Reading Matters

A wide porch, a book open in the lap

It’s not that I prefer the mountains to the beach. It’s that I find the mountains more conducive to reading.

There’s something magical about that wide porch with its old, wooden chairs. The lake beyond, rain dimpling the surface, air going mossy. Maybe a light blanket over the legs, someone you love pointing out an egret in the high branch of a pine. You look, but can’t wait to cast your eyes back on that open novel in your lap.

I’ll pack too many books, as usual. One summer, I abandoned most of what I’d brought and read only biographies of Tennessee Williams. Another year, I played catch-up with stacks of New Yorkers. This year, I’m recommending a few I’m convinced will satisfy.

Fiction

A LITTLE LIFE, by Hanya Yanagihara. Doubleday. $30. My book club will be reading this one, and, at 700 pages, I need a head start. It’s more than a year old, but I keep hearing that you can’t put it down. Four diverse, educated young men are establishing lives in New York City, each with his own trajectory. New Yorker reviewer Jon Michaud calls this novel “dark and disturbing,” and he says it can “drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life.”

I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, by Iain Reid. Scout Press. $22.95. A layered, intriguing – someone called it “ferocious” – debut novel that had me reading it in a Charleston restaurant while my husband pored over the menu. Don’t be deterred by the early-on chunks of philosophical conversation between Jake and his girlfriend. Soon they’re off to a remote farmhouse to visit his parents – the weirdest couple in recent fiction. On the way back, the action escalates. “This is nowhere,” says the girlfriend when Jake stops the car to toss some trash. You better believe it. Nowhere complete with snow and wind. A too-quick psychological thriller.

THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS, by Stephen O’Connor. Random House. $28. One of the best novels I’ve read in years. This is O’Connor’s highly inventive recreation of the relationship between Jefferson and his young slave Sally, with whom he had several children. In O’Connor’s imaginative rendering, the couple is fiercely in love and even more fiercely argumentative about slavery. He, despite his pronouncements, keeps enslaving those who made Monticello, his vast Virginia plantation, hum. She is equally adamant that he is a selfish coward in not setting them free. Vivid, enticing, brilliant.

A GAME OF INCHES, by Webb Hubbell. Beaufort Books. $24.95. Move over, Proust. Charlotte’s Hubbell captures meal after savory meal in this third Jack Patterson thriller. Billy Hopper, a popular NFL receiver, wakes in D.C.’s Mayflower Hotel with a steak knife on his chest and a young and bloody dead woman by his side. Who is she? He has no idea. Defense attorney Jack Patterson to the rescue, despite an elusive assassin’s repeated attempts on his life. This award-winning writer, and former mayor of Little Rock, gives us his best and most complex novel to date.

A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE, by Reynolds Price. Every time I re-read this, I am more in awe of the soaring talent of the young man who wrote it. Published in 1962, when the late Price was but 29, this short novel is set in rural North Carolina (likely Warren County), and involves the relationship of young Rosacoke Mustian and her elusive boyfriend, Wesley Beavers. There is no thing great or small that Price does not notice. Read his description of how dust settles in the summertime in the country and tell me you have ever read anything more precise or more evocative. Savor this timeless masterpiece.

Nonfiction

BLOOD, BONE AND MARROW: A BIOGRAPHY OF HARRY CREWS, by Ted Geltner. University of Georgia Press. $32.95. New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner describes Crews as a writer of “snake handlers, geeks who ate live chickens, attention-seekers who consumed entire Ford Mavericks.” Years ago, I read aloud Crews’s astonishing memoir, “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place,” that place being an impoverished Georgia home near the Okefenokee Swamp where Crews suffered an alcoholic father, a full-body scalding before he was 6 and a case of polio that drew his feet back and stuck them to his rear-end. Now I’m ready for more. The vase-throwing, grass-eating, hard-drinking Crews died in 2012 at 76.

BAREFOOT TO AVALON: A BROTHER’S STORY, by David Payne. Atlantic Monthly Press. $26. At a reading in Charlotte last year, Payne said his mother had begged him not to write this book. But after reading the manuscript, she gave him her blessing. That’s testament to Payne’s skill in transforming his family’s dirty linen into a memoir that’s instructive, healing and redemptive. It’s a timeless story: two brothers at odds, an uneasy reconciliation. Then the brother’s startling death on the highway, which Payne witnesses. That impact loosens the ropes that have long bound the author, and he sets out on a journey of ruthless self-dissection. Riveting.

WALKER PERCY’S THE MOVIEGOER AT FIFTY: NEW TAKES ON AN ICONIC AMERICAN NOVEL, edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Mary A. McCay. LSU Press, $48. I admit I will likely not read every word of this treatise, but I will enjoy dipping into it on the same wide porch where I once interviewed Percy. I loved that evocative, fragrant first novel of Percy’s, and I can’t resist more analysis of Binx Bolling and Kate and their separate anxieties and the “everydayness” of life and Aunt Emily’s Southern stoicism. Scholarly but not pedantic.

BECOMING NICOLE: THE TRANSFORMATION OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY, by Amy Ellis Nutt. Random House, $16 paper. Pulitzer-winning science reporter Amy Nutt spent four years reporting this story of Wayne and Kelly Maines, who adopt identical twin boys, Jonas and Wyatt. While still a toddler, Wyatt begins to insist that he is female. By age 5, Wyatt’s insistence begins to tear the family apart. As Wyatt becomes Nicole, his father is transformed from a conservative Air Force vet with no experience of LGBT issues to a proud father and fighter for his daughter’s rights.

MYSTERY AND MANNERS: OCCASIONAL PROSE, by Flannery O’Connor. Edited by Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus. $15 paper. After O’Connor’s death in 1964, her good friends the Fitzgeralds sifted through her unpublished essays and lectures and collected a few into this old favorite of mine. The great writer’s great wit is winsomely captured herein. “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of memory deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

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