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What we're reading, and why

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Photographs by John Deering

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reading illustration.

Around 10 years ago, printed books were taking a beating from digital books. Bookstores were closing left and right.

That's changing. Amazon, one of the country's top go-to websites for online book sales, has opened brick and mortar bookstores in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Portland and Seattle, with more on the way. And independent bookstores are making the most of the moment by capitalizing on their connections to their local communities.

So, what's everybody reading?

Sandra Cox Birchfield, my former Democrat-Gazette colleague, of Fayetteville:

It took me about a year and a half after its release to get to Peter Guralnick's Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, which I completed over the summer.

I have been a longtime Guralnick fan, appreciating his straightforwardness in his writing; there are no over-the-top creative licenses that sometimes plague music journalism, often to the point of overshadowing the subject. Instead, we get an engaging story that's not only about Phillips, a very complicated man, but the eccentric cast of characters that helped make up his studio, radio stations and other ventures.

Phillips is best known for discovering Elvis Presley, who began his recording career at Phillips' Sun Studio in Memphis. Elvis' success drew a long list of musicians to the studio such as Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. And who knew, amid all of this, that Phillips also owned a zinc mine in Yellville (Marion County), sometimes taking his family there for vacations?

While the book features some great Elvis stories, I was particularly delighted by the ones pertaining

to Arkansas musicians on Sun's roster. Johnny Cash! Charlie Rich! Sonny Burgess! Billy Lee Riley! I learned it was a good idea to keep my iPhone nearby while reading. Stories such as Lewis' debut on The Steve Allen Show, Phillips' erratic interview with David Letterman, or certain studio recordings caused me to scurry to YouTube several times while reading this 600-plus page book.

Marck L. Beggs of the People's Republic of Hillcrest, poet, musician, and professor of English:

Over the summer I had the luxury of reading quite a few books, focusing mostly on rock 'n' roll memoirs. I fell in love with two: a memoir and a collection of short stories. Carrie Brownstein, Ray Davies, and Bruce Springsteen all produced intriguing books, but Robbie Robertson's Testimony truly lit up my gray matter. Having left school at the age of 16, he taught himself to write by reading movie scripts (although hanging around Bob Dylan probably helped). His songs have always brought fascinating characters to life, and his prose is just as deft and illuminating. Plus the story of The Band is highly entertaining.

The other book that sucked me in was Haruki Murakami's new collection of short stories, Men Without Women. Stylistically, Murakami is about a unique as a writer can be, and although I have always preferred his wild novels to his short stories, this collection changed that. These stories tend to be longer than most of his previous efforts, so they feel more developed. It is a book filled with sad, lonely men, but somehow Murakami takes us deep enough into their worlds that we become invested.

Amy Wilson of Fayetteville, Beaver Water District public affairs director:

The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry is a sonorous reverie that takes the reader on a journey through the mind of an elder who's likely deep into "old-timers" disease. His mind plays back the regrets and sorrows of his life and also the spare moments of happiness. A farmer born in the late 1800s, Jack takes us along on his final lap around this earthly life.

Meanwhile, friends and family speak of him with concern, respect, and reverence. For his sole purpose in life becomes one of being a better man and overcoming his failings (too much pride, poor financial decisions, choosing the wrong wife, cheating on her and bringing her pain).

This serious story contains long, beautiful descriptions of the earth's bounty. Redemption is the key theme--is there enough time and forbearance to make that happen for Old Jack? I'm glad to discover Mr. Berry. He's best known for nonfiction and poetry. but his fiction is worth savoring as well.

Michael Hibblen of Little Rock, news director, reporter and anchor of NPR station KUAR-FM 89.1:

I'm rereading a book that I haven't read in about 15 years that captivated me then and has again. It's 2002's Last Train To Paradise by Les Standiford, which tells of the creation of Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway, and in particular his goal of connecting the mainland of Florida with Key West.

Bridging 153 miles of ocean through the chain of islands that is the Florida Keys was an engineering feat most considered impossible. But Flagler's persistence, wealth and dedication of his workers made it happen. A 1935 hurricane ended up bringing down the overseas railroad; it was never rebuilt, but many of the bridges would be converted for vehicle use on U.S. 1. What sparked my renewed interest in this was being in Miami for a conference this summer. It's also where I lived and worked as a reporter for 12 years before returning home to Arkansas in 2009.

I'm a firm believer that we ought to have high-speed rail nationwide as an alternative and more comfortable way to travel.

Erin Wood of Little Rock, publisher, Et Alia Press:

Described as an "intellectual and emotional thriller," The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the most rousing book I've read this year. It horrifies, engulfs, and haunts, at times giving you more than you think you can bear.

Marzano-Lesnevich nimbly enmeshes the stories of a murderer and his child victim into her own childhood, as we come to understand how a chance encounter becomes an obsession becomes an unexpected way to read anew a traumatic past. Testing the absolute limits of her own empathy and understanding, Marzano-Lesnevich meticulously and relentlessly explores the destructive power of family silence and the brittle nature of facts. Her research is woven so intricately into her narrative that it becomes clear she lived for years with evidence and court records as if they were her very breath.

One of the many laudable craft elements of this book was the author's negotiation of time. By the end, we more greatly appreciate the many layers of time and experience that are brought to bear upon a single moment, and the ways in which the most profound experiences of our lives will forever collapse any notion that time is purely chronological.

Thomas Cochran of West Fork, author, most recently, of Uncle Drew and the Bat Dodger (Pelican), whose novel Roughnecks (Harcourt) was a Young People's National Book Award nominee:

My primary bookmark currently rests between pages 110 and 111 of George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, which I set aside after getting that far a couple of weeks ago. I may or may not return.

In the meantime, I've been reading and rereading a few things, notable among the former being John Vanderslice's 2014 collection Island Fog and, among the latter, Joan Didion's 1977 novel A Book of Common Prayer.

My recent favorite, however, is John Cheever's Oh What a Paradise It Seems, a 1982 novella I had the good fortune to return to the other day simply because it wound up at the top of a stack following a dusting episode. It is by no means a seamless work, but it is a beautiful one, Cheever's last. The writer's usual concerns are all here: love, lust, displacement, yearning.

Save the absence of a certain device, the story has a remarkably contemporary feel. This is because the predicament is nothing less than mankind's timeless own. A lovely spot is being spoiled. What shall we do? The answer is offered in prose that is often breathtaking, Cheever being Cheever to the end.

Ruthann Magness of Mabelvale:

While reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry I was riding on the trail, feeling romantic, enjoying Gus and Woodrow in their jocular scenes, feeling the tragedies and realities. McMurtry's storytelling talent is amazing, and the characters in this book are so well developed you feel as if you know them all. The good guys are good without being unbelievably so, and the bad guys are just that: bad. This and the geographic, weather and historical descriptions make this a joy to read.

I am happy to say that Lonesome Dove inspired me years ago to travel to Archer City, Texas, McMurtry's hometown, visit his bookstores, and finally meet him. That in itself was inspiring, but the wonderful part was meeting Mary Webb, one of McMurtry's childhood friends, and continuing our friendship and visits through the years. All because of the book Lonesome Dove. So thanks, Larry.

What a wonderful surprise A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman was to me. Ove seemed to be such a grouchy old curmudgeon in the beginning; after all, he was suffering from the loss of his wife whom he loved dearly plus being asked to retire. The book takes you through learning events involving neighbors, new acquaintances, former co-workers, the "system," memories and Cat.

Ove's tale winds through unexpected events with different emotional outcomes. For a man who I thought at the beginning to be rather strict and at times even hateful, Ove is found in the end to be productive, kind and even loving. I enjoyed this book more than any in quite some time. In fact I re-read it about six months later just to be sure I kept that good feeling about people current.

Bev Lindsey, who lives in both Little Rock and Washington, D.C. and is retired from a career that included politics, government, arts and humanities management and advocacy, public relations and communications:

One of my all-time favorite books is Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach. It is a fascinating look at the life of a Victorian British young woman who upon graduating from Oxford visits her uncle, the ambassador to Iran, falls in love with the Middle East, and spends the rest of her life traveling throughout the area.

Gertrude met and befriended the chieftains of the Arabian tribes throughout Arabia as she traveled in caravans, a lone woman in a generally hostile land. The British Foreign Ministry recognized her value as liaison to the chieftains and named her a senior adviser. One of my favorite passages was a description of the difficulties she had in maintaining her wardrobe of linen dresses and coats that she annually ordered from England. During her tenure she made arguments with T. E. Lawrence against an arrogant plan to consolidate the tribes into political divisions that she knows will not work. Sound familiar?

I love the book because it combines all my passions--travel, leadership, politics, history, and adventure. And one intelligent, determined, formidable woman.

Editorial on 09/10/2017

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