ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Discoveries: 'Snakewoman of Little Egypt' by Robert Hellenga

Sarah BernhardtEgyptYale University

Snakewoman of Little Egypt

A Novel

Robert Hellenga

Bloomsbury USA: 342 pp., $25

Blend one anthropologist (Jackson), one young woman fresh out of prison for shooting and injuring her husband (Sunny), and that husband, a Pentecostal pastor from a serpent-handling church (Earl) and watch their lives twist around one another in utterly unpredictable ways. You are in Hellengaville, searching for your lost shaker of angst. Robert Hellenga's characters perpetually reenter the world, reinvent themselves, reconnect with one another in new ways. It's this flexibility, this constant flux, that make his novels ("The Sixteen Pleasures," "The Fall of a Sparrow," "The Italian Lover") so appealing, so youthful. That and the settings (Greece, Italy), although with "Snakewoman of Little Egypt," we find ourselves in the backwoods of Illinois, in a world most of us will probably (thankfully) never enter. Sunny, who has a gift for handling serpents, married Earl, a wife beater, when she was 16. After doing time for shooting him in the shoulder, she meets Jackson, back from Africa and searching for the subject of his next academic paper. In the process of persuading Earl to divorce, Sunny introduces Jackson to the world of snake-handling — to her former church, the Church of the Burning Bush With Signs Following. Soon, Jackson, who has a history of going native, is in deeper than he should be. Hellenga makes anthropologists of us all.

Memorable Days

The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps

Edited by John McIntyre

Counterpoint: 212 pp., $25

In the bad old days (for example, when James Salter's novel "Light Years" was published in 1975), we argued about how bourgeois he was, what a gorgeous writer, but so taken up with the things of this world: "Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue-checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives." Now, such arguments seem luxurious. So much has disappeared. Letters always make the reader feel this way, and in "Memorable Days," some 200 written over 20 years, between Salter and the critic Robert Phelps, are no exception. There are shadows: Phelps' bisexuality, hidden behind a 40-year marriage; Salter's struggles with his writing, which always seems to me to float across the pages with the same nonchalance and physicality that the author himself possessed and possesses. "I'm tired of my life, my clothes, the things I say. I'm hacking away at the surface, as at some kind of gray ice, trying to break through to what is underneath or I am dead," Salter wrote in 1970. And then, the terrible fact that Phelps died of colon cancer in 1989 after just one neglected novel. Salter encourages him to write. These letters seem so very affectionate, evidence of how a lifelong conversation (a parallel life) can help two friends survive and grow toward their best selves.

Sarah

The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

Robert Gottlieb

Yale University Press: 236 pp., $25

She was the original drama queen, though it is hard, once you know something about her childhood, not to ascribe the flamboyance to a need to survive (If I throw myself under the wheels of the carriage or in the pond, my mother/aunt/benefactor might not leave me). In "Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt," Robert Gottlieb is true to the mystery of his subject's self-invented life. He also does what few biographers of famous women seem able or willing to do: He focuses on her work. Her life moves from play to play, not lover to lover (don't worry, they're in here too). Molière, Victor Hugo, Racine — these were her steppingstones. Bernhardt's own memoir, "My Double Life," takes us only through age 35 (the actress died in 1923 at age 78 — if, as Gottleib, resigned, acknowledges, she was born in 1844). Famous jokes about her notorious thinness — "When she takes a bath, the level of the water goes down"— insights about her Jewishness — in the years of the Dreyfus affair, particularly — and her devotion to her family are vintage Gottleib, full of humor and refreshingly free of hagiography. "She was a star," he writes, "or she was nothing."

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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