As I write this, I’m still riding the wave of elation and rapture that is the beautiful beat-down my Carolina Panthers gave to the Dallas Cowgirls on Thanksgiving. Luuuuuuuuke!!!!! Cam and the Dab! 11-0 baby! And to think the Vegas odds makers initially had a 3-7 Dallas team as the favorite over my undefeated boys. What in the fuck were they thinking? I guess the Panthers still are, as they always have been, the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL. But that was one collarbone and a 33-14 game ago. How ‘bout some respect now, suckas?!
But forgive me my gloating. Let’s get back to business. Part III of the Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) is fresh out of the oven.
Fair and Tender Ladies – Lee Smith
I read across all genres, fiction and nonfiction, so long as it’s well written. But Southern literature in all its variations is where my heart is, being a daughter of the South and all. From Eudora Welty to George Singleton, from sweet, honeysuckle-scented stories to edgy Grit Lit, I love it all.
There are a multitude of contemporary authors you could start off with if your Southern lit education is lacking: Reynolds Price, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, Tim Gautreaux. Or you can go old school: the aforementioned Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter. The list is endless and stacked with literary behemoths. I’d even go so far as to say that, in my opinion, no other region of the country is so steeped with written tradition and essence.
While there are any number of biscuit-and-gravy flavored books I could trot out here (it’d be easy to produce innumerable blogs posts about my Southern favorites alone), Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies has held a revered place in my heart for a long, long time. One of my dirty little secrets is that I’m a sucker for epistolary novels, stemming from my reading at a very young age of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and Fair and Tender Ladies is composed entirely of the correspondence of Ivy Rowe, a young girl growing up in the mists of Appalachia. The epistolary tale is a rare bird these days, as is letter writing itself, an art lost to the millennial generation born of the instant gratification of texting. If I shoved this book into the arms of an under-thirty-something, most of them would look at me as if I’d sprouted two heads. So all you millennials out there: download this one onto your Kindle or your iPad or your smartphone and find out what real correspondence looks like.
Ivy’s first letters bear the misspellings and colloquialisms of her age and her environment, but this book wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if Lee Smith had prettied up the grammar. It’s Ivy’s unaffected, down-home voice that, as politely as possible, still smacks you upside the head and knocks you flat on your ass squarely in the middle of a holler in the Virginia mountains. As Ivy grows up and becomes a mother, then a grandmother, her words gain maturity and polish but her voice never loses its direction.
I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Smith a year or so ago at a book signing for her then-new release Guests on Earth, but it was Fair and Tender Ladies that I wanted her to sign.
A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Call me a sellout for placing A Game of Thrones on my all-time favorites list, since by now everybody and his brother has either read the books or seen the HBO series, but hear me out.
I had never been much of a fantasy or sci-fi reader (other than Tolkien) and, like what I imagine are quite a lot of folks, I might have even considered myself above genre fiction of that sort. I lumped it in with romance and took a literary snob’s view that most of its writers were hacks. I have to admit I still feel that way about romance novels – I have yet to find a romance author who I think has any serious literary chops (yes, I hear the boos and hisses from the romance crowd – just don’t throw any tomatoes!). Keep in mind it’s just my opinion so if I’ve now managed to alienate you romance aficionados out there, try to change my mind and let me know who you think is worthy. I can be open-minded . . . I think.
So around early spring 2011, I hit a wall in my reading. I was coming off a rough two or three years with my dad’s illness and then passing, and all of a sudden I found that I just didn’t want to read about real people with real problems (i.e., pretty much all fiction AND nonfiction). I had had enough problems of my own to deal with for a while. “Bon”, the attorney I work with who I’ve mentioned in a previous post, and a serious fantasy buff, suggested several of his sword and dragon favorites as potential escapes and alternatives. I was skeptical but I figured, what the hey . . . so I picked up A Game of Thrones . . . and LIFE WAS NEVER THE SAME!
I landed smack dab in the middle of Westeros somewhere near The Wall and suddenly I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and no amount of heel-clicking was going to bring me back home any time soon. That was fine with me; I didn’t want to be at home anyway. I had developed some pretty asinine assumptions over the years about fantasy novels and their authors in general, but George Martin and his Starks and Lannisters put paid to that in short order. These weren’t your cookie cutter wizards, fairies, knights saving damsels in distress. These guys (and the girls too) were snarky, conniving, deadly, and charming as hell all at the same time. Plus there were badass dragons. Dragons are like horses, if horses could fly and barbecue your ass to cinders. I fell in with Ned, Jon, Arya, Sansa (well, maybe not Sansa; she’s a little too sniveling for my taste), Tyrion, Jamie, Cersei, Daenerys, the Hound, et al. like I’d known them my whole life, then proceeded to be absolutely astounded at the rate in which George Martin slashed and burned his main characters. Oh, and did I mention the man can write?
In all fairness, I should probably have just listed the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series as my entry here. I read all five of the existing books in the series straight through, something I NEVER EVER do with series fiction. Placing them here on a list of what is supposed to be my great literature recommendations may still seem like a cop-out to some of you higher-minded readers. But what makes these books so special to me is that they accomplished two important things: they provided me a welcome and ready safe haven when real life was taking a toll, and they offered a jumping-off point into a genre at which I’d previously sneered and of which I’m now a giant fan. I’ve since read Nalo Hopkinson, Kevin Hearne, John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Glen Cook, China Mieville, Anne McCaffrey, Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke, and the list goes on.
Do yourself a favor and try reading something outside of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi. For you it might be horror or biography, mystery or history. You might surprise yourself (like I did) and open up whole new worlds of exploration, enjoyment and knowledge. And isn’t that what reading’s all about?