When Giraffes Flew: A Review

Jeff Weddle’s vision encompasses many facets of the human condition—focused rage and conflict, love and lust, the peevishness of petty minds—but for the most part his vignettes confront you with those moments in life when the world shifts a bit, when the things that were in place lose their balance, bringing into focus the law that states life can turn on a can of sardines. Weddle’s stories are about those brief, shining moments in a South of indiscriminate geography, for the most part that of two-lane roads, the landscapes of Flannery O’Connor and Larry Brown, in a sturdy, staccato prose that tell what happens when we come to face the world as who we are, naked and without artifice.

The most powerful stories in the collection are “A Feast of Feathers”, a harrowing story of the loss of innocence; “Hot Sardines”, which delineates a situation packed with potential, a study in lowered expectations that explode into chaos and disorder; “A Constant Battle of the Flesh”, a very, very funny story of tangled lust that ends in the complex complacency many such situations do; “Epiphany”, perhaps best described as a prose poem about “God’s cruelest gift”, insufficient talent; “She Finds Herself Dancing”, a truly beautiful observation/reflection on that magic which takes place when the spotlights are upon you; “Dooley’s Revenge”, retelling that “oldest story” of two men and a majorette; the back-to-back stories of “Dog Day” and “Ditto”, which describe how some people weren’t made to care for others while some care for others too much in the wrong way; and “State of Grace”, a story that defies description but one you will find yourself reading again to find the song behind the words, “I wonder who you are.”

For the life of me, it is my fondest hope that in time the whimsical cover for this dark and perceptive collection of short stories, an image taken from the last story, which in itself is a reflection on theology, perhaps even on the need for theology, will become a collector’s item more illustrative of a publisher’s misconception of a work than it is of the work itself. Jeff Weddle is far from whimsical, and though When Giraffes Flew does have visions of exotic animals cavorting in clouds, nobody has an umbrella.

The Southerner’s Cookbook: A Review

Transitions in regional media are often difficult to discern, but when it comes to the South, which has an arguably more identifiable character than any other region of the country, watersheds can be mapped with a bit more precision.

Such is the case with Garden & Guns newest release, The Southerner’s Cookbook, which is the third installment in three years (each October) under the G&G label. The first two imprimaturs, The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life (Oct., 2013) and Good Dog (Oct., 2014), set the tone of the magazine’s brand, which is clearly targeted, in the words of G&G president and CEO Rebecca Darwin, “to people like me or to people who were very sophisticated, very worldly, but in love with where they’re from, which is this beautiful place called the South.” The label has a pronounced literary bent as is evidenced by its contributors, and given its added emphasis on sophistication and worldliness, one might well gather that Darwin and her team have set their collective caps to filling a decidedly upscale niche somewhere between brashness of The Oxford American and the comfort of that grand dame of regional periodicals, Southern Living. What with the progression of G&G’s publications so far, it’s a safe bet to expect the release of a book on Southern gardening next year.

The Southerner’s Cookbook is indeed market-generated, and I really shouldn’t be surprised that only one restaurant from the entire state of Mississippi carries a recipe. John Currence has a passage about his latest project, whole roast hog, which is somewhat of a departure for a native of the Big Easy operating in the Little Easy, but this is an era of diversity. Martha Foose inexplicably given the context is mentioned in a recipe for bacon crackers. The one recipe that shocks and dismays me is the one for “Comeback Sauce (sic)”, which is not only compared with McDonald’s “Secret Sauce”, but also provided by a chef from Alabama with a restaurant in Atlanta. The nod to Jackson in the first few words simply does not make up for such a slight. The cookbook is also far off the mark by consigning Jesse Houston’s restaurant Saltine, which specializes in oysters and seafood, to a sauce (Black Pepper Ranch Dressing) rather than an entrée. Both Mississippi and Jesse deserve far, far better than this.

If you need more evidence that Mississippi is nothing more than “that land mass between Louisiana and Alabama”, you need turn no further than The Southerner’s Cookbook. Yupster cookbooks have come of age, and Julia Reed is the bellwether for Mississippi. God help us all.

Floods, Sweat, and Tears

Though Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles, he lived in New Orleans as a small child and spent summers there until he was 11 years old, when his family returned to California. Music is in his blood, with Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman for uncles. In 1974, Reprise Records released Newman’s fifth album, “Good Old Boys”, his first album to achieve commercial success. The premiere performance was in Atlanta on October 5 that year, with guest artist Ry Cooter and Newman conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The songs as a whole constitute not only a searing satire on the character of the South in general, but also an indictment of the hypocrisy of northern (and western) states in dealing with the institutional racism of the South in the 20th century. The song “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” is a plea to the highest levels of government for the relief of the Sisyphean struggle against poverty that is an ongoing condition for the people in this country who rely upon an hourly wage.

The most poignant song, “Louisiana, 1927” is based on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which to this day is the most devastating flood to hit the United States. What makes the ’27 flood most infamous is that in an effort to save the city where their profits were made, New Orleans businessmen insisted on dynamiting levees to divert water to the poorer surrounding parishes, which were effectively destroyed and many lives were lost. In the final verse, President Calvin Coolidge “comes down in a railroad train” with a “little fat man with a notebook in his hand”. Coolidge says, callously, “Little fat man, ain’t it a shame/What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?”, in which we can draw a parallel to the execitive indifference of Bush in the wake of Katrina.

They’re trying to wash us away,
They’re trying to wash us away …

 

Winter Green

In dry summers we forget the life that survives drought, living in the crooks and crannies on the barren trunks and branches of older trees, then after days upon days of pressing heat and caustic light, rains fall and woody bones come alive again, not with their own vigor, which is waning, but with a rebirth of fern, lush and green in a browning world, and on misty mornings when leaves are wet, you can hear laughter from little people among the fronds.

Theroux at Rowan Oak

Mississippians, particularly those of us from north Mississippi, should resign ourselves to literary scrutiny by writers of stature, since those without standing dare not scale the Parnassus of Oxford without credentials. Paul Theroux is no exception, but we should ask ourselves not only why he and others of his ilk come here, but what (if anything) they’re looking for.

Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident if not always clear clarion that reverberates from the center of Lafayette County across the world.

Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s effort spans generations.

Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, but it’s also important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed and fleeting fabric of the South, perceivable better by far in his excesses than by any others details.

 

Jake Adam York: City of Grace

Welcome to Jackson: City of Grace and Benevolence
City of Grace, you open,
you part your curtains
and smile like a hostess
when we call your name,
you tender what any traveler needs,
a call to ease, a balm,
a kindness, whatever storm.
You take us in. City of Grace
and Benevolence, you say
you know what solace means,
burned so often they called you
Chimneyville, and now
you can’t forget,
you’ve written it in bronze
outside the City Hall
the War made a hospital
for the Yankee
and for your Rebel sons,
like the one who is always dying
outside the Capitol.
City of Fame,
you hold him still, laurel
on your crown, fan
making a hand of wind
to soothe his face
and fill the eagle’s wings
spread above to promise,
Virtute et armis, to say again
just how far you’ll go.
City of Remembrance,
you keep so well, you show us
where Welty lived,
the house still there, how she skated
to the library, through
the Capitol, the book
now cast and open in her hands.
Tell me now, City of Embrace,
of the newsreels’ children
rounded from their march,
flags gathered, the children
trucked to the fairground cages,
the ones who peer out
through the chicken wire.
City of Richard Wright
and Ross Barnett, tell me
not just where the Governor pled
I love Mississippi, I love her people,
her customs, but where the writer
went to school, a short walk
from here, thinking it was not
until one wanted the world to be different
that one would look at the world
with will and emotion, and tell me,
then, where Medgar Evers lived,
whom you remember
with a post office and a stamp
and an airport, though
when I’ve asked you’ve turned
to someone else and said
Can you help this man find his friend?

Ambivalent City, you know the way,
but you let me find it, the statue,
the library, miles away,
the Boulevard, and then the house,
the plaque that tells us
this is where he lived, perfect
as a photograph, as a movie,
only the color’s unreal,
or too real, the green piercing,
the hose uncoiled as if someone
might return to water the lawn.
Neighbors cruise, panning
like cameras as I stand
where he must have stood
choosing the house with no front door,
where Beckwith must have stood,
who drove the town asking everyone
where Evers lived, where
he marked his man.
There is nowhere else to stand.
A city is a kind of memory,
and if you stay too long
the shape of someone else
will hold you there
until day repeats its failure
and the streetlights wake
and yawn all color from the dusk
and the house becomes a photograph
of itself and the small wings
unfold from the fabric of night,
from all the magnolias’ ears
and the broad stretch of the reservoir
and the river you can smell
as they gather into pearls
the stars’ historic light,
the eyes’ whose looking stays
long after the pupils
have burned away. Fireflies
fall back into the grass,
and the mayflies clasp each other
in a kind of halo. City of Ghosts,
you can’t abandon your history,
and it won’t abandon you.
You watch each other,
you call each other’s names.
The sidewalks, the driveways
gleam like quarried moon,
and each open hand repeats
the ambient light as the crickets
fill with heat and raise again
the street’s last breath:
Turn me loose.