October 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

You might assume from the fact that I haven’t posted a book review this year that I have not been reading, but, as George Carlin used to say, “Au contraire, mon frère.” Actually, I am a chronic reader who always has a book or two going. Here are capsule reports on some books I have read in 2011 that are worth mentioning.

A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews. A wacky offering from Georgia native Crews, whose boozy, trailer-park, washed-up-high-school-football-hero characters evoke southern trashiana. In this story, a rattlesnake hunt festival culminates in violence, mutilation, and sex, strangely told in a style that vacillates from savage to hilarious to ironic.

What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. In an era when so many politicians try to co-opt Jesus’ message to validate their own positions, it’s refreshing to read the real meaning behind the words. Wills calls upon his doctorate in the classics and Greek in this book to analyze the meaning of many passages attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. It’s an eye-opening and sometimes surprising revelation. Thanks to Stewart Parrish for recommending this.

Freedom Summer, by Bruce Watson. The blisteringly hot summer of 1964 was not only the most heated of the Civil Rights Movement, it was then that Mississippi was targeted for massive social change by several civil rights groups for black voter registration drives and Freedom Schools. This book describes the cultural milieu of Mississippi and the South at the time, the volunteers, the violence and even death that met them, and the legacy of the era. Freedom Summer touched many parts of Mississippi, and Meridian played an important part, both positively and ignominiously.
An American Insurrection, by William Doyle. Riveting, hour-by-hour account of the turmoil surrounding the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962. I had previously reviewed Frank Lambert’s Battle of Ole Miss here, and it is certainly worth a read, but Doyle’s book is much more detailed, and unfolds like a suspense novel.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin. This is a fine little piece of fiction set in a rural Mississippi village. The lives of white Larry Ott and black Silas Jones unexpectedly intersect as a series of startling events unleashes an avalanche of revelations that change the past, present and future of everyone involved.

Faulkner’s County, by Don H. Doyle. This book is nominally the history of Lafayette County and Oxford, and by extension Faulner’s Yoknapatawpha County and its seat of Jefferson. The expected references to Faulkner’s works are here, pinpointing fictional locales and events in real geography. But the book is so much more. Set in the familiar hills and gullies of Lafayette County, we learn the stories of the earliest settlers and the Chickasaw natives, the depredations of the Civil War, the railroad, and the gradual rise to civilization of the rough hill-countrymen. This is not only the story of Lafayette County, but also the story of the north Mississippi hill country from the early Chickasaw days to the early days of the twentieth century.
Moral Combat, by Michael Burleigh. Most histories of World War II focus on the strategies, tactics, politics and logistics of the struggle. This book takes a close look at the policy decisions of the leaders and their effects on combatants and non-combatants. As one would expect, the atrocities committed against the Jews are studied, but so are the gratuitous murders committed in the guise of combat, the ethnic cleansing in the USSR, political fratricide, and strategic decisions that cost thousands of lives. This is not light reading, but it’s a thoughful approach to understanding the difficult moral issues that arise in war.

Remembering Slavery, ed. by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau and Steven F. Miller. Compiled from actual interviews with former slaves, this book describes what it was like to be a slave, their work, the people who subjugated them, family life, slave culture, and life after emancipation.
The Clearing, by Tim Gautreaux. This novel tells the story of a dysfunctional northeastern family who take control of a logging operation in the Atchafalaya swamp of south Louisiana in the 1920’s. When long-suppressed resentments surface, lives are torn apart. Tim Gautreaux is known mostly as a short-story writer, and this is his first novel. Some readers might find that this work is more elongated short story than novel, but it is well-written and worth your time.
The Land Where the Blues Began, by Alan Lomax. A big part of the story of Mississippi is the story of the blues and blues musicians. Alan Lomax tells the story of the Mississippi Delta, how it gave birth to the blues, and how the desperate poverty and oppression of blacks shaped their music.

Figures of Speech, by William Bennett Turner. Here are the heroes and villians of the First Amendment, men and women whose legal struggles over free speech issues shaped the law of the land.
Breach of Peace, by Eric Etheridge. Mr. Etheridge mined a wealth of information compiled by Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission to compile this fascinating portrait of the Freedom Riders who came in waves to Mississippi in 1961 from across the nation in an attempt to break the iron clasp of the state’s apartheid laws. Using mugshots and documentary material, supplemented with interviews and updated photos of the participants, Etheridge masterfully tells their story.

Reading now …

My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy.

The Summer of 1787, by David O. Stewart.

The Portable Faulkner, ed. by Malcolm Cowley. A re-read.

Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy. Another re-read.

Soon off the shelf

The Eyes of Willie McGee, by Alex Heard.

The Wandering Falcon, by Jamal Ahmad.

World War Z, by Max Brooks. A gift from my old friend, Carol.

Hope and History, by Vincent Harding. A gift from my new friend, Mark Levy.

The Bible Salesman, by Clyde Edgerton.

What It’s Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes.

§ 3 Responses to BOOK LIFE

  • Anderson says:

    I wonder what Burleigh (an entertaining curmudgeon, in what I’ve read by him) had to say about the Allies’ bombing of German cities? Unlike many of the mass killings in WW2, indiscriminate air attacks on civilian populations were expressly forbidden prior to the war, so it’s not an example of being confronted with an unforeseen moral issue.

    The Germans and the Japanese managed to be horrid enough that our own side paled in comparison, but I have never seen how terror bombing of cities was not a war crime.

    • Larry says:

      Here is a sample, from page 483: “The attempt criminalise retroactively the RAF or USAAF air crews is not merely tendentious as history, it also ignores the moral awareness, the mens rea, of those involved.” From there, though, he goes on to analyze the project in detail, and from there goes on to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His analysis leads not so much to any conclusions as it does to an exposition of all the factors that the leaders used to justify it and the victims used to condemn it.

      You are welcome to borrow my copy of the book for as long as you like, although that would entail some disclosure of your identity.

  • Aimee says:

    Thanks for this list…I’m going to print it and keep it as a guide. You need a few more novels on there though. 🙂

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