Although migrations have become a significant and controversial aspect of our current history, there is another annual migration that has been with us for centuries. That is the annual arrival of visitors to Appalachia that has become an honored tradition. It is customary for retired and/or wealthy families to make the annual trek to the Southern Highlands. The “summer home” visitors have reshaped the Appalachian economy and a large percentage of the native work force is now engaged in building, repairing and maintaining the homes of the summer folk. In fact, many of the men and women who once farmed this land are now the employees of the summer residents: wives become cooks and housekeepers and the men develop carpentry skills. They build sun decks, kilns and fireplaces and with luck, they become “almost” a part of the summer family.
In that moment, he knew that he was standing in the midst of something that would never be forgotten, something that he would carry from this place and bear for the rest of his life.
— The Line That Holds Us, p. 26
When Darl Moody drew a bead on what he thought was a wild hog in a patch of ginseng, felt his rifle recoil, and saw his quarry collapse; he clamored to the ridge top to find, not a hog, but a dead man: Carol Brewer, nick-named Sissy, “a half-wit born to a family that Jesus Christ couldn’t have saved.” Both men, the living and the dead, were trespassers and poachers on Coward land. The landowner was away at a family funeral.
... never acknowledging that the general culture is often stupid or evil and would vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous.
— Varina, page 329
Back in the eighteenth century, England developed a popular form of novel called “picaresque.” Essentially, this name was applied to a novel in which the hero or heroine travels to exotic places where they have exciting adventures. The characters were frequently a bit disreputable but survived in spite of the odds against them. Moll Flanders and Tom Jones were popular examples.
The author of this book is a speech language psychologist and university educator. Now in his sixties, Billy has extensive experience in assisting individuals with intellectual disabilities. In addition, Ogletree is a Christian writer with an extensive career which includes more than 70 professional articles, chapters and books which speak directly to his primary interest: “the challenging, but cathartic possibilities associated with following Jesus.”
Since Luke Bauserman is a folklorist, it is safe to say that many of his characters already exist; some have existed since the beginning. Certainly, someone has told us tales of how death and the devil have communicated with mortals before.
I had my first encounter with a prize-winning Plott hound several years ago when I was hosting a Liars Bench program at Western Carolina University. I had asked David Brewin to bring Nannie, his Plott hound, to the program.
As I remember it now, Nannie was not on a leash, but it seemed unnecessary. She came and sat by David and surveyed the people in the audience, her dark brendle coat shimmering under the lights. No stranger to crowds, she was calm, even composed and she seemed to briefly study each individual on the crowded stage.
Some four years ago, I reviewed Matthew Baker’s first book, My Appalachian Granny, a delightful collection of anecdotes, photographs and provocative history. Much of the book dealt with Baker’s friendship with Evelyn Howell Beck, whose life reflected the qualities that the author had come to admire.
“And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
And satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
Then your light will rise in the darkness,
And your night will become like the noonday.”
— Isiah 58:10
The setting of Desperation Road is a short stretch of highway in Mississippi between Magnolia and McComb near the Louisiana state line. It is a rural area and other than the Fernwood Truck Stop and the Armadillo bar, there is nothing of interest ... just closed stores, a bus station and a half-way house. This is where Michael Farris Smith’s characters spend their time in a desperate search for peace or redemption. They are all defeated and bear the scars of their encounters.
Just after I bought The Weight of the World, I ran into an old friend of mine who is extremely well-read, and since I knew that he had already read the book and since I value his opinion, I asked, “So, what did you think?”
“Southern Appalachia is a region about which, perhaps, more things are known that are not true than any other part of the country.”
— John C. Campbell
Early in J. D. Vance’s passionate tribute to his “hillbilly roots,” the author recalls “the Hillbilly Highway.” The term was applied to the network of roads that ran from the Southern Appalachians to the industrial towns of the North. Vance notes that this stretch of highway became famous due to the awesome numbers of cars with tags from Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas that packed the roads to Dayton and other northern cities on the days before and after holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas). Usually, the term is derogatory, coined by alarmed northerners who saw their cities flooded by hillbilly transplants.
This is a delightful book and I am confident that it will be judged one of the best books of this year. All aspects of its release have been shrewdly designed to make it a seasonal favorite. It is a work of “popular fiction,” and its parts (plot, character, etc.) are skillfully woven to make it a best seller in the upcoming holidays.
Recently, I attended “Coffee With the Poets” at City Lights Bookstore and heard the poet, Newton Smith, read and discuss his new collection, Camino Poems: Reflections on the Way. Smith told his audience that he and his wife, June, had completed the famous 500-mile pilgrimage which runs from the village of St. Jean-Ped-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
This may be the most depressing biography I have ever read. Although I frequently considered abandoning this painful trudge through one man’s tragic descent into addiction and madness, something kept me reading.
When Leo Cowan, Jackson County’s noted historian and author, died last February just after his second book was published, I found myself reluctant to write a review of Leo’s last book in conjunction with his obituary. I am an admirer of Leo’s writing and have always felt that his “authorial voice” put him in a special category. Jackson County has a large number of writers who either write about the past and/or record their personal history through storytelling or autobiography (I guess I qualify as part of of that flock!). However, Leo Cowan is head and shoulders above all of us.
Back a few months ago, when Hollywood came to town, I was fascinated and when I heard that for a couple of weeks, Sylva was going to become a town in Ohio called Ebbing and that Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell were going to be policemen and that part of the dramatic action involved the fire bombing of the Ebbing Police Station (the old Massie Furniture building). I became foolish and began to make pointless trips to town in the hope of seeing some of the excitement, like the fire bombing and the fight on main street between Rockwell and Harrelson. That didn’t happen, of course. Hollywood is gone now, leaving not a rack behind. I didn’t get to see any celebrities, and although I heard that the dramatist who had written the script for “Three Billboards,” a fellow named Martin MacDonagh, had been seen on the street, no one seemed to have talked to him.
Several months ago, I was invited to join the Senior Citizen Book Club at the Jackson County Senior Citizen Center. I did so and have been delighted by the discussions which take place on the first Friday of each month at 10 a.m. So far, we have discussed some classics (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men) and the in-depth study of the Salem witch trials (Witches by Stacy Schiff). This month’s selection is E. L. Doctorow’s novel, The March, based on General Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia in 1864.
This astonishing “novel” was crafted by three multi-talented western Cherokees who live and create in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It resembles a kind of mosaic in which actual history, oral tradition and folklore are woven together using short stories, fables and myth.
As you probably know, The Revenant, this astonishing survival tale was recently made into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Hugh Glass, one of the last mountain men. Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear while scouting for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the fall of 1823; witnesses later testified to the fact that Glass was horribly mauled with near-fatal wounds and was abandoned by his companions, including two men who had dug a grave and had agreed to tend him until he died. Against all odds, Glass did not die and lived to launch an epic quest for revenge.
In this story, I am God. — Frank Lloyd Wright
The title of this nonfiction work, Death in a Prairie House, is misleading since it suggests that it is the latest offering from a crime fiction writer. While the title is appropriate, the actual subject discussed by William R. Drennan is much more. It is one of the most provocative mysteries in the history of American crime: the murders of seven people on August 5, 1914, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed “love nest, “Taliesin” in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Early in this astonishing autobiography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez makes a comment about the problems the he has experienced when writing about the past. He notes: nostalgia colors the way we recall the past because frequently, it has “erased the bad memories and magnified the good ones.”
Hurricane Katrina spawned an awesome number of literary works, and it may be that, given sufficient time to determine the full merits of Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones, her work may be the most worthy.
I have always been an Art Bell fan, and judging from the extensive archives on YouTube, I am not the only one. For the past 20 years, Bell has been acknowledged as the “King of nighttime radio” and usually holds forth around midnight from some remote site in Australia or the Mohave. His program is always a call-in show with names like “Coast to Coast,” or “Dreamland” or currently, “Midnight in the Desert.”
In Reclaiming Conversation, author Sherry Turkle notes that significant changes sometimes come to our daily lives without our noticing, until someone like Rachael Carson publishes an astonishing work like Silent Spring, telling us that our advances in technology have brought a permanent change to our environment.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She defines herself as “a sarcastic, heavily tortured, angry person who swears.” She is also heavily tattooed. She often hears herself referred to as “that scandalous and dangerous woman.”
When I was in graduate school at Western Carolina University back in 1970, I encountered a remarkable teacher, Dr. Louise Rorabacker, a retired professor from Purdue who had decided to move to Western North Carolina. There were only 12 of us in her “honors class” on dystopian and utopian literature, and we read a dozen works in about eight weeks.
Being a lifelong Stephen King fan, I have always been pleased to note that King is always keenly aware of the world around him. By that, I mean that he reads, watches the news every day and seems to be genuinely distressed by what he finds there. He still has that gift of understanding teenagers as is evident in his “spot on” dialogue in “Mile 81” (which also turns out to be a tribute to his over-the-top novel, Christine).
Avenue of Mysteries is John Irving’s fourteenth novel and it marks another amazing tale from an author who has been writing for half a century. For those of us who read The World According to Garp (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) — two works that remain best sellers — the reader may rest assured that we are once more in a familiar John Irving landscape: a world replete with abandoned children, transvestites, a guilt-ridden protagonist, faithful dogs, shocking crimes and bizarre, disturbing rituals, not to mention a generous amount of explicit sex. This time out, Irving adds a new theme — occultism and the supernatural.
Back in the ‘60s, I went on a science fiction bender that lasted a decade.
When I used to work for the Cherokees, there were occasions when there was little to do. When that happened, I would vanish into the archives of the museum where I would find all the ancient history and folklore that was rarely explored — neglected because it was at odds with the image that the museum presented to the public.
Being a historical fiction addict, I have always loved books about London, a city that has been around for over a thousand years, changing, morphing with the centuries. I remember reading a biography of Shakespeare that noted that travelers could smell London 20 miles away, a stench that consisted of burning refuse and open sewers.
This is a monumental work. Ann Miller Woodford has gathered an astonishing amount of information, including old letters, church records, unpublished and previously published histories, mementos and dairies. She has spent some seven years, visiting family elders, cemeteries and the abandoned sites of churches, factories and villages.
There aren’t many successful horror fiction writers who are described as comical and/or whimsical. The terms seem incompatible. You don’t expect to discover that your vampire tale is full of snickers and puns. Besides, it is a rare gift to find a writer who can combine humor with gore; terror and giggles. Well, Robert Shearman can. In fact, he have a half-dozen popular titles out in England, and now his reputation has spread to America. Saddle up, folks! This is going to be fun.
In recent years, I have been surprised to learn that it possible for books to win prestigious awards, honors and endorsements of major literary critics only to abruptly disappear long before they reach the shelves of a bookstore. However, sometimes literary entities like the New York Times objects to this abrupt dismissal of what was judged to be a “significant work.” What happened? Frequently, an author or critic appears and attempts to giving worthy works “a second chance.”
In recent years, literary works that are classified as “investigative reporting” have not only become best sellers, but have lingered on the shelves for decades. Examples are Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter-Skelter. All were in-depth non-fiction works that go under the classification of “crime fiction.”
I have been waiting for this book for a long time. Back in 1978, I read Falling Angel, which was that rare thing, a dark blend of noir/thriller and the occult. I read it several times, and it seemed to get better each time. It was made into a pretty decent film, “Angel Heat,” which had two of my favorite actors, Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet.
I have always been a Russell Banks fan, and when I look back over the last 40 years, he has always been there with memorable portraits of flawed but unforgettable people — all products (or victims) of American culture. I remember his treatment of John Brown, a historic figure that Banks recently called “America’s first terrorist” (Cloudsplitter).
Some 30 years ago, I saw a disturbing film entitled “Koyaanisqatsi.” The title comes from a Hopi word meaning “unbalanced life.” Essentially, this film (which has no dialogue) consisted of disturbing images of our planet: abandoned cities, vistas of barren earth and surreal sequences in which our technology seemed out of control. When people appeared in the film, they seemed lonely, trapped and irrelevant.
The growing threat of drought in the Southeast and the problems of “water politics” has prodded the memory of many legislators and ecologists to anxiously recall the snail darter controversy.
Something is out of joint in the little fishing village of Bareneed on the coast of Newfoundland. The rules that govern reality (natural laws) appear to have been suspended. It began with the flying fish. Of course, no one actually saw them fly, but they were found in roads, barn lofts and fields, still struggling fitfully as though the sea had rejected them. Their color was unnatural, too, ranging from red sculpin to blue cod and finally, an albino shark — all stuffed with roses and marvelous fragrances. At first, such abnormalities were treated with humor by the media, but then, the mood changed when the people of Bareneed begin to die for no discernable reason.
When I am at home, the TV is usually on. I like the company, and since I am almost deaf, I don’t hear the constant yammer, clang and whistle, complete with musical interludes and the smarmy good will of the CNN staff ... all I hear is a low murmur like the surf at the beach. I’m only aware of the images which appear (for me) without an accompanying “message.” If anything shows up that looks interesting, I can read the captions that rush across the screen like teletype. Otherwise, I only glance occasionally at the visual flicker and flash. (This may be one of the few blessings of being hearing impaired.)
Shortly after completing Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier discussed the possible subject of his next novel. Frazier said that he wanted to write about the life of a white man who was made an Indian chief, served in the government in Washington, D.C., fought on the side of the South in the Civil War by leading a band of guerrilla warriors and eventually wound up dying in a mental institution. That man was William Holland Thomas.
It looks like the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” may bear fruit (or gas) when it is applied to our current energy crisis. In fact, one “alternate energy” source is already generating considerable interest in Canada, North Dakota and North Carolina. “It could end our dependence on fossil fuel,” said Jack Herer, author of the book, The Emperor Has No Clothes. “It could be enough to run America virtually without oil.”
Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Random House, 2005. 572 pages.
Yikes! Saints and guardian angels defend us! It is yet another biography of Shakespeare! Is it possible that Peter Ackroyd, the venerable biographer of Chaucer, Blake, Dickens, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, has unearthed some tantalizing and/or unknown facts about the Bard? Was Shakespeare in reality Christopher Marlowe? Francis Bacon? Thomas Kyd? Two spinster sisters with the pen name of Shakspur? Was he gay and/or a closet Catholic?
When I heard the screen door slam, I knew she was gone. I made it to the window just in time to see Joni Mitchell’s big yellow taxi pulling away and sweet, little 2005, waving at me from the back window. She had on my favorite “Day of the Dead” T-shirt, and the hussy was smiling! The note on the TV said “See you if I’m ever back this way.” Well, she won’t be back, but she did give me some good books. Here is a list of the “10 Keepers.”
I spent a week reading this novel, and each time I laid it down, I expected to find a damp spot under it when I picked it up again. Rivers is about rain — unrelenting, unforgiving rain. This novel begins, “It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained.” The world seemed to be dissolving around Cohen. Even the lumber that he used in his futile attempts to build an addition to his house became spongy and fell away as though rejecting its own nature. Even the land had become shifting mud and flowed away.
Eighteen-year-old Jacob McNeely, a shy high school dropout from Walter Middleton High School in Jackson County, North Carolina, seems resigned to a bleak future: As the son of Charlie McNeely, the biggest drug dealer in Cashiers Valley (and Laura, a mother who is a hopeless crack addict), his options are woefully limited. He can continue to endure his father’s contempt and abuse as he performs menial (drug-related) tasks, or he can venture into the world outside the mountains ... a prospect for which he has no training or aptitude. (At one point, Jacob wryly notes that he could count the times that his father had been proud of him on one hand, even if he had lost two or three fingers in a saw mill accident.)
One of my bookshelves is reserved for books that I have not read, but that I am saving for some special event. What I want is the pleasure of reading without a deadline hanging over my head. I actually buy books and put them on the shelf, reserved for “when I get the flu.”
Joe has been on that shelf for more than 15 years. Each time I take it down and read a page or two, I put it back. “No, that is too good to waste by “speed reading.” Take your time. OK, the time has come.
During the past 60 years, I have maintained a hearty appreciation for what is called “fantasy/horror” literature. I guess it began with the dark little fairy tales of Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and yes, the Grimm Fairy Tales, and it extends to the current works of writers like Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker and Angela Carter. My favorite fantasy/horror stories were created by Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Carroll and Stephen King, and if I can qualify my preferences still further, I have a special love for stories with a carnival/circus setting.
One of the oldest traditional folktales, ‘Godfather Death,’ exists in all cultures; however, the tone of the stories may vary from bleak and grim invocations of death’s certainty to humorous tales of tricksters who scheme to avoid death’s coming. Death becomes personified as a shadowy figure who comes to collect “his due.”
Along the way, Godfather Death has inspired memorable creative works: film (“The Seventh Seal,” “On Borrowed Time”) and even Appalachian folk tales (“Soldier Jack, the Man Who Caught Death in a Sack”). However, one of the most provocative variations is “The Fool Killler.” In these tales, Death has been transformed into a terrifying agent of divine justice.
Serendipity: an aptitude for making significant discoveries by accident.
I have always loved that word, and I have had numerous serendipity moments. I would like to tell you about the one that happened today. I have been bemoaning the fact that I am not “a Christmas person.” Without children or family, and having the restraints of living on social security, I have come to feel left out of “the season to be jolly.” Of course, I have found that there are others who seem to be condemned to spend the holidays alone or at the Huddle House.