It’s been a productive time of reading around here, despite the demands of work and family and the beautiful weather luring me into outdoor activities.
Lee Smith is an acquaintance and sent her new book, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life (Algonquin Books), to my wife when it came out last month. I quickly claimed it as my own and devoured it. Smith focuses her superpowers of acute observation of characteristics, mannerisms, and personalities, and the culture of a region, to her own life in this series of essays. She touches on her time growing up in Grundy, Virginia, and what she gleaned from its people and time spent in her father’s dimestore. From her childhood comes a love of books which would lead (lucky for us) to a life of writing. It hasn’t always been an easy life, but Smith handles the stories of depression, divorce, and suicide with the tenderness that has resounded in her prose for decades.
Reading Dimestore led me immediately to our bookshelves and the first Smith novel I could lay my hands on, 1995’s Saving Grace (G.P. Putnam’s Son’s). It is everything I wanted after reading about the author’s life and where she grew up. Florida Grace Shepherd is part of a devout family led by a charismatic, snake-handling, preacher as father. The book follows her life in and out of that family, and explores a person’s ties to religion and faith, and the feeling of comfort within one’s own skin. I plowed through it in a matter of days, rushing through Grace’s life with an eagerness to learn where she might end up.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf), by comparison, has been a slog. Good story, interesting characters, but a length and various plotlines that have left me feeling as though I’ve walked uphill through Lee Smith’s Appalachian mountains in the dead of winter. More on this book in a forthcoming issue of the Flyer.
I’m reading The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond (Carroll & Graf Publishers) for purely information purposes for another project I’m working on. Not so much reading, really, as taking it up now and then to pick my way through it as I tend to do with nonfiction. The story of Georgia Tann, who turned the world of adoption on its ear with her business of selling babies through her children’s home in Memphis, is a fascinating and heartbreaking one. The book is well-written, too, and I look forward to getting in deeper and learning just how and why a person might do what she did, and of what happened to some of her victims.
I have read everything Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo has ever written. Much of it more than once. When I first saw he had a new novel coming out, I was beside myself with anticipation. Then I looked closer at the advertisement and realized it’s a sequel to 1993’s fabulous Nobody’s Fool (Random House). That book was the third in his Upstate New York novels, following Mohawk (Knopf) and The Risk Pool (Random House). Russo’s ability to bring a place to life is unparalleled in my opinion (though Lee Smith does give him a run for his money). My fear was that he would take the beautifully wrought characters of Sully and Rub and even Wacker, and wring their stories dry like a dishrag. I’ve been burned before. I anticipated 1997’s voluminous Bridge of Sighs (Knopf) — which took Russo from his comfort zone of New York State and academia to fine art and Venice, Italy — as much as any book ever, and was disappointed in its ramblings. (He would vindicate himself in my eyes two years later with That Old Cape Magic [Knopf].) Anyway, I got Everybody’s Fool (Knopf) the day it came out earlier this week and, though only on page 20 or so, I’ve already laughed out loud twice. I have a good feeling about this one.
What are you reading?
Milk & Sugar: The Complete Story of Seersucker (Nautilus Publishing) by Bill Haltom, an award-winning author, columnist and attorney, is set for release on Saturday, March 26th. Haltom will be at Burke’s Book Store that day from 2 – 4 p.m. for a book signing.
Milk & Sugar traces the origin of the seersucker suit from its humble beginnings to its rise as a darling of both men’s and women’s haute couture. It examines its role in Southern culture from courtrooms and law offices, churches and synagogues, fraternity row and sorority rush, tasteful garden gatherings to raucous fundraisers. Along the way, Haltom also outlines the regional “rules” of wearing and accessorizing seersucker and its embrace by fashionistas and celebrities from New York City to Hollywood.
The book is being published with the blessing of Laurie Haspel Aronson, CEO of Hansel of New Orleans and great-granddaughter of the originator of the seersucker suit.
For over 25 years, Haltom has been a newspaper and magazine humorist as well as author of five previous books. He has chaired editorial boards for four magazines, including the ABA Journal, the flagship publication of the American Bar Association. He practices law in Memphis and is a frequent speaker at conventions, banquets and leadership seminars.
“I had to figure out a way to combine two loves — writing and my seersucker suits — so I was compelled to do a book,” Haltom says. “I have long been fascinated with how seersucker seems to bring a sort of civility to any gathering, while also being a sort of wink towards playful, yet high, fashion.”
Saturday, March 26th
2 - 4 p.m.
Burke’s Book Store
936 South Cooper Street
When Andrew Offutt died, his son, Chris, inherited a desk, a rifle, and 1,800 pounds of pornographic fiction. Andrew had been considered the king of twentieth-century smut, with a writing career that began as a strategy to pay for his son’s orthodontic needs and soon took on a life of its own, peaking during the 1970s when the commercial popularity of the erotic novel reached its height. With his dutiful wife serving as typist, Andrew wrote from their home in the Kentucky hills, locked away in an office no one dared intrude upon. In this fashion, he wrote more than 400 novels, including pirate porn, ghost porn, zombie porn, and secret agent porn. The more he wrote, the more intense his ambition became and the more difficult it was for his children to be part of his world.
Over the long summer of 2013, Chris returned to his hometown to help his widowed mother move out of his childhood home. As he began to examine his father’s manuscripts and memorabilia, journals, and letters, he realized he finally had an opportunity to gain insight into the difficult, mercurial, sometimes cruel man he’d loved and feared in equal measure. Only in his father’s absence could he truly make sense of the man and his legacy.
In My Father, the Pornographer, Offutt takes us on the journey with him, reading his father’s prodigious literary output as both a critic and as a son seeking answers. This is a book about the life of a working writer who supports his family solely by the output of his typewriter; it’s about the awful psychic burdens one generation unthinkingly passes along to the next; and it’s about growing up in the Appalachian hills with a pack of fearless boys riding bicycles through the woods, happy and free.
“A literary detective story interwoven with memories of a youth riddled with sexual confusion and inarticulate yearning. . . . There is a touching universality to his tale and its mix of longing and despair . . . . In the end, the value of this haunting account lies in Offutt’s refusal to find a pat moral in his journey.” — The Washington Post
Chris Offutt is an award-winning author and screenwriter. He worked on the HBO drama True Blood and the Showtime series Weeds. His books include Kentucky Straight, The Same River Twice, The Good Brother, Out of the Woods, and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Short Stories, and many other anthologies. He lives near Oxford, Mississippi.
Thursday, March 24th
story booth @ Crosstown Arts
438 N. Cleveland
His lecture at Rhodes, which is part of the college’s “Communities in Conversation” lecture series, will examine the origins of the Memphis riot, describe its horrific violence, assess its significance in American history, and especially its importance to Memphis as a city. This event is free and open to the public and will be
followed by a book signing.
Ash’s book gives a portrait of Memphis as a southern city in the immediate aftermath of the civil war. It was a
time when racial tensions were high and there was talk of the Emancipation Proclamation as an abomination
by “Rebel Memphis” and their Irish supporters. Most whites resented the influx of blacks into the city and
especially the presence of black federal troops and Yankees who had come to assist the recently freed
slaves. By spring of 1866, tensions were high and riots and racially incited murder ensued. Congress
eventually blamed them on “the intense hatred of the freed people by the city’s whites, especially the Irish — a hatred stoked by the Rebel newspapers.”
“Meticulous . . . Ash offers remarkable portraits of ordinary Memphians . . . caught up in the tumult of their
time . . . riveting.”— Kirkus (starred review)
“This detailed account of the lengthy riot and its reverberations surges at the reader . . . For those who want
to understand the roots of America's racial issues, Ash's captivating and thoughtful book offers explanations
and raises many new questions.” — Publishers Weekly
The Memphis Massacre is one of the best-documented episodes of American history in the nineteenth
century. And yet it remains little known today, even by Memphians. This event is part of a semester-long
effort to commemorate the Memphis Massacre, headed up by University of Memphis historians Beverly Bond
and Susan O’Donovan. They are working with a slew of community partners, including the National Park
Service and the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, and Humanities Tennessee. The goal of this
communal series of events is to shatter the silence about the Memphis Massacre and to mark this moment
as a turning point in Memphis, Southern, and American history. Ash’s lecture will be an important occasion in
this set of events.
Ash was awarded the UT Alexander Prize for Distinguished Research and Teaching in 2005, and the UT
Chancellor’s Award for Research and Creative Achievement in 2004. Rhodes College is excited to have him
deepen our understanding of the history of our city.