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Miss JaneNot much scares Jane Chisholm, the heroine of Brad Watson’s eloquently homespun second novel, Miss Jane. Not snakes, disease, chickens, cows, coyotes, panthers, screech owls, wild dogs, cyclones, hail, lightning, “the hatchet used to decapitate the chickens,” not her mother’s “harsh and dark words,” or even the devil or hell.

Born in 1915 with a rare genital defect that renders her ill-suited for marriage or motherhood, the only thing that bothers Jane is “the vexation of her own incontinence.” In a community in which “she was the only one made the way she was made,” she meets life with grace and wonder, “determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could.”

Jane’s rural homestead lies just outside of Mercury, the fictional version of Meridian, Mississippi, where Watson grew up (and the setting for his first novel, Heaven of Mercury). Jane’s mother, Ida, and father, Sylvester, are nearly 40 and, having already lost three children, had not planned to have another. Jane is the result of a moonshine-n’-laudanum night of “sin and abomination” that leads them to suspect her handicap is their punishment.

Fortunately, the local doctor who delivers Jane, Ed Thompson, advises her parents on how to care for her and, when she’s old enough, assures Jane that she’s a “normal little girl” whose body “didn’t get to finish itself up and get everything right” before she was born. His support and close attention help the family accept her, and in letters exchanged with his colleague, the nature of her condition is gradually made plain. Thompson periodically arranges for Jane to be examined, but the surgery to correct her abnormality has yet to be developed.

Watson, who based Jane on his great-aunt, Mary Ellis Clay, could have written her as a hopelessly isolated child, a freakish outsider. After all, she’s not like other children. She’s surrounded by sorrow and defeat—a mother damaged by the death of a beloved son at age 3; a father whose drinking increases as the Depression takes its toll on his farm and store; and an unhappy older sister described by Dr. Thompson as a “wildcat tethered to that family and her duties as if to a tree by a pulled-taut chain.”


Brad Watson

But the South of Miss Jane isn’t the gritty, grotesque South of Harry Crews or even the afflicted, Southern Gothic world of Flannery O’Connor (although this story could be a metaphor for O’Connor’s life). Watson, also the author of two short-story collections, has more in common with writers like Ron Rash or Amy Greene, whose nuanced portraits of Appalachia illustrate the struggle between human decency and the costs of survival. His “country folk” are complex and vulnerable, their stoicism and outer coldness a response to events beyond their control.

Despite being made differently,  Jane is neither freak nor misfit. Instead, Watson paints her as exactly what the good doctor insists she is: a regular little girl. “A fairly solitary and independent little sprite” with a “prodigiously contemplative disposition,” she’s most at home in the woods and meadows, places where she feels “as if nothing could be unnatural … within but apart from the world.”

Inquisitive, resilient, and independent, Jane embraces the mysteries and marvels of nature: “mushrooms and their dry or slimy tops and delicate stems and gills beneath their caps”; the mating habits of pigs and roosters; “bone-jarring thunder, lightning that made everything for an instant like the inside of a vast glass bowl of bright blue light”; even her sister’s face as she makes love with a neighbor boy, “eyes locked on her own, looking straight to where she was hiding.”

And despite the lack of affection in her family, Jane’s young heart opens to the rare exception. A “little one-armed hug” from her father during a fishing trip is “an expression of sentiment so rare in their household” that it brings her to tears, “which she hid by walking away and picking wildflowers on the little hill above the pond and bringing them back to him.”

“How is it a child comes out like this’n?” her father asks Dr. Thompson; her mother consults a psychic, only to be told that Jane will never be “normal, like other girls,” but she’ll be happy: “Unlike you.” This investigation of normal is at the heart of Watson’s novel: The pity Jane’s fate should inspire never quite fits with her steadfast defiance of Thompson’s worry that she’ll end up “living a long life of isolation and shame.”

During an era when a woman’s purpose was marriage, sex, and children, Jane’s life is anything but barren. While everyone around her wishes she could be fixed, Jane is busy finding happiness wherever it beckons. As time goes by, she attends school, reads precociously (Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”), goes to barn dances (as Watson’s great-aunt was said to do), works in the family store, and has a boyfriend with whom she experiences a fragile but lasting love.

Significantly, few of the characters in Miss Jane fully inhabit traditional roles. Ida, “cantankerous” mother of four, has always felt pregnancy as “[her body] taking itself away from her again.” Dr. Thompson and his wife can’t have children, nor can the sharecropper couple whose lovemaking Jane spies on with such guilty pleasure. Her sister Grace spurns a future as a farm wife to work unconventional jobs; Jane herself wishes she could fix a tractor or hammer out a horseshoe; compared to sewing and sweeping, “men’s work seemed like freedom.”

Peacocks make several appearances throughout the book, “otherworldly birds” frequently depicted in shimmering, near-mythological scenes. Toward the end, these “oddly beautiful” creatures flock to Jane “as if they sensed the presence of someone they found familiar”—as strange as they are, Jane is more so. Yet her fearless acceptance of what sets her apart is profoundly human, and her lifelong struggle to understand her place in the world reflects the intricate workings of our own mysterious hearts.


Other books by Brad Watson include Last Days of the Dog-Men: Stories (2001), The Heaven of Mercury (2002), Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives: Stories (2010). A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution July 10.


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Chris Offutt’s father wasn’t always a pornographer. His first book, written when he was 12, was a novel of the Old West. He completed a 300-page historical account of Rome while still in college. Before he died in 2013, Andrew J. Offutt had written and published more than 400 books, using 17 different pseudonyms. Six of his novels were science fiction, 24 were fantasy, and one was a thriller.

The rest were XXX-rated.

Shortly after his father’s death, Chris, then 54, found himself the beneficiary of a “secret will,” stipulating that he handle Andrew’s papers, specifically including “instructions about his porn, where it was hidden and what to do with it.”

While cleaning out his dad’s cluttered office space in the family home in rural Kentucky, Offutt opened a closet lined from floor to ceiling with pornography: everything from books, manuscripts, photographs, magazines, postcards, comics and pinups, to ”a pile of dusty catalogs from Frederick’s of Hollywood [that] ran back 50 years.”

It was a tunnel into a past he had never suspected, into the mind of a man he soon realized he never knew: My Father, the Pornographer (Atria Books).

Offutt’s onetime belief that his father occasionally wrote porn “to supplement his income” as a science fiction and fantasy writer — his parents claimed the senior Offutt cranked out a few dirty books to pay for Chris’s orthodontia — falls apart in the face of Andrew’s “incredibly vast and inclusive” pornographic library.

Not only had his father published three decades worth of porn titles (conveniently listed in the back of the memoir), he did so under an array of aliases, notably John Cleve, who posed as a 1970s swinger, and Turk Winter, the final persona behind his collaboration for 25 years with Eric Stanton, the underground fetish artist.

Offutt Sr.’s mass-production of porn was coolly efficient — Chris compares him to “Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with premade parts” — and included mind-boggling varieties: “…farm porn, cowboy porn, Hollywood porn, Nazi porn, swapping and swinging… pirate porn, ghost porn, science fiction porn, thriller porn, zombie porn, and Atlantis porn …” Of these “subgenres” galore, the exhausted Offutt is “thankful for the utter absence of kiddie porn.”

Chris Offutt (photo Sandra Dyas)

Chris Offutt (photo: Sandra Dyas)

Immersed in cataloging his father’s Augean and “increasingly dark” life’s work, organization turns to quagmire, and Offutt grows depressed, morose, even suicidal. He eats little and loses all interest in sex. Andrew’s shadow hovers: “The project felt less like clearing a room,” Offutt writes, “and more like prospecting within his mind.” His siblings urge Chris to destroy the pornography, worried the job will ferry him too far back into the hell they escaped.

Refusing to turn away, Offutt insists that “as a son, I wanted an opportunity to understand him further through his work.” The result is a heartbreaking coming-of-age story in which memories of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood prove just how much of a toll the father’s obsessive career took on the family.

Life with Offutt Sr. was anything but ordinary. Remembering days before his father quit his lucrative day job to write, Offutt contrasts rare moments with his once adored, playful dad with the stay-at-home Mr. Hyde he became. “Bullying and critical, angry at the breaking of his ever changing rules regarding bathroom doors, sound, laughter, talking,” his crushing presence and bottomless need for obedience and attention made life unbearable for his family.

Many scenes rival the stories of Jeannette Walls or Mary Karr for parental neglect and craziness. In one stunning chapter, Offutt describes the many sci-fi conventions his parents attended, shuttling their children off to a separate room with orders not to bother them — emergency or no — while Offutt Sr. enjoyed the swinging lifestyle he’d developed for his alter ego, the childless, freewheeling John Cleve.

Not that the kids didn’t come in handy: Andrew stole their college fund, cashed his younger son’s college financial aid check and sold Chris’ “comic book collection of 1,500 titles and kept the proceeds.” Even after Chris left home, his dad’s moody, controlling behavior dictated their communications, which didn’t improve when Chris’s work began to attract the sort of literary acclaim Offutt Sr. had always craved.

The hard-won understanding of his father’s insecurities and frailties is dutiful but damning. Offutt — the author of two short-story collections, two memoirs, a novel, and TV scripts for “Treme,” “Weeds” and “True Blood” — commends Andrew’s pre-pornographic work as “energetic, funny, concerned, serious and original.” Rereading it, he “wept for the talent [his father] had as a young man, the great writer he might have become.”


Andrew J. Offutt, reading in the 70s.

Offutt Sr.’s tone-deaf approach to his son’s talent, by contrast, shows little concern for such fine points: When Chris, a struggling writer at age 25, refuses a job co-writing one of Andrew’s porn novels, his father lashes out in a letter so vicious I agree with his friends who said it should have been burned.

He feels “a horrified sympathy” for his father and “the world he carried inside himself at all times — filled with pain and suffering.” Yet he’s often revolted to the point of nausea — especially with one of his last finds, a cache of chillingly nihilistic S/M comic books his father worked on from 1958 until his death.

It’s exactly how the reader may end up feeling, despite Offutt’s survival of his trial by fire, having sweated out the fear of his father like a plague. In the end, he makes no attempt to reconcile his father’s conflicts or his own, leaving this record of his journey into the heart of darkness — awe-inspiring, tender, gut-wrenching, forgiving — just as he found it.


Read Offutt’s original essay for the New York Times about his father here.

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Love Me BackOnce you get past the jittery, voyeuristic stranger-sex in the prologue to Love Me Back, the narrator’s plight is so touching that you think, in answer to the title’s request, Of course I will.

A naive teenager named Marie finds work as a waitress to help support herself after getting pregnant and marrying a boy she has known for only five days. A valedictorian who has already met with her Yale professors, 17-year-old Marie trades her dream of attending seminary for the anxieties of breastfeeding, child-rearing and her fear of doing it all wrong.

To quell those worries, Marie throws herself into mastering the art of the good server at a series of restaurants, beginning with the Olive Garden. She learns “how to sweep aggressively and efficiently… how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is.” She learns “how to use work to forget.”

But forgetting, as author Merritt Tierce makes plain in this ferocious debut novel, takes a lethal amount of effort, and what began as a poignant glimpse of a teen mother careens into an inescapable train wreck we can’t look away from for the next 200 pages. (more…)

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Ugly GirlsOn the face of it, the two teenage rebels in Ugly Girls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel, are no different from a lot of girls their age. For Dayna (aka Baby Girl) and Perry, getting into trouble is the key to feeling alive.

Fun means taking risks, the more outrageous the better, proving to each other how cool they are. They vent their frustrations and emotional turmoil in defiance and petty crimes, and we first meet them in medias res: They’ve stolen a car and are joyriding down the highway before dawn, blasting their music and talking trash.

Best friends since they were kids, Perry and Baby Girl’s long-standing relationship provides a lot of things — solidarity, reassurance, one-upmanship and entertainment — but affection and trust are no longer part of it. “They didn’t talk, really, they just did.” Their go-nowhere lives have chained them together, and the small triumphs they enjoy over each other each day are the only ones they have.

Their battle for top dog leaves them achingly vulnerable. When a strange boy begins to play them against each other via email and Facebook, it’s not long before what’s left of their friendship begins to self-destruct, spiraling toward chaos. (more…)

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At a party to celebrate the birth of her first child, Jowita Bydlowska did what a lot of relieved, new mothers might do: She drank a glass of champagne, after nine long months of sobriety.

Oops. Make that three and a half years of sobriety—gone in the space of a split-second and not to return anytime soon.

Her frankly titled memoir—Drunk Mom (Viking Penguin, $16)—doesn’t begin on that day, but during a much later one, an evening when she’s at a museum and finds a baggie of coke in the women’s restroom. This baggie is perched on top of the toilet paper container, no less. Bydlowska sets the tone for her story that will underlie nearly every decision:

“So what do I do?” she asks, then answers: “I pour the powder down the toilet.” Pause. “No, no I don’t.” She gets out her makeup mirror, cuts “a slug of a line,” snorts it, and returns to a party. Immediately, she’s overcome by an appetite for more, “no ordinary wanting.”

This wanting is more like a giant baby, “a wet hungry baby that no one is picking up to soothe.” Like the one she left at home, with her sister babysitting him: her few-months-old baby, whose appetites will now compete with her own throughout a book that reads like Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, but with a baby in it. (more…)

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If my parents were alive today, my dad would turn an astonishing 103 at the end of May, and my mom would be closing in on 92 (July). I am sure they’d have needed help from their three kids long before now. And as I see my friends grappling with their aging parents’ needs, I often wonder if I could have been as patient, as committed to their care, as loving, and as self-sacrificing.

Would I have been able to juggle my parents’ oddball personalities, which would have inevitably intensified as they grew more helpless? My dad, a lifelong commuter to NYC, possessed a wanderlust that stayed just barely controlled in our then-quaint university town. Would he have begun to disappear at intervals, turning up on the highway like Bruce Dern in Nebraska? My mom, who painted and tended to brood over the faintest slight, blamed her parents for sabotaging her artistic potential. Could I have learned, finally, to keep my cool, to withstand her avalanche of recriminations and listen (without arguing) to her rants about how her parents ruined her life?

I doubt it. Not if they both ended up living with me.

I’m afraid I would be more like New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, whose new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? describes the complicated mix of feelings, responsibilities and downright disasters that arise when we have to switch roles with our parents. (more…)

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If I had to name my favorite memoir about loss, it would be Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning, by Debby Bull. It’s not sad, and no one dies. But it has some of the best lessons about how to work through despair of any book I’ve ever read on the subject.

In it, the author mourns the end of a relationship—“I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart”—and copes with her heartache by learning how to can jellies, jams, preserves, and chutneys.

Sound lightweight? Maybe not, if you’ve just broken up with the love of your life. Besides, despite its charming and hilarious premise, Blue Jelly offers an instructive way to overcome depression.

Through canning, Bull says, “You create an orderly little world. Unlike what has happened to you, these steps take you to what you planned on. You become a person in a world in which things turn out the way you thought they would.”

And that, on so many levels, is the answer to dealing with grief and loss: the remaking of your broken world.

If you’re like me, you’d rather write about it than can your troubles away. As a former contributing editor and writer for Rolling Stone, Bull had an advantage when it came to telling her story. But what if you’re new to the craft and not sure where to start? What if your grief runs deeper than the end of a romantic relationship? What if you’re afraid of alienating family and friends by writing about it?

That’s where Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss comes in, a comprehensive new handbook that answers all these questions and more. Author Jessica Handler has walked the walk. When she was ten years old, her eight-year-old sister Susie died of leukemia. Their sister Sarah, then only four, was diagnosed with a rare and fatal blood disorder and died when Handler was 32. In 2010, the memoir Handler wrote about them, Invisible Sisters, became her means of remembering those lost girls, of “capturing our lives and holding them for myself, our friends, family and perhaps people who never knew us …”

It also became Handler’s way of remembering herself, of understanding who she was then and how the events shaped her as a person—“who I became after grief changed me.” A good memoir, she explains, tries to share that journey. One of the first questions she suggests we ask is Why do I want to tell my story? and quotes memoirist Robin Hemley, who agrees: “The first detective act is to try to peer through the keyhole into who you really are. Figure out why you’re telling the story in the first place, and who is this person telling the story.” (more…)

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