FEBRUARY BOOK REPORT (2/12)

Thumbnail sketches of the month’s reading:

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy, 1877)

Can a 950-page novel still kick a hole in you if you’ve known the ending for thirty years?

It can.

Southern Ladies and Gentlemen (Florence King, 1975)

It’s no secret that King is funny. As with all funny writers who aren’t geniuses, the tone can wear over 250 pages. But a great bathroom book, nonetheless, and with an added value of being a first-rate work of film criticism. Most of the salient points regard Gone With the Wind, but the real grabber is this:

“The Ma Joad Rock may not be able to read or write. She says “his’n” and “her’n,” uses triple negatives, and in some very isolated parts of the South she still uses a few Elizabethan idioms. Like her namesake, she is a dumpy tower of strength who holds her family together and gets them through every imaginable crisis. Though she thinks nothing of slitting a pig’s throat and removing its still-pulsating organs, she has the innate sensitivity that was so equisitely expressed by Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath, in the silent scene in which Ma takes a last look at the precious mementos that she must leave behind.

“Like the great lady she is, her name appears in the paper only three times: when she is born, when she marries, and when she dies.”

Since Darwell and Wrath director John Ford have been well-slagged for this “sentimental” portrayal over the years–with a fair number of folks even questioning the validity of Darwell’s well-earned Oscar–it’s worth remembering that the principal cause of the slagging was the usual: They got it too right for comfort.

Louisiana Hayride Years (Horace Logan with Bill Sloan, 1998)

Logan was the guiding light of the Hayride, a Saturday night radio program that kick-started numerous country music careers–including those of Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley–between 1948 and 1958. He wisely keeps to one side and lets the stars have the stage. It’s an as-told-to, so hardly long on stylistic mastery, but it’s an important story, swiftly and insightfully told. Absent Logan being a secret literary genius this could not possibly have been better.