Fiction for Him Friday: Pelecanos and Lehane

PelecanosLehaneIt’s time for some hot guy fiction. Now, this is not exclusionary at all. If ladies want to read fiction written by men featuring mostly male characters doing manly things (behaving badly’s on the list), be my guest. I was running a little short on crime fiction recently, so I grabbed four books from two authors I love but have ignored of late–George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. Let’s start from the top.

The Double by George Pelecanos

You may have heard of Pelecanos from his work as a writer and producer of The Wire and Treme on HBO. He’s been in the crime lit business for a while with 20 books on the shelves. The Double is his second novel with the young protagonist Spero Lucas, who makes finding stolen goods his calling card after returning home from service in Iraq. The first book in the series is called The Cut and is a recommended starting point. In this story, Spero agrees to help a woman whose 19th century painting was stolen by a lover, and as is true in this genre, the bad guys are really bad. Pelecanos has an excellent ear for dialog, gets into the minds of multiple characters, and gives you the sex and violence that’s worth the hardcover price. Also, any time he provides you with a music cue, look that stuff up. This author has great taste in music, and he assigns each character his own musical style or soundtrack. Pelecanos writes mainly about the D.C. area, and the city’s a character in every book.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

This is the second book I’ve selected that requires going back in a series if you want the full story. Gone, Baby, Gone told the first part of the story of two private investigators, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, who track down a missing kid. The movie was what made us forget about Ben Affleck’s bad acting turns, as it was his feature directorial debut. Lehane wrote five books in this series, starting with A Drink Before the War. He wrote one more book in the series before moving onto single stories for a while. He comes back with Moonlight Mile. In this installment, Kenzie and Gennaro find themselves searching for the same girl, now 16, who’s run away from her family. The tale also brings up the bad economy of the time (not that it’s improved much) as the couple struggles to get by with their own young daughter, having to decide whether to work for the “man” when the “man” is clearly bad news, and again dealing with some Russian gangsters who are a bit short on compassion.

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

It was nice to read three of Lehane’s more recent books because I felt like they were all crime-related but distinct enough to show a writer who’s pretty comfortable in the game. Live By Night reminded me of the recently completed HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The plot begins in 1926 Boston, in the early days of Prohibition. Joe Coughlin, son of a Boston police captain who takes residence on the wrong side of the law, finds himself running a criminal empire out of Tampa Bay. I don’t think I want to live in pre-air conditioning Florida. Coughlin has to deal with murderous competitors, Klansmen, a female evangelist who attempts to take away his shot at going legit, and a boss who doesn’t entirely respect his place in the pecking order. Many scenes will make you as uncomfortable as walking on the beach in a wool suit on a summer day.

The Drop by Dennis Lehane

What’s up with these Eastern European thugs? The Drop is almost novella in length but tells a tidy tale of Bob, a bartender who has no life, save the job and spending lots of time at his local Catholic church. One night he finds a half-dead puppy in a trashcan and decides to take care of it with the help of a woman who’s a bit damaged herself. Bob has to deal with Nadia’s former lover, a villain who was the man responsible for the dog’s condition but attempts to blackmail Bob along with getting the dog back. If that isn’t enough, the bar gets robbed of a lot of Chechen gang money. Bob has to look over his shoulder at his co-worker, an older man who used to be in a gang of his own and is attempting to make one last score, deal with a cop investigating the robbery who also goes to Bob’s church, and the sudden move into adulthood of taking care of a puppy. The final chapter occurs as an enormous haul of cash comes into the bar on Super Bowl Sunday as various criminals get together in a scene that would have me calling in sick. I know, didn’t stick the landing.

You can’t go wrong with any of Pelecanos’ or Lehane’s works. Start from the beginning with A Firing Offense (Pelecanos) or A Drink Before the War (Lehane), or just get in the game somehow. It will make you happy that you’re living a life of un-crime.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
0

Thesis-slaying and Knowing Your Story

Thesis Monster StickerI’m trying like hell to finish my master’s thesis. Distractions abound. And not just the Season 3 trailer for Orphan Black, or catching up on the Oscar-nominated films that I missed before the ceremony (J. K. Simmons completely deserved the Academy Award for his performance in Whiplash).

There are valid reasons for my not finishing graduate school this semester. Pressing concerns and dear people deserve my attention. In some ways, I feel like my brain has already migrated to a post-school island in the time-space continuum. Yesterday at 10:00 a.m. I was ready to say, “Screw it. I’ll finish in August.” And I may flip that switch tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. Who knows?

But for now, I’m on the fifth floor of the Georgia State Library, summoning my brain back from the abyss. My iPhone’s turned off. I’m getting ready to block all my favorite websites. I’ve removed the email and browser applications from the dock of my MacBook so I won’t be tempted to refresh my inbox every 30 seconds. It’s time to dance with the Thesis Monster. The cute sticker is courtesy of a fellow English grad student who is keeping me sane; she even ordered us “Thesis Slayer” pencils. Our efforts are completely branded.

I’ve been researching and writing about identity–and southern identity in particular–for almost three years now. The following quote from feminist scholar Susan Stanford Friedman is the core message in my thesis, and one that I’m using to reframe my consulting business:

We help people know your stories. #alc #alisonlawcommunications #stories #bookmarketing #bookpublicity

A photo posted by Alison Law (@alisonlawcomm) on

“People know who they are through the stories they tell about themselves and others.” The story I choose to tell about myself right now is that I’m going to finish my thesis so that I can graduate in May and focus more on helping others share their stories. What about you–what’s your story right now?

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
3

The First True Lie and Other Books Under 150 Pages

I like big books and I can not lie The image speaks the truth: I like big books. Most of the time. Not all of the time. Not when I have one class and a master’s thesis topping my to-do list.

My friend told me that she and her book club are reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I love Dickens. Great Expectations is a personal favorite. But at just over a thousand pages, this Penguin Classics paperback edition of Bleak House faces the grim prospect of gathering dust on my bookshelf. At least it will be in good company alongside Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch. At close to 800 pages, The Goldfinch reminds me that I should probably be opening a textbook of literary criticism for school.

The First True Lie by Marina ManderWhile the bingeworthy stuff takes a backseat to other priorities, I’ve been enjoying some shorter reads this season. In the last week, I read Marina Mander’s The First True Lie. Narrated by a boy named Luca, The First True Lie takes you inside the mind of a child who is lying about the sudden death of his single mother because he does not want to go into foster care. Luca refers to himself as a “half-orphan” when the story begins because he has never known his father. After discovering his mother’s body in her bedroom, Luca tries to keep up appearances, caring for himself and his only companion, a kitten named Blue. Those who liked Emma Donoghue’s Room will probably enjoy The First True Lie, and at less than 150 pages, it’s a brisk read.

I was also delighted to find this list of “The 10 Best Books Shorter Than 150 Pages” that author Sarah Gerard curated for Publishers Weekly. I may try one of her recommendations in the coming weeks. Until then, I find myself savoring one essay at a time from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feministalthough my professors might cringe to know that this collection is ranked #1 on Amazon for feminist theory. Bad Feminist is comprised of Gay’s keen and wry observations on being a 21st century feminist. It’s not feminist literary theory.

Do you have any books under 150 pages that you would recommend here?

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
2

For Him Friday: Zach Law Reviews Joss Whedon by Amy Pascale

Joss Whedon: The Biography by Amy PascaleIf you had any doubts before now that Southern Spines is my completely self-indulgent passion project, then the following blog post will disabuse you of the notion. I gave my husband Joss Whedon: The Biography as a Christmas gift, not just because I knew he would enjoy the subject matter, but because we’re both Whedon fans. I knew would enjoy reading and owning the hardcover as well. Maybe calling this a “For Him” review of Amy Pascale’s biography is a misnomer. I just call it icing on the cake. Here’s Zach.

Joss Whedon is a third-generation television writer. His father wrote for television shows like Captain Kangaroo, The Electric Company and The Golden Girls. His grandfather wrote for The Donna Reed Show, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. As you can see, television show names used to be pretty straightforward.

Is it because of this history that a book about Whedon is simply entitled Joss Whedon: The Biography? Author Amy Pascale, who used to hang out on the Buffy fan site The Bronze–back when message boards were a thing–writes an uncomplicated story about Whedon’s rise to the top of the nerd world.

Most Whedon fans are going to be familiar with the details of his un-meteoric rise to the top of the entertainment world. In a way, Whedon became the independent band that we loved that made it big, and we had to decide if our love could survive mainstream acceptance.

How did Whedon become “our Jossy”? He had the fortune to get a writing gig with the TV show Roseanne after graduating from Wesleyan University. It wasn’t immediate success, as he had to trudge through the stereotypical video-store clerk gigs before getting his shot. Whedon actually railed against becoming a TV writer because it was the “family business.” The Whedon name and a self-produced musical based on the Oliver North trial (performed by friends and family) helped him catch the eye of a producer.

There were successes and failures. He got to write a few scripts on his first season with the show Roseanne, but in his second season, he was isolated.Whedon didn’t waste his time. He continued working on an idea that was initially called “Rhonda the immortal waitress.”

It’s amazing that Buffy the Vampire Slayer even exists, let alone that it became a “cult” TV hit years down the road. After working on Roseanne and the first incarnation of the TV version of Parenthood, Whedon took a few script-doctor gigs while trying to get his own screenplays produced. All the cool lines in the movie Speed? Whedon. His breakthrough success was the film version of Buffy, which, in typical Hollywood fashion, turned out to be a very different film than the one he had envisioned. A lot of his future work hinged on the original screenplay.

Whedon considered passing on the small-screen version of Buffy, but decided that the television show would be his big shot to produce his own work. Through the show, he honed his writing skills and gained experience as a director. The little show that could became a hit, spawning The Bronze and other message boards where die-hard fans could discuss the show in the dial-up Internet age, along with Whedon and members of the cast and crew. Whedon’s accessibility is one reason for his rabid (or more accurately, intellectually excited) fan base. He’ll go to the Webs to discuss a project, including the failures, of which there have been a few. He’s had his share of unproduced screenplays and television frustrations.

Buffy was such a hit that Whedon earned a spin-off featuring Buffy’s vamp-boyfriend with a soul, Angel. Buffy lasted seven seasons and Angel five, with Angel concluding one year after Buffy.

My fine and dandy spiritual guide and wife introduced me to Buffy. Like a lot of people, I didn’t “get” the name, and even through the first season I was a tough convert. I remember that I had to record the Buffy series finale on VHS because Mrs. Southern Spines was on a business trip, and it was hard to avoid spoilers.

Remember the word failure? It’s key when considering Whedon’s career and his attempt at producing a “space western” called Firefly. I’ll admit that the television show didn’t totally suck me in during its brief run. The original pilot was shifted to later in the season, and the first episode of the show was a second shot. It’s hard to introduce that many characters at once. Firefly had an odd run of 14 episodes, three of which weren’t televised.

Thanks to DVD technology, I revisited the show years later and fell in love with it and its companion movie, Serenity, which Whedon wrote and directed. The film provided the TV show a bit of closure. Still, knowing that Whedon had years of Firefly storylines is frustrating for us fans, also known as “browncoats.” Firefly wasn’t a critical or financial success, so once again, Whedon was left in the lurch.

Buffy fans were introduced to Whedon’s love of musicals with the episode “Once More, With Feeling.” Of course I own the CD soundtrack from that episode. That love of musicals showed up again during the 2007-2008 writer’s strike when Whedon produced Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Another cult hit, Dr. Horrible stars Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion of Firefly. As a quick digression, isn’t it odd that Nathan Fillion will be known more for his role on Castle than for his work as Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly? Also, David Boreanaz has been on the show Bones longer than he played Angel. We can’t account for taste.

After Whedon’s fourth TV series, Dollhouse, came and went with a bit of a whimper, we weren’t quite sure what would happen next in his career. When he was announced as the writer and director of Marvel’s The Avengers film, fans may have thought it was a joke to see him running a big-budget movie franchise. But run it he did, and he was able to bring the movie in under budget and with the traditional Whedonesque turns of phrase. 2012 became The Year of Whedon. Not only did The Avengers set box-office records, but his “loving hate letter” to the horror genre, The Cabin in the Woods, left development hell and came out to mostly positive reviews.

How does Whedon tick? Well, he decided after a grueling movie shoot that he would relax by–producing another movie. According to Pascale’s biography, Whedon loves to have friends over and perform Shakespeare. He decided to make Much Ado About Nothing at his house with some buddies over a weekend. Whedon and I have different ideas on relaxation.

What’s next for Whedon? Well, there’s the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, of which he’s more of an executive producer due to his Avengers work. The Avengers sequel releases this summer, and there’s already a two-part follow-up coming out in the next three years. He may no longer be a cult classic, but I’m not abandoning my favorite indy band just because it hit the big time.

If you read/buy a Joss Whedon biography, you’re probably someone who knows his work very well. You will read things about his career/life that you haven’t read before. Plus, it’s nice to put it all together from Roseanne to The Avengers and every step in between. We’d all like to be a part of a Joss Whedon dance party one day.

Follow @zach_law on Twitter, but only if you want to be bombarded with tweets about football and beer.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
0

She Reads Twitter Chat with Greer Macallister

I am experimenting with Storify, a service that allows users to create “stories” by capturing social media elements. Below is a Storify story I generated using tweets from the January 21st Twitter chat with Greer Macallister. Greer has written a wonderful new book, The Magician’s Liewhich is a She Reads Book Club Pick for Winter 2015. You can scroll through the tweets to learn what image inspired this historical fiction novel, what actors the author and She Reads tweeps would cast in the roles of Arden, Clyde, Ray and Adelaide, and what city is behind Greer’s work-in-progress.

What do you think of the Storify transcript of the She Reads Book Club Twitter chat with author Greer Macallister? Please let me know in the comments below.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
0

How to Live When You Are Dying: Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley. Image courtesy of Gallery Books.

Image courtesy of Gallery Books

At last week’s national book launch party for Colleen Oakley’s Before I Go, more than one person issued the warning that I should keep a box of tissues nearby when reading the book. You only have to read the dust jacket to understand that advice. Protagonist Daisy Richmond, a 27-year-old graduate student and wife to a veterinarian-in-training, finds out that she has terminal cancer. In the four months that doctors say she has left to live, Daisy determines to find a new wife for her soon-to-be-widowed husband Jack.

Still, Before I Go is not bleak because it’s as much about living as it is about dying. After Oakley’s launch party, I went home and quickly read the first third of the book. At its core, Before I Go is a love story told from the point of view of a young woman who should have her whole life ahead of her, but doesn’t. Even when dying, Daisy ignores her own feelings and plays caretaker and matchmaker when she should be making the most of the time she has left.

We all like to think that we’d quit our jobs, travel the world and perform amazing feats of daring-do if we received a death sentence like terminal cancer. Before I Go challenges that notion. For the past month, it feels like cancer and illness have overtaken my news streams. I’ve been following updates on Facebook from friends who are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatments. I’ve sent condolences to those who have lost loved ones to cancer. The disease devastates in so many ways.

I’m not a sports fan, but I recognized Stuart Scott as an ESPN anchor and hated to learn of his death on January 4th. Subsequently, I watched Scott’s acceptance speech at the 2014 ESPY awards. He had been fighting cancer for seven years at that point, and had this amazing advice to share: “When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live, live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, then lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.”

Colleen Oakley and Rhiannon Johnson

Colleen Oakley, author of Before I Go, poses with Rhiannon Johnson, freelance writer and editor of Ivory Owl Reviews

I think Before I Go echoes that advice in a different way. I really enjoyed the book and meeting Colleen Oakley, who lives in Atlanta. She is on book tour right now, so visit the events page of her author website to find out when and where you can see her. I know it’s hard to tell from the photos here, but Colleen is pregnant with twins! Follow her @oakleycolleen on Twitter and congratulate her on all her 2015 debuts.

 

Colleen Oakley signs copies of her debut novel, Before I Go, on January 6, 2015.

Colleen Oakley signs copies of her debut novel, Before I Go, on January 6, 2015.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
6

New Year’s Rituals: Fireworks, Black Eyed Peas and Greens

We take ourselves very seriously. Titans headgear, 3D glasses and all.

We take ourselves very seriously. Titans headgear, 3D glasses and all.

Lest you worry, after reading yesterday’s blog post, that this new year has been only about sadness and seriousness around here, I offer photographic evidence to the contrary. This is a photo taken of Zach and me just before midnight at our friend’s outdoor party. Zach is wearing a fluffy hat fashioned after T-Rac, the mascot of the Tennessee Titans, and we’re both sporting 3D glasses. Our friends are “those neighbors”–the ones who shoot off illegal fireworks at midnight, terrorizing your nervous pets and spoiling your early bedtime. The fireworks package contained several pairs of 3D glasses that enhanced the light show.

Black Eyed PeasI am devout in my belief that all self-respecting southerners and their brethren should fortify themselves with black eyed peas, cooked greens (turnips, collards, mustards, kale, etc.) and cornbread on January 1st. This Christian Science Monitor article offers a succinct explanation of the New Year’s Day tradition of eating black eyed peas to invite good luck and greens to attract more money into your life in the coming year. The article references Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, the James Beard Award-winning cookbook by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart.

I phoned my grandmother–whom I refer to as “Nanny”–to brag that I was cooking my first batch of black eyed peas after soaking a bag of the dried legumes overnight. Nanny, who is semi-retired from cooking except for preparing hot meals for her dog or special occasions, informed me that she only soaks and cooks pinto and Great Northern beans these days. Cranking open a can of Luck’s black eyed peas tastes good enough to her. Still, I was determined to follow the more rustic path.

This recipe from the Food Network served as a starting place for my black eyed peas. Instead of using bacon, hog jowl or fatback, I chopped up about six ounces of leftover smoked pork shoulder. I used water and low-sodium chicken broth instead of stock as my liquids, so I upped the amount of dry seasonings called for in the recipe. Mashing up the beans with the back of my wooden spoon helped thicken the liquid and give the beans a creamy consistency. I was pleased with the end result. We enjoyed a dinner of black eyed peas, rice, greens, cornbread and other homemade dishes that is sure to usher in only good things this New Year.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
2

Greeting 2015, Noting Some Rites of Passage

On January 1st, my husband Zach and I joined many of you in introspection about the past year as we plotted the twelve months ahead of us. Here are a few of my thoughts:

Sting on bubble mailer

Sting shadowed me almost every day for 17+ years, even if it meant curling up on a bubble mailer in the floor of my office.

Writing About Grief and Loss

2014 was not my favorite year. I am still experiencing the fresh loss of my beloved cat, Sting. I adopted Sting from a shelter when he was the one-pound runt of his litter. At the time, I was a heartbroken 22-year-old, still raw from the end of a long-term relationship. I can’t count the number of tears I shed into the soft coat of that sweet gray cat in the almost 18 years that we had together, but I do know that Sting healed me. His memory and our friendship heals me now. I will write more about Sting later, likely with the help of my friend Jessica Handler’s book Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. I asked Jessica once, “When should people read and use your book–when they’re in the throes of mourning, or after time has passed?” Jessica advised that it was good to put some distance between you and your loss before entering “the crucible.” So many people struggle with loss around the holidays and at year’s end. If you are trying to find a creative way to deal with loss or transitions, I hope you’ll find Jessica’s book. I believe everyone has an opportunity to transform grief and other life lessons into beauty. Not to mention that Braving the Fire is a damn fine book on the craft of writing from one of the most gifted writers I know.

Matriculating

Since August 2012, I have been a part-time graduate student and full-time publicist and marketing consultant. While I have enjoyed my return to school, straddling both worlds has been challenging. I’ve excelled in a few things, and failed at even more. I haven’t been able to devote as much time to my family, friends and taking care of myself because school and work have been my priorities. Last spring Zach and I decided I should lighten my work commitments in order to finish school in 2014. That meant powering through summer school classes and only accepting a few new projects and clients through the fall. Despite my best efforts, I could not fulfill all my graduation requirements last year. I wrapped up the bulk of my coursework in December, but still have one class and a thesis left. Initially, I was disappointed and embarrassed that I wasn’t going to graduate in December. As I sit here clutching the strong threads of my sanity, I know I made the right decision. I have a wonderful peer who has agreed to be my fellow thesis slayer this year, and with a lot of hard work ahead of us, we’ll both graduate with our master’s degrees in English in May.

Alison Law Communications LogoTaking Care of Business

I am working to revive and grow my business, Alison Law Communications, in 2015. I started my own business seven years ago because I wanted to serve clients in different industries and tackle a wider variety of projects. Since 2011, I’ve been really focused on helping authors connect to their readers and communities through publicity, marketing and social media. I’ve learned so much from the relationships I’ve developed with traditionally published authors, in-house book publicists and marketing managers, editors, book festival organizers, university and small press publishers, and prospective self-published writers. I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned to work for my clients and friends.

Southern Spines Books with Backbone BannerIs It a Blog, a Website or Something Else?

So what does all of this mean for Southern Spines? People have asked me before: “What is Southern Spines–is it a book blog, a website or something else?” First of all, there’s really no difference between a blog and a website, in my opinion. Even huge corporate websites are operating on the WordPress platform, the website tool I recommend to my clients. The term “blog” just seems a little more personal in nature than the word “website.” I do not recommend starting a book blog, website or any other major project the month before you start graduate school. That’s what I did when I began Southern Spines in 2012. My goal at the time was to build an online publication or magazine. I had wonderful contributors, interview subjects and artists who took a chance on me and contributed their time and talents–for little or no pay–in order to produce quality content about southern writers, songwriters and poets. I just didn’t have the extra juice beyond school, work and personal commitments to make that happen. If you really want to see an example of someone who has done this well, check out Deep South Magazine. Editor Erin Bass continues to amaze me with all the quality content she and her team create at her site and across the various Deep South social media platforms.

I have considered abandoning Southern Spines a few different times when I grew frustrated with my inability to produce fresh content. I’m so behind on reading and sharing books; I published my last post here in early October. Inevitably though, I’ll receive an email or message from someone saying that she bought a book that I recommended here and stayed up all night reading it. Really, that’s enough for me to continue contributing here. The other reason is that I love this creative outlet and the community I have built through the site and social media. Yes, I will continue to promote books here from authors who are also my friends and/or clients. That’s a blogger’s prerogative. If I don’t enjoy a book, you won’t read about it here because I don’t post negative reviews. (I’ll save the why for another post.) I also will continue to share personal posts like this one because I am a human being who wants to connect with you from the other side of your computer or smartphone screen. Sometimes the best way to accomplish connection is by writing about the hard stuff that we all face, even if it makes you feel like a narcissistic drama queen or an overexposed failure.

This introspection makes me grateful for the lessons of last year and hopeful for the future. Cheers to a fantastic new year for all of us.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
9

Digging into Our Culinary Heritage: Eat Drink Delta by Susan Puckett

Eat Drink Delta by Susan PuckettThe Georgia Center for the Book recently released a new list of “Books All Georgians Should Read.” I was excited to see one of my favorite titles from last year enjoying its rightful place on the list. Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey through the Soul of the South is a cultural study of the Mississippi Delta via its foodways written by award-winning food writer and editor Susan Puckett. The following interview came out of a lunch meeting where Susan and I talked about many things, but mostly about food.

SS: Do you ever get tired of talking about food, writing about food or just having food be on your mind all the time?

SP: I’m kind of embarrassed to say no. It’s a constant obsession pretty much. I dream about it.

SS: What is so remarkable about food? What makes it interesting to you?

SP: Because it connects everything and everybody. It’s the common denominator that pulls us all together. That sounds trite and cliché, but a food conversation can be a jumping off place to just about anywhere you want to go. You never know where it’s going to lead you. It’s something we all have to do at least three times a day. Which is why most of us think about it a lot, perhaps not as much as me.

SS: I definitely was thinking about food a lot as I was reading Eat Drink Delta. I wondered if you would tell everybody a little about your background. You have said that you became an “accidental food reporter.” How did you start on the food beat?

Susan Puckett, author of Eat Drink Delta

Susan Puckett, author of Eat Drink Delta

SP: Well, I am from Jackson, Mississippi originally. Went to Ole Miss. Studied journalism. My first newspaper job was at the Clarion-Ledger, my hometown paper. I always knew I wanted to be a general feature writer. It never crossed my mind that I wanted to be a food writer because back then I was a very picky eater; I liked about two vegetables. When I started working at the paper, I naturally gravitated to feature stories that connected to my Mississippi heritage, and 80 percent of the time there was some food element to those stories. Southerners, maybe especially Mississippians, love to talk about food. And it just naturally connects us to who we are. We love to tell stories. And it’s just kind of our storytelling. In the course of doing that, I did a number of food stories that I didn’t think of as food stories. But they did have a recipe to go with them. An editor decided to turn that into a cookbook called The Cook’s Tour of Mississippi, so I guess I became a cookbook author before I really even knew how to test a recipe and before I really liked vegetables. That’s actually how I started eating my vegetables.

SS: From there, you did take a very intentional path to becoming a food writer. How did you do that?

SP: I took a huge leap of faith and quit my job. I went back to school at Iowa State because they had a good food and nutrition program. There I learned about food and had the crazy idea to do A Cook’s Tour of Iowa on my own and miraculously, a few years later, it got published.

SS: Did you come to Atlanta from Iowa?

SP: No, I took a very circuitous route to get here. I worked at multiple papers as a food writer–in Cincinnati, in Cleveland and at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel before getting an offer to work as the food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1990.

SS: I can imagine that things have changed by leaps and bounds since you took that job as a food editor in 1990. Chefs have become more like celebrities, and the whole experience of going out to eat has become an event. What good things have you seen happen in the food industry since you came to Atlanta?

SP: I remember when people were predicting that by about this time no one would be cooking. Everything would be coming out of a package or a microwave. And it’s completely the opposite because chefs have embraced celebrity or whatever, which has a huge downside. Honestly, I very rarely watch the Food Network. But it’s gotten people interested in food. Whatever it takes to get people passionate about food. I see a tremendous interest in a younger generation. They are cooking things that take days to cook, and I love that.

SS: I know someone who made his own bacon.

SP: Oh my gosh!

SS: I guess he found a good deal on a pig.

SP: That whole animal butchery thing. That’s way more ambitious than me.

SS: I don’t think I have enough counter space for all that.

SP: There is a lot of ego-driven cooking, a lot of just obnoxious pretentiousness, but there are also some chefs who are doing just fabulous things for the community. Educating people about where their food comes from.

SS: For Eat Drink Delta, you went back to your Mississippi roots. And I want people to know, that while there are some recipes in the book, this is really about southern storytelling.

SP: Thank you, Alison. I appreciate you pointing that out. I have been at book signings, and people have said, “Well, I’m watching my weight and not cooking that much.” It’s not just recipes. I hope it’s something that you’ll want to read and maybe come away with a better understanding of a place that a lot of people have trouble wrapping their brain around, the Mississippi Delta.

SS: You had to figure out how you were going to map that for the book. What constitutes the Mississippi Delta?

Peabody Hotel Ducks in Lobby

“The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” — Author/Historian David Cohn (Image courtesy: Roadtrippers.com)

SP: A famous writer from the 1940s in Greenville, Mississippi, David Cohn, famously said that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. Both of those points are along Highway 61, the Blues Highway. It is where the Mississippi River Delta begins and where it empties into the Yazoo River. For somebody’s who’s plotting a trip, I thought, “That’s exactly where I’m going to start.” In the lobby of the Peabody Hotel with a fancy cocktail. And I just wonder if there’s a soul food restaurant in Vicksburg, which represents the poorest part of the Delta. And in fact I did find an excellent soul food restaurant there called L.D.’s. The proprietor actually grew up on one of those riverside shacks but went on to become a successful business owner with several really good soul food restaurants in Vicksburg. So that gave me some parameters. And then the others parameters were governed by landscape. I loved this idea of exploring food not restricted by the boundaries of state lines or city limits, but by geography. The Delta has just a distinctive geography. I really wanted to see how that geography informed the food. It was a real eye-opener for me. Even when you cross those ridge line hills there are these changes, these subtle changes and shifts. Even if the food is similar, it tends to be spicier the closer you are to the river and in the floodplain.

SS: I wondered if there were any surprises that you encountered on your trip, which was really many road trips over time.

SP: One of the biggest surprises was just how many really good, even high-end, restaurants were in these tiny, impoverished towns. They’re serving beautiful steaks and really nice seafood. There’s a sophistication there that really comes as a big surprise to people. You’re not going to find that in just any small town. There’s also an appreciation for hot tamales, barbecue, catfish, just good ole country cooking that crosses all classes, all races. Food really is something that unites people in what is sometimes considered a poor, divided place.

Citizen Farmers by Daron Joffe with Susan PuckettThis year, Susan was involved with the publication of another book about food, which digs soil-deep into America’s culinary heritage. She collaborated with Daron Joffe (better known as Farmer D of Farmer D Organics) on Citizen Farmers: The Biodynamic Way to Grow Healthy Food, Build Thriving Communities, and Give Back to the Earth. Susan describes this as a “really fun project” about Joffe, an agricultural entrepreneur who travels the country helping people start organic biodynamic farms and gardens, spreading the message of how we can help support our local food economies. Keep up with Susan’s food writing and travels by following @PuckettSusan on Twitter.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
0

“Great Transformations: Debut Novels” Panel at Southern Festival of Books

Great Transformations Debut Novels at Southern Festival of Books

Debut novels Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile and The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi will be the focus of a panel on Friday, October 10, 2014, at the Southern Festival of Books.

I have the privilege of moderating a panel this Friday, October 10th at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee. Entitled “Great Transformations: Debut Novels,” the panel features two amazing stories. I hope you’ll join us at 3:30 p.m. CT in Room 30 of the Legislative Plaza.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile tells the story of a Los Angeles single mom who inherits a neglected 800-acre sugarcane farm in rural Louisiana. Protagonist Charley Bordelon’s “great transformation” relies on hard work and fellowship with a community of people she’s only met at family reunions. Baszile’s own family history inspired Queen Sugar.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi examines the ancient Afghan custom of bacha posh–a girl dressed and accepted by everyone as a boy. Living in Kabul in 2007, Young Rahima is one of five sisters whose only hope of going to school and leaving the house is to dress as a boy until she is of marriageable age. Hashimi’s story is based on her family’s Afghan heritage.

I’m binge-reading these books before the panel on Friday, which is an easy assignment. Charley and Rahima’s narratives are captivating and will make for a great discussion. Again, the Great Transformations panel takes place this Friday, October 10th at 3:30 p.m. CT. Friday is the first day of the 26th Annual Southern Festival of Books. To view the complete list of sessions, visit this page. You can also follow @SoFestofBooks on Twitter or visit the festival’s Facebook page for more information.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInAmazon Wish ListGoogle+Share
2

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes