Monday, July 28, 2014

Hal Crowther on H.L. Mencken: 'Most hated man in America'

H.L. Mencken
I asked prize-winning syndicated columnist Hal Crowther of Hillsboro what exactly he likes so much about H.L. Mencken. Crowther's study, "An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken," will be out from the University of Iowa Press in October. His answer:

There's nothing I like so much about H.L. Mencken. He was widely regarded as the most hated man in America in the '20s and '30s and that was long before they published his letters and journals, which reviled nearly everyone and betrayed most of his friends. Not a sweetheart. It seems to me that no one who knows his work well would like him. Rather, we respect him, we tend to hold him in awe -- for English prose unmatched by any journalist of his time or ours, for his unprecedented readership that included nearly all educated and skeptical Americans for several generations, for the outrageous courage to ridicule every sacred cow back when those cows were truly sacred -- democracy, religion, patriotism, capitalism, idealism, agrarianism, chastity, sobriety. Name it and he mocked it, including World War I. He rooted for the Kaiser. Somehow, he was never lynched, jailed or even assaulted. He was the last fearless, powerful, unavoidable independent voice of the free press the Founders intended, and to a large extent this book is a lament for the loss of such voices, as it becomes clear that we'll never hear any more, and that the balance of power they provided is gone forever. It's nearly impossible to feel affection for Mencken, but it's irresponsible -- for any American -- not to read him.          

Friday, July 25, 2014

Love Italy? New books explore art, depravity, politics and narrow streets

Crinkled map of Florence in hand, Dianne Hales traces the route Mona Lisa may have ridden on her wedding day in 1495, the convent where her sister may have been assaulted, and the studio where she likely sat before "Leonardo's attentive gaze." In "Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (Simon & Schuster, $28), Hales, a tenacious, curiosity-fueled prize-winning journalist, sweeps us up in her fascination with the mysterious woman she learned was, in fact, a real woman. Lisa Gherardini was born in a converted wool shop in 1749 and married the truculent Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. And that smile? "Consciously or not," Hales writers, "We see in Lisa what we want to see -- mother, lover, daughter, fantasy, soother, seductress." A fascinating read if you're interested in art, family dynasties and dynamics and the customs and habits of daily life in 15th century Italy.

Another take on that smile is Renaissance scholar Alexander Lee's in "The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty" (Doubleday, $29.95). He says the mysterious Mona Lisa smile hides a  world of power politics and anti-semitism during this time of sex, scandal and suffering. "Its cities were filled with depravity and inequality, its streets thronged with prostitutes and perverted priests and its houses played home to seduction, sickness and shady backroom deals and conspiracies of every variety." It's an October release.

“Pisa doesn’t appeal to me,” says John Keahey in "Hidden Tuscany: A Well-Known Region's Unknown Places" (Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99). So Keahey heads for the "narrow streets of western Tuscany villages buried deep in the foothills of imposing mountains," as he combines travelogue with deep history, present-day conversations and mouth-watering descriptions of cheese, pasta, sausage and bread. He also includes off-the-beaten-path literary anecdotes, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley's bizarre cremation ceremony on the beach at Viareggio after he drowned at sea in 1822. Extremely readable.

"The Lost Botticelli," by Paul Stephano (HIP Apollo, $15.95) is a thriller about -- you guessed it -- a lost Botticelli painting. His editors read an early version of the manuscript and wanted more dead bodies and less Renaissance history, according to an online  interview with Stephano. So Stephano delivered up the bodies, and cut the history. Now he says the novel (which the publisher is comparing to "The DaVinci Code") will have to stand on its own. Stephano says he is "quite shy" and his English is not good enough to discuss the book in public. Release date: early September.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Charlotte writer Rebecca Schenck in 'The Widow's Handbook'

Rebecca Schenck of Charlotte is one of the contributors to "The Widow's Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival" (The Kent State University Press, $38 paper). Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, writes the foreword. Schenck is the widow of architectural photographer Gordon Schenck, who died in 2009: Here is her excerpt, addressed to her late husband:

Come Saturday Morning

If we were in town on Saturday, of course we went to the Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market on Yorkmont Road. Longtime vendors knew that we would pick the vegetables with unusual shapes or colors that matched our pottery: red onions, turnips and eggplant. Sometimes cucumbers and gourds took the natural form of animals, which you loved tucking under your arm. 

The last time you were there, Mrs. Hoffman walked you to the car that I had pulled up close to her booth. A couple of weeks after you died, I took her your obituary, told the berry man and the flower man, didn't buy a thing.

The second time I went, Nise was back with her spring lettuce. When I told her you were gone, she hugged me and cried, handing me a mixed bag of red and green. She told me Lily had lost her daughter. I didn't recognize the name, but she's the artistic woman who placed the flowers beside the little vegetables on her table. I stopped to sympathize with her. Mrs. Hoffman gave me a jar of jelly and mailed me an Easter card.

Another week, I bought one tomato, one bell pepper, four yellow squash and a $2 bunch of blue ragged robins from the Asian family we liked so much. Gas prices are going up again, and I stopped on South Tryon to fill the Volvo. A woman at the pump noticed the flowers on the front seat and said they were pretty. I told her they were our favorites but my sweet husband had died; then I burst into tears. She said, "That's all right," and I said it wasn't.

Last Saturday, I went to the Farmers' Market again. When Mrs. Hoffman gave me pink peonies, I remembered your mother's talking about the peonies that bloomed the May you were born. At the plant shed I bought two Irene lantanas and stopped to tell the Celtic herb man that this year we have a full crop of his Kentucky Colonel spearmint. But you are not here. He was so sorry and handed me a pot of dill.

I came home and had what we liked best for a summer Saturday lunch: an ear of corn, a BLT and iced tea with a sprig of mint. I miss you.

Monday, July 21, 2014

'Major book deal' for former Observer reporter

In "a major deal," according to Publishers Market Place, former award-winning Observer reporter Paige Williams' "The Dinosaur Artist," was recently sold to Hachette Book Group at auction in New York. Slated for the fall of 2016, the book will tell of the global fascination with the fossils of deep time, "explored through one maverick's obsession with dinosaur bones and his quest to bring the illicit skeleton of a Mongolian Tarbosaurus bataar into the United States and to auction at Manhattan." The book grew out of Williams' article, "Bones of Contention," in a January 2013 issue of The New Yorker magazine.
Williams has traveled widely since her Observer days. I emailed her questions about her life and her work.

What gave you the idea for the New Yorker storyBones of Contention”?

I was sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Tupelo, Miss., reading the paper, and came across a brief about an amateur paleontologist who was en route to prison for stealing a dinosaur from federal land out west. The idea of dinosaur thieves made me sit up in my chair. I had no idea that the subculture of fossil hunters existed, much less that there was this whole rich back story that paralleled American history, global adventurism, and the rise of American science.

That one little blurb, in 2009, led to more or less a continual obsession with the subculture, and especially with the somewhat class-driven tensions within it, and the lengths (and risk) that scientists and commercial hunters will take in order to find, study, own, or sell the most spectacular specimens of earth history.

You might assume a story about fossils is static; in fact, the story of fossils in our culture is gorgeously dynamic. Fossils aren’t just alive in the imaginations of people who love dinosaurs; they’re alive in the sciences—with vital, morphing data about extinction and climate change—and, of course, on the marketplace, which is the source of such angst between commercial hunters and paleontologists.

One thing I was surprised to learn early on: the United States is one of the few dinosaur-rich countries on earth, and controversially unique in its approach to the conservation and protection of fossils. (If you find a T. rex in your back yard, it’s yours to keep. Good luck.) Anyway, if you’re interested in the full account of how the story came together, The Open Notebook did a wonderful piece about it.

You've recently moved from Boston to teach at the University of Missouri. What exactly will you be teaching?<

I’ve just taken a professorship at the Missouri School of Journalism, yes, to teach writing (and related courses) specific to the craft of longform narrative. It’s not unlike my work at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard (where I taught for the past four years and, for the past three, edited Nieman Storyboard), and at other universities, including NYU and MIT.

I’ve taught other courses over the years—criticism, investigative, feature writing—but longform narrative is my favorite. Across platforms, across media, storytelling is the mother. Learn how to tell a good story and you can do it in any journalistic form: video, multimedia, comics, audio, etc.

The Mizzou students are so driven, smart, inquisitive, and respectful—it’s going to be a joy and an honor, working with them. The alumni list alone suggests the kind of talent that Mizzou turns out: Wright Thompson, Seth Wickersham, Ann Friedman, Justin Ellis, Jim Lehrer, and the Observer’s own Tim Funk. Oh and hello, didn’t Brad Pitt study journalism there? He told Terry Gross he quit two weeks before graduation; he’s supposedly a credit shy of a degree. He’s welcome to come back. I’ll tutor.

Will you divide your time between Columbia and New York?

My magazine life is in New York, so I’m back and forth a good bit. I’ve always been a road type; straddling two or more worlds isn’t an unnatural concept to me. It satisfies the whole yin/yang thing, as well as the wanderlust. And because I lived in New York for years, well beyond my three years in grad school at the Columbia School of the Arts, the city still feels like home. Charlotte feels that way to me, too, and always will.

I understand you're working on a new piece for The New Yorker.

A piece on capital punishment. That’s about all I can say for now. It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of public policy and regionalism that I’ve ever encountered

What did you learn as a reporter at the O that has stood you in good stead?

How to be a reporter and how to properly value storytelling. During my time at the Observer, there were so many journalists who were exceptional at one or the other, or both, and who served as important mentors by osmosis. No one did more to open my eyes to craft than did Foster Davis, whose workshop handouts (New Yorker pieces, especially E.B. White) and gift books ("The Careful Writer"), I still tote around with me, city to city. Foster taught us how to see the storytelling possibilities inherent in the land of fact, and how, while working as information gatherers, to think, with equal energy, like writers.

I was also fortunate to have worked with editors who were good to me, and who let me try things. When Mike Weinstein finally agreed to be my editor, he once agreed to let me try an audio sidebar to a story about the celebrated storyteller Ray Hicks. The story was “Ray & Rosa: A Love Story.” Ray was a masterful teller of “jack tales” who lived on Beech Mountain. He sang these eerily beautiful a cappella folk songs.

This was 1998, pre-multimedia at our paper. I recorded one of Ray’s songs, desperate for readers to hear it. Weinstein found a spare phone extension, and I played the recording of Ray singing as the outgoing message. We ran the phone number in the newspaper, with the main story, and readers called in, just to listen. Early interactive, for sure.

You earned an MFA from Columbia. What was your specialty?

My MFA is in fiction. The Columbia School of the Arts’ writing program has an exceptional nonfiction track but I applied in fiction for a couple of reasons. One, the faculty was strong: Ben Marcus, Alan Ziegler, Binnie Kirshenbaum, David Gates, Richard Locke (hands down one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard), Richard Howard, Victoria Redel, Sigrid Nunez, Kathryn Harrison, so many others. And the alumni, inspiring: Jonathan Ames, Susan Minot, Karen Russell (she was a year behind me but I’m listing her here because she’s terrific), Wells Tower.

Secondly, I wanted to immerse myself in that world with the idea of moving toward the art form After Journalism. I suspect that After Journalism is an illusion--one never really quits--but we'll see.

Paige Williams' Twitter link:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Governor's Circumvention 'Could Be Good Thing,' Says Network Director

This could be a good thing, in the long run," says Ed Southern, executive director of the North
Carolina Writers Network. He's talking about Gov. Pat McCrory's circumvention of standard
procedure in appointing the current poet laureate.

Such a bad thing could ever be a good thing?

"How often does poetry get this much press?" he asks. "How often does the poet laureate? Now, no one who's paying a lick of attention can claim not to know that we have used an effective process for selecting our poet laureate, that the laureate position is necessary and vital and much more than ceremonial, that poetry itself is necessary and vital and much more than pretty words, or that we have a community of writers in this state who will stand up and be heard.

"The bad thing would've been if this selection (or any new laureate) was met with a collective shrug." 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Former Poets Laureate 'Outraged and Deeply Disappointed'

Martha Waggoner of the AP reports that North Carolina's four former poets laureate have requested a meeting with Gov. Pat McCrory. Earlier today, the four -- Fred Chappell, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Cathy Smith Bowers and Joseph Bathanti -- issued a statement about their outrage:

"As former poets laureate of North Carolina, we remain outraged and deeply disappointed by the circumvention of the established process in place for a number of years to appoint the North Carolina  Poet Laureate, a cherished, time-honored, and crucial position in service to the citizens of the state. Instituted and administered expertly and transparently by the North Carolina Arts Council -- which has our unqualified support and loyalty -- the process insured that the poet laureate, ultimately appointed by the governor, was indeed a poet and educator of singular accomplishment, someone not only with a literary reputation in North Carolina, but beyond. The fact that that process was not recognized in the most recent appointment has resulted in disaster.

"Consequently, we stand at a crucial juncture in time for the literature and the writers of North Carolina -- not just its poets, but all of its writers, regardless of genre -- and, in truth, for literature and writers everywhere.

"Thus, we are dedicated to emerging from this crisis preserved and united as a state-wide community of writers, restoring the prestige and integrity of the Laureateship, and still enjoying our indisputable stature as one of the greatest states for writers and writing in this country."

Fred Chappell
Kathryn Stripling Byer
Cathy Smith Bowers
Joseph Bathanti

Monday, July 14, 2014

Former poets laureate take high road on McCrory's appointment

Kathryn Stripling Byer
Many poets in the state are incensed that Gov. Pat McCrory bypassed standard procedure in selecting Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina as the new N.C. poet laureate, to follow the current poet laureate Joseph Bathanti and serve the state for two years.
Macon, who's 64, and a graduate of Meredith College, has two poetry chapbooks that are self-published.

Other poets laureate, in this state and throughout the nation, typically have a stellar list of  publications, awards and honors.

But two former poets laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer of Cullowhee and Fred Chappell of Greensboro, want to help support Macon.

"I feel it's part of my role as a former poet laureate to offer my assistance to the incoming poet laureate, no matter the violation of protocol that led to her selection," says Byer.

Chappell hopes that Macon's friends in the poetry community will show her the ropes and help her learn to talk to young kids about poetry.

"The idea (of being poet laureate)," he says, "is to spark interest in literature in general, in poetry in particular and in N.C. poetry especially. And to make sure the laureateship is representative and not just about herself."

That doesn't mean that Byer and Chappell are happy the governor circumvented policy.
Byer feels the violation damages our "strong literary reputation throughout the nation and damages the state of North Carolina."

Chappell calls the violation an "arbitrary seizure of power that's liable to result in unfortunate circumstances."