Tag: Author Event (Page 1 of 2)

Up to Code: ‘Code Girls’ by Liza Mundy

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

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

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

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

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

Pioneering conservationist Fannye Cook was truly a Mississippi hero

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion Ledger Sunday print edition (November 27)

fannye cookFor many outdoors enthusiasts in Mississippi, Dorothy Shawhan’s book Fannye Cook might be described as one about the most influential person you never met.

The term “hero” is often overused, but in this case, Cook lives up to the label, as Shawan details.

Approximately 150,000 people (mostly children) annually stream through the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, says former director Libby Hartfield, who contributed to the book. And that is directly due to Cook, who founded it and served as its director until her retirement in 1958.

Of import to hunters, fisherfolk, birders, conservationists, and others, however, Cook was instrumental in creating what is now the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Her impact goes even beyond that.

As Shawhan describes, Cook, a graduate of what is now Mississippi University for Women, began her lifelong study and promotion of Mississippi’s natural resources in 1926. The wildlife population in Mississippi—including its most popular game species—was threatened by lack of habitat, overhunting, and overfishing.

“The forest resources that had covered 95 percent of the state in 1800 were practically gone by 1930,” Shawan reports.

Cook, with the help of the federal Depression-era Works Progress Administration, conducted a comprehensive plant and animal survey in Mississippi that she designed. Traveling across the state speaking to local groups and schools, she spearheaded a successful effort for public education and scientific research of wildlife resources.

The results of her efforts were twofold:

  • After her pushing for seven years, the state Legislature approved creation of a state game and fish commission in 1932 to regulate and conserve natural resources;
  • To house the enormous data she amassed, she was instrumental in opening the state’s first natural science museum in 1939 for the survey’s “28,732 fish, reptiles, birds, plants, amphibians, and mammals collected.”

It was an incredible turnaround in the public’s appreciation and support for habitat that lives on today.

Subtitled “Mississippi’s Pioneering Conservationist,” the book delves into the obstacles that stood in Cook’s path both personal and professional, as a woman in a “man’s” field, as well as her achievements and friendships along the way.

It’s full of recognizable names, including author Eudora Welty, with whom she lived as a boarder in Welty’s Jackson home, and Aldo Leopold, considered by many the father of wildlife ecology in the United States, with whom she collaborated.

Cook serves as a role model not only for women, but for all who have a dream and are willing to work tirelessly to achieve it.

Cook’s work and memory live on with the museum, the state’s largest, that now houses more than 1 million scientific specimens, along with creation of the 2,600-acre Fannye Cook Natural Area in Rankin County soon slated to open to the public. It’s the brainchild of Wildlife Mississippi, which also helped underwrite this book.

Shawhan, a Delta State University professor, died during course of writing the book and the manuscript was completed by Marion Barnwell, professor emerita at Delta State, and Hartfield. It’s a fascinating account of a most extraordinary Mississippian.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books, and serves or has served on numerous state, regional and national boards involving wildlife conservation, forests, agriculture and food.

Marion Barnwell and Libby Hartfield will be at Lemuria to sign and read from Fanny Cooke on Sunday, December 3, at 11:30 a.m.

Author Q & A with Carter Dalton Lyon (Sanctuaries of Segregation)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 26)

A strategic program that was begun to awaken Jackson’s segregated white churches to the idea of opening their doors to their African-American Christian counterparts in the 1960s will be commemorated with several public events next weekend that will honor that struggle.

More than 50 years later, that effort has been documented in Carter Dalton Lyon’s Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign, published by University Press of Mississippi.

sanctuaries of segregationWhat began for Lyon as a doctoral dissertation while he was a history student at Ole Miss more than a decade ago eventually resulted in his debut book, which unfolds in meticulous detail why activists and students at Tougaloo College acted on what they believed was a necessary element in advancing their goal of racial integration in the capital city.

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Lyon now teaches and chairs the History Department at St. Mary’s Epsicopal School in Memphis. He and wife Sally Cassaday are the parents of two daughters.

Your new book, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign closely examines a 10-month effort by Tougaloo College students and activists who set out to integrate what you called “the last sanctuaries for segregationists” in the city–white churches. Why was this an important goal of the civil rights movement in Jackson in the early 60s?

One thing that I found early in my research was that segregationists throughout the South had been worrying about the potential desegregation of their churches for many years and that organized groups of students had been testing the attendance policies of white churches as they were challenging other segregated spaces. They would, in effect, conduct a sit-in at lunch counters on Saturday and try to attend white churches on Sunday. This had been done in other cities in 1960, but not in Jackson until 1963.

The idea for these “kneel-ins” was to tug at the conscience of white Christians, especially those moderates who favored a more voluntary approach to desegregation or who didn’t really appreciate the immorality of segregation. Being barred from church would make visible the reality of racial discrimination in the house of God. Activists in Jackson in 1963 had a more specific reason as well: they had tried mass marches and sit-ins, but the local movement had fractured a bit, and there were those, like Rev. Ed King, who wanted to give the Jackson community another chance to shift course–and appealing to white Christians seemed like a logical approach.

Although the participants in this movement faced a great deal of resistance from congregants and church leaders, the effort slowly began to gain some ground with white ministers and members. What was the trigger that finally broke through the resistance?

For the churches that were “open” to black visitors during the campaign, it took a combination of ministerial and lay leadership to sustain that. Even if the minister had ordered the doors to be open or favored open doors, the extent to which they would in fact be open really had to do with logistics–who was at the door and who was organizing them. The minister really needed the backing of a majority of lay leaders to make this work.

For those who began to change or who opened the doors in the years after the campaign ended, it would be nice if I could say that i was because of a change of heart, but there’s really little evidence to that effect. The Jackson church visit campaign forced their regional or national denominational bodies to clarify the open-door policies of the denomination, and so these churches needed to consent to this, especially if they wanted to call a new pastor. Some church members didn’t and formed break-away churches and, in the case of the Methodists, formed a new denomination.

Ultimately, what did this movement accomplish?

The Jackson church visit campaign made the reality of racial discrimination visible in these sacred spaces and forced white church people to confront the essential question of these activists: was racial exclusion following the will of God? These visits sparked internal debates within congregations throughout the city and certainly led to turmoil and division in many churches. But I see the church visitors as exposing a fatal flaw in these churches. They had retreated into these sanctuaries of segregation, but their practices contradicted their faith and were in defiance of the stated beliefs and policies of their own denominations. As a result of this campaign, you see denominations moving to clarify their attendance policies and become more deliberate in examining segregation within their bodies.

You write that many ministers secretly agreed with the students and activists who attempted to join in worship services in their churches, but believed they could not share their feelings with their congregations for fear of losing their jobs and/or causing a split in the church. From your research, how did these ministers ultimately deal with their mixed feelings?

Each minister dealt with it differently and there really isn’t a general way of answering this, but I can say that all of the ministers who fit this description certainly battled with the feeling that they had been called by God to this particular church and they were determined to remain. Some had been at their churches for at least a decade and even when their lay boards voted to bar African-Americans, the real moment of truth came when black visitors were in fact blocked at the church doors. For those who held onto their positions as activists were being rejected outside, I see a real sense of exasperation on the part of these ministers, that their message, and the Gospel’s message of inclusion and brotherhood over the years, had not gotten through to their congregations.

As a Kentucky native, why did you decide to bring this topic to light about Jackson’s past now, and how is it relevant in today’s social, spiritual, and/or political climate?

Carter Dalton Lyon

Carter Dalton Lyon

This book has been germinating for a while, but when I began researching this, I frankly noticed a dearth of analysis on the white church response to the civil rights movement on a local level. In the last decade and a half, historians and theologians have been doing great work filling in that gap, and I hope my book adds to that body of scholarship. The great Mississippian Ida B. Wells once wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them,” and my hope is that this book helps in some of the truth-telling that is happening in Jackson.

Your research for this book is extensive–with 65 pages of notes and bibliography. How did you go about your research, and how long did it take to put this book together?

This book grew out of my thesis and dissertation work in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, so the bulk of the research was conducted during those six years, and I’ve spent the last six years of so refining and getting it into book form. I should say that it was very important to me to try to capture all sides of this struggle and to track down as many people who were a part of this effort as I could. I realized early on that there were folks who wanted to sweep this story under the rug or deny it outright, so I aimed to be as careful and extensive as I could in documenting this and getting the story right.

Although you mention several Catholic and Protestant houses of worship, much of the book is devoted to how the “closed door” policy was carried out by Methodists. Why was that?

In the early months of the campaign, the visitors cast a pretty wide net and attempted to attend churches from a variety of denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Unitarian, Church of Christ, and Catholic. For those that routinely barred their entry, such as First Presbyterian and the Baptist churches, they reasoned that they would have little hope of cracking open those doors, so they began to focus more on the churches with regional or denominational bodies that they could use as a potential wedge against these churches.

Then about midway through the campaign, the police arrested three students outside the Capitol Street Methodist Church, and made a total of 40 arrests on subsequent Sundays, and that suddenly brought national attention on the problem of segregation within the Methodist Church ahead of the 1964 General Conference. Methodist ministers and, later, two bishops from across the country began joining students on their weekly visits for their own reasons, but certainly to expose a problem that they hoped (the conference) would solve.

Carter Dalton Lyon will appear at Lemuria to sign and read from Sanctuaries of Segregation on Thursday, November 30, at 5:00 p.m.

‘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.

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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.

‘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.

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.

‘Live from the Mississippi Delta’ provides a front row seat

By DeMatt Harkins. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

No matter how well one may know Mississippi, more layers, subcultures, and haunts appear. They prove endlessly fascinating from a historical, literary, culinary, or musical perspective. In her first book, Live from the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi), photographer Panny Flautt Mayfield shares her snapshots encapsulating all of these in the greater Clarksdale area.

live from the ms deltaWhile the Coahoma County seat may not be a booming metropolis, the camera-wielding Mayfield frequently found herself in the right place at the right time, during culturally significant events and times over the past 30 years. Her casual stream-of-consciousness photo journal lets the reader in on the energy, with the perspective only a local could provide.

Clarksdale functions as one of the more important blues towns in a state filled with many. Famous native sons include John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, and Sam Cooke.And Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, and Robert Johnson lived there as well. On those shoulders stands a world-renowned musical legacy that supports an enduring local music scene and pilgrimage destination.

This is what Mayfield documents. She exhibits the role Clarksdale and surrounding radius palys in blues past and present–intertwining people, events, and locations, decades and miles apart.

Two excellent sources of material prove to be the town’s Sunflower Blues Festival and King Biscuit Blues Festival in neighboring Helena, Arkansas. Mayfield’s tome displays excellent shots of stalwarts Bobby Bland, Albert King, Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, Pinetop Perkins, Junior Kimbrough, and Honeyboy Edwards–each pictured in the throes of performance.

But Mayfield has also witnessed another level of visitor to the vicinity. She covered John Fogerty and Pop Staples attending Charley Patton’s headstone dedication in Holly Ridge. When famed Smithsonian archivist Alan Lomax returned to Clarksdale after years and years, Mayfield captured him sitting down to hear a picker. She was also on hand for sitting President Clinton’s walking tour of downtown Clarksdale. ZZ Top invited the national press to Mississippi. They were kicking off a million-dollar campaign for the Delta Blues Museum. Guess who was front and center?

Perhaps most stunning of all is Mayfield’s friendship with Robert Plant. The Led Zeppelin frontman’s academic fascination with blues music has manifested in a series of trips to Clarksdale. Throughout the book, Plant pops up, letting the golden locks hang low in practical anonymity. His rapport with Mayfield eventually landed her at his band’s 2007 London reunion concert, depicted in the concert film Celebration Day.

While undeniably interesting, global luminaries are not the appeal of Live from the Mississippi Delta. As Mayfield demonstrates, the magic is in the local mainstays. As the first black disk jockey in Mississippi, Early Wright’s Soul Man Show on WROX–replete with impromptu ads and PSAs–endeared listeners for decades. When he wasn’t opening NAACP chapters across the state, WAde Walton cut multiple generation’s hair. Mrs. Z L Hill ran the Henderson Hotel boarding house for 53 years and even hosted John F. Kennedy. The after-school blues students of Johnnie Billington flew to Washington, D.C. to play at the White House.

However, Mayfield provides more neon than neoclassical. She places the reader in the middle of Clarksdale’s finest music venues. From the dance floor, one can observe the likes of The Jellyroll Kings, Super Chikan, or Bilbo Walker playing Smitty’s Red Top Lounge, Margaret’s Blue Diamond, or the Bobo Grocery. And as the photos make clear, the stars of the evening are not always on stage.

In Live from the Mississippi Delta, Mayfield serves as her own acoustiguide. Sometimes the narrative explains the picture, other times the photo illustrates a point. Regardless she delivers an engaging look into multidimensional Clarksdale and the pleasure it holds.

DeMatt Harkins of Jackson enjoys flipping pancakes and records with his wife and daughter.

Panny Flautt Mayfield will be Lemuria on Wednesday, November 1, at 5:00 to promote her book, Live from the Mississippi Delta.

Author Q & A with Jennifer Egan

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 8)

manhattan beachPulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan’s newest release Manhattan Beach (Scribner) combines historical fiction with all the elements of a thriller-mystery and a touch of humor as she successfully tackles a World War II tale whose home base is Manhattan Beach in New York.

It’s a wide-spanning story of a family’s struggle to make ends meet as they attempt to make sense of the culture shift of a country at war and the realities of  the long-time disappearance of a husband and father who has vanished for reasons unknown. Well-researched and overflowing with a theme of water that runs throughout, Manhattan Beach is a satisfying and more traditional story from a writer whose trademark has become keeping readers wondering just what she can and will do next.

Along with her Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, she is the author of four other books of fiction. Her work has also appeared in The New YorkerHaper’s Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

Please tell me about your roots in Chicago, where you spent your earliest years.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan

On my father’s side, my family is proudly Irish-American, and has been in Chicago for generations. My grandfather, Edward Egan, was a police commander on the South Side, and also President Truman’s bodyguard when he came to town. Edward Egan had three sons, the second of whom was my father. The eldest, Eddie Egan, was killed in a motorcycle accident as a teenager–a tragedy that, of course, marked the family thereafter.

As a little girl, I used to talk with my father a lot about lost Uncle Eddie. It was a great pleasure to use his name in this book, and to dig deeper into my Irish-American heritage–the closest thing I’ve ever felt to an ethnic identity.

Manhattan Beach portrays a father/daughter relationship that plays out against the backdrop of World War II. Does it reflect anything personally about your own family, or can you elaborate about what inspired this story?

My mother and father divorced when I was 2, and I don’t have any memories of them together. As a little girl, I spent every Sunday with my father, but at 7, I moved to San Francisco with my mother and stepfather. I saw him only in the summers after that, and I feel like I stopped knowing him, and he stopped knowing me.

I have two sons, now teenagers, whom I’ve been very reluctant to let go of as they begin to move more deeply into their own lives. A lot of that personal experience–dealing with loss, as a child and as a parent–is in here, somehow. In my books, the personal is always scrambled.; it’s only as  finish a book that I begin to sense its connections to my real life.

How closely do the lives of characters in Manhattan Beach mirror that of the correspondence you found between the couple who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war?

The young couple whose correspondence I read, Lucille and Alfred Kolkin, had many things in common with my characters int eh context of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lucy was a shipfitter, meaning that she helped to create the metal parts of ships; my character, Anna, becomes a civilian diver. Jobs like those would have been unthinkable for women before the war. Lucy and Al’s social world would have been somewhat different from Anna’s, though; Lucy and Al were Jewish, for one thing, whereas Anna’s family is Catholic. Anna’s father’s involvement with the Irish waterfront gave him a proximity to organized crime that would likely have alienated Lucy and Al, although they were strongly involved in union organizing.

And finally, Lucy seems to have been what was known as a “good girl”–she quipped in a letter to Al that the story their courtship could have been summarized: “From Maidenhood to Marriage in Three Easy Months.” Even at 19, Anna’s sexuality is more developed, and therefore a secret.

Anna, a main character in Manhattan Beach, fought the male-dominated era in which she lived, and became a diver helping repair ships from underneath. What does that show about her, and was there a message there for readers?

I’m not a big fan of messages in fiction. As a reader, I dislike being preached to, but I suppose one could probably take away from the novel what much of America learned during World War II: women can do just about anything, and do it well. That is a threatening notion to some.

Manhattan Beach is one of two October selections for Lemuria’s First Editions Club. Jennifer Egan will be appearing at the Eudora Welty House to sign books at 5:00 p.m., on Tuesday, October 10. The reading will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Author Q & A with Nathan Englander

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1).

Brooklyn resident and Long Island native Nathan Englander packs love, violence, allegory, and political intrigue into his second novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth (Knopf), as he presents readers with a plot-driven literary tale that examines the current state of of the peace process-or lack thereof–between the Israelis and Palestinians.

A thought-provoking read to say the least, the book reveals Englander’s own take on the ongoing political battle–and it’s a personal one. Growing up Jewish in New York, his angst over the lack of progress between the two camps led to his own five-year retreat to Israel, which he spent examining first-hand the seeming futility of any effort to bring the two sides together.

Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander

His previous works include What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies.

Englander is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

In the ackowledgements at the end of your book, you thanked the city of Zomba, Malowi, where some of the writing process of Dinner at the Center of the Earth took place. Please explain why that was important to you.

Zomba played a part in the rewriting of this book. I lived there last year with my family, and I found that composing in a place so radically different from the one in which I live helped me to see my own life–my reality–with fresh eyes, which, I deeply believe, helped me to do the same inside the book’s world, where I was spending most of my time.

In what ways did your four–or what it five?–years living in Jerusalem before the intifada in 2000 prepare you to write Dinner at the Center of the Earth?

It was five years. And a year of college long before that, and some stretches here and there in between. That time was less what prepared me to write the book, and more what drove me to do it. I’ve really wanted to tell this story for near 20 years.

But, I hear the question (why?), and I have an answer. And that is, when I was living in Israel, I came to understand that solving the conflict between Israel and Palestine wasn’t just about bridging the gap between two peoples who hold two different positions of some argument. A real solution would mean bridging the space between two different worlds. That is, I was a Jewish person living in Jerusalem, and my Palestinian neighbors in the exact same place were living in al-Quds. We’re dealing with multiple realities, not differing opinions.

I read that you wanted to write a book that “weaved time and threads.” Describe how the complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and its seemingly unsolvable issues, prompted you to bring that approach to life through this book.

Central to that conflict, and central to my heartbreak over the failure of the peace process, are the endless cycles of violence, the buildup, the warring, the truces and quiet times–which both sides then use to build up and ready themselves for when the fighting starts all over again. I really wanted to write a novel whose structure captured that spiral, and reflected those rhythms.

This seems to be a book that would be good to read over again in order to understand the timeline and grasp its full meaning. Was that your intention?

dinner at the centerIt’s nice of you to ask. And, I promise you, I’m truly thankful for the people who invest in reading this novel once–that’s already a gift for a writer, and I ask no more. I can tell you that I worked hard to build a book you could just sit down and read, a linear novel that also happens to wrestle with age-old conflict and has many different plot lines, all running concurrently.

I think of your question in terms of a certain kind of reader–of which, in asking, I assume you are one–and I think, if this book has a certain life, and some nice graduate student somewhere wants to take it apart with a screwdriver and see how it ticks, I hope he or she will find something in the mechanics of it. I sure spent a lot of my time trying to make the thriller-historical-love-story-allegorical elements all jibe.

I loved what you did with the dream sequences of the General, whom we assume to be Ariel Sharon. Were there actual events for his life that led you to imagine these dream events? The endless falling with his radio operator after the explosion was especially intriguing.

Am I allowed to say that I love your questions? I love your questions! For one, it was imperative to me that my character, the General, be read as the General, not Ariel Sharon. As for parallels to Israeli-Palestinians history, I drew off many events for the reality the general is living in his mind. But you’re asking about the radio operator and the flying. This novel, unlike my last, is set in places I’ve lived, and addresses parts of history that are woven into my own memory, and central to my education, and have shaped my worldview.

What I’m trying to stress is that I bought a lot of books to study, but ended up doing very little research, and never opened most. I’d read a paragraph, and my mind would start spinning, and I’d start typing. Anyway, a doctor friend I’d called to ask about comas and minimally conscious state either shared this fact with me, or it appeared in the first couple of paragraphs of some scientific paper somewhere that I clicked on, but I fell in love with the idea that people who come out of comas often remember that they had dreams of flying. It just changed me, as soon as I learned that.

Were prisoner Z and the guard based on actual people, or were they fictional characters to move the plot and tell the story?

The guard popped into my head in the same way that Ruthi did–which is, out of nowhere. Speaking of consciousness, I literally have no awareness of how they suddenly came to be.

Prisoner Z is a character I can trace through my imagination. I was in Israel on a book tour, and on the last day, I picked up the morning paper and there was this story of an Israeli prisoner called, only, X. He was found dead in his cell. The extremely complicating factor was that he was a secret prisoner so, prior to his death, he had not existed. And prior to there being a cell with a ceiling from which to hang himself, there was no cell at all. That is, it was only with his death that he’d lived, only with his hanging that there was a cell to hang himself from.

When I read that X was a Mossad spy who’d become a traitor, I began thinking of all the reasons that spies become traitors: blackmail, failures of character, hunger for power, etc., etc. And I thought, what about a spy who becomes a traitor through empathy? Someone who flips because of his feelings for the other side. And that’s how, in that moment, a character is born. How, for me, an X becomes a Z.

Prisoner Z states in one his letters to the General that the only way for Israel to end the conflict was to lose and cede ground to the Palestinians. Is this an actual idea shared by some in Israel?

I’m sure, if folks think it, they don’t use the term “losing,” and it’s not about a notion of surrender. A novel delivers a pressurized form of reality–a world as real as the one we’re in, that manifests in a heightened way. Even as far off as it seems today, I bet there are plenty of people who still believe that pulling out of enough territory for there to be viable states, side by side, is the best way to achieve peace.

Tell me about the title of the book. Did it come to you as the story unfolded, or did you have it from the start?

Firstly, I’d like to note that the titles of my books are always extraordinarily long. And maybe I should pick shorter ones, since I’m so shy when folks ask me what the names of my books are called. I think, in every case, I’ve found the title of the book inside the story itself.

Do you have plans in the works yet that you can share about your next writing project?

Sure. Yes. I think the early part of one’s writing life is extra stressful because you haven’t yet fallen permanently behind. Once you’re drowning in projects you’re dying to pursue, what-comes-next is always right there.

So, as much as Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that took me far from the imagined worlds where I started, the next novel swings me back to where I began. I wanted to return to that space, where I explore the boundary between sacred and profane, religious and secular. Also, I’ve got another play in the works, and a non-fiction book, and some other things cooking.

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