Book Review: Yazoo Clay by Schuyler Dickson

My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum is currently available on the AWF website. Dickson’s ambitious story collection is a co-winner of the Tartt First Fiction Award given annually by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama. Read the review here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/09/14/yazoo-clay

Book Review: Homer Hickam’s New Memoir

My latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum is now available on their website. Fans of the book, Rocket Boys, and its movie adaptation, October Sky, will be interested in the further adventures of their protagonist.

Read it here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/08/22/don-t-blow-yourself-up-the-further-true-adventures-and-travails-of-the-rocket-boy-of-october-sky

Another 5th of July

When I was taking a shower the other morning, Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” started playing in my head. You know, the one with the refrain that goes “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” (Actually, it was the Byrds’ version of that Dylan song that was playing in my head.) I can’t remember the last time I actually heard that song so it’s strange that it started playing in my head in the shower on a Saturday. I’ve been thinking about it since, though. Many consider the lyric to be a turning point and Dylan’s rejection of sorts of the more strident protest lyrics of his early career.

Pondering “My Back Pages” made me recall Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man,” a lyric that I once identified with. The title character martyrs himself “With his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand,” and “he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell.” The song’s narrator confesses that “I once believed in causes too, / I had my pointless point of view, /
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.”

In Lanford Wilson’s play Fifth of July, June Talley – a former ‘60s activist, tells her daughter, “You’ve no idea the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.”

Be warned, I need to vent now.

I’m not sure why these thoughts (and songs, and lines) are coming into my head, but I have a hunch: With all of the news about gun violence, a frightening activist conservative Supreme Court wreaking havoc with gun control, the environment, and women’s rights, and the general divisiveness in the country, I wonder what I can do about it and previous history tells me not much. Of course, I can vote, but we are now plagued with a generation of Alabama Republican politicians that would make George Wallace look progressive and I am finally acknowledging – after decades of preaching to students that their vote does count, that my vote in Alabama no longer counts for much. The Republican women running for Alabama state office feel the need to show themselves with firearms in their commercials and to demonstrate regrettable misinterpretation of the second amendment. The concept of separation of church and state is equally misinterpreted by those same people; they don’t seem to realize that its intent was to protect their religious freedom. Even though a known January 6 insurrectionist was defeated in his bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Alabama, the chirpy, gun-totin’ woman who defeated him managed to seem even worse.

I love Alabama and my family’s roots run deep here. I realize that my politics don’t align with the conservative majority, but I also know a lot of Alabamians whose politics align with my old-fashioned liberalism. What irks me is the way these politicians talk is if they represent all Alabamians; for the record, they don’t represent me. Even more galling, perhaps, is the fact that national progressive and liberal politicians seem to write off Alabama as hopeless to their politics and ability to gain votes. I feel overlooked and ignored from both sides of the spectrum.

I watch the protests on television and usually think bless their hearts. I’m with them in spirit, but I’m not sure I have much confidence in what they’re accomplishing other than looking a little silly with their rote chants and their predictable signs. I’ve seen it all before and, beyond the Civil Rights era, I’m not sure it’s still effective. Maybe it makes the protesters feel better at the end of the day; I certainly understand the desperation that drives them there.

I notice that we Baby Boomers seem to catch the blame for all of the evils in the world today, especially in snarky online posts, and especially among Generation Z types. But I have a different take. The three Supreme Court justices appointed by the previous occupant of the Oval Office, all of whom lied or misled during their confirmation hearings, are all post-Baby Boom (one of them, born in 1965, is on the cusp, actually). My theory is that the current regression of American culture is being fueled by the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who was idolized by many of that post-Baby Boom generation and whose political tenure was the beginning of all the things that so many of us are lamenting right now.

I have always taken comfort in the aspirational phrase “in Order to form a more perfect Union” in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It always seemed to mean we’re not perfect yet, but this is what we’re working toward. Throughout my lifetime, progress has been made – slowly but surely – toward that ideal. Today, though, it feels a little like we’re going backward and the conservative unbalance in the Supreme Court is going to plague us for a long while.

As I composed these thoughts, word came across that a seventh victim of the mass shooting at the Highland Park, Illinois, 4th of July parade, has died. Three people were gunned down a few weeks ago at a potluck supper at an Episcopal church just a few miles from my house in Birmingham. There are reports that the white supremacy domestic terrorist group, Patriot Front, is making its presence known in Birmingham on the eve of the opening of the 2022 World Games.

I may have to hit the streets in protest yet.

Alabama Writers’ Forum Reviews

I have two new reviews at Alabama Writers’ Forum. James Seay Brown Jr.’s Distracted by Alabama is a refreshing frolic through some of the state’s lesser traveled attractions. Christopher Shaffer revisits his youthful tour of duty as a teacher in post-Cold War Slovakia in the very entertaining Moon over Sasova.

Catch them both here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/

Just Steps Away

 I have been staying with a sick parent 24/7 for a couple of weeks now. My dad put a small raised flowerbed in the backyard right after they moved to this house on a mountain slope. The bed is anchored by four rosebushes; lantana and other perennials pop up as Spring turns to Summer.

When they first moved here, Mother started planting the inevitable Spring Easter lilies in a small corner by the fence in the back of the yard when they began to fade. Dad said they wouldn’t come back the following year, but they did. Eventually, that tiny patch was crowded and the annual Easter lilies in pots began to be transplanted to the raised bed, along with the occasional Calla lily.

This year’s crop of lilies was slow to bloom, but they are finally splendid and, on this rainy morning, I count about three dozen blooms either fully open or about to pop.

Finding time to look out a back window is a welcome respite from sick-bed duties. Two days ago, two chickadees worked hard to build a nest on top of a post on the back porch. A front came through and the next morning the small birds’ handiwork was scattered on the ground. I noticed later that the scatterings had been gathered into a neat pile on the porch floor. I hope it was the chickadees and that they plan to make another effort when the weather calms down.

Last night, when I let Lulu the chihuahua out, she and I stood and watched our first fireflies of the season as they floated across the backyard and in the woods below. Back in the house, I related the mating rituals of fireflies to Mother. I learned the ritual, which consumes the fireflies’ two week adult life-span, from my readings of scientist E.O. Wilson.

Once again, I remember that one can find real peace and pleasure by pondering the world just outside the door.

Amid the Snowflakes at Aldridge Gardens

Aldridge Gardens, a 32-acre public garden in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, surrounds a lake on property that was once the home of Kay and Eddie Aldridge (www.aldridgegardens.com). I first knew of the Aldridge gardening family through Aldridge Garden Shop and Nursery, a great source for plants that was located for decades on Red Mountain, across from the entrance to Vulcan Park.

Snowflake hydrangea at Aldridge Gardens

Eddie and his father, nurseryman Loren Aldridge, discovered and patented the stunning “Snowflake” variety of oak-leaf hydrangea that is now popular throughout the South and beyond. Aldridge Gardens is a perfect showcase for the Snowflake and dozens of other varieties of hydrangea, azaleas, and other flora. Sculpture is placed throughout the garden, and a Veterans’ Memorial Arbor and Pentagon Plaza are located at the far end of the property, recently accented with fading wisteria dripping from the arbor.

The Aldridges first saw the property when they were on-site in the ‘60s to plant three magnolia trees for the Coxe family who lived there at the time. They saw the potential for a public garden on the site and Eddie Aldridge’s dream for a “garden of destiny” was born. He and Kay bought and lived on the estate in the ‘70s and negotiated the transfer to the city of Hoover in the ‘90s with the understanding that the grounds would remain a public space in perpetuity.

A half-mile trail goes around the lake and separate paths diverge into other areas of the garden, along with woodland trails through an urban forest and alongside a meadow. Some areas feature gardens dedicated to specific plants. On a recent May morning, I spotted six tortoises sunning themselves on a fallen tree that was partially submerged in the lake with other tortoises coming and going around them.

The Gardens are off a bustling road and near a busy interstate, but after a few minutes on the grounds, that noise seems to fade away as birdsong and quiet streams take focus. On a sunny day, the dappled shade creates contrasts in light that glimmers from the water and profuse foliage all around. Honeysuckle creeps up among other plants and the perfume of jasmine permeates here and there. Snowflake hydrangeas are predominant, however, in their Aldridge Garden’s home-place.

Aldridge Gardens is just one of many splendid and occasionally unexpected green spaces to be found in the Birmingham area. Having it three miles away from my house makes it ideal for a quick getaway while running errands. Two Snowflake hydrangeas in my backyard, acquired last year to celebrate my move back to Birmingham, are doing just fine and provide a hint of the nearby gardens on days when I can’t get away. The snowflakes have not quite peaked yet, but they are magnificent nevertheless and give promise for a lush summer to come.

My backyard Snowflakes

New Book Reviews for Alabama Writers’ Forum

My latest reviews about two sharply contrasting books have just been posted on Alabama Writers’ Forum. Deep South Dynasty by Kari Frederickson is a fascinating history of an influential Alabama family, the Bankheads. Barry Marks’s new poetry, My Father Should Die in Winter, examines grief and hope. Check them out at https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/

Following Simple Directions

The first time I remember baking anything, I was in my 30s already and my Grandmother Harbison’s hip had broken while she was taking cornbread out of the oven. After following the ambulance to the hospital and meeting my parents there to get Grandmother ensconced in a room, Grandmother was worried about what Granddaddy Harbison was going to eat while she was hospitalized. As far back as I knew my Harbison grandparents, Grandmother always took care of the cooking and the inside of the house and Granddaddy, who had an impressive green thumb, took care of the yard and the outdoors.

He didn’t cook. And, back then, with very few exceptions, neither did I.

But this was an emergency so I went back to my grandparents’ house and pondered what to do. There was a pot of Grandmother’s homemade vegetable soup already simmering on the stove and Granddaddy assured me that as long as he had cornbread and buttermilk in the house, he could make do for himself for a while. There was buttermilk in the refrigerator and, since grandmother’s cornbread had been ruined in her fall, I said I’d make a cake of cornbread.

I had no idea what I was doing. I pulled out the cornmeal and was relieved to see a recipe for cornbread on the package. I followed the directions carefully and was amazed and relieved when the final product actually looked and tasted like cornbread. Granddaddy declared that it was good.

I have been making cornbread ever since and have amended that original recipe over the years. Here’s the thing, though: I still have to follow the recipe to make a decent cornbread. As long as a recipe is available, why bother to memorize?

Over the years, I have gotten more comfortable in the kitchen. As a lifelong bachelor, that is a necessity. I vowed never to become like one of my bachelor professors at Alabama who never cooked, but was at Morrison’s Cafeteria every day at 5:30 p.m. to take his meal. He died not long after that Morrison’s on University Boulevard shut down; I worried that his fatal illness may have been triggered by food deprivation.

My grandmother, Eula Harbison, was a natural magician in the kitchen. She came from the era in which relatives might arrive for long stays and, later, company might happen to drop by for an unannounced visit, especially on a Sunday afternoon. She always had food warming in the oven and a cake on hand to offer her guests with a cup of percolator coffee. She made a variety of cakes, but my favorites were always the most simple and unadorned. On some occasions, she would apply a sugary glaze to these basic cakes, but as often as not there was no glaze. Her hospitality always seemed humble and effortless; she was a superb host.


This comes to mind tonight because I just made an olive oil cake and, even though olive oil cake was not part of Grandmother’s repertoire, it reminds me a lot of the kinds of cakes she would always have on hand.

An olive oil cake is a traditional Italian cake that substitutes oil for butter. It can be amended and embellished in any number of ways. It’s a common cake, but when I mention it to people, most are not aware of it.

I was aware of it, but I never recall tasting it. That changed in March when I was on a business trip in Memphis and having dinner with friends. The dessert menu at Catherine and Mary’s, an Italian-influenced Southern restaurant not far from Beale Street, listed an olive oil cake.
The cake was moist and flaky with a frothy cream and drizzle of sauce. It was the perfect way to top off a rich meal. I got back to Birmingham and vowed to experiment with olive oil cake recipes. No experimentation was necessary; it’s a straightforward and simple cake that has turned out moist and delicious each time I have made it by following simple directions. In fact, I was just asked to make one for an anniversary gift. With that success under my belt, I already am planning ways that I can adorn the cake for special occasions in the future. I am not confident as a baker, so olive oil cake may be my gateway into more adventurous baking.

I don’t live a “company dropping by” sort of existence, but I would be proud to offer a slice of olive oil cake to company that might call in the future.

Here’s the recipe I’m using:

Classic Olive Oil Cake