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Posts Tagged ‘novella’

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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sleepA year after reading the short stories in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, I’m still haunted by her weirdly wonderful — or wonderfully weird — tales.  “Reeling for the Empire,” in which Japanese girls turn into grotesque furry silkworms, spinning thread out of their hands, still strikes me as the stuff of nightmares. So I made sure to read Russell’s new digital novella Sleep Donation (Atavista, purchased e-book) during the daytime. Even then, I think some of it seeped into my restless dreams.

But, hey, at least I can sleep and dream, unlike many  of the people in Sleep Donation, where the Americas are undergoing an Insomniac Crisis in the near-future. You can die if you can’t sleep, like Trish Edgewater’s sister Dori, whose mind was crushed by waking moments. “Once sleep stopped time for Dori, she could not dig herself out. She was buried under snowflakes, minutes to hours to months.

“The official cause of death was organ failure.”

It may sound relatively peaceful, but it wasn’t, and it’s because Trish can recount Dori’s agonizing Last Day with such immediacy that’s she’s a prize recruiter for Slumber Corps, the non-profit that encourages healthy dreamers to donate sleep to terminal insomniacs. The system — with its Sleep Drives to recruit donors, its Sleep Vans, where their dreams are painlessly siphoned, and its Sleep Banks, where donations are processed and tested for nightmares — works well for the most part, like the blood banks of our time. But there’s never enough good sleep to go around, and the number of insomniacs needing transfusions continues to grow. On the outskirts of town, the sleepless seek relief at the Night Fair, paying fortunes for potions or a prime spot in the Poppy Fields.

At first, Trish’s discovery of Baby A, a universal donor, seems like a miracle. But Trish wonders how much sleep the poor child can give, as do her parents, Justine and Felix. Will their generosity with their daughter’s sleep last until researchers can synthesize the perfect artificial sleep? How many times can Trish recount Dori’s story before it’s just another story? And what of Donor Y, whose tainted sleep has led to a nightmare contagion resulting in elective insomniacs and suicides? What is so awful about his dreams that people refuse to go to sleep ever again?

Russell’s world-building is impressive, as is her verbal dexterity. Her imagination is simply fantastic, Ray Bradbury on speed. “It is a special kind of homelessness. . . to be evicted from your dreams.”

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