Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Ron Rash

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this collection of stories set in North Carolina. The various accents of the readers enhanced the verisimilitude of the characters and their environment. Rash was recommended to me by Jake when I visited Asheville recently to do a reading at the marvelous Firestorm Café and Books. Like many before me, I fell in love with the town and its plethora of interesting and active people. I also fell in love with the mountains, or rather renewed my old love affair with these quiet giants. Rash's stories illuminate the lives of people hidden away in these hollows and remote towns.

What makes these stories so powerful is the way he goes so deeply into the characters. While the plots often take surprising turns, you won't find slick tricks here, just good, strong story-telling. The folks who populate them are so thoroughly imagined and so carefully presented that I feel I know each and every one of them.

I was most delighted by “A Servant of History”, an account of an Englishman named Wilson, sent by the “English Folk Dance and Ballad Society” across the Atlantic to collect folksongs. Modeled on Cecil Sharp, the famous English song collector, Wilson's goal is to find unadulterated versions of English folksongs and ballads preserved in the isolated hollows of the Appalachians. In 1915 Sharp, met Olive Dame Campbell who had collected hundreds of Appalachian folksongs and ballads. He wrote in a “letter”:, “Mrs. John C Campbell of Asheville, NC told me that the inhabitants of the Southern Appalachians were still singing the traditional songs and ballads which their English and Scottish ancestors had brought out with them at the time of their emigration.” In the story, Wilson is led to an elderly woman, Mrs. MacDonald, and he uses their common Scottish heritage—his mother is Scots—to persuade her to sing for him. Being a MacDonald myself, I knew what was coming but relished it all the same.

The stories range across the centuries. I was most touched by a story about two escaped slaves who stumble into a barn on an isolated farm for shelter during the night, the older one counseling the boy on how to approach the farmer in the morning. And by a story of a young man, having made it out of his dead-end town, returns from his freshman year at college to find his high school girlfriend using her chemistry skills in a meth lab.

I think the best story is the first one, “The Trusty”, about a prisoner trusted enough to be assigned the task of fetching water for a chain gang building a road. When he reaches the farmhouse, he asks the wary young woman for permission to draw from the well. They can see her much-older husband working in a far-off field. His slow seduction of her and what comes after gave me a frisson I feel all too rarely, that of a story well told. I look forward to reading more of Rash's work.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Coincidentally, while I was reading Antonia Fraser's enchanting account of her marriage to Harold Pinter, in the car I was listening to the story of another marriage to a famous writer. The Paris Wife is Paula McLain's fictional treatment of Hemingway's first marriage, to Hadley Richardson. Like McLain, I'd been intrigued by a line in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, his account of Paris in the 1920s. I read it back in college, and the line has stayed with me all these years: “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” So I set aside my objections to fictional treatments of real people and dove into this account written in Hadley's voice.

Hadley and Ernest met in 1920 and married the following year. This novel traces their courtship and marriage from Hadley's point of view, and then concentrates on the years in and around Paris as we watch her encounter with the wide world change her. Scott and Zelda, Gertrude and Alice, Sarah and Gerald flit through these pages. Ernest discovers Pamplona and begins writing the stories and novels that will bring him the fame he craves.

Much as I like Hemingway's writing, I've always found Hemingway the man disagreeable and faintly ridiculous. All that macho posturing seems rather silly and indicative of deep insecurity. Of course, all I have to base my opinions on are the accounts left by others, the reconstructions of biographers, and his own memoir. I recognise their unreliability, having been thoroughly shocked by Milan Kundera's Immortality into realising how easy it is to manipulate someone's image after his or her death.

This is the core of my dislike of novels that use real people as characters. The author's interpretation of the person's character and personality becomes reality, or at least an alternative reality, in the reader's mind. Privacy is one of the things I ponder—how new technology affects it, where our rights begin and end. My concern for the right of a person to control his/her public persona influenced me in writing my own memoir, making me careful to limit my use of other people's stories and to treat them as accurately and generously as possible.

McLain, too, from what I've been able to discover, devoted much research and imagination to presenting her characters and their emotions accurately and generously. I wish I had read the book rather than listened to it. I found the little-girl voice used for Hadley demeaning to the woman who had the strength to hold things together in difficult circumstances. But of course I don't know what Hadley's actual voice sounded like. I was outraged by some of the writing, too, especially the way Hadley accepted the blame for their marital difficulties—all her fault, according to Ernest, because she didn't turn a blind eye to his affair with her close friend. It probably did happen that way, but I found it outrageous nonetheless and was relieved when she finally stood up for herself.

Aside from that, I enjoyed the book. My research into McLain's process also turned up a biography I somehow missed when it first came out in 1992: Hadley by Gioia Diliberto. Diliberto had access to Hadley's own words via taped conversations between Hadley and Alice Sokoloff, a musician and writer who knew Hadley in the 1970s. I intend to look up this biography, which was reissued in 2011 as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife.

Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter, by Antonia Fraser

This surprisingly enjoyable memoir tells of Fraser's 33-year relationship with the playwright. She calls it a love story and, indeed, it is. Her first sighting of him is across a crowded room, though “it was lunchtime, not some enchanted evening, and we did not speak.” The enchantment comes later, when they do finally meet at a dinner party celebrating the first night of a play directed by her brother-in-law. She says they were “reckless” that night: both were married with children, he one and she six. Yet, as she relates, their connection stayed strong through the years until his death in 2008.

Although aware of the possibility that this could turn into a sob-fest or a soppy romance, I trusted my judgment of Fraser's earlier books, both her histories and her mysteries featuring Jemima Shore. She didn't let me down. Her amused and assured voice carries us through the years, describing the people and places they encounter, the causes they champion, and, of course, the books and plays they write. Made up of brief diary entries introduced by even briefer narratives, the book reads quickly and—even with all the bits and pieces—smoothly.

When I was 18 and wondering if there could be such a thing as a happy marriage, I read Pearl Buck's Portrait of a Marriage. The story of a painter and his sturdy, unbeautiful but restful wife stayed with me. Already an aspiring writer and knowing that I would always need my alone-time, I wondered what kind of relationship would work for me. At the time, the models available to me were the 1950s traditional wife who devotes her life to her husband's work and the emerging Second-Wave Women's Movement with its unlikely promise of mutual careers—even then, however, I questioned the eventually intractable problem of the Second Shift.

There was also what I could find in books, though so far none had satisfied me. I shivered at Faulkner's Wild Palms where when the two meet, she simply says, “‘Yes'” but then of course both are harshly punished for their temerity in going off together. I read novels of infidelity and divorce, of abuse and control.

I wish I had read this book back then. I hadn't yet discovered the joy of real lives, the histories and biographies and autobiographies that, although certainly shaped into narratives and colored by what is omitted, provide other possibilities. Buck's couple became yet another example of a woman devoting her life to her husband and his art. In Fraser's memoir, I found the dream come true of two artists devoted to each other. I'm sure there must have been rocky bits, beyond what she relates, but obviously their connection remained strong.

There is much here to like: the inside look at the theatre scene, the famous and not-so-famous people they knew, the different perspective on familiar events. I was particularly delighted by the inclusion of a few of Pinter's poems. I hadn't realised he wrote poetry, too, though I should have. They are strong and tender and add a bit of his voice to this lovely book. I appreciate Fraser's courage in sharing this so-personal story with us; it is one I will treasure.

No Time Like the Present, by Nadine Gordimer

This new novel from the Nobel Prize-winner continues Gordimer's chronicle of the evolution of her native South Africa. Here in the U.S. we get very little news about other countries. As newspapers have restructured, dismantling their overseas desks, we are forced to go out on the internet to read foreign newspapers or turn to novels such as this one for details about what is going on.

Steve and Jabu met as activists during the Struggle and married despite misogyny laws. Now, in post-reconciliation South Africa, their interracial marriage is accepted, and both have found places within society's structure, Steve as a professor and Jabu as first a teacher and then a lawyer. With so many choices now available, they debate where to live, what schools are best for their children, how engaged they should continue to be in political activism.

While the couple maintains relationships, albeit sometimes strained, with their families and with new friends, their former comrades-in-arms continue to make up their primary community. The trust forged in guerilla combat carries more weight even than blood. The group gathers at one person's house or another for a suburban barbecue and endless discussion of their country's political doings. This is a country in the process of recreating itself, so arguments and false steps abound.

The aftermath of revolution is always a curious time. Will the rebels put down their guns and create a government? Will power-grabbing guerillas-turned-politicians forget their ideals? Or will a Terror ensue following by a Reaction?

In her race to transcribe the shifting tides of political thought and corrupt behavior in this brave, new world, Gordimer sacrifices her characters and their story. Dispensing with scenes that might slow and deepen the story, she tells us straight out what Steve and Jabu think and feel, briskly rapping out dialogue between the comrades that explicates the minutiae of the news. The result is a voice that is distant and impersonal, and characters who seem little more than puppets set up to exemplify the author's arguments.

Gordimer's prose has always been difficult but it is sometimes almost impenetrable here. Repetitive, rambling, weirdly punctuated: it could have used an editor's hand. I've enjoyed other books by Gordimer, but not this one. Despite my curiosity about how various cultures within the country are handling South Africa's transition and my prior familiarity with at least the broad strokes of its government's changes, the endless political discussions—mostly in the form of expository dialogue—bored me. The arguments could have used more story around them to support and personalise them, as Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath, using the story of the Joads to bring home to the reader the unjust treatment of the Okies. Steve and Jabu's story is too thin, too lightly sketched to serve that function here.

No Time Like the Present raises important and interesting questions. As an historical document, this book is invaluable. As a novel, though, not so much. What stories of Gordimer's have you liked?