October 2009

The Shelf

Teresa Weaver on Georgia writers

Philip Lee Williams

Athens resident Philip Lee Williams writes fiction with the authority of a historian, the ear of a poet, and the eye of a journalist. The author of ten novels, three books of creative nonfiction, and a volume of poetry, Williams spent a decade researching the Civil War for his magnificent 2004 novel, A Distant Flame, then spent two more years delving into the topic of entertainment during the conflict. The result is The Campfire Boys (Mercer University Press, $26), a richly comic tale of three brothers who are born entertainers and exceptionally bad soldiers. The fictional “celebrated Blackshear Boys”—Jack, Michael, and Henry—grow up performing skits and songs for all their neighbors in Branton, Georgia. When Confederate duty calls, they take their show on the road with Cobb’s Legion Infantry: “The night was cold and windy after it had rained the evening before, but starfields swept over the Peninsula, constellations shaped to Classical stories. War—what war? Hundreds of campfires marked messmates, but they were dying before the roar of five huge bonfires around the place where the Blackshear Boys set up to play.”


The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President

Simon & Schuster, $35
During Bill Clinton’s administration, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and Atlanta native Taylor Branch had a secret project: recording extensive conversations with the president about daily events (even some of the sordid ones). The result is a fascinating conglomeration of quotes and observations that never quite gel as a book. Still, The Clinton Tapes serves as an unfiltered, unprecedented glimpse into the presidency. In one scene, Clinton plays host to the 1996 Atlanta Braves, sharing his theories on the impact of the relatively small foul territory in the club’s post-Olympic stadium. “Clinton did not expect to win many votes in the rich dugouts and locker rooms of modern sports,” recalls Branch, “but he did seem pleased to impress insiders about baseball.”


Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell

Chicago Review Press, $26.95
Michael Gray, a music historian from England, is a breathless outsider in the exotic American South in this meticulously researched exploration into the life of the great Georgia bluesman McTell, who died in obscurity in 1959. Part travelogue, part detective story, part social history, this unconventional biography has wit and insight, which is sometimes spot-on, sometimes annoying, and occasionally both. Here is Gray’s critique of small-town Southern cuisine: “Everything’s big and brown and heavy, except when it’s big and lurid red and heavy.” Gray turns the dearth of documentation on McTell’s life into an entertaining story about the search itself.


Also New

The Million Dollar Demise
Simon & Schuster, $24
Atlanta author RM Johnson wraps up his soapy trilogy (The Million Dollar Divorce and The Million Dollar Deception) with this tale of backstabbing, sex, revenge . . . the usual.

The American Civil War: A Military History
Alfred A. Knopf, $30
John Keegan, renowned military historian, focuses on the impact of geography on the war. “It supplied the South with its most formidable ally and the North with its most unyielding opponent,” Keegan writes.

Mama Dearest
Karen Hunter Publishing, $25
Atlantan E. Lynn Harris died unexpectedly in July while on the West Coast. The popular, prolific author’s final novel, Mama Dearest, revives the character of singing diva Yancey Harrington Braxton from Any Way the Wind Blows.