Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson by Sally Thomason and Jean Fisher.

Every once in a while, you come across a hidden gem, published by a small university press. I have done just this in discovering Delta Rainbow. Delta Rainbow, accurately subtitled, “The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson,” is a compelling biography with all the allure of a well-crafted novel, in that its subject does indeed come across as absolutely irrepressible. The book opens with a speeding train and holds the reader captive through the life and times of Erie Elizabeth Bobo then doesn’t lessen its grip until the repercussive significance of that train comes back to haunt.
It is the year 1955, in Sumner, Mississippi, and thirty-something Betty Bobo Pearson attends the sham of the trial of one Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago, who was found murdered in Mississippi by two white locals. In a trial telling of the times, justice is not served, and it sets the life’s work of Betty Pearson on course. But first, we learn Betty’s backstory. That she is born to privilege in a regionally prominent family sets the stage for what is to come, for, in time, Betty’s civic outlook and magnanimous heart is at variance with the tightly held racial divide, and this biography becomes an issue of personal conscious as Betty follows the beat of her own drum, and in so doing, bucks the system. On the very cusp of the civil rights movement, preceding Rosa Parks’ infamous stand, Betty is one step ahead of civil unrest. Much to her Southern family’s chagrin, she grows into a champion of integration—she is spirited, ambitious, and dogged in her egalitarian beliefs; she is a genteel warrior in a cotton print dress.
Collaborators Sally Palmer Thomason and Jean Carter Fisher have done, in this engrossing book, what Southerners do best: they have told a great story. Delta Rainbow is crafted with beautiful, historic balance. It lends a sensitive eye to detail as it lures the reader through Southern social mores with a strong sense of time and place. We feel the Delta’s humidity, marvel at Betty Pearson’s parties, covet her gardens, and wish we had half of her gumption in standing up for what she believes is right. Never one to sit on the sidelines while others dictate the law, Betty
Pearson is a woman of action, a member of every forward-thinking committee designed for racial equality, and if she wasn’t invited to join, she spearheaded the task force.
All hail the University of Mississippi Press for seeing fit to publish this important biography. Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson is as educational as it is inspiring, and I bow to Sally Palmer Thomason and Jean Carter Fisher of Memphis for taking what is clearly a wealth of research and information and adroitly handling it at such a pitch as to make it so thoroughly engaging.

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My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, as Told to Katherine Clark.

Oh, the gift of this delightful book. The thing about Pat Conroy is those who get him really get him and can never get enough. It has been repeatedly written that readers feel as if they know him. That he wrote in the first person was part of what spawned the relationship between Conroy and his readers, the rest of it is that he had an uncanny way of unabashedly calling things by name and spoke for us. And any Conroy devotee knew he was healing his shattered history by veiling it in fiction. We knew it and didn’t care because not only was he charming, he was a master storyteller. Conroy wrote from the center of his sardonic personality. Once he had you, he dove down to universal truth and brought you to your knees. This business of life is not for the meek, he suggested, but there is rhyme to it, poetry, in fact, and in his fiction, he figured out how to survive it.
My Exaggerated Life gives us the man behind the curtain. On its cover is Conroy wearing his infamous flight jacket and Citadel ring, which his fans will recognize as symbols of his personal narrative. Conroy was that kind of writer. His books were mind-altering drugs and his readers were addicts who had to have more. Katherine Clark has given us more in what seems to me a labor of love. That she spent two hundred hours listening to Conroy spill out his life over the telephone to assemble this book makes me jealous, but I’ll overlook that in favor of the resounding result.
What struck me most in reading My Exaggerated Life was the realization that there was no separating the man from his craft. It’s Conroy’s voice that does it. In these pages speaks a storyteller of the highest order telling an incredibly entertaining story, it just so happens to be culled from a series of events in his life. You can intuit the haphazard way he stumbled from cause to effect as his writing career took shape. Reading Conroy’s books always made me feel they were born without effort, so to discover in this riveting book just where the struggle had been hit me as staggering—not because parts were painful to read, but because he framed it in such a human way that readers will think, you too?
At the end of My Exaggerated Life, Katherine Clark shares the speech Pat Conroy delivered spontaneously before a crowd of adoring fans in Beaufort, South Carolina at his 70th birthday celebration. In it, Conroy claims “What I wanted to be as a writer, I wanted to be a complete brave man that I am not in my real life.” He did just this in My Exaggerated Life. In an act of bravery, Pat Conroy told his story, and author Katherine Clark captured it in a book that is one for the archives.

An American Marriage: Book Review

Stark, vivid, real, and gritty, these are the words that spring to mind upon reflecting on An American Marriage. Author Tayari Jones takes the premise of an unjust, nightmarish turn of fate and unfurls a novel length treatise on a budding marriage systematically derailed, when a year and a half into marriage, Roy is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. It is a modern marriage, and newlyweds Roy Jr. and Celestial have promising careers on the rise. Roy is a young business executive, who aspires to setting his artisan wife up in business as the maker of novelty dolls in her own Atlanta shop. The couple is in the exhilarating throes of reconciling their fiercely independent natures with their unified plans for the future. They are ambitious, deeply in love, and navigating their marital positions, when an insignificant tiff arises while on vacation, and their life is irrevocably changed outside their hotel room from their mutually declared, fifteen-minute time-out.
Whether it is the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the suspicions levied on Roy as a black man in the South, justice is not immediately served when Roy is falsely accused of a crime. As time ekes by during Roy’s twelve-year sentence, Celestial gets her career off the ground, while Roy remains stuck behind bars. Issues of commitment and fidelity under duress evolve, as Celestial finds comfort in the arms of her and Roy’s mutual friend, Andre, then reasonable expectations are called to the fore when a love triangle unwittingly grows. When Roy is released five years into his sentence, the three main characters in An American Marriage take stock of their current standing. They are individuals with differing vantage points within the confines of a tribal whole.
With laser sharp insight into human nature, Tayari Jones gifts the reader with three plausible, first person narratives in this intertwined story of cause and effect set upon the fertile ground of modern day black culture. Her language is paradoxically direct and textured as she probes the innerworkings of characters wrestling with issues of appropriate placement, under the weight of delineating sacrificial right from self-serving wrong.
An American Marriage is a gripping story, disquieting in its tenable premise and gripping with tense urgency on every page during its search for apportioned equilibrium. It is a powerfully written, brilliantly crafted novel for the discerning reader, and a thought provoking treasure for book club discussions.

 

 

On an Irish Bus/ Dancing to an Irish Reel Kindle Giveaway!

reworked Galway image

He would have stood out anywhere, and standing in front of the entrance to a boutique hotel in Spiddal, wielding a black walking cane with an ivory handle two paces before made him glaringly incongruous to everything I’d come to know about the western coast of Ireland. He wore a three piece suit on his gentle frame: black, with gray stripes the width of angel’s hair, with a fitted vest, tailored trousers, complementary cravat, and a black Fedora angled just so.

I looked out from my window seat on the bus from Carraroe to Galway. It was one of those old kinds that looked as if it once had a life as an elementary school bus, now put out to pasture. With aluminum rails on the seats before, the bus would take off noisily, gravel scattering beneath its wheels before I had a chance to sit down. The bus driver greeted me in awkward English. It took a few rounds of greeting me in Irish before he finally realized I am an American, and his guttural salutation now came out sounding like something a little to the left of “Hiya.”
The bus rolled to its customary stop on the coast road that runs through the heart of Spiddal. There is no sign there; the stop is force of habit because years of driving this rolling route through Connemara told the driver where travelers would be standing, shielded from the vagaries of Irish weather.
Heads turned as the dapper, elderly man mounted the bus. He steadied his gait with his cane and favored his right foot up the three steps then halted beside the bus driver to beam his greeting. Out of the corner of my eye, trying not to stare, I saw the man tip his hat repeatedly to the right and left as he made his way down the aisle to the vacant seat beside me.

“Nice day,” he said to me as he took off his hat and placed it on his lap. “Going into town, is it? Where you go every day?”
“Yes,” I said caught by surprise and thinking nothing gets by anybody around here.

“Kearney’s the name, Seamus Kearney,” he offered himself. “You’re an American, yah?” he asked in that way the Irish have of answering their own question.

“Yes,” I answered.

“From the South, is it?” he continued.

“That’s a good ear you have. Yes, I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, but I spent the last five years living in Los Angeles,” I clarified.

“God helps us all,” he said with a wink. “And what is your name, then?” he prodded.

“Claire Fullerton.” I shook his offered hand.

“And your middle name then? Have you Irish connections?”

“Yes, I have Irish connections on both sides. My middle name is Ford,” I said.

“Ford,” he considered, wrinkling his brow. “That’s an odd middle name for a girl.”

“Yes, perhaps,” I said. “But I’m not an odd girl; I promise.”

“Now the Fords, they’re from around these parts. They’re old as the hills and Irish as the soil. Many are up the road in that old graveyard by The Centra,” Seamus Kearney said. “So they called you here, they did,” he said in more of a statement than a question.

“No, actually it was a whim that brought me here. I never knew any of my Ford relatives. Most of them died before I was born.”

Seamus drew in his breath in that audible sigh the Irish do, when they’re getting ready to say something poignant. It is a sound with a world of understanding contained: one part camaraderie, the other commiseration. “So, they called you here, they did,” he reiterated patiently. His white eyebrows raised encouragingly, as if leading a child along the road to good reason.

“Yes, definitely,” I complied.

“Ah then, there it is, so. We in Connemara don’t see the need in being parted by a little thing like death,” he said.

I couldn’t wait a second longer; I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you always dress like this?”

“Like what?” he asked genuinely unaware, which made me wonder if I’d put my foot in my mouth.

“You look so nice; I was only thinking that,” I said, the heat rising to my face.

“Pride of person’s not an unpardonable sin,” he said. “Now let me ask you what it is you do in town.”

The next thing I knew, I was explaining everything I did at my job in Galway, while Seamus gave me his rapt attention, with a pleased look on his face. Had I still been living in Los Angeles, a conversation like this one would have never taken place. One simply did not divulge personal information to a stranger in Los Angeles without thinking it would come back to haunt. But this was Connemara, and the Irish have a way of exchanging pleasantries in a manner that is somewhere between an exploration of and commentary on this business of living. It is an art so subtle you have to narrow your eyes or you’ll miss it; it comes creeping softly wearing white cotton socks and sensible shoes.

The bus rolled to a stop at the Spanish Arch, down by the quays in Galway. I stood up to disembark. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Kearney,” I said.
“Call me Seamus, please,” he returned. “I live just by the church there in Spiddal. I’d love for you to call out any time for a cup of tea,” he said, with his blue eyes smiling.

“Thank you so much, I will,” I returned, and as I got off the bus to head over the River Corrib’s bridge, I turned to wave to Seamus Kearney, and knew without question I would.

Enter to Win Dancing to an Irish Reel on Kindle !  Amazon: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/04bacbd72e9b9b35

Cherry Bomb: Book Review.

In Macon, Georgia, a young orphan named Mare gives voice to her childhood trauma by spray painting graffiti on public buildings and signing each piece with the tag Cherry Bomb. Having been born to a cult, on a farm called Heaven’s Gate, twelve-year-old Mare and her mother escape the scene before tragedy hits, yet there is no haven for Mare, when her mother leaves her at an orphanage and never comes back. Placed with a foster family, things turn so badly that Mare runs away and takes refuge on the streets. This is the background of the novel Cherry Bomb; the story takes off with what Mare does next.
Armed with an artistic talent she is seemingly born with, Mare feels most alive when venting her angst by defacing public property, where her graffiti becomes the stuff of legends. A famous photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine wants to discover the culprit, and soon a local newspaper reporter and a parish priest join in the search. When Mare is caught out, it is the combined force of all three that hatches a plan to set Mare on a more productive path, and Mare is helped to acquire a scholarship to Savannah’s College of Art and Design. It is here Mare meets professor, Elaine de Kooning, an abstract expressionist painter of world-wide repute with a haunted backstory. Unbeknownst to both, they share a common denominator as the pair establish a student/mentor relationship. As Mare studies her craft, she is intuitively drawn to the painting of icons, leading her to enroll in an acclaimed weekend workshop at a North Carolina monastery, where a mysterious series of events unfolds. Past and present collide in this cloistered setting, and the uncanny threads of Mare and Elaine’s common story are woven together to reveal their startling connection.
There are strong themes of perseverance and search for identity in this modern day, plausible story. It is a story for art lovers, in that the reader is led through the minutia of the art world and comes away fascinated with the art of iconography as it evolves from an edgy youth’s street graffiti. In pitch-perfect dialogue, refreshingly au courant, this unique story has tinges of religious themes as seen through the eyes of Mare, the young sceptic. Growth, accountability, and the quest for redemption artfully culminate in a satisfying ending.
There’s a lot going on in this fast paced, gripping story, but in the hands of author Susan Cushman, never once is the story of Cherry Bomb overwrought. Cushman hooks the reader from the start with the likable, streetwise Mare, and gifts us with a story of survival, in a creative book both YA and cross-over readers will love.

A Good Girl by Johnnie Bernhard

I loved everything about this luring story, which unfolds from a present tense haunted by the resonance of a deep-rooted family saga. A Good Girl, by Johnnie Bernhard, opens on the highway from Mississippi to Texas, as fifty-year-old Gracey Reiter returns to her childhood hometown to stand vigil at her dying father’s bedside. Memories flood unbidden, while Gracey, a middle child, takes responsibility for her father, Henry Mueller’s, exit from this earth. On the surface, Henry Mueller was a hard man who unwittingly left many scars. Beneath the surface, a road twists through all the reasons why.

It is Gracey’s aim to do the right thing, even if it is from a sense of perfunctory obligation. Fighting a nagging resentment, she goes through the motions of tending to her father, while her older brother nurses his childhood wounds, and her younger sister seems to have gotten off scot-free. Birth order matters—it spawns separate experiences, yet Gracey achieves an aerial view as she reflects upon a generational line tethered with the common thread of hard knocks, desperate circumstances, and the will to survive for one’s children.

Only a profoundly sensitive, deep thinking writer could compose a novel with such breathtaking, well-crafted acumen. More than a pleasing story, A Good Girl makes a humanistic point that isn’t cheapened with a convenient moral. It’s a big subject, this business of the sins of the father. Author Johnnie Bernhard handles it deftly, and touches on the redemptive powers of unselfishness, when one puts aside their self-oriented feelings to seek a compassionate, wider understanding of cause and effect in a family dynamic reaching three generations back to Galway, Ireland.

I was invested in each character throughout this story. Those in the past were equally as vibrant as those present tense, and the way in which Bernhard wove this epic saga to come home to an uncanny full circle was heart-warming and emotionally satisfying, when Gracey’s daughter, Theresa, marries a man from Ireland.

A Good Girl is a story of personal growth on the inner plane; a story of faith and hope and the ties that bind. It is universal in theme, in that it is the kind of story that compels one to pause and reflect upon their own familial history. All praise to author, Johnnie Bernhard. I loved this novel and look forward to her next release.

 

On the Southern author, Shelby Foote

Before I launch into writing about Follow Me Down, I want to make sure y’all know who Shelby Foote is. I’ll start with his author bio, because it will either remind you or introduce you to one of the best Southern writers of our times:

Shelby Foote was born on November 7, 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi, and attended school there until he entered the University of North Carolina. During World War II he served as a captain of field artillery but never saw combat. After World War II he worked briefly for the Associated Press in their New York bureau. In 1953 he moved to Memphis, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Foote was the author of six novels: Tournament, Follow Me Down, Love in a Dry Season, Shiloh, Jordan County, and September, September. He is best remembered for his 3-volume history The Civil War: A Narrative, which took twenty years to complete and resulted in his being a featured expert in Ken Burns’ acclaimed Civil War documentary. Over the course of his writing career, Foote was also awarded three Guggenheim fellowships. Shelby Foote died in 2005 at the age of 88.

On a personal note, my mother was a life-long friend of Shelby Foote’s second wife, Gwyn, whom everyone called Ginny- with a hard G. She was statuesque, blue-eyed, and wore her hair in a grey page-boy before it was chic. The Footes lived right around the corner from where I grew up in Memphis. I am a contemporary of Ginny and Shelby’s son, Huggie, so nicknamed because his given name comes from Shelby’s family line and is Huger (pronounced Yoo-gee.) Best for a little kid to be called Huggie, as far as I’m concerned, and the name sticks to this day. Like his father, Huggie is an artist. He’s had an illustrious career as a photographer, and, after moving back to the states from Paris, he resides in New York City. If you’re interested in Photography, Huggie has a couple of books that you can find on Amazon. He admits to being influenced by Memphis’s renowned William Eggleston, and in my opinion, if you’re a photographer influenced by anyone, let it be Eggleston, but I digress.

I have a handful of Shelby Foote memories, one of which sees him sitting on the porch out at Cottondale in Collierville, Tennessee discussing the civil war with the erudite J. Tunkie Saunders, son of Clarence Saunders, who started Piggy Wiggly and built Memphis’s Pink Palace, which is now a museum. When you’re a little kid, you’re not impressed by much of anything, yet I recall running through the porch of what was once called The Old Stage Coach Inn, before J. Tunkie Saunders bought the establishment and turned it into a country retreat on the outskirts of Memphis. I was ‘at the farm,” as they called it, with Lucy Saunders, my age exactly, and we were making a beeline for the stables. Our plan had been to saddle up Buttons and Bows and ride her down to the levee, but I was stopped. “Claire, sit down,” J. Tunkie said, and I, being obliging to my elders, let Lucy run on ahead and did as I was told. For the next half hour, I listened to these two Southern gentlemen talk about the Civil War as if it were still going on somewhere down the road. Wasn’t a big deal to me then, but it is to me now, and I recall the pair matching wits, comparing notes over tumblers of cool, amber whiskey as the sun set through the pin oaks and thinking one day you’ll be glad you’re sitting here.  

Another vision that stays with me is of the day my mother brought me round to visit Shelby in his library. She’d just acquired the first volume of Shelby’s three volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, and she wanted it signed. The two of us stepped down three wooden steps into what would have been anyone else’s living room, in the ivy-covered, pitched roof brick Tudor tucked back off of East Parkway.  I’d never been to an author’s residence, and at thirteen or thereabouts, I hadn’t a clue what to expect from the man I thought of simply as Huggie’s dad.  Shelby didn’t disappoint. Were you to have envisioned your best-case scenario of what to expect from an author in his den, Shelby would have exceeded it. He smoked a pipe, he wore a beard and a vest over his rolled shirt sleeves. His steady blue eyes were mesmerizing, canopied with a thicket of black lashes, his warm voice was courtly in a fluid Southern drawl. He was a gentleman through and through and didn’t let on that we were interrupting him at his work in the prime of his working hour. He received my fawning mother graciously with a manner as though he had all the time in the world.

The world got a taste of the real Shelby Foote, when he narrated Ken Burns documentary miniseries, The Civil War, which aired on PBS in five consecutive nights in 1990. 40 million viewers watched it, and the series was awarded more than 40 major television and film honors. In the show, Shelby wore a pinstriped Oxford and simply told his version of the war as he interpreted it. With more than twenty years of research behind him and a narrative passion that verged on the personal, Shelby Foote, in all his poised authenticity, single-handedly debunked all myth and stereotype many outsiders have of those of us from down South.

It was the Goodreads group, On the Southern Literary Trail, that caused me to read Shelby Foote’s Follow Me Down. I’ll go on and say it: not only am I a Southerner, but I’m a writer, and it shamed me to admit I’d never read Shelby Foote’s fiction. I have no excuse for never getting around to it, other than to say that I, like many, equated Shelby Foote with his Civil War volumes. I’d done myself a disservice, but that’s all behind me, for after reading Follow Me Down, I now have Shelby Foote fever.

Follow Me Down was published in 1950. It sets the standard for Southern fiction at its finest. Set in Jordan County, Mississippi, the book opens with a murder trial, and the reader learns quickly that the defendant has already confessed. Luther Eustice, a fifty-one-year-old, nondescript farmer, got himself into a pickle, when he crossed paths with a disreputable woman, thirty years younger, named Beulah Ross. After running off with Beulah to a small island on the Mississippi, Eustice changed his mind and couldn’t think to do anything else but drown her. Narrated in chapters by a circuit clerk, a reporter, a half-wit named Dummy, Eustice himself, Beulah the victim, Eustice’s wife, Eustice’s lawyer, and the jailer with the key, we learn the detailed minutia of the crime from differing vantage points—each with a voice so Southern and unique, Foot’s feat of writing is showcased for what it is: nuanced, insightful, and chock full of character as to lay bare the hidden secrets of the rural South.  It’s the colloquialisms that captured me. An example is when Foote describes a man by writing, “He is the best example I ever saw of a man gone sour.”  Politically incorrect at points for this day and age, the reader is gifted with the mental accuracy of a bygone era, yet never once does it pull them out of the story.  Follow Me Down is a roughhewn and down-on-its-luck story written with such charisma and aplomb as to fascinate the reader on every page.

I’ll leave you here with one more Shelby Foote tidbit, since I’m being candid. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the great author and poet, Ron Rash, whose eyes grew wide when I mentioned I grew up in Memphis. The first question he asked was if I was familiar with Shelby Foote. I told him I was, though not as a reader, my acquaintance was personal. The look on Rash’s face as I recounted my affiliation with Shelby Foote was one of awestruck wonder. At the time I was thinking Mr. Rash must be a Civil War buff, but now I know why he had that look on his face: it was author admiration, pure and simple.