Friday, June 27, 2014

Sunday's New York Times Book Review section had a small column entitled "The Great Y.A. Debate of 2014" referring to a recent Slate article whose author not only admitted to not weeping at the end of The Fault in Our Stars but also suggested that adults should be ashamed of themselves for reading books written for children. All I can say is, "Oh brother."

The article quoted opinions from both camps--those who feel adults shouldn't be ashamed of their reading choices and others, such as A. O. Scott, the Times movie critic, who referred to the "problem" as "the cultural devaluation of maturity."

Would it please the court to examine the "adult" bestseller list, where the hundred and fifty shades of gray keep making their appearance?  Even the euphemism "adult language" in reference to movie profanity gives cause for pause.

What makes a work of literature YA?  S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (written when she was fifteen, yet a consistent favorite among teen readers) is often hailed as the first real YA novel, but if a book with a young protagonist or narrator is automatically considered Young Adult Lit, then there goes Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dandelion Wine, and Catcher in the Rye.  Sometimes books in the categories seem to have fewer explicit gratuitous sex scenes.

If adults must feel shame or resort to brown paper covers in order to read some of the best books that are slotted into this category, I'd suggest they start with The Book Thief, and after reading this summer's hottest YA movie The Fault in Our Stars, either check out other books by John Green, or move on the Rainbow Rowell.  My favorite this summer has been E. Lockhart's We Were Liars.  The Interestings by "adult" author Meg Wolitzer or Karen Russell's Swamplandia might also fit the bill.

In my humble opinion, with so many people skipping the book altogether and going straight to the movie or the HBO series, I'm just happy when people choose the book.  End of debate.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Blog Tour in Progress

 Welcome to my leg of the blog tour!  While I've been blogging for quite awhile, I hadn't realized how many of my former favorite bloggers have stopped altogether or at least taken a hiatus. I've enjoyed exploring who IS still out there writing and sharing.

 I was asked a week ago to join this endeavor by one of my fellow "Baker's Dozen" poets S.E. Ingraham.  She is one of several "good friends I've never met"--poets who got to know one another through our common interest in writing.

She is a retired mental health consumer, pens poems from the 53rd parallel where she lives with the love of her life, as well as a very old wolf/border-collie. Recently she's had work published in a number of online and print journals: Poetic Pinup Revue; Free Fall Literary Mag; and from kind of a hurricane press: Tic Toc, Something's Brewing, In Gilded Frame, Storm Cycle-the Best of 2012 and 2013, to name a few. She continues to work on chapbooks, and has  more plans for publication.  Ingraham won 2013's Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry contest, but her fondest accomplishment is a side-walk poem that will leave her words "written in stone" on a walkway near where her grandsons live. Her work can be found on her blog:

1. What am I currently working on?

While I have other blogs I use sporadically, I have been keeping up this one for several years now.  The name  Discriminating Reader came from Margaret Comer Epperson, who was my elementary school librarian, as well as my best friend's mother. Not only was she always sending good books my way, but I often monopolized her time on library day, needing her help to find just the right book.  I would tell her how much I had loved Charlotte's Web or Island of the Blue Dolphins, and ask her to find me another like them.  When she signed my yearbook in the third grade and wrote "to a very discriminating reader," I asked her what that meant.

"Some day, little girl," she told me, "you'll understand."

And I did.

For many people reading is a solitary pleasure, but I enjoy talking books. And since I get more time for reading (for pleasure at least) during the summer months than I do during the school year, I have tried to stay current with my book posts. This has been a great reading summer.

Although some people are reading purists, I will take my lit anyway I can.  I usually juggle at least one "real book" (paper and ink) simultaneously with an eBook on my iPad and an audiobook in the car.  The only disadvantage of audiobooks I've found is that I often don't know how names or places are spelled.  (This also helps me understand why some of my students can't spell: they don't read, so they don't actually SEE words.)  I thought at first that an eReader would help me curb my book collecting, I don't see a big change.  In fact, when I really love a book--even one I listen to on audio, sometimes I feel a need to own a copy.  This was the case this summer with Zevin's The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.  I knew that even if the author hadn't provided a list of all the  books mentioned at the end, I could at least create one myself.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I know there are other book blogs.  I check several myself, especially when I want to know what someone else has said about a book I particularly liked.  Some of the readers whose taste I have come to trust will blog about their favorites, providing me with fodder for my "must read" list.

The main difference is that my blog is about the books I read--not anyone else.  I rarely post negative reviews. Long ago, I remember a local journalist saying something similar about community theatre.  There's no point in writing a bad review.  Unless a book is SO bad I would want to warn others against it, I don't see the point.

I do occasionally include a post on a reading related topic that isn't a review of a specific book.  Since we have several venues for writers to read their works in my general vicinity, I sometimes add notes of those occasions.  One in particular I remember was Junot Diaz, who spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University's Visiting Writers Series.  He was one of those writers I have liked even better after hearing him speak.

Concerning the books I discuss: My reading list is eclectic to say the least. As to the "discriminating" part of my title, I just won't read some books even if they are on the bestseller lists.  I'm contrary enough that sometimes I avoid books (or series) simply because everyone else is reading them.  I shudder to think, though, that I might have missed the Harry Potter series for that reason if I hadn't learned about them before they became such a phenomenon--and that would have been a disaster.

While I prefer fiction--literary fiction--and poetry, I also find myself reading quite a bit of nonfiction.  My own teaching leads me to some topics.  In the past couple of years, I have team taught humanities courses on the Holocaust and on the South.  These two topics alone give me more reading options that I could ever exhaust.

3. Why do I write/create what I do?

I love the unlimited options of creativity. I post on this particular blog because I have so many people asking me what I've read lately and what they should read.  (How many others of you out there have a gynecologist who makes books notes on your chart during an annual pap smear?) I have always loved "talking books." I have letters exchanged with a friend when I was in fourth of fifth grade, and they all include reviews of whatever Nancy Drew book she had just finished.

I also spend a lot of time writing--poetry, fiction, nonfiction.  Right now I'm taking an online Flash Memoir class taught by Melanie Faith.  My "cuz" Sandy is the only other student.  We will have to fight for Valedictorian status.  I'm also working on art projects begun during my Photoshop class in the fall and my Printmaking class in the spring.

I have also had the opportunity to take several art classes at the college where I teach, so I have been adding to my skills and pastimes--photography, Photoshop, and printmaking, for example.  I have learned in these classes some lessons that apply to everything I do that involves creativity:  Take the time necessary to get it right. Try new things. Don't be afraid to start over.  Learn from the best.

How does your writing/creating process work?

For my Discriminating Reader blog, the writing goes quickly.  In fact, in much of my writing, first drafts come quickly.  When I am writing fiction, memoir, or poetry, revision is of utmost importance.

I always try to include a book cover picture, and I try not to give away any spoilers.  I don't always write about books in the order that I read them.  Sometimes I love a book so much that I want to start blogging about it before I'm even finished, hoping I'll convince someone else to join me in reading so I can be sure of having someone to discuss it with me when I finish.

I sometimes like to write about two books together.  I love how reading causes what my friend Steve would call "cosmic" coincidences.  Connections are everywhere.  I could probably develop book charts similar to those for "Six Degrees of Separation."

I have a couple of other blogs that I let flounder or hibernate then resurrect as needed.  My "Alabama Tarheel" site sometimes gets pressed into service for specific writing challenges.  I also have another "Since You Asked" blog where I've posted some of my art work from classes.  This blog tour might be just what I need to get those back on track too.

I'm "tagging" three other blogger friends who will be posting next week--Monday, June 30. I decided to go for a variety of content. Be sure to check them out:

Jane Harrison is an artist who recently retired from teaching art at Caldwell Community College with me. She blogs at She not only works on her art at her home with a scenic view in Happy Valley but spends time at the Penland School for Crafts where she will be teaching Mixed Media with Encaustic  from September 21 to November 14. She recently exhibited her work at the Mica Gallery in Bakersville, NC, and delivered a commissioned a large commissioned piece.

Margo (Jodi) Dill now lives in Seattle, Washington.  Her blog is called "It's Always Something."  Jodi has been a writer, she says, "since she was able to hold a pencil." She has worked in journalism, both in school and locally.  She has gone on to work as a travel writer and poet.  Her books include a memoir,  Nothing Gold, and a novel, Sing, and Don't Cry.  She has a current novel project in the works.  

Writer Shari Smith, a North Carolina native, now lives in Fairhope, Alabama, and maintains a blog called "Gunpowder, Cowboots and Mascara." In addition to her piece in The Shoe Burnin': Collections of Southern Soul, she has been published in Thicket Magazine,Wildlife in North Carolina, Western North Carolina (WNC), The Draft Horse Journal, O. Henry Magazine and Pinestraw Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel and a work of non-fiction, building a fence and in a mortal brawl with weeds along the creek bed.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Nonfiction Makes Its Way to the Screen

 Two of my summer books this year have been nonfiction works with an extended life.  I had been interested in the movie Monuments Men when I heard about it (but somehow have never found time to view it yet) because I've always had a real interest in some of the stories of art theft and destruction during war, especially WWII.

I'd read The Forger's Spell, the story of Han van Meegeren, whose forgeries made their way into the private collections of Goering, Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, a story set in the Hermitage when the Russians were diligently working to move their art works to save them from the Germans.  (I had first read the lovely poem "The Curator" by Miller Williams that introduced me to the fact that the pictures had been moved but the empty frames left hanging.)   Other books that had piqued my interest:  Thousand Splendid Sons by Hosseini, which described some of the ancient statues and other art destroyed by war, and Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna, in which I first learned that treasures of the the National Gallery were removed and hidden at the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, during the war.

In Monuments Men, readers are introduced to a number of major players. At first they seem like a lot of keep straight.  When I consider trying to accomplish their goal, though, the number seems far too small. They had few resources and had to make up their game plan as they went along, trying to protect churches, cathedrals, sacred texts and priceless artworks.  Many of these works were endanger simply because of their proximity to war, but as Hitler and the Nazis had specific plans to take any Germanic arts back to Hitler's home for a new museum, the threat increased exponentially.

One of my surprises came when I learned that one of the Monuments Men was Robert Posey, from a poor farm family in Alabama.  He not only played a big role in this effort but went on to work (as an architect) on the Sears Tower in Chicago.  The men involved in this project came from diverse backgrounds and seemed to work together effectively (which doesn't always happen in this kind of assignment.)  The author also pinpointed a number of citizens who played a huge role in saving or finding artworks.

At the end, while I celebrated the discovery of thousands and thousands of works--Rembrandts, Vermeers, huge altar pieces, and more--I had to wonder about all the art that was lost--or the art stolen from Jewish families that still haven't made their way back to rightful owners.

In a completely different vein, Orange Is the New Black, the true story of Piper Kerman's experience in women's prison on a ten-year-old drug charge, has become a huge television hit.  I had no idea it was based on a true story.  Kerman, a blue-eyed blonde twenty-something, the well-educated daughter of an upper middle class family, describes her actions that led to her fifteen year sentences and incarceration in Danbury, CT.  While not as dramatic, violent, and "sexy" as the television show is reported to be (I'm not a TV person. OK?) the story is fascinating.

Despite seeming completely out of her league, Kurman learns more than survival skills. She takes care of her body and mind, while learning to befriend her fellow prisoners and to stay out of trouble with the prison CO's.

An article in a recent Rolling Stone reports that Kurman is now working for prison reform.  Anyone reading the book can certainly see areas that need fixing.  She also shed a lot of light on the ineffectual way the legal system deals with drug law enforcement and the lack of genuine focus on reform in prison.

Kurman's books has the narrative structure of a good novel, and I enjoyed her honest self-appraisal in the book.  While I admired her self-discipline, I hope never to need a prison stint to accomplish personal growth.  I look forward to her future ventures into writing.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Books Appearing in the Mailbox, Shuffling My Reading List.

Books affect me in so many ways. I read some that I can't wait to finish, so I can pass them on to someone else.  I've written authors fan letters in the middle of a book. Sometimes a book doesn't stick with me (The Chinese food metaphor words--you're hungry again in no time.) Others haunt me.

Some books taunt me:  YOU could never write a book this good, they whisper.  Others take me places (and times) I might never visit otherwise.  Some make me care about ideas and issues I didn't before.  Some books make me laugh out loud; some make me cry.

When I started reading The Shoe Burnin': Stories of Southern Soul, I wanted to have been at the party, that first gathering years ago when the firewood ran out and old shoes started going into the fire--with one stipulation.  Each one deserved a story.

Eventually, some of the original players and others they've net along the way came together to share their stories.  Sometimes shoes play a key role, but at other times, a reader will have to look for them, the way moviegoers learned to watch for Hitchcock's cameo in each film.  Edited by Joe Formichella, the collection contains fictional tales, memoir pieces, poems, and on the CD that comes with the book, songs and spoken word pieces.  Often the lines blur between fiction and nonfiction. As Jennifer Paddock notes in "Burning Blue," "the more you remember something the less accurate it becomes."

Some of the names I knew personally. North Carolina singer-songwriter Michael Reno Harrell shares stories from his life that explain how he ended back in music, how he wrote one of the first songs he recorded, and how he learned empathy.  Hickory poet Scott Owens has a piece, and Ed Southern, director of the North Carolina Writers Network, tells a story of two Carolina men who decide to go help with the cleanup and rebuilding in Alabama after the last round of devastating tornados.  Novelist Suzanne Hudson (In the Dark of the Moon; In a Temple of Trees) is represented, as is North Carolina native Shari Smith transplanted in my home state of Alabama.

The short pieces could have been read in any order (and I've found myself going back to several of them), but Chuck Cannon's "Holding onto This One, " which closes the collection, read like it was written by someone who'd been living his life right beside mine, particularly the memories of growing up as the child of the preacher of a conservative Southern church.

Someone else reading may be struck in different ways by the pieces in this collection, but any writer--Southern or not--will have to exercise great restraint to avoid leaving pencil notes in the margins.  And I dare say that any reader will look at shoes just a little differently from now on. I would swear mine have started reminded me of their stories too.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Caring for Your Books--REALLY Caring

While I still have a growing number of books about which I plan to post this summer, please allow me to take a little side trip here today. Here's the back story: I just returned from the National Great Leaders Summit at the Kanuga Center in Hendersonville, NC, the site of the annual Great Teachers Seminar as well.  The Great Teacher Movement alone deserves more than a simple blog post. Suffice it to say that I spent three and a half days in a most pleasant setting with some of the finest people in the world from eleven states.

Our ages, experiences, and personalities varied widely--made evident by the "sorting" activities conducted.  One glaring difference related to technology use. No surprise.  David Gottshall, the founder of the Great Teacher Movement 45 years ago, has never owned a computer.  Some of the younger members of the group, teachers earlier in their careers, were actively using technology the whole time, taking notes on their iPads, quickly Googling on their phones when a question arose.

One of the activities of Great Teachers is to share a book of influence.  As one might imagine, books play a huge role in the life of educators, not just those of us in the English/Language Arts fields.  On the last day, as we shared from our selections I noted a few things that made me think--and laugh.

First, one or two of the people in attendance had borrowed a "clean" copy of their books, rather than sharing their own raggedy, coffee-stained volumes.  Ironically, those books drew less perusal than the ones with paperclip markers and sticky notes.

As we shared, the first couple of people who chose to read a selection from their phones or iPads had "technical difficulties": the page was there, then it wasn't.  Scroll. Scroll. Scroll.  David Sherrill of Texas was exuberant, cheering and holding up a paper copy and turning easily to a page.  When Kay Crouch shared from her paperback copy of The Ugly American (so old it had a fifty cent price tag), she admitted to feeling a little embarrassed at the secondhand copy's condition when she shared it on the book table.

 Discussions developed about how our favorite books often showed those signs of use.  The picture here hardly does justice to some of those books I've read--and taught--over and over.  My copies of Cold Mountain and Huck Finn are rubber banded. The covers hang on Watership Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Separate Peace--to name just a few. I could buy new copies--and I often do in order to have a copy to share--but these often-read copies are priceless to me.

Several years ago, one of my book clubs (Book-of-the-Month, I believe) sent members, gratis, a slim paperback copy of Dirda's How to Care for Your Books.  Ahhh! I thought. This is just for me. I don't just care for my books; I love them.  But no!  The book was obviously intended for book collectors, not book readers (which should have eliminated BOMC readers, since those editions are rarely collectible, I would imagine).  He told tips for not creasing spines, not getting food or drink anywhere close to a book.  It really boiled down to this one simple bit of advise: For heaven's sake, don't READ your books.  You'll devalue them.

Oh well.  I think my books enjoy more of a form of tough love.  I read and re-read them, sometimes leaving them open, face down (gasp!).  Not only do some of them bear coffee stains and the occasional crumbs, but DNA tests might also find evidence of tear stains.

I write in my books.  I often flip to the inside back cover of a book I am re-reading in order to make a note--the page number and a snippet of lines I like--only to find I had noted the same passage earlier when I read the same book.  When I loan books, I let readers make their own notes. I often ask them to sign a date my books they read.  I even more strongly encourage them to RETURN the book when they are finished.  Those notes may render the book less valuable on the open market, but they infinitely more valuable to me.  My books provide a journal of my life incomplete in any diary.  They crowd my shelves--double rows in places--and they pile up on every surface, but oh, how I do care for them.

Friday, June 6, 2014

My Summer YA Fix--Or Is It?

Amid all my other reading this summer, several books I've chosen show up on the YA list.  Sometimes the label fits for obvious reasons.  Even if grown women, even menopausal women, read the Twilight  series, they unquestionably target young adults.  Young adult females, to be precise. The same is probably true for lots of the series books.

Other books, though, end up on that list because of a young protagonist--or sometimes because they don't have graphic sex maybe--but they belong on a wider reading list.  The Book Thief, for example, which has returned to the bestseller list now that the movie's out, should be read by all people of all ages.  The protagonist may be young, but the narrator (Death) is almost as old as time.

This week, I read "We Were Liars."  I'd seen the title everywhere. John Green (author of The Fault in Our Stars) wrote the front cover blurb.  Once I started reading (on the elliptical machine), I had a hard time quitting.  I ended up finishing the book in bed when I couldn't sleep. Then I really couldn't sleep.  Now I need someone else to read the book so I can discuss it.

The main characters, one of the "liars," is a teenage girl Cadence Sinclair Easton--Cady--is one of a group of cousins who spend each summer at the family's private island near Martha's Vineyard.  Her maternal grandparents, a wealthy Boston family with a large house showcasing their collections--original New Yorker covers, for example, have built homes for their three daughters as well.  Now that all three marriages have broken up, the daughters still come with all their children in tow.  One of the aunts has a new man in her life, and his nephew Gat has been coming along since they were eight and has become an inseparable part of the "Liars" (a title they give themselves distinguishing them from the "littles"--the younger cousins.)  The Sinclair grandchildren share their family looks--pale blue-eyed blondes.  Gat Patil stands in stark contrast with his dark skin, his Indian features.

The story moves back and forth between summer fifteen and seventeen.  In the first year, after Cady's father leaves them--when Cady and Gat's friendship leaves the cousin-friend zone, Cady suffers a head injury in a swimming accident, resulting in excruciating migraines.  She spends summer sixteen--against her wishes--touring Europe with her father, writing emails to the other Liars, detailing the horrible food she encourages him to eat.  She returns to the island for four weeks in summer seventeen and tries to piece together her lost memories of that earlier summer.  She has also begun a process of giving away her belongings--her pillow to a homeless girl, for instance.

Lockhart uses Cady's contradictions, her hyperbole, to reinforce the "Liars" label, slowly alerting readers that things are seldom all they seem.  Now I need to start back at the beginning to pick up on all the little details I missed the first time through.