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Editorial: An appreciation of Roanoke regional arts, high and low

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The high road...

Here is an unusual and fun thing: a Roanoke-centric bestselling book list.

Independent bookseller Book No Further in downtown Roanoke has made public a list of their top 25 bestselling titles of 2021. The store has made a practice since founder Doloris Vest set up shop in 2017 of promoting work by the region’s treasure trove of local authors, and this list reflects those efforts.

Likely, it will shock no one who has paid even the vaguest dollop of attention that the #1 spot is occupied by former Roanoke Times journalist Beth Macy’s “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” the widely acclaimed examination of the opioid crisis and its toll on Appalachia, recently adapted into an eight-part Hulu miniseries that’s now nominated for a Golden Globe.

Series stars Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Dever are also nominated in the best television limited series categories, for best actor and best supporting actress, respectively. (Though the show can be harrowing, there’s delight to be had in spotting the many recognizable Virginia locales used for filming.)

Macy appears again on the list at #14 with “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — And Helped Save An American Town,” her 2014 debut chronicling how John Bassett III of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co. in Galax fought to keep his factory’s jobs from going overseas.

An intriguing third place goes to Bland County author Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry (like Macy, a Hollins University alumna) for her debut short story collection “What Isn’t Remembered,” winner of the Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.

A Moscow native who immigrated to rural Virginia in 1995, she credits mentors at Hollins and at Radford University with encouraging her to become a writer, an ambition that never occurred to her until she read the late Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” during a college course.

Blacksburg gets representation in the No. 5 slot with author Sarah Warburton’s “You Never Can Tell,” a “suburban serial killer thriller,” as Warburton puts it, released in August by cozy mystery publisher Crooked Lane Books. Fans of another Hulu series, “Only Murders in the Building,” might be intrigued to know that Warburton works a true crime podcast into the proceedings — as listening to one sparked the idea for her novel.

Roanoke College associate professor Gregory Samantha Rosenthal appears at No. 9 with “Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City,” published last month by University of North Carolina Press. An examination of LGBTQ history and culture in Roanoke and Appalachia, the book came together from interviews conducted by the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, which Rosenthal co-founded.

Down at No. 26 you’ll find one of the most famous Roanoke Valley tomes of all time, Hollins grad Annie Dillard’s poetic collection of reflections on nature, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

As President Barack Obama bestowed a National Humanities Medal upon Dillard in 2014, a military aide intoned, “In poetry and in prose, Ms. Dillard has invited us to stand humbly before the stark beauty of creation.” (The same ceremony honored actresses Sally Field and Miriam Colón and fellow authors Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Tobias Wolff.)

Book No Further’s list serves as a quick, delightful tour of our region’s lively arts scene and its rich literary heritage — not to mention, it’s a mere scratch on the surface. Hopefully it will send curious readers exploring.

...and the low road

So long as we’re celebrating a sampling of the Roanoke region’s contribution to high art, we might as well trumpet a Roanoke-centric low art offering that’s probably not on your radar.

On New Year’s Day, Netflix added a thriller to its streaming lineup called “#followfriday.” We won’t mince words: it’s a slasher movie from 2016 that first aired on SyFy, a cable network long renowned for dubious quality content. Though it’s hardly the worst film ever made (stay to the end for a footnote on that), the flick is so eager to hammer home a message that too many young people spend too much time on social media that it completely neglects other essential ingredients, like dialogue written the way humans actually speak, or a coherent plot.

Why mention this offering at all? Well, if you think it’s fun spotting familiar settings while watching “Dopesick,” you’ll get that fun a hundredfold watching “#followfriday,” which was shot at locations all over Roanoke and Salem, with an emphasis on Roanoke College’s beautiful campus. Every 10 minutes, it seems, the movie cuts to a view of the Roanoke Star.

Back in 2020, Roanoke was the setting for a small, unnerving indie drama, “The Swerve,” that managed the astonishing feat of earning a “100% Fresh” score on Rottentomatoes.com, which films nerds know is 1) very hard to accomplish, 2) and a sign of an excellently made movie. “#followfriday” on the other hand has garnered so little attention despite being out for years that it has no reviews on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and an audience score of 23% “rotten.”

Back in the age of the dinosaurs — i.e., 1999 — the hit sci-fi mystery show “The X-Files” set an episode in “Hollins, Virginia” but didn’t film it here, which a few local fans saw as a missed opportunity, as the tongue-in-cheek tale of demonic powers could perhaps have made convenient use of the Star City’s great big glowing star.

Well, for those who’ve been waiting to see the Roanoke Star employed for sinister atmosphere, “#followfriday” does it. Perhaps someday there will be a really cool hit movie that sets its climactic cat and mouse shootout inside Roanoke’s storied Grandin Theatre, but until that movie arrives, we have “#followfriday.”

Regarding that earlier note: back in 2011, a remake of the actual worst movie ever made, “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” was partially filmed in Roanoke. The remake is also terrible, but fun in the way that movies that know they’re bad can be fun.

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