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Posts Tagged ‘Jill McCorkle’

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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mccorkleAs a hospice volunteer, Joanna knows the importance of moments. Her own checkered past has led her back to the small North Carolina town of Fulton, where she made peace with her daddy and now records the last thoughts and words of the dying at the Pine Haven retirement center. But she also is fully engaged with living and the living, from tattooed single mom CJ to troubled pre-teen Abby to retired third-grade teacher Sadie. The latter optimistic soul uses Polaroid snapshots, cut-out magazine scenes, color markers and glue to assemble collages of her friends in places they have only imagined. “I can make you a memory and I can make a dream come true,” she says.

Jill McCorkle does something similar in her new novel, Life After Life, spinning words and images into a story that rings so true you forget it’s fiction. I once wrote about one of her books — maybe the novel Carolina Moon, maybe the story collection Final Vinyl Days, possibly both — that her characters live so fully within the pages that you swear they also live outside them. They’re that real.

Take former lawyer Stanley Stone, who has moved to Pine Haven with his obsession for wrestling, Herb Alpert and inappropriate remarks. But he is faking dementia because he wants his grown son to have a life of his own. Rachel Silverman, another retired lawyer, may be the one to figure him out, although she has her own secret reason for leaving Massachusetts for Pine Haven — it’s next to the cemetery where the love of her  life is buried next to his wife. The cemetery is also a refuge for Abby, who is mourning her lost  dog Dollbaby and hoping that her parents — social-climbing Kendra and amateur magician Ben — split up. Kendra is carrying on an affair with a married man, while Ben, once Sadie’s favorite student and Joanna’s best childhood friend, drinks too much and perfects a disappearing chamber. “And now ladies and gentlemen, I will make this normal ordinary girl disappear.”

Joanna remembers Ben’s words over the years and once tried to make herself disappear by drowning in a hot tub — only to be rescued by a giant dog named Tammy. And it was Tammy’s owner Luke who gave Joanna back her life, encouraging her to “unpack her heart” of failed projects, toxic relationships, old grievances and wounds. Joanna is still working on that.

McCorkle has the gift of mixing humor and heartbreak so as to make you laugh one moment, cry the next. Death can be peaceful, or it can be sudden, even violent. Happy endings are not guaranteed, and surprises still await the most jaded. In the end, Life After Life is true-to-life.

Open Book: I read a digital galley and review copy of Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life (Shannon Ravenel/Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). It’s not to be confused with the new book of the same title by Kate Atkinson, which I’ll be writing about when it pubs next week. They both are good but different.

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It was one of those magic nights of words and music and laughter. I can close my eyes and I’m right back at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, listening to writer Lee Smith and songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg play around with the beginnings of a musical based on Smith’s short stories and those of fellow author Jill McCorkle.  They were talking and singing about Southern girls and women with big hair and big hearts, and the audience nudged the performers along with chuckles, even as Smith was explaining, “we haven’t really got this part finished, but here goes…”

Now Good Ol’ Girls, a new musical written and adapted by Paul Ferguson  based on stories by Smith and McCorkle, with songs by Chapman and Berg, is finishing up a limited engagement Off-Broadway this week. I hear it’s been quite the crowd-pleaser, and I don’t doubt it. Hope to see it one day.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger: New and Selected Stories by Smith, pleased to encounter seven old favorites and discovering seven new ones. What ties all these tales together is Smith’s obvious affection and respect for her “ordinary” characters and her skill at rendering their lives in realistic fashion. She catches many of them at turning points.

In the beginning of ”Bob, a Dog,”  Cheryl watches her husband, David, walk out on their longtime marriage, saying he needs a different life. ”Cheryl stood in the doorway and watched him go and couldn’t imagine a different life.” David’s departure pulls Cheryl up short, forcing change upon her. In other stories, characters also experience moments of epiphany in the face of unexpected love or grief.

In ”Intensive Care,” Harold Stikes, former high-school nerd and owner of three Food Lions, left his wife and three children for redheaded waitress Cherry Oxendine, ”a fallen woman with a checkered past.” Now Cherry is dying, and Harold is stunned that they only had three years together and ”a million laughs.” But Harold wouldn’t trade that time with Cherry, even though his friends have called him a fool. ”He stepped out of his average life for her, he gave up being a good man, but the rewards have been extraordinary.”

The rewards of these stories are extraordinary as well. “House Tour,” one of the new stories, depicts a clash of cultures when a group of red-hatted women mistake an academic Yankee couple’s old Victorian for a stop on the Christmas home tour. The jaded wife, Lynn, is so disconcerted by their presence that she finds herself apologizing for her life and creating a ghost story on the spot. Then her philandering husband shows up in the kitchen, several of the ladies return for wine and some poundcake, and Lynn is encouraged to perhaps release her “inner child,” or at least buy some sexy high heels.

Possibility and change also challenge the women in McCorkle’s Going Away Shoes, her most recent collection, which I read last fall.  The humor is tart and the mood often dark, but you’ll want to meet these “good ol’ girls,” too.

Open Book: I know both McCorkle and Smith. I stopped reviewing Smith’s books in the Orlando Sentinel after 2003 because she gave a generous blurb to the first Caroline Cousins’ novel, Fiddle Dee Death, and I wanted to avoid any conflict of interest. But I didn’t stop reading her novels or stories. Both Smith and McCorkle are published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which sent me review copies of Mrs. Darcy Meets the Blue-Eyed Stranger and Going Away Shoes. Thank you.

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