Arts & Life

Many years ago, when I was writing a movie review column, an older woman came up to me at a cocktail party and said, "Dr. Noble, my husband and I read your reviews faithfully. We find them very useful. If you like a movie, we don't go." Perhaps this is the case here. I don't hold with ghosts and Ouija boards, but if my description of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming sounds good, by all means, buy it and take it to the beach.

James Noles is a West Point graduate and a Birmingham attorney who has created a second career for himself, not as a novelist in the now overcrowded tradition of John Grisham, but as an independent historian.

Frye Gaillard, now writer-in residence at the University of South Alabama, has earned a place on the top shelf of interpreters of the recent South. This is the shelf occupied by popular writers such as Hal Crowther and Roy Blount Jr. and academic scholars such as Wayne Flynt.

No One You Know

Jul 6, 2008

This novel may seem at first to be genre fiction, but it is in fact literary fiction, the best sort. Richmond explores the devastating effects of grief and survivor guilt. She demonstrates how little, really, we know about even the people closest to us.

The rednecks in this volume are sweaty and petty and frightening--not attractive or romantic, nor salt of the earth types, at all. And they seem to favor the Dodge Ram truck, for what that's worth.

Philip Shirley, native Alabamian, has been successful in the advertising and public relations business for many years, but, almost as if he were a lawyer, has had an irrepressible desire to write fiction. Oh Don't You Cry for Me is Shirley's first collection, and it is a perfectly respectable debut.

Many of these pieces are ironic, somewhat scornful, but many are not. Capote has sympathetic words for Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and absolute encomia for Isak Dinesen and Capote's favorite American author, Willa Cather.

These memoirs are sociology, anthropology, like Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, or travel narratives of distant and exotic places. Except that, of course, the time is now, the place is here, and the mysterious creatures speaking and under discussion are American women, friendly and intelligent and utterly un-understood by the mass of American males.

The other mainly Alabama essay is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Moon Winx," which is just that?a meditation not on the nearly defunct Moon Winx Lodge, but on the neon sign in front of the Moon Winx Lodge, which was supposed to be in service to the lodge but has now surpassed it.

This degree of cruelty at the hands of government was not to be matched again until 2005, when the citizens of Alabama looked to FEMA and other government agencies for aid after Katrina.

Our Former Lives in Art

May 28, 2008

The day in which a story collection such as Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger could create a major stir is, alas, long gone. Maybe that's too bad. These are very clever and satisfying stories. They deserve some readers.

After finishing her MFA in fiction writing here at the University of Alabama, Jennifer Davis went on to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award with her collection Her Kind of Want, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2002.

This honest and clearly written memoir does begin in misery. In 1973, Kim Sun?e, at the age of three, is abandoned by her mother on a bench in a South Korean marketplace with "a tiny fistful of food" which was reduced to the crumbs of the title.

For years, Johnson, who was raised in Montgomery and studied journalism at Auburn, wrote four columns a week for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Unhappy with Atlanta traffic and that grueling pace, Johnson left the AJC in 2001. This has given her more time to write in a thoughtful, more leisurely way, and the result is Poor Man's Provence.

Like Trees, Walking

May 14, 2008

This is a remarkable first novel, impressive and sophisticated. The subject matter presents a big temptation to be hyperbolic, melodramatic, but Roy's voice is calm, reasoned. The story is told mainly in simple declarative sentences and is all the more powerful for it.

The Prince of Frogtown

May 14, 2008

And in terms of empathy, maybe I am not the best reviewer for this volume. Bragg's people are, emphatically, not my people. But then again, maybe I am the right one to review this volume, because Bragg makes these people come alive for me, and in fact through some of the most beautiful writing you will find anywhere, makes me care about them, feel for them as individuals.

Wicked City

Apr 22, 2008

In Wicked City, he fictionalizes actual events in the Phenix City of 1954, a place so awful, Atkins writes, "no author could ever exaggerate the sin, sleaze, and moral decay of Phenix City, Alabama, in the fifties or the courage of the people who stood up to fight it."

Ace Atkins' career has tacked this way and that over the years, but has never strayed very far from crime, especially murder.

Family Bible

Apr 22, 2008

This is not for the most part a volume full of blame or revenge, although there are more than enough guilty parties. This is Delbridge's own story, her very particular growing-up story, and while it is comical at times, these essays are laced through, as many memoirs are, with real pain.

The book closes with a recipe for "Cornbread Southern Style." Besides the obvious ingredients, this recipe calls for one tablespoon of sugar. Since "Pig Iron Rough Notes" was edited by an Alabamian and published in Alabama and the recipe came from J. M. Brown of Edgewater, Alabama, I take it to be the last, final, definitive word on cornbread. One tablespoon sugar.

Work Shirts for Madmen

Mar 17, 2008

Singleton has published three collections of stories, mostly funny, and then had only a semi-success with Novel: A Novel, in which he made fun of writers' colonies. In Work Shirts for Madmen, he has adjusted to the longer form, and this novel is a treat.

Tartts Three is a collection of twenty-three stories. One-hundred-seventy story collections were submitted to the third annual Tartt First Fiction Award contest. After choosing the winning collections, the editors went on to select the twenty-three best individual stories from the hundreds of stories entered. There is not a loser in the bunch.

Blonde Faith

Mar 3, 2008

Blonde Faith is the tenth Easy Rawlins mystery. The character, based on Mosley's own African-American father, was born and raised in Houston, saw fierce combat in the European Campaign in WWII, especially the Battle of the Bulge, and returned home to find he could not live in overtly bigoted Houston, so moved to make his life in LA, where the prejudice was more subtle and somewhat less lethal.

This is not another general history of the civil rights movement but rather a focussed study of the role played by reporters, newspaper editors, radio reporters, still photographers, and, finally and most importantly, television reporters and their crews: cameramen and sound technicians.

Gene Roberts and Alabamian Hank Klibanoff have won the Pulitzer Prize for The Race Beat, so it is not risky for me to say it is terrific. But it really is.

This is an insider baseball book, and this is the perfect month for baseball fans to read The Entitled. Since the World Series, fans have survived on the methadone of football. Now that the Super Bowl is over, there is nothing.

Capote in Kansas is not a terrible novel. Things happen. Truman has a lover, a married air conditioner repairman. He sends ghoulish collages and tiny handcarved coffins through the mail. On the phone, Truman and Nelle reminisce about their childhood in Monroeville. The characters are believable; the plot moves. It's not a terrible novel; it's an offensive novel.

The letters, warm, smart, loving, honest, useful, are now a book, and well worth anyone's time, pregnant or not. (I suspect that Fennelly's agent thought, as I do, that this is a book that could have legs, as they say in publishing, and sell for decades.)

This memoir is more cameo than epic and Elder's story might have been told better. But it is fascinating to see how he was determined to put his experiences on the record and name names. And we should bear in mind this all happened in the 1970s, not the 1930s.

Organized state by state, this is a guide to the finest . . . what shall we call it? Down home cooking? Country cooking? Soul food? Traditional southern fare? This is a guide to BBQ, fried chicken, fried catfish, sausages, oysters raw and cooked, crawfish, hushpuppies, Brunswick stew, smoked mullet, collard greens and pot likker, and a dozen different kinds of biscuits, cornbread, and rolls.

Southern Belly

Short story anthologies are stepchildren in the publishing world. First, they are, I think, unfairly associated with the classroom. That's always too bad. And one is more likely to read a collection by an author one already knows and admires, say John Updike or William Gay. People also favor collections that are thematically based?hunting stories or stories set on Cape Cod, or stories about dogs, although there should be a moratorium on those.


Dec 31, 2007

There are certain venues?times and places?that are problematical or, alternatively, rich for a novelist. If, for example, a novel is set in Honolulu on Saturday, December 6, 1941, any conversation between characters about what they plan to do tomorrow, go on a picnic, say, is fraught with meaning?to the reader, not to the characters. The same holds true for New York City in early September 2001, and so on. Carolyn Haines sets her new novel, Revenant, in August of 2005 on the Mississippi Coast, in Biloxi.

The Far Reaches

Dec 24, 2007

This is an action-adventure novel, a thriller, a yarn, and needs to be taken as such. In the first chapters Thurlow is part of the Marine landing on Tarawa, one of the nastiest battles of all the nasty battles of the Pacific. The Marines went ashore on the wrong tide, the Higgins boats got hung up on the reef and shelled to pieces, and many Marines drowned trying to walk to shore in battle gear. The defending Japanese marines either died in combat or committed suicide. There were nearly no prisoners.

Supreme Conflict is more than a history of the findings of the court for the last fifteen or so years. Based on interviews with nine justices, over a dozen federal appeals court judges, scores of officials from several administrations, and years of research in the Library of Congress and the Reagan and Bush presidential libraries, this is a reliable behind-the-scenes account of how the court's decisions got made and, more importantly, why and how the new justices of the last decade have been chosen.