Books All Georgians Should Read

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Archive for November, 2011

Get Your Cooking On

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Atlanta is fortunate to host an expanding food community. The city boasts some notable restaurants and a number of chefs of uncommonly high quality. And there are certainly more people than ever for whom the food culture matters. If you doubt that, try getting an eleventh-hour Saturday night reservation at one of the area’s finer restaurants. And don’t write me with your complaints when you can’t secure a table.

Further evidence of the enthusiasm for a “new” cuisine comes with a couple of cookbooks from local writers that have appeared recently. One is by the delightful Virginia Willis called “Basic to Brilliant, Y’All,” a book that offers some familiar Southern dishes with innovative and intriguing ways to present them at home. The other is by the very fine chef at Five and Ten and Empire State South South, Hugh Acheson. His just-published book is “A New Turn in the South,” with wonderfully engaging ways of preparing seasonal and local ingredients.

Both books are special, as are their authors. (Both have appeared this fall at the Georgia Center for the Book to talk about their work; hope you were there.) Both show off creativity and an extraordinary craft. And both have collected the sort of praise from a culinary aristocracy that others would die for. Hoorahs fill the back of Virginia’s book from the likes of Bobby Flay and Frank Stitt. Hugh gets accolades from Mario Batali, Scott Peacock and Matt and Ted Lee. 

These are both books that tell us something about who we are. There are few things more elemental to life than eating after all, and few things providing refined pleasure more than good eating. Both books come with stories, too, stories of how the authors came to their kitchens, how family played key roles in learning, and how hard work and persistence does pay off.

As we go into the holiday season, a time filled with thoughts of food, you might want to look closely at what Virginia and Hugh have produced: these are not coffee table books, they are literally and figuratively kitchen books. I suspect they’re likely to make you want to get your cooking on.

Reading Janisse Ray

Friday, November 4th, 2011

For many readers, Georgia’s Janisse Ray is best known as an essayist. Books like “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” and “Wild Card Quilt” represent stirring examples of powerful memoirs firmly rooted in nature and our natural environment. But before she was an essayist, Janisse was a poet, and she still lives a life in which poetry plays a preeminent role. It is not with import that she recalls her father telling her many years ago that “saints and poets will inherit the earth,” and that she then “determined to be one or the other.” (Apropos of little, I suppose, the effort at being a saint would seem to me to be the more difficult of the two possible paths, though either for most of us surely would come to a dead end.)

Janisse’s first published book, I believe, was a poetry chapbook published a half dozen years before “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.” Though that tiny volume is almost impossible to find now, some of the poems from it appear in Janisse’s most recent collection, “A House of Branches.” Those who came to the Georgia Center for the Book last month to hear her read some of them know what compelling pieces they are and how inspiring they can be especially when heard spoken by the author.

“A House of Branches” is a substantive collection that evokes, at times, a landscape that might have seemed familiar to William Bartram. It is as southern as the author, a celebration of and hymn to the elements and the elemental, of seeing and touching what surrounds us, and of giving it our benediction of responsibility. “Let it not be said in passing through this world/you turned your face and left its wounds unattended,” she writes.

The scenes she describes, whether in the woods or the waters or the sky, are lovely and lyric. But they urge us not just to appreciate  but to become involved, as she vows to do: “I’ll pay more attention/I’ll write down glimpses.”  Whether drawing mils from a cow, walking through a field of fireflies, or seeing the hawk soaring over the hardwoods, she is that keen observer and recorder, the one who sees in our needs and nature’s needs a coming together: “The flower loves the sky that loves the bog/that loves how the fly loves even the frog.”

“A House of Branches” is a book about the love — maybe even the ecstasy — of a poet’s journey. It has a narrative simplicity and purpose that give many of the poems a transcendent grace. It’s really a lovely book and certainly one that admirers of Janisse Ray shouldn’t be without. My copy already has acquired a dog-eared familiarity that feels as comfortable as a kiss.