Books of the Bluegrass: 10 must reads by Kentucky writers

Jan 21, 2015 at 6:21 pm
Books of the Bluegrass: 10 must reads by Kentucky writers
Photo by Steve Squall

For this “Books of the Bluegrass” feature, LEO asked the staff at Carmichael’s Bookstore to pick their favorite must reads by Kentucky writers. The result — from Robert Penn Warren’s classic tobacco war novel “Night Rider” (1938) to Tania James’ “The Tusk that Did the Damage” (March 2015) — is a sampling of fiction and nonfiction, novels, poetry and essays that represent a local literary scene as vibrant and vital as our culinary and bourbon scenes ... with just as much local flavor.


By Kirby Gann Ig Publishing, 2012, 286 pages

The great thing about Kirby Gann’s “Ghosting” is that it doesn’t bullshit you about Kentucky’s rough edges, but it doesn’t pander to the inclination to wallow in those rough edges either. Gann gets Kentucky – or, to be fair, the version of Kentucky with which he deals. He neither exonerates nor adjudicates the seedier, more depraved aspects of our great state’s culture: he just portrays them, beautifully. The things that make “Ghosting” a surprisingly riveting story are the same things that make it both magnificent and terrifying. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to go wander around abandoned buildings, take long drives through the country and maybe smoke some weed … you know what I mean? So here’s what you need to know: If you want something light and uplifting, this probably isn’t your book. If you’re in a place where you can handle a little darkness (not too much, not so much that it’s oppressive, but just enough that it shakes you up a bit) then give “Ghosting” a try. The characters are simultaneously accessible and enigmatic, and Gann is a gorgeous writer. But don’t let the slow, lyrical descriptions of the first few pages discourage or mislead you, because at its core this book is a thriller. An existential thriller, maybe, with a little of the inchoate bildungsroman thrown in for, you know, the more aimless souls among us. But a damn good read nonetheless. Good for: Getting lost in a story. Having an experience that you can’t describe in words, only vague hand motions. Learning how to traffic drugs. —Alison Stuhl


Edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan Mariner Books, 2014, 272 pages

Louisville-born writer John Jeremiah Sullivan joined some exclusive company this year when he was asked to edit Robert Atwan’s annual anthology “Best American Essays.” He can now count himself among the likes of previous editors Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens and David Foster Wallace, all titans of the craft. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, since Sullivan has been carefully carving out his own reputation as a premier essayist in all the right places these past few years. In this latest anthology Sullivan has distilled the plentiful nonfiction pieces published in print and online in 2014 down to a handful of essential slices of the American hodgepodge. His only original written contribution comes in the form of an introduction on the origins of the American essay, a flash in the pan of what’s to come. It is Sullivan’s intuitive array of what to include that truly captivates: Readers will know what it is like to give birth at nineteen weeks in Mongolia (“Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” Ariel Levy); they will know one father’s struggle raising children in a racially-charged America (“How to Make a Slave,” Jerald Walker); they will know the hard fought world of gang life in mid-’80s Baltimore (“Slickheads,” Lawrence Jackson). In the end, readers may curse Sullivan’s choice to include “The Devil’s Bait” by Leslie Jamison—that one could quite literally get under your skin. Regardless, Sullivan takes us on a trip I highly recommend. —Allen Bryant


By Erin Keane Typecast Publishing, 2014, 102 pages

Bruce Springsteen as poetic muse? If you are Erin Keane, then emphatically yes! However, you’ll find as many ghosts as iconic rock and roll musicians wandering the lonely corridors of Keane’s poetry collection, “Demolition of the Promised Land.” The collection fuses whimsy with introspection, scientific rationalism with nostalgia. The Springsteen poems add a note of humor to real ponderings on the environmental impact of factory farming, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. But it is Keane’s more personal poems about loss that grab my attention. Devoid of pathos, these are poems full of personal and observed losses upon which the narrator ruminates with an air of melancholy, acceptance and rational, scientific understanding. “Demolition of the Promised Land” is witty and poignant, clever and thought provoking. —Amy Miller


By Wendell Berry Counterpoint, 2015, 196 pages

Wendell Berry is back with a brand new volume of essays, and it’s a doozy. “Our Only World” is quintessential Berry, covering a wide range of topics, from sustainable foresting and agricultural practices, to the false of economy of our current energy policies and practices and the devastation they wreak on the planet. Taken as a whole, this collection is about the settling and resettling of the American landscape, the state of our nation and our own Commonwealth, today. And, as with all his work, Berry addresses some of our most controversial and tough social issues in clear, direct prose. By addressing some of our toughest challenges head-on, he also offers pragmatic hope that we can change the status quo. In “A Forest Conversation,” we are introduced to the toll on our forests by current industrial logging practices, but also to Troy Firth, an advocate and practitioner of sustainable forestry. When you pick up this volume, be prepared to spend some time with it because the Big Ideas it holds within its pages are ones you will ruminate on for a long, long time to come. —Johanna Hynes


By David Connerley Nahm Two Dollar Radio, 2014, 222 pages

Carmichael’s was lucky to have David Connerley Nahm join us for a reading and signing in November, and we continue to be thrilled that his debut novel graces our shelves. A Virginian by current residence and attorney by trade, Mr. Nahm is still every ounce a Kentucky writer at heart. His novel “Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky” is about a woman named Leah Shepherd and a place called Crow Station, Kentucky, and so very much more along the way. There is a tight, fascinating knot of the unknown driving the book’s story, but much of what floats around it feels like memoir transposed into the third person. Other characters, including our protagonist, live out parts of Nahm’s own rich, lucid dreams and youthful memories of rural Kentucky, sliding between what at times seem like they could be a blend of the reader’s own halcyon days and growing pains alike. The language spoken here and places described are too exacting not to be born of some truth, and glow with an authenticity that lends them a simple, languid beauty. Nahm’s prose is that which his scenes and characters require: terse with no hint of stiffness, uncannily familiar and homegrown, all without ever stumbling into cant. Combining a slow churned story and a map of sentences that shimmer with the morning dew of bluegrass, Nahm’s debut novel is a fantastic read through and through. — Mark Shultz


By Wendell Berry Counterpoint, 2014, 80 pages

Wendell Berry writes poetry as if it were as essential as bread. No luxuries, these prosaic and concrete words share the poet’s fervent belief in an integrated life that is only possible through imagination and an immediate engagement with the land. Berry doesn’t coax poetry out of the ordinary — a long term marriage, a wild rose, trees — he shows us it’s been there, in front of us, all along. This idea is plainly stated in his poem “The Sorrel Filly”:

“It is a quiet I love, though my life too often drives me through it deaf.”

This poem also highlights another favored Berry theme, his beautiful argument with modernity that he seeks to win by pointing out a better, or more authentic, way to live in this world:

“Now in the quiet I stand and look at her a long time, glad to have recovered something lost in the exchange of something for money.”

This poem and other celebrations of a rooted, rural life are collected in “Terrapin and Other Poems.” The poems are paired with the winsome watercolors of the artist Tom Pohrt who spent years on his half of the work. It is a lovely gentle primer for the Berry novice or any reader who relishes a handsome, decidedly old fashioned book. —Sam Miller


By Jeff Skinner Southern Illinois University Press, 2013, 80 pages

In his most recent collection of poetry, “Glaciology,” Louisville literary renaissance man Jeffrey Skinner gives us a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man struggling to find a seemingly forgotten sense of self and purpose. Alternately elegiac, humorous, profound and prosaic, his lines explore the spectrum of introspection at the peak of life’s denouement. Within these poems, readers are shown the feeling of helplessness when looking back and seeing more years behind than in front of you, the catalog of what was and what should have been, the sorrow of what never was and never will be again, and the joy and acceptance of what is. “Glaciology” is written with a refreshing candor and openness all but abandoned in modern poetry; you won’t find in this collection poems written to the Internet, snarky lines referencing pop culture or tongue-in-cheek observations employed to mask any true sentiment. You will, however, experience the panoramic sweep of a life, and find that what’s important is not the events therein, but the people involved. “Glaciology” is an excellent addition to a remarkable oeuvre and makes us proud to have such talent so close to home. —Sean Fitzgerald


By Robert Penn Warren J.S. Sanders Books, 1992 reprint, 477 pages

Robert Penn Warren had a fixation on the ideas of history and time. His magnum opus, “All The King’s Men,” showcased just how limber the Southern author could be in regards to weighty, unwieldy topics, but his first novel, “Night Rider” (1939), was a fantastic first attempt, too. Percy Munn, recently arrived in the droughted city of Bardsville, Kentucky, is brought up to galvanize the impoverished farming population with his excellent oratory skills and lawyer’s wit. Warren pits Munn (unmercifully) against idealism and inaction. As Percy attempts to combat the encroachment of a tobacco consortium that seeks to buy for pennies, he finds that no amount of inspiration, intelligence or charisma is enough to keep the heat off of any struggling farm. As a number of desperate townsfolk fold to the consortium’s demand, Munn’s ideals recede into the dark. Soon the fields of defectors are razed by mysterious ‘Night Riders.’ Traitors are killed and towns are raided. Idealism leaves when money returns. The eyes that met Percy soon look away, first with indifference, and then with shame. —Trevor Pardon


Edited by Brian Weinberg and Darcy Thompson Louisville Story Program, 2014, 221 pages

This book is the work of eight young authors from the neighborhoods of Shawnee, Portland, Iroquois and Algonquin. Together with The Louisville Story Program, they found their voices and were taught writing. Their stories are about real young people who are living in our city and overcoming real issues in life. They are powerful, thought-provoking stories that need to be heard. In a day and age when our society focuses on giving our kids every advantage to be successful in life, these young people have something important to teach us. They tell us about their personal lives, the people they call family, the neighborhoods they call home and their day-to-day struggles. They cover diverse socioeconomic issues and they share the impact of small acts of kindness and support. These stories are testaments to their resilience, courage and writing talent … and to the richness of lives in often overlooked parts of Louisville. The words in this book are so full of heart and passion, sadness and hope — exactly everything I’m looking for when I pull a book to read off the shelf. We have sold over 400 copies of “Our Shawnee” this year at Carmichael’s. To put this in perspective, we’ve sold half that amount of a New York Times best seller that just had a movie released. These stories deserve to be among the books you decide to read this year. — Beth Hancock


By Tania James Knopf, 2015, 240 pages

Louisville native Tania James has surpassed expectations with her newest novel, “The Tusk That Did the Damage.” The author, who was born in Illinois but grew up in Louisville, burst onto the literary scene in 2009 with her debut novel “Atlas of Unknowns,” which landed on several Best of the Year lists and garnered praise from all quarters. In 2012, she published a book of short stories, “Aerogrammes,” which was also well received. “The Tusk that Did the Damage,” due out in March, is certain to vault her into the literary spotlight once again – and deservedly so. The story is told in alternating chapters by an American documentary filmmaker, a poacher, and – most surprisingly and remarkably – by an orphaned elephant known as the Gravedigger. It’s a poignant, beautifully written and thoughtful allegory that details the epic struggle between animals and humans for scarce resources and limited territory.  Tania James will be at Carmichael’s on Frankfort Avenue on Thursday, March 19, at 7 p.m. to read from “The Tusk That Did the Damage.”  —Carol Besse