Archive for November, 2009


Short Takes: “New Stories From The South”

November 22, 2009

One of my favorite books each year is the newest edition of the New Stories From the South series from Algonquin Books. Though I got the 2009 volume a while back, I have only recently had a chance to look at it, but there was plenty to enjoy and appreciate, including stories by favorites including Jill McCorkle, Elizabeth Spencer, George Singleton, and Wendell Berry. But it was a couple of other things that stood out to me at first encounter. First, this year’s guest editor is Madison Smartt Bell, who’s not just a fine writer (obviously) but also a fine reader and editor. (I’ve used his book Narrative Design in my fiction workshop the last few times I’ve taught it, and it’s simply brilliant.) In his introduction here, Bell draws on his visits to New Orleans — both pre- and post-Katrina — to consider what’s happening to (what’s already happened to) the South and to Southern literature. He writes that

Rootedness used to be the core quality of Southern culture, holding fast to the plantation (big house or quarters), to the scratch farm or small town. That isn’t altogether gone, but it has drifted into polarity with the nomadic quality of so many Southerners’ lives. We educate most of our writers now, scattering them into craft schools all over the nation. They marry outlanders and settle in compromise locations….

Later, continuing on the theme of familiarity and uprootedness, he concludes that

The hurricane tore New Orleans to shreds and left it to put itself back together in a whole new way… but maybe something like that has happened all over the South, with no need for a material hurricane. Against the great longing for home we all share is the fact that so many of us are unhoused and uprooted by our own choice (maybe unreflecting choice) — that we have cast ourselves against the wind…. That tension, then, becomes a germ of the stories we now have to tell.

A brief introduction, but plenty to ponder there — an implicit encouragement for you to read the whole essay.

The second thing that caught my attention was how many of these stories — three of the twenty-one included — use second-person narrative, and this circumstance stood out particularly dramatically to me because those three stories were the first ones I read, choosing primarily at random as I flipped through the book. (It was only as I started the third that the coincidence unnerved me.) The stories by Tayari Jones, Michael Knight, and Stephanie Soileau each speak directly to the you here — just like in those great old Choose Your Own Adventure stories. In Jones’ story, “Some Thing Blue,” your mother has bought you a secondhand wedding dress: “So now you stand in the makeshift dressing room of the warehouse-store laced into this gown which was abandoned by a woman whose obligations were far less urgent than your own.” In Knight’s story, “Grand Old Party,” you’ve gone to the house of the man who’s having an affair with your wife, and you’ve got trouble in mind: “The .12 gauge in your hands couldn’t feel more out of place. No sign of your wife’s car, but maybe she parked in the garage. Use the barrel to ring the doorbell. This is what a man does when he’s been made a fool.” Finally, in Soileau’s “The Camera Obscura,” the you isn’t the jilted one but the one contemplating an affair, a new high school teacher struggling with her marriage and infatuated with an artsy photographer:

He lingers at the lunchroom table with no food or drink in front of him, and you realize of course that you’ve communicated your interest a little too clearly and he’s lingering just for you, and after he’s finally given up and left, your fellow teachers at the table say with revulsion (and with some affection, too) that he seems to “out of phase.” What do you do when this ticklish absurdity masquerades as persistent, budding joy? What do you do?

What do you do? Second-person narration is, of course, a matter of some preference. It can seem a little forced or mannered (or even overused, says my wife Tara, who’s encountered too many of these herself lately). But when it works, it does indeed force you into some interesting perspectives and some troubling predicaments, and each of the stories here succeed on those terms.

The 2009 New Stories From The South isn’t overall a collection of great stylistic experimentation, of course. There are eighteen other stories more traditional in their approach. But throughout all the tales I’ve sampled, I’ve found writing that pleases and provokes. As with the entire series year after year, this new volume has proven itself a must-have book for anyone interested in either Southern literature or short fiction.

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NYT Praises UNC-W Grad’s Second Thriller

November 13, 2009

Marilyn Stasio’s latest crime column gives high marks to The Long Division, the second novel from UNC-Wilmington graduate Derek Nikitas. “Nikitas bumps up the style requirements for writing crime fiction another notch,” says Stasio, who also notes the novel’s “dazzling plot maneuvers.” Nice praise, to say the least. The full review is at the end of the article here. Nikitas already stopped by Pomegranate Books in Wilmington right after the book’s publication in October, so no N.C. events on the schedule right now. I’ll keep my N.C. readers updated if more events develop.

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N.C. Events: David Wroblewski, Larry Tise & Fred Chappell

November 12, 2009

This weekend’s big visitor to Triangle area bookstores is David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which earned so many raves reviews last June (the Washington Post called it the “book of the year” when the year was only half over) and is earning a new batch of readers now that it’s out in paperback. Wroblewski will appear Friday evening, November 13, at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books and then again on Saturday at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village.

But while that visiting star may be burning the brightest, don’t let it eclipse two other local lights.

Larry Tise, the Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University, visits Manteo Booksellers on Saturday to discuss his new book, Conquering the Sky: The Secret Flights of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Released just last month, the book explores a series of test flight from 1908 (five years after that First Flight) which prepared the flying machine for the military market — and truly began earning the invention worldwide fame.

Then early next week, Fred Chappell offers up his second new collection of the year. Following on the success of Shadow Box: Poems — an intricate and enjoyable collection —  Chappell will read from Ancestors and Others: New and Selected Stories at four locations over four days, a whirlwind mini-tour: Tuesday, November 17, at the Bull’s Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill; Wednesday, November 18, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop; Thursday, November 19, at Quail Ridge Books; and Friday, November 20. Basically, no excuse to miss this short story master looking back over a long and distinguished career.

For links to each of the bookstores and a more comprehensive listing of upcoming events, check out the full MetroBooks Calendar here.


Charles Jensen on “The First Risk”

November 9, 2009

Charles Jensen is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award;  the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT; and the director of The Writer’s Center, based in Bethesda, Maryland. His new book and first full-length collection of poetry is The First Risk, a marvelous work that features four extended sequences, each with its own focus and identity and yet each resonant with the others on a number of levels. The first section, “Safe,” revisits the murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 and juxtaposes that crime with an exploration of the myth of Venus and Adonis as depicted in a painting by Luca Cambiaso. The central sections — “City of the Sad Divas” and “The Double Bind: A Critical Text” — respond to the characters, plotlines and persistent themes in two films: Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, respectively. And the final section, “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon” — previously published as a chapbook in its own right — explores the often chilling, ultimately heart-rending attempts by physicists Edward and Maribel Dixon to reach “The Ghost-World.”

Jensen read from the just-pubished collection in September at the Fall for the Book Festival and graciously agreed to a few questions here about how the book came together.

Art Taylor: Many of the poems in The First Risk respond to or are inspired by other stories, both real-life and fictional: the murder of Matthew Shepard, a Renaissance painting, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. Does your work usually grow out of your “readings” of news stories or films or other arts? And to what extent do you anticipate that your own readers’ experiences will depend on knowledge of those sources?

Charles Jensen

Charles Jensen: While this book in particular is very ekphrastic in nature, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily typical for me. I’ve been very interested in exploring voice in the last few years, trying on different guises. And I like blurring the lines between reality and fiction, which I think this book does extensively (the “real story” is murky with mythology, while the most invented story appears to be the most factual/documented). Since finishing The First Risk, I’ve been working on a sequence of poems in the voices of Dorothy Eady/Omm Sety, who was the most “reasonable” evidence for belief in reincarnation; Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon Church; and Dorothy Gale, the protagonist of The Wizard of Oz. As a whole, the three voices are negotiating the relationship between faith and love, faith and certainty, and faith and reality. For this sequence, because the voices are so enmeshed in those ideas, I’ve included “historical notes” with the poems to give them context, but doing so makes me wonder if somehow the poems haven’t failed. I’m still working that out. I think a lot about what my reader needs to know when encountering the poems, and I’ve been trying to determine, particularly in readings from The First Risk, how to fill them in. I hope that readers can still enjoy the individual pieces or sequences without having ALL the background information, but I think knowing the stories behind the poems gives them added dimension.
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N.C. Events: The Lee Bros. & More

November 5, 2009

Matt and Ted Lee aren’t just a southern sensation; they’re a national one, thanks to regular appearances in Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, GQ, The New York Times, and Martha Stewart Living and on the Food Network too. Their latest book, The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes with Down-Home Flavor, offers possibilities for “the easy, weeknight meal” and promise to be “super approachable for the non-cook,” according to a recent article in the Charleston City Paper down in their own hometown. Today (Thursday, November 5), they’re coming to our neck of the woods with an appearance at 7 p.m. at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop — surely one of the highlights of upcoming events on the book-lover’s calendar (and the foodie’sn calendar too; I’ll admit I’m hungry just thinking about it). The new cookbook was just published earlier this week, and Durham marks the first Southern stop on a tour that runs through mid-December. Needless to say, a great Christmas present (hint, hint).

I’ve already mentioned Roy Williams‘ new memoir, Hard Work, and his tour continues with a stop at the Bull’s Head this afternoon and then elsewhere over the next couple of weeks. Additionally, the Bull’s Head will host author Art Chanskey on Saturday, November 7, with another book on UNC’s basketball program: Light Blue Reign: How a City Slicker, a Quiet Kansan, and a Mountain Man Built College Basketball’s Longest-Lasting Dynasty.

  • Annette DunlapFrank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America’s Youngest First Lady, on Friday, November 6 at the Fayetteville Barnes & Noble
  • Mary AkersWomen Up On Blocks: Stories, and Clifford GarstangIn an Uncharted Country, on Friday, November 6, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village and again on Saturday, November 7, at Shakespeare and Company Books in Kernersville
  • And short story writers Anne BarnhillWhat You Long For, and Maureen SherbondyThe Slow Vanishing, on Sunday, November 8, at McIntyre’s Books.

For a more comprehensive listing of author events and links to individual bookstore’s websites, check out the MetroBooks Calendar here.

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