Jeff Minick

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On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs by Tim Barnwell. W. W. Norton, 2007. 224 pages.

For a time my father’s love affair with decaying barns and farmhouses became something of a family joke. If he decided to take a back road to get anywhere, those of us in the car with him knew that we were in for a long ride. Every time we would pass some swaybacked, gray barn with half the tin roof missing or a farmhouse with a tumbledown chimney and windows like gray, broken teeth, my father would slow or even stop the car. Sometimes he would reach for his camera or sketchbook — he was both an amateur photographer and painter — and we would inwardly groan. We knew then we might be stopped for a while.

“They’re disappearing,” my dad would say each time. “All these old buildings are crumbling away.”

Some of his best paintings were of old barns and rural scenes. Hanging above me as I write is one of the first watercolors he ever attempted, a painting of a barn on my grandfather’s farm. At one point my father owned his own small farm in Traveler’s Rest, S.C., and he also made several paintings of that property.

At least once he’d gone to one of these derelict buildings and collected timber from them, incorporating the weathered beams and siding into his house. He collected small farm tools as well — hammers and awls and scythes and mauls, and knew how they were used.

At the time my siblings and I were bored with his side trips and snapshots. We’d come of age in rural North Carolina, in the great tobacco country around Winston-Salem where we were surrounded by hills and barns and farmhouses. Some of those buildings looked ancient indeed, and some were already disintegrating into dust and splinters, but our father’s warnings still seemed premature. Surely the barns were as an immutable part of the landscape as the red clay fields or the mules and tractors that shaped them.

We were wrong, of course. The tobacco fields of Yadkin County gave way to grapes and wineries. The barns fell apart or were pulled down to make room for housing tracts, condominiums, and suburbs. A good number of Americans have never seen a mule in the flesh, and tractors are used as much for mowing as for plowing.

For most of his adult life, Tim Barnwell has documented through photographs and oral histories this same trend in Southern Appalachia. In his latest book, On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs (ISBN 978-0-39306267-0, $35), Barnwell brings together more than a hundred of the black-and-white photographs of rural Appalachia he has taken over the past 25 years.

Although this volume contains pictures of buildings, abandoned cars, apple trees, and snowy pastorals, the majority of Barnwell’s stunning photographs are of farmers, their friends and family members.

Here is Kella Buckner with his mule, pulling a sled of rocks in Madison County; here are families putting up hay. There are shots of youngsters playing on a tire swing and attending a church social. Here are photographs of a hog killing, of beans being shelled, of tomatoes and other produce picked from gardens, of cane being ground at a molasses mill.

Doubtless everyone will find certain photographs in this book that they prefer over some of the others. My own particular favorite can be found on page 28. Titled “Doug Messer, resting from tilling field, 2003,” this photograph shows Mr. Messer hunkered down at the edge of a muddy field. In one hand he holds a cap with what appears to be a military logo. In his other he clutches a rag with which he has clearly just wiped the sweat from his face. He sits with his face and body in profile to the viewer. His face, a picture of heat and exhaustion, has as many gullies and furrows as the land around him.

His eyes are nearly closed; a hank of hair falls across his brow. His mouth hangs half-open as if he can’t quite catch his breath. Around his waist he wears a brace. In the background stands the tiller, the tool with which Messer has worked the field. The photograph reminds us, if we need reminding, that it still takes a man to work the machine that works the field and that the man will often take a beating from the work.

In addition to the photographs, On Earth’s Furrowed Brow includes more than 30 pages of oral histories taken from conversations between Barnwell and the people he photographed. We meet Alton Price, who has never ventured more than 75 miles from his home. We meet Plato Worley, whose father drank a cup of hot water for breakfast, water throughout the day, and a glass of milk with supper; Worley remembers when he finally persuaded his father to try an orange soda. We meet person after person who grew up in a family of 10 children or more.

What is refreshing about On Earth’s Furrowed Brow is Barnwell’s refusal either to romanticize farming or to regard our region’s past with melancholic nostalgia. That farming is tough, body-breaking work we can see in the faces of those who spent themselves on the land. And while there is a sense of nostalgia here, of a people and a way of life giving way to new ways and irrevocable time, Barnwell’s photographs give us a feeling of hope for our own future. We sense that we, like these people, will face our own struggles, that like them we will find our own solutions and make our own peace with change.

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Thomas Wolfe: An Illustrated Biography by Ted Mitchell. Pegasus Books, 2007. 341 pages.

Thirty-three years ago this month, at the dreg-ends of an evil winter and a harsh spring, I went to the library at the University of Connecticut and obtained a copy of Look Homeward, Angel. My personal life had become a mess, I felt lost and alone in New England, and I looked for a touch of home in Thomas Wolfe’s first novel.

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A country which has accepted the mantle of “empire,’ however inimical that mantle may be to its professed destiny; a country which sells itself off to its competitors, which elevates cheap goods for consumers at the expense of its own safety and welfare; a country which forces its citizens to remove their shoes at airports to search for sock bombs while leaving thousands of miles of its borders open to intruders; a country obsessed with sports, games, and entertainment, which worships at the altars of “American Idol“ or “Lost“: such a country, such an empire, will not only founder one day, but will be cheered in its death struggles by most outside observers. We need read only the histories of Rome and Great Britain to see the fate that, given our present course, awaits us.

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Father’s Day, surely a boon to the greeting card industry and certain segments of the male apparel industry, has taken on greater meaning than ever for me this year. My own father is in reasonable good health. I am a father of four children and a grandfather. I feel very much a link in a paternal chain these days especially when I take my grandchildren into my arms. I hold them and feel as if through them I will somehow live another eighty years or more into the future.

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Certain genres of literature fare better when critically judged by the standards of that particular genre rather than by any general literary criteria.

Christian fiction, for example, while entertaining and appealing to a certain audience, would be buried — with no hope of resurrection — if reviewed by critics from the New York Times or The Atlantic Monthly. Romance novelists attract different fans, but the reputations of those novelists yellow and fade faster than the cheap paper on which their books were printed.

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Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy by Joan Burbick. New Press, 2007. 288 pages.

While teaching Latin at Tuscola High School in the late 1990s, I occasionally used some old copies of Jenney’s Latin I for extra exercises in the classroom. To my great amusement, I came across one book that some past student, doubtless driven mad by declensions and conjugations, had shot.

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bookOf all the Beat writers of the 1940s and 1950s — Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Gary Snyder, and others — it is Jack Kerouac who most fascinates post-millennial readers. His works remain in print; he has inspired several biographies and has served as a central character in different memoirs; his best-known novel, On The Road, was released in 2012 as a movie. Like Hemingway or Fitzgerald, he is one of those American writers whose life often seems larger than his work, a figure of romance, a legend.

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bookFor the past 80 years more and more Americans have linked themselves economically to the machinations of the federal government. Having come to depend so heavily on government regulations and monetary entitlements, and by this dependence having subsequently given so much power to Washington, we now rightly credit the government with having the power to bring boom or bust, to change a bad economy to a good one and vice versa, to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in a depression or recession.

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op frThe teenage cashier at the grocery store is conversing with a customer. “That’s right,” she says. “The only thing that will work is for civilization to collapse so we can all go back to nature.” Later I encounter a friend at a party, a married woman in her 50s who has just completed an advanced handgun course, has stocked a year’s worth of provisions in her house, and hopes to purchase a farm in a remote area of Madison County. “When everything falls apart,” she had said to me earlier in the year, “I want a place for my family to feel safe.” Seeing her reminds me of a dozen other acquaintances who believe our civilization is teetering on the verge of an apocalypse. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to these mountains: the Internet is rife with bloggers predicting breakdown and widespread disorder, and advocating ways of survival.

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bookLet me take a deep breath and see if I can get this out in one long ugly sentence: 

A man has some sort of mental fugue while driving, slams into a another car, and kills two people; his married brother moves into the man’s house while the man is in prison and a mental evaluation unit; the brother sleeps with the man’s wife; the man sneaks out of the institution, returns home, finds his brother in bed with said wife, and bashes in the wife’s head with a table lamp; the authorities send the man away for treatment which includes living in a wilderness prison where he befriends an Israeli terrorist; the brother, whose wife kicks him out of the house, moves into the man’s house and assumes responsibility for his nephew, a 12-year-old who has a village in Africa named after him for work he did there when he was 10, and for his niece, a 10-year-old who is in a sexual relationship with a female teacher in the private school she attends, a relationship which ends when the brother takes some money to keep the affair quiet rather than reporting it to the authorities; the brother himself engages in internet sex, sleeps with a homemaker whose husband knows everything and then with a much younger woman who later abandons her aged parents to the brother’s care; the brother suffers a stroke, but continues to engage in sex. 

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bookAlthough its publisher marketed Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever as a children’s book, this touching story of a mother’s love for her boy and the subsequent love and care of the boy for his mother in her old age soon became an enormous hit among adults. When the book was at the height of its popularity, you could see grown-ups in libraries and bookstores weeping as they read the book. Parents who read the book to their children at bedtime often became so choked up with tears that they couldn’t finish the story.

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bookThink of the times someone has said to you: “You’ll love this book!” This well-intentioned person then shoves a book into your hands and dances off, leaving you gripping a volume, white-knuckled, you are now required to love. Though occasionally you’ll open the book and find yourself surprised by its pleasures, more likely you will read a few lines and sink slowly into the nearest chair as full of lead as Bonnie and Clyde. 

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bookWhen I was a child living in Boonville, N.C., a town of 600 people, my mother would load us into the station wagon twice a year — at the start of each new school year and at Christmas — and drive 25 miles to the Sears store in Winston-Salem. That store was dinky by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of enchantment. The parking deck was on the store’s roof, and we would descend the stairs into a palace of delights: the odor of roasted peanuts from the confectionary stand at the bottom of the stairwell; the toys calling to us from the shelves off to the left; the racks and racks of clothes in which my siblings and I, to my mother’s chagrin, played hide-and-seek.

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When I was a child living in Boonville, N.C., a town of 600 people, my mother would load us into the station wagon twice a year — at the start of each new school year and at Christmas — and drive 25 miles to the Sears store in Winston-Salem. That store was dinky by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of enchantment. The parking deck was on the store’s roof, and we would descend the stairs into a palace of delights: the odor of roasted peanuts from the confectionary stand at the bottom of the stairwell; the toys calling to us from the shelves off to the left; the racks and racks of clothes in which my siblings and I, to my mother’s chagrin, played hide-and-seek.

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bookMark Helprin drives me crazy.

Helprin’s novels — he is the author of A Soldier of the Great War, Freddy and Fredericka, and a half-dozen other works of fiction — remind me of my great-grandmother’s engagement ring, which I took to a jeweler for assessment before giving it to my daughter. The jeweler examined the diamond through her loupe, pronounced the gem chipped and somewhat flawed, then declared that it nonetheless was of excellent value because of its size, its old-fashioned, European cut and its character.

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bookIn Creole Belle (ISBN 978-1-4516-4813-3, $27.99), novelist James Lee Burke returns to a territory he now owns in the literary sense: New Orleans, the Gulf, and Southern Louisiana. Dave Robicheaux, ex-drunk, ex-member of the Big Easy’s police department, returns to a world of murder, mayhem, money, and mobsters. He and his best friend and former police partner — the hard-drinking, stand-up private detective Clete Purcel — find themselves battling a host of underworld figures, ranging from low-life sociopaths out to collect a debt from Purcel to corporate villains involved in fraud, kidnapping, torture, and murder.

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From Violins to Violence: A Memoir by Marshall Frank.
Fortis Book, 2007. 308 pages

In Tom Stoppard’s Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, a character says: “My problem is that I am not frightfully interested in anything, except myself. And of all forms of fiction autobiography is the most gratuitous.”

And so it is. Many of us reach an age, the October of our lives, when we suddenly become garrulous in speech, particularly around the young. We are like the old men who once gathered on courthouse lawns, the old women who once sat at quilting bees; we who were silent so many years, bound by the necessities of making a living and raising our children, feel compelled at age fifty or older to offer listening ears the sum of what we have observed and learned. Our sentences often begin “When I was a boy” or “When I was a little girl” or “Folks back then ...,” followed by a singular moral pronouncement with an apt accompanying tale.

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bookA distracted mother off to the store forgets to shut the door from the kitchen to the garage, puts her car into reverse, and drives over the two-year-old who has followed her into the garage. Late for work, a father intends to take his napping 18-month-old to daycare, receives a call from his boss that he is urgently needed, drives straight to work and comes out at the end of a long, hot day to find his infant dead in his car seat.

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On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Penguin Classics. 310 pages

Summertime, and the living is easy ...

For most of us Gershwin’s line remains true. The pace of life slows in the summer; the days grow longer; the evening air fills with the scent of cut grass and grilled burgers. July and August offer a welcome hiatus from planned activities for parents and children alike. For teenagers, summer also offers a shift from the worries and cares of the academic year. Many teens work during the summer, putting money aside for a car or college. Others travel, flying off to Romania on a church mission trip or to South America on different American ambassador programs. Others sleep the morning away, hang out, lift weights to play football in the fall, work at various volunteer activities, or engage in a myriad of other diversions.

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What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education by Michael Berube. W. W. Norton, 2006. 288 pages.

In What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education (ISBN 978-0-393-06037-9, $26.95), Michael Berube, professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, attempts a defense of political liberalism in the liberal arts programs of our country by taking us inside a college classroom — mostly, his own — and showing us that few professors actually bring any sort of political agenda into their teaching.

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The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 224 pages.

When I think of political curmudgeons, of gloomy prognosticators, of bleak Cassandras prophesizing doom, my mind turns to either extreme environmentalists or to right-wing survivalists whose garage shelves still hold Y2K canned goods. Both groups routinely predict the end of the world, the first by heat and global chaos, the second by global chaos and violence.

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bookBy early September in these mountains the markers of autumn are very much with us. The cool nights diminish the whirring of air-conditioners; the raucous August chorus of tree frogs and crickets softens its music; a few stray leaves on the lawn remind us to have the furnace inspected or the chimneys cleaned. For many of us, the fall brings a heightened sense of bustle and purpose, quickening our blood and rousing us to ambitions muted by summer’s more languorous pace.

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Cataloochee by Wayne Caldwell. Random House, 2007. 368 pages

Readers planning to attend Book Mania in Waynesville have several treats in store for them. A welcome reception for the participating authors will be held Friday evening, Aug. 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Osondu Booksellers. Tickets for this reception cost $15 each, money which will be used for local educational purposes. On Saturday, Aug. 4, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Book Mania, a creation of Mountain Writers Alive!, will sponsor an entire day of writers sharing their work through readings, signings, and conversations at the Haywood Justice Center in Waynesville.

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The Rhythm of Life

Subtitled “Living Every Day with Passion & Purpose,” Matthew Kelly’s The Rhythm of Life is in many ways no better or worse than the hundreds of other inspirational books that flood the market every year, and yet something about the simplicity of his advice makes this book special for me. He advocates guidelines — rest, spiritual endeavors, intellectual development — that most of us know, but infrequently practice. I also like the beginning of the book, which presents this paradox: “On the one hand, we all want to be happy. On the other hand, we all know the things that make us happy. But we don’t do those things. Why? Simple. We are too busy. To busy doing what? Too busy trying to be happy.” A good book to retune the engine and to remind us that we are human beings rather than machines.

Krysztof Kieslowski

Several years ago in this column, I mentioned this Polish director and his fine films, “White,” “Blue,” and “Red.” This past week I’ve spent a good bit of time watching “The Decalogue,” Kieslowski’s version of “The Ten Commandments.” Set in contemporary Poland, these movies subtly explore human nature through the Commandments. These films move slowly enough that we feel as if we are moving with the characters through their lives. Sometimes the plot may leave us baffled, uncertain as to the director’s final intent, but always these stories leave us intrigued and filled with wonder at the many manifestations of the human spirit.

Castra nerdorum (Camp of the Nerds)

Recently I attend a six-day seminar during which the participants were only allowed to speak Latin. All the lectures, all the tours, all the church services were in lingua Latina. While I learned a good many things at this seminar — not just about Latin, but about teaching, learning, and people — I was especially surprised to see the week become a sort of retreat for me. We met at a Franciscan convent on the Hillsborough River in Tampa, Fla., a beautiful place with five acres of grounds and an enormous screened-in back porch. Because we prayed the liturgy of the hours in Latin four times daily, my time there took on a spiritual aspect that I hadn’t anticipated. I was reminded again of the great goodness that can be found in silence and of the value of peace that is so often missing from our hectic lives. Pax vobiscum, legentes boni (Peace be with you, good readers).

— By Jeff Minick

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Choosing the genre in which to write is, of course, a major factor in the success with which we communicate our message to others. Theodore Dalrymple, for example, has chosen the essay as his vehicle for addressing the violence and cultural deterioration in the West today. Yeats raises these same concerns in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” — ”The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned” — but used poetry to bring home his point.

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bookIt’s that time of year when yellow buses roll down country roads, when children disappear from the stores and streets between the hours of eight and three, when teenagers can be seen entering school buildings bent forward like soldiers beneath packs crammed full of books, notepads, computers and calculators, and various drinks and snack bars.

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Murdering Americans by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Poisoned Pen Press, 2007. 236 pages.

Skewering the politically correct codes of our colleges and universities can be great fun, particularly for those writers and readers who are not yet humor-impaired. Like the Babbitts of old, the blue-blooded puritans who mouthed pious platitudes, or the starched souls who looked down long noses at what they considered their moral inferiors, the politically correct virtually demand the pin that will allow the escape of hot air from their gaseous egos.

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An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. Algonquin Books, 2007. 305 pages.

Some writers come to seem like friends to their readers, even like family. Oddly enough, in my own case these writers are not my favorite authors. I still cherish the work of Hemingway, but the more I read about the man, the possibility that I might have enjoyed dining with him diminishes. In regard to an author like James Jones, however, I treasure only one or two of his works — From Here to Eternity, and possibly his World War II history — but from what I have read of the man breaking bread together would have been a pleasure.

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Wild to Possess and A Taste for Sin by Gil Brewer. Stark House Press, 2006.

One of the great delights of reading is to come across an exciting, new author for the first time. Even more delightful is the realization that the author has written more books for the reader to track down and enjoy.

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A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas. Harcourt, 2006. 192 pages

A blurb on the front cover of Abigail Thomas’ A Three Dog Life: A Memoir reads as follows:

“The best memoir I have ever read. This book is a punch to the heart. Read it.” — Stephen King

Though I normally don’t seek out books about dogs — yes, all you canine lovers, I realize completely that my lack of interest in man’s best friend puts me up there with Adolph Hitler (actually a bad example, as Hitler apparently loved his dog Blondi so much that the German General Staff had the impression that at times the dog and not the Fascist vegetarian was running the war) — I took King’s recommendation and opened the book.

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American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever. Simon & Schuster, 2006. 240 pages

Susan Cheever, novelist, critic, and writer of acclaimed memoirs (Note Found in a Bottle and Home Before Dark) shifts her interests to the field of literary biography in American Bloomsbury. Subtitled “Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work,” American Bloomsbury tells of the tangled lives of these writers who exerted quite an influence on their native land.

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bookIn her latest novel, Starting From Happy (ISBN 978-1-4391-02185, $24), Patricia Marx, author of Him Her Him Again The End of Him and a staff writer for the New Yorker, gives the reader an off-beat comedic look at relationships, work, marriage and children.

The story is simple enough. Wally Yez, a laboratory scientist, meets Imogene Gilfeather, a lingerie designer. Quickly, Wally becomes infatuated with Imogene, certain that she is the woman of his destiny. He breaks up with his long-time girlfriend and pursues Imogene, who is equally certain that she is happiest just as she is: devoted to her career, blessed by several friends, involved in an affair with a married man whose benign neglect pleases Imogene. Eventually, Imogene, charmed by Wally’s unrelenting pursuit, gives in to his romantic notions that the two of them should become a couple together.

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op minickIn his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Today the challenge posed by Kennedy might read: “Ask not what you can do for your country — ask what your country is doing to you.”

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Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy. Knopf, 2007. 352 pages.

Recently my sister asked me if I had met anyone, which is a coded inquiry for “anyone of interest in terms of dating.” I told her that my schedule and my other commitments made it difficult for me to meet women.

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The Pesthouse by Jim Crace. Nan A. Talese, 2007. 255 pages

“Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.”

This refrain from Randy Newman’s song “Political Science” could serve as the tagline for the whole realm of apocalyptic fiction.

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Emo. Emo. Emoooooo.

Occasionally the word (pronounced, I believe, I-moo) pops up on the Internet or jumps out of some conversation overheard on the street, snagging the ear and eye, but I keep ignoring it. The word and concept belong to a younger generation; wireless Internet and YouTube send me off the edge of the world, and so I was glad to give the word a pass.

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The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2007. 384 pages.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s bayou detective, Dave Robicheaux, have doubtless wondered not if, but how well, Burke would incorporate Hurricane Katrina into his next novel about Robicheaux and the Big Easy. The Tin Roof Blowdown (Simon & Schuster, 2007) gives these readers their answer: very well indeed.

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Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer.  University of Illinois Press, 2007. 232 pages

Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2007) might seem at first glance merely another collection in the plethora of literary anthologies that have recently become, like the locust swarms in ancient times, a plague upon the land. Closer inspection of this compilation by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer, however, reveals that Dark Horses is truly a treasure house of neglected poems.

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The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesman and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II by Judith Heimann. Harcourt, 2007. 304 pages.

The generation of Americans who fought in World War II, the Americans who landed in North Africa and in Italy, who fought at Guadalcanal and Midway, who fought in places where the enemy was not just the Japanese but kunai grass and mosquitoes, where the enemy was not just the Germans but mud and snow, our armed forces personnel who battled Germans and Japanese on three continents: this generation is swiftly falling away from the tree of life.

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Readers of the Smoky Mountain News are acutely aware of the writing and storytelling talent here in Western North Carolina. Several writers for this paper have seen their work published, and a score of local authors have seen their books reviewed in these pages.

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Prophet From Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy by Frye Gaillard. University of Georgia Press, 2007. 144 pages

In the prologue to Prophet From Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy (University of Georgia Press, 2007), Frye Gaillard writes that his book “is not a presidential biography but an extended profile, one writer’s understanding of this complicated man, based on encounters off and on for twenty years.” In these words he sums up both the strengths and flaws of Prophet From Plains, and unintentionally issues the reader a caveat regarding his own admiration for the former president.

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Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress by Russell Smith. Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. 256 pages.

For many years Bill Cosby has passionately sought to shore up the deteriorating American family. Both “The Cosby Show” and Cosby’s best-selling Fatherhood book offer humorous takes on family life while simultaneously demonstrating the strength that can be found in family life.

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Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey. Melville House Publishing, 2006. 154 pages.

Lovers of the English language have always suffered the pistol-whip cuts of poor spelling, dreadful grammar, and confused syntax. Our postmodern writing is no exception.

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bookSome years ago, a local artist mounted a painting in a local art show in which he painted Christ with pink paws and Easter bunny ears. “This is going to upset some people around here,” the painter told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, having heard of the statue of the Virgin Mary covered with cattle dung at a New York show and of Andres Serrano‘s “Piss Christ” – this piece of art entailed putting a crucifix in a jar of urine – most Americans would find a Jesus Easter bunny about as controversial as a piece of broccoli quiche. Had he wanted to ignite a real firestorm, he should have depicted the founder of Islam with a nine-year-old girl in his lap wearing a wedding dress.

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Books are the ideal gift for the Yuletide season. Think of the many advantages in giving a book to a friend or loved one for Christmas. Books provide hours of pleasure. They don’t add inches to the waistline. Books travel well — the giver needn’t fear breakage — and they pack easily into a bag or the car. Finally, the least adroit among us can gift-wrap a book and construct a package that looks decent. And if we’re unsure what book to give the booklover in our life, we can always purchase and bestow on them a gift card, which takes even less space and affords your bibliophile the added pleasure of leisurely browsing a bookshop.

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The 47th Samurai by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster, 2007. 384 pages.

Eight seconds.

Eight seconds, according to Stephen Hunter in his latest novel The 47th Samurai (13:978-0-7432-3809-0, $26), is the amount of time it takes a human being to bleed out and die after having his guts carved open or a limb chopped off by a samurai’s sword.

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Moravian Christmas in the South by Nancy Smith Thomas. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 184 pages

Easter is the religious holiday that most North Carolinians would associate with the Moravian Church. In Winston-Salem, brass bands travel about the downtown, waking old neighborhoods with hymns in the wee hours of the morning, an event that culminates at dawn in Old Salem, when the bands and thousands of people gather to celebrate the Easter Sunrise Service.

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Crackers in the Glade: Life and Times in the Old Everglades edited Betty Savidge Briggs. University of Georgia Press, 2007. 127 pages.

Crackers in the Glade: Life and Times in the Old Everglades (University of Georgia Press, ISBN 13-978-0-8203-3043-3) tells the story of Rob Storter, fisherman, fishing guide, writer and artist, a man who witnessed and helped record the transformation of West Florida from a rough frontier to its current development as a haven for tourists, retirees, and developers.

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Letters to My Son on the Love of Books by Roberto Coltroneo. Ecco Press, 1998. 151 pages.

In the Dec. 24 issue of The New Yorker, Caleb Crain addresses the decline of literacy and the increasing disinterest in reading in “Twilight of the Books: what will life be like if people stop reading?” Despite the title, Crain doesn’t speculate much about the future of reading, though he does offer the comment that if we continue our swing away from printed knowledge toward audiovisual imagery — television, movies, YouTube — ”the nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change.”

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The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.  University of Tennessee Press, 2007. 1864 pages

Sometimes good things come in big packages.

And the Encyclopedia of Appalachia is big. More than 1,800 pages of finely-printed prose make up this boxlike book. I’m not sure exactly what the Encyclopedia weighs, but if you dropped it on someone’s foot you might face arrest for assault with a deadly weapon.

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The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.