Six New Favorites for Your Spring Reading List

A collaborative piece written by Maureen Halsema, Julie Johnson, Sarah Vig, Jamie Goodman, JW Randolph and Jeff Deal

As snow piled up in the mountains this past winter, we realized one book review would simply not suffice. Here are a few Appalachian reads that kept us warm through the long winter months.

White Blazes

Stephen Otis and Colin Roberts’ “A Road More or Less Traveled: Madcap Adventures Along the Appalachian Trail” ($17.99, Sunnygold Books), is written to the rhythm of the trail.

A new chapter begins each time our authors—who are referred to only by their trail names, Futureman and Applejack,—cross a state line.

The true stories and adventures detailed in their novel are written in a tone reminiscent of a trail journal that one would find in a shelter along the white-blazed wilderness route.

The reader feels as though they have taken each haphazard step along the over 2,100-mile path from Khatadin, Maine to Springer, Ga., with their two pals guiding them through each strange adventure and tangential conversation that crops up along the way.

It is an ode to nature, overcoming and appreciating challenges, spiritual quests, and friendship that inspires one to grab their pack and head for the woods. – MH

Recovering History

Jeff Biggers’ book, “Reckoning at Eagle Creek,” ($26.95, Nation Books), covers the centuries of personal history lost by the strip-mining of Bigger’s ancestral land in southern Illinois.

The spotlight of the world and new media has slowly begun to flicker upon certain elements of an Appalachian tragedy. At this unique point in the Appalachian clash, Biggers’ potent relevance comes from his tangible production of the harsh, beautiful, dark instruments of history still resonating from this portrait of American dichotomy. Biggers’ words are not wistful implication of folksy fantasy, rather, his scribes are strategic and statistic-filled insights to the tragic truths of the coal industry. 

Biggers’ frighteningly real book holds nothing back, delving deep into Shawnee culture, the complexities of mine permitting, and the alphabet soup of federal agencies who have an impact on regulating mountaintop removal. “Reckoning” is an inspiration, a how-to guide, and a cultural rallying cry, but, above all else, it is a history lesson of the heart of a man and the heart of a nation. – JWR

On the Front Lines

Antrim Caskey’s photo-documentary journal, “Dragline” (suggested $25 donation, Appalachia Watch) is an arresting visualization of life on the front lines in the battle to stop mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

Caskey’s unerring compositions and sophisticated use of captions sidestep mere storytelling and launch directly into a penetrating representation of an entire movement. No better collection of photographs will convey what it feels, looks, smells, and sounds like to be on the front lines of West Virginia right now, from the rushing clang of a coal train passing a mountain home at dawn to the shattering explosion of a mountain blown apart. The anguish, anger, triumph and indisputable passion in each photograph are palpable.

“Isn’t it true, Mr. Roselle, that you came to West Virginia to protest mountaintop removal?” asks Massey Energy attorney Sam Brock in one layout spread. “No! I came here to stop mountaintop removal,” is the answer. – JG

Smart Farming

Kentucky writer Wendell Berry weaves together a picture of small-scale, ecologically sound agriculture in “Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food” ($14.95, Counterpoint Press).

A proponent of what he calls “using nature as a measure,” Berry’s essays each emphasize recognizing the connection between ourselves and the land which provides for our continued presence within it.

Don’t skip the introduction by “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan, a history and context to Berry’s essays and their influence on Pollan.  The essays are arranged in three parts. Part one examines the farm itself, a dynamic and living entity that, if tended with respect, will continuously provide. Part two discusses the farmer who, in Berry’s vision, must be as dynamic as the land, and who is the mediator between the farm and the table. Part three exalts that product of farm and farmer whose origins are so often taken for granted: food. – JJ

Haunting Realism

Chris Holbrook’s short story collection, “Upheaval” ($17.95, University of Kentucky Press), spares the sentimentalism sometimes found in literary depictions of Appalachia.

With truth and gritty realism, Holbrook portrays an eastern Kentucky that’s upheaval is not limited to the coal being stripped off the land. United by location, the eight stories in the collection simultaneously give a sense of place and of the deep crisis in identity it is undergoing.

Holbrook’s writing is engrossing and authentic and his use of the short story form is masterful. He gives strong characters and the impression of full narratives in only a few pages.

Though the prose is sparse, the collection is awash with emotion, though for many of the characters it lies just beneath the surface, masked by the need to carry on. Nostalgia, loneliness, resentment, and fear permeate the book’s pages, revealed and exposed just as the landscape is, with violence and a sense of resignation. – SV

Safe “Arbor”

Had George Lucas set Star Wars in a Galaxy fairly close to this one, in a time not so far ago, it might have read as well as Mike Roselle’s “Tree Spiker: From Earth First! to Lowbagging: My Struggles in Radical Environmental Action” ($24.99, St. Martin’s Press). A group of gallant rebels struggling selflessly against ‘The Empire’s’ reckless, single-minded pursuit of absolute domination­—the destroying-of-planets option squarely on the table.

This is where you’ll join Mike’s story —a young teen yearning for an adventuresome higher purpose larger than the world in which he finds himself. The cast of individuals and environmental non-profits joining Mike through this post-1960’s modern day vision quest are equally as fascinating.So as not to ruin this ripping vicarious yarn for those waiting to enjoy it, I’ll stop here, but Malaprops.com has it in stock. -JD

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