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September 2017 - Reviews

September 2017 - Reviews


Stuart Squirrel Learns a Lesson in Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Sandra D. Aldrich. Knoxville: Celtic Cat Publishing, 2017.  32 un-numbered pages, a picture book illustrated by Ryan Webb, with a foreword by Kim Delozier.  Oversized trade paperback, $11.95.

Here is a story that emphasizes the lesson that tourists should not feed the Smokies wildlife. The book also includes ample information about the Park itself.  The author is a Florida native who taught for 28 years in Florida and North Carolina and now lives in East Tennessee. She has been a volunteer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for eleven years.


West Virginia: U. S. A. Travel Guides by Ann Heinrichs. Mankato, Minnesota: The Child’s World, 2018. 40 pages with an Index, maps, photos, and drawings on every page. Oversized hardback with a pictorial cover, $19.95.

This book highlights fifteen popular tourist destinations in West Virginia. It is part of a series of books on all 50 states.


The Spooky Express: West Virginia: A Halloween Thrill Ride by Eric James. Napierville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017. 30 un-numbered pages with full color photos and drawings on every page. Oversized hardback with a pictorial cover, $9.99.

This is one of 59 Spooky Express books highlighting states, cities, and regions. They are different primarily in the place names where the Halloween Thrill Ride -  a train -  stops.



Books Are Made Out of Books: A Guide to Cormac McCarthy's Literary Influences by Michael Lynn Crews. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. 332 pages with an Index, Bibliography, and Notes. Hardback in dust jacket, $35.

Cormac McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, where his father was a lawyer and Chief Counsel for the TVA. His first four novels were set in East Tennessee, but he moved to El Paso in 1976 and completed his Border Trilogy of novels set in the West in 1992. They received significant critical and popular attention, and his 2005 novel, No Country for Old Men was made into an award-winning movie. McCarthy returned to an Appalachian setting for his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, published in 2006. It became the second Appalachian novel to garner a Pulitzer after A Death in the Family by James Agee, also of Knoxville, received it posthumously in 1957.  A very private person, McCarthy granted his second interview to Oprah Winfrey on the occasion of winning the Pulitzer. The New York Times Magazine published an article based on his first interview in 1992 entitled “Cormac McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction” by Richard B. Woodward. In it Woodward quotes McCarthy as saying, "the ugly fact is books are made out of books," and then elaborating with the sentence, "The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Crews takes that for the title of this book in which he meticulously demonstrates the sources that McCarthy depends upon in creating his literary oeuvre.  Crews uses the notes in the margins of McCarthy’s manuscripts, now housed at the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos, to find over 150 authors acknowledged in this way.  This book takes each of McCarthy’s books and provides an annotated alphabetical listing of the authors cited and then adds more citations from McCarthy’s correspondence also housed there. Harold Bloom, a paragon of literary studies retired from Yale, notes, “This compendium of Cormac McCarthy’s sources is remarkably complete. Any student of one of the great living American novelists would benefit immensely from having this volume.” Rich Wallach, one of the guiding lights of the Cormac McCarthy Society who has written extensively about McCarthy, enthuses, “I confess to being impressed, if not dazzled, by the sheer indefatigability of Crew’s scholarship. . . . A landmark accomplishment.”


My Curious and Jocular Heroes: Tales and Tale-Spinners from Appalachia by Loyal Jones. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 2017. 236 pages with an Index, Sources, Notes, photos and tunes complete with the notes.  Trade paperback, $25.

Many today consider Loyal Jones to be the progenitor of Appalachian Studies, and with good reason, as he did establish the very first academic Appalachian Center at Berea College back in 1970.  However, in this book, Jones illuminates the stories of four gentlemen he considers his mentors and predecessors in the field. Cratis Williams  (1911-1985) is the best known of the four, and widely considered the father of Appalachian Studies. He was a native of Lawrence County, Kentucky, and rose to become Acting Chancellor of Appalachian State University.  The graduate school there is now named for him. His doctoral dissertation from New York University, “The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction,” is a 1,661 page document that set the tone for subsequent studies. Leonard Roberts  (1912-1983) was a unique Appalachian folklorist who grew up in the Appalachian folk culture – in Floyd County, Kentucky – and later achieved a doctorate from the University of Kentucky in the field.  His many books are considered seminal works.  Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973) was a lawyer, folklorist and performer of traditional mountain music from Mars Hill, North Carolina.  He received his law degree from Trinity College, the precursor to Duke University. In 1928 he organized the first annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, considered the first music event to use the name “Folk Festival.”  He performed there until 1965, and it continues to be held to this day.  Josiah Combs (1886-1960) was born in Hazard, Kentucky, and raised in Hindman where he became the first graduate of the Hindman Settlement School.  While studying at Transylvania University he published his first book of Kentucky folk songs. He taught English and Spanish at West Virginia University from 1922 until 1924 and received his doctorate from the Sorbonne with a dissertation entitled “Folk Songs du Midi des Etats-Unis.” He retired from the University of Virginia in 1956. All four of these scholars were delightful raconteurs whose repertoire of folk songs and folk tales often took a back seat to their jokes and humorous stories. The reader will come away entranced, enchanted and captivated in addition to becoming well-versed in the lives and contributions of the pioneers in Appalachian folklore.


Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson's Image in His Own Time by Robert M.S. McDonaldCharlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, a 2017 paperback reprint of a 2016 release. 311 pages with an Index, Notes, and Appendix. Trade paperback, $19.95

Confounding Father is an ambitious, impressively researched, and well-written study that shows how public perceptions of Jefferson were inextricably bound up with the young nation’s core values and controversies. A must-read for anyone seeking to understand the sweeping impact of Jefferson’s image on early national America and beyond.” – Joanne Freeman.  “Robert M. S. McDonald tackles the question of how the quiet Jefferson became such a divisive figure over the span of his public career.” – Journal of the American Revolution. “Robert McDonald’s fascinating study of Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to shape his image – and of the ways his fellow Americans saw him in his own time – brings [him] into sharp and illuminating focus. Confounding Father is a major contribution to the literature.” – Peter S. Onuf.  The author of this book, Robert McDonald, is a Professor of History at the United States Military Academy.


Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass by Barbara Martin Stephens. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 2017. 200 pages with an Index, photos and a Foreword by Murphy Hicks Henry. Trade paperback. $19.95

Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) was born in Sneedville, Tennessee, the county seat of Hancock County, and grew up on a nearby farm in this hilly remote rural county that is traversed by no U.S. Highways.  At the age of 22 Martin took a bus to Nashville, sneaked in backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with his guitar, played two songs for Bill Monroe and became Monroe’s lead vocalist.  In 1955, after a brief tenure with the Osborne Brothers, he formed “The Smoky Mountain Boys” with J. D. Crowe and Paul Humphrey.  In 1968 their band hired Gloria Belle making her the first female lead singer in a bluegrass band. Martin was known as a lover of spirits and a volatile person as well as a consummate performer.  He became involved with the author of this book, Barbara Martin Stephens, when she left Memphis where she grew up to come to Nashville where she found work as a waitress.  She was 17, and he was 25.  She became his partner, bore four of his children, and served as his manager – the first female booking agent on Music Row in Nashville.  “I cannot say enough good things about Barbara Martin and her influence on bluegrass music. She was an early pioneer with both booking and representing her artist partner jimmy Martin. The new venues she was able to put Jimmy into with his music were not easy in any way . . . Barbara was also on the ground flood of all concerts and shows that were the forerunners of bluegrass festivals.” – Ronnie Renfro.  “I met Jimmy early in my career and thought I knew him fairly well. After reading Barbara’s painfully honest portrayal, however, I realize I hardly knew him at all.” – Bill Anderson.

The Second Battle of Winchester: The Confederate Victory that Opened the Door to Gettysburg by Eric J. Wittenberg and Scott L. Mingus, Sr. El Dorado, California: Savas Beatie, LLC, 2016. 503 pages with an Index, Bibliography, appendices, photos and topographical maps.  Hardback in dust jacket, 32.95.

From June 13th to 15th in 1863, Major General Robert H. Milroy’s Union division of the Eighth Army Corps was routed by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Second Corps under Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, who had just replaced the recently deceased Stonewall Jackson. This cleared the way for the Confederates to advance to Gettysburg.  “The Second Battle of Winchester uniformly receives scant mention when historians discuss the Gettysburg Campaign, but its significance should not be so quickly dismissed. Authors Wittenberg and Mingus—whose demonstrated expertise is evident by their numerous books and awards on a variety of Gettysburg-related titles—describe the complex Winchester affair with tight clear pose and solid analysis. It belongs on your shelf.” – David A. Powell.  “The authors have mined a stunning array of freshly unearthed primary sources to produce the definitive account of the long-overlooked but vitally important battle of Second Winchester. The superb writing and sharp insights make it essential reading for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the long and complicated campaign that culminated in Gettysburg.” – Robert J. Wynstra.


Mr. Jefferson's Telescope: A History of the University of Virginia in 100 Objects by Brendan Wolfe. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2017. 235 pages replete with full-color illustrations.  Hardback in dust jacket, $29.95.

Illustrating the history of the University of Virginia would, of course, include Thomas Jefferson items since he is the founder and the initial architect of the institution. More interesting to me are William Faulkner’s typewriter and the ledger that shows that Edgar Allen Poe ran up 58 cents in library fines. The objects also include the cross burned on the lawn of the wife of a professor who wrote in favor of racial integration for the Saturday Evening Post and copies of The Sally Hemmings, an “underground newspaper” that was published as part of the protests that erupted after anti-Vietnam-War demonstrators were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. The author, Brendan Wolfe, lives in Charlottesville. He is the editor of Encyclopedia Virginia, a project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and has an MFA in non-fiction writing from the University of Iowa.



The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers, 2017. 378 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.99.

Ella Mae Wiggins (1900-1929) is an Appalachian Icon. She left her mountain home in Sevier County, Tennessee, to work in the textile mills in Gastonia, North Carolina, and there became a renowned labor organizer, known for her ballad singing and for advocating for inter-racial, militant, and progressive unionism.  Four of her nine children died from whooping cough. On September 14, 1929, an armed mob met union workers as they arrived to a meeting. The workers fled, but the car that Ella Mae Wiggins was riding in was forced to stop, and she was shot and killed in broad daylight witnessed by more than fifty people.  Five mill supervisors were charged in her murder, but they were acquitted after less than 30 minutes deliberation.  Now Wiley Cash, the New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home, has completed a biographical novel based on the life of Ella Mae Wiggins.  It is hard to imagine a writer more suited to this task. Cash grew up in Gastonia. He did his undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and studied for his MFA under the distinguished African-American novelist, Ernest Gains in Louisiana. He has taught literature in West Virginia and Western North Carolina, and now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Cash vividly illustrates the difficulties of Ella’s life; her exhaustion and desperation leap off the page. . . . It’s refreshing that Cash highlights the struggles of often forgotten heroes and shows how crucial women and African-Americans were in the fight for workers’ rights. A heartbreaking and beautifully written look at the real people involved in the labor movement.” – Kirkus Reviews. “This suspenseful, moving novel is a story of struggle and personal sacrifice for the greater good that will resonate with readers of John Steinbeck or Ron Rash.” – Publishers Weekly.


Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller. New York: Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2017. 286 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $ 25.99.

Nobody has received more recognition and popularity in writing contemporary mystery novels set in West Virginia than Julia Keller. This novel, the latest in her series that features the protagonist, Bell Elkins, has an enthusiastic built-in audience ready and waiting for it.  USA Today notes that “what particularly distinguishes Julia Keller’s series about Bell Elkins, a West Virginia prosecutor, is its sense of social conscience.. .  Powerfully affecting when matched with the right character and story.” Michael Connelly notes “Bell Elkins is one of the most fully realized characters in fiction today.” says, “her real accomplishment is the unflinching depiction of rural poverty and the ways the inhabitants of Acker’s Gap hold on to their dignity despite few and terrible options.”  Booklist summed it up: “Keller combines masterful storytelling, a vivid sense of place—the beauty and poverty of Appalachia—a complex cast of characters, and a suspenseful, superbly executed plot that displays a depth rarely seen in mystery fiction.”  This book takes place on the day it becomes clear that contaminated drugs are causing multiple deaths in Aker’s Gap.  Julia Keller was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, and received both a bachelors and a masters from Marshall University there. She became a reporter for Jack Anderson in D.C. and for the Ashland Daily Independent and the Columbus Dispatch, and received her doctorate in English Literature from Ohio State. While working for the Chicago Tribune she received a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Her first book was a biography of the inventor of the Gatling Gun published in 2009.

If the Creek Don't Rise by Leah Weiss. Napierville, Illinois: Landmark/Sourcebooks, 2017. 305 pages with A Conversation with the Author and a Reading Group Guide.  Trade paperback, $15.99.

This novel begins in the voice of the protagonist, Sadie Blue, desperate to leave her young husband, Roy Tupkin, and the North Carolina holler where they live.  “Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, and they all add new pieces to the puzzle of Roy’s dark soul, Sadie’s bittersweet hope, and Darlene’s mysterious disappearance. Part gothic, part romance, part heartbreaking Loretta Lynn ballad—Weiss’s tale is a beguiling, compelling read.” – Kirkus Reviews. “The author’s masterful use of language, including dialect unique to the area, builds another layer of connection between these characters while [Weiss] develops a greater sense of inner isolation and distance from those outside the community. Weiss’ novel is a great suggestion for fans of the Big Stone Gap books, by Adriana Trigiani, and the Mitford series, by Jan Karon.” – from the starred review from Booklist. The author, Leah Weiss, grew up in Eastern North Carolina and lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she served for twenty-four years as the executive assistant to the headmaster of an Episcopal School.


The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker. New York: Random House, 2017. 372 pages. Trade paperback, $17.00.

This novel is titled The Animators because it focuses in on two young ladies who are creating cartoons. They are from Eastern Kentucky but living in New York, and the novel follows them back to their hometown.  “The Animators covers familiar debut-novel territory: the search for identity, the desire for success, the bewildering experiences of small-town misfits leaving home for the bright lights of New York City. But Whitaker turns these motifs on their heads simply by changing the direction of the road and populating it with women.” The New York Times Book Review. “A wildly original novel that pulses with heart and truth  . . .That this powerful exploration of friendship, desire, ambition, and secrets manages to be ebullient, gripping, heart breaking, and deeply deeply funny is a testament to Kayla Rae Whitaker’s formidable gifts.” – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.  “An engrossing, exuberant ride through all the territories of love—familial, romantic, sexual, love of friends, and, perhaps above all, white-hot passion for the art you were born to make.” – Emma Donoghue. Kayla Rae Whitaker grew up in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, graduated from the University of Kentucky and then earned an MFA at New York University. She now lives in Louisville.  



Wa-hita: Poems by Steven R. Cope. Frankfort: Broadstone Books, 2017. 55 pages. Trade paperback, $15.00

The Urban Dictionary says that the word Wahita is an Arabic name meaning a beautiful person who loves the wilderness and her family.  Wahita especially loves animals and turtles in particular.  She is destined to be wealthy. There is also a Fort Wahita in Oklahoma that was built to protect displaced Indians.  Cope’s title poem is consistent with the ideals that have swirled around this name. Beginning with the first poem in this collection, “A New Poem Lands on the Edge of the Friggin New World,” readers realize they are in for a different kind of ride. Cope’s poetry is expansive. It is jarring. And it is innovative. “Steven Cope is one of the best poets we have, and I’m not talking about just in Kentucky.” – Mary Ann Taylor-Hall.  “Steve Cope is a prophet for our time; we need to hear his integrity of seeing and thinking, and his compassionate respect for our planet and life.” – Harry Brown.  “Cope delivers what we have always expected from the best poetry—light, heart, truth, affection, and assuring wisdom.” – Maurice Manning.  Steven Cope grew up in Menifee County, Kentucky, and now lives in Winchester. He is the author of more than a dozen poetry collections.



Landfall: A Ring of Stories by Julie Hensley. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016. 213 pages. Trade paperback, $19.95.

Each year, the Ohio State University Press rewards one submission in this genre with their Non-Fiction Collection Prize. This book is the winner for 2016.  All of these stories are set in the fictional Appalachian town of Conrad’s Fork, Kentucky, and all of the characters share the often found desire to leave their home town along with the also common desire to return once they leave. “It is hard to stop reading as Hensley unravels in masterful prose the ties that bind [the characters] to each other and home. Landfall  is a beautiful book, and Julie Hensley is an immensely gifted writer to watch.” – Amy Greene.  Julie Hensley, grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and now teaches for the Bluegrass Writers Studio, the low-residency MFA Program of Eastern Kentucky University.