Jeff Minick

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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 Machiavelli Covenant by Allan Folsom. Forge Books,2006. 560 pages

The last 20 years have seen the creation of a special niche within the genre of ÒSuspense NovelsÓ as more and more books have appeared featuring a tiny group of protagonists facing great odds as they uncover some secret from the past.

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Evolution In A Nutshell by Martin Malloy. Trafford Publishing, 2007. 302 pages

Evolution is one of those wonderfully fiery topics which, when broached at parties or family gatherings, can convert otherwise reasonable friends and relatives into raging maniacs, shouting, slamming their fists onto the table, and crunching beer cans against their heads (somewhat like chimpanzees signaling irritation or fear).

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The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen. Doubleday, 2007. $22.95

Web 2.0 is killing our culture.

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How To Make A Journal Of Your Life by D. Price. Ten Speed Press, $9.95.

Ant Farm by Simon Rich. Random House, $12.95.


Many people have attempted at least once in their lives to keep a journal. Whether they use one of those expensive, leather-bound journals with creamy white paper from their local bookstore or simply a cheap notebook from Wal-Mart, they set out to chronicle their lives for their own pleasure and perhaps for the edification of their offspring.

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In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955 by X.J. Kennedy. — The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 224 pages

Although tens of thousands of American citizens today may call themselves poets, the fact is that poetry has hit hard times. Despite the fact that verse seems conducive to our hamster-wheel, ADD culture — poetry does, after all, have the virtue of brevity; even a slow reader could gulp down three or four poems of average length in less time than it takes to eat a Happy Meal — we have more poets than ever before and fewer readers of poetry. Some commentators have remarked that even poets themselves don’t read much poetry anymore.

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Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Walker. Indigo Publishing, 2007. 224 pages.

Bill Bryson’s account of his time on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, revealed that the chief amusements of the Trail are not the flowers, trees, peaks or bears, but the other human beings encountered on the trail. Katz in particular, Bryson’s fat and funny companion on the trail, stays in the minds of readers longer than the descriptions of the weather or history of the Appalachian Trail.

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God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin. Harcourt, 2007. 304 pages

Every once in a while a book sees print that inadvertently tells the unwashed what the elite thinks of them. Massa waltzes out of the Big House —Washington, Manhattan, Beverly Hills — rubs elbows with the field hands, and then retreats to the Big House to write the other massas about conditions on the plantation. Sometimes Massa morphs into an amateur anthropologist, breathlessly explaining to fellow denizens of the West Side or Georgetown the mores of the poor dumb savages she has encountered in the foreign wastelands of Tennessee, Kansas, and Wyoming.

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bookWhat would you do if your teenaged daughter was assaulted, beaten and shot almost to the point of death, and raped? Would you hunt down the assailants? And what would you do if you were a physician and an ardent pro-life advocate and found that this same daughter was pregnant? What would you do if you were a Miami cop — a good one — and suddenly found yourself being ordered about by fools and politicos? And how do you go on defending a system that seems to condemn the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime?

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bookMichael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-0-89870-815-8) has more strikes against it than Babe Ruth on a bad afternoon.

Here is a doorstop of a novel, weighing in at nearly three pounds, more than one thousand pages long. There are redundancies galore; there are clunky passages; there are coincidences, particularly one involving a Russian military operation, that stretch belief to a breaking point. The characters engage in philosophical and theological debates that will annoy the car chase and bang-bang readers. Often the dialogue is didactic and polemical.  The main character, Alex Graham, hails from Canada — O’Brien himself is a Maple Leaf man — a country which, should they think of it at all, many Americans would describe as safe, comfortable and boring. Finally, Alex Graham is a believing Catholic, and much of the novel explores that faith, an exploration that will offend — and in some cases, enlighten — those who take their ideas of Catholicism from priestly scandals, the Spanish Inquisition and The DaVinci Code.

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bookIn Frank B. Robinson’s Thirty Days Hath September (ISBN 978-1-4701-6725-7), a man with a murky past, Alex Madrid, finds temporary employment as a security guard at tiny Black Creek College in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The year is 1976, the tail end of September, and a rising tide of murder and abduction forces Madrid to confront his own past, a college on the verge of bankruptcy stained by the killing of one young student and the disappearance of another, and the escape from prison of the Weasel, a sadist and killer who has sworn vengeance on Madrid.

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Suppose this was your household budget:

• Annual family income………………....$23,400

• Money family spends annually….....$35,900

• New debt added to credit cards……$12,500

• Outstanding credit card balance ..$154,000

• Total cuts to family budget………….......$385

Looks like the budget from hell, right? This household with its skyrocketing debt stands precariously on the brink of bad credit, bankruptcy, and ruin.

Now add 8 zeros to all of the above numbers, and you have the current U.S. federal budget (World Magazine, May 19, 2012).

Or shall we say the current financial situation of the United States. You see, we Americans haven’t seen a real budget, balanced or otherwise, in years. The Republican House under Paul Ryan recently proposed a plan that would balance the budget by 2040. The Senate shot down that plan, but offered nothing in its stead. In fact, the Democratic Senate hasn’t offered a real budget in four years. This spring President Obama sent his own recommended budget to the Congress, where in March the House defeated it 414-0. Last week the Senate followed suit by a vote of 99-0. Congress apparently found a few flaws in the president’s proposals.

Both Congress and the president have drawn up other plans for fixing the deficit. Some of our elected officials have called for raising taxes on the wealthy. This sounds like a good idea because the truly wealthy possess so much more money than the rest of us, and they probably don’t deserve it, and anyway, we need it more than they do. So goes the reasoning of some of our citizenry. But eventually we realize that the amount so raised amounts to only a pittance of the debt we owe and such an increase will result in a shift of capital overseas, leading to even less wealth and fewer jobs here at home. (If we are honest, we might also tell ourselves that some talented people have worked hard for their money and that we are thieves to steal it away).

Others call for making cuts to the budget. Some want to reduce miliatary spending and foreign aid. Why, after all, should the United States give $2 billion to Egypt again this year? Why can’t something be done about our wasteful military? Some want to cut or change social programs. Why do we require a Department of Education for the nation when every state in the union already has such a department?

Here the legislators who wish to cut programs face different obstacles than the tax advocates. They are met on one side by political opponents who decry their lack of compassion for the poor and the elderly, and on the other side by lobbyists who are all for cuts as long as they aren’t aimed at those who employ them. Try extending the age of eligibility for Social Security, and you’ll have the American Association of Retired Persons slicing you into small pieces. Propose reducing military benefits or closing overseas military bases — we have hundreds of them — and the lobbyists will take you apart.

Meanwhile, the rest of us watch, enraged at the failure of politicians to find a cure, cursing their knavery and greed. We blame them for our economic woes, for the loss of our AAA credit rating, for a federal government drunken on dollars and corrupted by power. We regard these leaders as fools, rogues, and thieves, and many of them indeed fit those descriptions.  

Yet surely some of the fault lies with us. We vote these people into office; we demand they protect us from the natural ills and woes of life; we want what we want without regard to the cost. We don’t want to pay taxes and certainly don’t want to pay more taxes, yet we want food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, “free” medical care, clean air along with plenty of oil. In 2008, a radio commentator reading children’s letters to candidate-elect Obama best summed up our expectations with this line from a seven-year-old: “President Obama, please make it rain candy.” For decades we have enjoyed that rain of candy. Now the rot of that sugar is destroying us.

Some historians point to Ancient Rome as a warning for us, that crumbling empire with its bread and circuses for the poor, its failed price and wage controls, its unwieldy taxes. But we needn’t stare 1,500 years into the past to see what’s coming. We have only to look across the Atlantic at present-day Greece, Spain, and Italy, all of which are falling apart from the same construct we have erected here: burgeoning social programs, uncontrolled spending, and massive debt. We can look closer to home at California, which while being crushed by enormous debt staggers toward bankruptcy by enacting more government programs.

“Money talks, b***s**t walks,” so the saying goes. We can buy into the lies of some politicians, and we can lie to ourselves, but in the end the figures and the money don’t lie. There’s a bill coming due, and when it arrives, our arguments about taxes and government services won‘t matter. There won’t be enough of us left to tax, wealthy or otherwise, and there will be no more social programs.

It’s time for us to ask every politician, from our mayor to our president, from our senators in Raleigh to those in Washington, what they intend to cut from the budget and how they intend to make government more efficient. If they aren‘t up to the task, then it’s time to elect women and men with long knives, axes, and swing blades, courageous men and women who can chop away at the kudzu of ridiculous regulations, excessive spending, and out-of-control programs. As for the rest of us, we can either pitch tantrums like a three year old when these cuts are made, or we can suck it up and act like grown-ups.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher who lives in Asheville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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In his Foreword to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words (ISBN 978-193333882-8, $14.94), Richard Lederer reminds us of Mark Twain’s much-quoted declaration: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

We live in an ocean of words. In addition to our everyday human speech, we listen to the radio, watch television, read books, play with Facebook, write emails and letters. Advertisements both heard and read are ubiquitous. Most of us throw out words with the casual disregard of a man emptying his pockets of loose change.

Yet our diction – our choice of words – often matters more than we realize. The right word can strengthen a friendship, console the sorrowful, inspire the discouraged, give pause to the smug and the self-satisfied. Some of Twain‘s “lightning“ words have even moved the hearts of millions and changed the course of our history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “I have a dream,” “an evil empire.” The wrong word can break a business deal, a love affair, a marriage. Who has not regretted a word carelessly spoken, a reckless phrase emailed to an acquaintance, a heedless comment whose painful consequences come back to haunt us?

Our words matter.

Which brings us back to The Best Words. Robert Fiske has spent a good part of his life reminding all who would listen to him of the importance of writing and words. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Disagreeable English and The Dimwit’s Dictionary, and the editor of the Vocabula Review, an online journal devoted to fine writing and the usage and peculiarities of the English language. He is a man who loves the play and scope of language.

In this most recent book Fiske collects more than 200 of what another reviewer calls “superlative words.” Chosen both from lists of favorite words sent in by Vocabula readers and by Fiske himself, these words truly are superlative because they are infrequently used yet eminently suitable for conversation and writing. Unlike some collections which offer sesquipedalian entertainment for its own sake – Peter Bowler’s wit in The Superior Person’s Book of Words series leaves readers laughing, but few of us will use words like mammiferous (having breasts) or lilaceous (having to do with slugs) – Fiske and his Vocabula crew have here collected a kit of serviceable tools. Employing his book, we can replace the well-worn enthusiasm with ebullient, sluggish with phlegmatic, ordinary with quotidian. Even the more exotic words found in these pages – hypergelast (one who laughs excessively), quincunx (an arrangement of five objects), coprolalia (the uncontrolled or obsessive use of obscene language) to name but three – seem selected because no other word will do in their place.

Some of Fiske’s entries may also serve as a first-line of defense against suspicion or intrusion. For instance, most of us recognize a misogynist as one who hates women, but it is splendid to learn its opposite, philogynist. This is a most useful word for a man at the beach in the company of a significant other. When she asks, “Must you look at every woman in a bikini?” he has only to reply, “It’s my phylogeny acting up again, dear. I’m not sure there’s a cure.”

The Best Words follows a simple design which benefits all readers. In newspaper-width columns, the reader comes first to the word, then a phonetic guide to its pronunciation, a definition or two, and examples of its usage by noted authors. Included in the back are six quizzes. This is a splendid book for students, particularly those soon to take an SAT, teachers, writers, and all lovers of the English language.

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Many books deserve a second look, but few will provide the entertainment and even the wisdom of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmations, here drops us into the English countryside of the 1930s, where we enter the lives of the Mortmain family: Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator and diarist, her beautiful older sister Rose, her step-mother, the exotic and loving Topaz, and her father, James Mortmain, a brilliant one-novel author suffering from more than a decade of writer’s block. All four scrape by in a falling-down castle leased to them.

Enter two young American men who have just inherited the castle and the nearby manor house. As the American become acquainted with English ways and with the Mortmains themselves, and as romance and love overtake all the characters, Cassandra records their adventures with high humor and intelligence. Cassandra is the perfect narrator here, innocent enough to still find amazement in the actions and words of others, literate enough to think of Shakespeare on a May afternoon, and with enough dry wit to give any reader laughter and pleasure. Through Cassandra Smith gives us a look into an England that may well be disappearing and into an English spirit that will, it should be hoped, endure forever.

If you know a reader among this year’s high school graduates, particularly a young woman, I Capture the Castle is one book whose wisdom and story should capture their attention.

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Spring-cleaning remains a ritual in many households. We throw open windows, rid closets, shelves, and drawers of unwanted items — books, papers, video cassettes, sweaters that haven’t seen daylight in 10 years, Aunt Matilda’s time-blighted photographs of zinnias — wash everything from curtains to cars, and finally settle down with the perfume of ammonia and Windex gilding the air.    

In my own case, spring-cleaning also includes clearing the left side of my desk of books awaiting review. Here a hillock of volumes, read with varying levels of enjoyment, have gathered dust these last few months, awaiting their turn in this column. Without further ado, I present to you three different books that may deserve your attention.

Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader (ISBN 978-0-8021-1970-4, $24) contains many of the trademarks of Harrison’s other novels: a style that pulls the reader through the story, a hero with many flaws balanced with good intentions, a concern with philosophy, religion, food, liquor, and sex. Detective Sanderson, Harrison’s hero, divorced, frequently drunk, recently retired from the Michigan state police, spends much of his retirement and the novel chasing down a creator of religious cults while at the same time reminiscing about his past. He follows this culprit, the Great Leader, from Michigan to Arizona and then to Nebraska, all the while recollecting his adolescence, his life with his wife, various sexual encounters, and his love of nature and the outdoors.

What Harrison does best here — and his other novels — is to write poetic paragraphs stuffed full of philosophy, poetic diction, and entertaining asides. A random examination of The Great Leader yields paragraphs like this one:

“He hit the radio off button when someone on NPR used the word turd iconic. He used to keep track of these obtuse Orwellian nuggets. A few years ago it was the relentless use of the word closure that raised his ire and then with Iraq the silly term embedded … Pundits reflected his idea that everyone in America gets to make themselves up whole cloth, and also the hideously mistaken idea that talking is thinking.”

Where The Great Leader, Sanderson, and Jim Harrison fall flat on their collective face is in their ideas of sex. Older men — and here I mean men over 55 — do indeed dream of the affections of women, especially younger women, but it is doubtful that younger women cast themselves as frivolously and as frequently at older men as women do at Sanderson. This retired detective has little to recommend him to the younger lovers; he is dull, stuck in the past, aged, lacking in looks and money. Yet women ranging from his teenage neighbor, Mona, to various waitresses all seem to take a shine to him. The novelist’s infatuation with this topic — younger women and their involvement with old guys like Sanderson — borders on the obsessive, so that even the most dilatory reader must wonder whether Harrison is sketching from life or indulging in his own maudlin fantasies.

•••

In Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fanny Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook (ISBN 9781-4013-2322-6, $25.99), Chris Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchens and Cook’s Country, sets out to make a gourmet meal using recipes from what was once America’s most popular cookbook. The problems with such a re-creation are multiple — finding the right ingredients, using the same equipment, deciding whom to invite to the meal — but Kimball’s greatest difficulty lies in the fact that the recipes from Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book too frequently turn out to be second rate, poor cousins to their French counterparts of that age and cousins several times removed from our own culinary specialties. Several times, forced to choose between following Farmer’s mundane recipes or his own good instincts and superior knowledge of food, Kimball finds himself playing variations on Farmer’s work and criticizing her cooking skills.

Far more interesting than the recipes here is Kimball’s investigation into the food and manners of late nineteenth century Boston. From him we learn the intricacies of cooking on a wood stove, the growth of various farmer’s markets in Boston, and the life of a cook in a Victorian household. We discover that the Victorians, unlike modern epicures, disliked the odor of cooking foods and so built their kitchens at the rear of the house; that Boston by 1896 was a shopper’s paradise for cooks, “a vastly better and more convenient place … than Boston today;” that jellies and gelatin dishes played a far greater part in meals of the time than today. Kimball’s historical sense and mastery of details provide an engaging account of Boston social life and entertainment.

For anyone interested in either cooking or the social history of nineteenth century America, Fannie’s Last Supper is a feast in its own right.

•••

Though poetry has lost its shine in the age of twitter and tweet, verse remains the blood and heart of literature. Great verse retains the power to steel our nerves, to open our souls, to sing to us like Eliot’s mermaids. April was National Poetry Month, but it’s never too late to crack open that dusty Norton Anthology or to search out poems old and new on the internet.

On my desk is a copy of A Poem A Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. Most mornings I forget to read from it, but when I do remember to seek out that day’s poem, I am reminded once again of the vigor of the English language and the beauty of carefully selected words and forms. Many writers can walk, and some can run, but the great poets open their arms and invite us to dance.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher who can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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In The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories (ISBN 978-1-4697-7768-9, $20.95), James T. Joyce and James T. Joyce — that doubling-up is not a misprint — have shared, perhaps inadvertently, the secrets to a fulfilling life. Like a fine symphony, which often consists of four parts, all of them intertwined in some way, bound together by tone and motif, The Guys in the Gang offers four important ingredients for leading a full and worthy life: faith, family, friends, and fun.

Both of these men (they are distinguished in the book by reference to the streets, Ada and Carpenter, where they grew up. James “Ada” Joyce lives in Waynesville.) came of age in Irish-Catholic Chicago in the heady years following World War II. This was the era when the Catholic Church held sway over its parishioners in ways that today seem as strange as fins on cars and rotary dial phones. The nuns directed the parochial schools, the priests commanded the churches, and the monsignors and bishops ruled over them all.

Joyce and Joyce both suffered the usual abuses of parochial school — Brother Sloan, the religion teacher, would “simply flail away at you slapping, punching, and kicking” — and grew up in families in which faith was as familiar as the daily paper. “Ada” Joyce, for example, writes that his father turned off the television every day of Lent and that his mother, a leader in the large parish church, frequently said the rosary on the two-hour drive to her family’s farm. (One of the Mysteries of the Rosary is “The Agony in the Garden,” which Joyce’s friends, who traveled with him on these excursions, later renamed “The Agony in the Car.”)

Family, too, played a role in shaping these two men. Both men came out of strong families. Both men honor this bond by speaking highly of their parents, wives, children, and various relatives.

It is, however, the portraits of their friends and their mutual adventures that distinguishes The Guys in the Gang from similar memoirs. Through high school and into the years immediately following, both men belonged to the same gang of friends, guys who partied hard, worked at all sorts of after-school jobs, and indulged in their spare time in all sorts of pranks, some of them silly, some of them truly dangerous. These accounts make up some of the most humorous portions of the book. At one point, 16-year-old Jim “Ada” Joyce is driving his Dad’s new Olds 88 when one of the gang asked how fast the car could go.

“I put the accelerator to the floor and our heads snapped back. We went past 100 like it wasn’t there; 110 was gone and the max, 120, provided no obstacle.

“The speedometer was a circle with a yellow needle pointing to speed. The needled continued around the circle until it hit zero, completing 360 degrees. Then it went “twang,” popped off the spindle and came to rest at the bottom of the glass. A thin, plastic coated wire now appeared behind the numbers. I immediately slowed down and said, ‘Oh, s**t!’”

There are some great stories about the “gang,” and “Ada” Joyce has the eye for details and irony that will bring a smile to the reader’s face.

Carpenter Joyce, who became a Chicago fireman, reports more somberly on the fate of the neighborhood. Both Joyces grew up in the civil rights era and racial unrest, and Carpenter Joyce tells of the demise of the Saint Sabina parish when integration came to the neighborhood. As in cities across the nation, African-Americans moved into some urban neighborhoods, and whites moved out. Here Joyce gives us a first-hand look at “white flight” and its influence on this particular Chicago parish.

In the second half of their memoir, the Joyce duo gives us a brief record of their adult lives. “Ada” Joyce, who has already recounted his Army and Vietnam experiences in Pucker Factor 10 and his work as a psychoanalyst in Use Eagles If Necessary, focuses here on this work as a businessman, while “Carpenter” Joyce briefly gives an account of his life-long work with the Chicago fire department. Once again their reminiscences provide a good deal of humor while at the same time shining a light on certain aspects of human nature. This last part of the book also contains a number of memorable farewells to friends who have died.

What marks the book overall is its sense of esprit and fun. These are two men who have, by most measures, lived what society considers successful lives. In addition to earning a good living, each man has also faced various ordeals and emerged with a sense of amusement intact. Both have a knack for seeing the humorous side of difficult situations, a sense of the absurd which doubtless helped carry them far in life. It is their sense of fun and their recognition of the ridiculous that has carried them through life and carries the reader through the memoir.

(Jeff Minick can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories by James T. Joyce. iUniverse, 2012. 276 pages.

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Fifteen years ago, when I was the temporary teacher of Latin at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, I was discussing different uses for the dative case when one of my brighter sophomores — he entered the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics the following year — raised his hand and plaintively said, “Mr. Minick, we haven’t really studied grammar since the fourth grade. Could you explain what you mean by an indirect object?”

Few teachers — or students, for that matter — would disagree that grammar and writing take a seat at the back of the academic bus these days. To study more than the basics of grammar — ”A noun is a person, place, or thing” — requires patience from the teacher and demands repetition and memorization from the student while good writing requires a massive amount of work from both. Ask any English or history teacher who still centers a class on writing about the weekends, and you will find a teacher who spends more than a few hours correcting papers.

We live in the age of communication, of email, twitter, and texting, yet as a number of online sites attest, poor communication skills in writing and grammar cost us hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and badly composed sentences result in missed meetings, mangled orders, mistaken shipments, and bad service.

Sometimes our failure to communicate costs more than money. A love letter composed by the semi-literate can ruin a match made in heaven. A badly written police report can bring a murderer’s freedom. Our military leaders and medical personnel are acutely aware that a word misused or a comma misplaced can bring about disaster and death. (This problem is not new. In his last communication to his subordinate, Captain Benteen, Gen. George Armstrong Custer of Little Bighorn fame sent a terse, confusing note which was delivered by a man who barely spoke English. Custer and his men may have ended up massacred because the general didn’t take an extra two minutes to put together a coherent summons).

Here is a simple and classic example of the importance of grammar. “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a straight-shooting sentence. We are hungry and wish to eat, and we want to encourage Grandma to do likewise. If we drop the comma, however, we proclaim “Let’s eat Grandma.” (You few young people who are reading this column on grammar should here be cautioned against dining on your elders. Historically, you and the younger set are regarded as much more tasty. See Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.)

Fortunately, remedies for our grammatical dysfunctions abound. There are scores of grammar guides in print today. In recent years, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation made the best-seller lists in Great Britain and the United States. With her witty stickler’s guide to the use of the apostrophe, the dash, and other marks of punctuation, Truss helped kick off our current interest in language and its usage by making readers more aware of the importance of grammar and the rules of writing. For a more classic, though by no means comprehensive, examination of such issues, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains a central authority on usage.

The various editions of Writer’s Inc., employed in many of our schools, offers perhaps the most for the money in terms of grammar and usage. This book is accessible to students from middle school through college and would also make a fine addition to any office or home in which questions of grammar and punctuation recur. The examples used are clear and to the point. In addition, the book includes guides to writing various types of letters and emails, essays and papers, a strong glossary of literary terms, and a dozen other useful topics.

Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (ISBN 978-0-8050-8943-1, $19.99) is the new kid on the language block. Fogarty is the creator the online Grammar Girl, whose Quick and Dirty Tips on grammar have attracted the attention of millions seeking answers on everything from using commas in clauses to the test of when to use a colon. Though designed for students — Aardvark and Squiggly the Snail, Fogarty’s signature characters, appear in most of the examples — Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide should appeal to a wide audience. The index is complete — I tested it by looking up the usage of “anymore,” and found a clear explanation — and the author follows a logical progression in her presentation, going from the basic definitions of the parts of speech to the writing of papers. For a student going into high school or college, for a secretary who runs smack into grammatical thickets, and for anyone interested in a witty, practical approach to our language, Grammar Girl’s Writing Guide should prove a valuable tool.

•••

Stephen Hunter’s Soft Target (978-1-4391-3870-0, $26.99), which continues the Bob Lee Swagger story, this time with progeny Ray Cruz trapped in Minnesota’s America, the Mall with a group of terrorists bent on killing as many Christmas shoppers as it can take with them, lacks some of the punch and depth of the earlier Swagger novels. Parts of the novel — this is becoming a trademark in the suspense genre — don’t even make a whole lot of sense. Why, for example, would a local imam team up with a young psychotic from white suburbia? How could this crazy white nihilist get the devotees of Allah to follow him?

Readers of Hunter’s stories probably won’t care too much about these questions. The mayhem of the fighting and the expertise shown by Hunter in regard to weapons and tactics will doubtless blind many of his fans to the weakness of the story. Soft Target does offer one additional virtue. The weakness of the police chief in the story serves as a reminder that to placate terrorists and to wave the olive branch of appeasement is simply to ask for more terror.

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Little Sally was eating lunch with her family when her parents ask her if she learned anything in Sunday School that morning. Sally nodded and smiled. "Teacher says we are to go forth and spread the gossip."

It seems these days that gossip has indeed become our gospel, though that word means specifically "good news," whereas good news in our day really amounts to no news at all. We much prefer the "bad news," the scandals, the foolish antics of our fellow beings, so long as we ourselves are omitted from the roll call.

Although countless authors down through the ages have issued admonitions against gossip and rumor-mongering — the Book of Proverbs, for example, bulges with warnings against those whose "lips talk of mischief" — gossip has not only retained its allure but has in the last century mushroomed from a cottage industry to a skyscraper whose shadow touches us all. Our intense interest in the self, our therapeutic age, and our revelry in revelation have combined with our technology — television and the internet for spreading the secrets of our celebrities, Facebook and Twitter for the rest of us — to create a near-perfect breeding ground for gossip. A host of websites and television shows exist solely to sift through the dirt in other peoples' lives, and so long as we ourselves are not among the unwashed, many of us find such muckraking a splendid source of entertainment.

Often the lives of family, friends and acquaintances provide an equivalent show, and we follow these particular dramas and comedies with the avidity of an opera buff. When we hear that Uncle Fred, a deacon in his church, is spending his money on women half his age or that our model of temperance, Aunt Agnes, has been arrested for driving NASCAR-style after a few too many martinis, we cluck our tongues at their peccadilloes and express our empathy even while we find ourselves secretly delighted to hear this latest bit of juicy news. "How awful," we say, and in the next breath ask: "And then what happened?"

In his newest book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (ISBN 978-0-618-72194-8, $25), Joseph Epstein, one of the best American essayists of this or any other age, turns his discerning eye on gossip. He was attracted to this subject, he tells us, both because gossip can be a "species of truth ... beguiling truth" and because he himself has taken great pleasure in receiving gossip over his long lifetime.

These two-fold explanations for his interest in gossip lead to that fine blend of the personal and the public which is the hallmark of Epstein's writing. In the public sphere, Epstein ranges in his analysis from what he calls "the Great Gossips of the Western World," men like Suetonius, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Truman Capote, and women like Tina Brown and Barbara Walters, to the lesser-known gossip columnists of the last hundred years. One fascinating feature of his examination is the way in which these people achieved their fame from reporting the fame of others, how they "achieved celebrity by interviewing celebrity." His sketch of Barbara Walters, for example, an amusing mini-biography of praise and put-down, seems precisely on the mark. Epstein notes her fierce ambitions and her crassness, writing that "this vulgar streak, asking the questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar." Epstein ends his look at Walters by writing:

"Give Barbara her due: week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were themselves tasteless enough to answer her. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally."

To these portraits of famous gossips Epstein adds accounts of his own gossiping and the interest he takes in the foibles of his familiars. A university professor, once editor of The American Scholar and board member of the National Council of the National Endowments for the Arts, Epstein confesses that he has taken great pleasure in hearing gossip about the famous and the not-so-famous. In a section at the end of most of the book's chapters, titled "Diary," Epstein shares with us glimpses of his forays into tale-telling and rumors. He recounts a pleasant evening spent with Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; his encounters with Mortimer Adler; his accounts, gathered from others, of the eating habits of Orson Welles and the wit of playwright Lillian Hellman.

One story which Epstein includes has to do with his mother. She was an ebullient woman who, like her husband, "looked out at the world and saw only admirable or less than admirable behavior." Her father died when she was young by his own hand, a fact Epstein learned from his own father when his mother was dying. Not only had his mother never told Epstein about this episode, she had never told her husband either, who had learned of it from her sister. After reflecting on this silence from his mother's point of view, Epstein applauds the nobility of her silence:

"Why rehash it? What was to be gained? Nothing, evidently, that she could see. Reticence about the matter was more dignified, made more sense. And I find I love my mother all the more for her ability to live without the need to drag her sadness out into the open."

Epstein ends Gossip by wondering whether the rest of us have become too caught up in the ways of rumor. He points out gossip's negative effects on our national news and on our view of the world, and wonders whether our penchant for gossip has resulted in a dumbing down of cultural life. He concludes that gossip, which Matt Drudge calls "unedited information," is here to stay and that we will continue to indulge ourselves because we delight in the sordid and the strange.

Yet it is the story of Epstein's mother which sticks in the mind. Epstein is correct: there is a nobility to her silence. We can keep our secrets and the secrets of others. For those of us who aren't celebrities, who don't make a billion dollars a year or act in blockbuster movies, reticence is still an option. No one shoves a microphone at us, no one asks us revealing questions below the bright lights of a television studio, no one forces us to reveal confidences or spread rumors.

We have a choice. And for those who still value privacy, mum's the word.

Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 256 pages.

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Twenty minutes a day.

In early January, writing in my book column for this paper, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 20 minutes a day from a bucket-list of books, heavy tomes which I’d laid aside in the corners of my mind to read but which seemed destined to go on collecting dust until I too became dust. After compiling what seemed a formidable list and a simple rule that allowed me to make up any missed sessions by week‘s end, I began reading Jane Austen’s Emma.

The time commitment was a crucial element in my project. Given my schedule, 30 minutes a day of unbroken reading from a classic was a daunting prospect. That daily half an hour would hang from me, I knew, like a convict’s chains. Fifteen minutes a day seemed weak and somehow formulaic, a quarter hour administered daily like medicine. No — 20 minutes a day struck me as a good compromise, a tough, viable, and worthy ambition.

The results? In the past two months, in addition to the magazines and books I read for pleasure, the books I read for review, and the books I read for the classes I teach, I have also read in their entirety Jane Austen’s Emma, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, and The New Testament’s Book of Acts and Pauline Epistles. Though I usually fit the reading into my schedule — I frequently accomplished my 20-minute stint while riding the elliptical at the local Y — I did miss some days but was diligent about making them up before the week’s end. (This past week was particularly difficult for work-related reasons, which means that I must in the next two days double my sessions).

And what have I learned from my reading? From the books themselves I have gained several insights. From Emma, which was the only book on the list which I had previously read, I learned first what I already knew, that I will never join that company of devotees who elevate Austen to the inner circle of literary gods. I admire her talents from afar, much as I admire certain saints, but am not enticed to devote to her more of my time or study. Yet I did find fascinating the comparison between her age and our own. Separated by less than two centuries, the world of Jane Austen seems as removed from ours as that of Caesar. Continually while I read the book, I would stack her era of leisurely hours, slow news, and careful courtship against our own harried, internet-driven, sex-drenched age, and would find myself envying Austen’s characters their more deliberate days.

From Boethius, the sixth century philosopher and politico who wrote his Consolations while imprisoned and awaiting execution, I studied again the old lesson of what matters in this world. A Christian and a philosopher, Boethius in Consolations engages in a dialogue with Lady Philosophy regarding the virtues, the ladder of wisdom, and the relationship between free will and predestination hooked me. The condemned man writes simply and in that catechetic dialogue practiced by the ancients, and I was able to follow his arguments until nearly the last, when he lost me on his explanation of free will and predestination. (Lady Philosophy kindly let me off the hook when she declared that God, who is outside of time, sees in a different way than humans do).

From Acts and the Pauline Letters, fragments of which I hear frequently at Mass, I came to realize how much a rebel St. Paul was. In Acts he is always just a step ahead of one mob or another, and in his letters he is constantly exhorting his followers to ignore the differences between the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” and to pursue instead the “new way” as laid down by Christ. Paul fully lives up to his reputation for being harsh on matters of sex, and he strikes me as a man with whom a supper shared might not be the most laughter-filled evening of my life, but he is also clearly filled with the love of his new faith and eager to communicate its radical new way to those mired in old prejudices. (I also learned that the Bible remains loaded with a dynamite all its own. When reading it at the gym, I was aware several times of nervous glances from those exercising around me. “Uh oh,“ their faces said. “Another religious fanatic.“ Twice my reading roused brief conversations, not, unfortunately, with lovely women, but with one man who seemed permanently angry with God and with another who was truly as nuts as I undoubtedly appeared to the non-believers around me).

My greatest lesson came not from the books, however, but from the power of 20 minutes. I am a slow learner at times, but I have finally realized the value of a space of time, even 20 minutes, when set under the throne of discipline. Reading 20 minutes a day for two months has allowed me to absorb truths from a 19th century spinster, a sixth century philosopher, and a first century tentmaker. More importantly, my little experiment has shown me the power of applied time. Suddenly many things seem possible — not only for me but for others as well. Want to learn to tango? Twenty minutes a day for a couple of months will bring you onto the dance floor. Aikido? Twenty minutes a day will eventually find you king of the dojo. Cooking? Add twenty minutes to your culinary preparation each evening, and you can break away from those frozen pizzas and dull salads. From flower arranging to piano playing, from memorizing poetry to bumping up your math grades, from hitting three-pointers to deepening your prayer life: 20 minutes a day will do the trick.

And now — back to Dante and a trip like none I’ve ever taken.

 

The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius translated by Richard Green. Prentice Hall; 1 edition, 1962. 160 pages.

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There are many reasons to love the writing of Ray Bradbury. His early short stories — science fiction “lite,” tales of his midwestern youth, accolades to writers like Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, Twilight Zone accounts of life in mid-twentieth century America — remain in print and still attract teenage readers outside schoolhouse hallways. His jeremiads in these stories against the modern mechanization of the soul remain fresh and lively even 50 years after they first appeared in print. His style, a sort of splashing of words onto paper — has an American writer ever enjoyed such a love affair with the exclamation point? — still entertains. Bradbury has said in numerous interviews that writers shouldn’t write unless it’s “fun,” a refreshing take since so many writers over the last hundred years have spoken of the difficulty and angst of writing, and this sense of fun comes to vivid life in Bradbury’s writing.

In the negative column is the fact that Bradbury’s stories and novels of the last 30 years are weakly plotted self-parodies. Most of these saw print because of the writer’s reputation rather than their worth. Any reader who has followed Bradbury can find the weakness in these more recent stories in their syntax alone: the thin paragraphs, the false excitement in some of the diction, the tired exclamations.

Yet the prose of the younger Bradbury still has a spring-like air about it, and it is this writer that Jonathan R. Eller examines in a new biography Becoming Ray Bradbury (ISBN 978-0-252-03629-3, $34.95). Fittingly published by the University of Illinois — Ray Bradbury spent his early youth in Waukegan, Illinois — this rich, dense account should appeal to a broad spectrum of Bradbury fans. Eller, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University and the cofounder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, spent hundreds of hours interviewing Bradbury’s friends, other writers, his principal biographer, his wife Maggie (now deceased), his daughter Alexandra, and Ray Bradbury himself.

From these sources Eller has given us a fine look into the life, thoughts, and stories from his birth in 1920 to the 1950s. He shows us how the boy from Illinois who came of age in California created himself as a writer, following the advice of a dozen different mentors while reading himself into an education. Bradbury, like Hemingway, is an autodidact; he never had the money to go to a university, but instead worked after high school selling newspapers on a Los Angeles sidewalk while enrolling in that least-expensive of educational institutions: the public library. Eventually, after a period of trial-and-error, Bradbury realized that the richness of his own life — his love of fantasy and mystery, of dinosaurs and space travel, of great writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, Shaw, Hemingway, and Wolfe, his boyhood days in Illinois — was the palette from which he should paint his stories. He wrote daily in those years, building his stories from a variety of techniques like word association and creative mental play.

In describing how Bradbury refused to be categorized as a genre writer — in this case, of the “weird tale” — Eller sums up some of Bradbury’s approaches to work in the middle of Becoming Ray Bradbury. He writes that Bradbury was “… ignoring reductionist genre rules and traditions whenever they interfered with his own intuitive approach to writing. He continued to minimize the art of plotting, for his Muse worked best when the characters seemed to write their own stories. He would continue to use the loose framework of science fiction, or the weird tale, or even the occasional backdrop of noir crime, but he was writing about people rather than about science, or terror, or detection.”

Becoming Ray Bradbury should appeal not only to readers of Bradbury’s work, but to anyone interested in writers and writing. We can see in this book how a young man became a writer and how writing itself, with all its travail and uncertainty, can bring to its creator a great sense of joy.

•••

In How Do You Kill 11 Million People: Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think (ISBN 978-0-8499-4835-0, $14.99), Andy Andrews, author of The Noticer and The Traveler’s Gift, has written what amounts to an essay published in the form of a book. This is a small volume of only 80 pages, and the word count per page runs to less than half of that found in most books.

Despite its brevity, however, How Do You Kill 11 Million People? — the title refers to those murdered by the Nazis, not only the Jews, but the other millions of people thrown into concentration camps for their beliefs — serves as a sobering reminder about the value of truth in our personal and public lives. Reminding us of Hitler’s remark in Mein Kampf, that “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one,” Andrews then asks the question: What happens to a society in which truth is absent?

We live now in a society in which truth may not be absent (though a good many people, perhaps a majority, deny its existence), but in which it can be so covered up by information, conflicting points of views, and outright deceptions, that it might as well be absent. Our politicians and many in our “news” media deliberately mislead us, but what is worse, we often allow them to do so. We expect to be deceived, and like the readers of the newspaper Pravda (“The Truth”) in Soviet Russia, we find ourselves having to read between the lines to dig out the real truth behind a government policy or some story on the six o’clock news.

Perhaps the real value to this thin little slip of a book are the questions asked in the Reader’s Guide at the end. These questions and the ease with which the book can be read make it an ideal tool for book clubs, the classroom, and political discussions. To begin to reflect on these questions of what truth means to us, what lies we ourselves have told and why, and what steps might be taken to bring truth to the fore in the public square, is to begin looking at ourselves and our present difficulties in a new light.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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Recently I watched several early episodes of “Blue Bloods,” a fine television series centered on a New York family with a tradition of law enforcement. The father is the New York City Police commissioner, his father is a retired policemen, and his children include a detective, an assistant district attorney, a rookie cop, and a policeman killed on duty. The series is justly touted for its realism regarding both police work and family dynamics. Yet in one of these episodes, the detective participates in a raid; he runs alone up a fire escape to enter through the window of an apartment while an entire contingent of fellow officers breaks through the front door. In all the episodes I’ve seen so far, the commissioner, a widower, is dating a television reporter, but still wears what definitely appears to be a wedding band on his left hand.

Questions: why is the detective running up the fire escape without backup? And why does the commissioner’s lover ignore the wedding band?

Hollywood often gives us movies or television shows in which coincidence is not justified, logic is sacrificed for emotion, and plot and character motivation is as flimsy as a doublewide in a tornado. Style trumps story, drama and excitement run roughshod over reason. Sometimes the magic works, and we are tricked against our better judgment into accepting certain premises, but just as often the curtain blows aside and we see the man working the controls. The magic ends, and we are left with a piece of creaky, irritating machinery.

Unfortunately, these same defects appear in some of the novels we may read.

In Carol Goodman’s The Ghost Orchid, set in an artist’s colony in upstate New York, the story grips the reader from the first page. The narrator of this Gothic tale, Ellis Brooks, is at work on her first novel. Goodman has a genuine talent for creating believable female protagonists, and through Ellis we come to know the other members of the colony: the renowned novelist Nat Loomis; the landscape architect David Fox; the eccentric and lovable poet Zalman Bronsky; the brooding biographer Bethesda Graham.

As in her outstanding first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, Goodman displays a generous talent for creating tension, both among the characters and in the mystic elements — ghosts, mediums, a past-haunted present — surrounding the Bosco estate. The reader becomes caught up in the lives of the artists as they struggle to unravel the mysteries of the estate with its secret rooms, underground tunnels, mysterious sculptures, and living secrets.

About three quarters of the way through the novel, however, Ellis’ ability to “read” the other characters and to summon up the estate’s dark past become tiresome rather than intriguing. Worse, the connections of the other characters to the estate — by genealogical descent, by a past of which they are unaware — finally become too unreal to be viable. Worse still, for a reader skeptical about séances, poltergeists, and other supernatural phenomena, the last few pages of The Ghost Orchid become a tremendous cheat. The characters suddenly turn to cardboard, the plot to air, and the reader leaves the book feeling slightly ridiculous for having devoted several hours of breath and effort to so awful a contraption.

In The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Childs takes us back to 1997 when Reacher is still working as a special investigator in the Army. Sent to Mississippi to look into the murders of young women near an Army base serving as headquarters for secret missions in the Middle East, Reacher falls for the town’s sheriff, ex-Marine Elizabeth Devereux. Between bouts in the bedroom the two of them try to track down the killers. The Affair is vintage Reacher: finely-tuned dialogue, beautiful women who want to take Reacher to the sheets, Reacher’s own eccentricities (even here, while in the Army, he buys his clothing at thrift shops and throws away his old clothes rather than washing them and using them again).

From my reading of earlier Reacher novels, I had already learned that I needed to suspend certain conventional ideas regarding plot. In one novel, for example, Childs has Reacher randomly get off the bus in a small town. Before the novel is finished and the bodies are stacked higher than the bus, Reacher discovers his brother, a special agent, dead in the town’s morgue. To enjoy the novel, then, means that we must overlook the fact that the odds of this occurrence are spectacularly high.

But in The Affair, about midway through the story, I came to the final end of tolerance for Jack Reacher and his creator. Here Reacher has talked with a young black man, the brother of one of the murder victims, and has encouraged him to join the Army. The young man goes to the nearby post to enlist, but is shot dead by a group of vigilantes guarding the property. Reacher tracks these men down, discovers why they have been stationed around the post, then shoots one of them in cold blood and tells the others to haul the body away and never return.

It was on that page that I closed the book and promised myself never again to read one of these novels. Here we have a military policeman murdering a citizen and then casually telling his two buddies to take the body away. There are apparently no consequences for this killing; I didn’t read any farther into the book, but the other Reacher novels still depict our man running around the country single-handedly killing platoons of bad guys and eradicating evil. The sheer numbing stupidity of such a plot twist, and all the other unbelievable situations in this book and others in the series, have finally brought me back to my senses.

The appropriately titled The Affair brought an end to my own affair with these books. Unlike the traditional breakup line, however, I will say in ending our relationship: “It’s not me. It’s you.”

 

The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Childs. Delacorte Press , 2011. 416 pages.

Comment

Of female writers who appeal the least to the young men in my seminars, Jane Austen surely holds first place. Many of these male students can relate to the work of Annie Dillard or Anne Tyler, and more than a few over the years have taken to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, if only because of Heathcliff and the author’s magnificently wild prose, but none of these young men have evinced, at least publicly, any interest in becoming, as have so many women, members of the Austenite cult. Even I, though I have found on several readings great treasures in Pride and Prejudice, have in the past mostly taught Austen because the book so gratifies my female students.

In his new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter (ISBN 978-1-59420-288-9, $25.95), William Deresciewicz offers a perspective that may allow men to regard Jane Austen as more than just the queen of “chick-lit.”

When Deresciewicz first introduces himself in this book, he is an immature and arrogant graduate student in literature who is forced to take a course featuring Jane Austen’s Emma, a story which at first seemed to “consist of nothing but chitchat among a group of commonplace characters in a country village.” Bored at first by Emma’s willful attempts to change the lives of those around her, Deresciewicz soon realized that Emma’s cruelty and her contempt for some of her familiars were a mirror image of his own feelings. Moreover, he understood that Austen had written about everyday things and people because “she wanted to show how important they really are.”

Emma led Deresciewicz deeper into Austen territory, first to Pride and Prejudice, and then to the others: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. He fell so in love with the long-deceased author that he soon decided to include her in his dissertation, and found himself immersed in her life, reading biographies and poring over her correspondence.

Deresiewicz divides A Jane Austen Education into chapters devoted to each of these novels. Skillfully weaving his own stories into his criticism of Austen’s stories, he shows us how her stories and characters affected him, making him a better man. From Emma, for example, he learns how to pay closer attention to the everyday events and people that touch his life, that it truly is the little things in life that count the most. From Pride and Prejudice, and the mistakes in judgment made by Elizabeth Bennett and her revelation regarding those mistakes, Deresiewicz realizes that he himself has often let his own prejudices blind him to reality. “She (Austen) wanted us,” Deresiewicz writes, “to override our emotions, which dwell within us and urge us to do what we want, and replace them with reason — with logic, with evidence, with objectivity — which stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want.”

A Jane Austen Education is also a tale of a young man not only becoming aware of his own flaws, but of learning how to love. Here an older professor helps Deresiewicz grapple with Austen and the lessons to be learned there. From Northanger Abbey the professor quotes Catherine, a central figure in the book: “I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.” The professor points out to Deresiewicz that Catherine had learned to love the hyacinth, and as another character tells her, “Who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?…The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” This, says the professor, is the central theme and lesson of Northanger Abbey.

From Sense and Sensibility Deresiewicz learns perhaps his most important lesson in the art of love, particularly as it relates to women. Austen lived at the beginning of the Romantic period, when feelings trumped reason, yet Austen herself came down firmly on the side of reason in regard to love. The head, according to Austen, trumps the heart — or at least equals it. This is not, on Austen’s part, a cold, calculating reason, but rather, a realization that we should fall in love with a person’s character more deeply than we account their looks, that “falling in love” is all too often temporary while to love someone is permanent. “Austen was not against romance,“ Deresiewicz writes. “She was against romantic mythology.“

The best love, Deresiewicz realizes from his reading of the novels, develops first in friendship, in familiarity, in an evaluation of the character of another, from which there emerges the attraction of real love. “And that was the most momentous revelation of all,” Deresiewicz writes. “Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it — your character, your soul.”

 

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresciewicz. Penguin Press HC, 2011. 272 pages

Comment

The New Year’s resolution typically leads a short and tragic life. Its father is misdeeds, its mother remorse. Once born, the resolution swarms about its maker as irritating as a fruit fly. Often, too, it lives no longer than the common fruit fly, which is to say about two weeks. Its demise usually evokes in its pall-bearer tangled emotions of foolhardy chagrin and wild, celebratory relief.    

Growing older does occasionally mean growing wiser, and over the last few years I have abstained from making New Year’s resolutions. For most of my adult life, I had made such pledges — to quit smoking, to drink less, to lose weight, to get into shape, to listen better — and while I eventually achieved some control over these vices, my change in habits never came about as the result of a New Year’s vow.

This year is different. Let me explain why I decided to make a resolution and how I determined to carry it out. But first the resolution:

“Resolved, that I will spend 20 minutes per day for the year 2012 reading the following books: Jane Austen’s Emma; Dante’s The Divine Comedy (the John Ciardi translation); Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy; the Oresteia trilogy; the Pauline Letters of the New Testament; G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man; Caulaincourt’s With Napoleon in Russia; Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I have previously read, but which has long demanded another visit); Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Selected Poetry; Joseph Pearce‘s Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse. Missed reading sessions must be made up within a week’s time.”

For more than a decade, I have vowed to read certain authors and books, writing that I had missed or neglected along the way. In my twenties, after I abandoned my graduate school studies in medieval history, I flung myself into fiction and poetry with the abandon of a man unleashed from prison, going from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, from John Donne to Sylvia Plath, from Scott Fitzgerald to Evelyn Waugh. I read these authors and many more for two reasons: I was genuinely interested in the books, and I wanted to learn to write.

By the time I entered my thirties, most of the books I was reading were newer, and by the time my forties and fifties rolled around, nearly all the books were contemporary. The classics still beckoned, and my life in a classroom has kept me in touch with older works of literature, but generally my reading has aimed, both from choice and necessity, at new works of fiction, history, and biography.

But the minutes tick away, and the old books call to me. The time has come to pay them heed. If asked why I want to have read certain books before growing infirm or dying — what difference will such reading make, really, one may ask — I have no more ready answer than the old-timer who wants to climb Everest or the grandmother who wants to run a marathon. The compulsion comes from inside the heart and defies ready analysis.  

Resolutions are effective which come with this axiom: the more specific the goal, the greater chance for success. The man who sets out to “lose weight” fails nine times out of ten. The man who resolves to lose a pound a month between January and September has a fighting chance. I therefore decided to be as exacting as possible in the construction of my own pledge to myself.

Like everyone in today’s mad-rush world, I am busy with commitments. Days often pass in a blur of teaching, writing, caring for a teenager’s wants and needs, and completing the usual necessary household duties. My plan had to take into account the exigencies of my existence while at the same time allowing for some sense of accomplishment. Twenty minutes seemed a good amount of time, an easily remembered number less imposing than half an hour and more worthy than a quarter hour. Twenty minutes a day may seem inconsequential, but it adds up to well over a hundred hours of annual reading, and I am a reasonably fast reader. Self-knowledge led me to include an alternate plan in case, whether by accident or the demands of my schedule, I did miss a session of reading. I wanted a chance to compensate for my failure.

As for the books — I could have chosen any number of other titles. But the books selected here, with the exception of Caulaincourt and Pearce, are ones that I come across again and again in my reading. Some books are included to offset omissions in my education that are just plain embarrassing: to have neglected Dante is, given my interests and education, inexcusable. Some are appropriate to my stage of life; Boethius, for example, wrote The Consolations of Philosophy while under a sentence of death, a circumstance that looms somewhat larger in my life now than it did at age 20. Hopkins I have read in bits and pieces, and wanted a more disciplined approach to his work. I have read several Greek plays, and their stark prose and bare emotions drew me toward the Oresteia. I enjoy military history, hence Thucydides and Caulaincourt. (I also want to learn more about Napoleon and nineteenth century Russia, so the Caulaincourt fits several bills). Anna Karenina appeals to me for reasons of nostalgia; I can vividly remember reading the book and thinking it the best novel I’d ever read. The time seemed ripe to repeat the experiment and see what I think now of poor doomed Anna.

One great difference between this resolution and those made earlier in life is, of course, the fact that I am announcing it in a newspaper. Pressure can shape diamonds or break boulders. We’ll see how it goes.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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