Archive for March, 2010


Dispatches from the Future Last Saturday

March 26, 2010

On Saturday, March 20, The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, hosted an all-day conference, “Writing the Future,” organized by the Center,  The Creative Nonfiction Foundation, and Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes. My original plan was to keep a running blog of highlights from the event, but I quickly found that intention to be overly ambitious. The event offered such a torrent of information and ideas that I had troubled just keeping up, much less processing it all — and even now, days later, there’s still so much to consider that I’m hesitant to try to synthesize it all into any overarching conclusions about what’s ahead next for writers and publisher.

Instead, then, I just wanted to excerpt a few choice nuggets from the various presentations and panel discussions that I attended over the course of the day, all of it moderated by Lee Gutkind, author most recently of  Almost Human: Making Robots Think and the founder of Creative Nonfiction, a journal whose relaunch celebration ultimately closed the day’s events. The day began with presentations by Jay Ogilvy, co-founder of the Global Business Network, and Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, talking about the approaches to predicting the future — scenario building, for instance — and the difficulties with predicting the long-term impact of new initiatives and technologies: Radio, as Sarewitz pointed out, was intended simply as an upgrade for the telegraph, but who could’ve known how tremendously it would affect so many realms of society and culture. (Unaddressed were all the questions lingering in the air about the Kindle and the iPad.)

After those presentations, the discussion narrowed its focus to writers and writing,  Read the rest of this entry ?


NC Events: Lee Smith!

March 24, 2010

In Southern literary circles, the biggest news this week is the publication of Lee Smith‘s new book, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger: New and Selected Stories. While perhaps best known as a novelist of major repute (and with a fervent following), Smith is also a master of the short form, as she displays here with seven works sampled from her previous collections — Cakewalk (1981), Me and My Baby View the Eclipse (1990), and News of the Spirit (1997) — as well as seven new pieces. Among the new stories is a little gem called “Toastmaster,” about a shy, underdeveloped eleven-year-old boy (often mistaken for eight, says the story, and it’s a a mistake the book’s dustjacket made as well, which must be slightly embarrassing). Jeffrey travels from Washington, D.C. to Key West with his domineering mother and there, in a beachside bar called Salute, he discovers something bold and daring inside himself: a stand-up comic, waiting for his stage. Radical shifts in his family dynamic — and his entire future — follow, and throughout it all, Smith captures a sense of both life’s messiness and its gloriousness: individuals struggling to find their place in a chaotic world, and then — happily, amazingly — actually finding it.

Smith’s tour takes her to a number of North Carolina venues, beginning tonight (Wednesday, March 24) at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge books. She’ll also be reading next Wednesday, March 31, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, and then on Saturday, April 3, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village. A complete listing of her events can be found at her own website here.

A few other events of note over the next week include:

  • Frank Lentricchia with The Italian Actress, on Thursday, March 25, at the Regulator
  • Harlen Coben with Caught, on Friday, March 26, at Quail Ridge Books
  • and poets Marty Silverthorne and Nancy King as part of the monthly NC Poetry Society Series on Sunday, March 28, at McIntyre’s Books

For a more complete listing of North Carolina events from the Triangle to the coast, visit the MetroBooks calendar here.

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NC Events: Allen, Mosher & Skloot

March 17, 2010

Among the notable writers making the rounds through the Triangle over the next week, Rebecca Skloot is the one riding the biggest publicity wave: raves reviews in the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly, among others; an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross; and a recent segment on CBS Sunday Morning (perhaps the best news show on television in my opinion). Whether you’re already a fan of the book or just want to find out more about this remarkable story, you’ll definitely want to mark your calendars for Skloot’s visits to North Carolina in the coming days. She’ll be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Monday evening, March 22, and at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop on Wednesday the 24th.

In the meantime, two other authors are also worth checking out:

  • Sarah Addison Allen, with her new book, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, on Thursday, March 18, at Quail Ridge and again on Saturday, March 20, at the Barnes & Noble in Cary.
  • And Howard Frank Mosher, author of Walking to Gatlinburg, on Friday, March 19, at Quail Ridge and then on Saturday, March 20, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village.

And stay tuned for word on Lee Smith and her new story collection, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger. That book officially publishes next Tuesday, and Smith kicks off her local tour the following night — Wednesday evening, March 24 — at Quail Ridge.

For more information, check out the MetroBooks Calendar here.

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Bourbon Trail: A Miscellany Of Bourbon Quotes

March 13, 2010

After stopping at the last of the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail, we’ve filled our passports — and earned our t-shirts! What other pleasures does Louisville have to offer? We’ll find out today, and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Churchill Downs are already on the plan. As for today’s bourbon entries, here are a few quick quotations on the subject from actors, writers, and — speaking of Louisville Sluggers — even a baseball player.

“Sure I eat what I advertise. Sure I eat Wheaties for breakfast. A good bowl of Wheaties with bourbon can’t be beat.” — Dizzy Dean

“How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil’s Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon — and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter.” — W.C. Fields

“Nothing is so musical as the sound of pouring bourbon for the first drink on a Sunday morning. Not Bach or Schubert or any of those masters.” — Carson McCullers (from Clock Without Hands)

“Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.” — Walker Percy

“We’ll get them. We’ll throw the book at them. Assualt and kidnapping. Assault with a gun and a bourbon and a sports car. We’ll get them.” — Cary Grant, as Roger Thornhill in North By Northwest

“Codeine… bourbon….” — Tallulah Bankhead (last words)

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Bourbon Trail: The Mint Julep, Part II

March 12, 2010

Thunder, the Buffalo Trace mascot, carved from the remains of a tree that had been all-but-destroyed by lightning.

Thursday brought not just one but two tours at the Buffalo Trace distillery — basically the Bourbon Mecca for many of us. After the standard tour, including the hand-bottling assembly line, we were treated to a “hard hat” tour, where we went behind-the-scenes of the bourbon-making process and (here’s the fun part) got to taste each step of that process: the crushed grains, the reconstituted spent grain, several stages of the yeast fermentation, the sweet mash, the sour mash, and right on up to the final product… which, of course, tasted the best.

Friday brings four distilleries: Tom Moore, Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, and Jim Beam. Have we had enough bourbon yet? Not hardly.

For today’s literary bourbon bon-bon, here’s another recipe for the Mint Julep, this one from Henry Watterson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Louisville Courier-Journal:

Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form on it. Select the choicer sprigs only, but do not rinse them. Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey.

Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away, and drink the whiskey.

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Bourbon Trail: Walker Percy On Topic At Hand

March 11, 2010

Art, Tara, Katie & Brandon at the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Katie is holding last year's commemorative Kentucky Derby bottle.

Yesterday, we began our Bourbon Trail adventure with stops at Woodford Reserve, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. As expected, our tours at Woodford and Four Roses overlapped a little (“Did you know that all bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn?”), but each was also surprisingly fresh and interesting. I’d show you pictures of the fermenting yeast concoction we saw at Four Roses, but they turned out a sickly green. Perhaps our favorite experience was being in the barrel warehouse at Woodford Reserve — an olfactory overload so blissful that we were all reluctant to leave. Tara actually bought a bourbon-scented candle a little later, and at Wild Turkey (which we didn’t tour), we picked up bottle of Russell’s Reserve, supposedly not available back in our home state. We all took sips back in the hotel room, and it’s an interesting bourbon — smooth but with a slightly bitter finish.

This morning, we head out for Buffalo Trace — home of Blanton’s, in the opinion of at least three of us the finest bourbon on the market today. We’re doing two tours there, the regular tour and then a special hard-hat tour. We are tingling with anticipation.

For today’s literary snippet, here’s an excerpt from Walker Percy‘s glorious essay on bourbon:

I can hardly tell one bourbon from another, unless the other is very bad. Some bad bourbons are more memorable than good ones. For example, I can recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. After knocking back two or three shots over a period of half an hour, the three male drinkers looked at each other and said in a single voice: “Where are the women?”

I have not been able to locate this remarkable bourbon since.

Not only should connoisseurs of bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth—all real enough dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of bourbon drinking, that is, the use of bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cure the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”

If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol, the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of the C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.

The pleasure of knocking back bourbon lies in the plane of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one’s value system—that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of evocation of time and memory and the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, where as connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded simulation of sensory end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation….

This essay appeared in Percy’s collection Signposts in a Strange Land and has been excerpted and reprinted widely. Find more of the essay here.

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Bourbon Trail: The Mint Julep, Part I

March 10, 2010

Today, Tara and I begin our travels along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We’ll be meeting friends from Atlanta, Brandon and Katie, at the Woodford Reserve Distillery around noon, and after that it’s just a long weekend of drinking and debauchery refined tastings of some of the finest spirits that the Bluegrass State has to offer.

As always when we’re on the road, I like to leave a little something here – a passage or two related to our travels and perhaps offering some small bit of literary edification. Reprinted here, then, is Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s now famous letter to Major General William D. Connor on the making of the Mint Julep. It’s a letter I’ve read and reread and quoted often:

My Dear General Connor:

Your letter requesting my formula for mixing mint juleps leaves me in the same position in which Captain Barber found himself when asked how he was able to carve the image of an elephant from a block of wood. He said that it was a simple process consisting merely of whittling off the part that didn’t look like an elephant.

The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can be described only in like terms. A mint julep is not a product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the Old South, and emblem of hospitality, and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of a happy and congenial thought.

So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows:

Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream thru its banks of green moss and wild flowers until it broadens and trickles thru beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breeze. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age, yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start.

Into a canvas bag pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow it to degenerate into slush. Into each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outside of the goblets dry, and embellish copiously with mint.

Then comes the delicate and important operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glistening coat of white frost.

Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.

When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden where the aroma of the juleps will rise heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblets to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.

Being overcome with thirst, I can write no further.


Lt. Gen. S.B. Buckner, Jr.

VMI Class of 1906

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