Square Books, Oxford, MS: The Past That is Not Past


Square Books is one of the big, legendary American bookstores. It's not because it's all that old – it was established in 1979 – but, rather, for the southern literati who've made it their second home. Writers such as: Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown and so many others native to – or adopted into – Oxford, MS. It had the name, the reputation, the staid, respectable dignity of an elderly Confederate widow, though a relative upstart in the big scheme of things.

It's also a very big part of the reason I was so anxious to attend Booktopia 2012 in Oxford, to finally walk into the place I'd heard so much about. I'd read about the store, purchased signed first editions of some of the South's most respected writers through them, but never had I actually visited. And reader, I positive itched to. Debilitating arthritis pain or no, I would get to Square books.




The last time I was in Oxford, long ago, before my oldest brother died (he'd come to Mississippi along with us that time, to visit our grandmother), I didn't even know of the place. I feel almost ashamed admitting that but pre-internet there are an awful lot of things I didn't know. Faulkner's home was pulling at my heartstrings then (as it did again, this visit). That, and knowing John Grisham lived there, though I'd never been a fan. If I'd have known of Square Books I'd have surely clamored to go there, though a  certain husband would have had to be dragged over the threshold – not so much kicking and screaming as glaring and grumbling.




Even now he will not fathom the whys and hows of my attraction to this place I'd never been. Because I'd dreamed of it, fairly yearned for it. It holds the presence of writers who stop there still, as well as the ghost print of those who've been and gone. It isn't that it's just a bookstore, just any bookstore, and it's not that I'm fully reconciled to the pull of my southern heritage, my alternating pride at what it's produced and shame at its transgressions.




It's the books, the heritage. The language, the poetry of it all. The gothic and the stereotypical humor. It must be separated from the poverty and ignorance.


“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.

Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”

– William Faulkner


And why choose a bookstore as one of the strongest holds the South has on me? Because it's here that the truth lies, where the artistically gifted still abide, those unafraid to tell the stories I know but can't express so well.



It may be difficult to understand how I manage to identify so strongly with my roots, the area of my origin, when I no longer have a relationship with my parents and extended family – some of whom still live there. The truth is, the South gets into you. It exerts a strong internal pull, for whatever reason it also has the power to churn out literary greatness in an area devoid of educational opportunities and full of almost stubbornly proud ignorance, to a native it's nearly impossible to turn your back on it forever. Even if you aren't there, it's in you. Something's in there, some beautiful ugliness with terrific strength, whispering you have to come home. And it isn't now what it was, seeing it through adult eyes. So Thomas Wolfe was correct.


“I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.”

– William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying


It's like the kudzu, the non-native plant introduced in the South in an attempt to control erosion. The plant that crept along, clutching its tendrils into the land, the trees, the houses, any structure in its path. It wraps itself around its host, clamping roots into its guts, living off what it can suck out, and will smother anything without the prescience to cut each little thread and strain away further than it can reach.



Which, if you're native southern, is very far away, indeed.

But, fortunately, just as it has the ability to choke, so can it uplift. If the past is forgiven but never forgotten, it can be distilled down to show the beauty, laying the ugly to rest.


“…I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

– William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury


Go on and wonder.


“You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”

– William Faulkner

Sunday Salon: March 18, 2012




A big part of me wants to use today's platform to go on a tirade against all the callous people I've dealt with over the past few weeks  but what good would that really do. Eveyone falls into the Deep Pit at one time or other and the fact I live on a ledge far enough down I can barely see a pinpoint of light puts me in a category with loads of other people, therefore unexceptional. It's cool and damp here, like a cave, so could be worse. I hate the heat, and sometimes the sun, so maybe it's here I'm best suited. Dare to poke your head out, expecting others to be compassionate despite the fact I've developed the huge, freakish eyes of those who dwell in the dark, and you'll be used as a stepping-stone for the "above" people who are bigger, therefore better, than you. If you're one of these people, you'll know who you are from the bit of sting you feel, the acknowledgement of your shame. Ah, but that's assuming you have a conscience.

And that's how my life life's been going. Enigmatic, maybe, but a shot back over the bow to a few people who more than deserve it and are fortunate I haven't named them. A pox on you and I will not let you ruin this week as well.

Now, let's talk about books.

First off, the Frank Delaney interview. God that went well! I did a good enough job picking the questions, he blew me away with his answers. It's of course up here on Bluestalking, as well as in the Chicago Tribune Local edition. Hoping Library Journal will pick it up, too. I review for them and have asked pretty please. It may be upcoming.

Funny aside that made that in some ways embarrassing debacle (trust me) a bit less painful, I received an email from a publicist/marketing person re: Mr. Delaney's answer to my question about technology and what impact it will have on book publishing. He went into his feelings on book blogs and how much he loves them. She sent me a note, along with a ton of other bloggers I'm sure, praising him for his stance on literary bloggers. From  my own interview, of course, without her realizing it! Made me laugh. Flattering, too, of course, as she enjoyed the interview.

I'm planning to post separately re: the recently announced Orange Prize Longlist, so I'm not ignoring that but just delaying it a bit. Building the suspense and all that, right?




Received this review copy out of the blue and they couldn't have picked a more willing blogger. I've long struggled with my complete lack of religious belief, though positive views on some things about religion/associated with religious belief, only no one's yet written anything I've found helpful on the topic. Most spew venom (SEE: Hitchens, Christopher – may he rest in peace) or, on the other side, make me want to put my finger down my throat and vomit. But Alain De Boton is, so far, hitting this particular nail right on its very  head. Loving it. He writes so well. I really do enjoy his work.



Another funny coincidence, I'm an advisor to a nonfiction publishing house and the latest author pitch they sent me for evaluation was so similar to De Boton's book it could have been its companion. I really hope they accept it for publication. It's a book I think is sorely needed in this literary genre that's been nothing but abused by those with a slanted agenda.

Still working on The Last Storyteller. A bit hard reading this after the aforementioned negative experience interviewing him (not him, personally, but…) but the beauty of it… Swoon-worthy. Sorry to sound like a broken record but no other nationality writes so well as the Irish. Except the gems of the U.S. South, and many of those authors' ancestors hailed from Ireland. Scotland, as well. And England. But, so far as I can tell yet, mostly Ireland, as did parts of my own family. I had two red-haired, blue-eyed grandfathers of Irish extraction, whose genes somehow hopped over all my other exclusively brown-haired and eyed relations to settle upon me. Statistically improbable but my blue-eyed, auburn-haired daughter is mightily grateful.

Further on genetics, it's my belief one reason the literature of the American South is so astounding owes itself to Irish immigrants settling there. When that light bulb went on I thought, "I am so original! I shall write a book!" #Turns out I'm not the sole soul to have noticed this connection, not that this means another book – from a different viewpoint – would be amiss. I simply wouldn't have the time, despite the inclination. A scholarly paper, perhaps? A long article? I think I have a few hours free in late 2018. I'll throw it in the pot, where a nice stew's already bubbling away.




And I'm not quite sure what to make of this:


A Rap Tribute to James Joyce by Frank Delaney


Otherwise, reading away for review, book clubs I've been asked to run online, prize candidates and a shameful amount of library books I checked out because a review comes under my  nose and I can't NOT pounce.

Especially dangerous are all those lovely literature blogs listing outstanding books read recently. If they're short I tell myself, "Surely I can fit in this ONE!" Trouble is, it's never just one.

Here's one:




Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith



"After Alison Temple discovers that her husband is cheating on her, she does what any jilted woman would do—she spray paints a nasty message for him on her wedding dress and takes a job with the detective firm that found him out. Being a researcher at the all-female Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation in London is certainly a change of pace from her previous life, especially considering the characters Alison meets in the line of duty. There is her boss, the estimable Mrs. Fitzgerald; Taron, Alison’s eccentric best friend, who claims her mother is a witch; Jeff, her love-struck, poetry-writing neighbor; and last, but not least, her psychic postman.

Clever, quirky, and infused with just a hint of magic, Alison Wonderland is a literary novel about a memorable heroine coping with the everyday complexities of modern life."

I thought you'd agree.





Spurious by Lars Iyer



"A tiny marvel of comically repetitive gloomery…. [A] wonderfully monstrous creation."  
Steven Poole, The Guardian

"Viciously funny."
San Francisco Chronicle

"What could be more fun than laughing at intellectuals? This, Lars Iyer's first book, sprang from his blog, Spurious, which sprang from his career as a philosophy lecturer at Newcastle University. I'm still laughing, and it's days later. But who, exactly, am I laughing at?"
—The Los Angeles Times

"Ought to be unreadable, but manages to be intelligent, wildly entertaining, and unexpectedly moving instead."
The Millions




# How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature by  James Cantrell

Carson McCullers




"Our pride must be strong, for we know the value of the human mind and soul. We must teach our children. We must sacrifice so that they may earn the dignity of study and wisdom. For the time will come. The time will come when the riches in us will not be held in scorn and contempt. The time will come when we will be allowed to serve. When we will labor and our labor will not be wasted. And our mission is to await this time with strength and faith."

– The Heart is a Lonely Hunter


Finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a few days ago. Have you read it? What a gut wrencher. It starts out so deceptively simple but as it progresses so does the complexity.

One of the main characters is John Singer, a Christ-like deaf-mute everyone in this small, southern town instinctively trusts, without quite understanding why. They're drawn to him by a force stronger than themselves. Though he can't hear, he can read lips and perhaps that's why they trust their secrets will go no further. It's comparable to praying to an almighty figure, one assumed to be listening with undivided attention, never giving a direct, verbal answer but absolving all. But who is he, save a man willing to sit still as long as they need to vent? And what relieves their minds, aside from expressing their pain?

What the other characters reveal about themselves is their sadness, heartbreak and desperate yearning for the one thing that's their passion. They feel free to express themselves without reservation, pouring out the most intimate of details, all because something in his eyes is almost hypnotizing, how he gazes with absolute compassion. Like gazing into a mirror reflecting another mirror into infinity, his eyes see into their souls.

John Singer lives in a boarding house owned by the family of a young, budding adolescent tom boyish girl named  Mick Kelly. Passionately moved by  music, Mick hopes to become a famous composer, brushing off the dirt of this small Georgia town, moving away to New York – mecca of opportunity for dreamers. She comes to sit in Mr. Singer's room, perched on a chair next to his radio with her ear to the speaker, absorbing symponies into her soul.


"This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt."


Another character, Biff Brannon, is the proprietor of the New York Café. Brannon is a sort of enigma. Married to a shrew, he's manipulated by her will, considering small things like holding onto 20 years-worth of old papers, documenting the history of this small town, as brave rebellion. Like John Singer he stands back and sees all. Unlike Singer others find him an isolating person.

His feelings about Mick baffle me, though. He treads the line between a possibly carnal lust and the desire to be a fatherly figure to her, his thoughts discomfiting. There's a sense, though, that he legitimately cares for her deeply. Honestly, I can't say what's behind his character. He's complex and I couldn't get to the heart of him.

Then there's Jake Blount, a drunkard who wanders into town one day and just never leaves. Obnoxious and abrasive, at heart he's possessed by politics, or the theory behind politics. In curious opposition to another character, Benedict Mady Copeland – an African American doctor dying of a tuberculosis-like disease – the two approach each other like boxers in the ring, carefully circling. Though some of their beliefs seem compatible, neither can stand the other.

Copeland's dream is to advance the lives of black people, to grab what he thinks rightfully theirs, shaking off oppression. His great sorrow is his children. Named after rebellious figures such as Karl Marx, his intense insistence they take up his cause drives them away. He feels they're failures and they know his disappointment. But no matter how he tries he cannot hold off lecturing whenever he sees them, driving the wedge more and more deeply though his love for them is limitless.

The only character John Singer himself feels deeply about is another deaf-mute, Spiros Antonapoulos, his roommate and closest companion early in the book. The other man loses his sanity, following an unnamed illness, carted off to an asylum by his cousin, where he remains for the rest of the novel.

Why the deep kinship formed between Singer and the less-enamored Antonapoulos puzzles me. The shared disability and life on the outskirts of society could certainly act to pull them together but Antonapoulos is a grasping character, described as obese, oily and smelly. McCullers makes him as unlikeable as possible, yet Singer never loses his deep love for his "friend," even when Antonapoulos's mind slips away, becoming completely self-involved and oblivious to his friend's generosity and the purity of his love. Though John Singer is kind and welcoming to everyone who crosses his threshold, it's as if his life is dependent upon Spiros, the one person who cares least about him. The one person he's unable to save.

As a whole, the book is a treasure, a masterpiece. I could read it over and over and still not unravel  all the nuances. What makes it more impressive is this was McCullers's first novel, written at age 23 and now ranked by the Modern Library as one of the Top 100 Books of the 20th Century.

Clearly, the author's own passion was writing her heart out in the short time she had, dying at 50 after a life plagued by illness. And this book, the only of her novels I've yet read, has waltzed itself into one of my favorite books of all time.

For more on the author:

Carson McCullers Project


"I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen."

– Carson McCullers

Bleak House, Various and sundry.

My hands were itching to talk books with you all week but my wishes were thwarted due to a Typepad glitch. Seems the goodly blogging platform had quite a taste for all things Bluestalking. Not only would it not let me save new posts, it ate the last two I wrote as well and of course I hadn't backed them up because nothing like this has happened in forever. And I hope it had galloping indigestion to match my level of irritation.

Appealing to them via Twitter did me no good, a tactic that's served me well in the resolution of other consumer complaints, most recently in the replacement of a brand new sofa with a mangled underside. If there's one thing you never want it's a mangled underside and I was certainly having no part of that, especially when it's literally just been brought through the door. The store refused to replace it, offering instead to "fix" it. Unacceptable. Telling over a thousand followers of my woes got immediate attention. The store tweeted me within minutes and I had a phone call to schedule a re-delivery/switch the next business day. Now that is customer service, even if I had to lean on them to get it. Let them push me around? I think not.

That explains, in more detail than you needed, my relative internet silence over the past few days. But today I'm having another go, cautiously optimistic my computer won't blow up or my underside become mangled. If it does, I'm relying on all of you to Tweet it to the world.


In Progress:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Yes, yes I was supposed to have finished it for last Wednesday's book discussion but that didn't happen. It was nearly impossible reading Dickens at the galumphing pace required, but luck was with me and no one else save our brave facilitator had finished, either. In fact, I'd gotten the furthest of us all, save the one person who finished but was unable to attend. Victory! Well, of sorts.

Consensus was the book was very, very long. A wise conclusion considering how much paper is between the covers. As to the story itself, opinion was a bit more mixed. Keeping all gazillion characters and plotlines straight proved a difficulty not worth the effort for some, roughly half I would say. One gentleman, after reading only the first few pages, saw fit to pick up the Cliff Notes instead, eschewing the original for the shortcut. What's discouraging is he seemed to have as good a grip on things as I did, having finished roughly 85%. Then again, he wasn't obliged to read the vast quantity of words with which I grappled. So there.



We spent an awful lot of time asking each other, "What was the name of the _____ family's friend's servant?" and trying to untangle everyone with a similar name to another character. Partly because of this, if you haven't read Bleak House (or have but still aren't sure exactly what was happening) it's almost impossible spoiling the plot for you. The question would be, which plot are you even talking about, since there are so many. Of course they all funnel into the main plot regarding Esther Summerson (and cousins Richard and Ada), Lady Dedlock and the ongoing court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in one way or other. It's always baffling how Dickens will manage to bring it all together by the end, yet always he does, minus a few characters who wander off but in some ways that's for the best, for the sanity of the reader.


So, what does BH say about Dickens and the Victorians? Jarndyce v. Jarndyce illustrates opinion about lawyers and court cases hasn't changed at all since the Victorians. Lawyers are generally nasty, self-serving creatures and court cases convoluted and dull. Shock horror!

As for the innocents, they so often suffer, sometimes losing their lives in unjust and unnecessary circumstances. Innocents include those with mental disabilities, children and those from the lower social order in general. BH is particularly sharp in the anger it directs at do-gooders, Mrs. Jellyby being a prime example, the woman so concerned with a village in Africa she doesn't notice anything happening in her own home. And I do mean anything. And Mr. Jellyby! If there's a better example of deep clinical depression in all of Victorian fiction I haven't read it.

Poor Mr. Jellyby, forever sitting with his head against a wall.

So, what of charity, to Dickens? Certainly not much of merit, extending past temporarily alleviating the suffering of those at hand. But even in that case, using Jo and his illness as an example, charity can backfire, leaving the best-intentioned permanently blemished. Going out of your way to help take care of your fellow wo/man doesn't fare well at all in BH.

Dickens has been called out before re: his depiction of women as either saints or whores. BH is filled with examples of saints – the "angels" in the house – with only one true "whore" in Lady Dedlock. She pays the price of her transgressions, in cruel ways. To be fair, so does the man who was the other half of that relationship, but he's largely shrouded in mystery. We know how he dies – destitute and alone – and there's a suggestion it was intentional, but Dickens shows us every bit of Lady Dedlock's agony.



The saint above all saints in BH is Esther Summerson, a character who may – I'm warning you – drive you barking mad by mid-book. She's exaggeratedly kind (and I really don't think it's intented ironically). Her interaction with Ada made me feel vaguely nauseous. There's friendship, then there's over the top and saccharine. But even the saints don't escape some very steep trials.



Did Dickens hate women? Oh, I don't know. There's lots written about it. I can tell you he treated his wife with callous indifference and almost surely had an affair with a beautiful actress. He also had a sort of crush on his dead sister-in-law, practically throwing himself in her grave when she died. Not sure what all that proves, if anything.

Ask me more later in the year. I'll know better by then.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, BBC – 2005


Dickens at 200

Serendipitous Bleak House was the January read in our classics book group, considering the Inimitable's 200th birthday is coming up February 7th.

Martin Chuzzlewit is next up for me, in my personal celebration of all things Dickens. MC and the recent Claire Tomalin bio. This will be my first foray into MC and I know nothing about it – one reason I'm looking forward to the experience.

After MC I honestly can't say I'll have the luxury to fit in another Dickens novel in 2012, since I am attacking Ulysses starting Bloomsday this year (June 6). I'm allowing the rest of the year to read that one properly, relying heavily on true Irishman Frank Delaney and his podcasts on Ulysses to minimize my inevitable confusion.

To celebrate properly I'd need to take a trip to Dublin. I'm cheating myself by not doing so and I think I'll put that on my official Bucket List. There's a pub out there, somewhere, that has a stool with my name on it, and a few barrels of Guinness to get together a good drinking game to go along with a public reading of the book. One swallow for every swear should have me under the table in less than two hours. Change that to every sentence longer than a page and I'll be out in half that time. Of course it's likely I'd wake up with a shamrock – or worse – drawn on my forehead and my hair matted in who knows what.

Yes, onto the Bucket List it goes.




From an article in The Guardian



A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Heartrendingly gorgeous and I'm in no hurry to finish, as Sebastian Barry hasn't written all that many novels. I do so love his writing and this in no way involves a massive crush of an adolescent nature, mixed with a great appreciation of his lyricism and unfailingly gorgeous writing.

I'm further along but reluctantly so. It's difficult reading about the horrors of war and I've grown so fond of Willie Dunne it's hard seeing inhumane events through his eyes. Right now I'm just past the point at which he realizes his last letter offended his father, though he's not positive why. And as for the lovely Gretta… I just don't trust that one. Great looking or not, I have a feeling Willie could have chosen better than herself with the green eyes.




Author Sam Savage


Glass by Sam Savage – Currently reading for review.

I have loved Sam Savage's writing since his first novel, Firmin:

"Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle."

Publishers Weekly

I interviewed him following the publication of that novel, now that I think of it. Such a dear man.

Glass is about a widow asked to write a new introduction for the re-issue of her late husband's book but actually more about her life, memories and adjustment to being alone. What's sweetly poignant is there's a rat in this novel, as well, though the standard mammal who isn't able to read and express himself in words. Loads more than this is poignant but it was the rat that really got to me.

Between Firmin and Glass there was The Cry of the  Sloth:

"Living on a diet of fried Spam, vodka, sardines, cupcakes, and Southern Comfort, Andrew Whittaker is slowly being sucked into the morass of middle age. A negligent landlord, small-time literary journal editor, and aspiring novelist, he is—quite literally— authoring his own downfall. From his letters, diary entries, and fragments of fiction, to grocery lists and posted signs, this novel is a collection of everything Whittaker commits to paper over the course of four critical months."

– from Amazon.com

I love books that rip out my heart, dice it to bits and toss it onto a plate. Even better are those with a wicked dark sense of humor involving books, readers and/or writers. Sam Savage manages to hit my soft spots in every, single book he writes. He's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Read him. Do.


Restoring Grace by Katie Fforde – Reading for librarian group.

Nope, I'm not one for conventional romance and my last reading round up covered the reasons I chose this when forced to read outside my genre comfort zone: British, ancient home and single women living together, making a go of it sans men. Oh, and the Irishman, coming to woo the owner of the ancient home…



Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain by William Ian Miller

From the good people at Yale U.P. and it's basically about what it says. It makes a good NF read to pick up while the rest of the family's watching t.v.  I can read NF with noise going on around me but not fiction. Not without a rise in blood pressure that's not worth it, I should say.


Coming Soon:

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – next read for classics group.

Love this book, can't wait to re-read, so you know it must be a heart-ripper. Also planning to squeeze in McCullers's unfinished autobiography, an Amazon purchase I allowed myself last week, though my fondness for the Amazon Daily Deal eBook has me well on my way toward addiction. Funny how I managed to side-step making an actual resolution about book buying this year. Or, not so much funny as frightening.



In between reads for BookBrowse, LibraryJournal and Booklist. Then there are the various and sundry review books, otherwise known as The Great Horde, including Barry Unsworth's latest The Quality of Mercy.

Also checked out from the library: How it All Began by Penelope Lively and Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare. Re: the latter, right now I can't recall what it's about or why I ordered it. Must have had some good reason. Funny, the ILL books that wind up on my desk are usually of this ilk. I either can't remember requesting them or why.


As usual, I'm obviously bereft of great reading material. All my time is wasted on breathing, eating and sleeping until such time as I can find my way back to reading. They say Americans are reading less and less every year, though whether that includes Tweets and McDonald's game pieces I don't know.

I smell another government study that needs funding! Perhaps I'll drop past Twitter and mention it.







Finally, first finished book of 2012!

Well, now. It's taken me eleven days but I have actually finished my first book of the year. I won't review it here, as it's slated for publication in Library Journal next month and I consider it theirs, but once it's up I'll link to it, I promise, though I've been woefully shameful about that. It's hard keeping up with it all but I am bound and determined to make 2012 THE YEAR LISA GETS IT TOGETHER. Or at least isn't quite so pathetic.

The book I finished is one I've been talking about here, A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport. Really great stuff, can't emphasize it enough. If you're a Victorian buff keep an eye out for it. It will be published sometime in March.

Think you know all there is to know about Victoria? Well, think again.

VictoriaI feel a bit sheepish because I realized earlier today I've read another book co-authored by Ms. Rappaport, Dark Hearts of Chicago.


"When young, inexperienced but very ambitious female reporter Emily Strauss bluffs her way into newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer’s office, she comes away with a treacherous assignment: to find out what happened to Anna Zemeckis, one of many women who have disappeared during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. With the support of a young man who is just venturing into the burgeoning trade of news photography, Emily soon finds herself in a race against time to save Anna’s life and to bring her story back to New York before Pulitzer’s tough deadline expires."

Really good novel, especially if you live in Chicago. It's still good even if you don't. I also like books with strong female characters in professions generally considered the realm of men. And in the 19th Century that was usually the case. Not always, but usually.

Harriet Martineau wrote some pretty brazen articles about the rights of women. Ditto Nellie Bly (pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran). So they were out there but not in huge numbers. Just wish I had the time to read a lot more by these determined women. Same for the suffragettes, one of whom, Mina Van Winkle, was very likely related to me since this side of my family originated in the NY/NJ area as did she. And it's not that common a name. I smell a research opportunity, another one I have no time to pursue. Sigh.



Next, three books I requested from Yale University Press:

Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain, Which He Flatters Himself Formerly Did Him Noble Service by William Ian Miller

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000 – 2009 by Stan Persky

And, hiding beneath those, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, the surprise, come from behind winner of the National Book Award. If you know my love of southern writing the attraction will make sense and this one's set in my native Mississippi.

 The Yale U.P.s are, unsurprisingly, VELLY academic in tone. Or at least the first I've started, Reading the 21st Century. They may be a bit slower going but I will fit them in somehow. Great titles, too, aren't they?

Salvage the Bones I've already started and it slammed me into Mississippi within the first couple of pages. I mean that in a good way, as far as sense of place. Her style is delicious: simple, not flowerly and it conveys both place and character masterfully. I have a feeling this is going to be a "read more quickly than I'd like" book, one I have to finish to know what happens and wish I had time to re-read.

But thank goodness I finally finished that first book of 2012. Not sure why that bothered me, but patience has never been a virtue of mine. Speaking of, a load of laundry stands between me and some reading. Catch you later.


Love, Actually

I'm in love again, people! Real, true love. With this writer:


Ellen Gilchrist. She's a southern writer, born in Natchez, MS. Though I've heard her name, I'm only now reading her works. I am smitten.


Nora Jane: A Life in Stories

I have a love/hate relationship with my native Mississippi. One side of my family being genteel, the other white trash – filled with pedophiles and whispered rumors of in-breeding – conflict is inevitable. When one aunt offers delectable home cooked meals spread out in a clean dining room, and the other allows her grandchildren to "waller in the mud"- in a huge mud puddle that's more a small pond – while sitting around watching as if it's entertainment, something's off-balance. It gets far, far worse than that. My paternal side (trash) features highlights like imprisonment for pedophilia. And more.

Yet, despite this widespread conflict, Mississippi has birthed writers I idolize, specifically William Faulkner, Richard Wright and Eudora Welty, to name just three. The South as a whole has produced some of our country's finest literature, illustrating all the agony and ecstasy that is the American South.

How, I'll never understand. Perhaps it's the struggle: the imbalance of power, the frustration of climbing one's way out of the depths of ignorance and into enlightenment. I honestly don't know. But I do know southern literature is a genre unto itself, a very distinct literature.

And now, Ellen Gilchrist. Gorgeous, gorgeous prose. She writes like an angel:

"Her head of curly dark hair caught the morning sun, the sun caressed her. She was a beautiful child who looked so much like her dead father that it broke her mother's heart and made her drink. It made her grandmother glad. Nora Jane's father had been her oldest son. She thought God had given Nora Jane to her to make up for losing him. … It never occurred to her to rail at God or blame him for things. She thought of God as a fallback position in times of trouble. She thought of God as solace, patience, wisdom, forgiveness, compensation."

Look how much she tells you in such a short space. I envy that.

At other times, her writing is purely sensual:

"Nora Jane bent over the mirliton vines. They were beautiful, sticky and fragrant, climbing their trellis of chicken wire. The rich burgundy red fruit hung on its fragile stems, fell off into Nora Jane's hands at the slightest touch. … The dark red rind a half an inch thick, to protect the pulp seeds from the swarming insects of the tropics, for mirlitons are a tropical fruit …"

And, the best news of all:



  • The Annunciation (1983)
  • The Anna Papers (1988)
  • Net of Jewels (1992)
  • Starcarbon: A Meditation on Love (1994)
  • Anabasis (1994)
  • Sarah Conley (1997)
  • The Cabal (2000)

Story collections

  • In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981)
  • Victory over Japan (1984)
  • Drunk with Love (1986)
  • Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle (1989)
  • I Cannot Get You Close Enough: Three Novellas (1990)
  • Rhoda (1995)
  • The Courts of Love (1996)
  • Flights of Angels (1998)
  • Collected Stories (2000)
  • I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy (2002)
  • Nora Jane: A Life in Stories (2005)


  • The Land Surveyor's Daughter (poetry) (1979)
  • Riding out the Tropical Depression: Selected Poems, 1975-1985 (1986)
  • Falling Through Space: The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist (1987)
  • The Writing Life (essays) (2005)


Southern Literature Project: Larry Brown’s ‘Father and Son’

Fatherandson_3 Larry Brown’s Father and Son

"The truth of the matter is that Brown is one of the best writers we have, able in a sentence or or two to cut to the heart of things." – The Washington Post

With themes reminiscent of Faulkner, Larry Brown’s writing is a pared-down, sparing portrait of characters who could be descendants of characters from Yoknapatawpha County. Readers afraid of Faulkner may be more comfortable reading Larry Brown’s prose, just as a way of getting their literary feet wet. There’s no substitute for WF, but there’s definitely no harm starting with Larry Brown.

Father and Son positively seethes with anger, with a particular brand of vengeful anger laced with blind ignorance that’s so sinister and frightening to watch. At the start of the book Glen Davis has been released from prison after serving three years for killing a child he’d hit with his car while under the influence of alcohol. Returning home to the small Mississippi town he grew up in he’s bent on vengeance against those he sees as having wronged him.

As the book progresses he goes on a murderous rampage, seeking his own justice. The prose is brilliant and masterful, creating suspense in a sparing way:

"He cocked the hammer now and swung the barrel up to this father’s head and held the black and yawning muzzle of it an inch away. He tightened his fingers on the checkered pistol grip. The old man slept on, father and son. Some sense of foreboding told him to pull back and undo all of this before it was done. Yet he put his finger on the trigger, just touched it. He already knew what it would look like.

Virgil moved in his sleep, made a small sound almost like a cough. The puppy whined outside. The house was quiet but for that.

He raised the barrel and caught the hammer with this thumb and eased back on the trigger, letting it down. He went out the door, lighting a cigarette, hurrying."

An excellent start to my Southern Literature Project. I’ll definitely be reading more of the late Larry Brown’s works.

Literature of the American South


It’s been a while since I’ve taken on a reading project. Considering my schedule (and attention span, let’s be honest) formal reading projects traditionally tend to have a really high failure rate with me.  I’ve gotten pretty far into a few of them, but ultimately real life has a real tendency to derail my best laid plans. But that doesn’t stop me from making all sorts of unreasonable reading plans. No, it doesn’t stop me at all. After all, lists are FUN! Geeky, perhaps, but fun.

Southern writing is something very close to my heart, mostly because I am native southern (if Yankee raised). I’ve waxed rhapsodic about William Faulkner here before. He’s my ultimate literary GOD, partly because we hail from the same neck of the woods, and partly because he was just damned brilliant. I’ve also mentioned Truman Capote a few times, as well as Flannery O’Connor. Eudora Welty maybe not as much, but she’s been peppered in here and there occasionally, along with a few other southern writers of note.

As far as reading southern writing, I haven’t been terribly dedicated to that in a while. It’s not for lack of wanting to, but more lack of my ability to make time for it. But, the thing is, this is my heritage, and I very closely identify with it. It’s something I grew up with, so of course I’ve taken it entirely for granted. But the older I get the more I realize how much a part of me it truly is, and as with all matters related to aging when you start realizing you’re at the halfway point it makes things seem a little more urgent.

For years my reading time’s been very fractured by nature, considering reading for review is a fast-paced and often nerve wracking thing. Reading stuff by choice falls by the wayside when I’m reviewing heavily, but now that the warm weather’s upon us I find myself bridling at bit at enforced reading. My plan is to distribute a lot (not all, I’ll keep some of them for review) of my review books to fellow reviewers so they get their due reward. This will allow me the flexibility to embark on a southern writing project I’ve been promising myself I’m going to do for a while now. Once fall is here I’ll hopefully be starting my graduate degree, which adds a little more pressure to the mix and will effectively cut my non-degree related reading time to shreds.

So if it’s going to happen anytime, it’s going to have to start pretty much NOW.

I’m working up a list of books to choose from, but it’s by no means a list chiseled in stone. Even I know I can’t read everything I’m putting on this list. Instead, I’ll choose a cross-section of them to read more slowly than my review pace. Savoring a book, what a concept!

I’ll put the full list in my sidebar, and add to it as I go along. If you know of any others you think should be considered, let me know. I have to be somewhat selective, limiting the list to southern literary fiction and not the Fannie Flagg variety of southern writing that’s entertaining but not exactly what I’m looking for, just as a guideline. Of course, there’s grey area there.

For now, here are a few basics I’m considering. A few of them are contemporary southern writers who’ve caught my eye in my search, and they’re as unfamiliar to me as they’re likely to be to most people in the blogosphere, but there are also some standard favorites here (obviously, these are in no apparent order…):

Truman Capote – Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp

Tennessee Williams – selected plays

Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood (re-read), and stories

Donna Tartt – The Secret History

Cormac McCarthy – Child of God, The Road, and possibly others

Harry Crews – various

Barry Hannah – various

William Faulkner – various

Donald Harington – various

Suzanne Hudson – In the Dark of the Moon, and stories

Tim Gautreaux – The Clearing: a Novel

Tom Franklin – Hell at the Breach: a Novel

Walker Percy – The Moviegoer

Mark Twain – Huckleberry Finn

Thomas Wolfe

Reynolds Price

William Styron

Wendell Berry

James Baldwin

Ellen Gilchrist

Bobbie Ann Mason

Eudora Welty – One Writer’s Beginnings

Ernest J. Gaines – A Gathering of Old Men

Kate Chopin – stories

That’s the working list so far. I’ll let you know how it goes, and give a rebel yell when I’m fixin’ to finish one of ’em.

Wish me luck (and focus)…