September Books. That can't be right. This month is already over? How did that happen?
Although it won the PEN/Hemingway Award a few years ago, I somehow missed The Condition by Jennifer Haigh.
The story sounds kind of typical – a family falls apart, infidelity, divorce, strained relations – yet the storytelling got me. I really enjoyed it even if every time I thought about it, glanced at the book cover, or said the title I got this earworm:
From Publishers Weekly:
"A dysfunctional New England family struggles toward normalcy in this poignant novel from PEN/Hemingway-winner Haigh, who follows the children of resentful, controlling, Paulette and distracted, needy Frank. Even during a childhood in idyllic Cape Cod, there are hints of a rocky future...The story starts slowly, and while the setup feels familiar (a fractured New England family), the children take unexpected turns that shake up the narrative, leading to the most surprising twist of all: despite the sobering events chronicled, there's a strong nod to the healing power of love. Haigh allows the reader to sympathize with each of the family members, and, in turn, to see their flaws and better understand them."
I read a lot of books. Sometimes, I come across some stinkers. Sometimes those are novels I’ve heard a lot about and couldn’t wait to read. That’s disappointing. Other times, I come across a great book by an author I’ve never heard of, like The Condition. That rarely happens twice in a row but this month, it DID. The only thing that made me unhappy with The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty is when I was done reading it and there were no more pages to turn. How did I not know about this book?
"Ten-year-old Evelyn Bucknow lives with her not very responsible young mother, Tina, on the outskirts of a small Kansas town. The book shows the scary tenuousness of poverty. When Tina's car breaks down, their life falls apart like a flimsy cardboard edifice. Evelyn can't get to school, Tina can't get to work, and unseemly relationships with men who own cars develop. The novel's other theme is the importance of teaching; when one of her teachers tells her she's gifted, Evelyn's life is changed. "She takes off her glasses, still looking at me. I take off my glasses too, because for a moment I think she is going to place them on my eyes, the way you place a crown on someone's head when they become queen. Welcome to being smart."...the book's salvation comes from unexpected quarters: Evelyn's mom Tina. At the outset, she seems beleaguered and lost, but as the book progresses she develops a wry resiliency. We get to watch Evelyn and Tina grow up together, and it's a rare sight."
I kind of already want to read it again.
If it were me, I might have chosen a different title for She Walks These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb. Besides that, I found thinking about the characters when I wasn’t reading. I couldn’t wait to pick it up each time.
From School Library Journal:
"Mystery and folklore are skillfully blended in this contemporary Appalachian tale. Driving the plot are "Harm" (Hiram) Sorley, an aging prisoner suffering from recent memory loss, who receives a spiritual message to escape from prison and return home to North Carolina; history grad student Jeremy Cobb, who wants to hike the trail used by Katie Wyler in the late 1700s when she escaped from Indians who held her captive; and members of the sheriff's department who search for both of these men... McCrumb's rich use of dialect, accompanied by both physical description of and folklore about the mountains, combine to produce an evocative, haunting story."
Modern satire with a great title: How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson.
From Publishers Weekly:
"Egan's debut, an odd blend of young adult melodrama and unsuccessful metafiction, winds itself into knots of empty story lines. Recognizing that their dullard daughter, Carley, needs an academic boost, Gretchen and Francis Wells hire author Bree McEnroy to write a book to Carley's specifications. Though Carley's love for reality television and Bree's fondness for self-conscious literary tropes should, in theory, unite to make a delightful story-within-a-story, it is often neglected or underwritten. Meanwhile, the cardboard secondary cast floats around Bree and Carley: there's Hunter, Carley's crush, whose alcoholic rakishness, we are assured, masks a poet's interior; Carley's social-climbing mother and philandering father; and Justin, Bree's college chum, who has become, on dubious merit, a literary star. Carley and Hunter's friendship is jeopardized by both his addictions and her unrequited adoration, and Bree and Justin reconcile."
I read The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb in a couple of days. When I got to the end, I read the afterword and learned that several of the characters in the book are based on the author’s real life ancestors. It made the novel that much richer and sweeter.
From Publishes Weekly:
"Skipping back and forth in time from the 18th to the late 20th century, and drawing on her own family history, McCrumb tells two stories in her appealing new novel, one heading toward, the other returning to, the Appalachians...McCrumb, an award-winning crime and mystery writer, has mixed historic and contemporary plots with success in the past (notably in She Walks These Hills and other novels in her Ballad series; some characters from the Ballad series reappear here), and she does so again, letting the past inform the present and generating a good deal of suspense in a novel that is not properly a mystery."
I was predisposed to enjoy A Scattered Life; Karen and I have corresponded via email years ago and I found her to be warm and generous. Plus I’ve read her novel, Easily Amused, and enjoyed it. McQuestion's work did not disappoint.
Reviewer Carolyn Parkhurst:
"McQuestion has a talent for creating characters who are layered and subtle, flawed and ordinary and exceptional, in the way we all are. The book alternates between the viewpoints of the three women--Skyla, Roxanne and Audrey--and their incomplete and refracted perspectives come together to form a narrative that’s fuller and more complex than the story any one of them might tell on her own."
The second book I've read by Jennifer Haigh, Mrs. Kimble is the story of three women who at different times, are married to the same man. I liked this novel well enough but the husband, Ken Kimble, is a jerk of a major order. I couldn't figure out what his wives, especially the second and third ones, saw in him. There was never any explanation of what made him such a self-involved, indulgent, lying creep.
From Amazon reviews:
"Sometimes a book can be utterly full of holes and you still can't put it down. In Mrs. Kimble, first-time novelist Jennifer Haigh follows the marital career of Ken Kimble, opportunist, serial husband, and all around schmuck. The first section, set in Virginia in the 1960s, revolves around alcoholic first wife Birdie. Next up is Joan, a Newsweek reporter recovering from a mastectomy at her late father's home in Florida. A wealthy, confident woman left unsteady by breast cancer, she falls for Kimble..In the final section, Kimble weds Dinah, who had been his children's babysitter back in Virginia. Their marriage unravels as, at the end of the book, Kimble's secrets are revealed one by one. Unfortunately, the central secret of the book is never laid bare: how did the man get to be such a jerk?...We never understand why Dinah stays with an aging crook... Haigh is so gifted at creating vivid scenes and strong characters, we find ourselves surrendering our disbelief despite our better judgment.
Favorite book of the month: Several favorites, but if I am picking just one, it's The Center of Everything. I was terribly disappointed when I turned the last page. I wanted to keep on reading it.
Character who I'd most like to have a drink with: Nora Bonesteel, a character in both of the Sharyn McCrumb novels. She is a no-nonsense, old-timer who occasionally knows the future and sometimes talks to ghosts.