Jeff Minick

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

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

Her comment brought a smile then and brings one now.

Comment

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

Many readers are familiar with his story. 

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

Weird, weird, weird.

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

Comment

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

Comment

No book review today. 

But please read this column.

Comment

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

And some write books. 

Comment

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

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

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

Comment

Ugh.

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

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

Comment

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

Comment

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

Comment

If you have school-age children, by now they are two months or more into their routine of classes, books, extracurricular activities, and homework. Perhaps they love their teachers, excel in their academic studies, are popular among their peers, and look forward every morning to whatever new challenges may come their way.

Comment

Two years ago in December, I vowed to read the 11-volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization in 12 months. Unlike resolutions made for New Years and Lent, some of which I break before the sun has set, I read those fat books one after the other and finished the final page with time to spare.

Comment

“When the most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary — widely used in schools around the world — was published, a sharp-eyed reader soon noticed that around 40 common words concerning nature had been dropped. The words were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary. The list of these “lost words” includes acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. Among the words taking their place were attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voice-mail. The news of these substitutions — the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual — became seen by many as a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world.”

Comment

At the public library that is my third home — my first home is a basement apartment, and my second is a local coffee shop — the staff often slip older books onto the “New Book” shelves. These are the shelves I explore looking for books for review, the latest titles from publishers large and small. So when I pick up a book I am usually careful to check its date of publication.

When I opened That Month In Tuscany (Fence Free Entertainment, 2014, 319 pages), the first page of the novel featured a character departing from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Florence, Italy. I’m always up for a story set in Carolina, and after reading a few pages, the story had me hooked.

Fortunately in this case, I neglected to check the pub date until I was well into Inglath Cooper’s tale of a marriage at rock bottom, romance, and second chances. Had I checked the date, the book might still be sitting on the shelf, and I would have missed a good read.

Our story begins with Lizzy Harper, who has made plans for a month-long sojourn in Tuscany to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary with her husband, Tyler, an attorney. They had taken their wedding vows when Lizzy was 19 and pregnant with their daughter, Kyle, but their marriage has gone stale, and Lizzy hopes a change in scenery and routine will breathe some life back into their relationship.

On the night before their departure, Ty claims he has too much work hanging over him at the firm to make the trip, an old pattern of broken promises in their marriage. As Lizzy says, “If I’m honest with myself, truly honest, I will admit I knew that in the end, he wouldn’t go. But to leave it until the night before: that surprises even me.”

And then Lizzy surprises Ty and her daughter Kylie, a student at the University of Virginia, by making the trip alone. After Ty leaves for work, she takes her bags, heads for the airport, boards the plan, and during the flight literally falls into the lap of Ren Sawyer, a rock star deeply depressed and in need of solitude.

Ren, who is a few years younger than Lizzy, is tall, handsome, and world-renowned for his music, yet he feels lost, at the dead-end of a long path, and even contemplates suicide as a way out of his misery and the guilt he feels over the death of his brother. As he and Lizzy become friends, and then more deeply attracted to each other, Ren finds in her a balm for his wounds.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Lizzy’s best friend Winn drives by the Harper’s house on an early morning errand and recognizes a car in the driveway belonging to Serena Billings, a new hire at Ty’s law firm. Winn parks her car, goes to the house, rings the doorbell, and confronts Ty with his adultery. She then calls Lizzy to tell her of Ty’s betrayal, and Ty sets out for Italy in an attempt to square things with his wife.

Enough. To reveal more of this story would be inappropriate. There are several surprises, and I will leave it to the reader to unwrap these gifts.

Other than its readability and its fast pace — I read the novel in several sittings in a single day — That Month In Tuscany offers other pleasures. Because of Cooper’s use of multiple voices to tell the story, we hear from Lizzy, Ren, Ty, and Kylie, viewpoints that give us a kaleidoscope of emotions and of choices made or refused. When Lizzy, for example, takes up her camera and begins shooting photographs of the Tuscan countryside, an avocation she abandoned long ago because Ty considered it a waste of her time, we see her through the eyes of Ren:

“I wait while she aims her lens in every direction at various angles. I see her nearly instant absorption and the way she connects with what she sees. The longer I watch her, the more I realize how much I am enjoying observing her without her self-conscious awareness.”

Cooper also brings a frequent smile to the reader through her use of humor. After Lizzy falls into Ren’s lap — she’s had an unaccustomed amount of wine and is returning to her seat after a trip to the plane’s restroom — she sleeps for the rest of the flight, wakens with a headache, and then realizes how she looks to Ren when seeing her reflection in a window.

“My suspicions of horror are confirmed. My hair looks as if I slept with a blanket over my head. My face is completely devoid of any makeup. My clothes look like I’ve been wearing them for a week.”

Finally, these characters, particularly Lizzy, display thoughts and emotions common to many people: the second-guessing about what someone says to us, the hesitation to change direction in our lives, the fear of making a mistake, the sadness over a loss and the hope of possibility for the future. Lizzy and crew act as mirrors for the rest of us.

If you’re looking for entertainment and a good story, then give That Month In Tuscany a try.

For me, it was just what the doctor ordered.

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

Comment

In February 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation released the results of a nationwide poll of 41,000 Americans testing their knowledge of our country’s history. 

“The Foundation found that in the highest-performing state, only 53 percent of the people were able to earn a passing grade for U.S. history. People in every other state failed; in the lowest-performing state, only 27 percent were able to pass.” (Bold-print is from the Foundation.)

Comment

A recent review was of Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, a romantic comedy with sweet and wry advice about life, especially for the twenty-something crew. 

This week it’s snipers, spies, assassins, murder, and mayhem.

Comment

Ever have those days when you’re running against the wind, sprinting through the minutes and hours, arms and legs pumping away, sucking air, and still feeling like you just can’t keep up? No matter how you push yourself, no matter what you do, each day finds you falling behind in the race to complete your obligations. 

Comment

Literature at its best is a fast-track course in human nature. From Shakespeare we can, if we are attentive, learn more about the human heart than from years of living. The same can be said for reading such writers as Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, John Gardner, and scores of others. We pour ourselves a cup of tea, sit in a chair, open a book, and find ourselves caught up in the emotions and thoughts of strangers who as we read become our familiars. From them we can deepen our knowledge of love and death, of triumph and disaster, of how it feels to wake in the morning with the taste of defeat in our mouth or to slip into sleep at night knowing that we have just met the person we are meant to marry.

Comment

In Ancient Rome, the Senate awarded a general who had won a great victory with a triumph, a parade that included the loot, captives, and slaves won for Rome. During this celebration a slave stood in the chariot behind the victorious general, holding a gold crown above his head and whispering throughout the event, “Remember, thou too are mortal.”

Comment

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly won my admiration long ago. I purchased my copy from Asheville’s Reader’s Corner Bookstore, now closed, and tore through this narrative of Bourdain’s adventures as a prep cook and then as a chef. For anyone who has served in the food business — in my 20s in Charlottesville I worked in an upscale restaurant serving French cuisine and in another medium-ranked restaurant called by the name of its previous tenant, The Hardware Store — Kitchen Confidential brought back all the hustle, chaos, gaffes, and drive for excellence that goes into the making of food and a pleasant dining experience for customers. In his memoir, Bourdain wrote lines like this one “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” Not exactly in keeping with the Biblical injunction, but hilarious. (To judge from appearances, many of us have taken far too much pleasure from that ride.)

Comment

July had come and gone, a month filled with obligations, all of them good, but exhaustion walked hand in hand with those commitments. Often I was tired just kicking off the sheets in the morning.  Various projects gobbled up the hours of those long days, and by the time I crashed into my mattress at night, I was one with the walking dead. 

Comment

Loneliness.

Even the word, standing that way by itself, smacks of the pitifully sad and alone, forlorn.

Comment

In 1960, when I was in elementary school, the pop group Dante & the Evergreens rocked my young ears with two hit songs on the radio: “Alley Oop” and a little later, “Time Machine.” (Both songs are available on YouTube. Have some fun and give them a listen.) In “Time Machine,” a young man sees a picture of Cleopatra in a book, falls in love with her, and vows to build a time traveling “thingamajig.” Here is the song’s refrain:”

Comment

Who speaks for Appalachia?

That is the question implicit in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019, 421 pages). In this collection of essays, brief memoirs, and poems, editors Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll bring together writers to address J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Some of these writers attack Vance for acting as a spokesman for Appalachian America, a title Vance doesn’t claim, some defend him, and a few seem aggrieved or jealous because he has earned a big name and big bucks from his memoir. 

Comment

On February 12, 1946, just hours after his discharge from the Army, Sergeant Isaac Woodard got into an argument with the driver of the Greyhound bus he was taking to his home in Georgia. In the small town of Batesburg, South Carolina, the driver parked the bus, found Lynwood Shull, the local police chief, and asked Woodard to step from the to speak to Shull. Within minutes, following an altercation with Shull, Woodward lay in the Batesburg jail, permanently blinded by the beating he took from Schull’s black jack.

Comment

June 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of The Smoky Mountain News. At the party celebrating this landmark in the paper’s history, Tom Baker introduced himself to me. Tom is the author of The Hawk and the Dove, historical fiction covering military conflicts from the time of the Vikings to the Vietnam War. As Tom, his wife, and I visited, they told me about a writing therapy program for veterans, particularly those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Comment

“We need to know what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on. In spite of changing conditions of life they were not very different from ourselves, their thoughts were the grandfathers of our thoughts, they managed to meet situations as difficult as those we have to face, to meet them sometimes lightheartedly, and in some measure to make their hopes prevail. We need to know how they did it.”

— John Dos Passos, cited in the epigraph for Wilfred M. McClay’s Land Of Hope

Comment

Let’s start with some basic mathematics.

For 20 years, I have reviewed books for The Smoky Mountain News. For some of those years, I shared the position of reviewer with that fine storyteller and playwright, Gary Carden. Occasionally, too, others like writer and poet Thomas Rain Crowe have published reviews in this space.

Comment

Some novelists display a real talent for capturing a place in words and then bringing that “little postage stamp of native soil,” as William Faulkner called it, to their readers.

Pat Conroy’s Charleston novels evoked that historic city’s streets and buildings, the odor of its tidewater marshes and estuaries, the sounds of the city’s church bells, the ferocious heat of its summers, the taste of oysters and shrimp. In his Dave Robicheaux suspense novels, James Lee Burke takes us into the heart of Louisiana, its bayous and cotton fields, its music, its mix of Catholicism and age-old superstitions, its cool dawns and blazing noondays, the mingled smells of brackish water, boiled crawfish and wild flowers. In The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings writes of the backwoods of Florida in its pre-tourism days, of green pastures, of scruffy pines and magnolia, of fetter-bush and sparkleberry, of sunrise “like a vast copper skillet being drawn to hang among the branches.”

Comment

“Only connect.”

Though that line from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End refers to human love and passion, his words also seem to describe the vital link between author and reader. “Only connect” is the goal of any novelist seeking an audience.

Comment

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

So Ishmael opens Moby Dick. 

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.