Posts Tagged ‘Lee Smith’

I can’t help but wonder how Micah Mortimer would react to the stay-at-home restrictions of the current pandemic. Probably not that much. The 44-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler’s new novel The Redhead at the Side of the Road (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is already mired in his mostly solitary routines. I expect he would still run every morning around his Baltimore neighborhood, only with a mask, and instead of making house calls to fix computers, his “Tech Hermit” business would be by phone. He already is obsessively tidy about cleaning the dreary basement flat he gets in exchange for occasional handyman duties, and the stay-in policy is another excuse not to interact with the tenants or his large, messy family.  No, it would take more than a deadly virus to open Micah’s eyes to the world beyond the tip of his nose. Tyler devises two events to shake up Micah’s life. A rich runaway college student shows up on his doorstep claiming that Micah is his father, and his longtime girlfriend, a patient fourth-grade teacher, dumps him after an insensitive remark proves the final straw. Even then, Micah remains oblivious. What is he thinking? Tyler writes oddball characters who are as endearing as they are exasperating, although Micah’s obtuseness would test anyone’s patience. His four older sisters, all waitresses, are much more fun, and a family dinner at a table with a ping-pong net is one of those hilarious set pieces Tyler does so well. The writing is easy, the tone warm and familiar. The Redhead at the Side of the Road — the title’s an apt metaphor — proves good company when staying home.

Lee Smith’s novella Blue Marlin (Blair, digital galley) is short, sweet and very funny, thanks to narrator Jenny. She candidly relates the events of 1958-59, when she was a precocious 13-year-old and spied on the neighbors of her small Southern town. She is especially fascinated by one unconventional woman, who precipitates a crisis between Jenny’s troubled parents. Both suffer from “nerves,” and while they recover separately, Jenny is sent off to live with her church-going cousins. Then her daddy’s doctor proposes a “geographical cure,” and Jenny and her parents take a road trip to Florida, ending up at the Blue Marlin motel in Key West. Wonder of wonders, the movie Operation Petticoat is being filmed in town, and cast members Tony Curtis and Cary Grant are staying at the Blue Marlin. If this sounds like something right out of Smith’s 2016 must-read memoir Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, it is and it isn’t. Smith separates the fact from the fiction in an entertaining afterword.

The fabulous cover of Grady Hendrix’s new novel is just the introduction to the gory delights of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Quirk Publishing, digital galley). Set in the Charleston, S.C. adjacent town of Mount Pleasant in the 1990s, it pits a group of housewives and moms with a taste for true-crime books against a pale, handsome stranger looking to establish his gentlemanly credentials. After an elderly neighbor chomps on Patricia Campbell’s ear, she meets the woman’s nephew, James Harris, who insinuates himself into her house and her book club. Meanwhile, people are disappearing across town, and Harris assumes no one will make a connection. Hendrix pays clever homage to both classic vampire stories and true-crime/serial killer tales, but his satire is serious, raising issues of racism, classicism and misogyny. Turns out several of the book club’s members’ husbands are monsters of a different kind, and their dismissive and condescending attitudes toward women made my blood boil. Speaking of blood, there’s quite a bit, so Hendrix’s comedy horrorfest may not be everyone’s cup of tea — or beverage of choice.

Conscripted into the Confederate Army in the spring of 1865, young Kentucky fiddler Simon Boudlin survives the battlefield to end up in Texas with a ragtag band of traveling musicians. Paulette Jiles’ lilting ballad of a novel, Simon the Fiddler (William Morrow, review ARC), covers some of the same gritty territory as her 2016 National Book Award finalist News of the World, in which Simon made a brief appearance. From Galveston to San Antonio, Simon plays jigs, waltzes and reels in hopes of saving enough money to marry pretty Doris Dillon, the Irish governess of a Union colonel’s family. But she’s an indentured servant, and her employer has his own plans for Doris. As a character says near book’s end: “Only a small town on the edge of the world here in Texas, but still terrible things and wonderful stories happen. . . Great tragedies, gripping love stories, tales of uncommon heroism.”




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noraIs the Honeycutt mansion haunted? The summer people who bought the old mountain place and decided to stay for Christmas are beginning to think so. Their fake pink Christmas tree decorated with sea shell and flamingo ornaments keeps keeling over when no one’s around. Best ask neighbor Nora Bonesteel for help. After all, the old woman has the “sight” — she can foretell deaths and commune with ghosts.

Sharyn McCrumb’s holiday novella Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past (Abingdon Press, digital galley), takes place in the same East Tennessee town of her popular Ballad series and brings back several familiar characters. While Nora remembers long-ago holidays — and one young soldier in particular — Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne are driving up the mountain on Christmas Eve. They have to arrest an elderly man charged with the hit-and-run of a politician’s car. Still, a winter storm is coming, and the man won’t leave his wife alone in a cabin with no firewood and a broken window.

McCrumb’s gently humorous tale is replete with nostalgia. Nora vividly remembers simpler times gone by, when people were poorer but rich with friends, family and traditions.

hollyroadSheila Roberts has a knack for warm-hearted holiday tales that are sweet without being sappy. I’m especially fond of The Nine Lives of Christmas, which was made into a Hallmark movie this year. There’s a lot of wishin’ and hopin’ going on in picturesque Icicle Falls, the setting for The Lodge on Holly Road (Harlequin, digital galley).

Single mom Missy Monroe brings her two children to the lodge hoping to give them the kind of traditional Christmas she never had, although she knows she can’t fulfill their wishes for a dog and a grandmother. Enter Santa Claus, sort of — Brook Claussen kidnaps her widowed father, James, from his department store Santa job, hoping that a visit to the lodge will cure his grumpy blues. But she didn’t count on Olivia Wallace, the pretty widow who runs the place with her grown son, Eric. Brook thinks Olivia has designs on her dad, and she’s not wrong. But insufferable Eric scolds her for interfering. Among the other guests are a good-guy accountant who plans to propose to his snooty girlfriend, two old friends with opposite natures, a couple of bored teenagers and a prodigal son. What could possibly go wrong?

Roberts gets everything right in this romance — and even includes a recipe for Olivia’s gumdrop cookies.

jerusalemI always like to reread several holiday books from Christmases past. One year it might be Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, or Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds. Last year it was Mary Kay Andrews’ Blue Christmas, in preparation for its sequel, Christmas Bliss. This year, I reached back 30 years to Martha Grimes’ mystery Jerusalem Inn, with Richard Jury and Melrose Plant investigating a sudden death in wintry northern England. The atmosphere’s a bit melancholy and a whole lot mysterious, and it’s one of my favorites in the Jury series. I’m a longtime admirer of the Scotland Yard detective with the devastating smile, still single after all these years.

Sweet dreams and happy holidays.

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guestsIn March of 1948, a fire swept through Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C., and nine women died, including Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. The wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda had been an on-and-off resident of the mental hospital for years.

The tragic fire at Highland — still unsolved — bookends Lee Smith’s new novel, Guests on Earth (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, digital galley), which takes its title from something Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter, Scottie: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”

I wasn’t familiar with the quote, but it strikes me as a near-perfect description of the mentally ill and/or broken-minded among us. It’s also singularly apt for Smith’s story about life at progressive Highland, where patients were often referred to as “guests” and therapy included exercise, gardening, painting, dancing and other artistic pursuits.

Zelda, a talented “guest” at Highland admired for her dancing and art, plays a secondary role in Smith’s novel, narrated by Evaline Toussaint, the orphan daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. In forthright fashion, Evalina tells of her colorful childhood and the mental breakdown that brings her to Highland in 1936 at age 13. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s director, famous (and real-life) psychiatrist Dr. Robert S. Carroll and his concert pianist wife, Evalina comes to consider the hospital her home. She takes lessons from Mrs. Carroll and becomes the go-to accompanist for Highland’s various musical productions — some choreographed by the chameleon-like Zelda — and she easily makes friends with patients and staff members.

All of this is entertaining enough, but the story’s depths increase as Evalina grows older and sets off on a career of her own in the greater world. When tragedy leads to another breakdown,  Evalina returns “home” to Highland, becoming more fully engaged in the lives of others there, musing over the blurred line between madness and sanity.  Her interactions with the patients — depressed Dixie and wild child Jinx, for example — illustrate the shades of normality and societal attitudes, as do her romances with a hardworking doctor and a mercurial gardener. They have backstories, as well, which call up the  “nature vs. nurture” argument.

In an author’s note at book’s end, Smith explains her personal connection with Highland and her extensive research of its history and treatment methods. Certainly, her sense of time and place is acute, especially the “snow globe” months of 1948, but it is Evalina’s tender, considering voice that lends truth to fiction. Is she an unreliable narrator of her own life?  Well, aren’t we all, to one degree or another, whether guest on earth or at home in the world?

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Every year, I gather up my favorite holiday books for rereading: Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, Mary Kay Andrews’  Blue Christmas (e-book on sale this week for $1.99), Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds and Barbara Robinson’s Best Christmas Pageant Ever. They make me laugh or cry, sometimes both, and they’re nifty stocking stuffers.

This year, I discovered Sheila Roberts’  lighthearted The Nine Lives of Christmas (St. Martins Press), attracted by the orange cat on the cover who bears a striking resemblance to my Giant Peach.

Ambrose, the cover cat, fears his brief  ninth life is about to come to a dead end in the jaws of a nasty dog. Hanging on to the bare branches of a tree for dear life, he strikes a bargain with his creator. If someone will please save him, he’ll  devote the rest of his life to helping the rescuer.

Enter firefighter Zach, who does his best to keep the scruffy stray out of his house, and, when that doesn’t work, vows to find Ambrose’s former owner. But Ambrose has other plans for Zach. The commitment-phobic hunk just thinks he’s happy in a casual relationship with the lovely Pet Palace heiress. But she hates cats, unlike pretty, shy Merilee, who volunteers at the animal shelter and works at Pet Palace, at least until Cruella DeVille takes notice. It’s a cat fight that can only end in Merrilee’s tears.

Ok, pretty standard plot. But Roberts spins an amusing story before the fur falls from the erstwhile lovers’ eyes. Zach has real issues with family, especially his mother, who left his father when he was a kid. Now remarried with two more kids, she wants to be part of Zach’s life again.

Merrilee has a great family, but she feels like the dowdy runner-up to her two glamorous, successful sisters. And when she can’t convince her Scrooge of a landlord to let her keep her cat any longer, she’s really in a pickle. 

Fortunately, Ambrose has wiles aplenty, learned from his eight previous lives. Not the he couldn’t use a little Christmas miracle as well.

Ahh. Here’s to happy endings, smart cats and holiday fluff.

Open Book: I bought the digital copy of The Nine Lives of Christmas after first downloading a sample to my new Nook Tablet. (Note to publishers, samples should include actual pages of the story and not just an overview and blurbs. Are you listening, Random House?!)

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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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I hate packing. I procrastinate to the last minute, mentally making lists all the while. It’s not the clothes that are the problem — pack black is my motto. It’s all the other “necessities” ‘like the meds, make-up, hair products, iPod, cell phone charger, ticket, chocolate.  At least I’m not lugging the laptop; my hosts have assured me of Internet access.

Now for the reading material. Because I have not yet decided if I’m an e-reader, I’ll take paperbacks. Four are recent purchases off my TBR list: The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer, The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell and Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato.  After all, I’m going to be gone almost an entire week. And what if I’m stranded on the runway for hours?

Finally, I’m going in search of one of my well-worn “traveling” mass-market paperbacks that I can read over and over: Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers, Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, or John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Oh, and a blank notebook in case I decide to write a new novel.

See you next week when I’ll be posting on Lee Smith’s lovely collection of short stories, new mysteries by Cornelia Reid and Martha Grimes, a couple of memoirs, a few YAs and whatever else strikes my fancy. Oh, that reminds me. I bought a used “traveling” paperback of Lee Smith’s first novel, Fancy Strut. Wonder where I put it?

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