Review of Dan E. Ellis’ Lady in Red

If you forced me to name a great, undiscovered part of America, I’d nominate the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In the popular imagination, Mississippi stands only for backwards. But when my sister was a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi from 1993-1995, she took me to the Gulf Coast & I found that I had to let go of my preconceived biases. I thought the coast was great – mile after mile of beautiful beachfront on U.S. Highway 90, along with beautiful homes, seafood restaurants, and mega casinos.

Pass Christian

By reputation, Pass Christian (pronounced christy-Yan) is one of the nicest places on the coast. It’s long been a weekend retreat for wealthy folks from New Orleans. In the 1960s, a woman named Nana Brazo bought an enormous beachfront home in Pass Christian and immediately set about making the home even bigger and filling it with opulent furnishings. But, in March 1969, a man tied up three of Nana’s household staff, then murdered her. That long-forgotten murder is the subject of Dan Ellis’ book Lady in Red.

Nana – from Mississippi to Chicago and Back

Nana Shakle was born in 1914 in Gulfport, Mississippi, into a devout Roman Catholic family. Despite the fact that Nana would always be an observant Roman Catholic, she eventually fell in with one of Al Capone’s lieutenants who took her to Chicago. In 1934, Nana became pregnant and had an abortion. Through the doctor who performed the abortion, Nana met Dr. Sylvester Brazo, a wealthy plastic surgeon and psychiatrist who provided medical services to Chicago’s gangsters.

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Front Cover

Though Sylvester was more than 20 years older than Nana, they married. When he retired from medicine in 1956, they moved to Mississippi. Sylvester died of a heart attack in 1958, leaving Nana about $3 million.

Wealthy Widow

Nana’s life took on a soap opera quality. Materially, she had the best of everything. Soon, she wed a Polish immigrant with a murky past and she adopted a son. The second marriage was very stormy. Nana had many affairs with wealthy men along the Gulf Coast. Eventually, the second marriage ended in a bitter divorce.

Much of Lady in Red centers around two stories. First, Ellis tells of Nana’s experiences with her psychiatrist, Dr. Dale Olivier from 1964-69. Nana was a demanding patient who observed none of the traditional doctor-patient boundaries. Second, Ellis recounts the investigation into Nana’s murder from the perspective of a Mississippi Highway Patrolman named Bubba Parka. Parka’s investigation unveils multiple suspects and a tangled web of shady characters. Both stories are well told and quite interesting.

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Back Cover

Ellis’ prose is only OK. I found nothing on Dr. Olivier or Bubba Parka online, so I’m guessing that those names are pseudonyms. I wanted to know about Ellis’ sources, but he tells the reader nothing. (He does quote the local papers quite a bit). Also, the stories that Nana told are a bit hard to believe, but Ellis never comments on their veracity. The reader frequently wonders what to believe.

As a final note, the book opens with a weak, overlong introduction on the history of Pass Christian. Similarly, it closes with an overlong description of Hurricane Camille in August 1969. (To be fair, Ellis does eventually tie the storm to the Brazo case).

Worth Reading

Despite these shortcomings, Lady in Red is excellent in places. Nana’s story is so compelling, so bizarre that the pages turn with ease.

I bought Lady in Red on Amazon.com as an e-book. It was worth the $5.99 that I paid, but I can’t give it more than 6.5 out of 10. At the end, the reader is left with too many loose threads for the book to be fully satisfying. Still, Nana was a great (if tragic) story and I’m glad that she hasn’t been completely forgotten.

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Pages 181–213 of Lloyd Kaufman’s All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger

It took me a couple of days to finish Lloyd Kaufman’s book. My opinion remains positive and I stick with my earlier rating of an 8 out of 10.

Here are a few thoughts on the end of the book.

“Troma is the last true independent” (p. 310)

Kaufman spends quite a bit of time lamenting the current (in 1998) state of the film industry. He states that independent film has been squeezed out by the industry giants. Along the way, he reveals that he’s always felt like an outsider, someone who didn’t fit in with the mainstream.

An interesting aside arises when he discusses one of Troma’s less-successful films – Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD. Kaufman reveals that Troma started the project with strong backing from a Japanese investor and high hopes. Kids loved Kabukiman and it seemed that Troma might break out of the “cult” category and score a mainstream hit.

But it didn’t happen. Troma tried to please its current fans while softening its approach only somewhat. Predictably, people who already liked Troma weren’t satisfied and the resulting film wasn’t suitable for young kids. When Kaufman had a chance to go mainstream, he didn’t seize the opportunity. Moreover, he seems ambivalent about becoming a bigger player in the industry.

Book Deal

Kaufman’s book has a rambling structure. He bounces around on topics and – for the most part – writes with tongue firmly in cheek. However, the book has some abrupt shifts in tone. For instance, toward the end he discusses his wife’s bout with breast cancer in a well-written passage. Also, his rants about Troma’s minor-league status in the film industry are surprisingly caustic. The reader is always off balance, wondering what mood will come next.

A subplot in the narrative is Kaufman’s attempts to get a book deal. In the story, Kaufman interacts with an editor who encourages him to fix the book’s unconventional aspects. (At book’s close, I’m still not sure whether this stuff actually happened, or whether it is fiction). At any rate, potential readers should recognize that this book is very unconventional – though it tells a good story.

Final Chase

Kaufman keeps you guessing (and laughing) right up until the final page. The end is based on the old Steve McQueen movie Bullitt. Suffice to say, you won’t forget the close.

For the Right Audience

All I Need to Know… is a difficult book to review. For fans of B-movies and (very-) edgy humor, it’s a winner. I certainly enjoyed it. However, the audience for this book definitely is small.

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Pages 1-180 of Lloyd Kaufman’s All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger

B-movies are one of my weaknesses. In many ways, I prefer them to the slicker, big-budget Hollywood films. B-movies are more variable in quality, and – therefore – have more potential to surprise.

Way back in the 1980s, my mother heard of a cult film titled The Toxic Avenger and suggested that we rent it. (This was completely out of character for Mom). Toxic Avenger was great, low-rent fun. Toxic Avenger came from a little-known company called Troma. Eventually, I learned that Troma is synonymous with fun, campy B-movies. A few weeks ago, when I needed to add something else to an Amazon order to get free shipping, I chose Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman’s book about the company. So far, I’m glad that I did so.

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Lloyd Kaufman’s book

All I Need to Know… is an unusual book about a different kind of company. It’s joke-a-second style reminds me of the humor in the (non-Troma) Naked Gun movies – some of the jokes fall flat, but they come at you so fast that you don’t pay that much attention to the misses.

Kaufman repeatedly states that he’s not a writer and doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He frequently lapses into a stream-of-consciousness perspective, telling the reader what he’s thinking @ the moment. Around these digressions, Kaufman recounts his history in the film business, starting with his student films at Yale University, moving through several failures, and then finally making some money with 1979’s Squeeze Play. In between making his own films, Kaufman worked as an assistant on several well-known films, such as Rocky and Saturday Night Fever. He does good job of explaining what he learned at each stage of his career.

Light Tone, with Some Serious Moments

The overall tone of the book is irreverent. Here’s a sample that discusses Kaufman’s 1971 film, The Battle of Love’s Return –

We didn’t want to pay for a critics’ screening. Howard Thompson of The New York Times actually came over to my mother’s house to review it. He watched it projected onto a stand-up screen in my bedroom. The New York magazine critic Judith Crist, like most women, refused to come to my bedroom, so we relented and rented a theater. Crist threw her feet up on the seat in front of her, scowled through the entire film, and didn’t glance at me on the way out the door. ‘That ugly cow!’ I thought to myself, knowing with all my heart that she was going to skewer my movie. But when I read the review Ms. Crist wrote a few days later, comparing me to Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, I realized that she was quite beautiful indeed. The most negative review probably came from my father. When asked by a newsman what he liked best about the film, my old man replied, ‘The part where Lloyd dies’ (Pp. 45-46).

But, amidst the mirth, Kaufman can suddenly turn serious. He recounts how the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills influenced his views of himself as an outsider. At Troma, Kaufman engaged in all sorts of “guerrilla filmmaking” – shooting without permits, releasing graphic director’s cuts to theaters that carried ratings assigned to “tamer” versions of the films, and directing under assumed names to fool Hollywood’s guilds.

Some of the book’s other revelations seem unintentional. Kaufman writes about how – on Troma films – only about 1 in 20 production assistants makes it through an entire film. (Kaufman states that, to be a success in the film business, you have to be willing to fire people). Also, Kaufman has a tendency to wallow in gutter humor. There’s a passage in which he discusses the various sounds associated with flatulence and which sounds he prefers for his films. I could have lived without that material.

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Troma & #MeToo

Perhaps most seriously, Troma and Kaufman could come in for some criticism in their treatment of women. Kaufman recounts his experiences with prostitutes in a joking tone. On his movies, he states that he always films nude scenes first; that way, if an actress refuses to do the scene, he can fire and replace her (because Troma wouldn’t have committed time and money to filming any scenes in which she appears). A lot has changed since Kaufman wrote this book in 1998; his attitudes might not wash in the #metoo era.

Parting Thoughts

If you’re going to enjoy Kaufman’s book, you can’t take it too seriously. He said that one purpose for the book is to teach young filmmakers how to create independent films. I can’t speak to the material’s relevance in this regard. For the b-movie fan, this is a fun book, despite its flaws. Kaufman keeps it light (for the most part) and he holds the reader’s interest. So far, I’d give it 8 out of 10.

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W.R. Morris’ The State-Line Mob

Years ago, I watched one of the Walking Tall movies with my grandfather. Joe Don Baker played Sheriff Buford Pusser and in the movie he walked around whacking baddies with a huge piece of lumber. I remember that – even as a teen – I recognized that it was not the best-made movie. Among other issues, the boom mike spent much of the film hanging down into the picture.

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Still, Pusser’s “war” with the Dixie Mafia is a good, true tale. The backstory is that southern gangsters set up shop in Phenix City, Alabama, where they could fleece the soldiers from Fort Benning (which is across the state line in Georgia). In 1954, the gangsters murdered Alabama Attorney General Albert Patterson, who’d vowed to clean up Phenix City. (This story is told in Margaret Anne Barnes’ excellent book The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama).

Alabama officials then ran the criminals out of Phenix City. It was the misfortune of Alcorn County, Mississippi, and McNairy County, Tennessee, to be the next roost for the gang. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the criminals sold illegal liquor, ran fixed gambling games, and pimped prostitutes (among many other crimes) from a series of small clubs along the Mississippi-Tennessee line.

Enter Buford Pusser (1937-1974)

Predictably, people in McNairy County, Tennessee, weren’t enthused about having a bunch of murdering thugs in their community. So, in 1964 voters made the 26-year—old Buford Pusser the youngest sheriff in the history of Tennessee. Pusser was straight from central casting – a 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound, Marine Corps veteran.

The State-Line Mob

Last week I was shopping at America’s Thrift Store in Ocean Springs, Mississippi when I saw a copy of W.R. Morris’ The State-Line Mob (copyright 1990 by Rutledge Hill Press, 192 pages) for 50 cents. It had been on my reading list for a long time; I have always found the loosely-organized Dixie Mafia to be darkly fascinating. So, buying the book was a no brainer.

Colorful characters – Travels with Towhead & Louise

For the most part, I got what I wanted. The chief appeal of The State-Line Mob is learning about the rogues who made up The Dixie Mafia. The #1 bad guy is The State-Line Mob’s leader, Carl Douglas “Towhead” White (1936-1969). Towhead’s immodest goal was to become “The Al Capone of the South.” If he didn’t attain Capone’s infamy, he still left a trail of crime in his wake.

Almost as entertaining is Louise Hathcock (1919-1966). Louise was the money behind the clip joints run by The State-Line Mob. (She inherited the properties after Towhead and Louise murdered her husband). Louise worked her clubs while carrying a ball peen hammer in her apron so that she could pound guests who (correctly) accused her of cheating them.

Though Towhead and Louise dominate the book, there’s a gallery of lesser rogues. Typically, Morris introduces a character then – within a chapter – has him dead under very-violent circumstances. The State-Line Mob was typical of organized crime in that they had more to fear from each other than they did from law enforcement.

Unbelievable Story

The outlines of this story are well known and it’s easy to see why it attracted Hollywood’s interest. On August 12, 1967, Pusser received a call regarding drunk-and-disorderly behavior in McNairy County. The call was designed to lure him into a trap. As the Pussers’ children were spending the night with their grandparents, Buford’s wife Pauline went on the call with him.

A team of Dixie Mafia members fired at least 14 30-Caliber bullets into the Pussers’ Plymouth. Buford was wounded multiple times in the face, but survived. Pauline was killed. Towhead was in prison at the time of the murder, but Pusser was certain that he had arranged the attack. Pusser vowed revenge – by any means necessary.

Shakespeare It Ain’t

For the most part, Morris tells the story in chronological order. Frustratingly, he doesn’t explain how he got the material in the book. He recounts long conversations between the main characters, which he must have invented. Based on the material, I’d guess that he used old police reports and then created the dialogue (using the “nonfiction novel” techniques made famous by Truman Capote and others).

The biggest missed opportunity is that Morris says almost nothing of his personal connection to Pusser or the gangsters. The back of the book states that he “was personally acquainted with many of the outlaws” while writing Pusser’s autobiography The Twelfth of August. Unfortunately, if Morris used his personal experiences to write The State-Line Mob, it’s not apparent.

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Morris knew these people? I wish he’d told us more.

Does It Take a Violent Sheriff to Confront a Violent Gangster?

If there’s a philosophical question behind The State-Line Mob, it’s whether it takes violent police to bring down violent thugs. Given that Morris had worked with Pusser before, he is surprisingly ambivalent about the lawman.  Certainly, one can draw several parallels between Towhead and Pusser; among others, Morris states that the two men shared the same bi-racial mistress. Morris goes so far as to state that Pusser “murdered” Towhead White. (The statement might be true, but Morris doesn’t prove it in The State-Line Mob).

The State-Line Mob is a short, easy read. Morris doesn’t give you all the answers or dazzle with his prose. But he tells an interesting, true story. I give the book 7 out of 10 and recommend it.

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Finishing William Zinsser’s Spring Training (Pages 124-190)

Friday morning we rode over to Mississippi Gulf Coast to eat some po boys and do some shopping. It was evening before we made it back and later still when we got the kids to bed. Then it was Miller time. I finished William Zinsser’s Spring Training over a couple of High Lifes before heading to bed after midnight.

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Front flap

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Back flap

My opinion of Spring Training didn’t change – it’s light, easy, entertaining reading. Baseball fans will enjoy it. But (unless you’re a Pirates fanatic), it’s hardly essential reading. On the whole, I give it 7 out of 10.

Eyes Off the Ball 

While the book isn’t great, it has its moments. For instance, Zinsser discusses the art of the double play with Pirate coach Tommy Sandt, who tells Zinsser how shortstop Rafael Belliard and second baseman Nelson Norman used to practice the double play in the minor leagues –

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Eyes closed? Nelson Norman tries to turn two for the Rangers

[They] “… got so good that they practiced turning double plays without looking. They would close their eyes and do it. On a ground ball to the shortstop, the first guy would catch it and then close his eyes and throw to second, and when the second baseman caught the ball he’d close his eyes and throw to first. After you’ve practiced enough you don’t even need to look at first base – you just wing the ball and it gets over there. But it’s all practice; it’s a rhythm that you get” (p. 136).

Roush Moved “with the regal indifference of an alley cat” (p. 141)

IMG_0688Another passage that I enjoyed concerned Zinsser’s visit with 94-year-old Edd Roush, who in 1988 was the oldest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Zinsser finds Roush living in a small house with his seventy-something daughter, Mary. She provides the following on her father –

A doctor told her “‘Don’t worry about him, Mary – he’s too ornery to die.’ He has at least six beers every day. Last month at the Governor’s Dinner in St. Petersburg… he sat up on the dais like George Burns, smoking cigars. He’s always been independent-minded. He had sense enough to put his money in stocks, not to build a big house, and always to buy Ford cars” (p. 149).

North to Pittsburgh

Zinsser provides a nice close to the book by attending the opening day at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Zinsser watches the opener with Pirates general manager Syd Thrift. Spring Training has a nice description of both the sellout crowd and the game. Then, Zinsser wraps things up by describing the rest of the 1988 season and the surprising developments afterward.

In 1988, Zinsser believed that the Pirates were a team on the rise. The three consecutive division titles they won from 1990-1992 show that he was prescient.

Final Box Score

Spring Training is a fun, light book for baseball fans. I wouldn’t go the trouble to seek it out, but – if you see a copy – it’s certainly worth reading.

10th Inning

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Mitchell told Sports Illustrated about the other side of the dream

For a different, bleaker look at Pirates’ spring training (and minor-league life), see Bobby Mitchell’s excellent Sports Illustrated article “And You Dream About Tomorrow” from March 21, 1983. It’s here – https://www.si.com/vault/issue/43662/75 I was in 5th grade when that article came out and I remember that it made me “sadder but wiser” about the way professional baseball worked.

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Pages 1-123 of William Zinsser’s Spring Training

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Front cover

Back in 1988, baseball fan and writing guru William Zinsser (1922-2015) traveled to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training in Bradenton, Florida. Zinsser’s purposes were to enjoy some baseball and to try to find a new slant on professional baseball. I’m enjoying reading Spring Training, but it’s not especially compelling.

Zinsser states that he was always a fan of the old New York Giants when he was growing up in New York City. After the Giants moved to San Francisco, he adopted the Boston Red Sox as his favorite team. However, when it came time to write about baseball, he decided to follow the Pirates because they were more “middle American,” more typical, than were the east coast Red Sox.

The Little Brother Who Didn’t Get the Inheritance (p. 21)

So, Zinsser headed to Bradenton (where the Pirates still train) and observed. Again, his prose is strong. Here is Zinsser comparing Sarasota and Bradenton –

The two cities share an airport – it’s called Bradenton-Sarasota – but they have almost nothing else in common. Sarasota is perched on the Gulf Coast, a coveted location for beach-house dwellers and condominium owners. Its downtown streets are suggestive of an old-money resort: boutiques, art galleries and pseudo-Spanish architecture. It’s also one of the few places in Florida where culture is as sought-after as the sun. Many writers and artists live there, and daily sustenance is at hand in the form of museums, concert halls, theaters, and a university. The look is one of affluence and self-esteem.

No such emanations are felt in Bradenton. It looks like the little brother who didn’t get the inheritance. Most obviously, it just missed being a Gulf Coast town, having been settled instead along the mouth of the Manatee River. Manatees, or sea cows, were once abundant in the river and are still quite common. “Resort” and “leisure” aren’t words that come to mind in Bradenton; words that come to mind are “hard work.” If Sarasota’s biggest attraction is the Ringling Museum of Art, Bradenton’s biggest enterprise is the Tropicana factory, which processes a million gallons of orange juice a day. The company was founded in 1946 by Anthony T. Rossi, the traditional immigrant who arrived from Italy with the traditional few dollars in his pocket and credited his success to ‘God and America, who gave me everything I have.’ On my first night in Bradenton I was awakened at 3 a.m. By a long freight train clattering through the center of town, carrying orange juice (I assumed) to the far corners of America. I liked the sound (pp. 21-22).

Another strong section focuses on Syd Thrift, the general manager who had been brought back to baseball after a long absence working in real estate. Thrift’s job was to rebuild the moribund Pirates team. Zinsser does a good job of detailing Thrift’s innovative methods.

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Back cover

Finally, Zinsser caught my eye with a short description of the Pirates’ Barry Bonds – “… a twenty-three-year-old outfielder with an open and likable manner” (p. 106). In the future, writers would devote many pages to Bonds, much of it negative.

A Swing and a Miss?

So what’s wrong here? Nothing, really. Zinsser admits at the beginning of the book that it was hard to find a unique angle on baseball. While spring training is a different topic, it is too slight to carry the book. I’m enjoying my reading, but – unless you’re a huge Pirates fan – I cannot give Spring Training more than a lukewarm recommendation.

Zinsser was a terrific writer with only a middling story to tell. The pages turn easily, but I can’t give Spring Training more than a 6 out of 10.

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Thomas French’s South of Heaven

As a rule, I don’t reread many books. It seems too much like living in the past. But there are a few exceptions to the rule.

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Front cover – these are Largo High School students. Strangely, these are NOT the kids mentioned in South of Heaven.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was in graduate school when I came across a book titled South of Heaven by Thomas French. The book detailed the year (1989-90) that French spent inside Largo High School in Largo, Florida. As 1989-90 had been my senior year in high school, I read the book with great interest and really enjoyed it.

At the time that I read South of Heaven, high school’s traumas were so close that they had not healed. Re-reading from a distance of almost 30 years promised a different perspective. My second run through the book, showed me how little I remembered from the first reading. I enjoyed the second reading and it brought back so many memories of my adolescence, things that I had not thought of (and emotions that I had not felt) in many years.

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Inside Front Flap – these are the people you’ll meet in South of Heaven

The book’s structure is fairly simple. Out of the Largo High student body, French chooses a few students and follows them throughout the school year. (They are listed on the front flap, which is one of the pictures here). While unique, these students are the types found in any American high school – the achiever, the athlete, the homecoming queen, etc.

French spent a lot of his time with Largo High’s troubled kids. Many of these kids were enrolled in a program called GOALS (Graduation Options: Alternatives to Leaving School) that was designed to prevent them from dropping out. French seems amazed at the degree of dysfunction in these kids’ lives. His overall tone in discussing GOALS is despairing; the GOALS teachers are well meaning, but many of the kids are so far off track, so troubled that the teachers’ efforts seem futile.

French does a good job of weaving the many threads in the story together. The school year provides the structure for the story. The book also provides a brief update on what became of these teenagers from the story’s close in 1990, through early 1993 (when the book appeared).

On the broadest level, French thinks that what he observed reveals deeper problems in the U.S. French states that Largo High’s students were “…coming of age in a society that shows every sign of coming apart” (p. X). As one example of the prevalence of turmoil in Largo High’s student body, he notes that 571 freshman who started Largo High in 1986, but just 334 graduated in 1990.

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Back Flap

Final Thoughts

Back in the mid-70s, Michael Medved and David Wallechinsky tracked down their classmates from Pacific Palisades High School’s Class of ’65. The resulting book – What Really Happened to the Class of ’65 – was a best seller. I like that book, but I think that South of Heaven is even better. French has more distance from the people about whom he writes and – since his subjects are still teenagers – their teen crises are still very real, very dramatic.

In his Preface, French writes that “…after all this time, I have come to believe that this is a story about a place that none of us ever escapes, no matter how long ago we left it” (xii). All these years later, I’ve come to realize that French’s statement is true. High school’s worst pains are behind me, but – on some level – the experience will always be there. The emotional intensity of high school (and the fact that it is a near-universal experience in the U.S.) helps explain South of Heaven’s appeal.

This one is a winner – I give it 9.5 out of 10.

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Back cover

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