My Reading Life
I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever. - Pat Conroy
The greatest American fiction writers have all had strong reportorial instincts: Hemingway, Melville, O’Connor, Wolfe, DeLillo. And so it is with Pat Conroy, whose fiction has always been based, with various degrees of looseness, on real events, such as growing up with an abusive father (The Great Santini) and attending The Citadel (Lords of Discipline).
So it’s perfectly natural, then, that such a powerful novelist would also pen a memoir so effortless and inviting.
Though Conroy made his bones writing about his father, the “Great Santini” himself, this book opens with an homage to his mother, who provided the spark for her son’s intellectual life.
Though lacking a formal education, Peg Conroy, from the “mean fields of Georgia,” is an avid reader and devoted autodidact. Saying she essentially “started at the Citadel the same day I did,” Conroy describes how his mother read every book and notebook he brought home from school, in an effort to expand her own horizons.
Among the quiet but crucial anecdotes and experiences which formed Conroy’s literary life are his platonic–but–charged relationship with Savannah’s Rosemary Daniell (“a wide–eyed voluptuary who is as sexy and flirtatious as any woman I’ve ever met”), his admiration of James Dickey (whose Deliverance Conroy describes as “278 pages that approached perfection"), his time in France (”Parisians and polar icecaps have a lot in common except that polar icecaps are warmer to strangers“), and even a chance encounter with Michael Jackson (a "lithe, watchful young man" who was "shy as a mollusk").
In all, this compact, readable, insightful and mordantly hilarious book serves as a capstone of sorts for the career of one of the South’s preeminent writers.
Conroy himself appears Wed. Dec. 8 at E. Shaver Booksellers downtown.
A Guide to Our Two Savannahs
This long–overdue and very well–done guidebook is a respectful look at Savannah history which includes some amazing (and amazingly underreported) aspects of bygone local African American life, such as the author’s boyhood memories of going with his father to sell fresh produce in Ellis Square.
Far from an ode to political correctness, Garvin has written a frank but loving eyewitness look at the “two Savannahs,” black and white, so far apart yet so interconnected.
Garvin unsparingly blames integration as one reason for the decline of once–thriving black small business on West Broad Street (now MLK Jr. Blvd.): “Blacks began to leave the neighborhood and shop in the white stores, neglecting their own stores.”
Garvin describes the racial stratification within Savannah’s black community. St. Matthews Episcopal Church was formed when the “light–skinned” congregation of St. Stephen combined with the darker–complected, Yamacraw Village–based St. Augustine. (“When they first came together, the lighter skin African Americans sat on one side, and the darker skin African Americans sat on the other side,” Garvin relates.)
On the site of two fast food places on MLK, Wendy’s and Popeyes, stood the oldest black–owned business in Savannah, Bynes & Royall Funeral Home, and the Dunbar Theater, respectively. Cab Calloway and Little Richard performed at the Dunbar; in the vacant lot next door was the Star Theater, first black–owned theater in Savannah.
Of particular interest are the sections on First African Baptist Church on Franklin Square, the oldest black congregation in North America, and the African American section of Laurel Grove Cemetery, final resting place of the great (and eccentric!) W.W. Law, one of America’s greatest – if comparatively unsung – civil rights activists.
In all, a modest but must–have book for any serious scholar of local history. The book even includes a DVD tour of many of the locations discussed in the volume.
Savannah Celebrations: Simple Southern Party Menus
If you’re looking for a one–stop shop for some excellent but accessible party menus, this latest offering by Savannah’s preeminent food writer (sorry, Paula Deen, it’s true!) is it.
These menus all have a delightful Southern feel, from “Christening Party” to “Casual Bridge Supper” to “Salute to Gullah Cooking” to “Lowcountry Boil” to “Tailgate Party” — and of course a “Christmas Dinner” menu in time for you to cook and enjoy this season.
Nesbit throws a couple of interesting curveballs, however, including a Wild Game Dinner of smoked dove and grilled venison finished with apple cake, and my own favorite, “Simple Fish Suppers,” which addresses the age–old difficulty that amateur chefs such as myself have in preparing fish dishes.
Of course, one menu is totally Savannah–centric: The St. Patrick’s Day Buffet!
Not only a well–written and beautifully photographed book (by Erin Adams), Savannah Celebrations is also a practical, common sense cookbook that would make a great gift for the Southern epicure in your life.
Marianne Mercer Heimes
I grew up on Wilmington Island, and I’m old enough to remember the time when there was only a single restaurant, the nearest place to shop for just about anything was the Belk’s at Victory and Skidaway, and the deliciousness of a Coke slurpee on a hot summer day at Woo’s Hardware.
Marianne Heimes’ account, however, goes a generation or two back, to a time when Carver’s Drugstore was where the now–defunct Woo’s was located, to a time when there was a shooting range across from where the Hardee’s is now, and a turkey farm on Walthour Road.
Using dozens of first–hand accounts and irreplaceable photographs provided by Wilmington’s old guard, Heimes paints a portrait of rural Southern coastal life where shrimp and grits aren’t a trendy dish but a fresh–caught staple, where kids spend the day climbing huge live oaks, and the Lutheran church bell doubles as the island fire alarm.
Particularly entertaining is the long segment on the construction and history of the circa 1927 General Oglethorpe Club Hotel (subsequently known as the Savannah Inn and Country Club, then the Sheraton Savannah Resort and Country Club, and now the Wilmington Plantation condos). Its most colorful history came in the 1960s when it was purchased by the Teamsters Union.
An assortment of gangland–connected characters and various celebrities and hangers–on came to this corner of semirural Savannah life, with the most popular anecdote involving the potential burying of Jimmy Hoffa’s remains under the hastily–poured helicopter pad.