This is Not a Book Review: John Fergus Ryan and The Redneck Bride

No Telling

I‘m sorry. I really am. I’m about to tell you not to live another hour without reading this novel, and you’re never going to find it. The Redneck Bride by John Fergus Ryan is pure southern Gothic, out of print and mighty scarce.

I got lucky. This book (literally) lept off the shelf and into my hands in the used book basement at the Cox Creative Center the other day. I caught it before it hit the floor and – call me crazy – I’m convinced Ryan’s rapscallion ghost was responsible. Probably smoking contraband cigars in the afterlife, right there in the basement. I don’t blame the haint – the book was misshelved in with the general fiction population rather than the special “Southern Lit” or “Arkansas” shelves. Five dollars later, I had a first edition hardback filled with illustrations and wearing a pristine dust jacket.

Don’t look for this to be Faulknerian. The Redneck Bride‘s narrator has poetic Attention Deficit Disorder, with a healthy dose of descriptive OCD – that’s part of its charm. But the one-liners hit hard. Sometimes hard enough to put the book down and walk away for a minute just to catch your breath.

Some years ago, Billy Bob Thornton attempted to produce a movie based on the book. No amount of research has turned up what happened to the project, and Billy Bob hasn’t yet returned my call/tweet. Ryan’s novel The Little Brothers of St. Mortimer did make it, but straight to DVD. It’s called The White River Kid and has quite a cast of stars. His novel Watching came out in 1998 and it looks like I’m going to have one hell of a time finding any copies of that one.

Sadly, John Fergus Ryan died in 2003. His obituary in the Memphis Flyer, eloquently written by Jackson Baker, is worth reading start to finish, especially the section on his writing process. In fact, someone out there needs to write Ryan’s life. His son, John Jr., illustrated The Redneck Bride, and I understand makes his living as an artist. Strangely enough, both father and son appeared in the film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Ryan Sr. was a firecracker for sure.

You know, I might just head to President Clinton Avenue and crawl back down into the used book basement again. Maybe ol’ John will sling another one out of the shelf for me. It could happen.

Speaking of Books…

No Telling

Here’s one you must get your hands on, and soon. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink is on my top ten nonfiction of all time list. Those out there who know me know I have little patience for nonfiction as a rule, but here’s your exception.

Most of us grew up memorizing poems in school. Soon poets will rule the world. I can’t help getting a little misty about this.

“We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and society built on the inventive, empathetic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.”

Pink, bless his heart, even says that an MFA is the new MBA. He also includes exercises for those left-brainers who might need a nudge in the Right direction. Check out his blog and site here.

In addition to making me feel a tad better about my non-mathematical, right-brained self, A Whole New Mind also gives me hope for my lovely daughter Emily who’s working diligently through a Creative Writing major. Maybe she won’t have to wait tables after all.

P.S. – If you’re making a bedside stack of winter reading, put this one on top. Here are two more that should go just underneath:

The Rise of the Creative Class (Richard Florida)

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

The Age of Aquarius and Mimeographed Worksheets

No Telling
(Scribbling Paradisio by Dore’, with a little help from me.)

I taught at a traveling writing workshop this summer down in Harmony Grove, Arkansas. School teachers, tired ones, met with us in that sweet but woebegone way public teachers do at the end of the school year. This is when they love their students the most but are cheerfully able to say good-bye for the summer. The workshop was splendid, and you can read about it here and here.

We used a book I’ve had in the workshop arsenal for a few years called The 9 Rights of Every Writer: A Guide for Teachers. It’s geared towards educators, but it’s a fine fist-in-the-air book about what every writer needs/deserves. These are breathtakingly simple. Every writer has the right to:

  • reflect
  • finding personally important topics
  • go off topic
  • personalize the writing process
  • write badly to unearth and clarify meaning
  • observe other writers at work
  • assess constructively – and well
  • experience structural freedom
  • unearth the power of each writer’s voice.

This is a powerful book for teachers. You see, most of them are scared to death of students’ writing because many teachers don’t see themselves as writers. That’s an important hurdle during the workshops.

As an opening scribbling prompt, my partner-in-workshop-crime Stephanie asked all the teachers to pick one of the rights they wish they’d had as students. Good opener. We all began writing. Kind of.

My pen hovered over the page for a bit. It had been a few years (coughcough) since I was a public school student. I tried to summon up something, some writing experience gone awry or pinch-nosed schoolmarm with a bleeding red pen. Nothing.

The thing is, I was a public school kid in the Age of Aquarius and Mimeographed Worksheets. With the exception of one senior-year research paper, all I did was fill out purple-inked (you know you can smell them) grammar and punctuation mimeos. They were like a puzzle, really. All you had to do was figure out the pattern.

In public school, no one ever tried to teach me how to write. Huh.

But the writing happened anyway. I began as Harriet the Spy and became the girl with the contraband poetry books in her locker and a Secret Notebook in her purse. I wrote incessantly, mostly terrible poetry then published in the high school literary magazine, but would never have devalued my late ’70s coolness-mystique (good lord) by being on staff. My plan was to be Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath. Simultaneously.

That morning in Harmony Grove I ended up writing about the freedom students need to scribble outside of standardized testing and five-paragraph nightmares. I wrote about the freedom to be left alone with the words, to develop fearlessness and a casual attitude because everything we write isn’t stark reflection of our worth. It’s practice. It’s play. It’s necessary.

They’re just words. We can always make more.

So go write something.

The Museum of Happiness

No Telling

Jesse Lee Kercheval may very well be my new favorite author. My friend Steph slid this copy of The Museum of Happiness across the table to me a couple of months ago. Like me, she finds too many killer books to read them all in a timely fashion. I love it when the book I put off reading ends up becoming The One.

If you’re a reader like me, story is crucial – but it’s never enough. There must be a poet somewhere inside every great novelist or I don’t stick. That’s Kercheval. The Museum of Happiness is like Henry James meets John Irving and shakes hands with Gabriel Garcia Marquez who’s reading Suite Francaise. This is the book you want to read in one sitting, but don’t because you have to save another chapter for tomorrow.

I’m not giving you a synopsis because I’ll give away something vitally important for sure. That, and it’s late. Just flash on this: a genetic predisposition to webbed fingers and telepathy, carnies, a dead groom, gypsy-child pickpockets, rooms full of hand-made lace, the stock market crash, a cross-dresser in Full Habit…this is eccentricity at its finest, gorgeously written, addictive.

Get up right now and go find a copy of this book. I’d loan you this one, but Steph hasn’t read it yet and, well, it’s hers. I’m giving this one a Full Five Stars. Miraculous, considering how literarily jaded I’ve become.

An Imperfect Book Review


I’m trying to finish A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Abrahamson and Freedman. I really am. I started off great-guns. The first couple of chapters were insightful, funny, and inspiring for a gal like me. I’m not a mess, just make a lot of piles and have two too many junk drawers. Well okay, three. The peppy beginning makes a connection with folks like me who can’t stand filth, but don’t see the inherent comfort in ritual cleaning/organization for its own sake. Such things, according to the book, take more time than they save, and if the object of organization is time-saving, well…there’s really no point. Not to mention the armies of organization specialists eager to pick your pockets and hand the cash over to The Container Store.

An entire generation of women brought up on those “How to Catch a Fella and Throw the Perfect Dinner Party” books are gasping for air right now. It’s okay, ladies. Loosen your pearls a notch and take a deep breath, because some things were forever altered when women jumped into the workforce for careers instead of jobs. A great many Women Of a Certain Age figured out – quickly – that they’d rather be judged by their resumes than by the spots on their glasses. And we’re all wearing bras now, thank you.
Any younger gals reading this are perplexed. I love those Gen-X and Gen-Y girls because they have no idea what I’m talking about and that, my friends, is a delightful sign of progress.
Back to the book I can’t finish. After the charming introduction and first couple of chapters, the whole thing begins to read like someone else – a historian with a cramped windowless office, perhaps – took over the helm. I’ll admit my lit degrees have given me low tolerance for nonfiction. I’ve devoured 18th century epistolary novels that weighed in like bibles, but it takes a special writer to carry off 310 pages of information without losing me entirely. I’m trying, though, because here and there are sparkling bits of usable information. Einstein, for example, was a daily disaster and look how proud he made his mama. I get it, there’s just no poetry in it whatsoever. Give me a sentence I can cling to, gentlemen.
It’s like handing a starving woman a Ding Dong when what she really needs is veal piccata.
Don’t worry, Abrahamson and Freedman. I’m going to finish your book because although I was advised to skim it, my Inner Reader won’t let me do it. I might miss something good and I’d never forgive myself. Besides, whoever wrote the first couple of chapters might just reappear in the end to finish up what they started and resuscitate the whole thing. It could happen.