Jeff Minick

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In my last review, I mentioned the need to reduce a pile of books I’d read, all of them, new and old, worthy of some sort of recognition. I started digging into that pile with high hopes of knocking off three or four books, but ended by only reviewing two: Piers Paul Read’s The Death of a Pope and Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Inn at the Edge of the World. (Hmmm…thought-provoking names. Long ago, I read an article on our propensity to refer to assassins by their full names: John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Mark David Chapman. I could speculate as to the meaning of this phenomenon among writers, but you see, right there’s the problem: I distract myself, popping down this trail and then that one, the White Rabbit gone amuck, and before you know it, I am back to an undiminished hillock of literature.)

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Time to clear the decks — or in my case, the desk.

For whatever reason — to escape our poisonous political atmosphere; take refuge from onerous work; push away some black thoughts; reignite my love of words and language — I have read a raft of books in the last six weeks. Much of my reading occurs in spurts, 15-minute breaks from my obligations, cup of coffee or tea at the elbow, sprawled in a lawn chair in the backyard oblivious, or at least feigning oblivion, to the shouts and scissor-legged running — where in heaven’s name do they get the energy? — of half-a-dozen grandchildren.

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On Nov. 5, 2001, not quite two months after the 9/11 attacks, Lech Walesa spoke at Western Carolina University. Walesa was famed for his resistance to communism in Poland and the Soviet Union, and was the founder of Solidarity, a trade union seeking an expansion of its negotiating power and the establishment of fundamental human rights within Polish communism. Along with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Mikhail Gorbachev, Walesa was a key player in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union.

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For many people, summer means vacation, and vacation means beach. For readers, the beach in turn means packing books to be read for pleasure, books whose pages can absorb a bit of water or a splash of sun-tan lotion, page turners whose plots drive you through the story.

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Some people are devotees of whiskey, cigars, wine, and craft beer. Some are aficionados of the fine arts, experts on such high-toned subjects as the music of Bach, the paintings of Giorgione, or the sculpture of Frederick Hart. Some are expert in specialized fields: orchids, coins, stamps, old cars, incunabula, and a thousand other subjects.

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So a friend thrusts a book into your hands and tells you, “You gotta read this one. I know you’ll love it!” You accept the gift with a smile on your lips and a twist of pain in your guts. On past occasions, your well-meaning friend has given you three other books, two novels and a book of history, all of which you not only disliked, but also never finished. You return home with this latest offering, open the book, read the first page, the second, the first chapter, the second chapter, and you realize with a rush you’re in love with the author and the story.

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Nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman once wrote “I hear America singing.”

Ah, those were the days.

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It is 1926, and Lillian Boxfish, mid-20s and ambitious, arrives in Manhattan, where she lands a job working for the greatest department store in the city, R. H. Macy’s. That famed emporium hires her as a copywriter, and within five years she is the highest-paid advertising woman in the United States.

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After finishing the last pages of Libertarians On The Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (Arcade Publishing, 2016, 259 pages), my first thought was: I am glad I am not a farmer.

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When verbally attacked and left speechless by an assailant, who among us has not long afterwards pondered the mot juste that might have left our assailant gasping for breath on the canvas, that perfect riposte that would have left us the winner standing in the ring?

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In Charles Martin’s novel A Life Intercepted (Center Street Publishers, 2014, 326 pages), college senior Matthew “the Rocket” Rising has everything going for him. He’s one of the best college quarterbacks the gridiron has ever seen, the NFL has made him the number one pick in the draft, and various sports companies are salivating to have The Rocket endorse their products. Best of all, Matthew is married to Audrey, his high school sweetheart, his helpmate and anchor whose love for him seems bottomless. 

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In 2011, William Forstchen’s apocalyptic novel, One Second After, appeared on best-seller lists. After reading for review this story of an EMP strike on the United States and the struggles of the residents of Black Mountain, North Carolina, to survive in a world without electricity, my first impulse was to rush to my neighborhood Ingles Market and fill my car with canned goods, dried foods, and medical supplies. This vivid account of death, destruction, and suffering in One Second After scared the hoot out of me.

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Having given up listening to the dreadful music and talk shows available in my car radio, last week I popped the first disc of Pat Conroy’s South Of Broad into my CD player. Since that auspicious moment, I have driven around town and countryside besotted by words, loop-legged with sentences, schnockered by syntax, blasted, blitzed, bombed and blotto with language. Were a state trooper to pull me over and administer a roadside test for verbal inebriation, nightfall would find me sleeping off my drunken spree in the local slammer.

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You’re stuck. 

It’s your boss’ birthday, your nephew’s graduation from high school, your cousin’s promotion at work, and you need to buy a gift. You enjoy reading and books, and want to give them a present in line with your own interests.

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In The Jealous Kind (Simon and Schuster, 2016, 400 pages, $27.99), novelist James Lee Burke drops his readers into Houston, Texas, in the 1950s: drive-in restaurants, jukeboxes, duck-tailed punks, jacked-up cars, and teenagers discovering the tangled moral code of the adult world into which they are about to enter.

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Readers of this column know I am a sucker for books about books. Novels like The Little Paris Bookshop, collections of reviews by such notables as Michael Dirda and Nick Hornsby, books touting other books like Book Lust, memoirs like The Reading Promise: My Father And The Books We Shared, all reach out from the shelves of bookstores or libraries, grab me by the shirt collar, and demand to be taken home, read, and reviewed.

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In True Stories At The Smoky View (She Writes Press, 2016, 325 pages, $16.95), Vrai Stevens Lynde — the “Vrai” is short for Vraiment — finds herself and a 10-year-old runaway boy trapped in a room at the Smoky View Motel near Bristol, Tennessee, during the great blizzard of 1993. Snowbound for several days — the monster storm has completely closed I-81, and the motel desk clerk delivers food to the stranded travelers on a tractor — Vrai and Jonathan begin comparing notes and sharing stories from their life, an exchange of information resulting in a lifelong friendship and a mutual decision to embark on a crusade to right an injustice.

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Some authors and critics sniff at best-sellers. I suppose the idea is that a novel appealing to so many thousands may contain vivid action or fascinating characters, but somehow fall below what critics may regard as the “standards of literature.” In the last hundred years in particular, we have seen a shift in favor of the new and revolutionary in literature over more traditional forms of storytelling. Most critics, for example, would regard Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury as literarily superior to best-selling Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, both of which appeared in 1929.

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Let’s go exploring.

More specifically, let’s explore the American South.

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New Year’s resolutions and I make for poor company.

Like many reading this column, I have in the past made resolutions designed to correct some flaw in my character or my habits, which often are the same creature. I have rung in the new year vowing to lose weight, to give up drinking, to write more letters and emails to those I love, to keep my big mouth shut when the desire to offer advice wells up in my throat, to exercise more, to eat healthier foods, to pray more, in short, to write out and act upon some proposed change aimed at self-improvement.

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Opposites attract, so the old saying runs.

We’ve all known friends, husbands and wives, and lovers who match this adage, and the same can sometimes hold true for books. This week, for example, rupi kaur’s milk and honey and William F. Buckley Jr.’ s A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century snagged my attention. I can hardly imagine two books more different from each other.

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In mid-October I attended the second lecture of three at my local library on the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610). A visit to Rome the previous year had sparked my interest in him and his work, and the lecture sent me to the library “Holds” desk where, as the speaker had informed us, he had placed on reserve several books on the painter. Despite having missed the first lecture, and despite the crowd of 70 some attendees at the lecture, I found to my astonishment that no one had checked out any of the books.

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Visit any bookshop or library and you will find loads of books telling you how to live a better life, how to take care of those around you, how to do everything from fighting drug addiction to getting accepted by the right college, from winning your fortune at the blackjack table to making out your last will and testament.

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Fifty years ago this past spring, on Easter Sunday, Evelyn Waugh died of a heart attack in his home in Combe Florey, England.

Both during his lifetime and in the years following his death, Waugh’s literary reputation underwent several transfigurations. Though Waugh was regarded in mid-life as one of the greatest writers in the English language of his time, his later work was attacked by many critics as being out of step with the times. In the 1980s, with the BBC production of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s star once again began an ascent to place him rightfully among the literary geniuses of the twentieth century. Decline And Fall, A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited, his World War II trilogy, Sword Of Honour: these and most of Waugh’s other writings have not only stood the test of time, but are well worth a visit from readers unfamiliar with his work.

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In My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers Inc., 2012, 378 pages, $23.95), 84 writers tout their favorite bookshops. The stores beloved by these writers range from Manhattan’s enormous Strand Book Store to our own City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, reviewed here by novelist and poet Ron Rash.

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One of the great joys of reading occurs when we bump into a book by an author we’ve never heard of, idly turn the pages, and then find ourselves becoming entranced by the words, the story, and the characters. We take the book home from the library or bookstore, read it as if under a spell, and leave the last word of the last sentence feeling ourselves changed by the encounter, as if we have added some new component to our personality.

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Nearly 20 years ago, while browsing the shelves of the Haywood Country Public Library, I came across a collection of videos about Richard Sharpe, a British soldier fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. My sons and I were already fans of Sean Bean, who plays the lead in this remarkable BBC television series of 16 films, each of them 100 minutes long. I knew the films were based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell, and occasionally glanced at one of the books but never read Cornwell.

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One moment, please. To ward off the brickbats, cudgels, stones, dirt clods, and rotten tomatoes sure to come my way, I must clap on my armor: breastplate and plackart, gorget and pauldrons, greaves, fan plates, visored helmet, and other bits and pieces of metal protection.

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Have you ever experienced one of those moments when you look at what you are doing and where you are and realize how ridiculous you appear?

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“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

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Sometimes loss and death give little or no warning of their arrival. The doorbell rings at two in the morning, and we open the door to find a policeman waiting to say, “Sir, I’ve got some bad news.” We arrive home from a normal day at work and find our beloved spouse lying on the floor, fallen with a brain aneurysm. We go to a hospital expecting to bring home a healthy baby and instead find ourselves arranging a funeral. We go into work to a job we love and find ourselves leaving an hour later under guard and with a pink slip in our pocket. We find our beloved in the arms of another and wonder what the hell happened.

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In House Of The Rising Sun (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 435 pages, $27.99), James Lee Burke tells the story of Hackberry Holland, a retired Texas Ranger, and his son Ishmael, their separation since Ishmael was a small boy, and the wars they fight against various enemies to try and find each other again.

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In December 1922 Hadley Hemingway set out from Paris to join her husband Ernest, then a newspaper reporter and an unpublished writer of short stories, in Lausanne, Switzerland. With her Hadley took a valise filled with her husband’s stories, including the carbon copies. While still in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, Hadley stepped away from her baggage to buy a bottle of Evian water. In that short time a thief stole the valise and with it all but two of Hemingway’s early stories. Hadley never forgave herself for her carelessness, and Hemingway, unable to believe that his wife had packed everything in the suitcase, actually returned to Paris to their apartment to search fruitlessly for remaining pages of poems and stories.

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For decades, the lot of poor white Americans has worsened. Marriage rates have plummeted while out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed. Unemployment, particularly among young white males of this class, is endemic in many small towns in the Midwest and South. Particularly disturbing are the death rates in this group for men ages 30 to 65. Poisonings, suicide, and liver disease have lowered the life expectancy of these men, a fact that one commentator found “unprecedented” in modern times in America.

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bookIn 1968, Peter Berger, a Boston University sociologist, told the New York Times that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture …. The predicament of the believer is increasingly like that of a Tibetan astrologer on a prolonged visit to an American university.”

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This one’s for students, especially those of you in secondary school and college.

Let’s get right to the point. Reading, writing, and mathematics are the keys to education. Master these three subjects, and you can tackle any academic subject.

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It’s a wonderful day when a book surprises us with its wit, story, style, and wisdom.

Recently I was talking with an old friend when who mentioned having read years ago Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. My friend had then felt no attraction to Bryson and had wondered what all the fuss was about, yet in the last few months he has become a Bryson fan, intent on reading all his books. What set off his new-found respect for Bryson’s novels, travel books, and essays I don’t know, but hearing the thrill of enthusiasm in his voice reminded me once again of the importance of books and why we read and love them. 

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Most of us like lists: “The 100 Greatest Novels of the Twentieth Century,” “The Ten Best Movies of All Time,” “The Top Five Barbeque Eateries in North Carolina,” and so on. We peruse such lists, mentally congratulating the choices we approve, shaking our heads over those we don’t, and bemoaning certain personal favorites that never even made the cut.

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bookIn her novel Under The Influence (William Morrow, 2016, 321 pages, $25.99), Joyce Maynard makes her title do double duty in its import and meaning. After being arrested and convicted for DWI, Helen losses custody of her eight-year-old son, Ollie, to her ex-husband. Determined to regain rights to her son, Helen attends AA and stays sober, but the rest of her life lies in ruins.

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bookFor reasons unfathomable to me, I have spent the last two weeks on a fiction-reading jag. Until I was about 40, fiction was my favorite literary genre, probably because I wanted to write novels and reading fiction is the best way, other than actually writing, to learn how to put together such a beast.

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bookIn March, Jim Harrison, age 78, died of a heart attack.

Harrison was among the most prolific of American writers, pounding out poems, essays, short stories, novels, a memoir, and cookbooks. In the memoir, Off To The Side, he addresses what he calls his “seven obsessions”: alcohol, food, stripping, hunting and fishing, religion, the road, and the place of the human being in the natural world. He might have included an eighth — cigarettes — as he was a lifelong smoker.

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op minickOn the wall by the closet behind my desk is this quotation from Ernest Hemingway: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you finished reading one you will feel that it all happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and the sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people then you are a writer.”

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bookNovels that make me laugh aloud are rare. Two novels, Confederacy of Dunces and Freddy and Fredericka, brought laughter, and in several of his books, Anthony Burgess had me going. Some essayists have the same effect — here I’m thinking of Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who died almost 20 years ago, but whose columns, depending on the subject, are still funny, mostly because of Royko’s acute sense of the ridiculous in politics and culture.

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bookIn recent years, we have seen a stream of books and authors promoting atheism. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; comedic columnist Dave Barry; J.G. Ballard author of numerous works of science fiction; the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci; John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Christopher Hitchens, renowned columnist and author of God Is Not Great: these are only a few of the late 20th century writers who have spoken or written of their disbelief in a god. These writers, and many millions of others, including your reviewer, assumed that societies around the globe were becoming more secular and less religious.

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bookNear the end of The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, Dr. Leonard Sax visits Shore, a private school in Sydney, Australia. In a conversation with the headmaster, Dr. Timothy Wright, Sax asks, “What is the purpose of school?”

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bookLove. What a loaded word.

Let’s skip the love of country, the love of family, the love of nature, the love of God, the love of reading, the love of hamburgers or pizza or tiramisu, or whatever else we love along these lines.

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bookTwenty-five years ago, a pediatrician told my sister that eggs were unhealthy and that she must never serve them to her children. Now nutritionists call eggs one of the perfect foods. Twenty years ago some health experts decried the consumption of coffee, claiming that it was a killer. Today numerous people laud the health benefits of this beverage. Educators have traditionally touted the benefits of homework, yet new studies claim that homework can cause burnout in students and exhaustion in parents.

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book“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

— George Orwell, 1984

For the past year, Americans have endured — I use the word deliberately — the charges and countercharges of men and women running for the presidency of the United States. We must now endure another seven months of this ruckus, and as in most American elections throughout our history, mudslinging will be the order of the day.

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bookLent, which extends from Ash Wednesday to Easter, is for many Christians a time of fasting and prayer. Some believers also forego certain pleasures. A child, for example, may give up candy while adults swear off tobacco or alcohol. In recent years, some teens and adults have removed themselves from Facebook or in a more positive approach, set for themselves daily Bible readings.

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bookBooks brought home from the library: The Art of Grace; Keep It Fake; The Churchill Factor; The Fellowship; South Toward Home; The Conservative Heart; The Road To Character.

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