Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene edited by Jessica Cory. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019. 347 pages. Trade paperback, $27.99.
The anthropocene is the current geological age, the period since humans have had the dominant influence on our climate and environment. It seems to me that this editor, Jessica Cory, an English professor at Western Carolina University, actually is looking at nature writing in a much more recent time, perhaps a more appropriate sub-title would have used “in the 21st Century.” But even that would be inaccurate. Missing are not just writers of previous generations like Emma Bell Miles, Effie Waller Smith, Marilou Awiakta, and Wilma Dykeman, but influential contemporary nature poets like Jeff Mann, Clyde Kessler, Ron Rash and Robert Morgan and contemporary activists like Emily Satterwhite and Pat Banks, let alone Gary Cummisk who published the pamphlet Appalachian Nature Writing in 1988, Donald Davis who published Where There Are Mountains, An Environmental History of the Southern Mountains in 2003, or Drew Swanson who published Beyond the Mountains in 2018. This book is clearly not an attempt to consider the canon of regional nature writing or to convey the key works and people who expanded regional environmental awareness even in recent times. The emphasis in this book, perhaps appropriately, is on emerging nature writers, like Jesse Graves and doris davenport and their lesser-known contemporaries. There is much here to enjoy and learn from, and many writers here to celebrate and help raise from obscurity. Yet it is still jarring to me to have a book like this, with a title that implies an overview, without a serious short essay putting some context to the subject and paying tribute to its pioneers.
Cherokee Narratives: A Linguistic Study by Durbin Feeling, William Pulte and Gregory Pulte. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. 228 pages with a Foreword by Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and References. Trade paperback, $32.95.
Yes, this book consists both of Cherokee narratives and of a linguistic study. Here are eighteen traditional stories told in a down-to-earth way by elders both of the Eastern Band and of the Cherokee Nation. That alone makes this a valuable and enjoyable book. Furthermore, each is presented in four ways: First each word is presented in the Cherokee syllabary and below that in the Cherokee language written with English characters, and below that in English. This is really helpful to the few people who know the Cherokee language and want to learn English and to the many who know English and want to learn Cherokee. The next section presents the syllabary and English morpheme by morpheme. Morpheme is a term for the smallest meaningful unit of language, for example, “outgoing” would be broken down into “out,” “go” and “ing.” Again this is useful to language learners and especially to linguists. Then the narrative is presented completely simply in the Cherokee syllabary. The fourth and last section presents it in English. Thus the book is enjoyable and useful even to those of us who have no interest in linguistics or even in learning another language. The primary authors, Durbin Feeling and William Pulte, have collaborated extensively for decades ever since they both lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Both are now retired professors. Gregory Pulte is a graduate student at UT-Austin.
After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety, and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings by Thomas P. Kapsidelis. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2019. 261 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes and photos. Hardback in dust jacket, $29.95.
When 32 Virginia Tech students and professors were murdered on April 16, 2007, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman up to that time in America. This important book examines many dimensions of the profound aftermath of that event. It traumatized the police who responded; it severely complicated the tasks of university counselors and chaplains. Some victims and their advocates became involved in gun law reform activism while others affected focused on various kinds of personal self-defense. Given the cascade of subsequent mass shootings, this book has to be viewed as truly significant. “Kapsidelis tells the story of mass shootings unwaveringly from the perspective of survivors. His voice is quiet, empathetic, sensitive, trustworthy, accurate, and never overwrought, conveying empathy without pathos. Kapsidelis’s account of the actual day of the shooting, and the shooting itself, is brilliant. At a time when guns are posited as the only way to preserve life and safety, the events at Virginia Tech suggest that there are other means of survival and heroism.” - Pamela Haag. “Well-researched and clearly written, [the] book's major accomplishment is the author's exploration of the healing process.... Too many accounts of murderous rampages fail to offer long-term insights into the trauma faced by survivors, but Kapsidelis provides useful information on the topic, including discussions of 'gun violence as a health issue.'... An important book for policymakers and those interested in the continuing, depressingly widespread instances of gun violence. - Kirkus Reviews. The author, Thomas Kapsidelis, is an award-winning journalist now a fellow at Virginia Humanities.
The Stuff of our Forebears: Willa Cather’s Southern Heritage by Joyce McDonald. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, a 2019 paperback reprint of a 1998 release. 142 pages with an Index, Bibliography, and Notes. Trade paperback, $24.95.
One of my favorite factoids is that Willa Cather and Patsy Cline grew up in the same little Virginia community of Gore, west of Winchester. Another irony is that even though Willa Cather is primarily known for writing about the Nebraska frontier, she lived most of her life in New York City, and grew up in Appalachia! The only book by Cather set in the area where she grew up is the novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. This is a fascinating study that points out, for example, that Cather’s paternal grandparents, maternal grandmother, and an aunt and uncle also moved to Nebraska, so the influence of her deeply rooted Virginia mountain family continued to have a profound and very personal effect upon her after she moved. "McDonald succeeds in establishing both the importance and the relevance of those formative years before the Nebraska experience that scholars have so emphasized for several decades. . . . The Stuff of Our Forebears is a readable, insightful addition to Cather scholarship."—Bruce P. Baker II. The author, Joyce McDonald, is actually best known as a highly successful author of books for young adults and children. She lives in Pennsylvania.
Smoke, Roots, Mountain, Harvest: Recipes and Stories Inspired by My Appalachian Home by Lauren Angelucci McDuffie. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2019. 255 pages with an index and 80 full-color, full-page photographs. Hardback with pictorial cover, $29.95.
This is a stunning coffee-table book with 70 recipes and 80 full-color, full-page, photos. Do not look here for your simple, basic, traditional recipes. Rather you will find them here dramatically enhanced – “Grilled Corn” includes coconut and peanuts among the ingredients, and the pulled pork sandwich, for example, requires a peach! And it is not just one recipe after another. Organized by the four seasons, with succinct commentary on each, the text briefly wanders from place to place and memory to memory. That makes sense. It is written by a woman, Lauren Angelucci McDuffie, whose credentials include an award-winning blog, Honey and Harvest, and work as a professional photographer and free-lance writer. She is from Richmond, Kentucky, lived in Southwest Virginia, and now resides in Indianapolis.
Hoffa In Tennessee: The Chattanooga Trial that Brought Down an Icon by Maury Nicely. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2019. 443 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes and photos. Hardback with pictorial cover, $49.95.
Jimmy Hoffa (1913-1982) was the powerful President of America’s largest labor union, the 2.3- million-member Teamsters, in the middle of the 20th Century. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy – in the years between when he worked for Joe McCarthy and when he became a liberal icon – went after Hoffa as a symbol of labor corruption. Several trials in the 1950s and early 1960s resulted in acquittals, but a six-week trial in Chattanooga in 1964 - on charges that he had bribed jurors in a 1962 Nashville trial – resulted in a conviction and a 13-year sentence. Hoffa was imprisoned in 1967 and pardoned by President Nixon in 1971. He disappeared in 1975. This book focuses on the Chattanooga trial but also covers the Nashville trial and the context of these climactic Tennessee judicial proceedings. The author, Maury Nicely, is an attorney from Chattanooga.
All the Foregiveness by Elizabeth Hardinger. New York: Kensington, 2019. 356 pages. Trade paperback, $26.00.
The setting of this debut novel is an Eastern Kentucky farm at the turn of the twentieth century. The protagonist is Bertie Winslow, who, at fifteen, is forced to raise her four younger siblings when her mother dies and her father proves to be dissolute and unreliable. Her two younger brothers take after their father and eventually move in with an older brother, but Bertie keeps her younger sisters even after marrying young and moving to Kansas with her new husband. “Elizabeth Hardinger has given us a heroine for the ages. In the face of unimaginable hardship, where survival is the only thing that matters, she learns strength and courage, and discovers joy in unexpected places. Her voice is strong and authentic and unforgettable. Equal parts tender and brutal, All the Forgivenesses is a rich, exquisite novel.”—Alex George. “Composed with unassuming wisdom and grace, All the Forgivenesses is an exhilarating testament to the human spirit. You'll fall in love with the remarkable Bertie, whose unwavering loyalty to family delivers her a life rich with meaning and hard‑won transcendence. A captivating debut by an exciting new voice in fiction.”—Wayne Harrison. The author, Elizabeth Hardinger, grew up in a Kansas family with grandparents who had moved there from Kentucky. She now lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Treeborne by Caleb Johnson. New York: Picador/Macmillan, a 2019 paperback reprint of a 2018 release. 308 pages. Trade paperback, $17.00.
When it came out last year in hardback, this novel was an Honorable Mention for the Southern Book Prize, one of Southern Living’s “Best New Books,” and one of Library Journal’s “Books to Get Now.” The setting is a fictional town of Elberta, in the hill country of North Alabama, where the author grew up, not the real town of Elberta, Alabama, near the Gulf Coast. The protagonist is Janie Treeborne, who is born to tend the peaches in her family’s orchard. She tells the story of her granddaddy, her grandmother, her aunt, her African-American lover, and the whole community. "I can’t remember the last time I read a book I wish so much I’d written. Treeborne is beautiful, and mythic in ways I would never have been able to imagine...I can’t say enough about this book."―Daniel Wallace. "In his debut novel, Johnson has conjured a stunning account of the Treeborne family of Elberta, Alabama, creating an immersive sense of both time and place as he probes the memories and resentments that linger among the town's residents over the course of decades...Majestic in scope, jam-packed with revelations and a touch of the fantastical, Treeborne is an enthralling story about what binds people together and breaks them apart."―Booklist (Starred Review). "Johnson's gem of a novel tells of a place and its people so vivid and real that readers won't want their stories to end."―Library Journal (Starred Review). "Treeborne is a remarkable first novel: poetic, funny, and populated by particular, fully alive characters. Caleb Johnson has a wonderful ear for the rhythm and diction of Southern voices. He knows how to light on just the right detail of place, time and person. Watching how the intertwined interests of the land, of the past, and of a family play out makes the novel compelling from start to finish."―Dana Spiota. The author, Caleb Johnson, graduated from the University of Alabama, earned an MFA at the University of Wyoming, and now lives and teaches in Philadelphia.
Law and Addiction: A Legal Thriller by Mike Papantonio. Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California: Waterside Productions, 2019. 296 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $24.95.
The protagonist of this novel, Jake Rutledge, learns that his fraternal twin has died of a drug overdose back in his hometown of Oakley, West Virginia, just a week before he graduates from law school, so he decides to return to Oakley and take on Big Pharma. The author is an attorney whose two previous novels have been thrillers based upon high profile legal crusades. He lives in Pensacola, Florida.
False Horizon by Joseph Reid. Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, 2019. 291 pages. Trade paperback, $15.95.
This is Joseph Reid’s second novel featuring air marshal Seth Walker, and first set in West Virginia, where Walker goes to investigate a plane wreck. On his website Reid relates that his protagonist there “finds himself caught in the confounding - and deadly – cross fire between drone-deploying ecoterrorists, unstable frackers, ruthless drug smugglers, and armed miners pushed to the breaking point.” Yet in his “Acknowledgements” he claims “sincere affection for the state and its people,” and brags about attending kindergarten at Alban Elementary in St. Albans, and visiting a Phillips Exeter Academy classmate in Jefferson County. Reid graduated from Duke and then earned a masters from U.C. Davis and a law degree from Notre Dame. He lives in San Diego.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. Napierville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019. 308 pages with a Discussion Guide and a Conversation with the Author. Trade paperback, $15.99.
This book has spawned a remarkable response, including at least four “picks,” like the LibraryReads Pick, chosen by librarians. It is set in 1936 in the Troublesome Creek watershed of Knott County in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. The protagonist, Cussy Mary Carter, is one of the last people with methemoglobinemia, a very rare condition - perhaps in reality occurring in only one family - caused by abnormally low oxygen in the blood turning it dark and thus causing the skin of very fair people to appear blue. Because this condition has been linked to in-breeding, it has been the subject of very exaggerated negative stereotypes both within and beyond the region. In this novel, Cussy Mary Carter becomes one of the New Deal’s Pack Horse Librarians, taking books to remote roadless communities. Again, this sets her apart. The author, Kim Michele Richardson grew up in an orphanage and as a foster child and became homeless at the age of 14, so her empathy with her protagonist is great, and she manages to tackle these subjects – fraught with controversy – with insight and sensitivity. “Readers are likely to find Ms. Richardson’s fourth novel to be one of the most original and unusual contributions they will encounter in the realm of the current literature of the American South. Ms. Richardson creates an unexpected poetry out of Cussy’s voice and speech patterns. That voice is not the only kind of unexpected beauty in this surprising novel.” - May Read of The Month Southern Literary Review. “A rare literary adventure that casts librarians as heroes, smart tough women on horseback in rough terrain doing the brave and hard work of getting the right book into the right hands. Richardson has weaved an inspiring tale about the power of literature.” -Alexander Chee. This is the fourth novel set in rural Kentucky by Kim Michele Richardson who was born and still lives in Kentucky.
A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter by Nikki Giovanni. New York: William Morrow: HarperCollins, a 2018 paperback reprint of a 2017 release. 111 pages. Trade paperback, $15.99.
Nikki Giovanni is one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends,” and also one of my favorite people. When I was working for Berea College, I invited her there, and she later invited me and my late wife, Connie, to come to Virginia Tech when I arranged for Ron Rash to visit her campus at her request. While there, she invited Connie and me to visit one of her classes, and I’ll always remember how she introduced each of her students – sitting with her and us in a circle – by name and some distinguishing characteristics. The following week-end she read one of her poems at the Dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and – after her parents moved to Cincinnati – she spent the summers there with her grandparents and attended Austin High School there before being accepted at Fisk College, her grandfather’s alma mater, as an “early entrant” without graduating from high school. They expelled her, but she was later reinstated, established a chapter of SNCC there, published an article in Negro Digest about gender questions in the Movement, and graduated with honors in history. From there she went to the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and the Columbia University MFA Program, graduating from neither, but becoming very active in Harlem’s Black Arts Movement, self-publishing her first book of poetry before being “discovered” by New York publishers that sold unprecedented numbers of her poetry books. Since 1987 she has taught at Virginia Tech. This book is especially endearing because it includes short excerpts of her prose as well as poems. The title prepares us for the very personal nature of this collection that gives us a window into sources of her sadness as well as her joy.
At the Foot of the Mountain by Kevin J. McDaniel. Albany, Kentucky: Old Seventy Press, 2018. 47 pages. Trade paperback, $9.95.
Ranging from trauma to hope, the poems is McDaniel’s second collection speak plainly to everyday life lived at the foot of hills or mountains. The author, Kevin McDaniel grew up near Staunton, Virginia, graduated from Radford, and earned an M. A. at Virginia Tech. He now lives in Pulaski and teaches English composition at the college level.
Plastic Indian: A Collection of Stories and Other Writings by Robert J. Conley. Edited by Evelyn L. Conley. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. 158 pages with a Foreword by Geary Hobson. Trade paperback, $19.95.
No piece of writing that I published while editor of a literary magazine did I enjoy more heartily than “Plastic Indian” by Robert J. Conley. It is simply a hoot and a half! And few friendships did my late wife and I enjoy more than our friendship with Robert Conley (1940-2014) and his wife Evelyn after they moved to Sylva, North Carolina, so he could serve as the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University. Conley was not only the most prolific and honored author among enrolled members of a Cherokee tribe, he also wrote the official history of the Cherokee Nation. This collection begins with Conley’s essay, “What It Means to Be Cherokee,” followed by ten Cherokee tales, a radio play, two cowboy western stories, and four speeches. “No writer, Native or otherwise, understood Cherokee history better than Robert J. Conley. He was always able to breathe life into his characters in a particularly vivid way. His outlaws and lawmen, heroes and villains are always memorable and never one-dimensional. Every story in Plastic Indian is satisfying and complete.”—Joseph Bruchac.
Notes on Cracker Barrel Napkins by Todd D. Moberly. Albany, Kentucky: Old Seventy Press, 2018. 411 pages. Trade paperback, $14.95.
This book of short stories recreates the kind of tales that the author heard from the old-timers when he was a boy growing up in Madison County, Kentucky. “Todd Moberly calls his manuscript, ‘Pure fiction,’ but to me it rings true, a genuine portrait of country folk and their stories, humor, traditions, and unique ways of life in rural Kentucky.” – Billy Edd Wheeler. “These are stories of another generation, retold imaginatively here by avid listener and able writer Todd Moberly to save them from the dust bin of time and forgetfulness” – Loyal Jones.Moberly is a retired high school teacher who lives near Berea, Kentucky.