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.
I have always been something of a fanatic about graphic novels and my collection includes Maus (which depicts the holocaust — with cats as Nazis and mice as Jews — and the two-volume set of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is a memoir of the author’s childhood growing up during the Islamic Revolution. I also have a badly-worn copy of Alan Moore’s In Hell which is one of the most remarkable books I have ever encountered. I also have several boxes full of “undergrounds,” which are the true forerunners of the modern graphic novel. Many of them are graphic American “histories” by artists like Jack Jackson (Jaxon) and R. Crumb. Admittedly, I rarely run into people who share my appreciation for these guys.
This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More, For Young and Old Alike (Picador, 2013 reprint, $15) has minor flaws to irritate every reader. For me, the title on the dust-jacket of the original hardback was almost impossible to read, and certain sections of this “self-help” book — the chapter “How To Let A Child Die” was arrogant, sentimental, and condescending — were as annoying as a stink bug circling a light bulb.
Since I happen to love folklore and storytelling, I have always felt blessed to be a resident of Jackson County. Sitting on my front porch, I can see Black Rock, where a local law officer vanished 80 years ago while on a fox hunt. He has not been found to this day. I can see the Pinnacle, which in my childhood was supposed to be Judaculla, the slant-eyed giant of Cherokee folklore who is sleeping now. You can still make out his profile from the parking lot of the new library.