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Archive for October, 2015

Memoir Review – Milkweed Ladies

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

The Milk-Weed Ladies by Louise McNeill

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)


This year marks my 30th anniversary of working in public libraries.  The first 18 of those years I spent working in Michigan, where I came to know and love many Michigan authors.  There is something incredibly appealing about reading books written by people who can capture the essence of a place based on their own personal experience, and for that reason, I enjoyed reading local authors.  They were familiar with the things that I was familiar with.   They could describe Ann Arbor or Lake Huron or downtown Detroit, and I felt a flash of familiarity.

My first surprise upon moving to West Virginia was discovering how many authors claim West Virginia as their home; the second surprise was how many of these authors and their works I already knew and loved.  Pearl Buck, of course, but also Cynthia Rylant, Betsey Byars, and Denise Giardina, just to name a few.  However, I really felt as though I needed to read more local authors, people from Pocahontas County.  I felt that I could learn about West Virginia through the words of her native sons and daughters.

And the one name that kept coming up again and again was Louise McNeill. It was becoming more and more clear that reading Louise McNeill was my duty.  The only thing holding me back was...poetry.

I love the written word, and all kinds of literature, but I have to confess that poetry is at the bottom of my list.  I’ve never fully enjoyed poems.  I can’t explain it.  There are perhaps a handful of poems that really resonate with me, but for the most part, I have a hard time with them.

I was having a conversation with Dwight Diller a few weeks ago.  He told me that he too didn’t really like poetry, until he read Louise McNeill.  “But I read Louise, and I got it,” he told me.  That did it.  He must have been the 10th person to tell me to read Louise McNeill, and so after Dwight left, I marched over to the West Virginia section, and grabbed the first Louise McNeill book I saw, which happened to be The Milkweed Ladies.

Serendipity is defined as finding something of value, or something agreeable, when you’re not really looking for it.  And for me, The Milkweed Ladies is the most serendipitous book I’ve read all year.  For those of you who are familiar with McNeill’s work, you’ll know that her volumes of poetry include Gauley Mountain, Paradox Hill, and Elderberry Flood to name a few. You’ll also know that The Milkweed Ladies is not poetry at all, but a memoir of her early life on her family’s farm.  Louise gives us a taste of rural living; a life on a farm where everything revolves so closely around the seasons.  She paints the land and the people around her with wonderful, detailed clarity.  She tells us about the people she knew and loved, her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even those who had gone before, like Captain Jim, her grandfather, “the verse-writing, hard-set Rebel soldier who died right after I was born so we passed each other in the door.”  His wife, Granny Fanny, was an herb-gathering mountain woman whom Louise loved fiercely.  She described her as “not of this century; she was wild and running free…In her long black dress and black bonnet, she walked the hills of another time.”

But nothing remains the same, and Louise shows this in an understated way that left a lump in my throat.  She discusses the effect of timbering the land, how it affected the farm and her father and uncles:  “The change came slowly, and slowly a deep lament began to run through their stories: for the muddy, silted streams; the forest fires; the skid roads bleeding down the eroded hills; and the terrible waste of it all.”  Life was hard.  It was about survival, but Louise shows us such a beauty in the work, the struggle, the living.  And so, her memoir itself becomes a lament as we see the outside world invade Swago---in the form of lumberjacks and railroads, paved roads and war---and we mourn the loss, mourn the inevitable change along with her.

My first thought was that it was serendipitous that I grabbed a Louise McNeill book that wasn’t poetry.  But by the time I had finished this slim volume, I knew that it really was poetry; that I had just read an amazing love poem, dedicated to family, life, and West Virginia.  That was serendipity.  Thanks, Dwight, and all the others who urged me to read Louise McNeill.  I'm starting to get it.

*Google Dwight Diller and Louise McNeill for more information on these two amazing Pocahontas County, W.Va. natives.




Mystery Monday Review – Death Shall Overcome

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Death Shall Overcome by Emma Lathen


Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


A major firm throws Wall Street into a tizzy when it announces its plans to appoint a black millionaire to a seat on the stock exchange. At the reception for the prospective partner, an existing partner, an old-school racist, is poisoned. John Putnam Thatcher, the investment banker series hero of the series, must find the perp to prevent trouble on the Street.

I admit a topical book from 1966 is a hard sell in our year of 2015.

Heaven knows when we post-moderns read about race relations in our childhoods, we’re ever ready to cringe at inevitable outdated terms and attitudes, expressed by either the characters or the author. Mercifully, Lathen’s tone is serious – she assumes civil rights as a given. She describes the besieged black candidate as “a replica of a Wall Street financier with a dark skin.” Like other sons of old money, he gives, “the impression of integrity, reliability, and conservatism. A man of property at every point. In a happier era he might have been a Republican.” Lathen implies that only members of the lunatic fringe would oppose his candidacy and that their fussing and fighting interfere with the real business of Wall Street – spinning money.

Lathen satirizes black civil rights activists and their mouthpieces in the media. For limousine liberals, there is an NAACP rally and a banquet at Lincoln Center. There is a very funny march on Wall Street by the Colored Association of Shareholders (CASH). The march is led by black writer based on – well, I will let you guess:

Mr. Simpson, noted for his simpleminded and successful novels about an expatriate in Paris and his relationship with a sylphlike busboy, had the resonant voice of an actor and firm grip on the microphone thrust before him.

Gotta be James Baldwin – and that “simpleminded” burns. Giovanni’s Room, about a white American expat in Paris and his affair with an Italian bartender, was a lot of things, but it wasn’t simpleminded. But overall, genuinely cringe-worthy moments were avoided. Lathen comes off as the kind of Rockefeller Republican that Goldwater dismissed as “dimestore New Deal.”

Another anti-Lathen argument is that she scants the mystery side of things. The reveals are fairly routine. I defend Lathen with the contention that they are not interested in the mystery so much as the characters in milieu of American high finance. We see this milieu through the eyes of banker John Putnam Thatcher, who can laugh at the absurd aspects of the situations in which he finds himself while he stoically does his duty to his bank and his own integrity. The recurring characters are satisfying. Charlie Trinkam charms the birds from the trees, Everett Gabler plays the Doubting Thomas, and Tom Robichaux stands in as the epicure with impossibly gorgeous trophy wives. Even Thatcher’s secretary, Miss Corsa, has her moments while she disapproves, silently yet eloquently, of the jams Thatcher finds himself in that take him from his work.

So, readers that don’t mind period pieces will find satisfying characterization and witty dialogue in the Lathen mysteries. Her world view is dry and wry. And like Perry Mason is the lawyer we wish really existed, John Putnam Thatcher is the Wall Street magnifico we wish worked on Wall Street. Between 1962 and 1997 (when Latsis passed away), the Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, attorney-banker and economic analyst respectively, wrote as many as 24 novels featuring Thatcher’s adventures.



Fall Reflections…

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

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Dear Members,

It’s that time of year again…time for us to reflect on the joys of summer as we enter into the Fall season. The leaves are starting to turn, and there is color in the hills.  

I like to sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet that this time of year offers, to be able to take stock of things and really think. Then I remember a good book that I have read, and want to read it again.

My favorite book of all time is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. To read it and understand the hardships that people went through in that era, and to try to fathom the depth of the characters in a war-torn foreign country. It comes across to me as more of a philosophical piece that really makes you think. About yourself, your loved ones, acquaintances and also those people we don’t care for or want in our lives.

What book has inspired you? Made you think? Please share your opinions, ideas and inspirations with us by adding your comments below.

As we head into Fall, I hope that you are finding peace and joy in the love of reading as much as I do.

Happy Reading!

Richard and
The PaperBackSwap Teamleaves-1380638850kYZ



Audio Book Review – The Confession

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The Confession by John Grisham

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)


Recently, the debate over the death penalty in the United States has been getting more attention.  I hear it mentioned in the news regularly and politicians and citizens continue to argue over the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent for future crimes by others and the ability to rehabilitate offenders.  No matter how you feel about the issue, it can become a heated debate full of strong opinion.

During a recent work trip I listened to The Confession by John Grisham.  Donte Drumm, an African-American teen in Texas, is convicted and sentence to death for the kidnapping and murder of a white cheerleader from his school.  Drumm confessed to the crime (even though the victim’s body was never found) but insisted later at trial that it was a coerced confession given after hours of being interrogated and lied to by officers.   Drumm’s lawyer, Robbie Flak, continues to fight every angle to get Drumm’s conviction overturned.

Mere days before Drumm’s scheduled execution date Travis Boyette, a convicted sex offender, walks into a pastor’s office in Kansas and confesses to the murder of a Texas cheerleader years earlier.  Thus begins a bitter, often angry, frenzied attempt to get Boyette’s confession before the eyes of the court in order to save Drumm.

In listening to this audiobook, there were times I found myself gripping the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles were white.  The down-to-the-wire desperate rush of the story had my head swimming and my heart racing.  I think no matter what side of the death penalty debate you are on, this novel will make you think twice and contemplate whether what you believe is right or wrong.

I have already sent my audiobook of The Confession to another PBS swapper but if you’re interested in a fast-paced, gut-wrenching novel on justice (or the lack of), I encourage you to add this to your list.  The narration is excellent and the sheer thought-provoking nature of the novel is valuable.


Mystery Monday Review – Kill Now, Pay Later

Monday, October 12th, 2015

Kill Now, Pay Later by Robert Terrall


Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


Written in 1960, this is very much a guy’s PI mystery, given the drinking, hard-boiled dialogue and young women throwing themselves at the series hero Ben Gates. He is sent by an insurance company to guard the wedding presents at the swanky nuptials hosted by the president of a big pharma firm. Problem is, somebody drugs Ben’s coffee. He wakes up to find that his fellow PI has killed a robber who scared the matron of the house so badly that she dropped dead of a heart attack. Although nothing has gone missing, Gates’ professional reputation and livelihood are on the line.

The cops mock Gates’ claim about the drugged coffee. So he gets the rich papa and new widower as a client and starts an investigation into who was the insider that aided the robber. The story moves along at a brisk pace, with sometimes little breathers to give seductresses and hussies a try at handsome Gates. Buttons pop. Arms are extended. Duds are doffed. Also featured is standard material on the greed and amorality of the rich. One can tell hard-boiled pulpy stories originated in the anti-rich days of the Great Depression – and so did authors born in the Twenties whose families were adversely affected by the economic slump.

This private eye tale was reissued in 2007 by the publisher Hard Case Crime. Their mode of operation seems to be to choose the better or best of Fifties and Sixties writers such as Day Keene and Charles Williams. These books have first-person narration, hard-boiled dialogue, surprising twists, fast pacing, a minimum of violence, scantily-clad women, and rocking finales. Not great, not especially memorable, but enjoyable.



Non-Fiction Review – Beautiful Jim Key

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World’s Smartest Horse
by Mim E. Rivas

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo

I’ve been reading the novel “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell.  Now, you may or may not know that Black Beauty was published in England in 1877, and is the story of a beautiful, proud horse who leads a life filled with kindness and cruelty.  It’s told from the horse’s viewpoint and is a dramatic look into how horses were treated in the late 1800’s.  In fact, this novel was instrumental in changing people’s viewpoints about animal cruelty and really helped start the movement to create humane societies, first in Great Britain and then here in the U.S.

I mention this because I have a book I’d like to recommend  which tells the story of yet another horse that captured the hearts and imagination of millions of people.  The title is “Beautiful Jim Key: the lost history of a horse and a man who changed the world” by Mim Eichler Rivas.  This is a true story of a bit of lost Americana, and if you enjoyed the story of Seabiscuit, you will love the story of Beautiful Jim Key.

Dr. William Key was born a slave, a veteran of the Civil War, a self-taught veterinarian.  He took a scrawny, crippled bay colt and turned him into “one of the most heralded and beloved heroes of his day.”  Beautiful Jim Key was said to have an I.Q. equivalent to that of a sixth-grade child.  “Jim exploded onto the national scene in 1897 by demonstrating inexplicable abilities to read, write, spell, do mathematics, tell time, sort mail, cite Biblical passages, and even debate politics.”  [He was a Democrat, by the way, and told President William McKinley, the current Republican president, that he did NOT vote for him.]

Dr. Key believed in training animals with kindness and patience in a time when the norm was to treat animals as inanimate objects with no feelings, using force and intimidation to train them.  Beautiful Jim’s talents so impressed the public of his day that from 1897 until his death in 1912, he performed in expositions and world fairs to receptive, adoring crowds, smashing all box office records of the day.  His talents and his touching relationship with his master and trainer literally shifted public consciousness; animal welfare was suddenly an important topic throughout society.  In less than three years, over 300,000 children signed the Beautiful Jim Key Pledge, which stated “I promise always to be kind to animals.”  That number would swell to over half a million before Jim was through.

Rivas brings back to life a fascinating bit of our social and cultural history that was all but forgotten.  She shows us, with her words and with photographs, how one man and one remarkable horse did, in fact, change our world for the better.  Animals lovers everywhere will love the story of Beautiful Jim Key.




Mystery Monday Review – Champagne for One

Monday, October 5th, 2015

Champagne for One by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The plot is rather sillier than usual. PI Archie Goodwin is asked by a sick acquaintance to substitute for him at a dinner party held by a foundation for the aid of unwed mothers. Goodwin  lives with the gourmet PI Nero Wolfe but even Goodwin is impressed the rich food. He also appreciates that the girls are pretty and friendly. But one of the girls, Faith Usher, falls dead, perhaps at her own hand, because everybody has heard her suicidal ideation. Though put out that a crime has been committed right under his nose, Archie insists that the death is in fact murder one.

Inspector Cramer of the Homicide Bureau is unable to close the case because of Goodwin’s assertion. Thus, the pressure is on Goodwin and his boss Wolfe to investigate the crime. Luckily, a male rich guest at the banquet is concerned that his past indiscretions may be brought to light in the glare of a police investigation. So he hires Wolfe to get to the bottom of things.

Gathering all the suspects in Wolfe’s office takes some clumsy doing. Wolfe gets up on his high horse too often and seems detached, though the banter with Goodwin is pretty funny.

‘Yes, sir.’ 
‘Do I ever intrude in your private affairs?’ 
‘Yes, sir. Frequently. But you think you don’t, so go right ahead.” 

I give this one a qualified recommendation – fans will enjoy no matter what, novices may scratch their heads, wondering what the fuss is about Nero Wolfe.