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Holiday Reads

by Beth Newberry and Niki King

Winter’s here, yins. And in case you were trying to ignore the chilly weather, the gray skies or the tail-end of college football season— a sure sign winter has come to stay—the year-end holidays are your final warning. Winter’s the best time to settle in and snuggle up with a good book. We’ve curated a list of regional-themed Christmas books and top picks of Appalachian literature and community development from 2011 to keep you engaged and entertained until the first bulbs start to bloom.

Christmas Reading

A Kentucky Christmas (University Press of Kentucky, 2003, $28)

Edited by Harlan Co., Ky. native and a prolific poet, fiction and children’s writer George Ella Lyon, this anthology includes a rich treasure of work by mountain writers. The book is structured into thematic sections reflecting elements of Christmas such as “Music,” “Tree,” “Kin” and “Feast.” It features work by Appalachian chanteuses Jean Ritchie and Loretta Lynn, and notable mountain writers Marianne Worthington (poem: “Domestic”), Chris Offutt (short story: “Jingle Bells, Shotgun Shells”) and Affrilachian Poets Frank X Walker (poem: “Too Wise Men”) and Crystal Wilkinson (poem: “The Visit”). Of particular note is Chris Holbrook’s story, “Christmas, Down Home,” about ex-Apps returning to eastern Kentucky from Dayton, Ohio for the holidays. “He’d got that accent back in his voice,” writes Holbrook.  “The way of talking he’d begin to fall into whenever he crossed the Ohio River going south, but that he lost the gist of again when he came back north.”

The Christmas Letters by Lee Smith (Algonquin Books, 2002, $12.95)

This small book of just over 100 pages is full of all the things that make a memorable family holiday visit—gossip, recipes for good food, and entertaining kin. Wise, Va. native Lee Smith’s novella-in-letters is a book to buy once and then read again and again. Featuring the letters of three generations of women, Birdie, Mary and Melanie, the stories are sometimes happy, sometimes bittersweet, like happens in your own family.

Appalachian Christmas Stories (Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1997, $9.95)

This collection of short fiction, essays and poems is a great primer of the writings of Kentucky’s central Appalachian literary forefathers including Jesse Stuart, Thomas D. Clark, Harry M. Caudill and Loyal Jones. Amazon also offers a Kindle edition.

-Beth Newberry

Appalachian Reads from 2011

Head Off and Split: Poems by Nikky Finney (Triquarterly, 2011, $15.95)

National Book Award (NBA) winner, Head Off and Split, is Nikky Finney’s masterwork of complex, layered and lyrical poems, conversations almost, with key figures in African American history like Condoleezza Rice and Rosa Parks. Finney, a South Carolina native, is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets poetry collective and a professor at the University of Kentucky. Since winning the National Book Award last month, copies of this book have been hard to find, but additional printings are sure to re-fill the shelves early in 2012. In the meantime, satiate your need for soul-stirring poetry with this video of Finney reading her poem, “Left,” which she describes as “a poem for New Orleans.” Also, don’t miss her room-silencing acceptance speech at the NBA, which left event host Jon Lithgow remarking, “That’s the best acceptance speech I’ve heard for anything, ever.” –BN

Video by David Flores.

Singin’, Praisin’, Raisin’: The Foxfire 45th Anniversary Book, eds. Edited by Joyce Green, Casi Best and Foxfire Students (Anchor Books, 2011, $18.95)

The latest in the Foxfire Series that anthologizes oral histories collected by high school students in Georgia, Singin’, Praisin’, Raisin’ is a music-focused edition that among a variety of life stories includes account of bluegrass musicians, gospel singers and Grand Ole Opry performers. Check out the in-depth review by southern App Candice Dyer on which mingles some of her own memories and ambivalence toward stereotype with a critic’s eye.

In this quote from the editor of the book, Dyer captures perhaps the key importance of the series: “Co-editor Casi Best offers these reassuring words: ‘I am a mere nineteen years old. If you mention …anything of today’s modern technological world, I’ll know exactly what you’re talking about…however, mention a water dipper, a mess of greasy white half runners, a sling blade … and I’m lost.’ So she began seeking out those faces cross-hatched with age and experience, asking questions, and ‘simply falling in love’ with her Appalachian heritage. These mountains may close in around us, but they also offer a panoramic view if we scale their heights.” –BN

Lost Communities of Virginia by Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg (Albemarle Press, 2011, $49.95)

The book Lost Communities of Virginia has been on been on many wish lists for some time as it took the Community Design Assistance Center at Virginia Tech several years to fund the book’s publication. Its authors traveled to 30 small communities across the state, many of them in Appalachia, and several in Southwest Virginia. They took gorgeous, haunting pictures of places that are now only shadows of what they once were. The interviews are telling, people spoke of industries leaving town, new roads by-passing them, their populations dwindling, business, schools and churches shuttering. Many readers have been waiting to finally have it in their hands and savor the stories of places past. Also available from CDAC, are prints, notecards and a 2012 calendar featuring art work from the book. —Niki King

The Recruiters by Silas House with illustrations by Arwen Donahue (Larkspur Press, 2011, $24)

This single short story, “Recruiters,” has been made into multi-dimensional literary art in the hands of Larkspur Press, an artisan, letterpress printer. Eastern Kentucky writer Silas House’s story-in-book-form explores a story of mountain youth joining the military and the communities they leave behind to fight wars. The hand-set edition is available in extremely limited quantities. –BN

Chinaberry by James Still with Silas House, editor (University Press of Kentucky, 2011, $21.95)

A novel published posthumously by the dean of Appalachian literature, James Still, follows the story of a 13-year-boy who travels from Alabama to Texas in search of work. Still, who passed away in 2001 was well known for his novel River of Earth as well as volumes of poetry, non-fiction and children’s literature. Appalachian writer Silas House, who was friends with Still, edited and shaped the book and wrote the forward. –BN

Tell us your favorite, recently published Appalachian books or top App reads that are not to be missed? Share them in the comments section.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’d add to this great list two wonderful stories (published in recent years) that take place in those mountains:

    The Middle of the Air by Ken Butcher, of Hendersonville, NC and published by local publisher, John Blair.


    Strange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake, a West Virginia native.

    December 19, 2011
  2. Loved Strange as this Weather has Been, but I’ve not heard of the other one. I’ll have to check it out.

    December 20, 2011
  3. I’ve also enjoyed reading Charles Dodd White’s “Sinners of Sanction County,” a short story colletion from Bottom Dog Press as well as Jesse Graves’ first collection of poetry, “Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine” (Texas Review Press).

    December 26, 2011
  4. Marianne, thanks for those leads on winter reads. We will def check those out.

    December 27, 2011

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