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.