Q & A with Tiffany McDaniel, author of The Summer That Melted Everything

Last week I hope I inspired you all to trot right out to your local indy bookstore, B&N, or log on to Amazon to purchase Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything.  Hopefully, you’ve all had copy in your hot little paws since then reading away.  If not, SHAME ON YOU!!  Get off your keister right this second, buy the book, then sit down with it, crack it open, and don’t do anything else until you’ve finished it!

Tiffany McDaniel  Photo Credit JENNIFER MCDANIEL 2016

This week, I was lucky enough and honored to have a little Q & A session with Tiffany to pick her brain about this book that I love so much:

1.  The Summer That Melted Everything is your debut novel.  Your writing is so lyrical, mature and confident.  How long have you been writing and what has the journey been like from beginning to published book?

First off, thank you for the kind compliments about my writing.  To answer your question, I’ve been writing since I was kid and was old enough to hold a crayon in my hand.  I didn’t know at that time when I was scribbling on the page that I was creating story.  I just knew I was putting down what was in my head.  I wouldn’t realize writing was a profession I could have until I was in middle school and the guidance counselor came to my class to talk to us about what we wanted to be when we got older.  Writing was just so wonderful to me I didn’t think you could get paid to do it.  My parents had jobs, very hard jobs that made them tired and not a lot of money.  So I thought that’s what I would have to do.  Have a job that I didn’t like and that didn’t make me happy.  Though it took me eleven long years to get a publishing contract, realizing I could have writing as a career was like being given wings and the sky to fly for eternity.  Though at that time I didn’t know how hard it is to become a published author.  To answer the second part of your question, the journey to publication for me has been long and difficult.  I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen.  I wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine.  It was eleven years of rejection and fear I’d never be published.  Publishers don’t take a lot of risks on accepting literary fiction, especially darker literary fiction like what I write.  This struggle to get published is the narrative so many authors have.  The road to publication is discouraging and heart-breaking.  I feel for those still on the journey to publication.  To them I say, never give up.

2.  It’s now been a little over a week since the release of the novel.  What were your feelings leading up to the release, and what has life been like since The Summer That Melted Everything made its appearance in bookstores?

My feelings leading up to the release were a lot of nerves and fear.  It took me so long to get here.  Even with the book contract, I didn’t know that on average it takes two years to move a book through a traditional publishing house, so with all the years added up I’ve been waiting thirteen years to see a book on the shelf.  That’s a rather long time, so there’s that fear of what if The Summer that Melted Everything doesn’t do well enough that I get to have a second book.  As in the case of every author, sales determine an entire writing career.  Life since The Summer that Melted Everything made its appearance has continued to be a nervous time watching the book fall on the list, rise a little, and then fall back down.  Watching that can make an author go insane, so I’m trying not to focus too much on that and continue to do what I can as the author to get the book out there to readers.  Half the battle with a debut is just getting people aware the novel and the author even exists.  There are so many great books out there and so much competition, it’s hard to think the book will have any success and very easy to feel defeated by those thoughts.

3.  What was the genesis of The Summer That Melted Everything?  Was it a random thought or observation that inspired you, is the novel semi-autobiographical, or was it spurred on by something else entirely?

The Summer that Melted Everything started first as a title.  It was one of those Ohio summers that was so hot I just felt like I was melting.  All of me just dripping and dropping under the summer sun.  So that’s where it first started.  Just one hot summer.  I always start a new novel with two things.  The title and the first line.  These two things determine what the entire story is going to be about.  I never outline or plan the story beforehand.  It evolves with each new word and page.  There wasn’t a particular event or moment that made me write The Summer that Melted Everything.  It hard to say where the ideas come from exactly or what inspires them, just because creativity is hard to explain because even I don’t know where these ideas come from.  My answer to that is usually the ideas come from the elements that make me.  From some sort of chaotic spiraling shape twisting through the universe of my soul.  Rather dramatic of an answer, but I think the dramatics of creativity is what spurs us all on.

4.  Fielding Bliss narrates the story of the devil come to town in the form of a young black boy named Sal.  Fielding and Sal are the two main characters and driving forces of the novel.  Who are your favorite characters?  Who is your least favorite?

It’s hard to say my favorite character because I love them all.  One of my favorite characters to write was Sal.  He’s the one come to answer the invitation, so he presents himself as the devil.  This type of mysterious character is always interesting to write because it’s not often an author gets to write dialogue for the so-called fallen angel.  More than that, Sal is an old soul in a young body.  That sort of poetics and wisdom is always a joy to write.  My least favorite character is perhaps Ryker.  I won’t say why he’s my least favorite character because I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone.  But once readers read the book, they’ll understand what I mean when I say Ryker is such a jerk.

5.  While I loved Fielding and Sal, I was most taken with Grand, Fielding’s brother.  I also thought Aunt Fedelia was a hoot!  Were there real-life inspirations for either of these characters or were they born straight from your imagination?

I love Grand.  He’s one of the characters that is so easy to fall in love with because he’s…well….Grand.  And Aunt Fedelia was really fun to write too, especially her foul language.  There weren’t real-life inspirations for either of them, or any of the characters for that matter.  For me, my characters have flesh and bone and are as real as any of us.  They are truly their own people.

6.  Besides the ever present heat imagery throughout, snakes also seem to be a recurring theme.  I happen to like snakes and have had a couple as pets in the past, so I loved the line, “You can tell a lot about a man by what he does with a snake.”  So true in many, many ways and symbolic of actions taken by man out of ignorance.  Any particular reason snakes play a role in your novel?

I like snakes too.  They catch me off-guard sometimes in the garden when a garden snake goes slithering by, but they don’t bother me and I don’t bother them.  I remember a neighbor talking once about how her and her husband will kill a snake if they see one.  Their hatred of snakes is due to the biblical story we all know so well of Adam and Eve.  A negative association has been bestowed upon snakes since that Garden of Eden moment and unfortunately snakes have been given a bad rap.  Because of their religious associations, snakes naturally found their way into the novel.  I hope their role in the novel reminds us all that we have to worry more about the man whose hands hold the snake, than we have to worry about the snake itself.

7.  Having lived through the ‘80s as a teenager and 20-something, I was astounded at how well you evoked the decade as the timeframe for the novel.  Bananarama, Aqua Net, Van Halen, the AIDS epidemic, Rambo, even a Delorean makes an appearance in small Ohio mountain town of Breathed.  What made you choose that decade?

When I was thinking of the time-frame in which to set the novel, the 1980s came to mind almost immediately.  When I think of the ‘80s, I think of neon colors, big hair, and sun-tans by the boom-box.  It almost seems like a decade-long summer, so of course I felt it was a natural fit for the summer in the novel.  I was born in 1985, so I don’t know how the 1980s really were, but for those of us who didn’t experience the decade we can get a sense of the atmosphere from shows filmed in that decade and the photographs taken.  Furthermore the year 1984 fit with George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984, which is referenced in the novel.  I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but having his book and the year of the summer line up was important to the core of the story.

8.  If you could pick one thing, what do you wish readers would take away from The Summer That Melted Everything?

I suppose I hope readers take away the thing that most of us are taught from an early age, but that which we seem to forget as we get older, and that is to love each other a little more and remember that the only thing hate will get us, is a lot of regret.

9.  What’s next in store from you for future readers and those of us who have already become huge fans?

I have eight completed novels and am working on my ninth.  The novel I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with is titled, When Lions Stood as Men.  It’s the story of a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and end up in my land of Ohio.  Struggling with the guilt of surviving the Holocaust, they create their own camp of judgment.  Being both the guards and the prisoners, they punish themselves not only for surviving, but for the sins they know they cannot help but commit.

 

There is no way to thank Tiffany McDaniel enough for giving me the opportunity to pose these questions to her, and more importantly, for writing a novel that has completely transformed my summer!  I hope you give it the chance to do the same for you.  The Summer That Melted Everything is, by the farthest of fars, the best book I’ve read in 2016, and, with a bit less than half of the year to go, I have very little doubt that it won’t end up being my favorite read of the year!

The Devil Went Down to Ohio: Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything

Sometimes a book affects you so deeply as to render you speechless, or nearly so.  Other times, a book will fill you with so many thoughts, ideas, questions and so much inspiration that you want to shout from the highest elevation, “Read this book or else!”  Sometimes a book accomplishes both feats simultaneously.  Such a wonder is Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything, due out from St. Martin’s Press on Tuesday, July 26.

The Summer That Melted Everything

“The heat came with the devil.  It was the summer of 1984, and while the devil had been invited, the heat was not.  It should’ve been expected, though.  Heat is, after all, the devil’s name, and when’s the last time you left home without yours?”  The devil’s name is also Sal, who arrives in Breathed, Ohio in the form of a young black boy who likes dogs and yearns for ice cream.

Sal comes to Breathed at the invitation of Autopsy Bliss (simply one of the most fabulous names in all of literature!), father of two and town prosecutor.  But Fielding Bliss, Autopsy’s youngest son, encounters Sal first and invites him home:  “If looks were to be believed, he still was just a boy.  Something of my age, though from his solemn quietude, I knew he was old in the soul.  A boy whose black crayon would be the shortest in his box.”  And so begins a summer of blistering heat, rising paranoia, and childhood innocence lost.

Tiffany McDaniel spins her tale from the point of view of Fielding, who speaks as both his teenage self and as the ruined 84-year-old man he eventually becomes.  As you begin to read The Summer That Melted Everything, you wonder how he ended up so hopeless and bitter.  By the end of the book you know.

Breathed is populated with myriad characters, all deep and fully-fleshed:  the aforementioned Autopsy; Dresden Delmar, an odd, introspective girl with a prosthetic leg; Fielding’s optimistic mom, Stella, with her global interior decorating skills and her phobic fear of rain and boiling things; rancorous, foul-mouthed Aunt Fedelia, whose method of staying cool in the heat is to lick her forearms; Elohim, a cruel midget whose paranoid leadership fosters hatred throughout the town; and finally, Grand Bliss – ah, lovely Grand with the perfect moniker – Fielding’s god-like, idolized older brother, who turns out to be just as human and tragic as any of us.

The Summer That Melted Everything is that rare book that I want to revisit yearly.  It’s so incredibly meaningful and lush that you could read it many times over and each time gain something new and glorious from it.  Passage after passage are both beautiful and painful at the same time.

Tiffany McDaniel’s book isn’t a joyful one and, in fact, can be downright depressing, reminding you of all of the evil in the world and the follies of misguided men.  But the language sings and soars, and you still feel better somehow for having read it.

How many sentences, paragraphs, entire pages did I want to quote for this review, to memorialize for my own remembrances?  Countless, but I only have so much space here and too many spoilers can ruin the wide-eyed experience of a new reader’s discovery.  How many times did I cry tears inside while reading Fielding’s and Sal’s story, yet in some way it’s not a complete downer.  I came away from the book wanting to be a better person and wanting to help others to be better people too.

I don’t know how to state it more clearly:  The Summer That Melted Everything is an astonishing accomplishment for any writer, much less a debut author like Tiffany McDaniel.  Equal parts Harper Lee and Shirley Jackson, with a dash of Ron Rash thrown in, McDaniel’s novel is destined to be a modern classic.  It should be required reading for all high schoolers and/or college students for the lessons it teaches of tolerance and intolerance, and vanished innocence (though it’s most definitely NOT young adult/new adult lit), and it should mop up come literary awards season.  If not, something is even more amiss with this already screwed-up world.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Trio of Twins (Sort of)

What are the odds that I would randomly read three books in a row that featured twins?  Two books maybe, but when twins showed up in the third book, even though they were minor characters, it started to get a little creepy.

Beside Myself  Eleanor  The Good Goodbye

Ann Morgan’s Beside Myself, out from Bloomsbury back on January 12, is a disturbing, little thriller, one that would make any set of twins think twice about pulling the switcheroo trick on folks.  As a young girl in late ‘80s/early ‘90s England, Helen convinces her twin Ellie to swap places to see who they can fool.  An innocent game, right?  Not so much, and the consequences bring disastrous results for Helen for the rest of her life.  Much emotional trauma and mental illness ensue and it’s difficult to tell the villains from the victims.  I felt for Helen and her predicament at times; at others, when she managed to dig her hole even deeper, I just wanted to give her a good smack.  Sometimes, I wondered if the entire identity switch never even happened, instead possibly being contained entirely within the confines of Helen’s scrambled-egg brain.  At all times, I deeply loathed Helen and Ellie’s utterly rigid and dysfunctional mother, a beast of a woman whose main goal is to appear perfect at all times.

Ann Morgan is a decidedly British writer in style and tone which suited me just fine, and she has crafted a fantastic psychological debut novel in Beside Myself.  Take the time to check this one out.

January 12 also brought Crown’s release of Eleanor by Jason Gurley, which features another set of identical twin sisters, Eleanor and Esmerelda.  A car accident claims Esmerelda at the age of six or seven, leaving Eleanor and her parents adrift.  Her mother retreats inwardly into alcoholism, while her father abandons the family home, leaving Eleanor to grow up with her mother’s drunkenness and increasing rage.  As Eleanor enters her teen years, her reality begins to shift in the weirdest of fashions.  As she passes through a school doorway, she suddenly finds herself plunked smack in the middle of a beautiful cornfield.  She eventually manages to fall back into her own world only to find much more time has passed than she realized.  The next time her world shifts she’s thrown into a rainy, muddy wilderness.  These transferences, always against her will, increase and ultimately she learns much about her family’s loss and her shattered parents.

As I read Eleanor, smartly-written and compelling, I couldn’t decide whether Gurley was aiming his tale at adults or young adults.  These days I realize that just as many adults are fans of YA lit as teens are so I suppose it’s a moot point.  It could also be called a modern fantasy novel, given its dream-world dimensions, or even literary speculative fiction.  Whatever.  I should just shut up and say I found it lovely and ethereal and sad.  No matter what you call it, Jason Gurley’s Eleanor is a damn good book.

Twins also factor in The Good Goodbye (release date:  January 19) by Carla Buckley, although they’re the younger brothers of Arden, who is the main event here along with her cousin, Rory.  Arden and Rory might as well be sisters though, growing up tightly together with Rory as the ringleader and Arden as her loyal disciple.  Told from the differing perspectives of Arden, Rory and Arden’s mother, Natalie, Buckley’s novel explores family dynamic and dysfunction in the wake of a dorm room fire that leaves both girls clinging to life in a hospital ICU.  How did the fire start?  Who started it?  Were Arden and Rory two points of a love triangle that suddenly disintegrated?  What secrets were they keeping from their parents?  There was more than enough suspense and trepidation to keep me turning pages.

Several themes abound here:  the strength of familial bonds and how much it takes to break them, parental pressure, teenage secrecy and manipulation of parents and each other.  Rory and Arden are complex characters, each driven by different impulses to succeed in academics and life in general.  They have a fierce, sisterly love for each other, yet Rory is more than a little manipulative with Arden, and Arden almost always willingly caves.  It was hard to like Rory, but even harder to like her domineering mother, Gabrielle; as a result, while I found Rory’s ways more than a little objectionable, it was easy to understand the source of her psyche.

I was absolutely dying to find out the cause of and motivation for the fire, and I have to say, while some reviewers have indicated the ending was a let-down, I found it completely satisfying.  But no spoilers here.  You’ll have to read it yourself.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of Beside Myself was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley; a review copy of Eleanor was provided to me by Crown Publishing via NetGalley; and finally, a review copy of The Good Goodbye was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley. I would like to thank each of these publishers for providing me the opportunity to read and review these titles. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part III

As I write this, I’m still riding the wave of elation and rapture that is the beautiful beat-down my Carolina Panthers gave to the Dallas Cowgirls on Thanksgiving.  Luuuuuuuuke!!!!!  Cam and the Dab!  11-0 baby!  And to think the Vegas odds makers initially had a 3-7 Dallas team as the favorite over my undefeated boys.  What in the fuck were they thinking?  I guess the Panthers still are, as they always have been, the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL.  But that was one collarbone and a 33-14 game ago.  How ‘bout some respect now, suckas?!

But forgive me my gloating.  Let’s get back to business.  Part III of the Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) is fresh out of the oven.

Fair and Tender Ladies – Lee Smith

I read across all genres, fiction and nonfiction, so long as it’s well written.  But Southern literature in all its variations is where my heart is, being a daughter of the South and all.  From Eudora Welty to George Singleton, from sweet, honeysuckle-scented stories to edgy Grit Lit, I love it all.

There are a multitude of contemporary authors you could start off with if your Southern lit education is lacking:  Reynolds Price, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, Tim Gautreaux.  Or you can go old school:  the aforementioned Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter.  The list is endless and stacked with literary behemoths.  I’d even go so far as to say that, in my opinion, no other region of the country is so steeped with written tradition and essence.

Fair and Tender Ladies

While there are any number of biscuit-and-gravy flavored books I could trot out here (it’d be easy to produce innumerable blogs posts about my Southern favorites alone), Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies has held a revered place in my heart for a long, long time.  One of my dirty little secrets is that I’m a sucker for epistolary novels, stemming from my reading at a very young age of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and Fair and Tender Ladies is composed entirely of the correspondence of Ivy Rowe, a young girl growing up in the mists of Appalachia.  The epistolary tale is a rare bird these days, as is letter writing itself, an art lost to the millennial generation born of the instant gratification of texting.  If I shoved this book into the arms of an under-thirty-something, most of them would look at me as if I’d sprouted two heads.  So all you millennials out there:  download this one onto your Kindle or your iPad or your smartphone and find out what real correspondence looks like.

Ivy’s first letters bear the misspellings and colloquialisms of her age and her environment, but this book wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if Lee Smith had prettied up the grammar.  It’s Ivy’s unaffected, down-home voice that, as politely as possible, still smacks you upside the head and knocks you flat on your ass squarely in the middle of a holler in the Virginia mountains.  As Ivy grows up and becomes a mother, then a grandmother, her words gain maturity and polish but her voice never loses its direction.

I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Smith a year or so ago at a book signing for her then-new release Guests on Earth, but it was Fair and Tender Ladies that I wanted her to sign.

 A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Call me a sellout for placing A Game of Thrones on my all-time favorites list, since by now everybody and his brother has either read the books or seen the HBO series, but hear me out.

A Game of Thrones

I had never been much of a fantasy or sci-fi reader (other than Tolkien) and, like what I imagine are quite a lot of folks, I might have even considered myself above genre fiction of that sort.  I lumped it in with romance and took a literary snob’s view that most of its writers were hacks.  I have to admit I still feel that way about romance novels – I have yet to find a romance author who I think has any serious literary chops (yes, I hear the boos and hisses from the romance crowd – just don’t throw any tomatoes!).  Keep in mind it’s just my opinion so if I’ve now managed to alienate you romance aficionados out there, try to change my mind and let me know who you think is worthy.  I can be open-minded . . . I think.

So around early spring 2011, I hit a wall in my reading.  I was coming off a rough two or three years with my dad’s illness and then passing, and all of a sudden I found that I just didn’t want to read about real people with real problems (i.e., pretty much all fiction AND nonfiction).  I had had enough problems of my own to deal with for a while.  “Bon”, the attorney I work with who I’ve mentioned in a previous post, and a serious fantasy buff, suggested several of his sword and dragon favorites as potential escapes and alternatives.  I was skeptical but I figured, what the hey . . . so I picked up A Game of Thrones . . . and LIFE WAS NEVER THE SAME!

I landed smack dab in the middle of Westeros somewhere near The Wall and suddenly I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and no amount of heel-clicking was going to bring me back home any time soon.  That was fine with me; I didn’t want to be at home anyway.  I had developed some pretty asinine assumptions over the years about fantasy novels and their authors in general, but George Martin and his Starks and Lannisters put paid to that in short order.  These weren’t your cookie cutter wizards, fairies, knights saving damsels in distress.  These guys (and the girls too) were snarky, conniving, deadly, and charming as hell all at the same time.  Plus there were badass dragons.  Dragons are like horses, if horses could fly and barbecue your ass to cinders.  I fell in with Ned, Jon, Arya, Sansa (well, maybe not Sansa; she’s a little too sniveling for my taste), Tyrion, Jamie, Cersei, Daenerys, the Hound, et al. like I’d known them my whole life, then proceeded to be absolutely astounded at the rate in which George Martin slashed and burned his main characters.  Oh, and did I mention the man can write?

In all fairness, I should probably have just listed the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series as my entry here.  I read all five of the existing books in the series straight through, something I NEVER EVER do with series fiction.  Placing them here on a list of what is supposed to be my great literature recommendations may still seem like a cop-out to some of you higher-minded readers.  But what makes these books so special to me is that they accomplished two important things:  they provided me a welcome and ready safe haven when real life was taking a toll, and they offered a jumping-off point into a genre at which I’d previously sneered and of which I’m now a giant fan.  I’ve since read Nalo Hopkinson, Kevin Hearne, John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Glen Cook, China Mieville, Anne McCaffrey, Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke, and the list goes on.

Do yourself a favor and try reading something outside of your comfort zone.  It doesn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi.  For you it might be horror or biography, mystery or history.  You might surprise yourself (like I did) and open up whole new worlds of exploration, enjoyment and knowledge.  And isn’t that what reading’s all about?

Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

I receive advance reading copies (ARCs) from publishers for review purposes from time to time and I always make it a practice to read them in order of publication date.  I do this so my reviews will be as timely as possible and roughly coincide with each book’s release.  So when I finished The Early Stories of Truman Capote (November 23, 2015), I flipped to the next ARC on the list and came up with Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise.  Okay . . . so . . . the book I read immediately preceding the Capote collection was Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End.  Were the book gods really going to make me read two Twain-based novels nearly right in a row?   Apparently so.  If I weren’t so damned OCD about my hard and fast publication date rule, I would have just put the Hijuelos aside for a month or so and come back to it later, but I’m a little anal about these things so I hunkered down and prepared to dive back into the world of Samuel Clemens.

If you read my November 11, 2015 post on Lynn Cullen’s book, you know that her Twain was a rancorous dude not much interested in giving a rodent’s posterior about anyone but himself.  So I wondered what kind of light Oscar Hijuelos was going to shine on the old coot.  A radically different one as it turns out.

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise orbits around the actual, lifelong friendship of Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, controversial African explorer and supposed utterer of the legendary “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” line.  Twain comes off more like the revered figure most of us imagine, a better family man and friend than the one Lynn Cullen would have us know.  He’s a relatively considerate pal, a devoted husband and father, and just an all-around much nicer bloke to hang out with.  However, Stanley, not Twain, is the real star of the show here, as his voice is the principal one Hijuelos uses to narrate his sprawling tale.  The novel spans at least 50 or so years and we’re with Stanley every step of the way in his life, beginning with his arrival in New Orleans as a penniless orphan from Wales, to his first meeting with Twain on a Mississippi River steamer (Twain then being known only as Samuel Clemens and prior to his immense literary fame), to the sweltering jungles of both Cuba and Africa and finally to pastoral England.  We even backtrack a little to Stanley’s childhood before his abandonment by his mother and his eventual orphandom (okay, so the jury’s still out on whether “orphandom” is actually a word).

Hijuelos employs several narrative devices to relay the intertwining stories of Twain and Stanley.  At times he writes in the third person, giving the novel the feel of a Stanley biography instead of a fictional interpretation, and I frankly had to remind myself on a multitude of occasions that this wasn’t a biography.  Other times the epistolary voice takes over in the form of letters between Stanley and Twain and correspondence exchanged between Twain and Dorothy Tennant, Stanley’s portraitist wife.  Yet other chapters are set forth in the first person as either Stanley’s or Dorothy’s journal entries.  This constant tone shifting has the whole thing coming off as slightly schizophrenic, and truly the thing works best when it’s simply Stanley doing the talking from the pages of his diary.

For those expecting Hijuelos’ usual exuberant, Cuban-American themed fare, Twain & Stanley is a divergence, although the two men do venture together into Cuba searching for Stanley’s potential adoptive father (NOTE:  The Cuba jaunt is completely fictional, not based on any actual trip taken by the pair, although much of the book is rooted in the facts of their relationship as best could be gleaned from Hijuelos’ extensive research).  In all fairness, the author died unexpectedly before he ever submitted Twain & Stanley for publication so one can only presume that he didn’t get the chance to further shape, polish and winnow down his manuscript prior to his death.  According to his wife’s afterword, Hijuelos had been fascinated by Henry Morton Stanley since his teenage years, and the research and travel that form the underpinnings of this book were a labor of love that spanned more than twelve years.  You have to wonder though, had Hijuelos lived, would he be completely satisfied with the rambling Twain & Stanley we’re left with or would he still have some tweaking to do?

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Early Stories of Truman Capote

The Early Stories of Truman Capote

Growing up in the ‘70s, I always thought Truman Capote was an actor.  You see, I had only seen him on the multitude of talk shows (Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, etc.) watched by my parents and grandparents, and as Lionel Twain in the movie Murder by Death.  It wasn’t until a good deal later, probably in junior high or even high school, that I realized he was far more well known as an author, and a damned good one at that evidently.

But even having been clued in to his status as a fine, fine writer for some time now, of all of his works I still have only managed to read In Cold Blood to date.  I realize I have a lot of catching up to do.

The stories collected in The Early Stories of Truman Capote are thought to have been written by Capote between the ages of 11 and 19 and, in truth, seven of the stories were actually published in his high school newspaper.  According to the book’s afterword, “Louise”, one of the seven, was awarded second place in his school’s writing contest.  Second?  You have to wonder how the winner felt years later when Capote became a literary force.  Did she (if it was a she) giggle to herself that her writing was once judged better than Truman Capote’s, or did he (if it was a he) want to crawl under a rock?

Most of these stories take place in the South of his early childhood and you can practically feel the sticky summer heat and humidity rising sinuously off the pages.  In “Mill Store”, a jaded store clerk watches picnickers fish, swim and chow down on the banks of the creek behind her workplace, remembering a moment when she had fished the stream herself and caught “two moccasins.  How she had screamed when she pulled the snakes up, twisting, flashing their slimy bodies in the sun, their poisonous, cotton mouths sunk into her hook.”  First of all, I screamed myself when I read this and the visual still gives me the shiverin’ heebie-jeebies.  Secondly, that memory becomes even more prescient when the clerk is called upon to save a young victim of snakebite.

A stubborn boy fails to heed the advice of his cagier friend and pays a deadly price for his actions in “Swamp Terror”, while the swamp is also the downfall of a desperate woman newly escaped from jail in “The Moth in the Flame”.  Two high school girls each possess their own dark secrets in “Hilda” and “Louise” and add to the sense of desolation that washes over many of these stories.

But all isn’t complete doom and gloom in these worlds the youthful Capote asks us to inhabit.  While still a tearjerker, “This Is for Jamie” is my favorite of the bunch in which a selfless eight-year-old generously brings gifts for a sick boy he’s never met and reaps the reward, proving that good things do happen to good people.  Or maybe I just like this one because there’s a dog.  I’m a sucker for dogs.  Dogs make everything better.

If you’re like me and a relative Capote rookie, I probably wouldn’t recommend The Early Stories of Truman Capote as a place to start your Tru education.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the collection.  I actually did.  But I don’t think it provides a newbie with anything remotely approaching a good overview of what he later produced.  As a rule, these stories lack polish (not unexpectedly) and some end so abruptly you feel like you’ve been left dangling precariously over a gaping hole.  But despite all that there’s no doubt that, even at such a young age, Capote was going to be a master at setting a stage, creating a world in which to plunk his characters down so they could take root and blossom.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

 

 

A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part II

Only two titles on the list today.  I was going to add a Lee Smith novel here as well but I ranted on so long about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (which is kinda funny given the reason I give below for not finishing it) and The Fountainhead that I think I’ll give Ms. Smith’s lovely little book its due in the next installment.  With that said, you’ll find two more of the BESTEST BOOKS EV-AH below.

Far Tortuga – Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga

If you’re familiar with Peter Matthiessen’s work, Far Tortuga may seem an odd choice for this, a list of books I’d want with me on a desert island.   He’s far better known for novels such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord and the Shadow Country trilogy, as well as nonfiction like In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.  Far Tortuga is, or was at the time, worlds apart from anything else he’d produced, a novel written almost in verse and definitely in a non-traditional format.  The sea and its Caribbean environs are characters just as important as the crew of the ill-fated turtle hunting boat, the Lillias Eden, whose last voyage is the subject of the book.  I came to Far Tortuga already a Matthiessen devotee, having discovered him along with Edward Abbey (see my Baker’s Dozen, Part I post, October 19, 2015) in my mid-twenties, and I had already read In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The Cloud Forest, and African Silences (all nonfiction) when I picked this up for the first time.  The words on the page look and read like a prose poem, not the pedestrian paragraphs of your Average Joe of a novel, so I, not being the biggest poetry fan in the world, gave this book the big ol’ side-eye when I turned to the first page.  But I found myself drawn into the Calypso-like rhythm of the sailors’ voices (“…Speedy-Boy, you best cotch turtles one time in dis life just so you know it”) and what I thought was going to be a chore to read flows like the clear, blue Caribbean itself.

Matthiessen, along with that cantankerous Abbey, was somewhat of a hero of mine back in the day.  In addition to being an award-winning writer (he won the National Book Award three times), he was a naturalist, environmental activist, co-founder of The Paris Review, and, believe it or not, for a period of time a CIA agent!  Matthiessen and Abbey went to town on my brain in the early ‘90s as I gobbled up book after book written by the both of them, and together they imbedded into my grey matter a still-unwavering love of nature and wilderness.  I was never the same after encountering those two.  Sadly, Peter Matthiessen died last year at age 86 after a battle with cancer.  We still have his words.

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead

And I bet you thought Atlas Shrugged was going to be my Ayn Rand choice.  Not hardly.  I have yet to finish that effin’ doorstop of a book.  It’s not that I don’t get that Atlas is supposed to be one of the greatest books ever written, and it’s not that I didn’t even like it somewhat, finding it, as I did, actually pretty relevant to some of the economic issues America is experiencing today.  It’s that, in Atlas, Rand becomes the absolute queen of belaboring the point.  Why be concise and clearly express an idea once when you can pound it into someone’s friggin’ head fifty different ways?  There’s a Dilbert comic strip that expresses my sentiments about Atlas Shrugged perfectly (I can’t reproduce it in its entirety here, but I will quote it, with many thanks to Scott Adams).  Imagine I’m Alice and Ayn Rand is Topper (at least I think it’s Topper in this particular strip):

Frame 1:          Alice:  “Excuse me, by my count, you’ve said the same thing 27 times, using different words.”

Frame 2:          Alice:  “If I can get sworn statements from everyone here that we understand your point, will you stop talking?”

Frame 3:          Topper:  “That’s mighty rude of you.”

Frame 3:           Alice:  “I don’t get your point.  Can you repeat it 26 more times?”

But, unlike Alice, I do get Rand’s point.  She told me once and I got it the first time.  Didn’t need to hear it again.  I finally gave up about two-thirds of the way through.  I’ll give it another shot sometime in the future.   After all, my relatively non-bookish Hubs finished it and liked it, and I can’t let him show me up.

But, oh yeah, I was supposed to tell you why I like The Fountainhead, which is, in my opinion, the best Ayn Rand book and one of my favorite books of ALL TIME.  It was given to me, again in my mid-twenties, by an attorney I worked for at the time who was also a good friend.  I don’t know why he thought I’d like it and I was a little perplexed when he gave it to me, but his gift was spot on.  Rand’s story is of an unconventional, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish, up-and-coming young architect, Howard Roark.  Roark is highly innovative, absolutely refusing to give in to convention with his designs, and this is the account of his fight against rivals who are threatened by his genius and will try destroy his reputation at all costs.  His unwillingness to cave in the face of the interminable obstacles that he faces in his rise to the top of his profession is pretty damned admirable.  Believe me, his enemies throw everything AND the kitchen sink at him trying to bring him down.

You know, I really can’t pinpoint exactly why I like this book so much.  It’s about architecture, which doesn’t exactly blow my skirt up.  I know an ugly building when I see one, but other than that, my knowledge and interest in the subject goes about as far as Frank Lloyd Wright.  And who doesn’t know Frank Lloyd Wright?

It’s a book I don’t think I would have picked up on my own at the time (or maybe even now), but since it was given to me I felt obligated to read it and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t get my sniffly, allergy-ridden nose out of it.  It is very dramatic, with lots of tension and teeth-gnashing, and I think it just comes down to the fact that Ayn Rand wrote an epic potboiler of a novel.  In any event, along with Far Tortuga, it’s time for a re-read.

Part III of the Dozen is in the offing, and I suspect it will have strong whiff of Southern Lit to it (smells like magnolias, ya’ll) as well as a little dab of fantasy.  Adios, peeps!