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American belle epoque

WE'RE JUST LIKE YOU, ONLY PRETTIER:

Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle

By Celia Rivenbark

St. Martin's Press, $19.95, 272 pp

Reviewed by MARY JANE PARK

Hollywood may be the only other place in the country that expects more of women than does the South, and then only when it comes to matters of appearance. Rare is the celebrity who leaves the house without full makeup. In the South, that's a given. Heck, even when we were pretending to be hippies in college, my classmates and I wore mascara and lipstick and rolled our hair _ on orange juice cans and toilet tissue cylinders.

Southern ladies in training pick up all sorts of useful knowledge about china and silver patterns, engraved invitations, embroidered linens and family history stretching back to Paleozoic times.

As Celia Rivenbark writes in this wry collection of essays, "It may seem silly to some, but we can actually get misty-eyed about sun-scented sheets and towels."

Rivenbark is often laugh-out-loud funny. Writing about Southern White Trash wannabes, she offers this counsel: "Dress your young'uns in little black NASCAR T-shirts but teach them to hate Jeff Gordon on account of he's just too damned pretty for his own good. Make sure you enter your girl young'uns in all the Wee Tiny Miss beauty pageants because it's the ultimate WT lifestyle to spend two weeks' salary on hair extensions and pancake makeup for your three-year-old just so she can win a five-dollar trophy and the adoration of, well, nobody much."

We're Just Like You is billed as a Southern primer, and Rivenbark's observations occasionally are purely regional in their tone. Her riff on why television's Soprano family would never fit in below the Mason-Dixon line is priceless: "For starters, there's no way they'd be allowed to talk ugly, as my great-aunt Raylene would say. Carmela Soprano would never fit in at the monthly DAR meetings, what with her fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck diamond, department store sterling, painted-on capris, and tacky-a_ teased upsweep."

Other themes, such as motherhood, children's birthday parties, T-ball, SUVs, birthdays and TV, are more universal. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Everybody I know can use a sense of humor, and Rivenbark delivers on the book's promise to amuse.

Fair warning to the few remaining souls on the planet who blanch at vulgarities: This book has a few. It is also warm, witty and wise, rather like reading dispatches from a good friend who knows uses e-mail and still writes letters, in ink, on good paper.

Mary Jane Park is a Times staff writer.

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