Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tom Zoellner

Tom Zoellner has worked as a contributing editor for Men's Health magazine and as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the co-author of An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, whose actions during the 1994 Rwandan genocide were portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda, and author of Homemade Biography: How to Collect, Record, and Tell the Life Story of Someone You Love.

His book The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire, is the "first book to offer a panoramic and unflinching look at the modern diamond industry."

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
This seems to be the month of Southern regional portraits. I'm in the middle of Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill, an extraordinary history of the coalfields of eastern Kentucky published in 1962. The reporting is encyclopedic, but the writing is graceful and the insights about the people of America's forgotten mountains remain relevant today.

I'm also reading the book of a friend, Dale Maharidge, whose And Their Children After Them is both an update and a tribute to the famous lyrical portrayal of three Alabama cotton-farming families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. Dale's book won the Pulitzer, and deserved it.

Also on the stack is Knockemstiff, a collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock who grew up in the very same Appalachian town mentioned in the title and spent 30 years driving a truck in a paper mill before earning an MFA from Ohio State and producing this raw and depressing collection of stories. I wish my praise for this book could be as high as the first two I mentioned. Pollock has a real gift for language and some of the twists in his stories are genuinely inventive, but the subject matter is unrelentingly dark and he often relies on gross-out images to hook the reader (sex with dead livestock?), who starts to wonder about halfway through if these stories really are a mirror to life's complexities and not just a gratuitous ride through the worst fantasies of rural poverty and backwardness. Pollock has this sentence in his acknowledgments: "I grew up in the holler and my family and my neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help somebody in a time of need." Very little of that spirit is present in these stories.

Finally, I want to mention another book by a friend -- V.V. Ganeshananthan -- whose Love Marriage is rooted in a place about as far away from Appalachia and the South as geography allows. This book about the Sri Lankan civil war and its effect on one family is not to be missed for its compassionate look at the weight of duty.
Visit Tom Zoellner's website and read an excerpt from The Heartless Stone.

The Page 99 Test: The Heartless Stone.

--Marshal Zeringue