Half Wild by Robin MacArthur
Vermont presents a complex milieu of competing interests: lumber, real estate, rural recluses, down and outers, college kids, and hippies. The author explores these conflicts, internal and external, in her deft short stories. They are tough and tender, anguished and ecstatic in turn, but simply told. Characters often overlap, story to story, which gives the book even more depth.
A Crooked Smile by Terri Tate
You wouldn’t know it from the winsome cover photo, but the author has gone through nightmare cancer surgery, a devastating prognosis, and come out the other side smiling to beat the band. How did she do it? With incredible humor, a great support network (including mysterious “guides”), a lot of deep internal work and yes—luck! Full disclosure: she’s a long-time friend and I have had a lot to do with the manuscript over the years it took to get it published. From the get go I told her it was better than most memoirs I read but between then and now it got reshaped and polished to a fine sheen. Wit crackles on every page, and spirit rises regardless of some pretty grim episodes Note: it would serve as a fine antidote if you happen to feel sorry for yourself.
Braving It by James Campbell
Subtitled A Father, a Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild. I never tire of adventure books from the comfort of my own futon, and this is a lovely one. Campbell would probably have been a nomad but he has a family which tethers him to a somewhat rural Midwestern location. He devised these trips to expose his oldest daughter to that which he treasures. Three forays: one in summer to help friends who live deep in the bush with cabin-building, back in winter to help them check trap lines, and then down a wild river. A mix of exhilaration, fear, tedium, and discomfort (beauty, fortitude, grizzlies, flies) and lots of lessons along the way.
Little Nothing by Marissa Silver
This is a really odd story, a fable of sorts set in Eastern Europe. Pavla is a dwarf with a beautiful face. Her peasant parents turn her over to a physician who manages to increase her stature but at a dreadful cost: her face turns lupine. She becomes part of the doctor’s traveling freak show, and makes an alliance with Danilo who is also indentured to the charlatan. Things become very bad indeed, they escape into the forest, and her wolf nature acts as both protection and liability. Many twists of fate later there is a surprising save that becomes legendary. Supernatural, vivid, and haunting.
Liberty Street by Diane Warren
It starts on vacation in Ireland when Frances finally tells her longtime boyfriend that she’s still married and had a baby that died. With this act, she returns to her hometown in Western Canada to attempt to sort out these submerged pieces of her past. The town is as small and mean as ever, and we learn how Frances and her mother ended up in that little house on Liberty Street after their misbegotten marriages came to an end. Though painful, Frances’s explorations answer the questions that have haunted her and enable her to move on. A quietly powerful illustration of how secrets and societal pressures can distort a life that seems functional on the surface.
The Door by Magda Szabo
Emerence is mysterious, unpleasant, yet essential to those who live in her neighborhood. She serves as housekeeper for Magda, a writer, and very gradually a relationship develops between employer and servant that goes way beyond the usual constraints. The dog Viola is a link—who does he really belong to? And why has no one seen behind the door of Emerence’s house? More facets of Emerence’s initially stark personality start to emerge– fierce loyalty and unstinting generosity, and we get glimpses into the tragic history that shape her eccentric, secretive ways. By the end of the book she becomes positively luminous yet utterly doomed. (I wouldn’t have known about this book until my daughter needed a copy for her book club. I started it, was put off by Emerence’s obduracy, but then when my daughter said I’d like it went back and got sucked in deeply. It’s surprising and magnificent. )
Back next week.