This is my first book for the Southern Reading 2009 Challenge and already I can’t follow the rules. I wanted to write about my favorite by Mary Kay Andrews, but I have two favorites, so will post about them both. I discovered Mary Kay Andrews’ books recently when my husband and I were planning a trip to Savannah. Instant reading rapture! I gobbled up all her books and am eagerly awaiting the newest, out in a few weeks. I have never read Chick Lit. The women’s fiction I read tends to be Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler. But these books are fun! Andrews has hit upon a not-terribly-original-but-successful formula: successful-and/or-happy heroine suddenly becomes down-and-out, has a rat fink of a husband/fiance/boyfriend/ex-husband and a new man in her life who is totally "wrong" for her, but is really Mr. Right.
In Savannah Breeze, BeBe (pronounced Bay-Bay) Loudermilk owns a successful restaurant, rental properties, pots of money, but can’t seem to pick the right man. At the Telfair Ball, she is swept off her feet by a stranger, Ryan Edward "Reddy" Millbanks III, who is younger and very attractive. BeBe falls hard for him and when she wakes up, she has lost the title to her properties, her money, and her grandparents’ money. Her furniture is gone and so is Reddy. All she has left is a run-down motel on Tybee Island, "a drinking village with a fishing problem." The scruffy caretaker, Harry, and BeBe’s best friend Weezie, help her fix up the motel into a charming cottage retreat. But BeBe wants her pound of flesh. When she learns that Reddy is in Ft. Lauderdale, presumably bilking his next victim, BeBe charges south in a big ol’ Buick with her wheelman Harry and accomplices Weezie and her 82-year-old grandfather to out-caper Reddy Millbanks. Of course she does and recoups her losses, gaining a new sweetie in the process, Harry.
Hissy Fit begins with Keeley Murdock at her rehearsal dinner where she discovers her husband-to-be in a compromising position with her maid of honor. She pitches a hissy fit of seismic proportions, never realizing the ripple effect would quash her interior design business. The new owner of the old bra plant plans to boost Madison, Georgia’s sagging economy with innovative ideas. He hires Keeley to redecorate a crumbling antebellum mansion he’s restoring for the unlikely love of his life–a woman he’s never met. Keely’s ex keeps trying to win her back while Will tries to impress the grasping, upwardly-mobile Stephanie. On one of these do-se-does, Keely and Will realize they belong together and to heck with the other two.
What I loved about both books–all of Andrews’ books–is her sense of humor and the amount of detail. Andrews is a Southerner, a vintage-binger, and a foodie–like me. Details about clothes, decorating, estate sales, and fabulous meals or simple suppers all ring true. Her books make me want to be 20 (okay, 30) years younger, out there hitting estate sales at dawn, drinking champagne at society events, wearing vintage gowns and high heels. . . well, that’s what escapist fiction does. It lets us get away from our real lives. As a children’s book writer, my life is far from terrible, but I didn’t wear heels at my own wedding, don’t drink, I’m in bed by 9:30 most nights, and all vintage clothing is made for size 4s and under. Still . . . Mary Kay Andrews lets me dream, while I’m laughing. I’ll be a fan forever.
Honeysuckle time! Honeysuckle vines are tumbled over fences, at the edge of woods, and are spilling into roadside ditches. This was taken in our neighborhood. Blackberry is blooming as well and the canes are recklessly mixed in with the honeysuckle vines. Can’t you tell I love this time of year best?
Several years ago Estee Lauder’s granddaughter launched her first fragrance, Honeysuckle. I haunted the department stores until I tracked it down. Now Bath and Body Works carries Wild Honeysuckle in their signature line. I’ve loaded up on shower gel, body lotion, hand cream, and after-shower spritzer. It smells very nice, but doesn’t come close to the sweet, almost cloying scent of honeysuckle warmed by June sunshine.
Since summer, honeysuckle and the South go together, I’m joining the Southern Reading 2009 Challenge at Maggie Reads. I’m reading three Southern books–for grown-ups! I hope to post the first review tomorrow.
Becky, of Becky’s Book Reviews, wondered about the writers who live in our own hometowns. I’m happy to post that there were/are several well-known writers from or living in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Most people don’t remember Sloan Wilson, but they might recall his two famous movies from his novels: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and A Summer Place. Both books pushed the envelope in their day–one about corporate America and the other about adultery (and who can forget Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee in A Summer Place or that haunting theme song?) Sloan Wilson died a few years ago in nearby Colonial Beach.
Sassy, Southern Florence King is alive and well and kickin’ in old-town. I once visited someone and learned that Florence King lived upstairs. I had heard she is very reclusive and meets people at the door with her gun. I was afraid to even talk above a whisper in this person’s apartment! Florence King writes mostly political columns, but also collections of essays and novels. I am not a political person myself, so I’ve never read any of her work. (Please, don’t let her read this! She’ll track me down!)
Although Troy Howell is an illustrator, he deserves mention in this post. He illustrated the covers of the Redwall books, among many other children’s books and other projects, including the design of our little FRED buses. Years ago, before I moved to Fredericksburg, Troy and I did a joint signing at a brand-new store called . . . Borders.
Since I’m a huge fan of Margaret Wise Brown, I’m proud to claim any tiny little connection to her. Her mother’s family was "landed gentry" in Spotsylvania County, the county I live in. I have made cursory attempts to look up the genealogy of her grandfather, Berkeley Estes Johnson and Margaret’s grandmother, Margaret Naylor Wise Johnson. Margaret’s mother, Maude Johnson, attended Hollins College and so did Margaret. And so did I (I teach at Hollins University now). Maybe I’ll have time this summer when I return to Hollins to dig more into Margaret’s mother’s past . . .
All good things must come to an end. We woke up to cloudy skies, but it was warm enough to eat breakfast on the big patio. Doesn’t this look yummy? It was. Waffles and a tidbit of sourdough French toast–my kind of breakfast! Fresh flowers on the table. I’d seen the manager walking in the gardens in the evenings clipping roses, daisies, greens, peonies for the next day’s simple but elegant floral arrangements.
I sat at our table a long time, writing in my journal. I plan to scrapbook this trip (for once I have enough pictures!) and wanted to remember all the delicious details. I’ll actually make the album this weekend at a National Scrapbook Day event I signed up for months ago. A whole day of scrapbooking while someone brings in the meals and snacks–almost as good as a trip to the Hope and Glory Inn. Then I wandered around the gardens, snapping final pictures. The innkeepers, Dudley and Peggy, took photos of us for their scrapbook.
Dragging my feet, I went back to our little playhouse of a cottage and packed. Lots of goodbyes and hugs all around. It’s amazing how quickly you can make friends at a place like this. And, as much as I love Fredericksburg, I will sorely miss the slow pace and super-friendly people in the small towns we visited.
On our way back, my husband took a detour. We wound up in Colonial Beach, at the top end of the Northern Neck, and ate lunch at the The Happy Clam, one of our favorite places when we stay at the Bell House, the bed and breakfast that was the former summer home of Alexander Graham Bell. We watched an osprey dive for a fish, which two other osprey chased him for. And we watched a pair of osprey in their platform nest in the marina.
Over fried shrimp and Caesar salad and red velvet cake, my husband informed me that he had made reservations to return to the Hope and Glory Inn over New Year’s. We’ll spend New Year’s Eve there and New Year’s Day. Two nights instead of three, so we won’t have to board the cats. Something to look forward to!
Now, back home, throw our stuff in the house, and I’ll go fetch the cats from the vet’s.
Our last full day at the Hope and Glory Inn was warm, bright, and sunny. The chef fixed corn biscuits (sort of like fritters), sausage gravy, tender scrambled eggs, and fruit–enough food to last us all day. The peonies opened and shook out their shaggy heads during the warm spell. As much as I love roses–and the fragrance of the masses of rose beds here was enough to make you dizzy–I’m a fool over peonies.
We drove south to the Middle Penninsula. In Gloucester Court House, incorporated in 1651 (there are some very old places, particularly in the Tidewater area, though I was shocked to learn Kilmarnock, settled in the mid-1600s too, was incorporated in 1930. 1930?) Gloucester is very charming–all the old buildings wear daffodil wreaths. Settlers brought their daffodil bulbs from England and let the naturalized bulbs spread. In the 30s and 40s, daffodils were the major industry in the "Daffodil Capitol of America." We ate raspberry scones at a sweet little bakery, then had them fix us a sack lunch of salads and sandwiches.
We drove north to Urbanna and ate our lunch in the marina on Urbanna Creek. I did a little junkin’ but mostly talked to the townspeople. One lady carried a dachshund puppy into her shop. I followed her in, smitten by the puppy. I held him, enchanted by his warmth (happiness really is a warm puppy!), his solid little body, and quiveryness under his tight skin. He smelled wonderful. Then we headed back to the Inn.
The gardens beckoned. I read and strolled. The Inn has a delightful outdoor clawfoot bathtub painted purple, an old sink, and a rainfall shower, completely enclosed by a high board fence. Inside it’s a bower of hanging baskets, potted flowers, vintage mirrors, and a shabby birdhouse where a treefrog lives. The night before they are married, brides take a long luxurious bath under the stars.
On our way out to dinner, I noticed a dove’s nest tucked into a wisteria arbor over a doorway of one of the other cottages. Three wary but very cute baby mourning doves stared down at me. Nobody moved, nobody blinked. I could have reached up and touched one. They were pretty big, almost ready to leave the nest they spilled out of. After dinner, we came back to read more. People think that because I work at home I get to read whenever I want. I only read at lunch time and a little before I go to bed. Having huge uninterrupted blocks of reading time is a real luxury!
That night, our last, I left the balcony door and curtains open again and watched the day slowly drain from the sky. It was with great reluctance I finally closed the door on the soft air and the day . . . as I went to sleep I wondered if I could trade that puppy for Winchester.
The next morning the sky was blue with puffy-sheep clouds, luring us to get out and explore. The Hope and Glory Inn is at the end of Virginia’s Northern Neck region. We drove through tiny places with names like Pine Tree and White Stone. You would never guess the Chesapeake was any where near. Houses, thick groves of trees, and cornfields surrounded the bay, rivers, and creeks. Most of the waterfront is privately owned but we went to Hughlett’s Point Natural Area, parked, and hiked the trail toward the water. The forest was eerily still, except for unfamiliar birdcalls. We could have been in the time of dinosaurs. Boardwalks crossed brackish pools and mosquitoes discovered I was quite tasty.
As a kid and teenager, I often went to Chesapeake Beach and Breezy Point on Maryland’s Western Shore. The Virginia side of the bay was nothing like those sunbathing beaches. Bleached bones of trees were shipwrecked at odd angles in the sand. A pair of osprey soared overhead–it was lovely to see them nesting in the wild and not on manmade platforms (which, admittedly, brought the osprey back to Virginia). We continued on the nature trail. A dazzling flash of bright blue zipped ahead of us–an indigo bunting followed by his drab mate. A dark and mysterious creek slid alongside.
I found myself wrapped in the peaceful silence I grew up with and reverted back to the "nature kid." I was keenly interested in odd patches of moss, a web filled with caterpillars, the way the trees grew with their backs to the prevailing wind, the light on the water, the wildflowers and butterflies. I was heartened to know that my child self wasn’t buried as deeply as I thought. All it needed was a place to breath and play.
We ate lunch at a no-nonsense seafood packing house with an attached deli. I could hardly carry my huge crabmeat salad outside to the picnic table. Then we went junkin’ in Kilmarnock. I found a late 30s typewriter in its case for $28 (it smells musty, like it had been in somebody’s basement 200 years–I put it in the sun yesterday but all that did was heat up the stink). Then we went back to the Inn to read, read, read. I switched location three times to take advantage of the gardens. Dinner was at the elegant Tides Inn and Resort. Then back to read, read, read . . . I left the balcony door open to the night air and the last songs of the robins. I thought briefly of the cats, then fell asleep.
It wasn’t easy getting away for our 30th anniversary trip. We had downsized our trip from two weeks in Europe (too long,), to a week in Paris, to a week or so in the Scottish Highlands (I was in the mood for celebrating by going someplace ancient), to a week in Edinburgh with day trips (easier), to a 5 or 6 days in Savannah, Georgia. But what it all came down to in the end was that it’s too hard to leave when you have three cats, one of which is 16, blind in one eye (due to a recent stroke), wobbly-legged (due to a previous stroke), with kidney and thryoid disease; the next oldest cat, also with thyroid disease; and Winchester, who is in a category by himself. It’s expensive to board and with two senior cats, difficult as they are used to their routines.
But we wanted to get out of our routine, so I booked us three days at the Hope and Glory Inn on the Chesapeake Bay in the "fingery" part of Virginia (on the map, I mean). From Europe to Irvington, Virginia, seemed like a big step down, but it really suited us best. This is a famous Inn–Tom Cruise has stayed there and it’s famous as a wedding destination. The atmosphere is shabby chic surrounded by a riot of English gardens. We booked one of the two two-story cottages.
That morning Winchester threw up in my office. A really good reason to board the cats and leave! I pre-measured all the cats’ meals, snacks, meds, dated, and color-coded by cat, with detailed written instructions. Then we had to capture Persnickety and Winchester, stuff them in carriers and ferry them to the vet. Xenia is a special case. I took her by herself and personally put her in her private, isolation cage because she has sent at least two techs to the hospital. Then we had to pack our own stuff. It was cool and raining. Not a good sign.
It rained all that day. We checked into our dollhouse cottage, painted pink with white trim, and grayish floors. The overstuffed furniture was upholstered in red ticking and toile, the upstairs bedroom bloomed with cabbage roses. Vintage pictures and mirrors covered the Savannah Clay walls (I got the name so I can paint our bedroom the same color). We had a tiny front porch with rocking chairs, a tiny privacy-fenced patio with garden furniture, and a miniscule balcony off our bedroom. It was–as critics have said in numerous accolades–"hopelessly romantic."
Although it rained and was chilly our first half-day there, we settled in to read–my husband with the latest Nevada Barr, me with a Michael Lee West novel. We melted into those overstuffed chairs until dinner time when we were bustled off to Irvington’s only restaurant. Two steaks, salads, and one pears flambe later, we were back in the chairs. It didn’t matter so much that it was raining any more. We loved our little dollhouse. I had brought Ellsworth, my best friend (next to my husband). And the next day was supposed to be sunny and warm.
This has been the wettest, coolest spring on record. We are all heartily sick of rain but it falls out of the grey skies every single day in the form of showers, drizzle, spit, thunderstorms, gulley-washers, mist, toad-stranglers, and just plain rain. On one of these gray, wet days I received a package from my friend Connie Van Hoven. The box of surprises was meant to celebrate the sale of IVA HONEYSUCKLE, but also our friendship. Connie traveled all winter and spring–Montana, Florida, California–and as she trekked across the country, she picked up things for me.
Tucked inside the box were recent issues of The Horn Book (much appreciated, as I don’t subscribe and our library hides their issues), a Pacific-smoothed piece of green beach glass that is wonderful to touch, a bookmark with advice from a tree ("Stand Tall and Proud, Drink Plenty of Water, Enjoy the View," etc.), a charming Cat’s Meow journal that I will put to immediate use, a beautifully embroidered tea towel that could double as a small tablecloth, and–be still my vintage-loving heart–a pair of daffodil glasses. My spirits lifted instantly! The box also reminded me of my mother’s Sunshine Boxes–shoeboxes she’d fill with pantyhose, shampoo, and other toiletries and send to me back when I was a struggling secretary.
Connie and I met in the airport on our way to Vermont College for our very first residency in the MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program. We became roommates, close friends, and, after our graduation in July ’04, she remains one of my very best friends. This is Connie (in semi-costume) giving her excellent graduate lecture on tall tales. If you want to know anything about tall tales, Connie is your go-to person.
I’m delighted to report that Connie’s first picture book, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota (Sterling) will be published in October of this year. Connie’s website is in the works and any day (hear that, Connie?), her blog will be up.
Unexpected gifts. You never know where you’ll find them. I didn’t know back in July ’02 that I’d found one in the Phildelphia airport.
Here in Virginia, May means the end of the misty greening of April and the surprise of new plants and flowers. It’s as if someone turned a switch: April = spring; May = summer (only prettier and not as hot). Walking out the door means arming yourself with a machete. Weeds that were easy, almost a delight, to tug in April–tender chickory, pungent onions–become shoulder-high shrubs that grow another foot when you turn your back. I swear they stick out their tongue.
This is the season we mow, mow, mow, pull, pull, pull, lop, lop, lop, trim, trim, trim, but it’s a losing proposition. You can’t stay ahead of the yard. Especially this May when all it has done is rain (and it all it will do this week–I may use the machete on the weatherman). We have rose bushes to plant, mow, all the shrubs to prune, mow, mulch to spread, mow, four o’clocks to plant around the mailbox, mow . . .
But this past weekend I was tired of the constant tending of the yard (I left it to my husband). Instead, in the gray and spitting rain, I hosed off the back deck and the front porch and behold! discovered they aren’t really pollen-yellow but brown! I cleaned all the furniture, rabbit statues, and stuff on the porch as well. Because we have a big porch and because I’m a believer in controlled (barely) clutter, the porch is like a living room. This year I added a new rabbit statue to the covey that live on the porch, a vintage watering can, and a pair of vintage roller skates for whimsy. I washed and scrubbed and spiffed up the potted plants and rearranged everything.
Then the sun came out and I briefly forgave the weatherman. I took my book out on my freshly-cleaned front porch, sank into one of the comfortable chairs . . . and promptly fell asleep. It felt so good to do nothing.
I figured I was owed.