For this entry in The Book I Read series (which is also a podcast, by the way), I am writing about, not what I’ve read, but what I’ve started to read, AND, what I’ve tried reading and then abandoned. I had these ideas that I might get well into one of those things, or well into the beginnings of both of those things in the effort to, you know, make a CHOICE about what to tackle next—and in that effort I appear to have been successful! And then finally I’d like to conclude with a bit of a freak out, a freak out over the beginning of the new school year of fully in-person teaching and learning in the midst of that part of our current plague we’re calling the delta variant spread of COVID-19.
First, about book choices:
I am fortunate, in that I do not have to go very far to find titles. For the longest time—well, now, more than half of my life, I have been a habitual and chronic book buyer and book collector. I am guilty, as so many of us are, I think, of buying more books than I can read—embarrassingly so, maybe more books than I will be able to read in my lifetime. Nevertheless, there are books in every room of the house. I even have a tiny little traveling library in the teardrop trailer I take camping. So the list of books to read is almost always immediately accessible to me. But making the choice of what to tackle next has always been a struggle. With a limited amount of discretionary reading time—the choice must be the right one. That’s a lot of pressure. So, I forgive myself when I start a book but can’t, for whatever reason, finish it.
So how do I choose the next book to read? For all of my academic life—or my schooling life, I was just told what to read—and lucky for me, that did not kill reading. As an adult, if you’re like me, we have lists—either ones that we write or ones that we catalogue in our brains. My list is categorized like this: books I want to read because I think I SHOULD (classics and such), books I want to read because I know I would be interested (books about subjects I dig or books by writers I already love). Then there are those books recommended or gifted, which are on the list out of a sense, as I’ve said before, of obligation, yeah, but also because I trust the gift giver. Last, but not least, there are books written by friends of mine. My community of Warren Wilson MFA alumni has produced an embarrassment of literary riches, some of which, in previous episodes, I have shared with you. I’m going to start there today by talking about the novel Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. If you happened to read the last entry, or listen in on episode three of the podcast, you might catch a pattern here. Another factor in the choosing the next book might be a kind of thread I’m following—in this case, with Lincoln in the Bardo and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog—I am following a kind of Tibetan Buddhist thread. This novel’s title makes an explicit allusion to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I have heard Dale Neal speak of his novel as a kind of Southern Buddhist thriller. And it is that—in flying colors.
I think I wanna do something crazy. Maybe even two crazy things. First, I’m going to talk about this book IN PROGRESS. I confess right out of the gate that I am a little less than halfway through Appalachian Book of the Dead. I am liberating myself from the notion that I can only talk about books that I’ve finished. That’s a crazy notion. But this is a book, I know, already, that I will absolutely finish, but today, I can only talk about my experience of the first hundred and twenty-five pages. And I’d like to begin by talking about the beginning—the opening. Some readers are dependent upon a strong hook from the start—while other readers are more forgiving and patient. I tend to be patient—more so with classics—but in this case, with Neal’s novel, patience is absolutely unnecessary. To prove my case (here’s the second crazy thing), I’m going to read out loud the first page of Appalachian Book of the Dead.
Holy shit. That was my first reaction. And I think I had exactly the same reaction when I heard the author read this out loud once. Holy shit. First of all, to begin a novel with a murder and car-jacking—openings to novels don’t come any bolder than that—but the sheer drama of the scene is far less striking than some of the other moves here. First of all, Peabody is fully characterized. Here’s a character we will never see again—who dies on the first page a violent and gruesome death—and yet, we know a whole bunch about him—his age, what he did for a living, his favorite sports team, his favorite snack, his religion, and something, too, beyond that, of his worldview—“he never even considered the prospect of such pure meanness”—it’s a master class in the fiction writing adage that says that no matter how minor the character, some fleshing out of that character is crucial to creating a believable fictional world, to suck the reader in to the “fictive dream.” And on top of that, in a single page, before killing him off, through those details, Neal has created a character that we care something about. We’re horrified at his death, not just because it stirs up the creepy icky, but because he seems like a good guy.
Okay—to begin with, Neal has opened the novel with the criminal and murderous spree of two escaped convicts, who, in short order, are forced to leave their stolen vehicle behind and flee on foot into the wilderness of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains—into or around a small wilderness town called Yonah, where all our main characters live. Now, one of these criminals is immediately caught in the manhunt—but the other, the decidedly more dangerous one, the one that represents “pure meanness,” the one with the tattoo of the naked lady in the clutches of a demon—this guy seemingly disappears into the landscape.
So we have a cast of characters: Cal, a retired tradesman, a recovering alcoholic, also recovering from a recent and serious heart surgery, a committed stoic and faithful adherent to the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, hoping soon to write a memoir; Joy, his recent and third wife, a craft potter who spearheaded the idea to move away from city life into this vast and wild landscape; Doyle, the caretaker of a now defunct nature camp for kids, and a young woman, Ainsley, who camped there as a kid, the child of the family that ran the place, returned now to start her life anew—living in a yurt in the woods of the run down property of the family camp. She’s a spiritual seeker, super earthy, dread-locked, still attempting to practice Tibetan Buddhism—having arrived without her longtime boyfriend and spiritual companion—estranged from her now. These are the major players—and the chapters that follow that horrific and gripping opening delve into to the somewhat broken lives of these characters—meanwhile, in the backdrop, as a kind of ominous echo—almost a haunting, is the spectre of this escaped convict. Where is he? Is he alive? Will any of our people encounter him? These are the big sort of plot questions—and Neal is taking his time with this. Some people might find that frustrating—but Neal has made us intimately familiar with these characters—they are flawed but likeable—and from my vantage point, super interesting. I do not mind hanging out with these people while this other darkness percolates in the background. How does the darkness percolate—let me show you.
As the story progress, there are some really intriguing point of view moves. One chapter, a single page long, seems to be from the perspective of a coyote, a coyote that feels it’s being stalked. And a couple of other chapters seem to be about our evil guy—but Neal has made the super strange and wonderful choice of putting these chapters in second person! The escaped convict, ironically named Angel, is now YOU. Sometimes in the style of The Tibetan Book of the Dead—which, if I didn’t characterize it specifically enough in the last episode, are essentially a set of instructions for dead people about how to navigate the bardo! So creepy. So wonderful. “You have heard of the smokey mountains, but you did not believe in the haze of these hills.” Our narrator seems to be giving instructions to this “hungry ghost” through the bardo—putting us as readers eerily in his shoes—and then later Ainsley gives her lost boyfriend her own instructions through the in-between.
I’m gonna step out on a limb here and say that the forests in the Appalachian Mountains, for all of these characters and for us, are serving as a metaphorical bardo—an in-between place—where we are all striving toward some kind of enlightenment into a new life.
I am digging this novel. It is vivid, beautifully written—every sentence kicks ass, and, as I’ve said, I am all in. In the next entry in this series (while I promise there will be no spoilers) I will share with you a final reaction to Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal.
I’d like to write next, briefly, very briefly, about a book I started reading last summer but did not finish—let me sort of paint the scene. The summer of 2020, at the height, (we thought) of our pandemic woes, preparing to go into the weirdest school year in the history of school years, and I sit down for an ambitious read of a classic novel whose praises had been sung up and down over and over by people I admire, the early 20th century German novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. This novel is about a lot of things—thematically, perhaps, the way we understand and experience TIME—but literally—this novel is about a pandemic! It takes place during the Tuberculosis Pandemic of the early twentieth century. I loved reading this book. I have taken an entire year away from it. It’s a tome—like 700 pages. But It keeps calling to me and I know that soon, I will be back. I mention it now to add some weight to that commitment. I didn’t know what it was about when I picked it up, but it is too perfect for this time, in this year of our plague, 2021.
So, to conclude, I’m freaking out a little bit about the new school year—for a couple of reasons. First—you know—I’m going back to in-person instruction after 15 months of plague year teaching and learning at home. I spent the entire last school year relearning my job, finally getting somewhat good at it, and now I’ve got to unlearn a lot of that—revise everything I know one more time—in the transition back to business as usual—which, by the way, will not be business as usual. I’m fully masked. Kids are fully masked. Teachers and other school employees must be fully vaccinated—while the kids—as far as I know in this moment—not so much. Last spring, in what we called the Hybrid model, when we thought things had improved enough to offer the opportunity to any kid who was willing to come back into the building for a half day, I was back in the room with between about 15 and 20 students in each of 3 classes. This year, I will be back in the building with 6 periods of anywhere between 25 and 30 students in each. All the comfort last spring, of, at least, coming into contact with a relatively tiny student population will be null and void this year. So, with these conditions and the reality that vaccinated people are far from invulnerable, I admit there’s a little trepidation. The second freak-out (albeit a more minor type of freak out) has to do with the difficulty of continuing my podcast extra-curricular activities during the school year—especially with regard to talking about NEW books I’ve read. It may just be that I might just have to talk about something else!
We will see how this all turns out. Wish me the best. I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.