Read On…

I am on day five of vacation, happily sequestered in the quaint smallness of Saluda, NC, land of beautiful and challenging bike riding, class 4 kayaking rapids, and a rich literary tradition –sandwiched here along the Saluda Grade railroad track between Carl Sandburg’s home one town to the West in Flat Rock, NC, and Tryon, NC to the East– home of the poet Sydney Lanier and of the Pinecrest Inn, where Scott Fitzgerald would summer and write while Zelda was in a nearby insane asylum. As we biked through tiny Tryon the other day, I counted four book stores. Four!  Small, independent book stores are thriving in this town that has virtually no industry now that North Carolina’s textiles are long gone, only one small grocery (and a Dollar General) and a robust smattering of vacant store fronts. Tryon has more book stores than stop lights, which gives me hope. And get this: one of these intrepid booksellers is named Mr. William Goodheart — got to love it.

I had great vacation intentions of reading more than I have, and writing more than I have, but that seems to be par for the course. I have, however, read the way the river V’s between rocks so I could paddle the kayak toward the path of least resistance and greatest white-water thrill. I’ve read the way the roads pitch and dip, anticipating sharp turns and steep climbs to try to conserve muscle and energy to pedal up when needed. I’ve spent more time looking at the barely-pink bursts of rhodadendron in bloom than I have the computer screen; I’ve listened to the gentle, happy clapping of a creek slip-sliding down a hillside rather than the constant stream of news, blogs, and Internet trivia.

Which is why I’m a few days late in noting the passing of the brilliant, sassy, pithy, wise, razor-sharp Nora Ephron. May I simply add my humble thanks for her wit, her insight, and her well-lived, well-read, well-written life. May we all take cover amidst this ferocious heat wave in the cool comfort a good book, possibly even an Ephron title, and take to heart her words:

Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

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Marshall Chapman At Piccolo; Charleston Library Society, Unleashed!

Anne Cleveland is on a mission. As director of the Charleston Library Society, she’s dusting off the antiquity mustiness and high-brow patina that may have attached itself to the “oldest cultural institution in the South” with its esteemed 274 year history. Witness the 2012 Piccolo Literary Festival, arranged and hosted by the Library Society, which pretty much blows any remaining stiff library stereotypes out of the water.

Sure, there were a few heady lectures in the six program line-up (who says intelligence can’t be hip?) but the Literary Festival finale on Saturday afternoon brought the eight-program offering to a rousing and rockin’ close. With Marshall Chapman’s guitar amp plugged in and her hilarious and heart-felt readings and storytelling about “The Triumph of Rock and Roll over Good Breeding,” there was little room for typical library hush-hushness.

I first came to know Marshall Chapman when I lived in Nashville and waited tables on Music Row, circa 1987 – 89. You couldn’t not know who Chapman was on the music scene back then – a tall, lanky gal with wiry white-blonde hair, an equally tall-drink-of-water southern accent, and a mean guitar lick. Chapman had been a debutante from an upstanding family in Spartanburg, landed in Nashville as a Vandy undergrad, got a quick education in gritty Nashville honky-tonkin, fell under Music City’s sway, and before long had a decidedly undebutante band called Jaded Virgin.

Chapman not only wrote the song, “Rode Hard and Put up Wet,” she’s lived it, and boy, can she swirl a story around the convoluted riffs of growing up as a privileged white girl in small town Jim Crow South and mixing it up with music legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, John Hiatt, Jessi Colter, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Jimmy Buffett, to name a few. As Chapman read segments of her memoir, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, the audience laughed and nodded knowingly, the too-true southern vignettes familiar to many.

Her performance on Saturday was in large part an homage to her Spartanburg and Enoree, SC, roots, and to her “best friend in music,” Tim Krekel, who died in 2009 after a quick three month bout with cancer and inspired Chapman’s latest album, Big Lonesome. While the songs were tender, including her version of the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Chapman’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get delivery was riveting. She has a transparency that draws you in, as if you feel the steel strings tight against your fingers and the lyrics catch in your throat.

“Listen to these next four lines, yawl,” she paused and said midway through Williams’ tune, “The best four lines in country music. I’ll put them up against any poet anywhere,” and then she belted out, in pitch-perfect twang:

“The silence of a falling star / lights up the purple sky / and as I wonder where you are / I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

Kudos to Anne Cleveland and the Library Society for showing Charleston and Piccolo that Charleston’s literary scene rocks. And to Marshall Chapman, come on back anytime, ya hear?