Arts + Entertainment

The rigors of holiday shopping are hard upon us, and bibliophiles, like everyone else, will turn their eyes toward bookshops, online stores and e-books to make purchases for their families and friends. It’s also that time of the season when clearing my own desk has become a necessity. Here, then, is a smorgasbord of books, mostly aimed at the male crew. Next time we’ll offer a similar feast for female lovers of the printed word.

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For those who didn’t get enough of Halloween, Michael Renegar’s Tar Heel Terrors: More North Carolina Ghosts and Legends (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 0-914875-59-0, $12) will be a welcome addition to the gifts under the tree. Renegar, who currently lives in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, includes here stories of Carolina ghosts from the coasts to the mountains.

Because he resides in the Piedmont, and because he attended Appalachian State University, Renegar is particularly good in his selection of ghosts stories from these areas. Having grown up in Boonville, which is near Winston-Salem, I found, for example, several stories here from that area which were completely unfamiliar to me. Renegar does include the classics, like the Little Red Man of Old Salem fame, but many of his stories here should be new to readers. His previous book, Roadside Revenants and Other North Carolina Ghosts and Legends, is also a fine collection, focusing on the ghosts who haunt North Carolina’s highways and including a chapter titled “Tips for the Would-be Ghosthunter.”

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An excellent choice of a gift for a young man is William J. Bennett’s The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (ISBN 978-1-5955-5271-6, $34.99). Bennett, author of the best-selling The Book of Virtues, offers in this 500-page tome a compilation of letters, interviews, essays, biographies, and historical accounts designed to embody what Bennett calls “the eternal qualities of manhood.”

Bennett’s book stands apart from some similar collections in its simplicity and appropriate selections. (Think Walter Newell’s collection What Is A Man? in which the editor does a fine job of surveying three thousand years of writing on manhood, but whose selections will not appeal to any but the most academic of teenagers).

Divided into sections ranging from “Man in War” to “Man in Prayer and Reflection,” The Book of Man gives us accounts ranging from Hesiod’s Works and Days to Paul Read’s Alive, but does so with younger male readers in mind. Bennett includes accounts of different soldiers in Afghanistan, the basketball team from Milan, Ind., featured in the movie “Hoosiers,” Davy Crockett’s discussion of the Constitution with a Tennessee farmer, Unabomber victim David Gelernter’s thoughts on marriage, and close to 300 other entries. Many of these selections will be unfamiliar to readers, and will perhaps inspire young men to search out the complete books and accounts of some of those featured here.

For young men and old, The Book of Man makes a fine Christmas gift.

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If William Bennett writes to inspire men, Patrick J. Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (ISBN 978-0-312-57997-5, $27.99) will leave the most cockeyed optimist in the country splashing more bourbon into his Christmas eggnog. Here, as he has done in previous books, Buchanan works statistics, history, economics and philosophy into a bomb that he then hurls at the reader through his book. Buchanan returns to some of the themes of his earlier best-sellers — the moral and economic decline of the West, the demographics behind our changing world, the tribalism which is slowly replacing nationalism (a trend which, as Buchanan writes, President Obama had the foresight, unlike so many other politicians, to discuss at length in a political address).

What sets this book apart from some of his work is that Suicide of a Superpower offers ideas which would appeal both to Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He favors labor unions, calls for the legalization of certain recreational drugs, and a closing of many of America’s overseas military bases while at the same time espousing Western culture and warning of the dangers of American out-of-control entitlement programs.

In the chapter titled “Demographic Winter,“ his examination of the world’s population statistics, an issue about which he has long taken a deep interest, Buchanan will shock some readers and remind those familiar with these numbers that countries such as Japan, Russia and most European countries are already finding themselves, given their declining populations, unable to support the social programs which the post-World War II years brought into being. (For readers interested in the European Union and its current overwhelming problems, see Nigel Farage on Youtube. It‘s an astonishing performance, one which no American politician could dare give even if capable of speaking so well). Buchanan writes:

“A time of austerity is at hand. And from the riots across France to the anarchist attack on Tory Party headquarters in London to the garbage left piled high and stinking on the streets of Marseille and Naples in the fall of 2010, Europe is not going gentle into that good night. But go she shall.”

Suicide of a Superpower is a warning that this same good night awaits us as well unless we Americans — and our leaders — come to grips with the problems facing us.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death by suicide. He has remained, of course, an icon of American letters, a legend, a man whose life and art still seem to tower over today’s writers. Only his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac have exerted the same kind of mythic literary pull on the popular imagination of his countrymen. There are Hemingway websites, numerous Hemingway biographies, Hemingway festivals and even Hemingway look-alike contests.

Joining the mania of all things Hemingway is biographer Paul Hendrickson. In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (ISBN 978-1-4000-4162-6, 531 pages, $30), Hendrickson connects the life of Hemingway to his love of the sea and the boat on which he sailed for so many years, the Pilar. Hendrickson is a man of many gifts: a meticulous eye for research, a writer who can bring alive the past on paper, a biographer who clearly loves his subject but who has the courage to present his foibles in full. He brings all these talents to bear in this study of the Nobel Prize winning author who also was wounded in war, lived his youth in Paris, hunted lions in Africa, spent countless days fishing the Gulf Stream, and changed the shape of the American fiction.

In his prologue, Hendrickson lays out some general thoughts regarding Hemingway’s life, observations that other biographers have either missed or downplayed. He writes, for example, that “I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway, however un-postmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself.”

He alleges, too, that “there was so much more fear inside of Hemingway than he ever let on,” mostly a fear of suicide (in perhaps a related phobia, he was also, by his own admission, terrified of falling asleep in deep darkness). Hendrickson also believes Hemingway was a man of heroic stature, torn apart by a high sense of honor and an inability to meet his own standards.

Finally, despite Hemingway’s reputation for killing friendships and abusing those around him, Hendrickson tells us that Hemingway possessed a kind and compassionate side to his nature often overlooked by other biographers. He returns to this point repeatedly throughout the book, showing us examples of this gentler Hemingway: his tender letter to a nine-year-old boy with congenital heart disease, written just days before Hemingway took his own life; his loan of money to a young man in distress; his love and concern for his sons, at least until they grew to manhood; his agonies of guilt when he would hurt friends and loved ones.

Two problems do arise in Hemingway’s Boat, difficulties to which Hendrickson seems strangely blind. The first has to do with Hemingway’s alcoholism. Hemingway regarded drunks as “rummies,” and either scorned them or pitied them, as he pitied Fitzgerald, but he could never acknowledge that he himself was an alcoholic. Hendrickson knows of Hemingway’s drinking and surely knows how deeply it affected his relationships with others, his mental state, and the quality of his work, yet he rarely mentions this enormous flaw. We hear again and again that Hemingway drove friends away, but Hendrickson doesn’t seem to make the connection that Hemingway was for years a rummy himself.

He notes, as others have, Hemingway’s penchant for mishaps — he shot himself by accident, for example, while fishing on the Pilar — but again doesn’t tell the reader that these accidents were often caused by alcohol as much as by Hemingway’s famous clumsiness.

Stranger still is Hendrickson’s long treatment in the latter half of the book of Hemingway’s relationship with his son Gregory, known as Gigi to his father. Gregory led a life troubled by his relationships with his parents and wives, his sexual identity, his alcoholism and drugs. In 2001, he died as a transgendered Gloria Hemingway in the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. (One note: when I worked as a clerk in the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston from 1975-1976, Gregory Hemingway visited the store for a book signing of Papa, his account of his father. He struck me as the author has described him here — a nice man, diffident, interested in others).

Certainly Gregory’s wild life, his drinking, his drugs, his inability to accept responsibility for his actions, is sad and arouses our pity, and to look at his relationship with his father is worthy and just in understanding Hemingway, yet Hendrickson gives almost no space to Gregory’s relationship with his mother, Pauline. It was Pauline who, after her divorce, did the bulk of the parenting. Hendrickson does note some details of her life and her time with Gregory, but why spend so much time investigating the effects Hemingway had on Gregory’s life without examining at length the effect of his mother?    

Despite these failures in the book — and perhaps in part because of them, particularly the attempt to make so many connections between Hemingway and his third son — Hemingway’s Boat is one of the most compelling biographies of the year. This book will haunt you long after you have closed the covers, intruding at odd times into your emotions, roughing up the smooth waters of your thoughts like the winds on Hemingway’s sea.

Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf, 2011. 544 pages.

In recent years, a few individuals have taken on large reading projects and then written books of their own about their literary odyssey. Reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, Adler’s Great Books, various millennium book lists: all have received such treatment. Still others have assigned themselves certain timed races based on a particular book, the best known of which is Julie Powell‘s decision to prepare all of the recipes found in Julia Child‘s first cookbook.

In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (ISBN 978-0-06-199984-0, $23.99), Nina Sankovitch undertakes such a scheme, but with a darker personal motive. When her older sister, her beloved Anne-Marie, dies at the age of 46, Sankovitch is left bereft and extremely depressed. She is particularly bothered, as are many who lose a loved one, by such questions as why her sister had died, why Anne-Marie had died instead of her, why she herself had deserved to live.

For three years, Sankovitch bore the pain and questions of her sister’s death. Then one day, while on a get-away weekend vacation to the beaches of Long Island, Sankovitch began reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She read through the afternoon and into the evening, and realized when she closed the covers of the book that she had read this classic in a single day. She decided then to try and read a book a day for a year, intuitively hoping that this reading would yield answers about her sister’s death and even the reason for her own existence. Of that evening, when her husband — he is surely to be admired for participating in her quest — asked her if she couldn’t read a book a week, she wrote:

“No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and pain.”

And so Sankovitch commenced her daily sprint, taking up classics like Forester’s The African Queen, Kipling’s Captains Courageous, and Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; newer works by authors like Wendell Berry, Jim Harrison, and Muriel Barbery; suspense and science fiction novels; biographies; young adult books. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair — the chair is a banged-up family treasure, stained and patched, which served as her reading headquarters — Sankovitch recounts in detail the pressure such reading put on her household chores and cooking, her duties to her husband and children, the difficulties brought by the exigencies of any modern daily life. Many evenings, she could barely keep her eyes open as she struggled to maintain her book-a-day agenda.

What is best in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, however, is not the author’s literary criticism, but the way in which she blends her accounts of her reading with the story of her family and with broader human concerns.

In a minor chapter titled “Sex By The Book,” for instance, she addresses her own sexual desires even in the face of watching over four children, shopping and cooking, and reading her daily text. Through books like The Delta of Venus and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she finds revelations that help her understand her own sexual desires and her long and continuous love for her husband, Jack, and of the world they have made together “where we are safe — or as safe as we can be.”

Sankovitch also takes us into her childhood, which differed from that of many of her contemporaries. Both her parents were immigrants who had suffered as children during World War II, and both brought to the United States the European love of custom and music now all but lost even in their native lands. Sankovitch describes her mother and father listening to classical music on Sundays and taking their own pleasures from literature. Both were professionals — her father was a surgeon, her mother a university teacher — who frequently invited friends, students, and other visitors into their home.

Throughout her writing Sankovitch also comes back time and again to her sister, the memories they shared, the books they enjoyed, her death. Though she realizes that “there is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love,” her year of reading does bring her a sort of peace regarding Anne-Marie. She tells us that “reading one book a day was my year in a sanitorium,” and the answer which she derives from that sanitarium is that “our only answer to sorrow is to live, to live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement.” For Sankovitch, Cyril Connolly’s tag on the flyleaf — “Literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living” — takes on the import of a motto on a family crest. She reads herself back to health, finding in words and stories not only a respite from her hectic life, but an answer to that life.

One last lesson will strike to the heart of any reader who has suffered the death of a loved one. With the best of intentions, family members and friends will often tell the survivor that it is important to move on, to stay busy, to put the past away. There may be some truth to this advice, but in the pell-mell rush of the society in which we live, it is equally important to remember, as Sankovitch finally did, that to slow down, to contemplate, and to remember offer a reliable path to reconciliation and acceptance.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch. Harper, 2011. 256 pages.

Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher in Western North Carolina. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It is no secret that writers are influenced by authors whose work they admire. Though he would later turn his back on them, Ernest Hemingway felt the literary touch of contemporaries such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein (his style was also molded by the “cable-ese” of his own newspaper reporting), while William Faulkner was drawn to French poets and to writers such as Balzac, who built his novels from a specific locale, what Faulkner would later call his “own little postage stamp of native soil.”

In a recent interview, novelist Dawn Tripp cited her own influences — Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Ondaatje, Marguerite Duras, and others — all of whom write, as Tripp accurately states, novelistic structures that are not straightforward and linear in time, but instead are either fractured or mosaic in their construction of story and plot. Of this particular novelistic approach, which tells its story by building on the perceptions of characters and their take on other characters and events, Tripp accurately says that “there is a certain dreamlike immediacy, a certain life of the work that takes precedence, a nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that runs through the narrative ….”

In her latest novel, Game of Secrets (ISBN 978-4000-6188-4, $25), Tripp creates a story that fulfills these ambitions, a tale that, as she says, “is absorbed by the reader in a more visceral, intuitive way” than that provided by most authors. The fragmented structure of Game of Secrets immediately and intimately draws the reader into itself, piecing together a mosaic built from adultery and murder, from small-town New England lives, from Scrabble games played between two women who are friends and strangers to each other, from the passions of the young who return to a place and circumstances which they have both loved and hated.

Game of Secrets enlists a squad of narrators to tell its sad, lurid story. There is Jane Weld, 11 years old when her father, Luce, disappeared (his skull was later found with a single bullet hole in it), who loves poetry — she is particularly enamored of the verse of Dylan Thomas — and who now plays weekly Scrabble games with her murdered father‘s aged lover, Ada Varick. There is Marne, Jane’s angry, wandering daughter, who has returned to the village from California as a burnt-out case, who in knocking about the country has picked up a knack for origami, and who now finds herself attracted to Ray, Ada’s son. There are Ada’s sons: Ray, to whom Marne looks for affection, and the darkly flawed Huck, whose wild and despairing bitterness is rendered less alienating by his love for Jane.

Through the eyes of these men and women, all possessed by virtues and faults, all haunted by a past not of their own making, we come slowly to understand how the long-ago affair between Luce and the tempestuous Ada has carried its weight down through the passage of years. As Game of Secrets reveals its mysteries, the reader — along with the characters — comprehends the ramifications of that long-hidden crime and its effects on the members of the Varick and Weld families. The story is much like the Scrabble game written about in scrupulous detail by Tripp, the contest played between Ada and Jane that runs like an Alpine rope through most of the book, linking characters and events. We see that this game of words, of words building on words in surprising and startling ways, mirrors the relationships and history of the characters themselves.

In addition to her gifts for characterization and for creating suspense, Tripp — she is also the author of the novels Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water — gives us an intimate portrait of rural New England  itself. In reading Game of Secrets, we come to know Tripp‘s own “postage stamp of earth”: the ways of the town and the countryside, the tourists who vacation here in the summers, the hard lives of many of the natives, the play of air and wind and sunshine on the land and the sea. Here, for example, Marne takes note of the land while on a drive with Ray:

“When you first come home, you can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia. You see the idyll of the place — you see it like a person away might — the tranquil New-Englandy beauty, swatches of open land still left, the village at the Point, those cedar-shingled saltbox houses, the double-forked branch of the river, sea running into land.

“It’s a particular point of earth — you come home, and the light is like nowhere else. You think to yourself, I can do this. So you stay.”

Faulkner once famously observed that “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” Our own Thomas Wolfe, another author obsessed with time and its cumulative effects on the lives of all human beings, echoed this sentiment when he wrote at the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel: “…our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.”

In Game of Secrets, Tripp reminds us once again that the past is always with us, that we struggle both to escape its clutching fingers and to embrace its terrible beauty, and that the secrets of the past, once revealed, may not only inflict painful wounds, but may also in the end bring healing and acceptance.

 

Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp. Random House, 2011. 272 pages

Often the people, places, and things that we love most in this world become so familiar to us, so much a part of the tissue of our own lives, that only their end or impending loss reminds us of how much we truly value them. The descent of a loved one toward the grave, the loss of a family home by disasters natural or financial, the theft of some family heirloom: only when we suffer such misfortunes do we suddenly awake to the awful realization of what the loss meant to us, how much these treasures were a part of the tissue of our lives. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but it very often does engender in us a blindness to the worth of those everyday people and objects which we take for granted.

This very human failure to appreciate fully the gifts bestowed on us by providence or by past sacrifice may extend to the national level. It is difficult today, for example, being citizens of a country built 200 years ago on a foundation of freedom, to recognize how revolutionary are the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” When written, those words, composed though they were by a slave-holder, were utterly new to the great bulk of mankind, and they have since electrified the hearts of men and women around the globe. We take for granted “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” but for those who do not possesses these commodities, or who have lost them, these few words, coupled with the idea that the truths behind them are “self-evident,” continue to light a flame in the hearts of all who love liberty.

Give our current political antagonisms — the recent declarations by a few that the Constitution is dead should trouble all, left and right, who value freedom — perhaps it behooves us to turn the pages of a few American history books and recollect why “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” should remain at the heart of the American dream.

History, which is as much an art as a science, offers us a great choice of texts in looking at Revolutionary and Early Republic America. In addition to the best-sellers by David McCullough — his John Adams is particularly valuable for its insights into the Founders’ views on liberty — we can turn to a variety of other resources. Readers who lean left may prefer to peruse Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, in which Zinn looks at events through the eyes of the working classes, women, and minorities, an examination flavored lightly by Marxism, while those on the right would doubtless prefer Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States, another hefty book which takes a more traditional view of American history while debunking some of its recent interpretations (Ideally, our leftists would open Schweikart while right-tilting readers would take a look at Zinn).

In Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned, Kenneth C. Davis purports to “serve up the real story behind the myths and fallacies of American history.” He clears up some of these misconceptions, but his smart-aleck attitude and politically correct viewpoints will put off those readers who actually do know something about American history. The “Dummies” and “Idiots” guidebooks — U.S. History For Dummies, for instance, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Founding Fathers — offer the cheeky attitude without the sharply slanted views.

Larry Schweikart, a professor of history at the University of Dayton, has recently issued a book that might enlighten citizens of all political stripes. What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems (ISBN 978-1-59523-074-4, $26.95) needs to be read cautiously, for the author, as we may conjecture from the title, attempts to look at the writings of the founders of the Republic and then draw conclusions as to what they might say about our own contemporary woes. The chapters of the book are titled in the form of questions — ”Is The Government Responsible For Protecting The Land And The Environment?” “What Is The Purpose Of War And Should It Be Avoided?” and so on — and Schweikart, of course, tends to reply to these questions from a conservative viewpoint.

What makes the book valuable, however, is not the author’s political beliefs, but what he tells us of the Founders. He gives us their unvarnished views on topics like debt, war, and the limits of government. Here, for example, in discussing whether government should have care of the physical health of its citizens, Schweikart spends several delightful pages entertaining us with the dietary habits of early patriots. John Adams, for example, “pounded down a pitcher of hard cider with every breakfast” while Ben Franklin, who as usual offered good advice, wrote that “if thou are dull and heavy after meat, it’s a sign that thou hast exceeded the due measure; for Meat and Drink ought to refresh the Body, and make it cheerful, and not to dull and oppress it.” In other words, citizens who are expected to work, live, and sometimes fight in an atmosphere of freedom ought to be able to judge for themselves a standard of health.

Winter is coming, and winter evenings are a time for long thoughts. We might all benefit ourselves and our country by turning those thoughts, even briefly, toward the treasures of the past and by remembering that what we will be comes from what we are, and that we are comes from how we perceive what we were.

What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems by Larry Schweikart. Sentinel HC, 2011. 256 pages

In last week’s The Smoky Mountain News, Gary Carden began his review of Ron Rash’s collection of poems, Waking, by praising the writer’s description of a trout brought home and kept alive in a trough, where “its gills were like filters/that pureness poured into.”

The streams and rivers of Western North Carolina attract anglers like — well, like a well-tied fly attracts a trout. Even casual hikers are accustomed to the sight of a man or woman in waders in the middle of a stream, line out, intent on the dark shadows of the moving waters. In some families, fishing and what Hopkins once called “the tools and tackle” are passed along as heirlooms with the same reverence as that shown to Granny’s Bible, Uncle John’s shotgun, and Aunt Martha’s quilts. Others come to the pleasures of fishing — the solitude, the skills, the thrill of hooking a brown or a bass — later in life. However people find their way to water with a pole in one hand and refreshments in the other, they frequently become as passionate about their avocation as a golfer in a clubhouse on the eighteenth hole.

In Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 978-0-914875-60-4), David Joy offers readers both a paean to fishing and a memoir of his own days on the water. He takes us from the coast of North Carolina, where he fished as a boy with his family (he dedicates his book to his grandmother, who not only helped teach him to fish, but who also gave him a collection of stories from her own days of fishing), to the creeks and rivers of our own mountains.

A fisherman since the age of 4, Joy as a child studied fishing shows on television while other adolescents were watching Saturday morning cartoons. He recounts what a fine teacher his Granny was, showing him, for example, how a fish on the line feels as opposed to the tugging of an ocean wave. He then extends his story into his many forays into the mountains, recounting trips along the Tuckasegee, telling us stories of his catches and near misses, explaining how he learned to tie flies from a friend named Zac, whose “Burke County blood had toughened him into a man.”

Joy, who credits his Granny for first teaching him the fine arts of story-telling and the power of description, does his mentor proud in Growing Gills. Here, for example, he recreates a scene on a coastal beach:

“The winter sun had sunk behind the swaying sprigs of sea oats and disappeared beneath the smoothed dunes. A sleek pane of wet sand, a remnant of receding waves, shone like a sheet of ice in the dying sunlight.”

Joy also lets us feel the emotions of those who put a line into water:

“When I see a trout rise to a fly or turn on a nymph, pleasure builds in my chest nearing explosion. This is when an artist knows to wait: oftentimes I do, but at other times the urge becomes too much, usually resulting in a missed fish.”

Yet Joy does more than wax poetic about fishing in Growing Gills. Here are practical chapters on fly-casting and its difficulties, on scouting the shadows and sunlight of a creek for various fish, on the challenges and rewards of night fishing. Both amateur and veteran anglers may learn some good lessons from Joy’s clear, clean prose on the technical aspects of fishing.

The last half of Growing Gills is somewhat marred by Joy’s Bambification of nature and a concomitant misanthropy. “I was the species that dismantled the world with empty syllables, with metaphors meant to dominate,” he writes. “I wanted out. I wanted to become a fish.” In wanting to become one with nature, he frequently attributes to its creatures human thoughts and feelings. He doesn’t seem to realize that a fish is; it doesn’t read Plato, it doesn’t drink beer and smoke cigarettes, it doesn’t write books about fishing. (His approach here is sometimes baffling. He kisses the fish which he releases, for example, but not the ones he eats, which seems to set an old Native American tradition on its head). Joy’s feelings for fish and for nature in general then led him to a dislike for the human. He yearns to “revert to primitiveness,” to “escape the madness of the mechanized world and become in tune,” and is finally forced “to accept my humanity.” The man who truly wants to be a fish rather a man must leave his listeners wondering whether he understands in full what it means to be a man or a fish.

But these are quibbles, given the intent of Growing Gills. Even those who have never baited a hook will find pleasure here. The delights of Joy’s prose are enhanced by the drawings of Michael Polomik, a talented illustrator whose work here compares favorably to those wonderful drawings once found in certain fine books produced 70 and 80 years ago.

Both Joy and Polomik will launch their book at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept.18, at Blue Ride Book and News in Waynesville. Both the publisher of the book, Cynthia Bright of Bright Mountain Books in Asheville, and a representative of the Waynesville Fly Shop will also appear at this event.

Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey by David Joy. Bright Mountain Books, 2011. 208 pages.

According to recent polls, Americans are angry. They are angry about the economy, about the role of government in their lives, about the direction their country has taken. They are angry with the president and with the Congress. Some are angry because the government gives too much, others because the government gives too little. Many want the government to “fix” the economy. (This comes from a people who owe enormous personal debt via credit cards and loans, who often refuse work if it doesn’t pay salaries to which they are accustomed, who often pay no income tax themselves, who have lamented the transfer of their manufacturing base overseas while at the same time buying Chinese at Wal-Mart, whose corporations move abroad because of high taxes or remain here because of no taxes, who have forgotten that dependence on government leads not to freedom but to slavery).

We are thoroughly politicized even in our daily lives, followers of ideologies — until recently, a distinctly un-American trait — rather than as citizens bound by a spirit of compromise, a common law, a belief in liberty, and the search for pragmatic solutions.

We have traded horse sense for nonsense.

In Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age (ISBN 978-1-933859-88-0, $29.95), author and editor Gregory Wolfe sets out to show us a different path — or rather, how to return to the path once followed by even our recent ancestors. Put succinctly, and quite badly in comparison to Wolfe’s own stylish prose, Wolfe urges us abandon our ideological battles and return to the “old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty” as the criteria for making our democracy and our personal lives once again working propositions.

In the first two chapters of Beauty Will Save The World, Wolfe builds the foundation for this thesis. He tells us of his own struggles as a young man engaged in the culture wars, of moving from libertarianism to conservativism, and then beyond. His distaste for many who professed conservatism grew as he worked to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, when his fellow politicos, despite having pushed forward a president who had promised to shrink government, “jockeyed for positions in the new administration, including jobs in departments those stalwarts had resolutely promised to abolish. My euphoria evaporated and was replaced by something close to moral revulsion.”

Unlike others who undergo such a sea-change, Wolfe did not turn to the left for answers. He realized that both camps lacked in some way the keys to life and spirit which he was seeking. Instead, he sought out these keys in the realm of art, culture, philosophy, and faith, and unlocked, it would seem, the doors which could restore for many of us the proper way to live and become fully human in an age political rants and rages. In his chapter titled “Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture,” Wolfe gives us the heart of his argument:

“It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture — that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship, and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.”

An examination of the works of different writers and artists, and the way in which those works have played into our culture, takes up most of Wolfe’s book. He looks at writers of fiction as famous as Evelyn Waugh and as unduly neglected as Larry Woiwode; he examines in depth the work of various poets, especially that of the Englishman Geoffrey Hill; he analyzes the work of Southerners like Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, and Marion Montgomery; he discusses painters like Fred Folsom (his in-depth exploration of Folsom’s “Last Call” is worth the price of the book alone).

In Beauty Will Save The World — this title comes from an enigmatic statement made by Dostovesky which fortunately for us once captured the imagination of Wolfe — the author issues a ringing call to turn from the ideological wars of our day, wars which are ruining both our government and our democracy, and to try and find common ground in our culture, in what can be deemed true and good and beautiful. Wolfe, like a few other observers of the battlefield, has here issued a manifesto that may not only lead to peace among neighbors, but to a deeper realization of what is truly worthy of our attention.

Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age by Gregory Wolfe. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011. 278 pages

•••

Craig S. Bulkeley’s Hope For The Children Of The Sun: Curing The Sonnenkinder Syndrome Called Contemporary Christian Worship (the book may be ordered at your local bookstore or on-line at www.WorshipPress.com aligns itself well with Wolfe’s musings. Sonnenkinder refers to “children of the sun,” a popular name for the European youth culture between the two World Wars.

In this well-reasoned and well-documented short book, Bulkeley points out how the youth culture of the last 60 years has altered the liturgies and services of so many Protestant denominations. After analyzing the development of the twentieth century youth culture — he makes extensive use of Martin Green’s best-selling Children of the Sun — Bulkeley shows why “it is not surprising that the weak church would welcome the ways of the children into its worship practices beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and embrace them wholeheartedly by the opening of the 21st century.” Bulkeley then argues impressively for the return of maturity to the church and to its worship of God.

Bulkeley, who is an attorney and the pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, brings to this book the clean arguments of a legal mind and the impassioned faith of a minister of God. This combination offers a finely-reasoned, clear read for all interested in this issue.

“At last I have come into a dreamland.” So wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe shortly after her arrival in Paris in June of 1853.

Stowe had gone to Paris for the same reasons Americans still visit the City of Light: a desire for adventure, a taste for art, an escape from the rigors or familiarity of life in the States — in Stowe‘s case, from her sudden unanticipated fame after the publication of Uncle Tom‘s Cabin.

Americans in Paris usually call to mind the cafes frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the seedy hotels of Henry Miller, the soldier-writers like James Jones and William Styron who headed for Paris following the Second World War. Today we think of student hostels, university “study abroad” programs, and a city which millions of Americans have visited in the last 50 years, all of them bringing their own hopes and desires for what they might find there.

Rarely, however, do we think of Paris as an American destination in the 19th century. We are aware of the impression left by Benjamin Franklin on the French, of the role the city played in the lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Until now, few of us would even have thought that there were Americans living in Paris between the era of the Founding Fathers and the time of the “Lost Generation” of the First World War.

In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (ISBN 978-1-4165-71176-6, $37.50), best-selling historian and biographer David McCullough corrects this perception by giving us a fascinating account of the lives of Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1900. Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James: these and many other Americans visited Paris and felt, to varying degrees, its influence in their lives.

In The Greater Journey, McCullough examines both this influence and the way in which Americans interacted with one another in so strange and different a place. In his account of Morse and Cooper, for example, we are given not only insights into the world of art at this time — for years Morse worked slavishly to become a painter before helping bring the telegraph to the world — but McCullough also shows us the strong friendship between these two men. Cooper came to Paris a famous writer, while Morse was a struggling painter, yet for their time in the city they became the best of friends. Cooper became intrigued by his friend’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre,” an enormous work featuring a gallery filled with paintings and Cooper himself, and would visit Morse daily at his work to offer encouragement. Along with this account of the two men McCullough gives us their biographies in miniature, allowing us to see them more completely both as Americans and as travelers.

Here are dozens of other portraits. We learn about the importance of Paris to the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; we discover Mary Putnam and her determination to pursue medical studies in spite of many obstacles; we watch George Caitlin, the painter of the Plains Indians, and the tribal members who came under his auspices to the city and were admired by King Louis-Philippe; we gain access to the studio of Mary Cassatt, one of the great American Impressionists of this era.

In addition to telling us a relatively unknown story of Americans overseas, McCullough also gives a fine account of Paris itself during these years: the revolutions in art and politics, the plagues, the renovation of the city, the war against the Germans in 1870, the awful siege that followed.

We learn more than a little about French politics and painting, Parisian cuisine (which included the eating of rats during the great siege), the medical and technological advances of the era, literature and poetry. We see how Americans often carried home what they had learned from the French and made it a part of their own work.

This 500-page book also includes many photographs of these Americans abroad and examples of their artwork. Readers will find these invaluable in terms of following McCullough’s discussion of them.

For John Singer Sargent, for example, we not only have examples here of his portraiture, but we have sketches of Sargent by a fellow art student, a photograph of the artist in his studio working on one of his most notorious works, “Madame X”, the work itself, and his action painting, “El Jaleo.”

Readers will find themselves time and again turning from the text to these pictures, grateful that McCullough and his publisher saw fit to include them as an important part of the story.

David McCullough, who has authored such fine histories as 1776 and The Great Bridge, and whose biographies — Truman, Mornings on Horseback, John Adams — have done so much to arouse the interest of Americans in their past, has again struck gold.

The Greater Journey offers us a wonderful opportunity to visit a hidden part of the American past and to come away from that visit feeling as if we have gained a treasure of information.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 2011. 576 pages.

Danielle Ganek’s The Summer We Read Gatsby (ISBN 978-0-670-02178-9, $28.95) tells the story of two half-sisters, Cassie, a translator for a Swiss lifestyle magazine, and Peck, an often-unemployed actress who loves vintage clothing, gossip, and parties. When their cherished Aunt Lydia dies, she leaves to the Moriarty sisters co-ownership of Fool’s House, the ramshackle home located in Long Island’s Hamptons, with instructions that they are to sell the house and split the proceeds.

In addition to spending a good bit of time wrangling over whether to follow through on these instructions — both young women entertain wonderful memories of the house and its magical place in their lives — Cassie and Peck also enter into a series of adventures together. Though Cassie is the narrator of the novel, it is Peck, the more vivacious of the two, who leads their excursions into literature, love, and art. Peck drags Cassie off to her beloved parties, revitalizes her in the morning with a pick-me-up, and introduces her to such ideas as the “dressing drink,” which is of course the drink taken while dressing for a party. After Peck is convinced that her old flame, Miles Noble, has invited her to a Gatsby party to win her back — he introduced her to Fitzgerald’s book — she spends most of the novel pursuing him while encouraging Cassie in her own love life. Other characters and situations intrude: the gay neighbor who watches over the girls with an avuncular eye; the eccentric houseguest; the theft of a painting, possibly the work of Jackson Pollock; the collection of eccentrics who mingle at the summer’s parties.

The Summer We Read Gatsby satisfies on every level. The plot is intriguing, holding our attention to the last pages, which offer several surprises. The characters are all finely drawn, particularly those of Cassie and Peck. Ganek makes both young women come alive on the page — Cassie as shy, a little aloof, reserved, and Peck as a sort of amiable “bad girl” who entertains the reader on every page on which she appears (the last four pages, in which Peck becomes the novel‘s narrator, will have the reader laughing aloud). Here, for example, is Peck on men and the great love of her life, Miles Noble:

“Men were always falling in love with Peck, or so she would tell me. And she did have a regal air that seemed to bring out the passion in even the mousiest littler creatures. But inevitably she’d come with several reasons to be disappointed. A passion for cats, for example. Or ordering a salad for dinner. Or the wrong sorts of shoes. “Tasseled loafers,” she would whisper into the phone, as if such a thing were so awful it couldn’t be voiced too loudly. It explained everything. Afterward, she’d always add, “Well, he was no Miles Noble.”

From the above we can discern the other strengths of Ganek’s writing and storytelling. In Cassie, she offers a warm voice that draws the reader into the story. Cassie, like nearly all good first-person narrators, puts us on her side, invites us rather than forces us to see life as she does. We also see Ganek’s ability to create a quick character study. For example, we leave this paragraph with a sizable image of Peck in mind; we can see her on the phone as she whispers to her caller.

Most importantly, there is a gaiety and insouciance that runs through Danielle Ganek’s book thatoften seems sadly absent from much fiction these days. Reading The Summer We Read Gatsby is as refreshing as a glass of lemonade during the recent heat wave — or better still, as one of Peck’s “dressing drinks.” With style, intelligence, and humor, Ganek explores the bonds of sisterhood, the debts we owe to the dead, the place of art and literature in our lives, the importance of friendship and the possibilities of love.

The Summer We Read Gatsby is a diamond of a book: sharply cut, glittering, lovely. Ganek is the author of another novel, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, and is at work on a third novel.

•••

If The Summer We Read Gatsby is like a tall cool drink, Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (ISBN 978-0-307-37794-4, $27.95) is like a dash — for some people, better make that a bucketful — of cold water. Author of books like The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Jacoby here turns her gimlet eye on aging and on our response to it and to dying. She contrasts traditional attitudes toward aging and death to those of our own time, when we see all around us myths and fairy tales about how long we may live and how we may through different treatments defy the ravages of age. She reveals the various hucksters feeding off those who are approaching old age: the health food and vitamin gurus, the advocates of “staying young”, those who regard death as a “disease.“ She takes to task the baby-boomer obsession with the “youth culture” and offers at the end of the book the idea that growing old gracefully may mean simply allowing oneself to grow old.  

Though readers may argue with certain points of Never Say Die — Jacoby’s take on attitudes toward aging, for example, gets more than a little silly — and though some of us probably don’t need to read this book (I have only to glance in the mirror to certify that I am growing old), this book is nonetheless a powerful reminder that most of us will grow old, will feel old, will look old, and will eventually die. To those who deal with the undertaker and the grave about as well as the Victorians dealt with sex, Never Say Die offers a powerful reminder of the inevitability of death.

“Look left and right, and be careful.” Your mother probably said those words to you when you were learning to cross the street. Her same admonition might apply to today’s political arena.

In one of the summer’s best-sellers, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America (ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1, $28.99), author Ann Coulter argues, as the book’s flyleaf puts it, that “liberals exhibit all the psychological characteristics of a mob — practicing groupthink, slavishly following intellectual fashions, and periodically bursting into violence.”

Often justly accused of inflammatory writing — she is not only despised by liberals, but by many mainstream Republic pundits and politicians as well, who fear being tainted by what they regard as her extremism — Coulter here follows the pattern set in her other books, mixing broad statements (“Liberals speak with the fatuous lunacy of people in the old Soviet Union, passing out awards to one another for imaginary heroism …”), statistics, and somewhat generalized history. Whether on the left or right, most political commentators these days use the same formula, mixing fact and speculation to support their own presuppositions.

Evidence of Coulter’s own prejudices — ”Liberals bad, conservatives good” — begins with the title, Demonic, and continues throughout the book. For this reason, liberals will not read the book, and conservatives will come to it agreeing ahead of time with its main points, consuming it as intellectual comfort food.

Though touted by some conservative reviewers as Coulter’s best book, Demonic will not win any awards for its literary attributes. Coulter is a better columnist than a writer of books, a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner, and this quality shows in the book. Though she does write in a lively manner, she repeats her arguments and examples, and often paints her case with too broad a brush. Her training as an attorney shows here, as it does in her other writing, in that she builds a case for her client — in this instance, conservatives — while marshalling selected facts against her liberal opponents.

Yet Demonic does bring up two points which political and cultural liberals might ponder with some gain. The first has to do with political rhetoric and violence in America. Coulter makes a convincing case that much of the political violence in the last 40 years has come from the left rather than the right of the political spectrum.

We like to think of “right-wing extremists” plotting assassinations and toting guns, but Coulter draws our attention to the fact that assassinations and mob violence, ranging from shouting down speakers on campus to breaking up political rallies, are much more a legacy of the left. One startling example which she uses comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarded by most conservatives as extremely left-wing, which concluded that “Extremists within the environmental and animals rights movements have committed literally thousands of violent criminal acts in recent decades — arguably more than those from any other radical sector, left or right.”

Both liberals and conservatives might also gain from reading Coulter on revolution and mobs. We Americans are fond of the word revolution — we just celebrated our own break from Britain and a king, and like to speak of a revolution in everything from computers to the foods we eat. Yet Coulter’s two-chapter look at the French Revolution reminds all of us, particularly those who read little history, of the cost in blood of a revolution. Here Coulter writes vividly of the executions, of the bloodthirsty pomposity of the revolutionaries, of the evil that humans may do in a good cause (In one case cited by Coulter, a woman arrested in a case of mistaken identity was proven innocent, but was executed “because she was there anyway.”) Revolutions nearly always mean the blood-letting of innocent people and consequences unforeseen, two circumstances that should always temper the welcome our government and our media give to such events as “the Arab Spring.”

•••

In Liberating Liberals: A Political Synthesis of Nietzsche & Jesus, Vonnegut & Marx (Groucho, not Karl), Gandhi & Machiavelli (ISBN 978-0-557-68680-3), Bill Branyon has issued a call to liberals to become “free-thinkers” rather than doctrinaire politicos and to live with more joy in their lives.  

The spirit behind Branyon’s book is enthusiastic and joyful. He is clearly a man who enjoys laughter, and his sense of humor carries onto the pages of Liberating Liberals. The book’s chief asset is it exhortation to liberals embrace this sense of joy and spontaneity. Branyon writes:

“Our efforts will be greatly enhanced by simply becoming more loyal to our freethinking ideals, by becoming more comfortable and happy with the current facts of political and personal life, and by insulating our imaginations and goals against the constant assaults of conservatives.”

Liberating Liberals is weak in its organization, its use of language and syntax, and in explaining the very thing which it espouses — “free thinking.” In one part of the book, Branyon attacks grammar rules as a residue of “the 18th century aristocrat” and goes on to state that grammar should not be taught until late in high school. “And even then,” he adds, “if it seems to inhibit someone’s desire to write, back off.” Liberating Liberals itself, which would have benefited from editing and clearer thinking, argues against Branyon’s case here.

This same problem — unclear usage coupled with loose thinking — runs throughout the book. Branyon calls for a 20-hour work week so that human beings may become more humane, but never tells us how we are to reach that state. (He does cite Denmark as an example, extolling its vacations and cradle-to-grave socialism, but fails to mention that European economies are falling apart). He mingles Biblical quotations with lyrics from Joni Mitchell and observations from Nietzsche, but these rarely hang together in an argument for any point.

Finally, Liberating Liberals needed to clearly define certain terms: “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly free thinker (I have yet to meet one. If indeed “free-thinkers” ever existed, I suspect they have long gone the way of raphus cucullatus). Is a Marxist a liberal? Are liberals free-thinkers? Should we really scoff at men like Franklin and Jefferson because they used “pen and quill while we use word processors and the internet?”

“As prisoners of their own fundamentalism,” Branyon writes, “conservatives are extremely learning disabled.” If that is true, and if the freethinking view as presented in Liberating Liberals is the alternative, then we may all want to go to some other school for our education.

Page 20 of 35

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