Let’s Read: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

So here I am, reviewing southern gothic novels on the internet, and I’ve never even read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Now, one thing I need to clear up: this isn’t technically a southern gothic novel, though it’s often associated with the genre. I’ve always heard this tossed about as a must-read for those interested in southern gothic, even though it’s actually a disjointed and rather elegant nonfiction novel.

So why southern gothic? Why does this association exist, and should it be considered a staple?

 

Midnight_in_the_Garden_of_Good_and_Evil_cover

In this series, I’m going to explore that question, as well as give my thoughts on Midnight as I read through it. I’m pretty excited, too. This book used to sit on my mother’s bookshelf in the living room, alongside The Foxfire Book and Memnoch the Devil. I used to gaze at those mysterious books, allured by their supposedly forbidden contents, knowing that I was too young, and fearing the Hell that my grandmother promised if I ever strayed into such evil.

I saw no evil – only fascinating covers and tantalizing titles. I still remember the statue from the cover of Midnight staring back at me, inviting me in. In fact, I associate it so strongly with my mother that I did a similar pose in one of my wedding photos as a bit of a nod to her (and if you’re reading this, Mom, I hope you liked it). Put plainly, this should have been on my reading list 15 years ago. But somehow, it slipped by.


Now, I’m finally going to start it. I’ll be writing this series as I go, and I invite you to join me, should you feel so inclined. Each update will cover three chapters of the book. Keep an eye out here! Let’s enjoy a mystery together.

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Talking to the Moon

Hello, friends.

I’m on vacation this week, but I still have a piece I’d like to share with you. No, it’s not another southern gothic book review or essay about Alabama, even though I’m enjoying a bit of Alabama summertime right now. It’s cozy and warm outside, and the cicadas are promising to sing me to sleep tonight. It’s a good time to be home, even if home ain’t always perfect.

Anyhow, I thought I’d share this bit with you tonight. It’s a little fable I cooked up for a project that didn’t get off the ground. On a night like this, when the moon is clear and bright and the nighttime smells like damp earth and magnolia flowers, I can’t help but imagine the werewolves howling….

 

“They say that somewhere, far away from the hum of civilization, lies a forest as old as the world itself. Within that forest is another realm, hidden away from outside realities. Those who enter that realm find a place without time or permanence, where ancient knowledge is whispered by the wind, and where the trees shudder with magic.

Travelers find themselves drawn to the center of the wood, where a great spirit is said to live. It is said that this wise spirit will bestow a blessing upon visitors, if only they manage to find it.

Many have tried, but most become enamored with the beauty of the forest. They move in circles and wander endlessly, never to return.

That, at least, is what the stories say.”

Read the rest HERE at HLRuddAuthor.com. 

 

Southern Gothic: Wicker’s Bog Review

I discovered Wicker’s Bog by Mike Duran with a bit of digging on Amazon. I needed to find a new book to review, and I was short on time to read it, so this little novella seemed like an ideal dive into independent horror publishing. It’s a short little book, just 64 pages in length, but I hadn’t noticed just how short it was when I paid $5.99 for it. And I’ll be honest, I’ve talked to a couple indie authors who cringed at the price, but I don’t mind. Even a short book is still well worth it if I enjoy, and it still cost me less than my typical order at Subway once I tack a drink onto the end. So, what’s the problem?


The problem is pretty straight forward: I’m not sure how much I liked Wicker’s Bog, and I’m not sure how fair that is. The author writes nice prose and has a great command of visual language, which makes it an enjoyable read, though it clips along a little too fast for my tastes. It’s more like a long short story than a short novella, but the scene is set nicely and it has the kind of gloom that I love in southern gothic stories. There’s a sunken manor house, a town with mysterious disappearances, and a history of hauntings right out of the gate, and the writer does a great job evoking that.

I was a scrappy country kid, once upon a time. I tend to like the little Scout Finches of southern dramas, and our main character is one of them. However, she’s the only character that matters. There is a brother who serves as a one-note bully, and a caregiver who is there to spout out southern lingo and remind the kids to be home by sundown.That’s still mostly okay, but I can’t discuss the characterization too much without spoiling the story. But it does tie into the first of my two more serious problems with Wicker’s Bog.

The first major problem is the mystery aspect. Mysteries are subjective, so something that’s tricky for one reader might seem bland and predictable to another. I completely accept that. What I can’t accept is how transparent the mystery element in this story is. Without spoilers, I’ll say that there is only one choice for who the culprit might be, and it’s telegraphed pretty heavily on top of it. I don’t think it ruins the story for every reader, especially since a work this length doesn’t have much time to set up alternatives and layers, and the writing itself (plus the excellent imagery) could probably soften this blow for many readers. It did for me – I still enjoyed it. But I saw it coming by a country mile.

My second concern is the story’s thematic undertone. With frequent mentions of God and a big emphasis on fate, I had a hard time not feeling like this story was pushy. That said, it’s a common thing in southern gothic. Religion has a strong grip on the south, both its characters and its writers. I’m not exactly surprised, but the methods used here irritated me. Again, it’s difficult to explain in-depth without spoiling the story, but the main character’s ending thoughts had me rolling my eyes. If you’re like me and came from an abusive religious background, you might want to skip this one.

I don’t want to seem excessively harsh just because the story has a Christian slant. There is a lot of good here. The writing is solid, the pacing is nice, and the climax is thrilling. I think the author is an excellent writer, and many of the problems vanish if you read this as a ghost story, not as a mystery. The imagery took me right back to my childhood, and if you love a good spooky tale, this could be a great quick fix. But if I knew about the Christian theming from the start, the price might have been a bigger issue for me.

Personal Poetry: “To the Dandelion” by James Russell Lowell

April showers bring May flowers and May flowers bring…poetry? May flowers also bring weeds! One of the most common is the dandelion. As a weed and flower alike, the dandelion is a powerful symbol in poetry. As the little yellow flowers begin to dot the lawns all over New England, lets take a moment to appreciate them with the 1848 poem “To The Dandelion,” by Massachusetts native and Romantic poet, James Russell Lowell.

 

“To the Dandelion” is the longest poem covered in Personal Poetry yet. Therefore, instead of analyzing it line by line as in past posts, the major themes will be grouped together. If you are interested in reading the poem in full, it can be read in The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell available at Project Gutenberg linked in the Further Reading section.

 

Lowell opens the poem with a statement of the ordinariness of the dandelion, “ DEAR common flower, that grow’st beside the way,/ Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold!”  At its most literal,  this line describes how the dandelions grow numerous alongside the road that he travels but he still stops to notice and appreciate their presence. This opening line can be further interpreted as the joy one can revel in beholding even the the most ordinary sights in nature. Lowell ends the opening stanza with the line, “thou art more dear to me/Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be.” The dandelion may not be the only flower that catches the observant Lowell’s eye, however, it is the most valuable to him. This is explored deeper later in the poem, but even at the beginning he emphasizes the particular significance of the dandelion.

“How like a prodigal doth nature seem When thou, for all thy gold, so common art!” Significantly, Lowell repeats the descriptor, “common” for the dandelion. Readers of poetry should always take note of repetition, because poets are intentional in their choice of diction. Repeated words typically point toward a important theme of the work. It is the simple commonness of the dandelion that makes it important to Lowell. Dandelions are everywhere, and thus can be appreciated and remind Lowell of the modest beauty found in even the smallest cracks of nature.

 

In addition to Lowell, it is children, he remarks, who appreciate the dandelion. “Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold—High-hearted buccaneers, o’erjoyed that they/ An Eldorado in the grass have found” It was this part of the poem, describing children joyously plucking dandelions from the earth as treasures that held the most personal significance for me. Reading it instantly transported me back to my youth in which I would gather the dandelions and wood sorrell in the yard, delighting in their vibrant yellow hues, and present a bouquet to my mother. Children do not differentiate flower and weed in their identification of beauty. They simply pluck and keep what catches their eye.  As with myself, dandelions are also closely tied to Lowell’s memories of childhood. “My childhood’s earliest thoughts are linked with thee” he states in the middle of the poem. The dandelions are a powerful link to Lowell’s own early years and their commonness allow him to experience those memories often.

 

The ubiquity and unsophistication of the dandelion leads to the most important theme of “To the Dandelion”, the richness of sacred gifts in nature. Lowell often linked nature and spiritualism within his poetry. In the dandelion he sees the virtues of modesty, humility, and innocence.

 

“To rich and poor alike, with lavish hand;  Though most hearts never understand/To take it at God’s value, but pass by/The offered wealth with unrewarded eye.” It is those who take the time to appreciate the unadorned flower who truly experience the majesty of God, according to Lowell.  And although these gifts of nature are available to all, rich and poor, it is a rare person who collects the wealth offered so freely and unceasingly. The rare person who allows their heart to be filled with the joy of these humble gifts.

 

It is in this rarity, that children are the exception, part of the reason Lowell appreciates the link dandelions create with his childhood is that reminds him of when he felt a greater and easier connection to nature. “The sight of thee calls back the robin’s song,/Who, from the dark old tree Beside the door, sang clearly all day long;/And I, secure in childish piety, Listened as if I heard an angel sing/ With news from heaven, which he did bring/Fresh every day to my untainted ears,   When birds and flowers and I were happy peers.” To the young Lowell, the birds were angels. Their songs the news of heaven. Notably, he describes his young self as a peer to the birds and flowers, meaning he too was a part of that heaven on earth. As he aged and lost his “untainted ears” he lost that heavenly connection, as well. He loves the dandelions because they remind him that he once felt that fullness of that kinship.

 

espite the inherent loss of aging, the poem ends on a hopeful message, “Thou teachest me to deem More sacredly of every human heart,/Since each reflects in joy its scanty gleam Of heaven, and could some wondrous secret show,/Did we but pay the love we owe, /And with a child’s undoubting wisdom look /On all these living pages of God’s book.” Lowell believes that the dandelions can teach him, and the readers by extension, the value of the humble gifts in our lives. Even if the connection becomes lost in adulthood, it can be regained in “gleams” if we can only remember to look with our childhood wisdom and recognize that the wonder of creation is all around us, even in the humblest weed.

 

Further Reading

James Russell Lowell, The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell is available to read at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13310/pg13310-images.html

 

Similar Poets to Discover

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Poems

 

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.

 

Essay: Alabama Ex-Pat

My name is Hannah, and I was born in a tiny unincorporated township in northeastern Alabama. I’m beginning a series of essays on my experiences. This is an excerpt from the first essay in that series. For the rest, check out my blog, or check it out in Mill Pages Vol 3, coming soon!

People always say I should write about Alabama. “You have such good stories!” they say, and perhaps they aren’t wrong.

I enjoy telling those stories. I’ve told some of them dozens of times, at places like Christmas parties or during slow stints at work. Sometimes it’s relevant to the conversation at hand, or someone asks for a repeat of their favorite. Sometimes, though, they just leap out on their own volition.

As a teenager, I often sensed that the absurdity of my experiences would make good stories one day. My mother used to tease me about it, saying I should write a book about my youth and call it ‘Children of the Cornbread’. It would be a dark comedy about a cynical, soft-hearted southern woman who wished to be a tough, morally-upright northern man.

Again, not wrong.

Some of those stories are worth telling. It’s just that talking about it and writing about it are different. Writing is more of a commitment. Repeating those old anecdotes is cathartic and entertaining. Chronicling them for the future is owning them. The moment I pour my energy into writing it all down, I’m bonding myself to it. It’s taken a long time to gather the moxie.

I think the hesitation partially comes from the inevitable question: why did you leave? You see, I live in Massachusetts now, not too far from Boston.  If I mention my southerness, ‘why did you leave’ is the first question out of someone’s mouth. It’s usually curious, sometimes unbelieving, and always so earnest.

I guess you ask that question to anyone who crosses the country, especially to somewhere so different. It’s hard to answer that question, but harder to ignore it. And the answer is as complicated is it simple.

Allow me to try.

Librarian Reading: May 2018

This monthly column, by our own Sara Marks, will feature new books that librarians and book bloggers are talking about.

This month I’m only sharing one book…. MY OWN!

Phi Alpha Pi

Coming out on May 28th, Phi Alpha Pi is the second book in my 21st Century Austen series.  The series is an anthology series, so pick either of the two current books and enjoy.  It doesn’t matter which one you start with (the other is Modern Persuasion).  Here’s the blurb:

Pride and Prejudice and the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is one of the most popular and famous in British literature. What happens to the same story and characters if you set it today, in a university’s Greek system?
Phi Alpha Pi is the oldest and largest sorority on campus and new president Lizbeth has a busy senior year ahead of her. She is determined to keep her sorority in good standing on campus after a year on probation. She is barely dealing with the new sorority house manager, Mrs. C, who has her own ideas about how to support the sorority sisters. Lizbeth has to balance this with her own academic goals to complete an honors thesis and go to graduate school.
The last thing Lizbeth expects is her anger when Wil, a new member of the Alpha Pi fraternity, pushes every one of her buttons. Lizbeth finds him rude, snobby, and judgmental. Wil, has just transferred to the university with his best friend, Charlie. Lizbeth’s irritation with Wil grows through the year as she keeps being forced to interact with him ALL YEAR.

If the blurb wasn’t clear, this is a modernization of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a sweet romance book, which means there aren’t any sex scenes on the page, but they’re implied.  You can pre-order the ebook online now.

Don’t worry, I’m going back to regular suggestions next month!

Want more?  Check out Sara’s blog, Book Club of 1, where she talks about her own experiences as writer and sometimes suggests books to her readers.  Her column will be featured on the first Wednesday of each month.  Want to see more books suggested by librarians, check out Library Reads.

Personal Poetry: “The Trees” by Philip Larkin

Spring is blooming belatedly in New England this year. After a series of false starts, the warmth of the sun in the longer daylight hours is a cause of celebration. Yet counting the daffodils sprouting in my yard fills me with despondence. With the reawakening of nature, my mind wanders to thoughts of loss. These feelings have only heightened with age. However, I am not alone. Many poets have used the imagery of spring to express their discontent. One standout is Philip Larkin’s “The Trees”, in which the English poet delves into the inherent pessimism of the season.

Larkin begins “The Trees” with an unassuming observation: “The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said.” The trees are almost trying to speak to Larkin. In the next line, he reveals his interpretation, “The recent buds relax and spread,/Their greenness is a kind of grief.” These trees are not joyously celebrating new life. They welcome the fresh buds with grief. These new buds are not the symbol of rebirth. Instead, the leaves are another year of growth.

In the second stanza, the mourning for the passage of time becomes more apparent. “Is it that they are born again/And we grow old? No, they die too,/Their yearly trick of looking new/Is written down in rings of grain.” The trunks and branches of the trees survived the winter but these are new buds blossoming. The leaves Larkin observed in springs of the past, withered from the trees in autumn. It is a mere illusion of rejuvenation. The rings inside tell the truth. These trees are aging just as humans do.

However, in the final stanza, Larkin writes, “Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May./Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” There is cautious optimism in his words. Even as the trees age, they are planted in the present. They no longer live in the past. Even if they will die one day, they must live today.

Commonly framed as the season of burgeoning new life, spring is, conversely, a season of endings. Even as we delight in the blossoming of flowers or the chirps of hatchlings, there is the ever-present knowledge that those are merely the most recent blooms and birds. The sprouts we nurtured and admired last spring have aged or faded. Nothing is truly “afresh, afresh, afresh,” instead it is only our yearning to believe that such renewal exists. The fountain of youth, even illusionary, is a mere myth for humanity.

Further Reading

The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin

Similar Poets to Discover

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979
W. H. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957
Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.