Tuesday, January 5, 2021

In Memoriam: Eric Jerome Dickey

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2021 at 2:32 PM

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The Memphis-born New York Times bestselling author Eric Jerome Dickey died on Sunday, January 3rd, in Los Angeles after battling a long illness. Dickey was 59.


His longtime publisher, Dutton, said: “Eric Jerome Dickey loved being a writer and all that it encompassed. He loved challenging himself with each book; he adored his readers and beloved fans and was always grateful for his success. We are proud to have been his publisher over the span of his award-winning career. He will truly be missed.”


Though the author was a resident of Los Angeles, California, he originally hailed from Memphis and was a graduate of the University of Memphis (then Memphis State). I had the opportunity to speak with Dickey in early 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and I was blown away by his charm, humor, intelligence, and incredible generosity with his time. We spoke for almost two hours, not just about his most recent novel, The Business of Lovers, but about social distancing, Memphis and L.A., and how the coronavirus might change romance in fiction.

While the Flyer's office was closed for the winter holidays last week, I received an email from one of Dickey’s many ardent fans who was trying to track down hardbound copies of Dickey’s early novels. Since the announcement today of his passing, heartfelt tributes from fans and other authors have appeared on social media. 


Prolific and hardworking, Dickey was the author of 29 novels. Recently, his debut novel, Sister, Sister, was listed as one of Essence’s “50 Most Impactful Black Books of the Last 50 Years,” and USA Today featured him on their list of “100 Black Novelists and Fiction Writers You Should Read.” More than seven million of his books have been published worldwide.


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In 1994, Dickey’s first published short story, “Thirteen,” appeared in the IBWA’s River Crossings: Voices of the Diaspora: An Anthology on the International Black Experience. Soon after, Sara Camilli, of the Sara Camilli Agency, signed Dickey’s first novel and became an advocate for his work and a close friend. Dickey published his first book, Sister, Sister, with Dutton in 1996, and the imprint remained his publishing home as he made a name for himself in the field of contemporary urban fiction. Camilli said, “Eric and I have been together since the start of both of our careers. He’s been like a member of our family. His death leaves a large void not only in the literary world but in our lives as well. He was a writer’s writer — always striving to make everything he wrote the best it could be.”


Several of Dickey’s novels were nominated for the NAACP Image Awards, and his 2014 novel, A Wanted Woman, won the NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work. Dickey was also honored with awards for Best Contemporary Fiction and Author of the Year (Male) at the 2006 African American Literary Award Show and nominated for Storyteller of the Year at the first annual Essence Literary Awards in 2008. He was the author of a six-issue miniseries of comic books for Marvel Enterprises, and he contributed to multiple anthologies, including Got to Be Real: Four Original Love Stories, Mothers and Sons, and others. He also wrote the screenplay for the movie Cappuccino. Dickey’s final novel, The Son of Mr. Suleman, will be published on April 20, 2021.


Dickey leaves behind four daughters. Due to COVID-19, there will be no services at this time.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Ghost and the Darkness: Russ Thompson’s Loop Breaker Signing at 901 Comics

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2020 at 8:00 AM

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The tragic loss of her mother, a recent move from the ’burbs to the middle of nowhere, disembodied voices in the woods calling for help — it’s fair to say that Lee Ann Daniels has a lot on her plate.

As it should be; Lee Ann is the 16-year-old protagonist of Memphis writer/musician Russ Thompson’s debut YA novel, The Loop Breaker: A Beacon and the Darkness (Winterwolf Press), the first in a trilogy. And if the teen protagonist of a YA novel doesn’t have too much on her plate, the writer has done something seriously wrong. That's not the case here, though.


Thompson, a Dyersburg, Tennessee native, has lived in Memphis for most of his life. He’s an avid reader, a songwriter, a former teacher, and now an author of YA fantastical fiction.

As Thompson writes, “The deep woods lining the road gave way to occasional houses and buildings; [Lee Ann] looked at the burned-out automobiles and the trailers with assorted junk in the yards and began to see things differently than she had before.” That effort to see things differently is at the heart of The Loop Breaker — as are the “deep woods,” both literally and metaphorically. History and, often, motivations are obscured in Thompson’s novel, leaving Lee Ann to attempt to find the right path forward. She has her friends, of course, and eventually finds a guide (her Gandalf, if you will), but the way forward for Lee Ann is never simple or direct.

Thompson is signing copies of The Loop Breaker: A Beacon and the Darkness at 901 Comics Saturday, December 19th, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

I spoke with him in advance of the signing, about the hidden history of Thief’s Hollow, his favorite ghost stories, and the real-life psychic who helped inspire the book.


Memphis Flyer: I know you've done some ghost writing. Did you study creative writing?

Russ Thompson: I did a great deal of ghost writing for about three or four years to pay the bills when I quit my job at Shelby County Schools, and it taught me a lot about the novel-writing process and gave me a lot of practice. I was an anthropology major in college, but I have been writing stories since college.


How does being a musician impact or inform your writing style?

Being a musician definitely informs my writing. Outlining a story to me is like writing the main theme of a song in many ways. The story or song begins with a general idea (usually a riff for me in the case of songwriting) and the details get filled in either with characters and dialogue or with instruments or singing in the case of a song. I also believe that the practice of songwriting helps strengthen my abilities as a writer and vice versa.


Were there any other works that influenced or inspired you?

When I was young, “The Haunting of Hill House” was probably my favorite ghost story. Even before that I was inspired by a collection of stories I read by William Faulkner called “Ghosts of Rowan Oak.”

Speaking of ghost stories and spiritual spookiness, what are three things readers need to know about Lee Ann?

1. She has the gift of being able to see and hear those who have passed on and to help them “cross over” although she has to learn how to help them with some assistance. 2. She is somewhat of a snob at the beginning of the novel when she moves to the country, but she changes and grows as the novel progresses. 3. She is somewhat of an outsider who likes to draw and listen to underground music.

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  • Russ Thompson

Tell me about the voices Lee Ann hears and the orbs she sees in the woods. Did you base the fantastical elements of the book off of existing mythology or history?

The orbs and voices that Lee Ann sees in the woods are souls reaching out to her for help, because to them she shines out like a beacon in the darkness and they instinctively know that she can help them because of her special abilities. Some of these fantastical experiences are very loosely based on some of the experiences of a friend of mine who has real psychic abilities.

I like that you have a moment where Lee Ann's dad, Charles, basically defends libraries. I know from experience they’re especially important in rural areas where access to news can be scarce. Will you talk about the setting a bit?

The setting is the tiny town of Laverne, in Middle Tennessee. It is a tiny town surrounded by remote, forested hill country. Residents of the town are fairly close-minded and distrustful of new people and outsiders. The library in the town helps Lee Ann research the legend of Thief’s Hollow when she can’t find out much on the internet. It is also the place where she meets Felicity, the town psychic who serves as Lee Ann’s friend and guide throughout the story.


One thing I noticed is how much Lee Ann has on her plate, which felt true to being a teenager, at least how I remember it. Can you talk about balancing the mysterious and mundane aspects of her life?

Lee Ann has to balance her grief at the loss of her mother with the pressures of moving to a small town from the suburbs. As if that wasn’t enough, these pesky spirits start contacting her in the nearby woods. She has a great deal of trouble finding a balance because the supernatural events dominate the more mundane circumstances of her life. She is only able to avoid being completely freaked out and overwhelmed with the help of her new friends at school and with the help of Felicity, the town psychic.

I noticed you mentioned Cat’s Cradle. Is there any special significance?

Cat’s Cradle was an important book for me when I was a teenager because of the way that it combines science fiction with humanist/philosophical concerns and sardonic humor. I included it because I wanted Lee Ann to experience it much the same way I did when I was about her age.

I don't want to give anything away, but how does the history of Thief’s Hollow inform what happens in the book?


It is an explanation that the locals use to explain the strange goings-on near Lee Ann’s family’s property. Lee Ann soon finds that this explanation contradicts with her discoveries, which makes Lee Ann determined to find out the truth about what happened to these lost souls.

Can you tell us what readers might look for in the sequel to A Beacon and the Darkness?

The sequel to The Loop Breaker will find Lee Ann trying to escape her life in Laverne and go off to college, but she will find that she cannot escape her destiny to help lost souls and she will be faced with the most difficult and frightening challenge that she has yet to face.


Russ Thompson signs The Loop Breaker: The Beacon and the Darkness at 901 Comics, Saturday, December 19th, from 1 to 4 p.m.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Wakanda Forever: Bluff City Writers Contribute to Black Panther Anthology

Posted By on Wed, Dec 9, 2020 at 1:17 PM

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Memphis looms large in the just-announced Marvel Black Panther prose anthology, Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda, due next February. Not that T’Challa is hanging out on Beale Street, taking in a view of the Mississippi, or attending art shows at the CMPLX. No, it’s that so many Memphis authors have contributed to the collection.

Memphians all, poet/editor/author Sheree Renée Thomas, teacher/author Danian Darrell Jerry, and FIYAH magazine publisher and Memphis Flyer contributor Troy L. Wiggins are all featured in the anthology, which is edited by Memphis/Holly Springs native Jesse J. Holland.


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“I was like, ‘This is a dream that I wouldn’t have said aloud.’ I was thrilled. Can this year get any crazier?” says Thomas, who is having something of a banner year. Her short story collection, Nine Bar Blues, was published in spring (and many stories are eligible for awards), she contributed to the Slay vampire anthology, and was named the new editor of long-running The Magazine of Fantasy & Science-Fiction. “It’s a 20-plus year overnight success. I spent years quietly just working, publishing, of course, but not getting huge fanfare beyond the anthologies,” Thomas says. “That’s how it is for everyone, but we focus on the exceptions.


“Writing is a long game. You’ve got to be a long distance runner. It’s one thing my mentor Arthur Flowers has always said,” she continues. “It may be a while before you’re published in something your family recognizes.”


But if there’s a list of high-profile recognizable characters, Black Panther is indisputably on it. Though Thomas is a longtime reader of sci-fi and fantasy, she says she’s newer to the world of comics. “I wasn’t able to read comics regularly as a child. [It was], ‘Here’s your library card, go to the library.’” But, the author says, she is a fan of the character. In fact, she dressed up to attend the 2018 screening of Black Panther and even made it onto some news clips about the night. “They show me in my Wakanda outfit with a huge afro. I was ready for Wakanda,” Thomas says with a laugh. And anyone who’s read her work can attest that Thomas will be right at home in the Afrofuturism of Wakanda.


“When Chadwick Boseman passed, that was a big blow to everyone,” she continues, remembering the charismatic Black Panther star who passed away in August of this year. “I had to take a moment to kind of regroup from that. I think it had an effect on us. We were so hoping that he would be able to enjoy the book. So it put new passion into the writing to honor his amazing performance. He embodied the Black Panther.”

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Of course, writing for Marvel means digging into decades of history. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted the character of T’Challa in 1966. “When I was writing my story I had to do a lot of research,” Thomas says. “You’re not using the Marvel Universe; you’re using the canon. And of course, the new story threads that are being written out by Ta-Nehisi Coates and others.” (Note: Coates’ The Water Dancer was my favorite novel of 2019, and his ongoing run on Black Panther makes for some of the most exciting and challenging comics I’ve ever read.)


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“I’ve always been a big Marvel fan,” says Danian Darrell Jerry. “Not just Black Panther, but anything they’ve put out — X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Doctor Strange. So this is a great opportunity for me to get in there and tap into some of the things I imagined as a child. It’s a little surreal, but it’s fun.”


Jerry is a native Memphian with deep roots in the city’s creative scenes. He’s a hip-hop artist who works with the Iron Mic Coalition. “I’ve always been interested in reading and books and comics, but I’ve always been interested in the arts in general,” he says. What’s more, Jerry works here to help promote literacy and an appreciation for literature — from childhood on to adulthood.


He has his MFA from the University of Memphis, where he now works as an adjunct English instructor teaching composition and literature classes. “This last semester I got a chance to teach Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in my lit classes. [It was great] taking my literature class and adding a BIPOC focus and lens to it, examining hard questions on race relations in class, which was very productive.”


As founder of Neighborhood Heroes, a community outreach program, Jerry has used comic books as a tool to foster an appreciation of reading. Now he’s writing some of those same characters. “We use comics and fantasy to promote literacy to kids, teaching kids how to read through comics,” he says. “Last year, we threw an event on Mud Island, and it’s funny because we had ‘Black Panther’ come out and greet the kids and take pictures. We had cosplayers, and they loved it. Last year I was doing that, and this year I got the chance to actually write in the Black Panther book.”
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Friday, October 16, 2020

It's Here: Matt Bowers Signs Copies of Memphis No. 2

Posted By on Fri, Oct 16, 2020 at 1:00 PM

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Memphis-based comic book artist Matt Bowers released the debut issue of his Memphis comic last year on 901 Comics’ Bad Dog Comics publishing label. The series — written, illustrated, and lettered by Bowers — got off to a good start. But, as is often the case with independent ventures, fans found themselves waiting for the series’ second issue. That wait is over. Bowers and Bad Dog Comics released Memphis No. 2 Wednesday, October 14th.


The second issue of Bowers’ Bluff City-based series is an evolution. The art and character design is excellent, and the action is nicely balanced. Plus there's a fight between a woman who's shape-shifted to become a panda and a hulking android called a Warbot. What more could one ask for? Memphis owes much to alternative comics of the ’80s and ’90s (Love and Rockets, for example), but there are shades of more mainstream titles as well. Lady Omega looks a little like X-Men's Storm, and there's a resemblance between Memphis’ Pigeon and X-Men’s Archangel. Killjoy would have been right at home in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Overall, though, Bowers is making something new in Memphis, albeit with loving homages to other works.

Bowers will sign copies of Memphis No. 2 at 901 Comics Saturday, October 19th, beginning at noon. I spoke with him about the new issue, plotting ahead, and producing in a pandemic.


Memphis Flyer: As always, the art is incredible. Is it a challenge laying out pages, or does it just come naturally to you?

Matt Bowers: Both, actually. Some days it's a breeze and other days it's like I've never drawn before. The key is to do it anyway. You can always correct your mistakes later. But I lay out each issue all at once in very loose, rough thumbnails. Almost stick figures honestly. At that stage it's more about pacing and figuring out what's going to work, layout-wise.

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Who’s your favorite character to draw?

Probably Pigeon or China Monroe.

Working on a story that’s told in installments must have its own challenges. How far in advance do you have the story planned out?

I actually have the first 50 issues plotted out. As I complete each issue, I come up with new ideas and sometimes lose interest in others so I'm always updating. Issues No. 1 and 2 were originally meant to be just one issue, for example.

Gaps between publications are pretty standard for independent comics, but what would you say to the people who are used to the Netflix business model? You know, being able to binge a whole story in a night.

I sometimes save comics up and then read several issues at once. A lot of modern comics work better that way. Memphis No. 1 and 2 should work well if read back to back. No. 3 is a stand-alone issue, but there will always be ongoing subplots in every issue.

What’s it like creating during a pandemic?

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It was tough at first. I sheltered in place with my family back at the beginning for about three weeks. I feel I was shell shocked the first couple of days but then eventually realized that I needed to take advantage of being at home. So during the remaining time at home I was able to finish the pencils and inks for the next issue of Memphis, issue No. 3. Working on pages was definitely better for my mental well being than obsessing with what was happening with the pandemic.

Did you have plans to go to any conventions that had to be put on hold?

I was going to do MidTown Con in May, I think but that eventually got canceled. Bad Dog Comics had plans to attend Dragon Con as a group but that also couldn't happen.

You’re two issues into your partnership with Bad Dog Comics now. How is it working with Shannon Merritt?

Shannon is great, but I’m used to doing everything myself with the digital versions of my comics. It can sometimes be frustrating, but overall I am very happy with the process. Shannon and Gabe DeRanzo have done a lot for my comic that I couldn't have gotten done on my own.

Bowers will sign copies of Memphis No. 2 at 901 Comics Saturday, October 19th, beginning at noon. The comic is available at 901 Comics and will be available at the Memphis Made Brewing Taproom and Crosstown Brewery next week.

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Monday, September 28, 2020

Connor Towne O’Neill’s Down Along With That Devil’s Bones

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2020 at 3:55 PM

America is having a moment of cultural reckoning — with a violent, racist past that still influences the current day. Often, the images look not unlike scenes from a Memphis park in December 2017, when, after protests and vigils, a statue of Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed. In some ways, Memphis led the nation that night, as similar scenes have played out in many cities in 2020. Connor Towne O’Neill’s Down Along With That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy (Algonquin Books) works to examine similar moments of social judgment. O’Neill will discuss his new book at a virtual Reader Meet Writer event hosted by Novel. bookstore Tuesday, September 29th, at 4 p.m. But first, the author spoke with me about truth-telling, the myth and reality of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and white supremacy.


Memphis Flyer: Did you have any idea the book would come out at a time when it would be so relevant?

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Connor Towne O’Neill: No, I didn’t. Although, even though there have been a couple of these flash points throughout the course of reporting and writing this book — the Charleston nine murders that set off these protests, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and now the summer of toppling monuments in 2020. There have been these flash points in which it feels like it’s a very timely or topical book. But one of the things I realized while working on it is this is perpetual. The underlying tensions, the unresolved central questions of this country make for the fact that we’ll always have flash points like this. So no, I didn’t plan on it, but I’m not shocked it’s in the news again.


In researching your book, did you find any helpful strategies to get reluctant people to address racism and white supremacy?

Yeah, that’s the question, right? My approach was to seek out characters and have it have real people and real stories at the heart of it. It also needs to be more than that. Addressing these questions is more than just looking into the hearts of people and trying to decide if they’re racist or not. If we’re really going to address these questions, then we need to address them through policy. We have a 10:1 racial wealth gap in this country. You address that through policy, and that necessitates more than just statues coming down. It’s a really good start, and the stories that come out of protesting those statues and trying to remove them are incredibly important because it does reveal this underlying history. But it’s just a start.

We had a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue come down in Memphis in 2017. It’s definitely not enough, but I also feel that it has to be a positive that people aren’t walking by it and thinking it’s normal.

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I might have come off too glib there. Because I do think it is important, and I agree with what you’re saying; we do need to find a way to get on the same page, to have a shared common history. I think what’s happening in Memphis are important steps in that process. You know, the Forrest statue coming down, and soon after Calvary Episcopal Church in Downtown Memphis putting up a marker that tells the truth about Forrest’s role in this city and Forrest’s role in the slave trade. So I think that project of truth-telling that’s happening with Forrest and is also happening in Memphis with the Lynching Sites Project, that project of truth-telling and squaring to the darkest elements of our history I think is really important because it gets us on that same page. Because those policy measures don’t happen until we can come to that common understanding of what our past is and its consequences on our present.

Since you brought up truth-telling, can you talk about the myth of Forrest?

The myth of Forrest is that he was this cunning, shrewd cavalry tactician who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He’s both like an everyman and a superhero of the South. And yet he’s also a slave trader, an accused war criminal, the first Grand Wizard of the Klan, ran a convict-leasing program on President’s Island. And the people who revere him don’t talk about that stuff because the myth requires us to look at his life and the history of our country at the time through rose-tinted glasses that’s unwilling to acknowledge the theft and violence that propelled it.


This isn’t a question, but I don’t see how anyone can look past the slave trading and convict leasing. Statues aren’t just historical. You choose who you honor.

It can feel perplexing, but it’s how we’re encouraged to think about American history so often, even outside of the context of someone as infamous as Forrest. We just think of it as “one of those things.” The stories we tell ourselves of American progress and exceptionalism teach us that we are a great country and our founding on freedom and liberty distinguishes us in the world. And yeah we might have made some mistakes along the way, but we’re constantly evolving and it was just one of those things. The “it” being slavery. It wasn’t great, but we’ve worked past it. I think that unquestioning belief in the unimpeachable goodness of this country is what allows some of us to try to overlook some of the horrific parts of our history that Forrest is a part of.

Was it difficult for you to confront myths of America you’ve internalized? Even with research and study, you’ve grown up with these narratives, too, haven’t you?


Oh yeah, absolutely. Especially given my family’s history with deep ties to New England, coming over on the Mayflower, and having this really gauzy vision of what the origins of this country were. And that’s something that gets reinforced everywhere, not just school curriculums, but in public commemorations, holidays, political rhetoric. We’re swimming in it. It was only through the process of writing this book — and being around the past couple years when there has been a referendum on our history and our sense of our history — it’s only through that that I’ve come to see that our undoing was built into the founding of this country. Starting a settler-slaver society and trying to found a democracy on it was always going to lead to inequity and violence. But of course, when you’re myth-making, when you’re trying to create a national identity, that kind of stuff is convenient to leave out.


Do you have anything else you want to add?

The process of writing this book has been a process of squaring up to the darker aspects of American history and then being forced to connect that history and see its bearing and its consequences on our present. And I think that’s a process that a lot of people are coming to right now, and I hope that that resonates with readers.


Connor Towne O’Neill will discuss Down Along With That Devil’s Bones in a virtual event hosted by Novel. bookstore, Tuesday, September 29th, at 4 p.m.


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Thursday, September 24, 2020

J.W. Ocker’s Cursed Objects

Posted By on Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Memphis-based fans of the strange and unusual have to have a healthy interest in curses. Flyer film editor Chris McCoy’s documentary about the beloved alternative music club Antenna begins with drummer Ross Johnson stating, plainly, that Memphis is cursed. Then there’s the allegedly haunted Ernestine & Hazel’s, the ghost girl of the Orpheum, and that giant-sized yellow fever mural at the Pink Palace that’s so spooky it looks like a Swedish death-metal album cover. Not to mention the crystal skull of the pyramid.


To refresh, a crystal skull was reported to have been installed in the Pyramid, and that bit of wild rumor was actually true. It turns out that the skull was installed under the direction of Isaac Tigrett, cofounder of the Hard Rock Cafe, New Age fan and disciple of guru Sri Baba, and son of Pyramid guiding light and patron John Tigrett. Isaac said the skull was intended to be part of a promotion called “The Egyptian Time Capsule.” Weird, right? Well, yes, but also, unexplainably, so very Memphis.

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All this is a long way to say that when the kind folks at Quirk Books sent me a copy of Edgar Award-winning travel writer, novelist, and blogger J.W. Ocker’s new Cursed Objects, I was already primed to appreciate it.


Cursed Objects is broken into sections based on the location of the cursed object in question — in a museum, a private collection, or the world wide web (think chain emails). The chapters are titled things like “Lurking in Homes,” “Under Glass,” and “In the Graveyard”; and if that doesn’t get you ready for spooky season, what will?

“I hate to be the one to tell you this, but many seemingly innocuous objects will make your life suck,” Ocker writes in the book’s introduction. His tone throughout is one of the highlights — it’s what you might call “humorously journalistic.” Cursed Objects is well researched, but even the best-laid plans can fall apart with shoddy delivery. Luckily for the reader, that’s where the author shines. One gets the feeling that Ocker is sharing an inside joke — and marveling that people could be foolish enough to keep such a plainly cursed object in the home or workplace.


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Ocker’s subjects range from the Hope Diamond to the Basano Vase and the Ring of Silvianus — a Roman artifact believed to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The entry about the Black Aggie statue in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, Maryland, is especially chilling. “They say her eyes glow red at night and that if you look into them, you’ll go blind,” the author writes.

The extravagantly violent curses that grace the Björketoro Runestone, an Iron Age monolith in Sweden, are so vile they’re almost funny. The runestone is made even more interesting by the mystery surrounding it — no one knows quite what purpose it served or why it needed to be protected with such lavishly applied written curses. Was it a gravestone marking the grave of a proto-Viking? Or perhaps it was a cenotaph (a grave marker honoring someone whose remains are elsewhere), or a tribute to Odin. The only sure thing is that, superstitious or not, it probably isn’t worth the risk to mess with the thing.


The illustrations, rendered in a sickly sea green, tie the whole book together. They act as a kind of recurring visual motif, a complement to Ocker’s tone, that helps unite the disparate stories within Cursed Objects. The only question that remains is, who is courageous enough to brave the myriad scary (and true) stories within?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Comfortably Numb: Shira Shiloah’s Emergence

Posted By on Tue, Sep 15, 2020 at 9:00 AM

Israeli-born, Memphis-based author and anesthesiologist Dr. Shira Shiloah knows a thing or two about the world of medicine. She is, after all, a doctor. And as an anesthesiologist, much of her work is done in the operating room, where mistakes can be costly. So her debut medical thriller, Emergence, though fiction, hinges on very realistic and immediate stakes. Shiloah will celebrate the release of Emergence with a virtual event accessible via her author Facebook page at Shira Shiloah, MD. The virtual launch party is Tuesday, September 15th, 7:30-8 p.m.


“I never thought I would be a lifelong Memphian, but the city has been really good to me,” Shiloah says. Her family emigrated from Israel when she was three years old, and she’s spent much of her life since then in Memphis. "I went to grade school, high school [in Memphis], and I came back here for medical school.”

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Shiloah completed her residency at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she switched her focus from OBGYN to anesthesiology. “I liked the critical care aspect of it,” she says. “It’s pretty much all operating room.”


She says that her time in medical school and completing her residency were the only times in her life that she couldn’t make time to read for pleasure. “I didn’t know I was going to be a writer, but I was an avid reader. You know the kind of kid who would take books from the library and then finish the first book before they even got to the house? That was me.”

So how did Shiloah’s career as a writer get started? It all comes back to her medical career. “I was touched by a patient encounter and I felt like I had to write it down. It became a short story called ‘Liquid Courage,’ and I submitted it to a writing contest for physicians. And it actually placed third. I realized how much I enjoyed that whole process.” So Shiloah started attending writing conferences, soaking up trade talk from the experts. She also started pulling apart and reworking “Liquid Courage.” She gave the characters more depth and began to see that it would work as a novel. 


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With its motifs of the trustworthiness of doctors and whistleblowers, Emergence feels especially timely, though Shiloah wasn’t intending to comment on current events. Rather, she hoped to write a satisfying thriller with a strong female protagonist, to show off her adopted hometown of Memphis (where the novel is set), and to cast some light on the dynamics of the operating room. “I wanted to put out a perspective as a female physician and an anesthesiologist,” she says. “I don’t think an anesthesiologist’s story is told very often or very well. The surgeon’s not barking orders. The surgeon’s following orders because there’s a crisis.”


Of course, though its genesis is rooted in the seed of Shiloah’s experience, she says to remember that the best writing advice is to "look out to the window, not in a mirror.” Emergence, she says, is fiction, not autobiography. And except for their shared career and a certain similarity in the alliteration in their names, Shiloah and the fictional Dr. Roxanne Roth are very different. “As far as my colleagues and I, it’s a very good working relationship,” she says. “It’s a team.”

“You have to trust the person on the other side of the sterile sheets,” Shiloah says. And as for Emergence’s Dr. Roxanne Roth, well, “She’s encountering another surgeon that she can’t trust.”

Find out more about Emergence and Shira Shiloah at shirashiloahmd.com.

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Thursday, August 20, 2020

Mars Attracts: Marc Hartzman’s The Big Book of Mars

Posted By on Thu, Aug 20, 2020 at 2:30 PM

One of my earliest memories is of my dad sitting at the kitchen table in the weeks leading up to a Halloween, telling me about mass hysteria. He used to love talking about the famous Mercury Theatre on the Air’s radio adaptation — starring and directed by Orson Welles — of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. “People really flipped,” I remember him saying. “They actually thought Martians were invading.”


A year or two later, I stayed up all night reading The War of the Worlds for myself. I read until the sun rose because I was too afraid to go to sleep. (Cut me a break — I was like 8 years old.) All this is a long way to say that a few of my earliest memories as a fan of popular fiction involve Martians. The same is probably true for anyone who soaked up vintage sci-fi as a kid.

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But still, it wasn’t until I read Marc Hartzman’s new encyclopedic account of Mars in history and pop culture that I realized just how much our planet’s little red neighbor has infiltrated my consciousness. Marvin the Martian, Mars Attacks!, David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles — Mars is everywhere*, and Marc Hartzman’s The Big Book of Mars (Quirk Books) is a full catalogue of our encounters, in fact and fiction, with the red planet.


Subtitled From Ancient Egypt to The Martian, a Deep-Space Dive into Our Obsession with the Red Planet, Hartzman’s new book does make a case that humans’ interest with Mars surpasses that of any of our other planetary neighbors. But it’s only in the sheer volume of material collected in The Big Book of Mars that Hartzman makes his case. There’s no argument, rather just an overview of a collective fascination.

Though I immediately flipped to the “Mars Invades Pop Culture” section looking for (and finding) references to Bradbury and Bowie, Hartzman doesn’t neglect humanity’s real-world interactions with its neighbor. From early astronomy to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL), the Mariner and Viking missions, and the rovers spelling out “J-P-L” in the oxidized sand in Morse Code, The Big Book of Mars presents the history of Mars observation and exploration in easily digestible segments. It’s particularly delightful to read about our changing opinions about the possibility of life on Mars — and what that life might resemble.


In 1930, Hartzman writes, one journalist reporting for Popular Science Monthly hypothesized that Mars was populated by “herds of beaver-creatures.” He explained their halted evolution by saying, “There seems no reason to believe that Martian life has gone farther than that.” Earlier writers speculated Martian society would be far more advanced than anything yet seen on Earth. Then, of course, there are the theories that humans are actually descended from ancient refugees from a dying Mars. 


This is one book readers can judge by its cover. The Big Book of Mars sports a gorgeously painted, vintage pulp-inspired cover. A lone astronaut stands astride the cratered surface of the red planet as comets and stars shine in the background. The book hints at adventure, danger, and mysteries not yet imagined, let alone confronted, by Earth-bound humans. Especially in a year when I have hardly left my apartment, the promise of adventure and the unknown is particularly powerful.


Hartzman’s The Big Book of Mars is a wildly entertaining and comprehensive look at Earth’s obsession with its planetary neighbor. This book is recommended for NASA nerds, sci-fi devotees, and anyone feeling a little too cooped up at the moment.



* But wait, there’s more! Gustav Holtz’ “Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, the centaurs won’t shut up about Mars when Harry Potter first meets them in The Sorcerer’s Stone, everyone emigrates to Mars in Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time Slip, Doctor Manhattan moves to Mars after getting some bad news in Watchmen — I had never stopped to think about it, but Mars is almost omnipresent in pop culture.


Friday, July 10, 2020

Holly R. Whitfield’s Secret Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Jul 10, 2020 at 12:44 PM

Years ago, I worked on Beale Street, where I often had the chance to talk to tourists. It was a delight to talk to newcomers to the Bluff City, whether they were here to sample the blues and brews, the barbecue, to soak up the soul music history, study the civil rights, or if they were on a rock-and-roll pilgrimage. Sometimes, though, I’ll admit my enthusiasm for the full breadth of my hometown history would be stymied by a certain myopia in some tourists. They wouldn't want to leave Beale, or they’d be die-hard Sun fans who didn't see the point of checking out Stax — despite my cries of “It’s worth it for the Rufus Thomas connection alone!”

I would have loved to be able to direct those tourists to copies of Holly R. Whitfield’s Secret Memphis: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure (Reedy Press). Unfortunately for me at the time, Whitfield had not yet written her fantastic ode to the hidden gems of the Bluff City. Every tourist to Memphis should be handed a copy of Secret Memphis upon entering the city. It should be required reading as well for any local eager to reacquaint themselves with the mythos of Memphis.
Secret Memphis: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure
  • Secret Memphis: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure
Whitfield’s selections are excellent — local treasures both recognizable and off the beaten path, all drawn from sites scattered across town. And it’s no surprise. As a writer for the I Love Memphis Blog since 2013, Whitfield has had occasions to get to know the ins and outs of her adopted city.

Holly Whitfield
  • Holly Whitfield
She moved here at age 18 to attend the University of Memphis, and she says her status as a transplant helped give her perspective and fuel her curiosity. “I explored it myself, both through the eyes of Memphians and through my own eyes,” Whitfield says. “I think that set the tone for my constant curiosity about the city and my ability to be inspired by Memphians. I mean continuously, every day.” She goes on, giving her response to readers who ask if she ever gets tired of covering Memphis: “I could write about it all day, every day, and I could never tell all the stories.”

Whitfield has only deepened her perspective through her work, and it shows in her debut book. “I do talk to locals all day long, but I also talk to visitors and tourists all day long for my day job,” she says. “I’m talking to people from other countries, and they love, love, love Memphis, and they love it for reasons that locals are tired of hearing about.” So with Secret Memphis, Whitfield sought to split the difference, exploring the city’s hidden gems and trying to give a deeper or different understanding of its more well-known treasures.
Secret Memphis is something of a time capsule, as well. Whitfield strove to include up-to-date information on the town’s landmarks, such as the Johnny Cash statue in Cooper-Young and the Antenna marker on Madison Avenue — both brand-new when she was working on the book last year. “Those things were happening as I was writing,” she says. Another stop on the Secret Memphis itinerary, The Little Tea Shop, was honored with a documentary by Molly Wexler, which debuts tonight, July 10th, on WKNO-TV. Obviously, Whitfield has a clear grasp of the important historic and up-to-date sites in Memphis.

Whitfield’s book also celebrates the ethos of the Memphis hustle, the grit-n-grind spirit that seems so embedded in the city and its citizens. “It’s just sort of inherently a part of my understanding of the city and why I wanted to write a book like this to begin with,” she explains. From the entrepreneurial spirit of Royal Studios and Lucky Heart Cosmetics to the the DIY ethos of Altown Skate Park or the fabled Antenna alternative music club, the Memphis make-it-happen spirit is well represented. One of the author's favorite examples, she says, is the She Spoke Her Mind mural at the Cornelia Crenshaw Memorial Library on Vance.


“This is a woman who was a part of the sanitation workers strike,” Whitfield says of Cornelia Crenshaw. “But also she lived without utilities at her home for decades to protest what she thought was the unfair practices of MLGW. If we’re talking about people who are gritting and grinding, she’s one of them.” In Secret Memphis, Whitfield writes of Crenshaw, “It was she who, inspired by the words from her friend Robert Worsham’s poem, suggested the pointed yet simple slogan for [the Sanitation Workers’ Strike]: ‘I AM A MAN.’”

Withers Collection Museum & Gallery on Beale Street - HOLLY WHITFIELD
  • Holly Whitfield
  • Withers Collection Museum & Gallery on Beale Street

One of my personal favorite spots included in Secret Memphis is The Withers Collection & Museum, located at the quieter end of Beale Street. “People just don’t realize how important Memphians were to the civil rights movement,” Whitfield says, remarking on the wealth of photographs on display in the museum of photographer Ernest C. Withers’ work, from activist Fannie Lou Hamer proudly brandishing her voter registration card to a candid photo of Aretha Franklin holding hands with Sam Cooke. “You can go there and see it, and his family still manages the space. Whether it’s civil rights, Black sports history, [people have] seen these images their entire life but they didn’t know that they came from a Memphian.”


In the end, Secret Memphis ties together the sometimes seemingly disparate threads of Memphis history. After-hours bars, scenic trails, historic sites — it’s all one tapestry, one story, waiting to be celebrated and explored. And Whitfield’s Secret Memphis is a companionable and entertaining guide. 

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Best Non-Fiction of 2010s

Posted By on Tue, Jun 30, 2020 at 3:00 PM

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We’re normally treated to best-of lists during the holidays, or when most people are otherwise distracted from reading and deterred from contemplation. But quarantining and social-distancing provide the perfect setting to catch up on those must-reads. Here, then, is one journalism professor’s list of the best non-fiction books of the last 10 years. Many carry a strong social-justice message. All are powerful, page-turning narratives.

1. (2010) Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
Based on sources in nearly a dozen different languages, this jolting account of the murderous policies that decimated eastern Europe will broaden the way you think about World War II.

2. (2010) Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky
A definitive rebuttal to the Internet-is-bad crowd, Shirky makes a persuasive defense of the many virtues of social media.

3. (2010) The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddartha Mukherjee
Humanity’s long struggle to identify, treat, and vanquish cancer is told in this riveting medical history that is, at turns, scientific and philosophical alike. [Pulitzer Prize winner]

4. (2010) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
A snapshot in the history of cancer turns out to be a singular part of the scientific quest to understand and defeat it. But Skloot’s most powerful contribution is introducing readers to the unforgettable Lacks family.

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5. (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Alexander wasn’t the first person to explain the systematic exploitation of Black people in the post-civil rights era, but her influential book more than any other put the prison-industrial complex on trial and probably contributed the intellectual underpinnings of the Black Lives Matter movement.

6. (2011) The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
A book so beautiful, so lyrical even, that you will feel as though you’ve come to terms with something significant about American history, shared in the experience, and learned from it.

7. (2012) Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History by George Howe Colt
Equal parts memoir and history, this book tells fascinating stories about such families as the Booths, Kelloggs, van Goghs, and Marxes, often in ways that richly illuminate the more famous siblings.
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8. (2012) Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen
Maybe the best memoir in the last decade, Iversen’s arresting look at life in the shadow of a toxic waste site exposes the environmental predation rampant in our society.

9. (2012) The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Stiglitz catalogs the many policy choices in America that keep rich people rich and poor people poor.

10. (2013) Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
Piketty’s sweeping study of inequality shows that capitalism’s defects are both structural and political and thus inherently undemocratic unless checked.

11. (2013) Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser
The terrifying suspense in this book hearkens the film Chernobyl as it details how catastrophically a number of secret mishaps could have gone, including the accidental explosion in 1980 of a nuclear missile in central Arkansas. [Pulitzer Prize finalist]

12. (2014) In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
The harrowing story of the USS Jeannette’s ill-fated 1879 voyage to explore the Arctic Ocean and reach the North Pole.

13. (2014) Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
One of the smartest critics of the last quarter-century, the late Christopher Hitchens suffered no fools, even when he was diagnosed with cancer. His reflections on life and politics are characteristically fearless.

14. (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
The planet changes every day, most of it marked by loss of life, and Kolbert chronicles it compellingly, whether she’s traipsing through bat caves in New England or exploring Panama for golden frogs. [Pulitzer Prize winner]

15. (2015) American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic by John Temple
America’s opioid addiction isn’t an accident. It’s a seedy crime story borne of greed and lax government oversight.

16. (2015) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Heartbreaking journey through the looking-glass of race relations in America, as told in a letter to his son. [Pulitzer Prize finalist]
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17. (2015) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
A brisk and lively account of where we came from and how we got here.

18. (2016) Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer
Mayer’s investigation pulled up the rock to show the dirty money sloshing underneath.

19. (2016) Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Desmond’s stunning account of how fragile the American cycle of housing and homelessness is stems from his immersive journalism and a thoroughgoing but compassionate sociology. [Pulitzer Prize winner]

20. (2017) Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
This shocking detective story about the Osage in Oklahoma will haunt you, as few murder mysteries can, because of how it intersects with that unique horror of Americana — namely, its racism.

21. (2018) Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Blight manages to humanize this icon, with all his fears and flaws, while still conveying his charisma, intellect, idealism, and sheer bravery. [Pulitzer Prize winner]

22. (2018) Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking
A scary explanation of our online world, told with enough examples to give you pause every time you read an article or see a picture.

23. (2018) The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age by David E. Sanger
The cyber wars more commonly associated with science-fiction are demonstrated with chilling clarity in this frightening examination of our many digital vulnerabilities.

24. (2019) Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
This deeply reported history of The Troubles reveals all the irony, tragedy, and craziness that beset Northern Ireland, starting in the late 1960s. And it speaks volumes about the power of memory in every era.

25. (2019) She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Journalism procedurals aren’t as common as their police counterpart, but when they’re done well they’re just as exciting and, in this case, hugely consequential. All the President’s Men for the 21st century.

Joe Hayden is a professor of journalism at the University of Memphis.

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Friday, May 29, 2020

Your Quarantine Reading List, Part Two

Posted By on Fri, May 29, 2020 at 10:40 AM

Phase II of Memphis’ and Shelby County’s Back to Business reopening plan is underway, but things are still anything but business as usual for many Memphians and Mid-Southerners.

In one step toward normalcy, though, both of the Bluff City’s biggest indie bookstores have, with a set of well-thought-out guidelines, opened their doors to customers this week. Burke’s Book Store and Novel are allowing in-store shopping (and continuing curbside pickup for those who prefer it) with adherence to guidelines posted on their respective social media pages. Burke’s even shared this thoughtful, rhyming image to help customers remember the rules.

Burke's posted this message to its social media pages to help customers remember to practice social distancing while shopping. - BURKE'S BOOK STORE
  • Burke's Book Store
  • Burke's posted this message to its social media pages to help customers remember to practice social distancing while shopping.
So for those still on the lookout for safe, socially distanced activities, here are a few more Memphis-centric books to help while away the homebound hours. There’s popular fiction, mystery, history, fantasy, and even a comic book series.


Sheree Renée Thomas
  • Sheree Renée Thomas

Sheree Renée Thomas
Nine Bar Blues, 2020 (Fiction)
From publisher Third Man Records (that's right, Jack White’s record company) and two-time World Fantasy Award-winning author Sheree Renée Thomas, this short story collection explores music, myth, and history. Thomas’ prose is sure and lyrical; Nine Bar Blues reads like a prophetic warning or a song sung to beat the devil. Music is a recurring motif in the collection, making it the ideal starting point for Memphians eager to explore the literature of the New South.

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Eric Jerome Dickey
  • Eric Jerome Dickey

Eric Jerome Dickey
The Business of Lovers, 2020 (Fiction)
All things considered, maybe now is the perfect moment for a novel that takes human connection as its focus. “It’s a novel about family — the family you have and the family that you choose to have,” the author says. The Business of Lovers follows Brick Duquesne, fresh from a fight against cancer, an ailment he never revealed to his family. “It’s one of those things where people go through something but don’t know how to ask for help because they don’t want to disturb the lives of others,” Dickey explains. In a novel with former child stars, comedians, engineers, and a tangled web of relationships, Dickey’s characters search for agency and for ways to lift up the family they choose to love. Of course, as Dickey points out, perception is everything. “Anybody can smile and take a picture in front of a palm tree,” Dickey says. Of course, as the author points out, that photo can only hint at what’s going on beyond the edges of the frame.


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Claire Fullerton
Little Tea, 2020 (Fiction)

Little Tea is set in Memphis in two time periods — the narrative alternates between the present day and the ’80s. Fullerton’s fourth novel — the follow-up to 2018’s successful Mourning Dove — follows the narrator Celia Wakefield and hinges primarily on her friend Thelonia Winfrey, known also as Little T. It’s a novel about disparities, social norms and mores, about the slow march toward equality, but more than anything else, it is a novel about the deep-rooted friendships that bind our lives. “We’re all just comparing notes on life,” Fullerton says of herself and her fellow storytellers, whether they work in ink and paper, film frames, or song. And with four novels and a career in radio under her belt, Fullerton can boast her share of experience with storytelling. She worked in radio in Memphis for nearly a decade, logging time at WEGR-Rock-103, FM 100, WMC-79, WEVL, and WSMS. And that was before she made the move to a bigger stage in California. In other words, it’s a safe bet that the Memphis-born author knows how to tease out a good tale. And, as in so many things, Fuller says a good story needs subtlety. “A writer can’t come out, laying the cards on the table, and say ‘This is the point,’” Fullerton explains. “You’ve got to leave that to the reader.” Fullerton will be hosting a virtual book talk in partnership with Novel bookstore on Thursday, June 18th, at 6 p.m.

Claire Fullerton
  • Claire Fullerton

Chanelle Benz
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, 2017 (Fiction, Short Stories)
Chanelle Benz’s The Gone Dead was one of the best novels of 2019, and her debut short story collection is just as good, albeit in several bite-sized segments. The stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead take a tour through various genres — the story from which the collection takes its title is a Western — demonstrating the author’s nimble skill switching between styles.

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Tony Max
The Golden Silence and The Crimson Hand (Comics)

From the mad mastermind behind Memfamous Comics and No Regrets tattoo artist Tony Max, comes the two-part comics series The Golden Silence and The Crimson Hand. The books are all set in the same reality, in a walled-in Memphis 200 years from now. It's a world steeped in the history of alternative comics and pulp fiction — with disgraced former cops, barbarians at the gates, and crumbling society. Max just put the finishing touches on the final issue of The Crimson Hand, making now the perfect time to get caught up on Memphis’ premier dystopian comic book. The series is available online for free at tapas.io/rabideyemovement.

Arthur Flowers
Another Good Loving Blues, 1993 (Fiction)
This novel takes Beale Street as its setting, telling the tale of bluesman Lucas Bodeen and Melvira Dupree, the conjure woman he loves. It’s a story of love in the time of Jim Crow, of happiness and connection and myth and history.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Southern Book Club’s Guide Is More Than Guts, Gore, and Vampire Lore

Posted By on Tue, Apr 14, 2020 at 8:55 AM

Forgetting that stretch of time when Twilight and True Blood were in their heyday and vampire-themed anything sold faster than blood punch at a monster mash, there can be no better time to release a vampire novel than during a pandemic.


Vampires, in lore, have deep roots in plague. It’s no surprise that garlic, which boosts the immune system and can help cover the smell of sickness, wards off night-walking, bloodsucking fiends. And that whole blood thing, well, bodily fluids are certainly a vector for spreading disease. Which brings us to vampires’ oft-documented predilection for uninhibited sex with multiple partners, yet another way to spread disease.


So, after a manner of speaking, Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Quirk Books) could hardly be better timed. Though, maybe the New York-based, South Carolina-born author would have preferred his novel to come out at a time when book clubs could actually meet.

Grady Hendrix
  • Grady Hendrix

Every vampire novel worth its holy water must pay homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the brilliant epistolary novel that condensed the span of bloodsucker folklore into one tome. Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires does just that, while simultaneously making a case for itself as something notable in the horror genre.


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Set in a nice neighborhood in a South Carolina suburb in the ’90s, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires isn’t a typical tale of Transylvanian terror. Hendrix’s protagonist is Patricia Campbell, a youngish housewife whose hardworking psychiatrist husband is logging extra hours at work in an attempt to climb the ladder. Her kids are beginning to enter difficult ages, and her mother-in-law lives with them. Her care falls mainly to Patricia, at least until Patricia hires a part-time caretaker, Mrs. Greene. Patricia’s world is focused largely on her family and her community. She’s got a mile-long to-do list and very little in the way of diversion. Except her book club.


They meet once a month to discuss grisly paperback true crime accounts. It’s a rare source of excitement for Patricia, who carries her family and is, for the most part, taken for granted by them. Then James Harris moves to town, and everything gets really interesting, really quickly.

Grady Hendrix
  • Grady Hendrix

Hendrix’s new novel underlines the disenfranchised in society by giving them first contact with the Old Village’s vampire — and then making sure no one with any power believes their warnings. James Harris takes his victims primarily from the low-income, majority-African-American part of town, and every year, when a young black child disappears, it’s chalked up to parental neglect or drugs and then shrugged off by most of the town’s blissfully ignorant inhabitants. 


Hendrix, author of My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör, has a firm grasp on — and he deftly exploits — the narrow band of believable reality that most adults inhabit. When Miss Mary “mistakes” James Harris for Hoyte Pickens, it’s attributed to a lapse in an old woman’s memory. Similarly, the kids couldn’t have seen a man on the roof; they imagined it, spurred on by the wind, nightmares, a copy of Salem’s Lot open on the nightstand.


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The best example of this, though, is the book club itself. When Patricia and her fellow members, housewives all, suggest that there may be something strange about the stranger in town, their concerns are waved off as the imaginings of flighty women, the result of a mixture of boredom and the lurid books they read. There is some genius in Hendrix’s setting in this. The novel takes place between the women’s lib movement and #MeToo, between the civil rights struggle and the era of Black Lives Matter. And so much inequality in the novel is glossed over by a combination of manners, mind-your-business mentality, and a studied refusal to acknowledge obvious problems. Most of the people in the novel believe that inequality has been erased; they know society works for everyone because it works for them. It’s an excellent setup for a horror novel, where the ability to see past the status quo can mean the difference between life and death.


But Patricia is a little unconventional. She’s as guilty as the next Old Villager of taking her privileges for granted, but she’s willing to challenge herself and she’s got heart. “A woman had died. She needed to take something by the house. Grace was right: it made no sense, but sometimes you did a thing because that was just what you did, not because it was sensible.”


Hendrix excels at producing horror novels with a surfeit of humor and heart. That’s not to say there’s not plenty of creepiness in the pages of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, but there’s more to the novel than guts and gore and vampire lore. Hendrix’ new novel is sharp, clever and creepy in just the right ratio. All in all, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is a delicious morsel for any fan of the genre to sink their fangs into.

More information about The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires at gradyhendrix.com.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Your Quarantine Reading List

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2020 at 12:01 PM

Since we’ll all be socially distancing and sheltering in place for a while, we thought we would put together this Memphis-centric reading list. This list is by no means comprehensive. Depending on how long we’re on lockdown, there may just be time to do a series. And with all the storytelling talent in Memphis and the nearby Mississippi Delta, it would be a long time before we ran out of books to write about or had to use two books from the same author. There are some classics included, of course, but we’ve also made a point to include a little something for everyone. There’s popular fiction, mystery, history, grit-lit, young adult, fantasy, absurdism, and an essay collection.
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Memphis


Chanelle Benz
  • Chanelle Benz
Chanelle Benz
The Gone Dead, 2019 (Fiction, Mystery)
When I accepted this assignment, it was with the understanding that I would, once again, rave about The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz. The book has everything one could want from a rural noir — mystery, murder, coverups, family intrigue, a dog, and a deeply timely meditation on memory and legacy. “I got interested in the things that we think that we remember and whatever that truth might be and the space between the two,” Benz told me back in 2019. “Our memories are reconfigured based on the story that we're telling ourselves about ourselves, our own mythology.” Read it. You can thank me later.

Shelby Foote
The Civil War: A Narrative, 1958-1974 (Nonfiction, History)
This one’s a classic. In this series of three hefty tomes, Foote creates the definitive guide to the Civil War.


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Daniel Connolly

The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America, 2016 (Nonfiction, Sociology)
This book won first place for the Best Political/Current Affairs Book in the International Latino Book Awards 2017, and it was listed as one of Southern Living's Best Books of 2016.

Robert Gordon
Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown, 2018
(Nonfiction, Music)
Memphis is weird, and Robert Gordon gets it. This collection encompasses the vast breadth of the myriad of musical moments for which Memphis (and the Delta) is known. From raucous parties at bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint to Jeff Buckley hitchhiking in the rain, from Tav Falco’s Panther Burns to Cat Power, Memphis Rent Party embraces the many sounds of Memphis.

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Alice Bolin

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, 2018 (Nonfiction, Essays/Criticism)
Dead girls were having a moment in American fiction. The runaway success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girls is just one example of America’s weird obsession with dead girls.


Richard J. Alley
Five Night Stand, 2015 (Fiction)
Three seemingly disparate characters come together, drawn by the power of music. This book by former Memphis magazine contributor Richard Alley has jazz, journalism, estranged families, regret, secrets, and a search for meaning.


Michael Williams and Richard Cahan

Revolution in Black and White: Photographs of the Civil Rights Era by Ernest C. Withers, 2019 (Nonfiction, Biography)
This meticulously researched biography-meets-photo-collection is a mesmerizing look into the life of photographer Ernest C. Withers. Though the writers are Chicago-based, their subject, Ernest C. Withers, was a Memphian, and his photographs make up a good deal of the book.

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Preston Lauterbach

Bluff City: The Pictures Tell the Story, 2019 (Nonfiction, Biography)
In this biography, author Preston Lauterbach gives a reasoned examination of the complicated legacy of Ernest C. Withers — photographer, chronicler of the civil rights movement, and FBI informant.


Kaitlin Sage Patterson
The Diminished, 2018 (Young Adult, Fantasy)
New rule: No one can be judged for seeking a little escapist entertainment while hunkered down and self-isolating during a global pandemic. Actually, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, and, much as I love a well-researched history or a weighty work of literature, I have a mile-wide soft spot for good genre fiction. And if you’re hooked and need more, The Exalted, the sequel to The Diminished, was released last year.


Barry Wolverton and Dave Stevenson
Vanishing Island, 2015 (Middle Grade, Adventure)
In the first book in The Chronicles of the Black Tulip series, 12-year-old Bren gets more than he bargained for when he runs away to adventure on the sea. He’s stuck cleaning the vomitorium — at least, until a strange sailor gives him a curious coin.


Corey Mesler
Camel’s Bastard Son, 2020 (Fiction)
Absurdist, time-traveling love story from Memphis-based novelist, poet, and owner of Burke’s Book Store, Corey Mesler.

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Various authors
Memphis Noir, 2015 (Mystery)
Uncertainty seems to be the new normal, so why not double down with this hardboiled collection of Memphis mystery fiction?

The Delta

Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing 2017 (Fiction)
This is one of the best books published in recent memory. For Southern readers who missed this novel when it took the literary world by storm, can there be a better time to catch up?


Eudora Welty
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1980 (Fiction)
Everyone should own this collection of short stories. End of story.


Donna Tartt
The Secret History, 1992 (Fiction)
Scandal, youth, friendship, murder. Donna Tartt’s first novel is set in New England, but she’s a Mississipian, so we’ll claim her for the Delta. The Secret History tells the tale of six close-knit college students — and one murder.


Larry Brown
Dirty Work, 1988 (Fiction)
Two men — one black, one white — share stories from their adjacent beds in a VA hospital. Both men were born and raised in Mississippi, and both fought in Vietnam.

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Katy Simpson Smith
The Everlasting, 2020 (Fiction)
Why not trip the light fantastic through a four-part, epoch-spanning story set in Rome? Smith explores the primordial power of love and faith through the shifting lens of history. And, as Smith told me in a recent phone interview, “Looking at the world in terms of 2,000-year chunks of time instead of two-week chunks of time is maybe a healthy way to approach this current crisis, too.”


William Faulkner
The Reivers, 1962 (Fiction)
Some Faulkner fans discount his final novel because it eschews the complicated structures he’s famed for in favor of a more straightforward narrative. But this story of Mississippi country boys stealing the first car in Yoknapatawpha County to drive to Memphis is right up there with Absalom, Absalom! for me.

Lee Durkee
The Last Taxi Driver, 2020 (Fiction)
Absurd. Hilarious. Brutally honest.

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Ace Atkins
The Ranger, 2011 (Mystery)
Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson novels have achieved verified page-turner status. Former Army Ranger Quinn Colson returns home — only to have to clean up Tibbehah County.

You can find these books (and others) at local bookstores Novel and Burke’s Book Store. The Ask Vance Collection is available here.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Pandemic Poetry: Kim Vodicka’s The Elvis Machine

Posted By on Mon, Mar 30, 2020 at 2:19 PM

Kim Vodicka is a poet with a penchant for the provocative, but even she won’t risk tangling with the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Though she was gearing up for a busy spring to promote her new poetry collection, The Elvis Machine (Clash Books), Vodicka read the signs correctly and changed her plans.


Vodicka, author of 2018’s Psychic Privates, was one of the first of a slew of Memphis writers, artists, and musicians to change travel and promotion plans when she canceled a stop at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in San Antonio, Texas. The conference was held on March 4th-7th, and though some events were canceled, it went ahead as planned — just before concern over the coronavirus meant a slew of cancelations, closures, and postponements across the country.

Kim Vodicka - KIM MCCARTHY
  • Kim McCarthy
  • Kim Vodicka

“I was aware of news about the virus even though it really hadn’t hit most of North America yet,” she says. “But by no means did I understand the gravity of it. The Monday before we were supposed to leave, AWP had an emergency meeting about plans.” Vodicka says the announcement of an emergency meeting kicked off “an entire day’s worth of tremendous confusion."


“At that point, to my surprise, a lot of people were saying to go ahead and go but just take precautions,” Vodicka says. “It wasn’t sitting well with me so I decided not to go.”


The next week, coronavirus got very real for people, as schools began closing or extending their spring breaks, and businesses were forced to adapt in real-time.

“I was scheduled to go to the New Orleans Poetry Festival to be on a panel,” Vodicka says, adding that she had been looking forward to participating in the panel discussion about witchcraft in poetry. Vodicka says that while she does not practice traditional magic per se, the act of creation and all art-making have roots in magic. She is also scheduled to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which has been postponed in light of the global pandemic.


“Fortunately I had not planned a full-on tour,” the writer muses. “I do have some events scheduled for May and June that have not been canceled yet, but we shall see.”

Vodicka’s tours are part poetry reading and part performance art, where she is often accompanied by a musician live-composing music to her readings. For a poetry reading, they are never short on spectacle — exactly what one would expect from a poet who sums up her work by saying, “The lines are zingers, and truth bombs are atomic.”

The Elvis Machine - BOOK COVER ART AND DESIGN BY JOEL AMAT GÜELL
  • Book cover art and design by Joel Amat Güell
  • The Elvis Machine


“All of Memphis is a Heartbreak Hotel,” Vodicka says to describe The Elvis Machine, which she started writing shortly after moving to Memphis from Louisiana in 2016. She finished the collection in 2018, and it was submitted for publication in 2019.


“The official release date is July 7th, but the preorders ship in May,” Vodicka says, adding that pre-publication events, especially in the small press world, are of vital importance for a book’s success. Still, even though The Elvis Machine has been four years in the making and Vodicka is working to adapt to a coronavirus-shaped wrench in the works, she isn’t exactly checking into the Heartbreak Hotel over delays caused by pandemic panic. “I haven’t been moping about this or trying to make this all about me because I’m more concerned about humanity and society crumbling.” She promises that, though the collection promises not to skirt past the dirty or grisly aspects of relationships, “no names are named.”


Kim Vodicka’s new collection The Elvis Machine is scheduled to be released via Clash Books on July 7, 2020, and readers can preorder copies at this link. Stay up to date with Vodicka at kimvodicka.com.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Calico Series Debuts with That We May Live: Speculative Works of Chinese Fiction

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2020 at 2:30 PM

That We May Live
  • That We May Live

On March 10th, with the publication of That We May Live: Speculative Works of Chinese Fiction, Two Lines Press will debut the Calico Series, artfully reproduced collections of translated works of literature. The inaugural collection gathers seven short works of speculative Chinese fiction. Plastic surgery, surveillance, intoxicating fermented “tea,” and buildings that shuffle themselves around on their own accord fill the pages of the debut.

The collection begins, in Dorothy Tse’s “Sour Meat,” with a speeding train, squealing metal on metal, and a woman identified only as F starting awake, immediately establishing several of That We May Live’s motifs — the juxtaposition of human-made with natural phenomena, and the permeable barrier between the absurd or dreamlike and reality. Tse’s “Sour Meat,” translated by Natascha Bruce, reads like a fever dream of a fairy tale. That danger lurks in F’s future is certain, but the rules for how to skirt it are less clear. Why should a young woman’s trip to visit her grandmother be so fraught and frightening? What secret inner life is awakened at the taste of the grandmother’s fermented “tea”? And who are the strange sorority of women obsessed with — addicted to? — the mysterious beverage? The 26-page story deftly juggles dreamlike passages with hints of generational trauma, giving just the barest hints, wafting like steam from potent tea.

Dorothy Tse - COURTESY TWO LINES PRESS
  • Courtesy Two Lines Press
  • Dorothy Tse

Enoch Tam’s work is represented twice, and his first offering, “Auntie Han’s Modern Life,” deals with issues of urbanization, displacement, and the uneven symbiosis between modern/urban and traditional/rural areas. “Auntie Han knew the houses had been in low spirits for a while,” Tam writes. “Some were even depressed enough that they stopped moving altogether. The others did everything they could to remind their moribund companions of all the times they’d worked together to thwart the humans and how satisfying it had felt to be constantly mobile. But the sad, silent houses remained sad and silent.”

That the stories in That We May Live resonate with the gravity of fairy tales and mythology is a credit to all parties involved — the writers, translators, and editors all did excellent work. Every short story should strive for high stakes and economical, poetic use of language, but not every short story collection hits that mark with the consistency and accuracy of the selections represented here. Each offering adds a layer, deepening the resonance of the themes explored in the collection.

Natascha Bruce - COURTESY TWO LINES PRESS
  • Courtesy Two Lines Press
  • Natascha Bruce

“After the elephant vanished, my life fell into chaos,” writes Hong Kong-born Chan Chi Wa, translated by Audrey Heijins, in “The Elephant.” In a sentence that could be applied to any story in the collection, Wa continues, “I wondered if I was hallucinating — the scene in front of me must have been an illusion, a misconception, a mirage in broad daylight.” A mirage in broad daylight, indeed, is often what the reader is left contemplating. But these mirages tempt the reader onward — searching for meaning or just another beautiful, dangerous, dreamlike image.

Enoch Tam - COURTESY TWO LINES PRESS
  • Courtesy Two Lines Press
  • Enoch Tam
“It was the garden-keepers who ruined the mushrooms,” Tam writes in his second contribution to That We May Live, a story that also focuses on geography and gentrification. “When the residents opened their front doors the morning after the storm, they’d find their street completely transformed, a seafood restaurant suddenly where a convenience store used to be, a stationary store now replaced by a comic book shop.” Though, if anything, “The Mushroom Houses Proliferated in District M” is even more bizarre than “Auntie Han’s Modern Life.” Tam’s ability to transform a short story about gentrification into a hallucinogenic fable populated by house-sized mushrooms serves to prove his masterful handling of the craft. Tam has earned his double-inclusion in That We May Live.
Like the best fiction, these stories hold a mirror to the world and ask searching questions. In That We May Live, people are displaced — by changing trends, government, geography, younger rivals, and the forward march of time. It offers a vision of a world of extremes, a world of never-ending rain and skin-cracking drought, where characters slip between reality and illusion. The stories are sometimes cryptic, sometimes shockingly and starkly exposed. In That We May Live, the news can be an aphrodisiac and the houses move on their own. 

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