Books I Have Loved

The Charleston Gazette is publishing short essays called Books I Have Loved. Here is mine published yesterday.

My best friend in the Peace Corps introduced me to John Steinbeck. Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row were the first books that caused me to laugh out loud. In Dubious Battle was my favorite of Steinbeck’s serious novels.
Other gut laughs came from: Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, brought to my attention by Mike Adkins, a Duval High School student; Tom Sharpe’s hilarious Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, spoofed the insanity of South African society under apartheid.
My all time favorite novel is The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote the more famous All Quiet on the Western Front. The Black Obelisk begins in 1923 Germany when the economic collapse fueled the early days of Hitler. Sometimes funny and black humored, this story is told as a salary increase in the morning had to be spent before the noon currency exchange rates rendered it worthless and a cigar could economically be lit with a ten mark note. And there is a drunken retired army officer who urinates on the black obelisk.
Starting with Things Fall Apart I read the wonderful novels of Nigerian Ibo author Chinua Achebe. Achebe tells of the subjugation of the Ibo culture by British domination and takes place where I lived in the Peace Corps.
Some other favorites are: At Play in the Fields of the Lord with its treatment of missionary arrogance and folly in the Amazon jungle; The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Barz, considered by some to be the greatest novel of the Holocaust.
Of course, 1984 and Animal Farm, which I read as a WVU student in 1955, when 1984 seemed far in the future, had profound effects on me. I could go on with such as Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s sly musings and many others that stopped me in my tracks and turned me around.
Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth tell us in seamless prose how West Virginia got in such a mess; as does Ronald Lewis’ Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920 For pictures of that mess try, Plundering Appalachia, Tom Butler and George Wuerthner, editors. And don’t miss Night Comes to the Cumberlands.
And to grin and laugh, sometimes out loud, there are the first two volumes of Pogo comic strips, from whence comes, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie.”

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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