Remembering Reynolds Price at his 80th Birthday

If Reynolds Price has not died two years ago he would have celebrated his 80th birthday last month.

Why am I thinking about Price today?

I noticed that next Wednesday morning one of UNC-TV’s cable-only channels is re-airing a 10-year-old Bookwatch program featuring Price talking about one of his most provocative books, “A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined” in which he speculates about Jesus’s views on homosexuality, suicide, and the plight of women under male domination.

It has been more than 50 years, but I still remember my introduction to the work of Reynolds Price.  In 1957 my mother was reading a new book called “A Long And Happy Life.” “This is one of the best books I have ever read,” she said.  “And it is written by a North Carolinian.”

My mother thought that she had “discovered” Reynolds Price and his engaging characters.  But lots of other people quickly discovered Price as well–and not just in North Carolina.  His sensitive and moving stories are about people whom his readers come to know as if they were next-door neighbors. The stories and the characters have enchanted people all over the world. 

“A Long and Happy Life” won the William Faulkner Award, and his fiction kept on winning awards throughout his life.  Reynolds Price was probably the most prolific of North Carolina’s nationally known writers–with 40 books of essays, poetry, memoirs, translations and interpretation of Scripture, and fiction to his credit.

His great gifts as a storyteller earned Price a place in our country’s literary pantheon. And his description of life and characters in 20th and 21st century America make his work a blessing forever for those who will seek to learn how we lived and thought. 

Reynolds Price’s own life reads like a novel.  His struggle with cancer, with excruciating pain, and with paralysis that made it impossible for him to move about without a wheelchair, would have taken many of us into despair.  But Price refused to give up. He continued to write, even more prolifically.  As James B. Duke Professor at Duke University, he taught generations of future writers.  His struggles enriched his writing, deepened his spirituality, and inspired his many admirers and still inspire them.


I am thankful for the chance to see and hear him again—even if it is only in the morning on a digital cable channel.

At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday on UNC-MX a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4)  a classic Bookwatch program featuring the late and much-missed Reynolds Price, author of  “A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined,” will be aired again.

North Carolina Writers Serve Up Spring Reading Options

Ready or not, spring is here and it is time for a seasonal update on new books important to North Carolinians.

This month’s most important literary news is the release of “Life After Life,” popular author Jill McCorkle’s first novel in 17 years. McCorkle fills a southeastern North Carolina retirement facility with quirky residents, staff, and visitors whose encounters with each other make readers wonder whether to laugh or cry. She will be the guest on North Carolina Bookwatch at noon on Sunday, March 31 and Thursday, April 4, at 5 p.m.

Understanding the actions and attitudes of our parents and grandparents in dealing with the system of oppressive racial segregation that confronted them is one of our great challenges. Some of the best Southern writers deal with our past in ways that make for compelling storytelling. UNC-Chapel Hill creative writing professor Pam Durban steps up to that challenge in her new novel, “The Tree of Forgetfulness.” (April 7, 11)

The recent temporary closings of the Hatteras Ferry and coastal Highway 12 remind us that our coast is fragile and unstable. How do we protect it? In “The Battle for North Carolina’s Coast: Evolutionary History, Present Crisis, and Vision for the Future,” retired East Carolina professor Stanley Riggs and his coauthors give the background we need to make good decisions. (April 14, 18)

Vicki Lane sets her popular novels on the farms and small towns in mountainous Madison County north of Asheville, where she and her husband have lived since moving there from Tampa, Florida, in 1975.  In “Under the Skin,” she turns her mountain surroundings into compelling fiction. (April 21, 25)

The third and final volume of the “Literary Trails of North Carolina” series establishes Georgann Eubanks as the master guide to our state’s literary history. She has already taken us to Murphy and now in “Literary Trails of Eastern North Carolina: A Guidebook,” she takes us from Raleigh through the Coastal Plain all the way to Manteo.  (April 28, May 2)

Everyone knows our health care system is in trouble, but UNC Medical School Professor Nortin Hadler is more specific and troubling when he says that conflicts of interest, misrepresentation of clinical trials, hospital price fixing, and massive expenditures for procedures of dubious efficacy point to the need for an overhaul. Who is responsible? Every citizen, says Hadler, has a duty to understand the existing system and to visualize what the outcome of successful reform might look like. Hadler provides a primer and guide to action in “The Citizen Patient: Reforming Health Care for the Sake of the Patient, Not the System.”  (May 5, 9)

Do you remember “Big Fish,” the wonderful novel by Daniel Wallace and the movie it inspired? They made us suspend disbelief and go into a magical world of stories and characters. Wallace has done it again in his latest novel, “The Kings and Queens of Roam,” which is full of the magic he uses to draw us into his worlds of imagination. (May 12, 16)

How could one of North Carolina’s most important political leaders be both a progressive champion for education and economic development and, at the same time, the leader of the white supremacy movement in our state? N.C. State Professor Lee Craig wrestles with this challenging question in his new book, “Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times.” (May 19, 23)

In reviewing Duke Professor William Chafe’s  “Bill and Hillary,” Jonathan Yardley wrote, about the Clintons, “No personalities in recent history speak more compellingly to the importance of understanding that the personal and the political are inseparable.” Chafe’s detailed study of the relationship between the power couple of all power couples shows how their relationship shaped our history.  (May 26, 29)



D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch.” During UNC-TV’s Festival, the program  airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at
Next week’s (Thursday, March 28 at 5 p.m.) guest is Sheri Castle, author of “The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes.” (Note the Sunday airing will be preempted by UNC-TV’s Festival programming). The program will also air at Wednesday March 27 at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). In addition, airing at 11:30 Wednesday on UNC-MX will be a classic Bookwatch program featuring the late Reynolds Price author of “A Serious Way of Thinking.”



Watauga County native Sheri Castle’s “The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes” is a guide to finding the best seasonal foods in our region. She organizes her recipes into about 40 chapters, each featuring a different vegetables or fruit.
More about Sheri Castle:
Castle is a popular food writer and cooking teacher who celebrates delicious and healthy home cooked meals made possible by fresh, local, seasonal food. She has packaged that enthusiasm into “The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes.”
Castle’s book has about 40 chapters, each one devoted to one particular fruit or vegetable from apples to zucchini. She suggests that you go to the market without a shopping list, buy what is the most freshly available and tasty, bring it home, consult her book, and find all kinds of ways to prepare your purchase.
Castle entertains her readers with stories about her mountain family and even a song or two. Because I love tomatoes, here are lines she shares from a song by Guy Clark: “Only two things that money can’t buy/That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
But tomatoes are not the only stars in Castle’s catalogue of fresh foods. For instance, she gives great advice to overcome two different contradictory ideas about how long to cook snap beans. “At one time, most snap beans were sturdy pole beans with thick, tough pods that required extensive cooking to become edible. However, subjecting the newer stringless varieties to long cooking would dissolve them into a tasteless mess. … If a bean pod is delicate and tender enough to eat raw, it needs quick, gentle cooking. If a bean pod is thick and has strings…, it needs long slow cooking. When you know your bean, you know your cooking method.”

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.