Posts Tagged ‘the South’

The title of Rachel Khong’s pithy first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin (Henry Holt, digital galley) doesn’t make sense until you read the book, and then it makes perfect sense. So do the neon-colored lemons floating on the cover. They’re as unexpected as this darkly funny story in which a daughter tries to make sense of her life even as her beloved and brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. Ruth, a 30-year-old medical sonographer recently jilted by her fiance, returns home for Christmas, and her frustrated mother asks her to stay for a year and help out with her father. An admired history professor, Howard Young is on a forced leave of absence from teaching because of his dementia, and he knows what’s going on — except when he doesn’t. Then he wanders off, throws plates against the wall, tosses pillows in the neighbor’s pool.  In a chronological series of vignettes, Ruth narrates events, everything from fixing nutritious meals full of cruiciferous vegetables (Howard calls them “crucified”) to joining with Howard’s grad students to convince him he’s still teaching a seminar. Brief excerpts from the journal Howard kept when Ruth was a little girl add smiles and depth. It’s a happy/sad story, heartfelt, semi-sweet. Not your usual summer book, perhaps, but one of my new favorites. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers.”

Superheroes play an integral part in Joshilynn Jackson’s eighth novel The Almost Sisters (William Morrow, review copy), which cements Jackson’s rep as a Superwriter. She knows how to pack a plot with quirky characters, realistic emotions and thoughtful observations on the Old South and the New. Here, self-confessed dork and successful graphic artist Leia Birch Briggs has a one-night stand with a costumed Batman at a comic-con and two months later realizes she’s pregnant. Just when she’s getting ready to tell her very Southern family that a bi-racial baby is on the way, her perfect stepsister Rachel’s marriage falls apart in Virginia and her 90-year-old grandmother Birchie reveals to her Alabama small town that she has full-blown dementia. With her teenage niece in tow, Leia heads to Birchville to size up the situation with Birchie and Wattie, her lifelong best friend and daughter of the family’s black housekeeper. It’s not good, and things get worse when old bones turn up in an attic trunk and the law comes calling. Then Batman reappears. Class, privilege, racism, family history, small-town norms: Jackson connects them all with panache. Superbook, and a summer selection of the SheReads online book club.

A summer camp in the Berkshires provides the setting for Mandy Berman’s first novel, Perennials (Random House, digital galley), billed as an evocative coming-of-age tale. Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin bond as campers at Camp Marigold, although Rachel is a city girl who lives with her single mom, and Fiona’s the middle child of a well-off suburban couple. Their friendship flourishes in the freedom of summer, but by the time they return as counselors after their freshman year, secrets have come between them. As to those secrets, Berman chooses to disclose them in flashback chapters told from different perspectives, including Rachel’s mother, Fiona’s younger sister and the middle-aged camp director who still sees himself as a young man. Then there’s an incident at book’s end that undercuts the credibility of the whole. Too bad. Berman is good at depicting the roiling emotions of teenagers and the rituals of summer camp, but the linked short story structure doesn’t work, and Perennials is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Five years ago, both first novelists Claire McMillan and Francesca Segal channeled Edith Wharton, with McMillan reinventing The House of Mirth in Cleveland, Ohio with her Gilded Age, and Segal transporting the plot of The Age of Innocence to a Jewish community in London via The Innocents. Their second novels find them moving in different directions, although there’s a distinct whiff of Wharton in McMillan’s entertaining The Necklace (Touchstone, library hardcover). In 2009, Portland lawyer Nell Quincy Merrihew arrives at the Quincy family home in Cleveland after her Great Aunt LouLou’s death. She and her cousins are surprised to find that the matriarch has made Nell her executor and also left her a gaudy necklace from India. When the necklace turns out to be a valuable antique that hints at an old family scandal, Nell has to fight for her rights as a true Quincy. In alternating chapters set in the Jazz Age, the Quincy family history unfolds with a doomed love triangle at its heart. The Necklace is fast-paced and fascinating, and I read it in one sitting. Segal’s The Awkward Age (Riverhead, digital galley) may borrow the name of a Henry James novel, but it’s a thoroughly modern drama of a blended London family. Julia and James are blissfully in love despite the resistance of Julia’s 16-year-old daughter Gwen, who can’t stand James nor his snarky 17-year-old son Nathan. Julia’s former in-laws and James’ first wife further complicate the new marriage, but they can’t compete with the storm of emotions unleashed when Gwen and Nathan hook up. Awkward, to say the least, but it makes for a good story.

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porchdogsI dreamed about my dog Doc last night. It was a good dream. I called his name and he broke away from a pack of lookalikes and came running. Then I was holding his wriggling  fur and he was licking my face. Just like old times.

Not sure what prompted the dream. Maybe because I’m still in South Carolina and Doc dearly loved the beach. Or it could be all the dogs I see around Edisto, a preponderance of labs — yellow, black, chocolate. But most likely it’s because I’ve been thumbing through Porch Dogs, a collection of great photographs by Nell Dickerson, with cool captions and commentary.

The foreword’s by Robert Hicks. He comes from “dog people,” and one of the handsome canines in the book belongs to him, full-named “Jake, the World’s Greatest Dog.” Like many others, I might take issue with that title, but as Hicks points out, I haven’t met Jake. He does look like a fine fellow — a mix of Rhodesian Ridgeback, Chow, Pit Bull, Golden and Lab. Actually, he reminds me of Doc, who was a Goldenlabrachowzoi (Golden, Lab, Chow, Borzoi). I expect they’d be pals.

Dickerson spent eight years photographing all kind of different dogs on Deep South porches of all kinds. Border collies Millie and Belle pose elegantly between white columns in Canton, Miss. Yorkshire terrier Teeny Baby is almost lost amidst the porch clutter in Natchez, Miss. An amiable pack of mixed-breed rescues patrol a porch that doubles as a clothesline in Meansville, Ga. The cover girl is Daisy, a Springer Spaniel sitting pretty atop the stairs in Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

Dickerson’s captions are wry short stories. You have to see them in juxtaposition with the photos to fully appreciate. “Ally loves books, but they don’t taste as good as they smell” goes with a solemn Labrador retriever- Australian sheep dog mix sitting patiently by a chair stacked with old books.

093Dickerson contends that air-conditioning finished off the Old South because it mostly did away with front porches and being neighborly. Where they can, dogs have taken over, “Sentinels of the South.” I sort of disagree. I miss my grandmothers’ porches and sitting out there in the evening, watching whoever was going down the street and listening to the stories my uncles spun. But if you want to be social in the South, you don’t need a porch if you have a dog. Walk with your dog and you’ll meet all kinds of folks. Of course, here at the beach we have great porches and great dogs. This is a picture I took of Doc at sunset a few years ago. Dream of a dog.

Open Book: I was predisposed to like Porch Dogs. Not only is it about three of my favorite things — dogs, porches, the South — it is published by John F. Blair, publisher of Caroline Cousins. I read a digital galley from edelweiss, but the dog people in my life will be getting copies for birthdays or Christmas, whichever comes first. You know who you are. Also, Blair is having a Porch Dog contest where you can send in your pictures of your pooch and win nifty prizes. Details at the website, blairpub.com

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Let us all give thanks to Peg Conroy. The mother of Southern writer Pat Conroy gave him the gift of reading as a child, a love for books and words and writing.

He pays tribute to her in the first chapter —  and really throughout — his new memoir, My Reading Life, recalling how she introduced him to Gone With the Wind when he was five and living in Atlanta, and took him and his siblings to the downtown Orlando library the year he was 10 and his military pilot father (“The Great Santini’’) was overseas. The Conroys lived in Orlando near their Harper family relatives.

  “To my mother,’’ he writes, “a library was a palace of desire masquerading in a wilderness of books.’’ He credits her and Margaret Mitchell’s epic for his becoming a Southern novelist.

 Readers of Conroy’s novels, including The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, are already familiar with their autobiographical underpinnings and Conroy’s word-drunk prose.  He mines much of the same territory here, but specifically relates how the books he read, and the teachers and mentors who recommended them, shaped his life as a writer.  The resulting stories are eloquent and entertaining, at times humorous, always heartfelt.

   “I take it as an article of faith that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever,’’ he proclaims, and goes on to expound on Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby, the works of Thomas Wolfe and James Dickey, the poetry he reads daily. He writes to explain his own life; he reads to lose himself in the lives of others. “I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading.’’

  People often talk about “gift books’’ for the holidays, thinking of those handsome tomes that look so lovely on the coffee-table. Well and good, but Conroy’s small book, with its celebratory stories of books and book people, reminds us that reading is the real gift. 

Open Book: I received an advance readers copy of Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life (Nan Talese/Doubleday) as part of a web promotion.  If you ever get a chance to hear Conroy spin his stories in person, count yourself lucky.  Talking to Pat about books and writing, and listening to him speak at various literary events over the years, are among the highlights of my journalism career.

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I’m happy to report that none of the mishaps in Marsh Madness by Caroline Cousins happened at the weekend wedding celebration of my cousin Aly on Edisto Island. Aly and Hunter were married under the arching oaks at Cypress Trees Plantation, and the heavens cooperated with sunny skies and then a spectacular sunset over the marsh. A good tidal creek breeze kept the gnats and mosquitoes at bay, and also provided blessed relief from the 90-degree heat for the 175 family and friends dressed to the nines.  There was beach music for dancing, fabulous food — including shrimp and grits — for feasting, assorted adult beverages for toasting, and lemonade for the young ‘uns. The bride was beautiful in one-shoulder, draped white satin. Cousin Cayden, age 3, agreed that Aly looked like a princess but was sad that “her dress was broken.”  As she noted seriously, “Aly only has one sleeve. I have two.”

Ok, that’s the kind of stuff you can’t make up, so the three Caroline Cousins kept their eyes and ears open for more possible book material. Oh, my. There was the chicken salad crisis before the bridesmaids’ luncheon on Friday. The caterer (new) only made enough for a dozen instead of two dozen.  Mild panic ensued before we sent the maid of honor to Main’s Market, where the nice cooks had just whipped up a batch for lunch. We added some grapes, and voila, chicken salad served in martini glasses all around. We also were dismayed that the specially ordered pimiento cheese biscuits had been downsized from regular to mini. We’d have asked for more if we’d known they were going to look like quarters!

The pecan tarts baked by the bride’s grandfather were a hit, although there was a distinct whiff when Aunt Boodie first brought in the plastic containers. “I smell fish,” Cousin Meg sniffed. I wrinkled my nose. “Me, too.” Aunt Boodie said the containers were brand new but did admit that they had been in a freezer full of fish. Happily, the tarts were not affected, and we banished the noxious containers to the laundry room, where the cocker spaniel puppy slept through most of the proceedings.

After the luncheon, Cousin Meg, who had done all the prep and all the flowers, paraded puppy Tilly for admirers. Cousins Janelle and Erin made short work of the clean-up, and I dried and sorted the silver. I could only find seven of my mama’s salad forks (a Gorham pattern no longer available but similar to Old Master), and was getting worried until I unearthed a mangled fork from the silver chest, victim of a long-ago encounter with a disposal.

There’s lots more, but I don’t want to give away what may become a book, or at least a short story. Did I mention that the Baptist minister’s named Buster? And speaking of names, I will not reveal which bridesmaid ended up going “commando.” Nor will I identify the author of the back-handed compliment, “Why you don’t look like yourself at all. You look beautiful!” 

 My favorite sight, after the wedding itself, was watching flower girls Maggie and Peyton, pictured here with maid of honor Rachel, tearing up the dance floor. Not to be outdone, ringbearer Lance tried to slam dance with his mother to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It!” Cousin Jay (husband and father) just shook his head and cuddled the newest member of the family, 4-month-old Lucy Charlotte. 

I have yet to see wedding photos, but Cousin Rachel took this picture the day Hunter proposed to Aly at the old Sheldon church ruins. Obviously, she said “yes.”

Open Book: Caroline Cousins insists once again that she writes fiction.

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I don’t know Rheta Grimsley Johnson, but I’ve been reading her feature stories and columns for years in Southern newspapers. In fact, there was a time when I wanted to be Rheta Grimsley Johnson when I grew up. I was a feature writer at a small Southern daily, and I dearly loved finding “human interest” stories and then, as Johnson puts it, “the tough but gratifying challenge of stringing words and facts together in a pleasing way.”

Johnson and I are roughly the same age, of that generation whose first Barbies were the first Barbies — the pony-tailed, top-heavy, long-legged models who came with a strapless black-and-white striped bathing suit, but who had all sorts of glamorous outfits you could buy. In her engaging new memoir Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, Johnson recounts the importance of Barbie to a growing girl back then, as well as other touchstones of her Southern childhood.

I can relate to a lot of it, from family trips in the station wagon to visit Southern Baptist relatives to the obsession with horses that resulted in a large collection of plastic ponies. She and her first husband actually owned and put out a weekly newspaper in the mid-1970s. It didn’t even last a year, but let let me tell you how many young journalism school grads had that dream and talked about it endlessly. So, yes, there’s a goodly dose of nostalgia for me in these pages, and you couldn’t ask for a better guide down memory lane than Johnson.

Still, Johnson’s life and its lessons are distinctly her own, and there’s pure pleasure to be had in following her down the unfamiliar roads as well. Originally she set out to write a book about Christmas, and then real life intervened, the way it does, and everything changed. That book didn’t get written, but this one did, and she loosely uses different Christmases to chart the heartline of her life and career over the years. 

And always, there’s the telling phrase and/or anecdote. A young nephew  is “the neatest little thing, to boot, like a self-cleaning oven.” The pressure of writing four columns a week for the Atlanta paper brings only a few hours of relief before “the hot whips of panic” ensue, as she worries about what to write next.

I’m not worried. Whatever Rheta Grimsley Johnson wants to write is fine with me. I’ll read it.

Open Book: Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming: A Memoir by Rheta Grimsley Johnson is published by NewSouth Books, which sent me a galley as soon as publisher Suzanne La Rosa found out I’d started writing again.

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