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.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Lamentation of Swans

Perhaps it's a strange coincidence that I ended up reading two books at once with swans in the title--The Silver Swan and The Swan Thieves. In an act of diversion, I looked up the official name for a group of swans and found no consensus. They are called a "wedge" when flying in formation (but I've never seen such), but on ground or in water, I see the options as "gaggle," "bevy," or--my favorite--a "lamentation" of swans.

My favorite swan story was passed along in a folklore class taught by Dr. Bill Foster at the University of North Alabama years ago. Around the time some of us were driving to Montgomery to attend a performance of one of the comedies at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival at the gorgeous theater complex financed by Winton Blount. Not only is the theater itself quite beautiful, but the grounds are ideal. There are bronze statues of children running and--if I recall correctly--of Puck playing a pipe. Sheep graze in grassy fields. When planning the site, someone decided they needed to order two pair of swans, one black and one white, from Stratford-upon-Avon. What could be more authentic? After flying the swans almost halfway around the world, though, they learned that the Stratford folks ordered their swans from a little farm about thirty miles from Montgomery, Alabama.

Now, I am not about to check with Snopes for the authenticity of the story. It's just too good. It has absolutely nothing, though, to do with either of the books under discussion.

This past weekend, I finished reading The Swan Thieves, a second novel by Elizabeth Kostova, whose first novel The Historian--a tale involving Vlad the Impaler--garnered lots of acclaim even before vampires were so cool. The premise of this latest novel appealed to me. It opens with an artist being arrested and eventually institutionalized for treatment after he was caught trying to attack a painting of Leda and the Swan in the National Gallery in D.C. The doctor who treats him is also an amateur painter (or frustrated artist); he provides art supplies for his patient, but while he endlessly paints (the same dark, curly-haired woman), he refuses to talk.

Since I tend to love novels with an art angle, I expected to love this book. It did have an engaging story, but while I am usually the more agreeable participant in the "willing suspension of disbelief," I couldn't go all the way with this book. For example, the patient speaks the first day, long enough to give his doctor permission to "talk to anyone--even Mary" then goes silent. Convenient, eh? But he also turns over a packet of letters in French written in the late nineteenth century, which the doctor sends to a friend for translation. The letters (and little narratives about the people between whom the letters are written) are interspersed throughout the novel, but Marlow, the protagonist never responds to them, until they conveniently tie everything together in the end.

The haste to resolution and denouement in the end were also a little too tidy for me, and when I went back to re- read the prologue, I also felt the author had depended far too much on coincidence.

Am I glad I read the book? Sure, but I don't know how readily I'll recommend it to anyone who asks for the titles of the best books I've read lately. Meanwhile, as I'm listening to The Silver Swan on audio, I'll hope it will be less disappointing, so I won't suffer a true "lamentation of swans."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Happy Anniversary to Atticus and the Kids!

This week is traditionally vacation week around this part of North Carolina. Lots of plants close for the week of the Fourth of July, so everyone seems to head to the beach. This year, though, my grandchildren are here for a few days and then we are heading to Alabama for reunions with several generations of both sides of the family and with friends from the late sixties and early seventies.

If I didn't have a week planned out for me, I would have wanted to head to Monroeville, Alabama, for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of what I (and many others) consider one of the best books ever written, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. From what I know of her reputation, Lee (Nelle, not Harper, to those who really know her) would prefer to let the date pass without hoopla, but I've been pleased to read articles in Smithsonian magazine, Garden and Gun, Southern Living and more acknowledging the importance of the novel on this anniversary.

For those of us who can't get enough, Mary McDonagh Murphy has published Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, including material from interviews with other authors and public figures about the impact of the novel on their lives. While most of us would love to be able to lay claim to discovering just such a masterpiece, to be the first in our circle to have read it, there is a much stronger urge to share the experience.

In a book I'm reading now, Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves, one of the narrators mentions loving the work of Monet, even when it has become so commonplace, the images on wall calendars and thank you notes. Maybe visual masterpieces run that risk, but great literature never does, in my opinion. Atticus's advice about walking in someone else's shoes is timelessly true. Scout and Jem and even Boo and Dill will always remain real to me, even when I know the rest of the reading world feels much the same.

I'd love to go to Monroeville. It would be a pilgrimage for me. Several years ago, I struck up a friendship through correspondence with a local teacher there who shared images from the 1930s of the town that became the model for Maycomb. Honestly, though, the town is planted in my consciousness as firmly as Andy Griffith's Mayberry. I've been there many times, and I always love to make that journey back.