Friday, May 6, 2016

What I’m Reading: A writer, a baby thief, snake-handling, the ‘70s, and a sequel

Posted By on Fri, May 6, 2016 at 9:53 AM

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It’s been a productive time of reading around here, despite the demands of work and family and the beautiful weather luring me into outdoor activities.

 

Lee Smith is an acquaintance and sent her new book, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life (Algonquin Books), to my wife when it came out last month. I quickly claimed it as my own and devoured it. Smith focuses her superpowers of acute observation of characteristics, mannerisms, and personalities, and the culture of a region, to her own life in this series of essays. She touches on her time growing up in Grundy, Virginia, and what she gleaned from its people and time spent in her father’s dimestore. From her childhood comes a love of books which would lead (lucky for us) to a life of writing. It hasn’t always been an easy life, but Smith handles the stories of depression, divorce, and suicide with the tenderness that has resounded in her prose for decades.

 

Reading Dimestore led me immediately to our bookshelves and the first Smith novel I could lay my hands on, 1995’s Saving Grace (G.P. Putnam’s Son’s). It is everything I wanted after reading about the author’s life and where she grew up. Florida Grace Shepherd is part of a devout family led by a charismatic, snake-handling, preacher as father. The book follows her life in and out of that family, and explores a person’s ties to religion and faith, and the feeling of comfort within one’s own skin. I plowed through it in a matter of days, rushing through Grace’s life with an eagerness to learn where she might end up.

 

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf), by comparison, has been a slog. Good story, interesting characters, but a length and various plotlines that have left me feeling as though I’ve walked uphill through Lee Smith’s Appalachian mountains in the dead of winter. More on this book in a forthcoming issue of the Flyer.

 

I’m reading The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond (Carroll & Graf Publishers) for purely information purposes for another project I’m working on. Not so much reading, really, as taking it up now and then to pick my way through it as I tend to do with nonfiction. The story of Georgia Tann, who turned the world of adoption on its ear with her business of selling babies through her children’s home in Memphis, is a fascinating and heartbreaking one. The book is well-written, too, and I look forward to getting in deeper and learning just how and why a person might do what she did, and of what happened to some of her victims.

 

I have read everything Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo has ever written. Much of it more than once. When I first saw he had a new novel coming out, I was beside myself with anticipation. Then I looked closer at the advertisement and realized it’s a sequel to 1993’s fabulous Nobody’s Fool (Random House). That book was the third in his Upstate New York novels, following Mohawk (Knopf) and The Risk Pool (Random House). Russo’s ability to bring a place to life is unparalleled in my opinion (though Lee Smith does give him a run for his money). My fear was that he would take the beautifully wrought characters of Sully and Rub and even Wacker, and wring their stories dry like a dishrag. I’ve been burned before. I anticipated 1997’s voluminous Bridge of Sighs (Knopf) — which took Russo from his comfort zone of New York State and academia to fine art and Venice, Italy — as much as any book ever, and was disappointed in its ramblings. (He would vindicate himself in my eyes two years later with That Old Cape Magic [Knopf].) Anyway, I got Everybody’s Fool (Knopf) the day it came out earlier this week and, though only on page 20 or so, I’ve already laughed out loud twice. I have a good feeling about this one.

 

What are you reading?


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