Archive for April, 2010


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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An Interview with Jon Jefferson (Jefferson Bass)

April 5, 2010

Last May I had the great pleasure of reviewing Bones of Betrayal by Jefferson Bass, not just a fine forensic mystery but also a provocative and multi-layered exploration of the legacy of World War II — specifically the legacy of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the pivotal role played in the Manhattan Project by the small town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Body Thief, the new book in the series, takes off on a new adventure involving poached graves, black marketing body and organ trafficking, and an FBI sting operation. But as we move ahead, so too do we look back: Just as main character Dr. Bill Brockton, head of the Body Farm, finds himself embroiled in (and maybe even flambéed by) these new investigations, he’s also still coming to terms with the personal losses from the last novel and then struggling to come to grips with new revelations about what actually happened there. And another series regular, Dr. Eddie Garcia, has ongoing troubles as well: with his hands severely damaged by radiation poisoning in the previous book, he’s looking toward new transplant possibilities to salvage his career and his sense of self — a quest with parallels to the new case.

Jon Jefferson, right, and Bill Bass are the writing team behind Jefferson Bass

Jon Jefferson, who joins Dr. Bill Bass to form the team behind Jefferson Bass, is thick in the middle of the new book tour, but took a few minutes to indulge some questions about the latest novel and about the pair’s approach to writing the series. Both men will be appearing at two North Carolina bookstores in the coming week: at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Friday evening, April 9, and then at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville on Saturday evening, April 10.

Art Taylor: Bones of Betrayal, focused intently — relentlessly, even — on the legacy of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project, with each layer of the plot exposing something more about that larger story. The Bone Thief takes a look at organ donation and allograft transplants, at the ethics of paying for organs and the trading of organs and tissue on the black market, and at the rise in synthetic possibilities in these areas. When you and Dr. Bass plan a new book, do you set out with a thematic focus in mind? And if so, what compelled you in this direction with the new book?

Jon Jefferson: One of the first things we do, in planning a new book, is to discuss what forensic techniques we can highlight, because we like to teach readers something new every time. In addition, I like to encourage people to ponder larger societal issues. And if we have threads hanging from the prior book — unresolved plot or character issues — we discuss what to do about those. In the case of The Bone Thief, we’d left our medical examiner, Dr. Eddie Garcia, still very much in the throes of a devastating hand injury. So as we talked about his problems, and considered whether it might be possible to give him back his hands in some way, it seemed only natural to consider hand transplants. And then one led, as one thing will do, to another.
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NC Events: National Poetry Month Events at Triangle Bookstores

April 2, 2010

National Poetry Month 2010Each year in honor of National Poetry Month (that’s April, in case you didn’t know), the Regulator Bookshop in Durham hosts a series of Tuesday night poetry readings — and this year’s line-up looks great for the next three weeks. No word (yet?) on whether there will be an event on the final Tuesday of the month, but in the meantime, check out:

  • Florence NashFish Music, and Grey BrownWhen They Tell Me, on Tuesday, April 6
  • Tony AbbottNew & Selected Poems, 1989-2009, and Debra KaufmanMoon Mirror Whiskey Wind, on Tuesday, April 13
  • David ManningContinents of Light, and Bruce LaderLandscapes of Longing, on Tuesday, April 20

Additionally, both of the Triangle’s other big independents will be presenting poetry-themed events. On Sunday, April 11, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh offers up a trio of North Carolina poets: Nancy CarterNear the End of the Rainy Season, Peter MakuckLong Lens, and Scott OwensPaternity.

And McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village continues its monthly series in conjunction with the North Carolina Poetry Society with a reading by Lenard MooreA Temple Looming, and John AmenAt the Threshold of Academy, on Sunday, April 25.

For more information on National Poetry Month, check out the official website from the American Academy of Poets here.

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