Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Crying Fire in a Crowded Library: A Real Horror Story

I keep hearing about college professors expected to offer "trigger warnings" when covering material that might traumatize fragile college students. Sometimes I find my way into a book that should come with warnings too. I'm just starting to read The Library Book by Susan Orlean, and mere pages into the book, I discover I am going to be reading about the most extensive library fire in the United States, caused by arson in 1986.

I can handle all kinds of horror in my reading, but somehow reading about destroyed books gets me at my core. I once missed my son's first soccer goal of the year because I was caught up in a New Yorker article about libraries getting rid of books. (Don't tell him. He may not have known.)

The author admits that after a lovely childhood spending hours in the public library, she had switched to purchasing books (something I certainly endorse). She rarely went to a library other than for research. Her return to the library came when her son was assigned to interview a city official. He chose a librarian instead of a policeman or fireman. That's where she first encountered the story of the Los Angeles library fire, a story obscured in the national news by the Chernobyl incident.

I'm barely into the book, right in the middle of the fire. I know there's a First Folio of Shakespeare inside, and I don't know yet if it will be saved. I do know that I value public libraries for so many reasons. I got my Nashville library card my first or second week here. I know my way around at least three local libraries--the one closest to my home, the one closest to campus, and the downtown library where most of the Salong@615 events are held. I was there Monday to hear author Greg Iles, a delightful evening.

I still buy books, even though I've far exceeded bookshelf space here at the house, but I use the library for books--in print and audio. I've "checked out" seeds in the spring, and I watch for all their programs. I bring my grandchildren along when I can. I remember what a magical place my hometown library was for me. If it hadn't moved to a new, nice building, I could still walk to my favorite shelves on any of the floors.

To honor the memory of the experience, I'm going to keep reading The Library Book, hoping for a happy ending.
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Where Crawdads Sing: Testing My Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Move over, Oprah! Reese Witherspoon's book selections are taking over  the New York Times bestseller lists now.  What first novelist doesn't love a promotion like this--and the movie deal too?

Delia Owens' debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing has certainly reaped benefits from Witherspoon's attention. It's a book club darling right now, and readers are loving the story.

The book is rich in language. The description of the flora and fauna of the North Carolina marsh are particularly evocative. I also cared about what would happen to Kya, known by the people in town as "the Marsh Girl."  While I had a little trouble believing an unschooled girl could eventually become a successful nature writer and illustrator, as well as (SPOILER ALERT) poet, I could imagine her watercolor illustrations of the birds, the marsh grasses, the seashells.

I'll confess, though, that I had a problem with the geography from the beginning. When Tate tells her he lost his mother and sister in a car accident when they were driving to Asheville to buy a bicycle for his birthday, I wondered why she didn't just buy it at Chase's father's Western Auto Store--or stop in Wilmington or Raleigh or Greensboro. Even Hickory would have been closer.

I checked Mapquest. It's over 300 miles--a five and a half hour drive.

I might have thought this was a fluke, but Kya's father goes to Asheville to deal with the VA office (while I feel certain there was a closer office). Then one of the attorneys in the trial central to the novel was wearing a tie he "had bought over in Asheville."

I asked a friend, "Didn't she have a fact checker?"

She responded, "Didn't she have a map?"

I am always drawn back to Tony Earley's Somehow Form a Family when he describes writing a piece about the night after the first moon walk, when his father took all the family out to the back yard to look through his telescope at the full moon, knowing it now had human footprints.

The only problem, Earley's fact checker pointed out, was that the moon wasn't full that night. (I checked it on Google. It wasn't.)

In University Writing recently, we've talked about the concept of ethos, developing one's credibility. It's a tough standard to get everything right. Readers may not notice when you do, but if they catch you in one error, they'll be wary of others.

Maybe by the time the movie comes out, the director will move the shopping trips a little closer to the coast.


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Saturday, February 16, 2019

There There by Tommy Orange: More than A's and Raiders in Oakland

There must be particular challenges for any author who tries to represent his or her own culture. Lean too far one way, and you run the risk of romanticizing; the other, and you may be accused of airing dirty laundry. Tommy Orange, in his novel There There manages a careful balance as he presents a slice of Native American culture rarely represented in literature.

Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, by contrast, have given keen views of life on and around the  Reservation. Orange, though, brings together a vast assortment of individuals, not stereotypes, living in urban Oakland, California.

As he weaves together so many lives that at first seemed connected only because they are Native Americans, Orange connects the dots. His protagonists are flawed and vulnerable. While some are victims of their circumstances, others have made painful, even disastrous choices.

Readers looking for the connection between the numerous narratives begin to see everything moving toward the Big Oakland Powwow, a celebration of Native culture to be held in the Oakland Stadium. Opal will attend because she realizes that one of the grandsons of her sister Jacquie, whom she has been raising, plans to compete for the big prize, wearing the regalia she has hidden. Dene Oxendene will be there, continuing his interviews for which he was awarded a grant. Blue, the daughter Jacquie gave up for adoption will be there, having moved to Oakland after escaping an abusive marriage.

In fact, Blue's escape by bus, with her husband pursuing closely, threatening her even as she hides in the Greyhound station ladies restroom, is one of the most suspenseful passages in the novel.

The tension throughout the novel builds as readers realize that a handful of young men plan to rob the powwow, using guns made on a 3-D printer, aware the prizes will be awarded in the form of gift cards. This cannot end well.

Just as Urea's House of Broken Angels presents the many facets--good and bad--of one particular Hispanic family living in the U.S., Orange builds portraits of individuals in community, in family, living out modern history. He even chronicles Opal and Jacquie's experiences living with their mother on Alcatraz during the takeover during the 70s.

Orange succeeds in piecing together a closeup view of one group of Americans, individuals intricately connected.
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Friday, February 8, 2019

Sightseeing on Others' Literacy Journeys


In my fifth semester as an adjunct at Lipscomb University, teaching University Writing, I have been guiding my students for the last few weeks on a look back at their "literacy journeys." They have reflected on how they learned to read and write--and in far too many cases, how they lost their love for reading.

As long as I have taught, I have been particularly interested in how to preserve or rekindle the love for pleasure reading. When I ask students when they quit loving reading, two themes emerge: the Accelerated Reader (AR) program and force-feeding of assigned books, followed by objective tests over the minutia. Conversely, when I ask the ones who love to read about their positive influences, they invariably mention parents who read aloud to them and teachers whose own passion for books and for students rubbed off on them.

I can honestly admit that sometimes I resisted required reading. (The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd the Sailor come to mind.) Even some of my best students admitted to reading just enough to pass the test, although one of my most clever students said she finally read the ones she'd skipped--after graduation. They were great, she admitted.

This week, I've held conferences with students, looking over their drafts together before the final essay is due. The titles that keep coming up are often books I've loved--Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, The Things They Carried, Nancy Drew mysteries, the Harry Potter series. Some of the books they read weren't around when I was younger--The Magic Treehouse series, Geronimo Stilton, Percy Jackson.

Some of them flourished most when they had the opportunity to choose some books on their own. One students who had a bad experience in class was invited by the same teacher to join a summer book club with a group of girls her age. Another became part of a bookclub started by friends when the teacher discouraged their reading the Hunger Games series. As I long suspected, nothing lights a fire to read for young people like telling them not to read a particular book or series. Conversely, nothing extinguishes the flame like assigning a text as if it's something teachers do to students. (Take this book: It's for your own good--like bitter medicine.)

In a happy coincidence, my thirteen-year-old granddaughter called me while I was still on campus to tell me her teacher had given them a list of classics from which to make a selection. She was so excited and wanted my advice (and access to my book stack.) I couldn't wait to get home and comb through my shelf and bring her a sack of books. I'm hoping she might choose Little Women, the first classic I remember reading, one I haven't read in so long that I've already been thinking of reading it again. In fact, in my car's CD player, I'm listening to Anne Boyd Rioux's  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. 

Maybe while I'm at it, I'll write a thank you note to Margaret Epperson, my elementary school librarian and my earliest mentor other than family members. I'd better get busy now. In a few days, I'll have 63 essays to read.
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Friday, January 4, 2019

The Kingdom of the Blind: Louise Penny Does Not Disappoint

When Louise Penny publishes the next novel in her Three Pines series, I imagine I feel a little bit like young Harry Potter fans did when J.K. Rowling rolled out the next book. I might even risk hyperbole and draw comparisons to the new iPhone or Michael Jordan Nikes.

I got my hands on her latest, Kingdom of the Blind, the week it was released when she appeared at the Lipscomb campus as part of the Nashville Public Library's Salon@615 series. With the semester end, the holidays, and a family wedding pressing, I made myself wait to read.

I even considered waiting until the audiobook was available for checkout, since I have found all of her books ideal for listening. Even when the death of narrator Ralph Cosham, I was able to make the transition to Robert Bathurst (although admittedly with an unusual measure of grief for someone I only knew through his voice.)

In that lovely week between Christmas and New Year when I forget the day of the week, I found more time to read guiltlessly, so I picked up Kingdom of the Blind. Even reading words on the page, I heard the voices of the characters I have grown to love. One mark of a great writer, after all, is the ability to render voice with mere words on a page.

When I heard Penny speak in Nashville, I was struck by her clever wit. It should be no surprise, then, that her characters and their dialogue are so gripping.  In this novel, she picks up the thread from the previous narrative, when Gamache has won the war against a new insidious drug by losing some of the battles.

As this book begins, Armand has been summoned mysteriously to a vacant house as a snow storm builds. Also summoned by letter are Myrna Landers and a new character, a young builder, all selected as executors of the will of a woman they've never met. Of course, one can't have a murder mystery without a murder, and this book is no exception. As Gamache, his neighbors in Three Pines, and his family try to discover why they have been chosen for this odd responsibility, son-in-law Jean Guy has his loyalty tested as the department investigates Armand's role in the recent drug crisis.

While in theory each of these books could stand alone, the real charm is reading them in order, since some of the characters readers grow to love appear from one book the the next. (How can one explain Ruth and her duck to anyone who hasn't read these stories?) Loose threads from one storyline are picked up again. Meanwhile new characters--in this case, a female accountant--are introduced and developed. In secondary narrative lines, Penny leaves readers wonder sometimes just who the good guys and bad guys are.

Most surprisingly, as I read her books, I find myself wishing to revisit the whole series, even knowing how each will end. Her writing, I believe, is just that good.
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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Little Light Reading

Never one to shy away from a tough read or challenging subjects, I nevertheless enjoy simply a feel-good fun book. Light reading can be, should be well written. Even when the prose isn't Pulitzer worthy, authors can still develop engaging characters, ones we love and hate, and put them into interesting plots.

Jojo Moyes' Still Me, the third in her series, follows Louisa Clark across the pond, as she takes a job as a personal assistant after the death of paraplegic Will Traynor and after finding love again with the Sam the paramedic. Moyes gets Lou in and out of trouble, building suspense through misunderstandings and jumping to conclusions.

I also enjoyed Elizabeth Berg's The Story of Arthur Truluv. Since every book about an old person these days is compared to A Man Called Ove, I'd have to say this is the book you might have gotten if Ove hadn't been such a curmudgeon from the start. Arthur (real last name Moses) hasn't adjusted to life with Nola, so he visits here grave every day, carrying on conversation with her and her "neighbors" in nearby graves. He meets Maddy, a high school outcast who escapes the cafeteria to eat lunch in the cemetery, and develops an unusual connection. He also expands his circle to include nosy neighbor Lucille, recognizing her loneliness. The story is more life-affirming than life-changing, but who doesn't need that kind of read now and then.

I've already written about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, another character-driven story that takes readers along with the title character (who is more like Ove than Arthur). She's awkward and hard to like; fortunately, her co-worker Raymond looks past her oddities and includes her as he rescues a stranger and expands his--and Eleanor's--circle of family and friends. The rollercoaster ride through Eleanor's lows can be painful for readers. Thank goodness for the Raymonds of the world.

Other novels appearing on the bestseller list this year didn't quite live up to their potential. Rebecca Serle's The Dinner List was built on such a lovely premise. One of my favorite parts of the Sunday New York Times "Book Review" section is "By the Book," in which current authors answer a number of standard questions--What's on your nightstand right now? What kind of reader were you as a child? The question What authors, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party? always sparks some interesting groupings with the potential for interesting conversation across the table. Sabrina, the novel's protagonist, lives out this fantasy on the evening of her thirtieth birthday. Her guests include her best friend, her estranged father, her long-time love Tobias, her favorite college professor, and Audrey Hepburn. It turns out Hepburn is not the only dinner guest no longer living.

Serve takes readers back and forth between the dinner party and flashbacks involving the characters in her life (Hepburn only on film). The book had a made-for-movie feel about it, but never quite lived up to my expectations. If I'd read it at another time, I might have felt differently, I admit.

If I only read light fare, I'd probably always be hungry for m ore. Reading over my year's list, I realize that some books barely touch me, while others never leave me. Sometimes I'm captivated by the language of a book; at other times, though, I fall in love with a character or a place. Either way, I'll keep reading.
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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My 2018 Reading List

Once again, I'm tallying the books I read this year, recorded on my kitchen calendar before moving into my official Book-Woman  journal. While I have more to say about a lot of these books, for today, I'm simply sharing the list:

1. Walter Isaacson, Leonard da Vinci
2. Rachel Joyce, The Music Shop
3. Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
4. Ken Follett, Column of Fire
5. Barbara Martin Stephens, Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler
6. Radney Foster, For You to See the Stars
7. Nathan Hill, The Nix
8. Gabrielle Zevin, Young Jane Young
9. Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia
10. Kristin Hannah, The Great Unknown
11. Ron Hall and Denver Moore, Same Kind of Different as e.
12. Rebecca Hornaki, Seven Days of Us
13. Ann Head, Morningstar
14. Thirty Omrigar, Everybody's Son
15. Alan Bradley, The Grave's a Fine and Private Place
16. Shani Lapina, The Couple Next Door
17. Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book
18. David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
19. Lee Smith, The Last Girls
20. Jonathan Miles, Anatomy of a Miracle
21. Charles Frazier, Varina
22. Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists
23. Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours
24. Rick Bragg, My Southern Journey
25. Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars
26. ---. Wade in the Water
27. Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink
28. Jo Nesbo, Macbeth
29. Paula McLain, Love and Ruins
30. Monte Cox, Significant Others
31. Michael Bishop, Murder in Music City
32. Elizabeth Berg, The Story of Arthur Truluv
33. Jane Gardem, Old Filth
34. Edward Rutherford, Paris
35. Peggy O'Neal Peden, Your Killing Heart
36. Julie Schumacher Dear Committee Members
37. Sara Gruen, At the Water's Edge
38. Anna Quindlen, Alternate Side
39, Pam Munoz Ryan, Echo
40. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
41. Tara Westover, Educated
42. Mark Sullivan, Beneath the Scarlet Sky
43. Bren McLain, One Good Mama Bone
44. Tass Saada, Once an Arafat Man
45. Luis Alberta Urea, House of Broken Angels
46. Peter McDade, The Weight of Sound
47. Frances Mayes, Women in Sunlight
48, Min Jim Lee Pachinko
49. Barbara Kingsolver Unsheltered 
50. Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire
51. Anne Tyler, Clock Dance
52. Jonas Jonasson, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared
53. Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
54. Annie Chapman, The Mother-in-Law Dance
55. Sharon McCrumb, Prayers the Devil Answers
56. Rebecca Serle, The Dinner List
57. JoJo Moyes, Still Me
58. Terry Wait Klefstad, Crooked River City
59. Combs, Hogue, and Reish, John Hartford's Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes
60. Frederick Backman, Elanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
61. Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

That's my list so far--and it doesn't include the one I finished early this morning, my first book of 2019. Now I can study book lists of my other reading friends to see what to add to the stack on my nightstand.
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