Learning American history through songs

In February 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation released the results of a nationwide poll of 41,000 Americans testing their knowledge of our country’s history. 

“The Foundation found that in the highest-performing state, only 53 percent of the people were able to earn a passing grade for U.S. history. People in every other state failed; in the lowest-performing state, only 27 percent were able to pass.” (Bold-print is from the Foundation.)

Ways of escape: Backlash and Game of Snipers

A recent review was of Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, a romantic comedy with sweet and wry advice about life, especially for the twenty-something crew. 

This week it’s snipers, spies, assassins, murder, and mayhem.

A complicated story that’s worth reading

Ever have those days when you’re running against the wind, sprinting through the minutes and hours, arms and legs pumping away, sucking air, and still feeling like you just can’t keep up? No matter how you push yourself, no matter what you do, each day finds you falling behind in the race to complete your obligations. 

‘Any Other Place’ provides lessons in living

Literature at its best is a fast-track course in human nature. From Shakespeare we can, if we are attentive, learn more about the human heart than from years of living. The same can be said for reading such writers as Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, John Gardner, and scores of others. We pour ourselves a cup of tea, sit in a chair, open a book, and find ourselves caught up in the emotions and thoughts of strangers who as we read become our familiars. From them we can deepen our knowledge of love and death, of triumph and disaster, of how it feels to wake in the morning with the taste of defeat in our mouth or to slip into sleep at night knowing that we have just met the person we are meant to marry.

A reminder: leave something good behind

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly won my admiration long ago. I purchased my copy from Asheville’s Reader’s Corner Bookstore, now closed, and tore through this narrative of Bourdain’s adventures as a prep cook and then as a chef. For anyone who has served in the food business — in my 20s in Charlottesville I worked in an upscale restaurant serving French cuisine and in another medium-ranked restaurant called by the name of its previous tenant, The Hardware Store — Kitchen Confidential brought back all the hustle, chaos, gaffes, and drive for excellence that goes into the making of food and a pleasant dining experience for customers. In his memoir, Bourdain wrote lines like this one “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” Not exactly in keeping with the Biblical injunction, but hilarious. (To judge from appearances, many of us have taken far too much pleasure from that ride.)

The Great Escape? Read a book

July had come and gone, a month filled with obligations, all of them good, but exhaustion walked hand in hand with those commitments. Often I was tired just kicking off the sheets in the morning.  Various projects gobbled up the hours of those long days, and by the time I crashed into my mattress at night, I was one with the walking dead. 

A fine first novel exploring loneliness

Loneliness.

Even the word, standing that way by itself, smacks of the pitifully sad and alone, forlorn.

A stirring story of America’s push west

Sometimes we open a book, slip into its pages, and find ourselves the recipients of three wonderful gifts: information and enlightenment, lively prose, and a great story.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (Simon & Schuster, 2019, 330 pages) grants all three gifts to its readers.

A few good books about old times

In 1960, when I was in elementary school, the pop group Dante & the Evergreens rocked my young ears with two hit songs on the radio: “Alley Oop” and a little later, “Time Machine.” (Both songs are available on YouTube. Have some fun and give them a listen.) In “Time Machine,” a young man sees a picture of Cleopatra in a book, falls in love with her, and vows to build a time traveling “thingamajig.” Here is the song’s refrain:”

Trying to define Appalachia and the South

Who speaks for Appalachia?

That is the question implicit in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019, 421 pages). In this collection of essays, brief memoirs, and poems, editors Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll bring together writers to address J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Some of these writers attack Vance for acting as a spokesman for Appalachian America, a title Vance doesn’t claim, some defend him, and a few seem aggrieved or jealous because he has earned a big name and big bucks from his memoir. 

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