An author who has helped to put the South Carolina Lowcountry on the literary map, Dorothea Benton Frank hasn't always lived near the ocean, but the Sullivan's Island native has a powerful sense of connection to her birthplace. Even after marrying a New Yorker and settling in New Jersey, she returned to South Carolina regularly for visits, until her mother died and she and her siblings had to sell their family home. "It was very upsetting," she told the Raleigh News & Observer. "Suddenly, I couldn't come back and walk into my mother's house. I was grieving."
After her mother's death, writing down her memories of home was a private, therapeutic act for Frank. But as her stack of computer printouts grew, she began to try to shape them into a novel. Eventually a friend introduced her to the novelist Fern Michaels, who helped her polish her manuscript and find an agent for it.
Published in 2000, Frank's first "Lowcountry tale," Sullivan's Island made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Its quirky characters and tangled family relationships drew comparisons to the works of fellow southerners Anne Rivers Siddons and Pat Conroy (both of whom have provided blurbs for Frank's books). But while Conroy's novels are heavily angst-ridden, Frank sweetens her dysfunctional family tea with humor and a gabby, just-between-us-girls tone. To her way of thinking, there's a gap between serious literary fiction and standard beach-blanket fare that needs to be filled.
"I don't always want to read serious fiction," Frank explained to The Sun News of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "But when I read fiction that's not serious, I don't want to read brain candy. Entertain me, for God's sake." Since her debut, she has faithfully followed her own advice, entertaining thousands of readers with books Pat Conroy calls "hilarious and wise" and characters Booklist describes as "sassy and smart,."
These days, Frank has a house of her own on Sullivan's Island, where she spends part of each year. "The first thing I do when I get there is take a walk on the beach," she admits. Evidently, this transplanted Lowcountry gal is staying in touch with her soul.
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Before she started writing, Frank worked as a fashion buyer in New York City. She is also a nationally recognized volunteer fundraiser for the arts and education, and an advocate of literacy programs and women's issues.
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We asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their ten all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Dorothea Benton Frank had to say:
Here's my definition of a great beach read -- a fabulous story that sucks me in like a black hole and when it's over, it jettisons my bones across the galaxy with a hair on fire mission to convince everyone I know that they must read that book or they will die.
If you were headed to the beach for a long vacation, which ten books would I stuff in your luggage? Ten? Only ten? Gosh. That's like saying that I have to pick between my toenails and my fingernails because I can only have ten! Therefore, I'm gonna mash in a few extras. Mash. Great southern verb.
Getting down to business, my favorites might be serious books or seriously funny or seriously interesting for some obtuse reason understood and valued only by me, such as Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company. The truly dangerous ones are those that feed my obsessive compulsive streak (Who? Me?) and keep me up all night. I hate those and love those the most.
After working your way through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor and, of course, you have to read Gone with the Wind a billion times, I would urge you to read the following authors: Pat Conroy, Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Cassandra King, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley, Michael Crichton, Anita Diamant, Anne Rivers Siddons, Josephine Humphreys, Dan Brown, Tom Robbins, William Gibson, Ross King -- and each for different reasons. Gone are the days when you buy that sole thousand-page tome and lug it back and forth across the dunes. There are so many slim books, clever, witty creations designed to inform and entertain that surely you can choose a few more than ten. Feed your head!
It must have been July or August 1988. I was staying in a rental property on Sullivan's Island, (which for the great unwashed is the center of the universe) across the street from my mother's house. My children were small, it was hot and humid and then it began to rain. And, honey? It poured for three days around the clock. The beach was a mess, the mosquitoes were eating us alive and my two young children were restless. A previous tenant had left behind a copy of The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy. While the children napped or went out for ice cream, I had the wonderful pleasure of discovering an unknown-to-me work by Pat Conroy for the first time. As I turned the pages, I found myself in his story. I went wild with indignation! If I had been him and in that situation, I hoped I would have acted exactly as he had. It's not just a story of civil rights, narrow-minded bigots and how your own people don't want to change the accepted norms. It's about knowing the precise moment to act with courage and how the consequences of a right action are immaterial compared to the satisfaction of a battle fought for a noble cause. And let's face it: nobility is in short supply these days. Anyway, that led me back to all of his other books, and I have loved each one. But if someone asks me which of his books is my favorite, it's always The Water Is Wide.
On that note of people doing the right thing, if you have not read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee or if you only saw the movie, it's time to treat yourself to a spectacular piece of fiction. As the world knows, it's the story of Atticus Finch, a southern lawyer charged with defending a black man who allegedly raped a white girl. Harper Lee's words sing right off the page and while the story will keep you thoroughly focused, it is the writing that will astound you. As always, the book is better than the film, and the film is wonderful.
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale makes my list for a lot of reasons. First of all, it scared the Dickens out of me -- get it? Ah, well. Sorry. Lame writer humor. Ahem. The cover of The Handmaid's Tale should be the poster for voter registration movements. You know, if you don't vote, you get the government you deserve? When I was about thirteen, I was fully immersed in Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Then I went on to read other genres, like great romance novels with everything bulging and bursting. I cannot recall when it was that I discovered Margaret Atwood, but I will never forget the thrill of it. I have always enjoyed a little science fiction with my nightmares. If you have any feminist leanings or if you have daughters, you had better read this book.
Speaking of repressed living, if you have never read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, it's probably time. This beautifully rendered story gave me a crisp understanding of haunted living in Iowa. I thought southern families had concerned the market on secrets! But at the end of the day, it's always about power, money, and sex and despite the lack or abundance of any of them, there's another generation ready to replace the old regime. In that space of time, that waiting to pass the reins, that's when closets get emptied. I loved the forceful yet graceful manner in which Smiley let her story unfold.
We can't talk about the issues facing women without The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. A woman's lot has never been easy, but in this wonderful saga that predates car pools by a mere two thousand years, we learn that women have always helped each other. The story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, Diamant gives us a new view of what life was like for men and women in the days the Book of Genesis was written. The Red Tent is all at once exotic, ancient, illuminating, and strangely contemporary. And, very convincing. All that straw!
No beach reading list is complete without something by Anne Tyler and the perfect one for sand and salt is Ladder of Years. Husbands beware! Take this book for an all-girl's weekend, read, and discuss. Anne Tyler is peeking through your windows and listening to your thoughts. She knows you're fed up. She feels your frustration. In this story, Delia Grinstead actually does what millions of mothers and wives dream of doing -- disappearing into the sunset. But Delia's story will surprise you and have you talking about her issues for a long time.
And then, you gotta have a thriller in your beach bag; one of those books that has all your friends convinced your OCD has kicked in. They're making margaritas and dancing to the oldies and you're squirreled away in a corner with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which you are a complete loser if you haven't read yet. Go on, buy the hardcover! But, there are so many great thrillers from which to choose. The last one I read that drove me wild was Prey by Michael Crichton. Don't ask my why, because it's probably not his greatest work ever, but I couldn't put it down. I suffered the same fascination with Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, a very hip book to be caught reading because we all know how un-cool it is to want to be cool. And, although I am sure his coy pool is swirling with bong water, you have to read at least one story by Tom Robbins. I read Villa Incognito last summer, loved it, just bought Another Roadside Attraction, and I'm trying to figure out how to invite him for dinner.
When you want a trip to the Renaissance, which blows my mind more than any other period in history, pick up Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome. I read it for the lifestyle but actually learned a thing or two about engineering and architecture. And plague.
By the time you're ready for something that's simply beautiful, thought provoking and entertaining all at the same time, there are several authors you might enjoy. Start with Making Waves by Cassandra King. I devoured The Sunday Wife, but this glistening gem of a story showcases her talent for writing with humor. It sparkles with wit and irony and should not be missed. Anne Rivers Siddons has a new one out this year called Islands. I loved it! It reminded me a little of Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, which is one of my all time favorites. For anyone wanting to acquaint himself or herself with Charleston, what could be more delightful than traveling with Ms. Siddons herself? Her story is one of deep and abiding friendships and how they shape our lives. But! She also reminds us that you don't always know the people you think you really know.
For my dime, it's Josephine Humphreys, who is the Lowcountry word-artist. I remember thinking as I eased my way through Rich in Love, Fireman's Fair Dreams of Sleep, and Nowhere Else on Earth that if my writing could ever approach the fringes of her descriptive narrative, even the lint from the fringes, that I would faint from joy. No one understands the sheer romance of the Lowcountry, its magic and its mystery better than Ms. Humphreys. No one writes as well about it either. Her heart is huge and her words exquisite.
If you want to know why all writers are a little crazy read The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty. She talks about the drive to write, writer's block, and the creative brain. I know what's wrong with me! And if you want to know why great editors scare the pants off of writers everywhere, read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. The punctuation police are everywhere!
Have a great summer reading!
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