Food, fantasy, fiction and politics are my favorite topics. If you read my column regularly, you know these preferences and will not be surprised that the books I recommend for reading in May deal with these themes.
First of all, “The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food” edited by Randall Kenan, collects some of the best writing by North Carolina authors about their favorite foods and eating experiences. Lee Smith, Daniel Wallace, Marianne Gingher, Jill McCorkle, Jaki Shelton Green, Wayne Caldwell, Marcie Cohen Ferris, Michael McFee and Zelda Lockhart are some of the contributors. My favorite is Kenan himself. He opens his essay with a memory of food Duplin County neighbors brought to his family’s house when his great uncle died.
“People showing up heavy-laden with food to the homes of the recently deceased. Hams, fried chicken, oven-baked barbecue chicken, pork chops smothered in gravy, dirty rice, Spanish rice, potato salad galore, slaw, sweet potato casseroles, candied yams, hushpuppies, cornbread, soup, chopped pork barbecue, collard greens, pound cake, chocolate cake, coconut cake, pineapple cake, red velvet cake, sweet potato pie and lemon meringue pie.”
Jaki Shelton Green writes about a meal she fixed for a man she was “kicking to the curb. It seemed best to leave a taste of me on his lips. Fillet of beef in puff pastry and Madeira cream sauce. Caramelized shallots, carrots, and mushrooms. Roasted lemon garlic artichokes. Grand Marnier cheesecake.”
My fiction theme is represented by “The Education of Dixie Dupree,” the debut novel of Benson’s Donna Everhart. The main character, 11-year-old Dixie, is an accomplished liar. Her mother’s abuse of Dixie, her father’s abuse of her mother, and her uncle’s sexual abuse of Dixie, explain why she tells lies. Dixie’s determined struggle to overcome these challenges anchors her coming of age story.
As the book opens, Dixie’s father has suddenly gone away and her mother is about to fall over the edge. Food and money are running out. Dixie and her teenage brother are in despair. Then, out of the blue, their mother’s brother, Uncle Ray, appears just in time to rescue them. But with his help comes trouble, worse than anything the family has known. What Uncle Ray brings is a dark and disturbing but completely compelling story of sexual abuse and the devastation it can bring to the lives of families and young people.
Hillsborough’s John Claude Bemis, a musician and former elementary school teacher, writes for young readers. He engages them with imaginative magical fantasy. His latest, “Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince,” takes the classic puppet-turning-into-real-boy story of Pinocchio into a wild adventure.
Master Geppetto is a brilliant inventor on the run, being hunted down as a traitor to the emperor. Pinocchio is more than a marionette. He is an “automa,” a wooden mechanical servant that obeys, without question, the commands of its owner. Like the classic Pinocchio, this automa may be turning into a human. This book is wonderfully complicated and so very stimulating, even for this adult reader.
Now for the politics. Some North Carolinians still talk about the 1972 election when Jesse Helms won the U.S. Senate seat he was to keep for 30 years and thereby transform North Carolina politics.
Others remember how that election interrupted the upward trajectory of one of North Carolina’s most promising and most interesting political figures, Nick Galifianakis. Thanks to his neighbor and retired UNC-Chapel Hill history professor John Semonche, we have a full life story of this son of Greek immigrants who made his hard-to-spell last name a North Carolina classic. Semonche’s book, “Pick Nick: The Political Odyssey of Nick Galifianakis from Immigrant Son to Congressman,” introduces modern North Carolinians to one of our state’s most interesting political figures.