BOOK REVIEW: Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn WardSalvage The Bones
By Jesmyn Ward
Completed June 12, 2012

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Many reviews about Salvage The Bones advised animal lovers not to read this book because of its dog fighting theme. Yes, I was warned, but I wanted to read it anyway. Set in the American South at the brink of Hurricane Katrina, the story was right in my wheelhouse. I figured I could skip the dog fighting scenes – and I did, but it wasn’t enough.

Why? Simply put – it wasn’t just about the dog fighting scenes or the breeding of pit bull puppies to be fighters (though both incidents are frightful enough). My issue is this:  I never got the sense that Jesmyn Ward was condemning dog fighting. I couldn’t find an underlying message that spoke against this cruelty.

I am assuming Ward included dog fighting in Salvage The Bones because it’s a popular past time in certain pockets of the American South. But the animal lover in me wonders what’s the point. Did it strengthen the story? Make the family’s plight more deplorable? I don’t think it did. And with the absence of a strong message that condemns dog fighting, I wonder why you need it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am sure Jesmyn Ward isn’t for dog fighting. I just wish she made dog fighting an allegorical theme.

The rest of the book was good. The characters were complex and believable. Their lives of poverty were startling. The effects of Katrina were devastating. Yes, everything else about Salvage The Bones was spot on. But the dog fighting was too much for me.

So, heed my warning. Don’t read this book if you hate dog fighting, if you are against breeding dogs to fight and are tired of pit bulls being used in this manner. Salvage The Bones will not be the book for you – just like it wasn’t the book for me.

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BOOK REVIEW: The World Made Straight by Ron Rash

The World Made Straight by Ron RashThe World Made Straight
By Ron Rash
Completed March 9, 2012

Ron Rash was recommended to me by a book friend after I vacationed in the Appalachian mountains. I love discovering new authors, especially ones who use their settings as an important part of their storytelling. My friend sent me a copy of The World Made Straight to get me started, and I have to say: I am very intrigued by Rash’s writing.

The World Made Straight focuses on two main characters: Travis, a hothead teenage boy, and Leonard, a former teacher turned drug dealer. As the story unfolds, we read as Travis begins stealing pot plants from a crop he discovers while fishing. He sells the marijuana to Leonard – and for good money – which is why Travis keeps going back to steal more. However, the owner of the marijuana field – the gloriously villainous Carlton Toomey – doesn’t take kindly to thievery, and eventually catches Travis – literally. Travis flees to Leonard to recover from his wounds and to stay away from his father, who beat Travis for his acts of foolishness.

Once living together, Leonard becomes a surrogate father for Travis, encouraging him to get his GED and telling him stories about a Civil War massacre that occurred in the mountains, which involved Travis’s ancestors. The Civil War story piques Travis’s interest in learning again and slowly begins his turnaround – until a fateful night when Travis’s temper gets the best of him again.

The World Made Straight is all about correcting past mistakes – to put things “straight’ again. Sometimes, these acts of redemption were vengeful, others were virtuous. With this theme, Rash creates a page-turning book with simple storytelling. His writing style reminds me of Stewart O’Nan with the atmosphere of Charles Frazier. The characters and setting were spot on; however, I had an issue with the Civil War back story. Living in the American South, I know some wounds run very deep, but the “them vs. us” tone was a little much.

All in all, I enjoyed my first foray into the world of Ron Rash, and I look forward to reading more stories by this Appalachian writer. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

Nightwoods by Charles FrazierNightwoods
By Charles Frazier
Completed September 26, 2011

Charles Frazier is a dynamic writer. His sentences are beautifully crafted, conjuring up images that put the reader right into the story.  His first book, Cold Mountain, was nothing short of phenomenal. When his second book, Thirteen Moons, was released several years ago, I began reading it with eagerness – only to stop midway, disappointed with the plot and characters. So, when Nightwoods became available, I wanted to give Frazier another try. People have sophomore slumps, and I was hoping that was the case for this talented writer.

Nightwoods is the story of Luce, a young woman whose personal life was marked by tragedy and bad family relationships. She agrees to become the caretaker of an old, abandoned lodge in the North Carolina mountains – a place where she can be alone and away from people who inevitably hurt her. Tragically, Luce’s sister was murdered, and the state wants to place her sister’s twins into Luce’s care. When the twins arrive, Luce knows she has her work cut out for her. The twins, Dolores and Frank, won’t say a word and have a liking to starting fires. Luce, once alone and carefree, must now accept her fate as a guardian of very troubled children.

Luce’s situation is compounded when her sister’s husband (and murderer) arrives in town, looking for money that he believes Luce is in possession of. Bud is a no-good, violent man, and Luce knows he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Frazier’s superb writing style is in full force throughout Nightwoods. The reader gets a look at North Carolina mountain life – the good, bad and ugly. Unfortunately, I felt Frazier went to some extremes with his characters, especially the twins and their adventure during the last chapters of the book. As a fan of character-driven stories, this was a disappointment for me. But I am happy that Frazier seems to be on his game again, as Nightwoods is certainly a better story than Thirteen Moons.

So if you loved Cold Mountain like me, go ahead and get a copy of Nightwoods. Know it’s not perfect – but sit back and lavish in the wonderful writing of Charles Frazier. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: Father and Son by Larry Brown

Father and Son by Larry BrownFather and Son
By Larry Brown
Completed September 15, 2011

Dirty, raw, gritty – and that just barely scrapes the surface of Larry Brown’s book, Father and Son. I don’t mind the dirt and the grit, but I must confess, this book was more than I can handle.

Glen Davis spent three years in jail for killing a young boy while he was driving drunk. He got early parole, and as Glen returns to his small hometown in 1968 Mississippi, you can tell trouble’s brewing. Glen’s one of those types who thinks the world is always against him – and that anything bad that happens to Glen (real or perceived) must be met with swift and cruel retribution.

So, within a short time of his return, Glen commits double homicide, seeking revenge on a man who offered to buy his girlfriend a drink (three years ago). Then he rapes a woman who flirted with him (she deserved it, you see). Finally, upon learning that his girlfriend broke up with him so she could date the sheriff, Glen kidnaps the sheriff’s mom, ties her up and rapes her too.

Mix in a lot of beer, whiskey, cigarettes and animal cruelty – and you get a less than favorable view of Southern life. I fear it fits the stereotype a little too much. Sure, there were some upstanding characters, but Glen’s crimes overshadow it all.

As Brown writes about the characters and their pasts, he starts to paint a picture of Glen’s youth – the child of a drunken, cheating father and a mother who complained to her son about his father’s misdeeds. We also learn about the death of Glen’s brother in a gun accident. Indeed, Glen’s young life was not an easy one, and Brown keeps pressing on his relationship with his mother as an important influence in his life – as if she had, in some way, caused him to be such an evildoer. I object to this position. Glen was a sociopath. While his mom may be guilty of bad mothering, no amount of good parenting could have cured him. He was evil to the soul.

Larry Brown writes with sparse prose and is fearless about his stories. If you like the styles of Cormac McCarthy, Jon Clinch or Robert Olmstead, then give Larry Brown a try. Be forewarned, though, the Father and Son is like a punch in the gut. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb

The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumbThe Ballad of Tom Dooley
By Sharyn McCrumb
Completed August 12, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest installment in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Novels, was inspired by the Appalachian folk tune about a young man who killed a woman and was set to die for his crimes. McCrumb did an amazing amount of research in Wilkes County, North Carolina, to uncover what could have happened to Tom Dooley (who was really “Tom Dula”). The end result was a fast-paced, climatic story that presents a plausible explanation to the case.

The story was told by two observers: Pauline Foster, a poor, country woman who had a raging case of syphilis and sociopathic tendencies; and Zebulon Vance, the former governor of North Carolina who was assigned to defend Tom Dula and Ann Melton pro bono. Through Pauline’s narratives, we learned about Tom Dula and his lover, Ann – a narcissistic belle who got men to do whatever she wanted. Pauline was Ann’s cousin, and was jealous of Ann’s beauty and sense of entitlement. Pauline wanted to knock Ann down a peg or two. When Tom began to sleep with another cousin, Laura Foster, Pauline saw her opportunity. She invented stories about Tom and Laura’s affair, planting seeds of jealousy in Ann’s quick-tempered head.

In between Pauline’s scheming, we have the narrative of Zebulon Vance, an out-of-office Confederate politician who needed to work as a lawyer to earn money. Zebulon was a mountain man too, though much more refined than his defendants. Through his eyes, we saw Tom as a down-on-your-luck, star-crossed lover boy who would do anything for Ann. I liked Zebulon’s narrative, but at times he repeated himself. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or an error in editing,  but it added some charm to his side of the story.

Through The Ballad of Tom Dooley, McCrumb painted a picture of a restless, post-Civil War youth. Young people were scarred from the war – both men who fought in battles and women who struggled to survive on the home front. Times were hard – and when you weren’t plowing a field or making biscuits, you reached for easy entertainment: homemade whiskey and gratuitous sex. As this story showed, sometimes your vices could lead to your death.

Fans of Southern fiction are sure to like Sharyn McCrumb’s easy writing style and eye for history. I know I did, and I look forward to checking out more of her books from the Ballad Series. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find
By Flannery O’Connor
Completed October 1, 2010

Flannery O’Connor is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to get to. Prompted by recent reviews of her short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I decided there was no time like the present. Truth be told, after finishing A Good Man, I cannot believe I waited so long to enjoy this talented writer’s stories.

While I enjoyed each story in this collection, a few stood out for me:

1) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family and their grandmother are traveling by car to Florida for vacation. The grandmother is quite precocious, even smuggling her cat into the car, despite her son’s disapproval. She was also leery of going to Florida because she worried about running into an outlaw serial killer. When she takes her family on a wild goose chase to find an old house, her worst fear is realized, coming face to face with the serial killer.

2) “The River” – A young boy, Harry, goes with his new babysitter to a church revival where he is baptized for the first time. Harry is neglected by his parents, particularly his alcoholic mother. Once home, the boy remembers the words of the preacher – that he is somebody – and runs away from home to return to the river, to return to the feeling of self-worth that he experienced during his baptism. Of all the stories in this collection, this one touched me the most. I won’t soon forget young Harry.

3) “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” – General Sash was 104 years old, whose 62-year-old granddaughter was graduating from college. The general (who we realize later was only a major) could care less about his granddaughter’s academic accomplishment but looked forward to being featured on stage as part of the ceremony. As one of the oldest living Confederate “generals,” Sash enjoyed the limelight, especially the pretty girls who often posed with him for pictures. Upon arriving at the graduation, though, he didn’t find any pretty girls or much of the limelight, and eventually does something that no one planned on. This story had an undertone of dark humor, and I found myself smirking at the old general from time to time.

All of the stories featured in A Good Man is Hard to Find are gems – a reflection of post-World War II American South with all their doubts and insecurities. If you haven’t discovered the amazing writing style of Flannery O’Connor, then this story collection is an excellent place to start. ( )

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