Monthly Archives: July 2014

“Flying Shoes” by Lisa Howorth

“He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”

– Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

In my own life, I am often struck by Gaiman’s unavoidable truth: everything seems to happen at once. No sooner does one major event occur, but others are sure to follow … always at the least convenient moment. This universal constant is never actually vocalized during the course of Lisa Howorth’s debut novel, Flying Shoes, but I have no doubt that the majority of the characters would agree … in particular the protagonist, Mary Byrd Thornton. Her morning begins with the first in a cascading series of events, a phone call from a Richmond detective, informing her that the investigation into her stepbrother’s gruesome molestation and murder nearly thirty years prior is being reopened; would she please come up from Mississippi at her earliest convenience to join the rest of her family for a conference?

This stunning and shocking phone call is immediately followed by another, this one from Lindsay Fyce: a nosy Richmond reporter intent on digging up the old tragedy and hopefully scooping the police on what is sure to be a big story. Mary Byrd can understand, intellectually, why this reporter is drawn to her family’s history, but hates it all the same; she doesn’t want a total stranger trampling all over her life and Stevie’s horrible death … especially for cash. Her family never really talked about what happened, they put all their grief and horror aside, shutting the door on the whole mess – but now that door has swung wide open.

As a result, Mary Byrd finds her world (already full to bursting with the mundane chaos of a husband, two children, several pets, and a host of eccentric friends and acquaintances) spinning out of control, leading her to discover that supposedly indestructible Corelle dishware is, in fact, breakable … if you throw it hard enough against the floor. Then again, what isn’t?

As disruptive and disorienting as the two phone calls appear at first, they prove to be just the beginning for Mary Byrd; there’s a lot more just waiting to leap out at her. A shocking and horrifying tragedy has just touched the lives of a family very close to her own, leaving everyone who knows them reeling. A cold front of apocalyptic proportions is bearing down on town: the infamous Ice Storm of ’96 (as opposed to the Blizzard of ’93, or this year’s Snowmageddon). Trees actually explode from the cold, which does not happen in Mississippi. Mary Byrd actually shoots out of town just ahead of the storm, hitching a ride to Richmond on a big-rig chicken truck; we see the unpleasant fallout of bad winter weather in the South through the eyes of those left behind, while she deals with her own personal storm in Virginia.

This is not just Mary Byrd’s story, although she is the center from which everything else springs. Through many eyes and from multiple angles, we meet all of the fascinating, complex, contradictory people who inhabit her world. The novel is very Southern in the sense that you can’t truly understand a person and his or her story until you know who they are, who they were, who their people were, and where they come from – and so we learn all of these things, in an ever-expanding web as we see the histories and perspectives of everyone whose life touches Mary Byrd’s during the course of the book. Virtually every character has their lives upended during the span of the novel, to a greater or lesser extent, whether by the resurrection of old tragedy, the stunning shock of new tragedy, or simply dealing with the ice storm. As a result, we see them all as fundamentally human: for the most part good-intentioned, sometimes selfish, sometimes truly appalling, all flawed, mixed-up, confused and contradictory.

Flying Shoes is a work of fiction, but it takes its inspiration from the still unsolved murder of the author’s stepbrother, which was front page news at the time. It seems as if Howorth is using this novel as a vehicle to explore, speculate and postulate: “How would things change? What would life be like if this very cold case were finally, finally solved? What would the impact and the ramifications be?” In the end, the answer is: Not much.

Oh, she feels some lifting of ancient lingering guilt, once the truth is finally known: her stepfather blamed her teenage “sluttiness” (insert exaggerated finger-quotes and massive quantities of sarcasm here) for contributing to Stevie’s death, lacking any better target for his grief, rage and venom, and over time she internalized a portion some of that, especially after one of the investigating detectives seemed to agree. It’s a relief, in that sense, to know that this was emphatically not the case, and that knowledge removes at least some weight from her shoulders.

In the end, even though the fictional crime has been solved, there’s no real sense of closure, of finality. The solution is ultimately anti-climatic, as stunning and shocking as it is. Too much time has passed, bringing with it too much baggage. Even now, with the culprit known, there’s a lot of remaining uncertainty – will the true culprit ever be brought to justice for his crime? Is there enough evidence remaining, untampered with, to achieve a conviction? And there have been far, far too many victims in the intervening years for there to be any satisfaction at this resolution. The detective’s phone call throws Mary Byrd’s life into temporary upheaval, but that’s all it is: temporary, before she returns to deal with the ordinary, day-to-day chaos that makes up her life.


P.S. Full disclosure: I especially love this book because Lisa Howorth is a colleague, a fellow indie bookseller. She and her husband Richard own Square Books in Oxford, MS, which was named the Publisher’s Weekly 2013 Bookstore of the Year!


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Delicious! A Review by Hunter Coleman

After penning three much-loved memoirs, foodie Ruth Reichl has at last turned to fiction. Her latest book, Delicious!, is a delightful read that will send you straight to the kitchen as soon as you put it down. (There’s even a recipe at the end of the book for just this occasion.)

Many people know Ms. Reichl through her three memoirs of her life in the culinary industry: Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires. She has also served as food critic for The New York Times, where she received two James Beard Awards for her work, the Los Angeles Times and was editor of Gourmet magazine for a decade until its publisher, Conde Nast, closed the purse. (It was during Ms. Reichl’s reign at Gourmet that the magazine commissioned David Foster Wallace’s classic essay, “Consider the Lobster.”)

Delicious! tells the story of California native Wilhelmina “Billie” Breslin, who comes to New York and lands her dream job of working as the assistant to Jake Newberry, editor of the nation’s premier food magazine, Delicious! (basically a fictionalized Gourmet). Her nearly Rain Man-like ability to identify the ingredients of any dish with just one taste serves her well in her new career, and everything appears to be taking off for the young newcomer. However, this being fiction, and the world being what it is, things soon take a downturn at the magazine and the entire staff is summarily dismissed. The entire staff, that is, except for Billie, who is kept on the payroll to answer the phones so that the publisher may continue to honor its recipe guarantee. It is while performing this task in the magazine’s now empty New York City mansion, that she stumbles upon a secret room and the letters between a young girl from Ohio named Lulu Swan and James Beard himself, who had once been on staff at Delicious!, written during the early years of World War II. Billie becomes so entranced by young Lulu that she soon sets off in search of her, despite the chances of her still being alive being quite low.

This book is very enjoyable, but it will not be winning any literary awards. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Delicous! is still a delight, and whether you fancy yourself a bit of a gourmand or subsist primarily on take-out, you’ll find Ruth Reichl’s first book of fiction a joy to read.

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“The Stories We Tell” by Patti Callahan Henry

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a penchant for linking two otherwise dissimilar things in the course of my reviews. Usually, it’s limited to the little quotation I often include at the top; I’m particularly proud of managing to reference a Disney movie in my post about Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out. My mind is a strange place.

Sometimes, however, there are weird little allusions and connections that just have to make it into the review proper, because they shed light on the book, help me to process and make sense of what I read: a lens to help me see things more clearly. While reading Patti Callahan Henry’s latest novel, The Stories We Tell, my odd little brain kept circling back to kintsugi: the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum, deliberately highlighting the broken places. The damaged pieces of an object are not treated as badges of shame, to be concealed and covered over, but simply facets of being; something to be illuminated and celebrated, art in its own right. It’s absolutely stunning, and a fascinating concept: the idea that something could be all the more beautiful for having been broken.

This is not the philosophy of Eve Morrison, the narrator and protagonist of The Stories We Tell. She devotes so much attention to concealing and smoothing over all the cracks and fractures in her world that she doesn’t even see them anymore. The novel is almost over before she is able to verbally acknowledge that because she has spent so much time and energy over the years trying to make her life look good, she was simply unable to see how not good everything actually was.

To all outward appearances (and thanks to a lot of effort on Eve’s part), her life is … perfect. She and her husband Cooper are wealthy, successful, socially prominent, active in the community, and apparently happy. Things are not as they seem, however, and there are a lot of stresses and strains bubbling and brewing beneath the otherwise idyllic surface. There are financial and business concerns: Cooper’s e-magazine (devoted to all things Southern Gentlemen) is struggling, and he resents the attention Eve devotes to her letterpress business, The Fine Line, Ink. Their daughter, Gwen, is navigating (painfully) the road through adolescence, rebelling both openly and covertly, and Eve’s sister, Willa, has landed with the family while she gets back on her feet, both of which only add to the tension.

Their lives might have continued on in this vein indefinitely, minor fractures spiderwebbing across the facade of perfection, only to be covered up and plastered over, until a hot summer night brings everything to a head. The police show up to inform Eve that Cooper and Willa are in the hospital, badly injured in a car accident, and from there, everything else begins to unravel. Nothing about the wreck adds up, and Eve is faced with conflicting facts and accounts from all sides. As she probes deeper and deeper, trying to understand, she has to decide what is truth, what is fiction … and whom to believe.

It’s a difficult journey for Eve, in no small part because she is finally forced to accept the myriad imperfections in her life. One of the first things we learn about her is that “When I don’t think something is possible, I just don’t notice.” Subconsciously, she’s aware of these broken places, and works very hard to repair them, but she can’t even admit their existence to herself, let alone the rest of the world, until they are forcibly brought to her attention.

As indicated by the title, stories are at the heart of the novel: stories told, mistold, or even never told at all, with the truth somewhere in the intersection of the three. It seems to me that the stories we don’t tell are even more important than the ones we do; silence, deflection and omission can be much more powerful (and damaging) than words spoken aloud. As Eve discovers, real, imperfect truths, honestly spoken, are far better than perfect lies, whether given voice or merely implied by silence.

There are many aspects of this novel that resonated, that really struck a chord (or several) as I read, but two in particular stood out, at least to me. The first is the relationship between Willa and Eve, which should resonate deeply with anyone else who has a sister. For all the myriad ways in which my own sister and I are utterly and completely 100% different, for all the times that we bicker and argue, there are still those moments – flashes of absolutely perfect synchronization. It’s difficult to put into words, but it culminates in an instantof simply knowing that for a brief stretch of time we are totally in lockstep. Patti captures this beautifully, something I struggle to describe, the way siblings are drawn back together even as everything else threatens to pull them apart.

The other part of the novel that really stuck with me were the Ten Good Ideas- the main (and most popular) card line for The Fine Line, Ink. As a child, Eve and her childhood best friend chafed under the Thou Shalt Nots of the Ten Commandments, finding them too full of negativity and things not to do, and instead tried to create the Ten Good Ideas as definitive, positive actions to take to live a good live. As an adult, she and Willa revive them for her business, and they become an overarching theme as Eve tries to remember them, develop images and art associate with each idea, and create the final two rules (they were stopped and punished before they got that far). The Ten Ideas are beautiful, fun, haunting, and thought-provoking, for both Eve and the reader. As the novel opens, Eve’s life had seemed to completely revolve around what to avoid, rather than what to embrace, but as time goes on, she finds the truth of the Ideas in her own life, makes them a part of her story and not just words on a card.

Something to consider, as we tell our own stories.


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