Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons by Sharon Hatfield. Athens: Swallow Press/ Ohio University Press, a 2022 paperback edition of a 2018 release. 342 pages with Index, Notes, Bibliography and illustrations. Trade paperback.
The enchanted ground and the spirit room of this book’s title was a 16’ X 12’ cabin built by Jonathan Koons in the 1850s. There, Koons, a farmer in Athens County, Ohio, and his eight children gathered up to 20 people attracted by spiritualism and his reputation as a medium to seances accompanied by a cacophony of musical instruments where they heard voices or saw visions or communicated with the dead or found new strength. What sets this book apart is that the author, Sharon Hatfield, a retired professor, author, editor, and long-time resident of Athens County, puts Koon’s story in the context of the religious and political movements of the time. “This is a marvelous book. It reads like a novel or a screenplay but also functions as a prism that opens up into dozens of other important aspects of nineteenth-century American religion: spiritualism, Johnny Appleseed, Swedenborgianism, atheism, social reform, women’s rights, psychometry, and so on. Perhaps most significantly of all, the author’s rare combination of humanistic sympathy, intellectual generosity, and healthy doubt is a model of what this kind of historiography can be.”—Jeffrey J. Kripal. “The work of Jonathan Koons, and, indeed, midwestern Spiritualism in general, has often been overlooked, so Enchanted Ground is a welcome contribution to the field. The book has many strengths, not least of which are its evocative descriptions. Hatfield’s skill as a researcher, writer, and story-teller make this book appropriate for both scholarly and general readers."—Nova Religio. “An unbiased, rich story that situates the historic and consequential acts of ‘the Venerable Jonathan Koons’ and the events that took place in southeast Ohio in wider modern spiritualist and reform movement contexts. Hatfield clearly illustrates the comfort, hope, and sense of community Koons’s supporters found in his séances, imaginative stories, and ostensible ability to connect the living with the dead.”—Brianna Treleven.
The Gospel of Rot by Gregory Ariail. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2022. 173 pages. Trade paperback.
The title of this novel tips you off. How it starts and how it ends do not immediately appear to be compatible. So, prepare for a wild ride as this novel is unconventional in multiple respects. It never stays static in terms of time or place, yet it manages to always stay true to the Western North Carolina origins of its 71-year-old protagonist, Amelia. “I do not know from what seed Gregory Arial grew his brilliant imagination, but if I could, I would eat from its fruit and then ask for more. Written in a mixture of murmur and prayer, dust and dream, The Gospel of Rot is an essential field guide for the ghosts of Appalachia.” Sabrina Orah Mark. “I’m blown to smithereens with joy about this uncommonly rare and gorgeous work of art. When you read it, your heart and head and belly will glow like Chinese lanterns, and you’ll be carried away into the very air by Gregory Ariail’s exquisite prose and his gemlike observations, and these characters, who will likely be with you the rest of your life.” The author, Gregory Ariail, grew up in Appalachian Georgia just north of Atlanta, has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and teaches at the University of Alabama.
Mooneye by Elbert Marshall. Pound, Virginia: self-published, 2022. 248 pages. Trade paperback.
The author, Elbert Marshall, grew up in Pound, Virginia, and, after working with newspapers and a chamber of commerce, retired and moved back to Pound where he has written and self-published novels! In this, his tenth, Mooneye the Mystic emerges when she is able to contact the spirits of deceased individuals who can solve the mystery of the death of a woman found dead in Hartwood’s only hotel. But not everyone is grateful for Mooneye, and some debunk her as a charlatan.
Piano Days by Don Reid. Macon, Georgia, Mercer University Press, 2022. 352 pages. Trade paperback.
Don Reid is a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was the lead singer of the Statler Brothers a band that was active from 1955 until 2002 and produced 21 gold and platinum albums. Reid has written eleven books since his retirement and return to his hometown of Stanton. Virginia. This one is published as a novel, perhaps to protect the guilty, but it does parallel his own growing up years fairly closely. “I love books, especially very well-written books, by real authors who have a wonderful story to tell – and have a gift that they employ making that story come alive in your heart and mind as you read it. . . . Such a book is Piano Days, and such a writer is Don Reid. He lived this life and all the stories and people are real.” – Pat Boone.
After All by Robert B. Cumming. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 43 pages. Trade paperback.
The poet, Robert B. Cumming, is 94-years-old, so there is a lot of “after” that has come beyond “all’ kinds of times in his life! Bob’s life as a poet was preceded by his career as a research scientist for thirty years and as the founder and leader of Iris Press for twenty-five years. “With this volume, we now realize that Bob is a gifted poet as well as publisher. The craft of these poems is impressive: metrics and complex rhyme patterns (as in the villanelle "Long-Distance Runner") are deftly achieved, and . . . the formal restraint intensifies the poems' emotional power. Nevertheless, what is most memorable in these elegiac poems is their hard-won sentiment. They are never mawkish or self-pitying, but they are great-hearted, especially in their honoring of the love between Bob and his late wife Carmen. This collection shows a side of Bob we've always sensed was there but never seen so fully revealed.” – Ron Rash. “Yes, life is short and unpredictable, but when the love for Carmen enters Bob's poems, the dear nature of life is formed. Sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, filled with superb original nouns and verbs, create musical, melodious sounds that often blend, often jump out. Please read these aloud as well as silently to hear your own voice capture their grace. The sounds themselves will harmonize your soul.” - Bill Brown.
Alone in the House of My Heart by Kari Gunter-Seymour. Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2022. 90 pages. Trade paperback.
A ninth generation Appalachian, the poet, Kari Gunter-Seymour dedicates this, her second poetry collection, “For my people: steeped in survival and hallelujah”. She is the current poet laureate of Ohio and the founder and director of the Women of Appalachia Project and editor of Women Speak. “A breathtaking, artful set of poems on loss, family, place, and memory.”—Kirkus (Starred review). “Kari Gunter-Seymour’s poems are full of passion: passion for people, passion for place, passion for imagination. Her images are ‘pinpricks grey and blue’ that inhabit us as readers, feed us strength, and give us history—the good, the bad, and the triumphant. In poem after poem, [she] gives us a map to the unsayable and the courage to say it. She knows the pleasures of daily living, the dignity of grieving, and the terror of loss. She knows that when ‘the alcohol has stopped working,’ all we have are words to get us by, get us through, and get us over.”—Allison Joseph. “The poems of Kari Gunter-Seymour’s Alone in the House of My Heart are ragged with loss, yet sustained by all they take in through the senses, from Mother’s ‘cat-eye glasses, Pentecostal bun,’ whispering ‘loud enough / for the soprano section to hear,’ to ‘collards and heirloom tomatoes / strapped to stakes like sinners / begging the lash.’ As the details accrue, they generate a place conjured by memory, the Appalachia of the speaker’s upbringing, where she nested in the loft of the barn in the hay, ‘spicy sweet,’ and where canned fruit cocktail is the ultimate delicacy. Still, it is a place sowed with the seeds of its own undoing—fracking, coal dust, addiction. Language itself is somehow larger even than the consciousness that creates it, more expansive than right and wrong, and ‘free of the splintery / cold of our foolish selves,’ poetry, which here is synonymous with hard-won love.”—Diane Seuss.
The Listening Skin by Glenis Redmond. New York: Four Way Books, 2022. 124 pages. Trade paperback.
The dedication page of this poetry book explains its title with a quote from MC Richards, “Sometimes the skin seems to be the best listener, as it prickles and thrills, say to a sound or a silence; or the fantasy, the imagination: how it bursts into inner pictures as it listens and then responds by pressing its language, its forms, into the listening day.” For someone who describes herself in the title to her first poem as an “Afro Carolinian,” Glenis Redmond is especially aware of her skin. Living mostly in Greenville, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina, Glenis Redmond is in demand as both a performance poet and as a mentor poet serving young people. "In The Listening Skin, Glenis Redmond returns to the ancestors and the deep knowing that comes from being ever ready to receive the wisdom they give us. She plants us again in the South Carolinian soil and reaches across decades and continents back to the motherland for historical context, for truth, and for healing. She does not flinch from racism nor the complexities of what it means to carry trauma inside the Black body. These poems are beautifully rendered but don't shrink. I am grateful for the depth and breadth of the music and the keen use of the line in this collection but mostly I'm taken by the way Glenis holds us up to the light. In her sure hands we shine!"- Crystal Wilkinson. "When a voice ripens into full measure it is a moment to celebrate, and it was a feeling I couldn’t shake as I read Glenis Redmond’s superb and powerful new book The Listening Skin. Her poems are finely rendered daguerreotypes of histories entwined, of silences ended. Redmond often uses the image of flight here, and I couldn’t agree more; The Listening Skin has that certainty of lift, of knowing of how and when to turn once wing touches wind. The fuse that tells the bud now tells us that we are in the presence of a poet who has unfurled her finest moment."- Cornelius Eady.
Allegiance: Stories by Gurney Norman. Lexington, Kentucky: Old Cove Press, a 2022 paperback edition of a 2021 release, distributed by Ohio University Press. 210 pages with an introduction by Leatha Kendrick. Trade paperback.
When Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories by Gurney Norman was first published in 1977, it arguably revolutionized Appalachian Literature, a new sub-genre that was just beginning to be recognized. It demonstrated that writing that was down-to-earth, that refused to either glorify or disparage ordinary people from the Southern Mountains, could not just gain traction, but become the favorite book of many readers. When I read it, I was moved both to laughter and to tears. It resonated with me. Now, 45 years later, Gurney’s subsequent stories have finally been published. The book begins with an essay, “Allegiance” that explains his title - what Gurney is swearing allegiance to, beginning with, “I pledge allegiance to Rockhouse Creek in Letcher County [Kentucky], however far I roam.” The book ends with an Epilogue of six essays he calls “straightforward autobiography” as opposed to the stories which he characterizes as “autobiographical fiction.” “In 1977, Gurney Norman published a slim volume titled Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories, ten soft-spoken but exquisitely crafted short stories that encompass the childhood and coming-of-age of Wilgus Collier, a young native son of Appalachia. The modest collection soon found an attentive audience; it has quietly accumulated thousands of admirers, and has never been out of print. Allegiance is the long-anticipated continuation of those stories. Novelistic in breadth and scope and gravity, Allegiance harkens back once more to Wilgus’s Appalachian boyhood, and traces his life deep into an adult career as publisher/editor of his hometown weekly newspaper. In the course of three dozen stories—several of them small masterpieces in their own right—Wilgus bears painful witness to the long, slow, inexorable disintegration of his family, the decline and desolation of his beloved mountain homeland, and his own parallel descent into alcoholism and depression. Yet for all their melancholy properties, the stories are replete with sly good humor and vast generosity of spirit. In a rich admixture of memory and imagination, fiction and nonfiction, delivered in prose as clear and pure and beguiling as mountain music, Gurney Norman pays homage to his place and its people. This book is an act of grace.”— the late Ed McClanahan. Gurney Norman taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky into his eighties, and is now retired.
Haints on Black Mountain by Ann Hite. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2022. Trade paperback.
This is Ann Hite’s fifth Black Mountain book, but the first to be a story collection, not a novel. Each of these sixteen stories has a date below its title. They are arranged in chronological order within each of the tree parts. “In Ann Hite’s beautifully-realized story collection, Haints on Black Mountain, wandering spirits comfort, enlighten, and sometimes disturb the humans who connect with them. From the forceful figure of Polly Riley determined to preserve her Native American heritage in the opening story, to Gran who does what she must to save herself in the final entry, the characters reveal to us the depth of the human soul. In prose as stunning as the natural world she describes, Hite fills us with the wisdom and wonder of women who inhabit the mountains of Appalachia.” – Susan Beckham Zurenda. Ann Hite lives outside Atlanta and won Georgia Author of the Year for her Ghost on Black Mountain novel.