Where Kudzu Grows

Peacock1Today in Savannah, Georgia, a parade and street fair were celebrated to honor the memory of writer Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll be familiar with posts I’ve written about her. I’m often reminded of O’Connor when I come across Pulitzer Prize winner (for editorial writing) Paul Greenberg‘s occasional discussions of the South.

An editorial writer for our state’s newspaper, Greenberg’s cogitations on the South are (for me) always thought-provoking. Last Sunday, he asked the question:  Where does the South begin? This column has some similarities to a previous column he wrote back in 2009:  Where does the South end? (Disregard the title at that link; the column is the correct one.)

In my view, Greenberg’s awareness of the South is something of a throwback. Because our culture has become relatively homogeneous, regional differences seem less regional than in the past. Furthermore, lots of people (who once would have willingly identified as Southern) have scrapped the description, considering it tainted and out of favor.

Besides Greenberg’s columns, I’ve read and heard numerous discussions attempting to define the South. Professor John Shelton Reed provides an interesting overview, The South:  Where Is It? What Is It? He links to informative charts to build his case, and his overview is well worth the read.

Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I always thought of myself as Southern. Though the Missouri Compromise (1820) prohibited slavery above the southernmost border of Missouri (for states that formed west of Missouri), my state entered the Union as a slave state. But Missouri’s history as a slave state is not why I considered myself a Southerner. There was another quality − a je nais se quoi, if you will − that defined my Southern state of mind … before I was even aware of it!

Greenberg admits his reluctance to cede Bentonville, AR (to the north of where I sit right now) its Southernness. He prefers the label midwestern, a term I’ve often deplored. But he does offer:  “If you think it’s a step down [being called a midwestern], you must be a Southerner.” Indeed.

Additionally, Mr. Greenberg, with all due respect, please don’t describe the northwestern corner of your state (now mine, nearly forty years) as somehow “Oklahoman.” If midwestern is a step down, well, you should be able to understand how utterly inappropriate Oklahoman would be.

I’m not as old as Greenberg, but I also remember singularly Southern culinary delicacies including Moon Pies, Grapette Soda, and RC (spoken as one word, AhrCee) for a hot summer’s day thirst quencher. But memories don’t necessarily make a person Southern.

My daughters, one born in Texas and the other born in Iowa (but both mostly raised in northwest Arkansas) are Southerners. The younger one is married to a member of the Kappa Alpha Order, an organization Reed states is a “college fraternity with an explicitly Confederate heritage.” Reed’s observation notwithstanding, I think it would be wrong to read into that comment any kind of racist or hate-filled underpinnings; we simply honor our heritage. We don’t deny its warts and shortcomings, we choose to rise above them.

Reed uses the words of Josiah Royce in formulating a working definition of the South. He suggests specific things and I summarize them here:  the South is a geographic and social domain with a unified consciousness and pride in certain ideals and customs and a sense of distinctness apart from other regions in the country. I think that sums it up fairly well.

I also like Reed’s concluding comments:  “… the South exists in people’s heads and in their conversations. From this point of view, the South will exist for as long as people think and talk about it, and as for its boundaries well, the South begins wherever people agree that it does.”

Mr. Greenberg will, no doubt, continue to think about … and write about … the South. It has penetrated his soul, just as it has mine. It is part of the culture in which I grew up. It’s part of that mystery through manners about which Flannery O’Connor wrote. O’Connor called her home region the “Christ-haunted South.” Yes, the South is a place where there is still a belief in the soul … it’s fading, but more slowly than in other parts of the country.

If all other definitions fail you, the South is where kudzu grows.

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The Deadest View Of All

o_connorPeople queried Flannery O’Connor why her books were so dark, why her characters acted out in bizarre and violent ways. The question was often asked and answered.

When Life magazine editorialized about novelists of the 1950s, charging that while living in the most powerful and prosperous country in the world, their published works failed to reflect a “redeeming quality of spiritual purpose.”

The editorial raised the ante, characterizing novels of the day as “hothouse literature” and railing that these writers seemed incapable of capturing “the joy of life itself.” Speaking from her personal standpoint as a Christian, O’Connor responded: “What these editorial writers fail to realize is that the writer who emphasizes spiritual values is very likely to take the darkest view of all of what he sees in this country today.”

In her essay titled The Fiction Writer & His Country (from her incisive book Mystery & Manners), O’Connor maintained that the writer with Christian convictions isn’t focused only about the “country” in which he lives (prosperity notwithstanding) but also about “his true country.” With O’Connor’s gift for plainspokenness, she states:  “… a writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live … a living deformed character is acceptable and a dead whole one is not.”

O’Connor’s essay offers keen insight into what she calls the “novelist with Christian concerns.” I think her observations extend to other writers beyond just the novelist. When I began this blog, I chose an O’Connor quote for the top of my page:  “The sharper the light of faith, the more glaring are apt to be the distortions the writer sees in the life around him.” As I view my world, my country through the light of my Christian faith, I see more sharply the grotesque, the disturbing and perverse.

Now, under normal circumstances, I’m definitely not a fan of horror. Images plant themselves in my brain. If those images are graphic … violent … demonic … grisly, my subconscious mind involuntarily mulls over the images, something I prefer to avoid.dead

With that in mind, you’ll understand why I was reluctant to heed my elder son’s advice that I needed to watch The Walking Dead. I’ve had glimpses of Zombie movies from the 1970s and there is simply no appeal for me! As it turns out though, I finally gave in to my son’s urgings. I think I must have watched two entire seasons over a couple weeks to get caught up on the episodes I hadn’t viewed when first they aired. I’m not sure that was the best way for a person with my general attitude toward horror, but I decided I’d rather know the entire story from its outset.

Every episode, I recall reminding myself:  if this gets too intense, I can (and will) turn it off. A few episodes, I neared my level of tolerance, but stayed with it. I can’t say I like it, I’m still reserving judgment about the successful series. I suppose the fact I’ve stayed with it proves I’m still intrigued.

I’ve read a number of reviews. (No, I don’t watch the Talking Dead follow-up.) The critiques I’ve read track some of my personal reactions to the series. There have been points where the show dragged, the prison season seemed to bog down and I agree there’s more interest when the main characters are on the road, fighting for their lives. Like many viewers, I’ve purposely chosen to ignore some of the incongruities that occasionally crop up.

I’m slightly amused that some fifty years after O’Connor’s observation about characters (quote above) has to be modified. Today, the living deformed character is as acceptable as when she wrote those words. But the dead whole one is now acceptable … at least as The Walking Dead has constructed these characters.

And perhaps Life magazine (if it were still in publication today) would find the portrayal of non-Zombie characters in The Walking Dead are at least seeking to recapture “the joy of life itself.”

Is this a good thing? I don’t know. I’m still reserving judgment.

Stuck? Or Struck?

My younger daughter recommended a film this week. As a drama major college grad, she knows film and screen-writing and critiquing. With her ever-expanding knowledge of film and a viewing history few can match (unless maybe TCM‘s Robert Osborne), I’m pleased to heed her recommendations.

MV5BMTU1NzI5MDU3OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTE0NDMzOQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_I’m a long-time movie lover (I suspect her husband blames me for his wife’s “addiction”), but I can’t claim any measure of expertise. For the most part with me, it’s like or dislike − two, three, or four stars. I don’t think I’ve ever given any film one star, though I think if I were watching Chariots of Fire or Gone With the Wind or The Lives of Others on Netflix, they’d get five stars from me. (Few others would have that distinction.)

Stuck In Love. The tag line says:  A Story About First Love and Second Chances. Sounds like a winner, but I had doubts it would match my hopeful expectations.

As it turned out, I found the film enjoyably quirky, which means it earned four stars. The characters were all likable, but in unexpected ways. Greg Kinnear plays the head of a floundering family; he’s a best-selling author, a Pen Award recipient, and an occasional dispenser of reflective wisdom. We discover he hasn’t produced new material in the three years since his divorce.

Jennifer Connelly plays Kinnear’s ex-wife, now remarried to a hunk. Connelly is predictably elegant with an endearing touch of melancholy which the film explores nicely. She adores her children and is terribly shattered by her daughter’s estrangement.

Lily Collins and Nat Wolff play the teenaged offspring of Kinnear and Connelly, working in their own ways (sometimes self-destructively) to deal with the hiccups life has thrown at them. All four main characters effectively portray both toughness and vulnerability and the casual style to the film lends credibility:  you believe this is real (but sucky) life.

Given Kinnear’s character is a writer, as the narrative progressed, it became clear to me he’d passed his love of writing onto both children. Daughter Samantha (Collins) comes home from college for Thanksgiving and announces her first novel is about to be released. Son Rusty (Wolff) is still working his way through high school and awkwardly reads his free verse poem aloud in class. (The poem makes an oblique reference to a pretty girl sitting in the third row. Did I say awkward?)

I was amused to learn Kinnear (years prior to the movie timeline) gave his children a permanent writing assignment:  to maintain their own private journals everyday. As we learn more about the offspring, it’s easy to understand that for them the writing habit has bloomed into the potential for something beyond a private journal. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you’re a writer, you won’t be disappointed with this film.

Stuck In Love seems an apt metaphor for the characters in this film. Each feels the pain associated with first love. Each takes comfort in the possibility of second chances. The film doesn’t gloss over how messy relationships can be … and frequently are.Two Movie Tickets In Front Of A Take Clapperboard And A Reel Of Movie Film

[Warning:  this movie is rated R, so if you’re not a fan of unmarried intercourse (implied or depicted), you might decide to give this movie a pass.]

In that regard, I’d like to say one thing about so many of the movies I’ve watched in recent years. There’s a theme that runs through the majority and it goes something like this:  if you’re fifteen years of age or older and you haven’t had sex, get out there and get ‘er done! With the number of times I’ve seen this play out on the screen, it has evolved into a tiresome and annoying cliché!

And please don’t call me a prude. Just once, I’d like to see one of these youngsters stand toe-to-toe with the boorish adult and say something like:  My life, my timetable. MYOB!

A BONUS for writers:  Kinnear’s character Bill throws out an occasional literary reference (one from Flannery O’Connor) and such small nuggets always please me.

Another BONUS for writers:  being careful not to telegraph the ending for you, I think the ending offers another nice touch. (My daughter hinted at something − I won’t say what − and unfortunately, by the last third of the film, I knew what might be coming.)

So I’ll say no more here. Watch it!

Through the Reading Glass III

Adventures! Yes, by my mid-teens (as I mention in my previous post), I was eager to experience real adventure … and not just as part of my reading life! After both my sophomore and junior years of high school, I had opportunity to spend the summer months in Winona Lake, Indiana. Working in food service (cafeteria, soda fountain, etc.), living in an ancient clapboard-sided “hotel,” getting around town by foot − these were all acceptable trade-offs for the “freedom.” (What were my parents thinking?!)

2013-11-14_1751Early in the first summer, I checked out the local library and found it terribly deficient. As a result, I focused more on reading and writing poetry during my off-hours, though I admit those hours were minimal due to so many other distractions (social gatherings, the lake that constantly beckoned me away, etc.) Still, these brief periods of actual independence were a valuable maturing experience. Being on my own, I learned that absence does make the heart grow fonder. From afar, my once-fuddy-duddy parents suddenly seemed wiser! Go figure.

When I returned home, my reading choices started to mature. As never before, I found pleasure in Shakespeare (even outside the classroom). I did have an excellent Drama instructor whose love for Shakespeare was contagious.

200px-MutinyOnTheBounty

When I discovered Mutiny on the Bounty, I was instantly spellbound. (I hadn’t viewed the 1962 movie with Marlon Brando, though I may have seen the 1935 version with Clark Gable.) My initial exposure came through the novel by Nordhoff and Hall. Such a tale … never having experienced the ocean for myself, reading about it and suffering alongside Fletcher Christian was high adventure indeed! I must have read the book a dozen times.

After Bounty, I devoured The Count of Monte Cristo. At the time, I read it as a romance, completely sympathetic to the “plight” of Edmond Dantès. Today, I’ve less patience with Edmond, realizing his desire for vengeance blinded him badly; instead of gaining wisdom from his suffering and learning forgiveness, he inflicted more pain. He should have known better.

Monte Cristo introduced me to a fictionalized Napoleon (apart from the man of history I’d studied in History classes). I fell in love with this daring short man! The retelling of his love for Desirée became another favorite. With typical teenage angst, I returned often to this account of star-crossed lovers, living all of it in my imagination.

Star-crossed lovers appeared to be a recurring theme for me:  Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Emma, all delivered their romantic shots in the arm and earned my readership of their other works. But no Steinbeck, no Pasternak, no Ayn Rand — other people were reading those! Edith Wharton, Chekhov, more Dumas, much of Poe, yes, yes, yes and yes! I’m also embarrassed to admit I burned through many a volume of Grace Livingston Hill (conveniently available at our church library). The books eventually gave me a strong distaste for formulaic, cardboard-character narratives.

My memory tells me no one (except me) was reading Gone With the Wind in those days. I hardly believe it! What teen girl would have dared ignore it? And despite all my readings of the book, when I eventually saw the movie (my first year of college), the faces of Gable and Leigh were almost identical to the images already fixed in my mind’s eye!

What to conclude at this point of how (and why) my reading habits influence(d) me as both reader and writer? I had yet to imbibe from the deeper wealth of C. S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. And if I’d read one story by Flannery O’Connor before high school graduation, the impact was minimal. Yet, these are the writers I most admire today.

What this three-day reminiscence confirms to me is how my interests today are unquestionably a reflection of the early reading habits I developed. I was never intimidated by the size of a book; in fact, I often preferred thick books where a story could be elegantly laid out in strands of rich tapestry and characters could be slowly revealed through subtle shading and intimate details.

Even as I’ve added choice authors in adulthood, I also observe that some of my early favorite authors are worthy of re-reads today.

One thing is for sure:  given my lifelong immersion in both adventure and fancy (with a dash of romance mixed in), I crave being ushered into one magical world or another! The promise of another Narnia or Middle-earth fuels anticipation, yet I acknowledge the rarity of any world containing nearly the beauty of those … unless …!