You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Jesharris’ category.

RUBBERNECKER by Belinda Bauer


Belinda Bauer

(Atlantic Monthly, $24)

In the decade since the success of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we’ve seen many other novels with protagonists who have Asperger’s syndrome. “Aspies” typically are highly intelligent but socially awkward individuals with obsessive interests, idiosyncratic preferences and compulsive behaviors.

British crime writer Belinda Bauer has created one such protagonist, a compelling and sympathetic one, in young Patrick Fort. He’s about to start a term of anatomy classes at a Welsh medical school because he wants “to see what makes people work.”

Patrick doesn’t want to become a doctor. He wants to study anatomy because he has a fascination with death that goes back to his childhood and the loss of his father in a car accident.

Patrick is obsessed with “the thing that changes … between life and death. I can’t feel it; I want to see it. I want to know what it is.”

His burning curiosity is not unlike that of the motorists who slow down to watch the aftermath of a crash: “Rubberneckers. Desperate for a glimpse of death.” He watches horse races, as he used to do with his dad, because it was “the only sport where death was routinely televised.

“With every crashing fall, Patrick felt the shock of the inevitable, and then a tingling in his belly — a bubble of anticipation in case this was the one, this was the horse, this was the moment when all would be revealed to him, when the door might open just a chink and allow him to glimpse a deathly Narnia on the other side.

“He had never come close.”

Bauer weaves her mystery adroitly, moving among several points of view without losing the reader’s attention or interest.

For one character, she creates a bubble of frustrating isolation as a patient in a coma ward; on the other side of that bubble, she sketches one nurse who is an angel of kindness and another whose callous obsession with catching a rich husband leads the reader to the tantalizing edge of a whole new murder mystery.

Bauer also makes us care deeply about Patrick, the solitary protagonist who observes everything and records it all mentally but avoids being physically touched by anyone.

Patrick is in the world, but not quite of the world. He has a prodigious memory, remembering a 12-digit phone number after one recitation. He views life through a veil of emotional distance, yet he experiences it with a strange intensity that is painful and often heartbreaking to witness. He endures casual verbal cruelties and social snubs that would crush most people’s spirits, for they simply roll off him.

Still, Patrick’s mysterious internal wiring contains high-voltage charges, as his classmate Meg comes to see.

“‘What’s it like to be you?’ she asked.

“Patrick was surprised. Nobody had ever asked him what it was like to be him, not even his mother.

… “‘It’s very,’ he said forcefully. ‘Very very. … Very.’

… “Meg simply nodded. ‘It must be.’”

Patrick, though legally and intellectually an adult, can be as innocently oblivious as a young child. He frequently frustrates his mother, who can’t reconcile herself to the fact that her son is hopeless at casual conversation, unresponsive to obvious statements or pointless ones. When Meg tries to become friends with him, Patrick simply doesn’t pick up on her interest.

“She cleared her throat. ‘You’re different, you know.’

“‘Only different from you,’ he said. ‘Not different from me.’”

But Patrick does pick up on a crucial fact, something that none of his fellow anatomy students notice: The stated natural cause of death for their cadaver, known as No. 19, cannot possibly be correct.

Moreover, when he discovers No. 19’s true cause of death, almost no one believes him. Then, a crucial piece of evidence goes missing.

In the wake of his discovery and the disappearing evidence, Patrick is not so much a pursuer of justice as a mad scientist intent upon proving his thesis. But in his willingness to follow the clues, even if it means placing himself in mortal danger, he becomes an inadvertent avenger, a seeker of truth and an unlikely hero.

He will have readers cheering for him all the way.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


NOTE: Dallas Morning News books editor Michael Merschel asked me to contribute a DMN blog post today, discussing the process of reviewing Go Set a Watchman.  He posted it alongside the review on today’s

Former staff writer, regular critic and longtime To Kill a Mockingbird fan Joyce Sáenz Harris wrote our review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Here’s how her thoughts about the book evolved: 

US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”

When Mike Merschel asked me to review Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I must admit I got ridiculously giddy. This was the best assignment a book reviewer could ask for in 2015, and I was thrilled to be one of the very few people who would be privileged to read Lee’s new novel before publication day.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in Reader’s Digest Condensed Book form when I was 11, just a few years after it was published and won the 1961 Pulitzer for fiction. Later, of course, I would read and re-read the complete novel many times, and I can remember illustrating scenes from TKAM in pencil drawings for my high-school English class. The Academy Award-winning 1962 film also became an enduring favorite at some point.

So when the UPS deliveryman brought the book to my door last Thursday morning, and I signed for the advance review copy, I simply sat down and started reading. Less than 12 hours later, I had finished all 247 pages, and the book was littered with yellow Post-It paper strips covered with scribbled notes.

Who knew Harper Lee is a Gilbert & Sullivan fan? …NO, cousin Francis Hancock was Aunt Alexandra’s grandson, not her son! …No mention of Boo or the Radleys at all? …What is this rape trial that Atticus WON? …Jem died of a heart attack like their mother did; “they said it ran in her family.” …Dill is in Italy, just like Truman Capote was. …Harper Lee invented “What Would Atticus Do?” long before the T-shirts and bumper stickers of today.

In the second half of the book, however, I had to stop reading and digest what was happening before I could finish.

What the what? Atticus Finch, that secular saint, heading up the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council? Tolerating the speech of white supremacists and arguing with Jean Louise about whether she really wants black people integrated into white Southern society, voting in mass, holding public office? I felt very uncomfortable as I continued reading, as if I had been betrayed by an old friend, rather than by a fictional character in a favorite book.

But after finishing Watchman, I put on my reviewer’s hat and thought not like a fan, but like a writer, like an editor. Eventually, I realized that it is a novelist’s prerogative to mess with readers’ minds. To make us think, to make us doubt our cherished preconceptions. Their job is not to foster our pleasant illusions, but to present us with some sort of truth.

For Harper Lee, Watchman was her truth, because this Atticus is the father she knew as an adult. A.C. Lee, the author’s father and the courtly Southern lawyer on whom she modeled Atticus Finch, was in fact a segregationist, according to her biographer, Charles J. Shields.

I finally understood why Watchman became a discarded first draft, and why Mockingbird was written instead. Lee’s editors wanted a different, more uplifting story with a white-knight father figure standing tall for justice. They knew what people like to read, and the story of an adult daughter wrestling with the fact that her dad is an old segregationist wasn’t exactly best-seller material for a first-time novelist. No, far better to write the story of a child learning about life’s tragic unfairness, about the loss of innocence mitigated by the surety of a father’s love, wisdom and goodness.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Now I realized what it must have cost Harper Lee to write this portrait of her father — and how relieved she must have been to revert, in Mockingbird, to the Atticus who was the father she adored as a child, rather than the aging segregationist with whom she argued about the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision as an adult. She wouldn’t have wanted this portrait published during his lifetime, not really. And A.C. Lee’s heart would have been crushed by it, if it had been.

Instead, A.C.’s heart grew a few sizes after Mockingbird was published. In a case of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he began to act like a real-life Atticus the Good, campaigning for redistricting to protect black voters before he died in April 1962.

Now, if you wish, you can certainly avoid reading Go Set a Watchman altogether, or wait until you’re feeling calmer about this whole thing. Or you can decide to believe that this is Uncanny Valley Atticus, as Jeff Weiss puts it, in an alternate universe.

Or you can settle in to read and accept Watchman, with all of its many flaws, timeline inconsistencies and continuity errors, as part of the Mockingbird canon. You can laugh out loud at more of Scout’s youthful escapades, learn further salacious details of her cousin Joshua Singleton St. Clair, the insane poet, and at last find out the name of Scout and Jem’s mother. You can discover who Jem took to his prom and what kind of wardrobe malfunction Scout suffered there. You can even witness a version of “I am Spartacus” played out at Maycomb County High School.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote songs of innocence, but first she wrote songs of experience. With Go Set a Watchman, open-minded Mockingbird fans can now have both. To me, it just makes Lee’s legacy that much more interesting, complex and timely. I hope her faithful readers will hear what she has to teach us, because it is still worth learning, even if we find it rather hard to read.

Lee is a lifelong Methodist, as am I. One thing we learned in Sunday school is: There is only one perfect Father, and he is the one in heaven.

His name is not Atticus Finch.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas. Read her review of Go Set a Watchman here


US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”


Special Contributor

Published: 13 July 2015 10:48 AM

When last we saw young Scout Finch of Maycomb, Ala., it was 1935. Scout had survived a murder attempt, had finally met her mysterious neighbor Boo Radley and was safe at home with her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus. That is, as every reader knows, the ending of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — the most beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning book in history.

So from the moment it was announced in February that the Go Set a Watchman manuscript had been discovered in Lee’s archives, her readers entertained doubts and hopes.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

The reality: This companion piece to Mockingbird, published Tuesday, will complicate Lee’s legacy in ways we never expected. Some readers will actively resent Lee’s revelations, while others will rejoice in her unsentimental realism. Both camps, though, will enjoy the many additional flashbacks to Mockingbird days and Scout’s teen years.

Watchman begins in the early 1950s with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, 26, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a family visit. Atticus, beset with rheumatoid arthritis at 72, is still practicing law and still the moral center of Jean Louise’s universe. But everything else in Maycomb seems to have changed.

Brother Jem is two years gone; he dropped dead of a heart attack, just as their mother did. Her old friend Dill also is gone, if only to Italy. Atticus sold his house and built a new one; the Finches’ old home has been torn down and an ice-cream stand built in its place. Aunt Alexandra moved in to care for Atticus when their old housekeeper, Calpurnia, retired; and Uncle Jack, the doctor, has retired to Maycomb with his ancient cat.

Though the old guard of Maycomb resists change, the town has acquired a new middle class in the postwar GI Bill baby boom. At Finch’s Landing, the family mansion has been sold to become a hunting club. A sawmill has eliminated swimming at Barker’s Eddy. Even at the Finches’ Methodist church, modern influences threaten their best-loved hymns.

Readers will immediately notice that where Mockingbird was a first-person narrative through young Scout’s eyes, Watchman is told in the third person. Yet Lee puts us right inside the adult Jean Louise’s head, and we know this is indeed our old and dear friend, the “juvenile desperado” just grown a little older.

So when Jean Louise finds her adored father consorting politically with racists at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, it is the worst shock of her life. Her discovery is a punch to the gut, making us nearly as ill as it makes her.

How is it possible that Atticus Finch, the inspiration and role model for generations of real-life fathers and aspiring lawyers, is not the man we believed he was?

That we’ve waited 55 years for this thunderbolt makes it all the more stunning, for the pop-culture cult of Atticus the Good is one we boomers grew up and grew old with. So we ache with Jean Louise when she realizes in horror that “she was born color blind” while her father was not.

Atticus is indeed a gentleman, kindly to everyone; he reveres the law above all things. But he has fallen from his pedestal, and Jean Louise feels betrayed. So do we.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience,” Uncle Jack tells his niece. He knows that in order for Jean Louise to become her own person, she has to see his brother as a fallible human being. Instead of believing Atticus to be the best, wisest man she knows, his daughter must accept him as a man who will “always do it by the letter and the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives.”

Watchman is far from perfect. The text wants editing, and careful readers will spot several notable continuity gaps from the Mockingbird text. Aunt Alexandra’s son has the wrong name; Boo Radley isn’t mentioned at all; and a rape trial is recalled very differently from the one we know as Tom Robinson’s.

But 60 years after she began creating Scout’s story, Harper Lee demonstrates that it is indeed timeless. Today the nation still grapples with the harsh realities of race and civil rights; societal shifts still are divisive. Empathy too often eludes us, and children remain reluctant to let go of the cherished belief that a beloved father always knows best.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer who first read To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago.

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

(Harper, $27.99)


Special Contributor
Published: 24 April 2015 10:49 PM

Three historians at three North Texas universities are responsible for organizing Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives. While one might expect that this book would come from a Texas university press, editors Elizabeth Hayes (University of North Texas), Stephanie Cole (University of Texas at Arlington) and Rebecca Sharpless (Texas Christian University) explain in the preface that the University of Georgia Press already had a history series called Southern Women: Their Lives and Times, a natural fit for the book they wanted to write.

Texas Women is written as a clear, concise narrative, starting in colonial times with chapters on the influences of American Indian women who lived in what would become Texas; Mexican women who settled in Texas when it was still part of New Spain; women of the Texas Republic; enslaved women of antebellum times; and Texas women of the late 19th and early 20th century, with emphasis on the struggle for women’s suffrage, legal rights, health care, access to education and professional standing.

Under Spanish law, which carried over to Mexico when it became independent, “Spanish women had rights,” writes Jean A. Stuntz of West Texas A&M University. “Indeed, even a poor servant woman had the right to file suit. Her marital status was not mentioned because it was not important.” One key difference between Spanish and English cultures: “Spanish women did not take their husbands’ names upon marriage. … A woman’s name and her legal identity did not disappear upon marriage, as they did in Anglo America.” Castilian imperial law followed the Spanish conquest into Mexico and thence to colonial Texas.

Dallas readers will be particularly interested in “Latinas in Dallas, 1910-2010,” by Bianca Mercado, a UNT postgraduate and a doctoral candidate at Yale who is completing a dissertation on Mexican communities and urban redevelopment in Dallas. This chapter includes stories of Anita N. Martinez, Adelaida Cuellar, Maria Luna, Faustina Martinez, Lena Levario, Diana Orozco and other women who pushed beyond cultural barriers and helped bring their families to prominence in Dallas business and politics.

Two other Dallasites merit their own chapters in Texas Women: Julia Scott Reed and Hermine Tobolowsky.

Reed was an experienced journalist who in 1967 became the first African-American writer hired full time at a major daily newspaper in Texas. She was a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. W. Marvin Dulaney, history department chair at UTA, tells how Reed brought a new breadth and depth to The News’ coverage of the black community in Dallas. Her column, “The Open Line,” ran three times a week from July 1967 until December 1978, when a stroke ended her career. She wrote “more thorough coverage of people, events and issues in the local African-American community than most of the nation’s newspapers had previously provided,” Dulaney writes. “In short, she presented a view of Dallas’ African-American community of which most whites had no awareness or understanding.”

Tobolowsky, a Dallas lawyer, was a driving force behind the Equal Rights Amendment. According to historian Nancy E. Baker of Sam Houston State University, “Unlike the majority of states that ratified the federal ERA, Texas had a vigorous pro-ERA movement dating back to the late 1950s, thanks in large part to Hermine Tobolowsky” and the Texas Business and Professional Women’s efforts to obtain a state equal rights amendment. While Tobolowsky “avoided the appearance of radicalism at all times,” she emphasized that legal sexual equality would benefit everyone, men as well as women.

Other prominent Texans profiled in Texas Women include politician Barbara Jordan, astronaut Mae Jemison, peace activist Casey Hayden, and the Houston Post’s Oveta Culp Hobby, who led the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and was appointed the first secretary of Health, Education and Welfare by President Dwight Eisenhower. It is astonishing to realize, by the way, that there is no full-scale biography of Hobby, who was probably the most influential Texas woman of the mid-20th century. (The only biography of her that is available is one written for younger readers.)

Texas Women is heavily footnoted, but it isn’t ponderous. For anyone interested in the real women who built Texas while struggling against long odds, it is revelatory reading.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives

Edited by Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Stephanie Cole and Rebecca Sharpless

(University of Georgia, $32.95)


Special Contributor

Published: 02 January 2015 12:14 PM

Real estate is an obsession for many people, as millions of HGTV viewers can testify. Normally, we think of it as a benign sort of obsession, and we think of our real estate agents as a benign sort, too.

Unless your agent is William Heming. In which case, think again.

In Phil Hogan’s new novel, A Pleasure and a Calling, Heming is what the Brits call an estate agent, one who takes a deep interest in his clients’ lives. This, he confides, is “the job from heaven.”

With each new client, he makes a copy of the house key and keeps it. He has hundreds of keys arrayed like trophies on the wall of his own house, which no one ever visits. Then, whenever he pleases, he lets himself into a client’s house and becomes intimately acquainted with every aspect of their lives. It is more than a game to him. It is a thrill, an intoxicant, a mini-vacation that allows him to feel fully alive.

“Here, among strangers’ belongings, is where I am most at home, moving quietly and surely,” Heming muses. “I know where they keep their private things, how they arrange their lives. I follow their plans and make mine around them. … I will eat or drink something, perhaps take a small keepsake — a teaspoon, a sock. But … I am not a stalker, or a voyeur. I am simply sharing an experience, a life as it happens.

“Think of me as an invisible brother or uncle or boyfriend. I’m no trouble.” In fact, Heming considers himself to be “a ministering angel” who is “more than happy to change a lightbulb or rewire a hazardous plug, or sort out a dangerous boiler.”

At times he can be an avenging angel as well, as when he spots a wealthy former client clipping the side mirror from an old-age pensioner’s parked small car, then fleeing the scene in his “behemoth” SUV. Heming plays good Samaritan and anonymously replaces the mirror for the old lady. Then he proceeds to make the malfeasant SUV owner’s life a merry hell, replete with breaking shoelaces, popping buttons, missing Rolexes, leaking pipes and the arrival of an amazing array of expensive merchandise that no one has ordered.

If Heming’s mischief ended there, he would be merely amusing. However, he slowly reveals that his hobby springs from the dark grounds of his childhood, when he was “an invisible boy” who enjoyed watching people, and sometimes manipulating them, as if they were his personal set of puppets.

“I hadn’t much of significance to say to my fellow pupils, and vice versa,” Heming recalls. Yet he “winkled out their secrets — their family nicknames, who among them had had an appendix or tonsils out, who was going skiing that winter. … I filled a spiral notebook with my findings and conjectures (Tomerton was gay, I surmised; Faulkes’s stammer was the product of torture as a child), spilling into two notebooks, which became three, four, five and more as my enterprise gathered weight. I kept their lives, all of them — the weaklings, the bullies, the dolts, the young Mozarts and Einsteins — locked in my chest.”

Hemings’ secret life takes an unexpectedly dangerous turn when he becomes fascinated by a young woman who is having an affair with a charming cad of a married man. Once he acquires her key, or rather the key she had given to her lover, he moves into her attic for five days and spends his nights there in “a career first. I ate, drank, dreamed and breathed her. She was that newest drug, that highest ledge, the rarest butterfly, all in one.” Now he is indeed a stalker, a man obsessed who must evade not only the law but also the one person who, it turns out, is nearly as diabolically clever as he.

A Pleasure and a Calling starts out slowly, meticulously building the first-person portrait of a sociopath. But, 70 pages in, the novel takes a sharp turn into Patricia Highsmith country, and the deliberately bland, purposely forgettable Heming stands revealed as Tom Ripley with a real estate license.

Author Phil Hogan is a veteran journalist and critic, and this is his first book to be published in the United States. Here’s hoping for more to come.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

A Pleasure and a Calling

Phil Hogan

(Picador, $25)

 The late writer J. California Cooper granted few interviews, according to her obituary today in the New York Times. But 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with her at her home in Marshall, Texas, where she lived for seven years and wrote three of her books. This story appeared as the cover of the Sunday High Profile section of The Dallas Morning News, on July 24, 1994.

This enigmatic Texas writer is no open book

J. California Cooper


Staff Writer

MARSHALL – One of America’s great writers works right here – but
almost nobody knows it.

Which suits J. California Cooper just fine.

For the past seven years, Ms. Cooper has lived quietly in an
unpretentious neighborhood in the small East Texas city of
Marshall. Her house is bright green, like the tall old trees that
arch overhead.

“If you pay attention to nature, you know God loves color,” the
writer muses. “And if you were his favorite color you might be
green, because I know he loves green. Everything in the world is
green, almost.” Her smile is richly knowing, beatific as a
cafe-au-lait Buddha.

This corner of Texas has proved an oasis of peace and
productivity for Ms. Cooper. Her second novel, In Search of
Satisfaction (Doubleday), will be published in October. Her fifth
collection of short stories, Some Love, Some Pain, Some Time, will
follow in the fall of 1995.

Her previous story collections – A Piece of Mine, Some Soul to
Keep, Homemade Love and The Matter Is Life – won Ms. Cooper a
reputation as a gifted teller of tales. Her first novel, Family,
published by Doubleday in 1991, was bought by the Literary Guild
and helped to give her a wider, more mainstream audience.

J. California Cooper

But without Alice Walker, Ms. Cooper says, “this stuff could
still be sitting in the drawer.” Ms. Walker, a novelist who is
perhaps best known for The Color Purple, saw Ms. Cooper’s plays and
urged her to try writing stories. Ms. Walker then published A Piece
of Mine through her own company, Wild Trees Press.

“In its strong folk flavor, Cooper’s work reminds us of Langston
Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms. Walker wrote. “Like theirs, her
style is deceptively simple and direct. …It is a delight to
read her stories.”

Their creator likewise is deceptively simple and direct, wearing
a veil of mystery even when she seemingly bares her soul.

She is “the ultimate pragmatist,” says daughter Paris Williams
of Oakland, Calif., who calls her mother “compassionate,
imaginative, practical and very loving in more ways than I can

“One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from
her,” Ms. Williams adds. “She once said, `As long as I’ve known
you, I’ve never known you to be intentionally hurtful to anyone.’

“But that’s because I’m her child. That’s the kind of values
she raised me with.”

You know, I am a grown woman of some considerable character and
an excellent education. Which age, I am not going to tell you. I
mean, how important is age? Just try to live, I say, with wisdom
and concern for others. But by living this long (not too long), I
have learned a few things.

– “Friends, Anyone?” (from The Matter Is Life)

Ms. Cooper, who laughingly calls herself “a semi-recluse,” is
intriguingly eccentric. She writes her stories in bed, in longhand,
usually in the early-morning hours. She says she is “a bed-crazy
person,” and that writing by hand “is the only way I can get these
people (the characters’ voices) to come.” Later, she will “fill out
the skeleton” of narrative as she transfers her work to a computer,
to be printed out in manuscript form.

“I don’t know how to write,” she says disarmingly. “I just do

Her occasional public readings are vivid events marked by a
natural flair for drama, and she can hold a cafeteria full of
restless high-schoolers spellbound. But she doesn’t go out of her
way to seek publicity, preferring to let the media find her – when they can.

She’ll talk about her work while letting many things about
herself and her personal history remain deliberately vague. “She
guards her privacy,” says her daughter.

For example, Ms. Cooper appears 60-ish – but “a woman who will
tell her age will tell anything,” she quotes with a laugh. Her
years show in the tranquil, seen-it-all lines around her lively
eyes. But her hands are amazingly smooth and youthful, like those
of a 25-year-old.

Her given name, Joan, now is shortened to the initial “J.” Ms.
Cooper doesn’t usually reveal what the “J” stands for, but Alice
Walker mentioned it in the introduction to A Piece of Mine. The
adopted name “California” is after her home state; she spent most
of her life in Oakland, Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

But her father, Joseph C. Cooper, came from Marshall, and when
she was 12, she spent a year in his hometown, living with an aunt.
Later, Ms. Cooper often returned to visit. Thus she has never
forgotten her Texas roots or the gritty realities of country life,
such as picking cotton for a penny a pound.

Ms. Cooper wrote 17 plays before publishing any of her fiction,
and she was named San Francisco’s Black Playwright of the Year in
1978 for Strangers. In 1988, she was given the James Baldwin Award
and the American Library Association’s Literary Lion Award.

In 1989, Ms. Cooper won an American Book Award for Homemade
Love, and the honor brought her a flood of attention. Some of it
was the sort most struggling writers would kill to get, but much of
it she found exasperating.

It was “the only time I’ve seen her become disagreeable,” says
Reid Boates, the New Jersey literary agent who has represented Ms.
Cooper for the past eight years. “A private atmosphere is very
important to her.”

“When you win an award, all kinds of people want to talk to
you,” says Emma Rodgers, co-owner of Black Images Book Bazaar in
Oak Cliff’s Wynnewood Village. “They take your time – and your time
belongs to you and no one else.”

By 1987, Ms. Cooper had already lit out for the territory: “I
think she idealized the country life,” her daughter says. At any
rate, Ms. Cooper found solace and more of the solitude she craved
in East Texas.

Her place was goin to be nice. She furnished it with the best of
things, tho she never lowed no one in them special rooms. She
didn’t much go in em herself cept to go sit and look round at what
was hers. Hers.

– from Family

In Marshall, California Cooper lives in an idiosyncratic,
inconspicuous but densely textured sanctum of her own devising.
Here, she has her pair of goldfinches and her two cats: one
neurotically shy to the point of invisibility, one aggressively
sociable. She also has eight chickens, all named, who provide her
with fresh eggs to eat and give away. She surrounds herself with
shelves of books and music, with hanging plants, manuscripts and
works of art in progress.

This is her world, but be warned: The welcome mat is not out.

She doesn’t mind the occasional public reading, book-signing or
a good chat over lunch in town. Occasionally she will sit and visit
in the shade of her trees. But she rarely invites guests into her
home, and she discourages drop-ins.

“I DON’T WANT ANY COMPANY,” she says sternly.

She says visitors disturb her “vibes,” the quietude that lets
her listen to the vivid characters’ voices inside her head. Even
her chickens or her old pecan tree, she says, can tell her a story.
Hers is a creative process that can best be described, perhaps, in
one word: “organic.”

“The stories arrive full-blown,” says Mr. Boates. “That’s their
magic, really.

“Her writing process is listening to her characters, and it’s a
very special way of working. That’s what lets her write in the
voice of a cocky, narcissistic young man in one story, and in the
next as an old woman, remembering some incident with her daughter
50 years ago.”

Says Ms. Rodgers, “She talks like people talk.”

Oh, and how her characters do talk.

Vigorous, melancholy, malicious, tormented, joyful, nostalgic,
headstrong, and most of all human – California Cooper’s people talk
like real folks.

Her mostly first-person narratives flow “partly from experience
and partly from observing,” says her daughter, Ms. Williams. A
typical Cooper story is like a parable whose moral often can be
summed up: What goes around, comes around.

In Ms. Cooper’s universe, evil is punished, “integrity always
triumphs,” and the eternal verities – God, love, family, justice –
stand in stark contrast to human foolishness and conceit.

When her characters do or say thoughtless things, Ms. Cooper
says, “I love it, because I don’t like a fool. I really don’t like
a fool! All my life I’ve prayed, `Don’t let me be a fool.’ ”

She likes people with get-up-and-go. “Make a mistake,” she says
firmly. “But let it be a mistake where you’re reaching and you just
reached a little too high.”

However folksy her stories might be, there is nothing naive or
innocent about them. They can be funny, sensual or uplifting – but
they may also make a reader squirm. In the story titled “Vanity,”
for example, a beautiful woman’s narcissism leads her into a life
of utter degradation, rendered in grim, unflinching detail.

And her characters’ tragedies become her own. “Me, when I get a
chance to cry, I cry,” Ms. Cooper admits. “I cry at my own stories,
right on the stage. I try not to, but when I’m reading, I hurt.”
She cries when she writes her stories, too, “because I’m living

Ms. Cooper’s previous novel, Family, portrays that most American
of institutions in a struggle to survive. The saga begins with
Clora, the matriarch, a woman born into slavery. Despair drives
Clora to suicide, and the book is told by the voice of her spirit,
watching over a beloved daughter named Always.

While Family is in a sense more Always’ story than her mother’s,
it is Clora’s voice, disembodied and eternally weary, that echoes
in the reader’s mind:

Some people say we was born slaves . . . but I don’t blive that.
I say I was born a free human being, but I was made a slave right after.

Ms. Cooper says she is proud to be who she is, a black woman who
has prevailed. But she also believes, as the title of one of her
Homemade Love stories puts it, that “happiness does not come in

Neither does kindness or goodness, evil or misery. Though her
narrators most often speak in the vernacular of black America,
there is no color line drawn between Ms. Cooper’s heroes and her
villains. Family’s story of Clora, Always and their kin is a
universal one, encompassing not only the African-American
experience but the family of mankind.

Family is “the nucleus of life,” Ms. Cooper says. “If you think
about it, what else is there in the world?”

You know, I’m just a kid, but I got nerves, and sometimes
grown-up people just really get on em! Like always talkin about how
kids don’t have no sense “in these days.” Like they got all the
last sense there was to get. Everybody with some sense knows that
if grown-up people had so much sense the whole world wouldn’t be in
the shape it’s in today!

– “How, Why to Get Rich” (from The Matter Is Life)

It all started with paper dolls.

Maxine Rosemary Lincoln Cooper – “Mimi” – was an independent
woman who “wanted to be a pioneer or a gun moll.” Mimi’s youngest
girl was known as the one who made up stories. She put her cast of
paper dolls into homemade plays, creating drama from pure

Which was adorable at age 6 or 8 – but at 18?

Mimi appreciated her daughter’s lively imagination, but enough
was enough. You are too oooold for this! she ruled. Time to put
away childish things, like those paper dolls.

“My mother took them away,” Ms. Cooper says. “But the next year
I was married and was getting ready to have a baby.

“She should have left me alone with those paper dolls! But she
took them away – and so I began to write stuff out.”

She had always loved fairy tales. “Imagine a diamond mountain
and a lemonade lake and a golden apple!” Ms. Cooper marvels. “Who
would think of a pea under a mattress?”

Real life, of course, didn’t always have a happy ending. Ms.
Cooper “was married a couple of times, but they’re dead.” But if
marriages did not last, motherhood did. So “my child,” as she
affectionately calls Paris in the dedication of every book, is her
pride and joy.

Ms. Cooper is possessed of both earthy practicality and a
certain childlike ability to live in her imagination. “And I am the
most grateful person in the world that I haven’t lost it,” she says.

“People used to say, when I was grown and had a daughter, `She
just crazy. She ain’t never gonna grow up.’ Because the way I
thought and the way I acted – I carried my daughter around in my
bicycle basket! She never got hurt; we did fine. But lots of things
I did, people thought they were juvenile.

“They were not juvenile,” Ms. Cooper says softly. “They were
innocent, I think.

“And I still like paper dolls.”

My mama say Time is like an ocean tide. It just keep rollin on,
bringin new things for a person to try to sift through. You don’t
never know what’s comin! Or what ain’t comin!

– “Sisters of the Rain” (from Some Soul to Keep)

California Cooper “is probably the pre-eminent African-American
short story writer today,” says John R. Posey of Fort Worth,
publisher of The African American Literary Review. “She seems to
have a way of connecting her characters to African-American women
all over the United States today.

“She gets huge turnouts for her readings,” Mr. Posey adds. He
recalls that at one such event at Black Images Book Bazaar, “I was
one of maybe five men there. …She’s a legend among African-American female readers in Texas.”

Indeed, Emma Rodgers says that until Terry McMillan’s Waiting to
Exhale came along, Ms. Cooper was the best-selling author at Black
Images. Ms. Cooper’s work now is being anthologized, is turning up
in American high school and college literature courses, and is read
and respected in Europe.

Fame and success have their uses, because they allow Ms. Cooper
the freedom to arrange her life as she chooses. What she does not
like is the assumption that success makes her a public property.

“I meet a lot of people who want to hug me and kiss me,” she
says. “You cannot hug and kiss all these people. What makes them
think that – that you belong to them?”

She remembers walking down a hallway at her publisher’s and
seeing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a Doubleday editor, coming
toward her. “I had on some black pants and a pretty orange knit
sweater, and she looked me up and down in a split second,” Ms.
Cooper reminisces. “Then she looked at my face, and she smiled. I
saw her, and I smiled and nodded, and we kept going.”

Yes, she would have loved to meet Mrs. Onassis. But that’s the
kind of fandom Ms. Cooper prefers: respectful, not presumptuous,
not overly familiar.

She is humbly grateful, she says, for every reader who enjoys
her work. But owning California Cooper’s books, it is clear, does
not mean owning her.

“Nobody really knows me,” she says softly, “and I’ll tell you
why. Because I am really extra special private for some reason I
don’t know.

“My daughter knows me more than anybody. But I don’t know of
anybody else, except my mother, and she’s not alive.” Her voice
drops down, sadly: “Oh, I hate that. Now, when I have enough money
to take her somewhere.”

Ms. Cooper has dealt with many losses in her life, the most
recent being that of her only brother last January. But “her
biggest, most important loss was her mother,” says her daughter,
Ms. Williams. “She’ll never get over that. It’s been about 12
years, and it’s still a very big wound for her.”

Time’s passage is an essential element in Ms. Cooper’s art. She
is acutely aware of the encroachments of age. “I just hate to see
this time pass,” she frets.

She has done much in her life – traveled the world, reared a
child, worked as a manicurist, a waitress, a secretary, a loan
officer. She says she even joined the Teamsters and drove buses and
trucks in Alaska. “Oh, what a place, what a place! Mountains,
mountains, just glaring in the sunlight – diamonds, diamonds! And
just as pure and clear.”

She loves to tell stories, but she likes to do, too. “I don’t
believe people hate to grow old so much as you hate to grow past
your opportunities,” Ms. Cooper says. “The way life looks to me is,
you can do different chapters.”

In her next “chapter,” she plans to move back to Oakland for at
least part of each year, to be closer to her daughter. And she
doesn’t plan to be writing books forever, because she wants to do
so much more: take art classes and learn to paint pictures. Perhaps
even train as a practical nurse and take flying lessons, so that
she can take medical care to people in remote places of the world.

Meantime, she stays tuned in to the follies of the human heart,
observing, laughing, wondering and always aware.

“I tell people: You’d better watch what’s going on around you,”
Ms. Cooper says. “Because this is life.”

By The Dallas Morning News

Published: 12 September 2014 06:42 PM

Merritt Tierce’s new debut novel set in Dallas, Love Me Back, got some high-profile attention at BookExpo America last spring, even winning mention on the front of Publishers Weekly’s “Show Daily” edition. The message the book world heard was: Much should be expected of this edgy new talent.

Attention for Tierce, 34, didn’t end there. The book’s dust jacket features an admiring blurb from fellow Dallas author Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), who selected her as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” in 2013. The advance-review copy boasts a rare personal rave from Sonny Mehta, chairman and editor in chief of the Knopf-Doubleday Publishing Group, who calls Love Me Back “unconventional, painful, poignant and fiercely engaging.”

Previously, Tierce was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award winner and a contributor to Dallas Noir, a highly readable collection of dark-edged short stories from local writers, published last fall by Akashic. Her story, “The Private Room,” was excerpted from Love Me Back, where it appears as the final chapter. Though every story in Dallas Noir had its grim aspects, “The Private Room” was by far the bleakest.

In her day job, Tierce is executive director of the Dallas-based nonprofit Texas Equal Access Fund (TEA Fund), a grassroots feminist organization that provides financial assistance to women who cannot afford the cost of abortion. Choice is, perhaps not coincidentally, integral to Love Me Back, though it’s not the choice of whether to have an abortion. Rather, self-destructive choices drive a middle-class teenager — a church-going high-school valedictorian headed to Yale — to abase herself in the most horrifying ways.

Love Me Back’s protagonist is Marie Young, who is not quite 17 when she gets her first job serving at an Olive Garden in Dallas. Marie graduates to waitressing at a Chili’s and at the Dream Cafe before landing a big-time serving job, an opportunity to earn hundreds in tips nightly at a swanky Dallas steakhouse that she calls The Restaurant. (In real life, Tierce waited tables at Nick & Sam’s.)

Marie’s life, much like Tierce’s, was thrown off track by an unplanned teenage pregnancy. It’s unsurprising to learn that Tierce spent years waiting tables before she turned, successfully, to writing fiction; her details of restaurant life have a gritty authenticity that comes from having been there and done that. But Marie’s path, unlike her creator’s, contains no hope, no redemptive light at the end of the tunnel.

Marie’s too-early marriage buckles under the stress of working opposite shifts and living in poverty. Marie loves baby Analisa but feels she has no maternal instinct, that she is “only her nursemaid.” At Chili’s, however, she finds she’s good at something: “I learned how to sweep aggressively and efficiently. I learned how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is. I learned how to use work to forget.”

When her husband takes custody of Analisa, Marie pours her stunted emotions into work and the surrogate, dysfunctional family created by each restaurant’s ever-changing staff. At her lowest point, she uses drugs, and “in about three months’ time I had sex with approximately 30 different men who worked for or patronized my steakhouse, the bar next door, Il Castello, and Cosimo [a nightclub]. …But it wasn’t about pleasure; it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.”

She engages in joyless, graphic ménages à trois, in anonymous hookups where she remembers men only as “the black one” or “the white one.” She allows herself to be “pimped out” by co-workers, to be slapped around, insulted and used. She cultivates her reputation as a tough girl, one who “was not afraid of whatever debasement awaited.” In private, she inflicts small burns upon herself. When she finally settles down to seeing someone exclusively, he is one that she calls “the hateful man.”

Marie’s story is painful to read, but Tierce’s focused, fiercely unsentimental writing nevertheless lingers long in the memory. This is not a feel-good, book-club sort of story, but rather one that will leave the reader with an ache in the heart and a queasiness in the gut. The presale word on Tierce is true: Her unflinching realism may haunt your dreams.

Don’t come to Love Me Back expecting to love the protagonist. Don’t come expecting a happy ending. In this agonized slice of Dallas life, there is none to be had.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Love Me Back

Merritt Tierce

(Doubleday, $23.95)

Available Tuesday


Plan your life

Merritt Tierce will appear at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas.

"Secret Daughter" by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Here’s my book review from Sunday’s Dallas Morning News:

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Morrow, $23.99)

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Dualities abound in this engrossing first novel by Dallas writer Shilpi Somaya Gowda.

The story arcs over 25 years in two nations with very different cultures: India and the United States. The narrative follows two sets of parents, and at the heart of the tale are two children.

One is a boy who grows up to live a double life so that he and his parents might escape the Mumbai slums. The other child is his sister, a little girl with two names, who is born into one culture but grows up in the other.

Gowda knows both worlds. She was born in Toronto and grew up there, with parents who were Mumbai natives. She earned her university degrees in the United States, but she never lost touch with her Indian roots.

In 1991, she spent a summer working in an orphanage in India, and her experiences there, especially her friendship with a charming toddler girl, inspired Gowda to write the story of Asha, the child whose life is forever changed by a mother’s sacrifice.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Because of a change for her husband, Gowda moved to Dallas from San Francisco in 2005 and enrolled in writing classes at Southern Methodist University. Secret Daughter, which grew out of a class project, “would not have gotten written unless I made that move,” she says.

Gowda’s cultural ties to India, along with her Western life and education, led her to create two very different women: Kavita Merchant, the impoverished villager who knows too well what happens to unwanted girls, and Somer Whitman, the American pediatrician who marries a fellow physician from India.

Somer’s infertility leads her and her husband, Krishnan Thakkar, to adopt Kavita’s baby, Asha, from the Indian orphanage where Kavita had surrendered her. Gowda vividly describes the cultural fears and shocks confronting a Western woman in India, followed by the insecurities attending Somer back home, as she strives to mother a child who looks like Krishnan, but not like her.

“Nature had already deemed she couldn’t be a mother, and now she wonders if they made a mistake. … Would she know better what to do with Asha if they shared the same blood? Would Asha respond better to Somer if she didn’t look so different from everyone she’d known in her short life?”

Gowda weaves her tale deftly, alternating viewpoints between Kavita and Somer, with occasional chapters told through the eyes of their husbands. Later, a teenage Asha takes over much of the narrative as she journeys back to India to meet Krishnan’s family and to search for her identity, unaware that her birth mother never stopped wondering what happened to the little girl she gave up.

The sounds, scents and sights of India are vividly drawn, pulling the reader deep into a culture that most of us have only glimpsed, perhaps, in Slumdog Millionaire. Two worlds collide, then meld, in a story that intimately considers how we all are shaped, through fate or free will, nurture or nature, by the astounding power of family love.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

PLAN YOUR LIFE: Shilpi Somaya Gowda will appear at 6 p.m. Monday at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2719 Routh St., Dallas; make reservations at 214-981-8803 or e-mail millingworth@ Gowda will also be part of the SMU Writer’s Salon at 7 p.m. April 9 at Legacy Books, 7300 Dallas Parkway, Plano.

My recent book review in the Sunday Dallas Morning News:

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Think of Alice in Wonderland, and you probably see a pinafored little girl with long, pale hair, the image from Sir John Tenniel’s classic illustrations.

But the real Alice was born in the mid-19th century, a daughter of the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford University. As a child, Alice Pleasance Liddell wore her hair in a short, dark bob. In a famous photograph taken by a family friend, she is dressed as a ragged Gypsy girl, and her direct gaze is disconcerting: both innocent and worldly wise.

The family friend who took that picture was Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford mathematics don and shy, lonely bachelor who became a surrogate uncle to Alice and her sisters. Their relationship is at the heart of Melanie Benjamin’s fine historical novel, Alice I Have Been (Delacorte, $25).

After 145 years, Dodgson’s tale of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole and into a world of wonder is still an object of literary fascination. Just one month ago, a collector paid $115,000 at auction for a red morocco-bound presentation edition of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Dodgson gave the book to Alice Liddell, and she inscribed her name in it.

In fact, Dodgson – who became famous as Lewis Carroll – sent his muse a copy of every new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Yet he became mysteriously estranged from the Liddells around the time he wrote the fantasy he originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

“There was no escaping him,” the fictional Alice Liddell says of Dodgson in Alice I Have Been. With the 1865 publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “our lives were seemingly bound together for eternity. … Alice in Wonderland. I would never be anything but.”

In Alice I Have Been, Benjamin re-creates a vanished Victorian world among the dreaming spires of Oxford, a scholarly kingdom where Alice and her sisters grew up in the privileged social nexus of the deanery. “Mr. Dodgson,” who lives just across the way, is awkward among adults but at ease when he takes his little friends, the Liddell sisters, on picnics and outings.

The don is a stuttering child at heart, and no one questions his kindness to the dean’s children. But young Alice grows emotionally attached to Dodgson, who makes her feel special, valued in a way that her busy parents never do.

Dodgson’s affection for Alice, meanwhile, is a pure one. Or is it? When Alice is 11, there are muted but devastating repercussions for all. As Alice’s childhood ends, so does her family’s friendship with Dodgson.

Still, the don keeps his promise and writes the fantasy he had first told the Liddell girls on an idyllic summer outing. A single, privately printed copy goes to Alice; later, Dodgson rewrites Alice for publication, and it is a sensation. Alice – who enters a doomed romance with Queen Victoria’s youngest son – must keep the secrets of her unconventional childhood throughout her very conventional life.

Benjamin artfully weaves a story – much of it historical fact, embellished with fiction – remembered from the perspective of Alice in 1932. By then she is a widow of 80 whose one surviving son wants to exploit his mother’s status as the “real Alice.”

“But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland,” the “real Alice” thinks. “Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

PLAN YOUR LIFE: Melanie Benjamin will speak at 7 p.m. March 19 during Late Night at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St . Tickets, free with museum admission, can be reserved at DallasMuseumof or 214-922-1818.


Sandra Brown

Sandra Brown, who lives in Arlington, Texas, is a writer who has produced a long string of New York Times bestsellers.

Sandra started her career as a romance novelist, but over the past two decades, her specialty has become the fast-paced, contemporary thriller — crime fiction dealing in murder, corruption, betrayal, and steamy sexual intrigue.

RainwaterHowever, her new book, Rainwater (Simon & Schuster, $23.99), is something very different. It’s a story that was inspired by Sandra’s own family history. It is set in 1934, in rural, Depression-era Texas. And while there is indeed corruption and murder in Rainwater, there is also romance, courage and heartbreak. And in her title character, David Rainwater, Sandra has created one of her most memorable heroes.

Here is Sandra Brown, talking about Rainwater.




When they were young: Sandra's paternal grandparents.

You have said that Rainwater is very close to your heart, and that it was inspired by Depression-era stories told in your family. What real-life experiences happened in your grandparents’ time that made you want to tell this tale?


In 1934, as part of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation’s attempt to remove surplus commodities from the open market, independent dairy farmers were required to pour out the milk they couldn’t sell to dairies. My paternal grandfather refused to waste good milk when families in his community were starving. He’d been giving away his surplus milk to people in need. Federal agents showed up at his farm, and engaged in an armed standoff against my grandfather and some of my gun-toting relatives. However, without a shot ever being fired, the agents withdrew and my grandfather continued to give away his surplus. This made a distinct impression on my daddy, who was six years old at the time. He told this story to me, and it fired my imagination.



Sandra's new book was inspired by her father's family, who owned a dairy farm in Central Texas.

You’re always on a tight writing schedule, because you’re under contract to produce a book every year. How did you ever make the time to write Rainwater in addition to your other commitments? How long did it take you from the time you began writing?


This story insisted it be written. So when I finished SMOKE SCREEN, but before I began SMASH CUT, I gave myself two months in which to write the first draft of RAINWATER. I didn’t know where the story would go, exactly. I just began writing and let it unfold on its own. When I completed the first draft, I had to put is aside for months while I worked on SMASH CUT. Then, throughout the year, whenever I took a break from SMASH CUT, for instance when my editor was reading the first draft of it, I’d take out RAINWATER and work on it. It took a year to complete, working on it when I could. And when I couldn’t because of other obligations, I missed it!



On the farm: Sandra's paternal grandparents, later in life.

There’s a good deal of racial tension portrayed in Rainwater. Did you research how racial segregation affected ordinary people in small-town Texas during that era, 75 years ago?


Anyone who grew up anywhere in the United States during the past 75 years has experienced racial segregation on some level. Racial lines were definitely drawn in Central Texas during 1934 when RAINWATER is set. In the story I tried to remain true to the general mindset, from the viewpoint of both blacks and whites, while asserting that not all whites are bigots.

Autism plays a significant part in the plot of Rainwater, but it had not even been identified or named yet, in 1934. What did you learn about the historic treatment of autism? Were autistic children often institutionalized?

What’s really interesting: I didn’t know Solly was autistic until he pulled the pan of hot starch onto himself. I didn’t know he was going to be a special child in any way. When Ella, the doctor, and Mr. Rainwater burst into the kitchen to see what had caused the ruckus, there was Solly, shrieking. His autism came as a total surprise to me. Autism wasn’t given a name until the late forties. One of the characters in RAINWATER refers to Solly as “backward.” She says this to Ella’s face, and not unkindly. I believe that’s simply how Solly would have been regarded by people at that time. He would have been an object of pity. And, yes, most children with this condition were either committed to institutions or locked in the proverbial attic.

Read the rest of this entry »