Category Archives: Lemuria Books

Interview with Michael Farris Smith, Author of Rivers

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

michael farris smith 1

Thank you, Michael, for letting me ask you these questions.  Rivers left me chilled, gasping, and shaken to the core.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Not really. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was kind of a drifter. Change of scenery was something I really desired and needed so I didn’t stay in one place very long. But this restlessness took me to Europe for a few years and that’s when I began to read and that led me to the desire to write. I will say, though, that when it hit me at age 29, that’s all I wanted to do. Still is.

 

How would you describe Rivers?

Wow. That’s a tough one for the second question. I think RIVERS is about redemption, survival both emotionally and physically. I think RIVERS is about the odyssey of not only Cohen but of all the characters. There is so much to overcome. I wanted it to be more complex than simply good versus evil, and I hope it comes across that way.

What made you decide on the title?  Did you ever have any others in mind?

RIVERS wasn’t the original title. The original title had been used recently to my chagrin, but my agent and I were knocking around other ideas and when RIVERS was suggested, I thought it was perfect. It works on several different levels in the story. It’s strong, straightforward, Southern. Exactly what I wanted.

Michael, what was the impetus behind this novel?  How did you come up with the story?rivers1.jpg

There was no one thing, but several things came into play when I had the idea for RIVERS. Mississippi was still feeling, and is still feeling, the pangs of Katrina and something in me wanted to write a post-Katrina novel. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated. At the same time I was also very much wanting to break from writing stories to writing novels and I wanted an idea that would, at the very least, picque interest. So I decided to quit banging my head against the wall with a Katrina story, and take the notion of hurricane destruction and the place and people that take the punishment and ramp it way, way up. What if a stream of hurricanes went on and on? What would it look like? What would we do? And then I started to work.

I want to talk more about Cohen.  He’s such an interesting man.  He’s a pragmatist, yet he stays in his home with the world practically coming apart around him.  He’s got a dog, a horse, and a whole lot of memories.  He’s haunted by the past.  Cohen’s a realist yet he also seems to be an idealist.  How did you come up with this character?  How easy or how difficult was it to make him so multi-layered and complex?  Is there any of you in Cohen?

I had an image of a man waking up in the middle of the night, on family land, on the Gulf Coast, after a big storm, and then he goes out to look around. And that’s really all I had. I just started to follow him, to see what he saw, to feel what he felt about what he was seeing. The layers eventually came, but I didn’t have a real game plan for Cohen other than I wanted to lay as much trouble on him as I possibly could and see how he would react. Turns out, he took a lot, and kept fighting.

I think there’s some of me in Cohen, like I guess there is in most all of my characters, but I don’t think there is much overlap. And least not consciously. He’s kind of a South Mississippi guy who grew up playing ball and riding around with a cooler of beer with his buddies and working with his hands, and that’s a pretty decent description of me.

Are there any plans on making a movie of this book?  I would love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen.

That’s a good suggestion. I’ll see if we can get him a copy.

Mariposa is another intriguing character and she also lets you talk about New Orleans and what happened there.  She’s also haunted.  How did you come up with the character of Mariposa?

Mariposa was so much fun to create because, like you said, she gave me the chance to use New Orleans and all the ghost stories and dark alleys of the French Quarter. I wanted some of the characters to be displaced, to have ended up in this situation by straight-up bad luck, and that’s how she came to be. I didn’t know when she was introduced limping along the side of the road that she would grow into the character that she grew into, but I’m glad she did.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your friends and family?  Do you think Rivers would have ever been possible without Katrina?

I’m certain that there would have never been RIVERS without Katrina. It’s the first hurricane in my lifetime to have struck Mississippi and it had such an impact on so many people. I felt that impact and those emotions drove me through the writing of RIVERS.

rivers 1In Rivers, Cohen recalls a vacation he and his wife took to Venice.  It’s so interesting that they vacationed in the “floating city” given that New Orleans features so prominently in your story.  The low elevation of New Orleans means it’s like a bowl and this means it’s vulnerable to flooding.  Is there a reason why you had Cohen and Elisa tour Venice?

It started as a way to give some more information about Cohen and Elisa and their life before, so I sent them to Venice on a vacation for the sheer irony of the water. It was only about 4 pages, but my agent really liked it and suggested I write their entire trip. So I created about 20 pages of what their Venice experience was like and then sliced it up and put it here and there throughout RIVERS. It helped that I’ve been to Venice a few times and that is a place, much like New Orleans, with its own strange feeling. It’s so old, so beautiful and ancient one minute, then you turn a street and it’s decrepit and smelly. But it also has a haunting feel, and it seemed to be a good parallel to what was to come for Cohen and Elisa.

What kind of research did you do for Rivers?

None. I looked at a map once or twice to make sure I had the distance between places correct, but that’s it. I didn’t want to look at any footage of natural disasters or study hurricane patterns because I had a pretty strong vision of the place I was trying to create and I didn’t want it tainted.

Although this is speculative fiction, it is so powerful given our extreme weather this century.  If something similar happened in the United States, irrevocably altering the landscape of the Gulf South and the way we live, do you think things would progress as they do in Rivers?  Or would they be worse?

That’s a really good question and I’ve had this come up with other readers. About all I can say is I hope this isn’t a Gulf Coast that we ever see because there are many people in this world anxious to try and take advantage of calamity.

A great deal of loss permeates Rivers yet there is also a great deal of hope.  Was that an aim of yours when you set out to write the

michael farris smith 2story?

I think almost every story has to be about hope in some way. The novels and stories that I love center around hope and survival, whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, whatever. The late, great Barry Hannah said all stories have to be about life and death and hope is in the middle of life and death.

I love Barry Hannah, another fellow Mississippian.  Did you have an ending in mind when you began writing Rivers or did the conclusion come to you over time?

I never have an ending in mind until I get there. I think planning too far ahead robs my characters of free will and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Which writers have influenced you the most? Who are some of your favorite authors?  What are some of your favorite books?

So many favorites: Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote. Some of my favorite books are The Stranger, Joe, The Crossing, Death in Venice, Old Man and the Sea, Ballad of the Sad Café, Good Morning Midnight, Feast of Snakes, The Iliad, [and] No Country for Old Men.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

I like to be outside, chasing around my daughters, cooking out in the backyard, playing guitar, tailgating.

Our home state has produced truly magnificent writers—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, and Jesmyn Ward—just to name a few.  How does it feel to join their illustrious ranks?

It feels pretty good. There are so many great writers from this state, writers that you read and admire and aspire to be like, and then when you finally find your name mentioned alongside them, it’s surreal and satisfying and humbling.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Rivers?

I hope that readers travel the same journey as Cohen and the others. I hope they are emotionally spent, that they feel the struggle, that they hope, that it’s an adventure.

What’s next for you, Michael?  Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on something but as always, you just wait and see how it goes. I’m excited about working again. There’s been a lot lately to keep me away from the healthy exercise of writing fiction and I’m ready to be back to it more consistently.

Thanks so much, Michael, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

Thanks to you and so glad for your enthusiasm for RIVERS.

Author Website

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Meet Michael!

Friday, October 4 – Book Mart & Café, Starkville, MS: Signing from 3:00-5:00 pm

Saturday, October 5 – Barnes & Noble, Tupelo, MS: 2:00 pm

Tuesday, October 8 – Lemuria Books, Part II, Jackson, MS: Signing at 5:00. Click here to reserve a First Edition signed copy.

Wednesday, October 9 – University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS

October 11-12 – Southern Festival of Books, Nashville

Wednesday, October 16 – “Tea with Authors” at Mississippi Library Association Conference, Biloxi, MS

October 18-19 – Auburn Writers Conference, Auburn University

Tuesday, October 22 – Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS

October 24-26 – Welty Writers Symposium, MUW, Columbus

October 29 – Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Friday, November 1 – Turnrow Books, Greenwood, MS

Thursday, November 7 – Texas A&M-Commerce, Dallas, TX

Wednesday, November 13 – James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Friday, November 22 – Lunch with “The Literary Club” in Columbus, MS

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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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Spotlight on Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng

About The Book:

An epic odyssey in which a young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the past.

southern cross the dogWith clouds looming ominously on the horizon, a group of children play among the roots of the gnarled Bone Tree. Their games will be interrupted by a merciless storm–bringing with it the Great Flood of 1927–but not before Robert Chatham shares his first kiss with the beautiful young Dora. The flood destroys their homes, disperses their families, and wrecks their innocence. But for Robert, a boy whose family has already survived unspeakable pain, that single kiss will sustain him for years to come.

Losing virtually everything in the storm’s aftermath, Robert embarks on a journey through the Mississippi hinterland–from a desperate refugee camp to the fiery brothel Hotel Beau-Miel and into the state’s fearsome swamp, meeting piano-playing hustlers, well-intentioned whores, and a family of fierce and wild fur trappers along the way. But trouble follows close on his heels, fueling Robert’s conviction that he’s marked by the devil and nearly destroying his will to survive. And just when he seems to shake off his demons, he’s forced to make an impossible choice that will test him as never before.

Teeming with language that voices both the savage beauty and the complex humanity of the American South, Southern Cross the bill chengDog is a tour de force of literary imagination that heralds the arrival of a major new voice in fiction.

About The Author:

Bill Cheng received a BA in creative writing from Baruch College and is a graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife. Southern Cross the Dog is his first novel.

 

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Spotlight on A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I’m about to begin reading what many consider to be THE book of the month.  Some even say this is THE NOVEL of the year.  I don’t know about that yet, but we’ll see.

constellation

About the Book:

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.
 

   In his brilliant, haunting novel, Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya, where eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels. Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.
   For the talented, tough-minded Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

About the Author:

MarraA

 

Anthony Marra grew up in Washington, DC, and has lived and studied in Russia. His story “Chechnya” won First Place in Narrative’s Spring 2009 Story Contest and received both a Pushcart Prize and the Narrative Prize in 2010. His work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and in 2013 Marra received the prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award. His debut novel is entitled A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Random House, 2013). Marra is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

There is no doubt that the war-torn country of Chechnya has been in the news of late and I think that might mean even more readers for Marra.  Readers are comparing A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to two of my favorite novels: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife.  I am excited about Marra’s debut.

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Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf; 336 pages; $24.95).

           

The End Of The World As We Know It does not necessarily mean The End.  In The Stand, Stephen King unleashed a flu epidemic, “Captain Tripps,” onto mankind, killing billions.  Some possessed a natural immunity to the disease.  These survivors were central in the fight between good and evil.  In the end, Las Vegas and the “Darkman” were obliterated, but life went on.

Cormac McCarthy also wrote about The End Of Time.  In his bleak and powerful novel The Road, an unnamed father and son journeyed through a post-apocalyptic and utterly unrecognizable landscape.  McCarthy used nuclear war instead of a disease but his characters also struggled, this time against angry survivors who were hell-bent on making a new world as they saw fit.

Yet, in both these ravaged and savage landscapes, pockets of humanity still existed; hope lived on.  As it does in Peter Heller’s transcendent and beautifully lyric debut The Dog Stars.

Nine years before The Dog Stars begins a flu epidemic wiped out most of the world’s population.  Think something like this is just fiction?  Look up the 1918 Spanish flu, and I guarantee you will get chills.  In Heller’s story, a superbug mutated and combined with bird flu.  The first cases of the Africanized bird flue appeared in London; in all likelihood, though, the virus originated at a national weapons lab.  Not long after, the flu had spread everywhere.  Chaos erupted.  If flu were not enough, another catastrophe got added to the mix.  A blood disease similar to HIV wreaked havoc on those who survived the flu.

You can imagine the kind of world left behind.  It’s a kill-or-be-killed existence, something Heller’s protagonist, Hig, knows all too well. As Heller writes, “Old rules are done Hig.  Went the way of the woodpecker.  Gone with the glaciers and the government.  New world now.  New world new rules.  Never ever negotiate.”

Hig is an “old man at forty” who lost his wife and their unborn child to the flu.  Hig’s narrative is unconventional as Heller uses flashbacks and sometimes strange streams of consciousness to tell us his story.  After the flu struck, encephalitis felled Hig.  “Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105,” Hig explains, “I know it cooked my brains.”  There is no pattern to Hig’s thoughts.  They are often jumbled and mish-mashed, often without segue from one thought to the next.  He begins many of his sentences with “and” or “so” and most of his thoughts are fragments.  What Hig has lived through and what he has lost speak to us from the page.  Heller uses a very powerful device, and Hig just would not be Hig without it.

After living through The End, we would try to make a home in a place of familiarity and safety.  That is exactly what Hig does.  He makes his home at a small, abandoned airport, where he sleeps under the stars with his faithful old dog, Jasper.  He shares the airport with Bangley, his neighbor and “good ole boy,” who often saves Hig’s “bacon.” Bangley needs Hig because Hig pilots an eighty-year-old 1956 (do the math and the year is about 2036) Cessna that he nicknames “the Beast.”  Hig and Jasper patrol the airport’s perimeter, which means Hig can see who or what is coming before the who or what gets there.  Most of the time.

In the novel’s most violent episode, nine people stalk Hig as he returns from a hunt.  Bangley warns him from his spot on a tower and coaches Hig on what to do.  Remember this is a kill-or-be-killed world.  A firefight ensues.  One of the stalkers is a young boy, who Hig kills.  Killing may come easy for Bangley, but it is hard for Hig. He is losing hope, especially as he sees the blood disease slowly kill the Mennonite families who live close to the airport and who he furnishes some supplies.

Hig knows he has to leave the airport and Bangley to restore his faith.  A few years ago, he heard a voice over the radio while flying.  It was a woman’s voice who referenced the Grand Junction airport.  Hig is determined to go there and to find out what is out there, if anything.  Heller shows that sometimes one must take a leap of faith.  Sometimes one has to venture out into the unknown.

Because Hig flies a plane, readers are given a birds’ eye view of what is below.  Climate change has made our world almost unrecognizable and alien.  Few fish exist.  Droughts are common.  Animals such as bears, cows, and elk are rare.  Birds are almost extinct.  “The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah.  The tinmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove.  Sad but.  Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.”

No wonder Hig thinks of dinosaurs: “I thought of a painting I had seen at the natural history museum in Denver.  A bunch of mixed dinosaurs, I remember triceratops, fleeing across a sparse plain pursued by fire, and volcanoes erupting in the background.  I wonder if they could run as fast as a mama grizzly or a deer.”

Holding on to memories can go far in keeping a person alive.  Hig is testament to this belief.  Yet, he must let go of the past in order to embrace his future.  In a world devastated by violence, flu, and climate change, sometimes a person has to take certain liberties, especially if he no longer remembers the names of constellations.  Sometimes, like Hig, we must make it up as we go along.  In a time when there are no rules, Hig has to decide what his rules are; only then can he restore his lost hope.  The Dog Stars reminds us that even when mankind has been wiped out, humanity never truly dies.

Heller contrasts violent brutality, charred cities, and empty houses with pastoral scenes of nature.  There is such beauty in this story, even when everything is dead or dying.  Heller seems to relay an underlying message for readers: Take care of the Earth before his fictional story becomes an actual reality.  Cold milk, fresh apples, a touch, a faithful dog, naming the stars, going fishing, a bird call–the fragile stuff of everyday life.

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It Just Runs In The Family

The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos (Simon & Schuster; 368 pages; $25).

 green shore

Good writing must run in the Bakopoulos family.  Brother and sister, Dean and Natalie Bakopoulos have written three books between them.  Dean is the author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2004) and My American Unhappiness (2011).  This year, Natalie joins her brother with the release of her lush and picturesque debut The Green Shore.  They are the children of immigrants; their mother is Ukrainian and their father is Greek.  In a nod to her father’s birthplace, Natalie sets her story mostly in Greece and focuses on a dark period of the country’s history, one that is virtually unknown to most: the 1967 to 1974 military dictatorship.

This period in Greek history, quite honestly, was Greek to this reviewer.  Natalie Bakopoulos, though, takes this event and personalizes it.  In her novel, the political becomes personal, and the personal becomes political.

Bakopoulos does this by introducing readers to one Greek family and telling the story from multiple perspectives: Eleni, the matriarch and doctor with a passion for healing; her brother Mihalis, a poet who was once in exile; her daughter Sophie, a rebel at heart who flees Greece for Paris; and younger daughter Anna, a reluctant revolutionary but perhaps the fiercest of them all.  Revolution and resistance seem to be part of this family’s DNA sequence.  They all resist the military junta, yet each finds unique ways to oppose the colonels.  This family truly drives Bakopoulos’s story as we see what revolution will do to a country, a city, a community, and a family.

Since Bakopoulos is part Greek, she is intimately aware of Greek history and tradition.  Her knowledge and familiarity with Greece make this story all the more authentic.  Early on in the novel, Eleni and the rest of the family celebrate Easter.  Each takes a dyed-red egg.  Bakopoulos writes, “As was tradition, they would each take a hard-boiled, bright red egg and hit it together with the adjacent person’s, first the pointed end and then the round.  The last one with an intact egg was destined to have good fortune for the rest of the year.”  Reading this description, I could not help but wonder if the family itself would be cracked and broken by novel’s end.  Bakopoulos’s use of this Greek tradition is clever foreshadowing.

Although the family is intact by the end of the book, the dictatorship has altered each of them.  Eleni decides to help those people who have been tortured and abused by the government.  She, along with an intriguing man she meets, opens up a free clinic in secret.  This is Eleni’s way of resisting the junta.  Mihalis, meanwhile, continues to write and speak out against the colonels.  He, more than the others, is on the military’s radar since he is an artist and former exile.  His vitriol, not surprisingly, gets him into trouble once again.  It is Mihalis’s spirit that Sophie has inherited.  She and her boyfriend, Nick, get caught up in the early days of the revolution.  The colonels take Nick prisoner and Sophie flees to Paris.

The Paris setting allows Bakopoulos to explore another locale, but the heart of this novel lies in Greece, not in France.  And it shows in the writing.  As far as this novel goes, Paris cannot hold a candle to Athens.

Sophie may be away from the dictatorship, but the revolution is still a part of her quotidian existence.  It is through Sophie’s absence from Greece that Bakopoulos is able to focus on how a person can be homesick not only for a family but for a country, even for a nation in political turmoil.  Bakopoulos shows Sophie’s deep longing for home, a sentiment that only grows as the years go by.

Perhaps Sophie is less of a revolutionary in Paris, but only because she is not directly involved in the resistance.  Sophie, though, soon becomes a revolutionary in other, more personal and unexpected ways when she is pregnant and happily unwed.  The traditional Eleni must come to terms with her daughter’s newfound independence.

With Sophie’s departure from home, the younger Anna feels lonely.  She turns to her older married lover for comfort, but their relationship is doomed to fail, as all such associations are.  Anna is brooding and moody much of the time.  The decision to rebel comes too abruptly in her case.  It is almost as if she thinks protesting the junta is the ultimate way to stick it to everyone in her life.  I felt Bakoupoulos should have provided more allusions to Anna’s ultimate path.  However, in some cases, it is only one event or even one split second that prompts a person to resist.  But it feels wrong for Anna.  Her resistance almost gets her killed.

When The Green Shore ends, the military is still in power, although the last days of the junta are near.  Bakopoulos shows us that, regardless of revolution, life still goes on.  Lovers marry.  Women give birth.  Children grow.  The elderly die.  These are a fact of life and do not change based on political leanings or whims.

Natalie is the new Bakopoulos to watch.  Good writing or a rebellious spirit—sometimes it just runs in the family.

The Green Shore comes out June 5.  Bakopoulos will sign copies of her novel and do a reading from the book at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 27, 2012.

The version I read was an Advance Reader’s Edition.

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Interview with Kathy Hepinstall

Interview with Kathy Hepinstall, Author of Blue Asylum

Jaime Boler: You grew up in Texas.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Kathy Hepinstall: Yes, I think so, but it took different forms. As a girl, I wrote mostly poems. Later, I wrote short stories and went into advertising writing.  After a few years in that career, I decided I wanted to try a novel.

JB:  In your opinion, what is the most difficult think about being an author?  And what is the most rewarding?

KH: The most difficult thing is navigating the often challenging waters of the business of publishing. The most rewarding is being able to bring a story to life and have it resonate with other people.

JB: Your last novel, Prince of Lost Places, came out in 2003.  What have you been doing since then? 

KH: Mostly freelancing in advertising.  Wrote some more novels, but didn’t success [in] publishing [anything] until Blue Asylum.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Blue Asylum

KH: I’d been wanting to write a love story set in an insane asylum.  Just really liked all the inherent tensions in those two intersecting realities: Love and Insanity.

JB:  What kind of research did you do for Blue Asylum?

KH: I was on Sanibel Island for six weeks doing research and starting the first draft. I also learned about mental asylums of the day. 

JB:  I have a PhD in American history and wrote a dissertation on slave resistance in Natchez, Mississippi.  I never found any white plantation mistress who ran away with the slaves, but that’s not to say it NEVER happened.  Such a thing would have been deeply buried by the whites.  Did you find anything in your research about white women taking flight with slaves? 

KH: No, that was purely imaginative. But it made me like Iris to think she could do that.

JB: Are any characters in Blue Asylum loosely based on you or people you know? 

KH: Mary, the doctor’s wife, was based on Mary Lincoln. Ambrose was based on someone I loved and still do. And I see Wendell in all good people. 

JB: Do you think there were actual people like Iris who were declared insane and put into asylums who really were not insane?  Perhaps wives put there by their husbands? 

KH: Yes, that came up in my research.  Victorian men would get rid of their wives that way.

JB: Was the water treatment historically accurate?

KH: I’m trying to remember now..I think cold water was used in some supposedly curative way at some point in the history of asylums. But the water treatment also came from a description I read of a plantation owner who would punish his slaves by putting them in a hole and pouring water on them until it became terribly painful. 

JB:  In this novel, you create the quirkiest and most unforgettable characters.  Did their insanity give you license to really play with them, to really make them stand out? 

KH: Yes, that was very liberating creatively, especially with characters like Penelope and Lydia Helms Truman.

JB:  Do you have a favorite character in this book?  (I think mine is Wendell.)

KH: I do love beautiful tortured lamb-saving Wendell. I also like Lydia and, curiously, both the Cowells. 

JB:  In every one of your stories, you manage to provide unexpected twists.  I never see them coming.  How do you always do this?  And how difficult is it? 

KH: Thank you so much. I really like being surprised as a reader, so I try to surprise readers of my novels. Sometimes I wonder, have I given too many clues? Too few? I regret I wasn’t clearer about the ending to The House of Gentle Men. 

JB: What advice would you give anyone working on a first novel? 

KH: Find a really great editor.  That’s really hard to do but it may come as a surprise and be someone you know.  Also, finish it.  Finish even a terrible first draft. Finishing is a good habit to impress upon the brain.

JB:  Who are your favorite authors? 

KH: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, poets like Lorca and Vallejo.

JB:  Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite? 

KH: Absence of Nectar, most likely forever.

JB:  I saw on your blog where you are trying to get Oprah to read your book.  You even left a signed copy of Blue Asylum for her.  Could you talk a little about that? 

KH: I wanted to get Oprah’s attention in a playful, respectful way so a friend of mine and I buried a copy of Blue Asylum in the foothills of Montecito, where she lives, then took out an ad to her in the Montecito Journal with a treasure map.  So far, no response but I understand – people wanting her attention are legion.

JB:  Will you go on a book tour for Blue Asylum?  Which cities will you visit?  Any chance you might stop in Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS? 

KH: I’ve done readings/book parties in Portland, LA, New York, Virginia Beach and will visit San Francisco later in May. Love Lemuria Books. May not be able to get down there this year but some day soon I’d like to return. I’ll always remember their kindness and warmth and humor. 

JB:  What do you hope readers take with them after reading Blue Asylum?

KH: Just some kind of resonance in their own lives, and I hope, a greater love and respect for lunatics and lambs.

JB:  What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new? 

KH: My sister and I plan to rewrite a novel of ours called Girls of Shiloh, about two sisters who join the Confederate army as men.

JB: Thanks so much, Kathy, for agreeing to answer my questions.  I really appreciate it!

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Mother, May I Read a Book?

Happy May Day!  Ah, May, warm weather, blooming flowers, plentiful sunshine, and good books.  What more could we ask for?

May also brings us that most important of holidays: Mother’s Day.

Why not start a book club with your mom?  Include your friends, your mom’s friends, and their moms.  It’s a great way to get your nearest and dearest reading.

May I suggest these titles?

What to pick up now:

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman.  This book is Book Passage’s Signed First Editions Club pick for May.  Tilghman will be signing copies of his book and doing a reading at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on May 16.  The Right-Hand Shore  is about race, class, forbidden love, family history and secrets all in the wake of the Civil War.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger.  Boy, is this getting a lot of buzz!  Amina moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York.  She met George online and their marriage is an arranged one.  In the nineteenth-century, Amina would have been called a mail-order bride.  There is lots of hilarity, second guessing, and heartache in this one.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.  Fountain will read from and sign copies of his novel at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on May 23.  Billy and what is left of his unit are dubbed heroes after surviving a major battle in Iraq.  They are invited to a Dallas Cowboys football game and participate in halftime in this funny and heartwrenching story.

All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones.  North Korea, forced labor camps, a math prodigy, sex slavery.  All these are topics in All Woman and Springtime, a novel that has been compared to Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.  This novel will join the ranks of other recent books whose setting or topic is North Korea.  Should be interesting.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones.  This is set at the turn of the last century in England and will appeal to Downton Abbey fans, of which I am one.  A train wrecks, leaving passengers stranded.  They seek refuge with a family.  One of the passengers has a history with the lady of the house.  Sounds intriguing.

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer.  An outcast who loses herself in book attends Wellesley College.  Naomi’s past is tragic and she soon finds kindred spirits in the Shakespeare Society.

Coming Soon:

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller.  I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC of this one and let me tell you it is great!  Be sure to check back soon for my interview with the author.  Bullying, secret societies, insects, and Edward R. Murrow hallucinations make this a hit.  The Year of the Gadfly will be released May 8.

Home by Toni Morrison.  No one is like Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize.  The first Morrison novel I read was The Bluest Eye, a book that not only made me cry but also made me think.   Home explores the bonds of siblings and the aftermath of war.  If it is anything like Morrison’s other work, it is sure to be a hit.  It comes out May 8.

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel.  Set in Florida during the economic collapse, this novel is a literary noir with lots of jazz.  Mandel explores the unreliability of memory in her novel, a very interesting topic.  The Lola Quartet will be released May 15.

I Couldn’t Love You More by Jillian Medoff.  Eliot is happy with her partner Grant and their three daughters, two of which are her stepdaughters.  Then, an old love comes back into her life with shocking consequences.  Medoff asks which of your children would you save if you could.  This one could be THE summer’s biggest beach read.  Look for it May 15.

What are you waiting for?  Get to reading!  And enjoy.

 

 

 

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April Fiction–Lots of Books Blooming!

This is the start of something new.  Spring is new, and the time could not be more perfect.  From now on, at the beginning of each month, I am going to share with you the notable new releases for that month.  You’re in luck!  There’s much to talk about for April.

Before I begin, please note: If there is a book you’re keen on that is not listed here, let me know.  Perhaps I do not know about it and would like to read it.  I will try to limit myself to ten books.  Sometimes I may have more; sometimes I may have less.  It all depends.

Without further ado.  Here are the books I’m excited about for April.

1.  The Lifeboat Charlotte Rogan

The debut novel of Charlotte Rogan, The Lifeboat, is getting a lot of attention right now.  That is amazing, considering it was released on April 3.  The New York Times ran a review in which I learned Rogan was 57 when she got her book deal.  What an inspiration she is!  The Lifeboat is perfect for your book club and the main character, Grace, on trial for murder, will generate much discussion.

2.  The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

This novel was released March 27, but Amazon has the title listed as one of its best of April.  Another debut, The Land of Decoration features a ten-year-old heroine named Judith.  It’s difficult to resist a story which Emma Donoghue, author of Room, said “grabbed me by the throat.”

3.  The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

Robert Olmstead’s The Coldest Night is another title you can pick up now.  Olmstead sets his story during the Korean War and after.  I am lucky because Olmstead will visit Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 19.  If your local bookstore features signings, check to see if Olmstead will be there.

4.  The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

People Magazine loves this novel about four Harvard roommates who reunite after 20 years.  Their seemingly perfect lives are anything but.  The Red Book has been called The Big Chill meets The Group.”  This novel is out now.

5.  Calico Joe by John Grisham

John Grisham’s newest book, Calico Joe, is one of Amazon’s best books of the month and comes out April 10.  This time, Grisham turns to baseball and explores the themes of forgiveness and redemption.  Like all of Grisham’s previous novels, Calico Joe is sure to become a bestseller.

6.  The Cove by Ron Rash

The bestselling author of Serena returns with The Cove.  The novel is about a sister and brother and the cove, which may be cursed, where they live.  Rash will appear at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS, on April 18.  Be sure to check in your area.  Your city may be a stop on his tour.  The Cove is an Amazon best book of the month.

7.  The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

I must confess that I have never read Anne Tyler, but The Beginner’s Goodbye intrigues me.  Tyler tells the story of a middle-aged widower who is having a difficult time dealing with the death of his wife.  Until he starts seeing her, that is.  Amazon has this listed as one of the best books of the month.

8.  A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

I cannot wait to read Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, to be released April 17.  Cash’s debut has been compared to those of John Hart and Tom Franklin.  Amazon chose the novel as one of its best books of the month.  Cash will sign copies of his book on June 1, at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS.  A Land More Kind Than Home is a “mesmerizing literary thriller about the bond between two brothers and the evil they face in a small western North Carolina town.”

9.  Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

The author of The Absence of Nectar and The House of Gentle Men (two of my favorites) returns with Blue Asylum.  I would love to interview Hepinstall.  During the Civil War, a Virginia plantation mistress is put on trial and convicted of madness.  She is sent to Sanibel Asylum, where she meets many interesting people.  Hepinstall asks the questions what is madness and who decides in this gripping tale.

10.  Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

On the cusp of World War I, a young English actor has an affair.  She later goes to the police and accuses her former lover of rape.  In a twist, the young man is saved from trial by two diplomats.  William Boyd’s upcoming book is already getting lots of buzz before its April 17 release.  This one could be a stunner!

 

Which books are you excited about this month?  What about for summer?  I’d love to hear all about them!

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