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John Hodgman’s ‘Vacationland’ will make your Thanksgiving grand

If you’re a fan of dry wit and humorous situations, then guess what! I’ve got the perfect book for you. Vacationland by John Hodgman is the book you need to take with you when you go home for the holidays. You may not have heard of John Hodgman’s name, but you’re probably already familiar with him. Hodgman is an author, comedian, and actor who is arguably most famous for his Apple commercials where he portrayed the PC. Hodgman also has a big presence on Twitter, which I would recommend taking a gander at because he’s hilarious while also being socially conscious.

vacationlandVacationland is a collection of nonfiction essays and reflections about things that happened to Hodgman. I was hooked from the first paragraph when he says “Many people have asked me why I grew [my beard], and most of those people are my wife, and to them and to her I say: I don’t know. I’m sorry.” This almost self deprecating humor is a theme throughout his stories. In his first story, “Dump Jail,” he describes the anxiety his father put upon him when he was told to lie to the men that work at the city dump about where he lived. He wonders what would happen if he was caught in the lie; is there a dump jail that he would have to go to? In “Mongering,” he tells about the “loathsome affectations” he cultivated as a teenager such as playing the viola because it was less popular than the violin.

 

John Hodgman will have you ready for Thanksgiving

John Hodgman will have you ready for Thanksgiving

Some of the stories, while still funny, are more poignant than others. In “Daddy Pitchfork,” Hodgman gets a little introspective towards the end of the story. He has just woken up after a night of drinking too much bourbon at a party thrown haphazardly in his honor and feels like he could find a new life waiting outside the door for him. The titular essay “Vacationland” made me tear up, but the story immediately following had me laughing deep belly laughs on the first page.

Here’s where I tell you that I’m a bad bookseller because I don’t really read short pieces. However! I couldn’t resist picking up Vacationland, and I’m so glad I did! I love books that make me laugh out loud, then look up in embarrassment to see if anybody heard. That’s exactly what John Hodgman made me do. Christmas is coming up and if you’re like me, you’ll want a distraction from the all of the family togetherness. This is the distraction you need! I’m terrible at ending blogs so if you still need convincing, come visit me at Lemuria, and I’ll extol the virtues of Vacationland in person.

hodgman toast

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Interview with Jimmy Cajoleas, author of GOLDELINE and Jackson, Mississippi Native!

author photo (1)A little girl with shining hair helping rogue bandits in the dark forest of the Hinterlands, discovering her magic while escaping the evil Townies who killed her mother for being a witch, Jimmy Cajoleas’ book GOLDELINE is a richly told story that is perfect for fans of David Almond, J.A. White’s The Thickety, and anyone who loves a story that might be scary to tell in the dark. Jimmy Cajoleas is a native from Jackson, Mississippi and he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. He received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Mississippi. Here, Jimmy Cajoleas answers some questions regarding GOLDELINE, his new novel for kids ages 10 and up.

What are you currently reading?

Oh man, so much good stuff. Last week I read Jesmyn Ward’s new book, and I thought it was great. I’ve been slowly reading Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton a little at a time, and that rules. And yesterday I finished My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix, which is the rare horror novel that actually made me cry.

When did you start writing? How did growing up in the South affect your storytelling and the kinds of stories you are drawn to?

I started writing not long after I learned to read. I remember making scary picture books when I was a kid, with monsters and skeletons in them. They usually ended with my friends coming to my house and us all eating pizza.

To be honest, I spent most of my childhood imagining I was somewhere else. A jungle, an old haunted castle, Gotham City, a primeval forest…anywhere except where I was. Also, in the South you learn that things are never simple, and never easy, least of all people. All that complication is where stories come from.

Did you ever expect to write a book for children?

I never did! GOLDELINE was my MFA thesis, and it was originally a novel for adults. It became a kids’ book after my agent Jess Regel told me to let the story be what it wanted to be.

In your own words, tell me a little bit about what GOLDELINE is about & when and how you started writing it.

Goldeline is a book about an orphan girl who lives as a bandit in the woods. I don’t really want to say too much more than that, if it’s okay with you. I hate when I know what a book is about before I read it! I won’t even read the backs of books for that reason.

Goldeline herself came from a freewriting exercise. I used to work at a vintage clothing store in Oxford, MS, and there would be long stretches of time when no one came in. So I would sit down with a blank notebook and just write, for hours and hours, with no plan and no agenda. One day I sat down and started writing, and this funny little voice came out. I kept going for an hour in this voice, just yapping on the page. Eventually I figured out it was the voice of an eleven year old girl hiding in the woods. The rest of the story kind of told itself from there.

Of course, that was just a twenty-page short story for adults that no one would publish, which is how Goldeline sat for six or seven years. I never stopped thinking about her—worrying about her, really—though I didn’t quite know what to do about it. Goldeline didn’t become a novel until I was in graduate school. I’d just finished a mostly-realistic novel that I absolutely hated, and I wanted to try and write something better. I told the story to my teacher, the writer Megan Abbott, and she encouraged me to make it a novel.  

Who is Goldeline? Where does she come from? The name, it seems, combines Goldilocks and Coraline, (but I may be off!) Those are both female characters from completely different stories, and do either of those protagonists relate to your own?

The name “Goldeline” actually comes from this Neutral Milk Hotel song called “Oh Comely.”  In the song it’s “Goldaline” (pronounced Gold-a-leen) but I misspelled it by accident and liked it better my way, so now it’s Goldeline (rhymes with Coraline). Mistakes are a key component in my writing!  

The Goldilocks thing is a good call though, since so much of this book happens in threes, same as that fairy-tale. I love Coraline too. Actually all of Neil Gaiman’s stuff (especially The Sandman).

What was your favorite scene to write in GOLDELINE?

My favorite scene to write was the dinner scene at Bobba’s house. It took me a thousand tries to get it right. I remember when I finally nailed it, sitting out on the balcony at Square Books. I think I stood up and yelled, which is something you’re not supposed to do at a book store.

The way I can describe this book is a Southern-Gothic-Fairy tale. The first question is whether you agree with that assessment, and if you do, then the second question is why are you drawn to themes of magical-realism, and fairy-tales?

Sounds good to me! Though I should make it clear that the story isn’t set in the American South: it’s not supposed to be in the “real world.”

I like fairy-tales and magic stories because I feel like they tell certain kinds of truths better than so-called realism ever can. Sometimes big emotions need a ghost behind them, or a magic house, or a generational curse. Strict realism can’t always account for what happens out there. It’s a convention, a compromise, same as anything else.

What is your favorite folk/fairy tale?

So many! My favorite one now is a Russian fairytale called “Vasalisa the Beautiful.” It’s about a girl who has a talking wooden doll that teaches her how to steal a skull-lantern from Baba Yaga so her family’s house won’t be dark anymore. I’d never heard of it until I saw this terrific Annie Baker play called THE ANTIPODES, which makes a small (and thrilling!) reference to it.

What were your favorite books as a kid?

How do I even start? I think my very favorite book was The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt by John Bellairs. I loved the Lord of the Rings and R.L. Stine and Madeleine L’Engle as well.

Will you be writing more books for kids? What do you hope people who read your book take away from it?

Yes! Lord willing, I’ve got a Young Adult book coming out next year, and another Middle Grade book after that.

Honestly, I just hope people like the book okay. It was really fun to write!

Goldeline_final_art

Author Jimmy Cajoleas will be signing and reading GOLDELINE at Lemuria Books on Saturday, November 25, at 11:00 A.M.

Call 601-366-7619 or visit www.lemuriabooks.com to reserve a signed copy today.

 

Author Q & A with Mark Helprin

“Mark Helprin’s Lifetime of Writing” 

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

Bestselling author Mark Helprin’s fluid, lyrical writing spills forth again in his newest novel, “Paris in the Present Tense,” a grand tale of music, regret, passion, and family love that finds its writer once again borrowing from the people, places and circumstances of his own experiences to flesh out a solid and relatable plot that, in essence, draws the reader into his own world.

A New York City native who grew up in a nearby suburb of the city, Helprin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University, and completed post-graduate work at Princeton University and Magdalen College, Oxford. A prolific writer, he has authored five novels, three children’s books, three short story collections, and many essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, the National Review and many other periodicals.

mark helprinYou’ve enjoyed a full life — world traveler, family man, would-be farm hand and at times you’ve turned your attention to politics (mostly through your deep interest in policy), journalism, the military, and your own formal education, not to mention an amazing career as a writer. How have you managed to fit so many interests into your seven decades?

Seven decades is a long time, and I started early. My first job was manufacturing sealing-wax-and-ribbon medallions for a women’s clothing store. It was an assembly-line process to which I devoted part of my weekends, piece work at 25 cents per medallion. I would earn about $500 per annum then, or, in today’s dollars, $5,000. I was eight. I used to dictate stories to my third-grade teacher, and Simon & Schuster wanted to publish them, but my father didn’t allow it, because my mother had been a child star and he thought that it had near ruined her.

Also, if you keep busy, you can do several things at once. When I was in college I wrote my first stories for the New Yorker, continuing to do so in graduate school and during military service. If you live on a farm, the farm tells you what to do, not vice versa.

The irony is that I hate to be busy, and have been too busy all my life in the hope that it would enable me not to be busy. And please don’t call me a world traveler. I hate to travel, and it reminds me of the magnificent line of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, when she says to Vinny, “So whata you, a _____ world travelah?”

Your fiction is known for its robust, adventurous plots and its lyrical syntax, always with a bit of romanticism, fantasy and autobiographical hints. Reading your work, it’s obvious that you not only enjoy writing, but you love your characters and your storylines. Tell me how you developed your literary writing style – and what drove you to become a writer in the first place.

This question requires a book-length answer, but I’ll be brief. I do love my characters, most of them. What’s the point otherwise? From my very first book, my motto has been taken from Dante, “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare, (Love moved me, and made me speak)”. If I may paint with a very broad brush, what ails so much of modern fiction is its detachment from and hostility toward that which it depicts. If a writer wants to be a prosecutor, he should go to law school and apply to the Bronx DA.

paris in the present tenseYour newest book, “Paris in the Present Tense,” is another fictional work presented on a grand scale. In this story of an aging man consumed with worry about his grandson’s serious illness, main character Jules Lacour is keenly aware of his own inability to offer much in the way of financial support. A deep thinker with strong convictions, he looks back on his own life with his share of regrets and fears. In many ways, most of us have a lot in common with Lacour. Can you share your reflections on him? 

Ah! My reflection on him runs to 400 pages, and I can share all of it with your readers if they buy the book, or get it from the library. So many contemporary novels are politicized, sexualized, and sensationalized. And although this tends to result in narrow treatments of one subject – kind of like an expanded magazine article – as a means to deliver a single message, I think a novel should be about many things, with many themes running along and across many strata, so that in the end the book becomes more than just the sum of its parts, as are a man or a woman, as is Jules Lacour. Like all of us, he is so complex that I hesitate to dwell on one or another of his characteristics. The object is to portray as much in full what God has made not fully portrayable.

As usual, your characters are intensely developed, tying their perspectives together in the end. You’ve spent your career creating these “people” and their far-reaching (and often far-flung) circumstances. How do you stumble upon these characters and their situations?

Though they may think they do, writers and painters don’t create anything, they rearrange elements of the creation of which they are part. That’s why Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and even the French Impressionists had models, whether people or nature. The entire structure of Western – indeed, universal – art, is based on observation and interpretation of reality, and even the most abstract painters can only use colors that are a gift of creation. ‘So with writers, who must use models as a basis of their characters. As a newborn, even Shakespeare, had he magically been able to write, could not have written before he had observed the world.

All the characters to which you refer are based, even if loosely, on real people. For example, in “Paris in the Present Tense,” Louis Mignon, the French baker in Rheims, his wife, and son, and what they did during the war, are based on Louis Mignon, a French baker in Rheims, and his wife Marie, who did in the war exactly that, and with whom I lived (their son Jacques had grown up and left) for four years. In (my book), Winter’s Tale,” Peter Lake was based on Peter Lake, aka Grand Central Pete, a thief who lived in New York at the turn of the 19th century. Of course, one is wonderfully free to exaggerate, play down, add, subtract, and imagine characteristics and situations per need.

You’ve also written several children’s books. Is it difficult to switch to a different mindset and writing style to create authentic stories for children?

Not at all, in that one should never talk down to children. In fact, if any adjustment need be made, it is in simplifying language and thus purifying it rather than making it cute-sy. The best children’s books are just as attractive, meaningful, and beautiful to adults as they are to children. If you can reach the soul of a child, you will also reach the soul of an adult. As Wordsworth wrote, “the child is father of the man.” If one cannot, even in the darkest hours, retrieve or at least remember the innocence and goodness of childhood, then, really, what’s the point?

Making another shift, you’ve long filled a role as being somewhat of a statesman, and have advised politicians at the highest level on matters of policy. Tell me about your experience in that role, and how it came to be.

Quite simply, I knew from the second grade that I was a writer, but being a practical sort – and having a very practical sort of father – I understood that I’d have to have another way to support a family. So, I studied what might be called war and diplomacy. This led to many adventures, and, somehow, to being a newspaper columnist, a defense analyst, and occasionally – when the muckamucks I was advising realized I could put a sentence together – an always unpaid speech writer. That’s mostly frustrating, and I try not to do that whenever I can, which these days I hope is forever.

Being a person of your many talents, is there anything you want to accomplish in life that you haven’t attempted yet? And what did you do before writing became your job title?)

I was a kid. I had a dog, a 22., skates, and a hockey stick. There were a thousand acres around my house on the Hudson, and when I wasn’t doing homework I disappeared in them and was perfectly content. At 70, what I want to accomplish most is to remain alive, write some more books, and sit in the garden. I have no more ambition. Nor at my age would it be seemly. That’s astoundingly liberating and the cause of great happiness.

Can you share any info about your next book or other writing projects?

I’ve been thinking about it, making notes, and studying the milieu in which it takes place, for about a year. When this book tour is over I’ll have to spend about two weeks repairing fences, cutting up fallen trees, hogging down fields, and fixing stuff. Then, with winter, I’ll enter the paradise of writing every day in – I hope – wonderful tranquility.

Mark Helprin will sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

Enjoy this article? Let the Clarion-Ledger know by sending them an email, so we can keep providing you great locally-written content.

‘Paris in the Present Tense’ is an ode to love, remorse, and hope

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5).

If you love language, as most book readers do, and thrill at the precise delineation of thought, emotion, and the paradoxes and challenges of the human condition as expressed in the saga of a single life, you’ll love Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense.

paris in the present tenseIt helps if you’re a hopeless romantic who thrives on the razor’s edge of hope and despair, not caring if ultimately successful in the target of your desires, for having experienced the compounding joys of the attempt, even if it’s dashed.

A tall order, yes. But Helprin has produced a symphony of a novel that provides any sensitive, thoughtful reader great joy and sorrow, often in the same page.

The plot revolves around Jules Lacour, 74, a cellist who teaches music at the Sorbonne. A Jew, he survived the Nazis in World War II as a child, but his parents did not. That epochal event rules his life, with grief, survivor’s guilt, and an appreciation of the small miracles of daily life.

Jules falls in love easily and with virtually every attractive woman he sees. Pages are devoted to their walk, perfume, the line of neck and jaw, the easy, carefree way they comport themselves on the streets of Paris—the city of love.

But his one true love, Jacqueline, whom he met immediately after the war, has left him a widower in the beginning of Paris. The world is different, and all too much the same. Angry crowds march the streets chanting “Death to Jews,” oblivious to the city’s past.

In this strange world, he becomes party to a crime, then hatches another of his own devising in hopes of saving his young grandson from a life-threatening disease.

But, then, he meets Elodi de Challant, a beautiful, young student, and they fall in love—immediately, longingly, through the touch of a hand and the meeting of eyes.

The fear, desire, anticipation, hesitation and forthrightness between them is delicious, enthralling, ticklish and agonizing—like the initial unfolding of love itself. For a man of many summers, it offers hope, remembrance and remorse

Doomed, he believes, by the separation of their ages, she offers him a question that is searing in its simplicity: “What if you’re loved in such a way that it doesn’t matter how old you are, or if or when you die?”

Paris is a book of paradoxes, like the city, like life itself, as the title suggests, of past and present tense. “Half of humanity’s troubles arise from the inability to see that contradictory propositions can be valid simultaneously,” Jules notes. It’s a fact that makes him not afraid or bitter over the killing of his parents and the Holocaust.

“We have what was denied to them,” he explains. “We would betray them were we not happy to be alive.”

Age itself has beauty, he notes, for “you learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason,” even if you can’t find your reading glasses.

Each page of Paris is a philosophy lesson on how to live, see, love, from someone who lives “in the present tense.” It is a world where capricious fate causes hopes to rise, which may turn to naught, creating new realities.

Enjoy this article? Let the Clarion-Ledger know by sending them an email, so we can keep providing you great locally-written content.

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

Mark Helprin will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense.

Madcap Moon Caper: ‘Artemis’ by Andy Weir

Picture an upbeat thriller about a scrappy dock worker who gets tangled in a web of murder, corporate espionage, and organized crime. Now picture a work of speculative fiction that imagines a future where humanity has industrialized the surface of the moon and turned it into a tourist trap for the very rich. Mix the two together and you’ve got Artemis, the latest from Andy Weir.

Weir burst onto the scene in 2011 when he self-published his debut novel, The Martiana fascinating first-person tale of sarcastic botanist Mark Watney, who is stranded on the surface of Mars, which was adapted into an Oscar-Nominated movie in 2015.mark watney space pirate


Artemis 
is a worthy successor, and is like its predecessor in many ways; utilizing a sarcastic narrator to soften the blow of the heavy, hard-sci-fi concepts that Weir once again throws at the reader.

artemisThat being said, Artemis is not just for fans of Science Fiction. In a literary landscape dominated by seriousness, Artemis offers something different; a fun adventure with a backdrop that still touches on many social issues, but doesn’t allow them to overtake the story. It is an escape into a future that may not be necessarily bright, but is certainly exciting and has the reader, consistently curious as to what would happen next.

The novel takes place on the eponymous moon colony, “Artemis”, which is essentially a series of metal bubbles stuck to the surface of the moon. Artemis is divided between luxurious sections that cater to the rich tourists and the even richer inhabitants of the colony, and some that house the impoverished factory workers and tradesmen that are necessary to keep Artemis alive.

Our protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is the daughter of a welder and an aspiring smuggler who uses her position in the loading bay to sneak contraband in and sell it to wealthy residents, but when one of her clients offers her a large sum of money for a less-than-legal job, she is pulled into the criminal underground that she never knew existed.

One of the strongest qualities of the book is its characters; they are uniquely driven, expertly described, and surprisingly colorful. Jazz is sardonic, biting, and cynical in the best ways, and makes for a relatable narrator whose perspectives and descriptions really make the book inimitable and kept me laughing throughout. So, even if you think science fiction isn’t your thing, Artemis may still be for you, so come by our sci-fi section this week and get a copy; you won’t regret it.

Signed first editions of Artemis are available on our website.

‘Goat Castle’ revisits Natchez murder

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

In fiction, it’s not uncommon for an author to go back in time to solve a mystery, often with shocking results. Less common is for a nonfiction book to do the same, but with a searingly honest view that’s sadly revealing today.

Karen L. Cox does so with her book Goat Castle (University of North Carolina Press).

LogoAddressing the Aug. 4, 1932, murder of Natchez heiress Jennie Merrill at her antebellum home Glenburnie, Cox peels back the layers of sensationalism surrounding the case to reveal the hard truths of racism and Jim Crow justice of the time.

Subtitling the book “A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South,” Cox details the lurid aspects of the case that transfixed the nation with its depiction of a South in ruins and the remnants of Southern aristocracy in squalor in the decades following the Civil War.

The headlines of the time focused on Merrill, called an aging recluse, allegedly killed by a black man and her black housekeeper, with her white neighbors as possible accomplices.

The neighbors lived in a falling down mansion they shared with goats and other livestock wandering the halls (hence, the name “Goat Castle”).

“Murder, aristocracy, recluses, and goats,” Cox notes, “these were the subjects more likely to be found in a Southern Gothic novel, and in fact journalists immediately drew parallels to the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and later, William Faulkner’s novels about the social decay of old Southern families.”

It was the type of news story that kept Depression-era Americans grossly entertained.

But Cox dives deeper than the headlines, through excellent historical and journalistic investigation, to bring to light a horrible injustice.

Whereas, Merrill’s white neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery (she, the daughter of a Confederate general; he, of a family of a famous authors and journalists) got off scot-free, the two black suspects were either killed or imprisoned.

Cox details the lives of Merrill and her alleged paramour and cousin, Duncan Minor, who discovered her body. And she recounts the often bitter and ongoing disputes of the aristocratic Merrill with Dana, called the “Wild Man” who was known to wear only a burlap sack while living in the trees on his property, and Dockery, called the “Goat Woman,” who was glib, clever, and vengeful, albeit living hand to mouth.

The new knowledge of the case is Cox’s painstaking research into the lives of the two black suspects, Lawrence Williams, the alleged triggerman who was gunned down in Arkansas while making his way home to Chicago, and Emily Burns, who received a life sentence at the notorious Parchman Prison farm at Camp 13–the Women’s Camp.

Burns’ sentence was indefinitely suspended after eight years because even in the Jim Crow South that saw black men imprisoned or killed for allegedly improperly looking at a white woman, Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. said he was “thoroughly convinced of (her) innocence” and that she was convicted solely upon “circumstantial evidence.”

As Cox details, Burns’ treatment was based on a coerced “confession” and included the belief that unless someone was held accountable for the crime in a court of law, white citizens might have taken matters into their own hands and she might be lynched.

“Emily was presumed guilty because of her race.”

Filled with astonishing photographs and copious notes, Goat Castle is sure to invite attention anew to an old crime in the Bluff City and reinvigorate current debates about racial justice.

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

Karen L. Cox will appear Wednesday, November 15 for the History is Lunch series at the Old Capitol Museum at 12:00 p.m. She will appear at Lemuria at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday to sign and discuss her book, Goat Castle.

Author Q & A with Gene Dattel

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5)

reckoning with raceCultural and economic historian Gene Dattel, who grew up in the small Mississippi Delta town of Ruleville, tackles questions about what he calls “America’s most intractable problem–race”–up close and in depth in his newest book, Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure (Encounter Books).

The biggest and most necessary part of bridging the racial divide, he said, is “economics–which means jobs,” a goal he believes is possible with what he calls “the right kind of assimilation.” To Dattel, that means avoiding what he believes is a harmful separatism while at the same time allowing for full expression of one’s cultural heritage.

Dattel’s lifelong interest in racial history, and its ties to economic history and colonial nationalism, was launched in the early 60s when he was entering Yale University at the same time James Meredith was entering Ole Miss.

After his early years in Ruleville, located in what he calls “the heart of the majority-black cotton country of the Mississippi Delta,” he graduated from Yale, and then Vanderbilt University Law School. Of his 21-year career in finance as a managing director at Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, 15 were spent in London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. He has done advisory work for the Pentagon, major financial institutions, and cultural organizations from the New York Historical Society to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

His previous books include Cotton and Race in the Making of America and The Sun That Never Rose.

What prepared you to write this book, (as in, I’m curious–what exactly is a “cultural historian,” and how did you become one?) and what do you hope your book will accomplish?

The small-town dynamic of my youth mean that I had to adjust to people–old/young, middle class/poor, black/white–regularly. Beginning at age 13, I worked in my family’s dry goods store on Saturday night when most of the customers were black. I entered Yale at the same time James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. This triggered my profound interest in racial history, economic history, and colonial nationalism.

A career in finance brought home the importance of economics in the lives of people. My 11-year stay in Japan was transformative; there, I observed the first major economic challenge to the United States by a non-white, non-Western nation. For eight years, I performed a “Parallel Lives” Program with black author (and businessman” Clifton Taulbert about my growing up Jewish and his growing up black in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. My book Cotton and Race in the Making of America (2009), a description of the fateful intersection of the power of cotton and the African-American experience, was the stepping stone to Reckoning with Race.

My definition of a cultural historian: one who examines the impact of a broad range of topics–literature, art, movies, music, tradition, communication, values, rhetoric, humor, and fusion in a society. It is my sincere hope that this book contributes to a frank discussion about the hardest of all hard topics in America–race. I believe our goal should be to concentrate on access for the mass of blacks into the American economic mainstream.

In your book, you present a great deal of historical research that most of us never heard in our school history classes about the open hypocrisy of Northern and Midwestern states–dating back as far as the 1700s–of extreme racist attitudes toward blacks. Instead, the history that has captured the nation’s interest has, for the most part, emphasized the racial atrocities of the South. Why has this discrepancy largely remained a well-kept “secret”?

One has only to look at the quotes at the opening of the book’s chapters to recognize how white Northern racial attitudes have frequently been overlooked:

  • White abolitionists “best love the colored man at a distance.” – Samuel R. Ward, Black Abolitionist, 1840s
  • No free Negro, or Mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of this constitution shall come, reside, or be within this state. – Oregon State Constitution, 1857
  • The New York Times, Feb. 26, 1865, in the text: “The negro race…would exist side by side with the white for centuries being constantly elevated by it, individuals of it rising to an equality with the superior white race.”

The white North has almost no exposure to its true historical racial attitudes. White Northern racial hypocrisy and self-righteousness has resulted. Historians extol the abolitionists but neglect the anti-black attitudes that doomed Reconstruction, created a containment policy of keeping blacks in the South, and trapped them in combustible urban ghettos. The drama of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was particularly visual and suited for television; millennials have seen countless clips of Birmingham hoses and dogs, etc. I have found that “going local” is effective in creating awareness for Northern audiences. When in Connecticut, include Connecticut’s past.

You state that, despite decades of political advancement, economics gains and the passage of civil rights legislation, “the practical task facing America is the economic elevation of the black community–desperately for the underclass and significantly for the fragile (but growing) middle class.” To that end, you emphasize the importance of personal responsibility and assimilation into American society. Explain why you believe this idea is so important.

America’s unique strength, its ability to foster the “right kind” of assimilation, allows its people to retain their cultural heritage. We are the only grand experiment of a multiethnic country that does not resort to tribalism. At the same time, we have seen no successful large scale self-sufficient economic group within America, able to function outside the economic mainstream. The acceptance of common values–color-blind middle-class norms–is a prerequisite for mass entrance into the economic mainstream.

In a competitive global marketplace, individuals must aspire to resiliency, a byproduct of personal responsibility.

You cover many government programs that have been implemented through the years to help African-Americans raise their standards of living, often with little progress. Why do you think it’s been so difficult to find lasting solutions toward economic progress?

Gene Dattel

Gene Dattel

Large government programs are plagued by bureaucracy, inefficiency, and most importantly, lack of accountability. I would argue, if a program is not working, change it or reduce it; if a program is working, expand it. I describe several small programs that are successful but cannot be replicated on a mass scale.

We need to understand and speak about the currently taboo topics of black culture and structure. The only way to move forward economically is to develop viable structures for family, church, and community. Education, the portable credential for employment, largely depends on these influences. Education provides the skill set and thought process for success. Or, in the words of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: “My mom and dad were constant mentors, my first and greatest teachers….[From my father] I learned the connection between hard work, discipline, and reward.”

Part of America’s problem in finding racial unity, you say, has been a “hypersensitivity” to real or perceived “slights” that seem to be arising more frequently, especially on college campuses. Why is this, and how can these be dealt with constructively?

Today’s iteration of multiculturalism fosters and encourages differences, to the detriment of what Americans have in common. Our inability to discuss real or perceived sensitive topics further inhibits dialogue and promotes separatism. Greater contact and discussion in a responsible, objective way is the best way to achieve trust. College is supposed to be the proper venue for challenging and preparing students for life and exposing them to a diversity of ideas. The interaction with different opinions promotes resiliency and should be pursued on an individual basis.

Despite hopes that an Obama presidency would help heal some racial divides, you state that “racial divisiveness is more evident now than it was when Obama took office.” To what do you attribute this change?

The racial divide had already been set in motion before the Obama presidency. Powerful forces–multiculturalism, frustration at the ineffectiveness of many programs, social media, separatism as expressed in identity politics, economic recession with a weak recovery, and the lack of a frank racial discussion–were at work. President Obama’s leadership could not produce the necessary unity given these factors.

You speak of a racial mindset in this country that seems to be heading more toward separatism than the defining goal of integration in the ’60s. Explain what that ultimately means, and what your hopes are for our future.

As of the end of 2016, the overall numbers for black progress in education and economic well-being were disheartening. The poverty level of blacks has remained three times that of white for the last 45 years. Also, 32.9 percent of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty. Only 38.7 percent of black children under 18 live in a two-parent family. Black Americans’ college majors, according to a 2016 Georgetown University study, “tend to be low earning.”

As we move int a stage of self-imposed, heightened racial identity, the goals of integration and assimilation become loaded terms with negative connotations. This separatism is highly detrimental in accessing a proper education, combating poverty, and attaining economic parity.

As for the future, we must remember America’s strength. Where else could a man, whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was a white American, become president?

Gene Dattel will sign copies of Reckoning with Race on Monday, November 13, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

Reel to Real: ‘Our Souls at Night’ is a tender elegy about love

Kent Haruf passed away of cancer in November of 2014, shortly thereafter his final novel Our Souls at Night was published.our souls at night pb Our Souls at Night is now a film on Netflix starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. But, I encourage you to read this great author’s last novel before seeing it. It’s beautifully written and it will only take you an afternoon.

Haruf wrote this novel during the time in his life that he knew he was dying. He chose to write about finding love in the last chapters of these characters’ lives in spite of his reality.

Louis and Addie are neighbors, they’ve know each other for awhile…but just as friends. Louis lost his wife about a year earlier and Addie has been widowed for some time now. Both are in their seventies and are a bit lonely, but getting by just fine on their own. Addie, who has trouble sleeping at night, makes a suggestion that they begin sleeping together. Just sleeping in the same bed, talking, staying with each other through the night…companionship.

As the nights go by, they learn about each of their histories; their past spouses, their children, their fears and what they both still want out of life at their age. They help one another in different ways: emotionally, mentally, and physically.  Addie’s son is having some issues with his own son, so her grandson Jamie comes to stay with her for the summer. Addie and Louis help Jamie through a tough time and we learn that love is needed during all stages of life.

They start to have outings together, and people begin to notice their fondness of one another. They deal with rumors about the two of them that run through their small town, but even still…grow closer.

It’s about love, and it’s about loneliness and loss; friendships young and old, family and non-family. This is a book for literally anyone that wants a few hours of pure joy. I laughed and I cried, all in one sitting. The love and friendship between Addie and Louis is so real, I could feel it. This is a short read, but oh….it is so perfect. Haruf knew what he wanted out of this book and it’s superb.

Author Q & A with Beth Ann Fennelly

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet laureate of Mississippi, once again stretches her literary abilities with a new release she calls “a true hybrid.”

The Oxford author who has netted a considerable number of writing awards and accolades as a poet and novelist captures the attention of readers in a fresh, new approach with Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, with entries that range from one sentence to five pages.

heating & coolingThe micro-memoir, she has said, “combines the extreme abbreviation of poetry, the narrative tension of fiction, and the truth-telling of creative nonfiction,” in works that include “memories, quirky observations, tiny scenes, (and) bits of overheard conversations that, with the surrounding noise edited out, reverberate.”

Writing micro-memoirs, she said, was “liberating” after she had co-authored The Tilted World, a novel that required extensive research, with her husband Tom Franklin. “After living in the heads of characters, now my own thoughts, my own experiences, seemed newly fresh,” she said.

Additionally, Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables, and a book of nonfiction Great with Child. She’s won grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission (three times), the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and was included three times in The Best American Poetry Series. She was also the first woman to claim the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association’s Griffin Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Writing.

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Fennelly said her first love was poetry, which she studied at the University of Notre Dame, earning first a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1993; and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas in 1998.

An English professor in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, Fennelly has been named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She and Franklin, also an English professor at Ole Miss, are the parents of three children.

At what point in your life did you discover that you were a writer?

I was always an artistic kid, loving the theater and music and reading and writing, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I got to college. That’s where I experienced my first truly great teachers and was exposed to contemporary poetry. In my high school, we only read the classics. I think that’s one reason why I take my job as a college professor so seriously–I know how an engaged teacher can turn a student’s life around.

Poetry is a different kind of writer’s challenge. How were you drawn to poetry?

Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly

I was drawn to the dynamic compression of poetry, almost like a chemical reaction–how can so few words trigger such a big response? Also, I was, and still am, in love with the sound of words, their mouth-feel, as wine enthusiasts say. It’s a huge pleasure to take a poem into your body through memorization and release it back into the world with the air that rises from your windpipe.

Your newest book is a nonfiction collection of brief personal thoughts, idea, and memories, along with several short essays. They deal with family, marriage, fears, triumphs, nostalgia, and hopes. Was this a collection you have gathered through the years, or did you write these specifically to be published as a book?

Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: We spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.

Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from our book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.”

Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-embedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing.

So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, “What if this ‘not writing’ I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small? Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.

Today, you and Tom are professors in the English department at Ole Miss, where you teach poetry and nonfiction writing–and where you have been named Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

I really like working with young adults–I think they keep me young in certain ways, because I’m always getting exposed to new ideas. I love the feeling of being in love with a book or an author, and not just conveying my own passion, but kindling that same passion in my students.

Books have been such important companions to me, and reading has schooled me in empathy and reflection. These are skills the world isn’t encouraging in our young people. I’m honored that I get the chance to share the transformative power of literature with them.

In 2016, you were named poet laureate for the state of Mississippi. What are your duties that go along with that?

I’ve just finished the first year of my four-year term, and I’ve had a blast. I’m interested in getting poetry in front of as many Mississippians as possible, especially children. The position is honorary in that there’s no salary involved, and therefore my “duties” are probably more “suggestions,” but I’m traveling to a lot of libraries and schools, and I’m deeply involved in our state’s Poetry Out Loud program, which I think every high schooler should be a part of.

Beth Ann Fennelly will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 9, to sign and read from Heating and Cooling. The signing will begin at 5:00 p.m. and the reading will begin at 5:30.

Johnny Be Good: 3 ‘John’ Books You Have Probably Heard About

“John” is one of the most common names in the English language.

Go, Johnny, Go

Go, Johnny, Go

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that some of book publishing’s hottest commodities share the same cognomen. Two of the books I’m about to talk about were written by a John and published in October, and the other one a John is responsible for and, while not quite new, would make a great gift this holiday season.

John Green, in addition to appearing to YouTube on the Vlogbrothers and Crash Course channels, is responsible for some of this generations most memorable YA titles, such as Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and the ubiquitous The Fault in Our Stars. The latter two were made into movies, so you’ve probably heard of his works even if his name isn’t familiar. After a five-year publishing hiatus, Green returns with his new novel, Turtles All the Way Down.

turtles all the way downTurtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza Holmes as she hangs out with her over-the-top friend Daisy, is awkwardly romanced bt her childhood friend Davis Pickett, and searches for clues as to what happened to the missing, tuatara-obssessed, shady local billionaire Russell Pickett (who also happens to be Davis’s father). Meanwhile, Aza struggles to live her daily life while continuously caught in her “thought spirals,” which is her shorthand for explaining the will-destroying nightmare that living with obsessive-compulsive disorder can be.

While Turtles has a touch of romance (and only a fraction of the turtles promised by the titles), it is far less melodramatic than the teenage cancer star-crossed romance that The Fault in Our Stars was perceived by some to be. Aza and her illness are thoughtfully represented by Green, who suffers from OCD himself. Although your mileage may vary, I also highly enjoyed the madcap levity that best friend Daisy provides. It’s an evolution in his writing, but still definitely a John Green work that both long-time fans and hopefully some new readers will really appreciate.

rooster barSpeaking of madcap hi-jinks, John Grisham released his second mystery novel for adults this year (Camino Island, an intensely readable Fitzgerald manuscript heist, came out in June). This book, The Rooster Bar (which has even fewer roosters than the previous book had turtles) tells the story of three low-rent law students moving from scam-to-scam in the wake of a tragic suicide of a friend and in the shadow of impending student loan debt and professional misery. Friends Mark, Todd, and Zola stop studying for the bar exam, attempting to practice law out of an actual bar on the far side of Washington D.C. from the substandard, for-profit law school they just dropped out of so they can attempt to hustle legal fees in traffic court and hospital cafeterias. They also use information left behind from their lost friend to (hopefully) nail the guy at the top of the disgusting-but-not-actionable law school scheme.

The Rooster Bar has one of those grand conspiracies that has become a Grisham hallmark, but those who seek to uncover it are not out for justice; they’re out for themselves. They not only skirt the rule of law; they barely seem to understand its intricacies. But, hey, when you enroll at a law school called Foggy Bottom, you deserve what you get. Plenty of rich atmospherics highlight a book that combines the the scheming of The Brethren with the delicious sleaziness of Rogue Lawyer. Both the plot and the main characters end up in a place you’d least suspect.

As for the final book I’d like to talk about, I can only repeat a familiar refrain: let’s talk Jackson. Ken Murphy’s luscious photography dominates the book, but I can assure you that it would not exist without the will and insistence of Lemuria owner John Evans.

JXNLAMAR-2TI’ve lived in the Jackson area all my life, and I love this city. I’ve spent a lot of time in Belhaven, Fondren, Downtown, the Interstate corridor, and parts all over. I find something new to love all the time, or  I rediscover a spot once visited that tugs me back into the past. Although the Jackson this book captures is frozen in the specific period of 2013-14 (here’s a neat trick: compare the Lemuria cover to the view from a half-flight up Banner Hall’s staircase and see what noticeable feature is flipped), there’s a timeless quality to the sense of place the photographs capture. Murphy’s beautiful, mostly depopulated photos allow us to imagine ourselves among the beautiful scenes of the city we share, in both memory and possibility. If you haven’t already checked out one of Jackson books, a Lemuria exclusive, I highly encourage you to do so.

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