Monday, November 30, 2009

Fairy Tales

I just finished a beautiful book recommended by one of my favorite reading friends, who said she planned to give several copies as Christmas gifts. Kate DeCamillo's lovely book The Magician's Elephant could almost be described as a fairy tale. The story is tender, uplifting, and beautifully written. The main character (unless you count the elephant) gives money entrusted to him for the purchase of food to a fortuneteller instead, learning--if she tells the truth--that his sister lives.

A number of lives intertwine, including a magician who conjures an elephant when he only intended a bouquet. It's one of those books you can almost read in a single sitting, but also one that bears reading again and again. I think it will find a place on my gift list too.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Technical Difficulty

Over the years, I have embraced technology in my private and my professional life. While many are debating the value of books in other forms than bound printed text, I have leapt onto the bandwagon. I've been an audiobooks fan for years now, and for the past two, I've been the proud owner and user of the Sony Electronic Reader (PRS-505). I have even been able to keep separate the book on my eReader, the one on the nightstand, and the one in the car CD player.

This week, though, I became aware of the potential for disruption, if not disaster. We had our children and grandchildren here for the holidays, and once everyone had turned in for the night, I thought I would read for just a few minutes. I was about a third of the way into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, far enough along to want to know what's going to happen next. I clicked on the bedside lamp, and flicked the "on" button. Nothing.

Assuming the battery had died, I went on to sleep and plugged the book into the charger, but when I tried to turn it on again--nothing. I tried all the fix-it methods available, first plugging and unplugging, trying different computers and charger cords, even looking online at the FAQs on the Sony website. Finally, I tried the online chat with an "analyst" who called herself Adriane. She was responsive and polite--offering such replies as "Thank you for the additional information, Nancy." She could not, however, help me. She recommended the "hard reset," which would have wiped the book's memory clean. I was a little reluctant, and when I realized I had to power up the book to do it, I knew it didn't matter. Next I tried visiting Best Buy, from which the book had been purchased. The nice little blonde spiked haired Asian "geek" tried to help. He managed to get it on, but I couldn't turn it off. (Eventually, it went back off on its own.)

Next I called Sony and was told that I could replace it with a refurbished model for just over $100. For $199 I could have a brand new model, and for $299, I could have an upgrade. I told him I would have to think it over.

Finally, I did what I should have done first: Asked my twenty-two-year-old son to take a look. He worked on the on-off switch a minute, and it was back in working condition.

Do I still recommend the electronic reader? Sure. But I recommend grown children even more.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Box Arrives

With limitations on luggage (and all those extra charges), I knew I couldn't get home with the books I picked up from the conference, so I lined up at the hotel Kinko's with lots of other conference- goers to ship a boxful home. Having a few days to wait gives me time to forget what was coming. Today they arrived and the reading can begin: I have my copy of Francine Prose's Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife as well as her novel Goldengrove. I also had Robert Hicks' new Civil War novel A Separate Country set in New Orleans. My book club enjoyed Widow of the South. I later learned that Hicks is also a Lipscomb graduate.

I also had a couple of Gregory Maguire books: his tribute to Maurice Sendak Making Mischief and his little Christmas story, a twist on the tale of the little match girl, Matchless.

I am looking forward to Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals, knowing almost nothing about it, simply because I loved his last book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close so much--although I have difficulty recommending it because I can never remember the correct order of adverbs and adjective in the title . In the Holocaust course, we also use the film from his first novel Everything Is Illuminated. I was told that this new book is nonfiction, so I look forward to seeing how he made the transition.

I bought several books in part because I met the authors and, I'll admit, they were sometimes free. Zoe Ferraris's Finding Nouf is set in Saudi Arabia and won an LA Times Book Prize. I also picked up two new graphic classics, King Lear and Beowulf, written and illustrated by Gareth Hinds, who took part in one of my roundtable discussions at the Middle School Matters sessions. Malinda Lo was signing copies of Ash, something of a Cinderella story with a lovely cover. I missed Sonia Nazario's session on her book Enrique's Journey (too many concurrent sessions!), but on the recommendation of others who did attend, I picked up a copy for myself. I also got a copy of Don't Know Much about Literature, a sequel to Don't Know Much about History, by Kenneth C. Davis and Jenny Davis.

I also picked up a couple of other books about books, including one called What to Read When, which I gave to my daughter (the mother of my grandchildren) and Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick. Eerdmans always has several titles that attract me. I bought C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind Narnia, since I have always been fascinated as much by his life as by his writings.

I'm a sucker for war lit, so I brought home War Is, the first-person accounts of "soldiers, survivors and storytellers" edited by Marc Aronson and Patty Campbell.

In my box I also had several Advanced Reader Copies of new YA literature I'll share with my middle school/high school girls I teach in Sunday school. They are great judges of books aimed at them.

Now that Thanksgiving Day has arrived, amid all my blessings, I have to be thankful that my husband was so kind as to have the new wall of bookshelves built in our bedroom. It's filling u quickly.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Where I've Been: The Land of Book Lovers

When I began teaching, I had the good fortune of attending the national conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. With a colleague or two or three, I was able to visit Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and more. Even though I haven't attended every year, I make an effort to go wherever the convention is held for the kind of boost I need at this point as fall turns to winter and the new has worn off in the classroom.

I don't know about other disciplines' meetings, but to me, the English conference is akin to a religious revival. I am immersed in words and books, and talk among people who value what I do: the language and our students. I have friends I see only once a year from all over the country, and I've learned from experience how to find the most valuable sessions and the abundance of resources available from publishers and other vendors.

One of my favorite perks is coming home with a great list of books I want to read next (as if I needed a longer list.) The one session I do not miss each year is called "Readers Among Us." Participants are encouraged to discuss books we are reading for pleasure, not for the classroom (although they do often cross over). The session facilitators collect the titles mentioned, along with emails of attendees, and mail out the annotated book list with in a week or two of the session.

Of course, we all jot notes anyway, even though we know the list will arrive. (Michael Moore has never failed us. In fact, when I haven't been able to attend, I've emailed and he's sent me the list anyway.) However, since we have a huge exhibit hall full of publishers and vendors, we can often find the titles mentioned before we leave the convention hall--often at a discount.

What follows is a rather disjointed discussion of books I heard mentioned that I had not read yet. Warning: These are presented solely from my notes, with no apparent organizational structure. When I get the email will the full annotated list, I'll be sure to share.

This year, some of the books that caught my interest included Alan Bennet's play The History Boys; The Secret Scripture and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Irish writer Sebastian Barry. In a quest for a good book about music, several titles were mentioned that didn't quite measure up to what this particular reader wanted (He mentioned Girls Like Us and Hound Dog). Someone mentioned Arthur Phillips' novel The Song Is You, about a man who directs commercials but hears a girl singing in a bar and leaves notes with suggestions for her on a napkin, which she later incorporates into her act.

Prolific reader Carol Jago, the new NCTE president, recommended a couple of classics, along with her usual list of suggestions. After reading Gaimann's Newbery winner The Graveyard Book, she learned the author was influenced by Kipling's Jungle Book (not the Disney version). She found it delightful. She also recommended James Agee's Death in the Family for its beautiful prose. She also found Dickens' Bleak House to have a surprisingly timely theme: nothing good can come of battles in court.

Several readers mentioned graphic novels, some having come to them quite reluctantly: Stitches and Fun House had a number of fans in the room. One young reader who had loved Zadie Smith's On Beauty learned that it was a retelling of E. M. Forster's Howard's End, which she was surprised to find she loved even more than Smith's work. The Domesday Book is an intriguing time traveling tale.

Jago says she will be giving copies of Kate diMillo's The Magician's Elephant as Christmas gifts this year, a gook she loved for its rich language.

Other recommended titles:
Peter Hobbs, A Short Day Dying
Laurie Halse Anderson, Winter Girl (Anderson wrote the moving YA novel Speak.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind ( about a poor uneducated boy who figures out how to build a windmill by reading books, changing his family's circumstances drastically.)
The Lost Garden (
A three-generational saga with ties to The Secret Garden.)
City of Thieves by David Benioff is a story set in Leningrad during WWII about prisoners forced to steel enough eggs to bake a wedding cake for their captor's daughter.
China Mieville's The City and The City had a curious plot--one city in which two completely different populations reside as if they are two separate cities, not even acknowledging the other's existence.
J.M. Coetzee's novels (including Disgrace and Barbarians at the Gates) were strongly recommended.
World War Z is marketed in some places as a YA novel, but one must know world history to appreciate it fully.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrania was also highly recommended.

Wells Towers' short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was recommended by a reader who claims usually not to like short stories. I had heard Towers read at the NC Literary Festival and was interested in the book already.

Leroy Quintana's La Primesa is a coming of age novel with mention of Vietnam, reminiscent of Tim O'Brien, but with a Latino perspective.

While this is certainly not a complete list--even from the session--It should give a beginning point for exploring. As for me, I am awaiting a big box of books I had shipped to myself from the conference. I'm not ever sure what all they are. I do know I have Francine Prose's The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, about Anne Franks' Diary of a Young Girl. I can't wait to see what else.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Travel Reading

In November, I always seem to be overbooked--and I don't mean the reading kind. Not only is this the time of the semester when the essays and research papers come rolling in as fast as I can grade them--no, faster--but I have my Washington, DC, trip with the Holocaust class the weekend closest to Veteran's Day and then I attend the fall convention of the National Council of Teachers of English the weekend before Thanksgiving. Any teacher can confirm that it's much harder to prepare for being gone from class than to stay there and teach.

Despite the frenzy getting ready to go, though, the conference is one of the highlights of my year. I don't know what teachers in other disciplines do at their conferences, but English teachers get together and talk shop--books, writing, teaching--all the things we love. Every year I promise myself I won't come home with a bumper crop of books and freebies, but I do anyway. Who can turn down free books?

One perk of traveling for me is time to read. I pity people who can't read in a car or on a plane. Some of my earliest memories in the car involve reading until I can't see any longer. (I remember finishing one of the Pippi Longstocking books in the back seat of the car on the ride between our new home in Columbia, Tennessee, and our hometown of Florence, Alabama, when I was in fourth or fifth grade.) Carsickness has never been an issue. I could turn around and read riding backwards. Airplanes are ideal for reading. Why else would they put so many book stores in airports?

As this trip approaches, I am between books. I'm mulling over the new titles on my book shelves, trying to decide what to take. I'd be foolish to pack more than one, since I know I'll have plenty of reading material on the way home from the conference, but for now, I can't wait to decide which book to start next.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Literature in the South

I feel sure that I ended up in the teaching profession for a couple of reasons: one, I like talking, and two, I love being in the classroom. In fact, while I'd love to further my education, I doubt I would ever pursue an online degree simply because I like being in a classroom.

This semester I have been sitting in on the Southern Culture class on the Caldwell campus. My friend Amy teaches the class, and she knows me well enough to recognize the restraint I have to exercise in class. From Civil War history to Southernu music, I've learned a lot and I've wanted to learn more.

Currently in class, we are in the middle of Southern literature, so I am in my element. I agreed to "guest host" a couple of classes, allowing me to revisit a couple of authors I've enjoyed before. I first met Donald Secreast back in 1997, when he was a part of the college's Writers Symposium. I remember his telling us that his friend Charles Frazier had a first novel Cold Mountain about to be published. He predicted it was going to be a big hit. He was right.

A native of Caldwell County, Secreast's short stories from his collections Rat Becomes Light and White Trash, Red Velvet are all set here in this area in the lives of furniture workers. He has a gift for taking ordinary people in familiar settings and weaving extraordinary tales.

This week the syllabus assignment was Ron Rash's novel The World Made Straight. I had read the book a few years ago--I've read all of Rash's novels--long enough ago that I had forgotten just how good the book was. Also set in Western North Carolina, it is the story of a young drop out Travis Shelton who comes into contact with Leonard Shuler, a former English teacher who lost his job after a disgruntled student planted marijuana in his car. Throughout the novel runs a parallel story of the massacre of Unionists at Shelton Laurel by their Confederate neighbors, a true story rarely mentioned in Civil War history books.

Today when we began discussion of the novel, I was pleased (or relieved) that a significant number of the students in the class had actually read the novel. And they liked it. By Monday when we continue the discussion, we may even have a genuine book talk, the authentic kind of discussion that real readers enjoy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

At Last, I'm a Mule

According to tradition, true Southern literature must always have at least one dead mule. If you have to ask why, you probably aren't truly Southern. Based in Chapel Hill, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature began in 1995 as a print magazine, funded in part by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. It has since gone to an online webzine format, publishing poetry, fiction, and essays.

I first met Helen Losse, the poetry editor, through Facebook, and have since heard her read a couple of Poetry Hickory events. After reading through the website for the publication, which required a "Southern Legitimacy Statement" with submissions, I sent in some of my poems--three of which went live today.

You can check them out on the Dead Mule's poetry page. Who knows? You might be a mule too.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November Is for Writing.

November throws two challenges in my path--National Novel Writing Month and the Poetic Asides November Chapbook Challenge. What does that mean for me? Not only do I have the tension between reading time and writing time but between poetry and prose.

I picked up Chris Baty's little book No Plot, No Problem for some guidance in my participation in National Novel Writing Month. The challenge is not to write a great novel, but to write a novel--at least 50,000 words during the month. The website is set up for posting, with lots of encouragement along the way. What I lack locally is a fellow participant, but I know that in Cerillos, New Mexico, my cuz Sandy is working at way, slaving over a hot keyboard.

This is my second year in the November Chapbook Challenge, part of the site where I participate every Wednesday most of the year and daily in April and November. During this month, the goal is to write poems around a theme with a goal of sifting through and editing to produce a 10-20 page chapbook of related poems. I started writing with the group on Robert Lee Brewers PA site a year and a half ago, and the two things I've gained are motivation to write poetry and friends who write with me--located all over the world. I have an inner circle of writers who have met daily since this past April--virtually, at least--to write and to respond to one another. Life events make us less active sometimes, but we have become friends through words--not a bad way to begin.

For now, according to Baty, I have to see which activities are "foregoable." I'll leave my knitting in its basket, and perhaps I'll wait about scrapbooking until November. Will I quit reading for a month? Not a chance. I may have to cut back a bit to make time to write, but to go cold turkey? Impossible.