Every True Pleasure : LGBTQ Tales of North Carolina edited by Wilton Barnhardt

every true pleasureHigh school crushes.  Transitioning husbands.  Bitter homecomings – these are but a few of the topics covered in Every True Pleasure, an anthology of short stories and essays written by LGBTQ authors either from North Carolina or associated with the state.  Writers vary from well known (David Sedaris, Allan Gurganus) to up-in-coming.

Here are a few examples of the contents – In Michael Parker’s “Pete and Daniel”, two brothers drink together as one of them plies the other for details on a potentially incriminating encounter.  In Jasmine Beach-Ferrara’s “Love The Soldier”, a policewoman has to contend with a future deployment to the Middle East as she navigates her sexuality and mourns her older brother.  In Belle Boggs’ “Jonas”, the main character uses therapy to negotiate her feelings between a transitioning husband and a religious daughter who will barely talk to her.  And in Penelope Robbins’ “Girlfriend”, a young wife chafes against her domestic life as she remembers a young love from high school and then meets her friend, decimated by disease, years later in Europe.

Our protagonists run the spectrum of the LGBTQ experience.  They are straight-laced school superintendents, supporting wives, occasionally victims of abuse.  They represent different ethnicities, different social statuses.  One story here (“Rabbit Heart”) even delves into speculative fiction.

Consider Every True Pleasure for your reading list in this last week of Pride Month.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Like Lions by Brian Panowich

McFalls County sheriff Clayton Burroughs is a broken man in many ways.  He wrestlesLike Lions with the aches of past injuries, drinks his way through a failing marriage and fatherhood to an infant son, and struggles to keep his distance from his family’s legacy as the county’s drug kingpins.

Although his father died years ago and his brother Halford was a recent casualty (by Clayton’s hand), the Burroughs organization is still vital, but crumbling without direction.  There are family associates that recognize Clayton’s hardheaded talents and want him back in the fold.

Clayton is a hard sell, until a shoot up in a local bar stirs up a bigger nest of trouble, as forces from outside the county, in the form of the volatile Viner family, want in on the sway the Burroughs family once had, and they don’t play easy.

After some rough justice that goes too far, Clayton and his family are now in danger, and he doubts what integrity he has left.  And his marriage with Kate, damaged as it is, may be his last strength.

This book is the sequel to Bull Mountain, one of the hardest hitting debuts of rural noir I have read.  Like its predecessor, Like Lions starts hard and finishes harder, a potboiler that begs for continual page turning.  There’s some serious violence, and an incident in one chapter that I had to reread several times to have it sink in.  By the end, it’s understood that nobody’s hands come clean.

I started Like Lions with high hopes, and while it didn’t impress me as much as the first book (do sophomore efforts ever?), the book caught on quickly enough.  I burned through it in a few days, and the first and last chapters, both prequel to the rest of the book, worked nicely together into a surprise ending.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Modern Gods by Nick Laird

modern godsA violent act of the past casts repercussions on a fragmented family in Northern Ireland, and violence of another kind manifests itself on the other side of the world.

The Donnellys are solidly middle class, purveyors of real estate in the town of Ballyglass.  The children are all grown now – Allison works for her family’s agency, and her younger brother Spencer has his own business interests.  Only Liz, the oldest, manages to leave their hometown – she is a college professor in New York City.

Allison is marrying again, after a failed first marriage left her with two young kids.  Liz is returning home for the wedding, albeit briefly, as she is flying to Papua New Guinea to film a documentary about a new cargo cult on the remote island of New Ulster.

The background of Allison’s soon-to-be husband is not known until the day after the wedding.  By this time, they are en route to their honeymoon and Liz is on her way to the South Pacific.

The news, when it hits, is immediate and disturbing to all – to Kenneth and Judith, the parents of the Connelly family, who fear the derision of their community, Allison, whose honeymoon is a test of tolerance, and Liz, who is aware of the news before she lands on New Ulster.

She finds her own set of challenges when arriving.  At first, Liz and her production crew feel reasonably accepted by both the missionaries and the island natives.  As the days progress, antagonism grows to a fevered pitch between the missionaries and Belef, the leader of the new religion, a charismatic matriarch who was once close to the missionaries but now interprets their motives as encroachment.

Modern Gods is a study of tribalism – how it occurs in a modern society, a nominally “normal” one that’s been marred by factions for hundreds of years, and also how problems arise when representatives of a modern society force their own set of mores onto another cultural group without accepting differences.

I first thought it was a stretch to juxtapose the two storylines together, but somehow, it works.  Laird is a talented enough writer to keep the pages turning, and even with another interjecting storyline of the violent event that sets the mood, there’s plenty here to ponder – how the past is difficult and sometimes impossible to ignore, and how an “eye for an eye” approach still holds sway.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal

There are scores of books about running.  The precursor to most would be James Fixx’sincomplete book of running The Complete Book of Running, which came out in the 1970s and greatly popularized the sport.  It certainly got me started on my on-again off-again jogging career.

Peter Sagal, known as the host of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, serves up his own adventures as an avid runner.  Sagal had run as a teenager, then started again when he turned forty, and, well, ran with it, through sketchy weather, leg cramps, and worse.  As of the publication of this book (last year) he’s still pounding the pavements.

There are those of us in the middle age department who are just fine with jogging 2-3 times weekly and waddling through our monthly 5Ks.  Not so with Sagal – he’s done the Boston Marathon, not to mention other ones, several times since turning the big 4-0.

His most significant Boston Marathon was in 2013, where he served as guide to a blind runner.  The two made it across the finish line just minutes before the bombing that killed three people and injured over two hundred more.  It’s this event that Sagal revisits several times in the book.

The Incomplete Book of Running is a likeable memoir of a man who finds strength from an endurance sport while enduring other life challenges, be they race tragedy or painful divorce.  If you are fans of Sagal and his show, you’ll enjoy his wise-cracking humor that flavors much of the book.  I found his conversational style reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s, which is to say that I liked the book.  Sagal is also quick to give credit to all and anyone who helped him along his journeys, including James Fixx himself; the cover of this book is a humorous nod to Fixx’s original.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun is also a StarI had to read (or rather listen to the audiobook of) The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon when I saw previews of the upcoming movie at the theater.  I just had to find out for myself what the young adult novel was all about when I realized that the lead male character is Korean.  Korean American, of course, and debonair at that, although I personally had the most difficult time believing the actor was either Korean or a teen.  But the book was more than convincing, as I understood a little of his experience as a Korean American myself.

Daniel Bae is on his way to a prestigious college interview when he runs into Natasha, a Jamaican immigrant who is about to be deported that very day.  They meet and, of course, fall in love, but Natasha, who is all science and rationale, is the harder of the two to fall in love.  Daniel, on top of being a candidate for Yale, is a romantic aspiring poet and pursues Natasha to no end.

The romance is cute and funny enough to make it a worthwhile teen read for me, but what really made the book worthwhile was identifying with living in two cultures, particularly the Korean American one.  Although I grew up somewhat different in that I was never pushed for straight A’s and excellence, I did have expectations that were put on me.  And I feel these pressures simply by being Korean or Asian, not because any person has put it on me specifically.  I felt the need to excel academically, to play a musical instrument like a virtuoso, and so on, at least superficially.  But really I am more like Daniel.  Just as he loves writing poetry, I had my stint pursuing photography (and failed spectacularly).

I sadly did not identify with Natasha as much.  She seemed rather dry, straight, and analytical to me at times, even though I didn’t think that was her true nature.  I have never had the experience of being undocumented and deported.  Maybe I was lucky to have a relative who sponsored our family to come to the U.S. and I was doubly lucky that my parents took the citizenship exam and got it, became naturalized under them, and never, ever had to take such an exam myself.  It was a privilege to go college and be able to get loans to pay for it, although I do curse their presence from time to time.  And I do feel exceptional having a U.S. Passport and having traveled to many different countries previously.  Natasha was not able to experience these things and probably never will.

The Sun Is Also A Star is for anyone wanting an entertaining and romantic teen story.  This book is also for anyone who wants to contemplate on immigration and race relations.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch)

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Imagine losing your home of many years to a court ruling, and then finding out your Salt Pathhusband will soon die of an incurable neurological disease.  Your finances are almost  gone.  What plan would you have?

For the author and her husband Moth, the plan became a six hundred-plus mile hike of the South West Coast Path that largely encircles the far west country of England.  She and her husband were essentially homeless, but had few qualms with getting out in the elements.  They largely roughed it, sleeping in a tent, using skimpy sleeping bags that soon proved inadequate, and slogging considerably less day mileage than Mark Wallington, a previous hiker of the trail whose book was their guide throughout their journey.

As the days passed, this narrow footpath of cliffs, mud, ocean spray, and endless up-and-down toil became their home.  At first, it seemed a means of defeat.  As time went on, the walk meant life.  The symptoms of Moth’s condition lessened as they progressed, and the relentless weather of the area toughened them both.

It helped that Raynor and Moth were tough-minded people to start.  The home they lost was a farm in Wales that they had rebuilt from ruins into a working enterprise.  Their thirty-two year marriage was an active one of farm work and extensive hiking, although the South West Coast Path proved to be the most daunting of their endeavors.  They also knew how to make do with very little, as money for them was a meager stipend of a tax credit that they withdrew each week from an ATM.

A major difficulty of their trip was other people.  The day hikers and casual vacationers they encountered repeatedly misconstrued the Winn’s intentions.  People were often rude to them, particularly when Raynor and Moth put forth the truth about their homeless state.  After a time, they would alter their backstory so as not to see others flinch.  Towards the end, they stuck to the truth, as other people’s reactions became more a source of amusement than rejection.

They met with a few trail angels as well.  These were people who either were in a similar state, or observed a better truth past the couple’s disheveled appearance.  There were snuck sandwiches from restaurant workers, a surreal stay at a country house, a kindly couple who befriended them when Raynor fell ill, and other offers of accommodation.

The Salt Path documents an arduous trek that begins without hope but ultimately changes the author’s views on life and nature, and renews her closeness to her husband.  Read it if you like some fine in-your-face nature writing.  Also, reading the book will challenge your own perceptions of homelessness.  And finally, read it if you love all things British; the book has a very British tone about it, which I liked.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



The Silk Road : A Novel by Kathryn Davis

silk roadA clutch of people are in a yoga session in an undisclosed location in the far north.  We’re not sure why they are there.  Are they vacationers, or refugees from some horrific apocalypse?  And who is their classmate, the one who fails to wake from corpse pose?

We gradually get to know the characters, all known by their occupation rather than name.  As the story unfolds, the group appear to be siblings, adults now, but with memories strong with childhood and earlier adulthood.

The storyline is far from linear.  It turns back on itself repeatedly as each of them revisit key points in their life where chance meetings with others modify/cause a ripple in their tightly-knit relationships with each other.  The concept of time is blurry.  What begins as a yoga class stretches into a series of interconnected journeys as each character ruminates through their past and present.

Frankly, I found the book confusing, and disorienting the reader may have been the author’s intent.  I took the narrative of the book as more of a dreamscape rather than plot.  On the plus side, The Silk Road is beautifully written and a quick read, clocking in at 132 pages.

(William Hicks, Information Services)