Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Reading--February 2009

For years I earned a significant part of my income – such as it was – by reviewing books. Reviewing assignments are harder to come by these days. Newspapers are running fewer reviews. Some papers have cut out their book review sections altogether. Not surprisingly, book sales themselves have plummeted lately, as the recession has deepened.

Still, I know nearly as many serious readers as I ever did, and somehow, through word of mouth and the tireless efforts of our beleaguered independent bookseller friends, good books are not going entirely unnoticed. I’ve read several recently, and discovered a few wonderful new writers, as well.

I just finished Matt Bondurant’s beautifully-written second novel, The Wettest County in the World. Bondurant’s book is based on the true story of his grandfather and two great uncles, who made their living running moonshine in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Bondurant handles the topics of family, community, and nature, all under stress, with great skill, and The Wettest County in the World is both entertaining and literary, in all the best senses.

Not far to the north of Bondurant’s backwoods haunts, in the hills of West Virginia, Lane Hollar wishes he were dealing with moonshiners. Instead, Hollar, the hard-shelled, appealingly misanthropic main character of Roger Alan Skipper’s marvelous second novel, The Baptism of Billy Bean, is trying to keep drug dealers out of his town and his grandson’s school. If you like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux as much as I do, you’ll love Lane. The Baptism of Billy Bean is a first-rate literary thriller, rooted as deeply in outback West Virginia as the ginseng Lane loves to dig when he isn’t defending his home and family by whatever means it takes.

Lately, I’ve discovered the superb Civil War-era fiction of Mississippi’s Howard Bahr. For my money, Bahr’s The Black Flower and The Year of Jubilo rate with The Killer Angels as the very best fiction about the human consequences of what my beloved Georgia son-in-law, the talented country songwriter John Williamson, likes to refer to in my presence as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Finally, do watch for Jim Lynch’s Border Songs and Jonathan Twingley’s The Badlands Saloon, both coming this summer. Lynch, who wrote The Highest Tide, has outdone even himself this time with a novel about a Washington state birder and savant who also just also happens to be a 6’ 8” Border Patrol agent with a gift for finding contraband and smugglers. The Badlands Saloon, for its part, is an endearing coming-of-age novel, with gorgeous, highly original illustrations by the author, set in North Dakota.

At least until the election of Barack Obama, I was terribly discouraged by America’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, use of torture and domestic spying, and runaway oligarchy that has brought our economy to the brink of ruin. But you know what? There’s some happy news, too. American writers, writing about distinctly American places, are every bit as good as ever. The five I’ve mentioned here in the Kingdom Journal are all deeply in touch with their unforgettable characters, the natural world, and the literary tradition in which they write.

Please check out, or better yet buy, some of these fine books. You won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.