Friday, January 31, 2014

New books from North Carolina authors

If you’re someone whose online security precautions consist of using the word “password” for your passwords, you might want to grab a copy of “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs To Know” (Oxford University Press; $16.95.)

The book, co-authored by Peter Singer, a Charlotte native who directs the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, has won glowing reviews. Popular Science calls it an "impressively comprehensive guide to one of the least understood arenas of modern life.”

Though it’s concise, at 300 pages, the guide covers cyber issues both personal and global with easy-to-understand explanations and engaging stories. It explains, for instance, how a U.S. soldier stationed in the Middle East triggered one of the largest security breaches in U.S. history in 2008 when he used a USB flash drive he’d found in a parking lot.

The drive had been planted there by a foreign intelligence agency in a ploy known as a “candy drop.” Moral of that story: If you don’t know where the flash drive has been, don’t use it.
Singer and co-author Allen Friedman report, by the way, that the most frequently used password is “password.” And the second-most popular? “123456.”

Bryan Robinson, a therapist, retired UNC Charlotte professor and author of self-help books on issues such as stress and workaholism, is now also a novelist.

In his new mystery, “Limestone Gumption” (Gale/Five Star Publishers; $25.95), psychologist Brad Pope becomes a murder suspect when he returns to his hometown to confront his long-lost father. Robinson will read and sign copies at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Asheville’s Marie Bartlett has written “Pearl, MD” (Taylor and Seale; $14.95.) Set in the late 1800s, this historical novel follows a young woman physician who moves to Asheville to make a fresh start following a tragic medical mistake.

Charlotte attorney Scott Syfert is author of “The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775” (McFarland; $35.)

As Syfert explains in his preface, the story of whether the people of Mecklenburg County wrote the first declaration of independence in the American colonies “continues to arouse strong passions.” While many historians dismiss the document as a myth or hoax, Syfert offers the comprehensive story.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Plunging into adulthood with 'Kids These Days'

When his wife was pregnant with their first child, Drew Perry began writing his new novel, “Kids These Days.” It’s about a soon-to-be father who is unsure he wants to have kids.

So yes, real-life parallels abound. The author and his protagonist, Walter, shared similar feelings about impending fatherhood. “I was equal parts selfish and terrified,” Perry told me recently. “My great disaster scenario was I’m going to have to get up early for the rest of my life.”

But all has ended well. Perry, 39, overcame his angst, marriage intact. He and his wife, writer Tita Ramirez, now have two sons, ages 3 and 11 months, and Kirkus Reviews calls Perry’s new novel, “Kids These Days” (Algonquin; $14.95), a “funny, frenzied tale of a terrified man plummeting helplessly into his own adulthood.”

Perry lives in Greensboro and teaches at Elon University. With this novel, along with his well-reviewed first book, “This Is Just Exactly Like You,” he’s earning numerous kudos as a fresh comic voice. He'll read and sign copies  at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

As “Kids These Days” begins, Walter and his wife, Alice, are in fresh-start mode. Walter has lost his mortgage job in Charlotte, so they’ve moved to Florida, where they can live rent free in a beachfront condo that had belonged to Alice’s late great-aunt.

With baby on the way, Walter takes a job with his brother-in-law, Middleton, who has four girls, a giant house and multiple businesses, including new ice-distribution kiosks called Twice-the-Ice because they deliver twice what you’d get at a gas station.

When Middleton, known as Mid, enlists Walter to help launch the new ice venture, we get an only-in-Florida scene:
“Mid and I each bought probably twenty dollars of ice the first day we had the thing up and running. We gave bags away for free to anybody who came up to see what was going on. … We gave bag after bag to people w
ho weren’t prepared to take them, who put them sweating and melting into their trunks, down onto their floorboards. Mid said the thing about it being twice the ice was that even if they lived a long way away, they still had an even chance of there being a regular amount of ice left by the time they made it home.”

When the novel ends, Mid’s life has unraveled in shocking ways, but Walter seems ready for fatherhood. Perry says if his oldest son ever reads “Kids These Days,” he already has a good idea about what he’ll tell him: “I won’t have any trouble saying it’s not that I didn't want you. It's just that I didn't want anybody but me. I had to grow out of that.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

North Carolina's Ruthie Houston, the inspiration for a classic children's book, dead at 99

Ruthie Houston, the woman who inspired the beloved children's book, "The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree," died Wednesday at 99.

Born in Avery County in 1914, Houston was the mother of Gloria Houston, author of 11 books, including her most famous, "The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree," a best-selling picture book set in the North Carolina mountains during World War I.

Since its publication more than 25 years ago, Houston's Appalachian tale has sold millions of copies and become a holiday classic.

Its main character is a little girl named Ruthie who's supposed to play the heavenly angel in her church's annual Christmas Eve play.

Though that book brought Ruthie the most notoriety, she was beloved in Avery and Mitchell Counties long before that. A natural storyteller, she for years entertained schoolchildren who visited her Sunny Brook Store in Avery County to hear the stories of mountain life that inspired her daughter's books.

In December, I wrote a story about Ruthie and her birthday wish. For her 100th birthday, which would have been on March 9, she wanted people to donate money to help reduce the national debt. She even made a video, which you can watch on YouTube.

Ruthie was concerned the debt could threaten the many government and social programs that helped alleviate poverty and suffering in her lifetime. When I interviewed Ruthie in December, she recounted stories of family members who died for lack of medicine or government safety regulations.

"I just don't want those things to happen again to my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren," she said. "We have come so far with having necessities. But I don't want them to have to go backward instead of forward."

Ruthie's son, Jerry Houston, lives in Charlotte. She died Wednesday at the home of her daughter, Gloria, in Asheville. Gloria posted this on Facebook:

On Wednesday evening, as fluffy snowflakes fell outside the window of Ruthie’s room a glowing sunset broke through the clouds lighting her face. In that glow, about 6:30 p m, I held her hand as she stopped breathing and was gone. This was the visual image with which she left me. Her death was peaceful, and our conversation was vital until a few moments before.

She was disappointed that she would not celebrate that 100th birthday and that she would not be voting for a woman for President, but she said that she was “so tired.” Her heart was exhausted from the effort of the past few weeks, but, on Tuesday she had visited with Jerry for much of the day as she worked on her latest napkin making project, at the request of a friend. Then she walked to her bathroom and to the table to join us for pizza--with garlic.

Ruthie was only disabled for one day. Until her final moments, she was mentally active, only last week calling for a friend’s birthday (on her own cell phone) to sing the rhymed couplets she had composed specific to that friend. Her leaving was much as she had wanted it to be. We are blessed to have had her among us for almost 100 years.

Visitation will be 5-8 p.m. Friday at Webb Funeral Home in Spruce Pine. Burial will be private. Ruthie's family and friends will celebrate her life in a memorial service at Pine Grove United Methodist Church, north of Spruce Pine, at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The family asks that attendees refrain from wearing fragances or hair spray and refrain from smoking beforehand. ,

Monday, January 6, 2014

Queens University novelist to read from 'Dept. of Speculation'

Jenny Offill's latest novel, "Dept. of Speculation," out Jan. 28, is  getting rave reviews.

Library Journal says it's an "enlightened choice for a reading group."A starred Publishers Weekly review calls it "clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty."

The novel is narrated by a wife analyzing her life amid motherhood and a faltering marriage.

 Offill, who teaches in Queens University of Charlotte's Low-Residency Creative Writing MFA program, will give a reading  at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 10 in Queens' Ketner Auditorium. She'll be joined by poet Morri Creech, author of "The Sleep of Reason."

Friday, January 3, 2014

My favorites books: 2013 edition

Looking for a book to start the new year? Here are some of my 2013 favorites. You’ll notice they include an over-representation of New York-centered works. This was not planned. Maybe the Big Apple is just a good place to set a story.

A book that makes you feel weird about your smart phone: “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart. 

In this dark, comic novel set in near-future New York, America is run by mega-conglomerates with names like LandO’LakesGMFordCredit. Also, everyone carries smart phone-like devices called “apparats” that can rate a person’s hotness and credit-worthiness. Published in 2010, it’s fiction that’s predicting the future pretty accurately. 

Another book that makes you feel weird about your smart phone: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Issacson.

Issacson captures Jobs’ quirks and complexity – bizarre eating habits, aversion to deodorant, selfishness – while illuminating his genius for making products that have transformed the way we live. 

Worth all 1,300 pages: “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” by Robert Caro.

I knew zilch about Moses until I read this 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner. Now I know that he shaped 20th-century New York, for better and worse, without ever holding elected office. Caro’s tenacious reporting and research left me awed. You won’t find a finer study of power and its uses. 

Tensest scene ever involving soda bread: “Someone” by Alice McDermott. 

Well-chosen details elevate this story of an ordinary Brooklyn girl named Marie. In the author’s skilled hands, small scenes of daily life – young Marie balking when her mom assigns her to make the family’s soda bread – pulse with drama and import.

Revisiting the 1970s: “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann. 

This 2009 National Book Award winner for fiction weaves disparate characters – a Catholic priest, mother-daughter prostitutes, a Park Avenue housewife – into a rich, sprawling portrait of New York in the early 1970s. 

Makes you thankful for airport security: “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” by Brendan Koerner.

In a five-year period starting in 1968, hijackers began seizing U.S. commercial jets at a rate of nearly once a week. Koerner tells the riveting tale of the longest-distance hijacking in American history, set in an era when airlines would rather have a plane hijacked than inconvenience passengers with pesky metal detectors.