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Book reviews: Andrew J. Skerritt's Ashamed To Die, Mark de Castrique's The Sandburg Connection 

Read globally, buy locally. Or something like that. If you're looking for books with a local or area tie-in, whether you're giving gifts or buying for yourself, here are a couple of volumes — a novel and a nonfiction work — that we'd recommend to anyone.

In the past decade, the overall number of AIDS cases in the United States has dropped, but the disease has spread throughout the South, particularly in rural areas and small towns. Even now, with the South accounting for 40 percent of all American AIDS cases, most of the funding targeted for fighting the disease is still being channeled to the big cities of the North and West. There are reasons for that, as shown in journalist Andrew J. Skerritt's powerful new book, Ashamed To Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South (Lawrence Hill Books, 320 pages, $24.95). Some of those reasons have to do with AIDS funding politics. Mostly, however, reasons revolve around the culture of the rural and small town South. That is, endemic rural poverty, particularly among African-Americans, and the ignorance and severe social breakdown that come with it; a scolding form of conservative religion, as well as lingering vestiges of black subservience and white indifference.

The spread of AIDS in the South, and the shortage of resources to deal with it, says Skerritt, also stem from rural communities' and small towns' traditional taboos and attitudes of shame and denial, which deliberately keep the problem from the general public's sight. The result has been the current devastating near-epidemic.

Ashamed to Die's strength comes from the author's decision to show the nature and extent of the tragedy through the story of one African-American family — specifically, the extended Pegram family of nearby Clover, S.C.

It was 2000 when Skerritt first heard the Rev. Patricia Ann Starr preach in her Baptist church in York, S.C. Starr, like many people, thought AIDS primarily struck gay men in large cities. Then her sister Carolyn tested positive for HIV, and some of her neighbors started dying of AIDS. That's when Rev. Tricia Ann started caring for her sister, as well as Carolyn's young son. Pretty soon, she became known for her battle to save the AIDS-stricken in her community, struggling on, even though the number of funerals kept piling up. As she notes, the cause of death is hardly ever admitted, much less discussed, at those funerals. Although AIDS had ravaged the poor, black community in Clover (and, by inference, hundreds of other small Southern towns), most family members could not admit, even to themselves, that their loved ones had AIDS.

The book is driven by an engaging, often moving narrative, pulling the reader into what for most is a hidden, unfamiliar world of desperate poverty, where the scourge of AIDS is taking its deadly toll in Dixie. Skerritt is skillful in showing the complex feelings and traditions that tragically keep many southern AIDS sufferers from seeking help; his portraits of the group of health care pros who do wonderful work, trying to deal with the crisis in the face of pervasive death, is moving nearly beyond words. This is the kind of book you wish you could place in a lot of people's hands and suggest they read it.

Charlotte novelist Mark de Castrique's The Sandburg Connection (Poisoned Pen Press, 298 pages, $14.95), the third installment in the Sam Blackman mystery series, is the best one so far. A cleverly plotted story of murder, malevolence, medicine, and odd goings-on at Carl Sandburg's home in Flat Rock, N.C., this could be de Castrique's national breakout book if there's any justice (unfortunately, that's a mighty big "if").

Blackman is hired by a surgeon to follow a professor who is suing the doctor. The professor dies under mysterious circumstances near Sandburg's home, causing Sam to be the prime suspect. After some tomes are stolen from the legendary poet's house, the chase is on to figure out what Sandburg's library could have held that would lead someone to commit murder.

De Castrique has a smart, easy style, and throws in enough interesting facts about Sandburg, western North Carolina and its legends to keep readers flipping the pages. Plus, how can you go wrong with a novel in which an important role is played by a pregnant goat?

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