Dannye Romine Powell’s holiday gift books picks


Earnestine and Betsy were sisters who lived around the corner when I was a little kid. Every Christmas, they gave me a book –“Black Beauty,” “Little Women,” “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” – each in its own beautiful cardboard slipcase. To me, a slipcase was like a magic cloak.

Slipcases are mostly a thing of the past, but something about a book as a holiday gift still carries a whiff of magic.

Your challenge as gift giver this holiday is to be the cunning matchmaker – to find a a special volume so suited to the tastes of the recipient that it fits like a book into its own cherished slipcase.

The following have that potential.


Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, by Kate Clifford Larson. Houghton Mifflin, $27. This absorbing biography details the horror that happened to Rosemary, the third child of Joseph and Rose Kennedy, as she struggled to be born; her parents’ constant search for a remedy for her intellectual disability; and the secret surgery – a horribly botched lobotomy – that her father arranged when she was 23. Once stunningly beautiful, Rosemary lived for 10 years, pathetically disabled, in an institution in Wisconsin before her brother, John Kennedy, visited. Only then did Rosemary’s siblings understand what had happened and begin to welcome their sister home for family visits. Rosemary’s plight inspired the younger Kennedys to direct their attention to the disabled. Quite a contrast to the elder Kennedys, who insisted on protecting their reputation at the high cost of their daughter’s well-being.

Andy & Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show, by Daniel de Vise. Simon & Schuster, $26. I wasn’t even a particular fan of “The Andy Griffith Show,” and I gobbled this one up. As Ben Steelman of the (Wilmington) Star News wrote, “What the ‘Odyssey’ was to Greece..., ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ was to North Carolina.” Don Knotts and Andy Griffith, the show’s stars, maintained a friendship until the day Knotts died. But de Vise, a brother-in-law of Knotts, shows a darker side seething beneath Griffith’s genial smile. When a statue was commissioned of Knotts to be displayed near Andy and Opie in front of the playhouse in Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, Griffith nixed the plan. Erecting a statue of Don, Andy said, “would be an absolute shot in my eye.” Even as he reveals the late stars’ rivalries, addictions and defects, de Vise achieves a tone of friendly decency.

Carolina Writers at Home, edited by Meg Reid; photos by Rob McDonald. Hub City Press. $24.95. Have a nosy friend? Here’s the book. Reid, entranced by novelist Clyde Edgerton’s secret writing room, asked 25 Carolinas writers to describe their curious nests. What we get, happily, is a kaleidoscope of writers and their obsessions. Hillsborough’s Alan Gurganus and his life-sized statue of Saint Ursula. The 8-by-8-foot shack Wilmington’s David Gessner built not to write in, but “to let the world in.” Daniel Wallace of Chapel Hill, who admits to keeping a “frowsy home.” Kathryn Stripling Byer of Cullowhee, who says she’s spent a lifetime “learning to make myself at home.” Isn’t that what it comes down to? Writers making themselves at home – in their homes, in their skins, in the written word. A treasure.

Great Dogs of Charlotte and the People Who Love Them: A Portrait of Man’s Best Friend in the Queen City. Humane Society of Charlotte, $29. I hate dogs, and even I find this book appealing. Here’s Gov. Pat McCrory and wife Ann and their dog Elmo Cadbury McCrory. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and wife Stephanie with Fiyero and Penny. Humane Society CEO Shelly Moore and her five dogs that can fit on one couch. Life coach Lashawnda Becoats and her “Shorkie,” Louis Francois Vuitton. (Now there’s a cute dog.) And the late Liz Hair, former chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, with her faithful Oliver, named after Liz’s great-grandson Oliver Bain. Proceeds, I’m happy to say, go to the Humane Society of Charlotte.


Early One Morning, by Virginia Baily. Little, Brown. $26. Set in Rome during and after the Nazi occupation of World War II, a Catholic woman, Chiara Ravello, intuits a Jewish mother’s plaintive glance as this mother, her husband, her daughter and son are herded onto a Nazi truck bound for who-knows-where. With no hesitation, Ravello grabs the young son, Daniele, from the truck, claiming he is her nephew. Daniele refuses to bond with Ravello and grows into a difficult, delinquent teenager. Yet Ravello’s love for him remains fierce. Years later, after Daniele has disappeared, Ravello gets a call from a 15-year-old Welsh girl, who claims to be Daniele’s daughter. Led again by intuition, Ravello agrees to allow the girl to visit her in Rome. This brilliant novel raises the universal questions of love, identity and belonging.

The Mistletoe Inn, by Richard Paul Evans. Simon & Schuster. $19.99. Forgive me. I get a bit sentimental this time of year. Last year, I fell hard for best-selling Evans’ “The Mistletoe Promise,” and I couldn’t resist giving this one a try. The truth: It’s good. Never mind that our heroine is a would-be romance writer who works at a Lexus dealership. Never mind she’s “failed” many times at love. Never mind her manuscripts are being rejected. Over the holidays, she signs up for a romance writer’s conference at Vermont’s famous Mistletoe Inn. There she meets Zeke, a man with his own disappointments, who helps her understand that what troubles her life is at the heart of what troubles her manuscripts. A fun, quick read, and a small, elegantly designed book.

City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg. Knopf. $30. I won’t pretend to have made a dent in this 923-page novel. But I think you should know about it, if only because Hallberg grew up in Greenville, N.C., and his late father, Robert Hallberg, taught at East Carolina for 30 years. Set in New York, in the mid-70s, it weighs more than 2 pounds and snagged a $2 million advance two years ago when Hallberg was 34. It’s been described as extravagant, overwritten, ambitious, brilliant, filled with “lost kids in flight from their parents.” It’s been compared to Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and as delivering “a fresh vision of New York that is more dreamscape than reportage.” For the hippest person on your list.