Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Book about a Book

I've learned whom to trust concerning books. Although I avoid committing myself to reading just anything someone foists on me (and I'm sorry if I'm stepping on your toes), some of my reading friends have earned my blind trust. Recently in an email from a friend I see only occasionally. She asked if I had read Nicole Krauss' History of Love. If you haven't, she said, get it and start at once.

It had been on my shelf--unread--since it had arrived, one of my Lemuria First Editions. At the time, though, I had a backlog of "must reads." Then the book reappeared on my "Readers Ourselves" list from the NCTE convention in San Antonio. Next I had a note on Facebook from Amber, another of my trusted readers. She had finished it and wanted to ask a followup questions. (Hmmm. That's how she got me to read The Time Travellers Wife too.) Third strike. I had to read it.

All the stars aligned just right, and I came across the audiobook and began it on my daily commute. Immediately it reminded me in many ways of JonathanSafron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: multiple narrators, one a child, more than one an elderly Holocaust survivor, a lost father. This story too begins with seeminly disconnected narrative threads, which eventually weave together beautifully.

The title of the novel is also the title of a book written by one of the characters, not written by one of the characters, about a character for which the young girl was named. Krauss deftly managed all the plot lines flawlessly, I thought.

As I listened, I admitted to myself for perhaps the first time that I love a book that makes me sad. I don't mean those Nicholas Sparks weepers either. I am most drawn into a story when I see something that is all too likely not to turn out well, involving characters I have learned to care about deeply, as was the case in this book and the one by Foer.

I knew I was close to the end of the last CD on my way in to work today, and sure enough, I reached "The End" on the last stretch of Highway 321 before I pulled into the parking lot. For the first time in a long time, a book made me cry--real tears--and not because the book was sad but because it came together so well.

I can't wait to find out about Amber's question.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Absolutely True Diary

I know I mentioned Sherman Alexie's novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shortly after I finished listening to it on CD. Read by the author, it was one of the most moving, enjoyable books I'd heard in awhile. I didn't know (because I hadn't researched Alexie) that the book is actually semi-autobiographical.

Kay McSpadden, a South Carolina high school English teacher who writes for the Charlotte Observer, published a column this week about the book, specifically the censorship challenges involving the book recently. Follow this link if you'd like to read more: In fact, I also recommend anything McSpadden writes. A little over a year ago, she published a collection of her columns called Notes From a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching, which I recommend especially for anyone who's spent time in high school.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Talkin' 'bout My Generation

Corresponding with the first Baby Boomers collecting Social Security, a proliferation of books, recordings, and lectures on my generation and those that have followed. We kicked off the semester learning about the Millennial generation, the traditional college ages students we serve, but much of the presentation described the Baby Boomers because, after all, we make up a huge percentage of college and university faculties.

Meanwhile, I'm reading Shelia Weller's Girls Like Us, the story of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Their lives are presented against a backdrop of the sixties and seventies, so along with these three music icons, I am reading about their counterparts--James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash, Judy Collins--and about all the volatile events and issues that helped to shape us. My reading goes slowly because I have to keep stopping to download music onto my iPod, building what is become a soundtrack for the book.

At the same time, I've been listening to Joe Queenan's Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation. His jaded, satirical take on Boomers makes me laugh at times and cringe at others (especially when some of his observations hit too close to home.) I realize, though, that while I wield sarcasm as deftly as the next guy, that I tend
to lean toward the optimistic and accepting. I can enjoy books or songs or movies without feeling I have to make generational judgments.

I want to say, "Give Dan Fogelberg a break. He's dead, after all. And he was pretty." No, I don't think Stephen King will ever give Edgar Allan Poe a run for his money, but I don't think any one cultural critic has the power to decide now what works of literature will and will not stand the test of time. And every movie can't be the first Godfather.

Queenan does have a point, however, that we Baby Boomers are self-absorbed. Yes, we do tend to mark points in our life that happened to other people. (For the record, I know EXACTLY where I was when I heard Kennedy had been shot, the space shuttle had exploded, Elvis had died.) He's probably right, too: People over forty-five should have to pass an audition before being allowed to dance in public.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Marking an Anniversary

Today I'm deviating from my usual topic, books. Before I read my daughter Laura's blog on the subject, I want to share mine. Ten years ago last night, my husband and I received one of those phone calls no parent wants to get: "This is Vanderbilt Hospital. . . ." I give the caller credit for tactful wording beyond measure. She said, "Your daughter Laura wanted me to call and tell you she's been in an accident." That was immeasurably less traumatic than "Your daughter Laura's been in an accident" would have been.

We learned that she was in the Trauma Unit, but that's about all we could find out. I called Susan Furman, my college roommate who still lives in Nashville, and she promised to go immediately and try to get me some information. After all, we were six hours away, and we had no idea if the accident was serious or not.

Susan had a hard time finding any information, in part, we learned later, because Laura had dropped her wallet with her I.D. as she left her dorm room that afternoon headed for a chorus concert. We learned only later that she had been unconscious so they had no idea who she was. The hospital gave her the temporary identification "El Paso El Paso." I guess Jane Doe was taken.

After many frantic and uncertain calls, we decided my mother, who lived just two hours away, would head to Nashville and unless she found reason for me to leave late at night, I would try to sleep and get up early in the morning. Our entire household probably did more praying than sleeping. I got up VERY early and headed out, making the trip in five hours (going about 90 mph, I admit.)

When I arrived, I learned that the accident had indeed been much worse than the calm caller's voice had conveyed. Laura had been riding behind an SUV when it suddenly veered off the road to avoid a full-size van heading straight toward them in the wrong lane. He hit Laura full on (leaving tire tracks from his van all the way up to the windshield of her Volvo.)

Yes, thank God Laura was in a Volvo. It lived up to their advertising claims, and although she had a badly broken arm, injury to her legs and feet, and slivers of glass that kept appearing in her ears for days afterward, she was alive. Not a scratch on her face. When I first saw her though, she looked pitiful. (Later I learned that when Mama arrived and saw her, she passed out and had to be admitted to a room for observation herself. If we had been there, we could have told them that Mama just does that in medical settings.)

Miraculously, after having her arm set, Laura was dismissed, less than 24 hours after the accident. My husband Dick, meanwhile, unable to concentrate on his work, caught the first plane he could find to Nashville. We took Laura to Susan's house. I can remember how much it hurt her just to take a bath.

When my sister-in-law Susan and her husband Richard drove up to check on Laura, Richard went to the lot where her car and the van that hit her had been towed. The pictures were horrendous. The car was unrecognizable. When Richard met the tow truck driver and told him Laura had been dismissed from the hospital,the man was surprised she was still alive (leading to our tears and prayers of thanks.)

Sooner than I would have thought, she was ready to go back to school and to her dorm. If I had reservations at first, they were dispelled when her friends swarmed in. Each of those girls had her own role. One, a nursing major, made sure she took her meds and cared for her injuries; another helped her find clothes she could wear over her cast and put on with minimal discomfort. At the time, Laura's curly hair was at its longest, so her friends even offered to put on their swimsuits, hop in the shower and wash her hair for her. When I saw her friends in action, I knew she'd be fine.

The wheels of justice certainly moved slow. We knew alcohol was suspected, especially since the accident occurred during daylight on a straight road. However, we could not get any straight answers concerning the driver. After two years, with the help of a lawyer, we learned that the blood alcohol test had been filed without anyone taking note. Only then were charges filed against him. We learned later that he had been out on parole for manslaughter at the time. I can't help wondering just exactly where the parole officer was during this time.

Our story had a happy ending. Even though Laura's cheerleading was over for college and she had to drop her piano class, she survived. This year as we mark ten years, we are so thankful to have Laura in our life.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Reading Aloud Allowed

I can't remember exactly when I was first introduced to Taylor Mali. I saw a mention of his monologue "What a Teacher Makes," a piece that has been plagiarized via email for quite awhile, in an online professional journal. Since then, I've enjoyed several of his performance pieces on You Tube. I share his piece "The Impotence of Proofreading" with students as they realize that the spell check feature of Microsoft Word is not, after all, infallible. Mali is a teacher and a poet--a slam poet, in fact--and his edgy performances especially speak to me as an educator and communicator.

Yesterday, I discovered a new Mali video, "Reading Allowed," that begins with a teasing innuendo but delivers a message that strikes a chord with me. The title plays on the homonyms "allowed" and "aloud." Anyone who reads my blog knows how much I enjoy audiobooks. My love probably started long before I could drive. My warmest memories of fourth grade in Mrs. Knotts class are the books she read to us, especially all the Little House books. I hated for her to stop (a feeling akin to that I have when I arrive at my garage before a good stopping place in the audio.) We would plead, "Read just a little more." I can remember some teachers who would occasionally paraphrase as they read aloud. I could tell the difference.

I wonder how much teachers in lower grades still read to students. I think it's strange that showing a movie in class is justified; reading aloud is not. After all, listening is included as a necessary skill in the standard course of study. Listening, I believe, is far more active than viewing. Even when I taught high school seniors, I occasionally engaged in what I unashamedly called "Story Time with Ms. Nancy." Every Christmas, I read aloud Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory." My voice still breaks at the end. I read portions of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that had been omitted from the student anthology. I read the final chapter of John Gardner's novel Grendel.

In this week's Sunday paper, the cartoon Zits had Jeremy and his mom uncovering some of the books she had read to him when he was young. In the last frame, he is sprawled in her lap asking her to read them to him again. I thought of the books my own children had loved to hear over and over and over. (I'll admit, I finally hid Go Dogs, Go under the coffee table, after I had virtually committed it to memory.) I remembered my friend Bebe who had read Where the Red Fern Grows with her daughter Jennifer during the middle school years, each of them alternately reading a chapter at a time and weeping together.

My friend Amy took a little longer to get through the Harry Potter series because her husband read the books aloud to her. How much better than watching movie re-runs together!

In a sermon awhile back, my dad briefly described each of his five daughters, naming me as the one who called long distance to read a poem to him. (In my defense, I'll have to say that he's done his share of reading to me.) Reading aloud is one sure way that we shared a common experience with a text I loved. Hand it to him, and he might read it. Read aloud, and he's a captive audience.

I believe that children who prefer video games and television shows to books may just need a good dose of oral storytelling. They need someone to take the time to read aloud. Maybe sitting together, looking at the same text; maybe not. In any case, I hope that reading aloud is allowed.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I am such a fan of the "Big Read" concept: a whole community reading a common book then coming together to talk about it, to hear the author read, to celebrate the book. My first participation coincided with the inaugural meeting of my book club a few years ago. As we chose our first book, we noted in the Charlotte Observer that Josephine Humphrey's novel Nowhere Else on Earth has been selected for their Big Read. We decided to join in, enjoying the discussion questions posted throughout the period.

Since then, I've also read along with my fellow Hickory, NC, partipants such novels as Doug Marlette's The Bridge, selected before his tragic death in an automobile accident, and this year's March by Geraldine Brooks. Having taught high school seniors with their eye on college for so many years, I've also read along with them the books selected for all incoming freshmen--Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, for example.

This year, though, I want to throw myself into Charlotte's Big Read again. They selected my all-time favorite novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Every year I've taught, that novel has been my gauge for the decline of readership. I'd ask each year "How many of you have read To Kill a Mockingbird"? (Over time, my question has devolved into "How many of you have ever read a book?")

Gradually, though, far too many of my incoming high school students admitted not having read the book at all, either by choice or under duress. Sometimes, only halfway teasing, I have

told them it was the one book they all needed to read in order to consider themselves truly human. Some of them have taken me up on the challenge and reported back; some of my teaching colleagues in other disciplines have even read the book and c0me by to discuss it.

For my first few years of teaching, To Kill a Mockingbird was on my annual reading list for tenth graders. One year, our local community theater offered a performance of Shelby Foote's adaptation for stage, the first such performance in Alabama. We learned at the time that Nelle Harper Lee's college roommate was a local woman we all knew. We heard rumors that Miss Lee might actually attend the play but that she would not want to draw attention.

Through Teaching Tolerance magazine, I made contact with a teacher in Monroeville, Alabama, (on which the fictional Maycomb is based.) She shared copies of video projects exchanged between her students and a group of urban kids in New Yorkreading the novel, along with another rare treat, a videotape of downtown Monroeville during the local Hog Festival made from a film shot in the early thirties by a newcomer to the area who owned an early model movie camera. As I watched it, I could just imagine Scout walking home in her ham costume.

When I moved from Alabama (where I always taught the novel) to North Carolina, I learned that the eight grade teachers had jurisdiction over Harper Lee's masterpiece. Since I couldn't teach it myself, I shared materials on the novel with my own children's middle school English teacher.

Recently, I have been clipping the articles in the Observer related to Mockingbird: recipes for everything from Lane cakes to cornbread in the food section, discussions of that despiccable "n-word." I'm happy knowing that for a couple of months at least, people of all ages will be reading my favorite book and engaging in conversations about it. The one thing that would make the experience even sweeter would be an appearance by the reclusive, enigmatic Nelle Harper Lee; I doubt, though, that she'll be coming out.