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Summer book picks 

Times staffers' recommended reading.

Yes, it seems the crippling heat has broken — not for long, most likely — replaced by merely unpleasant heat. Still, spending some time in the AC with a good read is one of the best options for getting through the second-half slog of summer. Here are some picks from the Arkansas Times staff.

"Delta Empire: Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South," by Jeannie Whayne

Strange the things that one remembers. Sometime in what must have been the late '50s or early '60s, a young man saw a network news program that included a segment on the Arkansas Delta. The host, the then-famous David Brinkley, said something like this: "Robert E. Lee Wilson III can walk outside, and look around, and everything he sees, he owns." That must be something, the young man thought. Years went by, and he never learned much more about the Wilson family until he read "Delta Empire" by Jeannie Whayne, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

The book is not about Robert E. Lee Wilson III, although he makes an entrance toward the end, but his grandfather, who built the empire that would allow his grandson to own everything he saw. Lee Wilson started with 400 acres in Mississippi that he'd inherited from his father, and he transformed it, with nerve and will, into a 50,000-acre lumber operation and cotton plantation. Wilson himself was described as a feudal baron, a farmer prince and a benevolent dictator. He gained a reputation for treating black people better than did other Southern white men of his time and class, but Whayne, who shows the whole man, suggests that this reputation was not entirely deserved. She describes in painful detail a mob's burning of a black man that Wilson might have been able to prevent, but didn't. For anyone with an interest in Arkansas and Southern history, "Delta Empire" is well worth reading.

Doug Smith

"Jasmine," by Bharati Mukherjee

I first came across Bharati Mukherjee's 1989 novel "Jasmine" in an undergrad World Literature class taught by my old friend Byrd Gibbens at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We slogged through eight books that semester, but this is the one that really never left me: the tale of a teen-age girl from India named Jyoti, who is bent on traveling to America so she can commit a spectacular suicide at the backwater Florida college her new husband had planned on attending until he was killed in act of religiously motivated terrorism. I won't ruin the harrowing, heartbreaking quest that follows, but suffice it to say that "Jasmine" turns out to be an immigrant song about a surprisingly fierce heroine and her determination to stay alive, whole and free while remaking herself over and over on her own terms. With Independence Day just passed, isn't that quest what America is really all about?

—David Koon

"Love is a Mix Tape," by Rob Sheffield

"Love is a Mix Tape" is one of those grand books that you can read cover to cover in a single sitting, or that works equally well one random chapter at a time. For me, in just a couple of years it's become an old friend. I pick it up both when I have 10 minutes to kill and when I want to spend an entire rainy Saturday wallowing in nostalgia. But it's also fun, easy-going and upbeat enough to earn a spot in my beach bag. It's got true romance, early indie-rock nostalgia, and the peculiar charm of Southern hipsterdom. And it's all chronicled in this touching, geeky-cool prose by Rob Sheffield, now a journalist at Rolling Stone. (It reached the lower echelon of the New York Times bestseller list, but Oprah never recommended it, if that helps.) In 1989, when Sheffield was a scrawny Boston-Irish music nerd at the University of Virginia, he met a punk-rock Appalachian girl name Renee. Over the next seven years, they married, lived together in a leaky basement apartment full of records and craft projects, DJ-ed local radio shows, threw garden parties, attended local dive gigs, completed graduate degrees in English, freelanced for Rolling Stone and Village Voice and made each other mixtapes. Then one Sunday afternoon, Renee died suddenly, at only 31, the victim of a pulmonary embolism. This book, which takes its cues from a shoebox of mixtapes Sheffield and Renee made for each other, is Sheffield's eulogy to his first soulmate. But it's also his eulogy to a particular musical era and a pre-Internet, DIY means of processing love, life and loss that "creative types" in our 30s and 40s will instantly recognize.

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