Friday, December 13, 2013

Is it time to kill the apostrophe?

Connie Eble is the consummate grammar nerd, the sort of person who punctuates her text messages and uses semi-colons correctly, even though she considers them pretentious. As an English professor at UNC Chapel Hill, she has spent more than four decades fixing grammar mistakes in student papers.

So Eble’s feelings about apostrophes may come as a surprise. She thinks its time we got rid of them.

See what I did there? If you are among the dwindling number of Americans who use apostrophes correctly, you probably twitched reading that last paragraph. You knew the its was missing the apostrophe that signaled a contraction of it and is. Still, you knew what I meant.

And that’s why Eble, who’s a linguist, argues that apostrophes are useless. “Do you ever have to stop someone and say, Did you mean possessive when you said its?” she asks. No, you never do. The context makes it clear.

When Eble first explained her stance to me, I admit to grammar-geek shock. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If we officially dropped apostrophes, English teachers would save untold hours. Phrases such as daily special’s would die a quiet death.

Fueled by texting, the anti-apostrophe movement seems to be gaining momentum, especially in Britain, where some retailers, including the bookseller Waterstones, have dropped their apostrophes. The people in charge of are British, though it should be said that England is also home to the Apostrophe Protection Society. Apostrophe opinions run strong across the pond.

The Apostrophe Protection Society’s chairman argues that apostrophes are sometimes essential for clarity. True, the sentence Residents refuse to be placed in bins would be less ambiguous with an apostrophe after the s in residents. We’d have to adjust to reading hell and Ill as he’ll and I’ll. Plural possessives could be tricky.

But punctuation is supposed to convey information, and Eble argues that apostrophes convey precious little. A misused apostrophe, however, tells us the writer was either careless or unable to master grammar rules. It gives us grammar sticklers a reason to look down on others.

Will we see the demise of the apostrophe in our lifetime? I wouldn’t bet on it, but who knows? Language changes. Hyphen use, for instance, is definitely on the decline. Fig-leaf is now usually fig leaf, while pigeon-hole has become pigeonhole. The New York Times recently dropped the hyphen in email.

Once, long ago, apostrophes, like the appendix, served a purpose. I won’t go into their complicated evolution. But more grammarians do seem to be making the point playwright George Bernard Shaw made a century ago. “There is not the faintest reason,” he wrote in 1902, “for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

Coming to Park Road Books: Jan Brett, a big chicken bus

In the world of children's books, Jan Brett ("The Mitten." "The Hat," "The Wild Christmas Reindeer") is known for illustrating sumptuous wintry scenes so detailed they make you want to put on a sweater. 

She'll be at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, to publicize her latest picture book, "Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella." Yes, it's a  retelling of the Cinderella story, but it's set in snowy 18th-century Russia and, true to its title, features chickens.

Brett, who raises similarly fancy birds at her home in Massachusetts, will arrive in Charlotte in a custom bus decorated with images of Cinders and other fowl from her new book.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What's the most famous book set in North Carolina?

The headline on my Facebook newsfeed sucked me in, as was its goal.

“This map,” it said, “shows the most famous book set in every state.”

Why a website called Business Insider compiles such lists I don’t know, but I clicked immediately, curious to see the most famous book set in North Carolina. Would it be Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel?” Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain?” Or maybe “A Long and Happy Life,” the debut novel that vaulted Reynolds Price to national fame?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The most famous book set in North Carolina, according to Business Insider, is Nicholas Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember.”
Until it appeared on Business Insider’s list, I had not heard of this 1999 bestseller, which became a movie starring Mandy Moore. Its main character is a teenager in Beaufort who dies of cancer. Sparks, who lives in New Bern, has set many of his novels in North Carolina.

Though I puzzle at this choice, I still like the list because its selections – especially the random-seeming ones – make great conversation starters. (“The Wizard of Oz” for Kansas? Come on. The book’s setting is mostly Oz. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is a totally better choice.)

Also, the list gives a sense of the depth – or lack of depth – of each state’s literary traditions. Surely it was a struggle to come up with a book for a few states. South Dakota, for instance, got Tom Brokaw’s memoir, “A Long Way From Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland in the Forties and Fifties.”
North Carolina, on the other hand, has multiple contenders. When I called Ed Southern, director of the N.C. Writers’ Network, his first thought was “Look Homeward, Angel,” published in 1929 and set in Asheville. It’s a classic, probably the greatest book set in North Carolina. It’s also not read much these days. The “most famous” stipulation makes the choice trickier.

So we kept brainstorming. Southern said he could make a strong case for Charles Frazier’s 1997 Civil War-era novel, “Cold Mountain.” It won the National Book Award and the movie version starred Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. I recalled that Robert Morgan’s “Gap Creek” became plenty famous as an Oprah’s Book Club pick. We agreed that “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” Allan Gurganus’s 1989 bestselling novel, should be in the running.

If you’ve got another suggestion, let me know with a comment here. Also, what do you say about South Carolina? Business Insider chose Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.” I’d go with a Pat Conroy book, probably “The Lords of Discipline.”

Friday, November 1, 2013

Nonfiction November: Carolinas authors write about smart dogs and murder

This month’s roundup of new books by Carolinas authors features nonfiction, including two works sure to appeal to dog lovers.

Veteran journalist Mark Pinsky writes an intriguing story of unsolved murder in “Met Her on the Mountain” (John F. Blair; $24.95). The book recounts a 40-year quest to find out who killed a young antipoverty worker in Madison County.
In 1970, a VISTA worker named Nancy Dean Morgan was found dead deep in the Appalachian mountains. She had been left naked, hogtied and strangled in the backseat of her car. An inept local investigation went nowhere, and when new information reopened the case in the 1980s, prosecutors failed to convict their prime suspect.

Pinsky, a former Los Angeles Times writer, became fascinated with Morgan’s case and began collecting information. With this account, which combines true crime and N.C. political history, “Many readers will be convinced,” Publishers Weekly writes in a starred review, “that his dogged investigation has at last uncovered the truth.”

Pinsky, who now lives in Florida, graduated from Duke University, where he worked on the school newspaper and first heard about Morgan’s murder.

On a lighter note, “Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26), tells the story of one smart dog. In 2004, John Pilley, a retired Wofford College psychology professor, decided to see how many words he could teach his family’s new border collie puppy.

Ultimately, the dog, Chaser, accumulated and learned the names of more than 1,000 toys and became a media star. The book, written by Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann, describes the professor’s training techniques, which can be used with any dog.

“This marvelous blend of good science and heartwarming dog story will inspire all of us to reexamine our canine friends,” Booklist says in a starred review. Pilley lives in Spartanburg with his wife, Sally, and Chaser. He and the dog are now working on complex sentences.

For more on canine intellect, check out “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs” (Simon and Schuster; $26.99), by Cat Warren, an N.C. State University English professor.

Warren became intrigued by working dogs through her unusual hobby: Her German shepherd, Solo, is a cadaver dog, trained to search for bodies. She explores how dogs find drugs, detect bombs and can even locate unmarked graves of Civil War soldiers.

Monday, October 21, 2013

David Sedaris reflects on his sister's suicide

Fans of writer David Sedaris shouldn't miss his latest piece in The New Yorker, a poignant departure from his more humorous fare. 

Sedaris, who grew up in a family of six kids in Raleigh, reflects in "Now We Are Five" on his sister Tiffany's suicide last spring and his family's summer vacations on Emerald Isle. An excerpt:

 "Why do you think she did it?" I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight. For that's all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news. Mustn’t Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she’d taken wouldn’t be strong enough, and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you’d take your own life?

 Sedaris will be performing at Wingate University at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24. Tickets are $24-$47. Details:

Friday, October 18, 2013

Etiquette for a new world: 'Rude Bitches Make Me Tired'

With the title of her newest book, “Rude Bitches Make Me Tired,” Celia Rivenbark alerts readers pretty effectively that hers is not a typical etiquette manual. You will find nothing here about which fork to use.

And yet don’t be fooled. The book is full of practical advice. It just happens to be sandwiched, as Rivenbark says, “between the obscenity and the ranting.”
 Some examples:
Don’t bring some trifling store-bought cake to a funeral. Funerals aren’t the place for store-bought food, period. She includes a simple baked ham recipe “Any idiot can bake a ham,” she points out.

Those back-window minivan decals featuring white outlines of families are inappropriate public displays of affection. “There’s Dad, looking tall and in control, even as a chalk outline. There’s Mom, fuzzy haired and goofy in her mom-skirt. There are the kids and even the family dog, cat, and bird,” she writes. “I get that this is meant to tell the world that You Love Your Family. But, if we’re being honest, the sub text in this particular and very public display of affection is that My Family Is Probably Better Than Yours. (P.S. Did you not see our bird?)”

Bragging on Facebook is just as bad as bragging in person. “Every time you find your fingers wanting to bang out a quick status update that ‘Donnie Jr. had the highest grade on the spelling test!’ know that your friends think that’s kinda douchey. Actually, very douchey.”

Rivenbark, who lives in Wilmington, writes a syndicated humor column that runs Thursdays in the Observer. She has written six other humor books, including “Bless Your Heart, Tramp.”

But being somewhat of a bossy pants by nature, she says this was the book she has always wanted to write. She began by asking friends and acquaintances: What’s the rudest thing you’ve ever seen? Responses poured in.

“This books gets to the nitty gritty, the way real people lead real lives – not how to hold your pinky finger, but what to do about the bossy bitch on the playground,” she told me.

She covers texting at the dinner table, husbands who leave razor stubble in the sink, armrest hogging on airplanes. She hooked me in her foreword, when she described the phenomenon of Faux complaining. As in: “Olivia bosses me around all day in French! Oh, those four-year-olds.” I knew about this practice, the art of cloaking a brag in a complaint. I just didn’t know it had a name.

That’s how Rivenbark rolls in this book, tackling etiquette problems your grandmother never imagined. Except maybe the razor stubble. And Rivenbark has a simple solution for that one. Two words: Clorox Wipes.

‘Rude Bitches Make Me Tired’
Celia Rivenbark will read and sign books at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 at Barnes & Noble at Carolina Place Mall in Pineville, 11025 Carolina Place.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Authors converge in Charlotte for a festival and feast

In my humble opinion, October in Charlotte hasn't been quite the same since the 2010 demise of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library's excellent Novello Festival of Reading. But here's the good news: Some dedicated book lovers are helping fill the Novello vacuum with two literary events this month.

The first, on Saturday, Oct. 12, is the Center City Literary Festival, sponsored by UNC Charlotte and UNC Charlotte Center City. The free festival includes a carnival-like afternoon program for children from noon- 3:30 p.m. and an evening program for adults from 6:30-9:30 p.m. All events take place at UNCC Center City, 320 E. Ninth St.

The children's program will feature a giant Scrabble board and a 30-foot blue heron puppet, among other things. Participating writers include Janaka Lewis ("Brown All Over"), Andrew Hartley ("Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact"), children's playwright Elizabeth Murray and Gail Haley, the only picture book author from North Carolina to win a Caldecott Medal. She'll read from "The Green Man."

The evening program includes three UNCC professors who are also authors: Aimee Parkison ("The Innocent Party"), Karen Cox ("Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture") and Andrew Hartley ("Macbeth, a Novel", co-authored with David Hewson.)

On Monday, Oct. 14, a slew of authors converge for food, drink and book talk at the Charlotte Chapter of the Women's National Book Association's annual Bibliofeast. The event begins with a cash bar at 6 p.m. at Maggiano's Little Italy at SouthPark, 4400 Sharon Road. Then there's dinner, followed by what the WNBA calls "a moveable feast" of nine authors who discuss their books with diners at each table. Tickets are $45 for WNBA members and $55 for nonmembers.

This year's author lineup includes Wilton Barnhardt ("Lookaway, Lookaway"), Diane Chamberlain ("Necessary Lies"), Nora Gaskin ("Time of Death" and "Until Proven"), Susan Gregg Gilmore ("The Funeral Dress"), Tommy Hays ("What I Came to Tell You"), Cassandra King ("Moonrise"), Rebecca Lee ("Bobcat and Other Stories"), Jamie Mason ("Three Graves Full") and John Milliken Thompson ("Love and Lament").

Friday, October 4, 2013

'What I Came to Tell You': A new novel set in Asheville

Some years ago, when Asheville novelist Tommy Hays’s son was a fifth grader with a voracious reading appetite, Hays steered the boy to one of his own books, “In the Family Way,” set in the 1960s in Greenville, S.C., his hometown.

His son, Max, started the book, but wasn’t getting very far. Finally, one night at dinner, Hays noted the lack of progress.

Later, he wrote about Max’s response: “He sighed, put his fork down on his plate, and then, looking up at me, said, ‘Daddy, it’s good historical fiction, but it’s just not my cup of tea.’ ”

Historical fiction. Ouch. “Like the Paleozoic Era or something,” Hays writes.

But Max’s remark got his dad thinking about writing a novel set in present-day Asheville – a time and place that his son and daughter knew. The result, “What I Came to Tell You” (Egmont; $16.99), Hays’ first book for middle-grade readers, is a satisfying story that demonstrates, among other things, how art can inspire and help people heal. The book has earned a starred Publishers Weekly review.

This is Hays’s fourth novel. Previous books include “The Pleasure Was Mine” and “Sam’s Crossing.” He also directs the Great Smokies Writing Program, a community writing program affiliated with UNC Asheville.

“What I Came to Tell You” centers on 12-year-old Grover Johnston, who is grieving over his mother’s death following a car accident. His father is also bereft but distant, spending long hours as director of Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe house, which is struggling to attract visitors.

Grover’s passion is making art – creating giant weavings using bamboo that grows in a stand near his home. But his father, frustrated by his son’s bad grades, believes Grover is simply wasting his time.

The book, written for readers 10 and up, doesn’t shy from thought-provoking themes. In the first paragraph, in fact, we meet Grover, reeling from the loss of his mom and pondering the idea that God is omnipresent, a word his minister liked to use.

“But what Grover believed more and more, if you could call it believing,” Hays writes, “was the omnipresence of absence, the everywhere of gone.”

With its exploration of themes such as loss, grief and spirituality, this book is sophisticated enough to attract many adult fans, I’m sure. But it remains accessible to younger readers.

“It's been my experience,” Hays told me, “that kids are incredibly insightful and understand a lot more than we ever give them credit for.”

Want to see Hays?
Tommy Hays will be among the authors at the Women’s National Book Association’s Bibliofeast dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy at SouthPark on Oct. 14. Tickets are $45 for members, $55 for nonmembers. More information:
Hays will also read at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Heny Louis Gates gives Winthrop University professor a shoutout

The purpose of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s talk at Charlotte's McGlohon Theatre Monday night was to preview his upcoming PBS series, "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross." But before Gates launched into stories of African-American history, he made a point to recognize one audience member -- Winthrop English Department Chairman Gregg Hecimovich.

Two weeks ago, Hecimovich made national headlines when he announced he has discovered the identity of the author believed to be the first African-American woman to write a novel. The news was especially exciting for Gates, a renowned scholar of African-American history, because Gates owns the 1850s-era manuscript.

 In 2001, Gates came across the work in a catalog, which described it as a "301-page handwritten manuscript purportedly written by female fugitive slave." He bought it at an auction for $8,500. After its authenticity was verified, "The Bondwoman's Narrative" was published in 2002 and became a bestseller.

Though it was signed by "Hannah Crafts," scholars doubted that was the author's real name. Hecimovich, by digging through public records and archives and conducting interviews, finally tracked down the woman's true identity. 

 Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported Hecimovich's discovery on its front page. The woman, Hannah Bond, had been a slave on a North Carolina plantation owned by John Hill Wheeler.

On Monday night, at Gates' urging, Hecimovich stood from his seat near the front while the audience applauded. "This is why I do what I do," Gates said, "to work with a pure, honest scholar like this boy right here."

Gates's new series, by the way, looks fabulous. It premieres on PBS stations on Oct. 22.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Publisher donates free copies of banned book in Randolph County

If they didn't want to read Ralph Ellison's classic novel, "Invisible Man" before last week, Randolph County high schools students may now be intrigued, following

the Randolph County school board's decision last week to ban the book from school libraries. The board voted after receiving a complaint from a parent objecting to language and sexual content.

On Wednesday, Sept. 25, students will get a chance to own the book, thanks to a former Randolph County resident who arranged to have Vintage Books donate free copies, according to Asheboro's Courier-Tribune.

The books will be distributed free to high school students, as long as they last, at Books a Million in Randolph Mall. Former Randolph resident Evan Smith Rakoff, an editor at Poets & Writers magazine, had the idea for the giveaway.

"Banning any book, but especially a great American novel like 'Invisible Man,' just doesn’t fit the values of the Randolph County I know,"  he told the Courier-Tribune.

A Vintage spokesman said the publisher was happy to help and hoped the attention would bring more readers to the wonderful novel. It will, of course, because it always does when something banned. Book banners never seem to figure that out.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Two Charlotte writers win $10,000 awards

 Two Charlotte writers, Aimee Parkison and Kathryn Schwille, are among 11 recipients of N.C. Arts Council literary fellowships for 2013-14.

The N.C. Arts Council awards the $10,000 fellowships to writers every other year to support new works by and creative development of N.C. artists.

Parkison, a UNC Charlotte English professor, is the author of two short story collections, "Woman with Dark Horses" and "The Innocent Party." She has won several writing prizes, including the 2004 Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review. Read one of her stories: "Lessons from a Sinoloan Beauty Queen."

Schwille, a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers and a former Charlotte Observer editor, has published short stories in various magazines, including one cited for Special Mention, Pushcart Prize. Read one of her stories: "FM 104."

Other fellowship winners and their art forms are:
  • Keith Flynn, poetry, Asheville.
  • Shirlette Ammons, poetry, Durham.
  • Valerie Nieman, poetry, Greensboro.
  • Catherine Reid, creative nonfiction, Asheville.
  • Leigh Ann Henion, creative nonfiction, Boone.
  • Liza Wieland, nonfiction, Arapahoe.
  • Monica Byrne, playwriting, Durham.
  • Janet Allard, playwriting, Greensboro.
  • Preston Lane, playwriting, Greensboro.

Friday, September 13, 2013

New books with North Carolina ties

This month’s book roundup includes new works by authors with varied North Carolina connections. Thomas Healy grew up in Charlotte. Carrie Jane Knowles lives in Raleigh. And Sharyn McCrumb and John Milliken Thompson, who both make their homes in Virginia, have chosen North Carolina as the setting for new historical novels.

“The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind – and Changed the History of Free Speech in America” (Metropolitan Books; $28).
 Healy recounts how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes moved from defending the punishment of controversial speech to writing a dissenting opinion that “gave birth to the modern era of the First Amendment, in which the freedom to express oneself is our preeminent constitutional value and a defining national trait.”

Before he became a Seton Hall law professor, Healy grew up in Charlotte, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and worked as a reporter at Raleigh’s News & Observer. The New York Times says his book “deserves an honored place in the intellectual history of the Supreme Court.”

“Ashoan’s Rug,” (Roundfire Books; $13.95). Knowles’ new novel tells the story of a prayer rug that stretches over time and continents as it passes from owner to owner, inspiring and changing lives.

“King’s Mountain” (Thomas Dunne; $25.99). Bestselling author McCrumb (“The Ballad of Tom Dooley”) draws on research to bring to life North Carolina’s most famous Revolutionary War battle. Historical characters populating the book include some of her own ancestors who fought in the battle.

“Love and Lament” (Other Press; $15.95). Thompson sets this family saga in Chatham County between the Civil War and World War I. “Thompson perfectly captures the Carolina Piedmont’s sights, sounds, and flavors and convincingly depicts the turn-of-the-century South – haunted by the Civil War, and embracing old-time religion and new-fangled machinery and ideas,” Publishers Weekly says.

Book talks and signings
John Milliken Thompson will sign copies of “Love and Lament” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.
Sharyn McCrumb discusses “King’s Mountain” at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at Park Road Books; 2 p.m. Oct. 5 at Kings Mountain National Military Park in Blacksburg, S.C.; and 5 p.m. Oct. 7 at Mauney Memorial Library, 100 S. Piedmont Ave. in Kings Mountain.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Bestselling author Nicholas Sparks in Charlotte Sept. 20

Bestselling author Nicholas Sparks will sign copies of his new novel, "The Longest Ride," at 5 p.m. Sept. 20 at Barnes & Noble at The Arboretum, 3327 Pineville-Matthews Road.

Sparks, who has sold more than 90 million books, will only sign copies of "The Longest Ride," and you've got a to buy the book from Barnes & Noble. The store is expecting a crowd, so employees will be handing out free tickets, required for the signing, beginning at 9 a.m. Sept. 20. Check the store for more details.

"The Longest Ride," set in North Carolina, tells stories of two couples -- 91-year-old Ira Levinson and his late wife, Ruth, and a Wake Forest College student named Sophia who falls in love with Luke, a young cowboy.
 As the book opens, Ira is alone and injured after wrecking his car on an isolated embankment.

Sparks lives with his family in New Bern, where he's active in several philanthropic efforts.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Asheville author's memoir recalls a brutal orphanage

One night several years ago, Asheville musician Danny Ellis began writing a song about a time in his life he had long sought to bury. 

One stanza in particular told the essence of his story:

"I’ll be back for you this Christmas,” I could hear my mammy say
And the bitter truth within that lie I’ve yet to face today
When it gets too much for feeling you just bury it somehow
And that eight year old abandoned lad still waits for her right now

The song, “800 Voices,” became the title tune on Ellis’s first DVD, released in 2009. And it led to a memoir, “The Boy at the Gate,” (Arcade; $24.95). First published in Ireland, his native country, the book is out this week in the United States.

Ellis’s memoir recounts a life shaped by the eight years he lived in Dublin’s Artane Industrial School, an orphanage notorious for beating and abusing the boys who lived there. 

He arrived at age eight, abandoned by his mother, and remained until he was 16, when he became a trombonist playing in dance halls across Ireland. 

“The Boy at the Gate” was well-received in Ireland. Early U.S. reviews are also strong. Kirkus Reviews, for instance, praises the way Ellis “uses his story to liberate the voices of otherwise forgotten children.”

That was Ellis’s goal – not to focus so much on the abuse, he says, but on the “courage of the kids who tried to make the best of it.”

Still, the violence he describes is terrifying. When boys get their sums wrong in math class, a teacher whips their hands with a leather strap. When Ellis vomits in class, a teacher beats him. 

But when he joined the Artane Boys Band, music became Ellis’s salvation. The band, famous in Ireland, even played for President Kennedy in 1962, when Ellis was a member. The band, he says, “made the school seem like it was a wholesome place.” 

Ellis, who has lived in Asheville for 15 years, says writing his memoir was one of the most enjoyable creative experiences of his life.  “I would lie in bed with my laptop, close my eyes and go back to the playground,” he says. 

In recent years, Ellis has re-connected with some of his former Artane classmates. But he never found his mom, who left for England after turning her children over to orphanages. “She just disappeared off the face of the earth,” he says.

Ellis will read and perform his songs at 2 p.m. Oct. 5 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

N.C. authors longlisted for Crook's Corner Book Prize

A dozen authors, including five with N.C. and Charlotte ties, have been named to a long list of finalists for the Crook's Corner Book Prize, a new award for exceptional debut novels set in the South.
 They include:
  "Leaving Tuscaloosa" by Walter Bennett, a retired Charlotte judge who now lives in Chapel Hill.
"Code of the Forest" by Charlotte attorney Jon Buchan.
"A Land More Kind Than Home" by Gastonia native and UNC Asheville graduate Wiley Cash.
"Green Gospel" by Durham's L.C. Fiore.  
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain, a Chapel Hill native and UNC Chapel Hill graduate.

Other longlisted finalists are Rita Leganski ("The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow"), Lois Leveen ("The Secrets of Mary Bowser"), Ayana Mathis ("The Twelve Tribes of Hattie"), Rhonda Riley ("The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope"), Jessica Maria Tuccelli ("Glow"), Kevin Wilson ("The Family Fang") and Margaret Wrinkle ("Wash").

The new book prize, named for the landmark Chapel Hill restaurant with the pig on the roof,  includes $1,000 and a free glass of wine with every restaurant visit during the award year.

The twelve longlisted finalists were chosen from 68 submissions. In November, judges will announce four finalists. N.C. novelist Jill McCorkle ("Life After Life") will choose the winner in January.

Friday, August 16, 2013

New Carolinas novels for fall reading

For your fall reading list, new novels from Carolinas authors:

“The Governor’s Lady” (John F. Blair; $26.95), by novelist and fo
rmer Charlotte television news anchor Robert Inman. When Cooper Lanier succeeds her husband as governor of a southern state, she faces a dilemma. Her husband, who’s running for president, is trying to control state matters from the campaign trail. But if she doesn’t make her own decisions, she risks becoming irrelevant.
Inman will read and sign copies 7 p.m. Aug. 29 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

“The Life & Times of Persimmon Wilson” (Lystra Books; $16), by Nancy Peacock.
“I have been to hangings before, but never my own.” So begins the story of Persimmon Wilson, a former slave accused of murdering his ex-master and kidnapping the man’s wife. Peacock, author of the New York Times Notable Book “Without Water,” lives in Hillsborough.

“Moonrise,” (Maiden Lane Press; $26.99), by Cassandra King. Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel “Rebecca” inspired this modern gothic tale, which King sets in Highlands. King, whose novels include “Making Waves” and “The Sunday Wife,” lives in Beaufort, S.C., with her husband, Pat Conroy.

“Necessary Lies” (St. Martin’s Press; $26.99), by Diane Chamberlain. Set in rural North Carolina in 1960 and based on true events, this is a tale of Ivy Hart, a teenager struggling to care for her family and a social worker, Jane Forrester, who becomes invested in the family’s welfare. Chamberlain, author of 21 novels, lives in Raleigh.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

N.C. author wins American Bar Association award

The American Bar Association has given Avery County’s Jay Leutze a Silver Gavel Award honorable mention for his 2012 book “Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail.”

The book, now in paperback (Scribner; $18), is the true account of Avery County residents’ fight to stop a gravel mine owner from dynamiting Belview Mountain.

 Leutze, a lawyer and naturalist, recounts the story in first person, as an activist who joins the cause of residents battling the mining company and government officials. The Silver Gavel honors outstanding efforts to promote public understanding of the law.

"This book inspires hope," the awards committee wrote, "that, despite often long odds, deserving underdogs can prevail in our justice system."

 Leutze will read and sign copies at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Friday, July 19, 2013

New titles from Carolinas authors

New books out in July from Carolinas authors include, on the fiction side, a military thriller and a collection of stories populated by monsters. There’s nonfiction, too: a literature professor’s Civil War history and a history of the African American struggle for equal education in North Carolina.

Action in the novel “Shadow of the Corps” (Pegasus Crime; $24.95) grows from a Marine captain’s court martial following an Afghan village bombing. In this debut novel, Charlotte’s James M. DuPont writes of a world he knows. DuPont, now an airline pilot and Marine Corps reserve major, is a former Marine aviator and legal officer.

“North American Lake Monsters” (Small Beer Press; $16), a debut story collection from Asheville’s Nathan Ballingrud, offers readers dark, quirky stories that often include a monster or two. Ballingrud, a single dad, has worked as a cook on oil rigs, a bouncer at a strip club and a bartender in New Orleans. He’s now a waiter at Biltmore Estates.

Ballingrud won a Shirley Jackson award for one story in the collection, “The Monsters of Heaven,” a tale of a couple who are reeling from the disappearance of their young son when they find an otherworldly creature who seems like an angel. The award honors literature of psychological suspense, horror and dark fantasy.

In “America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War” (Overlook Press; $28.95), Joseph Kelly recounts the Union’s nearly two-year siege on Charleston’s harbor. Kelly, a College of Charleston literature professor, places the siege in the larger context of the city’s promulgation of slavery. A Publishers Weekly review lauds this book as a valuable addition to Civil War literature.

“Playing the Union’s two-year siege of the city’s harbor against what the author deems to be a far more disastrous siege – that of slavery on freedom – Kelly skillfully traces the development of the town’s views on slavery while simultaneously relating attempts to break down or bulwark the institution,” says Publishers Weekly.

Much has been written about school desegregation in North Carolina, but in a new history, Sarah Caroline Thuesen steps back to the Jim Crow years before integration. “Greater than Equal: African American Struggles for Schools and Citizenship in North Carolina: 1919-1965” (University of North Carolina Press; $45) examines a time when black citizens sought equal educational opportunity amid flourishing segregation.

Though readers may be familiar with some of her stories, such as the hostility that Dorothy Counts encounters as she integrates Charlotte’s Harding High in 1957, Thuesen, who teaches history at Guilford College, also explores an earlier time when even “separate but equal” was a radical concept.

Friday, July 5, 2013

N.C. authors recount the hunt for Che Guevara

Argentinian-born revolutionary Che Guevara was a physician, a gifted writer, a man who looked very good in combat fatigues.

Where he didn’t always excel, however, was as a military tactician. In “Hunting Che,” co-authors Mitch Weiss of Charlotte and Kevin Maurer of Wilmington explore one of America’s first U.S. Special Forces victories in a thriller about the Green Beret team that trained a group of Bolivians to hunt down Che.

At the heart of the story is a revolutionary leader both brilliant and flawed. The Green Berets taught Bolivian soldiers the skills they needed to capture Che, but it turns out that Che’s shortcomings made their job a lot easier.

Weiss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who works for the Associated Press in Charlotte, has co-authored two other nonfiction books on elite U.S. military teams. He wrote this one with Maurer, co-author of the 2012 bestseller “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden.”

Much, of course, is already known about Che, one of the Cuban revolution’s key figures. But Weiss and Maurer wrote “Hunting Che” (Berkley Caliber; $26.95) after finding little about the Special Forces mission that led to Che’s capture and death.

After serving in several roles under Fidel Castro, Che Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to create revolution elsewhere. In 1967, after Pentagon officials learned he was in Bolivia, they plotted to eliminate him.

Weiss and Maurer show how the U.S. counterinsurgency operation succeeded without a large-scale commitment of American soldiers. But they find that Che’s mistakes – alienating Bolivians who could have aided him, picking the wrong area to invade – also helped doom his endeavor, almost from the start.

The authors relied on a variety of government documents and newspaper sources, as well as interviews with key players. Early on, they traveled to Bolivia, where they talked with the Bolivian officer who helped capture Che.

When Weiss began researching, he told me, he saw Che as a freedom fighter and champion of the poor – a view that has made Che’s fight-the-power image ubiquitous on T-shirts and other memorabilia. But the more Weiss learned, the more his view changed. In power with Castro, Che was also brutal.

“Most people who wear Che’s T-shirts,” he says, “would not want to live in the country he promised.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Observer's L. Lamar Wilson moonlights as up-and-coming poet

I finally met L. Lamar Wilson, a copy editor at the Charlotte Observer, after he caught an error in one of my recent stories. Sharp eye, this guy has.

And what a voice, too. When he's not writing headlines and fixing news stories, Wilson writes poetry. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Review, African American Review, Callaloo. And his debut collection, "Sacrilegion," is being called stunning, deeply felt, richly textured.

The book, from Durham's Carolina Wren Press, recently won a bronze award in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Last month,  Rigoberto Gonzalez praised it in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

 Wilson weaves his identity as a gay black man through many  poems, exploring gay marriage, gays in the military, lynching, bullying and more. In "Ars Poetica: Nov. 7, 2008," he responds to President Obama's description of his own identity as a "mutt":

I am the what-are-you.
I am the brown, the red, the white, the sometimes blue.
I got some Indian in my blood.
I got some cracker, too.
Where I'm from, a cracker is a badge
men wear like nigga in some 'hoods.
I am neither & both simultaneously.

Wilson will give a reading 7 p.m. July 10 at Park Road Books. He'll be joined by Lee Ann Brown, whose latest collection is "In the Laurels, Caught." Brown, who was raised in Charlotte, is an English professor at St. John's University in New York.

Friday, June 21, 2013

What are college students reading this summer?

It’s summer, and that means time for my annual non-beach reading roundup – a look at some of the books that Carolinas colleges have assigned incoming students to read over the summer. 

These are not books to pick up when you want light and fluffy. But a book club could generate a whole year’s worth of rich discussions with this list. Several of these summer reads introduce students to distant cultures and countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya. And at Gardner-Webb University, students will be focusing on a culture that’s close to home but often hidden in plain sight – North Carolina’s Cherokees. 

Several also explore complex societal issues. For instance, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a favorite on campuses in the recent years, raises questions about medical ethics. 
Other picks, including “Wine to Water,” “It Happened on the Way to War” and “Beautiful Souls,” offer lessons about individuals finding ways to change the world for good.

Here’s the list: 
Appalachian State: “American Dervish,” by Ayad Akhtar. Hayat Shah, a young Pakistani-American, wrestles with his religious identity and infatuation with his mother’s friend in this 2012 novel.

Belmont Abbey: "Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds," by Ping Fu, with MeiMei Fox. In this memoir, Ping Fu describes growing up during China's Cultural Revolution, being forcibly orphaned, then immigrating to the United States, where she cofounded Geomagic, a software development company.

Davidson: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot. A true account of how the cells of a tobacco farmer, taken without her knowledge, became one of medicine’s most important tools. 

Duke: “Let the Great World Spin,” by Colum McCann. McCann portrays New York in the 1970s, a time of transition and promise, in this National Book Award-winning novel. 

East Carolina: “It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace,” by Charlotte’s Rye Barcott. As a UNC Chapel Hill student, Barcott spent a summer in Kibera, a mega-slum in Kenya, then created a nonprofit called Carolina for Kibera. In this memoir, he tells how he launched and led the organization while serving as a Marine.

Gardner-Webb: “Living Stories of the Cherokee,” collected and edited by Barbara Duncan. This 1998 collection presents 72 traditional and contemporary tales from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina.

N.C. Central: “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. This bestselling novel centers on an unlikely friendship between a wealthy Afghani boy and the son of his father’s servant. 

N.C. State: “The Alchemy of Air” by Thomas Hager. The true story of how two scientists discovered how to turn nitrogen into synthetic fertilizer. Their accomplishment helped feed millions, but it also fueled the weapons of both world wars. 

Queens: “Beautiful Souls” by Eyal Press. An examination of ordinary people who resisted the status quo, often risking their lives, to follow their convictions.

University of South Carolina: “The Postmortal” by Drew Magary. A novel that’s set in the near future. Humanity has discovered a cure for aging, but that brings a new set of problems. 

UNC Chapel Hill: “Home,” by Toni Morrison. This is the tenth novel from Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s the story of a black Korean War veteran returning from an integrated Army to a segregated homeland.

Wingate: “Wine to Water” by Doc Hendley. A North Carolina bartender tells how he began raising money for clean-water projects around the world and ended up traveling to one of the world’s most dangerous places – Darfur. (UNC Charlotte is also teaching the book in many first-year courses as part of its Common Reading Experience.)

Winthrop: “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. In this true story, Kamkwamba demonstrates the power of imagination and determination as he uses scrap metal, an old bicycle wheel and other discards to construct a windmill for his poverty-stricken village in Malawi. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Charlotte's library hosts Dorothea Benton Frank, queen of beach reads

Since she published her first novel in 2000, S.C. author Dorothea Benton Frank has borrowed some of South Carolina's most popular beaches -- Sullivan's Island, Isle of Palms, Pawleys Island -- for the settings and titles of her books.

On Monday, June 17, she'll discuss her writing and answer questions at a fundraiser for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. The $40 ticket price includes a copy of her new novel, "The Last Original Wife."

Her talk begins at 7 p.m. in ImaginOn's Wells Fargo Playhouse. For information or to buy tickets, check here or call 704-973-2828.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Two Carolinas writers, two new family sagas



In bookstores this month: Two new family sagas – one from an acclaimed N.C. author, the other by a fresh voice from South Carolina.

Craig Nova’s “All the Dead Yale Men” (Counterpoint Press; $26), is the sequel to his 1982 novel, “The Good Son.” It’s out June 11.

Nova, a creative writing professor at UNC Greensboro, is author of 14 novels and an autobiography. In “The Good Son” he explored father-son relationships through the story of Pop Mackinnon, who uses his money to manipulate his son Chip into a marriage when Chip returns from World War II. In a review of the book in 1982, the New York Times raved that Nova’s fiction “is so powerful, so alive, it is a wonder that turning its pages doesn’t somehow burn one’s hands.”

“All the Dead Yale Men” continues the family’s story, examining the consequences of Chip’s decision in a tale told through his son Frank.

“The odd thing,” the book begins, “is that when I looked into how I was being cheated, not because of the money but because of the principle of the thing (fathers shouldn’t cheat sons), I discovered things about my family, and my grandmother in particular, that I never dreamed possible.”

The book has earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, which says the Mackinnons, “both here and in ‘The Good Son,’ leave their edgy mark on the modern American literary landscape.”

Susan Tekulve’s “In the Garden of Stone” (Hub City Press; $17.95) is the latest winner of the South Carolina First Novel Prize. Novelist Josephine Humphreys, who judged the contest, chose Tekulve’s multi-generational family saga for this biennial award. Set in and around a poor West Virginia coal mining town, it’s the story of an Italian immigrant family from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Tekulve, who teaches writing at Converse College in Spartanburg, begins her story in 1924, in a mining town filmed with coal dust. In the first scene, 16-year-old Emma is helping her mother boil water for laundry, pouring it into a wooden tub where they toss her father’s and brothers’ blackened work shirts.

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls the novel “Lyrical, haunting literary fiction.”  Tekulve will read and sign copies 2 p.m. June 16 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Friday, May 17, 2013

New books from North Carolina authors

A fanciful novel, two memoirs and an exploration of modern domesticity are among new books from N.C. authors.

Two sisters and Roam, the dark, magical town that binds them, are the subject of Daniel Wallace’s novel, “The Kings and Queens of Roam.”

Wallace, who teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, is best known for his novel “Big Fish,” which became a 2003 Tim Burton movie. Kirkus Reviews has given this novel (Touchstone; $24) a starred review, describing it as “layered in symbolism and ripe with lyrical language.”

Charlotte poet and writer Rebecca McClanahan recounts her family’s history in her memoir, “The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change” (Indiana University Press, $22).

When she inherited more than 1,000 family documents – letters, journals, postcards and more –McClanahan, who teaches in Queens University’s MFA program in creative writing, writes that she “could not resist the impulse to stitch these lives back together, in part to discover my own place in the tribal constellation.”

In another memoir, “Once Upon a Gypsy Moon,” Raleigh’s Michael Hurley writes of two years he spent sailing from Annapolis to various ports. Hurley, a lawyer, was short on money, jobless and divorced when he set sail. The book (Center Street; $19.99) chronicles his journey of personal discovery.

Why are a generation of smart, educated young people canning jam, knitting and embracing other labor-intensive tasks that their mothers shunned?

Emily Matchar explores a growing do-it-yourself movement that favors home births, home schooling and home-grown vegetables in “Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity” (Simon & Schuster; $26). Matchar, who splits her time between Chapel Hill and Hong Kong, has written about culture, food, women’s issues and more for a number of magazines.
Author events

Author readings

Rebecca McClanahan will talk about craft and read from “The Tribal Knot” at the May meeting of the Charlotte Writers Club, 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, at Queens University’s Sports Complex & Conference Center, 2229 Tyvola Road. She’ll read in Sykes Auditorium at Queens at 8 p.m. Friday, May 24.

Daniel Wallace will discuss and read from “The Kings and Queens of Roam,” 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Davidson writer wins poetry competition

Davidson College's Alan Michael Parker  is this year's Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition winner for his poem, "The Ladder."

Parker will receive $200 and his poem will be published by storySouth, an online literary magazine. Parker has published two novels, including "Whale Man," and seven poetry collections, including "Long Division," which won the 2012 North Carolina Book Award for the best collection of poetry. He has also won three prestigious Pushcart Prizes.

Parker, a Davidson College English professor, directs the school's creative writing program.

The Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition honors the work and legacy of the late Randall Jarrell, who won the National Book Award for his poetry in 1961 and taught at UNC Greensboro for 18 years before his death in 1965. This year's competition, open to N.C. residents and members of the N.C. Writers' Network, drew 122 entries.

 "The Ladder" hasn't been published yet, but check out another Parker poem, "After Love," which recently appeared in Slate.

Monday, April 22, 2013

New literary honors for North Carolina writers

"The Names of Things," a debut novel by UNC Asheville's John Colman Wood, is one of six finalists for the 2013 Chautauqua Prize, a national award that celebrates fiction and literary nonfiction.

In the novel, an anthropologist returns to Africa following his wife's death. He seeks to retrace steps he took with her years earlier while living with camel-herding nomads.

Wood knows this subject area well. He's an anthropologist who's done field research with Gabra nomads of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

Other finalists include "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by N.C. native Ben Fountain. The winning book will be announced in mid-May.

This year's Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize winner is Kevin Winchester of Waxhaw. Winchester, who directs the Writing Center at Wingate University, won for his short story, "Waiting on Something to Happen." He'll receive $1,000 and his story will be considered for publication in The Thomas Wolfe Review.

Wolfe Prize honorable mentions went to Pittsboro's Ashley Memory for her story, "Once in a Blue Moon," and Jacob Appel of New York City for "Some Helpful Background for the Incoming Tenant."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Asheville's Dale Neal and 'The Half-Life of Home'

A simple, everyday garage sale opens Dale Neal’s new novel, “The Half-Life of Home,” but it’s a garage sale fraught with meaning.

Eva Wilder can’t wait to rid herself of the clutter her family has accumulated over two decades. But when her husband, Royce Wilder, eyes the items for sale, he sees memories, not junk.

This tug between past and present, and the complicated relationship most of us have with change, lies at the heart of Neal’s story.

It’s the second novel for Neal, 54, a reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times. His first, “Cow Across America,” won the 2009 Novello Literary Award from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library.

“The Half-Life of Home” (Casperian Books; $15.95) takes place in two fictional N.C. mountain towns, Beaverdam and Altamont. (He borrowed “Altamont” from Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel,” where it stands in for Asheville.)

Neal sets his story in 1992. The Internet and digital technology haven’t yet transformed the world, but middle-aged Royce Wilder feels his once-secure life shifting beneath his feet. Raised in rural Beaverdam, he has moved to Altamont, a town that is becoming populated by transplants, strangers instead of neighbors.

His wife seems distant, his teenaged son, rebellious. And the family is struggling to finance a lifestyle that includes his son’s private-school education.

Pressure to sell family land grows when he learns his hometown emits dangerously high levels of radon gas. There’s even talk that the area could become a radioactive waste dump.

In Beaverdam, meanwhile, a rash of break-ins prompts suspicion that Wanda McRae, a troubled soul known as the Witch Woman, has been making forays into town from her mountain cabin.

Royce discovers the Witch Woman holds a secret about his family. He also learns to move forward.

Though more than a few Southern novels mythologize the past (such as “Gone With the Wind”), one message in this book is about letting the past go.

Neal recalls a great-uncle who said it was a lot easier to start a car engine than hook up a horse. Sometimes, Neal says, progress can be a wonderful thing.

 Neal will read twice in Charlotte on May 12 -- at 2 p.m. at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, and 4 p.m. at the Wingmaker Arts Collaborative, 207 W. Worthington Ave, where he’ll be joined by fiction writer Kathryn Schwille and poet Gail Peck.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What to read when you're writing about drug dealing

For more than a year now, I've been working on a series about Belton Platt, a former Charlotte cocaine dealer known in the 1980s as Money Rock. (Read it at

Most of my information has come via public documents and interviews. But I've also been reading about drug dealing, urban America and Charlotte's history to better understand Money Rock's life and times.

I learned in "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets" (Penguin Press; 2008), for instance, that there's no single business model for selling cocaine and crack. Sudhir Venkatesh, now a Columbia University professor, was a geeky University of Chicago graduate student attempting a sociological survey in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes when he stumbled upon members of a crack-selling gang known as the Black Kings. With the blessing of one of the gang's leaders, he embedded himself with gang members.

While Money Rock's cocaine operation was a locally-grown business, the Black Kings were more  a multi-state corporation, complete with a board of directors that held periodic meetings at a Chicago mansion. J.T., the college-educated middle manager who plays a starring role in the book, supervised about 200 men.

Venkatesh's book also explores the symbiotic relationship between gang members, administrators and residents of the now-demolished housing project. In the project, where police often didn't show up when called, the gang functioned as law enforcement, social services and local government. Like Money Rock, J.T. saw himself as a philanthropist: "He gave money to some local youth centers for sports equipment and computers. He willingly loaned out his gang members to Robert Taylor tenant leaders, who deployed them on such tasks as escorting the elderly on errands or beating up a domestic abuser."

 Closer to home, Tom Hanchett's "Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975" (University of North Carolina Press; 1998), showed me how inner-city Charlotte of the 1980s came to be.

Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, explains that Charlotte actually grew more segregated from the 1940s to the 1970s. He attributes this sharpening of race and class segregation to federal programs and policies that reshaped cities and often promoted racial and economic homogeneity.

Among those policies was urban renewal. Congress launched the program under the federal Housing Act of 1949 to replace slum housing with affordable new residences. But bit by bit, special interests changed the rules so that local governments could tear down “blighted” neighborhoods – “blighted” being a term defined by those in power – and replace the housing with government buildings, hotels or whatever they deemed a better use.

 Charlotte's urban renewal efforts bulldozed several African-American communities. The largest and best known, a once-vibrant neighborhood called Brooklyn, is now the site of government and office buildings, a hotel and a park. Urban renewal, which came to be known among black Americans as “Negro removal,” destroyed 1,480 structures in Brooklyn, including restaurants, small businesses and twenty-eight churches.

Poor residents forced to move from urban renewal areas ended up in other neighborhoods. You could argue that urban renewal basically created new slums in different places. And those impoverished areas were often the places where Money Rock sold his cocaine.

In "Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America" (Plume; 1996), I saw how one person's story can illuminate broad societal issues. Leon Dash's protagonist is Rosa Lee Cunningham, an illiterate heroin addict and former prostitute who lived in Washington D.C.

 Rosa Lee, who teaches her grandson to shoplift and sells drugs when she's desperate for money, is, at first blush, one of the most flawed characters you'll ever encounter. But Dash delves into Rosa's past and explores the culture in which she was raised to help explain why urban poverty persists through generations.
Dash succeeds, I would argue, and by the book's end, readers see Rosa not as a stereotype, but as a three-dimensional figure, and a sympathetic one at that.

After Part 1 of my series ran this past weekend, several readers commenting on my story faulted what they viewed as favorable coverage about a former cocaine dealer. Drug dealers destroy lives, they pointed out. And they are correct.

I'll say a couple things about that. First, keep reading. I'm not glorifying Money Rock. But by the end of the story, I think you'll see I've portrayed Belton Platt fully. He was not the world's worst person when he was a drug dealer. He's not perfect now that he's a minister. People are complicated. I also hope you'll end up pondering some of the same questions I've asked as I've researched this story. Like, why did a kid with potential see cocaine as his best chance for success?

Friday, April 5, 2013

April in Charlotte brings Ron Rash and a big book sale

The timing couldn’t be better for Ron Rash’s free appearances April 17 at Central Piedmont Community College’s Sensoria arts festival. He’ll speak twice, at 10:30 a.m. in Halton Theater and 7:30 p.m. in Pease Auditorium.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin recently lauded Rash’s new short story collection, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as his best book since “Serena,” his 2008 novel. That’s high praise, since Maslin has described “Serena” as “one of the greatest American novels in recent memory.”

And that’s not all. The movie version of “Serena,” starring Bradley Cooper and Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, comes out this fall. Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina University and hails from Boiling Springs, will have much to discuss. Check out Sensoria’s full schedule of events:
Big book sale starts next week
What would John Grisham think about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library’s upcoming used book sale?

Would he be upset when he saw how many copies of his novels people have donated? There are a lot, Nikki Moore tells me. Moore is president of Friends of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

 My guess is that Grisham, bestselling master of the legal thriller would be pleased. The sale is, after all, an excellent cause.

The group has conducted a used book sale for years. But the fundraiser took on new importance when the recession prompted drastic cuts in the library’s materials budget, which went from $3.2 million in 2009 to $1.9 million in 2011. It’s now back up, near pre-recession levels, but with library usage up too, per capita book spending is less than it was in 2001.

This year’s sale, at 1330 Central Ave., next to Bistro la Bon, starts Friday, April 12, and runs through April 20. Check for hours and details. If you’re a Friends of the Library member, or if you make a $25 donation to become a member, you can show up 6-9 p.m. Thursday to get first dibs.

There will be thousands of books from which to choose – recent bestsellers, such as Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo” novels and Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” lots of children’s books, good beach reads, books on tape and CD, DVDs – you name it. Grisham’s novels are in very good company. And you can’t beat the prices: Most items are less than $5.

Volunteers hope to match or even beat their previous fundraising record of $43,000 set in 2010.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Book donation = chicken sandwich

 Four Charlotte-area Chick-fil-A stores will be rewarding folks who bring in donations of good-condition used books, CDs and DVDs in April with free chicken sandwiches.

The collected donations are going to the Friends of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library's big annual used book sale, which opens to the public on April 12.  This year, it's at 1330 Central Ave. in Plaza-Midwood.

Here's the scoop: You'll get a free chicken sandwich if you donate at least five good-condition books, CDs or DVDs  5-8 p.m.  at one of these four stores during the dates indicated:

  • Cotswold Chick-fil-A, 4431 Randolph Road, April 1-6.
  • Northlake Chick-fil-A, 8411 Northlake Commons Blvd., April 1-6
  • Matthews Chick-fil-A, 9905 Matthews Park Drive, April 8-13
  • Arboretum Chick-fil-A, 3217 Pineville-Matthews Road, April 8-13
Check my blog next week for more details on the book sale. And remember: Nobody wants your old encyclopedias. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

New books from North Carolina authors

Remember Dr. Moreau?

The title character in H.G. Wells’ 1896 science fiction novel, “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” got himself exiled from England after performing gruesome experiments with animals.

Now he’s back, playing a supporting role in “The Madman’s Daughter” (Balzer+Bray; $17.99), the first of a trilogy from Asheville’s Megan Shepherd (pictured at left).

As this gothic horror novel opens, Dr. Moreau’s estranged daughter, Juliet, is describing her job at King’s College in London. She cleans the operating theater where medical students dissect cadavers. “Dead flesh and sharpened scalpels didn’t bother me,” she explains. “I was my father’s daughter, after all.”

How did Shepherd decide to revisit Dr. Moreau? She’s a huge fan of the television series “Lost,” she told me, and “Lost,” set on an island, made her remember “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” which she’d read as a teenager.

Shepherd, 30, read a lot as a teenager. Her parents, Peggy and Tim Hansen, have owned Brevard’s Highland Books for 37 years. As an infant, she slept behind the counter. When she got older, she worked there. “It was my personal library,” she says.

‘Cobalt Blue’

In Peggy Payne’s “Cobalt Blue,” Andie Branson, a 38-year-old commercial artist in Pinehurst, has an unexpected physical religious experience known as “kundalini rising.” Payne, who lives near Raleigh, is author of “Sister India.” Her new novel (Roundfire Books; $20.95) tracks Andie’s spiritual awakening.

‘Remembering Medgar Evers’

On a June day in 1963, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary, was shot in the back as he unloaded a stack of “Jim Crow Must Go” T-shirts in his own driveway in Jackson, Miss.

In “Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement” (University of Georgia Press; $22.95), UNC Chapel Hill English Professor Minrose Gwin writes of Evers’ times and the deeper meaning of his life and murder. Her work examines fiction, poetry, memoir, drama and songs that emerged following Evers’ death. They include works by James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, Bob Dylan and Willie Morris.

‘Until Proven’

Nora Gaskin’s novel, “Until Proven: A Mystery in Two Parts” (Lystra Books; $11.95), is the story of the murders of two young women who are killed in their homes 40 years apart. The book is based on an unsolved Chapel Hill murder. Gaskin, who lives in Chatham County, will read and sign copies at 2 p.m. April 6 at Charlotte’s Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Charlotte writer reveals 'The Wisdom of Hair'

Charlotte author Kim Boykin hasn’t changed her hairstyle for going on two years now. This is significant, I believe, and if you read Boykin’s debut novel, you’ll see why.

In “The Wisdom of Hair” (Berkley; $15), 19-year-old Zora May Adams leaves her crazy mother and her S.C. mountain home to start a new life. She lands in a town near Myrtle Beach, where she learns to cut, style and color at the state’s best beauty school.

Along the way, she befriends Sara Jane, a classmate whose parents embrace Zora like a second daughter. She also develops a crush on a handsome widower.

I won’t give away the ending. I will say that one relationship proves more enduring than the other. 
Boykin told me she drew inspiration for the book’s salon scenes from years spent hanging out at her mom’s place, Betty’s Beauty Salon in New Ellenton, S.C.

But don’t assume you’re reading veiled autobiography. Zora’s fictional parents aren’t stand-ins for Boykin’s parents, Betty and Bryan Standridge, who now live in Fort Mill. Boykin’s father did not die in a tragic accident and her mother isn’t an alcoholic who dresses like Judy Garland.

In fact, Boykin lived a boring, happy childhood, “which sucks if you’re a writer,” she says on her website “because you have to create your own kind of crazy.”

But back to Boykin’s hairstyle for a moment. As her novel opens, Zora is explaining the problem with cutting your own hair. 

Once you start, she says, “you just keep cutting, trying to fix it, and the truth is, some things can never be fixed. The day of my daddy’s funeral, I cut my bangs until they were the length of those little paintbrushes that come with dime-store watercolor sets. I was nine years old. … I was too young then to know I was changing my hair because I wanted to change my life.”

Boykin, 55, has stuck with the same style since June 2011, when she pitched her unsold novel to New York literary agents and got a great response. She sold it six months later. She had worked on the book for years. It’s the first thing she’s ever published. So, life is good. Why change your hair?

Meet the author
Kim Boykin will be one of five authors speaking about their books, 7-9 p.m. March 11 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road. The event also features Gina Holmes (“Wings of Glass”), Holly Goddard Jones (“The Next Time You See Me”), Megan Miranda (“Hysteria”) and Margaret Wrinkle (“Wash”).

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Seuss-a-Thon in Charlotte

Everyone needs Dr. Seuss now and then. He's goofy. He's fun. He's a sage among men.

OK, I know. I'm no Theodor Seuss Geisel. But you can hear the real thing on Saturday, March 2. Park Road Books is hosting a Seuss-a-Thon.

 Guest readers will give readings of their favorite Dr. Seuss books from 11 a.m. to at least 3 p.m. at the store, 4139 Park Road.

The event, timed to Dr. Seuss's birthday,  is part of the National Education Association's Read Across America campaign.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A novel with a great first sentence from Asheville's Jamie Mason

For Asheville’s Jamie Mason, literary inspiration came from a newspaper headline: “Landscapers find skull in mulch bed.” She never even read the story. The headline was enough.

Its six words helped Mason hatch a first chapter with a boffo opening sentence: “There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.” From there, with lots more work, she produced a novel.

“Three Graves Full” (Gallery Books; $24.99), to be published Feb. 12, is the story of Jason Getty, a usually mild-mannered guy who killed a man, then planted him in the backyard. Jason is learning to live with this gruesome new reality when police uncover two bodies on his property. Neither is the fellow he buried.

Publishers Weekly and Booklist have awarded Mason’s literary suspense novel starred reviews. Some people are favorably comparing her dark humor with that of the Coen brothers, the filmmakers who gave us “Blood Simple,” “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski.” A number of reviewers have mentioned her first line. They love it.

You probably haven’t heard of Mason, since this is her debut novel. In fact, excluding some online  essays and a blog she writes about books and authors (, it’s her first published work, “pretty much as debut as debut can get,” she says.

Mason, 42, has lived in Asheville for about nine years, since she and her family moved there from Richmond. 

She’s self-taught. She didn’t even go to college. She grew up poor, she told me, and “I didn’t think I could go.”

But something within her longed to write. For years, she worked in personal banking, as a teller, customer service manager, credit union branch manager. Back then, she wrote mostly memos. “People said, ‘Jamie, I love your memos. You write the best memos.’”

Mason began writing fiction when she quit her job to care for her first child.

Now, glowing early reviews suggest she has a hit. Mystery Guild Book Club Editor Christine Zika has praised “Three Graves Full” as “filled with biting wit and great prose style.”

The novel, Zika writes, “may be the debut of the year.”

Mason will read and sign books at 2 p.m. March 16 at Park Road Books,  4139 Park Road.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

LBJ biographer Robert Caro coming to Davidson College

Robert Caro, one of the nation's foremost biographers, will speak at Davidson College Feb. 26 as the school's  Joel A. Conarroe lecturer.

Caro has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, for his books on Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson," the fourth volume of his Johnson biography, was published in May.

Caro has also won nearly every other major American literary prize, including the National Book Critics Circle Award  and the National Book Award. President Barack Obama honored him with the National Humanities Medal in 2010.

Caro will deliver Davidson's annual Conarroe lecture at  8 p.m. Feb. 26 in Davidson's Duke Family Performance Hall. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. They'll be available starting Monday, Feb. 4 from the ticket office in Davidson's Alvarez College Union. They can also be reserved online or by phone for a $3 service fee. Check here for more information.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bestselling author Jen Lancaster coming to Charlotte

Bestselling author Jen Lancaster first made her name with her comic memoirs. Now, the author of "Bitter is the New Black" and "Such a Pretty Fat"  has published her second novel.  "Here I Go Again" tells the story of a woman whose high school resume included being prom queen, head cheerleader and nasty to all those beneath her.

Twenty years later, she's still riding high, with a perfect job and husband. Then, right before her high school reunion, her world falls apart.

Lancaster will be in Charlotte to sign copies 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, at Barnes & Noble's Arboretum store, 3327 Pineville-Matthews Road.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Wilmington's Karen Bender writes 'A Town of Empty Rooms'

Whether you hail from Hickory, High Point, Greenville or any number of smallish American cities, chances are you’ll recognize Waring, N.C., the fictional setting of Karen Bender’s engaging new novel, “A Town of Empty Rooms.”

In Waring, one of the first questions asked of newcomers is what church they attend. If you don’t choose to observe Christmas and Easter, residents may be genuinely puzzled, even hostile.

The newcomers in this story are Serena and Dan Shine, a Jewish couple trying to make a new life after Serena loses her job in New York City. Dan has taken a public relations job with the Chamber of Commerce. His aim: Putting Waring, N.C., on the map.

Though their Jewish identity is more cultural than religious, the two often feel like outsiders in this former Civil War port city.

“It was a city of pickup trucks perched on tires the size of inner tubes, of SUVs humming along ribbons of asphalt,” Bender writes. “There were the billboards by the highway… Jesus says: I will make my home with you, Free Coffee: Everlasting Life, Don’t be so Open-Minded: Your Brains will Fall Out.”

Bender, who teaches creative writing at UNC Wilmington, felt like an outsider herself when she moved from New York to Wilmington in 2002 with her novelist husband, Robert Anthony Siegel, and their children.

After growing up in Los Angeles, where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were school holidays, Bender, 49, wasn’t accustomed to the friendly questions about church that came from her new Wilmington neighbors.

It was an instructive experience – feeling for the first time like a minority, an outsider, she says. That experience provided the kernel that became “A Town of Empty Rooms” (Counterpoint; $25).

So yes, there are real elements of Wilmington in the book, including the aphorisms Serena spots on church signs. But most of the world of Waring, including the creepy Boy Scout leader who lives next to the Shines, are fabrications.
“As a writer,” Bender says, “you can take something real in your life and explode it.”
This is Bender’s second novel. Her first, “Like Normal People,” published in 2000, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller that was excerpted in The New Yorker.

She reports, by the way, that Wilmington, like many N.C. cities, is more diverse and cosmopolitan than it was in 2002, when she arrived. The town is now home to a center for Hasidic Jews. And, also, to a Whole Foods.