Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Balance

Since I keep one book on the nightstand and another in my car CD player, I rarely finish both at once. Last week, though, I finished The Well and the Mine at the same time I reached the end of The Anansi Boys. I felt almost lost--and extremely frustrated--as I faced that best of all questions: What next?

Right now (as always) I have an overwhelming "must read" stack. Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna is calling, and I just read that it was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award. I have several good possibilities from my Lemuria First Editions Book Club. For my next book club meeting, I have The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Sweeping up Glass waiting.

On a whim, I started a nonfiction work, The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick. This book follows all the parties involved in the huge hoax involving a fake Vermeer and the ruthless art collecting of Goering and Hitler. I've been a Vermeer fan for years (although I'd never be so arrogant as to expect to be able to buy one--or forge one.) Even the footnotes of the book are fascinating (although I had to figure out how to move from the text to the footnotes and back on my Sony Reader.

In the car, I am listening to Falling Man by Don DeLillo, set in New York City in the days following 9/11. This couldn't be less like the Dolnick book. I've only read one of DeLillo's novels before--Underworld--although I've been meaning to read White Noise for years. The main characters are Keith, a man who escaped the burning towers, his estranged wife Lianne, at whose door he showed up, injured and covered in soot, their son, and her mother.

I find myself drawn to stories surrounding that horrible September day and the people affected by it. Joyce Maynard wrote a young adult novel The Usual Rules. (I gave my signed copy to a high school student who had borrowed it and while reading it found her family was moving back to Mexico. She came by my classroom to return the book and tell me goodbye. I just couldn't take it.) I also loved Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Near, about a young boy whose father was in the towers when they fell and whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors. It was a quirky, fascinating novel I couldn't wait to pass along.

I'll admit that I sometimes fantasize about a job like the one of Robert Redford's character in Three Days of the Condor--reading books for a living. I wouldn't even mind having to read closely for subversive government plots. Just let me read.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book Club History

Tonight at my book club meeting, we were talking about all the different books we've read together. Of course, the membership has shifted since we began, so one of our newer members wanted to know what we had read, so she wouldn't recommend one of those. I dug out my reading record and found my notes from our first meeting in June of 2002. This is the list from that first selection until now:
Josephine Humphreys, Nowhere Else on Earth
Lee Smith, Me and the Baby View the Eclipse
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
Anna Quindlen, Blessings
Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Michael Cunningham, The Hours
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Madeline L’Engle, Circle of Quiet
Frances Mays, Swan
Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed in America
Susan Jacobs, After All These Years
Matthew Pearl, The Dante Club
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife
Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, Rule of Four
Julia Glass, The Three Junes
Carl Hiassen, Skinny Dip
Isabel Allende, Daughter of Fortune
Khalad Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Donna Woolfolk Cross, Pope Joan
Cassandra King, Same Sweet Girls
Joshilyn Jackson, Gods in Alabama
Steve Perry, The Romanov Prophecy
Robert Hicks, Widow of the South
Orhan Pamuk, Snow
Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale
Kim Edwards, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Khalad Hosseini, One Thousand Splendid Suns
Nancy Pickard, The Virgin of Small Plains
Ron Rash, One Foot in Eden
Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Lisa See, Peony in Love
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
Ann Patchett, Run
Leon Uris, The Haj
Donald McCaig, Rhett Butler’s People
Lauren Goff, The Monsters of Templeton
Sarah Addison Allen, Garden Spells
Jodi Piccoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Kris Holloway, Monique and the Mango Rains
* * *
Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea
Jodi Piccoult, Nineteen Minutes
Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us
Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Robert Goolrick, The Reliable Wife
Lisa See, Shanghai Girls
Pat Conroy, South of Broad
Jeannette Wells, Half Broke Horses
Helen Thorpe. Just Like Us
Gin Phillips, The Well and the Mine

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In an Alabama State of Mind

Although I've been living in North Carolina since 1995, I guess I'll always be an Alabama girl at heart, so when my friend Claudia gave me a copy of Gin Phillips' novel The Well and the Mine for Christmas, I was interested to see that it is set in Carbon Hill, Alabama, not far from my hometown and even closer to my sister Amy's home. Claudia had heard the book mentioned on NPR, I believe, and thought it sounded good, even though her only Alabama connection is I.

When our book club met in January, everyone else agreed to choose the book for our February discussion. I mentioned the title in an early post and learned that not only have several of my friends from "back home" read the book and met the author, but one of my good friends from college plays Canasta with Phillips' parents. It's a small world indeed.

The book started off with a bang--or more precisely, with a splash--as the younger daughter in the family who narrator the book together sees the shadow of a woman throwing a baby into the family well. Much of the tale follows different members of the family, especially the daughters and their father, trying to solve the mystery in order to give the baby a name.

Even more interesting to me was the life of this family of a coal-mining farmer in the toughest of times and the dignity with which they lived their lives. I couldn't help drawing contrasts to Jeannette Wells' childhood in Glass Castle. I still haven't forgiven Rosemary Wells for hiding under the covers eating a candy bar when her children were hungry. The mother in this novel fed her husband breakfast, telling him she would eat later with the children; then she'd lead the children to believe she'd eaten with their father. They rarely had meat with meals, but the pleasure they took in what they were served was genuine.

Phillips also tackles touchy issues of racism with sensitivity, particular as Albert, the father, becomes increasingly aware of the intelligence and humanity of the black man with whom he works side and by side and begins to desire a friendship, despite the obvious problems this would cause for both men and their families.

The author effectively balances the points of view of all five members of the family, even giving a glimpse of their later years. Because of my own geographical proximity to the story, there were shades of details I recognized and appreciated that might slip right by some readers (especially subtle details about religion). She has achieved a story, though, that will appeal to readers who've never crossed the Alabama state line, much less the Walker County line, creating characters readers will care about. Overall, the book rings true.

Postscript: If you need a soundtrack for the book, try Shelby Lynne's "Alabama State of Mind" or Kate Campbell's "Crazy in Alabama."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Driveway Stories

Somewhere on NPR I came across some podcasts called "driveway stories," a perfectly clear description as far as I am concerned. Since I am as much an avid listeners as an avid reader, I covet car time when I have an excellent book on CD. When I don't have something good on audio, I actually get a little twitchy.

Since an average book is around 8 or 9 CDs, I don't exactly fly through them either. I don't cheat and listen in the house, and when I carpool, I don't inflict them on my passengers. I do, however, catch myself sometimes sitting in the garage once I arrive at home (or in the parking lot at work), listening until I get to a good stopping place. I listened to much of the Harry Potter series in the garage, and I even cheated and listened to the last two or three chapters in the house.

Today, though, I arrived home to a power outage with just a track or two left on one of the most entertaining audiobooks I've heard in a long time, Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. I hadn't read anything of his until The Graveyard Book; then I came across this set on sale at Tuesday Morning. The characters, especially Fat Charlie Nancy, are wonderful. The writing is clever and suspenseful, with a quirky mix of fantasy. The reader (whose name I'll check and report later) is one of the best I've heard so far. I catch myself laughing out loud as I drive and--as strange as it must look to cars around me--I even clap sometimes. It's the kind of book that makes me eager to share with a friend so I can talk about it.

The book blends folktale (Anansi tales, the predecessors to Uncle Remus stories), literary allusions, murder, white collar crime, cliches and word play. The bad guy (who has the same last name as my own maiden name) gets his comeuppance, and the goofy romances even promise to turn out right. I'm either going to have to go break my usual rules and play during carpooling tomorrow, or I'm going to have to go outside in the garage right now and finish.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wolf Hall

Sometimes I move quickly through a book; at other times, I take my time. I might argue that I've taken longer with this last book because I'm adjusting to a new semester with less time to read for pleasure. I know, though, from the first few pages that I was going to love Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Some of my favorite books have been historical fiction--that blend that lets me learn a little history while indulging in memorable characters and, in the best of cases, artful language.

Wolf Hall follows Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII, particularly during his courtship of Anne Boleyn and his unsuccessful suit to Rome for annulment from Catherine. My only complaint as I read, though, is occasional pronoun reference ambiguity. With so many male characters, the author's shift to he in reference to Thomas, instead of whomever was last mentioned, caught me off guard.

The novel reminds me, in a way, of Pillars of the Earth, but without the viewpoint of the working classes, at least once Thomas escapes his childhood home. Toward the end, though, as Thomas refects over his life, I was reminded of King Arthur at the end of White's Once and Future King. His recollections of his life were just as bittersweet. The trial and execution of Thomas More had such a complicated impact on Cromwell, a reminder that in life even more than in literature, few characters are completely good or completely bad.

The title of the novel is a teaser, since Wolf Hall is the home of young Jane Seymour, who makes occasional appearances in the narrative, but catches Cromwell's attention more than Henry's. I'm hoping that's an indication that another book is in the works. In fact, only two wives into Henry's dynasty, there's plenty of story potential to follow.

One bit of advice: If you read the eBook version, rather than the print text, you might want to bookmark the family trees at the beginning of the book--or print them off. When I read the book again--and I feel certain I will--I want to keep all the character straight--because in a work of historical fiction, there can be lots of Thomases, lots of Marys, lots of Janes.