In A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir (978-1-4000-6794-7, $26), Norris Church Mailer gives an account of her marriage to Norman Mailer. Originally from Arkansas, and formerly married with one child, Norris met Mailer when she was in her mid-20s and Mailer was in his 50s, a writer at his prime who was nearly twice her age. They fell in love in a single night, and after Mailer had acquired a divorce from his fifth wife, were married and remained together, through good times and bad, for nearly 33 years.
A Ticket to the Circus offers fine insights into Mailer’s home life, into his thoughts and emotions, and into the New York society in which he thrived. Whether Mailer’s reputation will diminish with the passage of time remains to be seen, but we nevertheless come away from these pages impressed by his dedication to his writing — even in his later years he frequently carried a notebook for recording his impressions of the world around him, and he was of the school that believed writers should write each day no matter what sort of accidents befell them (at one point, when Mailer nearly lost his thumb and his life by cutting himself in a shower stall, he was still at his work desk the next day).
Here, too, we meet the Norman Mailer who so often captured headlines for various wild exploits and statements, and find that he was much the same in his private life. He really was a man of great energy and zest — Norris writes that he instigated arguments sometimes to see, with a novelist’s eye, where the argument might lead and what the consequences might be — who “came alive at the table much like he did onstage, and for years we were invited everywhere just for the entertainment value.”
Mailer loved to throw his own parties as well, and was well known for those given in his Manhattan apartment, which, according to Norris, “could comfortably hold about 50 people, but I know there were times when we had 200 or more.” Through her descriptions of these parties and the many glitterati who attended them, she imparts to us a sense both of their excitement and of the somewhat inbred society that was literary Manhattan at the time.
At one point, for example, she describes being seated for dinner next to Sam Walton, the owner of Wal-Mart, whose stores were just beginning their expansion into the enormous conglomerate of the early 21st century. They both enjoyed a laugh at the provincial nature of the New Yorker:
“I told him of talking to the headmaster of a private school for fifteen minutes about my work as an art teacher, the problems of education and whatever, until finally the headmaster asked me where I’d taught, and I’d said “Arkansas.” “They have art in Arkansas?” He’d been incredulous. Sam laughed.”
Norris is guileless in her writing about Mailer and about herself, which adds to its honesty but at times makes her seem like a bubble-headed model (she was, in fact, a professional model). Once, asked by Ethel Kennedy whether she would “be with him if he weren’t Norman Mailer,” she thinks to herself that Norman would not have been with her had she weighed 300 pounds or “had looked like Groucho Marx.” True enough, but she approached the question from an odd angle, and seems unable to confront the idea that Mailer just might have been attracted her because she was a model who was half his age, a circumstance that might explain the attraction of many an older man with prestige and money.
In another passage, writing of her precocious son (are there any children living among these people who aren’t precocious?) drawing pictures of German soldiers with insignia on their uniforms, Norris adds off-handedly that “I always believed he had been either a German soldier or a Jew in the last war; sometimes he had nightmares about things he would or should never have known about.”
Despite these somewhat silly outbursts, or indeed, perhaps because of them, A Ticket to the Circus is worth a quick read. It gives us a portrait of the writer and of the pond in which he swam, and tells as well the story of an ambitious girl from the South who by her own lights made a success of herself.
Stephen Hunter, creator of the legendary sniper Bob Lee Swagger, has written yet another novel about this aging hero. In Dead Zero (ISBN 978-1-4391-3856-6, $26), Swagger is once again summoned from his Idaho ranch to rescue the federal government. This time a sniper is on the loose who has the apparent intention of assassinating an Afghan warlord named Zarzi, a murderous villain who has suddenly become a valuable asset to the efforts of the United States in that region.
Despite its hokey ending — the conclusion seems about as likely as permanent peace in the Middle East — Dead Zero will appeal to long-time fans of Swagger and to all other readers who enjoy strong suspense novels. Hunter’s careful research into his subject — the weapons and tactics of the sniper, Afghan politics and warfare, and our domestic agencies which fight terrorism — is as always impressive, and his storytelling abilities will keep the reader turning the pages.
A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir by Norris Church Mailer. Random House, 2010. 416 pages
Some The Smoky Mountain News readers may remember a review here several seasons ago of Bill Walker’s Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. In that book we met the appropriately named Walker narrating his adventures while hiking the Appalachian Trail. His descriptions of his fellow trailblazers and their various idiosyncrasies made his account a delight for both experienced hikers and general readers.
In Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (ISBN 9781453862230), Walker ventures to the other side of the continent tackle the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which as he notes in his book “is extraordinary. The diversity of its geology is unequaled by any other footpath in the world.”
Walker goes on to make his case for this bold statement by taking us along with him on his hike and showing us that the PCT, which runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, runs the gamut from desert to mountains with elevations exceeding 14,000 feet, from the High Sierra, which is frequently blanketed with snow, to the delights of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and the ski resorts of Squaw Valley. Because of its twists and turns – the distance covered in a straight line on a map is just over 1,000 miles – the PCT is nonetheless nearly 500 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail, coming in at 2,663.5 miles.
In addition to giving us an account of this terrain and the challenges it presents, Walker recounts his own personal trials. His very height, for example, often worked against him. An extraordinarily tall man – Walker is 6’11” and appears a giant alongside his fellow hikers in the book’s photographs – he points out that the average height of a Boston Marathon winner is just over 5’7”. He then determines that the average hiker of average height would use about 5,000 calories daily, whereas his own caloric demands ran to nearly 7,000 calories daily. On any given five-day trek, then, Walker found that he could carry only about half the food needed to give him the necessary calories. Not only did he lose a great amount of weight during his walk, but he became so emaciated that he feared being unable to finish the trail. In one photograph, he bares his chest and has the look of a man on a starvation strike.
As in his Appalachian account, Walker also gives us many fine thumbnail sketches of his fellow hikers. One of my favorites was his portrait of “Pretty Boy Joe” – all the hikers have nicknames, or are given them by Walker to protect their identity in the book – a 22-year-old graduate of the University of California. “With his long, lean physique,” writes Walker, “straight gaze, and manner of speaking in the soft, unhurried cadences of the West, he even reminded me of a younger Clint Eastwood.” Though the son of a wealthy California realtor, Pretty Boy Joe often dumpster dives for food when off the trail and would have been, Walker contends, a kindred soul with pioneers like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.
Though Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail may seem an odd book to review in a paper devoted to the Smoky Mountains, Walker’s love for his subject and the exuberance of his descriptions make this book a worthy addition to any hiker’s library.
Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (ISBN 978-1-4000-6951-4, $27) attracted a good deal of criticism for its lack of personal detail regarding Salinger’s reclusive years and for what some reviewers called a fawning attitude.
Such negative criticism of Salinger: A Life is unfortunate, for there is gold to be mined in these pages for all those who love the work of the author of Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and the other stories published before the author, tormented by publicity and on a spiritual quest, went into hiding. To chide Slawenski for loving Salinger’s books is ridiculous: what sort of biographer would want to write 400 pages about an author whom he disliked?
Slawenski carefully works his way through Salinger’s stories, and fans will take delight in his insights and his careful critiques. In addition, he goes to great lengths to examine Salinger’s spiritual development over the years, his increasing association of the spiritual with the act of writing, and his obsessive need for the private life (Salinger’s own daughter was unaware of her father’s occupation until she went to school, where an amused teacher told her that her father was a famous author).
Nor will readers be disappointed by Slawenski’s personal history of Salinger. He has done great service here showing us the depth of the effect of World War II on the young writer, and gives us blow-by-blow accounts of Salinger’s battles with the public, publishers, and copy-cat authors. Doubtless he does leave out some of Salinger’s mean-spirited behavior toward his wives and children, but a good bit of this side of the story is gossip and another good bit has already found documentation elsewhere. Given the penchant in our society for finding “dirt” on our celebrities, it is a relief in many ways to read the biography of an author in which the biographer seems as interested in his subject’s work as in a body count of the women bedded or the friends and lovers mistreated.
Though heroin and cocaine are dangerous and illegal, both drugs carry with them a cachet, the dark romance of, say, the doomed hard-rock singer or the wild film star. Alcoholics — unless you happen to live with one — are still regarded by our culture as either tragic figures or lovable clowns. Even cigarette smokers, hounded from the work place and restaurants, shoved into the cold streets, penalized with taxes higher than those once levied by the English on our forefathers, may still occasionally appear in the public eye as mysterious and cool, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, or as tormented, like Sandra Bullock in “Twenty-eight Days.”
Fat people, however, receive no such ancillary laurels, no tarnished crowns. They are simply fat, and those around them regard them with a mixture of repugnance, aversion, disgust and horror. They eat too much, they drink too much, they exercise too little. They are quite literally shaped by their gluttony, and our pity usually extends no further than “There but for the grace of God and dietetic caution go I.”
That this pity is so limited is itself a pity. Few of us watching an obese man wheel about in a mobilized shopping cart in Wal-Mart or a woman the size of a freezer trying to keep up with her 3-year-old rarely put ourselves into that person’s shoes — or oversized sweat pants. We make jokes instead, offer insults like the one in the previous sentence, and wonder why someone grown so gargantuan would continue to eat bags of oily salted chips and drink vats of cola or beer.
In other words, we rarely try, as we might with the drug addict — poor tortured devil! — or the alcoholic — poor demon-driven sot! — to understand fat people, much less sympathize with them. The ignorant, gluttonous sods have eaten themselves into a hillock of flesh, and if they really disliked their shape and physical health, then they would take up a dietary spade — in some cases, a dietary bulldozer — and reduce the sides of that hill.
In Designated Fat Girl (978-0-7627-5962-0, $16.95), North Carolina author Jennifer Joyner tells us what it’s like to be fat, how it feels when you can’t help your child off the slide at McDonald’s because you’re too big to get up the ladder, how you look at yourself in the mirror each day and weep, how you go day after day wondering how your husband can love you. And not only does Joyner tell us how awful she felt about the weight she carried, she also demonstrates how she put on this weight, the double meals ordered at the windows of fast-food restaurants, the binges on pepperoni pizza and Coke, the times that she would “take a loaf of bread, a jar of pasta sauce, and a tub of butter, and over the course of an afternoon, I would eat all of it.”
In addition, Joyner shares the awful side-effects of obesity: the inability to tie her shoes, to take the Christmas decorations to the attic, to keep herself physically clean, to properly care for her husband and children. If we read attentively Joyner’s account of her life and her struggles with over-eating and with a poor diet, we begin to perceive what we may have missed in our judgments of the overweight. We understand that our fellow human beings don’t like being fat, that indeed they despise their condition, that they may have tried numerous times and ways, as did Joyner, to break their emotional dependence on food. Rather than revulsion, by the time we finish Designated Fat Girl we may even begin to feel a real pity for those who cannot break themselves of overeating, who look to food as solace in a hard, revved-up world of expectations and demands.
Jennifer Joyner finally defeated her food problem — she once weight 336 pounds — by undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Readers who experience her account of this surgery and who have perhaps felt that such an operation provided an easy way to knock off unwanted pounds in bowling ball numbers will quickly find their preconceptions disabused. Joyner suffered severe health problems from her surgery, including a partially collapsed lung and a reliance on prescription pain medication, and she continues to struggle with vitamin deficiency, as do all patients of such an operation, necessitating a dependence on various supplements.
Despite her conclusion that she would not encourage others to undergo gastric surgery — there was, Joyner says, too much pain and too many complications from her own surgery — she nonetheless does encourage those with the same problem to consider it as an option after having weighed its risks. Joyner herself does lose a massive amount of weight, and emerges from her struggles with both food and depression with a renewed sense of self-worth and an appreciation of “all my many blessings: a wonderful marriage, two great, healthy kids, and finally, some happiness.”
Designated Fat Girl is an honest book which will give strength to those who struggle against weight and overeating. To those who have long wondered why some people just can’t stop eating, it offers a unique portrait that should arouse a sense of compassion and understanding.
Designated Fat Girl by Jennifer Joyner. skirt!, 2010. 264 pages
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.