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.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Festival Season--For Books Too

 Fall traditionally means festival season, with a number of my favorite music festival almost back to back in September and October. Usually, though, I look forward at least as much to the Southern Festival of Books, a splendid Nashville event held downtown between the Nashville Public Library on Church Street and Municipal Auditorium with book exhibits (and food trucks) of all kinds in between. 

This year's festival was moved to a virtual platform (with the recordings still available for those who missed them), and I'll confess that Zoom fatigue kept me from participating as much as I would have otherwise.

Nevertheless, readers have plenty to choose from right now. I dipped into some of the most recent releases in the past month. I started with Mona Awad's All's Well, a quirky novel with a decidedly unreliable narrator, Miranda Fitch, whose acting career (Shakespeare festivals, not Broadway) was cut short when she fell off stage during the sleepwalking scene in "The Scottish Play." She's left with debilitating back and hip pain, which certainly interferes with the job she has landed teaching theatre at a college where the drama budget is dwindling. 

She is dead set on staging All's Well That Ends Well, even though the students want to perform Macbeth instead. To complicate matters, she has to square off with the daughter of the school's biggest donor (whom she is always forced to cast in leading roles.) The plot moves between entirely believable (for anyone who's ever been involved in high school or college theatre) to implausible magical realism, including three men she encounters at her local bar who reflect Shakespeare's Weird Sisters.

Louise Penny's latest novel in her Three Pines series, The Madness of Crowds, just came out, moving immediately to the top of my book stack. Gamache and his family have returned from Europe. The novel is set just as the introduction of the Covid vaccines have restored hope, as a lecturer at the small local college is stirring up crowd furor. Statistic professor Abigail Robinson is the subject of an attempted murder on Gamache's watch. He and even more so his right hand man and son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir have to wrestle with their personal biases as they investigate the attempt and then a murder that follows. Penny weaves in the historical account of former McGill University professor Donald Ewen Cameron, who conducted horrendous experiments on patients in the 50s and 60s in the MKUltra project. She also introduces the fictional Haniya Daoud, a young female Middle Eastern nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her visit to the small village proves disquieting as well. 

One of my favorite recent reads has been Richard Osman's The Thursday Murder Club. Set in an upscale Kent retirement community, the novel has a delightful cast of characters. Central to the plot are the four residents who form the murder club, meeting weekly to try to untangle unsolved murders. Landing right in their laps is an actual murder that takes place just as the developer makes plant to expand the development and relocate the old cemetery, the resting place of the nuns at the former convent.

                                                               The characters manage to stay just one step ahead of the police,

though they intentionally involve a female policewoman newly transferred from London and relegated to serving coffee and making dull presentations on security at the senior center. Osman uses a variety of points of view, particularly the journal of Joyce, one of the newest members of the club. As Osman wraps up the plot in a satisfying way, he leaves the door open for future novels. The Man Who Died Twice, just released, is on my short list to read next.i

After his huge success with All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr has an easy instant readership for his newest novel Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anyone expecting him to do more of the same needs to reset expectations. This new novel doesn't resemble his earlier novel in any way--except that it is a beautifully written story with fascinating characters. I read it while teaching The Iliad, so the literary references to Homer and to all the many lost tragedies and comedies from that period of literary history struck a chord. 

Doerr's settings include medieval Constantinople during the attacks by the Sultan, Idaho from before the Korean War until 2020, and the late 21st century on board a spaceship headed away from the earth toward a planet believed capable of supporting human life. Cloud Cuckoo Land,  the fictional lost tale of the title, is a surviving codex by Diogenes, that weaves its way through all of the story lines, bringing the characters together: Omeir, a boy with a cleft palate forced to fight for the sultan; Anna, a girl raised in the abbey inside the city gates during the siege; Zeno Ninis, an unlikely octogenarian hero; Seymour, a socially awkward young man disturbed by the development of the woods near his mother's mobile home; and Kontance, onboard the Argo, the spaceship where she was born. The novel is, among other things, a beautiful elegy to all the lost texts.

With so many diverse books from which to choose, any reader can experience a reading festival of one. How much better, though, to be able to talk about these books with someone else.


Friday, September 10, 2021

Best of the Fiction Stack


A look back at my list of most recent books assures me that I've managed to keep a steady diet of good reading, even when I have more to read than ever for school. I have always enjoyed a book that gives a glimpse into the lives and work of great artists. Nothing enables time travel like a good book either. Laura Morelli's novel The Night Portrait follows multiple perspectives in two time periods: Much of the story takes place in Milan, Italy, during the 13th century, following Leonardo da Vinci and one of his few portrait subjects Cecilia Gallerani, captured by the master in "Lady with the Ermine"; the other storyline takes place during WWII, following Edith Becker, a German art conservator pressed into serve by Hitler's regime to locate works of art owned by wealthy Jewish families to add to the German collection, and Italian-American soldier Dominic Bonelli, assigned to guard the Monuments Men, who were working to protect art and architecture and locate stolen works.

I read the book Monuments Men before the movie was released and was particularly fascinated to learn that one of the real Monuments Men, Robert Posey of south Alabama, shares ancestors (named in the book) with my husband's family. 

Morelli weaves the story lines together smoothly. Edith feels guilty for her unwitting role in stealing art from private owners, particularly when she discovers that many pieces end up not in German museums but in the private collections of high-ranking Nazi officers. She decides to take the risk of keeping records of works taken, their owners, and their place of "safekeeping." Bonelli has a natural artistic talent, but questions putting soldiers in harm's way to safeguard art, not lives. His desire to return home to his wife and daughters, one he has yet to meet, exists in  tension with his realization of the importance of art to human beings.

Leonardo, caught in the intrigue of a palace where he is painting the mistress at the time the Duke weds, comes across as an interesting, multi-dimensional character. Cecelia's story is a variation of the that of many women whose future is decided by others, often fathers and older brothers. 

Another novel that kept me reading recently is Catherine Lowell's novel The Madwoman Upstairs. The protagonist Samantha Whipple is a young woman in her early 20s, the last living relative of the Brontes. Raised and educated by her father in Boston after her parents' divorce, she arrives at Oxford, where she is placed in a dorm room in the "Tower" in a part of the old school that is a regular stop on campus tours 

Having lost her father prematurely in a fire, she seems to be looking for the part of him left behind. While the world speculates about her supposed inheritance, Sam is baffled as one by one, his father's personal copies of the Bronte sisters' novels appear in her room.To complicate matters, Dr. James Orville, her tutor (or don) challenges her every idea about literature, while avoiding the Brontes as long as he can.

Though I haven't Googled for confirmation of my theory, as I read the novel, I realized that Lowell must have engaged in academic research on the Brontes. The novel has material that could, instead, have been a dissertation. Samantha's conversations during tutoring session with Orvilles, as well as in her interior monologue, explore a variety of interpretations of literature, the Bronte works in particular. She and Orville argue about reliability of narrators, the meaning of text, and the value (or lack of value) in reader response theory. All of the literary talk is supported by direct textual evidence, making me think of re-reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

Sam, the novel's protagonist is socially awkward, certainly missing opportunities to make new friends at Oxford in favor of following her own muse and trying to discover what her father wanted to tell her. Lowell incorporates some plot turns that require a willing suspension of disbelief. The romantic story line is less plausible. Teaching in a college environment myself, the teacher-student complications set me on edge a bit. Sometimes Samantha isn't even very likable--but she is curious, courageous, and willing to try different perspectives. I learned a few things about the Brontes and their works as well that 'd much rather have learned reading a novel than a dissertation.

I got the suggestion to read Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton from a former colleague who regular pops up in my messages with great book selections. I had trouble finding it at first because autocorrect had changed the title to Pickle County. The novel's main character Harley Jensen is a deputy sheriff in a small town in the Nebraska Sandhills still haunted by his mother's suicide. The story opens just as the patriarch of the Reddicks, a local family, decides to go ahead and have a funeral--without a body--for his son who disappeared years before, a crime Jensen's department has been unable to solve. 

Thornton also follows one of the Reddick sons, something of a reprobate who knows hot to get Harley's goat, and the other Reddick son's wife Pam, a young mother completely restless in her role as wife and mother. The unsolved murder and the disappearance of the elder Mrs. Reddick, long unbalanced, keep the tension and suspense throughout the story. The author deftly creates such a strong sense of place. Pickard County Atlas is a dark tale, but one that gets under the reader's skin. 


Friday, August 13, 2021

Mixing in Some Nonfiction

I know my reading choices throw the algorithms of all those sites trying to sell me books. I'm amused that because I bought a particular textbook (Surpassing Shanghai), I am suddenly inundated by books and articles related to education in China--a month after the course ended. Of course, six years later, Pinterest is still sending me moving tips (No thank you!). I don't need their suggestions for rehearsal dinners either.

Even when the book suggestions align with my reading tastes, they come along too late. I read through saying, "Yep! I've read that one...and that one....."

All summer, I've worked some nonfiction into my fiction mix. After the aforementioned course (Comparative International Education), I re-read With Rigor for All by Carol Jago (from Heinemann Publishers). It is the best kind of publication aimed at educators: one that can immediately put to use in the classroom. I have long known Carol from all the years I attended the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English. She writes based on her experience "in the trenches," teaching high school English. By the way, she is also  a voracious reader whose lists I seek out. In this book, one of the main points is that when schools teach challenging literature only to the "top students," while others are assigned books they can easily read on their own, the gap gets wider. Rather than stopping with a theoretical claim, she shares strategies for guiding all students through these texts.

Another favorite book I've discovered this summer is Electric City by Thomas Hager. The main story, set near my North Alabama home, is one with which I have been long familiar: Henry Ford's failed plans to build a 75-mile city along the Tennessee River, where agriculture and manufacturing would coexist in a way to benefit the many workers who would be employed in this "new Detroit." Hagar discovered the story and found an appreciation for the people of the Muscle Shoals area during a visit where he discussed a book he had written about fertilizer. (No, I haven't read that one.) His interest was piqued and he completed the research for this fascinating book.

Another book I've recommended both to other educators and to parents of school-age children is The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Interested in the P.I.S.A. results that show American students scoring far below nations with school systems as diverse as Norway and South Korea, the author visited American exchange students integrated into some of these other systems. The section of the book I found particularly interesting was the appendix, where Ripley explains how to recognize a first-class school. (Hint: watch the students, not the teachers.)

If you checked in for some fiction recommendations, hang on. I'll have those soon too. 


Thursday, July 1, 2021

June Reading


My June list of pleasure reading is usually much more extensive--but this is the first June in decades when I've been reading for classes I'm taking. My familiarity with comparative international education has been extensive, but doesn't make for scintillating book reviews.

Justine Cowan's memoir The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames was a book club pick, one I hadn't even heard about before it made our list. I'm glad it did. While the author herself is certainly an important character in this story, the focus is on her mother, whom she only learned later in life lived her childhood with the name Dorothy Soames.

Cowan describes her own childhood living with a demanding, emotionally abusive, enigmatic mother. She grew up resenting the woman, confused by her father's complicity and protection of his wife, and not close to her own sister.

When her mother gave her a manuscript of her story, Cowan didn't read it--until after her mother's death. What she learned sent her to England to uncover her mother's secret past. She digs into the history of London's Foundling Hospital, where children--usually illegitimate--were raised in factory-like precision. Her mother had been left there as a baby after her mother, a single woman without the means to raise her daughter, applied for her acceptance. The philosophy of the founders and those who worked there was that illegitimate children bore the shame of their parents and should be trained for a life of service--as maids, soldiers, or sailors.

During the course of her investigation, she not only uncovered her mother story, but also learned about the interesting history of the institution. Quite surprising was the appearance of Handel (who played The Messiah there to one of his first appreciative audiences) and Charles Dickens, who wove details of orphaned and foundling children into his novels.

While Cowan learned that after WWII the grandmother she never knew had been allowed to take home young Dorothy, she was unable to find anything about what must have gone wrong. Those pages her mother intentionally omitted. If this had been a novel, the author could have tied up loose ends. Since it is based on historical events, though, readers can at least be hopeful that those who care for parentless children now have learned much about how to help them develop into healthy, successful adults.

Having read and enjoyed Daisy Jones and the Six, I was eager to read Taylor Jenkins Reid's new novel Malibu Rising. As I began, I was afraid it was going to be a tawdry tale of the lifestyle of Malibu celebrities, opening on the fateful night of an annual party in a magnificent home overlooking the Malibu beach.  Instead, Reid weaves together the story of the children of Mick Riva, a Sinatra-like singer, and his wife June, whose family ran a local fish restaurant.

The house belongs to the oldest daughter Nina, a surfer turned swimsuit model, whose husband has just left her for another tennis player. Her two brothers Jay and Hud are a professional surfer and photographer, respectively. The youngest sister Kit is twenty but hasn't had a romance yet. 

While the story moves back and forth between Mick and June's on-again-off-again marriage and the children's progress to adulthood, the arc of the narrative moves toward the party, one they've given so long that locals who know about it show up without invitation. Reid manages to build a story that defied my expectations. Rather than delivering a version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Reid shows the survival of a family of children left to raise each other, each wanting something that wealth cannot deliver.

Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train, explores another type of transport this time. Her novel moves back and forth between England and Australia, when as a part of the British Empire it provided a place to send incorrigible convicts.

She begins with the story of Evangeline, a daughter of a minister who takes at position as governess after her father's death left her with no other options. She is seduced by the son of her employer, who leaves her pregnant and charged with theft of a ruby ring he gave her before leaving for Paris. She is convicted of theft and imprisoned, eventually loaded on the Medea, a boat filled with convicts headed for Van Diemen's Land, the penal colony. She develops a friendship with Hazel, a teen sentenced for stealing a spoon. The young girl had acquired folk medical knowledge and midwifery expertise from her mother, which stands her in good stead on the ship. 

In the secondary story line, Mathinna, a young native girl catches the attention of the British governor's wife, who takes the girl back home as a project--just as much one of her collectibles as the skulls and taxidermied animals in her parlor. While the exotic-looking girl can be dressed up and taught French, she doesn't live up to the woman's expectations and ends up in an orphanage.

Kline doesn't leave readers with a resolution tied up neatly. She doesn't make the writer's mistake of caring so much for her characters that she solves all their problems. Instead, she lets readers into the minds of clever, believable characters, some victims of circumstances beyond their control and others survivors.