Best of the Fest 

Scene reviewers pick their favorite out-of-towners appearing at the Southern Festival of Books

Scene reviewers pick their favorite out-of-towners appearing at the Southern Festival of Books.

LISA ALTHER In her first nonfiction book, Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree, the best-selling author of Kinflicks and other novels searches her own ancestry. Alther, who grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., is split: her mother is from New York, her father from Virginia. So is she herself Southern or Yankee? And what genes, exactly, lurk in her blood roots? Alther’s grandmother parades a tidewater heritage while avoiding her piedmont relatives. Alther is suspicious: could the family be tainted with Melungeon blood? Melungeons—dark-skinned people of mixed ancestry with a reputation for an evil eye and sneaky behavior—live mostly in the backwoods of East Tennessee. Who are they, genetically? Alther tries to sort out the theories. Her research and travels are frustrating and inconclusive until modern DNA techniques supply at least some answers. And the quest demonstrates how genetically diverse the Southeast is and has been since Columbus, if not before. Alther reads Saturday, 4-5 p.m., in the House Chambers. —RALPH BOWDEN

DANIEL ANDERSON Poets often talk about their poems as gifts. The metaphor refers to the care they take in the crafting. You’d be hard-pressed to find a contemporary poet more meticulous in his craft than Daniel Anderson. His first book, January Rain, won the prestigious Roerich Prize, and his second, Drunk in Sunlight, has just been released. It’s no surprise to learn that Anderson edited The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov. Indeed, it’s impossible not to think of Nemerov when reading Anderson, and not just for the supreme attention he pays to formal elements like meter and rhyme. (Consider these lines: “A world, though not entirely redeemed, / Somewhat less foul, less ruined than it seemed.”) He’s also able, through exquisite phrasing and word choice, to match image to emotion: “By subtle green degrees / They shed that bullion luster of the sun / Until the finches ricochet / Like flints among the drowsing flower heads.” Anderson reads Saturday, 3:30-4:30 p.m., in the Capitol Library. —PABLO TANGUAY

RICK BRAGG Former New York Times journalist and 1996 Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg used the advance from his memoir, All Over But the Shoutin’, to buy his mother a house, the first house she ever owned. Bragg has drawn heavily from his Alabama roots, frequently writing about his family: Shoutin’ is a story of his mother and the way she shielded her three sons from the tornado that was their alcoholic father; Ava’s Man tells the story of her Appalachian childhood. As a Times correspondent stationed in Atlanta, Bragg wrote extensively about Southern poverty and covered events like the Baton Rouge serial killers, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Jonesboro murders and the Elian Gonzalez debacle. In 2004, he wrote I Am a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, about the 19-year-old Army soldier captured in Iraq and rescued by U.S. special forces. Bragg will read from a work in progress on Friday, noon-1 p.m., in the War Memorial Auditorium. —CLAIRE SUDDATH

SONNY BREWER Founder of the famed Over the Transom Bookstore in artistically adventurous Fairhope, Ala., Sonny Brewer is both a writer and a promoter of notable writing by others. He’s written two critically acclaimed novels—the first, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, is in film production—and he publishes an annual anthology of deserving Southern authors: Tales from the Blue Moon Café. His most recent book is a novel based on real events: Cormac: The Tale of a Dog Gone Missing is an engaging tale of Brewer’s golden retriever, which disappeared from Fairhope and ultimately turned up at a rescue home in Danbury, Conn. Brewer, who says he “mainly told the truth” in writing this book, traces Cormac’s twisting path and describes his own frantic search to find the dog. But what Brewer’s really writing about are the people he meets along the way, and the story becomes a poignant look at the goodness and sometimes appalling callousness of human nature. Brewer will participate in a panel discussion, “What’s Next for the Short Story?” (with Quinn Dalton, Erika Schickel, Daniel Wallace and Kevin Watson), Friday, 4-5:30 p.m., in the House Chambers. He will also read from Cormac: The Tale of a Dog Gone Missing, Saturday, 2-3 p.m., in Room 30. —WAYNE CHRISTESON

MARK CHILDRESS One Mississippi, by Mark Childress, is set in a high school outside Jackson in the early ’70s, when homosexuality was more hidden and racism more open than they are now. He reveals the overlapping story threads through the eyes of 16-year-old Tim, who has just moved, protesting, from Indiana. A basically good kid, Tim deals with normal problems: hormones, family dysfunction, accidents, bullies, the absurdity of religion and the barely suppressed insanity of practically everybody—all the stuff of good comedy. But he becomes entangled, first through guilt and then passion, with a gorgeous black girl after an accident for which Tim and his one good friend, a boy who is weirder and wilder than he, are partly responsible. Grim undercurrents rise through the hilarity and crest to an ending of prophetic violence. Childress, who also wrote Crazy in Alabama, reads Sunday, 1-2 p.m., in Room 16. —RALPH BOWDEN

SHANNON HALE Known for her young adult novels (including best seller and Newbery Award winner The Princess Academy), Shannon Hale doesn’t disappoint with her latest, Book of a Thousand Days, about a young noblewoman imprisoned in a tower with her devoted maid after refusing to marry a man she doesn’t love. This year Hale plunges into adult fiction, as well, with the entertaining—amusing and diverting, you might say—Austenland. This light novel follows the adventures of 32-year-old Jane Hayes as she attempts to overcome her fixation with Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy (well, who didn’t love Colin Firth in that role?) at an English resort where guests indulge in Regency-era role playing. Jane alternately enjoys it (“she was able to flay Mr. Nobley verbally at dinner”) and loathes it (“Her dress hung on her shoulders like a potato sack, her bonnet felt like vise…”). In addition to intrigue and romance, Hale weaves references to Austen’s oeuvre throughout. Jane becomes taken with two men—one in costume, one not—and wonders what it might really “mean to fall in love in Austenland.” She reads from Book of a Thousand Days on Friday, 2:30-3:30 p.m., in Senate Chambers. She discusses Austenland on Saturday, noon-1 p.m., in Room 12. —MICHELLE JONES

ROBERT KURSON Stories about living life on the edge have been a literary staple since the time of Homer. Readers today turn for inspiration not to mythical heroes but to ordinary people who achieve heroic goals. Robert Kurson first navigated these waters in the best-selling Shadow Divers, about men testing themselves in the depths of the sea. Now, with Crashing Through: a True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See, Kurson explores what happens when a man pushes the ultimate envelope: his own mind. Crashing Through is the story of Mike May, blind since age 3, who unexpectedly reclaims his vision in adulthood. His journey into the sighted world is as full of joy, despair, heroism and inspiration as any Greek epic. Kurson appears in the House Chambers on Saturday, 11 a.m.-noon. —CHRIS SCOTT

MICHAEL LARGO Lucille Ball was anesthetized for an operation and never woke up. Benito Mussolini was shot in the heart and hung upside down on meat hooks. According to the coroner’s declared time of death and a Boston radio station’s playlist, poet Anne Sexton was probably listening to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” as she committed suicide by running her 1969 Cougar in a closed garage. The original Lassie lived to be 19, and Flipper died of a heart attack at 14. These facts can be found in author Michael Largo’s encyclopedia of famous and infamous deaths, The Portable Obituary: How the Famous, Rich and Powerful Really Died, a book that catalogs hundreds of stories about the final days of celebrities. Entries run from the iconic (Elvis Presley didn’t die on the toilet, but face down on a shag carpet a few feet from the bathroom, where he had been sitting, naked, with a bad case of constipation) to the obscure (lottery winner Philip Alan Kitchen consumed nothing but beer and whiskey for six weeks and died on his couch). Largo’s obituary list is so comprehensive, readers will find themselves relaying grotesque details to friends and family for weeks. Largo appears Friday at the Old Supreme Court Room, noon-1 p.m. —CLAIRE SUDDATH

SCOTT MUSKIN First-time novelist Scott Muskin has been selected the inaugural winner of the Parthenon Prize for Fiction. The new national prize was established by John Spence, a Nashville banker, to recognize and encourage the writing of fine fiction. The winner receives $8,000 and a publishing contract with Magellan Press, a division of Cold Tree Press. Muskin’s novel, The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Momma’s Boy and Scholar, is the story of a young man coming to terms with himself, his failing marriage and his schizophrenic brother. Meyerson resembles, in part, Ignatius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces—funny and flawed but always optimistic. Nashville author Tony Earley, the final judge for the contest, describes The Annunciations as “a vibrant, unruly stew of a book.” (In addition to Earley, contest director Kelly Falzone, a Nashville poet, assembled a large group of local volunteers to read and screen 350 manuscript submissions.) The contest promises to become one of the nation’s premier prizes in years to come. Muskin will appear with Falzone and publishing executives to discuss the new prize and read from his novel on Sunday, 3:30-4:30 p.m., in the Old Supreme Court Room. —WAYNE CHRISTESON

ANN PACKER An author whose short stories have appeared in esteemed literary publications like The New Yorker and Ploughshares, Ann Packer made a strong entrance with her first novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. It debuted at No. 9 on The New York Times best-seller list and was the inaugural choice for Good Morning America’s “Read This!” book club. Packer’s latest, Songs Without Words, is garnering its own big press, with reviews in major newspapers and women’s magazines like Elle and Good Housekeeping. When describing her work, critics use adjectives like “provocative,” “moving” and “multilayered.” Characters drive Songs Without Words, the story of a friendship between two women who are best friends since childhood. Set in Northern California and told through the viewpoints of five different characters, the book explores the emotions and intricacies of family, love and relationships. Packer reads Saturday in the House Chambers, noon-1 p.m. —LACEY GALBRAITH

CURIOUS AND COURAGEOUS: TEEN PROTAGONISTS FACE LIFE HEAD-ON This panel on young adult fiction features a diverse group of writers. With last year’s Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, Kirsten Miller created a heroine that Vanity Fair called “the next literary idol of the tween-to-infinity set.” The supremely confident Kiki leads her team of “Irregulars” on a New York City adventure that owes something to both Alice in Wonderland and The X-Files. There’s a new installment of Kiki’s adventures with this fall’s release of The Empress’s Tomb. Kelly Bingham offers a very different sort of heroine in Jane Arrowood, the 15-year-old protagonist of her free-verse novel, Shark Girl. The book follows Jane’s struggle to cope after being attacked and severely injured by a shark. Lauren Myracle focuses on female friendship in her slew of novels for the high school set, from 2003’s Kissing Kate, which deals with confused budding sexuality, to her trio of books written entirely in text messages. The latest in that series, l8r, g8r, published last spring, includes “baby chicks, car chases and a bad case of prom vomit.” Margaret McMullan’s How I Found the Strong is a serious historical novel for kids. Set in Mississippi during the Civil War, it tells the story of a 10-year-old boy eager to join his elders in the fight but bewildered by the upheaval of wartime. Saturday’s panel takes place in Sheraton Suite 5, 9-11 a.m. —MARIA BROWNING

THE LANDSCAPE WITHIN: TWO POETS DEFINE THE INDEFINABLE Brian Barker and Blas Falconer are two young poets who have enjoyed critical praise for their first collections, which examine masculine identity and coming-of-age from very different perspectives. Falconer is gay and of Puerto Rican descent. The technically sophisticated poems in his book, A Question of Gravity and Light, are characterized by the edgy, clear-eyed observations of an outsider. Harsh, even violent, images coexist in Falconer’s work with a keen sense of desire for love and human connection. Barker, a straight white Southerner, writes less formal poetry that’s rich in regional reference. His collection, The Animal Gospels, uses lavish nature imagery to explore a wide range of human experience, from the unspeakable cruelties of Southern history to a gentle father’s love. Barker and Falconer read Saturday in the Capitol Library, noon-1 p.m. —MARIA BROWNING

NEW ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE: FOODWAYS EDITION This panel discussion features legendary historians and food writers: John T. Edge, Charles Reagan Wilson, Roy Blount Jr., Martha Stamps and Nashville’s own John Egerton. First published in 1989, the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture was celebrated as a comprehensive, 1,634-page reference on all things Southern. An exhaustive collection of scholarly articles, essays, illustrations and brief topical entries, the initial Encyclopedia was groundbreaking in its categorical chronicling of the South’s culture and history. In its newly revised format, the Encyclopedia is not only bigger, with 20 percent more material, but broader: in addition to its takes on music, religion, race and politics, two new topics—foodways and folk art—have been added. There are 24 subjects in all, and for the first time each one is being published as an individual volume. For the Foodways edition, there are 149 articles, each a reflection on everything from the quirky (MoonPies) to the historical (why Southerners eat what they eat) to the geographical (Memphis’ barbecue vs. Nashville’s hot chicken). The panel convenes Sunday in the War Memorial Auditorium, 2-3 p.m. Roy Blount Jr. reads from Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South on Saturday, 3-4 p.m., in the House Chambers. —LACEY GALBRAITH

NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH 2007 The 22nd volume of this anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, contains 18 stories that probe what it feels like, sounds like and really means to live in the South. Stories From the South 2007 includes literary veterans James Lee Burke and Rick Bass, as well as less familiar names such as Moira Crone, a Louisiana State University professor whose novella, “The Ice Garden,” explores a family’s experience of mental illness during a time when such problems were shameful secrets. Not all the stories are serious, however. A woman in George Singleton’s story, “Which Rocks We Choose,” keeps a scrapbook of used moist towelettes “to remember the nice restaurants we’ve been to.” There is something comforting about these stories, something slow and romantic that makes you want to pour yourself a glass of bourbon and watch the crops grow. Crone and Singleton will join Daniel Wallace and Cary Holladay for a panel discussion about what it means to be a Southern writer. They speak together on Saturday at the War Memorial Auditorium, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. George Singleton reads alone from his new novel, Work Shirts for Madmen, on Friday in the Old Supreme Court Room, 1-2 p.m. Daniel Wallace appears on another panel—“What’s Next for the Short Story?”—on Friday, 4-5:30 p.m., and reads from his new novel, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Musician, on Saturday, 4-5 p.m., in Room 16. Moira Crone appears in another panel—“Parallel Americas: Short Stories”—on Sunday, noon-1 p.m., in the Senate Chambers. —CLAIRE SUDDATH

RHYTHMS OF THE NATURAL WORLD: THREE POETS A trio of mature Southern voices come together in this session. Bill Brown has been an active member of Nashville’s writing community for decades, as both a teacher and a poet of remarkable power and insight. His poems have appeared in a host of respected journals, including The North American Review and Prairie Schooner. His latest collection, Tatters, explores the complex dynamic between our ideas about the world and our concrete experience of it. Brown’s poems are earthy and imagistic rather than lyrical, and he takes on social issues from war to homelessness in a humane, deft fashion. Connie Green is a prolific writer of fiction for children and young adults, as well as a poet. Her new chapbook, Slow Children Playing, is “subtly and cleverly disrespectful,” according to one reviewer, shaped by a sly Appalachian wit. Her work is firmly rooted in the life and language of East Tennessee, where she has lived most of her life. Rita Sims Quillen is another writer whose poetry is set in an Appalachian milieu, though her sensibility is anything but folksy. The poems in Her Secret Dream are brutally honest explorations of disappointment in life and love, full of grief at the loss of innocence. The poets appear Saturday at the Capitol Library, 2-3:30 p.m. —MARIA BROWNING

SEX AND VIOLENCE: IS TOO MUCH EVER ENOUGH? The female protagonists featured in the novels of Robert Hicks and Tasha Alexander may be 19th century ladies, but don’t call them fragile and weak. In Hicks’ The Widow of the South, a genteel Southern magnolia transforms her plantation home into a makeshift hospital during the Civil War’s bloody Battle of Franklin, while Alexander’s Lady Emily Ashton, heroine of both And Only to Deceive and A Poisoned Season, pursues the man who killed her late husband. The same strong spirit applies to the Nashville homicide lieutenant leading the way in J.T. Ellison’s debut thriller, All the Pretty Girls. She’s on the case of a serial killer—the Southern Strangler—and intrigue and high drama are par for the course. In The Blade Itself, Marcus Sakey’s Chicago hoodlum turned upstanding citizen is a haunted man, confronted by his reckless past: the easy decisions of life passed him by a long time ago. Let’s hope the authors—all seemingly well-adjusted—reveal their inspiration behind these tales of gunshot wounds, lying eyes and sexy, romantic trysts. The panel discussion will be held in Room 10 on Friday, noon-1 p.m. Alexander, Ellison and Sakey will also appear on another panel—“Tips and Insider Secrets on Getting Published”—Saturday, noon-1:30 p.m., in the Old Supreme Court Room. —LACEY GALBRAITH

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