Friday, January 30, 2009

A Mermaid's Tale

I read Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees long enough ago that I can't remember specifically what I like about the book. I do remember that my book club enjoyed a lively discussion. The strongest image I took away was the father's standard punishment for his daughter, "kneeling on the grits." Mainly I recall strong, protective female characters who rubbed honey on a wooden statue.

Because I do read so much, I forget so much about the books I read, even the books I love. Sometimes fragments come back to me at the oddest times. I once remembered a detail from a book I had read in which one of the characters had broken her dishes then used the fragments in a wall in her house. Try though I might, I could not remember the title of the novel--until at the dentist office, under laughing gas, I recalled Whitney Otto's How to Make an American Quilt.

Last week I read Kidd's second novel The Mermaid Chair. I had heard mixed reviews, so I had not rushed to read the book. Once I got into the story, though, I was struck by how the author had taken a story line whose plot summary might sound like any other light romance and had crafted it so beautifully. Her images were fresh and original. Her point-of-view (primarily a first person account of the protagonist, Jessie Sullivan) gave such insight into the character.

She crafted quirky characters who behaved and dressed oddly at times, but she made them believable and consistent. I was also struck by the obvious research she must have conducted to make her story believable: mermaid lore, monastery life, Pick's disease, east coast island life. Yet she incorporated the details so naturally that I didn't keep imagining the author in a library. In fact, I forgot the author altogether as Jessie told me her story.

If the tendency to forget the fine points of a good book has a benefit, it is this: I can re-read a book with the same enjoyment I had the first time. While the sheer volume of books yet unread overwhelms me, from time to time, I revisit an old friend--Watership Down, The Once and Future King, Pride and Prejudice--and remember why I loved it the first time. I may have to look for my copy of The Secret Life of Bees again.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I remember one of my college instructors saying the one's library is made up necessarily of the books one has read but the book one hopes to get around to reading. I'll admit it: the impossibility of reading all of the books I want to read (just those I know I want to read) overwhelms me. My reading taste is as eclectic as my gastronomic taste. I may be finicky--there are some books on which I refuse to waste my time--but I have a broad range of interests that leads me all over the bookstore or library shelves.

While I can't read them all, I can't quit searching for the next good book--and the one after that. I have cultivated reading friends for year. As a teacher, I have done my best to create readers who will come back years (or days) later and say, "I have this great book you should read." My book list sources are vast. Every Sunday morning, I turn to the Books page in Charlotte Observer the before I check out the headlines, the sports page, or even the L.A. Times crossword puzzle.

Today I ventured to another great source for titles, the Lemuria Bookstore blog (in the list on my page.) I haven't even made it to the bottom of the posts, and my list has grown. I'm clicking all over the place trying to find out more about books mentioned there. (How can I resist a title like Jim Harrison's The English Major?)

Dave Barry once advised that if you have a song stuck in your head, you may not be able to get rid of it but you can pass it on. (Thanks, John, for John Prine's "Happy Enchilada.") The same, I would venture, goes for books. If I can't read them all (yet), I can share the title with someone else who can--and then report back to me!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


At the beginning of a semester, I attended a staff development session about the different generations in America--ranging from the Veterans (my parents' generation) to Baby Boomers (me) then the Gen X-ers (my baby sister and my daughter) and the Milliennials (my younger son and my current students--at least the ones of traditional college age.) The sociologists may question the dividing lines and cut-off dates, but the descriptors intrigued me. The implications for faculty made up of about 3/4 Baby Boomers teaching Millenials were challenging, to say the least.

This past week, my husband and I went to Charlotte, NC, with another couple to see the Eagles in concert (not the Philadelphia football team). I had last seen them live in 1975, standing in my chair on the second row in Nashville, TN, for most of the show. While I was looking forward to the show, I was overwhelmed by the performance.

I'll admit, Glen Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy Smith, members from the seventies, looked older--no surprise--and wore black suits, white shirts, and black ties, almost an early Beatles look. The one thing that hadn't changed was the quality of their voices. They put on an almost-three-hour show and sang both their old songs from their Grammy-nominated (as they continued to remind us) album Long Way to Eden to their classics--"Peaceful, Easy Feeling," "Life in the Fast Lane," "Hotel California." The tight harmony and the instrumental versatility of the band showed them to be more than fluff.

Going into the arena, I accurately predicted the encore songs: "Desperado" and "Take It Easy." While the audience was packed with all age groups, we Boomers were in the majority. We knew all the words and got all the jokes. For those three hours, we were transported to our college days--"Lying Eyes," "Take It to the Limit," and "Witchy Woman."

In fact, the Eagles spent some time in my hometown back when I was in high school. At the time, the Muscle Shoals Sound drew all the great recording artists--the Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, Joe Cocker, and Kris Kristofferson, to name a few. My best friend Debbie somehow ran into the Eagles while they were in town and ended up driving them to buy socks. They gave her a set of drumsticks. Back then we were exposed to so many big musicians that we at least pretended not to be fazed by them.

I realized during the concert that we had such great lyricists writing "our music." I wonder how much the switch from albums to CDs has affected the literacy level of liner notes. Now that most people just download their music, I wonder if we'll lose that quirky little genre. If I were younger (i.e., my eyes were better), I might be able to peruse the CD liners notes more easily. Now I need a magnifying glass. I've noticed that many don't even print the lyrics of the songs, much less other clever text.

During the concert, I recalled the first year I taught high school when some of my students had the lyrics from an Eagle song --I think it was "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?"--and were trying to trace the literary allusions. And it wasn't an English class assignment. I hope that urge hasn't disappeared. After all, our best songwriters are some of the poets of our day, letting us create our own music videos in our heads.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Trip to Austenland

This year I plan to take a virtual tour of Austenland. Back in the fall, I agreed to write a teachers' guide for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for Signet Classics, publishers of paperbacks for the classroom. There were other titles coming up, but I have always especially loved this Austen novel.

I'll admit that I came to Austen's best-known novel late, reading it first because it was on a summer reading list for the tenth grade the first year I taught. (That year, I was teaching sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and each grade level had a summer list of four or five books from which students could choose. I knew I needed to read them all if I planned to test my students. The experience was both time intensive and blessed: Pride and Prejuidice, Watership Down, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, My Antonio, and more.) I had always imagined Austen to be gloomy and dark; maybe I was expecting something more like the Bronte's. How wrong I was!

Since I have four sisters myself, I particular enjoyed the Bennetts' family dynamics. The novel light and fun; in spite of myself, I genuinely cared how things would turn out. Since that time, I've watched the movie several times as well. I always nervously anticipate the eventual happy ending for Lizzie and Darcy. (Once my daughter Laura called me to pick her up at school after a ball game. I made her wait until the movie ended--pre-Tivo--to see how things turned out for the couple.)

A year or so ago, I picked up the novel The Jane Austen Book Club. I read one chapter then realized I needed to re-read the novels before finishing this book. Most were available on CD or cassette, so I enjoyed an anachronistic car trip with Lizzie, Emma, all the Austen heroines.

I've read some of the sequels, and I have Faye Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen waiting on my library shelf at home. My mom even gave me a Pride and Prejudice board game for Christmas this year. Recently I picked up the audiobook Austenland by Shannon Hale. The protagonist is a young single career woman with a secret: she is infatuated with Mr. Darcy--or at least with Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth. She keeps her DVD of Pride and Prejudice hidden in one of her houseplants. An elderly great aunt who discovers her movie and thereby her fetish bequeaths her a three-week trip to Austenland, a vacation site where people live vicariously in Regency England. Jane (oh yes, her name is Jane) plans to exorcise her Darcy obsession while playing this elaborate game of dress-up.

The novel is clever and at times surprisingly funny. The protagonist--and readers as well--sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between what is and is not real, hence the fun.

Now as I get ready for my own sojourn in Austenland, developing reading activities--before during and after--I look forward to becoming reacquainted with the Bennett clan, their neighbors and beaux.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Quick Reads

January is always a great month to catch up on magazines. As I've mentioned before, my favorites change as I change, but I have always had a weak spot for magazines. I can't stand to be caught with nothing to read, and at times, magazines best suit my attention span or available time. Over Christmas, when the new issues arrive, I put them back--a habit I picked up from Mama--and save them for the slower (ha!) January days. I may sneak a peak, but I postpone the savoring until the holidays have past and the tree is out of the house.

Right now I have a veritable cornucopia! My all-time favorite magazine is Oxford American magazine, "the Southern magazine of good writing." Right now the best issue of all, the Southern Music issue, is on the news stand. This year it came with not one but two CD's, with companion articles. Oxford American has had a tough go of it. Begun in Oxford, Mississippi, not England, it has nearly folded a couple of times, eventually moving to Conway, Arkansas, and falling under the auspices of Central Arkansas University. The writing is clever and eclectic. They publish issues on movies, food, travel, just about anything that is identified with the South--or America--or being human.

Another recent discovery and new favorite is Garden and Gun. No, there is not affiliation with the NRA or the FFA. It's a clever, eye-pleasing, smart publication with great writing and photography. I'm planning this weekend to try out the duck and oyster gumbo recipe in the most recent issue. The most memorable piece so far was a great article on sweet tea, that Southern nectar of the gods.

I'm still a New Yorker fan. I let my subscription slide from time to time, but even though they tend to drop regular features I like (the acrostic puzzle awhile back, "Shouts and Murmurs," before that), they keep plenty of good ones. I'll admit that I flip through first and read the poetry and the cartoons. Even more than "The Far Side," you either get the New Yorker's cartoons or you don't. I do. I find some great poems too. What I've notice, though, is that because they are so well-written, I find myself reading about topics that normally would never interest me at all. I have yet to win (or even place in) the caption contest.

On my Washington trip, I joined the Smithsonian just for the magazine (and the discount in the gift shop.) It's just started arriving, so the stack rises!

The one journal I read regularly is English Journal, the professional publication of the National Council of Teachers of English that focuses on secondary educators. Even though I'm teaching at the community college now, I still love EJ. I have been spied reading my latest issue at the pool. Nerdy, eh?

The bulk of my other magazines are home and food related. I read them for pictures the way men may read Playboy (at least the ones who don't claim to buy it for the articles.) Even if I don't get around to preparing all the enticing recipes, I have a hard time throwing them away. When I do try to thin out my stacks, I get out my pretty kitchen file folders, clear plastic sleeves, and scissors. Our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners featured some of my new culinary ventures. Right now I also have Southern Living (a must), Traditional Home, Cottage Living, Prevention, and Food and Wine.

Magazines couldn't replace books, but they are a perfect supplement--semi-disposable, easily recyclable (i.e., shared), and portable. How could we survive in doctors' waiting rooms without them?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

In Favor of Resolutions

My I state without apologies that I think making New Years resolutions is a good thing. I know, I know. I've seen the statistics showing the number of people that fail to follow through, the percentage that go by the wayside. I don't think that's a good reason not to make resolutions though. I've also seen statistics on how many people do not wash their hands in public restrooms if they don't think anyone is watching. I don't think that should convince us just to give up the practice.

In truth, I think we need to renew our resolutions more often. I've always believed that for most of us, the beginning of the school year is as much of a time for resolutions as January 1. As a student and now as a teacher, I always take that time to revisit my goals, to think about where I didn't do all I knew I should or could before, and to resolve to do better. Maybe what we should do is set dates quarterly to do so--maybe on those four days a year when we are supposed to change our filters in our home heating/cooling systems.

Not to make any resolutions is to admit defeat, to accept mediocrity. I plan to write mine down then to make four calendar reminder notes to give me a chance to check my vital signs.

I won't bore you with the ones everyone makes--eating less, eating right, exercising more. I do have some specific ones related to my literary life though:

I am resolved to make up for my failure to complete my daily reading through the Bible last year following John MacArthur's schedule--a little Old Testament, a little New Testament, something from the Psalms and from Proverbs each day. Rather than starting over, I'm backing up just a bit from where I stopped and starting January 1 on the reading for August 1. That puts me in the book of Esther and in I Corinthians.

I plan to read or reread some of the classics this year. I want to read Tess again, along with Crime and Punishment, Don Quixote (the new translation that came out just three or so years ago), To Kill a Mockingbird (since all of Charlotte is reading it this year), Little Women (since I've just finished March, the Hickory Big Read.)

I also want to read more of the Lemuria First Editions Club selections that arrive each month at my front door. I've almost never been disappointed. Having said that, I'm going to try not to let others dictate my reading choices too often. I will continue to read whatever book club chooses through our semi-democratic process, but I am not going to read anything that I would consider a waste of reading time just to avoid feeling guilty because someone else passes a book along. Likewise, I plan not to foist anything on anyone else in the same manner. That does not mean I won't be sharing book titles with my reading friends.

I'm going to work through my own bookshelves and find those hidden treasures I bought for a reason and just haven't gotten around to reading. I am resolved not to care how trendy or current they are. I won't read a book just because Oprah suggested it or because everyone else is reading it, but I won't avoid a book for the same reason either.

I plan to read more poetry this year. I plan to write more poetry this year. I am resolved to encourage others to read more poetry this year. In fact, I plan to keep a book of poems in my car and/or in my purse at all times, so that when I'm stuck waiting for the car inspection or sitting in the doctor's waiting room, I won't read old magazines. I'll enrich my life with a poem.
I am even going out on a limb: I am going to buy more books of poetry. If the publishing industry is struggling now, the poetry publishers always have been. (In Guy Clark's song, "Cold Dog Soup," he sings: "There ain't no money in poetry. That's what sets the poet free, but I've had all the freedom I can stand.")

One professional resolution I want to make is to begin in earnest my research on the effect of Accelerated Reading and other similar programs in elementary and middle school meant to increase reading but, I suspect, stifling the love of reading. My evidence is purely spotty right now--the testimony of my own children and of high school students I've taught. I want to learn why people quit loving the reading experience. Then I want to figure out how to change that.

That's enough for now. I guess I'll stack my current reads: The MacArthur Daily Bible, The Flat Belly Diet (see aforementioned annual resolutions), The Bible Salesman and a companion read, Yvonne Mason's Reading, Learning, Teaching Clyde Edgerton. I'm reading to put Austenland into my car CD player and Billy Collins' Ballistics in my purse. I'm stacking Gordon Korman's The Juvie Three and Ann Haywood Leal's Also Known as Harper near my bed. Let the New Year roll!