Now that my favorite time of year is coming to a close, I'd like to offer a rewind of two wonderful books by Texas authors that I've read over my summer "vacation." Consider this my end-of-summer book report.
Love Stories in this Town is a collection of short fiction by Austin's Amanda Ward. Scattered across settings coast-to-coast, these vignettes place the reader in just the right moment -- the moment when everything is about to change, or has just changed, in the lives of her characters. And Life has a way of changing quickly -- whether it's an unexpected break-up, when a woman's boyfriend leaves her for a beauty queen ("Miss Montana's Wedding"); a young wife finding herself in a new country ("Motherhood and Terrorism"); or the tragedy of 9/11, as viewed through the awkwardly touching courtship of two widows ("The Way the Sky Changed").
Amanda Ward creates variations on love, in its many forms, through related emotions of anxiety, fear, absurdity and wonder.
Here's a snapshot from "On Messalonskee Lake," a story in which the memory of a deceased aunt takes on a mythical quality:
Bill's clearest memory of his aunt was when she'd run after the car as they pulled out of the driveway. It was the end of Bill's family's summer visit, and Aunt Renee made Bill's mother stop and roll down the window. "I have one more kiss for the kids," she'd said. She blew them each a kiss and then stood alone in the road as they drove away, hugging her cardigan around her skinny frame.That paragraph presents itself so clearly in my mind -- lovely, intimate and simple in its specificity, like a painting by Edward Hopper, whose works are so often filled with images of travel and loneliness (but also tension at what might be around the corner), of people sitting in cafes, of quiet rural roads or couples looking away from one another -- much like many of the scenes in Love Stories in this Town. [For our TFR interview with Amanda Ward, click here.]
More recently, I also spoke with Galveston writer, journalist and poet Marc Phillips, whose debut novel is The Legend of Sander Grant, a story about a family of East Texas cattle ranchers, who happen to be giants -- descendants of the ancient race created by angels and humans. The book had me at its opening:
Sander is a giant. But people around Dixon are used to that. His daddy was a giant, and his daddy's dad, and so on. Back when other whites had just arrived, Sander's people were already there, and nobody knew where in all hell they came from. Those who used to trouble themselves about it, of course, they've grown old and died. Locals now remark on Sander Grant in the same way they do the August heat. Like a mother tells her kids Jesus is love. Sander is a giant.The pages of my copy are dog-earred with passages I loved, from folksy Texas dialogue (which I could hear in my head) and charming-ly specific explanations about throwing hay and other aspects of ranch life, to philosophical moments of truth (which marinated in my mind). Here's a great line, in my opinion: Hope is "a voluntary selectiveness of sight that allowed for a level of conviction beyond faith."
Marc Phillips' writing has a beautiful clarity that comes through, "straightforward, well-considered, absent varnish," just like the description given to the title character's, Sander Grant's, own style of speaking.
On one level, it is a coming-of-age story of Sander, who must come to terms with who he is, who his people were and what his future will be, amidst a backdrop of theology, art, beef and family.
Poignantly, the giants are somehow the underdogs in this entertaining and profound tale of uncommonness, strength and the symbiotic relationships that make life work.
You can meet and chat with Marc Phillips, plus check out The Legend of Sander Grant, at two book signings coming up: Saturday, August 29, 1 - 7pm at Barnes & Noble (Deerbrook Mall - Humble) and Saturday, September 19, 1 - 5pm at Barnes & Noble (First Colony Mall - Sugarland). [For our TFR interview with Marc Phillips, click here.]