Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Should Have Read It Sooner

I understand my students' reluctance sometimes to read assigned books--at least some of them, the ones like me who have plenty to read without having to feel obliged to read someone else's selections as well.  I confess now that I didn't finish reading The Scarlet Letter in the eleventh grade until after the test. (I'm sorry, Mrs. Williams).

Often, I get my best recommendations from my reading friends.  I've tried to quit taking the actual book though.  Borrowed books too often become my own property by common law (considering that old dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law). They also inspire guilt when I haven't read them yet (and the giver keeps asking) or dishonesty (when I feel obliged to claim I did.)

Often enough that I should have learned from it, I finally get around to a much recommended book and think, "What took me so long?" This was certainly the case with Watership Down, which was, I learned, so much more than "just a book about rabbits."  When the high praise comes from many quarters, I should pay even more attention. I know those readers who know me best.  I know whom I trust.

Why, then, am I just now reading A Prayer for Owen Meany?  I'm only half way through the book, and already, I am itching to talk about it with someone, anyone who's willing to discuss it.  The book defies description; Owen Meany defies description, and yet he is as real to me as any student sitting in my classes.  I've even seen the movie Simon Birch, based on the novel, and I still firmly believe that I cheated myself until I actually read it.

Interesting to me is that I know some of the main plot highlights (particularly the death of the narrator's mother, hit in the head--improbably--by a baseball hit by the strange and diminuative Owen.  That even not only isn't wrapped in suspense, but it is a recurring motif in the relationship between the two friends, Owen and Johnny--and everyone they know.

In many ways, the spiritual aspects of the book are most interesting, although they bear no likeness to any other book I have read that I considered a spiritual book.  I also find myself laughing out loud as I read more often than usual.  I want to stop and read certain passages to anyone who'll stop and listen. I may even harbor a secret urge to pick up Owen and pass him around the room, this boy who can play the Christ child and the Ghost of Christmases to come in the same holiday season.

Most importantly, I may have to revisit my shelves to see which books remain there on long-term loan from well-meaning friends, waiting for me to rediscover them--for the first time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Starting with a True Story

Several years ago, I read Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring in the same year, making me a Vermeer fan ever since.  Vreeland's novel was based on a fictional painting, not an actual (or existing) work by the Dutch painter, tracing the ownership from the present time back to the painter himself.  Chevalier built her story around an actual painting (housed now in a museum in the Hague).  I've since sought out works by Vermeer whenever I had the good fortune to visit a museum where one or more were exhibited.

As much as I love fiction--and if I had to choose between fiction and nonfiction, I'd choose the former and never look back--I also love a good story that weaves in history and fact.  The best book is one that sends me off exploring, wanting to know more.  I finished Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures this week, a story told in two voices.  One is a London woman who has moved to the seaside Lyme Regis with her two sisters, destined for spinsterhood, when their brother in London marries.  Elizabeth Philpot develops a fascination with the fossils of the region, particularly fossilized fish.  She meets a young local girl Mary Anning, from a poor family, known around the town for having survived being struck by lightning as an infant.  Mary has "the eye":  she collects fossils she finds easily, selling them to help support her family, something she learned from her cabinetmaker father. Despite their social differences, Mary and Elizabeth strike up a friendship based on their mutual interest and spend much time together walking along the beach hunting for specimens.

Mary's life--and eventually Elizabeth's--changes with the discovery of a large specimen they at first believe is a crocodile.  Instead, it turns out to be a large animal from the lizard family no longer in existence.  The find brings people from everywhere, either interested in studying--or procuring--Mary's find or digging up specimens themselves. 

The beast causes no small amount of controversy, particularly among those who feel its existence poses questions about matters previously unquestioned, particularly by the church.  The idea of extinction, for some, raises questions about the infallibility of the creator.

As contemporaries with Jane Austen (mentioned, but not appearing in the story), the women in the story face insurmountable limits.  Through she has more resources that Mary, Elizabeth has to slip around to go anywhere unchaperoned by a man.  Both of the women find their marriage prospects dim--Elizabeth because of her angular features, Mary because of her low social status. Their culture even pits the two against one another for much of the story after Mary finds the first "monster."

Now that I've finished the novel, I'm gratified to learn that Elizabeth Philpot did live in Lyme where she befriended Mary Anning, the fossil-finding prodigy, and many of the characters in the novel are based on real people as well.  Once again, finishing a book is just a start.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fun with Flavia de Luce: Judging a Book by Its Cover

Despite the old axiom, I have bought books before simply because of  an appealing cover.  Some of them sit on my shelf awhile before I actually read them.  I've also nearly passed over books because of a dull, unattractive cover.  I should know better.  I fell in love with books that had those old blue or green library bindings. They all looked alike.  They all smelled alike.

I picked up my first of Alan Bradley's Flavia deLuce novels because it was, frankly, pretty.  The title Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was cute too. Maybe too cute, I feared.  So it sat awhile. But when a friend whose reading tastes I trust said she was reading the books, I decided I'd give them a try.  Then I found the audiobooks at the library, and in no time, I was hooked.  The books are set shortly after WWII. The protagonist and narrator Flavia deLuce is an eleven-year-old girl,the youngest of three daughters who live in an English manor house that belonged to her mother, who was killed in Tibet on an adventure when Flavia was a baby.  The Colonel deLuce, Flavia's father, a philatelist, hasn't the income to cover the expenses of the house, which actually belonged to his late wife.

Flavia is a perfect narrator--she's clever enough to recognize (and cover for) her own naivete. Her oldest sister Ophelia, a young teen, is most fascinated with the mirror; the middle sister Daphne is a bookworm.  Flavia loves chemistry--especially poison.  She has taken over the lab that belonged to her late uncle Tarquin, and she uses her chemistry knowledge to try to solve murder cases in the vicinity, much to the chagrin of the police inspectors with whose work she often interferes.

In the fourth novel--the last so far--I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, her father is allowing a cinema company to use the home to film a movie in an attempt to remain solvent.  The movie stars one of the best known British actresses of the day, who agrees to put on a special Christmas Eve performance to help raise funds to re-roof the parish church. In short order, the group assembled in Buckshaw, the deLuce home, is dealing with a snow storm, a murder, the early appearance of a baby, and--of course--a murder.

As corny as it may sound, the books are just delightful.  Bradley weaves in chemistry, anatomy, and even Shakespeare.  Most intriguing, though, are the human dynamics.

I remember going to the library regularly when I was in junior high, always checking the shelves to see if they had anything new by Daphne du Maurier.  Face it, without Google, I had not easy way of knowing if she was alive or dead. (For the record: alive and still writing).  I suspect I'll be keeping an ear out for Bradley's next adventure with the young Miss de Luce.  I'm hooked.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

On Being a Book Snob

I realize that I often love a book that someone else just detests--or tears to pieces.  I read such a weird wide variety of literature that I couldn't even profile myself.  When those book buying sites try to suggest something based on what I've purchased before, I just have to laugh.  First of all, they don't even consider that I sometimes buy books as gifts. Sure, I bought two or three of those Miss Spider books--for my granddaughter--but that doesn't mean I'm into the genre. (Similarly, at the grocery store, the register keeps spitting out coupons for diapers and baby supplies just because one time I bought swim diapers; I also get lost of coupons for dog food and such, even though the dog died almost 18  months ago.)

One of the features I always read in the New York Times Book Review section is the interview with  famous people--usually an author, not a Kardashian--asking all kinds of reading questions: What's on your nightstand now?  Favorite book from childhood?  They are also always asked something such as, "What book do you wish you hadn't read?"  Some will take it in a safe direction--In Cold Blood, for example, because of it leaves terrifying images on the brain.  Almost no one, especially no author, will come right out and say that some popular bestseller  was a complete waste of time, ink, and paper.  That might produce bad karma or hard feelings.

This week, Nicholas Sparks was the first presenter in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series. I have always felt so fortunate to live in a small city that brings in the heavy-hitters that usually make up the list. We've had two U.S. Poet Laureates recently--W.S. Merwin, during his term, and Natasha Tretheway, before she was named to the post.  Both read in Belk Centrum, the smaller venue.  Just poetry, you know. hmmm.  They've had John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros; by even trying to name a few, I insult some of the wonderful writers I omit.  But I didn't go to see Sparks. 

I read The Notebook.  I have taught countless high school girls who read everything he publishes--and weep as they do so.  I had to stop at one.  Maybe my opinion was skewed by the information (second or third hand) that he researches what women want to read (i.e., books that make them weep unrestrainedly) and writes that. 

The feedback I've heard since his reading--most of it from college age and young adult females--his usual  pool of readers--was not flattering.  Writing? Getting published? Not that hard to do.  No problem.  If that were my experience, I would grovel and admit, "I am blessed and I am unworthy," and then I would admit, "This is not usually the case. Writing--especially good writing--is very hard work."

I understand (in a way, I guess) his being invited.  The board of my state professional organization actually had the closest thing English teachers have to a knock-down, drag-out fight over whether or not to extend our author's award to him and to have him appear at our conference (to boost attendance.)  In the end, we didn't.  I know his books will fill the library shelves--along with those other prolific bestsellers.  And to some degree, I am happy when some people will read anything.  I just wish they'd ask me for some better suggestions. My list would be a mile long.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Beginner's Goodbye

Several times recently, I've gotten into conversations about how long one must wait before giving up on a book. One rule of them is one hundred pages less one's age.  (If I make the century mark, I can even skip the preface.)  I've been reading long enough, though, to know that I am often rewarded for sticking with a book.  

Anne Tyler's novel The Beginner's Goodbye begins by letting the reader know that the protagonist's wife has returned from the dead, venturing through town with him in plain view.  I've read enough magical realism and fantasy to suspend my disbelief and read on.  (In fact, looking over my past month's reading, I find lots of supernatural elements--the ghosts of the native potter and her tribe in Gin Phillips' Come in and Cover Me, for example, and the life-sized dog visiting Winston Churchill in Mr. Chartwell, to name a couple).

In this novel, the narrator Aaron Woolcott comes across early on as less than likable.  He and his unmarried sister run their family's vanity press, which has its own line of how-to books, along the lines of the Dummies guides, perhaps just a little more superficial, hence the book's title.  Aaron is disabled, relying on a cane most of the time, and even in his own account comes across as socially awkward, manipulative, and grumpy.  

He married Dorothy Rosales, a radiation oncologist a few years older than he, whom he met as part of his "research" for one of their Beginners books.  Aaron doesn't seem to find any fault with their relationship until after her death (when a tree in the yard falls on the house, killing her).  As he carries on with his life, aware of and often annoyed by the solicitous treatment of others, he reexamines the marriage.  

After the accident, Aaron moves back into his childhood home where his sister Nandina lives, unwilling to enter his damaged home even to retrieve his clothing, wearing instead clothes far out of date from years before.  He contracts for repairs, using the business card of the only contractor he encounters, and doesn't even go to the house to discuss the progress or to make decisions, expecting the man to meet him at Nandina's house instead, leading to a romance for his sister.

Along the way, through the planning meetings at the publishing company, Aaron introduces his quirky co-workers, some of whom try to help him move on in his grief.  Aaron's epiphany--if it can be called such--comes only when Dorothy begins to reappear, giving him a different perspective on their life together, subtly convicting him in areas where he must at last realize he fell short.

For a time,I had trouble liking Aaron.  By the end of the book, I realized that Aaron had trouble liking himself.  I'm glad I rode out the journey with him.