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“Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays from the New York Times” By: Margaret Renkl

“Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays from the New York Times”

Author: Margaret Renkl

Publisher: Milkweed Editions

Pages: 304

Price: $26.00 (hardcover)

Essays Explore Southern Politics, Environment and Social Justice

Margaret Renkl, originally from lower Alabama, Auburn grad, had a real success in 2019 with “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” That volume was a collection of essays but was held together by a strong narrative line: the story of her family from great grandparents down to the present.

This new book, “Graceland, at Last” is a true collection of 59 essays, all columns from the “New York Times,” about 4 pages each.

Short essays may look easy, but they present a special difficulty. For the writer, it is necessary to establish a topic, invent a hook or starting place, develop an idea in a few hundred words and come to some kind of conclusion. Similar problems arise for the reader. Each essay is a reading experience unto itself.

Nevertheless, this is smart writing and I hope readers will find the discipline to read a couple each evening or whenever.

Renkl begins with an introduction that seemed pained and deserves comment. Like many commentators on our contemporary South, she feels she has to engage in balancing and defining. We KNOW she does not SPEAK for the South. No one can. We know the South is not homogeneous. We know the region is better in many measurable ways. We know stereotypes like “The Dukes of Hazard” are not exactly accurate. We know that there is racism in Minnesota and that there are good people all over Dixie, struggling. But all of this “yes, but,” thinking finally reveals the stressful social schizophrenia we suffer. Yes, a neighbor will stop and help you with your flat but that same neighbor may also cherish ideas on race, global warming, gay rights and vaccination that make one tremble.

Renkl insists, though, that her love of her homeland will keep her here.

Also addressing this paradox recently in a stunningly candid series of essays in the “New York Times,” Auburn professor and novelist Anton DiSclafani contemplates a different ending. She had always believed “living among people who are different from you is a good thing.” But “right now I’d rather live in a place where everyone thought the same way I do, simply because I’d live in a place where everyone was vaccinated.”

Having decided, herself, to stay, Renkl continues to examine, with warmth and vigor, the world around her.

The first group of essays is “Flora and Fauna,” a Renkl strength. We learn she loves moles and a bald eagle’s nest can weigh more than two tons.

In the “Politics and Religion” section, she asserts that the Tennessee state legislature is the worst in the country, on voting rights, gun laws, Medicaid expansion, whatever.

Not so fast, Renkl! That’s a claim voters in many states would dispute.

What caught my attention especially was that some traditional Republicans were trying to get legislators to stop passing obviously unconstitutional bills since when challenged in court, the state always loses and has to pay “costly legal fees—its own and its opponents.”

Renkl does have some praise for Gov. Bill Haslam who was courageous enough to commute the death sentence of a girl of sixteen who had been forced into prostitution and killed a client.

There are some fine essays in the social justice section. She visits Montgomery to see The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and, despite thinking she is prepared, finds the memorial “a direct blow to the gut.”

In “Reading the New South,” she praises smaller, newer journals who are doing good work, especially “The Bitter Southerner.”

We learn in the environment section “that lawn pesticides are applied at ten times the rate used on farms” and are killing critters we think we like: butterflies as well as mosquitos. Renkl, opposed to keeping wild animals as pets, is horrified by seeing a fox in a baby stroller.

Oh well.

House cats, we are emphatically told, should be kept in the house. They have a “‘two- to ten-times larger impact on wildlife than wild predators’” and, “in Australia, feral cats have already been the driving force in the extinction of twenty-two species.”

Spurred by the reporting on the college admission bribery scandals, Renkl includes a spirited defense of state universities. Professors there are just as dedicated and students with desire will get a good education in the public schools at a fraction of the crazy tuition costs of the so-called elite schools. I was delighted.

Throughout, Renkl expresses her love for Music City, her adopted home, and sounds the warning that success, prosperity, gentrification, may erase the charm and wonder of Music Row and price musicians out of town.

She has finally visited Graceland and enjoyed it.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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  • ASCA_Small_logo.pngNow a retired English professor at The University of Alabama, Dr. Noble's specialties are Southern and American literature. He also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.Don Noble's reviews can be heard most Mondays at 7:45am and 4:44pm. and have been made possible in part through grants from the Alabama State Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the support of The University of Alabama, and from the generous support from our listeners. Thank you!To listen to the audio version of Dr. Noble's reviews, just click on the book title to be taken to the full page. Audio is found either at the very beginning of the transcript or at the bottom of the page.Dr. Noble's Book Reviews are made possible in part with a grant from The Alabama State Council on the Arts,