Monday, December 27, 2010

Testing 1...2...3...

I've moved one more step ahead in the digital age: my husband gave me an iPad for Christmas. Thank goodness I had children. Without Ben, I'm not sure how far along I'd be with the more subtle uses of the device, but for now he's helped me set up for blogging. Since I just posted, I don't need to say much more, but I wanted to be sure I knew how to blog on the go. Next lesson: iBooks!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Reading and Riding

I can't imagine what I would do if I weren't able to read while I'm riding. As long as I've been reading, I've made the most of car time with a good book. The only real limit has been light. I remember reading one of the Pippi Longstocking books--I think it was Pippi Goes on Board, the one that had Pippi and readers fearing that Pippi's father was dead--on the ride between our new home in Columbia, Tennessee, and our hometown of Florence, Alabama, where all the kinfolks lived.

We made the drive regularly, especially since Daddy moved my sister Amy and me in time to start school, but Mama and sister Becky didn't move until my sister Jeannie was born in mid-September. I would read until I could not longer catch a few words as we passed street lights.

This past week, we headed back to Alabama, this time from our North Carolina home, and I almost had time to finish Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. When the sun set and I could no longer read by natural light, I considered using the flashlight app on my cell phone. That's when I decided I needed to give it a rest. Some books are easier to put aside than others. This was not one of those.

From page one or two, the narrator Marion had me hooked, telling of the day he and his twin brother Shiva were born in "Missing Hospital" (the locals couldn't pronounce Mission) to Sister Mary Joseph Blessing, a nun whom no one had suspected was pregnant. The plot line, on the surface, is intriguing enough to pull me in, but the writing kept me reading. The story had a perfect balance of suspense, surprise, and superb character development.

Twin stories have always fascinated me--The Thirteenth Tale, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Her Fearful Symmetry, among others. Verghese does such an excellent job of distinguishing between the two brothers, while still acknowledging the mysterious link between twins. In this case, he includes a range from betrayal to self-sacrifice.

This book also passed another interesting test for me. My first instinct when finishing the book was to turn back to the beginning and re-read the opening chapters. Meanwhile, I was ready to start Hunger Games, only half of which I was able to read before the sunlight faded on I-85.

Friday, December 17, 2010

After eating, praying, loving. . .

When I picked up the audiotape of Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed, I'll confess that I thought I was buying Eat, Pray, Love (since that title was written on the box larger than the actual book title:

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love.

Maybe I exaggerate. But I honestly didn't realize I had a different book until it started. With the movie out, I figured I needed to know about the book to be able to hold my own in conversations about it. Committed, however, ended up being quite an interesting reading experience. Gilbert writes about her decision to marry--after feeling quite determined she'd never go down that (bridal) path again. The tensions (particular at airports) after 9/11 certainly set things in motion, since she was in a long-term committed relationship with a man of Brazilian citizenship living in Australia (or Bali).

As I kept listening, I was particularly interesting in her research into the historical, religious, sociological aspects of marriage. She and "Phillipe," her prospective husband, spent time in Laos while awaiting the completion of her background checks and his immigration papers. While there, she interviewed women of the community about their own marriage, often provoking incredulous laughter. She also delved into the marriages of her grandmother, her parents, and older neighbors.

In one chapter, she discussing the contrast between Greek and Hebrew mindsets (designations not determined by one's nationality and heritage but beliefs and philosophies.

Having been "committed" to marriage myself for more than thirty-four years, the book didn't change my own feelings about marriage, but it certainly piqued my interest and gave me food for thought.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Calling All Christmas Readers

Like most people, I have my favorite Christmas movies, the ones I can watch over and over again--It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol (any of the many productions), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, The Christmas Story--the list is long. I actually remember watching the now-classic Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer the first time it aired on television. Wow! What graphics!

I have favorite Christmas books and stories I read each year too. My all-time favorite is Truman Capote's short story "A Christmas Memory." I always imagine the narrator as Dill, the little neighbor in To Kill a Mockingbird, since both characters are more than loosely based on Capote himself. This story is the most sensory Christmas tale, the funniest, and the most heart-wrenching. It begs to be read aloud, and for many years, I did just that in my classroom. (Yes, even high school students enjoy a little read-aloud from time to time.)

For a complete change of pace, nothing beats "The Santaland Diaries" from David Sedaris' hilarious holiday collection of stories Holiday on Ice. In this particular story, he recounts his experiences working as a Santa's elf at Macy's Department Store in New York. The story will make you laugh out loud. Do not--I repeat, do not--read it in a place where laughter is inappropriate, such as a church service--or a state-mandated English end-of-course test.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is another wonderful modern classic, and the story is presented on stage somewhere near you (trust me on this) every year. While you're looking out for Christmas dramatic productions, let me recommend The Sanders Family Christmas, a musical sequel to Smoke on the Mountain set in a rural Baptist church during the Christmas season right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Sounds serious doesn't. You'll be wiping tears, but they'll be tears of laughter.

I always forget how wonderful Dickens' A Christmas Carol really is, thinking that because it's so familiar that it may not bear repeating. It never fails to move me. A few years ago, I found a companion book, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, written by Tom Mula, an actor who played in Dicken's classic and began to wonder if Marley, who took time out of his own torment to save Scrooge, might also have achieved redemption.

There are others--many others--I could name, but I would love to hear the stories and books to which other readers turn year after year to get into the Christmas spirit.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Not About the Capulet Girl or Nudity

I may not judge a book by its cover, but it certainly came catch my attention--not necessarily the artwork but the title. I'll admit that Nick Hornby's title Juiet, Naked caught my attention, but the blurbs I read about the book lured me in. This book by the author of Fever Pitch and High Fidelity follows three characters, so it took me awhile to realize that the actual protagonist is Annie, an almost-forty-year-old woman who works in a museum in a small seaside English town and--at least for part of the novel--has been living with Duncan, a college English teacher obsessed with Tucker Crowe, a former rocker who retired without explanation following a successful novel he called Juliet, after a well-publicized breakup with a real Julie.

Duncan's fascination with the now-reclusive Crowe is only fueled by the internet, where he interacts with other self-proclaimed "Crowologists," speculating about the elusive Crowe. Annie even goes on holiday with Duncan to America for a sort of Tucker Crowe pilgrimage.

When without notice the novel is re-released in its "naked" form, Duncan posts a rave review, and Annie decides to post her own response to what she considers the inferior production and is surprised to receive an email from Crowe.

The novel follows all three characters (and the audio version even uses three different readers) as Tucker eventually visits London after one of his children by one of his ex-wives has a health crisis. The novel is clever and funny, quirky and--yes--British. Don't expect to find it on a class syllabus. It's just an amusing read, but I even found myself sympathetic toward poor nerdy Duncan and several of the other minor characters.

Monday, November 29, 2010

My Inner Sisyphus

I'm overwhelmed. And I'm not even talking about Christmas shopping lists or the box in the backseat full of research papers I must grade and soon. Over the last month, I have been bombarded by book titles. Honestly, sometimes I wish my favorite writers would take off some time--only those who could afford to do so, of course--and let me catch up. I know, though, that catching up is a total impossibility. Between the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October and the NCTE conference, with sessions and exhibitors taunting me, I know I can never make even the slightest dent in the list of books I want to read.

If I never left the house and had nothing to do but read, I'd never catch up. Not only am I facing all the brand new titles, but I'm admitting to the classics I have yet to read. Right now, I'm listening to Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked and reading Abraham Verghese's novel Cutting for Stones. Meanwhile, I'm intrigued by the title The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by D C Pierson, and I have Eat, Pray, Love and Wally Lamb's last big novel on audio in my back seat. I also want to read the young adult book Countdown by Deborah Wiles before giving it away to a younger reader friend who covets it.

Just arranging and rearranging my bookshelves is a constant reminder of the futility of my task. To make matters worse, I have other interests--so many other interests, a family I love and a job to which I go happily five days a week. When's a girl to read?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Readers Ourselves--the List Continues

As I've reported before, one of my favorite conference sessions every year is called "Readers Ourselves." Facilitated by the same four people every year, the session invites participants to sit in a circle and talk about what we've been reading lately. There are a few loose rules: write down the titles you mention (and authors if you know them); talk about books you are reading, not the books you are teaching; focus on adult reading; try not to monopolize the discussion.

Michael Moore, one of the facilitators, takes all the lists and compiles them, trying to check spelling and fill in authors' names. He includes annotations readers left behind (and sometimes some of his own.) I'm posting the list here without further comment. Unlike the list of books circulating on Facebook right now, the BBC doesn't care who has read these:

Readers Among Us – 2010 Orlando, Florida Version

This is the special session at NCTE each year that focuses on what was as adults are reading. We don’t care what your students or children are reading…there are hundreds of such sessions. This session is for big people and their books. These are the books NCTEers are reading to inform their personal lives.

* Room: A Novel – Emma Donoghue – 20-something-year-old mother who is confined and creates her own world. Short listed for the Booker
* Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann – Multiple narrative center around Philippe Petit 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers.
* Ape House and Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen—A scientist tries to reconstruct her life after an explosion in her research lab releasing the apes inside
* Mennonite in a Little Black Dress – Rhooda Janzen – Rhoda’s memoir about her life after her husband leaves her for a man and she is in a terrible car accident. She returns to her parents home in a Mennonite community to recuperate
* Island Beneath the Sea – Isabelle Allende – Follows the lives of the Blacks and plantation owners before and after the slave revolt in Haiti.
* Little Bee – Chris Cleave – Incendiary – A stunning, beautiful, brutal book. It’s so hard to imagine that a story this harrowing could possibly end on such an affirming uplifting note…but it does. The voice of Little Bee is captivating-this book feels true on so many levels, An important novel
* Summerland – Michael Chabon – Young Adult novel by the author of Kavalier and Clay
* Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek and American Childhood – Annie Dillard
* Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin – Two Mississippi men black/white involved in a missing girl case *
* The Help – Katherine Stockett – anyone whose reads it loves it
* Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong
* Lit – Mary Carr – author of Liar’s Club
* Just Kids –Patti Smith – About Patt’s relationship with Robert Maplethorpe
* Black Swan Green – David Mitchell – Takes place in 1982-83-in small town England. Also the author of Cloud Atlas
* Stoner – John Williams – Beautifully written novel of a poor farm boy who goes to college at around the time of WWI and becomes a college professor – Also wrote Butcher’s Crossing –featured in NYRB Classics
* Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese – A great story with cultural and family conflict. Makes one question homeland and family and what we leave behind when we mature. The book follows twin brothers who become doctors.
* The Invisible Bridge – Julie Orringer – Paris 1930s, Hungarian Jews – an ALAN recom
* Was God on Vacation – Jack van der Geest – WWII - 16-year-old young boy when Hitler invades Netherlands. Became a member of the Dutch Underground, becomes a political prisoner, escapes from Birenwald concentration camp, becomes a member of the French Underground, becomes a member of the 101 Airborne Division, etc.
* Skeletons at the Feast – Chris Bohjalian – Another WWII
* Those who Saved Us – Jenna Blum – A college professor interviews Germans who lived through the holocaust hoping to get some insight into her elderly mother’s behavior and the mysteries of her early childhood
* Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay – Another WWII – Paris and Jews
* Guernica – Dave Boling – Germany’s bombing of this idyllic Basque town featured in Picasso’s famous painting
* Imperfectionists – Tom Rachman – Rome
* Mr. Peanut – Adam Ross – Stanger story of three marriages including Dr. Sam Shepherd
* Juliette – Anne Fortier Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby (back to his High Fidelity themes) – A young woman is surprised when a recluse famous rocker begins emailing her. The rocker is the idol of her boyfriend who is in the process of breaking up with her
* The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup : My Encounters with Extraordinary People – Susan Orlean – A collection or profiles by a NYer writer

Don’t Reads:
* Freedom – Jonathan Franzen – One of the more famous do not reads
* Wolf Hall – Do Read but not before the sequel
* The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson – sort of read
* On the Road – Jack Kerouc – Don’t read; instead, do buy and listen
* Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger – Comment from someone: Hated it! Author of Time Traveler’s Wife The Gargoyle – Loved or hated…take your pick
* The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found – Don Snyder – Colgate professor loses his job
* My Reading Life – Pat Conroy – True story – at our institution we have a freshman seminar all freshmen take. We also have all freshman buy the same book and we have a campus wide discussion. We’ve done Race Matters, Band of Brothers. One year we picked The Lords of Discipline. Conroy, who was close by in Beaufort, SC, was invited to come to a freshman convocation (academic get-up, a whole campus event). Length of talk – twenty minutes. Remember about 2500 kids bought this book. We offered a $2000 honorarium and expenses. Pat said, sure he’d do it for fifteen grand. I will never read another word this shakedown artist writes. Sorry…when you do the list, you can write your editorials too.
* The English Teacher – Jim Harrison – Don’t bother unless you really like Harrison
* The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver – Continuing along with the don’t bother books but we all liked the Poisonwood Bible
* The Swan Thieves – Elizabeth Kostova – Author of The Historian
*Luncheon of the Boat Party – Susan Vreeland – Author of Girl in Hyacynth Blue
* To the End of the Land – David Grossman
* Here, Bullet – Brian Turner – Poetry by author who served in Bosnia and Iraq- Powerful imagery. Reads more like a memoir than a collection of poems. Relatively short. Helped me understand the atmosphere of the Iraq War Zone than any other book
* The Good Soldiers – David Finkel
* Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow – a tome but worth it
* Griftopia – Matt Taibbi – Writer for Rolling Stone
* Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Aspergers - John Elder Robison
* Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Aspergers – Tim Page
* Mockingbird – Kathryn Erskine-girl with aspergers-brother killed in a school shooting
* Forger’s Spell – Edward Dolnick – nonfiction plot to full Hitler with fake vermeer
* The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine – Lost Jeffersonian case of wine…remarkably young
* The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal – Ben Mezrich – don’t read-watch the movie
* Columbine – David Cullen – Myth-busting good journalism
* Beslan – Timothy Phillips – Chechnian attack on an elementary School
* The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot—true story of woman whose cancer
cells were harvested in 1951 and still used for scientific study
* On Gold Mountain – Lisa See, nonfiction (her family story)
* Zeitoun – Dave Eggers – Author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – about Katrina
* Why Students Don’t Like School – Daniel T. Willingham
* I Shall Wear Midnight – Terry Pratchett - Fantasy that Connie likes – Author of Discworld (great in audio)
* The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollen
* Righteous Porkchop – Nicolette Hahn Niman
* In Defense of Food – Michael Pollen – How to eat healthy foods
* Slow Death by Rubber Ducky: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things – Bruce Lourie
* Star Island – Carl Hiasson
* Our Kind of Traitor – John LeCarre – Don’t bother…no one cares about these people but still well written go back and read the George Smiley trilogy
& Anyone But You – Jennifer Crusie
* Blindness – Jose Saramago
* A Reliable Wife – Robert Goolrich
* The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Steig Larrson
* Prose Translation of the Canterbury Tales – Peter Ackroyd
* Gunnar’s Daughter – Sigrid Undset
* The Autobiography of Mark Twain – (Volume 1)
* The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls
* The Snapper – Roddy Doyle – Poor Irish family and pregnant daughter
* A Charmed Life: Growing Up In Macbeth’s Castle: A Memoir: Liza Campbell
* Regeneration – Pat Barker
* Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy – Gary D. Schmidt
* Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher
* The Green Sweater – Krystyna Chiger
* The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
* The Summer We Read Gatsby – Daniell Ganek
* The Double Bind – Chris Bohjalian
* A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Tolz – Interesting adventure with quirky characters
* The Disappearing Spoon –Sam Kean -Stories of the Periodic Table

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I might as well quit starting off so many posts saying that although I don't usually read nonfiction
. . . . because I realize how many books I've read this past year have been nonfiction. This latest, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, is a fascinating blend of science and biography of an African-American woman whose contribution to the world of science and medicine--although without her knowledge--has worldwide impact.

While she was being treating for cervical cancer in 1951, doctors harvested some of her cells and discovered that they continued to grow prolifically. Since then, they've been sent into space and have been used in studies not only related to cancer but polio and HIV. While the cells have been sold commercially to labs throughout the world, Lacks' own family didn't even know about the cells for many years, although they were living in poverty with numerous health problems.

Skloots first heard about Henrietta's cells (identified as HeLa cells) while in school and began a quest of many years to tell the story, breaking down barriers of resistance in Henrietta's family, to learn about the real woman. Skloots' style, blending science and narrative, created a fascinating story with the pace of a novel. I was as fascinated to see the picture of Henrietta's cells (above) as her grown children were.

As a side note, I was glad to see the book made the short list of titles on Carol Jago's"Intrepid Reader" at NCTE this weekend.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Every Avid Reader's Fantasy

yAs I usually do this time every year, I just attended the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held this year at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort (in --you guessed it--the happiest place on Earth). I've been coming to these conference since I began my teaching career, and they never disappoint. For those of you who aren't English teachers, I won't burden you with the all the professional topics. (Those I'll be posting at

I will be telling you about the book-related sessions, conversations, and exhibits in my next few posts--as soon as I get home and unpack my book of notes.

Since the outgoing NCTE president Carol Jago is one of the most voracious, passionate readers I know, one thread that ran through this conference was the value of literature to our lives. At these kinds of sessions, one is likely to hear talk of pedagogy, assessment, empowerment--all the education jargon--and I won't downplay the importance of good sound teaching practice. But when people were talking about about reading, they came alive.

Suffice it to say that my shoulders are aching now from carrying bags loaded with my last-minute book acquisitions from my last loop through the exhibit hall. I have others in a box en route to my house and others in the back seat of my friend and fellow-conference-goer Jane's car (assurance that we have to meet somewhere between my house and Durham soon for the hand off.) One of the most fun parts of the conference each year is the exhibit hall, where most of the major publishers show. Sure, there are lots of textbook publishers and other educational companies there, but lots of the books are the ones we want to read for our own pleasure.

I leave the conference each year not only with a renewed sense of purpose but with a reading list that could easily carry me through to next November.

Coming soon: Readers Ourselves Booklist and Author Sightings

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Say It Isn't So!

The first email I received this morning came from my daughter in Nashville, announcing that Davis-Kidd, my favorite bookstore there (one of my favorite bookstores anywhere) is closing as a part of the Joseph-Beth Chapter 11 proceedings. These announcements are becoming more and more frequent, in part because of the decline in reading, in part because of all the online shopping avenues, and in part because of electronic books.

Surely I'm not one of a meager few who enjoy the experience of shopping in bookstores. I like the displays, the sales tables, the infused scent of coffee and pastries. I like to strike up conversations with strangers as we peruse the shelves. I tend to monopolize the time and attention of the employees the way I once took over the elementary librarian as my personal assistant.

I like to discover new authors, and I like to check off my own "already read it" list. I don't know any way to singlehandedly save bookstores, especially independent bookstores, except to buy more books and to encourage others to do so. I think more book clubs should hold meetings in bookstores. I think Christmas shoppers should consider the advantage of doing a majority of their holiday shopping there. (Just consider how much easier books are to wrap and to transport.)

I think of students who sign up for online classes only to find they miss the actual physical presence in the classroom. I consider all the disappointing online and catalog purchases--clothes I should have tried on before buying. Can you imagine in later years waxing eloquent about a well-loved website?

Maybe bookstore rescue parallels the old starfish story: I can't save them all, but maybe I can make a difference to one!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pat Conroy's My Reading Life

Since I read Prince of Tides many years ago, I have made a point to read all of Pat Conroy's books--the novels and the memoirs. As a teacher, I loved The Water Is Wide," but I found Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini just as powerful and, at times, shocking.

I have noticed that ever Conroy novel has one good sports chapter, the story of a big game that can stand alone as a short story.

I know he's criticized for his big, blustery style, something of which he is well aware. When he's at the top of his game, his writing is lyrical. I can smell Savannah when he takes his readers there. He can also be completely outrageous--and I enjoy that too. I don't think I'll ever forget reading the scene in Prince of Tides when the statue of the Christ child is used to club to death the evildoers breaking into the house. I was on a plane as I read, and I so drastically want to tell someone about what I had just read. (Did I mention the man-eating tiger in the same book?)

Conroy has just released a new memoir that's right up my alley, which he called My Reading Life. His chapter topics range from his mother's early influence to that of Gene Norris, his beloved English teacher, as well as a mean librarian, an independent bookstore owner in Atlanta, and a number of his favorite books and authors--Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Tolstoy's War and Peace, James Dickey, and Thomas Wolfe.

The book is evidence of Conroy's self-awareness. He not only knows his influences but recognizes the marks they leave on him. His revelation of his own reading habits are infectious. He decided at sixteen to read at least two hundred pages a day, working his way through the list of great literature, sometimes more than once, and discovering new writers along the way. He had a lot to say about poetry and poets as his muses.

He also pays tribute to one of the strongest human urges, naming "Tell me a story" as "the most powerful words in the English language"(303). I heard him speak at a local college a few years ago, and afterwards I ran into a friend who asked, "Do you really think all those stories he tells are true?" I had to remind myself that she was not Southern. Of course they're true. Down here we all have similar stories of our own.

One particular line in the book struck a chord: "Few things linger longer or become more indwelling than that feeling of both completion and emptiness when a great book ends" (311). Exactly.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Anybody's List

Recently, I came across a blog post that was circulating on Facebook with the intriguing title "A Year of Reading: 100 Things About Me as a Reader." I'm a sucker for a list, especially one related to books, so first I looked over that list, making those internal comments--"yeah, me too" or "nope, not me!" Then I started my own. I'll admit that some of my items are adapted from her list. I enjoyed a chance to think about my reading practices, habits, and preferences. Not 100 yet, but here's my list:

1. I can read keep more than one book going at a time—if they’re different modes (audio, eBook, traditional.)

2. Sometimes I read a book from the library and then feel I have to own it anyway.

3. I feel guilty borrowing books I know I probably won’t read.

4. My fourth grade teacher read the entire Little House series to us.

5. I love to read aloud.

6. If I don’t have an audiobook for the car, I get twitchy.

7. When I was back in school, I would find an author I loved and to read all of his or her books, working my way through the library shelves.

8. I have a hard time getting rid of books.

9. When I donate books to the library’s book sale, I too often end up going myself and buying more than I gave away.

10. I’ve read lots of books late, late at night—even on vacation—sitting in the bathroom so I wouldn’t wake the family.

11. I like to have books signed by authors.

12. I actually read my signed first editions.

13. I am an author groupie.

14. Few things make me happier than for someone I like or love to read a book I’ve read so we can talk about it.

15. Sometimes I judge a book by its cover.

16. I never read the last page ahead of time.

17. I always rush to get to the end of a book then feel sad when it’s over.

18. Lots of times, after I finish a book, I immediately re-read the first chapter—or the last chapter.

19. I don’t feel bad about loving a book someone else hated.

20. I hate to waste my time on lightweight books (which doesn’t mean I don’t like humor. I do!)

21. If I really love a book I’m reading, I call my dad (or someone else who’d like a particular passage) and read.

22. I read with a book mark on which I write notes about passages I like--or words I want to define.

23. I write in my paperback books with a very sharp pencil and very straight lines.

24. I don’t find the eBook experience at all inferior to traditional books, but I wish I could write on them and share them.

25. If you borrow one of my books and don’t give it back. I remember. I may not accuse you of stealing, but I remember.

26. I read Little Women and The Wizard of Oz for the first time in the first or second grade.

27. I can read in the car without getting carsick.

28. I have read while driving. Not proud of it, but I did it.

29. Local bookstores make me happy in the same way art museums do.

30. My elementary school librarian influenced me as much as any teacher I ever had.

31. I have many friendships based almost completely on our mutual love of books.

32. I married a man who loves good books. I can't image living with a nonreader.

I'd love to see your lists too.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

At the recent Southern Festival of Books, I had a chance to hear from several authors to whom I've been introduced through the Lemuria First Editions Club. I joined several years ago, and each month, almost like magic, a new signed first edition shows up on my doorstep. At the festival, I heard from Sonny Brewer, Rick Bragg, Lee Smith, and Brad Watson. At two different sessions, I heard from Tom Franklin, a name I recognized, having read Hell at the Breech, a story of murder and attempts at justice in 1898 Alabama. I also realized his novel Smonk still sits in my "to read" stack.

Franklin's latest novel Crooked Letter Crooked Letter (a reference, as any young spelling student knows, to the mnemonic device for spelling Mississippi) has been getting lots of attention since its release. It was among a short list of suggestions of fall reading on the Today show last week, in fact.

With all the books discussed at the festival, this was one of the novels I bought, only to find another signed copy--from Lemuria--at my door when I returned home. A sign? Perhaps.

This time Franklin sets his novel in the last twentieth century and present day. He follows two protagonists, Scary Larry, accused of murder as a teenager and suspected again, and Silas, the town's one policeman, a black man, who at one time had lived with his mother in a cabin on Larry's family's property and had for a short time befriended Larry.

Silas, normally relegated to directing traffic when the plant shift changes, begins to follow hunches and finds victims of murder or attempted murder--real police work. When Larry is found near death and bleeding from what many believe is a self-inflicted gunshot, Silas reenters his life.

Franklin shared a person incident from his teenager years that inspired a critical incident in Larry's life during a breakfast session in which he and three other writers discussed, among other things, how they handle elements of their stories drawn from people they know, people who might recognize themselves. His sharp wit and sense of humor--and my earlier enjoyment of his previous novel--led me to the book table as soon as the session ended. Now that I've read one copy and shared the other, I'm ready to add Crooked Letter Crooked Letter to my list for those who ask for reading suggestions.

Note of trivia: On this season's ticket for the Alabama-Mississippi state game, the printers omitted one of the humpbacks.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Worthy Nightmares

This time each year I see such a strange dichotomy: horror films and images of death juxtaposed alongside Disney princesses and babies in pumpkin suits. This morning, though, as I rode to work listening to a scene from James Frey's Million Little Pieces, the book that caused Oprah such controversy awhile back, I lived vicariously through my worst nightmare.

Using all too well the age old advice, show don't tell, Frey gives every detail of his experience in the dental chair, having four teeth replaced and repaired with no anaesthesia. In fact, he spent the greater part (during a double root canal) strapped down, holding two tennis balls with a Babar the Elephant book held firmly to his chest.

I won't skirt the issue: I suffer from dental phobia. Sure, I know that modern advances have changed dentistry (although I still can't find a dentist who offers routine laughing gas for all procedures, something I truly desire), but I suffer from a long history of dental anguish--abcess at age four, an old Army dentist who drilled through my tooth into a nerve (also when I was four). I endured cavities upon cavities no matter how often I brushed and flossed. As a result, riding in to work, I might as well have been sitting strapped in that chair with Frey, overwhelmed by the smell of burning teeth, feeling grit under my tongue, the halogen lights in my eyes, the sharp metal probing my teeth, my gums.

This Halloween, I don't worry about vampires, ghosts, or goblins. Just keep the dentists away from my door.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Embarrassment of Riches

After several years of intending to attend the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, I actually made it there this past weekend. October is by far my busiest month, with a number of conferences calling to me, while my husband is heading off to the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, NC. Still, the location of this festival (in the same town with my daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren) has more than its share of attractions to me, and the line-up looked great.

I didn't arrive in town for the Friday sessions, so I tried to avoid even looking at that schedule, sure I would be sick to know what I'd missed. I did, though, manage to hear from a number of writers I read and admire--Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Rick Bragg, Sonny Brewer, Tom Franklin, and Brad Watson--many of them whom I had discovered through Lemuria's First Editions Club.

I also made sure to hear Louis Sachar, author of, among other things, Holes, a YA novel I enjoyed that was made into a successful movie. Even though I had to sacrifice another couple of tempting sessions, I managed to see the screening of Hey Boo, the documentary Mary Murphy has been making about the making of To Kill a Mockingbird, which gave birth to her book Scout, Atticus, and Boo, which I read this summer. This film, not released yet, is unmistakably a labor of love. She's managed to talk to not only many well-known writers and celebrities, but she also interviewed Nelle Harper Lee's older sister, Miss Alice, still practicing law at 99, as well as the couple who befriended Lee in New York City when she was writing and gave her one year for Christmas a year off work to finish the book.

Of course the festival also had its share of exhibits--lots of books and book related merchandise (including the t-shirts I had to have). The weather couldn't have been nicer, and I left town with a few more good reads, lots of book notes, and a longer-than-ever "must read" list.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Sharing Books

To lend books or not may not have the gravity of Hamlet's question of simply being, but I will admit that I feel such contradictory impulses. First, I know that I have a genuine need to talk about books I read with others who have actually read too. I know that sharing one of my books doesn't guarantee that will happen. (In fact, I know because of the number of borrowed books sitting unheeded on my shelves. They ooze guilt.)

Only through trial and error do I learn who returns books. I can tell you any number of people who are in possession of books that belong to me. (If you are reading this and you have my John Updike, Gertrude and Claudius or Leif Enger's Peace Like a River then yes, I am talking to you.) I had to wait a dozen years to get my copy of Hondo--not the Louis L'Amour cowboy novel but a biography of Hondo Crouch by his daughter Becky--and I only got that one back because I saw it on the bookshelf at the home of the guilty party and stole it back.

I'll also admit that I am a book thief, but not without guilt. After reading Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women, I was ready to read Little Men. My great grandmother had a copy she had borrowed from a friend who died before she returned the book. For some reason, I didn't read her copy but instead borrowed a copy from a friend's brother. He too died while I had the book. Coincidence? I don't know. But I'm not lending a copy to anyone.

Actually, I try to practice book amnesty regularly, giving back books to the friends to whom they belong, not admitting whether I've read them or not. This clears room for more books too.

Meanwhile, I've realized that one of the few drawbacks to reading eBooks is the inability to share them. I always feel guilty recommending a book to a friend, who asks, "May I borrow it?" I have to admit that I don't have a copy to share. Fortunately, this isn't enough of a drawback to deter me. After all, they have the option of buying the book or using the old library card.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Slim Volumes

One advantages to the rich offerings of poetry in my area is the opportunity to build my collection of full-length books and chapbooks from poets at all stages of their writing careers. Once a month at Poetry Hickory, a second Tuesday night event at Taste Full Beans, a local coffee shop, I am treated to short readings from the semi-open mic session followed by a couple of featured poets. If I arrange my schedule to arrive in time, I get a chance to share in the discussion with other poets too or to participate in a writing workshop before the readings.

While it's all too easy to let novels sit unread on the shelf, waiting until I have time to read them, books of poetry provide the perfect reading climate. Aside from Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost, books of poems, especially chapbooks, can be read in one sitting or they can be read a few at a time--while I wait for a traffic light or an appointment.

When I read fiction, I often mean to go back and find a passage I particularly enjoyed, but if I fail to leave behind a post-it note, those readings are often lost forever. Poems, however, have those convenient titles. Returning again and again is an option I choose over and over.

Last week, at the second event in Lenoir-Rhyne University's Visiting Writes Series, I picked up a couple of books of poetry by Cathy Smith Bowers, recently named the new poet laureate of North Carolina. I had read her work before, but only a poem here and there. I took home my copies of The Candle I Hold Up to See You and The Books of Minutes and read them almost immediately. In the first, I was pleased to find two or three of the particularly poignant or humorous poems she had read for us that night. One of my particular favorites "Syntax" had appeared in The English Journal, the NCTE publication I have read for years. This poem serves as a warning for any teacher, particularly anyone who professes to teach creative writing. Another poem in the same volume "The Napkin" packed that lovely punch in the end. (One of the best things about attending a poetry reading is being able to observe the physical response of an audience to a poem.)

The other collection of poems by Bowers was set up in the format of The Book of Hours. Throughout the book, she uses a clever fixed form called, of course, the minute. These poems contain sixty syllables in three stanzas: 8-4-4-4, 8-4-4-4, 8-4-4-4. Within the limitations of the form, though, she achieved such a variety of effects. I'll admit that this was the first book of poems I had stayed up to finish while reading in bed.

I'm not sure how people gauge their responses to other people's poetry, but one litmus test of mine is that the poems inspire me to write poems of my own in response. As Keats said, "Poetry ...should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost as a remembrance." I find that my notes from poetry readings often contain all the margin notes, bits and pieces of memories just waiting to be set down on paper in just the right shape.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting It: Mockingbird

If you read this blog with anything approaching regularity, you probably think I have an obsession with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird--and you're right. But this time I'm on a different track--at least partially. Kathryn Erskine's novel Mockingbird is the story of Caitlin Smith, a fifth grader with Asperger's Syndrome whose middle school brother was killed by a school shooter. His unfinished Eagle Scout project remains in the living room, covered by a sheet, a constant reminder to Caitlin and her grieving father that Devon will not be finishing it.

Caitlin tells her own story--the perfect textbook example of a naive narrator--as she tries to come to terms with what is lacking in her skills set. She can belch the alphabet, a skill that serves her well on the playground during the younger children's recess, but doesn't help much with making friends her own age. She is also an avid reader with a particular interest in the dictionary. One word she tries to understand--and attain--is Closure.

Erskine's title is an allusion to Lee's novel. Caitlin knew the book well and the movie better. Her brother had nicknamed her Scout, and she believes that with funny glasses and different clothes, her dad would be just like Atticus.

Erskine gives voice to the girl in a gentler way than Haddon did in The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime. The uses capital letters and exclamation points freely, sometimes realizing someone is screaming "and it might be me." The book lacks the strong language that keep some teachers and parents from using Curious Incident with younger readers. For young adult readers, though, the strongest lesson, one learned not only by Caitlin but by many of the other characters as well is that of Empathy.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Poetry in the Foothills

In the area of western North Carolina where I live, I declare that anyone who claims to be bored just isn't trying. I've never known of a place that offered so many cultural opportunities from folksy to highbrow. This weekend, I have a strong urge to drive to Bristol, TN/VA for the Rhythm and Roots Reunion, three days of all kinds of great music--but I also have Alabama-Duke football tickets.

Last weekend, I enjoyed a house concert up at Ticknock, listening to David Peterson and Charlie Cushman on the guitar and banjo with a roomful of other music lovers.

This week, though, my poetry-loving soul has been fed. I heard Antony Abbot and Jason Mott at Poetry Hickory at Taste Full Beans on Tuesday, and then last night I attended Lenoir-Rhyne's Visiting Writers Series, "An Evening of Poetry and Irish Music" with NC poet laureate Cathy Smith Bowers, Irish poet, Joan McBreen, and LRU's spring semester poet-in-resident Rhett Iseman Trull while listening to the Elf Tones' music.

From my own lit students, I recognize that so many people--even avid readers--are intimidated by poetry or simply dismiss it as "not for them." My own experience, though, indicates that like live music, live poetry, straight from the mouth of the poet, evokes a special response--whispered surprise, belly laughs, snickers, heads nodding in silent agreement. After hearing Cathy Smith Bowers' poem about her dog named for poet Seamus Heaney and her revelation that her dog had gotten custody of the pet, one of the women in the audience offered to help her get her dog back. (I don't suppose she simply planned to play a country song backwards.)

For now, I have some new volumes of poetry--a couple of full-sized books, a couple of chapbooks, kept nearby in the car. Instead of perusing the newspaper headlines at traffic lights or checking my text messages in waiting rooms, I think I'll have a poem or two.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mathematics--Straight from God's Notebook

Occasionally, I'll find myself recommending a book before I've even finished it. Sometimes the story line will make me think of a fellow reader for whom it is perfectly suited; at other times, I just love the characters so much that I want someone else to meet them, to read the book so I can talk about it.

This week I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, a simple novel by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese. The premise of the book captured me: the narrator takes a job as housekeeper for a mathematics professor who was at the top of his field until a car accident resulting in brain damage that interrupted his memory every eighty minutes. He could remember his mathematical curiosity and genuis--predating the accident--but every morning, she had to introduce herself to him again (always answering his first two questions: What is your shoe size? What is your telephone number?)

Reminiscent of the main character of the film Memento, the professor pins notes to his clothes to remind him of things he doesn't want to risk forgetting--his eighty-minute memory, the housekeeper, and her son, whom he calls Root (because his haircut reminds him of the square root sign.) In fact, Root is present at the home at the professor's insistence that the child not be left at home alone while his mother worked.

Woven throughout the novel is the professor's fascination with numbers, prompting him to share his curiosity and knowledge first with his caretaker and then with her son. Not surprisingly, he also loves baseball (and all those statistics), although he doesn't realize his favorite pitcher has been long retired, information they keep from him.

I'll confess--I am not a math person, but neither was the housekeeper, a single mother and a high school drop out, but I loved the way the author wove numbers through the story, information the professor claimed not to have unlocked but to have transcribed from the notebook of God.

I had shared Blue Baillet's middle school novels, The Wright Three and Chasing Vermeer, with math teacher friends, along with The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime, all building stories around math in some way. This simple story, while nothing like these other three beyond the fascination with numbers, will be on my short list of recommendations for lots of my fellow readers, whether they are math people or not.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Books That Make Me Turn Back and Re-Read

Every once in a while, when I finish a book, I know I am not finished with the book. Sometimes I will finish a novel right before I go to sleep, and in the morning, I feel compelled to re-read the ending, to be sure what I think happened really happened. I did it with Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and with Charles Frasier's Cold Mountain. Sometimes the ending makes me turn back and read the beginning. At the end of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I suddenly remembered the beginning, set in a different place and time and realized just why it was there. I did the same with one of the most intriguing YA novels, Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese, a book that blew me away with its ending, forcing me to go back to find the clues, the foreshadowing I had missed.

I finished Adam Ross's novel Mr. Peanut this week, and after letting the story percolate in my brain awhile, I know I have to go back and read the last few chapters. The main thread of the story, the death of David Pepin's wife Alice, from what seems an allergic reaction to a peanut, is interwoven with the family stories of the two detectives investigating him--Hastrol, whose wife Hannah has taken to her bed and refuses to leave it, and Sam Shepard (yes, that Sam Shepard), working for the police department after being released from prison on charges of killing his wife.

Ross moves from the main story--the Pepins--to Hastrol and Shepard--in ways that make a reader forget the other stories exist--until he throws in a small detail that echoes what's happening in the other two story lines. To reinforce the circular nature of the story, he adds an antagonist who goes only my the name of Mr. Mobius, and he has the Pepins meeting in a college elective that studies Hitchcock films and marriage. The professor's explanation of the MacGuffin seems to be more than a minor detail, but perhaps a clue to the way his narrative plays out.

The added detail that Pepin is writing a novel (whose main characters are David Pepin and his wife Laura) add to the web that will probably require a second reading just to discover the undergirding of the story that was there all along as I moved through the plot.

Ross has pulled off quite a feat in his structure of the novel, pulling the reader into whichever story he tells at the time, shifting perspectives within the stories, then leaving the reader wondering what just happened. Wondering enough to want to go back and find out--and that is just what I intend to do.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Autumn Potluck

My reading habits are as arbitrary as anything else in my life. I make a "to read" list, but then I hear a title mentioned on the radio or someone sends a "you've got to read this" email, and I'm off. in addition, my audio book fare depends entirely on supply, and I'm fast working my way through all my first choices at the public library and having to find other sources. I tried to download from (hearing their TV offer--two free books) but although the website promised I could burn them to CDs, I've ruined enough blank disks to buy at least one audiobook at retail. I find that when I listen, there are big blank spaces in the narrative when I move from one disk to the next. So far I have listened to a large percentages of Sherman Alexie's War Dances and part of Joshilyn Jackon's Backseat Saints. I just gave up until I can find the actual book.

I did listen to Amy Bloom's Where the God of Love Hangs Out, a short story collection, and then I found that one of her stories from that collection was included in the new edition of our literature anthology. I also somehow picked up Falling Apart in One Piece by Redbook editor Stacy Morrison, an account of the end of her marriage when her son was just a few months old. It wasn't the kind of book I intended to read, but I did glean a couple of good phrases from the book. She said at one point ,"I like to live life out loud." I understood that impulse completely. My favorite quote, though, was this: "Life is hard. Life is good. These two truths are in no way related."

Meanwhile, after reading high praise of author Charles Portis in Oxford American magazine, I rounded up a copy of True Grit. Since a remake is in the works (with Rooster Cogburn played by Jeff Bridges, I hear), I thought it was high time I read the real thing--told from Mattie's point of view.

I was also tickled to hear that Ron Koertge had written a follow-up novel-in-verse to Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, this one called Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs. This one follows Kevin Boland, a middle school boy who loves baseball but also keeps a secret poetry journal, which he finally begins to share a little. In the first book, Kevin is home sick with mono right after his mother's death from cancer. Now in this second book, his father has begun to date, something Kevin is not quite ready to accept. He also finds himself torn between his girlfriend Mia and Amy, a kindred spirit he meets at a poetry reading with his dad. I love the way he uses his journal to experiment with poetry forms as he writes about his day-to-day life. I first fell in love with Koertge's adult poetry, and then I heard him present at an English conference and discovered his YA lit as well.

Now I'm trying to keep up with school reading, while also balancing Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad, an unlikely book club pick, and Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut, a recent Lemuria First Edition Club choice. I'll report back soon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Required Reading: The Instructor's Perspective

I'm survived a first week of classes and while I know this is the honeymoon period of the semester, I still feel optimistic and almost excited about classes. For the first time since I moved from high school to community college, I am teaching a British Lit class, so I am back with some of my old friends (Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Alfred the Great). All those boxes I had stored for so long in my garage as useful as I knew they would be as I pull out the materials I've horded over the years (Ah! Here's my King Lear file!)

I've also been skimming and scanning my bookshelves, trying not to overlook great resources. For example, at the English convention last fall, I bought a copy of Gareth Hinds Beowulf. It's an abridged account with exquisite artwork, something like a graphic novel--maybe just more graphic. I'm also locating John Gardner's Grendel and Seamus Heaney's lovely translation, which features the original Old English text on the left and his line-by-line translation on the right.

In my freshman lit class (Literature-Based Research), I am searching through the newest edition of our anthology, Michael Meyer's Introduction to Literature (Bedford), to see what fresh material I might select this time. The textbook is huge, and I realize that in a Tuesday/Thursday class with only an hour and fifteen minutes each time we meet, I can't begin to have them read all I wish I could. I have tried to take to heart, though, a common last year: "Mrs.Posey, are we ever going to read any happy stories." I am looking at the selections that have been added, the ones I have overlooked before, even the chapters that focus on humor, incorporating those into my syllabus. Why not? I know that I love humor in my own reading selections.

With that same idea, I am searching for writing models for my Expository Writing class, also looking for some with a humorous angle. Some of the most memorable pieces I've read will fit perfectly. I've found "The One-Eared Intellectual" in Bailey White's collection Mama Makes up Her Mind, and I have my eye out for a Woody Allen piece I remember from an old Literary Cavalcade magazine called "If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists."

In the meantime, I'll keep reading for pure pleasure, dropping little hints to my students. "Let me tell you about this book I'm listening to on the way to school. . . ." Who knows? They might be interested too.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

With school starting back Monday, I know that much of my autumn reading will consist of textbooks (At least I teach literature. Calculus books would be unbearable for me.) and student papers. Of course, anyone who knows me knows that while my school responsibilities may slow my pleasure reading, they never stop it altogether. What a hypocrite I would be to teach people the purpose and pleasure of reading and writing if I didn't do them myself.

One of my last books I read this summer was also one of the best. David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet came highly recommended by a reading friend who was only a hundred pages in and "already hooked." Mitchell's story is set on an Dutch-settled island separated from Nagasaki by a bridge at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jacob De Zoet has signed on for a five-year stint with the Dutch Indies company, hoping to make his fortune and to return to marry his beloved Anna.

Politics--not only between the Japanese and the Dutch but among the Dutch colleagues as well--continually frustrate his hopes and opportunities. He develops relationships with an aging doctor who teaches medicine and with an interpreter, and he becomes fascinated with a young Japanese woman, a doctor's daughter with a burn scar over half her face, ruining her chances for a good marriage.

From the beginning, DeZoet feels protected by the lucky family Psalter, a bullet still firmly wedged into its cover, that has passed to him from his uncle, a minister. Since any material of a Christian nature is strictly forbidden, he must keep it hidden. He finds protection from one or two people who choose to look the other way, particularly since he has in his possession other books of genuine interest, especially to his friend the interpreter.

Mitchell's book is set on the brink of change in the world. Japan is still clinging to isolation and tradition. The Dutch have passed their peak, much to the surprise of those who are stranded by the edge of Nagasaki, and the British and Americans are gaining power in the world.

This is no casual beach read or page-turner thriller (although I'll admit I read it on the beach.) At first, I found it difficult to distinguish the characters. This is the point where I would tell my students to make a list with notes. The attention required, however, is worth the mental effort. I loved the book, and I loved its protagonist, its hero, Jacob DeZoet.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dropping the Y

No, I am not weighing in on the controversial decision of the YMCA to drop their other letters in their ads and signage. I'll let the Village People handle that. I have just been thinking about the arbitrary division between Adult Fiction and Young Adult Fiction.

As much trouble as I have organizing my own book shelves, creating something that borrows from but does not emulate either the Library of Congress method or the Dewey Decimal System, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for publishers to decide how to market books and for book store owners to decide how to shelve them. In the "Young Adult Fiction" category, tracing back to S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, some books seem to fit neatly....My Darling, My Hamburger, for example. At other times, though, books seem to be slotted there at the risk of being missed by a large portion of the reading population.

When I was a young adult myself, I fear I might have snubbed anything categorized thus. Back them, I wanted books with heft and substance. What I recognize now is that many YA books have just that.

One of my favorite "YA" books The Book Thief had so much to appeal to mature readers. In fact, its sheer length might be a turn off to YA's, whose selection criteria often begins with "How long is it?" The seriousness of its subject matter, the unique point of view (Death as narrator) all touched my peers who read it. As far as I can tell, it was slotted as YA lit because (1. the protagonist was young and (2. the book had nothing vulgar or sexually explicit. (Why, after all, do we describe profanity as "adult language"?)

Last week, I got around to listening to a young adult novel recommended by lots of high school students I've taught, Edward Bloor's Tangerine. I recognized it at the library, where I am always scouting for a good audio book I haven't check out yet, and gave it a try.

Nothing about the book, on the surface, seems to indicate it as a choice for me: the protagonist is a seventh grade boy. The novel, though, was compelling enough that I found myself listening in the garage or in parking lots, long after it was time to get out of the car. The novel dealt with family secrets and favoritism, sibling rivalry, visual handicaps, soccer, football, class conflicts, and loyalty. Paul Fisher, the main character, was endearing but flawed. The parents were flawed but human. At the center of the story, Paul has lived in the shadow of "the Eric Fisher football dream," since his older brother has the potential for athletic greatness as a kicker, but absolutely no moral character.

When a sinkhole damages the excessive number of portable classrooms at his middle school, Paul opts to transfer to the more ethnically representative Tangerine Middle School, instead of going to the late shift at his own upper class school during construction. Here he earns the friendship and even respect of the coed soccer team on which many of the players' families are citrus growers. They face precarious weather and prejudice, but they accept Paul, grudgingly at first, and play a huge role in his maturity.

This weekend, I was talking to a group of high school students preparing to return to school this month. That preparation for most of them involves summer reading assignments. I recognized all of the titles and had read most--Of Mice and Men, The Count of Monte Cristo, Cyrano de Bergerac, In the Time of Butterflies, and more. The English teacher in me wanted to say, "Come on! Get excited! These are great books!" Instead, I just asked, "Have any of you read Tangerine?" And they were off!


Friday, July 30, 2010

Slow Read/Fast Read

Not often do I read a book in parts, while interrupting to read something different altogether, but early in the summer, I started reading Edward Dolnick's book The Forger Spell on my eBook. I kept it handy when I did my time on the exercise bike (one of the best ways, I am convinced, to use e-Readers), but the nature of the book--highly researched and factual--didn't keep me reading just to see what happened next.

The book is the story of Van Meergen, a Dutch forgerwho successful fooled many buyers, art critics, and museums during WWII with his forgeries of works of DeHooch and especially Jan Vermeer. Among his victims was the Nazi Herman Goering. Failing to receive acclaim in his own rights, Van Meergen discovered a number of clever tricks to produce paintings that not only passed for the work of better known painters, but even found ways to simulate aging of the canvas and paints.

Heavily researched, the author took readers in a number of directions, but for me the best part came in the last section in which he described the hunt for art and artifacts after the war and the trial of Van Meergen after his discovery. Interestingly, the forger actually confessed to forgery to avoid a far worse crime at the time, collaboration with the Nazis. Many of those he duped were unwilling or at least reluctant to believe his confession, so his trial became something of a media circus.

The book has so much material of interest in the fields of art, history, and psychology. It just didn't have the page-turning quality that I seek in fiction--and that was fine. I've long been a fan of Vermeer (trendy now, I suppose, because of the fairly recent novels, The Girl in the Pearl Earring and The Girl in Hyacinth Blue), so I can imagine how the art world would have swooned over the possibility of adding to his small body of works.

The other novel I finished recently, Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, was more disconcerting. I am a huge fan of his novel The Life of Pi. In fact, it was one of the optional books I assigned a few years ago with a group of AP students eager to read more. This latest book, though, is dark and baffling. It is about the Holocaust and it is not. He actually builds a story-within-a-story when the protagonist, with one successful and one failed novel, is contacted by a taxidermist--and an odd one at that--who is writing a play about a howler monkey and a donkey, Virgil and Beatrice. Something about that part of the story reminds me of Waiting for Godot. The book, I feel sure, is intended to be unsettling. I'm not sure how to recommend the book. It's certainly not a feel-good beach book. The underlying theme seems to deal with how to be able to find words to talk about something as horrific as the Holocaust.

Most haunting are a series of questions posed at the end of the novel, in the guise of a game. I look forward to finding someone else who has read Martel's latest book because I certainly need to talk it through.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nonfiction Update

I finished listening to Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and I'm not quite sure how to describe it. Is it a book about how to live or how to write--or both? His framework centers on his working with two other filmmakers to turn his memoir into a movie, as he learns more about what comprises a good story.

He points out that if we saw a movie about a guy who really wanted a Volvo and at the end of the movie, he gets a Volvo, no one would leave the theater wiping away tears. That is not a good story. He repeatedly points out that just as one selects details to write a story--whether fictional or not--that people also have some choice in writing our own stories.

Along the way, while describing how to live a life would living--and sharing--he has a lot to say about story. The author reads his own book, which works most of the time, but someone needs to help him pronounce Proust. Publisher Thomas Nelson also needs someone to edit out the pronoun case errors. Me and I are used interchangeably only in country songs to achieve rhyme. Even then, the error makes my ears bleed.

The second book I mentioned earlier is Carr's The Shallows: This Is Your Brain Online. I am reading it during a week when I have consciously committed to turning off Facebook. He gives an explanation of the way our brain works that ordinary laymen can understand. The history of technology and how it has changed our lives starts far before computers. I had never thought of the impact of the map or the clock, although I certainly am aware of the impact of the printing press and the book on lives other than my own.

The chapter on Google--a big force in our community now--is especially enlightening and, in a way, disturbing. He doesn't reveal anything sinister so much as he sheds light on wha one of his sources called Google's belief in "its own goodness."

I am encouraged by what he reveals about the "plasticity" of the adult brain. I am relieved to know that you perhaps can teach an old dog new tricks--or new ways to do old ones. I certainly won't turn Luddite and abandon my laptop, my eBook, my Facebook friends, but I will try harder to be contemplative, to avoid the pressure to think of multi-tasking as a virtue rather than a hindrance.

I will also feel less guilty when I get lost in a good book. I am just nourishing those synapses in my plastic brain.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Sound of Summer Running

One of my favorite instrumental recordings, the first track of an Allison Brown CD, is called, "The Sound of Summer Running," a title taken from or at least shared by a Ray Bradbury short story. What struck me when I heard it first was how that melody sounded just like what the title implied.

As a teacher working on a nine-month contrast, I enjoy the luxury afforded few other professions, the chance to live my life on a permanent schoolchild's schedule, a year that begins not in January but in August. I know better than to take those three months for granted either. Although I may not be teaching during that time, I am renewing, refreshing, and preparing for the classes that will greet me each fall when I return. Fortunately for me, as an English teacher much of that preparation includes reading, one of the things I like to do best. By mid-July then I begin to hear what the poet called "time's winged chariot" right over my shoulder--or at least the sound of summer running.

I easily read twice as many books in the summer months as I read in the other months of the year, but I don't begin to check off all the ones I intended. I start with my "to read" list, but I encounter other readers or reviews and the list changes. Or I finish one book and the one I intended to read next doesn't feel right. I am a tedious list maker, though, so I record each book I finish on my wall calendar in the laundry room, transferring the list to a book in January.

Over the last week, I've realized that my reading list doesn't necessarily look like what I expected. I did finish the audiobook The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (read by Timothy Dalton, with whom I fell in love in the ninth grade when he played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights). The second in my swan reading phase (see previous post), this one was an interesting tale set in Ireland, something of a murder mystery.

Meanwhile, though, I've also read a book passed along by my youngest sister and recommended by her daughter, a rising sixth grader, Irene Latham's Leaving Gee's Bend, a story set in Alabama of a young sharecropper's daughter who takes risk to try to bring a doctor to help her mother. The girl loves quilting, and the story was inspired by the Gee's Bend quilts that hand in the Whitney Museum. Although I'm not sure when or where, I believe I have seen some of the quilts. I started reading the book about 2 a.m. this past week, during a phase of sleeplessness, and I read it straight through.

I've also picked up Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: This Is Your Brain Online. Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" appeared no long ago in the Atlantic Monthly, and this book follows the brain study he began there. This was another recommendation by NCTE president Carol Jago, and it motivated me to take a week off from Facebook. Carr shows that internet has not just changed what we know, but how we know it--and indeed how we think and act.

I have long realized that my tendency to multitask may be as much a vice as a virtue. Carr is reinforcing the idea and explaining how and why. I'm actually pleased that I am as engrossed in the book as I am, not usually a big reader of nonfiction, but I find that especially with the computer turned off and in a different room from the television, I want to keep reading. One most interesting part for me has been his discussion of how print text had such a tremendous impact on human beings. This is a book I want to pass along, but perhaps to a different set from those to whom I sometimes recommend titles.

I'm also listening to Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I have another of his books, Blue Like Jazz, which I haven't actually read, though it was highly recommended by one reader I trust--my daughter. This book, nonfiction, his usual genre, looks at his life--everyone's life--as a story being written. The book has implications for how to live or how to write. The book would be shelved in the Christian reading section, but it's subtle with no attempt to proselytize.

The other nonfiction book I've finished this month, which I mentioned earlier, was Mary McDonagh Murphy's Scout, Atticus, and Boo, her reflection on To Kill a Mockingbird as it reaches its fiftieth anniversary, along with those of many different people she interviewed--Mary Badley, who played Scout in the movie, Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokaw, James McBride, Rosanne Cash, Wally Lamb, Rick Bragg, and many others.

To say I have a minor obsession with the book is hardly an overstatement. I am ready to read it again, this time as a "family book club." I've been reading Scout, Atticus and Boo by Mary McDonagh Murphy. She not only writes about her own response to the book but also interviews a variety of people--authors Wally Lamb and Anna Quindlen, singer Rosanne Cash, journalist Tom Brokaw, and even Mary Baddley, who played Scout in the film. She said she wondered whether the many different people she interviewed would have something new to say. They did. Most discuss why Nelle Harper Lee never wrote another boo and mention with which character they most identify. The issue of racism in the book is also almost always discussed. Other than that, everyone has a different take, a different memory of reading the book, a different attachment to the novel.

Tonight I'll meet with my book club to discuss Anna Quindlen's Every Last One, a book that affected me so that I can't wait to talk about it but which I am reluctant to discuss in depth here because I don't want to be a spoiler. As always, we'll decide what to read together next. Almost always, we come away deciding to read something I hadn't anticipated. That's what happens to my summer reading list too. Meanwhile, over my shoulder I hear it--the sound of summer running.