Originally created 04/12/98

Novel brings Southern festivals to light



Every so often, a book emerges that is entirely, refreshingly new -- not just in approach and style, but in idea, scope and theme. So goes Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit: The Culture of Festivals in the American South (University Press of Mississippi, $17, paperback).

Rodger Lyle Brown, while doing his doctoral work at Emory University in Atlanta, decided to weave his journeys to various Southern festivals into a narrative that undertakes a most ambitious task: to show that the way Southerners celebrate their history and heritage is part of a tapestry of melancholy that illustrates the fading of American community.

He succeeds mightily.

In a lively but substantial style that overcomes the usual academic book jargon, Mr. Brown visits swine festivals, tobacco festivals, banana festivals and Hernando de Soto festivals. He even visits Mayberry Days, North Carolina's tribute to a town that never existed. Mr. Brown's conclusion: An interplay of history, pseudohistory and wishful thinking is guiding these events, which he sees as admirable but desperate attempts to preserve the sense of community that social and economic change has inexorably eroded.

For anyone with an interest in the South, social history or simply human condition, this is a book that is not to be missed.What's between the sheets?

Elvis lives. Jesus appears to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. Sharon Stone has another new love. And Liberace's ex-lover's ex-roommate's ex-wife's ex-therapist tells all. This and more -- most important, some of the hows and whys -- await readers of the latest book about supermarket tabloids.

Hardly a scholarly study, Grossed-Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient: An Insider's Look at Supermarket Tabloids (Feral House, $12.95, paperback) nonetheless offers a rare perspective: that of a former tabloid writer, Jim Hogshire, who attempts an evenhanded evaluation of the publications.

In many respects he succeeds. Mr. Hogshire pulls no punches but does not demonize the tabs. He tells of their dogged pursuit of stories, which sometimes, unexpectedly, includes an equally dogged and meticulous pursuit of accuracy. He examines each major supermarket tab and describes differences in standards, practices and material. One surprise: With few exceptions, despite their freewheeling reputations, tabs almost always espouse the establishment line.

And "mainstream journalism" is not safe from his scrutiny, either; he cites constantly what he considers the hypocrisy of establishment media for vilifying tabloids while following in their footsteps.

The occasional specious or ludicrous argument (two or three snipes at intellectuals are fine, but by the dozenth time it grows rather tiring) undermines the book at times, but overall this seems a fair-minded look at an omnipresent but rarely studied segment of American culture.Posters: the big picture

It's a complicated mix: A memorable image -- usually rendered big -- alongside a few choice words and an eye-grabbing design. The poster is many things, from selling tool to moral persuader to, yes, art.

In Posters American Style (Abrams, $35), graphics curator and historian Therese Thau Heyman has compiled an impressive social history of the posters that have adorned our nation's walls, fences and virtually everywhere else for more than a century.

While her commentary is enlightening and informed (especially in tracing the way posters were used by the government to spread the word in the age before television), the true stars of this large-format book are the posters themselves, lovingly rendered in color.

Here we have the famous "Rosie the Riveter" and Uncle Sam "I Want You" posters alongside more obscure but graphically stunning renderings promoting everything from circuses to plays to the 1939 New York World's Fair to anti-pollution slogans.

The message, one we probably already knew but which is demonstrated dramatically here: An economy of words and images of color and power make an impact -- and often a difference.Head yes, cheese no

What is head cheese, you may ask. Or, more likely, you may not ask. Either way, Everything You Pretend to Know About Food and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask (Penguin, $10.95, paperback) will tell you.

This small volume by Nancy Rommelman combs the most obscure corners of food trivia and comes up with some genuine nuggets about the things we eat. She defines "spoon bread." She outlines the differences among USDA meat grades. (Hint: Avoid meat graded "utility.") She delves into MSG, wheatberries, falafel, udon noodles and scrapple. She even unveils the long-held secret about curry powder. (It's actually an amalgam of spices.)

A nice contribution to any trivia bookshelf. By the way: Head cheese is the meat of a calf's head, boiled from the bone and encased in a nice gelatinous mass.

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Mayberry Days, North Carolina's tribute to a town that never existed, is one of many Southern festivals noted in Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit: The Culture of Festivals in the American South.