Jeff Minick

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said to Ernest Hemingway, to which Hemingway supposedly replied: “Yes, Scott, they have more money.”

After getting through the final pages of Heidi Schnakenberg’s Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon (ISBN 978-1-59995-103-4, $23.99), a reader might agree with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and add a third observation that the rich also possess the capacity to lead lives as filled with ennui, dissolution and misery as the poorest of the poor.

R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. was the son of R.J. Reynolds, the founder of the Reynolds Tobacco Company — which remains the number-two producer of tobacco in the world today — and inventor of the once-ubiquitous Camel cigarette. After establishing his tobacco business in Winston-Salem in the years following the Civil War, Reynolds allied himself with the Moravians, whose ancestors had founded Salem and who were themselves astute businessmen and bankers, and so began his climb to financial success.

His business sense and hard work led to the establishment of Reynolds Tobacco as the chief enterprise in Winston-Salem — a benevolent company beloved by most of its employees, the major contributor to the city’s well-being, the chief force in the move of Wake Forest University from Wake Forest to Winston, and the primary philanthropist behind a dozen major charities in the Piedmont area.

R.J. Reynolds married late in life, however — he was 55 when he proposed to his 25-year-old cousin Katherine — and though he managed to impart some of his wisdom regarding his complex of enterprises to his first son, he died when Dick was only 13 years old. Dick Reynolds would always look back on these years when he was growing up in Winston-Salem, first in the big house on Fifth Avenue and then on the estate built by his mother, Reynolda, property which now serves as a public park and arts center for the city, as idyllic, quite possibly the best years of his life.

In the years following his father’s death, Reynolds flung himself into a dozen different undertakings. The new airplanes fascinated him, and he was one of the fathers of American aviation, having his pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright; later he helped develop both Delta and Eastern Airlines. He became an acclaimed sailor and yachtsman, participating in international races and escaping to the sea whenever he faced personal difficulties ashore. He served for a time as the Treasurer of the Democratic Party and as mayor of Winston-Salem. He helped fund and operate numerous charities, invested heavily, and made a fortune through those investments.

Yet Reynolds was also a secretive man who frequently disappeared from his friends and family for days on end, a playboy who loved the exotic and who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal whims, a father who rarely saw any of his children, a hypochondriac, and a drunkard.

This last flaw in particular cost him dearly throughout his life. While still a young man, he was driving drunk in England when he struck a man who later died at the hospital, a crime of manslaughter for which Reynolds spent some time in an English jail. Throughout his life — Kid Carolina could well be subtitled “The Biography of a Booze-Hound” — Reynolds was rarely without a drink, and it was his bibulous judgment that no doubt accounts for his failed marriages, his inability to involve himself with his children, his arguments with family and friends, and his failure to follow in his father‘s footsteps.

Though Schnakenberg does a fine job of showing us the boyhood and early life of Reynolds, and then later takes readers carefully through the famous trial that resulted from his mysterious death — some family members still hold that he was murdered by his fourth and last wife Annemarie, though Shnakenberg herself rejects this possibility — Kid Carolina is an uneven book. Schnakenberg several times tell us, for example, that the people of Winston-Salem regarded Dick Reynolds with great love, yet with the exception of her account of his run for mayor, she never really shows us how Reynolds managed to earn this admiration or gives us any solid evidence that such admiration existed. The middle part of the book poses a rather dull figure who seems on every page either to have passed out or to have caused some sort of drunken commotion. Often, too, the author takes great liberties with circumstances, creating conversations and engaging in unanswerable speculation about the motives of Reynolds, his wives, and his acquaintances.

In the epilogue of this biography, Schnakenberg writes in regard to the people who knew Reynolds or are related to him that “… in their hearts and minds, the unforgettable spirit of R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. — aka Kid Carolina — lives on.” Given the evidence of the book itself, we might nonetheless hope that Reynolds’ story might be better served up to the present generation as a cautionary tale of a man with too much money and too little backbone.

 

Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon by Heidi Schnakenberg. Center Street, 2010. 352 pages.

Comment

In her previous novels — two of which, Coming Back To Me and Girls In Trouble, have been reviewed here — Caroline Leavitt showed an exquisite talent for bringing her characters alive on the page. These novels were marked by Leavitt’s tough love for her characters, her ability to find and examine both the laughter and the tears that exist in ordinary people, and her willingness to take chances, to let the characters go their own way rather than follow the path of the predictable or even the desirable.

In her latest novel, Pictures of You (ISBN 978-1-56512-631-2, $13.95), Leavitt gives us one of her best stories yet, a book which reminds us that the best fictions not only entertain but also lead us to ponder the ideas of love, happiness, and fate.   

Sam Nash, a sensitive fourth-grader, his father Charlie, a builder on Cape Cod, and Isabelle Stein, a photographer running away from the husband who has deserted her: all three find themselves emotionally wrecked by the automobile accident that leaves April, Charlie’s wife and Sam’s mother, dead. Isabelle, the driver of the car that killed April, cannot find a way to absolve herself from guilt, though the accident was in no way her fault. Charlie, who is haunted by his wife’s mysterious death to the point of hiring a detective to figure out her motives for leaving home that day — why was she standing in a fog on a road so far from home with her car facing the wrong way? Why had she packed a suitcase? — becomes so embroiled in grief by his loss that he can scarcely function at work or as a father to Sam.

Indeed, Leavitt describes the struggles of Isabelle and Charlie with such insight and sympathy that those who have suffered the death of a loved one or have unwittingly brought pain to others may well feel as if the author was describing their own interior state.

Through Charlie and Isabelle we see the limits of counsel offered by others in times of wrenching crises. Both Charlie and Isabelle also have difficulty relating to their parents, who are of little help to them in their pain, and though both are surrounded by a fine collection of friends, these too lack the power to allay their grief. In one poignant passage, which takes place in a bookstore shortly after she has met Charlie and Sam, Isabelle stands in the self-help section wondering what might eventually heal her anguish:

“There were courses in how to make miracles in your life, but the one she wished for — that the accident had never taken place — was an impossible one, and she didn’t think there were any more miracles for her. She couldn’t drive anymore. Her husband had impregnated his lover and her marriage was finished. She was in a dead-end job, living in a place she didn’t like, and she couldn’t leave because she was obsessed with Charlie and his son. Were there any books that could help her with that?”

It is Sam, sweet innocent Sam, who eventually brings Isabelle and Charlie together, and who sets off the forces that will lead them toward healing and a different sort of agony. Sam, who witnessed the accident, saw Isabelle dressed in white standing in the fog and the wreckage, and he becomes convinced that she is an angel, a guardian and a messenger possessed of some power to put him in touch with his mother. Sam begins reading books about angels, and on seeing Isabelle one day, follows her home in the hope of befriending her and of speaking then with April. At the same time, still haunted by this tragedy, Isabelle herself has also begun peeking into the lives of the Nash family, reading about Charlie and his work in an article on the internet, and secretively watching Sam from a distance. Through her meeting with Sam, she soon finds herself growing attached to him and to Charlie, while at the same time facing an opportunity to leave the Cape and attend a photography school in Manhattan.

To say more will spoil the ending of this novel. It is sufficient to note that the final pages of Pictures of You may not satisfy all its readers — a circumstance that is, oddly enough, highly satisfying. Carolina Leavitt knows that life doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package, and she is too fine and honest a storyteller to wrap up Pictures of You that way. By giving this story the long, hard thoughts that it deserves — Sam, Isabelle, and Charlie stay with us long after we have finished the last page — we will eventually come to agree with her.

Pictures of You is a fine novel for book club discussions, for it creates a man, a woman, and a child who are as real and immediate to us as our neighbors — and ourselves, for that matter. More importantly, Pictures of You with its clear insights, its unlocking of the human heart, and its examination of death, grief, and love, offers readers both triage and a hope for recovery from their own disasters, should they be in need of such help in their own lives.

Known for its list of excellent fiction, Algonquin Press had done itself proud in publishing Pictures of You. The book will be available in stores and on the internet on Jan. 25. Highly recommended.

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

 

Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin Books, 2011. 336 pages.

Comment

For many people, Thanksgiving is a holiday that delivers on its promises. The table sags beneath platters of ham and turkey, bowls of mashed potatoes and yams, green bean casseroles, hot bread, and pies. Family and old friends gather together to swap lies, damn lies, and statistics, the last most often having to do with sports stats and personal poundage. Afternoon naps are the order of the day, with the promise that televised football games and vintage movies will greet us when we groggily wake for one more glass of sparkling cider or another slice of pecan pie.

And then there is the shopping.

Even in a recession, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the shopping season just as surely as April brings us baseball or November lures hunters into the woods. On Thanksgiving weekends stores throw open their doors in the middle of the night, and wild-eyed consumers spend both their time and money chasing bargains with the fervor of brokers baying in a bull market. Malls create traffic gridlocks; employees of the major retail chains must sometimes act as referees in customer squabbling matches; shoppers themselves return home in the dull twilight of Friday evening gasping for their favorite beverage and rubbing their tired feet as if they had just endured a legionnaire’s march in the desert.

Though some profess to love this bargain hunting — ”There’s nothing like the smell of wampum in the morning!” — others regard Black Friday as the one drawback to an otherwise perfect holiday, a pall covering with dark shadows that day and the entire month of days following, that span of Advent during which one question, and one question only, looms like a nightmare in the mind: “What will I get ’fill-in-the-blank’ for Christmas?”

Gift buying puzzles discerning givers. Our three-year-old nephew is easy enough to please — he’d be happy with a piece of duct tape on a string — but what about Uncle Charlie? What do we give a man who has everything? Or our own mother? She possesses every kitchen appliance made since the invention of the orange juice squeezer, she hasn’t bought a new piece of clothing since the Clinton administration, and she last saw a feature film in a movie theater when she was stuck in Knoxville during the blizzard of ‘93. Where do we begin?

In a bookstore, of course. When we pause to consider the matter, bookstores contain the widest variety of gifts of any store. You can’t buy clothing in a bookshop, but you can find wonderful books on fashion. You can’t buy food, but you can find dozens of tomes on cooking, nutrition, and entertainment. In fact, you name the topic — sports, big-game photography, timber-framing, Alabama vacation spots — and a bookshop will likely oblige your taste.

Take a book like Susan Colon’s Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times (ISBN 978-0-385-53252-5, $21.95), which will delight recipients in several categories: cooks, older friends and family who remember the Great Depression, and those suffering the effects of our own economic woes. A native of New Jersey whose own immediate family took a few blows from our current financial mess and whose grandmother during the Depression kept recipes mingling good food with thrift, Colon delivers a smorgasbord of anecdotes, inspiration, and tasty food.

These are not recipes, by the way, for those whose taste buds have grown fond of exotic foods. Colon’s recipes, acquired via her mother and grandmother, are American fare cooked in the style when Americans cared more for substance than style. Among these dishes are “Matilde’s Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut,” “Hot Dog Soup,” “Aunt Nettie’s Clam Chowder,” and “Yeast Dumplings.” Reading these recipes and the stories that go with them brings to mind images of the kitchen of the 1930s and ‘40s: steaming kettles on a white stove, open containers of flour, sugar, and salt, the merry bustle of bodies intent on putting a wholesome, stick-to-your ribs supper on a dining room table.

For those inclined to literature and the spirit, we might gift wrap a copy of The Best Of It (ISBN 978-0-8021-1914-8, $24), Kay Ryan’s collection of new and selected poems. Ryan, who is our current national poet laureate, is described in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry as “intense and elliptical as Dickinson, as buoyant and rueful as Frost.” In The Best Of It, we find that this high praise is well-deserved. Ryan’s words lie on the white page formally and forcefully as inscriptions on stone. Here in full, for example, is “Silence”:

 

Silence is not snow.

It cannot grow

deeper. A thousand years

of it are thinner

than paper. So

we must have it

all wrong

when we feel trapped

like mastodons.   

 

Many of Ryan’s poems explore aspects of the self, mixing language both concrete and abstract to create verse that the reader can both contemplate and revisit with satisfaction. “Chemise” is one of many such poems in this panoply of verse:

 

What would the self

disrobed look like,

the form undraped?

There is a flimsy cloth

we can’t take off –

some last chemise

we can’t escape –

a hope more intimate

than paint

to please.

 

From the sacred to the profane, from volumes of lilting verse to recipes for quick apple cake, books offer choices for the boggled shopper, and the shops which sell those books are one of the best places around for one-stop shopping.

Next time we’ll continue our Christmas shopping with a look at two popular novels and the latest from Pat Conroy, My Reading Life.

Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times by Susan Colon. Doubleday, 2009. 224 pages

Comment

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr. Akashic Books, 2008. 320 pages

Every once in a while a novel comes at us out of the blue to capture first our attention, then our minds, and finally our hearts. Such a novel is Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming (Akashic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-1-933354-46-0, $15.95).

Here is the story of Jun Nakayama, narrated by himself, a young Japanese student living in the United States who, on his way back to Japan in 1911, stops in Los Angeles, visits a Japanese theatrical production, tells the struggling producer that he could do a much better job of both writing and acting in such a play, and then proceeds to do just that.

After only a short time, Jun’s stagecraft attracts the attention of William Moran, a director of successful silent films, and of Hanako Minatoya, the beautiful actress who at that time is working for Moran. Because of his sultry face and superb acting skills — he is a quick take in picking up tips from those around him — Jun becomes a silent movie star. He changes directors, leaves Hanako to star in other films, soon earns a fabulous income, and becomes involved with two different actresses, Elizabeth Banks and Nora Niles, and Ashley Bennett Tyler, a British director. This dark combination of lives eventually leads to an unexplained murder, a mental breakdown, alcoholic suicide, and Jun’s own abrupt end as an actor.

What adds to the excitement and insights of The Age of Dreaming is Revoyr’s creation of Nick Bellinger, who tracks Jun down in the 1960s for an interview. He befriends Nick and even convinces him to try out for a movie with a descendent of a producer who was once Jun’s acquaintance. From this modern producer, we learn more about Jun’s muddied past and the secrets from that past which have remained hidden from him all these years.

In addition to a taut story filled with intrigue and sudden revelations, The Age of Dreaming has much else to offer any lover of fiction. First, Revoyr takes us into a Hollywood long vanished, a place of silent movies (on visiting a modern movie set, Jun is shocked by the silence; he remembers all the noises and distractions permitted when making silent movies), of working in an entirely new medium, of making movies in less than a week on budgets that in today’s world wouldn’t provide a picture’s limo fees. Jun Nakayam breathes such excitement into these movies that many readers will, on finishing the book, begin looking for these masterpieces with eyes that might now better appreciate them.

A second delight in this fine book is the studied, polished commentary of Jun Nakayama (A blurb on the front of the book states that ‘the carefully restrained voice of the narrator, once a silent film star, recalls Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ....’ a comparison that seems slightly silly, as if only another Japanese — Revoyr’s mother is Japanese — could write with restraint). This careful writing, in which we sense a great delicacy at play in the diction and syntax of each sentence, can be found on every page and in every paragraph. Here, for example, Jun finally says goodbye to Hanako, the woman whom he has always secretly loved:

“I kept my silence because words would have diminished what I felt, and the strength of those feelings confused me. And now, when it was many, many years too late, I mourned the inability to speak my own heart, as well as the empty decades that have followed. For it seems to me now that I have been reliving that moment through all the long years of my life. It seems to me that I have always been standing there with joy within my grasp, wanting to reach for it, but forever holding it back.”

•••

Jincy Willett’s The Writing Class (Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 978-0-312-33066-8, 2008, $24.95) tells the story of Amy Gallup, a writer whose career peaked too early and who now teaches university extension courses in writing. Anyone who has ever attended a writing course will recognize the various characters who appear in this particular class and may even sympathize with their motives for being there. In several scenes that are by turns pathetic or humorous, Gallup deals with the obstacles presented in the classroom while the class of strangers slowly comes together and seriously begins critiquing one another’s stories.

Among the students of this class, however, there lurks a murderer, an unpublished writer driven crazy by resentment, loneliness, and hatred. As the murderer stalks the class members, taunting them at times with bizarre letters or reviews, the tension within the group grows, a mirror reflecting the needs and desires of these people. Willett also shows us how a group of strangers, out of common interest — in this case, writing fiction — or for common preservation, will eventually bond with one another.

Although the author’s portrayal of some of the members of the writing class is sketchy and so makes the character difficult for the reader to see, Willett does give us a fine portrait of a woman who seeks solitude while at the same time fearing loneliness. Amy Gallup represents many people who live alone, people who may have enjoyed a happier past, people to whom social conversation no longer comes easily, people whose chief pleasure now consists of drinking a glass of wine, reading, and petting a cat that doesn’t particularly care whether it is petted or not. We leave The Writing Class feeling as if we know Amy Gallup.

Readers who enjoy a good mystery, or comedy, or who simply like to read books that touch frequently on literature and writing, should take much pleasure from The Writing Class.

Comment

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. HarperCollins, 2008. 752 pages.

Wally Lamb’s newest novel, The Hour I First Believed (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN (978-0-06-039349-6, $29.95) opens with a quotation from Dante’s Inferno: “And so, they moved over the dark waves, and even before they disembarked, new hordes gathered there.” The quotation may remain obscure in terms of the novel, but a selection from the Inferno to introduce this important novel is entirely appropriate, as Lamb deals with the shooting at Columbine High School and the aftermath of devastation it left among the survivors.

Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen leave Connecticut and Caelum’s tormented past to take jobs — Caelum as a teacher, Maureen as a school nurse — at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where both hope to make a new start in their lives and in their marriage. In April 1999, Caelum returns home to stand beside the hospital bed of his dying, stroke-crippled aunt, a strong humorous woman who helped raise him. While Caelum is away, two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, enter the high school and randomly massacre students and faculty, focusing in particular on the library where, as it develops, Maureen has hidden herself in an empty cabinet, listening to the gunshots, screams, and cries for mercy from the students hiding beneath tables and chairs.

Those of us who have escaped such horrific tragedies in our own lives may not have stopped to imagine what such insanity and murder might do to the survivors. Lamb gives us such a victim in Maureen, a character tormented by her survival, a woman whose fixation on the evil that entered her life that day may astound, baffle, and even exasperate readers. Lamb largely shapes Maureen for us through Caelum’s eyes, letting us understand what has befallen her even while, like Caelum, we sometimes can’t understand why Maureen reacts as she does in the wake of the murders.

Lamb’s recreation of the massacre is immediate and vividly written. He has studied the journal excerpts, notes, and videotapes left behind by the killers. He also relies on first-hand accounts and, of course, his own rich imagination to create scenes like this one:

“Maureen said she saw them enter, carrying duffel bags, the tall one in a long black coat, the shorter one in a white T-shirt and cargo pants tucked inside his boots. He was carrying a shotgun. He looked at her, grinning. Eric, his name was. Luvox, 75 milligrams at lunchtime. ‘Get up!’ he shouted. ‘All the jocks stand up! We’re going to kill every single one of you!’

‘Anyone with a white hat, stand up!’ the other one shouted. ‘Are you guys scared? Well, don’t be, because you’re all going to die anyway!’

... She heard screaming, pleas, the crack of gunfire, shattering glass. ‘How about it, big boy? You want to get shot today?... Hey, you? Peekaboo!’

... Over the alarm, she could hear their taunts, the ridiculing of their victims before the shotgun blasts. It was as if each of the shots passed through her, she said. She knew they’d find her. She was sure she was going to die — that this cabinet would be her coffin.”

By the end of the summer, both Caelum and Maureen abandon the nightmare that has become Littleton to return to Three Rivers, Conn. Caelum takes over his Aunt Lolly’s farmhouse and buckles down to several years of intense labor, working as a baker and an adjunct instructor at the community college to pay for Maureen’s medical bills while at the same time having to endure her despair and emotional depression. Eventually, Maureen returns to work as a nurse, this time in a retirement home, only to once again find herself in the middle of tragedy and personal doom. How she and Caelum face yet more fires of their own personal inferno finishes out the novel.

The Hour I First Believed, however, is much more than a replaying of the shootings at Columbine. The secondary characters here are vital to the plot and theme of the book. Velvet Hoon, a lost, freakish teenager whom Maureen takes under her wing (she calls Maureen ’Mom’ through much of the book), floats in and out of the Quirks’ lives, always on the verge of falling back into her old life of prostitution and abuse, yet providing both Maureen and Caelum with odd friendship and at times an acerbic love. Alphonse Buzzi, Caelum’s best friend from adolescent, demonstrates again and again his own loyalty to Caelum, using his hard-edged humor as a sword against the threatening mental darkness.

Friendship and family, it turns out, are as much a focus of this powerful story as disaster and savagery. Back in Three Rivers, Caelum slowly comes to understand the mystery of his own family: the apparent coldness of his mother, the dissolution of his father, the idealism and steel will of several of his female ancestors. Through the discovery of a journal, letters, and newspaper accounts, he is finally able to make sense of a past which for his entire life had eaten his pleasure and fed him despair.

The Hour I First Believed is a sprawling novel — it runs more than seven hundred pages — with a half dozen major themes. Yet the final message of the book is clear. “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” a man once wrote, and in the case of Caelum, the spiritual beatings he has taken, the losses he has born, the truths he has discovered, do indeed make him stronger, not in the ways we normally think of strength — power, might, force — but stronger in the ways and wiles of love.

Comment

Criminal Justice in America by Marshall Frank. AuthorHouse, 2008. 276 pages.

In Criminal Injustice in America: Essays by a Career Cop (AuthorHouse, ISBN 978-1-43892062-7), former policeman Marshall Frank gives us his take on the criminal justice system through a series of essays. Although Frank has explored the ideas behind these essays in numerous newspaper columns and novels, here he attempts an in-depth assessment of what he calls our “desperately fractured” criminal justice system.

Frank, who used to reside in Maggie Valley but recently relocated to Florida, begins his book by giving us a look at his background — cop, columnist, novelist, lecturer — and a list of his prejudices. He correctly writes that he considers himself “a centrist conservative, though I have some liberal leanings about social issues, like appropriating government funds for stem cell research, keeping a strict separation of church and state, and endorsing gay rights.” He adds that “I, for one, relish independent thought and hope my readers do the same.”

Certainly Criminal Justice in America trots out some rarely-heard ideas regarding radical change in the criminal justice system. Frank’s views on sex crimes, particularly those committed by child molesters, run contrary to the thinking of most Americans today.

Here, for example, he strongly recommends that child molesters, who according to Frank seem as drawn to their vice as drunks to booze or addicts to crack, receive counseling and help when apprehended. In another chapter, Frank suggests that all federal judges, including Supreme Court judges, have term limits of 15 years. He calls for the elimination of the requirement of a unanimous verdict, as well as for the elimination of the 12-person jury. He advocates the automatic deportation of all illegal aliens convicted of a felony, after they have finished their sentences, and recommends the completion of the fence along the border with Mexico to halt immigration and to slow the problems caused by illegals within the criminal justice system.

These and many other of Frank’s suggestions make Criminal Injustice in America a book well worth reading. The essays are written like newspaper columns and are easy on the eyes, and the conversational style is easy to comprehend.

Yet Criminal Justice in America does present some problems for the discerning reader.

In addition to a good number of typos and mistakes in the book, the statistics, which Frank uses abundantly, sometimes raise more questions than they answer. He writes, for example, that “the Catholic Church scandal earlier in this decade saw 4,392, (or 4 percent of all Roman Catholic clergy in the United States) being accused of sexually abusing children, as far back to the 1940s. (Per the John Jay Report commissioned by the Conference on Catholic Bishops).” Besides the minor mistake here — it is the Conference of Catholic Bishops — we are left in the dark. Does this mean that only 100,000 men have served as priests in the United States since the 1940s? And of the accused, how many priests were convicted?

This foggy statistical analysis extends throughout the book. In the very next paragraph, we learn that during a five-year period there were more than 2,500 cases in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic, “all involving sexual misconduct. More than 1,800 of those incidents involved young people, eighty percent of whom were students.” Questions: what were the other 20 percent? If we’re making some sort of comparison to priests, how many educators were accused as well as convicted?

Another complaint that might be directed at Criminal Justice in America is the cost of the programs recommended by Frank. Exorbitant as criminal justice costs now are, to institute the recommendations listed in this book would make the recent stimulus package look like the work of pikers. Many chapters in this book recommend creating more judges, more attorneys, more counselors, more day cares, more educational programs. To be fair to Frank, he lists these changes under the heading of “The Magic Wand,” which is a sort of personal wish list, yet the cost of these programs versus the cost of the current system — in money, in resources — is never compared on any realistic level.

Finally, Criminal Justice in America advocates more repressive and constrictive government than we already have now. In his discussion of abortion, for instance, Frank writes that we should “create legislation making it a crime to harass and harangue pregnant women at abortion clinics.” Even if we assume that the majority of Americans might favor such a move, is it not possible that such a recommendation, enacted into law and enforced by armed police, would lead to other protesters being banned? Frank writes that we need to expand “law enforcement sting operations throughout America to catch pedophiles surfing the Internet for children.” This idea not only increases law enforcement on the Internet, but raises the question: where in the hell are the parents in their children‘s lives? Why aren’t they watching out for children? Frank writes that we should “pull radio licenses from stations that play gansta rap on the public air waves.” Again, why pull radio licenses when the country allows such music to be created in the first place? And pulling radio licenses — what if the government next decides that we shouldn’t listen to gospel music or to certain political broadcasters?

Frank tell us at the beginning of Criminal Justice in America that he once met a house painter at a yard sale who recognized him.

“The painter extended his hand and said, ‘Howdy, I know you. I don’t always agree with what you say, but you sure do make me think.’ That’s better than a paycheck any day.”

The painter’s remarks hold true in regard to Criminal Justice in America. Frank is his own man, blunt, outspoken, sometimes out of his league but always a searcher, a digger after facts and solutions. Few readers, liberal or conservative, will agree with everything this former Miami homicide detective says in his critique of our laws and courts.

But he will make you think.

Comment

Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. Metropolitan Books, 2008. 304 pages.

Try to imagine a book enthusiastically reviewed by George McGovern (former Democratic presidential candidate), Ron Paul (former Republican presidential candidate), and Nicholas Von Hoffman (author and commentator). Bill Kauffman has spent many years staking out his ideas on politics, particularly on conservatism with a small “c.”

Author of several books and writer of essays for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Onion, and The American Conservative, Kauffman has expended considerable energy, talent, and time on one single theme: that real conservatives, those who trace their lineage back to John Randolph of Virginia, to Thomas Corwin, the conservative Ohio senator who opposed war with Mexico in 1847, to moderns like Senator Taft of Ohio, are often those who oppose and lead the opposition against American foreign wars and bigger government control.

In Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Ant-Imperialism (ISBN 978-0-8050-8233-9, $25), Kauffman brings under one big tent much of his thinking of the last few decades regarding Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, imperialists and anti-imperialists. Although he addresses the gnawing issues of today from many different angles — Republican social concerns like abortion, Democrat traditional interest in bigger government — Kauffman focuses chiefly on the idea of conservatism and warfare. He raises the question: how did conservatives (again, note that little “c”) acquire a reputation as a bunch of warmongers?

Much of Ain’t My America is obsessed with that question and with the its answer, namely, that conservatives traditionally are not warmongers obsessed with expanding American power or with crushing our enemies. Quite the contrary, in fact. As Kauffman digs through the bone yards and reliquaries of American history, particularly its wars, he demonstrates time and again that Americans generally regarded as conservative in the past were rarely supporters of overseas wars. From the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, from the fields of Gettysburg to the battlefields of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, American soldiers have gallantly fought wars which large portions of the population — often the majority — have opposed, at least initially. Using example after example of politicians, protesters, and conservative anarchists, Kauffman demonstrates that real conservatives — and real liberals — have much in common, especially in regard to the foreign policy of the United States.

Consider, for example, Thomas Corwin, Ohio senator, who in 1847 during the Mexican War thundered at the Senate that “If I were a Mexican, I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’” Dozens of other examples follow, showing conservatives and libertarians from both of America’s political parties opposing war as well as various writers and thinkers, including the novelist John Gardner, who like Kauffman was an Upstate New Yorker.

Kauffman ends his book with this plea:“The decline of Western civilization? I see it writ across George W. Bush’s petulantly vacant mug. As for John Gardner, daffodils, baseball, bluebirds, my daughter, and the Davids of Albion — hell, they’re the only hope our little corner of American civilization has left.

Come home, America. Reject the empire. Please.” As Ron Paul states on the back of the book, “For those who have been neoconned into believing that conservatism means unquestioned support for the welfare state, Ain’t My America is the perfect way to show that real conservatives defend peace and liberty.”

•••

Nancy Sherman, who has taught at Georgetown University and the United States Naval Academy, has written two books on virtue and character. With her third book, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind (ISBN 0-19-515216-6, $26), Sherman takes a look both at stoicism, the ancient philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and the part played by stoicism in the American military.

Although Stoic Warriors may sound academic, Sherman’s writing is in fact lively and readable. She employs frequent examples of stoicism in the military, where men and women of all branches learn early to “suck it up,” to get tough, to complete their mission despite physical obstacles and personal feelings. Using numerous anecdotes from the wars of the ancient Greeks to our present conflicts, Sherman examines such concepts as “toughness” in war, morals, anger, and abuse. She reveals how quickly a “virtue” such as toughness can become a vice, especially in regard to enemy prisoners or civilians.In addressing the commonalities between ancient Stoics and modern warriors, Sherman also looks hard at such topics as “Fear and Resilience” and “Permission to Grieve.” In all these chapters Sherman considers the value of the philosophy of stoicism to the soldier in terms of military leadership; she addresses the issue of anger from the standpoint of stoicism, showing how that philosophy so strongly advocates self-control; she examines the value of military brotherhood and individuality both from the stoic viewpoint. Sherman writes that the military men and women who took her courses particularly felt the pull of these words by Epictetus:

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices ... So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men ... And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’”

Stoic Warriors should appeal to many readers who enjoy their military history flavored with a strong dose of philosophy.

Comment

We’ll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury. William Morrow, 2009. 224 pages

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Ill., — the town became Greentown in Dandelion Wine and many of his short stories — in 1920. He published his first short story in 1938, married in 1946 — he and his wife Maggie raised four daughters — and continued for the next 60 years to write: short stories, novels, poetry, essays, even a space opera. In addition, he worked as a creative consultant on the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at Disney World and the Epcot Center, and for the design of malls, where he tried to bring his ideas of small town setting into urban setting.

In the last 25 years, many found Bradbury’s stories weaker than those he had written in The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man. The style remained the same, perhaps too much so; the repeated one-sentence paragraphs seemed more a self-parody than good storytelling. The broad sentimentality found in all of Bradbury’s books was often given too much sail; the plots and characters of his stories seemed awash in emotion dishonestly earned. Bradbury’s name and not his talent found publishers for novels like Death Is A Lonely Business and Let’s All Kill Constance. Bradbury was like an old championship fighter who, despite the fact that his reflexes have slowed and his legs are gone, keeps climbing back into the ring to take another pummeling.

But even old fighters sometimes have a few good punches left. In We’ll Always Have Paris (William Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-167013-8, $24.99), the 89-year-old Bradbury again shows himself as a master of the short story.

“Masinello Pietro,” the first story in the collection and the one which Bradbury in the introduction to the book cites as his favorite, follows Massinello Pietro in his struggles against the neighbors and then the police. Pietro, who was once rich but gave his money away to the poor, now leads the life of an eccentric whose antics have annoyed those living near him:

“I invested what little I had left in dogs, geese, mice, parrots, who do not change their minds, who are always friends forever and forever. I bought my phonograph, which never is sad, which never stops singing!”

“That’s another thing,’ said Tiffany, wincing. “The neighborhood says at four in the morning, um, you and the phonograph ...”

“Music is better than soap and water!”

Although most readers wouldn’t want Pietro as a neighbor — his property is filthy from the animals, and loud music, even the classics, played at four in the morning would drive everyone but an insomniac nuts — the story makes a case for liberty and eccentricity, and serves as a warning against the forces acting against those two great goods. In this passage Bradbury clearly puts the case:

“His house, ablaze with votive candles and pictures of rising — flying — saints, the glint of medallions. His phonograph circling at midnight, two, three, four in the morning, himself singing, mouth wide, heart open, eyes tight, world shut out; nothing but sound. And here he was now among the houses that locked at nine, slept at 10, wakened only from long silenced hours of slumber in the morn. People in houses, lacking only black wreaths on door fronts.”

Bradbury was always particularly adept at short-short stories, tales of modern life that read like fables. In “When the Bough Breaks,” he writes a beautiful story of a couple waking in their bed to a storm and the sound of a baby crying in the nearby forest. Slowly they realize that though they had talked of having no children, they are meant to be the parents of this weeping spirit-baby. They make love — here Bradbury, always the master of discretion, leaves this part to the reader’s imagination — and the child ceases its weeping. Describing the story makes it sound trite or silly; Bradbury’s story, however, has the power of the professional behind it.

The title story, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” tells of an American who leaves his wife in the hotel to go for an evening walk in Paris. He encounters “a strange young man” who takes the American silently to a gym, removes his shirt, removes his own clothes, and kisses him on the forehead. They do not become lovers, promising only “next time.” The man returns to his wife and promises her that they will return to Paris the following year.

This story reflects some of the weaknesses of Bradbury’s spartan descriptions and terse dialogue. We’d like to know why the American followed the young man, why he allowed himself to be undressed in the dark gym, why he then refused the young man’s advances. Hemingway once said that writing is like an iceberg, that “there is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that does not show.” Here, and in other earlier stories of the last two decades, Bradbury sometimes carries this theory too far; too little shows, and the story then seems as if he was himself uncertain of his own characters and their motivations.

“Fly Away Home” returns to Bradbury’s love of the idea of space travel (For years, Bradbury disliked flying and didn’t have a driver’s license, one of the things which made him an object of ridicule from John Huston when they were working together on the film “Moby Dick”). Here a captain and crew land on Mars, only to find themselves terrified at being so far from all that was familiar on earth. One of the men suffers a mental breakdown, and the others appear close to the edge, when a supply ship from Earth brings a pre-fabricated town to them: a barber shop, a drugstore, a church, a library, a hotel, a pool hall, a bar. This town reassures and relaxes the crew, all of whom were chosen from small towns. Here Bradbury provides not only insight into the human psyche, but also tells us once again that these “stereotypes” may make downtowns and shopping malls more attractive to consumers.

Bradbury ends his book with a poem “America.” The last lines from a man who has loved his country for so many years read:

“You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be.

In tides of immigrants that this year flow

You still remain the beckoning hearth they’d know.

In midnight beds with blueprint, plan and scheme

You are the dream that other people dream.”

Comment

Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 256 pages.

The books are piling up around my desk, which means the time has come for a spring cleaning.

Several books, all read in the last three months, seemed suited to the Easter season. First off the pile is Anne Rice’s Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Alfred A. Knopf, 978-0-307-26827-5, $24), in which the best-selling author of Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat tells us of her own transformation: her New Orleans childhood in a devout Catholic family, her falling-away from the Faith, her struggles as a writer, mother, and wife, her return to the Faith.

In many ways Rice’s journey reflects the via dolorosa traveled by many of her generation. She married young, spent part of the sixties in radical Berkeley, drank too much for a while, suffered travails as a wife and mother (her daughter died young, followed by her beloved first husband, Stan), and then slowly found her way back to a Faith which she could embrace. After writing some 20 novels about vampires and other otherworldly beings, Rice shocked many of her readers by shifting her focus to the life of Christ:

“From the summer of 2002 through the spring of 2005, my life was consumed with research. I studied not only the ancient historians Philo and Josephus, and all the New Testament scholarship I could lay hands on, but Scripture itself, reading over and over again the Gospels until the language, to which I’d grown so dead in childhood, came alive again, and the vital story of Christ’s life flowed through chapter and verse.”

Although the mawkish jacket cover detracts from Called Out of Darkness — a somber Anne Rice stands at the elbow of a statue of Saint Anthony holding the Christ Child — the worn adage about a book and its cover holds true. Rice fans old and new should enjoy this memoir.

•••

Riven (Tyndale Fiction, 378-1-4143-0904-0, $24.99) tells the story of two men: Brady Wayne Darby, a punk and a small-time criminal, and Thomas Carey, a pastor defeated by life who eventually takes a job as a prison chaplain. Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, writes in a note on Riven that “This is the novel I’ve always wanted to write ...” Like some authors of another generation — Dreiser, for example, or James Jones — Jenkins writes with an acute eye on what he sees as true without worrying too much about style. He takes time developing his characters so that when they finally meet we are thoroughly acquainted with their lives.

Jenkins does a particularly fine job in sketching out the life of Thomas Carey. Many people doubtless know a minister like Carey, a good man, a man of Biblical principles, who nevertheless seems unsuited to the church or congregation to which he is called. Such a life, as Jenkins shows us, is fraught with perils: poverty, rejection, depression, a sense of aimlessness. We follow Carey as a wealthy church elder bullies him into leaving his latest post, the torments suffered by him and by his wife as they look for a new position, the grind of poverty in the face of middle-age and diminished powers. Jenkins’s Carey lets us feel his struggle and empathize with his mental and spiritual pain.

Darby, who will eventually meet Carey, grows up in a trailer park, abandoned by his father, verbally and mentally savaged by his mother, and torn by the needs of his younger brother. Here again Jenkins does a splendid job in sketching and then fleshing out a character. We watch Darby’s wounds fester, his small vices grow into cankers of hatred, his brushes with goodness and with his own talents—the owner of a laundromat does his best to befriend Darby, and Darby later displays gifts as an actor—left withered and dying. Even his honest attempt to find love and companionship with Katie, a wealthy girl who ends up in his AA group, blows up in Darby’s face.

Riven is not a novel in which all turns out well, and the ending itself is both shocking and unrealistic. Yet Jenkins has nonetheless built up a solid tale here of redemption and change.

•••

In The Shack (978-0-9647292-3-0, $14.99), Wm. Paul Young gives us a story in which Mackenzie Allen Philip, known to his friends as “Mack,” receives a mysterious summons to the isolated shack where his murdered daughter Missy was found. Mack, who has felt dead in his life and heart since Missy’s killing, ventures to the shack, half believing that there he will encounter God.

Not only does Mack meet God in the shack — the Almighty appears to him as a large black woman, which might seem shocking had that role not already been done in television and movies — but he meets Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well.

Mack’s pilgrimage then becomes a series of dialogues with each person of the Trinity, discussions which range from the nature of the Holy Spirit to the meaning of forgiveness and love. Many of these discussions offer food both for thought and for discussion with friends. Young is excellent, for example, in his examination of the Trinity and how it works both as a basis for family and for love.

The Shack is also a book, however, which seems designed to be hurled against the nearest wall. Young gives the obligatory slap, for example, to institutional religion, having Jesus say at one point: “I don’t create institutions — never have, never will.” (And yet Christ did obediently participate in an institution, his own Jewish faith; he also instituted the Eucharist, left many commandments for his disciples, and made Peter the keeper of his Church).

Of women Young writes: “The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled.” Has this guy ever been in a church these days? Has he ever dealt with some of the women who today run most churches? Some general once said that there is no more vicious animal on the planet than a young American soldier. Right on the heels of that soldier is a 50-year-old matron who has just been denied her place on next year’s church decoration.

Comment

The sound of silence.

Silence is a rare commodity in our world today. Of course, perfect silence doesn’t exist. The adventurer alone in some Arctic waste will hear the crunching of her footsteps on the ice and snow. The man placed in a sound-proof room will hear the mechanic vibrations of his flesh: breathing, perhaps a slight ringing in his ears, perhaps even, a la Edgar Allen Poe, the beating of his own heart. Nevertheless, nearly all of us inhabit a world today in which human noise is rarely absent, a place of radios and television, canned music and conversation, cell phones, iPods, sirens, traffic, and the ordinary orchestral din of human activity.

Every year an Asheville teacher, whose best friend is solitude and who has several times made silent monastic retreats, sets his middle-school students with the task of sitting for half an hour in silence and then writing an essay on the experience. The assignment rouses in the students dozens of questions. Can’t they at least listen to music? Are they permitted to walk around the house or stroll around the yard? Can they perform the task in 10-minute intervals? Can they exercise or read a book? When all these questions receive a negative, many of the students react as if their teacher had just condemned them to a cell on Devil’s Island and tossed away the key.

Like the students, most of us fear or avoid silence and its companion, solitude. To be alone in silence, mystics of most faiths maintain, is to be alone with God. For most of us — and this is the much more terrifying thought — to be alone in silence means being alone with ourselves.

In A Book of Silence (ISBN 978-1-58243-517-6, $25), Sara Maitland, English novelist and essayist, explores through her own experiences and those who have undergone prolonged and profound bouts of silence — solitary sea voyagers, anchorites, contemplatives in deserts and remote mountains — the meaning and necessity for silence.

Maitland, who grew up in a rambunctious family with five siblings, who married and bore children of her own, and who is an outspoken feminist, first became intrigued by silence when she moved to Warkton, a small Northamptonshire village. Her children grown and gone, and her husband having divorced her, Maitland found herself unexpectedly in her Warkton home. Here, she writes, “it is quite hard in retrospect to remember which came first — the freedom of solitude or the energy of silence.”

Emboldened by her experience in Warkton, and wanting to test greater silence and isolation, Maitland moved in 2000 to a house on a moor above Weardale, a town in County Durham. Here she continued to work on her writing, to take long walks across the moors, and to settle ever more deeply into the silence which she had sought. She embarked on a six weeks of silence on the remote island of Skye. Her retreat on Skye, though demandingly intense, marked a turning point for her, “a benchmark and a launch pad for much of my present life.” She returned to Weardale determined more than ever to explore the effects of silence on her mind and spirit.

As her love of silence deepened — readers immersed in A Book of Silence must frequently remind themselves, when Maitland fails to do so, that this is a woman who only a few years earlier treasured company and conversation — Maitland began reading about the experiences of others who had encountered deep silence. Her reflections on these women and men make up some of the most engaging parts of her book. Here we learn of a man who once spent a polar winter unable to leave his tent; we follow solitary sailors who set out to break oceanic speed records and either go mad or turn away from the prize because they have so fallen in love with the immensity and quietude of the sea; we meet religious mystics, both living and dead, who over the centuries turned to silence to hear the voice of God.

Long into her experiments with silence, Maitland realized the benefits bestowed by such deep taciturnity: a physical fitness gained by her long hikes; a greater ability to concentrate and think; a richer faith. Much to her dismay, however, she also found that her hours spent on writing had fallen off. After comparing the stillness sought by spiritual anchorites with that of the Romantic writers of the nineteenth century — Wordsworth or Coleridge, for example — she realized that each group had pursued silence for different reasons. Eremitic Christians or Buddhists sought by silence and solitude to erase their egos, the self that stood between them and spiritual transformation, while the Romantics looked to solitude to deepen their knowledge of that same self, and to isolate and protect it from the world. In this comparison and her conclusions, Maitland strikes out into new territory and offers readers interested in writing or spiritual development some fine insights into the benefits and dangers of solitude.

Maitland treats even book-lovers to the joys of silence. She writes that by silence “I felt less excited by plot, tension and pace, and more engaged with language and mood and place … I read with a sense of the mystery of what reading is and how deeply and silently it shaped our sense of self.”

The holidays with all their noise and frenzied tumult are upon us. Readers needing an escape from the festival rush and run could do far worse than curling up in some remote corner with A Book of Silence, a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at hand, still, solitary, utterly and delightfully immersed in silence.

Comment

Once upon a time the queen of literature, poetry finds itself nowadays, like the tale of Cinderella run in reverse, a poor stepchild of pen and paper, pale-limbed, gray ashes on ashen cheeks, seated on a broken stool off in some odd corner, half in shadow, a tatterdemalion with large wondering eyes that ask: What in the name of Shelley happened to me?

Some critics argue that poetry, like some of the plastic arts, lost its way when it ignored its audience; when poets turned so far inward that only a few could follow, or be bothered to follow, them; when rejection of meter and rhyme, which once gave an audience a “hook,” that is, memorable lines that stick like burrs in the heart and brain, gave rise to the plethora of free verse that attracted poets but not their readers (It is said, in fact, that today’s poets themselves rarely read their contemporaries).

And yet ... and yet ....

Each year new anthologies of poetry pop up out of publishing like bits of life-saving flotsam from a sinking ship. The great bulk of these anthologies harken back to poets past and are often centered around specific themes: poems for lovers, for men, for women, for children; poems to comfort the afflicted and the dying; poems from different religious faiths; poems on war. Sometimes a well-known author — a novelist, an essayist, a biographer — will issue an anthology of favorite poems; Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems received, for example, fine reviews and was a national best-seller.

Catching Life by the Throat: Poems from Eight Great Poets (W.W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-06607-4, 2008, $26.95) stands apart from many of these anthologies for several reasons. Josephine Hart, the commentator and collector of these poems, has devoted a great deal of time and money to the cause of great poetry. Since 2004, she has hosted the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour at the British Library. In her “Introduction,” Hart writes of her passion for verse:

“Poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility, gave voice to experience in a way no other literary art form could. It has never let me down. At various times it has provided me with a key to understanding; it has expressed what I believe inexpressible, whether of joy or despair; it provided me, a girl with no sense of direction, with a route map through life .... Without poetry I would have found life less comprehensive, less bearable and infinitely less enjoyable.”

Catching Life by the Throat also differs from many anthologies on account of the CD included with the book. Though there are books of verse that include recordings of the authors reading, this particular anthology includes actors, directors, and writers reading the poets as recorded during the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour. Here popular stars like Ralph Fiennes and Roger Moore join classically trained actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theater to give us engaging and passionate readings from Auden and Plath, from Yeats and Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Poems, great poems, are written to be read aloud, and here the readings do justice to the poetry. The voices of these performers couple like lovers with the words of the poets, delighting and intriguing their listeners.

Finally, Hart’s selection of Marianne Moore and Rudyard Kipling as two of her eight poets sets her anthology apart from many of the others issued in the last few years. Those unfamiliar with Marianne Moore’s poetry will find in these eight poems and their readings a delightful discovery, a poet whose mind, as Hart tells us, “enchants us with its truthfulness, its clarity, its wit.” An American of Irish descent who “adored gardenias, beautiful clothes, Beatrice Potter and baseball,” Moore died in 1972, leaving behind a wealth of words.

Rudyard Kipling is even more a surprise guest in Hart’s anthology. Since World War II, universities and many poets have denigrated Kipling for his belief in imperialism and his “jingoistic” stances toward the military and his country. Recently, given a closer reading, his work has attracted the more favorable attention that it deserves, but it is nonetheless daring of Hart to include Kipling in Catching Life by the Throat. Here are the well-known verses of Kipling — ”Danny Deever,” “Tommy,” “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” and “Recessional,” which was written as a warning to the English on empire and materialism. Yet here too are less familiar poems like “The ’Mary Gloster‘”, “The Children,” and “Epitaphs of the War,“ a collection of short verses in which Kipling, who had lost a son in the First World War, wrote:

An Only Son

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

Common Form

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Catching Life by the Throat will prove a particularly efficacious gift for those who don’t know much poetry, but who need poetry in their lives. The graduate of high school or college who needs a clear-eyed approach to the world, the young person who feels in need of some direction or solace, the man or woman with a love for the written and spoken word: these are the ones who will gain most by this small treasure.

•••

Looking for a great summer read? Try Robert Morgan’s Boone: A Biography (Algonquin Books, ISBN 978-1-56512-615-2, $18.95). In this book Morgan, author of Gap Creek, The Blue Valleys, and other novels, gives us a splendid portrait of a remarkable man. Morgan’s portrait of Boone — the father and husband, the hunter, the trailblazer, the man of legend and myth — is, as another reviewer wrote, “historical biography at its best.

Catching Life by the Throat: Poems from Eight Great Poets by Josephine Hart. W.W. Norton, 2008. 256 pages.

Comment

The Genius by Jesse Kellerman. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008. 384 pages

Sixty years ago, Graham Greene, one of the great English writers of the 20th century, differentiated his novels from what he regarded as his lesser works by calling the latter “entertainments.” Novels — Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter — constituted his serious writing, the themes, characters, and plots by which his literary reputation would rise or fall. Entertainments, on the other hand, were in Greene’s eyes those works written off the cuff, lightweight fiction aimed at the wider audience of best-sellers in airport bookshops, composed with an eye toward cash rather than literary fame.

In their lists of the author’s works, current reprints of Greene’s books do not delineate between novels and entertainments. Indeed, Graham Greene’s distinctions cast between his serious and his light fiction may even indeed strike us as humorous, false or perhaps Victorian in a world moving from a print culture to an oral culture and a society in which other media — television, computers — play a much greater role than that of the printed word.

In many ways, however, such a distinction between “light” and “heavy” literature might prove useful to an American culture in which sheer entertainment is often viewed as the high peaks of our culture. Americans 60 and 70 years ago distinguished between “high” and “low” culture, with the former being best represented by a performance of Beethoven sonatas and the latter by the music of Frank Sinatra or even Bennie Goodman. In the intervening years, low culture has swallowed up high culture. For those who doubt such a proposition, we need only ask a few questions. Who among us can them name a great—or for that matter, a not-so-great— American composer of the last 20 years? A great American painter? Thousands of poets publish today, but which of us can name a great American poet writing today? Who can name three American playwrights? In the 1950s, the names of “high-brow” artists — Picasso, Rockwell, Pollock, O’Neill, Hemingway, Faulkner, Frost, Sandberg, and others — were household words known to everyone with a high school education. Today popular culture focuses almost exclusively on actors, pop musicians, and a few best-selling writers.

To a certain extent, of course, “high” art itself must take some of the rap for its decline into oblivion. Many artists left off long ago making any attempt to appeal to a broad audience. A portrait of this rejection, inadvertently offered, may be found in Jesse Kellerman’s novel The Genius (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 978-0-399-15459-1, $24.95).

Ethan Muller, the novel’s narrator and son of one of Manhattan’s wealthier families, finds himself an art dealer after a troubled childhood in which his father essentially abandoned him to loneliness and private schools. He operates his Chelsea gallery with some success, his artists running from Egao Oshima’s “lovely, shimmering paintings” to Jocko Steinberger’s “papier-mâché genitalia. All of the Oshimas had pre-sold, and several of the Steinbergers had gone to the Whitney. A good month.”

Then Tony Wexler, the confidant of David Muller, Ethan’s estranged father, calls Ethan and asks him to look at some drawings abandoned by Victor Cracke, a tenant in Muller Courts in Queens, one of the more squalid pieces of the Muller real-estate empire. After some hesitancy, Ethan arrives at the building to look over the drawings, only to find that they are not only works of genius but that there appear to be box-loads of them, with each drawing ultimately fitting together into a some vast map of Cracke’s vision of reality.

Unable to locate the artist, Ethan uses a select few of the drawings to open the next show at his gallery. After the media cover the show, Ethan receives a phone call from Lee McGrath, a retired policeman who recognizes one of the faces in the drawings as belonging to a boy murdered 40 years previously.

Here the novel widens its scope, moving to include a world of child murder, violence, and death alongside the wild world of postmodern art. Ethan becomes part-time detective, obsessed with finding Victor Cracke to determine whether he was the killer not only of the boy spotted by McGrath, but of four other boys in the drawings as well. During his search he encounters McGrath’s daughter, Samantha, a district attorney to whom he is quickly attracted.

Meanwhile, we encounter through a series of vignettes the Mullers who built the fortune which helped pay for Ethan’s education and which he has now rejected along with his father. We see what Ethan can’t see, that the accumulation of so much money and capital brings both freedom and a self-made prison to this ambitious family, that a scandal which haunts the family will eventually have repercussions for Ethan as well.

The Genius offers its readers many gifts: Kellerman’s knowledge of the art world, an array of believable characters, a tightly-wound plot, and some fine writing. What distinguishes The Genius from many other suspense novels is that Kellerman blends various philosophical insights entertained by Ethan, particularly ideas on genius, art, and morality, into the plot without slowing the action. Here, for example, Ethan offers us his thoughts on himself, on genius, and on the ordinary:

“Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare — one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999,999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you come to the genius’s vantage point.

“To pursue that — to clamber up, to stretch our fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface — can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be the president of a fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell.”

Comment

Fall of Frost by Brian Hall. Penguin Group, 2008. 352 pages

Since his death in 1963, Robert Frost has come to occupy a place in the highest echelon of American poets. In anthologies and textbooks, poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Less Traveled,” and “Mending Wall” remain perennial favorites. The last 10 years alone attest to Frost’s continuing popularity, having given birth to two more biographies — Jay Parini’s Robert Frost: A Life and Jeffrey Myers’ Robert Frost: A Biography — as well as to such works as The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost and The Notebooks of Robert Frost.

We may now add to these volumes Brian Hall’s fictionalized life of the poet, Fall of Frost (Penguin Group, ISBN 978-0-14-311491-8, $15).

Hall’s novel follows a sort of accordion structure, that is, the book tells the story of Frost’s life not in a straightforward narrative, but in a series of short chapters, folds of time and circumstance emblematic of different events in Frost’s life, with the folds themselves coming together by the end of the book to give us a unique picture of this extraordinary poet, his work, and his often harsh world.

Chapters 15 and 16, for example, show us Frost as a child in San Francisco with a bully for a father — he died young, an alcoholic — and his mother reading to him, a backward, sickly child and a late reader. Chapter 17 then sweeps us to Derry Farm in New Hampshire, 1902, while Chapter 18 lands us in Amherst, Mass., in 1932 (These “chapters,” by the way, are sometimes only half-a-page long).

By focusing in this way on different facets of Frost’s life and world, and by writing poetically and impressionistically himself, Hall brings Frost alive for his readers. We are made to feel Frost’s sufferings — his struggles to earn a living, the deaths of four of his six children before his own death, the mental problems of his sister and one of his daughters. Again and again, we bear witness to Frost’s gritty determination to overcome his multitudinous difficulties, to triumph as a poet.

In some of the Fall of Frost’s more amusing and more touching sections, Hall shows us Frost at the end of his life. It is 1962, and Frost is traveling to the Soviet Union, an old man sick and half-deaf on a quixotic mission to lessen the nuclear tensions between the USSR and the United States. Frost’s forthrightness causes consternation in both camps, and Hall’s depiction of Khrushchev and Kennedy in relation to the poet are particularly entertaining. When the Washington Post reports that “Frost Says Khrushchev Sees U.S. as ’Too Liberal’ To Defend Itself,” Kennedy explodes, shouting “As it is, half of Congress wants me to invade Cuba tomorrow. They’ll use this! It makes me look soft. It makes everything worse.”

In the meantime, we see Khrushchev wondering if the Americans have sent Frost to him as a test of some sorts, a test which he can’t quite understand. This particular chapter ends with the Soviet premier opening a manuscript by an unknown author which, though Hall doesn’t tell us so, is Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. As his aide reads to him from the manuscript, “The premier closes his eyes. He feels with pleasure the warmth of the setting sun on his face.” It isn’t just the sun that is setting, of course, but the Soviet Union which even then was fading into twilight.

In an “Author’s Note” at the conclusion of Fall of Frost, Brian Hall points out that he has approached his novel “in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form to accommodate more speculation than nonfiction generally allows.” Hall paraphrases the conversations in his novel from Frost’s public statements, his diaries and letters, and the records left by the poet’s friends and family. Here in Hall’s depiction we come face-to-face as well with Frost’s amazing ability not only to remember hundreds of lines of poetry, his own and those of other writers, but to bring them into conversation at appropriate moments.

Fall of Frost is a pleasure to read, a triumph in portraiture for all who love poetry, biography, and fine writing.

•••

Although Kerry Madden’s most recent book is Up Close: Harper Lee (ISBN 9780670010950, $16.99, 2009), young readers this summer may want to seek out some of her earlier books as well. In her Maggie Valley trilogy — Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain — Madden slips readers into the early 1960s and the lives of the Weems family. Here we meet Livy Two Weems, the12-year-old daughter of a Daddy who is “a poet in his soul” and a Mama who “claims a paycheck is worth a sight more than a dang poem.”

With nine siblings, including a new-born baby, Livy Two has her hands full helping her parents with chores and taking care of her younger sister, Gentle. Like her father, she also has big dreams of making it in the music world, writing songs and then playing them on her battered guitar.

Livy Two’s character, and the tone of these three books in general, can be sampled in Louisiana’s Song in a scene where Daddy is still recovering from a car accident. Livy Two lands a job with Miss Attickson, the bookmobile lady, and as they ride through the mountains delivering books, Madden gives us insights into the lives of the mountain poor, their love of books and learning, and the shy compassion of Livy Two, who finally summons the courage to ask for a book on brain trauma that might help her understand and care for her stricken father.

Adolescent readers should enjoy these stories with their local color and their messages of hope and the power of determination in the face of personal obstacles.

Highly recommended.

Comment

American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day by Robert Coram. Little, Brown and Company, 2007.

Robert Coram’s American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day (ISBN 978-0-316-0679-3, $15.99) tells the extraordinary story of a man who served in three wars, spent years as a POW in North Vietnam, became the most decorated officer in the U.S. Air Force, and fought for veterans rights in the 1980s.

Born in 1925, Day grew up poor in Sioux City, Iowa. He taught himself to hunt and put meat on the table at an early age — his father gave him a beaten-up .410 shotgun when he was 10 years old — and he learned the value of work, caddying, again at the age of 10, at a nearby country club golf course. After Pearl Harbor, and just weeks shy of his high school graduation, Day joined the Marines, having first eaten bananas for several weeks to meet the minimum weight requirements (a tactic also followed by Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated soldier, who was, like Day, slim and slight of build).

After serving in the Marine Corps, Day returned home to Sioux City, attended college and then law school on the G.I. Bill, married Doris Sorensen, and then, after a brief stint running a local detective agency, joined the Air Force, which at that time was a new branch among the services.

Over the next 20 years, Day became a legend among his fellow pilots. His most famous exploit before his imprisonment as a POW occurred in Britain, when the F-84 he was flying caught fire on take-off. Within seconds Day found himself ejecting at only 300 feet altitude from the falling aircraft. His chute failed to open, but he crashed into trees, smashing his right ankle and becoming the first man in the history of the Air Force to eject from a jet aircraft without a working parachute and survive.

Day’s greatest exploits occurred during his captivity in Vietnam. After being hit by a North Vietnamese missile, Day landed alive but injured and was immediately captured by ground forces. Within a few days, he escaped his guards and fled toward the DMZ, the embattled area separating North and South Vietnam. After a grueling trek south — his wounds were open and untreated, and he was reduced to eating frogs and berries from bushes — he was within sight of the Marine Corps camp when he was again taken prisoner.

Closely guarded this time, Day began the brutal years of captivity when camp guards regularly beat and tortured him and other prisoners, including John McCain, who became Day’s good friend. His worst moments of torture came when his interrogators had him beaten with fan belts.

“When Day was dragged off to the quiz room on the morning of the sixth day, his buttocks and thighs were swollen and puffed out about three inches. Atop the hamburger-like flesh, from the middle of his thighs up to the small of his back, a scab was trying to reform. Day’s lower legs were twice their normal size, and his toes were like overstuffed sausages. A watery fluid oozed from his testicles.”

Eventually, Day and most of the other POWs came home. Coram’s description of their return and of their reactions to those prisoners who had taken early release for “good behavior,” which essentially meant collaborating with the enemy, offers a fascinating insight into the sense of honor such men carried with them. Having expected that these early releases would have been drummed out of the service, Day and the other long-term POWs were astonished to find their former comrades living normal lives and even honored by the military.

Coram discusses the animosity between these two groups at length, explaining why Day, McCain, and the others who had not taken early releases were so obsessed and incensed with those who had done so. Coram shows how the military itself reacted to these revelations, demoting some officers and forcing others into retirement. Though Vietnam POWs are in the public mind all of a kind, honorable and strong men who bore witness to the Code of Conduct and to American ideals, Day and his comrades regard the POWs as two separate groups, one composed of traitors and snitches, the other of men who did their duty.

Bud Day’s life of confrontation and controversy didn’t end on his release from the military. He used his legal knowledge to help fellow veterans struggling for better medical treatment. He campaigned for several politicians. He supported the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their opposition to the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry. He remained friends with John McCain, but opposed him politically on many issues.

In the Preface to American Patriot, Coram cites a line from the James Michener novel The Bridges of Toko-Ri:

“I recalled that line from James Michener when the admiral is standing on the bridge of an aircraft carrier watching his pilots take off against the terrible defenses at Toko-Ri and says to himself, ‘Where do we get such men?’”

•••

Novelist, poet, biographer, and essayist, Jay Parini’s most recent book is Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America (ISBN 978-0-385-52276-2, $24.95). Here Parini has written literary essays about books which not only have shaped American history, but which also contributed to what Parini calls our “national myth.”

Some of Parini’s choices — The Federalist Papers and The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, for example — are conventional. Others are more daring, though they make sense when we consider their impact: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, The Feminine Mystique.

Parini is a fine writer who in Promised Land treats readers to his vast knowledge of literature and his love for American history.

Comment

Pound for Pound by F.X. Toole. HarperCollins, 2007. 416 pages.

Million Dollar Baby by F.X. Toole. Harper Perennial 2005. 256 pages.

What makes a fighter?

In his mid-forties, a time of life when the last thing most men look for is a punch in the face, F.X. Toole — his real name was Jerry Boyd — looks for an answer to that question. Since his boyhood, boxing had interested him. In the 1940s, he listened to the fights on the radio with his father. Later he watched the fights on television or at Madison Square Garden, which he once described as his personal Camelot. Toole followed the careers of various fighters, read whatever he could find on the great Irish boxers like Sullivan and Corbett, and admired both the winners and losers in the ring. But always the question haunted him — What makes a fighter? — and so he determined to find out in the one way that truly counts.

F.X. Toole stepped into a ring.

He trained hard, put in the hours shadowboxing, hitting the heavy bag, and sparring, but by his own admission he generally got pounded. He had trouble seeing without his glasses, he was older and slower than the twenty-somethings who danced with him in the ring, he had teeth cracked and inlays fall out. Eventually, as he writes in the introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he stopped sparring because he had to wear braces to correct a jaw condition, one unrelated to boxing. But he stayed in the game, serving 20 years as a corner man, cut man, and trainer. Open-heart surgery slowed him down, but his coronary problems never kept him from the ring for very long.

Toole had also been writing and seeing his work rejected for 40 years. Finally, when he was 70, Million Dollar Baby — the original title was Rope Burns — was published to critical acclaim. Toole lived two more years, dying before the release of the Academy Award winning movie while at work on a boxing novel. His last words were “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book.”

Toole ran out of time in his last fight, but the people who loved him, his children, and two men named Nat Sobel and James Wade, have given us his marvelous book.

Pound for Pound (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 978-0-06-088133-7) surely ranks as one of the great fictional accounts of what it means to be a boxer, what the sweet science takes — and sometimes how little it gives back — to its practitioners. In addition to its recreation of ringside action, Pound for Pound should also rank as an outstanding book for its writing, its characters, and its realism.

Pound for Pound gives us the portrait of two fighters, men who bob and weave, stick and move, but who fight their hardest battles outside the ring. Dan Cooley, who runs a body shop in Los Angeles with his partner, Earl Daw, “a dark-skinned black man” who had fought as a middleweight with Dan as his trainer, has lost his wife, his children, and even his grandchild to death by accident and disease. When his grandson darts in front of a car and dies in the beginning of the novel, we see Dan fall to pieces, trying to drink himself to death, wanting to take revenge on the young and innocent Hispanic driver, attempting but failing to kill himself. Through his memories, we learn of the various bouts he once fought, of the fighters he’s trained, of the sport that he had once loved so passionately.

Eduardo “Chicky” Garza y Duffy is a Texas middleweight with a troubled home-life. His grandfather, Eloy, once a champion boxer himself, now spends much of his time drinking and drugging, vices which worsen after Eloy’s wife Delores dies. Assisted by his grandfather, Chicky begins his own professional ascent in the ring, but two corrupt managers, one in Texas, the other in Los Angeles, take advantage of the young man’s ignorance and nearly end his boxing career.

What makes Toole’s book so special is not only his boxing acumen — he clearly knows the game — but his ability to put us into the shoes of the fighters and trainers, and their family. Here, for instance, he describes Chicky’s feelings for his grandfather:

“Chicky loved the old-timey Texas way Eloy spoke, his accent even more pronounced than El Paso’s great and charming golfer Lee Trevino. Once Chicky began to wear boots and a wide-brimmed hat, he quickly gave up the vato street talk of Victoria courts to sound as much like Eloy as he could. He soon sounded as Texas as guys with nicknames like Cooter and Cotton ... When the Longhorns were playing the Aggies on TV, Eloy talked to Chicky as if he were a peer and it made him feel like a man, like an hombre.”

Toole’s powers as a writer are highlighted by the ending of the novel, which was undoubtedly the part completed after his death. The story at the end of the novel comes together beautifully, but the descriptions, particularly of the fight scenes, lack the intensity of those found throughout the rest of the novel. Toole had the knowledge of a man who for thirty years had stood ringside, learning which cannot be reproduced second-hand. This contrast doesn’t diminish the book, but instead make us stand in awe of the skill and insight of F.X. Toole.

In Pound for Pound, Toole tells us what makes a fighter. In his introduction to Million Dollar Baby, he tells us why he loves this sport so much. As a trainer, he is giving a rubdown to a black heavyweight at the gym. Another man, a featherweight, paroled after serving time for rape and robbery, strung out on drugs, enters the gym and begins verbally abusing the “white racist power structure” and how he was the victim of white oppression.

“So there he was, going on about pigs. I should mention that my heavyweight had a white wife. When he asked the featherweight if he couldn’t see that I was white, and that maybe he should watch his jive-ass mouth, the featherweight didn’t miss a beat.

“‘Yeah, I see he white, but Toole be different.’

Magic. It’s why I’m in it. For the voodoo.”

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

Comment

Several months ago, I reviewed a marvelous non-fiction work by Sharon Hatfield titled Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell. Hatfield’s book is a comprehensive account of a 1935 West Virginia murder which became a “cause celebre” that drew the attention of the national media, the Women’s Rights Movement and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In truth, the murder was a rather prosaic event: an attractive young school teacher living near Wise, W.V., had a violent argument with her father because he objected to her late return home from a night out with her friends. The father ended up dying on the floor from a head wound and Edith Maxwell was arrested and charged with murder. The trials dragged on for years and Edith Maxwell was not released from prison until 1941.

Now comes Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, based on the Edith Maxwell case, and it quickly becomes evident that McCrumb has an axe to grind. Specifically, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers addresses the devious role of journalism in any and all cases that occur in Appalachia. Although the primary focus is on the Edith Maxwell case, McCrumb takes the opportunity to catalogue other instances where journalists not only distorted the events in order to sell their stories to major newspapers, but actually influenced verdicts and damaged innocent people. Examples include the notorious “elephant hanging” near Irwin, Tenn. (1916); the famed Scopes “monkey trial”  in Dayton, Tenn. (1925) and the tragic Floyd Collins incident in Kentucky (1926).

McCrumb, who is an accomplished author of Appalachian novels that frequently blend folklore and history with a tantalizing dash of the supernatural  (one of her recurring characters is gifted with “second sight”), has no trouble at all in transposing the entire cast of the Edith Maxwell case into a “fictional” personage. Edith Maxwell becomes Erma Morton, and Edith’s clever, self-promoting brother, Earl, is reincarnated as Harley Morton, who takes charge of his sister’s defense and immediately signs a contract with the Hearst papers, giving them sole rights to her story. As a consequence, all of the other journalists, including emissaries from a variety of “women’s rights” organizations, are only given limited access to Erma Morton.

However, the major emphasis is not on the accused.  Erma remains a remote and mysterious character until the culminating pages of The Devil Among the Lawyers, when she finally reveals a vague version of “what really happened.” Instead, McCrumb turns her attention to journalists — a collection of a half-dozen news hounds who run the gamut from inept but well-meaning (Carl Jennings) to purple-prosed sob sisters (Rose Hanelon) and jaded yellow journalists (Luster Swan). This motley crew arrives in Wise with motives that are as diverse as their characters.

Carl Jennings is fresh out of college and painfully aware of his lack of experience. Lacking the expense accounts (and the cynicism) of his worldly cohorts, he trusts his empathy for Emma Morton, believing that they share a common background. In addition, he feels he has “an ace up his sleeve” since he has a relative — Nora, a cousin — who shares the Bonesteel gift of “second sight.” He has managed to bring her to Wise to work in the kitchen of the boarding house where he stays. Is it possible that Nora will perceive the truth about Emma?

Like the majority of out-of-state journalists, Rose Hanelon arrives in Wise with preconceived ideas about the region. However, despite her cynical evaluation of the local populace (“ignorant and backward hillbillies”), Rose has become adept at writing stories about tragic young women who are victimized by brutish males. With the assistance of the photographer, Shade Baker, she sometimes creates fake photographs of impoverished mountain children to add pathos to her reports. Yet, despite her unethical approach to the Emma Morton trial, Rose emerges as a lonely, foolish woman who is hopelessly caught up in a doomed romance with a young, daredevil pilot.

Henry Jernigan emerges as the most memorable of McCrumb’s journalists. In addition to being to being a kind of effete snob who struggles to hold himself apart from his callous and vulgar companions, Henry resembles the noted journalist Lafcadio Hearn, who renounced his American citizenship and devoted his life to pursuing Japanese art and culture ... However, Henry Jernigan’s newly discovered paradise only lasts until a tragic event (a devastating earthquake/fire and the death of his dearest friend) forced him to leave Japan. Although he ekes out a livelihood by writing sophisticated articles filled with classical allusions and flowery bombast, he seems a lost and tortured soul. Certainly, he seems out of his element in Wise, West Virginia.

One of the most moving passages in The Devil Amongst the Lawyers describes Henry’s discovery that he “is not alone.” He is constantly accompanied by the spirit of a young Japanese woman who died many years ago in Japan ... a spirit that he cannot see. However, his ghostly companion is seen by others, those who have “second sight,” including Carl Jennings’ cousin, Nora.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, like Sharon Hatfield’s Never Seen the Moon, provides extensive evidence that journalists who were sent to cover sensational events in Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s tended to rely heavily on a singular literary work: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr. Published in 1908, this popular novel/play/film/outdoor drama was filled with graphic descriptions of violent, ignorant men and helpless victimized women.  Despite the fact that Appalachian culture and its people had changed radically in the intervening years, unethical journalists continued to use the same stereotypes. As one critic commented on the newspaper articles about Edith Maxwell’s murder trial, many of the reports were written by men who never left the hotel in Wise. They simply defined the people with “a jar of moonshine in one hand and a copy of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in the other.”

As a result of McCrumb’s emphasis on the role of unethical journalism in the Maxwell case, the final outcome of the novel seems anticlimactic, perhaps even irrelevant. In essence, McCrumb cracks the whip and her characters dance in accordance to her wishes. Unlike the vivid characters in many of her novels, the cast of The Devil Amongst the Lawyers appears stylized and one-dimensional. Perhaps that is the price for writing a novel that is more an ethical preachment than a tense murder mystery.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb. St Martin’s Press, 2010. 320 pages

Comment

As cooler weather plucks leaves from the trees, stripping the branches bare as a freshly-barbered poodle, as that wonderful green grass of summer now takes on a sheen of frost at dawn, as fall in the mountains deepens into the icy winds of winter, many summer visitors in these parts close up their houses and head south to a place where the sun still produces heat as well as light and where a cold snap means accidentally leaving the air-conditioning on high on a mild night.

By necessity or choice, most of us stay here, hunker down, and endure the mountain winters. Some Artic souls even take pleasure in the cold rains of November, the cannonades of icy wind that mark December, the gray skies and slick roads of January. But shivering alongside them are those sun-worshippers who would in a heartbeat fly like a bat out of a snowstorm to be warm again, to be oppressed by heat and humidity, to lie on a beach beneath a hot sun and melt into the white sand like an ice cube in a frying pan.

These are the people who, lacking the funds to take themselves permanently off to latitudes closer to the equator, will either spend the next few months shivering forlornly in their sweaters and blankets or else use their imagination to draw the heat and the sunshine to them.    

For those cold readers looking for a touch of warmth, they might try taking up in their frozen fingers James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The Glass Rainbow (ISBN 978-1-4391-2828-9, $25.99). Set in New Iberia, La., in the summertime, The Glass Rainbow throws off a steamy heat that should warm the hearts of all who love suspense and mystery in their fiction.

Dave Robicheaux, the New Orleans detective created long ago in the novel The Neon Rain, has aged in this latest story, but he still works for the New Iberia Police Department, fights the pull toward drinking a bottle of Beam to squelch his nightmares about by Vietnam and his police work, and fights the good fight for decency against a low-life, grubby world.

In The Glass Rainbow, Robicheaux and his best friend and former partner, Clete Purcel, set out to solve the murder of some young girls, including Bernadette Latiolais, a high school honor student snatched and killed while walking home from classes. In their quest for justice, the two men run across the same sort of lowlifes and scum encountered in previous Robicheaux novels.

They must fight against a best-selling author who is also a con-man and a killer; a descendent of the wealthy planter class, also a novelist, who has lured Alafair, Robicheaux’s daughter, into his circle of wealth and prestige; a pimp and drug dealer named Herman Stinga, who seems to enjoy himself most when he is irritating people; and a full company of other characters who seem to occupy nearly every point on anyone’s moral compass.

Though Dave Robicheaux figures prominently in The Glass Rainbow and the other books and has successfully battled the demons of his life — he is married to a beautiful, understanding woman, has raised a daughter, and lives in an idyllic Louisiana glade — it is Clete Purcel, Robicheaux’s partner, who most compellingly attracts our attention. Unlike Robicheaux, Purcel hasn’t come to terms with the torments of his past: he smokes too much, helps keep several liquor stores running a profit, runs around with women, and has a temper like a volcano. Early in the book, Robicheaux says that “Clete was the libidinous trickster of folklore, the elephantine buffoon, the bane of the Mob and all misogynists and child molesters, the brain-scorched jarhead who talked with a dead mamasan on his fire escape….” Robicheaux knocks at the door; Purcel kicks it off the hinges.

What sets Burke’s novels apart from others in the genre of suspense, however, is his description of Louisiana weather and landscape, descriptions so vivid that readers can soak up the heat of the Deep South from every page. Here, for example, is Burke’s description of a murder scene:

“We drove down the same levee where Layton had parked the pickup truck on the last day of his life. The water was high from the rain, lapping across the cypress knees, the strings of early hyacinths rolling in the waves. The sky was overcast, the wind steady out of the south, and in the distance I could see a flat bronze-colored bay starting to cap and moss straightening on a line of dead cypress trees.”

Such descriptions, repeated throughout the book and so planting a believable background to the story, open for us the door to Robicheaux’s world and allow us to step into his life and walk beside him. They carry us out of ourselves and our daily lives. Burke paints these landscapes with such bright and powerful colors and lines that they may help even a shivering reader remember that the whole world isn’t a winter wasteland of gunmetal skies, brown grass, and bare trees.  

The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2010. 448 pages

Comment

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo. Guideposts, 2009. 288 pages

Art and literary whodunits are so plentiful these days that they might nearly constitute their own genre. The DaVinci Code is the best-selling of these works, but anyone who visits a library or bookstore can find a whole tribe of detectives purporting to trace missing letters, paintings, or books of Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and others. Possession, A.S. Byatt’s superb novel of such sleuthing with its comparison of the Victorian to the post-modern, involves missing letters, poetry with clues, and nuanced speech. Missing medieval manuscripts, often with magical powers, are also popular topics for such fictions, ranging from The Name of the Rose to The Rule of Four.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find in Beth Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life (Guideposts, ISBN 13-978-08249-4771-2, $14.99) another such literary mystery. Here a young American, Emma Grant, still grieving and angry over her recently ended marriage and her seemingly ruined academic career, flies to London to search out some missing letters written by Jane Austen. Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrot of 22 Stanhope Gardens has contacted Emma, hinted at the letters, and invited her to come for a visit. Once Emma makes contact with Mrs. Parrot in London, the older woman reveals one authentic letter, then gives Emma a series of tasks to perform, all of them having to do with Austen’s life, before she will produce the other letters.

In the meantime, Emma has also met Adam Clark, an old friend who broke away from her after her marriage. Adam, also a professor, helps Emma find her way about London, shares meals with her, and slowly falls in love with her once again. Together they complete the last tasks set for Emma by Mrs. Parrot.

As she draws closer to the Austen letters and the band of women who have guarded these letters since Jane Austen’s death, thus respecting the author‘s last wishes to keep her private life separate from her books, Emma feels more and more empathy for Austen herself. An Austen fanatic since adolescence, Emma had begun blaming Austen and her dauntless heroines for deceiving her, for leading her to believe in happiness and dreams. Just as she is about to give up her dreams and her love of Austen, however, Emma instead finds herself attracted to the Austen of the missing letters, the woman who lost the man she loved to a storm at sea and who rejected another suitor offering her everything she desired but love.

On her quest for clues and academic glory, Emma not only falls in love with Adam, but also must face Edward, her ex-husband, again. In their marriage, Edward had continued his philandering with graduate students (Emma’s surprise at this adultery in turn surprises even the casual reader, as Emma was herself at one point the graduate student carrying on the affair). When apprehended by Emma, Edward had then helped support the graduate student in question in a plagiarism charge Emma had brought against her. Near the end of Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Edward comes crawling back to Emma, professing his love but in reality wanting her to sign a release stating that she won’t sue the university for her unjust termination.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life should appeal to Austen fans and to those who know little about the revered author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While Patillo herself is an impassioned amateur student of Austen‘s life and work, she writes to the readers through Emma with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Her quests take her, and us, to some of the places Austen lived. Her encounter with Austen’s desk in a cottage in Chawton perhaps best reveals Patillo’s love of Austen and her ability to pass that love to us through her own writing:

“Here, at this table, Jane Austen had risen from the ruins of her life like a phoenix from the ashes. She’d written or rewritten almost all of her novels on this tiny bit of wood, at this wonderful window overlooking a busy village street...

“In spite of all the distractions, she’d created her masterpiece with nothing more than paper, pen, and ink. Virginia Woolf was famous for saying that any woman who wanted to be a writer needed to have five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own. Austen had possessed neither of these things, and yet somehow she had outshone authors with far more worldly advantages.”

Jane Austen Ruined My Life undoubtedly belongs to that genre of fiction known these days as “chick-lit,” and should indeed please a wide audience of female readers: those who want a good detective story with a female protagonist, those who enjoy fiction set in England, those who treasure all things Austen. Although males in general may be disinclined to pick up such a book — just as, judging from their readership, they are disinclined to pick up Jane Austen’s novels — those men interested in women (which should include, we may assume, a goodly portion) might gain some insights by such an adventure. Here, for example, in one small incident Patillo reveals both a woman’s sense of dress and her modern conflict with the world of fashion. Visiting Chanel, Emma comes across a dress which she calls The One:

“Trying the thing on only made it worse. It fit perfectly, and the pink was the perfect shade for my skin tone. For the first time in almost a year, I felt pretty. Desirable. Worthy of attention. I knew that I was not supposed to invest my self-esteem in fashion, but when a dress made you look that good, how could you not?”

Comment

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 464 pages.

“Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Taken from her lecture “The Catholic Novelist in the South,” this statement by Flannery O’Connor is perhaps her best-known aphorism. It is interesting to read beyond this statement in the same lecture, where the author explains herself more deeply.

She writes that the South is Christ-haunted, that “as a belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with Christ-figures in our fiction” (The same may be said of the fiction of Nathanial Hawthorne, which O’Connor admired, in its own focus on faith and Christian morals in a time when New England was leaving behind its traditional religious beliefs). She goes on to say that “the writer from the South may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost his ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

O’Connor then said that “the South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies.” At the time O’Connor offered these thoughts, the South was torn by racial strife and change, and was in many ways radically altered from the South which shaped O’Connor and her writing. Today’s South has become a place of cities, of immigrants both from the North and from other countries, a land in which the bloody history and cruelties of the past have been effaced in some ways by social change, a culture in which the customs of the past have shrunken before the standardization brought by a national media.

The South of Flannery O’Connor’s last years was not the South of William Faulkner’s youth, and the South of this new millenium retains only the vestiges of the the South described by O’Connor in her novel Wise Blood or in her short-story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Our present situation does not preclude the existence of Southern writers — they are many, and range in subject and style from Lee Smith to Cormac McCarthy — but allows us to acknowledge the changes both in the South and in the preoccupations of her writers.

For a close-up look of Flannery O’Connor’s South, readers may now turn to Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 978-0-316-00066-6, $30). For readers unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor, here is a splendid introduction to her life and work; those familiar with her fiction should also relish this biographical tour.

In the first half of Flannery, Gooch uses georgraphy as an outline for O’Connor’s life, following the writer through her childhood in Savannah and Milledgeville, where she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in 1945; then to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where she soon enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts graduate writing program, the first of its kind in the nation; to Yaddo in upstate New York, where she enlarged her circle of friends to include Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick; to New York City, where she spent most of her time writing Wise Blood; to rural Connecticut, where she babysat for her friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, while continuing to write; and at last to Milledgeville, where she lived out the rest of her life after being diagnosed with lupus.

Gooch’s book is especially valuable for its portrait of O’Connor’s friendships. From her justly renowned collection of letters, The Habit of Being, we know that O’Connor, who spent the last third of her life in Milledgeville, often ill and far away from the literary life of New York, valued companionship and the visits of friends. In Flannery, Gooch underscores this importance of her friends to O’Connor.

Nearly every page of this biography recounts conversations and letters between the author and her far-flung acquaintances, giving us a portrait of a woman who loved lively talk and stimulating thought. Many of these friends — Maryat Lee, Betty Hester, Louise Abbot — differed greatly from O’Connor in their morals and religious beliefs, yet her own tolerance and their fascination with her mind bound them together. Through these portrayals Gooch gives us the background and times in which — and some might say, against which — O’Connor wrote.

Flannery does have its flaws. The notes at the back of the book are matched to various pages, but are difficult to follow. Gooch often skims over the literary side of O’Connor’s work, though few readers will come to this book seeking deep criticism. From time to time, Gooch also uses vague or even juvenile language, describing Andrew Lytle, for example, as “a card-carrying Southerner” and labeling some of the reviews of O’Connor’s work as “mean.”

When O’Connor was five years old, a newsreel company visited her home in Savannah to record on film her chicken, a buff Cochin bantam, walking backwards. O’Connor, who had taught the chicken this trick, remained a bird lover her entire life, becoming obsessed in her later years with raising peacocks. Gooch astutely uses the chicken walking backwards as a central theme to the author’s life and to his book. He writes:

“And just as her Cochin bantam morphed into a peacock ... so this clever child performer grew into the one-of-a-kind woman writer, ‘going backwards to Bethlehem,’ who freighted her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to much trendy literary culture.”

Comment

Many of us have attended a Methodist or Baptist “dinner on the grounds.” At these events, once popular across the South but now fading somewhat, church families gathered after the Sunday service for fellowship and a feast of pot-luck dishes: crispy fried chicken, baked ham, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn on the cob, fruit salads, cornbread, sweetened tea, and a table loaded down with pies and cakes so delicious and sweet that every yellow jacket in the county managed to find the place in 30 seconds flat.

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems (ISBN 978-1-4507-0152-5, $16) is a literary dinner on the grounds. In this collection, produced by the North Carolina Writers’ Network West and edited by Nancy Simpson, the resident writer at the John C. Campbell Folk School, we are given the opportunity to stroll down a banquet table prepared by a host of Western North Carolina writers, sampling poetry, fiction, and essays on topics as varied as corn dances and Jesus freaks, kudzu and pot-bellied stoves. This anthology offers verse by Byron Herbert Reece, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Richard Bronnum, and other talented poets, stories about growing up in the mountains and life today, and essays that ring as true and clear to the ear as an ax on a log in December.

In addition to its wide assortment of writers, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge should appeal to readers who like to take their pleasures close to home. Glenda Beall’s “The Trillium,” an essay about an older man named George and his invitation to come to his home to see his trillium, which turns out to be a single beautiful plant, reminds us to look for happiness in small things and out of the way places. Gary Carden’s “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” a story about his grandfather disguising himself as a fallen woman from Waycross, Ga., and paying a humorous visit to a neighbor, is told with the author’s usual keen wit and sense of comedic timing. Betty Reed’s “I Won’t Cry,” a poem about the financial woes of a mountain family, cuts close to the bone in its lament about the boarded-up plant and lost jobs brought by the last 20 years of economic hardship in our mountains.

Finally, Echoes Across the Blue Ridge might well serve as an anthology about the preservation of the spirit of Appalachia. Many of the poets and writers here take as their subject the people who have gone before them — grandfathers and grandmothers, ghosts, old-timers now gone who were living repositories of mountain life and culture. By adding their own words to those of earlier storytellers and balladeers, the writers here not only help to preserve their mountain past, but inculcate themselves into that past, bringing it into the present so that our heritage becomes not a thing for museums but a piece of living reality, threads to be spun into the fabric of our daily lives.

In “Beyond the Clearing,” the poem which Nancy Simpson chose to introduce this volume, James M. Cox sums up this blending of past and present, and the magic of the Blue Ridge:

Beyond the clearing there’s a way to see

what matters most, what graces age.

Come take my hand, come go with me.

Walk with me to the clean bright edge.

The Christmas season will soon be on us. Those looking for a gift for someone who needs a breath of home — a loved one away in the military, a student in college — or a present for some flatlander who has never enjoyed the privilege of living in these magical mountains would do well to wrap up and mail out Echoes Across The Blue Ridge.

•••

Political commentator and writer Glenn Beck, beloved by many of the Tea Party and despised by both liberals and many conventional Republicans, recently released yet another book, a suspense novel titled The Overton Window (ISBN 978-1-4391-8430-1, $26).

Beck’s novel tells the story of Noah Gardner, son of one of the wealthiest men on the planet, the owner of a powerful public relations firm who has partnered up with certain elements of the federal government and is using all his skill and knowledge to steer the country toward a form of fascism. Noah is indifferent about the changes in the country and in the firm until he meets Molly Ross (perhaps named for Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross of Revolutionary War fame), a committed member of a group of patriots fighting the changes which Noah is unwittingly help to effect.

Misleadingly subtitled “A Thriller” — compared to other books in this genre, The Overton Window provides few thrills, and is so mediocre in its development of character and plot that its publication may well lay to rest rumors that Beck hires ghost-writers to put together his books — this novel will undoubtedly sell well through the holiday shopping season but will then be forgotten.

This neglect will be unfortunate, for The Overton Window contains in its gruel-thin plot an important message for all Americans, liberal and conservative alike: the growing intrusion of the federal government into the lives of American citizens. When used by the federal government, or by a powerful corporation, the concept of the Overton Window, defined succinctly on the novel’s fly-leaf as a powerful technique “manipulating public perception so that ideas previously thought of as radical begin to seem acceptable over time,” can bring about alterations in our behavior and what we regard as acceptable policies. It can change how we regard our own civil liberties vis-à-vis the government.

Once regarded as a servant of the people, the government is now largely regarded as master. Through our fear of terrorism, for example, we have extended to certain federal agencies powers which our grandparents would have regarded as anathema.

Though liberals and conservatives find little common ground these days, surely both groups might join in a mutual distrust of government control. In this area, Beck’s The Overton Window, particularly the “Afterword” in which he discusses the trends in government and large corporations of the last 40 years, calls all of us to become more aware of our rights as human beings and more vigilant regarding infringements by the government on those rights.

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays, and Poems edited by Nancy Simpson. Winding Path Press, 2010. 256 pages

Comment

The Night Villa by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2008. 413 pages.

 

Over the last decade, Carol Goodman has rightly earned a reputation as a skilled novelist whose themes and characters are often focused on the study of Latin and Greek, and on the ancient world. The Lake of Dead Languages, for example, was a minor masterpiece of language and plot set in the classics department of a school for young women.

In her latest novel, The Night Villa (ISBN 978-0-345-47960-0, $14), Goodman enhances her reputation and stakes out an even stronger claim to a territory all her own.

A victim of a shooting at the University of Texas — the wound has left her missing part of one lung — Sophie Chase, professor of classics with a special interest in the mystery religions of the Roman Empire, joins an expedition to the ruins of Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii. Here Sophie hopes to heal her damaged spirit while she and her academic companions unearth and read some writings on religion by Phineas Aulus, a Roman traveler and chronicler believed to have been lost at sea right before the explosion of Vesuvius.

Along with Sophie, we soon see that not everything on the expedition is as it appears on the surface. Is John Lyros, the multimillionaire who has helped pay for the dig, really as benign as he appears? Is Elgin Lawrence, another classics professor and Sophie’s old lover, guilty of all the wrongs Sophie has attributed to him: womanizing, cowardice, irresponsibility? Why does the Tetraktys, a group of spiritualists drawn together by their love for the ideas of Pythagoras, display such an interest in a certain ancient manuscript?

Beside these finely-drawn characters and ideas Goodman sets the story of Phineas and Iusta, a Roman slave girl owned by the devious Calatoria Vimidis, a widow interested in the Eleusian mysteries. The dialogues between Calatoria and Phineas, and the running commentary and thoughts of Sophie as she reads their words, reveal to us some of the philosophy and rites of these gnostic religions, based on the worship of Dionysus, Demeter, and Persephone: the solemn mysteries, the ecstasy and drunkenness of the bacchanalia, the use of sex, drugs, dance, and physicality to pierce the illusions of this world and reveal the nature of the gods.

Phineas, a fictional creation, is an especially marvelous character, mostly because he himself is interested in all that goes on about him. He would be a fine travel companion, a little fussy perhaps, but overall adventurous and eager to learn new ideas and facts. His comments on his hostess, Calatoria, are sharp and witty, and his relationship with young Iusta, with whom he sleeps after Calatoria gives her over to him for a night’s pleasure, grows into a bond of trust and friendship.

Although her Roman characters are largely fictional, Goodman clearly knows well the ancient world and the technology used today to explore that world. The Herculaneum of 79 A.D. comes to life on these pages as Phineas makes his rounds of the city:

“I descended into an elegant vestibule supported by four enormous red columns and washed my hands at a small basin with water that flowed from the head of Apollo. I had to admit that the old freedman had been right about the elegance of these baths. The cloakroom where a slave took my clothing was quite beautifully paneled in polished woods, the linen I was given to wrap myself in was of the finest weave. As I took my place on the marble bench of the apodyterium, I admired the panels of warriors locked in combat and cupids engaged in their own sports.”

Goodman’s explanation of the use of computers and electronics in deciphering ancient manuscripts will please readers who may have wondered how scrolls recovered from the mud of centuries from places like Herculaneum and Alexandria could still be legible. In a short interview with Goodman included in the back of the book, Goodman says that “More than most, this book had a very precise moment of origin. My friend Ross Scaife is a professor of classics at the University of Kentucky, and he told me of a grant he’d been given to use multispectral imaging to study the charred manuscripts found at Herculaneum’s Villa dei Papiri. I thought this was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard of and immediately wanted to base a book’s plot around a similar exploration.”

The Night Villa is a fine novel that should please many different kinds of readers — those who love action and adventure as well as those who look for fiction with a literary flair.

•••

Civil War buffs will especially enjoy Tom Chaffin’s The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy (ISBN 978-0-8090-9512-4, $26). Extensively researched, The H.L. Hunley, the story of the Confederate submarine which made history by being the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy ship, reads like a novel. Chaffin covers the construction of the submarine, the crews who died serving on it, the possible reasons for the Hunley’s sinking, and the recovery of the boat in the year 2000. Especially touching is the bravery of the men who, despite various catastrophes, continued to volunteer to man the Hunley.

Comment

Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sharon Kay Penman. G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

 

Politics is not a game for sissies. It is not even necessarily a game for the good of heart.

In the twelfth century, King Stephen of England attempted to act with restraint in regard to his rival claimant for the throne, Mathilda. His moderation and mercy helped create a civil war that cost the English countryside dearly in the numbers of villages burned and inhabitants slain.

The man who followed him onto the throne, Henry II, was a different beast altogether. From his ancestors — his great-grandfather was William I, the Norman duke who in 1066 conquered England, won the throne, and changed the world forever — Henry inherited the ability to win the loyalty of men and the will to crush and destroy all who rebelled against him.

This king led an extraordinary life. At 19, two years before he took the throne, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from the King of France. Their passionate, tempestuous marriage eventually landed Eleanor in a remote castle, where she was confined for 15 years. She bore Henry many children, including Kings Richard I and John, and led those children in rebellion against their father.

Henry is also famous for helping to create the English courts, for overseeing an empire — in addition to England, he made inroads into Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and ruled a large part of France — and for his efforts to take charge of the English church, which was Catholic at the time and which owed its allegiance to Rome. Henry wanted to bring the ecclesiastical courts into his own system — a cleric charged with murder could only be defrocked if convicted in a church court — and to control the monies of the Church in England.

In pursuit of these ambitions, he pushed Thomas Becket, his chancellor and friend, into becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. The worldly Becket, who had warned Henry against making this appointment, underwent a dramatic transformation from fashionable chancellor to an austere archbishop. He opposed Henry on every front, so that the frustrated King finally shouted to his court: “Can none of the cowards eating my bread free me from this turbulent priest?” Three knights took him at his word, crossed the Channel, and murdered the archbishop at his Canterbury altar. Becket became an instant martyr, and Henry lost his chance at control over the church.

Such a dramatic life, filled with wars and worries, with patricidal sons and a passionate wife, deserves a good storyteller. We can find just such a chronicler in Sharon Kay Penman, who continues her ongoing examination of Henry, Eleanor, and those around them in her novel Devil’s Brood: The Last Days of the Tempestuous Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2008, $28.95).

Penman begins her novel in April of 1172, when Henry has sat on the throne for nearly 20 years. As the title implies, the king in this fiction is chiefly concerned with his rebellious sons and wife. The alliances between his sons and other barons were ever shifting during the last 15 years of Henry’s reign, resulting in constant battles, political and military, in which he would have to assert himself over his offspring.

What makes Sharon Kay Penman’s Devil’s Brood a remarkable read is her deep knowledge of the twelfth century coupled with her ability to bring characters alive on the page. In terms of the history of the period, she takes time to explain events by skillfully incorporating them into the story, letting the characters carry the issues to the readers. At the end of the book, Penman — a grand name for an author — takes the time to explain at length why certain misconceptions of this age and its king, promoted in part by the film “The Lion in Winter,” remain with us. With wit and clarity, for example, she explains to us how different the medieval ideas of sexuality were from our own.

But Penman’s style and her recreation of these historical figures are surely what make her book a winner in terms of historical fictions. She has a knack for blending the language of the Middle Ages with the language of our time, so that the dialogue seems neither stilted nor overly modern; she offers clear descriptions of scenes and people who today would seem quite foreign to us; she makes us feel and empathize with problems solved long ago and with people long dead.

The following exchange, for example, between Eleanor and Henry allows us a glimpse of Penman’s affinity for this age:

“’I fear,’ Henry said, ‘that I could not get out of this bed if the castle caught fire. Jesus, woman, are you seeking to kill me? My very bones feel like melted wax.’

Eleanor cocked a skeptical brow. ‘If lust could kill, Harry, you’d have been dead years ago.’

‘I never claimed to be a monk, love. That was your first husband, as I recall.’

Amused in spite of herself, she hid her smile in the crook of her arm. ‘Mock him if you will, but poor Louis has you beaten in one race at least — his sprint toward sainthood.’”

In these few lines, Penman shows us the feelings that run between Henry and Eleanor as well as the fact that Henry, unlike Louis, is not a saint. Since Devil’s Brood runs to more than 700 pages, and since Penman wastes little breath in her writing on the extraneous, the reader is guaranteed an excellent lesson in history told in an exciting way.

Highly recommended.

Comment

First up for review this week is Piers Paul Read’s The Death of a Pope (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-295-4), the story of a terrorist plot following on the heels of the death of John Paul II in which the terrorists work to kill the cardinals who have gathered to elect a new pontiff.

As conceived by Read, Juan Uriarte, a brilliant ex-priest, an advocate of liberation theology who works on behalf of the poor and downtrodden in Third World countries, makes a memorable villain. Through him, Read gives us access to the mind of a terrorist, reminding us of a dynamic of terrorism sometimes forgotten by so many today, that a terrorist is not only a hardboiled fanatic, but also an idealist. Uriarte believes so strongly in his cause that he uses anyone — the lovely reporter Kate Ramsey, a cardinal of the Church, and any number of innocent bystanders — to achieve his murderous goals. Near the end of the novel Uriarte offers this insight into his philosophy of compassion and blood.

Kate has left the flat, Uriarte repeats the words of Saint Paul over and over again, sitting hunched on the edge of the sofa and watching the coverage of the conclave on CNN. Who could doubt that God was for him? His impossible project is about to come to fruition. “I come to bring the fire and the sword,” Jesus had said, using the images pertinent to his times. Here was not fire but nerve gas and detonators rather than the sword. But the cause was the same: truth, love, liberation — the end of the perversion of Christianity by a cabal of stubborn old men.”

Truth, love, liberation: these are noble ideas which have also served as the banners of tyrants for the last century. Against them in The Death of a Pope, Piers Paul Read has placed two men: Kate’s priest-uncle, Father Luke Scott, and David Kotovski, a British anti-terrorism agent. Kotovski spends much of The Death of a Pope alternately wooing Kate and trying to track down Uriarte, while Father Luke serves as a foil to the corruption of the cardinal, to the ugly idealism of the terrorists, and the loss of faith suffered by Kate. He is a priest who questions himself yet believes beyond his own limitations in a supreme being.

“Luke recognizes that in some ways he is a ‘spoiled’ priest .... He accepts that if he were to spend as much time in prayer as he does watching television he would be a better priest, but he knows his own limits and assumes that God knew them too.”

Of all the characters in the book, Kate Ramsey is perhaps the most sympathetic. Unlike Kotovski and Uriarte, two antagonists who clearly have the strength to battle to the death for their causes, Kate is a woman caught in the middle of their war who is at the same time fighting to find her identity. In her trip to North Africa, for example, where Uriarte has invited her to witness the impoverished camps of refugees, she struggles to maintain some journalistic objectivity even as she falls under the spell of the idealistic and handsome ex-priest.

The Death of a Pope satisfies readers on several levels. Read gives us a look inside the circles of modern terrorism and the cross-traffic between radical groups whose surface objectives would seem to preclude them from ever working together. He performs a seemingly credible job in his depictions of counter-terrorism. Most of all, however, Read reminds us that the struggle is not so much a conflict of bombs and bullets and nerve gas, but one of ideologies. The Death of a Pope should give us pause to reflect on where we ourselves stand in the worldwide ideological wars now being waged on every continent of the globe.

•••

In The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life, Conroy goes on at great length about the magical spell Eugene Walter cast over him with his words, his enthusiasm, and his cooking. Conroy’s description has in turn entranced his readers, who have gone in search, via the Internet and used book stores, for the writings of this Southern eccentric. Author of several novels, award winning short stories, fine poetry, and the best-selling American Cooking: Southern Style, in the Time-Life Series, Walter also worked as an actor in Italy, composed music, and befriended admirers from Paris to Rome to Mobile, Ala.

Readers interested in this unusual man can read about him in Milking the Moon, an oral autobiography put together by Walter’s friend, Katherine Clark. Another overlooked book which offers Walter’s personality along with many of his special recipes is Delectable Dishes from Termite hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes. Here are a lifetime of recipes from Paris, Rome, and Walter’s beloved South. Scattered throughout Delectable Dishes are wonderful bits of advice on cooking, stressing especially the importance of fresh ingredients. Of pepper, for example, Walter writes:

“Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. Don’t bother. Freshly-ground pepper has volatile oils which only last about an hour after grinding. This oil is an aid to digestion, a stimulant to appetite, and as recent researches in England would have us believe, a help in cleansing the blood, rather after the fashion of garlic. But dead dust is only dead dust.”

I don’t know about cleansing the blood, but a recently purchased pepper mill has added flair to my own meals.

Thumbs up for Termite Hall.

Comment

South of Broad by Pat Conroy. Nan A. Talese, 2009. 528 pages.

 

In his latest novel, South of Broad (ISBN 978-0-385-41305-3, $29.95), Pat Conroy writes with his usual sure touch of subjects and places familiar to his fans: Charleston and South Carolina’s Low Country, the upheavals in the South in the 1960s, the friction between parents and their children and the coming of age of troubled adolescents. Conroy once again fills each page, casting out before his readers, like causally offered treasures, his gifts as a writer: his ability to describe landscape, his magical mix of words and syntax, his singular ability to describe the ways and rhythms of the South. Listen as he describes Charleston on the first page of South of Broad:

“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of the palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of the Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures know as Charlestonians ....”

In all his books, even The Pat Conroy Cookbook, Conroy brings alive the enchantment of the marshes and woodlands surrounding the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, the humidity of the air on a hot August night, the look of the stars above Charleston Harbor, the feel of the city’s time-worn streets.

Despite these strengths, however, South of Broad is a deeply-flawed book, long on mood and description, and short on common-sense or plot. Leopold Bloom King — his Ph.D mother, who serves as principal of the local high school, has named him in honor of James Joyce’s great creation — is, like all of Conroy’s protanonists, an affable guy, a former athlete, a mild failure in finance, a failure in marriage, a man born, as Eliot once wrote, to be “an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two.”

As the story progresses, shifting in time between the late 1960s and late 1980s, Leopold Bloom King introduces us to his friends. In his previous novels, Conroy usually includes characters who are 1) persecuted because of their views on race and sexuality; and 2) sexually abused in their youth by adults. Here in South of Broad, Conroy seems to lose all control of his material, and we are led through a carnival of sexual abuse and racial strife.

Several of King’s friends have suffered sexual abuse as children. Nearly all the parents of the post-World War II generation abuse their children in some way, spiritually or physically, and it gets worse as the story stumbles along: one father is a serial killer, several parents are alcoholics, two orphans are anonymously abused, King’s brother is abused by a priest (an incident which Conroy cloaks in mystery, but which is so obvious from after the first 50 pages that the reader wonders when, not if, the priest will be found out for his crimes).

Some of the incidents and characters in this book require a suspension of belief that would support a bridge across the Atlantic. Sheba Poe, daughter of a madman and victim of extreme child abuse, beguiles the entire town of Charleston, with the exception of King’s Joyce-obsessed mother, and becomes a world-renowned movie star. Conroy makes her so loveable that we might even consider that he is making a case for child sexual abuse. Hey, he seems to be shouting at us through his hysterical prose, here’s what happens to a victim of a sadistic father. Trevor, Sheba’s gay, musically talented and verbally gifted brother, is a ridiculous character. How did he learn to speak so elegantly? How did he learn to play the piano so well? Scorned by his drunken mother and insane father, how did he manage to conquer the hearts of the citizens of San Francisco through his music?

And these are the well-developed characters. Starla Whitehead, an orphan, also abused, who is later married to King, remains an enigmatic figure throughout the book, rarely addressed except when King laments her absence. Monsignor Max Sadler, who has allowed himself to be photographed raping Steve — King’s older brother, who then commits suicide because of the attack — in no way fits the profile of the abusive priests of the last 20 years. Certainly he is not theologically stupid enough to remark to Max, as he does at the end of the book, “I’ll be with my Father in heaven, very soon.”

In another scene, King and his friends are trying to rescue Trevor from the clutches of a gay-hating man, Bunny, who weighs 400 pounds, played football for the Raiders, and has filled his decaying San Francisco house with gay men dying of AIDS to steal their social security checks (At one point, King is confronted by Bunny on a staircase, and fears for his life. Are we supposed to believe that the gargantuan Bunny can run up those stairs and then tear a man apart? For heaven’s sake ....)

Here are all the flaws that have marred some of Conroy’s other novels — the maudlin, creaky plot, the cartoon figures, the black-and-white morality of the characters, the bashing of institutions and places so beaten up by everyone else for the last 40 years that to keep hitting them seems like a sort of abuse in itself.

Thumbs down on South of Broad.

Comment

Some novels ask for a close reading. Entranced by the author’s language, intrigued by an intricate plot, and in some rare fortunate circumstances captivated by both, we slowly digest such a book, feasting on a banquet of sentences and paragraphs, lulled by the hypnotic words into a sort of trance from which we emerge blinking and stretching, temporarily discomforted by the world of commerce, home, children and spouse awaiting our return. Such novels provide not only food for thought but a five-star meal for the senses, one of those long leisurely dinners during which each dish brings its own special delights.

Then there are the novels that demand to be gulped down like hamburgers after Lent.

The Jack Reacher novels are just such fictional hamburgers, suspense stories that we wolf down like a bagful of Big Macs one after the other, wiping our napkins with satisfaction across our mouths after finishing one book but already licking our lips over the next one.

Created by Lee Child, a native of England and former television director who now lives in New York City, Jack Reacher is a big man with a special set of skills, a West Point graduate and former officer in a special unit of the Military Police who, after cutting short his army career, drifts about the American landscape looking for peace and quiet, but finding only trouble. Seeking to live life by his own lights, Reacher has given up all normal physical ties to the Army and to society at large. He has no home, no car, no insurance, no cell phone, no computer, no wife or children, no suitcase, no place to lay his head at night except the nearest cheap motel. He wears his clothes three or four days before tossing them and buying some more. In his pocket he carries cash, an old passport for identification and a toothbrush.

Casting away the accoutrements of daily living may sound like a good idea for a man who values his privacy and who marches to a different drummer, but his plans of solitude and the simple life rarely work well for Reacher. In each of Child’s novels, Reacher quickly finds himself fighting, either by circumstance or design, platoons of murderers, thieves, drug-runners, and terrorists. His enlistment in this ongoing one-man war ensnares him in the lives of others as well: the cops who join him in his fight, old friends resurrected from his past, women who often take him to their hearts and beds.

October promises the release of Worth Dying For (ISBN 0385544317, $20), the fifteenth Reacher suspense novel. While defending a woman against an abusive husband, Reacher runs into a family clan of outlaws with blood on their hands. Reacher soon finds himself not only trying to fight these men, but also becomes involved in a case concerning a missing 8-year-old girl.

Though Child gives his readers plenty of action, well-rounded characters, and a galloping prose style, he does on occasion fall flat on his face. In Killing Floor, his first Reacher novel, Child has Reacher get off a bus on a whim near a small town in Georgia. This casual decision making is characteristic of Reacher — he has no schedules to keep, no place he has to be — but a casual stroll through the town quickly embroils him in a full-blown war against men with murder on their hands and blood money in their bank accounts. While he fights against an international counterfeiting operation, he comes across the body of his murdered brother, a federal agent investigating the illegal money.

In later novels, Reacher says several times that he dislikes coincidences, yet this novel is predicated on the near-impossible premise that Reacher would stumble across his brother this way. In the other books, too, Reacher seems to make mistakes and to rely on luck as much as his skills. Some of his abilities to track his adversaries down — his ability to think like a criminal would put Sherlock Holmes to shame — seem beyond the realm of belief. Several times, for instance, he tracks people to their hotels simply by guessing which hotel, out of a score of possibilities, they might choose for a night’s lodging. Even for a man who spent over a decade in the military police — and how and why did a West Point graduate choose the military police for his branch — Reach knows a little too much about too many things — guns, locks, man-hunting, military hardware — to be completely credible as a character.

Despite these flaws, Jack Reacher and his adventures are hard to resist. Child’s keen eye for character and for the American landscape, his research into weapons, his knowledge of the armed forces and criminals, and his creation of Reacher himself, a bold man following a code of justice and honor: this grand combination makes for great reading. These novels may be hamburgers rather than pate de foie gras, but they’re some of the best burgers going.

Try one. And then try not to gulp your food.

•••

Allen Speer will appear at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10. He will discuss and sign his latest book, From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy, Part III (reviewed in the Smoky Mountain News in June 2010). For more information call Malaprops at 828.254.6734.


Worth Dying For by Lee Child. Delacorte Press, 2010. 400 pages.

Comment

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy. Picador, 2000. 272 pages.

 

Walker Percy not only wrote these lines (see below), but he also lived them. He recognized early on that he was indeed a peculiar bird. He came from an ancient and notable family; both his grandfather and his father were suicides; his mother died three years later in an automobile accident when Percy was 16 years old. Percy’s Uncle Will, a melancholic bachelor, writer and Southern aristocrat who practiced Stoicism as his life’s philosophy, then raised Percy and his brothers. Shelby Foote, who went on to write novels and the three-volume history, The Civil War, was Percy’s best friend then, and remained friends with him for life.

Percy followed a number of twisting paths for the next 15 years. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1937, Percy attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University for four more years, earning a degree in medicine. Once he had started his internship at Bellvue, however, Percy fell ill with tuberculosis and remained ill for the next four years.

This time of illness ranks as an enormous turning point in Percy’s life. By now his Uncle Will had died, and Percy was left with enough of an inheritance so that he didn’t have to work to earn a living. He had begun to take a deep interest in religion and faith and eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. He also found himself intrigued by philosophy, particularly the existentialists, by language and linguistics, and by imaginative literature. With time on his hands, he gave himself over to a third phase of higher education and began sending out articles to various journals of learning.

Encouraged by Shelby Foote — their letters, collected in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, offers a fascinating look at two men who, though so different in many respects, shared common roots and a love of literature — Walker Percy began writing fiction. In 1960, after many revisions, Percy’s The Moviegoer was accepted for publication by Knopf. The novel won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962, and Percy’s writing career blossomed.

For the rest of his life — he died in 1990 of prostate cancer — Percy explored a combination of themes that became his trademark: the contemporary shifts in Southern culture, existentialism, semiotics, Catholicism, and the post-modern human being. Having once stated, after giving up his career in medicine, that he would study the pathology of the soul rather than of the body, Percy wrote five more novels, several essays, two collections of essays, and Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Lost in the Cosmos brings together many of the themes Percy explored. Written with a high sense of humor — ”Thought Experiment II: Explain why Moses was tongue-tied and stage-struck before his fellow Jews but had no trouble talking to God” — Lost in the Cosmos gives us what Percy intended: a look, through questions and examples, into the soul, a dissection of the human heart that leaves us laughing and thinking hard at the same time. Though parts of the book are already slightly dated — his hilarious spoof of the Phil Donahue Show, in which he perfectly captures the language and gestures of Donahue while at the same time introducing us to the thought of John Calvin, Colonel Pelham, and an alien visitor from space — Percy’s wit, his clarity of language, and his insights awaken our minds and enliven our own thoughts.

Readers who have yet to read Walker Percy might do best to begin with The Moviegoer or with Lost in the Cosmos (the middle third of the book, a 40-page treatise on elementary semiotics, can be hard going and may be skipped). The Second Coming, which is the sequel to Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, may appeal to readers who like their settings close to home; Percy visited Western North Carolina several times, and The Second Coming, a novel which, as one reviewer wrote, depicts a mental patient and a horny widower falling in love, is partially set in and around Highlands.

At least three biographies of Percy exist, each fine in its own way. Patrick Samway, S.J., was a close friend of Percy’s, and his Walker Percy: A Life gives us an excellent and eminently readable portrait of the man and the writer. Jay Tolson’s A Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy is perhaps better written, and focuses somewhat more on Percy’s literary works. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be your Own: An American Pilgrimage offers a different look at the writer from Covington, Louisiana; in addition to Percy, Elie includes in this fine 500-page study of Catholic writers Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Dorothy Day.

Though it is too early to determine how time and circumstance will treat Percy’s fiction, that his books remain in print is an encouraging sign. We continue, apparently, to see his books as mirrors, as reflections of our own questioning and questing selves. His appeal remains broad; he offers much that remains pertinent to our lives, and his analysis of the angst and storms of our time continues to give to us both hope and understanding.

Comment

Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones. William Morrow, 2009. 284 pages

 

Memoirs by children of famous people and children of alcoholics — and often the twain do meet — have long occupied a special niche in the fields of biography and substance abuse. Two of Hemingway’s sons wrote about their father, famed for his writing and his drinking. In Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever explored the work, sexuality, and drunkenness of her father, John Cheever. In a scathing memoir both admired and reviled by reviewers, Christopher Dickey dissected his father, the poet and author of Deliverance, James Dickey.

Now Kaylie Jones, daughter of the writer James Jones and a novelist in her own right, adds to this shelf with Lies My Mother Never Told Me (ISBN 978-0-06-177870-4, $25.99). Yet while her father, most famous for his first published novel, From Here to Eternity, receives a great deal of her attention, it is primarily to her mother and her mother’s addiction to alcohol that Kaylie Jones turns her gimlet eye.

After serving in the Pacific during World War II, James Jones traveled around America (he briefly lived in Maggie Valley), working odd jobs while trying to write a novel about the war. Lowney Handy, a married woman with whom Jones had an affair, helped support Jones during this time. Eventually, Scribners published From Here to Eternity. The novel won the National Book Award, become an enormous bestseller, and was followed by an Academy Award-winning film.

It was at this time that Jones met Gloria, who would become his wife and soulmate. For many years, they lived in Paris, where their home became an oasis for friends and a literary salon. They had one daughter, Kaylie, and an adopted son, Jamie. When Jones discovered that he was suffering from congestive heart failure, the family returned to the United States and eventually settled on Long Island, where Jones worked on his last novel, Whistle, until his death in 1977.

Though several biographies of Jones exist — a favorite for many people is the Willie Morris account of their friendship — Kaylie Jones’ account of her parents lives, their parties, their drinking, and the effect all of these things on her own life adds much to our understanding of James Jones. It reveals him as an author who could be crude, who seemed to lack deep intellectual resources, but who was nonetheless a compassionate man and a writer who valued honesty in his work and in his life. When Kaylie Jones as an adult eventually comprehends how much her relationship with her mother damaged her, she writes of her father:

“I wondered how a man as wise, intelligent, liberated, and experienced as my father could not have seen any of it. But, then, he’d not had the sanest relationships with women before he’d met my mother. He’d not been looking for a housewife and a mother for his children, after all, but for a lifelong companion who would support his work, and his creative process, and, of course, his strong sexual desires, and his heavy drinking.”

These things Gloria Jones fulfilled for her husband to her utmost abilities. Even Kaylie’s account, so critical of her, recognizes to what extent Gloria backed her husband in his work. She protected him from interruptions, rearranged her schedule to fit his working hours, satisfied his sexual desires, and apparently outdid him in lifting a glass at the bar.

What suffered in this arrangement was her relationship with her children, particularly with Kaylie. Gloria Jones was clearly unsuited to motherhood. Incident after incident reveals a woman who constantly denigrated her daughter, whose insults could be as savage as knife cuts, who frequently parceled out her children’s care to hired helpers, who offered Kaylie both too much freedom and too many rebukes when that freedom brought trouble. Between the chapters of her memoir, Kaylie Jones tells stories that her mother told to family and friends. These reveal a woman with a sharp sense of humor, a sharp and profane tongue, and an ability to hurt people deeply and quickly through insult and sarcasm. It is easy to see how such a parent, who loved her daughter but clearly had no idea of how to express that love, could do major damage.

Though some blame for Gloria’s behavior surely rests with her mysterious past — she rarely told tales from her childhood — Kaylie rightly points to alcohol as being responsible for her mother’s erratic behavior. Looking through photographs of her childhood, she realizes how infrequently her mother is without a glass in her hand. Rarely in the book itself does Gloria appear stone-cold sober. She either has a drink or is rushing off to a party where she will find a drink.

Like many memoirs of this sort, Lies My Mother Never Told Me has a self-pitying tone that can on occasion annoy even a sympathetic reader. Perceptive as she is in regard to her parents and their friends, Kaylie Jones seems to lack a crucial ability to critique her own self with much depth or disinterestedness. Once she becomes a mother, she also becomes, oddly enough, blind to her own faults. She is aware of every small detail of her daughter’s life: her moods, her appetites, her dress. She becomes the sort of doting mother one would dread sitting next beside on a long-distance flight.

One unintentionally funny episode in the book occurs when, while teaching, she leaves her daughter with her mother. Eventually, both Kaylie and her husband explode in an enormous row with Gloria because the little girl is gaining weight.

That observation aside, Lies My Mother Never Told Me is a fine memoir of a bygone era in American letters as well as an excellent account of the damage sometimes done to us by those we most love.

(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..)

Comment

A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany by Lucy Beckett. Ignatius Press, 2009. 520 pages

World War II has long provided Americans with literary meat and drink. The combat novels of men like James Jones, Norman Mailer, and Anton Myrer remain in print; scores of espionage novels centered on the War remain popular among readers; writers as different in temperament as William Manchester and Eugene Sledge have given us memoirs that will long be read as meditations on both the war and on combat and conflict in general.

In A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany (Ignatius Press, 978-1-58617-269-5, $19.95), Lucy Beckett, an English teacher, author and mother of four children, has written a thick novel different from most other fictional takes on the war. Easily summarized — Beckett focuses on a group of young students, mostly Germans and Poles, who become friends in the 1920s and 1930s, and so stand witness to the rise of both Stalinism and Nazism — A Postcard From The Volcano is not so easily digested. Beckett takes us on a long, leisurely tour of battlefields — not the bloody arenas of Stalingrad, Normandy or the Blitz, but the battlefields of the mind and heart of intelligent young people who, caught up in the maelstrom of ideology and faith struggling for dominance in Europe at the time, are forced to pick sides in the growing conflict and then to live by their decisions.

What separates A Postcard From The Volcano from other books about the war is its emphasis on ideas. Beckett understands that concepts like Nazism, Communism, dialectical materialism, and even Catholicism and Protestantism do not emerge full-blown out of nowhere. These philosophies and the others she brings into discussion in her novel — the discussions among the students range from Shakespeare to Nietzsche, from Plato to St. Paul — supply the foundations for Europe’s cathedral of horrors and heroism: the Holocaust, the millions of deaths from war and aerial bombings, the brave but seemingly futile resistance to an all-powerful state by so many Germans, Poles, and Russians.

Max Ernst, Count von Hofmannswaldeu, a German from Silesia, stands at the center of Beckett’s story. Born 13 years before the end of the First World War, Max comes of age in a Germany torn by war and by the tribulations that follow in the aftermath of that war. His father, an aristocrat proud both of the Prussian military and of Germany in general, is murdered during a riot in a village near their home after the war; Max’s brother, a soldier of the Great War, joins the brutal Freikorps and eventually helps bring Hitler to power; his mother, who is Jewish, proves the cause of Max’s own fall from state approval; his mentor and tutor, Dr. Mendel, also Jewish, gives Max lessons in humanism along with Latin and Greek.

When Max goes off to the university, he befriends a group of students who will influence the direction of his life and his thinking. Strongest among these influences is Adam, a cosmopolitan free-thinker with whom Max debates religion, science and philosophy. He also falls in love with Anna Halperin, a Jewish girl who is forced by Nazism to return to Russia then to Lithuania, where she marries and has children.   

These two friends and others — medical and law students — are, by the end of A Postcard From The Volcano, swept up into the rushing current of history surrounding them. Each discovers the truth of the adage: “You may not be interested in war and politics, but politics and war is very much interested in you.” Each character in Beckett’s novel must play out the conflicts of politics and war while still trying to find meaning and hope in their philosophies and various faiths.

A Postcard From The Volcano will not appeal to a wide audience of readers. Beckett gives over much of her book to conversations, long discursive discussions about ideas and political events which will undoubtedly try the patience of many visitors to the book, particularly those who are accustomed to reading today’s fast-paced novels. Even readers who enjoy the book may find themselves wishing that Beckett had opted for more action rather than so much talk, that she had added more excitement to her novel, the thuggery, street fights, and violence that marked this European era.

Such an option, however, might well have damaged the purpose behind Postcard From The Volcano. As we follow the winding trail of opinions and ponderings highlighting Beckett’s novel, we begin to discern a special purpose in her prose, the reason behind so much wind and so little lightning. Beckett seems to offer to us the subtle message that ideas are more important than actions, for it is ideas, those creations of humankind that can shape and caress the lives of a million followers, that inevitably form the matchsticks and powder of action.

Ignatius Press, which normally puts out books closely associated with Catholicism, deserves commendation for publishing A Postcard From The Volcano. Few other publishers would be willing to touch such a collection of dialogues that at first glance seem part freshman bull sessions and part a recording of conversations taken from the teachers’ lounge in the philosophy department of a prestigious university. Despite this canard, A Postcard From The Volcano and its grinding historical recreation is worth the extra effort. Its analyses will stay with loyal readers for a long time, a reminder of our past, a reflection of sorts of our present, and a possible warning about the near future.

Comment

Up River: A Novel of Attempted Restoration by George Ivey. Dog Year, 2009. 304 Pages.

George Ivey’s Up River: A Novel of Attempted Restoration (Dog Year Publishing, ISBN 978-160844-164-8, $16.95) tells the story of Peter Bailey, a young man who, having spent his years since college working on political campaigns, wants more of a challenge in his life. He applies for, and receives, a position that entails using grant money to reverse environmental damage done to the Akwanee River in Western North Carolina.

Though the Akwanee — and the town of Walnut Flats — are both fictional, Ivey’s account of Peter Bailey’s struggles to gain a foothold in this mountain community, to win the trust of some of its people, and to carry out his mission in regard to the river ring true as a bell.

The townsfolk, both the natives and the outlanders who have settled there, are a suspicious lot, and Ivey must work hard to gain their trust. Following the advice of a few of these people — Mr. Avery, Deputy Dwight Crawford, a female river outfitter named Sandy — Bailey makes efforts to meet the farmers of the area, and introduces them to concepts like no-till cultivation. He encourages them to fight soil erosion and to devise a better way to dispose of the dead fowls and waste piling up on one of the large chicken operations in the area.

If Up River was simply a discussion of watersheds, rainbow trout, freshwater mussels, and polluting fertilizers and weed killers, the book might better have been written as nonfiction study of a real Appalachian river than as a novel. What takes this story beyond such a study, what makes it highly worthwhile in terms of the reader’s time and commitment to the book, are not the environmental digressions, which are brief, educational, and even enjoyable, but the character of Peter Bailey himself.

In Peter Bailey, Ivey has given us a character with saintly ambitions who bumbles frequently, a man who comes to the task of revitalizing a river largely ignorant of the science needed for that restoration, a fool at times in the way he approaches people. Bailey brings to mind the idealistic Pyle from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, in which the American approaches a culture blinded by his own idealism. Though Bailey does learn a great deal living and working in Walnut Flats, we realize, as he himself eventually realizes, that he has little real idea of what he is doing. Several of his projects fail; he unwittingly offends certain members of the community; he seems to lack the ability to stick with this place — or any other place, for that matter — and has difficulty making commitments.

This difficulty can best be seen through Bailey’s pursuit and treatment of Walnut Flats women. Though he does eventually settle on one of these women, his neighbor Melissa, whose husband is in jail for dealing drugs (Bailey helped put him there by informing on him), Bailey’s encounters with different single females reveal both his restlessness and his penchant for bumbling into situations without fully realizing where he might be led. When he is dating young Sally, for example, he tells us that “we began spending more and more time together, enjoying the easy pleasure of our relationship. I was no longer sure what had held me back with her before, and I no longer cared.” On the very next page, living through a week of November rains, Bailey reports that “the novelty of my relationship with Sally had also started washing away, all too quickly losing much of its initial shine and luster. My entire mood matched the weather.”

It is this honest portrait of Bailey that puts a stamp of originality on Up River. For here we have in a sense a sort of quintessential modern young college graduate turned politico. He has no expertise at all regarding the river, but nonetheless thinks that his people skills, which actually seem mediocre, are what is needed to revitalize its waters. He is constantly misjudging people; at one point, based on conjecture after someone steals letters on some signage in Walnut Flats, Bailey speculates that the Ku Klux Klan is active in the county. He is sometimes so blind to his own work that it isn’t until the end of the novel that he learns the meaning of the river’s name, Akwanee, and even that discovery comes by accident

Moreover, though the people with whom he works have strong family ties, Bailey is rootless — he tells Emma Lynn, who manages a convenience store, that “I guess it does seem kind of crazy to start over somewhere new. I’ve gotten used to doing that every year or two, but maybe it’s not for everybody.” He has no particular religious faith of any kind. His connections to his own family seem distant. He soft-pedals himself to women, putting himself across as a sincere and gentle man, polite, empathetic, even a trifle obsequious, but it’s basically an act. With the exception of Melissa, Bailey shows little concern in exploring the women he beds. In his own way, he’s as bad with women as Earl, Melissa’s drug-selling husband.

Yet the end of Up River brings a sort of redemption to Peter Bailey. Little of his redemption can be credited to his own efforts. Instead, the community, a benefactor, and a woman all take a hand in setting him onto a path in which he becomes a part of a family and a community rather than an outsider.

George Ivey’s Up River offers us an excellent lesson in both the reasons we should care more for our rivers and our wilderness areas, and in the human difficulties that beset that caretaking. Highly recommended.

Comment

The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman. Ballantine Books, 2007. 368 pages.

In The Sonnet Lover (Ballantine Books, ISBN 978-0-345-47957-0, $24.95), Carol Goodman takes her readers on yet another exploration into worlds literary and classical. Known for works relating to the ancient world, particularly to Rome — she created a wonderful tale of suspense with insights into the teaching of Latin and the history of the Roman world in The Lake of Dead Languages — Goodman here shifts her focus to the Renaissance, to the sonnet, to William Shakespeare, and to Northern Italy, where numerous poets, most notably Petrarch, helped create the sonnet.

Rose Asher, a professor and a poet teaching at the fictitious Hudson College in Manhattan, has arrived at a place in her life where she feels that her youthful ambitions and dreams have come to a grating end. Though Rose is having a love affair with the president of the college, Mark Abrams, and though she is often idealized and adored by her students — Robin Weiss, described by Rose as “her best student,” an aspiring film-maker and poet, clearly has a crush on her — Rose nonetheless finds herself entering her late 30s with little apparent excitement or purpose in her life.

Her disenchantment and ennui disappear once Robin Weiss sails over the railing of a high-rise building and dies on impact in the street below. With his death, and at the urging of her lover, Rose decides to break away from her routine and spend the summer at La Civetta, an estate outside of Florence known for its great charm and beauty as well as for its association with an obscure female Renaissance poet, Ginevra de Laura (De Laura is a fictional character, based on female Renaissance poets like Veronica Franco). Rumor has long held that de Laura was William Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, and Rose becomes convinced, through a series of seemingly disconnected events, that somewhere at La Civetta there lies hidden a manuscript by de Laura.

As the summer progresses, we come to see that other characters in The Sonnet Lover are not always what they seem. Mark Abrams, the perfect college president, holds both ambition and deadly secrets in his heart; Mara Silverman, wife of the head of the college’s film department, carries a secret that will eventually destroy her; La Civetta itself, with its hidden rooms and ghost-ridden past, casts long and dark shadows over Rose, who first went there as an undergraduate herself, and she fell in love with Bruno Brunelli, the professor with whom she had an affair and whom she still loves.

Rose spends the rest of the novel figuring out the circumstances of Robin’s death as well as explicating her own feelings toward Mark Abrams, her former love with Bruno Brunelli, her work in literature and poetry, and the place of La Civetta, with its romance and sense of freedom, in her own life.

In The Sonnet Lover, Goodman does best what she did in her other novels; she introduces us to a distant past and by her splendid descriptions rouses our interest in the scholarly world which is today exploring that past. In one bravura example of how well she mixes the old and new worlds, Goodman employs her husband, the poet Lee Slonimsky, to write the sonnets attributed here to Ginevra de Laura. Goodman also performs grand work in her descriptions of landscapes and buildings, both in Manhattan and in the countryside around Florence The Sonnet Lover is a lovely book to read in the winter if for no other reason than Goodman’s descriptions of the warm and blossoming Italian countryside. Here, for example, Rose walks after many years’ absence to the villa at La Civetta from the gate:

“To my right is the path that leads to the plain gray-stone building that once housed the Convent of Santa Catalina but now serves as the dorm for the students. Everyone just alls it the little villa. The main villa is lemon colored and lies at the end of a long avenue, or viale, of tall cypresses. It’s a popular view featured in all the colleges advertising brochures and on the Web site for the study abroad program. Maybe that’s why I find myself curiously numb as I start down the viale, as if I am approaching picture instead of the real thing, a painted façade that seems to slip in and out between its frame of gray-green cypresses like a woman hiding coquettishly behind a curtain.”

Although Goodman skillfully weaves these varied settings and people into the plot of The Sonnet Lover, the novel does contain some flaws. The second half of the book slows — if not exactly to a crawl, then to an ambling pace that ill-befits a literary thriller. More tellingly, however, Goodman litters her book with such strong hints at what is to come next in the plot and too often the events become predictable. When Rose comments on a step in the villa gardens being loose, for example, we know that soon someone will take a tumble on that step. By shaking us by the lapels at such moments, by smacking us upside the head with clues, Goodman makes even the casual reader aware of an upcoming catastrophe.

Yet these flaws are negligible compared to the many pleasures bestowed by The Sonnet Lover: the twists in the story, the speculation regarding Shakespeare, his sonnets, and his Dark Lady, the academic feuds and frays, and the quest for love itself, a quest featuring both modern and Renaissance lovers. Goodman has the skill to bring alive simultaneously both the worlds of Shakespeare and of modern American academia.

Comment

A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons by James Dodson. Algonquin Books, 2009.

The way we lead our days, wrote Hollins graduate Annie Dillard, is the way we lead our lives. The northern golf season was history, and sudden endings and unexpected paths seemed to be everywhere I turned that week.”

The above quotation is from James Dodson’s A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons (Algonquin Books, ISBN 13-978-1-56512-506-3, 2009, $24.95). These words sum up both Dodson’s life and his book, for his memoir of his golfing life, which is also an account of his return to North Carolina and to the Sandhills, is indeed a tale of sudden endings and unexpected paths.

Dodson, who has written six other books on golf, including the highly acclaimed Ben Hogan: An American Life, and who for many years wrote an award-winning column for Golf Magazine, found himself in the spring of 2005 faced with several endings in his own life. Harvie Ward a close friend who had as a young man beaten the likes of Arnold Palmer to win two U.S. Amateur Championships but lost his titles when it was determined that he‘d taken money to play, then fell into a whiskey bottle and years of obscurity before becoming a golf pro at Pinehurst had recently died of liver cancer. Dodson’s own career at Golf Magazine had come to a bitter end, when the management of the magazine changed hands.

But A Son of the Game is more about the “unexpected paths” and indeed, beginnings, than it is about endings. When Dodson comes south to cover the United States Open Championship at Pinehurst, he finds himself falling in love with the places of his boyhood. Dodson had grown up in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, learning the game of golf from his father and the craft of writing from both his parents and his teachers. He had worked his way north during his years of employment, eventually finding his home in Maine, which may seem an odd place for a golfer to settle down. Despite his deep affection for Maine, he felt a longing to return to his roots in Carolina.

In A Son of the Game, Dodson tells us how his longing became a reality, how he rediscovered his home state and reignited his love of golf. His finely-written book serves up a feast consisting of several different courses.

Dodson gives us a tour of Pinehurst and of nearby Southern Pines, explaining how golf came to be established there and tracing the history of the region from that time to the present. Invited to serve as writer in residence for The Pilot, a newspaper owned at different times by Sam Ragan, a poet laureate of North Carolina, and by James Boyd, famed for his novels about the Revolutionary War, Dodson finds himself taken into the heart of these communities.

Dodson’s love of golf, his affability, and his reporter’s beat give him a way into the hearts and minds of the townspeople and the visiting golfers. Consequently, he serves us up portraits of his neighbors, the local innkeepers, golf pros and players, writers and local educators, including John Dempsey, the head of the nearby community college.

Dodson also gives us insight into his family life. Though he clearly loves his wife and retains great affection for his deceased relatives, it is for his son Jack that Dodson displays here his deepest concern and feelings. His son is finishing high school and is seeking his own place in the world. He is torn between staying in Maine to finish high school or following his father to North Carolina; he is confused, too, by his place in the game of golf and how much it means to him. Dodson’s affection for Jack, even when they quarrel, comes across in every sentence in which the young man is mentioned.

In his “Acknowledgments” at the end of A Son of the Game, Dodson recollects how once, when he interviewed Richard Petty, the “King of NASCAR,” the stock car driver told him how important our “raisins” were. When Dodson asked him what these “raisins” meant, Petty smiled at him and said, “Never forget where you come from, son — the important values and people who raised you up. Those are your raisins.”

In this same short section, in a single paragraph, Dodson pays homage to those who now help him in his own life. He writes:

“I must thank my wife, Wendy, who had the good sense to hand me my car keys and shove me out the door to say a proper goodbye to a dying friend; and my son, Jack, who capped off this journey home by helping his old man rediscover what is most valuable and precious about life’s most enduring and revealing game: the relationships we make along the way.”

•••

Joseph Mitchell, another North Carolina writer who worked for decades at the New Yorker, once wrote about Joe Gould, a street philosopher and writer who claimed to have written an oral history of New Yorkers. Mitchell eventually came to realize that Gould was a fraud in terms of his writing, but that he was perhaps a genius in his views on living.

In the movie “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Ian Holm as Joe Gould and Stanley Tucci as Joseph Mitchell combine to give us a wonderful take on New York in mid-century, on writing, and on relationships. Holm’s portrayal of the irascible Gould — he is either asking friends for money for the “Joe Gould Fund” or else is exploding furiously at the trials of life — is beautifully done, and may provide bloated moviegoers with an antidote to the saccharine movies of the holiday season.

The movie is available on disc.

Comment

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Elizabeth and Michael Norman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 480 pages

In the summer of 1966 I worked one day a week as a volunteer in Winston-Salem’s Baptist Hospital. One of my jobs was to transport patients from their rooms to the X-ray department, and then back again.

On this particular day, the patient whom I was helping to transport by stretcher was an old man with white hair and very pale skin. He wiggled gingerly from his bed to the stretcher, where he lay on his back, his bony fingers clasped together on his chest, breathing the way older people do who have lost a part of their capacity for breath. His chart lay on the foot of the stretcher, and as we went down on the elevator I glanced at it and began reading from a long list of ailments: beriberi, rickets, malaria. The other orderly, a middle-aged man, nodded at the man when I looked up.

“Bataan,” he said.

It was all he needed to say. Although many young people today might find that orderly’s utterance nonsensical, back then everyone knew about the Death March of Bataan. Lying on this stretcher was a man who had walked through hell and lived to tell the tale.

In Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, $30, ISBN 978-0-374-27260-9), Elizabeth and Michael Norman take us back to the spring of 1942, when Japanese forces were chopping up the American military throughout most of the Pacific. They bring us to the Philippines and show us how the Japanese, with a smaller force, effected the surrender of 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers, the single largest defeat on a battlefield in American history. Using both Japanese and American eyewitness accounts, they then reveal with gruesome detail how the Bataan Death March left thousands of these prisoners of war dead within a week.

The eyewitness whose testimony is key to Tears in the Darkness is young Ben Steele, a Montana cowboy who joined the Army for some excitement and for money shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After basic training, Steele began studying for the Army Air Corps pilot examination, but was then ordered in October of 1941 to go with his unit to the Philippines. Less than six months later, he found himself fighting for his life, first against the Japanese as enemy warriors, then against them as brutal captors, and finally against a host of tropical diseases which brought him within an inch of death.

When the Japanese captured the tens of thousands of Americans and Filipinos, these men had already been living for months on reduced rations. Now, without water or rations, the Japanese forced their captives to march for nearly a week to holding areas in another part of Luzon. Prisoners who collapsed were bayoneted on the spot. Truckloads of Japanese passing the columns of staggering men amused themselves by swinging golf clubs and rifles at their heads. In some cases, hundreds of prisoners were simply marched into jungles, bayoneted or beheaded, and then rolled, some of them still living and begging for mercy, into mass graves.

Illness, the boiling sun, and flies attracted by the stink and decay of the death march also took their toll. The Normans write that:

“Thousands of men were suffering from dysentery, and the ground where the prisoners were forced to sit and sleep became coated with layers of excrement, mucus, urine, and blood .... Hundreds of men, meanwhile, never made it to the latrines; they stumbled into the compound too enervated, too far gone to take another step. Helpless against the exigencies of the disease — the wrenching cramps and resistless urge to evacuate — they soiled themselves where they stood right through their clothing, then lay down half conscious in a pool of their own filth.”

Many men died on the march; many more died in the camps in which they lived for the rest of the war. Bob Steele barely survived, fighting malaria, beriberi, and starvation. When he did recover, the young man from Montana took up drawing. He found an engineer among his fellow captives who taught him perspective and vanishing point, and put down in charcoal, pencil, and pen drawings of the sufferings and indignities of his fellow prisoners. The Normans have wisely incorporated these drawings, scattering them throughout this history to add to its immediacy.

Though the authors go to great lengths to explain Japanese savagery and their contempt for the lives of their prisoners — the Normans tell us how overwhelmed the Japanese were by the sheer number of prisoners they had captured, and they carefully explain how the Japanese view of warfare included despising anyone who surrendered — Tears in the Darkness still has the power to enrage its readers. All war involves savagery of some sort, but the Japanese, nearly en masse, seemed on this occasion to find savagery exhilarating (it is significant that the Normans quote many different Japanese soldiers in regard to the fighting on Luzon, but none in regard to the death march itself).

Tears in the Darkness, with its ghastly catalogue of murder and disease, may appear a dismal candidate for reading, but about halfway through the book, the astute reader will begin to note not only the inhumanity of man to man, but also the great resilience of man himself. We find ourselves shocked not only by the violence and cruelty, but also by the toughness of men, by their will for survival and even triumph.

Tears in the Darkness should also be read as a reminder to all Americans that though the cost of victory in war is high, the cost of defeat is higher still.

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

Comment

Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster, 2009. 448 pages.

Readers of this column know that some authors turn up here regular as church bells, reviewed with each new book. Ann Tyler, Carol Goodman, Pat Conroy: these and a few others have appeared here more than once in the 10-year life of this column, partly because the reviewer loves their work, partly because their work touches in some particular way on the lives and sensibilities of the readers of The Smoky Mountain News.

No author, however, has received more reviews than James Lee Burke. Best-known for his novels about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, a tormented Vietnam vet, member in good standing in Alcoholics Anonymous, and one of the best fictional investigators of the last 50 years, Burke has written several more novels about a Western attorney, Billy Bob Holland, as well as some general works of fiction early in his career.

Reasons for this attention to Burke abound. His major characters, especially Dave Robicheaux, seem to fit the profile of many Smoky Mountain News readers: slightly left of center, concerned about the environment, interested in seeing justice administered and the innocent protected. Though Robicheaux, Billy Bob Holland, and other protagonists more than occasionally trespass on the grounds of mawkish sentimentality, Burke always manages to steer them away without embarrassment, usually through their own ironic sense of themselves and their fellow man.

Burke’s readers also like his books, of course, because the man is a damn fine storyteller.

In Rain Gods (Simon and Schuster, 2009, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-2824-4), Burke gives us a new protagonist, Hackberry Holland, an aging Texas sheriff faced with a veritable platoon of hit men and fanatics bent on running prostitutes and drugs across the Mexican border. Here in this 400-hundred-plus page novel are a host of grand characters fighting for the good: Pete Flores, an Iraq vet who fights his demons along with his girlfriend, country singer Vikki Gaddis; Deputy Sheriff Pam Tibbs, cool and competent and in love with the older Holland; and Nick Dolan, one of the quirkier heroes in recent literature, a small-time gangster who eventually, with the help of his wife Esther, cowboys up and opposes the criminals trying to run an extortion on him.

The best-drawn character of these criminals is Preacher Jack Collins, a killer-for-hire who has his own strange personal code of honor; his explanations of that code, and the failure of his partners in crime to understand it, provides some of the funnier moments in Rain Gods. Preacher, for example, comes to believe that Esther Dolan, who is of Jewish descent, is related to the Biblical Esther and that she will reveal not only her queenly qualities to him, but will reveal his own self and reason for being as well.

Burke’s many gifts as a writer are on display here. Few novelists writing today can reproduce the accuracy of his dialogue or his finely-done descriptions of place. In Rain Gods, Burke frequently gives us a picture of desert and decay, with this physical backdrop reflecting the moral deformity of so many of the characters.

“The motel was a leftover from the 1950s, a utilitarian structure checker boarded with huge red and beige plastic squares, the metal-railed upstairs walkways not unlike those in penitentiaries, all of it located in a neighborhood of warehouses and bankrupt businesses and joyless bars that could afford no more than a single neon sign over the door.”

Rain Gods does contain some of the flaws apparent in Burke’s other books. Despite his creation of the Dolans as good guys here — the scene where Nick Dolan stands up to Sholokoff, the Russian gangster behind the murders, is one of the most entertaining moments in the book — Burke tends to paint good and evil with a broad brush. In Preacher Burke does offer us a “bad guy” who is complex, who does maneuver through moral judgments, who is a protean character of sorts, but generally the men who commit evil in Burke’s books are not complex, tormented characters.

Burke also traffics in reverse stereotypes. All of the women in the book — Vikki Gaddis shoots a gangster in the feet; Pam Tibbs blows away several malefactors; Esther Dolan beats a gangster about the head with a pot and chases him from her house — are undaunted by evil, stronger than the men around them, a position typical of other works by Burke. And though much of his novel has to do with smuggling drugs and prostitutes across the border, no Mexicans other than a few shooters are involved in this trade. The real evil-doers, as in nearly all of Burke’s other novels, are always white and male. As a result, though minor Mexican figures flit through the story, Burke’s tale of modern-day Texas feels weirdly out of sync with the real racial mix that constitutes not only Texas, but nearly every state in the nation.

These complaints may also be made about the novels of Pat Conroy. In both cases, the same prejudices may be seen at work. Both men are magnificent writers in nearly every sense, yet when we look back at writers of 50 years ago — Faulkner, Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet — we must wonder whether our contemporary writers don’t, in fact, want to be liked too much.

Comment

Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon, 2009. 352 pages.

 

Although several biographies of Nathan Bedford Forrest have found publishers over the last 60 years, Civil War buffs, serious followers of fiction, and those who simply enjoy a great read will all find pleasures galore in Madison Smartt Bell’s Devil’s Dream (978-0-375-42488-5, $26.95). Bell, who also wrote All Souls’ Rising, a novel of the Haitian revolt against the French, as well as nearly 20 other books, here gives us Bedford Forrest with all his glories and foibles.

Like Andrew Jackson, who resembles Forrest in both temperament and courage — both men were duelists, were possessed by savage tempers, and fought like hellcats in battle — Forrest was a product of the Southern frontier and an American original. A slave trader, a teetotaler, an autodidact with atrocious spelling, a man loyal to his family, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, he also ranks as one of the greatest generals and fighting men in American history. Had he possessed more authority at Shiloh and at Chickamauga, there is the real possibility that the war in the West would have seen greater Rebel triumphs.

Forrest, who had never formally studied military tactics, followed several simple tactical rules for battle. He believed in attack rather than defense. He knew how to maneuver and feint. He understood the importance of the unrelenting chase once the enemy was on the run, pursuit that lasted until that enemy was crushed and surrendered.

In Devil’s Dream, Bell gives us not only the brilliant general — the savage cavalryman who, having once ridden alone into a swarm of Yankee infantry, cutting and slashing, took a round in the back that almost unhorsed him, grabbed a Yankee, flung him across his back for protection, and rode back to his own lines, throwing the Yankee down behind him — but he also permits us great insight into the man who was the loving husband of Mary Ann, the lover of a slave named Catherine, the father of a slave named Matthew, and a commander who was both solicitous and harsh toward his men. To paint this portrait, Bell uses a platoon of characters to show us his many qualities and to flesh out both Forrest’s life and the violent world in which he lived.

From this same palette Smith creates vivid battle scenes. Here he describes a charge in which Forrest leads his men, including his slave-son Matthew and Henri, a recruit of mixed race:

“Keep up the skeer!” Forrest cried, one more time, ordering out small squads of his escort to press the receding Yankee rear. Matthew rode in the forefront of these, with Henri barely able to keep up with him and maybe not entirely willing to — he felt cold and empty as a washed-out jug since their tour of the riot around Ololona — but Matthew was burning, burning, or it was Forrest’s words that burned inside him. “Make yore ownself free.”

Devil’s Dreams should prompt readers who are strangers to Bell’s fiction to seek out his other books as well.

•••

Another fine book which takes as its topic the War Between the States is Amanda C. Gable’s The Confederate General Rides North (ISBN 978-1-4165-9839-8, $26). In this quirky first novel, Gable tells the story of Kat McConnell, an 11-year-old who, living in Georgia in the 1960s, falls in love with the history of the Civil War. Her mother, an artist and a New Englander, decides, seemingly on a whim, to take Kat and head north to New England, with the idea of buying antiques along the way and opening a store in New England. Unwillingly, Kat goes along with this plan — she has little choice — though she is upset about leaving her father and her grandparents without even saying goodbye.

To cope with this upset in her life, Kat pretends that she is a Confederate general. Though this twist may seem a frivolous, even silly, premise for a plot to a book, Gable weaves from it a rich tapestry between the past and the present, between reality and illusion, giving us in the process a fine story indeed. Their trips to various Civil War battlefields (Kat persuades her mother to go to these places by explaining about the antique shops they’ll find there); Kat’s mother’s extraordinary harsh take on the South, on her in-laws, and finally on Kat herself (readers will want to smack this woman about halfway through the book); and Kat’s image of herself as a Confederate general all make for a grand tour of the soul and spirit of young girl caught up in a family battle beyond her ken.

In those parts of The Confederate General Rides North where Kat pretends to be a general, Gable writes near-hypnotic prose. She makes the war a metaphor for Kat’s struggles with her family, particularly her mother, and writes so well in these passages that many readers may find themselves, several days after finishing this book, thinking along the lines of Kat:

A weight lies on the Confederate general’s shoulders, the hope of Virginia and the rest of the South, and if she doesn’t figure out how to turn this failing campaign around, she will let everyone down ... Whatever happens, she must figure out what’s working and do it more, and uncover what’s wrong and fix it.

A delightful and highly recommended saga of a brave young girl, the Civil War, and the place of family and honor in our lives.

Comment

The Fitzgerald Ruse by Mark De Castrique. Poisoned Pen Press, 2009. 250 pages.

Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and magazines like Black Mask are the great-grandfathers of the American detective novel. Readers, for example, can open a Chandler novel and from the first chapter hear a voice and tone that are as familiar to them as last night’s reruns of “The Rockford Files” or “Miami Vice.” These well-known lines from Chandler’s Red Wind regarding the Santa Ana winds in California make the point:

Those hot dry winds that come down through you in the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Some 70 years later, writers of the hard-boiled detective school continue to give us tales of tough men and women doing battle against dragons: the drug dealer, the murderer, the corrupt businessman, the bad cop, the guy in the black hat. This lone and often broken modern-day knight who fights the powers of darkness, who must also fight the dark places within himself, and who eventually puts wrongs right, continues to attract us. James Lee Burke, Robert Bloch, and Robert Parker are only three of the battalion of writers, male and female, who have followed this tradition with great success.

Following in their footsteps — and of particular interest to anyone living in Western North Carolina — is writer and film producer Mark De Castrique.

In The Fitzgerald Ruse, his second novel involving Sam Blackman and his partner and lover, Nakayla Robertson, De Castrique again sets his story of money, murder, and betrayal in Asheville.

The story opens when Robertson and Blackman, a former chief warrant officer who lost a leg in an ambush in Iraq and who has since recuperated in Asheville’s V.A. Hospital, open a detective agency on Pack Square. Their first client is Ethel Barkley, who presents Blackman with a mysterious box inscribed with a swastika which may or may not contain papers belonging to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This box lies at the heart of the rest of the book. On the night Blackman receives the box from Mrs. Barkley, an intruder murders the building’s security guard and steals the box. Through the rest of the book all sorts of people pop up, looking either for the box or for the source of wealth behind Blackman’s own offshore bank accounts: former military comrades, local attorneys, rogue Blackwater employees, and ghosts from Asheville’s past.

It is De Castrique’s presentation of this past which will surely attract local readers. On these pages, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald comes briefly to life for us. Mrs. Barkley claims to have known Fitzgerald when he would sojourn in Asheville, ostensibly to see his wife Zelda, who was confined to Highland Mental Hospital, but also to drink and to philander, and to enjoy the city itself. De Castrique takes us to the Grove Park Inn, where Fitzgerald rented a room, and to Beaver Lake, where he broke a shoulder once by trying to show off his diving skills for a woman.

We also meet William Dudley Pelley, whose name is now largely forgotten but who in the 1930s founded in Asheville the Silver Legion, a copy of the Nazis’ Brownshirts. Though the Legion was a national movement and though Pelley himself was not native to these mountains, some natives of Asheville did join and support his movement. Pelley and Franklin Roosevelt hated each other, and the White House ordered Pelley to be investigated by the FBI. After Pearl Harbor, Pelley’s Legion dissolved, and Pelley himself was imprisoned for a time for his viewpoints.

In addition to these insights, De Castrique gives us many thumbnail sketches of Asheville and its citizens. In Blackman’s Coffin, his first Sam Blackman novel, De Castrique included Thomas Wolfe and the Vanderbilts in his story. This reviewer intends to read that novel as soon he can lay his hands on it.

Read The Fitzgerald Ruse and enjoy!

•••

Nicholas Baker is one of those writers with an extraordinary range: novelist, essayist, bookman, historian. Now he may account himself a literary critic and a poet as well, for in his latest work, The Anthologist (Simon and Schuster, 978-1-4165-7244-2, $25), Baker undertakes to write a novel that could serve as a handbook of poetry and as a critique of literature.

Paul Chowder, the novel’s narrator, is lost: his girlfriend Roz has left him, and he is suffering from a case of writer’s block that keeps him from completing an introduction to a poetry anthology. Chowder looks at his past, his missed opportunities, his neighbors—but most of all at poetry. The Anthologist could serve as a poetry primer, for here is a medley of lessons in poetry masquerading as a novel. On nearly every page of The Anthologist, Chowder — and Baker — give us lessons in poetics: rhyme, meter, and rhythm; the colossal and ongoing battles between those advocating form versus those who love free verse; the poets themselves with all their foibles, and strange beauty, and words as lovely as stone in a cathedral.

The Anthologist is not for every reader. But if you love poetry, you will find in Nicholas Baker’s novel a wonderful arena of verse and versifying, and how they affect our lives.

Comment

In Ayn Rand and the World She Made (ISBN 978-0-385-51399-9, Doubleday, 568 pages, $35), Anne C. Heller has given readers an intimate look at the woman who wrote such novels as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, works which had a great impact not only on the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary readers, but on certain major policy makers of the last 50 years.

Born in Czarist Russia in 1905, Rand grew up in a time of turmoil, war, and revolution. She and those around her — she lived in a tight-knit Jewish community in St. Petersburg — suffered, like so many people, when the Bolsheviks captured the Revolution and turned the country into a Communist dictatorship. Some of her friends fled the country, both during the war and during the revolutionary period, and Rand, though her immediate family all stayed behind, also departed at the age of 21 for the United States.

Even then she despised both statism and religion. Her heroes were Aristotle, Victor Hugo, the fathers of the American Revolution, and herself. In the next two decades, Rand quite literally willed herself to become a major novelist. After a short stay with relatives in Chicago, she found a job reading, editing, and then writing screenplays in Hollywood. She married a minor actor, Frank O’Connor, in part at least because he fit her notion of how an ideal man should look. While she and her husband scrabbled to make a living during the Depression — O’Connor had little ambition and would eventually become a stay-at-home husband, content to take care of the chores — Rand always kept her eyes on the goal she had set for herself: to become a major, best-selling novelist whose ideas might help change the world.

Eventually, of course, Rand achieved that goal. In We The Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, she found recognition, money, and an outlet for her ideas. From the late 1950s on, she received hundreds of letters each month from fans wanting to know more about this woman who had made selfishness and individualism the highest standards for human beings. By the time of her death in 1982, Ayn Rand possessed an enormous readership and had exerted a major influence on certain key figures of the Reagan administration. When Allen Greenspan was sworn in as the chairman of President Gerald Ford’s Council of Economic Advisers, Rand was there with him in the Oval Office, clearly proud of her protégé.

Heller, who is not always in agreement with Rand’s ideas, but who nonetheless does a fine job of presenting them objectively and fairly, combines her analysis of Rand’s writing with a vivid portrayal of Rand’s personal life. Here we see that Rand, like so many people, was often a farrago of contradictions. Her own male protagonists, for example, are heroic and filled with sex — Howard Roark in The Fountainhead dominates and essentially rapes Dominique Francon — whereas Frank O’Connor was mild and so non-aggressive sexually that Rand would eventually take a younger man, Nathaniel Brandon, for her lover, with the consent of her husband.

Rand also strongly emphasized logic and reason as the highest goals of man. Yet as she grew older, and as the cult of followers surrounding her grew, she often gave way to bouts of histrionics regarding the behavior and beliefs of those followers. Those who disagreed with her, those who veered in any way from the philosophy which she called Objectivisim, were banished from the group. She espoused the virtues of the mind, yet her own emotions in regard to her long affair with Brandon was often a rollercoaster of arguments and accusations.

Like Ernest Hemingway, Rand was helped along the ladder to success by friends, family, and other writers. Like Hemingway, her usual response to such assistance, once she had reached the next rung of the ladder, was to give a boot in the face to those who had given her the boost. Her Chicago relatives, the family she left behind in Russia, those friends who ignited her intellectual ire, her literary mentors like Isabel Patterson: all were eventually ignored or brushed aside.

Yet even her political enemies admitted that Rand did possess a personal charm when she chose to exert it. One of her friends in the publishing world delighted in introducing his big-government friends to Rand, who would frequently surprised them by her questions and by her quick mind.

In the preface to this biography, Heller points out that Rand’s “novels and the best of her essays are well worth reading now, when issues of wealth and poverty, state power and autonomy, and security and freedom still disturb us.” It is a mark of the power of these novels that they are rarely taught in the universities, yet they each year attract new readers, mostly the young. The economic crisis of the last three years, for example, has nearly tripled the sales of Atlas Shrugged.

Heller’s story of Ayn Rand should stand as a fine example of biography. She has given us a major work about a woman whose ideas continue to make themselves felt in the political and economic arenas.

Comment

Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2009. 368 pages.

In Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (13-978-1-4143-2227-8, $14.99), Stephen James and David Thomas make clever use of Maurice Sendak’s book for children, Where the Wild Things Are. The plot to Where the Wild Things Are is simple: Max misbehaves and is sent to his room by his mother, where he imaginatively enters a world where rules and constraint vanish. After enjoying his “wild rumpus,“ Max finally returns safely to his own home and his mother’s love.

In using this story as the thesis for their book on nurturing boys — Sendak’s portrayal of Max,” the authors of Wild Things tell us, “is a great picture of the way, the mind, and the heart of a boy” — James and Thomas guide their readers through the stages of male psychological development, of nurturing boys toward manhood, from the womb to the mid-20s. Their choice of the word nurturing as opposed to shaping or molding, they explain, is deliberate and important, for the idea of nurturing indicates the creation of an environment and guidelines for boys rather than treating them as a drill instructor breaking in a recruit.

The two therapists — Stephen James works as a private psychotherapist while David Thomas tends more toward group therapy — bring into this book years of experience helping young men and raising their own sons. The two men write informally, cite case after case from their personal observations, and offer a sense of wit and humor which alone may reassure many parents facing confusion or frustration in raising a son.

The authors have developed five major stages, or categories, that all males must pass through in order to become men. There is the Explorer, the boy of 2 to 4 years old; the Lover, the boy who from ages 5 to 8 becomes gentler and brings his emotions into play; the Individual, the adolescent who from 9 to 12 begins to assert his independence; the Wanderer, the teenager from 13 to 17 whose credo often mimics the old lines from the Marlon Brando biker movie: “What are you rebelling against?” “Whatta you got?”; and finally the Warrior, the college-age young man who begins to find out through direct encounters with reality — sometimes a little too much reality — how the world works and his place in it.

Other authors have written books about the stages of life, guides for men and women, young and old, but Wild Things seems more astute and workable than many of these. Parents who read descriptions of male behavior in the above stages, for example, will shake their head in knowing wonderment because their son often engaged in the exact sort of behavior cited in Wild Things. Not only do James and Thomas recreate scenarios of typical behavior in their book, they also give tips on how to address and correct inappropriate behavior.

In their discussion of “The Wanderer,” for instance, James and Thomas make a list of things parents can do to help them connect with their teenage sons. This list runs from “Call your parents and apologize,” meaning call your own parents and apologize for your abuse of them at this stage, to “Feed him,” in which the authors suggest taking your teenage son out for an occasional great meal at a restaurant he enjoys.

At one point in the book, James and Thomas pick ideas from Richard Rohr’s essay “Boys to Men: Rediscovering Rites of Passage for Our Time.” In the essay, Rohr identifies five essential truths that “male initiation must communicate ... to the young man.” These essential truths are important enough to include as part of this review:

1) Life is hard. If, as Rohr says, you can convince yourself of this truth and repeat it until it becomes a part of you, you will suffer less in the long run. In his best-selling The Road Less Travelled, the author Scott Peck offered precisely the same advice — not just to the young, but to everyone.

2) You are going to die. The young should be taught that death will come to them, that they are not immune, and that they should live their lives in such a way that they may courageously face their deaths.

3) You are not that important. Contrary to the modern “I am Special” mantra, this idea acts as the basis for all service.

4) You are not in control. The authors state that God is in control. Non-believers may disagree, but all of us will admit that at times we do not control our lives.

5) Your life is not about you. This, Rohr says, is the essential experience. Young people must know that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves.

One great strength of Wild Things is its practical approach to teaching these lessons and connecting with our sons. In a section titled “Putting the Principles into Practice,” James and Thomas offer several pages of tips. A few of these are “Show physical affection,” “Catch him with his guard down,” “Practice curiosity” (about his life), and “Meet him on his own turf.” Each tip is accompanied by a paragraph of concrete ideas.

Although James and Thomas are Christians as well as psychologists, non-believers would be making a mistake if they let that circumstance dissuade them from reading and using this book. The advice offered here by these two men is invaluable, their message concerning our young men one of hope and optimism. Wild Things is a book all parents can use and value.

Comment

“April is the cruelest of months, breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land” — so wrote T.S. Eliot in the much-cited first two lines of “The Waste Land.”

April is also National Poetry Month. Had he lived today, Eliot may have rewritten those lines to say that “April is the cruelest of months, breeding/poems out of a dead land.” For the poetry of the last 20 years is, in so many ways, bred out of a dead land, soil on which multitudes sow and toil but few reap. Many people today continue to love and read poetry; but many less continue to read and love poetry written in the last forty years. There are thousands of outlets for publishing poetry, and tens of thousands of poets, but the number of readers in any given city of today’s poets might not fill a middling pub. Even poets don’t read the poetry of their contemporaries.

One clue for this dearth of readers and the plenitude of poets may be found in the field of post-modern painting. Visual artists of the last 50 to 60 years have stopped, for the most part, trying to connect with the common man, the guy in the streets, through representational art and have instead focused their efforts and their talents on either shocking viewers or on creating works so abstract and obscure that only patrons with a Ph.D. in art can appreciate their form and meaning.

Like these artists, many poets have forgotten that their audience could be larger than a few other poets and a wayward fan or two. Readers who doubt this statement need only open a recent copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and compare work of the poets born after 1940 to that of the poets going back to Chaucer. In most cases, Chaucer’s Middle English is more easily comprehended than some of the modernist and postmodernist verse.

There are, fortunately, exceptions which give those of us who love poetry some small consolation. There are poets — Fred Chappell (a Canton native), for instance, or Mary Oliver — whose work appeals to those outside of the university or some tight circle of poets, whose words are still comprehensible without need of a dictionary or a psychiatrist. One such poet is Wendell Berry.

Berry, the author of more than 50 books of fiction, essays, and poetry, a farmer from Henry County, Kentucky, who is a strong advocate for the land and for simplicity, has recently written Leavings: Poems (Counterpoint Press, ISBN 978-158243-534-3, 2010, $23). Here again, as in his other poetry, Berry reveals his passions for the vanishing land and for nature, his Robinson Jefferson distaste for big government, his advocacy of small enterprises over large ones. Here he writes of a stream, Camp Branch:

When we who know you by name

are gone, what will they call you?

When our nation has fallen as all

things fall, when the Constitution

Is only another paper god, prayed to

and lied to by only another

autocrat, what will they call you?

Given his age — Berry will turn 76 in August — it is only natural perhaps that the poet should turn his thoughts toward death and what may lie beyond the grave. This short poem may well encapsulate Berry’s religious beliefs:

I know that I have life

only insofar as I have love.

I have no love

except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry

this candle against the wind.

In the three line“Like Snow,” Berry writes beautifully of the idea of work:

Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly,

leaving nothing out.

The last poem of Leavings perhaps sums up the themes of the book — and of Berry’s writings:

By its own logic, greed

finally destroys itself,

as Lear’s wicked daughters

learned to their horror, as

we are learning to our own.

What greed builds is built

by destruction of the materials

and lives of which it is built.

Only mourners survive.

This is the “creative destruction”

of which learned economists

speak in praise. But what is made

by destruction comes down at last

to a stable floor, a bed

of straw, and for those with sight

light in darkness.

Leavings is not Berry’s strongest work, but it does grant us yet another audience with a man who has lived by his principles and who still has much to teach us.

•••

In Strays (ISBN 978-0-9749199-1-1, $14.95), Jeanne Webster tells the story of Jane Morgan, a young woman whose relationship with her boyfriend is ending and who has just lost her job as a staff reporter for an Atlanta newspaper. Offered the use of a cabin in the mountains for a month, Jane is settling into her retreat when she falls and hits her head. When she recovers consciousness, she discovers that she has mysteriously acquired the ability to hear the voices of plants and animals around her.

Her friendship with Max, a stray dog, with Grandmother Spider, the Great Snake, and others enable Jane to realize that not only are human beings more deeply connected to the planet and its creatures than they ever realize, but that beyond the world of the seen lies another deeper, sacred reality.

(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..)

Comment

Twelve years ago, while teaching Latin at a local high school, I was discussing a point of grammar — I think it had to do with the dative case and indirect objects — when one of the brighter students in the class interrupted me and said plaintively, “Could you please explain what an indirect object is? Most of us haven’t had this stuff since the fourth grade.”

Before 1970, most students had grammar drilled into their heads through middle school. Then came the changes wrought by that era, and grammar, like memorization and other archaic fixtures of learning, fell before the winds of novelty and creativity. To study grammar, punctuation, and syntax in many schools, public and private, was regarded as antiquated as — well, as the study of Latin. The consequent lack of language fundamentals so damaged the writing abilities of students that by the 1980s many universities, including those of the Ivy League, were forced to open writing labs and other courses in basic composition for incoming freshmen.

In the No. 1 British bestseller, Eats, Shoot & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, published in the United States in 2004, Lynne Truss attacked the sloppy usage of our times, generated both by low educational standards and by digital communication such as emails and text messaging. Her book pointed out to its readers the importance of being a stickler in matters of punctuation and diction, and the harm done to the clarity of language when we fail to follow these rules.

Another book which should cause a similar uptick in matters grammatical is Mark Garvey’s Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (ISBN 978-1-4165-9092-7, 2009, $22.99, 208 pages).

Nearly everyone who has gone to college, or who has wondered through a bookstore, is familiar with The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. (Elwyn Brooks) White. This book is, indeed, so much a part of American literary culture that, as Garvey reminds us, we couple their names “Strunk and White” (often pronounced as “strunkenwhite) much as we do “Rogers and Hammerstein, the Wright brothers, Tracy and Hepburn, Lennon-McCartney.”

William Strunk Jr., a professor of English at Cornell University, self-published The Elements of Style in 1918, a small book intended for the instruction of his students regarding certain points of English grammar and punctuation. E.B. White, who joined the professor’s classes as a student in 1919 and left those same classes as Strunk’s friend, used the little book, but forgot about it after his graduation. After a few years of struggling, White landed on the staff of the newly launched New Yorker magazine. Throughout this time, he maintained a correspondence with Strunk.

Eleven years after Strunk’s death, however, a friend mailed White a copy of the professor’s book. Rereading The Elements of Style aroused in White feelings of nostalgia and admiration, and he devoted one of his New Yorker columns to the book. An editor at the Macmillan Company, Jack Case, read the article, contacted White, and made an arrangement for publication of The Elements of Style in which White would add his own thoughts on style to the original book.

First published in 1959, “Strunkenwhite” has since gone through four editions and sold well over 10 million copies.

In Stylized, Garvey gives us the above bare-bone facts in the first few pages of the book. These are fascinating in themselves, for those who have used The Elements of Style, but to these bones, Garvey adds flesh, nerve, and sinew. He spends the first half of the book describing the careers of both Strunk and White — the description of Strunk’s training in languages reminds us once again of the high educational standards of the late nineteenth century both here and abroad — their interest in the English language, their intelligent and often witty correspondence.

Although he continues to examine the lives of both men in the remaining pages of Stylized, Garvey also devotes a good number of pages to the devotees and the detractors of The Elements of Style. Those authors who sing the praises of Strunk and White range from Stephen King to Dave Barry. Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes who, interestingly, wrote the Foreword to Eats, Shoots & Leaves, brought The Elements of Style into his classes at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. He writes that the lessons he drew from it, the lessons he tried to pass along to his students, were:

“Clarity, clarity, clarity — and get rid of adornment and unnecessary words. I went right along with it because I like to get to the point in writing anyway ... And that’s why I think I had a particular feeling about Strunk and White — because of their insistence, and because of White’s good humor about it more than Strunk. Strunk is funny in his hardheadedness; White is even funnier. It’s almost as if they’re a vaudeville pair.”

Garvey lets the detractors throw their punches, but at times he steps into the ring as a defender. In response to Geoffrey Pullum’s attack on The Elements and its admonition to delete adjectives as much as possible — Pullum wrote that “You don’t get good at writing by deleting adjectives” — Garvey rejoins that White wasn’t necessarily opposed to adjectives. Garvey writes that White’s “point ... is that instead of relying on a modifier to prop up a weak noun or verb, writers should work harder to discover and employ stronger, more precise nouns and verbs.”

Stylized will delight those who are already in the “Strunkenwhite” entourage as well as entice newcomers to join them. Garvey deserves high praise for making all of us more familiar with this famous duo.

Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey.

Comment

Next by James Hynes. Reagan Arthur Books, 2010. 320 pages.

In The Lecturer’s Tale, previously reviewed in The Smoky Mountain News, James Hynes offered a withering satire of the academic world, in particular the Machiavellian machinations carried on in a university English literature department. The Lecturer’s Tale rightly received critical accolades from readers and critics.

In Next, Hynes remains somewhat attached to the world of academia — his protagonist, Kevin Quinn, is a middle-aged editor for a university press — but Hynes’s vision has darkened even while the scope of his tale has broadened.

Full of doubts about his life, his failed marriage, his current girlfriend, and his work, Kevin goes to Austin, Texas, to interview for a job that offers him the chance for both a higher salary and a change in his life, which he regards as stagnant. On the plane from Michigan to Texas, Kevin’s seatmate is a beautiful and much younger Oriental woman whom he calls Joy Luck. Kevin passes his time on the flight admiring her and worrying about terrorists shooting down the plane.

Once on the ground, Kevin makes his way to his interview. Having arrived several hours early, he goes to a nearby coffee shop, where he first meets an attractive professional, but then spots Joy Luck walking down the sidewalk. Kevin charges out of the coffee shop, offending the woman with whom he has struck up a conversation over coffee, and follows Joy Luck through the streets of Austin, speculating on his life while he tries to devise ways to reintroduce himself to her.

This is Part One of Next, and most readers will be tempted to put the book down — or toss it against the wall — before finishing this section. Hynes paints Kevin with a realistic brush. He is not a particularly attractive character; he whines about the difficulties of his job, his former marriage, his current lover, who favors fine restaurants and appearances and who is much less introspective than Kevin. Chasing after a woman half his age through the sweltering streets of Austin just hours before a job interview that could change his life makes Kevin appear even more an ass. Even the most exuberant sybarite would think twice before chasing a stranger block after sweat-soaked city block while still expecting to make an appointment that might permanently change his life.

Part Two begins with Kevin entangled in a dog’s leash and taking a spill. He bangs his head, tears his pants, and cuts his knee. To the woman who rescues him, who treats the cut knee, whom he first mentally nicknames Nurse Amazon (he later discovers she is a physician), he now turns his sexual antennae, “admiring her solid, fat-free thighs, the definition of her biceps, the muscles in her throat as she tips back her head.” After some mild verbal snickersnee, the Amazon drops him at a clothing store, where he replaces his stained and torn clothing, and then proceeds to his job interview.

By this point, we have come to understand Kevin. He is, in so many ways, a twenty-first century middle-management Caucasian male: wanting attractive women, yet unattuned to their desires; caught up in a life which seems to him far from the dreams of his youth; troubled by world events, particularly terrorism; aware that others around him—the cabbie who drives him from the airport, the people in the streets of Austin, the terror-laden and fearful reports on the news — reflect the awful demands of a harsh world.

In Part Three of Next, Kevin has just greeted the receptionist on the 52nd floor of the building in which his job interview is to take place when the building is hit by a terrorist attack. Part of the building breaks away; the receptionist to whom Kevin has just spoken goes over the edge and falls to the street below. His worst fears realized, Kevin finds himself in a burning building, clutching, oddly enough, the woman whom he had met earlier that day in the coffee shop, who, as it turns out, is employed there.

To divulge more details at this point would spoil the book for any potential reader. But no harm to the ending of the book will come from noting that it is here, in this last horrific chapter, that Kevin finally focuses on what his life has meant and what has given that life importance. He finds in himself a great tenderness for both his ex-wife and his current lover; he finds in the woman beside him in the wrecked building a peace, a solace, a forgiveness that he has lacked his entire life; he finally understands the meaning of love.

Contemporary literature at its finest is literature that reminds us of what it means to be human. It pricks the flesh, tugs at the heart, twists in the mind; it opens the soul; it acts as a mirror in which we find our very selves reflected. Whether the story involves an alcoholic detective or a Bridget Jones looking for love, it is this resonance within ourselves that makes the story real for us. Describing the bond between reader and writer, E.M. Forster said it best: “Only connect.”

Next is contemporary literature at its finest.

Comment

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness by William Spiegelman. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009.

In Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-23930-5, $23), William Spiegelman, an English professor at Southern Methodist University and editor of the Southwest Review, examines some of the activities which have brought him joy in his life: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing.

In the introduction to this delightful book, entitled “Being,” Spiegelman offers a fine short analysis of happiness. As he says himself, he counts himself among the blessed; he reached the age of 50 without a major catastrophe in his life and so counts himself a happy man. Yet even to those who are melancholic or depressed, Spiegelman’s Seven Pleasures offers avenues to the joys in life. He writes that “with some effort, one can find contentment, happiness, call it what you will, without the consolation of religion and without the help of psychotherapy and pharmacology.” To this bold statement he adds:

“In this book I don’t deal with work, in the sense of vocation, or love, in the sense of Eros, reproduction, interpersonal relationships. If these things are not going well in your life, everything else may be moot. But even if love and work aren’t thriving, the foxtrot might come in handy.”

Readers of Seven Pleasures will naturally gravitate toward those chapters that match their own interests. The section on books and reading, for example, will attract those who value reading. Oddly enough, however, many readers may find those subjects with which they are best acquainted dull compared to those less familiar. In my own case, the two most exciting parts of the book were “Listening” and “Dancing.”

In “Listening,” for example, Spiegelman exhorts his readers to listen, to listen truly, to classical music. So much of what we hear these days — the radio in the car, the plug in the ear while we sweat off pounds at the Y, the piped-in music of the mall and the restaurant — is background music, popular tunes that may make us tap our feet or sing along, but which rarely engage our total being. Spiegelman here speaks of the great pleasure in trying to listen to music, to analyze it, to feel it in our very bone and marrow.

He also urges us to find, and listen to, silence. Looking back at the tragic events of 9/11, Spiegelman writes that he found solace in attending a local Quaker meeting. Here he sat for an hour in silence, an hour which “brought me as close to a religious experience as I am likely to come.”

Spiegelman’s essay on “Dancing” is a delight to read if only because he reminds us that “taking dance lessons — like trying to do anything new after the age of twenty — challenges and humbles anyone, especially a person without a natural gift, and even more, a person who himself makes a career of teaching.”

Later he writes that natural dancers “get it right, right away. The rest of us must go over the sequence until the mind has been numbed and we can do it with our eyes shut or in our sleep. Practice makes, if not perfect, then at least possible.” Spiegelman’s enthusiasm for dance, for its grace and its mannerly ways, will make many non-dancing readers consider taking ballroom lessons.

There are moments in Seven Pleasures when Spiegelman’s enthusiasm for one of the pleasures of his life make him appear a snob, supercilious and superior to those around him. His chapter on “Walking,” for example, contains a long and critical analysis of walking in America and why so many Americans don’t go in for just “walking, pure and simple.” Here he criticizes American gyms (“people who go to gyms are defined, for the most part, significantly by class and income bracket”). He labels many American cities, because of their highways and traffic, as being basically ill-suited to walking. He writes that “strolling used to be an American custom, but hasn’t been for a long time. It still remains a powerful one in most European countries, especially the Mediterranean....”

Here Spiegelman is mistaken. Americans do not usually stroll, it is true, not in the European fashion of paseo at any rate, but then who has ever thought of Americans going out for a stroll? Europeans developed this custom over several centuries, centuries in which Americans were building their own nation. Americans have never acquired the habit of “strolling” — not because, as Spiegelman seems to contend, of the super-highways cutting our cities or because our cities are unattractive, but because we lack a European sense of “leisure.” Few Americans do go out for an aimless stroll; we are a task-driven people, and if we go out for a walk, it is to get exercise or to arrive at a destination.

Despite this caveat, there is much to admire in Seven Pleasures. If nothing else, it serves, in this time of factions and political wars, as a reminder that life offers up many pleasures. Recently I sent this book to a beloved friend who has experienced, and continues to experience, much unhappiness in her own life, in the hopes of offering inspiration shorn of the sugary prose of bestsellers and self-help books. Seven Pleasures is a book which should lead all of us, happy or unhappy, to consider seeking our own routes to happiness.

Comment

Stephen Hunter’s I, Sniper (ISBN 978-1-4165-6515-4, $26) brings to readers once again that intrepid sniper, now old and aching from his lifetime of combat, Bob Lee Swagger. As in previous novels in this series, the government entangles itself into the retired Marine’s life, hauling him out of retirement to help track down a killer of left-wing radical leftovers from the 1960s. Swagger soon finds himself both hunter and prey as he sets about solving a string of assassinations.

The story begins when four radicals, now wealthy members of America’s elite political class, are shot to death by a skilled sniper. Retired Marine war hero Carl Hitchcock, who was a sniper himself in Vietnam, is a suspect in the shootings and, when found dead in a motel room, an apparent suicide, is blamed by most investigators for the killings. Two FBI agents, the rising star Nick Memphis and the competent Jean Chandler, find the case too neatly packaged and begin to suspect that Hitchcock was either set up or had help from accomplices. Baffled by certain aspects of the case, particularly the assassin’s expertise and some clues that he may personally have known his victims, the pair of agents calls on Swagger for help.

Like many heroes of this literary genre, Swagger is a loner. He fought in Vietnam as a sniper, and since then has tried to live out his life on his Western ranch with his wife and daughter. In Swagger, Hunter has created an American man who has his prototype in Natty Bumpo and who is the reincarnation of Daniel Boone and John Wayne, a man’s man doing, as the adage goes, “what a man’s got to do.” Never mind the aching of old wounds, the pains brought on by turning 60, the temptation to give up the chase and return to his quiet life with his wife: Swagger has a new mission to fulfill and can’t rest until the bad guys are brought to justice or to the grave.

Some parts of this thriller will either amuse or offend readers. First, reading I, Sniper is akin to a tour of a gun show. Hunter is a capable guide to this printed armory. His list of mentors at the back of the book includes such luminaries as Dr. John Matthews, founder of Sure Fire LLC, “for information on modern suppressors,” and Lew Merletti, “former Director of the U.S. Secret Service, for fast, accurate feedback on equipment and tactics.” Readers who love talking guns will no doubt enjoy the pages of this book rhapsodizing on the uses of a Mossberg shotgun or a Remington 700 bolt action. Most of the rest of us will simply brush aside these gunpowder treatises and bolt onto the next action scene.

Hunter’s choice of characters might also raise a few eyebrows or a few laughs, depending on the reader’s view of contemporary society. Joan Flanders, the first victim of the sniper, is clearly derived as a character from Jane Fonda. Hunter tells us that “her second husband had been an antiwar leader in the raging if far-off sixties, and her picture, aboard the gunner’s chair on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery, had made her instantly beloved and loathed by equal portions of her generation.” Jack Strong and Mitzi Reilly, found shot dead in Volvo on a Chicago back street, resemble radicals like William Ayers and Bernadette Dorn, making their living as professors and leading a posh life in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Mitch Greene, an Abbie Hoffman-like prankster who’d written a “lefto-tilt version of American history,” dies from the sniper’s bullet in Cleveland while signing books during a speaking engagement.  

Tom Constable, former husband to Joan Flanders, owner of a major network, former owner of a major league sports team, and now a man who is primarily interested in Old West fast-draw shooting contests, is clearly modeled after Ted Turner. After Hitchcock’s suicide, Constable pushes the FBI to close his former wife’s case, claiming that he wants to avoid both the besmirching of her name and the uproar of publicity the murders have aroused. Hunter’s portrait of Constable/Turner as the fastest gun in the West, Texas Red, will amuse most readers:

“Tom never did things halfway. He was a creature of obsessions, and when he discovered a new one, whether it was sailing, radical politics, billions making, movie star courting, book writing, network starting, old movie colorizing, whatever, he hammered it with the full force of will and intelligence until it became his, he beat it into the shape he desired…He loved being Texas Red. Wild as a pony, fast, loose, beautiful, proud, dangerous, all the things that Tom himself had once aspired to be and that, even though he was a buccaneer of business, he felt he’d never really let out.”

Despite the fact that thinly-disguised public figures have become objects of assassination — think of the novel Checkpoint and the abominable movie “The Death of a President,” both focusing on murdering off George Bush — there is something about using living people as the targets for assassination that will leave many readers squeamish. Granted that Jane Fonda and Ted Turner are not among the most beloved of American icons, especially among the probable readers of Stephen Hunter’s novels, it is still unsettling to see them portrayed as they are in I, Sniper. The murder of Flanders/Fonda along with the other radicals, and the portrayal of Constable/Turner, should leave a bitter taste in the mouths of discriminating readers.

Stephen Hunter has written some fine suspense novels in his Robert Lee Swagger series. Despite its fast-paced action, however, I, Sniper is unworthy of any place among its predecessors, if for no other reason than the ill-spirited portrayal of some of its protagonists.

I, Sniper by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster, 2009. 418 pages

Comment

Two weeks ago, a friend and I traveled down into Central Georgia looking for Flannery O’Connor.

My friend, whom I will dub Lucky for this piece, had never heard of Flannery O’Connor nor read anything written by her. She didn’t know Hazel Motes from a hole in the ground and assured me she had never heard of A Good Man Is Hard To Find or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Lucky’s literary tastes run in a different stream, and she was strictly along for the adventure.

That circumstance notwithstanding, it was Lucky who finally summoned up the spirit of Flannery O’Connor for us. Hence the pseudonym.

We drove down out of the mountains into the rolling hills of Piedmont George to Milledgeville, where O’Connor spent the last 13 years of her short life — she died at 39 of lupus — living with her mother, Regina, on a farm outside of town. Driving from that farm, Andalusia, into town used to mean a three-mile trip through farmland and scruffy pine. Today that same piece of road is a plastic strip of motels, fast food restaurants, shopping malls and outlet stores.

At Andalusia we parked in a dirt and gravel lot behind the house. The managers of the property have retained nearly all the 500-odd acres that the O’Connors had once owned for the beef farm. Surrounded by oak, cedar and walnut trees, the outbuildings around the house were in varying states of repair. It was hot and dusty, and we didn’t trouble to walk to all these buildings, though I was fascinated to see that directly behind the house a small barn lay collapsed with an enormous old iron wash pot upside down in the wreckage. Beside the collapsed barn was the short water tower, painted white, which figures in some of O’Connor’s work. Off to one side of the yard was a coop holding three peacocks — O’Connor was famous for keeping such birds — whose sudden cries startled the air of this quiet place.

The outside of the house, with its large screened-in front porch, its various abutments, and its red and apparently freshly painted tin roof, appeared in good repair. Around one of the second floor windows buzzed a swarm of honey bees, a detail which I felt sure O’Connor would have appreciated.

Inside the house were the rooms which I had hoped would evoke in me the spirit of O’Connor’s wonderful writing. Here in the kitchen were the white sink, stove, and cabinets so prevalent in the South in the first half of the 20th century. Here was the Hot-Air Refrigerator, which Flannery had bought for her mother with the television proceeds of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Here was a small gift shop selling O’Connor’s books as well as some tourist items: coffee cups, pens, cards. Mark Jurgensen, who was operating the shop and the tours that day, spoke for five minutes or so about O’Connor’s life at Andalusia and how she had written most of her important work here.

O’Connor’s lupus made getting around troublesome, and so she lived at the front of the house in the room that would typically be the parlor. Here, looking at the bare room with its faded carpet, its typewriter and desk, the crutches leaning against a plain dresser, the tidy single bed, the cracked and peeling paint of the walls (the foundation needs more money to make these repairs), I could almost feel her presence.

But something was still missing. It was missing when we later visited the little Flannery O’Connor museum in town. It was missing when we stood at her grave in Memory Hill Cemetery; it was missing when we took the trolley tour of Milledgeville; it was missing when we attended Mass in Sacred Heart Catholic Church, sitting just a few pews back from where Regina and Flannery had once sat.

Mostly, I realized, what was missing were O’Connor’s people, the characters of her short stories and novels. I couldn’t find them in the motels and restaurants of the strip. Our trolley tour guide, a most excellent raconteur, was a retiree from Pittsburg. Of the parishioners in the Catholic Church, only two were native Georgians (I know this statistic because the visiting priest, who hailed from Michigan, made a joke about Yankee invaders and was told of the two lone Georgians in the parish).

As we drove back toward Commerce, where we would pick up I-85, Lucky pointed out a hand-painted sign advertising “J&J Flea Market, Georgia’s Largest.” I had promised her some shopping in return for enduring my literary ambles, and so we swung down a dirt road past a pretty lake into an enormous collection of booths, more dirt roads, and shoppers and vendors.

And here they were, O‘Connor‘s people, all country people, all out to make a buck selling junk on this hot afternoon. Here were whites, blacks and Hispanics, tattooed, sweaty rednecks of all hues selling and buying used tools, old clothes, jewelry, baseball caps, lawnmowers, DVDs, watermelons and tomatoes. Here was the Flea Market Trolley, hauling folks from one bare table emporium to the next; here was the Dust-Buster, a broken-down old truck dribbling water out its rear end to keep the dirt still. Here, in short, were the people climbing first into heaven as seen by the middle-class Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” — “whole companies of white trash ... and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”

So they’re still out there in the Georgia hills, those country people O’Connor used so often in her stories and somehow knew so well. “This place is Jerusalem to me,” a Massachusetts man said to Lucky during our walk around Andalusia. “I’ve read everything she ever wrote and everything written about her.” Well, Andalusia is no doubt Jerusalem for O‘Connor aficionados, but her characters — and some of her spirit as well — live on at J & J’s Flea Market out on Highway 441.

Comment

Most Americans are surely aware our economy is still in trouble. The downswing in the last year of the Bush administration has not yet seen an equivalent upswing. Frightened by the state of the economy, the massive public debt, and the ignorance of the current administration regarding the machinery of private enterprise, businesses across the United States have, by and large, put a hold on hiring, increasing inventories, and expanding plants.

Meanwhile, our federal government continues gobbling up resources like a bottomless wonder at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In 2009, a time of economic hardship, the federal government increased its number of employees by 25,000. This figure does not include, of course, the half-million part-time census workers hired in 2009-2010. In December 2009, USA Today reported that 19 percent of our federal employees earn salaries of $100,000 or more — and this is before overtime pay and bonuses. The federal government now sucks up 40 percent of our GDP, a level unmatched in 20th century American history except during the Second World War.

In the meantime, states like California, Connecticut, and New Jersey are facing exploding expenses — many of them caused by bloated employee pension plans — and battling potential bankruptcy while still maintaining some modicum of services to their people. Over the past year, our state governments have collectively decreased their work force by 13,000 employees. Unlike the federal government, states have to answer more directly to the people for their budgets, which largely explains this trend in cutting expenditures and employees. Many are also required by law to meet a budget.

Our own state has yet to see the light. In 2005, according to the Tax Foundation, North Carolina ranked 28th in the country in state and local taxes. These taxes included income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, luxury taxes, fuel taxes, and more. Only four years later, the Tax Foundation placed North Carolina 20th on its list of high tax states. To leap eight places down the list in the last four years tells us that we are either spending too much or our neighbors are doing a better job at cutting back on their own expenditures.

Now let’s look at the local level. Let’s look, in fact, at the Haywood Country Public Library. Recently the Haywood County Public Library system made the news in this paper on account of budget cuts. In the last three years, the SMN reported, the library’s allotted funds have dropped more than $162,000. In response to its loss of funds, the library has restricted hours at some libraries, cut out the evening hours at the main library, reduced the materials budge, and cut out several staff positions.

Now, this is a wise and judicious response to reduced circumstances. In many places in the United States, the powers in charge would, in similar circumstances, cut only services. “You don’t want to pay higher taxes for the money to run the libraries?“ they would say. “Then we’ll cut hours and we’ll cut budgeting, but we will never cut our own workforce.” Our own local librarians, recognizing that they must make cuts, have nobly shared in those cuts by reducing positions and by working harder.

Why did our librarians tender such a response? Because they understand the times in which we live and because they are our neighbors. They know that budgets are tight, that some of their friends and relatives have lost their jobs and are having trouble finding work, that we’re all in this mess together. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

America was never designed to be a nation top-heavy with a bureaucracy. Our founders and our ancestors were suspicious of strong central governments. The immigrants who have battled their ways to our shores these last 200 years came to make their own way in business or farming — not to find jobs with the federal government or to be supported by welfare. Americans are not a people designed to be ruled and molly-coddled by nursemaids.

Take some time this summer to prepare for the November elections. Look for candidates — Democrats, Republicans, or otherwise — who speak of spending less and of cutting budgets. Look for men and women willing to take a butcher’s blade to government budgets. These are the men and women we want in our federal and state offices. Such cuts may entail sacrifices from us as well, just as the library cuts here in our mountains did, but we must take the long view. The federal government in particular, grown waddling and porcine in this last half century, needs now to be forced onto a diet of bread and water.

It’s the way it’s supposed to be.

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

Comment

Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf. Clarion Books, 2007. 208 pages.

On May 27, 1942, resistance fighters who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia attempted to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reichsprotector of the Nazi Germany Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the former Czechoslovakia. Heydrich, a particularly vicious advocate of racial purity and appointed to his post by Adolph Hitler, died on June 4 as a result of wounds received during the assassination attempt.

An enraged Hitler then ordered investigators to “wade through blood” until they uncovered the plot and found the assassins. Reprisals were also ordered. Accordingly, in the early morning hours of June 10, German soldiers surrounded the village of Lidice, which was regarded as anti-Nazi and friendly to partisans. Everyone in the village was rounded up; the men over the age of 16 were separated from the women and children. After the soldiers had promised the women and children that they would soon see their husbands, fathers, and brothers, they were taken away to a nearby village.

The men, 173 of them, were then shot out of hand at a nearby farm. Later, 19 more men from the village who were working in a mine were also shot. The women were sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck; twenty-three of the children were taken from their mothers for “Germanization;” the rest were eventually allowed to write a postcard to their families, and were then put aboard special buses and gassed.

Joan M. Wolf’s Someone Named Eva (ISBN 978-0547237664, $6.99), which is aimed at a middle-school audience, tells the story of Lidice through the eyes of a young Czech girl, Milada, whose life is spared because of her Aryan looks: blue eyes, blonde hair, and the correct facial features.

Someone Named Eva opens with Milada’s 11th birthday party. Here we are introduced to Terezie, Milada’s best friend, and to her mother and father, brother and sister, and Babichka, her beloved grandmother. We also meet Ruzha, one of Milada’s classmates, a lonely and bitter girl who will, like Milada, be taken away to the Lebensborn program.

A few weeks later, Milada and her family are wakened by soldiers pounding on their door. They are ordered to dress and leave the house. Babichka pulls Milada aside for a moment and givers her a garnet, star-shaped pin.

“She took it out of my hand and pinned it on the inside of my blouse, her hands trembling slightly. ‘You must keep this and remember,’ she whispered, bending close to my ear. ‘Remember who you are, Milada. Remember where you are from. Always.’”

Throughout the rest of her ordeal Milada carries this pin with her, usually hidden beneath her skirt, using it as a lodestone, a guide to the person she once was.

She and the other children are taken to a gymnasium in nearby Kladno, where they are divided again into different groups. Men with clipboards and white coats evaluate Milada and the other children. Several of these men finger Milada’s golden hair, look carefully at her eyes, measure the shape of her nose and forehead. Then she and Rusha are separated from the others and driven to another camp. As she enters the camp, Milada notices that the other girls, some of whom are not Czech, all have one feature in common: blonde hair.

Wolf, who interviewed several Lidice survivors of the Lebensborn program, now gives us a detailed account of what those who entered this program endured. The Nazis in command of the program give the children new names, German names, and they study German intensely for months. They are indoctrinated into Nazi ideas, taught German history, fed well, and undergo a rigorous exercise routine. Milada fights to hold onto her memory of her old self, her family, her way of life, but finds that each passing day strips away more and more of her former self. Only the garnet pin acts as a reminder of home and the girl she once was.

At the end of this training, Milada is adopted by a German family. The father of the family is the commandant of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. His wife and her daughter Elsbeth soon edge their way into Milada’s affections; she and Elsbeth take particular comfort in each other as the war comes ever closer. In describing the growth of their friendship and affection, Wolf does a fine job of showing us the ambiguities faced by Milada in the conflict between her desire to return home, to find her way back to her family, and her desire to be safe with Mutter and Elsbeth.

To say more here would be to reveal the ending of this fine book. Parents whose children read Someone Named Eva may want to read the book themselves and then discuss it (Wolf includes a brief history of Lidice at the end of the book that should help answer some questions). That discussion might focus not only on Nazism, but on the importance of our identity, our family, and our roots.

Someone Named Eva should also serve to remind us that the Nazis were not the only thugs of the twentieth century. Our young people remember Nazi atrocities because their grandfathers fought the Germans in World War II and because of the Holocaust. Too often, however, our young people, and even many adults, forget the other mass murderers of that bloodiest of centuries: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the lesser dictators who sent men, women, and children to early graves.

Someone Named Eva can help us to remember these butchered souls, all victims of centralized governments and collectivist ideologies. If we ever consign them to oblivion, if we gloss over the tyrannical deeds of the murderous bastards who ordered these deaths, we will find ourselves in this next century once again lurching from graveyard to graveyard, wondering all the while where we went wrong.

Comment

In Spite of Myself: A Memoir by Christopher Plummer. Knopf, 2008. 656 pages.

Like most readers, I usually have a stack of books going beside my bed and in the living room. In addition, the books in my permanent collection frequently snag my attention, sticking out their thumbs and demanding to be plucked from the shelves for yet another ride. With my instructional duties at an end, even more books — the ones assigned for fall seminars — crash and bang against one another, clamoring for attention. Reading is surely one of the great joys offered by life, yet this mob of books, replete with hitchhikers and rioters, sometimes leads to a confused mess of stories and texts, making me feel as if life has granted me half-a-dozen lives rather than one.

Here, in no particular order, are three books that chance and obligation have dropped into my lap these last two weeks.

•••

A friend recommended Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It as a fine book for teenagers. She was right: this tautly written novel about an asteroid striking the moon and shifting its orbit, thereby causing multiple catastrophes on earth, will appeal to teens and even to adults.

The heroine, Miranda, lives in rural Pennsylvania and tells us of the enormous devastation by storms, tsunamis, and volcanoes caused by the moon’s shift. Tensions with her family and friends are recorded by Miranda as well as the simple struggle to survive. Pfeffer gives us a gripping account of the catastrophe, and most readers will declare Life As We Knew It a winner.

Pfeffer’s account does contain some flaws. Both the east and west coasts of the United States are destroyed, as is much of the coastline in the rest of the world. For months, no food supplies are available. Miranda’s mother had the foresight to go to the grocery stores the day after the disaster and stock her pantry with canned goods, yet in the middle of winter, when their situation becomes desperate and people around the country are going hungry, no one tries to break into the family home, and no one in the home ever thinks that self-defense, whether by firearm or some other weapon, might be necessary.

Pfeffer several times has the mother of the family, and Miranda as well, comment negatively about Fox News and the “president from Texas,” which would lead readers to believe that this family might have once favored gun control. Surely anyone in such a situation gifted with the foresight of this family would devise a plan for protecting themselves against marauders. Pfeffer also feels obliged to attack Christianity — Megan, Miranda’s friend, is presented as religious fanatic, and her pastor is greedy, surviving on food taken from his congregation.

•••

In Spite of Myself: A Memoir is Christopher Plummer’s look back at his long life on stage and in the movies.

Plummer — his most famous role was as the Captain in “The Sound of Music” — has written a book several cuts above the typical Hollywood autobiography. Plummer is a fine writer — his book includes dozens of biographical sketches ranging from Peter O’Toole to Judi Dench — who has an eye for detail and discernment in regard to human nature. Plummer has been a public figure in show business for more than 60 years, and offers those readers interested in actors and directors a compendium of wonderful tales. He also gives us short sketches of the less than famous. Here, for example, he and the woman whom he calls his “one true strength,” and whom he has nicknamed Fuff, are watching a bullfight in Spain:

“One breezy Madrid afternoon, a young novilleros in his teens had been given the chance of a lifetime. What he didn’t have in technique he made up for in reckless courage. From the start, the crowd was aware that the boy was dealing with one oversized angry beast who had a nasty habit of hooking with his left horn very much like the famous bull who once took the life of the immortal Manolete. Nevertheless, the boy insisted on working so perilously close to the bull, our hearts were in out mouths. The crowd fell in love — they went wild.”

The young matador, as Plummer goes on to say, performs magnificently, but in the end is gored by the bull and nearly killed on the spot. “To this day,” Plummer says, “I do not know if the lad lived, but I have strong doubts.”

Every page of In Spite of Myself has a story to tell. Even for those readers who dislike reading about movie and stage stars, Plummer offers a buffet of literary delights.

 

••

A book which I am rereading in preparation for my tutoring duties next year, and which I haven’t read in two decades, is Annie Dillard’s magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It is a wonder how we sometimes forget books from our past, but forget this one I did. Having revisited Dillard’s prose — the book which lifted her to national fame — I am amazed now that this account of her year at Tinker Creek near Grundy, Va., did not cause me to re-evaluate my life, kick over the traces, and become a biologist. On every page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard gives us both poetic musings and hard facts about the natural world surrounding her sojourn at Tinker’s Creek. Her book is more than a celebration of nature; it is, at bottom, an exploration of life itself. In Chapter 6, for example, titled “The Present,” Dillard writes

“I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under trees. But under me, directly under the weight of my body on the grass, are other creatures, just as real for whom also this moment, this tree, is ‘it.’ Take just the top inch of soil, the world squirming right under my palms. In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found ‘an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 spring tails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various members of 12 other forms.”

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek was published when Dillard was 29 years old. To have written such a book of poetry, philosophy, and science in her late-20s was a remarkable achievement. It is a great book about life, faith, literature, and the mountains in which we live.

Comment

Authors often dig into their childhood to mine for the coal and diamonds of their books. Sometimes they use the picks and shovels of fiction; Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Wolfe come most famously to mind as writers who frequently turned to the terrors and triumphs of their adolescence and early life to make their books. In our own day, Pat Conroy in The Great Santini, Maya Angelou’s In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Sandra Cisneros in The House On Mango Street all gained early fame from novels based on a difficult childhood.

In the last 50 years, memoirs have become a popular means of exploring childhood and family relationships. These accounts nearly always focus on the traumatic events and dysfunctional family life. Happy childhoods doubtless produce fewer sales, except in the case of humorous books like Shirley Jackson’s splendid Raising Demons. Here we have only to look at the best-seller lists of the last 20 years to come up with a few examples: the ironically titled A Childhood by Harry Crews; Frank  McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the story of an Irish childhood awash in drink and poverty; Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It; Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors; Kaylie Jones’s Lies My Mother Never Told Me; and many more.    

In Moonshiner’s Daughter (ISBN 978-0-578-05420-9, $14.95), Mary Judith Messer tells the tale of her own harsh childhood and adolescence in Haywood County. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, a time before the War on Poverty did much to ease the suffering of the Appalachian poor, a time, too, when Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet made deep inroads into a culture of poverty whose primary form of entertainment often turned around a jug and a still, Messer faced adversity at nearly every level of her life.

First, there was the hardscrabble poverty in which she lived. Often she, her sisters, and her brother lacked even the rudiments of life: food, shoes, heat in the winter. Worse, both her mother and father, themselves products of a harsh youth, were, by any standard, terrible parents. They may have loved each other, and frequently they showed love to their children, but they also viciously beat them, terrorized them with threats, often cheated on each other in their marriage, and made costly juvenile judgments in terms of how they lived their lives.

It was not poverty, however, which destroyed their lives. Many families here in the mountains and elsewhere rise above straitened circumstances. No, it was liquor that ruled Messer‘s parents and destroyed any possibility for order and discipline in their lives. Like other Appalachian men before him, Terry Lee Long, Messer’s father, kept a still in the woods and sold moonshine to make some cash. Unfortunately, he also drank up any profit to be made from the still. In nearly every scene in which Long appears in Moonshiner’s Daughter, he is drunk, and rarely, it seemed, was he a happy or even a contented drunk. Liquor turned Terry Long mean as one of the many copperheads living on their Fine’s Creek farm, and he took his meanness out on his family, beating his wife unconscious several times and whipping the children simply out of cussedness.

Long was sent to prison on several occasions for making illegal whiskey, but his children found no respite in his absence. In what began as a rape, two neighbor boys, and then a grown man, have sexual relations with Messer’s older sister, 13-year-old Cheryl. With the father in the federal clink, the family had even less to eat and could not chop enough wood to stay warm. At one point, having taken firewood from the walls of their old barn, the children under orders of their mother then burned the barn to conceal the act from their father (For some reason, they only removed a horse from the barn; they incinerated the chickens and all the equine tack along with the barn).

Messer was eventually rescued from this ordeal through the efforts of the Queen family, who hire her as a mother’s helper at the Queen ranch in Maggie Valley. She traveled with the family to Washington and later went to New York City, where she lived with her older sister. Life there remained a struggle; both young women had trouble holding jobs, and Messer was raped by a photographer who demanded sex from her in exchange for some pictures he had made of Messer’s nephew.

Though a powerful statement, Moonshiner’s Daughter does contain some flaws. There are a number of printing and unintentional errors of grammar in the book. Even more bothersome, the book leaves readers with a number of unanswered questions. Messer never explains why, on the front cover of the book and in another picture, the faces of her siblings as children are whited out. Nor does she tell us the ultimate fate of her younger siblings. Did they too escape the sad history of their family? And why, after the photographer rapes her, does she then send her sister back to pick up the photographs? She herself tells us that the photos even today remind her of the rape. This rape also left Messer pregnant. When a male benefactor helps her find a place in a Catholic convent catering to unwed mothers while she awaits the birth of the child, Brenda Lee, whom she then gave up for adoption, Messer follows the practices of the Catholic Church, taking communion and going to confession, yet she never explains why she felt compelled to do so. It seems unlikely that only Catholic girls were assisted in this fashion, but Moonshiner’s Daughter doesn’t tell us if that this was indeed the case.

Despite these faults, Moonshiner’s Daughter gives us a slice of Appalachia from a time now vanished from these mountains. Drug abuse and alcohol continue to plague families here as elsewhere, but the grinding farm life and the moonshining have largely given way to the more general ills of modern life. Messer’s voice — direct, simple, conversational — lends a force to her writing that should attract many readers.

Moonshiner’s Daughter by Mary Judith Messer. Doing Well Now Publishers. 218 pagegs

Comment

Home.

The word is as twisted with complications and mystery as all those other household words we use every day: wife, mother, father, son, daughter, family. Home slips from our mouth easy as air, yet only in our hearts and senses can we really discern the meaning of the word. Some of us have lived in the same homes in which we were reared. Some find a home in middle age, some live in a home constructed from their memories. Some people never truly feel at home anywhere on the earth. Say the word to one man, and he will think of the small Piedmont town in which he grew up 50 years ago. Say it to another, and he will tell you that “home is where you hang your bathrobe.”

In Marilynne Robinson’s Home (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, Publishers, 2008), Glory Boughton, 38, returns to her family home in Gilead, Iowa, to care for her frail and elderly father and to recover from a failed engagement. Returning to he house in which she grew up, where her father’s greets her with open arms — ”Home to stay, Glory! Yes!” — Glory feels both a sense of relief from her ordeals and a feeling of entrapment, as if her failed plans regarding her future, to marry and begin a family of her own, have somehow thrown her back into the past. Here in the old house, birthplace to Glory, her five siblings, and their father, she assumes a routine of tasks — cleaning, gardening, cooking, visiting her father‘s best friend, John Ames — that brings order to her exterior life while she inwardly ponders the meaning and direction of her life.

Shortly after her return, Glory is joined by her brother Jack, who left Gilead and their father 20 years before. An alcoholic, unable to hold a steady job, remembered in Gilead as both a beloved child and a troublemaker, Jack has come home to try and sort out his own troubled life. Stricken with guilt over his many past failures, Jack nonetheless behaves as if he is unable to change. As the story progresses, we learn that Jack still has more questions than answers, that he is troubled by his lack of faith in God and by his inability to fit into the world — not only in Gilead, but in the world at large. He struggles, too, to connect with his father and with John Ames, both of whom are ministers in the small town.

These inward struggles, these attempts by the characters to connect with one another, lie at the heart of Home. As in Gilead, her previous novel about these same characters, Robinson’s characters engage in a dialect of the interior self that flares occasionally into conversation with friends and family. In both books, the greatest source of tension exists between John Ames and Jack, his namesake. Neither man can understand the other — Jack considers the Reverend Ames somewhat puritanical and judgmental, while John Ames views Jack, who abandoned a lover and child, as wild and irresponsible. The young man and the old maneuver around each other like a pair of wary chess players, each seeking to understand the moves and positions of the other.

In the passage below, Jack, Glory, their father, and the Reverend Ames and his wife Lila are discussing hell and salvation:

“Jack said, ‘People don’t change then.’

‘They do, if there is some other factor involved. Drink, say. Their behavior changes. I don’t know if that means their nature has changed.’

Jack smiled. ‘For a man of the cloth, you seem pretty cagey.’

Boughton said, ‘You should have seen him thirty years ago.’

‘I did.’

‘Well, you should have been paying attention.’

‘I was.’

Ames was becoming irritated, clearly. He said, ‘I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.’”

In addition to her gemlike prose and her powers of description, these two books together amaze us because of how they dovetail together. Written from John Ames’ point of view, Gilead gives us a different take on Ames and on Jack than we find in Home. Though the novels may be read independently, in tandem they illustrate the ways in which we misinterpret the motives of our friends and family, the words they speak to us, the gestures of love that we all too often take as rebukes or insults.

Readers who are put off by any discussion of religious faith might find Gilead and Home tedious. Readers who want the tenets of their faith ranked and orderly as church pews may also raise objection to these books. To those, however, who want to delve deeply into the lives of fictional characters, including their ideas of God and those ongoing debates over comprehension which engage most earnest Christians, Gilead and Home provide a feast for thought.

Home by Marilynne Robinson. Strauss & Giroux, 2009. 336 pages

Comment

Although Americans are known for their wandering ways, traveling to California in Conestoga wagons, taking the train to find a place in Broadway’s spotlight, many also retain in their hearts a deep affection for a particular place. Whether that place is a Chicago parish or Mayberry RFD is immaterial. It is this beloved place to which we compare all the other cities and landscapes of our lives, this place which haunts, for better or worse, our memories, this place whose very name is a tsunami, a massive wave swamping us in a thousand names, faces, and events from a past as much imagined as it is real.

Boonville in the Yadkin Valley of Piedmont, North Carolina is my place. Though I only lived in that small town of 600 souls for less than eight years (by comparison I have lived four times as long in these mountains), it is the Boonville of my childhood which haunts my memories, which irrevocably stamped my personality. Say the word home, and the word Boonville floats up in my mind like one of those eight-ball answers.

Allen Paul Speer’s From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III (Overmountain Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-57072-329-2, $14.95) recreates the beauty and the enchantment of Boonville and the Yadkin Valley for the general reader (A caveat and a confession: Allen Speer was my friend during my Boonville adolescence, and remains a dear friend today). Comparing favorably Boonville and its environs to Tolkien’s Shire, Speer writes that “here are some of the words that best describe Yadkinians: practical, helpful, God-fearing, industrious, static, suspicious, confident, and reluctant to stir things up.”

By virtue of example rather than by such definitions, Speer also makes it clear that Yadkinians — a word of Speer’s creation, I suspect — also love storytelling. From Banner Elk to Boonville as well as the earlier two books in this trilogy — Voices From Cemetery Hill, which tells the story of Boonville’s Civil War era, and Sisters of Providence, which also tells that story from the viewpoint of the well-educated Speer women — revel in telling stories. There, for example, is the tale of the Halloween prank when a tractor was mysteriously gotten into the lobby of Boonville school (I was there, and saw it, and to this day marvel at the high school boys who pulled this one off); the stories of various Speer ancestors and townspeople; the coming of the Stammettis, owners of the Astoria Braid Mill who considerably livened up Boonville’s party life; the antics of people with nicknames like Nut, Roach, Marron, and Mouse.

Not all of From Banner Elk to Boonville is sunshine and roses. Speer shares the details of his battle against leukemia, a slow-acting lupus which he has fought for many years now. He also shows us the effect of the deaths of his grandfather and father on his spiritual and mental life. As a boy, he shared a room with his grandfather for several years, and found that after his grandfather’s death, he could no longer sleep in that room. His father, too, he deeply loved, in spite of Red’s fierce temper, and once again that death shattered him, casting him into a deep melancholy from which he took years to recover.

After college, unable to find work, Speer returned to Boonville, earned a little money painting houses, and eventually suffered a mental breakdown. His description of this psychotic episode, which he calls his “meltdown,” lies in some ways at the heart of the book as a defining, perhaps the defining, moment in Speer’s life. His crackup culminated in his attempt to walk from Boonville to Boone, some 60 miles away. He ended his journey only a few miles outside of Boonville, collapsed in a farmer’s yard. Here is a brief but harrowing account of a soul at odds with itself, and of a young man lost even in a place which had always afforded him comfort and respite.

One fine feature of this autobiography is Speer’s sense of humor, his eye for the ridiculous, the absurd, the offbeat, the unconventional. Here, for example, in telling us where he got his love for the theater, he describes a conversation he had with his Aunt Mary about her brother, Speer’s grandfather, whom Speer called Papa:


“’Did you say Papa never finished high school?’

‘No, when he stopped high school, he was still taking freshman English, but he kept on going to school so he could play baseball and be in school plays, and he was in every play they had.’

‘How many years did he go to high school?’

‘Six years.’

‘He went to high school for six years?’

“Yes, he just kept on going ‘til they encouraged him to stop.’”


Speer has organized From Banner Elk to Boonville in chapters named after the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Given Speer’s Quaker, Presbyterian, and Baptist roots, this device seems at first ill-fitted to the narrative and may even seem strained to some readers. Those who read carefully, however, soon see that Speer is recounting here the spiritual journey of a lifetime. He offers numerous reflections on God and mortality, and uses stories and dreams to consider both the nature of God and the place of God in his own life. Readers will be delighted to find that in these ruminations, Speer’s sense of humor does not desert him.

Allen Speer, a professor at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, has given readers a grand treat of a book — an affectionate and loving memoir of a place, a time, a man, and his people.


From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III by Paul Speer. Overmountain Press, 2010.

Comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.