Arkansas reading room 

A survey of some of the season's best local books.


We get a lot of books in the mail here at the Arkansas Times HQ. This week we decided to dig through the stacks and bring you the best of the batch. Here are our takes on some of the most exciting recent books to engage with or emerge from the state, taking on a wide range of topics, from Delta cuisine to the prehistory of rock 'n' roll.

"Of the Soil: Photographs of Vernacular Architecture and Stories of Changing Times in Arkansas"
By Geoff Winningham
Fay Jones School of Architecture with the University of Arkansas Press, $44.95

The way we lived, when Arkansas was first a wilderness and then a sparsely settled state and then a state with commerce that brought in new ideas, is a story largely told in how we build our homes and other shelters. Cyrus Sutherland, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, was the Arkansan who knew the most about what we call vernacular architecture: architecture as language — the way we spoke.

So Texas photographer Geoff Winningham was a lucky man to get to travel the state with Sutherland, to record the buildings in Mineral Springs, Stuttgart, Kingston, Newhope, Fort Smith, Bingen and places without a name in August 1980. A savings and loan financed the trip and got 100 photographs for its end of the deal.

In 2008, after Sutherland died, Winningham looked at his photographs again and made digital files of 500 of them. He decided to publish the pictures and, he writes, "cast about for prose or poetry that would complement" them. In 2010, Winningham returned to Arkansas and traveled to some of the places where he and Sutherland visited. Unsurprisingly, and sadly, many of the old stores and dogtrots and barns and the like were gone. But people remembered the old buildings and it's their stories Winningham chose to combine with these beautiful black and white photographs of an Arkansas that once was. Where folks gathered on the porch of the store, where people of few means lived, the old inns in towns that no longer see visitors, like the Riverview Inn in Arkansas City or the New South Inn in Clarendon. These are structures that, if you see them by the side of the rural road you happen to be on, make you want to stop and touch and realize that Arkansas history can be told in board and batten and the Beaux Arts.

One of the first photographs in the book is of a home whose paint is long gone, whose roof is tin, and which has a porch across the entire front of the house. A man, supported by a cane, is on the porch, as is an upholstered chair and an old water heater. Winningham recalls that as they approached the house in Howard County, Sutherland told him that just ahead "you will behold the most beautiful Greek Revival cottage in all of Arkansas." It was the shack. Like Winningham, the reader will wonder what Sutherland was on about.

"Cy pointed out the perfect symmetry of the little house, its elegant battered columns, and the precise classical details of its window framing. ... Cy explained that classical architectural styles had spread across America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely through widely distributed carpenter's guides and pattern books."

It's gone, this Greek Revival sharecropper's shack, like so much of Arkansas's oldest structures. We are not New England; we tear down and put up ugly. But Winningham's photos are still around, and they are lovely, if a little wistful. LNP

"We Wanna Boogie: The Rockabilly Roots of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers"
Marvin Schwartz
Butler Center Books, $29.95

Marvin Schwartz describes himself as a "New York native and an Arkansan by choice," and he writes about the state with what can only be understood as the enthusiasm of the perpetual outsider. It's an advantage: Those things that natives take for granted still interest him. And he's persistent. He's written biographies of Don Tyson and J.B. Hunt, monographs on Central High and local antipoverty measures, and a "history of competitive swimming in Central Arkansas."

His latest effort, perhaps less ambitious than a "history of swimming" but certainly more accessible, takes on rockabilly pioneer Sonny Burgess, born on a farm near Newport in 1929 and legendary for a string of singles recorded with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. The book aspires not only to tell Burgess' story, but, as governor and fellow Newport favorite son Mike Beebe writes in the foreword, to tell "the history of individuals and a community during the emergence of a new genre of music in the late 1950s and early 1960."

In doing so, the book relies heavily on Burgess' participation, but thankfully avoids trailing off into record-collector hagiography. Schwartz writes like a historian, not an embattled fan. The flipside of this, of course, is that the book doesn't particularly feel like a labor of love. If Schwartz is passionate about rockabilly, he does a pretty good job of hiding it. The approach can be dry, the research a little warmed-over (the End Notes cite more than one Wikipedia page). Descriptions of music are rare and not inspiring, and several chapters lack any discernible scenes or narrative, instead reading like obligatory lists of facts.

Schwartz seems comfortable observing and recording Burgess' career rather than attempting to inhabit or understand it on some deeper level, but for the most part it doesn't really matter: The project is still a welcome one, and the facts are largely interesting enough on their own. Students of Arkansas history and early rock 'n' roll will be thrilled and anyone drawn to the title will be satisfied. WS

"Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA"
By Randall B. Woods
Basic Books, $18.99

On Saturday, April 27, 1996, William Colby, paramilitary pioneer and director of the CIA under Presidents Nixon and Ford, bought a dozen clams at a seafood market in southern Maryland, drove home and called his wife, Sally, who was away visiting her mother. At approximately 7:15 that night, he spoke to the caretaker of his vacation cottage, who had stopped by for a visit. He watered his willow trees and made himself dinner, the remnants of which were found in his kitchen by local police the following night, along with his wallet, his computer and his car keys. Nine days later, Colby's body was discovered on the shore of Neale Sound. He was 76.

Randall Woods, historian and John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor at the University of Arkansas, opens his new biography of Colby (released in paperback Oct. 7) with this scene, the last night of his life, a set of circumstances long considered an unsolved mystery by friends, family and journalists. His former employer, the CIA, reported that the death was an accident, though essentially no one close to the man believed them. With this, Woods lures us into a cinematic and distinctly American story, a grandly realized portrait of the rise of one man alongside that of the national security state he helped construct.

This starting point is also a surprising and effective concession to suspense on the part of Woods, who in the past has made a point to distinguish his own, presumably more serious, work from other biographers who show more concern for things like writerly prose and well-crafted narrative. While working on his biography of Lyndon Johnson, for instance, Woods bragged that he'd avoided even reading Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Robert Caro's epic five-volume work in progress on the former president, a project that the London Times has called "the greatest biography of our era" and which has been routinely praised as a masterpiece. "He's such a compelling writer," Woods said of Caro, by way of explaining why he considered his books distracting failures.

It's unexpected, then, that Woods turns out to be such a generally compelling writer himself. He's a strong storyteller with an intuitive grasp of the complex historical dynamics at work in Colby's insane career. He does have a tendency to tip over into outright admiration, with occasional paeans to his subject's brilliance: "There seemed to be no limit to his will and determination — carrying a pack one-third of his own weight, scaling icy mountains and fording frozen rivers. ... His contemporaries then and later would call him fearless." But given the scenarios he's describing, this is understandable.

Colby's real-life Bond exploits are matched by an oddly poetic sensibility, as seen in the stretches of his memoir quoted here. Hiding from Nazi patrols in a ditch, having just parachuted into occupied France, he remembers: "It was a warm summer day, the air thick with the scent of manure and wild flowers; bees and flies buzzed around us drowsily and one by one we would doze off for a few moments, each with his own private thoughts."

This is a person worth reading about. And the book has other strengths, for instance offering an elaborate and vividly rendered context for the Vietnam War, during which Colby served as the head of the CIA's Far East Division. Woods' skill as a researcher and his diligence as an academic lend themselves to a story in which nothing about Colby is simple, not even his death. WS

"The Southern Manifesto: Massive Resistance and the Fight to Preserve Segregation."
By John Kyle Day
University Press of Misssissippi, $52.80

The Central High crisis of 1957 will forever be the iconic image of white Southern resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, but it was only the high- water mark on a much larger movement of segregationist elected officials calling for defiance of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision ordering the integration of American public schools. In 1956, 19 Southern senators and 77 members of the House signed a document that became known as the "Southern Manifesto" — a resolution that deemed Brown a "clear abuse of judicial power" that "has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding."

John Kyle Day, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, has written a political history of that episode, during which the Southern Congressional Delegation endorsed open defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court. Understanding Day's narrative requires some prior knowledge of the historical backstory, and he commits the error of including a few too many names of congressmen and journalists without adequate introduction to those figures. There's also not much in the way of ordinary voices, either black or white; this is a book about politics and politicians, not everyday people. But Day is a strong, fluid writer with the right balance of moral conviction and academic distance, and he makes some intriguing claims.

Prior to the Southern Manifesto, he argues, white opposition to civil rights was widespread, but encompassed a range of viewpoints about how to comply with Brown. When Southern congressmen united behind the resolution, something shifted. Southern Democratic politicians, including Arkansas's own Sens. William Fulbright and John McClellan, made the choice (largely for partisan reasons) to draw a line in the sand that ultimately set the stage for the state-condoned violence of the 1960s. The document, Day says, "made the white South's definition of race relations a legitimate point of debate in the national discussion." Those repercussions are with us still. BH

"Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta"
By Kat Robinson, photography by Grav Weldon
American Palate, $19.99

This guide, almost certainly not coincidentally, is styled in precisely the same way as Lane Birdfinding guides, right down to the fonts. As Lane guides give birders driving directions to places they'll find, say, the painted bunting, Kat Robinson's guide steers the hungry through the Delta to find, say, the polish sausages at the Pic-Nic-Ker Drive In in Dumas (the Lower Delta section), or the donut bread pudding at the Tudor-styled Wilson Cafe in Wilson (the Upper Delta section), and provides little colorful histories and color photographs along the way. She also shares recipes from some of these out-of-the-way spots, such as Biscuit Pudding for Supper from the Ole Sawmill Cafe in Forrest City. If you've ever been on the road and having a hard time finding a decent place to eat — a not-uncommon experience in Arkansas — you'll be glad to have this book. Even if you haven't, you'll want the book. Maybe she'll take on Southwest Arkansas next, and good luck to her. LNP



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