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Kentucky by Heart: A sampling of favorites from Kentucky’s bookworms to kick off the new year

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

It’s a new year and the winter season, and for many of us, it’s a time to renew — or simply resume — our reading habit. As I’ve done previously in this column, I figured it would be fun to see what literary delights Kentuckians are tasting these days.

For a change of pace, I’m reading a couple of young adult books by Lexington author Ben Woodard. One is a collection of short stories called Mystery, Myth, and Mayhem; Short Stories for Mid-grade Kids; another is a novel titled The Staircase of Fire. Ben knows his audience well and his books help me to understand what kids like to read currently, as I’ve been away from full-time elementary school teaching since 2003. I also just finished an excellent anthology of mountain foodways stories called The Food We Eat, the Stories We Tell: Contemporary Appalachian Tables. It includes compelling pieces by Kentucky’s George Ella Lyon, Crystal Wilkinson, and Rebecca Gayle Howell.

Speaking of Appalachia, Stephanie Brown, Virginia Vassallo, Susan Irwin, and Tracy McIntosh all praised The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. Brown, of Henderson, called it “a wonderful book that includes history of our beautiful Bluegrass state and the heroines on horseback that traveled across mountains to deliver books to readers.”

Somerset resident Rich Dailey is rereading The Pilgrim’s Regress, by C.S. Lewis. “It’s commonly described as a modern, early twentieth-century version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress,” Rich said. “So much in this 1933 allegory still applies to us today, and I think that says something important.”

The Reckoning: A Maeve Kerrigan Crime Novel, by Jane Casey, is what Michele Huybers, of Richmond, is reading. The story is set in London, England. “Maeve is a junior police detective on a team of mainly male detectives. They are investigating a string of grisly murders. The victims are all sex offenders.”

Butler resident and agrarian Pat Flairty likes “everything” about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Cathy Miller is a Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, fan, calling it a “sad read with a good ending.”

Gin Petty, of Berea, called Midnight in Chernobyl, by Adam Higginbothan, “well researched” and “for a book of this nature with much technical information, surprisingly easy to read and understand. The writer digs into the reasons for the disaster, then presents the event and its aftermath, touching in surprising detail on the individuals involved and their family life before and after the disaster.”

Todd Finley, director of the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, likes Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. “Set in a dystopian future that is the result of genetic modifications gone to the extreme and finally out of control. It’s a re-read for me as it is a favorite,” he said.

Five Wars, by Colonel Fred Johnson, receives praise from Harrodsburg writer Tony Sexton. “Johnson lives and teaches in one of the toughest schools and works with veterans suffering with PTSD,” Tony said. “The book will enlighten you on how those wars were fought and the reality of serving in the military. . .(and) also about a young man from a small town in Indiana who became a great leader around the world.”

Kentucky State Apiarist (bee guru) Tammy Horn Potter contributed a couple of books of note. “Because I serve on the board of Green Forests Work and volunteer to plant trees, I keep re-reading Richard Powers’ The Overstory, replaying the ancient myth of Baucis and Philemon and how, as a divine gift for their hospitality, they transform into trees at the end of their lives,” she noted. “There is a narrative, among several, of a marriage that illustrates this Ovidian myth and I find myself, at my age, teasing out this narrative line and re-reading it.” Tammy also said that she “devoured in one five-hour sitting” poet Carolyn Forche’s memoir, What You have Heard is True.

Cheryl Wuertle called Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Berea author Alex E. Harrow, both “amazing” and “a little magical.” Also, she’s into the apocalyptic Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton. “The human race has been killed or changed by a computer virus and all that are left are the animals.” And, oh yeah, she mentioned that the hero is a crow.

One of my Campbell County High School classmates back in the twentieth century, Amy Biddle, just finished reading The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides. “Good thriller, keeps you guessing,” said Amy. “Not too long, 300 plus pages. I find many books these days go on way too long. Currently reading Bear Town–a small town where hockey rules–by Fredrik Backman, who also wrote A Man Called Ove.”

Tom Wallace, author of the Jack Dantzler mystery series, likes The American Canon, by Harold Bloom. “As he always did, Bloom, the celebrated Yale professor and supreme literary critic of our time, seeks to shed light on the genius that underscores the best American authors, from Emerson to Pynchon. Bloom never shies away from offering his own assessment or interpretation, which only enlightens, and sometimes frustrates the serious student of great literature. I highly recommend this book and several more by Harold Bloom,” said Tom.

And there are those who like to read the old-time favorites. Carol Dawson is reading Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. “The story of two great friends and their struggle to live the American dream during the Great Depression,” said Carol. “George and Lennie have a plan to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. This classic is timeless—we all want a piece of the American dream.”

Karen Leet is re-reading the first few books of the Wheel of Time series, while Janice Winiger picks Belle Brezing, by Doug Tattersall; Donna Freihofer likes In the Time of the Butterflies; and Cindy Gruen is a fan of Insanity of God, written by Kentuckian Nik Ripken.

Debbie Webb enjoys the Richard Paul Evans series, The Walk. “It’s about a man whose wife dies tragically. In response, he decides to walk. He walks from Seattle to Key West. It’s about his adventures, good and bad, the people he meets along the way and his growth spiritually, physically, and emotionally. An excellent read.”

Dave Robertson remarked that in the book, The Unknowns, a study of the iconic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, “the adjective ‘powerful’ gets overused, but it definitely applies here.” Rhonda Muse, a public school teacher, suggested others read If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood,” by Gregg Olsen. She calls it “a horrific tale of child abuse that makes you wonder about students in your classroom.”

Paula McPeake recommends Cash: The Autobiography, and she and her sixteen-year-old son took a trip to Nashville to visit the Johnny Cash Museum. Interestingly, she noted that Cash, of “Folsom Prison Blues” fame, was never in prison.

And what about a good book of short stories, particularly detective stories, set in eastern Kentucky? Bill McCann says that Coal Black: Stories, by Chris McGinley, fills the Bill. “McGinley ain’t from aroun’ here,” teased McCann. “He’s from Massachusetts. But after more that 30 years of living and studying Kentucky, I think most will agree he tells good stories without stereotyping.”

From the Wing Feather Saga, Andrew Peterson’s fantasy novel, On the Edge of Darkness, is what Dan Oberg is reading. Dan called it “a captivating story of family values, spiritual roots, authority/responsibility, and the tension between all of those issues as the three children confront the world around them.”

Central Kentucky writers David Miller and Chris Helvey have a couple of special ones to suggest, also. David is invigorated by Heirs of the Founders, by H.W. Brands, which he identified as a “life-and-times of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun. . .and resonates today.” Chris likes Tiny Love: The Complete Stories. It’s written by Larry Brown, a “firefighter turned writer of spare, dark stories—think Raymond Carver meets Charles Bukowski,” Chris said.

Virginia Vassallo is absorbing the biography, John Adams, by David McCollough and Ruth Lature is fascinated by Madeline McDowell Breckinridge and the Battle for a New South.

In the far western part of the state, Sandy Hart, of Ballard County, finds solace in the Bible. “The book of Phillippians, specifically 1:3 is a scripture I read often. I said a final goodbye to another wonderful friend. . .(and) the words in this book gives me peace, love, understanding, and comfort: ‘I thank my God on every remembrance of you!’”

In the state that gave America its first National Poet Laureate, Robert Penn Warren, it shouldn’t be so surprising that we are passionate readers.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

(Feature photo courtesy of Suzanne Isaacs)

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