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DEEP SOUTH. Traveling with a fellow booklover: Paul Theroux covers it all, from God to guns to poverty.

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“Reading made me a traveler; travel sent me back to books.” DEEP SOUTH is the tenth travel book by Paul Theroux. He has been around the world; this is his first travel expedition into the deepest parts of the United States’ rural south. He carefully, and often colorfully, describes such events as driving by the Family Dollar, noticing the “support coal” signs, stopping in to craft shops and budget hotels. His stops are disparate: often covering common themes, yet wide-ranged in their stories.

This book is much more than just about travel.

Theroux captures the events shaping a country, from the Indian doctors in Appalachia on H-1B visas, the voter ID bill, the waving the confederate flag, and the burning of churches. Keep in mind, he wrote this before Obama won his second election. Theroux’s observations and predictions continue to reverberate throughout the land today.

His travel log includes four separate trips to the south, in four different seasons of the year. Spaced between his trips are three interludes of his reflections, covering everything from the “n” word to Faulkner and the misnomer of Southern Fiction (include “gothic”). He’s both a well-read and a well-traveled man. We as readers are benefited from both.

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BOOK OF PARADOXES

“And even in the poorest places in America, where there are shacks and rotting house trailers, the roads are wonderful.” One of the major themes of Theroux is the paradox of the South. The people are friendly, yet cautious. The churches are burnt, yet come back stronger. Colleges abound, yet racism is far from gone.

Theroux is timely poignant. He carries these paradoxes and waves them as flags of mystery. In one meeting, he talks about a lady whose daughter just earned her law degree. That ladies church in Greensboro was burnt down by the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, was around 2012, not the mid-1900s. Harvard Magazine states that there are “several dozen church-burnings per year”.

Not only is Theroux observant, he presents everything with documentation and examples from either literature or studies.

GOD AND GUNS

While most of Charleston’s tourists make their way to plantations or Fort Sumter, Paul Theroux goes to the Gun and Knife Expo. “No one on earth—none I had ever seen—is more polite than a person at a gun show…more eager to smile, more accommodating, less likely to step on your toe.” Here, though he is a stranger from out-of-state, he can buy an AK-47 for $1,500. A private sale.

Along with guns, God is prevalent. He is a driving force, a local passion. “What made a Sunday in the South complete was a church service, a gun show, or a football game.” Right up there with the passion for church was the passion for the pigskin. “Tuscalooga was in the grip of something more intense than a carnival.” “A riotous hooting tribal rite possessed the whole town…”

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RACISM AND POVERTY

Theroux writes there is a Gullah expression, “Nu man, yanna weep-dee we dan-ya!” Meaning, “No man, you’re up there and I’m down here.” What is the most disheartening of his travels is the disparity of the land. He writes that there are 1 in 4 children in Arkansas considered “food deprived”. He points out that while groups like the Clinton Foundation sends hundreds of millions to Africa, Latin America, and India, not much gets funneled to help those in need in the South.

“When I checked, the figure for food insecurity in Arkansas was exactly the same as that for Sri Lanka, an island that was struggling to overcome the effects of a recent and long-lasting ethnic war.”

There’s a lot of overlooked history of the South. Such as Denmark Vesey, a slave who won the lottery and bought his own freedom in 1822. He led a slave revolt in South Carolina, larger than that of Nat Turner’s. Or that of the police shooting three black students dead as they ran away from their peaceful protest—just three years prior to Kent State. Orangeburg’s South Carolina State University’s protest was of racial discrimination (still persistent after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act); Kent State’s protest was against the war.

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AN OVERALL FANTASTIC TRIP

“Want some deep-fried pie?”
“Never had it.”
“You’ll love it. Chocolate pie. We wrap it in pastry and deep-fry it crispy. Why are you smiling sir?”

I really appreciated my time with Paul Theroux. Though I grew up near parts of the South and lived and taken trips there, I have not ventured nearly into the depths of Theroux. In retrospect, I would have loved an index. His stories are so disparate, including times where he would revisit locales. An index would have helped me go back and find what I was curious about. Footnotes would have been sweet, too. He often quotes from incredible sources, including many books I want to follow-up and read.

Books are for our adventure and fascination. Theroux fulfills their greatest promises in DEEP SOUTH.

DEEP SOUTH is already generating some great coverage:

NOTE:  Steve McCurry took many pictures of Theroux’s trip that are in high-quality glossy pages in the back of this book. The reverend’s Bible and the home with no plumbing or running water are both McCurry’s pictures from this book.

Finally, here’s a quote from the book. Theroux about his travels to the South:

“What inspired my trip through the Deep South was the notion that as a traveler the people I had been meeting in Africa and India and elsewhere were more and more familiar to me. I am not speaking about the common humanity but their circumstances. Many Americans were just as poor as many Africans, or as confined in rural communities as many Indians; they were as remote from anyone caring about them, too, without access to decent housing or medical care; and there were portions of America, especially in the rural South, that resembled what is often thought of as the Third World.”

**Yes, those are MY FEET in the first photo.

Follow me on Instagram for more picture of my feet. Follow me on Twitter for Karate Kid GIFs and book talk.

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Why is Margaret Atwood one of our most relevant authors? A book review of THE HEART GOES LAST

When death’s poison courses through its victim: the body twitches, the breathing stops, the brain shuts down…the heart goes last. Margaret Atwood is the master of poignant tales. The foolhardy believes this just a story; the wise take note of her warnings.

THE HEART GOES LAST is not driven by characters; it is driven by simple twists of fate. A few screws tightened differently. Atwood’s machine looks real—the scariest version of dystopian literature.

THE PAST: THE GOOD OL’ DAYS?

Stan and Charmaine were the perfect newlywed couple with stable jobs and a beautiful house. A few bumps in the internet-driven economy turned their life around. Stan now felt his life was “pursued by bad luck, as if bad luck is a feral dog, lurking along behind him, following his scent” His wife, comforted by her grandmother’s nostalgic advice tried to hold onto the belief that “most people are good underneath if they have a chance to show their goodness”.

Those beliefs are hard to hold onto after “another midnight, another parking lot.” Fearful of having their last possessions stolen and their own bodies vandalized, the stressed couple sought refuge in the Positron Project. Together they could live in the Town of Consilience, where there’s a restaurant called Together, just down the street from Harmony Hotel.

Of course they longed for Happy Days.

THE FUTURE: JUST A FEW TWISTS OF FATE

“It’s a long time since Stan has encountered that muffling layer of smiling and nodding.” For an exchange of prison living, which was more like a work camp, Stan could usher his bride into a 1950s style neighborhood. Bright, cheerful, uncompromised.

“The main deal is the prison. Prisons used to be about punishment, and then reform and penitence…” National debts overflow, school loans go unbound, and prisons are run for profit. Keep in mind: this is the book. Sound familiar? Atwood even addresses our—I mean, her world’s—healthcare system, “Grandma Win refused to go to the hospital…She said it would cost too much.”

The future seemed so bright and full of potential. How could it get much worse? The project had a plan. Oh yeah, and “full production has begun on the new and improved sexbots.”

THE NOW: MARRIAGE AND SOCIETY

“They wanted her to use her head and discard her heart; but it wasn’t so easy, because the heart goes last.” In typical Atwood fashion, relationships are tested and the future goes awry. “Everyone has a shadow side, even fluffpots like her.”

The keys to Atwood’s kingdom is to realize the potential and the power, both in marriage and relationships as well as society and governments. Her advocacy on Twitter is evidence to her passion for being on guard, but if anything else: aware. Like HANDMAID’S TALE, Atwood shows in THE HEART GOES LAST the relevance of current issues and what lies beneath.

Margaret’s notes:

Be sure to check out LitHub’s selection from THE HEART GOES LAST, where Atwood annotates many parts, including about the rich affording police and the poor not having access to healthcare.

Also, Open Culture has a cartoon version of Atwood talking about how technology is shaping the modern writer.

And thanks to Bloomsbury UK for sharing the percentiles of elements in this book:

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5 Ways UNDER THE UDALA TREES Tore Apart My Heart—A Book Review

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“E’li, E’li, la’ma sab ach tha’ni? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the question Ijeoma asks in the novel UNDER THE UDALA TREES by Chinelo Okparanta. The year was 1968. Her father was killed in Nigeria’s violent assimilation of Biafra, her mother—at the end of her wits. Tears will fall from your eyes as Ijeoma prays, “Dear God, I want to be happy. Please help me to be happy.”

THE MOTHER, THE HUSBAND, THE CHILD

Not knowing what to do, Ijeoma’s mother sent her away, to be properly cared for and taught. During this separation, Ijeoma fell in love with another girl. This girl: a Hausa girl, someone Ijeoma’s Igbo people would never associate. This girl: a reader of the Koran. All things: an anathema.

We witness Ijeoma’s struggle in finding love, eventually succumbing to the heart-wrenching persuasion of man-woman marriage. The pages are near-impossible to read as the husband struggles to find his love; the pages even more difficult once Ijeoma’s child Chidinma is born.

LGBTQ IN 1970 NIGERIA

Punishable by death—stoning—still today in the northern states of Nigeria: loving someone of the same sex. “There’s nothing more important now than for us to begin working on cleansing your soul,” says Ijeoma’s mother. “Nwoke na nwunye. Adam na Eve. Man and wife.” Ijeoma feels of her mother: “In this moment, she felt more like another warden than my own mother, more like a husk—more an emblem of motherhood than motherhood itself.”

It’s not just about a love between two girls: it is about love. “Maybe love was some combination of friendship and infatuation. A deeply felt affection accompanied by a certain sort of awe. And by gratitude. And by a desire for a lifetime of togetherness.”

Two men found naked: beaten to death. A woman: burned alive. “If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.”

GOD IS WITH US

Author Chinelo Okparanta expertly mixes in her vast knowledge of the Bible, verses all included, as she tells the story of struggle and of love. The mother, Ijeoma, the people all around, each coming to a realization of who God is, where He abides, and the trueness of their hearts.

BACK TO NIGERIA

This is the third book I’ve read that is based in Nigeria. The latest being the multi-award-nominated THE FISHERMEN. I am honored and humbled to be back in Nigeria. Okparanta’s pictures are clear and beautiful. She has a way of relaying the old folk tales that make you a witness to the grandness and simplicity of Nigeria’s finest and scariest elements. It’s mesmerizing.

“The saying goes that wood already touched by fire isn’t hard to set alight.” Aside from the tales are the sayings, each with special, driven-deep meaning. One after another, they sink into your soul.

A GIFTED AUTHOR

Okparanta is another gifted author to arise out of the Iowa’s Writing Workshop. Her craftsmanship is evident in her spare and lyrical prose. The short chapters tempt you to flip from one page to the next. The story and the elements all play together, scratching your mind and tearing your heart.

“Sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.” UNDER THE UDALA TREES will cause me to ponder this question a long, long time.

Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood
In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leonora is a writer who is used to living alone. She’s got some issues with a dude named James who supposedly did something terrible ten years ago. This was so terrible that most of her friends went by the wayside. Fast-forward to today: a hen party invite arrives. (For my fellow American readers, a hen party is a bachelorette party—this one requiring an overnight stay.) So, lots of questions for the reader: who is this “James” and why is Leonora being invited to a hen party?

Enter the dark, dark woods. This environment is creepy as [choose your own adjective/explicative]. The hen party’s arranger has an aunt with a glass house in the middle of woods, located in an extremely remote environment. Let’s paint that picture a little better: dark woods, see-through house. Folks on the outside can see you; you can’t see potential people/creatures/bigfoot/murderers on the outside.

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IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by Ruth Ware is an expertly crafted thriller in the likes of GONE GIRL and GIRL ON THE TRAIN, with one caveat: there are not alternating perspectives. Time flips from present to past, slowly unwinding the clues to what the heck are these folks doing in the middle of the woods, and—MURDER!!

The book is quickly paced, really winding things tight toward the end. By the time Leonora discovers footprints in the snow, you won’t be able to stop reading. The conclusion is, well, conclusive. Much better than that story about the girl that Ben Affleck went looking to find. I would even say the pacing is better than that story about the drunken girl solving crimes from her window seat. In other words, IN A DARK, DARK WOOD stands alone as a must-read title.

Being a debut book, I do have some nitpicks. First, the “big secret”. Don’t worry, no spoilers. Leonora’s secret with James is kind of hard to hide. We don’t find out about it until near the end, but I’m thinking most of her friends, not just one, would have known about it. Second, drinking tea with the murderer. Huh? Read the book and then we’ll talk about it.

Here’s the kicker: I purchased this book to take with me on a trip into the deep, deep woods (somewhere along the border of New Hampshire, Maine, and Canada). Needless to say, I had to keep the fire burning bright. And, yes, I’m a bit crazy.

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P.S. Don’t forget to enter the giveaway!! The link is in the above paragraph about the trip into the deep, deep woods.

And, if you are looking for more reviews of IN A DARK, DARK WOOD, Cleopatra Loves Books really liked this one! She said, “it raised a few hairs on my neck means that this book fully deserves all the accolades it has received”.

UPDATE: Tea talk with author Ruth Ware

Review: Consumed – just as provocative and indicative as the best of David Cronenberg’s films

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Consumed by David Cronenberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Cronenberg has crafted a novel that is just as provocative and indicative as you’d expect from the best of his movies. With both subtle and not-subtle-at-all tones, he points us in two excessive examples of consumption: human and electronic. Cronenberg asks: which is the more horrific?

Naomi Seberg and Nathan Math are both yellow journalists, kept together by salacious news and love of technology: “brand passions was emotional glue for hard-core nerd couples”. Naomi is focused on crime. Here, she covers a “French philosophical sex-killing murder-suicide cannibal thing”. Nathan is focused on medical. He’s led into such things like Apotemnophilia, or “body dysmorphic disorder” and folks that “roam the earth looking for a doctor who will cut off a perfectly good arm or leg” and the corresponding people stricken by Acrotomophilia, or “a sexual attraction to amputees”. To know Cronenberg is to know transgressive media.

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Interestingly paired with the plot is a strong focus on brand awareness: the latest gadgets and gizmos with the highest megapixels and fastest speeds. The first signs, aside from the blatant and purposeful brand placement, is the French cannibal’s fascination with Karl Marx. This later translates into the “Philosophy of Consumerism” with its “fearsome beauty and provocative weirdness” (and you thought the above paragraph was provocatively weird?). Cronenberg looks at modern society for his best examples, including YouTube’s unboxing videos as the “epitome of consumerist fetishism”.

These worlds—digital and organic—all collide toward the end of the book. There are many chapters where the French philosopher—wife eater—Aristide Arosteguy, narrates in first person (as Naomi records it) which shows the building/declining of the couple and the mix of film and consumerism and human decay. Again, Cronenberg. Nathan talks about a reemerging sexually transmitted disease and “the politics surrounding the disease. All sex, all hysteria, very American.” He talks about “name that people are terrified to hear [such as Alzheimer’s]. Afraid that their doctors will speak those names to them.” Perhaps the girl that he later finds that is into “3D philosophical tissue printing” is a link to it all.

This book is not for everyone. However, for those willing to delve into the depths of Cronenberg will be well rewarded with his genius perspective and unique social observations. Movie fans will appreciate his taking of characters to the panel of the Cannes Film Festival and awarding of the Palme d’Or, as well as his nod to the recently deceased Oliver Sacks (writer of THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT, among many others, along with a book with film adaptation, AWAKENINGS).

From Frozen to Snowden, Jonathan Franzen’s PURITY is a book for our generation—a spectacular display of craftsmanship!

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Purity by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Controversy aside, Jonathan Franzen is an incredible author. With PURITY, he proves to be one of the greatest. In effortless strides, Franzen covers everything from God to politics, the environment to the internet. He takes us to Germany in the 1950s, down to South America, and back again to Germany when the wall came down, all with stops in Colorado and California. He touches upon—trounces upon, really—all the modern zeitgeists, from Frozen to Snowden. At its essence: purity. Beyond, yet including, sexual reference, the definition of pure is called into play in terms of money, acquaintances, and action. And: the differences of loneliness and companionship. No matter your opinion of the author himself, this book speaks of brilliance.

Bound in debt, hidden from wealth and murder, the character Purity—Penelope or Pip these days—Tyler is the driving force in Franzen’s character-developed novel. Her feelings: “the world was as obstinately unfixable as her life was.” She felt her friends slipping away in endless Tweets and Likes, her living situation was questionable, at best, and as for her mother: “she could feel herself starting down the road to be a friendless person like her mother.” Hermit-like, not even revealing her true name, Purity’s mother was hiding many secrets. Yet, it’s amazing what love will hold bound.

“You’re a very good person. You’re just in a bad dream.” The comparisons of Franzen to Dickens are well justified. Through the strength of his characters he illuminates the boundless issues of today, where we find ourselves “trusting in technology instead of taking care of people” in a country that is “…a testament to badass firsts.” A country that is “first in prison population, first in meat consumption, first in operational strategic warheads, first in per capita carbon emissions, first in line for the Rapture.”

In the midst of powerful observation comes tender emotion. As with any of us, the heart of the human spirit persists throughout an environment of difficulties. It’s amazing to watch Franzen dial down from the macrocosms of social and political injustices to pause in moments of personal reflection: “I’m starting to think paradise isn’t eternal contentment. It’s more like there’s something eternal about feeling contented.” We witness Purity transform from a self-doubting young woman to a self-confident, though still fragile, woman—all through decades of worldwide change. I’m in awe at the ease Franzen achieves this.

“Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and aggressive in the having of it?” The regaling of Franzen’s world (matching closely our own) is not without pointed lines at his own success. “You must always be considering how important you are, how newsworthy, and this divides you from yourself and poisons your soul.” Though it is important to note that this is not a distraction, just an interlude, to Franzen’s finest, most beautiful work. With fun, comes soul-searching, deepening questions, such as: “Was there anything crueler, from the person who’d rejected you, than compassionate forbearance?”

There’s a little bit of everything for everyone in PURITY. As the book’s description states, it is a “grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder.” This is a book for our generation, no matter your age. It’s one of the finest examples of craftsmanship you will find.

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Thank you to FSG for sending me a copy of this book to review. I recently featured PURITY in a “Want Wednesday” post with some of the outstanding pre-launch coverage PURITY was receiving.

One of the best books you’ll read this year: Bill Clegg’s DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY

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Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“She read novels, modern ones, about families and secrets and love.” June Reid watched her book-loving daughter die, burned alive. Also: her boyfriend, ex-husband, and daughter’s fiancé. “Funny how disasters can make you see what you could lose.” “The house without sound is now loud with nothing, no one.”

Why do we read such sad, tragic novels? Because “wounds can sing a beguiling song”. In the case of Bill Clegg’s DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY, the “song was irresistible”. In masterful, heart-wrenching prose, the author is able to captivate our sense and definition of family. “No one can see wilting petals from the pews.” Clegg takes us close to each element of human connection, be it: race, social status, age, or gender. He helps us to “remember thinking this is what it feels like to be home. Here. In the space around and between us.”

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Aside from the June’s devastating loss, is the loss suffered by Lydia, the mother of June’s boyfriend. Her story is “about a girl who made the wrong turn in the forest and had no way out.” Her thoughts: “I’ve never been anyone except someone’s housekeeper, daughter, wife, girlfriend, or mother, and in all of those roles I have failed and now I play no role.” In such tragedies, there’s a domino falling effect of pain. Though, in tragedy, there is the reverse stacking effect of support: “Thank God she has someone to look out for her. Thank God any of us do.”

Clegg takes us coast-to-coast, past to present, looking at and analyzing the power of connectedness and of the human spirit. Though trials face us all, poor to rich, white to black, gay and straight, we all have something within ourselves that’s a puzzle piece longing to be fit together. DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY is a triumph in solving these questions, not in complexity, but in barebones, vulnerable storytelling. “This was not lonely or angry or lusty or grieving. This was human.”

“The world’s magic sneaks up on your in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned.” Don’t expect to leave this book dry eyed. “Grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.” The agent-turned-author carefully constructs his novel to use both first person and third person perspectives of a wide range of affected characters: neighbors, lovers, wedding planners, and hotel workers. As each witness speaks, peeling away the layers of their story, we sit mesmerized by its trueness. “Rough as life can be, I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part.”

No doubt, DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY is one of the best novels you’ll read this year. It is a triumphant entry for Bill Clegg, easily putting him among the highest ranks of authors, making this book worthy of its Man Booker list.

You may wonder about the North American cover of this book: orange, faded, beat up. Even the inside binding has purposefully portrayed faded white spots on solid green backing. Not to spoil much for you, but Lolly kept journals in orange notebooks. June found and read these, “To be given a glimpse now was a bitter miracle, a ghostly caress that left more regret than solace.”

Clegg has worked on this novel for over a decade, yet I can’t help but draw comparisons to the Christmas morning house fire, in a similar area of Connecticut featured in this story, where a mother lost her parents and three children. Here’s the New York Times coverage: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/26/nyr…

Do yourself a favor, read DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY. And once you’ve defined who your family is—give them a hug, hold them tight. Cherish them.