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May 2020 Reviews

May 2020 Reviews


Appalachia in Regional Context: Place Matters edited by Dwight Billings and Ann E. Kingsolver. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, a 2020 paperback reprint of a 2018 hardback release. 255 pages with an Index, photos, and notes at the end of each essay. Trade paperback, $30.00.

This is a collection of scholarly essays most of which are separated by a poem by bell hooks from her Appalachian Elegy. This innovation is one of the strongest features of this book, but sadly the Table of Contents ignores the poems until the very end. The authors of the essays include some of the strongest established and new academic voices in Appalachian Studies. In addition to her six poems, bell hooks  provides an essay. Others include John Gaventa, Emily Satterwhite, Barbara Ellen Smith, and Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt. Topics focus on how place intersects with art and music, gay life, politics, foodways, globalization, power, masculinity and home. The book ends with incisive brief essays by seven teachers on “Teaching Region.” "Overall, this book offers a provocative reexamination of Appalachia and place." – Choice. "Appalachia in Regional Context: Place Matters... highlights tensions within the field of Appalachian studies, particularly tensions rooted in the diverse political, economic, and epistemological paradigms... Gathering previous talks, panels, and parts of larger projects, Billings and Kingsolver weave them together in a way that urges the reader to make new connections between familiar yet often distant texts." -- Journal of Southern History. The editors are long-time leaders of the Appalachian Studies community. Dwight Billings is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Kentucky (UK) and Ann E. Kingsolver is a current anthropology professor at UK. Both are the authors of several seminal books about the region.


RX Appalachia: Stories of Treatment and Survival in Rural Kentucky by Lesly-Marie Buer. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020. 220 pages with References and Endnotes. Trade paperback, $22.95

This is a different kind of book about the opioid crisis. It highlights the experiences of women and their children. It considers the institutional framework of health services and law enforcement. It views woman as victims of substance abuse, not perpetrators. “This deep ethnographic examination into the lives of women in Appalachia who use drugs serves a vital antidote to shallow representations of rural drug use in the age of the opioid epidemic. Buer is comprehensive in her approach to understanding not only the histories and inequities that contribute to drug use, but also the ways that the design of public health and social systems to address these health disparities inadvertently can harm those who they are meant to serve. While this book helps us to understand the larger inequities that have led us to here, it also begins to help us understand the path to move forward." Claire Snell-Rood. "Lesly-Marie Buer’s ethnographic study RxAppalachia examines what happens to women and mothers who use drugs and get caught up in the intertwined therapeutic, rehabilitative, and often punitive practices of public and private addiction recovery programs including drug courts. Buer analyzes the entangled dimensions of care and cruelty, domination and love, family and community, and the discursive and disciplinary techniques that are involved in so-called ‘rehabilitation’ efforts. . . . The ethnographic site of this brilliant book is Appalachia but it is a must-read for scholars, practitioners, students, concerned citizens, and clients everywhere." Dwight B. Billings. The author, Lesly-Marie Buer is a public health practitioner in Knoxville, Tennessee.


Voices Worth the Listening: Three Women of Appalachia by Thomas Burton. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2020. 113 pages. 5” X 7.25” trade paperback. $25.00.

Thomas Burton, Professor Emeritus of English at East Tennessee State University, has enjoyed a distinguished career as a chronicler of traditional Appalachian ways. He has published three books on serpent-handling believers and more than three on traditional ballad-singers. As Appalachia has evolved more and more into the mainstream, Burton’s focus has evolved as well and produced this book. Like his previous books, this one presents mountain people who experience poverty and are too-often looked-down-upon. The difference this time is that they are not anchored to a folk culture, but part of the American mainstream. The three women who are here presented were born between 1961 and 1971. They have experienced homelessness, incarceration, abusive relationships, addiction, love, optimism, friendship, joy and other by-products of poverty. Two are white and the other is African-American. The title, Voices Worth the Listening, is particularly appropriate because Burton has presented the women in their own voices but not by directly transcribing their interviews. Instead he says he has attempted “to craft amalgamations of [their words] into meaningful, intelligible, monologues while retaining as much as possible through all alterations the integrity of each person’s speech and meaning.” It works. It is enjoyable to read, not painful like some word-for-word transcriptions.


Katherine Jackson French: Kentucky’s Forgotten Ballad Collector by Elizabeth DiSavino. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2020. 265 pages with Index, Bibliography, Notes and the other kind of notes – musical - presented with songs, plus photos and a map. Hardback with pictorial cover, $50.00.

Katherine Jackson French (1875-1958) was born and raised in a leading family in London, Kentucky. In 1906 she became the second woman, and first from the South, to earn a PhD from Columbia University. When she returned home to London, Kentucky, she became involved in discovering the ballads of Kentucky mountain people and made trips into the interior to do just that. She prepared a book about the ballads of the Kentucky mountains, but could never convince Berea College President Frost to publish her book and knew of no others with contacts in the publishing business. In 1911 she married William French, a London, Kentucky, businessman, and her work on balladry diminished. In 1917 her husband took a job in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Katherine went with him and experienced a distinguished career as an educator there. The author of this book, Elizabeth DiSavino, believes that had Katherine Jackson French’s book been published, it would have established Appalachian Balladry in a substantially different way than Cecil Sharp’s that ended up being first.  Her book was not published at least partly a result of Frost’s male chauvinism. Had it seen print, it would have established the key role of women ballad-hunters, but it also would have clarified and perhaps perpetuated an awareness that Appalachia had cultural influences beyond the British Isles where Cecil Sharp lived and first established his reputation as a folklorist. Elizabeth DioSavino teaches music at Berea College.


Literacy in the Mountains: Community, Newspaper, and Writing in Appalachia by Samantha NeCamp. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. 146 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes and charts. Hardback with pictorial co cover, $50.00.

This study focuses on five Eastern Kentucky newspapers published between 1885 and 1920, serving Breathitt, Wolfe, Lawrence, Powell, and Knox Counties. It pays particular attention to how the papers encouraged literacy and schooling and on the role of community correspondents who covered particular small communities out in these counties. “With its impressive analysis of historical uses of literacy, Literacy in the Mountains makes a significant addition to the fields of Appalachian and literacy studies."―Sara Webb-Sunderhaus. "Pointing to the clear and abundant evidence of a high level of engagement between readers and their respective community publications, NeCamp paints a picture of an informed, intelligent and definitely not illiterate Appalachian population at a time when they were becoming widely known as anything but."―Corbin [Kentucky] News Journal. The author, Samantha NeCamp, is an English professor at the University of Cincinnati. Her previous book was about the Moonlight Schools of Rowan County, Kentucky.


Up From Hanging Dog by Ray B. Rogers. Brookhaven, Georgia: Worldsongs Media, 2019. 180 pages. Trade paperback, $14.95.

The author Ray B. Rogers served as National President of the State Farm Agents Association several years back. He grew up in the Hanging Dog community in Haywood County, North Carolina – not to be confused with the Hanging Dog Recreation Area and community in Cherokee County, North Carolina to the south and west. In his words, Rogers grew up “in a three-room shack without indoor plumbing.” In 1915 Rogers wrote his first book of reminiscences and reflections on his upbringing that was reprinted in 1917. In his ninetieth year, he came out with this follow-up collection which mostly portrays his life growing up but goes a little further than the first volume, including some vignettes from his days as a student at Mars Hill College. Mostly two or three pages, these vignettes are delightful and instructive. They cover topics including Cold Mountain, The School Bully, the Coal Bucket, Ramps, Music and so on.


Field Guide to the Lichens of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Erin A Tripp and James C. Lendemer. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2020. 572 pages, illustrated by Bobbi Angrell, with Literature Cited, two appendices, and lots of maps. 7.25” X 10.25” one of those recent half-way-between-a-hardback-and-a-paperback books with a flexible pictorial cover that extends past the interior pages and has flaps like a dust jacket. $59.95.

What a daunting task, and what an impressive accomplishment. The Smokies has 909 – count ‘em – species of lichens! Not surprisingly that’s the most of any National Park – big braggin’ rights, I reckon! And it has nearly half of all those lichens found in the Eastern United States. Good news – the maps for each species show NOT just where the lichens occur in the Park, but in the Eastern U.S. and, when appropriate, the whole continent.  So, this book is basically a guide to half the lichens in this half of the country and many in the whole continent. This guide excels in providing the context for the study of lichens in the Park. It starts with explaining “Lichen Biology,” then speaks of the evolution of the landscape of the Park, and zonks in on its diversity, covering both plants and animals. Then it gets to the crux of the matter with over 400 pages of the Field Guide itself, going species by species with color photos, those maps I spoke of earlier, and, for each “notes” and “key features.” Often it also goes into the particular lichen’s “niche,” and “chemistry.” The last chapter goes into the keys to identifying the lichens. Erin Tripp teaches at the University of Colorado and James Lendemer is the assistant curator at the Institute of Systematic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden.


Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South, Third Edition by William Bruce Wheeler. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, a 2020 third edition of a 1983 release with a 2005 second edition. 289 pages with an index, notes, maps, illustrations, and photographs. Trade paperback, $26.96.

The title of this book confirms that it starts, not with the precursors to the city of Knoxville or its founding, but in the “New South” era, specifically 1940. Wheeler is not shy about his conclusions about the eras that his chapters cover. Chapter Two, which starts at 1940 is entitled, “Lost Confidence and the Culture of Ugliness.” And if that is not negative enough, Chapter Three bears the title, “The Wheels Come Off the Wagon: Knoxville in the 1950s.” The last three chapters take a more optimistic tack as Wheeler feels the city has become more self-assured. This edition includes a new preface and a new chapter that covers the period from the death of Cas Walker in 1998 to the end of the first administration of Knoxville’s first female mayor, Madeline Rogero in 2019. The author, William Bruce Wheeler, is professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and is currently at work on the 6th edition of his book, Discovering the American Past.



Watershed: A Novel by Mark Barr. Spartanburg, South Carolina: Hub City Books, 2019. 304 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.00.

Set in 1937, this is the story of the romance between an engineer who chooses to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and a local woman who is a single mother. “Watershed is a novel about change in many forms―personal, technological, and societal―and it handles them all with aplomb. A quintessentially American story of invention and reinvention in hard times, it reveals Barr as a writer of uncommon grace, skill, and promise.”―Doug Dorst. "Fluidly paced, unsettling yet graceful, Watershed is a riveting debut that never lets up. Barr packs these pages with incident and character and a deep emotional intelligence; this is one of those rare novels that hit you with such startling clarity that the events of the story feel like your own memories." - Kelly Luce. This is the first novel of Mark Barr, who lives in Arkansas and describes himself as a person who develops software and bakes bread.


The Poison Flood by Jordan Farmer. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020. 288 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $25.95.

The protagonist of this novel is Hollis Bragg, the son of a West Virginia preacher who is pretty much a recluse living next to the burned-out remains of his father’s church. He survives by writing songs for a group of musicians who left West Virginia far behind. Russell Watson, a local musician and the rebellious son of a chemical company executive “discovers” and befriends Hollis. Then a chemical spill puts the community in the headlines and forces Bragg to consider whether he wants to stay private or live a public life. "In his narrator, Hollis Bragg, Jordan Farmer has created a compelling character whose personal story and damaged body becomes emblematic of a whole region devastated by environmental destruction. The Poison Flood is a timely and important novel."Ron Rash. “Once in a great while, a book appears that gives voice to multitudes living just beyond our everyday scope. The Poison Flood establishes Jordan Farmer as a writer whose lyricism and unflinching search for truth places him among those artists who carry our deepest concerns and very best possibilities across time. This is a profoundly good book.”Jonis Agee. "A fascinating exploration of character, with a story that captivates with suspense and heart; The Poison Flood is a book about the influence of music, the power of art, and the complexities of luck. Irresistible and original.”Timothy Schaffert. “Hollis himself is vivid…When the novel focuses on a musician’s creative struggles, it sings”Kirkus Reviews. “Affecting . . . combines an unconventional lead with a sobering portrayal of an environmental disaster’s impact on a small community.  Readers who like their fiction to have a social conscience will want to take a look.”Publishers Weekly. "[A] bizarre and fascinating read that proves that anything is possible in the capable hands of author Jordan Farmer. The novel is immediately engrossing, its characters uniquely memorable, its prose both heartfelt and stunning. The novel takes a number of unexpected and thrilling turns ... [and is] rich in compassion and empathy."BookPage"Darkly brilliant and beautifully written...[Farmer's] similes, metaphors and turns of phrase are worth underlining and rereading over and over. They are equaled, if not exceeded, by his sharply drawn characters, who you will remember long after you finish this book."BookReporter. Jordan Farmer grew up in a small West Virginia town and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska.


After Sundown: A Novel by Linda Howard and Linda Jones. New York: William Morrow, 2020. 384 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $17.99.

This novel has a contemporary setting in a real place - Wear’s Valley – just west of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Tennessee side. It is the story of the romance between Sela Gordon, a shy owner of a general store, and Ben Jernigan, an ex-military recluse who feels compelled to warn Sara that the power grid is fixing to collapse. “Linda Howard writes such beautiful love stories. Her characters are always so compelling... she never disappoints.”  - Julie Garwood. "As hot romance sizzles between the pair, steadily mounting panic among those trying to survive the crisis keeps the pages turning. This frighteningly realistic tale will have readers riveted."  - Publishers Weekly. "This new collaboration between Howard and Jones weaves a moving love story into a community’s journey through hardship and sacrifice. The worldbuilding in this romantic thriller clearly shows how a cataclysmic event brings these self-imposed loners, and their community, together."  -  Library Journal. "Linda Howard is a superbly original writer. Linda Howard writes with power, stunning sensuality and a storytelling ability unmatched in romance drama. Every book is a treasure for the reader to savor again and again.” - Iris Johansen. Linda Howard has written many best-selling novels. She lives in Gadsden, Alabama. Linda Jones has written more than 70 novels and lives in Huntsville, Alabama.


Buried Seeds by Donna Meredith. Tallahassee, Florida: Wild Women Writers, 2020. 283 pages. Trade paperback, $15.00.

The buried seeds are the seeds of meaningful engagement in the issues of the day that Angie Fisher gleans, through a scrapbook, from the life of her great great grandmother, Rosella who was a suffragette. Angie is a West Virginia teacher who is coming to grips with the challenges of becoming deeply involved in the 2017 teacher’s strike. “Buried Lives encourages us to ponder the commonalities, especially in women's lives. Though separated by a century, the lives of Ro and Angie share a theme of tension between caring for family and developing one's self . . . and finding meaningful expression in the socially progressive movements of their times.” -- Anne Barrett. “Meredith’s Buried Seeds is full of promise as families sprout, each in their own season, with women enduring great sacrifice to nurture the next generation. This novel reveals how strong women persevere through great resistance to secure the rights that are theirs and ours." --Cat Pleska. " . . . delicious, most certainly memorable, and filled with wisdom and ideas that nourish and sustain." --Marina Brown. This is the fifth novel of the author, Donna Meredith, who also has a non-fiction book to her credit. She is the associate editor of Southern Literary Review. She has degrees from Fairmont State and WVU and taught in West Virginia before retiring to Florida.


Hard Cash Valley by Brian Panowich. New York: Minotaur Books, 2020. 304 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.99.

One of the hot terms in the book business these days is the French word, “noir” which translates into English as “black.” I have even seen books described as “Appalachian noir.” Hard Cash Valley has been referred to as “Southern noir,” since it is set in Georgia, albeit the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, and “rural noir,” and “country noir.” Hard Cash Valley returns to the fictional McFalls County were Panowich’s previous novels, Bull Mountain and Like Lions are set. The book centers on the investigation by Dane Kirby and Roselita Velasquez of the murder of Arnie Blackwell and a search for her younger brother. “Make room for this splendid genre-bender, a crime novel with emotional resonance and a steady flow of fine writing. Plus staggering plot twists, jaw-dropping revelations, and enough suspense to fill two books . . . A first-rate thriller, lavishly decked out in high style.” ― Booklist, starred review. “The suspenseful plot is enhanced by Panowich’s gifts at making even walk-on characters memorable.” ― Publishers Weekly. The author, Brian Panowich, grew up an Army brat in Europe, and, before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as a firefighter in Augusta, Georgia.


What Momma Left Behind by Cindy K. Sproles. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Revell, 2020. 256 pages. Trade paperback, $15.99.

What Momma left behind when she died, was a reputation for looking out for the orphans that influenza and typhoid had left as it ravaged the fictional Appalachian community of Sourwood, Tennessee, and two unambitious sons, and a very ambitious daughter, Worie Dressar. The year is 1877 and Worie is 17 years old. How can Worie possibly figure out how to find the resources to take care of all those who depend upon her. "Seldom does a story move me to tears and encourage me to examine my life. Highly recommended."--DiAnn Mill. "Cindy's special talent is in telling about life the way it is--hard parts and all--while preserving the beauty and wonder of love shining through even the darkest night."--Sarah Loudin Thomas. The author, Cindy K. Sproles, is the cofounder of Christian Devotions Ministries and a popular speaker. She directs the Asheville Christian Writers Conference and is the editor of SunRise Devotionals. She lives in the mountains of East Tennessee.


The Nowhere Child by Christian White. New York: Minotaur Books, a 2020 first American paperback edition of a 2019 first American hardback edition of a 2017 Australian release. 400 pages. Trade paperback, $17.99.

The Nowhere child is Kimberly Leamy/Sammy Went. She is not really nowhere, just between Manson, Kentucky, and Melbourne, Australia. At the age of 28, Kimberly is a photography teacher in Melbourne whose mother who raised her died of cancer four years previously. Out of nowhere, an American accountant contacts her, convinced that she was born Sammy Went in the Kentucky town of Manson to a family involved in a charismatic sect that handles snakes. He thinks Leamy is Went and was kidnapped by the woman she knew as her mother right after her second birthday. So Kimberly/Sammy comes to Kentucky to meet her possibly biological family and to try to figure out who she really is. Thus, this a novel of the intersection of two worlds. It was the 2017 Winner of Australia’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and became an international best seller. “A nervy, soulful, genuinely surprising it-could-happen-to-you thriller ― a book to make you peer over your shoulder for days afterwards.”―A.J. Finn. The author, Christian White, is an Australian screenwriter who lives in Melborne. This is his first novel.



This Great Green Valley by Lynnell Edwards. Frankfort, Kentucky: Broadstone Media: 2020. 40 pages. Trade paperback, $18.00.

There are two sections to this poetry collection. The first consists of poems about pioneer settlers along the valley created by the Kentucky River, inspired by the poet’s ancestors. The second part is inspired by her own explorations of the river further west near her Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, home when she was younger. I admire the fact that she starts the first section with Dragging Canoe, the Cherokee who split off from the rest of his tribe when they agreed in 1775 to sell what became mostly Kentucky and Tennessee to white people at the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals. “Lynnell Edwards skillfully layers incidents from this turbulent past upon her own childhood’s ‘summer days snug / and certain in a great green valley’ that was once a place of so much hardship. This Great Green Valley is a fine chapter in that story.” – Joe Survant. “In language of warning and wonder, Edwards invites us to think, in complex ways, about the ‘fossil bed[s] and shale flint[s]” we call home.” – Kiki Petrosino. The poet, Lynnell Edwards teaches at Spalding University. This is her fourth poetry collection.


And Luckier by Leatha Kendrick. Lexington, Kentucky: Accents Publishing, 2020. 69 pages. Trade paperback, $16.00.

The title poem of this collection takes off after its epigraph of two lines of Walt Whitman, the last of which is, “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” No, this is not a depressing collection. That line expresses not just a silver lining, but really a triumph, as does Kendrick’s poetry, though it does not turn squeamishly from the negative.  Part I is “Home Fires. Part II is Broken, Various, Inscrutable. Part III is Unasked-for-Singing – “And Luckier” fits there. Each section is tied together with “Poem for a Daughter, I, II, and III.”  “Kendick’s powerful fifth collection springs from a mature poet’s reckoning with the family she was given and the family she has made, with the struggle to answer her calling as an artist, with the dangers and diminishments of age, and with her privileged place in a suffering world.” – George Ella Lyon.



Snapshots: A Collection of Short Stories by Eliot Parker. New York: Morgan James, 2020. 210 pages. Trade paperback, $14.95.

The title of this collection of a dozen stories emphasizes how a moment that could be captured in a picture can bring an epiphany or present a situation where past behaviors clash with a new reality. Cops, criminals, rich people, all kinds of characters inhabit these stories, all set in the tri-state area where West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio meet. “Each story specializes in a twist that challenges readers to think about their expectations and prejudices about outcomes, people, and circumstances. Each will delight short story enthusiasts looking for literary works strong in tension development, plot, and the ability to craft something unexpected and different from disparate life experiences.” --Diane Donovan.  “Eliot is an observer and imaginer of life's quirky, ironic, random pay backs. His stories almost always have some twist or turn or surprise at the end-- in many cases the punishment of a nasty main character.” -- Meredith Sue Willis. The author, Eliot Parker, grew up in the tri-state area he portrays in this collection and now teaches at the University of Mississippi.