Category Archives: history

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $27.95).

Throughout history and fiction, women have disguised themselves as men; it is quite uncommon, though, for a boy to disguise good-lord-bird1.jpghimself as a girl and continue the charade for decades.  However, that is just what Little Onion does in James McBride’s brilliant and exhilarating novel The Good Lord Bird.  McBride re-imagines the life of John Brown and his followers while simultaneously fashioning a remarkable and amusing character in the form of Little Onion.  Through Little Onion’s eyes, McBride recreates Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, one of the most crucial chapters in American history and one that helped spark the Civil War.

History has shown us just how charismatic Brown could be, but the magnetic Little Onion steals the spotlight from Brown time and again.  Born in Kansas Territory, young Henry Shackleford is a slave when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions make the state a battleground, hence the term “Bleeding Kansas.”  Brown arrives and gets involved in an argument in a local barber shop.  The ensuing act of violence forces Brown to flee—with Henry in tow.  The kicker is that Brown thinks Henry is a girl named Henrietta.  Henry does not tell Brown the truth about his gender.

“Truth is,” McBride writes, “lying come natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss.  Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.  So I weren’t going to tell him nothing about me being a boy.”

If that does not make you laugh or at least smile, consider this: Henry is skilled at the art of zinging one-liners and entertains even in the gravest of situations.  When Brown goes off on tangents, Henry admits, “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

The young slave “girl” makes a big impression on Brown when “she” eats his good-luck charm—an onion.  From that moment on, Brown calls Henry “Little Onion.”  McBride’s two main characters play well off each other and make for humorous reading.

Little Onion’s masquerade also has a serious side and allows McBride to portray Henry as a trickster.  Henry’s charade is a variation of the traditional African trickster tale.  These stories, which originated in Africa and were part of the oral history of African American slaves, served as thinly-disguised social protest against white masters and featured animals as the main characters instead of real people.  In these parables, small, weak, seemingly powerless animals used their cunning to outwit larger, powerful creatures.  A rabbit might represent the weaker animal while a wolf stood for the larger one as is the case with the Briar Rabbit tales.  Whites saw such stories as fables, nothing more.  For slaves, the tales were altogether different and meaningful.  The allegories symbolically assaulted the powerful, who worked to ensnare slaves but who became themselves ensnared.  Trickster tales sought to upset traditional social roles and served as a vehicle allowing slaves to ridicule whites and get away with it.  By fooling John Brown, Henry sees himself as one-upping the white man.  His ruse works well, and that is a credit to McBride’s ingenuity.

James_McBrideMcBride cleverly juxtaposes drama and history with comedy and humor.  Uproarious laughs pepper Little Onion’s encounters with historical figures.  The funniest of these occurs when he meets Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), reformer, abolitionist, and former slave.  Upon their first meeting, Little Onion says, “Morning, Fred.”  Douglass is livid: “Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”  A few pages later, an inebriated Douglass makes a pass at Henrietta and mistakenly calls her “Harlot” before finally saying “Don’t marry two women at once…Colored or white, it’ll whip you scandalous” (In The Good Lord Bird, Douglass commits bigamy as he is married to Anna Murray-Douglass and Ottilie Assing, a German journalist.  In actuality, Douglass never married Assing, but McBride’s vision makes for interesting reading).

Henry Shackleford may be a figment of McBride’s imagination but as you read this novel you forget that it’s fiction. McBride brings his characters to life like you’ve never seen them before.  A multi-faceted and marvelous story, The Good Lord Bird explores identity, home, place, survival, slave life, and how far a man will go for a cause.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-telling one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.

Breaking News–The Good Lord Bird has been longlisted for a 2013 National Book Award in fiction.  It’s my pick because I absolutely love it!

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The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

maids version

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company; 176 pages; $25).

No one brings the Ozarks region to life like Daniel Woodrell, critically acclaimed author of Winter’s Bone.  Woodrell’s newest work The Maid’s Version explores the causes and repercussions of a dance hall fire in West Table, Missouri, in 1929, in which 42 people were killed.  The bodies were so horrifically burned that loved ones identified many victims only by the trinkets and effects they left behind.  Woodrell ably illustrates how tragedy knows no income level and can reverberate through many generations.

Woodrell’s masterful talents are on full and prominent display in ThMaid’s Version as he mines the depths of real history in this novel.  A similar and equally dreadful catastrophe occurred in a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928.  The explosion took the lives of 39 men and women; the cause of the fire still remains a mystery.

In The Maid’s Version, Alma DeGeer Dunahew thinks she has the answers.  Alma, mother of three young boys, wife to a husband who is mostly absent, and maid to a prominent family, lost her outrageous but much-loved sister in the explosion.  Convinced her sister’s illicit love affair with a powerful and very married man caused the fire, Alma upsets a lot of people and opens wounds that never healed.  Her long and fierce quest for the truth alienates her from those in her community and in her own family.

Years later, she tells all to her beloved grandson, urging him, “Tell it.  Go on and tell it.”  Alma is illiterate, and his words are her words.  It is a very powerful thing as his separation and distance from the awful event set him apart.  He is unbiased; he is meticulous; he is her proxy.

Woodrell superbly juxtaposes the end of the carefree and spirited 1920s with the dance hall fire followed by the Great Depression.  When tragedy first strikes the town, it never leaves as dejection, suspicion, and fear envelope the community.   Since The Maid’s Version is a fictionalized version of  an actual historical event, the story becomes even more compelling because it is painfully real and stunningly rendered.  With spare prose, unforgettable characters, and a setting that fully captures the period, The Maid’s Version is a quick read but one that lingers and deeply satisfies.

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Following in the Footsteps of The Cairo Codex: 72 Hours in Cairo–Day 3

linda lambertThis is part 3 in a 3-part series in which Linda Lambert, author of The Cairo Codex, takes us to Cairo as we follow in the footsteps of Dr. Justine Jenner

Can you believe our time in Cairo is almost over?  Let’s begin Day 3!

Day 3: Meet your driver—who is now your long lost brother—for a trip to the Camel Market in Birqash. Birqash-Camel-MarketNearly 40 miles out of town, into the Delta, the views along the way are fascinating and the Camel Market is not to be missed. Traders from the Sudan in flowing robes hold hands until a deal can be struck. Brace yourself for the rather cruel treatment of these awkward creatures. Here also is one of the Community Schools for Girls that collapsed during the earthquake.

800px-The_Masalla-_MatarayyiahAs you return, you will drive through Bulouc and Shoubra, two of the poorest areas of Cairo, arriving at “a secret garden,” Mataria, where the Holy Family rested on their way into Babylon (as Old Cairo was then known). A sacred child is buried under the ancient sycamore. Justine experiences the holy ground,

“…Inside the enclosure, natural spring water bubbled through an ancient stone fountain and down into the collection pool below. An elderly woman dressed in a green kaftan and white hijab held out her gnarled hand, catching and sipping the holy waters. Justine rested her exhausted body on a stone ledge facing the vista and ancient sycamore alongside, its tired, twisted branches held stable by hefty wooden props. Bare limbs with giant clusters of leaves were smothered at the top by the unrelenting smog. Jasmine and honeysuckle sprang boldly in irregular patches from the sacred ground…”

By early evening, you may need another rest and shower. Dress up for your last evening in Cairo (perhaps you should also pack photo_3603before you go out). You can walk to the Taboula Restaurant at 1 Latin America Street in Garden City (2792-5261) near the American and Canadian Embassies, where the team that would unravel The Cairo Codex first met. The restaurant might have been a stage set for One Thousand and One Nights: carved Arabesque brass tables, lounging seats with red recessed lamps, ancient Oriental artifacts, cozy corners, and ornate pipes giving an air of timeless mystery. If you might be hosting four people, order a full mezza, tabullah, kofta, and labna. When you finish dining, it will be quite dark, and since the sidewalks are uneven and treacherous then, ask a staff member to call a taxi to take you to The Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Corniche, where Justine’s romance with Amir began, a romance that blossoms through the entire Justine Trilogy. It’s an easy walk back to the Shepheard. Fall into bed for you have an early flight—and much to think about:

Were these stories about the Holy Family true? Could they be?

Why such tensions among the three religions of the book when they

all originate with Abraham?

What did I observe about the Egyptian people, their economy, and

history?

Which of my original assumptions about Egypt have been overturned?

What stories will I tell back home?

********************************

cairo codexRead before you go: The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert (but, of course); Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Midaq Alley, a short story by Naguib Mafouz.

If you have more time: Alexandria (Metropole Hotel), Luxor and the Valley of the Kings (The Presidente Hotel), Aswan (Old Cataract Hotel) and Abu Simbel (return to Aswan for the night), a cruise down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. Yes, north is “down” in this case.

 

It’s time to return home, but we’ll always have Cairo.

Thank so much to Linda Lambert.  Visit Linda’s blog here.  Buy The Cairo Codex here!

 

 

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Following in the Footsteps of The Cairo Codex: 72 Hours in Cairo–Day 2

linda lambertThis is the second of a three-day post in which Linda Lambert, author of The Cairo Codex, guides us in the footsteps of Dr. Justine Jenner.

When an earthquake nearly buries anthropologist Justine Jenner in an ancient crypt, she finds what appears to be an ancient codex which, if real, could radically threaten the world’s great religions.

The Cairo Codex is a riveting novel of two women, two millennia apart, set in the exotic cultures of ancient and present-day Egypt. Dr. Justine Jenner has come to Cairo to forge her own path from the legacies of her parents, an Egyptian beauty and an American archaeologist. After an earthquake nearly buries her alive in an underground crypt, she discovers an ancient codex, written by a woman whose secrets threaten the foundations of both Christian and Muslim beliefs. As political instability rocks the region and the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to steal the Egyptian Revolution, Justine is thrust into a world where even those she trusts may betray her in order to control the codex’s revelations.

cairo codex

Chop, chop, everyone!  Time to get out of bed and take in the sights and sounds of Cairo. Don’t forget to wear some comfy shoes and grab a bag to store some great souvenirs.  We don’t have much time so let’s get going on our journey.  Here’s Linda!

Tahrir-SquareDay 2: On your second morning in Cairo, walk to Tahrir Square, the center of revolutionary foment (ignoring any “helpful” persons along the way, especially if they claim to be a doctor).  Take the underground to the Mars Girgius Station in Old Cairo, stroll past the Roman fortress and into the Hanging Church suspended over the fort and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Wind through the narrow pathways to Saint Sergius Church, the actual home of the Holy Family in 2 BCE where Justine discovered The Cairo 2271106524_e34ec5e109_zCodex during a major earthquake. Don’t worry, earthquakes are infrequent in Egypt. Walk to the front and through the nave of 4th century St. Sergius, into the backroom to the left, and take the stairs down into the crypt where the Virgin Mary’s diary tumbled from the wall. Warning: it could be still flooded with ground water from the earthquake. The docent will explain.

ser01-Flooded-section-of-Church-of-Abu-Serga

Take the underground back to Tahrir Square and walk east into the heart of Cairo’s fashionable shopping area (carrying a map at all times during your trip), stopping to eat lunch at one of the sidewalk shawarma (towers of sizzling beef spinning on a metal stake over a fire) shops along the south side of Talaat Harb Street. As you approach Midan Talaat Harb Square and the looming statue of the founder of the National Bank, you’ll find Mr. Harb in his towering tarboosh. Groppi’s blue mosaic façade can be spied on the left corner. This historic bakery and teashop was once a gathering place for writers, adventurers, self-appointed celebrities and pashas. It is the setting for two crucial scenes in The Cairo Codex and is a great place for a relaxing cup of tea and a couple of desirable dainty chocolate frosted cookies before returning to the hotel. You may not be able to resist buying a pair of flamboyant shoes at one of the many shops along the way. Return by way of The American University of Cairo.

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sphinx-front-wa-2001It is now early evening of your second full day in Cairo. Employ your personal driver from the hotel to take you to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. Ask him to wait as you explore on foot (leaving a clean blouse or shirt and alternative shoes in the car).  Change clothes and shoes, modestly, and ask the driver to take you to the elegant Mena House Oberoi, nearby, for Darjeeling tea in the lounge overlooking the pyramids and dinner in the exotic Moghul Room. This “Palace of the Pyramids” was built for Sheikh Isma’il Pasha as his hunting lodge. Winston Churchhill, Agatha Christie, Queen Mary, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were frequent visitors. You may dismiss your driver as you enter the hotel since the staff will arrange for transport back to the Shepheard (he can take your dusty shoes and clothes back to the hotel to be left in your room).

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I don’t know about you, but I’m having a fabulous time in Cairo.  Do we have to go back home??  Come back tomorrow for Day 3.

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Following in the Footsteps of The Cairo Codex: 72 Hours in Cairo–Day 1

I want to welcome Linda Lambert, author of The Cairo Codex, to Bookmagnet’s Blog today.  Over the next few days, Linda will take us on a journey to Cairo, retracing the steps her main character, Dr. Justine Jenner, took in Cairo and surrounding areas.

cairo codexIn The Cairo Codex, Linda Lambert, former state department envoy to Egypt and author of several books on leadership, plunges the reader into pre-revolutionary Egypt and allows us to witness a nation on the brink of a social uprising.  This is a subject Lambert knows well, and her expertise makes The Cairo Codex utterly gripping.  She could have easily set her tale in Iraq or Israel, but the effect would not be as great.  Writers are frequently told to write what they know best.  Lambert does just that, and it works beautifully.  Lambert combines history, mystery, and archaeology with romance, politics, and religion.

Since it is currently unsafe to travel in Egypt, Linda will be our virtual tour guide.  We are arm-chair (or couch, or comfy bed, or linda lambertoffice chair) travelers, eagerly anticipating all Cairo has to offer.

As of this moment, the U.S. State Department is advising against traveling into Egypt—unless you want to start with Sharm el-Sheikh on the glorious Sinai Peninsula, travel westward to Saint Catherine’s Monastery and climb Mount Sinai where Moses received the tablets from God. By that time, the mainland of Egypt (the Sinai is actually in Asia, cut off by the Suez Canal) will be safe. Egypt always swings back toward safety and gracious hospitality.

map_of_cairo

If not now, then soon you will want to make the trip of a lifetime leading through the haunts in The Cairo Codex: the scenes where anthropologist Justine Jenner made the world’s most profound discovery, was enchanted and romanced, kidnapped and terrified, stunned and surprised. Travel with a friend, a lover, for you’ll want long conversations and romantic evenings. Now come with me into this land of mystery….

The new airport in northeast Cairo is quite accommodating. If you didn’t obtain a visa before you go, you can buy one at the airport. Taxis are no longer allowed to park inside the airport, so secure a car or limousine at an official-looking desk to take you the forty minutes or so to the Shepheard Hotel.  Make reservations through Booking.com (ask for a two-level room facing the Nile.)

hotelexterior

When you have checked in at your hotel, if it is still light outside, cross the street and walk along the Corniche bordering the Nile. Take a whiff of roasting corn, purchase a garland of jasmine from a young girl, observe the Cairenes strolling the riverfront. Note the felucca boats swaying in the water below. Reserve one for the following evening. Return to your room for the sunset (first night only), order a bottle of Grand Marquis cabernet from room service, and have dinner in the Caravan Restaurant downstairs. Arrange with the hotel for a car and English-speaking driver the next morning and get a good night’s sleep, for your 72 hours start in the morning.

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Day 1: You will wake up too early! Can’t help it. Dress comfortably and modestly and take a walk to watch the great city wake up. Linger at the river, observing white cranes fly low through the pale lavender mist. Breathe deeply. Walk—or run—north to the July 27 Bridge and cross over the Nile to the island of Zamalek, and enter the Cairo Tower grounds. Return, take a shower, go downstairs for breakfast. Connect with your driver and on the drive, learn his name, all about his family, his dreams for Egypt. He will be very proud. No need to start until 10, unless it is summer and you’ll want to get going before the sweltering heat blankets the city. On the docket for today: The Citadel, Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Ţūlūn (locals believe that it is here that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Deluge), City of the Dead and, in the afternoon, the cool Egyptian Museum. Walk back to the hotel (about six blocks)—take another shower and nap and board your felucca for a sail on Nile at sunset. Next, ask the hotel to hail a taxi for Khan El Khalili Bazaar, which is magical at night. As you step from the taxi, peer across the street to the Al Azhar, the world’s most ancient university, and the dwelling place of the Islamic Imam. Have dinner at the Khan El Khalili Restaurant in the center of the bazaar. Buy jewelry to your heart’s content. Merchants will be playfully aggressive, but just gaze into their eyes and say “mish mumpkin” (“not possible” in Arabic).

khan el khalili

Stay tuned for Day 2 on Wednesday!

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Spotlight on The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

good lord bird

About The Book:

From Riverhead Hardcover

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

About The Author:

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, “The Color of Water,” is considered an American James_McBrideclassic and read in schools and universities across the United States. His debut novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” was translated into a major motion picture directed by American film icon Spike Lee. It was released by Disney/Touchstone in September 2008. James also wrote the script for the film, now available on DVD. His novel, “Song Yet Sung,” was released in paperback in January 2009. His new novel about American revolutionary John Brown will be released in Feb. 2013. His latest work is the August 2013 film “Red Hook Summer” which he co-wrote and co-produced with acclaimed director Spike Lee.

James is the worst dancer in the history of African Americans, bar none, going back to slavetime and beyond. He should be legally barred from dancing at any party he attends. He dances with one finger in the air like a white guy.

He is also a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine and The Washington Post. His work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

James toured as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott among others. He has also written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Purafe, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney but wishes he did. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical “Bo-Bos” co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Musical Tour was captured in a nationallly televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

James is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Bookmagnet Says:

I cannot stop thinking about McBride’s newest novel.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-imagining one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.  I absolutely loved it and plan on reviewing the book next week.

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Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Book Review: Snow Hunters by Paul Yoonsnow-hunters1.jpg

(Simon & Schuster; 208 pages; $22)

“That winter, during a rainfall,” Yohan “arrived in Brazil,” Paul Yoon, 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree, writes in his lyrical and arresting debut Snow Hunters.   Yohan, a North Korean war refugee, seeks a new life in Brazil but cannot escape his past, even half a world away, in a port town on the country’s coast.  Yoon’s quiet yet wise protagonist and his measured yet moving language drive this relatively short novel.  Snow Hunters may be 194 pages, but it sure packs an emotional punch.

Yoon opens Snow Hunters with the kind of intense sentiment that comes to exemplify the novel as a whole.    As the cargo ship on which he is a passenger docks in a Brazilian harbor, Yohan helps the crew unload.  A sailor offers him a blue umbrella.  “From the child,” the sailor explains and points “up at the ship” where Yohan sees “a crown of hair and the length of a pale scarf gliding along the sky.”  A boy runs “after her, waving.”  Yohan hears the “delicacy and assuredness” of the girl’s voice, “the way it” rises “like a kite, the foreign cadence of words in another language.”  Her kindness, her laughter, and even the sight of children at play are a balm for Yohan.

When Yohan immigrates to Brazil, he is only 25; his age belies both the horrors and hardships of war he has witnessed.  Seeking to escape his shattered past, Yohan has defected from North Korea.  Yoon eloquently and tenderly intersperses flashbacks into the narrative, memories that take Yohan and readers back to Yohan’s homeland.  Here, Yoon delivers the same vivid and moving descriptions of Yohan’s past as he first illustrated his protagonist’s arrival in Brazil.  For example, American soldiers find Yohan and his friend and fellow soldier Peng, who had been on patrol, among bombed-out wreckage.   “Among the men he and Peng had lived with, walked with, fought and slept beside, they were the only survivors of the bombing.”  This reality is sobering, especially once Yoon reveals that the Americans discovered them only because Yohan’s nose stuck up out of the snow, like a “carrot.”  The title is taken from another, equally poignant, scene in Yohan’s past when he and Peng see a Korean family scavenging in the snow.  Peng remarks that they look like “snow hunters…the way they moved across the snow like acrobats, their bright forms growing smaller in the night….”  Yohan may call a new country home, but the Korean War remains a part of his identity, and he is haunted by the conflict.

tumblr_mg8ng0C9zU1s2baglo1_r1_1280 (1)    Slowly, Yohan becomes part of his adopted country.  New friends alleviate the pain as they each mark Yohan’s life in his or her own way: the Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi, for whom Yohan serves as apprentice; Peixe, the groundskeeper at a local church who suffered from polio as a child and walks with a cane; and the “beggar children” Bia and Santi who flit in and out of Yohan’s life.  These may be minor characters, but they happen to play significant roles in Yohan’s life.

Snow Hunters explores war, memory, identity, home, loss, trauma, forgiveness, and love—universal themes that appeal to all of us regardless of the nation in which we live.  With prose that begs to be savored, Snow Hunters proves Yoon is one of the most talented writers of his generation, and I cannot wait to see what his imagination yields next. Yoon’s passages often read like poetry.  I rarely read a sentence much less a paragraph or two over and over again, but I relished Yoon’s elegiac and commanding language.   His sentimentality makes Snow Hunters both unforgettable and stirring, which is a powerful combination.  Yohan is a simple man, but he is one of the most highly-developed characters I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

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Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

(Simon & Schuster; 512 pages; $27.50).

manson Prior to the publication of Jeff Guinn’s book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Vincent Bugliosi’s national bestseller Helter Skelter was the definitive volume on Manson, his followers, and the series of murders his minions committed (the most famous of which was actress Sharon Tate) in August 1969.  Guinn has written a fascinating and essential biography of the cult leader and notorious killer.  To understand Manson and his era, Guinn’s take on the 78-year-old infamous murderer is not only important but necessary.

Charles Manson was pure evil personified.  Guinn writes, “There was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie—he was an opportunistic sociopath.”  Guinn begins by effectively charting Manson’s history of incarceration. Both Manson’s mother and his uncle were imprisoned, and their tendency to commit crimes seems to have been passed down to Charlie. Interestingly, Manson spent more time in jail than he did out of it.

It was in prison where Charlie first read Dale Carnegie’s self-help book How To Win Friends and Influence People.  This was the one instance in which Manson himself was a convert.  Guinn shines as he takes Manson to San Francisco in the late 1960s, where he used Carnegie’s methods on young girls who were down on their luck and desperately searching for something.  Or someone.

Manson convinced the young women that they were all looking for him; he knew just how to manipulate them.  Using sex and drugs, Manson eliminated their super egos and eradicated all their barriers.  This insured they would do anything he asked of them.  Although he had trouble reading, Guinn suggests that Manson was especially savvy and intelligent, especially when it came to influencing people.

Since Los Angeles was the center of everything in the 1960s, particularly music, Manson and his cohorts settled there.  It was not long before they were hanging out with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and even Neil Young.  In fact, Gregg Jakobson, talent scout, session arranger, and good friend of Wilson’s, first used the term “the Family” to describe Manson and his followers.  The name stuck.

Manson hoped to get a recording contract but producers, like Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, passed.  However, Manson and his devotees still managed to spend around $100,00 of Wilson’s money and also obtained funds from Didi Lansbury, daughter of actress Angela Lansbury.  Eerily, Manson sent his people off on “creepy crawls,” where they would break into a house at night and, while the owners slept, rearrange their belongings.  Manson ordered his disciples not to steal anything, and they obeyed him.  Only when the unsuspecting home owners awoke would they realize their homes had been violated.  On one such creepy crawl, Manson’s acolytes broke into the home of John and Michelle Phillips of the musical group The Mamas and the Papas.

Guinn convincingly places Manson within his historical era.  The author writes, “The unsettling 1960s didn’t create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.”   The atmosphere of the late 60s was perfect for someone like Charlie, and he took full advantage of the tumult, even instilling fears of a race war, “Helter Skelter,” into his followers.

When Manson’s hopes for a career in music were dashed, he feared he would become lessened in the eyes of his supporters.  For a cult leader, this was unthinkable.  He had to act.  He had to somehow bind them to him forevermore.  He had to make them kill for him, Guinn maintains.  And they, good little soldiers that they were, did exactly that.

A significant portion of Manson is devoted to August of 1969 and the gruesome Tate and LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial in which Bugliosi served as chief prosecutor.  I have read Helter Skelter eight to ten times, yet so much of what Guinn wrote was new to me.  He interviewed many of those involved, some of whom had never spoken to any other writer before.  Guinn’s never-before-revealed information kept a decades-old crime intriguing, fresh, and compelling.

Manson belongs right next to Helter Skelter.  The two books of true crime complement each other nicely and should be read together for maximum effect.  They are two very different books.  The emphasis in Helter Skelter was on the trial and its preparation.  Bugliosi provided sketches of most of the people involved from the victims to the perpetrators to those knowledgeable.  While Manson was an important part of Helter Skelter, he was not the primary focus.  Guinn’s chilling and informative book, in contrast, is all about Manson.  You may think you know the story, but Guinn’s new material will have you glued to the page.

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The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.

 

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Spotlight on The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

I am reading a spectacular debut by an exciting new literary talent.  It’s Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist, coming July 8 from W.WNorton & Company.

“Sleepers, awake!”

Resurecctionist n. (a). Hist. A body-snatcher; a resurrection man; (bgen. a person who resurrects something (lit. & fig.); (c) a believer in resurrection

About The Book:

resurrectionistA young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.

Nemo Johnston was one of many Civil War–era “resurrectionists” responsible for procuring human corpses for doctors’ anatomy training. More than a century later, Dr. Jacob Thacker, a young medical resident on probation for Xanax abuse and assigned to work public relations for his medical school’s dean, finds himself facing a moral dilemma when a campus renovation unearths the bones of dissected African American slaves—a potential PR disaster for the school. Will Jacob, still a stranger to his own history, continue to be complicit in the dean’s cover-up or will he risk his entire career to force the school to face its dark past?

First-time novelist Matthew Guinn deftly weaves historical and fictional truth, salted with contemporary social satire, and traditional Southern Gothic into a tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge—and a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining moral parable of the South.

 

 

 

 

About The Author:

A native of Atlanta, Matthew Guinn earned a BA in English from the University of Georgia. He continued graduate school at the Matthew_GuinnUniversity of Mississippi, where he met his wife Kristen and completed a master’s degree. At the University of South Carolina, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, he was personal assistant to the late James Dickey. In addition to the Universities of Mississippi and South Carolina, he has taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Tulane University’s School of Continuing Studies in Madison, Mississippi.

Matthew and Kristen live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their two children, Braiden and Phoebe.

 

 

Perspective-2-photo

“Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again.”

Historical Note: (from the book)

The events of The Resurrectionist are drawn from actual medical practice in the southern United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth.

Guinn is indebted to Abraham Flexner and Robert L. Blakely.

Abraham Flexner was a crusader for medical college reform in the early twentieth century; his report for the Carnegie resurrectionman02Foundation, entitled Medical Education in the United States and Canada, was published in 1910.  Flexner’s expose of the schools of his era–many of them rife with charlatanry, operated without regulation for pure profit–ushered in a new era of medical reform.  For sheer revelatory content, his report rivals any novelistic invention.

In 1989, the archaeologist Robert Blakely was called to the Medical College of Georgia when human remains were discovered in the earthen cellar of the campus’s oldest building during renovations.  His work, aided by the cooperation of MCG authorities, culminated in the publication of Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1997).  

Although Guinn changes names and locations, the character of Nemo Johnson is drawn from the enigmatic biography that Bones resurrectionman03in the Basement sketches of Grandison Harris, a slave purchased by the MCG faculty prior to the Civil War.  Harris functioned as the school’s janitor, butler, and body snatcher–or resurrectionist, in the parlance of the day.  With the faculty’s silent endorsement and support, Harris routinely pillaged Augusta’s African American cemetery, Cedar Grove, until his retirement in 1905.  Harris died in 1911, having never divulged his activities and without facing official censure for carrying out his nocturnal duties.  To date, the location of Grandison Harris’s remains in Cedar Grove is unknown.

Bookmagnet Says:

Prepare to be fascinated!

Here are some great websites to learn more:

Grandison Harris

My Georgia History

The legend

Purchase A Signed Copy From Lemuria Books

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