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  • Screening Room
  • Written by Alan Lightman
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  • Screening Room
  • Written by Alan Lightman
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781101870037
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Written by Alan LightmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alan Lightman


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: February 10, 2015
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-1-101-87003-7
Published by : Pantheon Knopf
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From the acclaimed author of the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams, here is a stunning, lyrical memoir of Memphis from the 1930s through the 1960s that includes the early days of the movies and a powerful grandfather whose ghost remains an ever-present force in the lives of his descendants.
Alan Lightman’s grandfather M.A. Lightman was the family’s undisputed patriarch: it was his movie theater empire that catapulted the Lightmans to prominence in the South, his fearless success that both galvanized and paralyzed his children and grandchildren. In this moving, impressionistic memoir, the author chronicles his return to Memphis in an attempt to understand the origins he so eagerly left behind forty years earlier. As aging uncles and aunts begin telling family stories, Lightman rediscovers his southern roots and slowly recognizes the errors in his perceptions of both his grandfather and his father, who was himself crushed by M.A. The result is an unforgettable family saga that extends from 1880 to the present, set against a throbbing century of Memphis—the rhythm and blues, the barbecue and pecan pie, the segregated society—and including personal encounters with Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr., and E. H. “Boss” Crump. At the heart of it all is a family haunted by the memory of its domineering patriarch and the author’s struggle to understand his conflicted loyalties.

(With black-and-white illustrations throughout.)


1955. A lady’s pink boa flutters and slips through the air. All down the street, Negro janitors shuffle behind white horse-drawn floats and scoop up piles of manure. I am carried along by the heave of the crowd, the smell of the popcorn and hot dogs with chili, the red-faced men sweating dark rings through their costumes, the Egyptian headdresses, the warble of trombones and drums of the big bands from New York and Palm Beach—me six years old wearing a tiny white suit with white tie clutching the hand of my six-year-old date, both of us Pages in the grand court, trailing the Ladies-in-Waiting gorgeously dressed in their gowns made of cotton, the white gold of Memphis. Cotton town high on a bluff. Boogie town rim of the South.
Far off through colored balloons, I glimpse the King and Queen, just off their barge on the muddy brown river. They solemnly stride through an arch made of cotton bales. Bleary-eyed women and men reel in the streets, drunk from their parties and clubs. From an open hotel window, someone is playing the blues. Music flushes the cheeks of the coeds and debutantes, dozens of beauties from the Ladies of the Realm who flutter their eyelashes at the young men. I am lost in this sea, miraculously picked from a first-grade school lottery; candy and glass crunch under my feet, wave after wave of marching youth bands flow through the street. Then a young majorette hurls her baton high in the air. Before it can fall back to earth, the twirling stick touches the trolley wires and explodes in a burst of electrical fire. Pieces of baton rain on the heads of the crowd.
Summons to Memphis
It began with a death in the family. My Uncle Ed, the most debonair of the clan, a popular guest of the Gentile social clubs despite being Jewish, had succumbed at age ninety-five with a half glass of Johnnie Walker on his bedside table. I came down to Memphis for the funeral.
July 12. Midnight. We sit sweating on Aunt Rosalie’s screened porch beneath a revolving brass fan, the temperature still nearly ninety. For the first time in decades, all the living cousins and nephews and uncles and aunts have been rounded up and thrown together. But only a handful of us remain awake now, dull from the alcohol and the heat, sleepily staring at the curve of lights that wander from the porch through the sweltering gardens to the pool. The sweet smell of honeysuckle floats in the air. Somewhere, in a back room of the house, a Diana Krall song softly plays.
I wipe my moist face with a cocktail napkin, then let my head droop against my chair as I listen to Cousin Lennie hold forth. Now in her mid-eighties, Lennie first scandalized the family in the 1940s when, in the midst of her junior year at Sophie Newcomb, she ran off to Paris with a man. Since then, even during her various marriages, she has occasionally disappeared for weeks at a time.
“With due respect to the dead,” Lennie whispers to me, “Edward trampled your father. Always.” She pours herself another bourbon and stirs the ice with her finger. “When he was about fifteen years old, your Uncle Ed opened a bicycle shop. He got some tools, read a magazine article, and started repairing his friends’ bikes. Charged them their allowance money. Your dad begged Edward to let him work in the shop. At first, Edward refused. This, of course, made Dick even more desperate to help; he was dying to work in that shop. Finally, Edward agreed, but he charged Dickie money every week for the privilege.”
“Shush,” says Rosalie.
“Did you know how your grandfather M.A.’s heart attack really happened?” Lennie says to me, smiling slyly and sipping her bourbon.
“What do you mean?”
“Exertion, bien sur. The best kind. And not with your grandmother.”
Forty years ago, I escaped Memphis, embarrassed by the widespread belief that southerners were ignorant bigots, and slow. I returned only for brief visits. Now I’m back again, for an entire month, caught by things deep in me I want to understand.
Lennie lights a new cigarette and wriggles her stocking-covered toes, poised to let fly another story. Cousins nudge forward in their reclining chairs. In my mind, I am sitting at the breakfast table with my grandfather, watching with delight as he butters my silver-dollar pancakes, then lathers on grape jelly and honey, finally sprinkling sugar on the entire concoction. Sweet as pecan pie. Muddy like the Mississippi River. Fragments of visions of Cotton Carnival. Elvis. Malco. BBQ at the Rendezvous. Someone moans from the pool, the next generation, and Lennie exhales a cool cloud of blue smoke.
Alan Lightman

About Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman - Screening Room

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Alan Lightman is the author of six novels, including the international best seller Einstein’s Dreams and The Diagnosis, which was a National Book Award finalist. He is also the author of two collections of essays and several books on science. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Nature, among other publications. A theoretical physicist as well as a writer, he has served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. He lives in the Boston area.



Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Labeled a memoir, Screening Room features the usual graceful prose and style of Lightman as he recalls the Memphis of his youth and compares it to the city in modern times as he returns for a family funeral. The stories he tells and characters he describes paint a vivid portrait of his family’s life and times, centered around the patriarch, his grandfather M.A. Lightman.” 

John Beifuss, The Commercial Appeal
“With a title obviously inspired by the Lightman family business, Screening Room is Lightman’s 12th book but first memoir. Despite its autobiographical inspiration, this remembrance of Memphis past is not far removed from the literary spirit of Lightman’s novels… [It] recounts significant episodes of Memphis, family and personal history, but uses composite characters to represent Southern attitudes. It touches on the cosmic, speculative issues that motivate the author’s fiction.”

Keith Ryan Cartwright, The Tennessean
“While Screening Room touches on elements of life in the South as well as the Lightman family business — movie theaters — the real emotional struggle lies in the haunting memories of his domineering grandfather M.A. Lightman and the impact he had on Alan Lightman’s relationship with his own father.”

Elaine Margolin, Jewish Journal
“The Lightman’s family’s rise to prominence is an exceptional one; a Jewish tale of resilience and daring and imagination.”

Washington Post
‘There’s a “Mad Men” ambiance in these pages and those times . . . Lightman’s book is about what really defines the South — the real common denominator in our contested little matrix of blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles: family . .  .Sure, it’s a white man’s story and it’s a Jew’s story. But transcending both of those narratives, it’s a Southerner’s story. Everyone in Dixie’s little matrix of identity will find nothing but page after page of aching familiarity here.’ 

John Winters, The Artery
“…a captivating narrative about his family and himself… The memoir is full of such memorable characters … who will steal your heart.”

O magazine
“The physicist and author of The Accidental Universe returns to Memphis after a death in the family to ponder a Southern boyhood as rich and complex as science itself.”

Maria Browning, Knoxnews
Screening Room is written in the same elegant, precise style that makes Lightman's novels so pleasurable to read, and the compelling concerns of his fiction — the slipperiness of memory, perception, and time, and the mystery at the heart of existence — are at the center of this book, as well. In Lightman's hands, this story of a family becomes a meditation on the fleeting nature of our lives and the precious flashes of love and communion that illuminate them.”

Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer
“What is Alan Lightman — physicist, MIT faculty member, novelist, essayist, and avowed atheist — doing writing of a time-traveling ghost-patriarch in the pages of Screening Room? It's the same Alan Lightman, artist-scientist, who can imagine a cycle of souls as one way of interpreting a troubled family universe.”

Billy Heller, New York Post
“A book about making sense of the South and trying to go home again.”

Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Over the course of a dozen original, mind-spinning books, Lightman, a theoretical physicist turned writer, has brought science to fiction (Mr. g, 2012) and story to nonfiction (The Accidental Universe, 2014). So naturally, instead of writing a straightforward memoir, he has created a subtly fictionalized, emotionally refined, and radiantly descriptive chronicle of his stirring family history and often confounding boyhood within a colorful Jewish enclave in sternly segregated mid-twentieth-century Memphis, Tennessee….As irresistible as M. A. is, however, it is Alan’s frank and tender portraits of his “grossly mismatched” and sadly derailed parents and his candid tribute to their African American housekeeper, Blanche, that give this remembrance such poignant dimension. Lightman purposefully illuminates Memphis’ checkered past, especially its ethnic and racial divides, as he provides glimpses of himself as a budding scientist punished for ruining the rugs with his chemical experiments, a teen employee at his family’s movie theaters, and an underage music lover slipping into Beale Street clubs. Heck, he even tells an Elvis story. Lightman’s utterly transfixing screening of soulful and funny family memories projects a quintessentially American tale.”

Gish Jen, author of World and Town
“Screwball, electric, heartfelt, and true, Screening Room pulls no punches. This is Lightman in a new guise, and yet never more himself as he resurrects with aching care the time, place and people that gave him life. I was stirred and moved.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The cumulative effect of Lightman’s memories is wrenching: loss and illness and death wander freely in his pages, reminding us of the evanescence of youth and promise. The author shows us many small moments, igniting each with sparks of passion, memory and intelligence.”
Alan Lightman

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Alan Lightman - Screening Room

Photo © Michael Lionstar

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