Jeff Minick

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bookIn the Prologue to Norman Mailer: A Double Life (978-1-4391-5019-1, 2013, $40), biographer J. Michael Lennon writes that “Mailer’s desire for fame, and his distaste for it, never abated over his long career. Nor did his ability to determine how he might write about his current situation, whatever it might be. It became a reflex.”

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bookFour years ago in November, a schoolteacher in Knoxville asked her English class to write a composition on family dinner together. With two exceptions, the class — a racially mixed, lower income group of students — hooted at her in derision.

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bookIn Voyage To Alpha Centauri (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-832-1), Michael O’Brien, Canadian writer and painter, gives us a grand tale of a space voyage to Alpha Centauri, the star closest to our own solar system. Voyage puts us on board the Kosmos, an enormous space vessel carrying more than 600 people: scientists, technicians, pilots, workers in the ship’s restaurants, janitors. 

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bookThe new year is a time when many people, dissatisfied with some condition of their lives, resolve to make changes. Often these attempted transformations involve shedding weight or unwanted habits like smoking or drinking. Depending on all sorts of variables — the will power of the individual, support given or denied, circumstances beyond our control — we either keep the resolution and make an adjustment to our style of living, or we fail in our attempts and fall flat on our faces.

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op frEach new year brings out the list-makers, pundits and critics who catalogue everything from the year’s best movies, books, and music to predictions regarding politics and the economy for the next 12 months. With the exception of composing my own personal lists from the past year — “Ten Things I Would Have Done Differently” would be easily written — I lack the qualifications to compose any sort of compendium, including one for books, for 2013.

Yet I do find myself compelled to make a list of favorite books. Several readers of this column, and many of my students, have over the last years asked for such a list, and I would send them three or four recommendations, selections often plunked down without any real effort or thought. Having pondered the matter this week before the new year, I found myself wondering what I would put on such a list if I was, say, limited to a small shelf of favorite books.

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bookThe times in which we live may someday be celebrated for our advancements in medicine, technology and education, but surely some future historian will designate our voluble times as the Age of Revelation.

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bookI was never a fan of drone missiles. Until now, I had always regarded drones as killing machines or mechanical spies. Their deployment by the military to eradicate enemies associated with terrorism does reduce our own casualties to zero, but during these same strikes drones too often murder innocent people, including women and children.

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bookBy Joe Ecclesia

My name is Joe Ecclesia, and I have a bone the size of an elephant’s thigh to pick with one of your reviewers, Jeff Minick.

For 12 years or so, I have known Mr. Minick. We’ve shared many meals, spilled some wine together, had some laughs.

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bookIn What I Came To Tell You (Egmont Publishers, ISBN 9781606844335, $16.99), local author Tommy Hayes brings us the story of 12-year-old Grover Johnston, his family and his friends. 

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bookBook reviews shouldn’t begin with dedications. But with Strings Attached (ISBN 978-1-4013-2466-7, $24.99) being the book under review, I feel compelled to commence by issuing a few long-overdue honorifics:

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bookGoogle books on parenting, and you will find thousands — tens of thousands — of titles. There are books on parenting boys, books on parenting girls, books on parenting toddlers, adolescents, and teens, books on parenting the chubby and the thin, books on parenting every sort of child under the sun. 

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bookJim Harrison is an American phenomenon. Not only has he written more than 30 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction — the last category includes a fine cookbook, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, and a memoir, Off to the Side, which is a worthwhile account of his triumphs and failures in life — but he has, during all these years of writing, maintained a standard of excellence rare among his contemporaries. His books are indelibly marked by his style, which we will examine briefly below, and by certain themes: outsiders, love between men and women, failure, and America’s changing landscape and values. 

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bookAn online visit reveals hundreds of books written on hiking the Appalachian Trail. These range from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which is the witty account of a man who hiked part of the trail, to Bill Walker’s SkyWalker: Close Encounters of the Appalachian Trail, in which the author gives us vivid and humorous portraits of some of his fellow trekkers, to Paul Stutzman’s Hiking Through, which tells of the author’s quest for peace and freedom on the Trail. There are at least a score of books offering practical advice on how to hike the Trail; there are even a few that deal solely with preparations for the hike. 

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bookIn Light of the World (ISBN 978-1-4767-1076-1, $27.99), James Lee Burke once again gives readers writing cut and polished like a fine diamond. Unfortunately, what he actually has to say and the story he has to tell is so flawed that if this novel were a diamond, the plot and most of the characters would be ground into dust and used for manufacturing.

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bookFor most students, parents, and teachers, autumn rather than spring is the season of budding growth, new life, and hope.

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bookEvery once in a while, we encounter a situation so strange and so far removed from the natural order of things that we label the event a “miracle.” (In my own case, this would involve getting eight straight hours of sleep in a single night.) The unexplained healing of some horrific, normally fatal illness; synchronistic convergences so strange that they go far past mere coincidence; the appearance of some apparition — a deceased relative, an angel, the Virgin Mary — bearing private, detailed and accurate information to a human recipient: these are some of the occasions which startle us into breaking out the concept of a miracle to explain or at least acknowledge the unexplainable. 

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bookOn June 24, 1993, David Gelernter, then an associate professor of computer science at Yale University, opened a package in his office that exploded, tearing off most of his right hand and damaging his hearing and eyesight. Gelernter, who had written extensively about computer usage and was a frequent critic of our use of them, was ironically one more victim of the Unabomber, who detested technology.

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bookPriscille Sibley’s The Promise of Stardust (ISBN 978-0-06-219417-6, 399 pages, $15.99) is a fine first novel by a woman who works as a neonatal intensive care nurse. This fact regarding Sibley is important, as she brings her knowledge of medicine and her experience in life-threatening situations to the pages of her book.

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While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West From Within by Bruce Bawer. Doubleday, 2006. 256 pages — $23.95

"If every young European could spend a year living with an American family and attending an American school, all the journalists and politicians in the world wouldn’t be able to twist their awareness of the reality of America — and of American liberal democracy — into an ugly cartoon. And the more America-friendly Europeans are, the more inclined they’ll be to behave like Americans in the ways that count — that is, to eschew appeasement and stand up for freedom. But it may already be too late for such remedies. Europe is steadily committing suicide, and perhaps all we can do is look on in horror."

— Bruce Bawer in While Europe Slept

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For many people, autumn means more than colorful leaves and blue, crisp days. For them fall is, like spring, a time for cleaning, a time for putting the house in order for the winter. Homeowners clean the dead grass off the mower before storing it; they repair the storm windows; they clean out the gutters; they break out blankets and winter coats — and wistfully put away the swimming suits and shorts until next year.

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Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books, 2006. 320 pages.


Beginning a new occupation — whether as a grocery store cashier or a police officer, a teacher or a house painter — exposes us to a different world, a world with its own special codes, techniques, and jargon.

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Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad by Lorenzo Vidino. Prometheus Books, 2005. 403 pages.


The Democrats now own the Congress.

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bookThirty some years ago, my wife and I announced to my mother that we were expecting our first child. After giving her enthusiastic congratulations, my mother said to me, “Well, having a baby will certainly bring some big changes into your life.”

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bookWe Americans like to sidle around the truth nowadays, which we do by labeling ourselves relativists. Like Pontius Pilate, we ask “What is truth?” with the implication being that truth exists only in the eye of the beholder. In the political realm, this preference for opinion rather than facts means that many of us debate our positions by covering our ears, closing our eyes, and shouting at one another.

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bookReviewers of Philipp Meyer’s new novel, The Son (ISBN 978-0-06-212039-7, 561 pages, $27.99) have compared his epic story of the West to books as varied as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Blood Meridian, and Lonesome Dove. His account of Texas from its founding as a republic to the late twentieth century does have elements of all three books — Marquez’s blend of fantasy and realism, the violence and sometimes stark prose of Cormac MacCarthy, the sweep and spread of Larry McMurtry’s writing — but these comparisons may confuse as much as elucidate the reader. Meyer is very much his own man in this fine book.

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bookIn The Bridge (ISBN 978-1-4516-4701-3, $19.99), Karen Kingsbury treats readers to a tale of romance and tribulation centered on a bookstore in Franklin, Tenn. Molly Allen and Ryan Kelly meet at Nashville’s Belmont University, where they become best friends.

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bookHere are the true stories of some young people, all of them still under the age of 35. For the sake of anonymity, we will call the young people Lisa and Mike, Kevin and Laura, Patrick and Emily, and Michael (unmarried).

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The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Penguin - 6th edition, 2006. 432 pages

Of course, we cannot all read aloud with the same success as Charles Dickens, who brought not only Macready but entire audiences to outbursts of tears and laughter.

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Militant Islam in America by Marshall Frank. Fortis Books, 2006. 198 pages.

This morning (Dec. 9), I sat down to write my next review for this paper. Before writing, I often scout out several familiar Web sites while I think about what I want to say in the review.

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I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. Gotham, 2006. 208 pages.

Dear Chris,

Your questions about manhood and manliness following your first semester at the university, questions raised in the light of discussions both inside and outside the classroom, intrigued me. You asked particularly about recent books that might address this subject.

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“I never trusted happiness,” Robert Duvall says in “Tender Mercies.” I have begun to feel the same way about vacations.

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The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days that Changed the Nation by Howard Means. Harcourt, 2006. 304 pages

Americans are often of two minds in regard to history. Henry Ford once famously proclaimed that “History is bunk,” a sentiment with which many of his fellow citizens apparently agree.

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Snow and falling temperatures — we’ve had little of the former this winter, and some of the latter — provide for book lovers the same pleasures as the sand and sun at the beach. Both meteorological extremes grant their own opportunities for fun and relaxation, but in both instances there comes a time when the bibliophile begins to look longingly for a comfortable seat, a good light, an appropriate drink, and a book.

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Ludie’s Life by Cynthia Rylant. Harcourt Children's Books, 2006. 128 pages.

Sometimes bad things come in small packages.

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Among Christians, C.S. Lewis has a reputation that runs in several directions. As the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and a shelf of other novels, apologetic works, and Renaissance studies, Lewis is regarded by many Christians as “Saint Jack,” the greatest of modern Christian apologists whose biography itself seems a study in redemption and grace.

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H.W. Crocker’s Don’t Tread On Me: A 400-Year History of America at War, from Indian Fighting to Terrorist Hunting gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly versions of popular history.

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The 1920s were a golden age for American fiction and poetry. F. Scott Fizgerald helped give the decade its name — the Jazz Age — and another writer, Thomas Wolfe, capped off the decade with his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel.

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Relentless Enemies: Lions and Buffalo by Dereck and Beverly Joubert. National Geographic, 2006. 176 pages.

Four years ago, my family visited the Knoxville Zoo. It was February, and the cool weather seemed to make the animals unusually active, particularly the big cats.

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Cornbread Nation 2 by Lolis Eric Elie. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

In the last 50 years, home cooking has given way to frozen meals, microwaves, and fast foods. Restaurants in many cities are jammed, even on weekdays, and busy families often find it simpler to toss supper into the microwave than to make time for real cooking.

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First, the tomatoes. Then the applause.

Rob Neufeld’s Mountains, Heroes & Hootnoggers: A Popular History of Western North Carolina (The History Press, ISBN 978-1-59629-183-6, $19.95) is not, as its title suggests, a popular history of Western North Carolina, but is instead a collection of anecdotes and sketches, arranged in a loose chronology, about people and events in these mountains.

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Tomato plants

If there’s one food that always tastes better fresh from the garden than bought at the store, it is surely the humble tomato. An ingredient for everything from spaghetti sauce to salsa, tomatoes are to a gardener what mom and apple pie are to a patriot.

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First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War by Joan E. Cashin. Belknap Press, 2006.

Civil wars are marked by a bitterness and a bloodlust that go beyond their conventional counterparts. The vicious fighting in Iraq serves as only one more example of the brutality of such a war. The English Civil War, the twentieth century wars between Communists and their opposition in Russia, China, and Vietnam, the Spanish Civil War: all illustrate the terrible carnage derived when citizens from the same country fight among themselves.

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bookIn The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, and Throttle Your Inner Child (ISBN 0-465-05486-2), renowned neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall turns a jaundiced eye to the world of self-help books.

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bookHere they are, books yammering for review: a hillock of books on the floor by the desk; more books stacked on the desk itself, squeezed between a basket of spectacles and a coffee cup filled with pens and pencils, the cup itself bearing Jefferson’s remark, “I cannot live without books;” two more books for review keeping company in the trunk of my car; a lone rider of a book on the arm of the sofa by the porch door.

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book“Bookshops are magic.”

This quotation, buried in the middle of Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book (ISBN 978-1-250-01063-6, $24.99), could serve as the banner for this wonderful account of a used bookstore and the community in which it came to life.

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bookMost booklovers have suffered that “Oh, no” moment when a friend, with nothing but the best of intentions, presses an unfamiliar book into their hands with the words, “Read this — you’ll love it.” We receive the book with a smile on our lips but black foreboding in our hearts. We may love this gift, we may hate it — the odds, from my own experience, favor the latter five to one — but either way we are compelled to read it.

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bookWe Americans sometimes forget how new we are to the history of the world.

Here in Western North Carolina, for example, we live like other Americans. We drive cars on expressways, live in towns and cities, buy or build homes and apartments equipped with electricity and running water, erect schools, churches, and fast-food restaurants, build shopping malls, buy meat, vegetables and milk from large grocery stores, vacation at the coast or overseas, gather local information from papers like The Smoky Mountain News, and commune with the world via the internet and television.

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bookSince the Second World War, Americans have lived by the old dictum that only the dead have seen the end of war. For almost 70 years we have served as the world’s policeman, opposing the Soviet Union in a cold war, communism in Korea and Vietnam in hot wars, and a variety of fanatics, terrorists, and dictators in wars hot and cold. We fought to a stalemate in Korea, lost in Vietnam, won the Cold War, and won — at least militarily — the battles of the Middle East. Our armed services remain the most battle-tested in the world, and we spend far more on these services than any other country. (A good part of this spending, incidentally, is for veterans’ entitlements). 

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bookWilliam Manchester, author of a number of best-selling books, including The Death of A President, American Caesar, and Goodbye, Darkness, spent nearly 30 years writing a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Still a young man when I read the first volume, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, in 1984, I was entranced by his account not only of Churchill but also of the Victorian Age into which he had been born and the Edwardian Era in which he won his first real measure of fame. Manchester gave me and thousands of other readers more than the man: he recreated the world in which Winston Churchill had so exuberantly lived.

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bookSince reading Ben Wattenberg’s The Birth Dearth 25 years ago, the subject of demography has fascinated me. This past week I finished Jonathan Last’s What To Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (ISBN 978-1-59403-641-5, $23.99), a look at declining fertility rates in the United States and around the world. As libertarian humorist P.J. O’Rourke quipped, Jonathan Last’s book is “a powerful argument that the only thing worse than having children is not having them.”

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