Thursday, January 27, 2011

Will "The Postmistress" be the next big hit with book clubs?

When Sarah Blake arrives at Park Road Books on Tuesday, it'll be her first stop on a national tour aimed at making her novel, "The Postmistress," the talk of book clubs all over the country.

The novel follows the lives of three American women in 1940-41, before America has entered World War II. Two -- a postmistress and a doctor's wife, live in a small town on Cape Cod. The third, Frankie Bard, is a CBS radio reporter stationed in London at the height of the Blitz.

"The Postmistress " spent four weeks on The New York Times bestseller list when it came out in hardback last year. The paperback edition ($15) is out Tuesday, and its publishers are hoping a robust marketing campaign will produce the kind of success -- sales of more than a million copies -- that Kate Jacobs' "Friday Night Knitting Club" enjoyed when it came out in paperback.

After finishing "The Postmistress" last night, I see why Blake's publishers are optimistic. It's a powerful, beautifully written story about how we deal with the news and what we do in response to it. It's about how Iris, the postmistress, and Frankie, the reporter, both betray their beliefs that the mail must be delivered and the news must be reported.

The book, Blake writes at the novel's end, is "about the lies we tell others to protect them, and about the lies we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge what we can't bear: that we are alive, for instance, and eating lunch, while bombs are falling, and refugees are crammed into camps, and the news comes toward us every hour of the day."

In part, she told me in an interview, "I was really trying to come to terms with my own time," a time when we go about our lives as soldiers fight and people die in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To paint an accurate picture of 1940s-era London and America, Blake read histories and novels from the time period, Life magazines and great pieces of war reporting. (In her novel, Edward R. Murrow is Frankie's boss in London.)

"For historical fiction, you want to make a world which is absolutely credible," Blake said. "Your research can’t show at all."

Blake will read and sign copies of "The Postmistress" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

She's also available to speak by phone to book groups. To set up a book club talk, contact
Melissa Broder at

Monday, January 24, 2011

Remembering Reynolds Price

In spring 2009, I went to Duke University to interview Reynolds Price about his new memoir, "Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back." That's how I ended up one morning in his legendary John Milton class, listening to him read from "Samson Agonistes" in his rich baritone: "This one prayer yet remains, might I be heard. No long petition -- speedy death."

At that moment, he certainly sounded like the Oxford-educated intellect he was.

But a few minutes later, the discussion grew lively -- and much more informal -- as Price lobbed questions and students offered answers on the motivation of Dalila, Samson's estranged wife.

Price, too, had a few thoughts about the couple. "Apparently," he said, "they were good sexual partners."

I interviewed Price later, after he took his daily break for physical therapy, required to stimulate blood circulation in his legs. By the time we finished, Price was offering to give my two teenagers a tour of Duke if they were interested in applying to the school. I felt like I'd made a new friend.

I've been replaying that lovely day in my mind since last week, when I wrote Price's obituary following his death Thursday afternoon at age 77. I think we cited most of Price's major accomplishments in the obituary, yet I left the newspaper building that night feeling there was so much more I wanted people to know. I wanted to mention:

--He was killer handsome. Check out the photo of a young Reynolds on the book cover above. The guy could have been a film star.

--He had a great sense of humor. Read "Ardent Spirits" and you'll see it. The memoir recounts six important years in Price's life, from 1955, when he left North Carolina to study as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, to 1961, when he finished his first novel, "A Long and Happy Life." It's full of lively anecdotes. Like the time he and his new British friends were discussing dancing and Price asked the group if they also shagged: "My friends took a gap-mouthed moment of silence, staring at their plates in a textbook illustration of the British idiom for sudden embarrassment, I didn't know where to look. Then at last Michael said, "Well, seldom on the actual dance floor."

--He inspired, encouraged and mentored so many writers. Allan Gurganus ("Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All") was about 12 when he read "A Long and Happy Life." It was a revelation. Gurganus, who grew up in Rocky Mount, told me he had no idea you could set a novel in North Carolina until he read Price. "This was galvanizing," he said.
Price later became his mentor. "He has thousands of people who've been enlarged by him," Gurganus told me. "And I think he's especially good with beginners."

I could go on. He enjoyed watching soap operas. In his younger days, he sometimes wore a long black cape to class. Along with novels and plays and poetry, he wrote song lyrics, television commercials and, once, the text of a Calvin Klein ad.

Price had been in a wheelchair since treatment for spinal cancer left him a paraplegic in the mid-'80s. He lived with pain, yet hid it well. It was past deadline last week when my colleague, Bruce Siceloff, finally reached Price's brother. William Price Jr. told Bruce that his brother's pain during his last six months had been unrelenting.

"He bore his difficulties," Gurganus said, "with Job's own grace."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

UNC Wilmington's new press strikes gold with its debut book

Just days after UNC Wilmington’s new Lookout Books released its debut book, The New York Times raved about it in a front-page review.

How unusual is it for a small, independent press to land a front-page New York Times review with its first book? It’s probably unprecedented.

“It’s like a rookie stepping up to the plate for the first time and hitting a grand slam,” says Lookout Editorial Director Ben George.

I was lucky to reach Lookout Books folks this morning. After glowing reviews of Edith Pearlman’s “Binocular Vision” from both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, they’ve been swamped, responding to interview requests, queries from interested European publishers and emails from U.S. bookstores eager to host Pearlman for readings.

How did an unknown press get such attention?

For one thing, it had a great writer. Pearlman, who’s 74 and lives in Brookline, Mass., has won many accolades for her work, including three O. Henry Prizes. Three of her stories have also been selected for inclusion in “Best American Short Stories.” But like many good short-story writers, she wasn’t widely known.

One person who did know and love her work, however, was George. Formerly an editor with Tin House, a literary quarterly, George came to UNC Wilmington in 2008. He and Executive Director Emily Smith founded Lookout, a literary press that involves creative writing students in the publishing process.

George thought Pearlman would be a perfect fit for Lookout’s mission: To bring attention to emerging and underrepresented writers, as well as overlooked gems by established authors.
It often takes more than great writing to get a short-story collection noticed.

So the press came up with a savvy marketing plan. Knowing that Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto”) was a fan of Pearlman’s, George asked her to write an introduction to the stories. Patchett replied, George recalls, saying she loved Pearlman so much she’d happily pay for the privilege of writing an introduction.

This book, Patchett predicts in the introduction, “should be the book with which Edith Pearlman casts off her secret-handshake status and takes up her rightful position as a national treasure. Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That’s where they belong.”

Other literary heavyweights, including T.C. Boyle (“The Tortilla Curtain”) and Brock Clarke (“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England”), also contributed glowing blurbs. If those weren’t enough, Smith and George enticed reviewers and booksellers with an appealing narrative.

“The narrative is Edith’s story,” Smith says. “She’s 74 and has been writing remarkable stories for decades with little fanfare. When we wrote to some key people, we invited them to discover Edith Pearlman.”
A few days before Christmas, Smith got word via voicemail that The New York Times Book Review was planning a front-page review. “I could barely hold the phone,” she says. She telephoned George with the news.

“I remember saying, ‘Did you say cover? Are you sure, cover?’” George says.
The review, by Roxana Robinson, begins: “Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman? And why, if you hadn’t, hadn’t you? It certainly isn’t the fault of her writing, which is intelligent, perceptive, funny and quite beautiful.”

Lookout has already ordered a second printing from Winston-Salem’s John F. Blair Publisher and predicts printing about 10,000 books in all.

“Everyone likes the story of a wrong being righted,” George says, “of a writer working out of the limelight for years, finally being recognized.”

Pearlman will visit UNCW in March for the official launch of Lookout Books. She’ll read at 7 p.m., March 3 in Morton Hall Auditorium. A reception and book signing will follow.

Lookout, meanwhile, is planning its next publication. Steve Almond’s “God Bless America,” a story collection, will be out in October.
And George, as he tries to describe his reaction to this unexpected success, says he’s attempting to avoid cliches: “I was talking to a friend and saying I won’t use that cliché that it was beyond my wildest dreams. But it is on par with my wildest dreams.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Queens' MFA program to celebrate with big-name authors

Book lovers, mark your calendars for May 21.
That's the night the Low-Residency MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte celebrates its 10th anniversary. A gala event will include readings by renowned authors who also happen to be on the MFA faculty.
Among them:
Elizabeth Strout, author of the novel "Olive Kitteridge," winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Robert Polito, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for "Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson."
North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers.
Jonathan Dee, author of "The Privileges," named a New York Times Notable Book of 2010.
Vanity Fair contributing editor Elissa Schappell.
The gala is open to the public. It's 6:30-10 p.m. Tickets, at $50, go on sale in April.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rick Bragg joins Southern Living

Fans of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg can now read him regularly in Southern Living magazine. He's begun writing a monthly back-page column called "Southern Journal."
Bragg's best-known book is "All Over But the Shoutin'," a memoir of growing up poor in Alabama.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bad weather postpones "Science of Single" author to Wednesday

Park Road Books has rescheduled "The Science of Single" author Rachel Machacek's reading and book signing from tonight to Wednesday, Jan. 12, 7 p.m. at the store, 4139 Park Road.
Machacek's memoir recounts her year spent going on dates with some 60 guys as she explored the range of resources that help people meet up and date.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Science of Single" author at Park Road Books Jan. 11

Rachel Machacek probably has more bad date stories than most people.
There's good reason for that: The 37-year-old Washington D.C. resident went out with some 60 different guys as she explored online dating, singles events, matchmaking services and dating coaches, all in the interest of research.

The result? Her new book, "The Science of Single," which The Washington Post says is "equal parts funny, mortifying and insightful and stands to make Machacek into the Bridget Jones of Washington."

Machacek has braved the snow to get to Charlotte. She'll read from and sign copies of her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 11 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

She may offer a few dating tips, too. Some basic advice: "Try different ways to meet people -- like going online, going to singles events, telling friends you want to be set up." Finding the right guy, she told me "is not just going to happen. It's work."

Some reading for a snowy week

On my frosty commute this morning, I recalled some favorite children's books appropriate for a snowy week:

  • Nothing says cold and deprivation like Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter," a chapter book based on the Ingalls family's experience during the 1880-81 winter in the Dakota territory. Food and coal supplies are dwindling and blizzards prevent new deliveries. Laura and her family spend weeks holed up in their tiny house.
  • One of my favorite childhood books, from way back in 1962: "Snowbound With Betsy" by Carolyn Haywood. When a blizzard hits the week before Christmas, Betsy and her family are snowbound for days, along with three stranded travelers. If you've never read Carolyn Haywood's books, you're in for a treat.
  • "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats was a Caldecott medal winner, and it's easy to see why. The story is simple: A boy wakes up to discover snow has fallen in the night. Keats' illustrations, using cut-outs, watercolors and collage, are masterful.
  • Adults may find the plot of "Katy and the Big Snow" a bit one-dimensional, but small children, particularly little boys, will adore Virginia Lee Burton's tale of a determined little snow plow named Katy who manages to clear the roads of an entire town. Katy, we could use you now.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Mark Twain, Harper Lee and the n-word

You've probably heard by now about the furor over a publisher who decided to replace the word "nigger" with the word "slave" in a new edition of "Adventures of of Huckleberry Finn." You also probably know that it's not the first time that six-letter word has ignited debate about literary classics.

In 2009, I wrote about a similar debate in Charlotte. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg library had recruited local celebrities to read chapters of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" for a free podcast as part of the library's Big Read. Three participants were uncomfortable reading chapters containing the word. "For me, the word could have nothing but a negative connotation," WCNC (Channel 36) news anchor Sonja Gantt told me then. "I really felt sick. I just couldn't do it."

I found the debate fascinating, and I could see both sides, though I'd argue the word shouldn't be changed or removed. Frazer Dobson, co-owner of Park Road Books, also makes an eloquent argument for keeping the offensive word in Mark Twain's works. Thanks, Frazer, for sharing your comments:

"First of all, I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to Randall Williams and Suzanne La Rosa of New South (publishers), whom I know personally, nor Professor Gribben of AUM, whom I have never met. I should also note that 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' is public domain and that anyone is free to publish and alter the text as they like. I can understand that Huck’s prolific use of the N-word makes people uncomfortable, which has led to it becoming the 4th most banned book in schools.

But....well, my main point: the use of the N word is SUPPOSED to make the reader uncomfortable. It’s pretty well-known and obvious that Mark Twain was appalled by racism and slavery, and I suspect he knew exactly the implications of his word choice. Huck is an ignorant character, and his voice is the voice of his environment. So are Bob Ewell from 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and Jason Compson in 'The Sound and the Fury' and dozens if not hundreds of other characters from across the canon of Southern literature.

Slavery and racism are the original sins of the United States and especially the South. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1980s, and though you’d think we’d have learned better by then, I heard white people using the N word nearly every single day. We cannot ignore the existence of the word any more than we can ignore the existence of racism, and I worry that by, you will pardon the pun, whitewashing history, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. And I believe this is the unintended consequence of this well-intentioned attempt to make Twain’s masterpiece more palatable to students. Would any of us do this to 'To Kill a Mockingbird'? 'Invisible Man'? The works of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor? Our greatest authors did not use the N-word lightly, and it was (and, regrettably, still is) part of our lives growing up Southerners. And a big part of growing up is being made uncomfortable. That’s how you learn right from wrong.
I don’t like the word. Never have. Many of my white classmates tossed it around with no real clue to its meaning, but if my mom had ever heard me say it, well, the results wouldn’t have been pretty. When I read the word in a novel, it still makes me flinch. I knew what it meant early on in life, and I knew that people that used it frequently were generally not people I wanted to be around. But I fear that simply pretending the word doesn’t exist does us no favors as readers or thinkers, that it attempts to hide the ugliness of an ugly part of our world that still exists, to make us comfortable. And comfort is not what I look for in a book. I think Kafka said it best (and thanks to Robert Segedy for turning me on to this quote some years ago): 'A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.'

Monday, January 3, 2011

Some good reads for the new year

In my last post, I asked readers for their favorite books of 2010. Some of you commented here (thanks!), but others sent emails with suggestions worth sharing. Thanks everyone for a good discussion. And here are some highlights from my emails:

"Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness. Frazer Dobson, co-owner of Park Road Books, notes that this final book in the Chaos Walking trilogy is his pick, not the bookstore's. If you're a fan of the Hunger Games series, he says, read this series next.

"The setup is that humans have colonized a place they just call New Earth. In the back story, the humans run afoul of the natives of New Earth, called the Spackle, and war begins," Dobson says. The first novel is "The Knife of Never Letting Go." The second: "The Ask and the Answer."

The series "boasts one of the best, most loathsome villains this side of Voldemort," he says. "The three novels are the best novels I have read in years."

"Driftless" by David Rhodes. Cheryl Spainhour says this novel, set in contemporary rural Wisconsin, is spellbinding.

"The Warmth of Other Suns," by Isabel Wilkerson. Anne Dellinger of Chapel Hill found this account of African-Americans' migration from the South to the North from 1917 to 1970 "important U.S. history and beautifully written." Says Dellinger: "Southerners, in particular, should understand and acknowledge this odyssey."

"Hope for the Flowers," by Trina Paulus. Susan Dennis, a new Charlotte resident, loved this tale that's about two caterpillars specifically and life generally. First published in 1972, it's a young-adult book that adults will also love.