‘Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from up South’
By Roy Blount Jr. (Knopf, $25)
In addition to being the author of 20 books, Roy Blount Jr. is a panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” a columnist for the Oxford American, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and president of the Authors Guild. Though he lives in western Massachusetts, he describes himself as a Southern cracker, but he is hardly a typical one of those. For example, he makes it quite clear that he is pro-choice, favors gay marriage and is against creationism and the war in Iraq. It should also be added that he is, without a doubt, one of the most eloquent writers in America.
American writer and humorist Ian Frazier probably described his work best when he wrote that Blount “is so funny, and he sounds like he’s just talking, and the next thing you know he has tossed off an essay as elegant and intricately structured as a bird song. His ear for American speech is better that anybody’s.”
In his latest work, Blount proves once again that he is a writer who is at the top of his game. This sly, dry collection of essays, his first in 10 years, focuses on such diverse topics as chicken fingers, yellow-dog Democrats, Elvis’ toes, Truman Capote, rounding up rattlesnakes, chatting with Ray Charles and hanging with the KKK. When he writes about Memphis Minnie, the blues singer, it is with authority and wit. In describing the supper table, he recalls his family members ate until they got tired and adds that they eventually reached a point when they had to lean back and wholeheartedly express how much they regretted not being able to summon up the strength to eat more. It’s the sort of observation with the same authenticity that helped made Will Rogers an international celebrity during the early decades of the last century.
This is an almost perfect collection of essays. It is a satisfying blend that is scholarly, raunchy and biting. Blount is to be savored and enjoyed. He is a national treasure. If you’ve never read him before, it’s time you did.
Book Review ‘Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life’
By Beverly Lowry (Doubleday, $26)
Harriet Tubman was born Araminta Ross in about 1822 in Dorchester
County, Maryland, the property of Edward Brodess. In order to generate
money, the farmer hired the young girl out when she was 6. Several
years later, a dispute erupted between another slave and an overseer.
Harriet received a serious head injury during the incident and later
claimed it triggered visions.
Eventually, she escaped, traveling north via the Underground
Railroad, a network of secret safe houses. She returned several times
to the South in order to escort other escaping slaves along this same
route. Through this work, she became known as “the Moses of her
People.” She spent most of her life devoted to abolitionist causes,
earning herself an important place in our national history.
Because Tubman could neither read nor write, no firsthand account of
her life exists. Several biographies were published during her lifetime
but none depicted her accurately. Lowry, a teacher at George Mason
University, was well aware that tackling Tubman’s life would be a
daunting task. Integrating extensive research and interviews with
scholars and historians, she has managed to write a highly readable
book. More to the point, she has come as close to the real Harriet
Tubman as we are apt to get.
The author explains it was sometimes necessary to “emphasize the
visual elements of Harriet’s story – what things looked like, places
and clothes, faces, plants, the sky – and to thread information from
the sources.” This literary hybrid is not as disconcerting as you might
imagine. In fact, it presents the reader with a much more intriguing
portrait of what day-to-day life was like for Tubman.
The book is balanced and humanizes Tubman. It reads like an atmospheric novel and is highly recommended.
‘The Clarks of Cooperstown: Their Singer Sewing Machine
Fortune, Their Great and Influential Art Collections, Their Forty-Year
By Nicholas Fox Weber (Knopf, $35)
This is the highly readable story of Sterling and Stephen Clark, two
brothers who were art collectors and heirs to the Singer sewing machine
fortune. Weber, one of the country’s most illuminating biographers,
begins his account with Edward Clark, an attorney and the brothers’
grandfather. Edward was the genius who amassed a great fortune during
the 19th century. With authority, insight and a flair for evoking time
and place, the author examines the extremely public feuds of both
Sterling and Stephen and the lasting impact they had on artistic vision
‘Hunger for the Wild: America’s Obsession with the Untamed West’
By Michael L. Johnson (University Press of Kansas, $34.95)
Johnson, a professor of English at the University of Kansas and a
keen observer of the American West, offers a monumental cultural and
historical analysis of how ideas of wildness have shaped the ways
Euro-Americans have perceived, reacted to and acted upon the West for
nearly 500 years. Brimming with wordplay, personal anecdotes and
telling vignettes, this comprehensive book serves up a cornucopia of
Western personalities, phenomena and events.
‘Mindfreak: Secret Revelations’
By Criss Angel with Laura Morton (Harper Entertainment, $24.95)
Criss Angel has become this generation’s master of illusions and
magic. His new book reveals the unique philosophy behind his approach
to life and art, a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into his
performances and the preparatory mindset that is necessary before he
executes many of his life-threatening demonstrations. Offering insight,
secrets and unique twists, this is perfect summer reading.
‘Thick as Thieves: A Brother, A Sister, a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives’
By Steve Geng (Henry Holt, $24)
Kirkus Reviews gave this book a star and described it as a junkie
hipster’s memoir that doubles as a love letter to his brilliant,
troubled older sister. Veronica Geng, the legendary New Yorker
humorist, took on New York’s literary scene while her brother, Steve,
stumbled through a haze of drugs and larceny. Honest and gritty, “Thick
as Thieves” has an in-your-face honesty and is highly recommended.
‘Forever on the Mountain’
By James M. Tabor (W.W. Norton, $26.95)
During the summer of 1967, Joe Wilcox, 24, led an expedition toward
the summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North
America. Without warning, a storm hit and only five in the group of 12
survived. Tabor, a former contributing editor of Outside and SKI
magazines, documents the incident and tells the true and complete story
behind this incredible tragedy and its contentious aftermath.
‘A Woman in Charge’
By Carl Bernstein (Knopf, $27.95)
The bottom line is that there’s not much new in this biography of
Hillary Rodham Clinton. Most of the information presented by the author
can be found in back issues of national magazines such as Newsweek and
Time. Bernstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist of Watergate
fame, rehashes her marital problems, Whitewater, Troopergate and
Travelgate, but fails to reveal the woman behind the image.
‘Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer’
By Elmer Kelton (Tor/Forge, $23.95)
Warm-hearted, romantic, funny and nostalgic, “Sandhills Boy”
recounts the life of Elmer Kelton, whom Booklist once described as the
most beloved Western writer alive. The story begins with his childhood
in West Texas during the Depression and follows with his experiences in
Europe during WW II, his marriage and his work as a highly gifted
writer. In well-crafted prose, Kelton quietly and beautifully captures
both an unforgettable era and its people.