Thursday, August 28, 2008

If You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover...

Can you judge a book by its cover? Admit it: You've bought a book (or books) before because of an intriguing cover or a funny title. My shelves are packed with books I've yet to begin, which I bought because I liked the title. Right now, on the front of a double-stacked shelf is a book called Trespassers Will Be Baptized: The Unordained Memoir of a Preacher's Daughter byElizabeth Emerson Hancock. A "PK" myself, I couldn't resist. I also bought Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield for the same reason.

Don't get me wrong: Just because I haven't read these books yet, you shouldn't think I won't. There's fierce competition in my library.

Sometimes the picture on the cover draws me, and I know the author probably had very little input in that decision. I'm reminded of a friend Brenda, who used to cover her books with wallpaper so they would coordinate with her den sofa.

As a child who grew up haunting the school and public library, I know how wonderful those books with the worn, nondescript covers can be. I think the musty smell helps too. On the other hand, I also know that the matching faux-leather-bound classics are meant to sit on the shelf and behave.

Fortunately, I have yet to run out of books to read next--or books to buy next. Facebook's Virtual Bookshelf offers the option of listing the books you want to read. I hardly know where to begin. Fortunately, I have my sources! I'll tell you about a few of them--and their specific recommendations next time!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tackling the "Must Read" List

Nothing makes me happier than learning that a book I recommended found a satisfied reader. This past spring, I happened to mention a book I'd read to one of the art teachers where I work. I've never had the slightest artistic talent, but no one appreciates art more than I do. I'd mentioned to Jane one of my favorite poems, "The Curator" by Miller Williams (Lucinda's dad, by the way), set in the Hermitage during the war. Soldiers come, hoping to see the national museum's great art about which they had always heard. They learn that the paintings have been boxed up and shipped to safety, but the frames have been left to mark their place. They ask the curator to tell them about the paintings, which he does. The next day, more people are there, waiting for the tour. That's all I willreveal about the poem; what comes next never fails to move me. The novel Madonnas of Leningrad, is the story of a young docent there during that same time who ends up living in the museum with other refugees during those terrible days of seige in Leningrad. One of the older museum workers takes her from room to room, teaching her about the works that once hung there.

After reading the book, Jane was ready for more reading suggestions, so I showed up at an end of the school year/beginning of summer gathering with a stack of books, some of which I ended up passing along to several other of my teaching colleagues. Since then, I have learned that Water for Elephants has been passed on from hand to hand. I've even had most of the books returned, read.

This week I had an email from a student from last spring, an adult closer to my age. She'd needed a book to read when she and her husband went camping and chose Watership Down because of my recommendation. She had loved it. Via Facebook, another friend told me that she was trying to read classics she had missed and wanted suggestions.

I realize that reading preferences are so subjective. Just as I have to avoid coming off as too judgmental when others share their own favorites (Nicholas Sparks or Nora Roberts, for example), I know that I have loved books that others have completely disdained. All I can do is build my list of books worth reading and hope some of them hit home.

I always poll my students to see who has not read To Kill a Mockingbird. I insist that they must read that book to be fully human. Pearl Buck's The Good Earth is another book I have loved in many phases of my life--even more as an adult with a family than as a high school student. When I finished Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca long ago, I went on to read everything I could find that she had written. If the Florence (Alabama) public library hadn't moved to a new location, I could still walk right to the Fiction D shelves.

Around the same time, I read Leon Uris' Exodus, staying up late at night because I had to get past the sections set in the concentration camps. Only recently have I read his novel The Haj, set in the same part of the world, but with a focus on the Arabs. His novel Trinity put the Northern Ireland struggles into poignant perspective for me; even more important to a reader, it presented characters and situations that still live in my head.

When I assigned Tale of Two Cities as a summer reading book one year, as I re-read, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Then I found myself so engrossed (especially in the wonderful women's fight) that I decided that the payoff was well worth the exertion. I think the perfect book for summer reading is Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. One students years ago said he planned to read it every summer for the rest of his life.

Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth influenced my brother-in-law to go into building. It made me love touring the cathedrals of Europe even more. My husband, who has never been to Europe, still counts it as one of his top ten favorite books. For different reasons and to different readers, I also strongly recommend Eudora Welty's slim little memoir One Writer's Beginning. Some parts of that book had such an effect on me that I was surprised to find the images delivered piecemeal throughout the book, only assembling in my head.

These are just a few titles that come to mind without even consulting my reading lists from the past (or even browsing my shelves). I could just as easily name another lengthy but different list of titles, without even beginning to list all the writers living, working, and writing now who keep finding a space on my shelves, until I lend them to other willing readers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Buying Ban? I Might Need Twelve Steps

Today as I was browsing through my "Favorites" list (wondering how in the world some of them got there), I came across a blog list I didn't recognize. Evidently, it's a group of blogs devoted to reading. The one that caught my attention, though, was a challenge to accept a temporary ban on buying books until Dec. 31. You are encouraged to make a list of books you plan to read before buying any others. Any books you win or receive as a gift must be added to your list.
(Check out the specifics here:

Should I do it? Yes. Will I? Not a chance. This week I saw on Facebook that Amber Owens, reader extraordinare, was loading up books to donate to the library for their book sale. I tried that when the local Friends of the Library had a sale. I gave them a boxful, though I will admit that it hardly made a dent in my surplus, and I shed no tears over these particular books. The effort might have been successful in at least thinning out my stacks, but I just happened to stop by the library to return a book that was due and--surprise! surprise!--they were to the last day of the sale. Anyone could fill up a grocery sack of books for three dollars. I couldn't pass it up. I'll admit that I even picked up a couple of books I already owned. Don't ask me why.

Still I can't stop stockpiling. One of my college professors said, "Your library isn't the books you've read; it's the books you are going to read." I find comfort knowing that even if I were suddenly placed under house arrest, I would not lack for good reading materials. I try not to buy. Sometimes for moral exercise, I stroll into a bookstore, leaving my purse locked in my car. If I can emerge emptyhanded, I've won. Still, I can't just stop buying books: authors keep writing good ones. Right now I'm holding out (a few more days) before buying Clyde Edgerton's new book The Bible Salesman. I've never met an Edgerton novel I didn't like. My own history with Bible salesmen (beginning with my own father in college) adds to my interest.

I'm actually "between books." I finished reading my book group's selection Three Cups of Tea this week, and since school started today, I'm reading textbooks. It's just a matter of time (and by that I mean hours, not days) before I'm back into another good book. Even if I read one off my shelves (and there are several beckoning), I also know that before long, I can expect my Lemuria First Editions Club copy to show up on my doorstep. Then there's the book fellow reader Carol Jago, suggested, Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses... and then there's....

Do you think it's too late for me to start making my list?


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Review

From time to time, I've had the opportunity to review books for the Sunday Charlotte Observer. Their book page is the first place I turn on Sunday, and they've moved it around enough over the years that sometimes it's quite a scavenger hunt. Today's issue runs the review I wrote for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The book, written in letters back and forth between Juliet Ashton and her publisher, agent, best friend, and new-found correspondents on one of England's Channel Islands, was great fun. Ann Allen of the Observer sent this book my way for a review, and I sat and read it straight through. The book had many of the elements that I enjoy in a book. I want characters with whom I can identify--or at least characters I care about. I like a few surprises along the way; and I always like to learn some history. Before reading the book, for example, I wasn't aware that the Channel Islands were the only part of England occupied by German forces in World War II.

As the title implies, the book is at least in part a tribute to the way literature brings people together. It's much more than that. This is one of those books I'm ready to recommend to several of my favorite readers. Check out the review at the link below:


Saturday, August 9, 2008

How to Care for Your Books, Take 2

Several years ago, as a special gift for buying something from Book-of-the-Month Club, I received a copy of Michael Dirda's little paperback, Caring for Your Books. I thought, "This is the book for me! No one cares for books more than I." Then I read it. With apologies to Dirda, since I know he writes regularly about reading, what I read did not meet my expectations. He advised against eating while reading, against loaning books (which, he suggested, no one actually read or returned), against actually reading your books. That would be the best way to keep them in their pristine condition so what when I shuffle off this mortal coil, my heirs can get the most for them at auction.

I do love books. I collect books. I am quite proud of a nice collection of signed books. Some of them are paperbacks. Not a lot of collector value (monetarily, at least) but they are mine. Some of them have personal inscriptions (also not good for resale value). Guess what? I even read them. I have let friends (only close friends) borrow them.

But the books I value most have pencil marks, underlinings, heavy notes in the inside back cover. When I reread a book, I often turn to the back to make a note, only to learn that I was struck by the same passage years before. Some of my books have food stains or blood stains (darn those paper cuts!). My copy of Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings has lipstick prints--and they aren't even my lips; I bought the book used. Some of the books I have read the most and taught often are held together by rubberbands. Some are flagged with little sticky note page markers. But do I hear the whispery voices of my books on the shelves muttering, "If only she cared for us..."? Why, certainly not.

This week on Writers Almanac, Keillor marked the birthday of writer and editor Anne Fadiman (You can check it out at the Writers Almanac website. Look for August 6, 2008, in the archives.) The final comments were my favorite:
"Her collection of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998), is about her deep love of books. She believes that if you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs."

Now Mr. Dirda, let me show you a woman who really knows how to love a book.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How to Start a Book Club

Be forewarned: this is not one of those how-tos in "five easy steps." I won't even begin to explain my unique relationship to Sandy, my cousin I discovered in line for lunch in Chicago several years ago at the NCTE conference. Suffice it to say that kindred spirits with blood kinship found each other by pure serendipity. Since then, we've either run into one another or communicated online. We are both guardians of the puzzle pieces of family history, and we've had such fun putting them together.

This week Sandy wrote to ask me about how I started my book club. I remember asking lots of questions before starting my group several years ago. I learned then what I pass along to Sandy: there are so many right ways to begin. All my life, I've had friendships whose core involved a mutual love of books. As much as I love to lose myself in a good book, I love even more talking about a good book with someone who's read the same book. It doesn't take a club.

A few years ago, I encouraged a cross-section of friends to meet and discuss beginning a book group. We had dinner, decided our first book would be the Big Read promoted by the Charlotte Observer, Josephine Humphrey's Nowhere on Earth. The members primarily had one thing in common, beyond a love of reading: most of them were my friends. Over the next several years, we continued to meet, ideally once a month, sometimes in our homes, and other times at restaurants, particularly when the cuisine suited the book's theme or setting.

Our membership also changed as our lives became complicated. We tried to be inclusive, but we found that if we weren't careful, we'd acquire social members less interested in books that meals (or wine). We never made finishing the book mandatory. Sometimes someone would just show up, listen, and read (or finish) the book later.

We choose our books without any real plan either. Some of us usually come with several suggestions. I read the book section of the Sunday newspaper before anything else. I am a member of book clubs (Quality Paperback and Lemuria First Editions right now) not only for the chance to order books but because I come across the best titles that way. Others bring in titles they heard discussed on NPR or the morning news shows. One member's husband tips us off on some of our best choices. Sometimes, we meet and go to a bookstore afterwards to find (and purchase) our next book.

Occasionally, our numbers have dwindled, and the small number of us who kept meeting couldn't settle for just one book. One month we chose three. The most important quality of members is a love for books and a respect for the other readers. We are sometimes book snobs. (We would never, for example, choose a romance novel or something by James Patterson for discussion.)

Even our meetings are a little loosey-goosey. I usually find good reading group questions online and pick the ones I think will best stimulate conversation. Some of us arrive with our favorite passages marked. We also bring our unanswered questions about the books. Sometimes one of the members will research the author, the setting, or the historical period and share that knowledge. We sometimes plan menus to match the book. (For example, when we read Plum Wine, I had the authentic Japanese restaurant prepare our meal.)

Some of the best discussions can develop about a book that some of the members arriving saying they didn't like. (I found the same true when teaching high school literature. A good discussion requires a little passion, but it doesn't always have to be love.) Our group seems to lean toward historical fiction. We like reading about parts of the world less familiar to us.

What I enjoy best is the commitment to read a book because someone else expects me to arrive prepared. (Funny how that didn't motivate me in quite the same way in the eleventh grade, when I intentionally waited to finish The Scarlet Letter until after the test.) I have found lots of books, articles, and websites devoted to book club possibilities. The real secret is just to start something and to let it happen. Set a time that works for most, and then go with it.

I suggest keeping a record of the books you read together. Being able to look back after a few years has been so rewarding. Occasionally, we compare our reading list to other "best book club books" suggestions. We have a good batting average, if I do say so. I know some people who've succeeded with online book clubs, an idea with lots of potential. Anything to let me talk books with people I enjoy is a great proposition as far as I'm concerned.