Secrets of the Zona Rosa: How Writing (and Sisterhood) Can Change Women’s Lives
by Rosemary Daniell
I’ve reviewed several of Rosemary Daniell’s books over the years, and her latest offering has me more convinced than ever that -- contrary to many efforts to market her as a purely literary light -- she is less our own Flannery O’Connor than she is a local Dorothy Parker. Simply put, Daniell is one of the finest journalists Savannah has produced. Whether or not she takes that as a complement is up to her, but I of course intend it as one.
While gaining fame originally for a series of autobiographical works that read like potboiler fiction in their heavy reliance on forbidden sex and the unique dysfunctions of Southern families (Fatal Flowers, Sleeping with Soldiers), later in her career Daniell has emerged as a well-regarded writing teacher in her own right and an engaging chronicler of the glories and tribulations faced by American women, regardless of geographic region.
Her latest is a natural progression in her evolution as a sort of bawdy grande dame of latter-day Savannah letters. In chapters with titles like “We Are all Doors Until Someone Slams Us” and “If I Told My Juicy Secrets,” Daniell’’s newest offering takes us inside the world of her famous (infamous?) Zona Rosa women’s writers group, where she simultaneously reveals the life stories and idiosyncracies that make each woman unique -- while at the same time, of course, explaining how women are connected through these disparate (and delightfully uncensored!) life experiences.
What makes Secrets of the Zona Rosa different than any of the seemingly millions of generic women’s self-help books out there? Why is this primarily a work of journalism? Two reasons:
One, Daniell relies heavily on external sources, both primary and secondary, rather than her own advice or intuition to make her points; and two, despite the pop-psychology aspect of her work, her writing itself is uncluttered, straight to the point and utterly engaging.
Caveat: Every man remembers that moment when he first realized that women in their private conversations are far more graphic and revealing than men ever dream of being. How a man reacts to that epiphany -- by either recoiling in horror, shrinking into denial, or taking a deep breath and accepting it -- plays a large part in determining the quality of his later interaction with the opposite sex. Like most all Daniell’s books, Secrets of the Zona Rosa is filled with such moments, and because of this it might prove a difficult read for men. However, this difficulty is precisely why I encourage men to read this book -- not only to gain valuable insight into the real world of women, but to see how a really capable writer practices her craft.
The ‘Bird Girl’: The Story of a Sculpture by Sylvia Shaw Judson
by Sandra L. Underwood
An entire book devoted to the sculpture on the cover of “The Book?” Well, why not? For local art historians and lovers of obscure biography, this whimsical but well-documented chronicle of the work of the sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson accomplishes its goal in fine fashion.
In this eclectic, almost hyperkinetic compendium -- inspired by the author’s trip to the Telfair -- we learn not only all about the famous sculpture itself but the sculptor herself, as well as the times she lived in and the places she traveled.
For example, there’s an entire section devoted to the Arts & Crafts movement, the milieu in which Judson worked for most of her career, as well as a focus on the artistic “imprint” of her family home Ragdale, a summer home her father built in Lake Forest, Ill.
Anything but dry, the book goes off on some delightful, almost wacky tangents, such as the chapter on the many monikers of The Bird Girl (she was first known simply as “Standing Figure” and then “Girl With Bowls” ); a short mystery involving which was the first of the original six bronze castings of the statue; and a debunking of some popular misconceptions about the statue (the Bird Girl now in the Telfair is not a replica, as commonly said, but is indeed one of Judson’s six originals).
In all, there are 27 short chapters in the book, along with two delightful appendices on other notable works by Judson on public display and posthumous castings of The Bird Girl.
While the author laments that she never got a chance to meet Jack Leigh, the local photographer whose portrait of The Bird Girl is on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, she did extensive interviews for the book with Susan Laney of the Jack Leigh Gallery, and the late great photographer is, fittingly, a steady presence throughout.
Black America Series: Savannah, Georgia
by Charles J. Elmore, Ph.D
Reissued this year, Elmore’s 2002 chronicle of black life in Savannah only seems to get more enlightening as time goes on.
Based primarily on photos from the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, W.W. Law and Savannah State University, the book’s chapters focus on particular aspects of local black history: Pioneers, The Civil War, Religion, Education, Business, Medical Pioneers, Clubs and Jazz and the Civil Rights Era.
Sadly, the text is not as updated as it needs to be -- the caption on Otis Johnson’s portrait still reads “currently he serves as dean of Savannah State University.” But the emphasis here is on these amazing photos, images which are at their best when they detail the continuum of life among Savannah’s African-Americans
They say pictures never lie, and these photos bring home the sense that, despite the comparatively recent rise of black Savannahians to positions of power, there has always been a remarkable wellspring of talent, courage and excellence in Savannah’s black community.
Readers will enjoy seeing future Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas in his robes as an altar boy in the early ‘60s, or future Savannah mayor Floyd Adams Jr. cutting up in a 12th grade chemistry class at St. Piux X High School in 1963.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the photos from the pre-Civil Rights era are actually the most compelling. The numerous group photos from segregation-era Savannah -- like the class photo of the 1901 graduating class of Georgia State Industrial College (later Savannah State), or the 1904 portrait of the South Atlantic Medical Society -- are so striking, so imbued with an obvious gravitas that one is tempted to observe that quality of life for black Savannahians may have actually been better served when they had less day-to-day contact with whites.
The calm, straightforward confidence in these faces -- despite the many obstacles the South’s racist Jim Crow system put in front of them -- is obvious and stunning, and is a simple and amazing testament in and of itself to the ongoing vitality of Savannah’s African-American community.
Greetings from Savannah
by Nathaniel Wolfgang Price, Tina Skinner and Mary L. Marlin, edited by John Duncan
Postcard History Series: Savannah
by Whip Morrison Triplett
Working in this age of generic stock photography and cookie-cutter design, I hadn’t realized what a potent and visually engaging research tool a simple postcard can be until I encountered these two very different but similarly themed books.
Both books take us on a century-long journey through the world of painted picture postcards, illustrating an amazingly diverse range of Savannah views. Basically heavily retouched and painstakingly colored photographs, these postcards detail not only the better-known local landmarks, but smaller slices of long-gone area history -- such as acres of naval stores piled up on the waterfront as far as the eye can see, or the “Waving Girl’s” humble bungalow on Elba Island, or the bandstand of the Thunderbolt Casino. (Greetings’ series of the old DeSoto Hilton - -- one of the South’s great hotels, sadly razed in the ‘60s -- is worth the price alone.)
Many of the cards feature hand-written notes from the original senders, which themselves bring insight into the era (in Triplett’s book, one circa 1917 note reads “Having a bit of a cold spell. Water pipes are all froze up, waste pipes too.”)
So if you can only buy one, which book should you pick? It depends, because both have unique strengths and weaknesses. With full color on every page, Greetings from Savannah is clearly the most visually sumptuous of the two. However, the descriptions and text in Postcard History Series: Savannah are far more detailed and educational.
Neat Pieces: The Plain-Style Furniture of Nineteenth-Century Georgia
(University of Georgia Press)
Connoisseurs of ornate furniture might be disappointed in this book, which first appeared as the companion volume to an 1983 exhibit of the same name by the Atlanta History Center (extensive color photos have been added for this edition).
When the subtitle says “plain-style furniture,” it means it. These are some plain pieces. But to me, these elegantly simple chairs, dressers, tables, sideboards and such are far more attractive then their rococo cousins. Because they combine quality of workmanship and a real aesthetic eye with usefulness, these works will stand the test of time more ably than will more ostentatious pieces.
Beautiful photography keeps the focus on the pieces, while the accompanying text educates and informs so thoroughly that the historian as well as the carpenter will be satisfied.
As the introduction makes clear, Savannah and the coast are underrepresented here, mainly because Savannah’s taste ran to more ornate pieces and our proximity to the sea meant more imports were available. Only two of the 126 pieces profiled are from Chatham County.
Not to get too PC here, but I found the chapter highlighting the estate of the famous Georgian Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, to be unnecessarily revisionist. Titled “A Great Statesman,” the chapter downplays Stephen’s firebrand role in instigating the Civil War and his well-documented notions of white supremacy -- two traits which would seem to counter any notion of Stephens as a statesman of any type, “great” or not.
June Bug’s Grocery and the Cornfield Jook: A South Albany Oral History
by Mary Sterner Lawson
One of the most densely-written -- yet thoroughly entertaining -- oral histories I’ve encountered, this book’s completeness is all the more remarkable for its prosaic subject matter.
Almost entirely made up of first-person recollection and anecdote of the various goings-on at one corner of a predominantly black area of a south Georgia town, June Bug’s Grocery is not so much a slice of life as it is a big sopping chunk of it.
The book was inspired by Lawson’s own painting of the grocery, which graces the cover. Reaction to her painting of the bygone neighborhood landmark, owned and operated by Milton “June Bug” Griffin, convinced her to document this chronicle of a time gone by.
In it we read of the complicated ethics involved in benefit dinners being sold right outside the store, the dangers of knife-oriented gambling games at the “Jook,” nearby brothels euphemistically known as “booty houses” or “transit houses,” and the sheriff’s ongoing struggle in the area to control local moonshiners.
Here’s an example of Lawson’s often hilarious cinema verite approach, as Ted Curry recollects the cost of said local moonshine:
“Well, when I first started it was 50 cent a pint, no, 50 cent a half-pint, then it went to a dollar a pint, moderation, well, it’d go up like that, you know... Gallon was 8, well I can remember the price of a gallon. It was $8. $8 a gallon... you know, man those guys used to drink that stuff like it was water.”
Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States
by Carol Ruckdeschel and C. Robert Shoop
(University of Georgia Press)
One of the best non-bird nature guides I’ve come across -- you have to make that distinction since birdwatching has become so huge lately -- and on a subject that just doesn’t seem to have enough information out there on it.
Much like the manatee in Florida and the koala down under, sea turtles are an iconic animal for coastal Georgia. Beautiful (especially when they’re swimming) and patient, these strangely evocative amphibians bring out very human emotions in anyone familiar with a mother turtle’s dedication to laying her eggs or with the hellish gauntlet the babies must run to the sea, and to survival.
The authors are well-known area experts: Biologist Carole Ruckdeschel and University of Rhode Island professor C. Robert Shoop together run a world-famous repository of sea turtle data and research on Cumberland Island, Ga. Their book is an easy-to-follow -- yet plenty detailed -- compendium of their collective knowledge. (A particularly useful appendix for local beachcombers deals with the identification of various turtle species by their shells and/or skulls.)
While the tone can tend toward the academic, the authors resist the temptation to fall into jargon, and clearly love their subject matter. Photo editor Meg Hoyle brings together images both beautiful and informative of these very special local visitors to Georgia’s beaches.
Full of Grace
by Dorothea Benton Frank
A quintessential -- no, make that archetypal -- beach or poolside read, this is another uplifting novelistic contribution from this popular New York Times bestselling South Carolina native, whose stock-in-trade is the faith-oriented but funny narrative of modern life.
Full of Grace introduces us to the oh-so-symbolically named Grace, daughter of Big Al and Connie Russo, conservative northeasterners who move to Hilton Head from New Jersey (you call that fiction?). Unmarried at 32, Grace’s decisions in both life and love are becoming increasingly unacceptable to the traditional Italian mores of her parents.
Frank’s conversational, engaging style -- here in first-person as the voice of Grace herself -- is quite entertaining in its sheer readable goofiness, and stands apart from the stilted dialogue so common in lesser examples of this genre. Take this excerpt about a new boyfriend, for example:
“Eventually our bloomers hit the floor and I gave him keys. He put his stuff in storage and moved in... Little by little my parents wheedled the facts about Michael from me. They were aghast that he was Irish, but the fact that he was doing stem-cell research in a project to repair heart-wall muscle sent them over the moon. He became the Irish Baby Butcher.”
Faith -- or Frank’s undemanding and harmless middle-class version of it, anyway -- weaves its way through the book, culminating in a miracle of sorts she experiences in Mexico.
Breaking the Cycle: A step-by-step guide to healing from childhood abuse, neglect and trauma
by Sandra Riggin
(Evening Star Press)
Author, therapist and former Savannah resident Sandra Riggin strikes at the very heart of drug/alcohol and child abuse with her most recent manuscript. Based on her personal struggle to recover from drugs and alcohol and to emotionally heal from years of horrific child abuse, she has authored an exceptional work that outlines the therapeutic techniques facilitating her recovery while expressing the truth and conviction of a veteran warrior living -- and almost dying -- in the throes of addiction.
With an instinct to overcome her addictions, Riggin eventually discovered that several counseling techniques were needed to bring about the complete cure she desired. These techniques shape the foundation of her book and are outlined in her step-by-step guide.
One factor she keenly emphasizes is the importance of dealing with not only the individual symptoms one has but also what led to the cause of those symptoms. While encouraging the reader to grasp this concept, Riggin manages to create the feeling of a one-on-one therapy session with a skilled, caring, and trusted counselor.
Riggin also includes a wonderful CD used during the final chapters on the book which includes relaxation and visualization techniques. In her own voice, Riggin guides the reader through these insightful and meaningful meditations. Her calm assurance and reassuring presence is felt throughout this book and it’s comforting to know she is there.
Here is a rare and insightful gift for those wishing to leave behind the victim status and reach toward a promising, new addictive free life. It’s also gripping read for anyone interested in child abuse, neglect and trauma, its devastating consequences, and the therapies that help cure them. -- Charletta Wallen
Bamboo Fly Rod Suite: Reflections on Fishing and the Geography of Grace
by Frank Soos
(University of Georgia Press)
Misfits on the Links: A Golfer’s Guide to Freaks Along the Fairway
by Joel Zuckerman
Two great Father’s Day gift ideas for the outdoorsy patriarch in your life.
While ordinarily I loathe the whole “Zen of fishing” genre -- in my experience a lot of anglers drink too much and are irresponsible in the use of their noisy, gas-powered implements -- I must say that Bamboo Fly Rod Suite has a pleasantly decorous and literary quality that never patronizes.
Soos’ essays on his life as a fisherman are not so much Hemingway-esque odes to nature as they are slices of his own life lessons learned around the water, beautifully illustrated by Kesler Woodward. Through his reminiscences, we get a taste of life outdoors from Alaska to North Carolina.
Gregarious local golf writer Joel Zuckerman scores with Misfits on the Links, a comedic gem that had this non-golfer laughing out loud. Built around hilarious, Mad magazine-style illustrations by Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Wong, Zuckerman uses the tried-and-true fake nature guide approach to life on the links.
My favorite example: Mr. Gimme (Chronicus yips), a “total putz” who can be recognized by his tendency to putt with his glove on and his use of an “oversize ball mark like a silver dollar or casino chip.”
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Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.