Candice Millard writes thrilling and chilling history

by Ken Reynolds

Author Candice Millard earned a place on my book shelves with two fascinating books about American presidents. The first, River of Doubt, is an incredible journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River with Theodore Roosevelt. The second, Destiny of the Republic, is a more intricate tale of the brief presidency and early death of James A. Garfield.

Millard’s books read like novels. They are good examples of historical writing that cause readers to say, I wish history had been written like this when I was in school. Continue reading

Playing solitaire till dawn with a deck of fifty-one

by Ken Reynolds

Playing video games makes it easy to accomplish nothing, but playing them is still doing something. I try to resist video games, because time ceases to matter and inevitably I regret wasting it on an unrewarding activity. A few nights ago while I was engrossed in a session of computer solitaire Lew Dewitt and The Statler Brothers popped into my mind.

In the mid to late 1960s Statler was one of the most well-known names around Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia. Not because a lot of people were named Statler. There may have been none, but it was difficult to find anyone in our part of the Shenandoah Valley who did not claim to be a personal friend of at least one member of the Grammy Award winning Statler Brothers quartet. The claims may have been true. The singers were extraordinarily popular and exceptionally civic minded and reputedly were friendly and outgoing fellows. However, only two of them were brothers and none were named Statler. They chose the name from a tissue box in a hotel room. Continue reading

Thirteen American Arguments

Howard Fineman’s The Thirteen American Arguments

Review by Ken ReynoldsTurned Pages
Do Americans have an innate national need to argue? Howard Fineman, author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country, says we do. Fineman contends the founder’s design of our government left it to be refined and improved through an endless series of arguments. He believes voicing our differences sustains our national identity and makes us an ever-renewing nation.

Whether the national design was deliberate, or an inevitable result of the need to meld thirteen separate and disparate governments into one nation, he leaves for academics to debate. Fineman bases his premise on more than thirty years of observing, reporting and commenting on national politics. He says there are issues that, under our form of government, will not be resolved. Continue reading

Something Like a Walk

by Ken Reynolds

 When we moved to these mountains fifteen years ago we were newly retired and we both liked to hike. North Georgia had more trails than I could have walked even if the trail system had not grown longer every year and those same years had not wrought havoc on my ability to go up and down hill. I was a lot younger then. Martha has not aged.

Our dog often accompanied us on short walks and long hikes. But he also has gotten older and the years have taken a toll his ability to cover the distances we once did. Twice each day he demands an opportunity to sniff over what he sniffed over the last time he was outside, so we spend a lot of time in a small area. Whatever I once might have labeled our outings I can no longer call them hikes, or even long walks. I don’t hike anymore and I miss it.

There has been a lot of rain this year. Rainy days, achy knees and stiff fingers remind me how old I really am. Four rainy days in a row made getting out of bed this morning particularly difficult. But beyond our bedroom window sunlight beckoned, so I struggled to get myself upright, went through what Martha calls my pre-amble, then hobbled into the bathroom. Continue reading

No Fiction Pulitzer

The Pulitzer Prize Board did not select a fiction prize winner. Ann Patchett, author and bookstore owner eloquently expresses her disapproval of the board’s non-award. I recommend her April 17 N Y Times Op-Ed “And the Winner Isn’t . . .”

Patchett says, “Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.”

The author and Karen Hayes are co-owners of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Together they are demonstrating that physical bookstores are not of the past.

To read Patchett’s full column follow this link

A Not So Silent Night

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in Silent Night? Not With Us, extolls the “wall of talk” that characterizes his family’s holiday gatherings. Bruni makes it sound like a beautiful experience, and I feel confident that it is. There was a time when I enjoyed, and could follow the conversations that make up that wall of talk.

But Mr. Bruni, I hope you know the individuals in your family well enough truly to understand how each feels about all that talk. Waiting “for some slack between syllables—for little cracks in the great wall of talk” is nicely written, but it is frightening. Both my parent’s families talked, but rarely over someone else. I remember those times with deep-rooted joy—even my uncles’ arguments about Ford vs. Chevy.

We encouraged our children to talk and to listen. Our dinner table conversations often lasted hours. They are parents now, but each of them has told us how much those talking times mean to them.

My hearing has faded and the only conversations I still understand are one-on-one and small group. Your wall of talk is an impenetrable cacophony. When your family is next to mine in a restaurant I had much rather be somewhere else. You preclude what little enjoyment I might glean from the companions at my own table.

The relatives and friends who make the effort to be certain that I understand why everyone is laughing keep me clawing at that wall. I want to be part of it. Yes, there is great joy in talk, but I hope you know the joy listening can bring. There also is great joy in silence together.

Using Bookstores

One of my favorite authors, Richard Russo, generated a good discussion about Amazon vs. independent bookstores. Interesting, both for those who do not live near independent bookstores and those who do. Everyone who recognizes the value of browsing bookshelves and physically handling books will find food for thought in Russo’s article and the hundreds of followup comments from readers.  Amazon’s Jungle logic in New York Times Dec 13, 2011.

I use Amazon often. It is convenient –I don’t have to drive almost an hour to get to the nearest bookstore–  and comparatively inexpensive, but I still miss the physical store and use them whenever I reasonably can. I believe their disappearance is helping to make our society culturally weaker.