MARY SAUMSJane Thistle expected a quiet life when she retired to Tullulah, Ala., after traveling the world with her military husband. But fans of Mary Saums know that life for her now-widowed protagonist hasn’t exactly been quiet. In the ﬁrst novel in the series, Thistle and Twigg, Jane contended with a murderer, inherited a sizable amount of land, and developed an ability to sense spirits. Most important, she met Phoebe Twigg, also a widow, who has lived her entire life in Tullulah and is a force of nature all her own. Now, in Mighty Old Bones (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 298 pp., $23.95), the two retirees encounter purse snatchers, thunderstorms, mysterious bones, handsome men, crazy relatives and a heart-stealing dog. Just what a reader wants from a cozy mystery.
Saums has a sharp eye for the incongruities of small-town life and the heart to celebrate its eccentricities. She especially has a great deal of fun with Phoebe, who can earnestly tell her babysitting charges that they must reject violence and turn the other cheek—and immediately afterward switch on the television: “Let’s see who Mr. Schwarzenegger is going to blow to kingdom come for the good old U. S. of A. tonight.” If she sometimes seems a little provincial, her heart always ends up in the right place: “Jane is my hero, even if she doesn’t go to church. She was raised Church of England over yonder, and I don’t think they believe in attending services, so it’s not her fault.” Plus you’ve got to love a woman who uses a book for target practice because the author has the bad taste to give a villain in North Dakota a Southern accent.
Mary Saums will read from Mighty Old Bones at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 5, at Barnes & Noble Brentwood. —Faye Jones
JONATHAN MILESTen or so years from now, an enterprising Ph.D. candidate will write a dissertation called something like “Assholes and Idiots in First-Person Narrators of the Early 21st Century.” It will concern the decision of so many novelists to feature ﬁrst-person narrators, even though such protagonists are notoriously unreliable, and even though most of those in early 21st century novels are unlikable as well. Is it a measure of the Facebookization of American culture? Or are readers truly drawn to the pseudo-apologetics of a bunch of self-absorbed jerks?
Consider Benny Ford, the down-and-out narrator of Jonathan Miles’ absolutely brilliant debut novel, Dear American Airlines (Houghton Mifﬂin, 192 pp., $22). Benny is a failed poet, failed lover, failed husband and failed father who has been given one last chance to redeem his own sorry life: an invitation to ﬂy from New York to L.A. to attend his gay daughter’s commitment ceremony. Through circumstances largely of his own making, Benny hasn’t seen or talked with her since she was an infant, and he ﬁnds himself in something like a state of wonder at this unexpected opportunity to explain, if not actually make right, the abominations of his past: “I don’t deny I was once an ogre. What’s harder and more painful for me to gauge is if I’m still one.” At his daughter’s wedding, he expects to ﬁnd out.
Then he gets stranded in Chicago, and so begins Dear American Airlines, an elaborate letter of complaint to the corporation whose greed and ineptitude are about to cost Benny his last hope of redemption. But the story he tells while waiting for a ﬂight is less a ﬁrst-person act of self-justiﬁcation than a hilarious, heartbreaking, nuanced exploration of how a self is constructed in the ﬁrst place. Benny Ford isn’t remotely reliable or likable, but it’s impossible not to root for him to get what he wants, even if it isn’t what he deserves: “Damn but I wanted a cigarette. A drink. Another chance. A soul scrubbed clean. A world made better not worse by my footprints upon it.”
Jonathan Miles will read from Dear American Airlines at 7 p.m. Friday, June 6, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. —Margaret Renkl
RICK BRAGGFathers don’t so much have to earn the love of sons as just accept it. That’s the lesson of Rick Bragg’s third book about his family, this one exploring the complicated and volatile relationship he had with his handsome, hard-drinking, self-destructive dad Charles Bragg and now the one he has with his own stepson, who adores him despite Bragg’s imperfections and doubts about his ability to be a parent.
The author’s honesty in this latest biographical dig, The Prince of Frogtown (Random House, 272 pp., $24), is affecting and clearly therapeutic for both Bragg and, depending on who’s turning the pages, the reader. He writes that it was Willie Morris who told him long ago that he would not have clarity or calm until he took to the page about his father.
“In this book I close the circle of family stories [All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man] in which my father occupied only a few pages, but lived between every line,” Bragg writes. “In my ﬁrst book, I tried to honor my mother for raising me in the deprivations he caused. In my second, I built from the mud up the maternal grandfather and folk hero who protected my mother from my father, but died before I was born, leaving us to him. In this last book, I do not rewrite my father, or whitewash him. But over a lifetime I have known a lot of men in prisons, men who will spend their eternity paying for their worst minute on earth. It came when they caught their wife cheating on them and thumbed back the hammer on a gun they bought to shoot rats and snakes, or got cross-eyed drunk in some ﬁsh camp bar and pulled a dime-store knife, just because they imagined a funny look or a suspicious smile. You do not have to forgive such men, ever, that minute. You can lock them away for it, put them to death for it, and spend your eternity cursing their name. It is not all they are.”
That a rough-and-tumble Alabama boy like Bragg, who grew up to chase women, see his share of ﬁstﬁghts and raise a lifetime of hell over many bygone weekends, could fall hopelessly and helplessly in love with a woman and claim “the boy,” as he calls his stepson, as his own is optimistic and touching. And if that weren’t reason enough to read this book, his trademark writing brings life in the South alive, so much so that you can taste it, smell it, feel it and—depending on the reader—even remember it.
Rick Bragg will read from The Prince of Frogtown at 7 p.m. Friday, June 6, at Barnes & Noble Brentwood. —Liz Garrigan
VICTOR WOOTENThere’s not a musician alive, from the rank beginner to the weary professional, who hasn’t wished for a secret shortcut past the agony of practice and the anxiety of performance, straight to the joy of the groove. Victor Wooten, a world-class bass player best known for his association with Béla Fleck, once counted himself among those wishful thinkers. Then he met Michael, a mysterious skateboard-toting disciple of Music-with-a-capital-M. Michael became Wooten’s guide to a world beyond theory and technique, where “Music is real, female, and you can have a relationship with her.” That’s the premise of Wooten’s novel/self-help guide for struggling players, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music (Berkeley Books, 288 pp., $15).
Wooten has been compared to Carlos Castaneda, but his book has more in common with the less pretentious, more lighthearted work of Dan Millman in his Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Like Millman’s Socrates, Michael is an absurd but all-knowing character, alternately charming and exasperating, who occasionally speaks gibberish—“And by the way, if I always tell you the truth, you might start to believe me.” Most of the time, however, Wooten lets Michael express intuitive insights with lively clarity. Here’s Michael explaining that music is a language, and learning it should be as natural as an infant learning to speak: “When you were a baby, you were allowed to jam with the English language. From day one, not only were you allowed to jam, you were encouraged to. And better yet, you didn’t just jam; you jammed with professionals.”
In spite of its fanciful tone, The Music Lesson is methodical as it explains Wooten’s philosophy through shared adventures of master and student, often in the company of colorful side characters. Wooten emphasizes an emotional, instinctive approach to music, but the handful of technical discussions are at least as clear—and more entertaining—than anything in Music Theory for Dummies. This inspired instructional fantasy does have a slight tendency to repeat itself, but that’s just as well. A great riff is always a pleasure to hear again.
Victor Wooten will read from The Music Lesson at 7 p.m. Monday, June 9, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. —Maria Browning
BEN JONESThe journey from humble beginnings to success and happiness in American life is not an uncommon one, but it’s unusual for that journey to pass through stages of incarceration, Hollywood stardom and, ﬁnally, the United States Congress. Yet that’s the story of Ben Jones’ amusing and heartfelt autobiography, Redneck Boy in the Promised Land: The Confessions of “Crazy Cooter” (Harmony, 304 pp., $23.95).
The title says it all: Jones is a redneck to the core. He grew up in a Virginia railroad shack without electricity or running water. His family was marked by alcoholism, suicide and violent death, and Jones himself was victimized by childhood sexual abuse. Somehow, though, he got into the University of North Carolina and reinvented himself as an amateur actor. But he was also a serious alcoholic who engaged in frequent ﬁghts that landed him in jail. And he served as a soldier in the ’60s civil rights movement and got busted for that too.
When Jones ﬁnally achieved sobriety, he took his acting career to Hollywood. There he landed a part as the hillbilly mechanic “Cooter” on the ’80s series The Dukes of Hazzard—“Robin Hood with cars,” he calls the show. “I not only understood this character,” he writes, “I had spent my whole life being this character.” Twenty years later, The Dukes still draws thousands of fans to see Jones and his co-stars at reunion conventions.
Jones retired to Georgia after The Dukes ended and would have lived quietly had politics not come calling. He lived in a solidly Republican congressional district, with a sitting congressman so entrenched that the Democrats didn’t plan to run anyone against him. But Jones entered the race anyway and, after a riot of misadventures, won it. He was reelected for a second term, but two years later his district was redrawn and he was voted out.
Redneck Boy in the Promised Land is funny and warm but also deadly serious when it speaks of issues like alcoholism and poverty. The book is well worth reading, and Ben Jones is the kind of guy you’d like to know.
Ben Jones will read from Redneck Boy in the Promised Land at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 10, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. —Wayne Christeson
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