BOOK REVIEW: Brave new memoir by Southern treasure priceless

By Leslie Criss/NEMS Daily Journal

“Writing about a book is like singing a song about a song: It rarely works. … Book reviews lose their effectiveness after grammar school.”
– Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Several weeks ago I read the above quote in Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s column. I read it knowing the task that lay before me: writing a book review of a newly published memoir, “Enchanted Evening Barbie and The Second Coming.”
The author? Rheta Grimsley Johnson.
You might imagine, then, the great trepidation with which I write this review.
Deep breath.
Truth is, as I read this book aloud to a friend a month or so ago, I could not wait to tell others about it. You know – share the good news.
Each essay, written in true Rheta-style, only added to my assurance that I was reading something wise, something witty, something wonderful, something oh-so worthwhile.
Now, I’m no new fan of this Southern treasure. I’ve been a reader of her words for several decades, since I first found them on a page in the Mid-South Magazine section of The Commercial Appeal.
It was my favorite part of that big old Sunday newspaper.
Johnson’s words, the way she shared a story, struck a chord with me and I wished someday I might write for a living.
Years later, when she answered a call from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to take the place of the late Lewis Grizzard, I so hoped folks would mind their manners, make her feel welcome.
Filling in for an icon couldn’t be easy, though I favored Johnson’s weaving of words over the late Grizzard’s. Simply a matter of personal preference, you understand.
Since she’s been home in Tishomingo County, I’ve had the great, good fortune to meet her twice.
Once, upstairs in a crowded eatery while two Iuka brothers named Thomas made their own kind of music, we were introduced and I managed “hello.”
Another time, we had lunch – five or six of us – at Cafe Memories, and I sat quietly, taking it all in.
Imagine my joy when I received an e-mail from Johnson’s publisher several months ago, telling me about her new book, asking if I might read it and, perhaps, review it.
I read it. I wanted to rush ahead, but I didn’t.
I slowly savored each essay, feeling after each that I’d had a heart-to-heart conversation with the writer.
In “Rapture on Hold,” my chuckles gave way to out-loud laughter as I remembered my own confusing childhood conceptions of Jesus and Santa.
“Armed and Dangerous” and shopping at Gaylord’s reduced me to fits of snorting from which I wasn’t sure I’d recover.
“Christmas Sunset” made me remember, if only for a moment, how I once longed to own and operate a small newspaper in a town near the water.
I choked down a lump in my throat as Johnson’s words regarding “Refrigerator Babies” made me think of my own growing-up-too-fast niece.
In essays written after the death of her beloved Don, there were times when I had to put the book down until later. Reading aloud is impossible when gasping for breaths between sobs.
In this collection of essays that, strung nicely together, tell the story of time well marked, there is something for everyone.
To paraphrase the late Selma Diamond from an episode of “Night Court,” you will laugh, you will cry, it will become a part of you.
You will be grateful you have chosen to give ““Enchanted Evening Barbie and The Second Coming: A Memoir” a read.
And you will want to tell others to do the same.

Contact Leslie Criss at leslie.criss@djournal.com or (662) 678-1584.

Rheta speaks:
• 5:30 p.m., Thursday, April 8 at Square Books, Oxford
• Noon until 1:30 p.m., Friday, April 9 at Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore, Tupelo
• 2 p.m., Sunday, April 11, Lee County Library; guest speaker for Helen Foster Lecture Series
• Noon, Tuesday, April 13, Dixie Regional Library System, Pontotoc

- “Enchanted Evening Barbie and The Second Coming: A Memoir”
By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
NewSouth Books
Trade Cloth
208 pages
$24.95