Rolling hills of farms. Fields full of tall grass. Trees dripping with kudzu. Long two-lane roads running through this landscape. Picture this, and yo...moreRolling hills of farms. Fields full of tall grass. Trees dripping with kudzu. Long two-lane roads running through this landscape. Picture this, and you've perfectly captured the setting of Cathy Holton's latest novel Summer in the South.
After living a mostly-nomadic life with little in the way of roots, save some time spent in Chicago, Ava Dabrowski is struggling. Her career is in shambles; her love life is a disaster; and she's just lost her estranged mother. When old college acquaintance Will Fraser offers her a place to stay for the summer in Tennessee, Ava surprises even herself by accepting. Ava drives south, knowing little to nothing about the so-called Bible belt. Although what she experiences confirms many southern cliches, Ava also learns much about small town life in the south -- which is, as Holton says, "a place where nothing much ever happened. If you didn't count murder, tragedy, undying love, and familial revenge" (314).
Summer in the South is much more than a simple Yankee-thrown-into-the-south tale, though. Holton employs multiple devices that enrich the novel. For one thing, there is a novel-within-a-novel feel to the story (although we don't ever actually read Ava's novel) as Ava struggles to write a novel based on the history of Will's family. Her battle with writer's block and then descriptions of her feverish periods of writing were fascinating to me. At one point Ava becomes lost in what Holton describes as a "fairy-tale view of reality"after "a period of intense work on her novel" (288).
Holton also includes historical elements in Summer in the South. In fact, the story begins with a death that took place in 1931. As any respecting southerner would tell you, you are nobody without a family history. Whether it be tales of genteel life on the plantation (similar to Will's family's history) or stories of bootleg moonshine and gambling (as in some of the other characters' personal histories), "who your people are" is important in the south.
Holton peoples her novel with rich, dynamic characters. In addition to Ava, Will, and the elderly sisters who open their home to Ava, both Will's cousin Fraser and local ex-UT-cheerleader-turned-jilted-housewife Darlene come to mind. Fraser, who attended UVA and was a member of the Raven Society, now dresses and has taken on the affectations of Edgar Allen Poe. Darlene is a caricature of a trampy middle-aged pageant queen. Both bring a liveliness to a novel that is otherwise dark in some of its themes -- death, loss, the past.
The main character Ava is a quintessential almost-30-year-old single female: constantly taking up with the wrong men, spurning the good ones. Chasing dreams and squelching actual paths that have promise. But in the end she learns something from her time in the southern town she inhabits:
"She laughed. 'I've always wondered, what is the meaning of life? But now it dawns on me that I've been asking the wrong question.' 'What's the right question?' 'What is the meaning of my life?' 'Ah,' he said." (327)
At times Holton seems dangerously close to writing out southern cliches rather than describing the "real" south. But it occured to me that often things become cliche because they are, in fact, so true. For example, some of her names sound old-fashioned and far-fetched: Maitland, Josephine, Fanny, Clara. But she isn't off-base at all with these eccentric-sounding names. I live in the south, the land of these real-life names: Imelda, Elbert, Nester, Inzy, Bertha (all real people).
Holton writes about a place where people say, "Who would have thunk it" and "bless her little heart"; where "we don't push a button [but] mash it"; "and if someone down here says your baby is sweet, well, then you know it's ugly" (121). Far from becoming cliche, Holton writes about the south exactly as it is -- whether we want to own up to it or not!
Summer in the South was a charming novel whose characters, setting, and plot drew me in and refused to let me go. I finished the entire book in just over 48 hours! It was the perfect book to kick-start my summer reading. As the afternoons grow long and the sun gets hot, treat yourself with this excellent example of southern literature.
Cathy Holton is the author of several other novels (which you know I will be snapping up quickly to read), including Beach Trip and two novels about a group of women who call themselves the Kudzu Debutantes. As I'm heading to the beach in two weeks, I think you can guess that copies of all three may just make it into my beach bag -- especially Beach Trip!
You can visit Holton at her website or her blog. You can also read an excerpt of Summer in the South on her website and see for yourself just how good it is. (less)
Several years ago, I sat in a crowd of people and watched a body decompose in a series of time-release photographs. In the heat of a Tennessee summer,...moreSeveral years ago, I sat in a crowd of people and watched a body decompose in a series of time-release photographs. In the heat of a Tennessee summer, the decomposition took about two weeks. I was both repelled and fascinated.
The presenter of the photographs? Dr. Bill Bass, founder of the University of Tennessee's Body Farm, a facility designed to study the field of forensic anthropology.
I first heard about the Body Farm in Patricia Cornwell's book of the same name, one of her Kay Scarpetta series novels. In that session at the Southern Festival of Books (in Memphis that year), I became interested in Bass's work.
When I heard that Bass was beginning a fictional series based on his life's work, I was intrigued. Teaming up with former journalist Jon Jefferson, Bass has written a series of books starring main character Bill Brockton, a UT forensic anthropologist mirrored after Bass. The series in order, followed by links to my reviews:
Carved in Bone (2006) - my review Flesh and Bone (2007) - my review The Devil's Bones (2008) - my review Bones of Betrayal (2009) - my review The Bone Thief (2010) - my review
This past March, the duo, writing under the pseudonym Jefferson Bass, published the sixth book in the series, The Bone Yard. All five previous books have been set in Tennessee, from northeast Tennessee to Knoxville to Chattanooga to Oak Ridge (save one business trip to Vegas). This sixth book departs from that slightly in that Brockton stays in the south, but in northern Florida rather than Tennessee.
When a trainee has to leave a Body Farm training camp early to return to Florida, she asks Dr. Bill Brockton to assist her. The investigation? Her sister's death, ruled a suicide by the coroner but suspected by trainee Angie St. Clair to be a result of domestic violence. That case is what initially pulls Brockton to Florida. However, once there he's asked to consult on a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) case involving a skull found by a hound.
When that case turns into a deeper mystery, Brockton makes a second trip to Florida for a lengthier stay. They track the missing skulls -- now plural -- to the site of an old boys' reform school, long closed after a fire that destroyed the school and killed several boys. An old diary found at the site uncovers secrets covered up for years by state officials. After all, the reform school was a state-run institution for underage boys convicted of crimes. What the team uncovers will chill your soul.
At times difficult to read, the book examines issues that have been around as long as humans have been on this planet. Abuses of power, injustices against the weak, corruption in government. The passages from the diary were especially heart-wrenching, as they were written in the voice of an underage inmate. My mom read this book after I finished it, and she told me quite frankly that she skipped most of the diary entries. The abuse they detailed was hard to digest.
For most of the book, I missed the Tennessee setting. Although Jefferson and Bass did an excellent job of describing northern Florida (Jon Jefferson's home state, I believe), I read this series initially because they were set in my home state. So, I missed it. However, the storylines -- both the boys' school and Angie St. Clair's sister's death -- were just as good as all of the other books in the series.
The final scene in the book won it over for me. I won't spoil anything for you, but let's just say it shows insight into Brockton's character and celebrates the Florida setting at the same time. It is a beautifully written scene that wraps the book up perfectly, while also setting the scene for (hopefully) more books in the series yet to come.(less)
Michael Koryta (pronounced ko-ree-ta, according to his website) has long been a writer of detective mysteries with his Lincoln Perry series, but I ini...moreMichael Koryta (pronounced ko-ree-ta, according to his website) has long been a writer of detective mysteries with his Lincoln Perry series, but I initially heard of him when his 2010 supernatural novel So Cold the River was published. The book was reviewed all over the blogosphere, with the majority of the reviews I read praising Koryta and the novel.
Then I first read Koryta with his last novel, published by Little, Brown, called The Cypress House. I loved it, with Koryta's rich setting descriptions and deep understanding of southern Florida. Koryta also told a darn good ghost story, full of interesting characters and unexpected plot turns.
In The Ridge, which releases today, Koryta does all of that and more. First, a plot description:
Audrey Clark owns a large cat sanctuary with land in eastern Kentucky. After human developments encroach on the former location, she and husband David decide to relocate to their newly purchased acreage. Complications arise from the start; the only neighbor for miles around takes issue with the animals moving to his area, and other things begin to happen. Then, while working at the property, David falls to his death. Shocked and grief-stricken, Audrey pushes forward with plans for the move. When the novel opens, she is preparing the great animals for departure to their new home with the help of several trusted employees.
Simultaneously, the novel begins with two disturbing phone calls from Audrey's new neighbor. One to sheriff's deputy Kevin Kimble and the other to a reporter at a closing local newspaper. Although both men largely dismiss the rambling calls they receive, the calls start an accordion-like series of events into motion. What lurks in "them there hills" of Kentucky is sinister and impossible to ignore.
Koryta does an excellent job with the southern setting in The Ridge. After The Cypress House, which describes both Florida and the 1930s with enormous skill, I suppose I should have expected no less. The Kentucky landscape is perfectly detailed, with mountains, ridges, and woods described with precision. As a Tennessean, I felt right at home in Koryta's hills. Koryta also rises to the occasion in his descriptions of small town life in the south. The population is nosy and tightly-knit, exactly as most small towns are.
Kevin Kimble, reporter Roy Darmus, Audrey Clark, and the many various and sundry secondary characters are drawn with a fine hand. Koryta's characters are achingly human, with both heroic moments and devastating faults in each. The result is a bevy of characters who could have walked off the streets and into the novel's pages. They are, in short, extraordinarily human -- a trait that causes them to engage the reader's sympathy. Additionally, Koryta makes the cats themselves into characters of a sort, with characteristics that differentiate one from another, lending an almost-human-ness to them.
And just who is Wyatt French, the neighbor who both campaigned against the cat sanctuary and also reaches out through two seemingly random phone calls? Although at first glance he is simply an eccentric -- the town drunk who laughingly built a lighthouse on the top of a tree-lined ridge, far from a body of water -- with closer examination, both Kimble and Roy find him to be an interesting individual indeed. For what or whom did he build his lighthouse? And why did he make the phone calls specifically to them?
Koryta unravels these mysteries in a plot that hinges on suspense. I literally read this novel through the night (well, when I could -- it gets creepy at times!). The supernatural element lends a ghostly quality to the novel, similar to The Cypress House. Koryta takes his readers to the edge of their seats and stretches their belief in otherwordly beings. The Ridge reads like an old oral ghost story is told -- by turns slow, then fast, speeding up to a crashing crescendo at the end.
Michael Koryta is the author of seven other novels, four in the Lincoln Perry series and three standalone titles. You can follow his blog or explore his website for more information. (less)
I have long loved Elizabeth Berg's writing. In high school, I read her ode to female friendship, Talk Before Sleep. It was a touching novel, one that...moreI have long loved Elizabeth Berg's writing. In high school, I read her ode to female friendship, Talk Before Sleep. It was a touching novel, one that continues to top my favorites of all time. I haven't missed anything she's written since.
Her latest novel, Once Upon a Time, There Was You is a prime example of the kind of books Berg writes best -- genuine novels that explore relationships, flaws and all. John and Irene are a couple once married, long divorced. Because they have a child together, their lives have been endlessly intertwined, despite being not married for far longer than they were together. Although each has had other relationships, neither has ever remarried. Instead, their lives have been poured into raising their child, Sadie.
John still lives in Minnesota, where the couple met and lived together as a family. After their divorce, Irene fled to San Francisco where she lives with Sadie. John gets Sadie on holidays and for summers. Now that Sadie is eighteen and moving on to college, her parents are at a crossroads themselves. Especially Irene, whose entire life has been devoted to raising her daughter, is at a loss as to the next step for her life.
Most of the novel is fairly devoid of action-filled plot; rather, it is an intense look at relationships and emotions. However, Berg deviated from this around page 100 and almost lost me for a few dozen pages. She rights herself again, however, and pulled me back into John and Irene's lives. Berg writes characters beautifully, and this novel is no exception. Irene, John, and Sadie are all rich characters whose intricacies and problems ring true.
Once Upon a Time, There Was You examines the major changes that take place in people's lives: becoming adults, leaving for college, getting married, getting divorced, moving. Ordinary, everyday events that are life-changing when viewed on the individual level.
Elizabeth Berg is the author of more than twenty novels and several non-fiction works. She can be found on the web at her website and blog. She also has several fun recipes on her website that I may look into with more depth once this week is complete and my summer has officially started! (less)
I am a HUGE Lisa Lutz fan. Her first few novels, which made up the Izzy Spellman series, were witty and smart mysteries starring a cast of eccentric c...moreI am a HUGE Lisa Lutz fan. Her first few novels, which made up the Izzy Spellman series, were witty and smart mysteries starring a cast of eccentric characters.
In this latest novel Heads You Lose, Lutz keeps much of the same things she's famous for -- fabulous, weird characters; a mystery; detailed setting -- and turns it on its head. Rather than writing another novel full of her own quirks, she decided to add another author into the mix: her ex-boyfriend, poet David Hayward. Her idea is simple. She writes one chapter, he writes the next. She writes another, he writes another. Back and forth until the novel is complete. One stipulation is that neither can change what the other has written.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that while the idea seemed simple, it hasn't turned out as such. The co-authors... shall we say... disagree on some points. Like, practically everything. The final result is a hilarious, romping good time.
So what is Heads You Lose (other than being a fun -- and funny -- writing project)?
The basic premise of the novel (from the book's website):
Meet Paul and Lacey Hansen: orphaned, pot-growing, twentysomething siblings eking out a living in rural Northern California. When a headless corpse appears on their property, they can’t exactly dial 911, so they move the body and wait for the police to find it. Instead, the corpse reappears, a few days riper ... and an amateur sleuth is born. Make that two.
But that’s only half of the story. When collaborators Lutz and Hayward—former romantic partners—start to disagree about how the story should unfold, the body count rises, victims and suspects alike develop surprising characteristics (meet Brandy Chester, the stripper with the Mensa IQ), and sibling rivalry reaches homicidal intensity. Will the authors solve the mystery without killing each other first?
[It's] Weeds meets Adaptation.
I loved this book for both aspects -- the collaborative part and the novel itself. Because as I was enjoying the crazy characters' antics, I enjoyed just as much the back and forth between the authors. Although they didn't alter each other's chapters, they definitely spoke their minds... both in their footnotes, and in the next chapter. I got the feeling that each author took a side in the brother/sister relationship in the novel and really went with it. As a result, the novel is full of plot twists and surprising character... er, growth.
Read more about Lutz and Hayward on their blog for the book. (Which is also co-written. And features comments by the other author after each post. It's funny.)(less)
As I laughed out loud (literally) through Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants which released last month, I began pondering her possible future political camp...moreAs I laughed out loud (literally) through Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants which released last month, I began pondering her possible future political campaign.
Okay, so maybe I wasn't serious. Or was I...
I suppose I was kidding about Bethenny (although, don't get me wrong -- I like her!), but if you read Bossypants -- and you should -- you just might start thinking the same thing. Tina Fey might not make it all the way to a presidential run, but she would probably make it into the state house of representatives. I know I would vote for her if we happened to live in the same state.
Palin on left, Fey-as-Palin on right No, I didn't start thinking that solely because Fey played an excellent parodied-version of 2008 Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin on SNL (although that helped). Nor did I begin thinking about Fey for President 2012 because of her extensive political career (although all that acting stuff sure does help, too; any politician needs lots of acting experience).
What did catch my eye (and my possible 2012 vote) was Fey's writing ability in Bossypants. Her writing demonstrated both the fact that she is very funny (already proven during her tenure on SNL and through her producing the NBC sitcom 30 Rock -- not to mention her writing the movies Mean Girls, starring Lindsay Lohan, and Baby Mama) and that she is highly intelligent. Also, she doesn't take herself seriously, and she loves self-deprecating humor. And did I mention she's smart?
Tina Fey may never make it into the wild world of politics (possibly because, despite my own personal feelings on the topic, she has made no indication whatsoever that she ever intends to do so), but that's no reason you still shouldn't pick up a copy of Bossypants. In it, Fey delves into many topics that have previously been off-limits in an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek, but somehow heartbreakingly honest way, including:
her facial scar (and how she uses it to measure character) her switch from SNL writer to on-air co-host of Weekend Update the birth of her "other" baby, 30 Rock her friendship with Amy Poehler playing Sarah Palin -- with the real Sarah Palin motherhood (breastfeeding Nazis and all)
Bossypants is Fey's first book. You can catch her, of course, as the star of 30 Rock on NBC Thursday nights at 10/9 central. Just to be clear, Fey is not (yet) running for any elected office. Also (SPOILER ALERT!), she agonizes over having a second child at the end of the book, and People magazine announced last month that Fey is, in fact, pregnant. Way to spoil the sequel, People.(less)
I've found my reading second-wind lately, resulting in several books read in the past week or two. One of these was the amazing Girl in Translation, a...moreI've found my reading second-wind lately, resulting in several books read in the past week or two. One of these was the amazing Girl in Translation, a novel by Jean Kwok that debuted in hardback last year and was released in trade paperback format this past Tuesday.
Kwok tells a semi-autobiographical tale of immigration from Asia to New York City in her debut novel Girl in Translation. Here's what Kwok says about the real-life connections in the novel:
"Although Girl in Translation is a work of fiction and not a memoir, the world in which it takes place is real. . . . I turned out to be quite good at school. We moved to New York City when I was five and my only gift was taken from me. I did not understand a word of English. . . . My family started working in a sweatshop in Chinatown . . . every day after school and we all emerged many hours later, soaked in sweat and covered in fabric dust. Our apartment swarmed with insects and rats. In the winter, we kept the oven door open day and night because there was no other heat in the apartment."
Kwok's main character, Kim, is also talented in one area: academic pursuits. Like Kwok, when Kim moves with her mother to America, she is terrible at school -- because she can't understand the language. Her mother knows even less English that Kim, and the only person they know in their new country is Kim's Aunt Paula, who owns a garment factory.
Initially, Aunt Paula puts them up in her own house. Then, she finds them an apartment of their own and gives Kim's mother a job. But the apartment is much like the apartment Kwok remembers from her own childhood: full of vermin and without heat. Additionally, Kim must work after school with her mother at the illegal by-the-piece job her aunt so kindly gives them, because otherwise her mother would be unable to complete the demands of the job.
In Girl in Translation, Kwok takes readers inside the mind of a child struggling to learn English, to assimilate to a new culture, to rise above her poverty-stricken circumstances, and to find herself somewhere in between. Kim is a winning narrator; my empathy for her soared throughout the novel. She is far from perfect, but she does the best she can. Often she is ashamed of her family, irritated with her mother, and angry with her aunt -- and rightly so.
Still, Kim manages to find a place for herself amidst all the outside pressures she feels, as did Kwok. More from Kwok on her childhood:
"As I slowly learned English my talent for school re-emerged. When I was about to graduate from elementary school, I won scholarships. . . . [T]here was still no money to spare. If I didn't get into a top school with a full financial aid package, I wouldn't be able to go to college. . . . In my last year in high school, I worked in three laboratories. . . . I was accepted early to Harvard and I'd done enough college work to take Advanced Standing when I entered, thus skipping a year and starting as a sophomore."
Although Kwok gives her characters a few more fictional adventures than the ones she endured, much remains the same: Kim is an intelligent young lady, who after immigrating to a new country feels ignorant. Through hard work and determination, her confidence returns.
Girl in Translation has joined my list of best books for the year. Kwok is a literary voice I hope to hear from again. Although this first novel seems to be born of her entire life experience thus far, I have no doubt she will tackle other topics and do so just as successfully.
The novel has been on my list of books I want to read for months, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to review it this week for Penguin. A huge thanks to Penguin publicist Erin Galloway for sending me a copy of the new trade paperback version and allowing me to help celebrate the trade paperback release.(less)
Beth Kendrick's The Bake-Off is the novel equivalent of the show Food Network Challenge. However, instead of only seeing food contestants in the midst...moreBeth Kendrick's The Bake-Off is the novel equivalent of the show Food Network Challenge. However, instead of only seeing food contestants in the midst of a food challenge, Kendrick brings us up close and personal inside the lives of two contestants: estranged sisters Amy and Linnie.
When their Grammy Syl cooks up a plot to get the two of them in the same city for the first time in years, both sisters hesitate. After all, anything they do together ends up terribly. Linnie, once a child prodigy who entered college at 16, threw it all away after one semester. Amy, a dental hygienist at her husband's dental practice and mother of twin toddlers, lost herself long ago to diapers and laundry. Linnie has never even met Amy's children; they organize family get-togethers around one another's schedules to avoid being in the same place at the same time.
Szarlotka, via Flickr But Linnie needs money, and Amy needs excitement. So the two end up as partners in the Delicious Duet baking contest, a dessert challenge in which the winners receive $100,000. Initially, neither sister can bake. In fact, they are somewhat of a disaster in the kitchen. But armed with Grammy's szarlotka recipe (and after several days of baking boot camp thanks to Grammy), they actually begin to stand a chance at winning.
The Bake-Off is a fast and fun read, especially if you are both a reader and a foodie. I could watch Food Network 24 hours a day, and you know how much I love to read. So the two combined together is a nice treat. The characters are likeable, the plot fun, and Kendrick even includes recipes! Read an excerpt of The Bake-Off on Kendrick's website.
Kendrick is also the author of several other novels, including My Favorite Mistake, Exes and Ohs, and Second Time Around. She also contributed to the nonfiction book Everything I Need to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume, which makes her a girl after my own heart. I grew up reading Blume, and I love everything she's ever written.(less)
It took me over a month to listen to Kathy Reichs' new YA novel Virals via Audible on my iPod. That in no way indicates how much or little I liked the...moreIt took me over a month to listen to Kathy Reichs' new YA novel Virals via Audible on my iPod. That in no way indicates how much or little I liked the novel; it is simply a reflection of how little time I've been able to spend listening to an audio book. My opportunities to listen to audiobooks in the last month were fairly limited: in the car on the way to work and just before going to sleep at night. I enjoyed the narrator and the book; however, I think when the second Virals book is released I'll be picking up a copy or e-book of it rather than listening.
The reason for this is simple: Reichs is an amazing author whose books I always enjoy. I love her Tempe Brennan series, and I've read almost all of them. (I think there was only one I abandoned because I simply couldn't get into it.) But. She also is a master of dense descriptions, both in setting and in technical language. Although I enjoyed listening to the audio version of this book, I feel that I would have been able to sink myself into it more thoroughly if I had been able to see the words she had written rather than hearing them.
On every learning-styles quiz I've ever taken, I score highest in visual and verbal categories and lowest in auditory. As a result, most of the books I listen to are lighter in subject matter and less dependent on my hearing and remembering every word -- I simply won't be able to! Because Virals was YA, I expected (I guess) a dumbed-down version of Reichs' normal scientific prose.
Virals is fascinating because Reichs does exactly the opposite -- and it works. Rather than having anything dumbed-down, Reichs pulls her YA characters up to par with Tempe. The book's main character Tory Brennan (niece to Tempe) and her band of friends are anything but your normal teenagers. Rather, they are high-IQ geeks who know much about both the sciences and technology.
While visiting a local South Carolina island that is home to a research facility, Tempe and friends happen upon a set of Vietnam-era dog tags. When they break into a supposedly-abandoned lab to examine the dog tags more closely, they find a caged wolf-canine mix that has been infected with the parvovirus. After rescuing the dog, things begin to heat up for the group as the mystery deepens and murder seems to be at hand.
Reichs does an excellent job writing on a YA level that will appeal to teens, but she mixes in her own expertise in forensic sciences, as well. There is also a science-fiction element to the novel that will continue into the other books in the series. Reichs has, therefore, written a novel that will appeal to readers who enjoy some fantasy in their reading material -- and let's face it: that applies to many YA readers. The most popular YA series seem to have a certain fantastical element (at least, recently): the Twilight saga, the Hunger Games series, and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, just to name a few.
My only gripe with the book is with Tory's group of male friends. Ben, Hi, and Shelton were interesting as a group, but indistinguishable from one another. Especially with my listening to it rather than reading, I could tell almost no individual traits for these boys. I wanted to like them as individuals rather than as a group, but it was difficult to tell them apart. Hopefully in future installments, there will be story lines that separate them from one another.
Kathy Reichs is, of course, the author of the popular Tempe Brennan forensic anthropologist series. A new Virals series book, Seizure, will be released this fall. (less)
I am still enjoying Lynne Bryant's first novel Catfish Alley (it is actually sitting on my desk, ready for me to dive back into it as soon as I finish...moreI am still enjoying Lynne Bryant's first novel Catfish Alley (it is actually sitting on my desk, ready for me to dive back into it as soon as I finish posting this!), but I just couldn't wait another day to tell you about it. It released a couple of weeks ago, and with the craziness that is state testing and field trips and fundraising for our school's Relay For Life team, I still haven't finished it. That is not to say that I'm not enjoying it, though. Because I am -- immensely. In fact, somewhere around page 200 last night I began to realize just how much I am enjoying it.
It may not have been smart for me to read it on the heels of Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Although fundamentally different books, the subject matter of Catfish Alley is similar enough that I almost felt a kind of burnout for a few days while reading it and listening to The Help at the same time. I finished The Help almost a week ago, and then I sandwiched in a fabulous L.A. mystery (Guilt By Association by Marcia Clark, with a review coming up tomorrow!), so I was sufficiently ready to dive back into the south and race relations.
Catfish Alley is set in Mississippi, in the fictional town of Clarksville, which I assume is based on the real town of Columbus. Why do I assume this? Well, there is an actual Catfish Alley area in Columbus, so the pieces seem to fit. Decorator and main character Roxanne Reeves specializes in reviving antebellum homes to their former glory, using time-period-appropriate methods and materials. She also is the director of the annual tour of homes in Clarksville. When a newcomer to town purchases an old mansion Roxanne has had her eye on for years, Roxanne falls all over herself to please the lady. Her first request is that historical African-American homes be added to the tour.
Roxanne is negative about this assignment. What, she wonders, could be the benefit in adding to an already-thriving tour? And which buildings will they even be able to add? To help her do research, she calls upon retired teacher Grace Clark, an African-American woman living in a antebellum mansion herself. Grace requests that Roxanne take her all over town to the sites they are looking to add, and in exchange she will supply stories that will help the tour guides give factual information. Roxanne slowly comes to enjoy her mornings spent with Grace, and she learns much she never knew about her town.
Bryant hits upon several themes in this novel, one being -- of course -- race relations in modern day Mississippi. Although times have changed and progress has been made, many stereotypes and even hatred still exist. Bryant illustrates this with skill, both through the less likable, villianous characters and even through Roxanne herself. She also makes a strong statement about friendship and our innate need for human companionship.
Flashbacks to the 1930s are woven throughout the novel, giving a glimpse to that time period and highlighting both how things have changed and how they are still the same. Roxanne begins to see this as she visits homes where African-Americans still serve food rather than sitting down at tables with white people. Grace becomes a dynamic character through these flashback scenes, as well, through the telling of her own stories.
I hate to compare novels, even ones that are similar in setting and theme, so I will not do so now. Catfish Alley, as I said above, shares some things in common with The Help, but they are very different novels, too. Catfish Alley stands on its own with Bryant's unique writing style. Her characters are rich and well-drawn. Catfish Alley is the perfect novel to enjoy while sitting on your front porch, sipping coffee (or, as Bryant mentions in the novel, southern milk punch). That is exactly how I began it a week or two ago, and how I will finish it this week, as well!(less)
River Jordan is an accomplished writer. Her novels have been praised by media sources (Publishers Weekly, Southern Living, and the Tampa Tribune) and...moreRiver Jordan is an accomplished writer. Her novels have been praised by media sources (Publishers Weekly, Southern Living, and the Tampa Tribune) and also by some of my favorite authors (Silas House, Joshilyn Jackson, and Susan Gregg Gilmore). With the release of her new book, however, Jordan strayed from the "safe" path of fiction writing and delved into more personal writing.
Praying for Strangers is a compilation of sorts; there is little plot, and Jordan herself is the only true "main" character. Jordan was forced, in putting these words on paper, to leave behind her self-professed storytelling strengths and tell only true stories. Most are no more than two or three pages long. Despite her being outside her writing comfort zone, Jordan has managed to write a beautiful book that I have been pushing at people for weeks.
In Praying for Strangers, River Jordan tells the tale of one year in her life -- perhaps the most difficult year of her life. In this year, both of her sons were deployed: one to Iraq, one to Afghanistan. It is mind-boggling to wrap one's head around how she managed to simply survive that year. The experience must have been an excruciating one, fraught with sleepless nights and mind-racing worries. In spite of this emotional turmoil -- or perhaps because of it -- Jordan managed to do a single thing during this year. She prayed for strangers.
It began as a New Year's resolution, promises made to self that Jordan admits she rarely keeps. But for some reason, in this particular year, with her sons in harm's way and out of her ability to protect them, Jordan managed to keep this resolution. She prayed for people she met at the supermarket. She prayed for people she met waiting in line to pay a bill. She prayed for construction workers she passed. And for the most part, not only did she pray for them, but she also told them about it.
Now, if you stop to think about this, it seems an impossible task. How many people would appreciate a stranger accosting them in a parking lot, telling them she would be praying for them? In that scenario, my first thought would probably be to back away slowly and then high-tail it out of there. The people who Jordan met each day did exactly the opposite. They spilled their guts; they got teary-eyed; they hugged her. Some even prayed for Jordan.
Praying for Strangers was less about prayer, in the end, and more about human kindness. The act of a stranger telling you they will be praying for you turns your day around, no matter the prayer. Jordan brought her resolution to people of all creeds, colors, religions, and economic statuses, and every single one thanked her.
The changes to Jordan's own life were perhaps the most miraculous. She prayed for candidates on both sides of the aisle during the 2008 presidential campaign, and a change occurred inside of her: "[M]y amazing discovery is that the longer you pray for someone, the more you lose that crust of ambivalence, that twinge of not liking them. Those things fall away, and instead sometimes there's just a flash . . . that if that person walked through the door, I'd be pleased to meed them in that moment. Somewhere in that slice of time I spent praying . . . I became less frustrated by their presence" (210).
Jordan also found people who she needed as much as they needed her prayers. At a rest stop, she met a woman who was humming along happily, seemingly in need of nothing. Still, it struck Jordan that she was "the one" for the day, and before long this happened:
"Anything special that you need prayer for?" She nods yes as tears well up in her eyes. "My son died two months ago." This struck close to home with me, the safety of my sons somewhat being a catalyst for this resolution. So I break my policy about public praying. Right there, in the middle of that rest stop, I wrap my arms around her and whisper a prayer for her broken heart. One mother to another. (188)
The true message of the book is, as I said before, less about prayer itself and more about caring for other humans. We all pass hundreds of strangers each day, week, month, and year, usually ignoring them as a whole. Jordan accomplished something extraordinary in her year of praying for strangers: she noticed them. She connected with them. She says near the end of the book: "It was one of those days again. For what felt like the three-hundredth time, I decided I just wasn't going to tell anyone that I was praying for them. It goes against my nature. It takes courage. It takes time; all those blessed interferences take me away from other obligations and pursuits. It takes some kind of faith to believe that my prayers might matter to a stranger. The bottom line -- it takes. But it also gives."(less)
I have possibly never been so excited to see a film adaptation of a book I loved. When the movie version of Kathryn Stockett's The Help debuts in thea...moreI have possibly never been so excited to see a film adaptation of a book I loved. When the movie version of Kathryn Stockett's The Help debuts in theaters this summer, I will definitely be there. Why, you might ask? It's simple, really: I believe this book was made to be performed. I started hearing buzz about Stockett's first novel way back in 2009, when it was published. Rebecca from The Book Lady's Blog reviewed it in February 2009, just around its release date. S. Krishna's Books followed in January 2010. Write Meg! also posted her review in March 2010. Basically, The Help has been hitting the book blog circuit from its release date until now, with very little down time.
More than a year ago, the novel suddenly appeared on my local library shelves. It had (I'm sure) been passed from hand to hand, never seeing the New Book section, but instead living on the Hold Shelf until then. I snapped it up, tried to start it, and promptly gave it up. Looking back, I have no idea why; possibly I was busy, maybe it was when I was in a mystery-only mood. Whatever the reason, I returned it never having read more than a page or two.
Fast forward to 2011. The book is now being made into a motion picture, and for some reason this tends to push me toward reading a book I've been reluctant about. It's as if I think someone will force me into watching the movie before I read the book (*gasp*). Therefore, I need to read it as soon as I can. Well, that decision coincided perfectly with my mom telling me that she had several Audible.com credits to use. If we used them before a certain date, we got $10 towards another book. Of course, we couldn't pass that up, so I decided to bite the bullet and get The Help on audio.
This one was of the single best reading decisions I've made all year -- possibly ever. The book that I just didn't get into when I read its first few pages became a book I was absolutely obsessed with reading (er... listening to). Seriously. It was more than 18 hours long, but after finishing it this weekend, I wish it had been stretched to 25 or 30. It was that good.
In case you have never heard of The Help, let me give you a (short) synopsis: The year is 1962. Segregation is still alive and well, especially in the south. In Jackson, Mississippi, the division between white people and black people is not just tradition; it's the law. Jim Crow laws effectively divide the races and prevent desegregation. But, as the song says, "the times, they are a-changing" and changes begin happening in Jackson in the early 1960s. Kathryn Stockett plants her story right smack in the middle of all of these changes, providing a historically accurate backdrop for her characters' development. Stockett uses three points of view throughout the novel, each character telling his or her portion of the story.
Aibileen: A sixty-something African-American housekeeper for the Leefolt family, Aibileen has seen her fair share of heartache. As she cares for the Leefolt's daughter Mae Mobley, she discovers important lessons about love and the lessons we pass on to other humans. Skeeter: A white, privileged Junior Auxiliary member, Skeeter begins to think there might be more to life than marrying well and planning galas. She embarks upon an adventure to further her ambitions as a writer, and ends up seeing life in a whole new light. Minny: Unable to not speak her own mind, Minny is an African-American housekeeper who has bounced around from job to job as a result of her inability to edit herself. She gets fired by the JA president Hilly, then hired by Hilly's ex-boyfriend's new wife. She is frank about both her new job and her abusive husband when she tells the story.
The voice actors, as always in a audiobook, make the book. Four excellent actors perform The Help: Jenna Lamia (who also read The Secret Life of Bees and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt), Bahni Turpin (who also read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Precious), Octavia Spencer (an actress who has done both Dinner for Schmucks and TV series Ugly Betty, who will also play Minny in The Help film), and Cassandra Campbell (who has read books by Chelsea Handler and Jodi Picoult) read their parts with skill, and in essence become the novel. Their voices are rich southern drawls without becoming overly put-upon. Audiobook perfection! The Audible version also includes an essay read by Stockett herself, about her own personal story that led to her writing the novel.
Kathryn Stockett has written the epitome of good southern literature with her debut novel The Help. I am sorry it took me so long to read (listen to) it, but I suppose late is better than never. Now, don't do what I did; if this is the first you are hearing about this book, do yourself a favor and go get a copy! Print, audio (which is obviously what I would recommend), whatever. You will not be sorry. And then you can go watch the movie in August guilt-free!(less)
DID NOT FINISH: I read two-thirds of the book, and just could not finish it. I LOVED Gore's previous two novels, and thought I would be blown away by...moreDID NOT FINISH: I read two-thirds of the book, and just could not finish it. I LOVED Gore's previous two novels, and thought I would be blown away by a new book set in the south. It didn't ring true to me; it seemed a novel full of stereotypes and bent on showing readers the way to fight racism, rather than on telling a good story. I couldn't connect with the main character, Jiminy, although I desperately wanted to love her. I hate giving this book a poor review. But instead, do this: go out and buy BOTH of Gore's previous works (Sammy's Hill and Sammy's House) because they were EXCELLENT.(less)
Not only does Gardner write thrillers full of suspense that are perfect for listening, but her books are read by an amazing voice actor -- Kirsten Pot...moreNot only does Gardner write thrillers full of suspense that are perfect for listening, but her books are read by an amazing voice actor -- Kirsten Potter. Voice on an audiobook is almost more important than the book itself. A great voice actor can turn a so-so book into something special. Likewise, a boring voice can turn a wonderful book into a ho-hum, excruciating-to-listen-to DNF (did not finish). (For example, the audio version of The Hunger Games is terrible! No inflection or change in tone. I bought it on Audible without listening to a preview -- mistake -- and my students refused to listen to what they described as a "robot" reading it.)
Hide is the second novel in Gardner's D. D. Warren series. This series is interesting in that D. D. is a recurring character throughout the series, but never truly a "main" character. Gardner writes her novels from various perspectives, and the audio versions always reflect that. Potter is joined by different people on each of the Gardner books I've heard, and they read varying chapters depending on the narrator. Gardner, interestingly enough, writes much of her books in third person -- the sections with Warren, anyway. First-person perspective is usually saved for a character unique to one particular book, rather than a character who appears in the whole series.
In that way, Gardner's series novels almost read as standalone books. Almost but not quite, because there is some progression in plot and in character development, both of Warren and of state police officer Bobby Dodge. Dodge factored hugely into the first novel in the series, Alone. He appears again as a large part of the action in Hide.
Decades ago, Catherine Gagnon was kidnapped and held hostage in an underground room dug from the earth. Her kidnapper was caught and brought to justice. Alone dealt with Catherine's present-day life and Dodge's involvement in her husband's death. In Hide Catherine is long gone to Arizona, and Dodge has returned to the police force. He and D. D. catch a case that seems hauntingly familiar to Catherine's childhood kidnapping. Several bodies are found in an underground holding cell on the grounds of an old state mental hospital. All signs point to Catherine's abductor as the culprit, but there's one small problem: he was imprisoned long before these girls disappeared.
Although the bodies found is the main case for D. D. and Dodge, Gardner also includes a fabulous side story -- which, in my opinion, is actually the star of this novel. Annabelle Granger has returned to the Boston area after a lifetime on the run. Her father took their family away from Boston decades ago, and their family assumed one name after another in one town after another. After her father's death, Annabelle craves normalcy. She returns to Boston, unaware of her father's reasons for leading his family around the country. When it is discovered that a necklace on one of the girls found has Annabelle's name on it, she is pulled into a family history more bizarre than she had ever dreamed.
Hide was a highly entertaining audiobook. I look forward to listening to Gardner's two latest D. D. Warren series novels this spring and summer. One thing is certain -- Gardner definitely has the ability to pull her readers into her novels and not let them go until the last word is read (or spoken). Hide kept me up nights, and probably contributed to some crazy dreams, but it was all worth it in the end. (less)