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Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were the Three Musketeers back in the day, celebrating college graduation Memorial Day weekend 1971 at Martha’s Vineyard. In the summer of 2015, they reconnect at the same cottage, haunted by the ghosts of their former selves, the Vietnam draft and the missing Fourth Musketeer, the blue-blooded sorority girl Jacy. Ever wonder what happened to her?

Richard Russo’s Chances Are. . . (Random House, digital galley) is part teasing mystery, but mostly it’s a familiar reunion novel of friendship, memory and regret. But it’s also about fathers and sons, small towns, first love, male bonding and things that go unsaid. Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are all good guys but flawed in recognizable ways. Lincoln’s a commercial real estate broker in Nevada, happily married to his college sweetheart who contends with his tyrannical father. Solitary Teddy, who is about to lose his job as head of a small press, has a secret he’s kept so long it’s like a vital organ. Mickey seems the least changed since college — still riding a Harley and playing in a bar band up and down the Cape. All three were in love with Jacy back when, and she remains the epitome of dream girl, the rich rebel who could sing like Grace Slick.

Russo’s narrative goes down easy, helped by humor and a modicum of suspense. There’s the expected Big Chill nostalgia, and a couple of subplots involving a retired cop and a bully of a next-door neighbor. The ending’s less of a reckoning with the past than a resolution that comes second-hand. Still, this is good-hearted summer reading. Chances are you’ll like it.

I love it when I start reading a book and the next time I look up, I’m four chapters in and eager to return. That’s the way it was with Chanelle Benz’s wonderful first novel The Dead Gone (HarperCollins, digital galley), a daughter’s journey into the past to examine the circumstances of her Civil Rights-era poet father’s death. Billie, a Philadelphia grants writer, hasn’t been to small-town Mississippi in 30 years, but returns to claim the derelict cottage where her father once lived. It’s full of memories and spiders, a suitable metaphor for the web in which Billie’s soon entangled. Her relatives tell her to leave well enough, and the local law proves less than helpful. After she finds a chapter of her father’s memoir of the region’s racist history, she enlists the help of a well-known scholar and becomes involved with the wayward son of the neighboring landowner. Threats and violence stalk Billie and her dog Rufus.

Billie’s is the book’s main voice, but Benz also orchestrates a distinctive chorus that adds to the lyricism and atmosphere. Even an old juke joint, Avalon, has a say, recalling times now dead and gone. Sadly, injustice lingers as the past bleeds into the present.

You don’t have to know a PBR from an IPA, or even like beer, to like J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is as refreshing as a cold one on a hot summer day. Stradal,  who delighted foodies and readers with his novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest, now rides the wave of enthusiasm for craft beer.

Sisters Edith and Helen are close growing up in 1950s Minnesota, until Helen convinces their father to leave her his entire farm so she can invest in her new husband’s family brewing business. The betrayal leads to a long estrangement, until Edith’s orphaned granddaughter Diana displays a talent for making craft beer that also incorporates Edith’s famed pie-making abilities. Turns out a family feud, strong women, beer and pie are just the ingredients needed for an engaging tale. Stradal’s a first-rate storyteller.

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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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nancyadamsMost of us consider ourselves experts on high school — we’ve been there, after all. But how would that experience help or hurt us if we went back 20 years later, not as a student but as a teacher?

In Larry Baker’s smart and entertaining new novel The Education of Nancy Adams (Ice Tea Books, paperback ARC), Nancy, valedictorian of the class of ’77, returns to Kennedy High School as a first-year teacher 20 years after graduation. A widow with no children, she’s as surprised as anyone to be living in her late parents’ home on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, but her favorite high school teacher, Russell Parsons, has lured her back. He’s the popular principal at Kennedy now, married with two daughters, but Nancy is still emotionally drawn to him. Once school starts, however, she has more on her mind than rekindling her schoolgirl crush.

Baker, author of Flamingo Rising, a terrific coming-of-age novel, creates a colorful microcosm populated with familiar yet credible characters. Nancy, who narrates, has students who are high-flyers, misfits, bullies, rebels, nerds. The perplexing Dana may be the smartest of them all, but she’s struggling to make up classes after having a baby. Nancy can’t figure her out. But she’s also contending with her fellow teachers: the veteran who helped integrate the faculty, the prissy by-the-book newcomer, the charismatic basketball coach, the guidance counselor who knows where all the bodies are buried. Over the course of a schoolyear, replete with surprises, Nancy learns from them all about what being a teacher really means.

Baker’s book is in tune with the times — the mid 1990s — and thoughtfully explores issues of racial prejudice, sexual harassment, school violence and school-board politics. But mostly it’s a good story about mostly good people making their way in a changing world. I’m giving it an “A.”

flyingshoesIf you are the kind of person who alphabetizes your books, color-codes your closets and likes stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, bookstore owner Lisa Howorth’s first novel, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury, digital galley) is likely to drive you plum crazy. How appropriate it kicks off with Mary Byrd Thornton throwing a cheap plate on the heart-pine kitchen floor of her Oxford, Miss., home. The shards of faux-china explode all over the place, just like the pieces of Mary Byrd’s story. It’s a credit to Howorth’s often-glorious writing that you’re willing to pick through the mess.

Really, plot is the least of it, although Mary Byrd throws the plate after getting the news that the 1966 unsolved case of her murdered little brother in Richmond, Va., is being reopened after 30 years and Mary Byrd needs to come home. This will eventually result in her hitching a ride with a trucker and outrunning the ice storm that paralyzes Oxford, but not before her housekeeper Eva’s daughter is accused of murdering her abusive husband. And then there’s Mary Byrd’s husband Charles and their children, her gay best friend Hubbard, the homeless but resourceful vet Teever, and gallivanting flirt Jack Ernest. They all have their stories, which intertwine with Mary Byrd’s like the ragged vines in her overgrown garden. The past tale of the murdered brother is overwhelmed by the casual chaos of  Mary Byrd’s present, the very randomness of the everyday. Best go with the flow, or you can always fling a plate.

 

 

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Good historical novels mix fiction with fact as they anchor readers in past time and place. So I’ve recently sweltered under the sun at an antebellum plantation in the Mississippi Delta, survived the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, enjoyed the pleasures of belle epoque Amsterdam, and listened to the tales of a German-American family in early 20th-century Missouri.

Jonathan Odell’s The Healing (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley via NetGalley) casts a spell with its story of the slave girl Granada, singled out first by the plantation mistress as a pet and then by the enigmatic healer Polly Shine, who takes her as a reluctant apprentice. In 1933, the now-elderly Gran-Gran recalls her youth and Polly’s impact on her fellow slaves for an orphaned girl in need of stories:

“The expression on Violet’s face was rapt, even hungry. But for what? For her words? For the tales of folks long dead? Polly used to say that it was the people’s story that kept them bound to one another. Everybody holds their own thread.”

So many compelling stories have been told about the Titanic that it’s a challenge for a writer to discover a fresh angle that also is credible. But in The Dressmaker (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley via NetGalley), Kate Alcott’s fictional seamstress Tess is hired by the very real London-based designer Lady Lucille Duff Gordon. On the fourth night of their voyage aboard the doomed Titanic, the ship hits an iceberg and Tess finds herself in the infamous “Millionaire’s Lifeboat” with her imperious employer.

It’s hard not to see images from the movies Titanic and A Night to Remember in the first part of Alcott’s atmospheric narrative, but then come the legal inquiries into the survivors’ accounts of the tragedy and subsequent behavior, and Tess comes into her own as a memorable young woman with divided loyalties and loves.

Richard Mason’s lushly written History of a Pleasure Seeker (Knopf, advance readers copy) revels in the adventures of 24-year-old Piet Barol in 1907 Amsterdam. Piet is intelligent, handsome, charming, ambitious and drawn to the finer things in life, but he lacks the money to support his champagne tastes. So he takes a job as tutor to the phobic son of one of the city’s wealthier families and uses his personal and physical charms to insinuate himself into the household bedrooms, upstairs and downstairs, male and female. Yes, our Piet is more than a bit of a cad, but his relationship with neglected wife Jacobina proves to be the catalyst that eventually sends him on his maybe-merry way. This pleasant and evocative period piece left me — like Piet — wanting more.

More is not a problem with Alex George’s lively, old-fashioned and operatic family saga, A Good American (Putnam, advance readers copy), which begins with oversized Frederick Meisenheimer and his bride Jette’s 1904 departure for America. The couple eventually land in the small Missouri town of Beatrice, where true assimilation begins and World War I threatens. George incorporates so many set pieces and subplots that they tend to distract from his main narrative, recounted with many flourishes by Frederick’s grandson. The Meisenheimers’ love of music and their new country sees them through triumph and tragedy, and George’s ready storytelling buoys readers on history’s tides.

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