LaRose by Louise Erdrich, how do we forgive?

laroseIn Louise Erdrich’s latest novel “LaRose,” the relationship between two neighbors is forever changed when one accidently kills the other’s child in a hunting accident. The families have lived next to one another for years. The children are friends. The fathers are friends. The mothers are half sisters.

So how do the families move forward? How do they forgive? Forgiveness and reparation in Native American culture are questions that Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe, examines in “LaRose.”

Read the rest of my review in the Post and Courier.

Anne Tyler Does It Again

vinegarAnne Tyler is one of those authors whose books I buy without reading a review, without reading the blurbs or the insert, and without even looking at the cover. I have complete faith that an Anne Tyler book will be good, but I have to say I hesitated when I came across her latest book Vinegar Girl. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I am not a big Shakespeare fan. “The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.” The series launched in October 2015 and upcoming authors include Tracey Chevalier and Gillian Flynn among others. What I quickly discovered and will share with the of you who share my feelings (so you don’t hesitate before buying and reading Vinegar Girl) is that you don’t need to be familiar with Shakespeare to enjoy this book.

I’m not going to post a full review because the talented Jane Smiley has already done that in last week’s New York Times book review, but I’ll include a few of my favorite scenes. Tyler’s heroine (or shrew) is Kate Battista who is one of those characters I wish I could meet in person. Even though I am much older than her (Kate is 29), I feel like we would be good friends. Kate is an assistant at a pre-school and her interactions with the children are some of the most enjoyable scenes in the book. Here’s an example:

“If a child refused to lie down at Quiet Rest Time, Kate just said “Fine, be that way,” and stomped off in a huff. Mrs. Chauncey would send her a reproachful look before telling the child, “Somebody isn’t doing what Miss Kate told him to.” At such moments, Kate felt like an imposter. Who was she to order a child to take a nap? She completely lacked authority, and all the children knew it; they seemed to view her as just an extra-tall, more obstreperous four-year-old.” (had to look up obstreperous and it means noisy and difficult to control.)

Kate lives with her scientist father and her much younger sister “Bunny,” and has taken on the role of the care-giver. (Kate’s mother died soon after Bunny’s birth after long bouts of depression.) Even with that seemingly dismal setting, there is great humor in Tyler’s description of the family’s eccentricities, and in the dialogue between the family members, especially Kate and her father. When her father suggests that Kate could marry his assistant to help keep him in the country, she refuses and calls it human trafficking. Her father assures her the arrangement won’t change anything. “All I had in mind was, we would go on more or less as before except that Pyoder would move in with us.”

Kate reluctantly agrees to her father’s plan to marry her off to his Russian microbiologist assistant and Tyler reveals their awkward and humorous “courtship” through text messages:

Hi Kate I text you!

Hi.

U r home now?

Spell things out, for heaven’s sake. You’re not some teenager.

You are home now?

No.

I won’t tell you what happens because I don’t want to spoil the fun of following Kate’s journey, but there is a scene toward the end of the book where Kate delivers a brief speech to her family and I felt like I was hearing from Tyler herself; like I was getting a glimpse into the way she sees relationships between men and women. “Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar — their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries!”

This is why I will continue to buy Ann Tyler books without hesitation.

Book Store Road Trip

It’s July and the dead heat of summer in the South is here to stay until September. The days are a series of dripping, hazy, white heat that transform from light to dark with crashing thunderstorms nearly every afternoon. These storms are the kind that make you want to sit crosslegged on the floor of a local bookstore and disappear inside a book.

“Just show me the books, as many as possible, and fill the walls and floors with them, as if in a padded cell of bliss.” says Rick Bass of Mississippi’s Square Books in Garden and Gun Magazine’s “Our Kind of Place: Square Books.”

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Rick Bass’ essay got me thinking about planning a bookstore road trip. I live in Charleston, SC, an infamous tourist destination for the culturally hip, but a place too, that is lacking in independent bookstores. Any time I travel one of the first things I do is search for the local bookstore. My mom instilled this habit in me when I was young and we’ve spent many happy hours in various bookstores across the country. There are bookstores we’ve been dreaming about visiting like Judy Blume’s recently opened Books & Books, and Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books in Nashville. But for now I’ll start with my family’s annual trip to Maine in August where soon after I unpack I’ll head to one of my favorites: Bridgeton Books. The owners have been in business since 1993 and have a knowledgeable staff, a fantastic selection of all genres, a fun area for kids to hang out, and a gorgeous selection of cards! This store embodies the local community and I look forward to visiting it all year.

I also love to drive to the stunning coast of Maine while we’re visiting and I make a point of stopping at Sherman’s Books in Boothbay Harbor. This store has been around forever and you can get lost inside. The bookstore is upstairs (downstairs is filled with gift items) and I’m always drawn to the kids’s section because we can never have enough great picture books! There is also a great selection of books on Maine that tempts me each time I visit.

I’ve never been to the Owl & Turtle Bookshop before, but this year we’ll drive to Camden to attend a book signing with one of our favorite Maine authors Chris Van Dusen whose kid’s books are so much fun to read aloud and are among my children’s favorites. This store has been in business for 45 years and is known for “hard-to-find marine titles and essential nautical charts, and a wide selection of books steeped in Maine and New England themes.”

Stay tuned for my “Weekend Getaway Bookstore Road Trip” where I’ll plan my visit to bookstores in Asheville and Charlotte, NC.

For more info on Bookstore Road Trips:

Garden and Gun’s A Southern Lit Road Trip

Indie 100

An Indie Bookstore Road Trip

 

Beach Reads

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I bought The Children by Ann Leary and finished it within days. This is not typical behavior for me because I usually read at night before bed and I’m often so tired that I can only get through a few pages. But Leary’s latest book kept me up way past my bedtime. I’ve already loaned my book out so I can’t post any quotes from pages I folded down that feature clever dialogue, wry humor, and compelling descriptions but I’ll link to an interview with the author on the Huffington Post.

Charlotte Maynard, the narrator, is a 29 year old recluse living in her family’s home on a lake in New England. The home belonged to her now deceased step-father Whit, and Charlotte lives there with her mother Joan, and the two have occasional visits from Charlotte’s talented but mentally unstable sister Sally, and two step-brothers. When one of the step-brothers brings his fiancee to the family home for a visit, the blended family’s seemingly perfect facade quickly crumbles.

I was first introduced to Ann Leary when I read her engaging book The Good House  about a middle aged woman whose drinking causes her downfall. (It’s being developed into a movie starring  Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro.) Leary is married to actor Dennis Leary and in an article in The New York Times she says her narrator’s struggle with alcoholism in The Good House was inspired by her own experiences.

For more summer reading ideas: Leary recommends these ten books set in New England.

A Lowcountry Wedding by Mary Alice Monroe

a-lowcountry-wedding-9781501125430_hrI was so fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with local author Mary Alice Monroe. My review of her latest book, “A Lowcountry Wedding,” highlights her passion for the environment.

“I want my readers to feel what I feel,” she said. “I want to enable my readers to see that they can make a difference in their own backyards; with small changes we all can make a difference,” says Monroe.

‘The Dogs of Littlefield’ by Suzanne Berne explores underbelly of town, discontent of inhabitants

My latest review in the Post and Courier:

dogs

What it’s like to live in one of the “Best Towns” in the country? Are your neighbors friendlier, your schools smarter, your gardens prettier?

Charlestonians are familiar with their town being dubbed one of the best, and we understand that visitors have high expectations of our city. This classification, while desirable, has its downside. We can’t be perfect all the time.

In her latest novel, Orange Prize-winning author Suzanne Berne has created the fictional town of Littlefield, Mass., dubbed one of the “Ten Best Places to Live in America” by the Wall Street Journal because of its natural beauty, excellent schools and general quality of life. The town draws the attention of sociocultural anthropologist Dr. Watkins who takes a sabbatical to move to Littlefield and study what determines a “good quality of life.”

The book opens with a poisoned dog. Margaret, a dog owner and bored suburban housewife, discovers the animal while out walking her own large and unruly black Lab Binx in the local park. Littlefield is a dog-friendly town, but recently the townspeople have been split over a proposal to let the dogs run off leash during certain hours. Anti-dog signs appear throughout the town telling owners to “leash your beast,” but no one knows the source. First, one dog is poisoned and then another, and the polished veneer quickly starts to tarnish.

Dr. Watkins fears that her studies are in vain. In an email to her colleague, she writes, “I am afraid … that the population, which I was counting on to be contented, is instead becoming frightened.”

This is not a whodunnit mystery for animal lovers. The dying dogs are merely a tool the author uses to dig deeper into the lives of her characters. Margaret’s marriage is in trouble. She finds herself drawn to a local author whose dog is the first to die. George is recently divorced, lonely and struggling to finish his second book.

Their lust, hot in the car one evening, is awkward in daylight. As they lay next to each other in bed, George’s previously mute character find his voice and speaks to him: “Sex in middle age is like making a matzo ball, it requires a sensitive touch. Too much handling and it turns to lead.” He struggles to resist the urge to jump out of bed to write, and instead focuses on a mole on Margaret’s neck.

Margaret’s husband, Bill, is mostly clueless about her affair and wonders if he’s dead and just doesn’t know it. Spotted one evening by Dr. Watkins out walking her dog, Bill is described as having a look of “monstrous suffering. … A look of wooden self-consciousness, fraudulence, vacancy, a kind of flat-line anguish that was almost frightening.”

This fear of feeling disconnected and alone strikes at our deepest core. Berne illustrates middle-age malcontent through the mishaps of Margaret, George and Bill who worry that “life is just something to get through.”

Littlefield is not a perfect town. There are no perfect towns. Dig past the surface and you’ll always find the ugly underbelly. But this is not a dark novel. What Berne does best, with humor and insight, is expose this darkness inside us all. Pulling back the layers of Littlefield’s townspeople, she reminds us that it’s our imperfections that make us whole and human.

As Margaret plays the piano at the middle school end-of-year concert, parents sit poised in their seats, quieted by the voices of their children and the humbling realization that “this moment will never come again.”

Stay tuned for a Q&A with the author!

Author Peter Selgin says we are all Inventors

Selgin -- The Inventors cover

Who?

Author Peter Selgin believes we are all inventors. He says memory is fallible and that we invent ourselves intentionally or inadvertently. “We don’t have a faithful grasp of who we are and we base our identities on a blend of memory and mythology. Memories are about as reliable as myths. Like myths, they take on their own truths.” But what does it mean when our memory of someone (a father, a teacher) is different from reality? Selgin’s latest book “The Inventors” is a memoir that examines the lives of two men, his father and his 8th grade teacher, who were influential in his life. Each had a profound effect on his development, and it wasn’t until after their deaths that he discovered the significance of their inventions.

What? and Where?

Selgin began his career as an illustrator for noteworthy publications like The New Yorker and Gourmet magazine. He lived in New York City and spent years drawing caricatures at corporate events. “I sometimes can’t believe I abandoned painting for writing. Writing hurts,” Selgin says of his switch from visual art to storytelling. “Writing is more like hand-to-hand combat, while for me painting is playing with shapes, textures, and colors. With painting I couldn’t get to the heavier thoughts, the deeper emotions that I wanted to access.” A prolific writer, Selgin works across all genres and won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his collection “Drowning Lessons” in 2007. It was this award that brought him to the south, and in 2009 he moved from New York to Georgia College where he teaches Creative Writing in the MFA program. He tells his graduate students that all writers have one real story living inside of them and that many will tinker with the story for years before getting it right. “There’s something in us. We keep taking stabs at it. I’ve written about my father for years. Maybe this time I’ve got it,” he says of “The Inventors.” Referencing Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor who wrote about the same subject for years, he says that writers want to create one work that will last.

Why?

Memoir writing has a different set of challenges, especially when it comes to accuracy, and Selgin says he wasn’t able to write about his father or his teacher until after their deaths. “After my father’s death a woman told me that he was Jewish,” he says. Selgin speculates that his father denied his Jewish background out of a fear of anti-Semitism and a deep love of British culture. His father was a brilliant inventor whose developments include the first machine for changing dollar bills to coins. His teacher’s motivations for reinventing his identity are less clear. Selgin’s research process involved tracking down the teacher’s sole surviving family member, reading old journals and letters, and hiring a genealogist. He did his due diligence, but contemplates the complexity of memory throughout his book. He writes, “What do we remember? What do we know? Are knowledge and memory the same? Just because we remember something, does that mean we know it? Is memory something that we possess, like knowledge, or is it something we do – an act?” Selgin is a twin and invited his brother, who often has vastly different memories of shared experiences, to write the Afterword. In it his brother writes that “The Inventors “is “a book about inventors whose inventions consist of myths they’ve spun about themselves. (…) But it is mostly about a third inventor, Peter himself, and his own creations, whose patent specification you are holding.”

“The Inventors” explores the different theories and psychology of memory, and writes that according to one theory “As soon as we stop remembering, just as the wind stops existing when it stops blowing, our memories cease to exist.” I remember when dementia started to steal my grandmother’s memories and in an attempt to push back against the inevitable, she wrote little notes and put them in an old jewelry box for safekeeping. I remember the fear in her eyes when she showed me her box of notes. Who was she if she couldn’t remember? In “The Inventors,” Selgin reminds readers about the infallibility of memory, and the power of invention.