Jeff Minick

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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.


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.


bookIn her latest novel, Starting From Happy (ISBN 978-1-4391-02185, $24), Patricia Marx, author of Him Her Him Again The End of Him and a staff writer for the New Yorker, gives the reader an off-beat comedic look at relationships, work, marriage and children.

The story is simple enough. Wally Yez, a laboratory scientist, meets Imogene Gilfeather, a lingerie designer. Quickly, Wally becomes infatuated with Imogene, certain that she is the woman of his destiny. He breaks up with his long-time girlfriend and pursues Imogene, who is equally certain that she is happiest just as she is: devoted to her career, blessed by several friends, involved in an affair with a married man whose benign neglect pleases Imogene. Eventually, Imogene, charmed by Wally’s unrelenting pursuit, gives in to his romantic notions that the two of them should become a couple together.


op minickIn his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Today the challenge posed by Kennedy might read: “Ask not what you can do for your country — ask what your country is doing to you.”


Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy. Knopf, 2007. 352 pages.

Recently my sister asked me if I had met anyone, which is a coded inquiry for “anyone of interest in terms of dating.” I told her that my schedule and my other commitments made it difficult for me to meet women.


The Pesthouse by Jim Crace. Nan A. Talese, 2007. 255 pages

“Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.”

This refrain from Randy Newman’s song “Political Science” could serve as the tagline for the whole realm of apocalyptic fiction.


Emo. Emo. Emoooooo.

Occasionally the word (pronounced, I believe, I-moo) pops up on the Internet or jumps out of some conversation overheard on the street, snagging the ear and eye, but I keep ignoring it. The word and concept belong to a younger generation; wireless Internet and YouTube send me off the edge of the world, and so I was glad to give the word a pass.


The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2007. 384 pages.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s bayou detective, Dave Robicheaux, have doubtless wondered not if, but how well, Burke would incorporate Hurricane Katrina into his next novel about Robicheaux and the Big Easy. The Tin Roof Blowdown (Simon & Schuster, 2007) gives these readers their answer: very well indeed.


Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer.  University of Illinois Press, 2007. 232 pages

Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2007) might seem at first glance merely another collection in the plethora of literary anthologies that have recently become, like the locust swarms in ancient times, a plague upon the land. Closer inspection of this compilation by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer, however, reveals that Dark Horses is truly a treasure house of neglected poems.


The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesman and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II by Judith Heimann. Harcourt, 2007. 304 pages.

The generation of Americans who fought in World War II, the Americans who landed in North Africa and in Italy, who fought at Guadalcanal and Midway, who fought in places where the enemy was not just the Japanese but kunai grass and mosquitoes, where the enemy was not just the Germans but mud and snow, our armed forces personnel who battled Germans and Japanese on three continents: this generation is swiftly falling away from the tree of life.


Readers of the Smoky Mountain News are acutely aware of the writing and storytelling talent here in Western North Carolina. Several writers for this paper have seen their work published, and a score of local authors have seen their books reviewed in these pages.


Prophet From Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy by Frye Gaillard. University of Georgia Press, 2007. 144 pages

In the prologue to Prophet From Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy (University of Georgia Press, 2007), Frye Gaillard writes that his book “is not a presidential biography but an extended profile, one writer’s understanding of this complicated man, based on encounters off and on for twenty years.” In these words he sums up both the strengths and flaws of Prophet From Plains, and unintentionally issues the reader a caveat regarding his own admiration for the former president.


Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress by Russell Smith. Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. 256 pages.

For many years Bill Cosby has passionately sought to shore up the deteriorating American family. Both “The Cosby Show” and Cosby’s best-selling Fatherhood book offer humorous takes on family life while simultaneously demonstrating the strength that can be found in family life.


Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey. Melville House Publishing, 2006. 154 pages.

Lovers of the English language have always suffered the pistol-whip cuts of poor spelling, dreadful grammar, and confused syntax. Our postmodern writing is no exception.


bookSome years ago, a local artist mounted a painting in a local art show in which he painted Christ with pink paws and Easter bunny ears. “This is going to upset some people around here,” the painter told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, having heard of the statue of the Virgin Mary covered with cattle dung at a New York show and of Andres Serrano‘s “Piss Christ” – this piece of art entailed putting a crucifix in a jar of urine – most Americans would find a Jesus Easter bunny about as controversial as a piece of broccoli quiche. Had he wanted to ignite a real firestorm, he should have depicted the founder of Islam with a nine-year-old girl in his lap wearing a wedding dress.


Books are the ideal gift for the Yuletide season. Think of the many advantages in giving a book to a friend or loved one for Christmas. Books provide hours of pleasure. They don’t add inches to the waistline. Books travel well — the giver needn’t fear breakage — and they pack easily into a bag or the car. Finally, the least adroit among us can gift-wrap a book and construct a package that looks decent. And if we’re unsure what book to give the booklover in our life, we can always purchase and bestow on them a gift card, which takes even less space and affords your bibliophile the added pleasure of leisurely browsing a bookshop.


The 47th Samurai by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster, 2007. 384 pages.

Eight seconds.

Eight seconds, according to Stephen Hunter in his latest novel The 47th Samurai (13:978-0-7432-3809-0, $26), is the amount of time it takes a human being to bleed out and die after having his guts carved open or a limb chopped off by a samurai’s sword.


Moravian Christmas in the South by Nancy Smith Thomas. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 184 pages

Easter is the religious holiday that most North Carolinians would associate with the Moravian Church. In Winston-Salem, brass bands travel about the downtown, waking old neighborhoods with hymns in the wee hours of the morning, an event that culminates at dawn in Old Salem, when the bands and thousands of people gather to celebrate the Easter Sunrise Service.


Crackers in the Glade: Life and Times in the Old Everglades edited Betty Savidge Briggs. University of Georgia Press, 2007. 127 pages.

Crackers in the Glade: Life and Times in the Old Everglades (University of Georgia Press, ISBN 13-978-0-8203-3043-3) tells the story of Rob Storter, fisherman, fishing guide, writer and artist, a man who witnessed and helped record the transformation of West Florida from a rough frontier to its current development as a haven for tourists, retirees, and developers.


Letters to My Son on the Love of Books by Roberto Coltroneo. Ecco Press, 1998. 151 pages.

In the Dec. 24 issue of The New Yorker, Caleb Crain addresses the decline of literacy and the increasing disinterest in reading in “Twilight of the Books: what will life be like if people stop reading?” Despite the title, Crain doesn’t speculate much about the future of reading, though he does offer the comment that if we continue our swing away from printed knowledge toward audiovisual imagery — television, movies, YouTube — ”the nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change.”


The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.  University of Tennessee Press, 2007. 1864 pages

Sometimes good things come in big packages.

And the Encyclopedia of Appalachia is big. More than 1,800 pages of finely-printed prose make up this boxlike book. I’m not sure exactly what the Encyclopedia weighs, but if you dropped it on someone’s foot you might face arrest for assault with a deadly weapon.


The Machiavelli Covenant by Allan Folsom. Forge Books,2006. 560 pages

The last 20 years have seen the creation of a special niche within the genre of ÒSuspense NovelsÓ as more and more books have appeared featuring a tiny group of protagonists facing great odds as they uncover some secret from the past.


Evolution In A Nutshell by Martin Malloy. Trafford Publishing, 2007. 302 pages

Evolution is one of those wonderfully fiery topics which, when broached at parties or family gatherings, can convert otherwise reasonable friends and relatives into raging maniacs, shouting, slamming their fists onto the table, and crunching beer cans against their heads (somewhat like chimpanzees signaling irritation or fear).


The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen. Doubleday, 2007. $22.95

Web 2.0 is killing our culture.


How To Make A Journal Of Your Life by D. Price. Ten Speed Press, $9.95.

Ant Farm by Simon Rich. Random House, $12.95.

Many people have attempted at least once in their lives to keep a journal. Whether they use one of those expensive, leather-bound journals with creamy white paper from their local bookstore or simply a cheap notebook from Wal-Mart, they set out to chronicle their lives for their own pleasure and perhaps for the edification of their offspring.


In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955 by X.J. Kennedy. — The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 224 pages

Although tens of thousands of American citizens today may call themselves poets, the fact is that poetry has hit hard times. Despite the fact that verse seems conducive to our hamster-wheel, ADD culture — poetry does, after all, have the virtue of brevity; even a slow reader could gulp down three or four poems of average length in less time than it takes to eat a Happy Meal — we have more poets than ever before and fewer readers of poetry. Some commentators have remarked that even poets themselves don’t read much poetry anymore.


Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Walker. Indigo Publishing, 2007. 224 pages.

Bill Bryson’s account of his time on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, revealed that the chief amusements of the Trail are not the flowers, trees, peaks or bears, but the other human beings encountered on the trail. Katz in particular, Bryson’s fat and funny companion on the trail, stays in the minds of readers longer than the descriptions of the weather or history of the Appalachian Trail.


God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America by Hanna Rosin. Harcourt, 2007. 304 pages

Every once in a while a book sees print that inadvertently tells the unwashed what the elite thinks of them. Massa waltzes out of the Big House —Washington, Manhattan, Beverly Hills — rubs elbows with the field hands, and then retreats to the Big House to write the other massas about conditions on the plantation. Sometimes Massa morphs into an amateur anthropologist, breathlessly explaining to fellow denizens of the West Side or Georgetown the mores of the poor dumb savages she has encountered in the foreign wastelands of Tennessee, Kansas, and Wyoming.


bookWhat would you do if your teenaged daughter was assaulted, beaten and shot almost to the point of death, and raped? Would you hunt down the assailants? And what would you do if you were a physician and an ardent pro-life advocate and found that this same daughter was pregnant? What would you do if you were a Miami cop — a good one — and suddenly found yourself being ordered about by fools and politicos? And how do you go on defending a system that seems to condemn the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime?


bookMichael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-0-89870-815-8) has more strikes against it than Babe Ruth on a bad afternoon.

Here is a doorstop of a novel, weighing in at nearly three pounds, more than one thousand pages long. There are redundancies galore; there are clunky passages; there are coincidences, particularly one involving a Russian military operation, that stretch belief to a breaking point. The characters engage in philosophical and theological debates that will annoy the car chase and bang-bang readers. Often the dialogue is didactic and polemical.  The main character, Alex Graham, hails from Canada — O’Brien himself is a Maple Leaf man — a country which, should they think of it at all, many Americans would describe as safe, comfortable and boring. Finally, Alex Graham is a believing Catholic, and much of the novel explores that faith, an exploration that will offend — and in some cases, enlighten — those who take their ideas of Catholicism from priestly scandals, the Spanish Inquisition and The DaVinci Code.


bookIn Frank B. Robinson’s Thirty Days Hath September (ISBN 978-1-4701-6725-7), a man with a murky past, Alex Madrid, finds temporary employment as a security guard at tiny Black Creek College in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The year is 1976, the tail end of September, and a rising tide of murder and abduction forces Madrid to confront his own past, a college on the verge of bankruptcy stained by the killing of one young student and the disappearance of another, and the escape from prison of the Weasel, a sadist and killer who has sworn vengeance on Madrid.


Suppose this was your household budget:

• Annual family income………………....$23,400

• Money family spends annually….....$35,900

• New debt added to credit cards……$12,500

• Outstanding credit card balance ..$154,000

• Total cuts to family budget………….......$385

Looks like the budget from hell, right? This household with its skyrocketing debt stands precariously on the brink of bad credit, bankruptcy, and ruin.

Now add 8 zeros to all of the above numbers, and you have the current U.S. federal budget (World Magazine, May 19, 2012).

Or shall we say the current financial situation of the United States. You see, we Americans haven’t seen a real budget, balanced or otherwise, in years. The Republican House under Paul Ryan recently proposed a plan that would balance the budget by 2040. The Senate shot down that plan, but offered nothing in its stead. In fact, the Democratic Senate hasn’t offered a real budget in four years. This spring President Obama sent his own recommended budget to the Congress, where in March the House defeated it 414-0. Last week the Senate followed suit by a vote of 99-0. Congress apparently found a few flaws in the president’s proposals.

Both Congress and the president have drawn up other plans for fixing the deficit. Some of our elected officials have called for raising taxes on the wealthy. This sounds like a good idea because the truly wealthy possess so much more money than the rest of us, and they probably don’t deserve it, and anyway, we need it more than they do. So goes the reasoning of some of our citizenry. But eventually we realize that the amount so raised amounts to only a pittance of the debt we owe and such an increase will result in a shift of capital overseas, leading to even less wealth and fewer jobs here at home. (If we are honest, we might also tell ourselves that some talented people have worked hard for their money and that we are thieves to steal it away).

Others call for making cuts to the budget. Some want to reduce miliatary spending and foreign aid. Why, after all, should the United States give $2 billion to Egypt again this year? Why can’t something be done about our wasteful military? Some want to cut or change social programs. Why do we require a Department of Education for the nation when every state in the union already has such a department?

Here the legislators who wish to cut programs face different obstacles than the tax advocates. They are met on one side by political opponents who decry their lack of compassion for the poor and the elderly, and on the other side by lobbyists who are all for cuts as long as they aren’t aimed at those who employ them. Try extending the age of eligibility for Social Security, and you’ll have the American Association of Retired Persons slicing you into small pieces. Propose reducing military benefits or closing overseas military bases — we have hundreds of them — and the lobbyists will take you apart.

Meanwhile, the rest of us watch, enraged at the failure of politicians to find a cure, cursing their knavery and greed. We blame them for our economic woes, for the loss of our AAA credit rating, for a federal government drunken on dollars and corrupted by power. We regard these leaders as fools, rogues, and thieves, and many of them indeed fit those descriptions.  

Yet surely some of the fault lies with us. We vote these people into office; we demand they protect us from the natural ills and woes of life; we want what we want without regard to the cost. We don’t want to pay taxes and certainly don’t want to pay more taxes, yet we want food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, “free” medical care, clean air along with plenty of oil. In 2008, a radio commentator reading children’s letters to candidate-elect Obama best summed up our expectations with this line from a seven-year-old: “President Obama, please make it rain candy.” For decades we have enjoyed that rain of candy. Now the rot of that sugar is destroying us.

Some historians point to Ancient Rome as a warning for us, that crumbling empire with its bread and circuses for the poor, its failed price and wage controls, its unwieldy taxes. But we needn’t stare 1,500 years into the past to see what’s coming. We have only to look across the Atlantic at present-day Greece, Spain, and Italy, all of which are falling apart from the same construct we have erected here: burgeoning social programs, uncontrolled spending, and massive debt. We can look closer to home at California, which while being crushed by enormous debt staggers toward bankruptcy by enacting more government programs.

“Money talks, b***s**t walks,” so the saying goes. We can buy into the lies of some politicians, and we can lie to ourselves, but in the end the figures and the money don’t lie. There’s a bill coming due, and when it arrives, our arguments about taxes and government services won‘t matter. There won’t be enough of us left to tax, wealthy or otherwise, and there will be no more social programs.

It’s time for us to ask every politician, from our mayor to our president, from our senators in Raleigh to those in Washington, what they intend to cut from the budget and how they intend to make government more efficient. If they aren‘t up to the task, then it’s time to elect women and men with long knives, axes, and swing blades, courageous men and women who can chop away at the kudzu of ridiculous regulations, excessive spending, and out-of-control programs. As for the rest of us, we can either pitch tantrums like a three year old when these cuts are made, or we can suck it up and act like grown-ups.

(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..)


In his Foreword to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words (ISBN 978-193333882-8, $14.94), Richard Lederer reminds us of Mark Twain’s much-quoted declaration: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

We live in an ocean of words. In addition to our everyday human speech, we listen to the radio, watch television, read books, play with Facebook, write emails and letters. Advertisements both heard and read are ubiquitous. Most of us throw out words with the casual disregard of a man emptying his pockets of loose change.

Yet our diction – our choice of words – often matters more than we realize. The right word can strengthen a friendship, console the sorrowful, inspire the discouraged, give pause to the smug and the self-satisfied. Some of Twain‘s “lightning“ words have even moved the hearts of millions and changed the course of our history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “I have a dream,” “an evil empire.” The wrong word can break a business deal, a love affair, a marriage. Who has not regretted a word carelessly spoken, a reckless phrase emailed to an acquaintance, a heedless comment whose painful consequences come back to haunt us?

Our words matter.

Which brings us back to The Best Words. Robert Fiske has spent a good part of his life reminding all who would listen to him of the importance of writing and words. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Disagreeable English and The Dimwit’s Dictionary, and the editor of the Vocabula Review, an online journal devoted to fine writing and the usage and peculiarities of the English language. He is a man who loves the play and scope of language.

In this most recent book Fiske collects more than 200 of what another reviewer calls “superlative words.” Chosen both from lists of favorite words sent in by Vocabula readers and by Fiske himself, these words truly are superlative because they are infrequently used yet eminently suitable for conversation and writing. Unlike some collections which offer sesquipedalian entertainment for its own sake – Peter Bowler’s wit in The Superior Person’s Book of Words series leaves readers laughing, but few of us will use words like mammiferous (having breasts) or lilaceous (having to do with slugs) – Fiske and his Vocabula crew have here collected a kit of serviceable tools. Employing his book, we can replace the well-worn enthusiasm with ebullient, sluggish with phlegmatic, ordinary with quotidian. Even the more exotic words found in these pages – hypergelast (one who laughs excessively), quincunx (an arrangement of five objects), coprolalia (the uncontrolled or obsessive use of obscene language) to name but three – seem selected because no other word will do in their place.

Some of Fiske’s entries may also serve as a first-line of defense against suspicion or intrusion. For instance, most of us recognize a misogynist as one who hates women, but it is splendid to learn its opposite, philogynist. This is a most useful word for a man at the beach in the company of a significant other. When she asks, “Must you look at every woman in a bikini?” he has only to reply, “It’s my phylogeny acting up again, dear. I’m not sure there’s a cure.”

The Best Words follows a simple design which benefits all readers. In newspaper-width columns, the reader comes first to the word, then a phonetic guide to its pronunciation, a definition or two, and examples of its usage by noted authors. Included in the back are six quizzes. This is a splendid book for students, particularly those soon to take an SAT, teachers, writers, and all lovers of the English language.


Many books deserve a second look, but few will provide the entertainment and even the wisdom of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmations, here drops us into the English countryside of the 1930s, where we enter the lives of the Mortmain family: Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator and diarist, her beautiful older sister Rose, her step-mother, the exotic and loving Topaz, and her father, James Mortmain, a brilliant one-novel author suffering from more than a decade of writer’s block. All four scrape by in a falling-down castle leased to them.

Enter two young American men who have just inherited the castle and the nearby manor house. As the American become acquainted with English ways and with the Mortmains themselves, and as romance and love overtake all the characters, Cassandra records their adventures with high humor and intelligence. Cassandra is the perfect narrator here, innocent enough to still find amazement in the actions and words of others, literate enough to think of Shakespeare on a May afternoon, and with enough dry wit to give any reader laughter and pleasure. Through Cassandra Smith gives us a look into an England that may well be disappearing and into an English spirit that will, it should be hoped, endure forever.

If you know a reader among this year’s high school graduates, particularly a young woman, I Capture the Castle is one book whose wisdom and story should capture their attention.


Spring-cleaning remains a ritual in many households. We throw open windows, rid closets, shelves, and drawers of unwanted items — books, papers, video cassettes, sweaters that haven’t seen daylight in 10 years, Aunt Matilda’s time-blighted photographs of zinnias — wash everything from curtains to cars, and finally settle down with the perfume of ammonia and Windex gilding the air.    

In my own case, spring-cleaning also includes clearing the left side of my desk of books awaiting review. Here a hillock of volumes, read with varying levels of enjoyment, have gathered dust these last few months, awaiting their turn in this column. Without further ado, I present to you three different books that may deserve your attention.

Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader (ISBN 978-0-8021-1970-4, $24) contains many of the trademarks of Harrison’s other novels: a style that pulls the reader through the story, a hero with many flaws balanced with good intentions, a concern with philosophy, religion, food, liquor, and sex. Detective Sanderson, Harrison’s hero, divorced, frequently drunk, recently retired from the Michigan state police, spends much of his retirement and the novel chasing down a creator of religious cults while at the same time reminiscing about his past. He follows this culprit, the Great Leader, from Michigan to Arizona and then to Nebraska, all the while recollecting his adolescence, his life with his wife, various sexual encounters, and his love of nature and the outdoors.

What Harrison does best here — and his other novels — is to write poetic paragraphs stuffed full of philosophy, poetic diction, and entertaining asides. A random examination of The Great Leader yields paragraphs like this one:

“He hit the radio off button when someone on NPR used the word turd iconic. He used to keep track of these obtuse Orwellian nuggets. A few years ago it was the relentless use of the word closure that raised his ire and then with Iraq the silly term embedded … Pundits reflected his idea that everyone in America gets to make themselves up whole cloth, and also the hideously mistaken idea that talking is thinking.”

Where The Great Leader, Sanderson, and Jim Harrison fall flat on their collective face is in their ideas of sex. Older men — and here I mean men over 55 — do indeed dream of the affections of women, especially younger women, but it is doubtful that younger women cast themselves as frivolously and as frequently at older men as women do at Sanderson. This retired detective has little to recommend him to the younger lovers; he is dull, stuck in the past, aged, lacking in looks and money. Yet women ranging from his teenage neighbor, Mona, to various waitresses all seem to take a shine to him. The novelist’s infatuation with this topic — younger women and their involvement with old guys like Sanderson — borders on the obsessive, so that even the most dilatory reader must wonder whether Harrison is sketching from life or indulging in his own maudlin fantasies.


In Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fanny Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook (ISBN 9781-4013-2322-6, $25.99), Chris Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchens and Cook’s Country, sets out to make a gourmet meal using recipes from what was once America’s most popular cookbook. The problems with such a re-creation are multiple — finding the right ingredients, using the same equipment, deciding whom to invite to the meal — but Kimball’s greatest difficulty lies in the fact that the recipes from Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book too frequently turn out to be second rate, poor cousins to their French counterparts of that age and cousins several times removed from our own culinary specialties. Several times, forced to choose between following Farmer’s mundane recipes or his own good instincts and superior knowledge of food, Kimball finds himself playing variations on Farmer’s work and criticizing her cooking skills.

Far more interesting than the recipes here is Kimball’s investigation into the food and manners of late nineteenth century Boston. From him we learn the intricacies of cooking on a wood stove, the growth of various farmer’s markets in Boston, and the life of a cook in a Victorian household. We discover that the Victorians, unlike modern epicures, disliked the odor of cooking foods and so built their kitchens at the rear of the house; that Boston by 1896 was a shopper’s paradise for cooks, “a vastly better and more convenient place … than Boston today;” that jellies and gelatin dishes played a far greater part in meals of the time than today. Kimball’s historical sense and mastery of details provide an engaging account of Boston social life and entertainment.

For anyone interested in either cooking or the social history of nineteenth century America, Fannie’s Last Supper is a feast in its own right.


Though poetry has lost its shine in the age of twitter and tweet, verse remains the blood and heart of literature. Great verse retains the power to steel our nerves, to open our souls, to sing to us like Eliot’s mermaids. April was National Poetry Month, but it’s never too late to crack open that dusty Norton Anthology or to search out poems old and new on the internet.

On my desk is a copy of A Poem A Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. Most mornings I forget to read from it, but when I do remember to seek out that day’s poem, I am reminded once again of the vigor of the English language and the beauty of carefully selected words and forms. Many writers can walk, and some can run, but the great poets open their arms and invite us to dance.

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


In The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories (ISBN 978-1-4697-7768-9, $20.95), James T. Joyce and James T. Joyce — that doubling-up is not a misprint — have shared, perhaps inadvertently, the secrets to a fulfilling life. Like a fine symphony, which often consists of four parts, all of them intertwined in some way, bound together by tone and motif, The Guys in the Gang offers four important ingredients for leading a full and worthy life: faith, family, friends, and fun.

Both of these men (they are distinguished in the book by reference to the streets, Ada and Carpenter, where they grew up. James “Ada” Joyce lives in Waynesville.) came of age in Irish-Catholic Chicago in the heady years following World War II. This was the era when the Catholic Church held sway over its parishioners in ways that today seem as strange as fins on cars and rotary dial phones. The nuns directed the parochial schools, the priests commanded the churches, and the monsignors and bishops ruled over them all.

Joyce and Joyce both suffered the usual abuses of parochial school — Brother Sloan, the religion teacher, would “simply flail away at you slapping, punching, and kicking” — and grew up in families in which faith was as familiar as the daily paper. “Ada” Joyce, for example, writes that his father turned off the television every day of Lent and that his mother, a leader in the large parish church, frequently said the rosary on the two-hour drive to her family’s farm. (One of the Mysteries of the Rosary is “The Agony in the Garden,” which Joyce’s friends, who traveled with him on these excursions, later renamed “The Agony in the Car.”)

Family, too, played a role in shaping these two men. Both men came out of strong families. Both men honor this bond by speaking highly of their parents, wives, children, and various relatives.

It is, however, the portraits of their friends and their mutual adventures that distinguishes The Guys in the Gang from similar memoirs. Through high school and into the years immediately following, both men belonged to the same gang of friends, guys who partied hard, worked at all sorts of after-school jobs, and indulged in their spare time in all sorts of pranks, some of them silly, some of them truly dangerous. These accounts make up some of the most humorous portions of the book. At one point, 16-year-old Jim “Ada” Joyce is driving his Dad’s new Olds 88 when one of the gang asked how fast the car could go.

“I put the accelerator to the floor and our heads snapped back. We went past 100 like it wasn’t there; 110 was gone and the max, 120, provided no obstacle.

“The speedometer was a circle with a yellow needle pointing to speed. The needled continued around the circle until it hit zero, completing 360 degrees. Then it went “twang,” popped off the spindle and came to rest at the bottom of the glass. A thin, plastic coated wire now appeared behind the numbers. I immediately slowed down and said, ‘Oh, s**t!’”

There are some great stories about the “gang,” and “Ada” Joyce has the eye for details and irony that will bring a smile to the reader’s face.

Carpenter Joyce, who became a Chicago fireman, reports more somberly on the fate of the neighborhood. Both Joyces grew up in the civil rights era and racial unrest, and Carpenter Joyce tells of the demise of the Saint Sabina parish when integration came to the neighborhood. As in cities across the nation, African-Americans moved into some urban neighborhoods, and whites moved out. Here Joyce gives us a first-hand look at “white flight” and its influence on this particular Chicago parish.

In the second half of their memoir, the Joyce duo gives us a brief record of their adult lives. “Ada” Joyce, who has already recounted his Army and Vietnam experiences in Pucker Factor 10 and his work as a psychoanalyst in Use Eagles If Necessary, focuses here on this work as a businessman, while “Carpenter” Joyce briefly gives an account of his life-long work with the Chicago fire department. Once again their reminiscences provide a good deal of humor while at the same time shining a light on certain aspects of human nature. This last part of the book also contains a number of memorable farewells to friends who have died.

What marks the book overall is its sense of esprit and fun. These are two men who have, by most measures, lived what society considers successful lives. In addition to earning a good living, each man has also faced various ordeals and emerged with a sense of amusement intact. Both have a knack for seeing the humorous side of difficult situations, a sense of the absurd which doubtless helped carry them far in life. It is their sense of fun and their recognition of the ridiculous that has carried them through life and carries the reader through the memoir.

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

The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories by James T. Joyce. iUniverse, 2012. 276 pages.


Fifteen years ago, when I was the temporary teacher of Latin at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, I was discussing different uses for the dative case when one of my brighter sophomores — he entered the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics the following year — raised his hand and plaintively said, “Mr. Minick, we haven’t really studied grammar since the fourth grade. Could you explain what you mean by an indirect object?”

Few teachers — or students, for that matter — would disagree that grammar and writing take a seat at the back of the academic bus these days. To study more than the basics of grammar — ”A noun is a person, place, or thing” — requires patience from the teacher and demands repetition and memorization from the student while good writing requires a massive amount of work from both. Ask any English or history teacher who still centers a class on writing about the weekends, and you will find a teacher who spends more than a few hours correcting papers.

We live in the age of communication, of email, twitter, and texting, yet as a number of online sites attest, poor communication skills in writing and grammar cost us hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and badly composed sentences result in missed meetings, mangled orders, mistaken shipments, and bad service.

Sometimes our failure to communicate costs more than money. A love letter composed by the semi-literate can ruin a match made in heaven. A badly written police report can bring a murderer’s freedom. Our military leaders and medical personnel are acutely aware that a word misused or a comma misplaced can bring about disaster and death. (This problem is not new. In his last communication to his subordinate, Captain Benteen, Gen. George Armstrong Custer of Little Bighorn fame sent a terse, confusing note which was delivered by a man who barely spoke English. Custer and his men may have ended up massacred because the general didn’t take an extra two minutes to put together a coherent summons).

Here is a simple and classic example of the importance of grammar. “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a straight-shooting sentence. We are hungry and wish to eat, and we want to encourage Grandma to do likewise. If we drop the comma, however, we proclaim “Let’s eat Grandma.” (You few young people who are reading this column on grammar should here be cautioned against dining on your elders. Historically, you and the younger set are regarded as much more tasty. See Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.)

Fortunately, remedies for our grammatical dysfunctions abound. There are scores of grammar guides in print today. In recent years, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation made the best-seller lists in Great Britain and the United States. With her witty stickler’s guide to the use of the apostrophe, the dash, and other marks of punctuation, Truss helped kick off our current interest in language and its usage by making readers more aware of the importance of grammar and the rules of writing. For a more classic, though by no means comprehensive, examination of such issues, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains a central authority on usage.

The various editions of Writer’s Inc., employed in many of our schools, offers perhaps the most for the money in terms of grammar and usage. This book is accessible to students from middle school through college and would also make a fine addition to any office or home in which questions of grammar and punctuation recur. The examples used are clear and to the point. In addition, the book includes guides to writing various types of letters and emails, essays and papers, a strong glossary of literary terms, and a dozen other useful topics.

Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (ISBN 978-0-8050-8943-1, $19.99) is the new kid on the language block. Fogarty is the creator the online Grammar Girl, whose Quick and Dirty Tips on grammar have attracted the attention of millions seeking answers on everything from using commas in clauses to the test of when to use a colon. Though designed for students — Aardvark and Squiggly the Snail, Fogarty’s signature characters, appear in most of the examples — Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide should appeal to a wide audience. The index is complete — I tested it by looking up the usage of “anymore,” and found a clear explanation — and the author follows a logical progression in her presentation, going from the basic definitions of the parts of speech to the writing of papers. For a student going into high school or college, for a secretary who runs smack into grammatical thickets, and for anyone interested in a witty, practical approach to our language, Grammar Girl’s Writing Guide should prove a valuable tool.


Stephen Hunter’s Soft Target (978-1-4391-3870-0, $26.99), which continues the Bob Lee Swagger story, this time with progeny Ray Cruz trapped in Minnesota’s America, the Mall with a group of terrorists bent on killing as many Christmas shoppers as it can take with them, lacks some of the punch and depth of the earlier Swagger novels. Parts of the novel — this is becoming a trademark in the suspense genre — don’t even make a whole lot of sense. Why, for example, would a local imam team up with a young psychotic from white suburbia? How could this crazy white nihilist get the devotees of Allah to follow him?

Readers of Hunter’s stories probably won’t care too much about these questions. The mayhem of the fighting and the expertise shown by Hunter in regard to weapons and tactics will doubtless blind many of his fans to the weakness of the story. Soft Target does offer one additional virtue. The weakness of the police chief in the story serves as a reminder that to placate terrorists and to wave the olive branch of appeasement is simply to ask for more terror.


Little Sally was eating lunch with her family when her parents ask her if she learned anything in Sunday School that morning. Sally nodded and smiled. "Teacher says we are to go forth and spread the gossip."

It seems these days that gossip has indeed become our gospel, though that word means specifically "good news," whereas good news in our day really amounts to no news at all. We much prefer the "bad news," the scandals, the foolish antics of our fellow beings, so long as we ourselves are omitted from the roll call.

Although countless authors down through the ages have issued admonitions against gossip and rumor-mongering — the Book of Proverbs, for example, bulges with warnings against those whose "lips talk of mischief" — gossip has not only retained its allure but has in the last century mushroomed from a cottage industry to a skyscraper whose shadow touches us all. Our intense interest in the self, our therapeutic age, and our revelry in revelation have combined with our technology — television and the internet for spreading the secrets of our celebrities, Facebook and Twitter for the rest of us — to create a near-perfect breeding ground for gossip. A host of websites and television shows exist solely to sift through the dirt in other peoples' lives, and so long as we ourselves are not among the unwashed, many of us find such muckraking a splendid source of entertainment.

Often the lives of family, friends and acquaintances provide an equivalent show, and we follow these particular dramas and comedies with the avidity of an opera buff. When we hear that Uncle Fred, a deacon in his church, is spending his money on women half his age or that our model of temperance, Aunt Agnes, has been arrested for driving NASCAR-style after a few too many martinis, we cluck our tongues at their peccadilloes and express our empathy even while we find ourselves secretly delighted to hear this latest bit of juicy news. "How awful," we say, and in the next breath ask: "And then what happened?"

In his newest book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (ISBN 978-0-618-72194-8, $25), Joseph Epstein, one of the best American essayists of this or any other age, turns his discerning eye on gossip. He was attracted to this subject, he tells us, both because gossip can be a "species of truth ... beguiling truth" and because he himself has taken great pleasure in receiving gossip over his long lifetime.

These two-fold explanations for his interest in gossip lead to that fine blend of the personal and the public which is the hallmark of Epstein's writing. In the public sphere, Epstein ranges in his analysis from what he calls "the Great Gossips of the Western World," men like Suetonius, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Truman Capote, and women like Tina Brown and Barbara Walters, to the lesser-known gossip columnists of the last hundred years. One fascinating feature of his examination is the way in which these people achieved their fame from reporting the fame of others, how they "achieved celebrity by interviewing celebrity." His sketch of Barbara Walters, for example, an amusing mini-biography of praise and put-down, seems precisely on the mark. Epstein notes her fierce ambitions and her crassness, writing that "this vulgar streak, asking the questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar." Epstein ends his look at Walters by writing:

"Give Barbara her due: week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were themselves tasteless enough to answer her. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally."

To these portraits of famous gossips Epstein adds accounts of his own gossiping and the interest he takes in the foibles of his familiars. A university professor, once editor of The American Scholar and board member of the National Council of the National Endowments for the Arts, Epstein confesses that he has taken great pleasure in hearing gossip about the famous and the not-so-famous. In a section at the end of most of the book's chapters, titled "Diary," Epstein shares with us glimpses of his forays into tale-telling and rumors. He recounts a pleasant evening spent with Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; his encounters with Mortimer Adler; his accounts, gathered from others, of the eating habits of Orson Welles and the wit of playwright Lillian Hellman.

One story which Epstein includes has to do with his mother. She was an ebullient woman who, like her husband, "looked out at the world and saw only admirable or less than admirable behavior." Her father died when she was young by his own hand, a fact Epstein learned from his own father when his mother was dying. Not only had his mother never told Epstein about this episode, she had never told her husband either, who had learned of it from her sister. After reflecting on this silence from his mother's point of view, Epstein applauds the nobility of her silence:

"Why rehash it? What was to be gained? Nothing, evidently, that she could see. Reticence about the matter was more dignified, made more sense. And I find I love my mother all the more for her ability to live without the need to drag her sadness out into the open."

Epstein ends Gossip by wondering whether the rest of us have become too caught up in the ways of rumor. He points out gossip's negative effects on our national news and on our view of the world, and wonders whether our penchant for gossip has resulted in a dumbing down of cultural life. He concludes that gossip, which Matt Drudge calls "unedited information," is here to stay and that we will continue to indulge ourselves because we delight in the sordid and the strange.

Yet it is the story of Epstein's mother which sticks in the mind. Epstein is correct: there is a nobility to her silence. We can keep our secrets and the secrets of others. For those of us who aren't celebrities, who don't make a billion dollars a year or act in blockbuster movies, reticence is still an option. No one shoves a microphone at us, no one asks us revealing questions below the bright lights of a television studio, no one forces us to reveal confidences or spread rumors.

We have a choice. And for those who still value privacy, mum's the word.

Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 256 pages.


Twenty minutes a day.

In early January, writing in my book column for this paper, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 20 minutes a day from a bucket-list of books, heavy tomes which I’d laid aside in the corners of my mind to read but which seemed destined to go on collecting dust until I too became dust. After compiling what seemed a formidable list and a simple rule that allowed me to make up any missed sessions by week‘s end, I began reading Jane Austen’s Emma.

The time commitment was a crucial element in my project. Given my schedule, 30 minutes a day of unbroken reading from a classic was a daunting prospect. That daily half an hour would hang from me, I knew, like a convict’s chains. Fifteen minutes a day seemed weak and somehow formulaic, a quarter hour administered daily like medicine. No — 20 minutes a day struck me as a good compromise, a tough, viable, and worthy ambition.

The results? In the past two months, in addition to the magazines and books I read for pleasure, the books I read for review, and the books I read for the classes I teach, I have also read in their entirety Jane Austen’s Emma, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, and The New Testament’s Book of Acts and Pauline Epistles. Though I usually fit the reading into my schedule — I frequently accomplished my 20-minute stint while riding the elliptical at the local Y — I did miss some days but was diligent about making them up before the week’s end. (This past week was particularly difficult for work-related reasons, which means that I must in the next two days double my sessions).

And what have I learned from my reading? From the books themselves I have gained several insights. From Emma, which was the only book on the list which I had previously read, I learned first what I already knew, that I will never join that company of devotees who elevate Austen to the inner circle of literary gods. I admire her talents from afar, much as I admire certain saints, but am not enticed to devote to her more of my time or study. Yet I did find fascinating the comparison between her age and our own. Separated by less than two centuries, the world of Jane Austen seems as removed from ours as that of Caesar. Continually while I read the book, I would stack her era of leisurely hours, slow news, and careful courtship against our own harried, internet-driven, sex-drenched age, and would find myself envying Austen’s characters their more deliberate days.

From Boethius, the sixth century philosopher and politico who wrote his Consolations while imprisoned and awaiting execution, I studied again the old lesson of what matters in this world. A Christian and a philosopher, Boethius in Consolations engages in a dialogue with Lady Philosophy regarding the virtues, the ladder of wisdom, and the relationship between free will and predestination hooked me. The condemned man writes simply and in that catechetic dialogue practiced by the ancients, and I was able to follow his arguments until nearly the last, when he lost me on his explanation of free will and predestination. (Lady Philosophy kindly let me off the hook when she declared that God, who is outside of time, sees in a different way than humans do).

From Acts and the Pauline Letters, fragments of which I hear frequently at Mass, I came to realize how much a rebel St. Paul was. In Acts he is always just a step ahead of one mob or another, and in his letters he is constantly exhorting his followers to ignore the differences between the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” and to pursue instead the “new way” as laid down by Christ. Paul fully lives up to his reputation for being harsh on matters of sex, and he strikes me as a man with whom a supper shared might not be the most laughter-filled evening of my life, but he is also clearly filled with the love of his new faith and eager to communicate its radical new way to those mired in old prejudices. (I also learned that the Bible remains loaded with a dynamite all its own. When reading it at the gym, I was aware several times of nervous glances from those exercising around me. “Uh oh,“ their faces said. “Another religious fanatic.“ Twice my reading roused brief conversations, not, unfortunately, with lovely women, but with one man who seemed permanently angry with God and with another who was truly as nuts as I undoubtedly appeared to the non-believers around me).

My greatest lesson came not from the books, however, but from the power of 20 minutes. I am a slow learner at times, but I have finally realized the value of a space of time, even 20 minutes, when set under the throne of discipline. Reading 20 minutes a day for two months has allowed me to absorb truths from a 19th century spinster, a sixth century philosopher, and a first century tentmaker. More importantly, my little experiment has shown me the power of applied time. Suddenly many things seem possible — not only for me but for others as well. Want to learn to tango? Twenty minutes a day for a couple of months will bring you onto the dance floor. Aikido? Twenty minutes a day will eventually find you king of the dojo. Cooking? Add twenty minutes to your culinary preparation each evening, and you can break away from those frozen pizzas and dull salads. From flower arranging to piano playing, from memorizing poetry to bumping up your math grades, from hitting three-pointers to deepening your prayer life: 20 minutes a day will do the trick.

And now — back to Dante and a trip like none I’ve ever taken.


The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius translated by Richard Green. Prentice Hall; 1 edition, 1962. 160 pages.


There are many reasons to love the writing of Ray Bradbury. His early short stories — science fiction “lite,” tales of his midwestern youth, accolades to writers like Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, Twilight Zone accounts of life in mid-twentieth century America — remain in print and still attract teenage readers outside schoolhouse hallways. His jeremiads in these stories against the modern mechanization of the soul remain fresh and lively even 50 years after they first appeared in print. His style, a sort of splashing of words onto paper — has an American writer ever enjoyed such a love affair with the exclamation point? — still entertains. Bradbury has said in numerous interviews that writers shouldn’t write unless it’s “fun,” a refreshing take since so many writers over the last hundred years have spoken of the difficulty and angst of writing, and this sense of fun comes to vivid life in Bradbury’s writing.

In the negative column is the fact that Bradbury’s stories and novels of the last 30 years are weakly plotted self-parodies. Most of these saw print because of the writer’s reputation rather than their worth. Any reader who has followed Bradbury can find the weakness in these more recent stories in their syntax alone: the thin paragraphs, the false excitement in some of the diction, the tired exclamations.

Yet the prose of the younger Bradbury still has a spring-like air about it, and it is this writer that Jonathan R. Eller examines in a new biography Becoming Ray Bradbury (ISBN 978-0-252-03629-3, $34.95). Fittingly published by the University of Illinois — Ray Bradbury spent his early youth in Waukegan, Illinois — this rich, dense account should appeal to a broad spectrum of Bradbury fans. Eller, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University and the cofounder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, spent hundreds of hours interviewing Bradbury’s friends, other writers, his principal biographer, his wife Maggie (now deceased), his daughter Alexandra, and Ray Bradbury himself.

From these sources Eller has given us a fine look into the life, thoughts, and stories from his birth in 1920 to the 1950s. He shows us how the boy from Illinois who came of age in California created himself as a writer, following the advice of a dozen different mentors while reading himself into an education. Bradbury, like Hemingway, is an autodidact; he never had the money to go to a university, but instead worked after high school selling newspapers on a Los Angeles sidewalk while enrolling in that least-expensive of educational institutions: the public library. Eventually, after a period of trial-and-error, Bradbury realized that the richness of his own life — his love of fantasy and mystery, of dinosaurs and space travel, of great writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, Shaw, Hemingway, and Wolfe, his boyhood days in Illinois — was the palette from which he should paint his stories. He wrote daily in those years, building his stories from a variety of techniques like word association and creative mental play.

In describing how Bradbury refused to be categorized as a genre writer — in this case, of the “weird tale” — Eller sums up some of Bradbury’s approaches to work in the middle of Becoming Ray Bradbury. He writes that Bradbury was “… ignoring reductionist genre rules and traditions whenever they interfered with his own intuitive approach to writing. He continued to minimize the art of plotting, for his Muse worked best when the characters seemed to write their own stories. He would continue to use the loose framework of science fiction, or the weird tale, or even the occasional backdrop of noir crime, but he was writing about people rather than about science, or terror, or detection.”

Becoming Ray Bradbury should appeal not only to readers of Bradbury’s work, but to anyone interested in writers and writing. We can see in this book how a young man became a writer and how writing itself, with all its travail and uncertainty, can bring to its creator a great sense of joy.


In How Do You Kill 11 Million People: Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think (ISBN 978-0-8499-4835-0, $14.99), Andy Andrews, author of The Noticer and The Traveler’s Gift, has written what amounts to an essay published in the form of a book. This is a small volume of only 80 pages, and the word count per page runs to less than half of that found in most books.

Despite its brevity, however, How Do You Kill 11 Million People? — the title refers to those murdered by the Nazis, not only the Jews, but the other millions of people thrown into concentration camps for their beliefs — serves as a sobering reminder about the value of truth in our personal and public lives. Reminding us of Hitler’s remark in Mein Kampf, that “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one,” Andrews then asks the question: What happens to a society in which truth is absent?

We live now in a society in which truth may not be absent (though a good many people, perhaps a majority, deny its existence), but in which it can be so covered up by information, conflicting points of views, and outright deceptions, that it might as well be absent. Our politicians and many in our “news” media deliberately mislead us, but what is worse, we often allow them to do so. We expect to be deceived, and like the readers of the newspaper Pravda (“The Truth”) in Soviet Russia, we find ourselves having to read between the lines to dig out the real truth behind a government policy or some story on the six o’clock news.

Perhaps the real value to this thin little slip of a book are the questions asked in the Reader’s Guide at the end. These questions and the ease with which the book can be read make it an ideal tool for book clubs, the classroom, and political discussions. To begin to reflect on these questions of what truth means to us, what lies we ourselves have told and why, and what steps might be taken to bring truth to the fore in the public square, is to begin looking at ourselves and our present difficulties in a new light.

(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..)


Recently I watched several early episodes of “Blue Bloods,” a fine television series centered on a New York family with a tradition of law enforcement. The father is the New York City Police commissioner, his father is a retired policemen, and his children include a detective, an assistant district attorney, a rookie cop, and a policeman killed on duty. The series is justly touted for its realism regarding both police work and family dynamics. Yet in one of these episodes, the detective participates in a raid; he runs alone up a fire escape to enter through the window of an apartment while an entire contingent of fellow officers breaks through the front door. In all the episodes I’ve seen so far, the commissioner, a widower, is dating a television reporter, but still wears what definitely appears to be a wedding band on his left hand.

Questions: why is the detective running up the fire escape without backup? And why does the commissioner’s lover ignore the wedding band?

Hollywood often gives us movies or television shows in which coincidence is not justified, logic is sacrificed for emotion, and plot and character motivation is as flimsy as a doublewide in a tornado. Style trumps story, drama and excitement run roughshod over reason. Sometimes the magic works, and we are tricked against our better judgment into accepting certain premises, but just as often the curtain blows aside and we see the man working the controls. The magic ends, and we are left with a piece of creaky, irritating machinery.

Unfortunately, these same defects appear in some of the novels we may read.

In Carol Goodman’s The Ghost Orchid, set in an artist’s colony in upstate New York, the story grips the reader from the first page. The narrator of this Gothic tale, Ellis Brooks, is at work on her first novel. Goodman has a genuine talent for creating believable female protagonists, and through Ellis we come to know the other members of the colony: the renowned novelist Nat Loomis; the landscape architect David Fox; the eccentric and lovable poet Zalman Bronsky; the brooding biographer Bethesda Graham.

As in her outstanding first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, Goodman displays a generous talent for creating tension, both among the characters and in the mystic elements — ghosts, mediums, a past-haunted present — surrounding the Bosco estate. The reader becomes caught up in the lives of the artists as they struggle to unravel the mysteries of the estate with its secret rooms, underground tunnels, mysterious sculptures, and living secrets.

About three quarters of the way through the novel, however, Ellis’ ability to “read” the other characters and to summon up the estate’s dark past become tiresome rather than intriguing. Worse, the connections of the other characters to the estate — by genealogical descent, by a past of which they are unaware — finally become too unreal to be viable. Worse still, for a reader skeptical about séances, poltergeists, and other supernatural phenomena, the last few pages of The Ghost Orchid become a tremendous cheat. The characters suddenly turn to cardboard, the plot to air, and the reader leaves the book feeling slightly ridiculous for having devoted several hours of breath and effort to so awful a contraption.

In The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Childs takes us back to 1997 when Reacher is still working as a special investigator in the Army. Sent to Mississippi to look into the murders of young women near an Army base serving as headquarters for secret missions in the Middle East, Reacher falls for the town’s sheriff, ex-Marine Elizabeth Devereux. Between bouts in the bedroom the two of them try to track down the killers. The Affair is vintage Reacher: finely-tuned dialogue, beautiful women who want to take Reacher to the sheets, Reacher’s own eccentricities (even here, while in the Army, he buys his clothing at thrift shops and throws away his old clothes rather than washing them and using them again).

From my reading of earlier Reacher novels, I had already learned that I needed to suspend certain conventional ideas regarding plot. In one novel, for example, Childs has Reacher randomly get off the bus in a small town. Before the novel is finished and the bodies are stacked higher than the bus, Reacher discovers his brother, a special agent, dead in the town’s morgue. To enjoy the novel, then, means that we must overlook the fact that the odds of this occurrence are spectacularly high.

But in The Affair, about midway through the story, I came to the final end of tolerance for Jack Reacher and his creator. Here Reacher has talked with a young black man, the brother of one of the murder victims, and has encouraged him to join the Army. The young man goes to the nearby post to enlist, but is shot dead by a group of vigilantes guarding the property. Reacher tracks these men down, discovers why they have been stationed around the post, then shoots one of them in cold blood and tells the others to haul the body away and never return.

It was on that page that I closed the book and promised myself never again to read one of these novels. Here we have a military policeman murdering a citizen and then casually telling his two buddies to take the body away. There are apparently no consequences for this killing; I didn’t read any farther into the book, but the other Reacher novels still depict our man running around the country single-handedly killing platoons of bad guys and eradicating evil. The sheer numbing stupidity of such a plot twist, and all the other unbelievable situations in this book and others in the series, have finally brought me back to my senses.

The appropriately titled The Affair brought an end to my own affair with these books. Unlike the traditional breakup line, however, I will say in ending our relationship: “It’s not me. It’s you.”


The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Childs. Delacorte Press , 2011. 416 pages.


Of female writers who appeal the least to the young men in my seminars, Jane Austen surely holds first place. Many of these male students can relate to the work of Annie Dillard or Anne Tyler, and more than a few over the years have taken to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, if only because of Heathcliff and the author’s magnificently wild prose, but none of these young men have evinced, at least publicly, any interest in becoming, as have so many women, members of the Austenite cult. Even I, though I have found on several readings great treasures in Pride and Prejudice, have in the past mostly taught Austen because the book so gratifies my female students.

In his new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter (ISBN 978-1-59420-288-9, $25.95), William Deresciewicz offers a perspective that may allow men to regard Jane Austen as more than just the queen of “chick-lit.”

When Deresciewicz first introduces himself in this book, he is an immature and arrogant graduate student in literature who is forced to take a course featuring Jane Austen’s Emma, a story which at first seemed to “consist of nothing but chitchat among a group of commonplace characters in a country village.” Bored at first by Emma’s willful attempts to change the lives of those around her, Deresciewicz soon realized that Emma’s cruelty and her contempt for some of her familiars were a mirror image of his own feelings. Moreover, he understood that Austen had written about everyday things and people because “she wanted to show how important they really are.”

Emma led Deresciewicz deeper into Austen territory, first to Pride and Prejudice, and then to the others: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. He fell so in love with the long-deceased author that he soon decided to include her in his dissertation, and found himself immersed in her life, reading biographies and poring over her correspondence.

Deresiewicz divides A Jane Austen Education into chapters devoted to each of these novels. Skillfully weaving his own stories into his criticism of Austen’s stories, he shows us how her stories and characters affected him, making him a better man. From Emma, for example, he learns how to pay closer attention to the everyday events and people that touch his life, that it truly is the little things in life that count the most. From Pride and Prejudice, and the mistakes in judgment made by Elizabeth Bennett and her revelation regarding those mistakes, Deresiewicz realizes that he himself has often let his own prejudices blind him to reality. “She (Austen) wanted us,” Deresiewicz writes, “to override our emotions, which dwell within us and urge us to do what we want, and replace them with reason — with logic, with evidence, with objectivity — which stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want.”

A Jane Austen Education is also a tale of a young man not only becoming aware of his own flaws, but of learning how to love. Here an older professor helps Deresiewicz grapple with Austen and the lessons to be learned there. From Northanger Abbey the professor quotes Catherine, a central figure in the book: “I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.” The professor points out to Deresiewicz that Catherine had learned to love the hyacinth, and as another character tells her, “Who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?…The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” This, says the professor, is the central theme and lesson of Northanger Abbey.

From Sense and Sensibility Deresiewicz learns perhaps his most important lesson in the art of love, particularly as it relates to women. Austen lived at the beginning of the Romantic period, when feelings trumped reason, yet Austen herself came down firmly on the side of reason in regard to love. The head, according to Austen, trumps the heart — or at least equals it. This is not, on Austen’s part, a cold, calculating reason, but rather, a realization that we should fall in love with a person’s character more deeply than we account their looks, that “falling in love” is all too often temporary while to love someone is permanent. “Austen was not against romance,“ Deresiewicz writes. “She was against romantic mythology.“

The best love, Deresiewicz realizes from his reading of the novels, develops first in friendship, in familiarity, in an evaluation of the character of another, from which there emerges the attraction of real love. “And that was the most momentous revelation of all,” Deresiewicz writes. “Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it — your character, your soul.”


A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresciewicz. Penguin Press HC, 2011. 272 pages


The New Year’s resolution typically leads a short and tragic life. Its father is misdeeds, its mother remorse. Once born, the resolution swarms about its maker as irritating as a fruit fly. Often, too, it lives no longer than the common fruit fly, which is to say about two weeks. Its demise usually evokes in its pall-bearer tangled emotions of foolhardy chagrin and wild, celebratory relief.    

Growing older does occasionally mean growing wiser, and over the last few years I have abstained from making New Year’s resolutions. For most of my adult life, I had made such pledges — to quit smoking, to drink less, to lose weight, to get into shape, to listen better — and while I eventually achieved some control over these vices, my change in habits never came about as the result of a New Year’s vow.

This year is different. Let me explain why I decided to make a resolution and how I determined to carry it out. But first the resolution:

“Resolved, that I will spend 20 minutes per day for the year 2012 reading the following books: Jane Austen’s Emma; Dante’s The Divine Comedy (the John Ciardi translation); Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy; the Oresteia trilogy; the Pauline Letters of the New Testament; G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man; Caulaincourt’s With Napoleon in Russia; Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I have previously read, but which has long demanded another visit); Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Selected Poetry; Joseph Pearce‘s Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse. Missed reading sessions must be made up within a week’s time.”

For more than a decade, I have vowed to read certain authors and books, writing that I had missed or neglected along the way. In my twenties, after I abandoned my graduate school studies in medieval history, I flung myself into fiction and poetry with the abandon of a man unleashed from prison, going from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, from John Donne to Sylvia Plath, from Scott Fitzgerald to Evelyn Waugh. I read these authors and many more for two reasons: I was genuinely interested in the books, and I wanted to learn to write.

By the time I entered my thirties, most of the books I was reading were newer, and by the time my forties and fifties rolled around, nearly all the books were contemporary. The classics still beckoned, and my life in a classroom has kept me in touch with older works of literature, but generally my reading has aimed, both from choice and necessity, at new works of fiction, history, and biography.

But the minutes tick away, and the old books call to me. The time has come to pay them heed. If asked why I want to have read certain books before growing infirm or dying — what difference will such reading make, really, one may ask — I have no more ready answer than the old-timer who wants to climb Everest or the grandmother who wants to run a marathon. The compulsion comes from inside the heart and defies ready analysis.  

Resolutions are effective which come with this axiom: the more specific the goal, the greater chance for success. The man who sets out to “lose weight” fails nine times out of ten. The man who resolves to lose a pound a month between January and September has a fighting chance. I therefore decided to be as exacting as possible in the construction of my own pledge to myself.

Like everyone in today’s mad-rush world, I am busy with commitments. Days often pass in a blur of teaching, writing, caring for a teenager’s wants and needs, and completing the usual necessary household duties. My plan had to take into account the exigencies of my existence while at the same time allowing for some sense of accomplishment. Twenty minutes seemed a good amount of time, an easily remembered number less imposing than half an hour and more worthy than a quarter hour. Twenty minutes a day may seem inconsequential, but it adds up to well over a hundred hours of annual reading, and I am a reasonably fast reader. Self-knowledge led me to include an alternate plan in case, whether by accident or the demands of my schedule, I did miss a session of reading. I wanted a chance to compensate for my failure.

As for the books — I could have chosen any number of other titles. But the books selected here, with the exception of Caulaincourt and Pearce, are ones that I come across again and again in my reading. Some books are included to offset omissions in my education that are just plain embarrassing: to have neglected Dante is, given my interests and education, inexcusable. Some are appropriate to my stage of life; Boethius, for example, wrote The Consolations of Philosophy while under a sentence of death, a circumstance that looms somewhat larger in my life now than it did at age 20. Hopkins I have read in bits and pieces, and wanted a more disciplined approach to his work. I have read several Greek plays, and their stark prose and bare emotions drew me toward the Oresteia. I enjoy military history, hence Thucydides and Caulaincourt. (I also want to learn more about Napoleon and nineteenth century Russia, so the Caulaincourt fits several bills). Anna Karenina appeals to me for reasons of nostalgia; I can vividly remember reading the book and thinking it the best novel I’d ever read. The time seemed ripe to repeat the experiment and see what I think now of poor doomed Anna.

One great difference between this resolution and those made earlier in life is, of course, the fact that I am announcing it in a newspaper. Pressure can shape diamonds or break boulders. We’ll see how it goes.

(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..)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.


“What do women want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what were young women reading this year?

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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