Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Eve excerpt from O.Henry's 'Gift of the Magi'

"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."
"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"

Jim looked about the room curiously.

"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

...Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas visit to the racist poor in Harper Lee's 'Mockingbird'

In Harper Lee's 1960 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," the lawyer Atticus Finch takes his two children, Scout and Jem, to visit the Ewell family at Christmas. The novel is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., and the Ewells, who live behind the town garbage dump, are Maycomb's poorest family. Bob Ewell is a white racist, who has falsely accused the innocent Tom Robinson, a black man, of raping his daughter. As Scout tells it:

 "Nobody was quite sure how many people were on the (Ewell) place. Some people said six, others said nine; there were always several dirty-faced ones at the windows when anyone passed by. Nobody had any occasion to pass by except at Christmas, when the churches delivered baskets, and when the mayor of Maycomb asked us to please help the garbage collector by dumping our own trees and trash.
...A dirt road ran from the highway past the dump, down to a small Negro settlement some five hundred yards beyond the Ewells'. ...In the frosty December dusk, their cabins looked neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside. There were delicious smells about: chicken, bacon frying crisp as the twilight air. Jem and I detected squirrel cooking, but it took an old countryman like Atticus to identify possum and rabbit, aromas that vanished when we rode back past the Ewell residence."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Shelby Stephenson of Benson is North Carolina's new poet laureate

I can't imagine a better choice.

Gov. Pat McCrory's office announced today that Shelby Stephenson of Benson, a retired English professor at UNC Pembroke, is our state's new poet laureate.
The selection committee, under the auspices of the Department of Cultural Resources, had given the governor three names to choose from earlier in the month.

"We recognize that we didn't follow the traditional process during the last selection," the governor said in a press release. "However, this time my appointment comes from the strong recommendation of Secretary (Susan) Kluttz and the distinguished members of the selection panel."

"It's a wonderful surprise," Stephenson said by phone. "Surprises are always wonderful in themselves. To surprise oneself in a poem -- that's a wonderful thing. So, gosh. That's the way the world goes!"

Stephenson and his wife Linda drove to Raleigh yesterday for a Christmas party. Back home in Benson, he found a message asking him to call the governor.

Stephenson returned the call and left a message with his phone number.

The governor called back Monday morning shortly before 8.

"He was very personable and asked if I would accept the nomination," Stephenson said.

"Gosh, I'd be honored," he told the governor.

Kluttz of Cultural Resources called later in the morning.

"She was just beautifully informative," said Stephenson, "and she told me who was on the panel."

"The choice of Shelby Stephenson is a delight for everyone in the state," said Anthony Abbott, a member of the selection committee and a retired head of the English department of Davidson College. "He is the earth, a true North Carolinian, a wonderful poet and a splendid human being."

Young Capote: Miserable in New Orleans one long-ago Christmas

When Truman Capote was no more than a baby, to hear him tell it, his mother and father split up. His mother deposited him in a small Alabama town with her relatives, the Faulks. An elderly cousin named Sook Faulk raised Truman, and it was this woman he loved most in the world. But one Christmas, his father, who lived in New Orleans, managed to wrangle legal custody of the boy for the holidays and young Truman rode the bus south, already missing Sook. He was miserable in New Orleans, but he tried not to let on, as he writes in "One Christmas," which came out in a 1982 boxed, gift edition from Random House.

"The day before Christmas, as we were walking along Canal Street, I stopped dead still, mesmerized by a magical object that I saw in the window of a big toy store. It was a model airplane large enough to sit in and pedal like a bicycle. It was green and had a red propeller. I was convinced that if you pedaled fast enough it would take off and fly! Now wouldn't that be something! I could just see my cousins standing on the ground while I flew about among the clouds. Talk about green! I laughed; and laughed and laughed. It was the first thing I'd done that made my father look confident, even though he didn't know what I thought was so funny."

Monday, December 15, 2014

UNCC prof's audio book wins 'best audio book of the year'

A few weeks ago, I was introduced to a young man at a banquet who confided that he might have some book news for me in a couple of weeks. Little did A.J. Hartley realize what great news was heading his way.
Hartley, the Robinson distinguished professor of Shakespeare at UNCC, is the author with David Hewson of their  second re-imagined audio classic, "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel," which has won the Best of the Year from Audible Studios.
Richard Armitage (Thoren Oakenshield in the trilogy of films based on "The Hobbit), draws on his experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company to bring the tale of ghosts, madness and revenge to life.
Hartley is the bestselling New York Times author of the Will Hawthorne fantasy series and several thrillers, as well as Darwen Arkwright books for younger readers.
Hewson is the bestselling author of more than 20 novels, including the Nic Costa crime series and a trilogy of books based on the hit Danish TV show "The Killing."
Here's what the  London Times says about Hartley and Hewson's "Hamlet":
"English literature teachers worried about getting their pupils entranced by Shakespeare, should plug them in to this imaginative gloss on Hamlet before starting on the real thing."

To listen:

Friday, December 12, 2014

New memoir by UNC's Kenan Writer-in-Residence

Daisy Hernandez

I didn't mean to, honestly.
But the books kept piling in, and Daisy Hernandez's "A Cup of Water Under My Bed" (Beacon Press, $24.95), kept getting pushed -- no, not quite under my bed --but in the looming stack next to it.
This evening, tired from carpooling my middle-school granddaughter home after basketball practice, I tucked myself in said bed and began reading.
Oh, my! Such a treat.
Hernandez is the Kenan writer-in-residence at UNC-Chapel Hill, and she has quite a story to tell.
She was born into a Cuban-Colombian family with plenty of warnings from the women in her family about men who seduce with pastries and about expectations that she would thrive in a white world but remain loyal to her roots.
Not as easy as it sounds.
Hernandez, a bi-sexual, allows us into her life with the kind of bravery that's become essential for the best of memoirists.
One of my favorite sections is about her rather unhappy tenure at the New York Times, which probably mirrors any new reporter's or intern's experience at any newspaper, no matter the size.
The meetings take place in a conference room. Inside are a long wooden table, large heavy chairs, and a television in a cabinet. Men show up in stiff white shirts with cups of coffee in hand, notepads and pens, and the day's paper. The women show up in slacks and button-down shirts with notepads and pens and the paper. They file in one by one, welcome me, make jokes about this and that, and it begins to dawn on me that they are regular white people.
I'm not sure what I expected them to look like, but I figured that writing for the New York Times would turn a person into something close to God, or at least Oprah Winfrey. I expected that they would look different somehow, more beautiful, more pristine, that they wouldn't have to read the day's paper because they would have a secret telephone they could pick up and hear about what was happening in the world.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn: 'even in death, women need packaging'

Rolling Stone writer James Rocci asks bestselling "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn:


Well, I think when we turn on the TV or watching a movie — whether it's true-crime reporting or maybe a [fictional] crime show, the only women that we want to watch die are the beautiful ones. Even in death, there seems to be this demand that women need packaging in a certain way, and certainly those are the ones that get the most attention from these true-crime shows. The characters in Gone Girl, I think, are certainly aware of that trope, too, from the start: Here's this attractive couple that has the added pathos that she's gone missing on her anniversary. From there, it almost seems inevitable that they're going to be in the media cross-hairs.
I think, more and more, the media has become very facile; we get the coverage we deserve. I tune into these shows too, and I think that idea of packaging ourselves as a personality is something that Gone Girl plays with throughout. Nick and Amy play these sort of persona roles for each other in the early days, and the media then comes in and immediately wants to cast one person as America's Sweetheart and her husband as the villain. We put that lens on them because that's what we do, and that's what's expected. You can only cover so much truth in that 15 second sound-bite. You can only project so much information when all you have is footage of a guy walking from his car to his house.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'Light' in novel title adds shimmer and mystery -- please add to the list

There's a shimmery quality to novels with the word "Light" in the title.

The title of Anthony Doerr's recent, "All the Light We Cannot See," a World War II love story, captured my imagination and ran through my head for weeks after its stunning debut.

I look forward to North Carolinian David Joy's 2015 novel with another mysterious title: "Where All Light Tends to Go." Where does all light tend to go?

A few more titles of novels with the word Light:

1. "Light in August," William Faulkner's 1932 novel,
the 7th of his 19, sometimes called his Great American Novel.

2. "The Light in the Piazza," Chapel Hill resident Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novella about a mother and daughter on a lark-turns-dark vacation in Italy. Later made into a 1962 film.

3. "Light Years," James Salter's 1975 portrait of a marriage, hailed as his masterpiece.

4. "How the Light Gets In," Louise Penny's 2013 novel, the ninth in a series starring inspector Armand Gamache, is a counterpoint to David Joy's title. (Penny's title is from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem" -- "There's a crack in everything / that's how the light gets in."

5. "The Light and the Dark," by Russia's most celebrated writer Mikhail Shishkin, is a series of letters between a man at war and a woman on the home front.

6. "Claire of the Sea Light," by Edwidge Danticat, is narrated by a 7-year-old Haitian girl whose mother dies giving birth to her.

7. "The Light Between Oceans," a 2013 debut novel by London lawyer M.L. Stedman, is about a childless couple in an Australian outpost.

8. "Mirror and the Light" is Hilary Mantel's sequel to "Wolf Hall" and "Bringing up the Bodies," due in 2015.
So tell me: What titles have I overlooked?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Joseph Bathanti reflects on his years as our state's Poet Laureate

Rumor has it that Gov. Pat McCrory will be announcing the state's new Poet Laureate next week. So I asked the amazing Joseph Bathanti about his recent laureateship. Bathanti, as most of you know, is a poet, novelist and memoirist and was recently awarded the prestigious Roanoke-Chowan Award for his 2014 poetry collection, "Concertina." 

What did you enjoy most about being Poet Laureate?

I especially loved getting in the car and scouring North Carolina. I had made these criss-crossing treks across the state, with some intensity, back when I was in the astonishing, one-of-a-kind North Carolina Visiting Artists Program in 1985-87, and in 1998-90, so I found it invigorating to tour the state again and see, up close, not only what a beautiful piece of geography North Carolina is -- from proverbial Murphy to Manteo -- but also the rich diversity of cultures and people and sensibilities across the state. I'm habitually in the larger metropolitan areas of our state, which I love visiting, but I found so romantic, so enthralling, all those little places it was my great privilege to visit as Poet Laureate. The surprises those places and communities everywhere -- large and small -- yielded are truly the kinds of materials writers dream of stumbling upon. It was my humble version of "On the Road." What's more, instead of having Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) riding shotgun, I was so much luckier than Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac). I was accompanied by the Muse Laureate, my wife Joan. What's more, we were welcomed so graciously, so affectionately, by the citizens in every community we visited.

What surprised you during your tenure?

The biggest surprise was, I suppose, what I already knew; but I was nevertheless surprised by what I have always found so amazing about writing and literature in North Carolina. As Poet Laureate, I officially visited 45 of our state's 100 counties (a number of them more than once) -- though I traveled and stopped in so many other counties along my route. No matter where I went, the big places and the small places, I found poets; novelists; playwrights; essayists, genealogists; historians; and dedicated, often pathological, readers -- in libraries, schools, shelters, hospitals, you-name-it. People enthralled with the places they lived, people tithed to the land, or the architecture, or the history of their various towns and counties. North Carolina is indeed the best place in the country to be a writer and reader.

What advice do you have for the next Laureate?

The new Laureate will show up with his or her own agenda and undoubtedly the talent and wherewithal to put into a play a brand new agenda. About that I'm completely confident. I would hope the new Laureate spends a great deal of time in schools K-12, cheerleading and not only for the children, but for those embattled, dedicated, hard-working teachers. Teachers across our state ensure that the word endures, that kids learn not only to read and write, but to develop hearts and souls around their own inimitable stories. And, above all, I would encourage the new Poet Laureate to have fun.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

'Dixie Dew' author Ruth Moose on UNC-TV 'Book Watch' today at 5 p.m.

'Doing It at the Dixie Dew' is one of the catchiest titles of 2014, and the praise goes to former Charlottean Ruth Moose, an Albemarle native who lives in Fearrington Village near Pittsboro.

You can hear her this afternoon at 5 on D.G. Martin's "Book Watch" (UNC-TV.) She'll tell you how she first wrote this cozy mystery and entered it into a contest. She didn't win, but she got good advice from one of the contest judges.And unlike many other writers, Moose has the perseverance of a hound dog. She re-wrote the mystery and years later re-entered the Malice Domestic Competition for Best First Traditional Mystery contest with her  revised manuscript. This time, she won, and her prize was publication and a nice check.

Novelist Lee Smith calls "Dixie Dew" a "fast-paced romp through small-town (Southern) society -- mayhem and maybe even murder lurk behind those frilly lace curtains at the Dixie Dew B&B. This entertaining novel is just as rich and delicious as inn keeper Beth McKenzie's lemon creme cake."   

Moose, who taught for 15 years in the creative program at UNC Chapel Hill, is now writing a sequel to "Dixie Dew."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ron Rash Reads at Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby on Friday

I recently interviewed Ron Rash, and I asked him what three contemporary short stories he would recommend to folks wanting to read the very best in short fiction. (Of course, he was too modest to name his own, but I would say pick any of his recent stories in "Something Rich and Strange.")
Here are his recommendations:

William Trevor's "The Distant Past"
Edna O'Brien's "The Connor Girls"
Alice Munro's "Corrie"

You can ask Rash for recommendations yourself if you attend his reading on Friday at the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby where he'll read from this latest collection, "Something Rich and Strange" and autograph your book.

Ron Rash Reads: 5-7 p.m., Friday at the Earl Scruggs Center, 103 S. LaFayette St., Shelby. 
Free program but registration is recommended: 704-487-6233.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Poetry and art winners of 2014 Kakalak contest announced

Winners of the poetry award for the 2014 Kakalak contest are Richard Garcia of James Island, S.C., first; Jenny Hubbard of Salisbury, second; and JS Absher of Raleigh, third.
Winners of the 2014 art award are Allison Anne Brown of Greer, first; Jeannette Brossart of Durham, second; and Kathleen Pompe of Seabrook Island, S.C., third.
Ruth Ilg of Biltmore Lake is the cover artist. 

Kalalak is an annual publication of poetry and art by North and South Carolina writers and artists, edited by Beth Ann Cagle, Lisa Zerkle, and Richard Allen Taylor and published by Main Street Rag.  All work is selected through a contest which has a May deadline.

You're invited to join Kakalak editors, poets, and artists at these upcoming free readings:

Saturday: 2 p.m., Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill, N.C., 27514.

Sunday, Dec. 14, 2 p.m., Madisons Coffee House, 7878 Idlewild Road, Indian Trail, N.C., 28079.

Tuesday, January 26, 2015, 7 p.m.: Emrys Foundation Reading Series, Gringos Cantina, 11 W. Camperdown Way, Greenville, S.C., 29604.

Monday, February 9, 2015, 8 p.m.: Monday Night Poetry and Music, East Bay Meeting House, 160 East Bay St., Charleston, S.C., 29401.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015, 7 p.m.: Poetry Hickory, Taste Full Beans Coffee House, 29 2nd St. SW, Hickory, N.C., 28601.

Sunday, June 7, 2015, time to be announced:  Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave, Raleigh, N.C., 27607.

Submissions for Kakalak 2015 will open on March 1, 2015 and close on May 15, 2015.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gorgeous, cunning poet Mark Strand is dead at 80

I hated hearing the news that the Pulitzer-winning former U.S. poet laureate Mark Strand had died on Saturday. Reports said he was at his daughter's home in Brooklyn, and that the illness was liposarcoma, cancer of the fat cells. He was 80.

I love Strand's poetry for its cunning and its dream-like magic, its confiding voice, its chair-and-pillow imagery. And he was wonderful to look at -- with his angular face and tall, lean frame.

I was at the Bread Loaf writers' colony near Middlebury, Vt., one August in the late 1970s when he was teaching there. I have a clear memory of him lazing on his side on a picnic blanket with a beautiful young woman whose single blonde braid trailed her back. The late-summer Vermont air shimmered around them, and all else fell away.

In a letter home, I wrote: "Mark Strand is breaking hearts right and left."

I also remember him in the classroom. He was wickedly brutal on  student poems, even occasionally sarcastic. I was surprised. But when I read his poetry, which I do again and again, year after year, he becomes pure, disembodied voice. Here is one of my favorites:

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I deeply regret there will be no more new Mark Strand poems. But if you're looking for one of  his books, I'd recommend his 2007 collection, "New Selected Poems," which the New Yorker's Dan Chiasson called "a necessary book," and named it "among the best work by any living poet."