Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books, April 24, 2009

Dalton Trumbo reading.

If I missed you today, please forgive the oversight. I'm out of town with no reliable computer access.

Kathryn Magendie is the co-editor of The Rose and the Thorn Literary Ezine. She is also the author of TENDER GRACES (Bellebooks). Visit her at
Madden’s MySpace:

The Maggie Valley Trilogy by Kerry Madden

Kerry Madden has captured mountain life in a charming three-book series that will capture young reader’s hearts … adults can read these books as well and will be entertained by the whimsy and magic that is the Weems family. The books are set in the early 60’s in the Smoky Mountain region of Western North Carolina. Madden does a good job of centering her characters in this early time, but as well, leaving the reader with a timeless feel that can span the ages.

In the first of the trilogy, GENTLE'S HOLLER, Madden introduces readers to Olivia Weems, who goes by Livy Two—named after her older sister, also a Livy, who passed into the great mountain beyond before Olivia was born—and her eight (soon to be nine) siblings. Livy Two loves books, music, the mountain holler where she lives in Maggie Valley, and her family. Livy Two plays guitar, and writes songs that she sings impromptu to her family, to the sky, to the holler, to the very wind…music is in her marrow, same as her daddy.

It isn’t exactly a hard-scrabble life, but the Weems family does not have much money and must find ways to pay the rent, put food on the table, and maybe put a little aside for the just in cases. Livy Two’s father is a banjo player, and looks for ways to make a living at it, much to the dismay of Livy Two’s Grandma Horace, who simply doesn’t understand why the Weems live as they do and love that holler so much!

The first book centers around Livy Two’s young sister, Gentle. Gentle can’t see the world as her siblings do, and Livy Two finds ways to help her see her world in a special and unique way. The oldest brother of the Weems clan is Emmett, who adds a bit of struggle to the Weems family unit with his dreams of taking off to Maggie Valley’s Ghost Town in the Sky, way up top the mountain, where he is certain his dreams of being a Star will come true.

The first book leads readers on a wonderfully gentle ride…and straight on to pick up the next in the series—

LOUISIANA'S SONG. Where we find our Livy Two again as the storyteller of the Weems’s lives. “Louisiana” is sister Louise’s name; having received said name when her parents visited the state of Louisiana. Louise is a gifted painter, and once again Madden shows us in unique ways how this family sees the world through art and music and love and hope. There has been an accident in the first book—one that I will not give away—and in this second book in the trilogy, Livy Two and the other Weems’s must struggle with the outcome of this unfortunate event, but they do so with grace and dignity, and with hope.

This second book continues the story in a fine and charming fashion—and yes, there is that word “charming” again. Parents can feel comfortable picking up these books for their children (10 and older) to read—the stories and characters are precious even when precocious.

JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN is the final book in the Maggie Valley Trilogy. This book is named after Livy Two’s mother, although Livy Two remains the narrator in all three books. Grandma Horace is a pain the backsides of Livy Two and the other siblings, for Grandma Horace wants the Weems to move to “Enka Stinka,” away from the holler and all that Livy Two and her family loves: their little dog they adopted, the whistle pigs, the wind through the trees, the mountains—Enka Stinka is just as its name implies: it stinks with the factory there!

However, Grandma Horace shows a soft side and gives Livy Two a diary—Livy’s mother’s diary! Livy is spellbound by the thought of her mother as once young and full of ideas and wants and dreams.

Meanwhile, Livy wants to pursue her dream of making music in Nashville, since that aforementioned outcome of the accident is still a part of the Weems’s life (although things are looking up!). Livy and her younger sister Jitters take a wild trip to The Land of Nashville, where Livy learns that sometimes things do not always work out as one would want it to—but in Weems fashion, she and her siblings find another way to save the day.

The trilogy ends in a hopeful, sweet, and satisfying conclusion. Madden knows how to tug at the heart strings, but in a way that respects the ages of her readers and doesn’t swim in over-sentimentality. These books just made me smile, and the Weems family will forever be embedded in my heart.

Eric Beetner is an editor, writer/director in Hollywood. His crime writing has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Crooked, Powder Burn Flash and he is currently shopping two crime novels, one co-written with noir author JB Kohl. More info at and

A MIDNIGHT CLEAR by William Wharton

Wharton has a strong reputation based mostly on his novel Birdy. While Birdy is a great book (and a great movie) I think the under rated book in Wharton’s work is A Midnight Clear.
Books about war are often overwrought and obvious but A Midnight Clear is a simple story about clear characters who live a story that has everything to do with war and yet nothing at all.
It helps that latter point that none of the men (young boys really) who are sent to a remote chateau to guard it against advancing Nazis really want to be there. They revel in the isolation and the chance to get away from the rigors of army life in dead-of-winter WWII.
The book is slow moving, admittedly, but evocative and calm as a snowy night. It is a war book that doesn’t rely on firing bullets or piling up casualties. It is about the repetition, the boredom, the inanity of war and in the middle of it all is the humanity. A Midnight Clear’s truly subversive narrative is showing the human side to war rather than concentrating on the inhumanity of war like 99.9% of all other war books.
Of course this is war and no one makes it out clean. It makes any breakdown of the carefully constructed humanity all the more heartbreaking because we have seen these impromptu family units of war time working in their own way. When the fighting intrudes on the domesticity that this band of misfits has made for themselves it is truly devastating.
I also love the short clipped sentences of the narrator like the whole book was dictated over a shortwave radio from a trench in France. Not a word is wasted but like a black and white photo you get all the information you need without any distractions.
There is also a pretty darn good movie adaptation of the book that is itself highly under rated.

Jake Hinkson is currently at work on a book on film noir. You can learn more about Jake and his projects at his own blog, The Night Editor.


Evelyn Piper, 1957

Bunny Lake Is Missing is part of the Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series from The Feminist Press and contains a publisher’s forward, and an afterword by Princeton professor Maria DiBattista, author of Fast Talking Dames.

A young mother arrives at a nursery school one afternoon to pick up her daughter, but the little girl is not there. The mother’s distraught, of course, but the teachers and the principal just stare blankly back at her. They say they do not know her. They say they have never seen her daughter.

Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing is a book about a feeling, a sickening sensation that boils in the gut as you follow Blanche Lake, the young mother, as she runs up and down New York City trying to find someone, anyone, who will believe she has a daughter who has gone missing. The year is 1957 and Blanche is an attractive young woman, new to the big city. When she tells people that her daughter, Bunny, is missing, they ask her about the girl’s father. Bunny has no father, she tells them. That draws some judgmental looks in 1957. When Blanche manages to get the police involved, they come to her apartment. Where are the child’s clothes? The toys? Why doesn’t Blanche have any pictures of Bunny?

Piper is deft in setting up her story, and a mood of dread permeates the opening chapters. Since we open with Blanche on her way to pick up Bunny, we don’t really know what—or who—to believe. Is Bunny real? Or did Blanche imagine a daughter for herself, the result of something terrible that has happened in her past? What we know for sure is that Blanche’s terror is real. As the hours tick away, and daylight turns into night, we watch her struggle to keep herself together. Is this frightened young woman going insane? Piper doesn’t reveal the answer too soon, and by keeping us guessing she pulls off something of an interesting switch. We’re certainly pulling for our heroine against all the skeptical people around her, but even we’re not sure if we believe her. For most of its length, Bunny Lake Is Missing is a fascinating page turner.

Alas, Piper stumbles at the finish line. Her resolution is a letdown, a hurried and preposterous deus ex machina that does most of the heavy lifting off stage. It’s an ending pretty much guaranteed to satisfy no one.

Having said that, however, Bunny Lake Is Missing is one of those stories that manages to transcend its own ending. The set up and execution of the plot are snappy and compelling. At the center of it is Blanche, a fascinating character. Is she crazy? Or is she a woman caught up in the grinding machinery of a man’s world? It’s the urgency of those questions, and not the plot mechanics, that stays with you after you finish the book.

“Evelyn Piper” was the penname of Merriam Modell, a Cornell graduate with a taste for pulp. Modell moved to Germany when it was still a happening place to be in the late 20’s, and she was one of the people farsighted, and lucky, enough to flee the country when Hitler came to power in 1933. Her fiction is suffused with both the capriciousness of life, especially for women, and an almost Gothic sense of dread. With Bunny Lake she turned out a classic piece of fifties pulp, not so much in the area of sex and violence (the book has very little of either) but more in the sense of anxiety surrounding the characters and their social and gender roles. The Feminist Press has done a great service by bringing this entertaining and fascinating book back into circulation.

In 1965, Otto Preminger directed a noirish take on Piper’s novel with his film Bunny Lake Is Missing. Check my review of the film at

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Paul Brazill said...

I love the film of Bunny lake ..theme song by The Zombies. ..I've never read Wharton but he is ADORED here in Poland.

Todd Mason said...

Yes, they had the good sense to use the Zombies' "She's Not There"...there was a promotional rewrite for the film of "Just Out of Reach" by them called "Come on Time," which is very funny indeed.