The Secret to Southern Charm

By Kristy Woodson Harvey
Gallery Books
Reviewed by Regina Hutson

The Secret to Southern Charm is book two of the Peachtree Bluff series by Kristy Woodson Harvey. This story takes us on an emotional spin. All sisters have their own problems. Sloane, whose husband is missing in action, comes home to her mother’s home in Georgia to gain emotional and physical support from not only her mother, but her sisters as well. Caroline has her issues with her own family. Her husband cheated on her and it was advertised on television. She is at home with her mother also, staying in the guest house. The younger sister, Emerson, is a movie star, who doesn’t know if she will continue her career. With all of the issues that her children have going on in their own lives, Ansley, their mother, has her own problems; her aging mother is staying with her, and her first love is back in her life.

This book was mostly about Sloane and Ansley, with each chapter going from the past into the present. Sloane’s world changed overnight and I found her to have the faith that I’m not sure many of us could have by believing her husband was alive. Sloane was the first character that pulled at my heartstrings. I was rooting for her and praying that her husband was okay. Sloane also was able to deal with her emotions through her art, which she had put on the back burner after she started her family. She was able to find herself again and be the woman she used to be. Caroline and Emerson had small roles, but you really bond with them, also with Emerson’s health scare and Caroline deciding if she could ever trust her husband again.

Ansley’s story was very moving. She was taking care of her aging mother while she was keeping a secret about who was the father of Sloane and Caroline. She was dealing with her first love and didn’t want to keep him too close while she was taking care of everyone else. She was given a second chance at love with him and I was hoping she was going to grab it. Ansley reconnected with both of her brothers, one of whom she hadn’t spoken with in many years. With her mother dying, they took her by boat to her favorite spot. This had me in tears with them knowing this would probably be the last time.

I loved this book, and I didn’t want to put it down! This series is how being “Southern” is. It was very relatable on so many different levels. I did not want the story to end; they all became friends that I would want to visit and the town would be a place I would definitely visit. I can’t wait for the next one to come out, but in the meantime I will go back and read the first book in the series, Slightly South of Simple. Working in a public library, I have already recommended this book, especially to anyone who is looking for a great beach read.

Regina Hutson is a librarian at Central Mississippi Regional Library System.

Treeborne

By Caleb Johnson
Picador
Reviewed by Frank Murtaugh

Every family has a history, but some have more secrets than others. The Treebornes of Elberta, Alabama, have secrets, all born into a community that, according to one member “could constipate the soul.” Caleb Johnson crafts his debut novel fueled by his upbringing in rural Alabama, the place as important as the people it produces. Told across three generations — and three distinct stages along a troubled family tree — Treeborne reminds us that surviving the secrets makes every difference.

“What makes an Elberta peach so sweet, Lee Malone knew, is how long it’s allowed to trouble the tree.”

We’re introduced to Janie Treeborne, 13 years old in 1958 when a family member turns up missing, then well into her golden years in reflecting on the scars that remain. There’s Tammy Treeborne Ragsdale, Janie’s aunt and the wife of Wooten Ragsdale, his right hand maimed in a farm accident, his life story wounded as a Treeborne in-law.

Lest we forget this is the South, where Faulkner’s ghost lurks eternally, there’s Jesse Absalom Treeborne, known casually as Hugh. Tammy’s father and Janie’s grandfather, Hugh, is a patriarch of sorts, one who finds a unique creative outlet, but in a land where creativity either dies quietly or disappears in the hands of profiteers. And there’s Lee Malone, a black man raised by white parents. Hugh’s best friend, Lee is a former singer on the chitlin’ circuit, and a comforting presence for Maybelle Treeborne, Hugh’s wife.

Johnson incorporates temporal shifts — back to 1929, ahead to the present — to gradually draw focus on the Treebornes’ collective fate. The approach accentuates the notion that each of us is merely a product of our predecessors, and those who came before us had the very same crises of conscience we desperately want to claim as our own. “It’s the piling on of moment after moment strung out across all damn-blasted time that leads to what you call true understanding.”

Tammy wants out of Elberta long before Janie considers escaping her hometown, but each belongs to the native soil as much as the peach orchard Lee manages. The Treebornes are not so much from a place, as of a place. And the place haunts.

Johnson writes vividly. “Beyond the trees a spermy cloudtail passed across the moon’s bruised face.” And he manages to capture stresses of the heart, the attachments that build a family and the resentments that can fracture its cross-generational fabric. Family, as we learn from three generations of Treebornes, is hard. And unforgiving.

Misdeeds are harmful when committed by outsiders, and outsiders play major roles in Treeborne, from the local high school football star to a one-eyed cat named Geronimo. A Yankee can’t be trusted, we know. But are we to be surprised when a dead body turns up in a body of water called Dismal Creek?

“Treebornes are a mule-headed bunch,” Tammy tells her sister-in-law, who should know enough, having indeed married one. But survival is what human beings do best. Even Treebornes. Life in Elberta is never elegant, never easy. But sometimes music sounds best when played on a dead man’s guitar.

Memphis resident Frank Murtaugh is the author of Trey’s Company.

A Spy in Canaan

How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer To Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement
By Marc Perrusquia
Melville House
Reviewed by James L. Dickerson
Shakespeare did not have a monopoly on the art of betrayal, palace intrigue, or mercenary machinations. Former Memphis cop turned photographer Ernest Withers, who made a name for himself as a civil rights photographer, could match the Bard every step of the way.

For decades, Withers was revered for his images of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. But there was another side to Ernest Withers. Of all the photographers in Memphis, white or black, it was Withers who documented the rise of music in the city. He snapped pictures of Elvis in the early days on Beale Street, Elvis with B.B. King, and just about every blues performer you would want to see a photo of. An affable man who also blended in just about any situation, he was always in the right place at the right time.

Memphis’ black population had someone they could be proud of—a civil rights and celebrity photographer who seemed destined for greatness.
Sadly, Withers was living a secret life as a FBI informant. He glad-handed Martin Luther King, then before the day was done he betrayed him by telling the FBI everything that King and his associates were discussing.
Withers’ betrayal of the Civil Rights Movement might never have come to light without the persistence of Marc Perrusquia, a reporter at The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, the once influential morning newspaper that won a Pulitzer in better times for its stance against the KKK. At Perrusquia’s urging, the newspaper sued to obtain Withers’ files from the FBI.

Of course, Withers’ was not the only African American to take money from the FBI to spy on civil rights leaders. In Mississippi, the FBI purchased black spies for as little as $50. Also paying black informants during this time was the racist Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a super-secret state agency that may have been involved in some of the state’s high-profile civil rights murders.

A Spy in Canaan is an important book and author Perrusquia is to be commended for pursuing the story. The book documents Withers’ activities as an informant and puts his betrayal in perspective. Perrusquia is a reporter, not necessarily a literary writer, so the book suffers at times from being too “journalistic,” but that is a minor criticism considering the accomplishments of the book. It is highly recommended for libraries and anyone interested in the civil rights movement of the 1950s through the 1970s.

James L. Dickerson is the publisher of NEW ORLEANS REVIEW OF BOOKS.

The Past is Never

By Tiffany Quay Tyson
Skyhorse Publishing
Reviewed by Morgan Lee
When the unyielding heat and humidity of the Mississippi Delta drive siblings Bert, Willet, and Pansy to take a dip in the old rock quarry, they had no idea that only two of them would return. Six-year-old Pansy, the obvious favorite child, has vanished without a trace in the place locals refer to as the Devil’s place because of its sordid Pre-Civil War history.

The entire town looks for Pansy and questions everyone involved to no avail. The quarry is drained and old automobiles, beer bottles, and a few fossils are found, but no body. Their father, who disappears for days at a time selling counterfeit money, is a suspect, but he cannot be found either.

As years go by, guilt-ridden Willet and Bert never stop looking for their sister and when clues from the past resurface, they follow them to the Florida Everglades. Tyson takes readers on a fast-paced journey that blends the past, present, and future and blurs the lines between good and evil as well as fantasy and reality. Tyson personifies guilt in Bert and Willet forces the reader to contemplate the responsibilities of family and the sacrifices people make in the name of love.

This novel also draws parallels between violence and compassion and redemption. Can evil become trapped in a place over time? And can that evil ever be overcome? Will the truth set you free or is it better left buried?
The Past is Never is a dark, lyrical, gothic Southern novel that uses magic realism and folklore to show how people born decades apart can influence and shape each other over time. The novel also explores the nature of families and how the mistakes of the parents shape their children and their perception of the world. Tyson’s stylistic writing and unique voice bring the reader into the heart of the Mississippi Delta and creates an eerie atmosphere similar to that of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and William Gay’s Twilight.

Tyson effectively tells this story from multiple time periods and viewpoints including Bert and Willet in the 1970s and present day, their Grandma Clem’s journey to becoming a midwife for troubled girls in the 1940s, and an 1863 slave revolt that resulted in the deaths of many.

This book will appeal to fans of mystery, horror, historical fiction, and family dramas. Tyson’s second book is a notable contribution to Southern gothic fiction and I am excited to see what this author will write next. Tyson is a Mississippi native and currently teaches writing at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado.

Morgan Lee is a librarian at the Central Mississippi Regional Library System.

In the Shadow of Statues

A White Southerner Confronts History
Viking
By Mitch Landrieu
Reviewed by Patty Friedmann

~Eighth grader. Received death threats for father’s actions as New Orleans mayor.
~Louisiana state legislator. Served at same time as David Duke.
~Louisiana lieutenant governor. Held office for Katrina.
~New Orleans mayor. Served two terms of recovery, ending spring 2018.

These vita bullets alone qualify Mitch Landrieu to write a definitive front-row-seat history of the politics and history of New Orleans in the past half century. But In the Shadow of Statues is more than a documentation—and very much more than its title about taking down Confederate statues suggests. It is a fine, often lyrical piece of writing, a monument itself. His sad, simple description of what he saw in New Orleans in the four days after Katrina alone is worth the price of the book.

Landrieu calls his full life to date a “journey on race.” By sharing his intermingled personal and professional story, in some measure he uses his milestones to explain how he came to the difficult decision in 2017 to take down four monuments to what were referred to as the “Cult of the Lost Cause.” Best known is the statue of Robert E. Lee atop a pedestal where the famed New Orleans Saint Charles streetcar turns toward downtown; others are P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis statues, and the White League obelisk.

Landrieu explores with brutal candor his white-boy life in New Orleans, and his ignorance or epiphanies invariably tie into some facet of the existence of the monuments. But only some facet. He recalls going to City Park and passing the Beauregard statue, seeing it and the surrounding flowers only aesthetically, learning later in life from African American friend Terence Blanchard that it made him feel “less than” others when he passed that statue. He recalls working in the Louisiana legislature after a visit to Auschwitz and seeing David Duke hide his anti-Semitism, able to self-promote by hiding the past.

The past matters, Landrieu said publicly, again and again. (This carries forward not only in regard to the monuments, but also to Landrieu’s unabashed concern about the Trump presidency.) Finally, he recalls his boots-on-the-ground service after Katrina. Landrieu saw abject ruin, comparing all the poor people in plain sight to the confederate monuments “we walked and drove past every day.” When he came to City Hall, the devastation was most visible in the African American-heavy murder rate, a culture of violence, happening, he says, in the shadows of statues.

Landrieu writes, “We cannot change the past, but we are not obligated to cave in to some nostalgia-coated idea that a statue is a good thing because it’s old. Symbols matter.” Five courts, 13 judges, David Duke protests, no cranes, belligerent calls—yet Landrieu took down the monuments. Regardless of melanin, no one is better qualified to tell this story.

Like Barack Obama in 2004, Mitch Landrieu is not going to quit his day job to write gorgeous books. But he has the bona fides. He could.

Patty Friedmann is a New Orleans resident and author of Where Do They All Come From?

Jimmy Buffett

A Good Life All the Way
By Ryan White
Touchstone / Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Brown Burnett

There is no getting around the fact that Ryan White’s book is an epic—a sprawling meticulously detailed travelogue through music history that peels back some answers to the questions of just who IS Jimmy Buffett and how did he get where he is today?

Buffett’s life journey is one of trials, tribulations, luck, savvy, courage and, most of all, persistence. A Good Life All the Way stretches back to his 19th century ancestors. We see Buffett as a vagabond college student bouncing around Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in the 1960s and 70s; a struggling songwriter who couldn’t navigate the treacherous waters of the Nashville music industry; and also a self-proclaimed musical “pirate” roaming around the Florida Keys, putting anchor down in Key West, long before Key West was the tourist mecca it is today.

Whenever life would throw lemons at Buffett, not only would he make lemonade, he would sell it back to the throwers at a handsome profit, with them loving it and begging for more. That’s how he eventually conquered Nashville. White’s book is heavy with detail but so well-chronicled, you will think you are riding beside Buffett on his long, and still winding road to legendary status.

Buffett has been a “name” for well over 40 years so he has a “Zelig”-like list of names and places. He’s friends with Presidents and virtually all musicians, past, present and future want to be in his company personally and professionally. He was even pals with the late legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, a fact that stunned and opened this jaundiced eye. It is no stretch at all to say that Buffett knows everybody and everybody knows him. Even I have met him, even if just in passing.

He has always been generous with his fellow artists. Mac McInally and Keith Sykes are among the many who befriended him along the way, profiting artistically, professionally and personally with Buffett’s mentorship. Having known more than one musician who worked for Buffett (and who hasn’t?), they all agree that the man knows his business as well as his art. Buffett’s success, and his charm, lies in the undeniable fact that he has long mastered the art of getting everyone—fellow musicians, employees, employers, friends, strangers and even skeptics —to simply have a good time.

The image of Buffett I have had in my mind for decades is just like the one on the cover of White’s book: a tanned Buffett, guitar in his lap, smiling from ear to ear behind sunglasses, beckoning everyone to “come over and have some fun”. And the millions all around the globe who have been at his concerts and bought his music attest to the fact that it’s impossible to hear his music or see him perform and NOT have a good time. In today’s crazy, frantic and information-drenched world, we need Buffett now more than ever.

And the aforementioned “business” also refers to an entrepreneurial empire Buffett has meticulously built over the years. The nightclubs and restaurants and other enterprises that bear his name have flowered for many years. There’s a long list of celebrities whose outside business enterprises have failed, but Buffett’s success in those ventures have put him in rarefied air indeed.

White’s book is not an easy read. It’s dense and detailed, but is worth the time you put into it. Jimmy Buffet: A Good Life All the Way chronicles an extraordinary American success story, and a living legend. Parrot Heads (Buffett’s devoted followers) will read things they probably didn’t know about their hero, but those such as myself, who sunburn easily and all too often forget to have fun, will discover and appreciate a truly remarkable man and artist. We are all indeed fortunate to be living in the time of Jimmy Buffett.

Brown Burnett is a journalist who lives in Memphis. He has written extensively about music.

Where Do They All Come From?

By Patty Friedmann
Sartoris Literary Group
Reviewed by Sheryl Stump

Where do they all come from? is an anthology of fifteen short stories. Patty Friedmann is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and sets most of the stories in this book in New Orleans. The anthology is a mix of nine previously published stories and six new stories. The author shares her love of New Orleans with her readers through a cast of wacky characters, such as the puppet maker and puppeteer in the story “The Holy Assumption of Mr. Tinsel,” and absorbing events, as in the storyline of “Ashes, Ashes.”

The stories frequently center on family, usually dysfunctional family, like the family in the story “Just So Much”. Another frequent theme is death and dying and the characters’ reaction to it, as in the stories “The Japanese Plum Tree” and “Fig Preserves”. A couple of the stories deal with life after Hurricane Katrina, as in the story “Under the Belljar”.

Many of Friedmann’s stories contain an admixture of quirkiness, with elements of dark humor. Most of the stories contain startling surprise endings that this reviewer hesitates to explain, lest the surprise be ruined. These stories are truly enjoyable.

The author leaves the meaning of the title of the book up to the reader. One interpretation could be the author asking where all the characters come from or perhaps where all the stories come from.

This book is recommended to a general readership, but especially for those with an interest in New Orleans and those who love New Orleans.

Sheryl Stump is Cataloger/Associate Professor at Delta State University.