Books -- reading and writing.
Home, cooking, the weather.
And whatever connections I can make between these chapters of my life.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Things are Better With Dog...

All alone. Quiet house.
I should be writing.
Instead, I'm trying to think of clever captions.

The dog ate my homework?
The dog did it?

I can't figure out your edits. You get to work!

Show Don't Tell!

What are all those red marks anyhow?

OK, enough of this fun. Back to work.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Dry Grass of August

Today is the official publication date. Already Amazon has a great deal on both the original paperback and the Kindle edition. Scoot right over and get a copy. Or even better, if you don't have an eReader, hustle out to your Independent Bookstore and buy it.

(I have no affiliation with the author or the publisher and knew nothing of the book until I opened it. Just so you know. ☺)

Delta Magazine sent me this book to review. And I loved it.

From what I've read, the author is a first-time novelist who has been writing, revising and starting over again for quite a few years.

Good for her!

Click here for a great interview, up now on Amazon. Or check her website, here, and maybe you'll be lucky enough to hear Mayhew speak about writing the novel in Atlanta, Greenville, Chapel Hill- all over the South. Wow, AJ Mayhew is one busy lady!

Easily compared to Secret Life of Bees and Queen of Palmyra because of the young narrator and the subject matter, The Dry Grass of August is set in the 50s in Charlotte, Pensacola, and South Carolina.

Here's a bit of my review, posted on Amazon and Goodreads:
The narrator's voice is perfect, not so innocent that the events around her are missed. But so much of what happened in that part of the country was just plain hard to figure out for anyone. What at first glance might seem like another "Help" knock-off, is far from it. A lot happens to the family, in deep denial that anything is wrong. A summer trip to the beach has many layers, the characters are so real, the story, ultimately, heartbreaking. I predict you'll want to read this more than once.

Although some of the events are certainly sensational and remarkable, they are never sensationalized. Just a terrifically told story about race, family, first love and so much more, set in troubling times.

Monday, March 28, 2011

One Week and Counting

One week till I fly to NYC (make that Get Flown). One week from tomorrow= My Scholastic Speech.

So I'm getting organized. And all those years of hanging out in elementary schools taught me a thing or two.

Like- Bring props! We only have 5-10 minutes to talk about ourselves and our debut books. I'm going to squeeze in a little Show and Tell. Sharing Time. Visuals.

This is my Buster Brown shoebox (Thanks for the fab purple ribbon, Amanda!). My main character, Glory, and her big sister created a game, basically Blackjack, that they call Junk Poker. Of all the things in my middle-grade novel that are really true, Junk Poker is possibly the truest. My sister and I saved old skate keys, wax lips, bubble gum--all sorts of treasures-- and we bet against each other. My parents did not object. In my novel, Glory's daddy, the preacher, probably would. If he finds out. Which he won't.

Inside this shoebox are true artifacts that Glory might really have had in her Junk Poker box.

Stay tuned! I'll share soon! (hint: Elvis has not left the building.)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cookin' With the Oldies

Today, for some strange reason, I had an overwhelming desire to pop my iPod into the speakers and listen to Oldies while making my mother's chicken spaghetti casserole. (Aside: in the South, we do NOT call our sauces "gravies"- those are saved for what tops rice, served with fried chicken or country fried steak or pork chops.)

My childhood pasta dishes combined chicken or ground beef, canned pimentos, lots of cheese. Oh, and spaghetti broken into little pieces before cooking. (OK, Lisa, I can see you out there cringing. You the Pasta Purist who warned us not to put pepper on our dishes that night at Rocco's... You were right. I promise I don't pepper the spaghetti or break it up any longer.)

The casserole recipes in my mother's church's cookbook (c. 1969)  mostly call for canned soup--mushroom, celery, etc.-- depending on the cook. But I don't keep that dreaded ingredient in my cupboard these days so I decided to upgrade. Or downgrade, depending on your POV.

Here it is-

Mama's Good-for-You Chicken Spaghetti Casserole.

Cook two chicken breasts, bone-in, in stock until done. Cut in bite-size pieces.

Cook a handful of thin whole wheat spaghetti until al dente, preferably in the leftover stock.

Saute one onion and a couple of small sweet peppers.

Mix the whole thing up, adding stock to keep it moist. Add a can of Rotel tomatoes if you're lucky enough to live where they can easily be found. Throw in some cheddar cheese, if you'd like.
Season to taste.
Put in casserole dish, top with more cheese. Bake till the inside is hot.

That's it!

(These days a lot of my recipes remind me of the first cookbook I ever owned. My grandmother gave me a copy of The I-Hate-To-Cook Cookbook. The grandmother who had no clue how to cook.)

Of course, there's a writing connection to my forthcoming children's novel. Chicken spaghetti makes an appearance at the dinner table, along with this, spoken by the young narrator:

"She'll like your chicken spaghetti. 
Don't all Yankees like spaghetti?"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

10 Days and Counting

And yes, I'm counting.

In ten days I'll fly (make that BE FLOWN ) to New York for a presentation to the sales people at Scholastic. My editor and my agent tell me this is a coveted invitation. I'm sure I would have totally coveted it had I known about it. But now that I've been invited, I'm preparing. The theme is "Debut Authors" and I am one of four honored guests. And yes, I'm thrilled and impressed. More on this as we count down ten days.

Here's my first step: New business cards. My old ones looked like ladies' calling cards, circa 1950s. No blog address. Old snail mail address. Would not do.

(This is not a commentary on whether business cards are obsolete, about to be replaced by cellphone info or those little bumping logo things featured in the newspaper last week. For now, let's just say I need a few cards with my current info, okay?)

For these new beauties, I can thank Eileen Harrell of Artline Graphics in Atlanta and my fabulous Living Social offer (meant for the DC market but mistakenly came to me).

Eileen had earlier responded to my worries that my cards were blah and outdated by fiddling around and coming up with something quite spiffy. The problem was, I didn't understand a word she emailed, re: design. Color bleeding? Paper stock? Huh?  So how on earth was I to order new cards on my own? All I told her was that I'd like a design thingey, very lowkey.

She responded that design thingey is not really an art term.

Oh, dear.

Then, as I was cooling my heels waiting for a flight,  a coupon for Vistaprint arrived in my email box. I googled Vistaprint. There were some sketchy remarks. But I shot the email to Eileen and she played around with their website and mastered it completely. Yay for commercial artists!

So we did all this via email and they arrived today and I'm sure I'll be passing them to anyone who asks at the Scholastic luncheon. They are gorgeous. They feel just right. Thanks, Eileen!

Here's her funny emailed comment, when the order seemed to be going swimmingly and computers were actually working as promised.

It is pretty damn cool, when you can DO a business card with a friend from Mississippi in Fla, and NJ while in an airport on a Sunday morning, with a coupon from Washington purchased from Atlanta to be sent to a different address!

On some days, I do love computers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Yes, there is in fact a doodlebug. And Harvard University documents the usage.

In their terrific, oddly fascinating  Dialect Study.

Complete with map.
Here are all the connections to Mississippi. In case you were wondering.

I needed to be sure my childhood memories of calling doodlebugs from their homes was truth or fiction. Truth!

Now, don't ever ask me whether I'm doing scholarly research. Of course I am. Click that link up there and see if you don't think it's scholarly.
Writing historical fiction for kids requires a lot of research. Promise.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Started Early Took My Dog

Yay! Today's the release day for the latest in this series of mysteries featuring detective Jackson Brodie and very fine writing by Kate Atkinson.
 Janet Maslin reviewed the book last week, but I avoided reading the New York Times review. I prefer to form my own opinions on this one!

As I said in an earlier post here, be sure to start with Book #1.

I've been anticipating this book for over a year. It's been out in England for that long. Can't wait.

FYI: Book 1- Case Histories
        Book 2- One Good Turn
        Book 3- When Will There Be Good News?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Letters of Flannery O’Connor: the Habit of Being

Recently a friend and I wondered together what will happen to the study of history—be it literary or social—with no letters to document what we think of the world. She and I are were letter writers. So it’s probably not much of a stretch for us to bemoan the loss of letters that were a reflection of the times (John and Abigail Adams, etc.) or a commentary on writing.

This conversation sent me right to a fat book sitting on my shelf: the letters of writer Flannery O’Connor. Although there isn’t a lot of mulling on world events, or even local goings-on here, reading about O’Connor’s writing and her editing and submission process makes me think how the more things change, the more they remain the same. (As my grandmother used to say.)

Also noteworthy, Flannery O’Connor was a poor speller, and she knew it. Even if we save our emails forever, there’s not much chance the spelling won’t have beeen corrected. Reading some of this writer’s (and there truly weren’t many) funny, Southern, exaggerated spellings just made her seem like she was somebody you knew well, writing to a friend. And that friend could be you.

So I offer up a few tidbits, written between 1948 up to her death in 1964, back and forth with her agent, publisher, friends, strangers. Straight from O’Connor’s letters:

After submitting her manuscript to a publisher:
“I had a note…asking how the book was coming. This seems to be a question that extends itself over the years.”

Later, upon her publisher re-issuing the novel, asking if there are revisions she’d like to make:
“I can’t even make myself read the thing again. I am just going to say NO there ain’t any. You can’t rewrite something you wrote ten years ago. And there will be no introduction, as I can’t even read the book, I sure can’t write an introduction.”

Remarking on a student’s letter saying she would appreciate it if Miss O’Connor would explain what enlightenment she should get out of the stories assigned by her professor, as she couldn’t read them:
“This is the kind of letter that leaves me beyond exasperation. I finally wrote her a note and said that my expectation of anyone’s getting enlightenment out of them was mighty limited and I’d be glad if she could just enjoy them and not make problems in algebra out of them.”

Of course, the student showed the letter to her professor.
“Apparently they had a big argument about it…I had this same trouble in Texas. Every story is a frog in a bottle to them. I suppose it has to be that way…”

With the absence of TV and internet in my house this week, I’ve been filling my time with reading. I highly recommend this giving up of technology for a few days, though in the interest of full disclosure, I do have an emergency iPhone. I have been checking occasional emails and Facebook posts.

But mostly I’ve been reading and writing. And loving it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tales from the Standby Lane

My recent travel adventures have not been noteworthy. No missed flights, no unplanned overnights in exotic locales. Mostly good stories of standing by for flights or pass riding and actually getting where I want to go. It wasn’t always that way. But that’s not this story.

This week’s travel was all good.

My college classmate, letter- (now email) corresponding friend Patty lives in Chicago. Her mother’s delightful abode is in Charlotte, N.C. The perfect halfway point for us. And when an invitation to the Queens University Friends of the Library Book and Author Dinner arrived in Mrs. DeLaney’s mailbox, Patty called.

Our meeting was auspicious on many levels. The 40th anniversary of an event that Patty’s mom had been instrumental in organizing. Cherry blossoms in bloom for a flower-deprived Chicago dweller. Best of all, a St. Paddy’s Day birthday for one witty, gorgeous, energetic 91-year-old lady!

And the event’s speaker? My Mississippi friend Minrose Gwin, to talk about her novel Queen of Palmyra. Minrose’s book was published last summer to terrific reviews and high praise. Our table mates had all read it, discussed it in book groups, loved it. One said she sat outside the dining room, finishing the last pages before the dinner began because she couldn't put it down. Another felt it was very sad, but so beautifully written she didn't mind. If you've missed this book, this is your reminder: you are missing a real treat!

Before Minrose read (from my favorite part—how did she know?— early in the book, when Florence and her mother make their trip to the bootlegger for two tallboys), she spoke about “voice” in writing. A topic editor Cheryl Klein once remarked is sort of like the air of the story- hard to define, yet necessary. Minrose reflected that voice is located in time and place. So obvious, yet that’s really it, isn’t it.

(That’s why it’s hard to write until you know exactly when and where the tale is set. Something I’m struggling to uncover in a new story. I know where, but when? Harder to pinpoint this time.)

So these Tales from the Standby Lane, are very happy ones.

Unless you count that my seat was 26F, the last seat in front of the lav, in the back. Or that the TSA guy was clueless. And there was no gate available when we landed.

But I’m not complaining. I had my Kindle, my seatmates slept, the flight was on time. And what a treasure waited at the other end!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Touch Blue

I love it when a book delivers a little something extra!

I've been following the Story Sleuths' current discussion of Cynthia Lord's book, TOUCH BLUE.  In this this post they write about non-fiction elements in fiction. What the Sleuths are pointing out is how intriguing facts planted seamlessly into a story make a book so much fun that kids don't even realized they've learned something. Unless, of course, they wanted to know that particular fact. Like what are those birds and why do they sit with their wings open to the sun? (Cormorants, drying wings.)

Such a bonus! And such a good thing for a book. And for the lucky kids who read those books.

The Story Sleuths always give me a lot to ponder, as a writer. Like this one, from the author of One Crazy Summer.

Related Post: Cynthia Lord, speaking at the Maryland SCBWI event about the Pluses and Perils of Writing What You Know.
(An event I have very good memories of, since it's where I met my agent!)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Crooked Letter Crooked Letter

I was all set to review this book. I finished it last night, closed it with a big old sigh, remarked to myself-- it was very late at night-- how much I really loved the book. Then this morning, I saw this review:
Tom Franklin: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Review :: Books :: Reviews ::

It's really all you need to know about the novel, literary fiction, additional reading choices.
But of course, I'll add my two-cents worth in case you don't feel like doing a lot of clicking and reading.

Most school children should know exactly what the derivation of the title of this book is. That rhyme we all learned: M-i-crooked letter crooked letter- i- crooked letter crooked letter- i- hump back hump back - i.

So Tom Franklin sets the story in south Mississippi, with such amazingly appropriate characters.
Larry Ott, a sorry character if I ever saw one. Mechanically disinclined.
Larry's automotive-shop owning father, irked by his seat-belt wearing brother-in-law, with his "low sighs, how he'd shut his eyes and shake his head at the idiocy of something. Or someone." Just an all-around unpleasant fellow, in my book.
And of course Silas, the high school jock back in town all these years later. Now a constable with plenty of police work for him to stick his nose in.

Oh, how differently Silas and Larry's story could have turned out. If a mother had made a different choice. If Silas had spoken up. If Larry didn't need a friend, and make all the wrong ones. If I'm making this book sound like a downer, that's wrong. It's a mystery. Detective story. Family saga (though a short one). Southern literary fiction at its best.
Not one unnecessary word in that entire book.
And did I say it's a mystery? Highly recommended.

Now I guess I'll return my copy to the library. But I'll keep my eyes open for something else by Tom Franklin. Great Mississippi writer. Great writer!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kirkin' o' the Tartans

Now I'll just wager if you saw that in your local newspaper's listing of activities for a Sunday afternoon, you might pass right over it. Or perhaps you'd stop and say Huh? But I'm a bit of a bagpipe freak, so I ripped out the notice and showed up yesterday at the First Presbyterian Church for a kirkin'.

My family has lived in Mississippi for longer than any of us could remember. But as I child, when I asked about our heritage, if the answer wasn't "Virginia," it was Scotch-Irish. I was too young to know or to care what that meant. I assumed it was across an ocean, a country called Scotch-Irish.

Recently, I read Curtis Wilkie's account the history of that immigration, and it cleared things up considerably. In DIXIE, Wilkie theorizes how southerners may have come by their rebellious nature. In Chapter 2, "Natural Rebels," he traces the area's connection to the Scots.

Which is a long way of saying, I now know why I love Scottish bagpipers. It's in my blood.

In fact, there's a clan named for my family: The Russell Clan. We have our own tartan. Who knew? But I saw it on parade yesterday at the Kirkin' or should I say, at the Kirk.
It's that 4th Tartan in line, marching to be Kirked.

Yesterday I learned a Kirk is a church, and the Kirkin' ceremony started during World War II at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC, to honor our comrades in the British Isles.

Here's a clip of these same bagpipers, from a few years ago, at another church. Same music, same ceremony.

And here we all are, among the palm trees, yesterday at the concert they gave outside the church.

Somehow my family must have diverted along the way, married into English, Anglican stock. Because I only know about the Presbyterians and my Scottish connection from what I've read, from friends I attended PYF with because they totally outnumbered us Episcopalians in the tiny towns of the Delta. And their meetings were a lot more fun than ours, though not nearly as much fun as what was going on over at the Baptist or the Methodist youth groups.  But that's another story. And I've digressed, big time, from my love of bagpipes.

If you're a fan, if you've a Scottish bone in your body, maybe you'll happen upon your own bagpipers lining up with tartans, all ready to be Kirked. If so, you're in for a treat.

 (Procession of St. Andrews Pipes and Drums, and tartans, First Presbyterian Church, St. Petersburg, FL)

Related post: A Walk on the Beach

Friday, March 4, 2011

Historical Fiction Challenge

I'm taking the bait. I hope it will not be difficult. My To-Be-Read stack is toppling over, but I notice there are at least two on there that will qualify for this Book Challenge, so I'll bite. My first review will be of a middle-grade Newbery Honor book of recent vintage: The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt. Set during the Vietnam War.

Stay tuned.

And wish me well.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I'd totally forgotten what fun Wordle is. Then it turned up on a search for Titles. As in, HELP! I need to find a title! One suggestion was to put your entire manuscript in Wordle and see what emerges.

Well, nothing emerged. Title-wise.
But I sure wasted enjoyed a lot of fun time changing colors and fonts all afternoon. Here's the Wordle for my novel:

Go ahead. Click on that Wordle link. And see what fun you'll have. Try it for a chapter. Your kid's book report. An essay you've just written for The New Yorker. ☺    Whatever strikes your fancy.

Related post: Title Picking