great writers

The smell of a bookstore has always attracted me. It seems like an absurd thing, a romance from a simple environment, I know. It’s like trying to turn a chalet into a castle. But buying a book in a real store full of novels and non-fiction is much more appealing than buying one online.

It’s the exact same feeling I get when I go to a real hair salon, one that uses hot shaving cream to clean short hairs. Or when I go to a real bar, the kind that doesn’t name the signature drinks but instead serves cold draft beer and has an array of American whiskeys. The environment is everything. It is a balm for this overloaded world.

I walked into the Wordsworth & Company bookstore in Little Rock a few weeks ago, where the sweet smell of ink and wood greeted me. Just like in libraries, people naturally speak in a softer voice in a bookstore, as if stepping into the doorway relieves anxiety and calms the pulse. I chose the titles, allowing the covers to grab my attention before skimming through the synopses on the inside flaps. If I liked the premise, I would have read a few pages to see how the prose grabs me.

Bookstores want customers to look after the merchandise. They want people to weigh their products, roll them over and over again. Bookstores will even tolerate a flick of the finger to turn a page despite these hyper-health-sensitive times. A book just has to feel good in every way, a feeling that an online retailer can’t deliver.

I always check writers who have Arkansas connections. Our state remains incredibly underrepresented in the publishing world despite some greats like Charles Portis and Dee Brown, alongside more recent stars like Kevin Brockmeier and Ayana Gray. But man, we have some good ones that deserve our attention.

I love Jen Fawkes and the stories she creates. I’m looking for John Jacobs and his gothic stuff. That day, I knew what I wanted: Eli Cranor’s first novel “Don’t Know Tough” and Rhona Weaver’s second novel, “A Sacred Duty.”

Lia Lent, one of Wordsworth’s owners, passed by as I read the praise on the back cover of “Don’t Know Tough”. /great-writers/ “Really good, and it’s really dark,” she said casually. “Not your average sports book.”

That was enough for me. Eli Cranor is from Russellville and was a football star in OBU and later coached high school ball. Earlier this summer, I met Shawn Halbrook, superintendent of the South Conway County School District, and we briefly talked about Eli. Shawn told me that Eli was teaching and coaching when he wrote his book. He said: “Eli spent his free time in the coaches office writing on his notepad. Little did we know it was part of his writing that would become ‘I don’t know. He’s always been of high quality.”

The premise of the story is that a star footballer who comes from a difficult background finds himself in a bad situation with his mother’s abusive boyfriend. A new coach is interested in the boy because he is a freak of nature and the key to winning a state championship – and because the coach comes from a similar life. This is where the feel-good part ends. From then on, it’s murders, family turbulence and, as Lia said, really dark scenes.

“Don’t Know Tough” can be an artistic marvel. Cranor writes it from multiple viewpoints, switching seamlessly between first-person perspective and third-person narration. He knocks the dialect right on the head and refuses to explain every detail – allowing dissonance to build in the reader’s emotions. It’s a masterful ride that brought me back to its pages.

‘A Sacred Duty’ is Rhona Weaver’s sequel to her debut album ‘A Noble Calling’. The book had not been released when I visited Wordsworth that day, so I had to wait to acquire a copy. In “A Sacred Duty”, Rhona brings back rookie FBI agent Win Tyler, who is assigned to a satellite office in Yellowstone Park.

Rhona’s first novel was well written and she described the landscape of Yellowstone perfectly. “A Sacred Duty” even goes beyond its initial success. Win Tyler is believed to be recovering from injuries sustained in a firefight with anarchists when he is called in to investigate skeletal remains found near one of the steaming geyser pools. He’s a former Razorback football player, a law school grad, and a young 20-something who can’t sit still for long, so he dives into the cold office files. The evidence he finds leads him from Yellowstone to Russia and back as he investigates a series of disappearances associated with the geysers.

I visited Rhona before starting the book and asked her how she became a writer with such clarity of setting and dialogue. She used to be a farmland assessor, she explained, and that required her to write detailed descriptions that would span hundreds of pages. She learned to see the landscape by writing and she always enjoyed good conversations. The rest came easily.

“A Sacred Duty” reads like a John Grisham novel. I’m one of those readers who thinks he can figure out the ending of every book, but this one left me guessing. I’m already looking forward to the third volume.

Which brings me back to the opening paragraphs of this column.

The environment is everything. A bookstore can feed your soul in ways an online retailer never can. A bookstore takes you on a journey of discovery that opens up new worlds and new stories and vibrant landscapes. The result is a better experience.

And, if we’re lucky, that leads to some great writers from Arkansas.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. “The Strenuous Life” appears every other Saturday.