Friday, September 9, 2016

August Reads

Talking with a friend about Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Conner, I wondered who succeeded them. Who are the Contemporary Southern Writers? One Google search later, I found Pat Conroy's Favorite Books in which the bestselling author picks his favorite contemporary Southern novelists. Two of this month's reads, Peachtree Road and My Brother Michael, came from that list.

Peachtree Road by Anne Rivers Siddons

Synopsis: Headstrong, exuberant, and independent, Lucy Bondurant is a devastating beauty who will never become the demure Southern lady her mother and society demand. Sheppard Gibbs Bondurant III, Lucy's older cousin, is too shy and bookish to become the classically suave and gregarious Southern gentleman his family expects. Growing up together in a sprawling home on Atlanta's Peachtree Road, these two will be united by fierce love and hate, and by rebellion against the narrow aristocratic society into which they were born. Anne Rivers Siddons's classic novel vividly brings to life their mesmerizing, unforgettable story—set against the dramatic changing landscape of Atlanta, a sleepy city destined for greatness.

My take:  Shades of Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury. Another doomed  Southern Girl and an way too sensitive Southern Gentleman on the road ruin. I almost expected  the narrator, Shep (Gibby) to exclaim "Lucy smells like trees!" There was also a strong whiff of Oedipus and the dithering Hamlet, and Lucy and Gibby's mothers wore Eau du Lady MacBeth perfume.

Several reviews and even the synopsis mentions how the novel evokes Atlanta between Gone with the Wind, Camelot, and the near present. No. Evoking is what Stephen King did in 11/22/63 when he breathed life in the late 50's and early 60's in Texas. In that novel, you heard the music, felt the heat, and sensed the storm in the air. Siddons gave us lists of things that are typical of the time, but evocative? Not so much. The essence of  the Civil Rights movement became little more than a list of its heroes' names and a litany of jazz musicians. The street names were a highlight of the book; after I reading it, I could draw a map of the Buckhead neighborhood and give you a pretty dry lecture on its architecture.

Peachtree Road is long. (816 pages for the paperback according to Amazon.) I've gladly read books that long and wished them longer still, but this book is long because it's repetitive. Lucy shimmers and burns from page one and on pretty much every page thereafter. Shep/Gibby diddles and throws up and obsesses. All young men are princes  - every time they're mentioned. If Siddon cut the descriptions of Lucy's "nimbus" of hair by half, she could reduce the page count by 50. Ditto the innumerable mentions of the exact shade of blue of her eyes and her coltish (or tree-like) body. Shep/Gibby's long orations about Lucy's fascination aresomewhat less than fascinating. In fact, Lucy is a cardboard figure. As is Shep and nearly every other character.

In spite of all that, Siddons pulls you into the novel, dragging you slowly, inexorably to the end and the doom that you knew awaited from the first sentence. I think the many reviews who scorn the book by saying that Gibby and Lucy are spoiled brats (or worse) missed the point. This novel is not about Lucy, Shep, or any character. It is a novel about the end of a culture. Just as Gone with the Wind  chronicled the end of the ante-bellum south, Peachtree Road sounds the death knell for the new, aristorcratic South that rose in its place. This novel becomes the birth announcement for the South that shed its name and became that car-choked, high-rise metropolis called The Sunbelt.

My Brother Michael by Janis Owens

Synopsis: Winner of the Chatauqua South Award for Fiction

Out of the shotgun houses and deep, shaded porches of a west Florida mill town comes this extraordinary novel of love and redemption as told by Gabriel Catts. On the eve of his fortieth birthday, Gabe attempts to reconcile a family shattered by his betrayal of his older brother, Michael. As Gabe contends with a host of personal demons, he recounts his lifelong love for his brother’s wife, Myra, whose own demons threaten to overwhelm all three of them. Circumstance and passion push them beyond the moral boundaries of their close-knit community in this intimate view of a Southern family.

My take:  Is there an unwritten rule somewhere that Southern writers must begin their novel with a death? (Looking at you, William Faulkner.)

This is a gritty novel of love, violence, and sibling rivalry in near present Florida. The novel explores not only romantic love (although there is that, and it's more obsession), but love of place, love of family, and love of history. It also is charts the dangerous journey of people who sometimes hates all of those things and find redemption. You might not like Gabriel Catts or Myra, plenty of reviewers didn't. I bet, however, their flaws and their stunning humanity will fascinate, and their journey is one you'll be glad you took.

This novel deals with all the big themes (life, death, sanity, religion, incest, class, and race) with a deft precision that belies the somewhat folky voice of some of the characters. I am definitely inclined to read more by this author.

If you want to read one contemporary Southern novel, I can't recommend a better one.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

Synopsis: From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author of The Nine and The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history

On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a sophomore in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.”

My take:  The Patty Hearst kidnapping and its aftermath occurred while I was in college. It left me conflicted. I halfway wanted her to be an innocent kidnapping victim; as someone who at least flirted with radicalism, I also wanted her to be a bad ass revolutionary. If Jeffrey Toobin is right, both wishes came true.

Toobin's book is a logical,  utilitarian retelling of Patty's story. It draws on crime scene documents, court records, journals, friends, and other accounts. It is a story of its time, which was a very strange time indeed. It's a story of class and extraordinary privilege. (The law came down much harder on Patty's SLA colleagues than on her for similar or lesser crimes.) It's a story of the women's movement. It's last, but not least, a story of a radical movement that was both scary and silly. Who remembers the SLA motto? Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.  At the time, I thought it terribly relevant and insightful. Upon coming across it in this book, I found myself giggling.

What did I end up thinking about Patty Hearst, that innocent, bad ass revolutionary? She might have been the ultimate pragmatist, an foreign idea to me when I was in college. She was a survivor. Maybe, she was the first twenty-first century American, adept at looking out for Number One. Toobin says she became her mother, surely not someone she wanted to be. I believe many women my age might understand that concept pretty well.

There's not much reason to read this book unless you have an abiding interest in the Patty Hearst case. There are no great insights into human nature à la  In Cold Blood. Not a lot of new evidence. Toobin takes what you probably already know and presents it coherently and logically, but never excitingly.

For another perspective, read Patty Hearst’s America: What “American Heiress” gets wrong (and right) about an insane time and place.

We Could Be Beautiful: A Novel by Swan Huntley

Synopsis: A spellbinding psychological debut novel, Swan Huntley's We Could Be Beautiful is the story of a wealthy woman who has everything—and yet can trust no one.

Catherine West has spent her entire life surrounded by beautiful things. She owns an immaculate Manhattan apartment, she collects fine art, she buys exquisite handbags and clothing, and she constantly redecorates her home. And yet, despite all this, she still feels empty. She sees her personal trainer, she gets weekly massages, and occasionally she visits her mother and sister on the Upper East Side, but after two broken engagements and boyfriends who wanted only her money, she is haunted by the fear that she'll never have a family of her own. One night, at an art opening, Catherine meets William Stockton, a handsome man who shares her impeccable taste and love of beauty. He is educated, elegant, and even has a personal connection—his parents and Catherine's parents were friends years ago. But as he and Catherine grow closer, she begins to encounter strange signs, and her mother, Elizabeth (now suffering from Alzheimer's), seems to have only bad memories of William as a boy. In Elizabeth's old diary she finds an unnerving letter from a former nanny that cryptically reads: "We cannot trust anyone . . . " Is William lying about his past? And if so, is Catherine willing to sacrifice their beautiful life in order to find the truth? Featuring a fascinating heroine who longs for answers but is blinded by her own privilege, We Could Be Beautiful is a glittering, seductive, utterly surprising story of love, money, greed, and family.

My take:  Let me say right up front, I'm a little confused about the "psychological" part of the description. I mean, yes, we do get into the "mind" of Catherine, but I'd be hard pressed to think of a novel that doesn't do that. When novels bear the psychological tag, I tend to think of serial killers and other creepy people. The focus on name brands, labels, and cool places in Manhattan was a little reminiscent of American Pscho's obsession with the same, although Catherine is no Patrick Bateman. Nor is her too-perfect potential husband William. Yes, he does stalk her, but it feels more like corporate espionage rather than Fatal Attraction. If anything, the characters are like the rich people in The Great Gatsby:
They were careless people. . . they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Still, it was a fun, summer read, and the character arc was well played.

Outlander by Diana Gabalon

Synopsis: The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord . . . 1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire—and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

My take:  Unless you live in a bubble, you know about Outlander, the mini-series on the Starz network. I'm a fan. A big fan. A friend of mine get together to watch the latest Outlander episode, drink wine, eat chocolate, pant over Sam Heughan, and, yes, sing along with the theme song.

We're fans, OK?

Years ago, I started the book and didn't finish it. That sometimes happens. You're just not in the mood to read a particular book at a particular time, but a few months or years later you pick it up and devour it. So, given my fan-girl behavior with the series, I gave Outlander the Book another try.

Far be it from me to fly in the face of 21,000+ Amazon reviewers who gave it enough rave reviews that it has 4.5 out of 5 stars. BUT, I rather hoped the book would be deeper, more exciting than the mini-series, and it just wasn't. The series was more faithful to the book than I imagined it would be, but it certainly wasn't richer. Jamie Fraser on the page just doesn't have the appeal of Sam Heughan on the screen. Claire is surly, not spirited. Even Dougal, one of my favorite characters, is a bit ho-hum.

The fighting and the sex scenes go on forever (not something I usually mind). They are both best described as Tab A goes into Slot B. I didn't object to the whippings and beatings as many reviewers did (and which by and large didn't seem to make the leap from book to screen); I found them B-O-R-I-N-G. To be fair, Outlander was written over twenty years ago (1991), and it pretty much follows the conventions of time travel romance written at that time. It might even have been one of the first of the romance novels to feature explicit sex. I probably would have found it more fascinating in 1991, but I'm a different reader now.

So, since I don't seem to be missing a whole heck of a lot by watching the more enjoyable mini-series, I won't be reading any more of the books.