Author: Guest Author (Page 2 of 5)

Author Q & A with Curtis Wilkie

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 9).

Curtis Wilkie

Curtis Wilkie

Mississippi’s iconic journalist and author Curtis Wilkie teams up with his long-time friend and former Boston Globe colleague, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Thomas Oliphant, to bring a new generation of readers–as well as those who still remember the Kennedy/Nixon race of 1960–a wealth of new insights and behind-the-scenes information about one of the closest presidential contests in American history.

Their deeply-detailed account of how the Kennedy machine built and sustained the well-organized long game that carried JFK to victory in 1960 is carefully outlined in The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign (Simon & Schuster).

Beginning on page 1 with a blunt explanation of how the timing of the heart attacks of sitting President Dwight Eisenhower and then-Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson affected the 1956 race before it even started, Wilkie and Oliphant set a quick pace that covers a lot of political ground in 360-plus pages. As “one of the most vigorous campaign stories of all time,” it helps put today’s political climate in historical context.

Wilkie, a Greenville native and award-winning journalist who spent nearly four decades covering national and international news (including eight presidential elections and the South’s  Civil Rights struggles), now teaches journalism at his alma mater, Ole Miss.

He authored four other books, including Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians and Other Persons of Interest and The Fall of the House of Zeus.

Oliphant wrote for the Boston Globe as a political reporter for 40 years, and has authored four previous books, including Baseball as a Road to God and Utter Incompetents: Ego and Ideology in the Age of Bush.

Wilkie will appear at the Mississippi Book Festival Aug. 19 as a participant in the U.S. Presidents panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Old Supreme Court Room in the Mississippi Capitol Building in Jackson.

ms book fest

Your new book The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign revisits the 1960 presidential campaign that ultimately landed John F. Kennedy in the White House. Why did you two decide to return once more to this story that played out more than half a century ago?

road to camelotIn 2003, I had an idea to write a book about one dramatic afternoon at the 1956 Democratic convention when Kennedy challenged the party establishment and nearly became the vice presidential nominee after Adlai Stevenson asked the delegates to choose his running mate. Even though he lost, Kennedy emerged as a new political star. As a teenager watching the struggle on TV, I had been fascinated. It was the last time any convention has gone past a first ballot.

But no publishing house seemed interested in resurrecting that convention. I even got an audience with Alice Mayhew, the legendary editor at Simon & Schuster, to make a pitch. “Not big enough,” she told me.

Fast forward a decade. My great pal Tom Oliphant–we were colleagues at the Boston Globe for more than 25 years–told me of conversations he had with Ted Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s closest aides, who lamented that in all of the Kennedy corpus of books no one had written an account of the long campaign for the presidency. Teddy White wrote a great book about 1960, but it only dealt with one year. Bingo. We developed a bigger, broader book proposal and a number of houses bid on it. Alice Mayhew won the auction.

Kennedy’s five-year national campaign for president started immediately following his failed attempt to secure the VP spot on the Democrats’ ticket in 1956. At that time, he was a Massachusetts senator without a lot of national recognition. Why did he begin so early?

JFK had always started his campaigns early. When he first ran for Congress in 1946 he outflanked a number of older candidates by getting a head start.

Although John F. Kennedy’s father Joseph Kennedy was one of Boston’s most powerful, wealthy, and politically savvy business tycoons, JFK seemed to have an innate understanding of how to craft his own energetic run for the presidency. Tell me about JFK’s relationship with his father, and how it influenced his life.

No question JFK loved his father. He used his money to finance his campaign. But he disregarded virtually every recommendation the old man had. Joe Kennedy believed his son could win the presidential nomination the old-fashioned way–by getting the support of a handful of power-brokers. Instead, JFK took his campaign to the people in primaries.

One example: Joe Kennedy warned him to avoid the West Virginia primary–too many Protestants lived there who would be dubious of a Catholic. JFK defied his advice, entered and won this pivotal contest. Aside from frequent disagreements over strategy, the father complained that he could no longer talk about foreign policy with his son because their thoughts were so different.

Kennedy, who had surrounded himself with a group of bright, young advisers, preferred a grassroots approach over working with party bosses. Why was this?

Again, this was an example of Kennedy’s approach to elections. He always developed his own loyal organizations and ran outside the party structure. In Massachusetts, JFK had “Kennedy clubs” in virtually every town in the state. When he went national he did the same thing, attracting energetic followers early in each state. By the time potential rivals such as Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, and Adlai Stevenson decided to grab for the presidential nomination, it was too late.

The 1960 campaign was the first to fully utilize the medium of television, and Kennedy became a master of exploiting the use of TV to his advantage. This was never so obvious as when he engaged in a series of debates with his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. Explain why television–and those debates in particular–were so pivotal in this campaign.

Because he was charismatic, Kennedy was made for TV. He was our first television candidate. Nixon, meanwhile, looked like he had been sleeping under a bridge. Kennedy understood the medium and was the first candidate to hire media advisers. Substantively, there was really little difference between Kennedy and Nixon. Despite a widespread belief that Kennedy “won” the debates, we discovered during our research at the Kennedy Presidential Library that JFK’s private polls showed that the four debates never really changed the horse race between the two men.

Tell me about the strategy Kennedy used in the campaign to reach out to voters in the South, where Civil Rights and school integration were hot button issues.

As a Southerner, I was naturally interested in this aspect of the Kennedy campaign. Remember at the time that the South was still completely Democratic, but the Southern Democrats were very conservative and most of them were segregationists. Blacks were essentially unable to vote in the South, yet they represented an important constituency in so many of the big Northern states in an arc that ran from New York to places like Illinois and Michigan.

Kennedy walked a tightrope. He had always gotten along with most of the old Southern bulls in the Senate who were chairmen of committees because of their seniority. He had a good relationship, for example, with Senator Jim Eastland of Mississippi–and there were few senators more conservative than Eastland. In that 1956 convention fight, Kennedy wound up winning the support of most of the Southern delegations and that encouraged him to think he could make inroads in the South in 1960. I think he was sophisticated enough to realize that the Southern delegates voted for him in 1956 because he was an alternative to the ultimate victor for the vice presidential nomination, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Kefauvcr was despised in the South because he was a liberal who opposed segregation.

Kennedy made a memorable trip to Jackson in 1957 and went all out to win support in the region. That was right after President Eisenhower was forced to send troops to Little Rock to ensure that court orders were enforced to desegregate Central High School there. Throughout the South, Kennedy was repeatedly asked for a commitment to never back up desegregation orders with troops. Eventually, it became clear that the Southern Democratic bosses preferred Lyndon Johnson, who was then Senate majority leader.

At the same time, Kennedy began to court black leaders in the North more avidly. He understood the importance of their votes. Against the advice of most of his advisers–including his brother Robert, who ran the campaign–JFK made a sympathetic telephone call to Coretta Scott King, who feared for the life of her husband, Martin Luther King, after he had been sent to a Georgia prison on a trumped-up traffic charge. That may have been the most critical decision of the campaign, winning thousands of black votes while Nixon did nothing. Yet Kennedy wound up winning half of the Southern states.

Explain why Kennedy’s Catholicism was a potential political obstacle for a national campaign in America during this time.

Kennedy was forced to promise publicly that the Vatican would not dictate politics in America. In 1960, I was a junior at Ole Miss and I still have vivid memories of the campaign, but I had forgotten how enormous was the Catholic issue.

Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders such as Norman Vincent Peale were actually involved in a conspiracy with the Nixon campaign to prevent the election of a Catholic. Once Kennedy was elected, the issue disappeared. No one considers Catholicism a political problem today.

The last-minute selection of Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson as Kennedy’s running mate was unexpected, and, for many Kennedy supporters, unwanted. The lengthy account in your book explaining how it came about is as complicated as it is fascinating. Can you boil it down to a brief explanation?

Boiled down, Kennedy needed the electoral votes of Texas, and LBJ’s help in other Southern states to win.

Nixon was a formidable opponent, and the election results turned out to be among the closest in history for a Presidential race. What have been the official explanations for such a close outcome?    

No real “official” explanation, but both men were smart candidates with pockets of strength across the country. Nixon, for example, managed to win California even though Kennedy felt he would carry the state.

In today’s political climate, what do you believe may be some important lessons we can all take away from this real-life story from more than 50 years ago?

Kennedy effectively invented the modern presidential campaign. Running outside the party apparatus was a model for other successful candidates: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. One can even make an argument that Donald Trump used this same approach. Kennedy was the first to have his own pollster to offer guidance about issues and constituencies. He mastered television. He was the first to exploit the route of the primaries, which everyone uses today.

Author Q & A with John T. Edge

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16)

You could say that it was John T. Edge’s hunger for answers that led the Georgia native to move to Oxford 22 years ago and earn a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.

potlikker papers“I wanted to reconcile my profound love of the South with a deep anger that boiled in me when I confronted our peculiar history,” he writes in his newest book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.

It was through recognizing “that farmers and cooks and waiters have been activists, too, fixed on forging their own newer South,” that he began to discover a path toward reconciliation.

That path led to his position as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance based at Ole Miss, where he and his staff explore the interconnected history of Southern food, philosophy, and favoritism.

The author of more than a dozen books and the winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award in 2012, Edge examines the roles of politics, prejudice, and potlikker in shaping the South’s “modern history”–and why it all matters today–in The Potlikker Papers.

He is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun, writes a column for the Oxford American, and has served as the culinary curator for the weekend edition of NPR’s All Things Considered and as writer of the “United Tastes” column for the New York Times.

He lives in Oxford with his wife, Blair Hobbs, and his son Jess.

Tell me about the Southern Foodways Alliance.  

In May 1998, when I was a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, I had conceived the idea for the first symposium on Southern food (presented by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi). It was successful and people got excited about the idea.

The SFA was founded in 1999 by 50 folks from around the region who believed the food culture of the American South was worthy of documentation and study. The group (which included a wide variety of food writers, growers, and chefs, along with academics who study or organize around Southern food) coalesced at a 1999 meeting in Birmingham, and I was hired as its director. The SFA, which employs nine staffers, now stages public symposia, documents oral histories, produces films, publishes a journal and a podcast–all telling nuanced and complicated stories about the American South and its food.

Through real-life narratives, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South examines the history of Southern food and culture through distinct historical periods which you’ve titled Freedom Struggles (1950s-1970s); Rise of the Folk (1970s & 1980s); Gentrification (1980s & 1990s); New Respect (1990s-2010s); and Future Tenses (2010s Forward). With some overlap in the time periods, each section shares stories that help explain Southern political, cultural, and gender struggles through food. Please flesh out the concept of The Potlikker Papers in your own words.

My book charts a 60-year history of the South, beginning in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and closing in 2015, when a true multicultural South looms on the horizon. I chose 1955 because, by my estimate, that was when the South began to change. Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. Black citizens rose to battle Jim Crow.

To tell that story, I focused on Georgia Gilmore, a cook from Montgomery, who raised money to literally and figuratively fuel the boycott by baking cakes and pies and frying chicken and selling them under the banner of what she called the Club from Nowhere. At around that point, the region I admire begins to come into focus. My book showcases a tragic place, reshaped by bold and radical women and people of color. This book is a people’s history of the South, a history of the farmers and cooks and waiters whose story has not been widely told.

 Please explain the title of the book, and why you found it appropriate to tell this story.

The title was inspired by the Potlikker and Cornpone debate of 1931 between Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana and Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution. During the Great Depression, they staged a three-week debate–about how to eat potlikker and cornpone–as a diversion from the woes of the time. Harris crumbled his cornbread into potlikker; Long dunked his.

I wrote my master’s thesis about that debate and about how a close read of the language of the day reveals insights about race, class, gender, and identity. The term “potlikker” also references my work of boiling down 60 years of Southern history to its essence.

 Why have Southerners come to develop an awareness of the food as a way of interpreting our political and cultural history and examining our current climate, and why is this important?

Food is a creative response to who we are and where we live. Southern food expresses our culture, our morals, our beliefs, our passion, and our creativity. We express ourselves through the music we play, the literature we write, through the religions we worship–and also our food. One of the promises for those of us who think and write about food is that our subject is relatable across race, ethnicity, class, and gender divides.

Only recently have Southerners embraced that idea. That is because cooks of the South were often women and people of color. Throughout our history, their work was not seen as worthy of celebration and documentation. The whole of our nation is waking up to this.

 Through this examination of our food culture, how far have we (the South) come in our efforts to right some wrongs, and what have been some of our biggest successes? (It seems that the current interest in and reputation of “Southern food” has been elevated in the past few decades.)

On the natural resource side of the equation, we’ve begun to seek out heirloom vegetables, pastured poultry and free-range hogs. That kind of curiosity is deeply important to biodiversity. On the human resource side, we have come to value the labor of cooks as we never have before. For the longest time, we paid dinting tribute to working class cooks. Especially when speaking of people of color, conservative white-controlled publications often used only their first name. That kind of omission was routinely applied not that long ago. A change has come.

To that end, what challenges lie ahead?

I think the challenge will be negotiating a future for Southern food, in which we recognize, broadly, that culture is a process, not a product. Today, some of the best po-boy shops along the Gulf Coast are owned and operated by Vietnamese families who arrived here to work as shrimpers. One of my favorite Mexican American restaurants markets its tortas as po-boys. These are future tense Southern foods. If you look at the region with clear eyes, you recognize that, by way of pure demographics, the South is changing. And rapidly. I think much is gained in embracing these changes.

You’re a Georgia native, a relatively-long-time Mississippi resident, and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.  Do you enjoy cooking? What are some of your own Southern favorites?

John T. Edge

John T. Edge

My wife Blair Hobbs is a far better cook; she makes a great version of my mother’s catfish stew. I keep a Big Green Egg on my porch, right outside my writing shed, and I like to smoke pork shoulders. Occasionally I’ll smoke tomatoes to make a great pasta sauce with a bit of cream. And I love to cook beans. I love the way, when combined with a hunk of pork and some onions, beans transform from what looks like rocks and pebbles to a creamy, poofy, luxurious dish. I also like to make pancakes on Sunday morning and serve them with Allan Benton’s bacon, from Madisonville, Tenn.

Edge will serve as a panelist for a discussion on “A Culture of Food” at 2:45 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson. The panel will convene in the Galloway Fellowship Center near the Mississippi State Capitol.

ms book fest

Author Q & A with Corabel Shofner (Bel Alexander)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 30).

Native Jacksonian Corabel Shofner (known as a child in Jackson as Bel with one L Alexander) has, with “great success, taken the long way when it came to navigating several important milestones in [her] life–but things have always, eventually, seemed to fall into place.”

At age 17, she decided to “interrupt” her education at Murrah High School–so she left, and hitchhiked around the world, landing in New York City. She eventually enrolled in Columbia University and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa after studying English literature and Arabic. She and husband Martin Shofner now live in Nashville, where she received a degree from Vanderbilt University School of Law. They have three grown children.

almost paradiseNow in her mid-60s, Shofner is officially beginning her new career as a writer, releasing her debut book, Almost Paradise(Farrar Straus Giroux)–a story about love, self-sacrifice, and a family’s second chance at redemption.

Her shorter works have appeared or are forthcoming in Word RiotWillow ReviewHabersham ReviewHawai’i ReviewSou’westerSouth Carolina ReviewSouth Dakota Review, and Xavier Review.

Tell me about growing up in Jackson.

We lived in Lakeland and Old Canton Road. My first school was Duling, where I was fascinated by the principal, Mrs. or Miss Boutwell, because she had a mysterious medical crisis called a blood clot.

There were pine woods behind my house which I would walk through to see Ophelia, who was the housekeeper/caregiver for Mrs. Brown in Woodland Hills. Mrs. Brown is the first person I know who died. Ophelia’s lovely stone cottage was right out of a fairy tale. If someone left ashes in her ashtray she kept them because she loved the smell. I think of her every time I see or smell ashes.

We moved our house from Lakeland to Lelia Drive, down by what is now River Hills Country Club. Anybody who was alive at that time will remember the house that was stuck on the bridge for weeks. That would be mine. For year, when I would be drive home by a friend’s mother, she would pull up and gasp, “Wasn’t that the house…?”

I was a terrible student and not a reader at all, except when I crawled into the attic to read Black Beauty with my plastic horses. I did write. The first book was titled The Monsters Under My Bed. I dropped out of Murrah High School and hitchhiked away, but I go to all the 1971 class reunions.

I still have farm land in the Delta and we come home often. My children are all grown, now ages 24-31, and they are all very imaginative and artistic.

You are, or were, an attorney. When did you start writing, and are you giving up your legal career for writing at this time?

I love researching and writing law, but as a career, it is over. It was a great job, but I’m a bit conflict averse, which I should have thought about ahead of time. And I didn’t like measuring my life in billable hours. My family has a long history in law. My grandfather–Julian Power Alexander, who married Corabel Roberts–wrote a dissenting opinion when he was on the Mississippi Supreme Court that said that the constitution does not exact wisdom from its citizens, but ensures their right to folly. I love that so much.

He died at the Sugar Bowl (in New Orleans, in January 1953, two months before I was born. They took his body to Bultman’s funeral home and then on the train home. Bultman’s is now a Fresh Market Grocery Store. Pat Stevens told me that when I visited her in New Orleans recently. My father was a dear friend of her husband Phineaus.

Julian and Corabel had a Dutch Colonial house on Poplar Street in Belhaven, and I remember toddling up to the front door. My cousin (author Tom Sancton of New Orleans and Paris) tells me we are at least fifth-generation Mississippians-and 13th-generation Mayflower descendants–but, as he says, “that’s another story.”

In your debut novel, Almost Paradise, the main character, Ruby Clyde Henderson, had an unpredictable life for whom things eventually worked out in an unexpected way. She is a complicated character who deserves more than she often got during the first 12 years of her life. How did you conceive of this character and this story-line for your first book?

I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was heavily medicated, very worried about my children and our future. Ruby Clyde marched into my room and bounced on my bed, telling me about herself, in 2001. This book has been in and our of “the drawer” for years. Ruby Clyde is a healer and I believe that writing her story is why my prognosis is now quite strong.

It’s difficult to tell the time period in which the book is set, until we read that her aunt was digitizing document on her computer–but there are no mentions of cell phones, tablets, social media, or “devices.” Why is there no evidence of these modern distractions?

I wanted my story to be modern, but somewhat timeless, hence the computer in the backroom and a television that is rolled out of the closet. Sister Eleanor doesn’t have a phone–cell or land line. Phones were not necessary to Ruby Clyde and her mother socially or financially. Cell phones are certainly ubiquitous today, but once they are in a story it seems like tech takes over and clutters the relationships. So, even though mine is a contemporary story, I wanted Ruby Clyde and her mother to be connected by other means, and I wanted Paradise Ranch to be a very peaceful, nurturing, and healing place.

Some of the characters, maybe Joe Brewer and Lady Frank, might well have owned cell phones, but didn’t use them in my scenes. The Catfish probably had one somewhere. I thought of dropping in a mention of cell phones, but then that would bring more attention to cell phones and before you know it, everybody would be calling everybody.

By the way, you are not the first person to question the time period. I think there are several places where it is a bit more dreamy than realistic.

The relationship between Ruby Clyde and her mother is, for the most part, reversed. Explain the importance of their roles.

Ruby Clyde is competent and self-reliant by necessity because her mother has withdrawn. I have often seen that when a parent falls short, the child will step forward and take on the adult role. They lose their childhood. It is a tragedy that is overlooked because people are prone to praise the child for stepping in. That is hwy I call this a reverse coming-of-age story. Ruby is able to find adults she can trust and to reclaim her childhood. Of course, she has no entire clue this is what’s happening.

Tell me about the Christian references in the story…Ruby Clyde has an aunt who is a nun, she believes in the power of prayer, and she makes deals with God and lives up to them.

I am a Christian. Biblical imagery is some of the powerful stuff on earth. Much of it can be quite baffling. I have an odd way of seeing everything, religion included. Ruby Clyde believes and questions all at the same time. Also, self-sacrifice is important to me, as it is so difficult to do and keeps getting pushed down the list of virtues. Hence, the Tale of Two Cities thread. I was worried that I might offend people of faith, but I was relieved when a very conservative religious reviewer said that she “would definitely have no qualms about recommending the book to Christian families.”

What is your bigger message to readers who join Ruby Clyde on her journey in this story?

“Message” is a loaded word. It is difficult to write plain words and have them understood at face value. “Message” is in the ear of the reader. I certainly hope that Ruby Clyde’s bravery and compassion are contagious. Ruby Clyde likes to say that you have to love pieces of people because if you wait around for perfect, you will end up with nothing. Maybe that is a message from Ruby Clyde of her own self.

Corabel Shofner

Corabel Shofner

Tell me about your other publications.

Stuff. Short stories, essays, legal writing. I wrote a brief for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why were you drawn to writing a children’s book as your debut novel?

I just wrote my story. (My publisher) Farrar, Straus, And Giroux told me it was for 10-year-olds. That said, I couldn’t be more enchanted with the people dedicated to children’s literature.

Do you plan to continue writing children’s (or middle years) books?

Yes. I will continue to write my stories and then be told what they are. That said, whatever I write I will always support teachers and librarians and all people who work in children’s books. They are my people.

Corabel Shofner will sign copies of Almost Paradise at Lemuria Books at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, August 1. She will also serve as a panelist on the Middle Grade Reader’s discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 12 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room H.

‘Rocky Boyer’s War’ is among great eye-level accounts about WWII

By Howard Bahr. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 23).

Among the finer memoirs of World War II are those by enlisted soldiers, sailors and Marines at the sharp end of combat. They dispel the romantic aura that too often surrounds our collective memory of that conflict. They offer no “greatest generation” nonsense: only loss, violence, and the anguish of young souls tried almost beyond endurance. rocky boyers warThese qualities lie at the heart of an outstanding new work, Rocky Boyer’s War: An Unvarnished History of the Air Blitz that Won the War in the Southwest Pacific(Naval Institute Press, 2017), by Allen Boyer. Roscoe Boyer, Allen Boyer’s father, was not an enlisted man, and the book is but partially a memoir. Nevertheless, this work will find its place among the great eye-level accounts of World War II.

In his long and productive life (1919-2008), Roscoe Boyer would become an inventor, an early student of computers, a senior professor in the University of Mississippi School of Education, and an advocate for public schools in Mississippi. Of course, this was all in the future when he was caught in the draft after Pearl Harbor.

Rocky Boyer was commissioned a lieutenant in the Fifth Air Force and served in the Southwest Pacific from November 1943 to November 1945–not so long in civilian life, but an eternity at the sharp end. While in the service, he kept a diary, which was, and continues to be, against regulations. Lucky for us, Boyer was not much troubled by regulations–one of his many virtues–nor did he allow them to interfere with his duty. In addition, his junior rank recommends him. The recollections of those above the rank of captain should be eyed with suspicion.

Those who have served will recognize the hardship, the annoyances, the petty squabbles and unearned privileges of colonels and generals, tension between officers and enlisted men, homesickness, sweethearts sorely missed, and the loss of friends in combat. Those who have not served will be usefully entertained. All readers will shake their heads at the folly and come to understand why, later in life, Boyer’s favorite novel was Catch-22.

While Rocky Boyer’s War has universal appeal, the book is important for its historical specificity. In a unique synthesis of personal remembrance and history, Allen Boyer locates excerpts from his father’s diary within the broader context of the campaigns in the Southwest Pacific. The result is a concise, yet comprehensive, narrative of operations crucial to victory  over Japan, but largely forgotten today.

Howard Bahr of Jackson is a veteran of the Navy’s amphibious war in Vietnam.

Allen Boyer signs Rocky Boyer’s War on Thursday, July 25 at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m.

Dislocation, fantasy roil in ‘A Life of Adventure and Delight’ by Akhil Sharma

By Paul Rankin. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16).

life of adventure and delightIn Akhil Sharma’s collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight (W.W. Norton), we meet a sequence of remarkable characters in the throes of profound dislocation.

Five of the eight stories take place in the United States, while the remaining three occur in India. All, however, focus on characters struggling to preserve cultural roots and traditions even as they feel themselves getting swept along by the forces of modernity and westernization. These struggles produce narratives which are by degrees horrifying, heartbreaking, and hilarious.

In the opening scene of the opening story, for instance, we meet Gopal Maurya, recently abandoned by his daughter (Gita) and wife (Anita) and sleeping on a couch in the living room. Having banished himself from his own bed “in a burst of self-hate,” he’s resolved “to avoid comforting himself with any illusions that his life was normal.”

The absent women provide immediate backdrop for Gopal’s despair; together they also function more broadly, as a controlling metaphor which informs the dramatic tensions throughout and creates a coherence and unity that may collections lack.

Gita has become fully westernized; Anita has returned to India where she met a guru, achieved enlightenment, and moved into an ashram to sweep floors and pray. Left behind, cut off from every familiar thing, Gopal fantasizes about “calling an ambulance so that he could be touched.”

When his neighbor Mrs. Shaw comes over to borrow the lawnmower, he attempts “to extend their time together” by tangling “her in conversation.” Through she won’t even accept a drink–“Orange juice, apple juice, or grape, pineapple, guava. I also have some tropical punch”–Gopal clumsily pursues her, visiting a hair stylist rather than his “usual barber” and reading articles in popular magazines like Cosmopolitan for advice about what makes a good lover. Along the way, Gopal also fights to preserve his tenuous connection to the past by becoming involved in the Indian Cultural Association.

Each subsequent story centers on the particular desires and frustrations of its individual protagonist, but each explores similar themes of conflicted longing. In the wake of a recent tragedy, a young boy prays daily before a traditional Hindu altar at the same time he attempts to make sense of his loss by identifying with iconic western superheroes like Batman and Superman for whom personal catastrophe became the catalyst that reveled their true greatness.

A temple pandit places his cellphone on the cushion beside him while performing sacred burial rights and when, “Periodically it would ring, and he would gesture for (the others) to keep singing while he answered…with one hand played the harmonium with the other.”

A doctoral student at NYU uses the internet to hire prostitutes while maintaining the conviction that “any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her was in some way depraved and foul, and also unintelligent.”

A young woman, living abroad in America, soothes the pain of isolation by drinking more and more until “the drink overtook her,” at which point her husband “sends her back to her parents” knowing they “will kill her, because the shame of having an alcoholic as a daughter…is staggering.”

These stories are poignant, gripping, and subtly profound in their investigation of the moral complexities confronting all citizens of an increasingly globalized society. Each stands alone in its own right. At the same time, largely because of how deftly Sharma weaves these common threads of alienation and dislocation throughout, the sum is far greater than its parts.

Paul Rankin holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, works as a freelance writer and editor, and is on the verge of finishing his first novel. He lives in Jackson with his family.

A Life of Adventure and Delight is the July 2017 selection of the Lemuria First Edition Club. Its author, Akhil Sharma, will appear at Lemuria on Tuesday, July 18, at 5:00 to sign and 5:30 to read.

‘Civil Rights, Culture Wars’ shows how textbook fight mirrors battle of Mississippi legacy

By Jere Nash. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 9).

civil rights culture warsNot until 1980 were Mississippi high schools allowed to use a textbook that accurately and dispassionately covered the entire history of the state, complete with the horrors of slavery, the motives behind the Civil War, the value of Reconstruction, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook (University of North Carolina Press) by University of Mississippi historian Charles Eagles explains how it happened.

Several years ago, the University of North Carolina Press published The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss, the authoritative account by Eagles of the one event in the 1960s that defined Mississippi for the rest of the nation.

The disastrous response of whites in our state to the demand for civil and voting rights was prompted in part by 80 years of school textbooks that marginalized black men and women and distorted black history.

Eagles is unsparing in his descriptions of those earlier textbooks: one explained that “the life of a slave [was] pleasant,” while another textbook defended the role of the Ku Klux Klan, while yet another applauded the 1890 Constitutional Convention in seeking to “insure control of the state by the white man.” After eight decades of indoctrination of generations of white Mississippians with historical myths, it is not hard to see how that helped to fuel the fire of massive resistance.

MississippiConflictandChangeWhich brings us to James Loewen and Charles Sallis. In the 1970s, Loewen, a professor at Tougaloo College, and Sallis, a professor at Millsaps College, began to work together on a new kind of textbook, called Mississippi: Conflict and Change, that, as Eagles writes, “argued that conflict produces change, and [that] embraced controversial subjects related to race and class, examined unpleasant subjects such as economic depressions and violence, and included subjects neglected by other books–blacks, women, workers, and the arts.” Eagles takes us through how the book was researched, written and ultimately published in 1974.

Getting the book published, though, didn’t automatically mean it would show up in high schools. In Mississippi, then as now, a state board approves the textbooks for classroom use. And in November 1974, the board said no to Conflict and Change. With access to rich primary material, Eagles gives us a perceptive behind-the-scenes accounting of why that decision was made.

But the story doesn’t end there. Loewen, Sallis, and Eagles are just getting warmed up. The authors filed a historic lawsuit, asking a federal judge to force the state to accept their textbook, and Eagles delivers this development with backroom negotiations, trial testimony and lucid analysis. The litigation took six long years and was finally resolved on April 2, 1980, when Judge Orman Smith ordered the board to place Conflict and Change on the approved list.

Eagles captures the untenable position of the state in one short exchange between the judge and John Turnipseed, a teacher who rated the book unfavorably. After objecting to a photograph of a lynching because it would cause “harsh feelings in the classroom,” Turnipseed was asked by Judge Smith, “But this happened, didn’t it? Didn’t Mississippians have more lynchings than any other state?” Turnipseed testified, “Well, yes. But that all happened so long ago. Why dwell on it now?” To which the exasperated judge responded: “Well, it is a history book!”

As with his book on Meredith and Ole Miss, Eagles’ writing is marked by three qualities that I like. One, he builds the narrative around primary sources. He interviews people, he digs through old file boxes, and finds the records that tell the truth.

Two, he provides context. He not only sets the state for the story, he give us succinct biographical information on the players. The journey of Conflict and Change involved lawyers, historians, journalists, activists, including Ernst Borinski, Frank Parker, Mel Leventhal, Margaret Walker Alexander, Fred Banks, Clarice Campbell, Duncan Gray Jr., Jeanne Middleton, David Sansing, and John Bettersworth.

Third, Eagles doesn’t hesitate to give his opinion. I agreed with some, other I didn’t, but I like authors with opinions; it makes me stop and think.

I’ll close this review with an observation on the import of Conflict and Change by the incomparable Frank Parker, one of the lawyers for Loewen and Sallis: “Desegregation of the public schools in the South is now protected even more by a constitutional prohibition against maintaining racial segregation in the curriculum and in textbooks.”

Jere Nash is the co-author of Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008, Mississippi Fried Politics, Tall Tales from the Backroom, and America’s Great Storm: Leading Through Hurricane Katrina.

Author Q & A with Lucy Buffett

Interview with Lucy Buffett by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (June 25).

Gumbo LoveAlong with her family, it’s the spirit–and the food–of the Gulf Coast that claim the biggest parts of Lucy Buffett’s heart, and she embraces both in her newest cookbook, Gumbo Love: Recipes for Gulf Coast Cooking, Entertaining, and Savoring the Good Life.

Part food preparation, part philosophy and thoughts on living life to its fullest, Buffett takes on topics like why dessert should be eaten first, why fried foods matter, and why sometimes you just need to “run toward what you fear: close your eyes, hold your nose and jump into it.”

Growing up in Mobile with her sister Laurie and musician/brother Jimmy, Buffett developed a love for the culture and food of the Gulf Coast that eventually led her to open her now-famous “Lu Lu’s” restaurants in Gulf Shores and, later, Destin. She works tirelessly to offer the best experience possible to her customers, and, through Gumbo Love and her previous book LuLu’s Kitchen, to her readers, as well.

Please tell me a little about your childhood, and your spirit of adventure and celebration that seems to come from living along the Gulf Coast.

I was born and raised in Mobile, and, much to my dismay, I am the only person in my family NOT born in Mississippi! That includes my brother, Jimmy, my sister, Laurie, and me. But to this day, we still call each other by our nicknames: LuLu, LaLa, and Bubba. We grew up with dreams of living on the water–boating and recreating on the Gulf Coast shores in both Alabama and Mississippi, because we spent summers at our grandparents’ homes in Pascagoula and Gulfport.

Of course, we are Southern to the core, but being coastal and Southern injects a passion for adventure and a curiosity for what lies beyond the horizon at the water’s edge.

All of us have ventured far from our roots, and I’m the only one who came back home. But like all Southerners who “move away,” my siblings still relish their Southern upbringing and the Gulf Coast cuisine of our childhoods.

Your travels through the years have taken you on a “food tour” that began when you left Alabama as a young woman, and cooked your way through Key West, New Orleans, Belize, New York City, Los Angeles–and back to Alabama.  How did all of those influences affect your cooking?

My cooking skills evolved with my travel adventures. I learned to cook from a Junior League cookbook as a very young wife and mother. I think travel is a very important and a necessary type of education, but since I had an affinity for cooking, I was always fascinated and eager to try new recipes for dishes that I encountered along the way.

I started cooking the dishes I grew up with, but moving to New Orleans deepened my knowledge of the Creole and Cajun cuisine that migrated across the Gulf Coast. Moving to the big cities, I learned how to appreciate and embrace food trends and dove into experimenting. It was fun and enlightening, but as I’ve gotten older and with my move back to the Gulf Coast, I’ve returned to my roots and that is the cuisine I serve at my restaurants. Regardless of what I cook or eat, I’m all about the food tasting delicious!

Tell me about the concept and intention of your cookbook Gumbo Love–and what the title means to you. Also, how many recipes are included?

There are 150 recipes in Gumbo Love and basically, it picks up the conversation about Gulf Coast cuisine that I started in my first cookbook, LuLu’s Kitchen (2016), [formerly Crazy Sista Cooking.]

Gumbo Love is my homage to the Gulf Coast and the vibrant food culture of the beautiful beaches and swampy wetlands I call home. Gumbo is a classic dish in that culture, and every family has a gumbo cook or story to tell.

Making gumbo is not for the faint of heart! All the character building lessons I’ve learned over the years like preparation, discernment, patience, courage, and surrender are all utilized when making a pot of gumbo. Gumbo Love is not only the title of the book or a phrase I have coined, but a philosophy by which I live. It’s about acceptance, love, respect, fortitude, celebration and gratitude.

Gumbo Love includes not only wonderful gumbo and soup recipes, but chapters with your own Gulf Coastal take on main dishes, vegetables, salads, sandwiches, sauces, drinks, and more–and the book begins with a chapter on desserts. Why start with desserts? 

I like to do things a little differently, not for the purpose of simply being provocative. For me, it’s about being in alignment with my curious, creative and rebellious nature. I write about my mother a lot because she was such a powerful influence on me and my family. After she suffered a stroke, she started ordering dessert first when we would go out for lunch. It was wonderful, playful, and a bit out of character for her stoicism. I just thought it would be fun to make desserts the first chapter and it brought back lovely memories of my mother. Plus, I have a wicked sweet tooth!

Not many cookbooks these days devote a chapter to fried foods. Please tell me about the one titled “Deep-Fried Favorites: A Southern Must”. 

I am Southern, and fried food is a part of my heritage and culture. Plus, it is one of the most delicious and delectable ways to prepare food. Being passionate about authenticity, I thought I needed to include recipes for the food that we all love and, by the way, is our number one best seller in my restaurants.

In the book, I explain how I have come to terms, in my older years, with balancing my eating the foods that better support my body and those that don’t. I don’t believe in good food or bad food. A little fried food or one dish of bread pudding isn’t going to hurt. It’s all about balance. And I’m very much at peace with my decision to never give up fried shrimp or chicken!

Tell me about opening the now famous LuLu’s Sunset Grill in Gulf Shores out of a modified bait shop. What was LuLu’s like in the beginning, and how it has grown?

The last 18 years of my 43-year work history have been what I call my own “Cinderella” story. But every job I’ve ever done prepared me to do the one I’m doing now. The first LuLu’s was truly a wonderful and small waterfront dive. It had very humble beginnings and I worked all positions along with my two grown daughters and six other employees. It was fun and hard, hard work.

After five years, I lost my lease and my first impulse was to close. But with the help of friends and an investor who had faith in me and my concept, we moved to the current location in Gulf Shores, expanding the seating from 100 seats to 400 seats.  It took off like a wildfire as soon as we opened the doors. Today, I have an additional location in Destin, Florida, and over 500 employees. Yes, it is big, but it is all built on the original concept of giving our customers an authentic Gulf Coast experience. And we really work hard together as the LuLu’s family to do just that!

In the book, you explain that an eclectic mix of foods is represented throughout the Gulf Coast, with colliding influences that include the cuisines and cultures of Cuba, Mexico, Africa, Louisiana Cajun and Creole traditions, and “Southern grace and simplicity.” Where does Mississippi coastal food fit into that mix?

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has a long history in the seafood industry. The warm Gulf water is the home to some of the best seafood in the world! All the influences you mentioned are so evident in our cuisine using the beautiful Gulf seafood: shrimp, crab, oysters, and the sweet warm-water fish are central items on any restaurant menu or household dinner table. We are so blessed to have the bounty that we have from the Gulf.

Gumbo Love seems to be as much a book about inspiration, life lessons, advice, and encouragement as it is a top-notch cookbook filled with dozens of amazing recipes. Tell me about that “other purpose” for this cooking guide.

Lucy Buffett

Lucy Buffett

I am a very gregarious person, but I am also a very introspective person and I’ve devoted my adult life to doing the “inner work” required for self-improvement. I wasn’t interested in doing a simple “how to” cookbook–if I am going to attempt any project, it must have meaning and purpose, other than just to make money. Gumbo Love gives a glimpse into my inner landscape that is the foundational block of my current business success as a restaurateur and personally as an independent, self-sustaining woman.

Can you share any career or other plans–maybe for books, restaurant expansions, etc.–for your future?

It took eight years to complete Gumbo Love and I worked on it fulltime for the last two-and-a-half years, so I’m going to take a break and get back to the restaurant business for a while. I have another LuLu’s opening in Myrtle Beach in 2018 and that is VERY exciting.

I do have an idea for another cookbook, but the next book I will write will be a business memoir called Confessions of a Reluctant Entrepreneur. However, I will do that at my leisure, and I’m planning a very long vacation so I can relax for a while and enjoy this great life I’ve worked so hard to manifest!

Author Q & A with John Grisham

Interview with John Grisham by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (June 18).

John Grisham’s story that took him from small-town lawyer to master of the legal thriller is a tale that even he couldn’t have imagined.

But the incredible success he’s experienced since his first novel was published in 1988–which would lead to 30 bestsellers and counting–is strictly nonfiction.

With the release of his latest work, Camino Island (Doubleday), Grisham takes a recess from the courtroom and goes beachside in what he is calling “a great beach read.”

He’s also hitting the road for the first time in 15 years with a book tour that will bring him to a dozen cities nationwide, including Square Books in Oxford and Lemuria Books in Jackson.

caminoCamino Island is a book about books, booksellers, bookstores, and the rare book business. In this fictional account of the dramatic heist of four original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton University library, most of the story unfolds in the quiet resort town of Santa Rosa, Florida. Main characters Bruce Cable, who owns a popular book store there and Mercer Mann, a hopeful young author, square off in a high-stakes tale of espionage, betrayal, and theft–all within the mysterious world of the rare books trade.

When Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was released 29 years ago, and, in his words, “was a flop,” he decided to give it one more try before abandoning his dram of becoming a writer. With the blockbuster success of The Firm in 1991, he’s never looked back, releasing a book a year ever since.

JohnGrisham_credit Billy HuntBorn in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1955, Grisham spent most of his childhood in Mississippi, and went on to earn an accounting degree from Mississippi State, and then a law degree from Ole Miss. He was working as an attorney in Southaven and serving as a member of the Mississippi Legislature when he began writing full-time.

All of his books have became international bestsellers, and he now has more than 300 million in print worldwide. Nine of those, including A Time to KillThe FirmThe Pelican Brief, and A Painted House have become successful films. His writings also include the nonfiction work The Innocent Man and a collection of short stories, Ford County. He has also written a series for young readers that features 13-year-old character Theodore Boone offering legal advice to his classmates.

When he’s able to take a break from his writing desk, Grisham enjoys devoting time to charitable work (including his Rebuild the Coast Fund after Hurricane Katrina); and his lifetime passion of baseball, as both a local Little League commissioner and the developer of six Little League ball fields on his property.

Why did you decide to do another multi-city book tour after 25 years–and why did you wait that long?

grish lemuriaThe last big book tour I did was in 1992, when The Pelican Brief came out. I was living in Oxford at the time, and I knew Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown. They were always hanging around the bookstore (Square Books), and they talked me into doing a big book tour that turned out to be 35 cities in 34 days. It was not fun and I didn’t think it was productive. I told my publisher I can go back to Oxford and write books or hit the road and do publicity.

So, I never did a tour like that again, but I did continue to have signings at five stores: Square Books, Lemuria, Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo, a store in Memphis and one in Blytheville, Arkansas for about 10 years. those five were really helpful when A Time to Kill came out, and they really supported me. So, it’s been 15 years since I’ve done this, and this time it will be 12 cities.

How has your writing changed since A Time to Kill came out in 1989?How have you changed?

There have been no deliberate changes in my writing, as far as the style, procedure, and process. I write every morning for a few hours, and I write a certain number of words each day. As far as how I’ve changed–I’ve aged 30 years.

Camino Island is the story of a grand-scale heist that leaves the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four novels missing–and it weaves a fascinating behind-the-scenes tale of the world of rare books. Why did you choose the works of Fitzgerald as the target for this crime?

The fact that Fitzgerald had fewer manuscripts–he had published four novels–was a huge factor. And I’ve always been a big follower of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. They were all born about the same time (late 1800s-early 1900s) and were the greatest writers of that generation. Fitzgerald had the fewest manuscripts, and they were all in one place, the library at Princeton. Faulkner had at least 40. He was very meticulous about his manuscripts and took care of them, and that would be a lot to try to steal at one time.

Do you collect rare books?

I’ve been collecting rare books for probably 25 years–a lot of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. There have been several dealers I’ve known and worked with through the years. My wife actually bought a copy of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury from (Jackson’s Lemuria Books owner) John Evans for me.

Tell me aobut your relationship with bookstores and booksellers–have bookstores been a special place for you?

They still are special to me. When I’m traveling I usually try to sneak into a bookstore and see what all is for sale, see if my books are selling. If they have a coffee shop or cafe, that’s a nice touch. I go to bookstores and talking with booksellers is something I always enjoy doing. Bookstores are dwindling in numbers now, and many are fighting to preserve them.

What was the hardest book for you to write, for whatever reason? What was the easiest?

Easy, and fun to write and without much research–would be Calico Joe. I love baseball and really enjoyed writing that one. Camino Island was fun–the world of the murky and mysterious world of rare books and how much they’re worth now. The Chamber was probably the toughest to write. I spent a lot of time on death row in Mississippi doing research.

Is there a topic, a style, a genre, you haven’t tackled yet, but want to?

There are a couple of books based on things I might like to write about. One is a sort of fictional memoir of my childhood and life, like in (my novel) A Painted House. It would be going on in Memphis about a 15-year-old boy who thought he was going to Vietnam, after seeing his friend come home in a box. That’s something I think about–kind of personal stuff. Who knows, I still might write it.

You have another book coming out in October, another legal thriller, this one about student debt–a very topical subject now. What can you tell me about it?

Not much–I have a rule not to talk about a book while I’m writing it. It’s about law students. It’s still untitled.

Your first book was rejected by many publishers. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

It was turned down by about 15 publishers and 15 agents. That’s not unusual for a first-time author. And what I know now that I didn’t know then: everything. I knew nothing then about writing or getting published. I was a state legislator and a small-town lawyer, barely 30 and so naïve.

Oxford’s Square Books owner Richard Howorth told me you were very persistent in getting your first book published–and that you wanted to sell “lots and lots” of books. Considering that you have a degree in accounting from Mississippi State, does that kind of determination come from your accounting side, or would you say it was strictly ambition?

I think it was ambition. I had practiced law 10 years in Southaven. I was looking fo a way out because I knew I wasn’t going to make a lot of money. After 10 years of working hard, I wrote A Time to Killin 1989 and it was a flop. I said I will do this–I will write a book–one more time and see what happens. I wrote The Firm, a book that I thought would be more commercial. The fact that movie rights for that book were sold before it was published was a fluke deal that could never be repeated–it was a lucky break that would only happen once.

Long-term, what do you see in your future?

I’m 62 years old. I’m still enjoying this immensely. I certainly have no plans for a career change, or for slowing down. I intend to write one book, maybe two, a year.

Interview with John Evans of Lemuria Books

Interview with John Evans by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-LedgerSunday print edition (June 11).

Even though John Grisham was born in neighboring Arkansas 62 years ago, Mississippians will always “claim” him as a favorite son, since his family made the move to north Mississippi when he was a child–and his ties became tight, thanks to his years as a student at Mississippi State and then Ole Miss law school, and later as a young lawyer in Southaven, a member of the state legislature, and a stretch when he and his family returned to Oxford once he became one of the nation’s most successful authors.

Among his biggest fans is John Evans, who opened Lemuria Books in Jackson 42 years ago and has watched with satisfaction as Grisham’s career–and their friendship–has flourished since A Time to Kill debuted in 1989.

The memories Evans holds of Grisham’s early years as an author, and of the writer’s phenomenal career through the years, convey his obvious pride in a man he considers to be a valued ambassador for Mississippi.

With the release of Grisham’s 30th novel, Camino Island, the writer is embarking on his first book tour in 25 year–and his stops at Richard Howorth‘s Square Books in Oxford on June 20 and at Evans’s Lemuria Books on June 21 are the author’s nod to the roles these booksellers and longtime friends played in his early career.

camino islandTickets for the event have already been allotted for Grisham’s appearances at both stores.

A native Jacksonian, Evans opened Lemuria in 1975, slowly building a “community of readers” that he hopes has made his hometown a better place.

Tell me how you started Lemuria Books, and why.

I grew up in Jackson and graduated from Murrah High School in 1968–barely. I went to Ole Miss and got a degree in general business.

I got interested in the idea of opening a shop because I had gotten tired of traveling out of town to find good records and books and bringing them here (to Jackson). BeBop (Records) opened in 1974, so there was then no need for finding the records.

Inside Lemuria's location in the Quarter

Inside Lemuria’s location in the Quarter

I got married and decided to do something. In 1975, at age 24, I formed my company and in October of that year, my wife and I opened Lemuria. I had never worked in a bookstore, so it was all trial and error. I wrote letters to publishers or called them on the phone and set up appointments. The salesmen came to our apartment to set up my first orders. When I started the company, I got a lease for a space behind Poet’s, the best bar in town. It was a second- and third- floor apartment. Ninety days later, I was working in the bar, waiting tables, to make ends meet.

I moved the store to the Plaza at Highland Village and stayed there from 1977 to 1988. On April 1–my favorite day of the year–in 1988, we moved to our current location at Banner Hall, the old Redd Pest Building.

What was, and is, your vision for Lemuria and its role in the Jackson community?

I’m very interested in giving the community of Jackson the very best bookstore I can give it–what, in my judgment, I consider to be the best. I’ve always been interested in the idea that I was not going to be penalized by being in a “poor, under-educated” market. If you want to have a good bookstore you have to have good books, and it was always my desire that Lemuria would be the very best bookstore I can provide to the community.

How do you do that? By bringing national authors to Jackson, Mississippi. That’s a very unifying experience, because, when authors come to Mississippi to sign their books, they touch the books they sign the books, and they develop friendships with the store and with the people here. They create a bond with the community, and that makes the books come alive–all of a sudden, they’re not just a product.
JXNLAMAR-2Publishing the Jackson book (published in 2014 by Evans and Lemuria Books, with photography by Ken Murphy) was the ultimate expression of that–creating the very best book about this city–a book that makes Jackson look beautiful and fun and full of good things, and making those things more tangible. That has been the driving force for everything else we do–trying to go local in a positive way. And all of our focus is on real books.

Why has Lemuria been so successful, and stood the test of time over the past 42 years?

I knew when I moved here (to Banner Hall), I had to grow because the big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million and Borders would come along and we had to adapt for every change. With Metrocenter and later Northpark Mall, there were half a dozen chain bookstores in malls, with very different markets. With each one, we had to be more proactive.

After we survived the (most recent) recession, a lot of bookstores went under. You have to do everything you can to revitalize your store. The biggest thing in the last 25 years that brought the most continuous change has been the internet. My retail customer started changing about 15 years ago. Like everybody else, we keep trying to find the next ace in the hole.

Let’s put it this way: we’ve been able to make money because there are people who care about our efforts. I think of myself as a bookseller, not as the boss here, and, as a group, we’ve worked hard to make Lemuria what it is today.

How has John Grisham supported the indie book business throughout his career?

John Grisham’s first book signing in Jackson in 1989, for A Time to Kill, was at Hal and Mal’s–but between A Time to Kill and The Firm (his 1991 book which was made into a movie and launched his writing career), he started making a commitment to local bookstores. I feel like he understands what each and every independent bookstore was doing for him, and the work they were doing to promote his books.

His new book (Camino Island), reflects 30 years of his relationship with booksellers and bookstores and the whole way booksellers interact with books and with authors. I think this book is his testament to what independent bookstores have done for our society.

John loves books. He loves the physical, printed books as an art form. This book is about the business of selling books. He loves bookstores. That’s how he has the understanding to write this book.

Why do you think John Grisham’s books connect with so many people?

He works at it. He thinks about it. He plans it. He comes up with these ideas and plots. He figured out how to give meaning to legal thrillers. Gray Mountaindealt with strip mining for coal. Calico Joe is about baseball. The Chamberdeals with the death penalty.

He has taken his success and tried to make people aware of topics he is passionate about, and he makes you think about something in the culture, about things that are meaningful to him. The key issues he writes about are personal to him in a way that actualizes him as an author and it activates you as a reader, and that presents an authenticity that gives him breadth and depth.

Richard (Howorth) and I can see very unique things about John, from our perspectives. There is more authenticity to him, not necessarily just commercializing his product. He’s down to earth.

What is your impression of the indie book business as Grisham presents it in Camino Island?

In this book, I think about real people who have worked in a bookstore, and customers who are going into an independent book store and have a relationship with a bookseller. Both of them have a love of books. Reading is an independent thing that touches you at the moment, and I feel like he has done a wonderful job of describing how a bookstore relates to the community and that he understands the book world and how the business of rare books and first editions operates.

John has been in a lot of bookstores. He knows a lot of booksellers. He knows about first edition books. He gets that. All of his years in the book business came out in this world he created in Camino Island. It’s an extension of years of reading books and of knowing the business. Part of what John Grisham is doing for the book business is giving it value.

What would you say John Grisham has done for Mississippi, through the success of his writing?

Grisham at the 1st Annual Mississippi Book Festival in August 2015

Grisham at the 1st Annual Mississippi Book Festival in August 2015

I think what he’s done for the state of Mississippi is he’s made people enjoy reading. Some people may read five or ten books a year. Or one. Why do people read? Because they enjoy it.

Before the 80s, the chain stores had taught people to go in bookstores mostly for the mass market paperbacks. But before the big box stores, independent bookstores came of age and created a community of readers. Grisham started publishing at the end of the 80s. His success with the movie industry was a perfect fit for what he was writing. So people started enjoying reading–for pleasure. That’s why his work took off and he became so successful–people liked his books.

He brought more people into bookstores–and he liked going to bookstores and talking to his readers. People would come in to buy more Grisham because they enjoyed reading–and they started caring about books and collecting them. There’s a community of readers in Mississippi now that he helped create, and that, really, has made Mississippi better.

Fennelly: Gaitskill’s ‘Somebody with a Little Hammer’ Makes a Big Impression

By Beth Ann Fennelly. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (May 7).

little hammerThe 31 pieces included in Mary Gaitskill’s new book, Somebody with a Little Hammer, were written over two decades, many of them originally book reviews. That normally makes for a very poor collection. Miscellanies can read as miscellaneous, scattershot assignments written for various editors in various magazine styles, as opposed to having been conceived of and executed through an author’s passion. Such collections often have no centrifugal force binding them. Further, such collections often smell a little past-their-sell-by-date; 20-year-old reviews might disparage books rightly forgotten, or heap early praise on books so heaped with post-publication prizes that the reviewer’s stance fails to enlighten. The earnest charge–“Rush out and buy this book!”–loses force when the book’s 10 years out of print.

Perhaps that’s why Gaitskill’s first book of nonfiction is such an accomplishment. This book shouldn’t be so compelling, but Gaitskill is incapable of writing a bad sentence, and her opinions are original and playful, and she always provides insight on much more than simply the item being reviewed.

The novels (and, less frequently, movies or music) to which she turns her clear and unsentimental judgments are revelatory, a kind of self-portrait through subject matter. She writes on some well-known texts, including the Book of Revelation, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

She also writes on books that most of us haven’t read and probably never will, such as foot fetishist Elmer Batters’ From the Tip of the Toes to the Top of Her Hose, a collection of photographs taken from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, which Gaitskill calls “a loving and lewd celebration of female feet and big ol’ legs.” Gaitskill describes a few of these “stylish, energetic, humorous, and dirty” photos, using them to illustrate “the vulnerability and silliness of sexuality as well as its power.” Batters’ photos are not, it turns out, the subject of Gaitskill’s essay, only its catalyst. Those familiar with Gaitskill’s fiction, such as “Secretary,” (in Gaitskill’s words, a “story about a naive young masochist who yearns for emotional contact in an autistic and ridiculous universe and who winds up getting her butt spanked instead”) will recognize her fearless exploration of the less commonly explored aspects of human sexuality.

Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill

A handful of essays–some of the book’s longest and most developed–don’t approach their subjects through the gaze of the reviewer but through the rear-view, the memoirist’s contemplative backward gaze. Here, too, Gaitskill rejects sweet nostalgia. Her memoir on losing her cat turns surprisingly into a troubled and troubling essay and race and class privilege.

Another memoir opens, “In Saint Petersburg, Russia, I got hit in the head with a bridge.” We don’t know yet that Gaitskill and her husband are on a tourist boat, ducking to avoid the river’s low-clearance bridges, and this sentence feels so abrupt and inexplicable it’s as if we, too, suffer a blow to the head. The narrative reverses from here and explains the unlikely events that brought the couple to Russia. It will be 10 more pages before we pick up with the head-smacking bridge, the blood, and her trip to the hospital, all of the interspersed with Gaitskill’s memories of a young woman she had worked with years before, a stripper who’d fallen and banged her head on a curb, then entered into a coma and died. It’s a meditation on chance and memory, and it’s an immensely lively performance.

The book reviews Gaitskill has collected here can’t urge readers to “rush out and buy this book!” but I can. Rush out, book lovers, especially if you can make Gaitskill’s event at 5 p.m. Thursday at Lemuria Books in Jackson.

Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi. Her Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs will be published in October by W.W. Norton.

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