~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
Am I excited? Yes! I’ve got some bookstore appearances already set up and am hoping to set up more. Also intending to get some library appearances set up too, in the near future I hope. The book is set for a September 26 release.
Today is National Independent Bookstore Day, and regardless of what you may think about made-up days to fill up your events calendar, independent bookstores are definitely something to celebrate. I can hardly begin to tell you how many local bookstores I’ve had wonderful experiences with, both selling books and buying them. Here’s a picture of my most recent visit, to Enchanted Books in Quincy, Illinois.
But it must be admitted, some folks like to support their local small businesses in the abstract, while not supporting them in practice. No judgment here, but let’s remember that local small businesses, bookstores included, succeed in the same way that all businesses do. By making money.
So if you want to be a friend to your local bookstore year-round, and not just on the last Saturday in April, here are a couple of ideas.
If you love the convenience of online shopping, hunt for the books you want on bookshop.org. You get to pick a local bookstore to support, and you can still shop in your pajamas. Not that I haven’t seen some people shopping in their pajamas at the local store anyway.
Audiobook lover? Then bookmark libro.fm. Same deal: online convenience, local support.
Independent bookstores are responding to marketplace trends in their home communities, and they love to serve local customers. So stop by, hang out, get some recommendations, sit in the comfy chairs, and take in the atmosphere. Treat yo’ self, as the saying goes.
The Missouri Library Association is the umbrella organization of all the libraries in Missouri – public, private, academic, and otherwise. They’re a great organization, and they speak out strongly in favor of information access and freedom of expression.
They also give out two Missouri Author Awards each year, one for fiction and one for nonfiction. This year, I was honored to have Scattered Lights win the fiction award.
Receiving this award from the MLA is extra special for me. For one thing, the books that have won it before are really terrific, and I’m honored to be in their company.
But additionally, libraries have always been special places to me, even sacred. My mom worked in the Fredericktown library, and when we moved to Annapolis, she was instrumental in establishing the Annapolis branch library, which today is named in her honor. At the dedication of the newest building that houses the Annapolis branch, my brother and sister-in-law had buttons made celebrating Mom’s commitment, and that button is what you see on my lapel. Here’s a closeup.
What she saw in libraries was their immense potential for improving people’s lives, without regard to wealth or background. When you walk into a library, you are equal to everyone else there, and the knowledge of all the planet is available to you. She loved to cultivate that curiosity. Whenever a kid came into the library, she made careful note of what that kid was interested in. And the next time that kid came in, there would be a new book pulled from the revolving collection, just waiting, to satisfy that curiosity and perhaps nudge it along a little.
A library represents the potential in us all. The existence of free public libraries is one of the great advancements of civilization. So receiving an award from the state library association is, well, pretty much the best thing I can imagine.
I’d like to comment particularly on my co-winner this year, The Last Children of Mill Creek by Vivian Gibson. I’ve been reading it over the past few days, and it’s a marvelous book. It’s a memoir of growing up in the Mill Creek Valley of St. Louis, a large Black district that was demolished and emptied out in the name of “urban renewal.” The story of Mill Creek is one of the tragic chapters of Missouri history, and it’s not well enough known. This memoir is beautiful and heartbreaking, and you should get a copy. Or tell your library to buy one!
The Animals were never among my favorites of the British Invasion bands, although you had to give them credit. In their short initial incarnation, they produced a string of unforgettable hits and had a distinctive sound. Their version of the folk standard “House of the Rising Sun” is the one that most people remember today.
But “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has a curious history. It was originally recorded by Nina Simone, in a slow, somewhat jazzy version that focuses on the subtle lyrics. You can hear the ache of the lyricist in her version, the apology and the explanation for foolish behavior, the longing to improve. The memorable guitar hook that the Animals led with is hidden in a violin section, partial and barely noticeable.
When the Animals recorded it, they turned it pretty much into straight-ahead blues rock, capitalizing on Eric Burdon’s gritty voice to make it a perfect anthem for the moment, echoed by teenagers throughout the decades who are dealing with complicated emotions and a sense of disaffection.
But the version that has stuck in my mind the most is the one by Santa Esmeralda, and I remember the first time I heard it. I was in the basement of Douglas Pokorny, a friend I have written about before, and he put the album on. Keep in mind, this was the late ’70s in the eastern Ozarks, where musical variety was hard to come by. How he came to possess the Santa Esmeralda album I’ll never know. But when I heard the flamenco-influenced Latin rhythms of the song, overlaid on the clearly recognizable template of the Animals version, I knew I was hearing something memorable. And the song just went on and on for more than sixteen minutes, filling up the whole second side of the album, the phrases repeating and building into some kind of pop-music ecstasy. In later years I learned that it was a disco favorite, which makes sense, given its propulsive beat and infinite energy.
Three different artists, the same material, three entirely different versions. Whose is the best? Don’t ask me. Each song fits its performer and its moment. The later versions are influenced by the earlier ones, but it would be wrong to say that they were unoriginal.
I’ve been asked several times lately about who my favorite writers are, or who the writers are that have influenced me. I can’t honestly say. I think the best answer is all of them, and none of them. I pick up things from many writers, but I don’t think that I’ve ever consciously copied or been directly influenced by one in particular. I’ve read that there are only [x-number, take your pick: 3, 5, 7, whatever] plots in narrative, the Journey, the Revenge, and so forth. So of course stories will bear resemblance. I think my essential plot is People Who Are Trying to Make Some Sense of Their Lives, but They Keep Getting Thwarted and It’s Usually by Their Own Damn Selves. Not sure if that’s one of the 3.
I suppose you could say it’s not technically an “Ozarks” book, since there are sizable sections of it that are set elsewhere, when a place is specified, and many of the themes are not Ozarks-specific. But there are a lot of Ozarks poems in here, and a lot of Ozark sensibility, too. In one of my favorite poems from this collection, “Pentecostal Ladies,” he writes: “Their skirts bloom sunflowers, / a decade or two out of favor. / I wave from my front porch / though I know one day they’ll sidle up / in their ballet flats and tell me what for.” And it’s that “what for” that slaps down so delightfully true.
A few things I note about Malone’s work: first, it’s very precise. This is poet who does not just throw in the expected word. Often he leads us into a phrase then turns it ninety degrees, shifting the mood of the poem unexpectedly. The poems are best read slowly, because you never know when that turn is going to happen.
Second, Malone’s poems do two things that I don’t always see in contemporary poetry. For one thing, they are sometimes unabashedly emotional. So many contemporary poets feel restrained by some sort of unwritten rule of decorum to be clinical in their presentation of situations, but these poems don’t shy away from their feelings. But also, these poems can be funny. Sometimes the wit is verbal, sometimes situational. In either case, it’s nice to read a book in which every poem does not feel compelled to be Serious. There are plenty of serious poems in here too, poems of grief, loss, and longing. But seriousness is not the only key this instrument plays in.
Dave Malone lives in West Plains and has published a number of books of poems, each with its own tonal register (or key signature, if I want to push that musical metaphor). If you haven’t run across his work yet, I highly recommend checking it out.
I mentioned earlier this month that the year was off to an excellent start in Ozarks writing. This book is not technically an “Ozarks” book, but its author, John Mort, grew up in southern Missouri and has written several fine novels and story collections based in the Ozarks. So, close enough.
Oklahoma Odysseyis, if you’re looking for a descriptive category, a novel of the West. It mainly takes place in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma in the time leading up to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893, with briefer forays to Kansas City and elsewhere. But it toys with and re-imagines the stock characters and situations of the Western genre. We have a hero, love interest, sidekick, and villain, but none of these people turn out to be what you would expect. There’s a killing and a call for revenge, but again, don’t expect it to go the way you have been conditioned by decades of Westerns.
I have a complete review of Oklahoma Odyssey coming out in the next edition of OzarksWatch magazine, so I’ll leave my discussion for there. If you’re not already a subscriber to OzarksWatch, what are you waiting for? But for now, I’ll just say that this novel is a real gem, with rich characterization, historical insight, and a compelling story.
I shouldn’t really call The Moonflower Vine an Ozarks book, as it is set in the western Missouri prairie, in a fictionalized version of the town of Nevada, where Jetta Carleton grew up. (If you want to get a sense of this region, you should look at Leland Payton’s marvelous book of photographs, Ozark-Prairie Border.) But a couple of the major characters of the book spend considerable time in the Ozarks, and since it’s a border region I’ll expand my “Ozarks books” phrase a little to include this one.
The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962 and was a big hit, making the bestseller list, some important book clubs, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume. Then, as books do, it faded from attention. It became one of those secret favorites, passed from enthusiast to enthusiast, until Harper Perennial brought out a new edition in 2009 with a robust introduction from Jane Smiley. That new edition helped return the book to some deserved prominence.
The novel is divided into six sections, one for each of the major characters. It begins in the more-or-less contemporary time period to its publication, then dips into the past with the next four sections, finally returning to the present at the end. So its structure is a bit challenging, but not overwhelmingly so.
But what makes The Moonflower Vine so memorable is its rich, surprising characterization. The novel’s six main characters are a rural couple and their four daughters, all of whom go through various troubles and all of whom are revealed, over time, to have secrets they are keeping from the rest of the family. The characters resist stereotyping, revealing ever-deepening layers of feeling, aspiration, frustration, and despair. It’s an immensely humane novel that refuses to excuse its characters even as it comprehends them. And for a book that made it into the Reader’s Digest condensations, it’s surprisingly frank about sexual desire. (I suspect they condensed that part right out and left the “local color” in.)
What I ultimately take away from The Moonflower Vine, though, is a deeply forgiving spirit. By one definition or another, all the characters fail. But they are never portrayed as failures. They are flawed creatures, like us all, who are doing their best with what has been handed to them. And sometimes their best is not very good. They do stupid things, they suppress their feelings, they misunderstand. And yet I found myself drawn to them, and drawn also to this landscape by Carleton’s vivid power of description. She sees this world in an intense and careful way. Some people might see this book as an exercise in nostalgia, but I think that misses its precise and comprehensive view of human nature.
“What just happened?” is a response that I think many millions of people can identify with. Over the past half-decade, I’ve greeted the evening news with variations on that phrase day after day, as events, statements, mob scenes, and bizarre behavior seemed to tumble out daily, each one more insane than the last.
What Just Happened is also the title of a book I’ve been reading lately, an interesting effort to capture that craziness in real time, a book in the form of journal entries from the beginning of the COVID pandemic to early 2021.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to relive 2020, a year that undoubtedly marked one of the low points of American history. A deadly virus came to the country and millions of people both in the government and in private life tried to pretend it wasn’t a threat. Video recordings of police officers killing black people in a variety of sketchy circumstances became an almost weekly occurrence. A presidential election was held, in which the person who lost by nearly eight million votes declared without evidence that the election had been stolen and (shortly after the new year) urged a mob to storm the Capitol during the certification of the outcome.
But I found myself drawn in to this book. Its raw accounts of the panic and anxiety he felt as the disease swept ashore in the early part of the year reminded me of my own. His horrified description of watching the George Floyd killing on TV, over and over again, brought back my own reactions. Even the parts I couldn’t personally connect to had interest. Charles Finch, the author, lives in Los Angeles, a city I’ve never felt particularly involved with. But his depictions of people’s pandemic responses, which like everyone’s were both highly individual and yet predictably patterned, had a universal feel.
Not that the book is objective, or tries to be. It’s a personal record, with all the personal obsessions, concerns, anxieties (lots of anxieties), and moments of victory that such a record demands. But as long as you read it with that understanding — that it’s not trying to be a comprehensive account, but rather a single individual’s record of a year that revealed much that is dark and troubling about America — it’s a compelling document.
Even after finishing the book, I still don’t get what he hears in Taylor Swift’s music that’s so great, but whatever. I’ll take his word for it.
I read Walden about once a year, or at least dip into it for refreshment. Lately I’ve been reading the “winter” chapters: “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” “Winter Animals,” and “The Pond in Winter.” These are much quieter chapters than the showy, occasionally verbally extravagant flourishes of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” and they tend to get overlooked, I think. But I’m appreciating them anew this time around.
The “former inhabitants” section is a quiet catalogue of the abandoned houses and waste places Thoreau encounters as he walks around his Concord neighborhood, and a recollection of what he knows about the families who once lived there – which in some cases is very little. One might wonder what he’s up to with this melancholy inventory. I wondered, too, until I noticed, this time around, that the people he memorializes are almost all Black, poor, or both. All that is left of their life’s labor is an overgrown hummock, a portion of a cellar wall, a vague tale of their occupation.
This section of the book is a meditation on disappearance and loss, and it’s especially telling that this meditation focuses on the poor. Thoreau approaches their stories with his usual wry humor. In one instance he tells of a comical adventure with the volunteer fire department, when they respond to an alarm and mistakenly think the fire is some distance away, when it actually turns out to be an abandoned hut just down the road. But that scene is followed by the poignant description of the sole remaining member of that hut’s last family, who returns to the home of his childhood and pokes through the ashes for any remnant of his family’s existence, turning up only the hook from which the well-dipper was fastened. “I felt it,” Thoreau writes, “and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.”
Disappearance, withdrawal, diminishment. These chapters are full of such things. The visitors are few; the animals go into hiding; even the pond itself, frozen over, is sawn into blocks and carried away, ice to cool the beverages of the privileged in distant cities. But this condition also yields new perspectives. Thoreau takes advantage of the winter to go out on the ice of the pond and observe, to take measurements and to peer to the bottom, activities that would be impossible during warmer times.
Winter brings clarity as the essential parts are revealed. There is melancholy in this, of course, but also opportunity for a deepened understanding. And of course, the chapter that follows “The Pond in Winter” is “Spring.”
I am currently floating (metaphorically) because the University of Missouri alumni magazine just published a long essay I wrote about floating (literally). I love taking float trips on Ozark streams and tried to convey some of the feeling of those experiences.
They also assigned a writer and photographer to do a profile of me to accompany the essay. Tony Rehagen and Nic Benner both did wonderful jobs.