The Devil’s Back by Marie Parsons
Review by Julie Carpenter
The Devil’s Back, by Marie Parsons is a beautifully crafted and moving novel, with a plot that flows like a river, pulling the reader along with it, and yet it still allows time for the intimate details that bring life to the characters. The book is centered on the marriage of thirty-seven year old Adam Moore and seventeen year old Laurie Castle and situates them amongst their kinfolk in the often harsh setting of Eastern Kentucky from 1900-1906.
The reader is submersed in a time and place where a marriage is not merely two people learning to come together but the joining together of larger families, a social function essential to the survival of the larger family group. The story narrates the history of Adam and Laurie, but it also examines the lives of their families, easily navigating the tricky waters of multiple viewpoints and granting each character a distinct and personal voice. Parsons’ writing makes the transitions between characters seamless and every voice seems necessary to this book. The family stories that shaped Adam and Laurie and provide the outlines of their life together are revealed slowly and organically, even as we follow the new marriage in the timeline of the book.
The language and culture of the mountains is woven seamlessly into the story and it provides the psychological background for understanding the characters. The characters deal with a landscape that can be unforgiving or abundant; their daily lives are difficult; they live in a world that is shaped by faith and tradition– from sex to the hanging of an outlaw. While these experiences might be foreign to a modern reader, the writer shapes the world so that each character’s perceptions become a lens through which we can understand their world and feel that we are a part of it for a few hours.
In fact, the characters are so beautifully drawn it’s difficult to leave them behind when the book is done. I hope we see more of Marie Parsons and of the Moore and Castle families.
From the jacket of the book:
A Kentuckian, born and bred, Marie Parsons knows the Appalachian region of which she writes quite well. She spent most of her college teaching career in her home state. A few years after retiring, she started writing short stories, and soon these stories morphed into a novel, The Devil's Back.
Find the book here: com/Devils-Back-Marie-Parsons/dp/1478742615/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438375229&sr=1-1&keywords=the+devils+back
REVIEW OF STILL ALICE by Jarad Johnson
It’s the first book review from our senior youth correspondent, Jarad Johnson. Jarad is the official bookworm at Fayetteville High School. Bless his heart…he may end up being an English major. But put aside your sympathy for a moment to enjoy his book recommendation:
Still Alice is a gripping tale about a woman (Alice) in her prime. Surprisingly this book was initially self-published, but the story of someone struggling with mortality hit a chord with readers because it subsequently became very popular. The book follows the story of Alice, a lauded professor of Cognitive Psychology at Harvard and a world renowned expert in Linguistics. As she starts becoming increasingly forgetful and disorientated, she decides to see a doctor. Ultimately, she learns that she has Early-On Set Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, she has her family to help her through this ordeal. Alice has two daughters and a son. Her daughter Lydia is the black sheep of the family. While the other two siblings go to college and attain degrees, Lydia wants to pursue acting, which is not at all part of the plan that Alice had in store for her. It is Lydia, with whom Alice has the most complicated relationship, who eventually takes on the role of caretaker when Alice’s illness reaches its peak. Alice’s daughter Anna is overachieving, and often critical of her other siblings.
Alice’s relationship with her children is even further complicated by the fact that they may have the disease. Early on set Alzheimer’s disease has a 50/50 chance of being passed on to the child. There is a test that all of the children with the exception of Lydia take to see if they carry the identifying genetic marker. Anna has even more to fear because she’s pregnant with twins. Tom, the last of the children, does not play a significant role in caring for his mother or assisting his father as is often the case for male adult children. He is not mentioned many times throughout the course of the novel. Alice’s husband is her main caregiver and is there for her as the disease progresses, until he gets a job offer that is too good for him to turn down. Alice doesn’t wish to move; in fact, she wants to spend a year on sabbatical with him because she knows that she won’t be coherent enough the year after.
This book broke my heart in the best way imaginable . It was tragic and heartfelt at the same time. I was shocked to read the rapid progression from accomplished professor to unresponsive patient. It was very sad to see the character lose everything that she had worked for her entire life. From her memories to her professorship at Harvard to, finally, her mind. However, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this from the very first page. I found it compelling and tinged with sorrow, mostly because you know how the book is going to end. There is no cure, no hope that she will be able to overcome this, as strong as she is. It was, truly, a great read. I think that this particular book affected me so strongly because of a similar situation that I myself am experiencing. My grandmother broke her hip some months ago and I have been sitting with her and watching her recovery. It's difficult to see someone you love lose their sense of independence - to see them in the grip of age and uncertainty. Unlike Alice, she can and is improving, but I still identify with this book strongly because of it.
Also, this book sheds light on what it is like to have Alzheimer’s disease. While this is something that we hear regularly, it’s difficult to imagine what the person is going through, especially if it’s early –on set. How can you imagine what it’s like to be only fifty years old and losing your sense of self? T his books gives that perspective, showing you exactly what it’s like. I recommend it to everyone. W e all experience loss. Sometimes it's those close to us...eventually it will be our own mental and physical health. Personally, I think that it’s all of these things. The prose is absolutely brilliant in allowing us to see inside the mind of a strong character fighting the inevitability of death. It’s one of those stories that all readers are acquainted with: one that grabs you instantly, and doesn’t let you go until you turn the last page and realize you’ve missed dinner.
Review by Julie Carpenter
This is the second book in the Jane Brooks mystery series. (And the first of the series that I have read.) This is exactly the book you want to curl up with in the overstuffed chair with a cat and cup of coffee. A glass of sweet tea and a porch swing will do nicely in the summertime, although I would skip the cat in the heat – you’ll both be cranky. The book is a “cozy mystery” intended for an entertaining read, populated with likable characters in an interesting setting. It’s like taking a trip with pleasant friends except, of course, for the fact that there are some villains along the way.
The book is set in Knoxville, TN (a place I’ve called home) and the setting and characters are a refreshing change from most mysteries. Most readers will be able to easily identify with the lives and challenges of the characters from work to relationships. The protagonist, Jane, is a hairdresser and her friend Rodney shares salon space with her. His partner, John, is a policeman. Jane and Rodney are temporarily working from the back room of their friend Annie’s florist shop when the action begins.
The death and mayhem in the story are offset by the convivial patter of a southern hair salon. The city of Knoxville, caught between Southern tradition and the more progressive outlook of a university town, is also a presence in the mystery. The book touches on many aspects of life in the Appalachians with some interesting historical asides about the Melungeons, historically considered to be of mixed race descent and therefore not fully accepted into Southern society; and it also touches on some of the environmental issues birthed in the clash between tourism and preserving the stunning natural beauty and endangered ecosystem of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The mystery nicely ties in several plot points so that the murder, relationship issues and the history of the Melungeons, seemingly individual story threads weave themselves together as the story moves along.
Treat yourself with a trip to the Smokies with a feisty hairdresser and her friends. And don’t forget the coffee! Or the sweet tea.
You can link to Susan's page here:
I wrote my master’s thesis on the use of narrative as an argumentative device. I believed then, and still believe, that stories are the best way to convince someone else of your truth. Stories add layers of complexity. We see that every person has choices to make but at the same time they are victims of the choices of other individuals, families, and societies, or even the natural world. Story embraces the paradox of life. Many things can be true at once when you see them in a narrative context. Life is messy and much more like a web than straight line. Stories create empathy and acceptance. Teaching your child to read, especially stories that are written with the perspective of a particular character or characters in mind, not only promotes academic success, but also empathy.
This empathy that we gain from reading should lead to greater understanding of others, but it should also lead to greater understanding of ourselves. To put it more bluntly, after you read a story…you might find that you have some traits in common with the villain as much as the hero. You might BE the villain. The more I write stories, the more I realize that there’s only one place to go fishing for the sins and follies of the characters and that’s in the depths of my own black heart. Why do I point this out?
Because being a human, I find that this is not the way we (I) like to read stories. For goodness sakes, if Cinderella’s stepmother read the story of Cinderella, she would probably identify with Cinderella. She might take a moment to consider how unfair the story was to stepmothers – maybe, maybe not. But given the kind of person she was, I’ll just bet that she had convinced herself that she was terribly overworked and under appreciated – especially by her horrible step daughter. Bad people don’t always know they’re bad. They’ve spent years convincing themselves that their actions make sense and that they are the victims. Look at any person that’s thoroughly bad. I can guarantee you that they at least started off seeing themselves as reacting to evil not causing it.
While being an actual victim (and if you think about it most protagonists are victimized in some way) is pretty lousy, feeling like everyone else is at fault and you are the only one behaving feels pretty good if there’s no actual torture or starving or systemic oppression to deal with. You get to feel heroic without being locked in a tower for years or being forced to live in the forest with your merry men or being tracked down by Russian spies – whatever your choice of hero has to suffer before the big win.
So when we insert ourselves into stories, we tend to insert ourselves right into the shoes of the hero without ever considering the size of our own feet. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s good to understand someone else’s suffering, good to understand their choices, good to feel their strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to follow along with someone as they make heroic choices. It makes us more empathetic to goodness. But this method of reading is problematic as well.
A very good example of this is religion. Most children who are raised as Christians for example – I can’t speak to other religions since I simply don’t know how their children are taught to insert themselves into narrative - are taught to identify with the disciples, and the women who fed Jesus or the children who came to him and the crowd that ate his loaves and fishes. They are taught to identify with the heroes of stories like David (although David’s little flaws, like murder and adultery are usually not identified with- if we bring those defects up at all we identify with the prophet who brought them to his attention).
Why is this a problem you ask? Our children learn all of the good traits of the heroes. David bravely fought a giant. Robin Hood bravely fought the Sheriff of Nottingham. Cinderella had to wait patiently mucking the pigs and scrubbing the floors until a prince showed up to relieve her of a life of servitude (yes…she’s a sucky hero).
In fact, if you really think about it, the story of David nicely illustrates the point I’m trying to make. David ended up murdering a man to sleep with that man’s wife because he thought of himself as a hero, a king, a mighty warrior. The protagonist. A good person. And good people don’t have to worry about doing bad things. But it was also a story that made David realize that he was the villain. The prophet Nathan told him this story:
A rich man and a poor man lived in the same town. 2 The rich man owned a lot of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had only one little lamb that he had bought and raised. The lamb became a pet for him and his children. He even let it eat from his plate and drink from his cup and sleep on his lap. The lamb was like one of his own children.
4 One day someone came to visit the rich man, but the rich man didn’t want to kill any of his own sheep or cattle and serve it to the visitor. So he stole the poor man’s little lamb and served it instead.
5 David was furious with the rich man and said to Nathan, “I swear by the living Lord that the man who did this deserves to die! 6 And because he didn’t have any pity on the poor man, he will have to pay four times what the lamb was worth.”
You are that rich man! Now listen to what the Lord God of Israel says to you: “I chose you to be the king of Israel. I kept you safe from Saul 8 and even gave you his house and his wives. I let you rule Israel and Judah, and if that had not been enough, I would have given you much more. 9 Why did you disobey me and do such a horrible thing? You murdered Uriah the Hittite by having the Ammonites kill him, so you could take his wife.
CEV version of the Bible 2nd Samuel 12 1-9
It was upon hearing this story that David realized…he wasn’t the hero at all. He was the villain.
There are times time that the villain should speak most intimately to our hearts. There are times when the value of a story is not in propping up our good feelings about ourselves or making us feel heroic but instructing us in how our actions tyrannize or otherwise afflict those around us.
What if you read the gospels and realize that you are a Pharisee? Someone who has so much confidence in petty acts of religiosity that he actually protests a healing, or people eating when they are hungry? (Has this realization happened to me? Maybe…)
Stories are the best places for us to understand the only evil we can do anything about. Our own. So next time you read think about asking yourself if you’re identifying with the right character. In the meantime, here’s a Mitchell and Webb link with some people who are coming to terms with just that.
Also check out this link to the Slacktivist. Fred Clark does a great blog post about not being on the wrong side of history. His post reminded me about this skit.
JEFF WEDDLE REVIEWS DEATH THING BY ANDREW HILBERT
So, I was twaddling along, minding my own business, stalking strangers silently on Facebook. You know, the usual. Like you don’t do it? Right. You see an interesting comment on some random post that pops up on your newsfeed. Maybe the commenter has a cool avatar. Maybe you click through their profile, read their posts, look at their pictures, judge their taste in friends, look at their friends’ pictures, see where they live…. Jesus, okay. When you break it down like that, it sounds a little creepy. But judge me at your peril. We’re all putting ourselves out there for the world to see, right? That’s the point of the technology. And sometimes, something good comes of it. In this case, I found a new author to admire and a book to frag my brain.
I couldn’t tell you the path by which cyber serendipity – doesn’t that sound better than “random stalking”? – brought me to Andrew Hilbert and his novella, Death Thing (Double Life Press, 2015), but I am so glad it did. Squished into a spare 142 pages, Death Thing is a grindhouse movie in words, filled with best buddies, heavy drinking, senseless killings, paranoia, mutilation, horrible, horrible burns, the hell of suburbia, law enforcement gone mad. All the good stuff. Even better, if someone told me that Hilbert didn’t write it at all, but rather it was a vintage Bukowski piece that ol’ Andrew found squirreled away in an attic someplace and published as his own, I wouldn’t bat an eye. It’s really that good. Without giving anything away, the Death Thing of the title is a car rigged to kill anyone who tries to break into it. Lots of folks try and lots of folks die. Quintin Tarantino could make such a film of this. And don’t get me started on the potential it holds for Rob Zombie. So, that’s it. Back to Facebook. Go ahead, post something that catches my eye. I dare you. Double dog. Maybe your friends have something on their pages I need to see.
Bohemian New Orleans by Jeff Weddle is compact book that offers a great depth of perception about writing, publishing, and reading. The book chronicles the romance of a couple, Jon and Louise Webb, and it covers both their life together and their mutual love of good poetry and art; their story is also the story of their literary magazine, “The Outsider” and their struggle to keep it alive. The book unfolds in the intricate relationships between the couple, the publication and their contributors. It is a unicorn of a book, rare in its paradoxical ability to be both narrative and academic. It is dense both with lively anecdotes and scholarly detail.
First, read this book for the story of Jon and Louise Webb, a couple who should be better remembered for their literary contributions and their life together. Jon’s stint in prison, his surprising early life with Louise, Lou’s flamboyant personality, this love story stands on its own. Jon and Louise had a movie- worthy love affair. But the added drama of their efforts to establish a literary magazine means that their personal story is intertwined with the larger history of poetry and literature. This is not just the story of a hard luck couple who kept their love alive through struggles with illness, exhaustion and poverty…this is the story of two people who wanted their lives to matter in some way outside of themselves. And it is the story of the literature produced in spite of and maybe even because of that cycle of poverty and exhaustion.
Second, read it for a look into the history of publishing. Launched in the 1960s, “The Outsider” was an answer to the more traditional publishing outlets of the time. What had once been avante garde in the twenties and thirties had hardened into tradition and the new iconoclasts were being shut out. The advent of cheap and easy copying and printing techniques (plus the sixties zeitgeist of questioning traditional social structures) made the sixties a prime time for the creation for small publishing endeavors. Weddle explains the circumstances under which “The Outsider” was created:
By the early 1960s, little magazine operations were springing up in garages, apartments, and living rooms across America. There was a genuine excitement about new writers
and new kinds of literature. The Beats and other countercultural poets caught the
public’s attention, and, with things moving so quickly, it was a good time for people
involved in the movement to step back and take account of what they were doing – to
determine what importance, if any, it had. It made sense for such accounting to take
place within the pages of a little magazine. (loc. 95)
Jon Webb was a moderately successful writer. He had published a novel called Four Steps to the Wall, and he wrote and published short stories but he wanted to make a larger contribution. The little magazine project must have seemed important to him and Louise in spite of the sacrifices they had to make because they plowed ahead. (Weddle notes that they actually gave up drinking for year to save the money to get started – which may be some sort of first in American literature). With the help and support of his friend Walter Lowenfels – a remarkable poet and anthologist in his own right – Jon Webb undertook the task of finding the right poets from the emerging poetry scene and publishing their best works.
“The Outsider” was among the first magazines to publish poetry by Charles Bukowski. Loujon press also published several stand alone books featuring Bukowski and Henry Miller. Among the other “outsider” poets they published a few were: Jack Kerouac; Walter Lowenfels; Leslie Woolf Hedley; Hugh Selby, Jr; William Corrington; Kay Johnson; and Barbara Moraff. The book contains stories about the Webbs and their interactions with their contributors as well. (My personal favorite is Louise Webb sitting in the kitchen and matching Bukowski beer for beer).
The publishing considerations – the relationships, the hardships of getting material out to the people who want to read it, the money invested – are a compelling part of the narrative. Good literature doesn’t simply appear without exertion, and writers are not the only ones who labor to create it. The Webbs pushed writers to perfect their best work and published a brilliant magazine that was well made in every aspect from the paper and art to the poetry. In our world of instant text, it would be hard to replicate.
But this book is more than a trip down nostalgia lane. The answers might be slightly different but the same questions posed by the book are operative now, even in this world awash in text where a reader is as likely to drown as to go thirsty. How do we find the best writers? How do they find the people who want to read them? Who decides? I found myself asking these questions about the current state of publishing while reading about “The Outsider”. Though it’s a history, the dilemmas posed remain timeless.
The book is a recommended read, especially for writers. Just be warned – you might find yourself sitting at your kitchen table with a beer wondering if you should start a literary magazine.
*You can find this book on Amazon -
Nothing captures the essence of summer like a drop of rain hanging from the end of a blackberry after a storm. This is my favorite time for the blood sport of berry picking.
The weather is right for long sleeves and boots. I get the blue and white strainer, one rose glove - for shoving the thorny canes aside- and my clippers. Those are mostly for the locusts that have insinuated themselves among the berries. Locusts like to hide out amongst the other vicious plants but I have no reason to spare them since their violence serves no practical purpose for me.
I put on long pants and a long sleeve shirt and enter the fray. The last of the thunder rumbles behind the hill while I softly curse myself for once again neglecting to clean out the berry patch in the winter. The nest of thorns is daunting.
Before picking anything, I call to the snake to let it know what I am doing. We are on friendly enough terms, but I try not to startle it. The best berries are always the furthest in, hanging just past where you can reach them, tempting you further until the wicked curved thorns start to slice through your jeans and into your legs. Just half an inch further than you can reach is the best berry you ever saw, a perfect little beehive of purple globes. That berry is the one you want. Reach for it...it's too perfectly ripe. It falls into sea of canes and then...I pick thorns out of the back of my ungloved hand with my teeth.
This sort of temptation is how I ended up with a blackberry cane stuck to the top of my ponytail while my would be rescuers, my friends Kathy and Paul, were incapacitated with laughter. Another temptation is to set down the container with the berries so I can reach further without spilling any. This usually results in an invasion of ants, much worse than the usual stowaway - the stink bug. (Also once my boxer ate all the berries I had picked while my back was turned. Another good reason not to set them on the ground.)
When I was young, I ate more berries than I put in the bucket. My cousin Larry, even had a rhythmic method of making sure we ate more berries than we took back. "One for the bucket, one for me. One for the bucket, two for me. One for the bucket, three for me." Obviously, the odds for the bucket did not improve as the singsong game continued. But now I am responsible for the pie like the grownups before me. I have to be the one to bring something back, although there's nothing more tempting than a fat, wet blackberry that falls right into your hand. The effort takes more time because I cannot act like an adult. I eat as many as I put in the strainer and I have to reach further into the canes to get enough for the pie.
When I'm done, I have to pluck thorns out of my hands and legs and my thumb is bleeding. The blackberry bites have made me drop a number of berries back into the bush but the sacrifice of blood and fruit has worked. I have been given a strainer full of thick, sweet, purple summer. There is no perfection without blood. The thornless varieties are not as sweet. I will do it again tomorrow.