Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Georgia...totally on my mind!

Oh, wow, so many miles on the car and so many sights seen and meals eaten!  Where to begin with the highlights of my Georgia tour thus far?

Athens, GA
I’m not even that much of a music person, but of course Athens is legendary for music, and, I was told, food.  Sign me up!  I met up with one of the fabulous Converse low-res MFA students who knows the town, and we had an amazing dinner at 5&10 (which, if you’re a Top Chef fan, you should know is the restaurant started by fill-in judge Hugh Acheson). The judges on that show are SO fussy—as they should be—but it makes me wonder just how good their own food is.  Well, Hugh’s food is TREMENDOUS!  And, thanks to an excellent prix fixe deal, also a good price for such thoughtful cuisine.  We started with a supplemental appetizer that I couldn’t pass up, cod poached in butter with lobster mushroom…so delicate and buttery, leading me to exclaim, “Everything should be poached in butter!”  The next course was Tybee Island shrimp in a delectable broth, accompanied by the tiniest lima beans I’ve ever seen and itty-bitty rings of okra, cut perfectly with the seeds intact.  After this I exclaimed, “It’s like eating a garden!”  Spaghetti carbonara was next, with smoky chunks of bacon and a rich, eggy sauce over homemade noodles.  I believe I exclaimed, “This bacon is amazing!”  And for dessert: pickled peaches over panna cotta dusted with black pepper.  I exclaimed, “My god, I want more of these peaches!”  So…the meal was a success, and as far as I’m concerned, Hugh can pick away at those Top Chef contestants.

I got an excellent tour of Athens:  the UGA campus, some recommendations for my next meal, and a stop at Jittery Joe’s, Athens’ famous coffee shop.  While the atmosphere was a bit tomblike—come on, students, it’s summer school! No one cares!—the coffee was great, and we talked writing and books for a good long while.

The next day started as every day should start:  with fried chicken, squash casserole, sweet potatoes, cornbread muffin, and a giant Styrofoam cup of sweet tea, at Weaver D’s, a soul food restaurant famous for its food, its owner of 27 years, and for providing the name of one of R.E.M.’s albums:  “Automatic for the People.”  I was in early, so the owner sat with me, indulging my millions of questions, and sharing the secret to the amazing mashed sweet potatoes:  lemon flavoring.  (At least that’s the secret he told me!)  When I told him that my lunch was fabulous, I got the famous response:  “Automatic.”

To burn off calories equal of about one bite of fried chicken, I walked around the charming downtown area.  I loved Wuxtry record store, which made me flash back to the good old days when one could stand around looking at music by flipping gorgeous record albums (yes, I’m that old!).  Since I—alas—no longer have my “vinyl collection” (which I used to simply call “records”) or a stereo, I bought some CDs, including some local music by Jacob Morris and his album “Moths,” which the owner passionately recommended.  The next stop was Jackson Street Books, an incredible used book store where I bought a stack of stuff, including a book of the published interviews with Flannery O’Connor and The Moviegoer…which I tried to read many years ago.  It’s such an iconic book that not having read it is a gaping hole in my southern literature experience, so I’ll give it another try.  The young woman working there saw it and said, “Ah, yes, young man finds himself in the south…that old story.”  I asked her for her “young woman finds herself in the south” and she recommended Florence King.  Athens: land of passionate recommendations!

So sad to tear myself away from the wonderful town…but onwards.  The beauty of traveling alone is that you can go where the whim beckons, and driving down 441, I saw a billboard advertising Madison, GA: The Town Too Pretty to Burn (referring to General Sherman, of course), and a flicker of a memory of a different fabulous Converse student emailing me that Madison was pretty.  Since she’s the one who recommended 5&10, I swung off the road for a self-guided walking tour of Madison. Yes, it was about 95 degrees at 1PM and I had one inch of water in my water bottle…so what?  The houses were gorgeous, beautiful examples of antebellum architecture, and there was even one for sale, with a wrap-around porch that went on for about a block.  I had a perfectly southern moment, looking at an old graveyard next to railroad tracks, and then another with the man I bought water from, who gave me his whole life history and told me the house I admired would probably be about $2 million.  I also learned from him about some town controversy surrounding another mansion, spitefully falling into disrepair over some zoning issues.

And on to Milledgeville!  A lovely bed & breakfast downtown, so I walked through the Georgia College campus on my way to dinner.  I stopped for a happy hour beer at a college-y bar—which I loved, because I was carded.  !!  I read my Flannery O’Connor book, and when the young bartender noticed that, she asked if I’d seen her grave yet.  Not yet…and then I went to the fast-food Mexican restaurant and had a nice conversation with the young man, a recently graduated history major who was already thinking about going back to school in computers.  Then he, too, asked me if I had seen Flannery’s grave yet.  When I found out the cemetery was only a few blocks away—and that dusk was settling—I knew I had to get there!  She’s buried with her parents in a family plot, nothing garish or extraordinary, and the cemetery is quite lovely and peaceful.  Back to the B&B, where I sat on the beautiful porch: two different people waved at me!

The next day I went to Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s house.  At first I was vaguely disappointed driving up as it basically looked like a ramshackle old farm.  But inside, the guy who greeted me was so knowledgeable and so patient with my nine zillion questions and as we spoke, I began to feel a stronger sense of the woman who wrote and lived here, and the d├ęcor was mostly items owned by the O’Connors, and, well, I guess it just all fit together, and nothing was disappointing in the least!  Along with the house, there are various outbuildings in various states of repair, including an evocative water tower, the old barn (see “Good Country People”!), the tenant house, and an aviary with three peacocks.  The male (Manley Pointer; the hens are named Mary Fortune and Hulga Joy) didn’t spread out his feathers, but he was out and about, preening, so I had a good look at him.  (Later, he was tucked in the back, sleeping, so I feel fortunate that I got a good view.)  There was a lovely nature walk that offered time for contemplation (and several moments of “stick or snake?”), and then—best of all—after I bought some books and postcards, I asked if they would mind if I sat on the porch for a while (which is where Flannery often entertained her visitors).  “Stay as long as you like,” I was told--!!  So I sat out there, reading from her collected letters and reading “A Circle in the Fire” which is one of the stories that most uses the landscape of the farm.  Talk about MAGICAL!!!  No other visitors while I was sitting there, so I truly felt part of another world.  And here’s something I learned that spoke to me:  Flannery always went to the 7AM mass with her mother, then came home and wrote from 9 to noon.  This would be back when the mass was in Latin, of course, and speaking as someone who was raised Catholic, you can’t tell me that starting a writing day with those rhythms and those rituals and those words in your head wouldn’t be profoundly impactful.

Lunch at Old Clinton Barbecue:  BBQ plate and a side of Brunswick stew, a dish I generally don’t care for that much…until now.  Now I see why this lima bean-tomato-vegetable (squirrel!) soup would be worthwhile…amazing!!  I went to the museum on campus to the Flannery O’Connor room:  among other things, Flannery’s original desk (which I touched), typewriter from her days at Iowa and Yaddo, her yearbook pictures, and an incredibly lurid, early paperback of A Good Man Is Hard to Find.  There were also a lot of peacock knickknacks given to her by other writers and friends, which goes to show that if you have a “thing,” you’ll get more presents!  To complete the Flannery-obsession, I walked over to the church she attended, which seemed demure for a Catholic church.  And everyone told me to go look at the (mostly) abandoned state mental hospital…which was appropriately spooky!  One of the women working at the B&B told me that when she was in high school, they broke in to the empty buildings all the time, and that the graveyard was especially spooky, with nothing but a field of unmarked stones, crammed together because people were buried vertically.  This is her story; I don’t know if it’s true.  But it was creepy enough to have in my head, and kept me in my car as I drove around the site, pondering a town where discussions of graveyards come up at random over and over and over.  Yes, it sounds like the town I would imagine for Flannery O’Connor!

On to Macon!

The inn I decided to splurge on, which was built in 1842, is—shock—stunningly beautiful.  In fact, while I’m sitting out on the verandah—17 columns!—a car screeches over to the side of the road and a man jumps out to snap a photo.  He hops back in the car and drives away, and I feel very lucky to be staying at such a lovely place.  Not knowing where to eat dinner, I decide to put my stomach in the hands of the innkeepers (metaphorically, of course) and end up at the Dovetail, a farm-to-table restaurant in the downtown area.  Oh, so fabulous!  I was trying to eat “light,” so I decided to sit at the bar:  I had a Proprietor, which is a whiskey-ginger beer cocktail that was lovely, and even though the man sitting next to me tries to persuade me into getting the duck salad, I decide on their version of a Cobb salad, attracted by the buttermilk dressing and the promise of chicken skins.  Here’s a salad I can get behind—the chicken skins are delightfully crunchy, like croutons, but with (duh) a meaty tinge.  The bartender who made the great drink persuades me to try the small plate of quail risotto, and she’s on target:  A-mazing!  And exactly the right size, as the risotto is incredibly rich.  I ate every grain and I would have licked the bowl if I were alone.  I have to pass on dessert, but the man next to me got the peach sundae, which featured whiskey-flavored ice cream, and right now I’m regretting having to pass that up.  So, an excellent meal.  When I step out of the restaurant to walk back to the inn (uphill—ugh), dozens of bats are whirling through the sky, looking very pleased to be released into the dusk.

I decided to stay in Macon, but my true destination is Andersonville, the Civil War prison camp site, now a national park and cemetery.  I cannot explain my fascination with dire tales of survival or my immense interest in Civil War sites…it is what it is, and, honestly, ever since I saw Ken Burns’ Civil War mini-series, I’ve longed to see Andersonville.

It’s about an hour away, much of it on a smaller highway that gives me a feel for the agricultural life of Georgia:  peach trees and groves of pecan trees.  As much as I love the way vast cornfields look in the midwest, I must admit that these pecan groves are something else.  If I ever have to be a farmer in a future life, I hope I’m growing pecans.  The job looks easy from my car, but a man I chat with later in the day notes that all the rain has been a problem for the trees, with broken branches.

Speaking of vegetation, the crape myrtle down here kicks the ass of Virginia’s crape myrtle.  In fact, on this road, there’s one town that has planted the trees (bushes?  They’re huge!) all along the road for a mile or so, so that driving through is like passing along a fiery, fuchsia tunnel.  Intoxicating!

Finally, I arrive at Andersonville, which feels as though it’s in the middle of nowhere, which is generally the plan, since it was a prison.  There’s a museum about prisoners of war in general, which is sobering.  Honestly, how do people survive under such wretched physical conditions, with such psychological pressure?  I know it’s been said before, but the human spirit is beyond imagination.  So I imagine that I’m girded for the movie about Andersonville in specific, but I’m in tears by the time they show the emaciated prisoners at the end who look like they’re about the size of five-year-olds.  In general, the camp was in existence for about 14 months, with 33,000 Union prisoners passing through and about 13,000 dying.  (To be fair, I’ll note that it’s not as though the prison camps in the north were anything great, and many confederate soldiers died up there, too, particularly in Chicago and Elmira, New York.)  I was especially moved to learn about one of the paroled Union prisoners who kept his own, secret copy of the lists of deaths and burials so that the numbers couldn’t be fudged after the war ended and, more importantly, so that the soldiers buried in the mass trench graves could be properly indentified and their families notified.  As a result, only 460ish graves are of unknown soldiers.

After touring the museum, it’s POURING rain.  While the friendly ranger tries to tell me that this makes my experience more authentic as there was a huge rainstorm in the summer of 1864, I’m still a little bummed out.  But since I have come all this way to go to Andersonville, I’m not letting a HUGE rainstorm scare me away, and I take a free CD to listen to as I drive through the site and the cemetery.  Probably the rain was a good thing, as I would have obsessively been there looking at graves and pondering earthworks until they closed the grounds at five.  Even though every single other person out there (not many) stays in their car, I—of course—have to get out and run around in my rubber rain boots to read plaques and examine the stockade sample and so on.  There is one moment where I KNOW I’m crazy, running across a flat, grassy area as lightning flies around, because I want to see Provident Spring, the water source that emerged during the fateful storm the ranger referred to…supposedly as a result of a lightning strike.

The cemetery brings me to tears, too, at the sight of the tiny white headstones crammed together—an inch or so apart—because the bodies were that close, as they weren’t placed in coffins.  Many states with dead in the cemetery placed memorials at various points, and I’m proud to see that Iowa’s is the most beautiful, showing a weeping woman.  Yes; what more can be said?  I return my CD and have one last view of the rolling hills of the prison camp; mist is floating amidst the trees in the distance.

On the way back to the inn, I have to stop at the Oglethorpe barbecue for a BBQ plate.  When I ask the woman what sides I should get, she immediately says, “Cole slaw for sure,” and she’s right:  an excellent version of the mayonnaise kind, and by excellent, I mean not too much mayonnaise.  And then back to Macon, and since I’m in the car—and rattled from racing an apocalyptic rain cloud—I stop at the Nu-Way Wieners, since it would literally be impossible for me not to try a hot dog from a place that’s been selling them since 1916.  The hot dog—all the way—is bright red, kind of like the color of dyed pistachios!

And a quiet night—porch-sitting, reading, enjoying the inn—before heading onto the BIG CITY tomorrow, Atlanta!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hambidge Update: Goodbye!

Oh, the dreaded last day of the Hambidge residency…alas!  But don’t cry too hard for me, as now I’m embarking on a short driving tour of Georgia that will include a visit to Flannery O’Connor’s house and the Civil War site of Andersonville.  (Yes, an odd combination.)  I’m guessing some barbecue and southern food will get thrown in there as well.  Then it’s off to the big city, Atlanta!

I had such a wonderful time here, finding my Inner Nature Girl out on the hiking trails.  Being here makes me feel as though I should more purposefully incorporate nature into my daily life.  While I was typically terrified every time I ventured down a trail (refrain: is that poison ivy-what’s that noise-snake or stick?-boulder or bear?-don’t fall and break your leg because no one knows where you are-look up dummy and admire the beauty-look down dummy and watch out for mud-look for animal tracks-look for mushrooms-is that poison ivy-is that poison ivy), I was drawn back in and went venturing up more and more distant trails.  I never saw a bear—or anything else for that matter—though there were moments where I felt certain that something was watching me, that unexplained neck prickle, a certain musky smell.  What I liked is that no matter how familiar I was with a certain trail, there was always something new to see—mushrooms, the light through the leaves, water jumping along stones—and I was always aware that nature is in charge.  I never conquered; I was only there to witness a neutral, impassive force.  (Whenever I felt the tiniest bit confident, then I would do something dumb like realize that I had just put my foot down one centimeter away from a snakehole.)  Nature will win in the end, and there is something majestic about realizing one’s one insignificance in the bigger picture.

I guess that’s how I viewed my writing here, too.  While I moan and complain a lot (!!), I will say that this writing here has been more hard-fought than usual.  I can’t tell if that’s because I’m at the beginning of a longer work and I’ve just forgotten how challenging that place is, or if this material is particularly difficult for me emotionally, or because I haven’t found the right place to enter the material.  And always there’s the concern that the material simply isn’t right for a book and I’m wasting my time.  (Fun!)  Whatever it is, I tried to use my experience on the trails as a metaphor for the writing, to just move forward despite the fear, to trust that I will find my way out and through and onto the trail.

A final food note:
--I hate lima beans, but the succotash here was incredible!  I think the fresh lima beans made a huge difference.

What I won’t miss:
--bugs!!!!!!!!
--damp humidity that turns everything limp and soggy: crackers, paper, hair, books, dollar bills
--thinking about poison ivy to the point of dreaming about it
--the hornet that showed up from time to time with a buzz as loud as a dentist’s drill (NO exaggeration)

What I will miss terribly:
--the call of the wood thrush on many mornings and evenings (listen here)
--fireflies twinkling in the bushes and trees outside my deck
--sitting on the deck to watch darkness gently settle in
--spring water coming out of my faucet
--editing my work while sitting outside on the deck
--rhododendron growing wild
--the variety of otherworldly and amazing mushrooms growing in the woods
--a certain patch of ferns glowing in filtered sunlight
--reading a Flannery O’Connor short story every morning, being immersed in her brilliance
--drinking a glass of wine or a Bobcat* on the oh-so-southern screened in porch, enjoying the smart conversation while waiting for dinner
--amazing and inventive vegetarian cuisine four nights a week that I didn’t have to cook
--the light rush of raindrops dusting the canopy of leaves before thickening and drumming my cozy cabin roof
--perfect stillness; utter darkness
--the seesaw of cicadas calling to each other
--tadpoles
--frogs croaking at night
--the six-inch wide, yellow imperial moth that came to my window two nights in a row
--thunder rumbling across a clear sky
--mist blanketing the mountains
--the large orb weaver spider who set up ten days ago directly outside my desk window, spinning its web night after night: always showing up to do the work, to sit and wait, reminding me that the biggest and hardest job in life is simply to be present…showing me another metaphor for the writing process

And, perhaps more than anything, I will miss the leafy view from my cabin, nestled here on the side of a mountain, in the treetops, which filled me with joy the moment I first set eyes upon it.  Here’s a quote from one of the books I read that captures my feelings, though Mary Gordon is writing about her writing room on Cape Cod, so I don’t think she had such a thick forest to watch as I did:

“And above all, I was grateful to the window for providing me the view over the tops of trees, the old locusts with their mobile leaves that were responsive to the wind even when words were obdurate, that always gave me something to look at: a perfect view for writing, lovely, but not great, suggesting community rather than grandeur.  I would never want a view of a mountain whose intractability would only replicate the shape of my own mind; a view of water would be either too beguiling or would convince me of the futility of my task: for nothing I could make of words could ever be so satisfying or so various as the movement of sun on water.”
~Mary Gordon, Seeing Through Places

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s the Hambidge website:   http://www.hambidge.org/ Note that the next application deadline is September 15, 2013, for a spring residency…what could be more beautiful than these mountains and this forest in the springtime?! 

*The Bobcat was the official Hambidge drink during part of my residency.  It sounds weird, but trust me:  it works!! An easy recipe:  Bourbon (we liked Buffalo Trace) and Fresca over ice...as strong as you like.  Try it, and as they say in the churches down here, you’ll become a true believer!


Monday, July 22, 2013

Hambidge Update #2

As you may recall, I’m in the midst of a writing residency at the fabulous Hambidge Center, in the mountains of north Georgia….  Here’s the latest news:

After six hours, two glasses of wine, and about 1000 scraps of paper and index cards, I may have come upon a plan for my novel-in-progress.  Or not.  I guess we’ll see in the morning.

If this plan works out, I’ll chalk it up to the power of stepping away, as I spent the morning and early afternoon doing some sightseeing around the area.  My first stop ended up being the liquor store because I had gotten lost and I needed to check out any local artisan booze, and I was pleased to pick up some rye from Georgia for Steve (so easy to shop for a man who is interested in craft cocktails!).  After getting directions from the nice guy at the cash register—who also told me a gossipy story about a local man who was once a millionaire who lost all his money—I ended up at my destination, the Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center.

Foxfire started as a magazine written by high school students in the 1960s that explored and celebrated mountain culture; the premise of the project involved students interviewing relatives and elders about their experiences and the old ways.  The cabin I’m staying in at Hambidge is where the founder actually lived and worked for many years.  The museum is a collection of cabins and structures from the 1800s that give a taste of mountain life.  I will say that while it’s disappointing not to be allowed to go inside everything or have interpreters along the way, the experience was nevertheless quite fascinating.  I’ve been to lots of these sorts of things—Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation—but I’d never seen this part of America’s history on vivid display.  I learned how to notch the corners of my logs so that water will fall down, not in; I had never heard of the dog-trot as an architectural detail to help keep structures cooler; there was a wagon from the 1700s that was used in the Trail of Tears; and I saw a hog scald, which, as you can imagine, is where a butchered hog is dipped into boiling water to remove the hair.  No one said mountain life was easy!  The site is laid out nicely on Black Mountain, a patch of land that was purchased from royalties from the Foxfire books.  I wish that some of the interviews were online or on CD, but alas.  As it was, listening to the two excerpts available was eye-opening:  one woman said that until she got married at age 38, she had spent only 5 cents on candy in her life.  I’ll also note that the kids who interviewed these folks got to practice a great deal of patience as there was a fair amount of rambling, which was charming…but, well, to this big-city-lady, still rambling!  But the joy was that you never knew when that fabulous detail would show up.  (Of course I bought a Foxfire book and some recipe postcards.)

Then I poked around the cute little downtown of Clayton, Georgia, with antique shops, restaurants, and Prater’s Main Street Books, with a friendly cat and a nice selection of books, including some regional authors.  Do you think I escaped without buying anything…oh, haha.  I ended up with the unusual combination of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray and Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR by Neal Thompson.

In other news, I have a pet spider living on my deck that I’ve become attached to.  It’s not as good as a cat, but it’s almost as big as a cat…it’s in the orb weaver family and is about the size of a giant jawbreaker.  I leave my desk light on as long as possible to attract moths that then may veer into the (giant) web...truly, on some nights it’s about three feet tall!  I’m part of an ecosystem!  This is a picture from the internet that looks a lot like my spider:



And I’ve been doing a little bit of hiking on the trails around here.  I won’t call myself a “good” hiker, but I’m certainly interested and remained stunned at how thrilling it is to look up, over, and around and see only trees and vines.  I know there are no bears because I try to make as much noise as possible so they skedaddle. And the mushrooms are gorgeous, from vibrant orange, to whiter-than-white, to bright yellow, to nut-brown.

I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and I suspect this has been said, but MY GOD, they’re good!  Word choices, dark humor, capturing a character in a sentence…oh, my.  I’m sure someone could write a dissertation on the phrases she uses for characters’ eyes alone. (For example: "deep-set fox-colored eyes" in "Greenleaf"; "her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks" in "Parker's Back"). I'm not sure why this book isn't on my "favorite books" bookshelf--? It will be when I get back home.

The chef made some North Carolina trout on Friday that was among the best fish I’ve ever had—and the best leftovers the next day.  I really miss her on weekends/Monday when we’re left to fend for ourselves!  Today I tried Zaxby’s, a Georgia fast food chicken chain that I had been curious about, but alas, I was unimpressed…it’s no Biscuitville!  Also notable is that I drank a (small) glass of true, real, authentic, illegal moonshine…and that glass was small for a reason!  Whew…tough stuff!  Enough of that, and hog scald day would seem like a picnic!

Time to wind down and read as the rain drums against my cozy cabin roof and the canopy of trees…and keep my fingers crossed that the work of today holds up in the light of tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hambidge Update #1

Here I am at the Hambidge Center, a writing retreat located on 600 acres in the beautiful mountains of north Georgia—which really is like living in a rain forest, with almost endless rain during this, the dry season.  So I’ve mostly stayed holed up, writing and reading, listening to the drumbeat of the rain on my cozy cabin roof. 

Oh, listen to me talk like I’m some big hiker…when I did walk down a trail earlier in the week, one that looked wide and flat and simple and straight, I turned around the minute it intersected with another trail, one that looked narrow and steep and curvy.  In my defense, I had neither a trail map [which I can barely read] nor water, so turning around was probably smart.  Also, I didn’t have my colony-issued “bear bell” or my colony-issued orange vest, which I was advised to wear so the wild pig hunters don’t accidentally shoot me…apparently there’s open season on wild pigs and the way they’re hunted here is with packs of dogs wearing GPS collars.  The dogs find the pig and then the hunters find the dogs (I’m sorry, but that seems a little lazy?).  So, I ask you, which is scarier—wild pigs, packs of dogs, or the men with the guns?  See why I’m using the rain as an excuse to hole up?

But yesterday, I had no excuse:  no rain!  I grabbed my trail map and off I went, Lewis & Clark-style through the woods, trail after trail, for 45 minutes.  I never realized how beautiful  mushrooms could be!  Soft light filtering through tree leaves!  Ferns!  Babbling streams!  Once back, I was feeling flush with pleasure, then I remembered someone mentioning all the poison ivy around...oops.  But since I was wearing boots and pants, I would be fine, right?  Um, not necessarily, according the the internet which helpfully told me that poison ivy oil remains on clothing about forever.  Immediately, I started to itch  psychosomatically. Nothing stuck, so perhaps I'm out of the woods (haha). I suppose the real issue is how about I avoid stepping on anything that looks like poison ivy...which would be about every plant out there, except the mushrooms.

The food here is amazing.  We get vegetarian appetizers and dinner Tuesday through Friday, and the chef really knows her way around vegetables (and desserts!).  Which was the better dessert, red velvet cake or little blueberry doughnuts…oh, so hard to decide!  Last week we all learned about zipper peas, which I’ve never heard of and which were yummy…and I saw a five-pound bag for sale in the freezer section of the Piggly-Wiggly (yes, I just wanted to drop in that name).  In fact, there were a bunch of peas and beans I’ve never heard of.  I’m not normally a pea/bean person, but the zipper peas have given me courage. 

On the other hand, I’ll report that the weekend barbecue by the produce stand on the highway is awfully good, so let’s not do anything rash with regard to vegetarianism… One of the side choices was cornbread salad, something I discovered in South Carolina that you never–ever see up north!

One night several of us went to a local bar and heard a great Southern rock band.  The people in the bar were pretty welcoming, and I learned where the speed traps are, heard about why NASCAR is fun, and got an earful (as I knew I would) about the evils of the movie Deliverance, which was filmed around here.  I had just reread the book (recommended!) which is set in this area; people are still angry about the portrayal of the people living in the mountains.  No one really comes off well in the book, I would say, not the suburban men either, but I will definitely confess to feeling creeped out those late nights when I was reading the book.  (Here’s an interesting article from the Oxford American by James Dickey’s daughter about the area and its relationship with Deliverance.) 

On Saturday night, there was a reading/presentation for the community, and it was a joy to learn more about my co-residents’ creative pursuits.  Really amazing stuff going on here…if you’re interested, the next application deadline is September 15!  (Application info here.)

Back to work!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Hitting the Road

Off I go again, this time down to the mountains of Georgia to a writing residency at the lovely Hambidge Center.  They swear that there is no internet in the studios, that to access the internet one must ford a river, rassle a bear, dance a passable jig, and recite the secret password in pig latin…so blogging will probably be light for a while.

Happy writing, y’all!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Lionel Shriver's New Novel, Big Brother

This is not the kind of book I will be running around saying, “Read this, read this,” though I’m not sure why, given that I read the nearly-400 page book in less than 24 hours.  As usual, Shriver pushes into territory that many people would rather not examine: here, it’s morbid obesity, as Pandora abruptly discovers that her beloved and admired older brother has ballooned in weight, up to 368 pounds.  To save him, she puts her marriage at risk by moving in with her brother, determined to spend the year coaching/nagging/inspiring him down to his youthful 163 pounds.  (Shriver has noted in interviews that her beloved, older brother died at age 55 and was obese.)

A few observations:

The beginning was a little slow.

Later I learned that Shriver has a brother who lives in Iowa and she visits often, but the Iowa setting did not ring true to me (though it was an inspired thematic choice)—despite the allusions to Hy-Vee, Iowa’s favorite grocery store, and a reference to The Mill in Iowa City.

Since there’s not a whole lot of narrative drive watching a character lose weight, it was a very talky book, with a lot of summary of time passing. 

Since it was a talky book, some of the talking came off as pushing the author’s thematic points a bit hard (though, honestly, because Shriver is so smart and relentless, I never mind this aspect of her work).

Reading about people on an extreme diet made me hungry, and I may have snacked more than I might have.  (Since the book is about our relationship with food, this may not be a bad thing.)

So, all that…AND YET:

The ending of the book was so incredible and startling that I forgive absolutely everything.

AFTER you read the book, read this interview with Lionel Shriver, where she talks a bit about the process of writing that ending.  And maybe I am saying, “Read this book,” if only because I desperately want to talk to someone about it! 

Monday, July 1, 2013

"The Resurrection Issue" of Beltway Brings DC Poets to Light

The seemingly tireless and always amazing Kim Roberts (poet and literary impresario) has done it again with the new edition of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, the online journal she edits.  You must check out the Summer 2013 “Resurrection Issue” (found here) which features the work of eight poets connected with DC whose work has been forgotten, falling out of print for the most part:  Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Esther Popel, Lewis Grandison Alexander, Waring Cuney, Gloria C. Oden, John Pauker, and Lee Lally.  Kim notes, “These poets were active during the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, World War II, and the feminist movement of the 1970s. Their backgrounds and writing styles range widely. But all deserve to be widely known and read.”

Having recently "discovered" the excellent (and near-forgotten)  book The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, I'm mindful of how easy it is for good work to fall deep into the cracks of time...and how part of our responsibility as good literary citizens is to look beyond the endless self-promotion of our time and to be mindful of promoting the forgotten work of those who came before us.  So, yay, Kim!

 And here, from Kim’s introduction, is a taste of the writers she uncovered:

“…The earliest writer included here is Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, who lived in Washington, DC during the Civil War.  Her poems, popular in her time, are being re-discovered by feminist scholars. I am drawn in particular to her poems of war and its aftermath and include five here. Piatt’s wartime experiences forced her to re-think her assumptions about her happy Southern childhood, her family’s complicit role in slavery, and the contrast between her own pacifism and her era’s romanticized ideals of soldiers.

“Four of the writers in this issue have a connection to the Harlem Renaissance period, a particularly rich time in DC’s literary history, and a time I continue to go back to for inspiration.  Alice Dunbar-Nelson, always overshadowed in her lifetime by her more famous husband, was an older mentor by the 1920s.  Her poem, “I Sit and Sew,” written during World War I, is one of the most moving poems I know about women’s homefront wartime experience.  She is represented by that poem and four others.

“So many lesser-known Harlem Renaissance writers have been largely forgotten.  I first discovered Esther Popel when I saw a striking photograph of her by Addison Scurlock in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.  The caption described her as a poet and I thought, “How come I’ve never heard of her?”  I have reprinted five of her poems, including her powerful “Flag Salute,” a protest against lynching….”

Read more about Beltway Poetry Quarterly (and sign up for a free subscription) here.

Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.