The Collected Breece D’J Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters edited by Jayne Anne Phillips. New York: Library of America/Penguin Random House, 2020. 384 pages with an Index and Notes. Hardback in dust jacket.
The first sentence in this book appears at the start of Jayne Anne Phillips’ Introduction. It reads, “Breece D’J Pancake’s dozen stories, completed in the last four or five years of his life, include some of the best short stories written anywhere, at any time.” She means anywhere in the world, and anytime in the history of the written world. And this is Jayne Anne Phillips, herself an expert creator of short stories and a master of literary inclusion as a key midwife of today’s literary era that celebrates diversity in published writing. Her role as the founder and director of the Rutgers University-Newark MFA in Creative Writing Program arguably led the way in this revolution. Anyone who gives a hoot about reading or writing short stories must read this book. It includes the complete text, including the Foreword and Afterword of the original collection of Pancake’s work published after he died of suicide at the age of 26. Jayne Anne Phillips has added additional story drafts, fragments of Pancake’s never-completed two novels, and selected letters that illuminate his life and art, along with the editor’s twenty-page insightful introduction that fleshes out Pancake’s origins and accomplishments. Jayne Anne Phillips was the perfect person to take on this essential task of reintroducing Breece D’J Pancake to this generation. Nobody could have done it better. Both Phillips and Pancake were small-town middle-class West Virginia natives born the very same year, 1952, who as youths not only both were devoted to writing short stories, but also eschewed class chauvinism and cherished traveling the back roads and hanging out and working with all classes of people.
Death at Little Mound by Eileen Charbonneau. Bellows Falls, Vermont: bookswelove, 2021. 232 pages. Trade paperback.
This is the first of a series of mysteries planned to follow Linda Tassel, a daughter of the Eastern Band of Cherokees as she grows older. Linda lives in Carterville, Georgia, and is the supervisor of an archeology site at Etowah. Her assistant, Tad Gist, lives in Atlanta. One of their team members is found ritually murdered. Can they solve the mystery or will they be the next victims? When they uncover evidence of Spanish conquistadors at their site, they wonder if the murder is another manifestation of human greed. Eileen Charbonneau was raised in Valley Stream, New York, but has lived in Georgia. She now lives in Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Shiner by Amy Jo Burns. New York: Riverhead/Penguin Random House, a 2021 first paperback reprint of a 2020 release. 272 pages with a two-page Reader’s Guide. Trade paperback.
This is Burns’ first novel and second book. Her first is a memoir, Cinderland, of growing up in a town she calls “Mercury, Pennsylvania.” No such town exists, but it is said to be in the Pittsburg area. Much of this memoir centers around not only escape from the rustbelt but also escape from Mr. Lotte, a sexual predator and the web of secrets and lies that surround his actions. This novel complements the memoir in portraying a town that the young seek to escape their home community and the secrets and lies behind patriarchal power there. Yes, the title is short for moonshiner, and one of the characters is a moonshiner. And the nearest town to the mountain where they live is called . . . Trap, West Virginia. The moonshiner, Flynn, is not as important a character as Briar, the father of the book’s protagonist, Wren Bird, and a serpent handling preacher. Yes, stereotypes abound, but the critics rave. The Los Angeles Times calls it a “fierce novel about Appalachia [where] the handlers are worse than the snakes.” Not surprisingly, in contrast, Ploughshares blames social structures more than their victims: “In short, Burns masterfully builds a web of tension by drawing together the frayed threads of these characters’ lives: the coal mine’s destruction of the land, the opioid epidemic, the limited access to medicine, and the lack of freedom women experience.” "Shiner is a book like a thunderstorm: weighty, emotional, romantic, and full of heat. It speaks to the energy and ambition of youth, in a voice unlike any we've seen before. Set in an Appalachian hillside that holds itself so remote it feels like a new civilization, Amy Jo Burns has introduced us to a world we will not soon forget. Her characters seek high truths and make hard choices, and they will linger in my mind for a long time to come."—Adrienne Celt. “This gorgeously written, plot-rich novel examines the complex lives of these five beautifully realized characters . . . Being set in Appalachia, it is no surprise that the novel is also about story and its gradual morphing into legend . . . This memorable first novel is exceptional in its power and imagination. It’s clearly a must-read.”— Booklist (Starred Review).
Disappearing Appalachia in Tennessee: A Picture of a Vanished Land and Its People by Harry Moore and Fred Brown. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2021. 240 pages with a Bibliography and lots of black-and-white photos. Trade paperback.
The title and sub-title say it all. Lots of pictures here encapsulate what is disappearing from East Tennessee, but it is the interviews and the commentary that establish what is uniquely Appalachian about these particular barns, houses, stores, bridges, churches, schools, and other features. This is an endearing book to have accessible to look through and enjoy from time to time. It would be hard to find well published book authors who could do a better job of finding and portraying old-fashioned East Tennessee. Harry Moore is a geologist by training who worked for the Tennessee Department of Transportation and knows the area’s roads like the back of his hand. Fred Brown is a journalist who did human interest features for the Knoxville News Sentinel for decades and thus got to know the area’s most fascinating people. It shows.
Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution by John Archibald. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 304 pages with an Index and photos. Hardback in dust jacket.
Nowadays when someone considers writing up her or his life, the virtual unanimous advice is to just take one topic and zonk in on it. John Archibald followed this advice and centers this book around his image of himself and his feelings about his family in relation to issues of race and sexuality. He was born in 1963 into a family of generations of white Methodist preachers in suburban Birmingham, Alabama - preachers who remained silent during the days of the Civil Rights Movement and only meekly spoke up decades later on race. John’s brother, Murray, came out as gay, and John’s father finally spoke out on that issue. I have a hard time getting into this family of chicken shit church folks, but I realize I am in the minority and most Southern lives have been lived much closer to how Archibald has lived his life, so this book may well resonate with many. John Archibald, is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has a column that runs in the leading papers of Alabama’s three metropolitan areas, Birmingham where he lives, Mobile, and Huntsville.
Voice Lessons: Essays by Karen Salyer McElmurray. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2021. 125 pages. Trade paperback.
This book is essentially a memoir in the form of cryptic vignettes and sort essays. The first section deals with her life as a child; the next with her education; the third with her mother’s descent into dementia, and the last with her mother’s death and her own emergence from that set-back. “Voice Lessons plumbs the complex and often painful negotiations of Appalachian women who spend their lives moving between worlds: between working-class Appalachia and upper-middle-class academia; between the worlds of mothers and daughters; and, most bittersweet of all, between the spheres of family and self. The beauty of McElmurray's prose in tension with her unflinching look at difficult subjects leaves you after reading her with ripples through your heart.” -Ann Pancake. “Tug your voice up from the water, a friend told Karen Salyer McElmurray. Let it swell to bursting, a wicked and beautiful bloom. Here, the writer heeds that friend's advice. In luminous prose, McElmurray's voice rises up and carries with it the echoes and textures of the people and places she's known-the murmurs of odd-turned women, the creak of old floorboards, the ringing of temple bells. More than anything, these lyrical essays bear witness to the necessity and transcendence of language itself-its extraordinary resplendence, balm, and light. -Sonja Livingston. Karen Salyer McElmurray is the author of three cutting-edge novels and a poignant memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey. She grew up in Eastern Kentucky and has worked mostly as a college professor.
Writers by the River: Reflections on 40+ Years of the Highland Summer Conference edited by Donia S. Eley and Grace Toney Edwards. Jefferson, North Carolina, Mcfarland, 2021. 259 pages with an Index and photos. Trade paperback.
The river in this title is the New River, and the writers (and readers and educators) by it are those attracted to the Highland Summer Conference (HSC) held for the last 40+ years at Radford University not far from the unique and beautiful New River. This book offers a great way to get a feel for Appalachian literature from the time it first became known as a sub-genre until the present because the HSC is one of the most vital anchors of the super structure of Appalachian literature. What a good place to gain perspective on its tragedies and triumphs, its scintillating and occasionally just a little scurrilous repartee, and its overall development. Each summer, those who want to teach and learn Appalachian literature, make it part of school curricula, and write it have gathered for a couple of weeks on the Radford University campus to concentrate on every aspect of it. Grace Toney Edwards, who ran the HSC for twenty-seven years, is the kind of person who others gravitate toward, so when the idea for this book was presented, it was a foregone conclusion that gathered here would be found a broad, diverse, and distinguished group of regional writers. I just opened this book up to a random page - #54 – and there George Ella Lyon shared that she began writing her poem that has gone around the world inspiring more poems than perhaps any other in world history – “Where I’m From.” She tells us that the week before she wrote her three-page entry for this book, she received twenty-six “Where I’m From” poems from a teacher in Parma, Italy. Her essay argues that the HSC elicits three words from her: community, generosity, and magic. If I didn’t already know it, George Ella would have convinced me. And if I wasn’t already planning to read this book cover-to-cover, George Ella would have convinced me of that, as well.
All the Great Territories by Matthew Wimberley. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2020. 84 pages. Trade paperback.
All the Great Territories are the territories that Matthew Wimberley traveled, living out of his car in 2012 with the ashes of his estranged, now dead, father in search of the most appropriate place or places to spread them. This odyssey takes him from the Blue Ridge Mountain where he was raised to Idaho. These poems muse about love and loss and memory and grief and kinship and the natural world. “Matthew Wimberley’s deeply intimate and lyrical collection All the Great Territories maps a son’s journey through the landscapes of loss—through empty towns and black mountains and snow-covered fields. Forged by tender observations, these poems seek to uncover personal histories half-buried under layers of dirt and ash. They burn bright with elegy and longing for a father, a home, a memory of a life left behind.”—Vandana Khanna. “The poems in this rich and incisive book are close-held and generous, in both detail and formal expression. Although the poet who has written these fine poems is young, he painfully recognizes the world he comes from is nearly lost. That is the blunt lot of rural America at the present moment. Thus, these poems have a moving, elegiac quality, but also, sublimely and through subtle implication, they acknowledge a hope, perhaps to come from the enduring land itself, where these poems of vital human experience are rooted. This is a book of knowledge, but it comes at us against our current grain, slowly, and in observable detail as it all happens in time.”—Maurice Manning. Matthew Wimberley graduated from N. C. State and got his MFA at New York University. He now teaches English at Lees McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, including courses in Wilderness Literature and Appalachian Poetry.
Edge of the Echo by KB Ballentine. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2021. 124 pages. Trade paperback.
Between the Prologue and the Epilogue these poems fall into four elemental sections: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. “Now and then poets come into our lives where words become art, sentences become canvases, poems become masterpieces. KB Ballentine's pages draw the reader into her retrospective of life, and Edge of the Echo will hang in the gallery of our minds where images turn into pictures that have developed over a lifetime.” – Margaret Britton Vaughn. ‘In KB Ballentine's new collection, Edge of the Echo, she reminds us that the earth supports us in beautiful and bountiful ways. These are thoughtful, layered poems of gratitude and reverence. Ballentine truly has a gift for painting with words. Every line evokes beauty in a stunning array of color. With a deep connection to nature, every aspect of life is filtered through the poet's lens of tenderness and compassion. These offerings bring us hope for the weary heart. Ballentine beckons us to ‘believe in everything again,’ and we do. A stunning collection to be celebrated and savored.”- Cristina M. R. Norcross. KB Ballentine lives in Chattanooga and teaches theater to high schoolers and English at the college level.
Some Notes You Hold by Rita Sims Quillen. Lake Dallas, Texas: Madville Publishing, 2020. 84 pages. Trade paperback.
Lord help me! Rita Quillen, who I still think of as that beautiful young woman with the voice of an angel, has written a book that deals with growing old. If she’s old, I must be ancient. O.K. I gotta settle down and write this lovely book up! It is divided into three sections: “Letting Go” deals with that most overwhelming aspect of aging: surviving deep grief. Then Rita provides us with a much appreciated musical interlude reminiscent of those occasions when she has graced her companions with her real life music – called “Interlude: Selah.” The last part, brings us back to the theme of aging on a more positive note, “Holding On.” “Framed within the twin templates of scripture and domestic ritual, these poems pay loving homage to hard times and the resilience it takes to survive them. Quillen often employs a colloquial voice that perfectly fits these poems, poems that ring as brightly as the ‘big bell on the steeple’ of the family church, narrative poems animated by metaphors of music, ‘music . . . the creek you swam in.’ I am grateful for this collection and how it unfailingly reminds me that beyond heartache, poetry persists in offering deep solace.”- Marc Harshman. “’Heart wide as the river, / spirit open and at risk every moment / yet strong enough to stand all the sadness and sweet longing’--that's how Rita Quillen praises fiddlers who take listeners to ‘the exact spot where music lives.’ Those words also perfectly describe Quillen's own art in these radiant poems. Her deft, generous voice travels the octaves from ‘the tiny cosmos of root, stem, and vein’ to the human complexities of hard work, loss, and love. Quillen knows in her blood that language is the music of living, and her readers will savor her every word.”--Lynn Powell. Like the Carter Family Fold, Rita Quillen grew up in Hiltons, Virginia, in that hilly part of Virginia that squeezes between Tennessee and Kentucky. Her master’s thesis at East Tennessee State University considered the poetry of Jim Wayne Miller, Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan and Jeff Daniel Marion and was later adapted into the book, Looking for Native Ground. After a career teaching at Mountain Empire Community College, where her Appalachian Literature classes were so popular she often taught more than one section of it each semester, she retired early to her lovely Southwestern Virginia farm to write even more poetry and embark on a career as a novelist. Lucky us! She used to have a bumper sticker on her car that whimsically read, “Minor Regional Poet.” Those days are long gone. She is now, indeed, is simply a “Major Poet.”
What We Take With Us by Sylvia Woods. Rochester, Massachusetts: Eastover Press, 2021. 84 pages. Trade paperback.
If you cannot buy this book, DO NOT read the title poem! It will get you! It is written poetically, but the prosaic gist of it is that she wanted her high school students (she taught at the school I attended decades earlier – Oak Ridge [Tennessee] High School) to memorize poems and passages so that when they had nothing to read they could find solace and stimulation from words in their heads. She insisted that they might need this in a literal prison or in those figurative prisons of meetings or marriages or fears. I never made students memorize anything, but I, too, insisted on education as an antidote to the inevitable bad things likely to happen to my students. I said they might need research and writing skills when the insurance company did not pay a claim or a doctor prescribed Ritalin to their kid. Here, especially in the second part, are other poems with deep reflections on the role of educator and some on the passages from daughter to mother to grandmother. The first part evokes Appalachia more, starting with “Mining.” As a native of Clay County, Kentucky, and a resident of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, she knows disparate parts of the region well. I had the great good fortune of publishing an earlier version of “Grammar Girdle” as “Wearing My Grammar Girdle” when I edited Appalachian Heritage. I love both the concept and the presentation of it in this version as well as the one I proudly claim as “mine.” It was well worth the wait for this very first Sylvia Woods poetry collection.