Monthly Archives: November 2013

Fannie Flagg and “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion”

” All women become like their mothers.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That’s his.”

                                                                -Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Much as I love, respect and admire Oscar Wilde, he got things a little bit backwards when it comes to the main character of Fannie Flagg’s latest novel, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.  As the book opens, the tragedy of Mrs. Earle Poole, Jr. (better known as Sookie) isn’t how closely she resembles her mother, but rather, how she does not.  The formidable Lenore Simmons Krackenberry (secretly and aptly nicknamed the Winged Victory by her children) is and always has been considerably larger than life, constantly overshadowing her quieter daughter.  Among her many other delightful eccentricities, Lenore, now 88 years old, has recently been calling notable strangers long distance: inviting Barbara Bush for tea, and refusing to pay the bill for over $300 that came from her abortive attempt to telephone the Pope, because she spent the entire time on hold, so it shouldn’t count.  Naturally, her daughter is left to pick up the pieces, to soothe hurt feelings and ward off potential lawsuits. 


Because family history is so important to Lenore, Sookie has been told her entire life exactly who she is and where she comes from, that she has the Simmons foot, and that when she inherits the family silver, she must polish it every day and never, under any circumstances, break up the set.  She’s comfortable in her own skin and reasonably secure in her identity, if exhausted from just having married off all three of her daughters (one twice!), and relieved to know that even when her son, Carter, gets married, she will never have to be the mother of the bride again.


Then on Monday, June 6, 2005, Sookie receives a phone call out of the blue, which leads to an even more mysterious package that throws everything she thought she knew about herself out the window, turning her entire world and self-image completely topsy-turvy.  After a few days of bed-ridden hysterics (and who can blame her!) , she then sets out to discover her own past, which puts her on the trail of Fritzi Jurdabralinski of Pulaski, Wisconsin and the All-Girls Filling Station.  In the process, she learns that she is the product of not one, but several remarkable women.


From this point forward, it becomes a novel of both revelation and re-evaluation, working forward and backwards at the same time to piece together Sookie’s true origins.  It’s easy to understand her distress at finding out that her entire past was based on a lie, especially considering how much her mother emphasized their shared heritage.  And yet, she doesn’t lose anything in the process, except in receiving tacit permission to slough off any parts of her identity that simply didn’t fit.  Instead, she gains a great deal, finally allowing herself to expand her own horizons in ways she never really thought possible. 


As the novel progresses, Flagg deftly peels away the layers of each individual even as she also unveils Sookie’s past.  In particular, the relationship between Lenore and Sookie is considerably more nuanced than it would seem from the opening pages.  Despite one’s dramatic behavior and the other’s unfortunate doormat tendencies, there is a real, honest and even tender bond of love between the two women, running deep and strong beneath all the surface conflict.  A lot of Lenore’s craziness and pushiness towards her daughter is born of a desire for Sookie to have only the best … and to be her child, in every way possible.  Sookie in turn puts up with her mother’s antics and fixes her messes out of love, and a simple acceptance that Lenore will always dance gleefully along and over the line between “delightfully eccentric” and “as batty as hell”.


Despite my deep love for this novel, my emotions about it are deeply conflicted.  On the one hand, it inspires so many warm fuzzies that I’m on the verge of explosion – funny, charming, heart-warming in every detail, and full of so much love, even in the most difficult of situations, circumstances and relationships. I found myself both laughing and crying, alternating between the two in rapid succession – which is highly embarrassing in the middle of a coffee shop.  There was also a great deal of pride and admiration for the characters – especially the Jurdabralinski girls who contrived to run the titular All-Girl Filling Station to keep the family legacy going during World War II – and three of whom went on to become WASPs.


On the other hand, reading this magnificent book was also an unfortunate reoccurrence of the angry feminist rage I felt while reading The Girls of Atomic City back in April. Same era, same systemic chauvinism, same incredible courage, dedication and grace under pressure.  Again, it was a revelation – intellectually, I knew it could have been easy for female pilots of the era, but I didn’t quite appreciate exactly how NOT easy it was, nor did I realize exactly how little credit the WASPs received, especially since the records of them were classified and locked away for thirty-five years.  There is a definite sense of pride in all that the WASPs accomplished, and yet that satisfaction is tinged with sadness, knowing in advance that their achievements will be locked away to be forgotten and undervalued.


I picked up The All-Girls Filling Station’s Last Reunion on a Saturday evening, intending to kill an hour or so at O’Henry’s after work before putting it away, picking up dinner and going home.  Instead, I found myself hooked – absolutely riveted, and completely unable to stop and put it down.  I just had to finish it in one sitting, which resulted in a very late dinner that evening.  I REGRET NOTHING!


Happy Thanksgiving (or Thanksgivakkuh), everyone!




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Check out our new set-up!

Welcome to the new blog format!

Don’t worry, all our earlier reviews are still here, but hopefully this will be easier to navigate, and easier to interact with.  Plus, we kinda ran out of room on our old format.  Anyway, go play, and let us know what you think – both about the new set-up and any of the books we’ve discussed.

I hate making everyone wait yet another week for a proper review this time, especially after my radio silence last week, so once again – my most profound apologies.  Unfortunately, it’s been unavoidable, and I don’t think the situation will improve until after the holidays

My ever-present excuse is that we’ve been overrun with fantastic events. 

Last Wednesday, Alabama Secretary of State James Bennett and Harold Blach, Jr. were on hand for the signing of the former’s book, Blach’s: The Store, The Family, Their Story.  Then, on Friday, Jonathan Miles signed his new novel Want Not, which got a rave review in the New York Times by Dave Eggers.

Monday night, we were out at the Virginia Samford Theater for An Evening with Fannie Flagg: a sold-out event where every ticket included a signed first edition of her latest novel, The All-Girls Filling Station’s Last Reunion.  Last night (Tuesday) was the launch of Joshilyn Jackson’s new book, Someone Else’s Love Story – oodles of fun!

We’ve got two more events this week.  Tomorrow night, local attorney Jessica Kirk Drennan will be signing Divorce in Alabama.  Then on Friday, Chef John Besh will be here with his newest cookbook, Cooking from the Heart, and best of all, he’s bringing food – terrine of rare duck breast & rillettes with watermelon radishes and grilled Lisa bread.  Yum!

To top everything off, we’re also gearing up for Small Business Saturday on November 30th – can’t wait!


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Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash

Ideally, the best time to write about Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash would have been back in early February when it was first published, and when it was our Signed First Edition Club pick.  Since I didn’t begin writing this blog until the end of March, however, that did not happen.  Luckily, she’s back here this Friday with the paperback edition (though we DO have signed hardbacks as well), so I get a second chance at an accidentally well-timed review.

Wash is a complicated novel, complex and powerful, spiritual and heart-breaking, made all the more so by the sheer number of narrators and characters involved.  The book centers itself around the title character, a slave in early 19th century Tennessee and North Carolina, but is rich with the voices and stories of almost every significant figure in his life.  The narrative washes over you, carries you along with the current.  It sweeps you here and there, back and forth between past, present and future, shifting smoothly between one narrator and the next (or none at all), and back again.  It makes for an interesting juxtaposition, seeing all the characters through their own eyes as well as through the eyes of others.

Wash’s primary job is that of a breeding slave, his services as stud rented out by Richardson, his owner and a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.  The very concept makes my skin crawl – but that is probably the point, blurring the line between person and property, human and animal, and probing at the very heart of identity and self-worth: how do you maintain either when your very body is not your own?  Wash struggles with this question throughout the novel (among many other conundrums), which leads him into constant conflict with all of his masters, and especially into a convoluted power play with Richardson.  In turn, he finds himself in a state of constant self-sabotage, the only way he can rebel, the only way he can feel like anything other than a puppet dancing to someone else’s tune.

In contrast to the dehumanizing task he assigns to Wash, Richardson is all too aware that his slaves are people, rather than animated furniture, individuals who see and hear and feel everything.  He does not particularly approve of slavery, but bows to it out of economic necessity.  He was drawn into the slave trade and breeding because it was both the path of least resistance and the easiest way out of financial catastrophe.  Intellectually, he knows the hypocrisy that he and every other American lives out in the wake of the Revolutionary War, espousing for liberty for themselves while enslaving others.

With Wash and Richardson, the boundary between owner and owned, possessor and possessed changes frequently, shifting back and forth over time.  Richardson has the power to compel Wash to do his bidding, but in turn Wash can ensure that any victory is a Pyrrhic one.  He fights back any way he can, even when doing so becomes exhausting and futile, doing more harm than good as he struggles to walk the line between survival and dignity.

Between and yet apart from the two men stands Pallas, an enslaved healer who understands Wash’s humiliation and isolation as a breeder, in the most visceral and intimate way possible.  The two share an unspoken connection, neither wanting to be used ever again, both damaged and scarred by their pasts (although Wash’s are far more visible).  Their slow courtship proves to be healing for them both, allowing Pallas to overcome the trauma of her past and teaching Wash patience and gentleness: he gradually ceases to be hard and becomes strong, learning the difference in the process.  As time passes, she acts as his anchor, holding him to life, to his body, to his sanity, and yet always remaining partially separate from, leaving parts of herself in her own keeping.  In many ways, the two are yin and yang, polar opposites in everything from their origins and parentage to the legacies they leave behind.  In spite of this, their broken edges fit together and overlap, bringing some measure of peace to both.

The novel opens very nearly at its end, beginning in medias res in the summer of 1823, when Wash’s role as a breeder and the pattern of his fraught relationships with both Richardson and Pallas are already set and established.  The narrative then jumps backwards, to the origins of this twisted pas de trois, and wends its haphazard way forward through time, twisting and turning from one narrator to the next, memories, recollections and explanations coming forward as each speaker recalls them.  There is nothing linear about this tale as it unfolds, with no clear beginning and no clear ending, leaving many questions hauntingly unanswered.

More than anything else, Wash is about stories, and the power they hold: the power of memory, the power of ancestry, the power of the future, and control over one’s own narrative.  Does history, does a person’s story remain when it is no longer recorded or remembered?  Do the things never spoken or shared wither and die, or do they live on, though those who remember are gone? Wash’s mother, Mena, fought to ensure that her son knew where he came from, who his family was, and as much of his heritage as she could pass on.  Pallas has no knowledge of her parents, yet they are still very much a part of her, in spite of her ignorance.  She is forced to build her identity from scratch, write her own story out of context.  None of us exist in a vacuum, and all those who came before us are a part of us, whether we know it or not.


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