Thursday, January 26, 2012

Laurie Hendry Graybar's "Off the Dock"

A few weeks ago, during my Internet social time, a passing photo caught my eye. I clicked on it and was delighted to find the cover of a book featuring a young girl scampering down the Dekle Beach dock. No way could I mistake that dock. After a few more clicks I discovered the book “Off the Dock” was a soon to be released novel by Perry native, Laurie Hendry Graybar.

I went on to read the recommendation by Perry’s own Michael Morris, “Fix a glass of sweet tea, sit back and savor this tale - An exciting mixture of Sweet Home Alabama and C.S.I.”

I’m off the sugar, so I skipped the tea, but ten minutes after the UPS man brought the books in the door, I kicked back under the breezeway out in front of the Book Mart and proceeded to read the tale. I had only read a few chapters when Ms. Graybar’s father, Chuck, drove up and caught me. The grin on his face when he saw what I reading was priceless.

“Off the Dock” begins in 2001 with the main character, Caroline, still having nightmares and seeing a “head doctor” after the trauma of losing her brother to violence over 20 years before.  The death has never been explained, and through therapy, Caroline is inspired to reexamine her brothers murder, taking her back to those terrible days in the late 1970s when he disappeared. She enlists the help of the original detective in the case, and receives assistance and support from an unlikely ally.  Soon, she finds herself threatened by the same murderer.

The setting is the fictitious southern beach settlement of Culley Cove on the Gulf of Mexico. It shines through that the inspiration was our own Dekle Beach. However, it is not an exact replica, Culley Cove has its own sense of place and originality.  It works.  

As familiar to me as the setting were the characters and family relationships. While I had no urge to think about who they were based on, I felt I knew them because you have to face it, we here in Taylor county are just the slightest bit different.  Ms. Graybar captures those nuances in the descriptions and dialogue.

Family matriarch “Gammy” stands out as the epitome of the strong southern women we all know and love.  The character Double Barrel reminds me of my neighbor that likes to go out back and shoot his gun on Sundays after church.

For the first few chapters, after the setting and family relationships were established, I was afraid I was in for a tear-jerker.  But then it took off and did not let go.  There were sad moments, and serious subjects addressed. But there were also laugh out loud scenes mixed in among the action and building climax. While reading the last third of the book, whenever someone would drive up and interrupt my reading, I would grumble as I slipped the bookmark between the pages.  For me, that’s the mark of a good book.

Laurie Hendry Graybar is a graduate of Taylor County High School and Florida State University.  She lives in Tallahassee.  “Off the Dock” is her first novel.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Florida culture and cuisine in "The Cracker Kitchen"

Previously published in Polly Waller’s “Page turners” column in The Perry News-Herald on 12/9/11.

My grandmother’s kitchen was in the back of an old Foley sawmill house that had been moved to Salem, Florida in 1962. The house design was common as far as “Foley” architecture goes, so I’m sure many of you locals can picture the interior. There were two bedrooms on the right side and a long living/dining area on the left. The kitchen was behind the dining room. It was fairly small and had windows on two sides to allow in light, a linoleum floor that creaked, homemade cabinets, an oil cloth on the small table and one of those wide porcelain sinks with rust stains flowing down from the faucet.

It was always warm and cozy, and in the summer, sometimes downright hot. People that drank coffee in this room sipped (or slurped in Grandpa’s case) from saucers, not cups. The smell was unique, no other kitchen has ever smelled quite as good to me. The bouquet included the warm scents of sweet potato, cornbread and strong coffee, with just the slightest exotic undertones of snuff. A screen door led out onto the back porch and it was never, ever slammed. Who knew when a cake would be in the oven? There was a lot of action going on, a lot of work and a lot of sweat.  The food produced here was superb, yet simple, southern fare and much of it came from the garden and woods.    

The times I spent in that kitchen with my grandmother Maud Towles are some of my most cherished. I never imagined anything could capture that time for me again outside of my own memories. But Janis Owens has captured that and more in her book “The Cracker Kitchen.”  She nailed it. If you have ever wished you had watched your grandmother (or your mother) cook more, then you will love this book.  

“The Cracker Kitchen” is not just a recipe book, it is about of a style of cooking, tradition, history and southern culture. The recipes are excellent, mostly standard southern favorites with a North and Central Florida flair. Many are unique to this geographic area. This is a world where you do not ever put sugar in your cornbread.  

The author knows, just like we do, that every recipe has a story. Each dish is introduced before the ingredients are listed. These introductions are told with a razor sharp wit and hit home time after time. The mention of “snuff dipping matriarchs in bonnets” made me stop and pause in sweet remembrance of not just Grandma, but all the ladies in my family and community from her generation. Those hard working, cane pole loving, chicken-killing women, who wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen without wearing an apron, are represented well in this book.  

Sometimes the stories take a tragic turn. “Mama’s Cornbread and Cracklin’ Cornbread” recipe has over a page of introduction including the explanation on why it is not such a good idea to live on cornbread alone. Eating corn that has not been treated in lye as a major part of your diet, with no vegetables and variety, can cause pellagra, a niacin deficiency that causes insanity(among other things). In the early 1900s pellagra was common in the rural south and four of Ms. Owens ancestors died in the Milledgeville Mental Hospital (a sister institution to Chattahoochee). Niacin deficiency was the root cause of their insanity. Makes me want to go easy on the cornbread.  

The first chapter, “Welcome to My Kitchen” is very enjoyable reading, even for those that don’t like to cook. In it, Ms. Owens examines the Florida Cracker history and culture as well as the cuisine. She addresses the negative connotations of the word Cracker and traces the word origins back to Shakespeare.  

The current usage of the word came into being when native born Floridians began to self identify as Crackers as a way to separate themselves from the Yankee transplants in the previous century.  According to the book, a Florida Cracker is a third generation (or more) Floridian descended not from plantation aristocracy, but from workers in the cattle industry, sawmills, lumberyards and turpentine camps. I guess that makes me a Cracker.  But it really doesn’t matter what you call me, just don’t call me late for supper, especially if Janis is cooking.  

Janis Owens lives in Newberry and is the author of three novels set in Florida, “My Brother Michael,” “Myra Sims” and “The Schooling of Claybird Catts.”  

Stephen King's "11/22/63"

The article below was previously published in The Taco Times on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stephen King has been my friend since 1974 when he published his first novel, “Carrie.” Our friendship is one-sided. He doesn’t have a clue who I am, but when I read one of his novels, or stories, it feels like I am sitting down to chat with an old friend.

There was a time or two in our friendship when Steve and I broke up. Our spats were caused by a few books that were just...awful. During this period of time it seemed that he had lost his knack to capture the reader. The characters were bland, the plots confusing. Later, I learned that my friend Steve was battling drug and alcohol abuse when these books were being written.  That explains a lot.

However, he soon got his groove back with sobriety and came back big in the 21st century with great reads like “Cell” and “Under the Dome.” King’s new book, “11/22/63” is, in my opinion, one of the best books he has written since the days of “The Stand” and “The Shining.” It is perhaps his most complex work and his only book, so far, that is based on extensive historical research.

“11/22/63” is not a horror novel, but a book about that alluring fantasy, time travel. It is also, unexpectedly, a love story.

Jake Epping, a thirty-five year old divorced English teacher in Maine, discovers a portal to the past in the back room of the local diner. The portal only enters into a particular day in 1958. Al, the owner of the diner, enlists Jake to go on a mission back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Since he has no close family ties, he accepts the mission to change history.

So begins Jake's new life in the different world of 1958. It is a world where Elvis is alive and there is cigarette smoke everywhere. His first stop is in the dank little city of Derry, Maine, which is one of King’s fictional cities and a familiar setting to fans.

Eventually, Jake makes his way to the small town of Jodie, Texas. He has nearly five years to kill waiting on the infamous day and spends his time teaching, directing high school plays and falling in love. At the same time, his every turn is leading eventually to Dallas and a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald.

Since “11/22/63” was released in early November, many folks have asked me, “What happens? Does he stop Oswald, and if so, is everything ‘puppies and roses’ when JFK survives? Is it a better world?” And I answer, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that. But my friend Steve can.”


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