Growing Up: Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend

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I’m not sure why Saint Monkey is the title of Jacinda Townsend’s debut novel about two girls coming of age in 1950’s small Southern town other than it is catchy and an infrequent-nickname for one of the characters. Then again, I’m not sure I could come up with any better title for this insightful, aching look at friendship and anti-friendship, first loves, ruined love, passion and disdain, achievement and disappointment. Perhaps Saint Monkey as a title is just amorphous enough to contain a hint of the contents of this Pandora’s box of a book.

Audrey and Caroline live across the street from one another in racially-divided Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. Both have dreams of leaving the dirt road on which they live far behind. Audrey’s talented father is gone and her mother is mostly absent but Audrey is able to both lose and find herself in her music.

Caroline, aka Pookie, the Saint Monkey of the title, loses both of her parents early in the novel to a horrible situation. She then becomes the de facto mother of her sister and seeks her own way out by romancing the lean, hungry teen-age boys who inhabit her world.

miles davisAs Audrey moves into the New York City jazz world, the two maintain a correspondence that threatens to erode Caroline’s already-struggling self.

Townsend’s poetic prose expresses the dreamy yearnings of what it is to be a small town girl with big city dreams.

Still, my granddaddy built me this porch swing the week after my daddy died, not because he thought I was grieving, but because he meant to keep me amused.  “Keep Audrey occupied,” he told people.  “Keep her around the house with her dress down and her bloomers up.”  Since my daddy died, Grandpap has begun to see me as a dry leaf in freefall, a wasted petal about to be crunched under a man’s foot.  He wants me to forget all the boys of Montgomery County and take studies in typing, to let go the idea of marrying a town sweetheart and become, instead, a woman of the city in a store-bought dress and nylons, with my own bedboard and bankbook.  I’m supposed to fly and dream about all that, sitting here in this swing.  He painted it white, whiter even than the side of this house, whose thin coat is peeling to expose the aged black wood underneath.  He painted the wood slats of this swing so white that when you stare at them for a time, they seem blue.  Swing high, and the porch ceiling creaks where he riveted the screws: the grown people who walk by warn me.  “Hey gal, it ain’t a playground swing,” they say.  For them, for their limitations, I stop pumping my legs, and the creaking stops.  But when they’ve faded down the walk, I fly high again.

In her review for the New York Times, Ayana Mathis compares Saint Monkey to the classic American novel by Zora Neale Hurston. “Caroline’s yearning recalls Janie, the young heroine of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” lying one afternoon under a blossoming pear tree, overwhelmed by sensuality and possibility and driven toward the fulfillment of what she senses life might offer. That Janie’s life does not go as well as she hopes, that it does in fact take a tragic turn, does not eclipse her capacity for joy or hope.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/books/review/saint-monkey-by-jacinda-townsend.html?_r=0

Saint Monkey won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction awarded by the Society of American Historians in 2015.

Saint Monkey is a luminous and compelling novel that shines a bright light on neglected corners of the American past. The book brings to life a small Black community in the hardscrabble country of eastern Kentucky, a place in many ways a borderland: between the industrial future and the agricultural past, between the urban north and the Jim Crow South, and between the seeming complaisance of the 1950s and the seismic upheavals of the 1960s. Audrey Martin and Caroline (“Pookie”) Wallace, Townsend’s marvelous protagonists, reveal worlds of hope and hurt through their barbed, intense friendship. Her profoundly unsettling and profoundly humane vision—of ordinary Black women struggling to achieve safety and authenticity in the face of the extraordinary ruptures and insecurities that have for centuries beset Black lives in the Americas—is essential for our understanding not only of the African American experience but also of American history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

https://sah.columbia.edu/content/prizes/james-fenimore-cooper-prize/2015-jacinda-townsend-saint-monkey-ww-norton

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I had the pleasure of meeting author Jacinda Townsend during the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in September and she was gracious enough to share a recipe with me. She calls it her “nasty” casserole and says it is “straight from the 1950s. My kids complain but they love it.”

1 package (16 ounces) frozen peas, thawed 1 package (16 ounces) frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained 1/2 package Velveta 3/4 cup milk 1 full sleeve of crackers 1/4 cup butter Add to Shopping List Directions 1 Pour milk into a crockpot or cheese melter; cut Velveta block into cubes and place into crockpot to melt. 2 Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 3 Bring peas and broccoli to a boil. 4 Melt butter in a saucepan; crumble crackers into melted butter and saute. 5 Put cooled peas and broccoli into a greased 2-qt. baking dish. Sprinkle crumbled crackers on top. 6 Pour melted Velveta and milk mixture over casserole until it is evenly covered. 7 Bake, uncovered, at 350° for 12-17 minutes or until bubbly. Yield: 4-6 servings.

MUSICSaint Monkey cover

Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall would be a great one. //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=daeandwritewo-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B000TETIC8&asins=B000TETIC8&linkId=RYLNSBUK6DC4TB6V&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true

Happy Reading!

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Jane Gentry Vance

Jane Gentry

Kentucky’s shining literary world dimmed over the weekend.  Jane Gentry Vance, former Kentucky poet laureate, University of Kentucky professor, poet, died Thursday after a long battle with cancer.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jane Gentry in June of 2008, during her tenure as poet laureate.  She read from her lovely book of poetry, A Garden in Kentucky, and we talked briefly about the upcoming Lincoln Celebration in Washington, D.C. in which we both would be participating.

The Lexington Herald-Leader’s obituary says that Jane Gentry’s family lived in Kentucky since Boonesboro was settled, around 1775.  http://www.kentucky.com/2014/10/04/3463523_former-kentucky-poet-laureate.html?rh=1

Her poetry not only reflects, but develops from her love of the state, the people, the flora and the fauna, the lifestyle, the lives of Kentucky.  If you want to understand Kentucky, read Jane Gentry Vance.

The Old Place, from A Garden in Kentucky

Sun pools

under the high trees

in the leafy rooms

birds crisscross

their songs.

Up the cliff, crows

fire war cries

at each other.

Men and women slap

cards on the table,

laugh, holler.

The creek

cold, mud-sucking

fresh and mossy

arcs with crawdads,

minnows. Boys

and girls skate

its slick floor

balancing like

tightrope walkers

arms outstretched.

Pepsi-Colas frosted

in the ice chest.

Warm sweet beans,

Mary’s potato salad.

Chicken fried

to crumbled bites.

Across the valley

the red-and-white barn

breathes cool

silky tobacco dust.

Around the white-

washed outhouse

mud daubers write

in terrifying loops

the script of this day

so bright, invisible.

Jane-Vance-In-Memoriam

Dark & Stormy: Night Film by Marissa Pessl

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     She haunts the 583 pages of the book, moving “like an animal,” forever dressed in shiny black boots and a “red coat catching the light behind her, making a vivid red slice in the night.”  This despite the fact that she dies on page one of the narrative.  She is Ashley Cordova, beautiful, prodigal, prophetic Ashley, daughter of reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova.  In the telling of the story of disgraced journalist Scott McGrath’s attempts to revive his career by finding out what happened to Ashley, author Marissa Pessl uses a “multi-media” approach.

I wasn’t trying to break any boundaries but I wanted to find the best means by which to tell the story. I personally love archives and I love going through old antique stores and looking at old wedding photographs, and old class photos of people in kindergarten in the 1920s. I love looking at the ephemera people leave behind when they’re no longer here. I wanted to bring that feeling to “Night Film” and through those bits and pieces bring Cordova’s world to life. I wanted to make his world really immediate to the reader.

There’s a voyeuristic quality that I think is really compelling to be able to peruse old reports. I definitely went through a lot of old police blogs and read through crime scene reports. It’s absolutely fascinating the level of detail that goes into describing things like the blood spatter pattern and the positioning of the body, it’s absolutely fascinating. In this CSI world, where everyone knows a lot about forensics, it made sense to give that to readers, rather than just telling them about it.

From CNN.com.  http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/19/living/books-night-film-marisha-pessl/

    night filmPessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, sold 200,000 copies in 2006 and won her a mid-six-figure book advance, which is pretty much miraculous.  (Although as an aspiring novel, one can only hope that lighting does strike twice.)  As an aside, I read Special Topics with a predisposition to not liking it and ended up loving it.  But unfortunately, although at times I enjoyed Night Film, I can’t say the same for it.  It’s received a ton of press, and the film rights have already sold, but as a novel, whatever multi-media frippery may be added, it’s just not that great as a whole.

   Essentially, Night Film is an amalgamation of Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining, Pulp Fiction, Dracula (the one where Gary Oldman roller skates across rooms and up walls), The Shawshank Redemption, the Olivia deHavilland-Joan Fontaine feud, Chinatown and others.  Presumably on the theory that if you stuff all great things into one container the resulting mash-up is also great.  And at times it is.

   One of the key complaints I have about the novel is that so much time is spent describing movies.  Film is a separate medium meant to be experienced as a film.  There’s a reason for that.  They are visual.  It hampers the novel that so much of the reader’s understanding of the novel plot depends upon the author’s description of a set of movies that the reader has no reference to, other than the written information provided by Pessl.  Frankly, the movies don’t sound like anything I would ever care to watch anyway as Pessl describes them all as being a journey through hell.  I’d much prefer that Cameron Diaz Rom-Com Pessl mentions breezily near the end of the book.

Save us from the fire  green-hornet-la-premiere-2011-cameron-diaz-55162

   I should add that Pessl with the help of a bundle of her talented NY friends, actually directed a series of videos which are posted on Youtube.  These purport to be everything from audition interviews to lost footage of Cordova’s films.   But of course, that doesn’t make the novel itself a film.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34ZvS5-2Ml8

Reviews on Night Film are mixed.  The New York Times was a definite thumbs down, Slate liked it a bit more, and novelist Meg Wolitzer writing for NPR really liked it:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/15/books/night-film-is-marisha-pessls-new-novel.html?_r=0, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/09/marisha_pessl_s_novel_night_film_reviewed.html, http://www.npr.org/2013/08/27/207386392/brainy-fat-and-full-of-ideas-night-film-is-a-good-natured-thriller.

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lp1681-heaven-hill---white-label-kentucky-bourbon-4-year-oldMcGrath and his cohorts in investigation tend to eat in NYC diners or Chinese carry-out.  What could be easier than a book club catered by Chinese carry-out.  That’s what I would do.  Make double sure to buy fortune cookies for this book.

There’s a great scene with a washed-up actress downing a bottle of Heaven Hill bourbon.  Interestingly, there are several references to Kentucky in the book which makes me wonder if Pessl has some Kentucky connection.  And yes, there are lots of Heaven and Hells.  Anyway, I’d have a bottle of Heaven Hill on hand for book club.  McGrath drinks Macallan Scotch but I’m not a Scotch drinker.

MUSIC

The book is all about movie made about the path between heaven and hell.  But rather than go a darker route, I think I would play some songs about the movies themselves.

The New Yorker’s list of songs about movies:  http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/soundtracks-songs-about-movies

Cinelist’s 50 Songs about movies, moviestars:  http://cinelists.blogspot.com/2013/04/50-pop-songs-about-movies-movie-stars.html

MOVIE CASTING

Scott McGrath — Robert Downey, Jr.

Nora — Anna Kendrick

Hopper — Alex Pettyfer

Ashley — Shailene Woodley or Lily Collins

Have fun reading and sweet dreams!

Image:  Beverly Brown designer, beverlybrown.com