A trip with Jay Erskine Leutze, author of “Stand Up That Mountain”

Today, Blair president Carolyn Sakowski muses on two of her passions: books and the great outdoors. This past weekend, she hiked with Jay Erskine Leutze, author of Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail.

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It’s not easy to get to the grassy balds located along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, but those who hike to the top are always stunned that such beautiful spots exist outside Switzerland or Scotland. With backdrops straight out of a scene from the Sound of Music, it’s difficult not to break into a Julie Andrews twirl.

Hiking the North Carolina Mountains | Roan Bald

But the highlands of the Roan and the views they offer are often under threat from encroaching developers. Although various public entities now control most of the balds themselves, constant vigilance is necessary to protect the breathtaking views seen from the Appalachian Trail as it crosses these mountains. Those of us who love this section of the Appalachians owe a huge debt to Jay Erskine Leutze, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC), the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Southern Environmental Law Center for their roles in preventing the largest surface mine in the South from getting a 99-year lease that would have destroyed the view corridor along the Appalachian Trail for miles.

Jay spearheaded a group that worked on what would come to be known as the Putnam mine case for almost five years, essentially as a volunteer. They struggled to shut down a mining operation near his home in the mountains of western North Carolina. Jay and his grass-roots coalition would eventually take the case to the state’s highest courts and prevent the destruction of a treasured portion of unspoiled land near the Appalachian Trail. He then wrote a book—Stand Up That Mountain—about his crusade.

Like any good narrative nonfiction, Stand Up That Mountain tells a great story—complete with native mountain folks who capture your heart with their grit, determination, intelligence, and wit. This video shows you some of the incredible views and what the early stages of the mine devastation looked like from the trail.

On June 23, I got to join a small group of SAHC members on a hike up to The Hump, one of the most prominent points in the area. We were fortunate to have Jay as our leader, and we were able to see firsthand what Jay and his group saved for the rest of us. If you see that Jay is coming to a signing near you, please go and at least shake his hand. Better still, get yourself a darn good read that will leave you inspired.

Jay Leutzke

To read more about the history of the balds and how you can hike to see them for yourself, check out this driving tour of Roan Highlands. You might also check out the SAHC blog to read about the annual “herding of the goats” that groom the grasses on the balds.

Hearding of the goats up to Jane's Bald


Summer Reading: Part II (in which Carolyn Sakowski ponders “Fifty Shades of Grey”)

Today, Blair President Carolyn Sakowski shares her summer reading plans–and her reaction to E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Enjoy!

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Sum..Sum..Summertime. I was going to devote my summer reading to lofty literary fiction and the latest offerings from my favorite mystery/detective writers, but my plans suddenly changed course the first weekend in June.

I joined a group of five college friends for a beach reunion. We’re talking about women in their mid-60s here—all intelligent, voracious readers with enough disposable income to indulge in purchasing dozens of books every year.

Our usual conversations revolve around family and ailments, but this year, something new entered the discourse. Yep, the Fifty Shades trilogy. They all wanted to know what I thought about it. Of course, I was aware of the phenomena, but I had purposefully avoided reading the first book. I just couldn’t fathom any serous interest in reading about bondage and sex toys. I will admit that I like to read a good romance every now and then, but this just sounded too trashy.

The first afternoon of our weekend, while my friends took their naps, I picked up the first book someone else had been reading. Several hours later, we were all down at Pelican Bookstore getting our fixes. I had to get my own copy to take home; one person had just finished book two and had to have the third. We were all disgusted with our reactions to this trilogy, but were certainly not alone. Neilsen BookScan numbers show 815,000 copies of this trilogy sold during the week of May 21-27. They accounted for 13% of all trade paperbacks sold that week. Total sales topped 10 million that same week. Will sociologists look back on the spring and summer of 2012 and analyze why so many women went crazy? I especially loved what one of my hairdresser’s clients said when asked if her sex life had improved after reading these books. She answered that after you read these books, you won’t need a man—just get a dog.

What do you think? Have YOU read–or do you plan to read–Fifty Shades of Grey?

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For a good chuckle, check out this clip about the books from Saturday Night Live or this clip of Gilbert Gottfried reading excerpts (fair warning: these clips are NOT safe for work–much like Fifty Shades of Grey).

Summer Reading from Blair: Part I

The pool is open, half of my coworkers are out of the office on holiday, and it’s hot enough to enjoy a glass or two of sweet iced tea (or perhaps something stronger) on the porch. So here are a few of our favorite books to read when you’re taking a break from the real world this summer. Enjoy!


Murder on Music Row: A Music Industry Thriller
Stuart Dill
2012 IPPY Award winner in the Mystery category

“Remember your first John Grisham? Country music veteran Dill (he served as a personal manager for Minnie Pearl, Dwight Yoakam, and other greats) doesn’t miss a beat in this debut high-adrenaline thriller full of twists and turns.”
—Library Journal, starred review

Judd Nix, a 23-year-old unpaid intern at Elite Management, welcomes the chance to become
the paid assistant of Simon Stills, one of country’s biggest managers, but he soon finds himself a witness to an assassination attempt. When a gunman takes aim at megastar Ripley Graham, Stills’s most important client and the last hope for the troubled recording industry, on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, the shooter misses and seriously wounds Stills instead. Nix and his co-worker, Megan Olsen, decide to investigate on their own, but with music executives plotting a major merger, they can’t be sure whom to trust.

Murder on Music Row leads readers through a maze of twists and turns that connect Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, and London in a behind-the-scenes look at an industry where there are no limits in the pursuit of money, power, and fame.


God Bless America: Stories
Steve Almond
2012 ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award Honorable Mention

God Bless America is a meditation on the American dream and its discontents. In his most ambitious collection yet, Steve Almond offers a comic and forlorn portrait of these United States: our lust for fame, our racial tensions, the toll of perpetual war, and the pursuit of romantic happiness.

Each of these 13 stories is an urgent investigation of America’s soul, its particular suffering, its injustices, its possibilities for redemption. With deft slight of hand, Almond, “a writer who knows us as well as we know ourselves” (Houston Chronicle), leavens his disappointment and outrage with a persistent hope for the men and women who inhabit his worlds. God Bless America offers us an astonishing vision of our collective fate, rendered in Almond’s signature style of “precise strokes… with metaphors so original and spot-on that they read like epiphanies” (San Francisco Chronicle).

Still not sold on this book? I’ve got two reasons more:


The Iguana Tree
Michel Stone

This isn’t your typical light read for the summer. This is a book of substance. It is a universal story of loss, grief, and human dignity.

Set amid the perils of illegal border crossings, The Iguana Tree is the suspenseful saga of Lilia and Hector, who separately make their way from Mexico into the United States, seeking work in the Carolinas and a home for their infant daughter.

Michel Stone’s harrowing novel meticulously examines the obstacles each faces in pursuing a new life: manipulation, rape, and murder in the perilous commerce of border crossings; betrayal by family and friends; exploitation by corrupt officials and rapacious landowners on the U.S. side; and, finally, the inexorable workings of the U.S. justice system.

Hector and Lilia meet Americans willing to help them with legal assistance and offers of responsible employment, but their illegal entry seems certain to prove their undoing. The consequences of their decisions are devastating.

If you’re looking for a book that humanizes the agony and elation of illegally entering the United States without politics, this is for you.

“Michel Stone’s first novel, The Iguana Tree, is an astonishing achievement, a daring but plausible leap into a world unnoted by most of us yet close around us daily. This story is at once a page-turner and a moving, psychologically genuine drama.”
—Rosa Shand, author of The Gravity of Sunlight, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year


Hank Hung the Moon . . . And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts
Rheta Grimsley Johnson

“Part whimsical memoir, part cultural anthology, Hank Hung the Moon is a celebration of the music, the man, the era, the lore, and the magic of the South’s most beloved songster. If I were stranded on a desert island with only one book that captured everything I know and love about the South, this would be the one.”
—Cassandra King (Conroy), author of The Sunday Wife

The dark story of America’s Pulitzer Prize–winning hillbilly singer has been told often and well, but always with sad country fiddles wailing. This latest Hank Williams paean will make readers laugh as well as cry. Hank hung the moon and left his fans behind to admire it. He transformed the musical landscape, as well as the heavens, with his genius. And that’s a good thing.

More a musical memoir than a biography, Hank Hung the Moon is the author’s evocative personal stories of ’50s and ’60s musical staples—elementary-school rhythm bands, British Invasion rock concerts, and tearjerker movie musicals. It was a simpler time when Hank roamed the earth. The book celebrates a world of 78 rpm records and five-cent Cokes. Hank provides the soundtrack and wisdom for this Last Picture Show of a book.

A Cajun girl learns to understand English by listening to Hank on the radio. A Hank impersonator works by day at a prison but by night makes good use of his college degree in country music. Hank’s lost daughter, Jett, devotes her life to embracing the father she never knew. A newly minted recording artist buys a belt from Hank himself at a Nashville store that country’s first superstar bought to pacify a nagging wife.

Finally, here are stories readers haven’t heard a thousand times before about people—some famous, some not—who loved Hank. This lively little book uses Hank as a metaphor for life. Readers will tap their toes and demand an encore.


Murder on the Outer Banks
Joe C. Ellis

The perfect beach read!

Newly hired deputy Marla Easton and Sheriff Dugan Walton are amazed at the performance of Dr. Sylvester Hopkins in a local 5K footrace. At age 65, Hopkins posts a world-class time of 17:35, two minutes faster than he has run in the past few years. Walton suspects Hopkins has concocted some new performance-enhancing drug.

A trail of bodies from Frisco to Nags Head, North Carolina, leads Deputy Easton and Sheriff Walton to the discovery of the Methuselah serum—a new drug designed by Hopkins that reverses aging in human cells. A nefarious triumvirate of pharmaceutical CEOs known as “the Medical Mafia” wants the formula at any price. So do the FBI and the president of the United States. But Sheriff Walton believes that he and Deputy Easton have been divinely chosen to guard the formula and serum, and they take their mission seriously—much like the angels posted in Eden to guard the Tree of Life. Their mission turns perilous when Deputy Easton’s seven-year-old son, Gabe, is kidnapped.


Well, that’s all for today. Want to know what else we’re reading? Check our our staff picks on Pinterest. And share your favorite summer reads with us in the comments section.

Happy reading!

Congrats to the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award winners!

Congrats to Lookout Books, Eno Publishers, Edith Pearlman, Steve Almond, and Daniel Wallace! Their books received ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards this weekend.

Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman (Lookout Books), took home the gold award in the short story category, while Steve Almond’s God Bless America received an honorable mention in the same.

27 Views of Chapel Hill, introduction by Daniel Wallace (Eno Publishers), won the bronze award in the anthologies category.

Congrats again!

“Render Unto the Valley” is Piedmont Land Conservancy’s book club selection

Render Unto the Valley is a many-stranded tale of three generations of a star-crossed family struggling to mend itself and preserve something of its rightful heritage. In the midst of this tempestuous story stands Travis Whitfield, as stony-hearted a bad hat as you are ever likely to meet. But the female forces arrayed against him are formidable. Are they strong enough to prevail? Read and you’ll find out. But be warned: It’s a breathless ride.”
—Fred Chappell, North Carolina poet laureate emeritus and author of Ancestors and Others

Render Unto the Valley by Rose Senehi

The Piedmont Land Conservancy selected Rose Senehi’s Render Unto the Valley (K.I.M. Publications) as its book club selection for June. The book touches on land conservation in the western part of North Carolina and highlights the daily work of a land protection staff member. It’s a great read, particularly if preserving our history and heritage through the land is important to you.

In Render Unto the Valley, Karen Godwell isn’t as much ashamed of her mountain heritage as of what she once had to do to preserve it.

Karen reinvents herself at college and doesn’t look back until her clan’s historic farm is threatened. The gutsy curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art returns to the mountains only to come face to face with who she was and what she did.

Descendants of the early settlers still have a grip on the farmlands deep in the folds of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains, but the ground is shifting beneath their feet. Cousin Bruce, the town historian, sees life through the family’s colorful 200-year past; Tom Gibbons, a local conservationist, keeps one eye on the mountains and the other on Karen; Karen’s nine-year-old daughter, Hali, is in the throes of the mission her dying father sent her on; and Karen is hiding the ugly secret that drove her away.

As she wrestles her dangerously cunning brother for the farm, Karen straddles the divide between the staunchly independent mountain culture she comes from and the sophisticated world she has become a part of.

Father’s Day gift guide

A good book always makes a great gift, don’t you think? We at Blair sure do!  Here are a few suggestions for the pater familias in your life on Father’s Day this Sunday:

For the foodie:

It’s summertime! What man doesn’t love barbecue and beer? Bundle a copy of Erik Lars Myers’s North Carolina Craft Beer and Breweries with a six-pack or a growler from one of the brewpubs or breweries touted in the book. Or couple a copy of the new Bob Garner’s Book of Barbecue with a sample from one of the 100 barbecue establishments reviewed in the book? (Or make Dad’s day with both books, dinner at his favorite barbecue joint, and a pint of a North Carolina summer ale.)

Bob Garner's Book of Barbecue

For the musician:

If your dad loves the music of the “first” Hank Williams, give him a CD of the original Hank’s greatest hits along with a copy of Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed our Cold, Cold Hearts (NewSouth Books). Johnson writes about Hank, his life, his music, and the influences his music had on the baby boomer generation.

For the amateur sleuth:

If your dad is looking for a good summer mystery, try Murder on the Outer Banks (Upper Ohio Valley Books) by Joe C. Ellis. The discovery of a drug designed to reverse the aging process in human cells leads to a trail of bodies from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Washington, D.C., to the Upper Ohio Valley.

Meet the Barbecue Man in the Triad this weekend

Bob Garner

You might have seen the Barbecue Man Bob Garner talk about what makes North Carolina barbecue great on WGHP or WFMY yesterday, but if you want the chance to debate eastern style vs. western style with him yourself, join us this weekend while he signs Bob Garner’s Book of Barbecue: North Carolina’s Favorite Food in the Triad. He’ll be at the following events:

Friday, June 8 from 7 – 8:30 p.m.
Barnes & Noble
1925 Hampton Inn Court
Winston-Salem, NC 27103
Phone: 336-774-0800

Saturday, June 9 from 2 – 4 p.m.
Barnes & Noble
3125 Waltham Blvd.
Burlington, NC 27215
Phone: 336-584-0869

See you there!