When the novel, The Leftovers came out several years ago, it was an immediate success. (Oprah gave it a significant boost in sales and the fact that America was in the midst of a kind of apocalyptic fervor at the time certainly helped.) The heart of this novel concerns a mysterious “rapture” that has snatched thousands of people from their “earthly existence.” Not only are those who are left behind bewildered; they are also puzzled since there seems to be no logic ... no “common denominator. “ Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Russians, Chinese, children (even a fetus), the elderly, alcoholics, nuns and convicted murders — all simply vanish in an instant. Where did they go?
“Evil is no more at an end than History, and so long as there are men there will be no final victory over it.”
Regarding politics and language, George Orwell once wrote that modern speech and writing are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Read nearly any government report, peruse the writings of many economists, examine the politically correct vocabulary of universities and institutions, decipher the lingo of corporate bureaucrats, and we see that Orwell was right on target.
A little over one year ago, Mark Powell published The Dark Corner, a novel that was set in the northwest part of Georgia and dealt with the intrigue and corruption attending the current development of “the river culture” that has sprung up along the Chattooga River. It is a remarkable novel (that reads like a sequel to James Dickey’s Deliverance) and prompted author Ron Rash to call Powell “the best Appalachian novelist of his generation.”
For many reasons, this summer in particular afforded many opportunities for reading. During a 60-hour stay at Figure Eight Island, for example, I finished a novel and a book of essays, mostly because my hosts wanted to do nothing more than cook excellent meals, sprawl on the sand, and read books. As a result, my pile of books for possible review sprinted ahead of my ability to write of them.
In case you haven’t noticed, let me call your attention to a disturbing fact regarding current Appalachian literature: some critics have been describing the new crop of Appalachian writers as latter-day Jeremiads who are predicting the coming of a kind of literary apocalypse in Appalachia. Lately, I have been running into references to “Appalachian noir,” a classification that is certainly valid given the current trend toward dark humor and the absence of traditional themes.
In Why Read?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the practice of student reviews of a teacher, then writes: “As I read the reviews, I thought of a story I’d heard about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course. Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike? Part two: what flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you? The hand that framed those questions may have been slightly heavy. But at least they compelled the students to see intellectual work as a confrontation between two people, reader and author, where the stakes mattered.”
After running into numerous critical references to this little novel, which has won a series of international awards and has been published in nineteen countries and made into a popular film, curiosity got the best of me, so I ordered a copy from Amazon ($4.80). When it arrived, I was especially pleased by the cover, and as soon as I could crank up my Keurig coffeemaker I was ready for an amazing journey.
Not so long ago, a neighbor in the building where I love in Montford, a budding comedian in her early 30s who works as a publicist for the Mast General Stores, was visiting with me in my apartment. We are both readers and began joking about bookstores and genres of literature. I mentioned a book that I categorized as “chick-lit,” and my friend, who disliked this particular book, replied that it should be labeled “s**t-lit.”
Each time Stephen King is interviewed, he finds himself responding to the same question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the question is prompted by the questioner implying that an author who writes about serial killers and psychotics must be as twisted and devious as the subjects that he writes about. King always responds with some variation of the following: His ideas come from Fox News and CNN; the New York Times and Time magazine.
For whatever reason — the leisurely pace of days, the break in my work routine, the annual trip to the coast with my children and grandchildren — summer alters my reading habits. As for the students I teach, summer affords me the opportunity to read as I wish, to browse with less intent through bookstores or library stacks. Here are a few of the books that have passed through my hands these last two weeks.