Thursday, May 27, 2021

On the Summer Reading List


Navigating my book stack--literal and figurative--has me making hard choices. With so many new books coming out every day and only so much time to read, my selections are based either on access or whim. 

Abi Daré's debut novel The Girl with a Louding Voice is a charming story of Adunni, a 14-year-old Nigerian girl whose father arranges her marriage to an older man with two other wives in order to pay rent with the bride price. Before her mother's death, Adunni had attended school and was eager to continue, hoping some day to be a teacher.

Not only does she have to deal with the exploits of her husband, but she constantly faces the anger of his first wife. She is befriended by the second wife, but a tragic turn of events leads her to flee her village. She ends up a housemaid in Lagos. All of her wages go to the man who delivered her to Big Madam, and she is limited to one meal a day. In her new surroundings, she also has to fend off the unwanted attentions of her boss's husband Big Daddy.

The tide turns when she is befriended by a young wife who lives on the same street. Tia, a young doctor's wife, finds ways to help Adunni improve her English and apply for a scholarship that will liberate her from her circumstances.

Daré deftly handles Adunni's rudimentary use of English, playing well to the reader's ear. As Adunni continues her lessons, her English improves with believable subtlety. Daré lso introduces each chapter with facts about Nigeria, a nod to the book Adunni discovered in the rarely used library of the house where she serves as housemaid. The novel presents many facets of Nigerian life--the vast differences between village and city life, the persistence of elements of culture that are most harmful to young girls--child marriage and slavery in the guise of employment.

Another book I read this summer is Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun. My first introduction to Ishiguro came with that lovely, subtle story Remains of the Day. I've since read Never Let You Go and The Buried Giant. Ishiguro manages never to repeat a literary success. Each book stands alone. The title character of this novel is an AF (artificial friend) in what appears to be the near future. While some details suggest the story is set in American, it remains indefinite.  

As the book opens, Klara and her friend Rosa live in a store where, along with other AF merchandise, they await purchase. Manager rotates them in and out of the window, the prime location for potential selection by just the right child. Klara, recognized as perceptive and observant, is selected by Josie, a young girl with physical difficulties that often leave her unable to leave her room. Klara is her companion and monitor, alerting the mother or housekeeper when Josie shows disturbing symptoms. Klara also meets Rick, the only neighbor, a boy about Josie's age with whom the girl has planned a future. While Josie has been "lifted," Rick has not, limiting his opportunities for higher education. 

During a trip back into town with Josie, her mom, Rick and his mother Helen, Klara meets Josie's father and gets his help in an attempt to save Josie's life, a deal with the Sun, whom Klara personifies and to whom she appeals. The mother, under the guise of a portrait sitting, has a more bizarre back up plan. In many ways, the book can be read as a story of sacrifice and devotion as well as a glimpse into a more unsettling future.

Another book making the lists this summer is Rebecca Serle's In Five Years. This book plays with reality in a similar mode as The Midnight Library and Oona, Out of Order. In this novel, the protagonist Dannie Kohan has her life planned out. Her long-time boyfriend proposes and life is good. Then she falls asleep and wakes in December 2025 in another place with a man she doesn't know and a different ring on her finger. 

She wakes again back in 2020 and keeps the experience to herself as she builds her career, interacts with her best friend Bella, and postpones her wedding. When the literal man of her dream begins dating Bella, Dannie is intent on avoiding or at least make sense of the future she had envisioned.

The summer of 2021 offers such a wide range of reading, no two books alike. Each one I finish opens up the opportunity for the next book on my stack.



Thursday, May 13, 2021

Women's Roles in World War II.


I have seen a trend in literature lately of telling the stories of women's roles in World War II. The ones I've encountered recently run the gamut from pure fiction to biography. At least three of the books I've read recently are set at least in part in Paris. 

Kristin Harmel's novel The Book of Lost Names traces the life of Eve Traube, a Jewish girl forced to leave Paris with her mother after her father was taken on a roundup when the two women were out of their apartment. She has to forge their papers to leave, and her talent for forgery is recognized in the Free Zone, where the two women are staying as they wait to escape to Switzerland. She is recruited by the local priest to help forge documents for Jewish children being spirited out of France. 

The book opens with Eve as an older widow in American, spotting in a news report a book that had been discovered, which she recognized as the volume she used to keep a record of the children's real names, lest they be lost.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles follows the life of Odile, a young Parisian woman who ends up living as a widow in the U.S. As Charles' epilogue explains, the book is based on real lives of people who worked in the American Library in Paris during World War II. They took chances delivering books to their Jewish patrons after they were denied access to the library. 

Charles' book divides the focus between Odile and young schoolgirl Lily, a neighbor to Odile in Montana. Lily befriends the woman they consider mysterious, a friendship that grows after Lily loses her mother and finds herself with a new stepmother and young brothers.

Both the young Odile and Lily often behave in ways that make them less sympathetic. Odile's infatuation with a young man leads her to overlook his questionable behavior. Lily's immaturity sometimes causes her to act thoughtlessly toward others who trust her as well. The saving grace of the book is the story of some of the employees and subscribers of the American Library in Paris whose lives were intertwined as they faced life in Paris under German occupation.

Next on my list is A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, the story of Virginia Hall, an American woman who acted with great daring and valor as a spy during World War II, despite having to live with a prosthetic leg after injuring herself in a shooting accident. Purnell spent about three years researching the life of Hall, not only detailing her undercover exploits but the difficulties that she had to overcome because she was a woman. She was continually placed in secretarial position despite her ambition and her abilities. The film rights have been sold for the book which has the potential to become a film of high adventure.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

She's Still Reading: Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering


When I go silent here on this site, I can guarantee it's not because I'm not reading. Instead, life has gotten in the way! This has been quite a (school) year: I'm still teaching part time and also going back to school in an educational leadership doctoral program, so I am certainly reading plenty. Never fear, though. Yes, I am reading a lot of academic texts--legal and political systems and organizational theory this semester--but I still make time for pleasure reading.

I want to share a lot of the books I've read recently, but the one I finished yesterday has been on my mind the most. When I interviewed a friend (my son's eighth grade English teacher who now teaches at App State), she recommended a number of books, and I have them in my stack now.

The first, The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, isn't my usual literary fiction. Instead, she writes about how to make the most of any occasion that brings people together, from dinner parties or church small groups to business conferences. And it is anything but dry. This is one of those books that had me thinking of who else needed to read it before I had even finished it myself. (Plenty of people have gotten the texts and emails from me.)

Parker talks about how to begin well--and to end well. One can easily steal some of her specific strategies. She points out how we often get too caught up in the logistics (those Martha Stewart style lists) instead of the people. She explains how a host who takes charge of an occasion is acting generously. She even gives suggestions for helping people process conflict in a productive, healthy way.

Several of her points made me think of occasions that had not been optimized, but I'm happy to say that she also made me aware of people who handle gatherings well. Some of the techniques reminded me of the best of the Great Teacher Retreats I used to attend in North Carolina. Most of us have been to an occasion, whether business or pleasure, that was so good we wanted to bring some of it back with us when we "reentered" our real world. 

I felt the same way when I finished the book. I don't want to put it on the shelf and forget what I learned. Instead, I want people I know to read it too so we can put some of the strategies into effect. After all, I think we are all eager to gather again.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Midnight Library: When All the Books Are Your Story

 I don't think I'm the only reader who finds herself drawn to books with "library" or "bookstore" in the title--and there are plenty. My next month's book club read is The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, but this week, I finished The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, which has a most unusual library.

As the book opens, the protagonist Nora is having more than a bad day. As the narrator reveals, hours before Nora wants to die, her cat Voltaire is found dead, her boss at String Theory lets her go, and she learns her brother was in town without letting her know. Her attempt to take her own life turns out differently from the nothingness she may have anticipated. Instead, she finds herself in an unusual library, staffed by Mrs. Elm, the high school librarian who had been kind to her. Nora learns that every book, all green, is the story of a life she might have lived, had she made a single different choice.

Mrs. Elm gives Nora a look at the book of her regrets--a painful experience--and then facilitates her book choices that let her explore all the roads not taken: What if she had not quit competitive swimming? What if she hadn't left the Labyrinth, the band she had started with her brother Joe and his friend Ravi? What if she hadn't called off her wedding just days before while grieving over her mother's death? Indeed, what if she had become a glaciologist?

Haig deftly creates suspense for the reader as he places Nora in her alternate lives--in medias res--with no idea what has happened to this version of her days even minutes before she enters the scene. She learns to pick up clues to her life, often causing those closest to her to assume she has some kind of memory problem. The concept around which the novel is built, the butterfly effect, may not be a totally new idea in literature, but Haig delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that suggests that there is no perfect life. Life, at its best, is messy.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Anachronism as Plot Sequence: Oona out of Order

 I don't mind a gimmick in a novel if it is crafted well and if it works. Shifts back and forth between place and time are part of the challenge and charm of a good book.

Margarita Montimore's novel Oona Out of Order is based on the unlikely premise that a young woman finds herself living one year  at a time but out of sequence. With a January 1 birthday, each New Year's Eve as midnight strikes, she finds herself on another January 1. 

In the opening chapter, she's celebrating her upcoming 19th birthday at a party with Dale, the love of her life. They're in a band together with an offer to open for a bigger band in the coming year. She is torn between the opportunity and a year in Europe she's planned with her decidedly square best friend.

Moving from 19 to her forties is quite a shock. Some version of herself has the presence of mind to leave a letter for whoever shows up in the coming year. She finds most of the letters. In the first time travel she arrives in a splendid house--hers--with her mother and her assistant, the only two people who know her real story.

Along the way, she finds love and marriage but with the ominous foresight to know they won't last, but not why. For all the times we have wished we could go back in time, "knowing what I know how," Oona's story suggests it might not help at all.


A Sequel to the New York Times' Modern Love


I am an avid reader of the newspaper. The real newspaper, not the online substitute. My roommate Susan and I even subscribed to the Tennessean when we were living in the dorm in 1975-76. The delivery guy set in on our windowsill.

I read with scissors and a pen. Monday through Saturday, I read through and then finish the Sudoku, crossword, and cryptogram. On Sundays now, I get the Tennessean  and the New York Times: More puzzles and more word games, the NYT Book Review. Sometimes it takes me most of the week to get to all the parts I like. 

I've been clipping favorite columns for years, which  explains the four-drawer file cabinets in the closet downstairs. Among those favorite columns is the piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal printed in the "Modern Love" section of the Sunday Times in March 2017 entitled "You May Want to Marry My Husband. Written as a dating site ad, Amy published what was essentially a love letter to her husband as she experienced stage 4 cancer. The piece extended her wishes--even her permission--for Jason to go on living after her. She died just days after the piece was published.

Now Jason has written My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me, his memoir that is every bit a love letter back to Amy, celebrating their courtship, marriage, and parenthood. He describes how the two intentionally made lists--part of their style--of their high expectations for living their lives together. They made plans for how to parent long before their three children were born.

Without crossing the line into maudlin and sentimental, Rosenthal gives readers the behind-the-scenes look at a good marriage and a good life, disrupted but not destroyed by cancer. Choosing to live with  purpose and a plan before cancer struck prepared them for the rough road they traveled together to the end of Amy's life. 

Before, Amy was the author and filmmaker in the family, but Jason has not only written the book but has made the TED circuit, sharing his story. One of the jewels of the book is a bibliography of books he recommends for other widowers. 

For the record, even with Amy's permission to move on, Jason still hasn't encountered the woman who answers to Amy's singles ad.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Reading Variety Spices up the Winter


Anyone looking for a pattern to my reading would be hard-pressed to find one (unless I listed the textbooks for my educational leadership studies. Don't worry. I won't.)

In this new year, I have enjoyed such a variety of books. One that I was most eager to read was Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague. Set in Stratford-upon-Avon, the book moves back and forth between the years Shakespeare spent in London, leaving his wife and children behind, and the earlier years when as a young man, he met Anne Hathaway (called Agnes in the book, as her father addressed her in his will). The author drew upon the scant historical details we know to weave a good story.

Part of the story is told by Shakespeare's only son Hamnet, whose twin Judith falls sick while he is alone in the house with her. All his efforts to find help fail. His father is in London, working at his craft at the Globe Theatre; his mother is out gathering plants for the healing for which she is best known. Judith recovers; Hamnet does not.

The story stands alone for readers without a familiarity with Shakespeare, but it is enriched when you know a little about the man considered by so many the greatest writer who ever lived. O'Farrell doesn't use gimmicks in the story. Instead, she puts together what is essentially a love story and a family story. Readers who have visited Stratford-upon-Avon and toured the Shakespeare family home will find the book especially appealing. The author's treatment of the small detail from his will that causes the most speculation, leaving his wife the "second best bed" is handled credibly too.

Another favorite this year is Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove. This is the story of a bank robbery that goes wrong due to the ineptitude of the would-be robber. It turns into a hostage situation with a group of people attending a real estate open house in an apartment upstairs from the bank. The story shifts perspectives several times, from the robber to a woman waiting, she says for her husband to park the car, to one of the women caught in the apartment who apparently goes to open houses with no intention at all to purchase, mainly interested in the view.

One of the things I like best is that at one point toward the end of the story readers will need to go back to the beginning to check to see some of their earlier misperceptions. The ensemble cast of characters--the hostage taker, the hostage, and even the father-son team handling the case--live up to Backman's standards in his earlier books.

I try to revisit a classic every year, and this year the choice was made by my book club. We had a great discussion of DuMaurier's Rebecca last year and decided on Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. This was a ninth grade favorite. Now I wonder how I read it when I was fourteen. It is dark, but fascinating. I suspect that the movie version with Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff that came out that year was part of my fascination. (The scene I remember most is his return after the long disappearance, wearing a green velvet suit, the camera moving from his boots to his face. Ah! What a transformation.) The movie took a few liberties with dialogue, but I still remember Catherine's "I am Healthcliff" speech. I enjoy the points of view of Mr. Lockwood and the housekeeper Nelly Dean, holding the strange main characters at just enough of a distance to intrigue.

I may have to read Lin Haire-Sargent's reimagining of the Story: H: The Story of Heathcliff's Journey Back to Wuthering Heights. I read it years ago and it sent me back to Jane Eyre as well.

Another powerful read this year was
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart. Set in Glasgow in the 80’s, this book reminded me a little of Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes). The title character is the youngest son of a cabbie who moves his wife and the children out of her parents’ home to a house in a declining area and abandons them. The older children make their escape to independence, but young Shuggie feels responsible for his alcoholic mother, believing that if he just loves her and looks after her, he can save her. Not a feel-good story, but very powerful and moving.

Another timely work of nonfiction is Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro. A writer herself, Shapiro submitted her saliva to on a whim and discovered that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father. She had always felt different, looked different, but had strong family connections, especially to her father. The story is very much her search for her identity.

One perk from reading a lot during the semester break was winning the "Book Binge" challenge on campus: The prize--a book bundle from Parnassus Books. Now I have quite a stack waiting for me when I take a break from reading about educational leadership.