Monthly Archives: September 2013

“Life After Life” – Jill McCorkle

There are any number of ways to interpret and dissect just the title of Life After Life by Jill McCorkle (let alone the rest of the book), so much so that it’s a real pleasure to unravel the different possible meanings as you read, teasing out every possible nuance as you realize the sheer brilliance at work.  Like a good English major, I could expound at length on all the layers within layers of the title, but 1) no one needs to hear my insane ramblings on ephemera, and 2) that would take all the fun out of things.

The novel centers around a few specific residents of the small town of Fulton, North Carolina, and especially those connected to the Pine Haven Retirement Center.  Many of the characters dwell in the threshold between life and death, and are intimately aware of this fact, differing only in their approaches and attitudes.  With one or two exceptions, the rest of this incredible cast purposely choose to attach themselves to Pine Haven and its inhabitants, to this liminal space, for a variety of reasons, which are not always the ones you might expect.

Taken as a whole, Life After Life is a complex, insightful look at the intricacies of life and human nature.  Everyone has a story to tell, and sometimes more than one.  There are so many secrets, so many lives tied together and tangled up with each other, often without the knowledge of those involved.  Even those characters who at first seem to be one-dimensional, almost caricatures, are revealed to have hidden depths.  Everyone, even the most unlikeable, has at least some spark of goodness, some tinge of humanity that redeems them and makes them bearable.  The truly admirable characters are those examining the world and people around them, and seeing clearly through the lies and illusions we all surround ourselves with.  Even so, even the most well-meaning are often spectacularly blind at times, even to those they are closest to – and therein lies the tragedy of life.

The story is told in a series of overlapping and intertwined narratives, in both first and third person, giving voices to an incredibly wide range of people.  It is the wonderful characters who make the novel, filling it with warmth and light and heart.  Twelve-year-old Abby spends almost all her free time at Pine Haven, to escape from her parents’ painful marriage and her isolation at school, soaking up wisdom and affection from her only friends.  Joanna Lamb, a woman who left Fulton at a young age and returned home upon the death of her mother, has reinvented herself over and over again, and now finds her true calling as a hospice volunteer, recording the stories of the dying.  C.J., the hair and nail technician at Pine Haven, raises her son while enjoying her unlikely friendship with Joanna and dropping clues to her many secrets with a frequent I’ll tell you someday.  Retired teachers Toby and Sadie are very different women yet are united in the love of their students, passion for life and determination to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of gestures.  They are what every teacher should aspire to be, and what every student should hope for and appreciate.  Former New York lawyer Rachel Silverman keeps the real reason for her inexplicable move to Fulton an unspoken mystery, hugging it close to her chest.  There are many, many more, each richly developed, but these are my favorites, the ones that really resonated with me.

Of the characters whose voices we do hear, there is only one I found it utterly impossible to like.  Abby’s mother, Kendra, is almost too obviously a villain, and yet she is far more complicated than she first appears.  Even as you despise the woman for the havoc she wreaks on everyone around her, you cannot help but pity her, trapped as she is in a prison of her own making, with no hope of escape.  Happiness is something that will always elude her, because she spends her life chasing after things she can’t have, never appreciating what she already possesses.

McCorkle has crafted an exquisitely bittersweet tale, echoing with themes of reinvention and renewal.  It is an exhortation to live life fully, open to the possibility of change.  We all live many different lives within the span on one existence, constantly morphing over time and leaving the shells of our past behind even as they continue to haunt and inform us.  There are no neat and tidy endings, no happy resolutions.  Only death can wrap up the story, and even then, there are plenty of things left unsolved, unsaid, unknown, unpredictable.  Life … goes on.



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“Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” – Mary Roach

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach is probably the funniest and most entertaining book I’ve encountered in a very long time – I found myself giggling madly even as I read. The entire text is a crazy conglomeration of fun (and disgusting) facts about our digestive system, strung together in a remarkably coherent narrative.  There is so much snark and so much absurdity, all presented in a completely deadpan fashion.  The book’s real value, however, isn’t in the humor alone, but in the incredible richness of detail, the truly fascinating history and science that Roach uncovers and presents to the reader.  The title is particularly apt – reading it is very much an adventure.

Roach takes us from one end the digestive tract to the other, following a logical narrative progression: she begins with the senses of smell and taste, and then follows the path of food through the body to its final destination.  She also delves into the psychological aspects of her subject, from our food taboos to the necessity of taste to the disgust we feel while contemplating our inner workings.  On this blog, I’ve previously mentioned my love of the Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary, which hooks kids on history by leaving all the nasty bits in, appealing to their fascination with yuck.  Obviously, I never grew out of this phase, and neither did Roach.

I love this book in the same way I enjoy watching Mythbusters – everyone involved takes such unmitigated joy and delight in science, displaying profound exhilaration in the thrill of discovery.  Sedate and endoscope a frog to see if a mealworm can survive and/or chew its way out of the amphibian’s stomach, with no funding and donated/borrowed equipment, just to see if it’s possible?  Yep, there are those who will do so gleefully, in their free time, FOR SCIENCE.  Others will inflate a dead python, just to see the bursting point of the snake’s stomach.  For all Bama fans out there, a researcher at the University of Alabama makes several appearances throughout the narrative: Stephen Secor, snake digestion expert, from whom we learn (among other things) that a snake will in fact swallow a beer bottle if a rat head is placed over it.

Roach is a very snarky and lemony narrator, cracking jokes at every possible opportunity, and never shying away from the juvenile and the scatological.  There is no aspect of our inner workings too distasteful or too blasphemous for her to comment on.  It’s as if she simply can’t help herself, which is all to the good.  Besides being a sheer joy to read, the humor helps distract from the “ick” factor, bringing the “neat” factor to the front.  It also helps that the book is almost entirely verbal (with the occasional photograph chosen for humor and not at all graphic), allowing the squeamish reader to suppress the occasional gag reflex and focus solely on the content.  The science she describes is fascinating in its own right, but it becomes even more so in the hands of this master storyteller.  From a possible origin to legends of fire-breathing dragons to why someone would reverse-engineer a fart to the death of Elvis, nothing is off-limits.

Her phrasing may be irreverent, yet Roach treats the science involved with utter seriousness and respect.   As ludicrous and unpalatable as many of the experiments she describes are, most of them do have a legitimate scientific purpose.   In one place, Roach detects a hint of “poorly suppressed schoolboy glee” behind an otherwise dry account of a rather dubious experiment in the British Medical Journal, and fears that if she had a medical degree, she would have the exact same response in a similar situation.  I can sympathize.  But in this way, she pays tribute to those who do make these topics their life’s work.

The footnotes are quite possibly my favorite part – no doubt my love of Terry Pratchett is showing.  They are not citations, but fun additions to the text, so full of neat little tidbits of information or commentary,  such as why you should rightly fear the “fight bite” or challenging the reader to “find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman” and share it with her (151).  If a (semi) pertinent factoid would derail the narrative too much, it’s a footnote; otherwise, it is skillfully woven into the text.

At the end of her introduction, Roach makes it very clear that her goal is not to gross the reader out.  Instead, her aim is to make the reader think “COOL!” – and maybe a little gross.

Mission absolutely accomplished.


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Charlie Lovett – “The Bookman’s Tale”

Everyone here at The Alabama Booksmith loves books –  we are required to be “sicko book people” (Jake’s exact words).   I’m certainly no exception, but in my case, that love is rooted in content, and builds from there: my first love is the text, the stories.  In contrast, The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett is the story an entirely different breed of bibliophile, one whose passion is for rare and antiquated books, where the book itself is just as important as the words within.

Peter Byerly, the titular bookman of the novel, is a young man of two all-consuming passions – his wife Amanda and rare books.  The two are inextricably linked: he stumbled upon book collecting and repair as an undergraduate in an attempt to impress her, and this blossomed into his life’s pursuit.  In a way, he is both blessed and cursed by the depth of his fervor – he has purpose and love, but he has very little to anchor him to life when Amanda dies and one of the two foundations for his very existence is suddenly swept away.

Quite literally drowning in grief, Peter relocates to England, using his love of rare books as a lifeline to rebuild his world without his wife.  In the process, quite by accident, he finds a Victorian watercolor hidden in a treatise of Shakespearean forgeries – a portrait with an uncanny resemblance to Amanda.

This discovery sets him on the trail of what might be the most important literary discovery in history – undeniable proof that William Shakespeare did, in fact, write the plays attributed to him, and not some other individual – if the document in question actually exists, or isn’t a very clever forgery.  In the process, he learns a great deal that was hidden about his own past, and regains his sense of purpose.

The story unfolds in tantalizing snippets and teasing snapshots, with so many links between past and present.  It is told in a series of alternating timelines as it leads us to the riveting conclusions.  The first narrative strand is Peter’s present day of 1995 as he searches for answers; the second begins in 1983, tracing the roots of Peter’s great loves, with antique books and with Amanda, showing us exactly what he has lost.  Woven in between past and present is the story of this mysterious, mythical text with the potential to conclusively prove authorship of Shakespeare’s plays one way or another.  Usually when I read a mystery, I’m content to sit and simply wait for the revelation.  In rare cases, however, the lure of an intellectual puzzle is too much to resist and I start fitting the pieces together in my head, not content to be a passive reader.  I was drawn into the narrative, trying to put the clues together, and yet found myself very much surprised by the ending.

While I don’t share Peter’s passion for antique books, I can understand it to a small degree.  My only real experience with rare books and documents was in the Chapin Rare Books Library during my senior history seminar on the Civil War, where we were required to consult some of the primary documents available for our final paper.  As a result, I spent a few memorable afternoons poring over bound editions of Harper’s Weekly – well, skimming really, except for those articles related to my topic.  Even from that brief exposure, I caught a tiny glimpse of the magic that comes from handling original documents.  I wasn’t even required to wear gloves – just thoroughly wash my hands, use a foam bookrest and under no circumstances write in pen.

The novel itself is a fun mish-mash of genres:  a bit of fascinating conjecture, some lovely what-ifs into one of the greatest literary puzzles of all time.  There’s a dash of murder mystery/conspiracy theory, on top of a very personal struggle.  It is rightly subtitled A Novel of Obsession, as every single character grapples with consuming emotion, but Peter most of all.  Passion and obsession are very much at work here, in all of the different eras and narratives, and the degree to which a person can channel and control their obsessions … or be controlled by it.

The basic premise of Peter’s find is one of fascinating conjecture – a lovely intellectual puzzle combined with very real danger for the characters.  In a way though, reality, with its lack of concrete proof one way or the other, is almost more fun and leaves the field wide open for all kinds of possibilities.  Obviously, a document that could conclusively prove authorship of Shakespeare’s plays one way or another hasn’t yet been unearthed – but isn’t it fun to imagine such a discovery?


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Overwhelmed by Labor Day Events

Hope everyone enjoyed their Labor Day weekend!

We certainly needed the long weekend here, with all the fantastic author signings coming up – .  This week alone we have four events, with even more great ones to follow later this month!

Last night, there was a fantastic turnout at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for T.K. Thorne and Last Chance for Justice, the inside story of the investigation into the 1963 bombing that eventually led to the arrests of those responsible.  The actual lead detectives in the case, Ben Herren and Bill Fleming were also there to sign, and we still have copies available, even if you couldn’t make it last night.

In just a few hours, at 4:00 pm, Cassandra King  will be here to sign her latest novel, Moonrise.  I raved about this lovely story (inspired by Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca) on July 3rd, so I’m won’t bore everyone by repeating myself … much.  A re-imagining of one of my favorite books of all time, with a completely unique spin on it?  No-brainer, I loved it.

Tomorrow, paranormal researcher Kim Johnston is coming to launch her book, Haunted Shelby County­ – a fascinating collection of local haunts and legends.   Shelby County is home to Alabama’s forgotten plantations, a deep history of the Creek Indians who died during the Trail of Tears and dark secrets from areas such as Harpersville, Calera, Chelsea, Montevallo and Leeds.   Anyone with a connection to the area (or just loves scary stories) should absolutely check this one out.

To wrap this crazy week up, on Friday, Robert Morgan will signing The Road From Gap Creek – the long-awaited sequel to his 1999 New York Times #1 Bestseller, Gap Creek.  Morgan continues the story of Julie and Frank Richards and their descendents as they weather the Great Depression and World War II, with all their triumphs and tragedies.

After all of that, we’ll barely have time to catch our breath before next week’s blockbuster event: Bear Bryant’s 100th Birthday Party!


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