Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow****

Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, has drawn accolades far and near. This is a family saga that features three generations of women, a story told with warmth and subtlety. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The story commences with Miriam planning to leave her abusive husband. She gets a few things and herds her daughters, Joan and Mya, out of the house. They’re headed to live with Miriam’s sister, August, in Memphis.

The family’s story follows them across time and points of view, but always from the point of view of one of the women. About a third of the way through we find an additional point of view from a character we haven’t met yet, and since we’ve heard from Miriam and August as well as Miriam’s girls, I’m expecting Hazel to be the daughter of either Joan or Mya, granddaughter to Miriam, but that’s not the case. Hazel is Miriam and August’s mother, and the time is the 1930s, a dark time indeed for African-Americans. I like this little surprise. I also love that the narrative embraces only women, across three generations.

As with all good historical fiction, there’s a hidden history lesson here as we follow the Norths across time. On the one hand, I didn’t learn anything new, but I am a history teacher. What I appreciate is the lack of reliance on cheap pop cultural references, and also the lack of revisionism. Stringfellow writes about the past as it was, rather than as she wishes it was. The characters are resonant and believable; my favorite is August. I love the ending.

The story arc is a mighty shallow one, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify the climax. This is my only real criticism.

Because I was a bit behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the narrators, Karen Murray and Adenrele Ojo, do a superb job.

Recommended to those that love historical fiction—especially surrounding Civil Rights—and to those that enjoy stories about multiple generations of families.

Memphis Ribs, by Gerald Duff ****

Memphis RibsIt’s tourist season in Memphis; the Mississippi Delta land is filling up with convention-goers and barbecue lovers. They’re fixing to parachute in a couple of whole hog carcasses, but not until after the Cotton Queen goes by on her float. And this being Delta country, the float really is a float; it is a barge made over, and she is much more concerned about keeping every hair exactly where it belongs than she is about finding out who killed Daddy the other night. Okay, actually she pretty much knows, and it was badly done. But damned if it’s going to spoil her special day. As for me, I just want to say thank you to Net Galley and Brash Books for the DRC. It’s been a dark but enjoyable viewing.

So let’s have a chat, just the two of us, about the best way to break into an ATM machine. Never tried it myself. I would never have thought to do it the Memphis way, so maybe it’s just as well I turned out to be more the sort to read and write things and less the criminal type. Because frankly, I never would have considered just ripping the thing off its moorings with a forklift and driving it away to where I could tear it apart in privacy. Franklin Saxon is more suited to this kind of activity. We’ll let him do it, or at least direct the hired help to do it. Well, for as long as he can, anyway; things don’t go well for him up the road a fair piece.

As for our local cops, JW Ragsdale just wants to get out of Memphis for a bit. It’s so humid, so crowded. The bugs alone will make you crazy. If he can launch an investigation that will take him out of town, preferably with a fishing pole and a six-pack in tow, he’ll be happy to fill out the paperwork saying he’s been on the job, been conducting critical interviews.

How sad for him, then, that he is so good at his work. One interview leads to another, and before you know it, the man is right in the thick of all sorts of drug smuggling, fraud, thievery and yes, oh yes…murder. It ain’t so much a holiday after all, and looky here, even the barbecue done turned rancid. It really isn’t his day.

The Bones family figures prominently; they’re employees of Franklin Saxon, recently bereaved son of Aires Saxon. The hard part is not sampling the merchandise.

“ ‘Shee-it,’ said Stone Job. ‘Shee-it. Merchandise. Why you call it that?’
“ ‘Fool, that’s what it is. That’s what we be buying and selling. Why you think we
done made a withdrawal from the ATM the other night?’”
“’To pay the white man the money for the rock. That’s why.’”
“’Right, you getting it. That be the Bones business…Free enterprise, motherfucker.’”

At first, with my political antennae always on alert regardless of genre, I was concerned about the negative depiction of African-Americans in the story. Were we going to veer toward stereotypes here? And what is up with the use of the word “honky”, which I hadn’t heard since the 1970’s?

But not to worry. This little tale treats everyone with equal irreverence. In fact, the very best, sickest humor, to my way of thinking, was the scene at the pork processing plant, when JW indulges in a little fantasy of his own regarding the speed-that-line-up foreman.

Trust me.

If you are squeamish, if you can’t deal with sick humor or gruesome interludes, give it a pass, already. It isn’t half as gross as most of what’s on television, but never mind; the point of dark humor is to enjoy it, and we want you to have a good time here.

If, however, you can read Janet Evanovich and The Onion and come away holding your sides, then this little goodie just might be up your alley. Originally published in 1999, it will be released in digital format May 5.

I recommend you read it separately from meal time, though.