I don’t review books, which is a handy thing to tell your friends, especially if your friends write books. My books don’t get reviewed in Metro Pulse, pal, and neither do yours. But this time of year, when everybody’s looking for something to give that hard-to-figure, hard-to-size enigma on the list, books are a handy recourse, and I figured maybe some suggestions would be a public service. And there’s been a pretty extravagant variety of very local books this year. These are the ones I’ve encountered and, for one reason or another, been impressed with.
• The Great Smoky Mountains became a national destination during the Golden Age of the Postcard, and Adam Alfrey, exhibition curator of the Museum of East Tennessee History, tells their story, connecting about 80 years of postcards in this book called, simply, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Much more than just a collection of postcards, this book uses several hundred postcard images to construct an especially engaging history of the Smokies park movement, as well as its subsequent tourist development, high and low.
Six years ago, Alfrey’s colleague in the History Center, Steve Cotham, director of the McClung Collection, wrote a mostly photographic book of the same title for the same publisher. (Cotham’s was in Arcadia’s Images of America Series. Alfrey’s is in the Postcard History Series.) They offer some overlapping information, but different images, and both deserve a place on the shelf.
• You probably never thought the Christian-Newsom horrors would result in a cheerfully bright-colored children’s book, but White Flour, a joint project by erstwhile songwriter David LaMotte and artist Jenn Hales, is an extraordinarily unusual piece of work. Its subject, told in rhyme, is the white-supremacist rally on the courthouse lawn in May, 2007, a group nationally recruited in response to the murders—and especially the counterprotesters, who were dressed like clowns. Taken in the spirit it’s intended, it could be therapy for a traumatized community.
• The sesquicentennial is upon us, and Lincoln Memorial University Professor Earl Hess’s new book is The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee. It’s the most thorough treatment of that subject in any bookstore, 400-odd pages of text about the single biggest campaign ignored entirely in Ken Burns’ PBS series. His account, painstakingly researched through original sources, is limited mainly to military movements in the summer and fall of 1863, and most likely to appeal to those who don’t mind being called “Civil War buffs.” Though Hess doesn’t aspire to the novelist’s interest in sensory detail or psychological speculation, he writes clearly and engagingly. It deserves a place beside Digby Seymour’s 50-year-old Divided Loyalties (with a lot more pictures and maps, it’s more for the casual reader); and Robert Tracy Mackenzie’s 2009 book Lincolnites and Rebels, a thoughtful examination of the complex politics and general civilian life of a city during the entire war period.
• Jack Mauro’s the most unlikely of Knoxville authors, not just because he’s a New Jersey transplant, but for his style, which owes less to James Agee and Cormac McCarthy than to Thomas Hardy and Anton Chekhov, applied to very modern themes. The main character of his story collection Beautiful Man is the city of Knoxville, specifically downtown in recent years. Landmarks like Preservation Pub and Patrick Sullivan’s make regular appearances. It’s rare to find this level of psychological complexity in regional fiction. Online reviewers seem flabbergasted that anyone can write stories about Knoxville without populating them with hillbillies, or indulging in the quaintly phonetic hootin-hollerisms long required of Southern or “Appalachian” short stories. Mauro characters are never cute, folksy stereotypes. That fact can be a little unnerving, precisely because his characters could pass for, and perhaps are, actual people you know. He has learned us pretty well; he worked for some years at Club LeConte.
It’s a book to read more for descriptions, especially descriptions of people, and a wide variety of relationships, romantic and otherwise, than for plot development. It’s maybe not for everybody—those who demand that fiction “get on with it” may find the style frustrating—but Mauro’s portraits are lifelike.
Full disclosure: this book features my first back-cover blurb, on which I was proud to be include alongside Mauro’s old friend Carly Simon, who also likes these Knoxville stories.
• Park City: A Knoxville Neighborhood History by Margery Weber Bensey is the second appealing illustrated paperback on the subject of that not-forgotten east-side neighborhood. The 2005 book Park City is one of the better-executed of the Arcadia’s photographic-book series, but this new one has more text, in fact more information on East Knoxville than I’ve ever seen in one place.
Bensey didn’t write it as a narrative, but as a collection of anecdotes and insights; she describes what she has found in what looks like hundreds of hours of earnest and thorough research. Its unusual organization is intuitive, as if meant to be encountered in short bits, and includes information that will surprise historians. One intriguing five-page section concerns the Octagon House, a melancholy east-side landmark no one alive is old enough to remember.
• The most offbeat book in this list, and probably the hardest to find, is You Would Not Believe What Watches: Suttree and Cormac McCarthy’s Knoxville (Rick Wallach, editor), the most thorough examination you’ll ever find of our Pulitzer laureate’s most Knoxvillian novel and its setting. It includes the work of about 20 writers, which include, I should mention, me, though my essay’s less than 2 percent of the book and no royalties are involved. So I’m not conflicted about recommending the rest of it, which includes work by a couple of other locals, including UT scholar Wes Morgan and attorney Dennis McCarthy, who wrote a brief memoir of his brother. It’s published by the Cormac McCarthy Society; last I checked, Union Ave Books, a dependable source for all worthy local books, has it on order.