Author: Andrew (Page 2 of 4)

Star-Spangled Eyes: John Fogerty’s ‘Fortunate Son’

Signed books written by celebrities are funny things. Most of the time, when we get signed books here at Lemuria, either through author visits or having them shipped by the publisher, the autograph is a bonus. An add-on. A superfluous treat. It’s an inducement to buy the book from us, as opposed to elsewhere, rather than not at all. When it’s a celebrity, rather than a capital-A ‘Author,’ it’s almost like you’re just buying the signature, and…hey, look, there’s a book attached! (Looking at you, specifically, Ethan Hawke).

fortunate sonI was excited when signed copies of John Fogerty’s biography Fortunate Son came in fifteen months ago, but my book-buying was a little out-of-control at the time, so I passed. When I saw that we were thinking about sending the last few back to the publisher, I finally pounced. I’m so glad that I did. (We do have a couple of copies left, however. See the end of the post for details.)

John Fogerty, if you’re not aware, was the driving creative force behind the legendary 60s rock’n’roll band Creedence Clearwater Revival—its singer, lead guitarist, and songwriter. I’ve been listening to Creedence songs since before I knew who they were, in the backseat of my mom’s Camaro with the radio tuned to Oldies 94. I later filched a copy of Fogerty’s 1998 live album Premonitionwhen I was in high school. Downloaded a copy of CCR’s greatest hits in college. So I enjoy Fogerty’s music, as well as any piece of classic rock’n’roll lore about bands that I love, but I haven’t thought about either in any concentrated way in a long time.

Fogerty has a very conversational writing style that’s easy to get into. It’s not difficult to imagine the book in the voice from the stage banter on the live album—simple, folksy, often self-effacing. You can tell Fogerty is very fan-oriented: he knows mostly what the reader wants to hear about, although there’s also a lot more he wants to get off his chest. He talks frankly about his time in one of history’s most famous rock bands, and tries to explain the process behind writing some of his most famous songs, especially the classic slice of Americana that is “Proud Mary.”

Rollin'...rollin'....rollin' on a river

Rollin’…rollin’….rollin’ on a river

He sure isn’t ambiguous about what he feels. Sometimes it justifies his actions, and sometimes it makes him look like a jerk, even to those who might deserve it. I have compiled a short list of things he mentions frequently, starting with sheer loathing and ending with extreme adoration:

  1. Saul Zaentz, longtime owner of Fantasy records
  2. the creative integrity of his bandmates
  3. Richard Nixon
  4. The Grateful Dead
  5. Bruce Springsteen
  6. the spirit of rock’n’roll
  7. his second wife, Julie

If you find yourself looking out your back door with nothing to do but watch a bad moon rising up around the bend, run through the jungle to your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy of Fortunate Son. I know I feel fortunate that I did.

Even though the file above is for the unsigned paperback, we do still have a few copies of the signed hardback editions as of the time of this post. To inquire about purchasing one, please call the store at 800-366-7619.

Gifting the Perfect Book: For Both a Packer’s Backers and His Detractors

A disclaimer: I’m not really so much a Brett Favre fan. I am, however, definitely a Jeff Pearlman fan.

Pearlman is the author of both the melancholy, elegiac Walter Payton biography gunslingerSweetness and the uproarious, unbelievable 90s Dallas Cowboys tell-all Boys Will Be Boys. Biographies are at their best when the writers get themselves out of the way, which Pearlman does, although he still leaves an impression with his skill and versatility. So, when I heard this fall he was releasing Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, I knew I had to read it, because, truly, Favre was all three of those things, and I knew Pearlman would do him justice.

Brett Favre’s pro football career with the Falcons, Packers, Jets, and Vikings lasted an odds-defying 20 years (plus four more years at Southern Miss previous, as some around here will surely remember). Brett Favre’s Packers won the Super Bowl when I was in the fourth grade, and if the other boys in my class didn’t want to be Chipper Jones, they wanted to be Brett Favre.

favre-happy

As Favre’s career stretched infinitely on, he had to not only adapt to the shifting schematics on the field around him, but also to a new media landscape. Pearlman’s perfectly captures how he went from being able to perfectly play Peter King’s strings to having a target on his back at Deadspin. When he finally hung up his cleats for good in 2010, this internet video (warning: suggestive content), a send-up of slick contemporary Nike commercial for LeBron James) was a pitch perfect parody of his public persona and accompanying peccadillos. It hits upon his waffling on retirement, recent sexting scandal, and erratic decisions on field. This is what Brett Favre had become to my generation. Farve had matured a little bit off the field, but still loved attention and was now far behind the media curve.

Brett’s story is as old as Beowulf—the hero can do no wrong when he is young and strong, but as the cliché from numerous sports broadcast says: father time is undefeated. He tries valiantly one time for glory, but comes up short.

favre-reserved

Look, if you are a Favre fan, rest assured: Pearlman is no takedown artist. But as he states at the end of the book, he isn’t trying “to write an ode to Brett, but an explanation of Brett.” Which he accomplishes very well. I feel I understand Favre as more of a three-dimensional person than the caricature he was in the above video. As fans, we don’t need to deify (or crucify) our athletes or celebrities to enjoy or appreciate the work they do. Pearlman has written another deft, dead-on examination of football’s ironman to help hammer home that thesis.

Pages of Pale Fire: Michael Chabon’s ‘Moonglow’

moonglowMichael Chabon has written a marvelous, lyrical, and haunting new novel, Moonglow, that comes out today, one week after the so-called supermoon. Chabon’s grandfather, the main character in the novel, is not just enraptured by the moon’s beauty, but he knows exactly why: “On the Moon there was no capital to grind the working moon man down. And on the Moon, 230,000 miles from the stench of history, there was no madness or memory of loss. The things that made space flight difficult was the thing that…made it beautiful: To reach escape velocity…any spacefarer would be obliged to leave almost everything behind…”

I didn’t start reading Chabon through his well-loved novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (although I do hope to get to them soon), but rather through his lesser known 2009 collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, which captured snapshots of his present-day circumstances and life that lead up to it.

With Moonglow, though, you can read the best of both worlds: it’s a novel in structure and poetic license, but it tells the true life story of his maternal grandfather (whose name is never even revealed within the novel). The frame story revolves around the last week of Chabon’s grandfather’s life, in which the normally intensely private person starts to reveal his shrouded history to his grandson while he is under siege from powerful painkillers.

moon-phaseBy that time, Chabon had published his first book, so his grandfather knows exactly the dangerous type of individual he was talking to. In the middle of the story, the grandfather comes to a memory that makes him question the value of this confessional enterprise. Chabon counters that at least it’s a good story, to which the grandfather replies: “Yeah?…You can have it. I’m giving it to you. After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use of lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.”

Fortunately, Chabon ignores this last dictum. The novel defies a normal dramatic arc, which is the only way to examine and come to the conclusion that Chabon does: that after his grandfather’s death, his life, with all of it’s problems, was a good one.

On the way to that verdict, Chabon tells the story of his grandfather’s life in a pretzel: lost jobs, his time in the army in World War II engaging in Operation Paperclip, his stint in prison for trying to murder his boss, his journey from engineer to modelmaker, and one last twilight romance between two widowers. He touches on the global (the crimes and triumphs of Wernher von Braun) and the personal (his grandmother’s post-Holocaust refugee life and grave mental illness) to tell the story of a life, one life, flickering under the glow of his grandfather’s beloved moon.

Signed first editions of Moonglow are available for order on our website.

Cure Your Halloween Hangover with ‘The Hike’ and ‘Girls on Fire’

Halloween. It’s finally here!

skeletons

But that means it’s almost over, as well. But if you’re the kind of person who loves to hear the fallen leaves rustle against your window pane as you curl up under your blanket on a couch watching a scary movie, the thrills don’t have to end when October does. I’m here with two books that came out this year that you may have overlooked, that are sure to keep on giving you chills and goosebumps long after your Halloween candy gives out.

the-hikeThe first book I’d like to talk about is The Hike by Drew Magary. I have  become a fan of Magary over the past couple of years through his columns on Deadspin, which come across a mixture of self-aware dad/bro humor (trust me, it’s not as cringe-inducing as that sounds) with a lot of talk about football. So when I heard he had a book coming out, I was thrilled. When I heard it was a novel about a guy who gets lost on a walk in the woods and finds himself in a horror-esque wonderland, I was…less thrilled.

Drew Magary

Drew Magary

But when I finally gave it a chance, I was really drawn in. Ben, the main character, must face down the traumas and disappointments of his past, as well as the contents of his nightmares, to achieve self-actualization. If he ever leaves the Path, he will die. If he stays on the path, he will encounter dog-faced men, a talking crab, a friendly giant cannibal, and a monster lord. He must come to grips with existential dread and isolation from what he misses most in the world–his wife and three children. The whole experience of reading the book was surprisingly moving without ever losing its page-turning momentum.

girls-on-fireThe second book I’d like to recommend is Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman. The story begins on Halloween night in 1991 with the apparent suicide of a local jock in the woods near a small Pennsylvania town, and ends one year later in the same place with a meeting of three girls who know the truth. In between, average girl Hannah Dexter (who would be played by 1990s Thora Birch, if I was adapting this movie) is used as a pawn in a game between queen bee Nikki Drummond and outcast, Kurt Cobain-obsessed rebel Lacey Champlain. Hannah must
discover who she is and who she can trust, before it’s too late.thora-birch Set against the “Satanic Panic” of the era (that also underlined the excellent Only Love Can Break Your Heart from earlier this year), the novel shows that sometimes the monster lies not without, but within. The atmospherics in the book are just off the charts.

So, after you’re done throwing away your jack-o-lanterns, taking down your decorations, putting up your costumes, getting the toilet paper out of your trees, and eating all of your candy, bundle up with this two books and keep the Halloween flame flickering long into November.

Winston Groom’s ‘El Paso’ has a cinematic sweep

el pasoOn the back of the beautifully-bound El Paso by Winston Groom, you see a list of historical personages promised to star in the book, laid out like a star-studded movie poster: Pancho Villa…Tom Mix…Ambrose Bierce…George Patton. These historical cameos add rich color to the book, but the real star is a character of Groom’s own imagining: Arthur Shaughnessy Jr.

Arthur is the adopted son of a fading railroad tycoon. His father has some very Theodore Roosevelt-esque ideas about manliness, but Arthur seems to keep disappointing him. Although Arthur is studious and good at managing what is left of their business, he can’t match his father’s temperament and interests. Whereas his father is impulsive, Arthur likes to plan. Instead of hunting for big game on African safaris, Arthur prefers to hunt for butterflies for his collection. Instead of riding around in trains (the family business!), he is fascinated by the new field of aviation.

When the Mexican Revolution begins to threaten the Shaughnessy holdings in Chihuahua, Shaughnessy Sr. decides to go down there to see how things are going for himself. However, he also decides to bring his whole family. While both Arthurs are away on a desperate cattle drive, the tycoon’s grandchildren, Katherine and Timmy, are kidnapped by Pancho Villa’s army and held for ransom.

Arthur, the son, must make a passage of his own, literally through the Sierra Madres as he and his impromptu band hunt for the famed bandit general, and metaphorically as he becomes the masculine paragon of a hero that his father always wanted him to be.

This feels like just the bare bones of the story. I don’t have space to tell you about the matador Johnny Ollas searching for his lost love, or the journalists Ambrose Bierce and John Reed trading barbs and philosophies as they travel with Villa, or Mix finding out the price of fame. This book is loaded with characters and plot, but moves along swiftly and breathlessly. It’s full of improbable coincidences and historical cameos (a trademark of Groom, author of Forrest Gump), without feeling corny or eye-rolling. The book is a delicate balancing act, passing between the U.S. and Mexico, city and wilderness, and even the boundaries of fact and fiction themselves.

Forward Momentum: ‘The Perfect Pass’ by S.C. Gwynne

I’ve really loved football for about sixteen years, ever since my family took me to see my first New Orleans Saints game. But despite this abiding passion for the game, I don’t always completely understand it. I never played myself in any organized competition.  I do know the rules and rhythms of the game, which I’ve come by through years of experience watching high school, college, and pro games. But I’m always looking to further understand what I’m seeing, especially through the best way I learn anything—through an engaging story.

perfect-passIn The Perfect Pass, the story of the Air Raid offense’s development, S.C. Gwynne (author of Rebel Yell and the Pulitzer-nominated Empire of the Summer Moon) takes the time to explain football concepts both technically and philosophically—without making the book a slog. And the reader never feels dumb—the story’s protagonist is coach Hal Mumme (along with his protégé Mike Leach) learning one thing after another about the offensive vision they are trying to realize. It’s about exploiting blind spots in other coach’s thinking by defying traditional wisdom. The story, at the core, is a love letter to the forward pass.

Although Mumme, the hero in this odyssey from Copperas Cover High School to Iowa Wesleyan College to Valdosta State University, didn’t develop one single, unstoppable play (as the title may suggest), he did synthesize a bunch of cutting edge offenses—the run-and-shoot, the West Coast offense, BYU’s spectacular 1980s passing attack—to simplify things for his own players while simultaneously complicating things for his opponents. It’s a system that didn’t rely on uniquely talented star players, even the quarterbacks from Dustin Dewald to Chris Hatcher to Tim Couch who make it all work. In fact, its influence has outpaced the coaches who synthesized, practiced, and advocated for it.

Mike Leach took the Air Raid to Texas Tech, with years of consistently good football that apexes with this incredible Michael Crabtree catch to beat #1 Texas in 2008.  Now, Leach is scratching his way around mediocrity with Washington State in the Pac-12.

blazersHal Mumme at one point was head coach at Kentucky and once upset the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide. Now, he coaches at my beloved alma mater, Belhaven University, a Christian liberal arts college here in Jackson with an arts emphasis and little in the way of a football heritage—yet. The influence of the Air Raid is felt with the increase of passing in the NFL down to the ubiquity of 7-on-7 camps for high school recruits.

Really, The Perfect Pass is a story like you would find in many other genres of nonfiction—business, history, art. It’s a story of success, influence, and revolutionary thinking. And Gwynne moves the prose along with the tempo of the Air Raid offense itself. If you’re interested in seeing the development of the games within the game, and having a better appreciation for air-based attacks in football, be sure not to pass up The Perfect Pass.

Freedom in the Air: ‘Underground Airlines’ by Ben H. Winters

underground airlinesI was mesmerized by the idea since I saw the cover on the front of the July Indie Next flyer: Underground Airlines in plain text over the half-obscured face of a black man. It encapsulated the concept of the novel so succinctly: slavery in the modern age, the Underground Railroad in the time of jet airliners.

Of course, just because a book has a cool concept does not mean that it is automatically a successful story. It has to be executed well. To show how a system works, you have to find the right human story within the system, and I think Ben Winters has chosen well.

The story is laid out as a classic detective story: a tortured detective with a woman problem is working a regular case when he discovers a conspiracy that goes…all the way…to the top. Here, our detective is Victor (a man of many identities), a former slave forced to work as a bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals hunting other escaped slaves. He lives with the visage of freedom but struggles with the “duty” he is bound to and the evil it entails.

The woman is Martha, a white mother at his hotel alone with a bi-racial child. After Victor’s mild-mannered persona Jim shows her kindness, she gradually draws him into her quest for answers about the child’s father.

The case Victor is hunting is Jackdaw, an escaped slave from Garments of the Greater South, that draws an unusual amount of heat from his boss at the Marshal service. Victor searches for the truth as he infiltrates a cell of the Airlines in Indianapolis. (The Airlines remain as much a metaphor as the Railroad was, however.) He matches wits against an alternatively idealistic and pragmatic young priest, an undercover cop, and a West African enforcer; everybody uses each other to achieve their own goals.

While the three-dimensional characters are intriguing, the setting is the real show-stealer here: an alternative America that diverged a hundred years before when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just prior to taking office. Slavery remains legal in a few states called the Hard Four: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Carolina. While most of the country disapproves of the practice, it finds itself ensnared in a series of compromises as it tries to summon the political will to do anything about it. It’s fascinating to see how history bends, changing in some ways and remaining the same in others. For instance, the unstoppable forces of James Brown and Michael Jackson cannot seem to be contained in any version of history.

moonwalk

Now, there is a caveat that feels important to mention: Winters, the author, is a white dude. I don’t know if it feels like cultural appropriation to tell such a story as a white person from a black person’s point of view. This book helped me consider not only the legacy of slavery in this country but also the issue of exploitative labor worldwide–all while removing the distancing factors of geography and history. But as fresh as some of these ideas seemed to me upon first meeting them, they are not new, and writers of colors are writing about them and have been writing about them, and I encourage you to read them as well.

Overall, though, Underground Airlines works as both a story and an idea. It keeps you turning pages and thinking at the same time. It’s a great end-of-summer read that mixes the escapism of summer with serious considerations of our time—as it was, as it might be, and as it is.

The Big Uneasy: ‘A Thousand Miles from Nowhere’ and ‘The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear’

I just read two New Orleans-based books that both came out on June 28 and seem to rhyme with each other in peculiar ways: Stuart Stevens’ political dark comedy The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear and John Gregory Brown’s post-Katrina meditation on mental illness A Thousand Miles from Nowhere. The idea of the Big Easy, or the City that Care Forgot, has always been sort of an illusory front for tourists passing through New Orleans. Those names are designed to conjure up images of Mardi Gras floats, Dixieland jazz, football games, and copious amounts of alcohol.

thousand miles from nowhereBut if you live there, the pressures of the quotidian grind and the sum of your life choices catch up with you, just like everywhere else. If that’s where your problems have come to a head, the quietest, sleepiest city in North America will feel like a welcome escape, which is exactly the situation that Henry Garrett, the unwell protagonist of Brown’s A Thousand Miles from Nowhere finds himself in.

Garrett escapes Hurricane Katrina in a daze. When he arrives in Marimore, Virginia, everybody correctly surmises that he has just lost everything but misdiagnoses the cause to the hurricane. In reality, an inherited mental illness Henry just describes as the “clatter” (and his wife’s miscarried pregnancy) has caused him to quit his teaching job, alienate his wife, and blow through his inheritance on an abandoned grocery store (which is now probably flooded).

If that isn’t bad enough, Henry runs over a convict on a work line who rushes out into the middle of the road so that his family can collect a death pension from the state. On the other hand, Henry is also the recipient of copious amounts of grace from everybody from Latangi, the widowed Indian proprietress of his motel, to Marge, the hard-charging judge’s clerk and head of a local church’s women group. While Henry is, to borrow a famous New Orleans phrase, “depending[ing] on the kindness of strangers,” he begins to look outward. He attempts, however brokenly, to help the widow of the man he hit and an old friend, who looks trapped in his New Orleans grocery store.

Jacket (1)Instead of exiting New Orleans mid-breakdown, J.D. Callahan, the protagonist of The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear, reluctantly marches right back into it. He is there for the 2020 Republican National Convention, where he is trying to squeeze a moderate underdog candidate Hilda Smith into the nomination against nationalist Armstrong George (a thinly veiled, even tamped-down, satire of Donald Trump). His own breakdown revolved around a bad break-up from a news anchor girlfriend and a crack-up on Meet the Press. That might seem like a small obstacle compared to Henry Garrett’s, but the scrutiny of politics has a way of raising the stakes. It doesn’t help that the city and convention is already tense from a series of non-fatal bombings around town in the previous few days.

J.D. Callahan shares a snarky disdain for New Orleans culture, shaped surely by Stevens’ own opinions (as sampled earlier in Stevens’ beautiful, lyrical football memoir, The Last Season). Yet underneath this disdain runs a reluctant affection, just as much for the city as for his screwed-up Callahan family that caused J.D. to leave New Orleans in the first place. It’s the same family, however, that comes to his rescue when the political establishment tries to cast him out again.

Henry Garrett and J.D. certainly have many cares that the City that Care Forgot incubates, or exacerbates, or perhaps simply spectates, but these novels are ultimately about redemption. That redemption is hard-won and nurtured by care from the people around them, but realized by a determination to see themselves throughout. Because, even if you start or end in a place called the Big Easy, wherever you go, as they say, there you are.

Signed copies of John Gregory Brown’s A Thousand Miles from Nowhere are available through our web store here. Stuart Stevens will be a panelist at the Mississippi Book Festival at the State Capitol Building on August 20, for Sports and Outdoors at 3:00 and The Presidential Year at 4:15.

Humanity and history in ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi

To be totally honest with you, historical fiction was not really on my radar this time last year when I started working at Lemuria. However, some of the best books I’ve read over the past year—A Free State by Tom Piazza and Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith—have totally turned my attitude around on the genre. And then came Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a book I’d call a masterpiece.

JacketHomegoing tells the story of two family lines descended from the same woman, Maame: Effia is her daughter born when she was slave in a Fante household; Esi is her daughter by the union with her Asante husband. Effia ends up as the wife of a white English slave trader, whereas Esi ends up herself as a slave, shipped across the Atlantic. The novel follows the descendents of both Effia and Esi each for seven generations, through war and slavery and discrimination.

What’s really fascinating, I think, is that although the characters face experiences emblematic of whole peoples, they never seem less than real people. My heart breaks for Kojo, a shipbuilder in Baltimore who spends almost all his life free, with a large, happy family, yet is isolated in his family lineage on both ends through slavery, not really ever knowing his mother Ness or son H. Or Akua, whose abuse at the hands of a missionary drives her to destructive insanity, only to end as one of the wisest, strongest, and oldest characters in the entire book. Almost every character retains his or her individuality or humanity.

And yet history matters so much. Characters have the free will to make their own choices and shape their own characters, but they are often denied the chance to make a difference in their descendants due to the historical narrative. Personal morality only makes so much of an impact, and often characters have to reach back two generations for strength.

This makes the American line of descendants, starting with Esi, so particularly heart-wrenching. The psychic pain of detachment from home and family can be the most affecting of all the traumas. Although the novel is definitely a book about what it is to be human, it is both distinctly African and African-American, thematically probing how those things are forever connected and disconnected.

There are some words I remember from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me that kept echoing in my head as I read this book. He’s exhorting his son, Samori, not to confuse his ancestors in slavery with links in a chain. Coates says: “I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past….You must struggle to remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity….The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history.” The novel ends on a somewhat hopeful note that the the title perhaps promises, but there are several chapters in the book where, if ended there, could be construed as hopeful. History does not work in a straight line, trending neither strictly upward nor downward. One of the most powerful lessons of Homegoing is not the promise of hope, but the study of humanity, with beauty still present all the same.

Nonfiction paperback picks for summer 2016

It’s that time of year. Spring is giving way to summer, school is letting out, and people are hitting the highway for vacations. It’s a perfect time to squeeze in some time for the reading that you’ve been meaning to do. I would like to recommend some nonfiction books, all out in paperback, that I think will be just the thing. They’re lightweight for packing, affordable, and hold up a lot better than your average e-reader when exposed to sand and water. So, with that in mind, let’s get to the recommendations…

CATEGORY 1: NEW IN PAPERBACK, BREEZY READING

[Both of these books were released in hardcover just last year, and they are both easy to read (and finish) books about cultural phenomena.]

Jacket (5)So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Ronson is the fey-voiced Welshman you might have heard on This American Life. He is also the author of The Pyschopath Test, among other books. Here he examines the concept of public shaming, specifically in the form of mass Twitter vigilantism. Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” probably wasn’t anticipating the mass-volume payload delivery system that social media provides. Ronson thoughtfully examines the implications of a justice system that started with good intentions but is often used mercilessly against private citizens with momentary lapses of good judgment. Just keep reading past the section about Jonah Lehrer, his first case study (and not his most sympathetic).

Jacket (6)The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette

Man, the 90s were a weird time, filled with unwarranted optimism and unchecked consumerism. The story revolves on its axis of Ty Warner, the founder and CEO of the company that produced the Beanie Babies, a pretty great toy maligned in our memory by the mania that accompanied our desire to “collect them all.” The whole tale is outrageous and engaging from start to finish and a valuable reminder of the foibles of human nature.

CATEGORY 2: PAST YEAR GEMS, CRASH COURSES

[Both of these books are not quite new in paperback and are a little longer (in part because they are augmented by fascinating footnotes), but they are absorbing narrative reads to keep your mind sharp over the summer.]

Jacket (7)Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist

I must admit, I have always been in love with New Orleans. And what a fantastic subtitle this book has—if that doesn’t get you interested in history, what will? This account of New Orleans from the 1890s to 1920 weaves together the narratives of red-light district “mayor” Tom Anderson, conflicted brothel madam Josie Arlington, coronet player and jazz progenitor Buddy Bolden, a mysterious ax murderer, and many more. It explains how myth and reality, culture and class divide, hospitality and violence, have always existed in the city that care ostensibly forgot. It was only by coincidence that the beating heart of this tale, the red-light district Storyville, got its name from one subsequently-embarrassed city councilman (named Sidney Story) who was just trying to segregate sin from the more respectable parts of the city. But, trust me, after reading this whole book, you could wonder how the whole city isn’t called that.

Jacket (8)The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean

I’m not sure where you have to be in your chemistry education to be in the proper range between being able to understand it and also learning new things, but if you remember chemistry okay from high school, you should be fine. From his charming first anecdote about his mother spearing mercury droplets from broken thermometers to blowing my mind with how elements are made by stars in a process called stellar nucleosynthesis, this is a clear, exciting, and engaging look at the fundamental stuff the universe is made of that doesn’t forget to give things a human touch. Ask for a second bookmark to keep a place for the many wonderful footnotes you’ll be referring to constantly.

CATEGORY 3: THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION

Jacket (9)Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant

If you are reading a book blog from an independent book store in Jackson, Mississippi, I can only imagine that you might have heard of this book already. If you haven’t investigated this local literary phenomenon for yourself, I highly recommend that you do. Grant takes a probing, often hilarious, always empathetic, occasionally baffled look at life in the Mississippi delta. It’s got hunting, blues, and blood feuds mixed in with serious examinations of race, class, prisons, and education. It’s not so much that Grant discovers what native Mississippians don’t already know about our state; it’s how he elucidates the problems with a critical eye while still finding plenty of causes for celebration. It’s bound to be a Southern classic for a long time to come, and now is as good a time as any to read all about it for yourself.

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