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Posts Tagged ‘Okra Picks’

From the deck of his big new house on Brushy Mountain Road, JJ Ferguson can look down at the rooftops of the North Carolina community where he grew up as a foster child. The view is even better at night when lights twinkle in the darkness that hides Pinewood’s shabbiness and depressed economy.

If this scene from Stephanie Powell Watts’ involving first novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, digital galley), recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s no surprise. The publisher is billing the book as a contemporary re-imagining of the classic with African-American characters and a Southern setting, but that’s not the whole story. While Gatsby may echo through its pages, No One Is Coming to Save Us — a great title — stands on its own as it explores the nature of family and home, the currents of change, the persistence of dreams.

Watt moves fluidly among the perspectives of her memorable characters. JJ — “Call me Jay” — returns to Pinewood after a 15-year-absence, hoping to rekindle a romance with childhood friend Ava, desperate to be a mother after several miscarriages. She’s married to handsome underachiever Henry, who is keeping a big secret from her. Ava’s mother Sylvia, close to retirement, has her own disappointments and sorrows, including a lost son and her estranged husband Don. The latter, the baby of his family and “always a good time,” now lives with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter but keeps showing up at Sylvia’s. And no wonder. Sylvia is a woman of substance — literally — who nurtures people and her garden. She finds solace in accepting the calls of a young man in prison she’s never met. She realizes that JJ is looking for family and “to be the hero of his own story.” So do they all, that recognition of worth dignifying their busted lives. They beat on. “Haven’t we always done this trick? If you can’t get what you want, want something else.”

Soon after Landon Cooper moves into the downstairs of an old rental house in south Birmingham, she meets Abi, her lively upstairs neighbor, who tells her she’s going to love living on this street.  “Really, we’re like a family. I didn’t mean to pry when I asked you what your story was. It’s just that most of Mr. Kasir’s tenants have a story.”

What those stories are and how they intertwine is the premise of Vicki Covington’s perceptive novel Once in a Blue Moon (John F. Blair, digital galley).  As Barack Obama campaigns for president in 2007 and 2008, Covington’s diverse characters are marked by hope and cope with change. Just moving is a jolt for Landon, a recently divorced psychologist who has her own mental health issues. She meets many of her new neighbors when a drunken stranger passes out in her living room and they rally to her screams. Abi’s the country girl trying to escape her rural roots by taking college courses. Roy’s the athlete with big dreams who deals weed on the side. Jet’s a former prostitute who recently discovered the surprising identity of her birth mother. Their landlord, Abraham Kasir, lives “over the mountain” but keeps a fatherly eye on his tenants as he trains his young grandson Jason to take over the property business.

It’s pure pleasure to read a new novel from Covington, an assured chronicler of the contemporary South at turning points. Night Ride Home, for example, takes place just as World War II begins, while The Last Hotel for Women calls up 1961 Birmingham and the era of Bull Connor. Now with Once in a Blue Moon, Covington gently reminds us of when hope and change brought people together.

Other good Southern books to put on your reading list include Bren McLain’s One Good Mama Bone: A Novel (University of South Carolina Press, review copy), about a hardscrabble 1950s South Carolina widow, the boy she is raising who is not her own, and a mama cow with a strong personality; Taylor Brown’s The River of Kings (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which combines family history and adventure as two brothers journey down Georgia’s Altamaha River to scatter their father’s ashes; and Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields (Crown, digital galley), a coming-of-age saga of father and son in a small Appalachian town. All three were recent Okra Picks chosen by Southern indie booksellers.

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I am gorging on Florida strawberries, but I am studying okra and dreaming peaches. Let me explain.

SIBA — Southeast Independent Booksellers Alliance — recently announced its dozen “Okra Picks: Good Southern Books Fresh off the Vine” for the spring season as selected by its indie members. The fiction and nonfiction look appealing, but, yum, three books for foodies and cooks are on on the list,  High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by Jessica Harris (Bloomsbury), The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes by Sheri Castle (University of North Carolina Press) and A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home by Martha Hall Foose (Crown). Harris’ history of African-American cusine culture was published in January; the other two will be released in April.

I am especially looking forward to A Southerly Course because Mississippi chef Foose wrote Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook, an all-time favorite with its surprise take on traditional Southern fare — Sweet Tea Pie, dontcha know?!

My family (namely, my mother and the Caroline Cousins) tend to forget that just because I don’t cook much anymore doesn’t mean I don’t know how. How insulting is it when your nearest and dearest ask if you remember how to make a white sauce?! But even if I don’t spend time in the kitchen, I spend lots of time reading about food, especially Southern food. Why just the other day I talked my friend Jackie out of her new Southern Living because of the pound cake recipes. She graciously handed over the magazine with a hunk of her fresh-made banana nut bread, which I ate for breakfast.

The cover of Foose’s new book instantly drew me in with its picture of peaches tumbled together in an apron. Regular readers of this blog know that peaches are my favorite food. I have a large orange cat, the Giant Peach, and when I lived in the Midwest years ago, I stirred Peach Jell-O on the stove in winter just to smell its fragrance and remember summer.

The new Okra Picks —  http://www.sibaweb.com/okra — also reminded me that I signed up for my fellow book blogger BermudaOnion’s Okra Challenge back in the fall. You moved up the food ladder by reading a certain number of books and blogging about them. Four to six, for example, and you’re a Tater. To be an Okra, you have to read nine or more. I signed up to read seven to nine so I can be a Peach, of course.

I made it because I recently sat in a bookstore and read the only cookbook on the fall list, Southern Plate: Classic Southern Food That Makes Everyone Feel Like Family by Christy Jordan (HarperCollins). A home-grown Alabama cook with a wonderful blog, www.southernplate.com, Jordan offers family recipes, many as easy as pie (or cobbler). It was sort of like thumbing through my mama’s recipe box, or going through the cousins’ collections. Macaroni and cheese. Fried okra. Frozen cranberry  salad. Coupled with the color pictures, the recipes make for a mouth-watering volume. I haven’t bought it yet because I told someone I wanted it, and I’m hoping they didn’t think I was kidding.

Just writing this has me hungry and homesick. I’m pretty sure I’ve got some okra, corn and tomatoes in the freezer, so I’ll just go put some rice on. And, no, I don’t use that minute stuff. Honest.

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When Southern booksellers and publishers were in Daytona Beach last weekend for their annual trade show (SIBA), okra was on the agenda if not the menu. SIBA recently announced its dozen “Okra picks” for the fall season as voted on by independent booksellers, and I hear the chosen authors wore bright red sashes on the convention floor.

Alas, I was in South Carolina — where next year’s convention is scheduled — but, as it turned out,  I had two okra picks with me. Both were mighty fine in completely different ways.

Beth Webb Hart’s novels are set in my favorite home territory of the South Carolina lowcountry, in and around Charleston. Her first, Grace at Low Tide, took place on Edisto Island and made me homesick as all get out. Her third, The Wedding Machine, made me happy that the Caroline Cousins wrote Marsh Madness  first so we had already put in our two cents about Southern nuptials. 

Hart writes so-called “Christian fiction,” but the preachiest thing about her new novel, Love, Charleston, is that one of the four main characters is good ol’ boy Roy Summerall, who isn’t sure why he’s been called to pastor the aristocratic faithful of the Holy City at historic, downtown St. Michael’s. A widower with a young daughter, Roy isn’t sure how he’ll fit in, despite the the support of a church matriarch. That he and bellringer Anne Brumley are destined to find one another is obvious, but their path is not nearly as interesting as the ways in which it intersects and overlaps with those of Anne’s sister Alicia and her cousin Della.

Unlike Anne, both are married with children. But Alicia, a doctor married to another doctor, finds her charmed life falling apart after depression descends like a rock following the birth of a new daughter. Meanwhile Della, a writer and teacher married to an artist, would love to have another child, but finances are too precarious. When an old flame returns to town, she wonders how her life might have  been different, maybe still could be.  Doubt and betrayal, love and faith, rocks and hard places. Hart has a light touch and an easy humor, but she doesn’t hesitate to test her characters.

Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a gritty Southern drama of race and class, past sins and present crimes. It takes its title from the way kids often learn to spell/write  Mississippi: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.”  

There’s something crooked about the lives of the novel’s two main characters — not in the sense of criminal, although some suspect that, but in that they are misshaped by a sad, shared boyhood incident. For sure, boookworm Larry Ott, son of a white auto mechanic and his wife, and Silas “32” Jones, son of a poor, black single mother, were unlikely buddies from the start, but the friendship worked for them until the night Larry took Cindy Walker to the drive-in and she disappeared.

Cindy wasn’t heard from again, and Larry still lives with a cloud of suspicion hanging over him and the business he inherited from his daddy. He keeps to himself in the shotgun house he grew up in. Silas took off to play college baseball but then returned as a constable in a nearby hamlet in South Misissippi. There’s no reason for the two to meet up, but then another girl goes missing, and the law looks to Larry once more.

Franklin writes lean, no words wasted, no punches pulled. As in his collection of stories, Poachers, and novel Hell at the Breech, he knows where he’s going and takes a reader with him.

At one point, Larry thinks of Silas, “how time packs new years over the old ones but how those old years are still in there, like the earliest, tightest rings centering a tree, the most hidden, enclosed in darkness and shielded from weather. But then a saw screams in and the tree topples and the circles are stricken by the sun and the sap glistens and the stump is laid open for the world to see.”

Open Book: I bought a copy of Beth Webb Hart’s Love, Charleston (Thomas Nelson) to give to Cousin Meg for her birthday. Tom Franklin’s publisher sent me an advance reading copy of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Morrow). To see a list of the other fall okra picks, go to http://www.sibaweb.com/okra  I’ve already put Fannie Flagg’s November novel, I Still Dream About You (Random House), at the top of my wish list. Also, my fellow book blogger at http://bermudaonion.wordpress.com has started an Okra Picks challenge read. Check it out!

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Yes, you read that right. SIBA — the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance — has announced its pick of the winter/spring 2010 crop of books. Go to www. sibaweb.com to see the list. Congrats to all the authors involved. Several of these books were already on my radar — Connie May Fowler’s How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, a new collection of short stories from Ron Rash, journalist Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s memoir Enchanted Evening Barbie and The Second Coming. The latter’s publisher, New South Books, already has sent me a galley.

But I also am now looking forward to the other tasty-sounding Southern-fried offerings. How ’bout Gullah Cuisine: By Land and Sea by Charlotte Jenkins and William Baldwin?! And my Sisters-in-Crime pal Patricia Sprinkle has a March novel, Hold Up the Sky.

I think I need a snack to tide me over. Maybe Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, which is already in stores.

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