions lottery and his dream to use the money to make the world a better place that they have to set up camp out at the local fairgrounds.  Then Diane Sawyer interviews Shaw, asks him about all these disciples he’s attracted — does he think the Lord is calling him?  Is his winning the jackpot some kind of divine intervention?  Shaw knows that the pilgrims love him, that he has “woven this whole world out of pure faith.  It’s a kind of magical tapestry of faith and love and power and it’s come alive now.”

brunswickga-wikipedia.png

brunswickga-wikipedia.png

Ravens is suspenseful and well-written — a page turner.  Occasionally I had trouble suspending disbelief — how long could these guys really hold this family hostage with all the media attention they were getting?  But Shaw’s deeply flawed, twisted character, his apparent belief in divine intervention, the unhinged scenarios that play through his mind as the action plays out on the page kept me reading and wondering how the Boatwright’s could possibly get out of this mess. And the religious aspect kept me fascinated.  It’s absurd that Shaw can so easily exploit  the Boatwright’s and the larger community’s belief in a personal God, right?  These salt of the earth, church-going Southern folk know that God controls the lives of ordinary humans and are thrilled to experience the miracle of the mega-millions jackpot personally, right here and right now in the twenty-first century, in their own town.  God has sent his prophet Shaw to Brunswick, Georgia to walk among them, to heal the sick and feed the poor.  The author explores this theme throughout the novel as the community and most everyone in the family begins to believe.  Mitch Boatwright goes from believing that his family has been blessed by God with all this money, to blaming their own greed for what is happening.  Finally Mitch concludes that Shaw and Romeo have been sent from God to test their strength and that they have been found wanting.  Except for Tara.  Tara’s the one who’s going to college, who has read books other than the bible.  Keep your eye on Tara as you read this book, and on Deppity Dog.  Love and education are more powerful than blind faith and ignorance, even in South Georgia.

 

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Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

WiseBloodWise Blood by Flannery O’Conner is a strange book.  In the Author’s Note to the Second Edition, she describes it as a comic novel dealing with matters of life and death, wherein protagonist, Hazel Motes, struggles with his faith in Jesus “like a monkey swinging back and forth in his brain.”   I found little comic in the novel.

At the outset, Hazel is on a train going to “the city” later identified as Eastrod, Tennessee.  He’s wearing a brand-new suit which is a “glaring” blue and still has the $11.95 price tag stapled to the sleeve.  His hat, noticed by everyone he meets, looks like a “preacher’s hat.”  Haze has nowhere to go after serving in the army for four years and losing his family one by one.  He is preoccupied by the deaths of his younger brothers and his mother, especially wondering where they go as their coffins are closed over them.  He says he wanted to put his elbow into his mother’s coffin to keep it from closing her into the darkness.  Everyone he meets seems to be attracted to his eyes, trying to see into their impenetrable depths.  Like his name, which reflects the protagonist’s state of mind, there’s a lot of imagery around “seeing” in this novel.  And, while everyone takes Hazel for a preacher, he insists that he is not now, and never will be, a preacher.  Methinks he doth protest too much.

When Hazel reaches his destination, he decides to prove that he’s a sinner by visiting a prostitute and then proclaiming himself a preacher for The Church Without Christ.  Much of the action of the novel takes place between Hazel and a simple young man, Enoch Emery who follows him around and tries to befriend him “because there’s nothing worse than having no friend in the world.”  I think that many scenes involving Enoch and his wanderings around the zoo and his fascination with a mummy encased in glass in a museum there are meant to be comic.  But for me, the portrayal of this simple, uneducated man is less funny and more pitiful.  When Enoch hears someone preach about “a new Jesus” he decides that the mummy is this new Jesus so he steals the mummy and gives it to Hazel.

Try as he might to avoid the role of preacher, Hazel cannot stop himself fromBible preaching or from thinking about Jesus. This is not surprising since the bible is the only book he’s ever read, and “when he did he wore his mother’s glasses” which tired his eyes.  Nor can Haze avoid the scammers who try to hook up with him to make a buck — a charlatan who shows up while Hazel is preaching and makes fifteen dollars and some change for his trouble; another preacher who pretends to be blind and his bizarre daughter who decides she wants to marry Hazel.  But Haze becomes more and more tormented and deeply withdrawn.  In desperation, he blinds himself with a bucket of lye, then wears barbed wire under his shirt to add to his suffering and stays mostly in his room.  When his landlady, who has been caring for him, suggests that they get married, Hazel runs out into the icy rain with his cane wearing his now threadbare suit, preacher’s hat and shoes lined with broken glass and rocks.  The next day he’s found unconscious in a ditch by two policemen who take him back to his landlady to pay his rent even though Hazel tells them, “I want to go on where I’m going.”  Hazel dies in the back of the squad car but no one realizes he’s dead.  His landlady remarks that she “has never seen his face more composed.”  The more she looks into it, the more she sees him “moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light.”  Whew.  I close the book and am glad it’s over.

Okay, I know Flannery O’Conner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century.  And I’ve read some terrific short stories she’s written, but Wise Blood leaves me cold.  There, I wrote it out loud!  It’s always hard for me to admit that I don’t like a novel which is considered by literary critics to be genius — it makes me feel ignorant.  That said, I now understand why O’Connor only wrote two novels.  The long form is not her strength.  Or, more likely, it’s just me.  I’m not interested in reading about the quest for religious belief.  But that’s not entirely true.  I’m simply not interested in reading about that quest when it involves an absurd and twisted set of characters, self-mutilation and martyrdom.

Andalusia Farm - Main House

Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm – Georgia southernliterarytrail.org

What have I learned about Georgia as a place through reading Wise Blood?  Sadly, not much.  I imagine that in the Bible Belt during O’Connor’s time there were plenty of circuit riding preachers – fake ones as well as true believers, and maybe some individuals who, like Hazel Motes, had been taught to read and write “but that it was wiser not to.”  And I know that O’Connor was interested in faith — Catholicism v. Fundamentalism particularly, and, while this story sets forth one side of that equation, it feels mean-spirited to me.  Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”  (Mystery & Manners:  Occasional Prose by Flannery O’Connor.)  I know the characters in Wise Blood are not meant to be realistic — they just might be too grotesque to speak to this Yankee.

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