Friday, December 16, 2011

Can't Help Loving the Canon

For all my posting, I realize that not only do I not write much about what I read to teach, but I don't usually even jot the titles down on my calendar where I list all my reading. Today, though, as we wrapped up a semester of British Literature I (Beowulf to Swift), I was struck by just how much I've enjoyed all the reading. As a pleasant surprise, a number of students stayed after to make similar comments about King Lear and Paradise Lost.

Certainly little of what I've assigned in the class all semester has been easy reading. The physicality of the textbook doesn't help much either. The book--paperback at that--is about the size of a large brick, almost cube-shaped, which doesn't lend itself to stacking atop a pile of books. The pages are as thin as a Bible's, and the print warrants reading glasses, even for the young. I've discovered that since the works are far beyond copyright limits, if they ever were covered, I can usually download them on my electronic reader for nothing. Now that I've mastered note making and bookmarking on the device, I've managed to make the most of the reading experience. Interestingly, I often find that when I go to transfer my notes to my instructor's copy before class, I've often made the same notes as before.

(Let me add this note: Even though I've read almost everything I teach before (often many, many times), I feel an odd moral obligation to read it again "in real time," not only so I'll be fresh for class, but so that I can realize the time constraints of my students' reading.)

When I teach these classic works of literature, I'm usually reminded of exactly why they've lasted--not simply because they are old, dusty, museum worthy artifacts, but because they really are timeless. Beowulf is exciting, Paradise Lost, grand; "A Modest Proposal" does what all good satire means to do: makes us laugh (or groan) then makes us think. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight merits reading aloud--with gusto.

What made me particularly happy today was seeing that after enduring a full semester under the reading load, quite a few still seemed to share my love of this required reading.

I think I'll come back next semester.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Other Scarlet

By coincidence, I've had two Scarlet-related posts within a month, totally unconnected. My most recent book I finished, this one a book club choice, was Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone. On the cover, the book is describe as a parody of Margaret Mitchell's iconic Gone with the Wind. I wonder, though, if that appeared before or after the court case in which Mitchell's estate accused Randall of plagiarism. (More research will follow. See you later, Google.)

While a charge of plagiarism is a bit over the top, the parody label misses the book's tone altogether. The story is told through the journals of a woman named Cynara, daughter of Scarlet O'Hara's Mammy (she of the swishing red petticoats), ***SPOILER ALERT***half sister to Scarlet (who is simply called Other throughout the book) and mistress to R---- (obviously Rhett Butler).

Rather than focusing on the pre-Civil War South or slavery in particular, this novel takes readers into the world of race and racism just at the end of the war. Amid all the changes the winds are blowing in, Randall has readers thinking more seriously about racial labels, particularly the "one-drop rule" and about ownership of oneself. She prompts readers to think the idea of responsbility to a person--even with good intentions--who pays for one's freedom.

I've long been fascinated with significance of names, of owning our names, of respecting or disrespecting others by knowing, acknowledging or remembering their names. The last sure sign that Cynara is her own woman comes through her ownership (and careful protection of) her real name.

I enjoyed her secondary characters--those borrowed and those she invented, "Miss Mealy Mouth, for instance, her thinly disguised Melanie Wilkes. Her glimpse of "Ashley Darling" also takes an interesting but not unexpected twist.

More than the authorized sequel Rhett's People by Donald McCaig, this novel made me want to revisit the original novel (not the much revisited movie) to recollect the whole story as I first knew it. How could the Mitchell estate object?


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wondering About Rereading

Flipping through the New York Times Sunday "Book Review" this afternoon--an exercise in procrastination, I'll admit--I came across a piece by David Bowman, "Read It Again, Sam." He is discussing the rereading habits, particularly of famous authors. Coincidentally, I'd had a conversation after class with a couple of students. One said she never reread a book because she knew that meant that she might be reading something new at the time; her friend admitted that she had some favorite to which she returned again and again.

I understand both camps. I fall into both from time to time. As an English teacher, of course I read some works again and again as I teach them. I've never felt I was fair to rely on my memory from a year or more ago when I asked my students to come to class fresh from reading a text. My own reading at their scheduled pace also helps me understand the reading load I've assigned. As a result, I've read Macbeth and many other Shakespearean plans more times than I can count. To that, add To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, The Once and Future King, Cold Mountain, and even Paradise Lost--well, you get the point.

This self-discipline also leads me to change up my syllabus regularly to keep from tiring of books, short stories, plays, and poetry I love.

Today, though, I'm thinking that I may have missed some wonderful books that others find such pleasure that they return again and again. So rather than giving my own rereading list, I want to solicit lists of YOUR favorites. Since books are my favorite gift to buy this time of year (easy to wrap, too), this might be a good time to shake up my own list. I'll follow up in a week or so.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Just in Time for Christmas Shopping: The Book List

I post all kinds of book lists here throughout the year, but almost every November I attend the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, where I not only come home with new ideas and resources for teaching, but I also accumulate a book list that would keep me busy reading all year long. Naturally, I want to share. On the list below, the first books are those shared at my favorite session "Readers Among Us," a regular offering at every conference in which participants share what we've been reading (for pleasure, not for teaching). We are asked to write down titles we mention and turn them in . In a week of so, the compilation arrives. I've included this list, along with other titles I heard from other conversations, formal and informal. In some cases, I've added a few notes as well.

Without further ado, here's the list:

Readers Among Us – Session K-11

Chicago 2011

The point of this session is to discuss we are reading as teachers who read. Many of us were drawn to our profession because we liked to read. At the conference we are so concerned with what everyone else is reading or with what we have to read that we neglect what drew us here in the first place. Here we have what our readers are reading. Feel free to distribute our list to everyone.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison – I keep going back to tis novel because it forces me to reconsider what happens when an individual, a family, a community internalizes pain and hatred from within and without

The Dune Series – Frank Herbert – I appreciate that this sci fi goes beyond science and provokes the reader to think about politics, economics, ecology, religion, and so much more

Little Bee – Chris Cleave

The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver –

Circle Mirror Transformation – Annie Baker

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Out of Oz – Gregory McGuire – Last book in the Wicked Series

The Sword of Truth Series – Terry Goodkind

A Parchment of Leaves – Silas House

On Writing – Stephen King

War and Peace – The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation – Leo Tolstoy

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma – Jack Lynch

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (sequel yet?)

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky – Heidi Durrow

First They Killed My Father – Loung Ung

Lucky Child – Loung Ung

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead (last year’s Newbery; you’ll finish and

want to read it again immediately)

Russian Winter: A Novel (P.S.) – Daphne Kalotay (ballerina who donates

jewelry…surprise ending)

State of Wonder – Anne Patchett

Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann

Bossy Pants – Tina Fey (hilarious book; ugly cover)

Stiff – Mary Roach

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet – Jamie Ford

The Glass Palace – Amitov Ghosh

Loving Frank – Nancy Horan

The Lemon Tree – Sandy Tolan

The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates – Wes Moore

The State of Wonder – Ann Patchett – A researcher in Southe America does not respond to the drug company that is funding her research. Two doctors go in search. Great book club book.

The Eyre Affair – Jasper fforde

Readicide – Kelly Gallagher

That Used To Be Us – Thomas L. Friedman

The Little Prince – Saint Exupery

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee – Needs to be read regularly

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Given Day – Dennis Leary

Columbine – David Cullen

Mary Ann in Autumn – Armistead Maupin

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson

The Master – Colm Toibin

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein – Julie Salamon

Just Kids – Patti Smith

Must You Go – Antonia Fraser

Kosher Chinese – Michael Levy

The Sorcerer’s Apprenticeships: A Season in the Kitchen of El Bulli

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

We the Animals – Julie Otsuka

A Long Hard Look – Napolitano

Blood, Bones and Butter – Gabrielle Hamilton

The Women - T.C. Boyle

Slam – Nick Hornby

Juliet Naked – Nick Hornby

Great House – Nicole Krauss

Fall of Giants – Ken Follett

When She Woke – Hilary Jordan

Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

Dreams of Joy - Lisa See – Sequel to Shanghai Girls

The Invisible Bridge – Julie Orringer – WWII, Jews in Hungary – Family saga

Major Pettigrews Last Stand – Helen Simonsen – Comedy of manners-funny in a Jane Austin way-but set in modern England, with protagonists in their 60s

Three Men in a Boat – Jerome Jerome – Farcical travel/adventure – Oscar Wilde meets Monty Python – On the Thames – Written over 100 years ago and still funny and relevant

I Think I Love You – Allison Pearson – Woman revisits her teen obsession with David Cassidy

The Winter Sea – Susanna Kearsley – Scotland, The Old Pretender, present/past switching

Okay for Now – Gary Schmidt – Young boy 1967, tough family life, brother has retunred from Vietnam, kid is trying to draw Audobon plates (as a metaphor for his life)

The Return of Captain John Gonnett – Elizabeth Speller – WWI, British mystery, desertion, suicide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

States of Wonder – Ann Patchett – Perfect book club book (medical ethics-fertility drug) like Heart of Darkness with female main characters

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin – Erik Larson – Berlin-WWII, American Ambassador to Germany (like reading a newsreel)

Fall of Giants set in WWI, beginning in a Welsh mining town -
Girl Who Fell From the Sky – Durrow – Bi-racial child, remarkable story

* * * * * *

Other books from my notes that didn’t make it onto the cards, thereby missing the list:

Marcello and the Real World, Francisco Stark (best book on Asberger’s)

The Feed, M. T. Anderson (social networking—great on audio!)

The Sense of an Ending (Booker) reminiscent of Flaubert’s Parrot, tiny and


Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh (two perspectives on the

opium trades wars; third book expected)

IQ84, Harukami Marakami—long book, love story

Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer—nonfiction, memory championship

From Carol Jago’s list (anticipated annually):

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (new translation by Lydia David, “the

original desperate housewife)

The Good Soldiers, David Finkel (nonfiction)

Lost and Found, Shaun Tan

The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Adam Sisman

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (was a Chicago Big Read)

Burger’s Daughter, Nadine Gordimer

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Game of Thrones (series), George R. R. Martin

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

Other titles that were shared at a Roundtable:

The Grief of Others, Leah Hager Cohen

The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimble

Battle of Jericho, Sharon Draper (1st or 3 books re: bullying rituals)

Unbroken, Laura Hildebrand (author of Seabiscuit)

While I Was Gone, Sue Miller

Sorta Like a Rock Star, Matthew Quick
Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the

Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's Gulag, Karl Tobein

The Hangman’s Daughter, Oliver Potzsch and Lee Chadeayne

Living Dead Girl, Elizabeth Scott

There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz

Scratch Beginnings (Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, Adam


Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh

Berlin: City of Stones, Jason Lutes (Book one)


Sunday, November 27, 2011


In her new novel, Hillary Jordan has managed to channel Nathanael Hawthorne, along with George Orwell or Margaret Atwood, as she sets her tale in the not-too-distant future, when Hannah Payne, a girl raised in a fundamentalist Christian family in Texas wakes up in a cell after having been chromed, the punishment for an abortion. Instead of wearing Hester Prynne's embroidered A on her bosom, she has had her skin turned bright red through an injection process known as "melachroming." After her release, she becomes a pariah, rejected by former friends and family. Of course, her minister, now in a key government position, comes to her defense--but not quite in the way he should.

In the story, Hannah is forced to question everything she believes, everything she's been taught. While some of Jordan's take on God and religion, censorship, sexuality, right and wrong, government is controversial, she doesn't draw any lines, leaving the book as a good catalyst for further discussion about what we believe and why.

While the allusions to The Scarlet Letter are unmistakable and certainly not coincidental, Jordan doesn't let Hawthorne's tale hijack her own. Instead, she ties in enough connections to make a perfect pairing. The story also serves as a cautionary tale about political and philosophical extremism. Looking under the futuristic surface, though, this is a love story, a coming of age story, a family story.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An Embarrassment of Riches

If my life leans toward excess in any area, it's books. If there is some tapeworm analogy that would apply, feel free to supply it. I just never feel as if I have enough. I could probably stop right now, never buy another, and still be able to read new material for years. But I won't.

I'm self-disclosing here for a reason: Once again I attended the fall convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held this year in Chicago. As a teacher of English, I have been blessed to be able to go to this conference quite often during my career, starting as a first-year teacher. The timing is perfect--close enough to the end of the semester that I need a boost, fresh material, contact with comrades serving in the same trenches. Every year, I get to see some friends that I know only through NCTE, teachers and writers from all over the world.

I will confess, though, that one lovely benefit of attendance is found in the mammoth exhibit hall (this time, actually three halls) where booksellers and other literary and educational vendors not only display and sell their wares, but often provide generous giveaways and deep discounts. The title of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust provides the perfect diagnosis. Other teachers, administrators, media specialists are doing just what I am--loading up! I ended up shipping home a couple of boxes before I left, then met three young preservice teachers on the plane who had opted to ship home their clothes and travel with their new books. Why didn't I think of that?

Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for the packages, along with the booklist I always get via email a few days after the conference, a list of dozens of book recommendations from one of my favorite sessions "Readers Among Us." Before my Christmas shopping is in full swing, I'll have more stacks, more lists, more notes beckoning me more strongly than that bag of research papers I'll be wagging home for the Thanksgiving holidays.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Isn't It Ironic?

I missed Franzen's first novel Corrections, the one that caused such a brouhaha when he declined to have Oprah's seal of approval on his book cover. At least, I haven't read it yet. I feel sure it's sitting somewhere on my bookshelf. I may have started the first few pages then abandoned it for the time. This new novel Freedom is just as weighty a volume, and it kept me interested throughout, but I just didn't like the characters very much. Since the point-of-view moves between third person perspectives with focus on the wife Patty Berglund in her autobiography (written in a distancing third person) to accounts of her husband Walter, his college roommate and on-again-off-again best friend rocker Richard Katz, and their son Joey, who moves in with the neighbors during high school, sharing a room with their teenage daughter Connie.

The novel is unquestionably political, but I find that all political views are skewered and satirized. Walter dirties his hands with political money to build a bird preserve in order to promote his pet cause, population explosion. Their son makes and forfeits a fortune, while still in college, obtaining shoddy parts for war vehicles. Patty teeters on the brink of sanity at times, making damaging decisions then opening herself up for attack.

Even as I found myself disliking the characters, I couldn't look away. I suspect they and their story will stick with me longer than other narratives that I found less abrasive. I may find myself skimming the shelves, looking for Corrections aftera ll.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The first mention I recall of Charles Frazier dates back years ago, when author Donald Secreast appeared at the Writers Symposium at Caldwell Community College and mentioned that his friend had a novel coming about about the Civil War--"and it's going to be big." I bought a copy of that novel Cold Mountain the week it was released and read it on a trip to China, discovering while there the poems of Han Shan, about another Cold Mountain. Evidently Frazier too had discovered these ancient poems, using one as an epigraph to his first novel.

For me the novel passed an all-important test. I used it in APP Lit class (1. without getting tired of it and (2. finding that it appealed to girls and boys. The book provided so many ways into discussions of style, of foreshadowing, of symbolism. But it was a good story. The movie had it's high points, but as one friend pointed out, "I don't need to see the movie. I've already seen it in my head."

I also enjoyed Thirteen Moons, since I have family interest in the Cherokee and what happened before, during, and after the "Trail of Tears." When Frazier appeared to promote the book as part of the Novello Festival in Charlotte, he also had a Cherokee "wise woman" who had translated the Removal section of that novel into Cherokee--phonetically and in the Cherokee syllabary.

This third book Nightwoods moves forward into the twentieth century, but still takes place in the mountains of Western North Carolina, with a road trip to and from Florida. Again, Frazier introduces engaging characters readers love or love to hate. The protagonist of the story, Luce, lives alone at a lodge, once the vacation site of wealthy mountain vacationers, but long empty, until she ends up with custory of her murdered sisters twins. Lacking the maternal instincts, she finds herself nonetheless determined to break through the walls Frank and Dolores have thrown up.

Frazier brings in Stubblefield, who inherits land and the lodge, upon his grandfather's death. He arrives with memories of a younger Luce from their youth. As he forges his place in his former home, he finds himself entangled in the life at the Lodge.

The novel's antagonist Bud Johnson ends up in the area, seeking the kids after he is acquitted of killing their mother, his late wife. His interest is not in their well-being but in what they may have taken with them and what they might betray--should they choose to speak. He plays as coldhearted a villain as any of the Home Guard in Cold Mountain.

The setting of the novel, mostly across the lake and beyond the small town, moves with the story from late fall to winter, eventually burrowing deep into the mountains, with trees still marking ancient trails to deep darkness. A recurring theme, hinted in the epigraph, is the necessity of being paid, but also of paying: nothing comes without a cost. The motifs of blood --redemptive and punitive--and of fire--giving light and warmth, wreaking destruction--surface throughout the novel as well.

The only bump in the narrative for me came when Frazier juxtaposes two scenes out of time sequences, tricking readers into thinking Bud has found the children in hiding, then tossing him into a campsite of deer hunters, leaving me to try to unravel the significance of the earlier scene.
I suspect that I may want to read the novel again, this time to see how the pieces fit together.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Meanwhile, I'm still reading...

I realized this week that I have at least two or three books I finished that I still haven't mentioned here yet, mainly because about this time every year, real life catches up with me. The essays to be graded sit stacked beside me, filling me with guilt until motivation kicks in and I reach for the proverbial red pen. But I've been reading.

I finished Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. I got such a kick out of his The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time, yet I hadn't gotten to this book (although it sat there on my shelf with several other neglected volumes.) Without giving away too much, this book had a scene as shocking or unnerving as the one more graphic scene in The Professor and the Madman. If you read it, you know to what I refer.

The novel opens with the protagonist George Hall discovering what he fear is cancer (although all indications point to eczema). He goes through the course of the novel dealing with his wife's infidelity, his son's alternate lifestyle, and his daughter's forthcoming marriage to a man he considers wrong for her. It has the making of such a dark novel--but I laughed so much through it. Sometimes, I'll admit, I groaned simulataneously, but so much of the novel is funny--in the way that British novels amuse--wry, quirky.

The tension builds until the wedding--a fiasco on so many levels. And anyone who has been closely involved with weddings--or gala on that level--knows the potential for disaster.

Since my book selection process has absolutely no pattern to it at all, I can't possibly predict accurately where my reading will take me for the rest of the year. But stay tuned: I'm near the end of Charles Frazier's Nightwoods, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and Isabel Allende's Ines of my Soul--all at the same time Maybe I'll even get those papers graded.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Follett--Doing What He Does Best

I first encountered Ken Follett's fiction when I read The Key to Rebecca, which I picked up in part because of the reference to my favorite Daphne DuMaurier novel. While I was familiar with his suspense novels, I kept having friends tell me I needed to read his historical novel Pillars of the Earth. My brother-in-law credits the book with his decision to pursue a building career. The sprawling tale follows a master builder who dreams of building a great cathedral--which he does--and follows a variety of characters from all social levels during the time period leading up to and including the death of Thomas Becket. He waited more than twenty years before following up with World Without End, set in that same cathedral city during the time of the plague.

Now Follett has embarked on what is to become (I hear) a series set in the twentieth century. The first, Fall of Giants, begins in a Welsh mining town, first introducing Billy Williams (Billy Twice) on his thirteenth birthday, his first day in the mines, then Earl Fitzherbert, who owns the mine, and his family. As in his earlier historical fiction, Follett introduces strong women characters--Billy's sister Ethel, a maid in the earl's home, and the earl's sister, Lady Maude, a strong-minded suffragette.

Other threads of the story follow a young German diplomat, who attended college with Fitz, an American working for President Wilson, and a pair of Russian brothers. Follett manages to show the conflicts that led to World War I through a variety of perspectives, and he continues those different viewpoints through the course of the war and the complications as the major world power dealt with the Armistice.

I've always known more about World War II than the first "war to end all wars," but after reading this book, I was able to see the attitudes after the way, particularly in Germany, that would eventually give rise to Nazi power.

Although he deals only slightly with the death of the Czar's family, I learned so much about the revolution leading up to and following the end of that reign. He also suggests that many of the aristocratic families feared social revolution in Great Britain as well.

Since Follett creates characters that draw my interest and empathy, as well as a number of others who were despicable or at least flagrantly self-absorbed, I can't wait for him to finish the next book.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Can't Help Lovin' a Book List

In one of my literature classes recently, as I was introducing the Arthurian legend, I mentioned T. H. White's The Once and Future King, writing it on the board and telling my students, "This is on my top-five list of favorite books ever. After a brief silence, one student piped up, Mrs. Posey, that's at least the eighth book you've mentioned so far this semester that's on your top five list.

They got me! Even if writers stopped writing, I'd never be able to complete even a top 100 list that would remain as the top favorites.

One of my favorite class assignments (there I go waxing hyperbolic again) asked the students to compose their own top ten book list and then share them. The variety of approaches was wonderful. One girl in the class with a long-term boyfriend, also quite a reader, compiled a list of good books for couples to read together. One young man asked if he had to limit the list to ten and came up with a favorite book from each year of school, starting with kindergarten.

In the newest edition of With Rigor for All, a professional publication by NCTE's past president Carol Jago, one of the most prolific readers I know, she has provided a number of good lists in the back--"10 Short Classics for Readers Short on Time," "10 Books for Girls Certain They Will Never Meet Prince Charming," even "10 Most Commonly Stolen Books from My Classroom Library." While I had ready many on her lists (some at her specific recommendation), I realize that now she's made my "to-read" list even longer.

If I were to try to list the books that I love most, those I wish I could get everyone to read, may of them are considered classics. Instead of giving myself a limit, I thought I might just see where the list takes me. Maybe others who read the blog will share your lists too.

Here goes...

T. H. White, The Once and Future King (I already told you. I know.)
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Richard Adams, Watership Down
Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Yann Martel, The Life of Pi
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Pearl Buck, The Good Earth
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
John Knowles, A Separate Peace
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
John Irving, The Cider House Rules
Leon Uris, Trinity
Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth
Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca

This list is just off the top of my head. An hour from now, I'll think of something I can't believe I omitted. I didn't even begin to mention books from my earlier period of reading (Charlotte's Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Little Women, and such).

Listing is one of those exercising in remembering--and sharing. Top five? Top ten? I can't see how!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Cup of Friendship

This week as bombs have blasted the U. S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, I was finishing Deborah Rodriguez's novel A Cup of Friendship. I haven't yet read her first book, The Kabul Beauty School, a memoir which, I learned, came under some criticism and claims of exaggeration. I'll leave that kind of controversy to Oprah. This book introduced me to some aspects of life in Afghanistan, not only for the locals, but for expats and for Americans and Brits working there.

Sunny, the protagonist of the novel, who has come to the country with a boyfriend who spends much of his time away on furtive missions, runs an American-style coffee house. This setting is a perfect backdrop for a variety of employees and patrons whose lives intertwine. They all have back stories: most sympathetic is Yazmina, recently widowed and pregnant, who manages to escape from drug lords to take her as payment for debts her uncle owes.

An older uneducated widow and her son also work for Sunny, and they are at odds over the old and new ways. She hides a secret romance with a tailor she loved before her marriage, a man who has been writing her letters for years, letters she can't read and has to hide from her son, now the man in the family, in control of her life. A female journalist from Britain and a recently divorced wife of a diplomat from Beacon Hill by way of Missouri grow into an unusual friendship and partnership with Sunny as they see egregious injustices toward women.

Throughout the novel, bombs go off, affecting the characters directly or indirectly, and I'm reminded of the lesson I learned when I read Reading Lolita in Teheran: The citizens are victims of politics and religious extremism. Though lighter reading than A Thousand Splendid Suns, this novel touched on similar issues, particularly related to human rights of women and to some of the destruction wrought by the Taliban in the country.

Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." As travel becomes at times more dangerous, vicarious travel through the pages of a books--novel or memoir--can perhaps provide the kind of fatalities the world needs right now.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Dreams of Joy

Every once in a while, I read a book that I enjoy so much that I want to go ahead and blog about it before I finish. This time, I did make myself wait, but just barely. I discovered Lisa See's novels through my book club awhile ago. We always seem to enjoy historical fiction, getting some of our travel in vicariously as well. We started with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, progressing on through Peony in Love and Shanghai Girls.

I didn't pick up Dreams of Joy right away, and I'm not sure why, except that I just had such a large stack of OTHER books to read. I had obviously missed the information that it is a sequel to Shanghai Girls, this time following daughter Joy, as she gets caught into the idealism of the Maoist Revolution while in college. When she feels responsible for the death of the man she always knew as her father, she takes off for China to find her "real dad" and to take part in what she believes will be the excitement of change.

In the novel, See moves back and forth between that of Joy and her mother Pearl, who returns to China to find her. The story of what happens when idealism runs head on into reality leads to some real horrors. I knew very little about China during this particular period, so the book just whetted my appetite to learn more.

Looking back over the four books, I realize that while what I like about her writing style remains consistent--the details that put me right there, the characters who become so real--no two books are alike. This particular sequel could certainly stand on its own, but read along with Shanghai Girls, the reader gets to know four generations of a family of strong, survivor females.

Since I visited China in 1997 with my friend Debbie and her family when they adopted their daughter Allie, I am particularly interested in that country.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reading Jackie

Celebrity biographies aren't usually my first choice, but William Kuhn took a different approach to the former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis that caught my attention. In Reading Jackie, instead of focusing on the aspects of her life that have been most public, especially her White House years, including the assassination in 1963, he proposes to show a different look at her through her reading life, and especially her surprising midlife career as an editor.

The pictures that emerges is a woman full of contradictions. She experienced a life of privilege, yet often felt she didn't quite belong. As a girl, she loved to curl up with a book, a habit that continued through her life. Kuhn reports that as she approached her death, friends read to her from her favorite books (while her Kennedy sister-in-law perched in the corner, providing unnecessary commentary on visitors.)

When she began her career at Viking, no doubt many suspected she was hired for her connections--certainly useful in the publishing business. Throughout her career, though, she not only showed the work ethic that marked her successes, but she was often described sitting on the floor of her small, nondescript office, working on a layout, or running down the hall in stocking feet, working on a deadline.

Her colleague helped to protect her privacy. She was famously uncomfortable with photographers, for example, and sometimes canceled appearances at book parties when she learned too many would be in attendance. Her move to Doubleday came as a result of a decision to publish a Kennedy-related book despite her opposition.

At other times, though, she was able to overlook elements of books that might have been expected to make her squeamish. In her friend Diana Vrelland's book Allure, Onassis was able to look past sections including Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas, despite these women's rather public connections to her late husbands.

Kuhn showed how Jackie promoted what she most loved--dancing, eighteenth century European life, collections and relics of royals--French, Russian, and Indian. Her travels often opened up her interests. She also championed causes important to her, adding books to her list related to Civil Rights--particularly opposition to George Wallace--before his political about face.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was also shown as the "closet feminist" she has been called. She was reported to have advised that women avoid marriage and keep their money separate, something she clearly did with the last love of her life, Maurice Tempelsman. In her friendships and in the books she chose to edit, she often seemed acutely aware of women who had made marriages with powerful men who sought to overshadow or even belittle them.

I was surprised by some of the titles on her list, particularly The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell's book in association with the television series with Bill Moyers. As the woman who created the association of Camelot with her husband's administration, she has lived a life of myth. Through the lens of her books, readers will learn that she is a many-layered woman who grew far beyond her most public, tragic role.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Light Reading, Heavy Issues

With my summer at its official end and school starting back up, I'm determined not to cut back too much on my pleasure reading. Sure, I'm already reading along with my students the literature assignments--Beowulf, "Story of an Hour," "Rose for Emily," and more--but my own
reading with no agenda, no lecture notes, no test keeps me sane. The last couple of books I've picked up have not been purely literary, but they both dealt with some serious issues.

Anyone familiar with Jodi Picoult knows that her formula is to take some big issue and add several more, then end with an unexpected twist. Sing Me Home takes on in vitro fertilization, gay marriage, alcoholism, and the Christian right. The book certainly gives book clubs plenty of opportunity for discussion, but somehow, the twists and turns didn't ring true, and some of the stereotypes gave me pause.

Joshilyn Jackson is an old Alabama girl. In fact, the first of her books I read was Gods in Alabama. This newest book Backseat Saints was a slow start when I first began reading, but for some reason, I picked it back up and enjoyed it so much more. Even though most of the story takes place in Texas or California, not Alabama, the main character's Dixie tone was pitch perfect. Even though Jackson's novels can deal with serious issues, she manages humor to balance. Roe Grandy (Rose May Lolly) the protagonist is an abused wife warned by a gypsy at the airport "It's him or you" and realizes she should kill her husband. In her first attempt, she shoots the leg off her dog Fat Gretel. No funny, of course, but certainly unexpected. Never having lived with abuse, I find it hard to imagine what causes people to stay in such a threatening situation, denying the truth, always going to the ER after "falling down the stairs." The difficulty of getting away is more evident--and the cost of leaving.

Jackson's literary references in the book caught my attention--books I have read and loved, familiar lines, beloved characters. This young woman's reading life perhaps gave her the imagination to reinvent herself, to become someone else in search of a new life.

I don't even have the heart to look back to see what I planned to read at the beginning of the summer. I never work my way down that list without veering off. I'm glad to know that any I missed are still waiting on my shelf, ready for me to curl up on the couch and escape temporarily into another world.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Caleb's Crossing

I've read four of Geraldine Brooks' novels --A Year of Wonder, People of the Book, March, and now Caleb's Crossing--and I can say that she doesn't just rework the same formula. She's taken me all over the world at all times from present times back through history. This book tells the story of a young girl Bethea, the daughter of a minister in the seventeenth century committed to educating and evangelizing the natives in the area. The title, I learned, by the end of the book, refers to many crossings, literal and figurative.

Brooks illustrates the range of attitudes toward religion, ethnic diversity, and especially women's roles in the time period. Caleb--an English name Bethea gives to the Indian boy who calls her "Storm Eyes" is the nephew of a wise man of his tribe and is destined to follow in the same path before converted to Christianity and educated by Bethea's father. The two first meet in the wild and become friends, learning each other's language, despite societal sanctions such a relationship.

The novel takes many tragic turns, not particularly unexpected in this time period--death in childbirth, shipwrecks, drowning, consumption. Bethea ends up serving an indenture at a school adjacent to the new Harvard College in order to pay for the education of her less-than-motivated or capable brother Makepeace. Despite her conditions, she seeks every opportunity to learn--Greek, Latin, Hebrew.

Although much of the attention in the book focuses on breaking down the walls of prejudice between the European settlers and the native Indians, I came away thinking of the effect on girls who are deprived of a full education. Ironically, here in the U. S., where education is readily available, it's easy to take it for granted (or to waste the opportunity). While the jury's still out on Greg Mortenson, he has certainly brought to the world's attention the importance of educating girls, which he says changes not just an individual but a family, a tribe, a community.

Note: I listened to the audio recording of the book, read by actress Jennifer Ehle. I found her enunciation of every article a a little off-putting. Maybe it's just my problem.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Revisiting Flannery

It's no secret that I'm a Flannery O'Connor fan. I gained my genuine appreciation several years ago when the literature anthology I used for AP English (Bedford Intro to Lit) included four or five of her stories. I'd read one or two before, but when I read--and taught--several together and had the advantage of some accompanying essays by and about her, I became a real fan.

One of my favorite culminating activities was to host a talk show (Think Sally Jesse Raphael or Maury Povich) during which my students came in character. I let them decide on themes related to the recurring ideas we saw in the book. They were easy to locate--Misfits, Bad Kids, Dysfunctional Families. Television producers today would find a gold mine in June Star or Joy/Hulga or Manley Pointer.

Ann Napolitano's new novel A Good Hard Look is set in Milledgeville, Georgia, O'Connor's home town in the sixties, the years leading up to her death from lupus, the disease that also claimed her father at an early age. In this book, though, Flannery and her mother Regina are just two of the characters whose lives intersect, sometimes in the same violent way that her characters' did.

Cookie, a hometown girl, returns from New York to marry Melvin, a wealthy young man she met there and convinced to move to Georgia for her. Lona, the bored wife of a policeman aspiring to be chief, becomes too close to Joe, the high school boy she takes on as an assistant as a favor to her mother, who looks after Lona's daughter Gigi during the day.

While Cookie is working in the local women's clubs to ban Flannery O'Connor's books, which she believes make the town look "just awful," her new husband is giving Flannery driving lessons and building a strong and unusual friendship, a secret he keeps from his wife.

Napolitano has done her homework, including details from O'Connor's life--her trip to Lourdes at her mother's insistence, her writing, and in particular her legendary peacocks, which play a prominent role throughout the story. The author keeps the research light--enough to sate O'Connor fans, to be convincing, without letting someone else's stories take the place of her own. Rather than throw up too many plot details, she instead shows the author's anxiety, her need to get it right, knowing that her writing is all she'll leave behind.

Napolitano's writing is good, her eye for detail, for mind-searing images. She also handles the subject of religion, faith, and grace, important themes in O'Connor's works, with credibility and sensitivity. Readers may find an urge not only to read more by and about Flannery O'Connor, but also to take a look at Napolitano's earlier writing as well.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Eli the Good

Every semester, the English department is faced with the challenge of selecting a book to be used in all our developmental reading and writing classes, and in any other courses at the teachers' discretion. Sometimes the choice is influenced by our plans for our Writers Symposium. We've hosted Ron Rash when we taught Serena and Clyde Edgerton in connection with The Bible Salesman. Last spring, we really stepped out on a limb and invited poets from North Carolina--Cathy Smith Bower, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Scott Owens, Tim Peeler, Ted Pope, and Joseph Bathanti.

This fall, since we are introducing a new course, Vietnam History, a class that will follow the same interdisciplinary plan we use in our Holocaust class. Literature about the Vietnam war is plentiful. In one of my favorite courses in grad school, War Literature, I read many of them--Dispatches, The Short-Timers, and The Things They Carried, among others. This year, we took a different direction, selecting Silas House's novel Eli the Good.

With a ten-year-old protagonist, the book is sometimes labeled Young Adult Fiction. (I can't help wondering how To Kill a Mockingbird or Diary of a Young Girl would have been shelved today.) Set in 1976, the novel examines a family whose father is beginning to experience flashbacks (before PTSD was acknowledged as real). Meanwhile, his estranged sister, newly diagnosed with cancer, comes home. During her brother's overseas duty, she participated in war protests and was captured in an iconic photo that has made its way into history textbooks.

House weaves in stories of generational conflicts and the effects of parental actions on children. He allows the gray area to remain. The book provides no easy answers about the war; consequently, I expect it to produce some ripe discussions in our classes. Since our students' ages range from teens to sixty and over, the varied perspectives should produce some powerful conversations and good opportunities for related research.