Aging with Dignity However Old You Are: Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

cover image of Life after LifeLife After Life is Jill McCorkle‘s sixth novel, and her first in 17 years. It’s a story of interwoven lives centered around the Pine Haven retirement home in a fictional small North Carolina town that bears a slight resemblance to Lumberton, NC, where she grew up, or at least to her memories of Lumberton. Jill McCorkle is a Southern writer who doesn’t lay on the Southern charm too thick, maybe influenced by time spent teaching and writing at New England schools like Harvard, Tufts, and Bennington College.

The main character of Life After Life is Joanna, a middle-aged woman who has returned to her hometown after years of rootlessness and a few failed marriages. She performs volunteer hospice services at Pine Haven, and is a regular visitor to those who aren’t dying, as well. While waiting for death with residents who are approaching the end of their lives, Joanna takes notes during their final hours – creating short biographies of the dead, detailing what they remember and think of when nearing death. Other characters include 85-year-old Sadie Randolph – beloved by all at Pine Haven –who creates photo collages picturing residents’ dreams and desires, and Rachel Silverman –a new resident –who fled her Massachusetts life to retire in the South, chasing a secret memory from her younger days. Then there’s C.J. – the tattooed young manicurist and troubled single mother who rooms with Joanna and is just starting to make a life for herself and little Kurt – and twelve-year-old Abby, whose parents fight every night when they think she’s asleep and who prefers visiting Pine Haven to dealing with other girls her own age. There are nasty characters, too, and bad things happen. Life After Life definitely has a dark streak running through it.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece written by the author about how she came to write Life After Life. The complete piece is on the Southern Indie Booksellers’ Web site, Authors Around the South.

I have always loved composite pieces, each character introduced like an instrument, voices blending until there is a communal symphony of a particular place. I greatly admire the novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for this reason, and for the way McCullers managed to highlight every walk of society and longing. In the same way, I have long been inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, especially its use of time and the way it gave voice to the dead. That’s all that there is.

I am very interested in that fine line between fiction and reality and between comedy and tragedy—and pushing the line as much as possible. In this novel, I was also interested in pushing the line between life and death in hopes of finding that split moment when the reader is aware of both places—what those left on earth are recalling and what the one leaving is thinking, that brief spark of connection and recognition before the paths continue in different directions.

This novel is a love song to memory and life. [to read the entire piece, click here.]

If you like the sweetly sardonic comedy and poignancy in movies about old people who aren’t ready for rocking chairs like Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or the quirky characters in novels like Walking across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton or Hilma Wolitzer’s An Available Man, you’ll probably like the bittersweet humor of Life After Life. Although more literary in tone than the Miss Julia books by Ann B. Ross or Fannie Flagg’s novels, Life After Life shares their spirited theme of living a meaningful life as long as possible.

Life After Life
McCorkle, Jill
Algonquin Books (Shannon Ravenel)
Mar. 26, 2013978-1565122550
342 pp.
$24.95, U.S.

Disclosure: I received an advance e-galley of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.


2013 PEN Hemingway & PEN New England Awards Ceremony at JFK Library

Table of Award-winning Books
PEN Hemingway & PEN New England Award winning books on display at the JFK Library, March 24, 2013.

On Sunday, March 24, the annual ceremony to award the PEN Hemingway and PEN New England Awards was held at the J.F.K. Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. This year I went with my dad; last year it was my mom.

As part of Tom Putnam‘s welcome, he played this funny clip from Silver Linings Playbook, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, in which the main character flings his copy of A Farewell to Arms out the window because he doesn’t like the ending. After the clip ended, Tom Putnam told the audience that Matthew Quick, the author of The Silver Linings Playbook, the novel the movie was based on, still has his PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention from 2009 hanging over the desk where he writes.

Each year Patrick Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s sole surviving son and his literary executor, reads something different from his father’s work. On Sunday, he read an excerpt from Torrents of Spring, a satirical work spoofing the style of Sherwood Anderson, which he described as a comedic look at war before the author of a serious novel about war, Kevin Powers, took the stage to read from The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown). Kevin Powers received the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, which recognizes a first book of fiction.

Kevin Powers receiving the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for The Yellow Birds.
Kevin Powers receiving the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for The Yellow Birds.

Finalists for the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award were also honored yesterday: Jennifer duBois, for A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press) and Vaddey Ratner for In the Shadow of the Banyan (Simon & Schuster). Honorable mentions were awarded to Catherine Chung for Forgotten Country (Riverhead Books) and Peter Wheelwright for As It Is on Earth (Fomite Press).

Heidi Julavits won the 2013 PEN New England Award for the best work of fiction by a New England author published in 2012 for The Vanishers (Doubleday). After receiving the award, she read an excerpt, starting from here:

The attack, we later agreed, occurred at Madame Ackermann’s forty-­third birthday party.

The evening was typical for late October—­icebox air, onyx sky, White Mountains humped darkly in the distance, and peripherally visible as a more opaque variety of night. Because I knew that Madame Ackermann’s A-­frame would be underheated, I wore a wool jumper and wool tights and a pair of silver riding boots purchased from the Nepalese import store, run by an aging WASP hippie. Hers was one of seven businesses in the town of East Warwick, New Hampshire (there was also a vegan pizza parlor, a hardware store, a purveyor of Fair Isle knitwear, a bank, a pub, and a real estate agent), a town that existed in the minds of some to provide basic material support to the faculty and students at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology—­referred to locally, and by those in the field, as the Workshop.

Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers and three other critically acclaimed novels, reads from her work.
Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers and three other critically acclaimed novels.

Heidi Julavits seemed like a fun-loving person and joked about hoping the award wouldn’t be revoked because she sort of resides in New York now. To establish her “New England cred,” she told the audience that she grew up in Maine and that she had just renewed her Maine driver’s license. She added that she had made the fictional town used as the setting in The Vanishers into the kind of quirky New England town she wished Hanover, New Hampshire, where she went to college, had been. (Yes, Dartmouth).

Bernd Heinrich received the PEN New England Award for Nonfiction for Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). David Huddle received the PEN New England Award for Poetry for Blacksnake at the Family Reunion (Louisiana State University Press).

Colm Tóibín gave the keynote address.
Colm Tóibín gave the keynote address. I hope he doesn’t mind the photo taken with his reading glasses on!

Colm Tóibín, author of The Master, Brooklyn, and other books, gave the keynote address, which is always related in some way to Ernest Hemingway. He said that, along with Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway was the greatest American writer of his day. He spoke humorously and movingly about being a daydreamy youth of 17 working a summer job at a rundown resort hotel bar in Ireland, spending his days reading a beat-up Penguin paperback edition of The Essential Hemingway, and the lightning-bolt effect this book (which included the full text of The Sun Also Rises) had on him. Colm Tóibín still owns this same copy of The Essential Hemingway, stained with sea water.

You can see a list of past Hemingway/PEN Award winners here and past Winship/PEN or PEN New England Award winners here.

Of course, I bought a book.


Bloggiesta Wrap-up Spring 2013 #Bloggiesta

Bloggiesta weekend ended yesterday. My third-ever Bloggiesta was a semi-success. I learned that Pedro is the mascot because PEDRO stands for Plan. Edit. Develop. Review. Organize. Pedro is also why chips and salsa are the recommended snack for Bloggiesta, and margaritas the recommended drink.

  • Uninstall themes and widgets I’m not using (I uninstalled six themes, Linky widget, readathon badge, and three plug-ins. Also updated my blog roll.)
  • Get help making blog banner look more professional (My husband helped me use PhotoShop to fix it up a bit)
  • Make LibraryThing widget more attractive (I can’t get the books to be centered, though)
  • Find out what PageLines is in WordPress.orgLand (Themes designed by PageLines, such as Platform, the one I use, give you a dashboard within the dashboard to allow for extra customization without knowledge of  CSS, HTML, etc.)
  • Cut down category list (combine categories?) (I did start this, and got as far as creating a list of all the categories and sub-categories that I wish I had set up way back at the beginning. Now to figure out which categories to convert to tags, which to merge, and which to delete, and the most efficient way to do all of the above.)
  • Catch up on audiobook reviews (Mini-reviews?) – Nothing done
  • Add to the page of book lists and readalikes – Nothing done
  • Create Reviews by Author option on Reviews by Title page (I created a separate Reviews by Author page.)

Bloggiesta is a weekend event devoted to spiffing up your blog, organized and hosted by Suey from It’s All About Books and Danielle from There’s A Book. I think it’s mostly book bloggers who participate, but it’s not restricted to book bloggers. There are mini-challenges that focus on certain aspects of blogs and blogging, and usually lots of community building.

Follow the Bloggiesta blog, Twitter, or Facebook to stay up to date on when the next one comes around!