By Maylon T. Rice
With the holidays upon us, several new books about Arkansas and some by Arkansas authors could help you fill the Yule stockings of those readers on your list.
A dynamic duo of blockbuster books for this Yule season that are already selling well is former Arkansas State Representative, Congressman, Governor and U.S. Senator David Pryor’s autobiography, “A Pryor Commitment” and the much heralded debut of “The Toss Of A Lemon” by Fayetteville writer Padma Viswanathan. Add to these some very fine University of Arkansas Press books and a smattering of books from other regional presses and your “book wish list” is set.
Padma Viswanathan, burst onto the national scene this year, with her first novel “The Toss Of A Lemon” published by Harcourt. Already this wife and mother of two small children has been whisked to major book markets and media tours around the nation and Canada. Her book is a labor of love and one that is a fine read. Gleaned from hours of interviews with her grandmother, Viswanathan writes an epic story of a fictional family that can be related to one found in the Old South, or as in this case, from halfway around the globe in India.
Viswanathan is also a playwright and former journalist. She is the wife of poet and translator Geoffrey Brock, a University of Arkansas faculty member. Her pre-book accolades include a first place award in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest.
Readers who delight in a well-written history of the personal lives of a family will love her book. The tale, woven from her grandmother’s recollections of her great-grandmother’s challenges, is interspersed with the cultural aspects of Indian life in a mid-caste Brahmin community and will inform, entertain and enlighten. This book, while patterned after her family, is indeed, the author says, a work of fiction.
A snappy and brisk writer, with an absolute command of the English language, Viswanathan, makes the text leap from the page. The thrill in reading this 640-page epic is not found in either suspenseful or intriguing actions. But this wordsmith never allows the text or the storyline to drag. Her descriptions of the Indian countryside, the household where most of the story takes place and the overall setting of the story is brilliant and colorful. She deftly transports the modern-day reader into the Indian culture as would Kipling or into personal lives as would Mark Twain. She paints vivid word pictures of the wafting odor of spices, the brilliant and contrasting colors of the meager clothing and the permeating smell of the seasonal rains.
Not only did Viswanathan take her grandmother’s recollections as absolute, the author also traveled to India to gather the Brahmin socio-political context of the events of that time period, the early 1900s, to add zest and reality to the personal storyline.
If ever there was a “Gone With The Wind” of India, this book comes razor close to the life and times of a widowed woman standing up for herself, raising a family and surviving a culture where serious generational barriers were erected for widows and their children.
One such cultural barrier almost defies logic: Once widowed, the heroine of the book traveled outside the family’s home and compound only three times. She aspires to follow the culture and customs of the day, except for one real act of rebellion (and heroism) — she moves back to her late husband’s house to raise her son and daughter and literally never moves again from this homestead.
Viswanathan has issued a serious first work. A book that Arkansans will relish and find very hard to put down.
Pryor’s book, “A Pryor Commitment” which was written with Don Harrell, chronicles Pryor’s life in the political realm and is a fine read for those who enjoy a delightful mix of Arkansas past and present. The book is, well, just like David Pryor — a storyteller of great reputation and a story well-told. Readers from Bodcaw to Blytheville and Maysville to McGehee will enjoy and relish Pryor’s well-written book. Readers in Northwest Arkansas, especially those who call Fayetteville home, will thoroughly enjoy Pryor’s reminiscences about Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas.
Poetry lovers will find a number of fine books with local connections.
Friends and followers of Miller Williams can be treated to a thin, yet delicious volume, “Time And The Tilting Earth,” just released by Louisiana State University Press. The master poet, who taught many years at the University of Arkansas, delivers with some short, succinct poetry that will lift the spirit and make one smile at this very complex world. Especially touching are “After All These Years of Prayer,” “Pi R Square” and “Thinking of Leaving the Church the Young Preacher Thinks Again,” which are classic Miller Williams. The collection blasts open with “An Unrhymed Sonnet” which speaks volumes to us all, especially the sanctimonious among us. As always, Williams’ poetry retreats silently away, leaving the reader to ponder over every well turned phrase.
For a very special book, chase down “The Panther,” posthumous poems by another former University of Arkansas professor, the much loved and revered James Whitehead. The small hardback was published this year, five years after Whitehead’s death, by Moon City Press and is edited by Michael Burns. The poems are Whitehead’s take on the Pantera legend that Pantera, not Joseph, was Jesus’ father.
More Northwest Arkansas authors are featured in “Descant: Fifty Years,” published by Texas Christian University Press. Descant is the literary magazine of TCU, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer. Added to such names as Robert Penn Warren, Joyce Carol Oates and Denise Levertov are William Harrison of Fayetteville and the late Ben Kimpel. The 256-page book is a compilation of poetry, fiction and very, very good writing.
Music lovers will delight at “The Oxford American Book Of Great Music Writing,” edited by Marc Smirnoff, the editor and founder of The Oxford American magazine. To celebrate a decade of Southern music issues, most of which are sold-out or very hard to find, the 55 pieces collected by Smirnoff for this dynamic, wide-ranging anthology will appeal to both music fans and fans of great writing. The OA’s Southern Music issue has become legendary for its passionate approach to music and for working with some of America’s greatest writers. These writers, from Peter Guralnick, Nick Tosches and Tom Piazza to Susan Straight, William Gay and Steve Martin, probe the lives and legacies of southern musicians who may or may not yet be familiar names, but those who readers will love being introduced or reintroduced, to. In one creative, fresh way or another, these writers also uncover the essence of music and why music has such power over listeners. A great find for music lovers, especially jazz and blues lovers.
Red State lovers will really like the latest from Texas A&M University Press, a timely volume called “Twilight Of The Texas Democrats” by Arkansan Kenneth Bridges of El Dorado. The book features the 1978 Texas Governor’s race when the Democratic state of Texas, apparently moved into the Republican corner where it would to stay. Bridges is an assistant professor at South Arkansas Community College.
Looking for a good novel set in the South? Check out “The Baker’s Boy,” by Barry Kitterman from Southern Methodist University Press. The melding of Central America and Tennessee offer some significant angst. Tanner Johnson, nearing midlife, leaves his pregnant wife and takes a job as a baker, working odd hours to try and escape a shadowy past. A very good novel in a southern setting.
Sports lovers, especially baseball fanatics will delight in “Anatomy Of Baseball,” edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner, with a delightful forward by Yogi Berra. This treasure trove of history, stats and insight into the gentleman’s game of baseball is wonderful. It is available from Southern Methodist University Press.
Civil War buffs and those claiming Irish heritage will rejoice at a pair of books from Texas A&M, “God Help The Irish!,” The History of the Irish Brigade from the Union Army side and its companion book, “Irish Confederates” The Civil War’s Forgotten Soldiers, from the Confederate view point. Historian Phillip T. Tucker expertly examines the lives and experiences of individual Irish soldiers in the Civil War. A one-two punch for the Civil War history fan.
A massive picture book that can’t be beat is the new University of Arkansas production called “Etched In Stone: Imagery of the University of Arkansas. The Arkansas Alumni Association’s big, colorful book is a great gift for mom and dad who once paid all the tuition bills.
Another popular local book, “Once Upon Dickson,” is sure to please anyone who is curious about the old Dickson Street, a place that was once the center of commerce with a laundry, bakery and drive-in joints. The carefully researched book by Anthony Wappel and Ethel Simpson is 420-pages with 370 images and photos.
If you need a little dose of common sense and humor, local author, writer and columnist Dan Borengasser has written a thin, but delightful collection called “Cat Horoscopes And Other Diversions.” Borengasser has crafted some short, sweet and humorous tales. Spring Street Books of Philadelphia is the publisher.
Other University of Arkansas Press books that are just right for the Christmas stockings are:
“The Secret Trust Of Apasia Crevellier Murault,” an excellent choice for those interested in women’s rights and the antebellum era. Author Janice L. Sumler-Edmond’s biography of a free woman of color, Mirault, a widowed matriarch who lived in Savannah, Ga., before the Civil War, provides a portrait of the antebellum South and tells the story of a remarkable woman. In 1842 Murault entered into a secret trust with a white man whose help she needed to become a landowner. The outcome of this arrangement was eventually determined by a three-party trial that went to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1878.
World War II veterans will reflect with “Not Without Honor: The Nazi POW Journal of Steve Carano, edited by Kay Sloan. Carano spent 18 months imprisoned after his B-17 bomber was shot down over the Dutch coast in 1943. This story weaves together the stories of three American prisoners of war, Carano, his friend Bill Blackmon, who also was at Stalag 17b, and John C. Bitzer, who survived the brutal “Death March” from northern Germany to liberation in 1945.
Poetry Series, edited by Enid Shomer, has released two new collections.
Two fine new books of poetry from the UA Press are “The Fire Landscape” by Gary Fincke, which captures the essence of coming of age in post-1950s America and “A Necklace Of Bees” by Dannye Romine Powell whose poems probe the nature of loss, the actual and the feared.
Arkansas history comes alive in the reprinting of a book about a neglected segment of society, the Mosaic Templars of America. “History Of The Mosaic Templars Of America” by A. E. Bush and P.L. Dorman, originally published in 1924 and was long out of print. It tells the story of the famous black fraternal organization founded by two former slaves in Little Rock, in the late 19th century. In the 1920s, the organization had chapters in 26 states and six foreign countries, making it one of the largest black organizations in the world. However, the organization dwindled under the weight of the Great Depression and eventually ceased to operate.
Another Civil War book, this one titled “The Fate Of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State”, edited by Charles D. Grear, contains 11 essays by noted historians covering a wide range of topics that provide new perspectives on the state’s unique position in the War Between the States. Looking at military, social and cultural history to public history and historical memory, the essays explore the lives of Texas women, slavery, veterans and how the state dealt with Confederate loss.
Travel even farther back in history, before the European colonization and slavery, wit the “Raiders Of The Lost Arkansas” by Robert C. Mainfort Jr. Mainfort tells the story of a University of Arkansas professor, the late Sam Dellinger, who sought to preserve the state’s prehistoric past. He served as curator of the now closed University Museum from 1925 to 1960 and gathered nearly 8,000 prehistoric artifacts. This collection of American Indian artifacts is now recognized as one of the finest in the country, and the fully illustrated book contains more than 200 images of these treasurers.
For a complete guide to all University of Arkansas books, go to www.uapress.com.