Happy spring! Saturday, March 20 marked the arrival of this much-anticipated season. Most years by now in my northwest-Alabama northeast-Mississippi southern-middle-Tennessee corner of the South, we’ve already had several gorgeous spring days. But 2010? Not so much. That’s why everybody who saw it loved this spring-like tablescape at a recent book-signing with author and columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson. It was a typical gray and cool and wet day, but the folks at ColdWater Books in Tuscumbia, Alabama, outdid themselves with these sweet and delightful touches of spring. I love the gentle pop of colors in the blue-and-white print tablecloth, the pink punch and the yellow flowers. And aren’t you impressed with that huge pottery bowl holding ice and water bottles? When I first saw it, I was thinking $300 or more handmade one-of-a-kind creation. But no. It’s a $30 planter from Lowe’s. Sweet! Just make sure the one you buy doesn’t have a hole for water drainage, and you’re good. And here’s another good idea: Buy Johnson’s new book, Enchanted Evening Barbie & the Second Coming: A Memoir. It’s Johnson at her best — funny, smart, insightful and a tad wistful. The book-signing was the first time I’d met her, and if you ever get the chance to meet her, too, take it. She was so gracious and friendly — a real delight. And if you haven’t read it yet, pick up a copy of Johnson’s previous book, Poor Man’s Provence. It’s about the second home she and her late husband, Don Grierson, created for themselves in Cajun Louisiana. But be warned: It will make you want to drive down there to see it for yourself. Spring-break road trip, anybody?
Was I the only one underwhelmed with Elizabeth Kostova’s newest, “The Swan Thieves”? Her first book, “The Historian,” intrigued me so I couldn’t wait to dive in to Swan, but … meh. It’s about a somewhat famous painter who attacks a painting in a New York museum and then refuses to talk. His psychiatrist takes on the project of trying to figure out why the artist did that — and we get to tag along. There are various narrators and voices as the doctor digs into the artist’s past, including both the painter’s wife and his girlfriend plus a mysterious woman the artist obsessively painted portraits of. Turns out the mystery woman was an English artist who lived more than 100 years ago. We learn her story in the book through love letters between her and her husband’s much-older uncle, and if Kostova had just stuck with that narrative and lost about half of Swan’s almost-600 pages, she would at least have ended up with something halfway entertaining and satisifyingly dark and Gothic. But, sadly, she didn’t. It’s hard to keep up with who’s saying what, the characters are practically indistinguishable from one another and I kept having to ask myself, “Now, why am I reading this again?” Plodding, slow and tedious are the words that come to mind. But the bottom line is that Kostova never convinced me I cared about any of these people. An artist ripped a painting — so what? He was supposed to be this charismatic always-center-of-attention type of guy who everybody immediately fell in love with despite the fact that he harbored this deep and tragic secret, but I wasn’t feeling it. I’m sure there were supposed to be all sorts of subtle sub-texts and multi-layered themes about art and psychiatry and obsessions and love, but I mainly just wanted to get it over with. I know, I know — Kostova is a gifted writer who layers complexities upon complexities and excels at rich detail and historical interweaving. Shrug. If she can’t make me care about her characters, then I am not impressed.