Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Life After Life

I'm sure a little research could tell me whose book entitled Life After Life came first, Kate Atkinson or Jill McCorkle. I read and loved Atkinson's novel with it's circling plot that explored the world through alternate possibilities for the main character, looking at how the world might have changed had she never been born or had she met an untimely death through one of a number of possibilities.

Jill McCorkle's novel, though different in so many ways, also follows the lives she describes not in an unbroken chronological way but through a series of perspectives, moving back and forth through time.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to attend the North Carolina Book Festival in Chapel Hill during which McCorkle, fellow NC author Lee Smith and singer-songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matreca Berg gave a four woman reader's theatre version of their musical, Good Old Girls. The show presents vignettes from the point of view of a variety of women of all ages.  (I recall one song:  "Don't let me get pregnant. I just came to dance.")  My favorite part, though, presented the experience of a woman who found herself in the nursing home, which she calls "this school for old people," right after her husband's death. It was, in turns, hilarious and heart-breaking.

This novel Life After Life not only shares the setting--a facility ranging from hospice care to assisted living and cabins for more independent seniors.  She opens with Joanna, a woman who has returned to her hometown Fulton, NC, after many years away, taking a job sitting with people as they near death. While rumors abound that she has been through serial marriages, she's actually been married three times--once to a man her parents thought perfect for her, once to a grieving widower who needs her help with his children in the year after his death--until he falls in love with someone else, and a man dying of AIDS she meets after his dog rescues her from a suicide attempt. That marriage, one of convenience on an interesting number of levels, gives her live new purpose.

As she records the last days of her patience, McCorkle shares their lives as well--the town's long-time third grade teacher, a holier-than-thou busybody, a former literature teacher, and two of the most interesting residents--a Boston woman in good health who decided after her husband died to move to the town where her former lover had live and died and a man feigning Alzheimer's so his son won't insist on keeping him at home and moving in with him.

In addition to the elderly residents, McCorkle's cast of characters includes a young girl living right across the cemetery from the facility, escaping her parents' fighting by spending time with Sadie, the former school teacher, and a single mother--tattooed and pierced--who does the residents' hair and nails and hides her own secrets.

Throughout the novel, McCorkle weaves the stories together, balancing the light, humorous sections with tender and even dark ones.  The book makes good on the promise implied in her earlier vignette, convincingly presenting the life still left to live in those final years.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Prolific Mr. King

While I'm not one of those readers who devour everything Stephen King writes, I do find myself drawn to his books every now and then. Unlike many of the prolific popular writes, King is actually a good writer.  One of his books I've enjoyed most, in fact, was his On Writing: A Memoir on Craft.  A child of the sixties, I also enjoyed his time travel novel November 22, 1963.

I'm not sure exactly why I decided to read what I believe is his latest Mr. Mercedes, but I am glad I did.  The protagonist of the book, a recently retired detective, could easily be played by Clint Eastwood, even though the two bear no physical resemblance.  Older, alone, and out of shape, Bill Hodges may be suffering from depression as his life revolves around daytime television.  When he receives a letter from the man claiming credit for a mass murder, driving into a line of people who've been waiting since before dawn for a job fair, Hodges doesn't react the way the so-called Mercedes killer hopes he will. Instead of goading Hodges to commit suicide, the letter gives him a sense of purpose.

King also introduces his three dimensional characters to what might otherwise have been a formulaic detective story.  Stubborn but self-deprecating, the "ret det" manages to find unlikely romance, he builds his friendship with Jerome, an Ivy League-bound African American teenager who, in addition to helping with his yard work, also serves as his techie.  They also help to look beneath the surface of Holly, an emotionally unbalanced, childlike forty-something, allowing her to use her prodigious skills  to help solve the crime before Mr. Mercedes can kill again.

The plot itself has a cinematic pace, but the interpersonal relationships, and especially Hodges' recognition of the human tendency to misjudge people who are simply unlikeable give the novel layers that appeal to pickier readers.  The real horror in this story is the realization that evil may lurk within those who, on the surface, look the more normal and ordinary.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Painting Through Plot Twists

When I'm on a reading jag, as I usually am in the summer, I inevitably detect odd connections between dissimilar books.  Nothing about the tone of the narrator and protagonist of Peter Heller's novel The Painter would be mistaken for that of Courtney Maum's I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You.  The writing style and the plot are nothing alike, but both are the story of artists who experience a tension between what they want to paint and what sells.

Jim Stegner, the bearded, outdoorsy protagonist of Heller's novel, has made his mark as a painter in the Southwest--but he seems an unlikely success. A recovering alcoholic still reeling from the death of his teenage daughter, he opts for a reclusive life, escaping alone to fish. He's served time for attempted murder of an alleged pedophile who makes egregiously inappropriate remarks about the daughter, and then after conflict with a hunting guide who abuses horses, Stegner is the number one suspect in the man's death.  He gets out of town and heads to Santa Fe to complete a commission his agent has agreed to, painting the two young daughters of a wealthy patron, not the kind of art he has in mind.

In the real mystery and conflict of the novel, it isn't a whodunnit. Instead, readers find themselves pulling for Stegner (whom his neighbors call Hemingway) not just to avoid a return to prison but to get his life back on track.

I had read Heller's earlier novel The Dog Stars, an even darker post-apocolyptic novel of a man's attempt to survive after disaster has decimated the population of the country, possibly the world. That novel's main character, also a fisherman, is also torn between his desire for companionship and his mistrust of other people.

Courtney Maum's novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, on the surface, bears no similarities to The Painter except a main character, an artist experiencing commercial success in a style he finds least appealing to him. Richard Haddon, a British artist educated in the States and married to a beautiful French woman, experiences the seven-year-itch as their romantic marriage has settled into the day-to-day normalcy of parenthood, and he gets caught up into an affair.

He has idealistic dreams the kind of art he wants to paint but ends up producing a series of "keyhole" paintings of rooms in his life.  The one painting that sells is the one he least wishes to relinquish--a painting of a blue bear he completed for their baby daughter, a sentimental favorite for him and his wife.

His wife Anne-Laure, aware of the affair--which the other woman broke off to marry someone else--finds a letter from the woman during a visit to her parents, tells her parents everything, and sends Richard away.  During the time away from her, he develops an unlikely friendship with a British fellow traveler--happily married--and spends time with his own elderly parents, who also give him a glimpse into the tenderness of their long marriage.

He goes to great lengths--often in awkward situations--to try to save his own marriage.  In the meantime, he comes up with his an idea for a controversial art exhibit in response to Bush's attack on Iraq, such a departure from his keyhole paintings his agent allows, even encourages him to seek another venue--where he sets up washing machines to launder letters--solicited from people everywhere--in oil.

Maum balances Richard's angst with humor, allowing readers to hope for his success without making his wife the villain in the story. It's so easy to like this goofy, flawed man that I found myself hoping Anne-Laure would give the poor guy a chance--with or without the painting of the blue bear.


Friday, August 15, 2014

To Live and Die in L.A. (Lower Alabama)

Today I took one of those quizzes on Facebook (the kind I usually avoid, sure, but when I have to choose between working on my class syllabi for next week or taking Facebook quizzes, I wouldn't even be surprised to find myself choosing "What kind of vegetable are you?") This one was testing whether or not I was a true North Carolinian.  I passed with flying colors.  It wasn't exactly a measurement of critical thinking, since most of the questions focused on state bird, Cheerwine, and the Carolina-Duke rivalry. It didn't take a brain surgeon--or even middle school North Carolina History.

If you know me, then you know that I live in North Carolina, I love North Carolina, but I'm an Alabama girl--not from LA (Lower Alabama) but from North Alabama.

That makes me unquestionably Southern too.  This summer, I was blessed with the sporadic arrival of books in my mailbox from River's Edge Media, a small press out of Little Rock, Arkansas, with the most creative publicity I've seen from any publishers. The Shoe Burnin' collection I reviewed earlier in the summer arrived first. I've followed it with two books from contributors.  First I read All the Way to Memphis, a collection of short stories by Suzanne Hudson. Her stories brought together a roll call of all ages--heavy on kids--living on the edge of abuse, disappointment, and death.  Whether set in barrooms,  behind the jailhouse, or on the road between Mississippi and Memphis, the stories put off a kind of Southern heat, provoke a level of discomfort that keeps a reader turning pages.

Next I read Waffle House Rules, a novel by Joe Formichella, Hudson's husband and the editor of the Shoe Burnin' stories.  Set in Penelope, Alabama, near Fairhope, the charming South Alabama town where the two reside, the novel brings together a cast of local characters, including "the Phils,"  four indistinguishable coffee house regulars, Big Bob, an out-of-towner who keeps returning after getting his RV stuck in the parking lot of the Waffle House on his way through town, and a pair of sisters who, as the book opens, say goodbye to Dr. Jimmy Ryan, by tossing wishbones into his grave.

Moving back and forth between the present and the Jimmy Ryan's childhood, when he was the only survivor of a family automobile accident on their way to a local Halloween celebration, Formichella paints a picture of this part of the state, eager to distinguish itself from Mobile.  He delves into the idealistic but failed beginnings of Fairhope. Most of all, he celebrates the telling and untelling of stories, shaped by wishfulness and forgetfulness--and maybe a little kudzu.

While the authors obviously inhabit a region nurturing to writers, their styles differ distinctly.  (As a side note, when I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Nicole Krauss's History of Love, I made immediate connections between the books' style and structure before I had any idea they were married.) Both Hudson's and Formichella's books invite comparison to other Southern writers who transcended "regional" levels.  One can imagine crossing Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon with Fannie Flagg's Whistlestop Cafe and throwing in just a dab of Slingblade to produce these fascinating, unforgettable characters.