Why Keep a Personal Journal?

Melinda FergusonHave you ever wanted to keep a journal but didn’t know how to begin? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself, “Why should I believe for a minute I have anything at all interesting to say?” Have you ever abandoned a journal out of boredom or dismissed personal writing as a waste of time?

More than sixteen million blank journals are sold annually in stores and on the internet.* As technology threatens to replace traditional forms of communication, there appears to be an opposite impulse to slow down and talk to ourselves. Here’s the catch: While vast numbers of blank books are purchased, few are ever fully used. Would-be journal writers often give up before realizing journaling’s many benefits.

There’s good science from psychologists and medical clinicians claiming personal writing improves your health. Physically, the act of simply sitting down in comfortable surroundings, picking up a pen, and writing your thoughts and feelings almost immediately lowers your blood pressure, reduces your heart rate, and increases the production of T-cells that pump up your body’s immunity system.Writing helps keep your mind sharp by expanding your observational skills and memory. As a spiritual practice, writing strengthens your faith. Professional writers and artists have long used journals to develop ideas, break through writer’s block, and practice their craft. In your journal, you are likely to discover a never-before recognized source of creativity within yourself.

How Journal Writing has Helped Me: A Short List

  1. Increased my reverence and gratitude for my life and Life
  2. Helped me identify what I need to be happy
  3. Provided a safe place to unlock and understand my feelings, explore my emotional life, and recognize my moods and what caused them
  4. Helped me appreciate my childhood
  5. Led me to realize that I am a creative and imaginative person
  6. Boosted my critical thinking and writing skills
  7. Enhanced my self-confidence and given me a greater sense of peace
  8. Brought me to a place closer to self-acceptance and serenity

Journal writing is a path to inner peace. As a consequence, I believe I have brought a little peace into the lives of my family, friends, and colleagues.  Perhaps this is too much of a stretch, but imagine: If, as the title of physicist Conrad Lorenz’s paper on chaos theory suggests, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas, isn’t it possible that one person’s journal writing might contribute to world peace? Isn’t it a joy to think so?

 

*Estimates compiled from Leaving a Trace, The Art of transforming a Life into Stories by Alexandra Johnson. Little, Brown and Company, 2001.           


ABOUT MELINDA: Melinda L. Ferguson grew up in Lima, Ohio, graduated from Miami University, and moved to New York City to earn and MA from Columbia University before embarking on a career in Manhattan as an editor for major book companies. After her family moved to Long Island, Ferguson taught English classes at Suffolk County Community College, English as a Second Language at the Smithtown Adult Education Program and facilitated memoir writing workshops at community libraries. In 2016, Melinda received an MA degree in Creative Writing & Literature from Stony Brook/Southampton University. Melinda moved to Charlotte in 2016 to be near family.


GET JOURNALING WITH MELINDA: Join Melinda for The Gift of Personal Writing on January 6th, from 6-8 p.m. in person in Charlotte Lit’s Studio Two. This class is based on Melinda’s book of the same name. Through non-judgmental personal writing you will learn to feel more centered, more in control of your life, and how draw out your unique creativity. More information is here.

Historical Fiction

Paula Martinac

Paula Martinac is the author of the forthcoming historical novel Dear Miss Cushman.

The Past Comes Alive on the Page

The task facing the historical fiction writer is to bring research to life. In a journal article or history book, you might read that 19th-century American theaters were rowdy places in which audiences frequently booed actors off the stage. In contrast, a historical novel would take you into the boxes and “parquet,” or orchestra seating, and show the repercussions of a poor performance. This excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Dear Miss Cushman, set in the New York City theater world in 1852, demonstrates this idea.

 

When the audience began hissing, I knew Othello wasn’t going to end well. The response jolted me. We weren’t at the Bowery Theatre, where the audience in the pit tossed apples and vegetables onto the stage if a performance didn’t please them. The Prince Theatre was one of New York City’s finest establishments, catering to the upper ten.

Worse, the actor they hissed at was my father.

I was attending my first theatrical performance. Incredible, given that my father was a renowned leading actor, but Mama maintained that theater wasn’t a place for young ladies. For my eighteenth birthday, she gave in to my pleading and permitted Uncle James to accompany me to my father’s performance of the Moor, one of his most acclaimed roles. Mama insisted I have a new dress, and my sister Maude oohed and aahed over the sky blue taffeta until I wanted to take it off and give it to her. I myself put little stock in puffy lady things, especially in pastel hues. Plus, the heavy horsehair crinoline the skirt required for shape made beads of sweat trickle down my stomach.

Still, I could abide these discomforts if it meant I got to sit beside my dapper uncle in his lushly adorned box, draped with red and gold silk, and marvel at the glistening gas-jet chandelier that lit the space. Best of all, I got to watch my father tread the boards as I’d imagined him doing, in full costume and makeup for the Moor and sporting his prize sword.

We were barely one act in when Pa dropped a few lines. Then more—even the ones I ran with him that morning “for good measure,” as he’d urged. He’d appeared in Othello dozens of times, but now the role appeared to baffle him. Although the movement made my stays pinch, I leaned forward, mouthing the words, willing them into his memory.

Taunts rose slowly through the cavernous parquet. Pa squinted toward the footlights in bewilderment….

The audience response crescendoed into boos. Uncle James colored crimson. “We’re leaving,” he announced, spittle collecting at the corners of his lips. He tugged me to my feet. “Now, Georgiana.”


Paula Martinac is the author of the forthcoming historical novel Dear Miss Cushman (Bywater Books, December 2021), and six others, including Testimony; Clio Rising, Gold Medalist, Northeast Region, 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards; and The Ada Decades, a finalist for the 2018 Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction. Out of Time, her debut novel, won a Lambda Literary Award. She has received fellowships from North Carolina Arts Council and the Arts and Science Council and teaches in the creative writing program at UNC Charlotte.


EXPLORE HISTORICAL FICTION WITH PAULA: Join Paula for Writing Historical Fiction online. Historical fiction has the power to bring people and places from the past to life. If you’re drawn to this genre (or one of its sub-genres, like historical mystery or romance), this class will provide you with motivation and skills to start writing. By the end of the class, you will have a scene or chapter for a work-in-progress or an outline and character biographies that give you a solid path forward. This class meets on three Tuesdays, November 30, December 7 and 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m. More information here.

Book Recommendations from Our Members

At our 2020 holiday party, we asked our members what books they’d recommend as gifts or for next year’s book clubs. Here’s the list, with purchase links to our friends Park Road Books. Enjoy!

Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich | Hardcover | Paperback

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow | Hardcover | Paperback

Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson | Hardcover | Paperback

Book of Delights, Ross Gay | Hardcover

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson | Hardcover

Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance | Hardcover | Paperback

CREATE! Developing Your Own Creative Process, Cathy Pickens | Paperback

The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business, Wright Thompson | Paperback

Little Bee, Chris Cleave | Paperback

The Henna Artist, Alka Joshi | Hardcover | Paperback

Excerpt from “The Skin Artist” by George Hovis

George Hovis

George Hovis

The needles burned worse than last time. But today he was sober. Bill watched the artist’s eyes. The eyes alone seemed to will the tattoo gun’s movement as it trenched the skin of Bill’s forearm, burying its seed of ink. Maybe it was better not to try to make conversation. Just get this over with. But he needed to talk, needed to hear Niall talk, to establish something human between them.

“I never knew tattooing went so far back.” Bill raised his voice over the metallic buzz of the tattoo gun, wanting to distract the artist, but afraid to distract him.

“At one point in history,” Niall said, his gaze still focused on Bill’s tender skin, “tattooing was taken very seriously, as well it should be. It’s strong magic and not simply about marketing oneself at the club.”

Bill looked away from the pain, closed his eyes, and focused on slowing his breath.  Though he hadn’t known at the time, the first tattoo had been for Maddie, a drunkard’s selfish gambit. He had hoped to conjure new life into their marriage by shocking her into acknowledging him, his body, if only to laugh.

“There are very few artists left,” Niall went on, “few human beings, who practice magic,” “as long as you don’t count crap like Wicca, which isn’t magic. It’s just mass-produced garbage designed to elevate somebody to the top of a social circle.”

Bill forced a laugh. “Wicca sounds a lot like corporate America.” His cushy corporate job had gone the way of his wife and the gated community, leaving Bill here half dressed, huffing air thick with solvent, at the mercy of this con artist and his interminable recitations, which Bill was starting to crave as much as he craved this cutting of his skin.

“Thousands of years ago in early mystical cultures,” Niall continued to drone, “they all believed the same things: there are certain marks you don’t make unless you are ready to move mountains. The skin is a protective barrier in every way. When you start opening the skin, you can do ten times the magic work.”

Bill looked again at the spreading blood. “So, what if the tattooist is just some grease ball named Pork Chop—”

“—who specializes in rebel flags and Harley Davidson emblems?” Niall smirked.

“It still has an effect?”

“Of course it does. Even if the artist isn’t actively engaging in a ritual at the time, a tattoo can still act on a metaphysical plane and alter someone’s reality for good or bad.”

“But with less predictability?”

“Usually the result is utter chaos.” Niall switched off the power supply and lay the gun on the counter. Bill noticed again the delicate hands. Their precision reminded him of Maddie’s hands, how he still craved their touch.

“I’m very careful in my work,” the artist said, “and even I have accidentally ruined lives. And sometimes not accidentally.”


LEARN WITH GEORGE HOVIS: George leads a new Charlotte Lit class, Making it Strange, Making it Real: Writing Literary Fantasy, Thursday, October 1, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT GEORGE: George Hovis grew up in rural Gaston County, North Carolina. His debut novel, The Skin Artist — nominated for the 2019 Sir Walter Raleigh Award and a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award — tells the story of Charlotte’s emergence in the 90s as a “world-class city,” one with deep and often tortured connections to the surrounding hinterlands. George’s stories and essays have appeared widely in anthologies and journals, including The Carolina Quarterly, Southern Cultures, New Madrid, and The North Carolina Literary Review. He is a professor of English at SUNY Oneonta, where he was awarded the 2017 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. georgehovis.net

What I’m Reading This Summer

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of summer reading picks from Charlotte Lit staff. Here, Charlotte Lit col-founder Paul Reali shares what he’ll be reading this summer.


Each time I pick up my iPad with the Kindle app, or pick through the stack on my nightstand, my different selves do battle. Which Paul is doing the reading tonight?

This summer, my selves will be battling over these titles. This is not be a traditional summer reading list, because nothing here has anything to do with summer, most are not new, and there are no beach reads here (well, maybe one). Summer for me is the time to trim my stack, not add to it.

For the Writer: The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby. One of the bibles of writing. Authors Lab coach Kim Wright uses the author as a verb, as in: “Did you Truby the manuscript?”

For the Reader (and Writer) of Mysteries: When Will There Be Good News, by Kate Atkinson, the third Jackson Brodie mystery. Atkinson writes mysteries that read like literature.

For the Reader of Literature: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. I’m one day into this and I think it wins the daily battle until I get to the end. Charlotte Lit co-founder Kathie Collins called this the book she’d wished she’d written.

For the Reader of Local Writers: Clio Rising, by Paula Martinac. Charlotte Lit teacher and Authors Lab coach has written another winner with distinct voices and memorable characters. I defy you to ever forget Livvie Bliss or Clio Hartt.

For the Editor: I’ll be reading my own mystery novel in progress, which is going through one (I swear just one) last (absolutely last) final (absolutely dead final) revision to get that word count down to 80K.

For the Parent of Teenagers: Untangled: Guiding Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, by Lisa Damour Ph.D. The subtitle says it all. A fascinating and sometimes frightening read.

For the Runner: Run Less, Run Faster, by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr, and Ray Ross. The perfect book for running like a 40-year old on 50-something legs.

For the Fun-Lover: Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. A 30-year old one-off collaboration by two fantastic writers, and that has had an active fandom ever since. Read this beforeyou watch the new Amazon mini-series and you’ll appreciate it all the more.

Summer Reading Picks by Lisa Zerkle

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of summer reading picks from Charlotte Lit staff. Here, Lisa Zerkle, curator of the 4X4CLT poetry and art poster series, shares her choices for top books.


Just finished

The Wall, by John LancesterThis near-future dystopia plays out in a country that could be Great Britain where young people are conscripted into two-year deployments as guards along a vast border wall. They’re tasked with preventing incursions by Others, desperate refugees who have left their home countries for a slim chance of getting past the Wall. Fast-paced and disturbingly plausible.

I’m a huge fan of short story collections for their brevity and variety. I heartily recommend these two remarkable, recently released short story collections, both of which are worth reading for their skilled construction alone.

Sing to It, by Amy Hempel is written in a Lydia Davis-style compression. “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story,” Hempel has said of her stories. I imagine her sliding words out of her drafts Jenga-style to see if the center still holds. The first two “stories” of ‘Sing to It” are so brief and rich they could double as prose poems. I found her risk-taking style thrilling and entertaining.

Your Duck is My Duck, by Deborah Eisenberg. A recent New York Times review called this collection “cannily constructed, and so instantly absorbing that it feels like an abduction.” Her skill at spoofing a celebrity adjacent tell all in the second story, “Taj Mahal,” is a wonder.

Reading now

The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay began as a practice in the daily appreciation of delight. Beginning on his birthday, Gay pledged to write a brief essay about some experience of delight. I love Gay’s poetry and couldn’t pass up this new book of essays. They are delightful, but not puffery alone. He takes on difficult topics but addresses them with his signature faith in humanity.

Evicted, by Matthew Desmond. A heart-wrenching and clear-eyed look at the affordable housing crisis. True stories of tenants and landlords stuck in challenging circumstances, many of which are caused by thorny, systemic problems. It’s an unflinching, difficult portrayal of families for whom an unexpected $100 expense can mean homelessness. I’d put this one in the hands of every banker bro in Charlotte if I could.

The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, two collections of poetry by Jennifer Chang, who is Charlotte Lit’s featured poet for the September 4X4CLT. Chang is a lyrical poet who draws on themes of family and the natural world.

Up next

Normal People, Sally Rooney. The second foray from the “it” novelist of the millennial generation

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. I thought I was the only one who’d not read this novel that came out in 2016, but the public library currently has 91 hold requests on its 40 copies.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Everyone I know who read this book, a 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, loved it. Ann Patchett calls “the best novel ever written about trees.” I’ve dragged my feet so long on this one it’s now available in paperback (sustainably sourced, of course).

Summer Reading Picks by Tamela Rich

Editor’s Note: Charlotte Lit’s staff is using the summer months to catch up on our reading and we thought we’d share our lists with you. First up—program coordinator and all-around, can-do woman, Tamela Rich’s selections for both pleasure reads and writing research.


If I had a nickel for every book I own and have started but not finished…I’d buy more books!

I picked up two new titles at Park Road Books and laughed with the bookseller about my habit of buying new books when I haven’t finished others. He said, “When you buy a book, you’re buying the promise of time to read it.” That resonates. Buying a book does feel like I’m buying the time to read it. Buying time…what a concept.

I bought:

Prairie Fever, by Michael Parker

I studied with Michael last year at the The Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School, where he told us about this, his sixth novel, based in family lore.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

I read the New York Times Book Review each week. That’s where I learned about the mystery surrounding Harper Lee’s first and only work of nonfiction, and the shocking true crimes at the center of it.

I’m reading:

Clio Rising, by Paula Martinac

A book set in the literary world of New York in the 1980s is doubly fun for this reader-writer. The protagonist hails from western North Carolina, and tells her story in witty first person. Paula is my Authors Lab mentor, which is why I bought Clio, but the fabulous writing is why I’m enthusiastically reading it!

Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap, by Judy Goldman

Judy is a masterful memoirist who teaches the craft at Charlotte Lit. My husband and I are reading Together together.

Research Reads:

My novel-in-progress follows a teenage girl from a Kentucky coal camp up the “Hillbilly Highway” to Detroit in 1943 where she hopes to make enough money to support her family back home. She encounters a world far beyond her understanding, including the country’s sexist and racist public health response to the syphilis epidemic that raged in the final years before antibiotics. These are terrific books that have helped me flesh out mine (working title, The Varney Girls).

The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, by Bridgett M. Davis

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin Boyle

Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, by Herb Boyd

The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison ‘Promiscuous’ Women,’ by Scott. W. Stern

Top Summer Reads from Park Road Books

Oh, how we writers love our independent book stores. They host our readings, sell our books, and provide jobs for our friends and neighbors. Besides, they’re some of the only people who love books as much as we do. In this post, the marvelous book sellers at Park Road Books have winnowed down their favorite reads for summer. The only thing left to choose? Poolside or beachside.

Sally:

In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow (June 4)

Azalea “Knot” Centre is determined to live life as she pleases. Let the people of West Mills say what they will; the neighbors’ gossip won’t keep Knot from what she loves best: cheap moonshine, nineteenth-century literature, and the company of men. And yet, Knot is starting to learn that her freedom comes at a high price. Alone in her one-room shack, ostracized from her relatives and cut off from her hometown, Knot turns to her neighbor, Otis Lee Loving, in search of some semblance of family and home.

Otis Lee is eager to help. A lifelong fixer, Otis Lee is determined to steer his friends and family away from decisions that will cause them heartache and ridicule. After his failed attempt as a teenager to help his older sister, Otis Lee discovers a possible path to redemption in the chaos Knot brings to his doorstep. But while he’s busy trying to fix Knot’s life, Otis Lee finds himself powerless to repair the many troubles within his own family, as the long-buried secrets of his troubled past begin to come to light.

Set in an African American community in rural North Carolina from 1941 to 1987, In West Mills is a magnificent, big-hearted small-town story about family, friendship, storytelling, and the redemptive power of love

Substitution Order by Martin Clark (July 9)

Kevin Moore, once a high-flying Virginia attorney, hits rock bottom after an inexplicably tumultuous summer leaves him disbarred and separated from his wife. Short on cash and looking for work, he lands in the middle of nowhere with a job at SUBstitution, the world’s saddest sandwich shop. His closest confidants: a rambunctious rescue puppy and the twenty-year-old computer whiz manning the restaurant counter beside him. He’s determined to set his life right again, but the troubles keep coming. And when a bizarre, mysterious stranger wanders into the shop armed with a threatening “invitation” to join a multimillion-dollar scam, Kevin will need every bit of his legal savvy just to stay out of prison.

A remarkable tour of the law’s tricks and hidden trapdoors, The Substitution Order is both wise and ingenious, a wildly entertaining novel that will keep you guessing—and rooting for its tenacious hero—until the very last page.

Shauna:

Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (May 14)

Casey McQuiston’s debut is a fun, quirky romance set in an alternate reality that boasts a more beautiful world after November 2016, in which the First Son falls for the Prince of Wales. With an enemies-to-lovers romance between the First Son and the Prince of Wales, an intricate and well-developed familial bond, and a hopeful political landscape, this book is salve on an open wound.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck & Fortune by Roselle Lim (June 11)

When Natalie Tan returns to her home in Chinatown following her mother’s death, she finds that the neighborhood she grew up in is in danger of being sold off and gentrified. Using her grandmother’s cookbook, she re-creates recipes meant to heal the wounds of the neighborhood in order to save it. Roselle Lim’s debut is a delightful, cultural novel with recipes, magic dumplings, and a touch of romance.

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal (May 14)

This whirlwind Arabian-inspired fantasy by debut author Hafsah Faisal is filled with heart-stopping twists, tight-knit and unbreakable friendships, a slow burn romance, and bright, lyrical prose that left me breathless. Readers of fantasy novels such as Children of Blood and Bone and City of Brass will devour this tale that left me drawn into the story long after it was over.

James:

The Never Game by Jeffrey Deaver (May 14)

Deaver is back! This time with an intriguing new protagonist by the name of Colter Shaw. Raised by a bi-polar survivalist, Shaw becomes a “tracker” who finds missing people. On his current case Shaw finds himself in the world of computer gamers and the intrigue of Silicon Valley. This is a “can’t put it down” thriller.

Recursion by Blake Crouch (June 11)

I liked Crouch’s previous novel, I loved this one. Straddling a fine line between being science fiction and a thriller, Recursion explores the ideas of memory, perception, identity, and reality. At its core, this page-turner explores the concept of a technology that can be used to capture memories and let its user experience them again.

Megan:

Broken Things by Lauren Oliver (YA)

This fantastic book is like reading a mix of Pretty Little Liars, The Slender Man and Bridge to Terabithia. A page turning, gripping thriller about three friends, a secret, and a mystery.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi (YA)

A beautiful take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Set in Brooklyn, Pride deals with gentrification, class struggles while still staying remarkably true to its roots.

The Ancient Nine by Ian K. Smith

This book is a suspense thriller that takes you deep inside one of our country’s elite Ivy League universities and its secret societies. Based on real life events, Ian K. Smith weaves a tale that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page.

Molly:

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Wickedly funny and dark, Braithwaite tells the story of how far a woman is willing to go to protect her sister, who has a nasty habit of killing her boyfriends. She soon finds herself second guessing her protective stance when a friend of hers is poised to be the next victim.

Alice isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink

In this perfectly creepy road trip mystery from the author of Welcome to Night Vale, Keisha takes up a job as a cross country truck driver to locate her missing wife, Alice, who she keeps seeing in the background of national news stories. Supernatural mysteries follow her on her journey, including a dangerous, man-eating, cryptid who knows too much of Alice for Keisha’s liking.


Charlotte Lit it grateful to Park Road Books for sending us their top picks for summer reads. Be sure to check their events calendar for upcoming readings by local authors. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram, and visit them in person at the Park Road Shopping Center.

Summer Reading Picks from Park Road Books

Ah, summer!  Time to dig your toes in the sand and crack open an excellent book. Need ideas? Our friends at Park Road Books are here with these helpful suggestions, including Middle Grade and YA picks at the end of the list. 

Nothing is Forgotten, by Peter Golden (Atria, $26.00)

This historical novel delves into family relationships and secrets.  Spanning the time between WW II and the Cold War, Nothing is Forgotten follows a family of Russian Jews as they escape persecution and rebuild their lives only to have their past resurface.  From a CIA-sponsored radio program broadcasting early rock ’n’ roll in West Germany to tracking down Pablo Picasso in the south of France, this novel spins a great tale that keeps the reader guessing and wanting more. (John O.)

Vacationland, by John Hodgman (Penguin Books, $16.00)

Memoir is a new direction for John Hodgman, whose previous three books comprised a fantastically fraudulent encyclopedia of imagined knowledge. Hodgman brings the same absurdist wit and manic, self-deprecating sensibilities to his stories in Vacationland, along with keen observations and honest insight. John Hodgman remains one of the funniest writers around, but with Vacationland we get to enjoy a bit of his wisdom as well. (John O.)

Educated, by Tara Westover  (Random House, $28.00)

From debut New York Times bestselling author Tara Westover comes Educated: A Memoir. A true story about Tara Westover’s life growing up in the mountains of Idaho raised by survivalists. The story follows young Tara through her early years and into adulthood. Her father shuns all forms of government oversight and because of this, she never attends school. Although the family has had its struggles they have remained “close.” This changes when Tara decides to take the GED and is accepted into Brigham Young University.  With the freedom of education, Tara struggles with what she now sees is a very different world from the one she grew up with. This beautiful book is an engrossing story and an engaging read. If you enjoyed The Glass Castle you will enjoy Educated. (Megan M.)

The Seven Husbands, by Taylor Jenkins Reid  (Washington Square Press, $16.00)

An excellent look at not only the various “masks” that women of the 1950s were required to wear in order to survive daily life, but also about the sheer strength of true love. This triumph of a novel chronicles the life of fictional Old Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo as told through interview snippets by the backseat narrator, Monique, a journalist hired to write the aging Evelyn’s biography. Throughout the novel, Evelyn candidly details life with each of her seven husbands with the intent of answering the question on everyone’s mind: which one was the great love of her life? With amazing women of color and LGBTQ+ representation, this novel is beyond deserving of the overwhelming praise it has received. (Nikki B.)

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (Grove Press, $20.00, on-sale 6/12/18)

A slim and stunning English-language début of a young woman who works in a Japanese convenience store for 18 years. Funny, touching and scathing observation on what passes for normal in society. Selling over 650,000 copies in Japan is an achievement and I hope her American audience appreciates her as much as I do. (Sally B.)

Penelope Lemon: Game On!, by Inman Majors (Louisiana State University Press, $26.00, on-sale 8/15/18)

Don’t plan on getting anything done once you pick up the funniest book of 2018. Major’s tale of a recently divorced 40 year-old woman struggling to make a life for herself and her ten year-old son is a hilarious page-turner. (Sally B.)

Calypso: Essays, by David Sedaris (Little Brown and Company, $28.00)

This is David’s best book. Humor and tragedy that will bring tears to your eyes. Need I say anything else? (Sally B.)

Middle Grade

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, by Stacy McAnulty (Penguin Random House, $16.99)

The story of twelve-year-old Lucy whose grandmother makes her attend middle school for one year, make one friend, join one activity, and read one book.  Seems pretty easy except since Lucy was struck by lightning four years earlier, she’s now a math savant who does calculus for fun, reads math textbooks, and has been homeschooled ever since. Fitting in isn’t easy for Lucy; her ordered, rigid world meets middle school angst while its aches are tempered with laughter.  Lucy and her peers learn to embrace their uniqueness and this book reminds all readers to do the same. (Sherri S.)

Young Adult/Teen

The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X. R. Pan (Little Brown for Young Readers, $18.99)

This gorgeous, powerful début tells the story of an incredible journey from the U.S. to Taiwan. After Leah’s mother dies by suicide, she appears to Leah as a ghost in the form of a giant red bird. To uncover her family’s secrets, Leah travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents. With gorgeous prose, elements of magical realism and Buddhist influences, this novel reads like a dream. (Shauna S.)

Anger is a Gift, by Mark Oshiro (Tor Teen, $17.99)

With this debut, Mark Oshiro has written a fully intersectional book sure to garner many awards. Oshiro’s characters represent a range of gender, sexuality, disability, and mental health situations and he covers topics such as systemic racism, disability access, police brutality, anxiety, first love, and more. With fast-paced and compulsively readable writing, Anger Is a Gift is a much-needed addition to the literary canon. Fans of The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and All American Boys will enjoy this novel. (Shauna S.)

Sky in the Deep, by Adrienne Young (St. Martins Press, $17.99)

This novel sends readers into a Viking-like world with warrior clans who fight every five years. During the last clash Eelyn, an Aska warrior, watched her brother die on the battlefield against the Riki.  She has been training for revenge ever since and gets her chance during the next battle cycle only to see her brother alive and fighting with her enemy. Stunned by his betrayal of family and clan, wounded Eelyn must survive with her brother’s friend Fiske and his family in order to survive. When a legendary clan begins to raid and kill throughout the mountain villages, Eelyn and Fiske must decide who is the worst enemy-the Herja or themselves?  Gritty, Games-of-Thrones-like action will appeal to both genders with just a slight hint of romance. (Sherri S.)

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (Harper Collins, $17.99, on-sale 6/26/18)

This collection of YA short stories explores themes in East and South Asian mythology and features Charlotte-based New York Times bestselling author Renee Ahdieh and New York Times bestselling and North Carolina-based author Roshani Chokshi. (Sherri S. and Shauna S.)

Becoming Human: A White Person’s Reckoning with Race

Book Review: Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in a Story of Race


As a life-long lover of books, it feels particularly special to stumble across a book that profoundly shifts my world view, my approach to life, or my thoughts in a new direction. Waking Up White was one such book.

As a woman from a lower-middle class family situated in the beautiful, rolling hills of North Carolina, I’ve struggled with the stereotypes I grew up with, having relationships with people of color—including a best friendship with a woman of color in college, and through a job in which I faced data and stories that clearly showed racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Before reckoning with my own race and history, I experienced the sting—the Zap Factor—of conversations with this best friend, who praised Malcom X (someone I had learned was a terrorist) and tried to explain how she was watched in stores (I wondered what she must have been doing wrong). As I read through the chapters, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief and feeling encouraged that there is a way out of racial tension. By understanding ourselves a little more fully, we can find harmony with others who are different from us; and in embracing those differences, we will co-create a future that is more successful, beautiful, and rich for all of us.

In her book Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, self-described WASP Debby Irving recounts her liberating, yet heart-wrenching coming to terms with racism: “Racism’s ultimate grip on me came not just from my conditioning to ignore it but from the inverse story that I was told about it.”

In this memoir-like account, Irving walks readers through the process of her transformation from a white person with no racial identity to having a profound sense of her history, privilege, and role in supporting anti-racism. Rather than lecture readers on what she has learned, Irving takes us deep into her journey. Her step-by-step account allows readers to reflect on their own journeys and invites them to embark on their own personal transformations. While some readers may be offended by her criticism of white culture, Irving’s commentary provides a contrast to her long-standing perception of white culture always being “right.” She offers no critical analysis of other racial or ethnic groups. The focus is inward, self-critical, and at times, uncomfortable.

In telling her story, Irving describes key themes or revelations that are common to the white experience. Each chapter provides an insight that builds on the next. She explains the failure of “color-blindness” and how she perpetuated racism by being unaware of the benefits brought by her skin color, and writes about “Robin Hood syndrome,” defined as “‘dysfunctional rescuing,’ helping people in ways that actually disempower them.” Her numerous examples of this syndrome may help altruistic white people recognize where this may come into play in their own civic engagement or volunteerism.

Irving introduces an idea she calls the Zap Factor––the sting of discomfort and embarrassment that occurs when white people experience misunderstandings or recognize their own ignorance during cross-racial conversations. By labeling these experiences and providing concrete examples from her own life, Irving enables readers, particularly white readers, to finally understand why their interactions with people of color may be uncomfortable and seemingly unproductive.

Irving also delves into the “dominant white culture” and elucidates the values and character traits that America’s dominant white culture has retained from early colonists. While these traits may not fit every white person, the underlying message is critical: There are cultural differences that impact cross-racial interactions. White people who are cognizant of their own dominant cultural traits while being sensitive to the cultures of people they interact with, will experience a greater degree of progress and partnership.

As Irving’s recount of her own racial enlightenment progresses, she lets go of labels and tells more personal stories. Later lessons seem to be still fresh and not quite established in her vernacular or approach. She describes a moment in which it became evident that her socialization as a white person remained so embedded with cultural differences her conversations still had the power to alienate people of other races and ethnicities. At the same time, when she realizes a mistake or blunder, Irving is able to model vulnerability and transparency. Concrete examples from her own life allow readers to share in her embarrassment and confusion, while also allowing them to identify with her efforts to overcome life-long blocks to wholehearted relationships with people of other races and ethnicities.

Irving doesn’t attempt to smooth over any of her experiences, and empathetic readers will struggle, particularly if Irving’s experiences resonate with them. But the book ends with a powerful, refreshing call to action: “Self-examination and the courage to admit to bias and unhelpful inherited behaviors may be our greatest tools for change. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to expose our ignorance and insecurities takes courage. And love. I believe the most loving thing a person, or a group of people, can do for another is to examine the ways in which their own insecurities and assumptions interfere with others’ ability to thrive.”

Waking Up Whiteis a moving story of reckoning, a kick in the pants for readers who have become discouraged or indifferent to issues of race, and a tremendous tool for the person seeking to understand and eliminate racism. It’s a story about reclaiming our humanity. When the fabrications of race are exposed for what they are (constructs of power) and what they have caused (dehumanization of people, death, injustice, and unrest), we are freed to recognize the humanity in our fellow brothers and sisters, to collectively mourn the devastation that has been caused, and to collectively build a better future that works for all of us.


Dr. Melissa Neal is a proud North Carolina native who endeavors to make a unique contribution to the world, through writing, relationships, and her work. Professionally, she is a public health expert who specializes in creating effective criminal justice systems and healthy communities. From establishing a nonprofit for justice-involved families in rural Tennessee to conducting national research and justice reform activity in Washington, D.C., she has long worked to improve the intersect between the criminal justice system and community health.

Dr. Neal obtained her doctorate in public health from East Tennessee State University. She currently works for Policy Research Associates, a national firm providing technical assistance to criminal justice and behavioral health systems. She is a commissioner on the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities and is a member of the Race Matters for Juvenile Justice leadership collaborative. She and her husband, with their two dog rescues—Rufus and Greyson—live in Cornelius, NC.