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the cure for everything is salt water

(review copy courtesy of the publisher)

(review copy courtesy of the publisher)

As the temperature took a turn for the cold here last week, I prowled through my book collection in search of something that would give me one more deep breath of summer. J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine came out a few months ago, and it’s been waiting patiently for me ever since. Book covers are amazing things. They can hold sixty years of pain and explosive arguments and seething resentment without leaking a drop, and months later, they unleash it and the chill in the air vanishes.

The Kellehers are summer people. Early in their marriage, a lucky bet brought Daniel and Alice Kelleher a cottage and three acres of oceanfront land. Since then, the humble cottage has been joined by a glamorous “big house” and the Kelleher siblings each have their own scheduled month so that they can avoid each other. Four Kelleher women alternate perspectives throughout the novel: Alice, the widowed matriarch, whose devout Catholicism and deep pain manifests itself in coldness toward anyone who gets to know her too well; Kathleen, Alice’s eldest daughter, who left the east coast for California and avoids seeing her mother at all costs; Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, who is on her way to stay at the cottage when her life falls apart; and Ann Marie, married to Alice’s son Pat, a perfectionist who dissolved into motherhood and copes with empty-nest-dom by decorating extravagant dollhouses.

Two motifs snake throughout the book. One is alcoholism; drinking is a minefield of emotion in Maine. Alice and Ann Marie both drink extravagantly at times, and Kathleen is sober after years of alcoholism. Every drink in the book is there for a reason. Another echoing theme is motherhood itself, especially for the characters in the book who often regretted having children. Maggie, in her thirties and considering single parenthood, is a crucible for Alice’s and Kathleen’s ambivalence about motherhood and Ann Marie’s Stepford-Mom experience.

And then there is Maine itself, the land and the houses and the cold ocean water. The Kellehers did not have to scrimp to establish this summer retreat, and yet it is theirs… well, it’s Alice’s, right now, with Daniel gone. Ann Marie feels it should be mostly her family’s, because she and her husband built the big house and have paid for most of the upkeep. Kathleen could care less about it, even though it sheltered her at a time when she needed it most. For Maggie, it will be the place where she makes the most important decision of her life… surrounded by women who cannot speak the truth to each other or themselves.

The book takes its time getting all four women to the beach at once, but when it does, all of Sullivan’s work makes sense. The conversations sound like real conversations between people who have secrets to keep and who have had the same arguments with each other for decades. There is a shorthand in the dialogue that eliminates backstory and cuts right to the surface of what each woman wants and does not want to reveal. When arguments happen in Maine, they’re almost electrifying, especially the insults that issue rapid-fire from the pit of venom beneath Alice’s charming veneer. I love that Maine never fixes what it doesn’t have to; not every wound is healed by the time the book ends, but the resolution is satisfying and honest. I hope you read it, and I hope you don’t wait as long as I did.

(The title of the review is a riff on the quote by Isak Dinesen: “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”)

bad things and spilled blood

One of my favorite things in the lovely spinning world is the opening title sequence for True Blood. Here, in case you haven’t seen it:

Notably missing from the opening is Sookie Stackhouse herself, who is a bouncy ray of sunshine, and all of the other Bon Temps residents who come with hearts of gold. The video drags you through a combination of profound religious devotion and equally profound depravity while the effects tint the visuals with sun-drenched dust and noise. I think if I tell you that reading The Devil All the Time is like a book-length version of that ninety-second sensory orgasm, you will want to read it. But there’s more to it that.

bcpollockdevil.jpg

Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.Arvin Russell grows up in Knockemstiff Holler in rural Ohio with his parents, the beautiful Charlotte and devout Willard. When Willard came home from World War II, he hid the stories of the atrocities he had witnessed. But as Arvin grows older, he learns how to fight from Willard, who does not seem to extend his religious devotion to allowing God to punish those who trespass against him. When Charlotte develops cancer, Willard (by now a problem drinker) turns to prayer and disturbing ritual to try to save her.

After a time jump, Arvin is living with his grandmother Emma in West Virginia, in another rural community. He’s a teenager now, scarred by his childhood, quiet but given to explosions of violence just like Willard had been. Emma is also raising Lenora, the daughter of a murdered woman. Lenora, an awkward teen often mocked by classmates, brings out the protective instincts Arvin learned from his father’s devotion to his mother. The West Virginia sections of the book also introduce us to preacher Roy Laferty, who eats spiders during his service while his wheelchair-bound cousin Theodore accompanies him on the guitar.

Back in Ohio, Carl Henderson waits for his wife Sandy’s two-week vacation from work. Carl’s passion is photography, and when he and Sandy get the chance they hit the road with camera and film. Of course, then they pick up hitchhikers, Carl offers Sandy’s favors in exchange for some explicit pictures, and then murders their night’s model. A few miles down the road, they’ll find another one. By the time Donald Ray Pollock draws all these characters together in the last pages of his novel, they have all been pushed past personal breaking points into primal desperation.

The Devil All the Time is set in a world where pleasure is almost foreign, something for people who don’t live where these characters do. Sex is cheap, life is short and brutal, and the hope of some salvation after death is the only reason to keep drawing breath. It’s simultaneously stylish and plain-spoken, almost rawboned in its structure but told with a keen enough eye to hint at Pollock’s sense of humor. Enough work went into it to make it feel effortless.

This is probably not the sort of book you can picture me recommending based on the other books I’ve reviewed here. But I do, I really do recommend it if this description intrigues you. It is an unbelievably dark book, and if you’re looking for something to dip into idly that won’t stay with you the rest of the day, maybe this isn’t right for you after all. This book spoke to me, though. It was an immersion into a world I could never have imagined and people whose morality is defined by completely different rules than my own. By the end of The Devil All the Time love feels like an alien concept, something outside of survival instead of intrinsic to it. Somehow, it made me crave it more.

The Devil All the Time | Donald Ray Pollock

Doubleday (July 12, 2011)

Powell’s | IndieBound | McNally Robinson

no, no, not that Mrs. Darcy

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

I don’t read as many short stories as I used to. When I opened up Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, I raced through the first one and then the second that first night, and then I had to force myself to take my time. One story a night, I promised myself. And so I took in a story at a time, each one different but also familiar.

Each story in Mrs. Darcy is set in the American south, but the main characters are both male and female, young and old and in-between. Some of the stories feel more like vignettes and others are more fully plotted, with crises and resolutions. Each details a moment or two in which the main character slips from a familiar world into a new one. Whether trepidation, optimism, or despair comes along with that sea change is different for each protagonist.

In “House Tour,” Lynn is at home alone looking forward to a glass of wine from a box when a gaggle of Red Hat Society members gently bully themselves into her house, mistakingly believing it’s part of a civic tour of homes. Lynn, a Yankee whose marriage has a few nicks in its veneer, is swept away by her impromptu guests, who peek into her rooms and force her into conversation and ghost stories. In the middle of their visit, Lynn’s husband, the supercilious playwright Lawrence, comes home.

“Ladies…” Lawrence begins, then pauses. “Ladies, pardon me. But could you explain your attire to me, please? Are you members of a club? An organization?”

“Not really,” Rita says.

“We’re a disorganization,” Georgia explains. “The only rule is that you have to be over fifty. And basically we’re all tired of doing things for other people. We just want to have some fun. We’re releasing our inner child,” she adds.

Lawrence laughs, a short, abrupt bark.

Oh no, Lynn is thinking. Now he will destroy them.

“Intensive Care” is the story of Harold, a successful man who has left his wife, money, and children to take up with the woman who was once his teenage crush, Cherry Oxendine.

Lois ought to know. She’s been right there during the past six weeks while Cherry Oxendine has been in Intensive Care, writing down Cherry’s blood pressure every hour on the hour, changing bags on the IV, checking the stomach tube, moving the bed up and down to prevent bedsores, monitoring the respirator—and calling Rodney Broadbent, the respiratory therapist, more and more frequently. “Her blood gases is not by twenty-eight,” Lois said in the Beauty Nook. “If we was to unhook that respirator, she’d die in a day.”

“I would go and do it then, if I was Harold,” said Mrs. Hooker, the Presbyterian minister’s wife, who was getting a permanent. “It is the Christian thing.”

“You wouldn’t either,” Lois said, “because she still knows him. That’s the awful part. She still knows him. In fact she peps right up ever time he comes in, like they are going on a date or something. It’s the saddest thing. And ever time we open the doors, here comes Harold, regular as clockwork. Eight o’clock, one o’clock, six o’clock, eight o’clock, why shoot, he’d stay in there all day and all night if we’d let him. Well, she opens her mouth and says Hi honey, you can tell what she’s saying even if she can’t make a sound.”

There are so many more I want to tell you about. There’s “Tongues of Fire,” about a young girl who begins going to a Charismatic church with a friend’s family and develops a fascination with the practice of speaking in tongues. In “Fried Chicken,” a woman whose favorite son is in prison for murder tries to find meaning in her life by preparing his favorite meal. Jeffrey, the young boy at the center of “Toastmaster,” is out to dinner with family when he overhears a group of boisterous diners practicing joke after joke, and though he’s always felt invisible, he’s overcome with the desire to be seen. The title story is the last one in the book and a fitting capstone, featuring the eponymous Mrs. Darcy, who ruffles her grown children’s plans to install her in a nursing home during a summer by the beach. In all of the stories, Smith gives us characters we can understand, even the ones who hurt the ones they love. After all, that’s something that almost all of us have done and will do again.

I missed this book when it came out in hardcover last year, but I’m so glad I got the chance to read it now. Lee Smith’s talent is one that I think of as quintessentially Southern, and not just because that’s where all the stories in the collection are set. Her writing is genteel, handling each of her characters with compassion and a bless-your-heart and the zest of true wit and humor. There’s something more to it than her voice, though. Reading Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger is like going to a wonderful dinner party at a well-kept home. Everything sparkles; everything shows the polish of maintenance and care. The company is just the right blend for lively conversation. The food is exquisite, a feast for the eyes and the nose as well as the palate. And at the end of the night, when your hostess hands your coat back and you take your leave, she accepts your thanks gracefully while never giving the slightest hint of how much work it took to pull off the evening.

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (paperback, May 2011)

US | Canada | Everywhere else

give me a southern storm

Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Sometimes when I read I want a book full of quiet, meaningful elegance that steps very carefully into every word. Sometimes, though, my life gets a little too quiet and I want something different, a storm of a book that blows out windows and leaves ruin in its wake. InThe Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, there’s a hurricane that makes landfall four times, coming back for more destruction every time folks think the coast is clear. The rest of the book is the same way. 

Marylou Ahearn is 77 years old and she has murder on the brain. Back in 1953, she was given a “vitamin” drink at an OB visit when she was pregnant with her daughter Helen. Ten years later, Helen died of a terrible cancer. The vitamin drink was actually radioactive, a substance administered to hundreds of low-income women who visited that clinic for pregnancy care. After fifty-three years, she’s tracked down the man responsible for Helen’s death: Dr. Wilson Spriggs, who conducted the experiment at the behest of the US government during the Cold War paranoia. She leaves her home in Memphis and travels to Tallahassee, where Wilson lives with his daughter and her family. When she gets there, her plans for revenge take a turn she didn’t expect—Wilson is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and Marylou’s retaliation doesn’t pack quite the same punch when the victim can’t quite remember the crime he committed.

Time for Plan B: Marylou will just have to destroy his family, instead. Wilson’s daughter Caroline Witherspoon is struggling with hot flashes and fading youth; her husband Vic is a hapless sort who seems out of his element both at home and at work, especially when it comes to a sexually aggressive colleague. Their oldest daughter, Ava, wants simultaneously to fit in and to immerse herself in books about Elvis Presley. Their son Otis is obsessed with creating a nuclear device in their backyard shed. Both Otis and Ava have Asperger’s. And their youngest daughter, thirteen-year-old Suzi, is a social success and soccer star, but can’t seem to get her mother’s attention. This disconnected family is ripe for Marylou’s infiltration and assault.

The book is titled

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

—emphasis on the Revenge. This is Marylou’s story in that she is the one who starts many of the events in motion (although she’d say that Wilson started it, really, what with his toxic Kool-Aid and all). But the book is about an already unknit family falling further and further apart, with Marylou picking not-so-idly at each loose thread. Even once Marylou begins to know the Witherspoons, and to like them more than a bit, her plan to ruin them is always at the heart of her every action. It would have been easy (and predictable) for Stuckey-French to have Suzi’s charm and affection melt Marylou’s murderous heart, but instead the old woman’s actions become even more aggressive. As a tropical storm builds into a hurricane, the Witherspoon family will have to come together to save Wilson’s life, but the radioactive lady has one more trick up her sleeve.

The most fully-fleshed characters are the children, all of whom struggle with adolescence in realistic, moving ways. Ava senses the limits that Asperger’s has forced upon her but doesn’t quite know how to struggle against them. She’s impulsive, given to angry fits and childish behaviors that hold her back from making a connection with others. Otis delves so deeply into his radioactive pastime that he cannot truly see how dangerous it is, but this single-minded dark pursuit attracts the interest of a goth girl whose family is bad news. Suzi’s athletic skill may keep her approval rating high in her dad’s eyes, but she really wants a woman’s care. Since her mother is immersed in Ava’s treatment, Suzi is ripe for Marylou’s affectionate attention—attending Marylou’s creepy strip-mall church and starting down a path that might destroy her.

The cover makes it look like a much lighter, more madcap book than it is. Blurbs from other authors compare it to the work of Carl Hiaasen and to

Little Miss Sunshine

, and I can see why those comparisons work; all of these are about a collection of wildly disparate weird people who risk losing everything that matters to them. There’s something endearing and funny about watching weird people try to keep a yoke on their weirdness, although

Revenge

is by no means broad. I loved the experience of identifying with Marylou, who does absolutely reprehensible things to people she quite likes because she’s spent fifty years plotting a murder she’s as incapable of committing as Hamlet was incapable of killing Claudius. She cannot just let go of the plan to do violence to either Wilson or his own, because in her head she’s conflated that vengeance with her memory of her child.

I enjoyed reading

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

so much. It’s stylish and thought-provoking, and the Witherspoons are a kind of dysfunctional family I love to read about. They aren’t wasting all their energy putting on a veneer of competence. And it broke through a long winter of complacent reading and gave me a good old-fashioned southern storm.

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

, Elizabeth Stuckey-French

(Doubleday)

US

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Canada

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Everywhere Else

on the badness of little girls

I remember being a little girl. In fact, I remember sometimes being a terror of a little girl. I wasn’t bad because my mother raised me badly (she didn’t) or because my dad died, and I wasn’t bad all the time. I grew out of it and became a decent person eventually, but for a long time I reveled in being bad. I didn’t rob convenience stores or anything—I was just devious and mean in a way that seemed to generate its own energy. I gravitated toward fraught friendships with other mean little girls, ones who were sometimes even worse than me, and I had a knack for bringing out the bad sides in good girls. So I come to The False Friend with more than just passing interest.

Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy.

Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy.

Celia is going about her normal business when she is blasted with a memory she didn’t even know she had. Over twenty years ago, her best friend and nemesis, Djuna, went missing. Although signs pointed to a kidnapping, Celia’s new memory tells a different tale. This time, Celia is to blame. When she returns to her hometown to find evidence that supports this new version of the truth, Celia is confronted with the little girl she was back then.

Celia and Djuna were volatile children, constantly jockeying for leadership roles in their clique. They are at the same time passionately devoted to each other and given to fights that can silence an entire playground. As Celia has lived with the ramifications of Djuna’s disappearance all her life since then, she has become a nicer person— cold in some ways, but certainly far from a terror. The new memory exposes fissures in Celia’s listless relationship with long-term partner Huck, and try as she might she cannot make her parents believe that she is to blame for the tragedy. In fact, the more people she talks to, the more it appears that even Celia’s new memory may not be quite the truth.

Friendship means something different when you’re a child. In adulthood, a friend raises you up, brings out the best parts of you. A friend is a comfort, not someone who makes things worse. As a little girl, you cling to what’s there—the thought of ending a friendship is a horror of unknowns. Who will still be there on your side? Who will your ex-friend keep? What will be said about you behind your back? To see the poisonous relationship that Celia and Djuna kept feeding is to see that its end, no matter how premature, is the one good thing to come out of Djuna’s disappearance.

Writing this review is difficult because I want to go on and on about this book. The problem is that you haven’t read it yet and I don’t want to tell you anything that might spoil the mystery of what really happened to little terrifying Djuna Pearson. (And really, you don’t want to read a review that long.) But I want to say this much: Anyone who ever was a little girl, whether you were good or bad or friendless or a mini-Djuna yourself, will disappear into Goldberg’s story. It’s not a comforting book, but it is challenging, absorbing, and assertively written. It will go quickly. And it will make you grateful for your good friends.

The False Friend is coming out in early October. Now’s a good time to request it at your local indie or to pre-order it online. You can read more about it here at Myla Goldberg’s website.