Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Favorites Books Read in 2014

I normally don’t post a Best Books of the Year list because I so rarely read books that come out during a particular year.  I’m not much on reading whatever the big hyped book of the moment is (in fact, all the hype usually turns me against a book).  This year I read dozens of books and out of them only a handful were released this year.  But despite all of that I wanted to talk briefly about the books I loved reading this year…three of which were actually published in 2014…and also about the books that weren’t published this year but that I really loved reading. 

Favorite reads of the year that were published in 2014:

All the Light We Cannot See-Anthony Doerr.  So many trusted friends of mine loved this book so much that I caved in and picked it up, too.  I was quickly swallowed up by the world of WWII era occupied France and came to care deeply for all of the characters, but especially the main two:  Werner, a young German boy who gets swept up in the tide of Nazism and loses all of his dreams while sacrificing everything for a leader he doesn’t understand, and the lovely, strong, and defiant Marie-Laure, a young blind French girl who has to flee Paris with her beloved father to go a doomed walled city on the Brittany coast of France.  I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away the intricate and masterful plot but I will say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  I could not put it down.  Nor could I find one false note in the entire epic.

Long Man.  Amy Greene’s debut, Bloodroot, in 2011, ushered in a stark new talent in Southern literature, and her second novel is even better.  This is a novel with prose so lovely it threatens to rise up and take flight from the page.  Add to that a suspense-fueled plot people by characters you come to love and a vivid sense of place that allows you to luxuriate in the hills of East Tennessee.  This is the best Appalachian and Southern book of the year, to my mind, and definitely one of the best American novels of the year, too.

Lila.  Marilynne Robinson is one of my five favorite writers (along with Hardy, Lawrence, Cather, and Hurston) and I love each of her books (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home) in a deep way but I think that Lila may have touched me deeper—and more unexpectedly—than any of the others.  I found this novel very hard to get into.  It was slow-going for the first 75 pages or so, but then suddenly it bloomed in my hands and I began to see what Robinson was doing.  Told from the point of view of a young woman who has been through incredibly hard times, this novel is about the beauty found in not judging others, in the way our country thinks it understands poverty but does not at all.  Lila is about many, many things but most of all it is about a way of life that is gone forever and about maintaining dignity no matter what.  I thought it might never start but then I realized that I was in the middle of a meditative prayer.  I’m also adding this to my Favorites of All Time list.

Favorite reads of books that weren’t published this year but were read by me this year (parentheses denote when books were first published):

Ron Hansen is my new favorite writer.  He's probably best known for his novel The Assassination of Jessee James, which became a Brad Pitt film.  I read his books Exiles (2008) and Marietta in Ecstasy (1991) this year, although I have been hearing about them for ages.  Exiles is a novel about one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and centers on when he wrote one of his most famous poems, about a shipwreck that killed several nuns.  The novel also gives us insight into the nuns' lives.  Phenomenal. Mariette in Ecstasy is about an American nun who starts to experience stigmata in the early 1900s.  It is like a long poem.  Some of the most beautiful language I've ever read, and a plot that will keep you up into the wee hours, turning the pages.  

The Daylight Gate (2013).  Jeanette Winterson is one of the most inventive and wonderful writers I know of.  Her book Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is my all-time favorite memoir and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a modern classic.  Only Winterson could take the story of a witchhunt in the 1600s and make it so original, sensual, and completely readable. This novel was a big hit in England but never gained traction here, probably because its historical basis is so widely known there, but not here.  At any rate, a very fine and short read. 

I devoured Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), one of the most readable and beautiful novels I’ve ever read.  Completely original and inventive and moving and powerful.  READ IT.  I was so taken by that novel that I read two more of hers:  Case Histories (2004) and One Good Turn (2006).  Both of those are mysteries and thus very different from the more literary bent of Life After Life.  They didn’t touch me the way Life After Life did but they were hugely entertaining and very well-written page-turners.  I’m an Atkinson fan for life and can’t wait until the 2015 release of the companion novel to Life After Life, which is called A God in Ruin.

I am a slow reader and sometimes avoid long novels because of that.  I had toyed with the idea of reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009) ever since I got it when it was first published but something finally came over me to start it earlier this year.  From the first page on I never looked back and now would list it as my favorite book of hers.  She manages to seamlessly take us to Washington DC, the mountains of western North Carolina, and Mexico and making all of those locales vivid and knowable.  She also has created a completely memorable lead character and uses language more beautifully than she ever has before.  I think it’s a modern masterpiece. 

I had read, and loved, many of William Trevor’s short stories before but had not read any of his novels until this year, when I read Love and Summer.  I’ve continued to think about it ever since.  He is a master at creating a mood so that each time I opened the novel I fell under the spell of him, his characters, and the complete world of the small Irish village he created in the book.  I loved every word.

Honorable Mention:  The Good Lord Bird (2013) by James McBride was compulsively readable.  I structured my day around when I was going to be able to spend time with it.  The story of a young slave—disguised as a little girl—who is taken under the wing of the abolitionist John Brown is storytelling along the lines of Mark Twain, mixed with real historical events that keep you guessing even though you know the real outcomes.  The problem is that I think it fails in the third act where it becomes too tied to the historical details of the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  And I didn’t think it rang true that none of the ruffians encountered along the way tried to mess with the boy-disguised-as-a-girl except for a very handsy Frederick Douglass.  Despite those problems I still think it’s a real feat of storytelling.

There are many others I read this year (including the very enjoyable and light mysteries of Ann Cleeves, most of which are not published in America yet, but are the basis for the great British TV show “Vera,” which you can watch on Netflix;  the mysteries of Agatha Christie are never a disappointment; and I read every biography of Willa Cather I could get my hands on this year, as well as re-reading My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and many others of Cather’s) but these are the ones that stuck with me the most, in one way or another.  There’s so much great literature out there, just waiting for us. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Favorite Music of 2014

My top ten in alphabetical order:

The River and the Thread-Rosanne Cash's meditative travelogue of the South gets better with every listen.  

Self-titled-Hozier.  What a voice, what a songwriter.  His massive hit "Take Me To Church" was worn out this year but the album as a whole is a masterful debut and cements his place as one of the most important new artists out there today.  

Wildewoman-Lucius. My daughter introduced me to this band and I've been loving them ever since.  Seeing them live is wonderful but they're one of the rare duets who translate just as beautifully to recordings.  I love the 80s vibe mixed with soul and country.  Music that is joyous and poignant. 

Lost on the River-The New Basement Tapes.  A supergroup composed of Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and produced by T Bone Burnett, takes some of Dylan's best lost lyrics, adds to them, and ends up with one of the most beautiful albums in recent memory.  

American Middle Class-Angaleena Presley's (Pistol Annies) debut solo record could be the soundtrack for contemporary Appalachia.  It's that honest, that subversive, and that complex.  A completely original and uncompromising album from an artist who is ahead of her time.  Presley shines a light on the heart of modern rural life, exposing its joys, sorrows, hypocrisy, and everything in between.  

Self-titled-Parker Millsap.  I attended a concert of Millsap's in New York City where he opened for Patty Griffin. His set drew a five minute standing ovation from one of the toughest audiences in the world.  His music is keenly intelligent, moving, and singable.  

Fair Warning-The Rails.  This one hasn't been released in America yet, although it's a hit in England.  This duo (including Kami Thompson, daughter of Richard and Linda, sister of Teddy) not only has some of the best harmonies of recent memory but has also assembled an album full of longing and beauty.  I love every single song on this one.  You can get a free download of their song "Bonnie Portmore" (my favorite on the album) by going to www.therailsofficial.com

In the Lonley Hour-Sam Smith.  I'm not much of a sucker for pop albums but I was for this one.  

Lazeretto-Jack White.  The king of contemporary rock n roll has always loved country music and he has perfectly merged the two here.  If you ever have the chance to see him live, do it.  Amazing show.  

The Way I'm Livin'-Lee Ann Womack.  The country album of the decade.  Womack has that unmistakeable voice, that great knack for songcatching, and is a true class act.  Even if you're not a country fan, this is a record to put on repeat.  

Other favorite albums of the year, arranged alphabetically:

Tori Amos-Unrepentant Geraldines
Beck-Morning Phase
The Secret Sisters-Put Your Needle Down
First Aid Kit-Stay Gold
Hurray for the Riffraff-Small Town Heroes
Supernova-Ray LaMontagne
Lydia Loveless-Somewhere Else
Nickel Creek-A Dotted Line
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers-Hypnotic Eye
Linda Thompson-Won’t Be Long Now
Lucinda Williams-Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Singles, in no particular order

Call Me-St. Paul & the Broken Bones
The Devil Is All Around-Shovels and Rope
Take Me to Church-Hozier
Figure It Out-Royal Blood
Dontcha-The Internet.  This is a pretty perfect pop song.  Makes me want to dance.  
When I Get My Hands On You-The New Basement Tapes
Riptide-Vance Joy
Your Southern Heart-Rosanne Cash
Don’t Just Sit There-Lucius
Heart is a Drum-Beck.  One of his best songs, ever.  I can't get it out of my head.  
No Rest for the Wicked Lykke Li.  A haunting song.  
I Hate to See Your Heart Break-Paramore.  Maybe my favorite single of the year.  A perfectly written country-influence pop song by an underrated band.  
Left Hand Free-Alt-J.  So weird, so much fun, so catchy.  
Rude-Magic!-The catchiest song of the year, and one of the most fun, if not the most profound.  But beats most of what's at the top of the charts. 
Latch-Disclosure (with Sam Smith)
Always N Forever-The Orwells.  
Blue Collar Jane-The Strypes.  This band is big in Ireland.  I wish American teenagers could get excited about rock and roll that is this much fun.  

I hate it when I hear people say that there's no great music out there.  There is.  It's just not usually on the radio.  Dig deeper and find it.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Favorite Movies of 2014

Boyhood-Profoundly moving and incredibly real.  My favorite thing about it is that characters like this so rarely get featured in films—working class people doing their best to make it, parents who try their best and fail anyway, kids who are better than they might appear to be.  And the “trick” of it—following the same boy for twelve years of his life—is much more than a trick, managing to instead articulate what it means to grow and change and become one’s self.

Birdman, Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance-I was mesmerized by this movie from the first moment until the last, wondrous shot.  While giving us the illusion of one long continuous shot for almost two hours, it is more an experience than a film. Deep and thought-provoking without ever being pretentious. It is very funny, very moving, incredibly performed, beautifully-written, and I thought it was flawless filmmaking.  Phenomenal.

Calvary-Besides Birdman, this is the movie I have continued to think the most about.  Rooted by a beautiful performance by Brendan Gleeson, this film is also a harrowing look at contemporary Ireland, a country ravaged by banking and church scandals.  It is one of the most symbolic movies I’ve ever seen—so symbolic, in fact, that it took me awhile to figure out that each character was representative of a specific sin or facet of contemporary Ireland and not just a one-dimensional stereotype.  Not a perfect film but certainly a thought-provoking one, and those are my favorite kinds.

Chef-One of the most entertaining films I’ve ever seen.  I actually found myself smiling while watching it.  Characters we care about, great music, and—best of all—a plot that goes places we are not expecting.  This was the most unexpected treat of the year for me.

The Grand Budapest Hotel-My favorite Wes Anderson film is still Moonrise Kingdom but I really did love this one, too.  Pure fun, and surprisingly moving. 

Nightcrawler-I went into this film expecting it to be pretty run-of-the-mill but I found it exhilarating.  Gyllenhaal has said that he played this entire role thinking like “a hungry coyote” and it shows in a brilliant performance.  The scenes between him and Renee Russo (also great) are electric.  A thrilling car chase, real questions of ethics in a time when the media is becoming less and less moral.  This is not only a pulse-pounding film, but also an important one for our times. 

Ida-This was my favorite foreign film of the year, and it’s also the most visually stunning.  Shot in stark black and white, it’s the simple story of a Catholic nun in early 1960s Germany who is told a shocking family secret that sends her on a sad journey.  If quiet beauty is your thing, then check this out. Every single frame is like an amazing photograph.  

The Theory of Everything-I didn’t think this was a great film but the performances certainly are, and while the movie doesn’t do anything groundbreaking it also does everything pretty perfectly.  Eddie Redmayne is getting all the Oscar hype (and he should) but I thought Felicity Jones stole the movie from him in a much harder role.  His performance is completely physical but hers is all heart and soul. 

The Immigrant was the most underrated film of the year, showing up only on a handful of Best Of lists, but I thought it was lush and lovely filmmaking like we rarely see these days, a throwback to female-centered films of the 1930s.  Marion Cotillard is wonderful, as always, as an immigrant who finds herself in an impossible situation once she gets to America.  It’s the movie you may not have heard of on this list, and I encourage you to find it.  It’s already available on Netflix. 

The Babadook-I knew I wanted to see this movie as soon as the director of The Exorcist announced that it was the most frightening film he’d ever seen.  Pretty high praise from a horror master.  And while I don’t think it approaches the terror of my favorite horror movies like The Exorcist, The Descent, and The Conjuring, it is very, very scary.  But also very, very sad.  The mark of a true horror film is its sound design and this one has that in spades, with grinding teeth, creaking floorboards, whispers, and screams being equally frightening.  The ending becomes a little too heavy-handed in its symbolism, though. 

Blockbusters I loved: 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes-A somewhat conventional action movie, but with some real heart and audacious visual-storytelling.  This is one of my all-time favorite franchises. 

Mockingjay (Part One)-That scene where Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree” and the orchestra builds and then the masses begin to sing with her and storm the capitol—that’s one of the most powerful moments on film this year, and it gave me chills.  Mockingjay is a beautiful entertainment but it’s also about social justice, about the power of the people, and it seems especially relevant right now.

Interstellar was uneven (that whole sequence where he's behind the bookshelf is ridiculous...if the people of the future are so smart why do they have to leave a weird code that is impossible to figure out in the dust of a little girl's room?  Why is he still in his space suit in this sequence?) but full of some beautiful and surprising moments (and some overwrought ones, too). 

The Big Hit Film I Hated This Year: Gone Girl.  I thought it glorified (and eroticized) violence, made rural people look stupid (the dialect coach on this was way out of line), celebrated selfishness, and was a sad commentary on longterm relationships (they're not all that way, and I would say that very few of them are).  I felt it was incredibly manipulative and insulting and it troubled me that it was so embraced by mass audiences.  And come on, those twists were totally unbelievable.  

Big critical favorite that I liked but didn't love:  Belle

Letdowns: Rosewater (first half was thrilling, second half was every hostage TV movie I've ever seen), Locke (if you're going to put us in a car with one character for the entire movie you better make it really visually stimulating; it wasn't, even if his performance was).  

2014 movies I want to see but haven't yet:  Selma, Snowpiercer, Unbroken, Wild, Love is Strange, Pride, Under the Skin, Foxcatcher, The Skeleton Twins, Fury

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Magical Virtual Blog Tour, Or Something

A couple of weeks ago, I was recruited to participate in the Virtual Blog Tour that's been making the rounds on the interwebs in which i was to answer four questions.  Here's my contribution:

1. What are you currently working on?

I am doing a full revision on my sixth novel, Little Fire, which I thought I would have done a year ago.  I never could get it exactly the way I was hearing it in my own head and so I kept rewriting it until finally I think it does what I want it to do.  This is the most rewrites I've ever done on a novel, I believe, but probably because it's hugely thematic and covers a pretty big canvas although it takes place over a relatively short period of time (about two years).  It has three very distinct settings:  Middle Tennessee during the devastating 2010 flood, a road trip across the modern American South--a place of truck stops and dying towns, busy interstate exits and long stretches of nothing but hardcore gospel on the radio, of roadside memorials and old motels, of peaches stands and pinewoods--and finally, Key West, Florida.  It's a novel about parenthood, brotherhood, belief, doubt, equality, the way our nation can simultaneously evolve very quickly and very slowly on the same issue.  I am hoping it will be published in the next year or so.  I also have another novel all mapped out in my head.  It is actually set in New York City during WWI.  That may sound like a real departure for me but it's about a subject that is very near and dear to my heart and the characters are very similar in spirit and ways of being to the strong females in my early novels.  I'm also finishing up an Appalachian retelling of James Joyce's "The Dead" and working on a couple essays.  I always keep lots of different projects going at once.  I like to imagine my writing like a stove with four or five different things cooking and/or baking at once so that I'm moving from a skillet to a kettle, then checking the oven, then back to another pot that is boiling over.  This is probably why I never really experience writer's block.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm.  As for Little Fire, I think the main thing is that it is experimental in its language in a way that is new for me.  I'm playing with language and structure and memory a lot during the course of the novel.  My goal is to not only immerse you in the worlds of this novel through sense of place and characters but also by creating a feeling that you have when you hold the book in your hands.  And I'm mostly accomplishing that through language.  I think.  I hope.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I write to preserve ways of life and ways of being and to comment on all the wild, sweet, holy world around us in all of its ugliness and beauty.

4. How does your writing process work?

I think about projects for years before I ever put any real amount of words on the page.  During that thinking period I spend a lot of time getting to know all of my characters and looking at the world through their eyes.  I especially spend a lot of time with my main characters and experience things from their perspective.  For instance, if I'm writing a book in which a man kidnaps his own child then for a couple years I am on the lookout for a police officer to come into a restaurant where I'm eating, or I'm always thinking like someone who is on the run, I'm looking at the world through that lens.  When I begin to put words on the page I usually start out pretty sporadically and then at a certain point I set a firm deadline for myself and write at least three or four hours a day.  The book dictates when.  Some books like to be written late at night and some early in the morning.  I know that sounds crazy but for me the book dictates the best writing time for itself.  When I'm in the heat of writing I go on a lot of walks.  I spend a lot more time alone.  I never, ever read anything similar to what I'm writing but I do watch films that might be on a similar subject, and I actively seek out music and artwork and photographs that help me to create the world of the novel at hand. I think we must do everything in our power to make the novel happen. For me, other forms of art are integral to that.  So is nature.  I need woods when I'm writing.  I need creeks and birds and sky.  

The key to this blog tour is to keep it going, so here are the three writers I'm tagging:

Amy Greene is the author of the bestselling novels Bloodroot and Long Man.  She's also one of the best readers and writers I know.  

Cyn Kitchen was not only one of my students but is also one of my favorite short story writers.  She's the author of the lovely collection Ten Tongues.  

Graham Shelby writes beautiful personal essays and articles that I always love to read.  He's also a gifted storyteller and journalist.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why I'll Take "Happy Valley" over "True Detective" Any Day

Several trusted friends were adamant that I watch HBO’s series “True Detective” and I did, finding myself immediately pulled in by its atmospheric sense of place, lyrical writing, and powerful performances.  Much of “True Detective” was absolutely heart-pounding to watch, driven by haunting performances and nail-biting suspense.  I greatly appreciated the way it showcases rural people as being intelligent and possessing a strong work ethic (almost anytime a rural character is shown they are working, whether it be sweeping a porch or pulling in fishing nets—this in stark contrast to the way country people are usually shown on television, as shiftless and lazy). 

I loved watching it but I found myself increasingly troubled by some aspects of it throughout. I felt the show sometimes bordered on misogyny.  All of the women were either whores or saints (in fairness, the only real leading female character—whose role can be boiled down to “the wife”—eventually becomes a sort of combination of those two things, but that’s still only two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional) and sex scenes were often filmed in a way that gazed upon fresh-from-the-gym female bodies while largely scanning past male nudity and negating the fact that normal (read:  real) female bodies exist. 
By the end of the series I also found myself frustrated by how many of the plot twists never paid off.  One of the most mysterious and interesting strands of the show was that one of the detectives’ daughters seemed to have been exposed to sinister behavior (she poses her Barbies in situations similar to violent scenes we’ve witnessed in the show, etc.)  and the entire show we’re waiting to see how this plays a part.  But that is conveniently dropped.  In fact, the show is one false start after another that series creators wave away as maguffins, which are par for the course in mysteries.  However, when a mystery is just a series of plot devices leading nowhere then those maguffins quickly just become easy ways to purposely mislead the viewer with no pay-off.  There are many examples of this throughout the show.  And while the two male leads are endlessly fascinating and multi-layered, there’s that nagging problem with the female characters.  
            Ultimately, I left “True Detective” being incredibly impressed by the moodiness, the sense of place, the unforgettable imagery, the undeniably great performances, the truth about rural life, and the vivid, risk-taking writing.  “True Detective” achieves two things that very few shows can:  it is unforgettable and mesmerizing, leaving the viewer breathless.  The images and mythology stick with you and move you.  The problem is that I felt a little bit dirty and a whole lot cheated. 
            But there’s a new show on Netflix that possesses all the great qualities without the major problems of “True Detective”.  Happy Valley” is never titillating, gratuitous, or misogyinistic.  And all of the plot strands in “Happy Valley” come together to serve the whole. 
            Much has been made of the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in "True Detective" but they can't come anywhere close to the amazing Sarah Lancashire as the troubled cop Catherine in the lead of “Happy Valley”.  She is a marvel.  If you’re lucky you already know Lancashire from her roles in the wonderful British dramedy “Last Tango in Halifax” (also now available on Netflix after a run on PBS) and “The Paradise” (also available on PBS) or as the narrator of my all-time favorite show, “Lark Rise to Candleford”.  Hopefully “Happy Valley” will nab her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and get her the much deserved attention for which she is long overdue.
In a scene where Lancashire’s character is addled and coming out of anesthesia is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, equal parts funny and heartbreaking and—best of all—absolutely, completely real.  In fact, all of the performances are top-notch.  Siobhan Finneran (formerly the devious maid Mrs. O’Brien on “Downton Abbey”) is perfect as Catherine’s loving, recovering-heroin-addict sister.  James Norton’s psychopathic villain manages to give true complexity to a character that could have easily been played as simply mean and crazy.  There’s George Costigan as a father tortured by his daughter’s kidnapping, Charlie Murphy as the kidnapped daughter, and many, many others.  All of the characters are complex and memorable and richly-drawn. 
The fifth episode of the series showcases one of the most suspensefuly tense scenes I’ve ever seen on television—easily as remarkable as the much-celebrated long-shot drug-raid sequence on “True Detective”—with loads more compassionate emotion at play. As an American, it's especially compelling to watch a television show in which no one--not even the police officers--have guns.  Juxtapose that against scenes in "True Detective" where people are riddled with bullets and it's jarring.  In fact, in England, "Happy Valley" has been criticized for how violent it is.  The show certainly is gritty but when you compare it to American detective shows you see just how gratuitous American shows can be.  The violence in our shows is often almost erotic.  And that's gross.    
“Happy Valley”, like “True Detective” is also shot on location and uses its locale brilliantly.  The drug-ravaged beauty of the Yorkshire in Northern England’s “Happy Valley” is every bit as complicated and rich as the serial-killer-haunted swamps and small towns of southern Louisiana showcased in “True Detective,” but with “Happy Valley” we get inside the culture in a way that few shows are able to do.  We know its trailer parks and police department and restaurants and homes both rich and poor.  We get to know its minor characters and are told their stories through subtle, perfectly chosen details, such as when a rapist’s mother flinches when he makes a loud noise, letting us know that she has been one of his victims.  She is only on screen about five minutes total in the entire first season but we come to know her, care for her, and be angry at her and for her.   
            So why bother to compare these two? In many ways they're very different shows.  But in many others ways they are similar:  detectives who want to bring a mad man to justice, a vivid sense of place, perfect theme songs (Jake Bugg's "Trouble Town" on "Happy Valley" and the Handsome Family contributing "Far From Any Road" for "True Detective"), and rich characters. 

Throughout “Happy Valley” I’ve been reminded of “True Detective” because I think the former delivers on everything the latter promised but failed to do.  And because throughout I’ve been reminded of how much hype “True Detective” got for the very things that “Happy Valley” is actually doing correctly, but even better.  With “Happy Valley” we have a lead character that is ten times more interesting and complex than the two male leads of “True Detective” combined.  I’m not giving anything away to tell you that in the first three minutes of the show we learn that she has a dead daughter, a son who barely speaks to her, a grandchild she’s raising, an addict-sister who lives with her, and a high-stress job that she handles with grace and toughness.  That’s more characterization than we get in entire series with a lot of other shows and actually much more than we know about either of the main characters on “True Detective”.  We care about her in a way that we can never really come to feel for those two men on “True Detective”.  She’s tough as a pine knot without ever having to take on any kind of machismo.  She imperfect without ever being distasteful or hateable.  Although she has plenty of faults and makes huge mistakes, she doesn’t have to resort to being an anti-hero to avoid sentimentality because the writing is good enough to rise above all of that without a second thought.  In short, “Happy Valley” is smarter than “True Detective” but I don’t think it will ever receive the same recognition because it is not sensational enough for American taste.  It’s not titillating or gratuitous enough.  “True Detective” is brilliant; it’s just smart enough to make us feel smart, too.  But in the end it’s not as clever as it convinces us that it is.  “Happy Valley”, however, is.   The entire show’s plot strands come together beautifully.  It all adds up.  We’re not left with the dozens of questions that “True Detective” left us holding.
            In the end, I’m writing all of this not to put down “True Detective”—despite its faults I found it hugely entertaining but in retrospect I feel a little manipulated by it—but simply to encourage you to watch “Happy Valley” and to help the show and its amazing cast, certainly Sarah Lancashire, get the attention they so richly deserve for what has become one of my all-time favorite shows.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Matter Is You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About

There are two places in Southeastern Kentucky I think of as my true homes:  the small community of Lily, in the foothills of Laurel County, and, fifty miles east, Rockhouse Creek, in the lush mountains of Leslie County.  I will focus on Rockhouse here, mainly because it is the dark, lovely topography of my collective memory, but also because it is the epitome of Central Appalachia, the kind of place that journalists-who-don’t-know-what-they’re-talking-about always zoom in on with their statistics and opinions. In fact, Rockhouse is located just a few miles from the communities that were recently the focus of a piece called “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?” by Annie Lowrey in The New York Times that referred to Appalachia and the Deep South as “the smudge of the country.”
            Well, I am that smudge.  My people are that smudge.  My homeland is that smudge. And we are much, much more than that.  In fact, we would fight for that smudge.  Many of us have.  Many of us have lain down to be arrested for it (Beverly May, for one), have even risked violence (The Widow Combs, for one) and death (Hazel King, for one) for it. 
            I will be the first to admit that that article possessed statistics that cannot be denied.  But what good are statistics if the reporter using them does not acknowledge or use or even know the history surrounding them?  Statistics are only as good as their context.  I cannot imagine going into a country I do not know and having the audacity to write about it without knowing my facts, without having worked hard to understand the history of the place and its people, without having the ability to give the joys and sorrows of an entire culture historical context.  That is the matter with “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky.”

I went down home last night for a funeral.  I live less than an hour north of my home county in a wonderful town, but it’s not down home.  Down Home is where I’m from.  Down Home is my people.  Down Home is where my accent doesn’t announce me as an outsider, where gas stations offer soup beans and corn bread for sale, where folks sit in a circle in plastic lawn chairs to watch the cool of the day roll in after a long day of work.  It’s the place where coal trucks control the roads, where coal companies hand out coloring books to elementary students, where doctors push pills on people in pain, where high schools refuse to allow students to have gay-straight alliances or Young Democrats Clubs, where a small town passes a fairness ordinance to protect all people from discrimination, where most folks have the dry county blues, where hundreds of people work quietly for change. 
Down Home is a contradiction and a secret and a history waiting to be read.    
Down Home is a wound and a joy and a poem, a knot of complication that scholars and reporters have the audacity to assume they know with a little bit of research. 
But you cannot know a place without loving it and hating it and feeling everything in between. You cannot understand a complex people by only looking at data—something inside you has to crack to let in the light so your eyes and brain and heart can adjust properly.  
So I went back home, alone, on a summer’s evening cooled by a hurricane sliding up the Eastern seaboard.  I drove the parkway with my windows down and the mouth-watering smell of kudzu grapes trembling on the air.  There was also the scent of coal (it’s inescapable:  scattered along the side of the road from the constant coal trucks, dripping from the cliffs lining the highway, seeping its aroma out onto this world from so many hidden caves and graves and the air itself) and of grills in front yards, loaded down with pork chops or burgers, of the sandy creek-banks touched by cold water washing out of the mountains.
I get terribly sad when I go to Rockhouse, mostly because it’s a place of the past for me since nearly all of my family has had to leave there to find work in the next county over, or even farther away.  But a great deal of my grief is about the things the statistics reflect:  poverty, educational opportunity, health.  It would be irresponsible of me to deny that there are true problems in the region.
I’ll be honest with you:  sometimes I get frustrated and wonder why my people keep putting terrible representatives back in office.  But then I remind myself that voting is complicated in a region where extractive industry has such a stranglehold on everything from local churches and schools to county and state government. Appalachia is a country that has been in the clutches of big corporation propaganda since before propaganda became a marketing strategy on Madison Avenue.  And it’s a place where politics and religion are as tangled as a ball of fishing line that has been tossed into the depths of your tackle box and needed quickly:  very, very tangled.  As much as many of us think for ourselves, there is no denying that as a region many of us have fallen prey to that propaganda.  Keep telling people that coal is their only resource, toss in a free t-shirt, shut down the unions, get into the churches and schools...well, you see how this works.  
I’ll use myself as an example here.  Because of my outspokenness on the problems created by Big Coal I’ve been called a traitor to my own people.  I am proud to be from a coal mining family, but that pride comes from the hard work done by the miners, not an allegiance to the companies that became rich on their backs.  Nothing makes me sadder than when I see my own people being fiercely loyal to the corporations that have hurt us over and over.  In short, we’ve been convinced to vote against our own interests, but the reasons are not as simple as being brainwashed.  Once again, history matters here. 
The rise of the Tea Party has made the religious hold on the way people vote even more complex.  On my drive down home I heard radio ads talking about Obama’s War on Coal (read:  don’t vote for any progressives) and how “the liberal Kentucky agenda” wants to promote gay marriage and abortion (read:  don’t vote for any progressives).  Still, we cannot blame everything on coal and politicians and history.  We must claim some of the responsibilities for the problems in Eastern Kentucky while also acknowledging that we were put in this position by a long history of chronic poverty, control, and underinvestment.
            Mostly I get sad because once there I see how the media portrayals of my people have led to life being worse for us. If you tell people they are worthless long enough, some part of them begins to believe it.  Calling a place “a smudge” certainly doesn’t help.  And that sadness is always countered by an overwhelming pride when I witness the dignity and defiance of the Appalachian people.  We’ve had 200 years of history against us, but we keep going, we keep fighting back, we keep trying our best.  Not all of us, of course.  That would be a generalization as bad as saying we are all lazy.  But I can honestly say that most of the Appalachians I know try their best.  They work, they love, they fight, they have joys and sorrows and everything in between.  Because they’re people, just like everyone else.  They are not dots or checkboxes or digits in a statistics report. Yes, some of us don’t try or care hard enough.  Some of us are backward and ignorant and violent.  Because we’re human beings and some human beings turn out that way. 
            At that wake, I thought a whole lot about us being called “a smudge”.  The woman being mourned came from a family who had had it rough their whole lives, but she and her siblings had done their best to rise up out of that hard country and make good lives for themselves.  All of them worked.  Worked hard.  As waitresses and factory employees, as cashiers and lunch-room ladies and mechanics and coal miners.  It is tempting to gather some statistics about this reporter’s socio-economic background and then use that to judge her point of view, but that wouldn’t be classy—and it wouldn’t be accurate, since we’d also need to factor in historical and cultural context.  Yet that is what members of the media sometimes do to the people of Appalachia, base their theories on statistics while not taking history and culture into account. As an economics reporter for The New York Times, Lowrey needs to understand that great economic reporting should be about more than statistics.  Much more, like history and culture.  Especially when reporting on a region like Appalachia that has historically been a sacrificial ground for the rest of the nation.  Especially when reporting on a place that has given up its land, timber, natural gas, coal, young people, and many other natural resources throughout the history of this country. 
A reporter like Lowrey should know that Appalachia has been pushed down again and again throughout our nation’s history.  During the period after the Civil War, many mountain counties in Southern Appalachian states were punished because of their lack of loyalty to the Confederacy.  This resulted in politicians not providing those mountain counties with funding for bridges, roads, and schools until extractive industry demanded those things. 
Once that happened, the roads were still not maintained properly and Appalachian taxpayers had to pay for the constant damage done by the heavy trucks of huge companies.  The lack of educational opportunity caused many great minds in the region to be held back. 
Appalachia became a place controlled by big out-of-state (or even out-of-the-country) companies and the local elite (who were controlled by the big companies).  Once a place is identified as a source for great natural resources it is in the interest of the corporations and the government to keep the people under their thumbs.  People are the overburden in the way of extracting those resources, as Beverly May once pointed out.  And one way to control the people is to have a deliberate lack of investment in the region, consciously keeping out other forms of economic opportunity.  Neglecting the infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools, and health facilities is another convenient way to keep the people in check. 
This probably sounds like conspiracy theories to those unfamiliar with Appalachian history. But for those of us who have lived here all our lives and have devoted our lives to studying the region, we know that there is historical context to chronic poverty and other factors that make this place easy to identify as the hardest place to live in the nation. 
            The thing is, it is hard to live in Appalachia, especially in Southeastern Kentucky.  The statistics exhibit some proof of that.  The economy is not good.  The environment is being devastated.  Many places throughout the region are food deserts.  There’s a reason I had to move an hour away, after all.  The problem with “What's the Matter With Eastern Kentucky” is that the reporter thinks of the people and the place she is writing about as “a smudge.”  Not as a place where the history and culture matter.  And that’s what’s the matter with the article.
            This isn’t the first time Lowrey has written about the region although earlier pieces did not receive the same amount of attention.  On the whole her writing is respectful of the region.  There is no malice or even prejudice present (except for calling the region “a smudge”—come on now, that’s just rude and sniffs of classism).  There is not evidence of her relying on stereotypes.  Always in her reporting she relies on the hard facts.  If anything, reading many of her pieces reveals that she has a formula for reporting, delivered in well-constructed and unexciting sentences.  None of my words are meant as an attack on this young reporter.  Yes, I was insulted by a couple of her phrases, but overall I am responding simply because so often people need to be educated about this region.  I do not mean to imply that Lowrey is bad or mean, but simply uninformed.  So often that is the problem with most things. 
I’ve heard many people citing the problem with the article being that once again The New York Times and the media elite has shown its bias against rural America.  Well, that’s just simplifying the matter.  The Times consistently publishes writers from the region who talk about the problems here in a complex way. Just recently they’ve featured great editorials from important Appalachian voices like Amy Clark, Amy Greene, Jason Howard, Maurice Manning and many others. In fact, sometimes The New York Times reports on the issues in the region when our own newspapers will not; they have certainly covered environmental issues of the region more thoroughly. Many of the editors at the Times are Appalachian or Southern themselves and work hard to make sure that the paper looks at the region in a complex way.  In the case of this article, someone should have used a keener eye.  
  My point here is, once again, that to properly examine quality of life in the region, one needs to do more than look at data.  I do not mean that only Appalachians can write about Appalachia.  But I do mean that anyone who is attempting to write about it must become immersed in a special kind of way.  Appalachia is the kind of place everyone thinks they understand but very few actually do, and that’s mostly because they haven’t taken the time to educate themselves properly. 
One must go to a place like Rockhouse, to drive these winding roads.  One must sit and jaw for awhile with folks on their front porches, to attend weddings and high school graduations. One must study the history of the place and come to understand it, must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people, the calluses on their hands, understand the gestational and generational complexities of poverty and pride and culture.  One must stand for awhile outside the funeral home and smell the air, study the gravestones out back that await the inscriptions of names belonging to people, not statistics. 
            Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re talking about.  

Silas House is the author of six novels, one book of creative nonfiction, and three plays.  He is the NEH Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College.  www.silashouse.org


For a better understanding of the history of Appalachia please consult Ron Eller's book Uneven Ground.  

The author of "What's the Matter With Eastern Kentucky," Annie Lowrey, left The New York Times just before her article was published and is now at New York Magazine

This essay and photographs are ©2014, Silas House.