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Foote’s trilogy, finished

So I finished Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy late last night, and let’s get this out of the way: The Union wins.

It took me a while to get to there. I started on this journey last year, about the end of July. I plodded through volume one and the first half of volume two — through Shiloh and Fredericksburg and Gettysburg and Vicksburg and so many other places in between — by Christmas. But then, the daunting task of finishing all 2,836 pages became too much. I put it down for most of the spring, returning to volume two with about 200 pages left when I went on a family beach vacation in late June. The uninterrupted reading time proved beneficial; the Confederacy was worn down to nothing in a few beach days’ time.

Thoughts, you ask? Not too many, really. Foote’s writing remains superb, the novelist telling the true story of this most important event in our nation’s history. Foote is an appreciator of glory and fine generalship; I could’ve used a little more about the everyman’s role. Yet the trilogy is considered the authoritative account of the war for a reason and I’m glad I read it.

I’d like to start Taylor Branch’s civil rights movement trilogy next. Maybe I’ll finish it in a little less than 11 months.



Good morning from Memphis

Just something I saw on the way to work this morning, so instead of noting it, I pulled over and took a quick pic. I tweeted it with the headline above. It was fun, nothing else. May do more of it.


Some recent writing

On a snowy morning here on Mud Island (snow, in March, in Memphis?), I wanted to share a few things I’ve written recently for The Commercial Appeal.

On Sunday, Feb. 17, I spent about 2,000 words on the new chief executive officer of the Memphis Grizzlies, Jason Levien. The guy has an interesting background, from politics to law to being a sports agent to being a team executive. I was particularly proud of the depth of the story. I was able to speak at length with former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., one of Levien’s good friends, among other people who know him (including a co-owner of the Sacramento Kings). Having good detail from those folks, and not just the primary subject, helped make the story, I think.

On that Sunday morning, though, I woke up in Houston. I was covering the NBA All-Star Game, which we treat more as a feature opportunity than hard news, so I draw the assignment. My big story of the weekend was a deep dive into Zach Randolph’s past, present and future — as it relates to Memphis. At these events, it’s hard to drag up anything meaningful, as players are surrounded by dozens of reporters and rely on their best cliches to get through. Fortunately, covering the Memphis player means I was able to get a little more one-on-one access, even if only for a couple of minutes, as the rest of the reporters were around Kobe and LeBron, etc.

And then there was this, a week later: I wrote a profile of Nathan Bedford Forrest for our Sunday Viewpoint section. Well, it was less of a profile and more of a look at what historians say about him. As Memphians well know, there has been a long-standing controversy about naming a public park in town for him. And a few weeks back, the City Council voted to remove his name. So I was asked to write this to lend some perspective.

I’ve spent much of my past week working on another Viewpoint section assignment which deals less with sports and more with the live entertainment industry in our city. It’s been interesting, and I’ll post the story here when it runs next Sunday.

I’m blessed to be able to do some interesting and in-depth things at our place, and I think every day about how not to take that for granted. I’m continually reminded how lucky I am to wake up every day in my favorite city on this (or any) planet and go to work at the only place I ever really wanted to work. That ain’t bad, folks.

Dealing with a sometimes unwelcome house guest, Book Number Two

I’ve found it to be the most popular of questions from friends these days: So, what’s book No. 2 gonna be about?

Book Number Two.┬áProper name, since it’s been mentioned so much. I’m not complaining about the question, I should say. Trust me — I’ve asked it more of myself than others have asked of me, combined. I do know I want there to be a Book Number Two. I also know I want to approach Book Number Two differently than Book Number One, business-wise, which means a much tougher road from concept to completion. And I’m OK with that.

About the only thing I know, topic-wise, is I doubt I want to tackle any sports subjects. Could be wrong. But I don’t think I want to go down that road, at least not today. A couple of historical/social topics intrigue me the past few months, but in the process of bullet-proofing them, I find them incredibly vulnerable to my own fire.

(Then, of course, there’s the doubt. Yeah, you did one, but c’mon, like you’re a ‘real’ author. That sort of stuff. I suppose those are the kinds of thoughts dealt with by the really good ones, too. Have to fight them. Already fought them once, I remind myself.)

In the meantime, I’m re-discovering the joy of reading for pleasure, which is something that I pretty much ceased for many months while I tried to wrap up Book Number One. (That was a mistake, I know.) I’m just past Gettysburg in Foote’s “Civil War,” have started reading some of Foote’s fiction, and recently completed Will Percy’s memoir “Lanterns on the Levee.” Walker Percy and more Foote are on the short list, along with Nate Silver’s book (finally) and Damien Echols’ book, too. Maybe I’ll cave and ask the boss-man, whose own fiction work is due out in a few weeks, for his best Faulkner suggestions, so that I may give the old man a second chance. (Doubt it.) Regardless, I’m content reading and reading and reading — and probably watching plenty of tennis and generally enjoying life in Memphis — for the next few weeks/months/years/decades until Book Number Two slaps me in the face.

You know, in case you wanted to ask.

Discovering the Percys — and more Foote — at Midtown’s great bookstore

We spent some of yesterday afternoon at Burke’s Books in Cooper-Young, rifling through the stacks and coming away with a handful of purchases. I came wanting to read more of Shelby Foote’s fiction and that of his friend, Walker Percy. Foote was a novelist first and a Civil War historian second; that’s why his 2,800-page trilogy reads with intrigue. Percy was a Louisianan who wrote Southern fiction. Much of his roots were in Foote’s hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. Speaking of that Delta town, I was also eager to obtain a copy of William Alexander Percy’s “Lanterns on the Levee,” which details, among other things, his involvement in the Greenville relief efforts of the great 1927 Mississippi River flood. It’s cited often in John Barry’s “Rising Tide,” which is one of the finest books I’ve read. (The Percys are cousins.)

Here’s the Percy shelf at Burke’s:

Instagram Photo

I left with Foote’s “Love in a Dry Season,” Percy’s “Love in the Ruins,” and, of course, “Lanterns on the Levee.” Seems like a good start.

The neverending task of reading Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative”

CivilWarIn early August, shortly after I completed my (much shorter) book, I started reading Shelby Foote’s three-volume “The Civil War: A Narrative.” It was compelling to me for a number of reasons. One, that Foote lived the bulk of his life just down the street here in Memphis. Two, I was captivated by the storytelling he delivered in Ken Burns’ documentary on the war. And, yes, No. 3: It was just one of those mountains to climb, one of those things I thought would be nice to say that I’ve done.

Today, a progress report. I’m dog-eared on page 344 of Volume 2 (Fredericksburg to Meridian, the subtitle), which puts me just on the verge of halfway. Grant is figuring out how to best get at Vicksburg; Lee isn’t too far away from what I’m sure will be an uneventful visit to Pennsylvania. (The Gettysburg chapter is regarded as Foote’s high point in this entire work. I’m excited to read it.) I find the writing amazing, honestly. He navigates through the most complex of maneuvers with a novelist’s toolbox, making a 150-year-old war compelling even when the ending is well known. Consider this beautifully written passage about a futile charge at the end of Fredericksburg:

“They went forward in the twilight, stumbling over the human wreckage left by five previous charges. Prone men, wounded and unwounded, called out to them not to try it; some even caught at their legs as they passed, attempting to hold them back, but they ignored them and went on, beckoned by voices that mocked them from ahead, calling them blue-bellies and urging them to bring their boots and blankets within reach. … For a moment the Federals hung there, beginning to return the galling fire; but it was useless, and they knew it. Despite the shouts and please of their officers — including Humphreys, who remained mounted yet incredibly went unhit — the men turned and stumbled back through the gathering darkness. Or anyhow the survivors did, having added a thousand casualties to the wreckage that cluttered the open slope, ghastly under the pinkish yellow flicker of muzzled-flashes still rippling back and forth along the crest of the stone wall.”

Yes, he indulges in some hero worship. To Foote, it seems, the war is about great men doing gallant things, not about regular men enduring awful things (even if that passage is a bit of an exception). And the lack of footnotes, despite a thorough bibliography at the end, is a bit odd. But that doesn’t discount his prose and his storytelling. It’s a great work.

I’ve resolved to read more of Foote, a novelist first, once this is over. Whenever that may be. And I’d also like to spend an afternoon poring over Foote’s papers, which are stored just down North Parkway at Rhodes College.

An early start on a New Year’s resolution

Greetings, all. I’ve latched on to the most 21st century of New Year’s resolutions: I hereby resolve to blog more.

Yeah, yeah, I know. But honestly, it’s been my intent for some time to have a robust site to draw attention to my work, both in and out of the newspaper. It’s just that 2012 was busy, you know. Writing a book will do that.

But now that the heavy lifting in book promotion and sales is largely in the past, I’ll start to transition my personal web presence from pushing books to just, well, being me. Sorry for that.

Anyway, check back soon or slap a bookmark here. I’ll be back.

A new site is coming

By landing here, you probably first went to, which allows you to pre-order my forthcoming book “Champions for Change: How the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Their Bold Coach Defied Segregation,” which will be published in October by The History Press of Charleston, S.C. So, thanks for stopping by.

In a few weeks, this part of the site will be redesigned and reformatted to contain news about book events, more information about the project itself and blog entries from me.

Should be fun. Come back soon.