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Posts Tagged ‘Lowcountry’

I’m on summer vacation, and it’s lovely, with family weddings, old friends, South Carolina peaches, and books, books, books.

Oh, The Essex Serpent (HarperCollins, digital galley). I first was captivated by the stunning cover with its intricate William Morris-inspired design, then seduced by the contents. Sarah Perry’s sweeping Victorian tale with its Gothic shadings reminded me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman by way of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Angels and Insects. Also Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, Stoker. And yet this novel of ideas, of science and superstition, love and friendship, is also imaginative and original.

In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne makes for an unconventional 19th-century heroine, a well-off widow whose independent spirit and intellectual curiosity were suppressed by an abusive older husband. Now she gleefully exchanges widow’s weeds for a man’s tweed coat and boots, the better for tramping the marshy Essex coast in search of fossils. She’s also intrigued by rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a mythical winged beast that villagers blame for recent drownings, missing livestock and ruined crops. Cora dreams of discovering a lost species, some kind of dinosaur, but the local vicar, William Ransome, dismisses the serpent as pure superstition and sermonizes against it. The two strike up a passionate friendship despite their differences and Ransome’s devotion to his consumptive wife and three children. Perry excels in evoking the wonders of the natural world, and breathes life in all of her characters, from a cantankerous codger to a brilliant surgeon to Cora’s autistic son and his socialist nanny. It is the latter who wisely states, “There are no ordinary lives.” Oh, what an extraordinary book!

At one point in Gail Godwin’s pensive new novel Grief Cottage (Bloomsbury, digital galley), 11-year-old Marcus sees a boy his own age coming toward him. He is startled that the sturdy, suntanned youth is his own mirrored reflection, and no wonder. He is no longer the pale, bookish orphan sent to stay with his great-aunt on a South Carolina island after his mother’s sudden death. Not that Marcus isn’t still haunted by grief and loss, and also, perhaps, by the ghost of a boy who disappeared during a hurricane 50 years ago. Marcus senses his presence in the ruin of Grief Cottage, which has been immortalized in Aunt Charlotte’s atmospheric paintings. She is laconic, solitary, prickly and drinks to ward off her own demons, and she seems an unlikely guardian for a growing boy. But the two come to depend on one another, especially after an accident turns Charlotte into a temporary invalid unable to paint. Marcus is also befriended by an island old-timer who restores antique cars, the head of the local sea-turtle watch, and the wealthy widow next-door mourning the loss of her grown son.

Although set in the early years of this century, Grief Cottage glints with nostalgia for lost people and times. Part of it is the past-haunted Lowcountry setting; Godwin borrows from Pawley’s Island and Isle of Palms to create her own island, where the shifting sands thwart developers. Part of it, too, is an undercurrent of mystery. Who is Marcus’s father? Why did Aunt Charlotte leave home long ago? What happened to Grief Cottage’s inhabitants when Hurricane Hazel howled ashore? Such questions animate this haunting summer story.

 

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On the way to my cousin Rachel’s wedding this past Saturday, I typed the destination — Island House, Johns Island SC — into my iPhone GPS just for kicks. It was a good thing we knew where we were going, because the phone started directing us to the Johns Island Church of Prayer, which is also off River Road but past Maybank Highway. Even though I hadn’t been on the curving two-lane in years, I knew our turn-off was to the left a ways before Maybank, marked by a giant propeller at the entrance of a boatyard. The lowcountry landscape in the late afternoon sun was both strange and achingly familiar, the way places in the heart are after a long absence. Big trees and hanging moss gave way to a wide expanse of green lawn and a field of wildflowers on the banks of the Stono River, where the wind ruffled the water and snapped the top flaps of the white wedding tent. We had arrived where we were supposed to be.

I had something of the same feeling on reading three recent Southern novels. They differ in story, setting and style, but all have the definite sense of place and people that are recognizably Southern, and thus “known.” With The Cove (HarperCollins, paperback ARC), Ron Rash returns to the backwoods of the North Carolina mountains, this time during World War I. Laurel Shelton lives with her injured war veteran brother, “waiting for her life to begin.” Then she finds love with the stranger known as Walter, a mute who plays a silver flute, but their possible future is threatened by local Army recruiter Chauncey, whose xenophobia plays into the local community’s superstitions and fears. The result is a haunting, sorrowful ballad, true mountain music.

The Southern Gothic trappings are more overt in Wiley Cash’s debut, A Land More Kind Than Home (Morrow, paperback galley), which explores love and violence, faith and redemption after a mute boy dies during a “healing” service at a local church. The three narrators — the dead boy’s younger brother Jess; sympathetic sheriff Clem Barefield; elderly church member and midwife Adelaide — have distinct voices and perspectives. But the most compelling — and repellent — character remains Pastor Carson Chambliss, a scarred ex-con who stirs his congregation to a frenzy by speaking in tongues and handling snakes.

Cash writes lyric lean, while Marly Youmans writes lyric lush in A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer University Press; digital galley). It’s a picaresque journey through the Great Depression as the aptly-named Pip Tatnall leaves a Georgia farm after the murder of his brother Otto. His thirst for knowledge of the wider world leads him to ride the rails, and Youmans details his adventures in a series of poetically rendered set pieces.

My favorite may be 12-year-old Pip’s sojourn at Roseville, a minature metropolis of junk where Pip finds a makeshift family of lovable eccentrics who encourage his dreams.  “This was a place worth staying in, he decided. Both of the old people were lunatics and might be fetched and locked away in the looney bin at Milledgeville any day now, but there was no harm in them, or Bill and Clemmie. It seemed to him that Georgia and probably the whole country had its share of the  squirrelly, and maybe this part no more than most. . .perhaps madness was essential.”

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Sorry I’ve been away so long. The last week or so I’ve been happily hibernating from the heat, eating lemonade bars and getting lost in books.  I motored through Maine and then went south to Folly Beach. Destination reading, so to speak. (I also solved quite a few mysteries along the way, but that’s a future post).

J. Courtney Sullivan wrote about four women in 2009’s Commencement, rotating perspectives as a quartet of recent Smith College graduates told of their coming of age in the new millenium. In Maine, the four women who tell the story are all members of the Irish-Catholic Kelleher clan of Boston.

Matriarch Alice, 83, and her late husband Daniel built a cottage on the Maine coast where the family has summered for 60 years. All the generations once piled in together on top of one another, but since Daniel’s death a decade ago, the children have divided up the months they’ll spend with their mother. An elderly beauty with a critical tongue, Alice has increasingly turned to alcohol and the church to assauge the guilt she has carried for years.

Eldest daughter Kathleen, 58, is estranged from her difficult mother, having remade herself in her 40s after a painful divorce. She quit drinking and used the money her father left her to move to California with her laid-back boyfriend Arlo, with whom she runs a successful worm farm. She worries about her daughter Maggie, a 32-year-old free-lance writer living in New York who continues to make mistakes with men.

Sister-in-law Ann-Marie is closer than any of them to Alice, and when it appears that Maggie’s plans to spend June in Maine have been cut short, Ann-Marie efficiently rearranges her own life, including babysitting her young grandchildren, and ships her latest dollhouse project to the cottage. That Maggie, hiding a surprise pregnancy, is still in residence hardly disconcerts her. She’s obsessed with perfecting her miniature furnishings while harboring romantic notions about a neighbor.

Sullivan takes her time setting the bucolic scene, while family secrets, grudges and lies simmer in the background. But when all four women end up together, watch out for the fireworks.

Sullivan has a deft hand with memorable set pieces, from Alice’s searing memories to Ann-Marie’s inevitable meltdown. The Kellehers are a family in love with their own mythology, and mothers, daughters and daughter-in-law all confront the ways in which it has shaped their lives as women for better or worse.

At 400 pages, Maine is one of those summer books that you sink into for the duration and finish with a sigh of satisfaction. Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach is as frothy as its name, a happy holiday of a novel that may set you to humming “Summertime.”

Cate Cooper belts out the tune from the bathtub of the “Porgy House,” the tiny old cottage on Folly where playwrights Dorothy and Dubose Heyward lived in 1934 while collaborating with George Gershwin on what would become “Porgy and Bess.” Like other native Charlestonians, Cate knows it was adapted from Heyward’s play about the city’s Gullah culture, but now she’s more curious about the house’s former residents, leading players in the Charleston Renaissance of the 1920s.

Cate needs something to think about other than her present predicament. She’s gone from riches to rags practically overnight because of her scheming husband’s recent suicide. Rather than move in with her sister Patty, living nearby in New Jersey, Cate retreats to the safe haven of Folly, where her Aunt Daisy raised both girls with the help of her partner Etta. Daisy, whose health issues have increased with age, asks for Cate’s help with her rental house business and installs her in the Porgy House.

This is a familiar plot for Frank’s fans — a woman at mid-life finding herself at a crossroads and turning to her Lowcountry South Carolina roots. Cate is not exactly a merry widow, but she’s happy to be single again when a handsome history professor obligingly appears on the scene. John Risley encourages her research on the Heywards, especially Harvard-educated Dorothy, and Cate decides to wite a play about the playwright.

It’s Cate’s one-woman show about Dorothy that intersperses her own chatty narration and which separates the novel from Frank’s previous best-sellers. The play-within-the-book explores talented Dorothy’s life and her  devotion to her husband, with plenty of period touches and literary name-dropping to lend authenticity.

Cate’s story of family, love and pecan pie, on the other hand, is a Karo-syrupy fairy tale heavy on happy endings. Still, who doesn’t want dessert on vacation?  “Summertime.  . .”

Open Book: I read the digital galley of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (Knopf) via NetGalley, and a review copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Folly Beach (William Morrow). I first met Dottie about 10 years ago, and we keep in touch via e-mail, Facebook, mutual friends and her sister Lynn on Edisto Beach.

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My parents are from the same small town in South Carolina about 40 miles west of Charleston, and when I was growing up my grandmothers lived catty-corner a block apart. My cousins and I could unlatch Nanny’s back gate and sprint across a small field that belonged to the Coolers (more kin) and end up at Grandmother’s back screen door in about three minutes. It was very convenient, as was the library, the school, the park, the Baptist and Methodist churches, and everything “up the street,” which is what the grandmothers called downtown.

Twenty-five years later, East Washington Street is still one-way, but the dime store, the weekly newspaper office, the jewelers, and all the clothes and shoe stores have either closed or relocated out near the highway. But downtown Walterboro is thriving, with more than a dozen antique stores filling the old brick storefronts between the courthouse and the post office. The town has reinvented itself as “the gateway to the Lowcountry,” and tourists flock to the S.C. Artisans Center in a historic house. The Rice Festival was this past weekend, and a big antiques festival is slated for mid-month.

I couldn’t help but think of Walterboro while reading Timothy Schaffert’s offbeat charmer, The Coffins of Little Hope, which is set in small-town Nebraska. Octagenerian Essie Myles, the obituary writer for the local County Paragraph since age 14, looks with dismay at a  nearby town and birthplace of a once-popular author, where “benefactors were buying up all the properties, restoring them, filling them with antiquities, as if they were carving Pompeii from its ashes.”

Essie’s hometown has its claims to fame as well, thanks largely to the little family newspaper run by her grandson Doc. Its printing plant has been chosen to secretly publish the 11th and final installment in the best-selling series of Miranda-and-Desiree YA novels, which sound like something Edward Gorey might have concocted. Readers across the country eagerly speculate about the last adventures of the two sisters living at Rothgutt’s Asylum for Misguided Girls.

Essie’s obits, which she writes as S Myles, also have a cult following. But readers from all over subscribe to the folksy County Paragraph for news of Lenore, a little girl who has been reported missing by her mother Daisy, supposedly abducted by her sometimes lover, a photographer pilot named Elvis.

It is a fantastic story in every sense of the word because it may or may not be true. But Essie knows that “the legend of Lenore, if carefully composed, would save our town from a quaint decline into barbershop quartets and tax-supported ice cream parlors.”

The Coffins of Little Hope — the title is itself a story — begins with Essie introducing herself and explaining how Daisy summons her to the farmhouse to write an obituary for Lenore long after anyone is waiting for word of her death. She is either hoax or tragedy. But her mystery is part of the town’s mythology, so much so that it even considers changing its name, “we would live live in the town of Lenore.”

Incidentally, I love that Schaffert chose that name, with its echoes of Poe’s poem, as well as “The Raven,” lost Lenore, nevermore, etc. It’s typical of his layered tale’s wit, its realistically quirky characters — I haven’t even mentioned Essie’s teen-aged great-grandaughter, Tiff, who coins the term “Lenoreans,” or Doc’s magic tricks, or the reclusive author Wilton Muscatine, a fan of Essie’s obits.

Essie wonders who will write her obit. “Is it so much to want the last sentence of my obit to be written by someone of genius? I want my obituary to win awards, to be published in textbooks. . .And when the writer of my obituary dies, I want her obituary to mention mine.”

Essie, it’s not her but a him. Meet Timothy Schaffert.

Open Book: I read an advance digital galley of The Coffins of Little Hope (Unbridled Books) through NetGalley. But it’s a keeper, so I bought the e-book for my nook.

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Last summer, the good folks at SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, suggested that its members “get in bed with a blogger,”  which sounded kind of hot. (Remember when we were complaining about the heat?!) Actually, the idea was that indies partner with bloggers to reach more readers and let them know what was going on at their local bookstores.

Alas, my local indie, Urban Think, in downtown Orlando, had recently closed its doors, as had many of its counterparts, casualties of the economy, the chains, the online stores, the warehouse stores, the rise of e-books, etc. Seems like every week now, I hear of the demise of another longtime indie, many of which hosted Caroline Cousins and other Southern writers over the years: The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, S.C.,  Davis-Kidd in Nashville, Bay Street Trading Company in Beaufort, S.C.  They are sorely missed.

But I want you to know my home island indie, The Edisto Bookstore on Edisto Island, S.C., is hanging in there. In fact, things were right busy when I was in there last week making my farewells before heading home to Florida. Several tourists were looking at the books, new and used, and a local woman popped in for a birthday card and a gift, knowing that owner Karen Carter has the best collection of both. Another islander needed a nautical chart. Both rental desktops in the internet cafe were in use (wi-fi is free if you have your own laptop), and one woman (obviously from “off”) rather rudely asked Karen and I to move our conversation about new books to another part of the store. We complied, just as a couple came in to visit Emily Grace.

Emily Grace is the bookstore cat, a pretty girl who wandered up on the porch three years ago. She now has her own private quarters in the tiny back office, but she usually can be found near the front door greeting customers. She likes being petted and picked up — I’ve carried her around on my shoulder while perusing the shelves. She likes laps and laptop bags, and on cold days, she curls up on the wireless router between the two desktops. She makes the bookstore feel even more like home.

Business can be tough, Karen admits: “I had to diversify or die,” hence the cards and unusual trinkets for sale. But, after 20 plus years, she knows her community — the year-rounders, the vacationers, the part-timers (like me) — and she stocks a good assortment of books on the Lowcountry and by Lowcountry authors (Mary Alice Monroe, Karen White,  Sue Monk Kidd, Pat Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons), as well as the new John Grisham, the autobiography of Mark Twain, SIBA’s “Okra Picks,” cookbooks, field guides, kids’ books.

The bookstore doesn’t have a lot of events — there’s just not room — but Karen recently had a signing for silhouette artist and author Clay Rice, and there’s a monthly book club open to all comers the second Wednesday of the month. This week, readers met at 7 p.m. to discuss Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (you don’t have to have read the book).

I’ll have to let you know what the February pick is. Meanwhile, you can visit the website, http://edistobookstore.com (more pictures of Emily Grace and art by Clay Rice) or check out its Facebook page. Hit “Like.” And if you’re on Highway 174 on Edisto Island (an hour or so from Charleston off the Savannah Highway), by all means drop by the bookstore. Make yourself at home.

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