Saturday, December 25, 2010

What was your favorite book of 2010?

In my Dec. 26 column, I list my favorite reads of the year.

Here's the abbreviated version:

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom"

John Updike's "Rabbit Run"

Randi Davenport's "The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes"

Mary Karr's "Lit"

David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas"

David Sedaris's "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk"

Ron Rash's "Burning Bright"

My list of books I want to read in 2011 is already getting long. At the top:

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" a novel by French author Muriel Barbery.

Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun," a nonfiction set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Zadie Smith's essay collection, "Changing My Mind."

I've been intrigued by glowing reviews of "Cleopatra," the new biography by Stacy Schiff.

After hearing Terry Gross interview rapper Jay-Z recently, I'd like to read "Decoded," his new memoir.

So what were the most memorable books you read this year? Leave a comment, tell me why. And what are looking forward to reading in the new year?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Best Xmas shows, from the woman who wrote the book

Joanna Wilson, author of "The Christmas TV Companion" and "Tis the Season TV," has probably watched more cheesy Christmas shows than anyone on the planet.

She talked with me recently about some of her favorites. All are available in libraries, through Netflix or in video stores. Here they are, in five different categories:

Animated: "A Charlie Brown Christmas." "It’s just got this melancholy flavor to it, and the jazz is great," Wilson says. It also rekindles fond memories: In second grade, she played Peppermint Patty in a school production.

Humorous: Mad TV's “A Pack of Gifts Now,” a parody of “Apocalypse Now” using characters from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer..” And yes, Santa plays Kurtz.

Strange: "Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life." This 1993 Academy Award-nominated short film is "bizarre and it’s strange and it’s charming at the same time," Wilson says. On Christmas Eve, Franz Kafka is struggling to come up with the opening words to "Metamorphosis." Need I say more?

Scary: From the 1972 movie, "Tales from the Crypt," a story called "All Through the House" starring Joan Collins. A woman kills her husband on Christmas Eve. As she's cleaning up the body, she hears a radio report that an insane asylum escapee dressed as Santa Claus is in her neighborhood.

Variety Specials: “The Judy Garland Christmas Special,” circa 1963. “If you ever forget how talented this woman is, she’s there to prove it," Wilson says. "At the same time, there’s just something off about it. You can just feel the tension in the air. Which is very Christmasy too.”
Now you're in a holiday mood? Check out more on Wilson's blog.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Charlotte's Dede Wilson pens page-turning poetry

Here's a sentiment you don't often hear: I picked up a new poetry book and couldn't put it down.

The book, by Charlotte poet Dede Wilson, is "Eliza: The New Orleans Years," published by Charlotte's Main Street Rag. And this slim volume, based on actual events, is a real page-turner.

Eliza was Wilson's great- great-grandmother, and her life with husband Caleb has long been a subject of fascination in Wilson's family. "I had always heard the story of Eliza and Caleb, that he had killed her husband in a duel and married her. That always haunted me," Wilson told me.

Wilson used her late mother's research and her own to write Eliza's story for family members. After she finished, she did more research for this fictional version.

"Eliza" is the tale of a young London woman who sails in 1837 with her mother and siblings to New Orleans. In route, she marries the ship's captain. But once on land, she meets Caleb.

Rich and precise, Wilson's blank-verse poems speed the story along. By the end of the book, it's 1862. New Orleans has fallen to Union troops, and Eliza's marriage is disintegrating.

When a writer bases fiction on a true story, I always end up wondering what parts were factual. Wilson answers that question nicely, explaining at the back of the volume the truth and fiction of each poem.
Mark your calendar: She'll read from "Eliza" 7-9 p.m. Jan. 28 at Green Rice Gallery, 451 E. 36th St.

The following poem, "New Orleans," is from "Eliza." She has sailed from England and is newly arrived in New Orleans. It's 1837:

The smells are thicker than any in England:
coffee, sausages, sugared pecans. Flesh
too ripe, too perfumed. My own captain
unwashed--and me in sun-stained threads!
On the levee, a leper is begging.
Someone flips him a picayune. Enough,
I pray, for a dip of soup. I stumble
on rocks and cobbles, pitch through the streets.
Beg for my sisters. I saw Louise, I did,
peering back at me from a carriage.
That small bleached face. I cried to her, I ran--
my captain grabbed my sleeve. The sky is ringing
with heat and mosquitoes. I'm weak-kneed, trying
to breathe. Ah! Scents of camphor and sassafras--
that sweet reek of whisky reeling from doors.
The Vieux Carre. I sway against a wall.
He leads me by the wrist to a filthy street,
through a door, down an oily hall.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hiking the Appalachian Trail, and other euphemisms

Ever ponder how much we rely on euphemisms? I didn't, until I dipped into "Euphemania," a new book sure to delight language lovers.

The book, by Ralph Keyes, explores how we use euphemisms as stand-ins for words that evoke fear, unease or embarrassment.

And, best of all, it offers hundreds of examples, from antiquity to the present.

Did you know, for instance, that "penis" was a euphemism in Cicero's time? It's Latin for tail.

But "penis" is what Keyes calls a "fallen euphemism." "They start out as euphemisms, they're supposed to be respectable, and then they take on the taint of what they refer to."

"Disease" is another fallen euphemism. Think "dis-ease" and you see that it was once a gentle term for illness.

As you might guess, body parts and sex are the most popular subjects for euphemisms. In this group, "Hiking the Appalachian Trail" is a favorite. Meaning "having an affair," it was born in 2009, after one of former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford's staffers offered it as an explanation for the missing governor's whereabouts.

Keyes likes it, too. "Thank God for Mark Sanford," he says.

In recent years, Keyes has noticed, money and finance have birthed many a euphemism. Saying someone is "highly leveraged" sounds nicer than saying he's in debt up to his ears. And a "market correction" seems less scary than a 300-point drop in the stock market.

Keyes will discuss his new book on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" on Tuesday, Dec. 14. Meanwhile, check out more euphemisms than you ever knew and take a euphemism quiz. (Note that they contain explicit language and sexual content.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Two contests for writers of fiction and fact

The N.C. Writers' Network is now taking submissions for two literary prizes:
  • The Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. Open to all writers. Unpublished fiction manuscript shouldn't exceed 12 doubled-spaced pages. Winner receives $1,000 and possible publication in the Thomas Wolfe Review. Entries must be postmarked by Jan. 30.

  • The Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest. First-, second- and third-place winners receive $300, $200 and $100 respectively. Winning entry may be published in Southern Cultures magazine. Entries must be postmarked by Jan. 5.
More details at the N.C. Writers' Network.