"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Gleaned from several hundred hours of interviews with her grandmother, Fayetteville author Padma Viswanathan's new novel, “The Toss of a Lemon” (Harcourt, $26, hardcover), transports the reader to the Indian subcontinent in the early 20th century.
If ever there was a “Gone with The Wind” of India, this book is it. Inspired by her grandmother's recollections of life in a mid-caste Brahmin community, Viswanathan tells the fictionalized life and times of a widowed woman standing up for herself, raising a family and surviving a culture where serious generational barriers stand in the way for widows and their children.
The thrill of reading the 640-page epic lies neither in suspense nor in intrigue, but in Viswanathan's vivid word pictures of the wafting odor of spices, the brilliant and contrasting colors of the meager clothing and the permeating smell of the seasonal rains.
The local Fayetteville author, mother of two, is a playwright and former journalist. Her pre-book accolades include a first place in the 2006 “Boston Review” Short Story Contest.
Friends and followers of Miller Williams will be treated to a thin, yet delicious volume in the poet's new book, “Time and the Tilting Earth,” just released by Louisiana State University Press. At $45 for a 50-page volume, it's worth every penny. The master poet of the Fayetteville campus (and elsewhere) delivers short, succinct verse that lifts the spirits and makes one smile in this complex world. Especially touching are “After All These Years of Prayer and Pi R Square” and “Thinking of Leaving the Church the Young Preacher Thinks Again,” which showcase Williams at his best.
The University of Arkansas Press has teamed with the Oxford American magazine to release “The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing” ($34.95, hardcover). Long known for its annual Southern Music Issue, the Oxford American here compiles its greatest hits, with contributions from the likes of Roseanne Cash, Peter Guralnick, Steve Martin, Robert Palmer and Elizabeth Wurtzel. The subjects include Southern heavyweights — Elvis, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Leadbelly, Lucinda Williams — as well as the more obscure figures the magazine's often lauded for exposing, like Fred Neil, King Pleasure and Moondog. Avant-pop composer Van Dyke Parks provides a foreword.
Also just released: “On Tarzan” (University of Georgia Press, $22.95, softcover) by Alex Vernon, associate professor of English at Hendrix College, examines one of the 20th century's best known characters. Vernon's focus ranges from books, films, comics and toys to Tarzan's image in the media.
“A Life on the Black River in Arkansas: A Pioneering Banker's Memoir” (the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, $16.95, softcover) is a rollicking story about an Arkansan who came of age during the Great Depression, built a farm, bought a bank, and traveled the world, but always came back home. It took more than hard work and honesty for Ewell R. Coleman to succeed; it took a pair of overalls. When trying to add a thousand acres to his land, the farmer from Dowdy (Independence County) needed the agreement of a Little Rock lawyer who was administering the estate. A man who knew the lawyer told him, “Now Monday morning, don't you go down there in no ‘damned' suit of clothes. You go down there to Little Rock in a pair of overalls and a pair of work shoes. You tell Mr. Bradley that you are a dirt farmer.” When he arrived, another man who wanted to buy the land was wearing a suit. Ewell was in overalls. Ewell got the land.
Ewell Coleman was a cross between Horatio Alger and a character from a morality tale. That he was so honest allowed him almost unlimited access to bank loans because even the bankers trusted him not to borrow more than he could pay.
Along with a talent for making money, he felt a civic responsibility. When telephone lines were beginning to be extended through rural areas, he insisted that it go to his town too, no matter that his neighbors weren't so sure that this new technology wouldn't bring cancer with it. Going forward isn't so easy sometimes. He needed what he calls toeholds — a loving wife and the help of family friends. Those toeholds took him far. Soon, his bank became the first in the state worth more than $100 million dollars to be based in a town with less than 10,000 people in it. He began to be sent by People to People, the international education program, to represent the state and the country to everywhere from Austria to Australia. “On all of these trips, we knew we were a long way from Dowdy, Arkansas,” he wrote.
Little Rock writer Elizabeth Findley Shores started her journey on the trail of an Alabama botanist when she climbed the steps to the attic in her grandfather's house in Tuscaloosa. She'd known her grandparents had rented a room to Dr. Roland Harper, but not that he'd made cardboard houses for her mother, and the discovered relationship made her dig deeper into this University of Alabama eccentric who was known for his old-fashioned field methods and an interest in the eugenics movement. His fastidious note-taking included daily journals and he made it a habit to keep all his correspondence (including drafts of his own letters) over his long career. Shores plumbs these in “On Harper's Trail” (University of Georgia Press, hardcover, $42.95), to tell the story of the personal life and career of this early 20th century scientist.
—Leslie Newell Peacock