Southern Lit Month: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It really doesn’t need more of an introduction than that. I can’t imagine there is a conscious reader who exists without having at least the vaguest idea of this novel or its film adaptation. My book club selected this book to read for January which ties in nicely to Southern Literature Month taking place on my blog this month. We all blew through it and met up yesterday to share our critical thoughts and gossipy opinions. And it was glorious.

John Berendt wrote for Esquire and New York Magazine before churning out this sordid tale of a 1980s murder that occurred in Savannah, Georgia. Berendt weaves the story of Jim Williams’s shooting of Danny Hansford through his wheelings and dealings with Savannah’s people – her upper crust snobs and her dazzling outcasts. Savannah and her cast of characters upstage the main event and that is not a bad thing.

Because Savannah is a saucy minx, a devilious lush. She has secrets – really scandalous secrets. And for whatever reason, her residents let this Yankee journalist in on so many of them. The pages turned quickly and Google was always open on a computer or phone nearby. You just HAVE to see images of these people, the streets, the architecture as you read along. The ladies and I discussed Savannah at length – how haunted she feels, how gorgeous she is, and even how the trees seem to be looking at you and following your every move! It’s such a unique place with a vast history.

Berendt writes almost episodically. Each chapter feels like a short little love story (or horror story, you decide) dedicated to a city he was only beginning to know and understand. So the pacing was superb. We quibbled over whether or not Midnight could really be considered nonfiction because Mr. Berendt took many, many liberties within the pages. Apparently, for this reason he didn’t win the Pulitzer. But I imagine his version makes for better reading. What shocked the hell out of me was how willing Savannah was to open her doors and share all her demons. But I guess she was just too drunk to care.

So we liked it! We really, really liked it and hope you will too. It’s not perfect. Our author protagonist suffers from what I lovingly call ‘white man disorder’ so sometimes his female, gay, and black characters are left unattended or wrongly attended, perhaps. But for everything he gets wrong, he gets something else as equally spot on. As a Southerner and a native Georgian, I’m glad I read this and can’t wait to seek out the movie. Because Jude Law as a young male hooker just rings a lot of my bells.

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Southern Anecdotes IV: My Hometown

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This Sunday I thought I’d take y’all on a little stroll along the brick main street of my old stomping grounds and give you a taste of what my childhood was like in Thomasville, Georgia. T-ville covers about 15 square miles in southwest Georgia and is the second largest city of that particular region after Albany. The city was founded in 1826 and named after Jett Thomas, a general in the War of 1812. Thank you, Wikipedia!

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I always thought I can from a small town, but didn’t realize how small it actually was until I just looked at the census data. In 2010, population numbers were around 18K. I swear to y’all my mother always said we had 50K people. She was either lying, dreaming, or including all the neighboring counties. I guess when I was a little girl we probably had somewhere closer to 10-15K because I know there’s been a rather large population migration in the past ten years.

So, yeah, a small town but not the smallest. You feel like you know everyone’s name without actually knowing everyone’s name, ya know? But there’s always the risk that you’re surrounded by townies who can tattle on you. That’s what my dad used as leverage against me when I started driving at 16. He said there was practically nowhere I could go in town where someone he knew wouldn’t see me and report back to him. This was a real threat.

Thomasville is known as the City of Roses, and we host a large Rose Festival every year. We even used to get the day off from school. A town holiday! We’d line up along Broad Street and watch the Rose parade ramble past filled with tractors, beauty queens, and marching bands.

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Broad Street is a bit of a novelty in and of itself in that it’s still paved in its original brick cobblestone. Our downtown is historic and feels like it never left the 19th Century. That’s why every Christmas downtown morphs into the Victorian era for Victorian Christmas. Shop owners dress up in old-timey garb, traditional Victorian crafts and gifts are made and sold, and a great (how ever many greats is required) grandson of Charles Dickens reads A Christmas Carol.

Tourists can also visit a really old tree we affectionately call the ‘Big Oak’ which is a Live Oak older than 320 years. If that’s not enough to entertain you, we have several history museums, open plantations, and some really great little shops and restaurants. Plus, the beach is only a little over an hour away.

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From a local perspective, Thomasville is quaint, quiet, and fairly conservative. Churches are found on most corners which was odd for me since I grew up outside the church. It was a great place to grow up, though. I just started to feel a bit too stifled the older I got. I wouldn’t call T-ville rigid in her beliefs, but she can be a stubborn mule when it comes to progression. All that aside, the community is also filled with lovely, sweet people who will give you the shirt off their backs. When tragedy occurs, you barely have to lift a finger because the whole town takes over. After funerals, you’ll find enough food in your house to feed a small army for months. There’s something special in that.

Southern Anecdotes III: The Food!!

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Let’s talk Southern cuisine. It’s really all about the food, right? When you think of Southern American down home cooking, what comes to mind? Grits, cornbread, collard greens, fried okra, and sweet tea are a few that immediately jump out. Fried chicken, butter beans, and banana pudding as well.

Growing up, my mom cooked nearly every meal I ate. We didn’t eat out much and when we did it wasn’t anything remotely fancy. I didn’t realize how much I loved my mom’s cooking until I moved away from home and tried to find a decent Southern substitute. But even now with all the glorious restaurants in Atlanta, nothing comes close to the comfort of my mom’s food. I know the biggest ingredient is probably nostalgia which can never be replicated.

Growing up, my favorite meal was cubed steak smothered in milk gravy, mashed potatoes, and butter beans. My dad used to tell me I’d turn into a butter bean one of these days. Instead of birthday cake, I requested this meal. Whenever I would go home during college, my mom always made sure to make this for me. I’m salivating just thinking about it. I’ve tried on several occasions to replicate the recipe, but my milk gravy never comes out properly. SADFACE.

I remember a trip I went on in high school where we had this huge convention with other kids from all 50 states. The Southern states always spent half the time convincing everyone else that grits grew on trees. And most of them believed us. Oh goodness, now I want some grits – with lots of melted cheese. YUM.

Of course, I don’t like all Southern food. For every black-eyed pea or boiled peanut I’ve inhaled, there’s also a ton of fried okra and sweet tea I’ve left unattended. I just can’t get behind either one. When I was little, greens of any sort weren’t my jam, but now I can’t get enough.

There are so many Southern food variations as well. Food in Louisiana, for instance, is so amazing and so different from the food I grew up with. My last time in New Orleans I had the best gator meatballs and gumbo I’ve ever had the pleasure to consume. I grew up near the coast so seafood was always available. And I’ve eaten my fair share of freshly caught fish – saltwater and freshwater varieties. My brother cooks a mean pork rib and biscuits from scratch. I could now fall down the BBQ rabbit hole, but I’ll spare you.

As far as odd food goes, Southerns like to eat many parts of many animals. One of my favorite snacks growing up was chicken gizzards. My Big Mama (that’s what I called my dad’s mother) used to soak them in this brine and then cook them up. She’d give me a dixie cup full every time I went to her house (which was mostly every day) and I’d gobble those things down like nobody’s business. I have yet to find restaurant gizzards that come close.

What are your favorite regional food memories?

Southern Anecdotes Part II!

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Another fond and interesting memory I have of growing up in a Southern dialect is the time my mother came home from work outraged that she was expected to teach her kindergartners that the word ‘dog’ rhymes with ‘log’. Where I come from, dog is pronounced ‘dawg’. Any other way is absolutely blasphemous and ridiculously upsetting. She had a hard time reconciling herself to teaching the children something that would ultimately get them made fun of and ridiculed, despite the fact that technically dog does rhyme with log. (#southernproblems – are we hashtagging in blog posts yet?)

Recently, Jimmy has started complaining about a particular Southern phrase that really irks him. Down here, many of us will say the following: “I’m fixin’ to!”. We say fixin’ in place of about. So we’re always fixin’ to do this and fixin’ to do that. And yes, we know that fixing means something entirely different, but we don’t care. Adapt or get left behind, Mr. Hubs.

When I used to frequent Panama City Beach, Florida (Redneck Riviera!) during spring break back in high school, there were always a ton of kids from the Midwest vacationing there as well. My friends and I once stumbled across a group of college boys from Wisconsin who literally spent thirty minutes giving us phrases to say in ‘our language’ as they called it. Their favorite, hands down, was ‘Oh my god’. To this day, I still don’t get it.

At the end of college, I made a concerted effort to change the way I said certain words. I wanted to sound not less Southern but just more correct. These words included: water, catch, and on. I drop far fewer ‘g’s off the ends of words. And I’ll even admit that my ‘dog’ sounds a lot more like ‘log’ than it used to. Unless, of course, I’m shouting ‘Go Dawgs!’ which will NEVER CHANGE.

Now I want to hear all of your funny, quirky accent stories – no matter your accent! Any words you’ve tried to correct in your daily speech? Any words you refuse to correct? What are the most common phrases specific to your area? I love hearing about dialects and nuances of speech so do tell!!

A Southern Anecdote: The Accent Thing

If-Ya-Aint-From-The-South-Motivational-Love-QuotesThe Southern accent, in my experience, is not one thing. It’s is many and varied. It changes from city to city, state to state. Someone in coastal Savannah or Charleston sounds speaks differently than a person from the mountains of Tennessee or the city of Atlanta. People from my hometown of Thomasville, Georgia make fun of those from Macon (a mere 2.5 hours north) for sounding like Yankees. Yet the American media would have you believe our voices are all the same.

But consider this: I have lived in Georgia all but two years of my (very early) life. My formative years were spent in the extreme southern parts of the state where our accents are fairly pronounced. Since turning 18, however, most of my time has been spent in Northern Georgia between Athens and Atlanta. I’m also a bit language and pronunciation obsessed so I’ve literally changed the way I say some words, like ‘water’. My husband, who grew up in Queens to a Taiwanese family, says that word more Southern than I do. With those simple changes some Southerners have decided I am, in fact, no longer a true Southerner. Whatever that means. I think sometimes we buy into the media’s idea of what we should be.

One day back in 2006, I was driving a gameday shuttle from Sanford Stadium to the parking decks after a UGA game when a passenger struck up a conversation with me. He was an older gentleman with a coastal accent. He really drawled out his vowels, but still managed to sound genteel, distinguished, and highly educated. He asked me where I was from and I told him Thomasville. For ten minutes he argued with me, got downright angry, because he could not believe I was telling the truth. He said I sounded like a Northerner through and through. I’d never been accused of something so ridiculous – or insulting (no offense, Northerners). Ever since that experience I’ve had an obsession with trying to pin down the Southern accent and mostly, I’ve completely failed in that endeavor.

The only conclusion I’ve been able to arrive at – those not from and of the South almost never get it right. Or, at least, they ignore the nuances and focus on the most backwards, hick accent they can create. This is why Honey Boo Boo grates on my nerves. Not because people don’t actually speak like that (her family is one of thousands who sound like that all the time) but because they are stealing all the limelight and perpetuating that single Southern voice I despise so much. A voice that even Southerners who sound so completely different have bought into. But it’s a lie. Even my sister and I have intensely different accents despite being raised in the same city, in the same house, by the same people.

Just some food for thought!! If you’re from the South, have you had any similar experiences? If you’re not, where have you gotten your ideas and impressions of what sounding Southern means? Movies, books, television? I’d love to know.

Southern Literature Month: January 2014

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Happy New Year and welcome to 2014! I’m kicking things off over here with the first annual Southern Literature Month. My goal is simple – celebrate the American South! While the goal is to concentrate on Southern literature, all things Southern are more than welcome. And nothing fancy is required! I hope to see your posts around this January.

My own plans are to read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with my bookclub ladies. I’d also like to do some special posts about my own experiences growing up and living in Georgia. Hopefully, I’ll be able to squeeze in some additional Southern reading. Authors I’m considering are Susan Gregg Gilmore, Eudora Welty, Beth Hoffman, Joshilyn Jackson, and Truman Capote.

Happy Reading!!

Announcing: Southern Literature Month 2014

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I’ve been thinking a lot about my homeland recently, particularly in regards to the literature I read. Susan Gregg Gilmore co-hosted the Books on the Nightstand podcast earlier this year and really got me thinking about what is Southern American Literature. Does it deserve its own genre? What makes a Southern novel tic?

With these questions in mind I’ve decided to host a themed month of reading every January! I’m really thrilled to invite y’all down to the South through some good ol’ fashioned armchair travel. While reading will be our main medium – please feel free to explore film, art, food, and even actual Southern travel (you’ll love our mild winter temperatures!).

I haven’t ironed out all the details yet, obviously. January 2014 is still ages away, but I wanted to go ahead and put some feelers out in the blogosphere to see if anyone would be interested in participating. I run things super casual so you can join in anyway you choose, and I’d just have a main linky page for everyone to come together. Community for the win!!

So if you’ve always meant to read Gone with the Wind or wanted to try fixin’ some grits for breakfast (lunch or dinner works just fine) leave me a comment below! Feel free to grab the button and pass on the message.