Friday, August 15, 2014

To Live and Die in L.A. (Lower Alabama)

Today I took one of those quizzes on Facebook (the kind I usually avoid, sure, but when I have to choose between working on my class syllabi for next week or taking Facebook quizzes, I wouldn't even be surprised to find myself choosing "What kind of vegetable are you?") This one was testing whether or not I was a true North Carolinian.  I passed with flying colors.  It wasn't exactly a measurement of critical thinking, since most of the questions focused on state bird, Cheerwine, and the Carolina-Duke rivalry. It didn't take a brain surgeon--or even middle school North Carolina History.

If you know me, then you know that I live in North Carolina, I love North Carolina, but I'm an Alabama girl--not from LA (Lower Alabama) but from North Alabama.

That makes me unquestionably Southern too.  This summer, I was blessed with the sporadic arrival of books in my mailbox from River's Edge Media, a small press out of Little Rock, Arkansas, with the most creative publicity I've seen from any publishers. The Shoe Burnin' collection I reviewed earlier in the summer arrived first. I've followed it with two books from contributors.  First I read All the Way to Memphis, a collection of short stories by Suzanne Hudson. Her stories brought together a roll call of all ages--heavy on kids--living on the edge of abuse, disappointment, and death.  Whether set in barrooms,  behind the jailhouse, or on the road between Mississippi and Memphis, the stories put off a kind of Southern heat, provoke a level of discomfort that keeps a reader turning pages.

Next I read Waffle House Rules, a novel by Joe Formichella, Hudson's husband and the editor of the Shoe Burnin' stories.  Set in Penelope, Alabama, near Fairhope, the charming South Alabama town where the two reside, the novel brings together a cast of local characters, including "the Phils,"  four indistinguishable coffee house regulars, Big Bob, an out-of-towner who keeps returning after getting his RV stuck in the parking lot of the Waffle House on his way through town, and a pair of sisters who, as the book opens, say goodbye to Dr. Jimmy Ryan, by tossing wishbones into his grave.

Moving back and forth between the present and the Jimmy Ryan's childhood, when he was the only survivor of a family automobile accident on their way to a local Halloween celebration, Formichella paints a picture of this part of the state, eager to distinguish itself from Mobile.  He delves into the idealistic but failed beginnings of Fairhope. Most of all, he celebrates the telling and untelling of stories, shaped by wishfulness and forgetfulness--and maybe a little kudzu.

While the authors obviously inhabit a region nurturing to writers, their styles differ distinctly.  (As a side note, when I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Nicole Krauss's History of Love, I made immediate connections between the books' style and structure before I had any idea they were married.) Both Hudson's and Formichella's books invite comparison to other Southern writers who transcended "regional" levels.  One can imagine crossing Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon with Fannie Flagg's Whistlestop Cafe and throwing in just a dab of Slingblade to produce these fascinating, unforgettable characters.


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