Jeff Minick

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bookNot so long ago, a neighbor in the building where I love in Montford, a budding comedian in her early 30s who works as a publicist for the Mast General Stores, was visiting with me in my apartment. We are both readers and began joking about bookstores and genres of literature. I mentioned a book that I categorized as “chick-lit,” and my friend, who disliked this particular book, replied that it should be labeled “s**t-lit.”

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Valentine’s Day is just around the bend, and for anyone with even a breath of romance in the heart — whether you’re madly in love or you’ve just gotten your heart ripped apart by some human version of Hurricane Katrina — it’s time to look at a few books that might help make romantics out of all of us.

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Like many of my fellow writers and readers, I am a sucker for word books. I love dictionaries — I own at least six of them, ranging from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to my own personal favorite, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary — thesauri, grammar books, and books on word origins.

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bookFor whatever reason — the leisurely pace of days, the break in my work routine, the annual trip to the coast with my children and grandchildren — summer alters my reading habits. As for the students I teach, summer affords me the opportunity to read as I wish, to browse with less intent through bookstores or library stacks. Here are a few of the books that have passed through my hands these last two weeks.

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After reading three autobiographies in less than 10 days, I emerged from the encounter feeling much like a lover who has finally encountered the full physicality of his beloved: I’m thankful for the romp but find myself a little disillusioned, a little disappointed with some parts of the romance.

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“Fortunes of War”

Based upon the autobiographical novels of Olivia Manning, this BBC production tells the story of Guy Pringle (Kenneth Branagh), his wife Harriet (Emma Thompson), and their involvement in the dangerous politics of Romania and the Balkans during World War II. Like so many British shows of this kind, “Fortunes of War” features crisp acting, amusing characters with some depth, and a fast-paced plot that seems pitched toward a mature audience. Particularly fetching is the character of Prince Yaki.

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About 15 years ago, one frequent guest at our bed and breakfast here in Waynesville was a Mrs. Irene Harrison, wife of a well-known New York state attorney and daughter of Charles Seiberling, the tire manufacturer. Though Mrs. Harrison was 106 years old on her last visit here, she maintained an intense and often eccentric interest in politics, remaining convinced, for example, that fluoridated water involved some sort of government plot against the American people. Once, as I passed through the parlor where she and her son nightly debated current political developments, I stopped and asked her, “Mrs. Harrison, you’ve obviously seen quite a few presidents in your lifetime. Which do you judge to be the best among them?”

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bookThis Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More, For Young and Old Alike (Picador, 2013 reprint, $15) has minor flaws to irritate every reader. For me, the title on the dust-jacket of the original hardback was almost impossible to read, and certain sections of this “self-help” book — the chapter “How To Let A Child Die” was arrogant, sentimental, and condescending — were as annoying as a stink bug circling a light bulb.

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bookLet’s begin by noting the continuing biographical interest in writers and drinking. In my own collection are Tom Dardis’s The Thirsty Muse; Kelly Boler’s A Drinking Companion: Alcohol & The Lives of Writers; physician Donald W. Goodwin’s Alcohol and the Writer; Kaylie Jones’s Lies My Mother Told Me; Donald Newlove’s Those Drinking Days and Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking, with its introduction by another renowned boozer, Christopher Hitchens. I also own various biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wolfe, Millay and others, all devotees of the cult of Bacchus. 

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Sometimes a book touches our hearts in a very special way. In the winter and spring of 1978, having saved from our combined incomes of the previous year, my wife and I celebrated our January wedding by traveling for three months to Europe. We lived there cheaply, as young people traditionally do. With friends we shared an apartment in Switzerland for a month. In March we fell in love with Italy, staying in rooms for as little as $4 per night and exploring Rome and the southern coastline.

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Writers typically aim to give the reader a protagonist who is likeable. Most of us don’t want to spend hours of our life getting to know protagonists who leave us cold inside, central characters who are so odd or so unlike ourselves in some basic way that we end the book loathing them.

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Besides being what T.S. Eliot called “the cruelest month/Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” April is also National Poetry Month. To do honor to poetry, let’s look at two books that have much to do with the poem and with the poet.

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Well, it’s spring — a beautiful spring indeed this year — and that time on the calendar when a young man’s fancy turns to love.

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In April I began working a few weekend hours in a bookshop in Asheville. Having operated my own bookstore for more than 20 years and having worked in bookstores for 10 years before that, I took up this newest position as a way of keeping my rather dusty, book-begrimed hand in the business.

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Confession is good for the soul.

As any practicing Catholic will tell you, that old tune still plays true. You may dread going to confession — I don’t know anyone who enjoys spilling out his faults and sins before a priest, who quite literally speaks for Christ in granting forgiveness, but the feeling on leaving the confessional is frequently one of mild ecstasy, of actually feeling forgiven, of being clean.

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During my senior year of high school, my brother, some friends, and I went to a James Bond film festival. If I remember correctly, we entered the theater around seven in the evening and staggered out about one the next morning. It was an interesting experience. With the exception of “Goldfinger,” which I‘d seen in the seventh grade while away at school (and yes, I lied at that time to get into the theater), all of the movies I saw that night ran together in my head. I literally couldn’t separate one plot from another.

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Steve Salerno’s SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless (ISBN 1-40005409-5, $24.95) is not only an attack on the self-help movement — SHAM is the acronym for Self-Help and Actualization Movement — but also a very amusing book.

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In the last 40 years, the living waters of American law and politics have flattened into a bog of faction and dissent, of lawsuits and grievance groups, of hatreds both petty and grand.

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Narratives of confinement have long held a fascination for readers. From Saint Paul’s account of his imprisonment to modern stories of Turkish prisons, Alcatraz, and the Hanoi Hilton, we find ourselves roused by stories of courage and tenacity shown in the face of punishment and prison.

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In Marshall Frank’s latest Miami detective novel, The Latent (ISBN 1-4137-9890-X), a serial killer is terrorizing Miami’s gay community. Rockford “Rock” Burgamy, the detective assigned to the case and a stranger to the gay subculture, must not only track down the vicious killer known as J.D., but must also struggle with his own personal problems.

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bookBack in the day when the “culture wars” focused more on literature, music and movies — Tipper Gore, for example, then the wife of Al Gore, in 1985 led a crusade advocating age-appropriate labels on popular music — Christians often criticized the arts for their neglect of faith and their secular morality. Many churchgoers rejected mainstream culture altogether, turning instead to “Christian” books, films, and songs, nearly all of which were second-rate, didactic works lacking in real artistry.

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The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne. Algonquin Books, 2006.

All of us bring ghosts to our table.

Whether we dine alone in a lovely restaurant or take our supper at home with our spouse and children. Whether we pick over our holiday meal in the solitude of a nursing-home bed or feast in some great familial hall with a ravenous horde of nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles, and aunts.

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bookIn our tell-all age of talk shows and reality television, of Facebook and Twitter, the idea that restraint and repression might contain some worth seems as antiquated a concept as arranged marriages. We revel in revelation: our bookstores are jammed with accounts by the famous and the not-so-famous regarding their sexual histories, their conquests and their defeats. Talk shows have for so long featured the weird and the bizarre that producers these days seem hard-pressed to fill airtime.

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bookRecently I returned from a trip to the library with a bagful of books. When handling these books in the library, flipping through the pages and reading the blurbs, I experienced a familiar excitement, that thrill felt by all booklovers when they find a book promising enjoyment and worth.

Later that evening, however, as I unpacked the bag along with some groceries, my earlier enthusiasm gave way to puzzlement. As I looked over the books this time, I wondered why I had selected them. What was I thinking?

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bookMay is fast approaching, and with May comes the season of graduations.

Daughters and sons, nephews and nieces, young people we’ve cherished for one reason or another: they’re about to embark on the next journey in their life, and we want to speed them along their way with a meaningful gift. Cash is always handy, of course, to the young — and I might add, to some of us who are old — but cash is a cold gift, the sort of boon and gratuity given by most of us out of desperation, ignorant of what those just graduating from high school or college might need or want.

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bookIn the first half of the fifteenth century, decades before Columbus set sail, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded a fleet that seven times sailed across the Indian Ocean and reached the shores of East Africa. This talented admiral returned from each voyage — (some historians believe he died on the last one) — with rare goods and exotic animals. In spite of this impressive feat of navigation, after Zhen He’s death the Chinese emperor decreed an end to the construction of oceangoing vessels. He then had Zehng He’s fleet dragged ashore and left to rot, and even ordered the surviving animals in the imperial zoo killed.

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book“Chick-lit” is, of course, the slang expression for those books appealing especially to women. Though not politically correct, most men and women use this moniker when thinking of romance novels, most Christian fiction, books that address feelings (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus), many self-improvement books and even diet books. The all-time classic chick-lit novel is undoubtedly Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a book that many women treasure and which wise men wishing to better understand women read. 

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bookSome books — novels, certain histories and biographies — deserve full immersion. We dive into them, plummet into their depths, swim through them from first page to last, and return to shore refreshed and satisfied by our explorations.

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bookPoetry.

Po-e-tree.

A word with a lovely sound, but with bleak connotations.

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bookIn the Prologue to Norman Mailer: A Double Life (978-1-4391-5019-1, 2013, $40), biographer J. Michael Lennon writes that “Mailer’s desire for fame, and his distaste for it, never abated over his long career. Nor did his ability to determine how he might write about his current situation, whatever it might be. It became a reflex.”

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bookFour years ago in November, a schoolteacher in Knoxville asked her English class to write a composition on family dinner together. With two exceptions, the class — a racially mixed, lower income group of students — hooted at her in derision.

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bookIn Voyage To Alpha Centauri (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-832-1), Michael O’Brien, Canadian writer and painter, gives us a grand tale of a space voyage to Alpha Centauri, the star closest to our own solar system. Voyage puts us on board the Kosmos, an enormous space vessel carrying more than 600 people: scientists, technicians, pilots, workers in the ship’s restaurants, janitors. 

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bookThe new year is a time when many people, dissatisfied with some condition of their lives, resolve to make changes. Often these attempted transformations involve shedding weight or unwanted habits like smoking or drinking. Depending on all sorts of variables — the will power of the individual, support given or denied, circumstances beyond our control — we either keep the resolution and make an adjustment to our style of living, or we fail in our attempts and fall flat on our faces.

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op frEach new year brings out the list-makers, pundits and critics who catalogue everything from the year’s best movies, books, and music to predictions regarding politics and the economy for the next 12 months. With the exception of composing my own personal lists from the past year — “Ten Things I Would Have Done Differently” would be easily written — I lack the qualifications to compose any sort of compendium, including one for books, for 2013.

Yet I do find myself compelled to make a list of favorite books. Several readers of this column, and many of my students, have over the last years asked for such a list, and I would send them three or four recommendations, selections often plunked down without any real effort or thought. Having pondered the matter this week before the new year, I found myself wondering what I would put on such a list if I was, say, limited to a small shelf of favorite books.

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bookThe times in which we live may someday be celebrated for our advancements in medicine, technology and education, but surely some future historian will designate our voluble times as the Age of Revelation.

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bookI was never a fan of drone missiles. Until now, I had always regarded drones as killing machines or mechanical spies. Their deployment by the military to eradicate enemies associated with terrorism does reduce our own casualties to zero, but during these same strikes drones too often murder innocent people, including women and children.

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bookBy Joe Ecclesia

My name is Joe Ecclesia, and I have a bone the size of an elephant’s thigh to pick with one of your reviewers, Jeff Minick.

For 12 years or so, I have known Mr. Minick. We’ve shared many meals, spilled some wine together, had some laughs.

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bookIn What I Came To Tell You (Egmont Publishers, ISBN 9781606844335, $16.99), local author Tommy Hayes brings us the story of 12-year-old Grover Johnston, his family and his friends. 

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bookBook reviews shouldn’t begin with dedications. But with Strings Attached (ISBN 978-1-4013-2466-7, $24.99) being the book under review, I feel compelled to commence by issuing a few long-overdue honorifics:

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bookGoogle books on parenting, and you will find thousands — tens of thousands — of titles. There are books on parenting boys, books on parenting girls, books on parenting toddlers, adolescents, and teens, books on parenting the chubby and the thin, books on parenting every sort of child under the sun. 

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bookJim Harrison is an American phenomenon. Not only has he written more than 30 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction — the last category includes a fine cookbook, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, and a memoir, Off to the Side, which is a worthwhile account of his triumphs and failures in life — but he has, during all these years of writing, maintained a standard of excellence rare among his contemporaries. His books are indelibly marked by his style, which we will examine briefly below, and by certain themes: outsiders, love between men and women, failure, and America’s changing landscape and values. 

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bookAn online visit reveals hundreds of books written on hiking the Appalachian Trail. These range from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which is the witty account of a man who hiked part of the trail, to Bill Walker’s SkyWalker: Close Encounters of the Appalachian Trail, in which the author gives us vivid and humorous portraits of some of his fellow trekkers, to Paul Stutzman’s Hiking Through, which tells of the author’s quest for peace and freedom on the Trail. There are at least a score of books offering practical advice on how to hike the Trail; there are even a few that deal solely with preparations for the hike. 

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bookIn Light of the World (ISBN 978-1-4767-1076-1, $27.99), James Lee Burke once again gives readers writing cut and polished like a fine diamond. Unfortunately, what he actually has to say and the story he has to tell is so flawed that if this novel were a diamond, the plot and most of the characters would be ground into dust and used for manufacturing.

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bookFor most students, parents, and teachers, autumn rather than spring is the season of budding growth, new life, and hope.

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bookEvery once in a while, we encounter a situation so strange and so far removed from the natural order of things that we label the event a “miracle.” (In my own case, this would involve getting eight straight hours of sleep in a single night.) The unexplained healing of some horrific, normally fatal illness; synchronistic convergences so strange that they go far past mere coincidence; the appearance of some apparition — a deceased relative, an angel, the Virgin Mary — bearing private, detailed and accurate information to a human recipient: these are some of the occasions which startle us into breaking out the concept of a miracle to explain or at least acknowledge the unexplainable. 

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bookOn June 24, 1993, David Gelernter, then an associate professor of computer science at Yale University, opened a package in his office that exploded, tearing off most of his right hand and damaging his hearing and eyesight. Gelernter, who had written extensively about computer usage and was a frequent critic of our use of them, was ironically one more victim of the Unabomber, who detested technology.

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bookPriscille Sibley’s The Promise of Stardust (ISBN 978-0-06-219417-6, 399 pages, $15.99) is a fine first novel by a woman who works as a neonatal intensive care nurse. This fact regarding Sibley is important, as she brings her knowledge of medicine and her experience in life-threatening situations to the pages of her book.

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While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West From Within by Bruce Bawer. Doubleday, 2006. 256 pages — $23.95

"If every young European could spend a year living with an American family and attending an American school, all the journalists and politicians in the world wouldn’t be able to twist their awareness of the reality of America — and of American liberal democracy — into an ugly cartoon. And the more America-friendly Europeans are, the more inclined they’ll be to behave like Americans in the ways that count — that is, to eschew appeasement and stand up for freedom. But it may already be too late for such remedies. Europe is steadily committing suicide, and perhaps all we can do is look on in horror."

— Bruce Bawer in While Europe Slept

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For many people, autumn means more than colorful leaves and blue, crisp days. For them fall is, like spring, a time for cleaning, a time for putting the house in order for the winter. Homeowners clean the dead grass off the mower before storing it; they repair the storm windows; they clean out the gutters; they break out blankets and winter coats — and wistfully put away the swimming suits and shorts until next year.

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Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books, 2006. 320 pages.


Beginning a new occupation — whether as a grocery store cashier or a police officer, a teacher or a house painter — exposes us to a different world, a world with its own special codes, techniques, and jargon.

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