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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Dallas native Harry Hunsicker leads something of a double life. In his day job, he runs his family business as a commercial real estate appraiser. But in his spare time, he writes Texas-centric thrillers.

“My day job has meant that I have been to just about every corner of the city, places most people don’t know exist,” Hunsicker says. “That’s what really colors my writing, the starting point of almost every story, the sense of place that a vibrant town like Dallas has to offer.”

In his newest book, The Devil’s Country (Thomas & Mercer, $15.95), Hunsicker introduces a new protagonist: a former Texas Ranger from Dallas. Arlo Baines gets off the bus in a dusty West Texas town and finds himself in the middle of a mysterious, cult-related murder, with two kids’ lives in the balance.

Hunsicker’s story moves at a relentless pace, with all the twists and surprises his readers have come to expect. Fans will have the chance to meet Hunsicker at the Dallas Book Festival on Saturday, April 29. We asked him to do this Q&A in advance, via email.

Before this, you published your first three-book series, the Lee Henry Oswald Mysteries, and more recently a second three-book series, the Jon Cantrell Thrillers. So, with a new protagonist in The Devil’s Country, have your readers seen the last of Hank and Jon?

Never say never, but the natural rhythm of my characters seems to follow the trilogy format. I never understood authors who stopped writing series books, complaining about where to take their characters next, until I sat down to work on the second Oswald book, The Next Time You Die. On page one, I got it. There are only so many emotional arcs you can put a character through before his/her reactions seem stale and unrealistic.

The Devil’s Country introduces Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger who is a damaged soul with a tragic recent history. Why did you decide to make Arlo a Ranger rather than a PI? 

I wanted to try something new. Also, I have always wanted to write a police procedural, but since I have no law enforcement background and too much research tends to bog down my writing, I figured an ex-cop was the next best thing. In terms of Arlo Baines’ character, I wanted him to be completely cut off from his old world — family, job, even where he lives — so he had to be an ex-something. After thinking about the setting, the badlands of West Texas, I decided it made sense for Arlo to be an ex-Texas Ranger, drummed out of the corps, so to speak.
There are some personal things about Arlo that we still don’t know by the end of this book. Will his loved ones’ names surface with more of his memories and secrets in a future Arlo novel? 

Yes, without a doubt. Arlo is forever scarred by what happened to his family. The events that preceded his appearance in The Devil’s Country have altered him in many ways, his worldview, the way he interacts with others, etc. Put simply, Arlo has more baggage than a luggage store.

The Devil’s Country’s narrative thread weaves back and forth between what’s happening to Arlo in the West Texas town of Piedra Springs and what happened to him in the past, particularly nine months before when tragedy struck. This shows us why Arlo is where he is both physically and emotionally, but how tricky was it to write the dual narratives? 

I like books with multiple points of view, but I am a better writer when I stick to the first person. So it just seemed very natural to write from two different Arlo perspectives — the current-day and nine months before the story began. That was much easier than writing from the point of view of two different people.

Your mother was the late Dallas jewelry designer Foree Hunsicker. How was your creativity encouraged when you were growing up? 

I was blessed to have wonderfully supportive parents, both of whom were interested in the arts and fostering my creativity. From a very early age, I loved to read, and my parents — my mother especially — encouraged me to read anything and everything, no limits. (Note: I’m not sure Mom knew what all happened in Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight when I read it at age 13.) So I devoured all types of fiction all throughout my school years, which is the primary education a novelist needs.

Dallas appears in flashbacks as the place where Arlo, his family and his in-laws lived. You’re a fourth-generation native of Dallas through your mother’s family, so you know that our city has a certain image in pop culture. What do you know about your hometown that you wish more people knew?

 Dallas is more than cowboys and concrete and women with big hair. The city has an incredible mixture of people and outlooks. You can visit completely different worlds without leaving the county. The Korean section in northwest Dallas, Indian neighborhoods in Richardson, Little Vietnam in East Dallas, and the list goes on. And that’s before we get to the arts scene, which is robust and expanding every year.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

 

 

By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Even for fans who are well-acquainted with the work of Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky, his new book, My Adventures with God, is a bit of a surprise: an exploration of his midlife return to the Jewish faith.

Tobolowsky 2017My Adventures with God
<<<PHOTO: Jim Britt


Tobolowsky is a graduate of Justin F. Kimball High School and Southern Methodist University. In the past three decades, he has become a beloved character actor who displays both comedy and drama chops in more than 100 films as diverse as Groundhog Day and Mississippi Burning. He’s been on more than 200 TV shows ranging from Deadwood to Glee, most recently Silicon Valley and The Goldbergs. He also tells stories on the popular podcast The Tobolowsky Files.

Tobolowsky, who lives in Los Angeles, will return to his hometown to celebrate the publication of My Adventures With God (Simon & Schuster, $25) on Tuesday, April 18, with an appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. He answered questions by email; here are highlights.

Like your 2012 book The Dangerous Animals Club, My Adventures with God is a memoir with a lot of Dallas and many laugh-out-loud moments. But the spiritual aspect often takes it into a more serious realm. 

Simon and Schuster asked me if I could write a book on faith. When I was grasping for a premise for My Adventures with God, I came up with something that turned out to be truer than I first imagined: Our lives often fit the template of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

We all have a Genesis. This is usually what we talk about on a first date: who we are, where we came from, our aspirations. Then, like in Exodus, we go into slavery. Instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves in the desperation of first loves, first jobs. Some are trapped by drugs and alcohol, others by graduate school.

Then we escape and have our Leviticus moment. We stop and say, “This is what I am.” This is when I married Ann. When I became a father. When I returned to Judaism. Then we are shaped by mortality, as in the Book of Numbers, as we lose family and friends. And finally, we get to a place of perspective: Deuteronomy. It is here when we tell our stories to our children and try to make sense of the journey.

You were in seventh grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and you write that “for those few days, history pulled back the curtain and showed us all how close we are to the edge of nothing.” Have you had any other occasions like that, such as 9/11?

Once you are aware of how delicate civilization is, you see its potential downfall everywhere. Usually in lies. They can be big lies from people in power — or the lies we tell ourselves. It doesn’t take anything as cataclysmic as 9/11. As my mother said, “Don’t break your word. You only get one. When you break it, it’s hard to get it back again.”

I was slightly spooked by “A Voice from Another Room,” the chapter in which you tell about being clairvoyant while a student at SMU. Did this psychic vibe vanish with age, or has it reappeared? 

It reappears. Not enough to get rich at the track, but enough to creep Ann out. I was in New York, and she called in a panic that she had lost a necklace. Could I use my ESP to help her find it? I thought for a second and told her the necklace was still in the house. In something soft. Surrounded by gold and purple. She found it in a zippered compartment of an LA Lakers (gold and purple) duffel bag in my son’s closet.

The second section of your book, “Exodus: A Love Story,” is about your long relationship with playwright Beth Henley, whom you met at SMU. In it, you tell how you and Beth worked with the  Talking Heads’ David Byrne on his 1986 film True Stories. What are the connections between you, the film and the British band Radiohead?

David told Beth and me he wanted to make a movie filled with characters whose lives were incredible but true. Beth said: “You should talk to my sweetie. He can hear tones.” David thought this was funny. “You hear tones?” I told him the story of my psychic experiences in college (these are told in detail in My Adventures with God.) I was able to know things about people by hearing their “tones.” (I know. It’s crazy. But it happened.) David hired us to write the screenplay for True Stories; he rewrote it and added a character that heard tones like me and wrote the song “Radio Head” for him to sing. A few years later, the English band On A Friday, who were big Talking Heads fans, changed their name to Radiohead.

You wrote that your mother treasured “the chance to give something life.” Is that what acting does —  give life to something that otherwise exists only on paper and in our heads?

Yes. Absolutely. In fact, we have even seen beloved characters in film and television compete with their actors for existence. Carroll O’Connor battled Archie Bunker. Sean Connery tried to survive James Bond. In dramatic literature, James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an actor ruined by the popularity of the character he played on Broadway.

What did it mean to you when your wife, Ann, decided to convert to Judaism?
I had no idea she was planning on doing it. The moment was unforgettable. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. And then she said we should stop eating shrimp.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Deborah Crombie, a native Texan who lives in McKinney, is the author of the popular Kincaid-James mystery series, which regularly appears on The New York Times‘ best-seller lists. The first novel was 1993’s A Share in Death; the new Kincaid-James novel, Garden of Lamentations, is the 17th in the series and will be published Feb. 7 by William Morrow.

 

Deborah Crombie 2017

Deborah Crombie at home in McKinney. PHOTO: Rex Curry, DMN

Crombie’s protagonists, Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his former investigative partner, now wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, are senior officers at the Metropolitan Police, a.k.a. Scotland Yard. Besides their police work, the two detectives also share a home, friends, several cats and dogs, and a blended family of three children. 

All of Crombie’s novels take place in London and the United Kingdom, where she lived for a time. She spends part of each year there to absorb atmosphere, do research and begin drafting the next book in her series. Crombie regularly blogs with seven other women writers of crime fiction at jungleredwriters.com. She is an avid reader who enjoys “good old-fashioned mysteries” more than psychological suspense. She also has mastered the art of brewing a perfect cup of tea.

FGarden of Lamentationsans can hear her speak Feb. 7 at Barnes & Noble on Northwest Highway as she gears up for a multicity book tour. She spoke with us first, from her historic Craftsman cottage, which she shares with with a husband, three cats and “two very demanding German shepherds.”

While your novels are police procedurals, they are very much about the characters’ personal and work relationships, as well. Ever since your protagonists got romantically involved and then married, the story arc has gotten more complex. Did you always know Gemma and Duncan would end up together?

No, I didn’t know that when I started out. One of the interesting things in the series has been the decision to marry Duncan and Gemma, because it was such a big thing. I had a lot of soul-searching, a lot of people saying, “Oh, you’ll kill the series if you have them get married.” But I thought their [married] relationship was going to be interesting, and it was going to get more complicated.

I must admit I got a little nervous about the work-related strains in Duncan and Gemma’s marriage this time around. Was it important to show the toll that the job takes? Even when you have personal knowledge of the stress … 

It’s still not easy. Especially when your partner won’t share with you. And both of them are suffering from some degree of PTSD [from the previous book’s events]. There are only about three scenes where they’re together in this book. It was hard to write because of that. Everyone’s at cross-purposes.

What is it about Duncan and Gemma that keeps you coming back to their story? I assume it’s not just contracts and publisher’s deadlines. 

No, I really love them. I love not just Duncan and Gemma, but the whole cast; I love the kids, the dogs, the cats, and Doug and Melody and Hazel. It’s like a slice of life, where I’m just dropping in on them for a week.

Writing and researching these books is a meticulous process for you, isn’t it? 

This book absolutely took me two years to write. And it was 650 pages in manuscript! Luckily my editor, Carrie Feron, is just great. I’m a slow writer … and now they’ve stretched me out to two years on my deadlines, because I am so slow and they don’t want to put up with me being late. I’m still looking for the magic bullet after 25 years.

All mystery writers have a history with Sherlock Holmes. What’s yours? 

I started reading the stories as a teenager. Now I have a Sherlock story in the new Echoes of Sherlock Holmes collection (Pegasus Books, $24.95), and Jungle Red’s Hank Phillippi Ryan and Hallie Ephron are in there, too. This is the first thing I’ve ever written in first person, and it’s a completely different character that has nothing to do with my series. Mine’s not a period Sherlock story, it’s a future Sherlock, “The Case of the Speckled Trout.” John and Mary Watson’s daughter is 18, and Sherlock, who’s her godfather, has gone missing. So she’s determined to find him. She goes to Scotland to work in a hunting lodge and find Sherlock. And the daughter is named Sherry, after her godfather, Sherlock. It was great fun.

Who are your favorite writers, besides your Jungle Red crew?
My preference for teenage reading was more fantasy and imaginative literature, T.H. White and J.R.R. Tolkien. If it had occurred to me that I’d grow up and be a writer, I probably would have thought that would be the kind of thing I would write.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Charles Todd. I love Louise Penny’s books; I love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books. I’m a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books. And I’m a huge fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books. They’re set mostly in London, and they’re police procedurals, but there’s magic. That kind of goes back to my fantasy thing — everything I love.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Garden of Lamentations
Deborah Crombie
(William Morrow,  $26.99)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2016/10/07/victorian-london-never-looked-creepier-steven-prices-mesmerizing-gaslight

By Gaslight
Steven Price 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  $28)

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Steven Price, author of "By Gaslight."<p><span>Stephanie Rae Hull</span><br></p><p></p>    Canadian poet Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, is a dark Victorian thriller that will put paid to such fancies. If you loved big, atmospheric period mysteries such as Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx or Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, here is a novel with similar hypnotic qualities. By Gaslight draws in and magically transports the reader, as if by time machine, to another world.

Price mesmerizingly blends history and imagination in a monster of a novel – some 750 pages – filled with the lurid, Dickensian realities of a great world capital. This is a London where you might not want to linger long, even with Holmes beside you. Here is a city celebrating itself at the height of its glittering power, even as it suffocates on filthy air, drowns in fetid water and wallows in the grimmest depravities.

By Gaslight begins with William Pinkerton, elder son of famed Scottish-American detective Allan Pinkerton, threading his way through London’s slums to find a friend, one of his late father’s old agency operatives. He wants to ask Sally Porter, an ancient African-American woman, about two local criminals, Edward Shade and Charlotte Reckitt. Sally says she doesn’t know Charlotte, and as for Shade, she advises: “There ain’t no catchin a ghost, Billy.”

Meanwhile, a dapper businessman named Adam Foole arrives in Liverpool aboard the RMS Aurania. Foole is not quite what he appears, but “he had lived among the very poor and the very rich both and he knew which one he preferred.” On the Aurania, Foole meets a “burly doctor from Edinburgh,” an affable and well-read Scotsman who is interested in spiritualism and thinks detective stories would be much improved if they featured a truly intelligent detective.

“Foole had smiled at the simplicity of it but the doctor only chuckled and said Deduction, my good man, deduction.” The unnamed doctor, of course, is Doyle, who published his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887.

Like William Pinkerton, Foole heads to London in search of Charlotte Reckitt. But for him, Charlotte is not a fleeing perp; she is his lost love, the one who got away. The two of them are veterans of the flash life, operating in the shadows and pulling off nonviolent crimes in order to live well above their modest means. Though they’ve been apart for years, a letter now has called him back to her.

When Foole learns of Pinkerton’s quest for Charlotte, the men briefly become uneasy allies – after all, both want answers about her, albeit for very different reasons. Clues emerge with the investment of much shoe leather and risk-taking as the two men venture into some truly seamy parts of London.

William Pinkerton works his case with the aid of Scotland Yard, where he encounters the Met’s own Holmes in the person of a certain Dr. Breck, who has a “long thin figure [and] grey eyes” and an uncanny gift for deduction. By the end of By Gaslight, Pinkerton also has developed an eerie knack of sussing out the truth. Whether justice lies where truth does is, he discovers, another matter entirely.

Price drives his narrative at a leisurely yet relentless pace, segueing with ease to the characters’ recent past, and even further back to the American Civil War, as more and more secrets are uncovered. Every so often, he casually drops a dazzling twist for a big reveal that leads only to more questions.

Price’s writing style, with idiosyncratic punctuation eschewing quotation marks and most commas, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. There are lines that you could swear came from Hemingway, such as: “But his brother also was a man of great physical courage and together they had ridden several times on the outlaw trail with loaded rifles and there was no man William would rather have at his back.”

In his acknowledgments, the author writes: “There are many excellent nonfiction accounts of the early Pinkerton Agency, the Civil War and the lives of criminals in Victorian London. This is not one of them.” That’s true, but By Gaslight nevertheless will make you feel as if you really had explored London in 1885.

It’s a deeply unsettling, fascinating place to visit. You probably wouldn’t want to live there.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

 

A Friend of Mr. Lincolnhttp://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160129-fiction-a-friend-of-mr.-lincoln-by-stephen-harrigan.ece

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans.

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Of all American presidents, Abraham Lincoln is the one most often accorded something like reverence. Most of us were taught a grade-school version of his life that sketches his triumph over crushing backwoods poverty, his moral conversion to abolitionist beliefs, and his rise to become Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, savior of the Union and martyr to the cause of freedom.

But in Stephen Harrigan’s splendid new novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, we meet a very different Honest Abe. This young Mr. Lincoln is a politically ambitious but socially awkward frontier lawyer of the 1830s and ’40s, one who often falls victim to “the hypo,” meaning depression and anxiety. He is driven by his concept of honor as if by Furies, yet he also relishes using his mercilessly sharp tongue to win at the law or the ballot box. He hates slavery but doesn’t really believe in racial equality. He tells terrible, ribald jokes. He is a fatalist, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is written from the third-person viewpoint of Micajah “Cage” Weatherby, who meets the future president as a roughhewn youth during the Indian wars and later becomes one of Lincoln’s bachelor cronies in Springfield, Ill. (Given that Harrigan wrote the superb historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, it may be no coincidence that “Micajah” also was the first name of an Alamo defender.) Cage Weatherby is a fictitious character, but Harrigan inserts him neatly and believably into Lincoln’s social circle of real-life Springfield friends such as Joshua Speed and Billy Herndon.

Lincoln takes an immediate liking to Cage, in awe that he is a published poet who has traveled to Europe. Cage, meanwhile, knows there is something special about his new friend, no matter that Lincoln is shabbily dressed, reedy-voiced and awkward as a young stork. Ambition burns inside this man, Cage realizes, and he senses that Lincoln is destined for some sort of greatness: “Lincoln was a man people tended to develop a deepening fascination with.” Yet for all the camaraderie they share, Harrigan’s Lincoln remains a riddle even to his best friends.

“The interesting thing about Lincoln,” Joshua Speed remarks to Cage, “is that he’s both the most public man and the most private man I’ve ever known. He has to hover rather precisely between the poles of his personality. Any deviation might pull him apart.”

The turning point in the men’s friendship comes when Kentucky belle Mary Todd arrives in Springfield in 1838. Lincoln is bowled over by the fact that “she knows Henry Clay! She lived only a few miles from him in Lexington and used to visit him as a girl. … It’s like living down the road from George Washington!”

Cage can’t imagine that the refined Todds would ever consider the rustic Lincoln as a possible suitor: “The union of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was as unlikely in theory that night as it would later prove to be in reality.” But Mary is one of those people with a deepening fascination with Lincoln, and like Cage, she senses his potential for greatness.

Lincoln, in turn, knows he needs a political helpmate, and Mary is perfect on paper: a skilled hostess with charm, useful connections and an astute, calculating mind. Nevertheless, Lincoln is reluctant to commit, and the courtship is a long, rocky one. Cage’s efforts to support his friend end up backfiring, and he learns firsthand just how vindictive Mary Todd Lincoln can be.

Harrigan’s previous novels all have been set in Texas, so A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans. His Lincoln is one of them: a young man subject to the same torments, infatuations, ambitions, enthusiasms and sexual appetites as other young men. But unlike the others, he is peculiarly fated to become a tragic, heroic figure whose best speeches are the immortal poetry he yearned to write.

After a century and a half, he also remains America’s most beloved enigma. That homely face and those weary gray eyes guard a well of secrets so unfathomable that we, even as friends of Mr. Lincoln, have yet to plumb its depths.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Plan your life

Stephen Harrigan will speak Thursday, Feb. 4 at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. The 7 p.m. talk is free; a 6 p.m. reception, which includes a signed book, is $30. Register at hpumc.org/ or 214-523-2240.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Stephen Harrigan

(Knopf, $27.95)

Available Tuesday, Feb. 2.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160102-memoir-dear-mr.-you-by-mary-louise-parker.ece

MARY-LOUISE PARKER - Bebeto Matthews - AP

I have seen Mary-Louise Parker act in three very different Broadway plays: Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss (1990), Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors (1998) and David Auburn’s Proof (2000), for which Parker won a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play.

Witnessing those performances probably influenced my perception of Parker as a fiercely private person, a reluctant celebrity who is as elusive as a shapeshifter. She admits that she is strongly opinionated, and some who have worked with her might not call her particularly collegial. But her acting talent is undeniable — and so, it would appear, is her talent as a writer.

DEAR MR. YOU

Dear Mr. You is billed as a memoir, but it is different from virtually any other memoir I have read. Most are fairly straight-ahead narratives, moving from Point A to Point B and onward in chronological order, including or excluding juicy details as the teller prefers. Generally speaking, you will get names, dates, places and specific happenings in various degrees of candor.

Parker, 51, does not do any of this. Instead, Dear Mr. You is written as a series of letters or thank-you notes addressed to the various men who have influenced her life. She starts with Grandpa and Daddy and includes lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers, but not her brothers.

Almost no names are given. Dates and places aren’t often specified. There’s a fair amount of mystery here, at least if you thought you were really going to get the skinny on Parker’s past. But this memoirist isn’t giving up the goods that easily.

“People are consistently curious about other people’s business,” Parker recently toldThe Washington Post. “They always have been. They probably always will be. … No one’s entitled to anyone’s information about anyone else.”

Nevertheless, Parker reveals a fair amount of herself, or at least of the self she wants us to see, and it feels real enough that one can believe she sincerely means it. Each chapter in Dear Mr. You is a prose poem of sorts, filled with emotional memories — though Parker says in her prologue that she loathes the word memories “for both its icky tone and wistful graveyard implications.”

She fondly recalls men who “can fix my screen door, my attitude, and open most jars … slam a puck, build a decent cabinet or the perfect sandwich.” This book, it seems, is her chance to say “thank you for the tour of the elevator cage, the sound booth, the alley; thank you for the kaleidoscope, the get-well tequila, the painting, the truth.”

Among them was “Man Out of Time,” an elegant guy she met at a party, with whom she struck up a necessarily short but lovely friendship because “I just liked you so much.” It’s an elegiac story that rings true for all of us who have lost special friends much too soon.

Then there was “Mr. Cabdriver,” whose egregiously wrong turns on a bad day threw a hugely pregnant Parker into an f-bomb-fueled panic (in her defense, she had just been dumped by her longtime beau, actor Billy Crudup) and prompted the cabdriver to make an abrupt stop for her unscheduled departure. When the cabbie shouted, “Go! I am not taking you to anywhere, you are very awful! I don’t want you anymore,” Parker replied, “No one does.” Then she wailed: “I am alone. Look, see? I am pregnant and alone.”

Her misery at that moment is palpable. But so is her later joy, in “Dear Orderly,” when she writes about her son, the one perfect thing that came out of that bad time: “Look at him there, would you? I mean, have you ever? I almost can’t believe it. He’s my only and my one. He’s my ever and after. … He is my job now, the best one I’ve ever had, by a zillion, and I will be doing this one until I drop.”

In a way, Parker’s writing reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott’s, even to its offbeat, unconventionally spiritual aspects. Her most affecting chapter is her last one, “Dear Oyster Picker,” which is about her beloved father’s death. Upon finishing it, not only did I understand the meaning of the oyster shell pictured on the book’s dust cover, but I also understood exactly why Parker felt compelled to become a writer.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Plan your life

Mary-Louise Parker will appear with Mary Karr at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. VIP tickets, which include priority seating and access to the signing line as well as a book, $75; general admission $35, with discounts for students and DMA members, at dma.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20151030-fiction-after-alice-by-gregory-maguire.ece

If you adored Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s hugely popular prequel set in a reimagined Oz, you may be intrigued by the idea of After Alice, his new novel published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic Victorian fantasy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Regrettably, this literary pastiche is far less engaging than Wicked. Only hardcore Alicedevotees will have the stamina to push through its unevenly paced narrative, and even they may be disappointed by the oddly lifeless denouement. This is a case where an editor really should have said: “You know what? Let’s lose that last chapter where Darwin just rambles on.”

After Alice is not a sequel to Carroll’s Alice and its companion, Through the Looking-Glass,despite its title’s implication. Instead, it is Maguire’s tale of what happens to the bemused people left aboveground when young Alice Clowd falls down that famous rabbit hole. Her friend, Ada Boyce, goes tumbling after Alice into Wonderland. Thus Ada spends the rest of the book chasing after Alice, who doesn’t reappear until nearly the end.

Ada, the local vicar’s 10-year-old daughter, is nobody’s favorite child. She often is cruelly ignored by servants and parents fixated on her sickly baby brother. “That lummoxing galootress,” the family’s Irish cook calls her; but Ada has a lumpish fortitude that makes up somewhat for her lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, motherless Alice is mostly absent from the story and is only vaguely sketched as a mysterious creature gifted at evading supervision by adults or by her teenage sister, Lydia — the same sister who, in the original Alice’s opening paragraph, reads a book “with no pictures or conversations in it.” It is Lydia who is the center of the aboveground narrative, just as Ada is the center of the underground story.

Maguire, however, fails to make either girl into a compelling heroine who deserves the reader’s investment of time and interest.

When the two younger girls disappear, their elders don’t seem particularly worried about where they may have gone. Lydia, at 15, is far more interested in herself and in the handsome young American abolitionist who has come to Oxford for the day, shepherding the august Charles Darwin on a visit to her father. Indeed, the only one who frets about Ada’s absence is her governess, whose chief concern is that she might be sacked if her charge doesn’t turn up soon.

Underground, Ada is magically freed from her torturous back brace (worn for an unnamed condition, probably scoliosis). Thus liberated, she meets up with many of Carroll’s famous characters, from the Mad Hatter and March Hare to the Walrus and the Carpenter. Maguire’s rendering of these characters is, unfortunately, far less witty than Carroll’s, and nothing particularly original or enchanting is added to any of their established personalities.

At times, Maguire’s prose becomes so elaborately arch that he appears to be striving vainly for Nabokovian heights (an impression confirmed by a bit of dialogue that is an obvious hat tip to the master’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle). Granted, he’s trying to tell a story in the florid Victorian style.

But Maguire over-eggs the pudding with a barrage of dense sentences such as this one: “To a deity lolling overhead on bolsters of zephyr, however, the city rises as if out of some underground sea, like Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, that fantasia about the submerged Breton cathedral rising once every hundred years off the island of Ys.” That came in the fourth paragraph of Chapter 1, and even now I am not quite sure why that sentence needed to be there. Only when Maguire stops trying so hard to impress does the narrative sporadically achieve some rhythm and flow.

In addition, serious real-world topics — death, abolition and Darwinism — drain much of the potentially playful tone from the chapters of the book that are set aboveground. In the underground chapters, the fantasy may not be consistently comedic, but at least the Cheshire Cat isn’t discussing the theory of evolution.

Wonderland has its downside, to be sure, what with the Queen of Hearts’ fondness for ordering beheadings. But compared to the dreariness of the Victorian age as depicted by Maguire, it is perhaps no wonder that one lonely, displaced character chooses to stay in Carroll’s fantasy land, rather than return to a real world that can never truly be home.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

After Alice

Gregory Maguire

(William Morrow, $26.99)

RUBBERNECKER by Belinda Bauer

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150904-mystery-review-rubbernecker-by-belinda-bauer.ece

Rubbernecker

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.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150807-fiction-review-circling-the-sun-by-paula-mclain.ece

CirclingtheSun_McLain_FINAL+JACKET

Aviation pioneer Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, is sometimes called “the British Amelia Earhart.”

While she was, indeed, born in England, Markham moved to British East Africa, as Kenya then was known, with her parents when she was just 4 years old. She grew up in Kenya as an Anglo-African during the fading imperial age and lived almost all of her extraordinary life there.

In her new novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain takes Markham’s story, which the pilot herself first told in her acclaimed 1942 memoir, West With the Night, and turns it into a moving first-person chronicle of a woman born before her time.

Markham’s West With the Night was admired by Ernest Hemingway, who called it “a bloody wonderful book.” Hemingway, not coincidentally, was a central character in McLain’s previous novel, The Paris Wife, which became a best-seller.

As in The Paris Wife, virtually every main character in Circling the Sun is based on historical fact, and McLain does an excellent job of capturing their physical likenesses and moral centers. But while The Paris Wife told the tale of Hadley Richardson, a woman who is remembered because she was faithfully married to Hemingway, Circling the Sun is all about a restless woman who, despite being married three times, was never completely faithful to anyone but herself.

McLain does not attempt to channel Markham’s more mature voice as captured in her gorgeous West With the Night prose. This is the story of young Beryl Clutterbuck, an incorrigible tomboy who stayed in Kenya with her horse-trainer father after her mother abandoned them and returned to England, unable to bear the hardships of farming in Africa.

“Gradually it became harder to remember my mother’s face, things she had said to me, days we had shared,” Beryl says. “But there were many days ahead of me. They spread out as far as I could see or wish for, the way the plain did all the way to the broken bowl of Menengai, or to [Mount] Kenya’s hard blue peak. It was safer to keep looking forwards.”

Young Beryl’s playmates were native children, and she preferred throwing spears and riding horses to more traditional girls’ games. She resisted governesses and boarding schools until her father gave up on formally educating her. Instead, she followed in his footsteps and became a successful horse trainer, the first woman in Africa licensed to do so. Like her father, she reveled in horse racing: “I had always loved all of it — even what couldn’t be controlled or predicted.”

Beryl’s taste for unpredictability made her helpless to resist her famous lover, the aristocratic big-game hunter and aviator Denys Finch Hatton. When Beryl met him, he was already involved with Karen Blixen, the Danish-born baroness who would become known as Isak Dinesen, author of the memoir Out of Africa.

But Finch Hatton, who was 15 years older than Beryl, belonged to no woman. Charming and brilliant, he “was most himself in wild places,” Beryl says. “More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

So until its tragic, inevitable end, the three of them were a love triangle: Beryl, Denys and Karen. “We had done a painful dance and lost a lot, we three, hurting one another and ourselves. But extraordinary things had happened, too. I would never forget any of them.”

Beryl Markham lived another 50 years after becoming world-famous, but Circling the Sunconcentrates only on the first part of her life, all the years leading up to her historic flight across the Atlantic in September 1936. McLain doesn’t even show Markham learning to fly until the final few chapters of her novel.

By then, the reader knows her very well, this tall, angular woman with the pale flyaway hair and the sharp profile. The mostly solitary life she led would not have been possible for most Englishwomen of her time, and even today it would be a difficult existence for a woman alone in Africa. McLain skillfully succeeds in portraying the inner life of a singular figure, painted vividly against a vast continent that was the only place Beryl Markham could ever belong.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

Circling the Sun

Paula McLain

(Ballantine, $28)

 

Plan your life

Paula McLain will appear at two events Wednesday:

At 1 p.m., she’ll have a short speaking engagement and book signing at the North Richland Hills Public Library, 9015 Grand Ave. Free. A noon reception, which includes a copy of the book, is $40. Details at library.nrhtx.com.

That evening, she’ll appear at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, as part of Authors Live! The 7 p.m. lecture is free; a 6 p.m. reception, including a signed copy of the book, is $30 and must be reserved at least two days in advance by calling Highland Park United Methodist Church at 214-523-2240 or going to hpumc.org/authorslive.

http://artsblog.dallasnews.com/2015/07/how-a-watchman-reviewer-thought-past-feeling-betrayed-by-an-old-friend.html/

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 dallasnews.com.

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