Fiction titles were of course released and reviewed, but the buzz was about the elections, the wars, television talk shows and celebrity gushing.
The best book of the year was a gripping thriller that read like a you-be-the-detective page turner: a true story of a small-town murder.
So stoke the fire, take your last handful of holiday sweets and enjoy the Independent's best books of the year.
Two local bakers woke up one recent Sunday morning, their phones ringing even as their first mugs of coffee cooled. (A few editors at the University of North Carolina Press probably had the same delightful experience.) In their review of the season's best cookbooks, The New York Times picked Karen Barker's Sweet Stuff ("one of the country's best working bakers") and Moreton Neal's Remembering Bill Neal, both from UNC Press.
Best Gardening Book
On your hand and knees breaking up the soil or pulling weeds, you might think of yourself as a solitary gardener. But one of the joys of gardening is sharing the experience and nature's bounty. While editing a collection of letters between Elizabeth Lawrence and New Yorker editor Katherine White, Emily Herring Wilson discovered her next book, No One Gardens Alone: A Life of Elizabeth Lawrence, a story of back yards, nurseries, neighbors, friendships and history.
Wilson places the reader in Lawrence's world, where we celebrate her discovery as a writer and share her obvious kinship with all things natural. Local connections and familiar people and places abound, making the book even more personal. Wilson's detailed research leads to generous, tender storytelling.
We lost two of North Carolina's favorite storytellers in 2004. Jackie Torrence learned her craft in the hills of rural North Carolina listening to her grandfather. A frequent visitor to the Triangle's schools and libraries, Torrence was known for her Jack tales and ghost stories. Recently, Steven Spielberg had even invited Torrence to tell stories to creative artists at DreamWorks. Luckily for us, Torrence had many fans in the publishing and recording industries and libraries too.
But if you check out one of her audio books, be sure to leave a light on the first time through: Torrence could tell a Halloween story.
Larry Brown's first book, Facing the Music, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Always full of energy and ideas, Brown's stories were praised as "grit lit": unflinching, bare, poignant and brave.
One fishing buddy and fan, Clyde Edgerton, had just finished recording a trio of songs with Brown, and wrote a song last month called "Larry" about Brown's love of catfish, his dog Sam and rocking by the side of his pond. A bluesy Edgerton drawls, "Sometimes the sound is funny, 'cause Larry, he howls, too."
Power Literary Couples of the Year
Now we know you can't walk into Hillsborough's Cup A Joe or James Pharmacy Restaurant without bumping into a thirsty author or a hungry poet. The town has sidewalks full of strolling writers and cul-de-sacs filled with academics boasting book and movie deals. It's clear that the Triangle does not lack for writerly companionship.
Two couples had especially good years. Durham's Robin Kirk spent 12 years covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch. Her latest book, More Terrible than Death: Massacres, Drugs, and America's War in Colombia, was well reviewed and is just out in paperback. Orin Starn , Kirk's husband, published Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian, which detailed the retrieval and eventual return of the subject's brain to Deer Creek.
Over in Raleigh, Scott Huler transformed a most unlikely subject, the Beaufort Wind Scale, into a popular, accessible history-of-science drama, Defining the Wind. With a curiosity about language, a journalist's eye for detail, and a sense of humor, Huler made the 1800s fresh reading. Huler's wife, June Spence, already an award winning short story writer, published her debut novel, Change Baby, just a month later. In the novel, a doted-on, youngest daughter must suddenly switch roles to care for her family and reexamine who her parents were in their younger years. Good thing they got their books out of the way: Two weeks ago June gave birth to their first child.
Tireless Promoter of Children's Books Award
2004 was also another good year for children's and young adult literature in the Triangle. A pair of well-reviewed titles, popular with that difficult trio (parents, librarians and young adult readers), led the list. Durham's Frances O'Roark Dowell's latest novel, The Secret Language of Girls, told the story of two best friends drifting apart. Chapel Hill's Sarah Dessen followed up her red-carpet movie adventures with The Truth About Forever, a story of breaking-up, breaking-out and wild and crazy catering.
Chapel Hill book reviewer Susie Wilde also awarded Louise Hawes, author of The Vanishing Point, Best Historical Fiction.
Wilde's awards have taken on a life of their own; after three years, the Annual Wilde Awards are consulted by publishers, publicists, librarians, parents and the authors themselves. Wilde is generous in her praise, saving most of her humor ("We don't have celebrities and show tunes") and wrath for longer newspaper pieces. She's generous, too, in the sheer number of books she brings to her readers' attention.
In 2004, Wilde chose 52 books of special merit, in creative categories ranging from "Novel Destined to Become a Classic" to "Best Villain" to "Best Read Aloud for Young Listeners." She has fun, the readers have fun, and we all learn a lot more about good books for children.
Best Beach Book
Who says you can't learn a little science on vacation?
How to Read a North Carolina Beach by Orrin Pilkey, Tracy Rice and William Neal is the perfect year-round beach read. Geography for everyone rules in this UNC Press book filled with photographs, charts, graphs and a very helpful glossary and index. Read about your favorite beach, learn the local sand and tide conditions and what those dune formations really mean. Every coastal retreat, from Currituck and Corolla to Sunset Beach, should come with a copy of this informative book.
The Say-It-Ain't-So, Too-Close-To-Home Journalism Awards
Here in the South, we don't really shoot the messenger, but two writers did draw literary blood from the campuses of Duke and UNC.
Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons is an entertaining read, full of the standard bestseller hooks: youth, sex and alcohol (and some great basketball action). The reader follows the campus life of a naive freshman as she encounters everything the admissions officers don't tell you about. The novel, however, makes very uncomfortable reading for parents with college age daughters, especially if they were thinking of attending a university like Duke. Wolfe's daughter recently graduated from the university, and though he denied all queries, his Dupont University reads a lot like Methodist Flats. One Durham Herald-Sun op-ed writer cited 14 edgy similarities. But, hey, the on-court and locker room basketball scenes put us right in Cameron, and the classroom scenes read like MTV's Real World. Beware the film version!
Meanwhile, down 15-501, someone was going after one of our hoop gods. And that's no laughing matter if you call Blue Heaven home. Michael Leahy's When Nothing Else Matters was probably the year's best sports books. An award winning reporter for the Washington Post, Leahy knows his subject inside and out. Unfortunately for Carolina fans, that subject was Michael Jordan and his final deflating basketball season. Ouch. Sample scene: A giddy Jordan entertains a visiting Dean Smith in the Wizard's locker room, where MJ goes out of his way to publicly taunt his teammates Christian Laettner and Juan Dixon. With so much excruciating, sweaty detail and behind the scenes drama, Leahy delivers a great professional sports story.
Five For the Books
Elizabeth Matheson received this year's North Carolina Award for Fine Arts. A native of Hillsborough, Matheson is described as "an artist with a camera" and has published four books: Edenton, A Sense of Place, Blithe Air and To See, a collaborative effort with poet Michael McFee.
Haven Kimmel got the good news that producer/director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Susannah Grant have signed on to do the film version of Haven's first novel, The Solace of Leaving Early. Look for some serious casting campaigns for the plum roles of Immaculata and Epiphany.
Clyde Edgerton was relieved to hear Durham Grill is set for pre-production early next year with downtown Durham backdrops and settings. With all the rumors of a Bull Durham sequel swirling and Martin Scorsese visiting Full Frame, look for the City of Medicine to be Hollywood-South for a few steamy months.
Shannon Ravenel, editor and co-founder of Algonquin Books, received the Hunt Parker Award for Literary Achievement. The state's Office of Archives and History notes, "She is largely responsible for the rebirth of North Carolina literature."
Margaret Maron received the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for her novel Last Lessons of Summer. The judges wrote, "Maron's ear for Southern speech and well-written story leads some to call her the South's premiere mystery writer."
Best Book of the Year
In Oxford, N.C., when Timothy Tyson was 10 years old, Henry Marrow, a black veteran, was killed in front of a crossroads store in broad daylight. Racial tensions and riots ensued. Tyson's father, a Methodist pastor, attempted to bring peace to the community, but the family was forced to move away. The incident stayed with Tyson, and he returned years later to reclaim the past and the truth.
Blood Done Sign My Name is Tyson's determined, detective-story record of that hot summer of 1970. A trained historian with a Ph.D. from Duke (the book saw first light as his master's thesis), Tyson writes with the intensity of a crime reporter and the heart of a civil rights worker. "The bloody, tangled history that taints and confounds all of us could have been much better if human beings had acted differently, and it could have been far worse, too," he writes. "I have done my best to write a book that honors both my historical training and the Southern storytelling tradition of wayward preachers and saintly teachers from whom I have sprung and to whom I remain accountable."