Archive for April, 2010


Congratulations to John Hart!

April 30, 2010

North Carolina’s own John Hart won his second Edgar Award for Best Novel of 2010 last night at the Mystery Writers of America’s annual awards banquet (complete list of winners here). The Last Child (which I reviewed for the Washington Post) took home the top honor, just as Hart’s previous novel, Down River (which I also reviewed for the Post, not quite as favorably), did in 2008. I’m still scratching my head a little over that earlier honor, but this new one is more than deserved. (And incidentally, I’m pulled once more toward Dave Cullen‘s Columbine, which earned the Edgar for Best Fact Crime — a possible addition to my fall True Crime course, along with two other of this year’s Edgar nominees already in the line-up: Megan Abbott‘s Bury Me Deep and Jeff Guinn‘s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde.)

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Leading Ladies of Mystery, Past and Present

April 21, 2010

Today, AARP: The Magazine published my quick reviews of two new books that together offer intriguing looks at both the history of and the craft behind some of the best British mystery fiction of the last century. With Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran delivers an often playful study of the exercise books in which Dame Agatha worked out the characters, plots, settings and more of her many books. And in Talking About Detective Fiction, Dame James does… well, just that: surveying a lifetime of great mystery novels, both others and her own. Check out the full reviews here.

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Writing Under the Influence

April 21, 2010

We all know not to drink and drive, but how about taking a slug and then getting behind the pen? Here’s an interesting little list from Lapham’s Quarterly — though I’m not quite sure why the author/editor focusses on Faulkner’s film work in 1936 (Road to Glory??) instead of Absalom, Absalom! or on one of Chandler’s scripts rather than any of his novels. (I mean, hey, you can’t tell me that either of these men weren’t regularly imbibing throughout their whole career, yeah?)

Still, an interesting little connect-the-dots — or prescription list depending on the kind of literary output your aiming for.

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The Business Behind This Business of Writing

April 19, 2010

Here’s an interesting essay by Dick Bausch from The Atlantic.


Free Book Friday: The Seven Year Bitch

April 16, 2010

Sometimes books show up on my doorstep that I’m not sure why they’re showing up on my doorstep. Such is the case with Jennifer Belle‘s new novel, The Seven Year Bitch. April is a little early for beach reading, but this one looks like a great contender for later in the season, especially for young mothers who’ve just had enough. So let’s make this easy. The first person to email “Bitch for the Beach” to gets to take this baby home — or rather, have it mailed to your home. (No need to send address now; I’ll contact you if you win it.)

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NC News: 2010 Hall of Fame Inductees

April 14, 2010

The North Carolina Writers’ Network has just announced the 2010 inductees into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame — a list including two very distinguished historical figures and three living authors:

  • Walter Hines Page (1855-1918), who worked as a newspaperman, founding Raleigh’s State Chronicle, and as a magazine editor with The Atlantic Monthly and also helped launch the publishing company Doubleday, Page, and Company.
  • Wilbur J. Cash (1900-1941), best known as the author of The Mind of the South but also a journalist with papers including the Charlotte Observer, the Charlotte News, and H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury.
  • Allan Gurganus, novelist and short story writer, whose works include Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, White People, Plays Well With Others, and The Practical Heart.
  • Robert Morgan, novelist and poet, whose works include Gap Creek, selected for Oprah’s Book Club and winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, and the recent poetry collection October Crossing.
  • Samm-Art Williams, actor and playwright, whose works include the Tony-nominated play Home.

The induction ceremony will take place on Sunday, October 17, at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines. The public is invited; admission is free.

For a list of more immediately upcoming literary events, check out the MetroBooks NC calendar here.

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Review: Chasing the White Dog

April 12, 2010

I’m pleased to host today guest reviewer Brandon Wicks (who will perhaps be making more frequent appearances at this site). Wicks is a writer based in Atlanta, GA, and currently teaching at Emory University. His fiction has most recently appeared in Sou’wester and Smokelong Quarterly.

Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine

By Max Watman

Reviewed by Brandon Wicks

It’s no secret that in recent decades America has become a nation of alcohol enthusiasts.  No longer are our beer selections dominated by industry monoliths, and a good bottle of wine does not mean a foreign label.  Microbreweries abound across the country, and nano-wineries dot both seaboards.  With this growth has come an even larger boom of hobbyist enterprise: specialty stores and trade publications, home brewing and wine making kits.  Everyone has a brother, it seems, who bottles his own beer as Christmas gifts.

In his new book, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, Max Watman turns our attention to what very well may be the last secret in craft alcohol: distilling liquor.  Moonshine — variously called white dog, white lightning, hooch, bootleg, likker, or simply corn whiskey — usually means grain spirits and most certainly means illegal.  Watman weaves together our venerable American history of illicit booze, from the Whiskey Rebellion and Prohibition to NASCAR and contemporary courtroom battles, with his own experiments in home distillation.

The story begins with a pair of conundrums that fuel Watman’s curiosity: New York City honky-tonks and an Appalachian archetype of moonshine, the rascally bearded Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, who, sporting cell phone and instructional DVDs, begin to reveal the business behind what is traditionally considered the official tipple of rugged individualism.  Of Popcorn, Watman says that at first he “thought of him as the Andy Warhol of hooch.  Just another example of how something that had once been purely American and real had transformed, for purposes of display, into something else.”  From here, Watman explores that “something else,” tracing the transformation of moonshine.

Indeed, the best moments come from cracking open the regional stereotypes of shine to get a peek at its reality: that the biggest consumers of moonshine are the impoverished African-American enclaves of North Philadelphia, that sugar jack — a truly poisonous, mass-produced rotgut — dominates the underground market of illegal liquor (just one defendant in United States v. Helms et al. was estimated at netting $8,380,000 in retail over a seven-year period), and that a more affluent class of sub rosa hobbyist distillers is on the rise.  With these, the book lays bare the troubling connections (or disconnections) between artisanal interest in home distillation, folkways tourism, and the nip joints flourishing in depressed communities like Danville, VA, which are less about preserving the “old ways” or tasting notes than meeting a demand for cheap intoxicants, side-by-side with crack and crystal meth.

While not more legally advisable, Watman’s own forays into distilling liquor prove both instructional and entertaining.  He breaks down the entire process with a prose that is at once easy-going and precise.  Mash bills, fermentation, and pot-and column-still mechanics all get their due without feeling overburdened by the technical detail (though while building a still, the dilemma of reducing a 1/2-inch pipe with a 3/8-inch fitting is less than gripping narrative for anyone but the most curious enthusiast).  Moreover, in the hunt to perfect his own basement product, Watman crisscrosses the country touring microdistilleries and holding forth with a Who’s Who of independent distillers and spirits experts, and the alcoholic territory gets expansive: whiskies, vodka, and eau de vie to name a few.

Watman’s journey culminates as a press member in a federal court case, United States v. Jody A. Smith et al., which ties the historical narrative into the present day reality and his own affiliations with bootleg.  Perhaps a little too true to life, the court case drags on, weighed down by an insistent portrayal of the defendants as good honest folk.  In fact, despite its better intentions, the book frequently romanticizes outlaws, specifically the rough and rowdy good old boys, and in one case — a brief reverie on the Civil War and confederate battle flag—falls into the dubious territory of Southern Apologists, regardless of attempts to be evenhanded. By the time U.S. v. Jody Smith rolls around, the federal government-as-bogeyman motif may wear a little thin.  However, it drives home, quite literally, an important point: that home distillation for personal consumption, unlike making beer or wine, is still actively prosecuted as a felony — an antiquated piece of legislation that Max Watman and many otherwise-law-abiding citizens would like to see reformed.

In the end Chasing the White Dog promises the true experience of moonshine, both past and present, but bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton — equal parts historical tourism and know-how, with a heap of showmanship.  Which is perhaps more true to the authentic, more “purely American and real,” than we usually like to admit.

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