Category Archives: Southern Literature

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Stunning Debut Novel


Once again my friend Theresa has steered me to a book I have found fascinating and can recommend wholeheartedly: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt by Andrea Bobotis. The story is set in Bound, South Carolina, in the present-day with narrator Judith Kratt, 75, harkening back to her youth in memory to give readers the complete story.

If I am pressed, I will admit that Southern authors are my favorites. In no particular order, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Carson McCullers, Margaret Mitchell, Alice Walker, and Kate Chopin come quickly to mind. These authors tell stories that remind me of family stories and of the way of telling the story. Rarely straightforward, each story ambles on its way with tidbits thrown in to explain or further enhance the main story. Or sometimes to go completely off track onto another path only to wander back to the original story after all.

Jim Hartz interviewed Eudora Welty for the Today Show on 6 Feb 1976. Welty “describes growing up in a culture that ‘relished’ storytelling.” She further explained that “growing up in Mississippi, in Jackson, is good for any writer because we are a nation of talkers, listeners, and storytellers. And when you live in a small town where you know everybody you get it all.” She continues by saying storytelling is “unique to the South maybe.” She hedges a bit there, but we know Southerners do love telling stories. Of course, other areas of the country and other cultures do too.

Pat Conroy, a South Carolina native, weighed in on Southern storytellers: “Every region has their oddballs, for sure. But in the South, we embrace our oddballs and listen to their tales.”

My heart is still pounding fifteen minutes after finishing the last page of The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt. While I will not include spoilers, it will not surprise readers to learn that long-kept family secrets will come to light as Miss Judith faces the past her family has lived.

Having grown up in a very small town populated with many of my relatives, I am aware of secrets long-held. One of those family secrets came to light last year when I had my DNA analyzed through I discovered my cousin’s daughter who had been adopted at birth sixty years ago in a closed adoption. That discovery resulted a cousins’ family reunion and an opportunity to meet our newly-found cousin. Sadly, her mother has died, but she did get to meet her two aunts and a whole passel of cousins.

This review will include no spoilers. Let me say, though, that I hate Daddy Kratt even though he was long dead when the story opens. He is a thoroughly despicable character and I still feel a visceral hatred and repulsion when I think of him. He is the archetypal bully, villain, and miscreant all rolled into one person. Caring only for himself and what he can amass in money and goods, Daddy Kratt rolled over everyone and everything in his path exactly like a bulldozer without caring about the consequences as long as he got what he wanted.

And Daddy Kratt succeeded—for a time. He owned cotton gins, many acres of land, a fine home, a store, and a gas station. He even pushed Mr. Delour, his own father-in-law into bankruptcy and never looked back. Mr. Delour had mentored Daddy Kratt when Daddy Kratt was a young man working toward amassing his fortune. None of that means a thing to a miscreant, however.

In the present-day, Judith lives in the family home, now in some disrepair as fortunes have fallen long ago, with Olva, a Black woman only slightly older than Judith. The two have been together all their lives. Judith’s brother Quincey, age 14, died from “a fatal gunshot to his person in the early hours of Friday, December 20, 1929.” This news is related to readers at the beginning of the book.

Then Bobotis works backward and forward to complete the story. Judith and Quincey’s younger sister is Rosemarie, named for their mother, also Rosemarie. Other important characters include Dee, Rosemarie’s only sibling, Charlie who works at the store and repairs all things including mechanical ones, Marcus, and Amaryllis. A few other townspeople enter the story as well.

Bobotis writes with a delicate use of the language. Olva, holding a shotgun on a nasty white man from Bound, says, “I will tell you a thing or two about tension. I will tell you that we did not create it. You did. You merely have not felt it until now. Understand this—for me, for Marcus—for [Amaryllis], tension lives under the surface of everything. We feel the itch of it under our skin. But we sill rise from that tension. Agitation is what sheds the snake of its skin, what shucks the moth of its cocoon.”

One cannot read those lines and not feel the passion. To whom is she referring when she uses we?

Near the end of the book, Miss Judith Kratt asks Marcus to take her to her lawyer’s office. What Judith takes in “an old, distinguished piece of Daddy Kratt’s luggage,” will surprise readers. The suitcase contained the following items: “pickled okra (one jar). Wray Little’s rum apple butter (one jar, already opened), a sleeve of saltines, four butterscotch candies, my social security card, and an antique brass teacher’s bell, which I thought would be useful in an emergency.”

Andrea Bobotis has received a number of awards for her debut novel, The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt. After reading it, I can see why it has received such acclaim. Discover more about Bobotis at her Web site:

The Book Whisperer Reviews Visible Empire


Many novels are based on real events. Hannah Pittard has taken the tragedy of a plane crash, 3 June 1962, in Paris that killed 103 of “Atlanta’s wealthiest residents” and created Visible Empire, a novel. The plane crashed on takeoff. The Atlanta residents on board were art patrons who had been on a month-long tour of art galleries across Europe. They had returned to Paris and following an evening of partying they were on their way home the next day. In all 130 people died in the crash which was caused by a mechanical failure. At the time, it was the worst single airplane crash recorded.

For The Atlanta Journal Constitution, on 5 June 2018, Mandi Albright wrote “Atlanta Arts Patrons Die in 1962 Paris Plane Crash,” an article looking back on the terrible accident. Read the full article at this link:–politics/ajc-archives-atlanta-arts-patrons-die-1962-paris-plane-crash/7h5pQ6sYWOvxrkkOGph7OM/.

Pittard has published four other novels. Visible Empire has received a number of honors including the following: an Amazon Editors’ Pick for Summer Fiction, an IndieNext List Pick, a New York Times “New and Noteworthy” Selection, an O Magazine Book of Summer, and one of Southern Living‘s Best New Books of Summer. Her previous novels also received high praise and awards. Discover more about Pittard and her work on her Web site: Currently, she leads the MFA program in creative writing at the U of KY.

Visible Empire employs the use of different voices to tell the story. This ploy annoys some readers, but I like the added perspective it gives readers. Instead of an omniscient narrator or a single narrator, Pittard gives readers five characters who tell the story of the crash’s impact and the deaths of those on board on those left behind in Atlanta.

The book opens with Robert’s story. Immediately, I found Robert to be an unsympathetic character. He learns his in-laws have died in the Paris crash. His mind, however, is on the death of another passenger on board, a young woman named Rita. Rita, a journalist, works with Robert and they have been having an affair for over a year. Meanwhile, Robert’s wife Lily is seven months into what is becoming a difficult pregnancy. Robert is also in debt and drinking heavily. So what does Robert do—and this information is no spoiler since it occurs in the first chapter—but leave his pregnant, vulnerable wife on the day she learns her parents have died in Paris.

Other narrators include Piedmont Dobbs, a young Black man; Lily, Robert’s wife; Anastasia, a grifter; Coleman, a wealthy n’er-do-well and drug addict; and Skylar, Anastasia’s newly reunited twin brother. Additionally, short chapters of one or two pages feature Ivan and Lulu, Atlanta’s mayor and his wife. Those short chapters are interspersed throughout the book.

All of these characters find themselves interwoven into a story beyond their control. Piedmont, Anastasia, and Skylar are unknown to the other characters until the accident. Their addition to the story completes the narrative. Without them, Visible Empire would be the story of wealth and privilege as well as loss. Yet, 1962 is a critical time in Atlanta and the US because of integration and racial unrest.

All of the narrators have stories to tell. Their stories all relate in one way or another to the plane crash because without it, all of these people would not come together. I found Visible Empire compelling enough to complete in a single sitting.

The Book Whisperer Recommends a MUST Read: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek


The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson troubled me a great deal, but, at the same time, it brought hope. Cussy Mary Carter, 19, becomes a part of the WPA’s Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project in 1936, over her pa’s objections. Richardson’s story depicts the hardships folks faced living in the hills of KY during the heart of the Great Depression.

Babies born sickly died almost without taking a breath; those who did live clung to life precariously, continuously starved. Whole families perished from starvation. If the people managed to keep body and soul together, illnesses and accidents occurred. Hill remedies were sometimes more harmful than the illness or accident itself.  Honey was a much-prized commodity, used not only for cooking or on biscuits, but also put onto wounds to help with healing. Mothers sometimes rubbed chicken guts onto babies’ gums when they were teething to ease the pain.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek tackles all those issues of starvation, lack of opportunity, and prejudice. There is also the issue of the coal mine owners’ treatment of the miners and the miners’ attempts to organize a union, leading to deaths among those miners brave enough to risk their lives to help themselves and their brother miners to a better life.  I read the book in two days because I had to know what happened.

Cussy Mary can read and write, but she is starved to know more. Earning $28 monthly as a Pack Horse Librarian, Cussy Mary can help her and her pa, a coal miner, survive. But young women are supposed to marry, have children, and take care of a home. Cussy Mary rejects those notions despite her father’s wish that she marry.

Cussy Mary is named for Cussy, France, her great-grandfather’s birthplace. When she was born, Doc gave Cussy Mary the name Bluet because of the color of her skin. Later, readers discover Cussy Mary suffers from a hereditary disorder called congenital methemoglobinemia which “is due to an enzyme deficiency, leading to higher-than-normal levels of methemoglobin in the blood – a form of hemoglobin—that overwhelms the normal hemoglobin, which reduces oxygen capacity. Less oxygen in the blood makes it a chocolate-brown color instead of red, causing the skin to appear blue instead of white.”

As a result of this hereditary disorder, to the folks of Troublesome Creek, Cussy Mary is Colored and therefore to be feared, for touching her could turn the one who touches her blue as well. The people are ignorant and prejudiced. Fortunately, not all of the people on Cussy Mary’s book route fear her; in fact, they look forward to her weekly visits because they too are starved for books.

Eula Foster and Harriet Hardin, the two librarians in the town who run the Pack Horse Library Project, are two of the most vicious people Cussy Mary encounters. All of the pack librarians must pick up and return their books and magazines to the office Foster and Hardin run. Once a month, the pack librarians also help uncrate the new shipment of materials and box up the previous shipment for return.

In addition to the general prejudice Cussy Mary experiences, Preacher Vester Frazier presents a constant fear. Though he calls himself a preacher, he is nothing more than a lecherous, drunken lout. He wishes to find Cussy Mary alone on one of her trails and rape her in the misguided belief that making her pregnant with his child will cure her of her blueness. Or perhaps he has no misguided beliefs, but is simply a predator, a more likely assumption.

Richardson gives readers a clear picture of life for the people of the hills. Readers learn to look forward to Cussy Mary’s visits to the individuals on the route as much as Cussy Mary herself. Cussy Mary’s self-effacing ways lead people to trust her. Even moonshiner Devil John, who tells Cussy Mary to stop bringing reading materials because his family is behind on chores and his wife is not getting food on the table on time, gives in when Cussy Mary quietly shows him Boys’ Life and a scrapbook she has prepared that has recipes and homemaking hints in it. She convinces Devil John when she shows him “Mrs. Hamilton’s husband also has a dandy tip on picking the best witch sticks in there? Real good diviner tips, sir.” Finally, Devil John concedes that Cussy Mary can bring “the canning and recipe books after planting and harvest. Only that. Only then.

That exchange is one that Richardson must have read about in journals of some of the pack librarians. Here’s an excerpt from Josephine’s Journal: “Despite its problems, and the ongoing shortage of materials, the Pack Horse Library Project was considered a rousing success story. But success sometimes carried with it other problems. For instance, one family complained that their son’s new nightly reading habits meant they had to purchase more lamp oil. Another parent grew irate over the fact that he could not get his children to do their chores because all they wanted to do was sit and read.”

The picture below is from the WPA Pack Horse Library Project:


Richardson’s research into the Pack Horse Librarian Project is evident throughout the book. She takes the history and brings it alive through her characters. Richardson lives in KY. She is “advocate for the prevention of child abuse and domestic violence.” The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is her fourth novel. Published in May 2019, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is already an Oprah’s Buzziest Book Picks for May, an Indie Next Pick, a LibraryReads Pick, and Southern Independent Book Alliance Pick.

At Richardson’s Web site,, readers can learn more about the author and her books. She also has “built a tiny home in the wilds of Kentucky to create a writers’/artists’ residency, named Shy Rabbit.” See her site for the complete information on applying.

From Kirkus Reviews: “A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.” Richardson prefaces The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek with a quotation from T.S. Eliot: “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”

Read more about the Pack Horse Librarian Project at this link:





The Book Whisperer Reviews an OK Story



This spring, I have participated in Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma, a book club sponsored by the Oklahoma Humanities. The book club meets at the Museum Broken Arrow in the Rose District. The books for this series titled The Oklahoma Experience: The Thirties include Will Rogers: His Wife’s Story by Betty Rogers, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Roughneck by Jim Thompson, and The Silver DeSoto by Patty Lou Floyd.

Because of a change in Museum Broken Arrow’s leadership, the interim director chose a series of books that members had read only two years ago. Since I was not in the group until last year, I had not participated in those discussions. The number of people attending the discussions has been severely limited since the people who had just read and discussed the books two years ago did not wish to re-read them so soon. However, those who are attending have found the discussions to be lively and informative.

The books include a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. For some reason, when I began reading The Silver Desoto by Patty Lou Floyd, I thought it was a memoir. That assumption left me a bit confused when Ethel, the woman who always appears to help the family when a death is near, keeps calling the narrator Betty when her name on the book is clearly Patty.

After reading a bit further, I realized Patty Floyd has fictionalized her story by changing the names of people and the town where she grew up. She grew up in Duncan, OK, but she calls the city Dixter in The Silver Desoto.

Floyd tells the story through a series of vignettes. They are not in chronological order either, but mixing the order did not interfere with the reading of the book. The first story opens with Ethel showing up at the door. Eighteen-year-old Betty is ready to graduate from high school and go to college. Nana, her maternal grandmother, is her last near relative still living.

Little Auntie, Betty’s mother’s only sibling, dies when Betty is five. She does not understand what has happened and blames herself for Little Auntie’s death—or disappearance. Betty thinks she has misbehaved once too often and now the punishment is the loss of her beloved Little Auntie. Her mother and grandmother do not do well in telling Betty about death and loss; thus, the little girl is left to figure it out on her own.

Little Auntie’s death is only one of the secrets in the household. Mother has divorced and returned home to live with Betty, much to Nana’s chagrin. Divorced women are restricted in what they can do, were, and say, according to Nana.

Grandfather is the next family member to die, leaving the house of women: Nana, Mother, and Betty. Then Mother develops breast cancer. After Mother’s death, Nana and Betty live in their two bedrooms and the kitchen while Nana keeps the rest of the house locked and unused.

Betty does write about funny moments. She describes town characters. Those who have grown up in small towns will recognize the people in Betty’s stories.

Finding information about Patty Lou Floyd is difficult. She is not listed in the Oklahoma Historical Society’s encyclopedia about Oklahoma. A search on Google yields only where her two books can be purchased, all used bookstores online. On the book jacket, readers learn that Patty Floyd “is a Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Oklahoma and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Tulsa. She is a trustee of Grinnell College in Iowa. She lives and works in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”




The Book Whisperer Discovers a Winner


Often, I must admit, if a book or movie receives a great deal of hype, I am disinclined to read the book or see the movie. I realize this perverseness on my part is irrational and sometimes quite silly. Still, the prejudice exists and persists. Occasionally, I change my mind and read the book or see the movie that I had hitherto disdained. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens fell into that perverse category at first. Then my friend and fellow reader Sue told me she was reading the book and could hardly put it down. Her recommendation piqued my interest. Still, the book had nearly 200 holds on it at the library, so getting it from the library would be difficult.

At the February Beyond the Book meeting at the South Broken Arrow Library, though, I discovered, our leader had chosen Where the Crawdads Sing as our March book for the club and she had pulled enough copies for our small group. Two of our members had already read the book and both proclaimed it worthy of reading, so two more readers whose opinion I respect recommended Where the Crawdads Sing. Of course, at this point, I have the book in hand and I want to read it for the discussion in March.

I did some research on Delia Owens and discovered “her close relationships with girlfriends have stayed with her all her life.” In fact, Owens dedicates Where the Crawdads Sing to three friends she’s known since second grade. Having grown up in a small town myself and having close relationships with longtime friends from elementary and high school, I could identify with Owens. Thus, I have another reason to read Where the Crawdads Sing.

Previously, Owens has written nonfiction; she published Secrets of the Savanna, Eye of the Elephant, and Cry of the Kalahari. These books reflect her life in Africa completing scientific research on lions and elephants. Where the Crawdads Sing represents her first foray into fiction.

Where the Crawdads Sing opens with Kya watching her mother walk away from the shack where the family lives in the marshy wilds of South Carolina. At ten, Kya believes first that her mother will turn and wave before she is out of sight because she must be just going to the store and second that her mother will return. Neither of those things happens, though. Kya realizes that her mother is wearing her favorite dress shoes and is carrying a small bag, so Kya understands her mother is not coming back even though Kya continues to hope.

Kya’s father is an abusive drunk who is often absent for days at a time, only to return in a drunken rage and beat Kya’s mother and any of the children who fail to stay out of his way. When the older children realize their mother has gone for good, they slowly drift away, leaving Jodie, seven years older than Kya, the youngest, and their drunken father. Then one day, Jodie, too, disappears. Kya is completely alone for much of the time since her father certainly does not change his ways.

Kya washes the clothes and keeps the shack neat in hopes of staving off her father’s rage. She cooks what she can, mostly grits. Sometimes she eats saltine crackers covered with lard, her only bits of food. Her father will leave a few dollars for food. Kya does not know how to count or to read. She relies on the cashier at the grocery store to give her the correct change. Little does Kya know that cashier often slips extra change into Kya’s hand and reimburses the cash register from her own pocket.

After a time, Kya realizes she has not seen her father in some time. She has no money and little food left. She decides to dig mussels and sell them to Jumpin’, the Black man who runs a small marina and convenience store. She can take her dad’s boat to the marina. Jumpin’ is a kind man and he helps Kya as much as he can. He even buys badly smoked fish from Kya to help her. He tells Mabel, his wife, about Kya. Jumpin’ and Mabel do all they can to help Kya survive. Mabel gives her clothes and warm hugs. Jumpin’ buys the mussels and smoked fish as often as he can.

No one else in Barkley Cove offers to help Kya in the least. Jumpin’ and Mabel’s kindnesses are the only ones she can count on.

The townspeople of Barkley Cove call Kya the Marsh Girl. Young teenagers go into the marsh looking for her shack. They tell stories of her, all untrue. Only one person in town, Tate, cares about Kya as a human being. He leaves her a present of a feather and they begin exchanging gifts from the marsh. When Tate leaves Kya a note, she finally stays on the beach when he docks his boat. She tells Tate she cannot read his note.

At that point, Tate, who has been watching Kya for years, tells her he will teach her to read. He gives Kya books, starting simply at first. Kya is bright and catches on quickly. She reads to herself in the shack at night after Tate has left. She has always collected shells and feathers and can draw and paint. Her mother was a talented artist, and Kya has a gift as well.

Soon, Tate is giving Kya books on chemistry and natural history. With each advancement in her reading, Kya becomes more interested in learning about the marsh and its inhabitants. She even becomes brave enough to take her boat to Sea Oaks, ten miles from Barkley Cove and asked the librarian there for The Principles of Organic Chemistry by Geissman, Invertebrate Zoology of the Coastal Marsh by Jones, and Fundamentals of Ecology by Odum.

Kya relies on Tate for companionship and learning. He appears to care for her in the way that no one else has ever done. Then he goes away to college, though promising he will be back to see her often. He breaks his promise and Kya holds a deep grudge because she has come to depend upon his visits. When Chase Andrews, local football hero and bad boy, sights Kya, he determines he will have her. He woos her when she is vulnerable after losing Tate’s company. Chase promises Kya a life with him in a home and with other people.

Readers know that Chase is a player, not to be believed, but Kya is innocent and wants very much to believe he means what he promises. She is also extremely lonely and at fifteen wishes to believe she can be part of a community. When she reads of Chase’s engagement in the local paper, she feels betrayed all over again and becomes angry with herself for allowing herself to be vulnerable.

By this time, though, Kya has been sending, at Tate’s suggestion, her drawings of marsh wildlife, both flora and fauna, to a publisher. Her work has been published in a book and the publisher wants more. The money Kya receives allows her to improve her shack on the inside, but she keeps it the same unpainted boards on the outside. She has a bathroom and lights installed along with a cookstove and refrigerator, but she still keeps the old wood stove because it reminds her of her mother.

Kya has created a life for herself despite being abandoned by her entire family. Reading continues to be a joy for her along with learning more and more about the wildlife around her. Her own drawings help her by bringing in a steady income. After much cajoling, she agrees to meet her editor in Greenville, going by bus to stay for two days in October.

When Kya returns home, she learns Chase has been murdered. Not much later, the sheriff arrests Kya for Chase’s murder in spite of the fact that numerous upstanding citizens have seen her get on the bus and return two days later. Still, Kya is kept in the Barkley Cove jail and feels very much like a caged animal. Her trial is gripping and readers wonder if she will be acquitted or sentenced to death.

In Kya’s corner are Mabel and Jumpin’, Tate, and Jodie, her older brother who has reentered Kya’s life. Kya’s attorney does all he can to help her. Then both attorneys give their closing arguments and the jury has Kya’s life in their hands. What will the jury decide?

Where the Crawdads Sing is a mesmerizing novel. It kept me going, sometimes holding my breath as I waited to see what would happen next. I wanted to warn Kya about Chase and how much trouble he could be! Tate, Jumpin’, and Mabel are Kya’s true friends.

Delia Owens has a robust Web site:

The Book Whisperer Admires An American Marriage


Told through first-person narratives by Roy, Celestial, and Andre, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones stretches readers’ ideas of love, betrayal, truth, and heartbreak. Jones captured my attention immediately beginning with Roy’s narration. The first line is “there are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t. I am a proud member of the first category.”

We quickly learn that Roy has grown up in the small Louisiana town of Eloe. Roy tells us “home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch.” Having grown up in a small Arkansas town only ten miles north of Louisiana, I identify with Roy’s philosophy of leaving home and launching. Roy goes on to say, “I’m not talking bad about Eloe. For one, Eloe may be in Louisiana, not a state brimming with opportunity, but it is located in America, and if you’re going to be black and struggling, the United States is probably the best place to do it.”

Roy explains that he has been lucky; his parents are hardworking and have provided him with a home, clothing, food, and education. He describes his advantages this way: “I had my own bathroom. When I outgrew my shoes, I never waited for new ones. While I have received financial aid, my parents did their part to send me to college.”

Roy describes meeting Celestial when they were both college students. Andre, another of the narrators, in fact, introduces Celestial and Roy. However, the two do not cross paths again until they have both graduated from college and are in NYC. Celestial is in graduate school seeking an art degree; Roy is in NYC on a business trip. Often such meetings feel contrived; this one though is natural. Roy and his fellow business associates happen into a restaurant where Celestial is working as a waitress while she goes to graduate school.

Roy pursues Celestial and persuades her to marry him. They marry and live in Atlanta in the home where Celestial grew up. Her parents have moved to a much larger home. Interestingly enough, Celestial’s father deeds the house to Celestial alone, despite the fact that his daughter is married to Roy. Celestial tells Roy it doesn’t matter because the house is theirs together, not hers alone.

Roy’s job is going well. He encourages Celestial to quit her job and follow her dream of making fancy dolls to sell as art objects: poupées. Roy suggests the name. The two have a lovely home, a loving relationship, and a bright future. What could go wrong?

Readers quickly find that much can go wrong. As much as Roy and Celestial love one another, they also argue and disagree about a number of things. Celestial is mistrustful of Roy. Is her mistrust unfounded? Then Roy is accused of the unthinkable, of raping a stranger, a woman in the same motel where Roy and Celestial are staying when they go to Eloe to visit Roy’s parents.

Andre, the boy next door, also tells his version of the story. He and Celestial have known each other their whole lives; they are like brother and sister. Or are they?

Jones pulls readers into the story by telling it through three characters’ eyes, but also including details from Roy’s early life and his parents as well as Celestial’s early life and her parents. Roy and Celestial come from entirely different backgrounds. Roy has never wanted for anything, but he has not enjoyed the luxury that Celestial’s parents have given her. Andre, too, is like Celestial, a man of privilege.

I could pull many, many lines from the story. The three below give readers an idea of the beauty of the language that Jones conveys:

“My father has this alpha-omega way about him, like he was here before you showed up and he would be sitting in the same recliner after you left.”

“Olive brought me into this world and trained me up to be the man I recognized as myself. But Celestial was the portal to the rest of my life, the shiny door to the next level.”

“But that night in the Piney Woods, I believed that our marriage was a fine-spun tapestry, fragile but fixable. We tore it often and mended it, always with a silken thread, lovely but sure to give way.”

Tayari Jones has published three previous novels: Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. She has also written for Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo. Jones has received praise from a number of sources including Oprah Winfrey who chose An American Marriage as an Oprah Book Club selection in 2018.

Barack Obama wrote of An American Marriage that “one of my favorite parts of summer is deciding what to read when things slow down just a bit, whether it’s on a vacation with family or just a quiet afternoon . . . An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Other reviewers use words like haunting, beautifully written, compelling, and tense.

Learn more about Tayari Jones and her work, visit her Web site:

The Book Whisperer Is Saddened


I began reading The Lauras by Sara Taylor with great anticipation. The story opens with Alex listening from her bedroom to yet another loud and endless argument between the parents. Suddenly, all goes quiet. Then Alex’s mother opens Alex’s bedroom door, and says, “Get up, Alex. Now.” Still dressed for bed, Alex finds her “muddy-soled hiking boots” and jumps into the backseat of the car. Alex’s gender is kept from the readers. I decided Alex is female, but other readers may choose to see the character differently.

Thus begins a journey across Virginia to Florida to California. The Atlanta Journal reviews The Lauras this way: “Taylor’s resplendent prose evokes the emotional journey of making peace with the past, the sanctuary that is driving in a car with the windows down, radio at full blast and the sense of timelessness inherent in days measured only by fuel and miles.” If only that were true.

Taylor certainly is a talented writer. She writes, “The clouds were pink. We were caught on the thin, hungry edge of the morning, before the sun sliced itself open on the horizon and bled out across the sky.” Later, mother and daughter stop and Alex observes that “the sky was white over a whiter beach and even whiter breakers, all tinged a faint blue from the tint of the windshield glass. Out of the dark, foaming ocean a sun was rising, massive and red.” The descriptions evoke the place for the readers with clarity.

Early on, the police stop Ma because Alex’s dad has reported that Ma has taken his daughter. Ma tells the police that she is not married to Alex’s father and that his name is not on the birth certificate; therefore, he has no rights. The police let them go.

Alex’s mother has never shared much of her background with Alex. On this trip, Alex discovers much about her mother that has been unknown. Along the way, Alex also learns about herself. The trip is difficult; the two have little money and Ma must find a job as quickly as possible. In each town, as they move steadily, Ma finds one and sometimes two jobs. She also finds them apartments that are appallingly alike regardless of where they are. The first apartment was “above a little grocery store with a porch and a staircase up to it out back, beside the dumpsters. It was one room with cheap pressboard furniture: a kitchen table with chairs, an awful couch, and a bunk bed; there was a hotplate in a corner and no TV,”

For those who have read Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, the living conditions Alex and Ma encounter on their journey are achingly familiar regardless of what state they enter. Ma’s jobs are as waitress and bartender, all low-paying jobs that require most of her time. Thus, Alex spends a great deal of time alone.

Readers soon learn the Lauras represent a series of girls Ma has met as she moved from foster home to girls’ home to foster home when she was a teenager. Ma tells Alex about the Lauras, a bit at a time, bleeding the stories out as they ride through the country.

Alex finally realizes the places Ma takes her are part of a greater plan as Ma comes to terms with her past, dragging Alex along for the ride.

I did not like the story despite the fact that Taylor writes well and despite the praise The Lauras has received in reviews. The story is full of child abuse, starting with Ma as she is shuttled from one foster home or girls’ home to another and including Alex in the next generation. I find the story difficult to read because of the child abuse.

The New York Journal of Books sums up The Lauras: “This book describes the lifestyles and realities of those at the bottom on the economic pile—those on the run, sleeping in cars and working in motels, who shop at the Salvation Army and drink endless coffee refills at greasy roadside diners—with great empathy, giving complexity and dignity to those often ignored or caricatured.” I can agree with that description.

The Lauras is Sara Taylor’s second book; her first is The Shore. Taylor grew up in rural Virginia. She earned a BFA from Randolph College and followed that with an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia where she continues to work toward a Ph.D. in censorship and fiction. She is married and lives in Reading with her husband when she is not in Norwich working on her degree. At her Web site, readers will find links to additional fiction by Taylor:

I received a free copy of The Lauras by Sara Taylor for this review from Blogging for Books:


The Book Whisperer Reviews Living in the Mississippi Delta


Richard Grant, grew up in London, England, writes nonfiction and is a TV host. Apparently, he was born with a wanderlust since he has lived in and written about a wide variety of places including Tucson, AZ and Pluto, MS in the US and has done investigative journalism in a number of foreign countries. Currently, he lives in Jackson, MS. He wrote American Nomads: Travels With Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers and Bullriders. Apparently, the rule of thumb about seven-word titles escaped him. Grant also writes for Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Al Jazeera America, the Telegraph UK, and Aeon among others.

At Grant’s Web site,, read articles about his dog Savannah and her own wanderlust, an interview with Annie Proulx, and other widely varied topics.

American Nomads, a ninety-minute documentary film which Grant wrote and hosted is based on his book. The documentary takes viewers on a 6,000-mile journey through the American Southwest looking for modern-day nomads. Grant wanted to know why they chose to wander instead of settling down in one place. The cross section of those wanderers includes rodeo cowboys, punk kids, a Wall Street dropout, and retirees driving their homes around.

His most recent book is Dispatches from Pluto, recommended to me by my childhood friend Marcia Miller Johnston. We grew up in the Mississippi Delta, but on the Arkansas side. Our small town was bound on one end by the railroad track and the other by Bayou Bartholomew. My mother always said Bayou Bartholomew was “the longest and crookedest bayou in the world.” I have never looked that up because who am I to question my mother? While I digress, I relate this information to show my own familiarity with the Delta.

Grant and Mariah, his significant other whom he met in Tucson, were living in “a tiny Manhattan apartment we couldn’t afford and where “my girlfriend was on edge and my dog was depressed.” Grant decided that if he lived where “no state has a more beautiful name—Miss and Sis are sipping on something sippy, and it’s probably a sweet tea or an iced bourbon drink—but no state is more synonymous in the rest of the country with racism, ignorance, and cultural backwardness” he could “dissolve these clumsy old stereotypes, and illustrate my conviction that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America.”

Grant had met Martha Foose, author of the cookbook Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, in Oxford, MS, few years earlier. Here’s Marth’s Web site: Martha repeatedly invited Grant to visit her home in the Delta insisting the Delta is “a separate place from the rest of Mississippi, with its own unique history and culture, although nowhere on earth was more deeply Southern.” Grant drove from NYC to meet Martha in Greenwood, MS. Martha guides Grant around to towns like Pluto, Tchula, and Milestone, places so small they hardly boast any population at all, but Martha is familiar with them all and with many of the inhabitants.


Martha talks just like my Aunt Dot used to talk, starting mid-story and mentioning names unknown to the listener, but essential, nonetheless, to the story itself. Here’s a sampling as Grant and Martha drove past a “small scruffy shack to an even smaller scruffier shack”:

“This is Miss Pat’s,” she said. “Her real name is Willie Ruth. She used to have a sign saying ‘Pat’s Kitchen,’ but it was making too much business, so she took it down. She does a plate lunch with fried chicken, three vegetables, cornbread, sweet tea and dessert, all for six bucks. I ate here every day when I was pregnant.”

Martha shows Grant her father’s home, an old plantation with “a seven-columned porch bathed in honeyed light, flower gardens and vegetable beds, the misty apricot dawn filtering through the fairytale trees.” At least that’s the picture Grant shows Mariah. And it is true to the place, minus the armadillos, snakes, wild hogs, and mosquitoes. Mariah agrees to go with Grant to Mississippi, so Grant starts looking for a mortgage, but without much luck. Finally, Martha’s father says he will lend Grant the money himself. When they meet with Butch Gary, a banker in Yazoo City, Gary surprises Grant by agreeing to loan Grant the money on the condition that “y’all have to come over to dinner with me and my wife, and tell us some stories about these places you’ve been. We don’t get out of Yazoo County as much as we should, but we’re real interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

Just like that, Grant has bought a plantation in Mississippi and his plan for writing about the experience is underway. Grant writes about all he and Mariah and even Savannah must learn about living in the Delta with their nearest neighbor three miles away and a full-service grocery store at least twenty-five miles away.

One of Grant’s first stories of depth is about Dr. Arnold Smith, cancer specialist. Dr. Smith’s Web site is still available: There, readers can find testimonies from patients who swear by Dr. Smith and believe he saved their lives. Dr. Smith and Lee Abraham, a Lebanese lawyer, were in a feud. Eventually, Dr. Smith is accused of trying to have Abraham murdered. Here’s one article on the subject: Many people in Greenwood describe Dr. Smith as “a first-rate cancer doctor…but this is not to say they thought Dr. Smith was sane. His eccentricities were legendary, and the town was well accustomed to his delusional ravings.”

Grant describes other characters such as the school board members who “hurled shoes at each other in a school board meeting.” He also mentions a man was beaten in the Greenwood Waffle House “after accusing another man’s girlfriend of wearing ‘Christmas pants’ in July.”

Grant describes his conversations with Martha because she “assumed that you knew the people involved, or had at least heard of them. This was usually the case when she was talking to people from the Delta, where everyone knows everyone, and almost never the case when she was talking to me. But it seemed rude to keep interrupting her stories to ask who was who, or how could such a thing possibly be true, so most of the time I just listened to the music of her stories and her pretty Southern accent, and let it all wash through my mind.”

When Grant tried to make sense of “the weirdness in the Delta, the eccentric characters, the bizarre crimes,” Martha told him the reasons: “isolation, humidity, toxic chemicals.”

On another road trip, Martha took Grant through Midnight, Louise, Belzoni, Hard Cash, Hushpuckena, Alligator, and Bobo. Most of these towns were no more than a wide spot in the road.  Still, Martha knows people in each place, so Grant gains entry to all the places.

Grant wrote about the ideocracies, the kindnesses, the unusual, and the weird, all found throughout the Delta. He wanted to explore race relations and to understand people there. He gets it right most of the time, exposing the good, bad, and ugly. At one point, Grant realized he “had taken on Martha’s philosophy, which was laughter to keep from crying.”

After Mariah and Grant had been in the Delta for a year, Grant admitted they had never been bored and their horizons had broadened. They decided to get married, so Martha becomes a major player in planning the wedding—a big party. Their friends from near and far filled the house for the wedding.

In reading Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto, I put so many PostIt flags to mark passages that I cannot possibly include all of the pieces in this review. I suggest you read Dispatches from Pluto and mark your own passages.