Jeff Minick

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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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This year marks 140 years since the end of the American Civil War. In that time a gigantic library of books regarding the conflict between the Gray and the Blue has come into being with scores of books published annually on what Shelby Foote once called “the American Iliad.” Sometimes other events will cause this steady flow of literature to rise to flood-tide; the centennial anniversary of the war sparked everything from a Civil War comic strip in the papers to Civil War song albums, while Ken Burns’ television series on the war and the internationally bestselling novel Cold Mountain both sparked a renewed interest in the conflict, again accompanied by a burst of publications.

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The Compleat Gentleman by Brad Miner. Spence Publishing, 2004. 264 pages.

The Truth of the Matter by Robb Forman Dew. Little & Brown, 2005. 336 pages.

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Talk To the Hand #?*!: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door by Lynne Truss.
Gotham Books, 2005. $25 — 216 pages.

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bookIn Annaliese From Off (Five Points Press, ISBN 978-0-692-24434-0, 362 pages, $15.99), Lindy Keane Carter gives us a rich, old-fashioned family saga set in the Georgia hills at the turn of the last century. 

The year is 1900, and John Stregal, a prosperous attorney living a comfortable life in Louisville, Kentucky, believes that he can make a fortune harvesting timber in Georgia. He forces his wife, Annaliese, and their children to make the move into this primitive community, promising them that they will all return home in two years. Accompanying them on this journey are John’s brother and partner, Ben, and his wife Lucenia, whom Annaliese dislikes and who advocates for the social justice causes of the day, including women’s rights and birth control.

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book“In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

— George Orwell

We live in an age — the relativity of truth — in which Orwell’s adage seems as dated as monocles or top hats. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution led to Social Darwinism, a philosophy pitting one human being against another with survival of the fittest as the supreme law for success, so Einstein’s theory of relativity changed popular philosophy and cultural mores as radically as it did the study of physics.

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bookNote to readers: this is one of the few times I have written a column addressed to one sex — or gender, if you prefer that term. This one is for the guys facing the next holiday.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and there they are, shuffling through the checkout line of the grocery store in the late afternoon, men holding roses and boxes of chocolates, each of them looking sheepish and angry. The embarrassment stems from the fact that they have once again forgotten Valentine’s Day, the anger from Valentine’s Day itself.

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bookIn French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, Mirielle Guiliano produced a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and became an international sensation, with her book translated into 37 languages. 

Now Guiliano is back with another book regarding les femmes francaises. In French Women Don’t Get Facelifts: The Secret of Aging with Style & Attitude (Grand Central Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4555-2411-2, 259 pages, $25), Guiliano takes her readers into the secrets of dieting, nutritional supplements, exercise, makeup, rest, and fashion that can help women (and men) fight the effects of aging.

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bookFor many of us, the bells ringing in the New Year carry a bittersweet tune. We look forward to better times, which means we’ve gone through some hard times. We make resolutions, which means we have found faults in ourselves. Here in the South, we eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in the hope that these will bring good luck, implying that the past year brought some bad luck. (Note: one research study found that black-eyed peas cause the least amount of flatulence. Seconds, anyone?)

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bookIn 1977 I fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

That was a year of deep reading for me — Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Flaubert, and so many others — but it was Gatsby I loved. The novel obsessed me, not so much for its characters or its plot or its literary symbols as for the rhythms of its sentences and the juxtaposition of unlikely adjectives and nouns.

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bookFor all of you who haven’t started your holiday shopping yet, for you who scorn Black Friday, who keep telling yourselves day after day that you will go buy gifts tomorrow (tomorrow: what a wonderful word!), for all of you who wake at dawn in a cold sweat knowing that you are down to the wire, the holidays can hover like dark clouds at midnight. Gift cards are the backup plan, but then you remember you gave your mother, your siblings, and Uncle Billy-Bob plastic for the Olive Garden for the last five years running. Suddenly your mouth is drier than a sack of Kibbles and Bits, and your hands are shaking the way they did that morning after Billy-Bob’s New Year’s party and you woke face down in his backyard bean patch without a clue as to how you got there.

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bookWhen I was 6 years old, I entered the first grade at Boonville Elementary School. For months, various adults had told me I would learn to read in school, and I marched into that old brick schoolhouse eager to acquire this skill. My memory of my return home from that day in school is vivid: I got out of the car, looked at my mother, blurted “They didn’t teach me to read,” and stomped into the house.

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bookThe story goes that as Benjamin Franklin was leaving the final session of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a monarchy or a republic?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied: “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.”

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bookIn Lauren Grodstein’s novel The Explanation For Everything (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013, 336 pages, $24.95), we meet Andrew Waite, a biology professor and widower living with his two young daughters in Southern New Jersey. Andrew is an evolutionist, an atheist who at the same time is haunted from time to time by his recently deceased wife, Louisa. He is a good father and a provocative teacher, but along with his wife has lost the power to connect with others. He spends a part of each day writing angry, unsent letters to the young man, now imprisoned, who killed Louisa while driving drunk.

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bookThis week it’s time to break out the champagne, pop that cork, and raise a flute of bubbly to the essay.

Once the property of magazines and newspapers, the essay is now the vehicle of choice for thousands of online bloggers. Everyday we can go to our computers and pull up essays on every topic imaginable. Anyone can create a blog, and the essay, usually short and focused, is the ideal form for posting thoughts and opinions on that blog. Name a topic — household budgets, the novels of John Gardner, black bears, guitars, love, Ebola — and you’ll find amateur essayists sharing their observations online.

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bookTwenty-five years ago, while under a good deal of pressure and stress, I began noticing I was forgetting things. I would tell a customer in my bookstore about a novel and then found I couldn’t dredge up the name of the author. I grew concerned enough to ask informal advice from a local physician, who suggested ginkgo biloba. (This didn’t work: I kept forgetting to take the pills).

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book“Evil is no more at an end than History, and so long as there are men there will be no final victory over it.”

—Theodore Dalrymple

Regarding politics and language, George Orwell once wrote that modern speech and writing are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Read nearly any government report, peruse the writings of many economists, examine the politically correct vocabulary of universities and institutions, decipher the lingo of corporate bureaucrats, and we see that Orwell was right on target.

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bookFor many reasons, this summer in particular afforded many opportunities for reading. During a 60-hour stay at Figure Eight Island, for example, I finished a novel and a book of essays, mostly because my hosts wanted to do nothing more than cook excellent meals, sprawl on the sand, and read books. As a result, my pile of books for possible review sprinted ahead of my ability to write of them.

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bookIn Why Read?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the practice of student reviews of a teacher, then writes: “As I read the reviews, I thought of a story I’d heard about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course. Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike? Part two: what flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you? The hand that framed those questions may have been slightly heavy. But at least they compelled the students to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered.”

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In One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance (ISBN 0-312-30443-9, $23.95), Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys and Who Stole Feminism? and Dr. Sally Satel, author of PC, MD: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine, make the case that our therapeutic society has run amuck, leading to a steady collapse of moral values and traditional American virtues.

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Preschool children are normally as full of questions as a quiz show host on a fast night. They want to know who, what, when and why. They want someone to explain how and where and how much. They want to understand those things in this world which the rest of us, except for perhaps a few scientists, poets, and mystics, no longer see.

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A Soldier of the Great War

Recently a friend recommended this book to my 17-year-old son as a sort of fictional primer for growing into manhood. Though I had enjoyed the novel when I read it 10 years ago, I found that when I began thumbing through it I had forgotten what a fine book it really was. Mark Helprin’s story of Alessandro Giuliani, a septuagenarian war hero and professor of aesthetics, is a tale of incredible adventures ranging from mountain climbing in the Alps to some of the savage battles of World War I. Helprin’s Alessandro is a wise man, filled with insights from a lifetime of loving life itself. Particularly fine is Alessandro’s comments on the subjects of beauty, sex, women, and love.

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