Jeff Minick

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The first weeks of 2018 have seen some offbeat books shamble across my desk and into my fingers.

First up is John Buchan’s Mr. Standfast, also known as Mr. Steadfast. Buchan, a Scottish novelist and politician who served as Governor General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, is best remembered for his suspense novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, a grandfather in the genre of intrigue. Alfred Hitchcock later made Buchan’s tale of a manhunt, a precursor to “The Bourne Identity,” into a film. 

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Dreamers and schemers. Andre Michaux and Daniel Boone. Yankees and Confederates. Hugh Morton. The mile-high swinging bridge. Tweetsie Railroad. Singing on the Mountain. Highland bagpipes and Low-Country vacationers. Hikers and hang gliders. Mildred the Bear. Fraser firs and rhododendron. Peregrine falcons and big-eared bats.

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For the past two centuries, local historians and writers in England have produced a large number of municipal and county histories, a project formalized in 1899 with the Victoria County History project, a massive undertaking that, more than 100 years later, is still unfinished. These detailed records have proven invaluable for historians and biographers writing on a grander scale, allowing them to compile data and statistics on topics ranging from deaths attributed to the plague to the impact of railroad revenues and services on country life.

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In early January, I sat with two friends in a café discussing the New Year. We were all coming off a rough time and were certain 2018 would usher in happier days. Our optimism was running high until we made our way to the deserted lot where my friends had parked their cars. Both of their vehicles were missing, towed away by a zealous, or more likely unscrupulous, wrecking service.

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“That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.”

— A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, XL

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Sometimes joy and beauty strike like thunderbolts. One minute we are going about our daily routine, minding our own business, and then bam! Tongues of flame leap into our hearts. The eyes of a barista behind the counter of our favorite coffee shop fork a bolt of lightning in our brain. We round an unfamiliar bend in the road, and some incredible vista of a mountain peak blows us away. We visit a gallery, enter a darkened room, and find ourselves so dazzled by a painting that our feet remained glued to the floor for an hour.

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For many of us, Christmas preparations require the endurance of a marathoner and the speed of a lab rat on amphetamines. We hoist a tree in the den, decorate our homes, dash off greeting cards to people we last saw two years ago, race through the mall buying presents and stocking stuffers, plan and prepare a Christmas dinner that would buckle a lesser table, and get sloshed at parties while wearing the hat of an elf. The culture pumps holiday Red Bull into our veins: some radio stations are belting out Bing Crosby before Thanksgiving, by the second week of December films like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” jam the television, and every church in town offers a concert.

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Every once in a great while, I come away from a book like some near-sighted fourth-grader who has just put on his first pair of glasses. The math problems on the whiteboard leap out at him; the words in his Open Court Reader are no longer a blur; the dimple in Jeannie Godine’s cheek is as fetching as her voice. I can see, the kid says to himself. I can really see.

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How did this happen?

I treasure my local public library for its friendly staff, its vibrant programs for my grandchildren, its many spacious tables, its twin carrels for study and privacy, its sun-lit vestibule where patrons may eat lunch and drink coffee while reading, typing on their laptops, or visiting with friends. The collection of books is unremarkable, but adequate. All in all, I would judge this library a cut above many comparable institutions. The congenial atmosphere is conducive to work, and I come here several afternoons a week to escape my apartment, to work, write, and read, and to browse the stacks when I need a break.

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Michael D. O’Brien, Canadian novelist and painter, essayist and lecturer, is the author of what I call “door-stop” books. His works of fiction, most of which I have read and all of which I enjoyed immensely, are hefty tomes which, if one so wished, could double as dumbbells, weapons of defense, and as I say, door stoppers.

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A number of Mark Helprin’s works — Winter’s Tale, Memoir From Antproof Case, and more — have appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List. Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, his story of an Italian army officer and his struggles for survival during the First World War, is a thick novel which I have read twice and to which I return on a regular basis, rereading favorite scenes, always astonished by the beauty of writing and touched again and again by certain passages. His Freddy and Fredericka, a story whose characters are loosely modeled on Prince Charles and Princess Diana, stands alongside John Kennedy Toole’s New Orleans novel, A Confederacy Of Dunces, as perhaps the two funniest novels I have ever read.

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Recently I came across an online article on Powerline regarding French president Emmanuel Macron. I knew little of President Macron, only that as a youth he married his high school teacher, 24 years his senior, and that during his first three months in office he spent $31,000 paying his make-up artist. To call him a fop might serve as a prime example of litotes.

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Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch In Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes (Little, Brown and Company, 2010, 324 pages) offers readers both literary and culinary treats.

Bard — what a wonderful name for a writer — whisks us off to the City of Light where she has fallen in love with a Frenchman, Gwendal. (Pronounced Gwen-DAL). Living in England, Bard meets Gwendal at a Digital Resources Conference in Paris, and they are soon emailing each other across the Channel. Eventually, Bard visits Paris and Gwendal again, and then many times, before she finally takes up full-time residency in the city to be with the man who has become her lover. He introduces her to his family, who live in Saint-Malo, a French port city, and the two of them fly to New York to meet her own parents and kin. Eventually, they marry.

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This past summer, I reviewed The Leader’s Bookshelf for The Smoky Mountain News. After seven years of interviewing many of the nation’s top military leaders, Retired Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell put together a list, with reviews and other information, of the top 50 books recommended by their military comrades. They included reviews of other books as well, recommendations so inspired that I headed for the library and my local bookstore to see what I could find of them.

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From Thanksgiving dinners to football games, from the floors of Congress to Joe’s Bar & Grill, from universities to kindergartens, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Americans find themselves locked into political and cultural debates, shooting out tweets, screaming at rallies, shouting down speakers, and smearing their opponents. Civility and a sense of humor have been banished, replaced by identify politics pitting tribes of people against their neighbors whose skin color, religion, party, and gender preferences differ from their own. The abuse of language, reason, and argumentation, and the failure to define terms or to make clear what is said, only make more brutish this mix of hysteria and malevolence.

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Miss Julia Springer lives in a small town near Asheville, where she is mourning the death of her husband of 44 years and trying to settle his affairs, including the enormous estate he has left her. On this particular hot day in August, Miss Julia — she goes by this title despite her long marriage — discovers that she has one last affair to face: her husband’s years-long adultery with Hazel Marie Puckett, a scandalous relationship known to nearly everyone in town except for Miss Julia.

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Because Dr. Hood was only one of five professors in Guilford College’s history department, and because history was my major, I took several of his classes. Dr. Hood was more than a bit crazy. He once told our class that every afternoon he returned home, played his harpsichord, and pushed himself back in time to sixteenth century Europe. He seemed serious about these travels. Still, he was a marvelous lecturer with a fascinating mind.

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It is late in the day, and 60-year-old Marianne Messmann of Germany stands on the Pont Neuf in Paris. She has arranged her shoes, coat, wedding ring, and purse on the pavement beneath the bench where she is sitting. Now she climbs the parapet of the bridge, stares into the Seine, and throws herself into the river, determined to free herself from the misery of her life and marriage.

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Alcohol, alcoholism, and alcoholics appear frequently in literature.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff is a son of Bacchus. Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux are both detectives who emerge from the dark, beer-damp bars of New York and New Orleans, respectively, to join AA and battle their demons as well as murderers and thieves.

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“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality ... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I’m not a race. I’m a person.”

That line from Paul Clayton’s Van Ripplewink: You Can’t Go Home Again surely sums up the dream of Martin Luther King from half a century ago. He and others envisioned an America where skin color no longer mattered, where all Americans were equal in the eyes of the law, where character and heart provided the criteria by which we were to judge our fellow human beings.

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Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation (Penguin Random House, 2017, 255 pages) has caused quite a stir this year among reviewers, critics, and readers.

Some have applauded what they consider Dreher’s thesis: that the United States — and nearly all Western nations — have abandoned their Christian roots and that, as a consequence, Christians must create a culture separate from that of the secularist mainstream.

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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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