Book Reviews

Each month Book Reviews Online features reviews of books by Alabama authors, books about our state, and books by local publishers. Simply click the book's title to read the complete review.
  • Meteor Shower
    by Anne Whitehouse, 2016
    Dos Madres Press, 2016

    $17, Paper

    Poetry

    Review by John Vanderslice

    For several years now, through a series of thoughtful and quietly beautiful books, Anne Whitehouse has proven herself to be among the most astute and substantial poets working in the United States. It is difficult to think of another writer who is able to combine delicate, pitch-perfect lyricism with such urgent personal material. Whitehouse’s talents and her gentle wisdom are on full display in her latest collection Meteor Shower, a book that may be her most personal yet—and her most affecting.

    Throughout Meteor Shower, Anne Whitehouse proves herself to be that rare poet who is unafraid to be emotionally straightforward, who eschews the glitter of fashionable wordplay for something far more necessary and more lasting: a connection to herself and to the reader. It is as if, in her later years, Whitehouse does not feel she has time to resort to the kind of opaque gimmickry of which younger poets have long been fond. Her material is far too pressing for that. And she wants too badly to do justice to that material. By no means does this result in a poetry that does not sparkle on the page. Whitehouse’s poetry not only sparkles but it illuminates; and not only does it illuminate but it evokes wonder. It is difficult to count the number of lines in this book that will bring a reader to a dead, whispery stop, repeating the lines to himself, relishing their power and their turns of phrase.

    In the book’s opening section, Whitehouse revisits herself at younger periods in her life; demonstrating not so much skepticism as fascination and profound acceptance. Indeed, often what she emphasizes is how much of the past is not even past—to paraphrase Faulkner—but eternal. In the title poem of the section she says, with appreciation and even awe,

    I was a girl who fell in love with an island.
    Each time I’ve left here,
    something of that quiet, introspective girl
    has lingered behind and never left.
    On visits when I come across her
    she has never gotten any older.

    This slurring of past and present is apparent in other poems too, notably “An Afternoon Nap,” which starts as a harmless rendition of the writer sliding into sleep while vacationing by the sea. Unexpectedly she hears a voice calling out “Mama,” directly to her, “through the green summer, / “across the long years.” Instantaneously, she is thrown upon her life’s history as a mother, its struggles and its delights. The poem finally resolves with the confidence that, however fraught an experience motherhood might have been for her, the speaker can move on now, content that she did her best. The last lines ring with an unavoidable double meaning.

    In contentment I lay, not wanting to rouse,
    in delicious reverie, as if drunk from lovemaking,
    languorous and mellow, ready for the fall.

    In other sections, Whitehouse reveals that her past does not always, or even usually, bring to mind sensations of sweetness. Indeed, she suggests a variety of extended traumas: the failure of a friend's marriage, and the charged atmosphere of her childhood home, one ruled by an embittered, isolated father. At the end of the poem “A Backward Glance,” in which the speaker has been reviewing old family photographs, she admits that she finds the photographs not reassuring but frankly misleading:

    In these captured moments
    everyone is always smiling,
    and yet I want to weep
    for what will happen to us,
    for what has happened already.

    And yet, the clear project of the book for Whitehouse is the working through of exactly all that “has happened,” the admitting to it all, both good and bad, and in the process to relieve herself and us of the burden of that past, neutralizing its sting. As she urges in “Delete, Delete”:

    Delete the urge to suffer
    that twisted me in knots,
    delete the need to be right,
    to have the last word,
    to have my own way.
    Knowing that I cannot choose
    the way my life will end.

    Readers will be comforted to know that Meteor Shower ends with the assertion that the struggles of her past have done Whitehouse and the world and her poetry good. Similarly, it can only do a reader good to pick up this eloquent and nourishing book, to read it slowly, to appreciate its wisdom, and to linger over its delicious lines.

    John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. His historical novel The Last Days of Oscar Wilde is forthcoming in 2018 from Burlesque Press.

  • By Brad Watson
    W. W. Norton, 2016
    $25.95, Hardcover

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    It was 1996 when Brad Watson published Last Days of the Dog-Men, which won the Sue Kaufman Award; 2002 for his novel, The Heaven of Mercury, runner-up for the National Book Award; and 2010 for the story collection Aliens in the Prime of their Lives, a finalist for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction—an average of seven years between books. William Styron’s books, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, are spaced about the same way. Although this is not how a writer becomes a household name, Watson doesn’t let them go until they are right. There should be more of this. Read the complete review

  • By Carey Link
    Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press, 2016
    $14, Paper

    Reviewed by Harry Moore

    Poetry

    A Fairer House Than Prose

    I dwell in Possibility—
    a fairer House than Prose
    —.

    —Emily Dickinson

    The thirty-eight free-verse lyrics of Carey Link’s Awakening to Holes in the Arc of Sun probe a world of ambiguity, tension, struggle, and pervasive beauty. Beyond all else, the poems affirm and celebrate the transforming power of poetic imagination. Read the complete review

  • By Lee Smith
    Algonquin, 2016
    $24.95, Hardcover

    Nonfiction/Memoir

    Reviewed by Anita Miller Garner

    Lee Smith published her first novel The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed forty-seven years ago. Since, she has published thirteen novels—more than one making the NYT bestsellers list—and four collections of short fiction. The fifteen concise, artful essays in Dimestore are her first book-length collection of nonfiction, and the glimpses they give us into her life, the writing process, and the American South are in turn artful and funny, poignant and prophetic. Read the complete review

  • By Willie G. Moseley

    The Nautilus Publishing Company, 2015

    $19.95, Paper

    Reviewed by Ed Reynolds

    Nonfiction

    Willie G. Moseley, senior writer for Vintage Guitar Magazine, has recently written an excellent history of Peavey guitars. In Peavey Guitars: The Authorized American History, Moseley presents guitar aficionados with a detailed study of the evolution of the Peavey Electronics Corporation, focusing primarily on the company’s line of guitars and bass instruments. With a background working in his father’s music store in Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1950s (his father did not like electric guitars, instead preferring acoustic instruments) and playing guitar in local combos, Hartley Peavey began his company with an $8,000 loan from his dad after graduating from Mississippi State with a business degree in 1965. Peavey earlier attended Ross Collins Vocational School before entering seventh grade, receiving an age-waiver because his great-uncle—the fellow who invented hydraulic lifts for automobiles though failing to get it patented, thus missing out on a fortune—was an instructor. The kid studied mechanical drawing, radio repair, and how to operate milling machines and lathes. Read the complete review

  • By Lauren Goodwin Slaughter, 2015
    The National Poetry Review Press, 2015
    $17.95, Paper

    Poetry

    Reviewed by Tina Mozelle Braziel

    Reading Lauren Goodwin Slaughter’s a lesson in smallness reminds me of Jane Hirshfield’s statement about poetry: “…true poems, like true love, undo us, and un-island. Contrary, sensual, subversive, they elude our customary allegiance to surface reality, purpose, and will.” The poetry in this lovely debut collection are true poems of this sort. They immerse the reader in stunning water imagery and thrill her with peeks (three poems!) inside the life of the Barefoot Contessa. More significantly, this collection raises essential questions about the nature of our personal lives: Who are we within them? How do we reconcile our expectations for our lives with what we find to be our reality? It is the examination of these questions that reveal Slaughter’s poems to be as emotionally astute as they are beautifully crafted. Read the complete review

  • By Monte Burke, 2015
    Simon & Schuster, 2015
    $27, Hardcover
    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Nonfiction

    There is a good case to be made for not writing biographies until the subject is dead. Feelings are inevitably hurt. The subject’s family and friends may learn things they don’t need to know. Coach Nick Saban may not like being the subject of this book, but the question most asked about Saban is “What is he really like and how did he get that way?’’ and Monte Burke’s book makes the best attempt yet to answer the question and in a pretty responsible way. Saban did not authorize this book and sit for hours of interviews, but neither, it seems, did he actively try to squelch it. Read the complete review

  • by TJ Beitelman
    Black Lawrence Press, 2015
    $13.95, Paper

    Poetry

    Reviewed by Jim Murphy

    “Why do I love such a city / as this?” asks the observant and bemused speaker of TJ Beitelman’s “Why I Love a City” from the Birmingham author’s just-published second book of poems, Americana. The thought continues: “Do mosquitoes have thumbs? They / should. Where is Carl Sandburg when you / need him? Who are my hog butchers?” Here, and in so many ingenious and surprising places in the volume, Beitelman carefully observes and good-naturedly questions the dreams and realities of Americans and their lore, mindfully engaging all the earnestness and kitsch of the culture in the best traditions of America’s great city poets. Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Koch—and of course, Carl Sandburg—are all present here one way or another, and their collective influence is put to fine use in conversation with Beitelman’s own distinct, contemporary voice. Read the complete review

  • By Rex Burwell
    Livingston Press, 2015
    $17.95, Paper; $30,Hardcover,

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Ed Reynolds

    With a title like Capone, the Cobbs, and Me, (and featuring photos of Al Capone, Ty Cobb, and Cobb’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Charlene on the cover), the reader is intrigued right off the bat. The story told within doesn’t disappoint, either. The “Me” hanging out with Capone, his thugs, and the Cobbs is a Chicago White Sox catcher named Mort Hart who quickly falls in love with Cobb’s wife. Hart is second in hitting percentage in the Roaring ’20s when a knee injury places him on the disabled list. Hart also happens to be the only major leaguer with a law degree. The ballplayer’s life suddenly catapults into spellbinding adventure when Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis needs someone special to investigate Capone’s fixing outcomes of ballgames using Cobb. Read the complete review

  • By Gin Phillips
    The Penguin Press, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015
    $16.99, Paper; $10.99 eBook

    Young Adult

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Birmingham writer Kerry Madden is fond of saying, in fiction for young people the writer should run her protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at her. One assumes none of these rocks will hit her in the head and kill her. Gin Phillips follows this pattern. Her heroine, the eleven-year-old Olivia, has just moved with her mom from their home in Charleston, South Carolina, to downtown Birmingham where they moved in with Gram in her condo. Read the complete review

  • By Watt Key;
    Illustrations by Kelan Mercer
    The University of Alabama Press, 2015
    $29.95, Hardcover; $20.65 eBook

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Among the Swamp People is a combination of memoir, nature writing and personal essay. Key, raised in Point Clear on Mobile Bay, writes of his nearly life-long fascination with the Mobile-Tensaw Delta at the north end of the bay. This is the Lower Delta, not to be confused with the Upper Delta. The Upper, he tells us, has more high ground and taller trees. The Lower is swamp. If you are thrown from your boat, or capsize—and you might as there are numerous stumps, submerged logs, and boats with no lights—or are lost overnight, “it will be almost impossible not to come across an alligator or, worst of all, a cottonmouth…cottonmouths are aggressive and extremely poisonous snakes. There are thousands of them….” Read the complete review

  • By T.K. Thorne
    Cappuccino Books, 2015
    $22.50, Hardcover; $7.99 eBook

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    T.K. Thorne’s last novel, Noah’s Wife, published in 2011, is set in northern Turkey, near the Black Sea in 5500 BCE. The book is the story of Na’amah, a young woman with unusual powers. Thorne has done, once again, a prodigious amount of research in Jewish and Islamic texts. The novel convincingly recreates the dwellings, utensils, food, business practices, and religious beliefs of the age. Although based on a few Bible verses people are familiar with, this tale is fully imagined and takes great liberties with the Bible story. Lot, for example, is not the virtuous fellow Genesis makes him out to be, not at all. Read the complete review

  • By Monique Laney
    Yale University Press, 2015
    $35, Hardcover; eBook, $16.99

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    German Rocketeers was published by Yale University Press. Monique Laney, raised in Tuscaloosa and Germany, is now an assistant professor of history at Auburn and this book was her PhD dissertation at the University of Kansas, but do not be afraid. This book is accessible, clearly written with an easily forgivable amount of jargon, and should be of considerable interest to citizens of Alabama. Read the complete review

  • By Steve Flowers
    NewSouth Books, 2015
    $29.95, Hardcover; $9.99 eBook

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    There can be few Alabamians better situated to write this book than Steve Flowers. In this political memoir Flowers devotes chapters to the major figures of Alabama politics—elected officials such as Wallace, Folsom, Richard Shelby and powerful forces such as Paul Hubbard and Judge Frank Johnson Jr. —and sketches the story of his own life in politics. Read the complete review

  • By Wade H. Hall
    NewSouth Books, 2015
    $12.95, Paper; $9.99, eBook

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    “The Shortest Book in the World” is a venerable genre: Career Management by Charlie Sheen; Secrets to a Successful Marriage by Tiger Woods.

    At eighty-nine pages, Wade Hall’s study of Southern Civil War humor is definitely in this category. Considering that the war was a four-year bloodbath with, sometimes, tens of thousands dying on the same day, it may even be an oxymoron. It wasn’t a naturally funny subject. But there was, of course, humor, and veteran commentator Wade Hall, way back in a section of his doctoral dissertation in 1961, had found and classified that humor and explained its uses for Southern soldiers, civilians on the home front, even the African-American slaves left behind. Now, for the Sesquicentennial, NewSouth has made this available. Read the complete review