Jeff Minick

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Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sharon Kay Penman. G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008.


Politics is not a game for sissies. It is not even necessarily a game for the good of heart.

In the twelfth century, King Stephen of England attempted to act with restraint in regard to his rival claimant for the throne, Mathilda. His moderation and mercy helped create a civil war that cost the English countryside dearly in the numbers of villages burned and inhabitants slain.

The man who followed him onto the throne, Henry II, was a different beast altogether. From his ancestors — his great-grandfather was William I, the Norman duke who in 1066 conquered England, won the throne, and changed the world forever — Henry inherited the ability to win the loyalty of men and the will to crush and destroy all who rebelled against him.

This king led an extraordinary life. At 19, two years before he took the throne, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from the King of France. Their passionate, tempestuous marriage eventually landed Eleanor in a remote castle, where she was confined for 15 years. She bore Henry many children, including Kings Richard I and John, and led those children in rebellion against their father.

Henry is also famous for helping to create the English courts, for overseeing an empire — in addition to England, he made inroads into Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and ruled a large part of France — and for his efforts to take charge of the English church, which was Catholic at the time and which owed its allegiance to Rome. Henry wanted to bring the ecclesiastical courts into his own system — a cleric charged with murder could only be defrocked if convicted in a church court — and to control the monies of the Church in England.

In pursuit of these ambitions, he pushed Thomas Becket, his chancellor and friend, into becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. The worldly Becket, who had warned Henry against making this appointment, underwent a dramatic transformation from fashionable chancellor to an austere archbishop. He opposed Henry on every front, so that the frustrated King finally shouted to his court: “Can none of the cowards eating my bread free me from this turbulent priest?” Three knights took him at his word, crossed the Channel, and murdered the archbishop at his Canterbury altar. Becket became an instant martyr, and Henry lost his chance at control over the church.

Such a dramatic life, filled with wars and worries, with patricidal sons and a passionate wife, deserves a good storyteller. We can find just such a chronicler in Sharon Kay Penman, who continues her ongoing examination of Henry, Eleanor, and those around them in her novel Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008, $28.95).

Penman begins her novel in April of 1172, when Henry has sat on the throne for nearly 20 years. As the title implies, the king in this fiction is chiefly concerned with his rebellious sons and wife. The alliances between his sons and other barons were ever shifting during the last 15 years of Henry’s reign, resulting in constant battles, political and military, in which he would have to assert himself over his offspring.

What makes Sharon Kay Penman’s Devil’s Brood a remarkable read is her deep knowledge of the twelfth century coupled with her ability to bring characters alive on the page. In terms of the history of the period, she takes time to explain events by skillfully incorporating them into the story, letting the characters carry the issues to the readers. At the end of the book, Penman — a grand name for an author — takes the time to explain at length why certain misconceptions of this age and its king, promoted in part by the film “The Lion in Winter,” remain with us. With wit and clarity, for example, she explains to us how different the medieval ideas of sexuality were from our own.

But Penman’s style and her recreation of these historical figures are surely what make her book a winner in terms of historical fictions. She has a knack for blending the language of the Middle Ages with the language of our time, so that the dialogue seems neither stilted nor overly modern; she offers clear descriptions of scenes and people who today would seem quite foreign to us; she makes us feel and empathize with problems solved long ago and with people long dead.

The following exchange, for example, between Eleanor and Henry allows us a glimpse of Penman’s affinity for this age:

“’I fear,’ Henry said, ‘that I could not get out of this bed if the castle caught fire. Jesus, woman, are you seeking to kill me? My very bones feel like melted wax.’

Eleanor cocked a skeptical brow. ‘If lust could kill, Harry, you’d have been dead years ago.’

‘I never claimed to be a monk, love. That was your first husband, as I recall.’

Amused in spite of herself, she hid her smile in the crook of her arm. ‘Mock him if you will, but poor Louis has you beaten in one race at least — his sprint toward sainthood.’”

In these few lines, Penman shows us the feelings that run between Henry and Eleanor as well as the fact that Henry, unlike Louis, is not a saint. Since Devil’s Brood runs to more than 700 pages, and since Penman wastes little breath in her writing on the extraneous, the reader is guaranteed an excellent lesson in history told in an exciting way.

Highly recommended.


First up for review this week is Piers Paul Read’s The Death of a Pope (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-295-4), the story of a terrorist plot following on the heels of the death of John Paul II in which the terrorists work to kill the cardinals who have gathered to elect a new pontiff.

As conceived by Read, Juan Uriarte, a brilliant ex-priest, an advocate of liberation theology who works on behalf of the poor and downtrodden in Third World countries, makes a memorable villain. Through him, Read gives us access to the mind of a terrorist, reminding us of a dynamic of terrorism sometimes forgotten by so many today, that a terrorist is not only a hardboiled fanatic, but also an idealist. Uriarte believes so strongly in his cause that he uses anyone — the lovely reporter Kate Ramsey, a cardinal of the Church, and any number of innocent bystanders — to achieve his murderous goals. Near the end of the novel Uriarte offers this insight into his philosophy of compassion and blood.

Kate has left the flat, Uriarte repeats the words of Saint Paul over and over again, sitting hunched on the edge of the sofa and watching the coverage of the conclave on CNN. Who could doubt that God was for him? His impossible project is about to come to fruition. “I come to bring the fire and the sword,” Jesus had said, using the images pertinent to his times. Here was not fire but nerve gas and detonators rather than the sword. But the cause was the same: truth, love, liberation — the end of the perversion of Christianity by a cabal of stubborn old men.”

Truth, love, liberation: these are noble ideas which have also served as the banners of tyrants for the last century. Against them in The Death of a Pope, Piers Paul Read has placed two men: Kate’s priest-uncle, Father Luke Scott, and David Kotovski, a British anti-terrorism agent. Kotovski spends much of The Death of a Pope alternately wooing Kate and trying to track down Uriarte, while Father Luke serves as a foil to the corruption of the cardinal, to the ugly idealism of the terrorists, and the loss of faith suffered by Kate. He is a priest who questions himself yet believes beyond his own limitations in a supreme being.

“Luke recognizes that in some ways he is a ‘spoiled’ priest .... He accepts that if he were to spend as much time in prayer as he does watching television he would be a better priest, but he knows his own limits and assumes that God knew them too.”

Of all the characters in the book, Kate Ramsey is perhaps the most sympathetic. Unlike Kotovski and Uriarte, two antagonists who clearly have the strength to battle to the death for their causes, Kate is a woman caught in the middle of their war who is at the same time fighting to find her identity. In her trip to North Africa, for example, where Uriarte has invited her to witness the impoverished camps of refugees, she struggles to maintain some journalistic objectivity even as she falls under the spell of the idealistic and handsome ex-priest.

The Death of a Pope satisfies readers on several levels. Read gives us a look inside the circles of modern terrorism and the cross-traffic between radical groups whose surface objectives would seem to preclude them from ever working together. He performs a seemingly credible job in his depictions of counter-terrorism. Most of all, however, Read reminds us that the struggle is not so much a conflict of bombs and bullets and nerve gas, but one of ideologies. The Death of a Pope should give us pause to reflect on where we ourselves stand in the worldwide ideological wars now being waged on every continent of the globe.


In The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life, Conroy goes on at great length about the magical spell Eugene Walter cast over him with his words, his enthusiasm, and his cooking. Conroy’s description has in turn entranced his readers, who have gone in search, via the Internet and used book stores, for the writings of this Southern eccentric. Author of several novels, award winning short stories, fine poetry, and the best-selling American Cooking: Southern Style, in the Time-Life Series, Walter also worked as an actor in Italy, composed music, and befriended admirers from Paris to Rome to Mobile, Ala.

Readers interested in this unusual man can read about him in Milking the Moon, an oral autobiography put together by Walter’s friend, Katherine Clark. Another overlooked book which offers Walter’s personality along with many of his special recipes is Delectable Dishes from Termite hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes. Here are a lifetime of recipes from Paris, Rome, and Walter’s beloved South. Scattered throughout Delectable Dishes are wonderful bits of advice on cooking, stressing especially the importance of fresh ingredients. Of pepper, for example, Walter writes:

“Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. Don’t bother. Freshly-ground pepper has volatile oils which only last about an hour after grinding. This oil is an aid to digestion, a stimulant to appetite, and as recent researches in England would have us believe, a help in cleansing the blood, rather after the fashion of garlic. But dead dust is only dead dust.”

I don’t know about cleansing the blood, but a recently purchased pepper mill has added flair to my own meals.

Thumbs up for Termite Hall.


South of Broad by Pat Conroy. Nan A. Talese, 2009. 528 pages.


In his latest novel, South of Broad (ISBN 978-0-385-41305-3, $29.95), Pat Conroy writes with his usual sure touch of subjects and places familiar to his fans: Charleston and South Carolina’s Low Country, the upheavals in the South in the 1960s, the friction between parents and their children and the coming of age of troubled adolescents. Conroy once again fills each page, casting out before his readers, like causally offered treasures, his gifts as a writer: his ability to describe landscape, his magical mix of words and syntax, his singular ability to describe the ways and rhythms of the South. Listen as he describes Charleston on the first page of South of Broad:

“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of the palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of the Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures know as Charlestonians ....”

In all his books, even The Pat Conroy Cookbook, Conroy brings alive the enchantment of the marshes and woodlands surrounding the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, the humidity of the air on a hot August night, the look of the stars above Charleston Harbor, the feel of the city’s time-worn streets.

Despite these strengths, however, South of Broad is a deeply-flawed book, long on mood and description, and short on common-sense or plot. Leopold Bloom King — his Ph.D mother, who serves as principal of the local high school, has named him in honor of James Joyce’s great creation — is, like all of Conroy’s protanonists, an affable guy, a former athlete, a mild failure in finance, a failure in marriage, a man born, as Eliot once wrote, to be “an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two.”

As the story progresses, shifting in time between the late 1960s and late 1980s, Leopold Bloom King introduces us to his friends. In his previous novels, Conroy usually includes characters who are 1) persecuted because of their views on race and sexuality; and 2) sexually abused in their youth by adults. Here in South of Broad, Conroy seems to lose all control of his material, and we are led through a carnival of sexual abuse and racial strife.

Several of King’s friends have suffered sexual abuse as children. Nearly all the parents of the post-World War II generation abuse their children in some way, spiritually or physically, and it gets worse as the story stumbles along: one father is a serial killer, several parents are alcoholics, two orphans are anonymously abused, King’s brother is abused by a priest (an incident which Conroy cloaks in mystery, but which is so obvious from after the first 50 pages that the reader wonders when, not if, the priest will be found out for his crimes).

Some of the incidents and characters in this book require a suspension of belief that would support a bridge across the Atlantic. Sheba Poe, daughter of a madman and victim of extreme child abuse, beguiles the entire town of Charleston, with the exception of King’s Joyce-obsessed mother, and becomes a world-renowned movie star. Conroy makes her so loveable that we might even consider that he is making a case for child sexual abuse. Hey, he seems to be shouting at us through his hysterical prose, here’s what happens to a victim of a sadistic father. Trevor, Sheba’s gay, musically talented and verbally gifted brother, is a ridiculous character. How did he learn to speak so elegantly? How did he learn to play the piano so well? Scorned by his drunken mother and insane father, how did he manage to conquer the hearts of the citizens of San Francisco through his music?

And these are the well-developed characters. Starla Whitehead, an orphan, also abused, who is later married to King, remains an enigmatic figure throughout the book, rarely addressed except when King laments her absence. Monsignor Max Sadler, who has allowed himself to be photographed raping Steve — King’s older brother, who then commits suicide because of the attack — in no way fits the profile of the abusive priests of the last 20 years. Certainly he is not theologically stupid enough to remark to Max, as he does at the end of the book, “I’ll be with my Father in heaven, very soon.”

In another scene, King and his friends are trying to rescue Trevor from the clutches of a gay-hating man, Bunny, who weighs 400 pounds, played football for the Raiders, and has filled his decaying San Francisco house with gay men dying of AIDS to steal their social security checks (At one point, King is confronted by Bunny on a staircase, and fears for his life. Are we supposed to believe that the gargantuan Bunny can run up those stairs and then tear a man apart? For heaven’s sake ....)

Here are all the flaws that have marred some of Conroy’s other novels — the maudlin, creaky plot, the cartoon figures, the black-and-white morality of the characters, the bashing of institutions and places so beaten up by everyone else for the last 40 years that to keep hitting them seems like a sort of abuse in itself.

Thumbs down on South of Broad.


Some novels ask for a close reading. Entranced by the author’s language, intrigued by an intricate plot, and in some rare fortunate circumstances captivated by both, we slowly digest such a book, feasting on a banquet of sentences and paragraphs, lulled by the hypnotic words into a sort of trance from which we emerge blinking and stretching, temporarily discomforted by the world of commerce, home, children and spouse awaiting our return. Such novels provide not only food for thought but a five-star meal for the senses, one of those long leisurely dinners during which each dish brings its own special delights.

Then there are the novels that demand to be gulped down like hamburgers after Lent.

The Jack Reacher novels are just such fictional hamburgers, suspense stories that we wolf down like a bagful of Big Macs one after the other, wiping our napkins with satisfaction across our mouths after finishing one book but already licking our lips over the next one.

Created by Lee Child, a native of England and former television director who now lives in New York City, Jack Reacher is a big man with a special set of skills, a West Point graduate and former officer in a special unit of the Military Police who, after cutting short his army career, drifts about the American landscape looking for peace and quiet, but finding only trouble. Seeking to live life by his own lights, Reacher has given up all normal physical ties to the Army and to society at large. He has no home, no car, no insurance, no cell phone, no computer, no wife or children, no suitcase, no place to lay his head at night except the nearest cheap motel. He wears his clothes three or four days before tossing them and buying some more. In his pocket he carries cash, an old passport for identification and a toothbrush.

Casting away the accoutrements of daily living may sound like a good idea for a man who values his privacy and who marches to a different drummer, but his plans of solitude and the simple life rarely work well for Reacher. In each of Child’s novels, Reacher quickly finds himself fighting, either by circumstance or design, platoons of murderers, thieves, drug-runners, and terrorists. His enlistment in this ongoing one-man war ensnares him in the lives of others as well: the cops who join him in his fight, old friends resurrected from his past, women who often take him to their hearts and beds.

October promises the release of Worth Dying For (ISBN 0385544317, $20), the fifteenth Reacher suspense novel. While defending a woman against an abusive husband, Reacher runs into a family clan of outlaws with blood on their hands. Reacher soon finds himself not only trying to fight these men, but also becomes involved in a case concerning a missing 8-year-old girl.

Though Child gives his readers plenty of action, well-rounded characters, and a galloping prose style, he does on occasion fall flat on his face. In Killing Floor, his first Reacher novel, Child has Reacher get off a bus on a whim near a small town in Georgia. This casual decision making is characteristic of Reacher — he has no schedules to keep, no place he has to be — but a casual stroll through the town quickly embroils him in a full-blown war against men with murder on their hands and blood money in their bank accounts. While he fights against an international counterfeiting operation, he comes across the body of his murdered brother, a federal agent investigating the illegal money.

In later novels, Reacher says several times that he dislikes coincidences, yet this novel is predicated on the near-impossible premise that Reacher would stumble across his brother this way. In the other books, too, Reacher seems to make mistakes and to rely on luck as much as his skills. Some of his abilities to track his adversaries down — his ability to think like a criminal would put Sherlock Holmes to shame — seem beyond the realm of belief. Several times, for instance, he tracks people to their hotels simply by guessing which hotel, out of a score of possibilities, they might choose for a night’s lodging. Even for a man who spent over a decade in the military police — and how and why did a West Point graduate choose the military police for his branch — Reach knows a little too much about too many things — guns, locks, man-hunting, military hardware — to be completely credible as a character.

Despite these flaws, Jack Reacher and his adventures are hard to resist. Child’s keen eye for character and for the American landscape, his research into weapons, his knowledge of the armed forces and criminals, and his creation of Reacher himself, a bold man following a code of justice and honor: this grand combination makes for great reading. These novels may be hamburgers rather than pate de foie gras, but they’re some of the best burgers going.

Try one. And then try not to gulp your food.


Allen Speer will appear at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10. He will discuss and sign his latest book, From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy, Part III (reviewed in the Smoky Mountain News in June 2010). For more information call Malaprops at 828.254.6734.

Worth Dying For by Lee Child. Delacorte Press, 2010. 400 pages.


Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy. Picador, 2000. 272 pages.


Walker Percy not only wrote these lines (see below), but he also lived them. He recognized early on that he was indeed a peculiar bird. He came from an ancient and notable family; both his grandfather and his father were suicides; his mother died three years later in an automobile accident when Percy was 16 years old. Percy’s Uncle Will, a melancholic bachelor, writer and Southern aristocrat who practiced Stoicism as his life’s philosophy, then raised Percy and his brothers. Shelby Foote, who went on to write novels and the three-volume history, The Civil War, was Percy’s best friend then, and remained friends with him for life.

Percy followed a number of twisting paths for the next 15 years. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1937, Percy attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University for four more years, earning a degree in medicine. Once he had started his internship at Bellvue, however, Percy fell ill with tuberculosis and remained ill for the next four years.

This time of illness ranks as an enormous turning point in Percy’s life. By now his Uncle Will had died, and Percy was left with enough of an inheritance so that he didn’t have to work to earn a living. He had begun to take a deep interest in religion and faith and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. He also found himself intrigued by philosophy, particularly the existentialists, by language and linguistics, and by imaginative literature. With time on his hands, he gave himself over to a third phase of higher education and began sending out articles to various journals of learning.

Encouraged by Shelby Foote — their letters, collected in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, offers a fascinating look at two men who, though so different in many respects, shared common roots and a love of literature — Walker Percy began writing fiction. In 1960, after many revisions, Percy’s The Moviegoer was accepted for publication by Knopf. The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962, and Percy’s writing career blossomed.

For the rest of his life — he died in 1990 of prostate cancer — Percy explored a combination of themes that became his trademark: the contemporary shifts in Southern culture, existentialism, semiotics, Catholicism, and the post-modern human being. Having once stated, after giving up his career in medicine, that he would study the pathology of the soul rather than of the body, Percy wrote five more novels, several essays, two collections of essays, and Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Lost in the Cosmos brings together many of the themes Percy explored. Written with a high sense of humor — ”Thought Experiment II: Explain why Moses was tongue-tied and stage-struck before his fellow Jews but had no trouble talking to God” — Lost in the Cosmos gives us what Percy intended: a look, through questions and examples, into the soul, a dissection of the human heart that leaves us laughing and thinking hard at the same time. Though parts of the book are already slightly dated — his hilarious spoof of the Phil Donahue Show, in which he perfectly captures the language and gestures of Donahue while at the same time introducing us to the thought of John Calvin, Colonel Pelham, and an alien visitor from space — Percy’s wit, his clarity of language, and his insights awaken our minds and enliven our own thoughts.

Readers who have yet to read Walker Percy might do best to begin with The Moviegoer or with Lost in the Cosmos (the middle third of the book, a 40-page treatise on elementary semiotics, can be hard going and may be skipped). The Second Coming, which is the sequel to Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, may appeal to readers who like their settings close to home; Percy visited Western North Carolina several times, and The Second Coming, a novel which, as one reviewer wrote, depicts a mental patient and a horny widower falling in love, is partially set in and around Highlands.

At least three biographies of Percy exist, each fine in its own way. Patrick Samway, S.J., was a close friend of Percy’s, and his Walker Percy: A Life gives us an excellent and eminently readable portrait of the man and the writer. Jay Tolson’s A Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy is perhaps better written, and focuses somewhat more on Percy’s literary works. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be your Own: An American Pilgrimage offers a different look at the writer from Covington, Louisiana; in addition to Percy, Elie includes in this fine 500-page study of Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Dorothy Day.

Though it is too early to determine how time and circumstance will treat Percy’s fiction, that his books remain in print is an encouraging sign. We continue, apparently, to see his books as mirrors, as reflections of our own questioning and questing selves. His appeal remains broad; he offers much that remains pertinent to our lives, and his analysis of the angst and storms of our time continues to give to us both hope and understanding.


Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones. William Morrow, 2009. 284 pages


Memoirs by children of famous people and children of alcoholics — and often the twain do meet — have long occupied a special niche in the fields of biography and substance abuse. Two of Hemingway’s sons wrote about their father, famed for his writing and his drinking. In Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever explored the work, sexuality, and drunkenness of her father, John Cheever. In a scathing memoir both admired and reviled by reviewers, Christopher Dickey dissected his father, the poet and author of Deliverance, James Dickey.

Now Kaylie Jones, daughter of the writer James Jones and a novelist in her own right, adds to this shelf with Lies My Mother Never Told Me (ISBN 978-0-06-177870-4, $25.99). Yet while her father, most famous for his first published novel, From Here to Eternity, receives a great deal of her attention, it is primarily to her mother and her mother’s addiction to alcohol that Kaylie Jones turns her gimlet eye.

After serving in the Pacific during World War II, James Jones traveled around America (he briefly lived in Maggie Valley), working odd jobs while trying to write a novel about the war. Lowney Handy, a married woman with whom Jones had an affair, helped support Jones during this time. Eventually, Scribners published From Here to Eternity. The novel won the National Book Award, become an enormous bestseller, and was followed by an Academy Award-winning film.

It was at this time that Jones met Gloria, who would become his wife and soulmate. For many years, they lived in Paris, where their home became an oasis for friends and a literary salon. They had one daughter, Kaylie, and an adopted son, Jamie. When Jones discovered that he was suffering from congestive heart failure, the family returned to the United States and eventually settled on Long Island, where Jones worked on his last novel, Whistle, until his death in 1977.

Though several biographies of Jones exist — a favorite for many people is the Willie Morris account of their friendship — Kaylie Jones’ account of her parents lives, their parties, their drinking, and the effect all of these things on her own life adds much to our understanding of James Jones. It reveals him as an author who could be crude, who seemed to lack deep intellectual resources, but who was nonetheless a compassionate man and a writer who valued honesty in his work and in his life. When Kaylie Jones as an adult eventually comprehends how much her relationship with her mother damaged her, she writes of her father:

“I wondered how a man as wise, intelligent, liberated, and experienced as my father could not have seen any of it. But, then, he’d not had the sanest relationships with women before he’d met my mother. He’d not been looking for a housewife and a mother for his children, after all, but for a lifelong companion who would support his work, and his creative process, and, of course, his strong sexual desires, and his heavy drinking.”

These things Gloria Jones fulfilled for her husband to her utmost abilities. Even Kaylie’s account, so critical of her, recognizes to what extent Gloria backed her husband in his work. She protected him from interruptions, rearranged her schedule to fit his working hours, satisfied his sexual desires, and apparently outdid him in lifting a glass at the bar.

What suffered in this arrangement was her relationship with her children, particularly with Kaylie. Gloria Jones was clearly unsuited to motherhood. Incident after incident reveals a woman who constantly denigrated her daughter, whose insults could be as savage as knife cuts, who frequently parceled out her children’s care to hired helpers, who offered Kaylie both too much freedom and too many rebukes when that freedom brought trouble. Between the chapters of her memoir, Kaylie Jones tells stories that her mother told to family and friends. These reveal a woman with a sharp sense of humor, a sharp and profane tongue, and an ability to hurt people deeply and quickly through insult and sarcasm. It is easy to see how such a parent, who loved her daughter but clearly had no idea of how to express that love, could do major damage.

Though some blame for Gloria’s behavior surely rests with her mysterious past — she rarely told tales from her childhood — Kaylie rightly points to alcohol as being responsible for her mother’s erratic behavior. Looking through photographs of her childhood, she realizes how infrequently her mother is without a glass in her hand. Rarely in the book itself does Gloria appear stone-cold sober. She either has a drink or is rushing off to a party where she will find a drink.

Like many memoirs of this sort, Lies My Mother Never Told Me has a self-pitying tone that can on occasion annoy even a sympathetic reader. Perceptive as she is in regard to her parents and their friends, Kaylie Jones seems to lack a crucial ability to critique her own self with much depth or disinterestedness. Once she becomes a mother, she also becomes, oddly enough, blind to her own faults. She is aware of every small detail of her daughter’s life: her moods, her appetites, her dress. She becomes the sort of doting mother one would dread sitting next beside on a long-distance flight.

One unintentionally funny episode in the book occurs when, while teaching, she leaves her daughter with her mother. Eventually, both Kaylie and her husband explode in an enormous row with Gloria because the little girl is gaining weight.

That observation aside, Lies My Mother Never Told Me is a fine memoir of a bygone era in American letters as well as an excellent account of the damage sometimes done to us by those we most love.

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


A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany by Lucy Beckett. Ignatius Press, 2009. 520 pages

World War II has long provided Americans with literary meat and drink. The combat novels of men like James Jones, Norman Mailer, and Anton Myrer remain in print; scores of espionage novels centered on the War remain popular among readers; writers as different in temperament as William Manchester and Eugene Sledge have given us memoirs that will long be read as meditations on both the war and on combat and conflict in general.

In A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany (Ignatius Press, 978-1-58617-269-5, $19.95), Lucy Beckett, an English teacher, author and mother of four children, has written a thick novel different from most other fictional takes on the war. Easily summarized — Beckett focuses on a group of young students, mostly Germans and Poles, who become friends in the 1920s and 1930s, and so stand witness to the rise of both Stalinism and Nazism — A Postcard From The Volcano is not so easily digested. Beckett takes us on a long, leisurely tour of battlefields — not the bloody arenas of Stalingrad, Normandy or the Blitz, but the battlefields of the mind and heart of intelligent young people who, caught up in the maelstrom of ideology and faith struggling for dominance in Europe at the time, are forced to pick sides in the growing conflict and then to live by their decisions.

What separates A Postcard From The Volcano from other books about the war is its emphasis on ideas. Beckett understands that concepts like Nazism, Communism, dialectical materialism, and even Catholicism and Protestantism do not emerge full-blown out of nowhere. These philosophies and the others she brings into discussion in her novel — the discussions among the students range from Shakespeare to Nietzsche, from Plato to St. Paul — supply the foundations for Europe’s cathedral of horrors and heroism: the Holocaust, the millions of deaths from war and aerial bombings, the brave but seemingly futile resistance to an all-powerful state by so many Germans, Poles, and Russians.

Max Ernst, Count von Hofmannswaldeu, a German from Silesia, stands at the center of Beckett’s story. Born 13 years before the end of the First World War, Max comes of age in a Germany torn by war and by the tribulations that follow in the aftermath of that war. His father, an aristocrat proud both of the Prussian military and of Germany in general, is murdered during a riot in a village near their home after the war; Max’s brother, a soldier of the Great War, joins the brutal Freikorps and eventually helps bring Hitler to power; his mother, who is Jewish, proves the cause of Max’s own fall from state approval; his mentor and tutor, Dr. Mendel, also Jewish, gives Max lessons in humanism along with Latin and Greek.

When Max goes off to the university, he befriends a group of students who will influence the direction of his life and his thinking. Strongest among these influences is Adam, a cosmopolitan free-thinker with whom Max debates religion, science and philosophy. He also falls in love with Anna Halperin, a Jewish girl who is forced by Nazism to return to Russia then to Lithuania, where she marries and has children.   

These two friends and others — medical and law students — are, by the end of A Postcard From The Volcano, swept up into the rushing current of history surrounding them. Each discovers the truth of the adage: “You may not be interested in war and politics, but politics and war is very much interested in you.” Each character in Beckett’s novel must play out the conflicts of politics and war while still trying to find meaning and hope in their philosophies and various faiths.

A Postcard From The Volcano will not appeal to a wide audience of readers. Beckett gives over much of her book to conversations, long discursive discussions about ideas and political events which will undoubtedly try the patience of many visitors to the book, particularly those who are accustomed to reading today’s fast-paced novels. Even readers who enjoy the book may find themselves wishing that Beckett had opted for more action rather than so much talk, that she had added more excitement to her novel, the thuggery, street fights, and violence that marked this European era.

Such an option, however, might well have damaged the purpose behind Postcard From The Volcano. As we follow the winding trail of opinions and ponderings highlighting Beckett’s novel, we begin to discern a special purpose in her prose, the reason behind so much wind and so little lightning. Beckett seems to offer to us the subtle message that ideas are more important than actions, for it is ideas, those creations of humankind that can shape and caress the lives of a million followers, that inevitably form the matchsticks and powder of action.

Ignatius Press, which normally puts out books closely associated with Catholicism, deserves commendation for publishing A Postcard From The Volcano. Few other publishers would be willing to touch such a collection of dialogues that at first glance seem part freshman bull sessions and part a recording of conversations taken from the teachers’ lounge in the philosophy department of a prestigious university. Despite this canard, A Postcard From The Volcano and its grinding historical recreation is worth the extra effort. Its analyses will stay with loyal readers for a long time, a reminder of our past, a reflection of sorts of our present, and a possible warning about the near future.


Up River: A Novel of Attempted Restoration by George Ivey. Dog Year, 2009. 304 Pages.

George Ivey’s Up River: A Novel of Attempted Restoration (Dog Year Publishing, ISBN 978-160844-164-8, $16.95) tells the story of Peter Bailey, a young man who, having spent his years since college working on political campaigns, wants more of a challenge in his life. He applies for, and receives, a position that entails using grant money to reverse environmental damage done to the Akwanee River in Western North Carolina.

Though the Akwanee — and the town of Walnut Flats — are both fictional, Ivey’s account of Peter Bailey’s struggles to gain a foothold in this mountain community, to win the trust of some of its people, and to carry out his mission in regard to the river ring true as a bell.

The townsfolk, both the natives and the outlanders who have settled there, are a suspicious lot, and Ivey must work hard to gain their trust. Following the advice of a few of these people — Mr. Avery, Deputy Dwight Crawford, a female river outfitter named Sandy — Bailey makes efforts to meet the farmers of the area, and introduces them to concepts like no-till cultivation. He encourages them to fight soil erosion and to devise a better way to dispose of the dead fowls and waste piling up on one of the large chicken operations in the area.

If Up River was simply a discussion of watersheds, rainbow trout, freshwater mussels, and polluting fertilizers and weed killers, the book might better have been written as nonfiction study of a real Appalachian river than as a novel. What takes this story beyond such a study, what makes it highly worthwhile in terms of the reader’s time and commitment to the book, are not the environmental digressions, which are brief, educational, and even enjoyable, but the character of Peter Bailey himself.

In Peter Bailey, Ivey has given us a character with saintly ambitions who bumbles frequently, a man who comes to the task of revitalizing a river largely ignorant of the science needed for that restoration, a fool at times in the way he approaches people. Bailey brings to mind the idealistic Pyle from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, in which the American approaches a culture blinded by his own idealism. Though Bailey does learn a great deal living and working in Walnut Flats, we realize, as he himself eventually realizes, that he has little real idea of what he is doing. Several of his projects fail; he unwittingly offends certain members of the community; he seems to lack the ability to stick with this place — or any other place, for that matter — and has difficulty making commitments.

This difficulty can best be seen through Bailey’s pursuit and treatment of Walnut Flats women. Though he does eventually settle on one of these women, his neighbor Melissa, whose husband is in jail for dealing drugs (Bailey helped put him there by informing on him), Bailey’s encounters with different single females reveal both his restlessness and his penchant for bumbling into situations without fully realizing where he might be led. When he is dating young Sally, for example, he tells us that “we began spending more and more time together, enjoying the easy pleasure of our relationship. I was no longer sure what had held me back with her before, and I no longer cared.” On the very next page, living through a week of November rains, Bailey reports that “the novelty of my relationship with Sally had also started washing away, all too quickly losing much of its initial shine and luster. My entire mood matched the weather.”

It is this honest portrait of Bailey that puts a stamp of originality on Up River. For here we have in a sense a sort of quintessential modern young college graduate turned politico. He has no expertise at all regarding the river, but nonetheless thinks that his people skills, which actually seem mediocre, are what is needed to revitalize its waters. He is constantly misjudging people; at one point, based on conjecture after someone steals letters on some signage in Walnut Flats, Bailey speculates that the Ku Klux Klan is active in the county. He is sometimes so blind to his own work that it isn’t until the end of the novel that he learns the meaning of the river’s name, Akwanee, and even that discovery comes by accident

Moreover, though the people with whom he works have strong family ties, Bailey is rootless — he tells Emma Lynn, who manages a convenience store, that “I guess it does seem kind of crazy to start over somewhere new. I’ve gotten used to doing that every year or two, but maybe it’s not for everybody.” He has no particular religious faith of any kind. His connections to his own family seem distant. He soft-pedals himself to women, putting himself across as a sincere and gentle man, polite, empathetic, even a trifle obsequious, but it’s basically an act. With the exception of Melissa, Bailey shows little concern in exploring the women he beds. In his own way, he’s as bad with women as Earl, Melissa’s drug-selling husband.

Yet the end of Up River brings a sort of redemption to Peter Bailey. Little of his redemption can be credited to his own efforts. Instead, the community, a benefactor, and a woman all take a hand in setting him onto a path in which he becomes a part of a family and a community rather than an outsider.

George Ivey’s Up River offers us an excellent lesson in both the reasons we should care more for our rivers and our wilderness areas, and in the human difficulties that beset that caretaking. Highly recommended.


The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2007. 368 pages.

In The Sonnet Lover (Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0-345-47957-0, $24.95), Carol Goodman takes her readers on yet another exploration into worlds literary and classical. Known for works relating to the ancient world, particularly to Rome — she created a wonderful tale of suspense with insights into the teaching of Latin and the history of the Roman world in The Lake of Dead Languages — Goodman here shifts her focus to the Renaissance, to the sonnet, to William Shakespeare, and to Northern Italy, where numerous poets, most notably Petrarch, helped create the sonnet.

Rose Asher, a professor and a poet teaching at the fictitious Hudson College in Manhattan, has arrived at a place in her life where she feels that her youthful ambitions and dreams have come to a grating end. Though Rose is having a love affair with the president of the college, Mark Abrams, and though she is often idealized and adored by her students — Robin Weiss, described by Rose as “her best student,” an aspiring film-maker and poet, clearly has a crush on her — Rose nonetheless finds herself entering her late 30s with little apparent excitement or purpose in her life.

Her disenchantment and ennui disappear once Robin Weiss sails over the railing of a high-rise building and dies on impact in the street below. With his death, and at the urging of her lover, Rose decides to break away from her routine and spend the summer at La Civetta, an estate outside of Florence known for its great charm and beauty as well as for its association with an obscure female Renaissance poet, Ginevra de Laura (De Laura is a fictional character, based on female Renaissance poets like Veronica Franco). Rumor has long held that de Laura was William Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, and Rose becomes convinced, through a series of seemingly disconnected events, that somewhere at La Civetta there lies hidden a manuscript by de Laura.

As the summer progresses, we come to see that other characters in The Sonnet Lover are not always what they seem. Mark Abrams, the perfect college president, holds both ambition and deadly secrets in his heart; Mara Silverman, wife of the head of the college’s film department, carries a secret that will eventually destroy her; La Civetta itself, with its hidden rooms and ghost-ridden past, casts long and dark shadows over Rose, who first went there as an undergraduate herself, and she fell in love with Bruno Brunelli, the professor with whom she had an affair and whom she still loves.

Rose spends the rest of the novel figuring out the circumstances of Robin’s death as well as explicating her own feelings toward Mark Abrams, her former love with Bruno Brunelli, her work in literature and poetry, and the place of La Civetta, with its romance and sense of freedom, in her own life.

In The Sonnet Lover, Goodman does best what she did in her other novels; she introduces us to a distant past and by her splendid descriptions rouses our interest in the scholarly world which is today exploring that past. In one bravura example of how well she mixes the old and new worlds, Goodman employs her husband, the poet Lee Slonimsky, to write the sonnets attributed here to Ginevra de Laura. Goodman also performs grand work in her descriptions of landscapes and buildings, both in Manhattan and in the countryside around Florence The Sonnet Lover is a lovely book to read in the winter if for no other reason than Goodman’s descriptions of the warm and blossoming Italian countryside. Here, for example, Rose walks after many years’ absence to the villa at La Civetta from the gate:

“To my right is the path that leads to the plain gray-stone building that once housed the Convent of Santa Catalina but now serves as the dorm for the students. Everyone just alls it the little villa. The main villa is lemon colored and lies at the end of a long avenue, or viale, of tall cypresses. It’s a popular view featured in all the colleges advertising brochures and on the Web site for the study abroad program. Maybe that’s why I find myself curiously numb as I start down the viale, as if I am approaching picture instead of the real thing, a painted façade that seems to slip in and out between its frame of gray-green cypresses like a woman hiding coquettishly behind a curtain.”

Although Goodman skillfully weaves these varied settings and people into the plot of The Sonnet Lover, the novel does contain some flaws. The second half of the book slows — if not exactly to a crawl, then to an ambling pace that ill-befits a literary thriller. More tellingly, however, Goodman litters her book with such strong hints at what is to come next in the plot and too often the events become predictable. When Rose comments on a step in the villa gardens being loose, for example, we know that soon someone will take a tumble on that step. By shaking us by the lapels at such moments, by smacking us upside the head with clues, Goodman makes even the casual reader aware of an upcoming catastrophe.

Yet these flaws are negligible compared to the many pleasures bestowed by The Sonnet Lover: the twists in the story, the speculation regarding Shakespeare, his sonnets, and his Dark Lady, the academic feuds and frays, and the quest for love itself, a quest featuring both modern and Renaissance lovers. Goodman has the skill to bring alive simultaneously both the worlds of Shakespeare and of modern American academia.


A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons by James Dodson. Algonquin Books, 2009.

The way we lead our days, wrote Hollins graduate Annie Dillard, is the way we lead our lives. The northern golf season was history, and sudden endings and unexpected paths seemed to be everywhere I turned that week.”

The above quotation is from James Dodson’s A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons (Algonquin Books, ISBN 13-978-1-56512-506-3, 2009, $24.95). These words sum up both Dodson’s life and his book, for his memoir of his golfing life, which is also an account of his return to North Carolina and to the Sandhills, is indeed a tale of sudden endings and unexpected paths.

Dodson, who has written six other books on golf, including the highly acclaimed Ben Hogan: An American Life, and who for many years wrote an award-winning column for Golf Magazine, found himself in the spring of 2005 faced with several endings in his own life. Harvie Ward a close friend who had as a young man beaten the likes of Arnold Palmer to win two U.S. Amateur Championships but lost his titles when it was determined that he‘d taken money to play, then fell into a whiskey bottle and years of obscurity before becoming a golf pro at Pinehurst had recently died of liver cancer. Dodson’s own career at Golf Magazine had come to a bitter end, when the management of the magazine changed hands.

But A Son of the Game is more about the “unexpected paths” and indeed, beginnings, than it is about endings. When Dodson comes south to cover the United States Open Championship at Pinehurst, he finds himself falling in love with the places of his boyhood. Dodson had grown up in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, learning the game of golf from his father and the craft of writing from both his parents and his teachers. He had worked his way north during his years of employment, eventually finding his home in Maine, which may seem an odd place for a golfer to settle down. Despite his deep affection for Maine, he felt a longing to return to his roots in Carolina.

In A Son of the Game, Dodson tells us how his longing became a reality, how he rediscovered his home state and reignited his love of golf. His finely-written book serves up a feast consisting of several different courses.

Dodson gives us a tour of Pinehurst and of nearby Southern Pines, explaining how golf came to be established there and tracing the history of the region from that time to the present. Invited to serve as writer in residence for The Pilot, a newspaper owned at different times by Sam Ragan, a poet laureate of North Carolina, and by James Boyd, famed for his novels about the Revolutionary War, Dodson finds himself taken into the heart of these communities.

Dodson’s love of golf, his affability, and his reporter’s beat give him a way into the hearts and minds of the townspeople and the visiting golfers. Consequently, he serves us up portraits of his neighbors, the local innkeepers, golf pros and players, writers and local educators, including John Dempsey, the head of the nearby community college.

Dodson also gives us insight into his family life. Though he clearly loves his wife and retains great affection for his deceased relatives, it is for his son Jack that Dodson displays here his deepest concern and feelings. His son is finishing high school and is seeking his own place in the world. He is torn between staying in Maine to finish high school or following his father to North Carolina; he is confused, too, by his place in the game of golf and how much it means to him. Dodson’s affection for Jack, even when they quarrel, comes across in every sentence in which the young man is mentioned.

In his “Acknowledgments” at the end of A Son of the Game, Dodson recollects how once, when he interviewed Richard Petty, the “King of NASCAR,” the stock car driver told him how important our “raisins” were. When Dodson asked him what these “raisins” meant, Petty smiled at him and said, “Never forget where you come from, son — the important values and people who raised you up. Those are your raisins.”

In this same short section, in a single paragraph, Dodson pays homage to those who now help him in his own life. He writes:

“I must thank my wife, Wendy, who had the good sense to hand me my car keys and shove me out the door to say a proper goodbye to a dying friend; and my son, Jack, who capped off this journey home by helping his old man rediscover what is most valuable and precious about life’s most enduring and revealing game: the relationships we make along the way.”


Joseph Mitchell, another North Carolina writer who worked for decades at the New Yorker, once wrote about Joe Gould, a street philosopher and writer who claimed to have written an oral history of New Yorkers. Mitchell eventually came to realize that Gould was a fraud in terms of his writing, but that he was perhaps a genius in his views on living.

In the movie “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Ian Holm as Joe Gould and Stanley Tucci as Joseph Mitchell combine to give us a wonderful take on New York in mid-century, on writing, and on relationships. Holm’s portrayal of the irascible Gould — he is either asking friends for money for the “Joe Gould Fund” or else is exploding furiously at the trials of life — is beautifully done, and may provide bloated moviegoers with an antidote to the saccharine movies of the holiday season.

The movie is available on disc.


Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Elizabeth and Michael Norman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 480 pages

In the summer of 1966 I worked one day a week as a volunteer in Winston-Salem’s Baptist Hospital. One of my jobs was to transport patients from their rooms to the X-ray department, and then back again.

On this particular day, the patient whom I was helping to transport by stretcher was an old man with white hair and very pale skin. He wiggled gingerly from his bed to the stretcher, where he lay on his back, his bony fingers clasped together on his chest, breathing the way older people do who have lost a part of their capacity for breath. His chart lay on the foot of the stretcher, and as we went down on the elevator I glanced at it and began reading from a long list of ailments: beriberi, rickets, malaria. The other orderly, a middle-aged man, nodded at the man when I looked up.

“Bataan,” he said.

It was all he needed to say. Although many young people today might find that orderly’s utterance nonsensical, back then everyone knew about the Death March of Bataan. Lying on this stretcher was a man who had walked through hell and lived to tell the tale.

In Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, $30, ISBN 978-0-374-27260-9), Elizabeth and Michael Norman take us back to the spring of 1942, when Japanese forces were chopping up the American military throughout most of the Pacific. They bring us to the Philippines and show us how the Japanese, with a smaller force, effected the surrender of 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers, the single largest defeat on a battlefield in American history. Using both Japanese and American eyewitness accounts, they then reveal with gruesome detail how the Bataan Death March left thousands of these prisoners of war dead within a week.

The eyewitness whose testimony is key to Tears in the Darkness is young Ben Steele, a Montana cowboy who joined the Army for some excitement and for money shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After basic training, Steele began studying for the Army Air Corps pilot examination, but was then ordered in October of 1941 to go with his unit to the Philippines. Less than six months later, he found himself fighting for his life, first against the Japanese as enemy warriors, then against them as brutal captors, and finally against a host of tropical diseases which brought him within an inch of death.

When the Japanese captured the tens of thousands of Americans and Filipinos, these men had already been living for months on reduced rations. Now, without water or rations, the Japanese forced their captives to march for nearly a week to holding areas in another part of Luzon. Prisoners who collapsed were bayoneted on the spot. Truckloads of Japanese passing the columns of staggering men amused themselves by swinging golf clubs and rifles at their heads. In some cases, hundreds of prisoners were simply marched into jungles, bayoneted or beheaded, and then rolled, some of them still living and begging for mercy, into mass graves.

Illness, the boiling sun, and flies attracted by the stink and decay of the death march also took their toll. The Normans write that:

“Thousands of men were suffering from dysentery, and the ground where the prisoners were forced to sit and sleep became coated with layers of excrement, mucus, urine, and blood .... Hundreds of men, meanwhile, never made it to the latrines; they stumbled into the compound too enervated, too far gone to take another step. Helpless against the exigencies of the disease — the wrenching cramps and resistless urge to evacuate — they soiled themselves where they stood right through their clothing, then lay down half conscious in a pool of their own filth.”

Many men died on the march; many more died in the camps in which they lived for the rest of the war. Bob Steele barely survived, fighting malaria, beriberi, and starvation. When he did recover, the young man from Montana took up drawing. He found an engineer among his fellow captives who taught him perspective and vanishing point, and put down in charcoal, pencil, and pen drawings of the sufferings and indignities of his fellow prisoners. The Normans have wisely incorporated these drawings, scattering them throughout this history to add to its immediacy.

Though the authors go to great lengths to explain Japanese savagery and their contempt for the lives of their prisoners — the Normans tell us how overwhelmed the Japanese were by the sheer number of prisoners they had captured, and they carefully explain how the Japanese view of warfare included despising anyone who surrendered — Tears in the Darkness still has the power to enrage its readers. All war involves savagery of some sort, but the Japanese, nearly en masse, seemed on this occasion to find savagery exhilarating (it is significant that the Normans quote many different Japanese soldiers in regard to the fighting on Luzon, but none in regard to the death march itself).

Tears in the Darkness, with its ghastly catalogue of murder and disease, may appear a dismal candidate for reading, but about halfway through the book, the astute reader will begin to note not only the inhumanity of man to man, but also the great resilience of man himself. We find ourselves shocked not only by the violence and cruelty, but also by the toughness of men, by their will for survival and even triumph.

Tears in the Darkness should also be read as a reminder to all Americans that though the cost of victory in war is high, the cost of defeat is higher still.

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


Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster, 2009. 448 pages.

Readers of this column know that some authors turn up here regular as church bells, reviewed with each new book. Ann Tyler, Carol Goodman, Pat Conroy: these and a few others have appeared here more than once in the 10-year life of this column, partly because the reviewer loves their work, partly because their work touches in some particular way on the lives and sensibilities of the readers of The Smoky Mountain News.

No author, however, has received more reviews than James Lee Burke. Best-known for his novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, a tormented Vietnam vet, member in good standing in Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the best fictional investigators of the last 50 years, Burke has written several more novels about a Western attorney, Billy Bob Holland, as well as some general works of fiction early in his career.

Reasons for this attention to Burke abound. His major characters, especially Dave Robicheaux, seem to fit the profile of many Smoky Mountain News readers: slightly left of center, concerned about the environment, interested in seeing justice administered and the innocent protected. Though Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland, and other protagonists more than occasionally trespass on the grounds of mawkish sentimentality, Burke always manages to steer them away without embarrassment, usually through their own ironic sense of themselves and their fellow man.

Burke’s readers also like his books, of course, because the man is a damn fine storyteller.

In Rain Gods (Simon and Schuster, 2009, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-2824-4), Burke gives us a new protagonist, Hackberry Holland, an aging Texas sheriff faced with a veritable platoon of hit men and fanatics bent on running prostitutes and drugs across the Mexican border. Here in this 400-hundred-plus page novel are a host of grand characters fighting for the good: Pete Flores, an Iraq vet who fights his demons along with his girlfriend, country singer Vikki Gaddis; Deputy Sheriff Pam Tibbs, cool and competent and in love with the older Holland; and Nick Dolan, one of the quirkier heroes in recent literature, a small-time gangster who eventually, with the help of his wife Esther, cowboys up and opposes the criminals trying to run an extortion on him.

The best-drawn character of these criminals is Preacher Jack Collins, a killer-for-hire who has his own strange personal code of honor; his explanations of that code, and the failure of his partners in crime to understand it, provides some of the funnier moments in Rain Gods. Preacher, for example, comes to believe that Esther Dolan, who is of Jewish descent, is related to the Biblical Esther and that she will reveal not only her queenly qualities to him, but will reveal his own self and reason for being as well.

Burke’s many gifts as a writer are on display here. Few novelists writing today can reproduce the accuracy of his dialogue or his finely-done descriptions of place. In Rain Gods, Burke frequently gives us a picture of desert and decay, with this physical backdrop reflecting the moral deformity of so many of the characters.

“The motel was a leftover from the 1950s, a utilitarian structure checker boarded with huge red and beige plastic squares, the metal-railed upstairs walkways not unlike those in penitentiaries, all of it located in a neighborhood of warehouses and bankrupt businesses and joyless bars that could afford no more than a single neon sign over the door.”

Rain Gods does contain some of the flaws apparent in Burke’s other books. Despite his creation of the Dolans as good guys here — the scene where Nick Dolan stands up to Sholokoff, the Russian gangster behind the murders, is one of the most entertaining moments in the book — Burke tends to paint good and evil with a broad brush. In Preacher Burke does offer us a “bad guy” who is complex, who does maneuver through moral judgments, who is a protean character of sorts, but generally the men who commit evil in Burke’s books are not complex, tormented characters.

Burke also traffics in reverse stereotypes. All of the women in the book — Vikki Gaddis shoots a gangster in the feet; Pam Tibbs blows away several malefactors; Esther Dolan beats a gangster about the head with a pot and chases him from her house — are undaunted by evil, stronger than the men around them, a position typical of other works by Burke. And though much of his novel has to do with smuggling drugs and prostitutes across the border, no Mexicans other than a few shooters are involved in this trade. The real evil-doers, as in nearly all of Burke’s other novels, are always white and male. As a result, though minor Mexican figures flit through the story, Burke’s tale of modern-day Texas feels weirdly out of sync with the real racial mix that constitutes not only Texas, but nearly every state in the nation.

These complaints may also be made about the novels of Pat Conroy. In both cases, the same prejudices may be seen at work. Both men are magnificent writers in nearly every sense, yet when we look back at writers of 50 years ago — Faulkner, Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet — we must wonder whether our contemporary writers don’t, in fact, want to be liked too much.


Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon, 2009. 352 pages.


Although several biographies of Nathan Bedford Forrest have found publishers over the last 60 years, Civil War buffs, serious followers of fiction, and those who simply enjoy a great read will all find pleasures galore in Madison Smartt Bell’s Devil’s Dream (978-0-375-42488-5, $26.95). Bell, who also wrote All Souls’ Rising, a novel of the Haitian revolt against the French, as well as nearly 20 other books, here gives us Bedford Forrest with all his glories and foibles.

Like Andrew Jackson, who resembles Forrest in both temperament and courage — both men were duelists, were possessed by savage tempers, and fought like hellcats in battle — Forrest was a product of the Southern frontier and an American original. A slave trader, a teetotaler, an autodidact with atrocious spelling, a man loyal to his family, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, he also ranks as one of the greatest generals and fighting men in American history. Had he possessed more authority at Shiloh and at Chickamauga, there is the real possibility that the war in the West would have seen greater Rebel triumphs.

Forrest, who had never formally studied military tactics, followed several simple tactical rules for battle. He believed in attack rather than defense. He knew how to maneuver and feint. He understood the importance of the unrelenting chase once the enemy was on the run, pursuit that lasted until that enemy was crushed and surrendered.

In Devil’s Dream, Bell gives us not only the brilliant general — the savage cavalryman who, having once ridden alone into a swarm of Yankee infantry, cutting and slashing, took a round in the back that almost unhorsed him, grabbed a Yankee, flung him across his back for protection, and rode back to his own lines, throwing the Yankee down behind him — but he also permits us great insight into the man who was the loving husband of Mary Ann, the lover of a slave named Catherine, the father of a slave named Matthew, and a commander who was both solicitous and harsh toward his men. To paint this portrait, Bell uses a platoon of characters to show us his many qualities and to flesh out both Forrest’s life and the violent world in which he lived.

From this same palette Smith creates vivid battle scenes. Here he describes a charge in which Forrest leads his men, including his slave-son Matthew and Henri, a recruit of mixed race:

“Keep up the skeer!” Forrest cried, one more time, ordering out small squads of his escort to press the receding Yankee rear. Matthew rode in the forefront of these, with Henri barely able to keep up with him and maybe not entirely willing to — he felt cold and empty as a washed-out jug since their tour of the riot around Ololona — but Matthew was burning, burning, or it was Forrest’s words that burned inside him. “Make yore ownself free.”

Devil’s Dreams should prompt readers who are strangers to Bell’s fiction to seek out his other books as well.


Another fine book which takes as its topic the War Between the States is Amanda C. Gable’s The Confederate General Rides North (ISBN 978-1-4165-9839-8, $26). In this quirky first novel, Gable tells the story of Kat McConnell, an 11-year-old who, living in Georgia in the 1960s, falls in love with the history of the Civil War. Her mother, an artist and a New Englander, decides, seemingly on a whim, to take Kat and head north to New England, with the idea of buying antiques along the way and opening a store in New England. Unwillingly, Kat goes along with this plan — she has little choice — though she is upset about leaving her father and her grandparents without even saying goodbye.

To cope with this upset in her life, Kat pretends that she is a Confederate general. Though this twist may seem a frivolous, even silly, premise for a plot to a book, Gable weaves from it a rich tapestry between the past and the present, between reality and illusion, giving us in the process a fine story indeed. Their trips to various Civil War battlefields (Kat persuades her mother to go to these places by explaining about the antique shops they’ll find there); Kat’s mother’s extraordinary harsh take on the South, on her in-laws, and finally on Kat herself (readers will want to smack this woman about halfway through the book); and Kat’s image of herself as a Confederate general all make for a grand tour of the soul and spirit of young girl caught up in a family battle beyond her ken.

In those parts of The Confederate General Rides North where Kat pretends to be a general, Gable writes near-hypnotic prose. She makes the war a metaphor for Kat’s struggles with her family, particularly her mother, and writes so well in these passages that many readers may find themselves, several days after finishing this book, thinking along the lines of Kat:

A weight lies on the Confederate general’s shoulders, the hope of Virginia and the rest of the South, and if she doesn’t figure out how to turn this failing campaign around, she will let everyone down ... Whatever happens, she must figure out what’s working and do it more, and uncover what’s wrong and fix it.

A delightful and highly recommended saga of a brave young girl, the Civil War, and the place of family and honor in our lives.


The Fitzgerald Ruse by Mark De Castrique. Poisoned Pen Press, 2009. 250 pages.

Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and magazines like Black Mask are the great-grandfathers of the American detective novel. Readers, for example, can open a Chandler novel and from the first chapter hear a voice and tone that are as familiar to them as last night’s reruns of “The Rockford Files” or “Miami Vice.” These well-known lines from Chandler’s Red Wind regarding the Santa Ana winds in California make the point:

Those hot dry winds that come down through you in the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Some 70 years later, writers of the hard-boiled detective school continue to give us tales of tough men and women doing battle against dragons: the drug dealer, the murderer, the corrupt businessman, the bad cop, the guy in the black hat. This lone and often broken modern-day knight who fights the powers of darkness, who must also fight the dark places within himself, and who eventually puts wrongs right, continues to attract us. James Lee Burke, Robert Bloch, and Robert Parker are only three of the battalion of writers, male and female, who have followed this tradition with great success.

Following in their footsteps — and of particular interest to anyone living in Western North Carolina — is writer and film producer Mark De Castrique.

In The Fitzgerald Ruse, his second novel involving Sam Blackman and his partner and lover, Nakayla Robertson, De Castrique again sets his story of money, murder, and betrayal in Asheville.

The story opens when Robertson and Blackman, a former chief warrant officer who lost a leg in an ambush in Iraq and who has since recuperated in Asheville’s V.A. Hospital, open a detective agency on Pack Square. Their first client is Ethel Barkley, who presents Blackman with a mysterious box inscribed with a swastika which may or may not contain papers belonging to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This box lies at the heart of the rest of the book. On the night Blackman receives the box from Mrs. Barkley, an intruder murders the building’s security guard and steals the box. Through the rest of the book all sorts of people pop up, looking either for the box or for the source of wealth behind Blackman’s own offshore bank accounts: former military comrades, local attorneys, rogue Blackwater employees, and ghosts from Asheville’s past.

It is De Castrique’s presentation of this past which will surely attract local readers. On these pages, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald comes briefly to life for us. Mrs. Barkley claims to have known Fitzgerald when he would sojourn in Asheville, ostensibly to see his wife Zelda, who was confined to Highland Mental Hospital, but also to drink and to philander, and to enjoy the city itself. De Castrique takes us to the Grove Park Inn, where Fitzgerald rented a room, and to Beaver Lake, where he broke a shoulder once by trying to show off his diving skills for a woman.

We also meet William Dudley Pelley, whose name is now largely forgotten but who in the 1930s founded in Asheville the Silver Legion, a copy of the Nazis’ Brownshirts. Though the Legion was a national movement and though Pelley himself was not native to these mountains, some natives of Asheville did join and support his movement. Pelley and Franklin Roosevelt hated each other, and the White House ordered Pelley to be investigated by the FBI. After Pearl Harbor, Pelley’s Legion dissolved, and Pelley himself was imprisoned for a time for his viewpoints.

In addition to these insights, De Castrique gives us many thumbnail sketches of Asheville and its citizens. In Blackman’s Coffin, his first Sam Blackman novel, De Castrique included Thomas Wolfe and the Vanderbilts in his story. This reviewer intends to read that novel as soon he can lay his hands on it.

Read The Fitzgerald Ruse and enjoy!


Nicholas Baker is one of those writers with an extraordinary range: novelist, essayist, bookman, historian. Now he may account himself a literary critic and a poet as well, for in his latest work, The Anthologist (Simon and Schuster, 978-1-4165-7244-2, $25), Baker undertakes to write a novel that could serve as a handbook of poetry and as a critique of literature.

Paul Chowder, the novel’s narrator, is lost: his girlfriend Roz has left him, and he is suffering from a case of writer’s block that keeps him from completing an introduction to a poetry anthology. Chowder looks at his past, his missed opportunities, his neighbors—but most of all at poetry. The Anthologist could serve as a poetry primer, for here is a medley of lessons in poetry masquerading as a novel. On nearly every page of The Anthologist, Chowder — and Baker — give us lessons in poetics: rhyme, meter, and rhythm; the colossal and ongoing battles between those advocating form versus those who love free verse; the poets themselves with all their foibles, and strange beauty, and words as lovely as stone in a cathedral.

The Anthologist is not for every reader. But if you love poetry, you will find in Nicholas Baker’s novel a wonderful arena of verse and versifying, and how they affect our lives.


In Ayn Rand and the World She Made (ISBN 978-0-385-51399-9, Doubleday, 568 pages, $35), Anne C. Heller has given readers an intimate look at the woman who wrote such novels as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, works which had a great impact not only on the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary readers, but on certain major policy makers of the last 50 years.

Born in Czarist Russia in 1905, Rand grew up in a time of turmoil, war, and revolution. She and those around her — she lived in a tight-knit Jewish community in St. Petersburg — suffered, like so many people, when the Bolsheviks captured the Revolution and turned the country into a Communist dictatorship. Some of her friends fled the country, both during the war and during the revolutionary period, and Rand, though her immediate family all stayed behind, also departed at the age of 21 for the United States.

Even then she despised both statism and religion. Her heroes were Aristotle, Victor Hugo, the fathers of the American Revolution, and herself. In the next two decades, Rand quite literally willed herself to become a major novelist. After a short stay with relatives in Chicago, she found a job reading, editing, and then writing screenplays in Hollywood. She married a minor actor, Frank O’Connor, in part at least because he fit her notion of how an ideal man should look. While she and her husband scrabbled to make a living during the Depression — O’Connor had little ambition and would eventually become a stay-at-home husband, content to take care of the chores — Rand always kept her eyes on the goal she had set for herself: to become a major, best-selling novelist whose ideas might help change the world.

Eventually, of course, Rand achieved that goal. In We The Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, she found recognition, money, and an outlet for her ideas. From the late 1950s on, she received hundreds of letters each month from fans wanting to know more about this woman who had made selfishness and individualism the highest standards for human beings. By the time of her death in 1982, Ayn Rand possessed an enormous readership and had exerted a major influence on certain key figures of the Reagan administration. When Allen Greenspan was sworn in as the chairman of President Gerald Ford’s Council of Economic Advisers, Rand was there with him in the Oval Office, clearly proud of her protégé.

Heller, who is not always in agreement with Rand’s ideas, but who nonetheless does a fine job of presenting them objectively and fairly, combines her analysis of Rand’s writing with a vivid portrayal of Rand’s personal life. Here we see that Rand, like so many people, was often a farrago of contradictions. Her own male protagonists, for example, are heroic and filled with sex — Howard Roark in The Fountainhead dominates and essentially rapes Dominique Francon — whereas Frank O’Connor was mild and so non-aggressive sexually that Rand would eventually take a younger man, Nathaniel Brandon, for her lover, with the consent of her husband.

Rand also strongly emphasized logic and reason as the highest goals of man. Yet as she grew older, and as the cult of followers surrounding her grew, she often gave way to bouts of histrionics regarding the behavior and beliefs of those followers. Those who disagreed with her, those who veered in any way from the philosophy which she called Objectivisim, were banished from the group. She espoused the virtues of the mind, yet her own emotions in regard to her long affair with Brandon was often a rollercoaster of arguments and accusations.

Like Ernest Hemingway, Rand was helped along the ladder to success by friends, family, and other writers. Like Hemingway, her usual response to such assistance, once she had reached the next rung of the ladder, was to give a boot in the face to those who had given her the boost. Her Chicago relatives, the family she left behind in Russia, those friends who ignited her intellectual ire, her literary mentors like Isabel Patterson: all were eventually ignored or brushed aside.

Yet even her political enemies admitted that Rand did possess a personal charm when she chose to exert it. One of her friends in the publishing world delighted in introducing his big-government friends to Rand, who would frequently surprised them by her questions and by her quick mind.

In the preface to this biography, Heller points out that Rand’s “novels and the best of her essays are well worth reading now, when issues of wealth and poverty, state power and autonomy, and security and freedom still disturb us.” It is a mark of the power of these novels that they are rarely taught in the universities, yet they each year attract new readers, mostly the young. The economic crisis of the last three years, for example, has nearly tripled the sales of Atlas Shrugged.

Heller’s story of Ayn Rand should stand as a fine example of biography. She has given us a major work about a woman whose ideas continue to make themselves felt in the political and economic arenas.


Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2009. 368 pages.

In Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (13-978-1-4143-2227-8, $14.99), Stephen James and David Thomas make clever use of Maurice Sendak’s book for children, Where the Wild Things Are. The plot to Where the Wild Things Are is simple: Max misbehaves and is sent to his room by his mother, where he imaginatively enters a world where rules and constraint vanish. After enjoying his “wild rumpus,“ Max finally returns safely to his own home and his mother’s love.

In using this story as the thesis for their book on nurturing boys — Sendak’s portrayal of Max,” the authors of Wild Things tell us, “is a great picture of the way, the mind, and the heart of a boy” — James and Thomas guide their readers through the stages of male psychological development, of nurturing boys toward manhood, from the womb to the mid-20s. Their choice of the word nurturing as opposed to shaping or molding, they explain, is deliberate and important, for the idea of nurturing indicates the creation of an environment and guidelines for boys rather than treating them as a drill instructor breaking in a recruit.

The two therapists — Stephen James works as a private psychotherapist while David Thomas tends more toward group therapy — bring into this book years of experience helping young men and raising their own sons. The two men write informally, cite case after case from their personal observations, and offer a sense of wit and humor which alone may reassure many parents facing confusion or frustration in raising a son.

The authors have developed five major stages, or categories, that all males must pass through in order to become men. There is the Explorer, the boy of 2 to 4 years old; the Lover, the boy who from ages 5 to 8 becomes gentler and brings his emotions into play; the Individual, the adolescent who from 9 to 12 begins to assert his independence; the Wanderer, the teenager from 13 to 17 whose credo often mimics the old lines from the Marlon Brando biker movie: “What are you rebelling against?” “Whatta you got?”; and finally the Warrior, the college-age young man who begins to find out through direct encounters with reality — sometimes a little too much reality — how the world works and his place in it.

Other authors have written books about the stages of life, guides for men and women, young and old, but Wild Things seems more astute and workable than many of these. Parents who read descriptions of male behavior in the above stages, for example, will shake their head in knowing wonderment because their son often engaged in the exact sort of behavior cited in Wild Things. Not only do James and Thomas recreate scenarios of typical behavior in their book, they also give tips on how to address and correct inappropriate behavior.

In their discussion of “The Wanderer,” for instance, James and Thomas make a list of things parents can do to help them connect with their teenage sons. This list runs from “Call your parents and apologize,” meaning call your own parents and apologize for your abuse of them at this stage, to “Feed him,” in which the authors suggest taking your teenage son out for an occasional great meal at a restaurant he enjoys.

At one point in the book, James and Thomas pick ideas from Richard Rohr’s essay “Boys to Men: Rediscovering Rites of Passage for Our Time.” In the essay, Rohr identifies five essential truths that “male initiation must communicate ... to the young man.” These essential truths are important enough to include as part of this review:

1) Life is hard. If, as Rohr says, you can convince yourself of this truth and repeat it until it becomes a part of you, you will suffer less in the long run. In his best-selling The Road Less Travelled, the author Scott Peck offered precisely the same advice — not just to the young, but to everyone.

2) You are going to die. The young should be taught that death will come to them, that they are not immune, and that they should live their lives in such a way that they may courageously face their deaths.

3) You are not that important. Contrary to the modern “I am Special” mantra, this idea acts as the basis for all service.

4) You are not in control. The authors state that God is in control. Non-believers may disagree, but all of us will admit that at times we do not control our lives.

5) Your life is not about you. This, Rohr says, is the essential experience. Young people must know that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves.

One great strength of Wild Things is its practical approach to teaching these lessons and connecting with our sons. In a section titled “Putting the Principles into Practice,” James and Thomas offer several pages of tips. A few of these are “Show physical affection,” “Catch him with his guard down,” “Practice curiosity” (about his life), and “Meet him on his own turf.” Each tip is accompanied by a paragraph of concrete ideas.

Although James and Thomas are Christians as well as psychologists, non-believers would be making a mistake if they let that circumstance dissuade them from reading and using this book. The advice offered here by these two men is invaluable, their message concerning our young men one of hope and optimism. Wild Things is a book all parents can use and value.


“April is the cruelest of months, breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land” — so wrote T.S. Eliot in the much-cited first two lines of “The Waste Land.”

April is also National Poetry Month. Had he lived today, Eliot may have rewritten those lines to say that “April is the cruelest of months, breeding/poems out of a dead land.” For the poetry of the last 20 years is, in so many ways, bred out of a dead land, soil on which multitudes sow and toil but few reap. Many people today continue to love and read poetry; but many less continue to read and love poetry written in the last forty years. There are thousands of outlets for publishing poetry, and tens of thousands of poets, but the number of readers in any given city of today’s poets might not fill a middling pub. Even poets don’t read the poetry of their contemporaries.

One clue for this dearth of readers and the plenitude of poets may be found in the field of post-modern painting. Visual artists of the last 50 to 60 years have stopped, for the most part, trying to connect with the common man, the guy in the streets, through representational art and have instead focused their efforts and their talents on either shocking viewers or on creating works so abstract and obscure that only patrons with a Ph.D. in art can appreciate their form and meaning.

Like these artists, many poets have forgotten that their audience could be larger than a few other poets and a wayward fan or two. Readers who doubt this statement need only open a recent copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and compare work of the poets born after 1940 to that of the poets going back to Chaucer. In most cases, Chaucer’s Middle English is more easily comprehended than some of the modernist and postmodernist verse.

There are, fortunately, exceptions which give those of us who love poetry some small consolation. There are poets — Fred Chappell (a Canton native), for instance, or Mary Oliver — whose work appeals to those outside of the university or some tight circle of poets, whose words are still comprehensible without need of a dictionary or a psychiatrist. One such poet is Wendell Berry.

Berry, the author of more than 50 books of fiction, essays, and poetry, a farmer from Henry County, Kentucky, who is a strong advocate for the land and for simplicity, has recently written Leavings: Poems (Counterpoint Press, ISBN 978-158243-534-3, 2010, $23). Here again, as in his other poetry, Berry reveals his passions for the vanishing land and for nature, his Robinson Jefferson distaste for big government, his advocacy of small enterprises over large ones. Here he writes of a stream, Camp Branch:

When we who know you by name

are gone, what will they call you?

When our nation has fallen as all

things fall, when the Constitution

Is only another paper god, prayed to

and lied to by only another

autocrat, what will they call you?

Given his age — Berry will turn 76 in August — it is only natural perhaps that the poet should turn his thoughts toward death and what may lie beyond the grave. This short poem may well encapsulate Berry’s religious beliefs:

I know that I have life

only insofar as I have love.

I have no love

except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry

this candle against the wind.

In the three line“Like Snow,” Berry writes beautifully of the idea of work:

Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly,

leaving nothing out.

The last poem of Leavings perhaps sums up the themes of the book — and of Berry’s writings:

By its own logic, greed

finally destroys itself,

as Lear’s wicked daughters

learned to their horror, as

we are learning to our own.

What greed builds is built

by destruction of the materials

and lives of which it is built.

Only mourners survive.

This is the “creative destruction”

of which learned economists

speak in praise. But what is made

by destruction comes down at last

to a stable floor, a bed

of straw, and for those with sight

light in darkness.

Leavings is not Berry’s strongest work, but it does grant us yet another audience with a man who has lived by his principles and who still has much to teach us.


In Strays (ISBN 978-0-9749199-1-1, $14.95), Jeanne Webster tells the story of Jane Morgan, a young woman whose relationship with her boyfriend is ending and who has just lost her job as a staff reporter for an Atlanta newspaper. Offered the use of a cabin in the mountains for a month, Jane is settling into her retreat when she falls and hits her head. When she recovers consciousness, she discovers that she has mysteriously acquired the ability to hear the voices of plants and animals around her.

Her friendship with Max, a stray dog, with Grandmother Spider, the Great Snake, and others enable Jane to realize that not only are human beings more deeply connected to the planet and its creatures than they ever realize, but that beyond the world of the seen lies another deeper, sacred reality.

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


Twelve years ago, while teaching Latin at a local high school, I was discussing a point of grammar — I think it had to do with the dative case and indirect objects — when one of the brighter students in the class interrupted me and said plaintively, “Could you please explain what an indirect object is? Most of us haven’t had this stuff since the fourth grade.”

Before 1970, most students had grammar drilled into their heads through middle school. Then came the changes wrought by that era, and grammar, like memorization and other archaic fixtures of learning, fell before the winds of novelty and creativity. To study grammar, punctuation, and syntax in many schools, public and private, was regarded as antiquated as — well, as the study of Latin. The consequent lack of language fundamentals so damaged the writing abilities of students that by the 1980s many universities, including those of the Ivy League, were forced to open writing labs and other courses in basic composition for incoming freshmen.

In the No. 1 British bestseller, Eats, Shoot & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, published in the United States in 2004, Lynne Truss attacked the sloppy usage of our times, generated both by low educational standards and by digital communication such as emails and text messaging. Her book pointed out to its readers the importance of being a stickler in matters of punctuation and diction, and the harm done to the clarity of language when we fail to follow these rules.

Another book which should cause a similar uptick in matters grammatical is Mark Garvey’s Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (ISBN 978-1-4165-9092-7, 2009, $22.99, 208 pages).

Nearly everyone who has gone to college, or who has wondered through a bookstore, is familiar with The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. (Elwyn Brooks) White. This book is, indeed, so much a part of American literary culture that, as Garvey reminds us, we couple their names “Strunk and White” (often pronounced as “strunkenwhite) much as we do “Rogers and Hammerstein, the Wright brothers, Tracy and Hepburn, Lennon-McCartney.”

William Strunk Jr., a professor of English at Cornell University, self-published The Elements of Style in 1918, a small book intended for the instruction of his students regarding certain points of English grammar and punctuation. E.B. White, who joined the professor’s classes as a student in 1919 and left those same classes as Strunk’s friend, used the little book, but forgot about it after his graduation. After a few years of struggling, White landed on the staff of the newly launched New Yorker magazine. Throughout this time, he maintained a correspondence with Strunk.

Eleven years after Strunk’s death, however, a friend mailed White a copy of the professor’s book. Rereading The Elements of Style aroused in White feelings of nostalgia and admiration, and he devoted one of his New Yorker columns to the book. An editor at the Macmillan Company, Jack Case, read the article, contacted White, and made an arrangement for publication of The Elements of Style in which White would add his own thoughts on style to the original book.

First published in 1959, “Strunkenwhite” has since gone through four editions and sold well over 10 million copies.

In Stylized, Garvey gives us the above bare-bone facts in the first few pages of the book. These are fascinating in themselves, for those who have used The Elements of Style, but to these bones, Garvey adds flesh, nerve, and sinew. He spends the first half of the book describing the careers of both Strunk and White — the description of Strunk’s training in languages reminds us once again of the high educational standards of the late nineteenth century both here and abroad — their interest in the English language, their intelligent and often witty correspondence.

Although he continues to examine the lives of both men in the remaining pages of Stylized, Garvey also devotes a good number of pages to the devotees and the detractors of The Elements of Style. Those authors who sing the praises of Strunk and White range from Stephen King to Dave Barry. Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes who, interestingly, wrote the Foreword to Eats, Shoots & Leaves, brought The Elements of Style into his classes at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. He writes that the lessons he drew from it, the lessons he tried to pass along to his students, were:

“Clarity, clarity, clarity — and get rid of adornment and unnecessary words. I went right along with it because I like to get to the point in writing anyway ... And that’s why I think I had a particular feeling about Strunk and White — because of their insistence, and because of White’s good humor about it more than Strunk. Strunk is funny in his hardheadedness; White is even funnier. It’s almost as if they’re a vaudeville pair.”

Garvey lets the detractors throw their punches, but at times he steps into the ring as a defender. In response to Geoffrey Pullum’s attack on The Elements and its admonition to delete adjectives as much as possible — Pullum wrote that “You don’t get good at writing by deleting adjectives” — Garvey rejoins that White wasn’t necessarily opposed to adjectives. Garvey writes that White’s “point ... is that instead of relying on a modifier to prop up a weak noun or verb, writers should work harder to discover and employ stronger, more precise nouns and verbs.”

Stylized will delight those who are already in the “Strunkenwhite” entourage as well as entice newcomers to join them. Garvey deserves high praise for making all of us more familiar with this famous duo.

Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey.


Next by James Hynes. Reagan Arthur Books, 2010. 320 pages.

In The Lecturer’s Tale, previously reviewed in The Smoky Mountain News, James Hynes offered a withering satire of the academic world, in particular the Machiavellian machinations carried on in a university English literature department. The Lecturer’s Tale rightly received critical accolades from readers and critics.

In Next, Hynes remains somewhat attached to the world of academia — his protagonist, Kevin Quinn, is a middle-aged editor for a university press — but Hynes’s vision has darkened even while the scope of his tale has broadened.

Full of doubts about his life, his failed marriage, his current girlfriend, and his work, Kevin goes to Austin, Texas, to interview for a job that offers him the chance for both a higher salary and a change in his life, which he regards as stagnant. On the plane from Michigan to Texas, Kevin’s seatmate is a beautiful and much younger Oriental woman whom he calls Joy Luck. Kevin passes his time on the flight admiring her and worrying about terrorists shooting down the plane.

Once on the ground, Kevin makes his way to his interview. Having arrived several hours early, he goes to a nearby coffee shop, where he first meets an attractive professional, but then spots Joy Luck walking down the sidewalk. Kevin charges out of the coffee shop, offending the woman with whom he has struck up a conversation over coffee, and follows Joy Luck through the streets of Austin, speculating on his life while he tries to devise ways to reintroduce himself to her.

This is Part One of Next, and most readers will be tempted to put the book down — or toss it against the wall — before finishing this section. Hynes paints Kevin with a realistic brush. He is not a particularly attractive character; he whines about the difficulties of his job, his former marriage, his current lover, who favors fine restaurants and appearances and who is much less introspective than Kevin. Chasing after a woman half his age through the sweltering streets of Austin just hours before a job interview that could change his life makes Kevin appear even more an ass. Even the most exuberant sybarite would think twice before chasing a stranger block after sweat-soaked city block while still expecting to make an appointment that might permanently change his life.

Part Two begins with Kevin entangled in a dog’s leash and taking a spill. He bangs his head, tears his pants, and cuts his knee. To the woman who rescues him, who treats the cut knee, whom he first mentally nicknames Nurse Amazon (he later discovers she is a physician), he now turns his sexual antennae, “admiring her solid, fat-free thighs, the definition of her biceps, the muscles in her throat as she tips back her head.” After some mild verbal snickersnee, the Amazon drops him at a clothing store, where he replaces his stained and torn clothing, and then proceeds to his job interview.

By this point, we have come to understand Kevin. He is, in so many ways, a twenty-first century middle-management Caucasian male: wanting attractive women, yet unattuned to their desires; caught up in a life which seems to him far from the dreams of his youth; troubled by world events, particularly terrorism; aware that others around him—the cabbie who drives him from the airport, the people in the streets of Austin, the terror-laden and fearful reports on the news — reflect the awful demands of a harsh world.

In Part Three of Next, Kevin has just greeted the receptionist on the 52nd floor of the building in which his job interview is to take place when the building is hit by a terrorist attack. Part of the building breaks away; the receptionist to whom Kevin has just spoken goes over the edge and falls to the street below. His worst fears realized, Kevin finds himself in a burning building, clutching, oddly enough, the woman whom he had met earlier that day in the coffee shop, who, as it turns out, is employed there.

To divulge more details at this point would spoil the book for any potential reader. But no harm to the ending of the book will come from noting that it is here, in this last horrific chapter, that Kevin finally focuses on what his life has meant and what has given that life importance. He finds in himself a great tenderness for both his ex-wife and his current lover; he finds in the woman beside him in the wrecked building a peace, a solace, a forgiveness that he has lacked his entire life; he finally understands the meaning of love.

Contemporary literature at its finest is literature that reminds us of what it means to be human. It pricks the flesh, tugs at the heart, twists in the mind; it opens the soul; it acts as a mirror in which we find our very selves reflected. Whether the story involves an alcoholic detective or a Bridget Jones looking for love, it is this resonance within ourselves that makes the story real for us. Describing the bond between reader and writer, E.M. Forster said it best: “Only connect.”

Next is contemporary literature at its finest.


Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness by William Spiegelman. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009.

In Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-23930-5, $23), William Spiegelman, an English professor at Southern Methodist University and editor of the Southwest Review, examines some of the activities which have brought him joy in his life: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing.

In the introduction to this delightful book, entitled “Being,” Spiegelman offers a fine short analysis of happiness. As he says himself, he counts himself among the blessed; he reached the age of 50 without a major catastrophe in his life and so counts himself a happy man. Yet even to those who are melancholic or depressed, Spiegelman’s Seven Pleasures offers avenues to the joys in life. He writes that “with some effort, one can find contentment, happiness, call it what you will, without the consolation of religion and without the help of psychotherapy and pharmacology.” To this bold statement he adds:

“In this book I don’t deal with work, in the sense of vocation, or love, in the sense of Eros, reproduction, interpersonal relationships. If these things are not going well in your life, everything else may be moot. But even if love and work aren’t thriving, the foxtrot might come in handy.”

Readers of Seven Pleasures will naturally gravitate toward those chapters that match their own interests. The section on books and reading, for example, will attract those who value reading. Oddly enough, however, many readers may find those subjects with which they are best acquainted dull compared to those less familiar. In my own case, the two most exciting parts of the book were “Listening” and “Dancing.”

In “Listening,” for example, Spiegelman exhorts his readers to listen, to listen truly, to classical music. So much of what we hear these days — the radio in the car, the plug in the ear while we sweat off pounds at the Y, the piped-in music of the mall and the restaurant — is background music, popular tunes that may make us tap our feet or sing along, but which rarely engage our total being. Spiegelman here speaks of the great pleasure in trying to listen to music, to analyze it, to feel it in our very bone and marrow.

He also urges us to find, and listen to, silence. Looking back at the tragic events of 9/11, Spiegelman writes that he found solace in attending a local Quaker meeting. Here he sat for an hour in silence, an hour which “brought me as close to a religious experience as I am likely to come.”

Spiegelman’s essay on “Dancing” is a delight to read if only because he reminds us that “taking dance lessons — like trying to do anything new after the age of twenty — challenges and humbles anyone, especially a person without a natural gift, and even more, a person who himself makes a career of teaching.”

Later he writes that natural dancers “get it right, right away. The rest of us must go over the sequence until the mind has been numbed and we can do it with our eyes shut or in our sleep. Practice makes, if not perfect, then at least possible.” Spiegelman’s enthusiasm for dance, for its grace and its mannerly ways, will make many non-dancing readers consider taking ballroom lessons.

There are moments in Seven Pleasures when Spiegelman’s enthusiasm for one of the pleasures of his life make him appear a snob, supercilious and superior to those around him. His chapter on “Walking,” for example, contains a long and critical analysis of walking in America and why so many Americans don’t go in for just “walking, pure and simple.” Here he criticizes American gyms (“people who go to gyms are defined, for the most part, significantly by class and income bracket”). He labels many American cities, because of their highways and traffic, as being basically ill-suited to walking. He writes that “strolling used to be an American custom, but hasn’t been for a long time. It still remains a powerful one in most European countries, especially the Mediterranean....”

Here Spiegelman is mistaken. Americans do not usually stroll, it is true, not in the European fashion of paseo at any rate, but then who has ever thought of Americans going out for a stroll? Europeans developed this custom over several centuries, centuries in which Americans were building their own nation. Americans have never acquired the habit of “strolling” — not because, as Spiegelman seems to contend, of the super-highways cutting our cities or because our cities are unattractive, but because we lack a European sense of “leisure.” Few Americans do go out for an aimless stroll; we are a task-driven people, and if we go out for a walk, it is to get exercise or to arrive at a destination.

Despite this caveat, there is much to admire in Seven Pleasures. If nothing else, it serves, in this time of factions and political wars, as a reminder that life offers up many pleasures. Recently I sent this book to a beloved friend who has experienced, and continues to experience, much unhappiness in her own life, in the hopes of offering inspiration shorn of the sugary prose of bestsellers and self-help books. Seven Pleasures is a book which should lead all of us, happy or unhappy, to consider seeking our own routes to happiness.


Stephen Hunter’s I, Sniper (ISBN 978-1-4165-6515-4, $26) brings to readers once again that intrepid sniper, now old and aching from his lifetime of combat, Bob Lee Swagger. As in previous novels in this series, the government entangles itself into the retired Marine’s life, hauling him out of retirement to help track down a killer of left-wing radical leftovers from the 1960s. Swagger soon finds himself both hunter and prey as he sets about solving a string of assassinations.

The story begins when four radicals, now wealthy members of America’s elite political class, are shot to death by a skilled sniper. Retired Marine war hero Carl Hitchcock, who was a sniper himself in Vietnam, is a suspect in the shootings and, when found dead in a motel room, an apparent suicide, is blamed by most investigators for the killings. Two FBI agents, the rising star Nick Memphis and the competent Jean Chandler, find the case too neatly packaged and begin to suspect that Hitchcock was either set up or had help from accomplices. Baffled by certain aspects of the case, particularly the assassin’s expertise and some clues that he may personally have known his victims, the pair of agents calls on Swagger for help.

Like many heroes of this literary genre, Swagger is a loner. He fought in Vietnam as a sniper, and since then has tried to live out his life on his Western ranch with his wife and daughter. In Swagger, Hunter has created an American man who has his prototype in Natty Bumpo and who is the reincarnation of Daniel Boone and John Wayne, a man’s man doing, as the adage goes, “what a man’s got to do.” Never mind the aching of old wounds, the pains brought on by turning 60, the temptation to give up the chase and return to his quiet life with his wife: Swagger has a new mission to fulfill and can’t rest until the bad guys are brought to justice or to the grave.

Some parts of this thriller will either amuse or offend readers. First, reading I, Sniper is akin to a tour of a gun show. Hunter is a capable guide to this printed armory. His list of mentors at the back of the book includes such luminaries as Dr. John Matthews, founder of Sure Fire LLC, “for information on modern suppressors,” and Lew Merletti, “former Director of the U.S. Secret Service, for fast, accurate feedback on equipment and tactics.” Readers who love talking guns will no doubt enjoy the pages of this book rhapsodizing on the uses of a Mossberg shotgun or a Remington 700 bolt action. Most of the rest of us will simply brush aside these gunpowder treatises and bolt onto the next action scene.

Hunter’s choice of characters might also raise a few eyebrows or a few laughs, depending on the reader’s view of contemporary society. Joan Flanders, the first victim of the sniper, is clearly derived as a character from Jane Fonda. Hunter tells us that “her second husband had been an antiwar leader in the raging if far-off sixties, and her picture, aboard the gunner’s chair on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery, had made her instantly beloved and loathed by equal portions of her generation.” Jack Strong and Mitzi Reilly, found shot dead in Volvo on a Chicago back street, resemble radicals like William Ayers and Bernadette Dorn, making their living as professors and leading a posh life in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Mitch Greene, an Abbie Hoffman-like prankster who’d written a “lefto-tilt version of American history,” dies from the sniper’s bullet in Cleveland while signing books during a speaking engagement.  

Tom Constable, former husband to Joan Flanders, owner of a major network, former owner of a major league sports team, and now a man who is primarily interested in Old West fast-draw shooting contests, is clearly modeled after Ted Turner. After Hitchcock’s suicide, Constable pushes the FBI to close his former wife’s case, claiming that he wants to avoid both the besmirching of her name and the uproar of publicity the murders have aroused. Hunter’s portrait of Constable/Turner as the fastest gun in the West, Texas Red, will amuse most readers:

“Tom never did things halfway. He was a creature of obsessions, and when he discovered a new one, whether it was sailing, radical politics, billions making, movie star courting, book writing, network starting, old movie colorizing, whatever, he hammered it with the full force of will and intelligence until it became his, he beat it into the shape he desired…He loved being Texas Red. Wild as a pony, fast, loose, beautiful, proud, dangerous, all the things that Tom himself had once aspired to be and that, even though he was a buccaneer of business, he felt he’d never really let out.”

Despite the fact that thinly-disguised public figures have become objects of assassination — think of the novel Checkpoint and the abominable movie “The Death of a President,” both focusing on murdering off George Bush — there is something about using living people as the targets for assassination that will leave many readers squeamish. Granted that Jane Fonda and Ted Turner are not among the most beloved of American icons, especially among the probable readers of Stephen Hunter’s novels, it is still unsettling to see them portrayed as they are in I, Sniper. The murder of Flanders/Fonda along with the other radicals, and the portrayal of Constable/Turner, should leave a bitter taste in the mouths of discriminating readers.

Stephen Hunter has written some fine suspense novels in his Robert Lee Swagger series. Despite its fast-paced action, however, I, Sniper is unworthy of any place among its predecessors, if for no other reason than the ill-spirited portrayal of some of its protagonists.

I, Sniper by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster, 2009. 418 pages


Two weeks ago, a friend and I traveled down into Central Georgia looking for Flannery O’Connor.

My friend, whom I will dub Lucky for this piece, had never heard of Flannery O’Connor nor read anything written by her. She didn’t know Hazel Motes from a hole in the ground and assured me she had never heard of A Good Man Is Hard To Find or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Lucky’s literary tastes run in a different stream, and she was strictly along for the adventure.

That circumstance notwithstanding, it was Lucky who finally summoned up the spirit of Flannery O’Connor for us. Hence the pseudonym.

We drove down out of the mountains into the rolling hills of Piedmont George to Milledgeville, where O’Connor spent the last 13 years of her short life — she died at 39 of lupus — living with her mother, Regina, on a farm outside of town. Driving from that farm, Andalusia, into town used to mean a three-mile trip through farmland and scruffy pine. Today that same piece of road is a plastic strip of motels, fast food restaurants, shopping malls and outlet stores.

At Andalusia we parked in a dirt and gravel lot behind the house. The managers of the property have retained nearly all the 500-odd acres that the O’Connors had once owned for the beef farm. Surrounded by oak, cedar and walnut trees, the outbuildings around the house were in varying states of repair. It was hot and dusty, and we didn’t trouble to walk to all these buildings, though I was fascinated to see that directly behind the house a small barn lay collapsed with an enormous old iron wash pot upside down in the wreckage. Beside the collapsed barn was the short water tower, painted white, which figures in some of O’Connor’s work. Off to one side of the yard was a coop holding three peacocks — O’Connor was famous for keeping such birds — whose sudden cries startled the air of this quiet place.

The outside of the house, with its large screened-in front porch, its various abutments, and its red and apparently freshly painted tin roof, appeared in good repair. Around one of the second floor windows buzzed a swarm of honey bees, a detail which I felt sure O’Connor would have appreciated.

Inside the house were the rooms which I had hoped would evoke in me the spirit of O’Connor’s wonderful writing. Here in the kitchen were the white sink, stove, and cabinets so prevalent in the South in the first half of the 20th century. Here was the Hot-Air Refrigerator, which Flannery had bought for her mother with the television proceeds of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Here was a small gift shop selling O’Connor’s books as well as some tourist items: coffee cups, pens, cards. Mark Jurgensen, who was operating the shop and the tours that day, spoke for five minutes or so about O’Connor’s life at Andalusia and how she had written most of her important work here.

O’Connor’s lupus made getting around troublesome, and so she lived at the front of the house in the room that would typically be the parlor. Here, looking at the bare room with its faded carpet, its typewriter and desk, the crutches leaning against a plain dresser, the tidy single bed, the cracked and peeling paint of the walls (the foundation needs more money to make these repairs), I could almost feel her presence.

But something was still missing. It was missing when we later visited the little Flannery O’Connor museum in town. It was missing when we stood at her grave in Memory Hill Cemetery; it was missing when we took the trolley tour of Milledgeville; it was missing when we attended Mass in Sacred Heart Catholic Church, sitting just a few pews back from where Regina and Flannery had once sat.

Mostly, I realized, what was missing were O’Connor’s people, the characters of her short stories and novels. I couldn’t find them in the motels and restaurants of the strip. Our trolley tour guide, a most excellent raconteur, was a retiree from Pittsburg. Of the parishioners in the Catholic Church, only two were native Georgians (I know this statistic because the visiting priest, who hailed from Michigan, made a joke about Yankee invaders and was told of the two lone Georgians in the parish).

As we drove back toward Commerce, where we would pick up I-85, Lucky pointed out a hand-painted sign advertising “J&J Flea Market, Georgia’s Largest.” I had promised her some shopping in return for enduring my literary ambles, and so we swung down a dirt road past a pretty lake into an enormous collection of booths, more dirt roads, and shoppers and vendors.

And here they were, O‘Connor‘s people, all country people, all out to make a buck selling junk on this hot afternoon. Here were whites, blacks and Hispanics, tattooed, sweaty rednecks of all hues selling and buying used tools, old clothes, jewelry, baseball caps, lawnmowers, DVDs, watermelons and tomatoes. Here was the Flea Market Trolley, hauling folks from one bare table emporium to the next; here was the Dust-Buster, a broken-down old truck dribbling water out its rear end to keep the dirt still. Here, in short, were the people climbing first into heaven as seen by the middle-class Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” — “whole companies of white trash ... and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”

So they’re still out there in the Georgia hills, those country people O’Connor used so often in her stories and somehow knew so well. “This place is Jerusalem to me,” a Massachusetts man said to Lucky during our walk around Andalusia. “I’ve read everything she ever wrote and everything written about her.” Well, Andalusia is no doubt Jerusalem for O‘Connor aficionados, but her characters — and some of her spirit as well — live on at J & J’s Flea Market out on Highway 441.


Most Americans are surely aware our economy is still in trouble. The downswing in the last year of the Bush administration has not yet seen an equivalent upswing. Frightened by the state of the economy, the massive public debt, and the ignorance of the current administration regarding the machinery of private enterprise, businesses across the United States have, by and large, put a hold on hiring, increasing inventories, and expanding plants.

Meanwhile, our federal government continues gobbling up resources like a bottomless wonder at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In 2009, a time of economic hardship, the federal government increased its number of employees by 25,000. This figure does not include, of course, the half-million part-time census workers hired in 2009-2010. In December 2009, USA Today reported that 19 percent of our federal employees earn salaries of $100,000 or more — and this is before overtime pay and bonuses. The federal government now sucks up 40 percent of our GDP, a level unmatched in 20th century American history except during the Second World War.

In the meantime, states like California, Connecticut, and New Jersey are facing exploding expenses — many of them caused by bloated employee pension plans — and battling potential bankruptcy while still maintaining some modicum of services to their people. Over the past year, our state governments have collectively decreased their work force by 13,000 employees. Unlike the federal government, states have to answer more directly to the people for their budgets, which largely explains this trend in cutting expenditures and employees. Many are also required by law to meet a budget.

Our own state has yet to see the light. In 2005, according to the Tax Foundation, North Carolina ranked 28th in the country in state and local taxes. These taxes included income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, luxury taxes, fuel taxes, and more. Only four years later, the Tax Foundation placed North Carolina 20th on its list of high tax states. To leap eight places down the list in the last four years tells us that we are either spending too much or our neighbors are doing a better job at cutting back on their own expenditures.

Now let’s look at the local level. Let’s look, in fact, at the Haywood Country Public Library. Recently the Haywood County Public Library system made the news in this paper on account of budget cuts. In the last three years, the SMN reported, the library’s allotted funds have dropped more than $162,000. In response to its loss of funds, the library has restricted hours at some libraries, cut out the evening hours at the main library, reduced the materials budge, and cut out several staff positions.

Now, this is a wise and judicious response to reduced circumstances. In many places in the United States, the powers in charge would, in similar circumstances, cut only services. “You don’t want to pay higher taxes for the money to run the libraries?“ they would say. “Then we’ll cut hours and we’ll cut budgeting, but we will never cut our own workforce.” Our own local librarians, recognizing that they must make cuts, have nobly shared in those cuts by reducing positions and by working harder.

Why did our librarians tender such a response? Because they understand the times in which we live and because they are our neighbors. They know that budgets are tight, that some of their friends and relatives have lost their jobs and are having trouble finding work, that we’re all in this mess together. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

America was never designed to be a nation top-heavy with a bureaucracy. Our founders and our ancestors were suspicious of strong central governments. The immigrants who have battled their ways to our shores these last 200 years came to make their own way in business or farming — not to find jobs with the federal government or to be supported by welfare. Americans are not a people designed to be ruled and molly-coddled by nursemaids.

Take some time this summer to prepare for the November elections. Look for candidates — Democrats, Republicans, or otherwise — who speak of spending less and of cutting budgets. Look for men and women willing to take a butcher’s blade to government budgets. These are the men and women we want in our federal and state offices. Such cuts may entail sacrifices from us as well, just as the library cuts here in our mountains did, but we must take the long view. The federal government in particular, grown waddling and porcine in this last half century, needs now to be forced onto a diet of bread and water.

It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

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


Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf. Clarion Books, 2007. 208 pages.

On May 27, 1942, resistance fighters who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia attempted to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reichsprotector of the Nazi Germany Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the former Czechoslovakia. Heydrich, a particularly vicious advocate of racial purity and appointed to his post by Adolph Hitler, died on June 4 as a result of wounds received during the assassination attempt.

An enraged Hitler then ordered investigators to “wade through blood” until they uncovered the plot and found the assassins. Reprisals were also ordered. Accordingly, in the early morning hours of June 10, German soldiers surrounded the village of Lidice, which was regarded as anti-Nazi and friendly to partisans. Everyone in the village was rounded up; the men over the age of 16 were separated from the women and children. After the soldiers had promised the women and children that they would soon see their husbands, fathers, and brothers, they were taken away to a nearby village.

The men, 173 of them, were then shot out of hand at a nearby farm. Later, 19 more men from the village who were working in a mine were also shot. The women were sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck; twenty-three of the children were taken from their mothers for “Germanization;” the rest were eventually allowed to write a postcard to their families, and were then put aboard special buses and gassed.

Joan M. Wolf’s Someone Named Eva (ISBN 978-0547237664, $6.99), which is aimed at a middle-school audience, tells the story of Lidice through the eyes of a young Czech girl, Milada, whose life is spared because of her Aryan looks: blue eyes, blonde hair, and the correct facial features.

Someone Named Eva opens with Milada’s 11th birthday party. Here we are introduced to Terezie, Milada’s best friend, and to her mother and father, brother and sister, and Babichka, her beloved grandmother. We also meet Ruzha, one of Milada’s classmates, a lonely and bitter girl who will, like Milada, be taken away to the Lebensborn program.

A few weeks later, Milada and her family are wakened by soldiers pounding on their door. They are ordered to dress and leave the house. Babichka pulls Milada aside for a moment and givers her a garnet, star-shaped pin.

“She took it out of my hand and pinned it on the inside of my blouse, her hands trembling slightly. ‘You must keep this and remember,’ she whispered, bending close to my ear. ‘Remember who you are, Milada. Remember where you are from. Always.’”

Throughout the rest of her ordeal Milada carries this pin with her, usually hidden beneath her skirt, using it as a lodestone, a guide to the person she once was.

She and the other children are taken to a gymnasium in nearby Kladno, where they are divided again into different groups. Men with clipboards and white coats evaluate Milada and the other children. Several of these men finger Milada’s golden hair, look carefully at her eyes, measure the shape of her nose and forehead. Then she and Rusha are separated from the others and driven to another camp. As she enters the camp, Milada notices that the other girls, some of whom are not Czech, all have one feature in common: blonde hair.

Wolf, who interviewed several Lidice survivors of the Lebensborn program, now gives us a detailed account of what those who entered this program endured. The Nazis in command of the program give the children new names, German names, and they study German intensely for months. They are indoctrinated into Nazi ideas, taught German history, fed well, and undergo a rigorous exercise routine. Milada fights to hold onto her memory of her old self, her family, her way of life, but finds that each passing day strips away more and more of her former self. Only the garnet pin acts as a reminder of home and the girl she once was.

At the end of this training, Milada is adopted by a German family. The father of the family is the commandant of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. His wife and her daughter Elsbeth soon edge their way into Milada’s affections; she and Elsbeth take particular comfort in each other as the war comes ever closer. In describing the growth of their friendship and affection, Wolf does a fine job of showing us the ambiguities faced by Milada in the conflict between her desire to return home, to find her way back to her family, and her desire to be safe with Mutter and Elsbeth.

To say more here would be to reveal the ending of this fine book. Parents whose children read Someone Named Eva may want to read the book themselves and then discuss it (Wolf includes a brief history of Lidice at the end of the book that should help answer some questions). That discussion might focus not only on Nazism, but on the importance of our identity, our family, and our roots.

Someone Named Eva should also serve to remind us that the Nazis were not the only thugs of the twentieth century. Our young people remember Nazi atrocities because their grandfathers fought the Germans in World War II and because of the Holocaust. Too often, however, our young people, and even many adults, forget the other mass murderers of that bloodiest of centuries: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the lesser dictators who sent men, women, and children to early graves.

Someone Named Eva can help us to remember these butchered souls, all victims of centralized governments and collectivist ideologies. If we ever consign them to oblivion, if we gloss over the tyrannical deeds of the murderous bastards who ordered these deaths, we will find ourselves in this next century once again lurching from graveyard to graveyard, wondering all the while where we went wrong.


In Spite of Myself: A Memoir by Christopher Plummer. Knopf, 2008. 656 pages.

Like most readers, I usually have a stack of books going beside my bed and in the living room. In addition, the books in my permanent collection frequently snag my attention, sticking out their thumbs and demanding to be plucked from the shelves for yet another ride. With my instructional duties at an end, even more books — the ones assigned for fall seminars — crash and bang against one another, clamoring for attention. Reading is surely one of the great joys offered by life, yet this mob of books, replete with hitchhikers and rioters, sometimes leads to a confused mess of stories and texts, making me feel as if life has granted me half-a-dozen lives rather than one.

Here, in no particular order, are three books that chance and obligation have dropped into my lap these last two weeks.


A friend recommended Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It as a fine book for teenagers. She was right: this tautly written novel about an asteroid striking the moon and shifting its orbit, thereby causing multiple catastrophes on earth, will appeal to teens and even to adults.

The heroine, Miranda, lives in rural Pennsylvania and tells us of the enormous devastation by storms, tsunamis, and volcanoes caused by the moon’s shift. Tensions with her family and friends are recorded by Miranda as well as the simple struggle to survive. Pfeffer gives us a gripping account of the catastrophe, and most readers will declare Life As We Knew It a winner.

Pfeffer’s account does contain some flaws. Both the east and west coasts of the United States are destroyed, as is much of the coastline in the rest of the world. For months, no food supplies are available. Miranda’s mother had the foresight to go to the grocery stores the day after the disaster and stock her pantry with canned goods, yet in the middle of winter, when their situation becomes desperate and people around the country are going hungry, no one tries to break into the family home, and no one in the home ever thinks that self-defense, whether by firearm or some other weapon, might be necessary.

Pfeffer several times has the mother of the family, and Miranda as well, comment negatively about Fox News and the “president from Texas,” which would lead readers to believe that this family might have once favored gun control. Surely anyone in such a situation gifted with the foresight of this family would devise a plan for protecting themselves against marauders. Pfeffer also feels obliged to attack Christianity — Megan, Miranda’s friend, is presented as religious fanatic, and her pastor is greedy, surviving on food taken from his congregation.


In Spite of Myself: A Memoir is Christopher Plummer’s look back at his long life on stage and in the movies.

Plummer — his most famous role was as the Captain in “The Sound of Music” — has written a book several cuts above the typical Hollywood autobiography. Plummer is a fine writer — his book includes dozens of biographical sketches ranging from Peter O’Toole to Judi Dench — who has an eye for detail and discernment in regard to human nature. Plummer has been a public figure in show business for more than 60 years, and offers those readers interested in actors and directors a compendium of wonderful tales. He also gives us short sketches of the less than famous. Here, for example, he and the woman whom he calls his “one true strength,” and whom he has nicknamed Fuff, are watching a bullfight in Spain:

“One breezy Madrid afternoon, a young novilleros in his teens had been given the chance of a lifetime. What he didn’t have in technique he made up for in reckless courage. From the start, the crowd was aware that the boy was dealing with one oversized angry beast who had a nasty habit of hooking with his left horn very much like the famous bull who once took the life of the immortal Manolete. Nevertheless, the boy insisted on working so perilously close to the bull, our hearts were in out mouths. The crowd fell in love — they went wild.”

The young matador, as Plummer goes on to say, performs magnificently, but in the end is gored by the bull and nearly killed on the spot. “To this day,” Plummer says, “I do not know if the lad lived, but I have strong doubts.”

Every page of In Spite of Myself has a story to tell. Even for those readers who dislike reading about movie and stage stars, Plummer offers a buffet of literary delights.



A book which I am rereading in preparation for my tutoring duties next year, and which I haven’t read in two decades, is Annie Dillard’s magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It is a wonder how we sometimes forget books from our past, but forget this one I did. Having revisited Dillard’s prose — the book which lifted her to national fame — I am amazed now that this account of her year at Tinker Creek near Grundy, Va., did not cause me to re-evaluate my life, kick over the traces, and become a biologist. On every page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard gives us both poetic musings and hard facts about the natural world surrounding her sojourn at Tinker’s Creek. Her book is more than a celebration of nature; it is, at bottom, an exploration of life itself. In Chapter 6, for example, titled “The Present,” Dillard writes

“I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under trees. But under me, directly under the weight of my body on the grass, are other creatures, just as real for whom also this moment, this tree, is ‘it.’ Take just the top inch of soil, the world squirming right under my palms. In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found ‘an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 spring tails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various members of 12 other forms.”

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek was published when Dillard was 29 years old. To have written such a book of poetry, philosophy, and science in her late-20s was a remarkable achievement. It is a great book about life, faith, literature, and the mountains in which we live.


Authors often dig into their childhood to mine for the coal and diamonds of their books. Sometimes they use the picks and shovels of fiction; Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Wolfe come most famously to mind as writers who frequently turned to the terrors and triumphs of their adolescence and early life to make their books. In our own day, Pat Conroy in The Great Santini, Maya Angelou’s In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Sandra Cisneros in The House On Mango Street all gained early fame from novels based on a difficult childhood.

In the last 50 years, memoirs have become a popular means of exploring childhood and family relationships. These accounts nearly always focus on the traumatic events and dysfunctional family life. Happy childhoods doubtless produce fewer sales, except in the case of humorous books like Shirley Jackson’s splendid Raising Demons. Here we have only to look at the best-seller lists of the last 20 years to come up with a few examples: the ironically titled A Childhood by Harry Crews; Frank  McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the story of an Irish childhood awash in drink and poverty; Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It; Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors; Kaylie Jones’s Lies My Mother Never Told Me; and many more.    

In Moonshiner’s Daughter (ISBN 978-0-578-05420-9, $14.95), Mary Judith Messer tells the tale of her own harsh childhood and adolescence in Haywood County. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, a time before the War on Poverty did much to ease the suffering of the Appalachian poor, a time, too, when Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet made deep inroads into a culture of poverty whose primary form of entertainment often turned around a jug and a still, Messer faced adversity at nearly every level of her life.

First, there was the hardscrabble poverty in which she lived. Often she, her sisters, and her brother lacked even the rudiments of life: food, shoes, heat in the winter. Worse, both her mother and father, themselves products of a harsh youth, were, by any standard, terrible parents. They may have loved each other, and frequently they showed love to their children, but they also viciously beat them, terrorized them with threats, often cheated on each other in their marriage, and made costly juvenile judgments in terms of how they lived their lives.

It was not poverty, however, which destroyed their lives. Many families here in the mountains and elsewhere rise above straitened circumstances. No, it was liquor that ruled Messer‘s parents and destroyed any possibility for order and discipline in their lives. Like other Appalachian men before him, Terry Lee Long, Messer’s father, kept a still in the woods and sold moonshine to make some cash. Unfortunately, he also drank up any profit to be made from the still. In nearly every scene in which Long appears in Moonshiner’s Daughter, he is drunk, and rarely, it seemed, was he a happy or even a contented drunk. Liquor turned Terry Long mean as one of the many copperheads living on their Fine’s Creek farm, and he took his meanness out on his family, beating his wife unconscious several times and whipping the children simply out of cussedness.

Long was sent to prison on several occasions for making illegal whiskey, but his children found no respite in his absence. In what began as a rape, two neighbor boys, and then a grown man, have sexual relations with Messer’s older sister, 13-year-old Cheryl. With the father in the federal clink, the family had even less to eat and could not chop enough wood to stay warm. At one point, having taken firewood from the walls of their old barn, the children under orders of their mother then burned the barn to conceal the act from their father (For some reason, they only removed a horse from the barn; they incinerated the chickens and all the equine tack along with the barn).

Messer was eventually rescued from this ordeal through the efforts of the Queen family, who hire her as a mother’s helper at the Queen ranch in Maggie Valley. She traveled with the family to Washington and later went to New York City, where she lived with her older sister. Life there remained a struggle; both young women had trouble holding jobs, and Messer was raped by a photographer who demanded sex from her in exchange for some pictures he had made of Messer’s nephew.

Though a powerful statement, Moonshiner’s Daughter does contain some flaws. There are a number of printing and unintentional errors of grammar in the book. Even more bothersome, the book leaves readers with a number of unanswered questions. Messer never explains why, on the front cover of the book and in another picture, the faces of her siblings as children are whited out. Nor does she tell us the ultimate fate of her younger siblings. Did they too escape the sad history of their family? And why, after the photographer rapes her, does she then send her sister back to pick up the photographs? She herself tells us that the photos even today remind her of the rape. This rape also left Messer pregnant. When a male benefactor helps her find a place in a Catholic convent catering to unwed mothers while she awaits the birth of the child, Brenda Lee, whom she then gave up for adoption, Messer follows the practices of the Catholic Church, taking communion and going to confession, yet she never explains why she felt compelled to do so. It seems unlikely that only Catholic girls were assisted in this fashion, but Moonshiner’s Daughter doesn’t tell us if that this was indeed the case.

Despite these faults, Moonshiner’s Daughter gives us a slice of Appalachia from a time now vanished from these mountains. Drug abuse and alcohol continue to plague families here as elsewhere, but the grinding farm life and the moonshining have largely given way to the more general ills of modern life. Messer’s voice — direct, simple, conversational — lends a force to her writing that should attract many readers.

Moonshiner’s Daughter by Mary Judith Messer. Doing Well Now Publishers. 218 pagegs



The word is as twisted with complications and mystery as all those other household words we use every day: wife, mother, father, son, daughter, family. Home slips from our mouth easy as air, yet only in our hearts and senses can we really discern the meaning of the word. Some of us have lived in the same homes in which we were reared. Some find a home in middle age, some live in a home constructed from their memories. Some people never truly feel at home anywhere on the earth. Say the word to one man, and he will think of the small Piedmont town in which he grew up 50 years ago. Say it to another, and he will tell you that “home is where you hang your bathrobe.”

In Marilynne Robinson’s Home (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, Publishers, 2008), Glory Boughton, 38, returns to her family home in Gilead, Iowa, to care for her frail and elderly father and to recover from a failed engagement. Returning to he house in which she grew up, where her father’s greets her with open arms — ”Home to stay, Glory! Yes!” — Glory feels both a sense of relief from her ordeals and a feeling of entrapment, as if her failed plans regarding her future, to marry and begin a family of her own, have somehow thrown her back into the past. Here in the old house, birthplace to Glory, her five siblings, and their father, she assumes a routine of tasks — cleaning, gardening, cooking, visiting her father‘s best friend, John Ames — that brings order to her exterior life while she inwardly ponders the meaning and direction of her life.

Shortly after her return, Glory is joined by her brother Jack, who left Gilead and their father 20 years before. An alcoholic, unable to hold a steady job, remembered in Gilead as both a beloved child and a troublemaker, Jack has come home to try and sort out his own troubled life. Stricken with guilt over his many past failures, Jack nonetheless behaves as if he is unable to change. As the story progresses, we learn that Jack still has more questions than answers, that he is troubled by his lack of faith in God and by his inability to fit into the world — not only in Gilead, but in the world at large. He struggles, too, to connect with his father and with John Ames, both of whom are ministers in the small town.

These inward struggles, these attempts by the characters to connect with one another, lie at the heart of Home. As in Gilead, her previous novel about these same characters, Robinson’s characters engage in a dialect of the interior self that flares occasionally into conversation with friends and family. In both books, the greatest source of tension exists between John Ames and Jack, his namesake. Neither man can understand the other — Jack considers the Reverend Ames somewhat puritanical and judgmental, while John Ames views Jack, who abandoned a lover and child, as wild and irresponsible. The young man and the old maneuver around each other like a pair of wary chess players, each seeking to understand the moves and positions of the other.

In the passage below, Jack, Glory, their father, and the Reverend Ames and his wife Lila are discussing hell and salvation:

“Jack said, ‘People don’t change then.’

‘They do, if there is some other factor involved. Drink, say. Their behavior changes. I don’t know if that means their nature has changed.’

Jack smiled. ‘For a man of the cloth, you seem pretty cagey.’

Boughton said, ‘You should have seen him thirty years ago.’

‘I did.’

‘Well, you should have been paying attention.’

‘I was.’

Ames was becoming irritated, clearly. He said, ‘I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.’”

In addition to her gemlike prose and her powers of description, these two books together amaze us because of how they dovetail together. Written from John Ames’ point of view, Gilead gives us a different take on Ames and on Jack than we find in Home. Though the novels may be read independently, in tandem they illustrate the ways in which we misinterpret the motives of our friends and family, the words they speak to us, the gestures of love that we all too often take as rebukes or insults.

Readers who are put off by any discussion of religious faith might find Gilead and Home tedious. Readers who want the tenets of their faith ranked and orderly as church pews may also raise objection to these books. To those, however, who want to delve deeply into the lives of fictional characters, including their ideas of God and those ongoing debates over comprehension which engage most earnest Christians, Gilead and Home provide a feast for thought.

Home by Marilynne Robinson. Strauss & Giroux, 2009. 336 pages


Although Americans are known for their wandering ways, traveling to California in Conestoga wagons, taking the train to find a place in Broadway’s spotlight, many also retain in their hearts a deep affection for a particular place. Whether that place is a Chicago parish or Mayberry RFD is immaterial. It is this beloved place to which we compare all the other cities and landscapes of our lives, this place which haunts, for better or worse, our memories, this place whose very name is a tsunami, a massive wave swamping us in a thousand names, faces, and events from a past as much imagined as it is real.

Boonville in the Yadkin Valley of Piedmont, North Carolina is my place. Though I only lived in that small town of 600 souls for less than eight years (by comparison I have lived four times as long in these mountains), it is the Boonville of my childhood which haunts my memories, which irrevocably stamped my personality. Say the word home, and the word Boonville floats up in my mind like one of those eight-ball answers.

Allen Paul Speer’s From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III (Overmountain Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-57072-329-2, $14.95) recreates the beauty and the enchantment of Boonville and the Yadkin Valley for the general reader (A caveat and a confession: Allen Speer was my friend during my Boonville adolescence, and remains a dear friend today). Comparing favorably Boonville and its environs to Tolkien’s Shire, Speer writes that “here are some of the words that best describe Yadkinians: practical, helpful, God-fearing, industrious, static, suspicious, confident, and reluctant to stir things up.”

By virtue of example rather than by such definitions, Speer also makes it clear that Yadkinians — a word of Speer’s creation, I suspect — also love storytelling. From Banner Elk to Boonville as well as the earlier two books in this trilogy — Voices From Cemetery Hill, which tells the story of Boonville’s Civil War era, and Sisters of Providence, which also tells that story from the viewpoint of the well-educated Speer women — revel in telling stories. There, for example, is the tale of the Halloween prank when a tractor was mysteriously gotten into the lobby of Boonville school (I was there, and saw it, and to this day marvel at the high school boys who pulled this one off); the stories of various Speer ancestors and townspeople; the coming of the Stammettis, owners of the Astoria Braid Mill who considerably livened up Boonville’s party life; the antics of people with nicknames like Nut, Roach, Marron, and Mouse.

Not all of From Banner Elk to Boonville is sunshine and roses. Speer shares the details of his battle against leukemia, a slow-acting lupus which he has fought for many years now. He also shows us the effect of the deaths of his grandfather and father on his spiritual and mental life. As a boy, he shared a room with his grandfather for several years, and found that after his grandfather’s death, he could no longer sleep in that room. His father, too, he deeply loved, in spite of Red’s fierce temper, and once again that death shattered him, casting him into a deep melancholy from which he took years to recover.

After college, unable to find work, Speer returned to Boonville, earned a little money painting houses, and eventually suffered a mental breakdown. His description of this psychotic episode, which he calls his “meltdown,” lies in some ways at the heart of the book as a defining, perhaps the defining, moment in Speer’s life. His crackup culminated in his attempt to walk from Boonville to Boone, some 60 miles away. He ended his journey only a few miles outside of Boonville, collapsed in a farmer’s yard. Here is a brief but harrowing account of a soul at odds with itself, and of a young man lost even in a place which had always afforded him comfort and respite.

One fine feature of this autobiography is Speer’s sense of humor, his eye for the ridiculous, the absurd, the offbeat, the unconventional. Here, for example, in telling us where he got his love for the theater, he describes a conversation he had with his Aunt Mary about her brother, Speer’s grandfather, whom Speer called Papa:

“’Did you say Papa never finished high school?’

‘No, when he stopped high school, he was still taking freshman English, but he kept on going to school so he could play baseball and be in school plays, and he was in every play they had.’

‘How many years did he go to high school?’

‘Six years.’

‘He went to high school for six years?’

“Yes, he just kept on going ‘til they encouraged him to stop.’”

Speer has organized From Banner Elk to Boonville in chapters named after the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Given Speer’s Quaker, Presbyterian, and Baptist roots, this device seems at first ill-fitted to the narrative and may even seem strained to some readers. Those who read carefully, however, soon see that Speer is recounting here the spiritual journey of a lifetime. He offers numerous reflections on God and mortality, and uses stories and dreams to consider both the nature of God and the place of God in his own life. Readers will be delighted to find that in these ruminations, Speer’s sense of humor does not desert him.

Allen Speer, a professor at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, has given readers a grand treat of a book — an affectionate and loving memoir of a place, a time, a man, and his people.

From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III by Paul Speer. Overmountain Press, 2010.


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