Heady books for lazy days | Summer Guide | Indy Week
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Heady books for lazy days 

What our writers are reading

As you linger over the decision of whether to escape to the beach, the mountains or the comforts of your own porch, you might also contemplate your choice of reading. Our contributors scanned the shelves with a particular—if not exclusive—interest in recent work by local authors. From a memoir by Elizabeth Edwards (see "Elizabeth Edwards tells us what we didn't know—and it hurts") to poetry by Andrea Selch, from a reprinting of a classic of revisionist Appalachian history to a detour into comic books, there should be something here to divert the shade-seeking, contemplative summer minds of everyone.

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All That Is Native & Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region
By David E. Whisnant
UNC Press, 384 pp.

"We had heard so many stories of the ignorance of the mountaineers," wrote George E. Vincent in an 1898 article for the American Journal of Sociology, "that we were somewhat disappointed by their familiarity with a good many things we had expected them not to know." The mountaineers in question were Kentuckians, residents of what Vincent dubbed "a retarded frontier," and he was hardly alone in his estimation (and underestimation) of the southern hills people. Far from a pastoral backwater filled with feuding clans and arcane traditions, Appalachia at the turn of the century was much more politically complex than most of its passing visitors understood.

The region's abundant natural resources (coal, timber) and lack of educational opportunities and infrastructure made it supremely vulnerable to the manipulations of outsiders, many of whom wanted to plunder it for profit. At the same time, another phenomenon was gaining momentum: the cultural preservation movement. Inspired by the urban settlements in Chicago and New York, a significant number of settlement schools and folk festivals sprang up in the mountains in the early decades of the 20th century, each attempting to salvage what was perceived as the last remnants of an exotic, endangered society. A founder of Virginia's White Top Mountain Folk Festival recalled a like-minded friend saying in the 1930s: "This is the age of machinery against the folk. We must find some way to re-create old folk life, get back to the simplicity of thought and beliefs, and put that simplicity into our own creative work." These attempts are the subject of David E. Whisnant's 1983 study, All That Is Native & Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region, re-released this spring in a 25th anniversary edition by UNC Press.

In addition to the White Top festival, Whisnant examines the legacies of the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Ky., and the cultural work of Olive Dame Campbell (most well-known for her ballad-hunting in North Carolina, which inspired the film Songcatcher in 2000). The author astutely points out that many of the early culture workers in Appalachia were middle- and upper-class women with New England educations, Victorian social views and missionary ambitions, backgrounds that (however unconsciously) determined what "culture" they found worthy of preserving. Families accustomed to moonshining and general "rowdiness" were taught temperance ballads, for example, and the gentle music of the dulcimer was favored over the "boisterous" banjo. "Much of the indigenous culture of the area," Whisnant writes of the Hindman Settlement School, "was being intentionally replaced by genteel turn-of-the-century mass culture: light bread, pump organs, 'socials,' Fletcherized food, and napkins on the left, please." Thus a quaint, romantic picture of mountain life—of which handicrafts, log cabins and dulcimer ballads remain to this day emblematic—supplanted the grittier, uncomfortable reality of rapid industrialization. Twenty-five years later, All That Is Native & Fine is still a sobering reminder that the Appalachia we think we know was never as simple as we thought. —Bronwen Dickey

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The Four Corners of the Sky
By Michael Malone
Sourcebooks Landmark, 560 pp.

Michael Malone's The Four Corners of the Sky, the latest by the Duke University professor of theater studies and English, would make for a great cable TV series, but it's a frustrating novel. The story follows Annie Peregrine, daughter of Jack, a con man who leaves Annie with his sister Sam on her seventh birthday in Emerald, N.C. Jack, who is barely heard from again, leaves behind a small twin-engine airplane and an aviator's jacket and cap, which eventually serve as clues to a mystery about the Peregrine family's secret history.

The mystery begins on Annie's 26th birthday when Jack calls her to say he's dying. Come see him. Now. He promises to reveal her mother's identity in return. Between the time we meet Annie and the time she takes the airplane to St. Louis, we are presented with numerous flashbacks that illustrate her strange family. These flashbacks recur throughout The Four Corners of the Sky. We learn that the young, abandoned Annie was raised by Sam, a lesbian obsessed with classic films whose girlfriend left her years ago. Sam lives with Clark Goode, a Vietnam veteran and two-time divorcee. There's evidently nothing between them except love for Annie, whom they raise her as their own. The flashbacks also address Annie's failed marriage, her career as a Navy pilot and the myth of the Reina Coronado del Mar, a gold, jewel-encrusted statue that a family patriarch may or may not have brought back from Cuba long ago and which the dying Jack may or may not have in his possession.

Unfortunately, I felt whiplashed by the flashbacks; it was hard to maintain interest. To borrow the book's central conceit, the novel feels like a plane on an extended takeoff roll that never takes flight. Malone's pedigree as an Emmy-winning screenwriter for soap operas might explain his decision to structure a story that seems to allow—or invite—you to dip in and out at will. For a novel, it's a bit tedious. Which is too bad, because this is a good story with characters that readers could easily fall in love with. Maybe now's a good time for a call from HBO. —John Stoehr

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Muriel Barbery
Europa Editions, 336 pp.

The main narrator of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog has a secret: Renée loves to read. As an older widowed concierge born of humble means, she's not supposed to be an intellectual. To the tenants of the upper-crust Parisian apartment building where she lives, she maintains a ruse, keeping up her role as a dimwit in fuzzy old slippers who watches TV all day.

She keeps in mind that "it is not terribly common to come across a concierge waxing ecstatic over Death in Venice or to hear strains of Mahler wafting from her loge." She buys liver at the market to maintain a pretense of what a concierge might eat, but actually feeds it to her cat Leo, named for Tolstoy. Meanwhile, the readers, who are let in on the secret, can enjoy her philosophical musings, her frustration with phenomenology, or her analysis of the poodle as totem. The narrative continually offers up witty and perceptive jewels of description, like when she calls a remote control a "secular rosary."

The keen cultural observations of this closeted Parisian flaneur are interspersed with short chapters from a journal written by Paloma, a 12-year-old genius and tenant of the apartment building, who has decided to kill herself and burn down her parents' home on her 13th birthday, in the meantime keeping a journal of her "profound thoughts." Paloma's discussions on the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a cat or the elegance found in fleeting moments of a rugby match mirror Renée's delightful observations of the people and world around her.

It is the sensory delight of the characters that makes the book so enjoyable. In describing a poignant moment in a movie she likes, Renée says: "The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup—this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to?"

The action of the book remains simple—afternoon tea, a kerfluffle between the buildings' two dogs, a haughty request for a package delivery—until a new tenant arrives, Mr. Ozu, who discovers Renée's secret when she accidentally quotes Tolstoy in front of him. Events unfold as Paloma and Ozu conspire to finally bring Renée out of her shell. Together, these dilettante philosophers and connoisseurs of culture build a book of existential exploration, minus the despair. —Jaimee Hills

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All Star Superman
By Grant Morrison
DC Comics, 160 pp.

Perhaps by now you've read Grant Morrison's run on All Star Superman, a nostalgic, old-school take on the Man of Steel that reclaims for a 21st-century audience the transcendently goofy Silver Age comics of the 1950s and '60s and which is easily the best take on Superman in decades. (If you haven't, get down to your local comic book store immediately; the whole thing is out now in a two-volume collected edition.)

A good next step may then be Supermen!, a new collection of obscure and forgotten Golden Age heroes from the years surrounding the 1938 debut of Siegel and Shuster's Superman (way back during the first Depression). The names alone should give you chills: Stardust the Super Wizard; Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle; Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians; Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime.

Like a similarly nostalgic collection, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, an anthology of the art of Fletcher Hanks, these comics surprise us not just in their child-like ingenuity and their shocking violence but also in their uncanny familiarity. We've never heard these names, but we've seen these people before. We know them all. It's this sense of unexpected homecoming that prompts Jonathan Lethem's introduction to wonderfully compare these comics to "a foreign language that turns out to be the only tongue you've ever spoken." Supermen! un-self-consciously restores a time and place where we can say "So, my fat friend! You try to wreck the Universe! Well, I'm going to spoil your little plan right now!" and mean every word, exclamation points and all. —Gerry Canavan

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Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973
By Clinton Heylin
Chicago Review Press, 496 pp.

With Bob Dylan coming to Durham with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp this July, it's an apt time for Revolution in the Air, Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin's voluminous and extremely readable encyclopedia of all the man's songs—recorded, unrecorded, heard, unheard, rumored, even unwritten—between 1957-1973.

Dylan's first song, you will discover, was "Song to Brigit," written in 1956 when Dylan was just 15, a love song for Brigitte Bardot: "Thought if I wrote the song I'd sing it to her one day. Never met her." The last album covered by the book is the now largely forgotten Planet Waves, best known for the track "Forever Young." In between are bits of arcane Dylan trivia that will delight casual and hardcore fans alike, as his early folk protest songs gave way to his superstar electric period after famously "plugging in" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and later to the subdued start of his deeply introspective 1970s.

Finally, you'll be able to speak intelligently about "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Like a Rolling Stone" or even the apocalyptic "All Along the Watchtower," which made notable pop-culture appearances recently in both Battlestar Galactica and Watchmen and which Dylan apparently once described as "my [only] political song."

A second volume, Still on the Road: The Songs of Bob Dylan,1974-2006, is forthcoming; it's a telling indication of the breadth and depth of Dylan's astounding half-century career that the evocative lyric that gives this first volume its title—"There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air"—will only make its appearance in the sequel with Blood on the Tracks (1975) and "Tangled Up in Blue." —Gerry Canavan

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Boy Returning Water to the Sea
By Andrea Selch
Distributed by Carolina Wren Press

If you can't go to the beach with your "beach read," the cover art of Andrea Selch's Boy Returning Water to the Sea might bring a bit of the beach to you. Its vast display of ocean depicts a boy carrying a basket who (as the title tells us) is strangely returning water to the sea rather than carrying it away.

In this collection of 13 poems, each paired with the colorful artwork of William Kelly Fearing, Selch explores the somewhat surreal worlds of Fearing's paintings, collages and drawings—beginning with his often playful titles. In the title poem, Selch offers a reason to the madness of returning water to the sea: "There's a need for it—every/ azure splash, proto-icicle, -iceberg, -teardrop,/ -steamcloud rising from a stormdrain,/ -rusty puddle just stepped in."

Her imagery operates as supplement to Fearing's striking art; Selch even describes the poems as "koans" that, short and haiku-like, draw you in to ruminate upon the painted image. When figures appear in the paintings, she offers them stories and language, often providing points of vivid artistic description. In the first poem, "Man Doing Isolation, Horseback," she describes the rough etchings of conté crayon: "The cameo paper is filled with the noise of a thousand birds."

In fact the book contains a small zoo, populated with giraffes, birds, a rhinoceros and a zebra. "The Zebra's Secret is Silver" is concerned with the making of the painting of this zebra, beginning: "It is important to begin at the beginning—/ not Aardvark or Antelope, but Aquamarine—/ and not to trouble yourself, at first,/ about composition, just listen/ to shadow and mist, the fan of whiskers/ from a muzzle not quite black." You can imagine the colors layering up out of "shadow and mist" to become the whiskers of the zebra as the painter paints.

These short, enjoyable poems can take you to little far off worlds, into nature, art or paradox—away from the beach, or to it. —Jaimee Hills


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