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September 2018 Reviews

September 2018 Reviews

FICTION

Shelved Under Murder by Victoria Gilbert. New York: Crooked Lane Books, 2018. 327 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.99.

What does a woman who has been obsessed with reading since she was a little girl – like Victoria Gilbert - do when she grows up?  She becomes a librarian and then an author, of course!

This, Gilbert’s second Blue Ridge Library Mystery, begins with preparations for the annual small-town Heritage Festival designed to lure Virginia’s visiting fall leaf-peepers. The plot thickens when librarian Amy Webber and her assistant discover the dead body of a local artist and then heats up when forged paintings are discovered in her studio. “A real page turner peppered with a host of interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses of the high stakes world of fine art. Check it out.” ―Suspense Magazine. “Amy turns out to be as apt a student of art forgery as she is of everything book-related. Just the thing for readers whose pulses quicken when they read: ‘The way he looks at you sometimes…deserves an R-rating.’” ―Kirkus Reviews. Victoria Gilbert grew up in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains and lives in North Carolina.

 

The Line that Held Us by David Joy. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018. 256 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, 27.00.

David Joy has made a quick assent from Ron Rash’s star student at Western Carolina University to a writer called upon by NPR, Time, and Garden and Gun to illuminate the South. The Life that Held Us, his third novel, is a Book-of-the-Month selection! Set in Western North Carolina, this novel begins when Darl Moody accidentally shoots and kills a ginseng digger instead of the monster buck he was hunting. When he realizes that he has killed a member of the vengeful and violent Brewer family, he enlists his friend Calvin Hooper. "Poverty, class, violence, addiction, isolation: No one writes about the issues facing rural America as clearly, as fairly, or as well as David Joy. The Line That Held Us plumbs the depths of friendship and family, uncovering truths that are stamped on the page with blistering realism."—Wiley Cash. “Exquisitely written, heart-wrenching . . . Joy’s descriptions are lyrical and lingering.”—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “A suspenseful page-turner, complete with one of the absolutely killer endings that have become one of Joy’s signatures.”—Los Angeles Times. “Unflinching . . . Joy writes about rough-hewn men and women eking out a living in an economically depressed area, trying to avoid—but often affected by—violence and drugs that permeate the region. Their lives are tied to the land, its history and their families who established lives there decades ago.”—Associated Press. “David Joy’s novel brought me to my knees. Exquisitely written and heart-wrenching, it reminded me of Faulkner in its dark depiction of family loyalty — that “old fierce pull of blood.” . . . Joy’s descriptions are lyrical and lingering. . . . In the end, the line that holds Joy’s characters may be fraught and frayed, but its pull is fierce.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune.

 

The Weight of This World by David Joy. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a 2018 paperback reprint of a 2017 release. 292 pages with a Discussion Guide, Joy’s essay, “Digging the Trash,” and an excerpt from The Line that Held Us, Joy’s next novel. Trade paperback, $16.

This novel won the 2018 Working Class Studies Association Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing and garnered starred reviews from both Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. Its characters are Thad Broom, an Afghanistan veteran suffering from PTSD, his also traumatized mother, April, and his buddy Aiden McCall. When Aiden and Thad witness the accidental death of their dope dealer, bundles of cash and dope land in their laps.  “Scenes unfold at a furious pace, yet contain such rich description that readers will do well to read slowly, savoring Joy's prose. . . .  Joy's work perfectly aligns with the author's self-described ‘Appalachian noir’ genre, as a sticky film of desperation and tragedy cloaks everything his characters touch. April, Aiden and Thad are hopelessly conflicted, dripping with history and heartache, yet they cling to unique dreams about what life could look like if they carried a bit less weight of the world upon their shoulders.”—Associated Press. “The Weight of This World is a beautiful nightmare of lives battered by the forces of serendipity and inevitability. Of lives swirling down the drain in a haze of meth, abuse, blood, and, of all things, love.”—Reed Farrel Coleman. “The Weight of This World is a savage and heartbreaking tragedy. David Joy writes with a deep wisdom, compassion, and respect for the psychic and physical wounds, the pain and anger and sadness that at once shackle his broken characters and hurl them toward choices and outcomes that linger with the reader long after the last page is read. Most impressive, Joy has written about the cost of loyalty based in childhood friendships that no longer exist in the adult world, and how sacrifices made out of the love for another can lead to the ruin of the self.”—Eric Rickstad. David Joy grew up in Charlotte and has been living in Western North Carolina since he enrolled at Western Carolina University. He is one of those rare writers whose gifts have allowed him to go right from college to a full-time writing career.

 

Bone on Bone by Julia Keller. New York: Minotaur, 2018. 307 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.99.

Don’t you just love it when a mystery writer has a PhD, won a Pulitzer as a journalist, and went to Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship? Julia Keller, West Virginia’s leading genre writer is back again at her fictional West Virginia small town of Acker’s Gap. And again her protagonist is Bell Elkins, who has reappeared in her home town not as a prosecutor, but as an ex-con.  Booklist gave this novel a starred review and commented, "Keller can spin a mystery plot with the best of them, but it’s her full-bodied characters and the regard they have for one another that really sets her crime fiction apart: a bride’s back-of-the-hand caress of her new husband’s cheek, and his response, is a moment that will linger in memory long after the crime is solved." Library Journal also awarded a starred review and said, “This haunting, thought-provoking story proves Keller is one of a kind.” The National Book Review commented, “Compulsively readable and rich with psychological and social insight… Keller emphatically captures a community beset by hardship and caught in a downward spiral that she is determined to break.”

 

Chase on War Mountain by Matthew Klontz. Columbia, South Carolina: self-published, 2018. 254 pages. Trade paperback, $14.95.

This novel is set in McDowell County, West Virginia. The protagonists are, T. J. and Jimmy Lee, ages 12 and 11, and the plot centers on their effort to find the county’s most notorious moonshiner and the trouble and danger that puts them in. The author is a graduate of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

 

The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb. New York: Atria Books, a 2018 paperback reprint of a 2017 hardback release. 368 pages. Trade paperback, $16.00.

Sharyn McCrumb is clearly one of the most distinguished contemporary Appalachian authors. This is the 13th novel in McCrumb’s Ballad Series. Running concurrently were her three St. Dale novels proceeded by nine Elizabeth MacPherson novels and two Jay Omega novels. She has also authored two short story collections. Two of her novels were on New York Times best-seller lists, and she has won numerous awards including the Library of Virginia’s “Virginia Women in History” award. Her books have been translated into eleven languages, and she has lectured widely, including at Oxford University and the Smithsonian Institution. She was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, and raised in Greenville, North Carolina, but drawn to the Appalachia of her forbearers, and lives near the Appalachian Trail north of Roanoke.  The Unquiet Ghost is the ghost of Zona Hester, the Greenbrier Ghost, arguably the most famous ghost in West Virginia folklore. Hester’s mother claims in 1897 that her daughter’s ghost informed her that her daughter’s mysterious death was really a murder perpetrated by her husband, Erasmus Trout Shue, a “foreigner” to Greenbrier County natives. This novel begins in Lakin, West Virginia, in 1930 in a segregated insane asylum where James P. D. Gardner, the first Black attorney to practice law in West Virginia, tells Dr. James Boozer about his service as the defense lawyer for a white man, Erasmus Trout Shue. “Touching on mental illness, race and superstition, The Unquiet Grave is not only an informative read, but one that never loses sight of its story—a chilly retelling of an Appalachian legend finely resurrected under McCrumb’s pen.” - Mountain Times. “McCrumb has a real knack for crafting full-bodied characters and using folklore to construct compelling plots.” - Booklist "Woven with legend and carefully handcrafted as only McCrumb can accomplish. The Greenbrier Ghost has once again risen to claim its rightful place among America’s best ghost stories and the most rare—the ones that are actually true." - Sherri Brake.

The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival by Terry Roberts. Nashville: Turner Publishing Company, 2018. 321 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $29.99. Trade paperback, $16.99.

Set in the 1920s, this is the story of Jedidiah Robbins who travels by train with his daughter and a crew of roustabouts through the southern mountains as a preacher to hold revivals and, simultaneously, as an entrepreneur, to provide moonshine to local establishments. "In his latest novel, Terry Roberts has created an unforgettable character in Jedidiah Robbins, a reverend who delivers both sermons and whiskey to his followers, but his novel transcends mere satire to become much more. Ultimately, The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival contemplates complex questions of faith and morality in a world ripe with hypocrisy. Terry Roberts is an immensely gifted writer, and he gets better with each book. Bravo!" ― Ron Rash. "This ballad of a novel is an affectionate account of a charismatic evangelist and his devoted team. Part Elmer Gantry, part confidence man with a heart of gold, Jedidiah Robbins delights and surprises us in this Prohibition era romp of romance and moonshine, as impossible to resist as a Doc Watson solo. Rev. Robbins is haunted by the past, confronts the KKK, and though all too human at times, displays a bedrock of spirituality, and even makes friends with the Grim Reaper, in this picaresque narrative of loyalty and love in the mountains of North Carolina." ― Robert Morgan.“Jedidiah Robbins – part con man, part spiritual seeker – is a brilliant and very American creation . . . beautifully and vigorously written.” - Charles Frazier. This is the third novel by Terry Roberts who claims that among his Western North Carolina ancestors, who have lived in the region since the Revolutionary War, were both preachers and moonshiners, but never a character who combined the two enterprises. Robbins grew up near Weaverville and now lives in Asheville and serves as the Director of the National Paideia Center which offers Socratic seminars to students and faculty.

 

In the House of Wilderness by Charles Dodd White. Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2018. 246 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.95.

“Novels this savage and soulful come along rarely, but In the House of Wilderness delivers both elements in spades. – Andrew Hilleman. The novel begins as a man named Wolf wanders through the Appalachian South with two “wives,” Winter and Rain. Rain wants to escape against the will of the charismatic and wrathful Wolf. When she meets Stratton Bryant, a widower living alone in an East Tennessee farmhouse, she begins to plot an escape likely to end in violence.”In the House of Wilderness may be Charles Dodd White’s finest achievement to date. This is a story that at once moves and lingers, well-paced but dripping with the language we've come to expect from his pen. Line for line, White is one of the most talented writers at work in the American South.”—David Joy. “Charles Dodd White writes with grace and beauty, and In the House of Wilderness delivers with a resounding blow, as he skillfully balances that which lies beneath and that which shows its sometimes courageous and sometimes brutal face. Each sentence is a melody that carries you with care from the first word to the last.”—Michael Farris Smith. “Charles Dodd White’s In the House of Wilderness examines loyalty, exploitation, and loss in language so finely wrought that the novel eventually becomes a prose poem. Bringing together with a thriller-like intensity the themes and lyricism that have defined his early work, this book is not only beautiful, compelling, and haunting. It is necessary and important. This is what we mean when we talk about serious fiction.”—Mark Powell. Born in Atlanta, Charles Dodd White served in the Marines and earned his undergraduate degree and an M.A. at Western Carolina University, his MFA at Spalding, and his PhD at Texas A & M-Commerce. He has taught in Asheville and is now is on the English faculty at Pellissippi State College near Knoxville. He is the author of two previous novels and a short story collection.

 

NON-FICTION

Hiking and Traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway: Revised and Expanded Edition by Leonard M. Akins. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 408 pages with a foreword by J. Richard Wells, an Index, Suggested Readings and Field Guides, maps, and photos. Trade paperback, $19.95.

A university press, especially one as prestigious as the UNC Press, does not lightly go into the guide book business, and it shows in the quality of this book. Leonard M. Adkins is a leader in the field, the author of over 20 guidebooks who has hiked over 20,000 miles in North America, Europe, and New Zealand, but the majority in the Appalachians, including the AT five times and all of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s trails. This book is for hikers – car riders will find it cluttered with too much about trails - but it includes enough information about the Parkway as a road and its developments that a Parkway hiker doesn’t need another book. It includes 255 trails - 12 are new ones since the last edition of this book in 2013 - 72 maps, the locations of public restrooms, elevation charts for bicyclers, tunnel heights for RVs, wheelchair accessibility information, as well as a wildflower bloom calendar. “Adkins justifiably claims that this book is 'the only guide you will ever need' when hiking, driving, or biking along the Blue Ridge Parkway. . . . An excellent resource for walkers, hikers, or anyone planning a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway.--Library Journal.

 

Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia by Karida L. Brown. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 252 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, Appendices, Tables and Figures, including photos. Hardback with dust jacket. $29.95.

This compelling and captivating book is based on the often overlooked but crucial insight that the African-American Great Migration [from South to North] of 1910-1970 frequently happened in steps and stages, rather than in one fell swoop. That’s where the key preposition in the title of this book comes from – through - Appalachia. Karida Leigh Brown’s own family experienced this. Her grandparents migrated – or, as Brown corrects, escaped - from Alabama to Harlan County, Kentucky. Her parents, born in Kentucky, migrated from Harlan County on to Long Island. She and her brother, born in Kentucky, were raised in New York state. Clearly this book is a kind of corrective and deeper dive into the Great Migration, a matter of great national interest and concern. It is also a key corrective and deeper dive into Appalachian Studies as it highlights Black Appalachia.  And it is an innovative inter-disciplinary exploration of the boundaries between the field of sociology – she is an Associate Professor of Sociology at UCLA -  and oral history, a field which may well recognize this book as a paragon. “Gone Home is a migrating portrait of black families who moved from Alabama plantations to Kentucky coalfields, and from there to cities across the nation. Displaced by industrial decline, these families were forced to redefine the meaning of home and homemaking. Karida Brown eloquently follows the twentieth-century Great Migration and shows how it transformed African American identity and culture. Her beautiful book offers a deep understanding of both the American South and our nation."—William Ferris. “In this wondrous and careful work of essential and classic southern sociology, Karida Leigh Brown brilliantly illuminates black subjectivities as lived, realized, and constituted in the overlooked ancestral African American homeland of Appalachian coal country. Traversing time and space, race and region, Gone Home tells about the South in ways heretofore unimaginable."—Zandria Robinson. “With magnificent prose Gone Home is a powerful sociological and racial analysis of the lives and experiences of black people in and across Kentucky and Appalachia. Karida Brown has gifted us with a book that is a must read within and beyond the academy."—Marcus Anthony Hunter.

 

Dixie Dewdrop: The Uncle Macon Story by Michael D. Doubler. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 2018.  260 pages with a Song Index, General Index, Bibliography, Notes, Appendices, and photos. Trade paperback, $19.95.

Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952) was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. He is considered the ultimate bridge between the 19th century folk and vaudeville music that Macon performed in person and the 20th century country music performed on records - in his case beginning with New York City sessions in 1924 - and radio. Macon’s first radio show was aired in 1925 by WSM in Nashville. He performed at the Ryman Auditorium that same year. The first scholar of country music, Charles Wolfe, called him “the grandfather of country music.” Macon was born in Warren County, Tennessee, the son of a Captain in the Confederate Army. At the age of 13 his family moved to Nashville where his father ran a hotel and young David learned to play the banjo from traveling musicians. Two years later, his father was murdered, and his mother moved the family to Cannon County, Tennessee. "Providing deep insights into Uncle Dave Macon, his family, and his music, this important biography traces the life of a pioneering American musician whose career spanned vaudeville, radio, recording, and film. Essential reading for anyone interested in American entertainment."--John W. Rumble. “Drawing skillfully on historical research and family lore, Doubler reveals the many sides of Uncle Dave Macon—performer, recording artist, star of the Grand Ole Opry, mentor, husband, and father. This is an affectionate and absorbing account of a profoundly important early country musician.” – Tony Russell. The author is the great-grandson of Uncle Dave Macon. This is his third book.

 

Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia by Phil Hudgins and Jessica Phillips. New York: Anchor/Penguin Random House, 2018. 314 pages with photos. Trade paperback, $19.95.

This book represents a new departure for Foxfire, after 12 numbered Foxfire Books and 8 supplementary volumes still in print. There is still a Foxfire class at Rabun County High School, and students there still put out two issues of the Foxfire magazine every year, but this is the first Foxfire book that hasn’t been primarily a product of student interviews and writing. Instead, it was sponsored by the Foxfire Fund Board and written by a former Foxfire student and a former publisher/editor of the local Rabun County newspaper. Like the other Foxfire books, it consists of interviews of Appalachian people who enjoy practicing traditional ways, including in this case, ginseng gathering, dowsing for water, and snaking logs through the woods with mules.  Cooking, hunting, music, and story-telling are also covered here. Foxfire was started by Eliot Wigginton, a West Virginia native. After obtaining degrees from Cornell and Johns Hopkins, Wiggington took a job in 1966 teaching English at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private school in Rabun County, Georgia, the state’s northeastern most county, where Wigginton’s family had a summer home. Finding difficulty making his students care about learning to write, he realized that if they would actually produce a product that others would see, they would want to do a good job, and thus work at improving their writing. The Foxfire magazine became increasingly popular, thanks in large part to charismatic local old-timers whose stories they wrote up, including Aunt Arie Carpenter and Kenny Runyan, and to Wigginton’s empathy and insistence upon showing readers exactly how to follow the old-fashioned ways. As a result, in 1972 they decided to compile their best magazine entries into a book. The Foxfire Book was an unexpected huge success, and Wigginton created the Foxfire Fund to administer all the profits in a way that would benefit the community and the students. The result has been a living history farm and museum as well as a variety of programs explained on their website. In 1977 the program moved to the newly build and consolidated Rabun County High School. In 1992 Wigginton plead guilty to child molestation, served a year in the Rabun County Jail, and was required to leave Foxfire and teaching. He moved to Florida where he has a business creating and maintaining yard features. Other Rabun County High School teachers and students and the Foxfire Board have persisted and continued the Foxfire work.

 

The Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop: Art in Locale edited by Ray Kass & Howard Risatti. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018. 349 pages with Commentary by Donald B. Kuspit and an Index. 12” X 9” hardback with pictorial cover, $49.95.

Mountain Lake is a natural fresh water lake of about 50 acres located in Giles County, Virginia, at an elevation of 3,875 feet, high in the Appalachians. A beautiful resort hotel has been located there since 1856. That was the location of a series of symposia from the years 1980 to 1990 dealing with art and art criticism and bringing in scholars from other fields.  This book surveys these events. Appalachian scholars may find the symposium featuring the folk artist Howard Finster of particular interest. Finster (1916-2001) a native of Valley Head, Alabama, created a folk art display he termed Paradise Garden at his home near Pennville, Georgia about 25 miles east of his birthplace.

 

Wicked Asheville by Marla Hardee Milling. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2018. 144 pages with a Foreword by Joshua P. Warren, an Index, a Bibliography, and lots of photos.Trade paperback, $23.99.

This book is divided into four sections: “Murder and Mayhem,” “Sedition and Corruption,” “Arson,” and “Wicked Diseases.” In this book you will learn about a man who called himself “the Adolf Hitler of America,” and a man who dismembered his murder victims and burned them in a stove designed for burning wood, and the fire in a mental institution that killed Zelda Fitzgerald and others wo were drugged and locked in their rooms, as well as other wicked events and people.  This is Marla Hardee Milling’s third book. She is an Asheville free-lance writer with over 800 articles published in a variety of periodicals.

 

Henderson County: Images of America by Terry Ruscin. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2018. 128 pages with an Index and pictures on practically every page. Trade paperback, $23.99      

This book consists of historical photographs of Henderson County, North Carolina, with captions. Buildings and people predominate, primarily those prominent in the community, and including a substantial number of African-American citizens.  My mom used to brag that her family raised a sow that weighed over 1,000 pounds, but this book includes a picture of a hog that weighs 2415 pounds and was taken from Henderson County to show off at county fairs in 43 states!  My favorite picture is the one of the Sunday School class at Green River Baptist Church of Fannie Geneva Levi Morgan (1912-2010) with her young son, Robert, standing in front of her clutching a paper. I remember Robert Morgan telling me that his father was Pentecostal and his mother was Baptist.

 

New South Indians: Tribal Economics and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the Twentieth Century by Christopher Arris Oakley. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2018. 265 pages with and Index, Bibliography, Notes and photos. Hardback with pictorial cover, $34.95.

Few places are more beautiful than the natural surroundings of the Qualla Boundry where the Eastern Band of Cherokees [with an “s” please! – they are people, not animals!] have their ancestral home, and few people are more attractive, yet the cover of this book is arguably the ugliest I’ve ever encountered. I seriously doubt if I can ever sell a single copy!  Anyway, this is an important economic history of the Eastern Band in the twentieth century. One of the strengths of this book is that it puts developments in Cherokee in the context of economic development in the South and in other Native American communities. The author, Christopher Arris Oakley, teaches History at East Carolina University. This is his third book on North Carolina Indians.

 

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, a 2018 paperback reprint of a 2016 release. 272 pages with a New Afterword by the author and 28 Notes. Trade paperback, $16.99.

This is the memoir that was on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year, written by a man who grew up in Ohio but often spent time in the summers with his grandparents in Breathitt County, Kentucky. His memoir tells of his childhood, his service in the military, and his schooling at Ohio State and Yale Law School. The book also generalizes about our region and occasionally about politics. Interestingly, the New Afterword by the author, focuses on the author’s Republican politics and his belief that poverty is more of a cultural problem than a political one. That actually gives credence to those of us whose initial reviews of the hardback edition focused on that aspect of the memoir. At the end of Vance’s short afterword, he does briefly shift his focus to his family, especially his baby son, Ewan, named after his Mamaw’s father. He writes that he has purchased the land in Breathitt County, Kentucky, where his ancestors resided and that he wants his kid to play there as he did when he was growing up. That portion of the afterword does reinforce the fact that this book is a memoir. My experience is that those I’ve spoken with who came away from reading this book with primarily positive feelings mostly are those who grew up “disadvantaged” as Vance terms it, and empathize with his feelings. Those who talk with different people than I do, probably find that those who are positive about Vance are mostly those who agree with his politics or know nothing about our region. Those, like myself, who came away more critically, in my experience, tended to look at the book more intellectually and politically and were offended that Vance didn’t say he felt like he was he only one at Yale from a disadvantaged background, but instead actually said that he was “unique.”  I do disagree with those who think it is appropriate to protest against Vance as if he is our enemy, though I, too, feel strongly the need to disagree with him. Vance is not the enemy. He has written a memoir that is self-important and has wrong politics and makes un-necessarily sweeping generalizations about the culture of poverty in Appalachia. He is not participating in economic or political exploitation. Those are the people, in my view, who deserve our protests and our positive efforts to encourage and promote better politicians and business leaders.