Last week, a Kentucky man died of snake bite. His name was Jamie Coots and he was holding three snakes, including the two-and-a-half foot timber rattlesnake that bit him on the hand, during religious services. Coots had garnered some fame/infamy for being the subject of a National Geographic reality show called “Snake Salvation.” He preached at a church in Middlesboro known as the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name and cited Mark 16:18 in support of his reptilian practice:
“they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Mr. Coots refused medical treatment. And he died.
It seemed an appropriate time to update my review of Wiley Cash’s novel, A Land More Kind than Home. Cash’s fictional character is a charismatic, heavily scarred, snake-handling Brother Carson Chambliss who guides the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following in Marshall, North Carolina. Chambliss would like to hide his past crimes from the congregation he now leads in a lonesome converted general store with windows blocked by newspaper. No one can look in, and no one can see out; their view and reason obscured by the newspaper and by Chambliss himself.
That detail in itself conveys the juxtaposition between fiction and reality. Chambliss covered his windows; Coots appeared on television. In both realms, the practice of snake handling is forbidden. Kentucky has a law on the books which makes handling poisonous snakes during religious services a misdemeanor offense. However, it has rarely if ever been enforced. Even after a woman in Coots’ congregation died during a religious service, and Coots was charged with the offense, the local county judge refused to sign the complaint, citing Coots’ religious observation.
Some reviews call this a Southern Gothic novel. I didn’t think it was Southern Gothic so much as horror. The descriptions of Chambliss wielding his power by making his flock “pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them,” induce dread.
“[A] right good many of them get burned up and poisoned, and there wasn’t a single one of them that would go see a doctor if they got sick or hurt. That’s why the snake bites bothered me the most. Those copperheads and rattlers could only stand so much, especially with the music pounding like it did and all them folks dancing and hollering and falling out on the floor, kicking over chairs and laying their hands on each other.”
(shiver) That’s actually a quotation from the book. The most alarming thing is how closely it parallels some news accounts of Coots’ death and the previous death of a woman in his church. “Coots’ church was the site of a fatal snakebite in August 1995. Melinda Brown, 28, of Parrotsville, Tenn., died after she was bitten on the arm by a large rattlesnake. Her husband, John Wayne “Punkin” Brown, begged her to go to the hospital, but she refused and died at Coots’ home.” Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/02/16/3092068/jamie-coots-well-known-snake-handling.html#storylink=cpy.
The novel narrative has multiple voices: a child; a kind octogenarian and a sheriff who has seen just about everything. Each is different, compelling and advances the horror and complexity toward the story’s nearly inevitable end. In Middlesboro, Kentucky, it is Police Chief Jeff Sharpe who has seen just about everything. As to Coots, he was quoted as saying he did not agree with Coots’ actions but had” tremendous respect for his determination to uphold his faith.”
My book club very much appreciated the writing while not so much enjoying the descriptions of the cultish church services. But the choice of “A Land More Kind Than Home,” for your book club would be very timely.
Unless you particularly enjoy eating snake meat, there’s only one other food description in the book but it’s a lovely description by Miss Adelaide of a dream:
“I looked down and saw that I was holding a plate with a napkin over it and that was wet with grease, and when I lifted that napkin I saw that it covered a heap of fried chicken. . . . I saw it was plum full of people in robes carrying food and instruments up the grassy hllside in the growing dark … and then it struck me that they might just be angels. Jesus walked right up beside me, and we stood there watching them walk past us and on ahead of us … we were going to a Decoration Day and I knew they’d have the food set out and the hymns going and the sweet tea poured when I met them at the top of the hill.”
I think a fun themed menu would revolve around that vision (with the inclusion of a little devil’s food cake in Chambliss’ honor) and my menu takes the vision into account along with my memories of the potluck dinners at the Springfield Baptist Church from my own childhood. No snakes there, luckily. The recipes I’ve included are my grandmother’s — or her grandmother’s.
Green Bean Casserole
Devil’s Food Cake
Corn Pudding: 1 can corn, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, 1 dash pepper, 1 1/4 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 tablespoon. Bake 25 minutes at 420 degrees.
Divinity (In my grandmother’s own hand)
3 Cups Sugar 3 egg whites 2/3 cup water 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup dark karo syrup
Combine sugar, water and salt and bring to boil. Cook until a few drops crackle when added to cold water. Have Karo ready to heat in another pan. Beat egg whites until stiff. When sugar syrup is ready, remove from heat and place Karo on to boil. Add sugar syrup to egg whites gradually while beating constantly. Scrape mixture into electric mixer bowl and beat. Heat Karo until it spins into thread. Add to meringue, beating constantly at high speed. Use two teaspoons to make individual servings.
Updating this review also gives me an opportunity to suggest a movie cast and I would wager Wiley Cash had an image of Kevin Spacey’s ravaged face on his mind, if not on his desk, as he wrote his novel. Spacey would be my choice for Chambliss. Miss Adelaide, the voice of wisdom and age, is tougher. I want the American Maggie Smith for her role but I’d accept Gena Rowlands or Ellen Burstyn.
She is angry, and why not? Her mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, she works as an elementary school teacher but wants to be an artist, she just turned forty-two and she’s in love with three people, none of whom love her in return. On the opening page of The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud’s latest novel, Nora Eldridge tells us just how furious she is: “It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.”
Sheesh, Nora. When you start a novel that way, it seems it would be difficult to build any tension over the succeeding 300 pages. Much like Frank Underwood killing that dog within the first two minutes of the first episode of House of Cards. The subtlety of foreshadowing is lost on both counts. Ultimately, both The Woman Upstairs and the House of Cards ask, and answer, the timeless question: What would you do for . . .? Art in the case of Messud’s novel. Power, or course, in the House of Cards.
But back to Nora. Michiko Kakutani calls it a mash-up of Chekhov and “Single White Female.”(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/books/the-woman-upstairs-by-claire-messud.html?smid=pl-share) There’s a tendency among current novelists to disregard the need for a likable, or even sympathetic, protagonist. And as much as Nora wants to be “a good girl, a nice girl, a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl . . . (who is) good at (her) job and great with kids,” I didn’t really care what happened to her. She helps an artist friend construct their own version of Wonderland and then Nora, much like Alice, completely loses her way among the double-speaking Jabberwocky, falsely smiling Cheshire cats and the ubiquitous, multiply-referenced aspirin flowers. (An aside, Frank Underwood style: Boyoyboy does Claire Messud like her aspirin flower creations.)
But the plot twist screams itself halfway through the novel and for the remainder of the book I was waiting for the reveal that I knew was coming. And it did.
In all, The Woman Upstairs didn’t reveal anything ground-breaking about human nature, the current society, art or artists. To say much more would reveal the entire plot and I won’t should you choose to read it. But is it really revolutionary to know that artists will do anything for their art just like politicians, like the fictional Frank Underwood and the all-too-real Chris Christies of our world, will do anything for their own advancement? But what a Mad Hatter Frank Underwood would make.
A book club menu would include coffee and red wine served in chipped coffee cups with pastries purchased from a nearby cafe placed on the table in wax paper. That’s all I seem to remember being consumed in the novel. But if you want a recipe, here’s my favorite Butternut Squash Soup. It has nothing to do with the book, but I’m making a batch right now.
Peel butternut squash. I use a chef’s knife, cut the throat off and stand it on end and slice the thick outer covering away then chop up the neck first. Then take the round bottom and find a way to remove the peel. Here’s a handy primer: http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-peel-squash-an-easier-w-72035
Place the cut squash in a stock pot, and pour in enough chicken broth to reach the top of the squash. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil then put a top on the pot, and reduce the heat to allow a low simmer. Cook for about 20-30 minutes, until squash is tender. Turn off the heat, allow to cool. Place the squash mixture in a blender and blend under creamy and smooth. At this point, you have all kinds of options. When you reheat it (slowly), you can add cream, half and half or milk. I generally add nutmeg, brown sugar and ginger. Today I’m going to try using molasses and honey instead.
Music is maybe a little more fun:
Pink Floyd’s The Wall (widely believed to synchronize with the Disney Alice in Wonderland movie)
The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love c.d. (the entire c.d. is a concept album, rock opera/fairy tale and the haunting, sometimes creepy, overwrought music should be a nice accompaniment to a discussion of what would you do for art.
Emil Larsson has a problem. He needs a wife or he will lose his job as a sekretaire in 18th Century Stockholm; a job that has brought him a good income, legitimate and illegitimately taking bribes from the ships he inspects at night in the harbor of “The Town,” Gamla Stan. To help him find an answer to this most pressing romantic problem, despite the upheaval of revolution in France that is spreading its message toward Sweden, he turns to his friend Mrs. Sparrow and her unique brand of fortune-telling: The Octavo.
“I have come to believe that we are ruled by numbers, Mr. Larsson. I believe that God is no father, but an infinite cipher and that is best expressed in the eight. Eight is the ancient symbol of eternity. Resting it is the sign that mathematicians call the lemniscate. Raised upright it is man, destined to fall into infinity again. There is a mathematical expression of this philosophy called the Divine Geometry.”
Emil begins his search for the eight who make up his Octavo, encountering a cross-dressing calligrapher, a French fan-making emigre, a runaway bride, and most fascinatingly, the Uzanne, a widowed baroness, fan collector, instructor of maidenly “arts” and defender of the aristocracy. The Uzanne uses every means within the realm, and some that are not of an earthly nature, to enforce her dogmatic will. Her favorite tool in waging her own war is a mysterious and beautiful fan called “Cassiopeia.” Oh, and magic.
It the book sounds like an intriguing 18th Century mash-up of The DaVinci Code and The Witches of Eastwick, that’s what I thought too. It is not. Amid all the interesting references to card reading, the revolution in Europe, the mysteries of the Divine Eight, how to use a fan to cause men to pass out-do your bidding-fall madly in love in an instant, etc., I found the novel lost momentum about halfway through and became rather a chore to finish. The elements of fascination were there, and I definitely would like to read more about fans. But ultimately, Emil was not a protagonist that garnered my sympathy. He was too foolish and easily swayed to root for him in his quest. Mrs. Sparrow went AWOL for much of the novel. And no other central character in Karen Engelmann’s novel proved particularly sympathetic
The much more interesting conflict, and one less focused, in this book: against the backdrop of revolution and class warfare … and ultimately war, Emil’s friend calligrapher Fredrik Lind, the French fan-maker Christian Norden, and the Uzanne herself, attempt to preserve art in the face of war. In The Stockholm Octavo, the artists are conquered by the magicians and warriors at least temporarily.
The Monuments Men explores a based-on-real-life story of another eight men tasked with saving art in a time of war. George Clooney, who wrote the script with his buddy Grant Heslov, gives himself a wonderful monologue that is at the very crux of art and war.
“While we must and will win this war, we should also remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed. They tells us no one cares about art. But they’re wrong. It is the exact reason that we’re fighting, for culture, for a way of life. We are at a point in this war where that is the most dangerous to the greatest historical achievements known to man. You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still find a way back. But if you destroy their history, destroy their achievements, then it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants. That is exactly what we’re fighting for.”
If you decide to choose “The Stockholm Octavo,” for your book club, I offer a delightful recipe from my grandmother’s recipe box, written in her own hand. It’s a meatball soup, chosen by me due to the Swedish meatball refrain that has run continuously through my mind. I would serve this with wine, lots of wine in the book, and make sugar cookies in the shape of fans for dessert. A lovely soundtrack for your evening would be George Winston’s Winter into Spring c.d. (1982). Of course, if you want to be tongue-in-cheek and/or prior to discussion, ABBA would be fun!
Cover several beef bones with 3 quarts water, bring to boil, simmer 4 hours. Strain, chill and skim off fat. Add to broth, 1/2 cup diced carrots, 1/2 cup thin sliced onions, 1/2 cut fine cut celery, 1/2 cup sized white turnips, 1 package frozen corn and 1/2 can of tomatoes, 4 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon basil.
For meatballs: 1 pound ground been, 4 slices stale bread (soak in water and squeeze dry), 1 egg (slightly beaten) 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, 3/4 teaspoon thyme. Make 3 dozen tiny meatballs and add to soup. Simmer about 30 minutes.