Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How Are Beach Books Different from Any Other?

Dateline: Holden Beach, NC. Call it the last hurrah of the summer. I'm here on the coast with a group of girlfriends. Husband will arrive tonight with golf clubs. I packed a few clothes and a sack of books. After all, I am in the midst of my sixty-day poetry reading challenge. I'm also going through the Bible in a year--a little Old Testament, a little New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs every day. I'm in the middle of Nehemiah and just started Romans.

Choosing a beach book, however, involves a variety of considerations, some quite pragmatic. For example, I would never take one of my signed first-edition copies to the beach. That would be foolish; however, I did read a hardcover copy of One Thousand Splendid Suns on the beach last summer. I was in the middle of the book and couldn't quit. I just had to be careful: no smearing of suntan lotion.

Some people prefer romance novels or action adventures for the beach: Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, James Patterson, and such. Since I honestly don't read them any other time, I don't read them at the beach.

On a whim, I brought a book I found after my sister mentioned it. For a dollar plus shipping online, I found a copy of Replay by Ken Grimwood. It's a dogeared copy, the type of paperback found at the drugstore. This one, however, appealed to me. My sister Amy mentioned something about someone who had tried to option the book for a movie. The cover proclaims "Winner of the World Fantasy Award," another tidbit that might usually cause me to avoid the book. The premise, though, is intriguing. In 1988, (a year after the book was originally published) a man dies of a heart attack at 43. He awakens in his college freshman dorm in 1963, fully aware of his prior life. He makes a few changes (and even attempts to prevent the Kennedy assassination), but he again drops dead of a heart attack at 43. The books continues the cycle, with him returning a little later each time.

Somehow the book reminded me of The Time Traveller's Wife, although Grimwood did follow fairly strict chronology. In at least one of Jeff Winston's replays, the world politics involving the Middle East are fairly prophetic. The overall theme, if there is one, indicates that one can make small changes within his or her life, but rarely can we alter the grand scheme of things.

I'm usually a slow reader, pausing to underline phrases or to make notes. This was not literary enough to warrant close examination of the text. It was, rather, a perfect beach book: unputdownable. Unfortunately, I finished it the day I started and must now decide what to read next. Fortunately, like a good scout, I'm prepared!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sixty-Day Challenge

Greetings! First here's my reading update: Not content with the dose of plague reading I had in Follett's World Without End, I picked up the audio version of Geraldine Brooks' novel Year of Wonders, which recounts the experience of an English lead-mining village in 1665-1666, dealing with the bubonic plague. Anna Frith, the narrator, is a young widow who works as maid at the rectory. At the encouraging of the rector, after the plague strikes, they villagers take an oath to remain in the village and not to allow outsiders, in order to stop further spread of the plague.

Some of the explicit details of the plague are horrific, though evidently very accurate. I was most interested to learn in the Afterword that the story, though fictional, was based on the experiences of a real English village. At one point near the end of the story, I was afraid it had taken a "romance novel" turn, but rather than tying it up all too predictably, Brooks throws a curve and builds an ending I didn't anticipate. In all fairness, a plague novel can't have too tidy a "happily ever after" ending, now can it?

No less somber is my other nightstand book right now, Doris L. Bergen's War and Genocide, which traces the rise of Hitler and the Nazi power through World War II and the concurrent mass killings of Jews, Roma, Communists, homosexuals, and others considered undesirable or a threat to the New Order.

In order to sleep at night, I needed some more pleasant fare. To that end, I decided to accept the challenge I read in a recent blog on Robert Lee Brewer's site Poetic Asides (to which I have a link). In this particular interview, contrary to the conventional wisdom that one who wants to write poetry should avoid reading others' poetry, poet Bill Abbott suggests that any aspiring should read a book of poetry every other day for sixty days. See the interview here:

I have just begun the challenge, but I have read so far Ron Rash's collection Eureka Mill, which follows his grandfather's move from the family farm to a textile mill in South Carolina. I heard Rash reading from this work back in the spring at CVCC. It tied in with Hickory's Big Read, The Bridge by the late Doug Marlette.

Next I read Flying at Night by the former national poet laureate Ted Kooser. Already a fan of his poems, I was especially pleased when he appeared at the fall conference of the National Council of Teachers of English three years ago. A small, unassuming man, he writes poems that evokes poem-worthy memories of my own.

Yesterday I completed Sarah Lindsay's Primate Behavior, a quirky collection that draws from primitive worlds, archeology, and even circus life. I liked "Life on Earth, Part Twelve: The Business Salmon."

I love the challenge of choosing what to read next. My bookshelves have an ample offering, but I find myself scanning them for the ones I don't see. I am particularly eager to read again a collection by Miller Williams (whose daughter Lucinda is a recording artist I enjoy.) It may be in one of the umpteen boxes in my garage or in my attic, taken from my old classroom when I left high school a year ago. Meanwhile, the offerings are rich, and I'm ready to immerse myself in the memories, inventions, cadences, and diction of others.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Not Just Another Dog Book

On our trip to Alabama to check on my father-in-law, who had surgery Wednesday, I hunkered down with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski on my eBook and didn't stop reading until I finished it. I had actually planned to finish another book (Leif Enger's So Young, Brave, and Handsome) first, but once I got engrossed in this book, I could not stop. When my book group met, I insisted they needed to read it--even though I had just started reading myself. Now that I've finished, I need someone else to read it because I must talk about it.
I purchased the book (at a time when I certainly didn't need another book) because I kept finding it mentioned everywhere I turned. Reviews were popping up all over the place. When I look back at the blurbs listed by booksellers, I realize I never would have bought it without the reviews. Please note: despite appearance, this is NOT just another dog book. Touching on three generations of the Sawtelle family, the story is primarily that of Edgar, the youngest. He is born to a family of dog breeders--their own breed, not some fancy show dogs--and baffles the doctors: he is not deaf; he simply has no voice. As a baby, he cannot cry. As a young boy, he can't make a sound into the phone receiver when his father ffalls ill. He can, however, communicate with his family, his school friends (whom he has taught signs), and his dogs.
I am almost hesitant to mention the allusions to Hamlet threaded throughout the book. I like to think I would have recognized them without a tipoff (with characters named Claude and Trudy, for example). I wonder, though, if the foreknowledge alone made me heart squeeze as I neared the end. I think of Shakespeare's original audiences, who surely knew not to expect a feel-good ending with a cheery song and dance number when they attended a play with a title that began The Tragedy of....
What Wroblewski does best--at least one of the things I think he does best--is to draw the most compelling, quirky yet believable characters. Some of his secondary characters play such key roles--the local veterinarian and his son, the sheriff, the mystical woman who runs the store in Popcorn Corners and who has a kind of second sight. Most skillfully, he even characterizes the individual dogs with such distinctive qualitites that they are as real as the humans. Only Richard Adams in Watership Down has done as well with his rabbits. (I could tell Hazel from Fiver or Blueberry if I ran into them today.)

I'm actually having a hard time moving on to another book until I work through this one in my head. I think Edgar will be up there moving around in my brain for awhile--at least until I can talk to someone else who has finished the book.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Summer Book Report

I know from my last two posts it seems I've wandered from my intent to write about my reading. Never fear! I certainly haven't stopped reading. In fact, I've been on overload the last couple of weeks, actually succeeding in balancing my car audiobook, my bedside book, and my ebook (for travel and treadmill).

I had a copy of Tony Earley's Blue Star, the sequel to Jim the Boy, but the local library had it on CD, so I filled a recent car trip to Raleigh listening. Both books are deceptively simple. This one dealt with the class conflicts between the farm boys in town, the mill town kids, and the mountain people, particularly those with Cherokee blood. He still manages to give such insight into the characters. I particularly love Uncle Zeno.

I also found Joshilyn Jackson's new novel Between, Georgia on CD. We'd read Gods in Alabama for book club a good while ago. In addition to a story that sucked me in, she offers some insight into Usher's syndrome and American Sign Language.

I just finished reading an advanced reader copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, writtten by a pair of authors, (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows). I've seen few book collaborations that really worked, but this one did. Told through letters, the story is set just after World War II. The protagonist is touring with a book of columns she wrote under a pseudonym during the war. Her correspondence with a member of the society on Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands) develops into a keener interest and results in her visiting to learn more about the people who have just survived German occupation. Even though the title is almost cutesie enough to bring up images of Sweet Potato Queens, the story is more serious, though with plenty of good humor. I'll be reviewing it for the Observer for some time in August.

I also read Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, also a novel in letters--or one long, angry letter written in the airport by a man whose delayed flight is causing him to miss the wedding of his estranged daughter. Meanwhile he is translating a novel from Polish and telling his life story. It's quirky, sometimes angry, and--having sat in O'Hare waiting on rain to stop somewhere too many times--I couldn't resist the book.

Meanwhile, I've finished listening to Anne Tyler's Digging to America and David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames and William P. Young's The Shack. This book has gotten a lot of word-of-mouth attention and for good reason. It's a hard book to label, Christian fiction, perhaps almost an allegory. It certainly helps one get past the picture of God as looking like Gandalf, since the Trinity appear as a black woman, an Asian woman, and (of course) a Middle Eastern carpenter. The book desperately needed a good editor, or at the very least, a proofreader.

Anne Patchett's little book What Now is certainly my recommendation for graduate gifts. There are several out there, but I enjoyed hers, developed from a commencement address she delivered at her alma mater Sarah Lawrence.

And to borrow her question: What Now for me? I'm starting The Story of Edgar Sawtelle because everywhere I turn, it is mentioned. I am also reading So Young, So Brave, So Handsome, a Lemuria First Editions Club selection by Leif Enger. I loved his first novel Peace Like a River. Unfortunately, I let a friend borrow my signed first edition, and it is lost. I'll report back soon. What's on your stack?


Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

For the past thirteen years, we've been celebrating the fourth with friends at David and Sandy Starnes' house. My friend T. invited us along just after the kids and I joined Dick here in North Carolina, and the whole day has become a ritual. The guys start on the golf course, then we start appearing at their house midday for a little time out on the boat (during which we have never not been stopped by the water patrol) and a little time in the pool. As the golfers wind up their games, people start appearing, bearing appetizers and sides to go along with the traditional barbecue. We always have music, and sometimes a little dancing breaks out. The fireworks get bigger and better every year. A couple of years ago, in fact, we heard that people at the Crawdads game quit watching their fireworks to watch ours.

A couple of July Fourths have also been significant for me. In 1976, I went to visit Robin and Chester Sharps, whom I had helped earlier in their move to Philadelphia, where Chester attended medical school at Hahnemann U. I cannot imagine a better place to celebrate that Bicentennial. Neither could the Queen of Englande, apparently (although I imagine the date was a touchy one for the Brits!) One night we watched fireworks, if I remember correctly, below the steps where Rocky had climbed triumphantly during his practice runs. "Stars and Stripes Forever" and other patriotic fare was played. On the evening of the fourth, we stood atop their apartment building to watch a citywide fireworks display reported to have used more gunpowder than the whole revolutionary war. Then we stood with huge crowds watching a clock tick town to the exact time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Chester convinced me that a picture of the clock with only 1 second remaining would be better than zero because it would stay at zero once it got there.

On another special Fourth, I left the Starnes party early to meet Debbie, Allan, and Darby Rappuhn at the Charlotte airport for our trip to China. We flew into Hong Kong the week it changed hands from Great Britain to China. There was a huge military presence at the airports. Our first full day in China, their new Chinese daughter was placed in their arms. The rest of the week there in Wuhan, we toured the city, guided by Cindy our interpreter, while awaiting Allie's passport. Next we traveled to Guangzhou (Canton), the location of the American Embassy, and stayed at the White Swan (just a bit nicer than our hotel in Wuhan!) We had official medical examinations of the babies there, along with what seemed like hundreds of other Chinese daughters and their American or Canadian families. Finally we went to the Embassy for the last of the paperwork--visas, I think--and we were ready to depart. Although we hadn't known quite what to expect, we had a great experience--except for Allie's ear infection at the last day. We saw quite a bit of the cities where we stayed, and the people were genuinely warm and friendly. I still remember, though, after the long seventeen-hour flight (with four babies from our group not quite used to flying--or even being held close), how wonderful the words sounded in the LA airport: "Welcome to America!"
Happy Fourth, Allie! You're still my girl!