Gary Carden

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bookOne of the things that I admire about the New York Review of Books is a special honor that they reserve for what they call the “lost masterpieces of American fiction.” In effect, they acknowledge that occasionally, a major literary work goes unacknowledged. Sometimes, a decade or more goes by and then a noted American critic or author asks, “How did you miss this one?” It seems to have flown in under the radar, undetected and then passed into oblivion. 

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bookAbout three years ago, I reviewed a bloody little horror tale filled with black humor called Breed. It was a page-turning shocker, allegedly written by Chase Novak but actually spawned by a remarkably gifted novelist, Scott Spenser who became famous for Endless Love in 1979, a poignant love story that sold two million copies and is still selling. A remake is currently running on Cinemax, but it’s a dismal thing. 

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bookGone Girl is currently the most popular novel in America and it has been around since 2012; it is also now a major motion picture starring Ben Affleck. Gillian Flynn’s  “thriller” (and it is definitely that!) is a favorite topic on talk shows with America’s favorite critics discussing why this wicked little crime novel has captured this country’s imagination. Well, I am among the enthralled, and I think it all began with O. J. Simpson. As soon as we, the audience, joined that helicopter that followed O.J. down the interstate on the day he was arrested, we became members of a new kind of “instant journalism.”

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bookI am intimidated by this book. In fact, this is one of the most challenging reviews that I have ever undertaken.

Admittedly, I have known about David Mitchell, the English “wanderkind” for several years now, but I have carefully avoided any of his five previous novels because they were invariably described as “recklessly ambitious” and filled with sudden shifts (from fantasy to distopian novel to a kind of ecological thriller). 

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bookWhen the novel, The Leftovers came out several years ago, it was an immediate success. (Oprah gave it a significant boost in sales and the fact that America was in the midst of a kind of apocalyptic  fervor at the time certainly helped.) The heart of this novel concerns a mysterious “rapture” that has snatched thousands of people from their “earthly existence.” Not only are those who are left behind bewildered; they are also puzzled since there seems to be no logic ... no “common denominator. “ Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Russians, Chinese, children (even a fetus), the elderly, alcoholics, nuns and convicted murders — all simply vanish in an instant. Where did they go?

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bookA little over one year ago, Mark Powell published The Dark Corner, a novel that was set in the northwest part of Georgia and dealt with the intrigue and corruption attending the current development of “the river culture” that has sprung up along the Chattooga River. It is a remarkable novel (that reads like a sequel to James Dickey’s Deliverance) and prompted author Ron Rash to call Powell “the best Appalachian novelist of his generation.”

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bookIn case you haven’t noticed, let me call your attention to a disturbing fact regarding current Appalachian literature: some critics have been describing the new crop of Appalachian writers as latter-day Jeremiads who are predicting the coming of a kind of literary apocalypse in Appalachia. Lately, I have been running into references to “Appalachian noir,” a classification that is certainly valid given the current trend toward dark humor and the absence of traditional themes. 

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“And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field for what seemed ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us from being swept away into the night.”

— Never Let Me Go, page 274

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bookAfter running into numerous critical references to this little novel, which has won a series of international awards and has been published in nineteen countries and made into a popular film, curiosity got the best of me, so I ordered a copy from Amazon ($4.80). When it arrived, I was especially pleased by the cover, and as soon as I could crank up my Keurig coffeemaker I was ready for an amazing journey.

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Franklin, Tennessee. It is November 1864, and many of us (Civil War buffs) have been here before.

We recognize this gentle slope that rises to the Carnton plantation and the terraced mansion surrounded by great trees. Nearby are a neglected garden and a spacious backyard where 1,500 Confederate soldiers will be buried (eventually). Historians call the Battle of Franklin “five of the bloodiest hours of the Civil War” –— a place where 9,200 men died on a single day in an encounter that Robert Hicks calls “horrible, beautiful and sudden.”

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I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone by Nina Simone and Stephen Cleary. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. $22.00 — 196 pages

Back in the 1930s, the inhabitants of the little town of Tryon, N.C., gossiped a great deal about “the little colored girl who appears to be a musical prodigy.” They were talking about Eunice Waymon, who had been playing the piano before she was 4 years old. She played at her mother’s church (Mary Kate Waymon was a Methodist minister), and as her reputation grew, many of the white residents began attending services to hear Eunice play. In view of the poverty of the Waymon family, a white friend of Rev. Waymon offered to pay for the child’s music lessons. Eventually, a fund was established to send Eunice to a classical pianist, Muriel Massinovitch, who trained the child to play Bach — an experience that would have a profound influence on the young pianist. After further training in Asheville, Eunice went to Julliard.

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bookEach time Stephen King is interviewed, he finds himself responding to the same question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the question is prompted by the questioner implying that an author who writes about serial killers and psychotics must be as twisted and devious as the subjects that he writes about. King always responds with some variation of the following: His ideas come from Fox News and CNN; the New York Times and Time magazine.  

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Campus Sexpot: A Memoir! by David Carkeet. The University of Georgia Press, 2005. 137 pages.

Before I was 10 pages into this “memoir,” Campus Sexpot, I found myself carried back to a little town in Georgia where I began teaching in 1958.

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Dear readers, your attention, please! Hailing from the backwater town of Alexandria, Miss., allow me to introduce 12-year-old Harriet Dufresnes!

Although she isn’t as attractive as her older sister, Allison, Harriet is well read (Kipling’s The Jungle Book and a graphic account of Capt. Robert Scott’s trek to the South Pole). She is imaginative and smart. In addition, she has a gift for forgery (especially her absentee father’s signature), tree climbing, holding her breath underwater (like her hero, Harry Houdini), and a singular talent for devising imaginative games — like “Gethsemane” or “The Last Supper” in which she is Jesus and the neighborhood children are her sheet-clad disciples (they dine on Ritz crackers).

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bookI have always been something of a fanatic about graphic novels and my collection includes Maus (which depicts the holocaust — with cats as Nazis and mice as Jews — and the two-volume set of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is a memoir of the author’s childhood growing up during the Islamic Revolution. I also have a badly-worn copy of Alan Moore’s In Hell which is one of the most remarkable books I have ever encountered. I also have several boxes full of “undergrounds,” which are the true forerunners of the modern graphic novel. Many of them are graphic American “histories” by artists like Jack Jackson (Jaxon) and R. Crumb. Admittedly, I rarely run into people who share my appreciation for these guys.

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bookSince I happen to love folklore and storytelling, I have always felt blessed to be a resident of Jackson County. Sitting on my front porch, I can see Black Rock, where a local law officer vanished 80 years ago while on a fox hunt. He has not been found to this day. I can see the Pinnacle, which in my childhood was supposed to be Judaculla, the slant-eyed giant of Cherokee folklore who is sleeping now. You can still make out his profile from the parking lot of the new library. 

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There is a passage in the heart of Ron Rash’s novel, The World Made Straight, in which Leonard Shuler remembers a visit to Shelton Laurel with his grandfather shortly before Shuler leaves to attend the University of North Carolina.

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Yes dear reader, when Stephen King’s dread armies of the mindless begin their apocalyptic trudge through the devastated towns of New England, they march to the sweet trills of Debbie Boone. As they tread their way around the bodies of their murdered victims, or as they gather by the thousands each night in football stadiums and parking lots, they hum to the electronic whine of countless battery-powered tape decks (all eerily playing the same song).

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On a spring night in 1929, Mary Seneca Steele escapes from her home in Charleston, taking only her two children (Pet and Hugh), a new Auburn Phaeton (belonging to her abusive, shiftless husband, Hubert (Foots) Pettigrew Lamb, and $33. Her destination is a little vague: somewhere over 300 miles to the northwest. Beyond the North Carolina and South Carolina line, Mary “Sen” hopes to find safe harbor with “her father’s people.” Armed only with her memory of her deceased father’s tales of a near-mythical mountain realm inhabited by the Steeles and their kin, this feisty little woman is making a desperate bid for a new life.

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If you have a TV, you probably know that the film version of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel is scheduled for release this month. According to a bevy of movie commentators, their projections indicate that “The Da Vinci Code” will be the most popular film of the summer (and possibly, of the decade). Of course, the book has already eclipsed all “best-seller” records with 8 million copies sold in just the first year.

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Back last fall, about the time the Jackson County Library controversy mutated into an issue with all of the appeal of a dead mule in doorway of the Town Hall, I decided to give up my role as “gadfly.” I was bitterly opposed to the proposed site (Jackson Plaza), but eventually I began to feel that I was a single whining voice in the wilderness. The rest of Jackson County either approved of the site, or worse, simply didn’t give a damn.

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On March 4, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. Frank C. Davis, the author of My C.C.C. Days, says “the lights in all the government buildings in Washington, D. C., burned all night, that night.”

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I have found that not being able to hear in a crowded room is a constant frustration. Usually, when people talk to me in an earnest fashion, I take the path of least resistance and pretend to understand. That is what happened last week in the lobby of the physical therapy building at Harris Regional Hospital.

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bookIf you love epic tales that celebrate the American West; if you treasure novels like Trail of the Lonesome Dove, Edna Ferber’s So Big (Giant) and McCarthy’s Cities on the Plain, you might want to saddle up for Peace Like a River. Everything that quickens your heartbeat is here: manhunts, vicious killers, snowstorms, relentless law men, lovable outlaws, tall tales, all wrapped in a bit of Mark Twain’s “heading for the territories.”

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Recently, the New York Times set off a hotly contested literary skirmish by naming what their literary staff considered to be the greatest novels of the past 25 years. A platoon of critics entered the fray, and after a bit of sniping, there was something resembling a consensus. All finally agreed that our five greatest writers (at the present) were Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don Delillo (Underworld) John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral).

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Like hundreds of other mountain folk who grew up listening to “the old folks talking,” I always wanted to be a storyteller. Sitting on the dark end of my granny’s porch on a windy October night, I listened to her tell about the woman who drowned her baby in our spring. “Nights like this, you can hear it cry,” she said. Later, she told me about the night my daddy brought his new bride home.

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Back in 1952, when I was one of a dozen Western North Carolina high school students who wrote winning essays on the Trail of Tears, I sat with a transfixed audience in Cherokee’s Mountainside Theatre and watched T’sali die.

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Let’s imagine for a moment that it is Election Day in some unspecified city, and the proper government officials have gathered in the local polls to record and count the votes. However, when the doors open, no voters appear (it is raining). Noon arrives, the rain stops, but still there are no voters. The officials become uneasy and resort to cajoling a few relatives over the phone to perform their civic duty. Then, one hour before the polls are supposed to close, thousands of voters appear, requiring the officials to extend the voting time.

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The word “ubiquitous” is an apt adjective for Chick comics. They show up in motel rooms, garages, pool halls, laundromats, telephone booths, homeless shelters and Christian bookstores. The small format (about the size of an index card) with 24 to 36 pages and their raw, vivid colors make them instantly recognizable. Chick comics have been around for more than 40 years and they are literally all over the world. Popular titles like “This is Your Life” and “Somebody Loves You” have African, French, Hebrew, Dutch and Japanese versions (the comics are available in 70 languages!) with each “adaptation” subtly edited to reflect cultural differences. More than 400 million of them have been published now.

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Almost a decade ago, I wrote an unabashed rave review of Howard Bahr’s The Black Flower (1997), a darkly beautiful novel based on one of the Civil War’s most tragic events, the Battle of Franklin.

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15 years ago, Donna Tautt’s The Secret History managed to acquire an amazing following among university students in the United States and England. Within a year of its publication (1992), campus clubs and Internet web sites were formed solely for the purpose of discussing the novel’s characters, plots and motifs. Many of these groups attempted to mimic The Secret History’s major setting: a faculty office in which six students and a charismatic classics professor of Greek Studies converse in an atmosphere that manages to be arcane, philosophical and ... secretive.

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When I registered as a sophomore at Western Carolina University (then, Western Carolina Teachers’ College) in 1954, I heard a number of my classmates talking about Dr. George Herring. “Get a class under him, Gary,” they said. “Hurry! His literature classes fill up first.” Eventually, I managed to get English Literature 201 — a class that prompted me to become an English major.

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I woke up this morning with the echo of Johnson Catolster’ gentle laughter in my head. I had been dreaming that I was riding through the Great Smoky Mountains Park with Johnson, and as we came down U.S. 441 past the Smokemont Campground exit, he had suddenly stopped his old truck and pointed. “There!” he said, “See that clump of little cedars near the road? Well, he was standing right there, looking left and right like you do before you cross the road, and I stopped right here.”

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bookI have always been drawn to authors who can seize your attention in the first paragraph and like a pit bull, refuse to let you go. Ron Rash can do that (Serena). So can Philipp Meyer (The Son). These guys are so good, they can set the hook and play you the way a seasoned fisherman handles a trout, (Whoa, that is a mixed metaphor, I guess!) for 40 pages, forcing you to abandon chores and your social life, intent on riding out what the critics call “a riveting narrative.” Well, here is another one. Let me summarize the beginning of The Kept by James Scott.

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bookIn recent years, I have developed a growing discomfort with the Internet. Services like Facebook, Amazon, Linked-in have become increasingly ... well, personal. They want to know how I am doing, mentally and physically (at times they sound like a nosy, well-meaning relative), and I am constantly being asked to take “quickie” surveys or to rate everything from Netflix movies to Amazon products. I am beginning to wonder at what point does their concern become intrusive.

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bookEarly in this novel, an old retired teacher with Alzheimer’s, mistaking a visitor for his son, gives the young man a copy of a novel by Charles Brockton Brown and suggests that he read it. The novel is Wieland (1798,) a peculiar concoction of bizarre events that is considered the first “American gothic novel.” (I remember that it contains an account of human spontaneous combustion, murders, violent storms and inexplicable voices, insanity and mistaken identities).

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book11Russell Banks knows how to hook the reader’s interest. In the opening pages of Lost Memory of Skin, the book’s protagonist (known only as “The Kid”) enters the public library in Calusa (Miami) and asks the woman at the desk if she would help him find some information. She agrees and he asks if it is true that people who are called “sexual deviants” are on the Internet program along with their photo and their addresses.

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bookSome 30 years ago, a science-fiction writer named Whitney Striber wrote a novel called Wolfen, and it frightened me badly. The basic premise was that humanity had no purpose other than to provide a dependable food source for a terrifying species called “wolfen” that lived in colonies beneath the earth and only surfaced to feed. For thousands of years, these reptilian wolves lived silently in the sewers of major cities. They could move with astonishing speed and only “harvested” human victims who were never missed. It made a decent movie, too.

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bookI have always been fascinated by the folklore attending the too-short life of Robert Johnson, “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” For me, he was another doomed genius like James Dean, John Keats and Hank Williams — men who flashed across the night sky like the momentary radiance of a shooting star and then they were gone forever. 

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bookIt took me almost a year to read this book. I kept losing it, leaving it in restaurants and other people’s cars. However, the major reason for the delay was that I didn’t want to finish it. I kept going back to the beginning and becoming enamored again and again of a young Jake Roedel’s surreal journey through the killing fields of “Bloody Kansas” and Missouri during the final years of the Civil War. 

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bookI did not like this book. My first response on finishing it was that I would not review it, but there is a paradox here. The author has an enviable and encyclopedic knowledge of the history of film, and this book is freighted with a wealth of film myth and legend. 

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book1This remarkable collection of interviews with African-Americans in North Carolina who were once slaves is a fascinating discovery. Conducted by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930’s, the participating writers and researchers interviewed ex-slaves wherever they found them. All of the participants are elderly and many of them were living out their final years in “county homes.” These “slave narratives” are filled with surprises. More than 2,000 former slaves participated in this program, and of this number, 176 were North Carolinians.

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bookBack in 1981, a provocative film called “My Dinner With Andre” created quite a stir by reducing drama to the bare essentials. For more than two hours (an earlier version was three hours in length), two intelligent, gifted, but very different men (Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn) talked to each other. There were no exotic treks to other locations, no thunderous music scores, no speeding cars. 

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bookAlthough this book was published over a decade ago, A Fierce Green Fire has grown steadily in popularity and is currently receiving maximum exposure, both as a required text in environmental courses in universities and as a provocative film which is now available on the internet. Essentially, this is a “no holds barred” survey of our tragic history in what most authorities now call a “comprehensive account of how we “befouled our own nest” to the extent that it may be too late to save this planet.

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bookI first encountered a Donna Tartt novel some 20 years ago when a friend reverently placed a copy of The Secret History (1992) in my hands, and said, “You will never forget this one.” 

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bookIt has been more than 30 years since Stephen King published The Shining, but I still remember that little kid, Danny Torrance peddling his tricycle down the halls of the Overlook Hotel, and although the Overlook is supposed to be empty, Danny sees people in some of the rooms. If you are a Stephen King fan, you remember the sound of Danny’s wheels as they trundle from carpet to bare floor to carpet. He passes rooms where dead people beckon to him. (Remember the woman in the bathtub?)

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bookI am convinced that author Daniel Woodrell is what is frequently referred to as “a writer’s writer.” In other words, although he may enjoy considerable popularity from the general public, it is other writers who speak with both envy and admiration of Woodrell’s writing skills. I count myself as one of them. Sitting before my computer, slowly creating a sentence only to delete it again and again ... striving for that elusive thing, a beautiful, balanced sentence that causes a reader to stop, smile and saw “Wow.” Daniel Woodrell is such a writer. With what appears to be an effortless ease, he creates sentences that are so unique that the reader forgets the plot of the story, and reads a single sentence again and again.

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bookI first encountered Robert Henry’s name some 30 years ago in Lyman Draper’s account of the Battle of Kings Mountain (Oct. 7, 1780). Robert (who was either 13 or 14 years old at the time) had been wounded when a British bayonet pinned his hand to his thigh. Later, the young soldier gave a graphic description of the battle, including the manner in which the bayonet was removed from his hand and thigh (a fellow soldier simply grasped the bayonet and stomped on Robert’s hand until bayonet was removed). 

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bookI have always had a fondness for great, sprawling epics, especially if they chronicle the downfall of a family/dynasty that acquired great power and wealth only to destroy themselves through ruthless acts involving betrayal, greed and arrogance. Invariably, they build mansions, acquire awesome estates and develop a lifestyle that allowed them to move through a cosmopolitan world of wealth and privilege; yet invariably they come crashing down, destroyed by drugs, alcoholism and/or moral rot.

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bookLet me begin by saying that this is a remarkable novel, and I suspect that it will be around for a long time as critics debate its literary significance. In fact, there are passionate debates in some of the current major literary magazines about such themes as Friedrich Nietzsche’s “the eternal return” and/or Yeats’ apocalyptic vision. This review will avoid such heavy freight.

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