Saturday, July 28, 2018

Book Review: The Caudills of the Cumberlands: Anne's Story of Life with Harry

The Caudills of the Cumberlands: Anne's Story of Life with Harry by Terry Cummins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harry Caudill deserves a great deal of credit for what little progress has been made in Southeastern Kentucky. He helped to establish some of the states first major strip-mining laws, which he fought long and hard for back during a time when taking such a stand was a lonely and dangerous business. His leadership was instrumental in bringing about school consolidation, the severance tax on coal, reclamation of strip-mined lands, and he even helped pass legislation making it legal for health departments to distribute contraceptives.
As one might suspect however Caudill was not universally popular, nor is he now. He is still praised by some and castigated by others, and that condition remains unchanged.
A more enlightened community would honor a man like Caudill as one of its finest citizens; but then, a more enlightened community would not have been so in need of his kind of exceptional public service.
David McCullough, in a piece for American Heritage magazine, shortly after publication of Harry’s groundbreaking book Night Comes to the Cumberland’s, wrote of Caudill, “About the worst thing anyone can say about him is that he gets “overemotional,” a term one hears used frequently against conservationists. Others say Caudill is a little sloppy with facts. Even Anne Caudill allows that “research has never been our line.” But Loyal Jones, who is the executive director of the Council of the Southern Mountains at Berea, Kentucky, and who knows Appalachia and its problems about as well as anyone, says, “To criticize Harry Caudill on accuracy is about like saying that Thomas Wolfe’s portrait of his mother was not precisely accurate. Harry speaks to sway people and to get at a kind of truth that is beyond facts and figures.”
He goes on to recount an experience he had while in Whitesburg doing research for the same article, “One afternoon last summer, when I was taking a photograph of Gish and Bethell in front of the paper’s office on Main Street, a burly strip-mine operator who happened to be standing nearby got so infuriated over what I was doing that he did what he could to ruin the picture, standing directly in the way and shouting in my face, “We don’t want any more of you goddamn outsiders coming around here giving this county a bad name.” The idea that strip mining itself might give the county a bad name, or that most strip miners are themselves “outsiders,” had apparently not entered his mind.”
Wendell Berry, Kentucky author and poet and a great admirer of Caudill’s, is convinced that the logic of such men is corroded by the jargon of free enterprise—”as if,” he says, “the freedom of free enterprise implied freedom from moral responsibility.” “Just imagine this,” he says. “If those three men who went to the moon had started to befoul their spacecraft, if they had begun to tear it apart and fill it with all manner of filth, we would say they had gone mad. But here we are on this planet, this huge space ship, befouling it, ripping it asunder, and nobody seems to say very much about that. Nobody seems to care.”
Harry Caudill killed himself with a gunshot to the head in November of 1990, faced with an advancing case of Parkinson's disease. He took his life in full view of his beloved Pine Mountain. He loved the mountains and he loved his wife and he couldn’t stand the thoughts of becoming a burden to her. That’s not what love is.
Anne’s recollection of Harry’s death and his ultimate decision to end his own life forced me to consider the amount of courage it must have taken for Anne to accept Harry’s decision and forgo any medical intervention that may have saved his life. It’s a courage that I don’t know if I would be able to summon myself if I was ever called upon to do so.
Anne Caudill was a steadfast presence in Harry’s life and Anne’s firm resolve shines through in this wonderful biography of a marriage and of a life spent living well together and intentionally.
The Caudills of the Cumberlands is a book that feels like it’s trying to be more than a book. It’s trying to capture a lifetime. It’s a patchwork of interviews and stories and local history, all woven together in an attempt to form one complete, coherent narrative. It’s essentially one long transcription, often repetitive, and while I won't say this book was eloquently written it was respectfully written and did provide what I had hoped it would, which was a glimpse into the life of Anne and Harry and the times in which they lived.
Two days before his death, Whitesburg’s Mountain Eagle published an article in which Harry urged the people of the county to insist that the great corporations that had robbed their county contribute to the public library system there. That plea brought $1,000 as a personal contribution from one coal company owner who was himself a Kentuckian.
Al Smith, a noted journalist and TV host, during a dedication speech for the new Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library said, “We know that night comes to the Cumberlands, but here was a life that inspired us to search for the dawn. The very idea of a better Appalachia was his legacy to us.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book Review: Eaters of the Dead

Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a note at the end of this book Crichton explains that the origins of this novel originate from an argument, with a friend and lecturer, who believed that several of the old classical texts he taught were utterly laborious and only continued to be read by academics simply because they were viewed as “crucial to Western civilization.” One of the stories mentioned in this argument was the epic poem Beowulf, which Crichton defended and decided to turn into a novel, which he claimed could still sell and be enjoyed by a modern audience.
The novel is set in the 10th century and the Caliph of Baghdad, Al-Muqtadir, has sent his ambassador, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, to the king of the Volga Bulgars. He never arrives. Instead our protagonist is conscripted by a group of Vikings to take part in a hero's quest to the north.
Ahmad ibn Fadlan is taken along as the thirteenth member of their group to satisfy a soothsayer's requirements for victory. There they must battle with the 'mist-monsters', or 'Wendol', a tribe of vicious savages, suggested by the narrator to have possibly been the remnants of a lost Neanderthal tribe, who go to battle wearing bear skins.
The first three chapters are a retelling of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's personal account of his actual journey north and his experiences with the Vikings. The remainder is based upon the classical Scandinavian myth of Beowulf.
While not viewed purely as a modern retelling, Eaters of the Dead and Beowulf do share many similarities. In each, a king turns to a hero from a far away land to help kill a monster that is threatening his kingdom. Both heroes must undertake a great battle and ultimately defeat their enemies. But the heroes in the end suffer fatal wounds as a result of their heroic deeds.
Crichton goes to great lengths to make Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s account seem realistic, including using an actual historical figure to ground the entire narrative, adding pedantic and fictitious footnotes, and using an outsider’s manuscript, serves to provide us with more insight into the Viking world as the narrator is observing and explaining the things he sees in a way that a native wouldn’t be able to.
Symbolists believe that art should represent absolute truths that can only be described indirectly. Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences.
Julia Kristeva has theorized that in order to be initiated into the symbolic order one has to submit to masculine functions and say farewell to the feminized pre-Oedipal space of the mother-child bond.
In Beowulf, the second monster the hero must fight is Grendel’s mother. A direct parallel to this she-beast is the “mother of the Wendol,” a cannibal woman who is worshipped by the rest of the tribe. Many critics underestimate how frightening this mother actually is. Like Grendel’s mother, she is a vicious, somewhat masculine female, and she is made all the more horrifying by the fact that the role of motherhood has been distorted into something sinister.
Through the worship of the female mother, the Wendol are left barbaric and uncivilized, while the Northmen, who have pushed the maternal away, have evolved into more refined civilians.
This process of separation is known as abjection, whereby the individual must reject and move away from the mother in order to enter into the world of language, culture, and meaning.
The story also suggests that perhaps this monstrous woman is perceived as monstrous simply because of the deformation of gender and motherhood roles that she represents, and that perhaps the description of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf as a “monster-woman,” “she-wolf,” and “water-witch” is simply an exaggeration of the fears of masculine characteristics and violence in a woman. There is even a point in which Beowulf refers to Grendel’s mother as a “he.” This shows that he either wasn’t sure of the creature’s gender due to physical form, or that he couldn’t conceive of a creature as violent as she was a woman, let alone a mother.
What the Eaters of the Dead shows us is that myths such as Beowulf could have very easily of been a true story, and that the monsters and mythical beings portrayed in this epic tale could have been, in actuality, the exaggerated terrors of the people who feared what they didn’t understand.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book Review: God's Faithful Servant

God's Faithful Servant by Kristi Dixon
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A quiet drive along any winding county road in the heart of Southeastern Kentucky will showcase some fascinating and unusual denominational church names. Yet, if there ever was a faith that personified what
Appalachian religion truly is, I think it would be that of the Old Regular Baptist Church.
I.D. Back was one of the only men I ever heard my grandmother, on my fathers side, speak approvingly of, present company in included. I’ve been trying to recall an instance where she may have spoken admirably or respectfully of anyone else but I’m drawing a blank. This little anecdote alone should tell you everything you need to know about the man, assuming you happen to know my grandmother, at least it does for me.
This biography suffers principally from a severe case of hero worship. It’s clearly written with a target audience in mind and I’m discernibly not a part of that community.
This was a 4th edition proof, signed by the author herself, and was riddled with errors. I can only assume that later editions have a lot of these mistakes corrected. In addition the author switches perspectives a lot from first person to third person narration which I found, quite frankly, exhausting. Her voice wasn’t authoritative or compelling in anyway, which is probably, I’m hoping, due to the inexperience of the author and not due simply to an absence of talent.
I don’t ever remember actually meeting I.D. Back. The likelihood that I did is pretty great, I just can’t recall any particular introduction. But I do remember seeing him fairly regularly every Sunday morning as my mother dragged us to church every weekend when we were younger.
I remember “Church” as a terrifying place. It scared me, I hated it and I eventually stopped going altogether once I reached a certain age and had a say in the matter.
Without exception almost every sermon shouted from the pulpit conveyed the same message, reiterated over and over again every week, that the “world was about to end and you needed to save yourself” before it happened, which caused me to have a lot anxiety towards the future. I used to mourn the loss of my future and the fact that I wouldn’t get to experience or attain anything in life simply because the world wouldn’t last long enough for me to do so.
I remember a recurring dream where my brother and I were playing outside when suddenly an angel descends out of heaven with a flaming sword warning us that our fun must now come to an end. It kept me up most nights. But I have never spoken about it until now.
It felt like we entered an alternate universe every Sunday and for essentially two hours we existed in a fantasy space where anything could happen and everything was possible and then once it ended and we began to exit the Church, usually through the side door leading into the kitchen at Cedar Grove, I always felt a kind of relief walking back to the car, back into the world, back into our lives, back to where things made sense to me. Going to church felt life denying in a way that wasn’t readily understood at the time.
The experience of attending “Church,” or religion more broadly, has never given me any comfort, no matter how hard I prayed that it would. For a long time I thought I was damned because God never spoke to me.
So you’ll have to forgive me for not having the same kind of admiration for a man, that many in the community had, and many still do, who was part of a belief system, and did his part in spreading it, that caused me to lay awake at night worrying about things no child should have to worry about.
I can respect the man, just not his religion.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Book Review: The Undercover Edge: Find Your Hidden Strengths, Learn to Adapt, and Build the Confidence to Win Life’s Game

The Undercover Edge: Find Your Hidden Strengths, Learn to Adapt, and Build the Confidence to Win Life’s Game by Derrick Levasseur
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been a fan of Derrick Levasseur since watching him masterfully take control of, and then ultimately win, Big Brother 16. So as soon as I heard that he had a book in the works I knew I had to read it.
In The Undercover Edge, Derrick shares his personal mindset surrounding human behavior and motivation.
During his stint on the televised social experiment known as Big Brother, Derrick demonstrated, in front of millions, the same techniques he outlines in the book and how they can help you achieve you’re goals in similar social situations.
People’s behaviors are generally shaped by the interactions of personality and situation and when we talk about other people’s behavior we gain some perspective on how others in our social network feel about that behavior and learn what is and is not acceptable, which is adaptive to fitting in.
Derrick also talks about how to effectively listen to others and how to observe their body language while doing so. He also gives leadership and management advice and even covers visualization techniques, growing through adversity, and the importance of having good mentors in your life.
As a student of psychology I’ve always been fascinated by social interactions, what makes someone like-able? What makes people tick? etc. and it frustrates me greatly to hear people dismiss Big Brother as mindless trash.
The appeal of Big Brother is that it serves a therapeutic function for, us, the viewers.
We all have needs that must be met, i.e. the need for acceptance, the need to achieve our goals, to belong, and our own self-interest. The show dramatize’s these tensions for us, which is the tensions between competing needs. So there is a cathartic, therapeutic function for viewers who must also struggle to balance these needs in their own lives.
We get to observe individuals from a vast range of backgrounds come together in a patchwork of culture, values and beliefs, subsequently resulting in an inevitable clash of personalities and moral codes.
Every year houseguests fill a series of reoccurring roles, or archetypes, for us, e.g. we procure an ‘alpha’, a ‘villain’, a ‘mother’ and various other positions that are often reflective of our real life environments. Big Brother allows us to understand how and why these roles are formed and what exactly these roles require.
To put it another way the show externalities anxieties about rejection and exclusion and thus gives public expression to an uneasiness that is often experienced as privately shameful. Which is what also allows viewers to identify with those same on screen personalities.
The social maneuvering that takes place throughout the game, and in-particular prior to voting, is used to help identify who the social outcasts are for any given week. In other words, it creates social isolation as a way to assess threats to the dominant alliance. Once this isolation has been established those who have been ostracized will be easier to control, as the excluded will have then lost self-determination, meaning, they will have no say as to when, or if, they will ever be included again. Big Brother explores the effects of this isolation, and various other social pressures, and how they come to influence social environments.
It’s hard for me to differentiate this book from an endearing letter to an old friend giving them advice when their life seems to be falling apart and a simple self-help manual. Derrick comes across as a very genuine guy, which is rare, especially in the reality television world. It’s also an easy read, clocking in at about 248 pages, and although he relies a little too heavily on the self help-lingo, which makes him seem gimmicky, the book still remains resolutely inspiring.
It is always wise in Big Brother, as well as in life outside the game, to seek first to understand, then react. If you take nothing else away from the book but this, then your already ahead of the game.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Book Review: Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Real writing, will tear your guts out.
At the age of 25, Nunez, a recent Columbia graduate, came to work alongside Sontag as her secretary. Within weeks she had started dating Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and within months she had joined the two in their apartment on the Upper West Side.
It was a very unconventional arrangement, as many people, they’re friends included, commented, but as Sontag quipped, “Who says we have to live like everyone else?”
With simple and yet devastating clarity, Nunez lays out for us how an intense influence can be as deforming to a person as it is enlightening.
Nobody becomes a writer, or wants to become a writer, because they have a fulfilling, stable, or conventional, life.
Hardwick used to tell her Barnard students that you had to be really bored with life to become a writer.
Which begs the question, am I drawn to the written word because I was, or am, essentially a lonely, perhaps even a depressed, person?
I don’t know. The only real answer I have to this question is that growing up my mind was dominated with one obsessional disposition, that I didn’t want to grow up and tolerate a life that everyone thinks they’re supposed to.
Walter Dean Myers said that when he “began to read, he began to exist.” It was the same for me.
Which is also why, for the most part, I didn’t bother to excel at school. Most of my education took place after class, where I escaped into a world of books. I watered my mind with them and soon I had a garden.
My first feeling about everything I write is that it’s shit, but the real hell of it is is that if you aren’t regularly tormented by self-doubt, your work probably is shit. A sense of failure clings to you like widows weeds.
The question you have to ask yourself is whether what you’re writing is necessary.
Writing should be a cudgel wielded to chase away the marauders who would choose to burn down the precious things of the human heart. But words still count. They still break hearts, and they still heal. They still matter.
But as a rule, every writer would probably be better off doing something else, almost anything else.
The only thing I know for sure about writing is that people who write drink bourbon and sit around in bars using words like, "servile.”
Writing is an unnatural act, and it takes great skill to make it sound natural. Writing is like a secret you don’t want to tell but want everyone to know.
I have always felt that my interests and pursuits were never recognized as meaningful to my family and friends. That was the sense I generally had. It almost felt like contempt.
I don’t know what I did to be so hated. If it was just being myself, then I guess that’s just the price I had to pay.
But in the end, none of it matters anyway, what happens to you in life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Book Review: The Long Hard Road Out of Hell

The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marilyn Manson’s 1998 autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, is notable for two reasons. For one, it was co-authored by Neil Strauss, his first foray into rock star hagiography, and two because, and despite this fact, the book is actually really enjoyable and highly relateable in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
It vividly chronicles Manson's rise to fame at the price of his humanity and his descent through the circles of Dante's Inferno: Lust, Violence and Treachery.
His story is illustrated with dozens of previously unpublished photographs and features legal documents of claims made by the American Family Association about his shows, that were later proven to be false. It even includes some of his journalism works, including an article about a dominatrix he interviewed for the 25th Parallel. Following on from the main body of this fractured fairy tale, the remaining portion transitions into a journal of the band’s touring, with stories and events detailed with the same audacious approach as the rest of the book.
“My grandfather had been the ugliest, darkest, foulest, most depraved figure of my childhood, more beast than human, and I had grown up to be him, locked in the basement with my secrets as the rest of the family reveled in the petty and ordinary upstairs.”
Manson’s grandfather had a massive influence on the man he would later become. Manson and his cousin discovered their grandfather’s basement and its secrets at an early age and it became for them a place of both fear and fascination. His grandfather kept an arcane collection of hardcore pornography, and cross-dressing wigs and dresses. During one of the opening scenes Manson recounts watching his grandfather masturbate to photos of bestiality and sadomasochism. His grandfathers sexual fetishes embraced every conceivable preference.
“Occasionally, something will happen that will change your opinion of someone irrevocably, that will shatter the ideal you’ve built up around a person and force you to see them for the fallible and human creature they really are.”
I myself have had similar experiences with finding abstruse pornography stashed away at a relatives house, either in a drawer or hidden on a closet shelf, or in a cabinet, and it’s very disconcerting when it happens. Mostly because no one generally wants to view anyone in their family as a sexual creature, especially if they are above a certain age and especially if they have hardcore inveterate predilections.
For me, and later my brother, our “basement” subsisted in our Uncles workshop where an untold amount of pornography was discovered and subsequently consumed.
“As a child, you accept whatever happens in your family as normal. But when puberty hits, the pendulum swings in the other direction, and acceptance turns into resentment.”
I myself can attest to the truthfulness of such a sentiment. Only until fairly recently, after telling my wife haphazardly about things that occurred in my childhood, and then judging her reaction to those stories, did I find out that the things I took as normal at the time were in fact highly unusual and not common to everyone in the least. For example we, my brother and I, used to have to color our fathers toenails with a crayon of our choosing, the color didn’t matter, and then, taking a Q-tip dipped in a cup of water, rub the coloring off of his feet letting the water run between his toes.
Now that I view this experience from an outsiders perspective I can’t see how I ever thought it was normal to begin with and I certainly can’t comprehend why I would ever consent to such a request.
Manson speaks quite openly about his life and philosophies and his thoughts on a number of controversial and affectional subjects. Homosexuality, self-mutilation, love, sex, drugs, hatred, consumerism, vanity, religion and ‘the-American-way-of-life’ all come under his purview.
Manson does however come across at times as pretentious in a way reminiscent of some stereotypical angst ridden adolescent. Although with the pessimism of today it’s hard to tell if someone is being truly authentic or simply hiding behind a mask of detachment and inauthenticity for the sake of persona.
Most of what he says is really no different than the shit brooding teenagers, myself once included, usually say before maturing past the age of fourteen. But again, I couldn’t put the book down.