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.


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.