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CL Recommends 

Our pick of the current crop of books

Hardbacks

Singing In My Soul by Jerma A. Jackson (UNC Press). Jackson, a history prof at UNC-Chapel Hill, looks at the singular history of black gospel music from its obscure origins in the 1800s, through its appropriation of, and inspiration for, the blues. Jackson focuses on the contributions of several important women who helped popularize the music, especially the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her astonishing performances in non-church settings set tongues a-wagging among the faithful but resulted in a much broader audience that gradually grew gospel into a source of black pride and identity. Also available in paperback.

-- John Grooms

Divining Women by Kaye Gibbons (Putnam). Gibbons continues her longtime theme of resourceful women struggling against traditional, i.e., repressive Southern mores and the men who enforce them. This time, the story takes place during World War I in rural NC, where two women fight for their sanity and their lives by learning to resist one of the women's pathologically controlling husband. The Victorian, neo-gothic tones of this book have already divided readers and critics, but Gibbons has a blast undermining the gothic role of the "helpless female" and allowing her women to work between the cracks in the system and find their strength. A great addition to an impressive career.

-- Pat Hiller

The Last Best League by Jim Collins (Da Capo Press). Set in the bucolic summer haven of Cape Cod, this book examines life in the 10-team amateur league regarded as the best of its kind, the Cape Cod Baseball League. The league offers fans a respite from Major League Baseball's excesses. The players sign autographs and gladly participate in kids' clinics. Tickets are free. Players live with host families and work for local businesses and the towns rally around them. Collins provides solid narrative, ample anecdotes and a keep-it-moving season chronicle, and leavens the inevitable pathos of passing youth with dugout profanities and even the occasional joint on the beach. And the baseball's not bad, either. As Collins notes, one out of every six big league ballplayers comes through the Cape Cod League, with alums including Nomar Garciaparra, Barry Zito, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk.

-- Erik Spanberg

Little Children by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press). A funny, smart and spooky send-up of the void at the center of suburbia, Little Children features a former bisexual feminist mom who's had enough of motherhood, her porn-addicted husband, a handsome but do-nothing stay-at-home dad, and others. The mom and the stay-at-home dad begin an affair that elicits wistful melancholy while giving Perrotta a chance to show off how empathetic and lyrical he can be. Throw a pedophile fresh out of prison into the neighborhood, and the tensions of suburban child-raising are completely outed. A great summer read.

-- Dana Renaldi

Cradle of Freedom by Frye Gaillard (Univ. of Alabama Press). Charlotte writer and longtime CL contributor Gaillard has written an engaging history of the Civil Rights movement in his native state of Alabama, where many of the essential battles, from Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma, took place. Gaillard's talent for weaving together personal stories introduces readers to the famous crusaders as well as many less familiar battlers whose stories are equally compelling. Gaillard has, as is his habit, helped us see ourselves and our South more clearly and completely.

-- Tom Hanchett

Paperbacks

The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux (Vintage). One of CL's Best of the Year picks for 2003, Louisianan Gautreaux's second novel shows maturity without giving up any of the drive and flair of his previous work. His tale of a brutal power struggle between veterans/victims of the Great War, placed amid the bayou's cypress swamps, is suspenseful and riveting. What's new is that Gautreaux evinces a morally complex view of humanity and nature that approaches the likes of Styron or (yes, we have to say it) Faulkner. This is a major work, and a personal milestone, for one of the South's finest writers.

-- John Grooms

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester (Perennial). When the volcanic island of Krakatoa in Indonesia blew in 1883, the explosions were heard over 3000 miles away. Tidal waves more than 100 feet tall swamped coastlines hundreds of miles away, killing over 36,000 people. The resultant ash in the atmosphere caused the sun to appear blue and green, and lowered global temperatures, affecting crop harvests around the world for years. Winchester combines a wealth of facts and detail with his masterful knack for storytelling. In the end, Krakatoa, one of the most fascinating books of 2003, is an awestruck tribute to the planet's constant self-renewal.

-- Pat Hiller

The Romantic by Barbara Gowdy (Picador USA). This story of unfulfilled love and the difficulties of growing up is heartbreaking but so beautifully written it's unputdownable. Young Louise Kirk, abandoned by her mother and saddled with a nebbish dad, has huge reserves of love to give, but winds up attached to a boy whose own troubled history leads him to endless rounds of nihilism and destructive rebelliousness for no reason. Gowdy's characters feel alive, three-dimensional, and quirky, reeling in the reader enough to take their overbearing sadness to heart and hating for the book to end.

-- Dana Renaldi

Hungry For Home by Amy Rogers (John F. Blair). Subtitled "Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas," Hungry for Home by CL contributor Amy Rogers beautifully evinces the importance of food and its preparation and how the two often intertwine with the fabric of everyone's lives. This is a book that gets better the more you peruse its more than 200 recipes and its myriad personal essays.

-- John Grooms

Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories of a Decade Gone Mad by Virginia Holman (Simon & Schuster). A powerful memoir by a North Carolina writer tells how, one year after the 1974 Patty Hearst kidnapping, her mother -- slipping into schizophrenia and believing she'd been inducted into a secret army -- kidnapped Holman, then age 8, and her 1-year-old sister, to live in the family's small Virginia cottage and set up a "field hospital." They lived there over three years. This is a harrowing tale, yet it still respects the humanity of everyone involved while taking the reader on a galloping narrative ride.

-- John Grooms

An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek (Back Bay Books). Information gleaned from previously sealed Kennedy medical records reveals just how poor John F. Kennedy's health was, and throws a new light on his service as President -- which included his clear-headed decision-making in some of history's most intense foreign policy crises, his gradual awakening to full support of the civil rights movement, and his management of a nuclear test ban treaty. The eternal playboy turns out to have also been a model of courage, stoic resolve and public service.

-- John Grooms

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