The Writer's Life
Reading with... Joseph Crespino
Joseph Crespino, Jimmy Carter Professor of American History at Emory University, is a historian of the 20th-century United States and the American South since Reconstruction. He is the author of
|photo: Kay Hinton
In Search of Another Country and
Strom Thurmond's America. His third book,
Atticus Finch: The Biography (Basic Books, May 8, 2018), is a portrait of Harper Lee and her father.
On your nightstand now:
Winthrop Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy
Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
Marjorie J. Spruill, Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics
Johnny Cash, Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words
Jonathan Franzen, Purity
Timur Vermes, Look Who's Back
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Favorite book when you were a child:
The In-Your-Face Basketball Book by Chuck Wielgus and Alexander Wolff, with an introduction by Al McGuire.
Your top five authors:
Book you've faked reading:
"Faked reading" is a tricky concept for an academic. I had a professor in graduate school who told his students that it was an essential skill of the profession to be able to say something intelligent about a book that you haven't read.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Michael Ondaatje, The Cinnamon Peeler.
Book you hid from your parents:
I hid things from my parents, but books weren't one of them.
Book that changed your life:
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters. I read it the summer after my freshman year in college. I am a native Mississippian, and Branch's vivid descriptions of the bravery of black Mississippians and their struggles against what can only be called racist terrorism (although I wouldn't have been able to conceive of that term then) astonished me. I once took my copy of that book on a driving tour around my home state to visit places like the Sunflower County Courthouse, where Fannie Lou Hamer demanded the right to vote, or the tiny town of Liberty in southwest Mississippi, where in September 1961 a black man named Herbert Lee was shot dead in broad daylight by a sitting member of the Mississippi state legislature. It's hard to believe, even today. Reading that book made me realize that I had to learn this history, and that I had to try to contribute something to our understanding of it.
Favorite line from a book:
"It seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world. I implore you, do not become a moralist; you will destroy your art and your mind." --John Williams, Augustus
Five books you'll never part with:
C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety. I read it when I was younger and found it full of wisdom and truth. I'm closer now in age to the characters in the book, and so it would be fascinating I think to encounter it now for the first time.
Your favorite cookbook:
Alex Patout, Patout's Cajun Home Cooking. It was my mother's, and I don't know that she ever cracked the spine, but everything I've cooked from it has been absolutely delicious.
James A. McLaughlin
If an environmental scientist wants to be alone to study an undisturbed native ecosystem, the family-owned Turk Mountain Nature Preserve in Virginia's Appalachians is not a bad place to be. If he needs to hide from a vindictive Mexican cartel sicario 2,000 miles away, on the Arizona/Sonora border, its 7,000 fenced acres seem ideal. As the protagonist of James McLaughlin's near-perfect first novel, Bearskin, 34-year-old Rice Moore is that guy. With his old hippie family boss living in California, a new alias and the Preserve's rotary phone unplugged, the brooding, reclusive Moore thinks he is safely off the grid. But one summer morning, a mysterious, one-armed mushroom picker silently emerges from the woods to lead him to the skinned, mutilated carcass of a bear.
Much as natural beauty can mask predator/prey violence, McLaughlin's lush descriptions of the native flora and fauna of Moore's mountain domain, the "fecund riot of chest-high bluestem and orchard grass," seductively create what could be a setting out of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things. With Moore's discovery of more mutilated bears, however, a tale of natural science and rugged independence soon becomes one of hillbilly crime and poverty, of "trailer homes behind fixer-up muscle cars and four-bys on blocks," of tweakers poaching bears to sell their paws and gall bladders to rich Asians.
A land conservation lawyer with an MFA from the University of Virginia, McLaughlin helped manage his family's 1,500-acre preserve near the state's Jump Mountain. And with Bearskin
, he has carefully crafted a tale of mystery, ecology, backwoods mysticism and downright evil--a consummately skillful debut. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe
, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: An extraordinary first novel of powerful prose, Bearskin captures the blurry line between studying primordial nature and being a part of it.
$26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9780062742797
Childhood plays a central role in Warlight, Michael Ondaatje's dark, absorbing postwar drama set in 1945 London. Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, are left behind in London when their parents move to Singapore for work. The children are provided no context or further explanation for their parents' departure. Eventually their mother, Rose, returns as suddenly as she left. Their war-damaged father, always on the periphery of his children's lives, remains a distant figure. As an adult struggling to reconcile what was basically his abandonment, Nathaniel attempts to understand Rose's mysterious past and the impact of her absence on his formative years.
Nathaniel and Rachel's life on their own forms the first part of the book. The teens crave security and the truth about their parents' whereabouts, but they find neither in the series of guardians with whom they often feel unsafe. Their childhood insecurity manifests in the paths they take as adults, each fleeing the demons of their imploded family. Warlight is rich with diversions, subplots involving the various adults entering and exiting the children's lives in revolving-door fashion.
's emotionally heftier second half chronicles the siblings' unsettled lives after Rose's abrupt return. Her secrecy and deception gnaw at Nathaniel. It's impossible not to be lured into his memory-soaked rumination on the fragility of family and the central role, or lack, of mothers in constructing a child's inner life. Nathaniel longs for some measure of closure, something concrete about Rose's role in postwar intelligence work. Ondaatje (The Cat's Table
), however, is not interested in a neat and comforting finale. For the reader and Nathaniel alike, the satisfaction of closure remains elusive. --Shahina Piyarali
, writer and reviewer
Discover: The story of a mother's abandonment and her son's search for the truth set in London just after the end of World War II.
$26.95, hardcover, 304p., 9780525521198
A Lucky Man
In his beautifully wrought debut collection, A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley examines the ceremonies and consequences of prescribed masculinities, family, trauma and the inherited "[approaches] to life's deceptions."
Whether they're adopting protective personas, seeking questionable comforts, clinging to expectations or subduing desires, the men and boys in A Lucky Man all find themselves in moments of transition, contending with "freedom [as] a wilderness." What is wild is a break from convention, and Brinkley masterfully integrates the harbinger of such breaks--the trickster--into his stories. In "No More Than a Bubble" and "J'ouvert, 1996," Brinkley builds heady and chaotic revelries as opportunities to shake characters loose from what binds them. In "Everything That the Mouth Eats," a story after James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," he uses the rhythms and logic of capoeira so two brothers can "see the world upside down" and find a bit of liberation from unspeakable pain. Throughout the collection, Brinkley poses subtle, challenging questions. As with capoeira, he often feints one way, only to slide another way. How he complicates love, anger, shame and forgiveness with such serious and tender play is astonishing.
Many of the characters carry tense fists and barely concealed hurt. Yet, they do not snap so much as they are stretched to accommodate, however imperfectly, the possibility of transformation. Brinkley synthesizes empathy and accountability with controlled, sharp lyricism and a big steady heart, declaring all the while that "none of us deserves to be loved... so all of us should be." --Shannon Hanks-Mackey
, freelance editor and managing editor at the Black Scholar
Discover: The nine stories in A Lucky Man present profound and nuanced takes on masculinity, family, trauma and healing.
$26, hardcover, 264p., 9781555978051
Two babies are born the same July day in 2009 at Park Slope's New York Methodist Hospital. One arrives healthy with all flags flying on his Apgar; the other dies almost immediately of a congenital heart defect. Their fathers meet first in the waiting room and escape outside to share cigarettes and bourbon in a flask. From this chance encounter, Randall Klein's first novel, Little Disasters, spins a story of fraying relationships and stretched love. The dramas play out in a city brought to its knees by a mysterious catastrophe in Midtown that has panicked New Yorkers.
Paul and Jenny have already prepped a room in their small apartment for their deceased baby. Paul is an actor chasing auditions, and Jenny does freelance editing to help pay the bills. Michael and Rebecca manage to cover the rent with help from his parents. Bound by their day in the hospital waiting room but separated by the radically divergent fates of their babies, the couples begin to socialize. Michael offers to turn the baby room into a custom-built office for Jenny. Rebecca hosts dinner get-togethers and sends them fresh cookies. Emotions run high. Thrown together during the nursery remodel while their spouses work, Michael and Jenny begin an intense affair.
After a decade editing books, Klein has honed his writing chops. With a strong feel for the city and its young strivers, Little Disasters
is a poignant debut driven as much by resolving the uncertain future of these once content couples as by revealing just what caused the Midtown meltdown. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe
, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Randall Klein's first novel reverberates, featuring New Yorkers on the edge of personal family dissolution and collective urban disaster.
$27, hardcover, 352p., 9780735221680
Biography & Memoir
Sick: A Memoir
Iranian American novelist Porochista Khakpour (The Last Illusion
) is no stranger to suffering and the psychological torments of marginalization. As a child, she fled war and chaos in Iran. Her family eventually resettled in Los Angeles. From a young age, Khakpour harbored an inimical feeling of otherness as she and her parents tried to assimilate into American culture. Sick
, however, centers on a more fundamental kind of alienation, that of the mind against one's own ill body. "I am a foreigner," she writes, "but in ways that go much deeper than I thought, under the epidermis and into the blood cells."
Khakpour suffers from advanced-stage Lyme disease. It took years to figure out what was causing severe, if irregular, anxiety, insomnia and debilitating weakness. She duly chronicles her medical journey, from doctor to doctor, and various tick-laden locales, all potential infection sites. Lyme disease is a mysterious and misunderstood illness. People often attribute the symptoms to psychiatric causes rather than pathogens, Khakpour explains. She doesn't hold back on medical professionals who dismiss her and others with the disease as simply crazy. Sick shines much needed light on the nature of Lyme disease and the way reinfections sneak up and devastate normal life.
A gifted literary writer, Khakpour takes her memoir beyond medical and technical aspects of illness. She traces its emotional impacts in her relationships with friends, lovers, her parents. She explores her own demons as well, her struggles with substance abuse and the vagaries of literary fortune. Sick
is a hard-hitting memoir of honesty and self-reflection. --Scott Neuffer
, writer, poet, editor of trampset
Discover: In this compelling memoir, Iranian American author Porochista Khakpour confronts Lyme disease and her own sense of alienation.
$15.99, paperback, 272p., 9780062428738
Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day
Peter Ackroyd has already written a paean to London in his 2000 doorstop London: The Biography. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day is a much shorter book, a celebration and idiosyncratic pocket history of gay life from Roman Londinium to today. Ackroyd writes that "queer" is "an accommodating term, and will be used as such in this study." His book is similarly accommodating, allowing for a fluid definition of queerness that takes into account the enormous cultural differences that make applying such a label tricky. Ackroyd also opts for a playful comic tone that pairs well with the riotous subject matter.
From London's founding, "urban life was conducted in the Roman fashion," which meant the common practice of sexual relationships "between master and slave or between man and boy." After London was Christianized, queerness and same-sex love frequently came to be associated with royalty and their courts, as well as the tightly knit military caste. Ackroyd writes movingly about persecution over the centuries and about crises such as the outbreak of AIDS in London.
is far from downbeat, however, gleefully recounting a 17th-century description that "may be the first example of what became known as the 'swishy' gay" and giving his chapters suggestive titles such as "Bring on the dancing boys." Ackroyd's is an unrepentantly "queer narrative" and a tribute to the enduring vibrancy of gay life in London. --Hank Stephenson
, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Discover: Queer City is a witty history-cum-tribute to gay London, from the Roman "wolf dens" through Oscar Wilde and Gay Pride marches to the present day.
$26, hardcover, 272p., 9781419730993
Essays & Criticism
Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics
Even more than usual, tyranny is a matter of concern. Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve
) scrutinizes William Shakespeare's portrayal of its agents in Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics
, and draws a line from Elizabethan England to the world of today.
Shakespeare, a businessman in addition to a gifted playwright, knew that he had to avoid offending Queen Elizabeth, because those who did were tortured or killed. "He could tell the truth about his own world, but only from an oblique angle." So, too, does Greenblatt shine an indirect light on current events, using Elizabethan England as his mirror.
He establishes that Shakespeare's tyrants share certain characteristics--ones that sound remarkably familiar. Henry V manipulates his subjects, disdaining inconvenient facts and displaying false populism. In reality, this scheming king has no interest in the have-nots, but understands that "they can be made to further his ambitions." Richard III is a despot whose physical deformities reflect his twisted personality. Richard feels "inward bitterness, disorder, and violence that drive him forward, to the ruin of his country...." Greenblatt shows how other major characters, including Lear and Hamlet, demonstrate a tyrant's deeply flawed psychology.
Greenblatt provides historical context throughout and, without being political, subtly compares Shakespeare's characters with modern heads of state. Greenblatt shares Shakespeare's hope that "the political action of ordinary citizens" is the savior of democratic institutions. This small volume is an unusual and sobering look at the insidious nature of tyranny and the necessity for citizens to rise up against it. --Cindy Pauldine
, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.
Discover: The fragility of democratic institutions and the rise of tyranny is examined through the lens of Shakespeare's many portrayals of tyrants and corrupt government leaders.
$21.95, hardcover, 224p., 9780393635751
Health & Medicine
The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs
Lloyd I. Sederer
"Drug taking is a highly complex and variable human and social phenomenon... [that] is not going away." Material on addiction is seemingly limitless, and choosing who and what to believe can be treacherous territory when lives are at risk. Lloyd Sederer, M.D., chief mental health officer of the New York State Office of Mental Health, brings a prestigious pedigree to his perspective, The Addiction Solution.
Sederer engenders confidence on numerous fronts, particularly in acknowledging that drugs are winning the "War on Drugs" by a landslide; that current drug policies are actually institutionalized racism; and that there is no "one-size-fits-all" answer to a very individualized epidemic. Confining his discussion to illegal drugs and the abuse of legal drugs, Sederer presents a straightforward, plain-language overview of available options and best-care treatment scenarios.
He advocates the use of social values and family influence over "control and consequences," which he considers a "puritan approach" akin to tilting at windmills. Moreover, a community methodology emphasizes identification of risk and the importance of eliminating adverse childhood experiences. As Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men."
Summarizing available methods and treatments, Sederer believes single-method recovery (i.e., 12-step) is not the road to maximum success. He recommends a multifaceted plan attacking addiction on multiple fronts that enhance one another. The Addiction Solution
offers guidance; it is not a textbook or exhaustive treatise. It proposes tools to fight the disease and plainly, though not overly simplistically, suggests the best means to implement them. --Lauren O'Brien
of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: The chief medical officer for the largest state mental health agency in the U.S. provides insight and opinions on how to start winning the war on drugs.
$26, hardcover, 224p., 9781501179440
Art & Photography
Against the Grain: Bombthrowing in the Fine American Tradition of Political Cartooning
If political cartoonist Bill Sanders has proven anything in his nearly 56-year journalistic career, it is that differences in opinion do not equate to unpatriotic. A man of this nature, according to fellow cartoonist Jules Feiffer, embodies the meaning of citizen: "a man of the people," a person vested in the public interest. Such is the power of Sanders's memoir, Against the Grain, in which he mines the United States' recent past to educate and empower the citizenry.
The early part of Sanders's memoir is anecdotal and nostalgic. He grew up in a dysfunctional Tennessee family and bounced around the South in his formative years, discovering his calling through the no-holds-barred commentaries of Herblock's Here and Now. Sanders honed his craft through hours of reading and research. No topic was taboo; his caustic witticisms skewered politicians from both left and right, earning the grudging respect (and resentment) of those he covered. His musings on 1960s extremism, the paranoia of the Nixon administration and the distractions of both Bush presidencies draw eerie parallels to 21st-century politics and culture. When Sanders describes Alabama governor George Wallace's "bigoted bombast... ready and willing to exploit that border for personal gain," he could easily be describing the current political climate.
Sanders may be the real-life incarnate of Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith or Gary Cooper's Mr. Deeds, but his criticisms will certainly incite those who are unwilling to embrace contrarian viewpoints. Such things are not Sanders's concern. "It is our role to absorb enough outrage on the public's behalf to call out the hypocrites and rogues and try to awaken similar outrage in our readers." --Nancy Powell
, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: A political cartoonist reflects on journalistic integrity in a chronicle of national politics whose lessons continue to reverberate.
$27.95, hardcover, 232p., 9781588382948
Jo Nesbø's (Midnight Sun
) retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth
takes place in the 1970s amidst a rampant drug epidemic. Using the scaffolding of the original play and constructing his own dark plot full of misfortune and adversity, Nesbø clearly illustrates the universal nature of the Bard's classic work.
The character names mirror the 17th-century cast, but the individuals themselves receive the royal treatment of Nesbø's creativity. Inspector Macbeth, head of SWAT, was an orphan. While not married, he does have a monogamous relationship with Lady, the owner and operator of one of the town's two casinos. His best friend and surrogate father, Banquo, serves alongside Macbeth in the police department headed by Duncan, the chief of police. Hecate is the drug kingpin leading Macbeth around by his dark secret.
Euan Morton (Alice McDermott's The Ninth Hour and Candace Fox's Crimson Lake) narrates the audio version of this modern Macbeth with exceptional insight into each of the novel's characters. The dark tone, the driving ambition, the unmooring insanity seep into the audience through Morton's well-paced, dramatic reading. He unnerves the listener the same way the plot's circumstances rattle its title character.
Fans of Nesbø may find this work a bit jolting since it's a deviation from his contemporary norm, but Macbeth
is cleverly layered with symbolism and complexity. Morton ensures the audience's reaction is as spinetingling as those experienced in the Globe. A fascinating novel and a stunning narration, the perfect combination. --Jen Forbus
Discover: The king of Scandinavian noir retells Shakespeare's Macbeth in a 1970s town suffering from a major drug crisis.
Random House Audio,
$50, CD, $30 download, 9780525588337
Children's & Young Adult
The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle
, illust. by Jonathan Bean
Ever since Sister Wanda found her as a toddler, wearing only a "faded pink T-shirt decorated with a drawing of a bike and the word BICYCLE printed in block letters," Bicycle has been a permanent fixture at the Mostly Silent Monastery in Washington, D.C. Having grown up around monks who speak only the Sacred Eight Words--"yes," "no," "maybe," "help," "now," "later," "sleep" and "sandwich"--the now 12-year-old Bicycle would much rather ride her bike, Clunk, than make friends. And so, when Sister Wanda decides to send Bicycle to the Friendship Factory ("Three Guaranteed Friendships or Your Money Back"), Bicycle comes up with her own friendship plan: a cross-country cycling trip.
What starts out as a solitary journey turns into an extraordinary pilgrimage featuring several fantastical characters and an unforgettable adventure to boot. While these colorful people and their stories surely delight, the strength of Christina Uss's writing lies in her ability to meld multiple genres into one enjoyable, cohesive story. She easily weaves together mystery (a woman in black who's very curious about Bicycle's whereabouts), adventure (several calamitous events raise the stakes) and the supernatural (a chatty Civil War ghost with unfinished business), creating a memorable middle-grade novel debut.
Uss is a seasoned cyclist, having made her own cross-country trip in 1996. Her descriptions of landscapes--"the Ozark Mountains... were more like a monster-sized roller coaster"--challenges and the physical effects on a rider's body all attest to Uss's familiarity with trekking coast to coast, making Bicycle's story all the more believable. --Lana Barnes
, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Discover: An orphan who's grown up in a mostly silent monastery rides a bicycle cross-country to prove to her guardian she can make friends on her own.
Margaret Ferguson/Holiday House,
$16.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 8-12, 9780823440078
Vernon Is on His Way: Small Stories
Philip C. Stead
Readers first met Vernon in 2012's A Home for Bird, in which the bipedal yellow toad goes to great lengths to find a dwelling place for Bird, his new, nontalking blue friend. The book's ending reveals Bird to be a clock's inanimate cuckoo--a fact either lost on Vernon or of no consequence to him: his love for Bird is unconditional. In Philip C. Stead's new companion volume, Vernon Is on His Way: Small Stories, Vernon returns in three tales that do nothing to reverse the impression that the little toad is a big softie.
In the blink-or-you'll-miss it "Waiting," Vernon is relieved of the tedium of waiting when the shell that he stands on to smell a tall flower turns out to be a snail who takes him "on his way." In "Fishing," Vernon and his friends Skunk and Porcupine do nothing but gab ("Do fish have toes?") when they're supposed to be fishing; eventually, they admit that they don't know how to fish, but they give their outing top marks anyway. And in "Gardening," Vernon misses Bird, so he sets off to "look for his memories"; meanwhile, Skunk and Porcupine, who note Vernon's sadness, plot to cheer him up and succeed circuitously.
In Vernon Is on His Way
, Stead's media--gouache, crayon, chalk pastel and charcoal--leaves a distinctly inviting textural impression. Illustrations untouched by technology suit these stories untainted by modernity, which harbor a timeless message about how friendship can be transformative--and, in "Waiting," transportational. --Nell Beram
, freelance writer and YA author
Discover: Philip C. Stead's toad protagonist from A Home for Bird returns in three stories that reinforce Vernon's sweetheart character.
Roaring Brook Press,
$19.99, hardcover, 64p., ages 4-8, 9781626726550