Tag Archives: small towns

Marie’s Reading: “The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson

sundialThe Halloran family has gathered in their crumbling ancestral mansion for a funeral.  One morning Aunt Fanny has a vision wherein her long-dead father gives her the exact date of the end of the world.  If the Hallorans stay in their family manse, they will be the sole survivors and inheritors of a bright clean world.

As you read, you wonder why these people deserve it.

Given the subject, it seems odd to say that The Sundial is one of Shirley Jackson’s funnier novels.  It’s like You Can’t Take It With You with the apocalypse instead of the IRS.  Also, this family is full of rather mean people who hate one another rather than a kooky assortment of loving individuals.  Oh, and there’s also the probable murder and unsettling open ending. But really, it’s funny, in a character-based screwball comedy kind of way.

I had my pick of fantastically weird cover art for this one, and I chose my favorite because I think it reflects the core of the story: a dysfunctional family trapped together in an old house, bouncing off one another, and waiting for doomsday.  Jackson always did oppressive atmosphere very well, and it’s approaching Hill House levels at the Halloran mansion.  But, as I said, with some levity.  There is a note of discord about this one, where it maybe doesn’t quite know what it wants to be–but somehow all the pieces make a delightfully odd whole.

The Sundial reflects a lot of Shirley Jackson’s interest in the occult, from divination to doomsday to symbols.  And, as ever, her fascination with the intricacies of small-town life, from the villagers to the odd old family on the hill in their suffocating Gothic home.

Weird fiction fans, give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Heavenly Table” by Donald Ray Pollock

Heavenly TableThe Heavenly Table is set in 1917 in and around a small town in Ohio.  One storyline concerns the Jewett brothers, the other a farmer named Ellsworth Fiddler.  The Jewett boys live a poor, hardscrabble life with their crazy father, Pearl.  Ellsworth lost his family savings in a swindle, and his son Eddie has taken to drinking and disappearing.  As the book goes on, these storylines grow and then intersect.

Along the way there are several more subplots and characters whose stories converge with those of the Jewetts or Ellsworth (or both), adding to the layered and well-populated feel of the story.

The Heavenly Table is atmospheric and vivid.  Engrossing, gritty and dark, and completely absorbing.  There’s a certain raw quality to Pollock’s writing, one that can be gory and gruesome.  There’s a lot of violence in this book, of many different kinds. And yet there’s also pathos and humor, and maybe even a kernel of goodness.

It’s got the feel of a Western, with all the outlaws and whores and soldiers and poor farmers.  But it’s the more the modern, nuanced kind, without too many good guys or lone heroes.  Interestingly, I noticed that one of the subject headings for this book is “Noir fiction.”  So-called “rural noir,” with lots of bleakness and darkness, is pretty in right now.  Sort of a descendant of Southern Gothic.

For readers of Daniel Woodrell, particularly Winter’s Bone.  I’d also suggest Black River by S.M. Hulse if you want something with a similar Western tone but not quite as violent or bleak.  Kings of the Earth or Finn by Jon Clinch might also be good.  Also, do try Pollock’s other books, Knockemstiff and Devil All the Time.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Revival: A Rural Noir” by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton

I was going to wait for Halloween to tell you about this one but I can’t because it’s too good and I want to talk about it now.

Revival

For one day in rural Wisconsin, the dead come back to life.  Now this small town has been quarantined by the government, the so-called “revivers” try to go back to some kind of “life,” and Officer Dana Cypress is put in charge of dealing with those who came back from the dead and the media attention that came with them.

Haunting, compelling, and gruesome where it needs to be, Revival works as a police procedural, as a horror story, and as the story of an isolated and struggling small town. It’s also a nice examination of life and death, and the complex relationship people have with both.

Full disclosure: I found out about Revival while eagerly gorging myself on the latest installment of Chew, which included a preview of the cross-over story that the creators of both comics put together.

chew-revival

From the crossover comic.  Gives you a sense of the spirit of the endeavor.

I can’t wait for the next installment of Revival.  You’ll be seeing this one again during Horror month.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “All Things Cease to Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

all-things-cease-to-appear-1Quick one for today, post-gorgeous holiday weekend.  It’s a blend of suspense, mystery, ghost story, and family story told with rich prose and a haunting tone–All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.

At the beginning of the story, George Clare finds his wife murdered in their old farmhouse in upstate New York.  He’s the immediate suspect, but his parents manage to bail him out, and the police can’t get enough evidence to bring a case against him.

From there, the story goes back in time to show the backstory of the Clares and the story of their marriage, and how the murder is just the latest crime in a string of them.  We also learn the story of the Hales, who owned the farm before the Clares moved in.  Soon the story shifts to more of a “how-dunnit” than a “who-dunnit,” blending with the story of a poor small town and the people who try to survive there.  There’s also just a hint of the supernatural, but just enough to add another dimension to the story and characters.

The sense of place and the atmosphere is wonderfully evocative–the whole book feels cold, a little desperate, a little bleak.  The intense moments sneak up on you.  This is a very rich, well-crafted story, with strong characters and a good dose of atmosphere.  The pace is slow, but the characters and the mystery keep the story going.

If you enjoy the Dublin Murder Squad books by Tana French, or the slightly-otherworldly intricate suspense of Jennifer McMahon, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Wonder Garden” by Lauren Acampora

wonder gardenI found out about The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora book during last month’s meeting of the Simply Books! book club at the library.  The reader’s description piqued my interest (quoted from our meeting minutes):

 This novel is made up of a series of linked stories set in an old-money suburb called Old Cranbury.  Each story focuses on the  various eccentricities of the rich and weird inhabitants.  It’s elegantly written, and Acampora manages to inhabit each character fully.

The reader also went into a bit more detail about the “eccentricities”–the artist who creates realistic-looking foamboard insects to cover a house in the neighborhood as part of an art installation, the father-to-be who has a mystical experience while building a tree house that leads him to a spirit quest.  I was hooked.

It’s Winesburg, Ohio for a new era.  A book of grotesques, just like that one, people who strive and want and are stuck in different ways.  But add the oppressive wealthy suburban aspect, the kind that demands conformity.  And then there’s the creative element, humor, and deft characterizations that Acampora brings to Old Cranbury.

Acampora delivers a lot of insight about society and what it’s like to be under scrutiny in one way or another.  To have your own little reality behind your windows, where you can create your own little world safe from prying eyes (like the woman in The Virginals, who, along with her husband, speaks, dresses, and decorates her period home as though it is forever 1740).

Each story blends humor and pathos, the everyday takes on a creative spin or is presented from a different angle, and the attention to detail is great.  These are small, intensely focused stories (none more so than the one where a real estate agent is stuck at an intersection, and starts to see it as a welcome break), reflecting the tightly narrow focus of the characters.

The Wonder Garden is darkly funny, populated with wonderful characters, and incisive in its depiction of the needs and preoccupations of moneyed suburbia.

If you enjoy this book, I’d suggest you try Rebecca Makkai’s work.  The quirkiness and pathos would be a good fit, particularly in The Hundred Year House.  As the reader from book club said, John Cheever would be a good choice, too–there’s that same bleakness and dark humor, some weirdness, and focus on the lives of middle-class suburbanites.  Try The Stories of John Cheever to dip a toe in.  Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, about a lawyer’s wife in 1930’s Kansas City succumbing to boredom and loneliness, might be good as well, as would Sinclair Lewis’s work (Main Street or Babbitt).  I already mentioned Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which might also appeal if you like the “book of grotesques” angle. If you want to go darker and more hopeless, you could try the disturbing but poignant Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, which focuses on the sad, poor population of a small Midwestern town.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Good House” by Ann Leary

good houseHildy Good is one of the top real estate brokers in her small town in Massachusetts.  She’s a respected businesswoman, and her family has lived in town for generations.  She’s even descended from one of the women accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, a fact she plays up when showing new folks around town hoping to sell a house.

Hildy is also an alcoholic in recovery, though lately the definition of “recovery” has begun to slip for her.  Though she’ll be the first to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some wine of an evening.  The story of Ann Leary’s The Good House involves Hildy becoming friends with a new woman in town, Rebecca, at the same time that she rekindles a relationship with a man she’s known for years.

The Good House is a dark piece of domestic character-centered fiction.  And it’s not a leisurely story.  There’s lots of drama and it’s very quick-paced.  But Hildy is just so compelling it’s hard to break away.  The descriptive, evocative writing helps to make you feel a connection to Hildy.  The first-person narration helps the connection as well, creating a character that feels real and truthful and sometimes pitiable and unlikable.

At its core this is a story of a woman working through alcoholism, her own angry, private struggle.  She’s lugging around a lot of baggage, and we’re witness to all of her cringe-worthy drunken episodes.  At least, those she can remember.  It’s due to Hildy’s alcoholism that the story takes its dark turn toward the end.

The Good House is also a story of a small New England town, and the way they are changing.  Many people in this area will recognize the gentrification of a beautiful coastal community, and the way townies whose families have lived somewhere for hundreds of years can no longer afford to live in their hometowns.  Hildy’s being a real estate agent was a good choice, in that it lends this extra dimension to the story.  Even though she’s a bred townie, she still cheerfully and competitively sells houses to rich people from away.  There’s a wonderful sense of place and community (both good and bad) in this novel.

Readalike possibilities: Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, though darker and with more of a mystery element, might still appeal to those who enjoyed the darker side of The Good House.  It also shares the small-town New England setting. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs might be a good choice, both for the narrator’s anger, unreliability, and the high drama. Last, Paula Hawkins’   The Girl on the Train could also work, particularly Rachel’s storyline.  There’s more violence and thriller aspects in that one, but it’s still very character- and relationship-centered.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Main Street” by Sinclair Lewis

main-streetMy husband recommended this book to me, and I’m happy to say I enjoyed it immensely!  I’m even prouder of how he showed off his own Readers’ Advisory skills when selling it to me.   He focused on appeal.  In particular, he focused on the appeal factor he knew I’d like the most.

Please enjoy a capsule RA 101 instruction, courtesy of Marie’s Husband:

When selling Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, my husband had a lot of options for how to pitch the story to a reader.  He could have talked about the Midwestern setting, drawn in simple but exquisite and evocative detail.  He could have mentioned the ear for dialogue and speech patterns.  Or even the satiric social commentary about small towns, social conformity, and the way society views socialism and feminism.

All of these factors are accurate and interesting.  And I’m sure he did mention all of these things, either while he was reading it himself or when he was talking to me about it.  But like a good Readers’ Advisor, he used his knowledge of my reading habits and interests to pick just the right appeal factor to mention in order to pique my interest: “It’s about an idealistic young woman from the city, who’s been working as a librarian, who moves to a tiny town on the prairie with her husband, and she starts trying to reform the town and the people in it to suit her ideals.  Most of the story is about her trying all these different ways to change them or to make herself fit in, and how her success (and lack thereof) affects her personally.  There’s a lot of personal dissatisfaction and trying to overcome it.”

Sign me up!

“I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We’re tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We’re tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We’re tired of hearing politicians and priests and cautious reformers… coax us, ‘Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have the plans for a Utopia already made; just wiser than you.’ For ten thousand years they’ve said that. We want our Utopia now — and we’re going to try our hands at it.” —Main Street

As my husband intuited, my favorite aspect of the novel was indeed Carol’s personal journey.  She’s a well-drawn, sympathetic character, and you feel for her even when you don’t agree with her.  She’s idealistic and intellectual, romantic and poetic.  Carol wants so badly to make friends, to help, to fit in, to make Gopher Prairie work for her, that every time she hits a wall you want to groan in sympathy.  (personal aside: the section where she attempts an amateur dramatics society made me cringe Waiting for Guffmanstyle, so it was really well-done)

“My dear man, there’s nothing I’d like better than to be by myself occasionally… I suppose you expect me to sit here and dream delicately and satisfy my temperamentality while you wander in from the bathroom with lather all over your face and shout “seen my brown pants?” —Main Street

 

The novel’s core is about her marriage, her friendships, and her ideals, as well as her temptations and desires for more.  What’s great here is that Carol is the hero, in so much as there is one–the book doesn’t judge her or punish her for her longings, but rather gives her as much as it can.  The tragedy is, as Lewis points out, that Main Street is everywhere.  You’ll find Gopher Prairie wherever people form their cliques.  Which is, of course, everywhere.

“The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot; and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest.” —Main Street

I also enjoyed the social critique.  Lewis presents problems but not any clear answers, which I think is perfect.  This isn’t a preachy, moralizing book.  Unless you want to preach about how the worst aspects of small towns are also humanity’s worst aspects, that is.

There’s a lot to like in this novel.  I’m planning to read Lewis’s Babbitt next, as I like Lewis’s characters and the cut of his social commentary jib.

–Marie and Marie’s Husband (who more than earned co-author credit on this one!)

Surprise Smekday!

It’s that special time again: Meme Time!

I’m currently in the middle of a few nonfiction books (book club, you know), the novel Main Street (on husband’s recommendation–review to come!), am moving house (!), am attempting to finalize a ready reference training for our annual All Staff Day (ha), and I have to catalog a huge order of audiobooks because I can’t figure out how to tell my vendor not to send them all at once (grr).

Lots going on in my brainpan.  No room for all the books in my book bag.

So who’s getting the old heave-ho this week?

golden applesIt’s The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty!

In his lovely book Classics for Pleasure, Michael Dirda recommended Welty’s collection of interconnected stories set in a fictional Mississippi town.  The stories concern the lives of and connection between several different families.  It promises to be textured, multi-layered, and full of allusion.

I really can’t wait to read it!  Just…sometime that isn’t right now.

I just don’t deserve you at the moment, Golden Apples.  Let’s take a break until I can give you my best reader-self.

 

–Marie

“Dark Harvest” by Norman Partridge

What’s that you say?

A living scarecrow with a flaming pumpkin for a head gets stuffed with candy every Halloween and is set loose on a small Midwestern town where every boy aged 16 to 19 is armed to the teeth and wandering the streets in a tradition called The Run, each one wanting to be the one to bring down the scarecrow before midnight.

Sure, why not?

Dark Harvest

 

It’s sort of like The Lottery, but with a sentient scarecrow.  Dark Harvest is chilling and poignant, and more about humanity than it is about scares.  The darkness is human darkness in this little town.  We don’t know where it comes from or why, but it manifests in a living scarecrow who must be destroyed.  There’s no sense of reason, just like in The Lottery.  Just the violence and the lack of humanity that very few in the town can bring themselves to counter.  With good reason, of course–small-town politics are forceful and all-reaching, particularly when your roots are very deep.

I like that you don’t get a full explanation of what the Halloween tradition is all about.   You never learn exactly why it happens, nor what will happen if the night doesn’t go as usual.  The ending hints at what will become of the town, but like all good horror, it’s open and contains a hint of threat.   Yet, unlike a lot of horror, there’s still a hopefulness which matches the more poignant sections of the book.

This was a quick read with a nice pace, never lingering too long on anything.  Only just enough to scare you or move you or make you wince.  Like a really good episode of The Twilight Zone or The X-Files, you get immersed in the story and the creepiness and the exploration of all too human tendencies.  With a few eerie twists.