Book Review: Paisley Memories by Zelle Andrews

Love and loss and making decisions – Zelle Andrews’ Paisley Memories is the epitome of the noble genre we know as  bildungsroman….

Paisley Memories by Zelle Andrews (image courtesy Goodreads)

When we meet Tess Cooper, she is a young woman in trouble. Her father has just died, and she is left to fend for herself as the single mother of a two year old with Down’s Syndrome. The little Alabama town she hails from is like most little towns: gossipy, judgmental, and uncomfortable for a young person who carries visible proof of an unfortunate life decision. Faced with the choice between rearing her daughter in the social ignominy her home town provides or striking out on he road with her child and her father’s old car (a 1957 Thunderbird in need of restoration), Tess chooses the road.

Her year of wandering is passed over quickly, though Andrews’ description of a typical day (that eventually turns out to be unusual) gives the reader a glimpse into what that life has been like – struggling from small town to small town, working menial jobs to supplement her small inheritance, trying, though she hasn’t realized it yet, to find a place where she and her daughter, the Paisley of the novel’s title, fit in.  Continue reading


James Street’s The High Calling: Perhaps Peace Demands Understanding

James Street’s The High Calling is the rare sort of sequel that continues a story without giving in to the typical reader’s desire for neatly tied up plot lines.

The High Calling by James Street (image courtesy “From Among the Books of…”)

As I have written on a couple of occasions now, work and the need to complete my latest book have slowed my reading. As a bit of indulgent diversion for myself, I have just completed the sequel to James Street’s novel about the life of a Baptist minister, The Gauntlet. This later work, The High Calling, picks up Baptist minister London Wingo’s story some 20 years after the ending of that earlier novel. While The High Calling is a sequel, however, it is a sequel that cares less about tying up previous plot lines than about exploring how time and change (that elusive quality we know as mutability) affect the lives of Wingo, his daughter Paige, and their friends.

Street’s novel finds London Wingo returned to Linden, MO, where he began his career as a minister to accept a call to a church. That church, Plymouth Baptist, is a new church founded by members of Wingo’s earlier church, First Baptist. Street seems to be setting the stage for a battle between churches, between ministers (the current First Baptist minister, Harry Ward, seems to be the sort of minister cum entrepreneur one sees much of in contemporary American religion), between visions of what the Baptist church should be. Continue reading

CATEGORY: Religion

Women at wells have problems, evidently…

In which we learn that Buddha and Jesus met the same sorts of people…

4th Century statue of Buddha (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Each morning my wife Lea and I read together, a delightful habit which we have been practicing for a number of years. Our readings consist of a religious/spiritual works (we are eclectic, though our readings tend to rotate between the Christian and Buddhist, particularly Zen Buddhist, traditions primarily), works about art (we’re fond of both art history and criticism), and poetry.  We recently finished the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and we are currently working our way through a work called Teachings of the Buddha. This work is a compendium of various lessons and stories – one might use the word parables safely – attributed to Siddhartha Gautama.

Of particular interest to us have been remarkable similarities between stories of the Buddha’s experiences and stories of those of a later teacher, one well known (at least by name) to Western culture – Jesus Christ. One of these “shared stories,” the woman at the well, is worth a look because it gives us insight into the traditions of two major religions and of how we understand their teachings. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Shelley got expelled from Oxford…now we know why….

A little over two hundred years ago a college student named P.B. Shelley got himself expelled from Oxford. Now, at last, we know exactly why.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, war protester (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The Bodleian Library at Oxford has made available a recently discovered copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Poetical Essay on the State of Things.” Long thought lost, the poem, along with his essay “The Necessity of Atheism,” got the most intellectual of the Romantic poets expelled from Oxford.

The story of Shelley’s expulsion from university and his subsequent life as poet, free thinker, friend of both Keats and Byron, and political activist are well known and do not need further rehearsal. At this moment, given the horror of the recent attacks in Paris that we’re trying to comprehend, it seems particularly fitting to ponder Shelley’s arguments.  Continue reading


The best Halloween movie you’ve never seen

Herk Harvey’s cult classic Carnival of Souls is full of creepy, atmospheric goodness – just right for a Halloween movie fest…

Press book cover art for Carnival of Souls (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Given that it’s Halloween, time to take note of a cult classic that in its atmospheric creepiness ranks as high as Romero’s original Zombie classic or anything dreamed up by David Lynch, Brian de Palma, or any of the other more  recent masters of what Count Floyd would call “scary stuff.”  In fact, this is a film that both Lynch and Romero have cited repeatedly as influential on their work.

The film is Carnival of Souls, and it was made by a highly successful industrial/educational film director. Harold “Herk”Harvey spent most of his career making films for Lawrence, Kansas, based Centron Films (later subsumed under Coronet Films, an even more well known ed/industry film company) with titles such as Health: Your Posture, Shake Hands With Danger, and Manners in Public. On the road driving back to Kansas after having worked on a film in California, he passed an abandoned amusement park outside Salt Lake City that creeped him out – and which inspired Carnival of Souls.

The film concerns a young woman who is involved in a horrific car accident (the car she’s riding in plunges off a bridge into a swollen river). As rescuers are dragging the river trying to recover the car, she emerges from the water, having somehow survived the catastrophe. Perhaps. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Writing about writing is not writing…

Giving attention to what others write – and what they say about writing – is very enjoyable…but it does keep one from doing what a writer is supposed to do…write….

Thomas Wolfe with a crate of his writing…(image courtesy NY Times)

I’ve been off the radar for a couple of weeks now. Part of this is due to an increase in some of my duties in my job (for those who somehow don’t know, I am a professor of writing as well as a writer – though my professing seems to be becoming more and more eaten up by administrative tasks – not something that makes me happy – these days), part of it is due to some conflicts I’ve been feeling about spending so much of whatever writing time I do have writing about other people’s writing.

Don’t get me wrong. As anyone who reads my pieces knows, I love reading as much as writing. (Sometimes I am tempted to think that I love it more than writing, but that is only the lazy side of me trying to convince me that the hard, painful, rewarding work that is writing can be avoided,  when every writer who is a writer knows that only two things cannot be avoided: writing and death.)

And that leads me to what I want to write about here. Continue reading


Book Review: Tortuga Bay by S.R. Staley

Sam Staley’s latest entry in his Pirate of Panther Bay series is a swashbuckling pirate tale with a subtext of social criticism. 

Tortuga Bay by S. R. Staley (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

S.R. Staley, whose alternate holiday adventure, St Nic, Inc. I reviewed last year, is back with a new novel, this one the second in his series on female pirate Isabella. Tortuga Bay continues Isabella’s saga, this time putting her history as an escaped slave seeking justice for her fellow plantation workers. This desire to help others find freedom as she has done forces Isabella into making difficult decisions.

Isabella, who escaped slavery on a sugar cane plantation and learned the pirate trade in the first book in the series, finds herself on the run from the Spanish viceroy of the Caribbean. Complicating that danger is the fact that the man she is love with, Juan Carlos Santa Ana, is the Spanish officer charged with capturing her and seeing her brought to Viceroy Rodriquez who plans her execution.

Another complication in this already complicated scenario is Isabella’s friendship with her partner and mentor Jean-Michel and her pirate crew. Completing this set of complications that create a classic emotional triangle is a prophecy Isabella lives with that she is to be a deliverer of her fellow slaves. Continue reading

John and Sean…

Both John Lennon and his youngest son Sean share the same birthday. Imagine that….

Today is Sean Lennon’s birthday. He’s 40. That’s an eerily special birthday to Sean, I’m guessing, given that his dad John celebrated his 40th birthday exactly 35 years ago – and was dead two month later, murdered by the madman who shall not be named here. I also suspect that he’s doing his best to enjoy his day and find what peace he can in his likely fuzzy (he was only five when his father was killed) memories of John.

I’ve written plenty about John Lennon over the years which you can read here and here. I’ve also written about Sean and his half-brother Julian. Their lives have been like the lives of many children of famous people: not particularly happy despite their wealth and fame.

So let’s remember the good times on this special day in the Lennon family. Continue reading

Nobel Prize

Isn’t it called the Nobel Prize for – Literature…?

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded today. There are a large number of arguably splendid candidates. Who will win? Likely none of them….

Nobel Prize Medal (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The Nobel committee has chosen the 2015 Nobelist in Literature and their choice will have been announced by the time you read this. The list of candidates with credentials strong enough to be legitimate contenders. There are even those out there who spend time handicapping the field. First, the bad news: it seems highly unlikely that an American will get the award despite a strong contingent of worthy candidates including Joyce Carol Oates, John Ashberry, Don DeLillo, and my personal favorite, Richard Ford. (Odds makers exclude those whom the Nobel committee likely consider “regional” writers – worthy authors such as Cormac McCarthy or John Ehle.)

Even Bob Dylan is mentioned as a candidate. But that choice is by all accounts blowin’ in the wind. Or tangled up in blue. Or something. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Writing more than ever despite not being able to write…

Americans are writing and publishing more than ever; meanwhile, arguments rage about the inability of Americans to write and what educators should do to address this perceived inability. 

Ursula Le Guin (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In a recent interview with Salon, author Ursula Le Guin bemoans the lack of skill she sees in aspiring writers. Le Guin blames the problems she sees in writers – serious, well educated people – on a lack of two sets of skills. First, she notes that she sees many people trying to write who don’t have solid language management skills: they lack solid backgrounds in syntax (sentence structure) knowledge and they have weak vocabularies so that they do not easily see possibilities in sentence construction or word choice that would give their writing imagination and vigor. The other problem Le Guin observes is that the way in which many people attempt to become writers – through creative writing programs – does many nascent writers harm by forcing them to submit to a form of group think.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, writer Natalie Wexler attempts to explain “Why Americans can’t write.” Wexler’s thesis, that Americans do not get adequate writing instruction, meshes nicely with Le Guin’s observation. One can easily conclude that, if Wexler is correct in her claim that Americans get too little writing instruction, it is only natural that their creative writing efforts would suffer from the sort of grammar and syntax deficiencies that Le Guin mentions.

As with most easy explanations, this one leaves some questions unanswered. Continue reading


Book Review: Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion

A bit like a mystery, a bit like a thriller, a bit like the notes from a theological conclave: John Chaplick’s Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion offers all kinds of readers an interesting trip into the search for the various forms of truth religious texts offer us….

Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion by John Chaplick (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

A Roman centurion who knew the Apostle Paul sends his son an original version of the New Testament. Twenty centuries or so later, the letter he sent along with the manuscript is discovered by an archaeologist and brought to the attention of a museum curator, a couple of theologians, a history professor, and a graduate student writing on material related to the discovery. These five enlist the archaeologist, they split into two groups of three, and each group goes in search of that important – and likely controversial – document.

That, in a nutshell is the plot of Forbidden Chronicles of a Roman Centurion, a book that explores some profound ideas even as it veers between being a mystery, a thriller, and a theological symposium. What Chaplick seeks to do is almost as elusive and difficult as what his characters attempt to do in his novel: explore a profound religious question while at the same time keep readers entertained.

He comes close to pulling off this near impossible feat.

What will make Forbidden Chronicles a challenge to the reader attracted to its Da Vinci Code like narrative is that author Chaplick peppers the novel with at times almost dauntingly philosophical and theological discussions among his main characters. Continue reading


Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman: The Power of a Great Story

Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman is a masterpiece of straight forward story telling that deserves to be better known – Dykeman presents a quietly powerful depiction of the life of an Appalachian heroine that rings true in every respect…

The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman (image courtesy Goodreads)

Finally, a return to the 2015 reading list after some side trips to cover in once case a current literary flap and some musings on the disappearance of protest music from American cultural experience – and what a return it is. Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman is an example of the sort of rich storytelling that once populated American fiction publishing. This unpretentious but exquisitely literate – and literary in the best sense of that word – novel is an example of regional fiction that rises far above its author’s primary aim to make profound statements about human character.

Lydia Moore McQueen is a character who moves readers in the way that, say, a more celebrated (and controversial) character, Atticus Finch does: she is an example quiet courage and dignity, a brave soul who does what she feels she must and faces the challenges her life presents not without flinching, but instead with strength gathered from within. Dykeman does a fine job of taking us through the events of Lydia’s life and showing us that heroism is sometimes standing up for what is right. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The real and the fake and the real fake: Yi-Fen Chou, poetry, and the issue of who we are

A white male American poet pretends to be an Asian poet and gets work accepted that has been rejected when submitted under his American identity. This behavior says something about culture that is painfully clear despite well meaning attempts to deconstruct it.

Yi-Fen Chou, a.k.a. Michael Derrick Hudson (image courtesy Poetry Foundation)

As I have done before, I will begin with an anecdote:

In the middle of the last decade of the last century I applied for a number of college and university teaching jobs. I kept getting to “semi- finalist” or “finalist” status without getting offers. Finally one department chair agreed to talk to me OTR. The problem, he explained in a series of private emails, was that the push for diversity made a white male candidate like me, even though well qualified, Plan C (usually, for college teaching posts, there are three finalists). If the other candidates who met diversity needs for the department/university turned the post down, I  might get an offer. Continue reading


Saints at the River: powerful, predictable…almost great….

Ron Rash’s Saints at the River has at its center a powerful story about the struggle of Southern mountain subculture to reconcile itself with the “greater” culture….

Saints at the River by Ron Rash (image courtesy Goodreads)

Ron Rash’s novel Saints at the River has been widely acclaimed as a novel of power and insight in its depiction of Southern mountain culture. It is certainly that. Rash’s tale of a child drowned in a wild mountain river and the struggle over the rights of parents to retrieve the child’s body from the river while protecting the river’s environmental (and historical) significance has moments of resonance for any reader aware of the struggle between homogenization and cultural diversity.

But the novel has, alas, some real limitations, too. The ancillary plot lines (mountain reared news photographer daughter alienated from father, newspaper reporter struggling to write story about drowned girl due to reminders of his own daughter’s death, budding romance between reporter and photographer complicated by both characters’ pasts) are, despite Rash’s efforts to give them more than average depth, average and predictable.

Saints at the River is, then, at best a flawed effort. The question then become, do its strengths outweigh its weaknesses? Continue reading


Bastard out of Carolina: literature as hot mess…

Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina is a compelling read, a powerful look at life among working class Southerners, and what is known in the vernacular as a “hot mess” – a beautiful work in spite of its flaws….

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (image courtesy Goodreads)

One of the blurbs for Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina likens its narration to that of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t be fooled. There is little about Ruth Ann Boatwright, known within her family as Bone, that will remind readers of Scout Finch only in a certain feistiness at given moments. Both characters possess a certain headlong quality that can seem endearing. But Bone Boatwright and Scout Finch have so little in common in terms of their life experiences that any likeness between them as characters or as narrators is superficial at best.

Astute readers will also note that, like Mockingbird, Bastard Out of Carolina has structural flaws that have been glossed over rather than solved. The novel rambles, often needlessly, and smacks of having been pieced together from previous drafts, a short story (or perhaps a group of stories) – and not always smoothly. Finally, there are, by various accounts, semi-autobiographical elements in this work. As one reads Bastard Out of Carolina, frequently one runs into passages that have more the raw feel of the author’s journals rather than the polished feel of fictionalized experience. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Paul McCartney: boy in a band to man on the run…

Tom Doyle’s excellent book on Paul McCartney during the Wings years reveals a Paul most don’t know very well: a conflicted, sometimes lost, boy/man trying to carry on as a musician while also trying to be husband/father and rock star/cultural agitator at the same time – until traumas of very different types made him settle into adulthood and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

Sir Paul McCartney, my favorite Beatle (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Much of what the average rock aficionado knows about the break up of the Beatles comes from either Jann Wenner’s interviews with John Lennon or from casual attention during those years to news reports about the legal hassles the Fabs endured while extricating themselves from their partnership in Apple. Like any break up, personal or professional, (and this was both the severing of an indescribably successful musical collaboration and the splintering of friends who’d been almost inseparable since childhood), the Beatles’ demise was messy and hurtful for all involved.

Tom Doyle’s superb book Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970’s fell into my hands as a birthday present from my beloved sister a few days ago and I dropped my usual reading to devour it, both because I wanted to make sure my sister knew I appreciated her thoughtfulness and because I will read anything written with something approaching competence about The Beatles generally and Paul McCartney specifically. Hell, I even read the incompetent stuff.

This book is as good as any I’ve ever read on these subjects. Kudos to Tom Doyle and to my sister Janis. Continue reading

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was a Doobie Brother…?

We now have not even close to definitive proof that William Shakespeare smoked marijuana and perhaps used cocaine. Good thing Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe wrote those plays, huh…?

Bill Shakespeare, mellow dude (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Busy with a lot of stuff for school and behind a little on my reading these days, though by the weekend I’ll have an essay on an excellent book on Paul McCartney during the Wings years.

So today we talk about Shakespeare. Actually we talk about Shakespeare on crack. Well, maybe not crack but cocaine – and pot.

Wow. Just wow….

According to that bastion of journalism USA Today, a study published in July suggests that Shakespeare may have smoked marijuana and cocaine. The researchers, from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, after examining shards of clay smoking pipes from Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon property with a new type of spectrometry, report that traces of cannabis and Peruvian cocaine have been found in those pipes. The pipes may/may not have have been used by Shakespeare, but the pipes date from the early 17th century and come from Shakespeare’s property. So possibly… Continue reading


Book Review: Murder and Bombs by Greg Stene

Murder and Bombs is the sort of thrill ride that any reader would be glad to add their collection of what we know fondly as “beach reads.” 

Murder and Bombs by Greg Stene (image courtesy Amazon)

Greg Stene’s latest crime novel, Murder and Bombs, covers lots of ground despite taking place exclusively in and around Tucson, Arizona. It takes in Mexican drug cartels, the Tucson police, mad bombers, covert government operations, love and marriage, and the meaning of brotherhood. It does all this at a not-quite-breakneck pace, one that rolls along fast enough to keep the pages turning, slow enough to allow Stene to develop his characters, build suspense, and give all this craziness enough context and background to make it plausible.

Oh yes, and The Thing makes an appearance. Wouldn’t want to forget that.  Continue reading


Book Review: Waving Backwards: A Savannah Novel by V. L. Brunskill

V. L. Brunskill’s Waving Backwards is a bildungsroman with a twist; the heroine must find her way forward by finding her way backwards….

Waving Backwards: A Savannah Novel by V. L. Brunskill

I wrote last week about Lee Smith’s excellent bildungsroman Black Mountain BreakdownIn that essay I defended Smith’s work, which falls clearly in the realm of what is sometimes unfairly dismissed as “lifestyle fiction” as a work of considerable power and a bildungsroman with a true twist: its protagonist collapses when she encounters her existential moment.

V. L. Brunskill’s Waving Backwards is similar to Smith’s novel in that its young female protagonist is trying to reach her existential moment, to come to terms with who she is as a person and what being who she is means. It’s also similar to Smith’s novel in that Waving Backwards might be dismissed as “lifestyle fiction,” as another example of what is often described as that peculiarly Southern form of lifestyle fiction called the “Mama and them” book. Such works are invariably coming-of-age tales, usually with female protagonists, that look at the eccentricities of growing up in a Southern family.

Brunskill’s novel is certainly about “Mama and them,” but in Waving Backwards the theme of “Mama and them” gets taken places that readers have likely never considered.  Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Lee Smith’s Black Mountain Breakdown: high level lifestyle lit…

Black Mountain Breakdown is a fine novel with depths that many readers, whether they are those who prefer what is dismissed as “lifestyle lit” or those who would dismiss Smith’s work too easily as such, may not see thanks to their biases…..

Black Mountain Breakdown by Lee Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)

In writing a series of essays last summer about the late Joe David Bellamy’s interesting look at the state of litfic in the late 1990’s, I addressed one piece to Bellamy’s celebration of what he termed “super fiction.” Bellamy saw it as a great leap forward for literature – I was pretty meh about it. That’s not going to surprise anyone who has read my work (I’d like to thank all eleven of you at this time) as I am a pretty staunch defender of realism as literary style in all its permutations. Bellamy is generally a generous and thoughtful writer about literary fiction and its practitioners, but in the section of Literary Luxuries that I wrote about in the essay linked above, he refers to what he terms “lifestyle fiction.” He is dismissive of this type of litfic (written, primarily, we should note, by women authors such as Ann Beattie, Ellen Gilchrist, and Lee Smith) as not experimental enough, not ground breaking enough, not, it would seem, challenging enough to readers. Bellamy goes further and tacitly links this genre of writing to reactionary thinking such as that which propels American conservative politics. It’s damning criticism, and, at least for its best writers, unfair. While there is in the work of these writers, of whom Lee Smith is an example, much of the lifestyle of the worlds they live in (there is a domestic life – particularly women’s domestic life – element to the work of these authors that is sometimes derisively referred to as the “Mama and them” theme), their treatments of their chosen subjects, while sometimes unappealing to some readers (particularly males), rings true and has the power of realism. For the reader who appreciates the work of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, both of whom certainly explored the domestic lives of women, the line from those authors to writers like Smith should seem clear. Continue reading