Friday, January 29, 2010

Catcher in the Rye

I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school--not as an assigned reading, but just one of many I read for pleasure. I didn't know then that it was controversial. I do remember choosing to write a lit paper in college on Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Every subsequent reading of the novel--and yes, it is one of the few books I choose to re-read every once in a while--was in response to someone else's reading. Right out of college, I worked with a friend who either had to read the novel in college or picked it up himself, but he wanted me to read it again so he could talk about it.

Three or four years ago, I had a group of AP English students who actually asked for outside reading assignments. The books were optional and usually chosen arbitrarily by my colleague and me, and our discussions were held before or after school, sometimes on campus and other times at local coffee shops. Our first selection was Catcher in the Rye, and once again, it had stood the test of time.

Over the years, I have picked up all the quirky references--the guy who shot John Lennon and the one who shot Reagan, too, I believe, had copies on them--or at least made allusions. The obsessive Mel Gibson character in one of his movies called a copy around with him. I also knew, having read the book Shoeless Joe before it was made into the movie Field of Dreams, that James Earl Jones' character in the movie was J. D. Salinger in the movie.

I'll also admit that, having read Joyce Maynard before I ever knew her unusual relationship to Salinger when she was still quite young (and half his age), I did pick up her memoirs on tape awhile back--only to find that the last tape was in German instead of English. I met her after that at one of the NCTE conferences, and I found her quite warm and charming. We did not, however, discuss her days with ol' J.D.

I have to admit that while I wish he'd gone on to write more, I respect his right not to be a public figure--even to fight to keep his privacy. One doesn't have to look beyond page 2 of the newspaper to see what happens when one becomes a celebrity. I do hope he has a masterpiece or two squirreled away that his family will feel compelled to share with the world. Who knows-- maybe Harper Lee will get some ideas too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Let's Talk About It--or Maybe Not

For as long as I can remember, reading has been an intensely social activity for me. Even when I read alone in my room, I am engaging in conversations in my head with the characters and even the authors, but for me it doesn't stop there. I must talk books. When I read a book, I want to talk about the book with someone else who has shared that experience. Mind you, I don't want a book review: I loved that book! or I hated that book! I can decide those things myself, and I don't particularly want consensus.

I like to talk about what happened, what passages sang, what shocked me. I want to talk about the surprises. I need to talk about the endings. Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with many reading friends who are willing, even eager, to do just that. In some ways, our friendships are strengthened by that common activity.

The local library regularly offers a program called "Let's Talk About It." Every other week, a group meets to discuss a particular work centered around a common theme. The sessions are generally led from academic professionals, usually from colleges nearby. The one starting in February in Hickory has a Southern literature theme, beginning with Robert Morgan's Gap Creek and including Dori Sanders' Clover and one of Kaye Gibbons' novels. Even though I have read at least three of the five books, I'll read again, just to be fresh for the discussions.

This week, I stumbled across a recent article from the New York Times entitled, "The Book Club with Just One Member," which reminded me that everyone doesn't share this need of mine. For some readers, evidently, the experience is so intensely personal and private that discussion feels like an intrusion. I can respect the attitude, even though I don't fully understand it. I suppose it helps that I am confident enough with my own personal reading preferences that I don't feel defensive when someone else judges a book differently. I can listen to a dissenting opinion without having to counter it. (Well, not always.)

The only response to literature that really irks me is the one that sounds like this: I hate reading. It's such a waste of time. I don't know why I have to read this stupid book (story, poem, play). Of course, as an English instructor, I hear these irksome comments all too frequently; fortunately, I see them as a challenge, not a deterrent. "What didn't you like?" I might ask. "Let's talk about it."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Partly Truth and Partly Fiction

On the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Ning, I participate in the online conversation of one of the groups about books we are reading. Over the weekend, one of the participants noted that he tended to enjoy books that blended fiction and history and asked for other suggestions. By coincidence, I was just finishing The Jungle Law by Victoria Vinton, an account of Rudyard Kipling set during years he spent with his wife Carolina as a relative newlywed in Vermont after he had already achieved fame.

The parallel story line followed Joe, a young neighbor boy whose mother did the Kiplings' laundry and was called in to Carrie's birthing bedside but was never acknowledged otherwise by the young wife. Joe, however, was the first audience and sounding board for Mowgli's story, which became The Jungle Book.

Back at the NCTE conference in November, where the theme was "Once and Future Classics" President Carol Jago shared her recommendations for the year, as she always does. At this session, playing off the conference theme, she listed Kipling's The Jungle Book, paired with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which bore references to the classic. Having read and loved Gaiman's novel, and now finishing Vinton's, I realize that I have never read The Jungle Book. As Carol reminded us, if you've only seen the Disney movie, you don't really know The Jungle Book.

Now that it has moved into place on my "must read" list, I think I'm going to have to research Kipling too. I want to know how much of Vinton's story was factual and how much was creative invention. No matter what I discover, I must admit that I too love the mix.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Downside to eBooks

I have been an unapologetic owner of the Sony eReader for two years now, often having to defend the technology against my beloved low tech reader, the book. This Christmas, I saw more and more of my reading friends becoming proud owners of Kindles, Nooks, and the like. Most are enthusiastic.

I just figured out the downside, though. Short of lending my reader, I can't share my books. I've always participated in that highest form of theft--book borrowing and lending. I dare say I could match the books on my shelves that belong to others against those of mine that have likewise wandered off. It's a bittersweet loss. I most love to share with a friend a book that I've loved, then to have it return--along with the opportunity to talk about it.

Now I find that when I recommend a book, someone will no doubt ask to borrow it when I'm finished, and I have to admit I only have the electronic copy. The phenomenon is not limited to reading, of course. Now that we all have such quick and easy access to iTunes, no one borrows CDs anymore. I can only imagine what will happen when the technology advances and my reader (and iPod) are obsolete. Will I have a gap in my shelves--books and music? As a woman who still listens to her record albums and revisits favorite old books, I certainly hope not.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Making a Book Club Work

One of the joys of reading, as far as I'm concerned, is talking about books, and I know I'm not alone. Making a book club work, though, takes a lot of hard work. My own group has continually transformed itself over the last several years. In fact, only three of us remain from the original group. I am always curious to know how others' groups operate and how they survive and even thrive.

In December, the Charlotte Observer reprinted an article by Robyn Blumner from the Chicago Tribune. (I mention this latter detail because more and more of the book news in that paper--all the news, in fact-- comes from somewhere else. I have a nightmare that eventually, all the news in America will be in one small paper.) This piece, entitled "The Best New Year's Resolution," not only suggested forming a book club, but offered some suggestions for success. Some of her tips included having a set date each month, rather than trying to fit everyone's schedule. It won't happen. Our group had actually decided to make that move on our own back in December. She also suggested making each member responsible for choosing one book, instead of trying for a consensus. That gives everyone some say, a stake in the process, and it keeps someone from manipulating the choices.

I would love to know any special tips from other book clubbers and reading groups about how you organize and how you plan for discussions. It should be a no-brainer to talk about the book, but the death knell for many groups is that actual book discussion is superficial at best. (Wine could be a contributing factor.) I'd also like to hear what books have produced the most lively discussions. Is there anything quirky your group does that others might not have thought about? I'll report back after my informal research.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Needing a Snow Day

The snow before Christmas was lovely but didn't come at the most convenient time for me. I needed that day or so to knock out some Christmas shopping (once I was finally out of school for the semester) before heading to Chapel Hill for Ben's graduation. I don't think I ever caught up on the days lost.

What I really like is a good snow that socks us in, forcing me to stay in the house for awhile with nothing to do but read. Some of my best winter memories are times we were all in the house--with electricity, bread, milk, and toilet paper--and lots of time on our hands. At this point, the new semester hasn't overwhelmed me--yet--but I have so many things I want to read that I hardly know where to turn.

On recommendations from many different directions, I picked up Mantel's Wolf Hall, set during the reign of Henry VIII, and I can't wait to finish it--and I dread its ending. It 's that perfect combination of fiction, history, and politics, but it is very character driven, particularly the protagonist Thomas Cromwell.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to read Helen Thorpe's Just Like Us, following four Latina teenagers in Denver, in time to talk about it at my book club meeting.

In the car, I'm listening to Jungle Law by Victoria Vinton. The book has been on my shelf without catching my notice for awhile, but I was surprised to discover it is the story of Rudyard Kipling, living in Vermont as a young married man while creating the story of Mowgli that will become Jungle Book. A parallel story line follows Joe Connolly, a teenaged neighbor whose mother does the Kiplings' laundry and whose Irish immigrant father so scorns the peculiar new neighbors.

In between, I am trying to catch up on the January magazines that came in before Christmas. All my life, I watched my mother stack them up when they arrived, saving them for the cold days after the holidays. Now I have issues of Oxford American (the music issue!), Our State, Garden and Gun, Southern Living, Smithsonian, and more for whenever I have just a few minutes.

Among my new acquisitions, I have Gin Phillips' The Well and a Mine (a Christmas gift from a reading friend who knows me well), Fatemeh Keshavarz's Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran. I also picked up a copy of Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile and other plays.

I also have several poetry chapbooks, some by North Carolina poets, I eagerly anticipate reading this month by Helen Losse's Better with Friends, Debra Kaufman's Moon Mirror Whiskey Wind,
Glenda Beall's, Now Might as Well Be Then, and Bruce Niedt's Breathing Out.

No wonder this week, as I discussed my harried schedule this semester--teaching five classes, taking an art class and mandolin lessons too--one of my colleagues asked, "You don't ever just sit and watch television, do you?" No, Matthew., I don't. Now if only it would snow.


Friday, January 1, 2010

Reading List for 2009

Along with blackeyed peas, turnip greens and "Auld Lang Syne," my New Year's traditions include accounting for my reading in the prior year. For years now, I've kept the titles and authors on my wall calendar, transferring them at year's end. Here-- without annotation--is my list of books from 2009:

1. Clyde Edgerton, The Bible Salesman
2. Shannon Hall, Austenland
Sue Monck Kidd, The Mermaid's Chair
4. Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen
5. Joe Queenan, Balsamic Dreams...
6. Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us
7. Nicole Krauss, History of Love
Rachel Keener, The Killing Tree
9. Jumpa Lahiri Unaccustomed Earth
10. C.S. Richardson, The End of the Alphabet
11. Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
12. Aravind Adiga, White Tiger
13. Toni Morrison, A Mercy
14. Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck
15. Lisa Genova, Still Alice
16. Jane Smiley, Good Faith
17. Kathryn Stockett, The Help
18. Peter Mayle, Hotel Pastis
19. Erik Larsen, Devil in the White City
20. James Meek, The People's Act of Love
21. John Elder Robinson, Look Me in the Eye
22. Ishmael Baeh, Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
23. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
24. Robert Goolrick, The Reliable Wife
25. John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
26. Virginia Euwer Wolf, Make Lemonade
27. Victor Wooten, The Music Lesson
28. Jane Smiley, Horse Heaven
29. Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book
Lisa See, Shanghai Girls
31. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
32. Carol Shields, Jane Austen
33. Neil Gaimann, The Graveyard Book
34. Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love
35. Julia Baxbaum, The Opposite of Love
36. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel's Game
37. Elizabeth Berg, Home Safe
38. Kent Haruf, Plainsong
39. E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
40. Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains
41. Pat Conroy, South of Broad
42. Diane Hammond, Going to Bend
43. Elmore Leonard, Road Dogs
44. Audrey Niffennegger, Her Fearful Symmetry
Elizabeth Strout, Abide with Me
46. Erica Eisdorfer, The Wet Nurse's Tale
47. Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
48. Ron Rash, Burning Bright (short story collection)
Clyde Edgerton, Floatplane Notebooks
50. Julia Alvarez, Before We Were Free
51. Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic
52. Celia Rivenbark, Belle Weather
Alex Witchel, The Spare Wife
Kate DiCamillo, The Magician's Elephant
55. Ron Rash, The World Made Straight
56. Jeannette Wells, Half Broke Horses
57. Gregory Maguire, Matchless: A Christmas Story
58. Lin Enger, Undiscovered Country
59. Steig Larrson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
60. Elizabeth Brundidge, Someone Else's Daughter