A memoir about misguided parents

Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones. William Morrow, 2009. 284 pages


Memoirs by children of famous people and children of alcoholics — and often the twain do meet — have long occupied a special niche in the fields of biography and substance abuse. Two of Hemingway’s sons wrote about their father, famed for his writing and his drinking. In Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever explored the work, sexuality, and drunkenness of her father, John Cheever. In a scathing memoir both admired and reviled by reviewers, Christopher Dickey dissected his father, the poet and author of Deliverance, James Dickey.

Now Kaylie Jones, daughter of the writer James Jones and a novelist in her own right, adds to this shelf with Lies My Mother Never Told Me (ISBN 978-0-06-177870-4, $25.99). Yet while her father, most famous for his first published novel, From Here to Eternity, receives a great deal of her attention, it is primarily to her mother and her mother’s addiction to alcohol that Kaylie Jones turns her gimlet eye.

After serving in the Pacific during World War II, James Jones traveled around America (he briefly lived in Maggie Valley), working odd jobs while trying to write a novel about the war. Lowney Handy, a married woman with whom Jones had an affair, helped support Jones during this time. Eventually, Scribners published From Here to Eternity. The novel won the National Book Award, become an enormous bestseller, and was followed by an Academy Award-winning film.

It was at this time that Jones met Gloria, who would become his wife and soulmate. For many years, they lived in Paris, where their home became an oasis for friends and a literary salon. They had one daughter, Kaylie, and an adopted son, Jamie. When Jones discovered that he was suffering from congestive heart failure, the family returned to the United States and eventually settled on Long Island, where Jones worked on his last novel, Whistle, until his death in 1977.

Though several biographies of Jones exist — a favorite for many people is the Willie Morris account of their friendship — Kaylie Jones’ account of her parents lives, their parties, their drinking, and the effect all of these things on her own life adds much to our understanding of James Jones. It reveals him as an author who could be crude, who seemed to lack deep intellectual resources, but who was nonetheless a compassionate man and a writer who valued honesty in his work and in his life. When Kaylie Jones as an adult eventually comprehends how much her relationship with her mother damaged her, she writes of her father:

“I wondered how a man as wise, intelligent, liberated, and experienced as my father could not have seen any of it. But, then, he’d not had the sanest relationships with women before he’d met my mother. He’d not been looking for a housewife and a mother for his children, after all, but for a lifelong companion who would support his work, and his creative process, and, of course, his strong sexual desires, and his heavy drinking.”

These things Gloria Jones fulfilled for her husband to her utmost abilities. Even Kaylie’s account, so critical of her, recognizes to what extent Gloria backed her husband in his work. She protected him from interruptions, rearranged her schedule to fit his working hours, satisfied his sexual desires, and apparently outdid him in lifting a glass at the bar.

What suffered in this arrangement was her relationship with her children, particularly with Kaylie. Gloria Jones was clearly unsuited to motherhood. Incident after incident reveals a woman who constantly denigrated her daughter, whose insults could be as savage as knife cuts, who frequently parceled out her children’s care to hired helpers, who offered Kaylie both too much freedom and too many rebukes when that freedom brought trouble. Between the chapters of her memoir, Kaylie Jones tells stories that her mother told to family and friends. These reveal a woman with a sharp sense of humor, a sharp and profane tongue, and an ability to hurt people deeply and quickly through insult and sarcasm. It is easy to see how such a parent, who loved her daughter but clearly had no idea of how to express that love, could do major damage.

Though some blame for Gloria’s behavior surely rests with her mysterious past — she rarely told tales from her childhood — Kaylie rightly points to alcohol as being responsible for her mother’s erratic behavior. Looking through photographs of her childhood, she realizes how infrequently her mother is without a glass in her hand. Rarely in the book itself does Gloria appear stone-cold sober. She either has a drink or is rushing off to a party where she will find a drink.

Like many memoirs of this sort, Lies My Mother Never Told Me has a self-pitying tone that can on occasion annoy even a sympathetic reader. Perceptive as she is in regard to her parents and their friends, Kaylie Jones seems to lack a crucial ability to critique her own self with much depth or disinterestedness. Once she becomes a mother, she also becomes, oddly enough, blind to her own faults. She is aware of every small detail of her daughter’s life: her moods, her appetites, her dress. She becomes the sort of doting mother one would dread sitting next beside on a long-distance flight.

One unintentionally funny episode in the book occurs when, while teaching, she leaves her daughter with her mother. Eventually, both Kaylie and her husband explode in an enormous row with Gloria because the little girl is gaining weight.

That observation aside, Lies My Mother Never Told Me is a fine memoir of a bygone era in American letters as well as an excellent account of the damage sometimes done to us by those we most love.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Rebellion reigns in historical novel

Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sharon Kay Penman. G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008.


Politics is not a game for sissies. It is not even necessarily a game for the good of heart.

In the twelfth century, King Stephen of England attempted to act with restraint in regard to his rival claimant for the throne, Mathilda. His moderation and mercy helped create a civil war that cost the English countryside dearly in the numbers of villages burned and inhabitants slain.

The man who followed him onto the throne, Henry II, was a different beast altogether. From his ancestors — his great-grandfather was William I, the Norman duke who in 1066 conquered England, won the throne, and changed the world forever — Henry inherited the ability to win the loyalty of men and the will to crush and destroy all who rebelled against him.

This king led an extraordinary life. At 19, two years before he took the throne, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from the King of France. Their passionate, tempestuous marriage eventually landed Eleanor in a remote castle, where she was confined for 15 years. She bore Henry many children, including Kings Richard I and John, and led those children in rebellion against their father.

Henry is also famous for helping to create the English courts, for overseeing an empire — in addition to England, he made inroads into Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and ruled a large part of France — and for his efforts to take charge of the English church, which was Catholic at the time and which owed its allegiance to Rome. Henry wanted to bring the ecclesiastical courts into his own system — a cleric charged with murder could only be defrocked if convicted in a church court — and to control the monies of the Church in England.

In pursuit of these ambitions, he pushed Thomas Becket, his chancellor and friend, into becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. The worldly Becket, who had warned Henry against making this appointment, underwent a dramatic transformation from fashionable chancellor to an austere archbishop. He opposed Henry on every front, so that the frustrated King finally shouted to his court: “Can none of the cowards eating my bread free me from this turbulent priest?” Three knights took him at his word, crossed the Channel, and murdered the archbishop at his Canterbury altar. Becket became an instant martyr, and Henry lost his chance at control over the church.

Such a dramatic life, filled with wars and worries, with patricidal sons and a passionate wife, deserves a good storyteller. We can find just such a chronicler in Sharon Kay Penman, who continues her ongoing examination of Henry, Eleanor, and those around them in her novel Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008, $28.95).

Penman begins her novel in April of 1172, when Henry has sat on the throne for nearly 20 years. As the title implies, the king in this fiction is chiefly concerned with his rebellious sons and wife. The alliances between his sons and other barons were ever shifting during the last 15 years of Henry’s reign, resulting in constant battles, political and military, in which he would have to assert himself over his offspring.

What makes Sharon Kay Penman’s Devil’s Brood a remarkable read is her deep knowledge of the twelfth century coupled with her ability to bring characters alive on the page. In terms of the history of the period, she takes time to explain events by skillfully incorporating them into the story, letting the characters carry the issues to the readers. At the end of the book, Penman — a grand name for an author — takes the time to explain at length why certain misconceptions of this age and its king, promoted in part by the film “The Lion in Winter,” remain with us. With wit and clarity, for example, she explains to us how different the medieval ideas of sexuality were from our own.

But Penman’s style and her recreation of these historical figures are surely what make her book a winner in terms of historical fictions. She has a knack for blending the language of the Middle Ages with the language of our time, so that the dialogue seems neither stilted nor overly modern; she offers clear descriptions of scenes and people who today would seem quite foreign to us; she makes us feel and empathize with problems solved long ago and with people long dead.

The following exchange, for example, between Eleanor and Henry allows us a glimpse of Penman’s affinity for this age:

“’I fear,’ Henry said, ‘that I could not get out of this bed if the castle caught fire. Jesus, woman, are you seeking to kill me? My very bones feel like melted wax.’

Eleanor cocked a skeptical brow. ‘If lust could kill, Harry, you’d have been dead years ago.’

‘I never claimed to be a monk, love. That was your first husband, as I recall.’

Amused in spite of herself, she hid her smile in the crook of her arm. ‘Mock him if you will, but poor Louis has you beaten in one race at least — his sprint toward sainthood.’”

In these few lines, Penman shows us the feelings that run between Henry and Eleanor as well as the fact that Henry, unlike Louis, is not a saint. Since Devil’s Brood runs to more than 700 pages, and since Penman wastes little breath in her writing on the extraneous, the reader is guaranteed an excellent lesson in history told in an exciting way.

Highly recommended.

Entering the mind of a terrorist

First up for review this week is Piers Paul Read’s The Death of a Pope (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-295-4), the story of a terrorist plot following on the heels of the death of John Paul II in which the terrorists work to kill the cardinals who have gathered to elect a new pontiff.

As conceived by Read, Juan Uriarte, a brilliant ex-priest, an advocate of liberation theology who works on behalf of the poor and downtrodden in Third World countries, makes a memorable villain. Through him, Read gives us access to the mind of a terrorist, reminding us of a dynamic of terrorism sometimes forgotten by so many today, that a terrorist is not only a hardboiled fanatic, but also an idealist. Uriarte believes so strongly in his cause that he uses anyone — the lovely reporter Kate Ramsey, a cardinal of the Church, and any number of innocent bystanders — to achieve his murderous goals. Near the end of the novel Uriarte offers this insight into his philosophy of compassion and blood.

Kate has left the flat, Uriarte repeats the words of Saint Paul over and over again, sitting hunched on the edge of the sofa and watching the coverage of the conclave on CNN. Who could doubt that God was for him? His impossible project is about to come to fruition. “I come to bring the fire and the sword,” Jesus had said, using the images pertinent to his times. Here was not fire but nerve gas and detonators rather than the sword. But the cause was the same: truth, love, liberation — the end of the perversion of Christianity by a cabal of stubborn old men.”

Truth, love, liberation: these are noble ideas which have also served as the banners of tyrants for the last century. Against them in The Death of a Pope, Piers Paul Read has placed two men: Kate’s priest-uncle, Father Luke Scott, and David Kotovski, a British anti-terrorism agent. Kotovski spends much of The Death of a Pope alternately wooing Kate and trying to track down Uriarte, while Father Luke serves as a foil to the corruption of the cardinal, to the ugly idealism of the terrorists, and the loss of faith suffered by Kate. He is a priest who questions himself yet believes beyond his own limitations in a supreme being.

“Luke recognizes that in some ways he is a ‘spoiled’ priest .... He accepts that if he were to spend as much time in prayer as he does watching television he would be a better priest, but he knows his own limits and assumes that God knew them too.”

Of all the characters in the book, Kate Ramsey is perhaps the most sympathetic. Unlike Kotovski and Uriarte, two antagonists who clearly have the strength to battle to the death for their causes, Kate is a woman caught in the middle of their war who is at the same time fighting to find her identity. In her trip to North Africa, for example, where Uriarte has invited her to witness the impoverished camps of refugees, she struggles to maintain some journalistic objectivity even as she falls under the spell of the idealistic and handsome ex-priest.

The Death of a Pope satisfies readers on several levels. Read gives us a look inside the circles of modern terrorism and the cross-traffic between radical groups whose surface objectives would seem to preclude them from ever working together. He performs a seemingly credible job in his depictions of counter-terrorism. Most of all, however, Read reminds us that the struggle is not so much a conflict of bombs and bullets and nerve gas, but one of ideologies. The Death of a Pope should give us pause to reflect on where we ourselves stand in the worldwide ideological wars now being waged on every continent of the globe.


In The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life, Conroy goes on at great length about the magical spell Eugene Walter cast over him with his words, his enthusiasm, and his cooking. Conroy’s description has in turn entranced his readers, who have gone in search, via the Internet and used book stores, for the writings of this Southern eccentric. Author of several novels, award winning short stories, fine poetry, and the best-selling American Cooking: Southern Style, in the Time-Life Series, Walter also worked as an actor in Italy, composed music, and befriended admirers from Paris to Rome to Mobile, Ala.

Readers interested in this unusual man can read about him in Milking the Moon, an oral autobiography put together by Walter’s friend, Katherine Clark. Another overlooked book which offers Walter’s personality along with many of his special recipes is Delectable Dishes from Termite hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes. Here are a lifetime of recipes from Paris, Rome, and Walter’s beloved South. Scattered throughout Delectable Dishes are wonderful bits of advice on cooking, stressing especially the importance of fresh ingredients. Of pepper, for example, Walter writes:

“Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. Don’t bother. Freshly-ground pepper has volatile oils which only last about an hour after grinding. This oil is an aid to digestion, a stimulant to appetite, and as recent researches in England would have us believe, a help in cleansing the blood, rather after the fashion of garlic. But dead dust is only dead dust.”

I don’t know about cleansing the blood, but a recently purchased pepper mill has added flair to my own meals.

Thumbs up for Termite Hall.

Vivid descriptions fail to save flawed book

South of Broad by Pat Conroy. Nan A. Talese, 2009. 528 pages.


In his latest novel, South of Broad (ISBN 978-0-385-41305-3, $29.95), Pat Conroy writes with his usual sure touch of subjects and places familiar to his fans: Charleston and South Carolina’s Low Country, the upheavals in the South in the 1960s, the friction between parents and their children and the coming of age of troubled adolescents. Conroy once again fills each page, casting out before his readers, like causally offered treasures, his gifts as a writer: his ability to describe landscape, his magical mix of words and syntax, his singular ability to describe the ways and rhythms of the South. Listen as he describes Charleston on the first page of South of Broad:

“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of the palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of the Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures know as Charlestonians ....”

In all his books, even The Pat Conroy Cookbook, Conroy brings alive the enchantment of the marshes and woodlands surrounding the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, the humidity of the air on a hot August night, the look of the stars above Charleston Harbor, the feel of the city’s time-worn streets.

Despite these strengths, however, South of Broad is a deeply-flawed book, long on mood and description, and short on common-sense or plot. Leopold Bloom King — his Ph.D mother, who serves as principal of the local high school, has named him in honor of James Joyce’s great creation — is, like all of Conroy’s protanonists, an affable guy, a former athlete, a mild failure in finance, a failure in marriage, a man born, as Eliot once wrote, to be “an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two.”

As the story progresses, shifting in time between the late 1960s and late 1980s, Leopold Bloom King introduces us to his friends. In his previous novels, Conroy usually includes characters who are 1) persecuted because of their views on race and sexuality; and 2) sexually abused in their youth by adults. Here in South of Broad, Conroy seems to lose all control of his material, and we are led through a carnival of sexual abuse and racial strife.

Several of King’s friends have suffered sexual abuse as children. Nearly all the parents of the post-World War II generation abuse their children in some way, spiritually or physically, and it gets worse as the story stumbles along: one father is a serial killer, several parents are alcoholics, two orphans are anonymously abused, King’s brother is abused by a priest (an incident which Conroy cloaks in mystery, but which is so obvious from after the first 50 pages that the reader wonders when, not if, the priest will be found out for his crimes).

Some of the incidents and characters in this book require a suspension of belief that would support a bridge across the Atlantic. Sheba Poe, daughter of a madman and victim of extreme child abuse, beguiles the entire town of Charleston, with the exception of King’s Joyce-obsessed mother, and becomes a world-renowned movie star. Conroy makes her so loveable that we might even consider that he is making a case for child sexual abuse. Hey, he seems to be shouting at us through his hysterical prose, here’s what happens to a victim of a sadistic father. Trevor, Sheba’s gay, musically talented and verbally gifted brother, is a ridiculous character. How did he learn to speak so elegantly? How did he learn to play the piano so well? Scorned by his drunken mother and insane father, how did he manage to conquer the hearts of the citizens of San Francisco through his music?

And these are the well-developed characters. Starla Whitehead, an orphan, also abused, who is later married to King, remains an enigmatic figure throughout the book, rarely addressed except when King laments her absence. Monsignor Max Sadler, who has allowed himself to be photographed raping Steve — King’s older brother, who then commits suicide because of the attack — in no way fits the profile of the abusive priests of the last 20 years. Certainly he is not theologically stupid enough to remark to Max, as he does at the end of the book, “I’ll be with my Father in heaven, very soon.”

In another scene, King and his friends are trying to rescue Trevor from the clutches of a gay-hating man, Bunny, who weighs 400 pounds, played football for the Raiders, and has filled his decaying San Francisco house with gay men dying of AIDS to steal their social security checks (At one point, King is confronted by Bunny on a staircase, and fears for his life. Are we supposed to believe that the gargantuan Bunny can run up those stairs and then tear a man apart? For heaven’s sake ....)

Here are all the flaws that have marred some of Conroy’s other novels — the maudlin, creaky plot, the cartoon figures, the black-and-white morality of the characters, the bashing of institutions and places so beaten up by everyone else for the last 40 years that to keep hitting them seems like a sort of abuse in itself.

Thumbs down on South of Broad.

Goodman’s second ‘classics’ story

The Night Villa by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2008. 413 pages.


Over the last decade, Carol Goodman has rightly earned a reputation as a skilled novelist whose themes and characters are often focused on the study of Latin and Greek, and on the ancient world. The Lake of Dead Languages, for example, was a minor masterpiece of language and plot set in the classics department of a school for young women.

In her latest novel, The Night Villa (ISBN 978-0-345-47960-0, $14), Goodman enhances her reputation and stakes out an even stronger claim to a territory all her own.

A victim of a shooting at the University of Texas — the wound has left her missing part of one lung — Sophie Chase, professor of classics with a special interest in the mystery religions of the Roman Empire, joins an expedition to the ruins of Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii. Here Sophie hopes to heal her damaged spirit while she and her academic companions unearth and read some writings on religion by Phineas Aulus, a Roman traveler and chronicler believed to have been lost at sea right before the explosion of Vesuvius.

Along with Sophie, we soon see that not everything on the expedition is as it appears on the surface. Is John Lyros, the multimillionaire who has helped pay for the dig, really as benign as he appears? Is Elgin Lawrence, another classics professor and Sophie’s old lover, guilty of all the wrongs Sophie has attributed to him: womanizing, cowardice, irresponsibility? Why does the Tetraktys, a group of spiritualists drawn together by their love for the ideas of Pythagoras, display such an interest in a certain ancient manuscript?

Beside these finely-drawn characters and ideas Goodman sets the story of Phineas and Iusta, a Roman slave girl owned by the devious Calatoria Vimidis, a widow interested in the Eleusian mysteries. The dialogues between Calatoria and Phineas, and the running commentary and thoughts of Sophie as she reads their words, reveal to us some of the philosophy and rites of these gnostic religions, based on the worship of Dionysus, Demeter, and Persephone: the solemn mysteries, the ecstasy and drunkenness of the bacchanalia, the use of sex, drugs, dance, and physicality to pierce the illusions of this world and reveal the nature of the gods.

Phineas, a fictional creation, is an especially marvelous character, mostly because he himself is interested in all that goes on about him. He would be a fine travel companion, a little fussy perhaps, but overall adventurous and eager to learn new ideas and facts. His comments on his hostess, Calatoria, are sharp and witty, and his relationship with young Iusta, with whom he sleeps after Calatoria gives her over to him for a night’s pleasure, grows into a bond of trust and friendship.

Although her Roman characters are largely fictional, Goodman clearly knows well the ancient world and the technology used today to explore that world. The Herculaneum of 79 A.D. comes to life on these pages as Phineas makes his rounds of the city:

“I descended into an elegant vestibule supported by four enormous red columns and washed my hands at a small basin with water that flowed from the head of Apollo. I had to admit that the old freedman had been right about the elegance of these baths. The cloakroom where a slave took my clothing was quite beautifully paneled in polished woods, the linen I was given to wrap myself in was of the finest weave. As I took my place on the marble bench of the apodyterium, I admired the panels of warriors locked in combat and cupids engaged in their own sports.”

Goodman’s explanation of the use of computers and electronics in deciphering ancient manuscripts will please readers who may have wondered how scrolls recovered from the mud of centuries from places like Herculaneum and Alexandria could still be legible. In a short interview with Goodman included in the back of the book, Goodman says that “More than most, this book had a very precise moment of origin. My friend Ross Scaife is a professor of classics at the University of Kentucky, and he told me of a grant he’d been given to use multispectral imaging to study the charred manuscripts found at Herculaneum’s Villa dei Papiri. I thought this was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard of and immediately wanted to base a book’s plot around a similar exploration.”

The Night Villa is a fine novel that should please many different kinds of readers — those who love action and adventure as well as those who look for fiction with a literary flair.


Civil War buffs will especially enjoy Tom Chaffin’s The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (ISBN 978-0-8090-9512-4, $26). Extensively researched, The H.L. Hunley, the story of the Confederate submarine which made history by being the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy ship, reads like a novel. Chaffin covers the construction of the submarine, the crews who died serving on it, the possible reasons for the Hunley’s sinking, and the recovery of the boat in the year 2000. Especially touching is the bravery of the men who, despite various catastrophes, continued to volunteer to man the Hunley.

Toole explores boxing from inside the ring

Pound for Pound by F.X. Toole. HarperCollins, 2007. 416 pages.

Million Dollar Baby by F.X. Toole. Harper Perennial 2005. 256 pages.

What makes a fighter?

In his mid-forties, a time of life when the last thing most men look for is a punch in the face, F.X. Toole — his real name was Jerry Boyd — looks for an answer to that question. Since his boyhood, boxing had interested him. In the 1940s, he listened to the fights on the radio with his father. Later he watched the fights on television or at Madison Square Garden, which he once described as his personal Camelot. Toole followed the careers of various fighters, read whatever he could find on the great Irish boxers like Sullivan and Corbett, and admired both the winners and losers in the ring. But always the question haunted him — What makes a fighter? — and so he determined to find out in the one way that truly counts.

F.X. Toole stepped into a ring.

He trained hard, put in the hours shadowboxing, hitting the heavy bag, and sparring, but by his own admission he generally got pounded. He had trouble seeing without his glasses, he was older and slower than the twenty-somethings who danced with him in the ring, he had teeth cracked and inlays fall out. Eventually, as he writes in the introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he stopped sparring because he had to wear braces to correct a jaw condition, one unrelated to boxing. But he stayed in the game, serving 20 years as a corner man, cut man, and trainer. Open-heart surgery slowed him down, but his coronary problems never kept him from the ring for very long.

Toole had also been writing and seeing his work rejected for 40 years. Finally, when he was 70, Million Dollar Baby — the original title was Rope Burns — was published to critical acclaim. Toole lived two more years, dying before the release of the Academy Award winning movie while at work on a boxing novel. His last words were “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book.”

Toole ran out of time in his last fight, but the people who loved him, his children, and two men named Nat Sobel and James Wade, have given us his marvelous book.

Pound for Pound (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 978-0-06-088133-7) surely ranks as one of the great fictional accounts of what it means to be a boxer, what the sweet science takes — and sometimes how little it gives back — to its practitioners. In addition to its recreation of ringside action, Pound for Pound should also rank as an outstanding book for its writing, its characters, and its realism.

Pound for Pound gives us the portrait of two fighters, men who bob and weave, stick and move, but who fight their hardest battles outside the ring. Dan Cooley, who runs a body shop in Los Angeles with his partner, Earl Daw, “a dark-skinned black man” who had fought as a middleweight with Dan as his trainer, has lost his wife, his children, and even his grandchild to death by accident and disease. When his grandson darts in front of a car and dies in the beginning of the novel, we see Dan fall to pieces, trying to drink himself to death, wanting to take revenge on the young and innocent Hispanic driver, attempting but failing to kill himself. Through his memories, we learn of the various bouts he once fought, of the fighters he’s trained, of the sport that he had once loved so passionately.

Eduardo “Chicky” Garza y Duffy is a Texas middleweight with a troubled home-life. His grandfather, Eloy, once a champion boxer himself, now spends much of his time drinking and drugging, vices which worsen after Eloy’s wife Delores dies. Assisted by his grandfather, Chicky begins his own professional ascent in the ring, but two corrupt managers, one in Texas, the other in Los Angeles, take advantage of the young man’s ignorance and nearly end his boxing career.

What makes Toole’s book so special is not only his boxing acumen — he clearly knows the game — but his ability to put us into the shoes of the fighters and trainers, and their family. Here, for instance, he describes Chicky’s feelings for his grandfather:

“Chicky loved the old-timey Texas way Eloy spoke, his accent even more pronounced than El Paso’s great and charming golfer Lee Trevino. Once Chicky began to wear boots and a wide-brimmed hat, he quickly gave up the vato street talk of Victoria courts to sound as much like Eloy as he could. He soon sounded as Texas as guys with nicknames like Cooter and Cotton ... When the Longhorns were playing the Aggies on TV, Eloy talked to Chicky as if he were a peer and it made him feel like a man, like an hombre.”

Toole’s powers as a writer are highlighted by the ending of the novel, which was undoubtedly the part completed after his death. The story at the end of the novel comes together beautifully, but the descriptions, particularly of the fight scenes, lack the intensity of those found throughout the rest of the novel. Toole had the knowledge of a man who for thirty years had stood ringside, learning which cannot be reproduced second-hand. This contrast doesn’t diminish the book, but instead make us stand in awe of the skill and insight of F.X. Toole.

In Pound for Pound, Toole tells us what makes a fighter. In his introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he tells us why he loves this sport so much. As a trainer, he is giving a rubdown to a black heavyweight at the gym. Another man, a featherweight, paroled after serving time for rape and robbery, strung out on drugs, enters the gym and begins verbally abusing the “white racist power structure” and how he was the victim of white oppression.

“So there he was, going on about pigs. I should mention that my heavyweight had a white wife. When he asked the featherweight if he couldn’t see that I was white, and that maybe he should watch his jive-ass mouth, the featherweight didn’t miss a beat.

“‘Yeah, I see he white, but Toole be different.’

Magic. It’s why I’m in it. For the voodoo.”

(Jeff Minick is can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Chick-lit at its finest

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo. Guideposts, 2009. 288 pages

Art and literary whodunits are so plentiful these days that they might nearly constitute their own genre. The DaVinci Code is the best-selling of these works, but anyone who visits a library or bookstore can find a whole tribe of detectives purporting to trace missing letters, paintings, or books of Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and others. Possession, A.S. Byatt’s superb novel of such sleuthing with its comparison of the Victorian to the post-modern, involves missing letters, poetry with clues, and nuanced speech. Missing medieval manuscripts, often with magical powers, are also popular topics for such fictions, ranging from The Name of the Rose to The Rule of Four.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find in Beth Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life (Guideposts, ISBN 13-978-08249-4771-2, $14.99) another such literary mystery. Here a young American, Emma Grant, still grieving and angry over her recently ended marriage and her seemingly ruined academic career, flies to London to search out some missing letters written by Jane Austen. Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrot of 22 Stanhope Gardens has contacted Emma, hinted at the letters, and invited her to come for a visit. Once Emma makes contact with Mrs. Parrot in London, the older woman reveals one authentic letter, then gives Emma a series of tasks to perform, all of them having to do with Austen’s life, before she will produce the other letters.

In the meantime, Emma has also met Adam Clark, an old friend who broke away from her after her marriage. Adam, also a professor, helps Emma find her way about London, shares meals with her, and slowly falls in love with her once again. Together they complete the last tasks set for Emma by Mrs. Parrot.

As she draws closer to the Austen letters and the band of women who have guarded these letters since Jane Austen’s death, thus respecting the author‘s last wishes to keep her private life separate from her books, Emma feels more and more empathy for Austen herself. An Austen fanatic since adolescence, Emma had begun blaming Austen and her dauntless heroines for deceiving her, for leading her to believe in happiness and dreams. Just as she is about to give up her dreams and her love of Austen, however, Emma instead finds herself attracted to the Austen of the missing letters, the woman who lost the man she loved to a storm at sea and who rejected another suitor offering her everything she desired but love.

On her quest for clues and academic glory, Emma not only falls in love with Adam, but also must face Edward, her ex-husband, again. In their marriage, Edward had continued his philandering with graduate students (Emma’s surprise at this adultery in turn surprises even the casual reader, as Emma was herself at one point the graduate student carrying on the affair). When apprehended by Emma, Edward had then helped support the graduate student in question in a plagiarism charge Emma had brought against her. Near the end of Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Edward comes crawling back to Emma, professing his love but in reality wanting her to sign a release stating that she won’t sue the university for her unjust termination.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life should appeal to Austen fans and to those who know little about the revered author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While Patillo herself is an impassioned amateur student of Austen‘s life and work, she writes to the readers through Emma with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Her quests take her, and us, to some of the places Austen lived. Her encounter with Austen’s desk in a cottage in Chawton perhaps best reveals Patillo’s love of Austen and her ability to pass that love to us through her own writing:

“Here, at this table, Jane Austen had risen from the ruins of her life like a phoenix from the ashes. She’d written or rewritten almost all of her novels on this tiny bit of wood, at this wonderful window overlooking a busy village street...

“In spite of all the distractions, she’d created her masterpiece with nothing more than paper, pen, and ink. Virginia Woolf was famous for saying that any woman who wanted to be a writer needed to have five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own. Austen had possessed neither of these things, and yet somehow she had outshone authors with far more worldly advantages.”

Jane Austen Ruined My Life undoubtedly belongs to that genre of fiction known these days as “chick-lit,” and should indeed please a wide audience of female readers: those who want a good detective story with a female protagonist, those who enjoy fiction set in England, those who treasure all things Austen. Although males in general may be disinclined to pick up such a book — just as, judging from their readership, they are disinclined to pick up Jane Austen’s novels — those men interested in women (which should include, we may assume, a goodly portion) might gain some insights by such an adventure. Here, for example, in one small incident Patillo reveals both a woman’s sense of dress and her modern conflict with the world of fashion. Visiting Chanel, Emma comes across a dress which she calls The One:

“Trying the thing on only made it worse. It fit perfectly, and the pink was the perfect shade for my skin tone. For the first time in almost a year, I felt pretty. Desirable. Worthy of attention. I knew that I was not supposed to invest my self-esteem in fashion, but when a dress made you look that good, how could you not?”

Freaks and morality

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 464 pages.

“Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Taken from her lecture “The Catholic Novelist in the South,” this statement by Flannery O’Connor is perhaps her best-known aphorism. It is interesting to read beyond this statement in the same lecture, where the author explains herself more deeply.

She writes that the South is Christ-haunted, that “as a belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with Christ-figures in our fiction” (The same may be said of the fiction of Nathanial Hawthorne, which O’Connor admired, in its own focus on faith and Christian morals in a time when New England was leaving behind its traditional religious beliefs). She goes on to say that “the writer from the South may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost his ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

O’Connor then said that “the South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies.” At the time O’Connor offered these thoughts, the South was torn by racial strife and change, and was in many ways radically altered from the South which shaped O’Connor and her writing. Today’s South has become a place of cities, of immigrants both from the North and from other countries, a land in which the bloody history and cruelties of the past have been effaced in some ways by social change, a culture in which the customs of the past have shrunken before the standardization brought by a national media.

The South of Flannery O’Connor’s last years was not the South of William Faulkner’s youth, and the South of this new millenium retains only the vestiges of the the South described by O’Connor in her novel Wise Blood or in her short-story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Our present situation does not preclude the existence of Southern writers — they are many, and range in subject and style from Lee Smith to Cormac McCarthy — but allows us to acknowledge the changes both in the South and in the preoccupations of her writers.

For a close-up look of Flannery O’Connor’s South, readers may now turn to Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 978-0-316-00066-6, $30). For readers unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor, here is a splendid introduction to her life and work; those familiar with her fiction should also relish this biographical tour.

In the first half of Flannery, Gooch uses georgraphy as an outline for O’Connor’s life, following the writer through her childhood in Savannah and Milledgeville, where she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in 1945; then to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where she soon enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts graduate writing program, the first of its kind in the nation; to Yaddo in upstate New York, where she enlarged her circle of friends to include Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick; to New York City, where she spent most of her time writing Wise Blood; to rural Connecticut, where she babysat for her friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, while continuing to write; and at last to Milledgeville, where she lived out the rest of her life after being diagnosed with lupus.

Gooch’s book is especially valuable for its portrait of O’Connor’s friendships. From her justly renowned collection of letters, The Habit of Being, we know that O’Connor, who spent the last third of her life in Milledgeville, often ill and far away from the literary life of New York, valued companionship and the visits of friends. In Flannery, Gooch underscores this importance of her friends to O’Connor.

Nearly every page of this biography recounts conversations and letters between the author and her far-flung acquaintances, giving us a portrait of a woman who loved lively talk and stimulating thought. Many of these friends — Maryat Lee, Betty Hester, Louise Abbot — differed greatly from O’Connor in their morals and religious beliefs, yet her own tolerance and their fascination with her mind bound them together. Through these portrayals Gooch gives us the background and times in which — and some might say, against which — O’Connor wrote.

Flannery does have its flaws. The notes at the back of the book are matched to various pages, but are difficult to follow. Gooch often skims over the literary side of O’Connor’s work, though few readers will come to this book seeking deep criticism. From time to time, Gooch also uses vague or even juvenile language, describing Andrew Lytle, for example, as “a card-carrying Southerner” and labeling some of the reviews of O’Connor’s work as “mean.”

When O’Connor was five years old, a newsreel company visited her home in Savannah to record on film her chicken, a buff Cochin bantam, walking backwards. O’Connor, who had taught the chicken this trick, remained a bird lover her entire life, becoming obsessed in her later years with raising peacocks. Gooch astutely uses the chicken walking backwards as a central theme to the author’s life and to his book. He writes:

“And just as her Cochin bantam morphed into a peacock ... so this clever child performer grew into the one-of-a-kind woman writer, ‘going backwards to Bethlehem,’ who freighted her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to much trendy literary culture.”

Snippets from a poet’s life

Fall of Frost by Brian Hall. Penguin Group, 2008. 352 pages

Since his death in 1963, Robert Frost has come to occupy a place in the highest echelon of American poets. In anthologies and textbooks, poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Less Traveled,” and “Mending Wall” remain perennial favorites. The last 10 years alone attest to Frost’s continuing popularity, having given birth to two more biographies — Jay Parini’s Robert Frost: A Life and Jeffrey Myers’ Robert Frost: A Biography — as well as to such works as The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost and The Notebooks of Robert Frost.

We may now add to these volumes Brian Hall’s fictionalized life of the poet, Fall of Frost (Penguin Group, ISBN 978-0-14-311491-8, $15).

Hall’s novel follows a sort of accordion structure, that is, the book tells the story of Frost’s life not in a straightforward narrative, but in a series of short chapters, folds of time and circumstance emblematic of different events in Frost’s life, with the folds themselves coming together by the end of the book to give us a unique picture of this extraordinary poet, his work, and his often harsh world.

Chapters 15 and 16, for example, show us Frost as a child in San Francisco with a bully for a father — he died young, an alcoholic — and his mother reading to him, a backward, sickly child and a late reader. Chapter 17 then sweeps us to Derry Farm in New Hampshire, 1902, while Chapter 18 lands us in Amherst, Mass., in 1932 (These “chapters,” by the way, are sometimes only half-a-page long).

By focusing in this way on different facets of Frost’s life and world, and by writing poetically and impressionistically himself, Hall brings Frost alive for his readers. We are made to feel Frost’s sufferings — his struggles to earn a living, the deaths of four of his six children before his own death, the mental problems of his sister and one of his daughters. Again and again, we bear witness to Frost’s gritty determination to overcome his multitudinous difficulties, to triumph as a poet.

In some of the Fall of Frost’s more amusing and more touching sections, Hall shows us Frost at the end of his life. It is 1962, and Frost is traveling to the Soviet Union, an old man sick and half-deaf on a quixotic mission to lessen the nuclear tensions between the USSR and the United States. Frost’s forthrightness causes consternation in both camps, and Hall’s depiction of Khrushchev and Kennedy in relation to the poet are particularly entertaining. When the Washington Post reports that “Frost Says Khrushchev Sees U.S. as ’Too Liberal’ To Defend Itself,” Kennedy explodes, shouting “As it is, half of Congress wants me to invade Cuba tomorrow. They’ll use this! It makes me look soft. It makes everything worse.”

In the meantime, we see Khrushchev wondering if the Americans have sent Frost to him as a test of some sorts, a test which he can’t quite understand. This particular chapter ends with the Soviet premier opening a manuscript by an unknown author which, though Hall doesn’t tell us so, is Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. As his aide reads to him from the manuscript, “The premier closes his eyes. He feels with pleasure the warmth of the setting sun on his face.” It isn’t just the sun that is setting, of course, but the Soviet Union which even then was fading into twilight.

In an “Author’s Note” at the conclusion of Fall of Frost, Brian Hall points out that he has approached his novel “in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form to accommodate more speculation than nonfiction generally allows.” Hall paraphrases the conversations in his novel from Frost’s public statements, his diaries and letters, and the records left by the poet’s friends and family. Here in Hall’s depiction we come face-to-face as well with Frost’s amazing ability not only to remember hundreds of lines of poetry, his own and those of other writers, but to bring them into conversation at appropriate moments.

Fall of Frost is a pleasure to read, a triumph in portraiture for all who love poetry, biography, and fine writing.


Although Kerry Madden’s most recent book is Up Close: Harper Lee (ISBN 9780670010950, $16.99, 2009), young readers this summer may want to seek out some of her earlier books as well. In her Maggie Valley trilogy — Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain — Madden slips readers into the early 1960s and the lives of the Weems family. Here we meet Livy Two Weems, the12-year-old daughter of a Daddy who is “a poet in his soul” and a Mama who “claims a paycheck is worth a sight more than a dang poem.”

With nine siblings, including a new-born baby, Livy Two has her hands full helping her parents with chores and taking care of her younger sister, Gentle. Like her father, she also has big dreams of making it in the music world, writing songs and then playing them on her battered guitar.

Livy Two’s character, and the tone of these three books in general, can be sampled in Louisiana’s Song in a scene where Daddy is still recovering from a car accident. Livy Two lands a job with Miss Attickson, the bookmobile lady, and as they ride through the mountains delivering books, Madden gives us insights into the lives of the mountain poor, their love of books and learning, and the shy compassion of Livy Two, who finally summons the courage to ask for a book on brain trauma that might help her understand and care for her stricken father.

Adolescent readers should enjoy these stories with their local color and their messages of hope and the power of determination in the face of personal obstacles.

Highly recommended.

Patriot’s story is unflinching, honest

American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day by Robert Coram. Little, Brown and Company, 2007.

Robert Coram’s American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day (ISBN 978-0-316-0679-3, $15.99) tells the extraordinary story of a man who served in three wars, spent years as a POW in North Vietnam, became the most decorated officer in the U.S. Air Force, and fought for veterans rights in the 1980s.

Born in 1925, Day grew up poor in Sioux City, Iowa. He taught himself to hunt and put meat on the table at an early age — his father gave him a beaten-up .410 shotgun when he was 10 years old — and he learned the value of work, caddying, again at the age of 10, at a nearby country club golf course. After Pearl Harbor, and just weeks shy of his high school graduation, Day joined the Marines, having first eaten bananas for several weeks to meet the minimum weight requirements (a tactic also followed by Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated soldier, who was, like Day, slim and slight of build).

After serving in the Marine Corps, Day returned home to Sioux City, attended college and then law school on the G.I. Bill, married Doris Sorensen, and then, after a brief stint running a local detective agency, joined the Air Force, which at that time was a new branch among the services.

Over the next 20 years, Day became a legend among his fellow pilots. His most famous exploit before his imprisonment as a POW occurred in Britain, when the F-84 he was flying caught fire on take-off. Within seconds Day found himself ejecting at only 300 feet altitude from the falling aircraft. His chute failed to open, but he crashed into trees, smashing his right ankle and becoming the first man in the history of the Air Force to eject from a jet aircraft without a working parachute and survive.

Day’s greatest exploits occurred during his captivity in Vietnam. After being hit by a North Vietnamese missile, Day landed alive but injured and was immediately captured by ground forces. Within a few days, he escaped his guards and fled toward the DMZ, the embattled area separating North and South Vietnam. After a grueling trek south — his wounds were open and untreated, and he was reduced to eating frogs and berries from bushes — he was within sight of the Marine Corps camp when he was again taken prisoner.

Closely guarded this time, Day began the brutal years of captivity when camp guards regularly beat and tortured him and other prisoners, including John McCain, who became Day’s good friend. His worst moments of torture came when his interrogators had him beaten with fan belts.

“When Day was dragged off to the quiz room on the morning of the sixth day, his buttocks and thighs were swollen and puffed out about three inches. Atop the hamburger-like flesh, from the middle of his thighs up to the small of his back, a scab was trying to reform. Day’s lower legs were twice their normal size, and his toes were like overstuffed sausages. A watery fluid oozed from his testicles.”

Eventually, Day and most of the other POWs came home. Coram’s description of their return and of their reactions to those prisoners who had taken early release for “good behavior,” which essentially meant collaborating with the enemy, offers a fascinating insight into the sense of honor such men carried with them. Having expected that these early releases would have been drummed out of the service, Day and the other long-term POWs were astonished to find their former comrades living normal lives and even honored by the military.

Coram discusses the animosity between these two groups at length, explaining why Day, McCain, and the others who had not taken early releases were so obsessed and incensed with those who had done so. Coram shows how the military itself reacted to these revelations, demoting some officers and forcing others into retirement. Though Vietnam POWs are in the public mind all of a kind, honorable and strong men who bore witness to the Code of Conduct and to American ideals, Day and his comrades regard the POWs as two separate groups, one composed of traitors and snitches, the other of men who did their duty.

Bud Day’s life of confrontation and controversy didn’t end on his release from the military. He used his legal knowledge to help fellow veterans struggling for better medical treatment. He campaigned for several politicians. He supported the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their opposition to the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry. He remained friends with John McCain, but opposed him politically on many issues.

In the Preface to American Patriot, Coram cites a line from the James Michener novel The Bridges of Toko-Ri:

“I recalled that line from James Michener when the admiral is standing on the bridge of an aircraft carrier watching his pilots take off against the terrible defenses at Toko-Ri and says to himself, ‘Where do we get such men?’”


Novelist, poet, biographer, and essayist, Jay Parini’s most recent book is Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America (ISBN 978-0-385-52276-2, $24.95). Here Parini has written literary essays about books which not only have shaped American history, but which also contributed to what Parini calls our “national myth.”

Some of Parini’s choices — The Federalist Papers and The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, for example — are conventional. Others are more daring, though they make sense when we consider their impact: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, The Feminine Mystique.

Parini is a fine writer who in Promised Land treats readers to his vast knowledge of literature and his love for American history.

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