Archive for the ‘Southern Literature’ Category


A Quick Look Back Down Tobacco Road

April 11, 2012

It’s been a quarter-century today since Erskine Caldwell shuffled off this dusty mortal coil. One of the most famous novelists of the Depression Era South (and beyond), Caldwell was also one of the most infamous; his two best-known novels, Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933), were intended as books of social protest and earned wide critical acclaim but their sometimes lurid storylines also garnered a different kind of attention, including accusations of pornography, got the books not just banned but also burned, and even led to  the author’s arrest on what were essentially vice charges! (A landmark court case ultimately ruled in his favor.)

Thanks to the good folks at Open Road Integrated Media (which has recently published each of these novels and a few of Caldwell’s other books in e-book format), here’s a quick excerpt from the opening of Tobacco Road to honor today’s anniversary:

Lov’s wife was Jeeter Lester’s youngest daughter, Pearl. She was only twelve years old the summer before when he had married her….

Pearl had never talked, for that matter. Not because she could not, but simply because she did not want to. When she was at home, before Lov had married her, she had stayed apart from the other Lesters and rarely opened her mouth from the beginning of one day to the next. Only her mother, Ada, had been able to converse with her, and even then Pearl had never used more than the barest of negatives and affirmatives in reply. But Ada was herself like that. She had begun to talk voluntarily only during the past ten years. Before then, Jeeter had had the same trouble with her that Lov was now having with Pearl. Lov asked Pearl questions, he kicked her, he poured water over her, he threw rocks and sticks at her, and he did everything else he could think of that he thought might make her talk to him. She cried a lot, especially when she was seriously hurt, but Lov did not consider that as conversation. He wanted her to ask him if his back were sore, and when was he going to get his hair cut, and when was it going to rain again. But Pearl would not say anything.

He had spoken to Jeeter several times before about his troubles with Pearl, but Jeeter did not know what was the matter with her. Ever since she was a baby she had been like that, he said; and Ada had remained untalkative until the last few years. What Jeeter had not been able to break down in Ada for forty years, hunger had. Hunger loosened her tongue, and she had been complaining ever since. Jeeter did not attempt to recommend the starving of Pearl, because he knew she would go somewhere to beg food, and would get it.

“Sometimes I think it’s just the old devil in her,” Lov had said several times. “To my way of thinking, she ain’t got a scratch of religion in her. She’s going to hell-fire when she dies, sure as day comes.”

“Now, maybe she ain’t pleased with her married life,” Jeeter had suggested. “Maybe she ain’t satisfied with what you provide her with.”

“I done everything I can think of to make her satisfied and contented. Every week I go to Fuller on pay-day and buy her a pretty. I get her snuff, but she won’t take none; I get her a little piece of calico, but she won’t sew it. Looks like she wants something I ain’t got and can’t get her. I wish I knowed what it was. She’s such a pretty little girl—all them long yellow curls hanging down her back sort of gets me all crazy sometimes. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’ve got the need of Pearl for a wife as bad as any man ever had.”

“I expect she’s too young yet to appreciate things,” Jeeter had said. “She ain’t grown up yet like Ellie May and Lizzie Belle and Clara and the other gals. Pearl ain’t nothing but a little gal yet. She don’t even look like a woman, so far.”

“If I had knowed she was going to be like she is, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to marry her so bad. I could have married me a woman what wants to be married to me. But I don’t want Pearl to go now, though. I sort of got used to her around, and I’d sure miss seeing them long yellow curls hanging down her back. They make a man feel kind of lonesome some way. She sure is a pretty little girl, no matter if she does act like she does all the time.”

(Sounds like something from the American Noir class I’m teaching at George Mason right now…. Or maybe I’m just seeing the world through the noir lens these days…. Either way, a potential addition to future syllabi, of course.)

For a fuller excerpt and some additional links to info on Caldwell, check out Open Road’s own blog post today. — Art Taylor


Review: Bret Lott’s Dead Low Tide in the Washington Post

January 25, 2012

I’ll admit that I had high hopes for Bret Lott’s new “literary thriller” (as it’s being heavily marketed) but ultimately found that the novel fell short on both ends of that phrase. Here’s the start of my review today in the Washington Post:

[T]he book navigates its way uncertainly — here a murder mystery, there a late-blooming coming-of-age tale, suddenly a political thriller, intermittently a romance. The opening scenes — the discovery of the body and its immediate aftermath — stretch chapter by chapter for nearly half the book, slowed by digressions and explanations: why Huger calls his father Unc, how Huger and his mom came to live among the blue bloods, languorous descriptions of history and geography, plus a boatload of back story from Lott’s 1999 novel The Hunt Club (featuring these same characters). Only occasionally does the new book seem to remember the corpse, flashing images of “those teeth, that flesh, and whatever had happened — whatever had been done to — her face, and the glow and glisten of water runneling off a body.”

Check out the full review here. — Art Taylor


Interview: NC Author Sarah Shaber in Mystery Scene

October 5, 2011

The Fall 2011 Mystery Scene has just arrived, and I’m pleased that the new issue includes my interview with North Carolina novelist Sarah Shaber, talking about the first book in her new series, Louise’s War. (Readers of this blog have already had a glimpse at my chat with Shaber here.) The new Mystery Scene also includes a wide range of other articles, including a cover story on Val McDermid (interviewed by the always-delightful Oline H. Cogdill), features on James Sallis, on supernatural mysteries, and on the new Spider-Man, and a tribute to the magazine’s former publisher, the late Martin H. Greenberg. Get your copy now! — Art Taylor


Interview: Sarah R. Shaber, author of Louise’s War

August 1, 2011

Sarah R. Shaber

I’ve long been a fan of Sarah R. Shaber’s novels, beginning with the first book in her Simon Shaw mystery series, Simon Said, which won the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Award. Four other books followed, each following the adventures (and misadventures) of a distinguished history professor at a small college in Raleigh, NC: Snipe Hunt, The Fugitive King, The Bug Funeral, and Shell Game. (These books have recently been made available as e-books, for those needing to catch up.) This summer, Shaber debuts a second series with the book Louise’s War. While the new novel still has a tangential connection to the North Carolina that Shaber calls home (the book’s heroine reflects frequently on her past and family in coastal Wilmington, NC), the setting now is the big city: Washington, DC. And here the characters aren’t just looking back on history; they’re living it—with Louise working in the fledgling OSS during the height of World War II.

A launch party for Louise’s War is scheduled for Tuesday, August 9, at 7:30 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh—and Shaber promises cake! In the calm before that first bookstore appearance (and in the final days of wrapping up the second book in the series), Shaber indulged a few questions about Louise Pearlie and the various wars she’s fighting.

Art Taylor: The title of your new novel, Louise’s War, seems to work on a number of levels. In the most straightforward reading, we’re getting the title character’s view of World War II itself, of life on the homefront, and of the budding OSS operations. What drew you toward writing about this era and about the OSS? And where did Louise herself come from, this coastal NC native discovering herself in the big city?

Sarah Shaber: When I decided to write a new historical mystery series, World War II immediately came to mind. I’d done some reading on World War II for Snipe Hunt, the second book in my Simon Shaw series, and I remember thinking that was an era I’d like to write about again. World War II was a true battle between good and evil. It took the combined strength of the United States, the British Empire and the Soviet Union to defeat the Axis. Coming right after the Depression, too, the challenges were enormous.

Washington became a boom town. Thousands upon thousands of people migrated there for jobs. The social set from Paris, London, Rome, and other capitals under siege filled hotels and apartments. Con men, criminals and spies followed. OSS was perhaps the most interesting agency in Washington. The Director, Wild Bill Donovan, didn’t care who you were or what your politics were as long as you could help defeat the Nazis. It would take pages to list all the real characters who worked there; Julia Child, Sterling Hayden, and Moe Berg, the baseball player, are just three!

Louise comes from Wilmington as a sentimental homage to Snipe Hunt. Fans of my earlier series might notice that her last name, Pearlie, a common name on the North Carolina Coast, is also the name of the fictional beach — Pearlie Beach — where Snipe Hunt takes place.

Read the rest of this entry ?


New Fiction & Nonfiction — at Mysterical-E and in North Carolina Literary Review

July 19, 2011

I’m fortunate to have two recent publications to announce — both a short story and an interview.

First up is some very short fiction that began as a sonnet (and in fact, in its current form online, one of the old line breaks has been preserved). I wrote “Hard-boiled Sweetheart” during my MFA years at George Mason University — an exercise for a Forms of Poetry class with Peter Klappert, undoubtedly one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever had. It was a fun little piece, and I sure hated to see it just tucked away forever inside a black binder. I don’t know much in the way of poetry outlets, of course, but flash fiction? I just pulled the line breaks (well, almost all of them!), submitted it to an online pub I greatly admire, and… Hooray! You can find “Hard-boiled Sweetheart” in the Summer 2011 issue of Mysterical-E.

Next up is an interview with Michael Malone in the 2011 issue of North Carolina Literary Review. (Note: The interview is not available online.) I sat down with Malone last fall during East Carolina University’s seventh annual Eastern North Carolina Literary Homecoming, and our talk surveyed his long career, from his debut novel, Painting the Roses Red, through his latest, The Four Corners of the Sky — with a fair amount of focus on my favorite among his books: the Justin Savile/Cuddy Mangum trilogy Uncivil Seasons, Time’s Witness, and First Lady. And even better news? That trilogy will soon be a quartet, with Malone hard at work on Dark Winter.

The rest of this year’s NCLR is simply remarkable. The front-of-the-journal focus on “North Carolina Environmental Writing” includes essays by David Cecelski, Jan DeBlieu, Janet Lembke, and Bland Simpson; poetry by James Applewhite, Gerald Barrax Sr., and Valerie Nieman; and art by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Minnie Evans (the latter from the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art, where I used to work). The back-of-the-book “North Carolina Miscellany” includes my interview along with a new story by Robert Wallace (winner of the 2010 Doris Betts Fiction Prize), a review by Sally Buckner of several new poetry collections, and the great poem “Guitar Prostitute” by Robert Hill Long, founding director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

Good stuff all around. — Art Taylor

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