"Change me Into Zeus's Daughter" by Barbara Robinette Moss and the "Tuscany" of Frances and Ed Mayes.
Another Southern Triumph At times as I was reading "Change Me into Zeus's Daughter," a memoir by Barbara Robinette Moss (Scribner, $24), I thought I was re-reading Erskine Caldwell's "God's Little Acre," that scandalous '30s best seller about poor Southerners. It has all the ingredients of what used to be called Southern Gothic: drunken father, caring and careworn mother and a houseful of malnourished kids prone to mischief. Given the nature of this upbringing, it's a wonder the author or any of her siblings survived childhood. Moss not only survived the abuse by her frequently intoxicated and absent father as well as the cultural deprivations of growing up in a poor family - she managed to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. There's a touching anecdote of her going into a public library to look through the art books to discover a world far removed from the nightmarish one where she was raised. It was a long journey from her dysfunctional childhood in Birmingham, Ala., to the safe haven of academia in Iowa City, Iowa, where she now lives. But Moss paid her dues. Disfigured and unattractive in childhood, she underwent several painful operations to repair her facial deformities. She writes movingly that she always believed her real face was hidden beneath the mask of her former self. But this memoir is more about Moss' psychological transformation than about her physical one. So searing is the portrait of her bibulous father that he very nearly becomes the protagonist of her book instead of the beleaguered author. Even in death he had a hold on his family. At his funeral the eldest son swigs whiskey as he curses the man who brought him into being and who he now seems to resemble. Moss writes that she wasn't glad he was dead but that she didn't miss him. It's not surprising that the first chapter of "Change Me into Zeus's Daughter" won a prize in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Contest. Moss fashions her autobiography in much the same way the Mississippi laureate wrote his fictional accounts of the South - twisting time out of linearity to resemble the flow of memory. Many of the anecdotes Moss recounts could well stand as powerful short stories. Another great Southern writer, Carson McCullers, said that childhood was the only experience one needs to write fiction. Moss certainly has enough material to create functional versions of her past that might even be more memorable than her true ones. Joseph LewisHeads-Up If you haven't OD'd on Tuscany and Frances Mayes' love for every aspect of this beautiful country, you will be pleased with her new paean of praise, "In Tuscany," (with her husband Ed Mayes and photographer Bob Krist, Broadway Books, $35). Even if you never get around to reading the descriptions of the aspects of life in Tuscany, you should enjoy the gorgeous photographs, and maybe (if you are a dedicated cook) you will want to try some of the recipes the author includes. At any rate, this book is a fine example of what we mean when we say "coffee-table book." Richmonder Alan Pell Crawford will sign his book "Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman and the Great Scandal of the Eighteenth Century" at Barnes & Noble Sunday, Nov. 19 at 2 p.m. Peter Baker, a Washington Post reporter, will sign "The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton" "Sunday Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble. Kelly Justice of Carytown Books writes periodic e-mail about books. In a recent letter she recommended "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats" by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, forward by Maya Angelou ($27.50) It is, she says, "already one of my favorite small coffee table books for the upcoming holidays, this collection of impressive hats worn by even more impressive women is a great present. I took one of these home immediately! Now I can't decide whether to keep it or give it to my mom. Wonderful stories by the women in the pictures are
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