In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (ISBN 978-1-4000-6893-7, 2010, $25), first-time novelist Helen Simonson has created a superb portrait of life and love in a contemporary English village.
Edgecombe St. Mary is the name of the village, and by the end of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand readers will feel as if several of the inhabitants of Edgecombe are their neighbors. There is, first of all, the widower Maj. Ernest Pettigrew, a retired military officer and head of an ancient village family, an old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip Englishman with a subtle sense of the absurd and a dry wit and compassion that will endear him to those who come to know him.
The major has fallen in love with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper and widow whose family is trying to displace her in her work with a fervently Islamic nephew. Mrs. Ali is a strong women of decided opinions who is disinclined to go along with the plans of her relatives and who slowly feels herself drawn to the major. As the two of them grow closer, their families and their friends in the village begin to do their utmost to separate them.
Around the major and Mrs. Ali swirl a host of other characters: the major’s son, Roger, who is trying his best to be a high flyer in the London business and social world; Amina, a courageously forthright Pakistani woman with connections to Mrs. Ali and her nephew; the ladies and gentlemen of the local golfing club, who add much to the humor of the story; Marjorie, Maj. Pettigrew’s sister-in-law, who spends a good deal of the novel dickering with him about a valuable shotgun owned by her deceased husband; Alice, Maj. Pettigrew’s eccentric next-door neighbor, who leads the fight against plans to develop Edgecombe; and a platoon of others who lend sparkle and froth to this champagne bottle of a book.
In addition to its intriguing storyline — Simonson manages at the end to tie up all the loose ends plot and subplots as deftly as the major manages his life — Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is distinguished by its wit and by the fine writing of its author. In this passage, for instance, Maj. Pettigrew, Roger, and Roger’s American girl friend Sandy are discussing the purchase of a nearby cottage which Roger intends to purchase. After having met Mrs. Augerspier, the owner of the cottage, Roger announces to his father that he intends to do his best to beat her down on the price of the property. He tells his father, who has taken a dislike to Mrs. Augerspier for her blatant bigotry regarding Mrs. Ali, that they can best take their revenge by getting the cottage at a low price.
“‘On what philosophical basis does that idea rest?’ asked the Major. Roger gave a vague wave of the hand and the Major saw him roll his eyes for Sandy’s benefit.
“’Oh, it’s simple pragmatism, Dad. It’s called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?’
“’On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?’ suggested the Major.”
Her choice of words and the way she puts together her sentences, many of them flawless in their precision, are the building stones for this cathedral of high comedy. Major Pettigrew is that rarity among novels these days, an extremely well-written story with in which the words stand like stacked stones, each chosen to fit exactly in its place, all while the writer keeps us enthralled by her characters and their stories. Simonson has lived in the United States for 20 years, but her writing here is distinctly English, with just the proper touch of word-play and drama. Here she describes the major after a young Pakistani has moved into his house for a few days:
“Roger and Sandy went to fetch their hamper and as the Major tried not to think of truffles, which he had always avoided because they stank like sweaty groins, Abdul Wahid came out of the house. As usual he was carrying a couple of dusty religious texts tucked tightly under his armpit partly and was wearing the dour frown from which the Major now understood was the result of excessive thinking rather than mere unhappiness. The Major wished young men wouldn’t think so much. It always seemed to result in absurd revolutionary movements, or, as in the case of several of his former pupils, the production of very bad poetry.”
It is common today for some critics and readers to complain about the mediocre state of contemporary literature, and some of these complaints possess a certain validity. Many books nowadays do indeed bear the mark of a graduate school‘s “writer’s workshop,” many offer the reader unbelievably eccentric characters or unrealistic plots, and many never come to life at all, remaining dull and lifeless as the dead trees which gave manufacture to their pages. In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, however, Helen Simonson has reminded us what fiction can be — delightful, life-enhancing, provocative of emotion and intellect.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Random House, 2010. 368 pages.
Some novels call to mind certain family members. There are the wise old stories that remind us of our grandparents, the zany tales whose style and tone dredge up our crazy but loveable Uncle Harry, the comic narratives whose humor somehow suggests our great-aunt Sally, the cautionary accounts that somehow summon up our parents or our older brothers and sisters.
Then there are those books that come at us like a troubled son, one of our children whom we dearly cherish but who gives us no end of bother. We love this son, but we want to like him as well, and we would like him if he would just behave the way we want him to behave, if he would just act like our neighbor’s kid next door, that paragon of learning and virtue who glided through a top-flight university and landed a lovely wife, 2.4 children, and a six-figure salary helping starving children in Africa. Instead, we’re stuck at home looking at an overgrown kid with an Ipod stuck to his ears, two days growth of beard on his face, clothing two weeks overdue for the washing machine, and ambition a concept as unfamiliar as its synonym spizerinctum.
Some books are like that.
David Gilmour’s The Film Club (ISBN 978-0-446-19930-8, $13.99) tells the story of Gilmour, an out-of-work Canadian television personality, and his son, Jesse, whom Gilmour allows to drop out of school at the age of 15 under the condition that he watch three movies a week of his father’s choosing. Agreeing to this rule, Jesse leaves school, and we then follow him and Gilmour as they make their way through a stack of movies and the thickets of a father-son relationship.
Much of this book will appeal to the general reader. Gilmour’s knowledge of film, employed during his television career as a critic — he is also the author of six novels — is both broad and deep. His comments on the movies which he chooses for Jesse, films ranging from “Giant” to “Ran,” from Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “The Godfather,” are astute and will encourage readers to seek out films with which they are unfamiliar. Gilmour is a critic who notices the small details in movies — the way Ralph Fiennes uses his eyes in Quiz Show, the way Marlon Brando moves, the way Cary Grant can “embody good and evil simultaneously” in “Notorious” — and then educates his readers in these details, encouraging them to look at movies with a critic’s eye.
Gilmour’s account of his time with Jesse also appeals. He is unflinching in his portrayal of his son and himself during this time. Jesse falls in love several times, sleeps with young women, drinks too much, does drugs, and seems to have a penchant for involving himself in troublesome situations. Gilmour, too, exhibits warts which he displays here. Once, for example, wanting to buy the house beside the home of his ex-wife — they have remained close — he gets Jesse and some of his wild friends to hang out on his wife’s porch on the afternoon of the open house. Many of the buyers, seeing the porch teeming with teens drinking and smoking cigarettes, never even stop to look at the property; the real estate agent becomes incensed; and eventually Gilmour realizes that he has committed a moral wrong by thwarting the sale.
These are the loveable parts of the book. The annoying parts, the ones that bring to mind that difficult son who has a knack for raising both our blood pressure and our wonderment at the vagaries of creation, rest with Gilmour himself. In some ways, he epitomizes a stereotypical modern father: fearful of being disliked by his children, ashamed at times to address a problem squarely, doubtful of his own set of verities. Jesse does eventually find his way back into the world of education, he does gain a sense of ambition and self-worth, but as Gilmour himself suggests, his plan for his son’s education could easily have taken a downward path, leading Jesse into a deeper morass of confusion and loss of self-respect. Gilmour seems to lack some rudimentary base in his own life, some code by which he abides. Consequently, he frequently comes across here as weak or foolish, with no apparent awareness that he appears this way.
There is one truly tender and sweet moment in the The Film Club during which we do admire Gilmour as a father. When the Gilmours visit Cuba, Jesse goes out of the hotel supposedly to enjoy a cigarette, but then slips away to explore the streets of Havana. Following him, Gilmour saves his son from being rousted by three crooks, and the two of them then sit in a café until nearly dawn. Here in a few pages Gilmour paints a scene of himself and his son sitting in the old city, drinking beer and smoking cigars, watching the street, and talking about women and life, that cause us to see Jesse’s goodness and innocence and Gilmour’s own concern and love for his son. Parents who do face difficulties with teenagers, particularly boys, will take hope from this poignant scene and from the book’s conclusion. Far greater than we may think when we are in the thick of our own coming-of-age wars is the possibility for a lasting peace and a loving relationship. Gilmour’s book is a testament to such an outcome.
If you don’t mind putting up with some of Gilmour‘s annoying approaches to fatherhood, The Film Club might be something worth joining.
The Film Club by David Gilmour. Twelve, 2008. 256 pages.
Anyone who has driven state roads between Asheville and Winston-Salem has quite possibly seen those state historical markers commemorating the passage of Stoneman’s raiders in the spring of 1865. North Carolina has erected 19 of these markers — the largest for any historical event in the state. Most of us who have seen the markers doubtless pass them by without too much thought, though not so long ago, when the first markers were set in place just before World War II, some disgusted citizens tore them out of the ground and threw them into a river.
So Chris J. Hartley tells us in Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 (ISBN 978-0-89587-377-4, 2010, $27.95). He further adds in his “preface” that Stoneman’s Raid also inspired The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (“Stoneman’s cavalry came and they tore up the track again”) and the Disney movie “Menace on the Mountain,” starring Mitch Vogel and Jodie Foster.
If you haven’t heard of George Stoneman and his 1865 cavalry raid through Southwestern Virginia and Western and Piedmont North Carolina, don’t be too dismayed. This raid occurred late in the war, was conducted against an enemy that was already tottering on the brink of defeat, and was overshadowed by enormous events like the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Nevertheless, Stoneman’s destructive tear across the middle of the Old North State caused immense physical destruction to local manufacturing, railroads, and farms, and brought privation to a people already suffering from the depredations of a four-year war. Near the end of his history of the raid, Hartley writes that:
“Violence, poverty, and isolation: these were the terrible, yet very real, outcomes of the end of the Civil War and Stoneman’s Raid in particular. They thrived long afterward in the areas touched by the raid and even found their way into postwar literature, which helped create the hillbilly stereotype that endures in the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina to this day.”
Until he began his famous — some might say infamous — raid in March 1865, George Stoneman was regarded by one high-ranking member of Lincoln’s cabinet as “one of the most worthless officers in the service.“ This reputation, at least among Northerners, changed for the better when Stoneman led 4,000 cavalry from Tennessee into Southwestern Virginia and Western North Carolina, cutting wide paths of destruction across the war-weary countryside, tearing up railroads, burning bridges, sacking cities, and engaging and defeating the Confederates he found in dozens of skirmishes and battles. His ravaging of a defeated Confederacy did not end with Lee’s surrender, but continued into the late spring after the capture of Jefferson Davis and the cessation of hostilities east of the Mississippi.
Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 succeeds on several fronts. First, Hartley has thoroughly researched the people and events associated with the raid. He offers sketches of dozens of participants and displays the evidence of the depth of his research in the details he supplies and the notes at the back of the book. Here, for example, we meet both the civilian leaders and the ordinary citizens from towns like Asheville, Salisbury and Salem, which only years after the war became Winston-Salem. We learn about the lives of the Union soldiers, some of whom evidently behaved no better than Sherman’s bummers, and of the Confederate regulars and militia who opposed the invasion of their homeland.
Hartley also has a military man’s eye for tactics and strategy. He knows the terrain of which he writes, a key factor in understanding any military operation, and understands too the factors of supply and morale in any fighting force. He shows us the surprise of the Confederate officers at Stoneman’s grasp of regional geography — he was supplied with adequate maps, and took care to bribe or cajole locals into giving him information. In his accounts of various skirmishes, Hartley demonstrates too how the Confederate simply could not stand up to the superior firepower of Yankee repeating rifles and the often overwhelming numbers of their troopers.
Finally, Hartley is a fine writer. He is one of those “amateur” historians — he earns his living in marketing — like Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough who understands how to bring the past alive, how to make it breathe on a written page. One Union force, for instance, after passing through Asheville under a flag of truce, turned back, surprised the Confederate soldiers in the town, and then began looting and burning in what Hartley describes as “the worst episode of the entire raid.”
“Federal cavalrymen barged into homes, tearing plaster from walls and ceilings, ripping open mattresses, and rifling through clothing in a mad search for hidden valuables. A prominent Unionist managed to obtain a guard, but the detail got lost and ended up protecting the property of a diehard Confederate while the Unionist’s house was ransacked…’Through the night pandemonium held sway,’ an eyewitness wrote, ‘and Asheville will never again hear such sounds and witness such scenes — pillage of every character and destruction the most wanton.’”
For Civil War students, for those who wish to have a look at the cost of a war that took place literally in their own back yards, and for all who enjoy reading history that is both dramatically presented and solidly researched, Chris J. Hartley’s Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 will make fine reading on these cold winter nights.
Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 by Chris J. Hartley. John F. Blair, 2010. 464 pages.
“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said to Ernest Hemingway, to which Hemingway supposedly replied: “Yes, Scott, they have more money.”
After getting through the final pages of Heidi Schnakenberg’s Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon (ISBN 978-1-59995-103-4, $23.99), a reader might agree with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and add a third observation that the rich also possess the capacity to lead lives as filled with ennui, dissolution and misery as the poorest of the poor.
R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. was the son of R.J. Reynolds, the founder of the Reynolds Tobacco Company — which remains the number-two producer of tobacco in the world today — and inventor of the once-ubiquitous Camel cigarette. After establishing his tobacco business in Winston-Salem in the years following the Civil War, Reynolds allied himself with the Moravians, whose ancestors had founded Salem and who were themselves astute businessmen and bankers, and so began his climb to financial success.
His business sense and hard work led to the establishment of Reynolds Tobacco as the chief enterprise in Winston-Salem — a benevolent company beloved by most of its employees, the major contributor to the city’s well-being, the chief force in the move of Wake Forest University from Wake Forest to Winston, and the primary philanthropist behind a dozen major charities in the Piedmont area.
R.J. Reynolds married late in life, however — he was 55 when he proposed to his 25-year-old cousin Katherine — and though he managed to impart some of his wisdom regarding his complex of enterprises to his first son, he died when Dick was only 13 years old. Dick Reynolds would always look back on these years when he was growing up in Winston-Salem, first in the big house on Fifth Avenue and then on the estate built by his mother, Reynolda, property which now serves as a public park and arts center for the city, as idyllic, quite possibly the best years of his life.
In the years following his father’s death, Reynolds flung himself into a dozen different undertakings. The new airplanes fascinated him, and he was one of the fathers of American aviation, having his pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright; later he helped develop both Delta and Eastern Airlines. He became an acclaimed sailor and yachtsman, participating in international races and escaping to the sea whenever he faced personal difficulties ashore. He served for a time as the Treasurer of the Democratic Party and as mayor of Winston-Salem. He helped fund and operate numerous charities, invested heavily, and made a fortune through those investments.
Yet Reynolds was also a secretive man who frequently disappeared from his friends and family for days on end, a playboy who loved the exotic and who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal whims, a father who rarely saw any of his children, a hypochondriac, and a drunkard.
This last flaw in particular cost him dearly throughout his life. While still a young man, he was driving drunk in England when he struck a man who later died at the hospital, a crime of manslaughter for which Reynolds spent some time in an English jail. Throughout his life — Kid Carolina could well be subtitled “The Biography of a Booze-Hound” — Reynolds was rarely without a drink, and it was his bibulous judgment that no doubt accounts for his failed marriages, his inability to involve himself with his children, his arguments with family and friends, and his failure to follow in his father‘s footsteps.
Though Schnakenberg does a fine job of showing us the boyhood and early life of Reynolds, and then later takes readers carefully through the famous trial that resulted from his mysterious death — some family members still hold that he was murdered by his fourth and last wife Annemarie, though Shnakenberg herself rejects this possibility — Kid Carolina is an uneven book. Schnakenberg several times tell us, for example, that the people of Winston-Salem regarded Dick Reynolds with great love, yet with the exception of her account of his run for mayor, she never really shows us how Reynolds managed to earn this admiration or gives us any solid evidence that such admiration existed. The middle part of the book poses a rather dull figure who seems on every page either to have passed out or to have caused some sort of drunken commotion. Often, too, the author takes great liberties with circumstances, creating conversations and engaging in unanswerable speculation about the motives of Reynolds, his wives, and his acquaintances.
In the epilogue of this biography, Schnakenberg writes in regard to the people who knew Reynolds or are related to him that “… in their hearts and minds, the unforgettable spirit of R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. — aka Kid Carolina — lives on.” Given the evidence of the book itself, we might nonetheless hope that Reynolds’ story might be better served up to the present generation as a cautionary tale of a man with too much money and too little backbone.
Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon by Heidi Schnakenberg. Center Street, 2010. 352 pages.
In her previous novels — two of which, Coming Back To Me and Girls In Trouble, have been reviewed here — Caroline Leavitt showed an exquisite talent for bringing her characters alive on the page. These novels were marked by Leavitt’s tough love for her characters, her ability to find and examine both the laughter and the tears that exist in ordinary people, and her willingness to take chances, to let the characters go their own way rather than follow the path of the predictable or even the desirable.
In her latest novel, Pictures of You (ISBN 978-1-56512-631-2, $13.95), Leavitt gives us one of her best stories yet, a book which reminds us that the best fictions not only entertain but also lead us to ponder the ideas of love, happiness, and fate.
Sam Nash, a sensitive fourth-grader, his father Charlie, a builder on Cape Cod, and Isabelle Stein, a photographer running away from the husband who has deserted her: all three find themselves emotionally wrecked by the automobile accident that leaves April, Charlie’s wife and Sam’s mother, dead. Isabelle, the driver of the car that killed April, cannot find a way to absolve herself from guilt, though the accident was in no way her fault. Charlie, who is haunted by his wife’s mysterious death to the point of hiring a detective to figure out her motives for leaving home that day — why was she standing in a fog on a road so far from home with her car facing the wrong way? Why had she packed a suitcase? — becomes so embroiled in grief by his loss that he can scarcely function at work or as a father to Sam.
Indeed, Leavitt describes the struggles of Isabelle and Charlie with such insight and sympathy that those who have suffered the death of a loved one or have unwittingly brought pain to others may well feel as if the author was describing their own interior state.
Through Charlie and Isabelle we see the limits of counsel offered by others in times of wrenching crises. Both Charlie and Isabelle also have difficulty relating to their parents, who are of little help to them in their pain, and though both are surrounded by a fine collection of friends, these too lack the power to allay their grief. In one poignant passage, which takes place in a bookstore shortly after she has met Charlie and Sam, Isabelle stands in the self-help section wondering what might eventually heal her anguish:
“There were courses in how to make miracles in your life, but the one she wished for — that the accident had never taken place — was an impossible one, and she didn’t think there were any more miracles for her. She couldn’t drive anymore. Her husband had impregnated his lover and her marriage was finished. She was in a dead-end job, living in a place she didn’t like, and she couldn’t leave because she was obsessed with Charlie and his son. Were there any books that could help her with that?”
It is Sam, sweet innocent Sam, who eventually brings Isabelle and Charlie together, and who sets off the forces that will lead them toward healing and a different sort of agony. Sam, who witnessed the accident, saw Isabelle dressed in white standing in the fog and the wreckage, and he becomes convinced that she is an angel, a guardian and a messenger possessed of some power to put him in touch with his mother. Sam begins reading books about angels, and on seeing Isabelle one day, follows her home in the hope of befriending her and of speaking then with April. At the same time, still haunted by this tragedy, Isabelle herself has also begun peeking into the lives of the Nash family, reading about Charlie and his work in an article on the internet, and secretively watching Sam from a distance. Through her meeting with Sam, she soon finds herself growing attached to him and to Charlie, while at the same time facing an opportunity to leave the Cape and attend a photography school in Manhattan.
To say more will spoil the ending of this novel. It is sufficient to note that the final pages of Pictures of You may not satisfy all its readers — a circumstance that is, oddly enough, highly satisfying. Carolina Leavitt knows that life doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package, and she is too fine and honest a storyteller to wrap up Pictures of You that way. By giving this story the long, hard thoughts that it deserves — Sam, Isabelle, and Charlie stay with us long after we have finished the last page — we will eventually come to agree with her.
Pictures of You is a fine novel for book club discussions, for it creates a man, a woman, and a child who are as real and immediate to us as our neighbors — and ourselves, for that matter. More importantly, Pictures of You with its clear insights, its unlocking of the human heart, and its examination of death, grief, and love, offers readers both triage and a hope for recovery from their own disasters, should they be in need of such help in their own lives.
Known for its list of excellent fiction, Algonquin Press had done itself proud in publishing Pictures of You. The book will be available in stores and on the internet on Jan. 25. Highly recommended.
Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin Books, 2011. 336 pages.
For many people, Thanksgiving is a holiday that delivers on its promises. The table sags beneath platters of ham and turkey, bowls of mashed potatoes and yams, green bean casseroles, hot bread, and pies. Family and old friends gather together to swap lies, damn lies, and statistics, the last most often having to do with sports stats and personal poundage. Afternoon naps are the order of the day, with the promise that televised football games and vintage movies will greet us when we groggily wake for one more glass of sparkling cider or another slice of pecan pie.
And then there is the shopping.
Even in a recession, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the shopping season just as surely as April brings us baseball or November lures hunters into the woods. On Thanksgiving weekends stores throw open their doors in the middle of the night, and wild-eyed consumers spend both their time and money chasing bargains with the fervor of brokers baying in a bull market. Malls create traffic gridlocks; employees of the major retail chains must sometimes act as referees in customer squabbling matches; shoppers themselves return home in the dull twilight of Friday evening gasping for their favorite beverage and rubbing their tired feet as if they had just endured a legionnaire’s march in the desert.
Though some profess to love this bargain hunting — ”There’s nothing like the smell of wampum in the morning!” — others regard Black Friday as the one drawback to an otherwise perfect holiday, a pall covering with dark shadows that day and the entire month of days following, that span of Advent during which one question, and one question only, looms like a nightmare in the mind: “What will I get ’fill-in-the-blank’ for Christmas?”
Gift buying puzzles discerning givers. Our three-year-old nephew is easy enough to please — he’d be happy with a piece of duct tape on a string — but what about Uncle Charlie? What do we give a man who has everything? Or our own mother? She possesses every kitchen appliance made since the invention of the orange juice squeezer, she hasn’t bought a new piece of clothing since the Clinton administration, and she last saw a feature film in a movie theater when she was stuck in Knoxville during the blizzard of ‘93. Where do we begin?
In a bookstore, of course. When we pause to consider the matter, bookstores contain the widest variety of gifts of any store. You can’t buy clothing in a bookshop, but you can find wonderful books on fashion. You can’t buy food, but you can find dozens of tomes on cooking, nutrition, and entertainment. In fact, you name the topic — sports, big-game photography, timber-framing, Alabama vacation spots — and a bookshop will likely oblige your taste.
Take a book like Susan Colon’s Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times (ISBN 978-0-385-53252-5, $21.95), which will delight recipients in several categories: cooks, older friends and family who remember the Great Depression, and those suffering the effects of our own economic woes. A native of New Jersey whose own immediate family took a few blows from our current financial mess and whose grandmother during the Depression kept recipes mingling good food with thrift, Colon delivers a smorgasbord of anecdotes, inspiration, and tasty food.
These are not recipes, by the way, for those whose taste buds have grown fond of exotic foods. Colon’s recipes, acquired via her mother and grandmother, are American fare cooked in the style when Americans cared more for substance than style. Among these dishes are “Matilde’s Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut,” “Hot Dog Soup,” “Aunt Nettie’s Clam Chowder,” and “Yeast Dumplings.” Reading these recipes and the stories that go with them brings to mind images of the kitchen of the 1930s and ‘40s: steaming kettles on a white stove, open containers of flour, sugar, and salt, the merry bustle of bodies intent on putting a wholesome, stick-to-your ribs supper on a dining room table.
For those inclined to literature and the spirit, we might gift wrap a copy of The Best Of It (ISBN 978-0-8021-1914-8, $24), Kay Ryan’s collection of new and selected poems. Ryan, who is our current national poet laureate, is described in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry as “intense and elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost.” In The Best Of It, we find that this high praise is well-deserved. Ryan’s words lie on the white page formally and forcefully as inscriptions on stone. Here in full, for example, is “Silence”:
Silence is not snow.
It cannot grow
deeper. A thousand years
of it are thinner
than paper. So
we must have it
when we feel trapped
Many of Ryan’s poems explore aspects of the self, mixing language both concrete and abstract to create verse that the reader can both contemplate and revisit with satisfaction. “Chemise” is one of many such poems in this panoply of verse:
What would the self
disrobed look like,
the form undraped?
There is a flimsy cloth
we can’t take off –
some last chemise
we can’t escape –
a hope more intimate
From the sacred to the profane, from volumes of lilting verse to recipes for quick apple cake, books offer choices for the boggled shopper, and the shops which sell those books are one of the best places around for one-stop shopping.
Next time we’ll continue our Christmas shopping with a look at two popular novels and the latest from Pat Conroy, My Reading Life.
Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times by Susan Colon. Doubleday, 2009. 224 pages
The sound of silence.
Silence is a rare commodity in our world today. Of course, perfect silence doesn’t exist. The adventurer alone in some Arctic waste will hear the crunching of her footsteps on the ice and snow. The man placed in a sound-proof room will hear the mechanic vibrations of his flesh: breathing, perhaps a slight ringing in his ears, perhaps even, a la Edgar Allen Poe, the beating of his own heart. Nevertheless, nearly all of us inhabit a world today in which human noise is rarely absent, a place of radios and television, canned music and conversation, cell phones, iPods, sirens, traffic, and the ordinary orchestral din of human activity.
Every year an Asheville teacher, whose best friend is solitude and who has several times made silent monastic retreats, sets his middle-school students with the task of sitting for half an hour in silence and then writing an essay on the experience. The assignment rouses in the students dozens of questions. Can’t they at least listen to music? Are they permitted to walk around the house or stroll around the yard? Can they perform the task in 10-minute intervals? Can they exercise or read a book? When all these questions receive a negative, many of the students react as if their teacher had just condemned them to a cell on Devil’s Island and tossed away the key.
Like the students, most of us fear or avoid silence and its companion, solitude. To be alone in silence, mystics of most faiths maintain, is to be alone with God. For most of us — and this is the much more terrifying thought — to be alone in silence means being alone with ourselves.
In A Book of Silence (ISBN 978-1-58243-517-6, $25), Sara Maitland, English novelist and essayist, explores through her own experiences and those who have undergone prolonged and profound bouts of silence — solitary sea voyagers, anchorites, contemplatives in deserts and remote mountains — the meaning and necessity for silence.
Maitland, who grew up in a rambunctious family with five siblings, who married and bore children of her own, and who is an outspoken feminist, first became intrigued by silence when she moved to Warkton, a small Northamptonshire village. Her children grown and gone, and her husband having divorced her, Maitland found herself unexpectedly in her Warkton home. Here, she writes, “it is quite hard in retrospect to remember which came first — the freedom of solitude or the energy of silence.”
Emboldened by her experience in Warkton, and wanting to test greater silence and isolation, Maitland moved in 2000 to a house on a moor above Weardale, a town in County Durham. Here she continued to work on her writing, to take long walks across the moors, and to settle ever more deeply into the silence which she had sought. She embarked on a six weeks of silence on the remote island of Skye. Her retreat on Skye, though demandingly intense, marked a turning point for her, “a benchmark and a launch pad for much of my present life.” She returned to Weardale determined more than ever to explore the effects of silence on her mind and spirit.
As her love of silence deepened — readers immersed in A Book of Silence must frequently remind themselves, when Maitland fails to do so, that this is a woman who only a few years earlier treasured company and conversation — Maitland began reading about the experiences of others who had encountered deep silence. Her reflections on these women and men make up some of the most engaging parts of her book. Here we learn of a man who once spent a polar winter unable to leave his tent; we follow solitary sailors who set out to break oceanic speed records and either go mad or turn away from the prize because they have so fallen in love with the immensity and quietude of the sea; we meet religious mystics, both living and dead, who over the centuries turned to silence to hear the voice of God.
Long into her experiments with silence, Maitland realized the benefits bestowed by such deep taciturnity: a physical fitness gained by her long hikes; a greater ability to concentrate and think; a richer faith. Much to her dismay, however, she also found that her hours spent on writing had fallen off. After comparing the stillness sought by spiritual anchorites with that of the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century — Wordsworth or Coleridge, for example — she realized that each group had pursued silence for different reasons. Eremitic Christians or Buddhists sought by silence and solitude to erase their egos, the self that stood between them and spiritual transformation, while the Romantics looked to solitude to deepen their knowledge of that same self, and to isolate and protect it from the world. In this comparison and her conclusions, Maitland strikes out into new territory and offers readers interested in writing or spiritual development some fine insights into the benefits and dangers of solitude.
Maitland treats even book-lovers to the joys of silence. She writes that by silence “I felt less excited by plot, tension and pace, and more engaged with language and mood and place … I read with a sense of the mystery of what reading is and how deeply and silently it shaped our sense of self.”
The holidays with all their noise and frenzied tumult are upon us. Readers needing an escape from the festival rush and run could do far worse than curling up in some remote corner with A Book of Silence, a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at hand, still, solitary, utterly and delightfully immersed in silence.
Several months ago, I reviewed a marvelous non-fiction work by Sharon Hatfield titled Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell. Hatfield’s book is a comprehensive account of a 1935 West Virginia murder which became a “cause celebre” that drew the attention of the national media, the Women’s Rights Movement and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In truth, the murder was a rather prosaic event: an attractive young school teacher living near Wise, W.V., had a violent argument with her father because he objected to her late return home from a night out with her friends. The father ended up dying on the floor from a head wound and Edith Maxwell was arrested and charged with murder. The trials dragged on for years and Edith Maxwell was not released from prison until 1941.
Now comes Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, based on the Edith Maxwell case, and it quickly becomes evident that McCrumb has an axe to grind. Specifically, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers addresses the devious role of journalism in any and all cases that occur in Appalachia. Although the primary focus is on the Edith Maxwell case, McCrumb takes the opportunity to catalogue other instances where journalists not only distorted the events in order to sell their stories to major newspapers, but actually influenced verdicts and damaged innocent people. Examples include the notorious “elephant hanging” near Irwin, Tenn. (1916); the famed Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tenn. (1925) and the tragic Floyd Collins incident in Kentucky (1926).
McCrumb, who is an accomplished author of Appalachian novels that frequently blend folklore and history with a tantalizing dash of the supernatural (one of her recurring characters is gifted with “second sight”), has no trouble at all in transposing the entire cast of the Edith Maxwell case into a “fictional” personage. Edith Maxwell becomes Erma Morton, and Edith’s clever, self-promoting brother, Earl, is reincarnated as Harley Morton, who takes charge of his sister’s defense and immediately signs a contract with the Hearst papers, giving them sole rights to her story. As a consequence, all of the other journalists, including emissaries from a variety of “women’s rights” organizations, are only given limited access to Erma Morton.
However, the major emphasis is not on the accused. Erma remains a remote and mysterious character until the culminating pages of The Devil Among the Lawyers, when she finally reveals a vague version of “what really happened.” Instead, McCrumb turns her attention to journalists — a collection of a half-dozen news hounds who run the gamut from inept but well-meaning (Carl Jennings) to purple-prosed sob sisters (Rose Hanelon) and jaded yellow journalists (Luster Swan). This motley crew arrives in Wise with motives that are as diverse as their characters.
Carl Jennings is fresh out of college and painfully aware of his lack of experience. Lacking the expense accounts (and the cynicism) of his worldly cohorts, he trusts his empathy for Emma Morton, believing that they share a common background. In addition, he feels he has “an ace up his sleeve” since he has a relative — Nora, a cousin — who shares the Bonesteel gift of “second sight.” He has managed to bring her to Wise to work in the kitchen of the boarding house where he stays. Is it possible that Nora will perceive the truth about Emma?
Like the majority of out-of-state journalists, Rose Hanelon arrives in Wise with preconceived ideas about the region. However, despite her cynical evaluation of the local populace (“ignorant and backward hillbillies”), Rose has become adept at writing stories about tragic young women who are victimized by brutish males. With the assistance of the photographer, Shade Baker, she sometimes creates fake photographs of impoverished mountain children to add pathos to her reports. Yet, despite her unethical approach to the Emma Morton trial, Rose emerges as a lonely, foolish woman who is hopelessly caught up in a doomed romance with a young, daredevil pilot.
Henry Jernigan emerges as the most memorable of McCrumb’s journalists. In addition to being to being a kind of effete snob who struggles to hold himself apart from his callous and vulgar companions, Henry resembles the noted journalist Lafcadio Hearn, who renounced his American citizenship and devoted his life to pursuing Japanese art and culture ... However, Henry Jernigan’s newly discovered paradise only lasts until a tragic event (a devastating earthquake/fire and the death of his dearest friend) forced him to leave Japan. Although he ekes out a livelihood by writing sophisticated articles filled with classical allusions and flowery bombast, he seems a lost and tortured soul. Certainly, he seems out of his element in Wise, West Virginia.
One of the most moving passages in The Devil Amongst the Lawyers describes Henry’s discovery that he “is not alone.” He is constantly accompanied by the spirit of a young Japanese woman who died many years ago in Japan ... a spirit that he cannot see. However, his ghostly companion is seen by others, those who have “second sight,” including Carl Jennings’ cousin, Nora.
The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, like Sharon Hatfield’s Never Seen the Moon, provides extensive evidence that journalists who were sent to cover sensational events in Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s tended to rely heavily on a singular literary work: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr. Published in 1908, this popular novel/play/film/outdoor drama was filled with graphic descriptions of violent, ignorant men and helpless victimized women. Despite the fact that Appalachian culture and its people had changed radically in the intervening years, unethical journalists continued to use the same stereotypes. As one critic commented on the newspaper articles about Edith Maxwell’s murder trial, many of the reports were written by men who never left the hotel in Wise. They simply defined the people with “a jar of moonshine in one hand and a copy of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in the other.”
As a result of McCrumb’s emphasis on the role of unethical journalism in the Maxwell case, the final outcome of the novel seems anticlimactic, perhaps even irrelevant. In essence, McCrumb cracks the whip and her characters dance in accordance to her wishes. Unlike the vivid characters in many of her novels, the cast of The Devil Amongst the Lawyers appears stylized and one-dimensional. Perhaps that is the price for writing a novel that is more an ethical preachment than a tense murder mystery.
The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb. St Martin’s Press, 2010. 320 pages
As cooler weather plucks leaves from the trees, stripping the branches bare as a freshly-barbered poodle, as that wonderful green grass of summer now takes on a sheen of frost at dawn, as fall in the mountains deepens into the icy winds of winter, many summer visitors in these parts close up their houses and head south to a place where the sun still produces heat as well as light and where a cold snap means accidentally leaving the air-conditioning on high on a mild night.
By necessity or choice, most of us stay here, hunker down, and endure the mountain winters. Some Artic souls even take pleasure in the cold rains of November, the cannonades of icy wind that mark December, the gray skies and slick roads of January. But shivering alongside them are those sun-worshippers who would in a heartbeat fly like a bat out of a snowstorm to be warm again, to be oppressed by heat and humidity, to lie on a beach beneath a hot sun and melt into the white sand like an ice cube in a frying pan.
These are the people who, lacking the funds to take themselves permanently off to latitudes closer to the equator, will either spend the next few months shivering forlornly in their sweaters and blankets or else use their imagination to draw the heat and the sunshine to them.
For those cold readers looking for a touch of warmth, they might try taking up in their frozen fingers James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The Glass Rainbow (ISBN 978-1-4391-2828-9, $25.99). Set in New Iberia, La., in the summertime, The Glass Rainbow throws off a steamy heat that should warm the hearts of all who love suspense and mystery in their fiction.
Dave Robicheaux, the New Orleans detective created long ago in the novel The Neon Rain, has aged in this latest story, but he still works for the New Iberia Police Department, fights the pull toward drinking a bottle of Beam to squelch his nightmares about by Vietnam and his police work, and fights the good fight for decency against a low-life, grubby world.
In The Glass Rainbow, Robicheaux and his best friend and former partner, Clete Purcel, set out to solve the murder of some young girls, including Bernadette Latiolais, a high school honor student snatched and killed while walking home from classes. In their quest for justice, the two men run across the same sort of lowlifes and scum encountered in previous Robicheaux novels.
They must fight against a best-selling author who is also a con-man and a killer; a descendent of the wealthy planter class, also a novelist, who has lured Alafair, Robicheaux’s daughter, into his circle of wealth and prestige; a pimp and drug dealer named Herman Stinga, who seems to enjoy himself most when he is irritating people; and a full company of other characters who seem to occupy nearly every point on anyone’s moral compass.
Though Dave Robicheaux figures prominently in The Glass Rainbow and the other books and has successfully battled the demons of his life — he is married to a beautiful, understanding woman, has raised a daughter, and lives in an idyllic Louisiana glade — it is Clete Purcel, Robicheaux’s partner, who most compellingly attracts our attention. Unlike Robicheaux, Purcel hasn’t come to terms with the torments of his past: he smokes too much, helps keep several liquor stores running a profit, runs around with women, and has a temper like a volcano. Early in the book, Robicheaux says that “Clete was the libidinous trickster of folklore, the elephantine buffoon, the bane of the Mob and all misogynists and child molesters, the brain-scorched jarhead who talked with a dead mamasan on his fire escape….” Robicheaux knocks at the door; Purcel kicks it off the hinges.
What sets Burke’s novels apart from others in the genre of suspense, however, is his description of Louisiana weather and landscape, descriptions so vivid that readers can soak up the heat of the Deep South from every page. Here, for example, is Burke’s description of a murder scene:
“We drove down the same levee where Layton had parked the pickup truck on the last day of his life. The water was high from the rain, lapping across the cypress knees, the strings of early hyacinths rolling in the waves. The sky was overcast, the wind steady out of the south, and in the distance I could see a flat bronze-colored bay starting to cap and moss straightening on a line of dead cypress trees.”
Such descriptions, repeated throughout the book and so planting a believable background to the story, open for us the door to Robicheaux’s world and allow us to step into his life and walk beside him. They carry us out of ourselves and our daily lives. Burke paints these landscapes with such bright and powerful colors and lines that they may help even a shivering reader remember that the whole world isn’t a winter wasteland of gunmetal skies, brown grass, and bare trees.
The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 448 pages
Many of us have attended a Methodist or Baptist “dinner on the grounds.” At these events, once popular across the South but now fading somewhat, church families gathered after the Sunday service for fellowship and a feast of pot-luck dishes: crispy fried chicken, baked ham, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob, fruit salads, cornbread, sweetened tea, and a table loaded down with pies and cakes so delicious and sweet that every yellow jacket in the county managed to find the place in 30 seconds flat.
Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems (ISBN 978-1-4507-0152-5, $16) is a literary dinner on the grounds. In this collection, produced by the North Carolina Writers’ Network West and edited by Nancy Simpson, the resident writer at the John C. Campbell Folk School, we are given the opportunity to stroll down a banquet table prepared by a host of Western North Carolina writers, sampling poetry, fiction, and essays on topics as varied as corn dances and Jesus freaks, kudzu and pot-bellied stoves. This anthology offers verse by Byron Herbert Reece, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Richard Bronnum, and other talented poets, stories about growing up in the mountains and life today, and essays that ring as true and clear to the ear as an ax on a log in December.
In addition to its wide assortment of writers, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge should appeal to readers who like to take their pleasures close to home. Glenda Beall’s “The Trillium,” an essay about an older man named George and his invitation to come to his home to see his trillium, which turns out to be a single beautiful plant, reminds us to look for happiness in small things and out of the way places. Gary Carden’s “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” a story about his grandfather disguising himself as a fallen woman from Waycross, Ga., and paying a humorous visit to a neighbor, is told with the author’s usual keen wit and sense of comedic timing. Betty Reed’s “I Won’t Cry,” a poem about the financial woes of a mountain family, cuts close to the bone in its lament about the boarded-up plant and lost jobs brought by the last 20 years of economic hardship in our mountains.
Finally, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge might well serve as an anthology about the preservation of the spirit of Appalachia. Many of the poets and writers here take as their subject the people who have gone before them — grandfathers and grandmothers, ghosts, old-timers now gone who were living repositories of mountain life and culture. By adding their own words to those of earlier storytellers and balladeers, the writers here not only help to preserve their mountain past, but inculcate themselves into that past, bringing it into the present so that our heritage becomes not a thing for museums but a piece of living reality, threads to be spun into the fabric of our daily lives.
In “Beyond the Clearing,” the poem which Nancy Simpson chose to introduce this volume, James M. Cox sums up this blending of past and present, and the magic of the Blue Ridge:
Beyond the clearing there’s a way to see
what matters most, what graces age.
Come take my hand, come go with me.
Walk with me to the clean bright edge.
The Christmas season will soon be on us. Those looking for a gift for someone who needs a breath of home — a loved one away in the military, a student in college — or a present for some flatlander who has never enjoyed the privilege of living in these magical mountains would do well to wrap up and mail out Echoes Across The Blue Ridge.
Political commentator and writer Glenn Beck, beloved by many of the Tea Party and despised by both liberals and many conventional Republicans, recently released yet another book, a suspense novel titled The Overton Window (ISBN 978-1-4391-8430-1, $26).
Beck’s novel tells the story of Noah Gardner, son of one of the wealthiest men on the planet, the owner of a powerful public relations firm who has partnered up with certain elements of the federal government and is using all his skill and knowledge to steer the country toward a form of fascism. Noah is indifferent about the changes in the country and in the firm until he meets Molly Ross (perhaps named for Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross of Revolutionary War fame), a committed member of a group of patriots fighting the changes which Noah is unwittingly help to effect.
Misleadingly subtitled “A Thriller” — compared to other books in this genre, The Overton Window provides few thrills, and is so mediocre in its development of character and plot that its publication may well lay to rest rumors that Beck hires ghost-writers to put together his books — this novel will undoubtedly sell well through the holiday shopping season but will then be forgotten.
This neglect will be unfortunate, for The Overton Window contains in its gruel-thin plot an important message for all Americans, liberal and conservative alike: the growing intrusion of the federal government into the lives of American citizens. When used by the federal government, or by a powerful corporation, the concept of the Overton Window, defined succinctly on the novel’s fly-leaf as a powerful technique “manipulating public perception so that ideas previously thought of as radical begin to seem acceptable over time,” can bring about alterations in our behavior and what we regard as acceptable policies. It can change how we regard our own civil liberties vis-à-vis the government.
Once regarded as a servant of the people, the government is now largely regarded as master. Through our fear of terrorism, for example, we have extended to certain federal agencies powers which our grandparents would have regarded as anathema.
Though liberals and conservatives find little common ground these days, surely both groups might join in a mutual distrust of government control. In this area, Beck’s The Overton Window, particularly the “Afterword” in which he discusses the trends in government and large corporations of the last 40 years, calls all of us to become more aware of our rights as human beings and more vigilant regarding infringements by the government on those rights.
Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems edited by Nancy Simpson. Winding Path Press, 2010. 256 pages