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.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Black Forest Books & Toys to close

Citing sluggish sales, Black Forest Books & Toys is closing this month after 34 years in Charlotte.

"The economy has just not been good for us," co-owner Pat Siegfried said Monday. "We've had some wonderful, loyal customers, just not enough."

Though it also sells toys, the store is considered one of the nation's oldest continually operating children's bookstores. It opened in 1978, run by Louise Sanford and her mother, Fannie Blackwelder, and operated for years on Cherokee Road in Myers Park/Eastover.

 Pat Siegfried and June Hargrove bought the store in 2008, weeks before the height of the recession. Both are former librarians who delighted in matching children with just the right picture book or educational toy. Siegfried served for 14 years as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library's youth services director.

In 2011, they relocated to a purple house at 1942 Seventh St. in Elizabeth. The move more than doubled their retail space, and they hoped it would increase sales. But a weak economy, coupled with competition from online sellers and e-readers, proved too much to overcome, Siegfried said.

All store items are now at least 30 percent off. Siegfried encouraged anyone with a gift certificate to use it now. The store's last day will be between Jan. 23 and 26, she said.

Monday, January 7, 2013

'Hashtag' named 2012's Word of the Year

"Hashtag" is the American Dialect Society's 2012 Word of the Year, chosen by  grammarians, lexicographers, linguists and other language experts who converged over the weekend in Boston for their annual meeting.

The Twitter-inspired word beat out some stiff competition, including "fiscal cliff," "marriage equality" and "Gangnam style."

 "Big Data" also seemed a possible contender. Linguist Geoff Nunberg made a compelling argument on National Public Radio last month in favor of the phrase, noting that this term for massive amounts of digital data describes a monumental shift in the way humans mine information: "Epidemiologists watch for blips in Google queries to localize flu outbreaks; economists use them to spot shifts in consumer confidence. Police analytics comb over crime data looking for hot zones; security agencies comb over travel and credit card records looking for possible terrorists."

Several thoughts, here: First, I'm glad the winner wasn't "YOLO," the acronym for "You Only Live Once." After last month, I also hope to never hear the term "fiscal cliff" again.  But I wouldn't have voted for "hashtag" either. The American Dialect Society describes the word as referring to "the practice used on Twitter for marking topics or making commentary by means of a has symbol (#) followed by a word or phrase." I can't articulate why, but the word annoys me, though not as much as "fiscal cliff."

I had warmer feelings for last year's Word of the Year, "occupy," the only non-digital winner in several years. The 2009 word was "tweet," followed by 2010's "app." 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Columbia author's new novel highlights homelessness

Janna McMahan got the idea for her new novel years ago on a street in Austin, Texas, when she spotted a homeless girl with a tattooed face. 

The teenager wore cargo pants, scuffed boots and white-girl dreadlocks. What McMahan remembers most, though, were the tattoos. 

Who would do that to a child? she thought. And why would she do that to herself?

McMahan, who lives in Columbia, thought about that girl for years. She wrote a novella that was part of a bestselling collection and published two successful novels, “Calling Home” and “The Ocean Inside.”

Then, one day, she decided to write about the tattooed teenager.

Her resulting novel, “Anonymity” (Koehlerbooks; $15.95), is the story she wrote after learning that most of her assumptions about homeless youth were wrong. 

“I do not profess to be any sort of expert on this topic,” she says, “but it was the most eye-opening experience as a writer that I have ever had.”

In “Anonymity” Lorelei, a young runaway, is trying to survive on Austin’s streets. Lorelei is so determined to keep details about her family and life secret that even her first name is a pseudonym.
As the book progresses, however, readers learn more. They discover why Lorelei has facial tattoos and why she’s alone on the streets.

McMahan set her book in Austin and conducted extensive research there. Especially helpful, she says, was time spent with staff from the city’s youth homeless shelter, where she learned how talented and resourceful street kids could be. 

Before writing “Anonymity,” McMahan had assumed that many runaways were rebelling from parents, an idea she suspects she picked up from movies she watched as a kid. “I figured it was kind of their choice,” she told me.

She learned instead that many homeless young people are on the streets to escape abusive family situations, or because they’ve aged out of foster care and simply have nowhere else to go. 

McMahan says the main reason she wrote this novel was to engage and entertain readers. But if she’s also able to educate, so much the better. Lorelei’s reality, McMahan has learned, is one shared by almost two million U.S. children. 

McMahan’s publisher, Koehlerbooks, opted to release the book now because January is when major cities, including Charlotte, conduct homeless population counts. Koehlerbooks is donating a portion of book sale proceeds to Austin’s LifeWorks, a nonprofit whose services include a youth homeless shelter.

McMahan will give a reading and sign books at 2 p.m. Jan. 19 at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road.