Though my childhood memories take the form of Mrs. Winner’s on Parkway East in Birmingham and Popeye’s in a Florida suburb, the homemade chicken Emily Blejwas describes in The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods makes my mouth water. The crispy crust. The tender meat that crust gives way to. (I always preferred dark meat.) It’s simple but, in my mind, it’s a symbol of family gathering. Read more...
“I was just calling to tell you I’m going to be fine. I love you, baby.”
The rest of that conversation is fuzzy now. I believe my father and I spent a half hour or so talking about football—the college season would kick off a week later—and rock music, both among our favorite topics since I was a teenager. I sat on my balcony during that phone call, enjoying a pleasant, late-summer Sunday in Birmingham while my father was confined to an intensive care unit in Florida. I don’t think we discussed much of significance, beyond briefly touching on the unexpected surgery he would undergo the next day.
But I know for certain he ended that call, as he always did, by reminding me of his love.
It was the last time I would hear his voice. Read full review...
Wildcrafting: And Other Stories I Share Only with My Friends
By Jerry L. Hurley
Mid-Atlantic Highlands; Publisher's Place, 2017
Genre: Memoir; Appalachia
Reviewed by Jennifer A. Sheffield
Jerry L. Hurley starts his book about a personal Appalachia—Wildcrafting: And Other Stories I Share Only with My Friends—by penning a love letter to the men, and women still listening in on the what the neighbors have to say in his hometown of Mammoth, West Virginia. He then prepares an uncanny trip to exhume bodies left behind when he left the places where his family’s roots “spread deep in the mountain soil.” He wants us to not only laugh about strange things that take place within these pages, but to be wrapped in the warmth of his relatives while becoming more in tune with the natural worlds we almost can touch at the close of this collection of memories.
Hurley’s young life in Mammoth was innocent – like a fly on a cracker, and his unapologetic accounts of growing up are accelerated by boyhood hijinks and packed with unmuted tales of crazy uncles and his great granny, brewed in an aged barrel of folksy wisdom. But it is the hard work of wildcrafting—defined as a walk in the woods to seek and gather plants for food or medicinal purposes—that forms the maternal bonds that truly define this upbringing bound to a landscape.
The first selection he unpacks begins with a frontispiece poem, about a morel mushroom, entitled, “Molly Moochers.”
We carefully picked them, each a treasure indeed,
and we took what we needed with no thought of greed.
These golden fried treasures fit for a king
are a succulent herald of what Spring can bring.
His prose shows us what gets hidden in the “deep, shaded places” of his twilight mind serves a purpose for the picker where everyone gets by on meager means and children are tattered with cuts and scrapes resulting from the fun and games they’ll live to tell about. Hurley sets the tone for mischief to ensue throughout each chapter, in which he captures lessons learned on the countryside of life, carefully contained inside a capsule of a child-like mind.
He compares the 1930’s and 1960’s as historical times that hadn’t changed in desperate coal mining towns; where one dollar got him a trip to the pool and a soda pop. This is where unlikely friendships crossed socially acceptable race divides and railroad tracks as his family moved him back and forth from Cleveland, Ohio, before settling again in the familiar hollows of his obscure heritage. Planted there once more, his epic tales of a drunken cow, Halloween pranks, plus exploding frogs, deftly compliment grown-up musings on prejudice, mental illness, the 1945 attack on Pearl Harbor, and homespun religious miracles.
Hurley’s “family quilt” is stitched with intimate moments recording birth and death, and a mother’s yarns. The beauty of Hurley’s rhymes and riddles is how he writes about raising eight kids on a moonshine budget with the same grain of salt as he would a road trip in a beat-up car. The hardest lesson learned is as satirical as it is serious. According to Hurley, you have to bury bodies of fresh frogs if you want to eat the legs. In other words, get the worst over with; then, savor what’s good. “I’d eat them again…whenever I had the chance,” he writes, “…even if I had to bury more bodies.” It’s another poem, near the end of the book, about his Aunt May’s weathered feelings for her late husbands that sums up this sentiment.
I like ‘em close so as to put flowers on their graves,
without causin’ too much trouble at my age.
Wipe your feet good and come in
while I put on some coffee.
Ultimately, Hurley’s prose is an invitation for readers to join a journey back through moments both “poignant and jubilant.” Here is vivid picture of a bygone era through the lens of youth, spent under the watchful eye of both forest critters and the memorable characters of a small mining town. Hurley shows us how nature’s bounties provide for those seeking God, and lets us experience revival-sized amounts of amazing grace by letting us into the growing up he did. His pungent description of cooked mushrooms—but also how blackberries get picked in spring and ginseng dug in the fall—becomes a guidebook to all of life as a great adventure.
Just as we must be born to be able to die, the seeds we sow and shots we take go with us, as if we are just passing through. Hurley believes that the secret is not to forget how the forest floor feels under your feet, because without it how else would a person have stories worthy of sharing with her friends. He ends one particular story about blocking the road on a Halloween night, “Oh, we all went our separate ways soon enough, and chose various paths in life.” “But,” Hurley says, “I recall things done in my youth with friends that I will always remember fondly and with good reason.”
Jennifer A. Sheffield studied journalism at Boston University after obtaining a BA degree in Anthropology from Skidmore College. Florida Sportsman, The Chronicle of the Horse, The Albany Times Union, and the Apalachicola Times, have published her stories. She lives in Alabama where she writes an entertainment column for The Eufaula Tribune.
Grandeur of the Everyday: The Paintings of Dale Kennington
Edited by Daniel White, et al
Trade Cloth $29.95, E-Book $29.95
Reviewed by Jason Gordy Walker
In Grandeur of the Everyday, contemporary realist Dale Kennington captures transformative moments within seemingly mundane scenes, giving her audience access to the overlooked intimacies of daily living. The book covers the major works of her career and features an introduction to the artist by Daniel White, a lively interview by Kristen Miller Zohn detailing Kennington's idiosyncratic process, and an engaging essay by Rebecca Brantley discussing this American master's background, her greatest motifs, and inspirations, such as Parisian café culture and modern architecture. Kennington paints human subjects with an objective yet sympathetic eye, aiming for the accuracy of photography while simultaneously inserting her own subjectivity. Many of her works, especially those depicting one or two human subjects or an unoccupied space, recall the atmospherically lit scenes of Edward Hopper. Indeed, like Hopper, Kennington presents the mysteries of the quotidian without falling into banality, and her success relies as much on her love of local and global communities as it does on her technical prowess.
One of Kennington's best paintings, Passing Ships, presents a vision of the ideal café, one where everyone shares the same physical space despite the fact that each person is on a different path in life. The painting presents a life-affirming frame around the stories that each of these café people represent. The emotion in their faces and their postures suggests the possibility of rich inner lives. Kennington conveys a lightness in tone as she accurately paints rays of sunlight over the tops of a table, a beam, a chair. However, the artist lets the viewer decide what each café person represents; it is such fruitful ambiguity that helps Kennington persuade her viewers to finish the painting, so to speak, for her. Admirers of Passing Ships will also find similarities of theme and tone in A Little Time and Space, which considers the pleasure of privately reading while sharing space in public with a stranger.
Kennington's passion for painting public scenes reaches its zenith with Friends and Neighbors, a photorealistic piece showing the Ku Klux Klan in full uniform during the daytime. The artist's use of light is telling; the effect being that many of these terrifying racists are otherwise so-called normal people, perhaps the neighbors we greet at church on Sunday morning or the teenager who walks our dog to earn cash for the weekend. By showing with honesty the racism present in her time, Kennington directs us to consider the destructive impact that racism has had on our current version of America, forcing even the most casual viewer to feel a flurry of emotions including anger, grief, outrage, or sorrow.
In her later period, Kennington began painting with oil on large wooden panels, juxtaposing quiet architectural scenes on the verso with busy, human-filled pictures on the recto. For example, in Ritual for the Dead, the viewer experiences the foreboding silence of an empty, snowy graveyard on the verso before they are lost in the crowd of well-dressed funeral attendees on the recto. Beware of the Dog continues this ironic approach as it presents a lone black dog who seems to be immersed in the art on the wall of an upper-tier museum; meanwhile, on the other side of the frame, a large crowd mingles at the museum's entrance. The whole piece acts as a critique on art culture, suggesting with a wink that an innocent dog knows more about art than the beautiful people do.
In Grandeur of the Everyday, Kennington's major works speak for themselves. Her knowledge of place--the Deep South, as well as Europe, particularly France--informs her every creation. She produces accessible and refined art, juxtaposing interior and exterior spaces to produce myriad tones and undertones. Many of her paintings are based off of her own photographs, and any serious fan of realism ought to find something to admire in them. Her attention to anatomy is astonishing, too, as exemplified in the few nudes included in the book, not to mention the imaginative portraits scattered throughout the volume. Likewise, no detail is spared when she paints objects such as lamps, posters, tables, chairs, towels, vehicles, and so on. The state of Alabama is lucky to have Kennington as a model artist--and, with this book, her legacy is confirmed.
Jason Gordy Walker's poems and stories have been published in Measure, Confrontation, Monkeybicycle, Poetry South, Hawaii Pacific Review, Broad River Review, Town Creek Poetry, and others. Recently, he received scholarships from the West Chester Poetry Conference and Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference.
Published in the year that constituted the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Frye Gaillard’s Hard Rain takes a voluminous approach to the jam-packed decade that brought both men to prominence. Loaded with facts, insights, and anecdotes, which are presented in a smooth-flowing narrative style, Gaillard’s look-back at the 1960s, comprised of seventy-two chapters separate into three sections, offers readers a thick but not overwhelming mixture of the well-known and lesser-known events and people that changed America.
Considering that a gracious plenty of qualified writers, journalists, and historians have written whole books on just one aspect of this turbulent decade – one politician or one movement – Hard Rain’s prospectus is a daunting one: to cover America in the ’60s. Looking at the physical object – the book itself – before I began reading, I could see that the author had certainly tried. Also before reading, its sheer heft caused me to do what most folks would do: I flipped to the end to see how many pages this one had— the actual text ends on 625, followed by sixty more pages of end notes and index. Yet, my initial apprehension about its length was eased when I started reading and found this goal in the preface: “As future generations debate the meaning (I also seek to do some of that here), I hope to offer a sense of how it felt.” If this book were a dense, heavily cited, academic work of the same size and scope, the slog through it could have been unpleasantly slow and arduous; but that isn’t what Frye Gaillard has done here. This one, by contrast, has humanity and warmth, two qualities that augment the historical substance and allow for smoother reading.
The first of Hard Rain’s three parts is titled “Possibilities” and covers 1960 through 1963. Gaillard begins with a somewhat inauspicious name, Franklin McCain, who, along with three other student-activists, staged the first sit-in in North Carolina. It then goes from zero to sixty in a matter of moments, shifting our attention next to James Lawson and the protests in Nashville, then in chapter two to the music of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and Joan Baez, and the groundbreaking book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. In the chapter three, John F. Kennedy comes on stage, led by a brief discussion of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. Chapter four then describes the FDA’s approval of the “the pill,” Timothy Leary’s endorsement of LSD, Barry Goldwater’s insistence on conservatism, and the Supreme Court’s ruling on desegregating interstate travel. And yet, there are fourteen more chapters in Part I—which cover such dizzyingly diverse subjects as the Freedom Rides, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the suicide by fire of Thich Quang Duc, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, and the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Of course, the ending demarcation for this period of “possibilities” is the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.
The second section of Hard Rain is governed by Lyndon Johnson and titled “Inspiration/Loss.” I began Part II with a deep breath, after reading the years on the title page: 1964 through 1968. Then Frye Gaillard’s words carried me through them like a panoramic guided tour. On the political front, the heart of the decade brought two distinctly different Southerners into national prominence – Texas’s Lyndon Johnson and Alabama’s George Wallace. On the musical front, the nation got Motown and The Beatles, as well as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” songs that Gaillard writes are “part of a musical canon in America intended to call attention to our flaws.” This was a time when the Civil Rights movement matured even further, resulting in 1964’s Freedom Summer and 1965’s Selma-to-Montgomery March, two events that foreshadowed landmark federal legislation those same years. Page by page, Gaillard introduces us to activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Allan Lowenstein, Conservative Phyllis Schlafly, author Alex Haley, martyrs Malcolm X and Jimmie Lee Jackson, evangelist Billy Graham, and communist leader Ho Chi Minh. As the narrative rolls on, Hard Rain apprises us of the complicated escalation in Vietnam, the resonance of The Sound of Music, the ascent of Robert F. Kennedy, and the emergence of Black Power. It was during these years when stark contrasts dominate, in the voices of educator Jonathon Kozol and TV personality Fred Rogers, in the imagery from the musical Hair and the film In the Heat of the Night. This middle section of the book is the most substantial and comprehensive, containing more than forty chapters, and with good reason: there’s a lot to talk about.
By the final section of Hard Rain, the narrative enters the Nixon presidency, and this shortest section of the book carries us out through the banner year: 1969. The opening chapter, titled simply, “President Nixon,” begins with his inauguration and includes this statement on the second page: “It was an ugly time in America, and the ugliest part was the war that felt like a nightmare with no end.” After nine years of protests, killings, experimentation, consequences, backlash, and war, Vietnam was raging, Black Power and feminist activists were speaking out, and the Stonewall Riots went down. There was the peace and love of Woodstock on the one hand, and the murderous lunacy of Charles Manson on the other. And who could forget the moon landing?
Though he does interject his own asides periodically throughout the book, Gaillard ends Hard Rain on a personal note, in the chapter titled “Redemption.” Here, he discusses his own journalistic work with Nashville’s Race Relations Information Center, where he volunteered to work with Native Americans. And as the main text of the book reaches its end, the author shares this, for modern readers to ponder: “History did not stop as the 1960s came to an end, nor did the great American schizophrenia, that cleavage in our national heart and soul that had come so painfully into sharper focus.”
Hard Rain articulates a great deal about the “decade of hope, possibility, and innocence lost” by framing this massive narrative within the experience of one young man who was raised as the son of judge in Mobile, attended Vanderbilt in Nashville, and became a journalist and author himself. The book’s holistic treatment does provide readers with a sense of “how it felt” to live through such an invigorating and exhausting decade. In the spirit of the Pete Seeger tune, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is discussed in chapter 31, there is a time for everything, and Hard Rain indicates that this must be Frye Gaillard’s time for reflection.
Foster Dickson is a writer, editor, and award-winning teacher in Montgomery, Alabama. His new book Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post-Civil Rights Montgomery was published by NewSouth Books in 2018.
Since December 3, 2018, was the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s television “comeback special” when Elvis’ dead career arose like a black leather clad phoenix from ashes reborn, and since NBC plans a two-hour primetime special tribute to the 1968 special sometime in the first half of 2019, now seems like the perfect time to take another look at mid-century modern Elvis to discover some of the newer Elvis fan fiction. Mark Childress’ Tender is a great place to start to pique one’s interest, and Mike Burrell’s Land of Grace would have to come next.
First of all, the book is a wry, fun read, a burlesque novel that begins as a picaresque. Burrell claims the idea for the novel came years ago when the host of a party asked him to drive home a female guest whose ride had deserted her. Burrell says he drove until he felt sure he would be lost, trying to find his way back to civilization, and once they arrived at the woman’s home, she invited Burrell to come inside. After seeing many pictures of Elvis on the walls and a three-foot-tall Elvis statue with votive candles lit in front of it, Burrell tried to make polite conversation about Elvis’ death. The woman’s reply was to scream, “Elvis is not dead!” The detail never left Burrell’s memory.
To tell the plot of even the first fifty pages of Land of Grace is somewhat of a spoiler, and anyway seeing the story unfold through Doyle Brisendine’s eyes is the greatest delight of many in the novel’s first half. Doyle is a self-styled Elvis impersonator from San Angelo, Texas – a man with no family to speak of but decent good looks and a voice too much like Elvis’ to be a big success otherwise in the music industry. And as good as Doyle is at impersonating Elvis, his fan base is growing older and his work van is perhaps the only thing keeping Doyle from being homeless. When he gets an offer of six thousand dollars to perform at the AMVETS in Willow Ruth, Alabama, Doyle shows up and gives the audience a solid performance. Even the reader most casually aware of the facts of Elvis’ life will begin to recognize eerie details. The man who shows up to manage the stage details is named Parker, Colonel Parker, in fact. As Doyle falls down the rabbit hole, we become aware that the part of North Alabama between Birmingham and the Tennessee River is the perfect place to hide a many-thousand acre Elvis-era Brigadoon.
Without revealing too many plot details, I simply will say that the reader has some hilarious burlesque characters to look forward to, not the least of whom is Mama, a woman who looks like Vestal Goodman in a housedress but can preach to her mega-church on Sundays like a fired-up Joyce Meyer—and she can write like a good imitation of one of the Apostles in a King James translation voice. We do not get Mama’s back story until several chapters after her introduction, but she is not the simple Gladys Presley wannabe she appears to be upon first glance.
And of course, for those of us steeped in Christianity Alabama-style, Burrell has not been unobservant of the multiplicity of Alabama religions. The mega-church, the Sunbeam Sunday school class, the Good News, the Resurrection, the Ceremony of the Scarves, the King, God’s promise to unite the Children and take away all their sins: Burrell’s mash-up of New World Christianity and pop culture will keep the reader turning from one page to the next. The final third of the novel may offer some surprising directions, but the burlesque-cheesy quality never waivers. There is never a scene in which characters remove clothing that the reader will not be thinking, Please, please, keep it on.
By the end of the novel, you will understand a little bit more about this insane ruined beautiful bizarre illogical place called Land of Grace (and, by extension, what makes much of the State of Alabama tick.) This is a meta Elvis novel you will want to read and then share.
My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy
As Told to Katherine Clark
University of South Carolina Press , 2018
Reviewed by Alan L. Samry
Pat Conroy is blunt, beyond candid, and bordering on bombastic, and if you’re a Conroy fan already, My Exaggerated Life, an oral biography told to Katherine Clark, is a deep and honest look inside the man behind the persona of some of the south’s best autobiographic fiction.
Oral biographer and Alabama’s own, Katherine Clark, conducted more than 200 hours of conversations, mostly phone calls, before Conroy died in 2016. In My Exaggerated Life, Clark has masterfully culled Conroy’s tales of surviving childhood abuse, attempted suicides, and his lack of self-esteem into a voice, that arrives through the act of writing and years of therapy, with a greater sense of self. For Conroy this was a chance to let readers know the importance of telling his story, not letting other people censor his life and stories, and to tell stories that help writers.
Surprisingly, Conroy published his own first book, The Boo, through a vanity press. Even back then he was driven to tell his story, and it also helps him learn the ins and outs of publishing for his next book. Telling his story wasn’t easy, especially early on. The only time the beatings from The Great Santini stopped was when the military called. “I loved it when dad was called overseas...Carol (sister) and I used to pray for war every year,” is how Conroy tells it.
Only someone stricken with fear, shame, and low self-worth can write, “Emotion more than thought has ruled my life, and this is how I have screwed up my life.” Somehow he casts some of that fear and shame out with each book. Despite, or because of all these forces working against him, Conroy found and developed his writing voice, and Clark’s book is his exclamation point.
From his book The Water is Wide, or from his actual life, the lines are often blurred in this oral approach, he mentions the letter to Superintendent Trammel regarding the African American students he was teaching on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. “You told me their schools were separate but equal. It’s the biggest lie ever told in the South,” Conroy points out, later adding he was fired for, “supporting black people and liking black people.”
As for The Lords of Discipline, or in other words, his time at The Citadel, he harshly concludes, “It was institutional brutality, a complete anarchy of abuse.”
Throughout the book he peppers readers and writers not to censor their stories or to be censored by others. Don’t be afraid, he says. “Everything is working against writers fully letting themselves flower unto themselves.” In other words, be brave. Or this gem about a letter he wrote to The New York Times, “If you make it better, you’re a good editor. If you make it worse you’re a bad editor. If you take out stuff that’s important, you’re a censor.”
Conroy started out as poet, but he became a novelist and unashamedly, an author of biographical fiction, memoir, and even autofiction. Yet he remained a champion of all writing, especially the screenwriter. “I think it’s good for a writer to do a screenplay, because you learn a lot.” In Conroy’s case, he earned a lot, not just writing screenplays but selling the movie rights for The Water is Wide and The Great Santini allowed him to continue to write more novels.
Conroy, the reader learns, was impressed with Clark’s two earlier oral biographies on Mobilian Eugene Walter and Alabama midwife, Onnie Lee Logan. Clark takes the elements of Conroy’s free-flowing and revealing narratives and effectively compresses all the drama in his life, the mad, sad, funny, shameful way he led his life, so readers discover an honest, compelling life with cursing and humor, mostly the self-deprecating type.
Readers, much like this reviewer, may wonder where Clark’s Conroy recordings will end up. Mostly likely, they will be archived at the University of South Carolina, with the rest of his papers. Since listening is the new reading for many, perhaps an audio version of the “fat rhinoceros-like man” is forthcoming so everyone can share Clark’s experience of listening to the stories of a mostly southern life, as only Conroy’s inimitable voice can tell us.
Whether or not an audio version emerges, we’ve not read the last of Clark, as she’s become adept in her genre. By capturing Conroy’s stories, she’s a resurrectionist, of sorts. Of shifting from a teaching career to writing, Conroy writes, “By not teaching, I lost something from my life.” Thanks to Clark, and unbeknownst to Conroy, readers and writers can still learn a lot from one literary man’s exaggerated life.
Reviewed by Katie Jackson
How in the world does one write well about an exceptional piece of writing?
That was the dilemma faced by Davis Raines and Frye Gaillard when they agreed to pen a song about the book To Kill a Mockingbird. It was also the quandary I faced when trying to write a review of Mockingbird, the album that song inspired. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Kirk Curnutt
Nonfiction isn’t a simple matter of telling true stories. The art of the genre lies in the motifs through which the narrative is staged. Scores of writers have attempted to share their experiences only to discover that facts alone fail them. The memoirs that mean the most, by contrast, are about words as much as events. They dramatize the act of making meaning, often by resorting to what may seem the most unrelated of symbols and metaphors. By any measure, Wendy Reed has a compelling story to share. On May 28, 1996, her Mitsubishi Montero hydroplaned off I-65 at mile marker 251.7, striking an oncoming 1988 Camry. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Bebe Barefoot
Tantra Bensko describes her work as “experimental literary fiction that looks behind the eyelids,” but to anchor yourself as you join her on a journey through the universe of the sub-conscious, you need only look behind her name.
“Tantra,” or tantric practice, aligns microcosm with macrocosm and makes the ordinary the transportation of choice for reaching an extraordinary that was always already there. Like her experimental forefather, William Blake, Bensko sees “…the world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wildflower.” Read the complete review…
By Jule Moon
Southern Oaks Publishing, 2011
Mixed Genre (Poetry, Short Fiction, Vignette, Memoir)
Reviewed by Anita Miller Garner
Virginia Woolf in “A Room of One’s Own” noted the historical absence of women telling the stories of their own lives. Women’s stories—if mentioned at all—were told sketchily by others. Initially inspired to gather fragments of her own life story for the anthology Writing Mobile Bay: The Hurricane Project, Jule Moon continued to work with and be inspired by other writers in the Fairhope, Alabama, area. The result is a pleasing, artful patchwork of memories, poems, short stories, and vignettes that capture some of the moments of what it was like to live a life as a twentieth century American woman in the American South. Read the complete review…
By: P. T. Paul; Foreword by Frye Gaillard
Reviewed by: Jim Murphy
The familiar magic of jubilee on the Alabama coast, that sudden inversion of the natural order of things in the water that depletes its oxygen and sends its life forms scrambling onto the shore, is a guiding metaphor for P.T. Paul’s To Live and Write in Dixie. As on a jubilee night when strangeness and wonder mingle on the beach, and the ocean’s secrets are visible for all to see in profusion, Paul’s book is a wildly diverse, entertaining collection, intertwining accomplished literary poetry and prose, autobiography, historiography, cultural studies, and good old fashioned yarn spinning to create a vibrant, intertextual engagement with her central concerns: What does it mean to be both of and apart from the South, working through all its contradictory wonders and tragedies?