Category: History (Page 1 of 5)

Up to Code: ‘Code Girls’ by Liza Mundy

code girlsThe Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1945. The United States was caught virtually unawares,  in a nearly two decade season of disarmament. The U.S. military had sparse forces, and few spies abroad. There was an immediate and urgent need for code breakers to decipher enemy message systems.

The U.S. Navy and Army began to send out secret letters to universities, seeking high achieving young women to be taught training courses in code breaking. The women were summoned to secret meetings, and sworn to secrecy. They came from all different backgrounds, but all bright, hardworking, and eager to serve their country.

Liza Mundy in Code Girls highlights the contributions of such experts in the field as William and Elizabeth Friedman and Agnes Driscoll, as well as those of the many women that labored day to day to recreate enemy enciphering machines.

Wars, by those who fight them, say they should never occur. They hold atrocities that can be too much for the human soul to bear. Yet, in the ugliest and most terrifying of times, unrecognized human potential can be found. The code breakers of World War II fought in classified rooms, instead of the battlefield, but they fought with everything they had, and discovered previously unknown strengths and abilities. They served quietly and humbly, virtually unappreciated to this day. They were great American Women, they were the Code Girls.

Author Liza Mundy will be at Lemuria Books today, Friday, December 8, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from Code Girls.

Author Q & A with Mark Bowden

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 13).

hue 1968Author and journalist Mark Bowden challenges a new generation of readers to question America’s involvement in Vietnam as he examines, with laser precision, the bloody battle for the city of Hue (pronounced “whey”) in his newest release Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Grove Atlantic).

Nearly 50 years later, the man who is perhaps best known for his blockbuster Black Hawk Downexposes in detail the sense of betrayal Americans felt when the war they had been told the country was handily winning suddenly became the war they could, at best, withdraw from “with honor.”

The author of 13 books, Bowden now writes for The Atlanticand Vanity Fair, among other magazines. He was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years. A native of St. Louis, he now lives in Pennsylvania.

Bowden will participate in the History Makers panel during the Mississippi Book Festival August 19 in Jackson. The event will be at noon in the Old Supreme Court Room of the Mississippi State Capitol Building.

What spurred your interest in writing this detailed historical account of the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam conflict?

Vietnam has been for me a subject of tremendous interest throughout my life. I was 16 years old when Tet, this battle, happened. Myd ad and I battled about Vietnam then, with me against (the war), him for it, with neither of us having a whole lot of knowledge about it.

So, at a fairly young age, I started reading the newspaper; and, on my own, I subscribed to Time magazine. I would go the library and grab books (about it) at random off the shelf. I started reading sytematically in order to bone up for arguments with my dad about Vietnam. These habits I developed of researching and writing led me to becoming a journalist and writer.

I had never written about Vietnam before. In the epilogue, I talk about how this battle for Hue in the Tet Offensive was a turning point for the American battle in Vietnam–and (Gen. William Westmoreland’s) refusal to fact facts about this, the single most important event in the war.

The more I thought about it, this battle was the sort of dramatic episode that, if I could dig deep into this moment, it could become a lens into the war itself. Hue had all the features of the war–heroism and fears of both the American and Vietnamese soldiers, and politics in Washington that shaped military strategies. It gives a pretty good glimpse of the bigger war.

Explain the historical significance of this event.

The U.S. began investing really heavily in Vietnam in 1964-65. There had been advisers before that who had been helping the Vietnamese government, but it was then that LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) made the decision to send large numbers of troops.

In 1967, there were half a million American soldiers in Vietnam. The president and Westmoreland were assuring the American people this would be an easy war in this rag-tag little country. Westie had come back to Washington and he gave a speech to the National Press Corps (in November 1967) saying that the war was well in hand and that they were entering the “third phase,” where troops would start returning home.

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched surprise attacks and took Hue, the third largest city in South Vietnam–hardly an offensive by a depleted foe. Hue was a tremendously significant place, as Vietnam’s ancient capital and center of culture and religion.

Clearly, Hue had a n impact on the U.S. and South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese people were caught between communists and the Viet Cong of North Vietnam. Their government and their lives depended on how this war went. And at home, Americans lost confidence in what their leaders were telling them, as their assurance in their own government officials was seriously eroded.

After Tet, (CBS Evening News anchorman) Walter Cronkite, who was called “the most trusted man in America,” at that time, told his viewers, “We’re not going to be able to win,” and that our best hope would be to “negotiate our way out.”

Shortly after, LBJ announced on TV that he would not seek re-election for the Presidency.

Cronkite’s comment was a remarkable thing, but he felt betrayed, like he had been used by American officials. He had been a war correspondent during World War II. He went to Vietnam and came back with his own opinion. His statement (of those opinions on air) was a real departure for a journalist back then, but he felt compelled.

The U.S. had fought in World War II and Korea, but Vietnam was a real blow to that essentially naïve belief that our sheer military strength would prevail, no matter what. Sometimes we go tto war for really bad reasons, and we’re told lies. We’re betrayed by our own government.

Westie continued to have this fixed idea, and did not waiver, in his belief that Hue was not a serious setback.

Hue 1968 is described as your “most ambitious work yet,” and the research you’ve done is amazing. How long did it take to put this book together, and how did you trace all of this history, and in such detail?

It was a very ambitious undertaking. Throughout my career, I’ve always looked for projects with bigger, harder challenges. The nature of journalism is plunging into subject about which you know nothing.

Because of the internet, I learned about finding American soldiers who had fought in Vietnam. Once I could find one or two, I would get an “interview tree” to branch out on. Finding soldiers from the Vietnamese side was different. I realized I needed to hire people who were really good at finding people, and work with them and through them…to find Vietnamese veterans…then I followed up.

I did the traditional things you have to do to be a serious historian. But I am not an academic historian and don’t pretend to be. I visited the LBJ (Presidential) Library in Austin, Texas. I studied Westmoreland’s papers.

My book is based on interviews and memories of people who were there. There are advantages and disadvantages to that–memories are not perfect, but I feel justified in relying on memory. I’ve received unsolicited e-mails of thank from people, for capturing what others did not in this story. A sweet spot for me in the timing of the book is that people are still alive who lived it.

The book took six years. The first steps toward working on this book took place years ago. I began ordering books on the subject, thinking how to go about it. The process is 99% research and reporting in the beginning, then 50/50 reporting/writing, and then 99% writing.

Who should read this book? How can young people today relate to this event, and why is it important for today’s generation to know about this?

It goes to the question of “Why study history?” It has a lot to tell us about successes and failures and how things happen they way they do. I can’t imagine anything more important. It delves into motivation–and mistakes made. As a society, not as individuals, we see how Vietnam has reverberations still today, in its effects on society. It’s a way to continue that good hard look at how we fit in that coherent flow of history.

I would hope that everyone should read this book. It’s not just for a military audience or academic historians. And for all those reasons, it’s a compelling story.

Do you have family or other connections to Vietnam and to this war?

No connections. None of my brothers served in Vietnam. I had some uncles who served in Korea and World War II. No cousins. I knew people in high school and college and throughout my life who served in Vietnam. I grew up living with the Vietnam war in my house and arguing with my dad about it.

Is it true that Hue 1968 will be produced as a television mini-series?

It’s already in the works. It’s set to be a 10-part mini-series on FX, with Michael Mann as the producer/director. That work is just beginning. I’m excited about it!

Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden

What’s your next writing project/book?

I have the cover story on The Atlantic this month (on what to do about North Korea). A Vanity Fair story. I kind of deliberately don’t have a book project now. I like to have time in between books. But ask me again at the end of the year!

Hue 1968 is Lemuria’s August selection for its First Editions Club. Mark Bowden will appear at the Mississippi Book Festival first at 12:00 in the Old Supreme Court Room with Howard Bahr, author and Vietnam veteran. He will also be interviewed with U.S. Representative Trent Kelly at 4:00 in State Capitol Room 201H about the Vietnam War.

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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.

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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.

You Say You Want a Revolution: ‘October’ by China Miéville

The months from February to October were a continuous jostling process, a torquing of history. What happened and the meaning of what happened remain overwhelmingly controversial. February and, above all, October have long been prisms through which the politics of freedom are viewed.

octoberChina Miéville’s October is an electrifying centenary tour through Russia’s axial 1917. Acting as expert guide, he whisks readers through the labyrinthine history of that land, past Tzars and Rasputin, to focus on the intimate details of factory-level debates, cabinet meetings, bureaus, letters, trains, revolutions, and the Revolution. Most of us have a sense of where this particular drama ends or at least what came later, but Miéville throws the reader into scene after scene of this spectacular story.


The man begged shelter from the downpour. Lenin had little choice but to stand aside and let him in. As they sat together listening to the drumbeat of water, Lenin asked his visitor what brought him to this out-of-the-way spot.
            A manhunt, the Cossack said. He was after someone by the name of Lenin. To bring him back dead or alive.

This powerful dramatic voice galvanizes a story frequently (though necessarily) saturated with committee vote tallies. Take for instance the following passage in which Miéville strikes a skillful balance between fact, gravity, and levity.

At last, after prolonged and impassioned back and forth, they voted. By ten to two – Zinoviev and Kamenev, of course – the resolution passed. It was hazy in its details, but a Rubicon had been crossed. Insurrection was now the ‘order of the day’.
            The tension eased. Iurii Flakserman brought cheese, sausage and bread, and the famished revolutionaries fell to. Good-naturedly they teased the Heavenly Twins: hesitating to overthrow the bourgeoisie was so very Kamenev.

Miéville’s October felt like the classes I loved in college. Classes where facts were not just data but invitations to think, and where teachers brought faraway subjects closer and pushed you to care deeply. When Miéville recounts the circumstances of a wonderful and infamous phrase from 1917, it’s not in anticipation of the punch-line to be delivered.

A big worker pushed his way through and came up close and shook his fist in Chernov’s face. ‘Take power, you son of a bitch,’ he bellowed, in one of the most famous phrases of 1917, ‘when it’s given to you!’

He wants the reader (you and me, right now) to wrestle with this event’s crucial questions.

Read October because China Miéville is a good writer and this is a great story. Read October because we are now 100 years from the events described. Read October because, as Miéville believes:

It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

P.S. The publisher, Verso, has a slew of new books centered on the Russian Revolution including an exciting gem coming in September, Lenin 2017. This book brings together a collection of Lenin’s later writings and an essay from the reigning “Clown Prince of the Revolution,” Slavoj Zizek.

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.

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‘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.

These Shining Lives: ‘The Radium Girls’ by Kate Moore

I’m pretty inexperienced with non-fiction. I would rather enter a new world through books, instead of inserting myself into one that already exists. However, The Radium Girls grabbed my attention with its mildly horrifying accounts. Kate Moore’s narrative non-fiction debut is the story of the young women who painted glow in the dark watch dials with radium laced paint in the 1910s and 1920s. This era was the height of radium-based products that were believed to be cure for everything. There were advertisements for “radium-lined jars to which water could be added to make it radioactive.” It was deemed the “miracle drug.”

radium ad

Of course, we now know just how dangerous radium is.

Radium Girls centers around the young women who worked for a company called the United States Radium Corporation, or USRC. More specifically it centers around 10 or so of the women who painted watch and clock dials with radium paint. They were well paid and the positions were considered very glamorous. In their workspace, there was a darkroom where the women could check their work but they used it mostly to paint glow in the dark mustaches on their faces. In order to be more precise about their painting, they employed what was called the lip pointing technique, in which the girls would use their mouths to finely point the paintbrush bristles, dip in the paint, then lip point again. This would turn out to be small but deadly process.

radium deathMost, if not all, of the girls who worked for USRC started getting ill. Some had sore mouths, some had achy joints, some started walking with limps, and some showed all of the symptoms. Several of the women developed deadly sarcomas. Since radium affected each girl differently, the sources of their illness were misdiagnosed. Syphilis, “phossy jaw,” early onset arthritis, etc. were some of the main diagnoses. These “radium girls” were dying left and right, and USRC kept denying that their deaths were work-related. Finally, with the help of sympathetic doctors and committee agents, radium was finally pinpointed as the cause of these deaths and illnesses.

Cue the legal battles. These women wanted justice for how horribly they were treated; newspapers were calling them the “living dead.” USRC still denied they were involved, going as far as to blatantly lie and cover up medical exams given they themselves. I won’t tell you what the final judgment was, but it was a long and hard journey to get it.

As someone who hasn’t read a lot of nonfiction, I really enjoyed The Radium Girls. There’s an epilogue that delves into how radium and other radioactive elements started being handled, as well as the laws put into place to protect those who handle these elements regularly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book is BANANAS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Burkhart

Mollie Burkhart

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

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

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

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

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

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.

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