Author: Jamie (Page 1 of 2)

Jamie sings the praises of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Since I’ve been working at Lemuria, I’ve self-imposed a  rule of not writing about a book till I’ve finished it.

I am currently breaking that rule. Demolishing it. Splintering it without a shadow of hesitation or guilt.

sing unburied singJesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is lots of things:  brilliant, gorgeous, haunting, raw, tender, honest. Much like her National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones (a personal favorite of mine­), Sing takes place in an impoverished area of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Both books’ characters find themselves in a mix of relationships—familial, internal, romantic—yet Sing is in no way a cookie-cutter redux of SalvageSing shifts through various first-person narrators, and does so in a way that’s easy to follow.  If you’re having nightmarish flashbacks of Faulkner, don’t: these leaps between characters (mostly the 13-year-old, endearing Jojo and his difficult mother Leonie) aren’t pretentious displays of cleverness for its own sake. One of Ward’s gifts as a writer is a conspicuous wedge of human empathy. By getting into the mind of Jojo, we see his desire for toughness and tenderness, his need to be protector for his younger sister Kayla, and his longing to be a surrogate father for Kayla the way his own grandfather is for him. While Jojo lends us his frustration at his absent mother, the chapters from Leonie’s perspective help round her character. Her drug use isn’t entirely selfish—it’s her way of self-medicating the hurt of the violent death of her older brother. We see her doubting her own abilities as a mother, cursing herself, but trapped in her own self-doubt so as to prevent her from risking connection with her kids. Ward isn’t necessarily excusing Leonie’s behavior so much as she is explaining it, and showing us the complexity of the human heart in conflict with itself, to steal a phrase from Faulkner.

Ward’s fiction and nonfiction shows us the importance of personal, familial history, and how things from previous generations aren’t really all that previous. Her memoir Men We Reaped illustrates the struggle of generational poverty and quiet, systemic racism perfectly. The notion of inheritance manifests itself in Sing in a fascinating way: ghosts. I would never classify this novel as a fantasy/supernatural genre piece, nor do I think that is Ward’s intent. Leonie sees her dead brother, Given, but can’t hear him speak; Jojo meets his grandfather’s dead friend Richie, who tells him about their days in Parchman. The past isn’t past—another Faulkner phrase I’ll paraphrase—and the ghosts in Sing show us that.  The myriad difficulties of poverty, compounded with the burdens of racism, are hard to get away from.  They haunt their victims, float constantly over their shoulders, peek in-and-out of their vision, or sometimes present themselves in full view.

There’s probably more about the novel that this piece is missing. I’m halfway through the book, and as soon as I finish this post, I’ll open Sing, Unburied, Sing back up and skip sleep.  The book’s that good.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to it.

Civil Rights Superheroes: ‘March’ by John Lewis

The graphic novel is a strange beast. Though I’m not as well versed in them as our beloved Hunter is, I still enjoy reading them. Most of the graphic-format books I’ve read have been about superheroes:  Batman, the Green Lantern Corps, Daredevil. And, in a way, March fits that bill, too, though both the hero and enemies are too real.

March is the three-part memoir of civil rights icon Senator John Lewis, co-written with his communications aide Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell.  The narrative begins on the inauguration day of President Barack Obama, but quickly jumps back in time, beginning with Lewis’ childhood in rural Alabama, where he witnessed racial inequality but was ordered (by his parents, for his safety) to stay quiet about it.  march book twoWith the occasional jump back into the narrative present, March follows Lewis’ life using major civil rights events (the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Freedom Rides, and the event alluded to in the title, the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge).

I won’t bore you with a summary of Lewis’ life—it’s well known in general, and well-told in March. I will, however, encourage you to buy the all three volumes for several reasons. Primarily, the story is important. Having this narrative focus on one man’s experience in a movement that affected so many is brilliant, both rhetorically and craft-wise. It takes an idea that for so many of us is an abstract notion and turns it into a story. Lewis’ story is simultaneously his own and part of something much larger than himself, and March tells both sides of this well.

march book threeIt’s also compellingly told. Lewis’ tone is conversational: it balances seriousness and grief with levity and honesty. Anyone who’s heard Senator Lewis speak knows he does so with conviction but without false airs, and March is written the same way.

The quality of Lewis’ storytelling is augmented by Powell’s artwork. The black-and-white drawings are at times austere, others foreboding, but always evocative. When I tell people about the book, I often describe it as visually “gorgeous,” a term I seldom use but which is the only one that fits. Here.

march art

March is for anyone:  a reluctant reader, a fan of history, a consumer of comics, a member of the human race who wants to know more about heroism in the face of hatred. Some heroes fly; others march–over, and over, and over again.

March comes into two forms: a collected slipcase edition, and separately in volumes onetwo, and three.

Gifting the Perfect Book: For Grit Lit Aficionados

Ron Rash, man.  Ron.  Rash.

In a previous blog, I waxed poetic (or, maybe I approached giddy) about Ron Rash’s writing.  I’ve yet to encounter a writer who can shift gears so seamlessly between genres.  His short stories are perfect, his poetry is stunning, and his novels are exquisite.  His most recent foray into long-form fiction, The Risen, does not disappoint.  While it doesn’t quite have the punch that his previous novel, Above the Waterfall, does, it’s still a fantastic read.

risenLike all of Rash’s fiction, The Risen is set in North Carolina, and this place informs both the characters and plot.  Our narrator, Eugene, tells us two parallel stories: first, he recalls his youth, specifically the summer of 1969, in which his sixteen-year-old self and his older brother Bill meet Ligeia, a rebellious teenager spending the summer away from her native Daytona Beach.  Ligeia’s parents have shipped her to live with relatives in small-town North Carolina as a way of insulating her from the drug-fueled lifestyle she had created for herself.  Instead of detoxing, though, Ligeia uses her charms to pull Bill and Eugene into her world, causing a rift to emerge between both the brothers, and their domineering, manipulative Grandfather.

Second, Eugene also spends time in his present day, which is equally fraught. Bill has become a well-known and respected surgeon (following in Grandfather’s medical footsteps), while Eugene’s alcohol abuse has dried up his potential talent as both a novelist and English professor.  The two plotlines converge, however, when Eugene comes across a news report of the discovery of a body next to the creek at which he, Bill, and Ligeia would rendezvous for teenage mischief—namely, drug use (thanks to Bill and Eugene lifting painkillers from Grandfather’s clinic).  Eugene is convinced that the body is Ligeia’s and, after pressing Bill for the truth, ends up discovering some troubling truths about himself, his Grandfather, his brother, and his past.  He also makes some revelations to us, the readers, that were hinted at but never fully explained.

The beauty of so much of Rash’s work is the music in his language—his prose is flowing and gorgeous.  Above the Waterfall was  a slow, dense read because of Rash’s poetic wording.  The Risen is still beautiful, but reads at a much quicker clip.  Unlike most of Rash’s other writing, The Risen’s use of parallel plots adds a touch of complexity to the work.  Don’t worry, though: this isn’t indecipherable  (I’m looking at you, William Faulkner).  Eugene’s narration is clear and the reader is never confused whether we’re following him in the past or the present.

The Risen would make a fantastic gift for someone who needs an enjoyable read, or as a gift to yourself as a break from the hustle of the season.

Ron Rash will serve as a panelist on the “Larry Brown, the South, and the Modern Novel” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 1:30 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.

The Table as Communion

Last weekend, I was in the store buying some gifts with my 5-year-old, and as is tradition, he and I sat at the booth and read. Sometimes I buy a book for him, and sometimes I don’t, but we always sit at the booth and go through a children’s book together.

On the Sunday in question, he picked out the mind-tingling Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld. It was, as you can imagine, a goofball kids book. I really like Lichtenheld’s illustrations (he drew a favorite, Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site) and the story that Barton has made in Shark vs. Train is a wonderful game of speculation and silliness.

But was it okay to read this on the table in the back corner of the store?

jaime clara booth

I love that table. Its finish has been worn from the sliding of thousands of books over its surface. It’s where our visiting authors cozy up to put their autographs in our stock; it’s where customers get a chance to meet that writer, share a quick story, and get a note jotted for themselves on the title page. Signed books make great gifts: a former student of mine is currently whooping leukemia’s butt, and her husband got Greg Iles’ The Bone Tree for her to read while taking her chemo. The note Greg wrote was heartfelt and sincere, the value of the book surpassing the mere monetary price.

Pulitzer Prize winners have signed on this table, our beloved Ms. Welty being one of them. Authors at the beginning of their careers or those who have had lifetimes of publishing have sat in the booth alike. Jerks and angels; hometown heroes or folks whose first visit to Jackson has been to sign; authors who are still among us, and those who have passed on. Writers who have signed books. Writers who have touched souls.

So is this table (altar?) really the right place to read books about sharks and trains?

Yes.

Undeniably, yes.

Because reading is so important, it doesn’t always matter what is being read. The distinction between high-brow and popular literature is one that I’m aware of, but also one that I don’t mind crossing. I love Shakespeare and John Milton, but I’ll never forget the joy of the Little Golden Book The Color Kittens and the cool, calm that washed over me when hearing the lines “Green as cat’s eyes. Green as grass by streams of water as green as glass.” Hamlet belongs on the same shelf as The Color Kittens. That table will hold memories and majesty just as easily as simple children’s picture books.

So come, sit a while.  Read something at that table.  You’ll fit right in.

Ron Rash and his powerful ‘Poems’

I’ve stopped fighting Ron Rash.

This is how it usually happens: I see a book on the shelves at the store, hear other booksellers talking about it, and think to myself Sounds good, but I really need to wait till my next paycheck to buy another book. Then, said author shows up and does a phenomenal reading. Predictably, my aforementioned responsibility dissolves, and I become Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, clutching a copy of the book and mumbling to myself, “I want it NOW!!!”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Source: The Wall Street Journal

However, I’ve learned to stop this futility with Ron Rash. When he read from Something Rich and Strange, I knew I would love the book, and I snagged a copy before he left the store; when he read from Above the Waterfall, the entire audience was transfixed to the point of collective held breath, and I knew I needed that power on my own bookshelf. So, when I saw his Poems: New and Selected, I didn’t even wait till he came to the store. I went home with a copy that afternoon and haven’t regretted it.

Rash is one of the rare writers who can shift between prose and poetry seamlessly. Fans of Rash’s fiction often cite the depth of his characters, rich description, and gorgeous language. These things are present in his poems as well. Yet a poem can explore an idea in a different, more direct way than fiction can. While fiction examines the condition of humanity and relationships, a poem can focus on things beyond humanity, like the natural world. Take his short poem “Deep Water” for instance:

The night smooths out its black tarp,

tacks it to the sky with stars.

Lake waves slap the bank, define

a shoreline as one man casts

his seine into the unseen,

lifts the net’s pale bloom, and spills

of threadfin fill the live well.

Soon that squared pool of water

flickers as if a mirror,

surfaces memory of when

this deep water was a sky.

Jacket (4)First off, the description of the night being a “black tarp” that’s held in place by stars is simply genius. Trust me: this will affect the way you look at the night’s sky from now on. And the way the poem shifts its (and our) focus from the sky to the lake in which this unnamed man is flinging his fishing net feels natural. This sky/lake relationship is maintained at the poem’s close when, as the threadfin fish slip out of the seine net, the lake is compared to a mirror that reminds us of “when/ this deep water was a sky.”

How, exactly, was the water once a sky? That depends on who you ask. For the fish, the water is their atmosphere, and its top is to them as the sky is to us. For us, when we look skyward and see clouds, there is also a quiet understanding that those clouds will fall as rain and eventually become an earthbound body of water. Rash cleverly puns on the verb “surface,” the word serving both as the action of rising to the top (literally, the memory is being brought up) and as a reminder of the barrier between air and water.

Whether dealing with the complexities of humans or of nature, he always delivers with inventive description and clever language. If you find yourself mildly afraid of or curious about poetry, come pick up a copy of Rash’s Poems: New and Selected. Or, if you need a little more convincing, come hear Mr. Rash read from the book this Thursday. You’ll get firsthand evidence of why I’ve quit resisting his books when you listen to the current of his words, and any hesitancy to buy the book gets swept away.

Get to know Jamie

unnamedHow long have you worked at Lemuria? Two Years this January.

What do you do at Lemuria? Just a part-time bookseller.  I spend a lot of time in the poetry section, and I do a lot of the literal heavy lifting in the store.

Talk to us what you’re reading right now. Matthew Guinn’s The Scribe, Derrick Harriel’s Cotton

How many books do you usually read at a time? At least two, and always of differing genres.  If I’m deep into a novel, for instance, I like to take a break and read some poems or nonfiction.

Favorite authors? Oh, jeez. Hang on.  This is going to take a while.

Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Robert Pinsky, Major Jackson, Kiese Laymon, Mark Twain, Mark Doty, Beth Ann Fennelley, Tom Franklin, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner.  I’ll quit now, but I could go on for pages.

Any particular genre that you’re especially in love with? I unabashedly love the poems.  I’ve been reading it all my life–always drawn to the density and economy of words.  My master’s degree is in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry, and I’m currently slinging a book manuscript around hoping for a publisher to pick it up.

What did you do before you worked at Lemuria? I was (and still am) a high school English teacher.  I love it as much as I love selling books.

If you could share lasagna with any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you ask them? Hmmmm.  I’m starving right now, so I’m having trouble thinking past the lasagna.  Isn’t it just lovely stuff?  Either the Irish poet Seamus Heany or Eudora Welty.  I wouldn’t ask anything, really.  I’d just shut up and listen.  And eat lasagna.  Mmmmm.

If we could have any living author visit the store and do a reading, who would you want to come? The poet Edward Hirsch.  His book-length poem Gabriel is a book that everyone needs to read—even if you’re not into poetry.  Y’all, just trust me on this, please.

If Lemuria could have ANY pet (mythical or real), what do you think it should be? My 5-year-old son kind of is the store pet already.  Also, a talking yellow Labrador Retriever with a British accent.  I’d like to have tea and scones with him in the booth.

 

Learning about a quiet, respectful love

WFES628725278-2Initially, I was unsure about reading Meanwhile, There are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross MacdonaldThe feeling of voyeurism was unsettling, disturbing.  I soon talked myself out of this, though.  Ms. Welty did, after all, give these letters to the Department of Archives and History, knowing full well that someone would read over them.  More importantly, Susanne Marrs—one of the book’s editors who is recognized as the leading authority on Welty’s writing—would not allow anything improper to be printed.  Dr. Marrs’ devotion to Welty goes beyond the academic: the two were friends, and Marrs’ commitment to that friendship has endured long after Welty’s death.
So, I got a copy.  And I’m loving it.
The mystery writer Kenneth Millar, under the pen name Ross Macdonald, dazzled readers with his books for over two decades, starting in the early 1950’s.  A longtime reader and fan of Eudora Welty’s fiction, he dropped her a simple fan letter in 1971.  Welty reciprocated both the letter and admiration (she was a voracious reader, especially of mystery novels) and a friendship born of letters followed.  In Meanwhile, There are Letters, editors Marrs and Tom Nolan (an expert on Macdonald) have arranged the letters chronologically, adding annotations to give context about the world outside of the epistles.
We as readers get to see the friendship emerge, and possibly move into more intimate territory.  So many things prevented Welty and Macdonald (Millar) from physically consummating a relationship:  his marriage, their age, his declining health.  Yet, the love engendered between these two souls is genuine.  Don’t pick up this book if you’re looking for high drama and overwrought romance.  Instead, get a copy to follow a beautiful companionship based on mutual love of reading, observing, writing, and living.  Meanwhile, There are Letters isn’t a rapid page-turner: it’s a leisurely lope through a vast emotional landscape with two guides who know and love the territory.

From the Archives: The Story of Land and Sea

My favorite books are ones that speak to my heart and head, ones that make me think but also affect my emotions.  The Story of Land and Sea is one of these books.  With lucid prose, historical and cultural accuracy, and a set of complex yet relatable characters, this debut novel from Jackson native Katy Simpson Smith has been one of the best I’ve read this year.

9780062335951-2TThe novel’s plot follows three generations—John and Helen, their daughter Tabitha, and Helen’s father Asa—as their lives twine and separate and twine together again.  Set in coastal North Carolina soon after the revolutionary war, the story’s themes of struggle and discovery mirror our then-fledgling nation’s obstacles of defining itself as something other than a former colony.   But it’s more than just a parable for our country: the characters are so compelling and relatable, even for readers seated comfortably nearly four centuries later.  John, the center of most of the plots, is a former pirate who marries Helen, daughter of the wealthy landowner Asa.  Rather than falling into the trappings of cliché, Smith keeps the plot believable by focusing on the characters’ personalities, all of whom are likable, relatable, yet capable of much unsavoriness.  (I’m being vague on purpose.  If you want to know what happens, you’ll need to come buy a copy).

The cultural and historical accuracy of this story is another place my affinity rests.  Smith has a PhD in history from UNC, and she applies her knowledge of early America without turning the novel into a textbook.  The sentences themselves flow so easily,   I found myself lost in the beauty of the writing several times.  Here’s an example, focusing on the wedding of John and Helen:

The marriage takes place in the summer, among the heaved-up roots of the live oak, the lone tree that curves over the front lawn, bend and contorted to the shapes the easterly wind made.  Moll [a slave]  fidgets in a yellow linen dress with two petticoats and holds a spray of goldenrod that she pulled from the back garden; no one else had thought to.

With writing this good, it makes sense that one of the central images in the book is water.  Like water, this story, its characters, and its words are fluid and powerful.

Join us tonight at 5:00 for a discussion and signing for The Story of Land and Sea with Katy Simpson Smith and fellow author and historian Suzanne Marrs!

The Porous Border Between Love and Violence

Most of us who are over 20 can point to a few big events that set us on the road to adulthood. For the never-named narrator of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel, My Sunshine Away, it was the rape of his teen crush during her sophomore (his freshman) year of high school, Lindy Simpson. The narrator and Lindy have been neighbors since grade school, during which time he has harbored an innocent, but obsessive love for her. The search for the unseen rapist—who knocked her off her bike and forced her face into the ground—brings all the neighborhood oddballs into suspicion. It also brings the narrator closer to realizing his puppy-like fantasy. Unfortunately, he implicates himself in the process, in multiple ways. During this time, his divorced parents are still acting out their drama, and then his sister is killed in a car accident, leaving no adult—except a loveable but unstable uncle—with time or emotional bandwidth to spare for him as he lurches toward maturity.


39170-2TThere’s no shortage of coming-of-age novels. Among the qualities that distinguish this one is the memoir-like voice of the narrator and the unsentimental, yet forgiving examination of his immature self and his teenage posturing. Now grown and settled, the narrator understands that his actions were at once classic teen behavior and almost invariably the “wrong” thing to do, yet they revealed the true nature of the people around him, progressively peeling away his naïveté.

Another quality that lifts My Sunshine Away above the coming-of-age glut is the vivid setting; a white, middle-class subdivision of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The kids of Woodland Hills mostly go to the private Perkins School. I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a morning’s drive from Baton Rouge. Walsh’s dead-on description of the brutal Louisiana summer stirred nostalgia and commiseration:

You should know:

Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a hot place.

Even the fall of night offers no comfort. There are no breezes sweeping off the dark servitudes and marshes, no cooling rain. Instead, the rain that falls here survives only to boil on the pavement, to steam up your glasses, to burden you.

The ninth chapter is a defense of the narrator and author’s native state that begins: “I believe Louisiana gets a bad rap.”

“We are relegated to a different human standard in the south as if all our current tragedies are somehow payback for our unfortunate past.”

Yes, the state is corrupt, its racial tensions endemic, its floods catastrophic. But there’s the food, the culture, the community. Red beans and rice or seafood po-boys are “small escapes from the blatantly burdensome land.”

This chapter of praise is wonderfully placed within the architecture of the book. Yes, it interrupts the narrative arc, but it also lightens the tone. Like the meals, this chapter offers a break from the bleak subject—a teenage girl’s rape; it doesn’t undo the awful, but it does give us, the readers, a reprieve. Chapter 28, a warm-hearted and evocative comparison of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, plays a similar role after a fraught and literally climactic chapter in which the narrator realizes that he never understood or even really empathized with Lindy’s trauma, so obsessed was he with his own wants.

Defying the literary tendency to define the South by its own history (this isn’t a story about race), Walsh ties the narrative to national events. The narrator traces his love of Lindy to the day of the Challenger explosion when he was in fifth grade. His school had assembled to watch the first teacher in space, only to witness a disaster. In the chaos, Lindy throws up on herself and he offers his shirt, a moment of vulnerability only witnessed by the teacher, his first protective act. And there’s our hero, the narrator, whose potential guilt comes up twice. The first time the police are questioning all young males in the neighborhood, he doesn’t even understand the term rape. He thinks it means to get totally beaten in a game, as in when LSU lost a football game 44 to 3, and someone says, “We got raped.”

The novel’s title comes from a line of the song, “You Are My Sunshine,” written by the late Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis: “Please don’t take my sunshine away.” While the chorus is pleasant and campy, the verses shift toward the sinister: I’ll always love you and make you happy / If you will only say the same / But if you leave me to love another, / You’ll regret it all one day.

The song shows the porous border between love and violence. A man thinks back on himself as a boy who has a crush on a girl and draws pornographic pictures of her. And he thinks about the man who assaulted her and wonders what kept the boy who had the crush and the white-hot yearnings from becoming the second man or someone like him? The clarity of age reveals all.

National Poetry Month: Elegy for Jane

Reasons this poem resonates with me:

  1. Its quiet beauty: no wasted words, nothing overblown.
  2. Its devotion to honesty: at the end, Roethke freely admits he doesn’t know how to feel.
  3. Its content: as a teacher who’s lost students, I’m comforted knowing I’m not alone. Neither father nor lover, but still affected deeply.

 

Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse) by Theodore Roethke

 

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

 

[from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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