Marie’s Reading: “Between, Georgia” by Joshilyn Jackson

between georgiaNonny is used to being in the middle.  Her birth mother was a Crabtree (low-class, prone to violence, owners of Dobermans and scary Alabama relatives), but she was adopted by the Fretts (solid middle-class, reined-in, icy types, prone to their own kind of violence).  The tiny town of Between is barely big enough for these two sparring clans.

When Nonny’s aunt is attacked by one of the Crabtree dogs, a whole new cycle of feuding is set off.  This time it could be deadly.  Nonny, herself in the middle of a divorce, finds herself back in Between (and in between) once again.

Whenever I’m in the mood for a novel with a solid story, a great sense of place, and robust characters, I go for Jackson’s work.  She writes relationships extremely well, particularly between women in a family–she has real insight into the dynamics of sisters, mothers and daughters, and grandmothers and their grandkids.

The Frett sisters, who raised Nonny, really are forces–stolid, judgmental but loyal Bernese, anxious and fretful Genny, and kind and artistic Stacia, the one who raised Nonny.  Stacia is deaf and blind, as well, adding another layer to her relationship to her family and her art.  Ona Crabtree, Nonny’s blood grandmother, comes across as damaged and brittle and not very nice, but she’s still got a basic humanity.  As becomes clear over the course of the story, these women have more in common than they like to believe.

The Southern setting is great as well.  It feels as though these characters, though recognizable small-town types, couldn’t live anywhere else.  And of course the town is a character all on its own, just as Southern as its people.  There’s a sort of earthy fierceness beneath a veneer of gentility that’s just so distinct to the South, along with a strong sense of family.  This story would be very different if set among we stoic, independent, chilly New Englanders, for instance.

This really is a novel to read for the characters and the setting.  The plots do all wrap up nicely and there are some revelations and tragedy, but I found the enjoyable storyline second to everything else.

If you’re after the same sort of read I was–one with great characters, a good story, and a strong setting, all told in laidback, very natural prose–give this one a look!

–Marie

 

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Marie’s Reading: “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller

carolineIn Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller retells the story of Little House on the Prairie through the eyes of Ma Ingalls.

There’s so much lush and rich detail in this novel!  And there are layers to that amount of detail beyond set dressing and atmosphere: Caroline’s world, like the world of so many women, was all bound up in the physical realities of her home and the hard work she did to feed and clothe her family.  The amount of time spent on the little details and movements really puts you into this time and place, and the struggles of a woman on the frontier in the 1870’s.

At first I thought there wasn’t enough introspection, but as the novel went on I realized that Caroline was the type of woman who felt she didn’t need or have time for that kind of thing.  There are small moments, here and there, and it ends up being more than enough and incredibly insightful.

The story follows Little House on the Prairie more or less beat for beat, with some background filled in here and there.   This story is about when the Ingalls family left Wisconsin to stake a claim in Indian Territory.   Pa, Ma, Mary, and Laura (who was only three at the time and would be the one to grow up to write the Little House books) set off in a covered wagon for Kansas, and then try to set up their claim.  The pace is much slower and a lot more character-focused than Little House on the Prairie, which makes sense, as we’re getting this story from the adult perspective rather than a child’s.

I appreciated learning more about what Caroline Ingalls’ early life was like, and how the poverty and want of those years really affected her.  She has a serious issue with “selfishness”–she thinks of herself as incredibly selfish, for some reason, and always takes care to correct her daughters when she feels they aren’t being self-sacrificing enough.  It’s a trait that shows up in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books a lot, and here you wonder why Caroline is like this.  Was it her childhood that made her that way?  Or just one of those things?  Either way, it makes her feel three-dimensional.

As a kid, when I read the Little House books, I always found Ma way too strict and on the mean side.  But as an adult, I understand her a lot better.  Miller’s take on this woman, both from real-life sources and the character Laura created in her books, feels true.  She comes across as a fully-fleshed person, with desires and flaws and full awareness of her powerful role as Ma.

If you have fond memories of the Little House books, love frontier narratives, or both, do give this a look!

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “The After Party” by Anton DiSclafani

after partyA tale of friendship among the power set in 1950’s Houston, The After Party by Anton DiSclafani is filled with the detail of everyday life, and the details of a dysfunctional friendship.

At the center of the story are Cece and Joan.  Joan is the golden girl, Cece her handmaiden (she describes herself as a “lady-in-waiting”).  They’ve been friends ever since they were tiny, and as the years pass, Cece remains almost obsessively devoted to Joan.  Joan is always the party girl, the one who runs away and keeps secrets, the one constantly flitting from man to man.  Cece is the one who cleans up the messes Joan leaves behind.

The writing is simple but evocative.  DiScalani’s great strengths are with atmosphere and characterization.  The plot, such that it is, is secondary to the exploration of a very specific time and society (upper-class Houston in 1957) and the people who live in it. The relationship between Cece and Joan is especially well-crafted–it’s utterly believable in its one-sidedness, in the way Cece needs Joan so terribly (or has convinced herself that she does), and in the way that she feels responsible for Joan’s behavior.  Watching Cece try to evolve, to try to come to terms with the secrets she uncovers, and to overcome her past, is the backbone of the book.

For Cece, the life of a young housewife and mother, which Joan finds so stifling, provides protection, security, and identity.  Her struggle when caught between her husband and Joan feels very real and immediate.  How much of her hard-earned life is Cece willing to put on the line for Joan?  Or lose entirely?

The After Party is a great novel to kick off your summer with–filled with dynamic characters and lush scenery, simple but clear and honest writing, and a plot that’s full of secrets but ultimately second-fiddle to the people and their relationships.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Lake of Dead Languages” by Carol Goodman

lake of deadWhat was it I said I was looking for in a book?   Interesting, complex characters.  Lyrical or at least engaging writing.  A quick pace.  A good idea for a story. Add atmosphere, secrets, compelling twists, and a dark past to that list, and you’ve got The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman.  It’s everything I wanted!

Jane Hudson, recently divorced, has returned to her private high school, Heart Lake, as the Latin teacher.  A townie, she was a scholarship girl always desperate to prove herself.  During her senior year of school, both of her roommates committed suicide.  And now that Jane is back at the school, one of her students also attempts suicide.  When pages of the journal she lost at school start appearing, and one girl dies, Jane is drawn into the present mystery and back into her memories of what happened to her friends Lucy and Deidre twenty years before.

The novel is divided into three parts–the first and third concern Jane in the present, and the middle section goes back to her teenage years, including her family background and the tragic events of her senior year.  In the present she tries to solve the mystery of how and why her past is showing up again, and in the past we see the seeds of what is happening now.  As past and present meet and more threads are drawn together, the narrative starts to shift within chapters as well as the story nears the climax.  It’s a nice stylistic touch.

Heart Lake is practically a character on its own.  It’s constantly referenced, the weather is described as it affects the lake, it’s been the silent witness to the secrets of generations of girls.  The scenery, particularly the ice of the lake, is given lush description.  You feel the cold, and can hear the ice cracking.  Latin, the dead language of the title, is also key to the symbolism and clues, so pay attention to names!

The Lake of Dead Languages is a very intricately plotted book, filled with connections and secrets and bonds of secrecy and betrayal.  There’s a strong element of the intensity of the parent-child bond (for good and for ill), as well as the intensity of friendship.  All of the mysteries are solved in the end, and while you might call it early (as I did), it’s still an atmospheric and satisfying journey.

There’s so much going on in this book that there are lots of readalike ideas.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt is an obvious one, with its literary style and story about a college classics clique with dark secrets.  In that same vein, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (see here for blog post), or Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which is about a classics teacher at a boys’ school who finds himself upended by changes and a threat from the past.

Empire Falls by Richard Russo, for the stuck-in-a-small-town angle, as well as the family and community connections that last for generations, could also be a good choice.  I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, for the atmosphere, dark and intricate secrets, friendships a bit too close for comfort, and lake imagery.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Flood Girls” by Richard Fifield

Flood GirlsSometimes you need a novel that makes you snort with laughter every page or so.  One with a great sense of place, good characters, and enough weirdness, softball games, and drunken brawls to keep you engaged. The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield fits the bill.

Rachel Flood returns to her hometown in Montana as part of her “making amends” step in Alcoholics Anonymous.   The locals don’t exactly welcome her back, including her own mother.  The story follows Rachel’s attempts to mend fences, as well as the ups and downs of the characters in her periphery–Jake, the gay boy next door, and her mother, Laverna.

The pace is leisurely and the characters are quirky and fun.  Everyone drinks and fights and swears, but there are great steady friendships here, too.  Broken and downtrodden and dysfunctional as they are, the people of Quinn rely on each other and make spaces for themselves.  Hardly anyone is really alone in The Flood Girls.  Like the titular softball team, these characters come together and make it work.  Mostly.

Mostly, because the story takes a very dark and surprising turn very close to the end.  I can only speak for myself, but I found it jarring compared to the rest of the book–so much so that I ended up skimming the remainder of the story.  Your mileage, of course, may vary. But the rest of the book is so engaging, funny, and heartwarming in a totally bizarre way that it’s worth a read.

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore might have more sea monsters named Steve than The Flood Girls does, but in lots of other ways they’re quite similar–quirky characters in a small town, their lives and relationships, poignancy in the oddest places, and lots of humor.  Mavis, the bar owner in Pine Cove has a lot in common with Laverna, actually.

This book also made me think of Joshilyn Jackson, particularly A Grown-Up Kind of Prettyabout a girl’s search for her mother and the strained relationships between three generations of women, told from all three perspectives.  The exploration of relationships in all their not-so-great glory, the strong women, as well as the sense of place, might appeal to those who liked The Flood Girls.  You might also enjoy The Good House by Ann Leary, if you enjoy Rachel and Laverna in this book, and the way alcoholism is handled with dark humor.  The small-town feel is good in that one as well.

–Marie

26 Books to Read in 2015: #18

If I’m going to keep on top of this challenge I’ve really gotta up  my game here.  I’ll try an approach that worked for me in middle school: I’ll do all the easy stuff first and then save the stuff I find more challenging–like poetry–until later on.

Well….”worked” in that I was annoyed and sleepy and sometimes close to tears by the time midnight rolled around and I was still plugging away at my crumpled and tear-stained geometry homework, but everything still got done.

My easy challenge pick was # 18: A book with a blue cover.

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness  by Sasha Martin fits the bill!

Life from scratch

I enjoy cooking memoirs.  Mostly because I’m obsessed with food and I think cooking and baking are two of the most fun things ever.  Most of my time each week is taken up with carefully planning dinner menus, strategizing for left-overs, and painstakingly deciding on side dishes.  I read (and collect) wire-bound small-town church-supper cookbooks.  I spend weeks before big holidays outlining my game plan.  I get excited about pickling things and making jam.  I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride when, in an afternoon, I have a loaf of bread cooling on the counter, a braise in the oven, and the cookie jar is full.

And the cookbooks.  I’ve read Marjorie Mosser’s Good Maine Food and Eleanor Early’s New England Cookbook several times each–the latter is falling apart from use.  When it comes to learning about what the world eats and getting a voyeuristic thrill from peeping into other peoples’ kitchens,  Hungry Planet is one of my all-time favorites, and one to have on my personal bookshelf one day.  I love to read about how others interact with food, how they cook, their challenges and misadventures, and their accomplishments in the kitchen.

So I’ll admit that, personally, I was a little disappointed by how little time was afforded to The Global Table Adventure in this memoir.  I was expecting more of a Julie and Julia vibe, all based around the project.  (As an aside, I admit that I enjoy the structure and categorizing and planning and accomplishment that comes with a project, so much so that I like to experience them vicariously in food writing memoirs,)

I came in wanting to hear about the challenges of obtaining specialty ingredients for a cooking project. I wanted to know how different cultures around the world treat the potato.  I loved her style and the way she told her story, and I really liked her insights into the power of cooking and sharing food–I was just left wishing there was more of the practical.  Those who enjoy personal journeys of family and self, getting over grief and loss, will probably not have the same issue.  And, granted, Martin takes care to explain her choice in her introduction and I totally understand why she decided to tell her story the way she did.  It’s a lovely memoir and Martin discusses food very well.

I am pleased to report that Global Table Adventure is an AMAZING website.  If you want more of the global cooking, research, and the process, go there.  It’s fantastic content-wise, well-designed, and includes some great recipes.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Whistling Past the Graveyard” by Susan Crandall

whistling Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall invites comparison with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Plot-wise, it is Huckleberry Finn, more or less, just set during the Civil Rights era and with a female cast.

The story: Starla is a sassy red-headed kid who lives with her grandmother, Mamie, in 1960’s Mississippi.  After getting grounded yet again for un-ladylike behavior, Starla decides she’s had enough of Mamie.  She’s going to hitch her way to Nashville, where her mother is a country singer, and live with her instead.  But who should pick Starla up but a young black woman named Eula…who just happens to have a white baby in tow.  From there it’s a coming of age story intertwined with a road trip tale, examining race, love, and loyalty along the way.

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Marie’s Reading: “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is MissingNot since my Jennifer McMahon binge have I read such an un-put-down-able novel.  I read about it a while ago, but it was an encounter with a reader at the library that got me started on it.

A regular patron was in on Saturday morning.  She asked, “Have you read Elizabeth Is Missing?”

“No!” I replied, “But it’s on my list.”  And it has been.  I’d actually checked it out and had to return it unread (story of my life) earlier in the week.    “Is it good?”

But the patron just smiled coyly at me.  I pressed her.  “Is it really compelling?  Is it well-done?”

Nothing.  Just that smile.

“You’re not going to tell me anything, are you?” I asked.  And she scooped up her books without making eye contact and said, “Bye!”

Out the door she went.  I went immediately to the New Fiction shelf, snatched up Elizabeth Is Missing, and started reading it on my morning break.  I finished it in one weekend.

If it turns out that coy smile meant the patron hated it, I will be very sad.  Because Healey’s story is tightly constructed, believably narrated, and affecting in its depiction of a person’s slide into Alzheimer’s.

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Marie’s Reading: “The Midwife’s Tale” by Gretchen Moran Laskas

midwifes taleFirst, a million thanks to the patron who gushed about this book and suggested I read it.  It’s as un-put-downable, compelling, and evocative as you promised!

Set in the mountains of West Virginia in the early to mid 20th-century, The Midwife’s Tale is narrated by Elizabeth Whitely, the last in a long line of midwives.  She is in love with a man who doesn’t (cannot?) reciprocate, and spends a decade of her life living in his house and raising his daughter, whom Elizabeth delivered.  Eventually, the daughter begins to exhibit an amazing gift, which the family and community must come to grips with.  The novel tells the story of how Elizabeth grapples with her loveless relationship, her love for her adopted daughter, and her connections to her mountain in West Virginia.  Ultimately, it’s a story about creation–creating children, creating families, creating ourselves.

This is a very intimate story, where nothing huge happens.  It’s the story of a life.  West Virginia is beautifully drawn here.  There’s a wonderful sense of time and place.  You can feel the deep roots the characters have put down, and the sometimes messy and convoluted connections between them.  At times there’s a certain emotional distance, for all the intimacy, but I think it works as part of Elizabeth’s character.  She does keep her distance, in many ways, and keeps herself to herself. She’s believable in her struggles, in her wants and needs, in her desperate hopes.  She comes across as complicated as the plot is simple, and it’s a nice combination.

Also check out the bibliography included in the back of the book.  It has some great further reading suggestions, particularly nonfiction and memoir.

Ron Rash’s The Cove is quite similar to The Midwife’s Tale.  The slightly haunting tone and the sense of place are much alike, as is the pre-WWI time period.  The Cove is also about a woman struggling to find happiness in her relative isolation.  I’d also suggest a favorite of mine, Bloodroot by Amy Greene.  There’s the same touch of magical realism to it, and it isn’t quite as reflective in tone, but it’s got a wonderful style, an intricate plot, focuses on family ties, and is a beautiful depiction of life in Appalachia.

If you enjoyed the subject matter of midwifery most of all, and enjoy evocative historical fiction, you might want to try My Notorious Life by Kate Manning. It’s strikingly different in tone, but the issues the main character grapples with (love, sex, gender relations, women’s private selves, and women’s rights) are all there.  The author does a fantastic job with historical detail, and it manages to feel like a book of the time (1860’s-1880’s in New York City, roughly) as well as a book about the time.

I’d suggest Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers to readers who enjoyed Elizabeth’s narrative voice and following her journey.  Florine, the narrator, follows more or less the same character arc, right down to her relationships.  Florine’s story is as evocative of the coast of Maine as Elizabeth’s is of Appalachia.

And, finally, here’s a crazy curveball of a readalike suggestion: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett.  Seriously.  I know it sounds insane, but I thought of it and now I am powerless to unthink of it.  Pratchett uses his books about the Witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to explore myth, magic, gender relations, and humanism.  As I said, a curveball, but those who liked the relationships between the women in The Midwife’s Tale might enjoy Pratchett’s take.  Actually, try any of the Discworld books starring the Witches if you enjoy strong relationships and mentorships between generations of women.

–Marie