By James Braziel
Livingston Press: The University of West Alabama, 2021
Hardcover: $29.95; Paperback: $19.95
Genre: Short Fiction
Review by Edward Journey
James Braziel’s This Ditch-Walking Love is an impressionistic collection of short stories and sketches exploring themes of strife and defeat in rural Alabama, near the Locust Fork. The location is described as “not a county of rivers – just rills and rivulets that widen into creeks.” Some stories in the collection are hypnotic collages of time, as episode follows episode in an order that, while not always chronological, is always appropriate to the narrative.
By William Gay
Livingston Press, The University of West Alabama, 2021
E-Book: $19.95; Hardcover: $26.95
Review by Edward Journey
According to William Gay lore, when he first encountered a dictionary, he read it from cover to cover. A reader might reasonably speculate that he spent his writing career trying to use up all of those words. Here’s a horrible example: the protagonist “… screamed a cry of outrage and bereavement and utter revulsion as should have sent the fabric of night to whatever light lay beyond and stitched a momentary caesura in the clockwork of the world itself and then he fled blindly back into the night.” And here are some beautiful, and more typical, counterpoints: Gay describes an early spring as “blurred green motion” and, stopping for a drink on a woodland path, his protagonist finds a “deep cloistered coolness with a damp reek of peppermint.” Gay is at his best in his descriptions of overlooked natural environments which contrast with the ugly world of the downtrodden all around. The language is visceral and raw.
By Marlin Barton
Regal House Publishing, 2021
Paperback: $19.95; Special Edition Hardcover: $28.95
Genre: Fiction; Novel
Review by Frye Gaillard
With his latest book, Children of Dust, Alabama novelist Marlin Barton has taken his place with the finest Southern writers of our times – with the likes of Ron Rash or William Gay – and if anything, that is understating the case. When it comes to understanding the human condition, and its intricate intertwining with the history of our place, there is not a better writer anywhere.
Though I was intrigued by the synopsis of the novel, I began reading it skeptically. When Stars Rain Down is set in the summer of 1936 in Parsons, Georgia. The main character is Opal, a seventeen-year-old who longs to be a “typical” carefree teenager. Abandoned by her mother, Opal is raised by her Granny within the protective embrace of her family and community. Both Opal and her grandmother cook and clean for a white widow named Miss Peggy and her mentally ill daughter, Miss Corinne. This novel would offer the first time I’d seen a story told from Opal’s unique point of view: a teenage domestic worker.
When asked to review Francis X. Walter’s new book about his role as a pastor and activist in the Civil Rights Movement, I hesitated, knowing that Black civil rights activists are justifiably resistant to the narrative of the “white savior.” I needn’t have worried. The humility that permeates Francis X. Walter’s book, From Preaching to Meddling: A White Minister in the Civil Rights Movement, makes any apologia unnecessary. Walter is a modest, Mobile-born, Jesuit-educated Episcopal priest analyzing his role in addressing the wrongs of his predecessors and contemporaries. The memoir is about one man’s path through life and the many epiphanies he encounters along the way as he hones a fervent belief in equal justice and racial equity.
By Robert McKean
Livingston Press, 2020
Hardcover: $25.95; paperback: $18.95; e-book: $16.95
Genre: Short Fiction
Review by Edward Journey
The Appalachian foothill towns of western Pennsylvania were made mythic in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film, The Deer Hunter. Robert McKean’s collection of short stories, I’ll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town, brings the mythic down to earth again with intertwined stories of the more prosaic lives of Ganaego, Pennsylvania, his fictional and fading former steel town. I’ll Be Here for You is the 2019 winner of the Tartt Fiction Award, awarded by Livingston Press for a first collection of short fiction.
House-hunting for a move back to Birmingham in the spring, I passed the Southtown Court projects going toward the Expressway underpass on the way to look at a place in Highland Park. Just before the underpass, the Nick still stood in its converted convenience store location (“B’ham’s Finest Qwik Mart,” the sign used to say). My young realtor was waiting at the condo when I pulled up. “It’s good to know the Nick still rocks,” I said in greeting.
“Yeah, I’ve spent some time at the Nick,” he responded.
“So have I,” I said, and realized that my nights at the Nick predate my realtor’s birth.
Fourteenth Colony is a well-documented and researched exploration of British West Florida and its significance during the American Revolution. Bunn acknowledges in the Preface that “there are technically multiple competitors for the title of Britain’s fourteenth American colony, ranging from neighboring East Florida to several concurrent holdings in Canada.” His choice of West Florida, however, emphasizes the strategic value of the region and the many missteps the British made when they controlled the colony from 1763 to 1783.
Savannah, Georgia is a city filled with so much grace and Southern charm, the type of place with perfectly manicured front lawns and – quite literally – secrets in the attic: the perfect Southern gothic setting. For as much beauty and history as the city has, there’s also a sense of sadness and mystery tucked along its streets. Patty Callahan’s Surviving Savannah captures the lush and rich setting of Savannah, but doesn’t overlook that the city has a past filled with sorrow and pain. One traumatic event in particular – the tragedy of the steamship Pulaski – provides the backbone of Callahan’s narratives and leaves readers to question, “How will we survive the surviving?”
Not long ago, a food writer friend from “Up North,” who now lives in Atlanta, told me that, thanks to my online journal and Rick Bragg, she feels “less a Northern fish out of water.” I was flattered to be included in the company of Mr. Bragg, but felt unworthy. I also feared that Bragg, if he ever came across my journal, might scoff that I was one of “the posers, talkin’ about Roy Acuff with gelato on their breath.”
“Are we going to play around with our own little pettiness, prejudice and pride until it is too late to understand the significant things that are happening in the world?” Rev. Robert L. Archibald Jr. grappled with that question from the pulpit of Monte Sano Methodist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, in a sermon entitled “Too Late,” on the morning of September 15, 1963. Rev. Archibald would not have known that, as he was speaking those words, Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was reeling in the aftermath of a bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan. That bombing killed four young girls, injured twenty-two other churchgoers, and forever altered the narrative trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement.
Anyone who has spent any considerable amount of time in Alabama can attest to its breath-taking natural beauty. Those of us blessed enough to live here know that just a few steps from the front door, a scrawling wilderness of landscape and waterways teems with life. But what Ben Raines captures in Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System is the undervalued gem that is Alabama’s biodiversity and how close we are to losing this treasure.
My favorite passage in Frye Gaillard’s book, Live as if … A Teacher’s Love Story , sums up his wife Nancy Gaillard’s fearless and inquisitive approach to life. Nancy and Frye are on a trip to the city of Baku (in what is now Azerbaijan), which is under Soviet control at the time. Nancy impulsively leads Frye into the headquarters of Muslim radicals plotting the overthrow of Soviet control of their homeland. “Maybe we can learn about what’s going on,” she says. After the two are delayed from leaving for several hours, Frye tells Nancy, hopefully, “This will be a great story if we survive.”
On the surface, Like Light, Like Music, the unique debut novel by Lana K.W. Austin, is a printed text, but within it runs its own evocative, suggested soundtrack. The story is a mystery, of sorts, but no concrete answers are discovered; the mysteries only compound as the narrative of this tightly spun novel, set in Kentucky in 1999, unfolds. Austin draws from Kentucky and southern Appalachian folk traditions to create a strong sense of place and intrigue. The novel exhibits a prodigious knowledge of music from start to finish.
During what now feels like the early days of the pandemic, I read an advance copy of Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. I hadn’t been sleeping much and was in a reading rut, so my business partner handed me Transcendent Kingdom saying, “It reads like a prayer.” She was right. Transcendent Kingdom is a novel-length meditation on not knowing.