Friday, October 19, 2012

New books from N.C. writers

A memoir of madness and a supernatural coming-of-age story are among this season’s new books by authors with N.C. connections.

In “The Seventh Angel,” former Charlottean Alex McKeithen delivers an in-your-face account of his battle with bipolar disorder.

While he was a Davidson College junior studying in Paris, McKeithen came to believe he was the seventh angel, assigned to announce the coming Apocalypse. His mania led to a run through Paris streets, where he shed clothes until he was arrested, nude, at the Arc de Triomphe.

With the help of his parents, Charlotte’s Ward and Liz McKeithen, he returned to North Carolina. He was successfully treated and graduated from Davidson in 1989. McKeithen, an artist and designer, lives in New York City. His clients have included Rolling Stone and Forbes. The memoir (Lorimer Press; $24.95) is out Nov. 1. McKeithen will sign books at 5 p.m. Nov. 17 at Poor Richard's Book Shoppe, 135 Brevard Ct.

“The Suburban Strange,” the first in a young-adult series by Durham’s Nathan Kotecki, is a paranormal mystery. It’s set at Suburban High, where strange things are happening to female students. Kotecki will sign books at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Kotecki, a former DJ, peppers the book (Houghton Mifflin; $16.99) with musical references – from classical to Goth.
N.C. authors have also written several new histories.

Cary’s Joseph Wheelan, a former Associated Press editor, details the life and times of Civil War Union Gen. Philip Sheridan in “Terrible Swift Sword” (Da Capo Press; $26).

Michele Gillespie is author of “Katharine and R.J. Reynolds: Partners of Fortune in the Making of the New South” (University of Georgia Press; $32.95). When tobacco company founder R.J. Reynolds married Katharine, their partnership went beyond family. The book shows how the Winston-Salem couple provided leadership for a series of progressive reform movements.

“An Independent Profession: A Centennial History of the Mecklenburg County Bar” (Lorimer Press: $24.95), was commissioned by the Mecklenburg County Bar and Mecklenburg Bar Foundation. Authors Marion Ellis and Howard Covington recount some of Charlotte’s most interesting legal history. Both are former Observer reporters.   Ellis lives in Durham; Covington, in Greensboro.

Chapel Hill sports journalist Tim Crothers brings us “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” (Scribner; $26). The book grew out of a magazine story on a street kid in Uganda who became a world champion chess player.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

UNC Charlotte grad wins $10,000 writing prize

Stephanie Powell Watts, an English professor who grew up in Lenoir and Wilkesboro, has won the 2012 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, a prize that recognizes rising African-American writers. The award includes a $10,000 prize.

Watts graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1997 with an English degree. With her husband, Bob Watts, she wrote a community column for the Charlotte Observer in 1996-97.

The Gaines Award is one of several honors Watts has received for her debut short story collection, "We Are Taking Only What We Need." Earlier this year, the book was a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, considered the nation's most important award for a first work of fiction.

Watts’ characters in the story collection are young black women living in North Carolina. For the book’s Pushcart Prize-winning story, “Unassigned Territory,” she draws from personal experience as a former Jehovah’s Witness. In the story, the narrator, a young black woman, is proselytizing door to door on a hot day in rural North Carolina.

"On the way past the car, past the tired old dog, through the patchy yard,” the narrator recalls as she leaves one woman’s porch, “I can’t be sure, but I think I heard the woman say ‘wetback.’ I don’t know, it could have been the bigoted cicadas or heat stroke, but I think she called me a wetback. I wanted to put my finger in her crumpled face, her skin like the film from Krazy Glue and say something wise and cutting like, ‘Get your racial epithets right, Ms. Einstein.’”

Watts told me earlier this year that as a former Jehovah’s Witness she has often written about losing faith "and what that feels like and trying to figure out how to reconstitute yourself once you’ve lost faith."

Watts, who teaches English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, holds a PhD from the University of Missouri.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dinner, books, conversation: It's Bibilofest

In fall 2010, the Charlotte chapter of the Women's National Book Association launched Bibliofest, an evening of dining and book discussions with authors. The group dubbed the event "a literary moveable feast."

On Oct. 22, Charlotte's WNBA chapter will host its third annual Bibliofest. I say we declare this moveable feast a local tradition.

It's a fun concept. First, there's a cash bar. Then you dine. This year's event is 6-9 p.m. at Maggiano's Little Italy Restaurant at SouthPark Mall. While you eat, authors take turns visiting your table to discuss their books and answer questions. All books are available for purchase.

This year's Bibliofest features at least eight authors, including Debra Dean. Like her 2007 bestseller, "The Madonnas of Leningrad," Dean's new novel, "A Mirrored World," is set in Russia. Also appearing:

  • Charlotte mystery writer Mark deCastrique, whose latest novel is "The 13th Target."
  • Emily Colin of Wilmington, whose debut novel is the "The Memory Thief."
  • S.C. novelist Mary Glickman, author of "One More River" and "Home in the Morning."
  • Charlotte's Judy Goldman, a novelist and poet whose new memoir is "Losing My Sister."
  • Brooklyn novelist Shira Nayman, author of "A Mind of Winter."
  • Elena Passarello, whose essay collection, "Let Me Clear My Throat," explores memorable moments in the history of the human voice.
  • Wendy Welch, author of "The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap," a memoir of owning a book store in Big Stone Gap, Va.

You can buy tickets, $45 for WNBA members and $55 for nonmembers, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, or online at More information:, 704-439-4596 or 612-382-5868.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Former Charlotte judge pens novel

A black man walks along a dark Alabama road. A car of teenaged white boys approaches. One boy throws an egg, striking its target.

The teenagers haven’t anticipated what happens next. The man turns, his face contorted in fear and anger. And he begins to chase them.

This powerful scene comes early in “Leaving Tuscaloosa,” the debut novel from Chapel Hill’s Walter Bennett. If it reads as especially real, it’s because Bennett plucked it from his own life. He wasn’t the kid who threw the egg. But he was in the car.
Bennett, a retired UNC Chapel Hill law professor, was a lawyer and state district court judge in Charlotte in the 1970s and early ’80s. His wife, Betsy, was a Mecklenburg school board member and is director of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

He was about 15 when he sat in the car on the real-life Tuscaloosa night he fictionalizes in his novel, and he says the event helped change his world view.

When the assaulted man gave chase, he suddenly saw a person, not some anonymous black man.

“It seemed like a good scene to start a novel about the process of becoming morally conscious of your society,” says Bennett, 69.

“Leaving Tuscaloosa” (Fuze; $16.95), is the story of two young men, one black, one white, both on moral journeys. It’s set in 1962, just before Alabama exploded with violence during the civil rights era.
One man, Acee, is a black teenager whose activist brother is about to be hunted like an animal. The other is Richeboux, a middle-class white kid haunted by his own actions.

Though “Leaving Tuscaloosa” is just out, it was a 2010 finalist for the Bellwether Prize, now called the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The award, created by novelist Barbara Kingsolver, honors unpublished fiction that addresses social justice issues.
That honor helped affirm years Bennett has worked to develop his craft. He contemplated writing fiction, he says, since his days as an English major. But in college, he assumed novelists were all geniuses. He figured he wasn’t. So he went into law.

In 1999, he retired to pursue writing. It was a long road. “It was a process of learning how much I didn’t know and how far I had to go,” he says. “It took a conversion and even some therapy to turn my mind from linear legal thinking.”

Like many Southerners, Bennett says, racial issues have been central in his own moral journey. Writing helps him gain understanding. He’s now at work on a novel set just after the Civil War.

Bennett wil give a reading 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at Park Road Books. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mecklenburg County Bar publishes new history

Over the past century, Mecklenburg County Bar lawyers have played key roles in Charlotte's most important public debates and controversies.

Now, a new book, "An Independent Profession: A Centennial History of the Mecklenburg County Bar,"
tells many of those stories through a legal lens.

Veteran authors Marion Ellis and Howard Covington spent two years researching and writing the book, which was commissioned by the Mecklenburg County Bar and Mecklenburg Bar Foundation.

 Longtime Charlotteans have lived some of this history. The book devotes a chapter, for instance, to the late U.S. District Court Judge James McMillan's groundbreaking 1970 Swann v.Mecklenburg ruling, which found that schools could use busing to achieve integration.

 It also details the personal toll the case took on participants. Thugs firebombed the homes of plaintiffs' attorney Julius Chambers and two other Charlotte civil rights activists. Later, an arsonist set fire to Chambers' law firm office.

McMillan was also judge in the precedent-setting Hyatt case. Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont teamed with Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson lawyers to successfully challenge a 1984 Social Security Administration ruling that took away the disability benefits of thousands of N.C. residents. The Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson team ultimately won national recognition for its pro bono work.

Ellis, a former Observer reporter, told me he learned a lot researching this book. One of his favorite discoveries was the Mecklenburg Bar's Lawyer Referral Service, a valuable public service that gives people up to a 30-minute consultation with a lawyer for $50.

 Ellis and Covington will sign copies of the new book (Lorimer Press; $24.95), at 7 p.m. Oct. 10 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

York, S.C. teacher wins $10,000 writing prize

Kay McSpadden, an English teacher at York, S.C.'s York Comprehensive High and a Charlotte Observer community columnist, has won this year's Norman Mailer Writing Award for high school teachers writing fiction.

The annual award, which carries a $10,000 prize, is given by the Norman Mailer Center and the National Council of Teachers of English. McSpadden won for her short story, "Why Women Moan in Bed."

Judges were author and radio host Garrison Keillor and authors Colum McCann and Sigrid Nunez.
McFadden, who lives in Rock Hill, writes a column for the Observer's editorial page, usually on education. She'll accept the Mailer award at a gala Thursday in New York City. The prize also includes a month's stay at a writer's colony in Cape Cod.

The Norman Mailer Center gives several writing awards each year. It also named Davidson College sophomore Jessie Li, from State College, Pa., a finalist for the Norman Mailer Award for College Poetry Writing.