Category: Newsworthy (Page 1 of 30)

“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown

“…those almost mystical bonds of trust and affection, if nurtured correctly, might lift a crew above the ordinary sphere, transport it to a place where nine boys somehow became one thing—a thing that could not quite be defined, a thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that, as they rowed, effort was replaced by ecstasy.” 

JacketThe New York Times bestselling The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is about the Washington University rowing team that won the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Through newspaper articles, journals, interviews, and the like, Brown weaves his research into an engaging tale of overcoming odds and pushing toward success.

While the story involves the journey of nine crew students at Washington, it focuses on Joe Rantz, a talented boy forced to grow up too fast. You get a glimpse of the heartache and struggle he had to endure at a young age that ultimately gave him the fight and determination he needed to excel on the Washington crew.

It’s amazing how these boys were not only a part of a highly-competitive rowing team, but they also had to attend class and do school work, as well as take on jobs to pay their way through college. The demands placed upon that generation and their perseverance through it all are truly inspirational. It was their resolve that transferred into rowing and led them to become Olympic champions.

I never really knew how both physically and mentally demanding rowing is. The details about each stroke, the technique, and how the body is effected left me feeling exhausted in some sections. It also amazed me how in-sync they had to be: “The movements of each rower are so intimately intertwined, so precisely synchronized with the movements of all the others, that any one rower’s mistake or subpar performance can throw off the temp of the stroke, the balance of the boat, and ultimately the success of the whole crew.”

After reading about how much the sport tested the team and how their coaches pushed them, it really made me appreciate rowing, and I think it is one of the most challenging sports of all time.

Not only is this a story about rowing, but Brown also paints a picture of the world during the 1930s. The Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the rise of Hitler all set the backdrop to the primary story of collegiate rowing. The reader gets a better understanding of the political scene during the games and just how influential the American victory in Berlin was on an international level.

I also loved reading about how the team bonded together, not just because of rowing, but because of who they were—the sons of farmers and miners, just trying to survive and working for a better future. The 1936 Olympics wasn’t just a victory for the University of Washington, but for all Americans during a dark time. It’s no wonder that those nine boys in the boat still inspire people today.

Overall, it was an excellent read, and I’m excited to see how it will translate onto the Big Screen in the next year or so.

“SPQR” Lives Up to the Hype

Jacket (1)I love reading about pretty much any historical period. But I really love reading about Rome! I memorized toga styles once- it’s kind of an obsession. So I was excited that a Roman history book has been flying off the shelf this past month. I decided to try it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Remitto!

SPQR is short for “senatus populusque romanus” which means the “Senate and People of Rome”. It was a symbol that appeared often on Roman literature and legal documents, and refers to the governing body of the Roman Republic and its people. Beard chose a really apt title here, because I could actually divide this book in half. Half focuses on Roman life and culture. This was definitely the most fun part of the book. It is like a collection of stories that make the past come alive.

There are stories about pirates and Spartacus and his army fighting with kitchenware for weapons, and that strange tale about Plautus and Terence. There are also stories that challenge some of the famous annals of Rome. For example, do you remember that legend that Caligula declared war on Poseidon and commanded his armies to gather seashells from the ocean as war spoils? Beard tells us there may have been some confusion over the Latin word musculi, which can mean “shells” or “military huts”. His soldiers may have been destroying a military camp, not hunting for seashells.

The other half of the book explores the Senatus and all of Rome’s leaders. The way they constructed their government was a source of inspiration for America’s founding fathers, so this is a pretty interesting read regarding the earliest seeds of a republic. Many of the questions that people like Polybius and the Forum struggled with are still things we debate today. Dealing with “terrorists” outside the due process of the law is not just an issue that the US is struggling with. It’s really interesting to find that many political and social beliefs have been attempted before, and it very often offers insight to see how things may or may not have worked in the past. Beard doesn’t lean too hard on any real bias, a lot of the questions she poses are given with the historical evidence we have, and then the reader is free to make of it what they will.

I absolutely recommend this book to anybody wanting a more in-depth look at Rome. The writing isn’t too dry, or too romantic. The book feels very conversational; there isn’t a strict chronological order to it, so it feels like you sat down with a historian over drinks and asked them about some of the interesting bits of ancient Rome. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anybody that doesn’t have some knowledge going in. But it’s a little treasure trove, and definitely lives up to the hype.

Gene Luen Yang Named the National Ambassador for Children’s Literature

Original to By Clara Martin.

Gene Luen YangEarlier this week, Gene Luen Yang was appointed the National Ambassador for Children’s Literature. Having heard Yang speak at the Children’s Book Festival in Hattiesburg in April of 2015, this news comes as a delight. His presentation was engaging, made everyone laugh, and I’ve never seen so many librarians queue up to buy a graphic novel. They were sold out minutes after his speech. With his friendly demeanor and an innate ability to teach, whether it is about the history of superheroes in comics—Superman was also an alien immigrant—or teaching history (the Boxer Rebellion) or coding, Yang’s range and appeal is wide and varied. There is one constant, though. Gene uses illustrations, comic-strips, in fact, to tell his stories.

He is the first graphic novelist to be chosen for the position of National Ambassador (which has been around since 2008), and it is perfect timing. The graphic novel is having a moment. Raina Telgemeier’s ever popular SmileSisters, and Drama books are always in high demand. My only regret with Victoria Jamieson’s Rollergirl is that I didn’t get to read it when I was eleven. The list goes on and on.

For those of you who don’t know what a graphic novel is, it is a term for a novel told through comic-strip drawings. Reading Without Walls, a platform Yang developed with his publisher that he will promote as the new National Ambassador, is about “being open to new kinds of stories.”

JacketAmerican Born Chinese (First Second, 2006) was the first graphic novel to both win the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature and the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Yang drew on his own experience of being a first-generation Chinese boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. A coding teacher for 17 years, Yang only stopped when the demands of traveling to promote his books, but even though he’s not in the classroom, he continues to teach computer programming in his new book, Secret Coders. In just reading the first installment in this series, I now know the basics of coding, and this book will be an awesome introduction to computer programming for kids.

A graphic novel is a complex story, often more so because of its format. Children are innately open to new kinds of stories. In reading graphic novels, they make connections to their own lives, and they are constantly processing context clues both in the text and drawings.

As children’s literature continues to evolve, it is exciting that Gene Luen Yang will be leading the way for the next two years.

Congratulations, Gene!

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch

Today is the sixth day in the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. To celebrate, we’re running Clara’s Clarion-Ledger article about the ever-popular children’s book, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. Enjoy!

JacketThe Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski is not a new Christmas story, but it is one that I would like to revisit as it has been recently published in a new 20th anniversary edition.

Illustrations by P.J. Lynch have made this book the miraculous wonder that it is, and Lynch says the challenge of painting this story was “not to do with costumes or tools; it was to try to match, in my pictures, the deep emotional core of Susan’s story, to try to somehow show that might be going on inside a character’s head, or inside his heart.”

In what looks like Appalachia, Jonathan Toomey is the best wood carver in the valley. However, he doesn’t speak to anyone, and the village children call him “Mr. Gloomy.” He spends his days bent over his work, carving “beautiful shapes from blocks of pine and hickory and chestnut wood.” The reason for his gloom, the narrator tells us, is that some years ago, he lost his wife and child to sickness.

“So Jonathan Toomey had packed his belongings into a wagon and traveled till his tears stopped. He settled into a tiny house at the edge of a village to do his woodcarving.”

When the widow McDowell and her son Thomas knock on his door, asking Jonathan Toomey to carve them a nativity scene, he shuts the door, grumbling, “Christmas is pish­posh.”

After a week, the widow McDowell and Thomas return to see what progress has been made on their manger scene, and Thomas sits at Mr. Toomey’s side, since he, too, wishes to be a woodcarver some day. However, he interrupts Mr. Toomey to tell him that he is carving the sheep wrong, that his sheep are happy sheep. “’That’s pish­posh,’” said Mr. Toomey. ‘Sheep are sheep. They cannot look happy.’” To which Thomas replies, “Mine did…they knew they were with the Baby Jesus, so they were happy.”

With each visit to Mr. Toomey’s, and with each subsequent character being carved to fill the manger scene, Thomas continues to tell Mr. Toomey the right way to carve his figures: the cow is proud that the baby Jesus chose to be born in its barn, the angel looks like one of God’s most important angels because it was sent down to baby Jesus, the wise men are wearing their most wonderful robes, and Joseph leans over the baby Jesus protectively.

When Mr. Toomey asks Thomas how Mary and the baby Jesus should be carved, he says, “They were the most special of all…Jesus was smiling and reaching up to his mother, and Mary looked like she loved him very much.”

Jonathan Toomey completes his carvings on Christmas Day, and it is indeed a Christmas miracle. The widow McDowell and Thomas gave him a miracle by asking him to carve the nativity scene. Twenty years later, the deep human experience and the power of the Christmas story lives on in this book.

“And that day in the churchyard the village children saw Jonathan throw back his head, showing his eyes as clear blue as an August sky, and laugh. No one ever called him Mr. Gloomy again.”

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Why Maude Schuyler Clay’s ‘Mississippi History’ is Breathtaking

Jacket (1)Maude Schuyler Clay has a new photography book. On a whim, I decided to flip through its pages because I do love a good coffee table book. Looking at these photos, I felt goose bumps; as someone who appreciates art, and the intricacies that are often involved in the history of art, this collection of photographs feels both intimate and timeless. And as there has been a bent and focus on the Delta recently (Richard Grant’s Dispatches of Pluto, an incredible outsider’s view of Mississippi), the sense of place in these photos counterbalanced Grant’s book and is clearly an insider’s view of Mississippi.

At first, I did not know that these people, or subjects of the photographs, were Clay’s own family and friends. But every time I would see a character’s name appear in a different photograph, in a different time, in a different location, I felt a jolt of recognition, a connection with that person who I had also seen several pages back.

What I love about this collection is that it is not chronological. Pictures of her children at twelve appear before pictures of her children when they are toddlers. And because of this repetition, the people in these photographs aren’t just subjects, but characters, part of a story. Clay could have easily called this book “My Mississippi History.” But it wouldn’t have retained the same mysteriousness; it was only after reading the closing words at the end of the book that I learned these people were her own children and family—after all, there are pictures of them in the bathtub, and on Christmas morning. Where else would the photographer be on Christmas morning than at home with her family?

The ambiguity with which the photographs are arranged and presented allows the viewers to place themselves in that moment, to recognize a piece of themselves in Mississippi History. The photographs were taken over the past three decades, so I also loved guessing when the photographs were shot. Some are clearly recent; “Mr. Biggers” has Apple earbuds in his ears as he stands with fresh greens in his hand. Some are unmistakably from the 70s. My favorite picture is of “Anna as Heidi.” All of the photographs are gorgeously artistic and intimate. The majority of these photos are of children, especially Clay’s own children in different stages of their lives, so the photographs have a very evident “mother’s eye-view” in them, a look at what a real Mississippi mother truly sees.

Today, anyone can take a picture on Instagram, put a fancy filter on it and call themselves a “photographer.” Clay shows that she is a genius in the art of photography, and has been using light and shadows in nature to create those illusive filters we place on photographs today.

Flipping through the pages of Mississippi History feels like flipping through a good friend’s photo album. It is the perfect gift for that person who loves to take pictures of their children, and also perfect for anyone who has grown up here in the Magnolia State.


Join us on Thursday, December 17 at 5:00 for a signing event for Mississippi History! 

Readers Coming Together

by John Evans, Lemuria Books

Mississippi’s literary contributions have enhanced our state and national culture. Our great writers are household names; many of their stories are our stories. But before great writers put pen to paper, they were first great readers.

In my 40 years of bookselling, I have witnessed the power of real books in the hands of readers. In our first statewide book festival, The Mississippi Book Festival, we will celebrate the joys of reading and the authors who bring our culture to the page. Reading real books is where it all starts.

Mississippians are encouraged to read John Grisham’s Sycamore Row together. Reading together, we live together.

The first Mississippi Book Festival, I hope the first of many, will bring awareness to our strong literary history. Perhaps this festival will be the first step toward creating a Literary Book Trail in Mississippi and eventually, a Mississippi Writers Museum.

The first ever Mississippi Book Festival will take place this Saturday, August 22, on the State Capitol grounds.


Originally published here

The First Ever Mississippi Book Festival on August 22: Get Your Bearings


Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” sees busy release day

Original article posted on July 15, 2015 in The Clarion-Ledger by Jana Hoops

JacketTuesday’s long-awaited release of Harper Lee’s first novel since “To Kill A Mockingbird” 55 years ago was met with smiles, curiosity and mixed opinions as literary enthusiasts kept local book stores busy all day.

Despite Monday’s media leaks that “Mockingbird’s” beloved character Atticus Finch was portrayed in “Go Set A Watchman” as a “bigot” or “racist” — a far cry from his role as a defender of African American rights in Lee’s first book —readers seemed to shake off that possibility with a grain of salt, preferring to hold off judgment at least until they’ve digested it for themselves.

More than 125 people crowded into Lemuria Books’ nearby events venue, known as the “ building,” as author and Belhaven creative writing professor Howard Bahr read the first chapter of “Go Set a Watchman” to the expectant audience.

“I don’t care about all that (controversy),” Bahr said. “To be chosen to do this tonight is an extraordinary privilege. I am deeply honored to be able to read this on its first release day.”

John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, said he has no worries that the pre-release hype touting a potentially racist character will discourage book sales.

If anything, Evans thinks it will fuel interest in the book. “Controversial labels arouse curiosity,” he said. “People should form their own opinions.

“ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was a story set in the ’30s, written in the ’50s by a middle-aged woman. Scout (the main character) was able to look at her father (Atticus) through the eyes of a child. A child at that age thinks of her father as God’s gift. ‘Watchman’ is about a woman coming of age, and a grown woman’s perspective of her father is different.

“Also, you have to look at the cultural differences,” Evans said. “At that time in the South, people were only third generation away from the Civil War. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but I’m not sure those people may have thought of (some of the things in ‘Watchman’) as being racist, as we probably would today.”

Maggie Stevenson, special projects coordinator for the Eudora Welty House, attended the event to get her copy and read it for herself before making any evaluations.

“This book is not a sequel to ‘Mockingbird,’ ” because it was actually written earlier, she said. “I’m reading it as a separate book,” she said.

“I have a theory. I think this book is really more autobiographical than ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ She (Lee) left her hometown and came back and found out she had different views from most people there, including her father, who she loved very much — and that’s why she wrote ‘Watchman.’ You write what you know.”

Local author and former Clarion-Ledger writer Jim Ewing — probably the only person at the event to have read the whole book (in one day) — called ‘Watchman’ “excellent.”

Ewing said there was “no question” that Atticus was racist “by today’s standards, but this was written half a century ago. By those standards in the South, he would be considered moderate or even liberal. The strength of ‘Watchman’ is that it’s a time capsule and openly displays characteristics we find ugly today, but it becomes a measurement for us for both good and evil.”

Iles’ ‘The Bone Tree’ a gripping page-turner, all 816 of them


By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger

Even for readers of Greg Iles’ 788-page Natchez Burning, book one in the trilogy about unsolved civil rights murders set in Natchez, The Bone Tree has daunting heft with 816 pages. But if Burning were a jet runway, Bone Tree launches into supersonic flight. It starts off with a lightning pace and is engrossing until the very end that, surprisingly, seems to come too soon.

Natchez Burning set the groundwork of the characters, including protagonist Penn Cage, a novelist, one-time prosecutor and current mayor of Natchez, his fiancee Caitlin Masters, publisher of the local newspaper, and Cage’s father Tom Cage, a beloved longtime family physician. Bone Tree fleshes them out as living characters with their own strengths and foibles.

The first book set the plot in motion when these three main characters’ lives were turned upside down by the reemergence of the Double Eagles, a more murderous offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, that had aligned itself with one of the richest men in Louisiana just across the Mississippi River; and a corrupt relative of the aging Eagles who aspired to be head of the Louisiana State Patrol. The eruption of old horrors was prodded by a local newspaper editor who had been steadily digging into civil rights cold cases.

At the end of Burning, there seemed to be some hope for normalcy and the solving of heinous unsolved race crimes that had darkened the land for a generation; but at the outset of Bone Tree, all hope for an easy resolution is lost.

Jacket14Bone Tree immediately goes to the blackened heart of the South’s racial torture, lynchings and murder by zeroing in on the relations between the Eagles and Carlos Marcello, the notorious crime boss of Louisiana. Iles folds in the undeniable reality of the South’s sordid racial history and the history of vice and corruption in Louisiana. Within the framework of his fiction, these truths are starkly revealed in all their brutality. But he goes a step further in very convincingly weaving the story of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., through his narrative.

Thus, the mystery of old race crimes intensifies with the larger question of the biggest unsolved murder in American history: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The missing link seems to be a Cuban connection, where the old racists were believed to have trained volunteers with CIA help for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. Much of the mystery revolves around that question.

It’s said that fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures. Natchez Burning proves it by so honestly recounting the race killings of the South in the form of fiction, and so realistically portraying the killers, that the novel’s authenticity strikes true.

The Bone Tree goes even further: So deeply fleshing out the types of individuals who could have carried out the 1960s assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, that what are often called “conspiracy theories” become not only plausible but seemingly self-evident. Adding to the suspension of disbelief are the reams of facts and the inclusion of recognizable public figures such as The Clarion-Ledger’s longtime civil rights cold case investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell.

Iles’ The Bone Tree is simply astounding. It’s astounding that:

816 pages can be a gripping page-turner;

It comes after 788-page volume that left readers hungry for more, yet didn’t lose any momentum even with filling in details to get new readers up to speed;

Only 24 hours goes by in the first 400 pages, yet it doesn’t lag;

It can tie the reader in knots until the very end.

With all its twists and turns, The Bone Tree is likely to leave the reader emotionally like a wrung-out dishrag, but thirsty for more.



Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating, and the forthcoming Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, Spring 2015.


Hausfrau: a veiled woman, half-dreamed

A lonely woman is a dangerous woman…A lonely woman is a bored woman. Bored women act on impulse.


We all know the story of the bored housewife, her illicit affairs, the crumbling middle class family, the fallen woman who’s carefully stacked lies are doomed to come loose around her. But Jill Alexander Essbaum, with one foot in the 20th century and the other firmly planted in the present, evokes Virginia Wolfe, Sylvia Plath, and Kate Chopin. Hausfrau, Essbaum’s fiction debut, is classically modernist in it’s philosophical pondering and deeply flawed characters.

Hausfrau is the entangled story of an expat housewife living in Switzerland with her husband and three, rudy Swiss children. To say she is unhappy would be inaccurate. Anna is passive. She is an agreer, a woman quick to say “yes” because a “no” would reveal too much of herself. A self she may no longer know.

“What’s the difference between passivity and neutrality?”

“Passivity is deference. To be passive is to relinquish your will. Neutrality is nonpartisan. The Swiss are neutral, not passive. We do not choose a side. We are scales in perfect balance.”

“Not choosing. Is that still a choice?”

The novel flits between the past, present, Anna’s psychotherapy sessions that tug on the finely wrought veil she has created to keep her secrets, and shadowy admissions of adultery and love.

127950495.em4ueW4K.frustriertehausfrauEssbaum shows her deft writing by keeping all the lies in the air. Doktor Messerli, perceptive therapist that she is, points us in the direction of the truth. She is a plumb-line of honesty.

As Anna stumbles in and out of faithfulness, Hausfrau teeters on the edge, if not plummets, into the erotic. Faith (also faithfulness) and desire cross swords on the page. It is in the half-light of her lust that Anna is revealed. It is this same light that casts us all into focus; our sins betray us.

Hausfrau is a warning; a marker to measure drift–once a line has been crossed, the seal broken, to err is habit.

Reading Hausfrau, I was reminded of Anais Nin’s introduction to Little Birds. “The sexual life,” she writes, “is usually enveloped in many layers, for all of us–poets, writers, artists. It is a veiled woman, half-dreamed.”

Hausfrau releases March 24, 2015 from Random House.

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