Monday, December 31, 2012

Done: The Books I Read in 2012

With the new year close enough that I'm already hearing fireworks across Lake Hickory, it's safe to assume my reading for the year is complete.  Although I know I omitted some of the books of poetry I read this year and some of my school reading, this is as complete a list as I can.  Some I have written about here; some I still will (especially the last few).  I'd love to hear feedback to know what others read this year and recommend.

1.      Murakami, Haruki. 1Q84
2.      Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary (trans. Lydia Davis)
3.      House, Silas. Clay’s Quilt
4.      Dugard, Jaycee. A Stolen Life
5.      Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me
6.      King, Stephen. November 22, 1963
7.      Pearson, Alison. I Think I Love You
8.      Anderson, M. T. Feed
9.      Foer, Joshua. Moonwalking with Einstein
10.  Woodring, Susan. Goliath
11.  Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken
12.  Handler, Daniel. Why We Broke Up
13.  Wiggins, Marianne. Shadowcatcher
14.  Stein, Garth. The Art of Racing in the Rain
15.  Kinsella, Sophie. I’ve Got Your Number
16.  Blake, Sarah, The Postmistress
17.   Mayhew, Anna Jean. The Dry Grass of August
18.  Phillips, Gin. Come in and Cover Me.
19.  Green, Amy. Bloodroot
20.  Auslander, Shalom. Hope: A Tragedy
21.  Morganstern, Erin. The Night Circus
22.  Towles, Amor. Rules of Civility
23.  Hiassen, Carl. Nature Girl.
24.  2Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead
25.  Maynard, Joyce. The Good Daughters
26.  Bradley, Alan. A Red Herring Without Mustard
27.  Rash, Ron. The Cove
28.  Wilson, Tamra. Dining with Robert Redford.
29.  Max Lucado, Traveling Light
30.  Larsen, Erik. In the Garden of the Beasts.
31.  Owens, Scott. For One Who Knows How to Own Land
32.  Carty, Jessie. Amateur Marriage.
33.  Bradley, Alan. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag.
34.  Pittman-Schultz, Kimberley. Mosslight
35.  Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns
36.  Mantel, Hillary. Bring up the Bodies
37.  Carl Hiassen, A Really Bad Lie
38.  Dilloway, Margaret. How to Be an American Housewife
39.  Ray, Jeannie. Calling Invisible Women
40.  Barnhill, Anne Clinard. What You Long For
41.  Pearson, Allison. I Don’t Know How She Does It
42.  Diffenbaugh, Vanessa. The Language of Flowers
43.  Tyler, Anne. Beginner’s Goodbye
44.  Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl.
45.  Tinti, Hannah. The Good Thief
46.  Albrecht, Malaika King. What the Trapeze Artist Trusts
47.  Grewal, Sandeep, M.D., Dementia Express
48.  Grisham, John. Calico Joe
49.  Bradley, Alan. I Am Half Sick of Shadows
50.  Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable Creatures.
51.  Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany
52.  Jordan, Hillary. Mudbound
53.  Cash, Wiley. A Land More Kind than Home
54.  Zafon, Carlos Ruiz. The Prisoner of Heaven
55.  Simpson, Bland. Two Captains from Carolina
56.  Nabakov, Vladimir. Lolita
57.  Platt, David. Radical Together
58.  Semple, Maria. Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
59.  Rowling, J. K. A Casual Vacancy
60.  Goolrick, Robert. Heading Out to Wonderful
61.  Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go
62.  Russell, Karen. Swamplandia.
63.  Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas
64.  Dweck, Carol. Mindset
65.  Myers, Walter Dean. Monster
66.  Johnson, Adam. The Orphan Master’s Son


Friday, December 28, 2012

Making My List...

In a few days, I'll be compiling the list of all the books I read during 2012, first copying them over into the little "Book Woman" notebook someone gave me years ago, then posting my list here. I read awhile back that Art Garfunkel has kept a record of the books he's read since his teenage years. How I wish I had done the same.  But I didn't.

I have a system now, writing the title of every book I finish on the wall calendar that hangs in my laundry room.  Each year my son John tries to pick the most outrageous, hilarious calendar possible, and the laundry room is a safe enough place to hang it, out of everyone else's sight perhaps, but right where I can see it and record my day-to-day business. The book list, though, is most valuable to me.

For now, though, I am thinking ahead to the list of books I hope to get around to reading this coming year.  I have tried this kind of list before, and I rarely read half because other books make an appearance, and I'm lured away.

A few of the books on my to-read list come from friends.  One, nearly family, gave me a book her fifteen-year-old daughter bought for me because it's her favorite book, Walter Dean Myer's Monster.  I also plan to read The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisson and Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx, both on loan from a friend at work.  I also plan to read Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, set in a Mumbai slum.  I also plan to read Ken Follet's Winter of the World, the second in his Century Series.  After meeting the author at the North Carolina Writers Network fall conference, I also look forward to reading Binocular Vision, Edith Pearlman's short story collection, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I gave Anne Lamott's Help, Thanks, Wow! as a Christmas gift, but I plan to read it myself.  I also hope to read Zadie Smith's NW. I also think I want to read Louise Erdrich's Round House and Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior.  I'm also holding on to my newest collection of Lee Smith's short stories Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger I bought when she spoke at our conference of English instructors.

I tend to claim not to read much nonfiction, but my list shows otherwise.  I am interested in reading Far from the Tree  by Andrew Solomon, about the experiences of parenting a wide range of "exceptional children."  I also plan to read through The Happiness Project starting in January, with a little side project of my own.

I'm also drawn to The Art Forger, based simply on the title and a brief blurb, and I liked Still Alice enough that I might want to read Love Anthony by Lisa Genova. Based on recommendations, I may also need to read Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds and Junot Diaz' This Is How You Lose Her.

Since I don't live in a vacuum, in fact, since my world is peopled by readers, avid, voracious readers, I know that over the next few days, I'll be hearing what books others read during the holidays or received or gave as Christmas gifts, and there will go my best-laid plans.  Fortunately, I know that whatever else I'll be doing, I will be reading in 2013.


Occasionally, I'll have good intentions to read a novel based on recommendations from a wide range of friends or readers I trust. Swamplandia was one of those books. I started it, was interrupted, and I let it sit there on the night stand for weeks, months maybe.  Then I started over.  (Note:  It is almost always worth the trouble of starting from scratch when you have stopped reading a book. It seems like a waste of time, but it  grounds me again in the work.  Since I often re-read the first few pages when I finish a book, maybe this serves a similar purpose.)

Swamplandia is set in the swamps of Florida on an island housing a family-owned, nearly defunct alligator park--Swamplandia! (Yes, the exclamation park is part of the name and the book title.)  As the book opens, Ava Bigtree, the youngest daughter narrates after her mother, the great gator wrestler Hilola Bigtree, dies of cancer.  The  mother's death affects them all, as does the opening of the nearby World of Darkness, a hell-themed amusement park, less nostalgic than Swamplandia!  Ava feels compelled to train to take over her mother's role; her sister Osceola reads a book on spiritualism and falls in love with a ghost.  Brother Kiwi Bigtree runs away from home and takes a job at World of Darkness, hoping to save the family and the park from economic doom.

When Kiwi leaves, Russell begins alternating between a third person narrator of the segments involving him and the first person account of Ava, the not-quite-naive narrator.  When their father leaves the island for a long period, Ava ends up alone, her sister eloping with her ghost, Kiwi out of touch.  The arrival of The Big Man, a gypsy who rids the area of bird of prey, produces the real tension of the story as Ava innocently seeks someone to love and trust when left to survive on her own.

Russell's writing is often lyrical without drawing undue attention to itself.  She develops her setting so clearly I could feel the damp, could smell the swamp.  Despite the grand pretensions by their father, the self-proclaimed Chief, readers rarely lose sight of the real story--a family that falls apart after losing their mother.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Quality of Life--for Clones

I read Ishiguro's novel Remains of the  Day long ago, but I am still struck by the subtlety of the book, much of which Anthony Hopkins was able to convey wordlessly in the film version.  I recently read another of his  novels--one he published in 2006--Never Let Me Go, and I wonder whether, had I not known the books shared the same author, if I would have considered Ishiguro a likely candidate?

Though this novel might be classified science fiction, the characters were so fully human that I would not have suspected they were actually clones if I had not been told.  The world in which Cathy H. and her fellow "students" (the name preferred for clones by their "guardians") live is sometime in present day or recent England.  Kathy H., the narrator, is a "carer" in her thirties as she tells the story of her life, beginning with her years at Hailsham, an exclusive school for clones.  The life she describes could have been that of any teenagers raised in a boarding school.  Only gradually do readers realize the students are unusual in that they are clones, bred and raised eventually to become organ donors. 

Because this is the only life they have known and because they are given information about themselves often before they are mature enough to process it, they alternate between blind acceptance and curious scrutiny of their futures and their personal situations. 

Because the plot does not deal with the actual science behind their creation or their donation, it is mainly a character-driven tale, with a narrator who reveals more about herself that she seems to realize.  The relationship triangle involves Kathy H., her best friend Ruth, a controlling, manipulative queen bee, and Tommy, a boy first bullied because of his temper and lack of creativity who eventually becomes Ruth's boyfriend, even though readers recognize early on that he and Kathy H. are much better suited.

What strikes me most, looking back at the story, are the implications about quality of life.  Kathy and Tommy eventually track down two adults that played important roles in their life at Hailsham and learn that their time at Hailsham was part of an experiment, exposing students to meaningful lives of art, music and literature, before their inevitable deaths.  They learn that most of their clone peers in other situations are raised in squalor, more like farm animals or lab monkeys that esteemed individuals.

While some seem to imply the students were duped into creativity and lulled into complacency about their inevitable future, I wonder if the dominant lesson is that since everyone is filling time between birth and death, shouldn't the time be marked meaningfully?  Even after graduation, before they become "carers" for donors before becoming donors themselves, Kathy and her fellow residents are granted time to read and to write.  They have some access, though limited, to the outside world. They even choose to spend some of that time searching for or speculating about "possibles"--the source of their original DNA makeup--not unusual for any humans with  unanswered questions about our origins and our eventual destinations.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Where's Harry Potter?

I read the first Harry Potter long before it became such a phenomenon in the publishing world--Muggle or Wizard. Otherwise, I might never have started the series.  I often steer clear of books--or especially series--that seem trendy or faddish.  I'm glad, too, because I loved every one of the books.  I'll admit that I enjoyed all but the first two on audio, listening to the wonderfully talented Jim Dale creating all those different characters' voices.  More often than I like to admit, I sat in the carport waiting for a good stopping place.

When J. K. Rowlings' first "adult" book came out, I wanted to read it too, to see where she goes after Harry and Hogwarts.  I'm glad I read the book, and I think parts of it will stay in my head awhile, but I am so eager to talk to someone else who's read it too.

The book opens with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, suffering from an aneurysm as he and his wife were headed into the club for dinner on their anniversary.  As a member of a divided town council in the town of Pagford, his death leaves a "casual vacancy," requiring an election to fill his seat.  Rowling follows the lives in the town affected by Barry's death, most closely, the high school students one step removed, except for Crystal Weedon, a troubled teenage girl living the in controversial projects between Pagford and the larger neighboring town Yarvil.  Although she is first introduced as a brassy troublemaker at school, readers get to know her better in the home she shares with her mother, a recovering junkie, and the little brother Crystal protects and cares for.

Rowling takes readers inside the homes of the Walls, the principal and guidance counselor at the high school, and their adopted son Fats, bent on humiliating his father and living "an authentic life." His best friend Andrew Price, an acne ravaged teen, living with an abusive father, has developed a crush on Gaia, the beautiful new girl in town.  Gaia has moved, unwillingly, to Pagford with her mother, a social worker who came to live near her boyfriend Gavin--Barry Fairbrother's best friend--who is much less attracted to her once she moves to town. The threads connecting these and dozens more characters weave a tight web.

All the lives are intertwined, and Rowling's omniscient point-of-view moves fluidly among all the characters. No one, though, seems happy, even content.  Every character in the book seems to live in fear or to be plotting escape of some kind.

I was left with several questions:

First, did the book have to be so dark?  Honestly, the happy moments and the good relationships were so few.  In the end, I saw some hopeful glimpses, indications that at least some of the parent-child relationships (for those who were still alive, at least) might begin to improve.

Second, who was the protagonist?  I suppose I could envision the book as a Greek tragedy, since it ends in the classic scene of pity and woe, but I don't know that I truly identified with any of the characters.  I didn't even like some of them. Most of them.

All I need now, is someone else who's read the books so I can have an informed discussion.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

50 Shades of Book Snobs

     When the Wall Street Journal Online ran an excerpt from Joe Queenan's new book One for the Books, the story of his life as a voracious reader, he insisted I read it. Not enough that he send me a link, he waited as I located the story and watched as I read, certain it would strike a nerve.  He knows how I am about books. I love books. If I could find some career that required or allowed me to read all the time, I'd jump at it. Queenan is just as passionate.  He is also just as opinionated about his books as I am.  In fact, I notice that most people who love books are also strongly opinionated.

    Reading is such an odd pastime, one that is best enjoyed in solitude, but one requiring some kind of outlet or sharing.  I remember a column by a former Charlotte Observer book editor lamenting that her husband read but didn't want to discuss books with her afterwards. He did not, she declared "give good book." I heard Queenan interviewed about his book on NPR, and he was spouting his opinions--book clubs, he announced, are crap. (Okay, maybe I'm paraphrasing here.) He went on to point out specific authors whose works he considered beneath him.  Yet he admitted that he read lots of horrible books, many sent to him by self-publishing (therefore unedited) authors.  "I read those quickly," he said. 

Okay, then, I wanted to ask, which is worse, wasting time reading books you know in advance are not likely to be worth your time or reading a little airplane or beach fare? 

In a similar vein, I read one of those Ask.... columns in the New York Times magazine section. The question asked: whether or not one can count audiobooks when listing books read. His answer: No.  Again, I beg to differ.

Certainly when I started my teaching career, I felt the written page was sacred. Then I encountered a student whose learning disability--reading--had profoundly affected his education.  I suggested he try to listen as he read (insisting on the unabridged edition).  Afterwards, I realized that his comprehension and retention was far higher than many of the less encumbered students who had read thoroughly but only the print text.  Since then, I have become addicted to audiobooks, spending  almost an hour a day just driving to and from work. 

Since I'm also always reading a book as well, I sometimes can't remember a year later whether I listened or actually read a book.  I think I've always been an auditory reader.  In education classes, I learned that "subvocalization"--hearing the words aloud in my head--slows reading.  Well, guess what? I hear every word on the page (in the specific voices, usually).  That's the poetic effect of good writing.  I probably don't do the same when reading more expository texts. (Thank goodness, I don't hear the voice of the Maytag repairman when I read instruction manuals or Roger in India at the manual printing factory).

I won't even go into the ridiculous notion that reading electronic books is somehow less authentic than turning actual pages. I've licked my finger to try to turn the virtual page too many times before I remembered I was reading electronically.  I'll take my story fix, my word fix, any way I can get it.  But if Mr. Queenan can be persnickety about his books choices, so can I. And that's fine, as long as we don't impose our limits on one another.  Why, I'll probably read his book soon--not just the excerpts.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading Lolita--in the Car

I felt like such a hypocrite. I'd read Reading Lolita in Tehran and I'd heard Azar Nafisi speak at NCTE. I'd read the other books--the ones by Austen, Fitzgerald, and James--mentioned in the work, but I had never actually read Lolita.  I had a general, fuzzy idea of  the novel's subject matter--creep pedophilia--but I honestly had no idea about specifics as Humbert Humbert and his stepdaughter Dolores travel across the U.S., presumably even through North Carolina. Who knew?

So when searching the library's audiobook shelves, my head atilt, I came across Nabokov's novel read by Jeremy Irons, a strong selling point, I checked it out.

I had no idea how clever, how darkly humorous the book would be. The voice of the narrator Nabokov creates is almost unintentionally self-revelatory.  Humbert Humbert is alternately self-loathing, apologetic, boastful, arrogant, analytical, spontaneous.  Lolita--Lo--Dolores is seen only through his eyes, but while she at first seems confident, even aggressive, Humbert unwittingly reveals a child, a victim plotting her own escape.

Because of the subject--the sexual abuse of a child--I would not recommend this novel to just anyone. In fact, there are some friends whom I would most decidedly tell, "Do not read this book." But after reading the novel--and yes, I do consider listening as reading--I completely understand why this clever, beautifully written, haunting book has earned its place in the literary canon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Statutory Reading

One of my facebook friends (one I actually know as a real person) posted a link to a blog essay decrying the way the joy of reading is destroyed in school in a kind of bait and switch move by educators who spend the first few years of school convincing students that "Reading Is Fun!" then assigning unappealing novels and dissecting them and over-testing. The author mentioned in particular, as I recall, two novels that often appear on high school required reading lists--The Scarlet Letter and Separate Peace, two novels I was also assigned to read in high school and two I have used in my classes as well.

On one hand, I believe there are so many wonderful novels from which to choose that it seems senseless not to pick the most appealing.  On the other hand, however, I know from personal experience that there will never be unanimous agreement on which books are appealing.  I know, too, that students--people in general--need to recognize the difference between reading for pleasure and reading to learn how to read critically, a life skill. Sometimes the only way to teach some reading skills --or at least the best way--is by using a common reading experience.

I remember author Ann Patchett speaking before the National Council of Teachers of English in support of teaching the classics--even instead of her own books. She said there are some books to which students should be exposed, even if you had to sit on their chests and cram them down there gagging throats.  (If I am paraphrasing here, I assure you I am close to her words.)  Former NC poet laureate Cathy Smith Bowers referred to teaching poetry in a similar manner as "Statutory Poetry," a term that made me smile.

In the opposite corner of this particular argument are those that say that when some of these classic novels are assigned to students too young or immature to appreciate them properly that we give them mistaken belief that they have actually read those works. With so many books are our disposal, even enthusiastic readers are sometimes reluctant to re-read a novel they loved, much less one they remember as boring or obscure.

I know some school systems prescribe the reading selections for students at different grade levels, but most teachers have at least some choice. I know those choices are often narrowed by book availability.  Gone is the day when students in most schools can be expected to buy their own books.  Teachers, too, have few discretionary funds for buying classroom sets of novels. Some get creative, writing grants to local or national donors. ( I recall turning to the excellent Donors Choose site when I was still teaching in the high school.)  Some spend their own money for books.  I know I built a decent classroom library in high school by handing out the Scholastic Tab book orders. Even seniors in high school bought books, letting me earn enough points to choose a few titles.

I believe teachers who bring our own enthusiasm about a work to the classroom, tempered by realism, allowing students to make valid criticisms even of the canon, can have a positive effect on readers. I think students should also have choice whenever possible.  By informing that choice, sharing a little about reading options, rather than relying on hearsay or a pretty cover, we can also lead students to books with the greatest potential to offer that most ideal of reading experiences--total immersion in a good book.

I know my own love of reading didn't come from multiple choice testing.  I think peer pressure to read had an early influence. After all, I even flew through those predictable stories about Alice and Jerry (our knock off version of Dick and Jane) back in the first grade,eager to see what books were next.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Should Have Read It Sooner

I understand my students' reluctance sometimes to read assigned books--at least some of them, the ones like me who have plenty to read without having to feel obliged to read someone else's selections as well.  I confess now that I didn't finish reading The Scarlet Letter in the eleventh grade until after the test. (I'm sorry, Mrs. Williams).

Often, I get my best recommendations from my reading friends.  I've tried to quit taking the actual book though.  Borrowed books too often become my own property by common law (considering that old dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law). They also inspire guilt when I haven't read them yet (and the giver keeps asking) or dishonesty (when I feel obliged to claim I did.)

Often enough that I should have learned from it, I finally get around to a much recommended book and think, "What took me so long?" This was certainly the case with Watership Down, which was, I learned, so much more than "just a book about rabbits."  When the high praise comes from many quarters, I should pay even more attention. I know those readers who know me best.  I know whom I trust.

Why, then, am I just now reading A Prayer for Owen Meany?  I'm only half way through the book, and already, I am itching to talk about it with someone, anyone who's willing to discuss it.  The book defies description; Owen Meany defies description, and yet he is as real to me as any student sitting in my classes.  I've even seen the movie Simon Birch, based on the novel, and I still firmly believe that I cheated myself until I actually read it.

Interesting to me is that I know some of the main plot highlights (particularly the death of the narrator's mother, hit in the head--improbably--by a baseball hit by the strange and diminuative Owen.  That even not only isn't wrapped in suspense, but it is a recurring motif in the relationship between the two friends, Owen and Johnny--and everyone they know.

In many ways, the spiritual aspects of the book are most interesting, although they bear no likeness to any other book I have read that I considered a spiritual book.  I also find myself laughing out loud as I read more often than usual.  I want to stop and read certain passages to anyone who'll stop and listen. I may even harbor a secret urge to pick up Owen and pass him around the room, this boy who can play the Christ child and the Ghost of Christmases to come in the same holiday season.

Most importantly, I may have to revisit my shelves to see which books remain there on long-term loan from well-meaning friends, waiting for me to rediscover them--for the first time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Starting with a True Story

Several years ago, I read Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring in the same year, making me a Vermeer fan ever since.  Vreeland's novel was based on a fictional painting, not an actual (or existing) work by the Dutch painter, tracing the ownership from the present time back to the painter himself.  Chevalier built her story around an actual painting (housed now in a museum in the Hague).  I've since sought out works by Vermeer whenever I had the good fortune to visit a museum where one or more were exhibited.

As much as I love fiction--and if I had to choose between fiction and nonfiction, I'd choose the former and never look back--I also love a good story that weaves in history and fact.  The best book is one that sends me off exploring, wanting to know more.  I finished Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures this week, a story told in two voices.  One is a London woman who has moved to the seaside Lyme Regis with her two sisters, destined for spinsterhood, when their brother in London marries.  Elizabeth Philpot develops a fascination with the fossils of the region, particularly fossilized fish.  She meets a young local girl Mary Anning, from a poor family, known around the town for having survived being struck by lightning as an infant.  Mary has "the eye":  she collects fossils she finds easily, selling them to help support her family, something she learned from her cabinetmaker father. Despite their social differences, Mary and Elizabeth strike up a friendship based on their mutual interest and spend much time together walking along the beach hunting for specimens.

Mary's life--and eventually Elizabeth's--changes with the discovery of a large specimen they at first believe is a crocodile.  Instead, it turns out to be a large animal from the lizard family no longer in existence.  The find brings people from everywhere, either interested in studying--or procuring--Mary's find or digging up specimens themselves. 

The beast causes no small amount of controversy, particularly among those who feel its existence poses questions about matters previously unquestioned, particularly by the church.  The idea of extinction, for some, raises questions about the infallibility of the creator.

As contemporaries with Jane Austen (mentioned, but not appearing in the story), the women in the story face insurmountable limits.  Through she has more resources that Mary, Elizabeth has to slip around to go anywhere unchaperoned by a man.  Both of the women find their marriage prospects dim--Elizabeth because of her angular features, Mary because of her low social status. Their culture even pits the two against one another for much of the story after Mary finds the first "monster."

Now that I've finished the novel, I'm gratified to learn that Elizabeth Philpot did live in Lyme where she befriended Mary Anning, the fossil-finding prodigy, and many of the characters in the novel are based on real people as well.  Once again, finishing a book is just a start.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fun with Flavia de Luce: Judging a Book by Its Cover

Despite the old axiom, I have bought books before simply because of  an appealing cover.  Some of them sit on my shelf awhile before I actually read them.  I've also nearly passed over books because of a dull, unattractive cover.  I should know better.  I fell in love with books that had those old blue or green library bindings. They all looked alike.  They all smelled alike.

I picked up my first of Alan Bradley's Flavia deLuce novels because it was, frankly, pretty.  The title Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was cute too. Maybe too cute, I feared.  So it sat awhile. But when a friend whose reading tastes I trust said she was reading the books, I decided I'd give them a try.  Then I found the audiobooks at the library, and in no time, I was hooked.  The books are set shortly after WWII. The protagonist and narrator Flavia deLuce is an eleven-year-old girl,the youngest of three daughters who live in an English manor house that belonged to her mother, who was killed in Tibet on an adventure when Flavia was a baby.  The Colonel deLuce, Flavia's father, a philatelist, hasn't the income to cover the expenses of the house, which actually belonged to his late wife.

Flavia is a perfect narrator--she's clever enough to recognize (and cover for) her own naivete. Her oldest sister Ophelia, a young teen, is most fascinated with the mirror; the middle sister Daphne is a bookworm.  Flavia loves chemistry--especially poison.  She has taken over the lab that belonged to her late uncle Tarquin, and she uses her chemistry knowledge to try to solve murder cases in the vicinity, much to the chagrin of the police inspectors with whose work she often interferes.

In the fourth novel--the last so far--I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, her father is allowing a cinema company to use the home to film a movie in an attempt to remain solvent.  The movie stars one of the best known British actresses of the day, who agrees to put on a special Christmas Eve performance to help raise funds to re-roof the parish church. In short order, the group assembled in Buckshaw, the deLuce home, is dealing with a snow storm, a murder, the early appearance of a baby, and--of course--a murder.

As corny as it may sound, the books are just delightful.  Bradley weaves in chemistry, anatomy, and even Shakespeare.  Most intriguing, though, are the human dynamics.

I remember going to the library regularly when I was in junior high, always checking the shelves to see if they had anything new by Daphne du Maurier.  Face it, without Google, I had not easy way of knowing if she was alive or dead. (For the record: alive and still writing).  I suspect I'll be keeping an ear out for Bradley's next adventure with the young Miss de Luce.  I'm hooked.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

On Being a Book Snob

I realize that I often love a book that someone else just detests--or tears to pieces.  I read such a weird wide variety of literature that I couldn't even profile myself.  When those book buying sites try to suggest something based on what I've purchased before, I just have to laugh.  First of all, they don't even consider that I sometimes buy books as gifts. Sure, I bought two or three of those Miss Spider books--for my granddaughter--but that doesn't mean I'm into the genre. (Similarly, at the grocery store, the register keeps spitting out coupons for diapers and baby supplies just because one time I bought swim diapers; I also get lost of coupons for dog food and such, even though the dog died almost 18  months ago.)

One of the features I always read in the New York Times Book Review section is the interview with  famous people--usually an author, not a Kardashian--asking all kinds of reading questions: What's on your nightstand now?  Favorite book from childhood?  They are also always asked something such as, "What book do you wish you hadn't read?"  Some will take it in a safe direction--In Cold Blood, for example, because of it leaves terrifying images on the brain.  Almost no one, especially no author, will come right out and say that some popular bestseller  was a complete waste of time, ink, and paper.  That might produce bad karma or hard feelings.

This week, Nicholas Sparks was the first presenter in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series. I have always felt so fortunate to live in a small city that brings in the heavy-hitters that usually make up the list. We've had two U.S. Poet Laureates recently--W.S. Merwin, during his term, and Natasha Tretheway, before she was named to the post.  Both read in Belk Centrum, the smaller venue.  Just poetry, you know. hmmm.  They've had John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros; by even trying to name a few, I insult some of the wonderful writers I omit.  But I didn't go to see Sparks. 

I read The Notebook.  I have taught countless high school girls who read everything he publishes--and weep as they do so.  I had to stop at one.  Maybe my opinion was skewed by the information (second or third hand) that he researches what women want to read (i.e., books that make them weep unrestrainedly) and writes that. 

The feedback I've heard since his reading--most of it from college age and young adult females--his usual  pool of readers--was not flattering.  Writing? Getting published? Not that hard to do.  No problem.  If that were my experience, I would grovel and admit, "I am blessed and I am unworthy," and then I would admit, "This is not usually the case. Writing--especially good writing--is very hard work."

I understand (in a way, I guess) his being invited.  The board of my state professional organization actually had the closest thing English teachers have to a knock-down, drag-out fight over whether or not to extend our author's award to him and to have him appear at our conference (to boost attendance.)  In the end, we didn't.  I know his books will fill the library shelves--along with those other prolific bestsellers.  And to some degree, I am happy when some people will read anything.  I just wish they'd ask me for some better suggestions. My list would be a mile long.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Beginner's Goodbye

Several times recently, I've gotten into conversations about how long one must wait before giving up on a book. One rule of them is one hundred pages less one's age.  (If I make the century mark, I can even skip the preface.)  I've been reading long enough, though, to know that I am often rewarded for sticking with a book.  

Anne Tyler's novel The Beginner's Goodbye begins by letting the reader know that the protagonist's wife has returned from the dead, venturing through town with him in plain view.  I've read enough magical realism and fantasy to suspend my disbelief and read on.  (In fact, looking over my past month's reading, I find lots of supernatural elements--the ghosts of the native potter and her tribe in Gin Phillips' Come in and Cover Me, for example, and the life-sized dog visiting Winston Churchill in Mr. Chartwell, to name a couple).

In this novel, the narrator Aaron Woolcott comes across early on as less than likable.  He and his unmarried sister run their family's vanity press, which has its own line of how-to books, along the lines of the Dummies guides, perhaps just a little more superficial, hence the book's title.  Aaron is disabled, relying on a cane most of the time, and even in his own account comes across as socially awkward, manipulative, and grumpy.  

He married Dorothy Rosales, a radiation oncologist a few years older than he, whom he met as part of his "research" for one of their Beginners books.  Aaron doesn't seem to find any fault with their relationship until after her death (when a tree in the yard falls on the house, killing her).  As he carries on with his life, aware of and often annoyed by the solicitous treatment of others, he reexamines the marriage.  

After the accident, Aaron moves back into his childhood home where his sister Nandina lives, unwilling to enter his damaged home even to retrieve his clothing, wearing instead clothes far out of date from years before.  He contracts for repairs, using the business card of the only contractor he encounters, and doesn't even go to the house to discuss the progress or to make decisions, expecting the man to meet him at Nandina's house instead, leading to a romance for his sister.

Along the way, through the planning meetings at the publishing company, Aaron introduces his quirky co-workers, some of whom try to help him move on in his grief.  Aaron's epiphany--if it can be called such--comes only when Dorothy begins to reappear, giving him a different perspective on their life together, subtly convicting him in areas where he must at last realize he fell short.

For a time,I had trouble liking Aaron.  By the end of the book, I realized that Aaron had trouble liking himself.  I'm glad I rode out the journey with him.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Reading Sequels

If you turned to this post, thinking you were going to hear my take on the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, I must disappoint. First of all, I tend not to jump on an already crowded bandwagon.  (I might have missed Harry Potter if I hadn't heard about them early.  Whew!  That would have been a genuine loss.) Second, I keep hearing how poorly written they are.  Since I even make grammar and punctuation corrections to church bulletins, I know I can't make it through a trilogy that's deemed sub-par.

Even more to the point, I have too many well-written books queued up in my list of must-reads.  I've been waiting for Hilary Mantel's follow-up to Wolf Hall since--well, since I read Wolf Hall and knew there had to be a sequel.  (Clue: Wolf Hall was the home of Jane Seymour's family, not Catherine;s or Anne's).  In truth, even though the main character is Thomas Cromwell, not Henry VIII himself, the king actually paves the way for five sequels, covering all his wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.)

I love a good sprawling historical novel, and as I am revising my Brit Lit syllabus for the coming semester, I am more than thrilled to dig into the lives of this particular royal family in this era.

Once again the protagonist of the novel is Thomas Cromwell, who rose from poverty and an abusive childhood to the king's inner circle, wielding more power than the higher born in Henry's inner circle. While in the first book, he was working through the complications allowing the king to annul his first marriage (with or without the blessings of Rome) in order the allow him to marry Anne Boleyn--and possibly father a male heir--he finds himself in this book with a new challenge as the king loses his enchantment with Anne Boleyn in favor of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

To accomplish this end, Anne can't merely be sent away.  As any student of British history (or any tourist to the Tower of London) knows, heads rolled.  I was not aware, though, the lengths to which the king's supporters went to prove in court the queen's (or former queen's) treachery (which would have been considered mere adultery had she not been married to the king).

In this book, Mantel managed to smooth over some pronoun reference problems from the first book (when I often had to remind myself that the "he" to whom she referred was probably Thomas Cromwell.  I still had to wrestle with the characters who had multiple names or titles, but I had an easier go of it this time around.  (Since there were fewer Thomases still living by the second novel--Thomas More and others having been dispatched), the duplication of names was less of a problem too.

The question that remained unanswered for me, though, was how Jane Seymour could have gone so readily into a marriage--even to a king--in light of the fate of her two predecessors. I guess readers will either have to wait until Mantel completes that story or dig into the history books.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Book Is Better. . .

I was so glad I hadn't seen the movie I Don't Know How She Does It before I started this book.  I had read Pearson's novel I Think I Love You and found it not as at all as superficial as I was expecting. (for a book about a girl with a crush on David Cassidy!)  Since I didn't have the Hollywood actors in my head, I was able to populate the story with characters of my own, instead of Sarah Jessica Parker--who I am sure did a wonderful job in the movie but who doesn't seem anything like the woman in the book.

For anyone who hasn't seen the movie either, the story--as you might infer from the title--is about Kate Reddy, a working mother trying (unsuccessfully) to balance her high-powered career and her marriage and motherhood roles (with a six-year-old and a baby not quite one as the novel opens.)

The title refers to the grating comment--often a biting insult veiled as a compliment that comes off as anything but--"I don't know how you do it."  Katie has broken through the glass curtain at a London investment firm, but has to cover when she needs to leave early (or at a reasonable time) to attend her six-year-old daughter's Christmas pageant.  She depends on her nanny and often slights her husband, who is often left to manage her honey-do list.

She also toys with a flirtation with an American client Jack Abelhammer after she accidentally sends him an email intended for a female friend.  Kate becomes mentor to the a young Asian female Momo when the two are selected to represent the company's "commitment to diversity" and the two join forces with her other woman friends to bring down one of the most egregious and pompous chauvinists in the firm.

Pearson has created a lovable, self-effacing character who can rely on her female friends and still recognize the value of her own husband.  And no, the message of the novel is not that woman (or anyone) can "have it all"--not without a price.  Maybe in the movies, though, things turn out differently. 


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Case Studies from the Great Migration

I don't think I ever heard the term "Great Migration" in any of the American History courses I took during high school or college, but I have since taught August Wilson's Fences many times, though, in freshman lit, which the playwright opens with a brief expository  section about this group of Americans and how they fared in comparison to European immigrants coming into the same areas of the United States.  In her nonfiction account The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson, whose mother was part of this "movement," traces the lives of three individuals who left the South over a three-decade

span, moving to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. 

The book is difficult to read, not because of the writer's style but the subject matter.  After reading it, though, I don't think I can ever teach Fences or A Raisin in the Sun or a number of other works without drawing from what Wilkerson reveals.  The treatment of blacks in the post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction South demands attention not only from a historical perspective but as it sheds light on much of the continued disparity between the races in the U.S.  The stories that unfold often contrast facts with the misrepresentation in accounts concerning segregation, housing, crime, and many other facets of the lives of those who left the only home they had known, out of desperation or despair.

I was particularly surprised to find how difficult they found the actual process of leaving, since employers often guarded train stations and blocked their exits.  Many left in secrecy, slipping out of town and going to distant train stations, left they be arrested under false charges to prevent their leaving.  The vast numbers choosing to head north or, in some cases, west had a huge impact on agriculture in the South, taking away much-needed but poorly paid and poorly treated workers.

Rather than presenting an economic or sociological survey, however, Wilkerson focuses on individuals. Readers come to know and care about her three protagonists, one woman and two men, through the story of their lives from childhood until old age and death.

Wilkerson occasionally inserts details from her mother's story, and she herself remains a presence--though never an intrusive one--in and out of her narrative as she interacts with the characters as she researches their lives.

The Warmth of Other Suns provides no answers, easy or otherwise, but it opens up the possibility of dialogue and helps readers to understand the tangles and complexity of racial issues that continue in this country.  Her contribution, though only a portrait of three individuals adds much to a conversation that needs to take place.