Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

NC Literary Festival: A reader’s feast, with a Southern flavor

In books, reading, storytelling, Tangents on May 1, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I’m on a roll with writing 3/4 of a blog post that’s intended to be timely and never is by the time I get to the final 1/4.  But in my parenting/work-juggling life, it’s too painful to toss out 3/4 of a blog post, so I hope this one falls into the Old But Not Yet Stale news category.


I spent many hours over two days at the NC Literary Festival, which was put on in early April at my new favorite place — the wildly colorful and inviting James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at NC State. (If you aren’t familiar with the namesake of the library, look up the former governor and education advocate; he is one of North Carolina’s finest people.)


checking out the funky chairs and stylish vibe at the Hunt Library


I’m sure there are many detailed, lofty and insightful accounts of the festival that you can find.

I’m afraid this is not one of them. But if you like stream-of-consciousness coverage, my festival take might be just your speed.

Writers talking

As a writer/editor sort and as a lover of stories, hearing writers talk about their work and tell their personal stories never gets old for me. I steal away to Quail Ridge Books for author appearances whenever I can, sometimes bringing my daughter and her homework along if a big favorite is coming to town on a school night.

The literary festival brought a two-day feast of writer talks to town — so many great ones were on the schedule that I was a little depressed that I have not yet found the holy grail I wish for often in my single working parent life: The ability to be in multiple places at once.

I wasn’t willing to give up on seeing everyone I wanted to see, so I decided to be strategic; I would take in the first 2/3 of one session and then slip out to take in the final 2/3 of the one that started later. This borders on rudeness, but I hope the writers forgive those of us who have a hard time choosing.

A good plenty

There were some big names on the marquee for the festival, but I did not end up hearing any of the ticketed event speakers, which included Lev Grossman, Junot Diaz and Richard Ford. This was due in part to the timing of the talks and in part to the fact that I didn’t make it by Quail Ridge Books to get the advance tickets (which were free).

Meaning no disrespect to these authors, I don’t feel as if my festival experience was diminished in the least, which is a testament to the lineup.

Here’s the menu I ended up with:

  • James McBride, National Book Award Winner, The Good Lord Bird
James McBride

James McBride


  • Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun and the new memoir Under Magnolia
  • Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
  • Lee Smith, Guests on Earth and too many others to list
  • Allan Gurganus, Local Souls and too many others to list
  • Michael Parker, The Watery Part of the World and All I Have in This World

And here are a few random notes and fragments I scrawled in a notebook because they resonated with me in some way — these are not verbatim quotes, as my reporter’s note-taking skills are not that sharp these days, and I often have trouble reading my loose handwriting.

~ Frances Mayes, in conversation with Elizabeth Hudson, Editor-in-Chief, Our State magazine

photo 1

  • We all carry stories and details … how do we mine ourselves for those details to tell a story? 
  • The light in the South is powerfully evocative, as is the fragrance (nothing like a Southern night) 
  • If you lose a parent when you (and they) are young, it makes you fatalistic … afraid you will lose someone else (like Mayes, I lost my father when I was 7 and he was 48, and I could very much relate to this)

~Lee Smith in conversation with Wiley Cash

  • The two read from their latest novels, and Smith noted that they both like to write in first-person — adding that 85 percent of first novels are written in first-person, which I found fascinating.  
  • First-person means you aren’t responsible for knowing all of the other characters’ thoughts. 
  • Smith recalled growing up around storytellers … trying not to fall asleep too early as a child so she wouldn’t miss the end of a story. Now, her stories always come to her in a human voice —  often that first-person voice of the character telling the story.
  • Cash said his stories start by knowing the characters before knowing what the plot will be. 
  • The voices of his characters are borrowed from people in his childhood – or, as he warned the audience, from anyone he happens to be sitting within earshot of …  given the excellent things I have … overheard … at coffee shops, etc., I was glad to hear this.  It makes me feel slightly less ‘Gladys Kravitz’ (if you don’t know what that means, don’t run to Google it; you’re too young and a Wikipedia explanation won’t do.

~Allan Gurganus and Michael Parker

photo 1

This was a great conversation, with many quotes from each of these NC writers that were keepers — I’m not going to try to make sense of which of my scrawled notes should be attributed to each writer, or I will never finish this post.

Gurganus was probably the source of more of them simply because Parker had prepared a lot of thoughtful, interesting questions for him.

  • Everyone is eloquent on one topic — their lives
  • Gurganus: My job is finding the genius in every character
  • We care about the music of the prose
  • Today people think of prose as the means to an end; in fiction, we think prose is an end.
  • Novellas: Gurganus loves the form and wants people to believe in it; tells a story about his Hillsborough, NC, neighbor, the above-mentioned Lee Smith, going to talk to a third-grade class and fielding a question from a child: “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?” 
  • The length of a novella is perfect – you can start it at dinner time and finish by bedtime
  • Gurganus pointed out that Parker now splits time between Greensboro and Austin, and the two talked about how landscape affects prose … NC is “vernal, crazy, green.”
  • Singing the praises of writers Mavis Gallant (who they noted had not gotten the credit/attention she deserved) and Alice Munro; Gurganus says he will pick a Munro short story arbitrarily and read it when he is feeling stuck.
  • Gurganus pointed out that the word ‘empathy’ did not exist until the 20th century, which I found interesting, as I have always found this to be a powerful word/concept … but unfortunately,  I failed to write down the context this fact 
  • ‘honoring the buried song in someone’ – this tied in with the discussion of empathy … somehow. 
  • Fiction is a force of memory
  • We are all walking around with encoded stories inside of us.
  • Another random note, I believe from a sidetrack about place and changes in place/surroundings: Gurganus discussing how mobile homes that were once modest and actually were “mobile” have now ‘swelled up like giant ticks’ … huge and immovable. Instant mental picture.
  • Both spoke of re-reading books a lot

And for any avid reader parents who are despairing that their kid may never develop a love of reading, Gurganus and Parker should give you hope: when my 12-year-old daughter, an avid reader, worked up the nerve to ask them a question, it was “What did you read when you were growing up?”

The answer? They didn’t really read when they were growing up.  Gurganus said he was too busy running around outside and playing in the woods (something he thinks kids today have missed out on) and only became a reader when he was stationed on the USS Yorktown during the Vietnam War.

Parker recalled how the first books that drew him in when he was a teenager were rock star biographies, something that gave him brownie points with my 12-year-old music lover.

Parker’s novel, The Watery Part of the World, is the only book I bought at the festival. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, so I broke my vow to stop adding to my embarrassing “TBR” pile until I start making more progress.

You can catch Parker in a “solo” appearance at Quail Ridge Books, my favorite bookstore, today, May 1st:


In short, this year’s festival was a great event in a beautiful space: Well-done.

Read a kid’s take on the Festival. 


best-loved words, turns of phrase ~ first installment

In miscellany, words on August 18, 2013 at 3:04 pm








prekvapeni (Czech word for surprise)


character (as in, ‘she’s a real character’)

fetching (as in, ‘doesn’t Tom look fetching today…’)








piece of work (as in, ‘That Sadie is a real piece of work…’)









One line: Flannery O’Connor

In lines worth underlining, reading on April 4, 2013 at 2:20 pm

It’s been far too long since I read Flannery O’Connor, so I pulled a thick anthology out of my grandmother’s glass-front cabinet the other day and left it on the coffee table where I’d be more likely to pick it up.

Last night, I dove in, and this was the first line that stopped me in my tracks.

“Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.”


Amy Hempel, on writing

In lines worth underlining, quotes about writing, reading, storytelling, words, writing on January 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Not so much a piece of advice as a question to keep in mind, which is the most basic of questions: Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.

There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I’m not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential?

The question might be, Is this something only you can say—or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone’s life better, or make anyone’s day better? And I don’t mean the writer’s day.

~ Wise words from an interview with Amy Hempel that I came across online years ago

#writerspace ~ Hemingway’s Key West studio

Finding the right time for a story that hits home: ‘The Tender Bar’

In book group, lines worth underlining, reading on July 1, 2012 at 2:10 am

Years ago, a friend asked me to drive to Durham (NC) to see JR Moehringer do a reading at The Regulator bookshop during his Tender Bar book tour.

I knew nothing about the book going in, but Moehringer was funny and engaging, and the more I listened, the more I saw the broad strokes of my own childhood in his. Strong single mother carrying a heavy load. Absent father (his disappeared; mine died young) shrouded in mystery and fascination and frustration. An explosive relative in and out of our lives (I didn’t learn the term ‘verbally abusive’ until I was much older).

I bought the book, of course, and asked him to sign to my daughter and me, in honor of my mother.

At the time, I was in the middle of a book I needed to finish for my book group, but I put it aside that night and began reading The Tender Bar, recognizing myself over and over again in the first few chapters. When someone has written what seems to be a description of your own young fears and heartaches, it’s a bittersweet thing – on the one hand, relief (misery sort of loves company?); on the other, old sadnesses, drifting back up to the surface.

Soon, I had to stop reading and rush to finish my abandoned book club book. I put The Tender Bar on the ‘to read’ bookshelf, but years went by, and I didn’t finish. In my own single parenthood, I have a terrible track record of skipping around between books, finishing a half or three-quarters of many fine books, always swearing I will finish one day. With this one, it wasn’t a lack of interest that kept me from picking it up again; in fact, I can’t count all the times I recommended The Tender Bar to friends.

Now that I’m reading it again – I went back and started from the beginning in late May – I’ve thought about why it took so long. I can only guess that it had something to do with that familiarity I felt at the bookshop that night; I did see so much of my growing-up story in his beautiful but real and painful passages, and that story isn’t always easy to revisit.

And I was just beginning my own story as a single mother at the point that I tagged along to Moehringer’s reading; I was in the midst of divorcing and was sad to see history repeating itself for the third generation (my mother’s father died when she was only six, so my mother and her mother were on their own, too).

Maybe it was just a little too early; a little too much to take.

But right now, this summer, the story feels … well, I’m afraid all that’s coming to mind after a 105-degree heat wave day is Goldilocks, of all things, so I’ll go there, with apologies: The timing now feels ‘just right.’


Like nothing else, words organized my world, put order to chaos, divided things neatly into black and white. Words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word – tangible, present, real – while my father was the spoken word – invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory. There was something comforting about this rigid symmetry.

~The Tender Bar

‘Every book is a miracle.’

In lines worth underlining, quotes about writing, reading on July 1, 2012 at 1:37 am

‘Every book is a miracle,’ Bill said. ‘Every book represents a moment when someone sat quietly – and that quiet is part of the miracle, make no mistake – and tried to tell the rest of us a story.’

Bud could talk ceaselessly  about the hope of books, the promise of books. He said it was no accident that a book opened like a door. Also, he said, intuiting one of my neuroses, I could use books to put order to chaos. 

~ from The Tender Bar, by JR Moehringer

What I’ll do when I’m a best-selling author: Pt. 1 {cough, cough}

In miscellany, writing on June 28, 2012 at 12:08 am

When the Mega-Millions Powerball lottery hit an insane jackpot amount on a Friday back in March, my young daughter, two friends and I were headed to Charleston, S.C., for the weekend.

When we stopped at an ancient gas station in Middle-of-Nowhere, S.C., we noticed the Powerball signs and remembered the huge jackpot. On a lark, we each decided to buy a ticket – after all, it was Friday, we were on a road trip, and we were looking forward to a big weekend in a beautiful city. In our happy, punchy frame of mind, buying a lottery ticket seemed like a good and hopeful (if ridiculous) thing to do.

The four of us then spent the rest of the drive to Charleston daydreaming about what we would do if a huge windfall ever landed in our laps – if we suddenly had none of the usual financial parameters that tend to limit Big Dreams a bit.

(We got so into the spirit of things that when they announced a couple of days later that the winners had not bought their tickets in South Carolina, we actually felt a little miffed … despite the fact that three of us were otherwise logical, realistic adults.)

I thought about that lottery-fantasy afternoon recently when I read about a book series (which shall go unnamed here) that seemed to take everyone by surprise when it began selling hand over fist. What would I do, I wondered, if I ever had the rare experience of becoming the author of a blockbuster book (or books)?

After all, my possible routes to the big bucks are limited; I have tried shaking the family tree for long-lost, aging rich relatives, but  that’s been fruitless so far. Out of the three things I write about here, no one is going to pay me big bucks to run like a tortoise, and no one is likely to pay me to sit around and read books all day. (I don’t really want to review books full-time, so that job path is out of the question.)

That leaves writing as my best shot (right up there with the next MegaMillions jackpot). Since there is just a little competition out there, I won’t hold my breath … but there’s no harm in making up a list of things I would do if I did become the next blockbuster author.

(This dream does have a caveat: I have to swing the blockbuster sales with a book that is actually good. Otherwise, the shame would make it too hard to enjoy all the daydreams on my list).

Here are a few things to start the list:

1. Take ‘Harry Potter World’ by storm.

And we would do it up in STYLE.  Depending on just how best-selling I was, I might rent the place out for a day so my girl and I – and all of our friends, of course – could avoid standing in those long lines I hear so much about. Butterbeer all around, and wands, too.

(I’m sure it’s obvious by now that I would be equally as – if not more – excited, than my child about this particular wish.)

2. Hire a chauffeur to drive us around in our Prius a couple of days a week.

I love driving – but on road trips. Driving around town doesn’t do much for me. Two or three times a week, it would be a luxury to enjoy the same perk my daughter enjoys every day: Getting to sit in the back seat and read books on various boring local treks to the grocery store, school, trumpet lessons, etc. No chauffeur uniform or hat required.  Just impeccable/safe driving skills and no talking while we read.

3. Find and buy an old Victorian house with wraparound porches and a garrett.

It would also need to have a backyard equally as magical and forest-like as our current backyard. And a screened porch with a door that squeaks.

Then I would need some great contractors to give it a ‘green’ overhaul (solar panels, etc.). And, realistically, an on-call handyman given how un-handy I am.  (By this, I mean a person who is handy… of any gender. ‘Handyman’ is the old-school term and I like it for that reason; changing it to ‘handywoman’ or ‘handyperson’ sounds sort of ridiculous.)

4. Take my girl to Prague and tour her around my favorite spots from my lovely time living there.

She will find it as magical as I did, especially if we go in December, when the Christmas markets are up in the Old Town Square and there might be a little snow.

5. Take a leisurely, meandering cross-country road trip to my favorite places from my solo road trips long ago.

These include Graceland, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Missouri, the Brooklyn Lake Forest Service camping area near Laramie, Wyoming, and a slew of breath-taking National Parks, including Mesa Verde, the Grand Tetons, Glacier, Crater Lake, Olympia, Mount Rainier, and Craters of the Moon.

6. Take a second long road trip in which we go to places I completely missed on my long-ago road trips. 

These include New Orleans, Yosemite National Park and many other places.

7. On all road trips, we would stop and give away my books to anyone who was interested, and we would shop at every indie bookstore in our path.

Owing to the caveat to this fantasy, outlined above, my books would be really good books, so in theory, people who like books would actually want them.  And, of course, we would also bring along and give away a variety of the many really good and especially great books written by other people.

That’s enough fantasizing for now; it’s probably time to get back to writing. 

‘Others in grief and loss will see more certainly / What they have loved…’

In lines worth underlining, poetry on May 4, 2012 at 1:05 am


All day the crops burn in cloudless air,

Drouth lengthening against belief.  At night

The husbands and the wives lie side by side,

Awake, the ache of panic in their bones,

Their purposes betrayed by purposes

Unknown, whose mystery is the dark in which

They wait and grieve.  All may be lost, and then

What will they do?  When money is required

Of them, and they have none, where will they go?

Many will go in blame against the world,

Hating it for their pain, and they will go

Alone across the dry, bright, lifeless days,

And thus alone into the dark.  Others

in grief and loss will see more certainly

What they have loved, and will belong to it

And to each other as in happiness

They never did–hearing, though the whole world

Go dry, the hidden raincrow of their hope.

~Wendell Berry

I found this poem achingly beautiful.

I stumbled on it at the end of an update written by a friend-acquaintance facing one of the most difficult experiences anyone could be made to slog through in life – an experience that could lead anyone to ‘go in blame against the world.’

And yet, it’s clear that she is one of those extraordinary people who has determined to ‘see more certainly what they have loved, and will belong to it.’


In lines worth underlining, running on May 3, 2012 at 1:42 am

the beautiful spot where I ‘run on it’

From the Runner’s World  ‘Daily Kick in the Butt’ email for today:

I really started running for meditative purposes. I would pick some problem to have in my head while running – not for the purpose of solving it, but for the purpose of having it bounce around in there. Like when you say you’re going to sleep on it; I say I’m going to run on it. Then at some point later on, a solution falls out. 

Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter (Men’s Health, May 2012)

word wall.

In lines worth underlining, miscellany, reading on May 1, 2012 at 5:07 pm

word wall.

In answer to today’s Book Riot open thread question from @RebeccaSchinsky ( about where readers gather their favorite book passages, I’m posting a photo of one section of the wall where I’ve tacked up some of my favorite short and long passages (along with photos, bits torn out of magazines, my girl’s artwork and other quotations).

Honoring Viki

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