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Book Review: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe – Fannie Flagg

Disclaimer: If a word’s in quotes, I’ve used it because the review demanded it. I know the term is/may be offensive but there’s no getting around it when writing about a book set in the past.


I’ve recently developed a fascination for books and movies set in the American South. I think it started a while ago with the sense of accomplishment I felt when I got through Gone With the Wind. Or perhaps I’m getting nostalgic about the time we lived in Texas. I’m a sucker for being called “honey” and saying y’all. Or maybe it’s not as much about the South as about books set in the good ol’ times when men were real men and women were real women* and while there were clearly classified “coloured” people and “white” people everyone just got along. (Ku Klux Klan who?) So when I was looking for a break from my Terry Pratchett marathon, I decided to read this book:

Source: amazon.com
Source: amazon.com

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a lovely, light, feel-good book. The story begins in the visitors’ lounge of eighty-six year old Mrs Threadgoode’s nursing home. Ninny Threadgoode strikes up a conversation (or launches a monologue, depends on how you look at it) with forty-eight year old Evelyn whose husband is visiting his mother. Evelyn listens politely but is not very interested in the old woman’s rambling. With every passing visit, however, Evenlyn is intrigued by Ninny’s stories and the friendship between the two women deepens.

Evelyn feels she’s “too old to be young and too young to be old”. She has always been a wife and mother and now with an empty nest she feels rootless. She tries to find comfort from friends et her high school reunion

But all the other women there were just as confused as she was, and held on to their husbands and their drinks to keep themselves from disappearing.

Evenlyn’s restlessness manifests in many ways including binge eating. Ninny on the other hand, is at peace with her life (and loves her candy) and during the course of their friendship, some of this peace spills over into Evelyn’s life.

Evelyn and Ninny’s relationship reminded me a bit of the friendship I shared with Nick, my old landlord. At one point when Ninny tells Evelyn she’s got half her life ahead of her I remembered how Nick said to me, “Why, you’re a baby!” when I felt quite old and worldly wise at twenty six. Old people make the best friends and old times have the best stories.

Ninny Threadgoode sure has some great stories to tell. However, the promise of an occasional murder notwithstanding, the plot is not the primary focus of the book. It’s the characters who gently draw you in as does the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. Whistle Stop is like the little townships we have all over India with small populations, a single source of livelihood, and a single shop of each type. It’s a tightly knit community where everyone knows everyone else.

Ruth and Idgie, as owners of the town’s lone cafe, are central figures in this community as is Dot Weems who works at the local post office and publishes regular newsletters with bits of local gossip. The town and its residents come to life with the author’s delightful prose.You can picture the railway tracks, the cafe, and the post office. You can easily visualize the little beauty shop, the grocery store, the Threadgoode house, and the “other side of the tracks”.

Through the various characters the book also highlights racial issues and how racial relations change with the times. Ninny’s stories portray “coloured” people as simple, child-like, and emotional – an attitude consistent with her time.  Evelyn realizes at one point that she has never even met a black man. However, there are also people like Idgie (and Ruth) who are able to look beyond race and develop meaningful relationships with people based on who they are. Through Idgie’s idealistic lens we view the issues of race, abuse, societal norms, and social injustice.

As the book progressed I felt there were just too many characters and too many timelines. Somewhere around the middle of the book we have the current-day timeline, Ninny’s narration as well as the author’s narration of events past. It get’s a little confusing because let’s admit it, who really reads the titles of chapters? It’s good to imagine that every character had a story but not every story needs to be told or be so neatly wrapped up. I for one would have been just as happy not knowing who committed the murder.

I’m nit-picking now and I know it. Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle Stop Cafe is a refreshing and easy read. It has very real characters and a decent plot. It gives you something to think about but is not preachy. It’s not fashionable to make small towns seem endearing but Whistle Stop, viewed through the eyes of Ninny Threadgood could be my new happy place. If only the tomatoes weren’t fried in lard!

Overall rating: 4 stars. A recommended read.


* And we knew of no small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri


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Book(s) Review(s): Night Watch – Terry Pratchett

Or, of Sam Vimes.

Or, of His Grace, His Excellency, His Blackboard-Monitorship, The Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Lord of the Ramkin Estates, King of the River.

DISCLAIMER: SPOILERS GALORE!

The first Pratchett I ever read was Night Watch. I loved the book but certainly not as much as F.D. did. I put it down to a difference in taste and went back to my then twin obsessions of Indian authors and non-fiction. I read a few more of Pratchett’s books over years and absolutely loved “Small Gods” and “Pyramids” but I still didn’t feel the urge to binge read. I bought “Truth” and “Witches Abroad” on a whim during my vacation and after The Hero surprised me with a Kindle Voyage, I ended up completely addicted to the Watch novels.

Samuel_Vimes
Source: Wikipedia

We first meet Sam Vimes when he’s lying drunk in a gutter. We watch him pick himself up and fight a dragon. We root for him as he solves a series of mysterious murders. We understand his reluctance to induct the undead into the Watch. We feel fuzzy as he finally overcomes his distaste and hires a Golem and then a Zombie. We watch him jump onto a ship and pursue unknown political villains and become a Duke. His Blackboard Monitorship then assumes a blank face and embarks on a diplomatic mission (the blank face doesn’t last too long, though). In The Fifth Elephant, we finally understand him a little bit and the constant fight between the Commander of the Watch and The Beast. It all comes together in Night Watch as he prods some serious buttock. Oh, he also marries Lady Sybil along the way and they have a baby. How lovely!

As Sam Vimes matures, so do the novels. Each of the Watch books before Night Watch has its own flaws. In “Guards! Guards!” Ankh Morpork isn’t perfectly developed and Vetinari seems a bit cocky. The preaching about men being worse than dragons will spill over into “Men at Arms”. “Feet of Clay” could have been shorter and the minor theme of atheism less preachy. Only Sir Terry Pratchett could ever get away with the mess that is “Jingo”. “The Fifth Elephant” is a bit too neat. Everything wraps up too conveniently and there’s just a tad too much of everything including female dwarfs. But Night Watch, well, let’s just say Night Watch makes up for Jingo.

In Night Watch we finally know why Sam Vimes was able to pick himself out of the gutter and fight the dragon in “Guards! Guards!”. There are the usual puns in this book, but they’re not forced. There are underlying themes and references but there is no preaching. There is some nonsense but it fits seamlessly. There are even some weird religious figures but there’s no underhand ribbing. There is a villain but he’s not a caricature. Carcer is to Vimes what Khan is to Kirk and The Joker is to The Dark Knight.

The book has a different tone from the other Watch novels but it is not dark. It merely makes a case for Sam Vimes and his twisted, cynical idealism. It’s impossible for the book to be dark because it was written by an optimist who said:

A dark book, a truly dark book, is one where there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Where things start off going bad and carry on getting badder before they get worse and then it’s all over. I am kind of puzzled by the suggestion that it is dark. Things end up, shall we say, at least no worse than they were when they started… and that seems far from dark to me. The fact that it deals with some rather grim things is, I think, a different matter.

That’s what I love about the Watch novels. Things end well. Things get better. They might be cynics the whole lot of them but they work together to keep Ankh Morpork running. Vetinari’s thoughtful planning is complemented by Vimes’ action. Vetinari could never rid the city of a dragon by himself. Vimes’ cynicism is toned down by Carrot’s niceness. Only Carrot can put a Golem back together or set him/it free. Carrot’s niceness doesn’t fool Angua. She sees how he has a single claw of nasty. We understand not everyone can be a Vetinari or Vimes. We need the Colon’s and Nobbs’ of the world. Most importantly, we see there is no such thing as “The People”. There’s just a motely crowd of individuals doing the best they can. Barring the occasional psychopath, they’re all just nice people cutting their own throat selling sausages in buns, really.

That’s the thing about satire. Without a happy ending, it would all be just another cynical rant. We need these books with their puns and their silliness. We need Vimes and Carrot and Angua and Leonard of Quirm. We need Gaspode the Talking Dog. Most of all, we need to believe that it can all work out.


ps: I still have “Thud!” and “Snuff” to go.


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Book(s) of the week – Terry Pratchett

Lunchtime lurkers might be wondering where the posts have gone. Erm, I’ve been binge reading Terry Pratchett… I read Truth, Pyramids, and Witches Abroad in the last one week (and would have read more if my Kindle worked) and I’m still a bit hung over. Sorry about that!

Actually, maybe not, I’m most interesting after about an ounce of dark chocolate (half an ounce if it’s single origin cocoa or over 75%), two sips of dark roast coffee, one teaspoon of alcohol (even extra strong tiramisu will do), or half a Pratchett. But not all at once, of course. Oh dear me, no. Even The Hero is exempt from handling me after any combination of those substances.

I realize I’m supposed to post something of consequence here. All my book reviews/recaps so far have been incredibly self-righteous and borderline pretentious. I can’t do that with Pratchett, an I? So I’ll leave you with a few interesting quotes. Before that, here are some awesome illustrations:

Pyramids Source: http://art.marcsimonetti.com/127814/1270280/illustration/sir-terry-pratchett-s-discworld
Witches Abroad Source: http://art.marcsimonetti.com/127814/1270280/illustration/sir-terry-pratchett-s-discworld
The Truth Source: http://art.marcsimonetti.com/127814/1270280/illustration/sir-terry-pratchett-s-discworld

And two places you can find annotations just to check how many references you managed to get (who can get them all?): Annotated Pratchett File and the wiki.

Finally, the promised quotes:

Pyramids:

‘You stay here. I’ll whistle if it’s safe to follow me.’
‘What will you do if it isn’t safe?’
‘Scream.’

‘I was being persecuted for my beliefs.’
‘That’s terrible,’ said Teppic.
Khuft spat. ‘Damn right. I believed people wouldn’t notice I’d sold them camels with plaster teeth until I was well out of town.’

Man was never intended to understand things he meddled with.

Witches Abroad:

Progress just means bad things happen faster.

You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage. Besides you don’t build a better world by choppin’ heads off and giving decent girls away to frogs.

Where’s the pleasure in bein’ the winner if the loser ain’t alive to know they’ve lost?

The Truth:

William: “I’m sure we can all pull together, sir.”
Vetinari: “Oh, I do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.

“WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEART OF MEN?

The Death of Rats looked up from the feast of the potato. SQUEAK, he said.

Death waved a hand dismissively. WELL, YES, OBVIOUSLY ME, he said. I JUST WONDERED IF THERE WAS ANYONE ELSE.”

‘People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds.’

How hard is it to not have a crush on Lord Vetinari?


ps: I’m going to try and finish all the Discworld books this year FSM willing, so I will get all dissecty (I say it’s a word) at some point. That is something to look forward to!


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