You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Dallas Morning News’ tag.

https://www.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2017/09/02/ken-follett-column-fire-interview-dallas

EXCERPT:

Joyce Sáenz Harris, Special Contributor
The Dallas Morning News

For the first decade of his career as a writer, British novelist Ken Follett was widely known as a master of the thriller genre, with best-selling novels of the late 1970s and early ’80s such as Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. Then he surprised everyone in 1989 with The Pillars of the Earth, an ambitious and wildly popular historical epic set in the Middle Ages in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge.

Pillars, which focused on the building of a cathedral in the mid-1100s, was followed 18 years later by World Without End, which picks up the Kingsbridge saga 157 years later, in the early 1300s.

The third Kingsbridge entry, A Column of Fire (Viking, $36), is set in the Elizabethan era and will be published Sept. 12. This time, religious intolerance is barely held in check as great empires clash, naval underdogs triumph, and the art of spying flourishes along with romance, adventure and betrayal.

Follett, who has sold about 160 million copies of his books over his 68 years, will discuss and sign his latest Sept. 14 under the auspices of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live series; he’ll do a signing-only event the next day at Interabang Books. Dallas is one of only three U.S. cities where he’ll do events for the book, which he discussed by email.

A Column of Fire is set during the late Tudor and early Stuart monarchies, with a hero, Ned Willard, who becomes one of Queen Elizabeth’s top spies. It’s the third of your Kingsbridge novels, on which you’ve worked for more than 30 years. Does this complete the story of Kingsbridge?

I’m not sure the story of Kingsbridge will ever be complete. The city has come to stand for England in my novels. And readers love it. So Kingsbridge will probably go on as long as I do.

Ned takes part in many government intrigues provoked by religious strife, including the execution of Mary Stuart, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. How did men like Ned act as the forerunners of today’s MI6 and MI5 —the foreign- and domestic-intelligence arms of Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

Researching A Column of Fire I was surprised and amused by how much of the paraphernalia of modern espionage was invented by the Elizabethans. They had invisible ink, secret codes, expert codebreakers, and master forgers. They used surveillance and disinformation. And, like modern security services, they often got things wrong.

For the complete interview, see:
https://www.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2017/09/02/ken-follett-column-fire-interview-dallas

 

Advertisements

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

 

CANDICE_BERGEN_PHOTO_CREDIT_ROBERT_TRACHTENBERG_41338177

Photo: Robert Trachtenberg            

The average American woman probably has more than she thinks in common with five-time Emmy Award winner Candice Bergen.

Love, marriage, motherhood. Widowhood, grieving, remarriage. Midlife illnesses, aging parents, terrible losses. Career hiccups. Extra pounds and the realization that, after age 45, even famous beauties become mostly invisible in a society fixated on youth.

Bergen turns 69 next month, but retirement is not on her to-do list. Her second memoir, A Fine Romance (Simon & Schuster, $28), was published Tuesday, and on Wednesday evening she will appear as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live series to talk about her life in and out of the limelight.

Bergen, a one-time model turned actress, grew up in Beverly Hills, the child of Hollywood royalty. Her father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, was a huge star of radio, film, stage and early TV screens; his most famous dummy, Charlie McCarthy, is in the Smithsonian Institution. Candice Bergen’s first memoir, Knock Wood, covering the initial decades of her life and career, was published in 1984 to critical and popular acclaim.

In A Fine Romance, Bergen writes that when Knock Wood was a success, she had “trouble enjoying it.” The next year, she had her daughter, Chloe, with her first husband, French film director Louis Malle. With the birth of her child, “my writing fuse shorted out,” Bergen said in a recent telephone interview. “I didn’t write again for 30 years.” Thus, tackling a second memoir required her to retrain what she calls her “writing muscle.” She blew three deadlines for A Fine Romance, “managed to drag it out over four years … and wrote the book, stupidly, on my iPad.”

A Fine Romance is, like its predecessor, an engaging read: smart, funny, highly personal and surprisingly candid. It covers her unconventional marriage to Malle, who died of cancer at age 63 in 1995, when Chloe was just 10; her delayed introduction to motherhood at 39; her rocket ride to TV stardom in 1988 with the hit CBS comedyMurphy Brown; the perks and perils of her subsequent fame; the difficult days of Malle’s illness, his death and her widowhood; and the happiness she has found in her second marriage, to New York businessman Marshall Rose.

Daughter Chloe is the constant of A Fine Romance’s narrative, the centerpiece around which Bergen, in motherhood, constructed her life.

“She’s probably much more like her father than like me; she has his dynamism and his intellect,” Bergen says. “Like him, she can never do less than two or three things at a time. She was born a multitasker. But she gets her sense of humor from me, and also partly from my brother,” Kris Bergen.

BERGEN_0412FEA_43123387

Photo: Mia McDonald

Now 29 and the social editor of Vogue, Chloe is engaged to financial analyst Graham Albert, and her mother is busy planning a summer wedding — “very small, only 50 people” — at Louis Malle’s cherished French country home, Le Coual. Right now, Mom is still trying to figure out where all the guests will stay for this destination wedding deep in southwest France, a half-day’s journey from Paris. “I’m just turning it over to the Fates,” Bergen says. “I can do no more.”

Malle and Bergen adored each other, but they were from very different worlds. For the first five years of their marriage, she concentrated on being with him wherever he worked, which mostly was in Paris; even after Chloe’s birth, they managed to be together more often than not. “Up until Murphy Brown, we were rarely apart,” Bergen says.

In Los Angeles, Bergen’s mother and brother lived only a few minutes away, and Murphy Brown’s schedule was flexible enough to accommodate Chloe’s schooling and a normal family life. But the show’s success and its long run on TV meant that Bergen’s life with Malle became a trans-Atlantic commuter marriage, with her husband bearing the brunt of the travel.

It might be the world capital of film, but Malle didn’t like living or working in Hollywood. “He was convinced they put something in the water in LA,” Bergen says with a laugh. “It never would have been home for him. I certainly understood that. Anyone who does what we do has to deal with this.”

Though she enjoys visiting Paris and loves Le Coual, Europe could never quite be home for Bergen, either. While she does speak French, “I’m an American girl … and culturally, France is very different.”

Having the Bergen family in LA “was great for Chloe,” Bergen says. “But it was not great for her not to have her father always there.” Malle and his daughter had to work harder to maintain a close relationship, and “it was anguishing,” despite the fact that Chloe was mature beyond her years. Later, she had surrogate father figures, such as her Uncle Kris and her adored godfather, the late film director Mike Nichols, whose presence in their lives was, Bergen says, “a great gift.”

Bergen married Marshall Rose in 2000, and they make their principal home in New York City, not far from Chloe. He was a widower with grown children, and he proposed to Bergen after only three months of dating. She still has a pied-à-terre in LA, as well as Le Coual in France, but she concedes that “travel seems less appealing” at this more settled stage of her life.

“It’s been a very traditional marriage,” she says, “and I am still getting used to that.” He is “the most attentive and loving” husband, and she treasures his companionship all the more because she didn’t always have it before. At this age, she says, it feels good to have that.

“I probably enjoy my time alone a little less,” Bergen says. Being married “is like having radiant heat next to you in bed, and I get used to that.”

Candice Bergen will discuss A Fine Romance at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church, 1835 Young St., Dallas, as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live. Tickets are $15-$65.  dma.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.

If you’re a big fan of the PBS series Call the Midwife — and if you’re really, really interested in birthing babies — Sally Hepworth’s novel, The Secrets of Midwives, might be just your cup of Horlicks: comforting, slightly sweet and unlikely to keep you awake at night.

This is the Australian writer’s first book to be published in the United States, and it’s getting a sizable publicity push. However, despite enthusiastic blurbs from the stellar Liane Moriarty and other well-known writers of women’s fiction, The Secrets of Midwivesdoesn’t quite live up to its marketing hype.

Part of the problem is that, aside from its unflinching clinical details of natural birthing techniques, there’s not much new in this three-generation story. The Secrets of Midwivesalternates chapters from the points of view of grandmother Floss, mother Grace and daughter Neva. All of them are trained midwives — but unfortunately, the three women are not terrifically engaging characters.

Floss and Grace live with their respective mates on Conanicut Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, while Neva lives on the mainland. Floss is an elderly lesbian and a long-ago emigrant from England; Grace is a 60-year-old hippie who distrusts M.D.s in general and loathes obstetricians in particular; and Neva, at 29, is a rebel who is single, unattached and, as her mother and grandmother are shocked to discover, 30 weeks pregnant.

“How could I not have known?” Grace whines several times. “I’m her mother, I’m amidwife.” Floss assures her daughter that Grace herself had “nothing more than a thickened waist until the eighth month.” Apparently Neva was surrounded by midwives and doctors who were oblivious to a pregnant woman under their very noses. She also refuses to reveal the identity of her baby’s father, which turns her mother into an unbearable snoop.

One major issue with The Secrets of Midwives: The men are bores. Grace’s long-dead dad is nasty and boring; Grace’s accountant husband is blandly boring; and Neva’s love interest, who is not her baby daddy, is sweet but boring. When you’re reading women’s fiction and you don’t care who the baby daddy is, that’s a big problem. Worse: The infrequent sex scenes aren’t very sexy.

Hepworth’s prose is workmanlike, and her similes occasionally stumble into sheer awkwardness: “When I wanted to launch into banter, my throat clamped shut like a preterm cervix.” Yes, really.

It is unclear why Hepworth decided to set The Secrets of Midwives in New England, since there seems no particular reason for its Rhode Island locale beyond the weary plot device of having a birth occur on an island during a winter storm. Conanicut is portrayed so nondescriptly that it could have been any coastal island in the Pacific Northwest.

Therein is one of the book’s biggest problems: It doesn’t feel authentic. The characters don’t think or talk like Americans, much less New Englanders. In one instance, Grace thinks: Red sky at morning, shepherds take warning. That’s the British version of the saying, and perhaps British-born Floss would have used it. But Grace grew up in the U.S., and most Americans would say, Sailors take warning.

The Secrets of Midwives is most likely to appeal to women readers who have a particular interest in birthing practices, especially in regard to home births and those that take place at birthing centers. It pays proper respect to the traditions of midwifery, and it paints a glowing picture of the deep satisfactions in assisting with a natural birth. But it simply doesn’t delve deeply enough into either its characters or its setting, and in the end, it fails to deliver.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

books@dallasnews.com

The Secrets of Midwives

Sally Hepworth

(St. Martin’s, $25.99)

Roz Chast, 60, is a Brooklyn native who has been drawing her famously subversive, angst-ridden cartoons for The New Yorker since 1978.

Because she was an only child, Chast found herself solely responsible for making huge decisions — including finally moving her parents to “the Place,” an assisted-living facility near her own home in Connecticut. As first her father and then her mother faded away with senile dementia, Chast struggled with conflicting emotions of love, guilt, fear and sorrow.

She turned her experiences into a best-selling graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, $28), perhaps the most affecting cartoonist’s tale of a parent-child relationship since Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus.  The memoir was a finalist for a National Book Award, won a $50,000 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and was just named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography.

She’ll be discussing the book Wednesday night at the Dallas Museum of Art. Ahead of that, she answered questions by email.

Your fans know there is personal anxiety in almost everything you do. But this book, being a memoir, is quite different. How surprised have you been by its positive critical and popular reception? Did you suspect, when you began the project, that no one would be even remotely interested in such a personal story?

I think I expected something in between those two. That some people would be interested in the topic, only because I had friends who were going through similar things — taking care of a parent or an in-law that was starting to become more dependent.

Did you have it in mind eventually to write something, even as all of this was happening over the eight-year period that you documented? Or did the thought of publishing only come later as you reviewed your journals, drawings, photographs and the poems and memorabilia that you had saved?

I didn’t have it in mind during the entire time at all. A lot of the very specific details came from emails I’d written to friends. When I decided to write this book, I would type certain words into my email search boxes, like “the Place,” or “my mother,” or the name of my mother’s aide, or “Ensure,” etc. And emails detailing a specific conversation I’d had on that topic would come up.

In addition to emails, I had my weekly batches of cartoons I did for The New Yorker. The batch is a group of rough sketches, and then they select one (or none, on a bad week) from that group of seven or so cartoons.

So some of the cartoons in the book (the one about the olives, the Ouija board one, the one about the oven mitt, the cheese danish, several others) were ones I had submitted to, and were rejected by, The New Yorker. And I had the journal — the yellow notebook I refer to in the book — that had all the conversations about logistics: Meals on Wheels, care agencies, visits to Maimonides [a hospital in Brooklyn], and so forth.

Your affection for your father, George, was made clear, and I got a little teary reading your account of his death. Your relationship with your mother, Elizabeth, was more complicated and ambivalent. It wasn’t her death scene that made me ache for her; it was your description of when you brought her to spend the night at your home after your father’s death, and “she suffered one of the worst, if not the worst, indignities of old age: loss of bowel control. … My poor, poor mother!” That’s the scene that choked me up. How hard was that to write?

That was kind of hard, because it was so awful, so humiliating for her. But I hate how the topic of getting really old is not really talked about — the loss of body control, etc. It’s totally glossed over.

If I believed TV commercials, we’re all going to be playing tennis and eating tasty, healthy gourmet meals until we’re 115. Then we’ll die quietly and non-messily in our sleep, at exactly the same moment as our partner, if we have one.

A new children’s book that you wrote and drew, Around the Clock, was just published on Jan. 13. Have you ever been inspired by special things you drew or wrote for your own two kids, or by things your kids have said to you?

I do get inspired by things my kids have done or said. Usually it’s tangential, but occasionally it’s very direct.

When my daughter was around 16, she was doing homework in the living room while listening to some hip-hop music. I came into the room and did a little lame Mom dance, just to tease her. You know, when you sort of shuffle and wave your arms a little, and slightly move your hips in a Mom way? She looked up and said quite seriously: “Mom. Stop. You’re hurting me.” Which cracked me up. I used that line as-is.

How often are you able to rework a rejected cartoon and get it accepted? And: Is cartoon editor Bob Mankoff an easier or a tougher sell than his predecessor, Lee Lorenz?

I rework maybe one out of 10 cartoons. Sometimes I have to rework them three or four times, which I don’t mind if I really love the idea. After that point, I give up. As to who’s a tougher sell: both about the same.

What is your favorite Charles Addams cartoon?

There are SO MANY great Addams cartoons. The one where the Addams family is on the roof, dumping a cauldron of boiling oil on the carolers below, is pretty sweet.

Your dad is quoted in Can’t We Talk as saying: “No one could deny that religion caused a lot of problems in the world. Fanatics want to kill people who aren’t on their team!” How do you feel about the fact that cartoonists have taken center stage in the conversation on global terrorism?

My dad was right.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Plan your life

Roz Chast will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 28, at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., as part of Arts & Letters Live. Reception at 6:30 with the author for Annual Series Supporters. Tickets $35 for public, $30 for DMA Partners and $15 for students. DMA.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.

 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

By JOYCE SAENZ HARRIS

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
describe.”

“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
it.”

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
them.”

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
colors.”

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
imagination.

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.

books@dallasnews.com

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.