Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature edited by John Branscum & Wayne Thomas

The Appalachian Mountain region and its people have been a powerful influence on American literature. The area is an anomaly in the eastern part of the country – a placered holler largely rural, with a culture somewhat different from the mainstream. Its very uniqueness makes the mountain region fertile ground to be written about.

And write they do, here in Red Holler, a kaleidoscope of fiction, poetry, essays and graphic writings by a coterie of individuals who provide a gritty face to latter-day Appalachian literature. Most of the writers here are largely unknown, at least to me, although both Ron Rash and Dennis Covington have contributions here. Go past these two (although their story and essay are worth reading); there’s some good writing in Red Holler, and it shows the varieties of viewpoints that are manifest in Appalachia today – white, black, gay, straight, or poverty-stricken.

Since it’s an anthology, Red Holler isn’t something that you have to finish in one sitting. You can go through a story or essay, cut through a few poems, and then put it down for another time – just the ticket for these busy times when reading a whole novel is out of the question.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy by Jeremy Shere

The mention of alternative energy, for most of us, brings up images of solar panels and wind turbines.  How about biomass?  Heat from therenewable earth that runs turbines?  And are the various types of alternative energies new ideas?

Renewable is a survey of the different types of alternative energy – wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and water – and the histories of their developments.  It may surprise you to find out that the fear of fossil fuels running out is not a new one – people have been predicting this since the first oil well was struck.  The advent of electricity in particular was the initial impetus for exploring other ways of producing energy, whether it be from wind, sun, or water.  The increasing popularity of the automobile also prompted some industry leaders to look for viable alternatives to gasoline.  In fact, Henry Ford was an early advocate for ethanol as car fuel.

Some of the early inventions were crackpot, and some were truly innovative for their time, although not sturdy enough to withstand the forces of nature.  The primary problem with alternative energies (then and now) is economic – the cost of producing energy from these methods is usually more expensive than using coal, natural gas, or nuclear sources.

Shere provides some interesting historical perspective, along with a realistic assessment of the state of alternative energies today.

Other books to consider for further reading is Powering the Dream by Alexis Madrigal (the author mentions this book in the introduction) and The Power Surge by Michael Levi.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Chickens in the Road by Suzanne McMinn

Chickens in the Road is a back to the country saga based on McMinn’s popular blog of the same name. chickens

The author has strong roots in West Virginia, and after her marriage ends, she moves back to the county where her father’s people have been settled two hundred years or so, and it’s somewhat of a culture shock to her and her kids.  Her initial move is into a house belonging to her cousin, but what she really wants is her own working farm.  Once she begins a relationship with a man known as “52″, buying land of their own becomes more of a reality. 

Out of necessity, she learns what is required to be self-sufficient – raising farm animals and being tested by them, the weather, and her significant other, who varies between a knowledgable handyman and an emotional abuser.  It doesn’t help that their farm is literally out in the middle of nowhere – not far from places, but difficult to access, particularly during the winter, and their land is mostly sloped. 

McMinn gets the city beaten out of her by the toil of farm living, and writes about all aspects of her life, including cow milking, soap making, and other affairs of not-quite-so plain living.  She has some hard lessons, but farming gets into her blood and defines her, even as certain other things fall by the wayside.

Back to the land literature has been popular for a long time, and I’ve seen a fair number in recent publication; these types of books are easy fulfillment for a reader’s fascination for slower paces and meaning.  Chickens in the Road begins with these ideas in mind, but quickly moves to the grittier side of farm life.  McMinn does not romanticize the never ending hard labor, nor does she belittle the rewards.  She also adds lots of humor to the narrative – you’d have to be able to laugh to get through some of her predicaments.

The woman sure can acquire a menagerie.  And I do want to try some of her recipes.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

All Standing by Kathryn Miles

The dreaded coffin ships were a bitter reality of the Irish Potato Famine.  These were vessels in which passengers were asall standing likely to die from sickness and malnutrition en route to Canada and the United States as they were in their ravaged native country.  In most instances, passengers were baggage and ballast – something to cart over to North America to exchange for more lucrative lumber and grain coming back to Great Britain.  The owners of these ships put very little thought into the well-being of their human cargo – as such, North American ports were flooded with diseased and impoverished immigrants.

All Standing tells of an exception to the standards of the time – the Jeanie Johnston, a sailing ship built by a surprisingly humanitarian shipwright and owned by a driven Irish businessman who liked to keep one step ahead of his competitors.  He did this by providing the ship with a competent captain, doctor, and crew, and feeding the passengers in steerage, if not well, at least better than the prevailing standards.

The author breaks up the tale of the Jeanie Johnston – from her first voyage from Ireland in 1848 to her demise ten years later – with the back story of the famine, along with a focus on a specific family, the Reillys, and their settlement in the midwest.  The book captures the grimness of the times and the dangers of sailing ships very well.  After reading the chapters describing the storms during voyages, I wondered how anybody managed to get over here alive, but they did – and the Jeanie Johnston had the best track record for this during the famine years.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Saved: How I Quit Worrying about Money and Became the Richest Man in the World by Ben Hewitt

The author meets an anomaly of the times – a young man who is ambivalent about money – and shadows this same youngsaved man through his activities to see how he ticks.

For most of us, having a steady cash flow is a vital part of life.  For Erik Gillard, it’s not as important.  For sure, he brings in a limited income from part-time work.  But, he attains his chosen lifestyle pursuing interests that don’t involve a monetary element.  Through barter and good will, Erik makes a life for himself, and does so without being considered a fringe person. 

It’s helpful that Erik’s wants and needs are basic, and it is his good fortune that he lives in a largely rural community in Vermont, where there are enough like-minded individuals to make his way of living possible.  Still, his approach is admirable, and in this book’s more entertaining passages, it’s enlightening to see how he fills his days (the chapter about the wild mushroom hunt makes it worthwhile).

I have to admit that I am a bigger fan of Hewitt’s previous book The Town That Food Saved.  The author has some worthy ideas in this one, but the book tended to bog me down when he discusses economic theory.  I’d say, though, that Saved is worth the perseverance, and some of the footnotes throughout are hilarious.

Try out The Man Who Quit Money, if you are looking for something in a similar vein.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Imperfect Harmony by Stacy Horn

imperfect harmonyAccording to the author, despite all that life dishes out to us,, there’s always choral singing to make it all more bearable.  She should know – Horn has been a member of the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York City since the early 1980s, and fully attests to the benefits of group singing, seeing in it an outlet for discovering inner joy during trying times.  She and her fellow choristers have had their share of trials – deaths, breakups, 9/11 – to contend with, and the weekly ritual of rehearsals provides a much-needed stability and sense of community for them.

Horn’s enthusiasm for choral singing shines through.  She is very keen on giving credit to her many peers, and to the directors that have managed to bring forth aural miracles year after year from a group of amateurs.  Horn is quick to state that while she is a non believer, she does experience a spiritual otherworldly feeling with communal singing, and thinks that the experience can be beneficial to anyone, regardless of belief.

Imperfect Harmony also traces the history of choral societies and their repertoire from the plainsong chants of medieval monks through the development of counterpoint up to present day compositions.  All of the heavies – Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, etc. are given due discussion, along with a number of lesser-known works.

The efforts of what these folks do to create performances are quite impressive.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Great Railway Bazaar : By Train through Asia by Paul Theroux

great_railway_bazaar_475hFor four months in the early 1970s, the author traveled the rails from London to Japan via at least a dozen different countries, and then returned through the former Soviet Union.  His method was at first cut and dried, or so he thought - making the initial leg of the journey using the fabled Orient Express.

Things only get interesting, and sometimes harrowing.  There are language barriers and discomfort.  Some train compartments touch on luxury, although as the story progresses, these seem the exception.  Theroux has to wrangle with governmental officials, lackadaisical rail employees, irritable bunk mates, and the mind-numbing monotony of cruising a never-ending landscape (the chapter about traversing Siberia captures this all too well.)  More often than not, he is shocked by the variety of cultural practices he comes across, but as a determined traveler, Theroux sees these through, and generally does well with the unavoidable tedium in each country.

The Great Railway Bazaar came out almost 40 years ago - as such, it helps if the reader has some knowledge of that time period.  Vestiges of the Vietnam War were scarily in evidence when Theroux visited that country, and Japan was flush with economic possibilities and excesses.  Afghanistan and Pakistan were (surprise) still difficult to navigate back then, although I think Theroux would have a worse time of it now.

Paul Theroux is still writing; his latest, The Last Train to Zona Verde, came out this year.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler

eggplantThis essay collection focuses on solitary eating.  It’s what the hapless diner does when they’re alone and hunger hits, whether they have ample means for elaborate meals or are pinching pennies with Ramen noodles.  Regardless of circumstance or culinary knowledge, quite a few of the contributors go for the familiar, the comfort food, the easily prepared route.  Then there are others who have their own fastidious cravings, and are willing to endure the prep work for one particular dish.

Ferrari-Adler starts us out with her own essay about her first bout of aloneness as a graduate school student during a cold Michigan winter, and how eating solo was so unlike what she had grown up with and experienced.  Her coping mechanism?  Working up the nerve to invite others over and then find out their solitary dining secrets – and eventually compiling the essays that make up this book.

In one of the first essays, Ann Patchett writes of her own exile to winter-lashed Provincetown, MA where a steady diet of oatmeal and saltines kept up her going in a town emptied of tourists and business.  Haruki Murakami has a short interlude on his early obsession with spaghetti.  Nora Ephron briefly shines on the attributes of the potato; Jeremy Jackson on the virtues of canned black beans.  We encounter sushi love and asparagus overkill, gloriously cream-infused sauces, and picky solitary diners in restaurants – and how they become a fascination.  The editor also (thankfully) includes M.F.K. Fisher and her thoughts on eating by herself when invitations from others are slim.

Some of the writers are well-known, some not.  The essays are occasionally self-indulgent, but also funny.  There’s plenty here to make one hungry and start scouring the pantry on some rainy day in the near future when everyone else is gone and the only recourse is to eat alone.

Oh, and there are recipes.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Piano Lessons by Noah Adams

What is it like to start playing the piano at age fifty-one? Noah Adams, longtime broadcast voice for NPR, relates his year of pianojuggling career and new hobby when he puts some serious money into a new Steinway upright. His goal is to play Robert Schumann’s “Träumerei” for his wife at Christmas.

His is not the “one lesson a week” approach. Adams uses a variety of methods to tame the 88 keys including computer programs, seminars, and hardcore advice from friends and professionals. His long tenure as co-host of All Things Considered has allowed him contacts to all types of people including pianists, and he is quick to glean their wisdom.

Along his journey from middle C to proficiency, Adams also endured setbacks, drops in inspiration, and then some powerful encouragement. Perhaps the most interesting and interacting section of the book was his participation in a week-long piano workshop in Vermont run by family members out of a huge 42 room house. There, he learns from a different person for each lesson and manages to struggle through a difficult piece for recital time. We won’t find out however, until the very end, whether the infamous “Traumerei” will elude him.

I liked Adams’ style in Far Appalachia and I liked this book as well. He finds stories out of the most mundane of events and makes them of interest, often with a dash of droll humor. The book came out in 1996, so some things in the book seemed dated, but that’s a small issue.  The tidbits about the history of the piano add to the book’s worth. Frankly, reading Piano Lessons made me want to play the limited partial pieces that I struggle through from time to time, and maybe try to learn “Träumerei” again – it’s been years.

After reading this one, you might like The Piano Shop on the Left Bank.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by Al Gore

futureIf you think the title of the book sounds boring, I agree!  I expected it to be a good way to become better informed – but deadly dull.  So I planned to slog through about five pages a day, buying a copy so that I could read it over a period of several months without having to worry about library due dates.  To my surprise, I was never bored for one minute and spent all of my reading time on the book until I finished it, not even once putting it down to pick up a lighter read.  And I’m definitely not a political junkie, a scientist, or an economist!  Even though a few parts of the book were over my head, Gore is generally successful in making complex topics understandable.  Also, the book isn’t as long as it may appear; the text ends on page 374 (the remaining pages include a nine page bibliography and almost 150 pages of bibliographical notes, showing that Gore based his book on extensive research as well as on his years of experience in government.)

Although Gore is, of course, a Democrat, he finds problems with both political parties, and most of the book would be of interest to readers of various political beliefs.

The Future is an important book for anyone wanting to understand current trends and to read a prediction, based on these trends, of the not-too-distant future. As the title says, it offers a global perspective on six broad topics:

  • The economy (including outsourcing and the trend towards use of robots and 3D printers)
  • Electronic communications (including the internet, artificial intelligence, and privacy concerns)
  • The balance of political, economic, and military power (including China’s power in the future)
  • Unsustainable growth (population growth, the water shortage, loss of topsoil)
  • Scientific technologies (including developments in the medical field and the ethical questions involved)
  • Ecology (including global warming)

Overall themes are the impact of corporate money on politics and the United States’ difficulties in solving the nation’s problems and providing world leadership.

While all of the topics are related, it would definitely be possible to read only the chapters of most interest to you.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


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