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.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Out Stealing Horses

Do food metaphors apply to reading experiences? Some leave a lingering taste; some I can't stop nibbling. Some leave me empty, still hungry, but not necessarily for more of the same. Some are feasts, like the picnic I enjoyed in Napa Valley with my husband and friends perhaps 17 years ago, but which my senses still recall vividly. I notice that sometimes the books that I read more slowly, the ones that don't have rip-roaring, page-turning action, tend to linger longer in my head. Others that move quickly with narrative momentum fade more quickly.

This past week, as I read Per Petterson's novel Out Stealing Horses, I found the reading slow, especially in the beginning. The novel is structured so that it moves back and forth between the present, in which the protagonist Trond is in his sixties, to 1948 when he was in his early teens. He also learns details from events in his father's life a few years earlier when the Germans occupy Norway (the setting of the novel). Much of the story takes place inside his head in fact, and many questions are never answered in the story, yet the more I read, the more I felt compelled to keep reading.

The satisfaction came in the way the author wove certain subtle threads through the novel, including the one with which he finishes the book. Nothing about the book is didactic or heavy-handed. There really are no bad guys in the book (even the German soldiers are revealed sympathetically as young boys who under different circumstances would not be considered evil or frightening.) Bad things do happen, though, through the course of the story--an accidental death, apparent adultery, abandonment by a parent. In the course of the story, though, he reveals how this boy (who is actually an older man through much of the book) became a man.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Kristof's List: The Best Kids' Books Ever

Earlier this week, the Charlotte Observer ran a column by Nicholas D. Kristof that originally appeared in the New York Times entitled "The Best Kids' Books Ever." Since I love those kinds of lists, I meant to cut it out to add to my folder of other books lists (right next to my folder of best movies, best songs, etc.) In fact, I meant to go online and add comments of my own. Instead, I accidentally threw out the paper and didn't get around to looking for the column online until today.

Using a few key words, I googled and first landed on a follow-up to his column in which he discusses the overwhelming number of comments that followed the column. I also found another column, written just after the originally in which he formally apologizes to Roald Dahl (for omission of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and lists other books that should have made the list.

Anyone who takes it upon himself--or herself--to produce just such a list runs the risk of forgetting one or more books that should have been included. Fortunately, the penalty for that lapse is minimal; in fact, one has much to gain from the responses. Without even looking back at his list, I know I would have included some of my old favorites, books that I believe stand the test of time: Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Borrowers, Pippi Longstocking, Charlotte's Web, and so many more. Such an exercise sends me first to my study, where I can peruse my own shelves, but then I have to go into the attic to shuffle through the boxes stored there (for some of which I have a carpenter beginning a new set of shelves in my bedroom Monday.)

One year, at the end of the school year, my AP English students developed their own top ten lists, and they came up with some great ideas. One boy, Andrew, created a list of his favorite books from each year of school, from kindergarten through senior year.

One aspect of Kristof's column I most appreciated was his promotion of the concept of reading aloud to one's children. Even if they can read themselves, there is something particularly pleasurable in listening to someone else reading. My best memories of fourth grade (maybe my only memories, except for the multiplication tables) are the times Mrs. Knott read aloud to us the entire Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, followed by every bood she could find that was connected. She always stopped too soon.

My friend Bebe told of reading Where the Red Fern Grows aloud with her daughter Jennifer (now grown and a mother herself.) She said they took turns reading and crying together. You can't reproduce that kind of experience in any other medium--not even watching Steel Magnolias together. I've always believed that even older students loved to have teachers read to them. I have always found it odd that we can justify showing a movie in class, but we have get defensive about reading aloud. When I taught high school, I had some works that just begged to be read aloud: Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the final chapter of John Gardner's Grendel, for example. My students jokingly called it "Story Time with Miss Nancy," but they didn't fall asleep.

I encourage you, especially if you have young readers still at home, to follow the link to Kristof's column and to look over some of his suggestions as well as those shared by his readers. Maybe you will think of a few that should be there too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

On the blog "Should Be Reading" I found today's suggestion: Take your current book and share two "teaser" sentences--no spoilers. I always annotate my books--margin notes, favorite lines marked in the back, sometimes character lists or family trees to sort through the crowd of characters--so I can quickly find a line or two.

Right now I am reading (among other things) Out Stealing Horses, by Norwegian writer Per Petterson. No, it's not a Western. Here, without further comment, are my teaser sentences:

"What he taught me was to be reckless, taught me that if I let myself go, did not slow myself down by thinking so much beforehand I could achieve many things I would never have dreamt possible."

Once I'm finished reading, I'll report back. Until then, I'll be out stealing horses.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Southern Summer Reading Challenge

Since I'm participating in the challenge on Maggie Reads blog to read three Southern novels between June 15 and August 15, it is time to post my second novel completed, Sheila Kay Adams' My Old True Love. I've mentioned the book in earlier posts, but I am giving this entire post's attention to the book. I started and finished the book--almost without stopping--at the beach this week. I chose this novel because Adams has been selected as the 2009 Ragan-Rubin Award winner by the North Carolina English Teachers Association. Although I had read her stories, I hadn't read her full-length works until now. I am so glad I did.

The novel, which I learned in her afterword was based on her family history, is set in Sodom, NC, in Madison County (known as Bloody Madison because of events during the Civil War. ) From the first page, Arty, the narrator, rang so true for me. Adams' use of dialogue, toned down, she says, with help from her editor, evoked the voices of my grandmother for me.

Sometimes when I read Southern dialect (my native tongue), I wonder how readers without my familiarity (translation: Yankees) will take to the book. Then I remind myself that when I have attended a Shakespearean production with friends who weren't English majors, that I had some of the same misgivings--needlessly. I do know, though, that you have to read with your ear. All those reading lessons about squelching "subvocalization" go right out the door.

This book handles one of the historical periods that fascinates me most, addressing the tension between sides in areas where almost no one owned slaves. The bigger story, though, is about love and family and inner demons. Woven throughout the narrative are the old ballads, or "love songs," as they've always been known in this part of the country. I was so excited to learn at the end of the book that a "soundtrack" for the book, called All the Other Fine Things, had been recorded. (Tim O'Brien, John Herrmann, and Dirk Powell did the same for the novel Cold Mountain, long before it became a movie.)

Reading this book accomplished two or three things: First, it made me long to sit down and talk to Sheila Kay Adams. I also want to talk to someone else who has read the book, just to work my way through it. It also made me want to re-read Ron Rash's novel The World Made Straight, which deals in part with the Bloody Madison episodes. Finally, I want to choose my next Southern novel.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Girl Uninterrupted

Part of the magic--for me at least--of a summer vacation away from the house is the uninterrupted time in which I feel completely free to read. No laundry beckoning, long-postponed chores awaiting, phones ringing--just time to do what I wish. And I wish to read. In just the last few days, with a friend at her beach house, I've been working through one to-do list--the one I posted earlier.

I first finished my umpteenth re-read of Pride and Prejudice, this time keeping notes as I wrote: chapter summaries, character development, motifs running through the narrative--the kinds of things only my kind (English teachers) actually enjoy.

Next I read The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten, a Nashville bass player. The book is so different from anything I usually read, but it was fascinating. I'm not exactly sure how to classify it: It's a little like a cross between The Alchemist and The Shack--but not like either. The book describes the lessons learned from a very nontraditional man who appears at the narrators home--out of nowhere--and teaches him lessons about Music--or Life. He enlists a smaller faculty to help him--an eleven-year-old boy, a homeless man, and a fortune teller/gift wrapper dressed in purple.

Now I'm almost through Sheila Kay Adams' My Old True Love, set in "Bloody Madison" County North Carolina around the time of the Civil War. The book is written in Southern dialect so true, I can hear my grandmother talking through it. Although I am not reading this book for the same
educational purposes as I read Pride and Prejudice, I am again reading with pen in hand, making notes to myself.

What has happened, as it always does, is that the three vastly different books have common threads. Both Pride and Prejudice and My Old True Love explore the success of "playing hard to get. My Old True Love discussion of the sounds of empty space, building on a concept in The Music Lesson.

In the meantime, I have broken up the fiction with Southern Living--deciding how we'll use the okra, homegrown tomatoes, and fresh seafood in the beachhouse kitchen. No symbolism there--and the only empty space--our stomachs--only temporary.