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.