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My Book Shelf

Cajun, Crawfish, My Book Shelf, The Writing Life

How Louisiana got to TV writer and “Plantation Shudders” author Ellen Byron

December 8, 2015

Television writer and novelist Ellen Byron is a Louisiana junkie.

The New York native and Tulane University graduate, who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter, can’t get the Bayou State out of her system, admitting that she sheds tears of joy when she visits New Orleans and tears of sadness when she leaves. In 2015, Byron sunk all that residual Louisiana passion into a new mystery novel, Plantation Shudders, a fun and breezy jaunt with nods to classic inn murders (which guest is really the baddie?), except told in modern day Cajun Country. The second in the series, Body on the Bayou, will be released in September 2016.


I especially appreciated the heroine’s name, Maggie, short for Magnolia, bringing back memories of me trying to buffalo college friends in Washington, DC, that my real name was a southern flower and not the truer, dowdier Margaret.

Ellen and I discovered each other recently, and had a great time connecting and sharing notes as writers inspired by Louisiana. I picked up her book and read it over one weekend, relishing her depictions of my zany adopted home. Here’s some of what we discussed.

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Louisiana, My Book Shelf, New Orleans, The Writing Life

The Book Shelf: A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook fuses food and fiction

November 18, 2015

“May I select my own?” Ignatius asked, peering down over the top of the pot. In the boiling water the frankfurters swished and lashed like artificially colored and magnified paramecia. Ignatius filled his lungs with the pungent, sour aroma. “I shall pretend that I am in a smart restaurant and that this is the lobster pond.”

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

Few books capture real New Orleans and its quirks like the Pulitzer Prize-winning, A Confederacy of Dunces. Set in the early 1960s, the satirical novel covers the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, an overeducated bombast who can’t seem to move out of his childhood bedroom, and who writes manifestos and suffers from chronic flatulence.

I first read this book when I was considering moving to Louisiana shortly after college. At the time, I was living in Miami, and had been dating a guy who lived in Baton Rouge. Once on a visit, I found the novel on his bookshelf and gave it a whirl. It was deliciously insane, and even though I didn’t fully get the cultural references, I could not put it down.

Fast forward to this year, 2015 — the 35th anniversary of the book’s publication by the LSU Press. I had indeed moved to Baton Rouge way back when, and while that particular relationship didn’t last, I stayed. Louisiana became my home. I re-read the book this spring, and it was full-circle fun. I had a completely new appreciation for “jambalaya with shrimps” and Lucky Dogs.

One of the reasons I read it again this year was because my friend and fellow LSU Press author, Cynthia LeJeune Nobles, was finishing her A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook (LSU Press).

I couldn’t wait to see what she came up with.

(Update: Cindy was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition on Dec 4. Check out the interview here.)

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Hungry for Louisiana, My Book Shelf, The book, The Writing Life

Hungry for Louisiana, A Omnivore’s Journey featured at Southern Festival of Books

October 22, 2015

Nashville is cool for lots of reasons, one of which is the Southern Festival of Books, started in 1988 by Humanities Tennessee and held every fall on the state capital grounds downtown. These days it attracts 250,000 book lovers and an impressive line-up of authors. I’m so proud to have been part of the 2015 festival, and for my book to now be carried by Nashville’s Parnassus Books, the incredible independent bookstore co-founded by writer Ann Patchett in 2011.

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My Book Shelf

My Book Shelf: Food factors big in A Lesson Before Dying

June 12, 2015

Author Ernest J. Gaines grew up in Pointe Coupee Parish just northwest of Baton Rouge and is one of Louisiana’s most accomplished writers. I’m so mad at myself for not having read his work before now. Parental exhaustion and bedtime Netflix have snaked their way into my pleasure reading habit, but I’m rectifying that. I just finished A Lesson Before Dying this week, and now I’m floating in the good book fog. Good, but painful.

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My Book Shelf, The Writing Life

Birthday party for a dead person

March 25, 2015

Today (March 25, 2015) would have been Southern writer Flannery O’Connor’s 90th birthday. A few days ago, the LSU English Department held a birthday party for her – yep, a birthday party! – at the campus Barnes & Noble Booksellers, where scholars, alums and writers read their choices of passages either from O’Connor’s works, or from literary criticism.

From the time that LSU Boyd Professor of English Jerry Kennedy asked me to participate, I was in, not that I was an O’Connor. I did have a lost fondness for her, however. Like Flannery O’Connor, I grew up in middle Georgia. And like she had been, I am an only child who was raised Catholic in the heavily Protestant Peach State. It had been years since I had read anything by O’Connor, but this was a good excuse to get reacquainted.

I chose to read from Wise Blood, one of only two O’Connor novels, and her first. This bizarre book, chock-full of Southern Gothic weirdnesses, was also made into John Huston movie in 1979 starring Brad Dourif, the actor who played Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Doc Cochran in the HBO series, Deadwood (2004-2006).  Wise Blood has everything from a precocious preacher’s daughter to a main character who insists on establishing the “Church Without Christ.” It also has juicy, memorable lines like, “her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy running down her face.”

Odd. Weird. Fun. Funny. Southern.

Event organizer and LSU Associate Professor of English, Brannon Costello said it best when he remarked that only a Southern Gothic writer like Flannery O’Connor would appreciate that there we were, on a Sunday afternoon in Barnes & Noble, throwing a birthday party for a dead person. For me, it just felt great to have a reading assignment – something that made me think, grow — and in this case, laugh and cringe at the same time.


Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, a terrific independent bookshop in Denham Springs Louisiana, includes Wise Blood among its recommended summer reads featuring Southern women writers. I got to know this bookstore when I signed copies of Hungry for Louisiana here during an evening celebration in May held among Denham Springs’ downtown merchants. It was so much fun and I would trust any titles suggested by John, Michelle and Victoria – Cavalier House’s sharp and capable team.