Discovering the Mississippi Delta in “Dispatches From Pluto”

It sounds like the start of a classic fish-out-of-water tale: take one man from England who’s been living in New York City, plop him down in a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta, and hilarity ensues. It’s a true story, though, and Richard Grant writes about his adventures in the entertaining and enlightening Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.


After befriending Delta native and cookbook author Martha Foose, Grant visits her home stomping grounds and finds himself entranced by the land, the people, and the beauty of it all. The Delta’s languid pace appealed to him, as well, especially coming from NYC’s frenetic, stressful quality of life. Grant persuaded his Arizona-born girlfriend, Mariah, who’d also been living in Manhattan, to move south with him. (She didn’t take much persuading, as they were both burned out on big-city living.) Before you know it, they’re the proud owners of a circa-1910 4-bedroom farmhouse in Pluto, Mississippi.

Right away, they tried to orient themselves in their new Holmes County surroundings, learning the ways of their fellow Delta residents as if undertaking an anthropological study. The neighbors welcomed them with the hospitality you’d expect, filling their calendar with social engagements from elaborate dove hunts to dinners with eccentric characters galore.

Grant and his girlfriend learned how to shoot guns and hunt, how to deal with more mosquitos than they’d ever seen in their lives, how to identify cottonmouths, how to effectively clear weeds for a garden, and how to make home repairs on a hundred-year-old house. They learned new words (like “brake” and “slough”) and explored many of the small towns in the Delta that have seen more prosperous days. Grant toured Parchman, made a friend in Morgan Freeman, visited with bluesman T-Model Ford, and covered Bill Luckett’s campaign for mayor of Clarksdale.

Through it all, Grant writes with an admiration and tenderness for his new home and neighbors. The book’s often riotously funny, particularly when describing real-life crime stories in Greenwood and elsewhere. But Grant’s also thoughtful and earnest in trying to understand race relations in modern-day Mississippi. In one chapter he tackles, for instance, the current abysmal state of affairs of the public schools in the Delta. And he writes movingly about the grinding poverty he sees there.

Grant’s insights as an outsider trying to decipher a new world make this book compelling and also challenging. He’s confronting tough truths and asking hard questions, but from a place of genuine respect and love.

(Originally published here:

“Coming of Age in Mississippi” Still Inspires and Humbles

Reading Anne Moody’s searing autobiography of her time growing up in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, I was struck again and again by her bravery. I’d read Coming of Age in Mississippi before, years ago, but felt drawn to it again recently, and found it just as powerful now as ever.


Born in poverty and raised by a mother who worked multiple jobs to put food on the family table, Moody shares, in detail, just exactly what it was like growing up poor and black in rural Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s. She worked from an early age to help her siblings and mother, doing housework, yard work, babysitting, and odd jobs for the white families in their community. She explains vividly how, as a child, she grew to recognize but not fully understand the differences between her family and those she worked for. She captures this perplexity and this heartache perfectly.

Just as Moody was entering ninth grade in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered. He was 14 at the time, and so was she. At this point, everything changes. She remains a hard worker and a precocious student, but she’s now committed to fighting for justice and fairness. She finds she can’t be complacent, can’t just accept “things as they are.” It puts her at odds with her mother and many in her family, who fear for her life and theirs, too – a fear that is completely justified.

Moody would eventually attend Tougaloo College, where she was active in the civil rights movement. She participated in the famous Woolworth’s sit-in in downtown Jackson in 1963, where she and two other activists sat calmly for three hours at the lunch counter while an angry mob hit them, yelled at them, and poured ketchup, mustard, and sugar on them. She was resolute.

She saw and experienced more violence, from attacks on peaceful protests she participated in to threats while she was working to encourage black Mississippians to register to vote. Still, she didn’t cave. She didn’t run. She persevered. She recounts, in her book, the horror of hearing about both the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the Birmingham church bombing in September 1963. The latter happened on her 23rd birthday.

Reading this book places you right in the heart of the civil rights movement, with a remarkably strong woman as your guide. She was bold and outspoken and unafraid.

Moody died in February 2015 at age 74. Thankfully, though, her words, her courageous spirit, and her important legacy live on to inspire future generations.

(Originally published here:

“The World’s Largest Man” Delivers Laughs and Heart

Father’s Day may be behind us already this year, but that’s no reason not to let Harrison Scott Key entertain you with tales (some tall) about both his larger-than-life father and his Mississippi upbringing. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll reminisce about the time your own dad brought home a three-wheeler for you and simultaneously delighted you and infuriated your mother. (Or is that just me? I guess those things really were pretty dangerous.)


Key was born in Memphis but his family moved down and out to the country in north Mississippi when he was six. His father, dubbed “Pop” here, will be intimately familiar to many readers in Mississippi and throughout the South. He believed a man’s place was in the woods during hunting season, pre-dawn, gun in hand, waiting to successfully take out many vicious deer or doves. If not the woods, though, the football field was the most appropriate place to be. Or, a man’s place was at the dinner table, where in Key’s family, all the men were served and ate their food before the women were able to enjoy even a bite of their own hard work.

Trouble was, Key was a kid who enjoyed pursuits more suited to the indoors, like reading and drawing. He shared a special bond with his mother, a teacher, who fostered these things in him, but also didn’t wave his father off from trying to make him “a man.” As he writes about his childhood, you feel the intense respect and love he had for his dad, but you also can’t help but appreciate his ongoing bewilderment and frustration. They were about as different as a father and son could be.

Key’s gift for humor and language makes this book an absolute joy to read. His wit and way with words will surprise you and make you laugh out loud. In fact, be prepared for a few strange looks to be shot your way if you’re reading it alone in public somewhere. It’s so worth it, though. I hated when it ended.

Key also has a deft touch when it comes to more tender moments, and you’ll likely be fighting back (perhaps unsuccessfully) a tear or two now and then. For all the outrageous stories, there is an openness here, an honesty about life and family and love that connects all of us, in a way, to Pop. Give this book a read and get to know him yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Postscript: I had the immense pleasure of meeting Harrison Scott Key at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC recently. He was reading from and signing The World’s Largest Man. He also talked about the sometimes-tricky experience of writing a memoir while many of the people in it are still alive to read what you’ve written about them. He’s incredibly charming and funny. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much at a book event before. If he’s coming to a town near you, I highly suggest you go! I accosted him afterwards and he graciously agreed to this photo with me:

(Originally published here:

Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped” Haunts

To read Jesmyn Ward’s haunting memoir Men We Reaped is to step inside of her pain and grief. It’s impossible not to be affected by it, not to be left breathless, not to have to put the book down now and then for a spell while you recover.


Ward won a National Book Award back in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones. Set over the twelve days leading up to and right after Hurricane Katrina, that book explored the lives and troubles of a poverty-stricken family living in a small town along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Men We Reaped, minus the hurricane, travels some of the same territory. Here, though, Ward shares the real-life stories of her family and friends as they grew up in and around DeLisle and Gulfport, Mississippi. The book’s driven by the deaths of five young black men Ward was close to. All five of them died, in different and violent ways, within a span of the four years between 2000-2004. Among them was Ward’s beloved younger brother, Joshua.

The book’s a heartbreaking exploration, looking for answers, for connections between the deaths, for some way to make sense out of the clearly senseless. Ward tells us right up front about the five deaths and lets us know she’ll be writing about them in turn, but even though we know what’s coming, it doesn’t make it any less painful. Her gifts as a writer and storyteller are on display with each page, every sentence, every time she makes you wince.

In addition to sharing the stories of these five young men with us, Ward also writes movingly about her childhood and what it was like to grow up poor and black on the Mississippi coast in the late 1970s and 1980s. We learn about her hard-working mother, determined to provide for her children, working as many jobs as one person could to make ends meet. And we hear about Ward’s father, who was a charming man and loved his kids, but also had a wandering eye. We learn, too, about Ward herself and the gift for language and love of reading she showed early in her life.

Ward’s ability to shift from the specific to the general and then back again is one of the most effective things about Men We Reaped. While we, as readers, properly understand it to be her story, it’s also quite clearly a broader one, one steeped in racism, poverty, lack of opportunities, and a lack of empathy. Her story is tragic, but it’s, sadly, not singular. Ward demonstrates this in searing detail, if you’re brave enough to face it.

(Originally published here:

Books: On The Last Days of California

It’s no secret that Mississippi has produced a number of literary luminaries, whether we’re talking about William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Larry Brown. Our rich literary history isn’t just history, though — new voices abound, which is both encouraging and exciting. For avid readers, discovering these new writers and being able to follow their careers is such a gift.

Mary Miller is one shining example of these new voices. She’s a Jackson, Mississippi native, and is currently the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss, following her time as a Michener Fellow in fiction at the University of Texas.

In 2009, Miller published a collection of short stories called Big World, which I read and loved. I found her writing dark, funny, and insightful. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the publication of her debut novel this past year. Luckily for readers everywhere, she didn’t disappoint.


Narrated by a 15-year-old girl named Jess, The Last Days of California is about a family vacation, a road trip across the country from Montgomery, Alabama, to California. In many ways, it’s exactly like the vacations many of us have taken in our lives, complete with the annoyances and frustrations most families feel when in the car together for days. The key difference, though, is that Jess’s evangelical father believes that the rapture is imminent, and so is taking his family to the West Coast to both witness it and to proselytize to people along the way. Jess’s big sister Elise, a couple of years older, looms large as everything Jess feels she’ll never be: beautiful, self-assured, outspoken, and rebellious. Jess’s mother is also along for the ride, quietly skeptical and a bit removed, but supportive of her husband nonetheless.

Miller’s writing here is incredibly detailed, capturing perfectly the landscape of the South as seen during a road trip, from the changing landscape as they move across Texas to the various snack foods Jess and her sister buy at each stop along the way. In Jess’s voice, Miller has created a character any of us could relate to, no matter how far removed from our teenage selves we are. She’s searching for answers, both big and small. She bounces easily from concerns about her religion and what she really believes to worries about her family’s stability to more usual 15-year-old thoughts about her weight and whether a boy will ever like her.

Poignant, relatable, and often funny, The Last Days of California is a standout book that I enjoyed reading. I’m already looking forward to what Miller does next.

(Originally published here:

Ellen Gilchrist’s “Acts of God” Proves She’s Not Done Yet

Mississippi’s own modern-day master of the short story, Ellen Gilchrist, is back in true form. With Acts of God, her first book in eight years, and her 12th book of short stories overall, Gilchrist again pleases those who love her wit, her wry sensibility, and her keen eye for detail.

Gilchrist, at 79, has built a long career as a successful writer, and she shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. I was lucky enough to attend a book signing and reading she did this past May in New Orleans at the independent bookstore Garden District Books.

In front of a standing-room-only crowd, Gilchrist read one of the stories from her new collection, bringing back to life the beloved recurring character of Rhoda Manning. Set up as a series of letters between Rhoda, her lawyer, and her neighbors over some noisy dogs next door, the escalation of a trivial situation in Gilchrist’s capable hands was so funny she had us laughing the entire time. The pleasure of hearing a writer like Gilchrist read her own work can’t be overstated. And she herself said that when she writes something funny, she still thinks it’s funny long after, no matter how many times she’s read her own work.

As usual for the National Book Award-winning Gilchrist, she’s filled Acts of God’s ten stories with characters from Mississippi and she’s set a lot of the action either in Mississippi or New Orleans. She herself still keeps a condo on the beach in Ocean Springs, although she primarily lives, as she has for years, in Fayetteville, Ark.

The “acts of god” referred to in the book’s title do take the form of natural disasters in many of these stories, but she also stretches the meaning to include, more simply, things that her characters cannot control (like Rhoda and those pesky dogs next door). Hurricane Katrina gets its due here in more than one story, as does a tornado in Arkansas. But instead of being beaten by these external forces, her characters repeatedly find themselves learning how strong they can really be, and figuring out what matters most in life and what doesn’t. All of this sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but somehow Gilchrist still manages to find the lightness here and make us laugh.

Asked after she was done reading how she felt about writing for all these many years and where she found inspiration, she said, without missing a beat, “Y’all just keep doing all these crazy things and I just keep writing about it.”

(Originally published here:

How reading literature boosts empathy and emotional intelligence

Would you believe that reading can actually make you better at perceiving the emotional states of those around you? A study out of the New School for Social Research in New York City last year supports this notion, but interestingly, it’s not just reading any old thing that brings about these results. Specifically, those who read “literary fiction” versus popular fiction or serious nonfiction scored much better on tests designed to measure their ability to pick up on subtle emotional cues.

What do you get from Huck Finn that you just don’t get from Harry Potter? The two researchers who conducted the study believe that the nature of literary fiction causes the reader to have to draw conclusions and make connections that aren’t obvious. There are more things left unsaid. Simply put, literary fiction makes you work — sometimes a lot. While that undoubtedly slows down your reading (no speed reading of the classics as if they were beach books), it’s also building your ability to empathize with those around you. What better argument for diving into the great literary classics of our time?

As Mississippians (note: this originally was published in the Mississippi Business Journal), we’re lucky to call many authors of those great classics our own. So if you’re looking for a reason to read or reread literary giants from the Magnolia State like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah, or Larry Brown (just to name a few of my favorites), now’s the time.

Faulkner, in particular, makes you work hard for it, but the insights he provides into the human condition make every instance of furrowed brow worth it. I’m sure many of us have read As I Lay Dying and struggled through The Sound and the Fury, both exceptional. (My favorite remains Absalom, Absalom!, though.) By reading and rereading his work, we’re expanding our capacity for empathizing with our fellow man, a thought I think would delight Faulkner.

After all, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

(Originally published here: