Friday, October first, 2010
We've been to a couple of local author events at indie bookstores around NJ these past few weeks -- not long ago we went to Words in Maplewood to hear Meredith Sue Willis reading from her new book Out of the Mountains, short stories about Appalachia in the 21st Century; and tonight we headed out to the Clinton Book Shop to see Joyce Hinnefeld and get a copy of her new book Stranger Here Below, coincidentally also with an Appalachian theme. (Plus Ron, the shop's gregarious manager, sold me on Exley by Brock Clarke, which he said was the best book he had read this year.)
The picture to the right is of the river which flooded over its banks yesterday in the center of Clinton, marooning a big piece of construction equipment. The constant roar of the water flowing by was amazing.
Saturday, October 9th, 2010
From time to time Elvissa Mackey Lipitz Stein has a dream in which she and her husband and children, and his children by his first wife, and Robert and his parents and wife, and Elvissa's parents and her brother, and a whole crowd of Steins and Mackeys and Lipitzes and Critchfields, all go up on Critchfield Mountain to celebrate an open-air meal under a pink sky.... Elvissa always wakes from the dream with a gratifying sense that everything fits together. She never remembers exactly how it fits, but she has a profound belief that it does fit, and that the most important thing in the world is that she knows.
This week I read Meredith Sue Willis' Out of the Mountains, a collection of short stories set mostly in West Virginia. I wasn't sure what to expect going in -- I've known Ms. Willis for several years as a neighbor and friend, but this is the first book of hers I've read. This has been a mistake on my part -- looks like I should go read her back catalog.
Out of the Mountains has a feeling of memoir about it -- you get the sense that Willis' narrator is telling her own stories and the stories of people familiar to her. And indeed in the afterword, she acknowledges that some of the stories are taken from her life. The sense of intimacy and familiarity with her characters is one of the primary reasons I'm recommending the book -- getting inside people's heads this way is a favorite part of the reading experience for me. The other main thing I loved about the book was its structure, which reminded me a bit of Annie Proulx' Bad Dirt -- you meet the same characters and the same families sprawled out across different parts of Appalachia and of America, from the early 20th Century up to the early 21st. It's a broad scope for such a short book -- and I'm not meaning to say the book is encyclopædic -- but it really works, really gives you a sense of the vastness of the well of experience from which Willis' characters' particular experiences are drawn.
Sunday, November 21st, 2010
Three books I read this summer that I wanted to write about but didn't much of substance. Either of the first two would be great by itself, it was a real treat to read them both in succession.
- Stranger Here Below by Joyce Hinnefeld. This is Hinnefeld's second novel and seems like a real breakthrough. I liked In Hovering Flight a lot but it did not seem like a "masterpiece" the way I can picture talking about this book (once I get around to/figure out what to post about it).
- Out of the Mountains by Meredith Sue Willis.
I talk to Vashie on the phone and visit occasionally, but I never run her errands. I don't drive her to the doctor, and I don't pick up her groceries.
Such a clear, genuine voice.
Her daughter Ruth doesn't either, but Ruth is a classic agoraphobic, a direct result of having Vashie as a mother, in my opinion. Vashie was even worse as a mother than as a third grade teacher. We're all widows now, Vashie, Ruth, me, and my friend Ursula Rose, who was having the tag sale in front of her late husband's mansion the day Vashie came lurching toward us on her walker, pausing to rest when she thought we were watching.
-- "The Scandalous Roy Critchfield"
- The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago. This book seems almost the equal of Balthazar and Blimunda to me but I'm not sure how to back this up -- my plan was to write a review of it to submit to Quarterly Conversation or similar, but I got stuck on recommending it rather then writing about it. Really a sheer pleasure to read.
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