Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Humanities Tennessee welcomes Junot Diaz

What’s new in Tennessee books—and at Chapter 16—on March 25, 2010

Before launching into the latest news about Tennessee’s authors, Chapter 16 would like to note some exciting travel news about a writer from the Dominican Republic: Junot Diaz will be in Memphis on April 8, and in Nashville on April 9, as a guest of Humanities Tennessee. You’ll no doubt understand our excitement about these events if you know that Diaz is the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. And those are just the decorations for one book. He’s also won a Guggenheim fellowship, the Pen/Malamud Award, and a raft of other prizes, and his fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, African Voices, Best American Short Stories (1996, 1997, 1999, 2000), in Pushcart Prize XXII, and in The O’Henry Prize Stories 2009.

More to the point, Diaz has scored all these awards because of the originality with which he regards his fellow human beings, the creativity of his depictions, the sweep of his understanding of history, and the energy of his engagement with the world. The New York Times‘s hyper-discerning Michiko Kakutani, who often and effortlessly eviscerates writers with a single sentence, couldn’t find enough superlatives for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, calling it “a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets ‘Star Trek’ meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It is funny, street-smart and keenly observed, and it unfolds from a comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek into a harrowing meditation on public and private history and the burdens of familial history. An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, it’s confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo, anime movies and ancient Dominican curses, sexual shenanigans at Rutgers University and secret police raids in Santo Domingo.”

In both Memphis and Nashville, Diaz’s events will be aimed at young readers—juniors and seniors in high school—who welcome the opportunity to meet this great writer and are willing to engage mature themes. “Humanities Tennessee is very excited to welcome Junot Díaz to Tennessee for two outstanding events,” says program office Lacey Cook. “We have nearly ten schools who will participate in the events in Memphis and Nashville, some of whom have already read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as part of their classroom assignments, and many of whom are incorporating the book into their current curriculum. We are encouraged to see our humanities programs enrich teachers’ lesson plans across the state and reach a diverse group of young people.” Students attending the events will receive a free copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as well as the opportunity to ask Diaz questions and to have their books signed by him.

Last sat in a high-school classroom a couple of decades ago? Not to worry: both events are free and open to the public, regardless of age or student status. Plans are still underway for the Nashville event; for details on Diaz’s Memphis appearance, please see Chapter 16‘s events section.

Harrogate novelist Silas House is up for his own award this spring: ForeWord Reviews, a trade journal which focuses on books from small and independent publishers, has named House’s newest novel, Eli the Good, a Book of the Year finalist in young-adult fiction. ForeWord awards are given to books which “expand a reader’s world, introduce a voice society needs to hear, offer practical knowledge where none existed before, or simply entertain so compellingly that all distractions fall away,” which pretty much nails Eli the Good, so Chapter 16 has all its money on Silas House. Book of the Year winners will be announced May 26 at a ceremony at BookExpo America in New York. In the meantime, read Susannah Felts’s review here.

As Memphis science journalist Rebecca Skloot has demonstrated spectacularly this season, an author-designed book tour can—with the help of readers, friends, social media, and independent book stores—literally run circles around the typical three-city publisher-sponsored junket. Skloot, who is in the middle of a four-month tour she designed herself, will give her first Tennessee reading from the now-bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on March 31. See events for details.

Nashville novelist and radio personality River Jordan (yes, that’s her real name), along with her friend Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, are on the final leg of their own self-designed book tour, which they’re calling “The Great Southern Wing and A Prayer Tour.” Jordan, whose most recent novel is Saints in Limbo, joins Tomlinson, a Louisiana resident and author of Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On!: What Southern Mamas Tell Their Daughters That the Rest of Y’all Should Know Too for a two-week/twenty-stop tour of independent bookstores—and friends’ couches—across the South. The pair returns to Tennessee this week with appearances in both Memphis and Nashville. Read their blog about the journey, which Jordan calls “wonderful, wacky, tiring, and truthful,” here.

Two former Tennessee writers are in the news this week: Jay McInerney, who once lived in Nashville, has just been named The Wall Street Journal‘s wine critic. McInerney, whose column will appear alternate Saturdays (he will share the role with Lettie Teague) is the author of iconic 1980s novels like Bright Lights, Big City, but he has also written two books on wine: Bacchus and Me and Hedonist in the Cellar.

Fans of former Franklin novelist Tasha Alexander will be glad to know her beloved Lady Emily series has been extended by two more books, for a total of seven volumes. Read Chapter 16‘s a review of Tears of Pearl, the latest book in the series here, and look for a new historical mystery from Alexander this fall.

Here at Chapter 16, look for reviews of new books by Brad Watson, Laura Bell, and Sarah Addison Allen, all of whom will be visiting the state this week, as well as a Q&A with Michael Martone, whose appearance at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is unlikely to resemble any other college lecture in state history. Details here.