Tag Archives: Georgia

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.




“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


Filed under Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, history, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Spotlight Books, Summer Reading

Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!


Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!


JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?


SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.


JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?


SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.


JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?


SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.


JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?


SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!



JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?


SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!


As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.


The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.


JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?


SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.


JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.


SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.


JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?


SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.



JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?


SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.



JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?


SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.


I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.


In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.


JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?


SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…


JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?


SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”


JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?


SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”


JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?


SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.



JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?


SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.


JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?


SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.


JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?


SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!


JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?


SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.


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


SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.


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


SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!


JB: Thanks, Sherri, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.


SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.



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Filed under author interviews, book review, books, dystopian literature, fiction, literary fiction, young adult

Book Review: The River Witch by Kimberly Brock

The River Witch by Kimberly Brock (Bell Bridge Books; 239 pages; $14.95).

                Kimberly Brock knows books; in fact, she loves them.  Brock, a native Southerner and former actor and special needs educator, is the blog network coordinator at She Reads.   She also reviews fiction and interviews authors on her website.  Her intense love of storytelling is readily apparent.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Brock wrote her first novel when she was in fourth grade.  As evidenced in her debut The River Witch, writing comes as naturally and as easily to Brock as reading and breathing.

In The River Witch, Brock focuses her narrative lens on Roslyn Byrne, a former ballerina now broken in body and shattered in soul.  A car accident left Roslyn unable to dance again; a miscarriage left Roslyn hollow and in a kind of in-between world.  She seeks solace on isolated Manny’s Island, Georgia, to escape the world and to finally bestow a name on her deceased baby.

Roslyn is a very sympathetic character, yet this reader never feels sorry for her.  She is a strong woman who comes from a long line of strong women.  Roslyn requires the use of a cane to help her walk.  The cane provides physical aid to Roslyn, but it is also symbolizes her wounded psyche.

There are many, many issues Roslyn grapples with in the cabin she rents on the island.  With the character of Roslyn, Brock has created a three-dimensional figure we not only relate to but also root for. Brock’s first-person perspective of Roslyn allows us to see her flaws, her disappointments, and her regrets; Brock also lets us see Roslyn’s triumphs.  Her indomitable will is palpable and resonates throughout the story.

Roslyn is not the only broken creature on Manny’s Island.   Ten-year-old Damascus Trezevant is a lonely and dejected little girl who aches for her deceased mother and her largely absent father.  She is drawn to Roslyn, just as Roslyn is captivated by Damascus.  In contrast to Roslyn’s narrative, Brock writes Damascus’ perspective in the third person.  I like the difference.  The distinction illustrates Brock’s range as a storyteller.

The beauty of The River Witch is in the complicated and beautiful ballet between Roslyn and Damascus.  Damascus alternately displays both affection and spite toward Roslyn.  Both principal characters have pent-up emotions that they must exhibit or everyone will suffer the consequences.  Both of Brock’s protagonists ache for an emotional connection and a sense they belong.

One character who I would have liked to see more of is Urey, Damascus’ father.  Mysterious, taciturn, introspective, sexy, and almost savage, Urey needs more of a presence in Brock’s story.  Roslyn’s chemistry with him is powerful.

Since Brock is from Georgia, The River Witch is written in a distinctly Southern voice.  I cannot imagine this novel being set anywhere else.  In the story, sense of place is a formidable force.  Manny’s Island is a locale that allows Brock to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  The magic of the island and the magic of Brock’s characters will transform the land and its people forever.

Manny’s Island can sometimes be a wild and dangerous place.  Snakes and alligators are abundant.  The current of the Little Damascus River can carry novice swimmers into the Atlantic.  Flooding is common.  Yet the island is also a place for miracles, where a woman is healed, where a child is mended, and where the wrongs of the past are reconciled.

Brock is already at work on her second novel.  If it’s anything like The River Witch, it will be a must-read.

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Book Review: Auraria by Tim Westover

Auraria by Tim Westover (QW Publishers; 384 pages; $17.95).


It’s a good thing I don’t judge books by their covers or by their publishers; otherwise, I would have missed a gem.  The cover of Tim Westover’s novel Auraria is embossed with the faint outline of mist-covered woods and mountains.  Nothing special.  Nothing really concrete as to what the story will be about.  Westover’s publisher, QW, is not one of the powerful publishing houses either.  QW is an indie publisher, one of which I honestly had never heard.  However, if you skip over Auraria for its forgettable cover or its lesser-known publisher, you are doing yourself a disservice.

The beginning of Auraria recalls the eerie opening of Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula.  Like Jonathan Harker traveling by carriage at night to the home of Count Dracula, James Holtzclaw approaches the fading gold-rush town of Auraria, Georgia, in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, in a blue mist.  His employer, a rather mysterious figure called Hiram Shadburn, sent Holtzclaw to Auraria to “destroy” the town.  Shadburn wants to turn Auraria into a resort and drown the place under a man-made lake.  Westover only gradually reveals Shadburn’s true motives and his surprising history.

Again like Stoker, Westover knows how to set a mood.  In his traveling bag, Holtzclaw carries a significant amount of money, money Shadburn gave him to buy property from those who live in Auraria.  “The thousands of dollars in federal notes were just ordinary paper, but the gold coins were the strangest” Holtzclaw had ever seen.  “Instead of eagles and shields,” Westover writes, “the coins were stamped with images of bumblebees, terrapins, chestnut trees, and indistinct figures by a stream.”  The strange gold coins had come from Auraria, and now they were returning home.

Westover illustrates how unique the town of Auraria is.  Its weirdly wonderful inhabitants are just as quirky as the town.  Holtzclaw gets to know the people of Auraria as he buys their property.  He meets a boy fishing where there is no water.  Holtzclaw sees the boy catch a fish nonetheless.  When questioned, the boy explains, “I just throw out my line, and the fish latch on.”  Holtzclaw is certain the child has cooked up a scheme to try to sell fish the easy way.  As Holtzclaw descends deeper into the town and buys up more property, it only gets weirder.  For example, the town’s dead sit on their gravestones and can carry on conversations.  To move Auraria’s graveyard to its new location, he must ask permission from the cemetery’s oldest resident, not from the inhabitant most advanced in age but from the little girl who has been there the longest.  Holtzclaw also comes into contact with Princess Trahltya, who frolics in Auraria’s springs and who works for the moon maidens.

Auraria contains many fantastical elements, as you have probably already surmised.  The genre of fantasy allows Westover to let his imagination run wild.  Westover masterfully employs magical realism in his story.  Holtzclaw enters a man’s town house to inquire about purchasing his land.  Those within say Mr. Walton is upstairs.  When Holtzclaw gets to the town house’s top-most floor, there is still no sign of Mr. Walton.

Holtzclaw is not in an ordinary town, so why should a town house be any different? Belulah, who lives there, admonishes Holtzclaw for taking things at face value: “Well, you know how some houses are,” she says.  “They look small from the outside, but they’re bigger inside.  How were you counting?  By the windows?  That’s not a very good way to count.  What if someone forgot to put in a window or put in an extra one?”  Things are not what they seem, as Holtzclaw and readers discover time and again in Westover’s story.  Another shining example of this is when a ghost named Mr. Bad Thing plays a piano.  Holtzclaw is convinced it is a player piano.  One of Auraria’s residents scolds him: “Just because you don’t know how it works,” she says, “doesn’t mean that it can’t work.”

Westover uses skillful personification to tell part of his story.  Deep under the Appalachian Mountains lives the “Great and Harmless and Invincible Terrapin.”  The gigantic turtle talks and has a history and a memory.  “Long ago, when the world was soft and had not been baked hard by the sun,” the terrapin begins, “I was a small terrapin.  The sun began to blaze, and I fled from its heat.  I burrowed into the mud, and as I grew, I made larger and larger channels.  I came to this place where the rock was soft and the valley was cool and dark, and I have lived here ever since.”  He confesses, “I am old here.”  The turtle also feels pain.  His so-called invincibility does not exempt him from suffering: “I suffer the pain of many, many long years spent under the mountain.”

His time in Auraria changes Holtzclaw, just as Westover’s story affects readers.  One cannot spend time in Auraria and be the same person he was prior to his arrival.  That holds true for Holtzclaw and for us.

Auraria is such an appealing story because it crosses so many different genres: historical fiction (yes, the town of Auraria, GA, really did exist; see E. Merton Coulter’s Auraria: The Story of a Georgia Gold Mining Town), fantasy, ghost story, and mystery.  Southern folklore comes to life in Westover’s hands as he intertwines fact with fantasy and superstition.  But perhaps Westover’s greatest achievement is proving book covers and publishers mean very little really; it’s all about the story.  The stuff in between the covers is what really matters.

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Good Girls and Bad Choices

I Couldn’t Love You More by Jillian Medoff (5 Spot; 432 pages; $13.99).


            Cinderella had a stepmother, so did Snow White.  Fairy tales, movies, and books often portray stepmothers as cruel, evil, ugly, and jealous women.  In I Couldn’t Love You More, Jillian Medoff dispels stereotypes and simultaneously dazzles us through her protagonist, Eliot Gordon.


Eliot is a thirty-eight-year-old daughter, sister, mother, stepmother, and wife.  But she is not married to Grant.  Confused? So was I in the beginning, but it’s only semantics.  Eliot refers to Grant as her “husband,” although they are not married.  They have been together five years and raise three girls: Hailey, their four-year-old daughter, and Charlotte and Gail, fourteen and seven respectfully, Grant’s daughters.  Grant has never asked Eliot to marry him, but they live like husband and wife.  Eliot treats Charlotte and Gail as if they are her own children, especially since Beth, their mother, is flaky and clueless.  Eliot loves all her girls, even the ones she did not give birth to.


Medoff tells the story from the first person perspective of Eliot.  Her portrayal of Eliot is intimate.  Medoff does a superb job of bringing her characters to life on these pages, but none more so than Eliot.  She is very real and achingly relatable.  Her strengths stand out; her flaws, though, are what really drive this story.


Eliot, by her own admission, is a “good girl.”  Yes, she is.  However, Eliot makes some bad decisions throughout Medoff’s story.  Some condemn Eliot for her actions, while others sympathize.  At its heart, this is a novel about the choices we make and their consequences, both short-term and long-term.


An old boyfriend resurfaces.  The sparks fly.  The presence of Finn distracts Eliot.  Everyone notices, especially Charlotte.  Eliot believes a week at the beach with her mother and sisters will help ease tension between her and Grant.  While the girls play in the ocean, Eliot’s phone rings.  It is Finn.


Her back is turned for one minute, maybe two.  The unthinkable happens.  Eliot is forced to make a choice: who should she save? Her real daughter?  Or her stepdaughter?  Medoff writes, “And this is what I know: I can swim in only one direction, toward one child…but I must make a choice and I must make it now.”  Whatever the case, nothing will ever be the same again.


Despite its grim subject matter, Medoff intersperses humor throughout her novel.  The hilarity in no way distracts from the story; instead, it adds to it.  Sometimes, even in the grip of despair, life can be funny.  Medoff makes me laugh and cry, once at the very same time.  Never has mowing, pooping, or eating dog food sounded so funny.  I applaud Medoff for telling the story in such a way.


Eliot is not the only character who stands out in this book.  Her sister, Sylvia (named after Sylvia Plath), is often a scene-stealer.  Eliot’s mother, Delores, is another of Medoff’s characters who demand your attention.


This is a story about love and family.  But the novel is also about sisters.  It matters little whether they are full, half, or even step.  A sister is a sister for life.  Medoff makes this only child wistful of the sisterly bond that Eliot and her sisters share.


I Couldn’t Love You More is women’s lit at its finest.  This is a far cry from chick lit.  Do not get me wrong: I am not disparaging chick lit in any way.  This is a story for women.  The issues Medoff writes about are subjects in which women deeply care about.  This tale is about women written for women that happens to have been written by a woman.


I predict I Couldn’t Love You More will be the read of the summer.  Medoff’s novel will be as essential to beach bags as sunscreen and beach towels.



Filed under beach books, book review, books, fiction

20 Questions for Mary Helen Stefaniak

Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia.

First, I would like to think Mary Helen for agreeing to this interview.  I really appreciate it!

Jaime Boler: When did you begin writing this novel?  And what inspired you to write it?

Mary Helen Stefaniak: I began writing this novel in March 2003 after reading a newspaper story about the shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad.  I knew almost at once that I wanted to write a novel in which a group of Americans had a relationship to Baghdad—and everything Baghdad represents—that was different from the one being developed at the time.  I wanted to remind anyone who happened to read the book that Mesopotamia is the cradle of our civilization.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in the story?  If so, who and why?  Which character is most like you?

MHS: My favorite character?  I don’t know.  To tell you the truth, I love them all.  Well, maybe I don’t love Mr. Gordon and Mavis Davis, Sr., quite as much as I love the rest of them, but I do agree with whoever said that you have no business creating a character for whom you feel no sympathy.

The answer to which one is most like me has to be the same as Flaubert’s famous comment: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”  They are all me in some way or another or I couldn’t have imagined them onto the page.

JB:  Is the character May modeled on your grandmother Mattie?  Was she also a storyteller?

MHS: I never met my grandmother Mattie.  She died in childbirth with her sixth child.

JB:  In a different time, do you think Ildred and Theo would have been more than just good friends?  Or am I reading something that was not intended?

MHS: I think Ildred had strong feelings for Theo, and he obviously cared about her.  They respected one another’s intelligence and understood each other’s value.  Those are the kinds of feelings that could support a deep and lasting relationship.

JB:  What does the white dirt, or kaolin, symbolize in your novel?

MHS: I don’t know that it symbolizes anything, but it is analogous to natural resources that have led to conflicts and exploitation in other parts of the world.  As a defeated country occupied and exploited by victorious forces and plagued by terrorism in the aftermath of a bitter civil war, the American South has a history that is not unlike that of other countries that have been occupied and exploited by victorious forces and plagued by terrorism in the aftermath of a bitter civil war.

When Theo is pulled from the old kaolin pit, the deadly power of white dirt certainly suggests the deadly power of intolerance and hatred.

JB:  What was the most difficult part of writing this story?

MHS: Keeping everything straight is tough whenever the story is long and complicated enough to be a novel, and simply perservering to the end was sometimes difficult, but the hardest part, as Hemingway once put it, was “getting the words right.”

JB:  Your book is narrated by eleven-year-old Gladys Cailiff.  Why did you choose to use the first-person narrative?  Why did you choose Gladys as narrator?

MHS: I needed someone who would be perceptive and observant but also innocent, at the time—and someone who could be completely enamored with Miss Spivey.

JB:  I had very mixed feelings about Miss Grace Spivey.  On one hand, I applauded her for bringing life to Threestep and for opening the minds of her students to new cultures and a love of learning.  Yet, she has an affair with a minor and seems naïve as to the consequences of the actions she sets in motion.  What is your opinion of Miss Spivey?  How did you come up with her?  What do you think would have happened to her?

MHS: A reviewer named JoAnn Heydron described Miss Spivey as “cigarette-smoking, libidinous, and wildly generous.”  I think that’s about right.  I see her as a well-educated, highly privileged person who was really trying to do some good in the world but who wasn’t willing or able to suppress her own desires and interests while she did it. She probably has a lot in common with certain Teach for America volunteers of our own day.  As for what would have happened to her, I think she would have gone back to her privileged life, back “home to her Daddy,” as Theo predicts when he’s arguing with Force about her, and from there, she would set out again on future adventures.

I asked one book club with a high proportion of teachers among the members to let me know what they thought of Miss Spivey, and they were kind enough to take notes on their discussion.  They acknowledged that she wasn’t perfect—they were glad, at least, that Force was not one of her students—but they gave me a pretty long list of what they liked and admired about her, which included things like reading to the students, recognizing the importance of storytelling in teaching, the field trips, involving the whole community in school activities, valuing diversity (to put it mildly), and getting rid of the paddles.  What kept coming up again and again, though, was Miss Spivey’s attitude toward state mandated requirements, which, for the most part, she ignored.  Many of the teachers liked her for that.  There was some feeling that state mandates reduced opportunities for creativity in teaching.

Miss Spivey did for Gladys and Threestep what good teachers always do for us:  they transform us, they empower us, they endow us with a love of learning that lasts our whole lives—and then, in the vast majority of cases, they disappear from our lives before we’ve gotten wise enough to know what they’ve done.

JB:  You make such a convincing case for the existence of Baghdad, Georgia, that I did some research and expected to find such a place.  I was so surprised to learn you made it all up! What was your inspiration for creating this special town?

MHS: The name and the location and the one-and-a-half-room school house are inspired by the real town of Deepstep, Georgia, which claims to be the Kaolin Capital of the World.

JB:  I was especially interested in the story of Bilali Mahomet.  I’m a historian who specializes in slave culture and resistance. In some research, I came across African-American slaves who practiced Islam.  One notable person was Ibrahima, who was an African prince brought to Natchez, Mississippi.  His master renamed him Prince, yet Ibrahima still practiced some Islam.  Did you know Bilali Mahomet would be in your novel when you set out to write your story or did you learn about him later?

MHS: I “discovered” Bilali Mahomet on a visit to Sapelo Island.  I’d already been working on the book for close to three years at that point, and I needed a coastal island for purposes of the plot, so on our next trip to Georgia, my husband and I left my mother with her sister in Milledgeville and set out for the coast.  We were in the visitor’s center, where you buy your tickets for the ferry and tour (on a schoolbus driven by a Park Ranger) of Sapelo Island, when my husband spotted something amazing in a display case:  a picture of a little handmade notebook, lying open, its pages crammed with Arabic script!  Just like that, I knew that I had found a real cultural ancestor for Theo Boykin, the smartest person in Piedmont County.  I had even equipped Theo with a notebook before I learned about Bilali’s.  I started reading in that direction and found out about other literate Muslims from West Africa who wound up enslaved in the Caribbean and in the Southern United States.   And here I’d been thinking that it was kind of a stretch, to put Georgia and “Baghdad” together in one novel!

JB:  I like how you have Bilali Mahomet’s descendants naming their children Bilali. They may not know its original meaning, yet the name still means something to them.  That was one of many historical accuracies I found in your book. How important is real history in writing historical fiction?

MHS: It’s funny, but I don’t think of THE CAILIFFS as historical fiction, which I define as fiction whose purpose is to allow readers to experience a time other than their own.  While I had to try and “recreate” rural GA in 1938-39 (not to mention the Arabian peninsula in 1916, the Georgia coastal islands in 1920 or so, a bit of General Sherman’s march to the sea, a journey from West Africa to Baghdad in 1775 or so, and scenes from 9th-century Baghdad), my purpose was not, primarily, to allow readers to experience those other times and places.  My primary purpose was to help readers (and myself) to see our own time more clearly.  That said, whatever the novelist’s purpose in recreating another time in fiction, I think  writers are obliged to be as accurate as possible in using historical events and details.  My personal rule for the use of history in my fiction, borrowed from Donald Barthelme, is simply:  “It does not contradict what is known.”   You can find long, windy essays on the subject of using history in fiction, but I think Barthelme pretty much says it all in those seven words, which I try to live by.

JB:  I read where your mother went to the same high school as Flannery O’Connor.  Peabody High School in Milledgeville, Georgia.  Your mother graduated in 1943 and O’Connor in 1942.  Did they know each other?  Were they friends?  What is your literary relationship with O’Connor?

MHS: I was in high school when I found out about that.  Somehow, knowing that my mother had gone to school with the author of one of the stories in the anthology we were reading in English class, that she and O’Connor walked down the same school hallways, and so forth, made it seem more possible to be a writer. And the stories she wrote!  They made you believe in the power of fiction, that’s for sure. My mother and her sisters knew who she was, but they belonged to the socioeconomic class from which she drew many of her characters, rather than the one to which she herself belonged.  Maybe that’s one reason why I felt so pleased to have my mother and her sister and some cousins in the audience when I did a reading in the dining room at Andalusia, the O’Connors’ farm outside Milledgeville (where Flannery lived and wrote during the most productive years of her short life).  As I have said on other occasions, pretty much everything I’ve ever written has been a tribute to Flannery O’Connor and at the same time an argument with her.

JB:  You and your husband John live in a 150-year-old stagecoach inn you restored. What is it like living there? Could there be a future story there?

MHS: There are a hundred future stories there, but I haven’t written any of them yet.

JB: I read a review that compared The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But you really turn Harper Lee’s work on its head.  Can you talk about that?

MHS: I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in a Great Books program. I was twelve or thirteen. I loved it immediately.  I’ve read it several times since. I owe a debt of gratitude, as a reader and as a writer, to Harper Lee, but as you say, there are some ways in which The Cailiffs turns To Kill a Mockingbird upside down. If Atticus Finch is the best read person in Maycomb, Alabama, then his counterpart in The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia is a 17-year-old African American named Theo Boykin.  (Not only that, but the only lawyer in Threestep happens to be the Grand Goblin of the local KKK.) In my novel, I wanted to give some credit to the less fortunate classes, both black and white.

JB:  What was your reaction upon learning your novel received the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, an award that recognizes books that contribute to our understanding of racism and appreciation of diversity?

MHS: As I told the audience at the award ceremony in Cleveland, I was so thrilled to learn that people like the members of the Anisfield-Wolf award jury—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Joyce Carol Oates and Rita Dove and Stephen Pinker and Simon Schama–had read my book that they wouldn’t even have had to select it for the award.  Just knowing that writers and thinkers of their stature had read my work was so exciting.  Of course, I’m glad they chose it for the award, too.  If you go to the Anisfield-Wolf website and see the books and authors who have won the award in its first 75 years, you’ll have some idea of how honored I feel to have my book be among them.

JB: Who has influenced you the most in your writing?

MHS: I don’t know who has influence me the most, but I’ve learned a lot from Flannery O’Connor.

JB: You grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and vacationed in Georgia.  How was segregation different in the two very different places?

MHS: A librarian in Macon, Georgia, once told me, “In the North, segregation was spatial.  In the South, it was psychological.”  Growing up in the 1960s in a working class neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee, I had no occasion to meet or speak to an African American until I went to high school. By contrast, in the little town where my aunt Sissie lived in Jones County, Georgia, her neighbors across the street were black, as were the families who lived down the road behind her little house. Not that I didn’t know there were official rules separating blacks and whites in Georgia.  But I can also remember thinking, as a kid, that the reason there were no “whites only” signs on drinking fountains in Milwaukee—we call them bubblers there—probably was that the nearest African American was likely to be miles away from that bubbler, there being no black people in sight.

JB: Did you find any people, events, or issues in your research for The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, that you would like to return to someday?

MHS: Issues, yes.  I think it’s so instructive to realize that racism is the same and different—in its manifestations and its targets—from generation to generation.  I’ve made some notes for a novel starring the interracial couple we meet in THE CAILIFFS:  Ralph Ford, who saved Gladys Cailiff’s daddy, you may recall, in the Great War, and Lily.  Ford, I’ve decided, is from Milwaukee, where he grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the Bay View area (not far from the house where we lived with my Croatian/Hungarian grandparents when I was very small).  Ralph Ford’s father went through hell and high water in the 1890s, let’s say, to win permission to marry Ralph’s mother, who was the child of Italian immigrants.  He had to convert to Catholicism and move in with his in-laws before they would give their blessing.  His own English/Irish/German-American family disowned him in the meantime.   His son Ralph Ford, who “grew up Italian,” may have hoped that his family would accept his marriage to Lily because of the obstacles that his own parents faced back when Italians and other Southern Europeans were “blacks” as far as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were concerned.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia?

MHS: A different, more intimate and affectionate, feeling about the word “Baghdad” and the whole broad swath of history and culture that word represents—and more awareness of the long history of Islam in the U.S.  (I also hope that Gladys and Mavis and Force and Theo will live in their hearts forever!)

JB: What’s next for you?  I read where you were working on something that involved baseball?

MHS: The truth is that I’m working on three projects—two fiction projects and one nonfiction—waiting to see which one demands to be next.  Baseball plays a part in two of the three.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what Stefaniak comes up with next!

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