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Local Authors Find Their Own Best Stories

Nov. 26, 2012
 

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It’s old news that Mississippi cultivates great writers. The good news is that this is not ancient history. Jacksonians continue to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) and weave fascinating tales. A good book does more than merely entertain the reader, and in considering these Jackson writers and their new books that follow, we will be transported to other times and places; we will be humored and cajoled; spiritual doors of enlightenment may be opened, and we will finish each book with a clearer understanding of the human condition.

The Resurrectionist: By Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn is not a native of Mississippi, but he may as well be.

After graduating from the University of Georgia, where he studied English and religion, Guinn moved to Mississippi to study at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, which, incidentally, is where he met his wife, Kristen, a Jackson native.

“I find it no surprise that so many good writers come out of Mississippi,” he said. “There is an uncommon sense of community that connects people in this state.”

Mississippians also enjoy a much slower pace in their lives, which gives them an opportunity to observe and connect more, Guinn explained. “Flannery O’Connor said that possessing good manners is an element of what makes a Southerner a Southerner. I, too, believe Southerners have a common courtesy. They listen to others, and they connect. They know how to visit, and they are very conscious of their neighbors. It doesn’t matter if they are as garrulous as Willie Morris, or as retiring as Eudora Welty, there is still that power of observation and openness to others’ stories. Great writers possess that combination.”

The publishing of Guinn’s first book, The Resurrectionist, is a result of those kinds of connections about which he speaks. Guinn is a member of the Hard Times Literary and Drinking Society, a monthly book club, with father-in-law, Floyd Sulser, and Lemuria bookstore manager, Joe Hickman, to name a couple. Hickman read a draft of the book and loved it. He later invited Matthew to the store to meet author Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, who also loved the book and passed it along to his editor. The result is a two-book deal between Guinn and W. W. Norton & Company.

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“I love that my books are a result of these really non-traditional, but extremely personal channels,” Guinn said.

Although the book is set in South Carolina, The Resurrectionist is a fictional account of an actual event that took place at the Medical College of Georgia, when a large cache of human bones, bottles and other medical artifacts is unearthed during a modern-day renovation of the school’s oldest building, which housed the gross pathology lab.

Guinn’s book follows a character by the name of Dr. Jacob Thacker, who is faced with the biggest challenge of his young career — how, or if, he should bring this discovery to light, particularly when it was revealed that the discarded cadavers were almost entirely those of African-Americans. As Jacob continues to explore the school’s past, he finds that the person responsible for burying the bones was a slave purchased by the school and charged with maintaining the anatomy lab. Jacob is faced with a hard decision — whether or not to act in the best interest of his career, or in the interest of justice.

The Resurrectionist is a combination of Guinn’s love of literature, history and racial politics. It will be released nationwide on July 8, and will be available locally at Lemuria Bookstore. Guinn’s second book, Malthus, follows a 19th-century mass murderer through Atlanta.

A native of Atlanta, Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson with his wife, Kristen Sulser Guinn, and their two children.

The Shack Revisited: By C. Baxter Kruger

Baxter Kruger’s new book, The Shack Revisited, began with a telephone call.

“One day, I was sitting in my living room watching Eli Manning play football for the New York Giants,” Kruger said. “The telephone rang, and it came up as an area code I didn’t recognize. I almost didn’t answer it.”

But something in Kruger told him to pick up that phone. What followed was an almost 3-hour conversation between Kruger and Paul Young, also known as William P. Young, author of The Shack.

“The first thing I did was ask him why on earth he was calling me,” Kruger said. Young, a novelist, had been told that Kruger was teaching the theology behind his book, which was originally written as a memoir of sorts, for his children. The Shack is a fictional book about an ordinary man, who is lifted from the depths of his own despair through a chance encounter in a shack with the Holy Trinity.

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“Paul is not a theologian,” Kruger explained. “He is just a man, one who set out to write a book that would explain his own spiritual journey and transformation. He has certainly accomplished that and much, much more.”

Originally, Young self-published the book and began selling it out of his garage. To date, The Shack has sold millions of copies and has been translated into more than 40 languages.

The two decided to meet. They began traveling together and teaching the foundation of The Shack, primarily that of the Holy Trinity. Eventually, Young suggested to Kruger that he write a book, from his own perspective as a theologian. The Shack is not as much about religion as it is about life, which is why the book has seen such tremendous success around the world, Kruger said.

“It is a beautiful and relatable picture of the Trinity. My book is different from The Shack. My book is the story behind the story  not a sequel. It is for people who read The Shack and want to know more and grow into a deeper understanding of the Trinity in a way that deepens their connection and relationship to God,” he said.

The Shack Revisited was released worldwide in October and is available at Lemuria.

A native of Prentiss, Baxter Kruger is an author and a former college minister and associate pastor. He travels around the world teaching and preaching. He lives in Brandon with his wife Beth live with their children.

Run Away: One Woman's Story of Resilience: By Jeanhee Kang

Jeanhee Kang knows adversity, but she also knows victory. Born in Iskan, South Korea, Jeanhee learned early in life that there was only one way out of poverty.

“There was one man in my village, who seemed to have more white rice than the rest of us,” she said. “We were starving, and he was eating rice.”

The curious 5-year-old asked her mother why, and she explained that the man with the rice was educated and, as a result, was able to earn money to buy food.

“For my family, white rice was a treat. We were lucky to have one bowl a year to celebrate our birthdays,” she explained. “At that point, I knew there was only one way out — to go to school.”

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From that point forward, she made it her mission to convince her mother to send her to the city for school. Jeanhee finally wore her mother down. Just after she turned 6, Jeanhee and her mother walked 10 miles to the city to register for school. Because her poor family could not afford bus money, Jeanhee had to walk back and forth each day, often getting frostbite on her hands and feet.

“I still have scars, but that was the beginning of my education dream, which made every difficult moment worth it,” she explained.

But, at the age of 16, things changed for Jeanhee, when she “broke taboo.”

“I became pregnant, had an abortion and was thrown out of school,” she said. “In the eyes of my family, and society, I was a loser. In their eyes, there was no chance for me. I was finished.”

“One day, I woke up and realized that a person could cry only for so long. I made the choice to land on my feet,” she said. “They may have been done with me, but I was just getting started with them. I knew that my only option was to run away.”

Jeanhee shaved her head with the hope of joining a monastery, but, because she was considered to be “impure,” she was rejected. Her only option was to join a brothel in the hopes of meeting an American, who would bring her stateside. Her plan worked, and, within two days of arriving, she was in high school.

“I never told a soul what I did to earn that chance,” she said. “No one knew the shame of my past, but it was a new beginning — a wonderful new beginning.”

Jeanhee eventually graduated from high school and then college, but life was never easy for her, especially as a young woman. A series of failed relationships, many of which were abusive, left her bruised, but never broken.

“Today, there are 50 million American women living part, or all, of my story,” she said. “They are immigrants. They are high school dropouts. They are on welfare. They are pregnant teens. They are living with the shame of abortion. They are abused and living in a battered women’s shelter. They are single mothers. I truly believe that my story is that of every woman.”

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Jeanhee eventually fell in love with “a good one” and got married. Today, she is living the American dream with her husband, children and dogs.

“Not many people can say that they started out as a beggar and ended life as a millionaire. I am blessed enough to say that my story has a happy ending,” she said.

Jeanhee began to keep a journal about her life experiences and write down “the things that matter” to her. What resulted was a 1,500-page volume of work entitled Run Away: One Woman’s Story of Resilience, but has now been pared down to a manageable 331 pages.

In addition to running a successful business, Jeanhee spends her time telling other people her story through speaking engagements, locally and across the country. As if she hasn’t accomplished enough, Jeanhee’s ultimate goal is to see her book made into a movie starring Lucy Liu and directed by Tate Taylor.

“If you can dream it, it can happen,” she said. “I am living proof of that.”

Run Away: One Woman’s Story of Resilience is Jeanhee Kang’s first book. It can be purchased locally at Lemuria and online. She lives in Flowood with her husband and three dogs.

Fried Chicken and Wine: By Marshall Ramsey

Marshal Ramsey is an editorial cartoonist for the Clarion-Ledger, an author, speaker, radio host and philanthropist. His latest book, Fried Chicken and Wine, is a collection of 71 humorous and inspirational short stories. The cover features a photo of Ramsey, alongside an illustrated version of his beloved terrier, Banjo. The book shares a title with one of Ramsey’s short stories about an ex-patriot Mississippian, who is coming home.

Some of the stories are set in Mississippi, while other stories take place in areas ranging from New York to San Diego to the Smokey Mountains.

Ramsey describes his new project as “different.”

“Most people know me as a cartoonist; this is just a different medium for me as a storyteller,” he said, but his new book does contain several of his drawings.

Some of Ramsey’s tales are funny, some are moving and others bring hope.

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“All have characters who find unique ways to unravel the challenges of life,” Ramsey said. “Laughter, hope and redemption are ingredients that make up the seasoning of literary gumbo.”

When asked which story is his favorite, Ramsey said, “It depends on the day. I really like The Mustard Seed, Operation Magnolia, The Amazing Game, The Final D-Day and the stories based on Banjo the dog,”

The Mustard Seed is a story of hope for a man struggling to reinvent himself after his career took an unexpected nosedive. Requiem for a Terrier is the obituary of Ramsey’s canine companion, Banjo, who died this past summer. The Bottle Tree is a story about true love and Up in The Legend of Winston the Whitetail features a local deer from Kosciusko, who saves Christmas.

“All the stories are seasoned with bits and bits of truth, some more than others,” Ramsey said. “As Mark Twain said, ‘Write about what you know.’”

In addition to Fried Chicken and Wine, Ramsey has recently completed two children’s books — one for cousin and financial expert Dave Ramsey. The second, Santa’s Wish, was written by Santa and illustrated by Ramsey. He has written a book for cancer survivors called H.O.P.E.: How to Slay a Dragon’s Little Brother, which will be out soon, and he and his wife wrote Banjo is a Dog.

On Dec. 22, Marshall will sign copies of his book at Lemuria Bookstore in Banner Hall. Fried Chicken and Wine can be purchased at Lemuria and local bookstores across Mississippi.

Johnny Rayford is pastor of Crestwood Baptist Church on Bailey Avenue, not far from the Jackson Mall. Johnny is a remarkable cook who had a restaurant in New Orleans earlier in his life. Beginning early, a group of people gets together at Crestwood Baptist Church to help him prepare a big Thanksgiving dinner -- turkey, the best dressing I've ever had, vegetables, desserts, and Johnny's famous gumbo.

Each Thanksgiving, Phyllis and John Geary, with their four children, pick up a van from Broadmoor Baptist Church. "About 10:30 or so, we head out to pick up people," Geary said. "We visit the streets regularly and know a lot of homeless people. We start by going to places where they hang out, picking them up, and taking them to Crestwood. We also go to the Opportunity Center, a city-run facility for homeless folks, and pick up people there. We'll make several runs, as time allows. In the process, we drive around inner Jackson and find people who look like they don't have anywhere to go and try to get them to go with us. Some do, some don't. Funny, we mention Thanksgiving dinner and eyes light up. And then we say it's at a church, and they change their mind about how good it sounds."

People from the neighborhood come as well, and typically the group feeds 200-300 people. A worship service is held, with lunch served afterwards. "We fire up the van and take people back to wherever they want to go after dinner,” said Geary. "By the time we clean up and make the last van runs, it's about 3:00 p.m." Geary said that everyone involved has a great time. "Everyone has a job  making van runs, cooking, serving food, attending to guests, visiting with people. Even the younger kids are very much involved. Our youngest son, Patrick, has homeless friends, and he is great at serving food and waiting on people."