Jeff Minick

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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In December 1922 Hadley Hemingway set out from Paris to join her husband Ernest, then a newspaper reporter and an unpublished writer of short stories, in Lausanne, Switzerland.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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bookIn Withering Slights: The Bent Pin Collection (National Review Books, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9847650-3-4, 186 pages, $24.95), the recently deceased (she died in January) Florence King demonstrates once again why she was one of America’s most biting and genuinely funny social and political critics.

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bookDuring a recent discussion in the AP Literature class I teach, I mentioned that the actor Alan Rickman had died the previous day. The young lady seated directly in front of me said, “You’re kidding.”

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bookWith the new year now upon us, it strikes me that “something old” and “something new” is appropriate for this column.

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bookMy name is Joe Ecclesia. On a recent December Saturday, when I interviewed Jeff Minick about his new novel, Dust On Their Wings, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the sixties. We sat creek-side behind the Panacea Coffeehouse in Waynesville’s Frog Level district.

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bookIn the spring of 2011, there appeared William Forschen’s One Second After, a novel set in Black Mountain, North Carolina, following an Electro-Magnetic Pulse attack on America. This sort of attack, which involves setting off nuclear devices in the atmosphere, kills the electronic systems in devices as varied as computers and cars.

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bookWhatever our denominations or religious beliefs, many of us are familiar with the old adage of this season: “Peace on earth, good will toward men (with “men” meaning “all people).” Spoken by an angel to shepherds near Bethlehem, these sentiments sound comfy as a pair of slippers and a cup of hot chocolate. Very inclusive. Very P.C.

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bookIn the last month, my reading of books has outstripped my reviews. Consequently, stacks of books surround the desk at which I write — a huge, old-fashioned roll-top that long ago lost its roll-top and wears many scars and age spots, much like me.

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bookMany readers — and I am one of them — are fascinated by books lists. There are scores of these lists, ranging from “The Greatest Novels of the Twentieth Century” to “The Ten Greatest Books for Children.” Part of the fun in reading these bills of fare comes from the questions they raise. Why, we may ask ourselves, does the list include James Joyce but not Evelyn Waugh? Why three novels by Faulkner but one by Hemingway? Why is Virginia Woolf featured but not Emily Bronte?

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bookEnglish writer Graham Greene used to divide his literary works into entertainments, which we might call thrillers, and novels, which he regarded as his more serious books.

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bookIn The Little Paris Bookshop (Crown Publishers, 2015, 400 pages), novelist Nina George, who lives in both Germany and France, has given readers a rare gem of a read.

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bookIn 1549, Jesuit priest Francis Xavier, two companions, and a Japanese translator entered Japan, seeking to bring the Gospel into those islands. Within 30 years, some 150,000 Japanese had become Catholics. The Church continued to grow until the early part of the seventeenth century, when Japanese Shoguns began a series of persecutions, torturing and executing many Christians, and forcing tens of thousands to apostatize.

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bookSome 30 years ago or so, William Styron — the acclaimed author of novels like The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice — visited the University of Virginia, the setting for some of his first novel, Lie Down In Darkness. I was living in Charlottesville and decided for the first and only time in my life to stand in line and have an author sign a book for me.

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bookWe Americans are noted for our ignorance of world geography.

Few of us, I imagine, could distinguish Iraq from Iran on a map of the Middle East. Few of us could inform some inquisitive soul of the terrain of Afghanistan, though we have now spent years fighting wars there. Most of us, one would hope, could locate Mexico on a map, but what about Ecuador or Bolivia?

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bookAs some readers of this column may know, I have spent the past six weeks in Europe, specifically the British Isles and Italy. Below is an accounting, by way of lists and some short reviews, of books carried here, bought here, read here, and left here.

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bookWhen we think of American writers living and working overseas, most of us turn to those authors who lived in Paris. We recollect Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, that fine account of his life in Paris in the 1920s; we imagine Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald making the rounds to such bars as La Rotonde and Les Deux Magots; we conjure up Gertrude Stein; we think of Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare & Co., later brought back to life by George Whitman. We think of Henry Miller drifting in Paris in the 1930s and of writers from the 1950s and 1960s like James Jones and James Baldwin.

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bookIt is not yet ten o’clock on this Saturday morning in late June, and already Rome’s Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna below the steps are crowded with tourists, hucksters, and shopkeepers. After nearly a week of visiting ruins, marble-decked churches, and museums crammed full of antiquities and art, I am taking a vacation from my vacation and have walked this piazza to visit the house where John Keats died in February of 1821.

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bookWith literary tours, literary pub crawls, monuments, plaques, and museums, Scotland honors her writers.

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bookHaworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. 

It’s 4:30 in the morning, Sunday June 18, and I stood a few moments ago on the cobbled street outside the Old White Line Inn. I slept poorly; the gentleman in Room 12 across the hall wakened me with ursine snoring, and “nature’s soft nurse” left the room. Grabbing my computer bag, I headed to the hotel lobby, where only the ticking of the clock in the hall interrupts the stillness.

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book shakespereIt is mid-June in England, and the skies are a brilliant blue. Sunshine spills on the street and the clipped green lawns of homes and parks. A breeze stirs the leaves of the trees, and when you are in the sun you are very warm but with the breeze the shade of the trees is cool and refreshing. Flowers flourish in window boxes and tiny gardens, and around some of the homes are enormous tangles of wisteria with roots as thick as a man’s calf.

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bookIn the opening pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, we meet Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who treasures his snug home and the routine of his days. All is well with Bilbo until the wizard Gandalf arrives and nominates him as the ideal candidate for a dangerous quest. Despite his protests, off the trembling Bilbo goes, out into the great, dark world surrounding his shire, with dwarves as his companions and all manner of monsters as his enemies.

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bookAbout two months ago, I began culling books from my shelves. I live in an apartment with several thousand books, most on shelves, some stacked in closets, some thrust under beds or packed in a storage space in boxes. This weeding-out was, as usual, neither orderly nor effective. Even a casual observer of my rooms would note no difference in the number of books.

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bookIn the last decade, British authorities uncovered evidence of massive sexual abuse and human trafficking in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. Two years ago, in a blistering investigative report, Professor Alexis Jay and her committee conservatively estimated that 1,400 English girls had been sexually abused or traded for goods and favors by a network of older men, mostly British-Pakistani Muslims. The committee charged both police and social workers with negligence and in some cases, with deliberately overlooking the sexual assaults for fear of offending minority communities. Further investigations revealed other communities where such abuse was either ignored or unreported.

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bookBack in the days when I still believed in Santa Claus (well, actually I still believe, I just no longer feel comfortable sitting on his lap), Mother’s Day rolled around one year, and I asked my mom why there was no Children’s Day. “Because,” she replied firmly, “every day is Children’s Day.”

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Not all the Eastern Cherokee supported the Confederacy. Several served with the Union army during the Civil War and were ostracized by the Confederate Cherokees after hostilities ceased. Some evidence exists that one of these Union soldiers brought smallpox back to the small band of Cherokees who survived the war, with devastating results.

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bookMany Americans — and I count myself among them — are often hard on Europeans when it comes to issues like national defense, appeasement, and willingness to stand up to enemies. We belittle their failure to resist recent Russian intrusions in the Ukraine, we urge them to take a stronger stand in the Middle East, and we shake our heads at their lack of military preparedness.

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bookIrish novelist Kennedy Marr is making millions of dollars through the sale of his books and as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Directors vie for his scripts, actresses and actors want to perform in his movies, and a university in England offers him a fabulous sum to teach for one year.

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bookLike some other readers I know, my taste in books these last 20 years or so has shifted from fiction to non-fiction, especially history, biography, and literary studies. I still follow certain novelists — Anne Tyler, Pat Conroy, James Lee Burke, and others — and still review novels for this paper, but find that works of fiction simply don’t appeal as much as when I was in my twenties and thirties, when I read stacks of novels and poetry.

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This week letÕs peruse three unrelated books whose only commonality lies in the fact that they were either written by Southerners or were published in the South. The first is an interesting volume about Christmas in America, which might be most profitably read before Christmas Day. The other two books are about religion in America, always a topic of great interest even among unbelievers; as one of the authors, Dave Shiflett, reports, É writing about religion is a lot more interesting than writing about politics or sports. This is the Big StoryÉ.

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In The Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov tells audiences that suffering, education and work will lay the foundation for a new Russia. Or as Chekhov might put it: Suffering! Education! Work! For in scene after scene, this play depicts the old Russia giving way to the modern age, the leisure class slowly losing its place in society and joining in the effort to build this fresh, new world while heeding Chekhov’s hortatory battle-cry: Suffering! Education! Work!

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