In the closing days of November, newspapers report on Thanksgiving travel (heavy and hellish) and reprise the history of the holiday (proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863).
For those traveling across Mississippi, this year’s most thoughtful travel companion may Donald L. Miller’s “Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy.” In Mississippi, crossing a familiar river may give a holiday traveler the deepest sense of nearing home. Those rivers are here, the Coldwater and the Tallahatchie, the Big Black, the Yazoo, and the whorls and loops of bayous in the Delta. From Corinth, through Holly Springs and Oxford, from Port Gibson to Jackson and back west to the river – the story of how Grant reached Vicksburg is a story that runs along Mississippi roads.
The wildlife photography of Joe Mac Hudspeth Jr. – who grew up in Oxford, and seems to take most of his best photos at Ross Barnett Reservoir – pulls into focus the details of the Mississippi landscape. Hudspeth grew up in Oxford, lives in Brandon, and gets more mileage out of photos taken on Ross Barnett Reservoir than on occasional trips to Yellowstone. His photos have won prizes, and his shots of wood ducks are the funniest and most colorful likenesses ever taken of the species. Egrets, herons, cypresses, alligators rising out of the water – Hudspeth’s “Southern Wild” books are a series of images to remember. This fall sees the publication of “My Best of the Southern Wild.”
As the Mississippi football season ends, and talk away shifts from play-by-play reporting, an intriguing story of a sweeping career is told by the late Ron Borne in “Big Nasty: Jim Carmody – Mississippi’s Coach.” He could take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n. That football compliment sums peculiarly well the career of Jim Carmody, one of the most formidable figures in the bruising three-cornered welter that is Mississippi football. Across 30 seasons, from 1964 through 1994, Carmody coached football at Ole Miss, at Mississippi State, and at Southern Mississippi, and for each school won victories against the other two. Carmody changed schools so frequently that he was often coaching one team against another team he had trained – playing against himself. And playing against himself, he won 22-14.
“The Potlikker Papers,” by John T. Edge, is about food that won’t be on the Thanksgiving table. The book mentions turkey only once. Instead, it tells how Southern cuisine entered the modern age: how slow-to-cook fried chicken became a fast food, gourmands discovered shrimp and grits, and barbecue entered a renaissance. “They went questing for folk art. They traveled to eat,” Edge writes. “A new generation of Southerners claimed the foods of the region as their own.” This is a book to send out, at dawn on Black Friday, not to a mall, but to a hometown diner.
After Thanksgiving comes Advent, the season that lights the way to Christmas. The life of the preacher who staged the first manger scene, Saint Francis of Assisi, is told in the bright, taut, poetic lines of “Francis: A Life in Songs,” by Ann Wroe. Ann Wroe has written countless obituaries for the The Economist, which may have sharpened her talent for succinct expression. Here she recalls Francis preaching to the birds:
“You preached by starlight to night birds.
A dozen came. They perched along
The gilded branches of a tree
Like jeweler’s stock. . . .
“They did not stir. Perhaps each phrase
Slid off their smooth enameled backs
Like rain, like night. Yet on one limb
Set separately the wisest bird,
Wide-eyed and cowled, weighed every word.”
Wroe presents the life of Francis in a series of scenes, telling a medieval story in language as piercing as haiku. On this list, this is the book that isn’t like the others – but poetry never is.
“Vicksburg: Grant’s Campaign That Broke the Confederacy.” By Donald L. Miller. Simon & Schuster, $35.
“Big Nasty: Jim Carmody – Mississippi’s Coach.” By Ron Borne. Nautilus Publishing, $24.95.
“My Best of the Southern Wild.” By Joe Mac Hudspeth Jr. See http://www.southernfocus.com. $40.
“The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.” By John T. Edge. Penguin Press, $28.
“Francis: A Life in Songs.” By Ann Wroe. Jonathan Cape Ltd. £16.99 / $19.73.
Allen Boyer is Book Editor for Hottytoddy.com.