Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Review Heaven!

December 14, 2008

The Vineyard Gazette's review of The Mud of the Place ran in Friday's paper. I already knew it was going to be good, because the reviewer, Holly Nadler, called me up Sunday before last to tell me how much she loved the book and to ask when I'd moved to the Vineyard. It's better than good: it's wonderful. Unfortunately, the online version is only available to Gazette subscribers, so here are some pithy quotes, starting with the lede:

     Like Ireland in the past two hundred years, and Concord in the mid-19th century, the Vineyard is known for incubating writers. Some of them set their stories right here on the Island. The most illuminating to come down the pike in a long time -- perhaps the most illuminating ever -- is The Mud of the Place, by Susanna J. Sturgis, published by Speed-of-C Productions, $19.99.

     Imagine making friends with five of the smartest, funniest, most ruggedly individualist people on the Vineyard, then following them through a chain of startling events -- part mystery, part life drama -- all the while touring the nooks and crannies of this rock and seeing it anew through Ms. Sturgis's discerning eye. . . .

Nadler then introduces the five -- Leslie, Shannon, Jay, Giles, and Meg -- in a way that both captures the essence of each and conveys the major themes and conflicts of the book. After writing a couple dozen descriptions of the book, not to mention synopses, summaries, and attempts at catchy ad copy, I know that Mud is bloody (muddy?) hard to summarize. Nadler's "expository lump" (as I've heard it called) is brilliant, and I don't say that lightly: as a veteran reviewer, I know that nearly every good review has to have one, but they are damn hard to do well. Then we come to the final paragraphs:

     It's astonishing how much texture, insight and lore Ms. Sturgis has packed into this 392-page novel (the author summered here starting in 1965 when her family bought an up Island pondside cottage, and has lived here year-round since 1985). The major elements of the story -- the Island art scene, the real estate explosion of the late 1990s, the widespread participation in and influence of AA, lesbians and gays, the world of the weekly, small-town newspaper, and social services -- each is laid out for us as if the author spent a lifetime devoted to its pursuit.

     This wealth of characters and venues is a page-turner. I spent an entire Sunday unable to leave the couch as I pored through this book, and yet the irony was that I had no sense of missing a single moment outside my windows, out there on the Island, because Ms. Sturgis introduced me to more facets of Vineyard living than I've come across in my own 18 years of residing here year-round.

     Before I urge you to go out and buy this book, let me tell you from whom the title is borrowed: they are the words of Grace Paley: "If your feet aren't in the mud of a place, you'd better watch where your mouth is."

A few hours after the paper hit the stands, the director of one of the town libraries called to set up a reading date for later this winter. She'd bought the book at Bunch of Grapes, she said. Bunch of Grapes is the more established of the island's two "new book" stores (Book Den East deals in secondhand and rare books). Last Fourth of July its building was destroyed by fire; it's only just reopened a temporary shop around the corner. I'd been trying to get them interested in carrying Mud, but until the library director's call I didn't know I'd succeeded. And early yesterday afternoon Edgartown Books called to say they'd sold out and needed more copies; could I bring some down? I could. This weekend is "Christmas in Edgartown," during which merchants offer mulled cider, hot chocolate, and various goodies to entice shoppers in to spend money. The day was cold but bright (whew!), and there were plenty of people strolling the sidewalks.

The appearance of the Gazette review and the immediate, possibly coincidental (though I doubt it) after-effects have so lifted my spirits that I can finally acknowledge to myself just how demoralized I was getting. The Martha's Vineyard Times review was a sucker punch that goes on for weeks. I've put so much energy into resisting demoralization that everything else I do seems to be taking forever and getting done in a half-assed way. (Consider the difference between slogging through mud and walking briskly on solid ground.) No matter how often I repeat my mantra, "Never attribute to malice what can be easily explained by stupidity (or incompetence)," or remember one Mud character's description of the Vineyard as a place where "ambition is useless and apathy a virtue," I've been able to resist the suspicion that my book and I have been blown off by the paper I used to work for.

Hell, we have been blown off by the paper I used to work for. The really demoralizing suspicion was that we were being blown off by the whole island -- and that if we can't get some traction here of all places, what hope do we have anywhere else?

Finally the wheels are making contact with the ground and moving forward. Tricky stuff, that mud. I like having my feet in the mud of this place, but I don't like being submerged to the eyeballs.


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