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Posts Tagged ‘Alabama’

Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.

 

 

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kimcrossKim Cross made me cry. Or rather her book did. What Stands in a Storm (Atria Books, digital galley) is subtitled “Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South’s Tornado Alley,” but I read it in hours, gripped from the very beginning:

“3:44 p.m., Wednesday, April 27, 2011 — Smithville, Mississippi

Patti Parker watched the dark funnel grow until it filled the whole windshield, blackening the sky. Its two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds were furious enough to blast the bark off trees, suck the nails out of a two-by-four, and peel a road right off the earth, and it was charging at sixty miles per hour toward everything she loved most in the world — her children, her husband, their home. She was racing behind the massive storm, down the seven-mile stretch of rural highway between her and the life she knew.”

My tears came later, when after reading through part one, “The Storm,”  I found out what happened to everyone in parts two and three — “The Aftermath” and “The Recovery.” By everyone I mean the people huddled in basements and bathtubs, the seasoned meteorologists who saw the storms coming, the college students crouched in stairwells, the dispatcher who stayed at her post, the motel clerk with the friendly smile, the stormchasers trying to decide to turn left or right, the passengers in the cars and the drivers of the semis beneath the highway overpasses, the staff at the threatened hospitals, the firefighters with the flattened trucks. As Rick Bragg notes in his introduction, Cross puts the human face on the drama and makes the numbers real: the 358 tornadoes that ripped through 21 states in three days, seven hours, eighteen minutes; 348 people killed, $11 billion in damage.

Now an editor-at-large at Southern Living and a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Cross is a superb reporter who cloaks the tick-tock frame with a specificity of detail and imagery. The ugly greenish sky is “the color of fear,” a family collapses in a huddle of “elbows and tears.” Trucks cartwheel through whipping debris and crumple like soda cans. “At the Wrangler plant, a flock of blue jeans launched into flight, flapping like denim birds.”

The response and reaction is heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Phones ring in the terrible silence. Neighbors help neighbors and strangers. Volunteers serve plate after plate of soul food. A wedding goes on without the maid of honor. A memory quilt is found because of a Facebook posting. A father with “kind, sad” eyes sits for five days next to the slab of the apartment building that buried his college student son. A trained black German shepherd named Cinco and a honey-colored retriever mix named Chance help find the body. People from all over send clothes, supplies, cash. “Japan sent Alabama eight thousand blankets, a thank-you gift for all the help Americans had sent in the wake of the March tsunami.”

These days it seems that natural disasters strike all too frequently: an earthquake in Mexico, a tsunami in Japan, a hurricane in the South Pacific, forest fires and mudslides and tornadoes. It’s possible that you might not be able to separate the Tuscaloosa tornado from the storm that struck Joplin, Missouri, in May of that year, or the one that hit Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013. There’s a forthcoming book by Holly Bailey about the Moore tornado, The Mercy of the Sky. I’m going to read that one, too.

Tornadoes scare me because they are so random and indiscriminate. What Stands in a Storm brings that home with a terrible immediacy. I was going to back into this post, begin with the years I spent in Kansas and tell you how funnel clouds still haunt my dreams. I was going to tell you about how I can look at a cloud bank like a bruise on the horizon and predict the sirens going off, about hunkering down and hoping and praying. But my experiences are puny compared to those I read about in What Stands in a Storm. What a powerful and poignant book. You might cry, too.         (more…)

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fannieReaders of Fannie Flagg’s novel Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! will no doubt remember Sookie Poole, loyal college roommate of TV morning show host Dena Nordstrom. Forty years later, the two are still close confidantes, but we learn a lot more about Sookie in Flagg’s welcome new dramedy The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion  (Random House, digital galley). For that matter, Sookie learns a lot more about Sookie, and thereby hangs Flagg’s tale.

Unlike her pal Dena, Sookie Krackenberry Poole of Point Clear, Ala., has always known her people. Sure, she’s the 60-year-old wife of dentist Earle and mother of three girls (all recently wedded) and one son (single). But she’s also the dutiful daughter of 88-year-old, still-going-strong Southern matriarch Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, who is obsessed with her Simmons forebears.  Although Sookie has “the Simmons foot,” she has always been a disappointment in the ancestor-venerating department, and Lenore has a hissy fit when Sookie suggests giving all the Simmons family silver to her sister-in-law Bunny.  “Who is not even a Simmons — and not even from Alabama?” cries Lenore. “Why don’t you just cut my heart out and throw it in the yard?”

So, of course, Sookie relents and promises not break up the set of Francis I and to be a better daughter and thus a better Simmons. But that’s before the registered letter from Texas arrives in the mail and Sookie discovers she also has ties to another family — the Jurdabralinskis of Pulaski, Wisc., a colorful Polish-Catholic clan.

As Sookie’s world turns topsy-turvy, Flagg shifts the narrative to 1940s Wisconsin, where the Jurdabralinski family run Wink’s Phillips 66. Before the war, eldest daughter Fritzi was a barnstorming pilot, but she’s grounded when her partner is drafted as  a flight instructor. Her brother and the garage’s male mechanics also have joined up, so Fritzi and her three sisters pitch in to keep the family business running and turn it  into a popular roadside attraction.

But as Sookie discovers, the all-girl filling station is just one chapter in spirited Fritzi’s adventures. She becomes a Fly Girl, a member of the all-female WASPs, who fly transport and support missions for the Air Force during World War II, and two of her sisters follow suit.

Readers may think they know where the story is headed — and they may be right — but this journey to home truths offers delightful detours, from Sookie secretly meeting a psychiatrist at the Waffle House, to Fritzi outflying a condescending male pilot at a Texas airfield. Just as Fritzi’s a pro at barrel rolls, Flagg’s a whiz at loop-de-loops. Hang on, Sookie!

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Southern belles are nothing if not resourceful. Scarlett O’Hara set the bar high when she turned those green velvet curtains into a fancy ballgown. Then there was Aunt Lucille in Mark Childress’ 1993 novel Crazy in Alabama, who came up with an unconventional use for Tupperware as she headed for Hollywood. Now, there’s Georgia Bottoms — not a place but a person — and the title character in Childress’ new Southern- fried funhouse of a tale.

A thirtysomething beauty who lives with her mother and younger brother in the old family home, Georgia  sits in the same pew at the Baptist church every Sunday and hosts a lavish ladies’ luncheon each September. She knows that keeping up appearances in Six Points, Ala., means keeping secrets. Like Little Mama is losing her mind but not her racist attitudes. Like Brother is a lovable loser who slips out for a beer after AA meetings. Like the quilts Georgia sells for a huge markup aren’t her own handiwork. That she’s living off the “gifts” of six gentlemen callers, each of whom she entertains on a strictly scheduled night of the week in the garage apartment. Not a one knows about the other. 

“It takes a special kind of woman to slip out of her own skin into a man’s fantasy, then back into herself, night after night without losing track of who she was. Sometimes she had to be the most sensitive, sharp-seeing person on earth. Other times it was better to be blind. It took Georgia years to learn this.”

Georgia is the very soul of discretion. Which is why she is aghast one Sunday morning when her Mr. Saturday Night — the preacher — stammers at the pulpit, apparently intending to confess his sins to the congregation. The wheels are about to come off Georgia’s little red wagon, her life careening out of control, unless . . . What would Scarlett do?

Georgia’s immediate and successive plans to rescue herself from scandal call on all her resources in the days to come and the years ahead.  It also provides for one laugh-aloud set piece after another as Childress, who grew up in Alabama and now lives in Key West, expertly skewers Southern manners and morals, lingering issues of class and race. 

 The town doctor experiences embarrassing side effects from the little blue pill he pops. The FBI hauls off Brother as a suspected domestic terrorist.   Little Mama’s pellet gun peppers a couple of deputy sheriffs. A lanky young black man from New Orleans with familiar good looks shows up at Georgia’s door.

Childress’ characters are comic without being cartoonish, and Georgia’s stubborn self-interest makes her more than a high-class call girl with a heart of gold. Early in the story, when the events of 9/11 derail her luncheon, her attempts to give away the party food offend a pediatrician who later runs for mayor against Georgia’s best friend, who blames her.

Georgia doesn’t pay much attention to life beyond Six Points, but Childress does, and the pay-off is an ending just so appropriate for this blithe belle that you’ll be sorry to see her in the rear-view mirror. Georgia Bottoms  is a keeper.

Open Book: I first met Mark Childress years ago when I interviewed him about his novel Tender,  about a Southern boy with a big voice and certain similarities to an icon who has left the building.  These days we keep up on Facebook. I bought the e-book version of Georgia Bottoms (Little Brown), which is a spring Okra pick from SIBA.

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