Monday, December 28, 2009

Half Broke Horses

I sometimes fret over reading books in their proper sequence. For instance, I discovered Kent Haruff's Eventide before I realized it followed his earlier novel Plainsong. Going back to the first book made me want to re-read the second. Likewise, I started the Harry Potter books--before Harry was cool, I might add--but my reading was interrupted partway into the third book. I was tempted to read the first and second again before I began listening to Jim Dale's wonderful narration via audiobooks.

Sometimes, though, a book appears out of time sequence. The term "prequel" has found its way into the language, though I suspect it is used more in the film world than in publishing. Just such a work is Jeannette Walls' new book she calls a "real-life novel," Half Broke Horses. I had loved her memoir Glass Castle when I first read it with my book club and again when it was chosen for our reading and English classes at the college.

This new book is the story of Walls' maternal grandmother Lilly. She first intended to write her mother Rosemary's story, but her mother insisted that she was missing the best story. Her choice to write in fist person in her grandmother's voice gives the book its charm. I found the details of Lilly's life as captivating as those of Walls' own life, though not as horrific. Her ability to present the most unnerving events and details unflinchingly reminds me in a way of Frank McCourt's memoirs.

Reading the book as a separate entity from Glass Castle, I found it stood on its own, and I was often able to ignore the inevitable turn Rosemary's life would take, but as I reached the end of the book where Rex Walls enters the picture, I felt like someone in a movie audience, wanting to scream "Don't!" at the screen.

Having heard Jeannette Walls reading at Appalachian State in 2008, I am still amazed at her positive attitude, her ability to describe her own heartbreaking childhood with the voice of a true survivor. Although this novel is her grandmother's story, I see it as a tribute to her love for her mother who "did the best she could."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Quick Query

While I know I should be in panic mode, finishing up Christmas, I was sitting here, looking through the stack of Christmas books I've assembled from my shelves. Some are short story collections; others would almost pass for children's books or novellas. I have plans to read Gregory Macguire's new one, Matchless, a retelling of the little match girl story.

For me, Christmas isn't Christmas without at least one reading of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," preferably with a audience willing to let me read it aloud. I enjoy "The Gift of the Magi," and for a laugh, Steve Martin's parody, "The Gift of the Magi Indian Giver," in his collection Cruel Shoes. At some point, someone will read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.

I'd love other suggestions of favorite Christmas books and poems, particularly some that would be perfect to share around the family holiday table. I can't pass up a captive audience in a holiday mood.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Hotel Bathroom Test

No, I don't plan to share tips for travelers in this post. I just spent the weekend in Chapel Hill, NC, where Ben, our youngest, graduated from college. By happy coincidence, I've finally finished posting grades for the semester, so I actually had the luxury of reading for pleasure without guilt. I had been reading Stieg Larrson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It has been slow going for me during much of the novel, not because I didn't want to read it but because my work and the demands of the holiday season have been competing for my time.

Last night, though, as time came for light's out, I just couldn't quit reading. Finally, feeling that the bedside lamp was a nuisance, I slipped into the bathroom to read until I was finished with the book. When I turned the page and realized I had reached the end, I remembered someone suggesting not reading Larrson's next book until the third one comes out because "you'll want to find out what happens next." I wish I'd been warned the same with this book. Of course, the book can stand alone. The ending is just as untidy as life. Still, I honestly hope to meet Salander and Blomkvist again.

Since a true vacation for me usually means time to read, I can think of several books I've read under similar circumstances (perched on the closed toilet seat as my family slept in the next room.) Most clearly, I recall during a mountain vacation reading Watership Down by Richard Adams, one of my all-time favorite books. Once the rabbits' final battle was under way, there was no sleeping for me. I had to read them out of their dilemma.

The best kind of book is one that disturbs or even prevents sleep. I read Leon Uris' Exodus that way. I was probably in eight or ninth grade, and as I read late into the night, I realized I could not stop reading while the characters were stranded in the concentration camp. I had to keep reading until they were liberated--at least, if I wanted my dreams undisturbed.

One common thread among passionate readers is the memory of reading late into the night, often under covers by flashlight. How odd that I've had friends recently describing having to force their children to finish books they'd started. For me, a gripping book will demand to be read, despite adverse circumstances. In fact, one sits right beside me now, and I think I hear it whispering, "Read me. Now."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Paul and Art and booklists

Home from a quick trip to see family, I settled onto the sofa with my bag of papers in the process of being graded, but I stole a quick look at the Living section of the Sunday paper. As we clicked through the channels, stopping for a little NFL action, we stopped on a concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, evidently, when we saw Simon and Garfunkel performing "Bridge over Troubled Water," a song I not only loved, but sang on the school bus with Susan McMurtrey when it was on the charts way back when.

Seeing them play prompted me to do a quick search, remembering that I had read that Art Garfunkel had maintained a list of books he had read since the late sixties. Sure enough, I found his official site where he listed them. In the past two or three years (the only part I allowed myself the luxury of perusing for now--I have papers to grade!), he had read a mix of old and new, fiction and nonfiction. I saw a few I'd read, many I hadn't.

Still, I respect his consistent list-making. I have kept my own list for several years now. I write authors and titles on my wall calendar month by month, then at the end of the year, I transfer them into my "Bookwoman" notebook. Since I share my own reading in this particular forum, I get lots of unexpected feedback. One sister is still holding a grudge because I panned an author she liked; several friends, I've learned, have picked books from my list. I learned long ago that some people won't love the books I do. I enjoy a lively discussion, even without coming to a consensus.

I wonder if Art cares if I read from his list or not? He'd probably be happy enough to know I still listen to his music.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Flexible Book Clubs

I must confess that my book club does everything in a sporadic fashion, probably because of me. We have been reluctant to establish a date each month and stick to it because that often means someone is left out. As a result, we sometimes end up discussing a book long enough after reading it that we have to review before the discussion.

Fortunately, these are not women who read one book and then wait to read another one until after it has been assigned. We arrive with bags of books we have read either to return to their rightful owners or to share. We have clippings from the newspaper and printouts of online reviews. Our selection for the next meeting comes almost arbitrarily, and we rarely settle for one book.

This month, we shared lots of other suggestions. I had my list from the conference. One of the members had taken a long family road trip, so she had her vacation reading to share. We finally decided to read Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe and Half Broke Horses, Jeanette Walls' "true-life novel" about her maternal grandmother we had read about in her memoir The Glass Castle.

Once we'd selected our book(s) and decided to try a regular monthly meeting date for the coming year, we kept throwing around titles, responding, "Yeah, I loved that one" or "Is this one yours? May I read it next?" We weighed in on the Twilight series (some loved them, some didn't), and before long, we were headed back home, our bags of books redistributed and our nightstand stack of books to read just a little taller.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shades of Hamlet

Maybe I'm a sucker for Shakespearean allusions, but here I am again at the end of a novel that is such a Hamlet story. Lin Enger's novel Undiscovered Country is the story of a young man who hears gunfire at the end of a day of deer hunting and finds his father dead of gunshot wounds in his deer stand. You guessed it: he has an uncle Clay (not Claudius) who just happened to have dated the widowed mom when they were in high school.

In this case, the story is set in Minnesota and told as a flashback by Jesse, the older protagonist, now an English teacher living in California with his brother Magnus. In the last year or two, I've read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Dead Father's Club, both Hamlet stories, and Serena, a Macbeth story. Each one has been a good story, quite original despite the heavy borrowing from the Bard (who was himself quite a borrower, if not a lender). Since I'm three fifths of the way through Hamlet in my English 113 class, I'm pleased to be able to tell my own students that one of the reasons Shakespeare really is the greatest writer who ever lived is that his stories and his characters are so universal and timeless.

In this particular book, rather than to trip to slip the allusions under the readers' radar--after all, he does borrow his title from that most famous soliloquy--the author comes right out and has his characters find the Hamlet connections too obvious. I found myself completely sympathetic to Jesse, as he wrestled with his pull toward revenge on one side and his Hispanic girlfriend Christina, who struggles to keep him from going through with his plans.

I was intrigued to learn that Lin Engrer is the brother of Leif Enger, whose novel Peace Like a River I particularly enjoyed. (His next one is still sitting on my nightstand in the stack.) I do hope their relationship resembles Jesse and Magnus's more than that of Uncle Clay and Jesse's dad.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Fairy Tales

I just finished a beautiful book recommended by one of my favorite reading friends, who said she planned to give several copies as Christmas gifts. Kate DeCamillo's lovely book The Magician's Elephant could almost be described as a fairy tale. The story is tender, uplifting, and beautifully written. The main character (unless you count the elephant) gives money entrusted to him for the purchase of food to a fortuneteller instead, learning--if she tells the truth--that his sister lives.

A number of lives intertwine, including a magician who conjures an elephant when he only intended a bouquet. It's one of those books you can almost read in a single sitting, but also one that bears reading again and again. I think it will find a place on my gift list too.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Technical Difficulty

Over the years, I have embraced technology in my private and my professional life. While many are debating the value of books in other forms than bound printed text, I have leapt onto the bandwagon. I've been an audiobooks fan for years now, and for the past two, I've been the proud owner and user of the Sony Electronic Reader (PRS-505). I have even been able to keep separate the book on my eReader, the one on the nightstand, and the one in the car CD player.

This week, though, I became aware of the potential for disruption, if not disaster. We had our children and grandchildren here for the holidays, and once everyone had turned in for the night, I thought I would read for just a few minutes. I was about a third of the way into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, far enough along to want to know what's going to happen next. I clicked on the bedside lamp, and flicked the "on" button. Nothing.

Assuming the battery had died, I went on to sleep and plugged the book into the charger, but when I tried to turn it on again--nothing. I tried all the fix-it methods available, first plugging and unplugging, trying different computers and charger cords, even looking online at the FAQs on the Sony website. Finally, I tried the online chat with an "analyst" who called herself Adriane. She was responsive and polite--offering such replies as "Thank you for the additional information, Nancy." She could not, however, help me. She recommended the "hard reset," which would have wiped the book's memory clean. I was a little reluctant, and when I realized I had to power up the book to do it, I knew it didn't matter. Next I tried visiting Best Buy, from which the book had been purchased. The nice little blonde spiked haired Asian "geek" tried to help. He managed to get it on, but I couldn't turn it off. (Eventually, it went back off on its own.)

Next I called Sony and was told that I could replace it with a refurbished model for just over $100. For $199 I could have a brand new model, and for $299, I could have an upgrade. I told him I would have to think it over.

Finally, I did what I should have done first: Asked my twenty-two-year-old son to take a look. He worked on the on-off switch a minute, and it was back in working condition.

Do I still recommend the electronic reader? Sure. But I recommend grown children even more.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Box Arrives

With limitations on luggage (and all those extra charges), I knew I couldn't get home with the books I picked up from the conference, so I lined up at the hotel Kinko's with lots of other conference- goers to ship a boxful home. Having a few days to wait gives me time to forget what was coming. Today they arrived and the reading can begin: I have my copy of Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife as well as her novel Goldengrove. I also had Robert Hicks' new Civil War novel A Separate Country set in New Orleans. My book club enjoyed Widow of the South. I later learned that Hicks is also a Lipscomb graduate.

I also had a couple of Gregory Maguire books: his tribute to Maurice Sendak Making Mischief and his little Christmas story, a twist on the tale of the little match girl, Matchless.

I am looking forward to Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals, knowing almost nothing about it, simply because I loved his last book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close so much--although I have difficulty recommending it because I can never remember the correct order of adverbs and adjective in the title . In the Holocaust course, we also use the film from his first novel Everything Is Illuminated. I was told that this new book is nonfiction, so I look forward to seeing how he made the transition.

I bought several books in part because I met the authors and, I'll admit, they were sometimes free. Zoe Ferraris's Finding Nouf is set in Saudi Arabia and won an LA Times Book Prize. I also picked up two new graphic classics, King Lear and Beowulf, written and illustrated by Gareth Hinds, who took part in one of my roundtable discussions at the Middle School Matters sessions. Malinda Lo was signing copies of Ash, something of a Cinderella story with a lovely cover. I missed Sonia Nazario's session on her book Enrique's Journey (too many concurrent sessions!), but on the recommendation of others who did attend, I picked up a copy for myself. I also got a copy of Don't Know Much about Literature, a sequel to Don't Know Much about History, by Kenneth C. Davis and Jenny Davis.

I also picked up a couple of other books about books, including one called What to Read When, which I gave to my daughter (the mother of my grandchildren) and Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick. Eerdmans always has several titles that attract me. I bought C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind Narnia, since I have always been fascinated as much by his life as by his writings.

I'm a sucker for war lit, so I brought home War Is, the first-person accounts of "soldiers, survivors and storytellers" edited by Marc Aronson and Patty Campbell.

In my box I also had several Advanced Reader Copies of new YA literature I'll share with my middle school/high school girls I teach in Sunday school. They are great judges of books aimed at them.

Now that Thanksgiving Day has arrived, amid all my blessings, I have to be thankful that my husband was so kind as to have the new wall of bookshelves built in our bedroom. It's filling u quickly.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Where I've Been: The Land of Book Lovers

When I began teaching, I had the good fortune of attending the national conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. With a colleague or two or three, I was able to visit Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and more. Even though I haven't attended every year, I make an effort to go wherever the convention is held for the kind of boost I need at this point as fall turns to winter and the new has worn off in the classroom.

I don't know about other disciplines' meetings, but to me, the English conference is akin to a religious revival. I am immersed in words and books, and talk among people who value what I do: the language and our students. I have friends I see only once a year from all over the country, and I've learned from experience how to find the most valuable sessions and the abundance of resources available from publishers and other vendors.

One of my favorite perks is coming home with a great list of books I want to read next (as if I needed a longer list.) The one session I do not miss each year is called "Readers Among Us." Participants are encouraged to discuss books we are reading for pleasure, not for the classroom (although they do often cross over). The session facilitators collect the titles mentioned, along with emails of attendees, and mail out the annotated book list with in a week or two of the session.

Of course, we all jot notes anyway, even though we know the list will arrive. (Michael Moore has never failed us. In fact, when I haven't been able to attend, I've emailed and he's sent me the list anyway.) However, since we have a huge exhibit hall full of publishers and vendors, we can often find the titles mentioned before we leave the convention hall--often at a discount.

What follows is a rather disjointed discussion of books I heard mentioned that I had not read yet. Warning: These are presented solely from my notes, with no apparent organizational structure. When I get the email will the full annotated list, I'll be sure to share.

This year, some of the books that caught my interest included Alan Bennet's play The History Boys; The Secret Scripture and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Irish writer Sebastian Barry. In a quest for a good book about music, several titles were mentioned that didn't quite measure up to what this particular reader wanted (He mentioned Girls Like Us and Hound Dog). Someone mentioned Arthur Phillips' novel The Song Is You, about a man who directs commercials but hears a girl singing in a bar and leaves notes with suggestions for her on a napkin, which she later incorporates into her act.

Prolific reader Carol Jago, the new NCTE president, recommended a couple of classics, along with her usual list of suggestions. After reading Gaimann's Newbery winner The Graveyard Book, she learned the author was influenced by Kipling's Jungle Book (not the Disney version). She found it delightful. She also recommended James Agee's Death in the Family for its beautiful prose. She also found Dickens' Bleak House to have a surprisingly timely theme: nothing good can come of battles in court.

Several readers mentioned graphic novels, some having come to them quite reluctantly: Stitches and Fun House had a number of fans in the room. One young reader who had loved Zadie Smith's On Beauty learned that it was a retelling of E. M. Forster's Howard's End, which she was surprised to find she loved even more than Smith's work. The Domesday Book is an intriguing time traveling tale.

Jago says she will be giving copies of Kate diMillo's The Magician's Elephant as Christmas gifts this year, a gook she loved for its rich language.

Other recommended titles:
Peter Hobbs, A Short Day Dying
Laurie Halse Anderson, Winter Girl (Anderson wrote the moving YA novel Speak.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind ( about a poor uneducated boy who figures out how to build a windmill by reading books, changing his family's circumstances drastically.)
The Lost Garden (
A three-generational saga with ties to The Secret Garden.)
City of Thieves by David Benioff is a story set in Leningrad during WWII about prisoners forced to steel enough eggs to bake a wedding cake for their captor's daughter.
China Mieville's The City and The City had a curious plot--one city in which two completely different populations reside as if they are two separate cities, not even acknowledging the other's existence.
J.M. Coetzee's novels (including Disgrace and Barbarians at the Gates) were strongly recommended.
World War Z is marketed in some places as a YA novel, but one must know world history to appreciate it fully.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrania was also highly recommended.

Wells Towers' short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was recommended by a reader who claims usually not to like short stories. I had heard Towers read at the NC Literary Festival and was interested in the book already.

Leroy Quintana's La Primesa is a coming of age novel with mention of Vietnam, reminiscent of Tim O'Brien, but with a Latino perspective.

While this is certainly not a complete list--even from the session--It should give a beginning point for exploring. As for me, I am awaiting a big box of books I had shipped to myself from the conference. I'm not ever sure what all they are. I do know I have Francine Prose's The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, about Anne Franks' Diary of a Young Girl. I can't wait to see what else.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Travel Reading

In November, I always seem to be overbooked--and I don't mean the reading kind. Not only is this the time of the semester when the essays and research papers come rolling in as fast as I can grade them--no, faster--but I have my Washington, DC, trip with the Holocaust class the weekend closest to Veteran's Day and then I attend the fall convention of the National Council of Teachers of English the weekend before Thanksgiving. Any teacher can confirm that it's much harder to prepare for being gone from class than to stay there and teach.

Despite the frenzy getting ready to go, though, the conference is one of the highlights of my year. I don't know what teachers in other disciplines do at their conferences, but English teachers get together and talk shop--books, writing, teaching--all the things we love. Every year I promise myself I won't come home with a bumper crop of books and freebies, but I do anyway. Who can turn down free books?

One perk of traveling for me is time to read. I pity people who can't read in a car or on a plane. Some of my earliest memories in the car involve reading until I can't see any longer. (I remember finishing one of the Pippi Longstocking books in the back seat of the car on the ride between our new home in Columbia, Tennessee, and our hometown of Florence, Alabama, when I was in fourth or fifth grade.) Carsickness has never been an issue. I could turn around and read riding backwards. Airplanes are ideal for reading. Why else would they put so many book stores in airports?

As this trip approaches, I am between books. I'm mulling over the new titles on my book shelves, trying to decide what to take. I'd be foolish to pack more than one, since I know I'll have plenty of reading material on the way home from the conference, but for now, I can't wait to decide which book to start next.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Literature in the South

I feel sure that I ended up in the teaching profession for a couple of reasons: one, I like talking, and two, I love being in the classroom. In fact, while I'd love to further my education, I doubt I would ever pursue an online degree simply because I like being in a classroom.

This semester I have been sitting in on the Southern Culture class on the Caldwell campus. My friend Amy teaches the class, and she knows me well enough to recognize the restraint I have to exercise in class. From Civil War history to Southernu music, I've learned a lot and I've wanted to learn more.

Currently in class, we are in the middle of Southern literature, so I am in my element. I agreed to "guest host" a couple of classes, allowing me to revisit a couple of authors I've enjoyed before. I first met Donald Secreast back in 1997, when he was a part of the college's Writers Symposium. I remember his telling us that his friend Charles Frazier had a first novel Cold Mountain about to be published. He predicted it was going to be a big hit. He was right.

A native of Caldwell County, Secreast's short stories from his collections Rat Becomes Light and White Trash, Red Velvet are all set here in this area in the lives of furniture workers. He has a gift for taking ordinary people in familiar settings and weaving extraordinary tales.

This week the syllabus assignment was Ron Rash's novel The World Made Straight. I had read the book a few years ago--I've read all of Rash's novels--long enough ago that I had forgotten just how good the book was. Also set in Western North Carolina, it is the story of a young drop out Travis Shelton who comes into contact with Leonard Shuler, a former English teacher who lost his job after a disgruntled student planted marijuana in his car. Throughout the novel runs a parallel story of the massacre of Unionists at Shelton Laurel by their Confederate neighbors, a true story rarely mentioned in Civil War history books.

Today when we began discussion of the novel, I was pleased (or relieved) that a significant number of the students in the class had actually read the novel. And they liked it. By Monday when we continue the discussion, we may even have a genuine book talk, the authentic kind of discussion that real readers enjoy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

At Last, I'm a Mule

According to tradition, true Southern literature must always have at least one dead mule. If you have to ask why, you probably aren't truly Southern. Based in Chapel Hill, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature began in 1995 as a print magazine, funded in part by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. It has since gone to an online webzine format, publishing poetry, fiction, and essays.

I first met Helen Losse, the poetry editor, through Facebook, and have since heard her read a couple of Poetry Hickory events. After reading through the website for the publication, which required a "Southern Legitimacy Statement" with submissions, I sent in some of my poems--three of which went live today.

You can check them out on the Dead Mule's poetry page. Who knows? You might be a mule too.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November Is for Writing.

November throws two challenges in my path--National Novel Writing Month and the Poetic Asides November Chapbook Challenge. What does that mean for me? Not only do I have the tension between reading time and writing time but between poetry and prose.

I picked up Chris Baty's little book No Plot, No Problem for some guidance in my participation in National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is not to write a great novel, but to write a novel--at least 50,000 words during the month. The website is set up for posting, with lots of encouragement along the way. What I lack locally is a fellow participant, but I know that in Cerillos, New Mexico, my cuz Sandy is working at way, slaving over a hot keyboard.

This is my second year in the November Chapbook Challenge, part of the site where I participate every Wednesday most of the year and daily in April and November. During this month, the goal is to write poems around a theme with a goal of sifting through and editing to produce a 10-20 page chapbook of related poems. I started writing with the group on Robert Lee Brewers PA site a year and a half ago, and the two things I've gained are motivation to write poetry and friends who write with me--located all over the world. I have an inner circle of writers who have met daily since this past April--virtually, at least--to write and to respond to one another. Life events make us less active sometimes, but we have become friends through words--not a bad way to begin.

For now, according to Baty, I have to see which activities are "foregoable." I'll leave my knitting in its basket, and perhaps I'll wait about scrapbooking until November. Will I quit reading for a month? Not a chance. I may have to cut back a bit to make time to write, but to go cold turkey? Impossible.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Holding Court

I admit that my attitude toward books borders on obsession. Sometimes for self-discipline practice, I visit a bookstore just to see if I can leave emptyhanded. I suppose other people have their own weaknesses. I don't love shoes or purses. But I do love books, and it doesn't take people long to know that about me.

This weekend I enjoyed two distinctly different experiences. First, I helped to host a regional one-day conference of the North Carolina English Teachers Association on the campus of the community college where I teach. Although I was far more involved that usual with the details, I did have a chance to participate in one session that applied archetypes of the hero's journey to literature. Sure enough, as we were sorted into small groups, we quickly began talking about books. (To be fair, we were asked to choose a work of literature--or a song or cartoon--for our model assignment.) In no time, we were swapping and writing down titles to add to our "must read" list.

The highlight of the day was the lunch session during which we honored our student writing contest winners and our 2009 Ragan-Rubin award author Sheila Kay Adams. Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer was also on hand to present awards to the student poets, so we had language zipping throughout the room. I left with one of two more books and a couple of storytelling and ballad CDs as well.

I spent Sunday at the High Point furniture market, a trip I make at least twice a year to see the culmination of my husband's work throughout the year, preparing new product and displaying it for dealers. Sometimes, if I have another visiting spouse along, I visit other showrooms. This year, though, I stayed in the Fairfield space and visited with the sales reps, many of whom I only see once or twice a year.

Throughout the day, they will come over, sit, and talk about our families, my teaching, and then I know to expect the question: What have you been reading? I try to sift through my memories for books that are best suited to the different personalities. Debbie, the regular receptionist, is an avid reader and book clubber, so she alwys has a list for me as well.

By the time I returned home Sunday night, I was ready to read a few pages in Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, but not before I checked my shelves, picking out a few volumes waiting to be read, moving some closer to the top of the stack. I may not always be able to judge a book by its cover, but I know whom to trust.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Poetry for Christmas

If you check out any bookstore, you'll find the poetry selection sparse. Usually the chain stores will carry Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman--all those poets you already have on your shelves if you have any poetry at all. Independent bookstores are more likely to offer more regional or local poets. One of the best opportunities to add to your poetry collection--and the most enjoyable--is a poetry reading. If you watch the newspaper, you will often see notices for authors' readings, some at bookstore, some on campuses or even at coffee houses. You don't even need to live in a big, bustling city to find such events.

In Hickory, North Carolina, where I live now, a poetry event is hosted at least one Tuesday a month at Tasteful Beans, a downtown coffee shop. Since I teach a Tuesday night class this semester, I'm usually unable to attend, but last night we were on fall break, so I took advantage. Each month, Scott Owens, who coordinates the event, invites one or two featured poets to read their works. Other poets, many unpublished, can also sign up for open-mike to read. Last night, the readers included a student and even the proprietor of the coffee shop. The featured poets, Helen Losse and Debra Kaufman read from their poems, some from most recent publications.

Debra Kaufman of Mebane, NC, has just published a book of poems called Moon Mirror Whiskey Wind, a collection unified by a thread following a girl called Destiny. For reasons I find difficult to explain, I have always collected files on esoteric topics. One folder contains what I call "Barbie Lit," writings about that disproportionate icon of my childhood. Kaufman's collection has a poem called "To a Barbie."

Helen Losse, the other featured poet, is the poetry editor for online mag, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. I had heard her read before and regularly follow her on Facebook. Her new book, Better with Friends, is prayerful without being religious (or didactic or sanctimonius.) She went on to read poems from her next book.

Scott Owens also read from Sea Trails, a poet who is homebound for health reasons. This book juxtaposes journal records of a sailing trip she took with a lover along the coast. I was particularly intrigued by the pairing of genres. This, I knew, would make a perfect gift for a sailing friend.

Owens suggested considering poetry books--especially those by the authors who had been gracious enough to travel to Hickory to read for us--as Christmas gifts. He mentioned a man who used to stand on King Street in Boone, reciting poems and selling them for a dollar apiece. These collections offered them at less then thirty cents each, he told us.

Later, when I told him that I loved buying poetry for gifts but sometimes wanted to keep them for myself, he told me he gives poetry to others hoping that when they realize he loves poetry, they will return the favor. Not a bad idea!


Monday, October 12, 2009

Heard a Good Book Lately?

I frequent the public library to feed my need for audiobooks. If I go long without something in my car CD or tape player, I get a little twitchy. While I consider myself in touch with current publications, I often pick up an audiobook without any prior knowledge, unsure if it's brand-new or a few years old. In fact, when I listened to Olive Kitteridge, that was the case. I was pleasantly surprised when the book was announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner.

While I tend to read the back cover copy and the inside flaps of print text, I sometimes don't look at the CD case before I begin listening. Even if I try, I often find the library information laminated over it anyway. I'm beginning to think this may not be such a bad problem. I just finished listening to Jamie Ford's The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and even now, I'm not sure how the book was marketed. Because the protagonist was only twelve or thirteen during much of the narrative and because the book lacked any profanity or sexual references, I suspect it may have targeted young adult readers. When I looked in my most recent mailing from one of the book clubs that sends me mail, though, I noticed it listed there.

No matter what the intended audience, the story was one that appealed to me and, I suspect, would appeal to many adult readers--at least those who didn't turn to literature for their dose of cursing and sexual innuendo. I felt the same about The Book Thief, which was marketed to young adults. I hoped it wouldn't miss out on older readers because the story reached beyond any age barriers.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet moves back and forth between 1942 and 1986 in Seattle, Washington. During WWII, the protagonist Henry, a Chinese-American boy, befriends an American-born girl of Japanese descent, despite his father's passionate hatred for the Japanese. Keiko is the only other Asian student at the white school he attends on scholarship,. The story moves back and forth between the war-time debacle, the "relocation" of the Japanese to internment camps--purportedly for their safety--and Henry's life after losing his wife Ethel to cancer.

The story--in many ways a love story--pulls in historical threads related to the war and to the treatment of American Japanese, as well as a related storyline covering the Seattle jazz scene in the forties. I'm reminded once again of how literature allows readers to walk in someone else's shoes for awhile. I know that walking in Henry's shoes certainly sharpened my view. I've even found myself lookng for long-lost Oscar Holden records.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Seasonal Reads

Occasionally I've participated in the local library's "Let's Talk About It" program: The library provides on loan a series of books related to a single topic. I particularly enjoyed the "Madwomen in the Attic" series, which included (of course) Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys' clever The Wide Sargasso Sea. We also read Toni Morrison's Sula, Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, and one of my favorite short stories, "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Another series focused on the Civil War, including Doctorow's The March, Shaara's Killer Angels, and Gibbons's On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.

Consequently, I find myself imagining other possible themes. Looking over the titles of books I have read recently, I realized I had the start of a good list for October, particularly Halloween. Without planning to do so, I've found that several books I've enjoyed lately have graveyard settings. I couldn't help thinking of others.

I could start with Audrey Niffenegger's latest novel Her Fearful Symmetry, set adjacent to and in the middle of London's famous Highgate Cemetery. I'd add Neil Gaimann's The Graveyard Book. Another favorite I discovered a year or so back is Ray Bradbury's From the Dust Returned, the story of a human foundling left in a basket on the porch of a not-quite-human family. I've always loved his Dandelion Wine, which a former student called the perfect book for summer. This less-famous novel has the same beautifully written blend of nostalgia and subtle fantasy, set in autumn.

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights would be a perfect classic to add to the mix. I always considered Heathcliff's rant about the possibilities of being buried next to Cathy and digging over to her the perfect combination of romantic and creepy.

Post Script: Of course, I only have to hit "Publish Post" before all kinds of titles come to mind. I've picked up lots of other great recommendations as well. How could I forget poetry? I've actually used several of Kathryn Stripling Byer's poems during October: Her collections Wildwood Flower, Black Shawl, and Catching Light have some perfect selections for this time of year.

I've also been revisiting Clyde Edgerton's Floatplane Notebook, where the family graveyard works prominently in the plot. (What a lovely way to spend your time on the day before your wedding, cleaning the graveyard!)

I'm still waiting to hear more suggestions for readings with ghosts, witches and graveyards, which I will pass along.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Festival Followups

The best thing--and the worst thing--about attending a literary festival is that I leave with a list: books I must read. In fact, with the books there and the authors available to sign them, I don't always settle for a list. I have to have a book or two (or more).

Sure enough, after the recent North Carolina Literary Festival, I came home with (among others) Abide with Me, an earlier novel by Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, and The Wet Nurse's Tale, a first novel by Erica Eisdorfer, whose "day job" is managing the UNC's on-campus bookstore.

Strout sets Abide with Me in New England, following the story of an earnest young minister Tyler Caskey, in the early sixties coping with the death of his wife, the rearing of his two young daughters, and living under the scrutiny of his small-town congregation. Strout has a knack for presenting flawed, layered characters who frustrate readers, even as we grow to love them. As a preacher's daughter myself, I am particularly sensitive to treatment of clergy in literature and film. The only character more caricatured than a minister is probably a Southern minister. Strout escapes the trap into which so many writers fall, stooping to stereotypes.

The Wet Nurse's Tale took me must further back in time, as Eisdorfer spins an intriguing believable tale of an English country girl who follows her mother's path and becomes a wet nurse to women who either cannot nourish their own young or who prefer not to do so. Susan Rose is likable and believable. She has a quick wit, a keen sense of humor, and a pragmatism. Eisdorfer's period details and dialogue easily transport readers back in time.

In both cases, even though I had just recently heard the authors read from their works, I found that I was able to dismiss their voices, falling easily into the world they created. I am glad to know I have at least one more Strout novel Amy and Isabel yet to read. I do hope Eisdorfer is either deep in research again or typing away in her time off.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Traveling with Books

When traveling, I have always loved to find a book to take along that has some connection to that place I am going. I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham's The Hours on a trip to England. I read Shakespeare's The Tempest in Bermuda and Steinbeck's Cannery Row on a trip to California that took me through San Francisco, Carmel, and Monterey.

A few years ago, I took Audrey Niffenegger's bestseller The Time Traveler's Wife on a trip to Chicago. My book club had chosen the book for our next meeting, so I arrived in the Windy City far enough into the book to finish, have a good cry, then to strike out in search of the places mentioned in the book. I found the Newberry Library near my hotel. I sat outside the Art Institute next to the lions where Henry had sat with his daughter. I even found the Monroe Street Garage, another significant setting.

Now that I have read Niffenegger's new novel Her Fearful Symmetry, I think I'm going to have to go back to London with the specific purpose of visiting the Highgate Cemetery, where the book is set. After all, having read the novel, I already feel as if I have traveled there.

Niffenegger's new novel passed a test of mine: she kept me as interested in her characters and her plot without forcing a comparison to The Time Traveler's Wife. This time her central characters include two sets of twins, one whose death sets the story in motion. Elspeth Noblin leaves her apartment to the daughters of her estranged twin sister, girls who have never known her. The conditions of the will bring the girls to London to live but without their parents.

I've always been fascinated by twins and the mysterious ties, so I loved this double dose. Julia and Valentina's lives have been defined and confined by their unique relationship. As they are removed from home and placed in this new setting amidst strangers, conflicts are certainly to be expected. Their lives intertwine with the neighbors there, particularly with Elspeth's lover Robert, a researcher and guide at the historic cemetery adjoining the property and Martin, a neighbor who life is crippled by his Obsessive-Compulsive disorder.

Readers of The Time Traveler's Wife won't be surprised when Niffenegger injects her touch of fantasy into this novel as well, although completely different from Henry's leaps back and forth through time. With the significance of the Highgate Cemetery in the novel, in fact, I think I'd have been disappointed without a spirit or two.

I often find myself explaining to people, "I don't usually read fantasy, but. . . ." Then I realize that I do; I just like the supernatural elements to seem real to me. It worked in Harry Potter. It works for Ray Bradbury. It works here, evoking my "willing suspension of disbelief."

Now I suppose that when I next visit London, the Highgate Cemetery will be a definite destination. When I seek out the tombs of Christina Rosetti, George Eliot, and Karl Marx, I'll be looking around for the Noblin family mausoleum too.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I Thought a "Challenge" Was a Good Thing

Connotation is a beautiful thing, adding shades of meaning to our language. I love, for example, that the word cleave can be used to describe cutting something in twain or clinging to something or someone. Even though I accepted the label "discriminating reader" back in third grade, a yearbook inscription by my elementary school librarian, I know that in some ways I also read indiscriminately (perhaps in the way that Dylan Thomas described his own reading).

A student yesterday asked what kind of books I liked to read, and I didn't know where to begin. I ended up telling him that I usually preferred fiction--although I could look at my recent reading matter and find plenty of exceptions. From there, though, I branch off in so many directions. I don't read much fantasy--except. . . . To be honest, I just love books, and I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a family that loved books, with parents who trusted my choices.

As Banned Books Week approaches, I am reminded that not every young reader has the freedom I had. I also know that many English teachers have faced much more controversy than I have. The image of burning books--whether from Hitler's Germany or more recent Harry Potter hysteria--causes my stomach to churn. One of my soapbox speeches to my students runs a little like this: When you read, you have three choices: You can accept what you read, reject it or amend it. The truth with stand up to questioning.

Of course, I believe there are limits, and I believe parents have a right to exerting moral guidance over their own children. Book challenges in the school, however, are often misguided and ill-informed. A peek at the list of most frequently challenged books reads a little bit like my list of all-time favorites: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of a Young Girl, Catcher in the Rye, to name a few. So this week, not facing any challenges of my own, I think I may have to sit down and read something dangerous. Thank goodness I know where to find a good list.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Long and the Short of It

Ah--the choices! Having just finished a novel (Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry--more about that later. Loved it!) and having returned the two stacks of essays I had been grading all week, I have arrived at the weekend with a clean slate. I plan to start Jeanette Walls' new "true live novel" Half Broke Horses next, but I've decided for a few days to opt for the tapas of literature--poetry and flash fiction. Even before last weekend's literary festival in Chapel Hill, I have been accumulating some volumes I can't wait to read.

At a recent Poetry Hickory event at Tasteful Beans, I picked up a copy of The Main Street Rag, out of Charlotte, NC. The publication contains lots of poetry, along with fiction, essays, and book reviews. When reading poetry, I vacillate between taste-testing from a variety of poets and immersing myself in the work of one poet.

For option two, I picked up Fred Chappell's new collection Shadow Box, all poems within poems. At readings, his wife Susan joins him to give an oral presentation of this unique concept of poetry. I can't wait to read them all.

I also heard poet Dorianne Laux and immediately ordered a copy of her collection Facts about the Moon. I'm keeping my eye out, too, for her poetry collection Superman. I especially enjoyed her discussion of some of the strategies she uses to write poems. Since her husband Joseph Miller is also a poet, they challenge each other. She had two poems she had written in response to his giving her a list of words, challenging her to write a poem incorporating them all. (I seem to remember that the two she composed from the same list had the words "breasts" and "Baptist." Not surprisingly, one was about Dolly Parton.)

Along with my dive into poetry, I'm also reading Long Story Short, a collection of flash fiction written by sixty-five North Carolina writers and edited by Marianne Gingher. All of the stories have fewer than 2000 words, most fewer than 1500. Some are just a page--yet they have a lovely tightness and completeness.

Now that Saturday has arrived, I'm curled up on the sofa with my first cup of coffee and a pile of books. I may not get to the newspaper today.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bibliophiles in Droves

I just returned from spending Saturday in Chapel Hill, NC, where I attended the North Carolina Literary Festival. I can't think of a more pleasant way to spend a beautiful day than on a university campus with readers and writers. The line-up was so chockful of good sessions that I would have missed lunch altogether if Rick Bragg hadn't called in sick.

In some ways, this felt like Old Home Week, seeing writers whose work I have loved and with whom I have spent time during NCETA conferences and local readings--Ron Rash, Allan Gurganus, Fred Chappell, and Robert Morgan to name a few. They managed a nice blend of poetry and fiction, established authors as well as writers experiences success with first novels. (I have decided that I would love to have Allan Gurganus deliver my eulogy. He does the most beautiful job of introducing other writers, particularly those he has known as their writing careers were blossoming.)

Added to my reading list are The Wet Nurse's Tale by Erica Eisdorfer (manager of the on-campus bookstore), Shadow Box by poet Fred Chappell, and Abide with Me by Pulitzer-Prize winner Elizabeth Strout. On Saturday evening Strout charmed a packed house as she read from and talked about Olive Kitteridge, on my short list of favorites this year.

We wound up the day with a performance of Good Old Girls with Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith delivering the different monologues while Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg performed their original music. Everything was pitch perfect, as the audience warmed up to four women who were so obviously having a large old time.

I known other states lay claim to successful writers, wonderful poets and novelists, but I can't imagine anywhere in the world that literary life flourishes as it does here in my adopted state or where writers are so generous with their time and their encouragement.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thinking of Hugo--and Pat

I will admit that when I first moved to Western North Carolina, I thought people in the area overreacted to hurricane warnings. Didn't they have a map, I wondered? Then I kept hearing tales of Hurricane Hugo, the storm that roared this far inland twenty years ago this week. One of my colleagues had a son seriously injured when the storm damaged their home. I heard enough tales, eventually, that I began to understand the seriousness.

Having grown up in Alabama's tornado alley, I understood storms. My townspeople were the ones always interviewed on national news. ("It sounded like a freight train comin' toward the trailor park. Me and the wife and kids was all hunkered down in the bathtub....") Hurricanes were outside of my field of expertise or even experience.

Last week I finished Pat Conroy's novel South of Broad, his first novel in about fourteen years. I am drawn to his books the way folks are drawn to crime scenes and train wrecks. His writing is wordy and boisterous; his protagonists all appear to be Conroy himself to some degree. Love his writing or not, you can't call the man's novels boring. The number-one all-time unforgettable scene in his Prince of Tides involves a man-eating tiger and an assault on criminals with a statue of the Christ child.

This new novel, set in his beloved Charleston with a side trip to San Francisco, brings together a motley band of unlikely high school friends who first met on Bloom's Day. The characters deal with AIDS, wacko killers, alcoholic parents, racism, the good, bad and ugly of Catholicism, suicide, and adultery. I have also come to look forward to the one requisite Conroy chapter focusing on "the big game"--this time a high school football championship game. All of his novels that I can recall have one such narrative that could be read as a stand-alone short story, a tale of racism and stereotyping conquered, of dignity in defeat, of victory against the odds.

South of Broad is pure Conroy--a little over the top, bigger than life, then when you think life can't get more complicated, Hurricane Hugo blows into town.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Tis the Season

My Southern roots inform me that this past weekend marked the beginning of dove hunting season--at least Alabama and North Carolina. Although I live too far away from the hunters in my family now, I occasionally sweet talk someone around here into parting with a few birds so I can make one of my favorite meals, a dove stew over rice.

Around here another season seems to be kicking in--author season. No, we're not shooting them, but they are making appearance this morning all around me. Greg Mortenson, co-author and inspiration behind Three Cups of Tea, will speak at Appalachian State this Thursday. Lenoir-Rhyne College kicks off this year's Visiting Writer Series next Thursday with Richard Rodriquez (to be followed by a stellar list throughout the school year, finishing with Julia Alvarez as part of Hickory's Big Read.)

Other colleges within an easy driving distance have similar series, so I keep my calendar marked. Successful writers inspire me to write, and they enrich my reading experience as well, so the North Carolina Literary Festival that runs this week from Thursday through Sunday in Chapel Hill will be a feast.

The festival, which for some time ran every other year, moving among the university campuses in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, comes a year late. I attended for the first time when the festival was last held on the Duke campus. I especially enjoyed the joint presentation by Allan Gurganus and his former student author Ann Patchett.

This year's roster has something for everyone--John Grisham and Kathy Reichs, Rick Bragg and Ron Rash, Jaki Shelton Green and Kathryn Stripling Byer, and dozens more. The children's Tent will host sessions for the young ones, including R. L. Stine of Goosebumps fame. I am particularly eager to hear Elizabeth Strout, this year's Pulitizer prize winner for Olive Kitteridge.

The event even plans a strand of sessions related to food. Now if I only had a mess of doves my own life would be complete.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Reason to Procrastinate

As if I even needed a reason to put aside the two stacks of narrative essays I'd like to hand back tomorrow, I came home today to find the latest issue of Oxford American magazine today. At once, everything on my to-do list for tonight shifted down a notch.

I've been a subscriber for years--lasting through all the near-death experiences of the magazine, which calls itself "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing." I find all my favorite Southern writers there, and discover a few new ones each time. To tell you what kind of magazine it is: I even read all the bios of the contributors to each issue. Every year they publish a music issue that comes with a CD. It stays in my player for weeks--always a great mix of Southern music--a category that defies definition.

Today's issue has enough on the cover to drag me in--Southern literature--Thomas Wolff, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor--just for starters. And all those little cards in magazines I usually rip out and toss? They're just in time for Christmas shopping. I may fill out a few.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Word about Required Reading

When I taught high school, the debate about reading requirement generally centered around whether or not students could be required to read in the summer. I have never understood who propogated the idea of summer reading as burdensome, but evidently, some parents bought into the notion.

A quick search, though, will turn up interesting lists of required reading for incoming college freshman at many of the nation's colleges and universities. The idea of using a common reading for all freshman as a transition into college academic life has become common practice, often including appearances by the author and small-group discussions headed by instrctors in a variety of disciplines. The titles may be controversial (Ann Patchett reported received death threats when her memoir Truth and Beauty was chosen at one South Carolina university), but the practice generally seems to be accepted and generally successful.

At the community college where I teach, each semester a book is selected for all developmental reading and writing classes. Instructors at other levels have the option of using the book as well. Sometimes an author visit coincides (usually in the spring), but at other times, the book stands alone. Seeing students relaxing between campus, reading the assigned book, makes me smile. Sometimes I have even seen students laughing out loud as they read. I really love that.

For our fall semester this year, the department selected Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, the story of Paul Farmer, a Harvard-educated doctor who has spent his life fighting disease and the other ravages of poverty, first in Haiti, then Peru, then around the world. I hadn't read any of Kidder's books before, though I have a copy of Among Schoolchildren on my shelves. Admittedly, I prefer fiction to non-fiction ninety-nine percent of the time.

I found the book on CD at the local library, so I thought that would be a great way to introduce myself to the book. The first few chapters seemed a bit slow, but when the author moved back to Farmer's childhood, I was hooked. The more I listened on my ride to and from campus, the more convicted I felt that I had a responsibility to do my part to help others in the world. The book also reinforced the idea that all people don't need to respond the same way. Some have funds to share; some have medical training. Finding one's gift and a way to share it--that's the challenge.

In the past year or two, I felt a similar response when I read Three Cups of Tea and Monique and the Mango Rains. In fact, having worked for about 18 years as a childbirth educator, I realize that I might be able to serve most capably by helping the "Clinique Monique" project. As an educator, too, I can unapologetically inspire students to read books that not only entertain them but move them toward finding ways to make the world a better place, making their own lives richer.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

...But the Movie Was Better

It warms the cockles of my heart (assuming hearts really have cockles) when anyone, but especially my students, says, "I enjoyed the movie, but the book was better." In fact, almost never do I hear the reverse. Occasionally a movie will actually do justice to a book, but more often than not, I am disappointed. In fact, I catch myself almost avoiding movies of books I loved. (A confession here: I haven't watched a single one of the Harry Potter movies all the way through. I intend to do so, but I want to start at the beginning.)

Anyone who knows me--or who reads my blog--knows how much I love an audiobook. I agree with Pat Conroy when he called abridgements something along the lines of "a crime against nature," but with an unabridged book, especially one well done, I get the full impact. When my friend Bebe listened to Cold Mountain, she said, "I might go see the movie if they make one, but I honestly feel as if I've already seen it in my head." I get that.

This week, though, I went to see the new hit movie Julie and Julia with a group of friends. I own the book by Julie Powell, but I haven't read it yet. In fact, even before the movie opened, several people had told me they hadn't loved it. One or two, at least, added that they could see how it might be a better movie than book. After seeing the movie, I understand the secret: it is based not only on Powell's memoir of her year spent channeling Julia, but it balances her story with that of Julia herself in My Life in France.
That is the book I want to read. Our preconceptions don't lean toward expecting a Julia Child love story, but that is exactly what it is. The very best of the movie was Julia and husband Paul's love story. Okay, the best part of the movie was Meryl Streep, who became Julia Child. Now I feel duty bound to begin some post-viewing reading, but before I take Julie and Julia down off the shelf--and I will--I think I'll pick up a copy of My Life in France --and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After all, I'm craving duck!


Thursday, August 13, 2009

In Praise of Paperboys

I love those funny reading coincidences I discover as I read widely disparate selections. It happens all the time. One summer, hired shortly before school began, I had a dozen or more books to read from summer reading lists in order to be prepared for the three grade levels of students I would be teaching--and testing on their reading. Unlike the students, the reading lists were a wonderful challenge, and I recall marvelling at the similarities between Watership Down and Cry, the Beloved Country I never would have noticed if I hadn't read them so close together.

This summer, the list is my own, but it's happening again. I just finished Kent Haruff's Plainsong, after having read its sequel Eventide a couple of years ago. Even in the wrong order, they are such simple, beautiful stories. I find myself suggesting them to so many different kinds of readers. In the second novel, I fell in love with the two bachelor brothers who took in Victoria Robideaux, a pregnant teenage girl--completely out of their comfort zone.

Two of the several main characters in Plainsong are brothers, ten and eleven, who deliver the Denver newspaper in their town, picking up their stacks at the train station every morning. Since nowadays the paper is delivered (to those of us who still want contact with newsprint) by an adult in a car and is usually thrown in the most likely path of run-off from the neighbors' sprinkler, we forget about the day when newspaper delivery was on the short list of job possibilities for younger kids--right up there with babysitting (for fifty cents an house, no matter how many kids) and mowing lawns.

My husband was a paper boy, and when we go back to our hometown to visit, he could still name who lived in every house. No one paid online or mailed in a check. The delivery boy bicycled from door to door collecting, tearing off those tiny little perforated receipts, as I recall. At the receiving before his mother's funeral, I overheard an elderly woman saying, "Elizabeth loved her kids, especially that one that threw the paper."

This morning, unable to sleep in the wee hours, I got up and started Pat Conroy's new book South of Broad, his first novel in fourteen years. From page one, it is classic Conroy, full of prose that few other writers could get away with, and I'm already captivated. And what do you know: his protagonist Leo--Leopold Bloom King, God bless him--delivers papers with a sense of right and duty. (When he misthrows and the paper ends up in the camellia bushes, he gets off his bike and retrieves it, even though the people along his route set their watches by his passing.)

Nothing about Conroy's prose resembles that of Haruff, but I love them both. Each gives me characters I care about, conflict that makes me wriggle until it's resolved, set in places I can imagine--whether Charleston in the summer heat or a bitter cold Colorado winter. The paperboys are a bonus.


Monday, August 10, 2009

End of Summer

One of my favorite instrumental pieces on my iPod is Allison Brown's "The Sound of Summer Running." Ray Bradbury used the title for a short story too, I believe. Brown's lilting melody is a perfect soundtrack to my last few days as I approached this morning--the first official day back to school. She makes me hear "time's winged chariot" on my heels.

Students won't return until Monday--and I actually look forward to their appearance. It's all those meetings we dread--and the drudgery of adjusting the syllabi to this year's calendar and to minor changes in texts and in the MLA format.

There is no way around it: work cramps my reading style. In the summer, I never make my way through the stack I meant to finish because the stack grows through the summer. I visited my good friend Jane in Bahama (not the islands but the little suburb of Durham) and came home with several of her books, adding to my frustration.

But although I may not have as much time for pleasure reading during the school year, I have always been bound and determined to keep it up. Even during the year I completed my National Board certification, I promised myself I would not abandon my family or quit reading to complete the portfolio.

Pat Conroy's new novel South of Broad comes out on shelves tomorrow, and I'm ready to download it on my eBook. I'm also planning to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as soon as I finish the teacher's guide I'm writing on contract. I'd hate to let a few zombies slip into that project. I can't begin to name all the other books just waiting for my time and attention.

Fortunately, for my line of work, being well-read adds to my credibility. I'm one of those folks trying to keep people reading and writing. I'll do the same.

Friday, August 7, 2009

For Criminating Readers

One joy of reading is the way a book can lead me back to texts I've read before, while simultaneously pointing me toward those books I haven't met yet. Last week I had just a few minutes to run into the Patrick Beaver Library to scan the shelves for something new among their audiobooks. I landed on The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a young adult novel by E. Lockhart. Frankie, the title character, is a fifteen-year-old girl attending the same prestigious boarding school where her father "Senior" spent what he considers his glory days. Frankie is tugged between her thrill at catching the attention--and the heart--of the most popular senior boy and her natural affinity for and position among the self-proclaimed geeks: She's on the debate team, and her roommate's boyfriend, as chief A-V Tech student, has keys for every door on campus.

Frankie has discovered P. G. Wodehouse, an author I must admit I have not read, and she has taken to developing and using what she calls "neglected positives," borrowing from the line in The Code of the Woosters well-known to Wodehouse fans: ". . . if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." Frankie uses gruntled, ept, and mayed (the neglected positive of dismayed), to the confusion or amusement of others.

I may not have been among that esoteric group of readers recognizing the Wodehouse reference immediately, but I did recall on of my favorite pieces that ran in the New Yorker's former back-page column "Shouts and Murmurs" by Jack Winter called "How I Met My Wife" (7/25/94), which opens, "It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate." The piece ends, of course, with loved "requited."

A quick internet search shows that many others have given their take on Wodehouse's "gruntled," including William Safire in the New York Times in 1999. I suppose what I find most charming about Frankie (or Lockhart) is that while taking the author's word play as her own, she manages not only to give him credit, but to lead other readers to his novels as well.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Thank You, Mrs. Knott

As I've probably mentioned before, my best memory of fourth grade was our teacher Mrs. Knott reading aloud to us from the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House" series. I may have used my multiplication tables more, but that year more than any other year, I found myself in the joy to having someone read aloud to me. Every day she would stop just a little too soon, leaving us with a yearning for more. When she had read every single one of the books, she went on to read a book by Laura and Almanzo's daughter Rose.

I've talked to other friends since then who had Mrs. Knott (and yes, I'll admit it: Behind her back, we called her Mrs. Snot) in the fourth grade in other years. Many of us have our own collections of the books. We still despise that old Nellie Olsen and were openly thrilled when she was bitten by all those leaches. We know how to spell separate--It has a "rat" in the middle. We envisioned the characters long before the face of "Little Joe" Cartwright became Pa to "Half-Pint."

Over the last few weeks, my friend Kim and an assortment of kin traveled across the country in a camper. Although their stated objective was to visit "the Big Heads" (Mt. Rushmore), the home of the Wilders in Missouri was, for a few of the travelers their equivalent of a visit to Graceland (also on the tour.) For the details of their trip--enough to entice this former fourth grader to head to Missouri, checkout that blog--Big Heads and More. The only thing that would improve the account would be to have Kim (or Mrs. Knott) reading it aloud.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why We Keep Reading

I started listening to Elizabeth Berg's novel Home Safe a week ago, finding it among the new arrivals at the public library, where I have checked out so many audio books over the last couple of years that I now sometimes find slim pickin's. I have read two or three of Berg's books before. I remember years ago enjoying Talk Before Sleep enough that I bought a copy for my best friend. That book, though dealing primarily with cancer, was a book about the strength of friendship's ties.

As I started listening this time, though, I found myself impatient with Helen, the protagonist who loses her husband to a sudden heart attack, then discovers he has done something without her knowledge with most of their savings for retirement. I'll admit: a situation like that might make me whine, but Helen is a whiner extraordinaire. A successful writer, she finds herself no longer able to write. Even worse, always dependent on her husband, she doesn't seem to want to make the effort to take care of herself, to face what life is dishing out. She suffers from the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome: If she doesn't like the idea of a phone message, she just doesn't return the call.

Helen's daughter Tessa, old enough to have been considered doomed to "spinsterhood" in Austen's day, always harps at her mother. I began to anticipate her "Mom--mom--mom!" responses to Helen's doting, her questioning, her interference.

But I kept reading. The story drew me in, and the author often surprised me. I may not identify with Helen, but I recognized her and I couldn't help liking her. She's that friend we all have--and love--who always needs a second opinion, who tries to read between lines when there's nothing there, who sometimes tries too hard, sometimes not hard enough.

Berg skillfully builds her characters in a most consistent way. Although they are capable of surprising readers, their traits and quirks resurface in a variety of ways, unifying the story. She puts Helen in situations that cause despair, confusion, and hurt and lets her respond in ways readers can believe and understand.

One of my favorite parts of the narrative is the writing class Helen is practically coerced into teaching. The classes intentionally bring together a wide range of people who write and share their work each week--from the mentally challenged to business professionals. As they read from their work, Berg deftly manages to recreate many different voices through their stories as well. I found myself touched by Helen's growing affection for the members of the group, even the ones that could have been annoying or offensive.

The class experiences leads to what I loved best in the book: around chapter 30, Helen delivers an interior monologue on the beauty of reading and writing. It fit perfectly, rather than standing out like a soapbox speech, but it could practically stand alone. I realized that her love for books and for the power of language is the force that liberates this woman, allowing her for forgive hurtful slights and to move on.

When I reached what must have been the last page or two, the CD playing began to skip. I pulled over, stopped the car, ejected the CD and cleaned it as best I could. Although the sound quality improved, the last few words were garbled. Today I plan to stop by the library to return the audiobook--and to look for the print copy so I can read the last few lines.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

After "The End"

When reading an electronic book instead of a bound paper version, I often let the end slip up on me. The page count appears at the bottom (310 of 415 with one flick of the finger becomes 427 of 568 or 646 of 864, depending on the size font I select), but because there are often epilogues, acknowledgments, and author's notes, the actual narrative ends suddenly. I can't as easily flip ahead to see how much remains.

Early this morning, I finished reading Neil Gaiman's Newbery Award-winning The Graveyard Book, a fascinating tale that reminds me of some of my favorites by Ray Bradbury (Dandelion Wine or From the Dust Returned). The book, like another I loved, The Book Thief, is marketed for young people--probably because the main character of each is a child and because there is no sex or profanity--but appeals to adult readers as well--or at least to this one in particular.

The story opens as a hit man inside a house kills three family members as the baby, also a target, somehow escapes into the graveyard across the street where he is taken in and protected by the spirits that reside there. Although I don't lean toward fantasy in my book selection, if the author can make the supernatural characters seem real to me, I can cooperate with "the willing suspension of disbelief."

Sure enough, Gaiman tells a tale well and provides a satisfying end, but in the pages that followed, I learned about the sources of his inspirations. He pointed to Kipling's Jungle Book, recommending it to anyone who only knows the Disney movie. He also named family members and friends, and even Audrey Niffenegger, whom I knew as the author of The Time Traveller's Wife but who, he reveals, is also a graveyard guide. Who knew?

I'll admit that I often skip the prologue to a book--or at least postpone reading until after I finish the book itself. Some shed light on the work, but others just muddy the waters. More and more, though, I am finding wonderful tidbits in the final words, especially the words of thanks from the author, that appear after The End.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bookshelf Fantasy

"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. "--Anna Quindlen

I know plenty of people who are content to check a book out of the library, read it, and return it. Some are patient enough to put their names on a waiting list there for a particular title, content to wait until it returns. Others that I know buy paperbacks by the dozens, read them, then pass them along to schools or to Goodwill.

I have a strange and wonderful relationship with my books. I'm not particularly fussy about whether they are hardback or paperback, new or used. I do collect a number of signed first editions, which for future value should be hardback, but I also buy plenty of paperbacks from used bookstores or from Most often, I want to keep them after I am finished. I love to lend them to friends, but I also hope for their safe return.

About the time we moved to this house, I left my position teaching high school in a spacious room with a whole wall of shelves I had accumulated over the years. When I moved to the community college, I had a cubicle in the bullpen I shared with five other instructors. I gave away some books--sharing YA novels with the new teacher I had mentored, passing on duplicates, and such. Most, however, came home in boxes and have moved from my garage to the attic. My husband has been frustrated by the clutter; I have been frustrated when trying unsuccessfully to find any one particular book.

Over the last two weeks, we have (or at least our carpenter/painter has) completed a wall of new bookshelves in an alcove of the master bedroom. If the daughter on Father of the Bride was disappointed with a blender from her beloved, I hate to think how she would have responded to bookshelves. I couldn't be more delighted.

Now I am trying to establish a system I can maintain. Do I separate fiction from nonfiction? Books read from those unread? Should I organize by author or by theme? My other shelves in our home office will retain the books I use specifically for teaching. I have my worn mass market paperbacks there. (Many have my name pencilled in from high school or college. Some I have loved and taught repeatedly are rubberbanded. These maybe less picture perfect, but they have character--and history.) My oversized books have a place there too.

I'm taking my time filling the new shelves, moving books from the attic not by the boxload but by armfuls, like a mama cat with her kittens. I look forward next to having time to sit down and read.

**Here, too, is my contribution to "Teaser Tuesdays":

from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimann:

"You failed, Jack. You were meant to take care of them all. That included the baby. Especially the baby."


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Frank McCourt

In the middle of all the celebrity deaths recently, I wonder how much attention will be devoted to the passing of Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man. I had the chance to review Teacher Man for the Charlotte Observer and to hear him speak at the November conference of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that same year. Each of his memoirs recorded a different aspect of his life. Angela's Ashes, which was made into a movie, was the blunt account of a horrendous childhood. I consider it in the same category as Don't Let's Go the Dogs Tonight and The Glass Castle, unblinking autobiographical accounts that could only have been told by the children who at one time must have viewed their lives as normal but survived, even thrived. 'Tis brought readers the story of his life once he came to America.

Teacher Man
, not only less brutal but filled with humor, interested me as a teacher. McCourt was a delightful speaker as well, gracious to an audience filled with people who knew exactly how it felt to walk in his shoes. I remember most vividly running into a teacher in the restroom who taught at one of the more disadvantaged schools where McCourt had begun his career. She said he still came back and contributed to the school's nuts-and-bolts needs.

While his death will certainly make the "Deaths Elsewhere" column of many papers, I imagine this week many of his former students will feel the loss more poignantly even than any of his most devoted readers.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Reading and Riding: The Angel's Game

I have been blessed with the ability to read and ride. Others may have suffered from motion sickness, but whether from luck or pure motivation, I have never felt any of the adverse effects of car sickness. In fact, I could read while turned backwards if the need arose.

During my fourth and fifth grade year, our family moved from Florence, Alabama, our hometown, to Columbia, Tennessee, a little more than an hour away. I can clearly remember making the ride with my family while reading one of the Pippi Longstocking books. I recall reading so late that I had to hold the book close to the window and read from streetlight to streetlight. I believe I was reading Pippi Goes on Board; I do know that something happened involving her father, making me grateful for the darkness which hid my tears.

In my adult life, I'm fortunate to have a husband who doesn't mind driving. When I read as we ride, I can usually multitask enough to carry on a conversation, dole out Krystal burgers, and operate the CD player or iPod. I am at least better company reading than sleeping.

This past weekend, we traveled back to Florence from North Carolina for a family reunion of my mother-in-law's family. We had last spent time with this group eleven years ago, just a couple of months before her death. Because of the talents and vast storehouse of memories of the different generations, we shared stories and photographs, as well as slideshows and CDs. In more of the one-on-one conversations, I found that the conversations often turned to my favorite: What are you reading?

This week I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon's new novel The Angel's Game. Like his early novel, Shadow of the Wind, this book was set in Barcelona. The Cemetery of Lost Books, introduced in Shadow, also made an appearance in this book, but otherwise the the plots didn't intertwine. As Zafon moves his characters through the city, as well as on a couple of journeys away from the city, I was reminded how clearly he establishes his settings. Although much of his earlier plot has escaped me, I can still conjure up specific places in the book. I suspect the same will be true of The Angel's Game. He does create a protagonist I loved, David Martin, and an evil antagonist. The woman David loves is tragic and intriguing, but my favorite character, the other woman he loved was perhaps my favorite character.

Martin becomes a writer because of the encouragement of several individuals, one a bookseller, and another a wealthy man with whom David has a complicated relationship. Martin is encouraged to help a young aspiring woman to learn to write by allowing her to work as his assistant. He becomes a mentor and a friend under some of the most challenging circumstances.

I already know I will pass this book along, just as surely as I know I will read this book again. Zafon using elements of mystery and magical realism to weave a story that never ties up into a neat finished package. Last night, though, making my way back home, riding shotgun and entertaining my two grandchildren who rode in the backseat, the closer I came to the end of the book, the more I hoped for enough remaining daylight to reach the end. I made it.