Category Archives: Books

Luster of Pearls

The Luster of Pearls: Alabama Writers Hall of Fame inducts twelve

By Edward Reynolds
July 15, 2015

I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
—Helen Keller


On the evening of July 8, 2015, a dozen literary notables with ties to Alabama received long overdue official recognition when the first class of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame was inducted. Major sponsors of the Hall of Fame include the Alabama Center for the Book, the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board, and the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The Gala was held in the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama, with close to 300 in attendance.

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner. Photo by Elizabeth Limbaugh

Julie Friedman is a Hall of Fame Committee member, vice-president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a member of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and currently on the Library Leadership Board at the University of Alabama. Friedman said the notion of establishing an Alabama Writers Hall of Fame began in conversations with Alabama Writers’ Forum Executive Director Jeanie Thompson “dreaming about something that we could do to honor writers who either have been born in the state or have done most of their work in Alabama.”

Friedman elaborated, “We have a vehicle in place to honor living writers either through the Harper Lee Award or through the State Arts Council and through the Governor’s Arts Awards. But we didn’t have anything in place that would recognize writers who were deceased in addition to living writers.” Friedman added that a second class will be inducted around the fall of 2016.

Regarding the criteria for choosing the inaugural class, she explained, “A lot of what we looked at were awards—had they won a Pulitzer Prize—or do they have a national reputation. Did their work have an impact on literature? Johnson Jones Hooper was a tremendous influence on Mark Twain, and Twain even borrowed characters from Johnson Jones Hooper. Augusta Jane Evans Wilson was one of the first published authors from the state of Alabama. When she wrote in the 1850s and 1860s, she sold thousands of books at a time when the Internet didn’t exist and there were no public relations campaigns.

Virtually unknown today, Augusta Evans Wilson was one of the most well-known writers of the 19th century and certainly the most successful Alabama writer of her time. Wilson’s great popularity is evidenced by the number of towns and young girls named for her characters.
The Green Room

In the media “green room,” poet, playwright, and Hall of Fame inductee Sonia Sanchez was absolutely charming. Sanchez, a distinguished member of the Black Arts Movement, addresses everyone as “my sister” or “my brother.” Her warm personality, gray dreadlocks, and sparkling black jacket were mesmerizing. Sanchez, a Birmingham native, moved out of state at age six.
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“Books, Slightly Used, Seek Good Home”

“Books, Slightly Used, Seek Good Home”

The Homewood Public Library’s volunteer-run bookstore.

February 23, 2012

On the lower level of the Homewood Public Library are three adjoining rooms stocked with literary treasures for sale at astonishingly cheap prices. The Friends Bookstore, staffed by some 20 volunteers, is one of the more enjoyable and rewarding places in the area to spend an afternoon. It offers an eclectic inventory of used books, magazines, audiobooks, DVDs, videotapes, CDs, cassettes, and record albums. Most books sell for less than $2; magazines usually go for a dime. Paperbacks are 25 and 50 cents; CDs are $1, record albums and cassettes are a quarter, while videotapes go for 50 cents.

Opened in 1987, the store’s collection consists of donations as well as books discarded by the Homewood Library primarily due to “wear and tear,” explains Deborah Fout, the Homewood Public Library director. Fout discovered that worn-out books were ideal for her young children, who could draw and color in them. “I think that’s why mothers like to buy those,” says Fout.

Multiple copies of once popular books are often relegated to the Friends store. (Five percent of most libraries’ inventory is discarded yearly, according to Fout.) Money from bookstore sales goes to the Homewood Library to purchase equipment and new books as well as toward events such as Summer Reading Programs. (The bookstore raised nearly $40,000 in 2011.) The customer base includes not only moms, kids, and bookworms but also book dealers and teachers bringing their classes in to shop.

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The store has become so popular that a bookcase loaded with used books for sale has been erected near the library’s circulation desk, allowing patrons to shop when the Friends Bookstore is closed. A large downstairs storage room full of unfiled new arrivals is popular with browsers. “We just decided to finally let people come in here and look for books,” says longtime volunteer Dorothy Brown, a soft-spoken elderly woman who is only too happy to help. “We’re very fortunate to have this much space,” says Brown, whose charm and devotion earned her a 2011 Jefferson County Library Association Award.

In the biography section, conservative Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s The No Spin Zone sits next to Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead by liberal political writer Molly Ivins. On the other side of O’Reilly is It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bill Clinton’s My Life sits next to The Secret Life of Bill Clinton: The Unreported Stories. Occupying the slot next to the ex-president is a memoir by former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Another fascinating title is Moscow Madness: Crime, Corruption, and One Man’s Pursuit of Profit in the New Russia, which tells the true story of an American who launched a Miller Beer distribution company in Moscow in the early 1990s, only to discover the difficulty of achieving success when forced to deal with the Russian mafia. A complete set of World Book Encyclopedias is available for a paltry $5.

The magazine section features Sports Illustrated, Hot Rod, Road & Track, Golf Digest, Yachting, Wine Spectator, a tall stack of The New Yorker, Smithsonian National Review, and Opera News. Brown brags about the store’s National Geographic collection, which she promises is in chronological order.

I picked up copies of Failure Is Not An Option by NASA flight director Gene Kranz, who coordinated the first moon landing, and who was a key figure in the Apollo 13 adventure, Safire’s New Political Dictionary: The Defining Guide to the New Language of Politics by William Safire, and various books on European racecars. One of my favorite purchases is The Ultimate Spy Book by Keith Melton, with forewords by former CIA director William Colby and former Soviet KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin.

Above the shelves labeled Occult, Numerology, Astrology, Natural Healing, Homeopathy, and Herbs is an area labeled “Religion,” which includes a slightly perplexing section referred to as “Religious Fiction.” Further down is the “Personal Relations” shelf, which includes books such as When You’re Loved One Has Alzheimer’s, an edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare, and Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in Christian Marriage. The Friends Bookstore is indeed full of surprises.

The store is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Visit or call 205-332-6600 for more information. &

Still Kinky After All These Years

Still Kinky After All These Years

Cowboy singer and philosopher Kinky Friedman rides into town armed with a guitar and a quick wit.

February 09, 2012

A recent chat with cowboy philosopher, singer/songwriter, novelist, and sometime politician Kinky Friedman reveals the Jewish Texas troubadour to be unconcerned about offending others. Indeed, political incorrectness is his inspiration—Friedman’s original band was called the Texas Jewboys. Known for country folk tunes with titles such as “They Ain’t making Jews Like Jesus Anymore, “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” and “Homo Erectus,” Friedman released his first album Sold American in 1973. The record included “The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” a song about the University of Texas student who shocked the nation with a shooting spree in 1966 on the Texas campus, killing 16 people. It was the first high-profile mass murder of the TV age. In 1975, Friedman performed on “Austin City Limits,” the only taping in the show’s history to never be broadcast because it was deemed too offensive. An invitation to join Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976 finally brought Friedman national exposure.

Friedman is best summed up in the chorus of his friend Kris Kristofferson’s song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” a tune about Kristofferson’s favorite characters: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” Friedman is not shy about shifting his opinions a bit from time to time with a teasing combination of entertainment and brutal honesty. Two years ago, he was singing President Obama’s praises, but lately he’s been quoted as saying he would even vote for Charlie Sheen over Obama.

“An artist should be ahead of his time and behind on his rent.” (click for larger version)





A popular guest on political talk shows, Friedman ran for Texas governor as an Independent against winner Rick Perry in 2006. Friedman is pals with former presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, and has authored more than two dozen books that range from detective mysteries to observations on life. He claims to be the only politician in America who believes in school prayer and gay marriage, and refers to Republicans and Democrats as the Crips and the Bloods. Friedman will appear at Workplay on February 20. Visit or call 879-4773 for details.

What caused you to sour on President Obama?
I voted for Obama but I’m uncommonly regretful about it because I think he doesn’t have any inspirational quotient, if you know what I mean. If he gave a fireside chat, the fire would go out. And honestly, most of the politicians are just like him. It’s kind of a gift, the ability to inspire people. Churchill had it; FDR had it; Reagan had it. Hell, Ann Richards had it as governor of Texas. Most of these politicians today, they’re perpetually behind the curve. That’s the problem. You don’t see a Churchill in sight, or a Harry Truman, for that matter—somebody willing to make unpopular decisions or courageous kinds of decisions and stand by them.

You got 13 percent of the vote running against Rick Perry in the 2006 Texas gubernatorial election.
Well, I tell you what, I owe a debt of gratitude to Rick. His running for president has sure improved my image. And he’s made George W. look like Thomas f***ing Jefferson. It’s created kind of a strange situation in Texas where all the blondes and all the Aggies are telling Rick Perry jokes. The one thing the Occupy movement has right is that money and greed have destroyed our political system. That’s very true and that’s too bad.

Regarding the Occupy movement, where are all the protest singers today?
I think that is reflected in the general absence of much originality in music. You look at Nashville today, you see these corporate [music] publishing whorehouses where there are guys like me waiting in the hallway for a songwriter’s appointment, trying to write songs. And the results of the last two decades have been dismal. Nobody in all that time has written [Willie Nelson's] “Hello Walls.” Nobody’s written “Me and Bobby McGee,” have they? So to write that kind of stuff—to write “King of the Road”—you’ve got to be pretty f***ed up and broke and not living at your parents’ home with your iPhone. I’m not saying (all) the music sucks today or whatever, but you’ve got to go see a geezer. And I don’t quite count myself there yet. I mean, I’m 67, though I read at a 69-year old level. If you want to see something great, you’ve got to see Levon Helm or Bob Dylan or Willie or Merle or Kris or Billy Joe Shaver. Those guys are all in their 70s and they will inspire you.

You commented that Ron Paul looks like a mad scientist.
He does, but he looks better than Ralph Nader, who looks like a praying mantis. But Paul is probably closer to talking [the truth] than any of the others. But that’s politics. “Poly” means “more than one” and “ticks” are blood-sucking parasites.

Do you have any desire to get back into politics?
Well, if I did, somebody would have to give me millions of dollars. That’s the great equalizer. If I had that kind of money, then I could run as an independent. If I had a reasonably funded campaign, I could win today, I could beat Rick Perry in Texas. But it’s a little too late. When the people had their chance to vote [in 2006, when Perry beat Friedman for governor], only 26 percent of the people voted. That’s what did us in, because everybody else was really for Kinky; they just didn’t think that I had a chance. And that’s what happens to independents quite often.

Tell me about the book you’re writing with Billy Bob Thornton.
We’re wrapping up the book with Billy Bob and just starting one with Willie [Nelson]. The Billy Bob book is called The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts. It’s a real honest book, which you don’t see very often. Quite insightful. Billy believes you’re never gonna see another John Wayne or another John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix. You’re never gonna see a star again. You’re gonna see product like Lady Gaga. He believes the audience has become the show, that’s the problem. That’s because of the internet. That’s why he thinks you’ll never see a hero again. Part of the secret is you’ve got to stay hungry and unhappy and worried all the time, and lonely. That’s Billy Bob’s theory. I think he’s right. You know, an artist should be ahead of his time and behind on his rent. The Willie book is called The Troublemaker, and it’s kind of Willie’s “M.O.,” how Willie achieved success by going against what people told him he couldn’t do, and, of course, we also have the new tequila coming out, Kinky Friedman’s Man in Black Tequila. We will have free samples available at the show.

If Johnny Cash were still alive, he’d want a piece of the action with a tequila named Man in Black, wouldn’t he?
Well, Man in Black Tequila salutes Zorro and Johnny Cash. So, he’s getting attribution. So it’s not gonna be a financial pleasure for Johnny Cash but let’s hope it’s one for the Kinkster. Where Johnny is, he doesn’t need the money, he has plenty of coin of the spirit—which, of course, is always more important.

You’re rarely seen without a cigar. How old were you when you started smoking them?
About seven. Since it seems I’ve been smoking forever, I’ve got about two taste buds left, which is how I know how good this Mexican mouthwash is—I can tell how good stuff like tequila is, regardless. This tequila makes me so high I need a step ladder to scratch my ass. You know, there’s a way of drinking tequila where you snort a line of salt and squeeze the lime in your eye, and then drink the shot. That’s the Kinkster cowboy method.

In addition to the music, what should we expect from your show?
We’ll do a little reading from my new book Heroes of a Texas Childhood, 23 heroes of mine when I was a kid. Afterwards, of course, we’ll sign books. I’ll sign anything but bad legislation.

How many of those heroes are still alive?
Two of them—Willie Nelson and a man named Racehorse Haynes, a very famous defense lawyer in eastern Texas.

You’ve recently recorded readings of your books. What was it like revisiting them?
It was quite amazing reading that stuff again. I hadn’t looked at it in 30 years, some if it. Of course, the songs I’ll be singing are older than a lot of the people in the audience. But it seems to work. A lot of the young people do know all the songs. And doing it solo is an unusual thing for me. This tour is kind of in the Townes Van Zandt/Woody Guthrie spirit.

How did you and Jim Nabors become good friends?
We met through Ruth Buzzi, the lady who hit people in the head with her purse on “Laugh-In.” She told me to look him up when I was in Hawaii because I go out there a lot. So I called him and he came over and said, [in a Gomer Pyle voice] “I’d love to show you my nuts!” And, of course, he’s got this big macadamia nut plantation. Speaking for myself, I am not gay, OK? I am not gay.

Here’s a great story Jim Nabors told me once in Hawaii. It was 1964 when the “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” show was number one in the country. Muhammad Ali’s mother and little brother were big fans and came out to see a taping of the show. Someone asked Jim if he’d say hello to Cassius Clay’s mom and the kid. So Jim invited the mother and the kid to lunch at the commissary. He really liked the mother because she was kind of a down-home Kentucky gal and Jim was from Alabama and everybody else there was from Hollywood, of course. They had a really great time together that afternoon, took pictures, signed autographs, and hung out. Then he hugged them both, said good-bye, and he never saw them again. 25 years later, he’s in Le Dome Restaurant in L.A., having dinner, and this buzz starts around the restaurant that Ali and his entourage are there. And Jim’s not going to approach Ali because he’s never met the man, and also because there’s all these stories in the media that Ali’s lost his memory and lost his mind from boxing for two decades. So Jim just goes on with his meal and about halfway through he feels this presence behind him and then a tap on his shoulder and Ali is standing there. And Ali leans over to Jim and says, “Thanks for being so nice to my momma and my little brother,” and then he walks off. This shows how long an act of kindness can float around the universe. &

Fruitcakes in Monroeville


Fruitcakes in Monroeville

November 24, 2011

Truman Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” the timeless tear-jerker that first appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in December 1956, will be staged in Monroeville for the fourth consecutive year on Thursday evening, December 1. Capote spent much of his early childhood in Monroeville, raised by relatives after his parents divorced.The drama is the highlight of the town’s annual Fruitcake Festival, staged in the second floor courtroom of the town’s fabled courthouse which is the setting for much of resident Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The courthouse is now the Old Courthouse Museum, which includes Capote memorabilia donated by a cousin of the famed author. Locally-made fruitcakes in decorated tins (many with Capote-related themes) will be for sale during the festival, according to Nathan Carter of the Monroe County Heritage Museum.

Monroeville Fruitcake

Monroeville Fruitcake

Carter’s grandmother was Capote’s mother’s sister, and he remembers one of the last visits the author made to Monroeville in the mid-1960s. “I was maybe five or six. Harper Lee was there. It was during the time he was working on In Cold Blood,” Carter says. He and other young relatives were brought into a room to be introduced: “This is your cousin Truman.” Carter recalls that the children were then “asked to make ourselves scarce and not to bother the world traveler.”

Fruitcake in round or loaf shapes — all prepared from local family recipes”—will be for sale all day at the museum. Delicacies known as “fruitcake rocks” will also be available. When asked to define a “fruitcake rock,” Nathan Carter charmingly explains, “It’s like drop biscuits—they’re irregular in shape. Each is like two or three bites and then you’re done with it.”

Admission to “A Christmas Memory” is $25, with show time at 7 p.m. A reception with more fruitcake follows. Call 251-575-7433 or go to for details.

Living on Martian Time

Living on Martian Time


June 23, 2011

Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission By Andrew Kessler*Pegasus Books, 341 pages, $27.95

In 2008, NASA successfully landed a robotic machine called Phoenix in the northern polar region of Mars in an attempt to uncover water and organic material from the frozen environment atop the Red Planet. Overseeing the mission was space engineer Peter Smith, a man who disdains his unofficial title as “world’s greatest Martian photographer” (“Don’t call me that . . . It diminishes the science,” Smith is fond of saying) despite his talent for preserving “little Mars vignettes” for all on Earth to see. Smith is also known for other accomplishments, including the device he spent five years building—an excavator that could scoop up Martian soil samples for analysis on command from its operators 200 million miles away, ultimately proving that there was water on Mars in some form. The other epic achievement was his decision to find a fresh voice to tell the story of searching for life forms on other planets. Smith chose Andrew Kessler, a 32-year-old creative director for Huge, a New York design and marketing firm, who holds a degree in mathematics. Kessler may not be a scientist but he was fascinated and understood outer space well enough to co-produce the documentary Mars: The Quest for Life for the Discovery Channel.

Believing that NASA long ago fumbled the task of portraying its scientists and engineers in a dynamic way that could capture the public’s imagination, Kessler was inspired to write a book that reveals the 130-person crew at Mission Control in Tucson, Arizona, as epic space explorers with brilliant minds and quirky personality traits. Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission is a “warts-and-all look at the Phoenix Mars mission from a regular guy who loves space.” Kessler admits from the outset that his is “not the most accurate account” of the Phoenix Mars mission. “Instead, this is an account of winning the nerd lottery: The luckiest fanboy in fandom gets a shot to spend three months with unfettered access to Mission Control,” he writes in the author’s note that prefaces the story.



Kessler assumes the self-deprecating role of an observer who is initially terrified to approach the brains behind the exploratory brawn with what he fears might be dumb questions. Regardless, Kessler has researched his topic well, and leaves little doubt that he knows what he’s writing about.

The author describes how telescopes transformed Mars from “a dot, a speck of light” into a world similar to Earth. “Imaginations ran wild, and before long, rather than seeing vast, wonderful possibilities, we feared a Martian attack. As a war of the worlds loomed, Mars became a source of fear and anxiety.”

A spacecraft named Mariner 4 took photos of the Martian surface in the 1960s and Viking I landed there in the 1970s. Neither revealed that Mars’ environment could support life like Earth’s does, so the planet was more or less abandoned. That is, until the 1990s, when a small chunk of Mars that had found its way to Earth 10 years earlier—due to what Kessler calls a “cosmic collision”—caught scientists’ interest. Discovered in Antarctica, the specimen was eventually sliced open, revealing tiny microbes (“simple little guys with evidence of a few of the basic structures of life, like a cell wall,” explains Kessler) that gave earthlings reason to return to Mars.

Scooping Martian dirt into an oven onboard Phoenix designed to determine soil ingredients is, by Kessler’s telling, a dramatic event. His sense of humor is ever present, serving as a lifeline for readers when things get a little too scientific. He writes: “One of the secrets of Phoenix is that it actually wasn’t born a lander. Well, more precisely, its body was a lander but its internal software started life as an orbiter. Julia [Bell, one of the rocket scientists] engineered the lander reassignment surgery—a robot sex-change operation. That makes her more of a surrogate mother/reconstructive surgeon than engineer to Phoenix.”

He shares behind-the-scenes details, including the Phoenix team’s decision to name one of the trenches from which the robot scoops samples “Dodo” (from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland) –”Goldilocks.” Kessler explains: “(Peter Smith) wanted the names to appeal to kids, so they named them after fairy tales. ‘On Pathfinder [a 1997 Mars mission that Smith was involved with that included a robotic rover named Sojourner] we named (areas on Mars) after cartoon characters, but NASA worried we would get sued for copyright infringement. I don’t think we ever got sued. Although I think the Cartoon Network sent us some T-shirts. This time we chose characters in the public domain.’”

By making himself a part of the story despite his lack of official scientific credentials, Kessler has indeed provided a fresh path down which novice space fanatics can feel safe venturing. For those who found biology and chemistry to be a drag in high school, Andrew Kessler has arrived as a real space hero to make what was once way over our heads a bit more down to Earth, and downright entertaining. &


Red Planet Redux


Red Planet Redux

A chat with Martian Summer author Andrew Kessler

June 23, 2011

Black & White: You really do come across as a regular guy with a passionate interest in space. Was being in Mission Control nerve-wracking at first?
Andrew Kessler: It was absolutely nerve-wracking. The more you kind of wade in, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Once things actually start happening there’s this “Oh shit!” moment, “This is so over my head.” And then you don’t feel bad about asking questions. You know, when you see scientists ask each other a question, then you realize, “Oh, even these guys [don't know things].” But there’s so many specialties (skill-wise) that are happening. There’s the guys that recalibrate the batteries. There are the guys who are monitoring the power. People monitor software. Even though those guys work closely and are experts in what they do, there’s a big gulf between each of the disciplines.

At what point did you start feeling more comfortable, like you were beginning to fit in and become accepted?
That was sort of a slow process. There was probably a day about a month in where I felt like I understood everything that had happened that day. That was kind of a big deal. And then probably after that, the first time someone asked me what was going on. I felt like I had a purpose, too, because I’m only human. Because even though I was there doing research and writing a book, you wonder if you’re in people’s way. And then I explained to someone why a particular dig (into Martian dirt) had failed. I just felt so proud of myself! I had this kind of silly moment where I really didn’t know all that much but just a little bit of insider info that I was able to provide to someone else who I looked up to. And one of these very smart scientists was like, “You’re part of the team . . .” I actually tried to write this book with more of a serious approach in the beginning because I felt this tremendous burden. I could tell these people’s story well and I felt their story was so important and they worked so hard. And then I found myself falling into that same trap where it was dehumanizing to think that I felt so connected with them. As a matter of fact, it was fun to be out at Mission Control. People are funny, they are quirky, and you relate to them in different ways, and you relate to the lander in different ways. And then I decided, “Oh, I have to tell the story in a more honest way,” which would be for me—which is how I write. I think it worked out for the better. I hope so anyway. I certainly get panned for it sometimes, by people expecting more hard science that are annoyed with my personality. That is the one flaw of the book—that you have to suffer through my personality in order to get excited about space. [laughs]


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You were asked to step out of some meetings when things were deemed too sensitive for outside observers. Were you ever concerned that you would be asked to leave the premises permanently?
Yeah, I was very fearful in the beginning that someone would say that they didn’t want me there. That was kind of a constant fear and it took a while to build up my courage to talk to people. I would have to do this thing that I hated about myself where I would have to make snap judgments about people, about whether they would be friendly on the project or not. I kind of slowly made friends with people. I was very much a wallflower in the beginning, until I felt more secure. Then I had more of a story and I took more risks in asking questions and spending time with people, and really asking them to explain over and over again what it was that they were doing so that I really felt like I understood it.

How did you and Peter Smith meet?
Peter was looking for ways to publicize the mission. He found me through a contact of his. Basically, I went down to meet with him and to talk about different ways to approach the story. And he was interested in a book and he was interested in new voices telling that story. So I just went down and hung out with him for a weekend and we talked a lot. He had his reservations, and then over the course of the year something changed and he decided that since I had spent a lot of time there, I had worked pitching this Discovery documentary about the mission, and he decided it might be fun to write this [from an] outsider['s] perspective.

Did you become fascinated with outer space as a child?
Oh yeah. The first time I learned “Many Very Early Men Ate Juicy Steaks Using No Plates” to memorize the planets—Pluto was still a planet then. I was amazed that there were all these other worlds out there. I was generally curious of science anyway as a little kid. So that’s when this sort of fascination began. I’ve been kind of a casual fan ever since, and it’s kind of waxed and waned over time. But then my mind was blown and I remembered how awesome it was and how much I used to love it when I got into Mission Control. It seemed like, “This is the real deal.”

I think the most exciting stuff NASA does these days are the robotic missions, not the manned missions that the public supposedly craves.
Yeah, I agree. The problem is that we don’t really know our astronauts and we don’t really know what they’re doing. I think NASA could do a better [job] telling that story or connecting us with those astronauts. The people who operate these robots—these robots are doing crazy things; these telescopes are doing crazy, amazing things, taking beautiful pictures. And if we could kind of connect with these artists and these craftsmen who make it possible, I think we’d have this really rich, narrative space to play in. People want stars. I think scientists could be kind of these stars if [NASA] really knew what they were doing [from a public relations standpoint].

While reading the book, I kept thinking I was on Mars observing all this activity of both the robot and the scientists, and I kept forgetting that the scientists were still on Earth.
That’s the best part of Mission Control, when you lose yourself for those brief moments and you really think about what the lander is doing on Mars and you feel this connection to it—it’s more than just a robot. You find yourself rooting for these scoops [of Martian dirt] to happen.

Have any of the people you were hanging out with at Mission Control expressed irritation with you about the book?
There are a few people that were very candid in some of the things they said [during the mission] that maybe have some regrets about saying them. For the most part, it’s been really positive. Maybe people are just not telling me there’s negative feedback. That was the hardest part, right? You can’t write the book for the people in the mission. But they all became very important to me and I felt this real responsibility to them. A lot of them didn’t have time to enjoy it while they were there. That was one nice bit of feedback, that I was able to put them back in that moment and they were able to enjoy it without having the burden of work and long, crushing hours.

You spent a year training for the mission?
NASA requires you to have training sessions where basically you learn how to work together to operate your mission. I also spent a lot of time interviewing the scientists before the project. I did basic Mars research and instrument research just trying to learn so I would not sound like an idiot, which was my biggest fear, on day one when I got there.

Did the engineers in Mission Control frequently refer to signs of possible ice as the “white stuff?”
Yeah, they did. It was funny, kind of a cultural thing where very few people want to commit to new discoveries so they come up with all these euphemisms for things they believe to be true. But they don’t want anyone to say that they were the ones that said “This is ice.” They kind of talk around things in a funny way. They’re a little bit fearful of being the guy who misspeaks because then the press will jump on all these things. In some sense it’s funny. But then other times you see why they do it. There’s a moment where one of the scientists says, “It’s [Martian soil] acidic, you could grow asparagus in it.” Then the headline was “Grow Asparagus on Mars!” I think it’s great when that happens because then it makes people care, they can connect to this thing. But it makes the science team a little nervous when they become known as the guy who was going to grow asparagus on Mars. &

20th Century Boy


20th Century Boy


April 14, 2011

Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door
By Hugh Martin. Trolley Press. 409 pages, $29.95

Damn that Eddie Fisher for telling the world that his pianist—composer Hugh Martin—got him hooked on speed. It’s hard enough to imagine that the fellow who wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was addicted to amphetamines for 10 years without further tarnishing his image into that of a dealer pushing dope to some half-assed pop singer. But not to worry; Hugh Martin was duped by the wicked Dr. Max Jacobson, who convinced his star-studded clientele that they were being injected with liquid vitamins, not speed. (President Kennedy, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote were among Jacobson’s patients. Of the doctor, Martin wrote: “Sometimes it seemed as if Truman Capote were giving one of his galas in the doctor’s office.”)

With impeccable timing, Martin wrote his autobiography Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door a year before his death this March, at age 96. The Birmingham-raised Martin was a master at vocal arrangement and piano accompaniment.

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He tells the story of his charmed show-business life with amusing self-deprecation. Martin was smitten with music and theater as a child. His mother often left him in the care of his grandmother for months at a time so that she could go to New York City to indulge her fondness for the arts, particularly Broadway musicals. She instilled in the young Martin an infatuation with the magic of show business, and in his memoir he repeatedly praises her for nourishing that passion. His world always revolved around show biz—whether as a child in love with movies and musicals; performing with vocal groups as a teen; accompanying Judy Garland on piano for her triumphant two-week run at The Palace in New York City in 1951; or, while engaged in bayonet training at a World War II boot camp, imagining he was stabbing the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz

Born in Birmingham in 1914, Martin headed to New York City in 1934 for his first attempt at breaking into the entertainment world. Making the rounds of radio and other entertainment venues earned the singing piano player numerous rejections, but apparently he got someone’s attention because the still-unknown Martin soon got a phone call from Mae West. She became agitated when Martin assumed the call was a friend impersonating the starlet to play a prank on him. The embarrassed Martin apologized profusely but West simply let him off the hook with: “Never mind. Skip the apologies. I have a hard time sometimes convincing people that I am who I am.” She had called looking for a pianist and vocal arranger to tour with her for six months. When Martin turned her down because he didn’t want to leave New York City West got mad, shouting, “How dare you turn down Mae West . . . you’re insane!”

Many thought he was indeed insane when his repeated attempts to enlist for combat in World War II finally came to fruition (Martin had been earlier rejected for being underweight). After the war ended in Europe, Martin was stationed near Paris where he indulged his love of music and theater. He recalls an evening spent with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

“The ladies felt an urge to do their patriotic bit for us friendly troops, so they opened their famous residence at 27 Rue de Fleurs one night a week. Two lucky soldiers would show up at 8 p.m., and Gertie and Alice would entertain them with hors d’oeuvres and wine and some really classic conversation . . . We sat directly beneath Picasso’s famous portrait of Miss Stein, which made us feel somehow part of history. While she was fixing some tidbits for us in the kitchen, Alice leaned forward surreptitiously and whispered, ‘Gertrude is in one of her anti-capitalist cycles at the moment. Oh, I do hope she lets me have one more afternoon in Macy’s basement!’”

Martin’s circle of friends and peers reads like show biz archives: Ed Wynn, Tony Bennett (he called Martin his favorite songwriter), Irving Berlin (who Martin did not particularly like), Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer (Martin’s first song was in collaboration with Mercer), Rodgers and Hart, an unknown Carmen Miranda. Hugh Martin writes of the good fortune show business brought his way in dramatic style, and seems eternally grateful that he got to work with legends. Midway through his autobiography, Martin shares snippets of chatter with famous friends that pop into his head from time to time. Gore Vidal once asked Martin, after Princess Diana’s death, “Do we really want Elton John to sing at our funerals?” Besides being Judy Garland’s vocal coach, Hugh Martin also tutored the great Lena Horne, who once told him: “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’d just as soon not sing that lyric you wrote about darkies loving cornbread.”

Hugh Martin was in love with life and joyously shares every dramatic moment. Reading The Boy Next Door is forthright and intimate; it’s as if Martin invited the reader over to his front porch for a cup of tea to hear about the good ol’ days of show biz. &

Believe It or Not

Believe It or Not

Christopher Hitchens. (Photo courtesy of the Fixed Point Foundation.) (click for larger version)
September 02, 2010

Acclaimed writer and noted atheist Christopher Hitchens, whose books include God Is Not Great, will debate renowned Paris mathemetician Dr. David Berlinski, author of The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, on September 7 at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Birmingham. Presented by the Fixed Point Foundation—an organization dedicated “to publicly defending Christianity through education, events, and the development of innovative resources that empower Christians and challenge skeptics”—the event includes a luncheon and reception in addition to the debate, which is titled “How Atheism Poisons Everything.”

Dr. Berlinski is a self-described “secular Jew and an agnostic” who is perhaps best known for his appearance in Ben Stein’s film Expelled, produced by Stein to defend belief in a Supreme Being. Hitchens and Berlinski will explore the question, “What are the implications of a purely secular society?”

As if any further drama is needed, Hitchens was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The hard-living, chain-smoking author has commented on his illness in recent weeks. When asked by interviewer Charlie Rose if he would live the same lifestyle knowing that cancer would be the result, Hitchens responded, “Yes, I think I would. I’ve had to reflect on this, of course, a lot recently, and trying to imagine doing my life differently and not ending up mortally sick. But it’s impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights . . . without that second bottle.”

The disease was diagnosed on the heels of Hitchens’ just-published memoirs, Hitch-22. The September issue of Vanity Fair features a chilling, amusing, and brutally honest assessment of his current health status, as penned by Hitchens himself. The writer sums up his fate in his classic style: “The word ‘metastasized’ was the one in the report that first caught my eye, and ear. The alien had colonized a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located—had been located for quite some time—in my esophagus. My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.” &

“How Atheism Poisons Everything,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 7. Sheraton Birmingham, 2101 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. North. Tickets: $25, with additional cost for luncheon and reception. Details:

Tragic Song of Life

Tragic Song of Life

A new biography traces the career of a country music queen.

March 04, 2010
Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen
By Jimmy McDonough
Viking, 432 pages, $27.95Few things are more entertaining than Nashville’s colorful cavalcade of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s country music icons, especially if any of those icons happened to have discovered drugs. Among the most hedonistic, in that context, were Tammy Wynette and George Jones, whose lifestyles are laid open by author Jimmy McDonough in Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen. Even those who loathe country music will be fascinated by this jaw-dropping tale.

Wynette’s dramatic, haunted existence (which lent itself to tabloid sensationalism) has always been realized in her music, thanks to producer Billy Sherrill, who frequently chose songs for Wynette that mirrored what the singer was experiencing in her life at the time, just as he did when producing records by her husband George Jones.

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Thoroughly researched, the book reads as if written by an obsessed fan, yet McDonough (author of the Neil Young biography Shakey and Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film) pulls no punches. He portrays Wynette as being perpetually out of control, on a downhill slide plagued by illnesses (real and imagined) that resulted in more than 30 surgeries during her 55 years. Her drug abuse is shocking. Fans are aware of Tammy’s battle with pills, but most may be stunned to learn of used hypodermic needles discovered beneath her mattress on her tour bus. She regularly injected herself with Dilaudid, Valium, or Demerol (or any combination thereof).

In the Beginning
Born in Tremont, Mississippi, Virginia Wynette Pugh married her first husband, Euple Byrd, shortly before graduating high school. When that marriage dissolved, she fled to Birmingham, where she worked as a beautician at the Midfield Beauty Salon. (Wynette kept her beautician’s license updated for 20 years after achieving success with “Stand By Your Man,” just in case her singing career faltered.) She supplemented her income by singing on “The Country Boy Eddie Show” in 1965. (McDonough devotes an entire chapter to “Country Boy” Eddie Burns, the retired Birmingham TV personality whose country music show aired from 5 to 7 a.m. for 37 years, mostly on WBRC Channel 6.) By year’s end, Wynette ventured to Nashville to record her first hit, “Apartment #9,” with producer Sherrill, who signed her to Epic Records and suggested that she change her name to Tammy Wynette.

When she had taken too many painkillers, a concert performance became a struggle. If Wynette was unable to hit a particular note, she’d give her backup singers hand signals so that they could cover for her.

Tragic Country Queen includes numerous anecdotes from Wynette’s fellow performers. Dolly Parton’s charms are recounted when the author describes Wynette at the 1968 Country Music Association Awards: “Skinny as a matchstick, wearing a fancy, futuristic housecoat dress, Tammy looks as though her ratted-out beehive and big lapels might consume her at any second. ‘Just a country girl’s idea of glamour,’ explains Parton. ‘Tammy didn’t have any more fashion sense than I did, really. I always say me and Tammy got our clothes from Fifth and Park—that is, the fifth trailer in the park.’”

Her life with third husband and singing partner George Jones was bizarre and unpredictable. In February of 1969, the couple was booked as a duo for the first time at the Playroom in Atlanta. A highly intoxicated Jones bolted mid-show on opening night. He hopped a ride to Las Vegas in a Lear jet with the club’s owner, forcing Wynette to finish the show alone. A few days later, Jones returned to tell Tammy he would never marry her. However, in classic Jones’ style he changed his mind and married her the next day.

Life is Hell
Wynette’s fourth marriage lasted only 44 days. After the divorce, painkillers played a larger role in the singer’s life due to her many physical ailments. Band members were instructed by her doctor on how to give Tammy her shots. Doctors in Nashville eventually caught on to her addictions and refused to prescribe any more narcotics, forcing her to search nationwide for doctors willing to write her prescriptions. In an attempt to score drugs, trips to emergency rooms after shows became routine.

McDonough writes of these indulgences as though Wynette had picked up a few tips from Keith Richards; she often had her supply of painkillers flown to her Nashville hometown. When she had taken too much, a concert performance became a struggle. If she couldn’t hit a particular note, she’d give her backup singers hand signals so that they could cover for her. A fist behind the back indicated she couldn’t sing the high F during the climactic final chorus in “Stand By Your Man,” while an open palm meant “Get this song over with as quick as possible.” During her final years, she sometimes nodded off between tunes. Her longtime drummer, Charley Abdern, bluntly observed: “She seemed kind of desperate to me. . . . I wish she would’ve quit. She really should’ve. It’s a sad story.”

In 1978, Wynette went missing for a few days, later claiming to have been kidnapped. Many doubted her story. She did not press for an investigation, and her daughter said the subject was taboo in the house. Two days after the alleged kidnapping, she performed in Columbia, South Carolina, her face still bruised. Tammy appeared nervous, whispering to the audience, “He could possibly be here, I just don’t know.” A mysterious, crumpled note was found backstage that read: “I’m still around, I’ll get you.”

Some ventured that it was George Jones trying to scare her, although Jones himself was skeptical that the kidnapping was real. “The whole affair was bullshit,” he surmised. “Somebody beat the hell out of Tammy, that’s for sure. But I don’t think it was a kidnapper.” Eight years after the incident, Wynette felt compelled to bring it up again, informing the press that she had received a letter from a prison inmate who told her that his cellmate had confessed to kidnapping her. Her daughter later wrote that Wynette told her the crime never occurred, and that fifth husband Richey, with whom Wynette reportedly had a rocky relationship, was the one who inflicted the bruises. Tammy’s hairdresser later confirmed that the singer shared the same story.

Hillary Clinton made headlines when she and husband Bill appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 1992. When asked about her husband’s alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, Hillary responded, “I’m not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Wynette was watching that evening and exclaimed, “How dare that bitch say that about me!” She wrote Hillary a seething letter. Clinton attempted to call but Tammy refused to talk to her until Wynette’s sometime-boyfriend Burt Reynolds persuaded her to do so. Amid the controversy, Sony Records promptly re-released “Stand By Your Man.” Barbra Streisand later invited Tammy to her Malibu home to perform at a fundraiser for Bill Clinton. According to Tammy, a shocked Hillary refused to speak to her.

Wynette continued to record and tour in the 1990s, though her last five years were spent connected to a portable IV unit, which she removed only to appear on stage. UK dance music outfit KLF had Wynette sing on their track “Justified and Ancient,” which went to number one in 18 countries and introduced Wynette to a new audience. Wynette recorded Honky Tonk Angels with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in 1993 and recorded a final duet album with George Jones. She was also the voice for Tillie Mae Hill (Hank Hill’s mother) on the animated TV series “King Of The Hill.”

Tragic Country Queen is a thoroughly entertaining read that tells a sad story loaded with enough sordid details for several albums’ worth of country songs. McDonough sums up Wynette’s tragic life: “Tammy Wynette never found what she was looking for. A white knight, a Prince Charming. . . . She wanted life to whisk her off her high-heeled feet, to be as passionate as the feverish cover of some romance novel. Instead Wynette wound up dying in public an inch at a time, her emaciated, addicted, tormented face plastered across the cover of every grocery store tabloid.” &

Author Jimmy McDonough will sign copies of Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen on March 8, 7 p.m., at the Colonial Brookwood Village location of Books-a-Million.


The Eternal Outlaw

The Eternal Outlaw

Just another day in paradise. (click for larger version)


December 09, 2010


By Keith Richards with James Fox

Little, Brown, 564 pages, $29.99

After suffering through three decades of lousy new Rolling Stones records, nothing could be finer than falling in love with Keith Richards and his merry minstrels all over again. But it’s not the music that attracts; rather, it’s Richards’ irresistible writing voice in his memoir Life that will mesmerize as he eloquently and hilariously recounts his rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale existence. Keith (guitarist for the band since its inception 48 years ago) is quite the charmer, relating tales of outlandish rock excess with a brutally honest, hold-no-punches delivery that defines the swagger of guitar-slinging outlaws. One occasionally wonders where the truth ends and embellishment begins. But who cares? It’s all showbiz.

God bless him, Keith wastes no time giving fans what they want: drug stories! He opens with a bang, recounting his and fellow Rolling Stone Ron Wood’s arrest in Fordyce, Arkansas, in 1975. The pair unwisely chose to drive from Memphis to Dallas for their next show instead of flying with the rest of the band. Keith is quick to acknowledge his occasional stupidity and lackadaisical attitude regarding drugs: “So we drove and Ronnie and I had been particularly stupid. We pulled into this roadhouse called the 4-Dice, where we sat down and ordered and then Ronnie and I went to the john. You know, just start me up. We got high. We didn’t fancy the clientele out there, or the food, and so we hung in the john, laughing and carrying on. We sat there for forty minutes. And down there you don’t do that. Not then.”

Richards relaxing in his home library in Connecticut. (Photo by Christopher Sykes for Life.) (click for larger version)


It’s the first of dozens of lurid drug stories. At the Arkansas bust, the Chevrolet Impala they were driving had “coke and grass, peyote and mescaline” hidden inside the door panels. Richards seems to be shaking his head at himself when he writes, “And I could have just put all that stuff on the plane. To this day I cannot understand why I bothered to carry all that crap around and take that chance.” In his denim cap, Keith kept a virtual pharmacy stuffed with hash, Tuinal, and more cocaine. But, of course, Keith and his bandmate escaped another brush with the law thanks to their attorney and an allegedly intoxicated judge.

There are quite a few revelations about facts of which even the most rabid Stones fan may be unaware. Richard Nixon proclaimed them to be “the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world” and said that they would not be allowed to tour the United States again while he was president (they did, however). Richards tells of rubbing shoulders with other stars: Marlon Brando put the make on Anita, Richards’ common-law wife, and when she ignored him, Brando tried to pick up Keith, too. When Richards met Allen Ginsberg, his assessment is that the poet is “nothing but an old gasbag pontificating on everything.”

Keith is anything but politically correct. He refers to women as “bitches,” and gays as “poofsters” and “fags.” If he had to rough up a promoter who owed the band money, so be it. Keith and Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, had been on tour with one of promoter Robert Stigwood’s bands (Stigwood managed Cream and the Bee Gees and produced the movie Saturday Night Fever.) He owed the Stones $16,000. Stigwood was walking down a staircase backstage at a club, and Oldham and Richards were walking up when they suddenly blocked the staircase so that Keith could “extract payment” by kicking Stigwood 16 times, “one for each grand he owed us.” Oldham holds a special place in Richards’ heart. He credits him with making him a songwriter when the manager locked Jagger and Richards in a kitchen until they wrote a song (“As Tears Go By”):

“We sat there in the kitchen and I started to pick away at these chords . . . ‘It is the evening of the day.’ I might have written that. ‘I sit and watch the children play,’ I certainly wouldn’t have come up with that,” says Richards. “Andrew created the most amazing thing in my life. I had never thought about songwriting. He made me learn the craft, and at the same time I realized, yes, I’m good at it . . . [Learning to write songs] was almost like a bolt of lightning.”

Keith and his wife Patti Hansen with daughters Alexandra and Theodora in 1992. (click for larger version)

Oldham had worked with Beatles manager Brian Epstein and was instrumental in shaping the Beatles’ image until they parted company because of what Keith speculated was a “bitch argument.” Keith writes of Oldham’s feud with Epstein: “We were the instrument of his revenge on Epstein. We were the dynamite, Andy Oldham the detonator. The irony is that Oldham, at the start, the great architect of the Stones’ public persona, thought it was a disadvantage for us to be considered long-haired and dirty and rude.”

No band member’s wife or girlfriend was sacred. Mick Jagger slept with Brian Jones’ girlfriend while Jones was living with her; Keith slept with Marianne Faithfull, who was Jagger’s girlfriend at the time; Keith began dating actress Anita Pallenberg while she was still with Brian Jones. Pallenberg eventually had an affair with Jagger while she was Keith’s common-law wife. Keith recalls: “I didn’t find out for ages about Mick and Anita, but I smelled it. Mostly from Mick, who didn’t give any sign of it, which is why I smelled it. . . . I never expected anything from Anita. I mean, hey, I’d stolen her from Brian. So you’ve [Anita] had Mick now; what do you fancy, that or this? It was like Peyton Place back then, lot of wife swapping or girlfriend swapping.”

Richards does not hesitate to share the upside of heroin. “For all of its downsides—I’d never recommend it to anybody—heroin does have its uses. Junk really is a great leveler in many ways,” he admits, acknowledging that heroin allowed him to focus when there was nothing but chaos around him.

Life is long but a fun read, with a new Richards adventure on every page. His candid style and sense of humor do not disappoint, and even those not particularly infatuated with the Stones will be intrigued and amused by this unique life story. His off-the cuff, fragmented delivery may sometimes be confusing, forcing the reader to go back over a paragraph or two, but it’s all part of Keith’s charm. &