Thursday, October 13, 2011

Southern Bottoms, I Mean, Belles

A few weeks ago I realized that my blog and upcoming reading list was a little light on male authors.  It's not that I don't like the stuff men write, I just tend to prefer classics (and really, who can fault me for preferring Dickens?). So, my goal of late has been to find more contemporary male authors that I actually enjoy reading.  I discovered that many such authors can be found in the young adult and fantasy/science fiction genres, but I was determined to branch out further.  In doing so, I followed a recommendation and discovered Mark Childress and his latest novel, Georgia Bottoms, which I had been eyeing on the new fiction shelves for some time. (The shoes on the cover are what did me in.)

The Basics
Childress, Mark. Georgia Bottoms. New York: Little Brown and Co., 2011. Print.

Mark Childress has written seven novels and three children's books, as well as articles for various prominent periodicals. Childress was born in Monroeville, Alabama, and his southern roots certainly show through in Georgia Bottoms, a novel so steeped in the south that you can practically see Tara on the horizon.  Georgia Bottoms follows the life of its titular heroine as she endeavors (I had written struggles, but southern women simply don't do that) to juggle her six lovers.  Well-liked in her town and viewed as a good Southern Belle and Baptist, it is imperative for Georgia to keep her lovers and their "gifts" a secret. Hilarious, selfish, charming, and infuriating, Georgia keeps readers guessing and fascinated.

The Book
I love the way Georgia Bottoms captures a small slice of southern small-town culture.  It gives readers a taste of the society and complex social rules and interactions that govern life in the south.  Childress infuses a distinct sense of southernness in his novel that I recognized from the start and found entirely relatable and believable. Sometimes this taste of the south crops up as Georgia guides readers through the niceties of calling on an acquaintance.  Or, it's present in the pernicious racial politics that still stifle life in the South. At other times, it appears as Georgia organizes a formal dinner party, complete with pimento cheese and chicken salad sandwiches (served in triangles if she's worth her salt). Childress neither romanticizes nor demonizes life in the South; instead, he simply presents a picture of such a life, good and bad just as anywhere else.

I also enjoyed the fact that, while you'd think this would be a book about sex, it is nothing of the sort.  In fact, the sexual aspect of the book plays third fiddle to Georgia's personality and interactions with  others (thank goodness, since what there is turns me into a nine year old going "groooooooossss").  The few moments that actually focus on Georgia's love life are there to reveal the intricacy of Georgia's personality: her ability to act, her distance and lack of real emotion for her lovers, and her sense of responsibility to provide for her family.  It also illuminates her capacity for denial; Georgia is very determined that she is the lover of these six men (as opposed to mistress or prosititute), and she insists to herself that the gifts left by her lovers are freely given and unsolicited.

Meanwhile, the issue of race permeates the book in a very interesting way.  Readers are exposed to several aspects of race in the South (though by no means all). We have Georgia's hugely racist and senile mother, who provides occasional comic relief through her forgetfulness, but often appalls reader's with her racist vitriol.  Then for part of the book we loosely follow (because Georgia rarely focuses on events outside herself) the successful fight to finally integrate the community of Six Points by annexing the nearby African American neighborhood.  Meanwhile, Georgia herself provides a look at interracial relationships through her high school fling with Skiff and the result.  Childress provides and interesting and varied insight that engages readers' in a much larger conversation.

Georgia herself is a difficult character to come to terms with as a reader; I found her to be an odd mixture of relatable and alien, sympathetic and reprehensible.  On the one hand, I can identify with her participation in and knowledge of Southern society, her love and expertise at cooking (aren't I modest today), her roll as a hostess, her sense of hospitality.  On the other hand, she has a lot of traits that are harder to identify with, such as her bouts of extreme selfishness and her slutty side that often eyes other people's husbands.  She's not very sympathatic when she reveals her mean side: a Southern "bless your heart" sort of insult, which has its place, but which seems to color every thought she has about other people.  At the same time, I felt sorry for her as she dealt, quite dutifully, with an aging mother with dementia and a spoiled, lay-about, criminal brother.  Georgia makes for an exciting read, since you're never quite sure what she's going to throw at you next, and it's not until the end that you come down firmly on her side (or at least, I did).

Overall, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit (I finished it in one day) and found it refreshing to branch out for a change.  Georgia Bottoms was an amusing mix of humor and drama in the South, and I highly recommend picking it up.

  • Check Mark Childress's website for more information about the author and his other writings. 
  • Check out this book discussion guide for Georgia Bottoms, which features the recipe for Coca-Cola Cake that will be the focus of my weekend food post.
  • And don't neglect Childress's Facebook page.


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