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.