The Summer Reading List
|I’n this articles|
|My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family and Miracles, by Justin Catanoso, HarperCollins, 2008 — The Last Spartan, by John F. Saunders, Savage Press, 2008 — The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events That Shaped Modern North Carolina, by Rob Christensen, University of North Carolina Press, 2007 — On Account of Conspicuous Women, by Dawn Shamp, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2008|
Miracles, small and large by Brian Clarey Justin Catanoso and I have a lot in common. We are both editors of weekly newspapers, and both of us grew up in the Northeast before settling in Greensboro to nurture our families and careers. We are both married to beautiful blondes, and we both have daughters named Rosie. And we share a common heritage. Catanoso, like my own mother, is an American of full-blooded Italian descent, and we can both trace our roots back to Calabria, the toe of the boot. You can read the history of Italy in his face: his Roman nose and heavy brow, raw intelligence gleaming in his dark eyes, his jaw like an outcropping of rock, his olive-oil skin and hair like black wire. He looks like he could be one of my uncles, out there throwing bocce balls on the lawn. My Italian-ness has manifested itself in a fascination with food and a penchant for obscene hand gestures. But after finding out a distant cousin had been beatified by the Catholic church and was on the short list for sainthood, Catanoso dug deep into the peninsula’s soil and unearthed two of the ancient pillars of Italian culture: faith and family, themes explored in his new book My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family and Miracles. A prospective saint must perform three documented miracles in order to be canonized, remember. And remember, too, that Catanoso is a man of professional skepticism, a journalist who once specialized in science, one who had left the Roman Catholic Church far behind. It all began with a family trip to Italy in 2003, when Catanoso learned about his cousin, Gaetano Catanoso, and his impending sainthood. In a small restaurant in the village of Chorio, from which his grandfather fled in the early 1900s to chase the American Dream, Catanoso connected with dozens of family members in an impromptu binding of the family tree. One after another they filled the place. And they all looked like him in the way family members do. “They just kept coming in,” he says. “It was like a freakin’ Frank Capra movie. It was like a dream.” The experience became a 500-word commentary, aired nationally on NPR, something of a miracle in itself – it’s hard to get a piece aired on NPR. Even more improbable was that a renowned literary agent, Randi Murray, was listening in California, and that she decided to give Catanoso a cold call. Soon Judith Miller at HarperCollins was working on the book at the same time she was paging through OJ Simpson’s fake confessional. Now the book is out, and Catanoso takes time from his schedule as executive editor of the Triad Business Journal to spread the word. In a meeting room at the Greensboro Public Library on a hot summer night, Catanoso stands at ease in front of an assembled crowd who later, at the signing table, reveal themselves to be Italians, Catholics, teachers, neighbors. But for now they are audience to Catanoso’s readings and teachings – yes, he’s gained no small bit of wisdom from writing this book. It is part spiritual exploration, part family history, with doses of poignancy, tragedy and discovery folded in, all devices for figuring out what it means to have a saint in the family. He ends the lecture with a piece of advice given him by a college history professor: “Believe what you can.” Since writing the book he’s picked up the threads of his Catholicism, started going to mass at St. Pius X Church and doing his best to honor the spiritual side of life. “I really wanted to know more about Gaetano,” he says after the lecture. “I feel like the one thing I can do in Greensboro is to go to mass. And the mass is the same as it was a hundred years ago, only then they did it in Latin.” The brand of Catholicism preached in the southernmost regions of Italy is steeped in superstition and folklore, some of it straight from the Dark Ages. Things Gaetano touched, pieces of his bone and hair are revered as sacred artifacts in his homeland. Gaetano himself is preserved in a glass tomb in the apse of the church where he spoke. There’s a picture of it in the book, surrounded by sisters from the order of nuns Gaetano founded. They’re all smiling. While he lived, Gaetano used a cilice – sort of a barbed-wire garter – to intentionally inflict pain on himself. “That took me a while to figure out,” Catanoso says. “It’s a creepy thing, you know?” But, he says, it was nothing like the albino in The DaVinci Code. “He didn’t wear it,” he says. “He would put it in his bed and sleep on it. It was just constant discomfort, a reminder of Christ’s suffering. He also believed in the concept of reparation. Basically everyone he lived with was suffering – they were hungry, they were poor, they were isolated. He looked at it as a way of lightening the suffering of others. That was the level and intensity of his faith.” But can a reporter, one who’s trained to toil in facts and science and provable evidence… can a man like that believe in miracles? Gaetano has had three certified by the Vatican, which claims his sacred artifacts healed the sick and defied death. The reporter in him is still grappling with that one. “What I have come close to believing,” he qualifies, “is that there are things that happen that I can’t explain. Is that the hand of God? A miracle? Or do we just not know?” Another sigh. He’s eating chorizo with pesto and greens now at a table in Caf’ Europa, drinking an imported beer. “If I stay on this road…,” he continues, “I don’t know. Sometimes I like to think I will believe.” More chorizo and some bread. “You know what I believe?” he says. “I believe that the life of someone like Gaetano Catanoso, who was generous, radical in his faith… I believe in his goodness and the power it has in the world.” Gate City pulp by Brian Clarey Somewhere near Greensboro a badass biker lives in hiding, an enforcer who once went by the name of “Posiedon” when he rode with the Spartans, a man whose knowledge of ancient Greek history and the killing arts are equally impressive. His name is Frank Kane, and now he is called back to the underworld to rescue a runaway young girl, who’s thrown in with sex workers and immersed herself in international political intrigue. And there are always old enemies, old grudges, old habits. John F. Saunders, who works as a dentist in Greensboro, shoehorned a few other clich’s into his first novel, The Last Spartan, like the hastily introduced sidekick who’s a whiz with computers, a treacherous stripper and a Middle Eastern assassin. And the storyline itself is cribbed from everything Andrew Vacchs has ever done. But for all its faults – and in the uncorrected galley copy I read, there were more than a few – I fairly tore through this book. It’s packed with plot, sure, and also a few bits of the history of ancient Greece and Spartan warrior culture that Saunders must have picked up as a classics major at UNCG. You see, the Spartans are a biker gang… were a biker gang… based on Hellenic culture and things went sour when Spanish Johnny… never mind. Heavy on action, light on message, this is a great summer read for those who still love the genre of pulp fiction and need to know how bikers hide guns in pizza boxes. And we’re sure to be seeing more from this author: The next Frank Kane book, Lock and Load, is already in the pipeline and Saunders is hard at work on the next installment, The Spartan Negotiator. NC politics: the safe mainstream and the frayed edges by Jordan Green Beneath its fade of bland moderation, North Carolina has always been a land of political extremes. Take Greensboro’s most infamous moment in November 1979 when a caravan of Klansmen and Nazis rolled through Morningside Homes, and following a brief stick fight with their communist adversaries the rightist combatants unloaded rifles from trunks and coolly took aim. City leaders perpetuate the myth to this day that the event was an aberration in an otherwise unblemished march of progress, and that the antagonists were largely outsiders. That establishment view is hardly surprising though, as it is cut from the cloth of the larger political culture of North Carolina, a state where business progressivism prevails, but populist, radical and reactionary tendencies are ever swirling. Communists were not such an exotic species in Greensboro. After all, Junius Scales, a son of the Irving Park aristocracy, was the first individual imprisoned under the Smith Act solely for his membership in the Communist Party. And, as Raleigh News & Observer political reporter Rob Christensen writes in The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events That Shaped North Carolina, the state’s modern era is rooted in white supremacy. Reacting to a multiracial coalition that propelled blacks to elected office at practically every level of state and local government, the resurgent Democratic Party organized a campaign of terror with the News & Observer as its principal mouthpiece that resulted in the bloody overthrow of a black elected government in Wilmington – the only known coup d’etat in the United States – in 1898. Moving to consolidate its gains, the Democratic Party ran Charles Brantley Aycock – the namesake of both the UNCG auditorium and Greensboro neighborhood – on a platform of amending the state constitution to deprive blacks of the right to vote. “There is no use mincing matters,” Christensen quotes Furnifold Simmons, the power behind Aycock and a political boss for decades hence, as telling a crowd of 2,000 in Burlington during that campaign. “The amendment discriminates against the Negro in favor of the white man. We intended that it should so discriminate and I am here today to defend that discrimination. This is a white man’s state. We have raised the white flag here. Who will haul it down? The Negro can’t do, and the white man that does, spot him. Write on his brow, traitor – traitor to country, and race; to wife and child, aye to father and mother. Let him be an outcast upon the face of the earth.” Glancing down the lane from 2008 to 1901, from Gov. Mike Easley to Gov. Charles Aycock – a period of uninterrupted Democratic domination but for two Republican governors – one might presume that at some point the party made a dramatic rupture with the past, undertook a moral inventory and expressed contrition. Not quite, even if the party issued an official apology for its role in the white supremacist campaign in 2007. Aycock, who carried the banner of white supremacy in 1898 and 1900, was also the founder of modern North Carolina, leading the charge among Southern states to improve public education, writes Christensen. Since then, education has been claimed as a signature issue by virtually every Democratic governor. Building on Aycock’s foundation, subsequent governors in the business-progressive mold have levied taxes to build roads, create a first-rate university system, build the tobacco, textiles and furniture industries into manufacturing powerhouses and establish an enviable community college system. Terry Sanford, elected governor in 1960 and applauded by Look magazine for having “supported the Negro first for equality more vigorously than any public official in Southern history,” displayed Aycock’s portrait in his office at the Capitol in Raleigh, Christensen writes. Jim Hunt, a four-term Democratic governor, quoted him in his 1999 state of the state address. Christensen, who traversed the mountains to take his first job at News & Observer in 1973 after graduating from the University of Tennessee, arrived in a North Carolina shaped by not only Sanford but also Jesse Helms, a WRAL-TV editorialist and future US senator who would pioneer the national conservative movement and help clear a path for Ronald Reagan. “People would often ask, ‘How could Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt be from the same state?'” Christensen tells me. “‘How could Jesse Helms and John Edwards serve in the Senate at the same time?’ Part of the whole reason for writing this book was to go back and look at history and figure out some things.” In between, there’s a lot of lore in this book – crude and colorful rhetoric, and knock-down-drag-out political warfare. For instance, former US Sen. Bob Reynolds of Asheville is quoted as saying of Clyde Hoey, a political rival and fellow womanizer: “I can’t beat a man who goes around the state with a Bible in one hand and his pecker in the other.” “The book is filled with what I think are really good stories, and that’s not to pat myself on the back,” Christensen says. “The story of Bob Reynolds winning the election to Senate and accusing his opponent [Cameron Morrison] of eating red Russian fish eggs. The story of how the first woman candidate for governor turned out to be a Communist KGB agent. That a governor [Daniel Russell] nearly got lynched. What a tragedy that would have been. What a black mark on American history that would have been.” What makes North Carolina a fun place to observe politics is that so much of the power game is in play. Christensen points out that when the South was completely dominated by the Democratic rule, North Carolina had one of the strongest Republican parties in the region. Now that the equation is nearly reversed, the Tar Heel State has the strongest Democratic party in the South. Maybe its cultural schizophrenia, or maybe plain cussedness. “We are one of the most competitive states in the country, and people forget that,” Christensen says. “There are few places in America that are so competitive. That’s one of the reasons politics is so rough here.” A new entry to the ‘sassy Southern women’ genre by Amy Kingsley There is, in popular fiction, a character I uniformly detest: the sassy Southern woman. Every week a new would-be Fannie Flagg sends another version of her across my desk. And every week I chuck it into a pile reserved for this particularly heinous brand of Southern chick-lit. I call it Kentucky Fried Lady-ature. If she were a video game character, the sassy Southern woman would collect pixilated chicken legs and okra discs while flattening bad guys with gossip and clever euphemism. After a long slog through a succession of suffocating towns, she would collapse, victorious, into the arms of her friends. There are usually four of them. The sassy Southern woman has become a cultural force to be reckoned with – from Steel Magnolias on Broadway to Fried Green Tomatoes on the big screen. She even pokes her perfectly manicured tentacles back into the real world in the form of Red Hat Societies (started in California) that dupe otherwise-respectable women into wearing ridiculous headgear in public. All of which brings me to my assignment for this week’s cover story. I waded through the pile of books in search of a single recommendation for the hordes of readers who consume these books like so much sweet tea. And I came up with Dawn Shamp’s On Account of Conspicuous Women, an account of four Person County women circa 1920. There’s Bertie Daye, the sharp-tongued suffragette, her cousin Guerine, the town socialite, Doodle, the good-hearted farm girl, and Ina, the blue-blooded Virginian. Bertie is the quartet’s reigning sassy Southerner. And normally that would drive me up the wall. But Shamp’s decision to locate her characters at the dawn of women’s suffrage takes a little of the brassy edge off and lends her mouthiness a touch of nobility. The other characters aren’t quite as well developed as Bertie, and some of their crises come across half-baked – particularly an atomic secret passed to Doodle by her father that threatens to detonate a friendship. The revelation turns out to be a narrative dud. It’s the first of the book’s several anti-climaxes. If you’re a fan of the Lady-ature, Conspicuous Women isn’t half bad. It’ll introduce you to a time when the question wasn’t whether women would vote for Sen. Barack Obama, but whether they would vote at all. As for me, I might just make it a point this summer to pick up some Flannery O’Connor, and maybe some Dorothy Allison. Because there are some Southern women who’ve contributed mightily to the canon. Reading them is more than an exercise in affirming the benefits of regular female camaraderie. And they will never ask you to wear big red hats.