The latest word

Xpress launches its monthly literary column with a review of two books and a lineup of local literary highlights, courtesy of Asheville resident Bill Brooks, the author of 10 novels. Readers are encouraged to give us their input as to what they’d like to see covered each month — i.e., author interviews, new books, events. Also in this section: Storyteller Marcianne Miller reviews books on tape.

Quote of the month:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. … We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

— Franz Kafka

Maybe, maybe not.

— B.B.


The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, by Steven Sherrill (John F. Blair Publisher, 2000, 313 pages, $19.95).

This is a funky little novel that Kafka might or might not have loved. And while Kafka turned a man into an insect in his unforgettable parable, The Metamorphosis, Mr. Sherrill’s book starts out with a Minotaur (or Min, or simply M). This fabled beast works as a short-order cook, has an affinity for fixing cars, and possesses all the incumbent baggage of any half-man, half-beast — including loneliness and desire.

Not quite Kafka and not quite Tom Robbins, Sherrill positions himself somewhere between these two authors by surrounding the Minotaur with a cast of (comparatively) normal, but nonetheless colorful folk: We meet Sweeny, the goofy landlord of the Lucky U Mobile Estates, and his randy bulldog; David, the fey hostess of Grub’s Rib, where Min toils as a line cook; Cecie, another line cook who would like to take Min “home some night, husband or no” — and then there’s Kelly, the new waitress (and our hero’s romantic downfall).

I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say these characters are as real as any “normal” personalities occupying your typical novel. Sherrill has an eye and a nose for the sensory details of the working class, for the tones and rhythms of ordinary life, and for the heartaches of most of us. What’s more, the author has a knack for illuminating the mundane objects that connect us inexorably to our everyday world. I’m not sure the average reader will get all the symbolism in this book — I’m not sure I got it all, frankly. But if we look back on Kafka turning a man into an insect and realize how often certain humans are viewed as beasts of burden in any society, then the leap to Min as short-order cook in checkered pants, driving a Vega with a bad solenoid, is not so great.

A caveat: If you prefer to avoid a sweaty tussle with symbolism and metaphor in the hot months, you might not want to pack our scaly friend in your beach bag this summer.

But if, like Kafka, you like books that wound and stab; and, like Robbins, delight in the art of exaggeration, you could do worse than take your cigarette break with Steven Sherrill’s debut novel.

The author is a graduate of UNC-Charlotte. He now lives in Highland Park, Ill. Sherrill will do a reading and booksigning Sunday, June 18 at 2 p.m., in Pack Memorial Library. Call 255-5203 for more info.

Remembering Charles Kuralt, by Ralph Grizzle (Kenilworth Media, 2000, 261 pages, $25).

Fittingly, Remembering Charles Kuralt is a collection of interviews with the friends, family members and co-workers of this famously unassuming journalist, who rose to the top of his profession through his own interviews with our country’s common folk. The book includes lots of old photos and plenty of quotes from Charley and those who knew him, taking on a family-album quality from the outset and making no pretense of being anything other than a glowing commentary.

The jacket flap states that Mr. Grizzle was commissioned by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to conduct a series of oral interviews with Kuralt’s friends, family and colleagues. The result is not exactly biography, per se: We see nothing here about Kuralt’s bouts of drinking, or any other aspect of his double life — i.e., the stuff that makes a person truly human, and not simply an icon of his/her profession.

Perhaps Kuralt’s greatest gift was convincing his audience that he was as simple and interesting as the people he interviewed — when, in truth, he was a much more complex creature with a personal life few of us knew about till after his death. Remembering Charles Kuralt is a tasty appetizer, to be sure — but this journalist, for one, was left hungry for more.

[Ralph Grizzle lives in Asheville with his wife and two children.]

June literary happenings in Asheville:

The Buncombe County Chautauqua — the first event of its kind seen here in 72 years — will be held Monday, June 19 through Friday, June 23 on the grounds of the Smith-McDowell House Museum (283 Victoria Road). Popular from the late 1800s through the 1920s, the touring Chautauqua featured discussions and lectures on issues of the day, plus music, drama and oratory. The Chautauqua’s return to the area is a joint effort of the Asheville-Buncombe Library System and the North Carolina Humanities Council. This year’s program, called “Southern Writers,” will feature live recreations of Southern scribes Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter. These luminaries will be played by Furman University’s Dr. George Frein (Twain), UNC-Chapel Hill’s Dr. Joseph Flora (Wolfe), independent scholar Dorothy Prince (Hurston), Emerson College’s Dr. John Anderson (Faulkner) and the University of Texas-Austin’s Dr. Lynne Miller (Porter). The main event will take place at 7 p.m. each night, under an open tent. Workshops for adults and children will be held each day at Pack Memorial Library. A complete schedule of activities, plus more information on this free event, is available through the library at 255-5203. (Look for a feature article on the Chautauqua in the June 14 Xpress.

Author appearances & signings:

Saturday, June 10, Malaprop’s Bookstore (7 p.m): Heather Ross Miller will read from her novel Champeen, a bittersweet story of small-town life in North Carolina during World War II (254-6734.)

Sunday, June 11, Malaprop’s Bookstore (3 p.m.): Judy Meyer will discuss her book The Animal Connection: A Guide to Intuitive Communications with Your Pet.

Sunday, June 18, Malaprop’s Bookstore (3 p.m.): Steven Harvey will read from his new collections of essays, Bound For Shady Grove, which celebrates the spirit of Southern Appalachian mountain music. (Harvey will also play old-time clawhammer banjo.)

Saturday, June 24, Malaprop’s Bookstore (7 p.m.): Peter Walpole will read from his young-adult novel The Healer of Harrow Point, a magical story of a young boy’s coming of age.

Sunday, June 25, Malaprop’s Bookstore (3 p.m.): Radio commentator and author David Sedaris will read from his new collection of essays, Me Talk Pretty One Day. (This is a ticketed event; call the bookstore at 254-6734 for details. Also, look for a feature story on Sedaris in the June 21 Xpress.)

A page of history

For those who missed this bit of hot news in Xpress’ May 24 “Notepad” section, Publisher’s Weekly recently named Emoke B’Racz, owner of Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe, Bookseller of the Year. Malaprop’s is the first Southern bookstore to receive this honor. That’s a great distinction — but Emoke’s contributions to writers and their works, and to promoting the literary scene here in Asheville, are greater still, I think. I wasn’t there in 1920s Paris, when Sylvia Beach owned the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and helped such struggling writers as Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald, but it seems to me that Emoke and Malaprop’s are almost reincarnations of that era — and every writer or lover of books should be grateful that this woman and her bookstore are here in Asheville. No awards are made or given for the kind of understanding, compassion and support of dreamers and fishers of words that she dispenses. Malaprop’s is a haven for all of us who like to browse through a book on a rainy day, or find a cozy place to write in our notebooks while observing the wildlife of our existence. And for that, I say thank you.

Now hear this

****************************************************************** Marcianne Miller

The “practically lost art of listening … is the nearest of all arts to Eternity.”

— William Butler Yeats

I’m cooking in the kitchen — and roaming Asia with Pico Iyer. Doing laundry, I’m uplifted by Kathleen Norris’ spiritual encounters in a Benedictine monastery. In the garden, I’m captivated by John Le Carre’s Cold War-spy world.

Like audio-book fans everywhere, I read as much (if not more) on tape as I do on the page.

Audio books constitute the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. But most fans can’t afford the high purchase price; instead, they rely on libraries. The Asheville-Buncombe County Library System holds more than 12,000 audio books, including those for children. According to library Director Ed Sheary, the demand for audio books is “insatiable. They are the single highest demand item in the library system.” Even so, many librarians worry that most of us are unaware of the audio cornucopia on their shelves.

Audio books will never replace printed ones, except among the blind (the industry evolved from the pioneering efforts of Braille Institute Books). Nothing can compare to curling up with a juicy tome and turning its pages. But audio books give time-pressured folks a chance to enjoy works they wouldn’t ordinarily get to.

And, at its best, this unique hybrid medium combines– in careful balance — the writer’s words, the narrator’s style and the publisher’s production quality. Unlike movies, unabridged audio books (the only ones worth “reading”) stay true to the author’s intent. In a good audio book, nothing is lost in the translation — and, in fact, the work is often enhanced.

Audio books do have their limits: They aren’t good for people with hearing difficulties, obviously, or in noisy environments (such as heavy city traffic). Novels with many characters or a heavy stream-of-consciousness style can be too confusing to comprehend audially. And certain authors’ styles may not adapt well to the genre. (Patricia Cornwell’s gruesome crime descriptions, for example, have a downright horrific impact on tape.)

But some books get better on tape. In print, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-based mysteries (The Blessing Way, etc.) put me to sleep. The audio versions, especially when read by narrator George Guidall — who makes every syllable sparkle — are emotional, unforgettable adventures. (In fact, any text narrated by George is worth checking out, in my book.) I tried the print version of Bill Bryson’s highly touted A Walk in the Woods … yawn. On tape, I laughed out loud. Celebrity memoirs, banal at best, are fascinating when read by the author. Mia Farrow’s voice narrating her own memoir, What Falls Away, is thoroughly convincing. (Woody Allen, you’re a creep!)

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