Bringing poetry back to life

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

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

And yet ... and yet ....

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Only Son

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

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

Common Form

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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


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

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

Self-help without the sugar

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.

In Next, life changes in a day

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.

Bring poetry to the people

“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..)

Obsessing over grammar

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.

Exploring the legacy of Ayn Rand

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.

A guidebook for raising boys

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.

Fitzgerald comes to life in Asheville

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.

An American original

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.

A tale of both despair and hope

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..)

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