Author: Andrew (Page 1 of 4)

Johnny Be Good: 3 ‘John’ Books You Have Probably Heard About

“John” is one of the most common names in the English language.

Go, Johnny, Go

Go, Johnny, Go

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some of book publishing’s hottest commodities share the same cognomen. Two of the books I’m about to talk about were written by a John and published in October, and the other one a John is responsible for and, while not quite new, would make a great gift this holiday season.

John Green, in addition to appearing to YouTube on the Vlogbrothers and Crash Course channels, is responsible for some of this generations most memorable YA titles, such as Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and the ubiquitous The Fault in Our Stars. The latter two were made into movies, so you’ve probably heard of his works even if his name isn’t familiar. After a five-year publishing hiatus, Green returns with his new novel, Turtles All the Way Down.

turtles all the way downTurtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza Holmes as she hangs out with her over-the-top friend Daisy, is awkwardly romanced bt her childhood friend Davis Pickett, and searches for clues as to what happened to the missing, tuatara-obssessed, shady local billionaire Russell Pickett (who also happens to be Davis’s father). Meanwhile, Aza struggles to live her daily life while continuously caught in her “thought spirals,” which is her shorthand for explaining the will-destroying nightmare that living with obsessive-compulsive disorder can be.

While Turtles has a touch of romance (and only a fraction of the turtles promised by the titles), it is far less melodramatic than the teenage cancer star-crossed romance that The Fault in Our Stars was perceived by some to be. Aza and her illness are thoughtfully represented by Green, who suffers from OCD himself. Although your mileage may vary, I also highly enjoyed the madcap levity that best friend Daisy provides. It’s an evolution in his writing, but still definitely a John Green work that both long-time fans and hopefully some new readers will really appreciate.

rooster barSpeaking of madcap hi-jinks, John Grisham released his second mystery novel for adults this year (Camino Island, an intensely readable Fitzgerald manuscript heist, came out in June). This book, The Rooster Bar (which has even fewer roosters than the previous book had turtles) tells the story of three low-rent law students moving from scam-to-scam in the wake of a tragic suicide of a friend and in the shadow of impending student loan debt and professional misery. Friends Mark, Todd, and Zola stop studying for the bar exam, attempting to practice law out of an actual bar on the far side of Washington D.C. from the substandard, for-profit law school they just dropped out of so they can attempt to hustle legal fees in traffic court and hospital cafeterias. They also use information left behind from their lost friend to (hopefully) nail the guy at the top of the disgusting-but-not-actionable law school scheme.

The Rooster Bar has one of those grand conspiracies that has become a Grisham hallmark, but those who seek to uncover it are not out for justice; they’re out for themselves. They not only skirt the rule of law; they barely seem to understand its intricacies. But, hey, when you enroll at a law school called Foggy Bottom, you deserve what you get. Plenty of rich atmospherics highlight a book that combines the the scheming of The Brethren with the delicious sleaziness of Rogue Lawyer. Both the plot and the main characters end up in a place you’d least suspect.

As for the final book I’d like to talk about, I can only repeat a familiar refrain: let’s talk Jackson. Ken Murphy’s luscious photography dominates the book, but I can assure you that it would not exist without the will and insistence of Lemuria owner John Evans.

JXNLAMAR-2TI’ve lived in the Jackson area all my life, and I love this city. I’ve spent a lot of time in Belhaven, Fondren, Downtown, the Interstate corridor, and parts all over. I find something new to love all the time, or  I rediscover a spot once visited that tugs me back into the past. Although the Jackson this book captures is frozen in the specific period of 2013-14 (here’s a neat trick: compare the Lemuria cover to the view from a half-flight up Banner Hall’s staircase and see what noticeable feature is flipped), there’s a timeless quality to the sense of place the photographs capture. Murphy’s beautiful, mostly depopulated photos allow us to imagine ourselves among the beautiful scenes of the city we share, in both memory and possibility. If you haven’t already checked out one of Jackson books, a Lemuria exclusive, I highly encourage you to do so.

Halloween Double Feature: ‘Burntown’ & ‘Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore’

Halloween. It’s almost here!

pumpkin thumbs up

I am proud to present my second annual pair of Halloween reading recommendations. Both novels are are just fantastic, creepy mysteries. Both of these are a little light on supernatural mischief, but no less spooky for it. Truly, the scariest thing to confront is the possibility that the monster is actually inside any one of us.

burntownThe first book I would like to recommend is Burntown by Jennifer McMahon. This mystery tells the story of Necco, a teenage street urchin once known as Eva Sandeski. Necco used to have a picturesque home life, with a brother and two loving parents, but one night, ‘the Great Flood’ (as she remembers it) changes all that. She lives on the streets of Ashford, Vermont, with her half-deranged mother, who has taken in with a local cult of four mysterious women called the Fire Eaters who ingest the Devil’s Snuff for visions from the Great Mother. I know this book sounds a little out there, but that sentence contains some of the book’s most outrageous elements. Well, that and the telephone that can speak to the dead, whose plans have been passed down the Sandeski family, and may be at the root of all their misfortune.

What I really loved about Burntown, besides the crackerjack, page-turning momentum, were the characters. Besides Necco, the novel follows the intertwined stories of Theo, a local, lone wolf overachiever for whom a chance love affair draws her into a drug-dealing operation; and Pru, the gargantuan lunch lady at the local Catholic school who dreams of being the star of the circus—and then paramour of local delivery man and part-time detective Mr. Marcelle. All three characters have fantastically defined motivations, which make their characters seem real and dynamic. The setting of Ashford (and its alter ego Burntown) is almost a character itself. It has an uncanny, unstuck-in-time quality that seems to reinforce that the main characters must figure their own problems out, because the cavalry is not coming to save them.

midnight at the bright ideasThe second recommendation I have for you is Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan. Sullivan is a former bookseller at the Tattered Cover Book Store, an esteemed indie in Denver. The action in this thriller begins where and when as described in the title, at a fictional bookstore in the Lower Downtown section of Denver. Out protagonist, Lydia, is a regular bookseller recovering from a long-ago dark past. She looks after the local vagabond BookFrogs (so named for their resemblance in her mind to Mr. Jeremy Fisher) that populate Bright Ideas during business hours. One of the youngest, and most mysterious, of these BookFrogs in Joey Molina, barely out of his teens but already irreparably damaged in some way. When Lydia finds Joey has hanged himself in the Western History alcove, she is saddened and disturbed. And when she finds a childhood picture of herself in his pocket, she is also frightened, for she is about to be thrust back into her traumatic past.

Lydia was the lone escapee of a crime that was particularly grisly and remains locally infamous. Lydia has to solve the mystery of why Joey killed himself, helped along by his odd, bibliographic clues, but also finds herself pondering the events of her childhood and the night of the Hammer Man, who murdered an entire family when Lydia was staying at their house at history’s worst sleepover. She has to revisit both her past and explore Joey’s, confront her estranged father, and keep her current life together in the process before she finds any peace.

James Joyce said it best: history is a nightmare from which we struggle to awake. That can be either cultural or personal. But these gripping mysteries remind us that we don’t have to go looking for terror this Halloween, because there is often something within our own memory that lives with us always.

scream

Read, Lead, and Succeed: ‘The Talented Ribkins’ by Ladee Hubbard

talented ribkinsThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is an amazing book to read, and yet the meaning can be evasive until the main character, Johnny Ribkins, can be fully understood. Johnny is a 72 year-old member of an extraordinary African-American family: the Ribkins, descendants of the Rib King™ (“said to have invented the best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast”).  Each member has an extraordinary talent, or power, whose value can be initially dubious, and, in isolation, maybe useless. Johnny can make maps of places he has never been nor seen, his brother Franklin can climb anything (even flat walls), his cousin Bertrand can spit fire, and his niece Eloise can catch anything that is thrown at her.

Initially, during the Civil Rights movement, Johnny organized his family (and some similarly-gifted friends) to form the Justice Committee, dedicated to helping Civil Rights heroes through their Freedom of Movement Movement, allowing them to move safely about the country. But when the Justice Committee falls apart due to interpersonal conflict, money issues, and Johnny’s escalating paranoia and flights of fancy, Johnny feels lost. Later, after he discovers the existence of his half-brother Franklin, and his wall-climbing capability, he turns to a life of crime as thieves-for-hire.

His partnership with Franklin eventually sours, too, leaving him freelancing his maps for slick gangster Melvin Meeks, from whom Johnny has been embezzling money for years. Now, Johnny has one week to pay off his $100,000 debt to Meeks. His plan is to raid his squirrel-holes from his past all up and down Florida, having burying money like a paranoid pirate, in places that are almost designed to bring back memories. It should be a relatively easy job, what with the amount of money he has stashed away. But he keeps running into people who need a hand-up, and ends up paying for two mortgages. Also, he finds the nature of his mission radically altered: his discovers, for the first time, his deceased brother Franklin’s 13 year-old daughter, Eloise (of catching ability). Soon, he finds her escorting her all over Florida, introducing her to her people, the talented Ribkins, and what it means to live life when you’re just a little bit…different.

The name of this novel and its themes are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the Talented Tenth. Basically, DuBois argued that a well-educated aristocracy of African-Americans would, if educated and equipped, rise up and lead the race of their race into prosperity and success. While this idea might sound elitist, context is critical. He was countering Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise“: that the races could be separate as the fingers, but work together as one hand economically. While Washington accomplished much and was interested in black advancement, his ideas appealed to pragmatic white supremacists, who wanted to keep black people not only humble but subservient. DuBois’s arguments were for black dignity, and full personhood, although not every black person would benefit initially.

The Ribkins are literally talented, standing in (in many ways) for the Talented Tenth. Eloise is talented and smart, but young and the product of a single-parent home. Can the examples of the elder Ribkins be emulated? Should they be? Do all the Ribkins(and Flash and the Hammer, the friends from the Justice Committee) use their talents the same way, and for the same purpose? This is important background information for a novel that is neither parable nor allegory, but definitely infused with important ideas.

But this isn’t a book with just ideas, it is filled with artistry and craft. The setting and history is immersive, and the characters are unique and memorable. Johnny himself is a cipher whose nature seems to shift through the paradigm of whatever old acquaintance he is interacting with. He is an interesting foil for Eloise, who is in the youthful process of discovering herself and her potential. The journey they make is an odd odyssey, filled with hosts with their own complicated motivations. Personally, one of my very parts is the “pie scene,” filled with some of the most delicious dramatic tension I have ever read.

Ultimately, though, you can’t fully appreciate the book until you finish it, when the story comes back home to Leigh Acres, when you find out what Johnny really is (and, for that matter, the true nature of Eloise is capable of). It is then that you see the way forward, and you will understand what DuBois says later when looking back at his Talented Tenth idea:

My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a TalentedTenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.

Ladee Hubbard will serve as a panelist on the “First Fiction: The Discovery of the Debut” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 4 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.

ms book fest

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kim Church’s ‘Byrd’

(With sincerest apologies to Wallace Stevens)

byrd (2)

I

The title character of Kim Church’s Byrd is Byrd, a boy born in North Carolina in 1989 who is given up for adoption by his mother, Addie Lockwood. He is almost a McGuffin, almost completely absent from the narrative, except that the story follows the lives of people important to him in his birth family, especially his birth mother Addie, and to a lesser extent, his birth father, Roland Rhodes. This book is a long shadow cast by the boy Byrd.

II

I stumbled across this book while receiving inventory for the store in the backroom. For technical reasons I won’t bore you with, I thought Byrd was a new release. It is not; it was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books (a small publisher), and only in paperback. Lemuria has only ever ordered two copies, three years late, and the only one it has ever sold (as of this writing) has been to me. This book is criminally underappreciated.

III

Besides Ron Rash telling me this was a good book in a blurb, I was sold on it by the first sentence of the summary on the back: “Addie Lockwood believes in books.” I know what that means. Addie shares my opinion, or perhaps I share hers, that The Brothers K by David James Duncan is an “Unheard-Of Masterpiece.” Addie seems a little bit more ambivalent about the process of bookselling than I am, but to each her own.

IV

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V

I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of this book. I had to put it down the first time, because I was reading something else and didn’t want to crowd it. First of all, it handles the old verities of hope, of loss, and of human folly with a deft, humanistic touch. Second, Church handles the use of time exceedingly well. The story covers a huge stretch of time, about forty-odd years of Addie’s life. Even though the progression is linear, it is still an accomplishment to make it feel so smooth. Church reminds of another female North Carolina writer, Anne Tyler, in this way.

VI

Look, what I’m about to share does not convey, exactly, the main thematic thrust of the book, but it’s my favorite passage because I’m kind of a romantic, and I’m always detained and delighted when I find a new way of thinking about love. Also, the passage is beautiful and poetic. Here it is:

Neither of them thinks of love the way they used to, as something to be fallen into, like a bed or a pit. It isn’t big or deep or abstract. Love is particulate. It’s fine. It accumulates like dust.

VII

Not one character is this book is wasted, or less than human. Not Addie, not Roland, not Addie’s mother Claree nor her father Bryce, not Addie’s astrologer Warren, not Roland’s wife Elle. I am convinced Church could have plucked any random background figure out of the book, made them fascinatingly human, and made their story cohere to the whole.

VIII

As a coincidence, this article from The Atlantic, written two years ago in response to Pope Francis’s remarks about declining Western birthrates and a then-newly published anthology about chosen childlessness, came up in my Facebook feed. Byrd, in this book, is an accident. His conception, yes, of course, but also his birth itself. Addie’s attitude about her decision, and her subsequent gnawing curiosity about the life she created, is one of the subtlest motifs in an already subtle book. Setting aside the raging inferno surrounding the abortion debate in our culture, the discussion of a birth in our society is only easy when everything goes right and everyone is wanted, shunting miscarriage, infertility, chosen childlessness, and sometimes adoption into a silence that I am grateful that fiction can sometimes have the ability to fill.

IX

And speaking of accidents, I can’t help but thinking about the book I previously talked about in this spaceCareless People (a bibliographical biography of The Great Gatsby). It refers to a forgotten meaning of the word accident: “Catholic theologians used the word ‘accidental’ to describe the inessential bread and wine left behind after the ritual of communion had turn them into mystical symbols…accidentals [are] the inessential objects that once glittered…disenchanted things made ordinary again….the accidental is all that we are left with once we have lost our illusions.” This is what Byrd, or the knowledge of Byrd, is for Addie after she loses her illusions about Roland.

X

Not that I guess this has much to do with anything, but would it surprise you to know that Church, the author, used to be a high-powered lawyer? That choice speaks to an ambition exceeded by anybody in this novel, including Addie. That Church chose to write this book instead of a legal thriller is to me (who enjoys a good legal thriller now and again) a minor miracle.

XI

Byrd does have an interesting surrogate in this novel, his half-brother Dusty. His existence doesn’t seem to answer any questions about Addie, but it does offer a lot of insight about Roland, and in general people’s capacities to change or to love. So I guess it does tell about Addie, in a suggestive rather than definitive way. That this is the way the whole book operates might drive some people crazy, but it’s part of why I love it so.

XII

Addie’s greatest secret, besides withholding Byrd’s existence from Roland the second time, is that her affair with Roland in the first place. Not that she had an affair, not that it produced a child, not that she gave her child up, but because it was with Roland, whom she supposed she should be over. This book could be a coming-of-age novel, but it lasts so long in Addie’s life that it is also an age-passing-by novel. It is not only about the making of a person, but the consideration, evaluation, and self-doubt about who that person becomes.

XIII

Almost the very last words of the book are Addie’s “I have hopes but no expectations.” I hope I haven’t spoiled the book by telling you that, but what I really worry is that I’ve spoiled the book by telling you any of this. I have certainly implanted some sort of expectation in you, the reader, if you’ve read this far, if you’ve decided to give the book a chance. Expectations of not only the plot, which I believe are overrated, but of this book’s quality. With this handicap, I don’t think you can enjoy the total surprise Byrd was for me, but even a shadow of the surprise is still astonishing, I assure you.

blackbird rise

Sarah Churchwell’s ‘Careless People’ carefully examines ‘Gatsby’, Fitzgerald

careless peopleSarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby was originally released with the publicity surrounding the 2013 big-budget movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby, so it seems appropriate to use the spotlight of John Grisham’s great beach biblio-thriller Camino Island to recommend Churchwell’s wonderful work to those who, like I, missed it the first time around.

I first read The Great Gatsby on a car trip with my family to the Grand Canyon fourteen years ago, in preparation for sophomore English. Due to the circumstances of my reading and the rampant narcissism exhibited by most of the main characters, I did not engage with the book very deeply. I don’t think this is an atypical encounter for most people to have with ol’ F. Scott Fitzgerald, at least initially.

gatsbyFortunately, I was reacquainted with Gatsby & Co. almost a decade later when it was I, as an English teacher, who assigned Gatsby to a new crop of high school sophomores. I had a better appreciation by then of American history, and dreams, and ambition, and poetry—and so, too, the novel itself. But mine was a fairly by-the-numbers enlightenment about the books’ genius.

The Great Gatsby does stand as an artifact of its age, but in a very symbolic way. It is a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, just as it is a symbol for The American Dream. But the latter has always been an abstraction, while the former is not. The twenties are a time period that actually happened, and can be studied on their own contemporary terms. In this, Careless People by Sarah Churchwell excels.

Careless People is an examination of all the myriad inspirations for Fitzgerald’s most inspired novel. The title of Churchwell’s book is a phrase used in Gatsby by Nick to describe Tom and Daisy Buchanan specifically, but is reframed here to describe Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the people and culture of the Jazz Age they inhabit.

The book’s framework is structured around a list Scott Fitzgerald made around 15 years after Gatsby’s publication about each chapter’s general inspirations. Churchwell uses the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the fall of 1922 to search for the raw material used to sculpt the scintillating scenes from Gatsby’s explosive story. She does this for three reasons: 1) the fall of 1922 is when the last part of Gatsbyis set; 2) this is the period when the Fitzgeralds lived on Long Island and partied in New York (where Gatsby is set), and 3) this time period shows the aftermath of the Halls-Mills murder case that almost definitely inspired parts of Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson’s torrid and tragic affair.

The book helpfully provides a short manifesto against misusing it:

The problem with trying to think intelligently about the relationship between life and art is that it is so easy think unintelligently about it, to make literal-minded simplistic equations between fiction and reality. Such literalism is reductive and unimaginative, can be deeply tiresome, and often misses the point of fiction entirely. But nor can we simply eliminate life and history from the tale, as if they have nothing to do with the genesis of fiction. If as its best fiction can transform reality, that doesn’t mean that its history has nothing left to teach us. Art does not shrink when it comes into contact with reality: it expands.

Perhaps what Careless People expands best is not even Gatsby itself, but Fitzgerald, the artist who created it. It rescues him from either myth or caricature, and explains what kind of artist he really was. He was in love with his world, but his mind was also outside of it. He had a sense of history, not merely past, but future, with a finely-tuned gift for guessing right where history was heading. Fitzgerald was not a world-creator like a fantasy writer, even if that’s how the modern reader might experience his work, but a world-remixer who rearranged the stuff of daily life to make a grand statement. Contemporary critics could see the daily life, but no statement. We often run into the opposite problem. Careless People is both lyrical and suggestive, much like the novel it profiles, and does a deft job of explaining how Fitzgerald wove fashion into art, and made art from fashion.

Tales from the Tropics: 3 Nonfiction Recommendations for the Coming Summer

The days are getting longer, the temperature is rising, and thoughts turn to balmy beach vacation getaways. I have three nonfiction books recommendations that will be perfect for yourvacation, but despite their tropical setting, these books stray further and further away from the good life where the living is easy. The books are arranged from north to south in latitude, from the present to the past in setting (and publication date), and further and further into the ambitions of men.

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White

good life all the wayJimmy Buffett is at the center of my musical taste, from way back when I was but a tiny child riding in the back seat of my mom’s Camaro. He’s known for his “deathless novelty songs” that were designed to fuel every tequila-filled Baby Boomer bacchanal since 1975, or perhaps for prefiguring Jay Z’s famous boast, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” But he’s also been a fabulous songwriter and artist with songs on the level of his more respected contemporaries (and friends) Jerry Jeff WalkerSteve Goodman, and John Prine. I’ve been way deep into the Buffett mythos, from Buffet’s own travelogue A Pirate Looks at Fifty to William McKeen’s keen Key West history Mile Marker Zero, and I can say Ryan White’s new biography is the best book on Buffett I’ve read so far that balances the relationship between the songs, the legend, the man, and the ubiquitous Margaritaville brand. The characters that float in and out can be a bit confusing, but for the true Parrot Head believer, this book is a treasure.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen

This book is B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

This book is BANANAS!

The Fish That Ate the Whale tells the story of Samuel Zemurray, a.ka. Sam the Banana Man, a Russian immigrant who became one of the most powerful men in both the banana industry and Central American history. His journey from Selma to Mobile to New Orleans to Honduras and Guatemala is breath-taking in scope. Zemurray is depicted as highly intelligent, opinionated, and disdainful of ignorance and inefficiency. Cohen also thoughtfully explores the Jewish identity of a 20th century tycoon always on the margins of high society. This book pulses with vivacity and sweat, taking you through a tour of an undeniably great and sometimes terrible man. You will never look a banana in quite the same way again.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

lost city of zI’ve seen this book lurking around the store since I arrived here two years ago, but only felt compelled to pick it up due to the impending arrival of David Grann, who was here last week to promote his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon. Boy, am I glad I finally discovered The Lost City of Z…well, discovered the book anyway. It tells the captivating tale of Col. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer from the Royal Geographic Society who first comes to South America in search of adventure, and later becomes obsessed with finding a mythical city, representing for Percy the soul of the Amazon itself. This is the most captivating mystery in the jungle I’ve heard about since the television show Lost went off the air. Grann’s book is about obsession, history, geography, and the limits of what humans can ever empirically know. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Outrage for the Osage: David Grann’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z (a gripping tale of Amazonian adventure), has produced his first book with a sustained narrative in nine years: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Flower MoonThe Osage tribe in the late 1800s, like many other native peoples of the Americas, had been confined to smaller and smaller territories as white settlers hungered for their land. After seeing the “Sooner” land rushes of native territory elsewhere in Oklahoma, they agreed to divide up their land among their members, while reserving the mineral rights to all the people of the tribe. When their territory became one of the most sought-after oil-producing areas in the nation, it brought fabulous wealth to the Osage people. What a wonderful blessing, right?

Unfortunately, it also brought all manner of opportunists and criminals, of both high and low status–from the federal government placing onerous “guardian” restrictions on the finances of full-blooded Indians, to something more violent and even more sinister.

Mollie Burkhart

Mollie Burkhart

Here Grann focuses on the story of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to a handsome, quiet, loving white man named Ernest. Under the shadow of Mollie’s good fortune came terrible tragedy: her family members kept dying, either violently (her sister shot, her in-laws’ house exploded) or suspiciously (another sister and her mother both wasted away). When she and other members of the Osage (who experienced similar tragedy) turn to detectives, lawmen, and even the federal government for help, they are foiled–sometimes quietly, other times violently–at every turn.

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

Enter Tom White, former Texas Ranger, FBI agent, and all-around white hat. He was no college-educated, suit-wearing G-man of the early FBI as we think of them, but he was tabbed personally by J. Edgar Hoover to lead the Osage case after an “embarrassing” mishap that ended with a dead policeman to start the case. White smartly used undercover agents and his powers of deductions to discover that the people who posed the greatest danger to Mollie were some of the people she trusted most.

One of the things I admire most about Grann’s book is its smart use of structure to redirect your attention. It uses our need to sympathize with characters we feel we know personally to narrow our focus, much like the public, and even law enforcement, had their attention narrowed in the Burkhart case. If this were a movie, it would end after the second section. However, Grann proceeds with a third section that might be less dramatic than the first two, but is infinitely more chilling. It roused my blood and opened my eyes, and left me thinking for a very long time about all the souls accountable for the outrage against the Osage.

David Grann will be appearing at Lemuria on Thursday, May 4 to promote Killers of the Flower MoonLemuria’s May 2017 First Editions Club selection . He will sign at5:00 and read 5:30 in the Dot Com annex.

The Penance of Penn Cage: ‘Mississippi Blood’ by Greg Iles

mississippi bloodGreg Iles is set to publish his final chapter in the Natchez Burning trilogy tomorrow. The trilogy, which began with Natchez Burning in 2014 and continued with The Bone Tree in 2015, will conclude with Mississippi Blood. The whole trilogy is set in the Natchez, Mississippi, of long-running Iles protagonist Penn Cage, who first appeared in The Quiet Game in 1999. (The trilogy also features appearances from characters in the previously stand-alone and unrelated thriller Dead Sleep from 2001).

I personally first encountered the character of Penn Cage about four years ago on the pages of his second novel, Turning Angel. Penn became the latest in my personal parade of literary types that I treasure: the non-professional private eye. He followed Lawrence Block’s book-loving burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, John D. MacDonald’s legendary beach-bum Travis McGee, and Rick Riordan’s now-forgotten tequila-drinking, tai chi-practicing English professor Tres Navarre.  But Penn hit closer to home, quite literally. At the time, I was working just over the Mississippi River and a little north of Natchez, in Tensas (pronounced Ten-SAW) Parish in Louisiana.

And that’s the thing about these characters: they inevitably become inseparable from their settings. Penn lives and breathes Natchez like its sins and successes are wholly his burden to bear. natchez & riverIt the middle of Turning Angel, he makes a pitch for his out-of-town fiancée to stay while he makes a run for mayor of Natchez: “Natchez has become a place where we have to raise our children to live elsewhere. Our kids can’t come back here and make a living. And that’s a tragedy…I want to change that.” And those words resonate because what’s true for Natchez is essentially true for all of Mississippi.

And this is what has always been at stake for Penn. Since moving home from Houston after the death of his wife, Penn has striven to make a idyllic home life for his daughter Annie, much like the one that his father, Dr. Thomas Cage, had given to him when he was a boy. For the first three books of the series (The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, The Devil’s Punchbowl), Dr. Cage is made out to be a veritable saint, completely devoid of the prejudice that plagues the Natchez community all around him, giving freely his time, medical expertise, and perhaps most importantly, his respect to the surrounding black community.

The façade starts to crumble at the beginning of the first book of this trilogy, Natchez Burning. Dr. Cage is charged with the recent murder of his trusted black nurse from the 1960s, Viola Turner. Her death quickly becomes enmeshed with the murderous activities of a white supremacist terror cell, the Double Eagles, and their drug-running descendants. (The real-life inspiration for the Double Eagles, known as the Silver Dollar Group, is chronicled brilliantly in Stanley Nelson’s harrowing true-life book Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi in the 1960s).

In telling Viola’s story (and Dr. Cage’s, and Natchez’s), Natchez Burning (and its sequel The Bone Tree) go to some wild places, such as post-Katrina reconstruction in New Orleans and the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, of all things. sheriff-cooley-oTruly menacing villains such as Brody Royal, the money man behind the Klan, and Forrest Knox, the heir apparent to all law enforcement in Louisiana and simultaneously the head of the family crime syndicate, dominate the first two books, but are dispatched. By the telling of Mississippi Blood, only Snake Knox (Forrest’s uncle), the man with the meanest of goals—survival and notoriety—and the meanest of dispositions, survives to torment Penn and the good people left standing in Natchez.

Mississippi Blood moves at a slightly less frenetic pace than its predecessors (it would almost have to), but it simmers with the same tension. We—and the courtroom spectators of Natchez—are finally promised answers about Dr. Cage’s activities that have been lingering for years. Also lurking at the edges of Penn’s conscience and consciousness at all times is his half-brother Lincoln Turner, the illegitimate son of Dr. Thomas Cage and Viola Turner. Lincoln may be Penn’s antagonist, but he’s not exactly a villain, even from Penn’s point-of-view. Lincoln is seeking reparation for the disparity of his and Penn’s life in a way that Penn finds almost impossible to pay. Penn has even turned ambivalent about his father’s liberty, blaming him for a tragedy at the end of The Bone Tree, which was truly shocking and heart-rending in a way that is only possible for readers like me after hundreds of pages and dozens of hours spent with the same people.

But, above all, Penn is trying to hold down a peace for family, facing down a dark past before even thinking about a brighter future, determined to see it all the way down to the end. Because while the “Mississippi Blood” of the title may be evocative of all the violence that has taken place in the trilogy, it ultimately refers to the survival instinct of those who possess it running through their veins.

Greg Iles will be at Lemuria on Tuesday, March 21. He will begin signing books at 3:00 and read from Mississippi Blood at 5:30.

Showing some love for ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

Cards on the table: Angie Thomas is an acquaintance of mine from college–one of those right here in Jackson. I followed her nascent writing career on social media, and as things started to take off for her, I was rooting for her success, even before I saw any of her writing. The hype train for her first book, The Hate U Give, suddenly began to rollin a big way. But when I finally got an advance copy in my hands, I started to worry: what if I didn’t like it?

hate u give w/borderWell, I am happy to report that I liked it–a lot. Writing a novel about a topical political issue seems ambitious, especially for a first novel. But that is a strength of what Thomas does here with The Hate U Give: she takes the political and makes it personal.

The Hate U Give is the story of 16 year-old Starr Carter, who is hitching a ride home with her childhood friend, Khalil,  after a party, when they are pulled over by a police officer. Starr’s family has taught her to be cautious in this situation, but Khalil acts casually–which causes him to become a casualty.

When we hear about a police officer shooting a black person–often male, often young–we may recognize it as a shame for the names I hope we remember, but this tells the story of the ones left behind–of Starr, as the witness to Khalil’s killing, but also of their whole community of Garden Heights.

tupac thug lifeThe title of the book is a take on an acronym, or a backronym, of a tattoo that Tupac Shakur had: THUG LIFE–The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody. The racism that white people give to black people hurts black people, of course, but it’s also bad for everybody, including those who give it. This hate is poison. The acronym takes a term of derision, thug, and turns it around as a warning against this hate.

Ironically, though, if Starr, as a black person, is hurt by this hatred from other people, she also derives her strength from other people, as well. Her father gives her his principles, her friend Kenya reminds here where she’s from, her Uncle Carlos gives her strength, and her (white) boyfriend Chris supports and adores her. And that’s just a sample; part of what’s so great about this YA novel is its depiction of black family and community. One of the most well-defined characters is her father, Maverick Carter, a former gangbanger who is now a proud business owner of a store in the Heights.

Rich characterization is found everywhere from both Starr’s black world (the Heights) to her white one (where she goes to school at predominantly white Williamson Prep, and where her police officer Uncle Carlos lives). Starr explores her identity as a black person, but also as a female, and as a teenager. And as a teenager, she grows throughout the course of the book, from fear to courage, from passivity to action.

The Hate U Give is a well-told, engaging, often fun, sometimes harrowing young adult novel about black community, and the effects of police violence against black lives. It shows accessible humanity on the side of the story not often seen. It is a tremendous first novel that is enjoyable for both teenagers and adults, and I implore you to give The Hate U Give a chance.

Melodious McComb Mayhem: ‘Desperation Road’ by Michael Farris Smith

I had been looking forward to reading Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith ever since last July, when he appeared as the “opening act” at fellow Lee Boudreaux books writer John Gregory Brown’s reading for A Thousand Miles from Nowhere (an excellent read in its own right).

There was a party going on.

There was a party going on.

Smith read from the very beginning of Desperation Road that begins with a woman carrying a child, a trash bag full of their worldly possessions, and the full weight of her life decisions down a hot Interstate just across the Louisiana line. I thought of all the weird interactions I had and heard about living in Tallulah, Louisiana, for three years. Nevermind I was at the wrong part of the border (the woman turns out to be trekking to McComb), she just felt so real in my mind.

desperation roadThe story carries forth the story of the woman–Maben–and her daughter, Annalee, from the harshness of the sun to the darkness of the night. As a reader, you feel like you’ve experienced so much by the time the alternate protagonist, Russell Gaines, even enters the novel.

Russell, recently released from Parchman as a result of a vehicular manslaughter conviction, returns to his hometown to find so much the same, yet irrevocably lost to him. He begins to drift nihilistically. Russell doesn’t carry a heavy conscience, but he is stalked literally by the brothers of the boy he accidentally killed long ago. In the middle of his wayward skid, he finds himself suddenly entangled in Maben’s problem in a way he could have never anticipated.

There is a tension and stark beauty that pervades all pages of Smith’s novel. It delivers blunt, realistic dialogue and long, beautiful run-on sentences that never manage to trip over themselves. Smith is unquestionably a craftsman of the highest order. He managed to surprise me several times, only to have that surprise seem inevitable in retrospect.
This is the first ‘grit lit’ novel I’ve picked up and been enchanted by, so I don’t have any ready comparisons to Ron Rash or Tom Franklin for you, although they seem equally impressed by Smith to go by their blurbs on the cover of the book. I will say that this is sharp Southern fiction at its finest, and I encourage you not to miss it.

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