“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.)

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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:
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(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/08/book-biz-a-mississippi-father-looms-large-in-this-funny-memoir/)

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.

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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: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/11/13/book-biz-last-days-california-compelling-debut-novel-mississippi-native/)