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.