Book reviews

A City of Ghosts

By Betsy Phillips
CreateSpace, $14.99

To Betsy Phillips, ghosts are all around us.

“Most people don’t notice ghosts for the same reason you don’t notice your own breathing. Air slips in and out of our bodies without us having to think too much about it. Our souls slip in and out of our bodies without us having to think too much about it. All the noise and motion ghosts make, going about their business, once we’re grown, usually fades into the background, forgotten along with the rest of our imaginary friends, ” Phillips writes in her debut collection of short stories, “A City of Ghosts.”

“We don’t notice not because there’s no such thing as ghosts, but because, in a sense, there is nothing but ghosts.”

Phillips makes it her aim to shine a light on all those ghosts we’ve forgotten about, or just never noticed. Or convinced ourselves weren’t real. Except – and this is the delicious twist – they’re not real. And not in the “of course ghosts aren’t real!” way. Every story in the collection is plucked not out of local Nashville lore (the stories are all set in and around the Music City), but out of Phillips’ curious, playful and sometimes macabre imagination.

Each story keys on a person or place or event in Nashville – the flooding this past spring plays a big part in several of the stories – so that it seems just plausible enough to be an authentic piece of Nashville’s haunted history. Were you to tell any of these stories to enough people around a crackling fire on a waning evening in October, the stories would, over time, grow legs and eventually settle down comfortably between the Bell Witch and Capt. Ryman.

Phillips, a popular Nashville blogger and the Marketing and New Media Associate for Vanderbilt University Press, has been writing conversationally for so long that she makes storytelling seem effortless. Her reliable, level-headed narrator isn’t above cracking nervous jokes when in the pursuit of a tale. And yet the prose is never clichéd or hokey. Think less rattling chains and moans and more devil’s doorways and tunnels beneath the city harboring dark secrets.

It is rare to find both beautiful writing and spot-on comedic writing in ghost stories, but Phillips provides so much of both that one has to imagine the ghosts she describes beaming with pride.

The collection is as much a great big love letter to Nashville – and its rural nooks and crannies – as it is a ghost story compilation. Phillips, who spends much of her free time exploring the area surrounding Nashville and writing about it at her blog and at the Nashville Scene’s blog, Pith in the Wind, has a clearly loving curiosity about her adopted hometown.

Readers who are at least somewhat familiar with Nashville names and places will no doubt get more out of the stories than, say, someone who’s never set foot in Davidson County.

You can’t help but feel some pretty intense pain being exorcised in the writing. The ghost of the May 2010 flood looms large in Phillips’ heart, and provides the catalyst for one of the collection’s most heartbreaking stories, “We Are Our Own Ghosts, ” in which an old woman cannot comprehend all the things the flood took from her, including herself.

But I don’t want to mislead by calling the collection a love letter. The business of being haunted isn’t romantic and flowery, after all, no matter how much you love a place. Phillips also introduces us to gruesome events and the horrible people who populate her city of ghosts, and she incorporates plenty of historical injustice to explain why so many souls have so much trouble finding their way off this earth.

Without question, the stories are creepy and unsettling, and you find yourself wondering just how much the author knows about the city – and its invisible friends – that the rest of us don’t.

published Oct. 10, 2010, on The Commercial Appeal‘s books page

Love, actually written down

The love letter is dying.

Okay, okay, I’ll back off and try not to be such an alarmist.

The love letter as we once knew it is dying.

Once upon a time — so the conventional wisdom goes — love letters were penned by heartsick, ink-stained wretches who would enclose their deepest thoughts on parchment paper inside bottles or wax-sealed envelopes, leaving the fate of the letters themselves up to the whims of waves or over-burdened letter carriers. Romances were stoked carefully from a distance, heated by imagination, absence, and longing.

All too often these days, the florid language of courtship gets condensed to 160 characters so it can fit into a text message. The written proof of love and desire gets digitized and deleted. There may always be room under your bed for your shoebox of high-school love letters, but your hard drive only has so much space.

So, how nice it is to see a book that celebrates the love letter as the wholly imperfect and idiosyncratic art form that it is.

Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence From the Edge of Modern Romance is a great little book of completely fictional love letters from some of today’s leading writers. There are sad letters, funny letters, silly letters, creepy letters, and inspiring letters. There are letters to lovers, parents, old friends, non-acquaintances, cross-species crushes, and Santa.

Yes, Santa.

And while some of the letters drip with silliness (take the Bigfoot-to-Santa letter as the most obvious example; author Graham Roumieu mimics as best he can the stilted caveman-speak of Bigfoot: “Ten year now, no phone call, no letter, no hello-visit-down-the-chimney leave Bigfoot only to wonder what going on in Santa head”) and others are just kind of weird and sad (Neil Gaiman’s stalkerish letter from a street-performing statue to his unsuspecting crush springs to mind), there are a few that legitimately moved me to tears with their beauty and sincerity.

A. L. Kennedy’s sober, aching letter about, but not necessarily to, a lost love was the first piece in the anthology to crack my cynical shell (that’s right, there’s a closet romantic inside me that I let out every now and again, but don’t tell anyone). Kennedy’s words are dark but not without hope. They come from a place where the pain bubbles up thick and can’t be soothed, and where the sad little empty rooms we move between once we find ourselves alone are never completely empty because they are filled to the corners with the grit of regret. A place where the movement of the world is automatic and unchanged, and sweeps us along with it, perhaps so we can convince ourselves that we are moving on, making progress, healing.

Kennedy writes:
I have this which you won’t read. Whatever form of words I find, it will make no difference — there’s nothing more you’ll let me say to you. I work in invisible ink, unsay myself in rooms I don’t want and don’t know and I keep on the road to stay ahead of so much silence, to be beside you in this one way, travelling as I know you’re travelling, running.
This idea of loss as integral to the expression of love pops up several other times in the book. There are letters to dead mothers, dead fathers, lovers lost in the flood waters of Katrina, lovers who’ve never even met, and impossible crushes. There is pain here.

But oh so much joy, too, as fleeting and as fickle as it may be. And the best part is it’s all written down for posterity.

Other authors in the collection include Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Ursula K. Le Guin, Audrey Niffenegger, Jeanette Winterson, Douglas Coupland, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and more.

published on The Shelf Life, May 17, 2008

Some of life’s treasures found

I was taking a right from Philadelphia onto Young a couple of years ago when I saw a large white piece of paper skittering across the street. I stopped — stupidly, yes, but there was no traffic! — and leapt out of the car to retrieve the paper. My reward?

This pretty baby right here. Having no idea where he came from or where he was headed, I created a story to explain his existence in this world. So I dubbed him Hershel Orion Bojangles III, Esq. He runs a love den on South Main (where he dances in worn-out shoes) and would like very much to be your congressman some day. Hershel lives on my bookshelf, still sadly unframed (with a smattering of cat-tooth battle scars). But he’s one of my prized possessions.

Found objects can be whatever you want them to be: Little muses planted throughout the landscape, just waiting to be discovered, or windows into other lives that we will never get a chance to live.

That’s the sentiment behind FOUND Magazine, which was created because of a single angry note left on the wrong person’s car. FOUND has put out previous collections of its choicest findings, and this year they’re offering up another tome — “Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities and Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed and Found Items From Around the World” (Simon & Schuster, $16), which includes celebrity and fictionalized contributions.

Chuck Klosterman — one of many well-known names featured in the book — explains the FOUND ethos in his essay, “The Man Who Was Not There”:

“When we think about a specific piece of art, we usually think about one central question: What does it mean? Most of the time, trying to answer that one singular question is the reason we’re thinking about art at all. But this is not the case with found art, or at least it isn’t when I look at it. Whenever I look at the individual things in FOUND Magazine, I find myself asking a different question: Why would this possibly exist? … It is my experience that the things that are lost are not meant to be found by anyone but the loser, which is why they are almost always interesting to people who don’t care.”

Klosterman’s own contribution to “Requiem” is a meditation on the unlikely truthfulness of some of the things that appear in FOUND. Specifically, he takes issue with a typed budget that seemingly belongs to a crackhead (among the items listed on the monthly budget: cell phone — $50, cable — $60, laundry — $30, crack — $600, attorney — $250). Klosterman is incredulous: How can a crackhead tend so meticulously to his fiscal forecast and remain an honest-to-God crackhead? He posits that the budget was created by someone who wants this fictional crackhead to exist. Which is, in some ways, even more interesting than the thought of a budget-making crackhead.

Klosterman concedes, however, that we’ll never really know the story behind the budget-making crackhead. And that, in essence, is the allure of the entire FOUND franchise.

Requiem is as multimedia as a book can get because of its diversity of contributors: It includes basic stories (nonfiction and total fiction) as well as comic strips and photocopies of some found objects themselves. Its contributors seem to have been given carte blanche to tell the stories of their found objects however they see fit, which is interesting because it reveals how some of today’s biggest names in entertainment can be really kind of boring when left to their own devices (Seth Rogen, Andy Samburg, I’m looking at you).

At the same time, it keeps the book interesting; one page can be an essay and the next might be a photo of a piece of notebook paper with a tiny note to God etched frantically in ink.

The diversity of objects found — and the ferocity of the imaginations churning out stories based on these objects — is fascinating in a wholly voyeuristic way. It just might make you revisit the all the random things you find … and leave behind.

published May 24, 2009 on The Commercial Appeal‘s books page

Bacon: A Salty Survey of Everybody’s Favorite Meat

By Heather Lauer
William Morrow, $17

OK, Memphis. Let’s talk turkey. I mean pig.

From the recent over-the-top swine flu panic to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest here, it has been impossible lately to avoid the pig.

And, while swine flu is the kind of event only a true attention hog would relish, all the recent hullabaloo doesn’t seem to have put much of a dent in the popularity of pork.

That probably comes as no surprise to Heather Lauer, blogger at Bacon Unwrapped. For Lauer, the pig is a magical animal and bacon is — without question — the Best Meat Ever. She has devoted her life so completely to bacon worship that she not only runs one of the Web’s premiere sites for bacon-gazing, but she’s put together Bacon: A Salty Survey of Everybody’s Favorite Meat.

Lauer says that she and a significant portion of the population are OWB – obsessed with bacon – and will go to great lengths to invent and perfect and obsessively compile recipes, and even arrange ways to network with other members of Bacon Nation. You can find them gifting and being gifted bacon-shaped bandages, endeavoring to eat more bacon than is healthy or wise, and lobbying their favorite upscale restaurants for greater bacon acceptance. (Lauer says it’s happening, thanks to plenty of OWB chefs stationed around the country’s fine restaurants.)

Bacon begins by tracing the history of bacon as a food product. Pigs were domesticated by the Chinese by 4300 B.C. (not a difficult feat since a pig will pretty much stick around anywhere there is a ready source of food), and eventually made their way to the New World, thanks to trips on Christopher Columbus’ and Hernando de Soto’s ships. As the United States evolved, a Hog Belt emerged, joining together Midwestern states as the top pork producers of the nation. Iowa remains the top pork producer to this day, but Southern states like Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina carry their weight as well.

Over time, pork became so integrated into American culture that pig-related clichés and tropes began to crop up in the language (“high on the hog, ” “bringing home the bacon, ” “when pigs fly,” “going hog wild”). Musicians wrote songs about bacon, and old wives invented homeopathic remedies to everyday problems using bacon (got a wart? wrap it in raw bacon). Bacon became a cultural staple, and to this day, for most people, represents times of family and warmth and good fortune.

But not everything is warm and fuzzy within Bacon Nation. Debates rage over nitrates/nitrites, the proper ways of smoking and curing the meat, crunchy or chewy, and the best ways to prepare bacon (doing battle are your Cast-Iron Skillet Mafia, the Nonstick Skillet Wannabes, the Betty Bakers, the Broilermakers, the Grill Freaks, and the Microwave Jockeys, at whom serious Bacon Nation residents tend to scoff).

And what would a book about indulgent food be without the obligatory Elvis reference? According to Lauer, Elvis’ legendary appetite once kicked his penchant for peanut butter up a notch when he went in search of the Fool’s Gold Loaf — a sandwich consisting of “a single loaf of bread, hollowed out and filled with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of grape jelly and a pound of bacon. Supposedly the King, in a single night, flew from Memphis to Colorado to indulge in the Fool’s Gold Loaf with some friends right there in the Denver airport, flying back to Memphis before sunup.

Bacon is rounded out with more anecdotes of the bacon-obsessed, and Lauer is even kind enough to supply several pretty tasty-sounding — if unusual — recipes (bacon ice cream, anyone?). Because if you can make it to the end of this book without craving just a taste of the savory stuff, then you’re probably the world’s strongest vegetarian.

published May 17, 2009, on The Commercial Appeal‘s books page

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Quirk Books paperback, $13

The second unmentionable was a lady, and much longer dead than her companion. She rushed at Elizabeth, her clawed fingers swaying clumsily about. Elizabeth lifted her skirt, disregarding modesty, and delivered a swift kick to the creature’s head, which exploded in a cloud of brittle skin and bone. She, too, fell and was no more.

Had I been asked to read a “classic” with a passage like that when I was in middle school, chances are I wouldn’t have skipped it and faked my way through the Accelerated Reader quiz (sorry, Mom!). I would have devoured every morsel of it, like an “unmentionable” desires to devour the brains of countryfolk ambling along the dirt roads of rural England.

Seth Grahame-Smith’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has gotten some pretty insane buzz lately, thanks in part to a resurgence in the popularity of zombies these past several years.

But while many zombie-related pop-culture offerings are just opportunistic riders on the wave of a generous zeitgeist (I won’t name the many sub-par zombie movies that have come out in the past three years), this book — shocking, I know — is the real deal. It’s funny and gruesome and, despite being completely absurd, makes absolute sense. And it’s illustrated!

The English countryside has been fighting zombies — victims of a mysterious plague — for 50 years. The undead outbreaks are always worse in warm weather and when the ground is soft. And yet society must go on in spite of what lurks just beyond the tree line. They plan balls, take walks, ride horses, read leisurely, scrimmage card games, flirt, fall in love and passively-aggressively insult people below their social rank. Dealing with the undead is a dangerous nuisance, but the zombies are the slow and stupid kind (not the “28 Days Later, ” rage-infected kind) and, because of that, have not taken over.

Austen’s famous Bennett sisters have been trained in the deadly arts by Chinese monks, and while as a group, they are a formidable zombie-slaying force, it is Elizabeth who stands above them as the deadliest. (Undeadliest?) Yet her mother, a foolish woman obsessed with getting her girls married off, pooh-poohs her fierce skills and sees them as a hindrance to her husband-getting ability.

Mr. Bennett, however, is proud that while his girls may not have excellent breeding, they can fend for themselves when alone on those frightening country roads. Elizabeth, beaming with pride (as much as proper modesty will allow), calls herself the “bride of death,” for she has never met an army of the sorry stricken that she can’t fell. Even blindfolded.

A hilarious comedy of manners unfolds amid a landscape of lurching, moaning undead menaces. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s awkward courtship plays out against a backdrop of death and dismemberment that doesn’t seem to cause anyone to do more than blink and straighten their afternoon clothes. Poor Charlotte Collins is stricken with the mysterious plague and no one but Elizabeth knows, so her degeneration from lovely young lady to drooling, pus-oozing zombie is unfortunate, and unfortunately hilarious.

But there’s plenty to think about in this book as well. It’s easy to rag on the silly social customs of the past, but having them play out during a zombie outbreak throws the absurdity of it all into high contrast. (When Elizabeth, for example, makes the three-mile hike to visit her sister Jane, who has fallen ill while visiting Mr. Bingley, the women of the house titter at her dirty dress, which was soiled when she fought off a set of unmentionables.)

The juxtaposition of the brutal act of slaying zombies — former humans you used to know and love! — set against Austen’s flowery 19th century prose makes for some fine parody work.

published April 19, 2009 on The Commercial Appeal‘s books page

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