Jeff Minick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s time to put away the books

About politicos and other crooks,

No more fat novels for today,

It’s time to have some fun and play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her comment brought a smile then and brings one now.

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

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

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

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Many readers are familiar with his story. 

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

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

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

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Let’s take a look at fanatics, particularly political fanatics. Heaven knows there are enough of them around these days, most recently evidenced in the mobs that have looted, burned, and vandalized scores of American cities in the last couple of weeks in reaction to George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis policeman. 

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Years ago, in the parking lot of the Haywood County Public Library, I met a man in his late 20s who worked at the Champion Paper Mill. As we talked about what we did for a living — I was in debt to my eyeballs running a bed-and-breakfast and a bookstore — the man told me that when he was 18 his uncle had helped him buy a house in South Carolina and that he now owned 10 other houses, which he rented out. Fascinated by the history of the West, he made an annual trek every summer to places like Texas and the Dakotas to study first hand what he had read about in books. On his latest expedition he had traveled to the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana.

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May the memory of these men sustain us all and remind us of their sacrifice to secure our freedom. May we never forget their bravery and all they gave up so that we might live free. We are forever indebted to these heroes, whose unknown valor we are obligated to know.

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Sometimes in a crisis it helps to take a look in the rearview mirror.

In The Splendid And The Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz (Crown Publishers, 2020, 546 pages), Eric Larson vividly revives those days when Britain stood alone against Nazi war machine and suffered almost daily aerial attacks on its military bases and cities. The Battle for Britain left 44,652 dead, 5,626 of them children, and wounded 52,370. After watching one of these attacks on a beautiful English night, John Colville, Assistant Private Secretary to Churchill, wrote in his diary “Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.”

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Weird, weird, weird.

Every morning until about two months ago, the online sites I visit daily offered accounts of someone — a celebrity, a politician, or an ordinary American — accused by another of racism, homophobia, misogyny, or some other social peccadillo demanding the cat o’ nine tails and a flogging post. We were a country divided by identity politics, a nation more at war with itself, or so we were told, than at any time since the Civil War.

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“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,” The Canterbury Tales begins, “the droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote….”

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No book review today. 

But please read this column.

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Some bare their souls to priests and ministers. Some seek out therapists and counselors. Some look for help from friends and family members.

And some write books. 

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Time to do some early spring cleaning and rid my desk of some books for review.

Caitlin Doughty, mortician and best-selling author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and From Here To Eternity, takes us to yet another encounter with the Grim Reaper in Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019, 222 pages). Dedicated to “To future corpses of all ages,” Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? is a collection of “the most distinctive, delightful questions I’ve been asked about death, and then I answered them.”

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She died at the age of 92 in January 2020 in Naples, Florida. Renowned for her beauty when young, she worked as a secretary and an airlines stewardess, married and had five children, and was a devout Christian. Those who personally knew her describe her as generous, kind, warm-hearted, and fun.

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No book review this week. Just some last minute advice for men about the Feast of Love.

It’s V-Day, guys; time to hit the beaches.

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What kind of a nut writes a play about antiquity using blank verse, sentences as convoluted as any in Shakespeare, and words which, outside of Elizabethan theater, have sounded in no human ear in hundreds of years?

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A New York Times Op-Ed recently asked, “Is It Time Gauguin Got Canceled?” It raised this question of banishing Gauguin because the artist slept with young girls in Tahiti and called the natives “savages.”

Let’s look at a few more artists and writers before looking for an answer.

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Stillness. Silence. For many people, stillness and silence are as unfamiliar — and terrifying — as zombies or Martians. 

When I used to teach composition classes to homeschoolers in Asheville, we met in a Presbyterian church near the Asheville Mall. Once a year, in good weather, I would have the students carry their folding chairs to the large parking lot behind the church. Here I would place them in a circle facing away from one another, 20 feet or more between students, and have them sit for half an hour. They were forbidden to speak, to read, to write, to use a cell phone. 

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Though I read aloud with my children and do so now with my grandchildren, I have rarely done so with adults. Two recent experiences made me realize what I was missing.

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Ugh.

The skies are gray, the wind’s a knife, the dank cold crawls into your very bones, and spring seems a thousand years away. You’re bored with watching television, you never want to hear the word “Impeachment” again in your life, your New Year’s Resolutions — to exercise more, lose weight, do some volunteer work — were given graveside services a few days after January started, you get depressed arriving home from work in darkness by 5 p.m., and you find yourself wanting to do nothing but sleep.

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“It was crazy. The surgeon told me the tumor was the size of a pear, which is scary but also confusing. I was like, ‘Did he go to med school or farmer’s market?’”

That’s part of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s bit on YouTube about his wife Jeannie’s brain tumor. 

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You’re down to the wire. It’s only a few days until Christmas, and you have yet to get that book lover in your life a gift. Maybe it’s your husband who nightly reads military history. Maybe your 9-year-old can’t get enough of the Hardy Boys. Maybe your teenage niece is reading anything she can get her hands on.

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Time to head off to Santa’s workshop and see what Christmas books he and the elves have in mind for the kids.

First up is Carol Matney’s St. Nick’s Clique (Page Publishing, Inc. 2019, 25 pages). Matney, a North Carolinian I’ve known for nearly 30 years, whisks us off to the North Pole for a look at how Santa Claus teaches his reindeer to fly and how he names them for their personalities. Cupid, for example, receives his name because “I am happy when we all get along and are kind to each other, and we help one another.” The largest and strongest reindeer is “lightning fast” and so named Blitzen, from the German word for “fast.” At the end of this charming tale, we meet a little reindeer with a glowing red nose, and Santa wonders “if … somehow, someday, there might be some way to include him in St. Nick’s clique.” Watch for the sequel.

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Back in the mid-1970s, I was working as a receiving clerk at the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston. I was making $90 a week, maybe a little less, $40 of which went to the room I rented on Joy Street on the backside of Beacon Hill. Though I had a degree and two years of graduate school under my belt, I also had no car, no insurance, and no savings. I was living that way because I wanted to become a writer, and the job afforded me that time, and because I wanted to live in Boston for a year, which I did.

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For many years, most of us who read histories and biographies about America between 1800 and 1865 assumed the seat of literacy and learning was in New England. The plantation and professional classes of the Antebellum South were of course readers, and in some cases writers, relatively wealthy men and women who enjoyed the luxury of newspapers or the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Few would have thought the yeoman farmers and townspeople of that age and place might be equally passionate about print and literature. 

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