North Carolina books for post-election reading and holiday giving

Just in time to bury your head in something other than politics, here is a new group of books to help you forget any disappointing election results.

There are new authors you should know about even if you are not ready to read their work, and there might be a good holiday gift for a hard-to-please friend in the list I am sharing with you today.

Wilmington’s John Jeremiah Sullivan may be better known nationally than he is in his adopted home state. His reputation as an insightful and incisive essayist remind some critics of Tom Wolfe in his early days or of the biting writing of North Carolina’s Hal Crowther. A few weeks ago The New York Times Magazine published Sullivan’s long article on Venus and Serena Williams and their complicated family. The November 4 Times Book Review included his review of “The Way the World Works,” by Nicholson Baker. Sullivan is hot literary property. His latest book, “Pulphead: Essays,” a collection of some of his best work, garnered worshipful reviews in literary circles. He will be the guest on North Carolina Bookwatch on Friday at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. (Nov. 9, 11)

Can a psychotherapist take the insights she learns from her profession and use them as a novelist to create fictional characters whose real strengths and weaknesses come together to make them compelling? Raleigh author Diane Chamberlain has done it over and over since 1986 with a series of successful novels. Her latest, “The Good Father,” follows a struggling almost homeless father and his four-year-old daughter as they confront hardened criminals while finding help from a surprising group of North Carolinians. (Nov. 16, 18)

In 1968 a train carried the body of the assassinated Robert Kennedy from New York to Washington for burial beside his slain brother. Millions lined the route. At each place the train passed people living their separate lives. Those lives inspired a series of fictional stories with different characters, all compelling. North Carolina native David Rowell brings these stories and characters together in “The Train of Small Mercies.” (Nov. 23, 25)

Two of the best new books are ones you cannot have read yet. Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle will talk about McCorkle’s “Life After Life” and Smith’s “Guests on Earth,” which will be published next year by Algonquin Books. Never before on North Carolina Bookwatch have two authors talked about new books that are not yet on sale. The guests will tell viewers how they can get first copies of the books by providing support for UNC-TV and Bookwatch. (Nov. 30 only)

Madison County, north of Asheville and up along the Tennessee border, has been the location of two novels featured recently on Bookwatch: Ron Rash’s “The Cove” and Wiley Cash’s “A Land More Kind than Home.” Now there is a third fine Madison County novel. Terry Roberts’ “A Short Time to Stay Here” is a story of World War I and more than 2,000 Germans interned in a resort hotel in Hot Springs. It is a story of love, killing and conflict of different cultures that come together in explosive and surprising fashion. (Dec. 7 only)

His distinctive voice might be recognized by more North Carolinians than any other public figure. When you hear that familiar “voice of the Tar Heels” you know it is Woody Durham, who for 40 years described UNC-Chapel Hill football and basketball and  now shares his personal story and what he learned about North Carolina from his intimate connections and friendships. It is all part of his memoir, “Woody Durham: A Tar Heel Voice.” (Dec. 14, 16)

Doris Betts and Reynolds Price: Filling the empty space

Who writes for us now?

The question came up again with the death of Doris Betts, the beloved teacher and writer, a few weeks ago, reminding us that we have still not gotten used to a North Carolina without Reynolds Price although he died more than a year ago.

Even non-readers miss them. Their storytelling wisdom had spread like ripples from their readers and students into a wider audience.

Are there other North Carolina writers and teachers to take their places?

Yes. Price and Betts trained and encouraged an army of followers. Think Lee Smith. Think about her husband, Hal Crowther, whose biting essays drag us mercilessly to a painfully enhanced understanding of our society’s failures.

As reported recently in this column, two recent first novels by North Carolina natives introduced us to authors who fall squarely in the Price-Betts tradition. Wiley Cash (“A Land More Kind than Home”) and Ben Fountain (“Billy Lynn’s Last Halftime Walk”).

Unfortunately for us, both Cash and Fountain are now based away from home– Cash in West Virginia and Fountain in Texas.

But, thankfully, there is also an immigration of talent into our state, drawn here undoubtedly by the tradition that Betts and Price fostered.

One of the new immigrant talents is John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Wilmington resident since 2004. His “Pulphead: Essays,” like Hal Crowther’s work, demands reflection and sometimes leads to self-conviction. But the essays also entertain and educate by turning Sullivan’s life’s experiences into compelling literature.

“Pulphead” gained national critical attention in 2011:  A “New York Times” notable book; an “Entertainment Weekly” top 10 nonfiction book; a “Time” top 10 nonfiction book; one of “Library Journal’s” best books.

In the article naming “Pulphead” one of the “Boston Globe’s” best nonfiction books of 2011, Michael Washburn wrote that the book is “devastatingly, sublimely good …. Sullivan revitalizes fringe events, mis-appreciated moments, and forgotten figures, from Christian rock festivals and Michael Jackson’s first performance of ‘Billie Jean’ to spectral, nearly forgotten blues singers, in idiosyncratic, warm-hearted, ribald, and slantwise essays….close to replacing the Great American Novel with the Great American Essay.”

Accompanying Amazon’s selection of “Pulphead” as one of the best books of the month in November 2011, Neal Thompson wrote, “What a fresh and daring voice. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a dynamic and gutsy writer, a cross between Flannery O’Connor and a decaffeinated Tom Wolfe, with just the right dash of Hunter S. Thompson. In fourteen essays ranging from an Axl Rose profile to an RV trek to a Christian rock festival to the touching story of his brother’s near-death electrocution, Sullivan writes funny, beautiful, and very real sentences. The sum of these stories portrays a real America, including the vast land between the coasts. Staying just this side of cynical, Sullivan displays respect for his subjects, no matter how freakish they may seem….”

“Pulphead’s” opening essay records Sullivan’s attendance at a Christian rock festival. As a skeptical journalist, Sullivan intends to probe the Christian rock music genre. But surrounded by a small group of hard-core evangelical Christian good old boys, Sullivan remembers and reflects upon his own “Jesus phase,” all the while delivering snide slams at the mediocrity of the music at the festival. It turned out to be rock music on a Christian leash, a formula that led neither to good music nor good religion.

North Carolina movie and TV fans will identify with the book’s final essay. It describes Sullivan’s family’s experience renting their home in Wilmington for the production of the TV series “One Tree Hill.”

In between are 12 other provocative pieces, each of which proves the talents of this new voice, whom Doris Betts and Reynolds Price would be proud to welcome into North Carolina’s literary pantheon.