Monday, December 29, 2008

The List: 2008

I'm hesitant to post the list of the books I read this year, since technically I have three more days. I am confident that I'll finish listening to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer (even if I have to sit in the car in the garage to finish listening.) I am also almost finished with Clyde Edgerton's latest novel The Bible Salesman. I would have finished it long ago, but since he's the featured author in our spring Writer's Symposium and we'll be using the book in our classes, I wanted to read it more deliberately.

This is the list I have kept this year. I try to write the author and title of everybook I read (or listen to on CD) on my wall calendar. Occasionally, I may forget to jot one down, but at the end of the year, I feel a certain satisfaction, along with the frustration over the ones I haven't read yet. Here goes (with some brief annotation):

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This one is nonfiction, and it changed the way I shopped for groceries. My favorite story, however, is her account of breeding heirloom turkeys.

Uris, Leon. The Haj. I had read my first Uris novel, Exodus, in about the ninth grade. I still remember staying up late into the night reading. I had to read past the parts describing concentration camps or I would have nightmares. This book is the same part of the world overlapping time periods but with a focus on the Muslim people. It didn't give me much hope for peace in that part of the world, but I learned so much.

McCaig, Donald. Rhett Butler's People. I enjoyed the book, but I had a little of the same feeling I had when I watched First Knight: Wow! These people have the exact same names as the people in one of my favorite stories. They sure don't act the same thought.

Collins, James. Beginner's Greek. This is one I enjoyed yet haven't been able to discuss with anyone else. A young man always dreams of meeting the girl of his dreams on an airplane. He does, but when he gets to his hotel room, her phone number is missing from his pocket.

Gardner, Angela Davis. Plum Wine. A young North Carolina woman teaching English in a Tokyo University* during the Vietnam War era inherits a chest of plum wine from her Japanese neighbor and discovers secrets about the woman's past.

Groff, Lauren. The Monsters of Templeton. Set in a fictionalized version of Cooperstown, NY, a young woman returns to her hometown at the time the corpse of their Nessie cousin floats up in the lake.

Edgerton, Clyde. Killer Diller. Walking Across Egypt has long been my favorite Edgerton book, but I hadn't read this sequel yet. Listening on CD was wonderful. It was laugh-out-loud funny and touching all at the same time. Wesley falls in love.

Grisham, John. Playing for Pizza. I hadn't ready any Grisham in awhile, but this was available on CD at the library. It was nothing like his courtroom dramas, but was a much better book than his Painted House. The scenario--a failing third-string quarterback signing with an Italian pro football team--is entertaining. It also makes me wish to travel to Italy simply for the cuisine.

Allen, Sarah Addison. Garden Spells. This novel set in Asheville, NC, with mention of Hickory, could best be described as magical realism. The characters and their situations are intriguing, although sometimes improbably (more magical than real).

Follett, Ken. World Without End. I've been waiting on this one since I read Pillars of the Earth--and I'll admit that I read it late. I always enjoyed Follett's thrillers too, especially Key to Rebecca, but I couldn't wait to get back to this time period and the next generation of his earlier novel. He did not disappoint me!

Picoult, Jodi. My Sister's Keeper. This was a book club read. I knew lots of people who had read her stories and loved them. This one was heartbreaking and surprising. More than usual, I cast people I knew--in this case, former students--as the book's characters. She has a knack for adding an unexpected twist.

Konigsburg. E. L. Silent to the Bone. This is a YA novel I "read" on CD. A young boy is incapable of speech after an accident that gravely injures his baby sister. Naturally, he is accused of hurting her.

Hollaway, Kris. Monique and the Mango Rains. This nonfiction book is a Peace Corps workers story of her time in Mali working with a young woman trained as a midwife. The book has motivated many to help raise money for cliniques and midwifery training in the region. A moving story.

Young, William P. The Shack. I just read this week that this was one of the top seller for the year. What a shame it wasn't edited better. The story is intriguing, and it has touched many. I think the strong point is her metaphorical representation of the trinity (the Father, a black woman; the Holy Spirit, an Asian woman; and the son, typecast as a Jewish fisherman.) Since I have trouble sometimes visualizing God as something other than a Gandalf-type figure and Jesus as the pretty face in the Renaissance paintings, the book was helpful in that sense. I just wish someone had been attentive to the egregious grammar errors.

Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames. He makes me laugh out loud. Okay, sometimes I groan too. But David Sedaris has mastered the use of tone in the written word. My friend Amber saw him life recently and commented that she had laughed so much her face hurt. I understand.

Adamson, Gil. The Outlander. This is one of my Lemuria First Editions books, and so far I've had no one to discuss the book with me. It's the story of a woman who has killed her husband and is heading west, pursued by his brothers.

Earley, Tony. The Blue Star. This is the sequel to Jim, the Boy, a simple little novel I loved. Earley is a native of Rutherfordton (Ru'f'ton), NC, now teaching at Vanderbilt. He has a way of telling a simple story without being simplistic. His protagonist Jim is young, flawed, and believable. I love the kid.

Patchett, Ann. What Now? I have loved her novels, especially Bel Canto, so when I saw this little book, just perfect for a graduation gift, I read it--and subsequently kept it. I had to buy other copies to give away.

Tyler, Anne. Digging to America. I'd meant to read this one for a long time. Having gone with my best friend Debbie and her family when they traveled to China to adopt Allie, I am always interested in similar stories of international adoption. This one traces the lives of two families whose only connection at first is their adopted daughters. The older generation, particularly the Iranian adoptive father's mother, are strong sympathetic characters.

Miles, Jonathan. Dear American Airline. Anyone who has flown much lately knows it's just not fun anymore--and it's not dependable. In this little book, a man is stuck in the airport missing his the rehearsal dinner, and potential the wedding, of his only daughter, from whom he has been long estranged. He passes the time writing a letter of complaint to the airline--and translating Polish fiction. It works--but don't expect nonstop belly laughs. It's a different kind of funny.

Wallace, Daniel. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. By the author of Big Fish, this is a quirky fascinating story with a interesting and odd array of characters.

Jackson, Joshilyn. Between, Georgia. Sometimes an author really can read her works better than anyone else. She knows her (my) South. This one and her next deal with some handicaps in interesting, almost educational ways.

Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide. I read this because we had chosen to add it to the list of texts for the Holocaust class at the college. Very concise and accessible.

Shaffer, Mary Ann and Annie Barrows. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I loved this little epistolary novel set just after WWII in England. I knew nothing about the German occupation of the Channel Islands until I read this book. But I enjoyed it for the characters.

Wroblewski, David. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This is probably my most memorable book of the year. People either love it or don't. I did. I think he makes his dogs as real as Richard Adams' rabbits in Watership Down, but the people remain central. The book broke my heart.

Rash, Ron. Eureka Mill. I went on a poetry binge for a few weeks. I heard Rash read from this and his upcoming novel Serena at CVCC in the spring. This series of poems was influenced by his grandfather, who left the farm to work in the mill. I like that in his poems, as in his fiction, Rash doesn't draw easy lines. This isn't a "mill owner--bad; millworker--downtrodden" dichotomy. Not at all.

Kooser, Ted. Flying at Night. If I'm going to read some recent poetry, Kooser's on my list. I have heard him a couple of times at NCTE. He is so genuine, and his poems touch a common nerve.

Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. I guess this was my summer of the bubonic plague. Not long after reading World Without End, I happened upon this tale of an English village struck by the plague. This one was fascinating and at times horrifying.

Byer, Kathryn S. Coming to Rest. Kay Byer is our state poet laureate--and she is just a fine human being. She takes her position seriously, encouraging poets and teachers and students. I recommend any of her collections. (I also have a link to her blog on my list.)

Lindsey, Sarah. Primate Behavior. Another NC poet I read duiring my month of heavy poetry reading. (Mind you, I read poetry all the time--just not always whole volumes).

McFee, Michael. Shinemaster. McFee teachers at UNC Chapel Hill, and the week before I met him in a poetry workshop in Winston-Salem, one of his poems was featured on Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac. I love his work.

Rash, Ron. Serena. I felt from the start that this would be Rash's breakout novel. I've loved everything he's written so far, but Southern writers tend to get pegged as regional writers. (Does that happen to writers from other parts of the country? If so, I wonder who's writing novels I'm missing?) In this book, there are allusions to Lady Macbeth, but it's not just another Shakespeare retelling. The story is set in 1929 in NC timber country. What I found interesting was that although Serena is not a nice woman, I still found myself in some way sympathetic. I've read books (recently even) that had protagonists I just couldn't care about. This was not the case. I also found her husband complicated and interesting. Her minor characters--the wronged woman, and the "Greek chorus" of timbermen--are fascinating as well.

Jackson, Joshilyn. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. This is another novel by the author of Gods in Alabama. Again, there are complicated family relationships and no easy answers.

Mortensen, Greg and David Oliver. Three Cups of Tea. Now, after having heard Mortensen speak in San Antonio, I am more than ever intrigued by the dynamics in Afghanistan. I have alos learned that a young adult version of this book has been published, as well as a children's version Listen to the Wind. The book has inspired "Pennies for Peace," the efforts of school children to raise money for schools build through Mortensen's efforts. I suggest reading along with viewing Charlie Wilson's War. Mortensen enlightens viewers on Wilson's frustration voiced in the end of the film.

Garwood, Ken. Replay. I bought this book for about a dollar on because my sister mentioned it. It's a little sci-fi, not usually my genre-of-choice, but I liked the concept: A man dies of a heart attack in his thirties ( I think) and regains consciousness in his college dorm. He relives his life, with full awareness of his previous experiences, making some minor changes, only to drop dead again around the same time, then to start over. The book isn't new, so the terrorism references in one of his life were eerily foreboding.

Packer, Ann. Song Without Words. I had read Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier a few years ago. Similarly, this book deals with people suffering in complicated ways and not always able to express to those closest to them what they are feeling. The book was a little dark, but I enjoyed listening to it.

Gould, Steve. Jumper. I read this book at the insistence of a student. It reminds me a bit of Replay or even of The Time Traveller's Wife, though not as well written. In the story, a teenager who lives with an abusive father discovers an ability to jump to other places he has been. He hones the skill and tries to put wrongs to right, first in his life, then in the world.

Hill, Joe. Heart-Shaped Box. This is definitely not a book I would have picked up to read, but I had seen reviews and it was available at the library's Books on CD section when I needed something for a road trip. It was creepy and terrifying at times. I pictured the protagonist as Kris Kristofferson (which gets me through the book!) I'll admit: I couldn't quit listening. He's an aging rock star obsessed with death who buys a ghost over the Internet and learns that it is the stepfather of a former young groupie who committed suicide after he sent her home.

Pausch, Randy. Last Lecture. I also listened to this on CD. I'd read about the traditional last lecture given by this professor in his forties who knew he was dying. The book is expanded from the lecture but a gift to his children who must grow up without him.

Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. I had to try one of these novels, since my neice and all the girls I teach in Sunday school are reading them. I can see, I guess, the attraction, but the comparison to the Harry Potter series is only applicable in sales figures. Rowling's novels will stand the test of time. I don't know about this series.

Berg, Elizabeth. The Art of Mending. I hadn't read any of her novels in awhile, but this was a sad story of a dysfunctional family in denial.

Hoffman, Alice. The Third Angel. The story is told in three overlapping parts. It was billed as the story of three women who loved the wrong men. Maybe, but that's like saying The Old Man and the Sea was about a bad fishing experiences. I think it goes a little deeper than that. The main setting is a London hotel with a ghost, whose story in some way touches all three women in three different decades. She starts in the present, then works back in time.

Draper, Sharon. Forged by Fire. I have a long story about first meeting Draper at an English conference in New Orleans and going on to dinner. Since she's continued to teach and to write. In fact, one day a few years back, I opened the newspaper and saw her picture with the announcement that she'd been named national teacher of the year. This is a young adult novel, a good book especially for boys--and I know teachers are always looking for books boys will read.

Picoult, Jodi. Nineteen Minutes. Our book club decided to read another Picoult book, so I had this one loaded on my Sony eBook for my Washington trip. I accidentally packed the charging cord for my camera, not my book, so I was horrified the whole trip that it would go dead before I finished the book. This one is the story of a school shooting, told from multiple perspectives. I think it would be a good work of fiction to use with a psychology class. Again Picoult throws curve balls at the end of her novels, and this one is no exception.

Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle. This was a re-read for me, but since we were reading the book in classes and I had heard Walls speaking at Appalachian State, I was intrigued to read again. Actually, I have a firm rule that when I assign a novel for a class, even if I've read it a dozen times or more, I read what I assign them to read. It keeps me honest and keeps it fresh. This book, nonfiction, amazes me.

Kingsbury, Karen and Gary Smalley. Redemption. I don't read a lot of the Christian fiction. My sister does, as do many friends I know. I decided to try this one when I found the CDs in the libray. I think I'll wait and read more of it when it quits sounding exactly like a romance novel without the sex. It was too predictable and unbelievable--not so much the scenarios as the dialogue. And the names! Eeek! Straight out of soap operas. If I'm missing something better, someone please tell me.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Wow! If you want a great listening experience, this is it. This book, read by the author, had me going right after something else by Alexie. Someone else please read it so I can talk about it!

Winfield, Jess. My Name Is Will. This is a clever little novel intertwining the life of the real William Shakespeare with that of a grad student, whose mother gave him the first and middle name William Shakespeare, trying to complete his thesis.

Brooks, Geraldine. March. Little Women by Lousia Mae Alcott is one of those books from my childhood that I can't separate from my childhood. It's one of the first novels I remember reading--and re-reading. This novel by Brooks, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of the father of those girls and his experiences as a chaplain during the Civil War. He is at times homelessly naive and idealistic. Her research on the period, the author, her father, and the novel help to weave together a novel worth reading.

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This novel was first recommended by Carol Jago at NCTE in San Antonio. I also noticed that the woman next to me on the plane (also on the way to the conference) was reading it. Her comment--a little too raw for the classroom but a great read. My out-of-town reading group chose it as the January read, so I started--and read quickly on the trip to Alabama. I love a book that weaves different perspectives so well.

That's it: the list so far. When I finish the other two, I'll probably edit and add a postscript. For now, I'd love to see others' lists.
* I stand corrected.

P.S. I finished one more:
Foer, Jonathan Safron. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This is one of those books I want to recommend to just the right people. Since I listened to it as an audiobook, I must add that the readers were excellent. Sometimes I don't like to have more than one person providing the voices, but in this case, the two provided the voices for Oscar's grandmother and grandfather, both with slight German accents. It was perfect.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers by Dannye Romine Powell, Doris Betts said that character is more important than plot; that's why we can read a story or a book again, despite knowing how it will turn out. The characters call us back like old friends. To be honest, I don't necessarily forget the way plots unravel, but I can read a book time and time again, anxious lest the ending change. I always have to see if Miss Bennett ends up with Mr. Darcy at the end of Pride and Prejudice this time.

Once I was listening to a tape of Dr. Zhivago on a long road trip and I came to the point at the end when Zhivago spies Laura from a train or trolley and tries to catch her--or at least catch her attention. Just before he drops dead in the street, the tape broke. In my mind, there was a distinct possibility that in this latest version, he caught her and lived happily ever after into their golden years.

I've been thinking this week about the parts of books I do remember long after I close the book. All too often, I forget the ending of a book. I'd never be able to pass the kind of test kids take on their Accelerated Reader (AR) books (but that's my soapbox for another day.) Most often I remember the plot details that are most unsettling.

Right now I'm listening to Jonathan Safron Foer's second novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on CD in the car. I picked it up the same week that I saw the movie of his first novel Everything Is Illuminated, one of the most intriguing, funny, touching movies I've seen lately. In this new book, Foer's main character Oscar Schell is a young boy whose father died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Oscar is an odd, intelligent, sad child. The book pulls together his search for the lock that fits a key he finds in his late father's closet and the stories of his grandparents (so far, at least. I'm on tape five).

Without having finished the book, though, I know I'll be most haunted by a section in which his grandfather encourages his grandmother to type her life story. She argues that she can't type and that "my eyesight is crummy." He sets her up in their guest room with his old manual typewriter and she writes for months--at least a thousand pages. When she reaches the present, her husband looks through the stack that has accumulated, sees blank pages, and realizes he removed the ribbon years before. Her eyesight is obviously worse than he thought. But he doesn't tell her the truth about her project.

I don't think I'm giving away anything of the plot by revealing this part of the story, but I know that it's one part that will eat at me for years to come. I carry around a similar true story I find equally disturbing: my friend had her father's love letters to her mother he wrote while serving in WWII. They were in his native tongue, which my friend couldn't read, so she threw them away. I asked why she didn't have someone translate them, and she admitted it hadn't occurred to her.

With most of the books I've read easily accessible for a re-read, I don't worry if I forget much of what I read by the time a year has passed. I can always go back. I do like to revisit the parts of stories that seem so true, so real that they never leave me.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Curled up with a Good Book

I know it sounds idyllic--curled up with a book--but I do so with a great sense of relief. I have submitted my semester grades, so now I can give myself permission to recuperate from gall bladder surgery yesterday. Although rest mode is not my natural state, I have found that the body knows when to insist. Yesterday, I fell sound asleep sitting up reading the newspaper.

If I let myself think about it, I might get concerned. I have presents to be wrapped (and even bought) before we leave for Alabama tomorrow to spend an early Christmas with the family there. I have always finished before, and I have great confidence I will do so this year. John was born on December 21st (27 years ago) and I managed to be ready for Christmas then.

At the year's end, I plan to post the list of all the books I read this year. I enjoy taking the time to transcribe the list from the wall calendar where I record them as I finish. But the year's not over yet, and I have some car time this week, so I could finish another book or two before Baby New Year arrives.

I do recommend Uncommon Reader (mentioned in my earlier blog), especially for bibliophiles. It's a slim book, a quick read, but like the Queen, I want to take notes as I read. I see myself so often. I also finished March by Geraldine Brooks. Since I was listening on CD, I listened to the end of the Afterword, and I am glad I did. She finishes with a nice apology to her husband, the Civil War buff. Now I want to re-read Little Women. Brooks put a great deal of research into the novel. In addition to a familiarity with Alcott's novel, she read about Bronson Alcott's life, Emerson, Thoreau, battle accounts, Civil War hospital records, and other works that gave her book an authenticity.

For now, I am ready to start Junot Diaz' s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and to enjoy a cup of tea. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Uncommon Readers

I don't know whether it's a result of happy coincidence or of paying attention, but so often I'll find that two or more books I read simultaneously or consecutively will hit similar themes or ideas. This weekend I began listening to Geraldine Brooks' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, the story of the father of Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women. The book will be the Big Read for Hickory in the Spring, and I assume Brooks will be reading during that time. I have a copy of the book, but when I came across the CDs at the library, I couldn't resist, having just finished the Sherman Alexie book I mentioned earlier.

Meanwhile, I just finished reading My Name Is Will by Jess Winfield. It was light (especially for a book about Shakespeare)--a fun read, but not quite scholarly. The author moves back and forth between the story of William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan bard and a young man whose mother named him William Shakespeare (first and middle, not last names). He is struggling to complete (or even to begin) his master's thesis. The subtitle, Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare, explains some of his academic obstacles. The author has had some fun interjecting lines and allusions that most Shakespeare scholars will recognize, although he admits taking some liberties with history, particularly with his time line.

Needing something to read at bedtime, I moved on to Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader, a fictional account of Queen Elizabeth in which she falls in love with reading. What struck me about both this book and March is the effect that books have on human beings. In March, as a young man, the protagonists ends up spending time at a Virginia plantation, while working as a peddler. The plantation owner is dismissive until he learns young March has books among his wares and invites him into his impressive library. March ends up spending time as a guest for awhile, reminiscent of Odysseus under Circe's power.

In Uncommon Reader, the Queen starts reading for pleasure, evidently for the first time in her life, and her method of selecting books and soliciting book recommendations is familiar to any reader. Although I'm just barely into the book, I love her feigning illness in order to stay in her room and read. Oh! to be Queen for a day.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Heard a Good Book Lately?

I used to be a one-book-at-a-time girl, but for many reasons, I now find that I balance different kinds of books. Of course, I have to be capable of the reading equivalent of multi-tasking because I have to prepare for all the different courses I teach and the reading that comes along with the job.

Now that I have my Sony eBook, I always have one book going there. I load it up (and ideally I charge it up) for travel, and I use it when I walk on the treadmill. The pages are easy to turn and the print size is adjustable.

I also keep a "real book" going all the time. You remember the kind, don't you--printed on real paper and bound together?

Since I have a little bit of a commute every day, I also absolutely must have a book on tape or CD for the car. This week I have listened to Sherman Alexie reading his own book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I'll admit that I haven't read Alexie before, though I've intended too. He comes highly recommended, but I just hadn't gotten to him yet. When I saw this CD set at the library, I grabbed it.

This has been one of those books I have to recommend to other people. Before I even finished it, I was telling everyone about it. Something about Arnold "Junior" Spirit, the Spokane Indian, just fascinated me. The book made me laugh out loud at times, but it also broke my heart. He tells a lot about the situation of Indians on the "res," but he also has such insight in to humans.

I can't wait to find someone else who's read the book because I'm ready to talk about it!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Christmas Lit--the Revised Standard Version

I like to ease into the Christmas spirit in my own way. It doesn't happen simply because Steinmart and Target start hanging wreaths and piping in the canned carols; "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" sounds a little goofy when I'm still in short sleeves. I regularly opt out of the Black Friday shopping rush, and reading of the shootings and trampling deaths that occurred this year only confirms my decision.

I prefer a little literary transition into the spirit of the season. Of course, the account in the gospel of Luke serves well, but most of you already know that one. Here are a few more reading suggestions for you:

When I taught high school, I found that some pieces of literature just begged to be read aloud. Since my fondest remembrances of grade school include Mrs. Knott's reading the Little House series to us each day, I have no doubt that hearing a good story doesn't replace the desire to read; it stimulates it. Furthermore, since far too many videos were playing in classrooms up and down the halls, I didn't feel compelled to justify my reading aloud occasionally to students who were perfectly capable of reading to themselves. One story I read every year, usually to every class, is Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory."

Anyone who loves To Kill a Mockingbird enough to do some background reading knows that Truman Capote was the model for Dill, the neighbor who is passed around among relatives. This is his story of Christmases spent with a favorite cousin, much older than he, but always a child. The dialogue and details are Alabama true, and I've never read the story without a big lump in my throat by the time I reached the end.

A few years ago, I discovered a tiny little book Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol by Tom Mula. The author, an actor and playwright himself, had played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He was bothered that Marley, who takes the time (something of which he in unlimited supply, of course), to give Scrooge a chance for redemption yet did not have the same. This is Mula's attempt to right that wrong.

If you prefer humor to sentiment, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson is a good laugh-out-loud Christmas story. I've never seen the stage version, but after reading the book, I feel as if I have.

Last Christmas, my friend Claudia gave me the small book Angela and the Baby Jesus, a story by Frank McCourt of his mother Angela as a child who rescues baby Jesus from the local nativity scene. It's short enough to read (aloud, of course) at a family gathering. Another one Claudia shared with me is Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales.

Of course, you may feel free to read all the different versions of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"--Cajun, Redneck, and such. Whatever it takes, you're still more likely to get into the spirit with a good book, not with a trip to Bath and Body Works or Abercrombie.

I knew as soon as I published this post, I'd have remember other favorites. In this case, Amber Owens' comment reminded me that I'd left off at least a couple of the funniest. She mentioned David Sedaris' "Six to Eight Black Men" (from Dress Your Family... and also on the Live at Carnegie Hall CD), which she call "the best short Christmas story EVER. Best, of course, on the CD in the author's own voice." I realized I had forgotten another of his best, "Santaland Diaries" from Holiday on Ice. Yes, hearing him read his stories is the best way to encounter them, but I honestly believe he has such a skill with developing tone that his voice comes through in print. I first read "Santaland Diaries" while giving an exam. I kept catching myself almost laughing out loud. Heaven knows we need some laughs at the holidays!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I Did It--and I Didn't Do It!

November is always such a busy month, and this one has taken the cake. With the Washington, DC, trip with the Holocaust class and the trip to San Antonio, TX, for the English conference, I was over-committed. Then I read about NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. But I heard about it through Poetic Asides, the poetry blog I've been participating on since April's poem-a-day challenge. Robert Lee Brewer, the moderator, issued a new challenge for November: Write a poem a day, working toward a chapbook. He issued prompts each day, and we were off.

Since I've been writing with these people since April, we have begun to feel like we know each other. In addition to writing our own poem drafts daily, we read the others and often comment. I'll admit that a response to one of my poems always made me happy. A lot of my poems had references to music, particularly that of my teen years (when music was great.) I also included some literary allusions, which should come as a surprise to no one who knows me.

I actually started the month trying to undertake both challenges. My novel, however, didn't go the direction I wanted, and then in Washington, I just couldn't keep up with the 1600 plus word limit per day. I finally did something against my nature: I didn't finish. I decided February will be a much better month for a novel; November was just right for poetry.

Now I have a nice little portfolio of poems and a little over a month to tweak them, select my best 10-20, and submit for bragging rights. For the time being, we're back to once-a-week Wednesday prompt, andI'll admit it: I miss the daily challenge.

One thing I know for sure: poetry is alive and well in the world!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Read Nonfiction?

I'll admit that I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction. This hasn't always been the case, as I recall. In elementary school, I spent long periods of time at the biography and autobiography shelves, reading all the nurse books (Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell) and the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor (who, I learned, has Asheville, NC, connections). I moved on to Lincoln and to George Washington Carver (who, if he lived now, would be searching for something productive out of tobacco and kudzu). I also went against gender expectations and explored the "We Were There" series, most memorably We Were There at the Battle of Bataan.

Fiction, however, always had my heart. If I listed my top one hundred favorite books, I'm sure more than ninety percent would be works of fiction. At the recent conference, I was gratified to hear several speakers discussing concepts I've believed for years: First, that fiction contains much truth, and second, fact does not always equal truth.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended, in fact, discussed the blurring of lines. One can read historical fiction and learn so much, and one can read memoir and recognize or suspect a certain tampering with exact details. Then there's James Frey's Million Little Pieces.

At my favorite session, Readers Ourselves, I was intrigued to note how many nonfiction titles were mentioned this year. This year, though, one reason I was excited to be going to NCTE in San Antonio was the chance to hear Greg Mortenson, whose book Three Cups of Tea has been quite a publishing sensation. Mortenson is the man whose failure to reach the summit of K2 led to a night in a village in Afghanistan. There he learned that the children had no school and promised to return and build one. He did something extraordinary: he followed through on that promise and has spent his life in Afghanistan and Pakistan building schools.

Before he spoke, Mortenson endured what must be torture for some authors (and the reason others write): posing for pictures with fans. When he spoke, he wasn't the polished orator showing off his wordcraft. He was a passionate advocate for education as a tool for peace. He moved back and forth, pacing as he spoke with genuine conviction.

His message: the real enemy is ignorance. His strongest message is the need to educate girls, quoting an African proverb: If you eduate a boy, you educate an individual; If you educate a girl, yo ueducate a community. He said that a girl who learns to read and write goes home, and her mother asks her to write a letter to her family. This empowers the family. They take the newspaper wrapped around the vegetables and says, "Read to me." He says that the Koran requires that before taking part in a jihad, one must get permission and blessing from his mother. In fact, he has a former Taliban member working as a teacher. He got out because his mother told him he was doing wrong.

The Taliban and other jihadist groups recognize this power, building over 480 schools--educating mostly girls--since 2007. Their greatest fear is not the bullet but the pen. Mortenson pointed out that we don't hear much about the good or bad in education in these areas. Education is, to some extent, invisible. He gave an example, though, of the first girl in the first village to complete her education, devoting two years to the study of maternal health care--at a cost of only eight hundred dollars for the two years' study. If I got the number right, before she began her work, between five and twenty women in her village died each year in childbirth. Since 2000, that number is zero.

This part of the story brought to mind a book I mentioned earlier on the blog, Monique and the Mango Rains, the story of a Peace Corps worker who spent two years in Mali working with Monique, a local woman trained in midwifery. Both of these books, though not great literature by academic standards, are true stories told simply and passionately. As a result, many readers, particularly students, have been moved to do something. The Pennies for Peace program started by school children has raised a great deal of money for Mortenson's project. A young adult version of Three Cups of Tea has been published, as well as a children's version Listen to the Wind. Similarly, many readers have begun to help raise money for training and clinics in Mali and surrounding areas, to help decrease maternal death and infant mortality.

Fiction can half a similar impact on one's beliefs and sensibilities, but nonfiction offers something tangible: a name, a point of contact for anyone who wants to help bring about positive change in the world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

For Your Reading Pleasure

As promised, I'm listing a few of the titles I heard discussed over the last several days at the NCTE conference in San Antonio. Some of these were mentioned by speakers, some were shared during interactive sessions, and some titles came up during conversations.

One morning, I had an early breakfast and came downstairs at the hotel a little early to choose sessions for the day. The other woman down there at the time looked up from her reading to ask if I was there for the convention too. She was reading This Full House, the third in a trilogy of YA novels by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and she had tears in here eyes. We launched into one of those heart-to-heart sharing sessions that happen so easily between teachers of English. We both taught Holocaust classes. She is a middle school teachers but, like me, she also teaches some classes at the local community college. In addition to the Wolff books (beginning with Make Lemonade), she insisted I should read Sherman Alexie's Flight, a book of redemption, she says. She also mentioned Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, which is set in Vietnam and "totally Shakespeare." We both taught Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and used " At the Un-national Monument Along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford.

At the "Readers Ourselves Session," I came away with several pages of notes on books that interested me. Keep in mind that for this particular session, an annual favorite at the conference for the last fifteen years at least, participants are encouraged to talk about what we are reading for pleasure, not what we are teaching.

Among the many, many titles, I noticed that several books mentioned were described as "thin" books, perfect for book clubs. One I am especially interested in reading is Bennett's "Uncommon Reader," a fictional work in which the Queen of England happens into a bookmobile and falls in love with reading, eventually trying to bring together her favorite writers in one place--a fiasco.

Lots of the books mentioned this year were non-fiction, such as Little Heathens, a memoir set "on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression" by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Someone mentioned a book called Canon by a science writer who asked many people in different fields of science, "What is the key idea in your discipline?"

Lots of people are reading graphic novels, a genre that I haven't entirely embraced, beyond Maus. Someone mentioned a graphic novel by a 9/11 widow, a "tough, powerful read." Another recommended Embroideries, a graphic novel of female relatives talking about sex.

Several people mentioned books I have but haven't read yet: Loving Frank, a novel about the woman who had a love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Nicole Krauss' History of Love was strongly recommended as a story of "unrequited love." I had recently been encouraged by my friend Sandra to read this one as well, and she's generally right on target with her book suggestions.

That's all I'm going to mention for now. If you have a long ride coming up over the holidays, that should give you a few ideas if you're going by the bookstore. As for me, I made it home from the exhibit hall with Little Heathens and Billy Collins' new book of poetry Ballistics. That ought to hold me until my UPS box of books makes it home.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Coming Soon: Book List

What could be nicer than a trip to San Antonio in November? While North Carolina's been entertaining unseasonably cold weather and earlier snow flurries than usual, I am in balmy Texas, enjoying the Riverwalk--at least on my way to the National Council of Teachers of English Convention. Anybody who knows me at all knows that I enjoy conferences more than most. I go to as many sessions as possible and feel sad about the ones I have to miss. Every 75-minute session has offered around 50-60 choices, so I feel like a food addict at the all-you-can-eat bar with only one plate.

The one session I make a point never to miss is called "Readers Ourselves." For the last fifteen years at least, this has been a guilty pleasure. Instead of practical matters for the classroom, this session is an opportunity for teachers to talk about what we are reading for pleasure. The plan is simple: You jot down your name, email address, and the name of any book you mention during the discussion, along with the author's name if you know it. The facilitators collect the list, spell check, and send everyone the compiled list. Of course, even know the list is "in the mail," we are all writing furiously.

Tonight, I am heading back out to the Riverwalk--to plan for our session we're presenting tomorrow. When I get back or tomorrow, I'll list the ones that caught my eye. In fact, through this whole conference, I've been listing books for my "I want" list. Check back. I'm ready to share!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Flying Without a Good Book

I relish air travel more than most because of the possibility of extended time during which the most productive thing I can do is to read. The pilot up at the front has the plane under control--at least as far as I know. The lone airline host (Isn't that the PC name for male stewardesses?) is attentive but busy. My luggage is checked. I've done all I can for the session I'm helping to present when I arrive at my destination, and the crossword and the Sudoku in the airline magazine are already completed--or partly so, but who wants to finish someone else's puzzle? I'd just as soon try to help someone bowl a spare.

I'll admit that I packed hurriedly and under time pressure. On the hour-long drive to the airport from school, where I dropped of last-minute lesson plans, I began to fret because even though I printed off the airline information yesterday, I didn't look at it and I couldn't remember where I put it. I knew my approximate departure time, but I didn't know my flight number or even which airline I was flying, so I started scrambling at traffic lights. I dug though my bags within reach, to no avail. I called to see if I could catch my son John at home to have him look in possible locations there, and finally I called school until I found someone who could access my email to find my flight confirmation. (Thank you, Nancy R.)

In the airport daily parking deck, I was still shuffling, trying to arrange my bags so that I could check one but carry the others with me. I distinctly remember picking up March by Geraldine Brooks off the seat of the car and poking it somewhere.

I had a heavy but manageable duffel bag, which I stowed in the plane's overheard compartment--within reach, I thought--until the little guy asked if I minded moving "to adjust the weight." (Huh?!)

I finally sat down, settled in, buckled up, and started looking through my "personal bag" for reading material. March was not there. I turned on my little Sony eBook and for the dreaded exclamation point in the triangle: low battery. No bars. Just to be sure, I looked in my laptop bag for the charger cord. No, I had my camera cord by mistake.

The book that made its way into my bag was a lightweight paperback, not quite "chick lit" because the "chicks" in this book are in their late 50s and facing retirement. ( I must admit, too, that despite the truism, I didn't want anybody to judge me by the cover.) Try as
I might, I could not get engaged with the book. I tried my iPod--a little Abbey Road--but just about the time the Beatles were singing "The End," the iPod battery took the cue and went dead--and, you guessed it, the charger cord is at home.

Meanwhile my seatmate has his headphones, which may be used for listening but I suspect they were meant to discourage me from talking to him. I recognize it as a technique I would use. Then he opened his Kindle and started reading away.

I had a Mandolin for Beginners book I had picked up yesterday becauseit seemed to give me a clear overview of music theory. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to read a mandolin book without a mandolin in your hands? Yes, my mandolin is back home--with the cords to my eBook and iPod.

Finally I did what I would imagine doing were I stranded on a desert island: I pulled out my paper and pen and started to write.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Every Teacher Has One

In Winston-Salem last month, late at night when some of us were trying to get last- minute details finished for the English conference, someone mentioned that every teacher has that one book that is not negotiable: It must be taught. Deanie said for her it was Fiddler on the Roof, someone else mentioned Elie Wiesel's Night .

Awhile back a friend was mentoring a young teacher who had his own ideas about what was and wasn't important literature. He took issue with her firm conviction that everyone should read A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines simply to be a human being. I feel the same way about To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now that I'm teaching in the community college, I often poll classes to see what they've read as they've gone through school. I'm often sad when I find out what they haven't read. For a long time, I was surprised how many had never read Gone with the Wind. Now I'm surprised how many haven't seen the movie. When they confess they haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird, I tell them, "Go home now and read it. You need to read it to be a complete person, to be a good citizen." I've never had anyone who has read the book to disagree.

My love for the book has been fed by so many personal experiences. I read the book myself in high school, then I taught it to tenth graders in Alabama for my first five years of teaching. When our local community theater in Florence, Alabama, produced the play, I learned that Harper Lee's college roommate lived in town. Rumors have it that she actually did some of her writing there. I also made contact with Sarah Dyess, a middle school teacher in Monroeville, Alabama, the model for Maycomb. She had been mentioned in Teaching Tolerance magazine for a project she had conducted with her students and another class "up North."

As we corresponded, she actually shared a copy of a video her students had made to talk about life in Alabama, as well as a copy made from an old reel-to-reel made by a man who moved to Monroeville from New Jersey. He had filmed the Hog Festival, with scenes shot around downtown Monroeville. I fully expected to see Scout in her ham costume.

This week as we discussed the "one book theory" in the teacher's lounge, my friend Glenda Foster name Mockingbird before I mentioned. She said it was the one book that changed her life. She went on to say that the film ranks at the top of her list too. "Think about it," she said. "How many remakes have there been? Zero." I can't imagine a world without Atticus, Scout and Jem, without Boo Radley or Dill.

I'd like to imagine a world where Tom Robinson might have had his real day in court. One of the first times I taught the novel, we came to the scene in which Atticus was summing up his arguments for the jury. He talked about mob mentality and how men will do things in a mob they would never do individually. We came to that particular chapter the day after the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict. Atticus would not have been surprised. Sad, maybe, but not surprised.

Monday, November 10, 2008

To the Folger--Finally

When I travel, I tend to focus on what I wanted to do or see and missed instead of what I did and saw and enjoyed. For the record, after four trips to England, I still haven't seen Stonehenge--and I'm not happy about that.

Today though, on my last day in the city before we head back home, I finally got to mark one off my list. Of all the places I'd been, I have always wanted to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library here in Washington. I've attended sessions they've presented at conferences, I've used their online lesson plans, and I even prefer their paperback editions over any of the others, especially for students. As time was winding down on the trip, I realized that I was probably the only person who had any desire to make that stop. I would have to go on my own.

This morning, we met early and visited the Capitol. Les Simmons, our sociology teacher on the trip, had made arrangements through N.C. Representative Virginia Foxx's office for a tour of the building. Next, I went with Holly, another of my colleagues on the trip, to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. We stopped on the way to see the WWII Memorial, which was also new since my last visit. We had been warned that the FDR Memorial was a long walk, but it was just a nice walk with a great view (fall colors and a blue heron) along the water's edge.

The memorial itself was fascinating, focusing on everything--war, unemployment, polio. I can't wait to read up on the choices made for the memorial itself, particularly one very tactile section and a section with what looked like broken pieces of the wall with his "I hate war" quote in a pile.

On the trek back, we stopped in quickly at the Freer Gallery and saw some Whistler art and design. We ran through the lower level of the Air and Space Museum, looking for the temporary exhibits from the American History Museum, which is currently closed for remodeling. Then we grabbed lunch in the National Gallery, where I was able to visit some of my favorite artists--Mary Cassatt,Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, and such. They also had three Vermeers (or two sure things and a maybe). I've loved his works since reading The Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Girl with the Pearl Earring. He does something with light that boggles my unartistic mind. (No, Thomas Kinkeade, the so-called "Painter of Light" doesn't quite do it.)

Finally I found directions and struck out on foot for the Folger. I was fortunate to arrive in time, I was told, for a tour. It so happened that the other three members of my tour lasted mere minutes; then I had the charming docent to myself. She had the perfect British accent for the job, but she was anything but the well-rehearsed parrot, telling me just what she'd memorized. Instead, she invited me to come back into the family's study for a comfy seat and a chat. She regaled me with delightful stories about the Folgers and how they came to build the place, and she gave me a hint of the scope of the collection. I bought the book in order to get my facts correct before I repeat them, but I couldn't believe how many more copies of the First Folio they have there. In all of Great Britain, there are only five.

You may want to check back for pictures and further details. I'll even tell you a good story or two I heard from a very reliable docent.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Can't Help Myself

While I'm in Washington,D.C., with our Holocaust class group, I've also been able to do some sightseeing here in the Capital. I've been to the city a couple of times before, but there' no way to do it justice in a few days. Today, I went to the Eastern Market, an area that reminded me of the Portobello Market in London. We had a wonderful breakfast at a little restaurant called Bread and Chocolate, two of us opting to split two different choices, both with German names. We learned as the waitress brought our check that this is the last day the restaurant will be operating, since they lost their lease. What a shame!

The food market was picturesque--breads, pastries, fruits, cheeses, and fresh meats and seafood of all kinds. There was a little old man wearing a tee shirt which read (on the back) something like "Meat is Murder! Ban Hunting." I tried to snap a picture with the shirt caption as he shopped for--you guessed it--meat!

The little shops of the vendors were a draw, especially with Christmas near. I was particularly interested in the photographers. I picked up several cards because I knew I couldn't fit much else in my luggage for the return trip. Of course, I found myself at a book stall. I was pointing out to Holly, who was with me, all the ones I had read, recommending the ones I thought she should buy. They had Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, one of my favorite novels, and I said so.

"She's from Nashville," the man selling the books said.

"Oh yes, I know," I replied, not missing a chance to weigh in.

I learned that he knew a guy who was a musician and a friend of Ann who invited him to dinner with the two of them. He had found her charming and quite self-assured.
Before the little stop was finished, I had talked Holly into buying three books (Bel Canto, The Things They Carried, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim--quite a variety) and I'd let the guy convince me to buy Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. I did not need a new book, but I'm a pushover for someone who seems to love books as much as I do.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Guest Review

My daughter Laura has started a new blog, The Service Project, in which she reviews the service at all kinds of restaurants. I decided to contribute to the cause while I'm out of town on a school trip:

After an all-day trip aboard Amtrak bound for Washington, D.C., from the quaint old station in Salisbury, NC, we arrived hungry in the Capitol. I decided to give the train food a pass, opting instead for an apple from Les Simmons, one of my teaching colleagues. Once we settled into our hotel room, we were ready for food. At that point, our group split. Some decided to grab a fast bite at Union Station (with all the ambience and options of a mall or an airport—Sbarro, McDonalds, you know the list).

I had talked to my sister Amy, who goes to D.C. almost every year with Jeff for an insurance convention, I think. She had mentioned some restaurants, so I wanted specifics. We opted for Old Ebbitt Grill, on 15th between F and G streets. It was an easy walk from Hotel Harrington the “group friendly” accommodations we found after the App House closed. When we arrived, the place was busy—a good sign in a city with plenty of dining choices. It’s billed as the oldest bar in Washington, D.C., and the d├ęcor has the character to back up the claim. (The chandeliers had real candles!) We were told we’d have an hour wait and could come back in 30-40 minutes for a beeper.) Our crew found some stools in the window at the edge of the bar, a perfect place to wait and observe. We were seated within the time frame.

Our first impression of the menu was positive—a great range of choices at what we considered very reasonable prices (Lobster was under twenty dollars, for example.) The waitress who took care of us had three special recommendations, including oysters, their specialty. When I expressed an interest, she brought an oyster menu. We all ended up ordering some of her suggestions. I had steamed oysters with an apple, walnut, goat cheese arugula salad. Others had the lump crab cake (mostly crab meat, not breading) and their special trout with Hollandaise. The vegetables were especially good.

Our food was delivered by a different waiter, so when he placed all our plates at the right spot, my dining partners were surprised. (“How did he know? He’s not even our waiter.”) Eventually we had three people waiting on us, although our waitress was most attentive. They were near when we needed them but never intrusive. We didn’t have to crane our necks once for anything. She or her associates just appeared.

Since we were there on my recommendation, fully depending on Amy’s word, I was happy when the three of them said, “Nancy, you set us up! That was awesome.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

You Can't Teach What You Don't Do

After hearing Post Secrets mentioned on NPR, I bought a copy a couple of years ago. The book resulted from a project in which the author asked people to share their untold secrets anonymously, sending them in, artistically represented, on postcards. The results range from hilarious to heartbreaking--a teenager confesses to trashing his house while his parents are away, so they'll think he has friends, a woman confesses that despite her abhorrence of his actions, she finds Hitler sexy. My favorite--or at least the one I find particularly painful--was sent in, written over an IRS form. It said something like this: Money earned teaching creative writing: $41,232.08. Money earned doing creative writing: $0.

This past month at the state English conference, I took part in a session we called "Teachers as Writers." We talked about what keeps up from writing, and then we discussed outlets for teachers who had a desire to write and something to say. This was the third time in about eight years I've presented some version of this session with my friend Jane Shlensky. I want to report that I have done my best not to be a hypocrite. I have worked to increase my writing output, quantity and quality.

To that end, I accepted the National Novel Writing Month challenge and have begun my quest to write 50,000 words in November. Yesterday, I received an email from the site, asking for over 50-ers to volunteer to be interviewed. Why not, I thought. I shot a quick email and heard back before my school day was up. Now I have between now and Wednesday, November 5, to figure out how to listen to a podcast. One of the main reasons I signed up for the project and went out of the limb for the mini-interview was to commit myself publicly to the endeavor.

I remember how, when Bill Bryson decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, a venture that resulted in his delightful book A Walk in the Woods, he informed all his Christmas card recipients of his plan. No backing out without shame or a very good excuse.

In November, I can probably come up with a few excuses. I leave Friday for Washington, DC, with my Holocaust class group. Debating whether or not to carry my laptop along, I emailed our hotel and found that they provide free wireless internet--and a business center with computers.
(They also have hairdryers available at the desk, also important in lower the weight of my luggage.)

Two weeks later, I'll be flying to San Antonio for the NCTE conference. I'll be dangerously close to the deadline, but I know I'll have internet there. I'll just have to be sure to make time to write.

Now that I have found a way to schedule my writing, I just have to decide one more thing: Do I need to take my mandolin along on both trips?

Friday, October 31, 2008

No Lazy Novembers

I must admit that this time of year, I stay busier than ever. Just home from two conferences (the community college system conference in Raleigh and the North Carolina English Teachers Association in Winston-Salem), I see no need to unpack my suitcase. Next weekend I will travel by train with members of the Holocaust class to Washington, D.C., where we plan to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as Congress and the Supreme Court. With free time to see what we wish, I eagerly anticipate returning to the National Gallery. Although I have absolutely no creative artistic ability, I am a great appreciator. I also hope to pay my first visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library. I've used their paperback editions for years when teaching the plays, and I have so many excellent lesson plans they have shared following summer teacher institutes. I guess it's as close to Mecca as a Southern Christian English teacher can get.

At the end of the month, I will attend the fall convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). I've been fortunate enough to attend the conference several years across the country, and I have never been disappointed. I always return rejuvenated and assured that I am indeed in the right profession.

So what am I doing in my spare time, you ask? I learned last week that November is National Novel Writing Month. Check out for details. The challenge is to write every day, logging a word count online, and to complete 50,000 words--the equivalent of a 175-page novel--before midnight on the 30th. Although participants are assured that quantity is valued over quality this month, I was also intrigued to learn that several past participants have sold their novels, including Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, a novel my book club enjoyed so much. Meanwhile, Robert Lee Brewer of Poetic Asides (see my blog link) is offering an opportunity for poets in November: a prompt a day with a goal of a completed chapbook at month's end. So which am I planning to do? Both. Now I just have to decide whether to pack my laptop on the train to D.C.

If you're interested in participating in either, let me know. Otherwise, I'll let you know where to check for my daily word count. I'll keep you posted on when the book is due for release.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Word about Book Guilt

Quick! Take a survey of your bookshelves. Just how many books in your stacks belong to someone else? How long have they been there? I believe book guilt plagues as many of us as the common cold. What are the symptoms? Ask Dr. Nancy.

When someone has just finished a book and offers it to you, do you take it, even though you know you have a dozen others you either need or want to read next?

Do you feel ashamed returning a book unread, for fear you'll hurt the kind owner's attention when you can't say if you enjoyed it because you haven't read it?

Do you keep books indefinitely rather than admit the truth about not reading?

Do you sometimes accept a book loan, knowing full well you would never read that book, that if you were stuck on a desert island, you might use it to learn origami rather than force yourself to lower your reading standards merely because you have no access to a good bookstore or library?

Fear no more! You are not alone. That person who gave you that book is also harboring books that belong to others for the same reason you are. We might all have more room on our shelves for our own books, the ones we bought because we wanted to read them, if we gave back those that belong to others.

For several years, I had a copy of Little Men I had borrowed from a friend that belonged to her brother. I had loved Little Women, but I just never got into the boy book. Here's the gruesome part of the tale: My great grandmother, Mama Cheatham, had a borrowed copy of Little Men. The young man who lent her the book died before she could return it. I am ashamed to admit how many years I kept my copy of Little Men, but before I returned it, my friend's brother, the book's true owner, died in a car accident. When I finally got the courage to return the book, not only was my friend not angry at me for having kept it, but she was moved to have something that had belonged to him.

Because most of us admit to at least a few of the aforementioned symptoms, I hereby declare the last week of October "Book Amnesty Week." Here's how you celebrate: Gather all the books that belong to someone else but that you know you won't read within the next six months. (I'll leave you to your conscience to decide what to do about the books that belong to others but which you love too much to give back.)

If you have an inkling that you might read a borrowed book ever, write the title and the owner's name somewhere, so you won't lose it. Surely you write down the titles of the books you read; write it somewhere nearby.

Now return the books with this kind of declaration: I'm returning some of your books in recognition of National Book Amnesty Week. Please do not ask me if I read them or not; just feel assured that if and when I am ready to give a book of yours my full, immediate attention, I'll ask.

At least two good things will happen: Someone will probably be relieved to have his or her books back. You'll have more room on your shelves. Maybe you'll even inspire someone to return your books.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fall Conference NCETA

I am one of those people who attend conferences and actually go to the sessions. When I first began teaching, the school had an anonymous donor who made funds available for staff development. I began back then attending the annual convention of the the National Council of Teachers of English. I traveled with Karen Parker, who taught seventh and eighth grade English, and sometimes with Jan Lansdell and Judith Thompson, to such wonderful cities as Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Richmond, and New Orleans. Karen and I used the "divide and conquer" method, identifying sessions of interest, then splitting up and getting extra handouts when we could. We managed to work in excursions to areas of local interest too: the art museum in Richmond to see some of the Faberge creations for Czar Nicholas and his family, the Washington mall, Arlington National Cemetery, literary walking tours to see where Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and others lived and wrote, a traveling Monet exhibit. One night, when we called home, her husband said, "Karen, most people go to conferences, sign in, then go play golf."

I've continued to attend the national conference when I can, meeting authors I admire (Isabel Allende, Azar Nafisi, Ron Koertge, the late Paul Zindel, Paula Danziger, and Robert Cormier, to name just a few.) Going year after year, I've also discovered teachers who consistently present the best sessions: Carol Jago, Linda Rief, Jeffrey Wilhelm--now I know how winners feel at the Oscars: I hate to name anyone for fear of leaving out someone else.

Soon after I moved to North Carolina, I was encouraged to join the North Carolina Teachers of English (NCETA) and then to run for a board position. For the past ten years, I've served as director then VP, and last year president of the organization. I have been so proud to be a part of this group. Our sessions are on par with those I've attended at the national gathering, and the list of winners of our Ragan-Rubin award, given to a North Carolina writer each year, reads like a literary who's who--Reynolds Price, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons, and many more.

This year, as the immediate past president, I coordinated our recognition of Ron Rash(see my previous blog). At our conference this weekend, he addressed our Friday luncheon, sharing stories of his own interest in reading and writing and reading from his novels. (Follow this link for the story he shared about his grandfather's influence on his love for reading and writing: While he was in Winston-Salem, he got a call letting him know he's made the extended NY Times best seller list (the top 35). I was not surprised. I believe Serena will be the novel that gets him the notice he deserves.

We were also glad that, despite a hip injury while out of the country, Kathryn Stripling Byer was able to join us for the inaugural award to the student poet laureate. I've said it before, but I must repeat that North Carolina's accomplished writers are the most giving, nurturing people I have met. Invariably, the state authors I meet credit others who mentored them and encouraged them. As a teacher, I have seen these same writers share their time and expertise with teachers and with students. Sitting at the table with Ron and Kay felt like "old home week"--down-to-earth people talking about what is most important to them.

Having survived the last week in preparation for three sessions on very little sleep, I'm ready to nap, then to debrief. Next week, though, I want to write lots of thank you notes and then I want to follow with the teachers I met at sessions who expressed their own interest in reading groups and writing groups. Who knows--some of the future Ragan-Rubin winners may have been in our midst.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Link to Review

My review of Ron Rash's newly-released novel Serena appeared in the Charlotte Observer's Book Page this past Sunday. You can read it at this link: If you want the abridged version: I've like all of Rash's novels so far, but I particularly liked this one. The allusions to "that Scottish play" intrigued me (having taught it about 30 times in 18 years), but the one element to rival a character with whomI can identify is a character that chills me to the bone. Without question, Serena falls into the second camp.

One thing I like best about living in North Carolina is the literary community here. Not only do we have more than our fair share of the nation's good writers, but they generally seem to encourage other aspiring writers and to appreciate their readers.

I know many writers hate being labeled "Southern writers," but as such, they are among splendid company. For years now, I've been a member of Lemuria Bookstore's First Editions Book Club. Membership is simple: Give 'em your Visa number and they send you a signed first edition every month. For a book lover, what could be better? Although their selections aren't limited to Southern authors, they've included some of the best. Sometimes their picks are new authors; sometimes they're authors with track records. I'll admit that I don't get them all read as they appear, but I am comforted knowing I will never run out of books to read--not anytime soon, anyway.

Lemuria Bookstore, located in Jackson, Mississippi, is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, I am told. I want to find out for myself. My friend B. C. Crawford, an English teacher at Hibriten High School, in Lenoir, North Carolina, returned to Mississippi when he retired. Our friendship developed through discovery of common backgrounds, then common interests and friends. Now we keep in touch sporadically through email and Facebook. (Yes, children, your teachers are now there. You may have to go somewhere else!) One goal for the summer is a road trip with my friend Millie to visit B.C. and Bonnie in Mississippi, where he has promised to take us on a literary tour of Mississippi: Faulkner, Miss Eudora, and, I suppose, Elvis! Maybe while I'm there, I can arrange a face off between Mississippi and North Carolina for literary honors.

Then after we talk books awhile, we can move to that other most revered topics of polite Southern conversation--college football!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Supplemental Reading

This semester, I have participated with several of my colleagues teaching a Tuesday evening class on The Holocaust. The format of the class follows what I believe one of the most effective teaching models: Rather than having one teacher who, through study and preparation, becomes an expert on the topic, we have close to a dozen teachers and presenters with a varying degree of time commitment in the class.

The core group that plans the sequence of the course includes two English teachers and one social studies teacher. In addition, one of our religions teachers gave a lecture presentation on Judaism, and an art teacher used art and advertisement from WWII to discuss propaganda, reasoning, and logical fallacies. Two sessions on topics related to the war were presented passionately by an adjunct faculty member who teaches American History full time at a local high school. Other participants present lessons regarding financing of the war, the Hitler Youth movement, the psychology of obedience, and even modern-day genocide.

Other guest speakers include a German woman, now an American citizen and retired teacher, whose father was a German officer during WWII, and a local Belgian man who participated in the underground resistance movement.

Throughout the class, we incorporate film, readings, student research, and presentations. What has fascinated me is the wealth of material at our fingertips. The challenge then is what to leave out. Each week, I've noticed, the various speakers make supplemental reading suggestions. Naturally, I'm compiling a running reading list. We have discussed adding a growing list of additional resources--print and nonprint media--to our Blackboard site. I have noticed, though, that many of my own suggestions are works of fiction.

Our German speaker had grown up in the Rhineland, and she said the Ursula Heigi's novel Stones from the River "could have been my life." I also suggest Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, one of the most intriguing books I've read in a long while. Short stories with a strong
Holocaust connection come to mind as well: "Winter Night" by Kay Boyle and "The First Seven Years" by Bernard Malamud. Beyond the required reading of school--Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel's Night--I learned first about the Holocaust through Leon Uris' novel Exodus. Later I revisited the camps in James Michener's Poland.

Though completely fictional and based on a flawed premise (that Anne Frank's friend Peter had survived), The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is a moving story that examines a young man who immigrates to American, tries to pass as a Gentile, then marries a Jewish girl who knows nothing of his past. His reaction to the publication of the diary (in which his family's last name was changed) and to the production of the play based on its story is poignant and heartbreaking.

For the millionth time, let me climb on my soap box: Literature doesn't have to be nonfiction to be true. While I would never want to take away from first-person accounts of such pivotal periods in history, I do know that those characters in the novels I read also taught me so much about human beings and our reactions in the face of the worst kinds of adversity. Through these books, I learned things I might never have sought out in a history book or an autobiography. Through my encounter with these books and stories, though, I have turned to nonfiction to feed my need to know more.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Road Reading

As a chronic mult-tasker I've done things of which I'm a bit ashamed. In my first year of teaching, for example, some of my students drove up beside me at a traffic light and caught me grading papers while I waited. (My mantra, then as now: so many papers, so little time.)

Even worse, as I drove back home from Nashville alone one weekend, I had a new book I had bought at Davis-Kidd sitting beside me in the passenger seat, calling to me in whispers: read me, read me. I found that by placing the open book on my steering wheel, I could read a line or two at a time on the straight stretches of I-40. Before twilight faded, I'm embarrassed to admit, I'd read more than a hundred pages. (My current mantra: so many books, so little time.) Reading while driving is not as dangerous, I firmly believe, as texting while driving, but I don't recommend it.

Fortunately, I discovered recorded books back when Dick moved to North Carolina while I stayed behind in Alabama until the end of the school year. Cracker Barrel stores offered a great books-on-tape plan: I bought a book, listened to it, then returned it to the next Cracker Barrel for a refund of all but a couple of dollars. Many of the books were abridged, though, so I usually picked popular reading, so I'd be informed about books people were discussing, or books I was teaching and needed to review. Once I settled here in North Carolina, I found the public library a great resource for unabridged books on tape and CD.

I also made my way through the Harry Potter series listening to the most excellent reader Jim Dale on CD. Far too often, I sat in the garage, listening for a good stopping place. I had come to the last couple of chapters in the next to last book (you remember--Dumbledore) when I was driving to Charlotte with teaching friends to go to an NCTE conference. Two of them were reading the book too, but hadn't gotten as far as I had, so I had to wait. When I got to Charlotte-Douglas Airport, I found the bookstore and hid in a corner reading the last few pages. I hate crying on airplanes.

This weekend, I knew I was near the end of my current car book, Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, so I stopped by the public library on my way out of town. In a moment suitable for movie slow motion, as I drew my library card from my billfold, it sailed out of my hands and wedged itself irretrievably in a tiny crevice beside my seat. Fortunately, I talked the librarians into letting me check out three more CD sets using my driver's license.

Heart-Shaped Box is something of a horror tale, not my usual genre. I couldn't quit listening, though, perhaps in part because the reader seemed to be channeling Kris Kristofferson for the protagonist's voice. When it ended, however, I was ready for something different, so next I played Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, whose "last lecture" delivered at Carnegie-Mellon shortly before his death, has become a Youtube phenomenon. Although this book didn't include the actual lecture, he gave an expanded version of it, which he intended especially for his own children. I hate crying when I drive.

On my way home, then, I listened to five of six CDs of Elizabeth Berg's The Art of Mending. Having been gone all weekend, I decided against sitting in the garage listening to the end. With a twenty-five minute drive to and from work, I'll be finished soon. I will need to head back to the library soon for a refill.

Murphy's Law and Blogs

I hurried in this morning and began blogging before classes. I must have hit the highlight feature and enter; every word but the title disappeared. When I tried to retrieve, I ended up with two blogs identical except for paragraphing. The delete feature isn't working, so I tried renaming this one. It may not be titillating, but at least it isn't blank.

Monday, September 29, 2008


The biggest drawback of teaching is that grading papers gets in the way of my reading time. Instead of following a plot, I'm just hoping for a thesis--or a complete sentence--or something I haven't read before. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised; sometimes I'm just surprised.

This week I'm looking longingly at the next books: I want to read Doctorow's The March and Brooks' March. Meanwhile, I have started Twilight (yes, the first in the vampire series) so I can communicate with the high school girls I teach in Sunday school. I knew there had to be something to the books: they have so many "Pieces of Flair" on Facebook. Meanwhile, I see Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land right over my shoulder, and my friend Sandra said I had to read History of Love. So there it is: My life; sleep optional.

Although it has nothing at all to do with books, I just had to comment on the recent news item that PETA has asked Ben and Jerry's to stop hurting cows and to start making their ice cream with human breast milk. I had enough of a philosophical disagreement when they started buying lobsters at the local grocery and mailing them back to beachfront towns for release, but this is really over the top. In fact, I hear echoes of Swift's "Modest Proposal." After all, who'll suffer? The children of poor women who decide to give their own children formula so they can get top dollar for the good stuff. And while I have never exactly been a farm girl, I do know that unmilked dairy cows are more than a wee bit uncomfortable. Can't you just think of the possible names for the new Ben and Jerry flavors though? I'll leave that to your imagination.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Told You So

You may recall my recommendation some weeks ago of a book I found particularly intriguing and memorable (although I always have to look up the author's spelling), The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I've suggested it to all my biggest reading friends, and now I see the announcement that Oprah has picked it as her next book club selection. I immediately started receiving emails, acknowledging, sure enough, that I had beaten Oprah to the draw.

Years ago, when she first started making book recommendations, I suspected she was getting them from Amber Owens, a former student, now a friend and fellow bibliophile. She has been passing along title suggestions at least since she was in college. To be honest, her name's probably inside several volumes on my bookshelf now. ( Amber, if you're out there reading, you may have to visit North Carolina again to claim them.)

One of the greatest blessing in my life is the number of friends who love books the way I do. I don't have to wait for Oprah--or anyone else--to tell me what I should read next. I'm plugged in to the savviest readers in the country.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

For Sons That Read

I have heard that parents who read produce children that read. For awhile, I wasn't sure. I've always had so many books around the house that the kids practically tripped over them as they learned to walk. Laura, my eldest, was more of a reader than John and Ben, but none of them had the reading habit I enjoyed growing up.

Eventually, though, Laura has end up working as a publicist in the publishing industry. We don't always read the same books, but she reads. Right now, I know her reading list probably resembles mine at that stage of life: Solving your child's sleep habits, potty training manuals, organizing one's life with little ones around--and lots of magazines.

Ben's in college now, so much of his reading time is assigned for classes. Fortunately, from time to time, he reads material he wants to share with me. He has an assignment this week from a book of poetry (From Totems to Hip-hop, edited by Ishmael Reed) and told me he knew not to sell the book back at the end of the semester, since I would enjoy it.

John has a little more time to read now, and he has started coming to me for book suggestions. Recently, I passed along Ron Rash's Saints at the River. He went to his room and started reading. In no time, he had yelled downstairs, "Wow! This book sucks you in from the very beginning." I noticed when he left the house, he had it with him. Then one morning I had an email from him (sent from upstairs) that said he'd stayed up until three to finish the book. He said it was one of the best books he'd read and he thanked me for passing it along to him. I can't think of anything that's pleased me more.

That got me thinking of what books I would want to suggest to adult reluctant readers. I want to pass along something that will make a person want to find another one just as good when he's finished. Running through my own stacks, I've tried to think of several. This list is not complete by a long shot. It's just the beginning:

King, Dave. The Ha-Ha. The protagonist has lost his language ability from an injury incurred days after he arrived in Vietnam. He gets a call from an ex-girlfriend asking him to keep her son (not his child) while she's in drug rehab. The way he develops a relationship with the boy--and in turn with the odd mix of renters who share his home--without words makes for a tale well told.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. This was such a dark post-apocalyptic book, but somehow there was such a sweet glimmer of hope personified by the young boy in the story. It was a bleak, tough read, but in many ways very satisfying.

Brockmeier, Kevin. A Brief History of the Dead. This book presents an afterlife way station between heaven and the eternal hereafter where people remain until everyone living on earth who remembers them is gone. The parallel story follows a young woman who is exploring the Antartic region on a project funded by Coca-Cola. When their station loses communication, he partners venture to the next station looking for help, leaving her behind.

Olmstead,Robert. Coal Black Horse. During the Civil War, a mother has a premonition that the war is over and sends her son to retrieve his father. The novel traces his journey, where he witnesses a rape along the way, then one of the war's most brutal battles. You get two (maybe three) of the world's only plot lines: someone takes a journey, a boy grows up, boy falls in love with girl.

You'll note that I'm omitting some of the obvious classics (Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22). Those will stay around. I want people to remember that lots of new books are appearing on the shelves of bookstores now--good ones.


Friday, September 5, 2008

An Evening with Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, the author of the bestselling memoir The Glass Castle, spoke last night on the Appalachian State University campus, kicking off their Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series. I had read the book with my book group a year or two ago, and now we are using it with some of our English classes at the college this semester.

I have always been fascinated by memoirs that detail stark or horrendous childhoods. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller come to mind. I am always amazed that someone can live through what seems unthinkable then survive to write about it with such sanity and clarity. Walls does just that. In person, she is refreshing, funny, and genuine.

In my Wednesday night class at church, we have been studying a book called How to Love Someone You Can't Stand. One of the most important messages it "Never, never take revenge." Each week, parts of this memoir come to mind. As Walls spoke, I was struck by how mentally healthy she appears, despite her horrendous childhood, primarily because of her ability to get beyond her experience and to grow from it. She told the audience that everything in life is a blessing or a curse, depending on how one chooses to respond. She also stated that one of her purposes in writing this book was to show that we are all more alike than different.

She encouraged her listeners to consider writing down our own stories, even if only for ourselves. In considering how much leeway one has with the truth in a memoir, she indicated that she believed telling the truth was terribly important. In fact, much of what she left in and even what she left out of the book was a result of her desire to avoid "inciting hatred by telling half-truths."

Telling some of her truths was quite difficult. In fact, after her husband convinced her she needed to tell about eating out of the school cafeteria garbage can, she said her face literally turned red from shame as she wrote that part. Then she cited someone in her audience earlier in the day who said that secrets are like vampires: They suck the life out of you, but they can only survive in the dark.

I regret that we were not able to work out an add-on visit to our campus down the mountain while she was in Boone. At the community college, so many of our students have their own incredible, painful stories. Her ability not to approve but to accept her parents inspired me and others in her audience as well.