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The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile by Jo Ann Kiser

We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t go home again,” and most of us know what it’s like to go back to a home that has changed in our absence.

It can be startling to return to a place that’s practically unrecognizable, and to no longer be able to physically go back to the home where we grew up.

One collection of stories that captures this particularly well is The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile by Jo Ann Kiser (Atmosphere Press).


Jo Ann Kiser tells the story of the people of Eastern rural Kentucky, which also partially includes the people of the Appalachian Mountains. Life in rural Kentucky has dramatically changed over the years with the decline in the use of coal, more people choosing to live in the suburbs instead, terrible flooding and more.

These stories uniquely capture the story of rural homes that were impacted by shifts in business, living standards and the weather. Fellow readers who have gone through something similar are sure to resonate with these snapshot-like stories, too.

It’s also great to see an increase in writers documenting their lives in the Appalachian mountains and the rural corners of “flyover states,” both of which were infrequently discussed in memoirs and memoir-like fiction until just a few years ago. With fellow writers from the rural areas of Appalachia like Alison Stine, Hilary Varner and Barbara Kingsolver, Jo Ann Kiser is in wonderful company and has made a meaningful contribution of her own.


These stories were literal snapshots capturing moments in time — but like the photographs we kept, sometimes the memory we associated with it was not so carefully preserved in real life. In addition to telling these thoughtful tales, Kiser does not shy away from the idea that we may not be able to go home again, not only because it has changed but because it’s physically not even there anymore.

One touching story from the book involved a young girl witnessing a man with a guitar walking by her home. At first, transfixed by his appearance, she simply watches, but later, their relationship deepens when she tries to connect with him. Seeing a photo of her front gate might remind the woman of the man she used to see with the guitar and the relationship they had that is no longer attainable. Sometimes, even the good memories hold a twinge of sadness.

In each of these idyllic stories, through Kiser’s careful writing style, we’re able to follow the story with all of our senses and really dive into the moment ourselves. Despite the heaviness of not being able to return home, Kiser’s beautiful imagery and concisely told stories are infused with humor — at times subtle, at times uproarious and always perfectly placed.


Not only did I love and relate to the stories shared in this book, but I also tremendously enjoyed Kiser’s writing style. Her work is thoughtful, precise and often subtle — perfect for a quiet, slower rural lifestyle.

Two examples of her excellent word choice that stayed with me throughout this book were contained right there in the title: “songs” and “exile.” The word “songs” inspires more of a mournful spirit than “stories” might have, and it allows for a certain southern, almost bluesy quality. And while none of the characters here were victims of literal exile, the word fits that feeling of trying to go home — often in vain.

This was a wonderful read that will allow readers to reflect on and celebrate the places where they grew up. Through her beautifully told account of her early years in Kentucky, Kiser has created a space for all who have to make peace with leaving home.


About Jo Ann Kiser:

Jo Ann Kiser is a native of the eastern Kentucky hills whom chance has allowed a rich and varied life, from her childhood in the hills, to being a “checker” at The New Yorker, to completing a dissertation on Proust at the University of Chicago. She has also taught briefly at Morehead State University in Kentucky and at Tennessee Tech. The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile is her first full-length work to be published.

The Guitar Player and Other Songs of Exile by Jo Ann Kiser
Publish Date: July 11, 2022
Genre: Fiction
Author: Jo Ann Kiser
Page Count: 238 pages
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
ISBN: 978-1639884384
Mckenzie Tozan

McKenzie is a poet, novelist, essayist and avid reader. She received her B.A. in English and B.S. in Education from Indiana University, followed by her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Since 2010, she’s worked in the publishing industry, primarily with small presses and literary magazines. Originally from the Midwest, McKenzie now calls coastal Croatia home, alongside her husband, their three children and their cat. When she isn’t writing or reading, she’s probably creating art, playing piano, swimming, hiking, or baking Halloween treats. You can find more about her on her website.

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