The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop
© 2020 Fannie Flagg
304 pages

One of my favorite movies growing up was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe: why on Earth this movie became a favorite in my very sheltered household, I cannot say; it was a story of a woman struggling to find a path forward for herself, of the interesting relationship between two women in the ’30s of Alabama, of Klansmen and murders and possibly cannibalistic barbecues — not exactly family friend stuff. I most loved it for the character of Imogene “Idgie” Threadgoode, whom I’d call an irrepressible tomboy if that didn’t feel like a disservice to her character; Idgie was no one to be boxed, labeled, and dismissed. I read the book that the movie was adapted from in high school, and recognized the story though I found its presentation in the book to be…fragmentary and disjointed. Fannie Flagg adopts that same odd style for its sequel, The Wonder Boy of Whistle-Stop.

If you’ve never encountered the book, or the movie, it’s two intertwined stories that intersect in the small town of Whistle Stop; of the extraordinary bond shared by two women, Idgie & Ruth, as they survive the death of the man who brought them together, Idgie’s brother and Ruth’s husband. — and become parents to Ruth’s son, as they run a cafe together, frustrated the Klan, and possibly kill a man. Their tale, unfolding in the thirties, is told decades later by Idgie’s sister-in-law Ninnie, who encounters a down-in-the-dumps woman (Evelyn Couch) and seeks to inspire her by Idgie’s example. (Now, I haven’t read the novel since high school, so it’s liable I’m mixing it with my impression of the movie.) Wonder Boy is a sequel in that it follows the lives of several Fried Green Tomato characters, chiefly Ruth’s son Bud and Idgie herself — but it also revisits the original story. Because of the fragmentary narrative style, we bound from 1930s Whistle Stop to 2009 Atlanta with the turn of a page, there and back again, going back and forth and seeing our main characters as they are and as they become; Bud as a small child, Idgie his doting aunt/co-mother; Bud as an old man with grandchildren, and Idgie a distant memory. I’ve watched the film so many times over the years that only a gentle stir was needed to bring everyone to life again. Frankly, I’d forgotten that Evelyn Couch was even in the original book, but here she plays a much more active role, no longer the spellbound hearer of Ninnie’s tale. In fact, she plays a lyinchpin role in the novel’s almost too-perfect ending, in which all the loose ends are tied up and every tear dries. It’s sweet to the point of saccharine, but sometimes there’s a need for that.

Those who are familiar with the characters and the story of the original book will find themselves right at home; it’s messy but fun, and filled with characters both known and loved. It’s left me wanting to revisit the original novel, and soon!

Incidentally, I recently paid a visit to the the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe. Unlike Whistle Stop, Irondale AL is not deserted; it has instead become a suburb of Birmingham. The cafe was run by three women in its original heyday, and is incredibly popular still today. I was there when the doors opened, and when I’d finished some of the best fried green tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, the line was out the door.

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Where I Come From

Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South
© 2020 Rick Bragg
256 pages

“I write about home so I can be certain someone will. It is not much more complicated than that.”

What a joy Rick Bragg is to read! A native son of Alabama, Rick Bragg is a journalist-turned-folklorist in the tradition of Kathryn Tucker Windham, who here collects a series of articles inspired by the people and places of the Deep South (sans Mississippi, amusingly), resulting in a title of steady humor and down-home nostalgia. I’ve previously enjoyed his tribute to his mother’s cooking, and an oral-history reflection of the fate of a mill village, but this varied series of vignettes will keep me digging into Bragg’s bibliography.

Most of the pieces are fairly representational of what I’ve come to expect from Bragg. There are the semi-biographical musings, as Bragg tells stories about characters in his family or his youth. ‘Characters’ are usually people, but not always; many of them are dogs, and one frequently-hailed character in this collection is a now-shuttered hotel in New Orleans. Although most pieces have a Bama connection, Bragg’s love for New Orleans manifests itself repeatedly in fond vignettes set in the city, and a few other places of the Deep South receive attention as well. There are odder ducks in the collection, like Bragg’s letters to Santa…..and Santa’s reply! Several pieces hail southern luminaries after their deaths; Bragg’s friendship with Pat Conroy and his one encounter with Harper Lee are the basis of two such items. As a whole, Bragg’s latest is a fascinating hodgepodge of topics, from the opening tale of his hooking an already ill-tempered goat while fishing, to his ruminations on the popification of country music.

While I’ve not read many of Bragg’s works (this makes three), I readily admire his celebration of the South’s unique quirks that leaves politics where it belongs — outside. Even when his people are an absolute mess, he still looks on them with love, reminding me a bit of Bill Kauffman’s affectionate tales of Batavia that wander in through all his writing. Bragg sums up his appeal for me in a short piece on why he writes about ‘home’ — so he knows someone is, so the stories of characters of common clay won’t be forgotten. Bragg always reminds me of a world that’s fast fading away, one in which no everyone has been homogenized by the television to think and talk in predictable patterns. The people and places he brings to mind are those that were Characters, who gave to the world real joy in their diverse quirkiness.

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Why Rick Bragg Writes

Quoted from Where I Come From, by Rick Bragg:

“I write about home so I can be certain someone will. It is not much more complicated than that.” 

“Home is not a thing of position, or standing. My home is where the working people are, where you can still see a Torino ever now and then,  and people still use motor oil to kill the mange.  It is where the churches are small, and the houses, too. It is where people cheer for a college they have never seen, where propane tanks shine silver outside obile homes with redwood decks, where buttercups burst up out of red mud, encircled by an old tire. 

“These are not the people of influence who have their names carved into the concrete of banks and schools and churches, whose faces stare back from the society page. As I’ve said, maybe too many times, these are the descendants of people who could only get their names in the newspaper or the history books if they knocked some rich guy off his horse. 

“I do not, greatly, give a damn about writing about people who history will handle with great care, anyway, by birthright. 

“I will write about a one-armed man who used to sling a sling-blade out by the county jail, and a pulpwood truck driver who could swing a pine pole around like a baseball bat. 

“I will write about dead police chiefs who treated even the most raggedy old boy with a little respect, and old men who sip beer besides the pool tables in Brother’s Bar, and then go take some money off the college boys. 

“I will write about the wrongdoers, because sometimes doing right is just too damn hard, and the sorry drunks, and the women who love them anyway. I will write about mommas, not somebody’s Big Daddy. I will write about snuff, not caviar. 

“I will write and write as long as somebody, anybody, wants me to, till we reminded one more brokenhearted ol’ boy of his grandfather, or educate one more pampered Yankee on the people of the pines.” 

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Sunshine Blogging: Survey via Classics Considered

Marian over at Classics Considered just posted a survey, and I figured — why not?

If you go back and read one book for the first time again, which would it be?

Probably the first Wodehouse novel I read, just for experiencing that language for the first time.

Do you eat ice cream, and if so, what is your favorite flavor?
Ice cream is too delicious a treat to indulge in too much. My favorite kind of ice cream treat is vanilla with a chocolate ‘shell’: think Klondike bars!

What was the most memorable event or concert you ever attended?

I hate crowds and loud noises, so I’ve never been to a ‘traditional’ concert. I have attended smaller musical performances, like chamber music recitations, but the most memorable performance I’ve ever attended was Bobby Horton’s celebration of Alabamian folk music back in December 2019. I’ve been listening to his music since the nineties, and it inspired my college senior thesis. Meeting him was an absolute joy! Horton has released many ‘homespun’ collections of folk music, chiefly from the Civil War years but throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They’re home-spun because he does all of the vocals and instrumentation separately, and then combines them. I’m embedding a favorite, “The Rose of Alabama”, below. He’s done numerous Union and Confederate collections, Songs of the 19th century, Songs of Faith, and Songs of the Revolution.

What do you like best about yourself?

I’ve never lost the universal curiosity of childhood that I fear many adults have.

Is there a book you would never, ever read?

Fifty Shades of Gray. Not happening.

Second-best way to spend a rainy day? (Reading is the best, right?)

Breaking my record for pots of coffee consumed while listening to music and..probably playing a PC game, if I’m honest.

Cats or dogs?

Oh, easy. Dogs. They’re smelly, noisy, and an all around mess — but they’re pals. Cats have their pleasures, but dogs are easier to get along with in general.

Best pizza topping combo?
I’m partial to pepperoni, green peppers, and olives. Quite boring.

If you could recommend one fictional book, what would it be?

Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry. It’s only my absolute favorite novel.

Earliest reading memory?
Lying in bed with my father, listening to him read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer aloud.

What’s something you’re looking forward to this year
Spring…and that’s really about it. 2020 has disabused me of the habit of hoping for much. Flowers, though, those I can count on. Especially the Cahaba lilies

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A Time for Mercy

A Time for Mercy
© 2020 John Grisham
480 pages

A woman lies beaten and unconscious in the kitchen; her children quiver in fear in a back room while the man they’re terrorized by lies in a drunken stupor in his bedroom. A sheriff’s deputy, he always wiggles free of abuse charges. But he stirs, as if to rise, and a young boy makes a fateful decision. A Time for Mercy returns readers to Clanton, Mississippi, with a morally challenging case reminiscent of A Time to Kill. Unlike A Time to Kill, however, Mercy simply ends rather than concludes; those who find themselves absorbed by the drama will leave frustrated at the lack of real resolution. Although a welcome return to Clanton, Mercy has its limits.

In Grisham’s first-ever novel, a man took justice into his own hands and shot two cretins who raped and beat his daughter, who had been released by a biased jury. Young Jake Brigance took on the man’s defense, at considerable risk to both himself and his family, and prevailed. Now he’s at it again, defending a young teenager who believed his mother had been killed by her abusive boyfriend, the same boyfriend who had also repeatedly raped his sister. That teenager, Drew Gamble, also took justice into his own hands and (contra Bob Marley) shot the sheriff’s deputy. Clanton is again sharply divided, though this time they’re largely against Brigance’s client: although the deceased deputy was known as a drunk hell-raiser on his off-time, on-duty he was one of the department’s best. Brigance finds former friends giving him the cold shoulder, and is harassed at length by the deputy’s ornery and combative family.

My enthusiasm for Grisham has waned considerably over the years, in part because he’s slowly morphing into James Patterson, pumping out too many books without enough polish. Mercy, for instance, meanders all over the place: we spent a considerable amount of time focusing on another case Jake is involved in, when it goes absolutely nowhere in the timeframe of the novel. This section introduces a considerably interesting sideline when we learn that the golden boy, the Captain America of the law office Jake Brigance, has committed a bit of an ethics violation in discovering a potentially destructive witness to his case, then not sharing knowledge of this witness with the prosecution. The sudden exposure of this fact further isolates Jake, but it never comes up again.

What saves Mercy, as much as it is saved, is the inherent moral interest of the case: yes, Drew did wrong in murdering a violent and angry drunk in cold blood..but boy, if ever a man needed killin’, the victim did. The reader can’t help but be a sympathetic to both sides, and the way Grisham ends things is frustrating because there’s no real ending as such, no resolution. Mercy is also greatly supported by virtue of being a Clanton, MS novel, so that regular Grisham readers will feel themselves surrounded by old friends and stories. We know the characters in this novel, without needing introductions; we know the story of the town and even of Jake’s house, because Grisham has developed them in so many other books (The Summons, The Last Juror, Sycamore Row, etc). This also allows Grisham to be a bit lazy, and he confesses in the afterword that he has — not even bothering to re-read his Clanton books, but relying on the memory of those who have. Frankly, it’s a little insulting to the reader that Grisham can’t be bothered, but we keep buyin’ them. (Or, in my case, relatives keep buying them and giving them to me as Christmas presents, because my willingness to spend money on Grisham stopped in 2007/2008 or so.)

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Star Wars: Kenobi
© 2014 John Jackson Miller
464 pages

Hello, there.

The Republic is fallen, and the Jedi are no more. The few survivors of Emepror Palpatine’s purge have fled, scattered across the galaxy with their own individual missions. For Obi-Wan Kenobi,  that entails a quiet watch over the son of Anakin Skywalker,  whose life Kenobi was compelled to take on Mustafar.   The boy, Luke, has been deposited with Anakin’s step-family for safe-keeping,   and Obi-wan must keep him from harm at a distance while he reels in pain from Anakin’s breathtaking fall into the dark side, and the destruction of the Order.   It’s going to be hard for Kenobi to find peace and do his job, though, because he’s unwittingly settled on the outskirts…..of a western. 

The scene: the Pika Oasis,  where the rural economy of moisture farmers sustains a general store known as Dannar’s Claim. Run by a widow named Annileen, it’s also the headquarters of the Settler’s Call, a community-supported posse  that responds to Sand People attacks with extreme prejudice.  Into this quiet, apparently stable, community comes Obi-Wan – or as he’s known to them, “Ben”.    Although intending to blend in, the Obi-Wan in Ben keeps coming out; he can’t see someone in peril without dashing in to save them.  Despite his name on the cover, though, Kenobi is not the viewpoint character of Kenobi; we alternate instead between Annie,  the tough-as-teak  store owner;  Orrin Gault,  posse leader and friend of everyone but the Sand People;    and…A’Yark, leader of the local tribe of Sand People, who burns for vengeance against the settler-scum. Kenobi appears in occasional meditations to Qui-Gonn,  but otherwise we see him as the settlers see him – a stranger, who is helpful and friendly enough but mysterious enough to be frustrating.  As Kenobi progresses,   readers learn that members of the community are hiding a secret, one that could destroy them, putting Ben into an awful bind:   still reeling from the moral downfall of his brother-at-heart Anakin,  how can he turn his back when he sees good people making decisions that will ruin everything they’ve worked for, including themselves?   Despite the lack of a full Kenobi spotlight, we still get his story as he constantly works with the ‘real’ viewpoint characters to find a path through the chaos.     

Amusingly, this felt less like a Star Wars novel and more like a western, between the unforgiving landscape, the frontier-town defended by an armed posse of farmers,  and the constant attacks of the natives. One of Miller’s more interesting choices was to use the Sand People’s chieftan, A’Yark, as a viewpoint character. Presumably this was with the intention of making them less ‘other’,  more like people and less like mysteriously implacable  hostiles.   It doesn’t work for me, though, because the Sand People are still one-trick ponies: they attack, or they wait to attack,  and it’s hard to disassociate them with my first memory of them:    ambushing Luke Skywalker with those awful URRRRRRRRRRR-URRK-URK-URK-URK! cries.

Although this was not the novel I was expecting, I definitely enjoyed it. Given how pathetic the sequel trilogy was, it’s nice to be reminded of a time when Star Wars had characters who, you know, grew. Here we see the outgoing Jedi knight of Obi-Wan slowly surrendering to the sad wisdom of Old Ben.

Star Trek: Takedown, John Jackson Miller. That might explain why Takedown was such an odd story — JJM is mostly a SW writer!
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Matt Stover. The best SW movie novelization I know of, and one with a heavy focus on Anakin and Obi-Wan’s brotherly bond.

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A Walk Around the Block

A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (And Know Nothing About)
© 2020 Spike Carlsen
336 pages

One of my favorite books to think back on is Scott Huler’s On the Grid, one man’s attempt to understand the various systems (electrical, plumbing, internet, sanitation, etc) that sustained everyday life in his neighborhood. Spike Carlsen’s A Walk Around the Block does much of the same thing, but it goes broader and breezier. Carlsen doesn’t do as much in-depth digging as Huler, but he’s also looking up more, and in addition to more casual chapters on the water system, asphalt, etc, he also writes about squirrels, pigeons, and trees, the other residents of our neighborhoods. Drawing on both interviews with his local technicians and background reading, A Walk Around the Block covers some familiar ground for me but is no less diverting for it.

A Walk around the Block is fun reading, and I don’t mean just infrastructure wonks like myself who read books on plumbing, electricity, and garbage disposal for entertainment. Think of it as more a social history, an exploration and celebration of the everyday, mixed in gushing advice on how to recycle more effectively or create an insect-friendly lawn. Despite my own reading in the general subject, I still learned a thing or two here; I didn’t realize how self-defeating a lot of recycling practices are, for instance. Lithium-iron batteries are constant fire hazards, and plastic bags used to group recyclables gum up the works something fierce. (Carlsen often ventures into advocacy: one chapter largely consists of appreciating bike infrastructure.) The chapters on squirrels and pigeons were an amusing novelty in an ‘infrastructure’ book, but they were fun to take on, and I was grateful for the author’s appreciation for trees not just as beautiful objects to admire, but as useful urban elements — in giving shade to pedestrians, in shielding the sidewalk from automobile traffic, etc. Carlsen truly gets into the weeds of neighborhood composition, writing about the history of asphalt, the prior and potential use of alleys, and the fate of roadkill. (In south Alabama, they apparently feed it to a gator conservancy. Who knew?)

It appears Carlsen has done book on wood, so I expect to see his name again, and am glad to have spotted this little title on the shelf. I love a title that makes the everyday come alive.

On the Grid: A Plot of Land, and Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work, Scott Huler
The Works: Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher

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The Autobiogaphy of Miss Jane Pittman

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
259 pages
© 1982 Ernest Gaines

A young girl carries water for both exhausted rebels and the jubilant army chasing them.  An elderly lady who has seen sorrow after sorrow visited on herself and her loved ones witnesses a final tragedy, but one that carries with it hope for the future. These two women, nearly a century apart, are one and the same: Miss Jane Pittman.  Her Autobiography, while fictional,  is a fascinating way to experience a century of history, in the life of a ‘Luzana’ girl born into slavery, who sees her people failed  time and again by themselves and the government, but always picking up and carrying on.  

Experiencing a century of American history through the eyes of one person is a fascinating premise to me, though Gaines errs on the side of plausibility rather than letting his premise dominate the novel.  Jane isn’t some Gilded Age Forrest Gump, wandering from the plantation into various highlights of the late 19th and early 20th century.   Following the end of the war,  young Jane attempts to migrate north with a handful of other freedmen, headed toward Ohio;  most of the group runs afoul of some proto-Klansmen, brigands and ex-slave patrollers who are out to harass roaming blacks, but Jane and another young child escape, navigating by night and taking help as they can and avoiding snares. Eventually they find a safe haven, and from there the narrative shifts into more domestic and personal drama. “History” is still rolling along, witnessed as people debate the merits of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington,  but it becomes more like scenery rather than the driver.  The personal and historical come together at the very end, when Jane sees a young man she’s helped nurture become a Civil Rights martyr. (Don’t get terribly attached to any of the characters besides Jane.)

The novel is framed as being based on interviews with Jane, and is rendered largely in her voice, with  lots of vernacular; think of Huck Finn’s narrative style.  Gaines and Jane offer the reader much to think about along the way. One of the more poignant chapters in the book details  unrequited love with a tragic ending, and Jane reflects on how everyone, black and white, is  trapped by the past, perpetuating its mistakes.   I found much to appreciate here, from little bits of folklore — Jane’s skeptical use of a ‘hoo doo’ (witch) , old marriage customs, that sort of thing — to seeing the evolving black struggle for membership within the American nation.

This is a unique work in American literature, one well worth reading for understanding one aspect of the American story.

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Off-topic: RDR2 shots with snow

During the Christmas season, the world of RDR2 online got a wintry makeover — somehow making an already pretty game even more dazzling.

Braithwate Plantation
Outside St. Denis
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep….
Just another Saturday night in Valentine.
Sunday morning in Valentine. “Oh, brother…”
Bourbon and bar fights, it’s like PB&J.
Never drink and hijack stagecoaches.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Hopes for 2021

This week, the Artsy Reader Girl is taking a look at bookish hopes for 2021.

  1. A strong start to the Classics Club Strikes Back. By strong,  I’d like to have read at least 20 entries from my list by the time 2022 rolls around. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds: I did it before, in 2019, and this time around the books are mostly smaller and tend toward the modern, with many being 20th century titles.  
  1. The End of Mount Doom.  Scaling Mount Doom isn’t just about finishing my TBR, it’s about being able to move closer to minimalism. I’m always fighting towards it and never seem closer, somehow.  
  1. More southern literature. As a librarian in a southern river town, I’m acutely aware of how little southern lit I’ve read, both classic and contemporary.  That’s why CCSB has a large southern lit section !
  1. If time permits,  some progress in my Peoples of the Americas series. In 2018 I announced that the reading project for the year would be exploring the histories and cultures of American nations,  past and present, from the Inuit and Canada all the way down to the Incas and Chile, with a Caribbean sideline.  I read 4 titles that year and have kept the theme in mind ever since either as an annual project or as a long-term series.  
Read in 2011. It’s been a decade. .
  1. Re-reading. I’m hoping to adopt purposeful re-reading as a discipline, not only to give un-reviewed books their due, but to reinforce what I’ve learned.  (Bitter laughter: in 2016 I resolved to re-read and review some books. The titles I showed are still 2/3rds unreviewed. )

That’s it for reading goals – frankly,  the first two alone are enough to keep my nose buried in the pages!  

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