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Posts Tagged ‘Caroline Leavitt’

Any other August, I’d have spent the last few weeks finishing up summer reading and maybe getting a head start on fall.  But 2020 continues to be a year like no other, and I haven’t been reading much, or writing at all, because who doesn’t want to move during a pandemic? Yes, after 21 years in the same place, I’m downsizing and moving to a downtown apartment. It’s only two miles away, but that makes no difference when packing up and clearing out clutter — and books. I’m going to have to leave behind my beautiful floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelves that my friend and former colleague Don Hey built in my den. I may cry.

This will be my last post for awhile while I actually move and settle in the new digs. But before I go, some thoughts on what I did read this summer and what you might want to read, too.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill published a trifecta of winning novels by several of my favorite authors. Jill McCorkle’s affecting Hieroglyphics focuses on an elderly couple who have moved south from New England after many years and whose lives intersect with a hard-working single mother and her quirky son. All of these characters have been shaped by loss and grief, and McCorkle gracefully weaves in backstories and memories of how each has coped. It’s reflective rather than sad, and I found myself smiling in recognition. Some years ago, author Caroline Leavitt lapsed into a long coma after the birth of her son, and she reimagines that experience in her new novel With or Without You. Stella, a nurse, and Simon, a sessions musician, have been together for 20 years when Stella accidentally mixes up some meds and falls into a coma just as Simon is getting ready to tour with his band. Now he sits beside Stella’s hospital bed, stuck out of time, wondering if he’s missing his big break and finding support from Libby, a doctor and Stella’s best friend. When Stella finally wakes up, she’s unaware of Simon and Libby’s relationship, but she feels like a different person. Her old life and job no longer fit, and she has an amazing new talent for drawing and painting. Like Leavitt’s other novels, including Cruel Beautiful World and Pictures of You, this book is wonderfully written and psychologically astute. In The Lives of Edie Pritchard, Larry Watson is at his storytelling best as he depicts the title character at three points in her life. It’s set mostly in Montana, where readers first meet Edie, an unhappily married bank teller who wonders if she should have chosen her husband’s twin brother. Men are so caught up by Edie’s good looks that they discount her smarts and strength of character. Edie’s possessive second husband makes that mistake, too, and her teenage daughter resents her. Skip forward another 20 years, and it’s 2007. Edie is 64, dealing with a rebellious granddaughter who also has boy trouble, and also with a younger man who wants to control her. No way.

In crime fiction, James Lee Burke’s A Private Cathedral (Simon & Schuster, digital galley) adds to the Dave Robicheaux mythos as the detective and his buddy Clete Purcel step into the past with warring Louisiana crime familes, star-crossed lovers and an evil assassin with paranormal abilities. This is Burke’s 40th book, the 23rd in the Robicheaux series, and Burke’s lyricism makes for a fevered dream of a book as Dave confronts new loves and old demons. Newcomer Alex Paresi goes metafictional with The Eighth Detective (Henry Holt, digital galley), a clever homage to Golden Age mysteries that is intellectually engaging but emotionally flat. Years ago, Grant McCallister came up with a mathematical formula for detective stories and wrote seven short stories to prove his point. Now, book editor Julia Hart seeks out McCallister on a secluded Mediterranean island as her company prepares to republish the collection. As she goes over the stories with the writer, she notices some inconsistencies that need explaining — and thereby hangs the tale. In Denise Mina’s standalone, The Less Dead (Little, Brown, digital galley), Glasgow doctor Margo Dunlop, in search for her biological mother, connects instead with her aunt. A former drug addict and sex worker, Nikki tells Margo that her mother Susan was murdered shortly after Margo’s birth 30 years ago. But Nikki swears she knows the killer and wants Margo to help her get the goods on the former cop. Poor Margo — she’s mourning the recent death of her biological mother, is secretly pregnant and has an erratic best friend in an abusive relationship. Then she starts getting threatening letters.  Carl Hiaasen’s hilarious Squeeze Me (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) made me forget all about the misery of moving because I was too busy turning pages. Granted, fans of the current president might not like this particular mix of mystery and political satire, but the character known as Mastadon fits right in with Hiaasen’s merry band of misfits. There’s petite Palm Beach socialite Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons who goes missing during a fundraiser at Lipid House. There’s critter removal expert Angie Armstrong who gets the call to take out the 18-foot-Burmese python with a large lump in its stomach. There are a couple of feckless thieves that steal the frozen snake from Angie’s storage locker. There’s asylum-seeker Diego Beltran who picks up a pink pebble and then is accused of killing Kiki.  There’s the first lady called Mockingbird who is very close to a certain Secret Service agent. And there’s the weirdness that is Florida, Hiaasen-style. Winner winner, python dinner.

See you in September, or maybe October. There’s an avalanche of autumn books about to fall, including new titles from Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Hoffman, Matt Haig, Anthony Horowitz, Sue Miller and Tana French. I can already tell you to keep a lookout for One by One by Ruth Ware and The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves. Such good books; they kept me from packing.

 

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commonGenerally, I enjoy reading and/or  watching year-in-review stories and programs. This year –with Santa harnessing flying pigs to his sleigh — not so much. The last 12 months were studded with improbabilities, loss and disappointment. November was especially dismal, and I kept quoting Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us; late and soon.” These are anxious times.

Thank goodness for books. As I’ve disconnected from cable news and social media, reading has provided escape and comfort. Mysteries, fantasies, literary fiction, memoirs, new releases, old favorites. One after another, chain reading, a books binge. I just finished Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (HarperCollins, digital galley) for the second time, finding this story of a blended family over five decades even more moving and wise. It’s the book I’m giving myself in hardcover and is one of my three favorites of 2016, joining Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.

fannieOther books I’ve bought as keepers this past year include Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick), about a girl who enters the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest in a bid to get her absentee father’s attention; Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical Another Brooklyn; Genevieve Cogman’s fabulous fantasy The Invisible Library and its sequels The Masked City and The Burning Page (ROC, digital galley); and Lee Smith’s lovely memoir Dimestore (Algonquin, digital galley). I gave the latter to Cousin Meg for her birthday, and for Christmas, she and Cousin Gail are getting Fannie Flagg’s new chatty charmer The Whole Town’s Talking (Random House), about the founding of the small Missouri town of Elmwood Springs, the setting for previous Flagg stories. This time, the town cemetery has a starring role. I’m sending a copy to Cousin Paulette, too.

insunlightI’ve given away multiple copies of Anne Tyler’s retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” Vinegar Girl, and managed to pick up my own copy a long the way. I tend to buy books for friends that I want myself, so I put Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or In Shadow (Pegasus) at the top of my Dear Santa list. An anthology of stories inspired by the works of Edward Hopper, it showcases writers such as Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King with full-color reproductions of the Hopper works they chose as muses. As both a fan of Hopper — I have a framed “Sunday Morning” above a bookcase — and crime fiction, this book was pure catnip for me. Another treasure is the late Pat Conroy’s  A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (Doubleday, digital galley). Oh, I miss Pat, who died in March, one of many losses I hold against 2016.

cruelI’ve read some good fiction recently — Colson Whitehead’s harrowing The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, digital galley), Brit Bennett’s first novel The Mothers (Riverhead, digital galley), Alice Hoffman’s poignant Faithful (Simon and Schuster). Still, the striking title, cover and contents of Caroline Leavitt’s novel about two sisters following their hearts in the late 1960s/early 1970s really hit home for me this fall: Cruel Beautiful World (Algonquin, digital galley). When high school student Lucy Gold runs off with her English teacher, she has no idea how her impulsive decision will play out for her, her sensible older sister Charlotte, and for elderly Iris, who raised the girls. Leavitt’s writing is tender, tough and incisive as she spins a tale of love and loss, loyalty and second chances. It’s not always a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. So let’s end this year on that note.

 

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leavittEisenhower-era conformity and Cold War suspicion inform Caroline Leavitt’s  involving Is This  Tomorrow (Algonquin, trade paperback review copy), where the mystery of a missing child shapes the lives of a neighboring  family. Ava Lark sticks out in the Boston suburb where she rents a house in 1956: a head-turning, divorced, Jewish working mom. Friendly, too, which goes over well with the neighborhood husbands and kids but not the wives and mothers. Her smart 12-year-old son Lewis is also an outsider, casually bullied at school by students who don’t understand his religion and by teachers who wish he would stop with the questions. But he does have two close friends, the fatherless siblings Jimmy and Rose.

When Jimmy disappears — and Ava may have been the last to see him — the police and neighbors have questions, which scare off Ava’s boyfriend, jazz musician Jake. Fast forward to 1963. Lewis has left home to work as a nurse’s aide; he shuns intimacy. He long ago lost touch with Rose, now a lonely schoolteacher who still pines for Lewis. Ava has moved forward, using her pie-making skills to supplement her job as a secretary, but she still lives in the same neighborhood. When Jimmy’s remains are found, Lewis, Rose and Ava awkwardly reunite and face uncomfortable revelations. Leavitt’s spot-on with her ’50s/’60s suburbia as she explores the mystery of  family and character.

lookingformeA brother goes missing in Beth Hoffman’s Looking for Me (Viking/Pamela Dorman, advance readers’ copy), her follow-up to her memorable first novel Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Like that book, this new one also offers a firm sense of place (the Kentucky hills and Charleston, S.C.) and a colorful cast of Southern characters. The narrative’s a bit choppy, though, as furniture restorer Teddi Overman jumps around in telling  about life in 1990s Charleston, where she owns a successful antiques store, and her girlhood on a Kentucky farm, filling in the backstory in fits and starts.

The Charleston scenes, from the time she apprentices herself to a crusty old dealer to the time when she runs her own show, would make a charming chick-lit tale on their own. Teddi meets her best pal Olivia in a cemetery for quick heart-to-hearts; she turns trashed items into treasures; she enjoys a sweet romance with a local attorney. The visits to Kentucky add drama, as Teddi contends with a controlling mother and wonders about the whereabouts of her free-spirited brother, who disappeared into the woods he loved years ago. Packing up the old house after her mother’s sudden death, Teddi finds clues that Josh may still be alive. “We sift and search and question as we try to discover our truths and the truths of those we love. . .”

typistThe Roaring Twenties are just a dull hum for Rose Baker, the canny narrator of Suzanne Rindell’s clever debut The Other Typist (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, digital galley). An orphan raised in a convent and living in a drab boarding house, Rose takes pride in her work as a police stenographer at a Manhattan precinct in 1923. She doesn’t make mistakes when she takes even the most lurid confessions under the watchful eye of the fatherly sergeant or the flash lieutenant. 

Enter the new girl in the typing pool, the glamorous, enigmatic Odalie, and prudish Rose, first disdainful of this other typist, is soon vying for her attention. The two become fast friends, and Rose immerses herself in Odalie’s life of speakeasies, bootleggers and posh hotels. But this Cinderella tale darkens as Rose’s fascination with the unreliable Odalie turns into obsession, and Rose is in over her head. Or is she?  Murder will out.

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Isabelle Stein, one of the main characters in Caroline Leavitt’s affecting new novel, Pictures of You, is an old-fashioned photographer, preferring film to digital.

“It’s richer,” she tells nine-year-old Sam Nash, showing him how to focus the camera and work the flash. “It shows more, I think.” Later, she adds, “Sometimes photographs show things that aren’t there, you have to look deeper, to see what might be hidden.”

Leavitt might well be describing her own skill as a writer, one not content with surface images. Pictures of You is a rich, nuanced  portrait of four lives intertwined by tragic coincidence: Two women fleeing their marriages on Cape Cod collide on a foggy road, and one dies. The survivor, stunned by a bevy of emotions, finds herself drawn to the dead woman’s confused, grieving husband and to her asthmatic son, who witnessed the accident.

But that summary doesn’t capture the intimacy with which the characters and their secret lives unfold in unexpected ways. Leavitt endows each with a complex back story as they try to move forward. Isabelle, always so resourceful, feels beaten down after the accident, which capped the wreck of her marriage. Charlie Nash doesn’t understand why his wife April had a suitcase for herself in the car but not one for Sam. And Sam — ah, Sam. Inhaler in hand, he braves bullies at school and clings to the notion that Isabelle, glimpsed on the roadside, is an angel who will somehow lead him to his mother.

It might sound grim, but it isn’t. It just feels real, with humor and hope glinting through the dark times. (Witness the essential role played by a tortoise named Nelson.) Leavitt cares about her flawed characters, and readers care, too.

“How did things happen?” Charlie muses to himself. He has tried to be a good guy. “You could be generous with the love you gave, with the care you took with others. You could follow all the commandments that made sense to you and still the world could sideswipe you. ” 

Charlie, Sam and Isabelle are left to pick up the pieces in surprising yet realistic ways. Leavitt’s picture of them is moving and memorable.

Open Book: I received an advance galley of Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures Of You (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). Caroline and I first exchanged e-mails when we were both reviewing for newspapers some years ago. Now we’re Facebook friends. I hope we actually meet someday so I can see the red cowboy boots she’s wearing on book tour.

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