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Constance Alexander: Celebrating the holiday season with books by Kentucky writers

Swamped by yuletide frenzy, supply chain snags, and rising inflation? This could be the year to practice the Icelandic ritual of Jólabókaflóð, snuggling down on Christmas Eve to spend the rest of the night luxuriating in bed, reading.

A well-chosen book can be a great holiday companion, and there are plenty by Kentucky writers — new and old – that would make great beginnings for a hectic season.

Bill Cunningham’s memoir, “I Was Born When I was Very Young,” starts with a sentence designed to grab readers by the lapels and keep them hanging on until the new year:

I came within one hundred yards of being born in prison.

Art by Ethel C. Taylor, 1920

From that auspicious opening, this colorful memoir revisits old Eddyville, Ky., a town being demolished for the impoundment of Lake Barkley. Justice Cunningham writes about how growing up in a dying town shaped his future as a successful jurist, public servant, and author.

The autobiography covers the first 15 years of his life, a crucial time that gives birth to who we are and who we will become. Visit BillCunninghamOnline.com to learn more.

Kentucky’s current poet laureate, Crystal Wilkinson, captivates readers with poetic storytelling. Her novel “Birds of Opulence” focuses on another small town in Kentucky, far from old Eddyville. She coaxes readers to get acquainted with Opulence in 29 words:

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

The award-winning novel examines relationships within individual families, and between families. There are tales of friendship, passion, sexuality, betrayal, longing, and renewal. By the end of the book, in 1995, the old homeplace is more rundown than ever. Some residents have stayed put, and others have moved to the city. Kids who went off to college never came home.

Opulence has changed; the old Greyhound station has been converted to a restaurant, with the long-front-porch feel of a Cracker Barrel.

Kentucky Humanities has selected The Birds of Opulence for Kentucky Reads. The novel will be at the center of statewide conversations on the dynamics of family and community, the strength of women, and the stigmas surrounding mental illness. More information is available at kentuckypress.com.

Poetry lovers may be interested in Wilkinson’s first book of poems, “Perfect Black.” Published this year by University Press of Kentucky, the poems are a biography expressed in a series of poems that reveal a writer who confesses, I’ve been country all my life.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

In Jayne Moore Waldrop’s “Drowned Town,” all routes lead to western Kentucky. The novel in stories begins by introducing a recurring character named Cam a few days before her second wedding. As she revisits the site of her house on the Cumberland River in old Eddyville, she reflects on how its former prominence is relegated to a historic marker that fails to acknowledge the people who once thrived there and gave up their homes to make way for a dam.

They had been told their sacrifice was for the public good. They were never told how much they would miss it or for how long.

With each story in this stunning debut, readers become acquainted with the old and the new through characters whose perceptions of past and present are colored by their connections to that place. Each character adds another layer of complexity to issues surrounding the sacrifices of displaced families and communities to bring flood control, hydroelectric power, and economic development opportunities to the region.

Waldrop, a Paducah native with generations of family rooted firmly in Appalachia, uses compassion and empathy to create the universe of “Drowned Town.” Paired with Bill Cunningham’s memoir, the two books capture emotions that continue to spark passion in former residents of forgotten towns like Old Eddyville. More information about “Drowned Town” is online at kentuckypress.com.

The last book on my list of Kentucky wonders is “True Christmas Stories from the Heart of Appalachia,” available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation. The unique anthology is a collection of forty-three stories written by thirty-nine authors. Most of the writers are from Kentucky, and thirty-five of the pieces are set in Kentucky. Arranged chronologically, they begin with an account from the 1900s entitled “Christmas in the Country Store,” by Dr. Thomas D. Clark, Kentucky’s Historian Laureate for Life.

Dr. Clark’s account is rich with the scents and textures of holiday time at the old country store:

New boxes, bales, barrels, and sacks obstructed the passageways and overflowed onto the shelves and counters. Bags of coconut were ripped open and the tops of the sacks rolled down displaying their fuzzy brown wares awaiting purchase by the cake makers.

Fruits and nuts were items of real luxury for the Southerner and they were purchased only in the spending orgies of Christmas time. For the countryman the store at Christmas time was literally a meeting place of stark everyday reality with a fantastic world of temporary but pleasant escape.

Other stories in the book include a 1929 description of Christmas in a one-room school; a tale about 1940, when Santa Claus Visited Martin, Kentucky; and a memoir of 2014, when Keith Kappes wrote, “Stuff You Learn While Ringing a Bell.”

The anthology ends with a poem by beloved Kentucky author, Jesse Stuart. Entitled “Christmas,” it begins like this:

The glory and the pageantry will pass

Into another year’s oblivion

Like August evening sounds in meadow grass

Our offerings and songs will linger on.

“True Christmas Stories from the Heart of Appalachia” is available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation for $25 or five copies for $100. The book was edited by James M. Gifford, Judith F. Kidwell, and Wayne Onkst. Contact the foundation at 606-326-1667 or online at www.jsfbooks.com for ordering information.

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