The Taste of Salt

( 23 )

Overview

Award-winning novelist Martha Southgate (who, in the words of Julia Glass, “can write fat and hot, then lush and tender, then just plain truthful and burning with heart”) now tells the story of a family pushed to its limits by addiction over the course of two generations.

Josie Henderson loves the water and is fulfilled by her position as the only senior-level black scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In building this impressive life for herself, she has tried ...

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The Taste of Salt

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Overview

Award-winning novelist Martha Southgate (who, in the words of Julia Glass, “can write fat and hot, then lush and tender, then just plain truthful and burning with heart”) now tells the story of a family pushed to its limits by addiction over the course of two generations.

Josie Henderson loves the water and is fulfilled by her position as the only senior-level black scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In building this impressive life for herself, she has tried to shed the one thing she cannot: her family back in landlocked Cleveland. Her adored brother, Tick, was her childhood ally as they watched their drinking father push away all the love that his wife and children were trying to give him. Now Tick himself has been coming apart and demands to be heard.

Weaving four voices into a beautiful tapestry, Southgate charts the lives of the Hendersons from the parents’ first charmed meeting to Josie’s realization that the ways of the human heart are more complex than anything seen under a microscope.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In her haunting fourth novel, Southgate (Third Girl from the Left) examines the complicated issues of race, family, love, and addiction. Josie Henderson is a widely respected scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and prides herself on being the only senior-level African-American marine biologist there. Henderson loves her job and has a husband, Daniel, who adores her, but she can't shake her past of growing up with an alcoholic father. The story spins out, told through Josie's eyes and those of her brother, Tick, father, mother and husband after Josie goes back to her hometown of Cleveland to pick Tick up from his second stint in rehab. Southgate's arresting, fluid prose and authentic dialogue come together in a resonating study of relationships, where selfish tendencies among the various characters are revealed, as are their feelings of regret. A fascinating story that shows how the mistakes people make affect all those around them. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
One of O: The Oprah Magazine's "10 Titles to Pick Up Now"

"[A] searing, gorgeous, brilliant and profoundly human novel about two generations of an African American family riding the slow-mo roller coaster of addiction." San Francisco Chronicle

"Four voices tell this poignant story, making each page ache with a different shade of loneliness." —People

"In The Taste of Salt, Southgate writes with a minor-key melancholy that comes on softly, but lingers long after." —Entertainment Weekly

"[The Taste of Salt] hauntingly explores how the mistakes people make affect everyone around them." —NPR.org

"One of our favorite authors delves into a taboo topic: alcoholism in the Black community . . . Southgate is one of our most reliable tour guides inside the minds of fictitious Black rebels and outsiders . . . In a virtuoso balancing act, [she] tells [a] poignant story." —Essence

"A steady undercurrent of raw, complex emotions keeps the pages turning." —Bust Magazine

"Southgate brings a thoughtful intelligence to her downbeat tale." —Christian Science Monitor

"With compassion and a quiet grief, Southgate examines the ways families self-destruct even as they try to hold it together." —BookPage

"Southgate's arresting, fluid prose and authentic dialogue come together in a resonating study of relationships . . . A fascinating story that shows how the mistakes people make affect all those around them." —Publishers Weekly

"A compassionate, complex, and concentrated novel, tenderly powerful, that explores family bonds that last long after the family is dispersed." —Booklist

"Southgate does a wonderful job of telling Josie's story, touching on racism, sexism, alcoholism, and emotional infidelity . . . A good, attention-grabbing read." —Library Journal

Booklist
“With a lyrical style and obvious respect for her craft, Southgate has composed a compassionate, complex, and concentrated novel, tenderly powerful, that explores family bonds that last long after the family is dispersed.”— Booklist
NPR.org
“[The Taste of Salt] hauntingly explores how the mistakes people make affect everyone around them.” —NPR.org
Christian Science Monitor
"Southgate brings a thoughtful intelligence to her downbeat tale." --Christian Science Monitor
People
"Four voices tell this poignant story, making each page ache with a different shade of loneliness." --People
Entertainment Weekly
"In The Taste of Salt, Southgate writes a minor-key melancholy that comes on softly, but lingers long after. B+" --Entertainment Weekly
Essence
“Martha Southgate delivers her most personal work ever…a heartbreaking and fascinating character study… In a virtuoso balancing act, Southgate tells this poignant story from other points of view.”—Essence
San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] searing, gorgeous, brilliant and profoundly human novel about two generations of an African American family riding the slow-mo roller coaster of addiction.”—San Francisco Chronicle
BookPage
"With compassion and quiet grief, Southgate examines the ways families self-destruct even as they try to hold together." --BookPage
BookReporter.com
“The story of a family pushed to its limits by addiction over the course of two generations… Weaving four voices into a beautiful tapestry, Southgate charts the lives of the Hendersons from the parents first charmed meeting to Josie’s realization that the ways of the human heart are more complex than anything seen under a microscope.”—Bookreporter.com
VOYA - Lona Trulove
Growing up is difficult in the best of circumstances, but it is especially difficult for teens in families dealing with alcohol and drug abuse. The Taste of Salt takes the reader on a journey with the Henderson family as they navigate the murky waters of alcohol and drug abuse. Southgate does a wonderful job of developing well-rounded characters for whom readers can feel compassion, empathy, and even frustration as they begin to deal with the truth about their family and the destruction that abuse creates. It is especially helpful that she paints the picture of a middle-class, intelligent family who is struggling. Many times teens in these families feel as though they are alone and do not have someone to talk to about what is happening at home; hopefully this book will be a springboard for dialogue. The honesty with which this novel is written makes it a great addition not only to classroom libraries but also to the counseling departments of middle schools and high schools alike. It would be useful to read in small groups and then discuss, as well as for researching alcoholism and drug abuse today. This is a sensitive, thought-provoking novel that touches the heart and stays with the reader. Reviewer: Lona Trulove
Library Journal
Southgate follows her two critically acclaimed novels, The Fall of Rome and Third Girl from the Left, with a novel featuring African American oceanographer Josie Henderson, who resides in Massachusetts with her white husband. Her decision to live and work near the ocean, away from her hometown of Cleveland, was prompted, almost without her being aware, by the alcoholism of her father and younger brother, Tick; she had longed for an escape. When Tick shows up expectantly at her door, Josie is suddenly confronted with her past and her own romantic addictions. Writing largely from the perspective of her protagonist, Southgate does a wonderful job of telling Josie's story, touching on racism, sexism, alcoholism, and emotional infidelity in a story that is intriguing if not entirely unpredictable. In fact, the novel is strongest when it most recalls an actual memoir. VERDICT A good, attention-grabbing read reminiscent of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, this work will appeal to readers of African American literature.—Ashanti White, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565129252
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 9/13/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 446,230
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Martha Southgate has been an editor at Essence, a reporter for Premiere and the New York Daily News, and a contributor to the New York Times. A graduate of Smith College, she has an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. Author of two acclaimed novels, The Fall of Rome and Third Girl from the Left, she has taught at Brooklyn College and the New School and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Find her online at www.marthasouthgate.com.

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Read an Excerpt

The Taste of Salt

A NOVEL
By Martha Southgate

ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL

Copyright © 2011 Martha Southgate
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-925-2


Chapter One

My mother named me after Josephine Baker. I think she was hoping I'd be more artistically inclined. The sort of woman who would sing as she swayed elegantly through the streets of Paris. The sort of woman who would have many men at her feet. The sort of woman men would write songs about. Didn't work out like that, though. I'm kind of tall, like Baker, and medium brown, like her. Can't sing, though. And I don't look too good in a skirt made out of bananas. To my knowledge, no one has ever written a song about me. Everybody calls me Josie—that feels more like my right name to me. My brother is nicknamed Tick, because when he was little, he was such a fast and efficient crawler that my father said he was just like a little watch—ticktock, ticktock. That got shortened to Tick and it stuck. That's what everybody calls him. His given name is Edmund after the poet Edmund Spenser. That was Daddy's idea, too. He could not get over The Faerie Queene. That was one of his favorite books. I've never read it. Looks too complicated to me. I was raised to respect books—the house was full of them. From the time I was little, it was drummed into our heads that books were almost the most important thing in the world, second only to getting a good education. So I've read a lot of fiction's greatest hits—either I had to for school or I felt like I should or Daddy told me to read them. I even enjoyed some of them. But they're not what I'm drawn to. When I read, I want it to be something that I can use. So mostly I read monographs. I read texts. I read science and history. Mostly, I read about what's happening in the ocean. That's enough to fill your mind for a lifetime.

I'm happiest when I'm in the water. Since we've been working at Woods Hole, I don't get as much ocean time as I'd like. It's nothing like Oahu, where we used to live. The water here is murky and green. I dive to keep up my chops, but it can't match the pure blue pleasure of the Pacific. Sometimes I feel a little heartbroken to have left that behind.

My field of study is the behavior of marine mammals, which, let me tell you, is not easy. The ocean doesn't just offer itself up to you. Here's a typical situation: I'm suspended in the bluest water you can imagine, an entire universe flitting past my ears. Something comes up behind me. It's big, it's black, it moves through the water like a dream, no earthly impediments. It's gone. What was it? That's what people don't understand about marine biology—how extraordinary it is that we know what we know (and given all that we suspect is under the sea, believe me, we don't know much). How can you study something that you can't observe at length? How can you track data on a creature you didn't know existed a year ago? How can you truly get to know an environment that you can't live in, that you have to have all kinds of equipment even to spend time in? It's the miracle of my work—of our work—that we are able to know anything at all. The life beneath us is so unfathomable, and we treat it with such disdain. This Woods Hole job is a good one—I couldn't say no, and neither could my husband, Daniel. They offered us both these amazing fellowships, and this is Daniel's hometown. But how I miss the warm silence of that part of the Pacific, the things that would surprise me when they swam past my waiting shoulder.

The way I got into this work was through my love of the water. I've always known it was where I belonged. Given that I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, home of one of the least inspiring of the not all that interesting Great Lakes, I've had to work pretty hard to get to where I belong. But I did it. Right after college, my Stanford marine biology degree in hand, I got an unpaid internship at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago working with the marine mammals. I worked in a Starbucks at night and ate a lot of ramen noodles for those five months but I was the happiest I'd ever been. It was a lot of hauling heavy objects around, a lot of cleaning up, and a lot of tank maintenance, but I got to work with the dolphins sometimes and touch their smooth gray skin. They felt like heaven to me. And then, the miracle: When my twenty weeks were up, one of the full-time animal trainers quit and they asked me to stay on. This job allowed me to get to know the dolphins—their personalities, their quirks, everything about them. I loved them. I really did, almost like the way you'd love a person. It was easier to love them than to love a person.

The Shedd is spectacular. It was built in 1929. The ceiling is like that of a cathedral but it's covered with images of sea life instead of Jesus: simple, earnest paintings of starfish and turtles and whales. There are seashells in bas-relief and pillars everywhere; the whole building has that templelike grandeur that public buildings of that era have. Every day I walked in looking up over my head, open-mouthed, like a little kid.

The greatest thing about the job was getting to be in the water nearly every day. My favorite part was after I had all my dive equipment on. Rolling in backward and letting the water close over my head. The air coming into me from the oxygen tank on my back so that I was buoyed up and breathing even though there was water all around me. I would cut through it and the fish would swim up and hover around me like jewel-colored birds or butterflies over a field. I love breathing underwater but still being safe, held, protected. I love the weightlessness. I never feel that the rest of the time. Life weighs a ton. That's why I love the water. Nothing weighs anything there.

All the other women who had the gig were white, and they only had to snatch their hair back into messy ponytails before they dived. I had cornrows at the time; I hadn't yet seen that I had to cut off all my hair and let my head be free. It took me a year to realize it and to get up the nerve to deal with my mother's disapproval. But I finally did. After my first trip to the barbershop, I never looked back. I looked like a sculpture, a beautifully shaped piece of wood. I started to wear big earrings all the time when I wasn't diving—inexpensive silver hoops and flashy teenage-girl sparklers. Now I buy earrings at this shopping-mall chain where I'm usually at least ten years older than anyone else in there. I cut my hair myself once a week with clippers. Sometimes I run my hand over the short, assertive bristles up there and it makes a little shiver go down my legs. I'm never growing it back. Never.

Not too many black people work at Woods Hole (the official name is Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but no one calls it that). There are some black interns and postdocs, but I am the only black senior scientist there. It's always like that. Black scientists, particularly marine biologists, are very rare.

A lot of black people raised the way I was—in cities, which is most of us—don't like the water. Or perhaps I should say, they never find out whether they'd like it or not. Why? A million reasons dating back a hundred years: hair, money, time, lack of opportunity. It's a shame. I can't imagine what my life would be like if I'd never been given the chance to know the water. Thank God, my mother was different, though she didn't swim herself. We were off to the Y at a young age—but all she ever did at the pebbly freshwater beach of Lake Erie was worry that her hair was going back or getting blown around too much. And my father? He wore oxfords to the beach; we have photographic evidence. In the only picture we have of him on such a trip, his head is lowered and he is scowling at the sand. Not long after that photograph was taken, he stopped going at all. "Don't know what you see in it, Josie," he said. "Sand gets all up under your toenails and in your socks. Takes a week or two to get out, gets all over everything. Plus it's too damn hot. You can have it."

Tick never really got why I loved the water so much either. But he would always go with me. He went down to Lake Erie near our house with me almost whenever I wanted. He'd sift the rocks through his fingers and watch me gather up samples by the shoreline (I've done that since I was about eight—I used one of those dime-store buckets until my mother finally got me a proper collection set). After I got to be a really good swimmer and I was old enough to drive, he'd go out to the beach at Edgewater or sometimes even way out to Mentor Headlands with me, too. But he never wanted to spend the kind of time in the water that I did. He went because he loved me.

Daniel, my husband, is white. I don't know why I announce it except that it's the first thing you notice, especially around here, the two of us. People don't disapprove but they do notice. Well, here's the other reason I say it—because I notice it myself. I've been with other white guys. Not that many black guys, to tell the truth. Just one, in grad school. It didn't work out for a lot of reasons. But sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to make a life with someone who looked more like me, maybe had lived more like me. I know race isn't the way to make these decisions. But in my secret heart, sometimes, I just wish Daniel knew certain things, certain sounds, certain feelings, in a way that he just can't.

Unlike most of our colleagues, we actually live in Woods Hole. Having property is part of what made us decide to come. Daniel's mother died a few years ago and left him the house. His father was already gone—he died in a boating accident when Daniel was ten. The house needed a lot of work but is now worth quite a bit—when they were building the institute in the 1930s, land was fifty cents an acre. Daniel's parents didn't get it for that cheap—but it was cheap. Anyway, those days are long gone. For most of us scientists, who are hustling for grants when we aren't working on studies and who never get paid that well, this town is way out of reach. Many of my colleagues live in North Falmouth, about twenty miles away.

Anyway, Daniel. He is kind, precise, and quiet. I was drawn to those things about him. I try to be precise but it doesn't come naturally. He's a couple of years older than I am, an ichthyologist. He loves sorting species, classifying them. Me, I'm pleased to see a really rare specimen of something, but I'm not as moved by the idea of collecting.

Daniel's voice softens when he says fish names. Parrot-fish. Tarpon. Gar. Sometimes I think I married him because his voice softened in the same way when he said my name. Josie. Squirrelfish. Blue tang. He came along when I'd pretty much given up on men as a gender. I mean, they are the ones I prefer sexually—in college I was with women a few times, but it wasn't for me—but I found them impossible in every other way. I couldn't get them, their behaviors.

When Daniel came along, I was dating a bartender who enjoyed his wares a bit too much—our relationship was on its last, unsteady legs. I don't even quite know how I got involved with a guy like that. He was good in bed; he had the kind of authority that you sometimes find in men who don't think too much. That can keep you going for a while. But not forever. Daniel came along, same field, same smarts, those kind blue eyes that could not stop gazing at me. What could I say? What could I do? I went with him. I loved him. I mean, I love him.

We don't have kids. I'm thirty-six, so I know time is running out. I don't feel that frantic urgency that a lot of women do, though. I've never felt like my femaleness is tied up in whether or not I have offspring. To tell the truth, I'm not entirely sure that I want to have kids. Wait. The truth. The truth is, I know I don't want to. Daniel wants them. I don't. When we got married, I honestly thought I'd end up coming around. But I never did. Kids make me nervous. I'm afraid having kids would keep me from the water; I've never had the vision of a brown-skinned, perpetually tanned little fish baby that Daniel talks so wistfully about. I've blamed my unwillingness to pursue infertility treatments on the expense (which we really couldn't afford) and philosophical objections to the artificial manipulation of fertility, but that isn't really it. I'm afraid that I don't have enough to give, that I can't love a baby the way it needs to be loved. Sometimes I'm not even sure I have enough to give Daniel.

I wouldn't know what to say to a child really. How to raise it properly. How to tell it what life is really like. I think about that a lot. Being married, for example. They don't tell you how that's going to feel when you sign up for this deal. You think (well, you're supposed to think), "This is the one. All my troubles are over." That's what all the songs say, the Bible, your mother, your father. Everything points toward a permanent pairing—even though they so rarely work out. To tell the truth, permanent pairings are unnatural—as a biologist, I know that. "You're the one." "You're all I need to get by." "Together forever." It's all in there, that belief that if you find the right person and love them properly, you will never open your heart again. But I'm not sure that's true. How would I explain that to a kid? My mother wouldn't get it. I don't think she's touched a man, or been touched, since my father left—since she put him out—when I was seventeen. I don't know if she really still loves him. It's just that she can't conceive of there being someone else. I can.

There's this hollow place in me—this place that needs to be alone, this place that vibrates and can't sit still. My work requires me to be still; but sometimes, in my heart, I feel that toe impatiently tapping, waiting for the other shoe to drop, lonely, scared. I don't know how to explain that to anyone. I'm not sure how to explain it to myself.

I've been like this for as long as I can remember. Sure that it's never going to work out. Sure that it's all my fault. What is, you ask? Everything. Everything that's ever gone wrong in my life or the life of anyone I've loved. A therapist would say that's standard issue for someone who grew up like I did—classic adult-child-of-an-alcoholic stuff (yeah, I know the lingo). But so what? Given that, what the fuck am I supposed to do? I have to go on from where I am. That's why I don't look back. That's why I put it all behind me, put them all behind me, my family. They live in Cleveland. They don't understand about the ocean. And that means they don't understand about me.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate Copyright © 2011 by Martha Southgate. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 25, 2011

    Very Touching....Too Relatable...Personally

    This book was very hard to read towards the end. This book taught me to let go of the hurt and you can keep ppl out of your mind but not out of your soul. It was very relatable to me and it touched me sooo much.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2011

    Excellent--funny, insightful and moving

    Ms. Southgate has created a heroine who is fascinating--culturally, ethnically, personally and professionally. Her complex relationships with each family member feel real. Her dialogue made me laugh out loud and burst into tears. This author clearly knows the devastation of addiction in a close family. I read a lot of first novel fiction by women authors and this book is one of the best I have read in a long, long time. It will be on my holiday gift list for lots of friends.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 22, 2012

    Short and read in only a day and a half but such a good book! Th

    Short and read in only a day and a half but such a good book! The characters were something I could really relate to, especially between Josie and Daniel as I am going through some of the same things now. Such a great read. Very very touching

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2011

    Good read.

    This is the first book I read from this author. I really enjoyed it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2011

    Surprisingly good

    Martha did a wonderful job of telling the story from multiple sides

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 17, 2014

    A well written tome on a difficult and painful reality, addictio

    A well written tome on a difficult and painful reality, addiction, and it's unquestionable effects on a family.
    I thought the characters were well developed and enjoyed that the story was told from all the characters perspectives, in
     their own "voices".

    A good albeit sad read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2012

    Great Read

    The story started a little slow, but I found it hard to put down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2012

    Good read!

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