Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Holding Court

I admit that my attitude toward books borders on obsession. Sometimes for self-discipline practice, I visit a bookstore just to see if I can leave emptyhanded. I suppose other people have their own weaknesses. I don't love shoes or purses. But I do love books, and it doesn't take people long to know that about me.

This weekend I enjoyed two distinctly different experiences. First, I helped to host a regional one-day conference of the North Carolina English Teachers Association on the campus of the community college where I teach. Although I was far more involved that usual with the details, I did have a chance to participate in one session that applied archetypes of the hero's journey to literature. Sure enough, as we were sorted into small groups, we quickly began talking about books. (To be fair, we were asked to choose a work of literature--or a song or cartoon--for our model assignment.) In no time, we were swapping and writing down titles to add to our "must read" list.

The highlight of the day was the lunch session during which we honored our student writing contest winners and our 2009 Ragan-Rubin award author Sheila Kay Adams. Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer was also on hand to present awards to the student poets, so we had language zipping throughout the room. I left with one of two more books and a couple of storytelling and ballad CDs as well.

I spent Sunday at the High Point furniture market, a trip I make at least twice a year to see the culmination of my husband's work throughout the year, preparing new product and displaying it for dealers. Sometimes, if I have another visiting spouse along, I visit other showrooms. This year, though, I stayed in the Fairfield space and visited with the sales reps, many of whom I only see once or twice a year.

Throughout the day, they will come over, sit, and talk about our families, my teaching, and then I know to expect the question: What have you been reading? I try to sift through my memories for books that are best suited to the different personalities. Debbie, the regular receptionist, is an avid reader and book clubber, so she alwys has a list for me as well.

By the time I returned home Sunday night, I was ready to read a few pages in Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, but not before I checked my shelves, picking out a few volumes waiting to be read, moving some closer to the top of the stack. I may not always be able to judge a book by its cover, but I know whom to trust.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Poetry for Christmas

If you check out any bookstore, you'll find the poetry selection sparse. Usually the chain stores will carry Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman--all those poets you already have on your shelves if you have any poetry at all. Independent bookstores are more likely to offer more regional or local poets. One of the best opportunities to add to your poetry collection--and the most enjoyable--is a poetry reading. If you watch the newspaper, you will often see notices for authors' readings, some at bookstore, some on campuses or even at coffee houses. You don't even need to live in a big, bustling city to find such events.

In Hickory, North Carolina, where I live now, a poetry event is hosted at least one Tuesday a month at Tasteful Beans, a downtown coffee shop. Since I teach a Tuesday night class this semester, I'm usually unable to attend, but last night we were on fall break, so I took advantage. Each month, Scott Owens, who coordinates the event, invites one or two featured poets to read their works. Other poets, many unpublished, can also sign up for open-mike to read. Last night, the readers included a student and even the proprietor of the coffee shop. The featured poets, Helen Losse and Debra Kaufman read from their poems, some from most recent publications.

Debra Kaufman of Mebane, NC, has just published a book of poems called Moon Mirror Whiskey Wind, a collection unified by a thread following a girl called Destiny. For reasons I find difficult to explain, I have always collected files on esoteric topics. One folder contains what I call "Barbie Lit," writings about that disproportionate icon of my childhood. Kaufman's collection has a poem called "To a Barbie."

Helen Losse, the other featured poet, is the poetry editor for online mag, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. I had heard her read before and regularly follow her on Facebook. Her new book, Better with Friends, is prayerful without being religious (or didactic or sanctimonius.) She went on to read poems from her next book.

Scott Owens also read from Sea Trails, a poet who is homebound for health reasons. This book juxtaposes journal records of a sailing trip she took with a lover along the coast. I was particularly intrigued by the pairing of genres. This, I knew, would make a perfect gift for a sailing friend.

Owens suggested considering poetry books--especially those by the authors who had been gracious enough to travel to Hickory to read for us--as Christmas gifts. He mentioned a man who used to stand on King Street in Boone, reciting poems and selling them for a dollar apiece. These collections offered them at less then thirty cents each, he told us.

Later, when I told him that I loved buying poetry for gifts but sometimes wanted to keep them for myself, he told me he gives poetry to others hoping that when they realize he loves poetry, they will return the favor. Not a bad idea!


Monday, October 12, 2009

Heard a Good Book Lately?

I frequent the public library to feed my need for audiobooks. If I go long without something in my car CD or tape player, I get a little twitchy. While I consider myself in touch with current publications, I often pick up an audiobook without any prior knowledge, unsure if it's brand-new or a few years old. In fact, when I listened to Olive Kitteridge, that was the case. I was pleasantly surprised when the book was announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner.

While I tend to read the back cover copy and the inside flaps of print text, I sometimes don't look at the CD case before I begin listening. Even if I try, I often find the library information laminated over it anyway. I'm beginning to think this may not be such a bad problem. I just finished listening to Jamie Ford's The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and even now, I'm not sure how the book was marketed. Because the protagonist was only twelve or thirteen during much of the narrative and because the book lacked any profanity or sexual references, I suspect it may have targeted young adult readers. When I looked in my most recent mailing from one of the book clubs that sends me mail, though, I noticed it listed there.

No matter what the intended audience, the story was one that appealed to me and, I suspect, would appeal to many adult readers--at least those who didn't turn to literature for their dose of cursing and sexual innuendo. I felt the same about The Book Thief, which was marketed to young adults. I hoped it wouldn't miss out on older readers because the story reached beyond any age barriers.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet moves back and forth between 1942 and 1986 in Seattle, Washington. During WWII, the protagonist Henry, a Chinese-American boy, befriends an American-born girl of Japanese descent, despite his father's passionate hatred for the Japanese. Keiko is the only other Asian student at the white school he attends on scholarship,. The story moves back and forth between the war-time debacle, the "relocation" of the Japanese to internment camps--purportedly for their safety--and Henry's life after losing his wife Ethel to cancer.

The story--in many ways a love story--pulls in historical threads related to the war and to the treatment of American Japanese, as well as a related storyline covering the Seattle jazz scene in the forties. I'm reminded once again of how literature allows readers to walk in someone else's shoes for awhile. I know that walking in Henry's shoes certainly sharpened my view. I've even found myself lookng for long-lost Oscar Holden records.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Seasonal Reads

Occasionally I've participated in the local library's "Let's Talk About It" program: The library provides on loan a series of books related to a single topic. I particularly enjoyed the "Madwomen in the Attic" series, which included (of course) Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys' clever The Wide Sargasso Sea. We also read Toni Morrison's Sula, Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, and one of my favorite short stories, "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Another series focused on the Civil War, including Doctorow's The March, Shaara's Killer Angels, and Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.

Consequently, I find myself imagining other possible themes. Looking over the titles of books I have read recently, I realized I had the start of a good list for October, particularly Halloween. Without planning to do so, I've found that several books I've enjoyed lately have graveyard settings. I couldn't help thinking of others.

I could start with Audrey Niffenegger's latest novel Her Fearful Symmetry, set adjacent to and in the middle of London's famous Highgate Cemetery. I'd add Neil Gaimann's The Graveyard Book. Another favorite I discovered a year or so back is Ray Bradbury's From the Dust Returned, the story of a human foundling left in a basket on the porch of a not-quite-human family. I've always loved his Dandelion Wine, which a former student called the perfect book for summer. This less-famous novel has the same beautifully written blend of nostalgia and subtle fantasy, set in autumn.

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights would be a perfect classic to add to the mix. I always considered Heathcliff's rant about the possibilities of being buried next to Cathy and digging over to her the perfect combination of romantic and creepy.

Post Script: Of course, I only have to hit "Publish Post" before all kinds of titles come to mind. I've picked up lots of other great recommendations as well. How could I forget poetry? I've actually used several of Kathryn Stripling Byer's poems during October: Her collections Wildwood Flower, Black Shawl, and Catching Light have some perfect selections for this time of year.

I've also been revisiting Clyde Edgerton's Floatplane Notebook, where the family graveyard works prominently in the plot. (What a lovely way to spend your time on the day before your wedding, cleaning the graveyard!)

I'm still waiting to hear more suggestions for readings with ghosts, witches and graveyards, which I will pass along.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Festival Followups

The best thing--and the worst thing--about attending a literary festival is that I leave with a list: books I must read. In fact, with the books there and the authors available to sign them, I don't always settle for a list. I have to have a book or two (or more).

Sure enough, after the recent North Carolina Literary Festival, I came home with (among others) Abide with Me, an earlier novel by Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, and The Wet Nurse's Tale, a first novel by Erica Eisdorfer, whose "day job" is managing the UNC's on-campus bookstore.

Strout sets Abide with Me in New England, following the story of an earnest young minister Tyler Caskey, in the early sixties coping with the death of his wife, the rearing of his two young daughters, and living under the scrutiny of his small-town congregation. Strout has a knack for presenting flawed, layered characters who frustrate readers, even as we grow to love them. As a preacher's daughter myself, I am particularly sensitive to treatment of clergy in literature and film. The only character more caricatured than a minister is probably a Southern minister. Strout escapes the trap into which so many writers fall, stooping to stereotypes.

The Wet Nurse's Tale took me must further back in time, as Eisdorfer spins an intriguing believable tale of an English country girl who follows her mother's path and becomes a wet nurse to women who either cannot nourish their own young or who prefer not to do so. Susan Rose is likable and believable. She has a quick wit, a keen sense of humor, and a pragmatism. Eisdorfer's period details and dialogue easily transport readers back in time.

In both cases, even though I had just recently heard the authors read from their works, I found that I was able to dismiss their voices, falling easily into the world they created. I am glad to know I have at least one more Strout novel Amy and Isabel yet to read. I do hope Eisdorfer is either deep in research again or typing away in her time off.