McCann: Summer book reviews

Published 10:06 am Friday, July 3, 2020

Time on your hands, even though things are gradually opening back up? Here are some books from the local library that I recommend.
— “The Kentuckians” by John Fox, Jr., written in 1898 (reprinted in 1971), was among the first books in American retail history to sell more than 1 million copies.
Set in Frankfort at the end of the 19th century, the book is the story of young woman who must choose between two very different men with very different political leanings. The language seems stilted and the lack of dialogue seems strange to modern readers but once readers accommodate to this Kentucky author’s style it is an easy and enjoyable read.
— “American Still Life” by F. Paul Pacult (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). The book’s subtitle—“The Jim Beam Story and the Making of the World’s #1 Bourbon” gives away the double entendre. But what I found quite surprising was how engaging I found the book. I do have a bottle of Jim Beam in my kitchen, where it’s been more than half full for a decade. The book and the story of the distillery industry, generally, and Jim Beam, particularly, did inspire me to at least try using the Beam in some recipes lately. The book also inspired me to read about bourbon, not cook with it.
— “Trouble is What I Do” by Walter Moseley (Mulholland Books: Little Brown and Company, 2020). Walter Moseley writes two noir fiction series, “Easy Rawlins Mysteries” and “Leonid McGill.” “Trouble” is Moseley’s latest Leonid McGill book. This was the first in the McGill series I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. It’s a clever, fascinating mystery that kept me turning the pages.
— “Bluegrass Bluesman, Josh Graves: A Memoir,” edited by Fred Bartenstein (University of Illinois Press, 2013). Most memoirs are first person accounts; this one is, too. However, the book is based on oral historical interviews with Josh Graves. Consequently, though the story of his life is told by Graves himself, it is Bartenstein, long a Bluegrass performer, editor and teacher, who has edited the book. Because Graves tells his own story in his own voice, readers do truly get a sense for whom Josh Graves was, and what he and his dobro contributed to Bluegrass music.
— “Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky” by Kathy Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer (HarperCollins Publishers, 2001). Recommended for children ages 8 to 12. Girls and boys alike will be inspired by the story of how Depression Era librarians in rural Eastern Kentucky overcame obstacles to take books to isolated schools and homes, so that people could have access to books. Inspiring and illustrated with period photos.
— “Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics,” by Keven McQueen, with illustrations by Kyle McQueen (McClanahan Publishing House, 2001), and “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes 3: Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things” by Steve Flairty, (Wind Publications, 2013). These are both very enjoyable books and in lots of ways they are the same book.
McQueen’s book focuses on historic characters, some of whom may be known to you as they were to me: King Solomon; Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson; Governor William Goebel; and Carry Nation. Still, there are 23 characters in this book that played minor but interesting roles in Kentucky’s history, sometimes the nation’s.
Flairty’s book is focused on people we may recognize as friends and neighbors; almost all are alive today and almost none of them have held elective or appointive office. The interesting thing is that all of the people in this book are as interesting as those in McQueen’s book, even if none of them have absconded with funds from the state treasury as ‘Honest’ Dick Tate once did.
— “Pitino: My Story,” by Rick Pitino with Seth Kaufman (Diversion Books, 2018). The first half, maybe a bit more of this book, is focused on story telling — how Pitino got his start in basketball as a player and a coach. Of course, much is focused on stories about his time at UK and later UofL. The Big Blue years were fun reading. The story of the Cardinal years often fell to whiny self-justification. I pass no judgement on Coach’s thoughts about his time and troubles at Louisville; I will say that he is a better storyteller in the first portion of the book than he is a lawyer in the last portion.

Bill McCann is a playwright, poet, flash fiction writer and teacher who writes about arts events and personalities. Reach him at