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Book review: ‘Amazing Place: What N.C. Means to Writers’

Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers
Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers Marianne Gingher

“Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers” is a collection of 21 new essays, each by a different author whose assignment was to write about “anything so long as North Carolina served as backdrop or place of reckoning.” The editor is Marianne Gingher: memoirist, novelist, lifelong North Carolinian.

In her introduction, Gingher poses the question “is there evidence (that) affiliation with North Carolina contributed in some way to each writer’s development or vision or craft or sensibilities?”

The novelist Michael Parker certainly thinks so. In his piece “A Man Came up From Wilmington, Carrying a Bag of Snakes,” he writes: “Here is what my home has given me: a marvelous instrument of language so closely connected with landscape that I came to bless daily the happy accident of my birthplace.”

Some of the contributors, such as Robert Morgan and Fred Chappell, have been giving us beautiful works for nearly a half-century. Gingher, however, has drawn from a deep literary well. Included in this collection are piercingly comic pieces by younger, less familiar names, such as Rosecrans Baldwin, Wells Tower and Stephanie Elizondo Griest. In some of the essays, past events are described almost as if they occurred last week. For example, a forlorn, post-scandal John Edwards pops up frequently in Baldwin’s off-kilter piece on his time in Chapel Hill.

Gingher even weighs in with her own contribution, a humorous paean to her beloved Greensboro. Titled “The Capitol of Normal,” it appears in the second of the book’s three sections, each representing a different region of the state: “The Mountains,” “The Piedmont” and “Down East and the Coast.”

It’s worth noting the division of labor among the regions. “The Mountains” and “Down East and the Coast” offer a combined 11 essays, while “The Piedmont” takes the lion’s share with 10. This is a reflection of the close ties many of the contributors have with the writing programs in that region – half the “Piedmont” pieces alone take place in Chapel Hill.

But no matter, readers will pick and choose according to their whim (or preferred author or region). In my case, I’m happier reading in a linear fashion, so I began in the mountains, rolled down through the Piedmont, and ended in the ocean.

As a lifelong resident of Charlotte, I’ll admit to a tiny “harumph” over the Queen City’s single appearance in “Amazing Place.” In her nostalgic “26 Miles,” Judy Goldman describes a downtown Charlotte as nonexistent today as ancient Mesopotamia. But throughout her Rock Hill, S.C., childhood, family trips to downtown Charlotte were infrequent, but momentous occasions.

Personal descriptions are among the book’s highlights, with “creative debt” spread equally among friends, lovers, relatives, and yes, writing instructors. In Randall Kenan’s account of boyhood summers spent on Duplin County tobacco farms, we’re treated to the spectacle of Miss Ella – the type of neighbor no future author is likely to forget:

“Maybe it was the way she looked at me. Maybe it was the dip of snuff that never left that place between her bottom lip and her gums; the way she spat the brown juice like a laser beam with enough accuracy and force to bisect a horsefly in mid-flight.”

Finally, what emerges as strongly as the authors’ North Carolina sensibilities is their connection to the landscape. Michael McFee wonders whether growing up in the mountains predisposed him to be a poet.

“Probably not. And yet, the daily vertical movement of living at higher altitudes is not unlike the experience of writing a poem, which doesn’t so much cross the page as descend it, in a kind of back-and-forth dance.

Sam Shapiro is a program coordinator for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

Essays

Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers

Edited by Marianne Gingher

University of North Carolina Press, 224 pages

Book events

Readings and events related to “Amazing Place” include:

April 1: Marianne Gingher will speak at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh. 7 p.m.

April 7: Eight contributors – Gingher, Belle Boggs, Stephanie Griest, Jill McCorkle, Michael McFee, Michael Parker, Bland Simpson and Lee Smith – participate in a discussion sponsored by the Regulator Bookshop. It will be held at Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham. 7 p.m.

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