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Archive for the category “Book Reviews”

Finding Joy in the Yarns: Interview with Louisiana Poet Laureate Dr. Jack B. Bedell

As I perused the bookshelf in the main hall of Mercer University Press’ office, I found my way to this little book of poems. On the cover, gulls perch atop posts in silver water while one turns back and squawks at an off-page presence. I opened the first few pages to a poem called “Remnant,” and within moments I was home.

Dr. Jack B. Bedell, father, husband, son, editor of Louisiana Literature, and English professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, is also serving as the esteemed Louisiana Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He has published nine books of poetry, including his latest, No Brother, This Storm, with Mercer University Press. After scouring through this book for hours and putting my thoughts into words, I finally got to asking him a few questions about it. Take a look:

Elizabeth (E): In No Brother, This Storm your poems often include food imagery and what I can only describe as domestic tranquility. These vivid scenes transport me back to my childhood. Why do you feel it is important for home and hearth to play such an important role in your poetry?

Dr. Jack Bedell (B): New Year’s Day for the past 16 years I’ve had the same resolution: Find the good in the day. Writing poems is my primary means of honoring the people and events that fill my life with goodness and joy. Those poems about home life and loved ones are really meant to be archives of my blessings. More than anything, I want my work to express gratitude and hope. Even when the poems detail personal, environmental, or cultural loss, they come from an urge to honor this resolution toward thankfulness.

Read more…

Dual Perspectives: Clara Silverstein’s Creative Challenge

As an English major specializing in southern literature, I read Civil War literature nearly every day. I’m fortunate to work at Mercer University Press where many of the publications are related to Civil War and southern history. One of our newest historical novels, Secrets in a House Divided, takes place in Civil War Richmond. Author Clara Silverstein, who has published a memoir, White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, and several cookbooks including A White House Garden Cookbook, captivates readers with “rich, poetic detail” as she tells us a story of a young Confederate mother who becomes pregnant out of wedlock at the latter end of the Civil War.

I had the pleasure of meeting Clara Silverstein this past weekend at the Decatur Book Festival. Earlier in the week she graciously agreed to an interview, and before I knew it I was sitting across from her in the downtown Decatur Starbucks waiting on my cinnamon dolce cold brew.

Elizabeth (E): To begin with a general question: what got you into writing?

Clara (C): So, I’m one of those people who always wrote. In third grade, we had this poetry journal in the back of the classroom, and whenever I had free time I’d go back there and write little poems. I created a newspaper that I called the “Doggy Gazette” for the news of dogs in the neighborhood. It’s just always something I’ve enjoyed doing. As I got older, I actually was trained as a journalist—that’s a way to make money as a writer (though, not as much anymore).

E: You went into journalism. Do you think that helped better prepare you for your creative writing?

C: Definitely. Two reasons. One, it keeps you facile with language. You’re always writing and using the language. The other reason is that it eliminates writer’s block. In journalism, if you have a story to write, you write your story! It might not be God’s gift to literature, but you write your story. Early on, I just got over myself. “Oh, I didn’t say it the way I wanted to.” Well, too bad! It had to get done.

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Humdinger: An Interview with Dr. Sam Pickering

I have always loved Robin Williams in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, in which he, portraying the dazzling, eclectic, and romantic Professor Keating, teaches his students to live out their dreams and “Seize the Day!” According to an entertainment piece by Joy Lanzendorfer, screenwriter Tom Schulman drew inspiration for Keating’s character from two of his professors at Montgomery Bell Academy, a Nashville boys preparatory school. Lanzendorfer writes that though the “inspiring speeches” came from Harold Clurman, the “quirky teaching style” came from Samuel Pickering, whom has published a handful of books through Mercer University Press.[i]

Dr. Pickering is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has written over one-hundred and fifty essays in his lifetime, as well as more than thirty books. His most recent publication, Parade’s End, includes a compilation of familiar essays, or “Pickerings,” that celebrate the “passing drift of days and the quiet miracles of living.”[ii] When I joined the MU Press team as an intern, I pestered our marketing director Mary Beth for Dr. Pickering’s email and sent him a few questions about Parade’s End and life in general. Here’s what followed.

The Interview

My Question (Q): In my favorite part from your essay “Honor,” you write that “many of life’s small bumps eventually tickle more than they irritate” (80). What, then, would you have to say about life’s big bumps?

Dr. Pickering’s Answer (A): Time changes perspective. What the 15-year-old thinks a big bump may be forgotten when she is 30. Then again at 50 she may think it important again. The old rhyme goes: Da, da, bumps-aroo / You got bumps all over you./ Da, da, bumps-aree / I got bumps all over me.

Anyway, what you think a big bump, I might at my age think insignificant—actually I will more than likely think it insignificant. The concerns of age and youth are different.

Read more…

Book Review: A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

Books & CultureA Christian Review

Linda McCullough Moore

May 2012

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
288 pp. $24.00

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

Read Marly Youmans

Literary fiction. What is it? John Updike quipped his work was literary fiction because it was written with words. Reading some self-named literary fiction today, one wonders if his definition wasn’t a bit highfalutin. Forget the old saw suggesting literary fiction boasts novels and stories written by poets; in the current climate—where poetry is not always written by poets— literary fiction too often reads like something produced by writers with no time for style, and less truck with ideas. But, as meant to be, literary fiction calls not only for a writer who is up to snuff and a pinch above it—to define the thing with sharp precision—but also for a reader prepared to read in some new and different way. I just saw a piece in the New York Times saying that what with television shows and movies appearing online instantaneously, readers now want books by their favorite writers to appear apace, and that some authors are complying, turning out a number of new books each year. It seems if literary fiction is to survive and thrive, both writer and reader must be tamed, checked, and schooled in ways of writing and of reading.

To that end, I’ve taken the liberty of drawing up a little list for the aspiring reader when he comes upon a sample of the real thing: How to Read Literary Fiction (you can try this at home, also on park benches, beaches, and public transportation). You’ll notice many of these items address the little matter of preparedness. My list: 1. Repeat after me (and Gertrude Stein): Remarks aren’t literature. 2. Stop reading anything with more than four product names on one page. 3. Ditto: exclamation marks and adverbs modifying verbs. 4. Start taking walks. Long walks. Remember how to daydream. 5. Read slowly. 6. Read more slowly still. 7. Develop a comfort level with turning down corners of every page, top and bottom, underlining, sighing audibly, and uttering the occasional Hallelujah. 8. Breathe deeply … or hold your breath. It doesn’t matter. Once you’ve started reading, the poet/novelist will be in charge of any breathing needing to be done. In other words, surrender. Be putty in the writer’s hands. (All will be well. All will be very, very well, and that right soon.) 9. Make plans to look at life some way you never thought about before.

Which brings us—not before time—to Marly Youmans, whose new novel A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is literary fiction at its finest. (Tell me you didn’t see that coming.) Here is fiction which required the writer to reinvent language, engage magic and mystery with every commonplace of living, explore the whys and wherefores of human understanding, and enlarge the boundaries of what it’s good to think about and know. Here is fiction which requires the reader to take it slow, to savor, bask and meditate, to revel, and to laugh aloud and cry.

This is a novel full of treasures: antique, narrative chapter headings; rich allusions; playful references and multilayered metaphors; not to mention brand-new ways to swear. Youmans’ young boys coin epithets to avoid the Camay soap administrations of a valiant mother, who will not stand for cussing—her love and sway that strong. Brazen weevil. Pernicious polecat. Dissembling slime of a catfish. Steaming black-boiled okra pod. Miscreant chitterling. Thou lousewort. Thou mop pot. (Would that other writers might occasionally forego facile, four-letter, knee-jerk prose, and try a hand at such invention.)

This is the story of Pip, a young orphan whose expectations are of the most meager sort, even before the brutal death of his little brother Otto, this Pip’s expectations fashioned in the fields where young boys not only pick cotton, but must paint the crop with poison potions. As the story begins, Pip visits Otto’s grave, where he finds a conch shell. Were he to blow breath through the shell, it would set Otto’s spirit free. Instead, he calls his brother’s name:

And the helpless roar that from the distance of the White Camellia Orphanage sounded so like a scream seemed to involve the very skies in its clamor, as in a rhythm of call and response. The sun swelled and soared to become a rosy “O” burning above the plum trees, and the heat waves of its solar outcry aroused the tobacco leaves and the rosined pines and the snake-dripping swamps like immense but unheard mirth.

Pip will carry this conch shell in his pocket through the years, as he now strikes out on his own, a young boy riding the rails. Youmans shows us the approaching train:

The metal face with its bright Cyclopean eye and its smoke box and clanging bell. Pip did an awkward half-split. The monster took no notice but plunged, vaulted and dived over the slight rolls of the land, shaking the earth as easily as a hound shakes a kitten, spewing cinders and smoke, drive wheels pounding and somersaulting. High as a house the engine swooped down on Pip, hissing and hooting in his face, in his very being, turning him inside out, ringing him like a bell. The sun clanged in the sky, the earth quaked.

Pip settles with a family, of one sort or another, for a time, and then moves on. I found it remarkable that Pip reveals himself only in the company of kindness. Pip’s first new family is made up of an assortment of people whose reflexive kindness is outdone only by their world-class eccentricity, their stark oddity, depicted with a tempered hand. These are no clowns, this is no cartoon, despite the red wheelbarrow serving as the chariot of the woman who calls herself the Countess, and the Lilliputian village created out of crushed materials and refuse by the man who calls himself Excelsior. One thinks that every word that Youmans chooses is made to do six jobs. There is no vacant detail. Each word, each name, is made to count; each incident is telling. This book is lyrical, but it’s a lyricism in the service of a project, one fine and wide and worthy and meant to do us good. Here is understanding and wise instruction in the ways of considering ourselves and other people, told with the elegance of a new simplicity.

The Countess and Excelsior take Pip in after he’s been beaten senseless, a state Youmans describes in ways that force contagion. Pip’s is a harrowing delirium, much like his migraine auras, both of which we’re made to feel and reel from. I have not read another writer who so perfectly captures in words the scary wiles of brain activity suddenly gone awry. Youmans speaks into experience that unspeakable disequilibrium. Pip is plagued and he is blessed. He has his abiding love for his lost Otto, and he has one of life’s sweet gifts: a consuming interest in learning—in this case, history. He’s a boy who grows to manhood, dividing his time between freight trains and libraries.

I am a Christian (God’s mercy wild as that), and books like this help me know God better. They reacquaint me with his grace, they send me to my knees to offer thanks that in his generosity, he’s made a world that’s interesting. Pip is blessed with an awareness that this is true, and with one dearer blessing still: through all the years of all his journeys back and forth across the country during the dark days of the Great Depression, his half-sister Lil offers meals to every hobo who ever comes her way, in the hope that one of them might one day come upon her Pip, riding in some boxcar, and send him home to her.

Any life is cumulative. Our conclusions at the end of the day ask us to incorporate all the little bits and pieces of what will have been a lifetime. We know that. Pip does too. Standing by his brother’s grave, long years later, now a man,

He stared until his eyes ached with pent tears. If this meant love, perhaps it was easier to live without it, just as it had been easier to turn his back on some, just as time and again he had caught the death-dealing red ball express and let the train hurl him away from somebody who was fond of him and might have held him fast. He might still be resting in the heart of some eucalyptus wood, telling a never-ending story to Cora. Or he might be living on the brink of the prairie sea with Opal and their child of dreams, an Otto bright as the moon.

But what Pip does with all his might-have-beens and what he does with what-just-is is lovely to behold. What Youmans does with only words is beautiful to see.

So. Now then. You know what to do. Power down. Grab your jacket. Go for a long, long walk. And when you get back home, read Marly Youmans.

Linda McCullough Moore lives and writes in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her most recent fiction is a collection of linked stories, This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon.

Copyright © 2012 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage | Books and Culture.

A Titanic Love Story featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Metro Atlanta / State News 5:00 a.m. Sunday, April 15, 2012

‘Isidor, my place is with you’

By Bill Hendrick

For the AJC

A half-century before Isidor Straus, who grew up in the tiny Georgia town of Talbotton, died on the Titanic, the future Macy’s magnate tried to join the Confederate army. Turned down because he was only 16, he joined a blockade-running company instead.

Isidor Straus, shown with his wife, Ida, is the most famous person from Georgia to die on the Titanic.

His family had emigrated from Germany in 1854, then moved years later from Talbotton to Columbus, 25 miles away. There he met Amanda Blun Rothschild, sister of his future wife, Ida, who lived in New York. It was the genesis of a long love story.

After the war, Straus returned to Columbus. It had been burned by Union troops, so he moved to New York, where he met and married Ida Blun in 1871 as he and his brother parlayed a china and glassware business into eventual co-ownership of the famous department store.

Isidor, 67, and Ida Straus, 63, were returning from an extended overseas trip when they booked first-class passage on the maiden voyage of the giant new luxury liner, buying a ticket that would cost almost $25,000 at today’s prices. They set sail from the British port of Southampton on April 10, 1912.

Four days later, after stops in Cherbourg, France, and Cobh, Ireland, the supposedly unsinkable ship encountered the fateful iceberg off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. At 2:20 a.m. on April 15 — a century ago today — it disappeared into the 12,000-foot depths.

The Strauses were immortalized through eyewitness reports of how they died. Isidor Straus, though a prominent philanthropist, former congressman and man of great power, declined a seat in a lifeboat, holding to the rules of the sea that called for women and children to be rescued first. His wife, with whom he had raised six children, refused to be separated from her husband.

“As we have lived, so will we die together,” eyewitnesses reported her saying. “Isidor, my place is with you.”

June Hall McCash,author of the new book “A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus,” says Ida Straus gave her seat in a lifeboat to her maid, Ellen Bird, then handed the woman her expensive fur coat.

“I won’t need this anymore,” witnesses heard her say.

The Strauses stood on the deck, holding hands, until a wave swept them from the capsizing ship, ending their love story but beginning a legend that endures.

Isidor Straus “was undoubtedly the most famous person from Georgia to die when the ship went down,” says McCash, a retired Middle Tennessee State University professor and part-time resident of Georgia’s Jekyll Island.

Her book continues the telling of the Strauses’ story, which began days after the sinking with worldwide headlines and has been part of both major motion pictures about the disaster: 1958’s “A Night to Remember” and 1997’s special effects-laden “Titanic.”

Also helping to keep alive the fascination with the hubris, angst and romance of the Titanic is another Georgia tie: Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions. The company holds salvor-in-possession rights to the Titanic and has been retrieving and displaying artifacts from the wreck site for almost two decades.

The company’s touring exhibitions have been revamped for the centennial year. A show that opened April 6 at Atlantic Station is one of seven around the United States and in Singapore.

The for-profit company has had its critics, who think the relics should be left where they are. Renewing the controversy is the company’s current effort to auction about 5,500 
artifacts, valued at about 
$189 million, found at or near the wreck.

The Straus Historical Society in New York has taken no position on the sale, says executive director Joan Adler, but some board members, like Caroline Selden Straus, a granddaughter of the Strauses, have qualms.

“I think things need to be left at the gravesite,” she says. “I do not think making a profit is correct.”

Tempering the criticism is the company’s requirement that the buyer keep the collection intact and continue the ongoing shows.

Brian Wainger, an attorney for the company, says Premier Exhibitions, at great risk and with no guarantee of “ever recovering a dime,” literally saved history. “Were it not for the acts of this company, this generation and tomorrow’s would only know about this through books and fictional movies.”

Gordon Jones, senior historian at the Atlanta History Center, says “moral qualms go out the window when you are talking maritime salvage. The basic argument … is that this stuff is going to rot away in a hundred years anyway, so you’re actually saving it.”

Dan Roper, a lawyer, historian and editor of Georgia Backroads magazine, says he believes the sale at Guernsey’s Auctioneers and Brokers in New York is also appropriate, as long as the collection is kept together. Artifacts include fine china, silverware, clothing, diamond jewelry and other personal items from the ship, even a 34,000-pound piece of Titanic itself.

“My uninformed gut reaction would be that the victims on Titanic might be pleased to know that the relics had been recovered and brought to the surface, giving people today a better idea what happened and a new appreciation of the story,” Roper says.

It is a story people never seem to tire of hearing. James C. Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia, says the Titanic disaster will endure as a parable of the cost of arrogance.

The Titanic represents “a surpassing achievement in terms of the human ability to innovate gets slapped down by nature,” Cobb says.

John Derden, a retired history professor who teaches part-time at East Georgia College in Swainsboro, says the “Titanic symbolized the power and might of the West,” and to have it undone by an iceberg, a natural force, shocked and demoralized society.

As for the role of the Strauses, Cobb says McCash’s book is a love story that also shows America as a land of both prejudice and opportunity. The Straus family moved to Geogia after encountering anti-Semitism in Germany, and then again in their new American hometown, which sparked their move to Columbus.

Still, McCash says, the family never forgot its Georgia roots. The Strauses’ sons, Jesse, Percy and Herbert, all visited Atlanta after their parents died and had financial interests in Georgia for years.

Book Review: Father Mercer: The Story of a Baptist Statesman


Father Mercer: The Story of a Baptist Statesman. By Anthony L. Chute. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2012. 146 pp. $20.00

Reviewed by Ryan West

Over the past decade, Anthony Chute has emerged as a respected church historian, particularly in the area of Baptist Studies.  Presently, he serves as the associate dean of the School of Christian Ministries and associate professor of Church History at California Baptist University.  Having examined Jesse Mercer for his dissertation, Chute brings a depth of knowledge to this work that supersedes many biographers.

The purpose of the James N. Griffith Series in Baptist Studies is to advance Baptist studies on various levels to various audiences by promoting “the exploration and investigation of Baptist history; publish classics of Baptist literature including letters, diaries, and other writings; offer analyses of Baptist theologies; and examine the role of Baptists in societies and cultures both in the US and abroad.” As part of the Griffith Series, Chute’s biography seeks to tell the story of Jesse Mercer who was a key figure in establishing Baptist thought and culture which may be considered ‘givens’ today.  In his official acknowledgments, Chute indicates his interest in Mercer “not as a topic of research but as a fellow pilgrim whose company I think I would have enjoyed had I lived in his day.”  Mercer thus serves as an opportunity for personal encouragement for Chute and his readers while also fulfilling the purposes of the Griffith Series.

Father Mercer is divided into two sections.  In the first section, Chute provides a relatively short biography of Mercer through a nice division of his early life and ministerial beginnings (“Son of Silas”), his rising role as a leader of southern Baptists (“Father Mercer”), and the fruit of his leadership (“The Old Man”).  The second portion is a lengthy one that includes Mercer’s own writings such as sermons, letters to church members, and position articles.  In this section, Chute provides a short introduction to each text in which he shows the significance of the material at hand.  The end of the book includes a detailed timeline of Mercer’s life as well as a two-page summary of existing literature on Mercer for anyone interested in examining Mercer on a deeper level.

There is much in this work that readers will find helpful.  Overall, readers will find Chute’s style of writing to be a pleasant encounter and even masterful at times.  His work goes beyond merely reporting historical facts to recreate the felt experience of Mercer and his contemporaries.  For example, the audience will feel the anguish of Jesse and Sabrina Mercer after the loss of their two daughters to an early death (17).  Consequently, Chute accomplishes one of his objectives of representing Mercer as an ‘ordinary’ pastor by illustrating the struggles of this Baptist forefather.  Elsewhere, his evaluation of Mercer’s views on church membership brings to light the weightiness of church covenants, membership, and church discipline (31-34).  Contemporary Baptists may find such commitments a bit strange and Chute does an excellent job of helping readers understand the Baptist mentality of Mercer’s day.  A few other examples of his quality of writing are his treatments of Baptists on local church autonomy and voluntary association (12-14), religious liberty (15), and denominational exclusivity (27-31).

A second commendable aspect of this work is Chute’s inclusion of primary source writings from Mercer.  A potential problem with biographical works is that audiences are left to wonder if the person discussed was truly represented.  Chute’s work, however, leaves little room for such doubt.  Readers will find the primary sources to be rich in theology and practical exhortations from a man who loved Christ and his purposes.  Rather than including a smattering of quotes here and there, including such a large section of material allows one to experience the subject firsthand.  One minor question, however, worth noting involves the reasoning behind Chute’s selection of texts in light of the large corpus of Mercer’s writings.

Finally, persons acquainted with Mercer will note Chute’s faithful representation of Mercer’s own convictions.  For example, Mercer’s denominational commitments flowed from his fidelity to Scripture as his beginning point (27-31).  Elsewhere, this commitment is evident as Chute summarizes Mercer’s motivation for missions (65-68).  The use of reason and historical justification were not dismissed, but they always remained subservient to the Bible.  This aspect of Mercer’s life became vitally important when defending a position of evangelistic Calvinism against Cyrus White’s Arminianism and the Primitive Baptists’ anti-missionary position (68-82).

Chute’s work does leave room for minor criticisms, the most glaring of which is the lack of citations for his quotes, references, and evaluations.  At no point does he provide a reference to the location of the primary source material that he uses.  Therefore, readers wanting to explore the subjects addressed are left to the task of finding the primary source on their own.  This issue creates several other problems within his work such as his truncated discussion of early Baptist views of soteriology (69-70).

Additionally, the reading audience may get the sense that Chute’s evaluations are overly general at times.  Although Chute’s intention is to provide a brief introduction to Mercer, he relies on a good deal of assumed knowledge at times.  This issue is concerning in light of his target audience being novice readers who need an introduction to figures such as Mercer and concerns associated with his life.  For example, his discussion of Mercer’s denominational distinctions is a quick handling of differences between Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodist, and Baptists on complex issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper, baptism, religious authority, and polity (27-31).

Ultimately, Chute accomplishes his purpose of providing an introduction to both Mercer and Baptist battles of his day.  Father Mercer is too simplistic to serve as a classroom text in light of the above criticisms, but it should prove to be a helpful resource nonetheless.  Readers at all levels who are unacquainted with Mercer will benefit from meeting this figure who established many current Baptist commitments.

J. Ryan West serves as the Assistant to the Executive Director at the Evangelical Theological Society and as a Junior Fellow at the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies  in Louisville, KY.  He received a Th.M. in Historical Theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a Ph.D. Candidate (2012) in Theology and Tradition at the same institution.  Before moving to Louisville, he and his wife served as missionaries in India and an inner-city context in the States. He serves as a ministry leader at Sojourn Community Church, where he teaches family ministry courses and leads a weekly small group. His professional memberships include the Evangelical Theological Society, the Baptist History & Heritage Society, and the Fellowship of Baptist Historians.  He has a wonderful wife of eleven years and has been blessed with three young children, ages nine and under.

Book Review: Back to the Garden

Book review: Jackie K. Cooper’s ‘Back to the Garden’

Published: Sunday, December 18, 2011, 1:13 PM
By Press-Register Correspondent

Reviewed by Correspondent BONNIE BARTEL LATINO

Jackie-Cooper-back-to-the-garden.jpgMOBILE, Alabama — ‘Tis the season! Those searching for life-enriching books appropriate for gifting either women or men should consider Georgia writer Jackie K. Cooper’s “Back to the Garden: The Goal of the Journey.” The memoir is filled with brief vignettes which may either be devoured like a prolonged Christmas feast or anticipated as scrumptious sugar plums savored during multiple trips to the holiday buffet.

The author of five previous “Journey” books, Cooper is also an entertainment critic, perhaps best-known nationally for his online reviews of books, movies, plays and television programs for The Huffington Post.

The book’s title and cover art might lead some prospective readers to mistakenly conclude that “Back to the Garden” is about, well, gardening. It is not. In his prologue, the author explains that he came “from a place of innocence, a Garden of Eden so to speak, and I am trying to live my life so that one day I emerge again in perfection in a perfect place, another Eden, preferably with air conditioning.”

“Back to the Garden” is a collection of personal essays, reflections from Cooper’s life primarily during 2004 and 2005. His words reveal that he is a South Carolina native who adores his wife, two adult sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. That he is a Southern gentleman is unstated but quickly obvious.

In the book’s foreword, South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth writes that Cooper “inspires us with the knowledge that comes from a life attentive to the details of his muse yet forever humbled in his acknowledgment that there is so much more left to learn.”

The author hooked this reader on page seven by simply sharing his minister’s sermon that began by describing a scene from the movie “Black Hawk Down”: A colonel attempted to get a convoy of trucks out of the battle zone. A number of men had already been lost, including the driver of the lead truck. Pulling the dead body from the truck, the colonel ordered a sergeant to drive the truck out of there. The sergeant replied that he’d been shot. The colonel shouted: “We’ve all been shot! Now drive the truck!”

The sermon concluded, “That is what life is all about … every one of us has been ‘shot’ in some way, but we need to get on with it and drive the truck.” The implications of those simple words contain universal wisdom.

Always entertaining, Cooper’s stories are also brutally honest. Most are uplifting. Many offer life lessons. All offer wisdom. For instance, in his chapter “Nobody’s important but me,” Cooper describes being in an Atlanta theater in which a woman with a screaming baby ruined the film for everyone. As management finally escorted the woman and her still screaming child from the theater, the audience applauded. The baby’s mother shouted an obscenity. Cooper opines that when things like that happen he fumes in silence. “If you say something to somebody these days,” he says, “you’re liable to get shot.” Indeed.

Yet another story illustrates the importance of “holding onto the joy of anticipation” while “scaling down expectations” of almost all life events. Particularly at this time of year, that is sage advice.

One of Cooper’s most poignant stories describes his granddaughter Genna’s dance recital, which, he writes, “lasted an interminable three hours. I was in dance-class hell, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Since Genna was only four, she wasn’t the star. As Cooper sat dozing through much of the event, several of the older dance students suddenly captured his attention as they waltzed — standing on tiptoe atop their fathers’ shoes. Cooper concludes: “Tears started coming out of my eyes … I’ll never get to dance with a daughter … There is a bond between fathers and daughters that I will never know. I have observed it with our friends … I envy that relationship … For so many years [my daughter] existed as a presence waiting to be born, but now I know that dream will not come true. I have the next best thing and that is a granddaughter. But sometimes I just miss that little girl I dreamed about. I miss her so much.”

Over 100 thought-provoking stories fill the 215 pages of Jackie K. Cooper’s endearing book. Tie a bow around it, and slip it into someone’s Christmas stocking. “Back to the Garden” is sure to bring tidings of comfort and joy.

Atmore native Bonnie Bartel Latino is an award-winning writer and former columnist for Stars and Stripes newspaper in Europe.

Back to the Garden:
The Goal of the Journey

By Jackie K. Cooper
Mercer University Press, paper, $18

Book Review: Washed in the Blood

True Romance

In Washed in the Blood, Lisa Alther tells a sweeping tale of racial and familial ambiguity

by Paul V. Griffith

Washed in the Blood
By Lisa Alther
Mercer University Press
459 pages

In her new novel, Kingsport native Lisa Alther uses as a plot device the racial and familial intermarriage that was once common in the Appalachians. For many, this aspect of mountain life is fodder for off-color jokes and stereotyping, but for Alther’s subjects, it serves as a survival mechanism. Rather than disappear, Native Americans, former slaves, and dark skinned colonists intermingled with white settlers, passing for white when possible but losing their identities in the process.

Combining the factual relevance of a history book with the intrigue and passion of a romance novel, Washed in the Blood follows the descendants of Diego Martin, a sixteenth-century hog drover who comes to the New World with a Spanish expedition. When Martin is abandoned by his party, he’s forced to reframe all the ideas he once held dear and make his way in a strange and dangerous land. As centuries pass––and Spanish, English, Portuguese, African, and Native American blood becomes increasingly intermingled––successive generations of Martins struggle with notions of identity and the fickle nature of love.

Washed in the Blood is a novel in three parts. The first concerns the aforementioned explorer, the so-called “Swine King,” Diego Martin. The second is dedicated to Daniel Hunter, a mid-nineteenth-century Quaker schoolteacher who forsakes his Philadelphia fiancée for Galicia Martin, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty whom he meets in the hills of Couchtown, Virginia. By now the Martins have melded into their surroundings. Like other families in the area, they are, as Alther writes, “neither fish nor fowl, neither white nor Indian nor African, most probably all three at once.” As such, they are subject to the whims of Easterners and other area whites whose need for land threatens both the family farm and the young lovers’ future.

Part three tells the story of Will Martin and Galicia Hunter. At this point, the Martin clan has split in two: the merchant side, who live in Couchtown, and the farming side, who live on nearby Mulatto Bald. Neither side is aware of their ancestral background, and both deny any connection to each other. Will is a Martin from the Bald, and Galicia, Daniel Martin’s granddaughter, is from Couchtown. Not realizing they are cousins, the two marry and start a family, moving to a nearby industrial center where they become prominent citizens. When Will’s son from a teen romance appears on their doorstep, Will and Galicia must come to terms with their shifting affections––and the fact that forbidden love may split the Martin clan once again.

Alther, the internationally bestselling author of Kinflicks and Original Sins, among other novels, is a stickler for historical accuracy. Using meticulous research, she leads the reader through a plausible set of circumstances based on accepted genealogical theories and anthropological studies. The fear Will and Galicia Martin feel about their offspring’s skin color, for example, would have resonated with Reconstruction-era mixed-raced people, for whom skin color determined social status. As Southern whites struggled to gain control over recently emancipated blacks, the issue of skin color became more important than ever; for them it was therefore preferable––but less plausible––to claim to be of Indian or Portuguese descent. Will and Galicia make no such claims––though they aren’t passing for white, either, “Because passing implied that you knew you were black and were masquerading as white,” Alther writes. “But he and Galicia had no idea who they really were.”

Alther’s careful attention to historical accuracy does occasionally slip. Daniel Martin’s potential mother-in-law, for example, has a suspiciously enlightened view of race: “[T]he way we have dealt with the Indians and the Africans has robbed this country of all that early promise.”

But such whimsy is acceptable in historical romance, which gains its narrative power by placing anachronistic figures in historically challenging circumstances.

Alther’s insights into the history and culture of Appalachian life are crucial and well-researched, but the language of romance proves to be her great strength. Consider, for example, Daniel Hunter’s conflicting emotions for his fiancée, Abigail, and his paramour, Galicia. “Both were thrilling for him after a lifetime of depravation,” Alther writes. “With Galicia he dove deep to explore underwater caverns. With Abigail he was swept over a waterfall, clinging for dear life to a raft of bucking flesh.” Alther’s depictions of forbidden lust and star-crossed love retain the subversive character that typifies the work of such masters of the genre as Jane Austen or Nora Roberts: true love is attained only if one remains true to oneself. More than that, though, even with its hardships, bigotries, and genealogical confusion, Alther makes antique Appalachia seem like a pretty sexy place. Old times there are not forgotten, indeed.

— Review appeared on the Chapter 16 website on November 21, 2011.


Book Review: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism Shaped America’s Games

What a book! There are 1006 notes and a bibliography of 21 pages. Yet, the text reads like a novel, an adventure story tracing the rise and travels of a behemoth called the “Protestant Ethic” from its origins in the Reformation and invasion of America to especially its influence upon American sport. The most appropriate word for the style here is one central to religion and sports and that is “grace.” Further, humorous wisdom in the form of brief epigraphs before each section or chapter lightens an inevitable seriousness in discussions of money and religion. For instance, we see the following heading of a discussion about work and labor associated with the Protestant ethic:

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport by Steven J. Overman

Now I wake me up to work. I pray the lord I may not shirk. If I should die before the night, I pray the Lord my works’ all right. Amen. Jack London

The author is more like a companion than that in the metaphor used by Joyce, one who has finished a work and sits behind it paring his nails. Wisely, Overman makes sure the reader is involved in preparation of the journey. He does this by the use of “we,” not a royal “we” but a “we” of fellow seekers.

We can distill this comprehensive and occasionally redundant collection into a concise set of constructs that reflect the essence of the Protestant ethic. The following list compiled by the author is labeled the “Seven Protestant Virtues” (With Apologies to Thomas Aquinas) : (I) worldly asceticism (II) rationalization (III)  goal-directed behavior, (IV) achieved status, (V) Individualism (VI) work ethic, and (VII) time ethic.(57)

Overman points to the similarities between these “Seven Protestant Virtues” and “the seven characteristics of modern sport” identified by Allen Guttmann: “secularism, equality, rationalization, specialization, bureaucracy, quantified achievement, and record keeping–all indicative of its break from the sacred and festive . . . .Consistent with the secularization thesis, the focus of this book is not on sport as a form of religion but the ways in which modern sport reaffirms, reinforces, and disseminates values that have their origins in religion” (11-12).

All claims by Overman are supported by an abundance of research including elements of Calvinism as reflected in the title. The figure, though, who tied the reformation to capitalism was Max Weber (1864-1920) in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Overman,

Weber’s thesis about the relationship between the Protestant ethic and capitalism was born in his observations of differences in certain types of  social behavior among Protestants and Catholics in post-reformation Germany. He inquired as to what kind of historical processes would account for the fact that the Protestants sections of Germany were more industrialized, that they constituted a disproportionate number of the industrial affluent and that they were more likely to attend the types of schools that would equip them for business enterprises. These developments encompassed essential patterns for success under capitalism. . . .

Weber recognized the pivotal nature of Martin Luther’s idea of the calling, ultimately refined by the Calvinists. Weber focused. . . upon a code of ethics for the conduct of everyday life and a sanction that would compel the faithful to adhere to a set of ethical maxims.  This focus brought Weber to the central point of his thesis that the reformed Protestant belief in predestination manifesting itself in the performance of good works as the driving force behind the spirit of capitalism. Consistent with this notion, the individual Protestant expected to practice a type of inner-worldly rational asceticism in which meticulous attention must be paid to the affairs of everyday life as proof of election (i. e. personal salvation). (43) (Italics added)

A recurring formula throughout the Overman’s discussion of the Protestant ethic is that “success” opens the gate for salvation but included a fidelity to ethical maxims. Success, thus, entails not just money-making and recognition but service to others. It does not surprise that for Weber representative figures were Ben Franklin and John Wesley.

In subsequent sections of Part 1, Overman examines, among other topics, Protestantism and the American Work ethic and ethos, and in Part 2, entitled “The Spirit of Sport,” he focuses on “The Protestant Ethic and the Institutionalization of American Sport,” “Moral Ascetism,” and “the Rationalization of Sport,” “Child Rearing and Youth Sport in Protestant Culture,” “the Coopting of Amateur Sport,” and “Professional Sport: The Progeny of Capitalism” and “Finish Line: Summing up the Ethos of Sport.”

In the “Progeny of Capitalism,” Ben Franklin and John Wesley, “successful” in their chosen endeavors, stand in stark contrast to those who have “succeeded” in a different way.
When William Wrigley III sold the Cubs to the Tribune Company in 1981, it was the beginning of a new era. The Griffith family, who had purchased the Washington Senators in 1912 and still owned the team when it moved to Minneapolis in 1961, sold the twins to a banker in 1985. Peter O’Malley then sold the Los Angeles Dodgers to media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch in 1997. . . .The traditional owners whose emotional investment in the team meant as much as their financial investment had become an anachronism. They were gradually being replaced by brewers, bankers, business tycoons, and media moguls. (303)

The Protestant ethic does not prohibit making money but does not see that as an end in itself. Instead, it is a means of doing good for the whole of society apparently as advised by John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

From the 1960s onward, according to Overman, “Franchise owners increasingly were inclined to define success less by what occurred on the playing field than by ‘black ink.’ Winning, losing and playing the game seemed less important than counting the money.” The Protestant ethic, at its best, it seems, might be defined as capitalism with a conscience.

What has happened to the Protestant ethic in American Sport, or at least the “moneyfied” branch of it, may well be an example of Enantiodromia, the tendency of one quality or virtue to turn into its opposite. Heraclitus, it is believed, was the first to identify it and to regard it as a “law,” a key component of Jungian analysis. There is ample evidence that in regard to wealth this could be happening in America on a broad scale, possibly, because few have even heard of the phenomenon. After all, the ancients, as Mark Twain said, “stole all our ideas.”

Of all the terms and ideas that define the Protestant ethic, the word “success,” may the most fragile. It is not a coincidence that, according to Websters, it came into use in 1519. It shares meanings and interpretations with the word “excellence” (arete), “the same but different” (eadem sed aliter), Schopenhauer’s motto for history. Success depends on display in sport, government, warfare, and religion, the four “occupations” according to Thorstein Veblen, “of predatory cultures.” Excellence, in contrast, is a composite ideal, like strength and wisdom, sapientia et fortitudo, and its purpose is seeking, which accounts no doubt for its abundant use in Greek philosophy and scripture where “success” is barely mentioned.

Emerson inveighed against “success,” but, according to Charles W. Eliot, he was also the “founder of the cult of athletics.” William James went so far as to call “success” the “Bitch Goddess,” and Lewis Mumford wrote an essay called “Sport and the Bitch Goddess.” It appears as an example of what Emerson had in mind when he said “Much will have more,” especially true of victories, and often applied to holders of great wealth. How stands today the Protestant ethic? Each can judge.

Overman is well aware of these ironies and dangers and illustrates them throughout this remarkable study. In fact, he has done more research on the major motto of “success” than anyone I know about. See, for example, on the Internet, his article on the following: “‘Winning Isn’t Everything. It’s the Only Thing’: The Origin, Attributions and Influence of a Famous Football Quote.” You will be surprised who said it first and where–at the same university where a Phi Beta Kappa first baseman came up with a famous quatrain about the “One Great Scorer.”

The Protestant ethic, fraught with many possibilities, is completely ecumenical, more of a way than a denomination, and may surface in unsuspecting places. Knute Rockne, for example, was a Norse Protestant in a Catholic stronghold, a long, long way from the wars of the Reformation. Is this in itself a sign of progress? When, in 1969, Bob Neyland of Tennessee was elected by fellow coaches as “The Coach of the Century,” he was asked about the greatest influences upon his career. “Rockne,” he said, “and Army.”

In addition to depth and grace of expression, this book has scope, as recommended by E.M. Forster in his website called “Only Connect,” also the advice of Goethe and Aristotle and in our time by Leslie Fiedler who spoke of the failure to do so as “the endemic disease” of our time. In the manner of Veblen’s classic, Theory of the Leisure Class, but with a different approach, Overman is completely free of this “disease” of failure to connect. Indeed he connects “occupations” brilliantly and suggests without even saying so, that we might do ourselves some “good” by taking a hard look at all our institutions and how they relate, or maybe ought to relate, to one another.

For all these reasons, I do not hesitate to recommend this book for any prizes for which it might be eligible.

— Reviewed for ARETE by Robert J. Higgs, author of An Unholy Alliance : The Sacred And Modern Sports.  ARETE is a moderated e-mail discussion list hosted by The Sport Literature Association.

Book asks ‘Is God a Christian?’

Dr. Kirby Godsey’s latest book, Is God a Christian? was recently discussed in Bob Allen’s column on the Associated Baptist Press website:  His new book tackles the interfaith challenge and is being met with controversy similar to his 1996 book When We Talk About God…: Let’s Be Honest .

Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance and host of the State of Belief radio program interviewed Dr. Godsey on his July 9th program: “The reality is — as I talk about later in the book — God is not a Christian,” Godsey said in the radio interview. “God is not a Jew. God is not a Muslim. God is above all our religious gods.”

“There is literally a mountain of bad religion out there in the world,” Godsey said. “People are maiming and killing, destroying other human beings in the name of God and Allah and Yaweh, so I am concerned that religion is being used for unholy, even evil, purposes. We need to save religion, if you will, from the group of those that want to use it for evil purposes.”

“God is present and loves and accepts and embraces all people of the earth. We need to learn to do so as well.”

Is God a Christian?

Dr. Kirby Godsey

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