January 10, 2020 § 1 Comment
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. This memoir of a black family in New Orleans East is at its core an everyman tale of wants and unmet needs, of dreams and expectations, of joys and disappointments, of high hopes and entropy, and ultimately of disaster and survival. To understand this family one must understand the house in which it lives and breathes and has its being, and the house’s relationship to it, and the relationship they have with each other, and with their neighborhood and city and the culture, and how the family gradually unravelled yet held together as the house decayed and was destroyed. Winner of the 2019 National Book Award. Highly recommended. Non-fiction.
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington. Disturbing account of the rise and fall of pathologist Steven Hayne, who improbably performed thousands of autopsies a year, and dentist Michael West, who made a successful career claiming to identify perpetrators by teeth marks, and their impact on the Mississippi criminal justice system. The book principally focuses on the convictions of two men, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, who spent years in prison based on Hayne’s and West’s testimony until their ultimate exoneration. Non-fiction.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. An Englishwoman is charged with murdering her husband and then goes silent. Instead of being convicted, she is declared insane and is institutionalized. A psychotherapist takes on the task of getting her to talk. What has she been hiding with her silence? What does she have to say? The answers come with a surprising twist. An easy, entertaining read and NY Times best-seller. Fiction.
Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides. With the American army sweeping inexorably across Luzon in the Philippines toward Manila in 1944, Japanese soldiers burned alive 150 American prisoners of war at a prison camp on Palawan. Fearing a similar execution of 500 survivors of the Bataan death march at the Cabanatuan POW camp, a force of 120 American Rangers was sent deep behind enemy lines on a covert mission to save them. This is the story of the dangerous and daring rescue. The 2005 movie, The Great Raid, was based in part on this book. Non-fiction.
Manila Espionage by Claire Phillips. Medicine and food was smuggled in to the prisoners at Cabanatuan by a mysterious woman code-named “High Pockets.” She was an American, Claire Phillips, who posed as an Italian woman running a night club in Manila that was a favorite hang-out for Japanese military officers, officials, and businessmen from whom she extracted valuable intelligence that she passed on to Americans and Filipino guerillas. She spent much of her profit to help the American prisoners and Filipino guerillas. Later arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, she refused to betray her accomplices. After the war she was awarded the Medal of Freedom and $1.3 million for her services. This is her story. Non-fiction.
The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. Ultra-realist and non-believer Dawkins employs science, facts, and logic to answer questions such as what is magic, when and how did everything begin, and what is a miracle, among others. Not recommended for readers who do not care to have their beliefs and preconceptions challenged. Non-fiction.
The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley. In 1664, after the Restoration of Charles II, Samuel Pepys’s brother-in-law, nicknamed “Balty,” is dispatched to America to hunt down and arrest two of the judges who signed the death warrant for Charles I that resulted in his execution. Balty soon finds himself tangled in intrigues and a larger stratagem that changes the course of history. Based in part on the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Witty and well-written, not just for history nerds. Fiction.
The Mississippi Secession Convention by Timothy R. Smith. Secession was a sure thing when Mississippi delegates convened in Jackson after Lincoln’s 1860 election. But what form would it take? Negotiate for concessions? An ultimatum? Wait and see? Follow other seceding states? The debate and profiles of the delegates are limned out in detail. Anyone who clings to the notion that the Civil War was not about slavery should read this book and Mississippi’s Declaration of the Causes of Secession authored by L.Q.C. Lamar. Non-fiction.
Chasing the Scream by Johann Haari. The story of the drug war, from its earliest days 100 years ago to now, its failure, the corruption and illegal cartels it has spawned, and the human wreckage it has produced. Non-fiction.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold. One of the earliest conservationists, professor Leopold chronicled the changing seasons on his farm in Wisconsin in near-poetic prose that reveals the majesty and marvel of nature. Included with his almanac are some of his essays on ecology and conservation. Non-fiction.
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. Novel of the WWII siege of Stalingrad through the eyes of several civilians and soldiers. Grossman, who was the first allied journalist to enter and report about a liberated German death camp, intended his novel to be the Soviet War and Peace. Instead, it was banned and all copies, and even the typewriter ribbons on which they were typed, were confiscated by the KGB due to the parallels the book draws between Hitler and Stalin and the two countries’ slave-labor and death camps. But a manuscript was smuggled to the west and published in 1980, 16 years after the author’s death. This book is an immense slog of 871 pages (only about half the length of Tolstoy’s opus, though) in paperback, recommended for the most dedicated of readers only. Fiction.
September 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. It’s an improbable, yet engaging story: in coastal North Carolina a young girl abandoned by her family grows to womanhood isolated from townfolk in a shack in the marshes. In her loneliness she seeks love but finds more reliable solace in the beguiling beauty of nature, becoming an authority on coastal species. There is a murder mystery that must be solved, and there is a trial. Delia Owens’s lyrical prose will keep you reading, but if you’re like me, you may grow restless with some over-romanticized passages and her recitation of Amanda Hamilton poetry. My advice is to bear it and be patient. All becomes clear in a stunning twist of an ending in the last few pages that you may not see coming. Fiction.
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Pulitzer prize-winning novel of a wheelchair-bound author, Lyman Ward, researching and writing the story of his grandparents, who were among early settlers of the west. Ward’s life and that of his grandparents parallel each other as the novel unfolds, and historic literary figures weave in and out of the grandparents’ accounts. Stegner vividly captures the old west of Colorado, California, Mexico, and Idaho in the second half of the 19th century. Although fictional, the stories are based on actual letters of Mary Hallock Foote. Fiction.
1491, by Charles C. Mann. What was America like before Columbus and the later Spaniards arrived and disrupted the native civilizations and devastated them with diseases to which the Americans had no immunity? You will be surprised at Mann’s revelations of complex cultures that rivaled Sumer and ancient Greece in their sophistication, organization, philosophy, engineering, and architecture. Their achievements in agriculture alone are astonishing enough, creating maize and developing most of the varieties of beans and all of the squashes we consume today. This book is an intriguing eye-opener. Non-fiction.
The Pioneers, by David McCullough. Focusing on the lives of ordinary citizens who travelled on flatboats down the Ohio River to sculpt civilization in the wilderness, McCullough tells in microcosm the story of the settlement of the Northwest Territory and how the values of these settlers and their insistence on adhering to the principles of the Northwest Ordinance shaped much of American settlement that followed. Non-fiction.
A Woman of no Importance, by Sonia Purnell. The true, incredible story of one-legged American Virginia Hall, who operated in France as a spy for British intelligence (she had been rejected by US intelligence) and facilitator of the resistance, most of the time in Lyon right under the nose of the vicious, sadistic Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie. Her exploits included spiriting resistance fighters and British spies out of prisons, supplying and coordinating spies and arming resistance groups, arranging sabotage, and managing underground railroads that helped spies and others on the lam from the Nazis escape to Spain and Switzerland, all of which earned her the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945. It’s a sensational story that is all the more remarkable in that it really happened. Non-fiction.
Beartown and Us Against Them, by Fredrick Backman. On the surface this pair of novels (the second continues the story of the first) tell the story of the impact of hockey on two small towns in Norway. What they are really about, though, is what sports of any kind (e.g., high school football) mean to a small rural community, how sports can corrupt and debase people, and how sports can ennoble and uplift. Backman, who is author of A Man Called Ove, has an idiosyncratic, clear style that is easy and enjoyable to read. Fiction.
Indianapolis, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. Thoroughly researched account of America’s worst military naval disaster, the sinking of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis in the waning days of WWII. The book opens with a depiction of the ship’s heroic involvement in most of the war’s major naval engagements in the Pacific, its near destruction by a Kamikaze plane, and its top-secret delivery to Tinian of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The account continues with the vessel’s tragedy of July 30, 1945, barely two weeks before Japan surrendered, when, on her way from Guam to Leyte for a training exercise, she was torpedoed in the Philippine Sea and went down, taking 300 of the 1,200 crew with her. Hair-raising survivor accounts tell how they were not found until 3 1/2 days later, during which their numbers were thinned drastically by dehydration, shark attacks, drowning, and suicide. The book also details the aftermath, including court-martial of the ship’s captain and his ultimate exoneration. Non-fiction.
American Pop, by Snowden Wright. The rise and fall of the fictional Forster family of North Mississippi, whose forebear created the soft drink Panola Pop in a drug store, managed it into the best-selling cola in the world, became fabulously wealthy, and then dissipated it all in later generations. The story of the family and their soda empire evolves against the canvas of a century of American history that ultimately seals the family’s fate. This pop (no pun intended) novel is entertaining and light, bubbly and tasty like its eponym. Wright, a Meridian native, is son of Circuit Judge Charles Wright. Fiction.
Been Down so Long it Looks Like up to Me, by Richard Fariña. College hijinks in the early 60’s, before the Beatles and Bossa Nova pushed aside folk music, coffeehouse jazz, and the beatniks. Fariña, who was married to Joan Baez’s sister Mimi, was an up-and-coming folk singer who performed with his wife and was being heralded as the next Bob Dylan. On the day his novel was published in 1966, though, he was killed in a motorcycle accident leaving a publication celebration party. This is a roman à clef for Fariña’s own experience at Cornell University with his close friend, Thomas Pynchon. But behavior that seemed provocative and venturesome back then comes across as puerile and tiresome almost 60 years later. Still, it’s a peek into an era and its values. Fiction.
On Desperate Ground, by Hampton Sides. Retelling of the plight of 30,000 US Marines in the Korean War sent by incompetent generals into a trap at the Chosin Reservoir, where they were attacked by more than 120,000 Communist Chinese troops. The marines were forced to fight their way out through enemy lines. Sides tells the story through the eyes of officers and enlisted men whom he interviewed, and does not conceal his scorn for the generals who sent the men into this predicament. Non-fiction.
May 11, 2018 § 3 Comments
Reading and Watching
The Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s not widely known that the author, who became America’s first and most prominent landscape architect and designer of masterpieces such as Central Park in New York and Biltmore Estate, was for years a correspondent for the New York Times. In the 1850’s he undertook a solo tour through the backwoods of the southern states to report on slavery, life in the south, and the plantation economy. This book compiles his reportage, and presents a contemporary panorama of the small landowners, slaves, plantation owners, and their ways of life.
Worse than Slavery by David Oshinsky. From slavery, through reconstruction, through white resurgency, through Jim Crow, through convict labor-for-hire, through the law used as oppression. Oshinsky traces the history of Parchman Farm from its roots in slavery to its founding and evolution through phases of Mississippi history. The author does a masterful job of depicting Mississippi’s brutal racial history.
Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden. Turning points in history are most often identified by historians long after the fact. Some turning points, however, are apparent immediately. Such was the case when the Tet Offensive exploded across Viet Nam in 1968. Before then the Johnson Administration had been manipulating the media, with a few notable exceptions, to promote a rosy picture of military progress in that ill-starred land. Tet proved it all to be lies, and began a u-turn in American public opinion on the nation’s involvement in Viet Nam’s civil war. Bowden’s riveting book tells the story of the invasion and month-long occupation of Hue, South Viet Nam’s cultural capital, by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the Herculean effort that it took to oust them, the cost in human life and destruction, and the aftermath both in Viet Nam and in the U.S.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall. An easy-to-digest, thoughtful explication of geopolitics. Marshall shows how geography has dictated history, how it influences current events, and how it will shape the world’s future, region by region.
The Greater Journey by David McCullough. Between 1830 and 1900, waves of Americans took up residence in Paris to study art, medicine, and life. They took what they absorbed back to their young nation and enriched it immeasurably. Through their stories two-time Pulitzer Prize and two-time National Book Award-winner McCullough weaves the history of Paris itself. What results is the mesmerizing sagas of Americans such as James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Cassat, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Harriet Beecher, Samuel F.B. Morse, and others, all set against war, art movements of the eras, epidemics, and the Haussmannization of the City of Light.
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. America’s gradual slide into immersion in Viet Nam’s civil war, from Eisenhower, through Kennedy, and to Johnson, with an afterword about Nixon. Halberstam makes a microscopic examination, linking the loss of China to Communism during the Truman years to Kennedy’s obsession with refusing to let the same thing happen in Indochina, to Johnson’s deferral to Kennedy’s “best and brightest” brain trust that he inherited following Kennedy’s assassination. This is a fascinating analysis, done as a character study of all the major — and some minor — players.
The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. The story of Biltmore Estate and its creator, George Washington Vanderbilt. What do you do when you have inherited more wealth than you can possibly use in twenty lifetimes? Well, if you live in America’s Gilded Age, you build the largest home in the nation, on more than 30,000 acres, for which you employ only the leading architects, craftsmen, foresters, and landscapers. This book traces the development of Biltmore manor and its estate. It’s also the story of his wife Edith’s devotion to the community and her employees, the Vanderbilts’ at-times tenuous financial situations, and the symbiotic relationship of Biltmore, the Vanderbilts, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian Aristocrat is brought before a revolutionary tribunal on charges of being an enemy of the people. He expects to face a firing squad or be imprisoned. Instead, because he is credited with once having authored a famous poem, he is ordered to be incarcerated in the Metropol Hotel for life, on pain of death if he ever sets foot outside it. His story, and that of all the interesting characters, events, and settings in the hotel with which he interacts, make for entertaining reading that one would not expect of a novel limited in scope to one square block of Moscow. Towles is a talented writer whose prose you will enjoy.
Movie Stars by Jack Pendarvis. You need to read more Pendarvis. Do it for yourself.
As for watching, I recommend Filmstruck for those of you who are cinephiles. There you will find a rotating selection of the Criterion Collection and TCM’s vault.
September 22, 2017 § 5 Comments
Some reading and watching …
News of the World by Paulette Jiles. In post-Civil War Texas, Captain Jefferson Kyle is a circuit riding newsman who entertains small-town audiences by reading excerpts from major newspapers. He accepts an offer to return Johanna, a 6-year-old girl who has been held captive by Kiowas, to her family, and the book charms with the developing relationship between the 60-ish Kyle and the young girl who at first speaks only Kiowa. Their adventurous 400-mile journey from northern Texas almost to San Antonio makes for thrilling reading. This small book is worth your time.
Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. The once-nearly invincible Comanches ruled the plains of Texas and eastern New Mexico. One of their great war chiefs, Quannah Parker, a white man, had been kidnapped as a child in one of their raids, and grew to be an implacable foe of the whites. This is his story, and that of the Comanches, and how their iron grip on the plains finally succumbed to the flood of white settlement and overwhelming U.S. military power.
The Earth is Weeping, by Peter Cozzens. A thoroughly-researched, fair, and even-handed account of the thirty years of conflict between the western Indian tribes and the United States government. Cozzens is the author of Black Hawk Down.
Bottle Rocket. Wes Anderson’s movie about three slackers who somehow manage to pull off a robbery, hide out, and then try another, all in a madcap attempt to avoid growing up and facing life. What happens to them as they are repeatedly slapped around by reality is at turns funny, pathetic, and head-shaking.
Lion. Based on the autobiographical book by Saroo Brierly, the true story of boy in India who is separated from his poverty-beset family in a remarkable chain of events, and is adopted by an Australian family. Tortured by vague recollections of his earlier life, he strives to find his Indian mother and siblings. It’s a moving, enthralling story.
Burn After Reading. From the Coen brothers, with Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Richard Jenkins. Maybe not quite as crisp as many other Coen treats, but there are plenty of laughs in this black comedy about a fitness instructor who tries to blackmail a former CIA operative. Add in rampant adultery, clueless government intelligence agents, the Russian embassy, and plenty of Coen irony, and you have an entertainment that’s fun to watch.
February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am an epic history nerd.
So, when Circuit Judge Ashley Hines recently told me about a remarkable memoir of Mississippi Delta life in the 1880’s, I made it my business that very day to find and buy a copy at Square Books in Oxford.
The book is Trials of the Earth, by Mary Hamilton, who lived from 1866 to 1937. How her papers came to be published is a story in itself.
In 1931, Delta writer Helen Dick Davis and her husband, Reuben, moved to a home that Mr. Davis had built in Phillip, Mississippi, north of Greenwood. Reuben’s younger half-brother married Mary Hamilton’s daughter, Edris, and it was through this family connection that Helen Davis came to know and befriend Mary Hamilton, who lived nearby at the time.
As they whiled away time together, Helen was enthralled by Mary’s tales of a Delta altogether unknown and foreign to Helen’s experiences. The Delta that Helen knew was rich farmland under cultivation, civilized towns, culture and agriculture. The Delta that Mary painted in vivid hues was a nearly impenetrable wilderness of virgin timber and flood-prone bottomlands where people lived in isolation, in peril from sudden floods, storms, panthers, wolves, bears, snakes, and disease. It was a land where one’s very existence had to be wrested from the earth every day. Mere survival came at the cost of bone-wrecking toil.
Helen urged Mary to reduce her memories to writing, but the elderly woman, then in her mid-sixties, at first declined. It was only after she fell ill and had a feverish dream which she interpreted to mean that she should commit her story to paper that she began writing. And write she did. In 1933, she turned over a 150,000-word handwritten manuscript to Helen, who edited it and wrote a preface. She submitted it to Little Brown publishing house, which rejected it.
Before she could submit it to another publisher, however, she got word from Mary not to try any more to publish it. Mary said that her dead husband, Frank, had come to her in a dream and told her that the stories were their “private Valentine,” not for others to read. Helen put the manuscript away.
Helen’s daughter, Carolyn, discovered the manuscript in 1991, and submitted it to the University of Mississippi Press, where JoAnne Morris, wife of Willie Morris, was Senior Editor. Before she married Willie Morris, she had been JoAnne Prichard of Yazoo City, a co-worker of Helen Davis. The book was accepted for publication. It was released in 1992, only a few months after Helen died, and it included a foreword by Mississippian Ellen Douglas.
Mary Hamilton’s heirs filed suit to stop publication and to establish their claim to the rights, and they succeeded on both counts. The book sold out the run published by University Press, and lay un-republished until January, 2013, when it was self-published including the Davis and Douglas additions, and an introduction by Morgan Freeman. The 2013 edition is in paperback, and is available through Nautilus Publishing of Oxford.
As Ellen Douglas points out in her foreword, we have many portrayals of Delta life in the form of slave narratives and tales of upper-class plantation life, but memoirs depicting the everyday struggles of poor whites in the lowlands along the Mississippi River before the land was cleared and put into cultivation are practically non-existent. The story of the poor white settler of that era is what Mary Hamilton gives us.
In eloquent, simple language, Mary’s book tells how she was forced into a marriage to a secretive, mysterious Englishman when she was only 17 years old, and how they embarked on a hard life full of struggles, minor successes, gargantuan failures, births and deaths, dangers, joys and heartaches. They were among the first white people to enter the Mississippi Delta to clear it and make it habitable. Remarkably, all this occurred in only the twenty years or so before the dawn of the twentieth century. The following passage will give you a sense of what they were up against:
… Cane, undergrowth, blackberry briars, grape and poison oak and muscadine vines, all growing to enormous size out of that rich Delta ground, interlaced through that fallen timber so that it was one tangled mat. Not a trail or path through it.
But the whole country was almost as bad. A man couldn’t get through any of the woods without a compass in one hand and a cane axe in the other to blaze every foot of the way. In throwing the timber the men had to cut a path to their tree every morning. then they would estimate the direction they would throw the tree, and each man cut a path to get away in when the tree started to fall, and God help them if they couldn’t outrun the falling tree.
At the end of the book is a holographic transcription of Mary’s writing, demonstrating at once her command of imagery and description, as well as her inadequate spelling, grammar and lack of understanding of punctuation and paragraphing. The editors took care to preserve her plain language, correcting only as needed to render a readable product. Fair warning: the editors also left intact her language describing those of other races, which reflect the attitudes of her day, and not those appropriate to the 21st century.
You don’t have to be a history nerd to be fascinated by this book. It’s a story that oscillates between vibrant adventure and humdrum existence, pretty much like most people’s lives, which is a key reason why it is so approachable and entertaining.
March 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
What I’ve read in the past 5 months.
How Fiction Works, by James Wood. Using excerpts from the likes of of Faulkner, Flaubert, James and other great writers, Wood analyzes the writers’ tools and approaches that set great literature apart from less accomplished writing. You will find the author’s keen insights entertaining, witty and revealing. This is a must read for anyone who loves well-written fiction.
Every Day by the Sun, by Dean Faulkner Wells. Poignant reminiscence of the Faulkner family, and in particular the author’s uncle and guardian, William Faulkner. From her unique vantage point, Wells tells intimate details of the family and its history, some of which are familiar, some personal and telling. What emerges is a portrait of the world-renowned author not only as the eccentric and sometimes aloof intellectual who some in his community viewed as a poseur, but also as a caring, tender and generous provider for the many family members who relied on him. We also come to know the family, with its stress-cracks, peculiarities and tensions.
The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad. This is the story of Tor Baz, a young boy who grows into manhood in the tribal areas of Waziristan, in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and becomes known as “The Wandering Falcon.” Ahmad, who penned this book at age 80, is a master story-teller and skillful writer who worked for years as a civil servant in the region and is intimately familiar with the folkways of the tribes. What sets this book apart is its stark style that evokes the mountains and deserts inhabited by the people of the story, and their ways that put tribal loyalty and survival before everything else. Told in the fashion of a tale told in the desert cross-legged on a Persian carpet across a campfire, you will be entranced as it unfolds, folds back on itself, and unfolds again, revealing unexpected nuances again and again.
My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy. Reading Conroy is like enjoying a homemade lasagna. It’s not fine cuisine, but it’s filling, satisfying, delicious and something you could come back to time after time. His writing is not fine literature, but it’s satisfying, fun to read, and something you could come back to time after time. This little book is a sketch of the people and events who influenced his writing. With his customary skill at manipulating the reader, you will find yourself laughing, near tears and smiling to yourself, often all on the same page.
Mississippi: the Closed Society, by James W. Silver. The seminal 1963 book by then-Ole Miss history professor Silver, who braved threats to his life and career to castigate Mississippi’s leadership and silent majority for the atmosphere and crises that led up to the climactic riots at the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Silver, who was an eye-witness and befriended Meredith, tells the story from a perspective that few other southerners in that dangerous, conflict-ridden period dared to share.
The Summer of 1787, by David O. Stewart. It took only 10 weeks during the sweltering summer of 1787 to craft the United States Constitution, but after reading this book, you will marvel that it ever got done at all. The Constitution was a masterpiece of compromise, the making of which should be a lesson that all legislators, particularly the most dogmatic of our federal lawmakers, should be required to know by heart. There are some fascinating personalities here, some familiar like Washington, Franklin and Madison, and some not so much, like George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Edmond Randolph, Charles Pinkney and James Rutledge.
World War Z, by Max Brooks. An oral history of the Great Zombie War that raged out of China and came perilously near extinguishing all of civilization. Okay, it never really happened, but you will be entertained by Brooks’s ingenuity and style, and you will end up knowing lots more about zombies and their savagery than, perhaps, you thought you needed to. Zombies are an obsession of my old friend Carol, who gifted me this book.
Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy. Eight vignettes depicting acts of extraordinary political courage by US Senators, including Mississippi’s own LQC Lamar of Oxford. Although the future US president (with substantial ghosting help from his friend Theodore Sorenson) wrote this book in 1955 while he was a senator, it should be required reading 56 years later for our politicians who seem unequipped for statesmanship and compromise. Many of the figures in this book sacrificed their political careers to do what they believed was(and in many cases proved to be) best for the nation. That’s a startlingly quaint concept in the 21st century, but one that bears study and emulation now more than ever. This is a re-read of a book I read for the first time around 1964.
What it is Like to Go to War, by Karl Marlantes. The emotional, moral, psychological, spiritual and physical cost that the experience of war exacts from the warrior and society. Marlantes served as a Marine in Viet Nam, where he won the Navy Cross, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, among his commendations. He is a Yale and Oxford graduate and Rhodes scholar. This book is articulate and insightful, offering a philosophical view that draws heavily on the author’s own combat service.
The Bible Salesman, by Clyde Edgerton. What starts out as the beguilingly interesting story of Henry, the rustic bible salesman who peddles donated books, morphs into a thinly-plotted crime caper with a love story intertwined, punctuated by flashbacks involving a tippling stepfather, talking cats and a retarded neighbor. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems to me like the ideas for three good books crammed into one almost-good book. There are some humorous scenes here, in particular the cat funeral, and the author is skilled at depicting rural southerners of the last century. Edgerton’s writing will keep you reading. At the end, though, you wish you knew more about the characters, and you wish the action were better thought through.
The Portable Faulkner, ed. by Malcolm Cowley. Brilliant anthology of Faulkner’s best stories extracted from his novels. Here are the well-known The Bear, Old Man, A Rose for Emily, and An Odor of Verbena, as well as some not-so-well-known, such as The Raid and The Courthouse. Familiar or not, you will admire Faulkner’s astonishing use of description, his metaphors and similes, and his unequaled skill at deciphering and depicting the innermost operations of the human heart. This collection is an approachable introduction to Mississippi’s most revered writer of fiction for those who have not read him and for those who have found his writing impenetrable. If you know Faulkner’s writing, you will find this collection an enjoyable entertainment. A re-read of a book I read around 1973.
Saving Jesus from the Church, by Robin R. Meyers. Avowedly liberal Congregational pastor Meyers challenges orthodoxy and urges a return to first principles espoused by Jesus himself, rather than the accretions of belief added by the churches through the centuries. He emphasizes that faith is a relationship and a way of acting, not a set of beliefs. This book will make you question your religion, but will deepen your faith.
November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
To his everlasting credit, Governor Hayley Barbour exercised his executive prerogative and installed signs at the entranceways into Mississippi with the legend, “Birthplace of America’s Music.” Indeed.
It’s no secret that Mississippi — and the Mississippi Delta in particular — is where America’s quintessential music was born, took hold, and grew into an irrepressible force. It was the blues, the music of heartfelt pain, that was born out of the oppression and destitution of a people. It was the blues that made its way down the river to New Orleans, cross-bred with barrelhouse and ragtime and grew into Jazz. Jimmie Rodgers melded the blues with the music of hill whites and gave birth to country music. The blues directly spawned rock-a-billy, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and soul, and almost every form of popular music in the past 100-plus years has a blue tinge.
The Land Where the Blues Began is Alan Lomax’s engrossing portrait of the Mississippi Delta, its culture and history, its blues artists, its oppression and exploitation of black people, and how this region of contradictions, savage racism, plantations, and juke joints gave rise to such formidable music.
Lomax ranged across the south from the 40’s through the 70’s, recording not only the music of original blues artists, but also their stories and recollections in their own words. The author continued the work of his father, who had begun the project in the late 20’s and 30’s.
What emerges from the stories he captured is a picture of the struggles and suffering of poor blacks in the Delta, and how they found release in music. Here are the stories of the cruel levee camps, the muleskinners, plantation life, the escape to Memphis and the factories of the north, Parchman farm. It becomes plain to the reader that the civil war did not end slavery, but merely transformed it into other forms of enforced servitude and destitution for blacks in Mississippi.
The main focus of this book, though, is the music. Lomax expertly analyzes the music’s African genes and the religious and early American musical strains that influenced and deepened it.
Lomax was a Texan who died in 2002. He is renowned as one of the great field collectors of indigenous music, particularly American music, although he did field work in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa as well. He had Mississippi roots that helped his understanding of the tortured Delta folkways. At page 186 of the book is this passage: “My father’s people were ‘peckerwoods’ from Meridian, Mississippi, ‘from the upper crust of the poor white trash,’ he used to say.”
If you want to understand Mississippi, you have to understand the blues and the music’s astonishing breadth of influence. The blues is merely one manifestation of Mississippi’s disproportionate impact on American literature, music and entertainment, dramatically belying the state’s stereotypical backwardness and reactionism. Lomax’s book is an excellent starting point.
If you want to understand the blues, you have to experience the Delta. Steve Cheseborough’s Blues Travelling is a travel guide that will open doors and by-ways to the region. Here you will find the towns and villages, grave sites, joints, monuments and historic locations, restaurants, museums and venues of the blues culture. There are maps and suggestions, along with articles telling the story.
If you are a Mississippian, you can explore the Delta in several easy day trips. This book will enrich the experience for you, telling you the stories of the places and people you encounter. You will probably find yourself stopping to explore places you would have bypassed.
As a bonus, the book includes forays into Memphis, Jackson, north Mississippi, and even Meridian.
Lisa and I have found this book particularly helpful in our blues explorations. I recommend it to you.
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.
December 29, 2010 § 4 Comments
If you were a carpenter, you’d want to have the finest power tools you could afford. If you were a doctor, you’d try to invest in the best diagnostic instruments available. If you were a farmer, you’d want to have a really good tractor with all the implements. If you were a — well, you get the idea. If you’re going to do a job, you need to be sure you have the right tools AND use them.
Lawyers are no different. If you’re going to practice in Chancery Court, you need to have ready access to the information you need AND use it.
Every lawyer’s most important tool is that perfect case on all fours with the one you are presenting to the court. It is a satisfying coup, indeed, to hand the judge that gem of a case with a confident smile while your opponent stands by twiddling his thumbs. The Court of Appeals hands down decisions every Tuesday, and the Supreme Court hands down decisions every Thursday (holidays and vacation days excepted). You can read the decisions as soon as they are published online at the Mississippi Judiciary website. And all of the court rules and directories are there, too.
Finding that perfect case used to be a matter of digging through the digests and key numbers, then finding the volume with your case in it and making a photocopy. Nowadays, you can find what you’re looking for on the Mississippi Bar’s website at Casemaker, which is a free online legal research engine paid for through your bar dues. If you prefer, WestLaw and Lexis have subscription services.
Of course, the MISSISSIPPI CODE is indispensable. If you can’t afford your own copy, you can browse and copy it online through CaseMaker or one of the subscription services, but many of us find it more productive to be able to flip through the pages of a book. The annotations in the code are a gold mine of authority and starting points for further research for any lawyer. If you do any probate work, you will experience a lot of frustration and failed efforts if you do not read the code. The answers to 99% of all questions that lawyers ask me about probate matters are right there in the statutes, in black and white.
MISSISSIPPI RULES OF COURT. Every lawyer who comes to trial should have a copy of the rules with her or him. You will need to flip to that specific hearsay exception so you can convince the court to let in that crucial evidence, or you will need to know what rule to cite to get around that objection to the timeliness of your motion. It’s all in the rules. But before you ever get to court, you need to be familiar with what’s there and where you can find it. It’s never very convincing to say, “Judge, I know it’s in there somewhere; I remember hearing aboout it back in law school.” If you only had one book in your library (and I hope you have more than just one!), it should be your rule book.
Any lawyer who will do much family law should have one or both of these books in his or her library …
BELL ON MISSISSIPPI FAMILY LAW. Professor Deborah Bell of the Ole Miss Law School has published what many consider the definitive reference work on divorce, custody, child support, and all things family law in Mississippi. Her text, along with its annual supplement, are well organized, thorough and concise statements of the law upon which you can rely in advising your client, preparing your case, presenting your case, and even briefing an appeal. Professor Bell’s work has been cited as authority by the appellate courts and is considered authoritative in trial courts as well. If you have a significant family law practice, you should arrange to take in a Professor Bell seminar. They are held every May, one in Oxford, one in Jackson, and one on the coast, and you will not find a more complete annual overview of developments.
MISSISSIPPI DIVORCE, ALIMONY AND CHILD CUSTODY. Professor Shelton Hand’s treatise has been a go-to authority in Mississippi for many years, and includes suggested forms as a bonus. Another feature of Hand’s work is his discussion of pleadings and procedural matters, which, coupled with the forms, may be a benefit to young practitioners more concerned with filing a viable pleading, having it served, and setting the case for hearing.
If you do any probate work, you might find these texts helpful …
PROBATE AND ESTATE ADMINISTRATION. By Robert E. Williford.
Yes, it’s true that everything you need to know about probate is in the code, but finding the exact answer to your specific question in the multitude of statutes can be a time-intensive task. These two books can help you sort through that haystack of statutes to find the right answer to your question. Complete with case citations and text by the authors.
Some helpful guides to chancery practice …
GRIFFITH MISSISSIPPI CHANCERY PRACTICE. By Billy Bridges and James Shelson. Updated Warner’s version of Griffith in 2000. Judge Bridges and Mr. Shelson again updated Griffith through the beginning of the new century.
WARNER’S GRIFFITH MISSISSIPPI CHANCERY PRACTICE. By George D. Warner, 1991. The first update to Judge Griffith’s cornerstone work in more than 40 years. Judge Warner took Griffith’s text and incorporated the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as important developments in the law in the intervening time.
And two old gems that were black letter authority for years …
GRIFFITH’S MISSISSIPPI CHANCERY PRACTICE. 1950 Edition. Originally published in 1925, Griffith is the seminal authority on Chancery Court in Mississippi. Almost all of the procedural provisions have been supplanted by the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure and the Uniform Chancery Court Rules, but there is no more authoritative text in Mississippi for understanding the philosophy, history and approach of Chancery Courts.
DIVORCE AND SEPARATION IN MISSISSIPPI. 1957. This work by professor Bunkley updated the original by Judge A.B. Amis of Meridian first published in 1934. There have been so many developments in the procedural and substantive law of the family in our state that it is tempting to regard this book as a mere historical curiosity. Some provisions bear looking at, however. The provisions about how to plead non-residency to support publication, for example, are models that modern-day attorneys should consider. The book was written in an era when careful pleading was essential to survival of one’s suit, and more careful pleading would benefit most lawyers and clients today.
And two recent additions …
PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR MISSISSIPPI LAWYERS by Jeffrey Jackson and Donald Campbell and COMMENTARY ON JUDICIAL ETHICS IN MISSISSIPPI by Donald Campbell and Jeffrey Jackson arrived on the scene in 2010. These two works were published by MLI (Mississippi Law Institute), a function of the Mississippi College Law School. The unique aspect of these books is their focus on Mississippi, and I am not aware of any comparable works on these subjects of vital importance to bench and bar. Both are impressive in their depth of scholarship and thoroughness. The set is pricy for a small firm at $245, and, admittedly, they are not reference works you will turn to every day, but the odds are that they will be worth every cent you pay when you really need them. If you are practicing in the Twelfth District and would like to look over a set, feel free to drop by my office and browse through for yourself. MLI’s description and an order form can be found here.