Books for Trump and Clinton

Could reading a few North Carolina connected books help Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton be better candidates, campaigners, and debaters during the next couple of months?

I think so.

If Trump read UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Konrad Jarausch’s 800-page “Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century,” it would amaze us. First, we would not believe he had read such a long book. But then he would wow us with his newly attained broad background on a topic critical to American interests and responsibilities.

Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century

‘Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century’ by Konrad H. Jarausch (Princeton University Press)

“Out of Ashes” is indeed a very long book. But it is an enormous challenge to try, in a single book of any size, to capture 100 years in the life of a continent torn apart by war, national rivalries, and incompatible ideological, political, and economic systems. Because Jarausch succeeds, his book could make Trump or any of the rest of us better prepared to understand and confront today’s complex problems in Europe and America.

If Clinton is willing to learn a few lessons from our first president, she should read North Carolina broadcaster and writer Warren Bingham’s “George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour.” Worried about his new country’s divisions, the president traveled to every state to listen to the views of citizens.  At the end of his trip Washington wrote that although most people seemed to be content with their government, “Where the case was otherwise, it was not difficult to trace the cause to some demagogue, or speculating character.”

 George Washington's 1791 Southern Tour By Warren L. Bingham

‘George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour’
By Warren L. Bingham (Arcadia Publishing)

I bet Clinton would smile when she reads this comment. I did.

Trump needs help in reaching out to minority voters. His “What have you got to lose?” approach has not worked so far. He could benefit from reading award-winning journalist and Johnson C. Smith teacher Ron Stodghill’s “Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture.”

Stodghill takes his readers into the world of historically black colleges and universities through the experiences of students, trustees, presidents, donors and faculty members. Reading about the overwhelming challenges these schools face and the rich contributions they make to our country could help Trump understand some important things minority voters do not want to lose.

Where Everybody Looks Like Me At the Crossroads of America's Black Colleges and Culture

‘Where Everybody Looks Like Me
At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture’
by Ron Stodghill (via Harper Collins

By all accounts, Clinton is a life-long, faithful, Bible-reading, regular church-goer. Sometimes though she resists confessing mistakes and seeking forgiveness and atonement. Meanwhile, Trump, though he does not know how to say “Second Corinthians,” is walking away with the conservative Christian vote.

But there might be a reason other than her faith to read best-selling author and UNC-CH Professor of Religious studies Bart Ehrman’s latest book on the New Testament. Clinton’s less than perfect memory about the specifics of her use of a personal email server has been more than a distraction. Ehrman’s latest, “Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior,” explains how the varying accounts of Jesus’s life in the four Gospels could be the result of different memories of the same events.  Ehrman explains, “If we understand what psychologists have told us about memory and false memory, and about how we sometimes actually invent stories in our heads about the past…we will have a much clearer sense of what the Gospels are and of how we should understand the stories they tell about the historical Jesus.”

 George Washington's 1791 Southern Tour By Warren L. Bingham

George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour’
By Warren L. Bingham (Harper Collins)

Learning how our memories can misremember, Clinton can forgive herself for being less-than-perfect and take care to confirm her important memories of confusing events before asserting them as facts.

Since Trump has memory problems of his own, there are lessons in this book for him, too.

If you would like to know more about the books I have recommended for the candidates, tune in to North Carolina Bookwatch during the next month.

Books for summer: Mountains and Military

If you want some more tips for good summer reading from recent books by North Carolina authors, I have four suggestions, two set in the mountains, two about our military.

Grandfather Mountain

“Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian ” (Book Cover via UNC Press)

An obvious choice if you are planning a trip to the mountains is Randy Johnson’s book, “Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon” published this month by UNC Press. It is a superb history and collection of photos that capture the majesty of this national treasure. North Carolina is blessed with a host of wonderful and beautiful mountains. Grandfather, though not the highest, is the most dramatic, the grandfather of all the rest.

Robert Morgan, author of “Gap Creek,” writes, “In this loving tribute Randy Johnson has captured the majesty of this national treasure. Through spectacular photographs and a lively, deeply researched narrative, Johnson celebrates the glory of ‘the Grandfather’ of mountains as no one else has. This volume is both a practical guide for those discovering the area, and a work of art commensurate with the grandeur of the mountain itself.”

chasing the north star

“Chasing the North Star” (Book Cover via Aalgonquin)

Coincidentally Morgan’s latest, “Chasing the North Star,” is one of my favorite novels of the year. His novel, set in pre-Civil War times, follows a crafty teenaged runaway slave named Jonah Williams on a northward journey towards freedom, from the Carolina mountains all the way to Ithaca, New York. Along the way, Jonah’s adventures and his contacts with the people he meets reminded me of the travels of Inman, the Civil War soldier in Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.”

Early on Jonah meets a young enslaved woman named Angel, who decides to follow him. Sometimes together, sometimes separated, they make their sometimes different ways towards freedom, drifting past Asheville in a stolen small boat on the French Broad River, walking to Kingsport, finding work in a high-class brothel in Roanoke, with close calls and adventures on every pathway and at every stop.

pam saulsby

Pam Saulsby (Photo via

Pam Saulsby, a well-known and much-admired Emmy-award winning television news journalist, grew up in a military family and understands the challenges that children face when their parents are deployed to conflict zones. Her new book, “Ashley’s High Five For Daddy” is a beautifully illustrated picture book for young readers. It stars Ashley, the feisty daughter of a returning soldier and recounts her successful struggle to understand how and why her beloved dad has changed.

Why We Lost

“Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars” (Book cover via Hachette Book Group)

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger teaches at N.C. State. Here is the shocking opener of his new book: “I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.” These opening lines come from “Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.”

Bolger writes, “It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”

Just what did Bolger and the other generals do wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq?

He writes, “Despite the unmatched courage of those in U.S. uniform–including a good number of generals who led their people under fire–our generals did not stumble due to a lack of intellect. Rather, we faltered due to a distinct lack of humility. Certain we knew best, confident our skilled troops would prevail, we persisted in a failed course for far too long and came up well short, to the detriment of our trusting countrymen.”

These pages should be required reading for any president or presidential candidate who proposes to send American troops again to fight an extended counterinsurgency war.


These books and authors will be on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch on the following schedule:

Sunday noon June 25 and Thursday 5pm June 29 Randy Johnson author of “Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon”

Sunday noon July 3 and Thursday 5pm July 7 Pam Saulsby author of “Ashley’s High Five For Daddy”

Sunday noon July 10 and Thursday 5pm July 14 Dan Bolger author of “Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.”

Sunday noon July 17 and Thursday 5pm July 21 Robert Morgan author of “Chasing the North Star”

Spring reading: Food, basketball, race, waterways, politics, and a new literary thriller

Primary elections are over, spring has come, we’ve sprung forward an hour, and it is time for me to suggest books for you to consider for the new season’s reading.

Memories and recipes for family meals, how a basketball game broke the rigid rules of segregation long before the 1960s, a primer on our state’s favorite food, traveling along our creeks and rivers where they meet the tidewaters, following the rise of the state’s Republicans through the life of a former governor, and a long-awaited new literary thriller from a best-selling author.

longing for home

Sunday Dinner by Bridgette Lacy

In “Sunday Dinner,” a “Savor the South” cookbook, Raleigh journalist Bridgette Lacy, shares her memories of Sunday dinners at her grandparents’ house in Lynchburg, Va., sitting down with “parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, and cousins to a meal of fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, and yeast rolls.” Lacy shares these memories along with heaping helpings of simple recipes from her family and friends, including Grandma’s Fried Chicken, Mama’s Meaty Crab Cakes, and Papa’s Picnic Ham with Jack Daniels and Cloves.

(Lacy will talk about her book on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch at noon on Sunday, March 27, and at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 31.)

The Secret Game

The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph (via Little, Brown and Company)

A basketball game in Durham in 1944 had to be played in secret. Now that secret story is out and told movingly by Scott Ellsworth in “The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph.” This was a game between a black college team, the Eagles from North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central, and an all-white team from Duke in 1944. It flaunted the racial norms of the times and is part of a story that changed basketball and the country. And what a story, full of characters like basketball’s inventor James Naismith, legendary University of Kansas coach Phog Allen, Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics, World War II, North Carolina Central’s founder Dr. James Shepard, and the book’s central character, Eagles coach McLendon. (April 3, 7)

Barbecue expert and scholar of southern culture, John Shelton Reed, strikes again. The co-author of “Holy Smoke,” the comprehensive and authoritative book about North Carolina barbecue, brings us a new and smaller book called simply “Barbecue.” One reviewer writes that Reed “has distilled in this little cookbook the essence of his barbecue knowledge.” Legendary Chapel Hill chef Bill Smith says the book was so entertaining, “it made me laugh out loud,” and he praises Reed’s “concise and clear recipes.” (April 10, 14)

No one has been more generous in sharing their love for North Carolina’s coastal waters than Chapel Hill’s Bland and Ann Cary Simpson. Their new book, “Little Rivers and Waterway Tales: A Carolinian’s Eastern Streams,” combines Bland’s lovely and informative narrative with Ann’s beautiful photography to show us the underappreciated beauty and rich heritage of our state’s waterways. (April 17, 21)

When a young Davidson College chemistry professor, Jim Martin, was first elected to the Mecklenburg County Commission in 1966, Republican officeholders were still a rarity in North Carolina. In “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans,” John Hood shows how Martin’s election to Congress in 1972 and as governor in 1984 and again in 1988 contributed to growing Republican success. (April 24, 28)

After flashing onto the literary scene from his Salisbury hometown, about 10 years ago and writing four best selling thrillers in four years, John Hart took a long break, leaving a giant fan base missing his best-selling, award-winning literary thrillers. Now he is back with “Redemption Road,” a book that has already drawn praise from fellow author David Baldacci, who says the book’s “prologue is heart-wrenching and the chapters thereafter pull you in like matter to a black hole.” (May 3, 7)

What book for the perfect gift this season?

Have you seen the TV ad with George Foreman? “People ask me all the time, George, how do I get my idea in front of companies?”

Well, this time of year people ask me all the time, “DG, what is a good book for me to give this Christmas?”

I don’t have one perfect answer. But I can suggest some recent North Carolina related books to consider.

Memoirs: Three prominent North Carolina writers shared their life stories in recent books. In “Half of What I Say Is Meaningless,” former state poet laureate Joseph Bathanti tells how a working class Catholic from Pittsburgh confronts the Bible Belt when he moves to North Carolina. Bestselling author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Frances Mayes, in “Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir” gives an account of growing up in the small-town 1950s South. Famed novelist David Payne, in “Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story,” tells about growing up in Henderson and the family stresses that exploded when his younger brother was killed in an automobile accident.

The explosion of race-related discontent in our cities and campuses pushes us to look for wisdom in the experience of others. The memoirs of Howard Fuller in “No Struggle, No Progress” and Damon Tweedy in “Black Man in a White Coat” can give people of every color a better understanding of the experiences of black people in a white world.

Mysteries: Two famous North Carolina writers, Kathy Reichs of the “Bones” series and Ron Rash of “Serena” fame have new books set in the North Carolina mountains. Reichs’ new book is “Speaking In Bones,” and Rash’s is “Above the Waterfall.” Margaret Maron gives us “Long Upon the Land,” her final Judge Deborah Knott book. Sarah Shaber’s brand new “Louise’s Chance” is a 1940s spy thriller set in World War II’s Washington where a young North Carolina woman confronts Axis plots.

Music and culture: Doug Orr and Fiona Ritchie recently won the 2015 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award for their book, “Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.” The book and accompanying CD tie the mountain music of Appalachia to its people’s homelands in the British Isles.

Food: Sheri Castle’s “The Southern Living Community Cookbook” is a perfect gift for anybody who loves the old community and church cookbooks. Bridgette Lacy’s new “Sunday Dinner” is a short combination memoir and recipe collection celebrating our region’s tradition of big family meals.  In “Foods That Make You Say Mmm-mmm,” Bob Garner travels across the state to tell us about our favorite foods. Marcie Ferris’s “The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region” is an in-depth look at the origins of Southern foods.

For history and political buffs, William Leuchtenburg’s “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton,” came out last week. One reviewer’s opening sentence was simply, “Wow!” Two recent biographies of important North Carolina figures might be good choices: Julian Pleasants’ “The Political Career of W. Kerr Scott: The Squire from Haw River,” which recently won the Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction, and John Hood’s “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.”

Finally, there are two compelling nonfiction works by N.C. State professors: Cat Warren’s “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs” about the life and work of a cadaver dog, and Rob Dunn’s “The Man Who Touched His Own Heart,” a captivating history of efforts to understand and heal human hearts.

There will be more about some of these books in later columns. In the meantime, take this list to your local bookseller who can help you make selections and suggest other options for folks on your gift list.

Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Chapel Hill in the Bush 41 Biography

“Were you surprised that so much of the public attention to your book has been focused on President George H.W. Bush’s unflattering comments about the roles of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney in the administration of his son, President George W. Bush?”

I asked this question to Jon Meacham, author of The New York Times bestseller, “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush.”

Then, I added, “Especially since you did not report Bush’s comments about Rumsfeld and Cheney until the last 15 pages of your 600-page book.”

Meacham responded quickly. “Honestly, no. I remember the October afternoon in 2008, when President Bush started in on the subject. I remember thinking those are the headlines of the book. I knew right then. We were in his office in Houston on a Monday morning. I’ll never forget it. He started making his comments about Cheney and Rumsfeld and how he felt how both Cheney and Rumsfeld had contributed to and exacerbated the hawkish tone around Bush 43’s administration and that Bush Sr. thought it was unfortunate. He repeated the point in different ways and underscored it in a series of conversations in ensuing years. This was not a drive-by comment. It was not something he just said one day and moved on.”

In fact, Meacham told me, he went back to Bush last year to give him a chance to comment on those statements in case he had spoken “in the heat of the moment and that if he had different views now, I would note that.”

Meacham said Bush looked him the eye and said, “That’s what I said.”

“So,” Meacham concluded, “he clearly wanted this on the record.”

Although this part grabbed much of the attention, it was not the reason Meacham wrote the book. “I wanted George H.W. Bush to have his own moment, not simply be seen as a precursor to his son or as an epilogue to Ronald Reagan, but as his own figure, his own man who had his hour upon the stage.

“He acquitted himself incredibly well, when you look back on it. Not a perfect president by any means, but we haven’t had one yet. I wanted the story of the last president of the Greatest Generation and the first president of the post-Cold War world. A man who brought an end to the Cold War without a shot being fired. I wanted him to have a full-dress telling of his story.”

Listen to D.G. Martin’s conversation with John Meacham.

Meacham also believes Bush made a good record on the domestic side. “Not many would’ve said it back in 1992. But with the perspective of history, not just the heat of journalism, you find that he passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, which defines our environmental policy to this day. And the 1990 budget deal which cost him dearly, but which Bill Clinton will tell you at length–maybe that’s redundant, I guess–set the terms for the prosperity of the 1990s.”

Among the hundreds of pages of details about Bush’s life there are two pages that describe an important connection to North Carolina. When he turned 18 in 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Chapel Hill for pre-flight training, which was according to Meacham, “a very shaping experience, a memorable experience.”

More important for Bush was the daylong visit to Chapel Hill of 17-year-odd Barbara Pierce. Bush wrote his mother, “She looked too cute for words—really beautiful.”

Meacham explains, “We hear much more about her in the ensuing years.”

The couple married in January 1945. Barbara Pierce Bush has had a star role in the Bush universe since that day in Chapel Hill.

Our holiday longing for home

“There is something about the holidays,” says Chapel Hill minister Bob Dunham, “that stirs memories and longing for home.

“Even if they are better in memory than they were in reality.”

He explained that student homesickness is not just about freshmen. Longing for home affects everybody. There is an aching for family now separated and for particular places.

Dunham told how minister and author Frederick Buechner remembered when another minister asked in a sermon, “Are you going home for Christmas?” The question brought tears to Buechner’s eyes.

Such memories more often than not take me back to family meals when I was growing up. I start to smell my grandmother’s Sally Lunn rolls, taste my mom’s tomato aspic, and remember the fried chicken, ham, or shepherd’s pie. There was always talk about the sermon or politics or special family challenges. Sometimes there would be gentle teasing of each other.

Bridgette Lacy

Bridgette Lacy

These kinds of memories also stir Raleigh writer Bridgette Lacy, author of “Sunday Dinner,” a “Savor the South” cookbook from UNC Press.

In her introduction to the book, she remembers summertime Sunday dinners at her grandparents’ house, sitting down with “parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, and cousins to a meal of fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, and yeast rolls. On cold winter afternoons, Sunday dinner meant generous portions of perfectly seasoned pot roast with mashed potatoes and carrots.”

“Sunday dinner,” she writes, “was the artistic expression of my grandfather’s love of family, and it was a masterpiece.”

These are the kind of memories that fuel our longing for home.

But, writes Lacy, “Today, there are fewer large family clans. Children have moved far away from parents and grandparents. Uncles and cousins no longer live within walking distance. Many of us who grew up eating Sunday dinner surrounded by family now eat dinner alone. For others, Sunday dinner has become an afternoon at the local all-you-can-eat buffet, eating among tables of strangers.”

Lacy lives alone, far away from surviving family. So, how does she celebrate Sunday dinner today?

Some Sundays she gets in her car and drives three hours to Lynchburg, Va., to be with a few relatives. Other times she “re-creates” her Sunday dinner family. She turned her African American Classics Book Club into a monthly pot-luck get-together with the host providing “standard Sunday dinner staples.”

Also she encourages singles to invite others to make together or bring parts of a meal to share. “It’s a chance to connect with others and nourish the body and soul. The Sunday meal should remind us of our personal relationships with food and the people we love.”

Lacy helps by sharing about 50 simple recipes from her family and friends, including Grandma’s Fried Chicken, Mama’s Meaty Crab Cakes, Papa’s Picnic Ham with Jack Daniels and Cloves, Short Ribs, and Pork Chops with Onion Gravy.

There are side dishes and vegetables like Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese, Esther’s Summer Potato Salad, Scalloped Potatoes, Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Topping, Savory Stuffed Crookneck Squash. Butternut Squash with Sage, Collard Greens, Green Beans with Fingerling Potatoes, Sweet and Spicy Corn Cakes, Corn Pudding, and Classic Buttery Mashed Potatoes.

She gives directions for salads, including Sweet and Crunchy Broccoli Salad, Roasted Pears, Cucumber Tomato Salad, Salmon Salad–Stuffed Tomatoes, Gala Apple Chicken Salad, and a variety of breads and desserts including Papa’s Nilla Wafer Brown Pound Cake, Peach Cobbler, Easy Blackberry Cobbler, and many more.

“Nilla Wafer Brown” describes the desired color of the crust of the pound cake. No actual vanilla wafers are required.

Of course, Lacy’s homage to old-time Sunday dinners feeds our longing for family and the meals we shared together. But she includes a wonderful antidote, especially good at holiday time: Gather your friends together and feed each other like family.

An important author’s struggles can help his readers

You can’t go home again.

David Payne

David Payne

This is what Thomas Wolfe learned after his thinly disguised autobiographical novel cast some of his family and neighbors in Asheville in unflattering roles.

It is always dangerous for a successful writer to base fictional characters on real family or neighbors. Like most of us, these people cannot be expected to appreciate unflattering portrayals or the publication of their carefully guarded secrets.

Even more risky is what Henderson native David Payne has done in his new memoir, “Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story.” Payne, who now lives in Hillsborough, has written five highly praised novels, including “Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street” and “Back to Wando Passo.”

Payne’s younger brother, George A., died in an automobile accident. That tragedy and Payne’s feeling that he was responsible pushed him to write about his brother’s bipolar condition and their strained relationship. The resulting “Barefoot to Avalon” became a memoir of Payne’s family and with it a poignant chronicle of mental illness, infidelity, failed marriages, suicide, abuse, addiction, and alcoholism, one that must have been painful to write and can also be painful for the brave reader who follows Payne’s struggle to understand his family and himself.

For such a brave reader, there are great rewards. The New York Times reviewer, Carmela Ciuraru, writes, “This is a brave book with beautiful sentences on every page. Mr. Payne writes with the intensity and urgency of a man trying to save his own life.”

The story opens in November 2000 in rural Vermont on a farm Payne bought with proceeds from his successful books. With George A.’s help, he has emptied the contents of his house and packed them into two cars and a trailer in order to transport them back to North Carolina, where Payne’s wife and their two young children have already moved.

George A. is named for their grandfather, George A. Rose, a successful Henderson businessman, whom both brothers adore. They called him “Pa.”

Growing up, both brothers were athletic and good-looking. The natural competition with each other, though sometimes vigorous, was healthy. But when George was in prep school, he began to experience bipolar-I disorder episodes. He recovered and became a successful stockbroker with an ideal family. But the episodes returned and destroyed his career and his marriage. Out of work and living with their mother, George A. welcomed the chance to help his brother move.

Heading back to North Carolina, George A. lost control of his car and trailer on the mountain roads of Virginia. The resulting crash took his life.

David Payne covered himself with guilt. Back in North Carolina his writing career stumbled. His marriage began to fall apart.  He found himself verbally abusing his children the way his father had treated his children. He was quickly becoming addicted to the drug of his choice, vodka.

To address his personal chaos, Payne got positive help from regular group therapy and by writing this book. And, he says, from stopping drinking “stone cold” nine years ago.

Good for him, you say, and then ask, why should I want to read about his personal experiences?

There are several reasons:

  1. It is good reading, a compelling personal narrative by a gifted writer.
  2. Payne’s family’s struggles can help us see our own family’s challenges from a new perspective.
  3. Most of us have family or friends who have been touched by mental illness or addiction to drugs or alcohol. Reading about how others have been impacted can help.
  4. The chance to get to know intimately an accomplished, important author is always for me a valued gift.

Or you can just take my word for it.

Good for Nicholas Sparks, good for North Carolina

“My books are all different,” Nicholas Sparks, the No. 1 New York Times best selling author who lives in New Bern, told a group of 500 fans at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Alumni Center last week.

Except, he says, for two things. One is that there will always be a couple in love.

The other is that the story will be set in North Carolina.

With Sparks’s books selling more than 100 million copies worldwide, a lot of people have learned a lot about our state. Then there are the movies and television programs based on the books. These have put millions more in touch with North Carolina.

The state government agencies responsible for boosting tourism and bringing economic development should put Sparks on the payroll. He may be doing more to bring attention to us than anybody else.

The event in Chapel Hill was hosted by Flyleaf Books as a part of the launching of Sparks’s twentieth novel, “See Me.” The new book is set in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, with a few side trips to Brunswick County and Jacksonville.

Maria Sanchez, the female lead character, is a UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke Law graduate, who practices law in Wilmington after spending a few years as an assistant district attorney in Charlotte. Her family runs a popular Mexican restaurant in Wilmington. She is Sparks’s first Latino lead character.

Colin Hancock, the male lead, is a heavily tattooed, muscular “hunk” with serious anger management issues and a criminal record for violence. He is trying to take a different turn. He tends bar at the beach to earn money to fund his courses at UNC-Wilmington and his plan to become a third grade teacher.

Getting these two people together is Sparks’s first task, and it is the key to all of his stories, as he explained to me a few years ago.

It is not complicated, he said. First, he gets his main characters in mind, usually a man and a woman. Then he figures out how he is going to get them together, or get them back together if they had a past relationship.

Finally, he figures out how the story will end.  “For me it’s either happy, sad, or bittersweet.”

There are only these three possible endings, he says.

If they are going to be happy in the end, Sparks says, something sad has to happen along the way.

“Then,” he told me, “I have a story.”

But “See Me” is more complicated. In addition to the developing romance between Maria and Colin, there is a looming threat to Maria and her family. It could be someone in Wilmington or someone with a grudge based on something that happened in Charlotte while she was prosecuting criminals.

Nicholas Sparks has added a mystery to the story and made it a thriller.

He confesses that weaving in the mystery made writing “See Me” more challenging than his earlier books. He found himself backtracking and rewriting to be sure the mystery worked. In addition to being sure the clues to the mystery were properly disclosed along the way, Sparks wanted to build a sense of danger that grew as the story progressed.

He wants his readers to be able to solve the mystery, but not until a page or two before it is revealed in the book.

Will Sparks’s fan base support this combination of romance and mystery? Will the extra work he put into the new book pay off?

We will know in a few days when the “best seller” reports are published. Preliminary sales reports are positive. And the enthusiasm of the crowd at Chapel Hill is a good indication that Sparks has hit another home run.

Good for him.

And good for North Carolina.

Wearing a Black Doctor’s White Coat

“Why do black people suffer more health problems than other groups? What do these challenges mean in their everyday lives? How do their struggles play out before a largely white medical community? How can we begin to solve these seemingly intractable problems?”

Damon Tweedy

Dr. Damon Tweedy

Dr. Damon Tweedy raises and discusses these questions in his new book, “Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine.”

Another question he asks, “Do I have a special role to play as a black physician?” He responds with stories from his own experiences.

Dr. Tweedy is now an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and staff physician at the Durham VA Medical Center. But his memoir begins when he, as a black first-year medical student at Duke, entered a white medical world in which his race often made him an uncomfortable outsider.

In an early encounter, a professor, when Tweedy reentered a lecture hall after a break, greeted him with, “Are you here to fix the lights?”

When Tweedy said he did not have anything to do with the lights, the professor frowned and said, “Then what are you doing here in my class?”

When Tweedy replied, “I am a student in your class,” the professor looked away, then walked off without another word.

His black classmates advised him to shake it off, but the incident “shattered my brittle confidence and my tenuous feeling of belonging at Duke.”

On a positive side, Tweedy worked extra hard to do well in the professor’s class. When he earned the second highest grade in the class, the surprised professor offered Tweedy a research job in his lab, which Tweedy did not accept. He left the office “with a confused mixture of pride, relief, frustration, and bitterness. ‘Are you here to fix the lights?’ stirred then—and still today—each of those emotions.”

If Tweedy had accepted the professor’s offer and the two had become good friends and a Nobel Prize winning research team, it would have made a heartwarming story of racial reconciliation and progress. But it was not to be.

Later, though, Tweedy tells a poignant story of change that made me reach for my handkerchief.

When Chester (not his real name) entered the emergency room in Durham showing signs of infection and injury to his kidneys, he made one request. “I don’t want no black doctor.”

Except Chester used the “N” word.

Chester’s daughter wore a T-shirt that “proudly displayed the Confederate flag.” The daughter’s tattooed son’s shirt pocket “flaunted a smaller Confederate flag” and “looked the part of virulent racist.”

When Tweedy became his doctor, Chester would not speak to him directly, but as Tweedy learned about Chester’s life and love of baseball’s Atlanta Braves, things began to warm up. After about a week and a half in the hospital, Chester finally responded when Tweedy asked how he was doing. “Okay, doc. I think I’m getting better.”

Tweedy wondered how Chester could reconcile his hate for blacks with his love for the Braves, whose greatest star was a black player named Hank Aaron.

“Maybe,” wrote Tweedy, “in the same way that I sensed he was grudgingly coming to accept me as his physician.”

Unfortunately, Chester did not recover his health. But Tweedy had won over Chester and his entire family before his death. “Thanks for all you did for my daddy,” said the daughter who had worn the Confederate shirt.

“Thanks sir,” said her son. “My granddaddy liked you.”

Tweedy writes, “Here was Chester’s family, heirs to his bigoted ways, offering nothing but gratitude. I now saw how even racists such as Chester were capable of making genuine human connections with those they professed to hate.”

Tweedy’s book is full of such moving personal stories, all set against a backdrop of the shocking health conditions that confront black Americans and challenge our country.

Seeing a sheriff’s real challenges through fiction

Just what does a North Carolina sheriff do these days?

Retired District Court Judge Stanley Peele, writing about Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, says that the concept of law enforcement officers has changed from “authority, power and prestige” to one of problem solving.

Peele quotes Sheriff Blackwood, “When people are in distress, when they have gone sideways, they look to the police to solve their problems. Police are people and people are police.”

Blackwood recently explained to me his efforts to encourage his deputies and other staff to emphasize their service responsibility and to avoid being heavy handed when it was not absolutely necessary. Being peacemakers is as much a part of the job as being peacekeepers, he said.

Sheriffs have extraordinary authority and responsibility to enforce the law and to take practical measures to solve the various sets of human problems that challenge the goal of having a peaceful community.

Judge Peele’s tribute to Sheriff Blackwood reminded me that several North Carolina fiction writers have recently made sheriffs or deputies central characters in their novels.

In her 20-book series featuring Judge Deborah Knott, Margaret Maron has given her readers an inside look at the North Carolina justice system. Her latest, “Long Upon the Land,” is also, she says, the last of this series. One reason this is bad news is that we will no longer be able to follow the crime-solving and human relations skills of Judge Knott’s new husband, Dwight Bryant, chief deputy in a fictional North Carolina County that could be Johnston or Harnett. “Long Upon the Land,” Maron’s murder mystery, has multiple suspects, including several men in Judge Knott’s family. Bryant handles each suspect firmly but respectfully, finally winning a confession by asking questions based on facts uncovered and logical deductions from those facts.

Bryant would be a good fit on Sheriff Blackwood’s team.

In her new book, “Speaking in Bones,” Kathy Reichs, author of 17 New York Times best-selling books featuring crime-solving anthropologist Tempe Brennan, introduces us to Zeb Ramsey, a fictional Avery County sheriff’s deputy.

Brennan operates out of the medical examiner’s office in Mecklenburg County, where she analyzes the broken flesh and bones of crime victims and others to find answers that solve the toughest cases. But, without the help of Deputy Ramsey, she would not be able to solve a gruesome murder in which the victim’s body parts have been dumped into the wilderness from a remote mountain overlook. Ramsey’s knowledge of his community and common sense make the difference.

As I wrote in a recent column, Ron Rash’s new book, “Above the Waterfall,” introduces us to a soon-to-be retiring mountain sheriff who could be the model law enforcement official Sheriff Blackwood describes except for one failing. He takes regular small payments from marijuana growers. That moral weakness would definitely keep him off Blackwood’s team.

A few years ago Wiley Cash’s debut novel, “A Land More Kind than Home,” introduced us to another mountain sheriff, Clem Barefield, who worked hard to gain the confidence of the mountain people in Madison County. Barefield showed courage and kindness even as he confronted a villain, more evil than I could imagine: Pastor Carson Chambliss, a handler of snakes and a manipulator of people, who seemed willing to do anything, including killing anybody who got in his way. In the novel’s bloody conclusion, Sheriff Barfield faced him down.

The descriptions of the work and character of these fictional sheriffs by these four important North Carolina authors open the door for their readers to better understand and appreciate the challenges faced by Sheriff Blackwood and the sheriffs in our 99 other counties.