End of Year Book List for 2018

imageSo, last year I posted my book list, showing that I had read 44 books in 2017. Not sure what this says about me (I’m a slacker?) but in 2018 I only read 38 books—just over one book every two weeks. In comparing the two years, I can’t figure out how I read 18 fewer books this year than the previous, since in 2017 I published 3 books and traveled to over 40 events in 7 states for those books, whereas in 2018 I published 1 book and only traveled to about 25 events in 5 states. Where did my reading time go in 2018? A close examination of my life indicates that I probably spent those remaining reading hours watching television. Yes. I love to watch television. This might be unusual for a writer, but I grew up watching TV (starting in the mid 1950s when we got our first set) and didn’t become a reader until I was in my 50s! I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a writer, which explains a bit about my love for the screen.

In my (self) defense, I will say that in 2018 I WROTE another book—my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY—so there’s that. (Pats self on the back.) And I organized my personal essay collection, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED, into sections and wrote the introduction. And I spent a good deal of time querying literary agents and independent presses for both of these books. (Pats self on the back. Again.)

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to notice the types of books I read each of these years:

2017: 23 fiction (all novels); 20 nonfiction (9 memoirs, 1 collection of micro-memoirs, 2 spiritual/religious, 2 psychology/self-help, 5 inspiration/essays, 1 art/history); and 1 poetry collection. 18 of those 44 books were by authors I know personally.

2018: 19 fiction (16 novels, 2 short story collections, 1 book of 4 novellas); 15 nonfiction (5 memoirs, 4 spiritual/religious/inspirational books, 3 essay collections, 1 oral biography, 2 psychology/self help);4 poetry collections. 24 of the 28 books I read in 2018 were by authors I know personally.

So, here’s my list of books read in 2018, actually in the order in which I read them. I’m taking a risk of hurting my friends’ feelings, since I know 23 of these authors, but I’m going to put an asterisk by my favorites. Please keep in mind how very subjective this is—certain topics and stories resonate with people who have shared experiences and interests—and not always an indication of how excellent the prose is, although in some cases that’s the reason for the asterisk. I will also add that I read the first 100 pages or so of THE FRIEND, winner of the National Book Award, but lost interest. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a dog person? As a writer, I wanted to see what it was about the book that won it such a prestigious award. Just didn’t get it. See how subjective this is? (NOTE: THE FRIEND did make the New York Time’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2018. So did 2 books I read and liked very much, IN PIECES by Sally Field and EDUCATED by Tara Westover.
What’s up next for me in 2019? Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Patti Reagan Davis’s memoir about her father’s journey with Alzheimer’s, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON, edited b y Christine Flanagan, are on top of my stack (which is huge!) . . . but I’ll be going to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January again, where I’ll visit with over 50 fellow authors and lots of prolific readers, so no telling how many books I’ll come home with!

Mourning DoveHappy reading in 2019! Please leave a comment here or on Facebook and tell me YOUR favorites books read in 2018! HAPPY NEW YEAR

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

*Gradle Bird by J.C. Sasser (my review is here)

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley (my review is here)

*Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton (my review is here)

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life by Nicole Roccas (my post about this book is here)

*My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy as told to Katherine Clark (my Q & A with author Katherine Clark is here)

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Mississippi by Ann Fisher-Wirth (poems) and Maude Schuyler Clay (photography)

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (my review is here)

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick (my review is here)

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

Tracking Happiness by Ellen Morris Prewitt (my review is here)

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

*The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis (read my chat with Fiona Davis here)

Rush by Lisa Patton (read my interview with Lisa here)

*Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt (my review here)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

A Southern Season: Four Stories from a Front Porch Swing (incl. Claire Fullerton)

Becoming Mrs. Lewis*Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (a few words on this book here)

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

Navigating Disaster by Sheryl St. Germain (a few words about St. Germain here)

Madstones by Corey Mesler

*Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key (my review here)Congratulations

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

Educated

Tara+Westover19593_V1I swear I was drawing comparisons of Tara Westover’s memoir EDUCATED to Jeanette Walls’  THE GLASS CASTLE before I read the same comparison in a blurb by Susannah Cahalan on the back cover! I don’t think I got more than a few chapters in before I could see the resemblance . . . the hardscrabble lives that both Westover and Walls lived as children growing up in violent dysfunctional families . . . and especially the love they each maintained for their abusive parents. I think that love and forgiveness are what stand out as most powerful to me in this book. I kept thinking “Get out of there, Tara!” over and over as she returned to the home and environment that almost killed her several times. The power her parents held over her is a testament to the strength of certain mental illness cocktails, such as her father’s bipolar/schizophrenic/narcissism.

west_9780399590504_jkt_all_r2.inddSet in the mountains of rural Idaho in a fundamentalist Mormon sect, Tara and her siblings barely survived their father’s delusional and often violent behavior.  The fact that she was able to leave—much less study and receive advanced degrees at Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge, is nothing short of a miracle. Did I mention that she never went to elementary, middle, or high school? And received no organized schooling at home?

If Westover’s story isn’t enough to fill a great memoir, her writing is the icing on the cake. She has an obvious gift with words, which was only enhanced by the education she received once she was able to escape the bounds of home. And maybe even while living at home, as she read and studied in secret. And by observing her family and the world around her.

I’m a slow reader, but I read this in just a few days. Okay, I’ve been sick and staying home for most of the past two weeks, but usually I resort to television when I don’t feel well. I could not put this book down. It’s up at the top of my favorite books of 2018 now. (I’ll publish my list soon.)

Kudos to Westover for having the courage to not only survive the terrors of her childhood, but to thrive as she moved out to get an education, and then to share her story with the world.

In Pieces

In PiecesIt’s been a few years since I read and reviewed a celebrity memoir . . . . back in 2014 I reviewed Diane Keaton’s book, Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty. She still remains my favorite actress, but I’m also a big fan of Sally Field. So when I saw she had a memoir out—In Pieces—I was immediately interested. And she wrote it herself—taking seven years and lots of literary and emotional energy to achieve what I think is a really good memoir. This article in the New York Times says that Fields “reveals a personal history, darkened by abuse and illuminated by grace, that she has never shared before.”

One thing I loved about the book was how Field writes with such immediacy, often saying that she “only now” realizes such and such about an event from her childhood or early adulthood, as she is writing the memoir. Writing in present tense increased this feeling of immediacy—of discovery—which is so important to memoir. As writers we often write to understand our world and our lives, and this is definitely the case with Field’s memoir.

If you don’t already know, or suspect, she was sexually abused by her stepfather for much of her childhood. But she didn’t know until she was in her sixties and her mother was in her eighties that her mother knew about it—or some of it—and did nothing. I wept as she described her reconciliation with her aging mother, wishing that I had talked with my own mother about my grandfather before she lost her memories to Alzheimer’s. It’s always been my fear that he molested her, as he did me, which would explain a lot about her obsession with food, weight (hers and mine), and later her alcoholism. I hope that my readers—and especially Field’s readers—will seek out the people in their lives with whom they need to have healing conversations while they are still alive.

One thing that struck me strongly in the book was how Field wasn’t able to really enjoy her success as an actress. Even when she won the Academy Award for Sybil, her first serious acting role, her self-image was so damaged that she couldn’t really let herself celebrate. By the time she landed the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, her confidence had grown, but there is always a shadow over her joy. She grows into a wise woman, though, and I’ll close with these words near the end of the memoir:

How you care for your child from the time they are born until they’re eighteen is important, but who you are as a person and parent for as long as you live also counts, and counts one hell of a lot.

Congratulations, Who Are You Again?

IMG_5884Writing from Seagrove Beach, Florida this Thanksgiving weekend feels like writing from home. I’m staying in the location where I spent several month-long writing retreats several years ago working on my novel CHERRY BOMB. It’s also where my family has shared several wonderful vacations, and where our daughter was married in 2011. Right here on this gorgeous white sandy piece of heaven. And now I feel like Seagrove Beach is once again the venue for something important in my life—possibly an awakening to where I am in the pursuit of my dream of being a “successful” author. And how did I get here? By reading Harrison Scott Key’s wonderful new memoir, CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN?

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

At Novel Books in Memphis, Tennessee.

Harrison and I met at the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where he won an award for an essay he submitted. The essay, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir,” was published in Creative Nonfiction Journal in 2015, and Harrison allowed me to reprint it in the anthology I edited, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, which came out this past May. He was on a panel with me for the anthology at the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s Visiting

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September.

Harrison joined me on a panel for Southern Writers on Writing in Blufton, SC in September. Standing: Jonathan Haupt, Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry, Harrison Scott Key. Seated: Cassandra King, Susan Cushman

Author event in Blufton, South Carolina, in September. Our other common thread is that we have both lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. And one more common thread is that he now lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he teaches at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design), which was the setting for much of my novel CHERRY BOMB, for which he wrote a generous blurb. It was fun catching up with Harrison when he gave a talk about his new book at Novel bookstore in Memphis recently.

I loved Harrison’s first book, THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAN, so I was expecting to love this one, too. But I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, as a writer and as a wounded human, that I would decide that it’s my FAVORITE READ OF 2018. After several failed attempts at writing a memoir about my own sad childhood, sexual abuse, and ongoing healing, I gave up and let my truth feed my novel CHERRY BOMB (2017). Harrison didn’t chicken out, on either of his books. This is creative nonfiction at its best – telling true stories with all the elements of great fiction. Raw. Honest. His words cause me to reconsider whether my own dream has already come true, or if it is (hopefully) still a work in progress:

“My dream came true, it did: I can access the light inside me, what little there is . . . for a book, like any work of art, helps you find a bit of your own light, and my light is silly, and my light is sad, and on good days, my light is true, and I can shine it now….”

All of us—not only writers and artists and musicians, but also those who teach, heal, build things, design things, and even sell things—need to find the light inside us. And finding that light can help us heal. It can help us fill the holes we all have inside us:

“A story is an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and what makes it so very hard for the writer is that when you start to write, you don’t necessarily know the nature of the treasure or even what the map looks like. All you need is a human with an empty place inside them they’re hoping to fill. That’s what a story is. We turn the page because we all have the hole in us, too, and we’re all trying to fill it, and we’re hoping the story will give us some ideas about how to do that.”

We’re also hoping that a book—or even a good short story or essay and especially maybe a good poem—will help us better understand ourselves and our world. As Harrison says:

“Hadn’t I written my book to lay bare the complexity of a family I’d never fully understood, and who, with every story, every remembered moment, showed itself to be more original and full of love and truth and pain than I’d thought possible? Isn’t that why you tell stories, to understand the thing you are telling?”

Yes, and no. This is something I’m just beginning to learn in my own writing, so I was on the edge of my seat as I read on:

“A book is not a report of something that happened in the past, whether that past is real or imagined: The book is the thing that happened. The writing is the action. The art is the knowing. Which is why you cannot write what you know. You can only really write what you want to know…. You paint a painting to see what the painting will look like. If you knew before you started, why would you need to paint it?”

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

Reading CONGRATULATIONS, WHO ARE YOU AGAIN? at Seagrove Beach on Thanksgiving Day, with my husband, Bill.

If we heed Harrison’s words here, we (writers) will avoid the common mistake of “telling” our readers what happened or is happening, simply reporting on the events of the story, and we’ll begin to “show” them—and ourselves—what it is we are coming to understand as we write.

As a writer, I could relate to much of Harrison’s writing and publishing and book tour stories, and I think his journey to find his dream can apply to people in all walks of life. The fact that he writes about the difficult things of everyday life with such amazing humor is icing on the cake. This is a MUST READ for anyone with a dream. Or anyone who needs to have a dream. Which is everyone.

Through An Autumn Window

51nwjOSBCwL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My friend and native Memphian Claire Fullerton—author of the wonderful novel Mourning Dove, which I reviewed here—has just had a novella/long short story published in a new collection:

A Southern Season: Four Stories From a Front Porch Swing.

I haven’t read the other three stories, but I started with Claire’s and read it yesterday. “Through An Autumn Window” is set in Memphis in the fall, so it was perfect reading for me since I live in Memphis and it’s fall here!

“Through An Autumn Window” is told through the voice of forty-year-old Cate Goodwyn, a Memphis native who is returning home from California for her mother’s funeral. Cate loves fall, and Claire’s words capture that love and the magic of the season beautifully:

Everything about the fall offers something to intrigue me: wind and mist and all things unseen. I’ve always liked the idea of that which lies beneath the surface. Even my way of God-fearing has a sense of mystical magic. There’s something about fall’s hesitant introspection that speaks to the core of my being, when everythig on earth takes a big exhale before winter comes barreling through to freeze it.

After giving us a lyrical glimpse into fall in the South, Claire gets more specific as she writes through Cate’s voice about her home town, Memphis:

The Memphis I know is coiffed but understated to an elegant degree. It is tasteful without being flashy. Homespun without being down-home…. Because the thing of it is, the Memphis I know is tightly woven. It’s a web of connections to an old family milieu, and it’s the rare one, such as me, that ever strays outside it.

And later she expands this description:

When you grow up with a mother like mine, a product of the old South, in a Southern city that feels more like a small town, as Memphis does, there’s a pitch and roll to the milieu, to your makeup that no move to California or anywhere else on the planet will ever effect.

As a native of Jackson, Mississippi, I could imagine myself writing in a soulful way about my home town, but I’ve lived in Memphis for thirty years, and I still don’t feel the “web of connections” here, and I’ll never have the “old family milieu” that Claire writes about, and that makes me a bit sad. As I read this story, I found myself wishing that I had grown up in Cate’s world.  Even though I’ve lived for the past six years in my favorite neighborhood ever—Harbor Town—Cate’s family was the first to live here back in 1987, when the neighborhood was first developed. She grew up here in this magical place where I often still feel like a visitor. But enough about me.

Cate’s mother Daphne Goodwyn is the quintessential Southern belle, even as she struggles with cancer as she nears seventy, “Because she wouldn’t allow herself unseemly behavior, she acted as if her cancer was little more than the flu.” 

I love this glimpse into her mothering style, and her skill at passing down her personal take on life to her daughter, as she entered kindergarten:

‘The trick to making new friends is to make eye contact,’ my mother continued. ‘Keep a smile on your face, and let your new friend do the talking. This way you can appear interested. People always like those that do.’ In no uncertain terms, in that indelible instant, I learned the game rules of Southern society to see me through the rest of my life.

Cate later describes the relationship between her mother and her mother’s best friend, Melia:

They were the way-showers who taught by the power of feminine example. They were role models who kept Southern culture beautiful by keeping everything light and pleasant.

Even when someone was dying. Or when there’s a funeral to attend, and a bossy older brother, sleazy step-father, and obnoxious step niece (?) to deal with. As Cate says, “the one thing I knew from my history with Southern funerals is that all you have to do is wait for it because something always goes wrong.

Claire and me at her reading for MOURNING DOVE at Novel Memphis earlier this fall.

Claire and me at her reading for MOURNING DOVE at Novel Memphis earlier this fall.

I won’t tell you what goes wrong in the story—no spoilers here—but I found myself remembering my own mother’s funeral from just over two years ago in Jackson, Mississippi, and being thankful that there weren’t any contentious people to deal with. And unlike Cate—who lost her mother at age seventy—I lost mine at age eighty-eight after a long journey with Alzheimer’s. I had actually “lost” her years earlier, so my grief was different than Cate’s. But I could understand her thoughts as she expressed them internally:

I now belonged to this gracious, well-mannered domain in a different context, and it came to me with confliction that no woman truly discovers who she is until the day she buries her mother, when she is left to walk this earth alone.

If the other stories—from winter, spring, and summer—are anything like Claire’s autumn tale, I’m really going to enjoy the rest of this book. I don’t know the other three authors, but I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse into their psyches and writing style as I pour myself into their stories. Kudos to Claire for her beautiful, lyrical writing, and powerful images in this story of autumn in Memphis!

RUSH

Lisa Patton w me at NovelI recently had the pleasure of meeting author Lisa Patton in person, when she spoke at Novel books in Memphis, where she was launching her new novel RUSH. Lisa is a Memphis native, living in Nashville now. And although she went to school at the University of Alabama, she chose to set her story of sorority rush at the University of Mississippi. Next Sunday, September 30, is BID DAY at Ole Miss, so this is a good week to be thinking about what those girls are going through in the final days of rush.
RUSH is set in 2016, so a lot has changed since I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss back in 1969. Reading about all the drama made me wonder how much was exaggerated, and I couldn’t wait to talk with Lisa Patton about this. I’m excited that she agreed to answer a few questions.

Susan:  Hi, Lisa. I loved meeting you at Novel in Memphis at the launch for your new book RUSH. It’s always wonderful to celebrate with fellow Memphis authors! I know you said at the event that you went to Alabama, and yet you chose to set RUSH at Ole Miss. I pledged Tri Delt at Ole Miss (back in 1969!) and I’m sure much has changed in these almost 50 years, but I’m wondering how much you exaggerated the drama surrounding rush, and even the social milieu. Are there really dorm decorators? And do the moms/alums really get so involved? The way you portrayed Lilith Whitmore, the House Corp President of Alpha Delta Beta (a fictional sorority) reminded me a bit of how Kathryn Stockett portrayed the junior league ladies like Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt in her novel THE HELP.  (I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, so I lived through much of what Stockett wrote about.)

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I'm the second from the right on the second row from the bottom...with the bright yellow hair!

Pledge class of Delta Delta Delta at Ole Miss in 1969. I’m the second from the right on the second row from the bottom…with the bright yellow hair!

Lisa: I loved meeting you, too, Susan! I’ve heard so many lovely things about you over the years and all I can say is: “It’s about time!” I didn’t exaggerate the rush drama at all. I had a bank of young collegians from not only Ole Miss but other SEC schools that kept me informed on all the current goings on. The mamas turn into Nervous Nellies and yes, the alums are very involved. Getting the story right was paramount; after all rush is one of the most sacred rituals in the South. And yes, there are dorm decorators! I interviewed the most prominent one in Mississippi for over two hours one night. She was incredibly generous with her information.

thI decided to set the novel at Ole Miss over Alabama for three reasons: First, Alabama wins too much ;-0! Some people love to hate The Tide and I couldn’t take a chance on a person not reading my story because of it. Second, as a Memphian I like to set my stories in my beloved hometown, and thirdly, Eli Manning had just been nominated for the Walter Payton Humanitarian of the Year Award and that fit perfectly within the context of my story. Lilith Whitmore, my antagonist, is satirical on purpose to make the point that although we try to cover it up, racism still runs deep. I wanted to use humor, exaggeration, and even ridicule to show that the southern racial divide still influences our decisions, whether we think so or not. Since THE HELP was set in the 60s, Kathryn Stockett didn’t need to use satire to portray Hilly Hollbrook or Elizabeth Leefolt. RUSH is set in modern day. Folks today are not as overt when it comes to racism. We’ve come a long way since the 60s but there’s still a long road to hoe.

Susan: I keep thinking of comparisons to THE HELP, especially with your chapters from the point of view of Miss Pearl—the beloved African American housekeeper at the Alpha Delta Beta house. Did you live in a sorority house at Alabama, and were you aware of similar struggles that the staff there had, regarding the lack of medical insurance and other benefits, for example? What is the situation like for the staff in these sorority houses today? Have the women living in those sorority houses ever actually done something to try to change that, the way Cali Watkins and the other Alpha Delts do in the book?

Lisa: I lived in my sorority house my senior year – third floor, right next to the TV room. We had daybeds in our rooms and slept on one big “sleeping porch.” I’ve often thought about those days and the deep great sleep I once enjoyed. The room was ice cold and we hunkered down under warm comforters. The noise from girls slipping in and out was blocked with the white noise from large fans. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sleep that hard today!

I was not aware of the struggles facing the staff at sorority houses. As much as I hate to admit it, I was a self-absorbed college student. I never once thought about it back then. And the ladies cooked and cleaned for us every day. When I learned about it as an alum (I’m betting most alums have not thought of it either) I was sorry I’d never considered their needs and hoped I could bring awareness by including it in my story. Most sorority and fraternity houses don’t offer staff benefits although some of the houses now outsource their staff for that reason.

Recently, I learned about a young woman at the Tri Delt house at Ole Miss who started a Go Fund Me page for their cook, Mr. Kenny. He had double hip replacement surgery and had to be off work for three months. Last I checked the page has raised $20K toward the $75K goal. That’s a perfect example of RUSH in action. I’m so proud of the young Tri Delt girls for helping Mr. Kenny.

Susan:  I’m also proud of my Tri Delt sisters at Ole Miss for helping Mr. Kenny! Like you, I wasn’t aware of our house staff’s needs at all when I was in school, so it’s encouraging to see this generation stepping up.

In an early scene in RUSH, you show the daughter of Lilith Whitmore getting drunk during the tailgating parties in the grove before the first football game of the season. How much do you think drinking is a problem on campuses like Ole Miss and Alabama today, and what do you think is being done, or needs to be done, to change the social milieu in order to make college a safer place for teenagers and young twenty-somethings?

Lisa: I think drinking is a problem on most college campuses. The drinking age was 18 when we were young so I think some parents are fine with their children drinking after they reach a certain age and tend to look the other way. I’ve heard of several providing a “safe place” like home for their kids and their kid’s friends to drink.  Honestly I don’t know what the answer is. Until fake IDs are controlled and parents stop looking the other way I doubt things will change. I’m not sure that there is an answer.

Susan:  Your earlier books—Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Yankee Doodle Dixie, and Southern as a Second Language—are all humorous. And your stylish humor is evident in RUSH, but you deal with serious topics. Did you set out to write a more serious book this time?

Lisa: Yes, I knew when I tackled the issues of race, equality, and inclusion the book would have to be more serious, but I love humor and I wanted to make sure my book had plenty of it. That’s why I used satire and poked fun at dorm room décor and mother daughter relationships. The most fun I had was writing about Wilda’s 81-year-old mother. I would sit in my room and laugh till tears rolled down my cheeks at the absurdity of her vanity and snobbery. As you well know, writing can be quite lonely. Without adding humor into my stories I would lose my ever-loving mind!

Thanks for taking time during your busy book tour to chat with us, Lisa. I really enjoyed RUSH and am only sorry that I didn’t think of writing it first! (Okay, that’s how I felt about THE HELP, too. And Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS. That’s my excuse for not writing a New York Times best-seller.)

Check out Lisa’s EVENT PAGE to see where you can catch up with her for a reading/signing. I’m looking forward to seeing her again at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, where she’s speaking at 12 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.  (And IF YOU GO… be sure and come to my panel at 3 p.m. on Friday, October 12, for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, with Lee Smith, River Jordan, and Niles Reddick!)

A Facebook Message Chat with Fiona Davis, Author of THE MASTERPIECE

THE+MASTERPIECE+LRG+cover+Fiona+DavisI just finished reading my third book by NYT best-selling author Fiona DavisTHE MASTERPIECE. I loved her first two books, THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. All three are set in New York City, where the author lives, and all three involve historic buildings. They are all examples of really good historic fiction, and involve characters from the past and present whose lives intersect in some way. Or, with THE MASTERPIECE, rather than writing in the present, the more recent parts of the book are in the 1970s, with the historic parts set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After reading the first hundred pages or so, I put a comment on Instagram with a picture of the book’s cover, noting how perfectly it fits the description inside the book of Clara’s appearance at the ball inside Grand Central Terminal, and even how the Terminal looked at the time.

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When I started following Fiona on Instagram, I loved that she would comment on my posts. After reading THE MASTERPIECE, I had a couple of questions for her and messaged her on Facebook. I was thrilled that she took time to respond, and I’m posting our conversation here:

SUSAN:

Hi, Fiona. I just finished THE MASTERPIECE and LOVE LOVE LOVE it! I also loved THE ADDRESS and THE DOLLHOUSE. I have a question. I Googled Clara Darden (did you know there’s a native American basket maker by that name?) but didn’t find an actual artist. Then I read your Author’s Note and Googled Helen Dryden, on whom Clara is obviously based. My question is why did you change her name? If it’s fiction, would it not have been okay to use her name? I’m asking because I fictionalized much of Elaine deKooning’s life in my novel CHERRY BOMB, and I used her real name. And I guess Levon is based on Gorky? Again, your decision not to use their real names?

FIONA:

Hi Susan! Thanks for reaching out and I’m glad you enjoyed it! I changed the names because while both characters were inspired by Gorky’s and Dryden’s, I wanted to go off in a different direction and have things happen to them (major things, like not dying in a mental home – poor Helen) that didn’t happen in real life. I think it’s fine to keep the same name if you’re generally tracking to the biography of the person, but making up conversations, thoughts, etc.

SUSAN:

I’m asking because I may write a “historical fiction” novel based on an artist or piece of art, and I wonder about using real names or not. Some of my favorite books are GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING, STRAPLESS, and A PIECE OF THE WORLD.

FIONA:

I love books like Pearl Earring, etc, where you feel like you’re right there with the artist or other real-life people. This was the first time I used the real-life person as a basis for a character – all my other books have characters who are completely made up. But I wanted to make the plot all my own, while being “inspired” by real people. I hope this makes sense!!

SUSAN:

Yes. I talked with an intellectual rights attorney before publishing CHERRY BOMB, and he advised me that it was okay to completely make up things about deKooning (like her having a daughter, which she didn’t) so long as I said it was a work of fiction, which I went into lots of detail about in my Author’s Note. But I wanted to use her name to attract art enthusiasts to the book. Not sure what I might do next time, but you’ve given me food for thought. I was just looking at your book tour… I live in Memphis…. wish you were coming here! Or to Square Books in Oxford! Or to Lemuria in Jackson, MS (my home town).

FIONA:

You were also smart to visit with a lawyer. Keep me posted on your next book and I’d love to hit Oxford – I’ve heard so many wonderful things about that town! Best, F.

Fiona’s words have definitely given me food for thought as I consider writing a novel based on—or inspired by—an artist or a work of art. I can see how my novel CHERRY BOMB is NOT historical fiction, in that I did not do what Fiona said, “generally tracking to the biography of the person,” but made up major life events that did not actually happen. So, if I want to do that in my next book, I guess it won’t be considered historical fiction either.

Now I’m wondering how much other authors “tracked with the biography” of the historical people they wrote about in books like THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain. I just got her latest book LOVE AND RUIN, which is about Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gelhorn, and can’t wait to read it. Also books like THE WOMEN by T. C. Boyle, which was about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wives and mistresses. I did a blog post a couple of years ago about this topic, “Circling the Roman a Clef,” if you’re interested in more discussion. Also from 2016, I read and wrote about “The Confessions of X.” I obviously haven’t settled the subject in my mind, which might be one reason I haven’t moved forward with another novel yet! If I ever settle on a protagonist, I’ll let you know.

Tracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

Tracking-Happiness-CoverTracking Happiness: A Southern Chicken Adventure

By Ellen Morris Prewitt

Book Review by Susan Cushman


Every time I picked up my copy of Tracking Happiness to read over the past week or so, the image on the cover brought a smile to my face. My friend—the gifted writer Ellen Morris Prewitt—is right there in her fleur de lis fishnet stockings, walking down the railroad track with her suitcase in tow, followed by a chicken. She IS Lucinda Watkins, the protagonist whose persona is a diverse and multi-layered as her wardrobe. (And for those who don’t know Ellen, she and her husband actually have a condo in the old train station in Memphis, and another one in New Orleans. She’s no stranger to trips on the City of New Orleans.)

Ellen-Morris-Prewitt-New-Author-PicEllen’s past experience as a runway model also comes through in her detailed but hilarious descriptions of Lucinda Mae’s wardrobe changes throughout the book:

The breeze whipped my dress, an orange pique A-line. I’d added psychedelic daisy bobby socks to my white patent leather Mary Janes. Going all out to impress Big Doodle. I’d finished with a pink straw pocketbook and plastic polka dot earrings.

Here’s another wardrobe change, and a brief description of one of her companions on the train ride:

I’d slipped a red tank top underneath my lavender cardigan. I topped it off with a knitted cap Pooh had made for me. Underneath the snug cap, I’d combed out my hair—time to move on in all things.

‘You don’t look so bad yourself.’ I fingered the suit jacket he’d thrown over the pink golf shirt, charcoal with those chalky white pinstripes that are so thick they don’t even deserve the name.

And one more wardrobe description:

The dress fit like Mylar. A sea foam green with plunging halter neck. The pleats in the halter hid the fact that I had no boobs, the scoop back dipped so low it sat on the shelf of my ass. Four-inch gold high heels and gold icicle earrings completed the effect.

Susan beauty parlot Tracking HappinessThe book actually opens in a beauty parlor—Ruth Ann’s Cut and Curl in downtown Edison, Mississippi, so I decided to finish reading it while getting my color done at my local salon.

But Tracking Happiness is so much more than a fashion commentary. Set mostly on a train trip that starts in Mississippi and goes all the way to San Francisco and back to Minnesota, with various stops along the way, the train itself becomes as colorful as its passengers, and Ellen’s prose captures them all brilliantly. Here’s a description of the club car when Lucinda goes there:

The chalky moonlight cast everything and everyone into the stark relief of some half-forgotten movie. The Bad Guys were played by the train staff. The Loner, played by the new lounge car attendant, sat on the edge of the group, coolly smoking a cigarette. The Victim was played by the mice, scurrying out form beneath the club tables. The Bad Guy’s weapon of choice was something resembling an oversized battery. The missile thunked! Whenever it hit a Victim…. A flabby white boy [Alfredo], who looked like the pasta sauce itself, chunked a battery at the mouse…. ‘You’d better hope there’s nothing to this karma business,’ I warned. ‘Or else you’re all coming back as lab rats.’ Afraid of what I’d find next, I returned to my berth and crawled back in bed.

And those were just minor characters! Ellen draws all her characters with a colorful and imaginative brush, as O’Connor might have done if she had Ellen’s sense of humor. Here’s another glimpse of her genius… this time in the home of her ballet-dancer friend Erik and his family’s oompah band:

Robert Gminski was slapping Clyde on the back and leading him to the bar. Karen, her halter top barely containing the snuggling whales, stroked Mother’s lime green suede jacket—had Mother Brought nothing but lime green on this trip? The twins popped hands over surprised mouth at Ikie tucked into Pooh’s pocketbook. Big Doodle was deeply engaged in a conversation with a man with a burr cut, something about an El Camino with no license plates. In the background, a loud thumping song played: ‘Smoke on the Water,’ oompah style. In the chaos, someone belted out ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald!’

If you’ve enjoyed these character cameos in lieu of a plot summary, I hope you’ll read the book. You can find a plot summary on Ellen’s web site, here. And you can read what Ellen says about her journey to write and publish this book in her recent blog post, “Given Where I Started From.”

The book is available on Amazon. A great end-of-summer read!

Reading the Coffee Grounds

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other StoriesReddick cover

by Niles Reddick

Book Review by Susan Cushman

As I write this review of Pulitzer nominee Niles Reddick’s latest short story collection, Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories, I am also taking a stab at working in this genre for the first time myself. As a novelist, memoirist, essayist, and anthology editor, writing short stories is a new experience for me. I’m in awe of how these stories seem to pour forth from Reddick’s pen in a way that appears so damn easy. But I’m also surprised as how much fun I’m having writing my own collection.

O. Henry said, “I’ll give you the whole secret to short story writing. Here it is. Rule 1: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule 2.”

I asked Reddick for his response to O. Henry’s “secret,” curious as to what it is that draws him to the genre. Here’s his reply:

“I was influenced by the short story genre as a college student and found my voice among the southern writers. The flash piece or short story is more in keeping with my work and family life from a time perspective, and as a reader, I love to read in this genre. I think short stories are making a comeback because of time.”

In this collection of forty-five (very) short stories, Reddick shows us why he is an award-winning author. His concise attention to detail, his equally gifted approach to the humorous and the grotesque—often combining the two—and his ability to make everyday events appear larger than life are all very much in the tradition of O’Connor and Welty. The stories in this collection could be called flash fiction, which, according to Writer’s Digest, can be defined as “complete stories of fewer than 1,500, 1,000, 500 or even 300 words.” Most of the stories in Coffee Grounds are less than 1,000 words. The writer’s challenge given this short span is to create a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end, while imbuing the characters with depth. Some of these stories, like “First Pitch,” read more like an anecdote or sweet memory, without the conflict and resolution that’s typical and expected in longer stories and novels. Eudora Welty explains how this works:

“A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”

For more to be suggested, every paragraph, every sentence, indeed every word, must be packed with action, emotion, details—everything necessary to draw the reader in and keep her attention, much like writing poetry. As Tobias Wolff says, “Everything has to be pulling weight in a short story for it to be really of the first order.” Ron Rash agrees, saying that “Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry – the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible – but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader.”

How did Reddick accomplish these goals in this group of stories? His opening story, “The Last Word,” (my personal favorite and a great choice for an opener) follows a multi-layered protagonist and her fascinating journey as an author and caregiver. I wanted her to be real so I could read her stories! In what appears to be less than 600 words, we fall in love with Annis. We care about her deeply and we don’t want the story to be over.

Many of Reddick’s characters are eccentric (there’s that O’Connor trait), like the old man with Alzheimer’s who grabs a woman’s ass in Wal-Mart, the wet nurse who uses afterbirth as a poultice to heal injuries, and the librarian who puts down her cancer-ridden rescue cats by holding them underwater until they drown, and whose three husbands died mysteriously. Most of the stories are light-hearted, but some have serious themes, like “The Jog,” which is about a rape; “Mud Island Monorail,” which involves a near-death experience; “Staying Close,” a cautionary tale about child abduction; and “Sanctuary,” which deals with crack cocaine and suicide.

Raymond Carver says, “It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” The story that best shows Reddick’s use of this power might be “The Graduate Cabin.” The longest in the collection—probably over 2,000 words—this one delivers a powerful punch with details about a UFO and Bigfoot sighting, a lesbian Wiccan, a Korean Army vet who explains his farting with his love for kimchi, Joan Baez, The Indigo Girls, and a French psychic. All in one story!

This morning I read a poem by a fifth grader on Roger Housden’s site (published in Poetic Medicine, by John Fox). “Waiting in Line” opens with these words:

“When you listen you reach
into dark corners and
pull out your wonders.”

That’s how I felt reading the stories in Reddick’s book. Like I was “pulling out wonders” as I encountered the colorful characters he created and the sometimes ordinary and sometimes extraordinary things they experience. Maybe this is how one should feel when encountering good short fiction. George Saunders seems to agree:

“When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.”

MOURNING DOVE: by Memphis Native Claire Fullerton

Mourning Dove coverMourning Dove

by Claire Fullerton

Review by Susan Cushman

How fun it was for me to read Claire Fullerton’s wonderful new novel, set in the social milieu of the Memphis Junior League, the Garden Club, the Memphis Country Club, and the city’s most elite private schools in the 1980s. I actually lived just a neighborhood away from the house where Camille (Millie) and Finley Crossan grew up, but my kids went to public schools in the late 1980s and 1990s, and we weren’t part of the upper echelon of the social fabric of Memphis. But I knew about it. And Fullerton captures it beautifully in her novel MOURNING DOVE, written through the voice of Millie, beginning in her teenage years and moving into her tumultuous time as a young bride.

But Fullerton doesn’t just capture the more polite elements of society in Memphis. She reaches into the heartbeat of the music industry, first in North Carolina, where Finley goes to make a name for himself, and later back in Memphis, as Fullerton says:

“Inside the dark clubs lay the gritty underbelly to my mother’s genteel Memphis, which Finley ferreted out in that serendipitous, inexplicable way that magically comes to boys in the process of finding their footing.”

Their mother Posey—beautifully drawn in her fashionable southern style, surrounded by antique plates, Chinese Foo dogs, and Wedgewood urns on every space of her well-appointed house—plays bridge, hosts sip-n-sees and lunches with friends at the country cub. She has left their alcoholic father for “the Colonel,” a selfish bully who never endears himself to Finley and Millie. They never stop loving their father. Fullerton describes him through Millie’s eyes:

“My father found God out of doors. He felt Him viscerally in nature, His mysteries descended upon him as intuitive inner-knowing. My father’s universe was lit up in symbols and talismans that guided him onward through the fog of life’s riddled path…. There are some men too gentle to live among wolves, and the dichotomy of who he was versus who he tried to be got him in the end.”

I loved the scenes of the teenagers dancing down at Tom Lee Park by the Mississippi River, and the music fest at Memphis University School, where the guys mingled with the girls from Hutchinson. But these happier times weren’t to last, as Finley succumbs to drugs and eventually loses himself in a self-led cult. No spoilers here, but things turn dark as the novel progresses. As his friend Luke says about him at one point:

“Intellects like Finley tend to reach for the edge. It’s like this earthly level of consciousness isn’t enough for a guy like him. He has to reach for more, know what I mean?”

Millie worships her brother. He is her talisman through life in their broken family and the changing society in which they live. Fullerton does a beautiful job of capturing Millie’s inner dialogue throughout the book:

“Finley once said the whole meaning of life is to learn how to master ambiguity. It’s life’s choices that scare me the most, those crucial crossroads that direct or redirect the course of a life. And what settles me to no end is the recognition that the choices that shape our lives are not always of our making. Sometimes we’re on the bitter end of somebody else’s.”

 

Memphis native and author of MOURNING DOVE, Claire Fullerton

Memphis native and author of MOURNING DOVE, Claire Fullerton

More than a coming-of-age story or a multi-layered family saga—and it is both of those things—MOURNING DOVE is a cautionary tale wrought with beautiful prose and gut-wrenching truthfulness. Readers will fall in love with Finley and Millie, and will root for both of them until the end. And yes, we are also sympathetic towards their mother Posey. A jewel of a novel.

Oh and here’s a bonus, the audio book is narrated by the author herself, who worked as a DJ for a rock and roll radio station when she lived in Memphis. We’ve all got a treat in store!

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