Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review of Nuclear Apples? by Mary MacDowell

Nuclear Apples? The Third Penny Weaver Mystery.  Judy Hogan.  Hoganvillaea Books, Moncure.  ISBN-13:978-1530404506.  $15, paperback; $2.99 e-book (Kindle), 223 pages. 

By Mary MacDowell

I just finished the last page of Nuclear Apples?  Shucks, I don’t want to stop reading about these folks.

I have intimate knowledge of Chatham, Wake and Orange counties and how their activist citizens (including Hogan) and county officials tried to intervene to stop the Harris nuclear power plant from importing highly irradiated fuel rods from other plants, the threat that activated the local characters at the center of this mystery.  The book accurately describes the risks of doubling the crowded pools radioactive contents and the safer option of dry cask storage and also how politics at the county, state and federal level often allows unsafe conditions at the plants to continue.

In the mystery the local professor of nuclear engineering at the state university who leads the activists explains the facts: to crowd the radioactive rods into pools where they would risk a loss of water would lead to overheating the rods’ shielding.  This, then would cause a catastrophic fire releasing radioactive steam that could render a large area including Chatham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh & Durham uninhabitable for hundreds of years.  I have been told by a nuclear engineer that all it would take is a very small plane the size of a Cessna crashing into the pool building to breach the pools and cause such a fire.  Other causal or contributing factors include malfunction in the reactor or the interconnected water cooling systems, a fire elsewhere in the plant, or radiation from a severe reactor accident that precludes the ongoing provision of cooling water to the pools because it becomes unsafe for personnel to be where the controls are.

This is a real danger that exists at most of the 99 nuclear plants in the US, so it is excellent that Hogan has used this as the central issue in her book. But the book is also a delightful story of real characters with absorbing relationships and growth. They range from love between her Welsh detective husband and Penny, negotiations with teens wanting to date, two & five-year-olds whose mom is in hospital from being beaten by county cops at the sit-in to get the plant to stop the pool plan, a lesbian couple, an elderly black couple caught in the middle, plant workers being given radioactive drinking fountains and worried about plant safety while the supervisors cut corners.  Through it all the people come together to cook and eat to strengthen themselves for planning and working together to challenge this powerful company and its political and legal supporters.  And that makes a fascinating tale of what it takes to really support each other in each crisis.


Mary MacDowell worked for Chatham County for 10 years as research coordinator for monitoring and providing expert witnesses to prevent an unsafe multi-state low-level radioactive waste disposal site next to the Harris Nuclear Plant from being licensed by North Carolina government. This effort, with tremendous help of local citizens and allied environmental groups, was successful. The subsequent efforts to make Carolina Power and Light (now Duke Energy) take the safer course of storing their plants’ nuclear fuel rods in dry casks has not been successful yet, but this mystery should help spread the word.


Beginning November 1 and through November 30 on I'm offering five free books in a drawing of Formaldehyde, Rooster, the fourth Penny Weaver Mystery, in which the community group fights against bad air pollution.  It's due out December 1.  Don't miss it!

Nuclear Apples? is available at The Joyful Jewel in Pittsboro, at Paperbacks Plus in Siler City, and at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Why me? Why now?

My fig trees, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene.  Today we have wind and rain from Hurricane Matthew.  While I still have electricity, I'm posting my blog a day early.  I sustained fig tree damage for several years.  They're not back to this fruitfulness yet.

Can Flowers Change Your Life? XXIII.  May 29, 2016

Rain again.  This late spring we have
our share and more.  Slow drizzle on
wet green leaves. Carrots, onions, leeks, 
beets, peas, and now tomato and pepper
plants have their thirst quenched. Days
of hot sun disappeared for more of this 
rain that makes roots stretch and turn,
and lifts up new leaves and pea vine
tentacles to wrap themselves around
the old sign holders and new strings.
The coal ash and my new books pull
me out of my solitary life.  I speak,
and they listen intently.  Then they
give me gifts, buy my books, offer
me berries, send birthday greetings.
Why me?  Why now? I do know the
answer–so simple.  I have become
fully myself, and I easily reveal who
I am, not boasting, not standing on
ceremony, simply being who I was
meant to be, which took a lifetime
to find and then I wasn’t aware of
where I stood, on the mountain,
taking in all those people whom I 
could see in the valley, all looking
up with hope in their eyes and hearts,
seeking from me the faith I have
and scarcely recognize.  Yet it
accompanies me every day and
reassures me every night.


Zinnias from 2011.  This year's went in late, struggle today with high wind and rain.  A few live with me here.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

An Awkward Journey

My phalenopsis orchid when new, spring 2015. In 2016 it had twenty-four blooms.

Can Flowers Change Your Life? XXI. May 15, 2016

How does joy come into it?
I count twenty-one orchid blooms
with three buds to go.  First,
I was too sleepy to write a poem.
Then Jane came.  She left her
glasses in the annex where we
listened to scientists translating
their coal ash research.  Jane’s turn
next week.  She couldn’t find 
the annex, drove right by it, 
finally stopped here to beg my help,
but I wasn’t to bother anyone.  She’s
happy I can be lazy once a week,
step back, and write a poem.  I
gave her one, adding the lines,
“Don’t worry.”  She loves my
poetry.  I told her I’d put her in 
today’s. It’s a calculated risk when 
you  knock on my door on Sunday
morning.  Wag gave a little bark
and went back to bed.  Yesterday,
as scientists explained their work,
and all the justice fighters listened,
I saw hope being born again.  
To hang onto the Spirit of Truth
can be an awkward journey, and
a lonely one.  Hope is harder than
despair, but once that candle is lit,
darkness disappears.


Our North Carolina Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, which met yesterday (October 1) here in Moncure at the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church to learn more about coal ash.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Wedding Bell Blues by Ruth Moose

Wedding Bell Blues.  Ruth Moose.  Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press.  Released August 23, 2016. Hard cover $25.99.  ISBN: 9781250067418.

If you like zany characters (several degrees beyond interesting), a story line that verges on farce, and a heroine who doesn’t very often stop to think but has guts and somehow lands on her feet, you’ll enjoy Ruth Moose’s second novel Wedding Bell Blues in her Dixie Dew B&B mystery series.  The narrative drive is constantly side-swiped by humor and the down home language of the Old South.

The setting feels like the 1950s, but then there’s the courthouse fire, which happened in Pittsboro, North Carolina, only a few years ago. Since other Pittsboro landmarks like the S&T Soda Shop are mentioned by their real names, I sense that it’s both 2015 and 1955–some fictional blend of reality and imagination, but then that’s what novels do.

Beth McKenzie moved back to Littleboro in Doing It At the Dixie Dew and opened her B&B, finding help from Ida Plum Duckett in the kitchen, and Scott, the handyman, in restoring the old house enough to go on with.  We still have the New Jersey police chief, Ossie Delgardo, and Verna’s rabbit named Robert Redford.  The focus is on Reba, the woman who lives hand to mouth and feels free to come and go through people’s houses.  She isn’t quite right in the head.  This time Reba has announced she’s getting married. When Beth rides to her rescue to find her sobbing over a body on a picnic bench whom she insists she has killed, we wonder: is it her fiancĂ©, whom she calls God?  His truck, parked nearby, has the logo GOD, General Overnight Delivery.  

Beth gives the man artificial respiration, which she’ll regret several times later, but the MedAlert folks take him to the hospital, siren howling.  The law (Ossie) won’t talk to Beth and doesn’t get coherent answers from Reba except that she keeps saying she killed him, which Ossie gets on tape.  Then he takes Reba to jail. 

The main event in the book is Littleboro’s first Green Bean Festival, supported financially by a rich newcomer, and now Mayor, Honorable Calista Moss.  To raise more money she throws a trashion show.  Participants are to dress up in trash bags, clothes that have been thrown away, recyclables, etc.

When Beth investigates the motel room where Reba had spent the previous night with the man she believes wants to marry her, she finds Reba’s make-shift wedding dress, but not Butch Rigsbee, the theoretical groom, whose wallet and photo were left behind.  He has vanished, but the nearly dead man on the roadside picnic table is not Butch but Reba’s “better man,” and now he’s in ICU at the local hospital.

When you enter the pages of Wedding Bell Blues, you’re in a different universe, i.e., a new fictional world.  The plot moseys along.  Humor lies in wait in nearly every sentence.

Here’s a snippet:

“Festival.  I was so involved with Reba and her God thing and the missing Butch Rigsbee that I’d pushed the whole shindig out of my mind.  Not only did the Green Bean Festival have Scott gainfully employed for odds and ends, but all of Littleboro was buzzing both pros and cons.  Who would come to our little town to celebrate the green bean?  Who cared?  Who even liked the stuff?  We might as well salute something that had more guts and glory, like the black-eyed pea, for gosh sakes.  Or as Ida Plum had said “Creasy greens.  Now they are something special.  Or collards.”


Ruth Moose is the 2013 winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition.  She has published three collections of short stories and six collections of poetry.  She was on the Creative Writing faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for fifteen years and received the Chapman Award for teaching.  She lives in Pittsboro, N.C.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Memory and Her Muses Save Me

My phalaenopsis orchids Spring 2015.

Can Flowers Change Your Life? XIX. April 24, 2016

Sometimes I have to wait.  My desire to write
never leaves me, but other calls need answers.
This has been true all my life, but Memory
and her Muses save me.  Like my orchid
plant, She waits.  She can go through
summer, fall, and winter before She stirs
again to blooming.  Sticks become stems
again, and two new ones rise and soon
form tiny pale yellow globes.  Day by day
the globes grow larger, then hang down
their pale, one-eyed blooms.  Air feeds
them; light wakes them.  They ask so
little and give more than I expected, 
not unlike my Muse.  She, too, waits,
but when I read that phrase I wrote
twenty-six years ago: “I must put my
full weight on my writing,” I know I
must still do that.  It’s my promise 
to my own soul.  I’ve made time before.
Even when it seems unlikely, it’s 
always possible.  Yes, I will: choose
wisely, govern my impulses to attend 
to other than my true necessities,
clear space, rest quietly, take in
the world around me, and listen.

Drawing of Judy sitting by the Haw River writing poetry, used as cover for Russian translation of Beaver Soul.  
Mikhail Bazankov, artist. 1997.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Flowers Do Help

Can Flowers Change Your Life? XVIII.  April 17, 2016

Flowers do help.  I had one plant come up
in the oval garden along with the winter’s
crop of weeds and the daffodils.  I couldn’t
tell: weed or flower?  I waited.  Then an iris
bloomed.  The only one of that smaller kind
I had years ago.  It has had several on that
one stalk, a star in weed heaven.  Then my
big orchid with the long name phalaenopsis
began blooms.  Two are open, and a third
starts today.  I moved it from the western
window to my dining table, shifted file
folders to give it place.  The big flat leaves
got too much sun and some turned yellow,
but on four stems it has twenty-one blooms.
A year ago it had twelve on two stems.
I’ve never had such an exotic bloomer in 
my care.  It not only survived, it flourished.
A happy plant.  These days when I feel
the weight of all that I can’t do fast enough,
such surprises feed me.  The cardinal visits
the new feeder, and the seeds disappear
faster.  He sings in sun when I am wrestling
with weeds and their long, stringy roots.
The hens come rushing to wait for the
armfuls of weeds I’m removing so I can
plant onions, leeks, beets, peas, and carrots.
These crops are going into the earth late but
are taking hold.  In the beginning I felt
lucky when anything grew.  So many risks 
plants take. Here am I, risking death every
day–in my mind.  Aging has slowed me 
only a little, yet I have to summon new depths
of personal courage when I put on my gloves
and pick up my shovel.  I forget sometimes
that I’m working alongside the way the
world is made, that Grain of the Universe.  
My hope is to flourish until I die.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Grace: A China Diary 1910-16 Will Be Published

Grace and Harvey Roys, my maternal grandparents, probably 1911 or 1912, Possibly in Kuling, maybe it will be on the cover of the book Grace.

Grace: A China Diary, 1910-1916, is a transcription of the diary my grandparents Grace and Harvey Roys kept in China 1910-1916, with my careful, extensive annotations.  I first became interested in this diary some years ago, because Grace had suffered from bi-polar disease before it was well understood.  My mother’s fear that her daughters would also suffer mental illness hung over my childhood and adolescence.  Twelve years ago I decided to annotate the diary, which I hoped would help me understand Grace better.  

In the meantime I have written and published other books, but at intervals I researched Grace’s life in Nanking.  With the encouragement of Marie, a fellow writer, and Sam Hammond, who recently retired from Duke’s Rubentstein Library staff and is still the University Carillonneur, I did extensive research to follow up on all the people mentioned in the diary as well as on many of the domestic details. I also consulted Emeritus Professor Lawrence Kessler, who published The Jiangyin Mission Station: An American Missionary Community in China:1895-1951 (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1996); he read the manuscript twice and gave me suggestions. My friend by email, Edith Barakat, born to missionaries serving in another part of China, helped me tremendously with the research.  My siblings and cousins have also cheered me on!

In December 1910 Grace and Harvey were married, despite her having had a mental breakdown weeks earlier when her missionary father forbade the marriage.  The diary records their early married life, the births of their first two children, their social life with other missionaries in China, many of whom made major contributions to Nanking life and education: medical doctors and nurses; theology professors; agricultural innovators; founders of universities, hospitals, nursing schools, and schools for young Chinese women and men.  

Grace has been accepted for publication by Wipf and Stock, a religious publisher in Eugene, Oregon.  Actual publication is likely to be in 2017 or even 2018.  This gives me great joy, to bring Grace Roys’s life and suffering to the public.

As to its possible audience, Grace should contribute to understanding what a Protestant missionary’s life was like in the early 1900s in China.  This book should appeal to those interested in missionary and Protestant denomination history, women’s history, and how mental illness was treated in China among the missionaries in the early 20th century.


Left to right, Grace, Jeanie, Grace's younger sister, baby Margaret (my mother), Charlie, the youngest brother of Grace, Samuel Isett Woodbridge, Grace's father, on the steps of their Nanking home, late 1913.  Note Charlie's irreverent dirty feet.