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.


Monday, September 1, 2008

The Short List

I hit one of those rare moments recently when I didn't have a book going. I even finished my current book on CD, Song Without Words by Ann Packer. Much like Friday afternoon, with all the possibilities of the weekend ahead, book choosing time is both exciting and frustrating.

Just to be clear: nothing I read for school counts. Honestly, I read whatever I assign to my students, no matter how many times I've read it before. In the last two weeks, I've read the first half of On Hitler's Mountain and the first chapter of Images from the Holocaust: A Literature Anthology for the Holocaust class I'm helping to teach. I've also read Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home," Faye Weldon's "Ind/Aff: In and Out of Love in Sarajevo," and William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily."

I decided to start Clyde Edgerton's new novel The Bible Salesman, especially since he will be appearing at school in the spring. Meanwhile, I started reading Jumper by Steven Gould, passed along by a student in my literature class. I needed something going on my eBook at the gym, so I've started My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare by Jess Winfield. That doesn't begin to scratch the itch though. Just walking in the study, I see Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, recommended by Kevin Walters.

Then I started browsing Carol Jago's site (see her link on this page) and--lo and behold!--more books I need to read. I first met Carol at an NCTE conference where she facilitated a regular session called "Readers Ourselves," which gave teachers a chance to talk about the books we were reading, not the ones we were teaching. It's one of my guilty pleasures at each conference. I don't come away with lesson plans; I come away with another book list, tried and true. I'm following her lead on Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses.

Kathryn Stripling (Kay) Byer, NC's poet laureate, recommended Not the Battle to the Strong: A Novel of the American Revolution in the South by Charles F. Price. (See her blog in my list too.)I have also been in touch with several of my former students who were--and are--avid readers. They've passed along titles they've read with their book groups or discovered on their own, as well as one or two written by friends.

I'm reminded of a quote from Anna Quindlen I found long ago and keep tucked in my file of favorites: "I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."