Tuesday, April 21, 2009

This is just to say...

No, this is not a William Carlos Williams tribute. I just wanted to say a little "I told you so." On my way into work this morning, I heard that Elizabeth Strout's novel Olive Kitteridge has won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. You heard it hear first folks (see my archives). Actually, it was a book that grew on me as I read it and that has stuck with me since I finished. In fact, the title character herself grew on me over the course of the novel. I can also clearly recall the book's ending--one important measure for me.

Not so long ago, I beat Oprah to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Now I feel as if I'm in the big leagues. Tell the Nobel folks not to worry; I've made no predictions.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Multi-Tasker Reading Habits

For years, I only read one book at a time. When I began teaching, I still differentiated between my own pleasure reading and my teaching reading (since I always try to read what I assign my students when I assign it.) More and more, though, I suppose as I feel the backlog of books not yet read piling up behind me, I balance several books at a time--one in the car on CD or tape, one actual book, and one loaded on my eBook.

Right now I've started Kathryn Stockett's The Help, based on lots of recommendations. It sits beside my bed where I can read late at night or first thing in the morning. I found myself needing an e-read though, since that format works best when I hit the bicycle or treadmill at the gym. I started reading Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robinson, the brother of Augusten Burroughs (author of Running with Scissors), and I can't stop reading it. This book is the memoir of a man who lived with undiagnosed Asperger's, a form of autism. He just thought he was "defective" and learned in many ways to cope.

Anyone even somewhat familiar with Burroughs' book knows the boys grew up under less-than-ideal family circumstances. I am finding Robinson's insight fascinating. I may slip in a chapter or two of The Help, but I am happy to know that story will be waiting when I'm ready to jump back in head first.

Meanwhile, my read for the road is James Meek's The People's Act of Love. I have had a harder time becoming engaged with, much less engrossed in, this novel, but something has made me press on. Without giving too much of the story away, I did find a little self-mutilation section vivid and hard to forget. Some of the prose is beautiful. Maybe I just need to peruse the copy of the book so I can get all those Russian names planted firmly in my mind. After I finish, I'll report whether or not the time invested (nine CDs) was worth the ride. I have a feeling it will be.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Centennial Celebration

I'd be remiss to let the week pass without acknowledging the one hundred anniversary of the birth of Eudora Welty yesterday, April 13. I have loved her short stories and her longer works of fiction--especially "Why I Live at the P.O.," which is best experienced by hearing the author read it herself. My favorite of all her works, though, is her memoir, One Writer's Beginnings.

I remember reading it when I was traveling with the Mars Hill debate team in one of my first years of teaching. The book is so small I read it between rounds. She works such magic with her narrative that when I went back to the book to find my favorite part, I found that what I remembered seamlessly had actually been woven throughout the book. The strongest image is her discovering of her mother's keepsakes--particularly a long braid and a pair of nickels that she learned had been placed on her dead brother's eyes. I also remembered the story of the set of Dickens novels that had arrived in a crate and were saved from a house fire.

I never saw Miss Welty in the flesh, but I've met so many people who have their stories. One woman in my hometown had lived for several years in Mississippi a neighbor to Welty. Dori Sanders, the charming South Carolina author, tells a story of attending a presentation once when she knew Eudora Welty would be in attendance. She arrived early enough to get an aisle seat, but Sanders' mothers teaching wouldn't let her sit there. After she moved down to leave the aisle seat vacant, she revealed, "Miss Eudora came and sat by me." The last, indeed, shall be first.

When I heard the news of Welty's death, I felt an inexplicable sadness, but then I started getting emails from all over, mourning the loss to the literary world. Oxford American ran a special section of tributes to her in the next issue. She may not have lived to celebrate this 100th birthday, but I feel sure her stories will have staying power.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

When to Recommend

Having a wide range of reading friends has proven quite a blessing. One of my strongest needs is to share a reading experience. A book undiscussed is a book half read. I know that some books move me strongly, sometimes strangely, yet they aren't right for all my fellow readers. Some books just need a strong sell. Beyond the old cliche' about not judging a book by its cover, I have also learned not to judge a book by its synopsis.

Lisa Genova's Still Alice may be a hard sell. After all, it's a novel about Alzheimer's disease, not a sexy topic. The book tells the story of a fifty-year-old Harvard professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. Told in third person but from Alice's perspective, the reader feels the awkward loss of words, unpredictable confusions, and awarenes of others' responses.

Despite the dark subject matter, though, the book is lovely. Alice is intelligent, working hard to cope with the inevitable downward spiral. She must deal with John, the husband she loves, also a Harvard professor, and with her three grown children, two of whom choose to be tested for the hereditary traits, one who does not.

The author, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, uses her expertise to make the book real without overburdening the lay reader. I dare say this work contributes a great deal to understanding the victims of this dreadful disease and their families as well. Genova's scientific expertise is matched by her ability to craft an engaging story with characters--complex and believable. Even at her lowest point, I found myself emphathizing for John and the children and cheering for Alice.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Writers Symposium

This week we are gearing up for Caldwell Community College's annual Laurette LePrevost Writers Symposium. As usual, we gear the reading in many of our English classes toward the writer coming to visit, this time Clyde Edgerton.

I was first introduced to Edgerton, as odd as this may sound, by one of my high school sophomores back in Alabama when Zach Beck gave a book report on Floatplane Notebooks. The first Edgerton novel I read, though, was Walking Across Egypt. The scene in which Mattie Rigsbee becomes stuck in her chair, having sat back before she remembered the bottom was being recaned, still makes me laugh out loud. I always cast the characters in my head when I read a book, mixing famous actors (often younger versions of themselves) with people I know. Mattie was my Mama Coats.

Since then I've read them all--some a couple of times. I first met Clyde Edgerton when one of the textbook publishers brought him to a book event (back when textbook publishers spent some money wining and dining potential customers) and the same year at the North Carolina English Teachers Association fall conference. The books have the elements I like best: humor, believable characters, good storytelling.

This semester, our students have read his latest novel The Bible Salesman. Between my love for Flannery O'Connor and my personal family experiences with the travelling sales force of the Southwestern Publishing Company in Nashville, Tennessee, I was an ideal reader. Since I assigned the novel to my Expository Writing class, I was challenged to use the book not simply as a class extra, but as a tool to look at techniques of style. I can't wait to see what they have to show me tomorrow.

I'll also get to meet Yvonne Mason in person this week. She has written Reading, Teaching, Learning Clyde Edgerton, a text for teachers wishing to incorporate the novels into their classrooms. She and I have communicated via email for at least a year now, so I feel as if I'm meeting an old friend instead of a new one. We know that, in addition to our interest in Edgerton's novels, we both enjoy teaching, love British literature, and can't wait to share what we know.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Meanwhile I'm still reading...

For those of you committed to prose, while I will continue to shower you with all the blessings of poetry this month (and beyond), I will assure you I am still reading. In fact, since I tend to follow common threads in my reading, I moved from Unaccustomed Earth, which told the stories of young first generation Indian-Americans, to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. This novel should enjoy a boost from Slum Dog Millionaire. In fact, the title could have worked--but in a much different way.

The narrator is a man in India writing a letter to the Chinese premier, who plans to visit India soon. He tells him what he won't learn during his official visit: how a citizen can escape "The Darkness," India's poorest villages and social caste, to become "an entrepreneur." The story is fascinating. I was particularly interested in his perspective on the United States, delivered as almost a side note.

I also listened to Toni Morrison reading her latest novel A Mercy. I was afraid at first it might be difficult to listen to the book, especially since she shifts narrators regularly and suddenly (without all the little funny voices actor-reader feel compelled to add.) This is a story of slavery set in the 1600s. The women--three slaves and their mistress, after the death of her husband, also a narrator--provide the puzzle pieces of the story that only becomes complete with the last voice.

Now, as quite a departure, I'm enjoying Nora Ephron's nonfiction collection of essays I'm Worried About My Neck on my ride to work each day. I laugh a lot, but I find her details amusingly, uncomfortably familiar to this fifty-something woman.

On the eBook, I've begun Still Alice, the story from the point of view of a femaleHarvard professor recognizing the early onset of Alzheimers. Simultaneously, I'm reading The Help, a first novel by Kathryn Stockett, a recent Lemuria Books First Edition Club selection. I can hardly wait for Spring Break to begin.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Poem a Day?

Last April, I participated in Poetic Asides' Poem a Day challenge. Moderator Robert Lee Brewer posted a prompt every day in April, along with a poem he had written himself especially for the prompt. The goal was to write a first draft of a poem each day. We could take May to revise if we wished.

In a short time, a little community developed. We had no time for writer's block because we had another prompt tomorrow. In addition to posting our poems, we responded to those that touched us or tickled us. When the month ended, we wanted to continue. Robert graciously agreed to post a prompt every Wednesday throughout the year. In November, when the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was underway, he issued a "Chapbook Challenge": again he posted daily prompts, but when we completed the month, we had time to select from the poems we had written those that would work together, ideally with a single theme, in a chapbook. He and his new bride Tammy (also a poet) served as judges.

Over the past year, those of us who have continued to write regularly have come to know a little bit about one another--as least as much as our poetry and our comments make transparent.

Now that a new PAD challenge has begun, we have been stunned by the response. The last time I checked over 900 postings appeared under yesterday's first prompt of the month. Since Robert grew ambitious and planned an e-book of the poems judged (by professional poets) the best, he now has a huge job ahead. For the participants, trying to read all the work by our fellow poets is also challenging, but sifting for the nuggets of gold should provide a month of poetry pleasure.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Poems You Love by Heart

On this first day of National Poetry Month, I've been thinking of how and when I first encountered poetry. I don't remember my grandmother having quite so many books around the house, but the ones she had struck a chord. I have her copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, old enough that many of the poets--Kipling, for example--had dates of birth listed but not death. I remember first lines of "Hiawatha's Childhood" and one of my dad's favorites, "Abou Ben Adhem."

The one my sisters and I loved over and over was "The Duel," the story of the tragic fight between the gingham dog and the calico cat.

The first poem I learned by heart--and still know--was "The Swing," from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. I was fortunate enough to go to elementary school when recess seemed to last forever, and we were turned loose on the old-fashioned playground with a merry-go-round that had a "girl's way" and a "boy's way"--the subject of great physical competitions. We had monkey bars that easily converted into jail cells when we played cowboys. I loved the swings the best--tall metal stands with heavy chains and thick flat wooden seat. In my head, I heard over and over, "Oh how I love to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue. . . ."

The next poem I remember loving most was read to us by Mrs. Flora Hopper, my teacher in both fifth and sixth great: "Skipper Ireson's Ride" by John Greenleaf Whittier (one of the familiar faces from the "Authors" card game. ) We'd beg her to read it to us, just to hear that hilarious refrain, particularly when the poem slipped into the braying dialect of those widows of Marblehead.

Memorization has not enjoyed its finest day in classrooms recently, but I held out, having high school seniors memorize those first eighteen lines of the prologue to Canterbury Tales, the seven stages of man, and the last lines of "Thanatopsis."

While I tell my students that I assign memory work to ward off Alzheimer's, that's only part of the story. I hope they'll learn to love the way poems sound in their heads and feel in their mouths. What I want most is for them to learn the poems not by rote but by heart.