Characters mirror SMN readers

Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster, 2009. 448 pages.

Readers of this column know that some authors turn up here regular as church bells, reviewed with each new book. Ann Tyler, Carol Goodman, Pat Conroy: these and a few others have appeared here more than once in the 10-year life of this column, partly because the reviewer loves their work, partly because their work touches in some particular way on the lives and sensibilities of the readers of The Smoky Mountain News.

No author, however, has received more reviews than James Lee Burke. Best-known for his novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, a tormented Vietnam vet, member in good standing in Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the best fictional investigators of the last 50 years, Burke has written several more novels about a Western attorney, Billy Bob Holland, as well as some general works of fiction early in his career.

Reasons for this attention to Burke abound. His major characters, especially Dave Robicheaux, seem to fit the profile of many Smoky Mountain News readers: slightly left of center, concerned about the environment, interested in seeing justice administered and the innocent protected. Though Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland, and other protagonists more than occasionally trespass on the grounds of mawkish sentimentality, Burke always manages to steer them away without embarrassment, usually through their own ironic sense of themselves and their fellow man.

Burke’s readers also like his books, of course, because the man is a damn fine storyteller.

In Rain Gods (Simon and Schuster, 2009, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-2824-4), Burke gives us a new protagonist, Hackberry Holland, an aging Texas sheriff faced with a veritable platoon of hit men and fanatics bent on running prostitutes and drugs across the Mexican border. Here in this 400-hundred-plus page novel are a host of grand characters fighting for the good: Pete Flores, an Iraq vet who fights his demons along with his girlfriend, country singer Vikki Gaddis; Deputy Sheriff Pam Tibbs, cool and competent and in love with the older Holland; and Nick Dolan, one of the quirkier heroes in recent literature, a small-time gangster who eventually, with the help of his wife Esther, cowboys up and opposes the criminals trying to run an extortion on him.

The best-drawn character of these criminals is Preacher Jack Collins, a killer-for-hire who has his own strange personal code of honor; his explanations of that code, and the failure of his partners in crime to understand it, provides some of the funnier moments in Rain Gods. Preacher, for example, comes to believe that Esther Dolan, who is of Jewish descent, is related to the Biblical Esther and that she will reveal not only her queenly qualities to him, but will reveal his own self and reason for being as well.

Burke’s many gifts as a writer are on display here. Few novelists writing today can reproduce the accuracy of his dialogue or his finely-done descriptions of place. In Rain Gods, Burke frequently gives us a picture of desert and decay, with this physical backdrop reflecting the moral deformity of so many of the characters.

“The motel was a leftover from the 1950s, a utilitarian structure checker boarded with huge red and beige plastic squares, the metal-railed upstairs walkways not unlike those in penitentiaries, all of it located in a neighborhood of warehouses and bankrupt businesses and joyless bars that could afford no more than a single neon sign over the door.”

Rain Gods does contain some of the flaws apparent in Burke’s other books. Despite his creation of the Dolans as good guys here — the scene where Nick Dolan stands up to Sholokoff, the Russian gangster behind the murders, is one of the most entertaining moments in the book — Burke tends to paint good and evil with a broad brush. In Preacher Burke does offer us a “bad guy” who is complex, who does maneuver through moral judgments, who is a protean character of sorts, but generally the men who commit evil in Burke’s books are not complex, tormented characters.

Burke also traffics in reverse stereotypes. All of the women in the book — Vikki Gaddis shoots a gangster in the feet; Pam Tibbs blows away several malefactors; Esther Dolan beats a gangster about the head with a pot and chases him from her house — are undaunted by evil, stronger than the men around them, a position typical of other works by Burke. And though much of his novel has to do with smuggling drugs and prostitutes across the border, no Mexicans other than a few shooters are involved in this trade. The real evil-doers, as in nearly all of Burke’s other novels, are always white and male. As a result, though minor Mexican figures flit through the story, Burke’s tale of modern-day Texas feels weirdly out of sync with the real racial mix that constitutes not only Texas, but nearly every state in the nation.

These complaints may also be made about the novels of Pat Conroy. In both cases, the same prejudices may be seen at work. Both men are magnificent writers in nearly every sense, yet when we look back at writers of 50 years ago — Faulkner, Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet — we must wonder whether our contemporary writers don’t, in fact, want to be liked too much.

Love and sonnets meet in Shakespeare’s Italy

The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2007. 368 pages.

In The Sonnet Lover (Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0-345-47957-0, $24.95), Carol Goodman takes her readers on yet another exploration into worlds literary and classical. Known for works relating to the ancient world, particularly to Rome — she created a wonderful tale of suspense with insights into the teaching of Latin and the history of the Roman world in The Lake of Dead Languages — Goodman here shifts her focus to the Renaissance, to the sonnet, to William Shakespeare, and to Northern Italy, where numerous poets, most notably Petrarch, helped create the sonnet.

Rose Asher, a professor and a poet teaching at the fictitious Hudson College in Manhattan, has arrived at a place in her life where she feels that her youthful ambitions and dreams have come to a grating end. Though Rose is having a love affair with the president of the college, Mark Abrams, and though she is often idealized and adored by her students — Robin Weiss, described by Rose as “her best student,” an aspiring film-maker and poet, clearly has a crush on her — Rose nonetheless finds herself entering her late 30s with little apparent excitement or purpose in her life.

Her disenchantment and ennui disappear once Robin Weiss sails over the railing of a high-rise building and dies on impact in the street below. With his death, and at the urging of her lover, Rose decides to break away from her routine and spend the summer at La Civetta, an estate outside of Florence known for its great charm and beauty as well as for its association with an obscure female Renaissance poet, Ginevra de Laura (De Laura is a fictional character, based on female Renaissance poets like Veronica Franco). Rumor has long held that de Laura was William Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, and Rose becomes convinced, through a series of seemingly disconnected events, that somewhere at La Civetta there lies hidden a manuscript by de Laura.

As the summer progresses, we come to see that other characters in The Sonnet Lover are not always what they seem. Mark Abrams, the perfect college president, holds both ambition and deadly secrets in his heart; Mara Silverman, wife of the head of the college’s film department, carries a secret that will eventually destroy her; La Civetta itself, with its hidden rooms and ghost-ridden past, casts long and dark shadows over Rose, who first went there as an undergraduate herself, and she fell in love with Bruno Brunelli, the professor with whom she had an affair and whom she still loves.

Rose spends the rest of the novel figuring out the circumstances of Robin’s death as well as explicating her own feelings toward Mark Abrams, her former love with Bruno Brunelli, her work in literature and poetry, and the place of La Civetta, with its romance and sense of freedom, in her own life.

In The Sonnet Lover, Goodman does best what she did in her other novels; she introduces us to a distant past and by her splendid descriptions rouses our interest in the scholarly world which is today exploring that past. In one bravura example of how well she mixes the old and new worlds, Goodman employs her husband, the poet Lee Slonimsky, to write the sonnets attributed here to Ginevra de Laura. Goodman also performs grand work in her descriptions of landscapes and buildings, both in Manhattan and in the countryside around Florence The Sonnet Lover is a lovely book to read in the winter if for no other reason than Goodman’s descriptions of the warm and blossoming Italian countryside. Here, for example, Rose walks after many years’ absence to the villa at La Civetta from the gate:

“To my right is the path that leads to the plain gray-stone building that once housed the Convent of Santa Catalina but now serves as the dorm for the students. Everyone just alls it the little villa. The main villa is lemon colored and lies at the end of a long avenue, or viale, of tall cypresses. It’s a popular view featured in all the colleges advertising brochures and on the Web site for the study abroad program. Maybe that’s why I find myself curiously numb as I start down the viale, as if I am approaching picture instead of the real thing, a painted façade that seems to slip in and out between its frame of gray-green cypresses like a woman hiding coquettishly behind a curtain.”

Although Goodman skillfully weaves these varied settings and people into the plot of The Sonnet Lover, the novel does contain some flaws. The second half of the book slows — if not exactly to a crawl, then to an ambling pace that ill-befits a literary thriller. More tellingly, however, Goodman litters her book with such strong hints at what is to come next in the plot and too often the events become predictable. When Rose comments on a step in the villa gardens being loose, for example, we know that soon someone will take a tumble on that step. By shaking us by the lapels at such moments, by smacking us upside the head with clues, Goodman makes even the casual reader aware of an upcoming catastrophe.

Yet these flaws are negligible compared to the many pleasures bestowed by The Sonnet Lover: the twists in the story, the speculation regarding Shakespeare, his sonnets, and his Dark Lady, the academic feuds and frays, and the quest for love itself, a quest featuring both modern and Renaissance lovers. Goodman has the skill to bring alive simultaneously both the worlds of Shakespeare and of modern American academia.

Of golf, relationships and life

A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons by James Dodson. Algonquin Books, 2009.

The way we lead our days, wrote Hollins graduate Annie Dillard, is the way we lead our lives. The northern golf season was history, and sudden endings and unexpected paths seemed to be everywhere I turned that week.”

The above quotation is from James Dodson’s A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons (Algonquin Books, ISBN 13-978-1-56512-506-3, 2009, $24.95). These words sum up both Dodson’s life and his book, for his memoir of his golfing life, which is also an account of his return to North Carolina and to the Sandhills, is indeed a tale of sudden endings and unexpected paths.

Dodson, who has written six other books on golf, including the highly acclaimed Ben Hogan: An American Life, and who for many years wrote an award-winning column for Golf Magazine, found himself in the spring of 2005 faced with several endings in his own life. Harvie Ward a close friend who had as a young man beaten the likes of Arnold Palmer to win two U.S. Amateur Championships but lost his titles when it was determined that he‘d taken money to play, then fell into a whiskey bottle and years of obscurity before becoming a golf pro at Pinehurst had recently died of liver cancer. Dodson’s own career at Golf Magazine had come to a bitter end, when the management of the magazine changed hands.

But A Son of the Game is more about the “unexpected paths” and indeed, beginnings, than it is about endings. When Dodson comes south to cover the United States Open Championship at Pinehurst, he finds himself falling in love with the places of his boyhood. Dodson had grown up in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, learning the game of golf from his father and the craft of writing from both his parents and his teachers. He had worked his way north during his years of employment, eventually finding his home in Maine, which may seem an odd place for a golfer to settle down. Despite his deep affection for Maine, he felt a longing to return to his roots in Carolina.

In A Son of the Game, Dodson tells us how his longing became a reality, how he rediscovered his home state and reignited his love of golf. His finely-written book serves up a feast consisting of several different courses.

Dodson gives us a tour of Pinehurst and of nearby Southern Pines, explaining how golf came to be established there and tracing the history of the region from that time to the present. Invited to serve as writer in residence for The Pilot, a newspaper owned at different times by Sam Ragan, a poet laureate of North Carolina, and by James Boyd, famed for his novels about the Revolutionary War, Dodson finds himself taken into the heart of these communities.

Dodson’s love of golf, his affability, and his reporter’s beat give him a way into the hearts and minds of the townspeople and the visiting golfers. Consequently, he serves us up portraits of his neighbors, the local innkeepers, golf pros and players, writers and local educators, including John Dempsey, the head of the nearby community college.

Dodson also gives us insight into his family life. Though he clearly loves his wife and retains great affection for his deceased relatives, it is for his son Jack that Dodson displays here his deepest concern and feelings. His son is finishing high school and is seeking his own place in the world. He is torn between staying in Maine to finish high school or following his father to North Carolina; he is confused, too, by his place in the game of golf and how much it means to him. Dodson’s affection for Jack, even when they quarrel, comes across in every sentence in which the young man is mentioned.

In his “Acknowledgments” at the end of A Son of the Game, Dodson recollects how once, when he interviewed Richard Petty, the “King of NASCAR,” the stock car driver told him how important our “raisins” were. When Dodson asked him what these “raisins” meant, Petty smiled at him and said, “Never forget where you come from, son — the important values and people who raised you up. Those are your raisins.”

In this same short section, in a single paragraph, Dodson pays homage to those who now help him in his own life. He writes:

“I must thank my wife, Wendy, who had the good sense to hand me my car keys and shove me out the door to say a proper goodbye to a dying friend; and my son, Jack, who capped off this journey home by helping his old man rediscover what is most valuable and precious about life’s most enduring and revealing game: the relationships we make along the way.”


Joseph Mitchell, another North Carolina writer who worked for decades at the New Yorker, once wrote about Joe Gould, a street philosopher and writer who claimed to have written an oral history of New Yorkers. Mitchell eventually came to realize that Gould was a fraud in terms of his writing, but that he was perhaps a genius in his views on living.

In the movie “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Ian Holm as Joe Gould and Stanley Tucci as Joseph Mitchell combine to give us a wonderful take on New York in mid-century, on writing, and on relationships. Holm’s portrayal of the irascible Gould — he is either asking friends for money for the “Joe Gould Fund” or else is exploding furiously at the trials of life — is beautifully done, and may provide bloated moviegoers with an antidote to the saccharine movies of the holiday season.

The movie is available on disc.

Ivey’s ‘Up River’ offers valuable lessons

Up River: A Novel of Attempted Restoration by George Ivey. Dog Year, 2009. 304 Pages.

George Ivey’s Up River: A Novel of Attempted Restoration (Dog Year Publishing, ISBN 978-160844-164-8, $16.95) tells the story of Peter Bailey, a young man who, having spent his years since college working on political campaigns, wants more of a challenge in his life. He applies for, and receives, a position that entails using grant money to reverse environmental damage done to the Akwanee River in Western North Carolina.

Though the Akwanee — and the town of Walnut Flats — are both fictional, Ivey’s account of Peter Bailey’s struggles to gain a foothold in this mountain community, to win the trust of some of its people, and to carry out his mission in regard to the river ring true as a bell.

The townsfolk, both the natives and the outlanders who have settled there, are a suspicious lot, and Ivey must work hard to gain their trust. Following the advice of a few of these people — Mr. Avery, Deputy Dwight Crawford, a female river outfitter named Sandy — Bailey makes efforts to meet the farmers of the area, and introduces them to concepts like no-till cultivation. He encourages them to fight soil erosion and to devise a better way to dispose of the dead fowls and waste piling up on one of the large chicken operations in the area.

If Up River was simply a discussion of watersheds, rainbow trout, freshwater mussels, and polluting fertilizers and weed killers, the book might better have been written as nonfiction study of a real Appalachian river than as a novel. What takes this story beyond such a study, what makes it highly worthwhile in terms of the reader’s time and commitment to the book, are not the environmental digressions, which are brief, educational, and even enjoyable, but the character of Peter Bailey himself.

In Peter Bailey, Ivey has given us a character with saintly ambitions who bumbles frequently, a man who comes to the task of revitalizing a river largely ignorant of the science needed for that restoration, a fool at times in the way he approaches people. Bailey brings to mind the idealistic Pyle from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, in which the American approaches a culture blinded by his own idealism. Though Bailey does learn a great deal living and working in Walnut Flats, we realize, as he himself eventually realizes, that he has little real idea of what he is doing. Several of his projects fail; he unwittingly offends certain members of the community; he seems to lack the ability to stick with this place — or any other place, for that matter — and has difficulty making commitments.

This difficulty can best be seen through Bailey’s pursuit and treatment of Walnut Flats women. Though he does eventually settle on one of these women, his neighbor Melissa, whose husband is in jail for dealing drugs (Bailey helped put him there by informing on him), Bailey’s encounters with different single females reveal both his restlessness and his penchant for bumbling into situations without fully realizing where he might be led. When he is dating young Sally, for example, he tells us that “we began spending more and more time together, enjoying the easy pleasure of our relationship. I was no longer sure what had held me back with her before, and I no longer cared.” On the very next page, living through a week of November rains, Bailey reports that “the novelty of my relationship with Sally had also started washing away, all too quickly losing much of its initial shine and luster. My entire mood matched the weather.”

It is this honest portrait of Bailey that puts a stamp of originality on Up River. For here we have in a sense a sort of quintessential modern young college graduate turned politico. He has no expertise at all regarding the river, but nonetheless thinks that his people skills, which actually seem mediocre, are what is needed to revitalize its waters. He is constantly misjudging people; at one point, based on conjecture after someone steals letters on some signage in Walnut Flats, Bailey speculates that the Ku Klux Klan is active in the county. He is sometimes so blind to his own work that it isn’t until the end of the novel that he learns the meaning of the river’s name, Akwanee, and even that discovery comes by accident

Moreover, though the people with whom he works have strong family ties, Bailey is rootless — he tells Emma Lynn, who manages a convenience store, that “I guess it does seem kind of crazy to start over somewhere new. I’ve gotten used to doing that every year or two, but maybe it’s not for everybody.” He has no particular religious faith of any kind. His connections to his own family seem distant. He soft-pedals himself to women, putting himself across as a sincere and gentle man, polite, empathetic, even a trifle obsequious, but it’s basically an act. With the exception of Melissa, Bailey shows little concern in exploring the women he beds. In his own way, he’s as bad with women as Earl, Melissa’s drug-selling husband.

Yet the end of Up River brings a sort of redemption to Peter Bailey. Little of his redemption can be credited to his own efforts. Instead, the community, a benefactor, and a woman all take a hand in setting him onto a path in which he becomes a part of a family and a community rather than an outsider.

George Ivey’s Up River offers us an excellent lesson in both the reasons we should care more for our rivers and our wilderness areas, and in the human difficulties that beset that caretaking. Highly recommended.

A peculiar angst

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy. Picador, 2000. 272 pages.


Walker Percy not only wrote these lines (see below), but he also lived them. He recognized early on that he was indeed a peculiar bird. He came from an ancient and notable family; both his grandfather and his father were suicides; his mother died three years later in an automobile accident when Percy was 16 years old. Percy’s Uncle Will, a melancholic bachelor, writer and Southern aristocrat who practiced Stoicism as his life’s philosophy, then raised Percy and his brothers. Shelby Foote, who went on to write novels and the three-volume history, The Civil War, was Percy’s best friend then, and remained friends with him for life.

Percy followed a number of twisting paths for the next 15 years. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1937, Percy attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University for four more years, earning a degree in medicine. Once he had started his internship at Bellvue, however, Percy fell ill with tuberculosis and remained ill for the next four years.

This time of illness ranks as an enormous turning point in Percy’s life. By now his Uncle Will had died, and Percy was left with enough of an inheritance so that he didn’t have to work to earn a living. He had begun to take a deep interest in religion and faith and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. He also found himself intrigued by philosophy, particularly the existentialists, by language and linguistics, and by imaginative literature. With time on his hands, he gave himself over to a third phase of higher education and began sending out articles to various journals of learning.

Encouraged by Shelby Foote — their letters, collected in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, offers a fascinating look at two men who, though so different in many respects, shared common roots and a love of literature — Walker Percy began writing fiction. In 1960, after many revisions, Percy’s The Moviegoer was accepted for publication by Knopf. The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962, and Percy’s writing career blossomed.

For the rest of his life — he died in 1990 of prostate cancer — Percy explored a combination of themes that became his trademark: the contemporary shifts in Southern culture, existentialism, semiotics, Catholicism, and the post-modern human being. Having once stated, after giving up his career in medicine, that he would study the pathology of the soul rather than of the body, Percy wrote five more novels, several essays, two collections of essays, and Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Lost in the Cosmos brings together many of the themes Percy explored. Written with a high sense of humor — ”Thought Experiment II: Explain why Moses was tongue-tied and stage-struck before his fellow Jews but had no trouble talking to God” — Lost in the Cosmos gives us what Percy intended: a look, through questions and examples, into the soul, a dissection of the human heart that leaves us laughing and thinking hard at the same time. Though parts of the book are already slightly dated — his hilarious spoof of the Phil Donahue Show, in which he perfectly captures the language and gestures of Donahue while at the same time introducing us to the thought of John Calvin, Colonel Pelham, and an alien visitor from space — Percy’s wit, his clarity of language, and his insights awaken our minds and enliven our own thoughts.

Readers who have yet to read Walker Percy might do best to begin with The Moviegoer or with Lost in the Cosmos (the middle third of the book, a 40-page treatise on elementary semiotics, can be hard going and may be skipped). The Second Coming, which is the sequel to Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, may appeal to readers who like their settings close to home; Percy visited Western North Carolina several times, and The Second Coming, a novel which, as one reviewer wrote, depicts a mental patient and a horny widower falling in love, is partially set in and around Highlands.

At least three biographies of Percy exist, each fine in its own way. Patrick Samway, S.J., was a close friend of Percy’s, and his Walker Percy: A Life gives us an excellent and eminently readable portrait of the man and the writer. Jay Tolson’s A Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy is perhaps better written, and focuses somewhat more on Percy’s literary works. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be your Own: An American Pilgrimage offers a different look at the writer from Covington, Louisiana; in addition to Percy, Elie includes in this fine 500-page study of Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Dorothy Day.

Though it is too early to determine how time and circumstance will treat Percy’s fiction, that his books remain in print is an encouraging sign. We continue, apparently, to see his books as mirrors, as reflections of our own questioning and questing selves. His appeal remains broad; he offers much that remains pertinent to our lives, and his analysis of the angst and storms of our time continues to give to us both hope and understanding.

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.

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