Appalachia North by Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my earlier review, I am so deeply pleased to shared with you today this review in the Fall 2019 issue of Still: The Journal.

Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North is both memoir and outward-looking examination of place: what it means to be from somewhere, how our relationship to home can change, and the complicated and too-often negative role Appalachia plays in the national imagination, and in its own.

Ferrence was forty when he received a life-changing diagnosis…

Please click over to read the full review. Look for my interview with Matt on Friday. And many thanks again to the Editors at Still for considering and accepting my work.

The Witch Elm by Tana French (audio)

I have read and loved several books by Tana French now, although I think The Likeness has been my favorite. Like I’ve done with a few, this one I listened to. These Irish mysteries are just so lovely done in the appropriate accent, that lilting, musical, rhythmic speech.

The Witch Elm is no exception: Paul Nugent’s reading is dramatic and gorgeous and full of character. I got everything I wanted out of the audio format here.

As a book, I have some pros and cons. Some of what Tana French does best is in full evidence. There is an overwhelming, overarching atmosphere of foreboding and gloom. The narrator, Toby, refers almost immediately to how everything changed, went horribly wrong, starting with “that night.” He talks almost immediately about the Ivy House, about how lucky he was to have it, how it scarcely seems possible it was ever more than a dream. When he starts his story with “that night,” then, and when we first encounter the Ivy House, the foreshadowing could hardly be heavier. This sort of thing could be overbearing, but I don’t find it so; I love Tana French’s style, and this is an important part of it. There is an underlayer too of nostalgia, of a yearning appreciation of a beauty just out of reach, that melds nicely with foreboding; this feels to me like French’s signature.

The mildest of spoilers here: Toby is somewhat an unreliable narrator. I think you feel this early on. For one thing, his admitted lucky, golden-boy aura and life experience makes him quick to wail about the slightest wrongs he suffers, and minimize his own agency in certain events. But that’s not exactly what I mean by unreliable narrator. I mean that classic, delicious literary feature wherein we’re not sure if we should trust the story as it’s told to us, because the narrator might be lying, or mentally ill, or confused. I love this stuff.

The plot, too, was strong, and I think this is another of French’s greatest talents. (I am still reeling at The Likeness.) I enjoyed its complexity, and the sense throughout that there was something I couldn’t see or understand, yet, that was just around the next corner. Certain connections that Toby insists upon are never proven, but this is part of his frustrating unreliability as narrator.

All good so far, right? My biggest criticism of this book is in its length and pacing. Look, I enjoyed it all the way through. But for a good stretch, in the second half, I felt that things could have been sped up more than a little bit. There is a delicate balance between drawing out suspense and letting it hang too long in midair, and I think it’s been poorly handled here. I enjoy French’s characteristic gloomy atmosphere, and the music of Nugent’s reading, enough that it didn’t bother me too much; I think readers with less investment will be bothered still more. We could have moved things along without losing anything. This feeling was exacerbated by Toby’s self-pity. While I think less-than-likeable lead characters are an interesting and often fruitful artistic choice, a whiny one who is allowed to spend too long wallowing can begin to grate. After writing these lines, I’ve checked a few reviews; most find The Witch Elm expertly crafted, but this Washington Post review is more in line with my own reactions:

It’s very eerie; it’s also quite hefty and static for long stretches. Whether you find the novel satisfying will probably depend on how much you care about action vs. atmosphere. French expertly crafts a cloud cover of thickening menace throughout this extended narrative, but the storm doesn’t break until the very end. By then, even the most patient reader may be excused for being exhausted from all the bleak moodiness that preceded it.

I love action and atmosphere, and I did enjoy this book, but again, I counsel caution for all but the most French-devoted reader (or one who knows she’s ready for a long, atmospheric build-up). (Bonus: the WaPo review is written by Maureen Corrigan. What fun.)

French’s characters tend to be a strength, but I think they waver slightly here. Toby is well developed (although not terribly likeable). His cousins and Uncle Hugo moderately so; there is enough meat there (if you’ll forgive the usage) to appreciate them. His girlfriend Melissa is a weakness, though. Her entire reason for being here is to serve as a ray of sunshine for Toby; she is indefatigably peppy and optimistic, which I find annoying in real life and less than credible on the page. The cops, on the other hand, feel quite real. (Recall that French often writes from their point of view. Hmm.)

A final qualification for this book: it’s tricky to give a trigger warning with a novel of suspense, like this one, and I rarely deal in trigger warnings anyway. But here I do think it should be said: if you deal with trauma regarding serious, terrorist-level stalking, heads up.

Despite my criticisms, I am here for more Tana French and on the whole enjoyed this one quite a bit. Look for me to get into The Trespasser sometime soon. As for a recommendation on this one, it depends on your capacity for patience and your commitment to French’s distinctive style. If you do read/have read The Witch Elm, I’d be very interested in your opinion!


Rating: 6.5 candlesticks.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

I recently went to the local library and checked out a mystery novel just because I felt like it. The last time I got to do this was (I checked) October of 2016. Glorious.

So, I chose an old favorite, Michael Connelly, and just grabbed one I hadn’t read, starring a character I’d never met. LAPD Detective Renée Ballard works the night shift, or the “late show,” as punishment for raising a complaint when she was sexually assaulted by a superior. (Timely and timeless, this story.) One night at the station she finds a stranger rummaging through a filing cabinet whose lock he’s just picked; hand on her gun, she asks him for ID, and that’s how she meets mostly-retired Detective Harry Bosch. I immediately felt right at home.

Chapters alternate between the close third-person perspectives of Bosch and Ballard as they team up, rather off the record, to take on a cold case. In the Bosch tradition, it’s a case no one especially cared about even at the time, as the murder victim was one of those deemed society’s trash; but as we know, with Bosch, “everybody counts or nobody counts.” Action, high adrenaline, close calls, a twisty case, and problems with authority, all set to a dramatic and unmistakable LA/Hollywood backdrop: this is classic Connelly and what I came for. Nothing much has changed and I am so glad. Funny how the mystery novels I love can sort of do the same thing over and over again and still entertain me. I hope Bosch lives forever. (Also, it was nice that I was relatively fresh off the Bosch television series, especially since a recent case was referenced here.)


Rating: 7 green flight suits.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

I read this socio-historical study of Appalachia in part to investigate my new homeplace (however temporary) in central West Virginia.

It is quite good. Steven Stoll takes a wide-angle view of “the ordeal of Appalachia” (centering on West Virginia), which he sees as a social, political, economic, ideological problem that fits into global patterns. He compares the experiences of Appalachians with those of other groups across time and place: in particular, English peasants in the 1600s, American Indians in the early 1800s, and Malian smallholders in the 2000s. As he draws these comparisons, he is careful to note that “no two dispossessions are the same.” On the other hand, “historians emphasize the distinctness of the stories they tell. They tend to make few observations across places and times,” and Stoll I think does us a service by making those observations. For one thing, I find it makes each story clearer to have analogies to draw from. For another, as he shows in these pages, the story of Appalachia has been told in a way that oversimplifies, and blames the poorest people with the fewest options for their own situation. To contextualize those experiences within world history and within patterns makes it clear that this is a story about humans and their systems and about capitalism, not about a specific race of holler dwellers.

At the risk of simplifying, again, what has been well communicated in nearly 300 pages here… Stoll argues that what has gone wrong in Appalachia, what has resulted in devastating extractive industries, wealth flowing only outward, the impoverishment and degradation of local residents, environmental destruction, and damage to a culture, is about the forced movement from makeshift agrarian economies to capitalism and industrial scales. (The term ‘makeshift’ for household economies is not intended to be disparaging. Stoll spends time with this. What he refers to we might call subsistence living: a combination of small-scale agriculture and husbandry, hunting and gathering, and local and regional trade that yields a sufficient or comfortable living with no stockpiled profit. It does not indicate an absence of currency.)

The enclosure of the commons is a central element in this shift. The ecological base that used to be used in common by all for timber, hunting and gathering, fodder for livestock, and rotation of small garden plots was enclosed and divvied up as private property following the American Revolution, largely to absentee landowners. Later lumber and coal mining industries robbed that land of the richness that had once provided, so that now if we were to return to the commons model (something Stoll cautiously recommends, with a drafted piece of legislation late in the book) that base will not yield what it used to. Part of that shift as well involves a shift from makeshift or subsistence economies – I make what I need, plus enough surplus to feel secure – to growth-at-all-costs capitalism – make as much as you can and then make more by any means possible; seek efficiencies; clearcut. And part of that is a move from largely self-sufficient households to currency-based wage-earning ones. (Again, Stoll is careful to point out that there never was a makeshift household that provided all its needs – trade was always a component of any system – and that currency is not in fact absent from, for example, barter economies.) Well, these 300 pages do a better job of it than this paragraph does. But it’s a gist.

I appreciated the breadth of history, sociology, politics, economic theory, and more that Stoll employs to teach these lessons. It’s a broad and rich book. And I appreciate as well that he consults so many outside sources, and not just academic ones. While the tone and style of this book is still rather dry and textbook-y, its reference points include fiction and the visual arts as well as primary sources, journalism, and fellow academics. I dig the interdisciplinary result: that one can see policy unfold alongside environmental change, social history and the arts. The writing style is no-nonsense informational, lacking the personal perspective that I prefer, and with no especial sense of fun. It’s better than the classic history text in style. But it still took me longer to read, in smaller pieces, than my usual fare.

I regret that Stoll doesn’t appear to have invited local opinion or sought specifically Appalachian experts. His back-of-book blurbs are all from professors at either Columbia or Yale. And one characteristic of this region, one of its challenges, is the tendency of outsiders to judge; Appalachia, in my observation, is sensitive about that. I wish Stoll had sought a blurber from within the region! It’s not like there aren’t academics from Appalachia, and I know it would have earned him credibility in these parts. I guess that wasn’t a priority; I don’t think he’s writing for a specifically Appalachian audience, and that’s fine, but this oversight I fear means he’s written for an audience from everywhere but Appalachia. [Please note that I make these observations as an outsider, myself; these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of etc. etc.]

On these lines, a very brief section of this book is likely (again, from what I’ve seen) to raise hackles here: he devotes about a page to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, mostly nodding in agreement, although he does acknowledge that “it might be construed as saying that the tragedy of Appalachia is the sum of its individual failings or the insularity of its families.” Here’s a tip: praising Vance within Appalachia will make you no friends.

I also note that Stoll doesn’t address the nonhuman community that Brian Doyle and Terry Tempest Williams and my father and I recognize: he worries for the fate of people, chiefly, and I appreciate that he wants better for a disadvantaged population which has been taken advantage of. He seems concerned as well for the rich and biologically diverse hills and mountains of a unique geographical area, but I think this concern is chiefly for what that land could offer people. I would personally rather he also cared for rivers and cougars and mushrooms for their own sake, but his is the majority perspective, that’s for sure.

While I wanted to note these issues I found with Ramp Hollow, I admire it and I learned a lot and I do recommend it as a way to put “the ordeal of Appalachia” into a larger context and understand some of what’s challenging here, and why it’s not the fault of the people here who are unfortunately characterized as lazy, backwards, or primitive. This book is well researched, with over 50 pages of notes and a thorough bibliography. I consider it a great introduction to a lengthy and complicated history, and I’m so glad I read it. Thank you, Doug, for my copy.


Rating: 7 morels.

movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South by M. Randal O’Wain

Disclosure: Matt O’Wain is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


I was the son who left, after all, the boy who packed a bag and tramped back and forth across the country in place of stability, but what grounded my wanderlust was the belief that I was never too far from my childhood home, my loving parents. And though I had no right to lament the loss of [that childhood home], the act of boxing it all up or throwing it all out or driving it to Goodwill made me keenly aware that the home I’d been fleeing was the very foundation that allowed me to run.

M. Randal O’Wain’s first book is the essay collection Meander Belt, subtitled “Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South.” But to me, it is at least as much about home, the competing human urges to settle and to flee, and a sense of belonging.

I said the competing human urges; but within this narrator, the clear winner is the urge to run. O’Wain is originally from Memphis, where his father Chris works as a carpenter and his mother Linda collects the detritus of other lives off curbs. She is a survivor of childhood polio, and sensitive about her distinctive gait. He is a man who values hard work, preferably the manual kind, and while he loves his sensitive younger son, he doesn’t understand him. Matt (as the young narrator is called) doesn’t see a place for himself in the world he’s born into. He idolizes his father, and his older brother, also named Chris, who follows neatly in the older man’s footsteps and fits into his value system: goes to work as a mechanic, steadily builds toward a home and a family, falls asleep alongside their father in front of the television in the evenings. But Matt, from a young age, feels driven to run. At sixteen, he runs away to Montreal; at eighteen, he moves with his band to Olympia, Washington. He has just moved to Oakland, California when his father dies. He has just (finally, improbably) settled down in southern West Virginia when his brother dies.

These are the losses that give Meander Belt its subtitle, and offer the essay collection a certain shape, but I don’t feel they define it. This is a mostly-chronologic memoir-in-essays, and it ranges beyond family and beyond home. The opening essay is an inspired choice: “Mirrored Mezzanine” briefly, beautifully shows the love of a young child for his father, whom he does not understand. “The Junk Trade” explores trauma, sex, and work. With “Thirteenth Street and Failing,” O’Wain considers death. In “Halfway Between,” he recognizes the importance of place and what we lose in the compromise that is growing up. “Memento Mori Part One” (of three) takes up nearly a third of the book; the other seventeen essays vary in length but none compare to this, the long story of a father’s decline and death. Subtitled “Calls in the Night,” one of the movements it charts is ironically a growing closeness between father and the son who moved away.

After three mementos mori, the collection sees O’Wain’s adult life settle in some ways, and several essays tend to sum up, where many earlier essays stuck more closely to narrative storytelling. The essays marking brother Chris’s death, and a new love with Mesha Maren (she of Sugar Run), fit this more expository model. This is not a criticism, though; as the subtitle promised, coming-of-age is the book’s work, and it feels appropriate to see O’Wain’s later years laid out only in service to the whole, if that makes sense. Also, let me note that the essays take various forms throughout; some are segmented with numbered sections, and “How to Walk as a Nontraditional Graduate” uses the second person.

I appreciate these essays because they are both narrative and essayistic, meaning that they search, seek, question, assay. I trust the narrator because he is so honest about his confusion, the ways in which he’s lost in the world, the ways he is surprised by life. This is a narrative voice with a grasp of the difference between the man or boy these events happened to and the writer telling them now, but even now, he doesn’t claim to know all the answers. I also appreciate a writer equally pleased to bring in the voices of Virginia Woolf, DC Comics, and Leonard Cohen to help him see his own life. These reference points serve as cultural markers but also as conversationalists as O’Wain interrogates the past.

I’m very pleased I got to read an advanced copy of this collection, which will be published October 1; look for my interview with O’Wain coming up at Shelf Awareness (and eventually here as well). Meander Belt is thoughtful, brave, and unflinching, and I think it’s a book for every reader who cares about real lives, whether they have much in common with O’Wain’s background or not.

Preorder here.


Rating: 8 cigarettes.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City by Anna Sherman

These lovely, understated ruminations on time and Tokyo will please those interested in Japanese culture, language or history–or lovers of any city, anywhere.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City is Anna Sherman’s exploration of a city that is not originally her own, but her perspective is perhaps all the more closely attentive, thoughtful and serious. Through Tokyo’s Bells of Time, which rang out the hours for hundreds of years, Sherman examines many aspects of both city and time. Her prose is careful, contemplative, even solemn. The result is philosophy, travel writing, elegy and love letter.

“Tokyo is one vast timepiece,” begins Sherman. “Time is counted out in incense sticks; in LEDs; and in atomic lattice clocks,” and in so many other ways she will consider. Time is ignored, too, in this city where residents “have their eyes fixed on the future, and are impatient when a word is said of their past.” Sherman never states the reasons for her preoccupation with time, clocks and Tokyo’s past, but her book thrums with it. She views the first Bell of Time, at a former prison at Nihonbashi, and the smallest, in Akasaka; seeks the lost bell of Mejiro; meets the man who rings the bell at Ueno; and visits a widow surrounded by “an island of old clocks” in Nezu. She also consults with numerous sources, modern and ancient, and studies the Japanese language and its translations. This is a narrator deeply immersed and committed to her subject; Sherman’s bibliography and notes are extensive for such a slim book.

A point of stillness at the center is a special coffee shop where Sherman makes a friend. “Tokyo is a restless city, where everything changes and shifts, but not Daibo Coffee.” Daibo is the one character she returns to, and his influence is felt in her love for the city and in her questions.

“[Author and composer] Yoshimura believed that a temple bell’s sound was as much about silence as about its ringing.” Sherman’s writing similarly respects white space as much as it does words: her approach is lyric and minimalist, and respectful of the culture she studies. An American living in Japan, she is sensitive to her outsider status, as when writing about the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo: “Growing up, I was part of the old soldiers’ we. I had never thought about what we had done to them.” She is present for the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima reactor explosions that followed, and her writing about these events is spare: “I bought tickets… I wanted to see Daibo… I said nothing.” At times, Sherman slides into prose poetry. “Mirrors and clocks in love hotels and the time they tell, the translucent sheeting over building sites, the streetlamps, the slopes, the signs I can read and the ones I can’t.”

The Bells of Old Tokyo is an elegant series of musings, a beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. Sherman has given the world, and one city in particular, an astonishing gift.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bowls of green tea.
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