Sunday, June 28, 2020

The South!

From Chris: Jen asked us to curate a mini-collection of themed books for a new series on the Boswell Instagram (the Jenstagram) page. And so, I set out to do just that. Why the South? Well, because it's finally getting to the point of hot and humid here in Milwaukee that someone like me, who grew up a few degrees of latitude below the great lakes, thinks it's finally beginning to feel like summer. Yes, it generally takes until mid-June here before I think, "ah, time for boat drinks."

The Blurry Years, by Eleanor Kriseman - One of my absolute indie press favorites from the last few years. It's set in the outskirts of second-rate resort towns along the Florida coast, a place the book captures so well you might just catch a whiff of sunscreen-spilt-liquor-salt-air breeze when you open the pages. It's a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up and her difficult relationship with an alcoholic mother. Kriseman isn't afraid to write into the push-pull tension of loving the place you're from but at the same time learning you'd better leave before it breaks you. Two Dollar Radio is (quite rightfully) known for their recent run of fantastic #ownvoices books, but that should be no surprise - they've always been a leader in publishing authentic voices, and Kriseman's book fits into what I think they do best - present the lives of America's white trash working class without adornment or apology.

Boys of Alabama by Genevieve Hudson - Dark, humid, sweet, dirt, football, religion, death, sex, magic - all words that describe Alabama and this book. A sensitive teenager, Max, the child of German immigrants, joins the high school football team. In a story like a fable, Hudson makes the familiar of the deep American South foreign through eyes of a German family in order to question the place’s most deep-rooted beliefs. Especially captivating is Hudson's take on the wonder and fear of sexual discovery, which is explored in passages both metaphorical and real. If you like neat and tidy, this isn't the book for you - the ending packs an emotional wallop and lives are changed irrevocably, but the hows and whys aren't always told in straight lines, or even strung together at all. That said, this moody, atmospheric novel explores a cult-like enmeshing of high school, sports, religion, and strange rituals that exposes an American region still struggling to understand itself.

The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee - Well, if you’ve ever said to yourself, ‘Man, I sure wish Taxicab Confessions was set in Mississippi and the stories were told by a UFO chasing, Shakespeare worshipping Buddhist with anger issues,’ then boy oh boy do I have the book for you. This is one glorious, delirious cruise into the depths of the downtrodden folks of the South as told by your new favorite person, Lou, a cabbie trying desperately to be as compassionate as is reasonably possible and maybe even scrounge up a little truth, all while not getting himself killed by an idiot taking driver’s seat selfies.

(Well, and many other places, to be honest)
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata - A once sentence description of this book is sort of possible, but will never do the story justice, as it swirls, expands, and fractures into so many different directions - suffice it so say, Zapata's written a love letter to storytelling, heritage, and theoretical physics. This one reels from the US occupation of Santa Domingo to prohibition-era New Orleans to the Russian Revolution’s aftermath from Petrograd to Belarus to Chicago, and later, from Tel Aviv back to Chicago, and to New Orleans again in the days after the storm - which are captured especially sensitively: the horror of the storm's aftermath, the fear of police gone rogue, the paths of boats in canals that were, days before, the city's streets, and the coming-together that saved many in the city.

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix - Oh, this one's just a blast. It's Hendrix's best since My Best Friend's Exorcism. A riff on the classic Dracula story, vampire fans will love it, but on top of that it's soaked in pop culture with a pinch of 90s nostalgia. In an interview (and I am paraphrasing a half-remembered interview from months ago, so please understand if I don't have this exactly) Hendrix said he wanted to write a book that captures the all-too-often overlooked strength of the women that many people, even in the "post-feminism" 90s, thought of as still "just a housewife." And boy, does he ever! If you like campy horror with a side of pecan pie, this is your book.

(Which, I know, floats between classifications as The South and The Midwest, but roll with me here, because...)
... The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel is set in (as the publisher copy says) "a small town with big secrets in the poorest part of the Missouri Ozarks" - and I think it's pretty fair to say that Engels captures a distinctly southern-feeling place in this thriller. There's murdered children, a meth-cooking, trailer-in-the-woods living mama, a strip-club owning, woman-beating ex-boyfriend, in a small Missouri town where the high water mark is a job at the car dealership. I admit, I first thought, oh no, not another dose of poverty porn, but boy, was I wrong. Engel digs into the tropes of the rural crime novel and uses them to tell a story that gets to the heart of what it means to be a woman in a world that only cares about what it can take from women. And something I especially appreciated about the book - you can write it off by calling it "just good old fashioned honest and plainspoken," but the book makes a point to confront class divisions head on in the voices of its characters who, admittedly, would probably not often refer to “the class divide,” though they’re acutely aware of it. It's a solid novel about a woman finding strength in a dark, tough, misunderstood place.

Snakehunter by Chuck Kinder - And okay, so my native West Virginia is another particularly tricky-to-classify place (and maybe a little scary, too, but you know what, maybe we kinda like it that way) because since its inception it's been considered at once the northernmost Southern state and the southernmost Northern state. Really, it's Appalachia, but you know what? I'm including this one anyway, just because I want to, and we mountain people do what we want. If you want a book that's full of the kind of magic that's conjured in a kitchen of elders telling stories while they string green beans, you'll never do better than Snakehunter. It's a coming-of-age story set in the southern hollers of coal country told by a young man who learned storytelling by hiding under the kitchen table and listening. Kinder captures things like the snake-handling church of Scrabble Creek, and hey, true story! The snake-handling congregation in this book is based on a church that was just up the hill from my father's high school, and he remembers Friday-night services that drew crowds that rivaled the school's football games. Ahead of its time when it was originally published in the 70s, now's your chance to catch up to the great Sasquatch of American Letters, the Captain himself, Chuck Kinder.

And, how about a sneak peak of a couple books of the South that are coming in the next two months? Yeah?! Okay!

I love love love Florida Man, the latest from Tom Cooper, out on July 28th. Cooper's Florida is the south of the south; swampland and jungle, sandy sinkholes, and the always impending doom of the next big one making landfall. This is a little like Tom Robbins decided to take on the panhandle, a generational saga of a roadside attraction running, swamp tour giving loser who, come murderous hell or hurricane, is never leaving the beach. It’s a crime novel inasmuch as, yes, crimes occur, but that’s just because crimes petty and heinous are simply a part of the everyday milieu of your average Florida man. What is it really? Some sort of magic trick.

I also can't wait to get Randall Kenan's new story collection, If I Had Two Wings, into peoples' hands when it arrives on August 4th. This book is something special. Kenan so well captures the atmosphere of Down East North Carolina that you’ll feel the thick inland air close on your skin as you read. Each story is a masterclass in subtle surprise, full of the gentlest delight and horror, and each life – those being lived and those long past being resurrected – is rendered so fully that once you close the pages you’ll feel you’ve also spent a lifetime in Tims Creek. You won’t want to leave.

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