It's no news flash to say journalists aren't universally held in high esteem. Consider the exploits of Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter whose work bolstered the Bush administration's since-discredited case for war. Or the Internet popularity of the videotaped beating in September of a San Diego TV reporter. Consider also that last year, a University of Pennsylvania survey found about as many people view commentator Rush Limbaugh as a journalist as they do Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter and editor whose doggedness helped end the Nixon presidency.
Amid all that baggage, one recent novel provides a welcome reminder that the average reporter doesn't strive to be a mere stenographer, much less commit the sins of the profession's more infamous members. Grievances, by ex-Charlotte Observer editor Mark Ethridge, tells the story of Matt Harper, a young reporter at a fictional Charlotte newspaper who spends most of his night shift writing obituaries until he stumbles on the long-unsolved killing of a black teenager. Unfortunately, the murder victim didn't have the foresight to be killed within his newspaper's circulation area, so Harper must battle his publisher's money-grubbing shortsightedness, not to mention the racist locals who want Harper's hide.
Ethridge is a featured guest at the Novello Festival of Reading, which began last week and continues through Nov. 7. He's received lots of accolades for his foray into fiction, which draws on his days of daily newspapering. The book's description of a small South Carolina town, however, offers what might initially appear to be somewhat dated depiction of race relations. "I had a couple of people up north, editors in publishing houses, (who) liked the book, but said, 'This could never happen,'" says Ethridge, current president of Carolina Parenting.
But participants in a discussion among an exclusively African-American audience at a book reading in a West Charlotte library thought otherwise. "There may be people who think that kind of thing couldn't happen when this novel was set -- the '70s or '80s -- but the people who were around (do)," Ethridge comments.
Ethridge is one of several North Carolina folks appearing at Novello, which has focused its leaner budget in recent years on including more native talent. However, more nationally well-known authors continue to read at the festival: Amy Tan of The Joy Luck Club fame and alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil already appeared earlier this week.
Here's a selected rundown of others slated to appear:
Augusten Burroughs. His 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors, stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for more than two-and-a-half years. The tale of dysfunction got Burroughs sued but earned the author a movie deal. His most recent book, Possible Side Effects, is a collection of essays.
Doug Marlette. His gift for skewering politicians won this Greensboro native the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for cartooning while at the Charlotte Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His first novel, 2002's The Bridge, was voted Best Book of the Year for Fiction by the Southeast Booksellers Association. Paramount Pictures purchased the film rights, according to his website. Marlette's new novel, Magic Time, is about what happens when a New York newspaper columnist returns to his hometown after suffering a terrorism-related nervous breakdown.
Dot Jackson. Another Observer refugee, Jackson had her first novel of the Appalachian South, Refuge, published by Novello Festival Press this year. The book is about a woman who returns to her family's Appalachian roots after fleeing both her husband and Charlotte society life. Former colleague Jerry Bledsoe contributed this blurb to the book: "What a glorious event is the publication of this beautiful novel by Dot Jackson, one of the most gifted souls who ever breathed the sweet air of Appalachia."
Pearl Cleage. Cleage's first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 1998 and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks. An activist concerned with women's rights, civil rights and HIV/AIDS issues, Cleage was press secretary and speechwriter for Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta. Essence magazine chose her newest book, Baby Brother's Blues, as a book club pick.
David Baldacci. Legal thrillers like Absolute Power and The Simple Truth have made Baldacci one of America's bestselling novelists. He comes to Charlotte just as his latest work, The Collectors, is released.
Mark de Castrique. Booklist said this Hendersonville native's recent mystery, Foolish Undertaking, is a "stellar entry in an outstanding series that deserves wider recognition." Most of de Castrique's books are centered around a funeral director who lives in the mountains. He presently resides in Charlotte.
Sonia Nazario. Nazario won a Pulitzer Prize for her Los Angeles Times stories about immigration. She has since expanded them into a book, Enrique's Journey, a wrenching tale of a child's journey from Central America to reunite with his mother in North Carolina.
Margaret Maron. Maron's won a slew of awards for her mystery novels. She's written more than 20 books, 12 of which feature Deborah Knott, a judge in fictional Colleton County, N.C.
Mitch Albom. Even people in a vegetative state know who Mitch Albom is. The Detroit newspaper columnist's book, Tuesdays with Morrie, was a raging best-seller. This reading has been sold out since mid-August.
The Novello Festival of Reading continues through Nov. 7 at area venues. For more info, including the schedule and admission prices, call 704-336-2725 or go to www.novellofestival.net/.