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.