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"Noodling for Flatheads


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About the Author

Burkhard Bilger is a senior editor at Discover, writer for The New Yorker, and series editor for The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2001. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


It's refreshing to read a book about Southern subcultures that doesn't bog down in easy caricature or yet another Confederate flag discussion. Bilger, a journalist and features editor at Discover, writes with deadpan grace to capture half-buried worlds, linking the vivid participants to a larger historyÄwhether it be the transatlantic heritage of soul food, the legal and illegal sides of cockfighting in America or the evolution of coondogs since the time of "the father of coon hunting," George Washington. The title essay describes the squirmy practice of "noodling" one's bare fingers inside a catfish's underwater hiding place until the toothed fish bites hard enough to be hauled to the surface. In his exploration of Louisiana cockfighting, Bilger pulls off something that easily could have backfired: he contrasts the rooster farm of John Demoruelle (where the cocks are pampered like feathered celebrities) with the anonymous violence of the modern chicken factory. As Bilger tours a Tyson chicken facility, the spectacle of the young birds riding passively to their conveyor-belt deaths complicates the reader's feelings about the comparatively glorious (but bloody) lives of the gamecocks. In other essaysÄabout a South Carolina "moonshiner's reunion," an Oklahoma coon-treeing competition and a visit with Kentuckians whose delicacy is squirrel brainsÄBilger always sees past the freak show to get the full, resonant story, often of older cultures retreating before the new. Readers who liked the Southern exotica of Confederates in the Attic or Mullett Heads should enjoy this promising debut about "the forgotten folkways [that] still inhabit our back roads." (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Newsweek Meticulous reporting and graceful writing -- with zero condescension.
Caroline Fraser Outside A fascinating look into rural America's intimate, uneasy relationship with the animal life that surrounds it -- both wild and domesticated.
E. Andra Whitworth The New York Times Book Review A rare and sometimes surprising glimpse of the American backwoods... Bilger's folksy descriptions of these eccentric pursuits are charming.
Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post Smart, clear-eyed, witty, and unsentimental, not to mention quite agreeably surprising.
Ted Lee The New York Times A collection of powerful essays...[Bilger's] lyrical narratives thrum with energy and affection.

Odd, regional Southern cultures seemingly fascinate readers in the rest of the country. When Bilger, an editor at Discover, who was born in Oklahoma and now lives in Brooklyn, NY, was learning to play country blues guitar, he decided that he needed a hound as an audience. His search for a coondog in New England led him into the world of cockfighting in Louisiana, eating squirrel brains in Kentucky, and moonshining in Virginia. This quirky collection of essays records Bilger's adventures dissecting the history and practice of eight peculiar Southern pastimes. The resulting book, while chockfull of trivia and folklore, isn't for the fainthearted, delicate, or animal lover. Readers who enjoyed Tom Franklin's Poachers (Morrow, 1999) and Brad Watson's Last Days of the Dog Men (Norton, 1996) will like this. Incidentally, the author finally found his hound in Massachusetts. Pam Kingsbury, Alabama Humanities Foundation Speakers Bureau, Florence Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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