So many people don't read the blogs on Saturdays, it seems, but for those of you who are like me and don't get much time to cruise during the week, I thought I'd try something special: Book Review Saturdays. No pretending to be The New York Times--just me offering my two cents on what I'm reading these days. So without further hesitation, my books for this week are Heavenly Days by James Wilcox and A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel.
You know those Southern novels with all the quirky characters who are just so eccentric and so charming you can hardly stand it? Well, this isn't quite one of those novels. Usually when I pick up a book that doesn't seem to be going anywhere after the first three to five chapters, I put it right back down again and never look back. (Okay, occasionally I look back. For example, I looked back at Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and thank goodness I did.) Heavenly Days is about a character (she's too one-dimensional on the page to call her a woman) named Lou, who grew up in the South but seems to have a Northerner's sense of being an outsider--I suppose because she's a Jewish woman who turns out to be a Baptist (yes, really). Lou works at a Christian weight-loss clinic, even though she has a Ph.D. in music. Mr. Wilcox mentions this anytime he wants Lou to stand apart from all the zany Southerners who surround her. As far as I can tell, the book has no plot. Lou goes to work and does zany, quirky things, like paint the handicapped spaces outside her office with white paint. Isn't that a hoot. She may be addicted to speed that the Christian weight-loss clinic is giving her, but it's not really clear. Her friends are Real Characters. For some reason I wanted it to have a plot, I wanted it all to come together smartly, but at the end I was more confused and irritated than entertained. Some authors know how to write character-driven novels, but so many of them don't. Mr. Wilcox apparently can't write either a character-driven or a plot-driven novel. That might be why I got this for $4.98 at Barnes & Noble, off the Super Savers table. (Good writers also get remaindered...) If you want to read a funny Southern novel, try either Louisiana Power and Light or Love Warps the Mind a Little by John DuFresne.
A Girl Named Zippy
This is Haven Kimmel's memoir about growing up in the tiny town of Mooreland, Indiana. Someone recommended this book to me years ago, but I just got around to picking up a copy and reading it. The first thing I wanted to do when I finished this book (which took less than a day) was turn right back to the beginning and read it again. First of all, she writes from the point of view of herself as a child, not as a gimmick or a post-modern trick, but in a way that makes you see her world first-hand. More precocious than precious, her voice rings true, whether she's writing about her beloved best friend Julie Newman, old Edythe from across the street, or services at the Quaker church she attended with her mother and siblings. She paints a picture of her family that makes them seem both beloved and remote, less a matter of concern than bike riding or tree climbing. And most refreshing of all, she has no horror stories to tell. A lesser writer could have taken the bits and pieces of her family's dysfunction (depressed mother with her nose buried in books; father with a gambling problem so bad he bet--and lost--his wife's wedding rings) and turned it into the poor-little-me memoir that's gotten so popular as of late, but Ms. Kimmel, with a child's self-centered grace, glosses over these moments in such a way that lets the reader know that while she may have reflected on her parents plenty as an adult, in her childhood she was allowed to remain firmly a child. I have not read any of her novels, Leaving Early (which was her first book), Something Rising Light and Swift, or The Solace of Leaving Early, but you can bet they're all on my list to read. Also on my list: the "sequel" to A Girl Named Zippy, She Got Up Off the Couch, the story of her mother...well, getting up off the couch and going back to school. Trust me when I say this woman can turn a phrase...it's all I can do not to type passages of the book for you. I'd end up typing out the whole thing.
*photos from powells.com