Posts Tagged ‘Melissa K.’s Picks’

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

November 4, 2014

Jerilyn’s mother barely manages a bloodless kiss on her cheek as she goes off to Chapel Hill to start college and she hopes, an adventure or two that her family wouldn’t approve of.   Jerilyn grudgingly performs the traditional rites of passage for a privileged southern teen, coming out as a debutante and pledging sororities with a determined resignation that her sister, Annie rails against. Annie moves confidently against the tide of southern convention asserting her sexuality at school and later becoming a subversive force for equal housing as a real estate agent in Charlotte. “I fully expect you to be married upon a mule in a national park, presided over by a hippie shaman in a cloud of incense smoke,” her mother, Jerene, says.

In Barnhardt’s thoroughly entertaining fashion, you will learn that the Johnstons trace their lineage all the way back to confederate glory and defeat.  The Johnston men including Jerene’s husband, Duke and brother Gaston, a writer, more than hold their own when the whole family is together for Christmas wrangling over the direction of the New South and reproductive rights at the celebration table. You will not be bored. You will learn how  racism is a convenient vehicle for classism or you may just decide to watch the fur fly.  Wilton Barnhardt who undoubtably delights his students at N.C. State, will be speaking at the East Regional Library, Wednesday, November 5 at 7 p.m.

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Shopgirl by Steve Martin

April 22, 2014

Shopgirl by Steve MartinSpring is here again. What a relief. It sometimes seems like this will be the year of eternal winter. Nope. It is here again and all that new energy brings thoughts of romance to some, hay fever to others. Here is a little love story by Steve Martin who is a lovely writer. A novella is the perfect book for your purse or man bag if you still read paper and this one is not short on endearing, imperfect characters and a concise storyline with the elegant complexity that you would expect from Martin.

As the story opens, Mirabelle is a young, somewhat idealistic clerk at Macy’s who meets an older, more experienced, maybe jaded man, Ray Porter, who is buying a pair of fine gloves for his current lover. With an awkward glimpse of her dating life we also meet a young man, Jeremy, who haphazardly inhabits her bedroom one evening before he leaves the picture for a while on a trip out west. While on his journey, Ray Porter woos Mirabelle with the adult and sophisticated rewards of having fought his way to middle age gathering what is valued and stylishly presented in L.A.

As Mirabelle waits for Ray to pick her up for their second date, after he has spent as much as one month of her rent on their first dinner, she looks around her apartment.  It hasn’t changed much since she graduated from college and got her first job.  She contemplates how things might go when he arrives: “Mirabelle doesn’t have a real sofa, only a low-lying futon cradled in a wood brace, which means that anyone attempting to sit on it is immediately jackknifed at floor level. If a visitor allows an arm to fall to one side, it will land on the gritty hardwood. If he sits with a drink, it has to be put on the floor at cat level. She reminds herself not to ask Ray to sit down.”

Martin’s shrewd observations give these characters enough of the dark shadings of human nature to make them real and interesting. If I told you that it was a terrific movie too, would you promise to read it first?

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The Opposite of Fate : Memories of a Writing Life by Amy Tan

March 31, 2014

Are you a fan of Amy Tan?  Then you must try her collection of essays.  Much is revealed about the inspiration and true events that inspire her well loved novels such as The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses.  To read about her life is to find true meaning in the much overused word “amazing.” Tan was raised in Northern California by her mother and father who had married in the United States soon after her mother was released from prison in Shanghai.  Yes, and it gets more interesting as you go along.  A few essays tell of the darkly humorous battles between the young Amy and her mother over everything from piano lessons to Amy’s hippy boyfriend when they lived in Switzerland.  We learn of the fascinating history of the women in her family that provided storylines and characters for many of her novels often re-creating the harrowing experiences of her mother as a child.  Tan’s Grandmother became the concubine of a Chinese businessman through treachery on his part and her vulnerability after becoming a young widow with children.  He continued to treat her and her daughter, Amy’s mother, with disrespect.  The humiliation and dishonor leads to a tragic end for the Grandmother with her young daughter present.  Anyone who has read any of Tan’s novels will recognize where some of her stories have come from.

In another essay Tan writes about the many imaginative papers that college students have written about her books and their fanciful interpretations of her work.  She finds that even the Cliff notes for The Joy Luck Club offer an overly dramatic account in their biographical notes on the author.

I was shocked to learn that I once had carried on “a relationship with an older German man, who had close contacts with drug dealers and organized crime.”

Tan’s voice is much more flip and irreverent in her essays than in her novels.  She has a wicked sense of humor through it all.  If you have enjoyed one of her novels, have writing aspirations of your own or want to read some strange but true accounts of an interesting life, you will enjoy this book.

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Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

April 8, 2013

“All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this. Even when everything was going well, as it often did. I can say that much. That it often did. I have been lucky. But even then, for instance in the middle of an embrace and someone whispering words in my ear I wanted to hear, I could suddenly get a longing to be in a place where there was only silence.”  Petterson is a wonderful writer.   His writing is elegant and compelling as you get to know Trond, and want to know why he so enjoys the solitude of his older years and what has happened in his life up to this point. He will let you know bit by bit as he goes about his quiet daily life that is maybe a little lonely too. Trond walks his dog Lyra, out to the lake in the early morning hours to sit peacefully, watching the swans in the cold stillness. He tells his story through reminiscing while relating the practicalities and logistics of living in rural Norway with winter coming on, only one neighbor within trudging distance and a temperamental station wagon.

The writing is succinct and atmospheric. “Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have.” To begin his story, Trond recounts an amusing adventure with his friend when they were both young teens and he was spending the summer with his father in the same house that he lives in now. It was the last adventure they were to have before Trond learns the truth of what has happened to his friend’s family that day. It is the end of childhood for both and the beginning of a new era for Trond’s own family. Now, he meets a new neighbor who brings back all those memories.

It was fun to go with the boys when they were “out stealing horses” and to learn about logging trees and haymaking in the 1940’s. I absolutely love his moving and subtly humorous writing and waiting for the story to unfold. This novel won him some recognition and several literary prizes including the International Dublin Award in 2007.

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While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

November 7, 2012

Jo hasn’t seen Eli in over thirty years. In the meantime, she has married a minister, had three daughters and for the most part forgotten the event that marked her 20’s and those last horrific days spent at the house on Lumley Street. Now Eli and his wife have moved not far from her, into the rural Massachusetts town just as she has begun a period of restlessness, searching,  and transition in her life. The last time Jo felt like this she up and left her first husband then ran away to reinvent herself in the communal house in Boston where she hid her past from the free-spirited occupants. Even calling herself by another name. Will her secrecy resurface now that she’s been reminded of all that freedom and creativity? Will reunion with Eli kindle a yearning to escape her staid family life?

Sue Miller has a balanced view of her characters. She shows us how people hurt each other, which is what people do, then asks, can this act be forgiven and if so, how? Sometimes, there is heartbreak either way. And how we live with this heartbreak and love and go forward is what she writes about in an unsentimental, believable and ultimately compassionate way.

In the three books that I’ve read so far, Miller rather boldly explores the role that sexuality has in our lives. Not that they are extremely explicit, but sex plays a large part in the plot and character development. Fans of Jodi Picoult or Nicci French may like Sue Miller. The wintery setting and dark emotional territory of this novel reminded me of Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag.

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