Friday, November 29, 2019

Alice Adams rediscovered! Carol Sklenicka's "Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer," ten years in the making - an appreciation (and info on an event at the end of this post)

When I was younger, I read a lot of short stories, and two of my favorite writers were named Alice. Both were celebrated, but while one’s reputation exploded in the nineties, with Alice Munro seemingly winning every award possible, Alice Adams star faded, even before she passed away in 1999. It was only after reading Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer, that I learned that a bit of this was connected to the change of leadership at The New Yorker. The new regime still kept her on first look, but only published two more of her stories. They just didn't like her work as much as William Shawn's regime did.

When Carol Sklenicka came to Boswell for her previous biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, back in 2009, she mentioned she was looking into Alice Adams as her next subject. Makes sense – Sklenicka had relocated to the Bay Area and almost all of Adams’s work was infused with San Francisco. It was exciting for me, because I’d been a big fan of the author’s work. It turns out that I had collected 12 of her books and read 11 of them, only leaving out The Stories of Alice Adams because I figured I’d read most of them in individual story volumes. And my collection actually does not include Superior Women, the author’s commercial hit. It’s likely I read it in mass market and the book was not in acceptable shape to go in my bookcase afterwards. But I did hold onto three of the Alex Katz editions of Adams paperbacks, a conceptually beautiful series of paperback jackets that one rarely sees from publishers nowadays.

After ten years, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer, is releasing on December 3, and I am so hoping it leads to, if not a resurgence, than a positive reassessment of her writing career. Sklenicka’s exhaustive (but hardly exhausting, more like exhilarating) biography chronicles a writer who broke away from traditional roles, and struggled to get published. Her first novel did not come out until she was 40 and her second when she was 49. Her stories and novels were filled with characters based on real people, notably ones with with a good amount of Alice herself baked into their DNA, and Sklenicka lays all of that out, and even uncovers a few secrets.

Having grown up in North Carolina, Adams fought back against the prejudices of her upbringing and tackled the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia in her work. And yet she still had to struggle with the male gatekeepers; can you believe Adams was good friends with Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Irving Howe and none of the three would give her a quote on her book because it was beneath them? Fortunately she had a strong network of women friends, and I mean strong, as they had no qualms about reviewing each other’s work in national publications without calling attention to their friendships, In fact, when Adams was on the Pulitzer committee, she nominated perhaps her closest friend Diane Johnson for the honor, but another member had a different book and Adams pushed for that too, and that’s how Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize (sort of). Look, I’m well aware that Sklenicka’s biography is over 500 pages, but it is so absorbing you won’t notice the time slip by. To use a word that often came to mind when describing Adams’s own work, Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer is delicious!

Sklenicka's work also sort of chronicles the change in the short story. Adams's stories were often a little too outré for women's magazines, but they did publish her work, albeit with changes. But as the market dried up for popular stories, the focus of story writing became more AWP oriented (Association of Writer and Writing Programs), with the story collection being the effective thesis. It's a rare traditional publisher who will publish story collections, and while one or two catch fire every year, most do not do so at the level of George Saunders's Tenth of December. When one does again, you can bet there will be an increase in story collections published about two years later.

I found some of my old reviews for Adams’s work, from when I used to write up books and send out the lists to friends, pre-Internet. It was clear that the more I read of her work, the more my love grew. In reviewing these, I had forgotten that Adams did visit the Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood, and I got to see her there. I also kind of like a few of the details, like my visit to that incredible bookstore in Tucson, long closed.

On my Booklists, sometimes I reviewed the books in order of how I liked them, and sometimes I did not. A Southern Exposure, reviewed March 1996, was my #1 book for the month.
Whereas most of Adams’s novels depict the Northern California of her adulthood, A Southern Exposure mines her childhood to create Pinehill (read Chapel Hill) North Carolina in the 1930s. To the town comes the Baird family, on the lam from Connecticut and an overdue Lord and Taylor bill. Returning home from California is poet Russell Byrd and family, on whom mother Cynthia Baird develops a crush. Flirtations and more abound, gossip ensues, but the real tension develops with Cynthia attempts to help a (black) maid set up her own decorating shop. What I love about Adams’s work is the richness of the characters, even minor (ones) scene stealers, and the density of the descriptions. Her omniscient narrator has an old-fashioned, somewhat ironic insight in the characters’ actions, but shares their confusion. A Southern Exposure is pure pleasure, bringing the reader straight into the drawing rooms and garden parties of the day, where everyone has something to say.

Medicine Men, reviewed May 1997, was also my number one book for the month.
Adams’s newest novel is based on her battle with cancer. Yikes, many of her fans say, I don’t want to read about that. Have no fear, the story is told in inimitable Adams style, and is as charming and dishy as ever. Thank goodness regular readers NG and MG (you know who you are!) paid heed to my advice. I wish I could have convinced 20,000 more people. Molly Bonner has been having headaches and doesn’t know the cause. She has started dating Dave Jacobs, a pleasant, but didactic and controlling doctor. Molly figures she’s had enough of doctors, but when the headaches turnout tto be a sinus cancer, she can’t get away from MDs, let alone break up with Dr. Jacobs. The characters personal and professional lives become hopelessly entwined. Many nasty secrets are discovered. All told, Medicine Men is Adams at her fully operational best. It was great to attend Adams’s reading, and insightful as well. It turns out that Adams wrote A Southern Exposure to take her mind off her cancer woes. Though the plot is made up, some of the nasty doctors are obliquely based on read people.

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I don't know if Careless Love, reviewed the same month, really was #2. When I read two books by the same author in a month, I liked to keep them together.
Published in the UK with the original title, The Fall of Daisy Duke. When Adams read at our Shorewood store, she looked over at my copy of Careless Love and said, “Where did you get that?”In fact, I bought it at the one of a kind Bookmark in Tucson. When there, head out west towards Speedway (I took the bus) and visit this fascinating store, ostensibly not a used bookstore, but filled with out-of-print gems. Her first novel told the story of Daisy, living the high life as a San Francisco divorcee, until she falls in love with the wrong man, a married Spaniard. See Joanna Trollope’s A Spanish Lover for why this is generally a bad thing. Daisy consults her friends, the high-flying Valerie and the down-to-earth Jane, but finds it hard to take their advice. The fall is inevitable, but getting there is half the fun. Careless Love is the novel’s American title, which Adams never particularly liked. She could not have foreseen the Dukes of Hazzard connection that would haunt the alternate title. The gap in time between her first two novel is mostly to do with the way the first one was published and it’s lack of commercial reception.

Adams's last original collection, The Last Lovely City, was reviewed April 1999. It was #3, but to put that in context, I read nine books that month.
The late Ms. Adams was one of my favorite writers, and I’m grateful for the legacy of this last collection of marvelously dishy, intensely San Francisco stories. There is Penelope of “The Haunted Beach,” who makes a disastrous attempt to relive pleasant memories of a Mexican vacation, and Mary of “Raccoons,” an aging actress whose only permanent relationship is with her cat, now missing. For those who like their stories linked, part II consists of four connected stories about the dissolution of two relationships. The tone of these stories may remind loyal Adams readers of the 1989 novel Second Chances, only here, the second time around is as disappointing as the first. Adams’s stories have always seemed to me like stories told to you over the phone by a close friend. If you have a yen for sex, cats, gossip, and wry humor, The Last Lonely City should do a good job of sating it.

I'm excited to note that Carol Sklenicka is coming to Milwaukee for a special event at Boswell on Friday, December 6, 2019, 7 pm. The wonderful Flora Coker will be doing a dramatic reading of one of Adams's most noted stories, "Roses, Rhododendron," and then Sklenicka will be in conversation with writer Martha Bergland about Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer. When researching this post, I came across my review for Bergland's Farm Under a Lake. I noted the comparison to Alice, wait for it, Munro.

And finally, I should note that Scribner has reissued Superior Women, while Vintage has brought out a paperback edition of The Stories of Alice Adams, just in time for the book's publication. Several of the other books I mentioned are ebook, second hand, or the stray circulating library copy only.

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