Recommended Quarantine Reading: 20 N.C. Books to Hunker Down With
It hasn’t even been a week since the county ordered us all to stay at home, and surely you flew through Tiger King in the first day and are now just streaming through old favorites you’ve already seen. The best way I know to take a break from TV is to read a good book. It’s been my favorite pastime since I was a kid, but since I’ve been writing about local arts and local news for the last 10 years, I’ve had a great opportunity to come across countless local authors and their work, be it fiction or nonfiction. Below I’ve compiled a list of some of my personal favorites from authors in Charlotte and around the state that you may want to check out now that you’ve got all this free time at home. As is the case with anyone who writes about books, I can never get to them all, and that’s why I ask that you leave your favorites in the comments below and we can make this an ongoing list together. Keep in mind that if you’d like to support local, Park Road Books carries many of these titles and will either ship directly to you or offer curbside service. Also, check out the Charlotte Readers Podcast for more ideas, or interviews with a few of the folks listed below.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940
Southern gothic novelist Caron McCullers didn’t live much of her life in Charlotte, just the first few months of her short-lived marriage to Reeves McCullers, beginning in September 1937. However, it was during this time that she wrote much of her debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, while living first in the Mayer House in Dilworth, now home to Copper Modern Indian Cuisine, and then a since-demolished house on Central Avenue. She was far from a one-hit wonder, but Lonely Hunter remains her most acclaimed work. Find it here (eBook).
Saints & Sinners duet, 2019
Born and raised in Detroit, Sophia moved to Charlotte to escape the cold after graduating from Central Michigan University, and has spent her time here churning out quality romance novels covering a range of different themes. Take her latest duet, Saints & Sinners, the respective titles of two books released last fall that are described as “Russian mafia sports romance” books. The Saints synopsis begins, “Moscow 1989 … The food shelves are empty. The streets are lawless…” and we can relate to at least half of that already. Find it here.
Owner of a Broken Heart, 2020
When I was just a wide-eyed intern at the local alt weekly in 2008, Cheris sat on the other side of the cubicle divider from me, and I was amazed at how consistently she could churn out well-reported news pieces and blog posts analyzing the stories of the day. Since then, she’s moved on to become a successful romance novelist, and I’m equally amazed at how consistent she has remained with that, putting out more than 30 books. Her latest takes place in Charlotte and Charleston. When I asked her about it, she said, “I will not take responsibility for any babies that this book inspires,” so you know it’s hot and heavy. Find it here.
Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975; Second edition, 2020
Charlotte’s go-to historian Tom Hanchett takes a look at the racial history of our city and how those themes played into its development and spatial evolution from the end of Reconstruction through the century that followed. Though published in 1999, so much of it remains relevant today. Even better, this month he released the second edition, with a new preface that brings us up to date on issues like gentrification and resegregation. Find it here (eBook).
The Antidote for Everything, 2020
Charlotte author Kimmery Martin released The Antidote for Everything on Feb. 18, a follow-up to her best-selling debut novel, The Queen of Hearts, which she released two years prior in February 2018. The former ER doctor stuck with the medical profession for the new book’s plotline, in which two doctors travel a surprising path when they must choose between treating their patients and keeping their jobs. We’re thinking of all of Kimmery’s former co-workers during this time, and wondering if it will spur the inspiration for her third release. Find it here.
A Riff of Love, 2017
If Hanchett’s new preface isn’t enough, Greg Jarrell’s A Riff of Love is the perfect follow-up to Sorting Out the New South City, as it tells the story of present day Enderly Park from the ground level, and how all the history told in Hanchett’s book has played out in the day-to-day life of residents there. Jarrell runs Q.C. Family Tree with his wife Helms from his house in the neighborhood, and this book tells how that experience has shaped him as a person and a musician (he plays a mean sax, that I can tell you with certainty). Find it here.
Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South, 2018
When Pam Kelley, then a reporter with the Charlotte Observer, first met Belton Platt, aka Money Rock, at Central Prison in Raleigh in May 1986, he had recently been convicted for his role in a shootout in the Piedmont Courts housing project in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. Kelley tracked Platt down again 25 years later, and their ensuing conversations — followed by lots of reporting, research and corroboration — turned into a series of Observer stories in 2013, then an MFA thesis, then her book, Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South, released on Sept. 25. It’s a harrowing story of how a man who was once Charlotte’s biggest cocaine kingpin turned his life around and now runs Rock Ministries, with locations in Charlotte and South Carolina, but also tells deeper stories about family, systemic oppression and redemption. Find it here.
Color & Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality
In 1998, when Pamela Grundy set out to write a book about West Charlotte High School, it was supposed to have a happy ending. For decades, the school had served as a shining example of the success of integration; of why busing works. Within a couple years, that all started to fall apart. Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would eventually lead to the end of mandatory busing in Charlotte and wipe away much of the progress that had made Charlotte a precedent for integration. On September 5, 2017, 20 years to the day that William Capacchione filed a lawsuit claiming his white daughter, Cristina, was wrongfully denied admission to a magnet school due to racial quotas, Grundy’s new book, Color & Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality, hit shelves. The book covers the school’s history, from the day it opened on September 6, 1938, through integration, to the end of busing and resegregation of West Charlotte and many other local schools. Find it here.
Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism
I met Dr. Shannon Sullivan, chair of UNC Charlotte’s Philosophy Department, in 2015 shortly after being in a crowd of about 400 people who showed up to hear her speak about her book Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism. The book had gained popularity as movements like Black Lives Matter and Concerned Student 1950 dominated headlines and brought the discussion of racial inequality in America to the forefront. The crowd was the largest Sullivan had spoken to since releasing the book in June 2014. The talk, like the book, covered topics that make both black and white people cringe, such as claiming and embracing her own Southern white heritage and shedding white guilt to confront white privilege. However, they’re topics that we all need to hear. Find it here.
Flyy Girl, 1993
Charlottean Omar Tyree won the 2001 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work-Fiction in recognition of his great novels, sometimes written under the pseudonym The Urban Griot, and in the two decades since then he’s continued to put out books while also making films, giving speeches and serving as an advocate for urban literacy. His 1993 hit Flyy Girl, regarded as the genesis of modern urban fiction, or street lit as it’s sometimes called, was supposed to be made into a movie directed by Dear White People director Effie Brown and starring Sanaa Lathan, but there have been no updates since 2015, so just read the book. Find it here.
All the Colors We Will See, 2018
Gopo’s parents moved from Jamaica to Anchorage, Alaska, which had to be one severe case of culture shock on top of the temperature change, and that’s where they raised Patrice. She has since escaped the cold to Charlotte, and we should all be thankful to have her representing our city. Her latest, All the Colors We Will See, is a collection of essays that touch on her favorite themes of race, immigration and belonging. Considering that she grew up as a Jamaican-American in Alaska, it’s safe to say she has unique and valuable insight on those topics. Find it here.
NORTH CAROLINA AUTHORS
The Promise of Rest, 1995
After narrowly surviving what’s been described as an “extremely taxing childbirth” that nearly killed him and his mother, Price grew up in the rural towns of Macon, Henderson, Warrenton, Roxboro and Asheboro during the Great Depression. In 1984, doctors found a 10-inch cancerous tumor braided into the core of his spinal cord, which was removed but left him a parapalegic and suffering from much pain through the rest of his life. He passed away in 2011, but left behind myriad novels, poems and essays. The Promise of Rest is Reynolds’ conclusion to A Great Circle: The Mayfield Trilogy, but it’s fully independent and stands as his best work. If you’re up for it, though, feel free to check out all three. Find it here.
The Weight of This World, 2017
After my sister introduced David Joy’s meth-addled mountain novel The Weight of This World to her book club, she brought fried chicken and PBR to the meeting rather than the usual prosecco and charcuterie board, and that in itself is good context for all of Joy’s novels. However, his writing goes deeper than the Hillbilly Elegy stereotypes that unfamiliar writers bestow upon the western North Carolina mountains that Joy still calls home. His newest novel will drop in August, but while we wait, it’s a good idea to catch up on his three earlier novels. Find it here.
Something Rich and Strange, 2014
There were two points in the very first short story in Ron Rash’s collection Something Rich and Strange in which I audibly gasped — but even that wouldn’t suffice as a verb; I yelled. And that’s how I knew I was reading an author who exists on a different plane. The stories range in time from the antebellum to modern day, but they all share a setting in the western North Carolina mountains and an anxiety-inducing knowledge that things might go bad at any moment. He’s reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in that way. Rash is best known for his novel Serena, so if you’re looking for something a little longer, check that out. Need something shorter? He’s a great poet, too. But the short stories are a great place to start. Find it here.
The Last Ballad, 2017
Gastonia native and UNC Asheville graduate Wiley Cash has the similar Southern gothic style that Joy and Rash pull off so well, but takes things down the mountains and into the foothills, though he told Bill Poteat of the Gaston Gazette in 2018 that he considers Gastonia a part of Appalachia. His latest historical fiction novel, The Last Ballad, tells the story of Ella Mae Wiggins, a labor leader from Belmont who was murdered in Gastonia during the 1929 Loray Mill Strike after trying to integrate the unions. His debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and his sophomore effort, This Dark Road to Mercy, are both top-notch literature, and it’s honestly hard to make one recommendation over another, but the intrigue I feel for Ella Mae’s story is what drives me to say The Last Ballad is worth your quarantine time. Find it here.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969
People will sometimes name Thomas Wolfe as the most renowned writer out of North Carolina, and that may be true if you’re talking birthplace, but folks tend to forget that the incomparable poet and memoirist Maya Angelou called Winston-Salem home for more than 30 years, and that’s plenty long enough for the state to claim her. She wrote seven autobiographies in her life and was working on an eighth when she passed away in 2014. They were more than memoirs, though, and served as beautifully written defenses of black culture. From her best-known work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to her voluminous collection of poetry, she left behind a trail of classic work that will never be matched. Find it here (eBook).
Cold Mountain, 1997
Asheville native Charles Frazier’s debut novel Cold Mountain won him the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction and was adapted into one of my favorite movies, then nine years later he followed that up with Thirteen Moons, which tells the story of the removal of the Cherokee people from their land by the U.S. government. His third book, Nightwoods, takes place in the 20th century before he returned to Civil War times for his fourth novel, Varina. He tells nuanced stories of love, partnership and struggle in some of the country’s toughest times. Find it here (eBook).
A difficult but important read, Beads shares Raleigh author Rachael Brooks’ terrifying yet hopeful journey from rape victim to resilient survivor. She speaks to the challenges that sexual assault victims face and the range of emotions they experience throughout the recovery process. Her story describes the many injustices she experienced within the justice system. Find it here.
John Hope Franklin
Mirror to America, 2005
Prominent educator John Hope Franklin was born in Oklahoma in 1915, the son of renowned civil rights lawyer Buck Franklin, who defended African-American survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot at what was known as Black Wall Street. After being turned down for clerical service during WWII due to his skin color, John spent those years teaching at St. Augustine’s College, now St. Augustine’s University; and North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University. He published his autobiography Mirror to America in 2005 at the age of 90, and his published lecture series Racial Equality in America acts as a true mirror, striking a contrast between how Americans held true to certain racial beliefs compared to the actual realities of those issues based on historical texts and documents. Find it here (eBook).
Look Homeward, Angel, 1929
William Faulkner called him the greatest writer of his generation, and Faulkner was part of that generation. There’s not much more you need to know than that. Asheville-native Thomas Wolfe’s debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel, remains his most acclaimed work, though he published three more lengthy novels before his untimely death at only 37 years old. Margaret Wallace calling it “as interesting and powerful a book as has ever been made out of the drab circumstances of provincial American life,” in a sneeringly condescending New York Times Book Review. She meant it as a stab at the South, but I think that’s what makes many of the authors in this list interesting, and Wolfe did it best. Find it here (eBook).
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