Winter reading with President Obama

By: D.G. Martin - Contributing Columnist

What will our most recent former president be doing these next few weeks?

Barack Obama will be reading and encouraging us to join him. In the week before he left office, he talked to The New York Times’ chief book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, about the importance of books in his life. “At a time,” Obama told Kakutani, “when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”

Obama explained why reading gives him a special experience. “There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.”

If you agree with Obama, I have some suggestions of North Carolina-related books for you and him.

Both of you will enjoy, “You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen,” written by North Carolina poet, teacher and award-winning author, Carole Boston Weatherford. With dramatic illustrations fashioned by her son, Jeffery Weatherford, the book follows the accomplishments of the black airmen who triumphed over the Axis in the skies over Europe in World War II and over color barriers in America. The groundbreaking black airmen’s accomplishments helped prepare the way for the groundbreaking president.

In his interview with Kakutani, Obama explained how reading gave him the opportunity to “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” For this kind of experience, the former president would appreciate the work of the state’s former poet laureate and retired UNCG professor Fred Chappell. His latest book, “A Shadow All of Light,” showcases Chappell’s wide-ranging interests, imaginative strengths, storytelling gifts, and beautiful descriptive writing skills.

His magical and speculative story requires a reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy Chappell’s rich story set in an Italianate country centuries ago. The plot revolves around a thriving trade in shadows, which are an important, integral part of a person’s being. They can be stolen or given up. When lost, the person is never the same. Chappell weaves princes, pirates, outlaw bands, and battle scenes that could keep Obama riveted to the page.

If the former president misses campaign visits to local eating places, he can read the story of Foster’s Market in Durham. For 25 years, owner Sara Foster has made that business a favorite for food and fellowship. Her new book “Foster’s Market Favorites: 25th Anniversary” shares recipes and tells how her market came to be and came to thrive.

Foster’s is the sort of place I wanted for my new book, “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners, and Barbecue Joints.” I thought Foster’s was too far from the interstate highway to be a convenient stop for travelers. Wrong! It’s only four miles from I-40’s Exit 270. If there is ever a new edition, Foster’s will be in it.

Kakutani was impressed by Obama’s “embrace of artists like Shakespeare who saw the human situation entire: its follies, cruelties and mad blunders, but also its resilience, decencies and acts of grace.” Those who remember Tony Earley’s classic novels, “Jim the Boy” and “Blue Star,” and his poignant short stories set in Western North Carolina know how well he captured that “human situation.” Earley’s latest, “Mr. Tall,” is a book of stories that continues that tradition. As a bonus, Earley shares a “Jack tale” novella about a character whose mischief, audacity, and charm would remind Obama of his successor in office.

UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch will feature all these books during February, Sunday noon and Thursday at 5 p.m., and on the North Carolina channel, Friday 8 p.m. and Sunday at 10 a.m.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

D.G. Martin

Contributing Columnist