Category: Biography/Memoir (Page 1 of 6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book helpfully provides a short manifesto against misusing it:

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

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

Call of the Wild: ‘The Stranger in the Woods’ by Michael Finkel

Do you ever think about getting away from the world? Ever contemplate taking a break and relaxing out in the woods by yourself for while? Well, one guy decided to do just that…for 27 years.

stanger in the woodsThe Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel is the true story of the hermit Christopher Knight. In 1986, 20-year-old Knight decided to completely leave society and disappear into the woods of Maine. For the next three decades, Knight lived completely by himself, surviving by pilfering off the summer cabins that surrounded the nearby lake. To the locals, he became known as the North Pond Hermit. It wasn’t until 2013 that a determined resident finally caught him stealing food from the lake’s summer camp, and the hermit and his hideout were revealed.

Okay, so this story, which seems almost too bizarre to be true, is extremely fascinating. Journalist Finkel, after hearing about Knight’s arrest and his strange claim to have been by himself for that many years, began sending letters and eventually visited Knight in jail. By gaining Knight’s trust, Finkel was able to delve further into the mind of the hermit.

Finkel expertly tells this nonfiction tale. He spends each chapter focused on a particular element of Knight’s experience: how he survived, what his camp was like, his stealing escapades, and even the differing opinions of the locals. Woven throughout is Finkel’s personal interactions with Knight. It was interesting to read about Knight trying to adapt and re-enter a society that had changed so much.

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What I found most fascinating about this story was how Finkel used outside sources to create a rich discussion of the various types of hermits and why people choose a life of solitude. What’s interesting is how Knight doesn’t feel he quite fits into any particular kind of hermit. Was he trying to make a political statement? Was he on a spiritual or creative quest? No, Knight says, he just felt like doing it.

Finkel also brings in expert opinions to try and identify Knight’s mental state and why he had such a low need for human interaction. Apart from a brief encounter with a hiker in the mid-90s, in which he said a simple “hi,” Knight never talked to a single person for almost 30 years.

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It may be hard to believe that Knight was able to be on his own for so long, that he committed over a thousand burglaries before getting caught, that he never had any serious injuries, or that he was able to survive the brutal winters of Maine without ever lighting a fire. Despite his abnormal tendencies, Knight is actually an intelligent man. He’s definitely someone who questions social norms and is quite open about his beliefs. Though I think Finkel kind of romanticizes Knight a little too much, there is still a lot the reader can learn from his solitary experience. Clearing out the noise and taking in the sounds of nature actually added significantly to Knight’s mind and health. He spent time reading books and simply being.

He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed. Observing the trees was indolent; cutting them down was enterprising. What did Knight do for a living? He lived for a living.

Overall, this book is one I couldn’t put down. If you enjoy true stories or documentaries of strange people, then this is the book for you. Maybe after you read it, you’ll want to go out and live in the woods by yourself for a while, too. But, please, don’t start breaking into people’s homes and stealing their food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rollin’…rollin’….rollin’ on a river

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

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

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

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

Candice Millard’s ‘Hero of the Empire’ sheds light on forgotten Churchill history

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger.

Embedded in America’s consciousness is the picture of a rotund, cigar-chomping Winston Churchill, grimly resolving to fight the Nazis on land, sea and air during the darkest days of World War II.

hero-of-the-empireWith Candice Millard’s latest biography Hero of the Empire, Churchill’s image could well be shattered to superimpose a portrait of him as a young and daring adventurer.

Subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” Millard’s biography zeroes in on Churchill when he was 24. Itching to go to war, the descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough and privileged friend to the Prince of Wales was desperate to prove himself on the battlefield.

No stranger to bloodshed even at this young age, the young aristocrat already had taken part in wars on three continents — Cuba, British India and the Sudan. But the Boer War in South Africa would thrust him on the world stage.

“Hero” chronicles his fighting as a supposed noncombatant journalist, his capture as a prisoner of war, and his grueling escape from behind enemy lines that captivated a nation.

Churchill, as “Hero” reveals, was larger than life and a study in contrasts. Impulsive, opinionated, an “opportunist, braggart and blowhard,” he also proved fearless, brave, heroic and forgiving of others, including former foes.

Churchill is known for his oratory, but few may recall that he first made his mark as a writer. Indeed, contemporary author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, called Churchill “the greatest living master of English prose.”

Hero is punctuated by fascinating details. For example, Churchill’s American mother was of Native American descent and of such dazzling beauty that literally thousands would attend any event where they could catch a glimpse of her. Churchill, the book relates, sought to hide a speech impediment (difficulty with the letter s) his entire life.

Situated in 1899, the Boer War does not meet much historical attention, stuck as it is between the American Civil War and the World Wars. But “Hero” deftly explains its importance to the past, present and future.

The Boers were farmers and didn’t fight in orderly fashion, but hid behind every rock and shrub. Before them was amassed the greatest fighting force the world had ever known — the mighty British Empire. The fighting scenes are enthralling as the immovable object of hidden and entrenched Boers fighting for their adopted homeland meet the irresistible force of the British Army.

But, again in contrast, Churchill’s escape is aided in part by the fact that the white Boers despised the black native majority they ruled, which sided with the British who had helped ban slavery on the continent. The parallels between the Civil War, the fortunes of empires, and the rise of mechanistic death over previously accepted rules of war as would rend the globe in years to come are absorbing.

Within the grand sweep of this bloody milieu, the harrowing tale of a young journalist hiding in ditches and boarding boxcars under cover of night, provides a saga of such magnitude as to be astounding in its scope. Major motion picture material here!

Meticulously documented with nearly 40 pages of notes, Hero is a gripping read, rivaling the finest fiction. Except, if it were fiction, no one would believe it — or that its improbable hero would come to be known as Britain’s iconic leader.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, now in bookstores.

Candice Millard will be here on Tuesday, October 11 at 5:00 to sign the October 2016 First Edition Club selection, Hero of the Empire.

Sally Mann is here tonight, and one of her biggest fans can barely contain her excitement

I have read so many great books lately, I was torn about what to write my monthly blog about…until I finally did what I have been putting off for over a year, and that is read Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still. I am never one to run for nonfiction because oftentimes it can get really dry, and that disappoints me to no end. It’s not that I don’t want to know about all these things people write about, because trust me I do. It’s just that I don’t want my image of someone I hold in such high esteem to be flawed by their attempt at writing.

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“Candy Cigarette” from Immediate Family

Being a photographer myself, Sally Mann is someone I hold in the absolute highest regard; she is without a doubt my favorite living fine art photographer. Her photographs stir something inside of me that no one else can. The first time I saw the image “Candy Cigarette” from her body of work Immediate Family, I was hooked. With each image I saw thereafter, I fell more and more in love with her and equally became fascinated by her. I have studied her work and process for years and soaked up anything I could read about her on the internet and in books. I have had little glimmers of her in my life through various other people who know her. These stories are like little flashes of light in my peripheral vision that, if I hadn’t been paying close attention, I might not be sure that I had seen at all. But I can assure you, I am always paying attention when her name is spoken. Like a horse, my ears prick up, seeking out wherever the origin of the name came from.

One such story was from a friend of a friend who was at a dinner that was a veritable who’s who of photography. William Eggelston, of course, was there, and he said Sally was happily snapping, snapping away the entire dinner. Then there was the occasion when I walked into James Patterson’s studio, and Sally had sent him a ruined print with a note written on back, which is a common practice of hers. (That was certainly a thrill for me.) And last but not least is the time Marcy Nessel, James, and I went to Nashville to visit Jack Spencer’s studio. Jack is one of my other favorite living photographers. He and Sally are longtime friends, and to hear someone speak of her in such a familiar way was in a word surreal. But the best part was that Jack had a book of photography of her work; however it was no ordinary book. All of the images were handprinted, platinum prints, and the book also included her poetry. It was heaven in the softest shade of ballet pink. Digging into the recesses of my mind, I come up empty when thinking of another time I have coveted something so greatly.

So needless to say when I heard SALLY MANN was coming to the bookstore, all of my tendencies for a flair of the dramatic were sent into overdrive. The fact that I didn’t weep is in actuality a miracle. I did however make a 911 text message to my dear friend Ashleigh to tell her she had to call me immediately because it was a matter of the most importance.

JacketJust a week ago I realized that I could not have the woman I basically worship come to Lemuria without even reading her book. So I did it. I picked up the book I had treasured like a child for almost a year. This book has had permanent residence beside my bed in two different homes at this point. I can only blame putting it off for so long because of my own stupid fear. What if it wasn’t as good as I needed it to be? After all, she is human. She could get it wrong. Thankfully all that worrying was in vain because not unlike Patti Smith, Sally Mann is a Renaissance woman. And if I had looked a little more closely, I would have seen that Patti had even blurbed the damn thing on the back.

Y’all, I couldn’t put this damn book down. Not only is Sally’s life amazing, it is so utterly real. She is a mother who fiercely loves her children and a wife who adores her husband Larry. The seemingly unwavering drive she has to make her art is awe-inspiring. With three children, a husband, and a full-time art career, I would imagine she falls into bed every night, asleep before her head hits the pillow.

There are so many layers to this memoir: family history (which is riveting), discussions on the bodies of work Immediate Family and  Deep South, her creative process… I’ll have to tell you, the family history stuff, at times will leave you with your mouth hanging open in shock. Lots of families have those stories, but Sally just busts it out very matter of factly and tells it like it was. The honesty is very refreshing.

Jacket (2)And then we come to her writing about her work. Well I could read about that until I am I don’t know what. Immediate Family was the first body of work that I became familiar with of Sally’s, but it was her writing about Deep South that really resonated with me. Being a Mississippi delta girl and someone who is very connected to the land, I very much get what she was doing with this work. But I can honestly say I didn’t feel the images before as I do now. I am looking at those images in a completely different way now. In one part she says that the images look “breathed onto the plate.” If you haven’t read the book or aren’t familiar with her process, she is referring to the way the southern landscape and the light appear on a collodion plate. “Breathed onto the plate.” Now that is one of the loveliest things I’ve ever read, and it will always be with me.

The way she writes is so readable and beautiful at the same time. I imagine she writes exactly as she speaks, which is how it feels when you are reading it. Like someone is just telling you a story. And Sally has got some stories. Come and get some of these stories on Thursday night. It’s going to be unbelievable!

Gifting the Perfect Book: Bakers With Hearts as Soft as Melted Butter

If you haven’t already heard us talking about Grandbaby Cakes: Modern Recipes, Vintage Charm, Soulful Memories, then please sit down and let me talk to you about the best cookbook of the season.

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Grandbaby Cakes gives a nod to heirloom recipe books of yore, but maintains a fresh, accessible, and enormously aesthetically pleasing feel. Jocelyn Delk Adams began the Grandbaby Cakes blog a few years back, and the mini-bio on her “about me” page bears repeating:

 “I created Grandbaby Cakes, a blog inspired by my grandmother, to display classic desserts and modern trends while showcasing the pastry and sweets field in an accessible way. I hope to inspire a new generation of bakers and dessert enthusiasts to learn baking skills and not feel guilty about enjoying dessert. At an early age, I loved visiting Mississippi to watch my grandmother, or “big mama” Maggie as my family affectionately calls her, bake. Big mama bakes cakes that literally have her neighbors lined up around the block waiting for a taste. She not only invents (yes, she developed all of her own recipes) the most delicious melt-in-your-mouth desserts I’ve ever tasted, but she also infuses them with so much love.”

Pulling from the recipes passed down from her grandmother to her mother and finally to her, Adams has put together a heartwarming, mouth-watering cookbook of deserts. Before she arrived for her signing a month or two back, a few of us here at Lemuria took the cookbook home; determined to have a few recipes available for tasting during the event. Every single desert was amazing. Here’s a preview of what we brought to the signing:

Cornmeal Pound Cake (with honey-butter glaze)

 Zucchini Cupcakes (with lemon-cinnamon buttercream)

Coffe-Toffee Pumpkin Cupcakes

We all pigged out hard, and while we munched, we spoke with Jocelyn and Jocelyn’s mother who was touring with her. These two women were so down-to-earth and happy to discuss recipes and baking techniques, and were so complimentary of our humble cake offerings. When Jocelyn heard that I had hand mixed (with a spoon, not a hand mixer) everything in the recipe I contributed, she ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the cake enough to make me feel like a master baker– and that’s just the way she is. A woman who puts you at your ease, who works hard, compliments hard work, and means it.

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Jocelyn (second from left) with the women of her family

It must seem strange to talk more about the author of a cookbook than the recipes themselves (which can stand alone without any of my help- they are phenomenal), but Adams’s thoughtful and kind personality shows through every inch of Grandbaby Cakes. Here is the book you need to put into the hands of any cook you know; from novices to experts in the kitchen, Grandbaby Cakes is the perfect gift this holiday season.

And just remember, a little extra salt from getting misty-eyed while reading about Adams’s family memories will only make your Snickerdoodle Gooey Cake sweeter.

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“If this glorious book doesn’t make you want to drop everything you’re doing and go bake a cake right now, then I don’t know what will. Jocelyn’s spectacular cake creations are positively bursting with beauty, color, flavor, and fun. Make no mistake about it: this book will ignite the baking passion within you!” —Ree Drummond, author of The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Rebel Reads: ‘Bo’ by Billy Watkins and ‘The Last Season’ by Stuart Stevens

To be perfectly frank with you, I wasn’t really planning on reading either Bo: A Quarterback’s Journey Through an SEC Season by Billy Watkins or The Last Season: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime of College Football. But one Saturday in September, I wore an Ole Miss shirt into work, thus betraying my football-watching proclivity in this wonderful land of book nerds. Anyway, John Evans saw it and then personally put both of these books in my hands, so I thought, “Well, I guess I have to read these next.” And the thing is, I’m glad I did.

So I guess I’m addressing this blog post to anybody who might be intrigued, but not
51RabtZhGJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_fully convinced, by the Ole Miss iconography on their respective covers. I think they’re both worth your time, but they do work on different levels.

I was trying to explain to a co-worker, who is less versed in SEC football, why somebody wrote a book about Bo Wallace. My co-worker inquired: “Did he win a championship?” No. “Is he an off-field celebrity like Tim Tebow?” Not really. “Is he a big Mississippi high school legend?” He’s from Tennessee.

In fact, his reputation was as a pretty good SEC quarterback with a penchant for throwing interceptions. If you’ve been watching Ole Miss football at all in the past few years, you’ve heard the announcers endlessly differentiate between “Good Bo” and “Bad Bo” (although, in my heart, he’ll always be Dr. Bo.

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Anyway, the reason the book exists is because Billy Watkins thinks Bo is kind of a cool guy. And that reason is not a bad one, or wrong. Bo was tremendously gracious, good-natured, and full of school spirit when he came to Lemuria for the reading and signing. And that very much comes through in the book, as well as the eternally-referenced qualities of competitiveness and leadership. There’s a nuts-and-bolts, behind-the-scenes quality to these football books that always draws me in. Which brings me to the other interesting thing about this book: it simultaneously manages to humanize the person behind the praise and criticism, while also managing to feel very typical of what an SEC player (especially at high-profile one) goes through.

Also, if I might speak frankly with you, my fellow Rebel fans, while I know last season didn’t the end the way we wanted it to (i.e., with a big, gleaming crystal football hoisted high above Hugh Freeze’s head) it was still a pretty good season, and this book will make a nice time capsule for a sometimes-special season when the times get lean, as they are wont to do in the competitive SEC West.

9780385353021In fact, we all know that rooting for Ole Miss often perfectly embodies what Stuart Stevens calls “the essence of sport”: “disappointment masked by periodic bursts of joy and nurtured by denial.” Stevens, in The Last Season, chronicles the 2013 Ole Miss football season as he retreats from his career for a while to enjoy a season of games with his parents, especially his 95 year-old father who took him to games as a kid.

I was surprised by this book. I was expecting something corny and simplistic, like other examples from the genre of “inspirational” literature. But what I found instead was a writer embracing his world, his family, and himself with a surprising degree of complexity. I mean, a simple Zen-like momento mori truth does echo throughout the book: draw close to and spend time with those who are important to you while you can. But, despite what the title would have you believe (I suspect marketing shenanigans at the publisher), there’s no maudlin tragedy fueling the narrative. If you’d call this book inspirational, I’d call it the best kind.

Also, critically, Stevens can flat-out write. He’s an astute observer, not a half-bad philosopher (with some help from his dad on that front), and fine spinner of phrases. I especially enjoyed his remembrances of growing up in the Belhaven neighborhood, and I laughed out loud in reading some of his pitch-perfect encapsulations of sports fandom. I mean, who among us hasn’t been here: “Dying may feel worse than losing a game like this, but at least with dying there’s the comfort of knowing it’s unlikely to happen again.”

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Fundamentally, what I enjoyed most was his subversion of expectations in what a football book should be. In one of my favorite passages, Stevens explains, “Many people loved to point to the game as a metaphor for life, spinning out the lessons learned on the field to the landscape of life. There was surely truth in that, but it had never interested much….It was good because it was good, and that was enough.” Which is why I think The Last Season can also speak to non-Rebel fans, and even non-football fans.

Ultimately, however, in addition to whatever else value they fulfill, both Bo and The Last Season do what they promise on their covers: help pleasantly pass the time until next Saturday or next season, whichever comes first.

Devotion by Adam Makos

Adam Makos will be here TONIGHT at 5:00! We love this book so much that we’ve chosen it as our December pick for First Editions Club.

Let me start this blog off by saying this….

I don’t read non-fiction. Pretty much….never. Not at all. I can not sit down and read fact after fact about a topic; it just can’t hold my attention the way a fictional story can. I don’t like this, because I want to be able to learn about different things and I obviously have books at my fingertips to do so by working at Lemuria; but, non-fiction is just not my “go to”.

With all that being said…..Let me tell you about this non-fiction book that changed everything.

WFES804176583-2I’ve always been interested in World War I and World War II and the time period around those years. To be honest, I’ve just always been interested in the history of different wars (obviously more interested in those in which the U.S. were involved). I like watching movies based around war and there are times when I will watch documentaries as well. But, reading a history book wasn’t something I enjoyed.

However, I really feel as if Devotion has changed my outlook on reading about history. Devotion is an incredible story from military journalist, Adam Makos. As it’s stated on the cover, it’s “An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice” between two Navy carrier pilots during the Korean war. One of which is a white New-Englander who comes from a country club background (Tom Hudner), while the other pilot is a share-cropper’s son from Mississippi (Jesse Brown) who became the first African-American Naval pilot. Basically, Jesse was fighting for a country that sometimes wouldn’t even serve him in a restaurant. However, he found much more than just a job in the Navy; he found men that stood by his side no matter what.

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Lieutenant Tom Hudner

Makos goes way beyond just slapping down facts on a piece of paper, he takes you into the intense lives of both Lieutenant Tom Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown during their time in the Korean War by offering you a novel-like feel. He interviewed so many military veterans and used all of that information to make the stories flow together as one- so much so that it feels like you’re reading a novel rather than sectioned off facts about the war.

From what I understand, the Korean War is the Forgotten War, but Makos takes you right into the battlefield; from the Marines on the ground in trenches to Jesse and Tom overhead in their planes. I was definitely taken into the harsh conditions (temperatures as low as -35 degrees) when the Marines were near Chosin Resevoir; and there were moments when I felt like I was in the plane with Jesse or Tom trying to make split-second decisions. Makos included maps to help show the locations of each event, letters, and photos taken during this time as well as before (photos of marines and pilots with their wives, parents, siblings, etc). Having photos and being able to put faces on to the people being described made me become so involved in the story, that there were a few times while I was reading that I became slightly emotional.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, first African-American Naval Aviator

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, first African-American Naval Aviator

Makos made me look at non-fiction in a whole new way. I was given facts and I was given true stories …and it was beautiful. This book was such a great way to take a look at history and to teach myself more about sacrifice, war, and one’s devotion to friendship. I feel like I’m going to have to keep sticking my nose in our history section from now on to see if I can learn a few more things.

Eby’s “South Toward Home” pinpoints literary treasures

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger

61Gg+--6UeL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re looking for a sequel to the late Willie Morris’ “North Toward Home” in Margaret Eby’s “South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature,” you won’t find it. However, Eby’s “Home” is a fascinating travelogue of Southern writers’ home country— including Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, Harper Le and Truman Capote, John Kennedy Toole, and Barry Hannah and Larry Brown.

As Eby notes, Faulkner didn’t write about the South; he wrote about Oxford —fictionalized as Yoknapatawpha. In the same vein, Welty wrote about Jackson, and John Toole about New Orleans.

“What makes a Southern writer,” she writes, “is not just the circumstances of his or her birth but a fierce attachment to a particular place.” Eby goes on to give vignettes about the selected Southern writers’ home towns, the places where they lived and wrote about throughout the Deep South. But they aren’t general overviews or a travelogue, per se; rather, they are unique attributes about the towns or the writers who lived in them as reflected by the physical surroundings.

For example, in Jackson, Eby chronicles Miss Eudora’s fondness for fried catfish and butter beans at the Mayflower Café on Capitol Street, and other local haunts. But she zeroes in on the now-open-to-the-public Welty House where, she writes, it’s less like entering another person’s home “than like dropping in to one of her stories.” The objects in the house — and particularly the garden — are masterfully linked to Eby’s obviously voluminous research in a seamless whole, so that Welty comes alive by presenting her provenance.

The formula is repeated in other authors’ surroundings, not the least of which is the absence of an extant home for Wright, who lived across town from Welty. Since his home has been torn down, she traces the trail he sets in his novel “Black Boy” from Natchez—his boyhood home — to Jackson to Beale Street in Memphis, where he also lived.

Eby describes the racism Wright encountered both before and after publication of his seminal “Native Son,” both in his books and contemporaneous accounts, as well as the physical surroundings that exist now. It’s an absorbing juxtaposition of the old and the new that raises profound questions about how race relations have changed and how they have not.

Some of Eby’s juiciest commentary involves Faulkner’s Oxford, where she says, some 50 years after his death, he is “more a part of the social atmosphere … than he ever was in his life.” There, “Faulkner is more than the mythical figure that brought home Mississippi’s first Nobel Prize for Literature. His legend is something like that of a bum uncle who died and revealed a hidden fortune — the very kind of uncle Southerners love to talk about.”

“Home” is a must-read for devotees of Southern writers and especially lovers of Mississippiana, if for no other reason, than the Oxford chapter.

She later returns to Oxford on the piece on Hannah (from Clinton) who described the place as “a United Nations with catfish on its breath,” and Larry Brown (from Yocona), since they were both associated with the place, and Lisa and John Howorth’s Square Books, a literati gathering place like John Evans’ Lemuria Books in Jackson. The tantalizing tales leave the reader yearning for more!

I would have enjoyed a piece about Morris and Yazoo City, especially since she notes that his “North Toward Home” served as an inspiration for her book, for its “warm, evocative” sense of place. Even so, without Yazoo’s inclusion, with her meticulous research and refreshing candor about the South, its places and writers, she does Willie proud.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, now in bookstores.

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.

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