I’ve written quite a bit about the upcoming Mid-South Book Festival in this space and in the print edition of the Flyer, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the events surrounding Memphis Reads. The program touting itself as “the city’s largest book club” this year chose Salvage the Bones by award-winning author Jesmyn Ward.
Memphis Reads, with its first event of 2016 on Monday, Sept. 12th, comes on the heels of the Book Festival, which has its last event the day before. Now, I don’t understand the politics and inner workings of promoting reading and literacy, but it seems to me that the organizations in charge of these two book-loving affairs should get together — maybe have a little affair of their own — because the Book Festival is timed perfectly to be the opening event to a month-long celebration of books, reading, and literacy. Bringing nationally regarded authors into town to speak with school-age kids and would-be writers only ensures that future generations will make reading and education a priority. The sheer marketing power behind presenting organizations and sponsors such as Literacy Mid-South, Christian Brothers University, the Memphis Public Library system, Rhodes College, MLGW, Hilton, the National Civil Rights Museum, and Shelby County Schools, among many, many others could ramp city-wide reading up to a whole new level.
But I digress.
Christian Brothers University associate professor, and the planner of Memphis Reads, Karen Golightly, said, “We hope to break down the physical and metaphoric walls that exist between Memphians by giving them a common reading experience. Through the events scheduled in September, attendees can learn about the issues addressed in the book through art exhibits, documentaries, films, panel discussions, and author/expert talks. The point is to find a way in which Memphians can participate in different aspects and viewpoints of the issues at hand, in order to build community one book at a time.”
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood awards for essays, drama, and fiction. A Stegner Fellow at Stanford, from 2008-2010, she has been named the 2010-11 Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, was an Essence magazine Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient, and a finalist for both the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.
From Salvage the Bones: “A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting.
“As the 12 days that make up the novel’s framework yield to their dramatic conclusion, this unforgettable family—motherless children sacrificing for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce—pulls itself up to face another day. A big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bones is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.”
Memphis Reads 2016 events:
Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808 – 1865
National Civil Rights Museum (State of Tennessee Gallery)
September 12 – mid-November 2016 (Free with museum admission; Tennessee residents may enter free of charge on Mondays after 3 p.m.)
Screening: Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (Parts 1 – 2)
University of Memphis (304 University Center, Bluff Room)
Thursday, Sept. 15th
5:30 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. film screening (Free and open to the public)
Screening: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library (3030 Poplar Avenue, meeting room C)
Monday, Sept. 19th
5:30 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. film screening (Free and open to the public)
Panel Discussion: My Whole City Underwater – Race, Trauma, and Surviving Katrina
University of Memphis (342 University Center, Shelby Room)
Thursday, Sept. 22th
5:30 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. discussion (Free and open to the public)
Jesmyn Ward discussion and book signing
Christian Brothers University (650 East Parkway South, CBU Theatre)
Wednesday, Sept. 28th, 7 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Q & A with Jesmyn Ward and book signing
Rhodes College (2000 North Parkway, Bryan Campus Life Center)
Thursday, Sept. 29th, 6 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
Great Conversations with Rhodes Professor Ernest Gibson
Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library (Memphis Room, 4th floor)
Thursday, Oct. 4th, 5:30 p.m. (Free and open to the public)
For more on Memphis Reads, visit memphisreadsbook.org.
Listen up, readers, there is a lot going on this weekend with the Mid-South Book Festival. It kicks off Wednesday with the Literacy Summit, but Thursday night is the first literary event with a reading and signing by acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson at story booth.
Woodson, known and celebrated as a young adult writer, has just released her first work for an adult audience, Another Brooklyn (Amistad).
Another Brooklyn is a short but complex story that arises from simmering grief. It lulls across the pages like a mournful whisper. “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet,” the narrator begins, which perfectly conveys the novel’s suspended sorrow. Now an anthropologist who studies the way different cultures honor their dead, August is an adult looking back at her adolescence in the 1970s. She came to Brooklyn with her younger brother two decades earlier when their father hoped they could all start a new life away from the tragedies that shattered their family back in Tennessee.
But August and her brother aren’t so much renewed as arrested in this alien, dangerous place. Unable to acknowledge her mother’s death, young August pines for her return while staring out the window, month after month. “If someone had asked, Are you lonely? I would have said, No,” August says. “I would have pointed to my brother and said, He’s here. I would have lied even as the empty street on rainy afternoons threatened to swallow me whole.”
The signing is presented by The Booksellers at Laurelwood and Nicole Yasinsky, marketing manager for Booksellers, was recently quoted about the novel for a story in Bookselling This Week from the American Booksellers Association, which chose it as last August’s “Next List” pick.
“Effortlessly weaving poetic prose, Woodson tells the story of the relationships young women form, their yearning to belong, and the bonds that are created — and broken,” said Yasinsky. “Brooklyn itself is a vivid character in this tale — a place at first harsh, but one that becomes home and plays a role in each character’s future.”
Author Ann Patchet has said, “Another Brooklyn is a sort of fever dream, containing both the hard truths of life and the gentle beauty of memory. The story of a young girl trying to find herself in the midst of so many conflicting and desires swallowed me whole. Jacqueline Woodson has such an original vision, such a singular voice. I loved this book.”
Woodson is the bestselling author of more than two dozen award-winning books for young adults, middle graders, and children, including the New York Times bestselling memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Sibert Honor Award. Woodson was recently named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation.
story booth at Crosstown Arts
438 N. Cleveland
Thursday, September 8th
As I selected my latest find from the ever-growing stack of Advanced Reader Copies that looms on my bedside table, I felt the tendrils of expectation reach into my stomach, anticipation pupating and breeding the butterflies of excitement. Not only was I going to make a dent in my to-read stack, but this time I was probably in for a real treat. Why? Because I was about to, at last, read Lev Grossman’s first
Though I had read and loved Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy (Viking/Penguin Books), I had never gotten around to scouring the library or Amazon for a copy of his long out-of-print debut, Warp, (originally released in 1997 by St. Martin’s Press). Based on the success of his recent work, or perhaps in celebration of the debut novel’s 19th anniversary, St. Martin’s is rereleasing Warp.
Why they chose to republish the novel a year before the more auspicious 20-year mark, I can only guess, but the whole rerelease — and the novel itself — feels a little underdone to me.
Warp rests comfortably in the coming-of-age-tale category. It is replete with references to famous literary and cinematic wanderers, from Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to Picard’s Enterprise, suggestive perhaps that Hollis, the book’s protagonist, has become unmoored, never having found the tether that should have kept him grounded in adulthood. As the plot unfurls, there is no shortage of a conspicuous consumption of alcohol and resulting rum-soaked repartee, and the archetypal proto manic pixie dream girl shows up right on cue, leaning against a phone in an ATM vestibule, stealing long-distance calls from the bank, ready to rock Hollis’ world and waken in him something unnamed or unnamable.
The primary movement of the novel centers around Hollis’ decision to eschew the settled, office-bound career path and lifestyle his ex-girlfriend and most of his friends have chosen. Since Hollis’ friend, Peters, is housesitting for a wealthy couple, the irreverent pair set up shop, drinking down copious amounts of their unsuspecting host’s expensive wine. I remained uncertain as to why exactly the two cash-strapped loafers had to sneak into the house if Peters had been engaged as its temporary caretaker, but that small hurdle in logic was hardly the biggest thing troubling me as I read.
It wasn’t until about this point — page 166, the end of chapter 11 — that I realized I had read Warp when it was originally released, back at the tail end of the ’90s. Rarely do I find myself reading over half a novel only to have my memory jogged by an interesting plot device or some particularly memorable bit of dialogue. No, as such an avid supporter of Grossman’s later work, I find myself uncomfortably compelled to admit that the novel fails to significantly differentiate itself from any other bildungsroman.
It’s a decent first foray, but Hollis reads like little more than an early-model Quentin Coldwater, the hero of Grossman’s infinitely more mature and fully realized Magicians trilogy. Like Quentin, Hollis makes abundant references to popular culture, particularly to other flaneurs and antiheroes. Like Quentin, Hollis suffers from a post-collegiate ennui as he affects a halfhearted search for meaning and direction. The key difference is that, by the time he has written The Magicians, Grossman has something to say, and he has the polished skill and familiarity with his craft to get his point across. Warp finds him still searching for those tools, hanging lumpy dialogue on poor Hollis, making him a mouthpiece instead of letting him just be a character.
Warp serves as a portrait of an artist on the cusp of hitting his stride, still grappling with the ideas and methods that will propel the rest of his career. While it may not have been the most memorable novel, it was Grossman’s first step on what I sincerely hope will be a long career. And there is something to be said for first steps. Without them, the destination remains nothing more than a dream.
I skipped writing last week because I was too close to the end of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (about which I wrote last time) to talk about it without muddling my own reading experience. I finished it late Sunday night, and I've already moved on to something else (which I'm sure will find its way here in due time) but... the novel has stuck with me still. There will be spoilers here, if you're planning on reading it, but I'm not sure knowing them would diminish your reading experience.
The first and last sections of the book are the ostensible diary entries of one Juan García Madero, first as he makes his way into a circle of Mexico City poets who call themselves the visceral realists, and then in the final part as he, the two leaders of the movement (Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano—guess which one is a stand-in for the author), and a prostitute named Lupe roam the deserts of Sonora looking for a lost poet from the 1920's.
In between is a story that will ring true with so many creative people: told in interviews with various people from 1976 to 1996, the story of how a movement of poets led by two revolutionaries went nowhere and those young people who had been so passionate about literature and politics and literature-as-politics scatter as they become adults (and/or die).
It resonates. I was a teenager who thought I was going to upset the established orders of the world with poetry. I was a guy in my early twenties who thought I was going to change the consciousness of the masses with my howling, feral electric guitar. The minor disappointments of failing to spark a literal revolution are eventually overcome by life, which moves on inexorably anyway, and you either leave those desires behind and learn to create things for the sake of creating them, or you get hung up on What You Could Have Been. Except, as The Savage Detectives will remind you, you never Could Have Been that anyway, and maybe it wouldn't have mattered all that much if you had. At the end of the day, that's not really the measure of the worth of these lives.
The dissolution of the visceral realists—both the movement itself and the lives of those involved—still strikes a hopeful note. You can love poetry and write it and no one can read it, and that's fine. You can make a living as a dishwasher in a foreign country and write at night, and that's fine. You can be so on fire for language that it alters your experience of life, enriches it, deepens it. That has to be its own gift. This is a lesson that I certainly need to re-learn every year or two.
It's impossible to imagine a literary movement among poets that could challenge our political system. Maybe that's one thing about the book that is specific to its late 20th century Latin American setting, but I don't think it is. As Bolaño himself said:
‘We fought for parties that, had they emerged victorious, would have immediately sent us into a forced labour camp’, Bolaño writes of his generation. ‘We fought and poured all our generosity into an ideal that had been dead for over fifty years’.
Which means, perhaps, that The Savage Detectives is more of a Quixote for failed poets than anything else. And aren't we all failed poets, anyway?
I've been looking for a book like Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives for a long time, and didn't realize it was already on my bookshelf.
Some backstory: My own writing process has been a train wreck for the last 12 months, a retreat into my own head. I abandoned a 300+ page manuscript. I questioned everything I'd ever written, whether any of it had ever been good, whether I even wanted to write again. Whether I even liked novels in the first place, or knew how to tell a story.
And, of course, as the writing went pear-shaped, so did my reading — reading books I'd read before and loved, looking for a spark of excitement in the familiar (books like Moby-Dick, Jesus' Son, Oakley Hall's Warlock) and in between them reading thrown-together Kindle books about writing and far-out monuments of inscrutability I'd heard about but not dared to attempt (like Delaney's Dhalgren, or Henri Michaux's Miserable Miracle).
None of it helped. None of it did anything but make me feel more doomed, more confused about why I thought I wanted to write novels in the first place. And yet, after I quit reading John Barth's Sabbatical, I looked over my books and saw my big hardcover copy of Bolaño's final novel, 2666, a book that still haunts me sometimes, still fills me with a feeling of dread, still reminds me that Big Books are (or can be) towering achievements despite their many ragged edges. Next to it was an earlier work of Bolaño's that I'd bought but not read: The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer and put out in English in 2007, but originally published in Spanish as Los detectives salvajes in 1998).
What follows is a report of what I love about this book so far, just over 200 pages into the thing.
First: The voice. Oh, the voice. The first part of the book is the diary of a young Mexico City poet getting caught up with a movement (really just a group of poet friends who call themselves a movement) called the visceral realists in 1975. The second part of the book (which I'm still in, and which makes up the bulk of the work) is a string of pearls, each bead a first-person account of a run-in with the two "leaders" of the visceral realist movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Throughout the whole thing, the language is almost conspicuously non-literary, almost completely bare of any self-consciousness. The tone is that of someone speaking to you, telling you a story. Not to say that it isn't well-crafted; Bolaño's origins as a poet (Arturo Belano is, after all, a very thinly disguised author substitute, intentionally obvious) shine through every now and then like a bolt of lightning through the conversational tone, little finely-wrought witticisms and observations.
Second: In the end, it's about a lot of things, but one thing The Savage Detectives is is a book about writing and about writers. Everything is about poets, about how they see their work, what excites them about poetry, about the written word. Characters argue about novels (and mostly hate Octavio Paz for reasons that haven't been made clear yet). There's a great passage about what it means to read "desperate" books, and what it means to be a "desperate" reader, what that does to someone. Given my own flight into fiction for reassurance, that resonated.
Third: The Latin America of the 1970s is a setting with which I'm woefully unfamiliar, but this book feels like a window into a world of political turmoil — Belano (as was his real life counterpart) is a Chilean living in Mexico who fought (unsuccessfully) against the 1973 coup in Chile, and the threat of exile hangs over the visceral realists even though most of them haven't published anything yet. It's reinvigorating to remember that writers and their books used to be things that were dangerous, that could cause problems for people who wrote them. Truths were told or stances were taken that could get writers in real trouble. Who in American fiction right now is dangerous? Who has enough readers, and is discussed seriously enough, to make the powerful uncomfortable? It energizes me, even though it seems (1) stupid and (2) impossible, to think that the truths contained in fiction can be that powerful. What was the last book you read that was dangerous?
The Savage Detectives is 650 pages long. It'll probably take me another week to get through it at this pace. I'm not sure if I — or the book — can sustain this exuberance for that long. But it's reminding me of what made me want to write novels in the first place, the exuberance of its storytelling, the frankness and the candor of these kids infatuated with poetry, the openness of the whole thing and its world.
“I read Odie Lindsey’s We Come to Our Senses in a way that books rarely compel me to…Not only compulsively readable, the thoughts these war stories stirred were rich and complex and heartening in their universal humanity. This is a remarkable collection by a splendid new writer.” — Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain“Lindsey writes with quiet confidence and sometimes arch humor that invites comparison to Ben Fountain and Phil Klay, but that wouldn't displease Flannery O'Connor. Superb atmospherics coupled with arresting story lines.” — Kirkus starred review Odie Lindsey
The clothes were packed and the sunscreen accounted for. Google Maps had been consulted as to the best route and the kids were giddy with anticipation for the eight-hour drive. And then the hard decision had to be made: What will I take to read at the beach?
Like George Costanza who said, “I happen do dress based on mood,” I can never be sure what I’ll want to read next. Because it’s always about “next,” isn’t it? I’m reading this novel now, and enjoying it, but what will I read next? Sitting on the beach, slathered in SPF 70 and sand, I wouldn’t have the luxury of my home’s bookcases close at hand. No, I had to make the decision while standing in my library 500 miles from the Gulf Coast.
But how do we decide what to give our precious downtime over to? Murder mystery? Classic? Chick Lit? It doesn’t really matter because all we crave is to get away from our day-to-day responsibilities, it’s why we’re on vacation. But do we forget our anxiety and cares by jumping into another world of anxiety and cares? It seems that I do. As I sat on Dune Allen Beach in Florida’s South Walton County and flipped eagerly through page after page of Chris Cleave’s fabulous Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster), I couldn’t help thinking there was something familiar about the whole scene. Same sand as last year’s vacation . . . same strength of sunscreen . . . same kids screaming for my attention . . . same swimsuit (sadly) . . . Oh, right, last summer I was reading All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner) by Anthony Doerr. That novel covers World War II in France, while my current beach read takes place in London during the German blitzkrieg. Then it occurred to me that the year before that, I read The Invisible Bridge (Random House), Julie Orringer's story of Hungarian Jews during the same war.
Why would I do this? Why immerse myself in the misery and pain of fictional characters as I sip a cocktail and inch back into the shade of an umbrella? My greatest worry during my vacation was the way the ice melted and watered down my beverage. Meanwhile, Mary ducked into a bomb shelter with her students as yet another air raid siren squealed all around them.
Escapism. That’s it. We need time away from our lives and that’s what novels have always promised us. Sure, they may take us down the rabbit hole of war or heartbreak or dead-end jobs, but that’s not our war or heartbreak or dead-end job. And we’re okay with that.
Cleave does a masterful job at placing us in a certain place at a certain time so that we are able anticipate things we’ve never experienced. As Mary awaited the bombers over London, and as Alastair dreaded the sound of engines roaring over the island of Malta, I lounged with only the soothing sound of waves tippling on the beach nearby. But when a plane from nearby Tyndall Air Force Base ripped through the blue skies, I almost jumped out of my squatty little beach chair. Reading isn’t always the relaxing pursuit it should be.
I also read (or at least began, the cocktails seemed to get stronger as the week progressed) The Bourne Identity (Orion) by Robert Ludlum. I’m a fan of the Bourne movies and have always wanted to at least read the seminal novel to see if it holds up, and with the latest installment of the film series due out next month, it seemed like the perfect time. This is a case of the movie being better than the book, I’m afraid. The problem, for me, is that we’re let into the mind of Bourne on the page while I prefer the spontaneous actions onscreen without the inner dialogue.
But, again, I was on the beach, escaping, so even a less enjoyable book — or the promise of an air raid siren — makes for a good day.
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?