Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta by Marc Wortman

2009 marked the 145th anniversary of the fall of Atlanta during the Civil War, so Mark Wortman's book published last year was a timely look at this fascinating chapter (some would say dark chapter) in Georgia's history. Wortman has a journalist's flair for keen insight and detail, and above all he tells a good story.

Like most of my interviews, 30 minutes proved all too short to ask the author everything I was interested in. Some of the ones I posed to Marc Wortman: How does a guy with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton get interested in Atlanta and the Civil War?

One of the things in his book that most intrigued me was the fact that we now take it for granted that Atlanta is an important city, that it's the Gateway to the New South, the home of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the Atlanta Braves, Home Depot, CNN, Coca-Cola, etc., but the Atlanta he describes wasn't all that big or seemingly all that important as a city. Wortman writes, "Few people in the North or among Union military officials had heard of Atlanta before the outbreak of the rebellion." How then did two great armies find themselves in and around Atlanta in the summer of 1864? And why is Atlanta's fall directly credited with paving the way for Lincoln's re-election the following November?

A book like this is full of fascinating characters, among them of course William Tecumseh Sherman. He obviously plays a very prominent role in this book, and in fact Wortman gives him the very last word. Even today, his name evokes fierce passions and emotions in Georgia. And yet, when he returned to Atlanta in 1879, Wortman writes that "few people in Atlanta remained ill disposed toward Sherman." How is that possible? I'm quite certain that wouldn't be the case now, 145 years later. Last year the Georgia Historical Society had a public program about Sherman, and we received numerous letters and emails from people across Georgia (and the rest of the country) vehemently denouncing him. How was it possible that "few" of the Atlantans who actually lived through Sherman's siege were so forgiving in 1879?

Finally, with the Civil War's 150th anniversary fast approaching, there will be commemorative events across the country. One of the questions I like to pose to writers of Civil War history: What do the events in your book still have to teach us in the 21st century?

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Interrogative Mood

Padgett Powell's first novel, Edisto, immediately established him in the 1980s as one of the most original fiction writers of his generation. His subsequent books have done nothing to diminish his reputation among critics, but as they have become more and more experimental--in the vein of his mentor, Donald Barthleme, he hasn't exactly broadened his readership. With the publication last year of The Interrogative Mood--an entire book composed of nothing but questions--that pattern didn't seem likely to change. But, to his surprise as much as anyone's, the book brought more attention to Powell than anything had since his illustrious debut.

Powell toured the country in support of the book in the Fall of 2009, and came through Atlanta just a week after being profiled in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Interviewing an author about a book like The Interrogative Mood, in which there is no plot, no true characters, not necessarily, as Powell admitted, even a book, was a bit of a daunting task. But simply being in earshot of Powell using the English language is a rewarding experience. In addition to sharing an illustrative passage, Powell talked about how he came to write such an unusual book and the surprising ways readers have responded to it. And, strange at it is, he discussed how this 150-page string of questions actually wound up revealing quite a bit about its author and, as all great fiction does, actually addresses some of life's eternal, well, questions.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Majic of Bloodroot

Amy Greene grew up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. She was born to a family of natural story tellers and a rich tradition of folklore. Bloodroot is her debut novel about a family spanning three generations. It weaves through time and space with a mystical dream like quality starting with the Great Depression and ending in present day.

The novel is told in a myriad of voices, each character more vivid and compelling than the last. Bloodroot is filled with mystery, grace and rich Appalachian folklore. The book is named for the flower whose sap has the power to heal and also to poison.

At the center of the story is the character Myra Lamb whose "haint blue" eyes are said to liberate her family from an old curse. Haint blue is a very special shade of blue that wards of evil spirits. This kind of blue can be found on the doors and windows of many houses in Appalachia.

Amy Greene lives with her husband and her two children in East Tennessee where she grew up. Her novel Bloodroot is published by Knopf and her second novel is in the works. Listen to this episode

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Kingpin and his Cohorts

In 2006 journalist Mara Shalhoup wrote an award-winning series of articles on a shadowy organization calling itself The Black Mafia Family for Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s leading alt-weekly. Publicly, the members of BMF claimed to be operators and employees of a hip-hop record label, but the street cred they boasted of seemed more authentic than the boasts of the myriad studio gangsters filling CD bins with rote claims of murder and debauchery. Indeed, the initiated knew all along that BMF was no imposter; it was an organization that authorities think may have been responsible for the majority of cocaine movement into Atlanta for the first few years of the past decade.

Since then, Shalhoup has been named Editor-in-Chief at Creative Loafing, and has finished a book on the notorious crime family. It’s called BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family, and it’s available now from St. Martin’s Press. Demetrius ‘Big Meech’ Flenory was the unquestioned head of the family, and is the mysterious and charismatic center of the book. It opens with Shalhoup’s first-person account of her interview with Meech and concludes with his inevitable sentencing. The takeaway: crime doesn’t pay, but it certainly yields interesting stories.

The character list of this particular interesting story goes far beyond the boss. Also appearing in roles of various import are bodyguards and relatives of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Charles Barkley, Bobby Brown, rappers Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, Jacob “The Jeweler” Arapo, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, and Franklin’s wayward son-in-law, Tremayne “Kiki” Graham, in addition to the various lieutenants, henchmen and adversaries of BMF.

Shalhoup is a thorough journalist with roots firmly in crime reporting. That’s how this book reads, mostly, as a journalistic account, with the occasional scene-setting flourish. The reader is left to his her own to decide who the real bad guys are, and who may have been just a product of the streets without a real chance to break from the cycle of poverty and crime endemic to inner-city life.

BMF is an important book for our region, because it tells a story about who we are in the South, even if it’s a story we may not all want to acknowledge. Shalhoup’s the perfect person for the job – young, savvy, skeptical, and very much a fan of Atlanta’s particular breed of hip-hop music.

By the way...if you're in the Athens area, Shalhuop will be reading from BMF and signing copies at Cine downtown at 7 PM on Wednesday, March 17. For those of you closer to Atlanta, she'll be doing the same at Borders in Buckhead on Friday, March 19 at 7:30. Get wise and get your copy.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

"A Uniquely American Novel"

"Cover to Cover" generally features books and authors whose lives and/or work is linked in some way to the South. This week's author is a native New Englander, educated in the Midwest, which, after a debut novel set in the Pacific Northwest, is the setting for his second book, a rip-roaring gangster novel with a metaphysical twist, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. We in the South would be wise to claim Thomas Mullen as one of our own, however, if only for the flimsy reason that he currently calls Decatur home. In due time, Mullen seems destined to be a writer of much more than regional acclaim and as such will be a credit to our literary landscape. His smart, stylishly rendered work suggests that Mullen is an authorial alchemist of the first rank.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is on one level an exciting tale of a band of Depression-era bank robbers, led by a pair of brothers, Jason and Whit Fireson, plotting their crimes and trying to keep away from the law. The fact that the brothers repeatedly arise from being shot to death, however, gives the novel the ethereal resonance of a work of mythology. And since Mullen (whose first novel, The Last Town on Earth, was set during the flu epidemic of 1918) so completely captures the era about which he writes, it is also an insightful exploration of life as it was experienced during the Great Depression and in many ways an exploration of the American Dream.

Mullen's energetic work is fueled most of all by a sense of fun, but fun of the highest order, fun like Michael Chabon and The Coen Brothers. And while it's fun to claim him now as a home-state hero, with the kind of reviews Mullen is getting from the Los Angeles Times ("uniquely American") to The Star of Toronto..., he is a writer we're going to have to share with everybody.

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