Archive for the ‘Favorite books’ Category

Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.

Here they are in order of publication dates:


Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young

This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)


The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan

Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)


A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard

Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)


Shame and Wonder, David Searcy

In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)



What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light

Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)


Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce

Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)


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Us ConductorsThis past June, Sean Michaels stopped in Atlanta as part of an unusual book tour that included a reading and a theremin performance in each city. About a week beforehand, he contacted me on Twitter to say that he’d looked at this blog and read my reviews at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and wondered if the newspaper might be interested in his book. A flurry ensued as I requested a copy from publisher Tin House, asked my editor at the paper if it was something the AJC would like to cover, and got approval for a feature and an interview. When the book arrived, I fell in love from the first page.

Last night, Us Conductors won one of the most prestigious prizes in Canada, the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. I can’t think of a better reason to share my AJC interview and also note the performance by the local Atlanta band that helped make the reading such a phenomenal event. Congratulations, Sean Michaels!

Unusual instrument sets tone for Us Conductors book, musical tour

The theremin. Even if you don’t know what it is, chances are you’ve heard it.

It’s the unearthly, eerie music on the soundtrack of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Lost Weekend” and in the themes of “The Outer Limits” and “One Step Beyond.” Tim Burton re-created it in “Ed Wood” to mimic the soundtrack for “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” A version of it opens the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”; Jimmy Page used it to create the ethereal interlude in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Invented in 1921 by a Russian physicist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the theremin is an electronic instrument played without physical contact. Two antennas sense the to and fro movement of the player’s hands, which control high-frequency oscillators for pitch and volume. These electric signals are then amplified and sent to a speaker. For something almost a century old, the theremin still feels as if it time-traveled out of the future.

Termen, or Leon Theremin as he was known in the West, arrived in the U.S. following a grand tour of Russia and Europe, and was soon playing Carnegie Hall and performing throughout the United States. He patented the instrument in 1928, and RCA began to manufacture and sell theremins across the country. Devotees of the theremin included violinist Clara Rockmore, one of its finest practitioners, and teacher and music theorist Joseph Schillinger.

And then, in 1938, Leon Theremin disappeared.

This is where Sean Michaels comes in. Michaels, award-winning music writer and founder of music blog, Said the Gramaphone,Sean Michaels has written a wildly imaginative first novel inspired by the life of the Russian inventor and reluctant spy. “Us Conductors” (Tin House, $15.95) is a timeless story variously set in Bolshevik Russia, New York City in the Roaring ’20s and the new Soviet Republic’s punishing labor camps.

“It’s a book about love, lies, longing and kung fu,” Michaels says, “with this strange, one-of-a-kind musical instrument at its heart.”

As the book opens, Theremin, imprisoned in a cabin on a ship returning him to the Soviet Union, is writing a letter to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore. (more…)

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Japan. Its literature and art have been part of my world since before I could read, or hold a pencil, a paint brush or even a crayon. From the prints my mother framed and hung in our house—Degas‘  “L’Absinthe,” Mary Cassatt‘s “Mother and Child,” both painters heavily influenced by Japanese art, and a long-forgotten scene of a pagoda at night—to the child-friendly haikus in our picture books, from Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen to the films of Akira Kurosawa—Japanese culture has influenced how I’ve looked at things for most of my life.

But since last Friday, the postcard that’s been on my refrigerator for the past year, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” by Hokusai (1760-1849), looks different: The giant waves, which appear to dwarf Mt. Fuji, gives the impression of tsunamilike height. In fact, it’s merely a perspective that affords the most drama. “They are more accurately called okinami, great off-shore waves,” reads the caption for the Wikipedia file. During Hokusai’s lifetime, no major earthquakes struck Japan.

The news from Japan regarding the impending nuclear disaster caused by the real tsunamis last Friday is grim. My sister emails to say she reached the husband of her old friend from grade school; he teaches at the University of Tokyo and says they and their new grandchild are “ok.” But today the U.S. urges “deeper caution,” and evacuations have increased. Another Japanese friend assures me her family and friends are safe.

As I write this, the Wall Street Journal reports that “the Obama administration said U.S. citizens within 50 miles (about 80 kilometers) of the reactors should evacuate,” and European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has warned of possible “catastrophic events” and told the European parliament “the site is effectively out of control.” Today, along with using military fire trucks to spray water on the spent fuel rods, authorities have deployed “helicopters and water cannons in a race to prevent perilous overheating in the spent rods of the No. 3 reactor.”

It does not sound okay to me. (more…)

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I’ve had Alice Munro’s last book, Too Much Happiness (Vintage, $15), on my to-read list for so long, it’s out in paperback. I think she is our finest living short-story writer.

No one else can tell a story the way she can. The opening lines almost always take you on a journey, or promise a cautionary tale, or refer to another time; it’s like descending into one of those beautiful old shadow boxes trimmed in gilt, with vintage figures of men and women pasted into it that come alive.

“I am speaking of the way things were just before the Second World War…” they begin, or, “In those days they didn’t let fathers into the glare of the theater where babies were born…” or the story takes place back when “there was a fashion for naming twins in rhyme.” We know we are in some hazy, pre-PC, sepia-toned atmosphere, like the corner of the attic where the old steamer trunk sits in the shadows, full of old photo albums—and at least one family skeleton.

Everything has already happened, as she lays the scene, quietly, and after a few pages, calmly introduces a seemingly tangential character: The doorbell rang, says the narrator, and there was a person “whom I had not been told about.” Now it will get good, we know. This may as well be the alluring little cottage in the wood, and we the doe-eyed Hansel or Gretel.

Jon and Joyce live in a pleasant, welcoming farmhouse they’re renovating as the story, “Fiction,” opens. Joyce tells us how pleasing it is to come home from work and see the new, fashionable patio doors Jon has installed. A furniture restorer, Jon works days in his shed; Joyce says the two of them sometimes talk at night about something his apprentice, Edie, has said. Edie’s a little strange, but Jon gets paid for teaching her, so he tolerates her. Joyce, an elegant, pretty music teachers, sees her as nonthreatening: With “broad shoulders, thick bangs, tight ponytail, [and] no possibility of a smile,” Edie is covered in tattoos and has a daughter of her own. We are just as surprised as Joyce is when Jon falls for Edie, and even more, when Joyce agrees to move out of her lovely home and give it over to them—hoping that Jon will come to his senses. She’s sure he loves her still.

He doesn’t. Years pass, and we meet Joyce again; remarried, at a party for her third husband, she finds among her guests a sullen young woman “wearing a short frilly black dress that makes you think of a piece of lingerie,” to whom she takes an instant dislike. Who is this disturbing new face?

In a deceptively ordinary, oh-by-the-way voice, Munro fits these whole lives into the story, not just one, but several, like Russian dolls. She is like the wolf dressed as grandmother, her frilly cap and homey nightgown concealing a shrewd, sharp interest in something altogether different than what we first see.

Take the narrator in “Wenlock Edge”: a college student, she begins her story talking about a bachelor cousin who, when she moves to London, Ontario, to go to school, takes her out for meals. And on she grumbles, talking about the other girls in the rooming house, the landlady, her job in the school cafeteria—when, without warning, “there was another girl moving in” to her room. Nina, who turns the world upside down and sideways and subjects the narrator to one of the most humiliating and unforgettable incidents she’ll ever know.


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New York Times writer Neil Genzlinger socked it to the memoir last week, rightly observing that nowadays, the only requirement for writing one is that you have done one of the following:

…. had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight … taught an under-privileged child, adopted an under-privileged child or been an under-privileged child [or were] raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.

In the old days, says Genzlinger, you had to earn the right to turn the spotlight on yourself: “by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.”


I have no fewer than six current memoirs stacked on the table in my workroom, including one Genzlinger takes to task, Disaster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky, and I Totally Meant to Do That, by Jane Borden, the blurb for which says Jane was “reared in a proper Southern home in North Carolina, sent to boarding school in Virginia, then went on to join a sorority in Chapel Hill.” Her claim to fame? When she moved to NYC, she discovered that her polite-society grooming was useless.

Her memoir is recommended reading “for anyone who has moved away from home.” Can I see a show of hands?

In his introduction to the Best American Essays 2004, Louis Menand offered this description of voice, which has everything to do, I think, with who should write a memoir:

What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that down on paper is a depressing … experience. What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice—except that it comes out as writing.

More on this later.

Last October, an old friend of mine who is also a publishing rep offered me the chance to go through her boxes of advance reader’s copies. Most of the “big” titles, like Tea Obrecht’s anticipated Tiger’s Wife, had been handed out. Still, there were dozens of books left, and you never know, so I looked through all of it. And lo and behold, there it was, a book by Mark Richard.

Some background may be in order, as it’s been 22 years since the publication of Mark Richard’s electrifying first book, Ice at the Bottom of the World, a collection of short stories that won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award. Fishboy, a novel, followed in 1991; Charity, his last book of stories, came out in 1998.

He wrote intoxicating, kaleidoscopic fiction, populated by a parade of broken souls permanently bruised by life—outcasts, misfits, freaks and holy fools—with a particular focus on children. Critics hailed Richard as the “heir apparent” to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and showered him with praise and awards.

Fast forward 13 lean years while Richard disappeared into Hollywood and the world of scripts and TV series.

Fans who wondered if he would ever write fiction again will be glad to know that his new memoir, House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95, 208 pages), not only reacquaints us with Richard’s charismatic prose style, but improves on it.


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In 1978, I worked in a bookstore at Lenox Square in Atlanta called Brentano’s. One afternoon I found one of my coworkers, the notorious Jeff Calder of the Swimming Pool Qs, howling over a book he was supposed to be shelving. “Listen to this,” he said, and read out loud:

My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to bust out of my ribs.

I pushed the cover up so I could read the author’s name. “Barry Hannah,” I said. “Who’s that?”

He read some more lines. Goddamn, we said together, wheezing with laughter, ducking down behind the book shelf when our boss walked by. Goddamn.

I bought my own copy. I have it still—the funniest, most bodacious collection of stories I have ever read. It was high holiness coming out of Mississippi.

Hannah was born there, in Meridian, and grew up in Clinton. It barely matters where he went to school or where he taught (bio here), because he is a legend. It’s enough to say he became godlike and then he fell; but first, he soared.

Beginning with his debut short-story collection, Airships, Hannah launched a world of unrepentant characters who carried on with such a uniquely sinful flair that to read about them required you to nearly stop breathing.

I did not think rereading his work would have much of an effect on me, having followed him from that first book to High Lonesome (1996), but as his raunchy-ornate prose sucked me back through stories I hadn’t read in over 30 years, my jaw kept dropping all over again.

I reviewed Long, Last, Happy for this coming Sunday’s AJC:

“Lying is one thing,” Barry Hannah always said. “Telling the truth, though, will crucify you.” Whether it helped or hurt him, he never stopped doing both.

His characters followed suit. Their yearning was explosive: “My head’s burning off and I got a heart about to bust out of my ribs.” Jealousy wracked them: “You could not believe how handsome and delicate my wife is naked. I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.”

They hated—“I was praying for an artery to snap in his face and vowed direct revenge if it didn’t. The man must be stomped and dragged off in a net”—and lied with abandon: “…a chronic prevaricator whose lies were so gaudy and wrapped around that they might have been a medieval tapestry of what almost or never happened.”

They had quit drinking, but longed to start again: “He missed making the nut of drink every day. He missed the raddled adventures. There was always the focus: securing the next high, defending the hoard of liquor money, but with chivalry; getting through the day without murder…”

They knew great joy, but emotional distress was their default button: “All we are is obsession and pain. That is all humans are.”

A native of Mississippi, Hannah won the Williams Faulkner Prize for his first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972), also nominated for the National Book Award. But it was his debut short-story collection, Airships (1978), that marked a super nova in the literary sky: a bad boy who refused to follow any rules, yet wrote like an angel.

A twisted, demented, dark angel, but an angel nonetheless….

Read the rest here.


Hannah’s rules for writing fiction were pretty simple:

When you tell a story think more in terms of yarn, tale, even whopper. Then tell it subtly. DON’T think of nuance or “interior decoration.”

Read more rules, courtesy of Michael Bible, on HTMLGiant.

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When I began this blog, I wrote in the space called “About Me” that part of my purpose in starting it was to be able to write about books that fell outside my reviewing niche at the paper I work for. Now I realize it’s more than that. I want to be able to write a different kind of review of some of those books too. I’m currently making notes for a review of a memoir by Heather Sellers, whose writing books (Page After Page, Chapter After Chapter) are some of the best ways I know of to get inspired.

Just as I learned how to spell synesthesesia, the name of the perceptual disorder that causes Linda Hammerick to taste words in Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth, along comes prosopagnosia, another rare neurological condition. It’s the inability to recognize faces, and in You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers describes one of her most embarrassing episodes with it:

Earlier that week, I’d come back to Michigan from upstate New York, where I was working as a visiting writer during my sabbatical year, so we could all go to Florida together. Dave [her husband] had picked me up at the airport. I saw him before he saw me, walking down the corridor, past the narrow sports bar. Dave always wore running shoes and his walk was a distinctive leaning-forward walk, springy and gentle…I ran up to him and threw my arms around him and stretched up to kiss him; he drew back, pressing me away.

It wasn’t Dave. I had the wrong guy.

Dave—my real Dave—came up a moment later; we laughed about my mistake. I was embarrassed he had seen me hugging another man. “So many people here look like you!” I said. “We need to move. To a place with fewer Dutch people.” This had happened numerous times before, my mistaking someone else for Dave.

Sellers’ acknowledgment and descriptions of her awkward mix-ups—she doesn’t recognize her own mother in a convenience store, noting a “tiny, elderly woman at the counter, nervous,” who stares hard at her and seems angry—are essentially lighthearted and funny, despite how grueling it’s been for her to cope with her condition all her life. When I read about her childhood, with an alcoholic father and a mother whose psychosis defies description (except, of course, in Sellers’ book), I wondered if a lifetime of trying to pretend things were okay when they weren’t might lead to an inability to recognize the familiar.


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