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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.

 

 

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Read any good books lately? Of course you have. Me too, and you know which ones if you’ve been reading this blog. But that hasn’t stopped me from reading others’ year-end lists to see where we overlap or disagree or what I should add to my TBR.

This holiday, as usual, I’m wrapping up books as gifts for friends and family. My top pick this year is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which is as gorgeous inside as out, a sweeping Victorian tale with Gothic shadings. Then there’s Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, an imaginative, moving novel of love, war and refugees: “We are all migrants in time.” Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin is the darkly funny story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life at the same time that her brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies echoes with old lies and loves as George Smiley’s protege Peter Guillam revisits the long-ago case that was the centerpiece of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

In crime fiction, Anthony Horowitz’s clever Magpie Murders pays homage to the cozy Golden Age detective story and the cutthroat world of contemporary publishing. In Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke explores race and justice when a black Texas Ranger becomes involved in two murders in East Texas. Michael Connelly jump-starts a new series with The Late Show, and Sleep No More collects six short stories by the late P.D. James. Australian writer Jane Harper made her debut last winter with the thrilling The Dry, and follows up with Force of Nature this coming February.

I read nonfiction mostly in newspapers and magazines, which then leads me to good books such as David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. I also can recommend Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Up next for me is Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries, which came out a few weeks ago and which a good friend has put under my Christmas tree.

Then there are the several books I’ve read recently but haven’t had time to write about.  Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak (Penguin, digital) follows a dysfunctional British family with two grown daughters and plenty of secrets quarantined over Christmas because one of them has been exposed to an Ebola-like virus. The plot stretches credibility, but the characters are appealing and the ending was unexpectedly moving. Jane Austen fans will appreciate Katherine Reay’s clever The Austen Escape (Thomas Nelson, digital galley), in which Austin, Texas engineer Mary joins estranged friend Isabel on a holiday to Bath, England. There they stay at a manor house and dress up in Regency clothing with other Austen fans, and all is well and good until Isabel has a mental lapse and thinks she really is a Jane Austen character. Finally, the new Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery, Bryant and May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) finds the two aging, eccentric police detectives tracking a possible serial killer knocking off victims in London parks. Lots of funny business, witty writing and a killer ending.

Happy holidays, everyone. May your days be merry and bright with many, many books.

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kimcrossKim Cross made me cry. Or rather her book did. What Stands in a Storm (Atria Books, digital galley) is subtitled “Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South’s Tornado Alley,” but I read it in hours, gripped from the very beginning:

“3:44 p.m., Wednesday, April 27, 2011 — Smithville, Mississippi

Patti Parker watched the dark funnel grow until it filled the whole windshield, blackening the sky. Its two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds were furious enough to blast the bark off trees, suck the nails out of a two-by-four, and peel a road right off the earth, and it was charging at sixty miles per hour toward everything she loved most in the world — her children, her husband, their home. She was racing behind the massive storm, down the seven-mile stretch of rural highway between her and the life she knew.”

My tears came later, when after reading through part one, “The Storm,”  I found out what happened to everyone in parts two and three — “The Aftermath” and “The Recovery.” By everyone I mean the people huddled in basements and bathtubs, the seasoned meteorologists who saw the storms coming, the college students crouched in stairwells, the dispatcher who stayed at her post, the motel clerk with the friendly smile, the stormchasers trying to decide to turn left or right, the passengers in the cars and the drivers of the semis beneath the highway overpasses, the staff at the threatened hospitals, the firefighters with the flattened trucks. As Rick Bragg notes in his introduction, Cross puts the human face on the drama and makes the numbers real: the 358 tornadoes that ripped through 21 states in three days, seven hours, eighteen minutes; 348 people killed, $11 billion in damage.

Now an editor-at-large at Southern Living and a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Cross is a superb reporter who cloaks the tick-tock frame with a specificity of detail and imagery. The ugly greenish sky is “the color of fear,” a family collapses in a huddle of “elbows and tears.” Trucks cartwheel through whipping debris and crumple like soda cans. “At the Wrangler plant, a flock of blue jeans launched into flight, flapping like denim birds.”

The response and reaction is heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Phones ring in the terrible silence. Neighbors help neighbors and strangers. Volunteers serve plate after plate of soul food. A wedding goes on without the maid of honor. A memory quilt is found because of a Facebook posting. A father with “kind, sad” eyes sits for five days next to the slab of the apartment building that buried his college student son. A trained black German shepherd named Cinco and a honey-colored retriever mix named Chance help find the body. People from all over send clothes, supplies, cash. “Japan sent Alabama eight thousand blankets, a thank-you gift for all the help Americans had sent in the wake of the March tsunami.”

These days it seems that natural disasters strike all too frequently: an earthquake in Mexico, a tsunami in Japan, a hurricane in the South Pacific, forest fires and mudslides and tornadoes. It’s possible that you might not be able to separate the Tuscaloosa tornado from the storm that struck Joplin, Missouri, in May of that year, or the one that hit Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013. There’s a forthcoming book by Holly Bailey about the Moore tornado, The Mercy of the Sky. I’m going to read that one, too.

Tornadoes scare me because they are so random and indiscriminate. What Stands in a Storm brings that home with a terrible immediacy. I was going to back into this post, begin with the years I spent in Kansas and tell you how funnel clouds still haunt my dreams. I was going to tell you about how I can look at a cloud bank like a bruise on the horizon and predict the sirens going off, about hunkering down and hoping and praying. But my experiences are puny compared to those I read about in What Stands in a Storm. What a powerful and poignant book. You might cry, too.         (more…)

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mothergaveMy timing is all off. After having spent the last two months with my mom, I’m not going to be with her on Mother’s Day. I left her some little presents and sent pretty Jacqui Lawson e-cards, and, of course, I’ll call. But we have long conversations almost daily, going over all kinds of things, from how our knees are feeling in whatever weather, to what we’re reading. (She just finished a library copy of the new David Baldacci thriller, me, John le Carre’s A Delicate Balance. She liked her book ok except for the high body count, I really liked the le Carre, war and spying gone corporate.)

Now I am reading Elizabeth Benedict’s What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most (Algonquin, paperback review copy), and loving the essays. Such a variety of gifts: Cecelia Munoz’s mother gave her a wok, Joyce Carol Oates’ mother gave her a quilt, Rita Dove’s mother gave her longed-for nail polish, Mary Morris’s mother gave her a passport and thus gave her the world.

But whether an expensive blouse or a tarnished piece of silver jewelry, the gifts are not only symbols of love but also the keys that unlock memories, allowing each woman to celebrate her singular relationship with her mother. In “Her Favorite Neutral,”  Charlotte Silver talks about her beautiful mother’s penchant for animal prints and how she has handed on her personal sense of style, along with leopard print Italian ankle boots. She notes that her mother once remarked, “I just wasn’t capable of a small life in a minor key,” and she hopes to one day be able to say the same.

In a recent interview on NPR, Benedict said she asked the contributors to write about an object because she was afraid they’d “freak out” if she said ‘Write me a story about your mother.” By honing in on the specific, the writers avoid generalities, and yet the particular often evokes the universal.

Mmmm. I find myself thinking of the many things my mother has given me over the years. What one item would I choose? The gold locket that her mother gave her? The lime chiffon dress that we shared? The oval-framed antique photograph of her oldest sister as a little girl? The airplane ticket to New York for spring break?

Books, of course. Many, many books, starting with A Child’s Garden of Verses. I learned to read by her reading it to me, and then with me. “How would you like to go up in a swing?” or “Dark brown is the river,” or my favorite “Escape from Bedtime.” “The lights from the kitchen and parlor shone out…”

But there’s another book that came later, when I was 11. We were in our small branch library and I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything new to read in the childrens’ or teen shelves. My mother went to the adult fiction section and came back with a thick blue book. “Here, I think you’ll like this,” and handed me Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Then  she told the head librarian I had her permission to wander freely in the adult stacks and check out whatever books I wanted. And so she gave me the world.

Thanks, Mom. Love you.

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porchdogsI dreamed about my dog Doc last night. It was a good dream. I called his name and he broke away from a pack of lookalikes and came running. Then I was holding his wriggling  fur and he was licking my face. Just like old times.

Not sure what prompted the dream. Maybe because I’m still in South Carolina and Doc dearly loved the beach. Or it could be all the dogs I see around Edisto, a preponderance of labs — yellow, black, chocolate. But most likely it’s because I’ve been thumbing through Porch Dogs, a collection of great photographs by Nell Dickerson, with cool captions and commentary.

The foreword’s by Robert Hicks. He comes from “dog people,” and one of the handsome canines in the book belongs to him, full-named “Jake, the World’s Greatest Dog.” Like many others, I might take issue with that title, but as Hicks points out, I haven’t met Jake. He does look like a fine fellow — a mix of Rhodesian Ridgeback, Chow, Pit Bull, Golden and Lab. Actually, he reminds me of Doc, who was a Goldenlabrachowzoi (Golden, Lab, Chow, Borzoi). I expect they’d be pals.

Dickerson spent eight years photographing all kind of different dogs on Deep South porches of all kinds. Border collies Millie and Belle pose elegantly between white columns in Canton, Miss. Yorkshire terrier Teeny Baby is almost lost amidst the porch clutter in Natchez, Miss. An amiable pack of mixed-breed rescues patrol a porch that doubles as a clothesline in Meansville, Ga. The cover girl is Daisy, a Springer Spaniel sitting pretty atop the stairs in Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

Dickerson’s captions are wry short stories. You have to see them in juxtaposition with the photos to fully appreciate. “Ally loves books, but they don’t taste as good as they smell” goes with a solemn Labrador retriever- Australian sheep dog mix sitting patiently by a chair stacked with old books.

093Dickerson contends that air-conditioning finished off the Old South because it mostly did away with front porches and being neighborly. Where they can, dogs have taken over, “Sentinels of the South.” I sort of disagree. I miss my grandmothers’ porches and sitting out there in the evening, watching whoever was going down the street and listening to the stories my uncles spun. But if you want to be social in the South, you don’t need a porch if you have a dog. Walk with your dog and you’ll meet all kinds of folks. Of course, here at the beach we have great porches and great dogs. This is a picture I took of Doc at sunset a few years ago. Dream of a dog.

Open Book: I was predisposed to like Porch Dogs. Not only is it about three of my favorite things — dogs, porches, the South — it is published by John F. Blair, publisher of Caroline Cousins. I read a digital galley from edelweiss, but the dog people in my life will be getting copies for birthdays or Christmas, whichever comes first. You know who you are. Also, Blair is having a Porch Dog contest where you can send in your pictures of your pooch and win nifty prizes. Details at the website, blairpub.com

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Even though I’ve lived in Florida for most of my adult life, I didn’t grow up here. Still, I was lucky enough to have cousins who are natives, so I have more than the usual Florida vacation memories of beach and sun. With my cousins Paulette and Gordon Jr., I enjoyed the free-range, small-town childhood of Central Florida B.D. (before Disney), going barefoot in December, picking oranges in the backyard, pole-fishing in little lakes. For attractions, there were the slopes of Sand Mountain, the parrots at Busch Gardens and waves at the beach, but my favorite part of those treks was stopping at A&W for frosty mugs of root beer.

Yes, I’m waxing nostalgia, but it’s what William McKeen calls “honest nostalgia” in the introduction to  Homegrown in Florida, a collection of “stories (some fact, some fiction) of a vanishing place and a lost time.” There are also song lyrics by John Anderson and a few poems, including Teri Youmans Grimm’s “Miss Senior High Duval County.” Like many of the stories, it mixes the bitter with the sweet, and while it is particular to a time and place, it also has a coming-of-age universality.

A goodly number of the tales are sand-in-our-shoes memories of outdoors adventures. Although Stephen F. Orlando’s “The Other Campout” ends happily with teenage boys cutting up in a waterspout, in Jeff Klinkenberg’s “Nothing I Could Do,” a boys’ golf-course adventure turns into tragedy. Ken Block’s “Riding the Wave” pays homage to surfing and a younger brother’s battle with cancer. But Sherry Lee Alexander remembers the sweetly Southern vibe of Miami of the 1950s-60s in “Seaboard Coast Line” when “we were all still kids in Camelot.”

Allisson Burke Clark, “God Only Knows,” moved to Florida at age 11 and promptly encountered teased hair and iridescent eye makeup courtesy of mature Michelle. “My mother had talked breathlessly about the long growing season down south — we’d have flowers ten months out of the year, she said. Did Florida kids, like hothouse flowers, bloom before the rest of us?”

(Perhaps I should mention here that my cousin Paulette, three years my senior, taught me how to smoke, blowing smoke rings in the orange blossom-scented air. Of course, years later, after I had moved to Florida, she also saw me through quitting.)

Other contributors to the book include quintessential Floridians Carl Hiaasen, Zora Neale Hurston, Tim Dorsey and Tom Petty. The latter recalls “When the King Came to Ocala” (as told to Paul Zollo) and his early enthrallment with Elvis.

Petty also was inspired by Gram Parsons, the subject of Orlando author and TV reporter Bob Kealing’s “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock.” Parson’s contributions to music have long been overshadowed by his “live-fast-die-young,” drug-fueled lifestyle, his fatal overdose at 26, and the weird, failed attempt to steal his body and burn it in the desert.

But while Kealing doesn’t skirt the tabloid stuff, he’s more interested in Parsons’ journey as a muscian, his “own Cosmic American roots, planted deeply within the Georgia red clay and Florida myakka.”

The book itself is a fascinating journey to the past and back again as Kealing revisits the people and places important to Parsons’ career and life, and to Southern rock. Kealing has an entertaining, conversational style that nicely complements his subject, who crammed a whole lot of living into two decades. A new batch of old photographs from the 1960s and ’70s also prove revealing. Then there’s the discography, from The Shilos and the International Submarine Band,  to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers,  to Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and just Gram Parsons. Ah, he was young and amazing.

Sure, I can get all nostalgic reading this book and hearing “Hickory Wind.” But it’s honest nostalgia.

Open Book: Both Homegrown in Florida and Calling Me Home are published by the University Press of Florida, which sent me review copies. And I’ve known Bill McKeen and Bob Kealing for pretty much as long as I’ve lived in Florida, which is longer now than Gram Parsons’ fleeting life.

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Watching the first two episodes of the new HBO series “Girls,” I chuckled, cringed and laughed out loud. That was when 24-year-old Hannah announced to her parents that she believed she was “the voice of her generation,” or at least “a voice,” and needed $1100 a month for the next two years to finish her collection of essays. Her mother sputtered, “That’s ridiculous!”

Present-day me agrees with mom. But long-ago me recognizes the confident bravado of the young writer when everything is bright and shiny and possible. Still, as Hanna’s gynecologist asserts in the next episode, “I wouldn’t be 24 again.”

I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen (more on that in a moment), but I imagine that she would have a similar reaction to “Girls.” Her new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, reminded me that Quindlen is the voice of my generation, beginning with her “Life in the Thirties” column for the New York Times 25 years ago and continuing through her books. Like many other women of a certain age, I find myself nodding in agreement as I read her new one.

Early on, she writes, “There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps, more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes. … We understand ourselves, our lives, retrospectively.”

How true. As are her observations on collecting “stuff,” the choices that bless and burden our generation of women, how much of life is surprise and happy accident, the importance of girlfriends, “the joists that hold up the house of our existence.”

I could continue quoting, but you should have the pleasure of discovering what Quindlen has to say on your own. It’s like an ongoing conversation with your BFF about books, men, mothers, kids, work, aging. I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen, but she sure speaks for me.

Open Book: I’ve never met Anna Quindlen, but I feel like I know her through her books and novels, and having looked at a series of pictures of her at different ages in the current issue of More magazine, I know we sort of look alike, except for our noses.  And having read her over the years, I know we share remarkably similar interests and views. So much so that after reading a NetGalley digital copy of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House), I bought two hardcover copies — one for my college roommate for her birthday, and one for me just because.

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