Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Great Southern storytelling by Jackson in 'A Grown-up Kind of Pretty'


            Ever give a dog a bone and watch as he snatches it up and disappears to devour the treat in peace?
            That’s how I feel when I receive a book by Joshilyn Jackson, a Deep South writer who fills book pages with Southern humor, mystery, class wars you can relate to and dialogue that sounds like I’m sitting in a Mississippi diner eavesdropping. Her wonderful past bestsellers include “gods in Alabama,” “Between, Georgia” and “Backseat Saints.” I can assure you I grabbed her latest book and disappeared from family and work, devouring the story like a dog on a bone, growling whenever anyone tried to interrupt.
            And I wasn’t disappointed. Jackson returns with another winning novel in “A Grown-up Kind of Pretty.” Set in a small fictional town near Biloxi, the book follows three generations of Slocumb women, all who seem to experience life-changing events every 15 years. Grandma “Big” had a baby at 15, unaided by her disapproving Southern Baptist parents. Then her rambucuous child, Liza, has her own out-of-wedlock baby at 15, which sets her on a road to ruin until she conquers her demons.
            The book begins in present day as Liza’s child, Mosey, turns the corner at 15, causing both mom and grandmother to smother her with caution. But it’s not Mosey causing the trouble. An infant’s bones are found buried in the backyard under the willow not long after her mother suffers a stroke. Liza manages, however, to blurt out two words upon seeing the unearthed grave: “My baby!” Suddenly, Mosey realizes she may not be a Slocumb after all, Liza must face up to a possible kidnapping and Big struggles to hold the family together while searching out the truth.
            The book’s narrative is told through all three women as one attempts to regain her voice, another her parentage and the matriarch finding love among the ruins. Through it all are the raw choices we make, the harsh consequences that sometimes make our lives complete and the restrictions we put upon ourselves and relationships because of our upbringing.
            “A Grown-up Kind of Pretty” keeps you guessing, keeps you laughing while enjoying every minute of this charming Southern tale. Give yourself time, however. You won’t want to be disturbed and family members don’t appreciate being growled at.

Tennessee Williams Festival March 21-25
            The Tennessee Wiliams/New Orleans Literary Festival celebrates its 26th anniversity Wednesday through Sunday, March 21-25, in several venues throughout New Orleans. There will be two days of master classes for writers, panels and lectures, celebrity interviews, theater, food and music events, literary walking tours, book fair and the annual Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest.
            Recently published is “My Friend Tom: The Poet-Playwright Tennessee Williams” by close friend and poet William Jay Smith. Smith met Williams in St. Louis when both were starting their careers as writers. He offers a critical analysis of Williams’s early work in poetry and drama, plus reflects on their careers in pre-World War II South and postwar New York. The book is based on Smith’s correspondence with Williams, excerpts from literary journals and newspapers and more. Smith is a multi-published author and former U.S. Poet Laureate.
            Some of the speakers at the Tennessee Wiliams/New Orleans Literary Festival include actors Piper Laurie and Amanda Plummer; authors John Guare (“A Free Man of Color”) and Laura Lippman; Nick Spitzer, folklorist and producer and host of radio’s “American Routes;” Amy Hempel (“Collected Stories”) and Julie Kane, Louisiana’s 2012 poet laureate and many more.
            For information on the festival, call (504) 581-1144 or (800) 990-3378 or visit www.tennesseewilliams.net.

New guidebooks
            Baton Rouge writer Alex V. Cook offers a comprehensive guide to passing a good time in South Louisiana with “Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana’s Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks and Dance Halls” (LSU Press). The book’s trade paperback size makes it easy to bring along on a tour of South Louisiana’s back roads and cities, enjoying the many musical venues listed in this book — and there are many! Cook profiles the dance halls and juke joints and offers photos, maps and “detour” features on festivals, recording studios and record stores.
            Another great guidebook to read, grab and bring along for the ride is “The Acadiana Art Trail: The Essential Guide to Finding Local Art in Cajun Country” by Kelli Foret, with photos by Lauren Hensgens. The book offers a handy map and leads readers in several directions, providing “trails” that make for great day trips. Included on this sojourns are galleries, artists’ studios, restaurants and coffeeshops with art, museums and more.
            A few of the places have closed or changed names since both books were published (Fly’s Coffee House and Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge) so it’s always good to call ahead.
            While we’re talking guidebooks I must add a plug for my own. “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Tour of Acadiana,” published by The History Press, offers a historic tour of the 22 parishes making up Cajun Country. In addition to providing information on attractions, historic sites and sometimes food (what’s a Cajun Country guide without mentioning food?), there’s also a handy listings of South Louisiana festivals and tourism web sites.

New releases
            The winter edition of The Southern Review, the literary quarterly begun by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at LSU in 1935, is now on shelves. The issue is filled with works by established and emerging writers and artwork by featured artist Gwyneth Scally.
            Listing just about every subject possible is the “African American Almanac: 400 Years of Triumph, Courage, and Excellence” by Lean’tin L. Bracks with a foreword by author Jessie Carney Smith. Numerous Louisiana natives are mentioned in this mammoth undertaking, but a few notables are missing, such as New Orleans Civil Rights leaders Oretha Castle Haley and Dookie Chase, among others, and contemporary political columnist Donna Brazile. Overall, it’s a great reference book and a valuable addition to any library.
                                   
Book news
            Rebecca J. Scott, the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law and author of “Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery” has been named the University of Michigan’s Henry Russel Lecturer for 2012.  “Degrees of Freedom” received the Frederick Douglass Prize and the John Hope Franklin Prize. 

Book events
            Toby Daspit and Anna Purdy poetry reading, with open mic to follow, 7 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at Casa Azul Gifts in Grand Coteau. Information: Patrice at (337) 662-1032 or festivalwords@gmail.com.
            Lily Hoang reads from her works at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at the Ernest J. Gaines Center, third floor of Dupré Library on the UL campus in Lafayette. All Women’s History Month programs at Dupré Library are free and open to the public. For more information contact April Grey: aprilgrey@louisiana.edu, 482-6197 or Derek Mosley: gainescenter@louisiana.edu, 482-1848.
            Michael S. Martin, director of the Center for Louisiana Studies and Cheryl Courrege Burguieres, endowed professor of history, UL-Lafayette, will lead a discussion on “Does it Really Matter Who Killed the Kingfish?” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at the Paul & Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum on the UL campus in Lafayette.
            The UL-Lafayette Festival of the Arts presents the symposium, “Antonine Maillet and Her World: Return to Acadie,” from 11:30am-5:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, at Vermilionville Performance Center in Lafayette.

Cheré Coen is the author of “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” She teaches writing at UL-Lafayette’s Continuing Education. Write her at chere@louisianabooknews.com.