Jeff Minick

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It’s late summer, but the song lyrics still work: living is supposed to be easy. So I’m looking for some light reading. No politics, no massive histories or biographies, no novels with tangled plots and emotions, no suspense stories where the protagonist leaves behind a trail of dead bodies thicker than Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs. 

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Years ago, a friend and I were watching some news show like 60 Minutes about juvenile murderers. The point of the report was that these young criminals showed little or no remorse for their shootings and stabbings, and in fact seemed to lack any sort of moral compass that most of us take as a given. When I wondered aloud about a solution, what might be done to change these stonehearted murderers, my friend looked at me and said, “Some people just need killing.”

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Readers generally look for a special place to sink into their books, to escape the noise and hubbub of the household, to find that sanctuary where they can give themselves over to the reverie and escapism of stories.

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So it’s a late Thursday afternoon, and I’m sitting on the front porch finishing up a novel when my eyes prickled, and then blurred, and the old saltwater ran down my age-raddled cheeks. 

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I’ve long been a fan of Stephen Hunter’s novels, particularly his series about Bob Lee Swagger. Swagger is a sniper, reflecting Hunter’s interest in firearms, and I’ve reviewed several Swagger novels for The Smoky Mountain News. I’ve also recommended the movie “Shooter,” a fine film where Mark Wahlberg plays the part of Swagger. 

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The last four months of 1862 brought blood and slaughter to the armies of the South and the North. Earlier that year, a series of battles led to the September battle of Sharpsburg, also known as Antietam, in Maryland, where in the bloodiest single day of fighting during the war George McClellan’s Union forces turned back Lee’s attempted invasion of that state.

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On April 15, 2019, Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the world’s most beloved architectural landmarks, caught fire. The blaze started in the roof, incinerating the enormous ancient wooden beams located there and causing the collapse of the central spire, which “leaned sideways, snapped like a matchstick, and crashed through the flaming roof of the nave.”

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Recently I realized I needed to laugh more often. 

I do laugh when I’m on the phone with one of my children or a friend, and occasionally if I watch some YouTube video.

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On the shelves around the room where I write and work a visitor would find all sorts of books, including a few “self-help” guides and manuals on writing and composition. My theory on spending money on such books is this: If they contain even one piece of advice, however small, that might improve my life or my writing, then the money I paid for that book is more than worth that expense. 

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Sometimes a book can overwhelm us with its energy and its wisdom.

Like most readers, I love when a writer, especially one completely unknown to me, reaches out from the pages, grabs me by the shoulders, and says, “Listen to me!”

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In 2018, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos became an international bestseller, and Peterson himself became a celebrity, speaking to packed auditoriums and lecture halls around the United States and other countries. He then fell ill, in large part from various legal drugs he was taking, almost died, recovered, and has now written and published a sequel to 12 Rules For Life.

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Have you ever engaged in a political argument where instead of listening to your opponent your mind is furiously creating counterpoints to your adversary?

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Thirty years ago or so, perhaps in Time Magazine where he was a long-time essayist, I read a Lance Morrow article on the subject of honor. His piece so impressed me that I read it multiple times, and later photocopied it and passed it on to the students in my Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class as an example of stellar writing. 

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Jack Reacher must own the toughest set of knuckles on planet Earth.

About halfway through the latest Reacher saga, The Sentinel (Random House, 2020, 353 pages), I lost track of the number of times Reacher threw a punch into some bad guy’s face. Long ago, when boxing was done without gloves, some of the fighters soaked their hands in salt water to make them tougher. Though Reacher is never shown practicing that technique, we must assume he spent his youth and his years as a military policeman for hours a day with his fingers in a bowl of water that would put the salt content of the Dead Sea to shame.

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Books, books, books, and more books.

After a long hiatus, in the last month books have again become my daily companions. I set aside at least an hour every day, put on my glasses, and take up a book. 

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Time to party, everyone!

April is here, and along with warmer weather, blossoms and flowers, and grass grown green, April is National Poetry Month, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of this celebration.

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Historically, and presently, the women at Masanjia experienced worse torture and degradation than men. The guards would jam and twist toothbrushes up women’s vaginas, pour chili powder onto their genitals, and shock their breasts with electric batons. Then they gang-raped their victims, who often vomited blood afterwards.

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February and early March were a little rough on your reviewer. We got slammed with some bad weather — snow I like, but long, gray winter days wear on me — and I suffered some health problems, one of which put me in a dismal emergency room cubicle for five hours. A week of fighting a severe chest cold has also taken its toll.

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My sister, her husband, and a friend recently visited me for several days. Though I don’t own a television, there’s a DVD player downstairs along with a modest collection of movies, and I offered several times to bring it to the living room for their entertainment. Each time they waved me away, explaining they were content just to read.

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“What happens to people who live inside their phones?”

In his short novel The Silence (Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2020, 117 pages), Don DeLillo raises this question, and then shows us some possibilities when an unexplained break in the power grid shuts down phones, computers, and televisions.

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Having recently read and reviewed for the Smoky Mountain Living magazine Vicki Lane’s And The Crows Took Their Eyes, a fine novel set in Madison County during the Civil War and focused on the Shelton Laurel Massacre, this week I returned to that era with J.L. Askew’s War In The Mountains: The Macbeth Light Artillery at Asheville, N.C. 1864-1865 (Covenant Books, Inc., 2020, 535 pages).

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Sometimes I feel waist deep not in flood waters, troubles, quandaries, or even grandchildren, but in books, literature, literary classics, movies based on books, questions about authors, and friends and family members either recommending titles I should read or asking me what books they should read.

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About 10 years ago, I was standing in the checkout line at my local Ingles. The clerk, age 19 or 20, tattooed and pierced, was telling a customer, clearly an acquaintance, that she couldn’t wait until society fell apart and we’d all be forced to survive by our wits and resources.

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Many of us who read novels find ourselves in awe of authors who create a landscape and a place so well that we can see the fields and forests, hear the birds, and feel the sunshine and rain on our faces. 

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Before taking a look at Ann Hood’s Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food (W.W. Norton & Company, 229 pages), I feel compelled to make two personal points. 

Though I can whip up a tasty breakfast — my wife and I operated a Waynesville bed-and-breakfast for 15 years — and my gazpacho soup and quiche with salad have brought me compliments from family and friends, I am no longer much of a cook. Living alone these past six years, I mostly subsist on low-calorie microwave meals, bagged salads, grocery store rotisserie chicken, sandwiches, and canned soups. Occasionally I’ll cook up a big pot of chicken soup and live on that for two or three days, but over half of the ingredients come out of cans. 

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Not everyone will enjoy Michael Walsh’s Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost (St. Martin’s Press, 2020, 358 pages). His thoughts in the Introduction regarding masculinity and traditional reasons why men have fought wars since the dawn of history — to protect their women and children, their homes and homeland — may offend some.

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One fond childhood memory involves a yellow fiberglass canoe and the Yadkin River. My dad, one of my younger brothers, and I took to those waters several times, and when I was a teenager, my brother, a friend, and I made several overnight trips without adult supervision, camping on islands, cooking over an open fire, and pushing off again the next day.

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All families have their secrets, but some families have deeper and darker secrets than others. In June Titus’s novel Banjo Man (Fulton Books, Inc. 2020, 258 pages), we meet such a family.

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Harper Lee of To Kill A Mockingbird fame once wrote, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved reading. One does not love breathing.”

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In his short essay, “Dear Santa (Again),” Rick Bragg writes, “For my big brother Sam, I would like you to send a cinder block. He can place it atop his foot, when he drives. I once wrote that all he needed to pass for an old woman behind the wheel was a pillbox hat and pearls, but have since decided that is insulting … to old women. Old women blow right past him.”

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For five years or so, Nick Hornby’s Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books has occupied a place of honor on my bookshelves, meaning it’s always close at hand. In this thick volume are the monthly reviews Hornby wrote for the Believer, as witty, bright, and, yes, brilliant a collection of columns as you’ll find anywhere. When I am in need of some wit or sparkling prose, I go to Ten Years In The Tub. 

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As I write this book review, the presidential election is one day away. Like many of my readers, I have followed the online news regarding this race — the polls, the rallies, the daily barrage of commentaries on who deserves our votes. In the next few days, these weighty and acrimonious conflicts will, I hope, be resolved. 

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So you’re a reader, a lover of books and the printed word, and if the pandemic permits, you visit your library or local bookstore, and browse the shelves. Or maybe a friend hands you a book and says, “I think you might like this one,” though the last one she gave you sits untouched on the nightstand. 

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Near the beginning of Katherine Center’s novel What You Wish For (St. Martin’s Press, 2020, 309 pages), school librarian Samantha Casey suffers an attack of epilepsy while driving and runs her car into the side of a 7-Eleven. She suffers bruises and requires stitches for her cuts, but she is chiefly distraught at the return of her epilepsy after so many years.

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It’s time to put away the books

About politicos and other crooks,

No more fat novels for today,

It’s time to have some fun and play.

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So why would a guy approaching 70 select for review a “Contemporary Romance” about the owner of a cupcake and cocktails café falling for the owner of the axe throwing sports bar next door?

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Right after Labor Day, my friend John and I traveled to Virginia’s Historic Triangle: Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. A paper for which I write had commissioned me to do some pieces on each place, and though I had visited there earlier in my life, that was long ago. 

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In mid-August, I was sitting in the waiting room of my local auto repair shop typing away on my computer when a conversation from the adjoining room intruded on my concentration. There the two men who operate the service desk and two mechanics were lamenting their children’s ignorance about history. For several minutes, they traded stories of kids and grandkids who had little knowledge of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the major events of the twentieth century.

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Every once in a while, I’ll read a book of history and want to throw a party: bottles of champagne, hors d’oeuvres, music, and even dancing, though I am as awkward on a dance floor as a Mississippi farm boy on ice skates for the first time. Encountering such a book leaves me giddy, “High as the flag on the Fourth of July,” as the song in the old musical “South Pacific” puts it.

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It’s September 2020, and you’d have to be living as an anchorite in the deserts of New Mexico if you are unaware of the turmoil in American society. The coronavirus crisis, the riots in various American cities, the daily bombardment of charges and countercharges from candidates for political office, members of the mainstream media, bloggers, and anyone else with an ax to grind: all provide evidence that we are as deeply divided a country as possible without actually engaging in civil war.

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For five years, just after we were married, my wife and I were house parents for a sorority at the University of Virginia, responsible for the upkeep of the building and for the safety and behavior of the 20 young women who resided in the old brick home. 

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We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events.

Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual will. 

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The ancient philosopher Diogenes used to stroll about Athens holding a lantern to the faces of those he met and claiming he was looking for one honest man.

In the public square of modern America, truth can be just as hard to find.

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A friend in a book club to which I once belonged disliked Anne Tyler’s novel, Saint Maybe. “I’ve read other novels by her,” she said, “and her characters are always eccentrics.”

Her comment brought a smile then and brings one now.

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The years following the Civil War brought great changes to Western North Carolina. The railroads penetrated these coves and mountains, carrying tourists, flat-landers and goods to small towns previously isolated by their forbidding terrain. Following the railroads were the timber barons, eager to harvest the ancient forests and able now to move and sell the lumber to outside buyers. Though many of those native to the region remained in poverty, others were able to make their fortunes in the mountains.

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Many among us have committed crimes or wronged other people, dark deeds which we regret and which may well have ruined not only their lives but ours as well.

Our prisons are full of such people, criminals who have repented of their felonies and who on gaining their release resolve to walk a different path. The strangers we pass in the streets or see in the grocery store may hide a firestorm of guilt and self-accusation in their hearts: the man who hasn’t spoken to his father in years, the woman who lost her job for spreading rumors about a fellow employee, the drunk whose addiction left him abandoned by his family, the adulterer who lost his reputation. They are the ones who by wounding others have wounded themselves.

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Many readers are familiar with his story. 

Johnny Cash, also known in later life as “The Man in Black,” grew up poor in Arkansas, son of a hard-nosed father and a pious mother. His brother Jack died at age 14 after a horrific sawmill accident, leaving J.R., as he was then called, emotionally crippled for years. 

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“At the heart of this wonderful book by Robert Curry is the simple belief that you as a human being can govern yourself. That shouldn’t be a controversial proposition, but when an army of federal bureaucrats, university professors, and social science “experts” begin telling you how you ought to be living your life or running your business or raising your children, you might start to wonder. You may begin doubting your own ability to make decisions and to distinguish true from false, with the fundamental faculty of common sense.”

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About halfway through Kate Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (William Morrow, 2020, 372 pages), I nearly put the novel aside. Like many of my fellow Americans, I am suffering the coronavirus blues, a bit down from the daily reports, often contradictory, about death tolls, masks and gloves, social distancing, the shuttering up of schools, businesses, and churches, and the tens of millions of unemployed. My Dark Vanessa, the dark tale of a teacher and his student who become lovers, somehow added to my melancholy.

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