Category: Southern Fiction (Page 2 of 19)

Interview with John Evans of Lemuria Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me how you started Lemuria Books, and why.

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

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

Inside Lemuria's location in the Quarter

Inside Lemuria’s location in the Quarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Voyage with a John Grisham Book

I’m going to be real honest here: I’ve never read a John Grisham book and I had never really thought that I would. But when I found out that Camino Island, his newest book–released today–deals with a bookstore and stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, I became interested and wanted to get my hands on an advance copy.

Camino Island begins with an intense moment, right in the middle of a gang of thieves staging the heist of the F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton library. In what I can only assume is Grisham’s typical thriller writing style, he is able to pull the reader in right away with this scene.

Bruce Cable, owner of an independent bookstore on Florida’s Camino Island, always has his hand in buying and selling rare first edition books in addition to his ordinary stock. Here’s where the true book nerds get hooked. There’s constant book talk, authors and book titles are dropped here and there throughout, and I’m pretty sure Bruce’s first edition rooms may or may not have come from our very own Lemuria. Grisham paints a pretty picture of Bruce Cables’ bookstore, Bay Books. As a book lover, it’s very fun to read about.

Mercer Mann, a writer who has recently been laid off from her teaching gig at UNC and hasn’t written in months, spent her summers on Camino Island with her beloved grandmother Tessa, but hasn’t returned in years since her death. Mercer is approached by a woman who is working for a very mysterious company and is offered a large sum of money to move back to Camino Island and work undercover. Mercer’s mission consists of infiltrating Bruce Cable’s inner workings of his bookstore and first editions deals, as well as working her way into his circle of literary friends. Mercer has to get close enough to make sure Bruce hasn’t started to dip into the black market of stolen books, while also keeping his trust. Things begin to get pretty intense, but Grisham wraps everything up in perfect style.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This is not a legal thriller; it’s more of a crime novel. I think that new Grisham readers will find this book very entertaining and I think die-hard John Grisham fans will find this book refreshing. This book is going to give every book lover a new, and maybe first, look into the bookstore world. As a bookseller, I can definitely say that Grisham did a great job building this world in his writing and as a first time Grisham reader, I can definitely say he writes an entertaining and gripping novel.

If you’re going on vacation this summer, this is the beach read for you!

beach photo

Hannah Barbarians: Katie shares her love of Barry Hannah’s ‘Airships’

airshipsWhen I was a junior in high school, one of my teachers handed me a copy of Barry Hannah’s Airships and said, “Read it. Just a warning, it’s pretty messed up.” Although, he didn’t say “messed.” He said another word that ended in -ed, but started with an f. To this day, I still thank him for letting me borrow his copy of that book. There are not many books that I have bought more than once, but I have probably bought this book close to seven or eight times, simply because I cannot keep it to myself. I pass it off to friends, people from the South, people in the South, people who need a little Barry Hannah in their lives.

“Love Too Long,” which is probably my favorite story in the book, is about a man whose wife has left him for the last time. This story is full of clever, twisted, beautifully dark sentences. I remember reading the last paragraph of it and immediately searching my room for a pen because I just had to circle the entire thing. Here it is:

Nothing in the world matters but you and your woman. Friendship and politics go to hell. My friend Dan three doors down, who’s also unemployed, comes over when he can make the price of a six-pack.

It’s not the same.

I’m going to die from love.

This is, and will probably remain to be for a while, my favorite ending to a short story.

“Eating Wife and Friends,” another favorite of mine, is a sort of dystopian story about an America where food is scarce. A landlady, Mrs. Neap, has tenants in her home and she gets tired of them. They make too much noise, they contribute nothing, and they constantly break her rules. There are rumors going around that people are starting to eat humans and Mrs. Neap is not at all taken aback by the idea, nor are the tenants.

“Coming Close to Donna” is, in my opinion, the most disturbingly beautiful story in the book. At the very beginning, Hannah outlines a scene for us in which two boys are fighting over Donna in a cemetery while she and a seemingly uninterested boy watch from a Lincoln convertible. This story has more twists and turns in three pages than I have ever read in a short story before.

If you like grit lit or a good ol’ southern story, you should definitely read Airships. Barry Hannah has a way of creating a whole world in a story, a world where you probably would not want to live, but you would love to read about forever. Hannah was a southern man, a man whose life, today, is lived through stories told by his past students, past writing buddies, and people he ticked off. He had such a wonderful voice that shows through in every single sentence he formed.

The Penance of Penn Cage: ‘Mississippi Blood’ by Greg Iles

mississippi bloodGreg Iles is set to publish his final chapter in the Natchez Burning trilogy tomorrow. The trilogy, which began with Natchez Burning in 2014 and continued with The Bone Tree in 2015, will conclude with Mississippi Blood. The whole trilogy is set in the Natchez, Mississippi, of long-running Iles protagonist Penn Cage, who first appeared in The Quiet Game in 1999. (The trilogy also features appearances from characters in the previously stand-alone and unrelated thriller Dead Sleep from 2001).

I personally first encountered the character of Penn Cage about four years ago on the pages of his second novel, Turning Angel. Penn became the latest in my personal parade of literary types that I treasure: the non-professional private eye. He followed Lawrence Block’s book-loving burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, John D. MacDonald’s legendary beach-bum Travis McGee, and Rick Riordan’s now-forgotten tequila-drinking, tai chi-practicing English professor Tres Navarre.  But Penn hit closer to home, quite literally. At the time, I was working just over the Mississippi River and a little north of Natchez, in Tensas (pronounced Ten-SAW) Parish in Louisiana.

And that’s the thing about these characters: they inevitably become inseparable from their settings. Penn lives and breathes Natchez like its sins and successes are wholly his burden to bear. natchez & riverIt the middle of Turning Angel, he makes a pitch for his out-of-town fiancée to stay while he makes a run for mayor of Natchez: “Natchez has become a place where we have to raise our children to live elsewhere. Our kids can’t come back here and make a living. And that’s a tragedy…I want to change that.” And those words resonate because what’s true for Natchez is essentially true for all of Mississippi.

And this is what has always been at stake for Penn. Since moving home from Houston after the death of his wife, Penn has striven to make a idyllic home life for his daughter Annie, much like the one that his father, Dr. Thomas Cage, had given to him when he was a boy. For the first three books of the series (The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, The Devil’s Punchbowl), Dr. Cage is made out to be a veritable saint, completely devoid of the prejudice that plagues the Natchez community all around him, giving freely his time, medical expertise, and perhaps most importantly, his respect to the surrounding black community.

The façade starts to crumble at the beginning of the first book of this trilogy, Natchez Burning. Dr. Cage is charged with the recent murder of his trusted black nurse from the 1960s, Viola Turner. Her death quickly becomes enmeshed with the murderous activities of a white supremacist terror cell, the Double Eagles, and their drug-running descendants. (The real-life inspiration for the Double Eagles, known as the Silver Dollar Group, is chronicled brilliantly in Stanley Nelson’s harrowing true-life book Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi in the 1960s).

In telling Viola’s story (and Dr. Cage’s, and Natchez’s), Natchez Burning (and its sequel The Bone Tree) go to some wild places, such as post-Katrina reconstruction in New Orleans and the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, of all things. sheriff-cooley-oTruly menacing villains such as Brody Royal, the money man behind the Klan, and Forrest Knox, the heir apparent to all law enforcement in Louisiana and simultaneously the head of the family crime syndicate, dominate the first two books, but are dispatched. By the telling of Mississippi Blood, only Snake Knox (Forrest’s uncle), the man with the meanest of goals—survival and notoriety—and the meanest of dispositions, survives to torment Penn and the good people left standing in Natchez.

Mississippi Blood moves at a slightly less frenetic pace than its predecessors (it would almost have to), but it simmers with the same tension. We—and the courtroom spectators of Natchez—are finally promised answers about Dr. Cage’s activities that have been lingering for years. Also lurking at the edges of Penn’s conscience and consciousness at all times is his half-brother Lincoln Turner, the illegitimate son of Dr. Thomas Cage and Viola Turner. Lincoln may be Penn’s antagonist, but he’s not exactly a villain, even from Penn’s point-of-view. Lincoln is seeking reparation for the disparity of his and Penn’s life in a way that Penn finds almost impossible to pay. Penn has even turned ambivalent about his father’s liberty, blaming him for a tragedy at the end of The Bone Tree, which was truly shocking and heart-rending in a way that is only possible for readers like me after hundreds of pages and dozens of hours spent with the same people.

But, above all, Penn is trying to hold down a peace for family, facing down a dark past before even thinking about a brighter future, determined to see it all the way down to the end. Because while the “Mississippi Blood” of the title may be evocative of all the violence that has taken place in the trilogy, it ultimately refers to the survival instinct of those who possess it running through their veins.

Greg Iles will be at Lemuria on Tuesday, March 21. He will begin signing books at 3:00 and read from Mississippi Blood at 5:30.

We Lived Our Little Drama: Michael Knight’s ‘Eveningland’

Lately, I’ve been in the mood for short stories, so I found it the perfect time to pick up Eveningland, the latest from Michael Knight. I haven’t read his work before, but Knight is known for his ability to weave an engaging novella. Sure enough, his new book is a perfect example of beautiful southern storytelling.

eveninglandEveningland is a collection of Alabama short stories that mostly take place around Mobile and the Gulf Coast area. A teenage girl holding a thief hostage in her home. A young art teacher trying to figure out her life. A vengeful husband. A boy with a summer crush. Knight does a skillful job of connecting these seemingly unrelated stories into a tale about the complexities of life in all its forms.

I’ve quickly become a fan of Knight’s writing. From page one, his prose pulled me in, and I found myself reading several stories in one sitting. I love the way he plays around with perspective, choosing various narrators and points of view to tell each story. His writing is clear and to the point, while also quietly poetic. Each sentence flows perfectly into the next, and the rhythm often reminded me of waves lapping along the Alabama beaches.

wavesMy favorite story was “The King of Dauphin Island,” in which a real estate tycoon seeks to buy up and restore the crumbling island after the death of his wife. Relationships are at the heart of this collection, and I couldn’t help but care for each of the characters, though their struggles varied from infidelity to navigating middle-aged life.

I also appreciate how Knight framed the story with events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Raphael. He manages to put a face with the impact these events had on a personal level. I may not be from Alabama, but as a Mississippian who has visited Mobile and Dauphin Island numerous times, I think the stories have a vivid sense of place. Knight captures the essence of the area through his descriptions of the land and through his use of voice.

Overall, Eveningland is a well-written collection that demonstrates how life goes on through heartbreak and change. I would recommend it for anyone in need of some good southern short stories. I’m sure I’ll be picking up more of Knight’s works soon.

Micheal Knight will  serve as a panelist on the “Stories from the South” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201A.

Take a literary road trip with Margaret Eby’s ‘South Toward Home’

One of my favorite areas of the Lemuria store is the Southern fiction section. Nestled in a corner of the fiction room behind a bust of Eudora Welty, this part of the store is one I love to explore. From Rick Bass to Alice Walker, and everyone in between, the shelves are filled with some of the best writers that speak to my southern spirit. So when I came across Margaret Eby’s South Toward Home, I was instantly intrigued.

South Toward Home, whose title is a play off Willie Morris’ North Toward Home, is a literary road map of the South. From Oxford and Jackson to New Orleans and Gainesville, Eby takes you on a tour of some sites with famous southern author connections. Eudora Welty’s garden, William Faulkner’s liquor cabinet, and John Kennedy Toole’s hot-dog carts are just a few of the places covered. Eby does an excellent job of describing each setting, drawing upon text from the authors’ works to show if and how their surroundings influenced their writing.

I love how Eby was able to tie her personal travel journey into her literary discoveries. She expertly planted me in a place by describing how it looked in the present, while also weaving in quotes from the author to create a rich history of the landmark. I enjoyed getting to travel to places near and far with Eby, in particular, Eudora Welty’s garden. I loved hearing Eby’s take on this local treasure. I learned more about the authors I’ve read and got to know the ones I’m not that familiar with. Eby’s research, as well as her own reading experiences, made me want to read more of not just the authors she mentioned, but also more southern writers in general.

I especially appreciated how Eby compared these landmarks. She discussed how one writer’s house may have been turned into a museum, while another was torn down. Some towns proudly use an author’s spot as a tourist attraction, while others are hesitant to acknowledge its existence. It was interesting to see how certain places have changed over the years and how the community has responded to them.

peacocksOne of my favorite chapters of Eby’s journey was the one about Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks. It was entertaining to read about her house in Georgia where she raised all sorts of birds and where her peacocks still roam today. Having background information about O’Connor and the other southerners mentioned gives me a better understanding of their writing and what inspired them.

Whether you’re new to Southern fiction or a long-term reader of those below the Mason-Dixon, Eby’s road trip will inspire a literary pilgrimage of your own.

roadtrip

Lemuria also has a very limited number of signed first editions of South Toward Home available here.

Melodious McComb Mayhem: ‘Desperation Road’ by Michael Farris Smith

I had been looking forward to reading Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith ever since last July, when he appeared as the “opening act” at fellow Lee Boudreaux books writer John Gregory Brown’s reading for A Thousand Miles from Nowhere (an excellent read in its own right).

There was a party going on.

There was a party going on.

Smith read from the very beginning of Desperation Road that begins with a woman carrying a child, a trash bag full of their worldly possessions, and the full weight of her life decisions down a hot Interstate just across the Louisiana line. I thought of all the weird interactions I had and heard about living in Tallulah, Louisiana, for three years. Nevermind I was at the wrong part of the border (the woman turns out to be trekking to McComb), she just felt so real in my mind.

desperation roadThe story carries forth the story of the woman–Maben–and her daughter, Annalee, from the harshness of the sun to the darkness of the night. As a reader, you feel like you’ve experienced so much by the time the alternate protagonist, Russell Gaines, even enters the novel.

Russell, recently released from Parchman as a result of a vehicular manslaughter conviction, returns to his hometown to find so much the same, yet irrevocably lost to him. He begins to drift nihilistically. Russell doesn’t carry a heavy conscience, but he is stalked literally by the brothers of the boy he accidentally killed long ago. In the middle of his wayward skid, he finds himself suddenly entangled in Maben’s problem in a way he could have never anticipated.

There is a tension and stark beauty that pervades all pages of Smith’s novel. It delivers blunt, realistic dialogue and long, beautiful run-on sentences that never manage to trip over themselves. Smith is unquestionably a craftsman of the highest order. He managed to surprise me several times, only to have that surprise seem inevitable in retrospect.
This is the first ‘grit lit’ novel I’ve picked up and been enchanted by, so I don’t have any ready comparisons to Ron Rash or Tom Franklin for you, although they seem equally impressed by Smith to go by their blurbs on the cover of the book. I will say that this is sharp Southern fiction at its finest, and I encourage you not to miss it.

Matthew Guinn reviews ‘Signals’ by Tim Gautreaux

By Matthew Guinn. Special to the Clarion-Ledger.

signalsTim Gautreaux’s career has been long and prolific, spanning three novels and two collections of short stories that have established him as one of the South’s finest writers. In his latest, Signals: New and Selected Stories, he marshals 21 new and selected stories into a sprawling collection that proves him to be a master of the form.

Signals is an apt title: In it, Gautreaux ranges far beyond his home turf of Louisiana’s bayous and backwoods and across the American landscape. The people of his fiction, however, remain familiar—the type of folk that one tends to see but not hear, from lonely spinsters to exterminators to house framers. Yet their sagas of wistfulness and small-time heartbreak bristle with the veracity of real life. Even when their stories are mean and brutal (“Sorry Blood” and “Gone to Water”), Gautreaux’s characters are fully fleshed enough to allow us to understand them even as we dislike them, recalling novelist Harry Crews’s maxim that “nobody is a villain in his own heart.” More often, however, the people of Signals are workaday folk trying to do their best in a world where the dogs usually bite, the beer is seldom cold enough, and the picnics tend to get rained out.

Witness the reluctant Samaritan narrator of “Deputy Sid’s Gift.” At confession for the first time in years to unburden himself of his treatment of a homeless man, he tells us that “everybody’s got something they got to talk about sometime in their life.”

And talk he does, spinning a tale of strained charity in which the spirit of compassion alternately flickers and dies. He recalls watching the homeless man “staring up into the black cloud bank, waiting for lightning. That’s how people like him live, I guess, waiting to get knocked down and wondering why it happens to them.” The passage rings out like the thematic center of Signals—stories of people watching and waiting, getting knocked down and wondering.

In “Idols”—arguably the book’s standout story—Gautreaux literally and figuratively dismantles the neoconfederate myth of vanquished glory and nobility. In it, Julian, the washed-up descendant of a Mississippi cotton baron, inherits the family’s dilapidated antebellum mansion. Returning to refurbish a legacy that never was truly his, Julian employs an African-American carpenter named Obadiah, pays him near-starvation wages, and reestablishes the old exploitative order.

By the story’s end, however, Julian’s dreams are indeed gone with the wind, but not in any way the reader will foresee. He is taught a searing lesson by a “long-suffering and moralizing carpenter” who resembles another carpenter of old. “Idols” is a finely wrought parable that deserves a place alongside the short fiction of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

Tim Gautreaux

Tim Gautreaux

Yet for all the tragedy and misfortune in the stories, there is a vein of rich humor running throughout Signals. Perhaps no other contemporary writer save Chris Offutt bears the mantle of Mark Twain as deftly. The wry, dry, ironic tone that Twain introduced to American letters is alive in Gautreaux’s fiction. His characters muddle their way through life with an air of good-natured befuddlement, from “The Bug Man” who maintains that “(h)e was a religious man, so everything had a purpose, even though he had no idea what” to the city waterworks supervisor who has “a great desire to be famous, if only in a small way” (“Radio Magic”).

Often the violence in the stories carries a bawdy frontier justice reminiscent of Old Southwestern humor, such as when the bug man hoses down an entire abusive family with bug spray or when an old man hits a young lout from behind with “a roundhouse, open-palm swat on the ear that knocked him out of the chair and sent the beer bottle pinwheeling suds across the floor.”

Yet the strongest impression that Gautreaux’s latest leaves on the reader is a love of language, a reverence for good prose, for the craft of the word. At the conclusion of one fine story Gautreaux writes: “He closed his eyes and called on the old farm in his head to stay where it was, remembered its cypress house, its flat and misty lake of sugarcane keeping the impressions of a morning wind.” Few contemporary writers can match such prose, and it runs through Signals like filigree, reminding us that into mundane lives, big drama—and beauty—can often intrude.

Novelist Matthew Guinn is the author of The Resurrectionist and The Scribe. He teaches creative writing at Belhaven University.

Tim Gautreaux will serve as a panelist on the “Historical Fiction” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201H, and also on the “National Literary Panel” at 2:45 p.m. in the Galloway Sanctuary

A Con’s Cold World: Lydia Peelle’s ‘The Midnight Cool’

I am currently reading The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelle, meaning there’s no chance I can spoil the ending for you in this blog. Regardless, I can already say that I would fully recommend this book. Set at the brink of World War I, the story follows two drifters, Billy and Charles, who arrive in a small Tennessee town to buy and sell horses. Billy is a middle aged Irishman that has immigrated to the United States at a young age to build a better life for himself, while Charles is a young, idealistic dreamer who envisions himself one day becoming a rich man. Together they wander from town to town, not yet living the life they truly want to live.

The Midnight Cool is a slow build that always feels like there’s a seam that’s just about to burst. Each character has got their secrets, which has me trying to guess all the possible outcomes that could come from each of them. Charles unwittingly buys a murderous horse named The Midnight Cool from the richest man in Richfield, Tennessee. This horse, as both we and Charles find out, is a force to be reckoned with.

horsey

Usually, I don’t like the use of flashbacks as a literary device. However, they work here really well. I’m enjoying seeing Billy as a young man and seeing how he’s made himself into the expert con man that he becomes.

Peelle has a wonderful way of writing that feels like this entire story is a distant memory, one that’s been retrieved to tell to a willing listener. And don’t let the lack of quotation marks throw you off: it was disconcerting when I started reading, but it was easy to acclimate to once I got pulled into the world of the story. Now, I feel that the device is part of what’s helping me to become fully immersed in this story. Rather than being an omniscient third party, I am part of Billy and Charles’ racket of horse trading. I am helping them try to break The Midnight Cool. I feel everything they feel, from hope to disappointment and all that’s in-between.
I’m going to be honest and say that this is a book I would not have normally picked up, but I’m so glad I did. The pacing of this book allows me to slow down and actually chew on what I’m reading. It keeps me thinking long after I’ve set it down. What more could you ask for from a book?

Lydia Peelle will be at Lemuria on Wednesday, January 18,  at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from her new book, The Midnight Cool. You can reserve your signed or personalized copy here. In addition, Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show will be giving an acoustic performance in conjunction with the reading.

Gifting the Perfect Book: For Grit Lit Aficionados

Ron Rash, man.  Ron.  Rash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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