Come December, everyone makes their Top Ten or Best Of the Year lists, and usually just in time for book lovers to choose their Christmas gifts. Not so my list for the AJC, which will come out one day later. So even though time is short, I’m noting some of those titles here, and adding a few I read along the way.
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey—The author, while bedridden with a mysterious illness, found the ultimate “Slow Living” lessons in the life of a wild snail a friend brought her one day.
Each evening the snail awoke and with astonishing poise moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying, once again, the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.
… One evening I put some of the withered blossoms in the dish beneath the pot of violets. The snail was awake. It made its way down the side of the pot and investigated the offering with great interest and then began to eat one of the blossoms. A petal started to disappear at a barely discernible rate. I listened carefully. I could hear it eating. The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously. I watched, transfixed, as over the course of an hour the snail meticulously ate an entire purple petal for dinner…The tiny, intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Sonny Brewer, ed.—A collection of mostly hilarious stories about the jobs 25 Southern writers once held—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some were chiefly good for burnishing the character to a certain hardness, the better to withstand a writing life, as when Rick Bragg writes about manly, backbreaking pulpwooding that still gives him nightmares about mangling his hands, but taught him “how easy it is—at its hardest—to do what I do.”
Some jobs provide material, like the one Suzanne Hudson found:
I finally landed in a place where I truly belonged—a place riddled with stories and peccadilloes … a land of double-dealing and plotting and subterfuge and intrigue, crawling with denizens eager to engage in all manner of posturing and preening.
In other words, middle school, where Hudson taught English a decade ago.
Finding herself half naked in her boss’s bed was a memory Michelle Richmond hadn’t expected to confront when she “set out to write an essay about telemarketing.” Daniel Wallace, who once worked for a veterinarian, has left the care of dogs behind but not the lesson he learned from “the holy cycle” of their lives—and poop.
Editor Brewer, the author of The Poet of Tolstoy Park and The Widow and the Tree, originally planned the book as a memoir of his own experiences, having worked at just about everything under the sun. He planned to call his book Forty Hats.
But when a friend who misunderstood the concept thought Brewer was talking about an anthology, an irresistible idea was born. So instead, Brewer set about collecting essays by writers he knew: the above-mentioned, as well as Larry Brown, Pat Conroy, Brad Watson, Winston Groom, Joshilyn Jackson, Tom Franklin, William Gay, Tim Gautreaux, Silas House, and a dozen others. A must-read for any aspiring writer awaiting liberation.
My Reading Life, Pat Conroy—This is not a book, as it sounds like it will be, about all the books Conroy ever read, though many of them make an appearance. It’s about the people who steered him toward books, such as his mother, who took him to the library in every town they moved to—and they moved a lot; it’s about his high school English teacher, who helped Conroy cultivate his native sensitivities and love of literature; and it has chapters on the writers who taught him, living and dead (Thomas Wolfe, James Dickey, Tolstoy). With a voice as big as South Carolina, Conroy remembers and thanks them all, with love and wit and his trademark hyperbole, and in doing so, sets a great lesson for us all, to speak our hearts and minds about what we love, not what’s fashionable or approved by the literary establishment.
Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, Brad Watson—I found a story from this collection in the annual New Stories from the South called “Visitation.” It reminded me of Charles Baxter in the way Watson offered a mysterious, almost supernatural center in a perfectly normal story about a divorced man and his young son. Come to find out, Watson is from Meridian, Mississippi and his Last Days of the Dog-Men won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction; he was a National Book Award finalist in 2002 for The Heaven of Mercury. Needless to say, all his books are now on my to-read list. Here’s a passage from “Visitation”:
The next morning, Sunday, Loomis rose before his son and went down to the lobby for coffee. He stepped out into the empty courtyard to drink it in the morning air, and when he looked into the pool he saw a large dead rat on its side at the bottom. The rat looked peacefully dead, with its eyes closed and its front paws curled at its chest as if it were begging. Loomis took another sip of his coffee and went back into the lobby. The night clerk was still on duty, studying something on the computer monitor behind the desk. She only cut her eyes at Loomis, and when she saw he was going to approach her she met his gaze steadily in that same way, without turning her head.
“I believe you have an unregistered guest at the bottom of your pool,” Loomis said.
(You can read the full story at: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2009/04/06/090406fi_fiction_watson#ixzz18ic5xL9g)
This Is Just Exactly Like You, Drew Perry—The crazy cover sucked me in, but Perry’s lovely, affectionate story about a man whose marriage is on the rocks and the autistic child he babysits when his wife leaves was what kept me reading. In his charming, darkly funny story about “the beautiful kind of too much,” Perry asks where we draw the line between good crazy and bad crazy, between normal and abnormal, and what happens if we don’t fit on the spectrum, and why that’s OK.
People will say this is a story about an autistic child. It’s not. It’s a story about a family, two very human parents and a remarkable, unpredictable little boy, whose father does not want the “Beanbags”—the doctors and “experts” he and his wife have taken the child to—to determine his child’s development. Who would rather build on what he senses is the right thing (think giant Putt Putt golf course sea world creatures) than on what everyone else tells him is right. The reason Jack, the father, takes these intuitive steps is because he sees his prickly, sometimes terrifying child as wonderful.
Jack understands what it might be like to want to “open the drawer three hundred times in a row. Because who doesn’t want that from tie to time? To fall deeper in?” What’s the space, he asks, “between tic and illness”? Where does biting your fingernails fall in the spectrum? With these question, he’s able to put Hendrick’s behavior in perspective in the midst of chaos—after all, “there aren’t talking birds in the microwave telling him he’s got to kill the school board.”
Jack adores his kid. “Hen’s a genius,” he thinks, “if a broken one.” Jack doesn’t expect Hendrick to improve; he just wants to keep him safe, stay close to him. Even when the boy does something inexplicable, Jack can appreciate it: He “sometimes isn’t sure how much of any of this is on the spectrum and how much of it might simply be Hendrick being maybe more human than everybody else, more sensitive to his own cravings.”
Perry, who in real life has an autistic brother, translates the language of Hendrick’s behaviors, offering elegant, plausible reasons for things the rest of us could never understand. It’s possible his book might affect you the way it did me, and you will want to hug it and sleep with it under your pillow like a talisman against all soulless people who want to tag children with labels and limit their sometimes unfathomable weirdness to syndromes. There were times when it made me teary with joy just to read one page, and I had to clutch the arms of my chair so I didn’t run outside weeping and hollering.
The Creation of Eve, Lynn Cullen—Atlanta writer Cullen had already written children’s books and a YA novel called I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter before she took up the story of real-life painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Cullen steeped herself in art to bring this little-known, but once popular portrait painter to life, along with the 16th-century Spanish court and the hissing presence of the Inquisition.
Born in 1532, the real Sofonisba was renowned in her native Cremona and throughout Italy as a leading painter of the Italian Renaissance. Yet beginning in 1560, she would spend the next ten years as a lady-in-waiting and art instructor to the queen of Spain, forbidden from signing her famous name to the royal portraits she painted.
As expected, from the moment the artist arrives in Toledo, her star begins to fade; “I am less of a person here now at court,” she notes, “than I was in Cremona.” She soon finds, however, that life in the Spanish court consists of dangerous liaisons and lethal jealousies that make her reduced status the least of her worries.
Anguissola’s journal, with its notes on herbalism, painting techniques, and historical gossip—“I have heard,” she writes, “the English queen, Kathryn Howard, had been feeding her dogs bits of boiled chicken when King Henry’s men came and took her screaming down the halls of Hampton Court”—give heft and dimension to an irresistible story of Renaissance intrigue and romance.
My Name Is Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira—Though critics liked Oliveira’s book, no one apparently thought it good enough to make any year-end lists. Maybe the Civil War subject matter turned some off. But this is a gripping, believable, well-researched novel about a young woman from New York who aspires to be a surgeon. When no medical school or doctor will have her (the Victorian era discouraged women from anything other than midwifery), she ran off to war and learned her craft in the makeshift hospitals that received ungodly amounts of casualties. There’s a love story tucked in here too, as realistic as the medical details, and even a battle scene as suspenseful as any I’ve ever read.
On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, Debra Monroe—It’s no fun to go it alone, even if you think everyone else just gets in the way. When your relatives are too crazy to lean on, you’ve moved too often to make friends, all the men you meet have attachment disorder, it’s easier to keep your distance. When you really have no clue as to how to protect yourself from bad relationships—best not get too involved.
That’s the basis of Debra Monroe’s memoir, appropriately titled after the place where Monroe found herself after years of trying to create a normal life: husband, domestic contentment, a dream of teaching English, and finally, a child. But Monroe kept stubbing her toe on obstacles to normalcy. For one thing, she didn’t know much better.
The child of an alcoholic and a mother who sidestepped all opportunities to escape her bad choices, by the age of 30, Monroe was supporting an abusive second husband by waitressing as she worked on her PhD. She thinks being hit is normal, run of the mill, unavoidable “like bad weather, like fire or earthquakes,” and has long known how to hide bruises and black eyes. By then, there were two Debra Monroes: the one who had been saving furniture and household goods—“homey artifacts, set dressing for my piecemeal version of family life”—since she was a girl and, despite three miscarriages, had a name for her daughter since she was 14. The one who loved teaching, telling her students that “the sprawling mess of life is why we need stories…a fleeting sense of order, so we return to life with the unproven but irresistible conviction our mistakes and emergencies matter, so life might make sense too.”
Then there’s the other Debra, heading straight for her mother’s sad end: She dates men she meets in bars or clubs or where she waitresses, men who who come to work in her yard or repair her house. It’s just how she grew up: “Boys I loved had bad lives,” she writes. She can’t seem to bond with anyone, and by the time she hits 40, she’s “lonely, anxious, sick, wanting sex,” and wonders if her mother’s abusive husbands had distracted her from looking closely at herself.
It isn’t until her daughter Marie comes along that Monroe begins to bring the two halves together. In 1996, just after the Multiethnic Replacement Act was amended to so that a white couple could adopt a black baby, Monroe found herself gazing through the glass window of a hospital nursery at her future daughter. Before long, her worries begin to rejoin her to the new normal: “I woke the baby to make sure she was breathing. She cried, and guts I never knew I had twisted.”
When your role models don’t prepare you for parenthood, or even a healthy relationship, it doesn’t stop you from wanting those things. Monroe tells her story with honesty and something verging on brusqueness, which we eventually recognize as a combination of terror, hope and love. Despite the odds, she found her baby, overcame her limitations, and in the process, became the good mother she never had.
While working on reviews, I invariably end up curious about a writer’s older books if I haven’t already read them, and these three came up:
The Water Is Wide, Pat Conroy—About halfway through My Reading Life, I got interested in what had happened when Conroy taught the teenagers on Daufuskie Island who, when he first met them, did not even know what country they lived in. I dug up a copy of The Water Is Wide and found myself glued to it when I was supposed to be finishing his latest, dammit.
Plainsong, Kent Haruf—That’s right, I never read Plainsong. But while reviewing Bruce Machart’s debut book (The Wake of Forgiveness) I wondered why jacket blurbs compared him to Haruf. As it turned out, they are very different writers, their novels set in different parts of the country, their styles almost opposite. Plainsong, though, was a book I couldn’t stop reading once I started; his prose is so straightforwardly beautiful, his dialogue so perfect, and the story so believable that I’m here to say if you have not read it, do.
All Over but the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg—While reading Bragg’s The Most They Ever Had, I went back to his first book. His is such a unique voice, combining a lifelong anger that comes from watching poor people suffer, his own conflict about escaping that life, and the solid eloquence of a born writer.
Then there’s The One That Got Away: the book I most wanted to read, still want to read, and hope is on someone’s Christmas list under my name: Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro. Here’s what Leah Hager Cohen said in the New York Times review: “The collection’s 10 stories take on some sensational subjects. In fact, a quick tally yields all the elements of pulp fiction: violence, adultery, extreme cruelty, duplicity, theft, suicide, murder.” I am so there.
[Note: links and tags to come; right after I finish baking my last batch of Christmas cookies.]