Monday, June 29, 2009

Beach Bag

I've just landed at the beach for a few days with my friend Sandy while our husbands are off in Scotland facing the daunting task of golfing every day for a week. We opted for a little peace and quiet and--of course--uninterrupted reading time. This morning as I completed my manic packing, I had to decide what books to bring along. Aware that in three or four days, I wouldn't get to them all, I decided nonetheless to overpack. (Now that the airlines are so restrictive about baggage weight, I love to go somewhere by car where I am only limited by space of the backseat and trunk.

This trip, I'm still working away on my Pride and Prejudice study guide. I am tempted, by the way, by the new Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It has to be tongue in cheek, right? I notice too that Colleen McCullough has complete something of a sequel with Mary Bennet as protagonist.

In the meantime, I have The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music by Victor L. Wooten, passed on to me by a former student whom I respect. I also have My Old True Love by Sheila Kay Adams (a North Carolina writer-singer-storyteller), Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and (a book I've had on my list for months now).

On the eBook, I've loaded Denis Johnson's Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruis Zafon, author of The Shadow of the Wind.

For my shorter bursts of reading, I have Billy Collins' latest collection of poems Ballistics and Don't Leave Hungry: Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review edited by James Smith. Of course I have the latest issues of Oxford American (Best of the South Issue), Southern Living (since we'll probably be inspired to cook while we're down here) and Garden and Gun.

Looking at my treasure trove of reading material, I should probably plan to stay a little longer.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Prize Winner

Earlier in the year I've posted on "The Joy of Re-Reading" and on my audiobook experience of Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. Yesterday's Diane Rehm show ( has inspired me to re-read this particular book for a number of reasons. As I may have mentioned before, since I was listening to the book, I wasn't fully aware it was published not as a novel but as a collection of short stories. Since some of the stories only included the title character indirectly, I was reminded of some of the intercallary chapters of The Grapes of Wrath.

On the radio show yesterday, Diane and at least three other people were discussing the book. I was listening in the car and having to switch back and forth between two channels to counteract static of my pitiful car radio. At the end of the show, listeners who called in also had a chance to respond to the book. The discussion served to remind me why the book moved me so much. I also realized how quickly I forget whole sections of what I read, and how a good discussion serves to rekindle the memories of those parts. (That, I believe, is one of the advantages of participating with a book club).

One of the individuals in the discussion had also interviewed the author, Elizabeth Strout, and had asked her some of those lingering questions. She didn't answer them all because-perhaps--she didn't know all the answers to what happened after the stories' conclusions, but she did reveal that the girl who had to be rescued from falling into the water had not jumped. Since she made her up, she has a right to know.

Despite my backlog of books I want to read--some this summer, some before I die!--I know I will have to revisit Olive Kitteridge. I may have to push for my book club to adopt it. I will at least encourage a few more friends to read it then talk to me. I wonder if those who make the selection for the Pulitzer take into consideration a book's potential for re-reading.

As I've mentioned before, I am reading Pride and Prejudice again. (How many times now? Who knows?) This time, I'm putting together a publisher's Teacher's Guide. I've admitted before that even when I watch the movie, I have to stay to the end to be sure Elizabeth and Darcy get together--this time. I'm having a great time this go 'round with close reading. Despite the complaints of Lit students everywhere, a great book will bear up under scrutiny. That is the salvation of literature teachers everywhere who assign the classics (and future classics) semester after semester.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Southern Haiku Challenge

Two soap doll carvings,
chewing gum and pocket watch.
What else in the tree?

On the Maggie Reads blog, I found a challenge to write haiku based on Southern Lit. This one is a dead giveway of course.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shanghai Girls

My book group tends to favor historical fiction, particularly when set in another part of the world. Although we all love travel, we realize that we cannot go all the places we'd hope to visit, and even if we could, we could only be there in the present. To be able to travel across place and time, nothing beats a book. When our group selects a book set in another country or in another culture, we often plan our meeting to include a meal from that culture. We've enjoyed Indian food, Japanese, and some good ol' Southern fare (which isn't foreign to use, but certainly brings a book to life).

For our July meeting, we are reading Lisa See's Shanghai Girls. Those of us who've been in the group awhile have read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. Although the two books were quite different, we learned so much as we became engrossed in the story. I know that the description of the foot-binding process, detailed in such excruciating detail in Snow Flower, will stay with me. This new novel is another departure for See. Although the story begins in China in 1937, the two main characters, two Chinese sisters forced into arranged marriages, find their way to California.

I know so much more about Ellis Island and the immigrants who entered the country by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, but I knew very little about Angel Island and the Pacific immigrants. In Isabel Allende's novels, I have learned about some of the experiences of the Chinese in that part of the world, but this novel showed even more of an insider's view of the difficulties facing those who came to this country, many leaving comfortable affluent lives to face poverty and prejudice that we can hardly imagine.

Even though the story spans twenty years from the late thirties to the fifities, I have to believe that many of the details of the lives chronicled here parallel that of immigrants today--Hispanic, Asian, and particularly those from Islamic nations. I am also reminded how universal the human experience is. People have such similar dreams, hopes, disappointments, and fears. Most people have flaws as well as redeeming qualities. As a sister (with four sisters), I loved the dynamics between Pearl and May--so different, so competitive, such friends.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I Didn't See It Coming

I have always given in to "the willing suspension of disbelief" when attending the theatre, watching movies, or reading books, but sometimes, I find myself a step ahead of the author, figuring out the
surprise ending (The butler did it!) before he or she had planned. I also relish the pleasant discomfort of dramatic irony during a story told by a naive narrator, when I am at least one step ahead of the protagonist's self discovery. (The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time comes to mind.) Nevertheless, I love to be caught off-guard in the midst of a story.

This past week, I read Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, reading almost without stopping, I was so caught up in the story. The title refers to an ad placed by one of the main characters of the novel, a wealthy Minnesota widower seeking to marry. Set in the early twentieth century, the story moves between the remote Minnesota town and Chicago and St. Louis. Both the man and his new wife were sympathetic characters, enough so that midway through the book, the author threw a curve ball I didn't see coming.

Meanwhile, I had just finished listening to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a story set at Auschwitz told in third person from the perspective of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a German commandant and a complete innocent. In this story, I could see the events unfolding around this sweet, naive boy, but I couldn't do a thing to stop them as they played out to their inevitable end.

I thought both stories were tales well told. In neither case, would I have wanted to switch the reading experience. I relished the surprise in one; I grieved the expectations in the other. Both introduced me to characters I am glad to have met.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


I just came across the Southern Reading 2009 Challenge. Check it out at Maggie Reads. The challenge to read at least three Southern books (any genre) begins May 15 and ends August 15. You can count me in. I've always loved novels by Southern writers, firmly believing that they merit reading beyond the region. The site offers suggestions, but I'll add some of mine as well.

I've already mentioned The Help, Kathryn Stockett's first novel, set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. I also recommend all of Ron Rash's novels (from his first, One Foot in Eden to his latest Serena). So many people who read one at my recommendation have worked their way through the whole list. I always enjoy Clyde Edgerton's novel for a good laugh (usually with some underlying serious themes). This time of the year, you can read Dori Sanders' novel Clover and visit her at her peach stand one Highway 321 in South Carolina. I've read all of Joshilyn Jackson's novels (Gods in Alabama, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and Between, Georgia.) Ann Patchett (who lives in Nashville) is another of my favorite writers. Her Bel Canto is one of my most memorable reading experiences. All of her novels are beautifully written but not alike at all.

For laughing until milk comes out your nose, try Celia Rivenbark (Bless Your Heart, Tramp, Just Like You--Only Prettier, and Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank). Although not your typical Southerner, David Sedaris did grow up in Raleigh. One particularly favorite of mine (in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I believe) described his family's regular visits to the Atlantic coast, where they would speculate on names for a family beach house.

I'm hardly doing justice to the books on my shelves, but Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, has some great titles on their First Editions Club list, many but not all by Southern authors. I can't wait to decide what to read next.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Communal Reading and Personal Choices

Years ago, in an article I wish I had clipped and saved, the book editor for the Charlotte Observer bemoaned the fact that her husband, while also a reader, did not like to discuss with her the books he read. I find reflected there my own need to talk about what I read. (I suppose that's why I'm here blogging.) My first instinct upon finishing a book I enjoy (or even one that baffles me) is to suggest it to someone else who might read it and then talk about it with me. Every book doesn't fit every friend; I know that for sure. Some of my friends and family have reacted either violently against or apathetically to books I have loved.

I had dinner last night with a small book group that has been in various stages of flux for several years now. We had finished reading The Help--one everyone liked--and we were ready for the next selection. I always show up for our meetings with book lists and suggestions, but I can rarely predict what we will choose. There's a certain amount of pressure, too, in selecting a book for several people, particularly when I feel obliged to read it and to finish it by a certain date. (Usually I finish far enough ahead that I have to review my notes or start to forget character names. I do, though, remember reading the last few pages of Middlesex in the parking lot before our meeting.)

This time we decided to read Lisa See's new novel Shanghai Girls. Those of us who have been reading together the longest had read both of her previous books, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. We'd loved them both and appreciated that they were quite different from one another. Our second choice (since we only meet once a month and most of us read much more than that) is A Reliable Wife, a book my daughter gave me for Mother's Day.

Once we've made our choices for the group, we begin to discuss our other reading over the past month. Having spent a good proportion of that time driving, I had made it through several books on tape, including a particular favorite, The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction account of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the parallel story of the serial killer loose in the city at the time. Since I'm heading to Chicago soon, this gave me some ideas of places to visit while there.

I also listened to Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, a novel about race horses, their owners, breeders, and trainers. Even the horses' personalities emerge through her novel. My lightest fare was an abridged version (I hate those but happened to have it on hand when the others ran out) of Peter Mayle's Hotel Pastis. His books all make me want to travel--and to eat French and Italian food.

So far, I've found willing listeners to whom I've passed along the tapes. Now I can slip back into my corner with a book of my own choosing.