The Deepest South of All: America’s Looking Glass

Natchez, Mississippi, exists in a time warp; the longer you linger, the more its essence gets under your skin. British-born travel writer Richard Grant takes the reader on an amazing journey in The Deepest South of All through his friendships and interviews with key players in the Natchez cultural tapestry, demonstrating how the history of Natchez spins a web of fascination and frustration around all who dally. Stay long enough and your name will be sure to get crunched into the gossip mill: you will no longer recognize your own doings. Some residents might say that syndrome typifies Natchez more than any other trait. While its residents and groups are known to be odd, delightful, decadent, disputatious, discriminating, dignified and demented, the city’s mere existence demonstrates the foundation of irony and injustice upon which Natchez stakes its claim to fame.

Take the jaw-dropping fact that this center of slavery, which had more millionaires in its heyday than any other region of the U.S., was a Union army stronghold. Ulysses S. Grant stayed at an antebellum home named The Towers and allegedly rode his horse up and down the hallway on Christmas Eve of 1863. The city’s decision not to vote to secede from the Union caused Natchez planters to (albeit reluctantly) open their doors to the Union officers: for this reason alone, Natchez’s beautiful antebellum homes stand today with tours granted primarily by white women in hoop skirts. If not for that strategic decision, the mansions would probably have been burned to the ground.

Stanton Hall, where Richard Grant is invited at the outset of his book by the charming Natchez-born Regina Charboneau, a cookbook writer and former San Francisco restaurateur and blues club owner, takes a prominent position in The Deepest South of All. The name of Stanton Hall caught my attention because of a Californian high school friend who visited the Natchez mansion often (through family ties). A similar loyalty brought Charboneau home, and partly through her endeavor to keep Natchez alive while acknowledging its slave past, readers can feel the struggle that steeps the city in tension.

Charboneau runs Twin Oaks, another Greek Revival antebellum home dating from 1832. Richard Grant stayed here in the old slave quarters, and he does not hide his sense of grief or awareness of the misery that brought so much splendor to the city. Almost immediately, at the party thrown at Stanton Hall, a mansion that sits on an entire block and whose new roof cost $750,000, Grant discovers the fairy tale of happy servants promoted by more than one strong, elegant dowager in her 80s who won’t concede that any of the house servants who were called family were actual slaves.

That fairy tale is promoted by the locally famous Tableaux, a yearly theatrical event put on by rival garden clubs (who battle each other while keeping the antebellum homes running) at which children dance in more than one event and where each garden club’s Royal Court presides with a king and queen. Mothers in Natchez want their children to perform in the Tableaux, and therefore can be influenced to help in the activities that keep the city running. Those enlightened women who try to bring the tragedy of African American history into the Tableaux are met with ridicule, scorn and outrage from the fundamentalists who want the Tableaux to keep to the mythology of happy servants and singing field hands.

Grant shows how the mantle of resistance against racism and the Gone with the Wind romance has been taken up by many notables in Natchez, including the family of Natchez’s most famous resident, Greg Iles, a best-selling thriller writer. When his daughter Madeline was elected as Queen by the Pilgrimage Garden Club in 2015, she decided to use her power to make the Tableaux less racist. But in the poor part of the city, notable African Americans have worked just as hard to draw attention to the cauldron of misery that Natchez represents as a stronghold of pre-Civil War slavery.

The streaming racial debate that has spread swiftly into every artery of the USA during its 2020 pandemic crisis finds one of its chief sources (a never-stilled geyser) here in this spot on the Mississippi river where tens of thousands of manacled (men) or roped together (women) slaves were transported on riverboats. Here, these poor souls were sold at auctions after being rested and fattened up, the men dressed in outlandish top hats, the women in calico dresses and both sexes forced to submit to the grease of vegetables boiled with pork fat rubbed into their skin. Of all stories, none is more heartbreaking or more written of than that of the man nicknamed Prince.

Truly no story from The Deepest South of All so much got under my skin (and I yearned to get back to the book at the end of each work day) as the tale of the African Muslim prince born as Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima. Son of King Sori in Timbo in the highlands of Futa Jalon in what is now Guinea, Ibrahima was an educated young man who read, wrote and spoke Arabic as well as five African tongues. He was a valiant warrior who was the favored son of his father. One day, while returning home after a victorious battle, he and his men were caught by a warring African tribe and sold into slavery. If not for accidentally running into the same Irish doctor who visited West Africa and enjoyed his father’s royal hospitality decades earlier, Ibrahima, who accepted his fate as a slave for forty years and who was known to never smile, might never have had the chance to return to Africa (if only to die there).

It is easy to deduce that the controversy of slave-trading’s origins in Natchez has much to do with its draw on so many odd characters. Despite the gossip mill, no single character or set of characters can claim more attention than the issue of slavery itself and Natchez’s undeniable glory at the expense of human rights. It may be the oddest place in America and yet it serves a purpose as a mirror of ourselves. The Deepest South of All, one of the most fascinating books I have read this decade, dares us to look at our own reflection. #NetGalley #The Deepest South of All #Simon&Schuster

Flame Bearer: Resistance of Tori Amos

Tori AmosTori Amos first pierced my consciousness like a lightning bolt thrown by Letterman from his Late Night Show. That might sound mundane except that I was in Saudi Arabia, married to a Saudi, and this dynamic, creative & intellectual singer on a Western TV show (one that made it past the censors) pulled me up to the edge of my seat with her voice and thoughts, melodic yet dissonant, haunting and probing. Her creative expression embodied the reason I was in the Middle East and in the same musical breath, straight from the diaphragm, that creativity (like critical thinking, scientific investigation, and freedom to make life choices) was so fragile an acquisition for women anywhere that it has to be guarded and nurtured, not used and then suffocated. I was acutely reminded of these memories as I moved into the pages of this important memoir with the spot-on title. Resistance is a recounting of how a conscientious and vibrantly switched on singer-song writer finds purpose. Resistance is about being alive to meaning; it is about music being the meeting place where thinking people can cut through propaganda to try to understand what is really going on in the world. Resistance

Intellectual stimulation has been a function of music since the time of Arius, who responded to the Council of Nicea by singing. Song offers a powerful societal structure and Tori Amos shows that being a support to that structure comes with responsibilities. From the first chapter, I felt the electricity of her words, the value of the critical thought, the searching and weaving together of melody to express perceptions reflecting what her first piano bar was literally in the center of: world politics. Her description of playing in smoked-filled lounges in Washington, DC, demonstrates the seeds of her interest in the world, in politics, in freedom and rights. I like her humility as she admits she had no idea, as a young singer at the piano, what Tip O’Neal meant when he said he was speaker of the house. I could just imagine him dancing to an Irish jig.

But later, Amos gave me goosebumps when she talks about what resistance has meant to her: resisting against the music producers who held her in contract, resisting when they wanted her to get rid of her piano, resisting against pressure to cancel tours. Her music is as much about personal creative freedom as a commitment to guard a psychic ground where artists, musicians, and music lovers know information exchanged is not for the purposes of gas-lighting. She addresses some of the political players she resists, like Mitch McConnell, telling him that he has “plowed through with a ruthlessness similar to what women have experienced for thousands of years,” a ruthlessness that Amos’ grandmother must have been thinking of when she advised her granddaughter that one day she would have to surrender to a man completely and thereby lose control of who she was.

Resistance is a conversation. Amos talks about Kavanaugh and quid pro quo. She talks about her conversations with other women throughout the USA and her belief in what women can accomplish. She reminds her readers that there is a real-life Handmaid’s Tale implicit in McConnell’s catch phrase “plow this through” and that in any single breath, new freedoms taken for granted can dissolve in a sour wind. Anyone of any gender can be controlled, but women have forever been an easier target than men, in general. Being controlled can turn a woman into a facilitator to power that controls other women. The ramifications of quid pro quo and control are common themes in her songs. Amos explains that “once a song leaves [her] lair, it will form relationships that [she has]no control over. . . .” The endless variety of interpretation of songs is a reaction all artists understand, but for that connection to take place, a songwriter must “unearth emotions that confront us with those portions of ourselves that we hide when posting on social media.”

Resistance clears the air and lays the cards out on the table. When I first saw Tori Amos, I knew she represented the force that had granted me freedom to choose to come to Saudi Arabia, a force that diminished and almost died due to my personal situation. She reminded me I was still alive and a direct heiress of a legacy of grandmothers and great-great grandmothers going it alone, using their brains and their wiles to gain a heretofore unimaginable level of female freedom. Resistance will surely remind its readers of “tools” that may need dusting and taking out of the backyard shed; the manuscript underscores the importance of music to a tradition of freedoms that need to be watered and sustained just like plants. Thanks#NetGalley #AtriaBooks

Dickens in my Ears and Eyes

GUEST_42d5d9f7-b8c3-40d9-b98d-969cf512f8a7I am almost at the end of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens–again. The first time, I bought the hardback and read it with my eyes. What stuck in memory was the great British author’s complaint of being chained to his desk or table in order to complete a novel. Any writer can relate, even we the unknown. Another sticky detail, like a shred of carrot or pumpkin seed in my teeth, was the worshipful obsession from the American public. Individuals would snip of bits of his fur trim. I refuse to look back at the book itself to see if I am right or wrong about this remembrance because this is an experiment. Same book, same reader, different experiences.

Bringing you to my ears. You would not want them as I have tinnitus, but if I focus on something (or someone) else–like Dickens–I forget all about the ringing. Listening to the same book on my phone has made ridiculous driving excursions, like to the grocery store, bearable.

The narrator’s voice has made a mark, no doubt. I love his accent (which stirs up the significant question of whose voice I can bear listening to, and I am as picky about this as any diner perusing a menu, so you know exactly what I mean). I love this narrator’s accent in general although I am perplexed by his intonation of all speech coming from an American character. Oh please, Mr. Jennings, these were Americans of the 19th century. They could not possibly have been all so nauseatingly nasal. Many parents of these Americans were immigrants from your home county. I can only conjecture you want a role as an uncultivated American hick. If Kevin Costner has not called you yet, perhaps you will, next time, not make every single American character sound like he has a deviated septum.

But still, the book is grand. My ears have retained completely different memories than my eyes. Partly due to Mr. Jennings, Dickens’ loss of honor in the way he verbally abused his long suffering wife, Catherine, when he finally got tired of her and began his pursuit of young Ellen Ternan, looms large. Tomalin’s astute observation of the shift in Dickens’ personal value system and how it impacted the way villains are described from that point onward in his novels also sticks, floating around with the tinnitus. The pitch of my ear-reading experience may be higher than the tonality of the eye-reading memories, but that they were different makes the experiment of reading a book more than one way quite satisfying. #Charles Dickens A Life # Claire Tomalin

High Life in the Late Middle Ages

cover177159-medium Hooray for this nonfiction about Sir Francis Bryan, diplomat for King Henry VIII; this book stands out for the way in which Watkins makes the characters feel truly human, piquing the readers’ interest in their traits and foibles. It was super interesting to read about how Wolsey tried to pry the king’s friends away from Henry. Keeping a young man away from his male friends? It is also fascinating to read about the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where Francis I, though subservient in some respects to Henry, beat him in a wrestling match. Somehow, Henry held his temper. Francis I spent about 40 thousand pounds and Henry 36 thousand on this event, which Watkins gives as 32 million pounds sterling in today’s money. Good grief! Despite my mentioning Henry so often, I was really attracted to the way the author described the king’s friends, the way they dressed, and how they acted with each other. I truly enjoyed following the path of Sir Francis Bryan. The vicissitudes of life are thrown into high throttle in this milieu–one could gain the world one day and die a bloody mess (or drown attired in full armor) the next. A lot of detail is in this book about the Howard family, which I found interesting, knowing an American descendant of that same family. Bryan was an incredibly dexterous man, both physically and mentally, matching the needs of his king without getting into the kind of trouble that could cost his estate or his life. When he was on off hours, he drank and gambled too much, but that makes him human! I found myself envying him for knowing the courts of his era so well that he could compare them easily. He makes the most engaging comments: “And in the French Court I never saw so many women; I would I had so many sheep to find my house whilst I live” [sic]. I have never seen a book that gives more interesting details–perhaps as good, but never better. Yes, he lost his eye in a jousting match and apparently it is for that reason that it is nigh impossible to find a portrait of him. He was too embarrassed to leave a painting for posterity with his eye patch. I think I may end up buying the hard cover of this fascinating book. I just reviewed Sir Francis Bryan by Sarah-Beth Watkins. #SirFrancisBryan #NetGalley #ChronosBooks185904554_196b006f-a373-4dd9-941d-c863f4849083
[NetGalley URL]

Reviewing Now I Know The Soviets Invaded Wisconsin?!

cover172346-mediumAuthors/publishers should know that reviewing is done by a broad cross-section of the population. Reviewers’ commonality is that they know how to read and think. The direction of their thoughts, of course, is problematic.

People become emotional for imagined offenses. After writing my own review of the charming book of trivia, Now I know the Soviets invaded Wisconsin?! by Dan Lewis, a book which must have been tedious to research, I was taken aback by the comments of other reviewers.

Reviewers who have never actually written a book judge books against the level of engagement they feel with the work. This brings up the unfair correlation with novels or holy script. If a book of historical trivia does not stir the same passion and love in a reader as, say, his or her favorite philosophical writing, the author of that book may have to bear the consequences. This is the primary reason for 3 stars on a well-written book. It didn’t measure up to The Fault is in Our Stars or whatever the reviewer felt was top-notch for personal reasons. Other writers may judge based on the experience of writing. (My own personal criteria is whether I would have been proud to have written the book I am reading.)

I found Now I Know: The Soviets Invaded Wisconsin? by Dan Lewis to be extremely well written. Falling into a category that sometimes perplexes those given the job of assigning categories, one starts thinking about audience: to whom is a book of historical tidbits/significant trivia important? Frankly, the answer is all those who wish to know something about the unexpected details that unite our world in pertinent ways. That audience may be of teachers or students, and the purpose is to gratify the reader’s (typically) unquenchable desire for answers and to populate his/her memory bank of fascinating trivia with which to interest others. (Other reviewers have given enough spoilers already, but I was fascinated by the reason for the emergence of phone numbers!)

Lewis is justified in saying he makes transitions from one subject to the next because he does it so well! Writing teachers (I am one) may wish to use a couple of his transitions simply to show how it can be done with panache. Each time Lewis branched into a new subject, I remained interested, and that is a hard feat to accomplish (kudos!) when writing about seemingly unrelated topics. His finished product is one of the best I have ever seen in this category of writing. I recommend it as a gift book: easy to dip into, full of content that readers can use to stir conversation. Thank you,  #NetGalley #AdamsMedia

 

To the Writers Who Should Stop Bragging

bragging

You just published a piece in which you brag about how much money you make writing.

I appreciate that it has taken you a long time and a lot of work to . . .

sell writing-related products on Etsy.

write a subscription newsletter.

host a Martial Arts Writers’ Club.

run a Patreon account (where you solicit money from people who want to help struggling writers and if they knew how much you make, they might stop helping).

sell online courses in writing for money.

flood my consciousness because I am a writer so the keywords bring your new articles to my attention via the mystery of algorithms.

write 5,000,000 words.

appreciate a certain level of poverty even though you should be rolling in luxury at the income level of which you boast.

*From one writer to another: Consider the possibility that you are addicted to money and bragging. Not everyone appreciates your 5,000,000 words. Writing is supposed to be consciousness and conscience-raising, not a  means to gloat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Script writing for fame?

trumbo
You have a better chance of fame by defacing statues in the park.
For income and repute, if you have already worked yourself into that group of writers writing for the silver screen, congratulations.

The stories told of script writers having their words erased and being overwritten by someone else, often the director, abound.

In 2004, The New York Times ran a piece by Charles McGrath documenting F. Scott Fitgerald’s 2000 pages of “treatments, sketches, drafts, polishes [and] rewrites,” a mountain of work that one archivist called “heartbreaking.”

Fitzgerald made a similar lack of impact on the script of Gone with the Wind, finally leaving to go write The Great Gatsby.

Sidney Howard is given the credit for that script although anyone who reads the stories behind these authors and films knows giving full credit to one name for Gone with the Wind is a joke we could laugh at for a year.

William Faulkner was strongly considered as one of the scriptwriters due to his expertise in telling tales of the Old South. However, his jealousy of Gone with the Wind going into movie production was massive, as seems likely, for he was in desperate need of money and trying to sell movie rights of Absolom, Absolom to any producer who was interested. No one wanted it, however (Bugsie,gwtwscrapbook.blogspot).

Point: Faulkner, Mitchell and Fitzgerald are not famous for having been scriptwriters. Nor, for that matter, is Sidney Howard.

Julia Simpson-Urrutia is the author of Wax Works, a paranormal mystery-horror novel about a  defunct Swiss boarding school that reopens as an inn and wax museum, inviting back former students in order to punish them.

A Head for Sculpture: Madame Tussaud

marie antoinette2

Madame Tussaud: Her Life and Legacy by Geri Walton,

Pen and Sword History,

Sept 2, 2019

 

 

Merveilleux! Picture a talented young woman being forced to sit on a chair with the decapitated head of, oh, say one of her best friends or more enjoyable dining guests from last week in her lap, making a mold of the face so as to be able to render it in wax. Now put a maddened crowd in front of this girl, a crowd that insists on watching, and you get an idea of what kind of pressures Marie Tussaud had to endure and truly, what shaped her in becoming the world’s most famous wax sculptor. Geri Walton uncannily knows how to give the reader a fantastic ride. Walton’s stupendous research into (you name it) all people and trends that impacted Marie Tussaud’s life, which would include the absolutely tumultuous French Revolution, and her ability to render each person or event in a way that will most interest the reader means she (Walton) understands human nature. This is no dry history book. This is the kind of biography that will have the reader sharing intellectual tidbits at barbecues. I, who have taken more than one class on the French Revolution when obtaining my French degrees, was more absorbed by this book than anything I remember reading on the same subject in college. No disrespect is meant to the writer when I say that I had to drop the book in pure terror when reading about The Terror that overtook France. We talk a lot about how the Nazis persecuted other nations (after wiping out so many of their own people due to ethnic prejudice) during WWII, but The Terror was an example of how a crazed mania can cause wanton slaughter by a people to their own population for the most spurious of rationales. My hair stood on end. I appreciated the astute assessment of marketing propaganda employed by Curtius, Marie’s father, who taught his daughter all he knew. Marie learned, herself, to be a good promoter, which does not mean she was truthful. However, her skill was astounding. I spent hours looking up the figures I was reading about and I can easily see Wellington visiting Tussaud’s wax figures to stare at Napoleon for days and days, to contemplate his enemy. I admired Marie Tussaud’s survival instinct, her ability to cut her failure of a husband off, and her careful management of resources. What a book! Fantastic.

 

Heavy Poems with a Light Touch–Acrobats of Sound

Acrobats of Sound by Colin Pink

Poetry Salzburg, University of Salzburg, Austria, 2016

If not for the radiant twinkle, the sparkle of hope that readers of Pink’s verse have come to expect, some of the themes in Acrobats of Sound might weigh down our hearts. To his and his editors’ credit, Acrobats of Sound unfolds with wordplay that makes the reader smile in delight and lean forward in anticipation of the next whimsical juxtaposition, as in “The Pencil Fears the Eraser”:

The blind man’s memory is touching

A bone dreams of finding a buried dog.

The film stars’ smiles go out at night.

A lighthouse dreams it’s lost in the fog.

A jug pours emptiness out of itself.

The ringing silence of the blue bells.

The true secretly loves the false.

A demon vacations to warmer hells.

A lost postcard misses the sea.

The ledge is scared to look down.

The weather never complains.

A fake smile betrays the frown.

A fish never sees the sea even on holiday.

The umbrella tingles at the touch of raindrops.

A letterbox swallows every word.

The stage is wary of anxious theatre props.

A clock is never impatient no matter how late.

A stone never hides its feelings.

The pencil fears the eraser is always behind it.

The paper slowly unfolds its meanings.

In his stories and theatrical productions, Pink is known for a light touch that exposes the wounds of mankind unexpectedly, but not without hope. His nimbly astute eye seems never to blink, for he snares the tiniest memorable details, the truisms that we otherwise might miss for turning our heads or sipping tea. That is how he asks us to reconsider post-traumatic stress disorder in “Return of the Warrior” or the trivializing of war memories in “American Civil War Bubblegum Cards.” In the latter poem he says he almost sees himself, for “in one scene a little boy is hanged as a spy; he looked a bit like me, it made me feel sad, I guess that’s what it was meant to do.”

Pink’s appreciation of art and his endless temptation to juxtapose contradictory concepts show up in “The Raft of Medusa” which

hangs in the Louvre, its cargo of corpses, glinting

Beneath brown varnish, like celebrities caught

In a reality TV programme, permanently on pause.

The canvas is indeed so big, in an emergency we could

Actually use it as a raft, float down the Seine, astonish

The flaneurs as we wave from our improvised bateau.

Let’s run through the salons, like cool sixties movie

Icons, not care how many tourists we knock over,

In our race to prove we are still able to misbehave.

A poet wouldn’t be one without contemplating our tragedies, and from the “Panther in the City,” “Elegy for NYC” and the darkness who “cultivates your cowardice” in “Darkness Spoken,” Pink reminds readers that we might fall backwards into depravity at any moment. What else was the use of Lee Miller’s photography, Pink seems to suggest in “Lee Miller in Hitler’s Tub.” Both poet and publisher want to help us refocus, for the only illustration in the entire collection is a cobblestone printed along with “The Cobblestones of Berlin.”

Aside from his great love of art, Pink demonstrates an unwavering fascination with philosophy, which he studied at the University of Southampton. It is hard not to wonder whether his professors of philosophy received the double-entendres that regale the readers of Acrobats of Sound. We can get a peek of Pink’s mischief inside “Pandora’s Box”:

You would not know,

to look at it,

what it is.

A plain, unadorned,       

rather worn, wooden box

No warning signs

attached to it.

No Health & Safety

stickers seal it.

No seal at all

protects it.

It invites opening

with mute resignation.

Go on, don’t resist,

open it;

you know you want to.

Let’s find out what’s inside it;

you can’t stand idle beside it.

How does it feel

when you touch it?

Is it cold or warm

with something

                                broiling within?

What’s that tapping I hear?

O, just your impatient foot.

Go on, no one’s looking,

                do it now!

You know you’ll feel

So much easier

when everything is

out in the open.