Archive for May, 2010


Interview: Craig Johnson, author of Junkyard Dogs

May 30, 2010

I’ve been unfortunately slow to come to Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series — unfortunate for me, because Johnson’s books are both charming and exciting, edgily so in the latter case. Johnson’s mix of humor and high-stakes action is apparent from the start of Junkyard Dogs, the sixth novel in the series, which begins with the story of a seventy-two-year-old man who’s been dragged by rope behind an Oldsmobile for two-and-a-quarter miles (he waved at familiar faces along the way) and continues on with some pressing and potentially related questions: How did this happen? Why is there a thumb in a cooler back in junkyard the he owns? And what’s down in the cellar that no one in the family wants anyone to see? As elsewhere in the series, the inhabitants of Durant, Wyoming miss no opportunity for adventure and intrigue and Durant itself provides a rich backdrop against which everything unfolds:  a harsh winter this time out, a battle over real estate development brewing, and romance crossing some clearly drawn class lines.

Throughout it all, Sheriff Longmire’s narration offers both wit and wisdom and some wry, if more laconic, insights on himself, especially as he endures seemingly endless injuries and mishaps. His deputies, Victoria Moretti and Santiago Saizarbitoria, aren’t just supporting cast members but full-fledged characters in their own right and with their own dramas. In this novel, Vic is trying to find her way (and maybe find herself) as she navigates both a personal and professional relationship with her boss within the context of buying a house, and The Basquo (as Santiago is called) struggles to figure out an array of sudden fears, stemming both from new fatherhood and from recent job dangers that cut, literally, too close to home.

Johnson will be reading from Junkyard Dogs at two locations in the Triangle this week: on Friday evening, June 4, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, and then on Saturday morning, June 5, at McIntyre’s Fine Books in Fearrington Village. In advance of those appearances, Johnson took a moment to answer a few questions here.

Art Taylor: A fair amount of critical work has focused on the hard-boiled mystery novel emerging from the classic western — just a hop, skip and a jump from the lone cowboy on the prairie to the loner detective walking his mean streets. In Walt Longmire, you’ve got a character who’s both a cowboy figure and a detective. Do you see him as a continuation of those archetypal figure or as a break in tradition?

Craig Johnson: Probably a break; I’ve never thought of Walt as a “lone-wolf” type of character because to be honest I find those kinds of characters to be sort of boring these days—hasn’t that stuff been done to death? The reason I made Walt a sheriff is because I wanted him to be emblematic of a community and stand for something instead of in opposition to it. Of course with that kind of writing you have to realize that there’s going to be a lot of baggage with both a detective story and a western, but I think that’s where the humor comes in handy for not only pointing up those connections but poking a little fun at them as well. My readers are like cheap dates; they don’t mind being taken advantage of as long as they’re aware of it.
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Review: Graphic Europe

May 24, 2010

I’m pleased to welcome back guest reviewer K.E. Semmel, a fiction writer, translator, and critic who has lived in both the U.S. and Europe and brings a variety of enriched perspectives from those experiences to each area of his work. Here, he turns his attention to an intriguing new collection that caught his eye and offered some new perspectives of its own — literally so, as you’ll see, given the book’s format and presentation.

Graphic Europe: An Alternative Guide to 31 European Cities

Edited by Ziggy Hanaor

Reviewed by K.E. Semmel

Summer Travel

With summer nearly here, it’s time to make your travel plans. If you’re heading to Europe, you can either dust off your overused Fodor’s or your Rick Steves, or you could treat yourself to a new kind of travel guide: Graphic Europe: An Alternative Guide to 31 European Cities.

Your Average Tour Guide, This is Not

The foreword explains: “Graphic Europe is intended to be a beautiful object, but also one that is a usable, functioning travel guide.” By those standards, readers will judge. So you, a judging reader, hold the rough spine in your hands and stare at the cover. There you see 31 city names in 31 different fonts and sizes. Next you flip through the pages slowly, then faster. You see the colors and shapes and images explode before your eyes. Is this a beautiful book? Ja, si, oui, yes—whatever language you choose, this is a gorgeous book. The editor, Ziggy Hanaor, is right about that. But is it usable? If you’d like that answer now, skip down to the subheading below “Places to Eat, Stay, and Drink, etc.” In the interim, I’m going to write about something else.
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Review: 52 Loaves by William Alexander

May 17, 2010

A few weeks back, guest critic Brandon Wicks took a look at one man’s inquiry into the history of moonshine and foray into distilling that elixir himself. This time out, Wicks reviews a book that offers a resonant examination of yet another staple (presuming that whiskey is a staple, of course): William Alexander‘s 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. Alexander won acclaim for for his previous book, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, and the new book promises a similar mix of research and reflection. But does Alexander’s recipe for success work as well in the kitchen as it did in the garden?

52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust

By William Alexander

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Review by Brandon Wicks

Few things in life are as simple — or complex — as bread. The same four essential ingredients, as Julia Child once noted, yield ten thousand different combinations. And, she might have added, ten thousand more ways of ruining them. William Alexander’s new book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, is concerned with just one combination: baking the perfect loaf of pain de campagne, or peasant bread. In his quest for perfection, Alexander bakes a single loaf from scratch each week for a year, ultimately to produce a seed-to-table bread. The project soon becomes a journey which takes him to professional millers and bakers across the U.S., to a communal ferrane in Africa, and finally to a remote abbey in France to bake (and break) bread with Benedictine monks, all to discover the provenance behind the staff of life.

Undoubtedly, the book’s strength lies in its bountiful knowledge. Though ostensibly concerned with a single variety, 52 Loaves gives readers a full education in bread. Read the rest of this entry ?


Quick Excerpts from Anatomy of a Murder

May 14, 2010

I’ve recently been filling in some of the gaps in my reading of classic mysteries and thrillers, and I just finished Robert Traver’s landmark book, Anatomy of a Murder — coming to the book as a fan already of Otto Preminger’s film adaptation. Perhaps it’s that I already knew so much of the plot in advance, or perhaps the book just hasn’t aged well, but despite the novel’s pivotal place in the development of the courtroom drama, I found it long-winded, over-written, boorish in more than a few spots, and ultimately anti-climactic. (How’s that for a recommendation? I gave it three stars on my Goodreads page for “significance” but that’s about all I could muster on its behalf.)

Still, a few paragraphs from the 400+ pages did stick with me, and are worth sharing here for what their commentary on the genre itself:

…more of my fellow writers ought to explore the neglected boneyards of the law and pay far more heed to that busiest of all stages in our society, the public courtroom. For it is there, and only there, where some of the most moving dramas of our times regularly unfold.

That’s from the author’s introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition in 198, and boy, did more than a few writers make good on that advice; think Turow and Grisham and….

True, in our case there was little mystery about what had actually taken place — that was becoming all too brutally apparent. But these facts, however melodramatic, skimmed but the surface, were in themselves merely the tip of the iceberg at sea; it was the ‘inner facts,’ the heart of the cast itself, that teemed with the stuff of real mystery, the deepening tangle of dark impulses and mixed motives of real men and women.

Amen, brother.

And how about this exchange to close things out?

“Let’s sell this plot to the movies,” Maida said, “and all take a trip on the proceeds.”

“A trip to the monkey house,” I said morosely. “Plot these days is anti-intellectual and verboten, the mark of the Philistine, the huckster with a pen. There mustn’t be too much story and that should be fog-bound and shrouded in heavy symbolism, including the phallic, like a sort of convoluted literary charade. Symbolism now carries the day, it’s the one true ladder to literary heaven.”

Traver offered those sentiments up more than a half-century ago. Don’t get me started on how much of the spirit of those attitudes he’s railing against might still remain true in some circles now….

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Interview: Alex Heard, author of The Eyes of Willie McGee

May 11, 2010

In the opening pages of The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, Alex Heard briefly outlines McGee’s story — a black man sentenced to die for allegedly raping a white woman in 1945 Mississippi — and describes the national and international attention that it ultimately received. Suspicions lingered about his guilt. Stories persisted about whether his accuser, Willette Hawkins, had actually been raped at all. Protests ensued because of the inequality of his sentence: In Mississippi, a black man could be given the death penalty for rape, but not a white man. William Faulkner and Albert Einstein issued statements asserting McGee’s innocence, and other celebrities offered their own protests, including “Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Jessica Mitford, Norman Mailer, Richard Wright and Frieda Kahlo.” President Harry Truman, ex-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Supreme Court, and Mississippi’s own governor and chief justice were besieged with letters and appeals. And the case was hotly debated around the globe as well: protests outside a London movie theater, editorials in France… even Anton Chekhov’s widow wrote to the Mississippi Supreme Court that “mankind shall not forgive those guilty of this terrible infamy.”

Perhaps surprisingly, in the wake of so much coverage and controversy, Willie McGee’s trial and execution hasn’t persisted in the cultural consciousness as have other stories and images from the long battle for civil rights and racial justice.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the true story of Willie McGee has never been told until now.

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