Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Last-minute gift options for local readers

Originally printed Dec. 21, 2011.

If, like me, you've put off your holiday shopping until the last minute, here's a list of a few books by local authors you might consider buying for your favorite bookworm.

'Fourteenth Colony'

Local author Jason T. Lewis is quite the renaissance man. A frontman for the bands Star City and Sad Iron Music, the West Virginia native initially came to Iowa City to study in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Since graduating, he has been digging his roots deeply into the local community.

Last month — with the release of his debut novel, "The Fourteenth Colony" — Lewis found a way to combine his loves of writing and music. The novel focuses on a few meaningful days in the life of John Martin, a down-and-out musician who is returning to his West Virginia hometown for the first time in 13 years. Martin finds his mother dead, his estranged father dying of cancer, and a past beginning to overwhelm his present.

But "The Fourteenth Colony" isn't just a novel; it's "a novel with music." The Americana-roots companion album features songs, written and performed by Lewis, that parallel the storyline.

The result is so good that I asked Lewis to be the first local writer to participate in what we at the Press-Citizen hope will be a new tradition: Printing a locally-written short story each Christmas.

Keep an eye out for Lewis' story, "Motel Santa," in Sunday's Press-Citizen.

'Here Lies Linc'

Ever since local historian Timothy C. Parrott published his pamphlet, "The Enigma of Theresa Dolezal Feldwert and the Black Angel" (2007), I've thought that the true history behind Oakland Cemetery's most famous grave would make an interesting back-story for a children's book. I always imagined it would be a lavishly illustrated picture book in which a character based on Parrott would get into well-rhymed debates with various myth-makers and ghost-storytellers.

Local writer Delia Ray must have had a similar idea because her latest young adult novel, "Here Lies Linc," tells the story of Lincoln Raintree Crenshaw, a 12-year-old boy who lives at the edge of Iowa City's Oakland Cemetery and who researches the Black Angel's history as part of a school project. (It even features a character based on Parrott.) Narrated from Linc's first-person perspective, the novel nicely contrasts his research on the Black Angel and his search into his own family's mysterious past.

My 7-year-old daughter loved "Here Lies Linc" so much that she made me buy several copies as Christmas gifts for her older cousins. And she especially enjoyed using the slightly fictionalized map in the novel to spend an afternoon exploring the real life Oakland Cemetery.


I didn't receive a review copy of Shane McCrae's "Mule" until after the Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate read at Prairie Lights earlier this year. But that's probably for the best, because it's taken me some time to learn to appreciate McCrae's poetic voice.

Now it's hard to imagine reading McCrae's poems as isolated texts — even though many have been published in literary journals. Read individually, the poems just give a taste of the themes of collaboration/division, marriage/divorce, racial identity and neuro-atypicality that echo throughout the collection.

McCrae's slash marks, for example, don't just stand in for a line break when his poetry is rendered in prose. Instead, he slashes his poetry mid-line — even mid-word — to show how no unit of poetry is truly unified.

The result is a sometimes confusing swirl of contradictions. But it's a collection well worth reading and rereading until the confusion resolves.

Opinion page editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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