Jeff Minick

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Some will understand more fully than others.

On a Wednesday you arrive home to find the one you love collapsed on the bedroom floor. The rescue squad brings her to the hospital. Now she is in neurological intensive care with a brain aneurysm, her skull shaven, kept alive with breathing and feeding tubes, monitored for heartbeat and brain activity. Surrounding her are other patients, many of them unconscious from blood clots in the brain, blows to the head, or some other trauma. 

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Jack Reacher is back.

In Past Tense (Delacorte Press, 2018, 382 pages), Lee Child, author of 21 novels about Jack Reacher, plus a collection of short stories, drops the wandering hero into the town where Reacher’s father was born and raised. Reacher has never visited Laconia, New Hampshire, and hopes to see where his deceased father came of age, believing some familiarity with the town might allow him insights into his family’s history. 

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“What we have here is failure to communicate.”

So says The Captain, the warden of a prison, in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” after he knocks Luke down a hill for smart-mouthing him.

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July 20, 1969.

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped to the moon’s surface while Michael Collins flew above them in lunar orbit. About 650 million people worldwide watched the live event on television. Millions of others listened to it on their radios or followed the progress of the astronauts in their newspapers. Those of us who watched will never forget where we were when those grainy images of human beings on the moon’s surface flickered on our television screens.

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Spring-cleaning.

Those two words conjure up images of washing windows, storing away the winter clothes, and carting off odds-and-ends to the Salvation Army.

For me, spring-cleaning means attacking stacks of books, piles of papers, and a platoon of bookshelves in whose dust I could write sonnets with my fingertips.

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Mrs. Patrick Campbell, famed Victorian actress, was renowned for her sharp wit. On hearing about a sexual relationship between two contemporaries, she supposedly remarked, “My dear, I don’t care what they do, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”

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Yes!

Yes! YES! YES!

Lest you think I am wallowing in some bed of literoticism or celebrating Molly Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses, let me clarify. I am celebrating the return of one of the great bibliophiles of our age to the public square, by which I mean the world of print. It’s an occasion that calls for little black dresses and tuxedos, a platter of Brie and baguettes, fireworks, some lively chamber music, magnums of champagne, and hands raw with applause.

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Here are two books about books, one aimed at amusement, the other at instruction. Or so they were written and published. Personally, I found them both amusing and instructive.

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Much is made these days of “snowflakes,” slang for some of our young people. One online source defines snowflakes as individuals with “an inflated sense of uniqueness, an unwarranted sense of entitlement, or are over-emotional, easily offended, and unable to deal with opposing opinions.” Some commentators even speak of a “Snowflake Generation.”

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Valentine’s Day is almost here, and I have fallen in love. Again.

Three years ago, Nina George entranced me with her novel The Little Paris Bookshop. Ah, Nina, Nina, Nina: she won my heart, and I still open that fine tale once a month or so, rereading certain passages and always delighted by her romantic take on life and the ways of the human heart. 

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When someone dies, we look for words to assuage our grief and the grief of others. We deliver eulogies, we offer prayers, we console those left behind, we sing hymns or other songs beloved by the deceased, we read from various books — the Bible, poems, bits and pieces of prose — to send the departed one into the earth. Often, too, we gather after the funeral for food and drink, and recollect our dead by sharing memories of their deeds and words while they still lived.

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I used to teach seminars in composition, history, literature, and Latin to homeschool students. One day a bright young man who later entered Brown University asked me what I thought of the Harry Potter books.

“My kids loved them,” I replied.

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My online dictionary defines hagiography as “the writing of the lives of the saints, adulatory writing about another person, or biography that idealizes another person.” The dictionary adds that the last two terms are “derogatory.”

While reading Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams Press, 2018, 405 pages), that word kept coming to mind. Sometimes it seems Mr. Rogers, the host of television’s Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, floats off these pages wearing a halo and wings, strumming a harp and singing “It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.” Was Maxwell King, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, former CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, and one-time director of the Fred Rogers’ Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, mesmerized by Rodgers? Could a nationally known figure, a star, really be this kind?

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Let’s start the new year with some old books.

We begin with two suppositions.

First, you are a good person who abides by a moral code. Whatever its source, this code serves as your set of principles, an ethical standard you cannot violate without damaging your soul. The code is your Ten Commandments, your Constitution, the offering on the high altar of all that you hold true and good.

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So many books, so little time.

Many booklovers may have uttered that old saw with a sigh, but in my case these words have never been truer. On my spare desk a stack of books sits waiting for review, three more wave to me from a bedside stand, and two are calling to me from the steps leading from my apartment to the upstairs. Here are books from three different libraries, books sent in the mail for review, books picked up from the library sale. In addition, I am still working my way through Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, trying to read at least half an hour every day in order to finish the 11-volume series by the end of the year.

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When I was teaching homeschool students in AP Literature, I would on occasion ask them to write a sonnet. The first time I did so, I promised to write a sonnet with them. The writing of that sonnet hooked me, and I eventually composed around 30 such poems. Below is one of them, “To My Errant Cousins.” Robert Frost, who famously said that free verse is like playing tennis without a net, provided my inspiration.

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Fierce. Honest. Libertarian. 

Those are just three of the reasons why author and professor Camille Paglia has fascinated me for years. She speaks her own mind, uses logic rather than histrionics to make her arguments, and is unafraid of blowback from her critics. Though a lifelong Democrat and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, she refused to vote for Hilary Clinton, regarding her as a “liar.” She has called into question climate change, despises political correctness, rejects the postmodernism that has wormed its way into our universities, and has taken to task our current obsession with transgender issues.

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The writers who lived and practiced their art between the two world wars of the twentieth century continue to exert a powerful pull on today’s imagination. Woody Allen’s film “Midnight In Paris,” which include a dozen or more celebrities of 1920s Paris; “Genius,” the movie about Thomas Wolfe, reviewed earlier this year in The Smoky Mountain News; the biographies devoted to such figures as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all reveal a continued infatuation with that era.

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So there I was on a Wednesday afternoon in October in one of my favorite spots in town: the public library. I’m running my eyes along the “New Books: Nonfiction” shelves when the cookbooks grab my attention.

Now, I myself own several cookbooks: a Betty Crocker that has seen much better days and opens automatically to the recipe for quiche; The Pat Conroy Cookbook, probably my favorite, not because of the recipes, but because of Conroy’s zest for food and anecdotes about his life; A Man, A Plan, A Can, which I recommend to anyone who doesn’t know a spatula from a ladle; a much-stained Moosewood Cookbook; and several others. I enjoy cooking on occasion, as long as the recipes are simple and forgiving, meaning that if I put too much sauce in the lasagna or not enough spices in the chicken soup, the food will still be edible.

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Want to know why Donald Trump won the 2016 election in one of the most stunning upsets in American history?

Some blame Russian meddling. Some blame Hilary Clinton for running a bad campaign. Some may blame the increasingly radical politics and tactics of certain Democrats.

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In 2015, online blogger Amanda Russo posted a humorous piece “Why Halloween Is Actually A Pretty Weird Holiday.” As Russo says, this is the day we encourage our kids to take candy from strangers, long a no-no taught by generations of parents to their children. We threaten our neighbors with “Trick or Treat.” We spend a good chunk of change to give away treats, often to people we don’t know. We erect cemeteries in our front yards, carve pumpkins into spooky faces, and hang plastic skeletons from the trees. We sometimes terrorize our family and friends by putting on horrific masks, hiding, and then springing out at them. 

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Time to move away from novels and histories, and look inside some general gift books.

First up is How Psychology Works: Applied Psychology Visually Explained (Penguin Random House, 2018, 256 pages). Here is a compendium of various disorders, advice, and information about such topics as forensic psychology, safety in the community, nationalism, and performance anxiety.  Illustrations on every page, the use of statistics, clear talk about such topics as binge-eating, tics, and sleep disorders, explanations regarding the symptoms and treatments of dozens of afflictions: this is a marvelous collection.

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So many books, so little time.

Many booklovers may have uttered that old saw with a sigh, but in my case these words have never been truer. On my spare desk a stack of books sits waiting for review, three more wave to me from a bedside stand, and two are calling to me from the steps leading from my apartment to the upstairs. Here are books from three different libraries, books sent in the mail for review, books picked up from the library sale. In addition, I am still working my way through Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, trying to read at least half an hour every day in order to finish the 11 volume series by the end of the year.

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In the last 75 years, the landscape and the culture of the Appalachian South have undergone enormous change.

Take the town in which I live. Just 16 years ago, this town offered two large grocery stores, a K-Mart, and of course numerous other small, family-owned shops. That was the extent of choices for shoppers. The nearby motels wore that look of seedy disrepair found in so many such establishments built in the 1950s. The town boosted 10 Seven-Elevens, but had few restaurants other than the usual fast food places. By their dress and accents, many of the people in the stores and on the streets were easily identifiable as natives, born and bred in these hills.

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English farmwife and mother Tina Hopgood writes to Professor P.V. Glob. The professor had long ago dedicated his book, The Bog People, to a group of schoolgirls, including Tina, who had written him questions about his discovery of the remains of the prehistoric Tollund Man. Though 40 years have passed since Professor Glob published his book, Tina writes to him on the off chance that he may yet be alive. Behind the words of her letter, self-confessedly incoherent, lie large questions: Have I lived a life worth living? What is my connection to the past? Have I buried myself in a bog?

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When I taught homeschool seminars in Latin, history, and literature in Asheville, I would wait for a cold spell in February and then email my students to come to class dressed for the weather. On their arrival I would lead them outside and hold class for half an hour beneath gray skies and temperatures well below freezing. With any luck we might even find some bits of falling snow. The students would stand shivering in the cold — some of the boys apparently considered t-shirts and shorts appropriate winter clothing — and then we’d tromp back into the classroom.

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Years ago, my wife and I belonged to a Waynesville book club in which a couple would act as host every month and select the book for discussion. Once when our turn rolled around I chose Anne Tyler’s Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant. The other members seemed to enjoy Tyler’s novel, though at one point one of the women mentioned that she thought Tyler’s characters were too eccentric.

“But aren’t we all eccentric?” I asked.

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Two days ago, I finished reading Jon Hassler’s Rookery Blues (Ballantine Books, 1995, 485 pages). Hassler focuses his novel on the lives of professors and administrators at a small state college in Minnesota. One faculty member, a former worker in the oil fields, tries to organize a faculty strike. Two more become acquainted through playing music and fall in love. Another, a shy pianist dominated by his mother, finds fulfillment in a faculty band playing blues and jazz. A budding novelist has no talent for teaching.

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About 15 years ago, I was listening to a female critic discussing the seasons’ upcoming movies. When the moderator mentioned Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the critic laughed and said, a little bitterly, “Well, we’ll all have our knives out for that one.”

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Over the past few decades, our society has pushed for more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students. Countries like China and India have far outstripped America and Western Europe in the number of graduates they have produced in these fields. Some observers of future trends fear that that this lack of engineers and scientists will have negative repercussions on our technology and our living standards. 

These concerns are undoubtedly valid and worthy of our consideration, and we should encourage young people to enter these fields of study if they find satisfaction in those endeavors. 

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When we are in school, we consider ourselves fortunate when we find ourselves in the company of inspiring teachers. We value them at the time, and if they are very good, then they stay with us for the rest of our lives. We may not remember much of what they taught us, but their example can serve to inspire us, to guide us in our lives. We connect with them in the classroom, and that connection, brought about by some magic we can never quite figure out, remains long after we have left behind the world of textbooks and exams.

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Oscar P. Fitzgerald’s American Furniture: 1650 to the Present (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, 621 pages) is a door-stopper book, a behemoth with well over a thousand photographs, some in color, most black-and-white, and as promised by the title, a history of American furniture and craftsmanship since the time of the thirteen colonies.

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The last 10 days have brought some broad swatches of time for reading.

Two novels have traveled from the library, visited my fingers and eyes, and returned to their comrades on the shelves. Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization — I’ve just finished Volume VI: The Reformation — keeps me out of trouble for 30 minutes a day, and old friends like Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words, Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, and Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life offer, as a Coca-Cola ad once put it, “the pause that refreshes.” 

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Most of us, of whatever age, by a simple act of memory and willpower can revisit distant summers in our imagination and discover there the bright, shining pleasures of being a child. Trips to the beach, recreating Civil War battles in the woods surrounding my house, playing badminton and roll-the-bat in our side yard: these will remain a part of my interior landscape until death or dementia erases them along with the rest of me.

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On my last visit to the public library, I picked up Kathryn Sermak’s Miss D & Me: Life With The Invincible Bette Davis (Hachette Books, 2017, 278 pages). Why this book? I have no idea. I was never a fan of Bette Davis, though I will say “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” left me shaken at the age of 12. Though I’ve only seen the film twice, scenes from that tale of deception and horror remain vivid in my mind. (For my younger readers, Bette Davis was a film star from the 1930s to the 1980s and twice won the Academy Award for Best Actress.)

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Can there be a sadder sight than a man in his sixties sitting in a garden with tears dribbling down his cheeks?

But there I was on a gorgeous morning in June, sitting in a chair on the patio of my daughter’s house, blinking through a misty saline prism and leaking water like a broken spigot.

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In Appalachia and the foothills and into the surrounding lands, we find log cabins — southern and rustic — constructed of hand-felled and -hewn logs from the rocky ridges.

— James T. Farmer III, “Foreword,” The Southern Rustic Cabin

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Sometimes a writer so imaginatively recreates a place and a people that the book becomes a time machine, sweeping us into the past so effectively that when we finish reading the last page we feel as if we truly have breathed the air of a different century.

In If The Creek Don’t Rise (Sourcebooks, 2017, 305 pages), Leah Weiss takes on one such ride into the recent past.

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For 16 years, I have made several annual trips between Western North Carolina and Front Royal, Virginia, a town located about 70 miles west of D.C. on I-66. My children all graduated from a small college in this town, and three of them have settled here. Over the years, I have come to know every rest stop, every exit, and many of the gas stations and fast food joints along I-81. I also appreciate beauty in this part of Appalachia, the mountains around Johnson City, the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, the austere landscape in winter and the spectacular Irish-green fields and forests of late spring.

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Where do I start?

What can I say of that young man whose wife had left him and who spent a month in 1975 in a shabby apartment in Storrs, Connecticut, reading Thomas Wolfe long into the night and finding hope and solace in his words?

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Time to have some fun.

And Adultolescence (Keywords Press, 2017, 248 pages) is just the place to go for that fun.

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Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! has become as much a fixture of graduations as a bride’s white dress at a wedding. Commencement speakers quote from it; relatives give the book as a gift; parents read the book aloud to their high school and college graduates.

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In Elizabethan England, the vast majority of the population drank alcohol rather than unclean water, consuming up to a gallon of ale, beer, and wine every day. In his biography on Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess gives a compelling, humorous account of how so many of London’s population must have been tipsy by noon.

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Spring cleaning.

When we hear those words, we think of washing windows and dusting neglected baseboards, de-cluttering closets, going through those boxes in the attic, deep cleaning the kitchen, tidying the basement, and polishing up furniture in the living room and study. 

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“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill

By hell, I mean neither a trivial bad-hair day nor that bleak circle of earthly hell reserved to the clinically depressed, a condition treated these days with medication and counseling. No — by hell I intend that protracted war in which you are a lone soldier and the forces arrayed against you are as dark and insidious as Mordor’s Orcs. 

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“What do women want?”

Sigmund Freud’s famous question crosses the lips of most men at one time or another. Goaded by desire, love, frustration, or failure, we open our investigation, searching for clues to the conundrums of womanhood, some fingerprint, some bit of DNA, that will unveil the mysteries of the female heart and mind. Often, however, our sleuthing leads only to greater confusion. Like Churchill’s Russia, the female of the species remains for many men “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

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“History is a field of human intentions, deeds, acts. We need to look a little more closely at this field of human intention: for upon it hangs, as if by a silver thread, the concept of the Living Being.”

In Stewards of History: A Study of the Nature of a Moral Deed (RoseDog Books, 2012, 126 pages), Caryl Johnston, author of the above passage, does indeed “look a little more closely” at history. She begins with one of her ancestors, Virginia General John Hartwell Cocke, friend of Thomas Jefferson and one of the founders of the University of Virginia. For most of his life, Cocke called for the emancipation of slaves and sought ways to free his own servants, conducting for a time an experiment in Alabama in which he and others would teach slaves the rudiments of reading and writing and how to make their way in the world before attaining freedom.

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Time for spring-cleaning. 

The basement apartment in which I live could use a deep cleaning: dusting, washing, vacuuming. It’s tidy enough — chaos and I were never friends — but stacks of papers need sorting, bookcases beg to see their occupants removed and the shelves rubbed down with a mixture of Pine-Sol and water, and the dusty, spider-webbed eaves cry out for an invasion from the shop-vac and dust mop. 

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It was April 5, 1936, Palm Sunday, about nine o’clock in the evening. People were tidying up their kitchens, strolling home from church services, sitting in the local movie theaters, listening to their radios, talking to their neighbors. Just another ordinary spring evening. 

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What’s in a name?

In You Are A Badass: How To Stop Doubting Your Greatness And Start Living An Awesome Life (Running Press, 2013, 254 pages), Jen Sincero urges readers to leave behind mediocrity, change their desires into decisions, and earn more money in the bargain. According to the advertisement on the book’s cover, You Are A Badass was a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller with over 1 million copies sold.

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