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Some Southern Pickin’s

August 9, 2008

The Southern Reading ChallengeI just realised that I only review my first Southern Challenge read (The Mercy of Thin AirI loved it). Whoops! So here are the reviews of the other three Southern books I read: Between, Georgia, The Habit of Being, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
I read Gods in Alabama (Jackson’s debut) during last October’s read-a-thon and really enjoyed it, so when I saw the audioversion of Between available for download on my library’s site, I was very excited! The audioversion is read by the author, which is my preference, but just to let you know Jackson has a pretty intense twang that might annoy some people (it annoyed my mother-me, I love Southern accents). Between is actually not at all similar to Gods in Alabama, except that I enjoyed them both. Between has a definite hint of magical realism-there’s the multi-generation story, the quirks (the main character’s mother is deaf and blind), etc. And it has a ton of Southern gothicness going on, much more than Gods in Alabama. But once I adjusted me expectations, I enjoyed Between much more than Gods: it has more richness to it, more complicated layers. Between, Georgia is a small town with a big feud: the well-off Fretts and the white-trash (I don’t like using that word, but I can’t think of another one) Crabtrees have such different approaches to life that they’re bound to clash. But when Nonny, the main character, is born, things escalate: Nonny is a biological Crabtree adopted by the Fretts. To attempt to summarise the plot would take way too long, and isn’t that why you read the book anyway? It boils down to this: Nonny, now in her late twenties, encounters a series of difficult events that force her to grow up and realise her true priorities in order to protect those she loves. This is definite Southern fiction, and one I really enjoyed: Joshilyn Jackson may not be in the same circle as Harper Lee or Carson McCullers, but that doesn’t stop her from writng a crazy, funny, sprawling story with a main character who could capture any reader’s heart. (Lisa had asked me to review this one when I called for questions, by saying “I can’t wait to see your review of Between, Georgia. I just read gods in Alabama and loved it.”)

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor
I’ve never read any of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, but I had seen her letters mentioned in the blogosphere with approbation, so I decided to read her collected letters as my ‘classic’ choice. Let’s get this out of the way to begin with: this is a huge collection. The paperback weighs in at six hundred twenty-four pages. Like I said, it’s intense. I think it’d be better to buy this book than check it out from the library (like I did)-that way, you’d be able to parse the collection through a few months without feeling any rush to swallow fifty-page chunks at a time. For the first half of the book, I loved it. I loved reading about Flannery’s quirky mother Regina (she and her mother lived on a small farm where Flannery raised peacocks and they had some other wildlife)-unfortunately I didn’t get to write down any of the passages I’d marked before I returned it to the library, but her mother is full of great one-liners. Flannery’s intelligent but self-deprecating style really worked. But the second half of the book really, really dragged for me: it becomes more Catholic-centered (I was raised Catholic, but never went through confirmation because I had some issues with the Church) and the sense of humour so prevelent in the first part begins to disappear. There were still some really great parts, but they were farther between. Ironically enough, while I did enjoy the collection for the most part, I’m left without much of a desire to read her fiction. She often discussed her own stories in letters (she replied to almost everyone who wrote to her), and they sound a bit morbid for me. I’m sure Flannery would mock me endlessly for that. And I’m also sure that if she lived in this generation, she’d be a blogger. Since she lived in such an isolated place, and with her illness couldn’t travel that much, her wide correspondence is what kept her connected to the larger world; I can’t help but think she’d have loved the whole blogging community. Of course, she was also a snob, so she might not have been the most beloved blogger ever, but at least she was an intelligent snob. ;) This review is really all over the place, and that’s because I had such a varied experience while reading the letters. In the end, they were definitely interesting, but best in small doses.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Earnest Gaines
I just finished my African American selection this morning; The Autobiography is a novel framed as an oral history. At the beginning, we find out a history teacher has asked Miss Jane Pittman to tell him her life story so he can share it with his students. However, after that initial set-up the teacher never re-appears, so the rest of the novel focuses on Jane’s life. Since Jane is over a hundred, that life covers much of the touchstones of the African American experience: the story begins during the Civil War and ends during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. She lived her life in rural Louisiana, and the book has a wide cast of white, black, and Creole characters. It’s a short book, so years tend to go by quickly-a new chapter might begin a decade later than when the previous one left off. At the very beginning I found this disorienting, but I adjusted pretty quickly, and I’m sure if I were a one-hundred-year-old woman discussing my life I wouldn’t provide a year-by-year chronicle! There’s a good mix of everyday life vignettes and major episodes, and since I picked up the book hoping to learn more about the African American experience I’m definitely not disappointed. Gaines himself was born on a Louisiana plantation in the early 1930s, so I trusted his authority and I could really see the ‘quarters’ where most of the black people lived. I also liked how the book focused on how African Americans tried to build their lives after slavery; different characters have different approaches, but the struggles of living in the South (both during and after Reconstruction) were definitely brought home. Throughout, Miss Jane Pittman speaks in what definitely feels like a Southern African American voice, but it’s not so much dialogue that I get overwhelmed or annoyed. It’s just enough to create a powerful rhythm. All in all, a really good novel that I would recommend for anyone trying to explore the other side of Southern literature.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2008 7:08 am

    The last book you mentioned sounds familiar, but I can’t think of another review of it. Thanks for recommending, it sounds really interesting. Kind of like Life is Good, which is also about the life of a 100 year African American (I read that one not too long ago).

  2. August 9, 2008 7:56 am

    I’m really excited to read that you enjoyed Between, Georgia. I enjoyed gods in Alabama very much, and Between, Georgia sounds even better! Yay!

    As for O’Connor, I ADORE her short stories (and yes, they are quite morbid), and I wasn’t even aware of her collection of letters. Sounds right up my alley. She’s one of those authors I read in high school and who absolutely delighted me because she showed me that “good” literature could be interesting, twisted, and meaningful all at the same time. I put her on par with other fave short story writers like Faulkner and his “A Rose for Emily.”

  3. August 9, 2008 3:32 pm

    I really didn’t care for gods in Alabama, but you make Between, Georgia sound pretty great.

  4. August 9, 2008 7:52 pm

    I was a bit leery about reading Between, because I enjoyed gods in Alabama, and the back cover of Between didn’t really sell me on it. But I finally ending up breaking down and buying it and reading it…and was glad I did because I ended up liking it more than gods.

  5. August 9, 2008 11:47 pm

    Any mules in these books? I’m running a State of the Mule contest for a first edition of Larry Brown’s Dirty Work! Congrats on the completion of this challenge. Please do stay tuned! I have more autographed southern books to give away. :D

  6. August 11, 2008 3:00 pm

    Kim, was Life is Good a good read? (I actually spent thirty seconds trying out other adjectives so I didn’t use good twice in a row, but none seemed to work. I’m a total nerd.)

    Andi, ohhhh-I love “A Rose for Emily,” so now of course I’m going to have to go read some of O’Connor’s! I definitely enjoyed Between, Georgia more: it felt more grown up, if that makes sense.

    Elitist, Between, Georgia is more like Southern lit whereas Gods in Alabama was more like chick lit that takes place in the South. If that helps you decide. :)

    Softdrink, I liked it more too, and I was really leery as well. Isn’t that funny?

    Maggie, I haven’t run across one mule! Lots of peacocks in O’Connor’s letters. :) Maybe I’ll flip through my collected stories of Welty-there’s gotta be a mule in there somewhere. ;)

  7. Tony Banks permalink
    August 12, 2008 5:44 pm

    Southern fiction is my favorite. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is my all-time favorite. Unfortunately, Harper Lee only wrote one book. I also enjoy John Grisham (not always thought of as a Southern writer), Reynolds Price, Pat Conroy, Wilson Crawford and Thomas Wolfe (the North Carolina one). Enjoyed the blog. Keep promoting Southern fiction!

  8. August 17, 2008 4:13 am

    Eva, I used this as your wrap-up for the challenge on Mistter Linky. Hope you do not mind, and I save you some time. :)


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