Thomas Crowe

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“Crowded By Beauty” (University of California Press, 2015) is the poetic title of the most recent biography of Philip Whalen. Who was Philip Whalen? As the author David Schneider describes him:

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“We must unhumanize our view a little, and become confident / As the rock, and ocean that we were made from.” — Robinson Jeffers

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I’ve said it before — our local authors are “going to town” these days, and in this case quite literally. 

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“Eleutheria” is the Greek word for “freedom.” It is also the reference name of an island in the Bahamas (Eleuthera). And it is the title and the setting for Allegra Hyde’s first novel (Vintage Books, 2022). 

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Having grown up in these Cherokee hills, I became interested in things native from an early age. This interest, spawned by my boyhood friends over on the Snowbird Reservation, has continued throughout my life and until today. 

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In my recent passion and ongoing interest in reviewing books by local and regional authors, I am offering here, yet another from our cache of talented writers that are close to home. In this case, it’s a book just released in the month of June by regionally heralded Hub City Press in Spartanburg, S.C., just over the North Carolina line.

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It’s not often, if ever, that I would review a book about “how to succeed in business.” But I’m in the mood and the mode for reviewing books by local authors, and as I said in my last review in these pages our local authors have been hard at it during the pandemic cranking out new volumes of interesting, innovative and important work. 

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During the pandemic, regional authors have been busy. I’ve been made aware of several books being released this year by writers in our own back yard who have published books in several genres. 

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I spent my boyhood living in Graham County in a community called Milltown in Robbinsville. In those days, there was still segregation amongst the white and Cherokee communities.

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It’s rare to come across a book that takes one far afield from the original focus presented by the artist at hand. Most books aim to keep the reader “at home,” so to speak, not venturing out and about into uncharted or unrelated territory.

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“The story can’t be about the heroism of one person any more, it has to be about the heroism of communities.” — Barry Lopez

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Manon Steffan Ros is a Welsh author of more than 40 books, writes in the Welsh language and has only this fall published her latest novel, “The Blue Book of Nebo” (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2021) which has already won several literary prizes in Wales. 

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I was recently gifted with the loan of a book from my friend Lee Knight titled “Wilma Mankiller,” (TWODOT Books, 2021) written by journalist and biographer D.J. Herda. As a traveling lecturer for the Road Scholar Program, Lee had finished reading it and thought I might find it interesting.

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Steve Brooks is a prolific artist, poet and writer who has lived in Asheville for 10 years now, having moved to the mountains of western North Carolina from San Francisco via Seattle, Washington. Having been privy to and enjoyed several of his recent books, his latest collection of prose poems “Joy Among the Catastrophe” (Amazon/Kindle Editions, 2021) written in the past two years during the pandemic lockdown took me by surprise and really got my attention. 

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Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki, Japan, is an award-winning author whose accolades include The Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize. His novels, such as “The Remains of the Day” have been made into major motion pictures. 

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Joy Harjo is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. She is “Native,” “Indigenous,” of the Muscogee/Creek (Mvskoke) “Native Nations” as she likes to identify herself. I have followed her and her work — as a poet in the literary tradition and warrior in the tribal, indigenous tradition — for a long time. Long enough to watch her grow from a budding young poet to the wisdom-keeper she has now become in her early seventies. 

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In my younger years, I used to do a lot of hiking. I would follow footpaths and trails or blaze my own way through the woods or along streams and rivers. While those trailblazing days are over, I get my more physical outdoor thrills vicariously from writers like Robert Moor, who travels all over the planet experiencing different ecosystems and terrain to whet his appetite and intellect.

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Every once in a while I like to go back and read the classics, especially those that have managed to bypass my attention and my gaze. 

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Asheville’s own Terry Roberts is back again with another page-turner in the form of a brand new novel just released late last month. 

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As a reader, I tend to get on jags with authors whom I admire. Recently, I’ve discovered the work of Baron Wormser and have reviewed his nonfiction memoir of living off the grid in New England for 25 years in these pages. An amazing story, an amazing writer. I wanted to read more of his work. 

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In a literary genre (Appalachian noir) dominated by men, Amy Jo Burns’ new novel Shiner breaks through barriers and the unspoken publisher-induced rules of the genre — conflict, conflict, conflict — and comes out on the other side with a compelling story that has an interior rather than a dark, action-driven or plot-driven narrative.

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Toward the end of 2020, I reviewed a book here titled The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. This was fiction and a novel based on actual anthropological research giving the reader a camera-eye look into the lives of the last full-blood Neanderthals to inhabit Europe. Cameron had done her homework and had written a captivating story.

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If the word “value” is to mean anything, it should at least apply to two or more things. First it should refer to monetary worth, and second, and more importantly, it should refer to appreciation of higher consciousness regarding human experience. 

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If you are like me and have been more than somewhat stranded by the pandemic for the past year or more and are succumbing to cabin fever and the isolation blues and are looking  forward to getting out and about or even doing some traveling, then I have a suggestion.

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News flash: Buncombe County author Wayne Caldwell is also a poet! Evidenced by his just-released collection Woodsmoke (Blair Publications, Durham) we are treated to a life in the Western North Carolina mountains from the perspective of an elder gentleman who has lived, according to a multi-generational tradition, the old ways.

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David  Suzuki is an internationally renowned geneticist and environmentalist and is the author of more than 40 books and recipient of many national and international awards for his writing and his scientific work. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. His book The Legacy: An Elder’s Vision For Our Sustainable Future (Greystone Books, 113 pages) is part autobiography, part history and part basic science, but above all, it is a plea for the planet. 

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“I make a prayer for words. Let me say my heart.” — M. Scott Momaday

As the winner of almost all of  the major awards given to American authors, N. Scott Momaday has topped off a long and celebrated career this year with another landmark book, Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land (Harper Collins, 2020, 68 pgs), that to me seems like something of an epitaph with which to conclude his list of publications. It’s a small book you can hold in your hands and contains only 68 pages. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in quality. 

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As someone who was an anthropology major in college and have been somewhat obsessed by the truth behind the idea of human evolution, discovering best-selling, prize-winning Canadian author Claire Cameron’s 2017 novel, The Last Neanderthal (Little Brown & Co., 2017, 273 pages), not only came as a surprise, but as I began reading, soon became a revelation. Instinctively, I have never cottoned to Darwin’s ideas or path to contemporary human existence. It’s too linear, too set in stone for variation or the unexpected or the undiscovered. 

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“I want to dance for the renewal of the world.” —Robin Wall Kimmerer

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It has been said that the best place to start a story is at the beginning. With the first page of John Lane’s new novel Whose Woods These Are (Mercer University Press, 2020, 224 pg.) we literally begin at the beginning. “The first woods grew up far back in time, ancient as the last Ice Age, back beyond any notion we would call now.” After a brief description of how a woodlands came to be formed and how it looked through the ages up until the present day, we find ourselves in the western-most uplands of South Carolina and in the woods with two families who own hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of undeveloped property and living side by side. 

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“We are here on this earth separated from God, so that we might learn and grow.” — Jedidiah Robbins

If there’s anything to the bumperstickers that read “Buy Local” (and I think there is), then that not only applies to the food produced in our region but the literature too.

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When I find an author I like, I usually get on a roll reading several of their books. Such was and has been the case with Sue Monk Kidd. I started off with her most recent novel The Book of Longings, then went to the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva and borrowed a copy of The Mermaid Chair, another novel. Still wanting more, I branched out into some of her nonfiction as I wanted to get into the author’s head. To do this, I went to the library again and read the book she wrote with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, titled Traveling With Pomegranates. Having already reviewed The Book of Longings in this paper, in this review I’m going to try and flush out two birds with one drone.

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If you’re like me and are interested in or curious about the day-to-day life and especially the early life of Jesus — the so-called missing years — then you’re probably going to like Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Book of Longings. 

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Looking for a reading challenge and something with a little depth to it? If so, then I’ve got the book for you. I’ve always had a curious nature and have a “want to know” mind and have an interest in physics, metaphysics and religious thought. And what we have in The Quantum and the Lotus is a meeting of the minds discussing  those three schools of thought. Matthieu Ricard was a molecular biologist in France who became a Buddhist monk now living in Kathmandu, Nepal. Trinh Xuan Thuan was born into a Buddhist family in Vietnam and is now an acclaimed astrophysicist teaching at the University of Virginia here in the U.S. Interesting, the reversing of roles early on. 

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If it’s true that timing is everything, then Ben Okri’s new novel The Freedom Artist is right on time. 

As we, here, in Western North Carolina are going through an unparalleled time of trauma and uncertainty, Okri’s most recent novel opens up like a mirror for how at the present moment our country is organized for inequality and ineffectiveness in terms of proper governance and freedom of the individual. In a country that claims to be “the land of the free,” the United States of America is rapidly moving in the direction of “the land of the prisoner.” And Okri uses the word “prison” in his new novel to emphasize how his fictional system of governance is set up to keep people in line and asleep when it comes to self-realization and equanimity. 

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In some literary and music circles the debate continues as to whom is the best songwriter of the 20th and current 21st centuries. In circles I travel in, this debate usually comes down to either Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. 

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On Feb. 8, William B. Matson and members of the Clown/Crazy Horse family were scheduled to give a talk at the Jackson County Library in Sylva. I planned to attend, but unfortunately that was the day of the only snow and ice storm we’ve had all winter. So, as soon as I could get out I went to the library and checked out a copy of the as-told-to biography of the Crazy Horse/Clown family Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life & Legacy written by William Matson. 

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I’m on page 289 of a 308-page book by Brian Doyle called The Plover and am having fun. The book takes place in present time on the high seas of the Pacific Ocean by an author who has been compared to Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A young man sets out in a small craft in order to get away from humanity and modern civilization and to make his life and his “country” the sea. Talk about conflict! If the natural forces of the oceanic landscape aren’t enough, there are plenty more human-related conflicts to come. 

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Once upon a time there was a poet named Bob Kaufman. He hadn’t spoken in anything resembling normal language in almost 12 years. Having taken a vow of silence as his own personal protest against American hyprocrisy and racial injustice, Bob Kaufman is probably the most important and unheralded of all the Beat generation literary luminaries. He was the true original. In the streets. On target. Under the radar. Yet at the forefront, breaking all the barriers. 

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Growing up, one of my favorite books was H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, instead of taking us into the distant future, he takes us into the ancient past. He sets off to follow the ancient routes that crisscross both the British landscape and beyond — to the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest (and the ‘fells’ where he calls home), from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas that were traveled by people who only traveled on foot or in crude sailing vessels. 

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I was one of the lucky ones. I met and befriended Thomas Berry on Earth Day in the late 1980s during his youthful middle age and at the beginnings of his meteoric rise to prominence as an author of books on spiritual ecology. These were books that raised the bar on the beginnings and what would become the awareness and movement regarding what was then being labeled “Global Warming” and what is now a full-blown “Climate Change Movement” that is global in scope and scale.

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The theme of Brent Martin’s new book of essays — The Changing Blue Ridge Mountains — is “It’s a good country — hold on to it.” Written in large bold type on the back cover of the book, this quote lays the groundwork and is the foundation for what we find on the inside of the book’s enticing covers. 

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I first discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti in high school and his book Starting From San Francisco and have read everything he’s ever published. I wrote my junior thesis paper for my English major in college on the light and dark imagery in his poetry. 

In his new book, Litte Boy, practically the whole narrative is concerned with light and dark imagery — in all their guises. Apparently he is still working all that out. I also had the good fortune to be his neighbor in the North Beach community of San Francisco in the 1970s and to spend valuable time with him, first as a member of my generational entourage, then as a friend and collaborator on protest and benefit events and publishing projects during that decade. So, I know Lawrence Ferlinghetti and much of his life story. And his memoiristic “novel” Little Boy, which was just published on his 100th birthday in March, is a stream of consciousness portrayal of those 100 years. 

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Sarah Hall, born in the Lake District of the Cumbria region of northwestern England in 1974, began to take writing seriously at the age of 20. First as a poet, then as a fiction writer. She studied and earned English and Creative Writing degrees at both Aberystwyth University in Wales and at St. Andrews University in Scotland before moving to North Carolina where she lived for several years before moving back to Norwich, England, where she now makes her home. 

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So, how many Yiddish authors do you know? If you’re like me your answer would be none. That is until I happened upon Jacob Dinezon’s (1855-1919)  novel The Dark Young Man (first published in 1877), translated by Tina Lunson and adapted and edited by Scott Hilton Davis and newly released by Jewish Storytelling Press in February. 

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Michael Revere grew up here in these mountains. He went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He hung out with the elite literati there in the 1960s, had a book of his poems published by a press in the Triangle and then hit the road Kerouac style as a rock and roll drummer and headed west. 

His life story is an adventure worthy of a biopic that resulted in his eventual return to his geographic roots where he has been now long enough to raise a couple of children who are now approaching middle age. During all this time he has maintained his allegiances to his first two loves: poetry and his wife Judith. Hence the title of his new book of poems just out by Milky Way Editions titled Hey Jude in honor of his wife and after the Beatles song of the same name. 

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One of my favorite and most often used aphorisms in this lifetime has been “you can’t make this stuff up.” This adage applies 100 percent to Michael Finkel’s recent national best-selling book The Stranger in the Woods (The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit). Gifted a copy of the book from a friend who had read my book Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and who thought that I would enjoy reading about “the ultimate hermit,” I dove right into the book and didn’t come up for air until I had reached page 203 at the end of the book.

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In a prologue that will make you cry — bringing hackles of guilt to your eyes — Tommy Orange has brought past Native American history front and center and welded it to a story set in present day Oakland, California. “Urban Indians” he refers to his characters and their kin. This is not the Res or  tales told by celebrated Native American authors such as Sherman Alexie and Scott Momaday, but one of urban angst complete with all the modern technology and vibe to which cities are prone. 

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Do I have one for you! Elaine Neil Orr’s Swimming Between Worlds was recommended to me by Wayne Caldwell and got my further attention after reading Charles Frazier’s endorsement “[Her book is] a perceptive and powerful story told with generosity and grace.” How could I refuse? The review copy arrived in the mail and I was into it the same day. If the cliche “I couldn’t put it down” ever applied to a book of fiction, it certainly applies to this book.

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While it is difficult to write objectively yet critically about someone whom you know personally or about a book whose subject matter and/or authors are familiar, sometimes necessity is more than the mother of invention and you have to do things you normally or ethically wouldn’t do. Such is the case for me in writing a review about the recent publication Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards about the life and legacy of the poet-publisher Jonathan William, whom I knew and was a relative neighbor of mine who lived just up the mountain from my home in Tuckasegee, on Scaly Mountain near the town of Highlands. 

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