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Posts Tagged ‘southern literature’

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl is a book that caught my eye when it came out. I skimmed a review (librarians do, you know — we have a lot of reviews to get through) and read that it was about monarch butterflies and birds and insects. That sounded good, and the subtitle, I thought, referred to species in decline, and someone who loved nature. Sounded great.

I missed the fact that it’s the story of Renkl’s family as well, mainly her family of origin but also somewhat about her life as a mother and spouse. When I started reading I was mildly annoyed by the structure, which weaves back and forth between natural history and family stories. But eventually, this grew on me, as the book seemed to weave themes together, like the spiders or birds whose webs and nests Renkl admires.

It’s a beautiful book, which is the other reason it grew on me. Renkle admires ” . . . he red-tailed hawk fluffs her feathers over her cold yellow feet and surveys the earth with such stillness I could swear it wasn’t turning at all.” And describes finding herself outside in college, when she “headed out” after weeks in which she “followed the same brick path from crowded dorm to crowded class to crowded office to crowded cafeteria.” As she walks away from the crowds and into “red dirt lanes” that remind her of her childhood, she says, “I caught my breath and walked on, with a rising sense of the glory that was all around me. Only at twilight can an ordinary mortal walk in light and dark at once — feet plodding through night, eyes turned up toward bright day. It is a glimpse into eternity, that bewildering notion of endless time, where dark and light exist simultaneously.”

That is not precisely the way I picture eternity, but that’s a minor quibble. Renkl’s writing is lovely. I could see the places and creatures and relatives she described, and could empathize with the emotions she described. And she doesn’t glorify things; her descriptions of early motherhood, caregiving for frail and ill elders, and grieving are not prettied up, even if the words she uses are a delight. The experiences she relates are things most of us go through, but don’t necessarily reflect on the way she has.

A good read, thoughtful and serious, but also humorous in places, moving, and evocative.

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I actually got The Water Is Wide a year ago at a library book sale. I have family in South Carolina and while visiting got to talking about Dafuskie island and when we saw thus book they explained that what Pat Conroy calls “Yamacraw” in the book is really Dafuskie. I’ve seen The Water Is Wide described as a novel and as a memoir, but other than changing the name of the island I’m not sure what else Conroy fictionalized. It’s the story of his time – just over a year around 1969 – teaching at the island’s small school.

At the time almost the entire island was black, except for an older white couple he describes as having both a “paternalistic” and a “symbiotic” relationship with the islanders. Much of South Carolina, and the South in general, was still reeling from the end of Jim Crow and the relatively recent integration of schools. Being virulently, openly racist was common. Not that racism is uncommon today — it’s still alive and well, it’s just hidden behind politer language. But that’s another story.

The Water Is Wide is shocking and anger inducing in some ways. Conroy relates that when he took over his class of 18 children, 6 didn’t know the alphabet. None knew who the president was. Several couldn’t count or spell their own names. When the superintendent eventually fired him for his radical views that children, including poor black children, should get an adequate education and not be beaten and screamed at (as a fellow teacher did) the school board upheld his firing, and so did a court. His draft board status was changed to intimidate him. One of the grandmothers on the island who defended him didn’t get her social security check for months after speaking out.

While that’s all terrible, Conroy is a consummate storyteller and he finds the humor even in the darkest situations. He’s also very observant and self aware and can poke fun at himself, and recognizes that at times he was young and inexperienced and self righteous but also that he learned a great deal. He relates not only mean spirited and prejudiced resistance to change but also kindheartedness and “gradual and slow change.” He also manages to be empathetic to some of the most dreadful people in the story – the woman who beat the children for example – contextualizing their lives for readers and analyzing what caused some people to have such blinders to basic humanity. But he pulls no punches either – I especially appreciate how he notes the irony of some of the blackest souled racist behavior coming from people who loudly proclaimed their Christianity as a badge of character.

So, this is a good read and I think helpful to understanding the ridiculously intractable grip of racism, and the legacy of the inequity in our educational system.

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I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, and it did not disappoint. Romie Futch is a middle-aged taxidermist in South Carolina, obsessed with his ex-wife, deep in debt. He is surfing the internet in a drunken haze one night when he sees an ad seeking participants for an “intelligence enhancement study” in Atlanta that promises $6,000. All he has to do is “undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain-computer interface.” Romie signs up.

At the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, he’s a little creeped out by the downloads, and a little concerned that he’s signed away permission to access his brain. But he goes through with the experiments, and soon, his head is full of humanities and a “sense of postmodern self-reflexivity.” Flush with cash and full of dreams, he refurbishes his shop, pays off bills, gets (mostly) sober, and starts planning a return to his first love — art. Rumor has it that there are mutant squirrels in the woods near his home, which is also near “GenExcel, a subsidiary of Monsanto and BioFutures Incorporated.”

Romie hunts some squirrels and creates taxidermy dioramas enhanced with animatronics, which he eventually shows at a gallery under the title “When Pigs Fly: Irony and Self-Reflexivity in Postnatural Wildlife Simulacra.” But he also realizes that his brain is still vulnerable to the Center’s interference as he experiences migraines and blackouts and strange dreams in which he is being made to perform tasks. And BioFutures not only owns the company responsible for the mutant wildlife nearby, but also funded the Center’s work.

Soon after getting out into the woods and swamps, Romie gets caught up in the search for Hogzilla, an allegedly winged wild boar, reputed to weigh around a thousand pounds. I don’t want to reveal the whole plot, but suffice to say it’s a rocky road for our hero as he veers between success and self-destruction. Will he get a show? Will he bag Hogzilla? Will he spiral into a haze of drugs and alcohol? Or become the remote-control agent of a powerful biotech conglomerate?

Hilarious and wicked smart, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a delightful read. Like many of my favorite authors, Elliott mixes a good story with social commentary and plenty of humor. It was bittersweet to get to last page, because Romie’s adventures are clearly not over. I sincerely hope he’ll be back for a sequel.

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