Tag: First Editions Club (Page 1 of 2)

Englander’s ‘Dinner’ is a ‘spy novel’ that defies convention

By Jim Ewing.

Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth is more than a spy mystery. Rather, it’s a puzzle that starts off fuzzy and indistinct and ends crystal clear, spinning off into the confounding greater madness that is the Middle East conflict.

It starts off with seven main characters:

  • Z, an American kept in secret prison;
  • The General, who, though not named, is presumably Ariel Sharon;
  • Ruthi, The General’s longtime aide, who is also the mother of Z’s prison guard:
  • The Guard, who becomes Z’s friend as much as captor, or exists somewhere in the gray zone of Stockholm Syndrome;
  • Joshua, a Canadian businessman;
  • The Waitress, who becomes Joshua’s lover; and:
  • Farid, a Palestinian businessman who funnels money to terrorists in his homeland.

dinner at the centerThe characters are built slowly, as the chapters flit between events in Germany, France, Italy, and Israel in 2002 and 2014. In the beginning, we don’t know the identity of Prisoner Z, or about the crime he committed to land him in prison.

The plot comes together like a Rorschach test: pieces of the puzzle becoming clear, almost as much from the reader’s memories and perceptions as the from deft touch of the author delineating the characters.

It slowly develops from specific events into a recognizable whole that, once realized, is complex and riveting as, midway through the novel, the deceptions and revelations become clear and the narrative picks up in real time.

We come to find that none of the characters we have come to know are truly who they say—or believe, or others believe—they are.

The “dinner” at the heart of the title is an event in the book, at its end, that may be seen as a metaphor for the muddle that is Midle Eastern politics, where right and wrong are often as blurred as the identities and possible motivations of the main characters.

And it may also be seen as a type of bizarre love story: where bitter rivals come to love each other, trust each other, need each other, even as they openly debate and sometimes wantonly deal death to the other.

Perhaps needless to say, Dinner is not your typical “spy” novel, as it begs more questions than it answers and spurs more honest soul searching than conventionally found in the genre. There are no “bad guys” here, no black and white hats, only shades of gray, tinged by unanswerable questions masking murderous norms.

Every character is flawed, vulnerable, in some ways endearing, and both a selfless hero and callous villain depending on one’s point of view.

All is relative. As Z tells the The Waitress when he confesses to her that he is a spy: “Some wrong things, in circumstances, are inherently right.”

But, as events unfold, the plot reveals that some possibly right things are inherently wrong.
Englander has put together a masterful spy novel that confounds conventions and will leave readers questioning the validity of their own convictions about right and wrong.

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.

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.

Jamie sings the praises of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Since I’ve been working at Lemuria, I’ve self-imposed a  rule of not writing about a book till I’ve finished it.

I am currently breaking that rule. Demolishing it. Splintering it without a shadow of hesitation or guilt.

sing unburied singJesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is lots of things:  brilliant, gorgeous, haunting, raw, tender, honest. Much like her National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones (a personal favorite of mine­), Sing takes place in an impoverished area of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Both books’ characters find themselves in a mix of relationships—familial, internal, romantic—yet Sing is in no way a cookie-cutter redux of SalvageSing shifts through various first-person narrators, and does so in a way that’s easy to follow.  If you’re having nightmarish flashbacks of Faulkner, don’t: these leaps between characters (mostly the 13-year-old, endearing Jojo and his difficult mother Leonie) aren’t pretentious displays of cleverness for its own sake. One of Ward’s gifts as a writer is a conspicuous wedge of human empathy. By getting into the mind of Jojo, we see his desire for toughness and tenderness, his need to be protector for his younger sister Kayla, and his longing to be a surrogate father for Kayla the way his own grandfather is for him. While Jojo lends us his frustration at his absent mother, the chapters from Leonie’s perspective help round her character. Her drug use isn’t entirely selfish—it’s her way of self-medicating the hurt of the violent death of her older brother. We see her doubting her own abilities as a mother, cursing herself, but trapped in her own self-doubt so as to prevent her from risking connection with her kids. Ward isn’t necessarily excusing Leonie’s behavior so much as she is explaining it, and showing us the complexity of the human heart in conflict with itself, to steal a phrase from Faulkner.

Ward’s fiction and nonfiction shows us the importance of personal, familial history, and how things from previous generations aren’t really all that previous. Her memoir Men We Reaped illustrates the struggle of generational poverty and quiet, systemic racism perfectly. The notion of inheritance manifests itself in Sing in a fascinating way: ghosts. I would never classify this novel as a fantasy/supernatural genre piece, nor do I think that is Ward’s intent. Leonie sees her dead brother, Given, but can’t hear him speak; Jojo meets his grandfather’s dead friend Richie, who tells him about their days in Parchman. The past isn’t past—another Faulkner phrase I’ll paraphrase—and the ghosts in Sing show us that.  The myriad difficulties of poverty, compounded with the burdens of racism, are hard to get away from.  They haunt their victims, float constantly over their shoulders, peek in-and-out of their vision, or sometimes present themselves in full view.

There’s probably more about the novel that this piece is missing. I’m halfway through the book, and as soon as I finish this post, I’ll open Sing, Unburied, Sing back up and skip sleep.  The book’s that good.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to it.

Author Q & A with Mark Bowden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explain the historical significance of this event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden

What’s your next writing project/book?

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

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

ms book fest

Julia ‘Delights’ in Sharma’s short stories

life of adventure and delightAkhil Sharma’s third book, a collection of eight short stories entitled A Life of Adventure and Delight, is complex in a way that I did not anticipate. Throughout their individual stories, a host of interesting characters find out what it means to be a good person. Each story has a way of making you think it is over, but each leaves the reader with the sense there is always so much more to it. Each story holds so much emotion and feeling. Along with an ever-present theme of loving despite flaws, there is an overarching theme of exposing the inner workings of the human heart juxtaposed with the deepest traditions of Indian culture. At times both darkly comedic and deeply emotional, these eight stories present the many different complex relationships between humans which require love: husbands and wives, parents and children, and even friends and enemies.

I am not sure I have ever read a more moving collection of short stories. Each story seems to have its own individual impact on the reader. I was riveted from the very beginning. This collection is immensely enjoyable, lovable, and quotable.

“It’s a big world. A lot of people are worth loving. Why love someone mediocre?”

Dislocation, fantasy roil in ‘A Life of Adventure and Delight’ by Akhil Sharma

By Paul Rankin. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16).

life of adventure and delightIn Akhil Sharma’s collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight (W.W. Norton), we meet a sequence of remarkable characters in the throes of profound dislocation.

Five of the eight stories take place in the United States, while the remaining three occur in India. All, however, focus on characters struggling to preserve cultural roots and traditions even as they feel themselves getting swept along by the forces of modernity and westernization. These struggles produce narratives which are by degrees horrifying, heartbreaking, and hilarious.

In the opening scene of the opening story, for instance, we meet Gopal Maurya, recently abandoned by his daughter (Gita) and wife (Anita) and sleeping on a couch in the living room. Having banished himself from his own bed “in a burst of self-hate,” he’s resolved “to avoid comforting himself with any illusions that his life was normal.”

The absent women provide immediate backdrop for Gopal’s despair; together they also function more broadly, as a controlling metaphor which informs the dramatic tensions throughout and creates a coherence and unity that may collections lack.

Gita has become fully westernized; Anita has returned to India where she met a guru, achieved enlightenment, and moved into an ashram to sweep floors and pray. Left behind, cut off from every familiar thing, Gopal fantasizes about “calling an ambulance so that he could be touched.”

When his neighbor Mrs. Shaw comes over to borrow the lawnmower, he attempts “to extend their time together” by tangling “her in conversation.” Through she won’t even accept a drink–“Orange juice, apple juice, or grape, pineapple, guava. I also have some tropical punch”–Gopal clumsily pursues her, visiting a hair stylist rather than his “usual barber” and reading articles in popular magazines like Cosmopolitan for advice about what makes a good lover. Along the way, Gopal also fights to preserve his tenuous connection to the past by becoming involved in the Indian Cultural Association.

Each subsequent story centers on the particular desires and frustrations of its individual protagonist, but each explores similar themes of conflicted longing. In the wake of a recent tragedy, a young boy prays daily before a traditional Hindu altar at the same time he attempts to make sense of his loss by identifying with iconic western superheroes like Batman and Superman for whom personal catastrophe became the catalyst that reveled their true greatness.

A temple pandit places his cellphone on the cushion beside him while performing sacred burial rights and when, “Periodically it would ring, and he would gesture for (the others) to keep singing while he answered…with one hand played the harmonium with the other.”

A doctoral student at NYU uses the internet to hire prostitutes while maintaining the conviction that “any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her was in some way depraved and foul, and also unintelligent.”

A young woman, living abroad in America, soothes the pain of isolation by drinking more and more until “the drink overtook her,” at which point her husband “sends her back to her parents” knowing they “will kill her, because the shame of having an alcoholic as a daughter…is staggering.”

These stories are poignant, gripping, and subtly profound in their investigation of the moral complexities confronting all citizens of an increasingly globalized society. Each stands alone in its own right. At the same time, largely because of how deftly Sharma weaves these common threads of alienation and dislocation throughout, the sum is far greater than its parts.

Paul Rankin holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, works as a freelance writer and editor, and is on the verge of finishing his first novel. He lives in Jackson with his family.

A Life of Adventure and Delight is the July 2017 selection of the Lemuria First Edition Club. Its author, Akhil Sharma, will appear at Lemuria on Tuesday, July 18, at 5:00 to sign and 5:30 to read.

First Voyage with a John Grisham Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mollie Burkhart

Mollie Burkhart

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

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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