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Hal Crowther -- former staff writer for Time, former media critic for Newsweek, current contributor to the Oxford American, and a North Carolinian along with his writer wife, Lee Smith -- is an essayist who doesn't suffer fools lightly and especially when the fools are outsiders who think they've got the South figured out.

To serve as example, see the case of Crowther vs. Petro in Crowther's critical reaction to Pamela Petro's Sitting Up with the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South. An "odd book," Crowther kindly calls it early on in his review, but a worse book, Crowther thinks, by the time Petro deduces the mind of the South in the ravings of Tennessee's Bell Witch.

Petro's analysis may indeed be a "display of almost criminal opacity," but Crowther's review already does greater damage paragraphs earlier when he writes, "[Pamela Petro] is, arguably, the most clueless Outlander to write about the South since V.S. Naipaul's A Turn in the South. But she's no V.S. Naipaul either."

Nor, by a long shot, is author Suzi Parker, but at least she isn't trying to be. She's just a girl from Little Rock doing her best to get to the bottom of things in her book Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt. But who's she kidding? Not Crowther, who disposes of Parker, as a reporter and as a prose stylist, in the space of one comment:

To quote Crowther quoting Parker: "'From the top of the state near the Virginia border to the most Southern part that edges South Carolina,' Parker writes (most infelicitously), 'North Carolina is a hideaway for switching partners.' Surely," Crowther writes, "she means contra dancing."

And surely there's a better way than Petro's and Parker's to understand the South. Crowther finds a way in his collection of mindful essays, Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South (Louisiana State University Press).

He looks, for example, to writers Marshall Frady and Elizabeth Spencer, and he listens to banjoist Tommy Thompson and singer Dolly Parton. He remembers his college colleague (and future curator at the Museum of Modern Art) Kirk Varnedoe of Savannah, and he rejects his state's retrograde politico, Jesse Helms. He's here to praise his model H.L. Mencken, and he's here to admire the commitment of Stokely Carmichael.

Crowther conflicted? No way. He's here as a thinker as rigorous as he is down-home when need be, which makes him a Southerner, in my book, by definition.

Hal Crowther will be signing Gather at the River at Burke's Book Store on Wednesday, September 28th, 5-6:30 p.m., and at Square Books in Oxford on Thursday, September 29th, 5:30-6:30 p.m.

• The Mind of the South? No, make that one man of complex mind (and hero to Hal Crowther): Mark Twain. It's been 40 years since Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. So, aided by new letters and recently discovered diary entries, Pulitzer Prize-winner and best-selling author Ron Powers (Flags of Our Fathers) revisits the life of Mark Twain (and with it American history) in the major biography Mark Twain: A Life (Free Press). You yourself can visit with Powers when he signs Mark Twain at Square Books in Oxford on Wednesday, September 28th, 5 p.m.

• Fat-Food Nation: You've read or at least heard of Eric Schlosser's best-seller Fast Food Nation (2001), and that book still didn't give you good reasons to bypass the nearest drive-through at mealtime? If you know what's good for you, here's a reminder to take your hungry self elsewhere: Schlosser will be lecturing at Rhodes College on Tuesday, September 27th, 7 p.m., inside the McCallum Ballroom in the Bryan Campus Life Center. The event is free and open to the public. For more info, call 843-3875.

• God and Man at Yale? No. God and Yale graduate Bruce Feiler back to Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion (Morrow), Feiler's followup to Walking the Bible, the basis for his PBS series slated for 2006. His latest book is a personal journey covering the second half of the Hebrew Bible, but it's a 10,000-mile trek with front-page significance: Feiler in Israel, Iraq, and Iran researching biblical archaeology, observing the present-day religious and political landscape, and retracing the bases for his own Jewish faith. Where Feiler was born? The South.

Bruce Feiler will be signing Where God Was Born at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Thursday, September 22nd, at 6 p.m.

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