Headline from 'Memphis History': 'Prince Mongo is crazy'

Memphis.jpgThe mental status of Robert Hodges, AKA Prince Mongo, whose public life has been devoted to eccentric behavior, was the subject of a ruling by U.S. Dist. Judge Harry Wellford 34 years ago today.

It's the April 8 entry in "On This Day in Memphis History" (The History Press), by 
G. Wayne Dowdy, manager of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center's history department and Memphis and Shelby County Room.

In the case of Prince Mongo, an insurance company that had paid $34,000 on his claim of disability, contended in federal court that his candidacy for Shelby County mayor in 1978 showed he wasn't disabled. Prince Mongo, who maintained that he had lived three centuries and came from the planet of Zambodia, "appeared in Wellford's courtroom in bare feet, wearing only a knee-length fur coat and, during the proceedings, frequently sprinkled a white powder on the floor to ward off evil spirits." Ruling in the defendant's favor, Wellford found that "he suffers from a mental disease or disorder or psychosis, and that this condition has apparently worsened since 1976."

Topics for each day of the year in Dowdy's book range from the files of stranger than fiction -- "The day it rained snakes" on Jan. 15, 1877 -- to quaint fact. On Dec. 26, 1958, for instance, police chief James C. McDonald said the city's strict enforcement of the state law prohibiting the purchase of handguns was "far from harsh."

Dowdy also is the author of "Mayor Crump Don't Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis," "Hidden History of Memphis." "Crusades for Freedom: Memphis and the Political Transformation of the American South."

Neelys to sign new cookbook at Wolfchase

neelys.jpgCelebrity Memphis cooks Patrick and Gina Neely, stars of Food Network's "Down Home with the Neelys," will appear at the Barnes & Noble Wolfchase store to sign their latest cookbook at 7 p.m. April 8.

"Back Home with the Neelys: Comfort Food from Our Southern Kitchen to Yours" (Knopf, $27.95) is the couple's third cookbook, following "Down Home with the Neelys" and "The Neelys' Celebration Cookbook." 

In an introduction to "Back Home," they say their devotion to home cooking and fresh ingredients "all goes back to the wonderful memories we have of growing up in Memphis." Indeed, two of the recipes name-check the city: "Memphis caviar," with black-eyed peas, peppers, onions and tomatoes, and the "Memphis mojito," which is served in a Mason jar, because, "Things are pretty relaxed in Memphis." 

The bookstore is located at 2774 N. Germantown Parkway.

In 2012, the couple closed two Neely's Bar-B-Que sites in Memphis -- at 670 Jefferson and 5700 Mt. Moriah -- though they continue to operate Neely's Barbeque Parlor in Manhattan.

Hampton Sides to talk about 'Telling Stories'

The history writer Hampton Sides grew up in Memphis and recounted this city's most infamous moment in "Hellhound on His Trail," his 2010 book about James Earl Ray's stalking and murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

hampton.jpgSides, who now lives in New Mexico, also wrote "Blood and Thunder," about frontiersman Kit Carson and the American West, and "Ghost Soldiers," about the 1945 U.S. mission to rescue POWs in the Philippines. In August, he'll publish "In the Kingdom of Ice," about the 1879 expedition to the North Pole that marooned a naval crew a thousand miles north of Siberia.

Sides returns to Memphis to talk about "Telling Stories: The Art and Craft of Narrative History" at 6 p.m. April 3 at the University of Memphis University Center Theater. The free talk, open to the public, begins with a 5:30 p.m. reception in the theater lobby.

The event announcement makes this provocative promise: "The author ... will talk about his inspirations, his writing process, and his hopes for reinvigorating the narrative tradition despite the hostility leveled at narrative history by some academic historians."

Sides' lecture is part of the River City Writers Series. For more information, go to memphis.edu/moch/events.htm.

Author of Alex Chilton bio to read at Crosstown Arts

In 1967, while he was a 16-year-old student at Central High School, Alex Chilton performed vocals with the Box Tops on "The Letter," produced by Dan Penn at American Recording Studios. A new biography of Chilton describes the song as "the biggest hit single ever recorded in Memphis, Tennessee."

Chilton.jpgTwenty years later, Chilton told an interviewer, "The first thing I ever did was the biggest record that I'll ever have," which explains why Holly George-Warren's new book, "A Man Called Destruction," (Viking, $27.95) is described as a story that is "rags to riches in reverse."

George-Warren, whose previous books include "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry" and "Punk 365," will appear at 7 p.m. April 2 at Crosstown Arts, 438 N. Cleveland, to read from and sign her Chilton biography. The event will start with a deejay at 6 p.m. Following the author's reading, a tribute concert will begin at 8 p.m. at 430 N. Cleveland.

Chilton died at 59 in 2010, on the eve of a reunion of his revered power-pop band Big Star at the annual South by Southwest music festival, and his name and legacy permeated the atmosphere of the Austin event. George-Warren's book makes a case for the wisdom of Chilton's retreat from early fame in the music business to pursue happiness in New Orleans and his unpredictable solo career. 
A recent interview with the Austin, Texas-based author Bill Cotter describes his new book, "The Parallel Apartments," as "full of freaks like you and me."

billcotter.jpegApparently, Austin is the perfect place to inspire such literature. Speaking by phone, Cotter said, "It has a reputation for being strange. One of its catch phrases is 'Keep Austin weird,' which is also Seattle's, or Portland's. (Actually, both.) I didn't have to stretch too much to make it stranger than it really is."

Cotter, who will read from and sign "The Parallel Apartments" (McSweeney's, $25), at 6 p.m. March 18 at Crosstown Arts on North Cleveland, says Memphis is a city he's longing to see. "I was a huge fan of Sun Records growing up. My granddad had some records. The label was so neat and mysterious to me. I still dream about it sometimes."

parallel.jpegHis first novel, "Fever Chart" (2009), was set in New Orleans. The new book chronicles several generations in a family of wildly unpredictable Texas women. It starts in New York City when 34-year-old Justine, who ran away from Austin as a teen, decides to return to her city of origin and uncover her past after trying and failing to end an unwanted pregnancy.

When Justine arrives at the Frito Motel, she finds herself competing for a place with folks attending a Symposium on Cults and Extreme Clubs. She has to pay extra to occupy the only vacant space, The Room, "where there was a murder once, a really nauseating and out-of-control mass murder," the desk clerk assures her.

Soon Justine has located the University of Texas professor who adopted her briefly when she was a baby. He had returned her to her birth mother after he lost three fingers while preventing his insane wife from trying to carve the infant up with a cleaver. It will give you an idea of Cotter's sense of humor that in the sentence following the description of that rescue, the professor relates that a colleague of his "agreed to quarter you and me for the time being," 'quarter' in this case referring to supplying accommodations. You are barely a tenth of the way through the novel by the time all this action has occurred.

Cotter, 49, was born in Dallas, where he lived until his family moved to Iran for three years in the 1970s. The family then moved to a Boston suburb for what he remembers as "bad years," when he suffered from a depression at 18 or 19 that put him in several psychiatric hospitals.

Cotter says his illness explains his desultory work history, described in his book-jacket bio as an "ongoing struggle to stave off impending ruin." He toiled as a debt collector, a crossword puzzle constructor, a toilet scrubber, and a vacuum-cleaner salesman. "It's hard to hold down a job when you're not feeling that great," he said.  

He decided to move to Austin 17 years ago after putting in time playing low-stakes poker in Las Vegas casinos. "You sit around a table with nine other people who hate you and want your money. ... I played a year or so. I could win enough to live on. Then I think I became seriously depressed again, a clinical depression." In Austin, he's worked as an antiquarian book dealer and restorer. His parents, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles all live. "I feel a hundred percent better now," he says.

Cotter first wrote fiction when he entered an employee short-story contest at the former Waldenbooks in Massachusetts. "There were 15 entrants and 12 of us won something." Then, in his mid-30s, he wrote parodies of several Grimms' Fairy Tales to please his girlfriend, the poet and performance artist Annie La Ganga, who will appear with Cotter at his Memphis date. "That's when I realized I liked writing," he says.

He's currently working on an adventure novel for 10- to 12-year-olds, about a brother and sister who discover a hospital for supernatural creatures in an underground world - "If you're a vampire with a tooth abscess, it's the only place you can go" - as well as a short-story collection and a novel set in a Texas town in the early '70s.

Memphis poet reads from new collection at Burke's


Heather Dobbins, who has published poems in The Southern Poetry Anthology and TriQuarterly Review, will appear at Burke's Book Store in Cooper-Young at 5:30 p.m. March 6 with her new book of poetry, "In the Low Houses" (Alabaster Leaves, $14).


Dobbins graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville College Scholars Program and got a master of fine arts degree in creative writing at Bennington College in Vermont.

She has taught middle and high school students in Memphis, and founded River City Scribes, a creative writing workshop for teens.

Burke's is at 936 S Cooper. Call 901-278-7484 for more information.

Amy Greene, author of "Bloodroot," will sign her new novel, "Long Man" (Knopf, $25.95), at 6 p.m. March 4 at Crosstown Arts, 438 N. Cleveland.

The novelist Amy Greene remembers her first sight as a child of the ghostly tops of silos submerged in the Cherokee Reservoir near her home in the Appalachian foothills of East Tennessee.

"There's a town under there," said Greene, still, at 38, sounding awed by the fact.

AmyGreene.jpgHer second book,  "Long Man," re-imagines such a town as it was on the verge of being inundated over several days in the summer of 1936. Like the settlement under Cherokee Lake, this fictional community is being sacrificed to create a Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir that will generate power and control deadly floods.

Greene, a writer whose inspiration is the lore and terrrain of Appalachia, published her first novel, "Bloodroot," in 2010. She'll be at Crosstown Arts in Memphis at 6 p.m. March 4, to sign "Long Man," which was released Tuesday.

The book casts a melancholy spell of loss and displacement as it describes one family's forced departure from a farm in the path of a planned reservoir.

"I grew up surrounded by the dams the TVA built," Greene said last week by phone from her home. "My grandparents on both sides survived the Depression, and told stories about how people here were drowning in floods and starving to death as subsistence farmers," before the TVA work.

longman.jpegThe central character in "Long Man" is Annie Clyde Dodson, the last holdout against the government's flood evacuation effort. Her reluctance to give up her dream of passing the farm her mother left her to her 3-year-old daughter, Gracie, has kept her family in limbo in a ghost town and has threatened her marriage to James, who lost his own father in the violent flood waters of pre-TVA days. The child's disappearance as a mammoth storm arrives drives the plot.

Greene grew up on her grandfather's farm, in a house he built, on land where her parents still live. She now lives five miles away, with her husband and two children, in Russellville, an unincorporated community in Hamblen County, Tennessee.

She was long affected by the eerie underwater traces of buildings and roads embedded in the TVA reservoir. "As I became an adult, I wondered, 'What if the water had reached a little farther to our house?' My parents still live on the land, and I lived there until I was 18 and got married. I cannot imagine that place under a lake, or the heartbreak the people from there must have experienced."
The young-adult author Laurie Halse Anderson, who confronts such charged topics as date rape, addiction and eating disorders in her novels, says she makes a point of answering all the correspondence she gets from readers.

halse.jpeg"Some letters come from a classroom assignment, and they have questions like 'What's your favorite food?' " Anderson said by phone from her book tour for "The Impossible Knife of Memory."

"The important ones are the questions that come from kids who talk about their own conflicts or struggles," she said. "Every YA author I know gets these -- kids looking for trustworthy adults. So many teens feel alone, especially those from families struggling with things."

The letters are time-consuming, so it's fortunate Anderson's own four children are fairly grown at 21, 26, 27 and 28. "One of my kids told me recently, 'Mom, I think what you have is not so much a job but a lifestyle.'"

Among her best-known novels is "Speak," in which a 13-year-old girl is raped at a party and essentially stops talking in the aftermath of the trauma. It was a National Book Award finalist when it came out in 1999.

"Impossible Knife of Memory" deals with the post-traumatic stress disorder of a soldier suffering through his memories of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effect it has on the life of his teenage daughter.

Anderson said she is covering territory she knows firsthand. "My dad was an 18-year-old boy when he entered the Army at the end of World War II with troops liberating Dauchau," among the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps.

"He had guard duty," Anderson said. "He had to help survivors, bury the dead. His experience led him to the ministry -- he was a Methodist minister. The pain of what he saw, the trauma of what he endured, came back to haunt him when I was a teen, in middle and high school. He was in the throes of depression; he stopped working. If it hadn't been for my mom's strength, I don't know how we would have gotten through."

In addition, she said, her nephew recently returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We were helping him navigate that," she said. "We live in northern New York, in a small community, and a lot of kids go into the service. Watching them trying to re-enter life here, it made me gasp and stand back and look at what my dad was going through."

As usual, the families of her young characters are dealing with drugs, divorces, depression.
"There is a bright spot" in "Impossible Knife," she points out. "It's a love story as well. I put that in there to counterbalance the darkness that's real-life, because, man, it's tough."

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of "The Impossible Knife of Memory" (Viking, $18.99), will appear at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, 387 Perkins Road Ext., at 2 p.m. Jan. 19.
In the 22 essays collected in "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage," the novelist Ann Patchett writes about her romantic history; her family, friends and her dog Rose; her work and her Nashville bookstore.

annpatchett2.jpeg"I think I was trying to put it together as a novel in which I am the main character," Patchett said in a recent phone interview from her Nashville home. "But it may be very similar to an autobiography in how it works in the outcome."

"Happy Marriage" (Harper, $27.99) begins with divorce. The first essay, "How to Read a Christmas Story,"  recalls joyless holidays of the author's childhood, when her mother and stepfather lumped the six children from their first marriages together in Nashville.  "... Christmas was a holiday we failed at with real vigor," Patchett writes. "I blame this on my parents' divorce."

In "The Sacrament of Divorce," first published in Vogue in 1996, Patchett writes that she knew when she married her first husband it couldn't last. "My divorce began less than a week before we were married," she writes. The preparations for the wedding had a momentum she was too weak to resist. A year later she escaped, abruptly abandoning a college teaching job to get on a plane back to her mother's house in Nashville. The graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop took a job at T.G.I. Friday's. "I was required to wear a funny hat. I served fajitas to people I had gone to high school with, and I smiled. I did not die."

annpatchett.jpegThough her story is singular and personal, she has a larger point to make, one that probably was more urgent when the piece first was published. "I do not believe that there were more happy marriages before divorce became socially acceptable, that people tried harder, got through their rough times, and were better off," she writes. "I believe that more people suffered."

The author of six novels -- including the luminous "Bel Canto" (2001), about an opera singer held hostage in an obscure South American country; "Taft" (1994), about a jazz musician who runs a Memphis bar; and "State of Wonder" (2011), set in the Amazonian jungle -- Patchett also is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville.

Memphis writers deliver diverse goods in 2013

In 2013, Memphis authors published titles that roamed the fields of literary fiction, espionage, history, nature and biology.

The latest additions to the list include two thrillers by Mark Greaney, whose collaboration with the late Tom Clancy surely amplified his fan base.

deadeye.jpegOn Dec. 3, Greaney's publishers brought out "Dead Eye," (Berkley, $16 paperback), the fourth in his Gray Man series about the master assassin Court Gentry; and "Command Authority," (Putnam, $29.95), the third Jack Ryan thriller Greaney co-authored with Clancy.
The 25 "Dead Eye" reviews on Amazon last week were overwhelmingly positive. "The Gray Man at the very top of his game," said one. "A Total Thrill Ride from Beginning to Breathless End!" said another. Exclamation marks also punctuated the many five-star reviews for "Command Authority," which was No. 1 on The New York Times Bestsellers list for Dec. 22.

Among the engaging works of literary fiction by Memphis writers was "Something Pretty, Something Beautiful" (Outpost19, $16), Eric Barnes' novel about four adolescent boys who prowl the rainy, nighttime streets of Tacoma, Wash., where Barnes, now publisher of The Daily News, grew up. The book's serial scenes of youthful violence are drawn in potent, melancholy prose.

In "Paperboy" (Delacorte Press, $16.99), Vince Vawter paperboy.jpegalso introduces an adolescent character to the dark side of adult life. Vawter's semi-autobiographical tale is set in the Midtown Memphis neighborhood of Central Gardens, where he grew up. The narrator is a kid who stutters, an infirmity that complicates his encounters with alcoholism and domestic violence when he fills in for a friend on a paper route. "Paperboy" was an Amazon Best Book of the Month in May 2013. "The story follows the boy's 1959 Memphis summer with a slow but satisfying pace that builds to a storm of violence," said School Library Journal.

John Pritchard, who traces his roots to the Mississippi Delta, brought out the third of his Junior Ray novels, this one called "Sailing to Alluvium" (NewSouth Books, $27.95). The series is celebrated as much for its gleeful embrace of profanity as for its darkly humorous understanding of the central character's background as a poor white sharecropper from the Mississippi hill country. "Junior Ray's authentically Southern, unreconstructed rants make even the sharpest Tarantino dialog appear but idle Sunday-school chatter," said a review on Chapter16.org.

The poet/novelist/bookstore-owner Corey Mesler delivered a "collage-novel," a fantasy foray into Memphis history called "Diddy-Wah-Diddy: A Beale Street Suite" (Ampersand Books, $16.95), in addition to three poetry-and-prose chapbooks this year. In a blurb on the novel's cover, Greil Marcus says, "They say -- they used to say -- that anything can happen on Beale Street. Here it does."

Cary Holladay, an English professor at University of Memphis, published two short-story collections: "Horse People" (Louisiana State University Press, $23) which a Chapter16.org reviewer described as a "lyrical new collection of linked stories," and "The Deer in the Mirror" (Ohio State University Press, $24.95), which inspired the author Lee Smith to praise Holladay as a "historical fiction writer extraordinaire."

And in the burgeoning fiction category of Christian suspense, Michael Thompson had an entry with "The Parchman Preacher" (Balboa Press, $14.99).

stax.jpegAmong noteworthy nonfiction works released by Memphians was Robert Gordon's "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion" (Bloomsbury, $31.50), which The Commercial Appeal's music writer Bob Mehr described as "a vivid recounting of the history of the label." Gordon's previous books about music include "It Came from Memphis" (1995) and "Can't Be Satisfied" (2003), a biography of bluesman Muddy Waters.

Memphis librarian Patrick O'Daniel's "When the Levee Breaks" (The History Press, $19.99) revisits the great Mississippi Valley flood of 1927, which killed hundreds and displaced thousands. "While O'Daniel's analysis of the larger political, social, and economic fallout from the flood of 1927 is interesting, the core of 'When the Levee Breaks' is in the details of when and where the levees broke, and who -- by name in many cases -- was swept away in the raging waters," said a review on Chapter16.org.

In "The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation" (Oxford University Press, $29.95), Rhodes College religious studies professor Stephen R. Haynes reconstructs the struggle to integrate Second Presbyterian Church in the 1960s. "To supporters, the protests were an attempt to live up to Christ's message of universal inclusion," a Chapter16.org review said.  "Opponents argued that they were 'not dramatic moral gestures, but political stunts' performed by activists with no real intention of joining the congregation for spiritual worship. Haynes' assessment of these differing perspectives is a good example of the generally balanced approach he takes throughout."

Peter Doherty, the Nobel Prize-winning immunologist who holds a chair in biomedical research at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, published "Their Fate Is our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to Our Health and Our World" (The Experiment, $14.95). "Doherty views birds as prophets of a sort, as 'sentinels, sampling the health of the air, seas, forests and grasslands that we share with them,'" said a review on Slate. "He presents tales of complicated, messy interactions between birds and humans, often culled from his experience in the world of medicine but also detailing some of the oft-overlooked ways in which subtle human actions can greatly impact birds. To be reminded of this dynamic, Doherty suggests, is to take responsibility for the health of birds, humans and the Earth."

It's a responsibility sportsmen who maintain hunting clubs along the Mississippi Flyway take seriously, as illustrated in "A Million Wings" (Wild Abundance, $50) by Susan Schadt, with photographs, both majestic and intimate, by Lisa Buser.

"Many of these families create easements in perpetuity, so the land is always there for the migratory habitat of waterfowl," Schadt said of the retreats she and Buser visited. "That beautiful landscape, the land that they've preserved, is so much a part of the story," said Buser.
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