The Book Page
A sexy new love story by Barbara Kingsolver is climbing The New York Times bestseller list this fall... Wait a second. Barbara Kingsolver's sexy love story? ("Between the skin of her back and his chest she could feel small, prickly islands of chestnut dust. 'Deanna,' he said in her ear, "I wanted you all the way from West Virginia. I was going to want you from here to Wyoming if I didn't come back.'") Sure - in a way - and what better followup to the international success of last year's The Poisonwood Bible?
In this novel (with recurring chapter titles like "Moth Love," and "Old Chestnuts") Kingsolver is far from Poisonwood's Belgian Congo - returning instead to familiar terrain, setting the story among the small farms and woods of southern Appalachia, though her characters retain her customary approach to diversity (as with one half-Palestinian Muslim/half-Polish Jewish transplant, "Your zayda, the last landowner in our line' her father used to declare sarcastically... 'Your great zayda who made a name for himself in New York as a klezmer musician, before leaving his wife and child for an American girl he met in a nightclub...'")
As usual, Kingsolver's background in biology and environmental passion informs the narrative - manifesting itself in everything from discussions of lunar cycles to pesticides to everyday dialogue, "It's weird though. I was born into such a different life, with these scholarly parents, and I did the best I could with it. I raised caterpillars in shoeboxes and I studied bugs and agriculture in school for as many years as they'll let you."
And she always brings her Microcosmos-esque view to every sentence, as in "Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen." -RR
In Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry returns us to Port William, Kentucky, the fictional town which serves as the locus of Berry's worldview. The eponymous character is a bachelor barber who has proven to be better at listening than at talking in the previous Port William novels. However, in this novel, Jayber Crow tells the story of his own life, and in so doing hits on some of the prevalent themes of Berry's canon: community, love, fidelity, and loss.
The secret to Jayber's success in Port William is his realization that barbering is not about the line of a haircut or the stroke of a comb or even the coins in his pocket, but about having a place for regulars to sit, for storytelling, and a place for the community to convene. Jayber, once an orphaned wanderer, enters into the male society of Port William in an initiation by fire "worter" (local moonshine) at a place in the woods called the Grandstand.
Though embraced by the men, Jayber is never fully accepted by the women of Port William and therefore never able to build a family. He falls in love, but he does so with a married woman named, Mattie Keith, the wife of the brash Troy Chatham, a man who represents the antithesis of Jayber's belief system: infidelity, competition, and the sort of "growth" that destroys the place they live in.
It is difficult to avoid the deep ache of loss in Berry's novel, as progress strip-cuts the old growth and ruins the fields, as life inches ever closer toward death. Jayber faces the death of individuals and a way of life, but he finds hope in the realization that one day he will belong to the collective memory of Port William.
Berry's writing is crisp, reverential, and resplendent. Pain is draped in beauty, grief in hope. And always, humor flows through the center. Like Jayber watching the river in his old age, you will be "entranced and mystified" by this book. -Jeremy L. C. Jones
If David Sedaris were straight, he might write love stories like Steve Martin's - romantic in an off-kilter way, but with a sly, sardonic, sometimes bitter, always painfully smart undercurrent.
Anyone familiar with Martin's film work (e.g., L.A. Story) can hardly miss his byronic tendencies, but he usually suffers from being paired with directors (e.g., Frank Oz) who tend to blunt his wicked gifts for satire and sarcasm in favor of his admittedly sweet chewy center. The best evidence of the literary heights he can reach are in the essays he regularly contributes to the New Yorker (many collected in the volume, Pure Drivel) - but with this novella, he expands his already-solid status as modern renaissance guy (comedian, screenwriter, actor, essayist, banjo ace, and now novelist).
It's a wisp of a story - a pretty Neiman-Marcus shopgirl/wannabe-artist on anti-depressants works through her Electra phase - easily read in one sitting. But Martin's observations on men, women, and relationships have a way of lingering.
For example, "He sees a dozen or so women who have decided that overkill is best in the breast department. He wonders if they are kidding; he wonders if the men who adore them excuse their lapse in taste and love them anyway, or see them as splendid examples of women as hyperbole."
Earlier, the omniscient narrator observes of a tangential character, "At 32, Lisa does not know about 40, and she is unprepared for the time when she will actually have to know something in order to have people listen to her." Adding fuel to the fire, "Her penalty is that the men she attracts with her current package see her only from a primitive part of their brains, the childish part that likes shiny objects that make noise when rattled. Older men looking for playthings and callow boys driven by hormones access these areas more easily than the clear-thinking wife seekers of their late 20s and early 30s."
Martin may not believe any of this. And if he weren't rich, famous, smart, and attractive, it would be relatively easy to assume that he wrote it all with an idea toward getting laid. Still, it's refreshing to run across a man who not only knows what women want to hear, he actually gives every indication of knowing what women want. That alone's worth $17.95. -RR
Henry Holt and Company
In his new collection, Double Trouble , that gray eminence of rock criticism, Greil Marcus, discusses the politics and culture of the last decade in the oracular voice of a true believer in the power of pop.
Most of all, he talks about E and Slick Willie. Subtitled "Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives," Double Trouble keeps coming back to these Southern boys who became, each in their own way, the leader of the Free World. "Both are alive in the common imagination," Marcus writes, "as blessed, tawdry" symbols of "their country's most unresolved notions of what it means to be good, true, and beautiful - and evil, false, and ugly."
The similarities are obvious but no less eerie. White trash mama's boys with voracious physical and emotional appetites, honeyed charm and feminine sexiness, both were hated by the establishment (old school showbiz, D.C.) for being outsiders too gauche to be so powerful, so beloved. Raised in the hot-blooded faith of the South, one became a competitor to Christ, the other suffered an attempted crucifixion.
But the true sacrificial lamb of the 90s, the young Corn King whose blood watered the fields of the Clinton Boom, came from the Northwest. The shade of Kurt Cobain haunts the pages of Double Trouble. After his death, an elegiac tone suffuses the book, as the alternatives to an America where "freedom's just another word for a mess someone else has to clean up" are co-opted, colonized, turned out like just another trick. "The Business" drove Kurt to his death, and Marcus writes with a calm fury as it tries to do the same to Clinton.
It failed, this time. Marcus holds out hope that the struggle for a truer culture, a better America, is not in vain. "I think many people feel at home in the United States who did not feel the same before Clinton," he writes. They "will not surrender that feeling without a fight."-Bill Widener
MASTER OF THE CROSSROADS
Madison Smartt Bell
The Haitian revolution of 1791 is perhaps the most significant and the most ignored modern revolution. The slave revolts synthesized the goals of the American revolution and the French revolution, political independence and human rights, while taking the parameters of freedom a step further to include racial equality. In Master of the Crossroads, the follow up to his 1995 National Book Award Finalist All Souls Rising, Madison Smartt Bell tells the story of the former slave Toussaint Louverture's rising through the chaos to lead a lacerated people toward building a free nation. By 1794, Haiti, once the ripest fruit on France's imperial tree, had nearly broken free of colonial oppression.
Toussaint Louverture outwits the French politicians, survives civil unrest, and staves off the encroaching Spanish and English opportunists who try to claim France's lost colony as their own. He does this not for personal glory or gold, but to claim basic human rights for his people.
Bell maneuvers the labyrinthine politics without losing sight of what really makes a novel work: good storytelling and strong characters. Bell's style is as lush as the old growth forests his characters roam - striking, gorgeous, palpable, relentless. In one of the opening scenes a character eviscerates and eats a lizard raw, sucking the nutriments and expelling a pellet of bone and skin. At first this is gory, revolting - as hard to swallow as the naked woman nailed to a post in the beginning of All Souls Rising - but ultimately the chewing of the lizard is a fine and complex metaphor for the state of Haiti in the late 18th century. One shouldn't be intimidated by the sheer heft of this historical novel (732 pages, replete with glossary, chronology of events, and even historical documents). Bell opens the gateway to the world's only successful slave revolution, while also bringing the mysterious religion and culture of Haiti alive with evocative realism and integrity. -Jeremy L. C. Jones
UNDERSTANDING BOBBIE ANN MASON
University of South Carolina Press
Contemporary criticism isn't usually the first genre to spring to the top of everyone's holiday gift-giving list, but Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason may have a glancing local appeal for fans of this well-loved Kentucky writer (born 1940 in Maysfield; BA in English lit from UK in 1962).
The book explores the themes of "us and them," "town and country" and culture shock - none of which will be new to readers who are already familiar with Mason's canon, which includes Shiloh and Other Stories, In Country, Spence + Lila, and Feather Crowns.
Mason's own presence in the work is primarily confined to well-archived quotations (such as KET's 1995 Signature series on the author), and her absence only reinforces the disconnect between the reader and Mason's work.
Dry, scholarly, and academic most of the time - relying heavily on previously-published research (even the word "exegesis" is enough to provoke a footnote)-the book offers few fresh perspectives on Mason, and reads like a master's thesis.
Diehard Mason fans would be better served by revisiting the author's own work as opposed to this lukewarm rehash. -RR