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Archive for March, 2011

Looking Inside…

Friday, March 25th, 2011

The Georgia Center for the Book sponsors some 125 free author events each year. We’re the biggest nonprofit literary presenting organization anywhere around. We reach over 100,000 people each year with our various programs. And we’re proud of that; it represents a lot of work to provide readers all over Georgia with a valuable literary asset.

It’s also a heck of a lot of fun. And it’s fun when some of “our own” are taking the lead role in events. Like for instance in next several weeks you’ll find some fascinating, informative events coming up thanks to people who help guide the work of the Center for the Book.  On Monday, March 28, we’ll partner with the Wren’s Nest — the home of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus — for a program featuring Anne Trubek, an author who has written an intriguing book about literary homes in America. The connection? Lain Shakespeare, who is director of the Wren’s Nest, is also a member of the board of the Center for the Book.

The next night, Tuesday the 29th, another member of our board — Atlantan Collin Kelley — will again host our increasingly popular “Poetry Atlanta Presents” series. Then on Wednesday the 30th, we’ll have the wonderful author Terry Kay here to launch his brand new novel, “Bogmeadow’s Wish.” The connection? Terry is an honorary member of the Center for the Book’s board.

On April 7, we’ll welcome the literary scholar Pearl McHaney — the wife of another member of our board — for a lecture on the life and work of the late playwright Tennessee Williams, whose birth centennial observance is this year. And finally on April 11, one of America’s leading scholars, Dr. Rudolph Byrd, will present a special lecture on Jean Toomer’s classic novel “Cane.” You can probably guess the connection by now — Dr. Byrd is another honorary member of our board.

It’s a treat for us to be able to share, and we’re grateful to our members who make it happen. We’re also grateful to you for attending these events in such consistently satisfying numbers; without you, there’s little reason for us.

The fun of book tours

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Book tours are a hoot. Most authors I know enjoy them — or at least most of their appearances — because they get to meet and talk with readers. And in a time of declining literary literacy, that’s a group we’re all eager to say hello to. It’s also why authors are grateful for those who show up at readings and panel discussions, no matter whether they arrive in numbers large or small (although large is definitely preferred).

I’ve done a few tours so far for my new book, “Whisky, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster: Traveling Through Scotland with Boswell and Johnson” (shameless plug). I’ve discovered several interesting things. One, nearly everyone has been to Scotland or truly wants to get there, more of the latter than the former. And of those who have been, hardly anyone has ever gotten to the Highlands and away from the populous Edinburgh-Glasgow axis. That’s a pity; the most spectacular part of Scotland lies far to the north of those cities.

Second, Nearly everyone likes bagpipe music — up to a point. Usually about five minutes. Third, everyone likes single malts, and there is absolutely no agreement on which is the better brand. My belief — based on extensive personal testing — is that it hardly matters; there isn’t a bad one out there, though I prefer a more peaty tasting drink.

Fourth, I’ve been reminded that most of us relish being armchair tourists. These days it’s not only a lot easier but a lot cheaper, and that’s important. A flight to Scotland with a week’s lodging and food and incidentals can cost more at least a couple of thousand dollars per person, and that’s no small matter when gas is heading toward $4 a gallon and everything else seems to be going up as well.

So anyway, book tours give all of us the opportunity to connect with people who still believe in reading, and that’s not merely worthwhile but fun. I’ve met some delightful new people in places like Savannah, Charlottesville, Florence and other assorted stops. And there are more tour visits coming up in the next two months before it really ends.

One of the side benefits of the tours is that I’ve heard some wonderful Scottish yarns to add to my repertoire. One of them was told to me by a gentleman in Savannah, and I’d not heard it before; it’s sort of a shaggy bagpipe story. Anyway, it seems a fellow walks into a bar with an octopus and says it can play any musical instrument. He offers $100 to anyone who doubts him. One man hands a guitar to the octopus, who immediately begins playing it like Andres Segovia. Another man gives the octopus a clarinet, and the octopus instantly plays it as easily as if he were Benny Goodman. Then a Scotsman gives the creature a bagpipe. The octopus messes around with it a bit but doesn’t get it to produce any sounds. “Can’t you play it?” the Scotsman asks. The octopus replies, “Play it? I’m going to make love to it as soon as I can figure out how to get the pajamas off it.”

 

A Civil War Commemoration

Friday, March 4th, 2011

As we enter the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, we’re already besieged by some bizarre commemorations, among them fancy dress balls in which participants somehow “celebrate” memories of the war. Such activities not only seem disrespectful but unknowing. And I’m afraid we’re likely to endure a few more before the sesquicentennial ends in 2015.

There are, of course, many other ways to pursue an observance of this penultimate event in our history. Maybe before we get too deep into the activities, we might consider reading (or re-reading) Drew Gilpin Faust’s groundbreaking and profoundly moving book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”  It is a stark accounting of  the tragedy of the war: the more than 600,000 people who perished in its brutal, savage four years and the significant changes wrought on all aspects of our society by those almost unthinkable losses.

There are no magnolias and hoop skirts here, no “parties” and re-enactments; this was the bloody truth. Faust — now the president of Harvard and a noted historian — reminds us that the equivalent losses with our population today would be about six million people. And if you think Americans are upset and angry over our losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, multiply those deaths by the hundreds and imagine the reaction.

As Faust points out, the carnage in the 1860s affected all of the survivors. Pressing forward with lives suddenly absent fathers, brothers and sons — and in some cases women as well — called for a whole new way of imagining life. How could belief in a benevolent God be reconciled with widespread death and suffering? Faust examines many individual lives to show the intimate, revealing effects of the war. And even with her gracefully written prose, it makes for difficult reading; the pain and hurt and losses were very real, and society — both North and south — was dramatically in trying to come to terms with it.

The war altered forever beliefs about life would end, and it forced upon nearly everyone a reality “that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life’s meaning and value.”

Faust concludes her book by writing, “We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists. The Civil War generation glimpsed the fear that still defines us — the sense that death is the only end. We still work to live with the riddle that they — the Civil War dead and their survivors alike — had to solve so long ago.”

There are many aspects of the Civil War to take note of, from hailing the courage of black and white men and women to examining the economic, social and political upheaval that are part of the legacy. Our commemoration, however, might also be focused on remembering with honesty just what the war’s cost was to the men and women of all races who lived — and perished — in those years.