Queen of the Turtle Derby (Reed)

Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena
Julia Reed, 2004
Crown Publishing
ISBN-13: 9780812973617

Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena collects a bevy of wise, witty, often hilarious essays by the inimitably charming, staunchly Southern Julia Reed.

In classic Dixie storytelling fashion, Reed wends her way through the South—from politics, religion, and women to weather, pestilence, guns, and what she calls "drinking and other Southern pursuits"—with a rare blend of literary elegance and plainspoken humor.

To hear Reed tell it, the South is another country. She builds an entertaining and persuasive case, using as examples everything from its unfathomable codes of conduct to its disciplined fashion sense. When a bemused Reed once commented on the cross-dressing get-ups of an upstanding community member, her austere grandfather said, "He's been wearing them lately. Now come on." A friend of her aunt's merely said, "I wonder where he gets his shoes. I can't ever find good-looking shoes in Nashville."

Southern food, of course, is an entire world apart: gumbo, grits, greens, okra, chess pie, Lady Baltimore cake, and Frito chili pie make memorable appearances in Reed's stories, which will amuse, delight, and even explain a thing or two to baffed Yankees everywhere. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Raised—Greenville, Mississippi, USA
Education—attended Georgetown and American Universities
Currently—lives in New Orleans, Louisiana

Julia Reed grew up in Greenville, Mississippi. She is a contributing editor at Newsweek and is the author of the essay collection Queen of the Turtle Derby and the memoir The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story. She lives in New Orleans (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
Julia Reed's effervescent collection of essays is an under-the-hair-dryer book (a cousin of the beach book), and even though no woman I know still sits under the dryer at the salon, a beauty parlor is the perfect place to inhale Queen of the Turtle Derby: And Other Southern Phenomena. Reed is both a senior writer at Vogue and a native daughter of the Mississippi Delta, and her voice and tone are those of your most consistently amusing girlfriend.... In the end, there's a satisfying match here between the subtext and the text. Reed embodies exactly what she's trying to convey: her tone is charming, glancing, amusing, sometimes a tad superficial, sometimes biting, but never offensive. These are captivating qualities in a storyteller, appreciated not just in the South but everywhere.
Karen Karbo - New York Times Book Review

A rambunctiously charming essay collection.... As refreshing and bracing as a mint julep.... Even the most hopeless Yankee will have no trouble getting in touch with her inner Poultry Princess.

In this engaging collection of essays, Mississippi native Reed—a writer for Vogue and the New York Times Magazine who now splits her time between New Orleans and New York City—presents a fresh and eclectic portrait of the South. Reed’s vision is both celebratory and critical, and it underscores her assertion that the South is "much more complicated and more interesting" than standard perceptions and caricatures of the region suggest. She tackles amusing topics like Southern hairdos and fashion, and the unrivaled pride Southern women take in their appearance ("I once saw three Chi Omegas jogging on the Ole Miss campus at seven-thirty in the morning in pale pink sweatsuits, full makeup and perky ponytails ties with matching pink bows"). She also addresses more serious issues, such as the area’s high rates of violence and lack of gun control. And as she renders an honest portrayal of the quirks, foibles and wonders of the region, she even pays homage to (and provides a recipe for) that Southern food staple: fried chicken.
Publishers Weekly

Reed, bless her heart, has written a laugh-aloud collection of personal essays about the South. God, guns, beauty queens, fashion accessories, booze, hurricanes, and, of course, recipes are featured in these 30 previously published works by Reed, a senior writer at Vogue and contributing writer at Newsweek. Readers are sent on a roaring roller-coaster ride around Reed's childhood in Mississippi and her current life in New Orleans and New York. "Lady Killers," a prickly essay, may raise the eyebrows of unsuspecting readers with its examination of the belief that a "white, well-dressed, churchgoing" Mississippi woman can get away with murder owing to a double standard regarding capital cases. "The Morning After" explains how a good fight adds to the zest of a high-quality party. Several essays repeat the same details when describing and explaining Southern fashion, beauty, and hair styles. Satirical, spirited writing for fans of the Sweet Potato Queens who appreciate recipes for fried chicken and frozen tomatoes, this is recommended for larger regional libraries. —Joyce Sparrow, Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas Cty., FL
Library Journal

For a region that lives and dies by its time-honored, if tawdry, traditions and is known for its colorful, if not controversial, characters, the South has some explaining to do for its excessive eccentricities. And there is no one more capable than Reed,...[who] humorously and humbly celebrates the quirkiness that lies deep in the heart of Dixie. —Carol Haggas

In 22 lively essays, 10 reprinted from Vogue, the New York Times Magazine, etc., Reed defends, with wry humor and an agreeable appreciation of the absurd, the South's continuing distinctiveness. Some of these pieces overlap in content, but collectively they form a portrait of a region that, despite shopping malls and national chains, continues to follow its own idiosyncratic ways. The subjects are South lite, reflecting rather regional quirks than the darker history, as Reed writes of debutantes, food, and alcohol consumption in essays titled, respectively, "Debutantes," "Eat Here," and "Booze." Debutante balls in the South, Reed observes, are burdened with a whole lot of history as they try to resurrect the past by honoring old well-born families and "the myth of our cavalier past in all its full-blown weirdness." In "Eat Here," she observes that though tastes are now more sophisticated, southerners eat okra, drink iced tea (sweet or unsweet), and, unlike Yankees, when asked to name the best meal ever eaten, will recall one served at home. Mississippi, where Reed was born, kept Prohibition laws on the books until 1966 ("Booze"), but that didn't stop the state having the cheapest and most plentiful alcohol as well as more liquor retail outfits than any of the legally wet states. Other essays explain southern fashion (soft and ladylike), justice (women murderers rarely hang despite committing some pretty lurid crimes), and attitudes about life (they subscribe to an idea of living with, as John Keats had it, "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." The title comes from an event that began in Arkansas in 1930 and includes a 60-foot turtle race,and the crowning of a derby queen. It illustrates, Reed suggests, the South's capacity for entertaining themselves with whatever is available. This capacity is celebrated in every piece, as Reed deftly mixes personal reminiscences with facts and local lore. Engaging evidence that the South is still different.
Kirkus Reviews>

Discussion Questions
1. In her introduction, Reed says that when she returned to her native South in 1991, there was a theory in vogue that the region was losing its identity as a separate place. She says she found plenty of proof that the South's identity is still firmly intact. Do her essays make a convincing case?

2. More than twenty years ago, John Egerton wrote The Americanization of Dixie. In the 2004 election, "NASCAR dads" comprised a sought-after votingbloc and "red" states placed an emphasis on family and religious values that are typically seen as Southern. Also, every Southern state voted red. Do you think that it is now possible to make the case that it is the rest of America that is being Southernized?

3. On the basis of Reed's observations, would you say that politics and religion are more closely intertwined in the South than in other regions?

4. In "To Live and Die in Dixie," Reed quotes Mississippi writer Willie Morris, who said, "It's the juxtapositions that drive you crazy." She points out that Southerners are the most violent people in the nation but also the most religious. What are some other examples of double standards found throughout the book?

5. In "American Beauty" and "Southern Fashion Explained," Reed makes the case that women's looks are largely defined by their region. Do you believe that? If so, how would you describe the "look" of the place where you live?

6. In "Miss Scarlett" Reed makes the case that Scarlett O'Hara was an early feminist. But she was also manipulative and used her beauty to get what she wanted. Have Southern women evolved from the Scarlett stereotype? In what ways do they still mimic Scarlett?

7. In one of the more memorable scenes from the film Gone with the Wind, Scarlett rips the silk curtains off the windows so that she can make a proper gown of them. On page 132 of "Miss Scarlett." Reed writes that "Scarlett was Southern, she was a woman, she was going to keep up appearances." Give examples found in the book of the importance of "keeping up appearances" to both male and female Southerners.

8. Reed writes affectionately and enthusiastically about what she obviously feels is the superiority of Southern cuisine. Discuss the larger importance of food in Southern culture.

9. Throughout the book there are examples of well-meaning people who could easily be the objects of laughter or scorn--the beauty queen who supplies the title of the book, for example, or the man who swears he's grown closer to God since he found a cross-shaped sweet potato in his vegetable patch. Do you think Reed means to ridicule them, or does she succeed in painting an affectionate but clear-eyed portrait of the characters that populate her native land, despite their many foibles?

10. Reed gives several examples of Southerners' proclivity toward socializing, whether it be at a funeral or a party thrown the day after a party just because there was some whiskey left (page 177). What factors do you think contribute to the more aggressively social part of Southerners' natures?

11. Do you think that if Reed used the material in these essays to write a work of fiction, readers would have found it believable? Or are the stories included here a case of "truth is stranger than fiction"? Give examples of some of the more outlandish—but true—tales found in the book.

12. Is there anything else about the South you wish you knew and would you prefer to learn it from fiction or nonfiction?

13. If you know the South well, do you think Reed has given an accurate portrait of its peculiarities? Why or why not?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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