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Jack’s January-March 2020 Fiction Favorites!
On April 6, 2020
Hey y’all, I’m Jack, a bookseller at Lemuria Books! Here at the store, we’re working hard behind the scenes to help our community stay reading by processing web and phone orders, and by using the internet and social media as tools to help you find the great books you deserve. It’s a difficult and trying time in our world, and self-quarantining and social distancing have not been easy, but at Lemuria, we’re doing what we can to make the most of this time by reading and recommending fantastic books. It’s also been a challenging time to be a passionate bookseller; 2020 has provided so many incredible books, and at Lemuria we believe in the value of face-to-face bookselling and the experience of real books, but in the meantime we are closed for browsing. Thus, we have worked tirelessly to adapt to these times by increasing our web and social media presence and by utilizing those platforms to help you find great books. In our newsletter, we have been featuring books from different sections in our store, handpicked by our wonderful booksellers, and we’d love to help you find great books from Lemuria with staff-specific favorites, as well. So, to kick things off, I’ve included some of my favorite Fiction Picks from 2020 so far, with small blurbs attached. You Deserve a Good Book, and We’d Love to Help! Thank you for supporting our store and community by keeping Lemuria alive and well during these crazy times!
Fortunately, before we closed our doors to the public, we hosted an outstanding event with Colum McCann for his new novel Apeirogon. Spending time with McCann, Lemurians, and our awesome reading community that night was one of the highlights of my time here at the store. McCann and Katy Simpson Smith hosted a really awesome conversation about the book and about fiction as a way to reach a more distinct truth in our society today. It was inspiring, fun and important to the store and to our readers. I’m really grateful to have been a part of it.
Apeirogon is a very powerful book centered around two fathers on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who connect through their mutual grief over the loss of their daughters to meaningless war terrorism incidents. Told through 1001 cantos, McCann’s novel dissects the complexities of the conflict between two nations and peoples by utilizing an innovative and highly appropriate form. These vignettes blend and disorient, contribute and connect to one another, and the overall result is nothing short of a masterpiece. This novel made me feel loved, taken into consideration as a reader, and showed me the side of fiction that makes me want to read and sell books forever: fiction that grips the heart of experiential and emotional truth. Reading this novel affected me deeply, and that experience was reinforced by McCann’s authentic and curious persona when he came to visit Lemuria. I’ll always remember it.
Verge is a clever, abrasive collection of stories by Lidia Yuknavitch, an author whose ingenuity and mastery of the short story form should be celebrated. Yuknavitch’s insightful representation of life as a woman in today’s America is conveyed in each of these appropriately brutal fictions. Her commentary on consumerism, addiction, sex and making mistakes as part of one’s path toward some sort of fully-developed identity gives the reader a sense of forgiveness and self-love. This book is really fantastic, and I’m so happy I was afforded the opportunity to read it when I read it; this is the kind of book that finds you at the right time.
Lily King’s novel is important for 2020. Writers and Lovers tells the story of a struggling young woman, Casey Peabody, seeking to establish her identity, place and voice in both the book industry and in America in the midst of grieving the loss of her mother. Partly autobiographical, King’s novel gives an enlightening account of what it means to still be struggling into adulthood as a lone, independent woman in a man’s industry and world. Peabody champions her own disheveled path toward truth and identity in writing and loving, holding steadfast to the deeper dreams she has harbored her whole life, even when it is much easier to let those fall away and fold into an easier way of life. This book has a really universal quality that I haven’t felt from something in a while, and I think Lily King’s voice is invaluable to American fiction today.
Like Flies From Afar is Argentinian author K. Ferrari’s brutally honest and expletive-ridden murder mystery, translated and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2020. FSG is an imprint I’ve been tuned to in the recent past, and I have yet to be disappointed by anything of theirs that I’ve taken a chance on, this novel no exception. Like Flies From Afar follows Luis Machi, a delusional Argentinian oligarch fueled by machismo and his cocaine habit, through a downward spiral of paranoia that threatens to dissolve his guise of masculinity. When Machi finds the dead body of an unidentifiable man in the trunk of his spotless BMW, he is forced to confront the realities of the dirty and drug-driven life and identity he has built around himself. What impressed me most about this novel was Ferrari’s ability to delineate the awful behaviors and attitudes of men with absurd levels of unchecked power and status. His commentary on materialism and how we identify with what we have had me thinking for weeks after I read this. FSG2020 rocks!
Alexis Schaitkin’s brilliant debut, Saint X, is far more than a murder mystery or a typical beach-read thriller, though it definitely does both of those justice. This novel, though centered around the death of a young girl, is much more an exploration into race, class, privilege, status, wealth and position in America and specifically, in New York. Beautifully written, Saint X is told from the perspectives of all of those surrounding the murder of Claire Thomas, and Schaitkin is able to believably show and tell each of these characters impressively well. Each first person account and perspective blends into the next; and though these narrators come from far different backgrounds, their mutual telling of the story provides some central truth and understanding. Schaitkin’s unique style comes across incredibly well-realized, and it’s hard to believe this is her debut novel. I can’t wait to read what’s next from her, and if you pick this one up, you’ll feel the same way.
Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s powerful family saga, The Mountains Sing, is told across multiple generations within a North Vietnamese family during the 20th century, before, during and after the Vietnam war. A grandmother and her granddaughter serve as the protagonists here, recounting their firsthand experiences of hardships incited by war and imperialism, known all too well by the North Vietnamese. Mai’s prose is pure, authentic and moving, genuine and simple in the best ways. The Mountains Sing offers the invaluable perspective of life lived during a war that has been so misconstrued and misunderstood by Americans since it happened. These characters’ accounts seem vital to the conversation around the Vietnam War, and I’m so fortunate to have read this book and to be able to show it to friends and family. It’s seriously beautiful and important; it’s for everyone.
What struck me early on in Deacon King Kong was its similarity in style and prose to Barry Gifford’s Southern Nights and John Kennedy Toole’s classic, A Confederacy of Dunces. I love the way McBride writes; his dialogue and characters are both completely believable and hilarious. Deacon King Kong follows the aftermath of a shooting in a 1960s Brooklyn, NY project called the Cause House — it is captivating and humorous in its most basic forms, but on a deeper level achieves real insight into the history of those who inhabited New York during the 1960s. These are the kinds of characters that follow you around, ones that you’ll nostalgically reflect on from time to time, as if you have real memories of having spent time with them. In a way, I feel like I have spent real time with them, and I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to read this book for that experience alone. You’re in good hands with James McBride!
Thanks for reading, and thank you for supporting our bookstore. Give us a call at 601-366-7619 for any questions or to buy any of these awesome books! We love you!
‘Sisters of the Undertow’ magnifies sisterly bonds, satisfies like fine memoir
On March 31, 2020
By Susan O’Bryan. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 9)
Sisters of the Undertow is not a long book. It also is not a quick or easy read requiring little thought or mental involvement.
Instead, award-winning author Johnnie Bernhard packs delivers a punch to the gut in her third novel, one that makes you think twice about sisterhood, luck and loss. Her characters come to life in what reads—and feels—more like a memoir than a novel.
The story is told from the perspective of Kimberly Ann Hodges, a miracle child born in late 1970 to David and Sandy Hodges, a couple desperate for a baby after several miscarriages. Her parents are overjoyed, and proclaim how “lucky” they are to have a baby girl.
Sixteen months later, Kathy Renee is born, and the family feels that their luck has run out. The baby is premature, and has a variety of medical and developmental challenges. With all the family attention now on Kathy Renee, Kim, as she prefers to be called, begins to resent being the big sister to someone so unlike herself.
One line in the novel says so much—“We were sisters,” Kim says. “I loved and hated her.”
Their biggest difference has nothing to do with physical traits, though. Instead, it’s the particular focus that each girl has on life and faith. Kim feels the pain of ridicule and strict parenting, while Kathy Renee finds the joy in every single day.
Through her story telling, Bernhard shows the strong to be weak and vulnerable, while the seemingly lesser stands firm against the ebb and flow of life.
Kim learns early to distrust men, while Kathy Renee likes to bring home guys considered to be outsiders. One sister trades a small hometown near Houston, Texas, for the co-ed life at Texas Tech University as an escape, while the other cherishes the routine of family and church. Kim prefers books over people, while her little sister only wants to help others. One wants to be a librarian, while the other wants to be a nurse’s aide.
Through their own experiences, the sisters learn to cope with the tides of change and loss. And through these fictional characters, readers gain insight into what it means to weather storms together rather than alone.
Susan O’Bryan was a journalist for 30 years before she joined the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2010 as a web content coordinator. She is a freelance writer for several newspapers and literary review sites.
Johnnie Bernhard is scheduled to be at Lemuria on Saturday, April 4 at 2:00 to sign and discuss Sisters of the Undertow.
Author Q & A with Taylor Brown
On March 15, 2020
Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (March 15)
A native of the Georgia coast, Taylor Brown offers readers his fourth novel, Pride of Eden, as an “environmentalism” tale of majestic animals that should be living in the wild, and the flawed characters who fight to save them from human exploitation.
Brown’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Rumpus, Garden & Gun, Chautauqua, The North Carolina Literary Review, and many other publications.
He is the author of a short story collection, In the Season of Blood and Gold, and each of his three previous novels, Fallen Land, The River of Kings, and Gods of Howl Mountain, became a finalist for the Southern Book Prize. He has also captured the Montana Prize in Fiction.
An Eagle Scout who graduated from the University of Georgia in 2005, Brown has lived in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, and the mountains of western North Carolina. Today he makes his home in Savannah, Ga.
Pride of Eden reveals environmental and moral lessons through a narrative that combines the heroism of its flawed characters with the tenderness and fury of the animals they work to save–AND “an underworld of smugglers, gamblers, breeders, trophy hunters and others who exploit exotic game.” It’s also an original, out of the ordinary kind of story. Tell me how you formed the idea for this tale–you must be an enormous animal lover yourself!
Indeed, I’ve always been an animal lover, and animals have always found their way into my work–though more indirectly until now. A few years ago, I visited Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, North Carolina–a big cat sanctuary that takes in tigers, lions, ocelots, servals, and other wild cats from all over the region. There’s a story behind every denizen there, and most come from pretty bad conditions such as roadside zoos, negligent private owners, circuses, etc. Their stories really moved me, and I began to formulate the idea of someone who took the “rescue” part of an exotic wildlife rescue quite literally…
Main character Anse Caulfield is a retired racehorse jockey and Vietnam veteran who runs Little Eden, an exotic animal wildlife reserve off the Georgia coast. He lives to rescue elephants, big cats, rhinos, and other animals, to save them from a life lived in sideshows or as part of a hunter’s “collection.” What drove Anse to devote his life to this cause?
Anse has witnessed, and even been an accessory to, a lot of trauma visited on the animal kingdom, whether it was his experience in Vietnam, his time as a soldier of fortune in Africa, or his career as a quarter horse jockey. So, I think he’s burdened with a lot of guilt and hoping to atone for some of those things in his past, whether they were his own sins or those of his fellow man. That said, he’s a bit of an outlaw and curmudgeon at heart, and he doesn’t always go about things in the most legal manner.
Author Ron Rash has called Pride of Eden a “visionary novel of scarred souls seeking redemption not only for themselves but, in their limited way, for us all.” In what ways would you agree with this observation?
I do think the characters in this book are seeking redemption in their own way. Most of them are dealing with some trauma in their past that continues to haunt and pain them on a daily basis. One of the beautiful things about our species is that we often heal through helping others, be they our fellow humans or members of the animal kingdom.
I think these characters–Anse and Malaya especially–have witnessed things that make them question the “humane-ness” of humanity. By working to help these captive and abused animals, they’re helping to redeem not only themselves, but their faith in humanity as a whole. On the other hand, they’re certainly not saints–they’re as flawed as anyone, and things don’t always go according to plan.
In addition to the obvious flashes of your sizable imagination throughout Pride of Eden, you add a dash of mystery. Is there any chance there will ever be a sequel to this story?
Thank you, Jana. That mystery reminds me of the words of a writer friend of mine, Matthew Neill Null, who once said, “The lives of animals are mysterious, and mystery is the lifeblood of fiction.” Those words continue to resonate with me, whether I’m watching the red-tailed hawk that hunts over our neighborhood or writing about the elephants and rhinos I visited in South Africa. I tried to infuse that mystery into the novel.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some ideas percolating for a sequel to “Pride of Eden.” Without giving anything away, I’m particularly interested in the story of wolf reintroduction in the American West, as well as the work of Animal Defenders International (ADI), who’ve been instrumental in rescuing animals from circuses in various countries of South America and bringing them to sanctuaries in the U.S. and South Africa.
Why is this a book that you believed needed to be written NOW?
Well, I think the clock is ticking for so many species. Scientists say we’re living through the “Anthropocene Extinction,” in which human activity is correlated with extinction rates hundreds of times higher than normal. It may well be the defining story of our epoch.
We’re living in an age when there are about as many captive tigers in the state of Texas alone as left in the wild in the rest of the world, and in 2018, the last male northern white rhino died living under 24-hour armed guard. I can’t imagine living in a world without such magnificent creatures. I think, if we’re more intimate with the lives and stories of animals, we may be more likely to love, respect, and protect them – and in the process, save something crucial of our own hearts.
Taylor Brown will be at Lemuria on Monday, March 23, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and discuss Pride of Eden.
Lee Durkee’s ‘The Last Taxi Driver’ provides wild, dark, hilarious ride
On March 11, 2020
In Fiction, Southern Fiction
By Jim Warren. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (March 8)
In The Last Taxi Driver, Lou Bishoff drives for Mississippi All Saints Taxis in Gentry, a university town in North Mississippi. His black 1995 Town Car has seen better days–the roof leaks, the brakes are gone, the shocks are shot, the horn doesn’t work, and the tires are bald. Lou’s future is uncertain. Uber is moving into Gentry. His relationship is over, assuming he can convince her to move out. An old nemesis is back in town after cutting off his ankle bracelet and hitchhiking from Kansas.
Albert Camus said, “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” Maybe Al was a cabbie? Lou’s taxi has three air fresheners–Bigfoot, Shakespeare, and a flying saucer–besides working well as conversation starters, they help ward off smells so varied and offensive that he must keep Ozium and Febreze at the ready for backup. Lou’s a Buddhist, but a bad one, “the worst Buddhist in the world.” Nevertheless, he reads about Buddhism between fares in hopes that it might quell the urge to raise his middle finger in traffic. Then he gets another dispatch—All Saints dispatches come by text to thwart the competition’s radio spying—and he’s off on a run while his boss Stella watches through an onboard camera.
Lou works days; he’d rather avoid the drunk college students. He takes people to work, to shop, or to the doctor. He makes deliveries. If you got arrested last night and need a ride this morning from the jail to the vehicle impound lot, Lou’s your man. He’s also there if the hospital releases you to go home, but there’s no family to pick you up. He’ll be there when you get out of rehab, too, if it’s the good rehab, the one next to the VD clinic. He’ll drive you to Clarksdale, Memphis, or across town. Two bucks a mile outside city limits, though, and two dollars for any extra stops.
Gentry, of course, resembles Oxford. It’s no coincidence that Durkee drove an Oxford taxi for a couple of years. At one point, he was driving over 70 hours a week. Durkee includes a chapter filled with advice for Mississippi drivers right in the middle of the book, like an intermission. “Safe driving is all about the neck. Pride yourself in how much you employ your neck while changing lanes. Approach driving as a neck exercise.” Ditch the sunglasses (they create blind spots). Never blink your headlights at a UFO. And of course: “Your main job as a driver in Mississippi is to anticipate stupidity.” Indeed.
The Last Taxi Driver is a pleasure to read. We waited a long time for second novel from Durkee. It was worth the wait. Durkee’s language is unadorned and direct. It’s first person Lou, explaining the North Mississippi taxi business and narrating as we ride shotgun on a long, strange shift. The novel is dark, but quite funny. Lou has a knack for overthinking that turns even the normal stuff into a comedy routine. And Lou has stories to tell, stories about albino possums, UFOs, and adolescent trauma. As the day shift turns into a night run home from Memphis, with a yellow-eyed transplant surgery escapee on board and a gun under the seat, things get … well, they get darker.
Durkee was raised in Hattiesburg. He attended Pearl River Junior College, graduated from Arkansas, pursued a creative writing degree at Syracuse–he started the program with George Saunders, was taught by Tobias Wolff–and ultimately obtained his MFA back at Arkansas. He’s lived in Oxford for ten years. His first novel was Rides of the Midway, published twenty years ago. His memoir Stalking Shakespeare is scheduled for publication in 2021.
Jim Warren is a lawyer in Jackson. He collects books, enjoys music, and occasionally writes about both.
Signed first editions of The Last Taxi Driver can be found at Lemuria and at our online store.
‘Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves’ explores complexities of slave life during peace, war
On March 9, 2020
In Civil War, Historical Fiction, Southern Fiction
By John Mort. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (March 8)
Bass Reeves—a real, historical figure—was born a slave on an Arkansas plantation in the 1840s. In Sidney Thompson’s new novel, Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves: The Bass Reeves Trilogy, Book One, Reeves grows up to be a big, agreeable man entirely loyal to his master, the redoubtable Master Reeves. Master Reeves is not cruel. When a black scullery maid has her baby, he gives her one day off, and this is regarded as kind by the scullery maid and everyone else.
Slaves have so adapted to this patriarchal economic system that notions of emancipation and equality don’t occur to them. A kind of freedom exists just a few miles to the west, in Oklahoma Territory, but fleeing—running—is a tough concept. If you were beaten or starved, that would be one thing, but Master Reeves would never beat you or withhold food. You may be a slave, but you can live a life on Master Reeves’s plantation. You can marry. You can have kids.
It develops that Bass is an extraordinary marksman, and Master Reeves takes Bass to a number of turkey shoots in Arkansas and the Territory. Bass always wins, and the Master makes good money betting on him. Bass enjoys himself, and sometimes, he can bring those dead turkeys home for the other slaves.
Ignorance may have seemed like bliss, but Bass is a slave and a slave can be moved about like a horse. Old Master Reeves gives Bass to his son, young Master Reeves, who has a plantation down in Texas. Bass has a difficult time understanding this. He doesn’t know where Texas is, and doesn’t want to leave behind his aging parents. How could Master Reeves treat him like this?
The young Master Reeves is an intellectual with all sorts of theories about slavery. He baits Bass with his endless mind-games, trying to cause his new manservant to reveal his true feelings. In many ways, young Master Reeves inadvertently educates Bass and inculcates in him a desire for freedom. Young Reeves is despicable, but he’s also complicated. He fully understands how intelligent Bass is, and potentially how dangerous.
The Civil War has reached the West, and young Master Reeves wants a manservant who can shoot. Most of the Southern officers bring their manservants to the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (near Springfield, Missouri), a Southern victory of sorts that flows into the Southern defeat at Pea Ridge (near Fayetteville, Arkansas). These battles have been written about by historians and novelists alike, but Thompson’s treatment, portraying the war from a slave’s perspective, is unique.
The man-servant’s job is to reload weapons for their masters (for the most part, repeating rifles are not yet in use). But Bass is such an unerring shot that the young Master Reeves loads for his slave. And Bass kills many a Yankee, aiming for the brass buttons of their coats.
Young Master Reeves and Bass return to a changing Texas. The war isn’t over but everyone knows the South will lose. Throughout Bass’s faithful service, young Master Reeves has promised Bass’s manumission, or freedom; secretly, Bass, who has seen some of the world by now, has begun to contemplate running for his freedom into Oklahoma Territory. Just how to maneuver away from the devious young Master Reeves, and how to take leave of his sweetheart, Jennie, occupies the final pages of the first installment of this epic, three-volume portrait of Bass Reeves, the first black deputy west of the Mississippi.
When you’re gifted with the fine sense of characterization Thompson deploys, even the unsubtle subject of slavery grows subtler. His Young Master Reeves is a sort of Nazi, but he’s drawn masterfully. Thompson, once one of Barry Hannah’s students at University of Mississippi, is a highly entertaining writer, and his Bass Reeves emerges as an intelligent, reluctantly violent, sympathetic young man. Readers will find the compelling recreations of two important Civil War battles to be a kind of bonus.
John Mort is the author of Down Along the Piney: Ozarks Stories among others, and the winner of many awards for his fiction including a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.
Sidney Thompson will be at Lemuria on Tuesday, March 10, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and discuss Follow the Angels, Follow the Doves.
Author Q & A with Michael Farris Smith
On March 8, 2020
In Fiction, Southern Fiction
Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (March 8)
Oxford’s Michael Farris Smith reinforces his rising prominence as “one of Southern fiction’s leading voices” with his newest Southern noir offering, Blackwood.
Set in “a landscape of fear and ghosts,” this tale of an artist who returns to his (fictional) hometown of tiny Red Bluff, Miss., quickly turns dark as he realizes that the heartbreak of his past is now mingled with an evil that has tortured generations.
The recipient of the 2014 Mississippi Author Award, Smith’s previous novels include The Fighter, Desperation Road, Rivers, and The Hands of Strangers. His short stories have received two nominations for a Pushcart Prize, and his essays have been published in the New York Times, Catfish Alley, Deep South Magazine and others.
Smith is a graduate of Mississippi State University, and he began writing while at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.
As a child in 1956, main character Colburn inadvertently witnessed–and unexpectedly participated in–his father’s suicide. The weight of this, his greatest burden, soon begins to drag him into deeper gloom when he returns to his hometown of Red Bluff, Miss., 20 years later. Why did he really go back, and why did you choose to set this story in this time period?
I think I chose to set the novel in the ‘70s, with the initial event occurring in the ‘50s, just because this felt like an older story to me. Almost like a tall tale or ghost story you hear told again and again in some small town. I think a lot of people from smaller places can certainly relate to this. As to why Colburn decides to return, I don’t know if it’s something I can answer so directly. He’s been carrying this around for a long time, he’s haunted by it, confused by it, curious about it, and so maybe he feels like he’s ready to face it.
Another formidable, undeniable “character” in Blackwood is the kudzu–the living, invincible vine that could swallow not only the landscape, but any manmade object in its path. Explain its role in this story.
The kudzu is what started this story, much like the idea of endless hurricanes started Rivers. This is the second time I’ve had the landscape be the jumping off point. I’ve always thought the great expanse of kudzu was strange, spooky, dark. We’ve all seen it, how it takes everything, methodically and patiently. I just had the idea of a valley covered in kudzu and the small town surrounding it, and the whispers and maybe even madness that seems to be living on its edge, and then going beneath the vines to find out what is going on. I let my imagination have it and that was that.
“The voice” seems to pervade the community. Tell us about its intrusion into the lives of those who hear it, and its gossip value among those who have merely heard about it.
The gossip value carries some of the weight, no doubt. Back to earlier when I mentioned that Blackwood had the feeling of being a ghost story passed along, year after year, I think the characters in the novel experience the same. One person claims to hear the voice. Another thinks it’s ridiculous. Another falls somewhere in between. It seems like those who are drawn to the notion of a voice below are the ones who want to hear it.
Among the many story lines and characters whose lives are beyond “complicated” in this tale is the presence of characters known as the man, the woman, and the boy–who all live tragic lives. In the end, it is the boy with whom Colburn finds an attachment. Why is this quasi-relationship so important to Colburn?
The best way I can answer is that we are all looking for someone to find things in common with, people who make us feel accepted or part of something. Hopefully it comes from family, but for too many people, like Colburn, that isn’t the case. He’s spent a lifetime with the shadows of his mother and father drifting in his mind, and he has been a loner, isolated, and maybe this is his chance to find that connection he has missed.
The names of the woman and the boy are never revealed, although the man finally tells the local sheriff, “My name is Boucher.” You know what my question is! How does this fit in with the main character of your previous novel, The Fighter?
I’ve never had characters spill from one novel into another until now, and that wasn’t the original plan. I was very late in the process of Blackwood when I realized the man and woman who have broken down in Red Bluff are the man and woman who abandoned young Jack Boucher in Tunica at the beginning of The Fighter. It was such an exciting idea, and the time frame fit, and it gave their story so much more complexity. It raised Blackwood to a higher level, and in some ways, I feel like it has raised the level of The Fighter, as well.
Please tell me about the title of the book, Blackwood, and its significance to the story.
On page 56, I used the description of the “blackwood underneath” in a passage where we first really go under and see what it’s like. As soon as I used the word blackwood, I knew that was the title. It fit the landscape but also fit the kind of story I knew I was going to tell.
Lemuria has chosen Blackwood as its March 2020 selection for its First Editions Club for Fiction. Signed first editions can be found at Lemuria and at our online store.
Author Q & A with Lee Durkee
On March 4, 2020
In Fiction, Southern Fiction
Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (March 1)
Twenty years after his first book Rides of the Midway made its debut, Lee Durkee has returned with his new release The Last Taxi Driver, a one-night study of the life of Lou Bishoff as he takes stock of the things that really matter, while transporting his final passengers to their own destinations.
In between his novels, Durkee’s stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Sun, Best of the Oxford American, Tin House, New England Review, Mississippi Noir, and other publications.
His memoir Stalking Shakespeare, which recounts his 10-year quest to locate lost portraits of William Shakespeare, will be released in 2021.
Born in Hawaii, Durkee grew up in Hattiesburg and lived in Vermont for 18 years (among other places) before moving back to his home state to escape the harsh winters. A former cab driver himself, he now lives in North Mississippi.
I’ll start with the obvious first question: why so long (20 years) between Rides of the Midway, your debut novel, and The Last Taxi Driver, your new release?
I have so many answers to this question! Let me explain to you why I failed so spectacularly at publishing for 20 years. My friend Bill at Square Books (in Oxford) used to give me pep talks at the bar at City Grocery in which he emphasized how hard Michael Farris Smith worked, and other well-meaning friends have gently lectured me about drinking or smoking to excess. But I suspect the real reason I never published a second novel was a lack of practicality in what I wrote about.
I don’t have much control over what pours out. My relationship with writing is an opium-like addiction I enjoyed every day for those 20 years of obscurity during which I wrote two unloved books set in Kathmandu as well as a hip-hop version of Hamlet set to Nas’s Stillmatic. I also wrote two books about Elizabethan portraits and a short story collection set in Tokyo told from the point-of-view of nine different Japanese sex dolls. Then there were my Vermont novels, one in which I hideously murdered my real-life jerk of a landlord by having him stuffed, while still screamingly alive, down an ice hole drilled into a frozen lake. None of these books could be described as commercial ventures.
Please tell me about your own experiences as a taxi driver yourself. Did crazy things happen? Were you ever frightened? How did getting that job come about? And, finally, how did that experience influence The Last Taxi Driver?
I drove for two different cab companies in Oxford for a year each and was frequently very frightened. There were times I drove 70-hour weeks–the only way I could eek out a living while saving money for my own car. My first cab company specialized in trailer parks and projects and dirt roads. We also carted the poor people who got kicked out of the local hospital back to their hovels to die. But, as to being afraid, it was mostly the cackles of drunk frat boys who worried me. Like the time I kicked a hoard of them out of my cab for yelling the N-word at this couple. These giant frat boys got out, surrounded my cab, and started kicking the doors etc., while calling me the N word. And I’m white! That’s how racist those punks are. Racists always assume their cab drivers are fellow racists. Same with perverts. The things I heard those kids say about women and Obama would harrow your blood to hear. I drove with a big Kershaw knife under my leg. Other cabbies I worked with had guns.
It was my friend Joyce Freeland, a do-good lawyer, who got me hired by my first cab company after I’d explained to her I couldn’t bartend any more due to back spasms. And the actress Joey Lauren Adams hooked me up with my second cab job. Both Joyce and Joey are members in high standing of the Save Lee from Himself Club, whose president is (Oxford author) Lisa Howorth.
And yes, both taxi jobs influence the novel. Grist was the whole point of me not working in an English department like 98 percent of all writers today do. We live in a world where the bulk of noir fiction is now being written by schoolteachers who have never even had night jobs. They write with their imaginations! Along those lines, the first thing I do whenever I pick up a new book these days is turn it over, trying to deduce if the author has ever stepped outside of an English department.
The Last Taxi Driver is the detailed story of cab driver Lou Bishoff’s last evening on the job, as he shares it in first person, with a penchant for getting off the subject now and again. Despite the state of his personal life (girlfriend problems, his health and his career direction) he always has humor to fall back on, lending a kind of slanted optimism to what many would deem a dire existence. How does Lou, who seems to take things in stride as he reasons through his sometimes-tangled trains of thought, manage to keep it together?
Actually, I’m not sure Lou does keep it together, and his shift-from-hell can certainly be read as a descent into madness. But dark humor must be a survival mechanism, right? I’ve worked in restaurants all my life, and the jokes you hear there are 1,000 times funnier and dirtier than the meticulously censored ones you’ll hear inside English departments. Both my novels are rife with the black humor of servers who have to smile-smile-smile and then walk back into the kitchen and just let loose that venom. I am nothing if not a child of restaurants. They raised me, they sustained me.
How much of Lou Bishoff is Lee Durkee? (They seem to have a lot in common.) What are the differences?
I suppose Lou could be described as a more tragic version of me who exists in a darker dimension–cue Rod Serling. But that’s also true for other characters in The Last Taxi Driver. There are tricks writers play to make you think a book is more autobiographical than it is. We want you to think that. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which takes the illusion of verisimilitude to a new level–he even named his main character Tim.
But Lou, like all characters in fiction, is mostly a creature of plot. To say Lou is me would be wrong–Lou at least has a girlfriend. And half of Lou’s dialogue was ripped off from customers I’ve eavesdropped on. Like all my characters, Lou is a mutt who is made up of traits culled from a dozen or so different people.
Tell me about your upcoming memoir, set to be released in 2021.
Stalking Shakespeare is a memoir about my decades-long obsession with being the first person to ever find a portrait of Shakespeare painted from life. The memoir is funny, not academic, and concerns my time living in Vermont, Tokyo, London, and my eventual return to Mississippi after 37 years away. I’ve long given up writing anything that isn’t funny.
Signed first editions of The Last Taxi Driver can be found at Lemuria and at our online store.
Author Q & A with Jerry Mitchell
On February 2, 2020
In Civil Rights, Southern History
Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (February 2)
An assignment to cover the press premiere of a movie 30 years ago would bring a decades-old Mississippi murder case back into the nation’s spotlight–and change the life of not only court reporter Jerry Mitchell, but untold numbers of many who thought justice would never come.
A staff writer for The Clarion-Ledger in 1989 when he attended the press screening of the blockbuster Mississippi Burning film in Jackson, Mitchell inadvertently found himself sitting near two veteran FBI agents and a seasoned journalist who had all been involved with the 1964 murder investigations portrayed in the movie.
The conversations he held with his seatmates after the movie would be the springboard of a career dedicated to pursuing justice for some of the nation’s most infamous cold case murders of the civil rights movement.
Mitchell was stunned to find out that night that none of the 20 Ku Klux Klansmen involved in the deaths of three civil rights workers had been brought to trial. He soon decided to take on the task of investigating–and ultimately reopening–the case himself.
His career memoir, Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era recounts nearly 20 years of investigations of four notorious cases that helped send four Klansmen and a serial killer to prison.
Mitchell’s work has earned him the title of “one of the most decorated investigative journalists in the country,” with more than 30 national awards to his credit. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he was the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Columbia’s John Chancellor Award, the George Polk Award, and many others.
After more than 30 years as an investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in Jackson in 2019, providing investigative reporting to news outlets and with a goal to “train up the next generation of investigative reporters.”
Below he shares some insights about his career, his new book, and his hopes for the future of investigative journalism.
As a young person, what influenced your interest in journalism, and, specifically, investigative reporting?
My mother had me reading three newspapers a day by the time I was 7. I had no choice! I first experienced journalism in high school and soon gravitated to investigative reporting. Reading All the President’s Men inspired me and made me want to expose wrongdoing and right wrongs. I guess I’ve been doing it ever since.
Tell me about the movie that spurred your interest in the decades-old cold cases of murderers who had never been brought to justice, and why that film prompted you to begin a journey that would take almost as long to right those wrongs.
Watching the film Mississippi Burning outraged me. How could more than 20 Klansmen kill three young men and never be tried for murder? It made no sense. In addition, I saw the movie with two FBI agents who investigated the case and a journalist who covered the case. Watching the film with them made all the difference because they gave me the full story of what happened. That really kickstarted my investigation into the Mississippi Burning case and those that followed.
The late Pulitzer Prize winning author/journalist David Halberstam once called your work “a reflection of what a reporter with a conscience can do,” and Race Against Time has been described as “a remarkable journalistic detective story and a vital piece of American history.” That said, who should read this book, and why?
I would hope anyone who likes to read true crime or true detective stories would enjoy the book. How these horrible killings came to trial decades later is a fascinating tale. Prosecutors, investigators, FBI agents and others all deserve a tremendous amount of credit for piecing these cases together against impossible odds. Most important, the book tells the story of these courageous people in the civil rights movement and their families, who never gave up hope, never stopped believing. They continue to inspire me.
Where do you think Mississippi–and our country–stand today in the journey to racial equality?
Our journey to racial equality in this nation seems to have always been one of a few steps forward and a few steps back. It seems lately we have been taking steps back with white supremacy and white nationalism on the rise. My hope is that we, as a nation, can begin to see what brings us together, rather than what tears us apart. We need each other. Now more than ever.
Please tell me about the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, the nonprofit that you started, and why investigative reporting is especially important in today’s world.
Newsrooms are vanishing across the nation and especially Mississippi. That’s why we started the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in 2019. We provide newspapers and news outlets with investigative reporting they don’t have the money or manpower to do. We provide news outlets with stories that make a difference. For example, we reported on the powerful control of gangs in Mississippi prisons months before this gang war resulted in the killings of five and countless injuries.
We believe in shining a light into the darkness. We believe in exposing corruption. We believe in telling the truth because the truth still matters. We hope others will join us and help support this valuable mission. Our new offices are located on the Millsaps College campus, where we will begin working with college students in Mississippi. Our goal is to train up the next generation of investigative reporters.
Lemuria has selected Race Against Time its February 2020 selection for its First Editions Club for Nonfiction.
Jerry Mitchell will be Lemuria on Tuesday, February 4, beginning at 4:00 p.m. to sign copies of Race Against Time.
Michell will return on Wednesday, March 18, to sign books at 4:30 p.m., before joining in a conversation at 5:00 p.m. with Rena Evers-Everette, daughter of the late civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Scholar Phillip Gordon explores all of Faulkner’s walks on the wild side in ‘Gay Faulkner’
On January 30, 2020
In LGBTQIA+, Southern Fiction
By Jesse Yancy. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 26)
In Gay Faulkner, Phillip Gordon examines Faulkner’s interactions with gay men, his immersion in gay subcultures, especially during the 1920s, and his strong and meaningful relationships with specific gay men, particularly his lifelong friend Ben Wasson. Gordon’s study concentrates on As I Lay Dying and the Snopes trilogy with particular emphasis on Darl Bundren and V.K. Ratliff. Gordon states flatly that “the question at the heart of this study is not ‘Was Faulkner gay?’ . . . what this study really seeks to address: Is there a gay Faulkner?”
Gordon seeks to reveal a gay presence not only in Faulkner’s work, but also in his life as well, establishing Faulkner’s awareness of homosexuality and homosexuals, and his acceptance and participation in gay culture. While Gay Faulkner is a solid academic work the notes are as absorbing as the text, and the bibliography constitutes a summation of Queer Faulkner studies. Gordon offers insight, information, and even entertainment for the general reader.
Gordon’s documentation of Faulkner’s stay in New Orleans explores the bohemian atmosphere as well as the writers’ community of the Vieux Carré. Central to this section of the book is Gordon’s account of Faulkner’s relationship with his longtime friend and roommate, the gay artist William Spratling, including an intriguing account of a trip to Italy with Spratling, a journey that resulted in Faulkner’s most openly gay story, “A Divorce in Naples.”
We also discover Faulkner in New York City after the publication of Sanctuary (1931) interacting with the Algonquin Round Table, and his awkward meeting with Alexander Woollcott with his gay friend and sometime agent Ben Wasson and the New Orleans-born gay writer, Lyle Saxon. Gordon describes Faulkner touring Harlem’s gay clubs and cabarets with Carl Van Vechten, where he attended a show by the famous drag “king” Gladys Bentley. This encounter as recounted by Wasson becomes a focal point for establishing the critical importance of the Blotner Papers at Southeastern Missouri State University, which Gordon calls “fascinating, complex, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful.” And despite his earlier disclaimer concerning Faulkner’s personal proclivities, in somewhat of an aside Gordon also avers that “there is evidence in the Blotner papers that suggest our understanding of Faulkner’s sexuality might not be what we have generally assumed.”
Gordon frames Faulkner within the literary milieu of early 20th century Mississippi, which by any standards constitutes the cutting edge of the Southern Renaissance in American literature and includes several prominent gay writers. The queer planter, poet, and memoirist William Alexander Percy of Greenville nurtured a clutch of writers, including Hodding Carter, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, and Wasson. Gordon also illuminates Oxford’s fascinating and cosmopolitan Stark Young as well as the undeservedly obscure poet and scholar Hubert Creekmore of Water Valley.
In a text, Gordon and other queer critics focus on the meaning and nuances of the words used, and amplify their implications. Some readers may think Gordon is reaching to make a point, but in the end, the words and their meanings are there for any reader to understand. Gay Faulkner has a great deal to be recommended; it’s interesting, educational and, yes, entertaining. It is also a much-needed blade to cut the hide-bound conventions surrounding Faulkner and his work.
Jesse Yancy is a writer, editor and gardener living in Jackson.
Phillip Gordon will be at Lemuria on Thursday, March 26, to sign and discuss Gay Faulkner.
Author Q & A with Allie Povall
On January 26, 2020
In Civil War, Southern History
Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 26)
Oxford resident and retired attorney Allie Povall’s exploration of what became of many of the South’s major military leaders after the Civil War provides an in-depth–and often surprising–look into their lives after they put down their weapons and left the battlefields.
Rebels in Repose: Confederate Commanders After the War highlights how these men followed their own divergent destinies, and how they interacted with each other: some became friends; others vehemently blamed their counterparts for the loss of the war. Whatever their fates, the memories of the American Civil War would mark them forever.
Povall, a Lexington native, served as a naval officer in the Vietnam War after he received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Mississippi. He went on to earn a law degree from Ole Miss and an LLM from Yale Law School, then enjoyed a long and successful legal career before his retirement in 1998.
He has authored three previous books, including The Time of Eddie Noel, a finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Best Nonfiction Award in 2010, as well as Forward Magazine’s Best True Crime award that same year.
What influenced your interest in the Civil War and inspired your idea to write Rebels in Repose: Confederate Commanders After the War?
I grew up in Lexington, Miss., and I was raised on Civil War lore. I had three great-grandfathers who served in the Confederate Army and a number of great-great uncles who also served, at least one of whom died at Shiloh. One of my high school teachers was Margie Riddle Bearss, and her husband eventually became historian of the National Park Service and an expert on the Civil War. She did much to kindle my interest in that conflict. By the time I finished high school I had, following Mrs. Bearss’s guidance, studied and written about the Civil War in depth.
Later, I would lose that interest and move on to other things, like law, but later in life–after I retired from the practice of law–I began to wonder about both Confederate and Union generals and what they did after the War. It really was just curiosity. So, I read a book about Robert E. Lee and his years after the War at Washington College, which eventually became Washington and Lee, and I loved the human side–as opposed to his military persona–of Lee as presented in that book. That epiphany led me to take a look at some of the other Confederate commanders, and that process led to this book, which is my fourth.
On what basis did you select the nine officers featured with their own chapters in your book, and the 10 others who were included in the final chapter?
There are no bright lines between the nine and some of the others, and the selection process for the generals to go in the “Ten Others” chapter was, with respect to at least some of those generals, mildly arbitrary. What I tried to do, however, was to address the “major” commanders first and then the lesser known and less major generals second. Some–Richard Ewell for example–in the “Ten Others” chapter might have gone in the first group, but I tried to concentrate on those generals who made the greatest contribution to the Confederate cause, whether good or bad, and there were some bad Confederate generals.
What do you hope your readers will gain from your examination of the fates of these Confederate offices after the Civil War ended?
The Civil War, in my opinion, was the defining event of American History. It left the South in shambles, and it changed in many ways–legal, political and militarily, for example–the way that this country functions. The War, thankfully, ended slavery, and it led to the passage of several amendments to the U.S. Constitution–the Fourteenth, with its “Due Process” and “Equal Protection” clauses in particular–that fundamentally altered American jurisprudence and that extended the protection of “fundamental rights” to all Americans, thus establishing the legal underpinnings of the Civil Rights movement.
In examining the lives of these men–from childhood until their deaths–I have tried, through them, to tell some of the story of American history during the period from about 1820 to the early 1900s. I also address their roles in the War, and in the War’s aftermath, I tell how they took widely divergent paths as they tried to adjust to the Union victory. Some went to Canada, some went to Mexico, and some sought positions in the Egyptian, Rumanian and Brazilian Army, for example.
I want the reader to see how, in some cases, their lives were intertwined after the War, in both good and bad ways, as well as how their lives were intertwined with some of the lives of their Union counterparts. I want the reader to understand, finally, the impact that the War had on the South, and through these men, the impact that it had on its leaders, who, after the War, were just ordinary men trying to make a living in the aftermath of a catastrophic war that resulted in an economically decimated South.
Why is this information still relevant in today’s America, and what lessons can we learn from it?
As I said, I believe that the Civil War was the defining event in American history, and I believe an understanding of it and its aftermath, as I present it in this book, is essential to understanding how we got where we are.
It is, therefore, important, I believe, to see how African-Americans took charge politically of the southern states after the war, only to lose control–even though in some cases they had a majority of the voters–to whites, through violence and the race-inspired Jim Crow state constitutions that deprived blacks of the right to vote and basically, the right to coexist equally with whites. These conflicting forces would give rise to the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later. I hope that my readers can learn that the fundamental underpinnings of the South that arose around the turn of the 20th century were set in motion in the immediate aftermath of the War, and that we must resolve never to let those things happen again.
Please tell me about your next book.
I originally planned to do one book on Confederate and Union commanders, but the combined book would have been too large for most publishers to swallow, so I decided to split it into two companion books. I have started on the Union book–Warriors at Sunset: Union Commanders After the War– and hope to have it done in the next couple of years. If you look at the bibliography for Rebels in Repose, there are about 100 sources and about 400 footnotes. The point is that the research for a book like this is, in a colossal understatement, daunting. Nevertheless, that is my goal, and I am on my way.
Signed first editions (of the paperback original) of Rebels in Repose are available both at Lemuria and its online store.
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