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Regionally-themed books for the reader in your life

The Haunted History of New Orleans: Ghosts of the French Quarter

By James Caskey

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do enjoy a well–told ghost story. That’s one reason James Caskey’s The Haunted History of New Orleans: Ghosts of the French Quarter is so enjoyable. Unlike so much tourist–oriented ghost claptrap these days, this book clearly wasn’t written to cash in on a craze.

In fact, you get the sense early on from reading Caskey’s book — he’s a Savannah resident who runs the popular Cobblestones Tour here — that Haunted History is as much an interior monologue about the author’s experiences attempting to write the book as it is a bit of harmless entertainment about ghosts.

Caskey’s introduction basically spells this out by enumerating the challenges involved in writing a book about New Orleans at all. Stupefying heat and humidity, the problematic local work ethic, and even a bad night at the casino all seem to conspire against Caskey getting a grip on writing and photographing his project.

We share his sense of adventure as he is forced — somewhat reluctantly at first, it seems — to come to grips with New Orleans itself long before he is quite able to delve into its many ghost tales.

Another thing I appreciate about Haunted History of New Orleans: Unlike so many of plug–and–play ghost books written for the tourist trade — in which you can literally just change the city’s name and no one will be the wiser — Caskey has gone out of his way to paint a full historical portrait of the region before telling the first ghost story.

We read about the fast–moving viruses inadvertently introduced by DeSoto’s expedition, which outran the Spanish themselves and depopulated most of the South long before white settlers came in earnest.

We read about the enormous difficulty France had in settling the Louisiana area, due to the area’s desolation (“as remote as Antarctica would be today” to people of the time, Caskey writes) and reputation as a deadly breeding ground for all kinds of diseases — a death sentence so certain that even prisoners in French prisons refused pardons to go to the New World, preferring instead to take their chances on early release in Paris.

Indeed, what we essentially have here — and I mean this in the most complimentary way — is an extremely interesting history book gussied up as a ghost book.

Really: Once you’ve heard one ghost story, you’ve pretty much heard them all. But there’s only one New Orleans, and she offers a new face every time you meet up with her.... — Jim Morekis

Savannah Shadows: Tales from the Midnight Zombie Tour

By Tobias McGriff

One of the above–mentioned James Caskey’s colleagues in the Savannah tourist trade, Tobias McGriff — who runs Blue Orb Tours — has written a similarly well–written and informative ghostly book, Savannah Shadows: Tales from the Midnight Zombie Tour. While a good bit more detailed about the ins and outs of paranormal studies, most of which I’m willfully oblivious to, McGriff had me at the difference between Voodoo and Hoodoo, something I myself have tried to explain to people, largely in vain, for years.

(Long story short: New Orleans = Voodoo, Savannah = Hoodoo. Get McGriff’s book for the rest.)

By establishing the framework of Savannah ghost stories as having one foot firmly in Africa, we get an intimately local feel that separates this book from the generic ghost volumes commonly sold to gullible tourists.

You can sense McGriff’s passion for his subject matter, and though I personally believe not a word he writes about equipment detecting paranormal presences, it’s clear he believes it and is not pandering or condescending to his readers.

I also freely admit that his book taught me a lot about local history that I didn’t know — such as the existence of seven old graveyards now underneath the Historic District, and the phenomenon of local “stranger” burials, essentially unmarked, almost randomly planted burial sites.

Especially entertaining is the account of McGriff’s visit to the bogus “African kingdom” of Oyatunji off Highway 17 near Sheldon, S.C., an intriguing blend of kitsch and old Lowcountry mystique where he was eventually granted the rare opportunity to conduct tours. — Jim Morekis

The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor

By Jonathan Rogers

Frequent readers will know my familiar diatribe about the unforgivable scarcity of scholarly books on the life and times of the great Savannah–born author Flannery O’Connor. Her name is virtually synonymous with the always–trendy label “Southern Gothic” yet she generally receives little credit from the outside world for being one of its founders.

Into the vacuum comes Jonathan Rogers’s excellent little volume The Terrible Speed of Mercy, which does us all the great service of dispensing with the usual familiar notion of O’Connor as a conflicted Catholic with a dichotomous worldview.

Here, through letters, papers, and accounts of close friends and family, we see that on the contrary O’Connor never wavered in her devout Catholicism, and the foibles of humanity she so adroitly and humorously illustrated, far from causing her to question her faith, led her to find ever more practical reasons to appreciate it, up to and including her dying day at age 39 of lupus.

What O’Connor did have, however, was an abiding distaste for those who hid behind their piety and used it as a tool to avoid dealing with reality, or as a way to further other agendas.

At one point O’Connor — famously catty about authors whose work she didn’t respect — refers to another Catholic writer’s work as “just propaganda and its being propaganda for the side of the angels only makes it worse. The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it.”

While O’Connor spent the vast bulk of her life in Milledgeville, Ga., and wrote most of her works there on the family farm called Andalusia, Rogers does spend some time on the paradigm shift involved in O’Connor’s move from her birthplace in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Savannah to the much smaller town in middle Georgia:

“While there was a Catholic population in Milledgeville and a Catholic church... there was no Catholic quarter as there was in Savannah. Unlike the neighbors on Lafayette Square, the O’Connor’s neighbors in Milledgeville were almost all Protestant. Here began O’Connor’s close observation of the varieties of Protestantism that inform her fiction of the ‘Christ–haunted’ South.” — Jim Morekis

The World of the Salt Marsh

By Charles Seabrook

As a wee lad growing up on the marshes of John’s Island near Charleston, SC, Charles Seabrook couldn’t wait to get away and explore the rest of the world. But after 35 years as a science reporter for the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, he discovered that his childhood stomping grounds were actually “the most wondrous, magical place of all.”

A poetic homage to the rich life within the bands of tall grass and thick mud that wind up and down the southeastern Atlantic coast, The World of the Salt Marsh takes the reader through hidden bird nests, sweeping oyster beds and humble farms where Gullah descendants live off the land of their ancestors. But Seabrook also turns his reporter’s eye on the effects of development and industry: The rapid destruction of the marsh means not only losing essential wildlife habitats but our food sources and storm buffers as well.

This book essential reading for all who live on the coast — whether we take time to appreciate the beauty of the marsh or not, the healthy existence of it is inextricably tied to our own. — Jessica Leigh Lebos

Georgia Spirits and Specters

By Beth Dolgner

If you need a break from the Savannah/Lowcountry ghost stuff, try this handy book from Beth Dolgner. In addition to a solid chapter on Savannah locales, the bulk of the book goes all over the Peach State looking for quasi–spooky historical material, with a lot of actual history thrown in.

The sites are thankfully counterintuitive and fun — for example, the Masquerade nightclub in Atlanta, or the “Dead Angle” at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield. — Jim Morekis

A Self–Guided Tour of Savannah

By Maryann Jurkofsky

This book is not for those with extensive knowledge of Savannah, but rather for the first–time visitor. As such — and at five bucks — it’s a great stocking stuffer for a family member who’s coming to town, or as hint that they should plan a trip soon.

The book contains two 90–minute walking tours, one for the north side of downtown and the other down to the edge of the Victorian district. Notably, Forsyth Park isn’t explored at all; perhaps a subject for the author’s next book? — Jim Morekis

 

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