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Summer book picks

Times staffers' recommended reading.

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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.

—Cheree Franco

"A Feast of Snakes," by Harry Crews

I first heard of the late Harry Crews from a friend who hailed from Crews' adopted hometown of Gainesville, Fla., where he taught creative writing for many years. His eyes widened as he intoned the author's name with the sort of hushed reverence one adopts when imparting some obscure and possibly dangerous information. But where to start? "Dude," he said, "start with 'A Feast of Snakes.' It's ..." he said, trailing off with a chuckle. After reading it, I understand his loss for words. The story centers on a crew of despicable residents of Mystic, Ga., as they gear up for the annual Rattlesnake Roundup. I don't want to give away too much, but trust me: These are hypnotic, fascinatingly depraved people who commit gruesome acts of cruelty to all manner of creatures (might want to skip this one if you're a sensitive animal lover). The book contains what has to be one of the most richly deserved, if predictable, separations of man and manly appendage in all of fiction, as well as one of the foulest definitions of "true love" ever proclaimed (echoed decades later, to some degree, in a Kevin Smith film, if that tells you anything). In short, it's a feel-bad Southern Gothic novel of the first order. If the characters in Flannery O'Connor's "Wiseblood" were a bit too charming and relatable for you, try "A Feast of Snakes."

—Robert Bell

"Cold Comfort Farm," by Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons' book, first published in 1932, is perhaps one of the funniest ever written. It is English wit, which means it is absurd and as dry as vermouth, and perhaps not for everybody, but certainly for me. Gibbons prefaces the novel with a letter to her publisher in which she writes that for the benefit of readers "who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle, that I have adopted the method perfected by the late Herr Baedeker, and firmly marked what I consider to be the finer passages with one, two or three stars." And so follows, with several star-marked passages, her story of young Flora Poste, who finds herself wanting for money on the death of her supposedly wealthy (but not) father and who decides to take up residence with her relatives the Starkadders on their "decaying" farm in Sussex. She finds there everything she expected — pessimistic cousin Judith, oversexed Master Seth; the willowy, wandering Elfine ("wild as a marsh-tigget in May"); the fox-eared cousin Urk; Elfine's useless but poetic father Adam Lambsbreath, whose job it is to look after the cows — Feckless, Graceless and Pointless, who, unnoticed, are in want of a leg or two — and more delicious characters. We are introduced to the farm thusly: "**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm." Flora, upbeat and undaunted, puts everything right at Cold Comfort, including persuading her old Aunt Ida Doom to rise from her bed, and is herself rescued in the end by a suitor who flies in just as the chaos is tamed.

—Leslie Newell Peacock

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