January 2009: Books About the South
(Yale University Press, $24)
After Katrina roared through the Gulf states, the national media became saturated with stories of the chaos in New Orleans and of the devastation in Mississippi’s coastal towns. Few reported on Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, most of which was obliterated by cataclysmic flooding. The residents of this parish (many of whom had weathered the storm on homemade boats) knew they had to save themselves.
While covering the hurricane for The Wall Street Journal, Louisiana native Ken Wells overheard a group of refugees from Chalmette discussing the horror they had left behind and found shrimpers eager to recount their tales. In this book, he gives voice to the forgotten people of St. Bernard Parish, weaving a story of heroism, self-reliance, and hope in the face of catastrophe. ―Lauren Simpson
(New American Library, $15)
The book’s premise appears simple: A woman travels to France to mourn the loss of her husband. Sounds like one of those Provence books, but it’s a bit more complex than that. Aside from her grief, main character Lily has brought along her old Olivetti typewriter. She begins pounding out the story of her life and, before long, the reader is anxious to find out what comes next.
Floridian Annie Vanderbilt’s debut novel, The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti, gives voice to a woman in her fifties, one who has lived a full life and has much more life yet to go. After her “remembering” is finished, Lily does what many writers would consider a sacrilege, although months of writing brings her back to the present and into a very hopeful future. This fast-paced read makes a delightful and thoughtful diversion. ―Wanda McKinney
(G.P. Putnam's Sons, $25.95)
Clear your calendar. Take a day off work. Do whatever it takes to allow a few hours to sink into this terrific read, rife with intrigue, mayhem, betrayal, and great characters that spring from the page.
Yes, author Stuart Woods has done it again. In Mounting Fears, President Will Lee needs a little good luck. He doesn’t find it when he appoints a hastily vetted candidate to replace the vice president, who has died in office. Meanwhile, The White House is also dealing with consequences from a nuclear explosion in Pakistan. Can this world be saved? Of course it can, in grand style, with a little help from the CIA and a wonderful Washington, D.C., cast of characters. ―Wanda McKinney
I grew up wanting to be a dramatic actress―emphasis on dramatic―because I spent my formative years in front of the television, mesmerized by such high-powered, Kleenex-laden shows as Queen for a Day, The Secret Storm, and The Edge of Night. My father and grandparents were wonderfully progressive in that way, allowing my brother and me full access to uncensored TV. Not that they were negligent. They just felt that life itself had already placed too many restrictions on us.
The only series ever off-limits at Grandma Crane’s house was The Waltons. Grandma believed that we were such a quirky family ourselves that tuning in to the well-balanced Walton clan might give us unrealistic expectations―and put undue pressure on our more eccentric relatives.
The Sea Breeze Bungalows, on Clinton Street off Alvarado Street in Los Angeles, were constructed in the early 1940s to provide housing for single working women and bachelors. Though the Sea Breeze units are some forty miles from the Pacific Ocean, the developer, clearly torn between Art Deco and beachcomber styles, compromised by constructing these peach-colored cottages with one porthole window apiece and then raising a sign decorated with painted seashells on the front lawn. The largest of the five bungalows, originally inhabited by the owner, sits at the tip of the pentagon, farthest from the street.
Two decades after construction, this three-bedroom home is now rented by the Gabaldón family: a widowed utility worker, with five children, and an elderly Pueblo woman. The four girls in the family share the largest bedroom, while the one boy, the middle child, sleeps in a youth bed in his father’s room. The smallest bedroom belongs to Fermina, the aged housekeeper. Crammed into her quarters are a battered oak dresser with mismatched knobs, a flecked and clouded mirror, an oval hook rug at the center of the dark wood floor, and a single bed, heaped with folded quilts, near the wall. Beside the bed and aligned with the outer wall, just under the window, sits a bird’s-eye-maple trunk.
Q is my wife, Jo Ann, a name for which she’s never felt much kinship. In fact, with names she’s not been lucky, even in her church. When it came time to choose a confirmation name, a sister convinced the seven-year-old Jo Ann that every female saint’s name was taken except one: Dorothy. The name, linked to the pluck of the Wizard of Oz heroine she admired, may have contributed to her deciding she possessed the power to fly if her belief was firm enough: she straddled a kitchen broom, her toy cat strapped to the bristles, and from the top of the basement stairs, leaped. She broke no bones, and if you consider falling in a slightly horizontal pattern to be flight, she flew. But she no longer trusted in half-reasoned faith.
As she approached the Feldman house Brynn McKenzie decided that even with the glow from behind ivory curtains the place was eerie as hell. The other two houses she’d passed might have been the sets for family dramas; this was just the place for a Stephen King movie, the kind she and her first husband, Keith, would devour like candy.
She looked up at the three-story home. You sure didn’t see many houses of this style or size in Kennesha County. White siding, which had seen better days, and a wraparound porch. She liked the porch. Her childhood house in Eau Claire had sported one. She’d loved sitting out in the chain swing at night, her brother singing and playing his battered guitar, her sister flirting with her latest boyfriend, their parents talking, talking, talking. But as for her present house, she didn’t know where a porch would fit.
Approaching the Feldmans’, she glanced at the yard, impressed. The landscaping was expensive. The place was surrounded by strategically placed dogwoods, ligustrum and crepe myrtles that had been cut way back. She recalled her husband’s advice to his customers against this practice (“Don’t rape your crepes”).
Parking in the circular gravel drive, she caught movement inside, a shadow on the front curtain. She climbed out into the chill air, fresh and sweet with the perfume of blossoms and firewood smoke.
Aside fro m that revelation in Chapter 3, the remainder of Fred Kaplan’s book, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, focuses on how the love of literature, reading, and writing helped shape the Kentuckian’s Presidential endeavors. Lincoln was also known for his stoic demeanor, and this, too, was shaped by the poetry he read. Kaplan beautifully writes, “His temperament responded to the emotional force of poetry…. Elegiac stoicism became the weight that he carried; it sculpted the stoop of his shoulders, and it darkened the cast of his face.” ―Meghan Blalock