Monday, December 28, 2009

Half Broke Horses

I sometimes fret over reading books in their proper sequence. For instance, I discovered Kent Haruff's Eventide before I realized it followed his earlier novel Plainsong. Going back to the first book made me want to re-read the second. Likewise, I started the Harry Potter books--before Harry was cool, I might add--but my reading was interrupted partway into the third book. I was tempted to read the first and second again before I began listening to Jim Dale's wonderful narration via audiobooks.

Sometimes, though, a book appears out of time sequence. The term "prequel" has found its way into the language, though I suspect it is used more in the film world than in publishing. Just such a work is Jeannette Walls' new book she calls a "real-life novel," Half Broke Horses. I had loved her memoir Glass Castle when I first read it with my book club and again when it was chosen for our reading and English classes at the college.

This new book is the story of Walls' maternal grandmother Lilly. She first intended to write her mother Rosemary's story, but her mother insisted that she was missing the best story. Her choice to write in fist person in her grandmother's voice gives the book its charm. I found the details of Lilly's life as captivating as those of Walls' own life, though not as horrific. Her ability to present the most unnerving events and details unflinchingly reminds me in a way of Frank McCourt's memoirs.

Reading the book as a separate entity from Glass Castle, I found it stood on its own, and I was often able to ignore the inevitable turn Rosemary's life would take, but as I reached the end of the book where Rex Walls enters the picture, I felt like someone in a movie audience, wanting to scream "Don't!" at the screen.

Having heard Jeannette Walls reading at Appalachian State in 2008, I am still amazed at her positive attitude, her ability to describe her own heartbreaking childhood with the voice of a true survivor. Although this novel is her grandmother's story, I see it as a tribute to her love for her mother who "did the best she could."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Quick Query

While I know I should be in panic mode, finishing up Christmas, I was sitting here, looking through the stack of Christmas books I've assembled from my shelves. Some are short story collections; others would almost pass for children's books or novellas. I have plans to read Gregory Macguire's new one, Matchless, a retelling of the little match girl story.

For me, Christmas isn't Christmas without at least one reading of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," preferably with a audience willing to let me read it aloud. I enjoy "The Gift of the Magi," and for a laugh, Steve Martin's parody, "The Gift of the Magi Indian Giver," in his collection Cruel Shoes. At some point, someone will read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.

I'd love other suggestions of favorite Christmas books and poems, particularly some that would be perfect to share around the family holiday table. I can't pass up a captive audience in a holiday mood.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Hotel Bathroom Test

No, I don't plan to share tips for travelers in this post. I just spent the weekend in Chapel Hill, NC, where Ben, our youngest, graduated from college. By happy coincidence, I've finally finished posting grades for the semester, so I actually had the luxury of reading for pleasure without guilt. I had been reading Stieg Larrson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It has been slow going for me during much of the novel, not because I didn't want to read it but because my work and the demands of the holiday season have been competing for my time.

Last night, though, as time came for light's out, I just couldn't quit reading. Finally, feeling that the bedside lamp was a nuisance, I slipped into the bathroom to read until I was finished with the book. When I turned the page and realized I had reached the end, I remembered someone suggesting not reading Larrson's next book until the third one comes out because "you'll want to find out what happens next." I wish I'd been warned the same with this book. Of course, the book can stand alone. The ending is just as untidy as life. Still, I honestly hope to meet Salander and Blomkvist again.

Since a true vacation for me usually means time to read, I can think of several books I've read under similar circumstances (perched on the closed toilet seat as my family slept in the next room.) Most clearly, I recall during a mountain vacation reading Watership Down by Richard Adams, one of my all-time favorite books. Once the rabbits' final battle was under way, there was no sleeping for me. I had to read them out of their dilemma.

The best kind of book is one that disturbs or even prevents sleep. I read Leon Uris' Exodus that way. I was probably in eight or ninth grade, and as I read late into the night, I realized I could not stop reading while the characters were stranded in the concentration camp. I had to keep reading until they were liberated--at least, if I wanted my dreams undisturbed.

One common thread among passionate readers is the memory of reading late into the night, often under covers by flashlight. How odd that I've had friends recently describing having to force their children to finish books they'd started. For me, a gripping book will demand to be read, despite adverse circumstances. In fact, one sits right beside me now, and I think I hear it whispering, "Read me. Now."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Paul and Art and booklists

Home from a quick trip to see family, I settled onto the sofa with my bag of papers in the process of being graded, but I stole a quick look at the Living section of the Sunday paper. As we clicked through the channels, stopping for a little NFL action, we stopped on a concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, evidently, when we saw Simon and Garfunkel performing "Bridge over Troubled Water," a song I not only loved, but sang on the school bus with Susan McMurtrey when it was on the charts way back when.

Seeing them play prompted me to do a quick search, remembering that I had read that Art Garfunkel had maintained a list of books he had read since the late sixties. Sure enough, I found his official site where he listed them. In the past two or three years (the only part I allowed myself the luxury of perusing for now--I have papers to grade!), he had read a mix of old and new, fiction and nonfiction. I saw a few I'd read, many I hadn't.

Still, I respect his consistent list-making. I have kept my own list for several years now. I write authors and titles on my wall calendar month by month, then at the end of the year, I transfer them into my "Bookwoman" notebook. Since I share my own reading in this particular forum, I get lots of unexpected feedback. One sister is still holding a grudge because I panned an author she liked; several friends, I've learned, have picked books from my list. I learned long ago that some people won't love the books I do. I enjoy a lively discussion, even without coming to a consensus.

I wonder if Art cares if I read from his list or not? He'd probably be happy enough to know I still listen to his music.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Flexible Book Clubs

I must confess that my book club does everything in a sporadic fashion, probably because of me. We have been reluctant to establish a date each month and stick to it because that often means someone is left out. As a result, we sometimes end up discussing a book long enough after reading it that we have to review before the discussion.

Fortunately, these are not women who read one book and then wait to read another one until after it has been assigned. We arrive with bags of books we have read either to return to their rightful owners or to share. We have clippings from the newspaper and printouts of online reviews. Our selection for the next meeting comes almost arbitrarily, and we rarely settle for one book.

This month, we shared lots of other suggestions. I had my list from the conference. One of the members had taken a long family road trip, so she had her vacation reading to share. We finally decided to read Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe and Half Broke Horses, Jeanette Walls' "true-life novel" about her maternal grandmother we had read about in her memoir The Glass Castle.

Once we'd selected our book(s) and decided to try a regular monthly meeting date for the coming year, we kept throwing around titles, responding, "Yeah, I loved that one" or "Is this one yours? May I read it next?" We weighed in on the Twilight series (some loved them, some didn't), and before long, we were headed back home, our bags of books redistributed and our nightstand stack of books to read just a little taller.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shades of Hamlet

Maybe I'm a sucker for Shakespearean allusions, but here I am again at the end of a novel that is such a Hamlet story. Lin Enger's novel Undiscovered Country is the story of a young man who hears gunfire at the end of a day of deer hunting and finds his father dead of gunshot wounds in his deer stand. You guessed it: he has an uncle Clay (not Claudius) who just happened to have dated the widowed mom when they were in high school.

In this case, the story is set in Minnesota and told as a flashback by Jesse, the older protagonist, now an English teacher living in California with his brother Magnus. In the last year or two, I've read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Dead Father's Club, both Hamlet stories, and Serena, a Macbeth story. Each one has been a good story, quite original despite the heavy borrowing from the Bard (who was himself quite a borrower, if not a lender). Since I'm three fifths of the way through Hamlet in my English 113 class, I'm pleased to be able to tell my own students that one of the reasons Shakespeare really is the greatest writer who ever lived is that his stories and his characters are so universal and timeless.

In this particular book, rather than to trip to slip the allusions under the readers' radar--after all, he does borrow his title from that most famous soliloquy--the author comes right out and has his characters find the Hamlet connections too obvious. I found myself completely sympathetic to Jesse, as he wrestled with his pull toward revenge on one side and his Hispanic girlfriend Christina, who struggles to keep him from going through with his plans.

I was intrigued to learn that Lin Engrer is the brother of Leif Enger, whose novel Peace Like a River I particularly enjoyed. (His next one is still sitting on my nightstand in the stack.) I do hope their relationship resembles Jesse and Magnus's more than that of Uncle Clay and Jesse's dad.