Saturday, May 21, 2022

Summer Reading--While It's Still Spring

 Living on a school schedule, I love that my summer break starts in early May. I've always made an effort not to let my work get in the way of reading for pleasure, but summer always gives me a little more opportunity to whittle down my book stack.

I've worked my way through a few titles on the best seller list so far. Jessamine Chan's novel The School for Good Mothers was quite a surprise. It started as a realistic tale of Frida Liu, the mother of a young daughter Harriet, newly divorced and completely stressed as she tries to meet a work deadline from home with a child who won't stop crying. She decides to leave the little girl at home--safely contained--while she steps out for a cup of coffee. Losing track of time, she returns home to find the neighbors have reported the crying child, the police have stepped in, and she faces a court date to resolve custody. The judge's decision to send her to a new facility that trains "bad mothers" to be better parents gives the book an unexpected twist. The story takes on more of a Handmaid's Tale or Stepford Wives as Frida, like the other mothers there, is assigned an AI daughter with similar physical traits to Harriet, but the ability to record all of her words and actions. 

Jason Mott's novel Hell of a Book alternates between the story of a Black writer (of a novel called, no coincidence, Hell of a Book) during his book tour, involving many strange encounters, including one he calls The Kid. In a parallel narrative thread, another young boy called Soot by bullies because of the comparative darkness of his skin, deals with school conflict and then witnesses his father's death. The narrative keeps readers speculating about the connection between the two stories. The story is both unsettling and originally told.

Jennifer Egan's Candy House lives up to expectations for anyone who read her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. The first novel certainly proved to be prophetic in the way technology would begin to eliminate our privacy--even of our thoughts. In this new novel, a scientific discovery is coopted by Bix Bouton for his company Mandala, offering people the opportunity to "own your own consciousness." Realizing that characters from the earlier book make an appearance in this one has me considering re-reading Goon Squad for continuity and to see just how much of what seemed far-fetched then is our reality now.

These three are just a sampling of my fiction reading so far. Stay tuned for the nonfiction picks.


Thursday, March 31, 2022

Range by David Epstein: Good News for Generalists


I get the best book recommendations from people who know me well. Since I've started my new journey toward an Ed.D in Educational Leadership, I am reading a disproportionate number of academic texts. I love fiction. I love a good story. Somehow I must find a way to satisfy that urge too.

Recently, a friend I've kept up with who is also in higher education recommended David Epstein's book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialize World. I was barely into the book before I wanted to write a letter to the author and started thinking who needed to read the book along with me. 

I am an unapologetic universalist. (Well, I do apologize a little.) It says a lot that I have an undergraduate degree in accounting but have taught English for more than 30 years (not counting the time I spent teaching Lamaze childbirth and aerobics and selling real estate.) Even now, knee deep in my dissertation process, I find myself pursuing all my other interests. I'm still going to concerts, listening to great music, and writing about it. I mentor a student teacher, three young moms, and a thirty-something single who lets me borrow her cool jackets. I still sew, particularly handwork. 

Epstein opens the book Range with a side-by-side comparison of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Woods was primed for his golf career practically from birth; Federer tried out lots of sports. Things worked out well for both.

The book is full of stories that confirm what I've suspected all along. The best decisions are made, the toughest problems are solved with a variety of minds working together. Austin Kleon's books (such as Steal Like a Genius) would be perfect companion reads to this book.

Epstein reassures me that quantitative research alone cannot, should not rule the world. Ask those NASA scientists with "In God We Trust; Everyone Else Must Show Data" on the wall--and the Space Shuttle disaster on their resumes. 

What I loved most about this book is the opportunity to talk further about it. There are so many implications for the classroom, for example. I look forward to lots of ripe conversations as soon as my book people indulge me and check it out for themselves.


Monday, January 24, 2022

The School for Good Mothers: Amy Tan Meets Margaret Atwood


Even though some of the reviews had prepared me for the futuristic turn in Jessamine Chan's novel The School for Good Mothers. The author does not delay throwing the reader into the story on 39-year-old Frida Liu's "bad day," in which she leaves her fussy toddler daughter Harriet home alone to run for coffee, turning into a two-hour diversion. When the neighbors hear the girl crying and call the authority, the child is taken into protective custody and turned over to her father, Harriet's ex-husband and Susanna, the young Pilates instructor for whom he left Frida. Working with the same lawyer who represented her in the divorce, Frida meets challenges arranging chaperoned visits with her daughter with the social worker. She has to endure cameras placed throughout her apartment, part of a new program being test-piloted in the Philadelphia area. 

Even with the Big Brother atmosphere established before the court date, readers will still be shocked when Frida not only doesn't regain custody but is sent to a training camp for "bad mothers" on a former college campus. The women there are forced to chant, "I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good." The manipulation by the pink-uniformed attendants is unnerving, but when the women are issued robotic children simulating their own children for their re-education, the story takes a heart-wrenching turn for the creepy. 

Frida's interaction with the other women takes on the feel of women's prison, and her growing tenderness toward the "doll" child she calls Emmanuelle is testament to her yearning to be reunited with her own daughter. The difference in age and ethnicity plays a role in the dynamics. As the only Asian mother in the school, Frida is often odd woman out. 

In light of the current less-than-ideal system caring for child welfare, Chan's novel shows what can go wrong when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and experimentation ignores human realities.


The Feather Thief: Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

 January is off to a good start as I have read such a variety of books. One that fascinated and surprised me was Kirk Wallace Johnson's The Feather Thief, the true story of a heist at the Britain's Natural History Museum in the small town of Tring. Johnson was working to draw attention to the security and safety needs of Afghanis who had cooperated with U.S. Troops when this unusual story was brought to his attention during a fly-fishing excursion. 

He became obsessed with the story, starting with Alfred Russell Wallace, who spent years collecting rare and colorful bird species for the museum, while simultaneously with Darwin developing the theory of natural selection. After losing years of work when a fire broke out aboard the ship when he was returning with his collection, he returned to Malaysia to focus on the Birds of Paradise.

Johnson also provides historical background on the eventual movement to protect the beautiful but rare bird species after so many were collected for women's fashions. The account of a cape made from thousands of hummingbird bodies was enough to give me pause.

The anti-hero of the story Edwin Rist was a young American flute player studying music in England. His interest in music, however, was rivaled by his obsession with salmon flying tying. In that world, he was something of a prodigy. When he learned of the variety of feathers and bird skins stored in drawers in Tring, he broken in through a window and escaped with more than a hundred rare birds. (This is no spoiler alert, since the book opens with the heist.)

While it took the museum weeks even to know the birds had been taken, Rist was eventually brought to justice but let off with barely a slap on the wrist. Johnson, realizing many of the stolen birds were unaccounted for, took on the mission of tracking them down and finding the complete story. 

I knew about other art thefts--the Isabella Stewart Museum, The Scream, Mona Lisa, but this was a new story to me. Having recently read Rachel Joyce's novel Miss Benson's Beetle, about the search for a rare insect, this true story fascinated me with the drive to find unusual creatures in order to attempt to save them.


Saturday, January 1, 2022

My 2021 Annotated Reading List (Warning--A Long Post)

 2021 Reading List

Spoiler alert: This year, I couldn't just list the authors and books. I had to add some notes. I read fewer books than usual this year, since I'm in the middle of my late-in-life doctoral journey, but remembering what I've read what double pleasure.

Montimore, Margarita. Oona Out of Order—a good January read, since on Oona’s 1/1 birthday, she is sent to a different year, in random order.

Wetmore, Elizabeth Valentine. I would love to talk to someone else who read this one.

Rosenthal, Jason, My Wife Says You May Want to Marry Me. Be sure to Google the piece from NYT’s “Love Stories” to find his wife Amy’s essay that inspired this book.

Woodard, Colin. American Nations. This was a required reading for one of my courses this year that I found fascinating, particularly the idea that the U.S. is actually not one but several nations.

Dordal, Lisa. Mosaic of the Dark. (poems)

Harmel, Kristin. Book of Lost Names. There is no way to exhaust the stories from WWII. This one followed the story of a French girl who not only helped forge documents to help children escape Nazi-occupied France, but kept records of their real identities.

Applegate, Katherine. Home of the Brave.

Walters, Jess. The Cold Millions. I’ve read two or three other books by Walters—all different, all engaging.

Smith, Michael Farris. Nick. This novel builds the back story of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. Unlike a lot of novels told from another perspective, this one felt less derivative and could stand on its own.

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. The story of two sisters, one who chooses to leave, passing as white in a completely different world.

Saunders, George. A Swim in the Lake in the Rain. It’s hard to described just why I loved this book so much. It’s very much a reader and a writer’s book, using a selection of Russian short stories.

Haig, Matt. The Midnight Library. A lovely take on the ways one might sample the other possible lives.

Kozen and Kozen. The Trust about Leadership. Surprise! This one is a textbook.

Acevedo, The Poet X. This book that won the National Book Award for Young Readers tells the story of a young Harlem girl who finds her voice through spoken word poetry.

Schwartz, Harriet. Connected Teaching. This was a CTL book club selection at Lipscomb, and the author joined the last book discussion. We all needed to find ways to build stronger connections with our students, particularly when teaching remotely.

Lencioni, Patrick. The Advantage. This is another course assignment, dealing with how to build a cohesive team.

Charles, Janet Skeslein. The Paris Library. (See note on Book of Lost Names—another WWII novel). Based on a true story, the protagonist views Nazi-occupied Paris from the American Library there.

Shirer, Priscilla. Elijah: Faith and Fire. I enjoy Shirer’s “women’s Bible studies” more than most. She gets out of her own way and focuses on the Scriptures she is addressing.

Renkl, Margaret. Graceland at Last. I will write more about this essay collection by the Nashville-based NYT author, following on the heels of her lovely Late Migrations.

Lemmie, Asha. Fifty Words for Rain. This novel follows a young Japanese woman whose circumstances of birth send her away from her rightful family.

Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering. This was recommended by a friend whose reading judgment I respect. I find myself recommending it to anyone who wants to make the best of circumstances that bring people together, whether socially, academically, or otherwise.

Serle, Rebecca. In Five Years. If you knew how your life would end up in five years, would you or could you change it?

Bush, Tony. Theories of Organization Leadership and Management. Yep, another textbook.

Downs, Annie. That Sounds Fun. Reading this makes me wonder why people think it’s so hard to have fun.

Ripley, Amanda. The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way). This book, assigned in my International Education class was eye-opening. The appendix is useful for parents and teachers too.

Bowers, Cathy Smith. The Abiding Image. I loved this book by the former NC poet laureate. I remember her speaking about how the “abiding image” informs her poetry. This book is useful for anyone wanting to write, particularly creatively.

McCorkle, Jill. Hieroglyphics. I heard McCorkle and her fellow North Carolinian Lee Smith in conversation (facing Zoom trouble) during the Southern Festival of Books. I’ve never been disappointed by McCorkle’s novels. Even when I’m reading, not listening to an audiobook, I hear her distinct voice.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun. There is a subtlety to Ishiguro’s writing. This book, set in a future when families can select robots as companions for their children, is haunting.

Dare, Abi. The Girl with the Louding Voice. In her first novel, Dare deftly manages to allow her protagonist to gain her voice. I found it absolutely charming.

Cowan, Justine. The Secret Life of Dorothy Soame.  The author’s lingering bitterness toward her mother doesn’t get in the way of a true story well told, revealing a ugly side to altruism in London.

Reid, Taylor Jenkins. Malibu Rising. At first I had trouble engaging with this novel, fearing it was just another tale of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Learning the background from which the siblings at the core of this story emerged gave me more sympathy for them. 

Kline, Christine Baker. The Exiles. Baker manages to shift from one protagonist to the other in this novel of injustice in England, aboard ship, and in Australia’s penal colony.

Jago, Carol. With Rigor for All. This was a re-read for me, one I recommend for any English teacher. Jago is a leader in English language arts who learned in the trenches, teaching high school for many years. Every one of her books offers more than theory. I always find something I can take right into the classroom. 

Morganstern, Erin. The Starless Sea. Another mysterious, enchanted book for the author of The Night Circus.

Hager, Thomas. Electric City. This book was of particular interest to me, since I’m from the Muscle Shoals area, but his story of Henry Ford’s attempt to build a new Detroit in North Alabama would be of interest to anyone who likes nonfiction.

Lahiri, Jumpa. Whereabouts. Another collection of short stories from the author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies.

Schwab, V. E. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Sometimes immortality might be more a curse than a blessing, particularly when you could not leave a mark even on others’ memory. An interesting tale of a Faustian deal.

Berg, Elizabeth. The Confession Club. Berg is known for her novels of women’s friendships. I was far into this book before I realized that some of the characters from The Story of Arthur Truluv, one of my favorites by Berg, made an appearance in this book. 

Ellis, Helen. Bring Your Baggage; Don’t Pack Light. Sometimes, while reading this novel, I had the feeling like when I’m listening to a comedienne who comes on a little strong. It may be that sometimes the familiar feels a little uncomfortable.

Conley, Susan. Landslide. This novel pits responsibility as a mother against that of a wife. Kit’s husband is injured in a boating accident while away fishing to support them. The needs of her two teenaged sons pull her away from going to him.

Thorton, Chris Harding. Pickard County Atlas. This book was recommended by a friend and former colleague who always knows when a book is right for me. A Nebraska family deals with the unsolved disappearance of their son and brother, as the Sheriff deals with his own family’s past.

Anon. Epic of Gilgamesh. I taught this classic of world literature for the first time this semester. I found it especially interesting that it wasn’t unearthed until the nineteenth century and that pieces continue to be unearthed.

Chevalier, Tracy. Virgin Blue. This author builds the backstory to old works of art, bringing in a modern connection.

Jackson, Joshilyn. Mother May I. I honestly believe the best way to experience Jackson’s novels is by listening to her reading the audiobook. This tale of a kidnapping gone wrong keeps the suspense taut all the way through.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Book of Longings. I’ve heard others speak of a reluctance to read this story that imagines the perspective of a girl who marries Jesus. The author does a beautiful job of bringing readers to that world and developing strong female characters.

Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. This Haitian American author follows the interrelated story of daughters, mothers, and sisters.

Kooser, Ted. Splitting an Order. (poems) I have so much respect for Kooser, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and for his wonderful poems. This made me want to read more.

Morelli, Laura. The Night Portrait. Morelli weaves the stories of DaVinci and a Renaissance courtesan with the WWII story of a female German art restorer and an American soldier of Italian descent charged with protecting the Monuments Men.

Owens, Scott. Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming. I picked up Scott’s latest collection while I was back in Hickory for a visit, then had him to serve as guest poet for Black Dog Poetry Virtual Open Mic. This one lives up to the standard I have learned to expect from him.

Lowell, Catherine. The Mad Woman Upstairs. Attending Oxford, the last living relative of the Brontes deals with the heritage that can’t help but define her.

Osman, Richard. The Thursday Murder Club. This book was recommended by my dear friend, the late George Parks, a prolific reader who loved to talk books. I was delighted upon finishing the book to learn the sequel had just been released.

Ephron, Nora. I Remember Nothing. The late essaying and screenwriter, in this collection, deals with the all-too-real aspects of aging. I even learned to call that swirl that has appeared at the crown of my hair my “Aruba.”

Doerr, Anthony. Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anybody expecting another All the Light We Cannot See will be disappointed, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, Doerr goes back to ancient Greece and modern American in a tale that weaves mythology and science fiction into realism.

Awad, Mona. All’s Well. With the definition of an unreliable narrator this novel tells the story of a woman who has taken a job as a drama professor after an injury ends her own acting career. She is determined to produce All’s Well That Ends Well, even though her acting students prefer Romeo and Juliet. The element of magical realism brings in shades of “the Scottish play.”

Penny, Louise. The Madness of Crowds. Anyone who keeps up with my reading knows how much I love Penny’s novels. While this one touches on statistics in a way that would appeal to my professors and colleagues, I still insist that readers must start with the first book in the Gamache series, Still Life.

Osman, Richard. The Man Who Died Twice. Yes, as soon as I could, I read this sequel to The Thursday Murder Club.

Adams, Sara Nisha. The Reading List. A moving, well-written tribute to reading, libraries, and friendship, Adams develops the connections between Mukesh, recently widowed, and Aleisha, who works at his local library. I had read (and probably taught) all but one of the books on “the list” and will get to that one soon.

King, Stephen. Billy Summers. Whenever I read anything by King, I am reminded of what a good writer he is. His characters are layered and believable. It’s also fun that he always sneaks in little allusions to his other novels, in this case The Shining.

Towles, Amor. The Lincoln Highway. Towles is another author who never writes the same book twice. I have enjoyed (okay, loved) his other books, so I was eager to read this one. It’s a journey tale that takes inadvertent detours. Told in different voices, it incorporates Shakespearean and mythological allusions.

Dante. The Inferno. Reading this classic along with my World Lit I students, I found it so much more readable that I remembered. Like Paradise Lost, reading this work of literature adds to one’s cultural knowledge in myriad ways. 

Whitehead, Colson. Harlem Shuffle. For me, Whitehead is three for three. His protagonist in this story is trying to stay on the right side of the law, but just barely, with a strong sense of family loyalty.

Joyce, Rachel. Miss Benson’s Beetle. Not the VW Beetle, as I first imagined when this popped up on our book club list. Joyce’s characters are quirky but endearing, and they make the most unlikely journeys.

Harper, Lisa. How Much More. I'll confess this wasn't my favorite of Harper's Bible studies for women. The concept was a good one, but it felt disorganized and fragmented. Fortunately, the women in our class always brought rich discussion.

Jaswal, Balli Kaur. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. This would be a perfect book to pair with Adams’ The Reading List. For book clubs who like to serve book inspired food, these both require Indian cuisine (and a great cup of chai).

Coomer, Sandy. The Broken Places. This latest collection by my friend and Black Dog co-host is both painful and beautiful. Her ability to juxtapose is unparalleled.

Smith, F. Lagard, ed. The Daily Bible in Chronological Readings. This has been one of my favorite year-long journeys through the Bible. He pulls together the life of David and the Psalms he wrote on particular occasions, he groups Proverbs thematically, and he presents the harmony of the Gospels. I enjoyed it so much, it was one of my favorite Christmas gifts this year.


Thursday, December 30, 2021

Character-Driven Novels of 2021


One of my favorite books recently has been The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. The book, set in London, focuses on two main characters, with a charming cast of secondary characters. Mukesh is an older man, recently widowed, who discovers one of his wife's library books, The Poisonwood Bible, under their bed. He reads it to try to connect with her. The second main character Aleisha works at the library, though she certainly wouldn't consider the job a calling or even a career.

Her brother is the reader of the family, and the two of them awkwardly share responsibility caring for their mother, who suffers from mental illness. When Mukesh comes to the library, asking for other book suggestions, Aleisha initially brushes him off. However, feeling guilty--and not wanting conflict with her boss--she finds a book list someone has left behind and decides to read the books on it, beginning something of a book club for two with Mukesh.

Throughout the storyline, others find copies of the same list as well--To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, Cry the Beloved Country and more. Not only does the list bring together unlikely friendships, but each reader gets the lesson that seems to speak to him or her. Mukesh has to navigate new relationships with his adult daughters now that their mother is gone. Aleisha faces her own painful losses. What blossoms is a hopeful, mutually rewarding friendship in a story that explores the power of books and libraries.

I was introduced to Rachel Joyce's novel several years ago, and I particularly loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye and The Love Song of Queenie Hennessey. Joyce develops quirky, endearing characters and sends them on unexpected journeys. At the beginning of her latest novel Miss Benson's Beetle, the title character is that awkward stereotypical "spinster" school teacher, the one the students mock without really taking care not to let her see. In response to just such mockery, she quits her job and leaves, stealing a colleagues boots, and sets out to explore New Caledonia in search of the mythical golden beetle about which she had become obsessed as a younger woman.

Miss Beetle advertises for someone fluent in French to accompany her, striking out with each applicant. In desperation, she ends up taking along Enid Pretty, who arrives in a bright pink suit and hat as they board the ship. Only after they are underway does Enid confess the the only French she knows is bonjour. At first, both of the characters seem like such caricatures, but with subtlety, tenderness, and much humor, Joyce makes the characters come alive. Along the way, this mismatched pair alternate between the needy and the caretaker, the leader and the assistant.

The story will not make readers want to head out for a similar adventure, but like me, they may hope to see this funny little book come to the big screen. I'd cast the same lead actress for this book as I would for Olive Kittredge.

Several other books I've read at year end have been populated by unforgettable characters. The Man Who Died Twice, Richard Osman's sequel to The Thursday Murder Club managed to live up to the first novel. The four charter members are back with new crimes to solve. I hope he's already writing the next one.


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Reading the Classic with the Current Bestsellers

After teaching composition to first-year college students for five or six years, I had the opportunity to teach World Lit I this semester. Even though British Lit has always been my comfort zone, I jumped at the chance for some variety. Following the lead of my colleague who usually teaches the class (when he's not in London for the Study Abroad program), I focused on epic poetry, starting with Gilgamesh, which I paired with Robert Alter's translation of the book of Genesis from the Pentateuch. Then we read the Iliad and the Aeneid, immersing ourselves in the opposing sides and the aftermath of the Trojan War. We finished with Dante's Inferno (always making me think of a fellow in North Carolina who referenced the work: "...Dante's Inferno. Now who wrote that?"  Obvious answer: Dante). 

What I found, as did so many of my students, was that once you are tuned in to a classic work, you find allusions everywhere. Hardly a day goes by that the crossword puzzle doesn't have a clue related to Homer or the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods. Recently, I started reading the latest novel by Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway. I loved Rules of Civility, and maybe even more A Gentleman in Moscow. This book holds up to Towles' standards without resembling either book in the slightest.

Set in the 1950s, the novel follows Emmett Watson, a Nebraska boy, newly released from juvenile detention upon the death of his father. He and his younger brother Billy, upon learning their father left them over their heads in debt, decide to take the Lincoln Highway to California to start a new life. Billy dreams of finding the mother who left them a few years before, while Emmett plans to use the construction skills he learned before his life took a rough turn, to buy and repair dilapidated houses, selling them and starting again.

Their plans are interrupted by the arrival of two of his former juvenile inmates, Duchess and Woolly, who slipped out in the trunk of the car dropping Emmett at home. They are determined to take a detour in the opposite direction to collect Woolly's inheritance.

Billy's brother, a precocious boy and an avid reader, reads and rereads Professor Abacus Abernathy's Compendium of Heroes, Adventures, and Other Intrepid Travelers, providing inspiration and parallels to their journey. The young boy called Duchess has grown up with a father who was part vaudeville part Shakespearean actor, much of which has rubbed off on the charming trickster. Even their encounter with a railroad hobo named Ulysses didn't challenge the readers suspension of disbelief.

With Song of Achilles next on my reading stack, I look forward to another perspective on these old stories into which authors continue to breathe new life.