Friday, December 15, 2017

Yee Haw Music Fest - Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center - January 18 - 21, 2018

 Agri-Civic Center - Okeechobee, Florida

The YeeHaw Music Fest, held in the Agri-Civic Center in Okeechobee, FL, will run from Janury 18 - 21, 2018 with the gates opening at Noon on Monday, January 15th. Each year since moving from its previous location in YeeHaw Junction, thirty-three miles to the north, this festival has grown, improved, and become an increasingly rich and varied event catering to bluegrass and country music fans from within Florida and from a huge geographic area beyond. Ever since assuming ownership, Ernie Evans and his wife Deb, as Evans Media Source (EMS) have worked to rebuild and expand this festival. The 2018 version will be the most extensive and interesting one yet, gwith significant improvements in the stage, lighting, sound, vendors, and more.

Ernie Evans - Festival Promoter

Ernie Evans has re-imagined the bluegrass festival as a week-long journey, akin to a land-based cruise with activities taking place every day from the opening of the gates on Monday at noon to the Sunday morning Gospel Music Jam, which many festival goers attend before packing their trailers and motor-homes for their return trip. Using the building and grounds effectively to offer a range of musical and social activities, while leaving time to explore the region, eat at nearby restaurants, go fishing, or seek other enjoyment, the festival offers much, beyond the world class music it features.

Tuesday - January 16
Bingo - 1:00 PM

Michael Reno Harell - 7:00 PM

Michael Reno Harrell, story-teller, folk singer,and entertainer is a national treasure. Coming from North Carolina and known throughout the country for the songs he writes and sings, weaving his narrative seamlessly around his evocative stories of his rural childhood and the gritty present. He tells stories of nostalgia, humor and triumph over adversity. His appearance represents a musical addition to the festival, starting it off with a his solo performance on Tuesday evening. His appearance is open to the community for $10.00 at the gate and free to ticket holders for the festival. Don't miss Michael Reno Harrell. Here's a sample of one of his songs:

Michael Reno Harrell - The Nickel

Wednesday - January 17

Traditional Potluck Supper - 5:00 PM

Bring your favorite covered dish for the annual pot luck supper. The festival provides the main course while you provide your side dishes and desert. 

Open Mic "Radio Show" - 6:30 - Hosted by Greg Bird

WEMS (Evans Media Source) - Blue Country Radio - 8:30
YeeHaw All Stars and Guests

Dave O'Brien

The Lineup
T. Graham Brown (S)

Country legend T. Graham Brown, a native of Arabi, GA, whose career includes three #1 country hits and eight other top ten songs along with having recorded thirteen studio albums, will appear for one ninety minute set at YeeHaw Music Fest on Saturday night. He has continued an active career, with a 2014 album Forever Changed, which he co-produced, receiving a Grammy nomination.  His 1986 #1 hit, Hell & High Water, below, was recorded in 2014.

T. Graham Brown - Hell & High Water

The Cleverlys (Fr)

The Cleverlys have been described as a "GrassHipPop Fushion" band which specializes in bluegrass based humor. They're a unique sound, look and appeal to the YeeHaw stage. They break down some of the walls in bluegrass with their off-the-wall humor and well-disguised musicianship. They cover songs from across the genre spectrum, turning them into bluegrass. Below is their interpretation of Beck's Loser.

The Cleverlys - Loser

Darrell Webb Band (S)

Darrell Webb is a veteran performer who's been around for longer than his young looks would suggest. He's played with some of the best and fronted several increasingly good bands. Often noted for his deep traditionalism, his work is also sprinkled with diverse influences making his music always interesting and sometimes cutting edge. His present band is one of his best yet. 

Darrell Webb Band - Crossroads

Donna Ulisse (Fr)

Donna Ulisse is a Nashville veteran who came to town as a country singer and has distinguished herself as a singer/songwriter leading her own bluegrass band, while continuing to write hit songs for herself and others. In 2016 she was named IBMA songwriter of the year. Her mellow voice and deeply felt songs resonate with her experience and her immersion in bluegrass music.

Donna Ulisse - Back Home Feelin' Again

Dave Adkins (S)

Dave Adkins exudes enthusiasm and a huge talent for song interpretation. People complain that contemporary bluegrass has lost its soul, but maybe it all has just been concentrated into this Kentucky-based singer. Last year at Sertoma, Dave appeared with a new band well-designed to support his unique style of country inflected bluegrass. His strong voice and commitment to excellence show through in every performance. 

The Dave Adkins Band - Put Some Grass In It

Larry Stephenson Band (F)

Larry Stephenson brings his crystal clear tenor voice, a deep love of and respect for traditional bluegrass and a seasoned band featuring bluegrass banjo great Kenny Ingram to the  YeeHaw Music Fest. His experience goes back to the early1970's, while his sound, uniquely his own, has echoes of great singers throughout bluegrass history. 

The Larry Stephenson Band - Where the Soul of Man Never Dies

Monroe Crossing (T)

Monroe Crossing comes from the great bluegrass state of Minnesota, and often displays is Nordic roots in its singing and accents. But don't expect any chill coming from this warm, musically diverse, and exciting band which throws a mixture of bluegrass tones and colors at its audience, always treating them like grown-ups. 

Monroe Crossing - Fraulein

Sideline (T)

Sideline ain't a side project any more! They're playing over 100 dates a year and they bought their own bus. They've had a few personnel changes over the past couple of years, each one strengthening the band. They may be the most exciting, and fun to watch traditional cover band touring today. Popular Dobro player Brad Hudson has left the band to stay closer to home, replaced by former Grass Cats lead singer Bailey Coe, who you're going to love. Troy Boone, a recent ETSU alum, on mandolin is a fine singer and mandolin player. Nathan Aldridge graduated from high school and now will really concentrate on fiddle. New father, Skip Cherryholmes, will continue to deliver excitement, while his father-in-law, veteran Steve Dilling tries to keep the whole melange in line. Go-to bass player keeps the beat for everyone. Always fun!

Sideline - Knee Deep in Bluegrass

Swinging Bridge (S)

Swinging Bridge is a very good bluegrass band located on the Southwest side of Florida in the 
area around Englewood. They play a good mixture of traditional bluegrass, featuring strong instrumental work and enjoyable singing. It's always a pleasure to see these guys. 

Swinging Bridge - County Fool

Remington Ryde (T)

Remington Ryde is a regional band from central Pennsylvania which sponsors its own bluegrass festival during the summer. They have experienced significant lineup changes in the past year or two, so it's a little hard to know who will show up. Regardless of who appears, they'll work hard to try to entertain. 

Remington Ryde - Mr. King

Scattered Grass (F)

We enjoyed seeing and meeting this young band last year and look forward to seeing them again. Twin sisters Moe and Spider Prevatt with Sean Campbell and Justin Mason are still a mite raw, but so clearly having a good time and enjoying the scene, I'd have to be a real curmudgeon to be critical. 

Scattered Grass - Little Georgia Rose

Alligator Alley (S)

Alligator Alley comes from Southeast Florida, a little removed from the western bluegrass hotbed in Charlotte County. Nevertheless, the band is enthusiastic and contributes significantly to the jamming culture at Evans Media Source festivals through the hard work of Dobro player Justin Mason. Meanwhile, they love bluegrass and are working hard at it. 

Alligator Alley - My Father's Prison

The Details

Tickets: Information about tickets can be found at the Evans Media Source web site here:
Three Day Festival Tickets purchased in advance - $72.00   Call (904) 886-8378 or order on line
Reserve seats are $5.00 Extra - Bring your own chairs - No High Backs 
There is nearly unlimited rough camping, but sites with water and/or electricity are nearly sold out. You might wish to call to put your name in line in case of cancellations, but you can 

Official Festival Host Hotel - The nearby Pier II Resort is the Official Hotel for YeeHaw Music Fest. Call and ask for festival rates. The resort is less than four miles from the Agri-Civic Center.

Other Accommodations: There are a number of other hotels and RV Parks convenient to the Agri-Civic Center. Check Google maps. 

How to Get to the Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center
To Map Your Route - Click on the Map Below
Place Your Location in the O Space & click

Festival Emcee - Jo Odum

See you there!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A-List by D.P. Lyle - Book Review

A-List by D.P. Lyle (Oceanview Publishing, 2017, Oceanview Publishing, $14.95/$9.99) is a lively, detective procedural set in New Orleans, which always provides lots of local colorful characters to story lines. Kirk Ford, a movie star with a “pretty” face has woken up in his hotel room with the dead body of his current girl friend lying beside him. That’s the entry to the plot of the second outing of the Jake Longley Novel by D.P. Lyle, a veteran writer of crime fiction and real crime books. Jake Longley, something of a slacker son ex-baseball player son of P.I. Ray Longley, proprietor of Longley Investigations, is eyeing the beautiful, lithe, Nicole Jemison as she exercises and he fantasizes, when the phone rings, providing an entry into the fast-paced, intriguing world of this second book in a new series set in New Orleans, where the death occurred. In strong, hard-boiled detective writing, A-List starts off with plenty of snappy dialogue, strong place-setting description, and driving plot to capture the reader and propel the story forward with these two likable problem solvers whose looks and tastes for life and each other make them both attractive and the nutrient for the pleasant diversion to come.

While Jake seems to be a reluctant detective and Nicole a willing and talented apprentice, the chemistry between the two jumps off the page. They often appear, almost, as willing, attractive sex kittens eager to roll around in the hay or luxuriate in the shower before getting on with the business of solving the crime. However, considering the present climate, this might not be an auspicious theme for a contemporary who-done-it’s interpersonal plot line. Nevertheless the setting and situation are made for a good story. The murdered girl is the niece of Tony Guidry, identified as a local mobster well connected with the political and law enforcement authorities. The initial bail hearing with its gawking crowd in the background sets the hierarchy of power in notoriously corrupt New Orleans. It’s up to Jake and Nicole to find the keys to this very promising romp.

Lyle uses well-wrought, fast-paced dialogue to reveal character and plot. He is a real pro at this, combining punchy, brief description with dialogue to make the book a consistent page turner. This combination often differentiates the newcomer to genre fiction from more experienced writers. Early in this reading, the first with this writer for me, I couldn’t tell whether the dramatic tension resulting from these strong story telling traits would continue. His continued precise, vignette descriptions of characters and settings throughout the book display his ability to sustain the tone. Such sparse immediacy is often the work of very careful paring down to essentials found in good popular writers of contemporary fiction, where readers insist on getting on with it.

As the story proceeds, it develops that both Kirk and the dead Kristi had Ketamine in their systems, suggesting the possibility that a third party has somehow entered the locked room to strangle Kristi. The book is flawed, with a guilty suspect emerging too soon, as the trick in a who-done-it is to introduce the character, yet keep guilt hidden as long as possible, allowing the guilty person to emerge as a surprise. This separates it from a procedural, where we may know the guilty party but find intrigue in the process of discovering who it is. Let me know if you find the same issue.

A-List contains an interesting emerging father/son relationship between the seemingly shiftless Jake, a former major league pitcher whose career was shortened by injury, and his father Ray, the head of Longley Investigations and a smart, hard-working guy who always puts work first. It adds some depth to Jake who turns out to be less of a slacker than he tries to appear.

D.P. Lyle

Lyle is at his best when revealing plot and character through dialogue. Setting becomes the backdrop for the revealing dialogues he creates between his people. He has a clear idea of what motivates each one as characters emerge in their discussions with others, each one letting the reader in on important details. He is an experienced writer who has written several other series as well as several books about how to write detective fiction. After many years practicing medicine as a cardiologist, he now writes non-fiction about forensic medicine with an eye toward supporting other crime writers. He also maintains The Crime Writer’s Forensics Blog.

A-List by D.P. Lyle (Oceanview Publishing, 2017, Oceanview Publishing, $14.95/$9.99) resonates with skill, insight, and the plain hard work of good writing. But, about ¾ of the way through the book, I think I solved the crime. This is a disappointment in a book with fairly intriguing characters, lots of excellent dialogue, and the always intriguing setting in New Orleans, to discover a plotting flaw that may give away the doer through a plotting error. Nevertheless I enjoyed this book while discovering a new, to me, writer who has the added attractiveness of having written several other series as well as books designed to help aspiring and practicing mystery writers cope with technical details about writing. I read A-List as a pre-publication electronic book provided by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle app.

Please remember that books I review are available in various editions at If you order them through a link on my blog, I receive a small commission and you pay no more. This title is currently available on Kindle for $0.99.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson - Book Review

Walter Isaacson’s huge biography Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster, 2017, 624 pages, $35.00/16.99/14.88) big, thick, heavy, beautifully illustrated provides a wonderful journey through the life, mind, and works of a genius who lived more than 400 years ago, but whose creativity, versatility, and imagination rebound through the ages to still affect our sensibilities today. Isaacson, whose previous biography of Einstein I also read and reviewed, stands as one of the major public intellectuals in America. Because he, himself, approaches his subjects with such appreciation and wonder, his books serve to open the minds of their readers, making the subjects accessible to ordinary folks.

Was Leonardo truly the greatest genius of all time, or did he happen to come along when all the conditions were right for a single person to capture and embody huge chunks of the world’s knowledge and experience? Science, math, engineering, art, sculpture, and technology were all encompassed in his studies and interests. His observational skills were without peer. He has obsessive about following through on questions that occurred to him, for instance, insisting on a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy to build invisible skeletons under the skins and clothing of his paintings.

Leonardo, born in Vinci, a town near Florence, Italy in 1452, the illegitimate son of notary Piero da Vinci, who was able to help promote his artistic efforts despite never having legitimated his brilliant son Leonardo, was apprenticed to an artist in Florence where he soon distinguished himself as a master of perspective, color, and drafting. Throughout his long and illustrious career, Leonardo moved restlessly from Florence to Milan to Rome, and eventually to France, where he spent his last years attached to King Francis I and died in 1519. Leonardo is renowned for his great paintings The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper as well others. Beyond painting, his achievements and ideas in engineering, technology, anatomy, military science, mathematics and further were recorded in his journals. Many of his discoveries and speculations were lost for hundreds of years, because he neglected to publish his writings and drawings, while abandoning or procrastinating in completing many of his most famous paintings. Despite this, on his death he was recognized throughout Europe as one of history’s greatest geniuses, a reputation which has only become brighter through the ages.

Mona Lisa

If you’re a person who goes to museums or enjoys paintings and painting, you’ll never look at a canvas or drawing with the same perspective (pun intended) after reading Isaacson’s chapter on the “Science of Art,” which explores Leondardo’s deep and inter-related developing ideas spreading far beyond art into the realms of science and math. “Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience and mystery, between objects and their surroundings.” (270) Thus the sciences become metaphysical, moving into the space where observation interacts with belief and knowledge.

Isaacson makes the discovery, search, acquisition, and verification of Leonardo’s work into exciting detective stories, bringing the tales into the present day while remaining thoroughly in the 15th and 16th centuries. Names like Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark vie with Sforza and Ludivico as important in the Leonardo story, giving the whole book a shade of a contemporary thriller without the boiler plate of Dan Brown. A hint of a Mona Lisa smile flits around Isaacson’s mind as he weaves the story of how art, technology, and science first combined in Leonardo’s ceaseless search for more remains alive with the search for the Master. The chapter on La Bella Principessa, a previously unattributed drawing, provides as good detective writing as any novel while its owner covers Europe and the U.S. to confirm the insight which had first prompted him to purchase the piece.

Leonardo's Drawings

Leonardo’s intellectual development from being a believer in experience as the best teacher to combining his own current experience with traditions and knowledge handed down from antiquity in writing, architecture, mathematics, science, optics, engineering, sculpture, and art help him create the qualities that so characterize the Renaissance as re-birth and new birth of how to know. Much of Leonardo’s writing becomes a treatise on ways of knowing. Isaacson delights in exploring Leonardo’s mind through his almost limitless works distributed worldwide to libraries, museums, and private collectors. Leonardo’s experiments with using shadows, colors, shapes as well as his thought experiences recounted with words and illustrations suggest the breadth and intensity of his quest. “Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience and mystery, between objects and their surroundings.” (270) Thus the sciences become metaphysical, moving into the space where observation interacts with belief and knowledge.

Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography. He is also the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. In Leonardo da Vinci, he emerges as a benevolent character himself, taking joy in his own searches as he seeks to fathom the genius of this exceptional character in human history.

Perhaps no artist, no character, in history has left so much data while remaining such an enigma. Yet, as Isaacson brings his narrative to a close, Leonardo becomes increasingly difficult to encompass. His passions, his intelligence, his ceaseless questioning followed by obsessive studies helped lead him to some understanding of the answers he sought leaving those viewing his work with a certain frustration. While giving so much, Leonardo, like his most famous painting, holds himself slightly aloof, leaving uncertainties for us to contemplate for eternity.

Isaacson challenges the reader. In his discussion of Leonardo’s thoughts about how water flows and eddies, he interrupts the discussions to say, “Try noticing all that when you next fill a sink,” (432) stopping the reader to consider staring deeply into the bowl of water after shaving. His own delight at exploring Leonardo’s world, his insatiable curiosity and his ability to illustrate revelations clearly and precisely intrigue and elevate the author’s own thinking. Isaacson’s books on Leonardo, Franklin, Einstein, and Jobs detail the exploration of the world through the eyes of geniuses most of us can’t fathom ourselves, let alone illuminate for the thoughtful reader. I bought my own copy of Leonardo da Vinci and give it my highest recommendation.

Some thoughts on how to read this book: I bought Leonardo di Vinci as a hardback book on the recommendation of a commentator who mentioned the quality of the photographs, which are very good. However, if I were to purchase it again, however, I would buy it as a Kindle book, even though, at present, the Kindle version is more expensive than the hardback. I found it advantageous to access the largest image available on Google Images using my browser to focus in on small details as I read. Many of the details Isaacson writes about emerge on such close attention. It would be better still, to be able to examine the originals in detail. Unfortunately…..

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Mayor of McDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald

“Back at Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo where I went to school, along with the rack, thumbscrew, and bastinado, they has a curious custom of announcing grades in the final exam and then making everybody hang around for an extra week before turning us loose for summer vacation. Presumably they did this to reinforce or belief in Purgatory.” How can anyone resist a book that opens with this paragraph as Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, The Mayor of McDougal Street (Hachette Book Group/Da Capo Press,2013, $15.99/9.99 or used from $3.06) written with Elijah Wald, does? A creature of New York, Van Ronk, of Swedish and Italian descent was born in Brooklyn, but migrated to Queens as a child, where he grew up following his own muse, early becoming entranced with music on his way to becoming perhaps the finest white blues guitarist and singer in America during the late fifties and sixties, the time of the folk music craze in America, and beyond.

Throughout this memoir, Van Ronk emerges as a smart, articulate, thoughtful observer of the music scene generally and the emergence of Greenwhich Village at the center of the New York folk music world during the fifites and sixties. Dropping out of school when he was thirteen or so, he gradually migrated to the Village, where he spent years perfecting his craft on the guitar, learning blues from a variety of mentors, becoming an active participant and then central feature in the weekly Sunday hootenannies in Washington Square Park. A voracious reader and listener, he also became involved in the left wing politics pervasive at that time, and remained a dedicated lefty until his death from cancer in 2002.

Van Ronk, looked at from fifty years after his greatest popularity was achieved, probably is most important as a chronicler of his times and a commentator on music and musicians of rare insight combined with clever articulation. Here I’ve culled a few of his many gems:

“ be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening”...Van Ronk studied jazz with old jazz man Jack Norton on Saturday’s with a group of other teens besotted with jazz and developing skill along the way. Learned to listen, that less is more, “never use two notes when one will do. Never use one note when silence will do. The essence of music is punctuated silence.” He later learned from guitar great Mississippi John Hurt, and many of the other long hidden black blues guitarists of the early twentieth century. He devotes an entire chapter to the influence of the Rev. Gary Davis on American blues and his own music.

Rev. Gary Davis – Hesitation Blues

Dave Van Ronk – Hesitation Blues – 1950 – 1961

“Theft is the first law of art.”

“I think it was a good thing that, back in the Renaissance, people like Michelangelo were treated like interior decorators. A well-written song is a craft item. Take care of the craft, and the art will take care of itself.”

His thoughts on Dylan’s going electric: “Working musicians are very rarely purists. The purists are out in the audience kibitzing, not onstage trying to make a living.”

The distinction between folk, rock & roll, and country: “...if the accompaniment to this music is acoustic, then it’s folk. With amplified backup, then it’s rock & roll, except in those cases where a pedal steel is added, then it’s country.”

Van Ronk is a great story-teller! His account of the so-called “feud” between him and Bob Dylan is filled with both humor and nuance, with a retelling of how Dylan recorded The House of the Rising Sun, each of their refusals to continue singing it, and his final discovery of the real House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans while with Odetta. Familiar names from a well-remembered musical period keep dropping, each one evoking memories, a sense of deja vu. Throughout the book, the stories abound, yet this book presents a cohesive picture of an important period in American music with one of the seminal figures who both created and inhabited it.

Van Ronk’s social activism and increasingly frequent writing in small magazines and slingers sometimes emphasized the need for folk singers and other musicians to refuse to work for free in situations where the person they were working for was exploiting their labor while hiring dishwashers, cooks, and other necessary employees. His writing in this area, as a developing professional musician still resonates into the musical world, where too many musicians are giving it away in settings other than benefit concerts. He maintains his sense of political radicalism, it seems, throughout his career, although his comments suggest he looks back at his adolescence and early adulthood with wry irony.

Dave Van Ronk

Elijah Wald

Dave Van Ronk, while not having a formal education, was a voracious reader and student of what he saw. Elijah Wald, whose writings include a noted biography of bluesman Robert Johnson and a recent account of Bob Dylan’s famous and controversial move to electric guitar, as well as lots of other writing, is listed as co-writer. When I asked him how much was Van Ronk and how much his, he wrote me, “The language is entirely Dave's -- as, I must say, is much of mine, since he was a huge influence on the way I think, talk, and write. He dropped out of school long before college, around age 12 or 13, but was phenomenally well read and also had spent years arguing politics and poetry with the best minds of Greenwich Village….” He went on to say, “I did write some connecting material, but it was minor and I swear he couldn't have picked out what wasn't his, if he'd had a chance to read it-nor can I, except a couple of lines I was particularly pleased with, and I'm not telling which those were.”

For those interested in the emerging music scene of the fifties and sixties, the moves from jazz, to folk to rock and roll, Van Ronk’s book is must reading. He’s intelligent, funny, a cogent and unbalanced observer of the scene he was such a crucial part of. His life was always chaotic, existing on the edge of poverty as well as the front edge of musical change. The South and Appalachia become source material which comes to New York and Newport rather than a world he, himself, explores. He knows people like blueser Gary Davis or bluegrass great Earl Scruggs through their appearances in Washington Square and Carnegie Hall rather than on their home territory. Written with Elijah Wald, I recommend The Mayor of MacDougal Street most highly. I bought the book.

Dave Van Ronk – St. James Infirmary Blues

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash - Book Review

Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99) tells the story of the largely failed 1929 strike at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina through the eyes of Ella May Wiggins, who became a heroine of the American labor movement after her death. Narrated as a detailed flashback by her grand daughter, and seen through the eyes of a number of fictional or fictionalized characters, whose lives in various elements of society brought them together at the mill during this fateful period of industrial vs. labor strife as well as during the beginnings of the civil rights struggle in its nascent years. Told in leisurely, often poetic, prose, Cash takes his time in revealing these stories as the roots of contemporary North Carolina, where the rifts still affect not only the local elements of this geographically and culturally crucial state, but the nation as a whole.

As Ella Mae sits in the back of a pickup truck with Pittsburgh-based labor organizer Sophia, her life history from Tennessee subsistence farming, to logging camps, to working in the mills mirrors the early history of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont as it moved from mid-nineteenth century rural bootlegging to an area using the region’s resources of running water, cotton, and available labor to build a burgeoning mill industry. The growth of mill culture as rural people heard the empty promises of recruiters offering the secure life of mill villages where, in fact, grinding poverty and constant debt kept them indentured in a manner not too different from the slaves, who had been released from bondage only a few decades before, using Gaston County, NC at the center.

Based on the actual happenings at the Loray Mill strike of 1929, representing an elemental moment in the development of the American labor movement, the story is intriguing, nuanced, and lyrically told through the eyes of a variety of participants. The novel brings to life the non-fiction book Linthead Stomp by Patrick Huber, which describes life and music in the mill towns of the early twentieth century. The strike and riots soon inspired a series of novels, now referred to as the “Gastonia Novels,” which extolled the virtues of class struggle and left wing politics.

Ella Mae Wiggins

As the story, told in vignettes from the perspective of people coming in contact with Ella May Wiggins unwinds, Cash captures the spirit of rural Gaston County, the rise of the mills, the influences on the development of the mill culture as the insatiable need for thread and cloth in rapidly industrializing America is fulfilled against the poverty of white and black workers. Names like evangelist Amy Semple McPherson, Belmont Abbey College, and towns like Lincolnton, Cherryville, Spartanburg, leading to Gastonia give the setting of labor unrest, the communist menace portrayed during the red scare, incipient deep-seated racial animus, and the fight against grinding poverty a living sense of reality. These elements come together in the struggle between the mill owners, their hired thugs, and the northern agitators eager to organize, free, and exploit the workers in a toxic, and ultimately tragic mix. Cash’s rich, lyrical language combines with lively portrayal of the characters who emerge to create a story that touches the imagination while portraying a reality built on facts and extending beyond them.

In two families, the McAdams and the Lytles, Cash describes another aspect of the duality of North Carolina’s aristocracy, pitting the lowland remnants of ante-bellum aristocracy against the post-war growth sparked by the industrialization of the South. Contrasting these two cultures of wealth and privilege to the white and black poverty of workers, Cash creates a rich soup of tension, distrust, and fear. Into this mix, racial, social, and economic politics help create a friction that still can be seen in the mystery that North Carolina presents to the country and the world. Slowly the lives of the characters cross and merge as the coming tragedy begins to take shape. The structure of the novel features a large range of characters from different walks of life – worker, factory owner, labor organizer, plantation owner, railroad porter, and others - whose lives come together in Gastonia, NC in the summer and fall of 1929.

Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home. A native of North Carolina, he has held residency positions at Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

In The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99), Wiley Cash shows the ability to take characters who might easily become stereotyped, flesh them out, bring them to life, and place them in settings where their intersection with the other characters becomes believable while taking on a life of their own, leading inevitably to the playing out of The Last Ballad. While the story is a tragic one, it nevertheless points to a hopeful time where both conditions and relationships are improved, while the deep history of these events continues to influence the present. I was provided a digital edition of The Last Ballad by the publisher through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app. Highly recommended!

Please remember, if you wish to purchase this book, that the links I've provided allow you to buy the book through me and provide a small commission to me which adds nothing to your cost, but contributes to this blog and our travels. Thanks!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fools' River by Timothy Hallinan - Book Review

Fools’ River (A Poke Rafferty Novel) by Timothy Hallinan (Soho/Penguin, 2017, 368 pages, $26.95/14.99) is the eighth volume featuring expatriate Bangkok travel writer Poke Rafferty as he struggles to secure the world he has constructed around himself since settling into an environment he arrived to describe and stayed to reform, one life at a time. Rafferty, author of a series of travel books called Looking for Trouble which Hallinan describes as "about the things most guidebooks ignore: poor neighborhoods, the best street food stalls, the temples, towns, restaurants, and bars that haven't gone all farang and sacrificed their identities to appeal to foreign customers. Also tells you which highly touted tourist traps to avoid, and little skills -- how much to bribe a cop and for what, how to negotiate with a taxi driver, avoiding common scams, idiosyncratic laws, etc. They're sort of anti-tourist guides." Rafferty is well-acquainted with the world he inhabits, but never, when he arrived, anticipated finding love there himself nor seeking to build a family and a life in that world. Hallinan has created a full-bodied world which constantly seeks to invade and destroy the comfortable nest he provides for his wife Rose and their adopted daughter Miaow, each a product of child sexual exploitation and rampant sex industry that thrives in Thailand.

Fools’ River opens as a benumbed unnamed character awakens in a hospital-like setting attached to tubes and maintained in a drug induced state of confusion. It then jumps quickly to a vignette where Poke Rafferty’s daughter Miaow is helping Lutanh, her friend from acting class, purchase a pair of violet contact lenses, accompanied by Miaow’s friend Edward, whom Lutanh worships from afar. Edward’s father appears to be missing, which is why Edward wishes to meet with Poke. Meanwhile, Rose is pregnant and anxious. Rose, who Poke met when she was a bar girl/prostitute working in Bangkok’s thriving sex industry is four months into a difficult pregnancy, especially since she's had two miscarriages. She’s afraid to lose the child, and Poke fears losing her. Miaow, rescued as a child whose parents abandoned her to the streets when she was quite small, has recently triumphed as an actor in her school and is preparing to try out for a part in Pygmalion.

The chapter in which Hallinan fills in the story of Lutanh, from birth in a rural Thai village to through developing self-awareness to life as a bar-girl Katoey, a lady-boy in a seedy Patpong bar, provides one of the most vivid encapsulations of child exploitation and sex business in Thailand Hallinan has ever written. In one chapter he captures Lutanh’s story. Moving forward and backward through time and Lutanh’s own self-awareness, it sets one of the two central plot and character elements which will dominate this volume in Hallinan’s fine Poke Rafferty series.

It doesn’t matter, much, where the reader first encounters Poke Rafferty. Hallinan’s skill as a writer provides sufficient information and background about the characters and setting to make each novel an effective standalone. However, the increasingly complex world, viewpoint, and background of Poke, the character, and Hallinan, the writer, become most apparent not only from reading all volumes of this series, but from indulging in the currently running Junior Bender series, and the, sadly, ended and now, for at least one volume, revived Simeon Grist series from the late 1990’s. Believe me, reading the back stories won’t be a chore!

An episode in which Poke visits the apartment of Fran Dependahl, the wife of a victim in the plot to steal from sex addicts, provides a view of one of Hallinan’s many narrative strengths. He allows the story to emerge by providing quirky, idiosyncratic characters to add content and depth to the story. Their discussion of her library, their mutual love of books and her relationship with her husband is both funny and deep. Hallinan never seems to be in a hurry, suggesting that he respects his reader sufficiently to allow immersion in the story and sufficient imagination to collude with the narrative and the creator of the work in making sure the story is well-told. While many thriller writers have stripped their stories to bare bones action, Hallinan luxuriates in allowing character, plot and setting to reveal themselves. The story comes together with action packed sequences that are part of Hallinan's particular appeal. There's a cinematic accuracy which closely follows a variety of perspectives, as if different camera angles were required to present the entire story in adequate depth.

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan is an Edgar, Shamus, Macavity and Lefty nominee who has written twenty-one published novels, all thrillers and mysteries, all critically praised. He currently writes two series, the Junior Bender series set in Los Angeles and Poke Rafferty in Bangkok, and in 2017 he also revived his earlier series, written in the 1990s about the over-educated slacker private eye Simeon Grist. The new book, the first since 1995, is "Pulped." Hallinan had a varied writing career in publicity and the film industry before becoming a full time writer. You can discover more about him and his other writings on his web site.

Fools’ River (A Poke Rafferty Novel) by Timothy Hallinan (Soho/Penguin, 2017, 368 pages, $26.95/14.99) allows the author to continue the important themes that dominate his novels. Poke is consumed with trying to maintain family, friendship, and loyalty within an environment filled with official corruption and rampant sexual exploitation in the context of Thailand, where Hallinan himself maintains a second home and Poke functions as an alien divorced from his homeland and culture. Hallinan presents a completely believable world in which the main character strives to set things right. The novels are enriched by quirky, often funny, and always interesting characters fleshed out with affection and compassion by the author’s command of language. His friends and antagonists on the police force, at the Expat Bar, and in each story have back-stories contributing to the total effect of his novels in ways seldom achieved by lesser writers. I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher in both hard copy and electronic versions. I read it on my Kindle app. Fools River has my highest recommendation. 

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