Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

All Across the Wide State

What’s new in Tennessee books—and at Chapter 16—on January 21, 2010

Because he has written a trilogy of novels inspired by the Haitian revolution and a nonfiction narrative about that revolution’s spiritual leader, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, Madison Smartt Bell has become a sought-after commentator on the inexpressible tragedy in Haiti. In media outlets as disparate as The News Hour on PBS, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times, among many others, Bell is laying out a view of Haiti and its people that works as a powerful antidote to the images of desperation and violence so prevalent elsewhere in brutal sound bites and photographs. Click on the links above to see why Bell believes the destruction of Port au Prince might be the first step to genuine political reform in the country, why for “the past 50 years a remarkably vivid and sophisticated Haitian literature has been flowing out of Creole, an ever-evolving language as fecund as the English of Shakespeare’s time,” and why “Protestant missionaries of [Pat] Robertson’s uncharitable stripe” have damaged Haitian culture “on the order of the Taliban blowing up those Buddha statues in Afghanistan.” Then Google Madison Smartt Bell for even more straight talk and insight on the latest tragedy to befall the land where he first went, he writes, “to see God, face to face.”

University of Memphis faculty member and award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot is almost as visible as Bell has been, though her book hasn’t even hit shelves yet. The print edition of the February issue of O magazine (no link available) contains a 5,000-word excerpt from Skloot’s debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Popular Science magazine just named it the book of the month for February, including a tribute called “Five Reasons Henrietta Lacks is the Most Important Woman in Medical History.” Read the list here.

Memphis-born debut novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez is earning her share of accolades for a debut book, as well. Wench tells the story of four nineteenth-century women enslaved, both literally and psychically, to Southern planters. Last week Chapter 16 quoted from the book’s stellar advance reviews; this week you can read our own review of this emotionally complex and resonant novel. To hear Lynne Neary’s interview with Perkins-Valdez on NPR, click here.

On the opposite side of the state, debut novelist Amy Greene, who grew up on the outskirts of Morristown, is also getting the kind of attention a first-time novelist dreams of: The Atlanta Journal Constitution called Bloodroot an Appalachian Wuthering Heights. And Entertainment Weekly gave the book a grade of “A,” concluding, “This is a terribly sad, breathtakingly good read. Greene, get to writing another one quick.” The Knoxville News Sentinel ran a profile—complete with a video interview online—of the 34-year-old author who married at eighteen, had her first child at twenty, and wrote her first novel in bits and pieces, whenever she could safely take a notebook into her bedroom and close the door. (Distance-learning classes at Vermont College and a two-week stint at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference helped hone her prodigious natural gifts.) Look for Chapter 16‘s review, as well as an interview with the author, on February 4, in connection with Greene’s readings in Nashville and Memphis.

Abraham Verghese honed his own gifts as a physician not far from Greene’s hometown. Born of Indian parents who worked in Ethiopia as teachers, Verghese fled the country after the deposition of Haile Selassie. As with many doctors trained abroad, Verghese’s background meant he could find work only in smaller, rural hospitals, and in 1980 he found himself in Johnson City, Tennessee. There Verghese began treating AIDS patients, the medical work for which he is still best known. In the years that followed, while still practicing medicine, Verghese began writing seriously. His first book was a memoir about his experiences in East Tennessee: My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story. Other books followed—along with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—as Verghese pursued medicine and nonfiction with equal passion. Now a professor of medicine at Stanford and a blogger for The Atlantic, Verghese has written his first novel, which was named a best book of 2009 by Amazon, Publisher’s Weekly, and People magazine. Soon to be released in paperback, the book might just make Verghese a millionaire, according to British speculators: Amanda Ross has decided to feature it this year on The TV Book Club, a show that works roughly like a combination of Oprah and American Idol. Before he heads across the pond, however, Verghese will be in Nashville on book tour. Look for Chapter 16‘s interview with him on February 25, just before the event.

Till then, don’t miss this week’s offerings: a wide mixture of reviews, including a look at the Supreme Court’s vulnerability to peer pressure by former Vanderbilt professor Barry Friedman, a young-adult novel about magic (light and dark) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, and a collection of stories by Lorraine Lopez. Yes, that’s the same Lorraine Lopez whose essay collection we reviewed two weeks ago. These busy Tennessee writers! To keep track of them all, be sure to check in with Chapter 16 next week.