Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Summons to Memphis

We just spent the last five days on vacation, driving from Illinois to South Dakota and back.  Unfortunately, I can't read in the car, but I still managed to read A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor.  I loved it, just as I loved In the Tennessee Country, reviewed here earlier.  Something about those Southern novels almost always grabs me!  Mr. Taylor wrote A Summons to Memphis in 1985, his first novel after thirty-six years!  A Summons to Memphis won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986.  In my opinion, with good reason!

As I often do, I am sharing the first line of the novel.  First lines of novels are very important to me...if the first line grabs me, I usually like the book.  This was no exception.

"The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved-especially when there are unmarried daughters."

This ends up giving a big clue to the whole book.  Not necessarily because of the marriage thing, but of the family in general that is portrayed in this novel.  The author wrote that

"...remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville..."

"A Summons to Memphis" is about many issues summoning people to Memphis. It is the story of the George Carver family, who relocated to Memphis from Nashville after Mr. Carver was betrayed by his partner in Nashville.  He took his wife and four children, irregardless of how they felt about the move.  This move was a major event through-out the novel.  Thirty years after the family's move to Memphis, Mr. Carver's wife died.  Thus began Mr. Carver's "going out", first with older women his own age, then with much younger women.

 By this time, Josephine and Betsy Carver, the two unmarried daughters of Mr. Carver, are still living in Memphis.  The oldest son, George, had died during World War II, and the youngest son, Phillip (also unmarried) had been living in New York for years. Phillip, is the narrator of the story. His sisters would write and keep him apprised of their father's dating situation, of which amused them.  However, when Mr. Carver announced that he was getting married, Phillip was summoned to Memphis by his sisters to resolve the crisis.  Phillip then began actively recalling the past and wrongs that he perceived that his father had done to him, including sabotaging his one true love relationship, along with how his father affected the lives of Phillips' mother and siblings.  As Phillip recalls the past, he decided that the one true betrayal was his father's abruptly moving the family to Memphis from Nashville.

Phillip gets on a plane to answer his summons.  And as he arrived in Memphis, Phillip began immediately to see things in a different light.  It was very interesting to read how the author brought all to a conclusion.

This novel is about family secrets, forgiveness, understanding, and ultimately, love.

A great read!


Mudwoman  is the thirty-eight novel written by Joyce Carol Oates, which is an incredibly amazing fact all by itself, but then to factor in that her novels are also quite good and insightful, makes her an even more amazing author!

Mudwoman begins in April of 1965. It begins:

"You must be readied, the woman said."

And with that beginning, the novel starts with a small child being taken by foot on a journey by her mother to what the mother called "the land of Moriah",  which was actually the mudflats beside the Black Snake River.  Once the child and mother arrived to where the mother deemed the place, the mother pushed and kicked the child down into the mudflats and left her there.  Move forward to October 2002.  M.R. (Meredith) Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League college. She made her career her life, never pursuing a family life.  She was still somewhat involved with a married man (her secret lover, as he is called in the book), and, for the most part, lived a fairly isolated life.

As you might have guessed, Meredith is Mudwoman.  Mudwoman is the child who had been abandoned in the mudflats and was miraculously discovered before it was too late.  The child was first placed in foster care for a brief time and was then adopted  by an older couple who had lost their only child, a daughter named Meredith, some years before.  Tellingly, the couple named their adopted daughter Meredith. Can you imagine how that must have been growing up...what expectations would that set up? 

One day, Meredith was driven to upstate New York for a conference.  She unexpectedly decided to rent a car and drive further upstate where her past began to seep into her consciousness. 

Although I don't think that it was ever specifically stated in the novel, it seemed to me that Meredith was slipping into some serious mental health issues as the novel progressed.  Not too unexpected given her history, and when she found her birth mother, it made an even stronger case for her descent.

I had mixed feelings about the novel.  I found it very hard to like or care about Meredith as an adult.  But I found the history of Meredith fascinating.  I did begin to care some about her near the very end of the book, when she went home to spend time with her (adoptive) father.  But the very ending of the book, put me right back into not liking her much.  I will admit, though, that it was an interesting story and it did keep my attention, so all in all, I recommend it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Orchardist

If you even can, imagine living in 1857, being nine years old.  That's when Talmadge, his sister, Elsbeth, and their mother traveled from the north-central part of the Oregon Territory into the far Northwest of the country.  Talmadge and Elsbeth's father had been killed in a mine collapse:

"When the mines collapsed, their mother did not even wait for the body of their father to be dredged up with the rest, but gathered their few belonging and set off with Talmadge and his sister at once.  They traveled north, and then west, west and then north."

The small family settled on some property that had two old apple trees. They planted some vegetables and barely existed.
Talmadge's sister, Elsbeth, was a year younger than him.  Three years after settling there, their mother died in the spring of 1860, leaving the Talmadge and Elsbeth to manage the three acre orchard that they now owned. As they sold the fruit from their orchard, they used the money to build themselves a two-room cabin.  Then in the spring of 1865, Elsbeth disappeared into the woods, and was never found or heard from again.

How does that kind of loss affect ones' life?  How does the isolation and loneliness creep into ones' existence?  By twenty years old, Talmadge had lost everyone in his life.  He remained there and gradually built the orchards up into a profitable business.  He went into town every other week to sell his fruit and visit with the few friends he had.  And so he lived for the next thirty-five years.

One day in 1900, two pregnant adolescent sisters stole some fruit from Talmadge's stand at the market in town, and then later the girls began to show up at Talmadge's orchard.  Over time, Talmadge very slowly began to earn their trust.  He began feeding them, leaving plates of food on his porch at first, as the girls would come nowhere near him.  As Talmadge hesitantly began to open his heart to the girls, they also hesitantly began to let him know them.  Sadly, about the time this happens, men with guns show up on the property and the tragedy of the sister's lives explode into even more horror.

I don't even want to share anymore of the story here, because I don't want to spoil the reading of this book for anyone...the book is that good!  The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is her debut novel and it is outstanding.  As Talmadge becomes involved in the girl's lives and the aftermath, one cannot help but wonder and consider how it played into his emotional upheaval as he recalls his sister's disappearance.  An example of Ms. Coplin's excellent writing:

"He considered those times in life when he had uttered words to a person-Caroline Middey or Clee, or his mother, or a stranger who had long forgotten him-he wished he had never uttered, or had uttered differently, or he thought of the times he remained silent when he should have spoken as little as a single word.  He tried to recollect every word he had ever spoken to his sister, tried to detect his own meanness or thoughtlessness, his own insensitivity to certain inflections she might have employed.. How long ago it was now. At times he fretted about forgetting her, though in fact-he did not like to admit this-he had already forgotten much."  

The writing in this book is a pure joy to read.  I can't even imagine how a first time novelist can write like this!

The story is heartbreaking and uplifting and affirming of love in spite of difficult circumstances.  Talmadge is a quiet, unassuming gentleman, who faced the unthinkable and came out of it still as a loving, caring man.  I haven't even begun to give this book the credit it deserves.  Read it....you won't be disappointed!

Monday, September 3, 2012

In the Tennessee Country

"If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads."

I don't know exactly what this quote (by Francois Mauriac) might tell you about me, but I thought it was interesting to have come across it right after I began reading this book! I was searching my bookshelves desperately looking for something to read late one night a few days ago and came across In the Tennessee Country by Peter Taylor.  It had been years since I had read it, and somehow, it called me.  Oh, what a good book!  I so enjoyed it! It was published in 1994, the same year that Mr. Taylor died.  I did not realize that he had written a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction book (Summons to Memphis) earlier in his life.  I haven't read it yet, but have already checked it out of the library.  Interestingly, reading about Mr. Taylor, I learned that when he died he had been publishing fiction for fifty-seven years.  As I read the short biography of Peter Taylor (at: http://www.knoxvillewritersguild.org/taylorbio.htm ), his life certainly seemed to parallel the life of Nathan Longfort, the narrator of In the Tennessee Country.

"In the Tennessee country of my forebears it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.  He might be a young man or a middle-aged man or even sometimes a very old man.  Whatever the case, few questions were ever asked.  Rather, it was generally assumed that such a man had very likely felt the urging of some inner compulsion and so could not do otherwise than gather up his chattels and move on to resettle himself elsewhere."

And so the story began.  Nathan had first met Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw on the funeral train carrying Nathan's grandfather.  Aubrey was the illegitimate son of Nathan's great-uncle.  Aubrey had been taken in by Nathan's grandfather at an early age, and was considered somewhat of a black sheep by the time Nathan met him in 1916, when Nathan was about four years old.  Nathan's grandfather had been a Senator from Tennessee, and upon his death, his body was taken by train from Washington DC to Knoxville, Tennessee for burial.

The book is about Nathan's journey through life.  He had lost his father when he was nine years old and so was raised by his mother and his two aunts.  Through-out his growing up, Nathan heard stories about Aubrey, who after the funeral train ride had disappeared.  Through-out the years, Nathan would think that he spotted Aubrey whenever there were funerals for the family.  As Nathan got older, he began to search to try to learn what had become of this mysterious man.  He began collecting rumors of sightings of Aubrey, and as his mother aged, she became more open about sharing her stories of Aubrey, most notably, how he was her first love.

It is a charming book.  Much of the attraction of the story for me was the genealogical pieces of the story, along with it being a story of the South.  As Nathan pursues his interest in Aubrey over the years, he, of course, is living his own life wondering how his life would live up to the Senator and his (Nathan's) mother's expectations for him.  And, as to be expected, Nathan wonders about his own father, who had died so early in Nathan's life.

Much of the story seemed to strike a chord with me.  It is a rather lazy going, slow story, but kept my interest through-out.  I am anxious to read more of Mr. Taylor's works....

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Another Anita Shreve?

I know, I know...I recently gave a rather negative review to Where or When by Ms. Shreve, but as I stated in that post, I have read other books by her that I have enjoyed very much.  My daughter gave me Body Surfing to read several months ago, and so when I came across it on one of my several to-be-read shelves, I decided that it was time to read it so that I could return it to her!  Good decision on several points...one, it's always a good thing to return books to their owners; two, I needed something to read that very night; three, I really enjoyed the book!

Body Surfing is the story of Sydney, a twenty-nine year old once divorced, once widowed, rather lost soul.  That summer Sydney took on a position as a tutor for the daughter of a family who summers on the New Hampshire coast.  The Edwards family had two grown sons, and a eighteen year old daughter, Julie.  As Sydney settled into her position, it became clear that she was expected to do a bit more than tutor, as she began to take on some of the household duties.  She became more and more enmeshed in the family when the two sons came for a weekend.  Ben was quite successful in the real estate field, and Jeff was a professor at MIT, who was involved with another woman.  Their first night there, the brothers took Sydney out to body surf, which is something that she has always enjoyed.  As the weekend progressed both of the brothers appeared to be interested in Sydney.  And as the summer passed, Sydney and Jeff became involved, then engaged.  Ben seemed to become more distant from all of the family, but especially Sydney and Jeff.

Meanwhile, Sydney was doing her best with Julie, who appeared to be rather slow at first, but Sydney realized that Julie showed some talent for composition and so Sydney began to encourage Julie to draw and paint, which Julie ended up having a gift for.  Sydney became close to Mr. Edwards over the summer, but never felt accepted by his wife, who appeared to be cold and non-caring. Sydney is half Jewish and Mrs. Edwards is anti-Semitic.

"The woman might well look windblown, Sydney thought.  One child would marry a Jew.  A second was a lesbian.  A third, by all accounts heterosexual, had absented himself from the family indefinitely.
All this she blamed on Sydney."

One evening, Julie wandered off after dinner without anyone realizing she was gone until later in the evening.  Sydney and Jeff went out searching for her to no avail.  Late in the evening, Julie was dropped off at the house and was very intoxicated and unable or unwilling to tell Sydney where she had gone.  Since she had no friends there, Sydney, Jeff and Ben were quite concerned.  Concerns really escalated when Julie then disappeared again, eventually showing up living in Montreal with a twenty-five year old woman who Julie had met on the beach that first night she had been missing.  Julie and Jeff went to Montreal, planning to bring Julie back home, but that didn't work out as the family had planned.  

I don't think that I should go on with the story, so I don't ruin it for anyone.  It is a very well-written account of a family falling-apart, and a woman trying to figure out old rivalries and secrets.  The ending is explosive as Sydney learned the truth about the family, and about herself.  Good read.