Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Sarah Clarkson's Book Girl: A Rich Resource for Readers

Mike, one of the members of my book chat group, always expresses his concern that what he reads may not appeal to the rest of us. He's usually wrong about that. One of the best parts of having a book group that has a mix of gender and ages is the variety of reading to which we are exposed.

Recently he sent me a link to an interview with Sarah Clarkson on the Word on Fire Institute website entitled "Books, Evangelization, and the Transformative Power of the Reading Life." Clarkson studied at Oxford University after what she calls her twelve-year gap year. She had always dreamed of studying there in part because of her love of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. One cannot underestimate the influence of her reading family either.

In the interview she mentioned her book Book Girl, in which she describes her own reading journey, sharing list after list of book recommendations for different circumstances. Her chapter titles include "Books Can Foster Community" and "Books Can Impart Hope." I couldn't wait to start reading it for myself. Her research on reading confirms my own beliefs about the power of literature to shape the mind and the heart.

Her recommendations range from works by Lewis and Tolkien, of course, to classics and childhood favorites--the Anne of Avonlea series by Montgomery, books by George Eliot, Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson and more. She also includes annotated lists of books more overtly spiritual or theological.

As a general rule, I love a book list that affords me the opportunity to check off all I have read. Clarkson, however, introduced me to authors I hadn't read yet and to new books by authors with whom I was at least familiar.

She also reminded me of books I've read long ago and need to read again, including Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, a past favorite I recently recommended to a friend to read with his wife and her 97-year-old father.

In Book Girl, Clarkson reminds me to slow down and read thoughtfully and contemplatively. I also become more aware of the need to be selective in my reading, since I can't possibly get to all the books I'd like to read.

I also wish every young family could recognize the value in modeling and encouraging a reading life for children. After all, Clarkson's mother read to her in utero, and during the writing of the book, Sarah confessed to reading to her soon-to-be born daughter, a little book girl of her own.

One word of advice: Don't take the title too literally. There is so much food for thought for men as well as women of all ages. I expect to keep my copy close enough for reference the next time I'm choosing a book to read.
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Monday, August 17, 2020

The Sound of Summer Running

Living  life on a school calendar, I have always been aware of how fast the summer goes, speeding faster as it reaches the end. I always play Alison Brown's beautiful instrumental piece "The Sound of Summer Running" in classes that first week. Even without words, it evokes that feeling. This year, I'll have to add John Prine's "Summer's End" from his last CD.

As I face creating my syllabus and reading for my classes, I realize that my time to read for pleasure will be more limited than it has been since mid-March. For that reason, I select carefully. Recently, I returned to an old favorite, perfect for summer reading, Ran Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Written in little vignettes, the book gives readers the perspectives of brothers Tom and Douglas Spaulding, as they consider some complex matters: I am alive. Things change. People leave. We all die eventually.

Living right beside their grandparents, with a great grandmother living as well, the boys learn from others' experiences as well. As they help their grandfather bottling dandelion wine, they imagine the summer captured inside that amber liquid.

They live in that world when neighbors all knew each other, but they still faced fears and sadness.
Part reminiscence, part magic realism, the book has touched many of the students I've taught. One told me, years ago, he planned to read it every summer for the rest of his life. I hope he followed through.

Some years, I collected old bottles and corks, and we placed memories inside to set on the classroom shelves. As far as we are removed from Green Town in 1928, at the core, what remains is true.

As a side note, the title of Brown's song, "The Sound of Summer Running" is a Ray Bradbury title as well. Both, perhaps, give a nod to Andrew Marvell's "time's winged chariot."
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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

More Summer Reading: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

Clare Clark's novel In the Full Light of the Sun is set in 1920s Berlin, when the German people are suffering from the after effects of WWI--skyrocketing inflation and food shortage--and Hitler and his Nazi party are rising to power. The political tension at first serves in the background of this story, but increases in intensity throughout the narrative.

I am drawn to works of fiction that deal with the art world, particularly the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I loved the novel Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann, which accounted for Van Gogh's time aspiring to a career in the ministry, serving in a coal-mining town. I also encourage (beg) anyone who hasn't seen the amazing film Loving Vincent to do so--preferably on the big screen.

Van Gogh is not a character in this novel; his paintings, however, take center stage (or lots of museum wall space). Clark pulls together a number of characters. The story opens with Julius, a wealthy art critic, whose wife leaves him, taking their son and his prized Van Gogh painting. The blank spot on the wall torments him. He develops a professional relationship bordering on friendship with Rachmann, an art collector who opens a gallery with his brother. They manage to collect before unknown Van Gogh painting from a mysterious source in Spain. Rounding out the narrative is Emmeline, an art student in Berlin despite her mother's wishes whose path crosses with both men.

bBased on actual events, this one of many intriguing art stories that come out of Europe around the time of the second world war, when forgery was a crime on par with the stolen art of this time period.  Clark captures the human dynamics when money and egos are at stake and greed, deception, and attraction intersect.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: The Vinyl Detective--Written in Dead Wax

 

Sometimes my reading overlaps with my other interests. Such was the case as I read Andrew Cartmel's first book in his The Vinyl Detective series: Written in Dead Wax. The "vinyl detective" is a young British record collector who specializes in jazz music. He scours charity shops and jumble sales for rare finds, which he resells to pay the rent, hoping eventually to improve his heating system.

A striking young woman shows up at his door with an assignment to find a particularly rare LP, the 14th and last from an obscure label.  She joins him on the search, spending more and more time in his flat as well, charming him and his pair of cats.

Evidence indicates a mysterious collectors' vinyl is appearing around town, but as he and Nevada, his charming sidekick, search for the album in question, a pair they call the Aryan Twins, seem to be just a step ahead of them or right on their trail. His best friend, with a tendency to fall down his own stairs, becomes a casualty.

In the second part of the novel, after he achieves what seems like success, he meets a young American woman whose grandmother sang on the record in the quest. She invites him along for further intrigue.

Much of the story is a little incredible (in the literal sense). A number of murders don't seem to draw much attention or else the police aren't making the connections. Still, the quirky characters, the specificity of the music details, and the twists and turns of the story all make for a fun read--just the kind summer is meant to include.


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Monday, August 10, 2020

In Celebration of Summer Reading: Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman

 

In some ways, I've lost track of time since the Covid-19 quarantine began in March. As spring gave way to summer--and it's always easy to tell the difference in Middle Tennessee--I have been able to read more and more without a trace of guilt. Summers are made for reading.

Never at a loss for a book to read, I still find myself moving back and forth between the unread books on my shelf and the ones I have popping up from my library holds. I am even revisiting Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury right now, a perfect summer book if ever there was one.

Over the weekend, I read Louise Erdrich's latest novel The Night Watchman, set in the 1950s when a bill was proposed in Washington to renege on the agreements made with Native American tribes. Thomas, the title character, works night shift as a security guard in a jewel bearing plant, sleeping maybe 12 hours a week and obsessively reading, writing letters, and gathering support for a trip to Washington to address Congress on behalf of the inhabitants of the Turtle Mountain reservation.

His niece Patrice, whom most people call Pixie--to her dismay--works at the plant to help provide support for her mother and brother, since her dad, a violent alcoholic, has left town. They haven't heard from her sister Vera, who moved to the Cities. Their dreams and visions, however, suggest she is alive but in danger, so Patrice takes a train trip to search for her.

Erdrich peoples all her novels and stories with interrelated characters, including Barnes, the white teacher who is attracted to Patrice, a pair of Mormon elders trying to make inroads with the people they call Lamanites, and the families of the reservation who practice Catholicism without abandoning their own spiritual ways and mysticism. 

The prologue and epilogue reveal that the story is based on experiences of Erdrich's own family, pointing me to a rabbit trail of research I am bound to follow. 



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Friday, August 7, 2020

Camron Wright's novel The Rent Collector: A Favorite Book of the Summer of 2020

 I know I have a good book when, before I'm halfway through it, I'm thinking of people to whom I want to recommend it. I read some books that are quirky enough for me but are not for all sensibilities. During this summer, I have found myself reading more books that usual--and that's saying a lot. One that might not have come into my sights was a book club choice by my friend Barb. Camron Wright's novel The Rent Collector is set in a garbage dump in Cambodia, not exactly the kind of setting one would expect to be an uplifting book. Trust me; it was. 

The protagonist Sang Ly lives with her husband Ki Lim in the Stung Meanchey dump where her husband works as a "picker," going through the daily loads of trash, hunting for items of value that can be resold. Their young son Nisay is chronically sick with diarrhea, a continual source of concern. The story picks up when Ki Lim's finds include a picture book. When Sopeap Sin, the disagreeable woman who collects rent, sees the book, Sang Ly sees her reaction and realizes the woman can read. She bribes her with alcohol to teach her to read and discovers there is so much more to the woman that she could have imagined. For Sang Ly, reading is transformative. 

A story of survival, The Rent Collector is told almost in parables, as Sang Ly discovers the power of literature. The story is so beautifully told as the characters realize the power of books to change lives. Wright also demonstrates what can happen when we realize the layers that make up individuals we encounter. 


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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Celebrating Summer Reading: Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel

One mark of a good writer is the capacity to follow one engaging novel with another without reusing the same patterns or retelling the same tale. Emily St. John Mandel's novel Station Eleven was both engrossing and haunting, following a troupe of actors in a post-apocalyptic world.

Her newest novel The Glass Hotel is set firmly in this world, but it grabs readers early and doesn't let go. Mandel begins the book with three minimal glimpses of events from later in the story. They are vague enough not to reveal the characters involved, but specific enough in their imagery to remain like a bookmark for the reader.

The narrative first follows Paul, back at his father's home after his step-sister Vincent's mother disappears while boating alone, and then as he becomes infatuated with a female singer at a bar before giving her and her colleagues what end up being tainted drugs to one of her band members. Needing to get away to avoid any responsibility, he takes a menial job at the hotel to which the title refers, where Vincent works as bartender. An elaborate hotel on an island near Vancouver, it accommodates wealthy guests who want all the comforts and pleasures, while completely isolated from the world.

The focus moves away from Paul to his sister Vincent, when she meets one of the wealthy guests who actually owns the hotel, Jonathan Alkaitas, recently widowed. She next appears in tabloids as his wife--a fiction the two create to allow her to play a needed role in his life, while letting her to live as she pleases, with her new persona, shopping and dining without concert for credit limits.

The story takes a sharp turn when Alkaitas' business collapses, revealed as a Ponzi scheme, landing him in prison, from which a portion of the narrative is told.

Mandel introduces minor characters, then weaves together the cast of characters and their storylines, using what at first seem to be minor details--messages etched on windows, Vincent's habit of filming five-minute videos. The details come together to produce a story that is fresh and suspenseful. Not once did the story recall Station Eleven. Anyone who reads both novels will be tempted to look for her earlier works until her next novel is published.
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