Intersection of American minds

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

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

Life in the midst of change

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

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

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

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

A taste for noir

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

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

Put your money on Saratoga Fleshpot

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

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

Heading Home waffles but New Stories shines

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

Recommended diversions

The Rhythm of Life

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

Krysztof Kieslowski

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

Castra nerdorum (Camp of the Nerds)

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

— By Jeff Minick

Book Mania: Showcasing some up-and-coming writers

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

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

Deer hunting in the twilight of American culture

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

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

Author’s bias shows through

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

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

Summertime and the reading’s hazy

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

Summertime, and the living is easy ...

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

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