Jeff Minick

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That time of year has arrived when ritual and custom weave their magical threads into our lives. We sip Uncle George’s eggnog and bourbon, made from a recipe which his Uncle George inherited; we feast on ham at Grandma’s table; we sing carols off-key with the lusty disregard of a drunken sailor. Movie-lovers turn to old seasonal favorites like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street;” families open presents from beneath the tree, each in their special way; children play with new toys in a tangle of ribbons and wrapping papers while mommy and daddy doze on a sofa.

Readers, too, some of them, may follow some tradition in regard to the season. A father might recite to his little ones Clement Moore‘s “Night Before Christmas,” with its parental prayer that the “children were nestled all snug in their beds.” A celebrant with a strong sentimental streak may find satisfaction in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” that classic little tale of Della and Jim, of watchchains and combs, and the meaning of sacrifice.

Some readers this season will open Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. (By season, of course, I mean that period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the old Twelve Days of Christmas before our Black Fridays, parties, and feasting made so many of the holiday-hung-over happy to toss their dead trees into the street before the New Year). A score of movies and plays about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Christmas ghosts have embedded this tale so firmly in our blood and nerves that two words alone — ”Bah! Humbug!” — can conjure up entire scenes from a London buried long ago by time and fashion.

Dickens’ tale is so familiar to all of us, in fact, that we can open this novella to any page and place ourselves immediately within the story. There is a great delight in such an arrangement, because there is great delight to be found in Dickens’ words. We all know the story of the stingy man visited by ghosts, but our knowledge has often kept readers from exploring the original story. This is unfortunate, for those who love the English language and have never read A Christmas Carol might not realize the treat they are missing. Here on every page is Dickens at his most delightful, reveling in description, puns, and conversation, the prose bubbling like the story’s steam pudding, the author’s enthusiasm for his tale infecting us with bacilli composed of happiness and joy. His jocularity and passion sweep us along with Scrooge, so that by the time the last ghost has visited the old skinflint we can truly feel Scrooge’s delight on waking in his bed with the opportunity to make amends and expiate his crimes of selfishness and meanness of heart:

“‘I don’t know what to do!’ Scrooge cried, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”

Another story worth revisiting, older than Scrooge and his ghosts, and familiar to an even wider readership, comes to us from best-selling authors Matthew and Luke. Leaving aside the theology behind their telling (it is best your reviewer in particular leave aside theology, as his knowledge of that subject is approximately equivalent to his knowledge of homemade firecrackers, that is, he may eventually cobble something together, but is quite likely in the process to blow himself to hell and gone), let us instead look to the literary aspects of this story to explain its longevity and appeal.

We begin with a teenage girl who, according to the custom of her time, is espoused to an older man when she mysteriously becomes pregnant and is soon, as one translation puts it, “great with child.” This girl, Mary, accompanies her espoused, a carpenter named Joseph, to the city of Bethlehem, where she delivers her child in a stable and cradles him in a feeding trough for livestock. (Many will later consider this same infant’s flesh to be the food that brings everlasting life). Strange events then occur: angelic beings cavort in the skies over the tiny city, shepherds visit the stable in the night to pay homage to the child, wise men from the East follow a star and bring gifts fit for a king. Others, particularly a woman named Anna and a man named Simeon, proclaim the newborn the savior of their people.

This celebration is short-lived: Joseph receives word via a dream that the local king, fearful of a prophesy that such a child will seize his throne, plans to kill the baby. The family flees to another country before the king orders the murder of Bethlehem’s male infants in hopes that one of the dead will be the baby. Later the cruel king dies a deserved horrible death, and the tiny family returns to its homeland.

Matthew and Luke tell their story in a few pages. Here is no Dickensian excess. The prose is as simple, stark, and succinct as that found in one of Hemingway’s short stories. The authors use few adjectives and employ minimal descriptions of landscape, clothing, style, or manners. Comment on the emotions of the characters is almost non-existent.

Despite the absence of all these conventional literary devices, the story has stayed with us for a long time. Millions of people all around the world have read or heard the story. It stays with us because it possesses all the elements of a great story: love, birth, mystery, murder, shepherds and kings, angels, wise men, fools. It has, as some critics say, the power of story. One guy even called it a part of the “greatest story ever told.”

Highly recommended.

Comment

“What do women want?”

During the month of December, Sigmund Freud’s famous question haunts the minds of many men. Unlike the perturbed analyst, however, men face a more practical and restricted version of this question, specifically: “What do women — mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, wives — want to find under the tree on Christmas morning?”

On the Saturday following Thanksgiving, I landed in Asheville’s Barnes and Noble, where I meandered through the best-sellers and gift books, seeking for review books that might appeal to women at Christmas. A quarter of an hour had expired when three successive thoughts occurred: 1) I wasn’t sure what books were popular with women this season; 2) I was in a large bookstore; and 3) the bookstore was full of women interested in books. Why not simply ask them for their recommendations?

Here a natural caution exerted itself. Given the legions of sexual oddballs in our society, aware that I myself had reached the cusp of that age when someone might mistake me for a “Dirty Old Man,” and fully cognizant of the fate of those adventurers who accost their subjects with rash familiarity — think of the “Crocodile Hunter” and his grisly end — I deemed it prudent to take certain precautions in my approach to female shoppers and staff. I would avoid any female who looked anywhere near the age of 18. I would quickly identify myself and explain that I was writing a book review column for The Smoky Mountain News. I would ask only for first names and then inquire as to their recommendations.

This plan worked, as the adage goes, like a charm. I survived with all appendages intact and learned a few things about the literary tastes of the female of the species. Gentlemen, here is a summary of my time in that jungle of print, paper, and perfume.

Emily, the youngest of my subjects — I would place her in her mid-20a — was holding a copy of In Search of the Knights Templar: A Guide to the Sites of Britain. “I’m buying it for myself,” she explained. “I’d like to go to Britain in a few years.” But what would she give to her friends? “Well, I like Stephen King. I just started reading him. And Charles Dickens. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite all-time books.”

After duly noting Emily’s choices, I found Donna seated on the carpeting of the New Age aisle with six or eight books stacked at her knees. She reminded me that the key to purchasing books for presents was a familiarity with the recipient’s interests. “For example, I like books on spirituality,“ she said, pointing to the piled volumes, “and I’m looking at these books for myself. But if I buy for friends I mostly go for cookbooks or biographies.” (Here I will mention that I had earlier turned over the pages of Tupelo Honey Café: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen. Written by Elizabeth Sims and Chef Brian Somoskus, this colorfully illustrated volume would make a fine gift for anyone with an interest in cooking — or for that matter, in eating).

Susie, a clerk in the store, noted that best-sellers were always popular. “The Help is popular this year, too,” she said. “That book is older, but we sell a lot of them. And children and teens are now asking for their books for Christmas by title, which helps out their parents a lot with shopping.”

So what were young women reading this year?

“They still seem to enjoy paranormal romances, like the Twilight books,” she said. (Here I wanted to comment that my own encounters with romance had all smacked of the paranormal, but restrained myself). “Biographies are popular, too, for women and men as gifts,” she said.

Andrea, one of the store’s managers, prefaced her comments by saying “My reading tastes probably aren’t typical of a lot of female readers,” a remark made by every woman to whom I spoke. Andrea liked true-crime books and had just finished Jay Cee Duggard’s A Stolen Life: A Memoir. “A lot of our female customers enjoy historical fiction. A lot buy religious fiction.” (I had noticed the large section of Christian novels on the second floor). “Vicky Lane and Sarah Allen are two local authors who are popular with our female readers. In terms of the best-sellers, Patterson and Sparks appeal to women.” Later I found the new books by both authors — Patterson’s The Christmas Wedding and Nicholas Sparks’ The Best of Me — displayed prominently both on the store’s front table and on the best-seller aisle.

Barnes and Noble also features The Nook, its answer to Amazon’s electronic book-reader, the Kindle. When I asked Kate, one of the Nook sales staff, whether more men or women bought the Nook, she thought that purchases ran about 60 to 40 in favor of women. “Women who like reading like the Nook. In fact, people from ages 6 to 90 love the Nook,” she added. “Yesterday we sold $17,000 worth of equipment, and that doesn’t include the add-ons.”

There you have it, gentlemen, a feast of print: electronic book devices, best-sellers, cookbooks, biographies, novels of romance. Keep in mind, too, that these are only the hors d’oeuvres. Bookstores large and small serve a buffet aimed at many tastes.  

Poor Dr. Freud. Maybe all he had to do to find an answer to his question was ask.

Comment

The rigors of holiday shopping are hard upon us, and bibliophiles, like everyone else, will turn their eyes toward bookshops, online stores and e-books to make purchases for their families and friends. It’s also that time of the season when clearing my own desk has become a necessity. Here, then, is a smorgasbord of books, mostly aimed at the male crew. Next time we’ll offer a similar feast for female lovers of the printed word.

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For those who didn’t get enough of Halloween, Michael Renegar’s Tar Heel Terrors: More North Carolina Ghosts and Legends (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 0-914875-59-0, $12) will be a welcome addition to the gifts under the tree. Renegar, who currently lives in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, includes here stories of Carolina ghosts from the coasts to the mountains.

Because he resides in the Piedmont, and because he attended Appalachian State University, Renegar is particularly good in his selection of ghosts stories from these areas. Having grown up in Boonville, which is near Winston-Salem, I found, for example, several stories here from that area which were completely unfamiliar to me. Renegar does include the classics, like the Little Red Man of Old Salem fame, but many of his stories here should be new to readers. His previous book, Roadside Revenants and Other North Carolina Ghosts and Legends, is also a fine collection, focusing on the ghosts who haunt North Carolina’s highways and including a chapter titled “Tips for the Would-be Ghosthunter.”

•••

An excellent choice of a gift for a young man is William J. Bennett’s The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (ISBN 978-1-5955-5271-6, $34.99). Bennett, author of the best-selling The Book of Virtues, offers in this 500-page tome a compilation of letters, interviews, essays, biographies, and historical accounts designed to embody what Bennett calls “the eternal qualities of manhood.”

Bennett’s book stands apart from some similar collections in its simplicity and appropriate selections. (Think Walter Newell’s collection What Is A Man? in which the editor does a fine job of surveying three thousand years of writing on manhood, but whose selections will not appeal to any but the most academic of teenagers).

Divided into sections ranging from “Man in War” to “Man in Prayer and Reflection,” The Book of Man gives us accounts ranging from Hesiod’s Works and Days to Paul Read’s Alive, but does so with younger male readers in mind. Bennett includes accounts of different soldiers in Afghanistan, the basketball team from Milan, Ind., featured in the movie “Hoosiers,” Davy Crockett’s discussion of the Constitution with a Tennessee farmer, Unabomber victim David Gelernter’s thoughts on marriage, and close to 300 other entries. Many of these selections will be unfamiliar to readers, and will perhaps inspire young men to search out the complete books and accounts of some of those featured here.

For young men and old, The Book of Man makes a fine Christmas gift.

•••

If William Bennett writes to inspire men, Patrick J. Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (ISBN 978-0-312-57997-5, $27.99) will leave the most cockeyed optimist in the country splashing more bourbon into his Christmas eggnog. Here, as he has done in previous books, Buchanan works statistics, history, economics and philosophy into a bomb that he then hurls at the reader through his book. Buchanan returns to some of the themes of his earlier best-sellers — the moral and economic decline of the West, the demographics behind our changing world, the tribalism which is slowly replacing nationalism (a trend which, as Buchanan writes, President Obama had the foresight, unlike so many other politicians, to discuss at length in a political address).

What sets this book apart from some of his work is that Suicide of a Superpower offers ideas which would appeal both to Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He favors labor unions, calls for the legalization of certain recreational drugs, and a closing of many of America’s overseas military bases while at the same time espousing Western culture and warning of the dangers of American out-of-control entitlement programs.

In the chapter titled “Demographic Winter,“ his examination of the world’s population statistics, an issue about which he has long taken a deep interest, Buchanan will shock some readers and remind those familiar with these numbers that countries such as Japan, Russia and most European countries are already finding themselves, given their declining populations, unable to support the social programs which the post-World War II years brought into being. (For readers interested in the European Union and its current overwhelming problems, see Nigel Farage on Youtube. It‘s an astonishing performance, one which no American politician could dare give even if capable of speaking so well). Buchanan writes:

“A time of austerity is at hand. And from the riots across France to the anarchist attack on Tory Party headquarters in London to the garbage left piled high and stinking on the streets of Marseille and Naples in the fall of 2010, Europe is not going gentle into that good night. But go she shall.”

Suicide of a Superpower is a warning that this same good night awaits us as well unless we Americans — and our leaders — come to grips with the problems facing us.

Comment

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death by suicide. He has remained, of course, an icon of American letters, a legend, a man whose life and art still seem to tower over today’s writers. Only his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac have exerted the same kind of mythic literary pull on the popular imagination of his countrymen. There are Hemingway websites, numerous Hemingway biographies, Hemingway festivals and even Hemingway look-alike contests.

Joining the mania of all things Hemingway is biographer Paul Hendrickson. In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (ISBN 978-1-4000-4162-6, 531 pages, $30), Hendrickson connects the life of Hemingway to his love of the sea and the boat on which he sailed for so many years, the Pilar. Hendrickson is a man of many gifts: a meticulous eye for research, a writer who can bring alive the past on paper, a biographer who clearly loves his subject but who has the courage to present his foibles in full. He brings all these talents to bear in this study of the Nobel Prize winning author who also was wounded in war, lived his youth in Paris, hunted lions in Africa, spent countless days fishing the Gulf Stream, and changed the shape of the American fiction.

In his prologue, Hendrickson lays out some general thoughts regarding Hemingway’s life, observations that other biographers have either missed or downplayed. He writes, for example, that “I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway, however un-postmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself.”

He alleges, too, that “there was so much more fear inside of Hemingway than he ever let on,” mostly a fear of suicide (in perhaps a related phobia, he was also, by his own admission, terrified of falling asleep in deep darkness). Hendrickson also believes Hemingway was a man of heroic stature, torn apart by a high sense of honor and an inability to meet his own standards.

Finally, despite Hemingway’s reputation for killing friendships and abusing those around him, Hendrickson tells us that Hemingway possessed a kind and compassionate side to his nature often overlooked by other biographers. He returns to this point repeatedly throughout the book, showing us examples of this gentler Hemingway: his tender letter to a nine-year-old boy with congenital heart disease, written just days before Hemingway took his own life; his loan of money to a young man in distress; his love and concern for his sons, at least until they grew to manhood; his agonies of guilt when he would hurt friends and loved ones.

Two problems do arise in Hemingway’s Boat, difficulties to which Hendrickson seems strangely blind. The first has to do with Hemingway’s alcoholism. Hemingway regarded drunks as “rummies,” and either scorned them or pitied them, as he pitied Fitzgerald, but he could never acknowledge that he himself was an alcoholic. Hendrickson knows of Hemingway’s drinking and surely knows how deeply it affected his relationships with others, his mental state, and the quality of his work, yet he rarely mentions this enormous flaw. We hear again and again that Hemingway drove friends away, but Hendrickson doesn’t seem to make the connection that Hemingway was for years a rummy himself.

He notes, as others have, Hemingway’s penchant for mishaps — he shot himself by accident, for example, while fishing on the Pilar — but again doesn’t tell the reader that these accidents were often caused by alcohol as much as by Hemingway’s famous clumsiness.

Stranger still is Hendrickson’s long treatment in the latter half of the book of Hemingway’s relationship with his son Gregory, known as Gigi to his father. Gregory led a life troubled by his relationships with his parents and wives, his sexual identity, his alcoholism and drugs. In 2001, he died as a transgendered Gloria Hemingway in the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. (One note: when I worked as a clerk in the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston from 1975-1976, Gregory Hemingway visited the store for a book signing of Papa, his account of his father. He struck me as the author has described him here — a nice man, diffident, interested in others).

Certainly Gregory’s wild life, his drinking, his drugs, his inability to accept responsibility for his actions, is sad and arouses our pity, and to look at his relationship with his father is worthy and just in understanding Hemingway, yet Hendrickson gives almost no space to Gregory’s relationship with his mother, Pauline. It was Pauline who, after her divorce, did the bulk of the parenting. Hendrickson does note some details of her life and her time with Gregory, but why spend so much time investigating the effects Hemingway had on Gregory’s life without examining at length the effect of his mother?    

Despite these failures in the book — and perhaps in part because of them, particularly the attempt to make so many connections between Hemingway and his third son — Hemingway’s Boat is one of the most compelling biographies of the year. This book will haunt you long after you have closed the covers, intruding at odd times into your emotions, roughing up the smooth waters of your thoughts like the winds on Hemingway’s sea.

Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf, 2011. 544 pages.

Comment

In recent years, a few individuals have taken on large reading projects and then written books of their own about their literary odyssey. Reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, Adler’s Great Books, various millennium book lists: all have received such treatment. Still others have assigned themselves certain timed races based on a particular book, the best known of which is Julie Powell‘s decision to prepare all of the recipes found in Julia Child‘s first cookbook.

In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (ISBN 978-0-06-199984-0, $23.99), Nina Sankovitch undertakes such a scheme, but with a darker personal motive. When her older sister, her beloved Anne-Marie, dies at the age of 46, Sankovitch is left bereft and extremely depressed. She is particularly bothered, as are many who lose a loved one, by such questions as why her sister had died, why Anne-Marie had died instead of her, why she herself had deserved to live.

For three years, Sankovitch bore the pain and questions of her sister’s death. Then one day, while on a get-away weekend vacation to the beaches of Long Island, Sankovitch began reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She read through the afternoon and into the evening, and realized when she closed the covers of the book that she had read this classic in a single day. She decided then to try and read a book a day for a year, intuitively hoping that this reading would yield answers about her sister’s death and even the reason for her own existence. Of that evening, when her husband — he is surely to be admired for participating in her quest — asked her if she couldn’t read a book a week, she wrote:

“No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and pain.”

And so Sankovitch commenced her daily sprint, taking up classics like Forester’s The African Queen, Kipling’s Captains Courageous, and Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; newer works by authors like Wendell Berry, Jim Harrison, and Muriel Barbery; suspense and science fiction novels; biographies; young adult books. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair — the chair is a banged-up family treasure, stained and patched, which served as her reading headquarters — Sankovitch recounts in detail the pressure such reading put on her household chores and cooking, her duties to her husband and children, the difficulties brought by the exigencies of any modern daily life. Many evenings, she could barely keep her eyes open as she struggled to maintain her book-a-day agenda.

What is best in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, however, is not the author’s literary criticism, but the way in which she blends her accounts of her reading with the story of her family and with broader human concerns.

In a minor chapter titled “Sex By The Book,” for instance, she addresses her own sexual desires even in the face of watching over four children, shopping and cooking, and reading her daily text. Through books like The Delta of Venus and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she finds revelations that help her understand her own sexual desires and her long and continuous love for her husband, Jack, and of the world they have made together “where we are safe — or as safe as we can be.”

Sankovitch also takes us into her childhood, which differed from that of many of her contemporaries. Both her parents were immigrants who had suffered as children during World War II, and both brought to the United States the European love of custom and music now all but lost even in their native lands. Sankovitch describes her mother and father listening to classical music on Sundays and taking their own pleasures from literature. Both were professionals — her father was a surgeon, her mother a university teacher — who frequently invited friends, students, and other visitors into their home.

Throughout her writing Sankovitch also comes back time and again to her sister, the memories they shared, the books they enjoyed, her death. Though she realizes that “there is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love,” her year of reading does bring her a sort of peace regarding Anne-Marie. She tells us that “reading one book a day was my year in a sanitorium,” and the answer which she derives from that sanitarium is that “our only answer to sorrow is to live, to live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement.” For Sankovitch, Cyril Connolly’s tag on the flyleaf — “Literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living” — takes on the import of a motto on a family crest. She reads herself back to health, finding in words and stories not only a respite from her hectic life, but an answer to that life.

One last lesson will strike to the heart of any reader who has suffered the death of a loved one. With the best of intentions, family members and friends will often tell the survivor that it is important to move on, to stay busy, to put the past away. There may be some truth to this advice, but in the pell-mell rush of the society in which we live, it is equally important to remember, as Sankovitch finally did, that to slow down, to contemplate, and to remember offer a reliable path to reconciliation and acceptance.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch. Harper, 2011. 256 pages.

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

Comment

It is no secret that writers are influenced by authors whose work they admire. Though he would later turn his back on them, Ernest Hemingway felt the literary touch of contemporaries such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein (his style was also molded by the “cable-ese” of his own newspaper reporting), while William Faulkner was drawn to French poets and to writers such as Balzac, who built his novels from a specific locale, what Faulkner would later call his “own little postage stamp of native soil.”

In a recent interview, novelist Dawn Tripp cited her own influences — Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Ondaatje, Marguerite Duras, and others — all of whom write, as Tripp accurately states, novelistic structures that are not straightforward and linear in time, but instead are either fractured or mosaic in their construction of story and plot. Of this particular novelistic approach, which tells its story by building on the perceptions of characters and their take on other characters and events, Tripp accurately says that “there is a certain dreamlike immediacy, a certain life of the work that takes precedence, a nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that runs through the narrative ….”

In her latest novel, Game of Secrets (ISBN 978-4000-6188-4, $25), Tripp creates a story that fulfills these ambitions, a tale that, as she says, “is absorbed by the reader in a more visceral, intuitive way” than that provided by most authors. The fragmented structure of Game of Secrets immediately and intimately draws the reader into itself, piecing together a mosaic built from adultery and murder, from small-town New England lives, from Scrabble games played between two women who are friends and strangers to each other, from the passions of the young who return to a place and circumstances which they have both loved and hated.

Game of Secrets enlists a squad of narrators to tell its sad, lurid story. There is Jane Weld, 11 years old when her father, Luce, disappeared (his skull was later found with a single bullet hole in it), who loves poetry — she is particularly enamored of the verse of Dylan Thomas — and who now plays weekly Scrabble games with her murdered father‘s aged lover, Ada Varick. There is Marne, Jane’s angry, wandering daughter, who has returned to the village from California as a burnt-out case, who in knocking about the country has picked up a knack for origami, and who now finds herself attracted to Ray, Ada’s son. There are Ada’s sons: Ray, to whom Marne looks for affection, and the darkly flawed Huck, whose wild and despairing bitterness is rendered less alienating by his love for Jane.

Through the eyes of these men and women, all possessed by virtues and faults, all haunted by a past not of their own making, we come slowly to understand how the long-ago affair between Luce and the tempestuous Ada has carried its weight down through the passage of years. As Game of Secrets reveals its mysteries, the reader — along with the characters — comprehends the ramifications of that long-hidden crime and its effects on the members of the Varick and Weld families. The story is much like the Scrabble game written about in scrupulous detail by Tripp, the contest played between Ada and Jane that runs like an Alpine rope through most of the book, linking characters and events. We see that this game of words, of words building on words in surprising and startling ways, mirrors the relationships and history of the characters themselves.

In addition to her gifts for characterization and for creating suspense, Tripp — she is also the author of the novels Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water — gives us an intimate portrait of rural New England  itself. In reading Game of Secrets, we come to know Tripp‘s own “postage stamp of earth”: the ways of the town and the countryside, the tourists who vacation here in the summers, the hard lives of many of the natives, the play of air and wind and sunshine on the land and the sea. Here, for example, Marne takes note of the land while on a drive with Ray:

“When you first come home, you can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia. You see the idyll of the place — you see it like a person away might — the tranquil New-Englandy beauty, swatches of open land still left, the village at the Point, those cedar-shingled saltbox houses, the double-forked branch of the river, sea running into land.

“It’s a particular point of earth — you come home, and the light is like nowhere else. You think to yourself, I can do this. So you stay.”

Faulkner once famously observed that “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” Our own Thomas Wolfe, another author obsessed with time and its cumulative effects on the lives of all human beings, echoed this sentiment when he wrote at the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel: “…our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.”

In Game of Secrets, Tripp reminds us once again that the past is always with us, that we struggle both to escape its clutching fingers and to embrace its terrible beauty, and that the secrets of the past, once revealed, may not only inflict painful wounds, but may also in the end bring healing and acceptance.

 

Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp. Random House, 2011. 272 pages

Comment

Often the people, places, and things that we love most in this world become so familiar to us, so much a part of the tissue of our own lives, that only their end or impending loss reminds us of how much we truly value them. The descent of a loved one toward the grave, the loss of a family home by disasters natural or financial, the theft of some family heirloom: only when we suffer such misfortunes do we suddenly awake to the awful realization of what the loss meant to us, how much these treasures were a part of the tissue of our lives. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but it very often does engender in us a blindness to the worth of those everyday people and objects which we take for granted.

This very human failure to appreciate fully the gifts bestowed on us by providence or by past sacrifice may extend to the national level. It is difficult today, for example, being citizens of a country built 200 years ago on a foundation of freedom, to recognize how revolutionary are the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” When written, those words, composed though they were by a slave-holder, were utterly new to the great bulk of mankind, and they have since electrified the hearts of men and women around the globe. We take for granted “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” but for those who do not possesses these commodities, or who have lost them, these few words, coupled with the idea that the truths behind them are “self-evident,” continue to light a flame in the hearts of all who love liberty.

Give our current political antagonisms — the recent declarations by a few that the Constitution is dead should trouble all, left and right, who value freedom — perhaps it behooves us to turn the pages of a few American history books and recollect why “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” should remain at the heart of the American dream.

History, which is as much an art as a science, offers us a great choice of texts in looking at Revolutionary and Early Republic America. In addition to the best-sellers by David McCullough — his John Adams is particularly valuable for its insights into the Founders’ views on liberty — we can turn to a variety of other resources. Readers who lean left may prefer to peruse Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, in which Zinn looks at events through the eyes of the working classes, women, and minorities, an examination flavored lightly by Marxism, while those on the right would doubtless prefer Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States, another hefty book which takes a more traditional view of American history while debunking some of its recent interpretations (Ideally, our leftists would open Schweikart while right-tilting readers would take a look at Zinn).

In Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned, Kenneth C. Davis purports to “serve up the real story behind the myths and fallacies of American history.” He clears up some of these misconceptions, but his smart-aleck attitude and politically correct viewpoints will put off those readers who actually do know something about American history. The “Dummies” and “Idiots” guidebooks — U.S. History For Dummies, for instance, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Founding Fathers — offer the cheeky attitude without the sharply slanted views.

Larry Schweikart, a professor of history at the University of Dayton, has recently issued a book that might enlighten citizens of all political stripes. What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems (ISBN 978-1-59523-074-4, $26.95) needs to be read cautiously, for the author, as we may conjecture from the title, attempts to look at the writings of the founders of the Republic and then draw conclusions as to what they might say about our own contemporary woes. The chapters of the book are titled in the form of questions — ”Is The Government Responsible For Protecting The Land And The Environment?” “What Is The Purpose Of War And Should It Be Avoided?” and so on — and Schweikart, of course, tends to reply to these questions from a conservative viewpoint.

What makes the book valuable, however, is not the author’s political beliefs, but what he tells us of the Founders. He gives us their unvarnished views on topics like debt, war, and the limits of government. Here, for example, in discussing whether government should have care of the physical health of its citizens, Schweikart spends several delightful pages entertaining us with the dietary habits of early patriots. John Adams, for example, “pounded down a pitcher of hard cider with every breakfast” while Ben Franklin, who as usual offered good advice, wrote that “if thou are dull and heavy after meat, it’s a sign that thou hast exceeded the due measure; for Meat and Drink ought to refresh the Body, and make it cheerful, and not to dull and oppress it.” In other words, citizens who are expected to work, live, and sometimes fight in an atmosphere of freedom ought to be able to judge for themselves a standard of health.

Winter is coming, and winter evenings are a time for long thoughts. We might all benefit ourselves and our country by turning those thoughts, even briefly, toward the treasures of the past and by remembering that what we will be comes from what we are, and that we are comes from how we perceive what we were.

What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems by Larry Schweikart. Sentinel HC, 2011. 256 pages

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In last week’s The Smoky Mountain News, Gary Carden began his review of Ron Rash’s collection of poems, Waking, by praising the writer’s description of a trout brought home and kept alive in a trough, where “its gills were like filters/that pureness poured into.”

The streams and rivers of Western North Carolina attract anglers like — well, like a well-tied fly attracts a trout. Even casual hikers are accustomed to the sight of a man or woman in waders in the middle of a stream, line out, intent on the dark shadows of the moving waters. In some families, fishing and what Hopkins once called “the tools and tackle” are passed along as heirlooms with the same reverence as that shown to Granny’s Bible, Uncle John’s shotgun, and Aunt Martha’s quilts. Others come to the pleasures of fishing — the solitude, the skills, the thrill of hooking a brown or a bass — later in life. However people find their way to water with a pole in one hand and refreshments in the other, they frequently become as passionate about their avocation as a golfer in a clubhouse on the eighteenth hole.

In Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 978-0-914875-60-4), David Joy offers readers both a paean to fishing and a memoir of his own days on the water. He takes us from the coast of North Carolina, where he fished as a boy with his family (he dedicates his book to his grandmother, who not only helped teach him to fish, but who also gave him a collection of stories from her own days of fishing), to the creeks and rivers of our own mountains.

A fisherman since the age of 4, Joy as a child studied fishing shows on television while other adolescents were watching Saturday morning cartoons. He recounts what a fine teacher his Granny was, showing him, for example, how a fish on the line feels as opposed to the tugging of an ocean wave. He then extends his story into his many forays into the mountains, recounting trips along the Tuckasegee, telling us stories of his catches and near misses, explaining how he learned to tie flies from a friend named Zac, whose “Burke County blood had toughened him into a man.”

Joy, who credits his Granny for first teaching him the fine arts of story-telling and the power of description, does his mentor proud in Growing Gills. Here, for example, he recreates a scene on a coastal beach:

“The winter sun had sunk behind the swaying sprigs of sea oats and disappeared beneath the smoothed dunes. A sleek pane of wet sand, a remnant of receding waves, shone like a sheet of ice in the dying sunlight.”

Joy also lets us feel the emotions of those who put a line into water:

“When I see a trout rise to a fly or turn on a nymph, pleasure builds in my chest nearing explosion. This is when an artist knows to wait: oftentimes I do, but at other times the urge becomes too much, usually resulting in a missed fish.”

Yet Joy does more than wax poetic about fishing in Growing Gills. Here are practical chapters on fly-casting and its difficulties, on scouting the shadows and sunlight of a creek for various fish, on the challenges and rewards of night fishing. Both amateur and veteran anglers may learn some good lessons from Joy’s clear, clean prose on the technical aspects of fishing.

The last half of Growing Gills is somewhat marred by Joy’s Bambification of nature and a concomitant misanthropy. “I was the species that dismantled the world with empty syllables, with metaphors meant to dominate,” he writes. “I wanted out. I wanted to become a fish.” In wanting to become one with nature, he frequently attributes to its creatures human thoughts and feelings. He doesn’t seem to realize that a fish is; it doesn’t read Plato, it doesn’t drink beer and smoke cigarettes, it doesn’t write books about fishing. (His approach here is sometimes baffling. He kisses the fish which he releases, for example, but not the ones he eats, which seems to set an old Native American tradition on its head). Joy’s feelings for fish and for nature in general then led him to a dislike for the human. He yearns to “revert to primitiveness,” to “escape the madness of the mechanized world and become in tune,” and is finally forced “to accept my humanity.” The man who truly wants to be a fish rather a man must leave his listeners wondering whether he understands in full what it means to be a man or a fish.

But these are quibbles, given the intent of Growing Gills. Even those who have never baited a hook will find pleasure here. The delights of Joy’s prose are enhanced by the drawings of Michael Polomik, a talented illustrator whose work here compares favorably to those wonderful drawings once found in certain fine books produced 70 and 80 years ago.

Both Joy and Polomik will launch their book at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept.18, at Blue Ride Book and News in Waynesville. Both the publisher of the book, Cynthia Bright of Bright Mountain Books in Asheville, and a representative of the Waynesville Fly Shop will also appear at this event.

Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey by David Joy. Bright Mountain Books, 2011. 208 pages.

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According to recent polls, Americans are angry. They are angry about the economy, about the role of government in their lives, about the direction their country has taken. They are angry with the president and with the Congress. Some are angry because the government gives too much, others because the government gives too little. Many want the government to “fix” the economy. (This comes from a people who owe enormous personal debt via credit cards and loans, who often refuse work if it doesn’t pay salaries to which they are accustomed, who often pay no income tax themselves, who have lamented the transfer of their manufacturing base overseas while at the same time buying Chinese at Wal-Mart, whose corporations move abroad because of high taxes or remain here because of no taxes, who have forgotten that dependence on government leads not to freedom but to slavery).

We are thoroughly politicized even in our daily lives, followers of ideologies — until recently, a distinctly un-American trait — rather than as citizens bound by a spirit of compromise, a common law, a belief in liberty, and the search for pragmatic solutions.

We have traded horse sense for nonsense.

In Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age (ISBN 978-1-933859-88-0, $29.95), author and editor Gregory Wolfe sets out to show us a different path — or rather, how to return to the path once followed by even our recent ancestors. Put succinctly, and quite badly in comparison to Wolfe’s own stylish prose, Wolfe urges us abandon our ideological battles and return to the “old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty” as the criteria for making our democracy and our personal lives once again working propositions.

In the first two chapters of Beauty Will Save The World, Wolfe builds the foundation for this thesis. He tells us of his own struggles as a young man engaged in the culture wars, of moving from libertarianism to conservativism, and then beyond. His distaste for many who professed conservatism grew as he worked to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, when his fellow politicos, despite having pushed forward a president who had promised to shrink government, “jockeyed for positions in the new administration, including jobs in departments those stalwarts had resolutely promised to abolish. My euphoria evaporated and was replaced by something close to moral revulsion.”

Unlike others who undergo such a sea-change, Wolfe did not turn to the left for answers. He realized that both camps lacked in some way the keys to life and spirit which he was seeking. Instead, he sought out these keys in the realm of art, culture, philosophy, and faith, and unlocked, it would seem, the doors which could restore for many of us the proper way to live and become fully human in an age political rants and rages. In his chapter titled “Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture,” Wolfe gives us the heart of his argument:

“It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture — that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship, and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.”

An examination of the works of different writers and artists, and the way in which those works have played into our culture, takes up most of Wolfe’s book. He looks at writers of fiction as famous as Evelyn Waugh and as unduly neglected as Larry Woiwode; he examines in depth the work of various poets, especially that of the Englishman Geoffrey Hill; he analyzes the work of Southerners like Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, and Marion Montgomery; he discusses painters like Fred Folsom (his in-depth exploration of Folsom’s “Last Call” is worth the price of the book alone).

In Beauty Will Save The World — this title comes from an enigmatic statement made by Dostovesky which fortunately for us once captured the imagination of Wolfe — the author issues a ringing call to turn from the ideological wars of our day, wars which are ruining both our government and our democracy, and to try and find common ground in our culture, in what can be deemed true and good and beautiful. Wolfe, like a few other observers of the battlefield, has here issued a manifesto that may not only lead to peace among neighbors, but to a deeper realization of what is truly worthy of our attention.

Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering The Human In An Ideological Age by Gregory Wolfe. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011. 278 pages

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Craig S. Bulkeley’s Hope For The Children Of The Sun: Curing The Sonnenkinder Syndrome Called Contemporary Christian Worship (the book may be ordered at your local bookstore or on-line at www.WorshipPress.com aligns itself well with Wolfe’s musings. Sonnenkinder refers to “children of the sun,” a popular name for the European youth culture between the two World Wars.

In this well-reasoned and well-documented short book, Bulkeley points out how the youth culture of the last 60 years has altered the liturgies and services of so many Protestant denominations. After analyzing the development of the twentieth century youth culture — he makes extensive use of Martin Green’s best-selling Children of the Sun — Bulkeley shows why “it is not surprising that the weak church would welcome the ways of the children into its worship practices beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and embrace them wholeheartedly by the opening of the 21st century.” Bulkeley then argues impressively for the return of maturity to the church and to its worship of God.

Bulkeley, who is an attorney and the pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, brings to this book the clean arguments of a legal mind and the impassioned faith of a minister of God. This combination offers a finely-reasoned, clear read for all interested in this issue.

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“At last I have come into a dreamland.” So wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe shortly after her arrival in Paris in June of 1853.

Stowe had gone to Paris for the same reasons Americans still visit the City of Light: a desire for adventure, a taste for art, an escape from the rigors or familiarity of life in the States — in Stowe‘s case, from her sudden unanticipated fame after the publication of Uncle Tom‘s Cabin.

Americans in Paris usually call to mind the cafes frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the seedy hotels of Henry Miller, the soldier-writers like James Jones and William Styron who headed for Paris following the Second World War. Today we think of student hostels, university “study abroad” programs, and a city which millions of Americans have visited in the last 50 years, all of them bringing their own hopes and desires for what they might find there.

Rarely, however, do we think of Paris as an American destination in the 19th century. We are aware of the impression left by Benjamin Franklin on the French, of the role the city played in the lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Until now, few of us would even have thought that there were Americans living in Paris between the era of the Founding Fathers and the time of the “Lost Generation” of the First World War.

In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (ISBN 978-1-4165-71176-6, $37.50), best-selling historian and biographer David McCullough corrects this perception by giving us a fascinating account of the lives of Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1900. Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female doctor, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Morse, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James: these and many other Americans visited Paris and felt, to varying degrees, its influence in their lives.

In The Greater Journey, McCullough examines both this influence and the way in which Americans interacted with one another in so strange and different a place. In his account of Morse and Cooper, for example, we are given not only insights into the world of art at this time — for years Morse worked slavishly to become a painter before helping bring the telegraph to the world — but McCullough also shows us the strong friendship between these two men. Cooper came to Paris a famous writer, while Morse was a struggling painter, yet for their time in the city they became the best of friends. Cooper became intrigued by his friend’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre,” an enormous work featuring a gallery filled with paintings and Cooper himself, and would visit Morse daily at his work to offer encouragement. Along with this account of the two men McCullough gives us their biographies in miniature, allowing us to see them more completely both as Americans and as travelers.

Here are dozens of other portraits. We learn about the importance of Paris to the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; we discover Mary Putnam and her determination to pursue medical studies in spite of many obstacles; we watch George Caitlin, the painter of the Plains Indians, and the tribal members who came under his auspices to the city and were admired by King Louis-Philippe; we gain access to the studio of Mary Cassatt, one of the great American Impressionists of this era.

In addition to telling us a relatively unknown story of Americans overseas, McCullough also gives a fine account of Paris itself during these years: the revolutions in art and politics, the plagues, the renovation of the city, the war against the Germans in 1870, the awful siege that followed.

We learn more than a little about French politics and painting, Parisian cuisine (which included the eating of rats during the great siege), the medical and technological advances of the era, literature and poetry. We see how Americans often carried home what they had learned from the French and made it a part of their own work.

This 500-page book also includes many photographs of these Americans abroad and examples of their artwork. Readers will find these invaluable in terms of following McCullough’s discussion of them.

For John Singer Sargent, for example, we not only have examples here of his portraiture, but we have sketches of Sargent by a fellow art student, a photograph of the artist in his studio working on one of his most notorious works, “Madame X”, the work itself, and his action painting, “El Jaleo.”

Readers will find themselves time and again turning from the text to these pictures, grateful that McCullough and his publisher saw fit to include them as an important part of the story.

David McCullough, who has authored such fine histories as 1776 and The Great Bridge, and whose biographies — Truman, Mornings on Horseback, John Adams — have done so much to arouse the interest of Americans in their past, has again struck gold.

The Greater Journey offers us a wonderful opportunity to visit a hidden part of the American past and to come away from that visit feeling as if we have gained a treasure of information.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 2011. 576 pages.

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The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by Peg Tyre. Crown, 2008. 320 pages.

For the last 30 years, many teachers and parents have understood that a disconnect exists between schools and adolescent males. Male academic performance on the elementary and secondary levels has eroded. Reading levels among boys have fallen sharply in the last 30 years. Fewer young men are going off to college each fall — in 2005, less than 43 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in American colleges and universities were men.

In The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do (Crown Publishers, ISBN 978-0-307-38128-6, $24.95), Peg Tyre, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former writer for Newsweek specializing in education and social issues, takes a long, clear look at the way in which our schools educate boys in this country and why that system is failing, and then presents some clear, intriguing solutions to these problems.

In her introduction, Tyre issues several caveats. She warns people that her book isn’t designed to lay blame at anyone’s doorstep for the problems with boys, that the problems are “too broad and too serious to point an accusatory finger at teachers, schools, trends in parenting, feminism, or those old favorite whipping boys ‘the media’ and ‘society.’” Here she also notes that we should distrust “easy and obvious solutions,” that “there’s a big gap between what we think will help boys and what has proven to be effective.”

In “Preschool Blues,” Tyre presents a litany of reasons why boys and formal education all too often knock heads. Childhood has changed drastically in the last 50 years. With both parents often working a full-time job — in the early 1970s, 60 percent of all mothers with school-age children stayed at home — the old days of free play for children under 6 years old have vanished. Boys who once entered the discipline of a classroom at age 6 or even 7 now toddle off to day-care centers at age 2 and 3.

Parents have changed, too, as Tyre shows us so well. A parent in the 1950s or 1960s “didn’t pay too much attention to kids’ play. Parents — usually mothers — were responsible for feeding children, clothing them, giving them a bath, taking them to church, and providing them with a basic education. No one spent a lot of time fretting about a child’s cognitive development.” Today parents worry incessantly about their children’s mental growth, consequently pushing children into all sorts of activities at an early age. Tyre tell us that:

“In middle-class neighborhoods, where parents pushing Bugaboo strollers are already projecting their offspring’s SAT scores, preschool administrators use a different calculus. They know that many boys — and some girls — are not ready for the kinds of early academic programs they now embed in their curricula. Anxious, competitive parents, however, make it clear that they want these programs. School administrators know their enrollment rates and financial futures are contingent on keeping those parents happy.”

In revealing certain disadvantages for boys given over to these academic preschools, Tyre quotes Rebecca Marcon’s study, Early Childhood Research and Practices, which makes apparent the fact that boys sent to academic preschools often fell behind those who attended preschools stressing play and movement.

As she leads us up the academic ladder, Tyre points out other problems with our system in terms of teaching boys. The current stress on testing and on cramming academic courses into each school day has caused many schools to abandon recess, despite mountains of evidence that children in elementary school need to shout, run, play, and simply visit (Many adults, if they think about their own elementary school days, may find themselves remembering far more incidents and conversations from their 30 minutes of daily recess than from five hours spent in classes).

A scarcity of male teachers, Tyre tells us, also effects the attitude of boys in school. Too often boys come to regard school and reading as feminine activities, in part because of the preponderance of female teachers. Many parents have seen their sons come alive academically under the tutelage of a male in the classroom. Tyre points out that the final objective should not be to simply hire more male teachers, but to hire better teachers, male and female (Although Tyre doesn’t dwell on the point, some critics of our educational system have also pointed out that we need teachers trained in their subject — biology, history, literature — rather than as educators).

Many boys don’t like to read. Blamed for this failure nowadays are television, computers, and electronic games. As Tyre demonstrates, however, a good part of the fault lies with what boys are forced to read by many schools. “It’s an awkward moment,” Tyre suggests, “when a teacher suggests Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her little male student opts instead for The Day My Butt Went Psycho.” She also cites a 2001 Canadian study which found that “Mormon families in Salt Lake City and lesbian couples in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are equally likely to produce a Captain Underpants fan.”

In one of Tyre’s more telling examples of how boys and education are so often misfits, she quotes Vivian Paley, a renowned kindergarten teacher and winner of a MacArthur Award. Here Paley is demonstrating how differently boys and girls tell stories.

“Here’s the girls’ story: ’Once there were four kittens and they found a pretty bunny. Then they went to buy the bunny some food and they fed the baby bunny and then they went on a picnic.’

“Here’s the boys’ story: ’We sneaked up on a house. Then we put the good guys in jail. Then we killed some of the good guys. Then the four bad guys got some money and some jewels.”

The Trouble With Boys should be read by parents with sons and by teachers who teach those sons. By her observations and acute suggestions, Tyre has performed for us all an invaluable service in understanding boys today.

And in terms of learning, we might all, in these foreboding times, heed T.H. White’s advice in The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad,” said Merlyn, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lay awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never by tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a million lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary in fencing. After that you can start on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.”

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Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. Random House, 2008. 272 pages.

One of the great delights in browsing library shelves or bookstores is to encounter a totally unfamiliar book which seems to promise, from the first touch of the fingertips on the cover, unexpected pleasures. Among women there is the old saying “You have to kiss a thousand frogs to find a prince.” Among bibliophiles the same statistic seems to apply: You have to pull a thousand dogs from the shelf to find one that barks, wags its tail, and runs to meet you.

Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day (Random House, 2008, $25, ISBN 978-1-4000-6471-7) is just such a dog of a book.

Such a description may sound insulting, but we can be sure that Russell would appreciate this comparison, for one of the characters in her novel — a main character, I might add — is Rosie, an intrepid dachshund who accompanies her mistress, Agnes Skanklin, on a series of grand adventures in the Middle East nearly a century ago.

Agnes is a 40-year-old unmarried schoolteacher from Ohio whose family has been wiped out by the Great War and the influenza epidemic of 1918 (Smoky Mountain News readers may be interested to know that on a hill above the campground in Sunburst is a small cemetery with the graves of children who apparently died during this epidemic). Tired of her life, filled with ennui, Agnes decides to set out on some adventures. In one of the books more humorous scenes, she allows herself to be refashioned by Mildred, a shop girl at Halle’s Department Store in Cleveland. With her new wardrobe and flapper haircut, Agnes then sets out to tour the Middle East, where her deceased sister and brother-in-law had worked before the Great War as missionaries and teachers.

Agnes arrives in Cairo just as the Peace Conference of 1918 has commenced. Here she meets such luminaries as Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and Lady Gertrude Bell. Russell paints these characters with vivid colors, doing particular justice to Lawrence and Bell. She also shows us how the twentieth century evolved from decisions made at the various conferences held after World War I. In the Middle East, for example, the importance of oil brought great political pressures to bear on the region, pressures which Russell delineates for us through the conversations of Agnes with British luminaries and the fictitious German Jewish spy, Karl Weilbacher, with whom Agnes falls in love.

In addition to setting painlessly a background to today’s Middle East conflicts, Dreamers of the Day also explores other areas of our history. Russell accurately describes Woodrow Wilson’s wartime presidency as a sort of fascistic dictatorship. Later, the author writes accurately and well about the influenza epidemic of 1918, when more people around the world died of the flu than died on the battlefields of World War I. Through Agnes’s eyes, we realize the devastation of such an epidemic.

In addition to its historical depictions, Dreamers of the Day also gives us a woman with whom some 21st century women might identify. Agnes works first as a teacher, then inherits some money after the deaths of her relatives. She lives through the twenties on this sum, but then loses her small fortune to speculation and poor investments during the early years of the Depression. In mid-life she experiences a catharsis allowing her to find within herself a sense of adventure, even a sense of her own worth. She remodels herself from hairstyle to dresses, from outlook on the world to her lust for personal freedom, and makes of that renovation a nice job. She has spiritual battles with her deceased mother; she finds pain in love; she must learn to live great stretches of her life alone. She is vulnerable to pain — she grieves the passing of her family, for example, though without falling into bathos over that passing — and yet she is possessed of that midwestern spine which has carried many another Agnes through the tilt and whirl of life.

At the end of Dreamers of the Day, Agnes speaks to her readers from beyond the grave. Deceased, her soul has taken up residence again in Egypt, the land where she had so many adventures. Here she speaks with the likes of Ptolemy, Saint Francis, George McClellan (who intensely studied the Middle East, including Egypt, after the Civil War), and Napoleon. History and warfare, and the nature of humanity, are topics for their discussions. Most people, the dead Agnes concludes, “welcome war. Rare and precious as it is, peace seems boring and banal by comparison ... As war approaches, Mr. James wrote, nations experience a vague, religious exultation.”

Regarding many of the commitments made by the United States to the Middle East in the twenty-first century, Agnes tells us that “Naturally, people are resentful of ham-handed efforts to run their affairs for them, especially when they can plainly see a benefactor’s ulterior motives. And even when you mean well? Sometimes things are just none of your business.”

Dreamers of the Day is not a book for every reader. It’s not an action or suspense novel, though both occur. It’s not a novel about dogs and their owners, though Rosie the dachshund often takes center stage. Even the romance at the heart of the novel takes a passenger seat next to the book’s depiction of its driver, Agnes. In Dreamers of the Day Mary Doria Russell creates a delightful character, Agnes Shanklin, who is able to tell us something about ourselves and the world in which we live.

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The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 272 pages.

Biography affords the reader a rare chance to walk in another’s shoes, to explore unknown places ranging from the Amazon rainforest to the great uncharted territories of the human heart, to see through the eyes of a stranger, and perhaps, if the reader is lucky and the biographer up to the task, to gain some insight into one’s own triumphs and failures. We read these stories of other human beings not only to look through a window into their hearts and minds, but to look into the mirror of their lives while seeking our own reflection.

Rick Bragg’s The Prince of Frogtown (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4000-4040-7, $24) speaks to us as both biography and autobiography. In this marvelous memoir, a conclusion to the stories told by Bragg about his family in All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man, Bragg digs deep into his father’s past while at the same time narrating his relationship with “the boy”, his 10-year-old stepson.

Bragg’s father, Charles, grew up hard in rural Alabama, a son and brother in a violent, hard-drinking family.

“He talked country but dressed for town, as all the boys from the mill village did back then, a hybrid hillbilly with silver dimes flashing in his black penny loafer shoes. He chain-smoked Pall Malls and toted a thin, yellow-handled knife in his left hip pocket, so he could get at it, quick .... He raised fighting dogs, bet on chickens and loved vanilla ice cream, and I guess he was a scoundrel before he knew what a scoundrel was.”

Bragg leads us back into his own father’s past, into a hardscrabble world of mill workers, unlettered preachers, and moonshiners. In his effort to understand Charles Bragg’s failures as a father — the drinking, the indifference, the abandonment — Bragg closely examines his father’s boyhood, his service in Korea where he supposedly killed a man barehanded, an adult life seemingly wasted in irresponsible acts and brushes with the law.

At stake for Rick Bragg in this investigation is his own relationship as a stepfather to the son of a woman he loves. In order to find his place with this boy, Bragg realizes that he must come to terms with his own past, his own anguished boyhood:

“I didn’t care if he rode bulls or danced ballet, and that’s the truth. But what made me crazy was the idea that he was the kind of boy I used to despise, the kind who looked down his nose on the boy I was .... That was what needled me. My mother cleaned their houses, cooked for them, diapered them. I would not have a boy like that.”

Through his narration in The Prince of Frogtown, Bragg slowly becomes aware — and makes us aware in the process — of his love both for his father and for the boy. In his odyssey toward understanding both his past and his present, Bragg comes to understand himself as well. He sees how ill-equipped his own father has left him in terms of fatherhood, and grows past that hard-won knowledge to love and care for the boy who has come into his life.

•••

In The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War (New York: Random House, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4000-6634-6), David Lebedoff introduces us to two writers who seem at first glance as completely different as possible from each other.

Both men were products of the English public school system, and both struggled in their own ways with the English class system, but there the similarities seem to end. Waugh attended Oxford, unsuccessfully taught school, began writing, and became the chronicler in the 1920s of “The Bright Young Things.” Through his writing and through his second marriage, Waugh sought to leave his middle-class roots.

Before becoming George Orwell, Eric Blair, the son of a civil servant, attended Eton, entered the Indian Imperial Police, served in Burma, and spent a number of years in poverty, studying the lives of the poor and eventually serving in the Spanish conflict, where he became forever a foe of totalitarianism.

Yet the two men shared passions which did indeed make them comrades of a sort. Although they only met once — Orwell was dying then, and there is no record of what was said in this extraordinary meeting of two of the finest writers of the 20th century — both men by then despised the corruption of the English language and the horrible consequences of that corruption.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell pointed out that words misused can smother thought and intention; our reaction to a reported “pacification” is quite different than to “killing the people in the village.” In both Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell went to great pains to show how the state and its supporting class will go to great lengths to control language and history, erasing what they wish from historical texts and feeding the citizenry slogans designed to choke off thinking.

Waugh, too, reacted to the cant of our time through his writing. His novels are less polemical than Orwell’s work, but are, as Lebedoff so insightfully points out, more acerbic in their mordent wit. “Every joke is a small revolution,” Orwell once wrote, and Waugh wrote his black comedies as revolts against the modern age, an age which he, like Orwell, detested.

Lebedoff’s conclusion to his “Prologue” in The Same Man may serve as our conclusion here, a shot across the bow of our own wallowing ship of state in these trying times. Of Orwell and Waugh he writes that:

“They saw in modern life a terrible enemy. It was not only totalitarianism that they loathed but virtually everything that would come even if totalitarianism was defeated. They saw an end to common sense and common purpose. They saw the futility of life without roots or faith. They saw the emptiness of an existence whose only point was material consumption. And in the great work of their lives, which was to warn us of what was to come, they came to be, improbably enough, in many ways the same man.”

Comment

Danielle Ganek’s The Summer We Read Gatsby (ISBN 978-0-670-02178-9, $28.95) tells the story of two half-sisters, Cassie, a translator for a Swiss lifestyle magazine, and Peck, an often-unemployed actress who loves vintage clothing, gossip, and parties. When their cherished Aunt Lydia dies, she leaves to the Moriarty sisters co-ownership of Fool’s House, the ramshackle home located in Long Island’s Hamptons, with instructions that they are to sell the house and split the proceeds.

In addition to spending a good bit of time wrangling over whether to follow through on these instructions — both young women entertain wonderful memories of the house and its magical place in their lives — Cassie and Peck also enter into a series of adventures together. Though Cassie is the narrator of the novel, it is Peck, the more vivacious of the two, who leads their excursions into literature, love, and art. Peck drags Cassie off to her beloved parties, revitalizes her in the morning with a pick-me-up, and introduces her to such ideas as the “dressing drink,” which is of course the drink taken while dressing for a party. After Peck is convinced that her old flame, Miles Noble, has invited her to a Gatsby party to win her back — he introduced her to Fitzgerald’s book — she spends most of the novel pursuing him while encouraging Cassie in her own love life. Other characters and situations intrude: the gay neighbor who watches over the girls with an avuncular eye; the eccentric houseguest; the theft of a painting, possibly the work of Jackson Pollock; the collection of eccentrics who mingle at the summer’s parties.

The Summer We Read Gatsby satisfies on every level. The plot is intriguing, holding our attention to the last pages, which offer several surprises. The characters are all finely drawn, particularly those of Cassie and Peck. Ganek makes both young women come alive on the page — Cassie as shy, a little aloof, reserved, and Peck as a sort of amiable “bad girl” who entertains the reader on every page on which she appears (the last four pages, in which Peck becomes the novel‘s narrator, will have the reader laughing aloud). Here, for example, is Peck on men and the great love of her life, Miles Noble:

“Men were always falling in love with Peck, or so she would tell me. And she did have a regal air that seemed to bring out the passion in even the mousiest littler creatures. But inevitably she’d come with several reasons to be disappointed. A passion for cats, for example. Or ordering a salad for dinner. Or the wrong sorts of shoes. “Tasseled loafers,” she would whisper into the phone, as if such a thing were so awful it couldn’t be voiced too loudly. It explained everything. Afterward, she’d always add, “Well, he was no Miles Noble.”

From the above we can discern the other strengths of Ganek’s writing and storytelling. In Cassie, she offers a warm voice that draws the reader into the story. Cassie, like nearly all good first-person narrators, puts us on her side, invites us rather than forces us to see life as she does. We also see Ganek’s ability to create a quick character study. For example, we leave this paragraph with a sizable image of Peck in mind; we can see her on the phone as she whispers to her caller.

Most importantly, there is a gaiety and insouciance that runs through Danielle Ganek’s book thatoften seems sadly absent from much fiction these days. Reading The Summer We Read Gatsby is as refreshing as a glass of lemonade during the recent heat wave — or better still, as one of Peck’s “dressing drinks.” With style, intelligence, and humor, Ganek explores the bonds of sisterhood, the debts we owe to the dead, the place of art and literature in our lives, the importance of friendship and the possibilities of love.

The Summer We Read Gatsby is a diamond of a book: sharply cut, glittering, lovely. Ganek is the author of another novel, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, and is at work on a third novel.

•••

If The Summer We Read Gatsby is like a tall cool drink, Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age (ISBN 978-0-307-37794-4, $27.95) is like a dash — for some people, better make that a bucketful — of cold water. Author of books like The Age of American Unreason and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Jacoby here turns her gimlet eye on aging and on our response to it and to dying. She contrasts traditional attitudes toward aging and death to those of our own time, when we see all around us myths and fairy tales about how long we may live and how we may through different treatments defy the ravages of age. She reveals the various hucksters feeding off those who are approaching old age: the health food and vitamin gurus, the advocates of “staying young”, those who regard death as a “disease.“ She takes to task the baby-boomer obsession with the “youth culture” and offers at the end of the book the idea that growing old gracefully may mean simply allowing oneself to grow old.  

Though readers may argue with certain points of Never Say Die — Jacoby’s take on attitudes toward aging, for example, gets more than a little silly — and though some of us probably don’t need to read this book (I have only to glance in the mirror to certify that I am growing old), this book is nonetheless a powerful reminder that most of us will grow old, will feel old, will look old, and will eventually die. To those who deal with the undertaker and the grave about as well as the Victorians dealt with sex, Never Say Die offers a powerful reminder of the inevitability of death.

Comment

“Look left and right, and be careful.” Your mother probably said those words to you when you were learning to cross the street. Her same admonition might apply to today’s political arena.

In one of the summer’s best-sellers, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America (ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1, $28.99), author Ann Coulter argues, as the book’s flyleaf puts it, that “liberals exhibit all the psychological characteristics of a mob — practicing groupthink, slavishly following intellectual fashions, and periodically bursting into violence.”

Often justly accused of inflammatory writing — she is not only despised by liberals, but by many mainstream Republic pundits and politicians as well, who fear being tainted by what they regard as her extremism — Coulter here follows the pattern set in her other books, mixing broad statements (“Liberals speak with the fatuous lunacy of people in the old Soviet Union, passing out awards to one another for imaginary heroism …”), statistics, and somewhat generalized history. Whether on the left or right, most political commentators these days use the same formula, mixing fact and speculation to support their own presuppositions.

Evidence of Coulter’s own prejudices — ”Liberals bad, conservatives good” — begins with the title, Demonic, and continues throughout the book. For this reason, liberals will not read the book, and conservatives will come to it agreeing ahead of time with its main points, consuming it as intellectual comfort food.

Though touted by some conservative reviewers as Coulter’s best book, Demonic will not win any awards for its literary attributes. Coulter is a better columnist than a writer of books, a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner, and this quality shows in the book. Though she does write in a lively manner, she repeats her arguments and examples, and often paints her case with too broad a brush. Her training as an attorney shows here, as it does in her other writing, in that she builds a case for her client — in this instance, conservatives — while marshalling selected facts against her liberal opponents.

Yet Demonic does bring up two points which political and cultural liberals might ponder with some gain. The first has to do with political rhetoric and violence in America. Coulter makes a convincing case that much of the political violence in the last 40 years has come from the left rather than the right of the political spectrum.

We like to think of “right-wing extremists” plotting assassinations and toting guns, but Coulter draws our attention to the fact that assassinations and mob violence, ranging from shouting down speakers on campus to breaking up political rallies, are much more a legacy of the left. One startling example which she uses comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarded by most conservatives as extremely left-wing, which concluded that “Extremists within the environmental and animals rights movements have committed literally thousands of violent criminal acts in recent decades — arguably more than those from any other radical sector, left or right.”

Both liberals and conservatives might also gain from reading Coulter on revolution and mobs. We Americans are fond of the word revolution — we just celebrated our own break from Britain and a king, and like to speak of a revolution in everything from computers to the foods we eat. Yet Coulter’s two-chapter look at the French Revolution reminds all of us, particularly those who read little history, of the cost in blood of a revolution. Here Coulter writes vividly of the executions, of the bloodthirsty pomposity of the revolutionaries, of the evil that humans may do in a good cause (In one case cited by Coulter, a woman arrested in a case of mistaken identity was proven innocent, but was executed “because she was there anyway.”) Revolutions nearly always mean the blood-letting of innocent people and consequences unforeseen, two circumstances that should always temper the welcome our government and our media give to such events as “the Arab Spring.”

•••

In Liberating Liberals: A Political Synthesis of Nietzsche & Jesus, Vonnegut & Marx (Groucho, not Karl), Gandhi & Machiavelli (ISBN 978-0-557-68680-3), Bill Branyon has issued a call to liberals to become “free-thinkers” rather than doctrinaire politicos and to live with more joy in their lives.  

The spirit behind Branyon’s book is enthusiastic and joyful. He is clearly a man who enjoys laughter, and his sense of humor carries onto the pages of Liberating Liberals. The book’s chief asset is it exhortation to liberals embrace this sense of joy and spontaneity. Branyon writes:

“Our efforts will be greatly enhanced by simply becoming more loyal to our freethinking ideals, by becoming more comfortable and happy with the current facts of political and personal life, and by insulating our imaginations and goals against the constant assaults of conservatives.”

Liberating Liberals is weak in its organization, its use of language and syntax, and in explaining the very thing which it espouses — “free thinking.” In one part of the book, Branyon attacks grammar rules as a residue of “the 18th century aristocrat” and goes on to state that grammar should not be taught until late in high school. “And even then,” he adds, “if it seems to inhibit someone’s desire to write, back off.” Liberating Liberals itself, which would have benefited from editing and clearer thinking, argues against Branyon’s case here.

This same problem — unclear usage coupled with loose thinking — runs throughout the book. Branyon calls for a 20-hour work week so that human beings may become more humane, but never tells us how we are to reach that state. (He does cite Denmark as an example, extolling its vacations and cradle-to-grave socialism, but fails to mention that European economies are falling apart). He mingles Biblical quotations with lyrics from Joni Mitchell and observations from Nietzsche, but these rarely hang together in an argument for any point.

Finally, Liberating Liberals needed to clearly define certain terms: “liberal,” “conservative,” and particularly free thinker (I have yet to meet one. If indeed “free-thinkers” ever existed, I suspect they have long gone the way of raphus cucullatus). Is a Marxist a liberal? Are liberals free-thinkers? Should we really scoff at men like Franklin and Jefferson because they used “pen and quill while we use word processors and the internet?”

“As prisoners of their own fundamentalism,” Branyon writes, “conservatives are extremely learning disabled.” If that is true, and if the freethinking view as presented in Liberating Liberals is the alternative, then we may all want to go to some other school for our education.

Comment

Paris in the 1920s attracted multitudes of American writers and artists. Drawn to France by a sense of adventure, by a strong dollar, by French culture, and not least, by the fact that in France the wine and spirits flowed legally and copiously while America underwent its experiment with Prohibition, writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, and the young and unknown Thomas Wolfe all came to Paris in that decade. The city left a lasting mark on them, and they repaid the favor by writing of their romance with the City of Lights. “Paris was always worth it and you received return from whatever you brought to it,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, his account of his years there. “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Woody Allen’s newest movie, “Midnight In Paris,” which is a love-song to Paris both as it is now and as it was when those Americans first discovered it, offers viewers a pleasurable take on American literature and writing. In the film, which was both written and directed by Allen, a modern-day screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) has gone with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents for a visit to Paris. Gil, who idealizes the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, dislikes his own work and wants to finish his novel, a book in which he has little faith. Fearful that Gil may give up his lucrative position in the film industry for an impossible dream, Inez belittles his attempts at higher literature and has nothing but derision for his nostalgia.

One evening Gil becomes lost in the city while making his way back to his hotel. As the clock strikes midnight, some party-goers in an antique Peugeot pulls alongside him and invite him to come with them. As the car whisks Gil though the streets, he quickly discovers that he has somehow traveled in time back to the Roaring Twenties. He meets Zelda (Alison Pill) and Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), then Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who agrees to read his manuscript. Night after night, Gil returns to this lost era, meeting artists and writers ranging from T. S. Eliot to Pablo Picasso, from Man Ray to Salvador Dali, and eventually falls in love with Adriana (Marian Cotillard), Picasso’s mistress. Though Allen takes liberties with some of the characters and their lives — Hemingway, for example, did not go to Africa for a safari while living as a young man in Paris — the sheer fun and pleasure offered to lovers of literature by this movie should overcome objections by purists to such insertions.

To say more about the plot of this delightful film would spoil the ending. What can be added, however, is that “Midnight In Paris” is not only a pleasure to watch — the movie opens with a mélange of shots of modern-day Paris so beautiful and moving that the viewer may leave the theater ready to take the next flight to France — but also offers a series of meditations on art and on time. We hear from Hemingway and Stein about writing and what makes it “true and good,” as Hemingway might say; we receive quick insights into how artists like Dali and Picasso thought; and finally, we see in Gil the struggle between the philistine and the artist.

Allen also cleverly makes an important statement about the nature of time, the idea of a golden age, and the present. In the movie, Gil wants to go back to the Paris of the 1920s. Adrianna in turn fantasizes about life in La Belle Époque, the 1890s, and men like Degas and Gauguin, whom we encounter briefly, think that the Renaissance was the best time for being an artist. By the end of the movie we come to see through Gil’s eyes the dangers of such nostalgia. We begin to understand, as he does, that the age in which we live has its own compensations, its own responsibilities, its own joys and sorrows, and that both the human being and the artist must live in their own time rather than pine for the past. Though we may not realize it until the movie is over, this message is embedded in the very beginning of the movie, with those lovely scenes from today’s Paris.

•••

In Listen (ISBN 978-1-4143-2433-3, 2010, $12.99), Christian novelist Rene Gutteridge tells the story of Marlo, a town where an anonymous person suddenly begins recording intimate conversations and transcribing them onto the Internet. Though this thief of secrets posts these conversations without identifying those involved, the townspeople and those involved in their lives easily recognize their own words. These conversations soon cause an uproarious falling-out among neighbors and family members. Some incidents turn violent, and the police become involved, trying to track down the person responsible for these episodes as well as to repair the damage done by the gossip and innuendo posted online.

Gutterridge will win no awards for style or finesse in Listen — like many other books published in the Christian genre, her workaday prose is flat and unexciting — but she is a fine storyteller who raises some interesting questions: How responsible are we for the words we speak? What effect do words have on those around us? How much weight should we give to words spoken in anger or passion?

For the past several years we have seen the consequences of words and images on certain people and events. This summer alone has given us the emails of Sarah Palin, which were largely innocuous, and the crotch shots of Congressman Weiner, which revealed not only his nether regions but also a near-unbelievable stupidity. Listen is a well-timed reminder that loose speech — and in Weiner’s case, loose drawers — often has unforeseen consequences.

Listen by Rene Gutteridge. Tyndale House Publishers, 2010. 432 pages.

Comment

Father’s Day, the third Sunday of June and so falls this year on June 19, sports a peculiar history. Although first proposed as a holiday in 1908 by Grace Clayton of West Virginia, and pushed later by Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Wash., with the help of the YMCA, the YWCA, and various churches, the idea was greeted with derision by many. For years it was the object of satire, in large part because people feared its commercialization along the lines of Mother’s Day. Even the punctuation of the designated day — should it be Fathers’ Day or Father’s Day? — was an object of some debate. Not until 1972 did President Richard Nixon sign the bill that officially declared Father’s Day a national holiday.

Father’s Day also offers more of a dilemma to children than its maternal counterpart. Though we may have difficulty choosing a gift for mom, the bare essentials seem to include at least flowers and a meal which she doesn’t have to prepare herself. With dads the issue is more complicated. Flowers seem a trifle goofy, even by our loose conventions, and a special meal loses some of its meaning unless Dad is the household chef. Neckties, once the fallback gift for males on such occasions, are too much of a cliché and too little worn to be an option. So what’s left to progeny wishing to honor fatherhood?

Buy books, of course.

The easiest way to give Dad something to read is by means of a gift certificate. This option allows him the pleasures of shopping a bookstore and selecting a book which he will read. If a gift certificate seems a little chilly, however, there are many books that will appeal to Dad. Nearly all bookshops set up special displays for fathers this time of year, offering buyers a wide selection of purchases designed to offer Dad some diversion.

One of the stranger books found on one of these displays this year was Sh*t My Dad Says (ISBN 978-0-06-199270-4, $15.99). Here Justin Halpern gives us the profane paternal adages of his own father that make Pat Conroy’s Great Santini look like a sixth-grade altar boy. On Internet service, for example, Mr. Halpern comments: “I don’t want it … I understand what it does … Yes, I do. And I don’t give a sh*t if all your friends have it. All of your friends have dopey f*cking haircuts, too, but you don’t see me running to my barber.” On Bring-Your-Dad-To-School Day: “Who are all these f*cking parents who can take a day off? If I’m taking a day off, I ain’t gonna spend it sitting at some tiny desk with a bunch of eleven-year-olds.” On LEGOs: “Listen, I don’t want to stifle your creativity, but that thing you built there, it looks like a pile of sh*t.” On hair: “Do people your age know how to comb their hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their heads and started f*cking.”

Sh*t My Dad Says is humorous when first perused, but after 10 or 15 pages of this short book some readers may find themselves not only appalled by the profanity and sarcasm of Mr. Helpern, but thankful that they themselves never had to suffer such a father. Mr. Halpern eventually comes across here as a real jerk, emotionally stunted, a man little and bitter in spirit whose profanity and bile make him even smaller than he already is.

Readers looking for a better gift for Father’s Day might take a look at Washington: A Life (ISBN 978-1-59420-256-7, $40). Biographer Ron Chernow, author of books about the Morgan family, Alexander Hamilton, and the senior Rockefeller, gives us a fine life of the father of our country. Whether writing about Washington’s New Jersey campaign or about his problems establishing some of the parameters of the newly-created office of president, Chernow delivers the man in crisp, lively prose. His feeling for the era of Washington and the manner in which he introduces the scores of other historical figures who surround the man easily make this one of the more readable and at the same time more accurate biographies of the past year.

Like our own age, Washington’s time boiled with political scandal and struggles over rights and powers, yet Washington himself “consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene.” He differed in many ways from many of the Founding Fathers: he had begun working as a teenager, deprived of the classical education given men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; he was a surveyor and planter rather than an attorney; he had placed himself again and again in the path of bullets and death; he truly disliked political intrigue and jockeying for political position. Critical of slavery, but caught up in an economic system which depended on such exploitation for its wealth, he ordered his slaves to be freed after his death.

Near the end of his study of Washington, Chernow shares with us one great secret of Washington’s effectiveness as a leader:

“George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest … History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country.”


Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. It Books, 2010. 176 pages

Comment

Nearly 50 years have passed the death of C.S. Lewis — he died of illness in 1963 on the same November day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated — yet Lewis remains a household name and a best-selling author. Although he taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, where he was a respected medieval and Renaissance scholar, he is today best known for his novels and his tomes on Christian apologetics. The release of different films based on the Chronicles of Narnia have only enlarged his audience for these stories, his space trilogy continues to attract readers, and many Christians, new and old alike, are familiar with his books on faith: The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy, and others.

Often, however, even readers who are reasonably well-acquainted with the work of Lewis express surprise when asked about his novel Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Though this book, which some critics regard as the best of Lewis’ novels, lends itself to rereading, deep discussion, and numerous interpretations, many Lewis fans have never read Till We Have Faces, and many more have never heard of it.

This is regrettable, for these readers are missing a deep, rich mine of a book, a dark story scintillating with bright gems: strong characters, bold themes, a universal story. Till We Have Faces recreates the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which, as Lewis writes in a note at the end of the book, he took from Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius Pltaonicus. In the original myth as recounted by Apuleius — and there are several variations — Psyche is the mortal daughter of a powerful king. She is the most beautiful maiden in all the land. Eventually, Venus becomes jealous of Psyche and directs her son, Cupid, to punish Psyche. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche and takes her to his bridal chamber. Psyche, however, at the urging of her sisters, disobeys Cupid’s command not to look on him (he visits her only in the night), is apprehended, and must then wander the earth looking for her lover. After many trials, she and Cupid are finally reunited.

This myth gives readers much to ponder. Cupid is Eros, the god of sexual desire, and Psyche means soul in Greek (It also means butterfly, of which Thomas Bullfinch once wrote that “there is no illustration of the immortality of the soul so striking and beautiful as the butterfly, bursting on brilliant wings from the tomb in which it has lain … to flutter in the blaze of day and feed on the most fragrant and delicate productions of the spring.”)

In this ancient myth we see the workings of Eros on love, and yet we sympathize with Psyche as well as she reveals the sufferings which the soul must undergo to attain the deepest and fullest measure of love. The child eventually produced by the union of Cupid and Psyche is strikingly named Pleasure — not the term as we generally understand it, but pleasure meant more in the sense of pleasing. The offspring of Eros and Soul, in other words, is pleasing, right, good.

In Till We Have Faces, Lewis gives us the same general tale as Apuleius, but he deepens the characters, adds more detail to the plot, and more fully develops his own theme. In Lewis’ version, Orual, Psyche’s older sister, tells the tale of her family and the kingdom of Glome, of which her father is the king. Orual is a complicated character, rejected by her father for her ugliness, obsessively in love with her sister, a girl who by the end of the book becomes a cunning queen and a harsh judge of people. Always suffering from the loss of her sister, for which she blames on the gods, Orual has even prepared a brief against these deities for the pain they have brought to the kingdom of Glome, to her sister Psyche, and to herself.

In addition to Psyche, two other characters play important roles in the book and in Orual’s life. The first is her tutor and good friend, the Fox, a Greek slave and an atheistic philosopher who represents rational thinking. The second is Lord Bardia, her chief military commander and close friend, who encourages her in the ways of duty, honor, and justice. Through her own selfishness, Orual eventually destroys the lives of both men, wanting them, as she wanted Psyche, completely for herself and for her own needs, rather than allowing them the small freedoms of life due to them.

By his retelling of this myth, Lewis has given us a very modern story about love, the will, the soul, and the relationship between them. He delves more powerfully than Apuleius into the central theme of the Greek myth, that Cupid, who is Love, is made for Psyche, or the soul, and that their union results in Pleasure, which is the pleasure of a soul infused with love.

Through Orual’s account of her life we also come to understand what happens when we pervert or twist love. We see the many masks of false love we wear, the facades we erect, most often unwittingly, to protect ourselves, the disguises we wear in our self-righteousness to justify our actions. Here Orual becomes our mirror. As she slowly comprehends her terrible flaws — her domination of those around her, her twisted sense of true love, her quarrels with the gods — we readers become aware of our own awful failings and misjudgments, of our own responsibility for so horribly wounding those around us, particularly those whom we profess to love most. We may even come to understand, at some level, the lesson finally learned by Orual: that we cannot meet the gods face to face till we ourselves have faces.

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

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis. Harcourt Brace & Company. 324 pages

Comment

Kind hearts, allow me to introduce Police Detective, Harry Hole. Let me warn you in advance, he is an alcoholic who manages to keep his job in the House of Pain (Oslo’s Robbery Division) by cunning and a talent for catching elusive criminals — a fact that pleases his superiors and angers many of his career-minded peers. Harry prefers to work alone and has a reputation for using “unorthodox methods.” Although acquaintances frequently describe him as “tall, sullen, blond ... and ugly.” (He maintains relationships with women that tend to be perverse, passionate and/or downright disturbing.

At the present time, the Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo, has completed a half-dozen thrillers that feature Harry Hole. As a result, Nesbo has become the most popular detective fiction writer in Europe. Due to the complexities of publishing (and translating) Norwegian fiction into English, Harry Hole’s following in America has been delayed. The first novels — The Redbreast, The Devil’s Star, The Leopard, The Redeemer and Nemesis — have become astonishingly popular throughout Europe and although they are now available on Amazon, some titles are still difficult to acquire. The advance sales demand for Nesbo’s last two books, Snowman and Phantom, have already made them bestsellers, even though they will not be released in America until May (Snowman) and June (Phantom).

Amid a lot of promotional hysteria that calls Nesbo “the new Steig Larsson” (in this reviewer’s opinion, he is much better than that) and critical essays about the “Norwegian Invasion of crime literature,” it is clear that the Harry Hole novels herald an innovative and appealing development in crime literature. But how are these novels different? Is it Harry’s unique character or Nesbo’s gift for descriptive details?

This review focuses on Nemesis simply because this is the only Harry Hole mystery that this crime fiction fan could find. (The others are on back order.)  Nemesis is third or fourth in the Harry Hole series and as a result, a new reader may feel like he has entered in the middle of a movie. There are references to events that occurred several years ago, including the unsolved murder of Harry’s lover, Ellen Gjelten — a tragedy that is partially responsible for Harry’s dark moods and alcoholism.

There are also a number of recurring regular characters: Inspector Tom Waaler, a sinister police officer who has created a kind of vigilante squad of maverick cops and who hates/fears Harry (Tom may be involved in Ellen’s death), and Rune Avarsson, an envious administrator who bitterly resents Harry’s success in solving crimes.

However, Nemesis easily stands alone since Jo Nesbo possesses a remarkable talent for sustaining suspense while developing an intricate plot filled with obscure facts about forensic medicine, astronomy, psychology, current “pop” music and cooking.

In Nemesis, Harry Hole must solve two murders: the first involves the shooting of a female bank employee, Stine Grette, during a robbery. Harry is perplexed by the fact that the murder appears unnecessary since the surveillance cameras in the bank revealed that the masked robber had acquired the money ...yet he shoots the bank employee anyway.

The second murder is a bit more personal. A former girlfriend of Harry’s, Anna Bethsen (an unstable, failed artist), invites him to dinner. During the meal, he is drugged and dumped outside Anna’s apartment. When he regains consciousness, Harry has no memory of his dinner with Anna. When he returns to Anna’s (locked) apartment, he finds her dead in what appears to be a suicide. Notifying the police with an anonymous call, Harry silently watches as an inept investigation closes, finding the cause of death to be suicide. Although Harry suspects that Anna was murdered, he also realizes if the case is reopened he will be the prime suspect.

Adding to the intricate threads of the plot, Harry finds that the burglary division has recently employed  Beate Lonn, the daughter of a murdered policeman who possesses a rare talent called “fusiform gyrus,” which means that she can recognize and recall the details of every human face she has ever seen. Beate is assigned to work with Harry. (Yes, she may have seen Tom Waaler someplace he should not have been.) In addition, Beate has a condition called “Setesdal Twitch,” which I will refrain from defining since it would definitely spoil the conclusion of Nemesis.

Gradually, Harry begins to suspect that the two murders are connected. As he delves into the history of bank robbing in Oslo, he discovers that the most successful robberies have been carried out by gypsies. In fact, the leader of Oslo’s most efficient bank robbing team, a man called Roskol, continues to plan and execute robberies from prison where he sits  each day playing chess. To complicate matters further, Harry learns that Roskol allowed himself to be convicted for a crime that he did not commit because he is doing “penance.” At this point, Harry begins to ponder the close association between vengeance and love, especially in his own life.

There are far too many tension-ridden episodes in Nemesis to discuss in this review. However, among the most riveting are Harry’s “unofficial” trip to an unpleasant little town in Brazil to find a mysterious gypsy who may (or may not) be Roskol’s brother. Also, shortly after Anna’s death, Harry begins receiving taunting emails from someone who knows all about his dinner with Anna as well as a disconcerting amount of personal information about Harry. A further complication develops when Harry’s arch-enemy, Tom Waaler, develops an interest in Beate and decides to seduce her (while “Purple Rain” plays in the background). At the same time, Waaler devises a “foolproof” plot to destroy Harry. The plot becomes a complex series of boxes within boxes within boxes.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Nemesis, is Nebo’s ability to capture the lives and personalities of his characters through dialogue that blends discussions about suicide  (Albert Camus), American movies (“The Shining”, “BayWatch” (David Hasslehoff), the Horse-head Nebula, and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” In fact, the discussions of music, abnormal psychology and a wealth of tantalizing knowledge definitely serve to make this Harry Hole thriller “a thinking man’s (or woman’s) murder mystery.” I guess I’m hooked.

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo. HarperColllins, 2010. 474 pages.

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So ends Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his years as a young writer in Paris. This book contains the best of Hemingway: his prose style, crisp and clear as a glass of fine chardonnay; his reporter’s eye for detail; his talent for dialogue and for character. A Moveable Feast also gives us the worst of Hemingway as a person: his habit of kicking in the face those whom he had passed up on the ladder of success, writers such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his penchant for blaming his own personal follies on the actions of others.

One striking feature of A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s remaining affection of his first wife, Hadley. She shared his life in those early years in Paris, and for the rest of his days Hemingway remained in love with her. After his betrayal of her, he writes that “when I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in  … I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Paula McLain’s novel, The Paris Wife (ISBN 978-0-345-52130-9, 2011, $25) tells the story of Hemingway’s Paris years from Hadley’s viewpoint. She begins her book with an account of Hadley’s first meeting with Hemingway in 1920, gives us Hadley’s background — she was sickly as a child, became a caretaker for her family, and found in Hemingway a release from her stifling home — and then moves us along with the newly-married Hemingways to Paris and the excitement of those years. Through Hadley’s eyes, we meet writers like Ezra Pound (“Over in the shadowy corner of the studio, Ernest was literally crouched at Pound’s feet while the older man lectured, waving a teapot around as he talked”) and Gertrude Stein (her eyes were “the deepest and most opaque shade of brown, critical and accepting, curious and amused”). Through Hadley, McLain shows us the squalor of the apartment in which they lived when they first came to Paris, gives us the conversations of the artists and writers in the boulevard cafes, and imparts a sense of the magic which Hemingway and others found then in Paris.

McLain also gives us a different view of Hemingway than many of his biographers, nearly all of whom are male. Here we take in Hemingway through a woman’s eyes, and though the book is fictional, we acquire a different image of Papa than that found in the many books written about him. McLain captures the difficulties of being close to Hemingway every day, his mood swings, the intensity he brought to his writing, the demands he placed on his marriage, his growing love for Pauline Pfeiffer, who was wealthier and younger than Hadley, and would eventually take Hemingway away from her. When Hadley finds herself pregnant, Hemingway responds like a truculent child, and though he eventually becomes as good a father in the book as he was in real life, McLain’s Hadley lets us understand how deeply his initial negative reaction to her pregnancy hurt their marriage and her love for him.

The Paris Wife has its weaknesses. Though McLain ably captures the Paris of the twenties, and gives us fine sketches of people like Pound and Fitzgerald, she somehow fails to give us an adequate portrait of Hadley herself. Though she herself tells us the story, Hadley as narrator seems thinly drawn somehow, two-dimensional, all surface and no depth. By the end of the book, we are left wondering what Hemingway saw in this flighty, shallow woman. Here the incident of Hemingway’s stolen manuscripts might serve as an example. On a train from Paris to Lausanne to meet Hemingway, Hadley had stolen from her a valise containing most of Hemingway’s stories. This incident was a terrible catastrophe for the real-life Hemingway and his wife: there were no copies, and the loss was temporarily devastating to the young couple. Yet in The Paris Wife, the incident is covered in four pages, and we have little sense that Hadley feels much remorse over the stolen manuscripts. While Hemingway goes back to Paris to search their apartment for the stories, as he did in real life, the Hadley of The Paris Wife seems under whelmed by the disaster. After Hemingway leaves, a friend, journalist Lincoln Steffens, takes Hadley in hand. “Steffens took me to dinner and tried to calm my nerves, but even with several whiskeys in me, I jangled.” She “jangled”: that is the complete description of Hadley’s emotional state during her husband’s desperate search for his lost writings.

McLain makes a mistake, too, of writing as if her readers already know the facts of Hemingway’s life, and more importantly, his philosophy. Though she is undoubtedly correct — most people who pick up this book will do so from an interest in Hemingway — her assumptions weaken her writing, with the reader left to fill in what she has left out. At the end of the book, for example, when Hadley is an old woman, she reports that “I couldn’t pretend to be surprised by Ernest’s death. I’d heard from various friends about the sanatorium in Rochester and the terrible shock treatments. Death was always there for him, sometimes only barely balanced out.” Balanced out by what? McLain doesn’t tell us. Indeed, Hadley’s emotional reaction to her first husband’s death seems as flat and cold as yesterday’s headlines.

Nonetheless, there are readers who always enjoy reading about the life of Papa. For them, The Paris Wife should provide some diverting entertainment.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Ballantine Books, 2011. 336 pages

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For Christians, Easter is a moveable feast day — this year the celebration fell about as late in the spring as it possibly can — which sparks consideration of the resurrection of Christ and all that this resurrection means for them. Many congregations hold sunrise services. The Moravians of Winston-Salem are famous for sending brass bands throughout the city during the early hours of Easter Sunday to greet this special day with music. Catholics light vigil fires outside their churches on Saturday evening and end Holy Week with a service that begins in darkness and explodes into light. Easter is the time of year when many churches welcome new members, when the fullness of the possibility of resurrection is contemplated by believers.

Like Christmas, Easter can make those who are not Christians more acutely aware of their inability or unwillingness to believe in such a personal god. Passing by churches filled with parishioners or worshippers standing in a meadow at sunrise, these non-believers may experience many reactions: scorn, indifference, a desire to believe but without the faith to do so. Atheists, whose numbers in America have grown in recent years, righteously declare that God doesn’t exist, but many more who lack faith in God travel under the uncertain banner of agnosticism.

In Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest (ISBN 978-1-57731-912-2, $22.95), English professor and public radio host Michael Krasny has produced a wise and gentle look at agnosticism and religious faith. In our loud, cacophonous time, this age in which it too frequently seems that those who scream the loudest, who throw off the most crass insults, who gleefully and ignorantly deliver ad hominem attacks, Michael Krasny may seem in his call for tolerance like the Biblical voice crying in the wilderness. His restraint in terms of criticizing religious faith — coupled with his own examination of his inability to believe in an immanent god — makes this small book worthwhile reading for believers and non-believers alike.

What is best about Spiritual Envy is its mix of philosophy, faith, literature, and personal example. Krasny is more interested in exploring belief and disbelief, why some people believe and why others find belief an impossibility, than he is in winning arguments or slicing up those who disagree with him. He argues in the broad manner of a good “liberal humanist,” bringing in literary figures from Ian Fleming to Flannery O’Connor, philosophers from Augustine to Peter Singer, psychiatrists from John Mack to Ian Stevenson, poets and songwriters from Dylan Thomas to Jim Croce.

Krasny also displays the mind of a liberal thinker — here I intend the old definition, the meaning associated with a liberal education, rather than the politics currently linked to the word — in trying to understand those whose religious faith acts as the grounding wire for life. He does indeed envy Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other believers, and writes that he has frequently longed for their ability to find a personal god in the universe. He also speaks well and with understanding of those who do believe in that sort of god and who can’t figure out why their neighbors have so much trouble finding that faith. In fact, the only group for which he reserves a good store of scorn is for those nonbelievers who “view those who have religious zeal as evil or simple-minded.”

In our time, when a few religious fanatics and a few more atheists and secular-minded folk gain most of our attention by finger-pointing, by trying to limit free speech with the barbed wire of political correctness or religious zeal, and in a few cases, by killing those regarded as enemies, the odds are likely that Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy will be little read or heeded. We have grown unaccustomed to calls for real tolerance, to nuance in arguments, to what Krasny calls “the power of asking the right, or most reasonable and compelling, questions….”

Many among us no longer seek to ask such questions, or any questions, of those with whom we disagree, preferring to paste our opponents over with labels and bumper-stickers. In losing all sense of proportion — and as is often the case, all sense of humor as well — a large number of Americans have bought into the argument that the political truly is the personal, that the atheist must axiomatically despise the believer, and vice versa, with little regard for their human personhood. Those whose beliefs differ from our own are no longer living, breathing fellow beings, but caricatures to be avoided, gagged, or driven from our midst.

This failure is unfortunate. Such rude judgment makes objects of our neighbors, stripping them of their humanity. Worse, and on a grander scale, it leads to the creation of armed camps, of us versus them, of labeling other Americans as our enemies simply because their vision of life and death is different than our own.

Near the end of his book, Krasny writes:

“I have been emphasizing a code of respect for others and for what they do or do not believe. It boils down to recognizing that what people believe, or how they worship or act or don’t act on their belief or nonbelief, is, as my Dad would have jauntily put it, their own damn business as long as they do no harm.”

Where’s Dad when you need him?

 

Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny. New World Library, 2010.  264 pages.

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In A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir (978-1-4000-6794-7, $26), Norris Church Mailer gives an account of her marriage to Norman Mailer. Originally from Arkansas, and formerly married with one child, Norris met Mailer when she was in her mid-20s and Mailer was in his 50s, a writer at his prime who was nearly twice her age. They fell in love in a single night, and after Mailer had acquired a divorce from his fifth wife, were married and remained together, through good times and bad, for nearly 33 years.

A Ticket to the Circus offers fine insights into Mailer’s home life, into his thoughts and emotions, and into the New York society in which he thrived. Whether Mailer’s reputation will diminish with the passage of time remains to be seen, but we nevertheless come away from these pages impressed by his dedication to his writing — even in his later years he frequently carried a notebook for recording his impressions of the world around him, and he was of the school that believed writers should write each day no matter what sort of accidents befell them (at one point, when Mailer nearly lost his thumb and his life by cutting himself in a shower stall, he was still at his work desk the next day).

Here, too, we meet the Norman Mailer who so often captured headlines for various wild exploits and statements, and find that he was much the same in his private life. He really was a man of great energy and zest — Norris writes that he instigated arguments sometimes to see, with a novelist’s eye, where the argument might lead and what the consequences might be — who “came alive at the table much like he did onstage, and for years we were invited everywhere just for the entertainment value.”

Mailer loved to throw his own parties as well, and was well known for those given in his Manhattan apartment, which, according to Norris, “could comfortably hold about 50 people, but I know there were times when we had 200 or more.” Through her descriptions of these parties and the many glitterati who attended them, she imparts to us a sense both of their excitement and of the somewhat inbred society that was literary Manhattan at the time.

At one point, for example, she describes being seated for dinner next to Sam Walton, the owner of Wal-Mart, whose stores were just beginning their expansion into the enormous conglomerate of the early 21st century. They both enjoyed a laugh at the provincial nature of the New Yorker:

“I told him of talking to the headmaster of a private school for fifteen minutes about my work as an art teacher, the problems of education and whatever, until finally the headmaster asked me where I’d taught, and I’d said “Arkansas.” “They have art in Arkansas?” He’d been incredulous. Sam laughed.”

Norris is guileless in her writing about Mailer and about herself, which adds to its honesty but at times makes her seem like a bubble-headed model (she was, in fact, a professional model). Once, asked by Ethel Kennedy whether she would “be with him if he weren’t Norman Mailer,” she thinks to herself that Norman would not have been with her had she weighed 300 pounds or “had looked like Groucho Marx.” True enough, but she approached the question from an odd angle, and seems unable to confront the idea that Mailer just might have been attracted her because she was a model who was half his age, a circumstance that might explain the attraction of many an older man with prestige and money.

In another passage, writing of her precocious son (are there any children living among these people who aren’t precocious?) drawing pictures of German soldiers with insignia on their uniforms, Norris adds off-handedly that “I always believed he had been either a German soldier or a Jew in the last war; sometimes he had nightmares about things he would or should never have known about.”

Despite these somewhat silly outbursts, or indeed, perhaps because of them, A Ticket to the Circus is worth a quick read. It gives us a portrait of the writer and of the pond in which he swam, and tells as well the story of an ambitious girl from the South who by her own lights made a success of herself.

•••

Stephen Hunter, creator of the legendary sniper Bob Lee Swagger, has written yet another novel about this aging hero. In Dead Zero (ISBN 978-1-4391-3856-6, $26), Swagger is once again summoned from his Idaho ranch to rescue the federal government. This time a sniper is on the loose who has the apparent intention of assassinating an Afghan warlord named Zarzi, a murderous villain who has suddenly become a valuable asset to the efforts of the United States in that region.

Despite its hokey ending — the conclusion seems about as likely as permanent peace in the Middle East — Dead Zero will appeal to long-time fans of Swagger and to all other readers who enjoy strong suspense novels. Hunter’s careful research into his subject — the weapons and tactics of the sniper, Afghan politics and warfare, and our domestic agencies which fight terrorism — is as always impressive, and his storytelling abilities will keep the reader turning the pages.

 

A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir by Norris Church Mailer. Random House, 2010. 416 pages

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In “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Louis Zamperini certainly was not born great. When he was little more than a toddler, his immigrant family moved from New York to Torrance, Calif., where some neighbors actually petitioned the town to keep out the Italian Zamperinis. As he grew older, Louis became an incorrigible troublemaker with a wild temper, fighting anyone who crossed his path – he once shoved a teacher and another time pelted a policeman with rotten tomatoes – and engaging in acts of petty theft. In 1931, and in the eighth grade, he broke into the high school gym, stole tickets to athletic events, and sold them. On being apprehended, Louis was forbidden to participate in any high school athletic or social activities.

His older brother, Pete, stepped up on Louis’s behalf and convinced him to allow Louis to play a sport. The principal agreed, Pete had Louis put on the school’s track team, and his life turned full circle. Soon he was breaking school records, then state records, and by the time the Depression decade ended, he had participated in the Berlin Olympics, was nearing his goal of a four-minute mile and was training hard for the 1940 Olympics.

World War II brought an end to Zamperini’s dreams of winning a gold medal. In Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (ISBN 978-1-4000-6416-8, $27), Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the best-selling Seabiscuit, tells the story of how Louis Zamperini had greatness thrust upon him. Trained as an airman, though he disliked flying, Zamperini was assigned to a B-24 squadron flying out of Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific. On May 27, 1943, sent on a mission to search for a missing plane, Zamperini’s B-24 crashed into the Pacific. Zamperini, his good friend Phil, and another man, Mac, survived not only the crash, but Zamperini and Phil – Mac died on the raft – also survived more than 40 days at sea, living on birds and raw fish, surrounded much of the time by sharks who bumped and thrust at the rubber rafts.

When they finally spotted land, both men, by now skeletal and weak, thought that their salvation was at hand, but their ordeal was only beginning. The Japanese had occupied the island and now took them prisoner, and the bulk of the remaining pages of this fine book describe the torments which they and other G.I.s suffered at Japanese hands.

Here some of the descriptions turn truly sickening – both men were, for example, guinea pigs for a medical experiment, which they survived (the Japanese killed thousands of people in these gruesome experiments; the doctors were not prosecuted at the war’s end in exchange for handing over their medical “research” to their American captors). As prisoners of the Japanese, American soldiers suffered daily beatings, out-of-hand executions, savage tortures, and deliberate psychological degradation designed to strip away their humanity.

Zamperini survived the constant brutality by cunning and by maintaining a constant sense of resistance to his captors. He and the other Americans, forced to work for the Japanese, did what they could to slow the war effort, deliberately breaking machinery, pouring sand into gasoline tanks, and stealing supplies. Frequently forced into silence, they learned to communicate through hand signals, Morse code, and barely audible whispered signals.

Hellenbrand’s account of Zamperini follows him through the war and into his later life. She has interviewed many who knew him, and does a splendid job of giving us an account of his nightmare years after the war: a fall into alcoholism, continual depression, a tendency to let his temper flare. Two people saved Zamperini from a life of hopeless despair and possible suicide: his young wife, Cynthia, who never gave up on him, and Billy Graham, then just beginning his ministry at age 31, preaching out of a big tent in Los Angeles. Cajoled by Cynthia into attending one of these services, Zamperini began going back to hear more of Graham‘s message. With a newfound faith, he began at that time to rehabilitate his wreck of a life.

Hillenbrand adds much to her account of Zamperini’s life by following the post-war career of his chief torturer, a man named Watanabe. Here the contrast in these two men’s lives is glaring. Pursued by both Japanese and American authorities for his war crimes, Watanabe hid out for years after the war, protected by friends and relatives, and by the chaos of post-war Japan. Later, when amnesty was granted to war criminals, he emerged from the shadows, opened an insurance agency, lived in a luxury apartment, and owned a vacation home on Australia’s Gold Coast. When contacted by Zamperini, who had forgiven the guard for his daily tortures, Watanabe refused to meet, and though he apologized through various interviews to those he had killed and beaten, Watanabe seemed at his death largely unrepentant of his crimes.

Unbroken is a fine biography, filled with the history of the time and capable of arousing in its readers enormous respect for those who survive such ordeals and an enormous disgust for those who help create them.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 2010. 496 pages.

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Art in America by Ron McLarty. Viking Adult, 2008. 384 pages.

In Art in America (ISBN 978-0670—01895-6, $25.95), Ron McLarty introduces us to the world of the artist —the writer, the musician, the playwright, the actor, the painter — as it exists in the year 2009.

Here you will not find the writers and artists normally created by the popular imagination, neither best-selling novelists and electronic artists making six figure incomes nor radicals who slash and gouge at their hated bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary: Art in America gives us a series of portraits of artists as they generally are, real people who struggle to earn a living while still practicing their art, ordinary people in some ways who suffer the same maladies of modern life as the rest of us: unemployment, malaise, cancer, family troubles.

Steven Kearney has written tens of thousands of pages — novels, poems, essays, plays — none of which has ever tasted the sweet wine of publisher’s ink. Booted out of his apartment by his fed-up girl friend, then struck by a car while wandering into the street, he eventually lands at the apartment of his best friend Roarke, a lesbian who brings him back to health and encourages him to continue his writing. Kearney works for a friend in construction to earn some fast money, then is contacted by a woman from Southern Colorado who remembers him from a writing conference and wants him to write a play for the historical society about their town, Creedemore.

Kearney accepts this three-month position and heads for Creedemore. Here he lands in the middle of a range war over water rights. On one side is Ticky Lettgo, a crusty, aged landowner who claims all rights to the water running through his land. On the other side is Red Fields, a newcomer who wants to use the river to develop a whitewater rafting business. As Kearney works away at his play, he must also find a middle road between the warring factions of the town. Lettgo fires on Fields’ rafting party, putting holes through the rafts and bringing the town to the attention of the national press. The townspeople begin to take sides during the trial, with Sheriff Petey Meyers, a recent transplant from Boston, trying to maintain order between these two factions. Soon a radical domestic terrorist enters the scene — she intends to blow up the local dam — and a score of other characters give us glimpses of themselves and of life in the West. Meanwhile, Kearney has fallen in love with Mollie Downs, a cancer survivor and local painter who finds the value and beauty of his writing.

The jacket promos of Art in America uses words like “warmth and heart” in describing the work of Ron McLarty. He is known, we are informed, “for fashioning authentic, well-conceived characters that feel like people you’ve met.”

The above statements regarding Art in America accurately describe Art in America. The “warmth and heart” to this writing are not sloppily sentimental, but are genuine and likeable. Moreover, McLarty has the talent to show us the evolution of his characters in a natural way. Abhorring the radicals who swam the town to take his side and cause near-riots in the street, “Mountain Man” Red Fields moves from hating Lettgo and his stand on water rights to befriending him. Beaten down by life and by his failures as a writer, Steven Kearney finds his historical play a success and a place for himself in the town. Like so many others before him, he has “Gone West” and found a new life. He “realizes that he’s too old to keep beating up on himself and discovers both love and a new confidence.”

McLarty also has a wonderful eye for the humorous, the silly, and the whimsical. Kearney’s introduction to the West, Red Field’s shot-up canoe expedition, the antics of Ticky Lettgo: these and many more scenes bring pleasure to the reader. Performed at the end of the book, Kearney’s historical play brings together all of the characters, sometimes in humorous ways. Here, for example, Suzy, a radical advocating the abolition of property rights, marches into the middle of the outdoor drama chanting slogans, and is confronted by a poet-cowboy, Cowboy Bob. After ad-libbing some poetry telling Suzy to run, Cowboy Bob glares down at her from his white horse:

“Suzy’s in-place marching pumped the scholar’s blood into her already stuffed brain. She smirked at the rhyme and breathing heavily to the rhythm of her steps shouted: ‘I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating an image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.’ Jean Paul Sartre!

“Cowboy Bob would have to think about that one for a while, but when he heard another round of applause for her retort, he simply lost it. He reared up and fired two quarter-blank loads a foot or so over her head.”

For a country which is often sorely divided by politics and religion, Art in America offers a vision of reconciliation and mutual respect. It offers art as one possible venue toward that reconciliation. Even more, it offers as an antidote to poisonous political hatreds a sense of humor, a humor which in turn promises a sense of perspective and even an understanding of those opposed to us.

Highly recommended.

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Some The Smoky Mountain News readers may remember a review here several seasons ago of Bill Walker’s Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. In that book we met the appropriately named Walker narrating his adventures while hiking the Appalachian Trail. His descriptions of his fellow trailblazers and their various idiosyncrasies made his account a delight for both experienced hikers and general readers.

In Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (ISBN 9781453862230), Walker ventures to the other side of the continent tackle the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which as he notes in his book “is extraordinary. The diversity of its geology is unequaled by any other footpath in the world.”

Walker goes on to make his case for this bold statement by taking us along with him on his hike and showing us that the PCT, which runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, runs the gamut from desert to mountains with elevations exceeding 14,000 feet, from the High Sierra, which is frequently blanketed with snow, to the delights of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and the ski resorts of Squaw Valley. Because of its twists and turns – the distance covered in a straight line on a map is just over 1,000 miles – the PCT is nonetheless nearly 500 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail, coming in at 2,663.5 miles.

In addition to giving us an account of this terrain and the challenges it presents, Walker recounts his own personal trials. His very height, for example, often worked against him. An extraordinarily tall man – Walker is 6’11” and appears a giant alongside his fellow hikers in the book’s photographs – he points out that the average height of a Boston Marathon winner is just over 5’7”. He then determines that the average hiker of average height would use about 5,000 calories daily, whereas his own caloric demands ran to nearly 7,000 calories daily. On any given five-day trek, then, Walker found that he could carry only about half the food needed to give him the necessary calories. Not only did he lose a great amount of weight during his walk, but he became so emaciated that he feared being unable to finish the trail. In one photograph, he bares his chest and has the look of a man on a starvation strike.

As in his Appalachian account, Walker also gives us many fine thumbnail sketches of his fellow hikers. One of my favorites was his portrait of “Pretty Boy Joe” – all the hikers have nicknames, or are given them by Walker to protect their identity in the book – a 22-year-old graduate of the University of California. “With his long, lean physique,” writes Walker, “straight gaze, and manner of speaking in the soft, unhurried cadences of the West, he even reminded me of a younger Clint Eastwood.” Though the son of a wealthy California realtor, Pretty Boy Joe often dumpster dives for food when off the trail and would have been, Walker contends, a kindred soul with pioneers like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

Though Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail may seem an odd book to review in a paper devoted to the Smoky Mountains, Walker’s love for his subject and the exuberance of his descriptions make this book a worthy addition to any hiker’s library.

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Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (ISBN 978-1-4000-6951-4, $27) attracted a good deal of criticism for its lack of personal detail regarding Salinger’s reclusive years and for what some reviewers called a fawning attitude.

Such negative criticism of Salinger: A Life is unfortunate, for there is gold to be mined in these pages for all those who love the work of the author of Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and the other stories published before the author, tormented by publicity and on a spiritual quest, went into hiding. To chide Slawenski for loving Salinger’s books is ridiculous: what sort of biographer would want to write 400 pages about an author whom he disliked?

Slawenski carefully works his way through Salinger’s stories, and fans will take delight in his insights and his careful critiques. In addition, he goes to great lengths to examine Salinger’s spiritual development over the years, his increasing association of the spiritual with the act of writing, and his obsessive need for the private life (Salinger’s own daughter was unaware of her father’s occupation until she went to school, where an amused teacher told her that her father was a famous author).

Nor will readers be disappointed by Slawenski’s personal history of Salinger. He has done great service here showing us the depth of the effect of World War II on the young writer, and gives us blow-by-blow accounts of Salinger’s battles with the public, publishers, and copy-cat authors. Doubtless he does leave out some of Salinger’s mean-spirited behavior toward his wives and children, but a good bit of this side of the story is gossip and another good bit has already found documentation elsewhere. Given the penchant in our society for finding “dirt” on our celebrities, it is a relief in many ways to read the biography of an author in which the biographer seems as interested in his subject’s work as in a body count of the women bedded or the friends and lovers mistreated.

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Though heroin and cocaine are dangerous and illegal, both drugs carry with them a cachet, the dark romance of, say, the doomed hard-rock singer or the wild film star. Alcoholics — unless you happen to live with one — are still regarded by our culture as either tragic figures or lovable clowns. Even cigarette smokers, hounded from the work place and restaurants, shoved into the cold streets, penalized with taxes higher than those once levied by the English on our forefathers, may still occasionally appear in the public eye as mysterious and cool, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, or as tormented, like Sandra Bullock in “Twenty-eight Days.”

Fat people, however, receive no such ancillary laurels, no tarnished crowns. They are simply fat, and those around them regard them with a mixture of repugnance, aversion, disgust and horror. They eat too much, they drink too much, they exercise too little. They are quite literally shaped by their gluttony, and our pity usually extends no further than “There but for the grace of God and dietetic caution go I.”

That this pity is so limited is itself a pity. Few of us watching an obese man wheel about in a mobilized shopping cart in Wal-Mart or a woman the size of a freezer trying to keep up with her 3-year-old rarely put ourselves into that person’s shoes — or oversized sweat pants. We make jokes instead, offer insults like the one in the previous sentence, and wonder why someone grown so gargantuan would continue to eat bags of oily salted chips and drink vats of cola or beer.

In other words, we rarely try, as we might with the drug addict — poor tortured devil! — or the alcoholic — poor demon-driven sot! — to understand fat people, much less sympathize with them. The ignorant, gluttonous sods have eaten themselves into a hillock of flesh, and if they really disliked their shape and physical health, then they would take up a dietary spade — in some cases, a dietary bulldozer — and reduce the sides of that hill.

In Designated Fat Girl (978-0-7627-5962-0, $16.95), North Carolina author Jennifer Joyner tells us what it’s like to be fat, how it feels when you can’t help your child off the slide at McDonald’s because you’re too big to get up the ladder, how you look at yourself in the mirror each day and weep, how you go day after day wondering how your husband can love you. And not only does Joyner tell us how awful she felt about the weight she carried, she also demonstrates how she put on this weight, the double meals ordered at the windows of fast-food restaurants, the binges on pepperoni pizza and Coke, the times that she would “take a loaf of bread, a jar of pasta sauce, and a tub of butter, and over the course of an afternoon, I would eat all of it.”

In addition, Joyner shares the awful side-effects of obesity: the inability to tie her shoes, to take the Christmas decorations to the attic, to keep herself physically clean, to properly care for her husband and children. If we read attentively Joyner’s account of her life and her struggles with over-eating and with a poor diet, we begin to perceive what we may have missed in our judgments of the overweight. We understand that our fellow human beings don’t like being fat, that indeed they despise their condition, that they may have tried numerous times and ways, as did Joyner, to break their emotional dependence on food. Rather than revulsion, by the time we finish Designated Fat Girl we may even begin to feel a real pity for those who cannot break themselves of overeating, who look to food as solace in a hard, revved-up world of expectations and demands.

Jennifer Joyner finally defeated her food problem — she once weight 336 pounds — by undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Readers who experience her account of this surgery and who have perhaps felt that such an operation provided an easy way to knock off unwanted pounds in bowling ball numbers will quickly find their preconceptions disabused. Joyner suffered severe health problems from her surgery, including a partially collapsed lung and a reliance on prescription pain medication, and she continues to struggle with vitamin deficiency, as do all patients of such an operation, necessitating a dependence on various supplements.

Despite her conclusion that she would not encourage others to undergo gastric surgery — there was, Joyner says, too much pain and too many complications from her own surgery — she nonetheless does encourage those with the same problem to consider it as an option after having weighed its risks. Joyner herself does lose a massive amount of weight, and emerges from her struggles with both food and depression with a renewed sense of self-worth and an appreciation of “all my many blessings: a wonderful marriage, two great, healthy kids, and finally, some happiness.”

Designated Fat Girl is an honest book which will give strength to those who struggle against weight and overeating. To those who have long wondered why some people just can’t stop eating, it offers a unique portrait that should arouse a sense of compassion and understanding.

Designated Fat Girl by Jennifer Joyner. skirt!, 2010. 264 pages

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In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (ISBN 978-1-4000-6893-7, 2010, $25), first-time novelist Helen Simonson has created a superb portrait of life and love in a contemporary English village.

Edgecombe St. Mary is the name of the village, and by the end of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand readers will feel as if several of the inhabitants of Edgecombe are their neighbors. There is, first of all, the widower Maj. Ernest Pettigrew, a retired military officer and head of an ancient village family, an old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip Englishman with a subtle sense of the absurd and a dry wit and compassion that will endear him to those who come to know him.

The major has fallen in love with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper and widow whose family is trying to displace her in her work with a fervently Islamic nephew. Mrs. Ali is a strong women of decided opinions who is disinclined to go along with the plans of her relatives and who slowly feels herself drawn to the major. As the two of them grow closer, their families and their friends in the village begin to do their utmost to separate them.

Around the major and Mrs. Ali swirl a host of other characters: the major’s son, Roger, who is trying his best to be a high flyer in the London business and social world; Amina, a courageously forthright Pakistani woman with connections to Mrs. Ali and her nephew; the ladies and gentlemen of the local golfing club, who add much to the humor of the story; Marjorie, Maj. Pettigrew’s sister-in-law, who spends a good deal of the novel dickering with him about a valuable shotgun owned by her deceased husband; Alice, Maj. Pettigrew’s eccentric next-door neighbor, who leads the fight against plans to develop Edgecombe; and a platoon of others who lend sparkle and froth to this champagne bottle of a book.

In addition to its intriguing storyline — Simonson manages at the end to tie up all the loose ends plot and subplots as deftly as the major manages his life — Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is distinguished by its wit and by the fine writing of its author. In this passage, for instance, Maj. Pettigrew, Roger, and Roger’s American girl friend Sandy are discussing the purchase of a nearby cottage which Roger intends to purchase. After having met Mrs. Augerspier, the owner of the cottage, Roger announces to his father that he intends to do his best to beat her down on the price of the property. He tells his father, who has taken a dislike to Mrs. Augerspier for her blatant bigotry regarding Mrs. Ali, that they can best take their revenge by getting the cottage at a low price.

“‘On what philosophical basis does that idea rest?’ asked the Major. Roger gave a vague wave of the hand and the Major saw him roll his eyes for Sandy’s benefit.

“’Oh, it’s simple pragmatism, Dad. It’s called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?’

“’On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?’ suggested the Major.”

Her choice of words and the way she puts together her sentences, many of them flawless in their precision, are the building stones for this cathedral of high comedy. Major Pettigrew is that rarity among novels these days, an extremely well-written story with in which the words stand like stacked stones, each chosen to fit exactly in its place, all while the writer keeps us enthralled by her characters and their stories. Simonson has lived in the United States for 20 years, but her writing here is distinctly English, with just the proper touch of word-play and drama. Here she describes the major after a young Pakistani has moved into his house for a few days:

“Roger and Sandy went to fetch their hamper and as the Major tried not to think of truffles, which he had always avoided because they stank like sweaty groins, Abdul Wahid came out of the house. As usual he was carrying a couple of dusty religious texts tucked tightly under his armpit partly and was wearing the dour frown from which the Major now understood was the result of excessive thinking rather than mere unhappiness. The Major wished young men wouldn’t think so much. It always seemed to result in absurd revolutionary movements, or, as in the case of several of his former pupils, the production of very bad poetry.”

It is common today for some critics and readers to complain about the mediocre state of contemporary literature, and some of these complaints possess a certain validity. Many books nowadays do indeed bear the mark of a graduate school‘s “writer’s workshop,” many offer the reader unbelievably eccentric characters or unrealistic plots, and many never come to life at all, remaining dull and lifeless as the dead trees which gave manufacture to their pages. In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, however, Helen Simonson has reminded us what fiction can be — delightful, life-enhancing, provocative of emotion and intellect.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Random House, 2010. 368 pages.

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Some novels call to mind certain family members. There are the wise old stories that remind us of our grandparents, the zany tales whose style and tone dredge up our crazy but loveable Uncle Harry, the comic narratives whose humor somehow suggests our great-aunt Sally, the cautionary accounts that somehow summon up our parents or our older brothers and sisters.

Then there are those books that come at us like a troubled son, one of our children whom we dearly cherish but who gives us no end of bother. We love this son, but we want to like him as well, and we would like him if he would just behave the way we want him to behave, if he would just act like our neighbor’s kid next door, that paragon of learning and virtue who glided through a top-flight university and landed a lovely wife, 2.4 children, and a six-figure salary helping starving children in Africa. Instead, we’re stuck at home looking at an overgrown kid with an Ipod stuck to his ears, two days growth of beard on his face, clothing two weeks overdue for the washing machine, and ambition a concept as unfamiliar as its synonym spizerinctum.    

Some books are like that.

David Gilmour’s The Film Club (ISBN 978-0-446-19930-8, $13.99) tells the story of Gilmour, an out-of-work Canadian television personality, and his son, Jesse, whom Gilmour allows to drop out of school at the age of 15 under the condition that he watch three movies a week of his father’s choosing. Agreeing to this rule, Jesse leaves school, and we then follow him and Gilmour as they make their way through a stack of movies and the thickets of a father-son relationship.

Much of this book will appeal to the general reader. Gilmour’s knowledge of film, employed during his television career as a critic — he is also the author of six novels — is both broad and deep. His comments on the movies which he chooses for Jesse, films ranging from “Giant” to “Ran,” from Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “The Godfather,” are astute and will encourage readers to seek out films with which they are unfamiliar. Gilmour is a critic who notices the small details in movies — the way Ralph Fiennes uses his eyes in Quiz Show, the way Marlon Brando moves, the way Cary Grant can “embody good and evil simultaneously” in “Notorious” — and then educates his readers in these details, encouraging them to look at movies with a critic’s eye.

Gilmour’s account of his time with Jesse also appeals. He is unflinching in his portrayal of his son and himself during this time. Jesse falls in love several times, sleeps with young women, drinks too much, does drugs, and seems to have a penchant for involving himself in troublesome situations. Gilmour, too, exhibits warts which he displays here. Once, for example, wanting to buy the house beside the home of his ex-wife — they have remained close — he gets Jesse and some of his wild friends to hang out on his wife’s porch on the afternoon of the open house. Many of the buyers, seeing the porch teeming with teens drinking and smoking cigarettes, never even stop to look at the property; the real estate agent becomes incensed; and eventually Gilmour realizes that he has committed a moral wrong by thwarting the sale.

These are the loveable parts of the book. The annoying parts, the ones that bring to mind that difficult son who has a knack for raising both our blood pressure and our wonderment at the vagaries of creation, rest with Gilmour himself. In some ways, he epitomizes a stereotypical modern father: fearful of being disliked by his children, ashamed at times to address a problem squarely, doubtful of his own set of verities. Jesse does eventually find his way back into the world of education, he does gain a sense of ambition and self-worth, but as Gilmour himself suggests, his plan for his son’s education could easily have taken a downward path, leading Jesse into a deeper morass of confusion and loss of self-respect. Gilmour seems to lack some rudimentary base in his own life, some code by which he abides. Consequently, he frequently comes across here as weak or foolish, with no apparent awareness that he appears this way.

There is one truly tender and sweet moment in the The Film Club during which we do admire Gilmour as a father. When the Gilmours visit Cuba, Jesse goes out of the hotel supposedly to enjoy a cigarette, but then slips away to explore the streets of Havana. Following him, Gilmour saves his son from being rousted by three crooks, and the two of them then sit in a café until nearly dawn. Here in a few pages Gilmour paints a scene of himself and his son sitting in the old city, drinking beer and smoking cigars, watching the street, and talking about women and life, that cause us to see Jesse’s goodness and innocence and Gilmour’s own concern and love for his son. Parents who do face difficulties with teenagers, particularly boys, will take hope from this poignant scene and from the book’s conclusion. Far greater than we may think when we are in the thick of our own coming-of-age wars is the possibility for a lasting peace and a loving relationship. Gilmour’s book is a testament to such an outcome.

If you don’t mind putting up with some of Gilmour‘s annoying approaches to fatherhood, The Film Club might be something worth joining.


The Film Club by David Gilmour. Twelve, 2008. 256 pages.

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Anyone who has driven state roads between Asheville and Winston-Salem has quite possibly seen those state historical markers commemorating the passage of Stoneman’s raiders in the spring of 1865. North Carolina has erected 19 of these markers — the largest for any historical event in the state. Most of us who have seen the markers doubtless pass them by without too much thought, though not so long ago, when the first markers were set in place just before World War II, some disgusted citizens tore them out of the ground and threw them into a river.

So Chris J. Hartley tells us in Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 (ISBN 978-0-89587-377-4, 2010, $27.95). He further adds in his “preface” that Stoneman’s Raid also inspired The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (“Stoneman’s cavalry came and they tore up the track again”) and the Disney movie “Menace on the Mountain,” starring Mitch Vogel and Jodie Foster.

If you haven’t heard of George Stoneman and his 1865 cavalry raid through Southwestern Virginia and Western and Piedmont North Carolina, don’t be too dismayed. This raid occurred late in the war, was conducted against an enemy that was already tottering on the brink of defeat, and was overshadowed by enormous events like the surrender at Appomattox Court House and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Nevertheless, Stoneman’s destructive tear across the middle of the Old North State caused immense physical destruction to local manufacturing, railroads, and farms, and brought privation to a people already suffering from the depredations of a four-year war. Near the end of his history of the raid, Hartley writes that:

“Violence, poverty, and isolation: these were the terrible, yet very real, outcomes of the end of the Civil War and Stoneman’s Raid in particular. They thrived long afterward in the areas touched by the raid and even found their way into postwar literature, which helped create the hillbilly stereotype that endures in the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina to this day.”

Until he began his famous — some might say infamous — raid in March 1865, George Stoneman was regarded by one high-ranking member of Lincoln’s cabinet as “one of the most worthless officers in the service.“ This reputation, at least among Northerners, changed for the better when Stoneman led 4,000 cavalry from Tennessee into Southwestern Virginia and Western North Carolina, cutting wide paths of destruction across the war-weary countryside, tearing up railroads, burning bridges, sacking cities, and engaging and defeating the Confederates he found in dozens of skirmishes and battles. His ravaging of a defeated Confederacy did not end with Lee’s surrender, but continued into the late spring after the capture of Jefferson Davis and the cessation of hostilities east of the Mississippi.  

Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 succeeds on several fronts. First, Hartley has thoroughly researched the people and events associated with the raid. He offers sketches of dozens of participants and displays the evidence of the depth of his research in the details he supplies and the notes at the back of the book. Here, for example, we meet both the civilian leaders and the ordinary citizens from towns like Asheville, Salisbury and Salem, which only years after the war became Winston-Salem. We learn about the lives of the Union soldiers, some of whom evidently behaved no better than Sherman’s bummers, and of the Confederate regulars and militia who opposed the invasion of their homeland.

Hartley also has a military man’s eye for tactics and strategy. He knows the terrain of which he writes, a key factor in understanding any military operation, and understands too the factors of supply and morale in any fighting force. He shows us the surprise of the Confederate officers at Stoneman’s grasp of regional geography — he was supplied with adequate maps, and took care to bribe or cajole locals into giving him information. In his accounts of various skirmishes, Hartley demonstrates too how the Confederate simply could not stand up to the superior firepower of Yankee repeating rifles and the often overwhelming numbers of their troopers.

Finally, Hartley is a fine writer. He is one of those “amateur” historians — he earns his living in marketing — like Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough who understands how to bring the past alive, how to make it breathe on a written page. One Union force, for instance, after passing through Asheville under a flag of truce, turned back, surprised the Confederate soldiers in the town, and then began looting and burning in what Hartley describes as “the worst episode of the entire raid.”

“Federal cavalrymen barged into homes, tearing plaster from walls and ceilings, ripping open mattresses, and rifling through clothing in a mad search for hidden valuables. A prominent Unionist managed to obtain a guard, but the detail got lost and ended up protecting the property of a diehard Confederate while the Unionist’s house was ransacked…’Through the night pandemonium held sway,’ an eyewitness wrote, ‘and Asheville will never again hear such sounds and witness such scenes — pillage of every character and destruction the most wanton.’”

For Civil War students, for those who wish to have a look at the cost of a war that took place literally in their own back yards, and for all who enjoy reading history that is both dramatically presented and solidly researched, Chris J. Hartley’s Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 will make fine reading on these cold winter nights.

 

Stoneman’s Raid: 1865 by Chris J. Hartley. John F. Blair, 2010. 464 pages.

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“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said to Ernest Hemingway, to which Hemingway supposedly replied: “Yes, Scott, they have more money.”

After getting through the final pages of Heidi Schnakenberg’s Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon (ISBN 978-1-59995-103-4, $23.99), a reader might agree with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and add a third observation that the rich also possess the capacity to lead lives as filled with ennui, dissolution and misery as the poorest of the poor.

R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. was the son of R.J. Reynolds, the founder of the Reynolds Tobacco Company — which remains the number-two producer of tobacco in the world today — and inventor of the once-ubiquitous Camel cigarette. After establishing his tobacco business in Winston-Salem in the years following the Civil War, Reynolds allied himself with the Moravians, whose ancestors had founded Salem and who were themselves astute businessmen and bankers, and so began his climb to financial success.

His business sense and hard work led to the establishment of Reynolds Tobacco as the chief enterprise in Winston-Salem — a benevolent company beloved by most of its employees, the major contributor to the city’s well-being, the chief force in the move of Wake Forest University from Wake Forest to Winston, and the primary philanthropist behind a dozen major charities in the Piedmont area.

R.J. Reynolds married late in life, however — he was 55 when he proposed to his 25-year-old cousin Katherine — and though he managed to impart some of his wisdom regarding his complex of enterprises to his first son, he died when Dick was only 13 years old. Dick Reynolds would always look back on these years when he was growing up in Winston-Salem, first in the big house on Fifth Avenue and then on the estate built by his mother, Reynolda, property which now serves as a public park and arts center for the city, as idyllic, quite possibly the best years of his life.

In the years following his father’s death, Reynolds flung himself into a dozen different undertakings. The new airplanes fascinated him, and he was one of the fathers of American aviation, having his pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright; later he helped develop both Delta and Eastern Airlines. He became an acclaimed sailor and yachtsman, participating in international races and escaping to the sea whenever he faced personal difficulties ashore. He served for a time as the Treasurer of the Democratic Party and as mayor of Winston-Salem. He helped fund and operate numerous charities, invested heavily, and made a fortune through those investments.

Yet Reynolds was also a secretive man who frequently disappeared from his friends and family for days on end, a playboy who loved the exotic and who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal whims, a father who rarely saw any of his children, a hypochondriac, and a drunkard.

This last flaw in particular cost him dearly throughout his life. While still a young man, he was driving drunk in England when he struck a man who later died at the hospital, a crime of manslaughter for which Reynolds spent some time in an English jail. Throughout his life — Kid Carolina could well be subtitled “The Biography of a Booze-Hound” — Reynolds was rarely without a drink, and it was his bibulous judgment that no doubt accounts for his failed marriages, his inability to involve himself with his children, his arguments with family and friends, and his failure to follow in his father‘s footsteps.

Though Schnakenberg does a fine job of showing us the boyhood and early life of Reynolds, and then later takes readers carefully through the famous trial that resulted from his mysterious death — some family members still hold that he was murdered by his fourth and last wife Annemarie, though Shnakenberg herself rejects this possibility — Kid Carolina is an uneven book. Schnakenberg several times tell us, for example, that the people of Winston-Salem regarded Dick Reynolds with great love, yet with the exception of her account of his run for mayor, she never really shows us how Reynolds managed to earn this admiration or gives us any solid evidence that such admiration existed. The middle part of the book poses a rather dull figure who seems on every page either to have passed out or to have caused some sort of drunken commotion. Often, too, the author takes great liberties with circumstances, creating conversations and engaging in unanswerable speculation about the motives of Reynolds, his wives, and his acquaintances.

In the epilogue of this biography, Schnakenberg writes in regard to the people who knew Reynolds or are related to him that “… in their hearts and minds, the unforgettable spirit of R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. — aka Kid Carolina — lives on.” Given the evidence of the book itself, we might nonetheless hope that Reynolds’ story might be better served up to the present generation as a cautionary tale of a man with too much money and too little backbone.

 

Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon by Heidi Schnakenberg. Center Street, 2010. 352 pages.

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In her previous novels — two of which, Coming Back To Me and Girls In Trouble, have been reviewed here — Caroline Leavitt showed an exquisite talent for bringing her characters alive on the page. These novels were marked by Leavitt’s tough love for her characters, her ability to find and examine both the laughter and the tears that exist in ordinary people, and her willingness to take chances, to let the characters go their own way rather than follow the path of the predictable or even the desirable.

In her latest novel, Pictures of You (ISBN 978-1-56512-631-2, $13.95), Leavitt gives us one of her best stories yet, a book which reminds us that the best fictions not only entertain but also lead us to ponder the ideas of love, happiness, and fate.   

Sam Nash, a sensitive fourth-grader, his father Charlie, a builder on Cape Cod, and Isabelle Stein, a photographer running away from the husband who has deserted her: all three find themselves emotionally wrecked by the automobile accident that leaves April, Charlie’s wife and Sam’s mother, dead. Isabelle, the driver of the car that killed April, cannot find a way to absolve herself from guilt, though the accident was in no way her fault. Charlie, who is haunted by his wife’s mysterious death to the point of hiring a detective to figure out her motives for leaving home that day — why was she standing in a fog on a road so far from home with her car facing the wrong way? Why had she packed a suitcase? — becomes so embroiled in grief by his loss that he can scarcely function at work or as a father to Sam.

Indeed, Leavitt describes the struggles of Isabelle and Charlie with such insight and sympathy that those who have suffered the death of a loved one or have unwittingly brought pain to others may well feel as if the author was describing their own interior state.

Through Charlie and Isabelle we see the limits of counsel offered by others in times of wrenching crises. Both Charlie and Isabelle also have difficulty relating to their parents, who are of little help to them in their pain, and though both are surrounded by a fine collection of friends, these too lack the power to allay their grief. In one poignant passage, which takes place in a bookstore shortly after she has met Charlie and Sam, Isabelle stands in the self-help section wondering what might eventually heal her anguish:

“There were courses in how to make miracles in your life, but the one she wished for — that the accident had never taken place — was an impossible one, and she didn’t think there were any more miracles for her. She couldn’t drive anymore. Her husband had impregnated his lover and her marriage was finished. She was in a dead-end job, living in a place she didn’t like, and she couldn’t leave because she was obsessed with Charlie and his son. Were there any books that could help her with that?”

It is Sam, sweet innocent Sam, who eventually brings Isabelle and Charlie together, and who sets off the forces that will lead them toward healing and a different sort of agony. Sam, who witnessed the accident, saw Isabelle dressed in white standing in the fog and the wreckage, and he becomes convinced that she is an angel, a guardian and a messenger possessed of some power to put him in touch with his mother. Sam begins reading books about angels, and on seeing Isabelle one day, follows her home in the hope of befriending her and of speaking then with April. At the same time, still haunted by this tragedy, Isabelle herself has also begun peeking into the lives of the Nash family, reading about Charlie and his work in an article on the internet, and secretively watching Sam from a distance. Through her meeting with Sam, she soon finds herself growing attached to him and to Charlie, while at the same time facing an opportunity to leave the Cape and attend a photography school in Manhattan.

To say more will spoil the ending of this novel. It is sufficient to note that the final pages of Pictures of You may not satisfy all its readers — a circumstance that is, oddly enough, highly satisfying. Carolina Leavitt knows that life doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package, and she is too fine and honest a storyteller to wrap up Pictures of You that way. By giving this story the long, hard thoughts that it deserves — Sam, Isabelle, and Charlie stay with us long after we have finished the last page — we will eventually come to agree with her.

Pictures of You is a fine novel for book club discussions, for it creates a man, a woman, and a child who are as real and immediate to us as our neighbors — and ourselves, for that matter. More importantly, Pictures of You with its clear insights, its unlocking of the human heart, and its examination of death, grief, and love, offers readers both triage and a hope for recovery from their own disasters, should they be in need of such help in their own lives.

Known for its list of excellent fiction, Algonquin Press had done itself proud in publishing Pictures of You. The book will be available in stores and on the internet on Jan. 25. Highly recommended.

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

 

Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin Books, 2011. 336 pages.

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For many people, Thanksgiving is a holiday that delivers on its promises. The table sags beneath platters of ham and turkey, bowls of mashed potatoes and yams, green bean casseroles, hot bread, and pies. Family and old friends gather together to swap lies, damn lies, and statistics, the last most often having to do with sports stats and personal poundage. Afternoon naps are the order of the day, with the promise that televised football games and vintage movies will greet us when we groggily wake for one more glass of sparkling cider or another slice of pecan pie.

And then there is the shopping.

Even in a recession, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the shopping season just as surely as April brings us baseball or November lures hunters into the woods. On Thanksgiving weekends stores throw open their doors in the middle of the night, and wild-eyed consumers spend both their time and money chasing bargains with the fervor of brokers baying in a bull market. Malls create traffic gridlocks; employees of the major retail chains must sometimes act as referees in customer squabbling matches; shoppers themselves return home in the dull twilight of Friday evening gasping for their favorite beverage and rubbing their tired feet as if they had just endured a legionnaire’s march in the desert.

Though some profess to love this bargain hunting — ”There’s nothing like the smell of wampum in the morning!” — others regard Black Friday as the one drawback to an otherwise perfect holiday, a pall covering with dark shadows that day and the entire month of days following, that span of Advent during which one question, and one question only, looms like a nightmare in the mind: “What will I get ’fill-in-the-blank’ for Christmas?”

Gift buying puzzles discerning givers. Our three-year-old nephew is easy enough to please — he’d be happy with a piece of duct tape on a string — but what about Uncle Charlie? What do we give a man who has everything? Or our own mother? She possesses every kitchen appliance made since the invention of the orange juice squeezer, she hasn’t bought a new piece of clothing since the Clinton administration, and she last saw a feature film in a movie theater when she was stuck in Knoxville during the blizzard of ‘93. Where do we begin?

In a bookstore, of course. When we pause to consider the matter, bookstores contain the widest variety of gifts of any store. You can’t buy clothing in a bookshop, but you can find wonderful books on fashion. You can’t buy food, but you can find dozens of tomes on cooking, nutrition, and entertainment. In fact, you name the topic — sports, big-game photography, timber-framing, Alabama vacation spots — and a bookshop will likely oblige your taste.

Take a book like Susan Colon’s Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times (ISBN 978-0-385-53252-5, $21.95), which will delight recipients in several categories: cooks, older friends and family who remember the Great Depression, and those suffering the effects of our own economic woes. A native of New Jersey whose own immediate family took a few blows from our current financial mess and whose grandmother during the Depression kept recipes mingling good food with thrift, Colon delivers a smorgasbord of anecdotes, inspiration, and tasty food.

These are not recipes, by the way, for those whose taste buds have grown fond of exotic foods. Colon’s recipes, acquired via her mother and grandmother, are American fare cooked in the style when Americans cared more for substance than style. Among these dishes are “Matilde’s Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut,” “Hot Dog Soup,” “Aunt Nettie’s Clam Chowder,” and “Yeast Dumplings.” Reading these recipes and the stories that go with them brings to mind images of the kitchen of the 1930s and ‘40s: steaming kettles on a white stove, open containers of flour, sugar, and salt, the merry bustle of bodies intent on putting a wholesome, stick-to-your ribs supper on a dining room table.

For those inclined to literature and the spirit, we might gift wrap a copy of The Best Of It (ISBN 978-0-8021-1914-8, $24), Kay Ryan’s collection of new and selected poems. Ryan, who is our current national poet laureate, is described in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry as “intense and elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost.” In The Best Of It, we find that this high praise is well-deserved. Ryan’s words lie on the white page formally and forcefully as inscriptions on stone. Here in full, for example, is “Silence”:

 

Silence is not snow.

It cannot grow

deeper. A thousand years

of it are thinner

than paper. So

we must have it

all wrong

when we feel trapped

like mastodons.   

 

Many of Ryan’s poems explore aspects of the self, mixing language both concrete and abstract to create verse that the reader can both contemplate and revisit with satisfaction. “Chemise” is one of many such poems in this panoply of verse:

 

What would the self

disrobed look like,

the form undraped?

There is a flimsy cloth

we can’t take off –

some last chemise

we can’t escape –

a hope more intimate

than paint

to please.

 

From the sacred to the profane, from volumes of lilting verse to recipes for quick apple cake, books offer choices for the boggled shopper, and the shops which sell those books are one of the best places around for one-stop shopping.

Next time we’ll continue our Christmas shopping with a look at two popular novels and the latest from Pat Conroy, My Reading Life.

Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times by Susan Colon. Doubleday, 2009. 224 pages

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The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr. Akashic Books, 2008. 320 pages

Every once in a while a novel comes at us out of the blue to capture first our attention, then our minds, and finally our hearts. Such a novel is Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming (Akashic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-1-933354-46-0, $15.95).

Here is the story of Jun Nakayama, narrated by himself, a young Japanese student living in the United States who, on his way back to Japan in 1911, stops in Los Angeles, visits a Japanese theatrical production, tells the struggling producer that he could do a much better job of both writing and acting in such a play, and then proceeds to do just that.

After only a short time, Jun’s stagecraft attracts the attention of William Moran, a director of successful silent films, and of Hanako Minatoya, the beautiful actress who at that time is working for Moran. Because of his sultry face and superb acting skills — he is a quick take in picking up tips from those around him — Jun becomes a silent movie star. He changes directors, leaves Hanako to star in other films, soon earns a fabulous income, and becomes involved with two different actresses, Elizabeth Banks and Nora Niles, and Ashley Bennett Tyler, a British director. This dark combination of lives eventually leads to an unexplained murder, a mental breakdown, alcoholic suicide, and Jun’s own abrupt end as an actor.

What adds to the excitement and insights of The Age of Dreaming is Revoyr’s creation of Nick Bellinger, who tracks Jun down in the 1960s for an interview. He befriends Nick and even convinces him to try out for a movie with a descendent of a producer who was once Jun’s acquaintance. From this modern producer, we learn more about Jun’s muddied past and the secrets from that past which have remained hidden from him all these years.

In addition to a taut story filled with intrigue and sudden revelations, The Age of Dreaming has much else to offer any lover of fiction. First, Revoyr takes us into a Hollywood long vanished, a place of silent movies (on visiting a modern movie set, Jun is shocked by the silence; he remembers all the noises and distractions permitted when making silent movies), of working in an entirely new medium, of making movies in less than a week on budgets that in today’s world wouldn’t provide a picture’s limo fees. Jun Nakayam breathes such excitement into these movies that many readers will, on finishing the book, begin looking for these masterpieces with eyes that might now better appreciate them.

A second delight in this fine book is the studied, polished commentary of Jun Nakayama (A blurb on the front of the book states that ‘the carefully restrained voice of the narrator, once a silent film star, recalls Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ....’ a comparison that seems slightly silly, as if only another Japanese — Revoyr’s mother is Japanese — could write with restraint). This careful writing, in which we sense a great delicacy at play in the diction and syntax of each sentence, can be found on every page and in every paragraph. Here, for example, Jun finally says goodbye to Hanako, the woman whom he has always secretly loved:

“I kept my silence because words would have diminished what I felt, and the strength of those feelings confused me. And now, when it was many, many years too late, I mourned the inability to speak my own heart, as well as the empty decades that have followed. For it seems to me now that I have been reliving that moment through all the long years of my life. It seems to me that I have always been standing there with joy within my grasp, wanting to reach for it, but forever holding it back.”

•••

Jincy Willett’s The Writing Class (Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 978-0-312-33066-8, 2008, $24.95) tells the story of Amy Gallup, a writer whose career peaked too early and who now teaches university extension courses in writing. Anyone who has ever attended a writing course will recognize the various characters who appear in this particular class and may even sympathize with their motives for being there. In several scenes that are by turns pathetic or humorous, Gallup deals with the obstacles presented in the classroom while the class of strangers slowly comes together and seriously begins critiquing one another’s stories.

Among the students of this class, however, there lurks a murderer, an unpublished writer driven crazy by resentment, loneliness, and hatred. As the murderer stalks the class members, taunting them at times with bizarre letters or reviews, the tension within the group grows, a mirror reflecting the needs and desires of these people. Willett also shows us how a group of strangers, out of common interest — in this case, writing fiction — or for common preservation, will eventually bond with one another.

Although the author’s portrayal of some of the members of the writing class is sketchy and so makes the character difficult for the reader to see, Willett does give us a fine portrait of a woman who seeks solitude while at the same time fearing loneliness. Amy Gallup represents many people who live alone, people who may have enjoyed a happier past, people to whom social conversation no longer comes easily, people whose chief pleasure now consists of drinking a glass of wine, reading, and petting a cat that doesn’t particularly care whether it is petted or not. We leave The Writing Class feeling as if we know Amy Gallup.

Readers who enjoy a good mystery, or comedy, or who simply like to read books that touch frequently on literature and writing, should take much pleasure from The Writing Class.

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The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. HarperCollins, 2008. 752 pages.

Wally Lamb’s newest novel, The Hour I First Believed (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN (978-0-06-039349-6, $29.95) opens with a quotation from Dante’s Inferno: “And so, they moved over the dark waves, and even before they disembarked, new hordes gathered there.” The quotation may remain obscure in terms of the novel, but a selection from the Inferno to introduce this important novel is entirely appropriate, as Lamb deals with the shooting at Columbine High School and the aftermath of devastation it left among the survivors.

Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen leave Connecticut and Caelum’s tormented past to take jobs — Caelum as a teacher, Maureen as a school nurse — at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where both hope to make a new start in their lives and in their marriage. In April 1999, Caelum returns home to stand beside the hospital bed of his dying, stroke-crippled aunt, a strong humorous woman who helped raise him. While Caelum is away, two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, enter the high school and randomly massacre students and faculty, focusing in particular on the library where, as it develops, Maureen has hidden herself in an empty cabinet, listening to the gunshots, screams, and cries for mercy from the students hiding beneath tables and chairs.

Those of us who have escaped such horrific tragedies in our own lives may not have stopped to imagine what such insanity and murder might do to the survivors. Lamb gives us such a victim in Maureen, a character tormented by her survival, a woman whose fixation on the evil that entered her life that day may astound, baffle, and even exasperate readers. Lamb largely shapes Maureen for us through Caelum’s eyes, letting us understand what has befallen her even while, like Caelum, we sometimes can’t understand why Maureen reacts as she does in the wake of the murders.

Lamb’s recreation of the massacre is immediate and vividly written. He has studied the journal excerpts, notes, and videotapes left behind by the killers. He also relies on first-hand accounts and, of course, his own rich imagination to create scenes like this one:

“Maureen said she saw them enter, carrying duffel bags, the tall one in a long black coat, the shorter one in a white T-shirt and cargo pants tucked inside his boots. He was carrying a shotgun. He looked at her, grinning. Eric, his name was. Luvox, 75 milligrams at lunchtime. ‘Get up!’ he shouted. ‘All the jocks stand up! We’re going to kill every single one of you!’

‘Anyone with a white hat, stand up!’ the other one shouted. ‘Are you guys scared? Well, don’t be, because you’re all going to die anyway!’

... She heard screaming, pleas, the crack of gunfire, shattering glass. ‘How about it, big boy? You want to get shot today?... Hey, you? Peekaboo!’

... Over the alarm, she could hear their taunts, the ridiculing of their victims before the shotgun blasts. It was as if each of the shots passed through her, she said. She knew they’d find her. She was sure she was going to die — that this cabinet would be her coffin.”

By the end of the summer, both Caelum and Maureen abandon the nightmare that has become Littleton to return to Three Rivers, Conn. Caelum takes over his Aunt Lolly’s farmhouse and buckles down to several years of intense labor, working as a baker and an adjunct instructor at the community college to pay for Maureen’s medical bills while at the same time having to endure her despair and emotional depression. Eventually, Maureen returns to work as a nurse, this time in a retirement home, only to once again find herself in the middle of tragedy and personal doom. How she and Caelum face yet more fires of their own personal inferno finishes out the novel.

The Hour I First Believed, however, is much more than a replaying of the shootings at Columbine. The secondary characters here are vital to the plot and theme of the book. Velvet Hoon, a lost, freakish teenager whom Maureen takes under her wing (she calls Maureen ’Mom’ through much of the book), floats in and out of the Quirks’ lives, always on the verge of falling back into her old life of prostitution and abuse, yet providing both Maureen and Caelum with odd friendship and at times an acerbic love. Alphonse Buzzi, Caelum’s best friend from adolescent, demonstrates again and again his own loyalty to Caelum, using his hard-edged humor as a sword against the threatening mental darkness.

Friendship and family, it turns out, are as much a focus of this powerful story as disaster and savagery. Back in Three Rivers, Caelum slowly comes to understand the mystery of his own family: the apparent coldness of his mother, the dissolution of his father, the idealism and steel will of several of his female ancestors. Through the discovery of a journal, letters, and newspaper accounts, he is finally able to make sense of a past which for his entire life had eaten his pleasure and fed him despair.

The Hour I First Believed is a sprawling novel — it runs more than seven hundred pages — with a half dozen major themes. Yet the final message of the book is clear. “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” a man once wrote, and in the case of Caelum, the spiritual beatings he has taken, the losses he has born, the truths he has discovered, do indeed make him stronger, not in the ways we normally think of strength — power, might, force — but stronger in the ways and wiles of love.

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Criminal Justice in America by Marshall Frank. AuthorHouse, 2008. 276 pages.

In Criminal Injustice in America: Essays by a Career Cop (AuthorHouse, ISBN 978-1-43892062-7), former policeman Marshall Frank gives us his take on the criminal justice system through a series of essays. Although Frank has explored the ideas behind these essays in numerous newspaper columns and novels, here he attempts an in-depth assessment of what he calls our “desperately fractured” criminal justice system.

Frank, who used to reside in Maggie Valley but recently relocated to Florida, begins his book by giving us a look at his background — cop, columnist, novelist, lecturer — and a list of his prejudices. He correctly writes that he considers himself “a centrist conservative, though I have some liberal leanings about social issues, like appropriating government funds for stem cell research, keeping a strict separation of church and state, and endorsing gay rights.” He adds that “I, for one, relish independent thought and hope my readers do the same.”

Certainly Criminal Justice in America trots out some rarely-heard ideas regarding radical change in the criminal justice system. Frank’s views on sex crimes, particularly those committed by child molesters, run contrary to the thinking of most Americans today.

Here, for example, he strongly recommends that child molesters, who according to Frank seem as drawn to their vice as drunks to booze or addicts to crack, receive counseling and help when apprehended. In another chapter, Frank suggests that all federal judges, including Supreme Court judges, have term limits of 15 years. He calls for the elimination of the requirement of a unanimous verdict, as well as for the elimination of the 12-person jury. He advocates the automatic deportation of all illegal aliens convicted of a felony, after they have finished their sentences, and recommends the completion of the fence along the border with Mexico to halt immigration and to slow the problems caused by illegals within the criminal justice system.

These and many other of Frank’s suggestions make Criminal Injustice in America a book well worth reading. The essays are written like newspaper columns and are easy on the eyes, and the conversational style is easy to comprehend.

Yet Criminal Justice in America does present some problems for the discerning reader.

In addition to a good number of typos and mistakes in the book, the statistics, which Frank uses abundantly, sometimes raise more questions than they answer. He writes, for example, that “the Catholic Church scandal earlier in this decade saw 4,392, (or 4 percent of all Roman Catholic clergy in the United States) being accused of sexually abusing children, as far back to the 1940s. (Per the John Jay Report commissioned by the Conference on Catholic Bishops).” Besides the minor mistake here — it is the Conference of Catholic Bishops — we are left in the dark. Does this mean that only 100,000 men have served as priests in the United States since the 1940s? And of the accused, how many priests were convicted?

This foggy statistical analysis extends throughout the book. In the very next paragraph, we learn that during a five-year period there were more than 2,500 cases in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic, “all involving sexual misconduct. More than 1,800 of those incidents involved young people, eighty percent of whom were students.” Questions: what were the other 20 percent? If we’re making some sort of comparison to priests, how many educators were accused as well as convicted?

Another complaint that might be directed at Criminal Justice in America is the cost of the programs recommended by Frank. Exorbitant as criminal justice costs now are, to institute the recommendations listed in this book would make the recent stimulus package look like the work of pikers. Many chapters in this book recommend creating more judges, more attorneys, more counselors, more day cares, more educational programs. To be fair to Frank, he lists these changes under the heading of “The Magic Wand,” which is a sort of personal wish list, yet the cost of these programs versus the cost of the current system — in money, in resources — is never compared on any realistic level.

Finally, Criminal Justice in America advocates more repressive and constrictive government than we already have now. In his discussion of abortion, for instance, Frank writes that we should “create legislation making it a crime to harass and harangue pregnant women at abortion clinics.” Even if we assume that the majority of Americans might favor such a move, is it not possible that such a recommendation, enacted into law and enforced by armed police, would lead to other protesters being banned? Frank writes that we need to expand “law enforcement sting operations throughout America to catch pedophiles surfing the Internet for children.” This idea not only increases law enforcement on the Internet, but raises the question: where in the hell are the parents in their children‘s lives? Why aren’t they watching out for children? Frank writes that we should “pull radio licenses from stations that play gansta rap on the public air waves.” Again, why pull radio licenses when the country allows such music to be created in the first place? And pulling radio licenses — what if the government next decides that we shouldn’t listen to gospel music or to certain political broadcasters?

Frank tell us at the beginning of Criminal Justice in America that he once met a house painter at a yard sale who recognized him.

“The painter extended his hand and said, ‘Howdy, I know you. I don’t always agree with what you say, but you sure do make me think.’ That’s better than a paycheck any day.”

The painter’s remarks hold true in regard to Criminal Justice in America. Frank is his own man, blunt, outspoken, sometimes out of his league but always a searcher, a digger after facts and solutions. Few readers, liberal or conservative, will agree with everything this former Miami homicide detective says in his critique of our laws and courts.

But he will make you think.

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Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. Metropolitan Books, 2008. 304 pages.

Try to imagine a book enthusiastically reviewed by George McGovern (former Democratic presidential candidate), Ron Paul (former Republican presidential candidate), and Nicholas Von Hoffman (author and commentator). Bill Kauffman has spent many years staking out his ideas on politics, particularly on conservatism with a small “c.”

Author of several books and writer of essays for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Onion, and The American Conservative, Kauffman has expended considerable energy, talent, and time on one single theme: that real conservatives, those who trace their lineage back to John Randolph of Virginia, to Thomas Corwin, the conservative Ohio senator who opposed war with Mexico in 1847, to moderns like Senator Taft of Ohio, are often those who oppose and lead the opposition against American foreign wars and bigger government control.

In Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism (ISBN 978-0-8050-8233-9, $25), Kauffman brings under one big tent much of his thinking of the last few decades regarding Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, imperialists and anti-imperialists. Although he addresses the gnawing issues of today from many different angles — Republican social concerns like abortion, Democrat traditional interest in bigger government — Kauffman focuses chiefly on the idea of conservatism and warfare. He raises the question: how did conservatives (again, note that little “c”) acquire a reputation as a bunch of warmongers?

Much of Ain’t My America is obsessed with that question and with the its answer, namely, that conservatives traditionally are not warmongers obsessed with expanding American power or with crushing our enemies. Quite the contrary, in fact. As Kauffman digs through the bone yards and reliquaries of American history, particularly its wars, he demonstrates time and again that Americans generally regarded as conservative in the past were rarely supporters of overseas wars. From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, from the fields of Gettysburg to the battlefields of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, American soldiers have gallantly fought wars which large portions of the population — often the majority — have opposed, at least initially. Using example after example of politicians, protesters, and conservative anarchists, Kauffman demonstrates that real conservatives — and real liberals — have much in common, especially in regard to the foreign policy of the United States.

Consider, for example, Thomas Corwin, Ohio senator, who in 1847 during the Mexican War thundered at the Senate that “If I were a Mexican, I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’” Dozens of other examples follow, showing conservatives and libertarians from both of America’s political parties opposing war as well as various writers and thinkers, including the novelist John Gardner, who like Kauffman was an Upstate New Yorker.

Kauffman ends his book with this plea:“The decline of Western civilization? I see it writ across George W. Bush’s petulantly vacant mug. As for John Gardner, daffodils, baseball, bluebirds, my daughter, and the Davids of Albion — hell, they’re the only hope our little corner of American civilization has left.

Come home, America. Reject the empire. Please.” As Ron Paul states on the back of the book, “For those who have been neoconned into believing that conservatism means unquestioned support for the welfare state, Ain’t My America is the perfect way to show that real conservatives defend peace and liberty.”

•••

Nancy Sherman, who has taught at Georgetown University and the United States Naval Academy, has written two books on virtue and character. With her third book, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind (ISBN 0-19-515216-6, $26), Sherman takes a look both at stoicism, the ancient philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and the part played by stoicism in the American military.

Although Stoic Warriors may sound academic, Sherman’s writing is in fact lively and readable. She employs frequent examples of stoicism in the military, where men and women of all branches learn early to “suck it up,” to get tough, to complete their mission despite physical obstacles and personal feelings. Using numerous anecdotes from the wars of the ancient Greeks to our present conflicts, Sherman examines such concepts as “toughness” in war, morals, anger, and abuse. She reveals how quickly a “virtue” such as toughness can become a vice, especially in regard to enemy prisoners or civilians.In addressing the commonalities between ancient Stoics and modern warriors, Sherman also looks hard at such topics as “Fear and Resilience” and “Permission to Grieve.” In all these chapters Sherman considers the value of the philosophy of stoicism to the soldier in terms of military leadership; she addresses the issue of anger from the standpoint of stoicism, showing how that philosophy so strongly advocates self-control; she examines the value of military brotherhood and individuality both from the stoic viewpoint. Sherman writes that the military men and women who took her courses particularly felt the pull of these words by Epictetus:

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices ... So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men ... And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’”

Stoic Warriors should appeal to many readers who enjoy their military history flavored with a strong dose of philosophy.

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We’ll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury. William Morrow, 2009. 224 pages

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Ill., — the town became Greentown in Dandelion Wine and many of his short stories — in 1920. He published his first short story in 1938, married in 1946 — he and his wife Maggie raised four daughters — and continued for the next 60 years to write: short stories, novels, poetry, essays, even a space opera. In addition, he worked as a creative consultant on the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at Disney World and the Epcot Center, and for the design of malls, where he tried to bring his ideas of small town setting into urban setting.

In the last 25 years, many found Bradbury’s stories weaker than those he had written in The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man. The style remained the same, perhaps too much so; the repeated one-sentence paragraphs seemed more a self-parody than good storytelling. The broad sentimentality found in all of Bradbury’s books was often given too much sail; the plots and characters of his stories seemed awash in emotion dishonestly earned. Bradbury’s name and not his talent found publishers for novels like Death Is A Lonely Business and Let’s All Kill Constance. Bradbury was like an old championship fighter who, despite the fact that his reflexes have slowed and his legs are gone, keeps climbing back into the ring to take another pummeling.

But even old fighters sometimes have a few good punches left. In We’ll Always Have Paris (William Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-167013-8, $24.99), the 89-year-old Bradbury again shows himself as a master of the short story.

“Masinello Pietro,” the first story in the collection and the one which Bradbury in the introduction to the book cites as his favorite, follows Massinello Pietro in his struggles against the neighbors and then the police. Pietro, who was once rich but gave his money away to the poor, now leads the life of an eccentric whose antics have annoyed those living near him:

“I invested what little I had left in dogs, geese, mice, parrots, who do not change their minds, who are always friends forever and forever. I bought my phonograph, which never is sad, which never stops singing!”

“That’s another thing,’ said Tiffany, wincing. “The neighborhood says at four in the morning, um, you and the phonograph ...”

“Music is better than soap and water!”

Although most readers wouldn’t want Pietro as a neighbor — his property is filthy from the animals, and loud music, even the classics, played at four in the morning would drive everyone but an insomniac nuts — the story makes a case for liberty and eccentricity, and serves as a warning against the forces acting against those two great goods. In this passage Bradbury clearly puts the case:

“His house, ablaze with votive candles and pictures of rising — flying — saints, the glint of medallions. His phonograph circling at midnight, two, three, four in the morning, himself singing, mouth wide, heart open, eyes tight, world shut out; nothing but sound. And here he was now among the houses that locked at nine, slept at 10, wakened only from long silenced hours of slumber in the morn. People in houses, lacking only black wreaths on door fronts.”

Bradbury was always particularly adept at short-short stories, tales of modern life that read like fables. In “When the Bough Breaks,” he writes a beautiful story of a couple waking in their bed to a storm and the sound of a baby crying in the nearby forest. Slowly they realize that though they had talked of having no children, they are meant to be the parents of this weeping spirit-baby. They make love — here Bradbury, always the master of discretion, leaves this part to the reader’s imagination — and the child ceases its weeping. Describing the story makes it sound trite or silly; Bradbury’s story, however, has the power of the professional behind it.

The title story, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” tells of an American who leaves his wife in the hotel to go for an evening walk in Paris. He encounters “a strange young man” who takes the American silently to a gym, removes his shirt, removes his own clothes, and kisses him on the forehead. They do not become lovers, promising only “next time.” The man returns to his wife and promises her that they will return to Paris the following year.

This story reflects some of the weaknesses of Bradbury’s spartan descriptions and terse dialogue. We’d like to know why the American followed the young man, why he allowed himself to be undressed in the dark gym, why he then refused the young man’s advances. Hemingway once said that writing is like an iceberg, that “there is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that does not show.” Here, and in other earlier stories of the last two decades, Bradbury sometimes carries this theory too far; too little shows, and the story then seems as if he was himself uncertain of his own characters and their motivations.

“Fly Away Home” returns to Bradbury’s love of the idea of space travel (For years, Bradbury disliked flying and didn’t have a driver’s license, one of the things which made him an object of ridicule from John Huston when they were working together on the film “Moby Dick”). Here a captain and crew land on Mars, only to find themselves terrified at being so far from all that was familiar on earth. One of the men suffers a mental breakdown, and the others appear close to the edge, when a supply ship from Earth brings a pre-fabricated town to them: a barber shop, a drugstore, a church, a library, a hotel, a pool hall, a bar. This town reassures and relaxes the crew, all of whom were chosen from small towns. Here Bradbury provides not only insight into the human psyche, but also tells us once again that these “stereotypes” may make downtowns and shopping malls more attractive to consumers.

Bradbury ends his book with a poem “America.” The last lines from a man who has loved his country for so many years read:

“You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be.

In tides of immigrants that this year flow

You still remain the beckoning hearth they’d know.

In midnight beds with blueprint, plan and scheme

You are the dream that other people dream.”

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Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 256 pages.

The books are piling up around my desk, which means the time has come for a spring cleaning.

Several books, all read in the last three months, seemed suited to the Easter season. First off the pile is Anne Rice’s Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Alfred A. Knopf, 978-0-307-26827-5, $24), in which the best-selling author of Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat tells us of her own transformation: her New Orleans childhood in a devout Catholic family, her falling-away from the Faith, her struggles as a writer, mother, and wife, her return to the Faith.

In many ways Rice’s journey reflects the via dolorosa traveled by many of her generation. She married young, spent part of the sixties in radical Berkeley, drank too much for a while, suffered travails as a wife and mother (her daughter died young, followed by her beloved first husband, Stan), and then slowly found her way back to a Faith which she could embrace. After writing some 20 novels about vampires and other otherworldly beings, Rice shocked many of her readers by shifting her focus to the life of Christ:

“From the summer of 2002 through the spring of 2005, my life was consumed with research. I studied not only the ancient historians Philo and Josephus, and all the New Testament scholarship I could lay hands on, but Scripture itself, reading over and over again the Gospels until the language, to which I’d grown so dead in childhood, came alive again, and the vital story of Christ’s life flowed through chapter and verse.”

Although the mawkish jacket cover detracts from Called Out of Darkness — a somber Anne Rice stands at the elbow of a statue of Saint Anthony holding the Christ Child — the worn adage about a book and its cover holds true. Rice fans old and new should enjoy this memoir.

•••

Riven (Tyndale Fiction, 378-1-4143-0904-0, $24.99) tells the story of two men: Brady Wayne Darby, a punk and a small-time criminal, and Thomas Carey, a pastor defeated by life who eventually takes a job as a prison chaplain. Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, writes in a note on Riven that “This is the novel I’ve always wanted to write ...” Like some authors of another generation — Dreiser, for example, or James Jones — Jenkins writes with an acute eye on what he sees as true without worrying too much about style. He takes time developing his characters so that when they finally meet we are thoroughly acquainted with their lives.

Jenkins does a particularly fine job in sketching out the life of Thomas Carey. Many people doubtless know a minister like Carey, a good man, a man of Biblical principles, who nevertheless seems unsuited to the church or congregation to which he is called. Such a life, as Jenkins shows us, is fraught with perils: poverty, rejection, depression, a sense of aimlessness. We follow Carey as a wealthy church elder bullies him into leaving his latest post, the torments suffered by him and by his wife as they look for a new position, the grind of poverty in the face of middle-age and diminished powers. Jenkins’s Carey lets us feel his struggle and empathize with his mental and spiritual pain.

Darby, who will eventually meet Carey, grows up in a trailer park, abandoned by his father, verbally and mentally savaged by his mother, and torn by the needs of his younger brother. Here again Jenkins does a splendid job in sketching and then fleshing out a character. We watch Darby’s wounds fester, his small vices grow into cankers of hatred, his brushes with goodness and with his own talents—the owner of a laundromat does his best to befriend Darby, and Darby later displays gifts as an actor—left withered and dying. Even his honest attempt to find love and companionship with Katie, a wealthy girl who ends up in his AA group, blows up in Darby’s face.

Riven is not a novel in which all turns out well, and the ending itself is both shocking and unrealistic. Yet Jenkins has nonetheless built up a solid tale here of redemption and change.

•••

In The Shack (978-0-9647292-3-0, $14.99), Wm. Paul Young gives us a story in which Mackenzie Allen Philip, known to his friends as “Mack,” receives a mysterious summons to the isolated shack where his murdered daughter Missy was found. Mack, who has felt dead in his life and heart since Missy’s killing, ventures to the shack, half believing that there he will encounter God.

Not only does Mack meet God in the shack — the Almighty appears to him as a large black woman, which might seem shocking had that role not already been done in television and movies — but he meets Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well.

Mack’s pilgrimage then becomes a series of dialogues with each person of the Trinity, discussions which range from the nature of the Holy Spirit to the meaning of forgiveness and love. Many of these discussions offer food both for thought and for discussion with friends. Young is excellent, for example, in his examination of the Trinity and how it works both as a basis for family and for love.

The Shack is also a book, however, which seems designed to be hurled against the nearest wall. Young gives the obligatory slap, for example, to institutional religion, having Jesus say at one point: “I don’t create institutions — never have, never will.” (And yet Christ did obediently participate in an institution, his own Jewish faith; he also instituted the Eucharist, left many commandments for his disciples, and made Peter the keeper of his Church).

Of women Young writes: “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.” Has this guy ever been in a church these days? Has he ever dealt with some of the women who today run most churches? Some general once said that there is no more vicious animal on the planet than a young American soldier. Right on the heels of that soldier is a 50-year-old matron who has just been denied her place on next year’s church decoration.

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The sound of silence.

Silence is a rare commodity in our world today. Of course, perfect silence doesn’t exist. The adventurer alone in some Arctic waste will hear the crunching of her footsteps on the ice and snow. The man placed in a sound-proof room will hear the mechanic vibrations of his flesh: breathing, perhaps a slight ringing in his ears, perhaps even, a la Edgar Allen Poe, the beating of his own heart. Nevertheless, nearly all of us inhabit a world today in which human noise is rarely absent, a place of radios and television, canned music and conversation, cell phones, iPods, sirens, traffic, and the ordinary orchestral din of human activity.

Every year an Asheville teacher, whose best friend is solitude and who has several times made silent monastic retreats, sets his middle-school students with the task of sitting for half an hour in silence and then writing an essay on the experience. The assignment rouses in the students dozens of questions. Can’t they at least listen to music? Are they permitted to walk around the house or stroll around the yard? Can they perform the task in 10-minute intervals? Can they exercise or read a book? When all these questions receive a negative, many of the students react as if their teacher had just condemned them to a cell on Devil’s Island and tossed away the key.

Like the students, most of us fear or avoid silence and its companion, solitude. To be alone in silence, mystics of most faiths maintain, is to be alone with God. For most of us — and this is the much more terrifying thought — to be alone in silence means being alone with ourselves.

In A Book of Silence (ISBN 978-1-58243-517-6, $25), Sara Maitland, English novelist and essayist, explores through her own experiences and those who have undergone prolonged and profound bouts of silence — solitary sea voyagers, anchorites, contemplatives in deserts and remote mountains — the meaning and necessity for silence.

Maitland, who grew up in a rambunctious family with five siblings, who married and bore children of her own, and who is an outspoken feminist, first became intrigued by silence when she moved to Warkton, a small Northamptonshire village. Her children grown and gone, and her husband having divorced her, Maitland found herself unexpectedly in her Warkton home. Here, she writes, “it is quite hard in retrospect to remember which came first — the freedom of solitude or the energy of silence.”

Emboldened by her experience in Warkton, and wanting to test greater silence and isolation, Maitland moved in 2000 to a house on a moor above Weardale, a town in County Durham. Here she continued to work on her writing, to take long walks across the moors, and to settle ever more deeply into the silence which she had sought. She embarked on a six weeks of silence on the remote island of Skye. Her retreat on Skye, though demandingly intense, marked a turning point for her, “a benchmark and a launch pad for much of my present life.” She returned to Weardale determined more than ever to explore the effects of silence on her mind and spirit.

As her love of silence deepened — readers immersed in A Book of Silence must frequently remind themselves, when Maitland fails to do so, that this is a woman who only a few years earlier treasured company and conversation — Maitland began reading about the experiences of others who had encountered deep silence. Her reflections on these women and men make up some of the most engaging parts of her book. Here we learn of a man who once spent a polar winter unable to leave his tent; we follow solitary sailors who set out to break oceanic speed records and either go mad or turn away from the prize because they have so fallen in love with the immensity and quietude of the sea; we meet religious mystics, both living and dead, who over the centuries turned to silence to hear the voice of God.

Long into her experiments with silence, Maitland realized the benefits bestowed by such deep taciturnity: a physical fitness gained by her long hikes; a greater ability to concentrate and think; a richer faith. Much to her dismay, however, she also found that her hours spent on writing had fallen off. After comparing the stillness sought by spiritual anchorites with that of the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century — Wordsworth or Coleridge, for example — she realized that each group had pursued silence for different reasons. Eremitic Christians or Buddhists sought by silence and solitude to erase their egos, the self that stood between them and spiritual transformation, while the Romantics looked to solitude to deepen their knowledge of that same self, and to isolate and protect it from the world. In this comparison and her conclusions, Maitland strikes out into new territory and offers readers interested in writing or spiritual development some fine insights into the benefits and dangers of solitude.

Maitland treats even book-lovers to the joys of silence. She writes that by silence “I felt less excited by plot, tension and pace, and more engaged with language and mood and place … I read with a sense of the mystery of what reading is and how deeply and silently it shaped our sense of self.”

The holidays with all their noise and frenzied tumult are upon us. Readers needing an escape from the festival rush and run could do far worse than curling up in some remote corner with A Book of Silence, a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at hand, still, solitary, utterly and delightfully immersed in silence.

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Once upon a time the queen of literature, poetry finds itself nowadays, like the tale of Cinderella run in reverse, a poor stepchild of pen and paper, pale-limbed, gray ashes on ashen cheeks, seated on a broken stool off in some odd corner, half in shadow, a tatterdemalion with large wondering eyes that ask: What in the name of Shelley happened to me?

Some critics argue that poetry, like some of the plastic arts, lost its way when it ignored its audience; when poets turned so far inward that only a few could follow, or be bothered to follow, them; when rejection of meter and rhyme, which once gave an audience a “hook,” that is, memorable lines that stick like burrs in the heart and brain, gave rise to the plethora of free verse that attracted poets but not their readers (It is said, in fact, that today’s poets themselves rarely read their contemporaries).

And yet ... and yet ....

Each year new anthologies of poetry pop up out of publishing like bits of life-saving flotsam from a sinking ship. The great bulk of these anthologies harken back to poets past and are often centered around specific themes: poems for lovers, for men, for women, for children; poems to comfort the afflicted and the dying; poems from different religious faiths; poems on war. Sometimes a well-known author — a novelist, an essayist, a biographer — will issue an anthology of favorite poems; Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems received, for example, fine reviews and was a national best-seller.

Catching Life by the Throat: Poems from Eight Great Poets (W.W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-06607-4, 2008, $26.95) stands apart from many of these anthologies for several reasons. Josephine Hart, the commentator and collector of these poems, has devoted a great deal of time and money to the cause of great poetry. Since 2004, she has hosted the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour at the British Library. In her “Introduction,” Hart writes of her passion for verse:

“Poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility, gave voice to experience in a way no other literary art form could. It has never let me down. At various times it has provided me with a key to understanding; it has expressed what I believe inexpressible, whether of joy or despair; it provided me, a girl with no sense of direction, with a route map through life .... Without poetry I would have found life less comprehensive, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable.”

Catching Life by the Throat also differs from many anthologies on account of the CD included with the book. Though there are books of verse that include recordings of the authors reading, this particular anthology includes actors, directors, and writers reading the poets as recorded during the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour. Here popular stars like Ralph Fiennes and Roger Moore join classically trained actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theater to give us engaging and passionate readings from Auden and Plath, from Yeats and Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Poems, great poems, are written to be read aloud, and here the readings do justice to the poetry. The voices of these performers couple like lovers with the words of the poets, delighting and intriguing their listeners.

Finally, Hart’s selection of Marianne Moore and Rudyard Kipling as two of her eight poets sets her anthology apart from many of the others issued in the last few years. Those unfamiliar with Marianne Moore’s poetry will find in these eight poems and their readings a delightful discovery, a poet whose mind, as Hart tells us, “enchants us with its truthfulness, its clarity, its wit.” An American of Irish descent who “adored gardenias, beautiful clothes, Beatrice Potter and baseball,” Moore died in 1972, leaving behind a wealth of words.

Rudyard Kipling is even more a surprise guest in Hart’s anthology. Since World War II, universities and many poets have denigrated Kipling for his belief in imperialism and his “jingoistic” stances toward the military and his country. Recently, given a closer reading, his work has attracted the more favorable attention that it deserves, but it is nonetheless daring of Hart to include Kipling in Catching Life by the Throat. Here are the well-known verses of Kipling — ”Danny Deever,” “Tommy,” “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” and “Recessional,” which was written as a warning to the English on empire and materialism. Yet here too are less familiar poems like “The ’Mary Gloster‘”, “The Children,” and “Epitaphs of the War,“ a collection of short verses in which Kipling, who had lost a son in the First World War, wrote:

An Only Son

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

Common Form

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Catching Life by the Throat will prove a particularly efficacious gift for those who don’t know much poetry, but who need poetry in their lives. The graduate of high school or college who needs a clear-eyed approach to the world, the young person who feels in need of some direction or solace, the man or woman with a love for the written and spoken word: these are the ones who will gain most by this small treasure.

•••

Looking for a great summer read? Try Robert Morgan’s Boone: A Biography (Algonquin Books, ISBN 978-1-56512-615-2, $18.95). In this book Morgan, author of Gap Creek, The Blue Valleys, and other novels, gives us a splendid portrait of a remarkable man. Morgan’s portrait of Boone — the father and husband, the hunter, the trailblazer, the man of legend and myth — is, as another reviewer wrote, “historical biography at its best.

Catching Life by the Throat: Poems from Eight Great Poets by Josephine Hart. W.W. Norton, 2008. 256 pages.

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The Genius by Jesse Kellerman. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008. 384 pages

Sixty years ago, Graham Greene, one of the great English writers of the 20th century, differentiated his novels from what he regarded as his lesser works by calling the latter “entertainments.” Novels — Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter — constituted his serious writing, the themes, characters, and plots by which his literary reputation would rise or fall. Entertainments, on the other hand, were in Greene’s eyes those works written off the cuff, lightweight fiction aimed at the wider audience of best-sellers in airport bookshops, composed with an eye toward cash rather than literary fame.

In their lists of the author’s works, current reprints of Greene’s books do not delineate between novels and entertainments. Indeed, Graham Greene’s distinctions cast between his serious and his light fiction may even indeed strike us as humorous, false or perhaps Victorian in a world moving from a print culture to an oral culture and a society in which other media — television, computers — play a much greater role than that of the printed word.

In many ways, however, such a distinction between “light” and “heavy” literature might prove useful to an American culture in which sheer entertainment is often viewed as the high peaks of our culture. Americans 60 and 70 years ago distinguished between “high” and “low” culture, with the former being best represented by a performance of Beethoven sonatas and the latter by the music of Frank Sinatra or even Bennie Goodman. In the intervening years, low culture has swallowed up high culture. For those who doubt such a proposition, we need only ask a few questions. Who among us can them name a great—or for that matter, a not-so-great— American composer of the last 20 years? A great American painter? Thousands of poets publish today, but which of us can name a great American poet writing today? Who can name three American playwrights? In the 1950s, the names of “high-brow” artists — Picasso, Rockwell, Pollock, O’Neill, Hemingway, Faulkner, Frost, Sandberg, and others — were household words known to everyone with a high school education. Today popular culture focuses almost exclusively on actors, pop musicians, and a few best-selling writers.

To a certain extent, of course, “high” art itself must take some of the rap for its decline into oblivion. Many artists left off long ago making any attempt to appeal to a broad audience. A portrait of this rejection, inadvertently offered, may be found in Jesse Kellerman’s novel The Genius (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 978-0-399-15459-1, $24.95).

Ethan Muller, the novel’s narrator and son of one of Manhattan’s wealthier families, finds himself an art dealer after a troubled childhood in which his father essentially abandoned him to loneliness and private schools. He operates his Chelsea gallery with some success, his artists running from Egao Oshima’s “lovely, shimmering paintings” to Jocko Steinberger’s “papier-mâché genitalia. All of the Oshimas had pre-sold, and several of the Steinbergers had gone to the Whitney. A good month.”

Then Tony Wexler, the confidant of David Muller, Ethan’s estranged father, calls Ethan and asks him to look at some drawings abandoned by Victor Cracke, a tenant in Muller Courts in Queens, one of the more squalid pieces of the Muller real-estate empire. After some hesitancy, Ethan arrives at the building to look over the drawings, only to find that they are not only works of genius but that there appear to be box-loads of them, with each drawing ultimately fitting together into a some vast map of Cracke’s vision of reality.

Unable to locate the artist, Ethan uses a select few of the drawings to open the next show at his gallery. After the media cover the show, Ethan receives a phone call from Lee McGrath, a retired policeman who recognizes one of the faces in the drawings as belonging to a boy murdered 40 years previously.

Here the novel widens its scope, moving to include a world of child murder, violence, and death alongside the wild world of postmodern art. Ethan becomes part-time detective, obsessed with finding Victor Cracke to determine whether he was the killer not only of the boy spotted by McGrath, but of four other boys in the drawings as well. During his search he encounters McGrath’s daughter, Samantha, a district attorney to whom he is quickly attracted.

Meanwhile, we encounter through a series of vignettes the Mullers who built the fortune which helped pay for Ethan’s education and which he has now rejected along with his father. We see what Ethan can’t see, that the accumulation of so much money and capital brings both freedom and a self-made prison to this ambitious family, that a scandal which haunts the family will eventually have repercussions for Ethan as well.

The Genius offers its readers many gifts: Kellerman’s knowledge of the art world, an array of believable characters, a tightly-wound plot, and some fine writing. What distinguishes The Genius from many other suspense novels is that Kellerman blends various philosophical insights entertained by Ethan, particularly ideas on genius, art, and morality, into the plot without slowing the action. Here, for example, Ethan offers us his thoughts on himself, on genius, and on the ordinary:

“Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare — one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999,999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you come to the genius’s vantage point.

“To pursue that — to clamber up, to stretch our fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface — can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be the president of a fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell.”

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Fall of Frost by Brian Hall. Penguin Group, 2008. 352 pages

Since his death in 1963, Robert Frost has come to occupy a place in the highest echelon of American poets. In anthologies and textbooks, poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Less Traveled,” and “Mending Wall” remain perennial favorites. The last 10 years alone attest to Frost’s continuing popularity, having given birth to two more biographies — Jay Parini’s Robert Frost: A Life and Jeffrey Myers’ Robert Frost: A Biography — as well as to such works as The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost and The Notebooks of Robert Frost.

We may now add to these volumes Brian Hall’s fictionalized life of the poet, Fall of Frost (Penguin Group, ISBN 978-0-14-311491-8, $15).

Hall’s novel follows a sort of accordion structure, that is, the book tells the story of Frost’s life not in a straightforward narrative, but in a series of short chapters, folds of time and circumstance emblematic of different events in Frost’s life, with the folds themselves coming together by the end of the book to give us a unique picture of this extraordinary poet, his work, and his often harsh world.

Chapters 15 and 16, for example, show us Frost as a child in San Francisco with a bully for a father — he died young, an alcoholic — and his mother reading to him, a backward, sickly child and a late reader. Chapter 17 then sweeps us to Derry Farm in New Hampshire, 1902, while Chapter 18 lands us in Amherst, Mass., in 1932 (These “chapters,” by the way, are sometimes only half-a-page long).

By focusing in this way on different facets of Frost’s life and world, and by writing poetically and impressionistically himself, Hall brings Frost alive for his readers. We are made to feel Frost’s sufferings — his struggles to earn a living, the deaths of four of his six children before his own death, the mental problems of his sister and one of his daughters. Again and again, we bear witness to Frost’s gritty determination to overcome his multitudinous difficulties, to triumph as a poet.

In some of the Fall of Frost’s more amusing and more touching sections, Hall shows us Frost at the end of his life. It is 1962, and Frost is traveling to the Soviet Union, an old man sick and half-deaf on a quixotic mission to lessen the nuclear tensions between the USSR and the United States. Frost’s forthrightness causes consternation in both camps, and Hall’s depiction of Khrushchev and Kennedy in relation to the poet are particularly entertaining. When the Washington Post reports that “Frost Says Khrushchev Sees U.S. as ’Too Liberal’ To Defend Itself,” Kennedy explodes, shouting “As it is, half of Congress wants me to invade Cuba tomorrow. They’ll use this! It makes me look soft. It makes everything worse.”

In the meantime, we see Khrushchev wondering if the Americans have sent Frost to him as a test of some sorts, a test which he can’t quite understand. This particular chapter ends with the Soviet premier opening a manuscript by an unknown author which, though Hall doesn’t tell us so, is Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. As his aide reads to him from the manuscript, “The premier closes his eyes. He feels with pleasure the warmth of the setting sun on his face.” It isn’t just the sun that is setting, of course, but the Soviet Union which even then was fading into twilight.

In an “Author’s Note” at the conclusion of Fall of Frost, Brian Hall points out that he has approached his novel “in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form to accommodate more speculation than nonfiction generally allows.” Hall paraphrases the conversations in his novel from Frost’s public statements, his diaries and letters, and the records left by the poet’s friends and family. Here in Hall’s depiction we come face-to-face as well with Frost’s amazing ability not only to remember hundreds of lines of poetry, his own and those of other writers, but to bring them into conversation at appropriate moments.

Fall of Frost is a pleasure to read, a triumph in portraiture for all who love poetry, biography, and fine writing.

•••

Although Kerry Madden’s most recent book is Up Close: Harper Lee (ISBN 9780670010950, $16.99, 2009), young readers this summer may want to seek out some of her earlier books as well. In her Maggie Valley trilogy — Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain — Madden slips readers into the early 1960s and the lives of the Weems family. Here we meet Livy Two Weems, the12-year-old daughter of a Daddy who is “a poet in his soul” and a Mama who “claims a paycheck is worth a sight more than a dang poem.”

With nine siblings, including a new-born baby, Livy Two has her hands full helping her parents with chores and taking care of her younger sister, Gentle. Like her father, she also has big dreams of making it in the music world, writing songs and then playing them on her battered guitar.

Livy Two’s character, and the tone of these three books in general, can be sampled in Louisiana’s Song in a scene where Daddy is still recovering from a car accident. Livy Two lands a job with Miss Attickson, the bookmobile lady, and as they ride through the mountains delivering books, Madden gives us insights into the lives of the mountain poor, their love of books and learning, and the shy compassion of Livy Two, who finally summons the courage to ask for a book on brain trauma that might help her understand and care for her stricken father.

Adolescent readers should enjoy these stories with their local color and their messages of hope and the power of determination in the face of personal obstacles.

Highly recommended.

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American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day by Robert Coram. Little, Brown and Company, 2007.

Robert Coram’s American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day (ISBN 978-0-316-0679-3, $15.99) tells the extraordinary story of a man who served in three wars, spent years as a POW in North Vietnam, became the most decorated officer in the U.S. Air Force, and fought for veterans rights in the 1980s.

Born in 1925, Day grew up poor in Sioux City, Iowa. He taught himself to hunt and put meat on the table at an early age — his father gave him a beaten-up .410 shotgun when he was 10 years old — and he learned the value of work, caddying, again at the age of 10, at a nearby country club golf course. After Pearl Harbor, and just weeks shy of his high school graduation, Day joined the Marines, having first eaten bananas for several weeks to meet the minimum weight requirements (a tactic also followed by Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated soldier, who was, like Day, slim and slight of build).

After serving in the Marine Corps, Day returned home to Sioux City, attended college and then law school on the G.I. Bill, married Doris Sorensen, and then, after a brief stint running a local detective agency, joined the Air Force, which at that time was a new branch among the services.

Over the next 20 years, Day became a legend among his fellow pilots. His most famous exploit before his imprisonment as a POW occurred in Britain, when the F-84 he was flying caught fire on take-off. Within seconds Day found himself ejecting at only 300 feet altitude from the falling aircraft. His chute failed to open, but he crashed into trees, smashing his right ankle and becoming the first man in the history of the Air Force to eject from a jet aircraft without a working parachute and survive.

Day’s greatest exploits occurred during his captivity in Vietnam. After being hit by a North Vietnamese missile, Day landed alive but injured and was immediately captured by ground forces. Within a few days, he escaped his guards and fled toward the DMZ, the embattled area separating North and South Vietnam. After a grueling trek south — his wounds were open and untreated, and he was reduced to eating frogs and berries from bushes — he was within sight of the Marine Corps camp when he was again taken prisoner.

Closely guarded this time, Day began the brutal years of captivity when camp guards regularly beat and tortured him and other prisoners, including John McCain, who became Day’s good friend. His worst moments of torture came when his interrogators had him beaten with fan belts.

“When Day was dragged off to the quiz room on the morning of the sixth day, his buttocks and thighs were swollen and puffed out about three inches. Atop the hamburger-like flesh, from the middle of his thighs up to the small of his back, a scab was trying to reform. Day’s lower legs were twice their normal size, and his toes were like overstuffed sausages. A watery fluid oozed from his testicles.”

Eventually, Day and most of the other POWs came home. Coram’s description of their return and of their reactions to those prisoners who had taken early release for “good behavior,” which essentially meant collaborating with the enemy, offers a fascinating insight into the sense of honor such men carried with them. Having expected that these early releases would have been drummed out of the service, Day and the other long-term POWs were astonished to find their former comrades living normal lives and even honored by the military.

Coram discusses the animosity between these two groups at length, explaining why Day, McCain, and the others who had not taken early releases were so obsessed and incensed with those who had done so. Coram shows how the military itself reacted to these revelations, demoting some officers and forcing others into retirement. Though Vietnam POWs are in the public mind all of a kind, honorable and strong men who bore witness to the Code of Conduct and to American ideals, Day and his comrades regard the POWs as two separate groups, one composed of traitors and snitches, the other of men who did their duty.

Bud Day’s life of confrontation and controversy didn’t end on his release from the military. He used his legal knowledge to help fellow veterans struggling for better medical treatment. He campaigned for several politicians. He supported the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their opposition to the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry. He remained friends with John McCain, but opposed him politically on many issues.

In the Preface to American Patriot, Coram cites a line from the James Michener novel The Bridges of Toko-Ri:

“I recalled that line from James Michener when the admiral is standing on the bridge of an aircraft carrier watching his pilots take off against the terrible defenses at Toko-Ri and says to himself, ‘Where do we get such men?’”

•••

Novelist, poet, biographer, and essayist, Jay Parini’s most recent book is Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America (ISBN 978-0-385-52276-2, $24.95). Here Parini has written literary essays about books which not only have shaped American history, but which also contributed to what Parini calls our “national myth.”

Some of Parini’s choices — The Federalist Papers and The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, for example — are conventional. Others are more daring, though they make sense when we consider their impact: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, The Feminine Mystique.

Parini is a fine writer who in Promised Land treats readers to his vast knowledge of literature and his love for American history.

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Pound for Pound by F.X. Toole. HarperCollins, 2007. 416 pages.

Million Dollar Baby by F.X. Toole. Harper Perennial 2005. 256 pages.

What makes a fighter?

In his mid-forties, a time of life when the last thing most men look for is a punch in the face, F.X. Toole — his real name was Jerry Boyd — looks for an answer to that question. Since his boyhood, boxing had interested him. In the 1940s, he listened to the fights on the radio with his father. Later he watched the fights on television or at Madison Square Garden, which he once described as his personal Camelot. Toole followed the careers of various fighters, read whatever he could find on the great Irish boxers like Sullivan and Corbett, and admired both the winners and losers in the ring. But always the question haunted him — What makes a fighter? — and so he determined to find out in the one way that truly counts.

F.X. Toole stepped into a ring.

He trained hard, put in the hours shadowboxing, hitting the heavy bag, and sparring, but by his own admission he generally got pounded. He had trouble seeing without his glasses, he was older and slower than the twenty-somethings who danced with him in the ring, he had teeth cracked and inlays fall out. Eventually, as he writes in the introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he stopped sparring because he had to wear braces to correct a jaw condition, one unrelated to boxing. But he stayed in the game, serving 20 years as a corner man, cut man, and trainer. Open-heart surgery slowed him down, but his coronary problems never kept him from the ring for very long.

Toole had also been writing and seeing his work rejected for 40 years. Finally, when he was 70, Million Dollar Baby — the original title was Rope Burns — was published to critical acclaim. Toole lived two more years, dying before the release of the Academy Award winning movie while at work on a boxing novel. His last words were “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book.”

Toole ran out of time in his last fight, but the people who loved him, his children, and two men named Nat Sobel and James Wade, have given us his marvelous book.

Pound for Pound (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 978-0-06-088133-7) surely ranks as one of the great fictional accounts of what it means to be a boxer, what the sweet science takes — and sometimes how little it gives back — to its practitioners. In addition to its recreation of ringside action, Pound for Pound should also rank as an outstanding book for its writing, its characters, and its realism.

Pound for Pound gives us the portrait of two fighters, men who bob and weave, stick and move, but who fight their hardest battles outside the ring. Dan Cooley, who runs a body shop in Los Angeles with his partner, Earl Daw, “a dark-skinned black man” who had fought as a middleweight with Dan as his trainer, has lost his wife, his children, and even his grandchild to death by accident and disease. When his grandson darts in front of a car and dies in the beginning of the novel, we see Dan fall to pieces, trying to drink himself to death, wanting to take revenge on the young and innocent Hispanic driver, attempting but failing to kill himself. Through his memories, we learn of the various bouts he once fought, of the fighters he’s trained, of the sport that he had once loved so passionately.

Eduardo “Chicky” Garza y Duffy is a Texas middleweight with a troubled home-life. His grandfather, Eloy, once a champion boxer himself, now spends much of his time drinking and drugging, vices which worsen after Eloy’s wife Delores dies. Assisted by his grandfather, Chicky begins his own professional ascent in the ring, but two corrupt managers, one in Texas, the other in Los Angeles, take advantage of the young man’s ignorance and nearly end his boxing career.

What makes Toole’s book so special is not only his boxing acumen — he clearly knows the game — but his ability to put us into the shoes of the fighters and trainers, and their family. Here, for instance, he describes Chicky’s feelings for his grandfather:

“Chicky loved the old-timey Texas way Eloy spoke, his accent even more pronounced than El Paso’s great and charming golfer Lee Trevino. Once Chicky began to wear boots and a wide-brimmed hat, he quickly gave up the vato street talk of Victoria courts to sound as much like Eloy as he could. He soon sounded as Texas as guys with nicknames like Cooter and Cotton ... When the Longhorns were playing the Aggies on TV, Eloy talked to Chicky as if he were a peer and it made him feel like a man, like an hombre.”

Toole’s powers as a writer are highlighted by the ending of the novel, which was undoubtedly the part completed after his death. The story at the end of the novel comes together beautifully, but the descriptions, particularly of the fight scenes, lack the intensity of those found throughout the rest of the novel. Toole had the knowledge of a man who for thirty years had stood ringside, learning which cannot be reproduced second-hand. This contrast doesn’t diminish the book, but instead make us stand in awe of the skill and insight of F.X. Toole.

In Pound for Pound, Toole tells us what makes a fighter. In his introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he tells us why he loves this sport so much. As a trainer, he is giving a rubdown to a black heavyweight at the gym. Another man, a featherweight, paroled after serving time for rape and robbery, strung out on drugs, enters the gym and begins verbally abusing the “white racist power structure” and how he was the victim of white oppression.

“So there he was, going on about pigs. I should mention that my heavyweight had a white wife. When he asked the featherweight if he couldn’t see that I was white, and that maybe he should watch his jive-ass mouth, the featherweight didn’t miss a beat.

“‘Yeah, I see he white, but Toole be different.’

Magic. It’s why I’m in it. For the voodoo.”

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

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Several months ago, I reviewed a marvelous non-fiction work by Sharon Hatfield titled Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell. Hatfield’s book is a comprehensive account of a 1935 West Virginia murder which became a “cause celebre” that drew the attention of the national media, the Women’s Rights Movement and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In truth, the murder was a rather prosaic event: an attractive young school teacher living near Wise, W.V., had a violent argument with her father because he objected to her late return home from a night out with her friends. The father ended up dying on the floor from a head wound and Edith Maxwell was arrested and charged with murder. The trials dragged on for years and Edith Maxwell was not released from prison until 1941.

Now comes Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, based on the Edith Maxwell case, and it quickly becomes evident that McCrumb has an axe to grind. Specifically, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers addresses the devious role of journalism in any and all cases that occur in Appalachia. Although the primary focus is on the Edith Maxwell case, McCrumb takes the opportunity to catalogue other instances where journalists not only distorted the events in order to sell their stories to major newspapers, but actually influenced verdicts and damaged innocent people. Examples include the notorious “elephant hanging” near Irwin, Tenn. (1916); the famed Scopes “monkey trial”  in Dayton, Tenn. (1925) and the tragic Floyd Collins incident in Kentucky (1926).

McCrumb, who is an accomplished author of Appalachian novels that frequently blend folklore and history with a tantalizing dash of the supernatural  (one of her recurring characters is gifted with “second sight”), has no trouble at all in transposing the entire cast of the Edith Maxwell case into a “fictional” personage. Edith Maxwell becomes Erma Morton, and Edith’s clever, self-promoting brother, Earl, is reincarnated as Harley Morton, who takes charge of his sister’s defense and immediately signs a contract with the Hearst papers, giving them sole rights to her story. As a consequence, all of the other journalists, including emissaries from a variety of “women’s rights” organizations, are only given limited access to Erma Morton.

However, the major emphasis is not on the accused.  Erma remains a remote and mysterious character until the culminating pages of The Devil Among the Lawyers, when she finally reveals a vague version of “what really happened.” Instead, McCrumb turns her attention to journalists — a collection of a half-dozen news hounds who run the gamut from inept but well-meaning (Carl Jennings) to purple-prosed sob sisters (Rose Hanelon) and jaded yellow journalists (Luster Swan). This motley crew arrives in Wise with motives that are as diverse as their characters.

Carl Jennings is fresh out of college and painfully aware of his lack of experience. Lacking the expense accounts (and the cynicism) of his worldly cohorts, he trusts his empathy for Emma Morton, believing that they share a common background. In addition, he feels he has “an ace up his sleeve” since he has a relative — Nora, a cousin — who shares the Bonesteel gift of “second sight.” He has managed to bring her to Wise to work in the kitchen of the boarding house where he stays. Is it possible that Nora will perceive the truth about Emma?

Like the majority of out-of-state journalists, Rose Hanelon arrives in Wise with preconceived ideas about the region. However, despite her cynical evaluation of the local populace (“ignorant and backward hillbillies”), Rose has become adept at writing stories about tragic young women who are victimized by brutish males. With the assistance of the photographer, Shade Baker, she sometimes creates fake photographs of impoverished mountain children to add pathos to her reports. Yet, despite her unethical approach to the Emma Morton trial, Rose emerges as a lonely, foolish woman who is hopelessly caught up in a doomed romance with a young, daredevil pilot.

Henry Jernigan emerges as the most memorable of McCrumb’s journalists. In addition to being to being a kind of effete snob who struggles to hold himself apart from his callous and vulgar companions, Henry resembles the noted journalist Lafcadio Hearn, who renounced his American citizenship and devoted his life to pursuing Japanese art and culture ... However, Henry Jernigan’s newly discovered paradise only lasts until a tragic event (a devastating earthquake/fire and the death of his dearest friend) forced him to leave Japan. Although he ekes out a livelihood by writing sophisticated articles filled with classical allusions and flowery bombast, he seems a lost and tortured soul. Certainly, he seems out of his element in Wise, West Virginia.

One of the most moving passages in The Devil Amongst the Lawyers describes Henry’s discovery that he “is not alone.” He is constantly accompanied by the spirit of a young Japanese woman who died many years ago in Japan ... a spirit that he cannot see. However, his ghostly companion is seen by others, those who have “second sight,” including Carl Jennings’ cousin, Nora.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, like Sharon Hatfield’s Never Seen the Moon, provides extensive evidence that journalists who were sent to cover sensational events in Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s tended to rely heavily on a singular literary work: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr. Published in 1908, this popular novel/play/film/outdoor drama was filled with graphic descriptions of violent, ignorant men and helpless victimized women.  Despite the fact that Appalachian culture and its people had changed radically in the intervening years, unethical journalists continued to use the same stereotypes. As one critic commented on the newspaper articles about Edith Maxwell’s murder trial, many of the reports were written by men who never left the hotel in Wise. They simply defined the people with “a jar of moonshine in one hand and a copy of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in the other.”

As a result of McCrumb’s emphasis on the role of unethical journalism in the Maxwell case, the final outcome of the novel seems anticlimactic, perhaps even irrelevant. In essence, McCrumb cracks the whip and her characters dance in accordance to her wishes. Unlike the vivid characters in many of her novels, the cast of The Devil Amongst the Lawyers appears stylized and one-dimensional. Perhaps that is the price for writing a novel that is more an ethical preachment than a tense murder mystery.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb. St Martin’s Press, 2010. 320 pages

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As cooler weather plucks leaves from the trees, stripping the branches bare as a freshly-barbered poodle, as that wonderful green grass of summer now takes on a sheen of frost at dawn, as fall in the mountains deepens into the icy winds of winter, many summer visitors in these parts close up their houses and head south to a place where the sun still produces heat as well as light and where a cold snap means accidentally leaving the air-conditioning on high on a mild night.

By necessity or choice, most of us stay here, hunker down, and endure the mountain winters. Some Artic souls even take pleasure in the cold rains of November, the cannonades of icy wind that mark December, the gray skies and slick roads of January. But shivering alongside them are those sun-worshippers who would in a heartbeat fly like a bat out of a snowstorm to be warm again, to be oppressed by heat and humidity, to lie on a beach beneath a hot sun and melt into the white sand like an ice cube in a frying pan.

These are the people who, lacking the funds to take themselves permanently off to latitudes closer to the equator, will either spend the next few months shivering forlornly in their sweaters and blankets or else use their imagination to draw the heat and the sunshine to them.    

For those cold readers looking for a touch of warmth, they might try taking up in their frozen fingers James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The Glass Rainbow (ISBN 978-1-4391-2828-9, $25.99). Set in New Iberia, La., in the summertime, The Glass Rainbow throws off a steamy heat that should warm the hearts of all who love suspense and mystery in their fiction.

Dave Robicheaux, the New Orleans detective created long ago in the novel The Neon Rain, has aged in this latest story, but he still works for the New Iberia Police Department, fights the pull toward drinking a bottle of Beam to squelch his nightmares about by Vietnam and his police work, and fights the good fight for decency against a low-life, grubby world.

In The Glass Rainbow, Robicheaux and his best friend and former partner, Clete Purcel, set out to solve the murder of some young girls, including Bernadette Latiolais, a high school honor student snatched and killed while walking home from classes. In their quest for justice, the two men run across the same sort of lowlifes and scum encountered in previous Robicheaux novels.

They must fight against a best-selling author who is also a con-man and a killer; a descendent of the wealthy planter class, also a novelist, who has lured Alafair, Robicheaux’s daughter, into his circle of wealth and prestige; a pimp and drug dealer named Herman Stinga, who seems to enjoy himself most when he is irritating people; and a full company of other characters who seem to occupy nearly every point on anyone’s moral compass.

Though Dave Robicheaux figures prominently in The Glass Rainbow and the other books and has successfully battled the demons of his life — he is married to a beautiful, understanding woman, has raised a daughter, and lives in an idyllic Louisiana glade — it is Clete Purcel, Robicheaux’s partner, who most compellingly attracts our attention. Unlike Robicheaux, Purcel hasn’t come to terms with the torments of his past: he smokes too much, helps keep several liquor stores running a profit, runs around with women, and has a temper like a volcano. Early in the book, Robicheaux says that “Clete was the libidinous trickster of folklore, the elephantine buffoon, the bane of the Mob and all misogynists and child molesters, the brain-scorched jarhead who talked with a dead mamasan on his fire escape….” Robicheaux knocks at the door; Purcel kicks it off the hinges.

What sets Burke’s novels apart from others in the genre of suspense, however, is his description of Louisiana weather and landscape, descriptions so vivid that readers can soak up the heat of the Deep South from every page. Here, for example, is Burke’s description of a murder scene:

“We drove down the same levee where Layton had parked the pickup truck on the last day of his life. The water was high from the rain, lapping across the cypress knees, the strings of early hyacinths rolling in the waves. The sky was overcast, the wind steady out of the south, and in the distance I could see a flat bronze-colored bay starting to cap and moss straightening on a line of dead cypress trees.”

Such descriptions, repeated throughout the book and so planting a believable background to the story, open for us the door to Robicheaux’s world and allow us to step into his life and walk beside him. They carry us out of ourselves and our daily lives. Burke paints these landscapes with such bright and powerful colors and lines that they may help even a shivering reader remember that the whole world isn’t a winter wasteland of gunmetal skies, brown grass, and bare trees.  

The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 448 pages

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Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo. Guideposts, 2009. 288 pages

Art and literary whodunits are so plentiful these days that they might nearly constitute their own genre. The DaVinci Code is the best-selling of these works, but anyone who visits a library or bookstore can find a whole tribe of detectives purporting to trace missing letters, paintings, or books of Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and others. Possession, A.S. Byatt’s superb novel of such sleuthing with its comparison of the Victorian to the post-modern, involves missing letters, poetry with clues, and nuanced speech. Missing medieval manuscripts, often with magical powers, are also popular topics for such fictions, ranging from The Name of the Rose to The Rule of Four.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find in Beth Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life (Guideposts, ISBN 13-978-08249-4771-2, $14.99) another such literary mystery. Here a young American, Emma Grant, still grieving and angry over her recently ended marriage and her seemingly ruined academic career, flies to London to search out some missing letters written by Jane Austen. Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrot of 22 Stanhope Gardens has contacted Emma, hinted at the letters, and invited her to come for a visit. Once Emma makes contact with Mrs. Parrot in London, the older woman reveals one authentic letter, then gives Emma a series of tasks to perform, all of them having to do with Austen’s life, before she will produce the other letters.

In the meantime, Emma has also met Adam Clark, an old friend who broke away from her after her marriage. Adam, also a professor, helps Emma find her way about London, shares meals with her, and slowly falls in love with her once again. Together they complete the last tasks set for Emma by Mrs. Parrot.

As she draws closer to the Austen letters and the band of women who have guarded these letters since Jane Austen’s death, thus respecting the author‘s last wishes to keep her private life separate from her books, Emma feels more and more empathy for Austen herself. An Austen fanatic since adolescence, Emma had begun blaming Austen and her dauntless heroines for deceiving her, for leading her to believe in happiness and dreams. Just as she is about to give up her dreams and her love of Austen, however, Emma instead finds herself attracted to the Austen of the missing letters, the woman who lost the man she loved to a storm at sea and who rejected another suitor offering her everything she desired but love.

On her quest for clues and academic glory, Emma not only falls in love with Adam, but also must face Edward, her ex-husband, again. In their marriage, Edward had continued his philandering with graduate students (Emma’s surprise at this adultery in turn surprises even the casual reader, as Emma was herself at one point the graduate student carrying on the affair). When apprehended by Emma, Edward had then helped support the graduate student in question in a plagiarism charge Emma had brought against her. Near the end of Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Edward comes crawling back to Emma, professing his love but in reality wanting her to sign a release stating that she won’t sue the university for her unjust termination.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life should appeal to Austen fans and to those who know little about the revered author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While Patillo herself is an impassioned amateur student of Austen‘s life and work, she writes to the readers through Emma with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Her quests take her, and us, to some of the places Austen lived. Her encounter with Austen’s desk in a cottage in Chawton perhaps best reveals Patillo’s love of Austen and her ability to pass that love to us through her own writing:

“Here, at this table, Jane Austen had risen from the ruins of her life like a phoenix from the ashes. She’d written or rewritten almost all of her novels on this tiny bit of wood, at this wonderful window overlooking a busy village street...

“In spite of all the distractions, she’d created her masterpiece with nothing more than paper, pen, and ink. Virginia Woolf was famous for saying that any woman who wanted to be a writer needed to have five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own. Austen had possessed neither of these things, and yet somehow she had outshone authors with far more worldly advantages.”

Jane Austen Ruined My Life undoubtedly belongs to that genre of fiction known these days as “chick-lit,” and should indeed please a wide audience of female readers: those who want a good detective story with a female protagonist, those who enjoy fiction set in England, those who treasure all things Austen. Although males in general may be disinclined to pick up such a book — just as, judging from their readership, they are disinclined to pick up Jane Austen’s novels — those men interested in women (which should include, we may assume, a goodly portion) might gain some insights by such an adventure. Here, for example, in one small incident Patillo reveals both a woman’s sense of dress and her modern conflict with the world of fashion. Visiting Chanel, Emma comes across a dress which she calls The One:

“Trying the thing on only made it worse. It fit perfectly, and the pink was the perfect shade for my skin tone. For the first time in almost a year, I felt pretty. Desirable. Worthy of attention. I knew that I was not supposed to invest my self-esteem in fashion, but when a dress made you look that good, how could you not?”

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Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 464 pages.

“Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Taken from her lecture “The Catholic Novelist in the South,” this statement by Flannery O’Connor is perhaps her best-known aphorism. It is interesting to read beyond this statement in the same lecture, where the author explains herself more deeply.

She writes that the South is Christ-haunted, that “as a belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with Christ-figures in our fiction” (The same may be said of the fiction of Nathanial Hawthorne, which O’Connor admired, in its own focus on faith and Christian morals in a time when New England was leaving behind its traditional religious beliefs). She goes on to say that “the writer from the South may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost his ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

O’Connor then said that “the South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies.” At the time O’Connor offered these thoughts, the South was torn by racial strife and change, and was in many ways radically altered from the South which shaped O’Connor and her writing. Today’s South has become a place of cities, of immigrants both from the North and from other countries, a land in which the bloody history and cruelties of the past have been effaced in some ways by social change, a culture in which the customs of the past have shrunken before the standardization brought by a national media.

The South of Flannery O’Connor’s last years was not the South of William Faulkner’s youth, and the South of this new millenium retains only the vestiges of the the South described by O’Connor in her novel Wise Blood or in her short-story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Our present situation does not preclude the existence of Southern writers — they are many, and range in subject and style from Lee Smith to Cormac McCarthy — but allows us to acknowledge the changes both in the South and in the preoccupations of her writers.

For a close-up look of Flannery O’Connor’s South, readers may now turn to Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 978-0-316-00066-6, $30). For readers unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor, here is a splendid introduction to her life and work; those familiar with her fiction should also relish this biographical tour.

In the first half of Flannery, Gooch uses georgraphy as an outline for O’Connor’s life, following the writer through her childhood in Savannah and Milledgeville, where she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in 1945; then to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where she soon enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts graduate writing program, the first of its kind in the nation; to Yaddo in upstate New York, where she enlarged her circle of friends to include Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick; to New York City, where she spent most of her time writing Wise Blood; to rural Connecticut, where she babysat for her friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, while continuing to write; and at last to Milledgeville, where she lived out the rest of her life after being diagnosed with lupus.

Gooch’s book is especially valuable for its portrait of O’Connor’s friendships. From her justly renowned collection of letters, The Habit of Being, we know that O’Connor, who spent the last third of her life in Milledgeville, often ill and far away from the literary life of New York, valued companionship and the visits of friends. In Flannery, Gooch underscores this importance of her friends to O’Connor.

Nearly every page of this biography recounts conversations and letters between the author and her far-flung acquaintances, giving us a portrait of a woman who loved lively talk and stimulating thought. Many of these friends — Maryat Lee, Betty Hester, Louise Abbot — differed greatly from O’Connor in their morals and religious beliefs, yet her own tolerance and their fascination with her mind bound them together. Through these portrayals Gooch gives us the background and times in which — and some might say, against which — O’Connor wrote.

Flannery does have its flaws. The notes at the back of the book are matched to various pages, but are difficult to follow. Gooch often skims over the literary side of O’Connor’s work, though few readers will come to this book seeking deep criticism. From time to time, Gooch also uses vague or even juvenile language, describing Andrew Lytle, for example, as “a card-carrying Southerner” and labeling some of the reviews of O’Connor’s work as “mean.”

When O’Connor was five years old, a newsreel company visited her home in Savannah to record on film her chicken, a buff Cochin bantam, walking backwards. O’Connor, who had taught the chicken this trick, remained a bird lover her entire life, becoming obsessed in her later years with raising peacocks. Gooch astutely uses the chicken walking backwards as a central theme to the author’s life and to his book. He writes:

“And just as her Cochin bantam morphed into a peacock ... so this clever child performer grew into the one-of-a-kind woman writer, ‘going backwards to Bethlehem,’ who freighted her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to much trendy literary culture.”

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Many of us have attended a Methodist or Baptist “dinner on the grounds.” At these events, once popular across the South but now fading somewhat, church families gathered after the Sunday service for fellowship and a feast of pot-luck dishes: crispy fried chicken, baked ham, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob, fruit salads, cornbread, sweetened tea, and a table loaded down with pies and cakes so delicious and sweet that every yellow jacket in the county managed to find the place in 30 seconds flat.

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems (ISBN 978-1-4507-0152-5, $16) is a literary dinner on the grounds. In this collection, produced by the North Carolina Writers’ Network West and edited by Nancy Simpson, the resident writer at the John C. Campbell Folk School, we are given the opportunity to stroll down a banquet table prepared by a host of Western North Carolina writers, sampling poetry, fiction, and essays on topics as varied as corn dances and Jesus freaks, kudzu and pot-bellied stoves. This anthology offers verse by Byron Herbert Reece, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Richard Bronnum, and other talented poets, stories about growing up in the mountains and life today, and essays that ring as true and clear to the ear as an ax on a log in December.

In addition to its wide assortment of writers, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge should appeal to readers who like to take their pleasures close to home. Glenda Beall’s “The Trillium,” an essay about an older man named George and his invitation to come to his home to see his trillium, which turns out to be a single beautiful plant, reminds us to look for happiness in small things and out of the way places. Gary Carden’s “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” a story about his grandfather disguising himself as a fallen woman from Waycross, Ga., and paying a humorous visit to a neighbor, is told with the author’s usual keen wit and sense of comedic timing. Betty Reed’s “I Won’t Cry,” a poem about the financial woes of a mountain family, cuts close to the bone in its lament about the boarded-up plant and lost jobs brought by the last 20 years of economic hardship in our mountains.

Finally, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge might well serve as an anthology about the preservation of the spirit of Appalachia. Many of the poets and writers here take as their subject the people who have gone before them — grandfathers and grandmothers, ghosts, old-timers now gone who were living repositories of mountain life and culture. By adding their own words to those of earlier storytellers and balladeers, the writers here not only help to preserve their mountain past, but inculcate themselves into that past, bringing it into the present so that our heritage becomes not a thing for museums but a piece of living reality, threads to be spun into the fabric of our daily lives.

In “Beyond the Clearing,” the poem which Nancy Simpson chose to introduce this volume, James M. Cox sums up this blending of past and present, and the magic of the Blue Ridge:

Beyond the clearing there’s a way to see

what matters most, what graces age.

Come take my hand, come go with me.

Walk with me to the clean bright edge.

The Christmas season will soon be on us. Those looking for a gift for someone who needs a breath of home — a loved one away in the military, a student in college — or a present for some flatlander who has never enjoyed the privilege of living in these magical mountains would do well to wrap up and mail out Echoes Across The Blue Ridge.

•••

Political commentator and writer Glenn Beck, beloved by many of the Tea Party and despised by both liberals and many conventional Republicans, recently released yet another book, a suspense novel titled The Overton Window (ISBN 978-1-4391-8430-1, $26).

Beck’s novel tells the story of Noah Gardner, son of one of the wealthiest men on the planet, the owner of a powerful public relations firm who has partnered up with certain elements of the federal government and is using all his skill and knowledge to steer the country toward a form of fascism. Noah is indifferent about the changes in the country and in the firm until he meets Molly Ross (perhaps named for Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross of Revolutionary War fame), a committed member of a group of patriots fighting the changes which Noah is unwittingly help to effect.

Misleadingly subtitled “A Thriller” — compared to other books in this genre, The Overton Window provides few thrills, and is so mediocre in its development of character and plot that its publication may well lay to rest rumors that Beck hires ghost-writers to put together his books — this novel will undoubtedly sell well through the holiday shopping season but will then be forgotten.

This neglect will be unfortunate, for The Overton Window contains in its gruel-thin plot an important message for all Americans, liberal and conservative alike: the growing intrusion of the federal government into the lives of American citizens. When used by the federal government, or by a powerful corporation, the concept of the Overton Window, defined succinctly on the novel’s fly-leaf as a powerful technique “manipulating public perception so that ideas previously thought of as radical begin to seem acceptable over time,” can bring about alterations in our behavior and what we regard as acceptable policies. It can change how we regard our own civil liberties vis-à-vis the government.

Once regarded as a servant of the people, the government is now largely regarded as master. Through our fear of terrorism, for example, we have extended to certain federal agencies powers which our grandparents would have regarded as anathema.

Though liberals and conservatives find little common ground these days, surely both groups might join in a mutual distrust of government control. In this area, Beck’s The Overton Window, particularly the “Afterword” in which he discusses the trends in government and large corporations of the last 40 years, calls all of us to become more aware of our rights as human beings and more vigilant regarding infringements by the government on those rights.

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems edited by Nancy Simpson. Winding Path Press, 2010. 256 pages

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The Night Villa by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2008. 413 pages.

 

Over the last decade, Carol Goodman has rightly earned a reputation as a skilled novelist whose themes and characters are often focused on the study of Latin and Greek, and on the ancient world. The Lake of Dead Languages, for example, was a minor masterpiece of language and plot set in the classics department of a school for young women.

In her latest novel, The Night Villa (ISBN 978-0-345-47960-0, $14), Goodman enhances her reputation and stakes out an even stronger claim to a territory all her own.

A victim of a shooting at the University of Texas — the wound has left her missing part of one lung — Sophie Chase, professor of classics with a special interest in the mystery religions of the Roman Empire, joins an expedition to the ruins of Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii. Here Sophie hopes to heal her damaged spirit while she and her academic companions unearth and read some writings on religion by Phineas Aulus, a Roman traveler and chronicler believed to have been lost at sea right before the explosion of Vesuvius.

Along with Sophie, we soon see that not everything on the expedition is as it appears on the surface. Is John Lyros, the multimillionaire who has helped pay for the dig, really as benign as he appears? Is Elgin Lawrence, another classics professor and Sophie’s old lover, guilty of all the wrongs Sophie has attributed to him: womanizing, cowardice, irresponsibility? Why does the Tetraktys, a group of spiritualists drawn together by their love for the ideas of Pythagoras, display such an interest in a certain ancient manuscript?

Beside these finely-drawn characters and ideas Goodman sets the story of Phineas and Iusta, a Roman slave girl owned by the devious Calatoria Vimidis, a widow interested in the Eleusian mysteries. The dialogues between Calatoria and Phineas, and the running commentary and thoughts of Sophie as she reads their words, reveal to us some of the philosophy and rites of these gnostic religions, based on the worship of Dionysus, Demeter, and Persephone: the solemn mysteries, the ecstasy and drunkenness of the bacchanalia, the use of sex, drugs, dance, and physicality to pierce the illusions of this world and reveal the nature of the gods.

Phineas, a fictional creation, is an especially marvelous character, mostly because he himself is interested in all that goes on about him. He would be a fine travel companion, a little fussy perhaps, but overall adventurous and eager to learn new ideas and facts. His comments on his hostess, Calatoria, are sharp and witty, and his relationship with young Iusta, with whom he sleeps after Calatoria gives her over to him for a night’s pleasure, grows into a bond of trust and friendship.

Although her Roman characters are largely fictional, Goodman clearly knows well the ancient world and the technology used today to explore that world. The Herculaneum of 79 A.D. comes to life on these pages as Phineas makes his rounds of the city:

“I descended into an elegant vestibule supported by four enormous red columns and washed my hands at a small basin with water that flowed from the head of Apollo. I had to admit that the old freedman had been right about the elegance of these baths. The cloakroom where a slave took my clothing was quite beautifully paneled in polished woods, the linen I was given to wrap myself in was of the finest weave. As I took my place on the marble bench of the apodyterium, I admired the panels of warriors locked in combat and cupids engaged in their own sports.”

Goodman’s explanation of the use of computers and electronics in deciphering ancient manuscripts will please readers who may have wondered how scrolls recovered from the mud of centuries from places like Herculaneum and Alexandria could still be legible. In a short interview with Goodman included in the back of the book, Goodman says that “More than most, this book had a very precise moment of origin. My friend Ross Scaife is a professor of classics at the University of Kentucky, and he told me of a grant he’d been given to use multispectral imaging to study the charred manuscripts found at Herculaneum’s Villa dei Papiri. I thought this was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard of and immediately wanted to base a book’s plot around a similar exploration.”

The Night Villa is a fine novel that should please many different kinds of readers — those who love action and adventure as well as those who look for fiction with a literary flair.

•••

Civil War buffs will especially enjoy Tom Chaffin’s The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (ISBN 978-0-8090-9512-4, $26). Extensively researched, The H.L. Hunley, the story of the Confederate submarine which made history by being the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy ship, reads like a novel. Chaffin covers the construction of the submarine, the crews who died serving on it, the possible reasons for the Hunley’s sinking, and the recovery of the boat in the year 2000. Especially touching is the bravery of the men who, despite various catastrophes, continued to volunteer to man the Hunley.

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