Erin's Summer Reading List

Our friend Erin --who's moving to Jayhawk Country this fall -- is back with a list of great summer reads for y'all. Most of these are new to me, but I can tell you she's spot-on with her review of the Kingsolver novel, which I read a while back.  As always, you can keep up with Erin's sassy mix of religion, politics, parenting, and other things you shouldn't discuss at the dinner table on her blog, Irreverin, and on her Facebook page. -- HCW

I just read a book called The Orchardist that Amazon reader reviews assured me was wonderful!

It wasn’t. Actually…it was really wonderful until the last and then the ending just…wasn’t. To me, a story needs a good, round ending to make it worth the journey. When it doesn’t end right, I want those two weeks of my life back. Not to mention the $9.99 I paid for the download. (I’m looking at you, Gone Girl! Worst. Episode. Ever).

That said, here’s some other stuff that I’ve read lately and/or am reading this summer. With high hopes for better endings, here goes:

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver. Sure, it gets a little preachy about climate change. And ok, there’s this section about 3 quarters of the way through that REALLY drags. But I still found it worth the read. If nothing else, cause it was like a trip home to Appalachia. And much cheaper than a plane ticket.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich. Full disclosure, I didn’t love the ending of this one either. But, the rest of it was SO dang good, it was still worth the trip. Just be prepared to wish there were a few more pages. And, if you like it, go back and read The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. (Yes, that’s really what it’s called.) It’s about the same reservation community, about two generations earlier. Not much direct cross-over, but some of the same names and places are mentioned. Also, it’s just a fabulous story. Woman disguises herself as a dead priest and proceeds to perform mass on the res for 50 years, without anyone knowing she’s not a dude? Awesome.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess!) Fair warning: do not read this with other people in the room. You will embarrass yourself by laughing out loud. I literally—literally—hurt myself one night, because my family was all sleeping and I didn’t want to wake them with my hysterics. I like, tore something in my throat. It hurt so good…

For something TOTALLY different: The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Petersen. In the midst of sharing sad news with one church and celebrating with another—all while planning a cross-country move with two young children—it’s a blessed reminder that I’m on a spiritual journey here. And, that the world’s definitions of ‘pastor’ are not the boss of me. Good stuff.

My husband downloaded Ready Player One (Ernest Cline) and then stole my kindle for a week. Since it’s basically the first book he’s read since the last Harry Potter, I figure it must be pretty great. Sounds like the Hunger Games, but for dudes and techies. I’m neither, but imma read it anyway.

My friend Stephanie said I had to drop whatever else I might be reading and start The Fault in Our Stars (John Green). I read the first few pages last night, and am already in love with the heroine, Hazel. I’m pretty sure she’s going to die, but hey—I’m into books with crummy endings, right?

And besides—death does not always make a bad end. Sometimes, dying is much better than just wandering away…

Happy page-turning, folks. Let me know if there’s something I’m not reading, but should be!

Southern Festival of Books: Saturday Recap

Thai Food Truck at the Capitol.
Last weekend, I went down to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books. I wrote about the Festival for Ace Weekly magazine, describing the sense of "place" that arose time and again during the festival's programs and events. I also wanted to share a more informal "travelogue" with y'all. We had such an amazing time taking in both the festival and one of my very favorite cities. Here's my recap of Saturday’s events. You can read about Friday's adventures here. – HCW

I don’t know why, but the Central Time Zone kicks my behind every single time. Every. Single. Time. I lived in Nashville for two years, and I never got used to Prime Time television starting at 7 p.m. This day was no exception. I gotup really early for a Saturday, and yet somehow I was still running late.

Now, I've always jokingly called the strip of I-65 from Southern Kentucky past Nashville "The Cracker Barrel Corridor" because it seems you can find one at every exit. As we pass the signs for a few of those, it felt like a good excuse to avail ourselves of some biscuits and hashbrown casserole. At first, I was a little concerned that we'd miss the session on the politics of SEC football, but then I realized that we were surrounded by that very topic. From the Volunteers dog collars and baby clothes in the gift shop to the Gators fans who've driven up for their game against Vandy, the politics of the Southeastern Conference were everywhere, so we just sat back and enjoyed our carbs.

We arrived downtown, surveyed the vendor booths, and headed in to an auditorium a few minutes early for the Grit Lit panel. As we sat down, we realized that we'dcrashed another session. Turns out, we were sitting in on a Q and A session with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, who talked about how she chooses settings for her work. It was neat and unexpected. 

The panel I was really there to see was comprised of the editors and featured authors of the anthology Grit Lit: a Rough Southern Reader. It was a funny, gritty, and real presentation. I was transfixed by the stories told by Rowan County native Chris Offutt. He's from nowhere, Kentucky, just like me. He's written for some of the smartest shows on TV. He was also as funny and offbeat and fascinating as I expected. I reached for my phone to tweet about the awesomeness, and found that Southern Living staffers were in the Grit Lit audience as well. Around the same time, the panel members started talking about the articles they've written for Oxford American. People who write for the very publications I read most closely -- the ones for which I dream of writing -- were are all around me, participating in the same conversation. It was a great feeling.

After the panel discussion, my beau and I walked around the booths of some of the University Presses  exhibiting at the Festival. We talked with booksellers and lit review editors. We discussed interesting books. We got some ice cream. (Jeni's, to be precise. Salted caramel, which is okay, and whiskey-pecan, which tastes like some sort of fantastic milky Christmas punch made with Early Times.)

After we took in more booths, musicians, and authors, we headed back to the hotel for a nap and some college football. It is a Saturday in the South, after all. Between the nap and the evening's big games, we headed out for some low-key dinner. There, in a suburban chain restaurant, I found my confidence bolstered by the day's events. I'd spent the day among writers who, as is often said, started out with an idea. I began to tell my beau the story of the novel I want to write. I'd never really discussed it with anyone before, but now it's out there. It's real. It was a terrifying and liberating moment.

Back in the hotel, I fell immediately asleep. Les Miles had to coach without me. I had big dreams of first drafts and the fantastic cup of coffee I'd be drinking in the morning.

Southern Festival of Books: Friday Recap

Last weekend, I went down to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books. I wrote about the Festival for Ace Weekly magazine, describing the sense of "place" that arose time and again during the festival's programs and events. I also wanted to share a more informal "travelogue" with y'all. We had such an amazing time taking in both the festival and one of my very favorite cities.  Here's a little about my trip down to Nashville on Friday and the first night of the event. -- HCW

It was just one of those days that goes right. That's a very good thing when you undertake a five hour trip. After the dogs got in a lengthy morning playtime, I left them with my parents and I drove. And drove. And drove. I noticed the fall foliage. I bemoaned the lack of cell phone signal in rural Kentucky. And I drove some more. Finally, I found myself on the Tennessee border. I excitedly tuned the radio to Jack 96.3 (only the best radio station ever -- take my word for it!) and took in the sights.  Lordy, I love this city.
I had a few minutes to spare before the first event I wanted to attend, so I drove down Broadway. It's so quintessentially touristy, and yet such a terribly fun area. At 2 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, the honky-tonks and shops were just swarming with people. There were lines outside Tootsies, Margaritaville and Hatch Show Print. That's one of my very favorite things about Nashville: there are always people lined up to have a good time.

I headed over to the Public Library to hear Jason Howard and Naomi Judd speak about the Kentucky Roots of Country Music. Two things become apparent in a hurry: I want to be BFFs with Jason Howard, and Naomi Judd knows how to work a room. Amidst an interesting discussion about Appalachia, culture, and creativity, Mr. Howard and Ms. Judd worked in some hilarious quotes. Reading from his own description of a dinnertime scene at Ms. Judd's home, Mr. Howard deadpanned "It's her kitchen medicine cabinet. Every Appalachian woman I know has one." Later in the hour, Ms. Judd reached into her décolletage and dramatically produced a tissue -- "I think there's a Kleenex gene. I think it's a hillbilly thing."

I left the session with an interesting perspective on my own Appalachian heritage and drove down to meet my beau at the Barnes & Noble on Vanderbilt's campus (he's been in town for work). We grabbed some dinner, then decided to check out the holy grail of Nashville bookstores, Parnassus Books. 

I've been dying to visit Parnassus forever. Located in an unassuming strip of shops and restaurants in the Green Hills neighborhood, the store boasts one of the best fiction selections I've seen in ages. Because we were in Nashville, there were also more than a few country music and sporting dog titles to make us feel at home. I knew there was little chance of getting to meet owner Ann Patchett on a Friday night; I guess I'll just have to make another trip soon! 

We ended the evening with an apple fritter from the Donut Den next door (oh, how we've missed them!), and called it an early night, because we had many more books to discover on Saturday!

Writing the South

Recently, I found myself working on a piece of fiction.   For reasons that aren't really important, a small portion of the prologue took place in Atlanta.   I found myself struggling, because while I have been to that city several times, I don't really "know" it.   Part of me said that I should just keep plugging along, because the setting itself didn't really have any bearing on the plot of the piece.  I could email one of a dozen friends -- a few of whom even contribute to this blog-- and familiarize myself enough with the neighborhood bars/restaurants/boutiques that I would need to populate the pages of the story.  And yet, it didn’t feel authentic.  It wasn’t set in a city like Nashville or Louisville – someplace where I had lived and that I knew well.  It wasn’t set in a city like Lexington—someplace that I had grown up visiting so many times that I didn’t need a map when I finally moved there.  The entire scene just felt flat, and I soon abandoned that portion of the story.

I am a writer.  I am from Kentucky.  Does that make me a “Kentucky writer”?  Does that mean that I need to give all my essays and short stories a Kentucky setting? I’ve struggled with variants of this question for years.  Is it absolutely crucial for me, as a writer, to limit my writing to Kentucky or the South?

Image via Garden & Gun.
Often, I think, a writer, painter, or songwriter’s incorporation of a region into her work is crucial to the work itself.  The August/September issue of Garden and Gun magazine was devoted to Southern Women.  It was a charming retrospective of the role of the postmodern Southern Belle.  As I thumbed through the pages of this issue, I noticed a portrait of a couple of Southern-based artists whose work I happen to know quite well.  There was Joy Williams, the female voice in the Nashville-based duo The Civil Wars, and Emily Giffin, the litigator-turned-chick lit-maven, who lives in Atlanta.  Because I enjoy the work of both Ms. Williams and Ms. Giffin quite a bit, I found myself a little perplexed.  Ms. Williams is a California-born singer.  Ms. Giffin is from Illinois, and lived for many years in New York and London.  Yet, I would classify Ms. Williams’ roots-Americana sound as perfectly in keeping with the funky, post-country ethos of her adopted hometown of East Nashville.  On the other hand, while Ms. Giffin attended some of the finest schools in the South and currently lives in Atlanta, her novels are generally set in New York, Boston or London.  Her only novel with a Southern setting is told from the point of view of a character who generally hates the South.  While I truly enjoy Ms. Giffin’s fun and romantic stories, this hardly seems the work of a “Southern Belle” to me.  At the very least, she's hardly the Southern writer that Kathryn Stockett (also featured in this article) is.

A few weeks ago, University of Kentucky professor Nikky Finney was honored with the National Book Award for poetry.  Her powerful acceptance speech referencing the advances made by African-Americans in the South in recent decades has become something of an online phenomenon, and rightly so.  As an alumna of the University, I was thrilled to see such an incredible award being presented to such a wonderfully deserving talent.  Ms. Finney’s works evoke the memories of her coastal Carolina childhood far more than her Lexington professorship.  Stories of shrimpers and tides are far from the Bluegrass landscape.  And yet, Ms. Finney plays a driving role in Kentucky’s current literary landscape.

As I look at the previous four paragraphs on my computer screen, I wonder if I sound like a hopeless pedant.  (That particular aspersion, believe it or not, has been cast my way a time or two…)  The labels “Southern” or “Kentuckian” really don’t matter as much as establishing a connection with one’s reader.  I’ve never been to Northern Sweden, and yet, Stig Larsson’s work is my guilty literary pleasure.  I’ve never lived in a North London council flat with an array of immigrant families, yet I adore the work of Zadie Smith.  On the other hand, as a writer, I’m far more comfortable with creating characters who work in big law firms (as both my beau and I have) or who live in the Kentucky and Tennessee towns where I have lived.  Maybe the key really is the old cliché of writing what you know.  Or, just maybe, it’s a blend of writing what one knows and writing something engaging enough to transcend setting or experience.

Do y’all think a writer needs a connection to the place she writes about?