Friday, December 26, 2014

Paris over the Centuries

Sometimes when I'm picking an audiobook to play on my drive back and forth to work, I find myself gravitating away from any title with too many discs, especially since I get most from the public library. I remind myself of students who, when picking a book for an assignment, go for the shortest--often a mistake.

During December, though, I picked up Edward Rutherford's Paris.  I have intended to read other books of his--London or Sarum.  He had, after all, come highly recommended, and I always loved a good epic-style story spanning centuries in one place.  This book fit the bill perfectly.

Once I got started, I wondered what had taken me so long. This book stays in Paris, following several families back and forth between the Middle Ages and post-World War II.  Rutherford has an aristocratic family crossing paths with a family of wealthy merchants, a working class family, a Jewish family, and another family on the edge between legal and illegal activity.  The storyline studies the roles of class and religion, always complicated, often changing.

Since I teach British literature, I feel relatively knowledgeable about that part of history, but this book helped me to fill in the blanks of French history--even European history in general.  Instead of following a purely chronological order, Rutherford moves back and forth between centuries, with the family names as constant threads.

Having traveled to Paris and other parts of France with students twice several years ago, I especially loved revisiting places I had visited.  The characters visit Sainte Chappelle, one of the loveliest spots in the city, a jewel box of a church, once reputed to display many holy relics. As they moved through Versailles, the Louvre, along the Conciergerie, along the Champs Elysees, I felt as if I were time traveling.

In one of my favorite story threads, one of the young men in the story works first on the Statue of Liberty, then on the building of the Eiffel Tower.  Along the way, I learned so much history--without ever feeling as if I were being taken to high school.  These stories were alive with the human beings that lived them--not just dates and place names. I had no idea, for example, that when Hitler came to Paris, he had wanted to go to the top of the tower, but the elevator cables had mysteriously been cut.  Rutherford takes his poetic liberties here as he places fictional characters against his historical backdrop.

Reading Paris reminded me why I had once loved all of Michener's books and the historical novels by Follett.  Now I need to take my copy of London off my shelf. As soon as I get through my Christmas gift books.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas Stories Worth Reading--Again and Again


Christmas vacation may not allow even a sliver of the reading time afforded by summer vacation, but so many people I encounter look forward to the possibility of a little time to read, amid all the shopping and other turmoil of the holidays.  My holiday traditions include some Christmas stories to which I return again, usually pushing them onto my friends and family as well.

I was first introduced to Truman Capote's lovely short story "A Christmas Memory" when I was student teaching, and I've read it every holiday since. Usually, I find some way to share it with my students too.  Anyone who loves Harper Lee's  To Kill a Mockingbird has to love this story too.  It's so easy to picture the story taking place in a town like Maycomb, Alabama. I   picture Buddy, the narrator, as Dill--not the actor who played him in the movie--but the Dill inside my head.  

Few stories strike all five senses the way this one does--the scent of the tree, the icy cold water through which they wade, pushing the rickety old baby buggy, the copper smell of pennies as they count the fruitcake money.  I still can't get through the final scene in a faraway November without a lump in my throat.

Not all my favorite Christmas stories are tender and touching.  For years, I have gotten a perverse kick out of "The Gift of the Magi Indian Giver" from an early collection by Steve Martin, Cruel Shoes.

No Christmas would be complete without David Sedaris' "SantaLand Diaries," just one of his hilarious pieces in Holidays on Ice.  The first time I read the story, I was administering a semester exam, and I laughed so hard I disturbed the students during their testing. The only thing that rivals reading this story is listening to Sedaris reading it himself.  Nonetheless, he is such a master of tone that I hear his voice when I read anything he writes.  When "Santa Santa" insists that elf David sing "Away in a Manger," he channels Billie Holiday and belts it out. 

Since I always love those stories told from another point of view, Tom Mula's Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, the story of Marley's redemption after returning to warn his old partner Scrooge, has been a favorite too.

This year I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Joseph Bathanti's new collections of essays Half of What I Say Is Meaningless after he read from it an account of being asked to read a Christmas story to children at the public library early in his marriage, using the poor judgment of reading a story he hadn't previewed, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Fir Tree."  As is true of most live Christmas trees, the story does not end well.

I'm eager to see which story finds me this year.  I don't have much time left to find it, but I hope it will be one I want to read again and again.


Monday, December 8, 2014

R.I.P. Kent Haruf

Too often these days, when I go online I find that another favorite author or poet has died.  Today, before I had time to wake up completely, I saw a message that Kent Haruf had died.

I discovered Haruf almost by accident. I hadn't heard any mention of his novels--I thought--but I picked up the audiobook of Eventide for listening as I commuted to work.  The story was so simple, so subtle, I was almost underwhelmed at first.

Then something happened in the story--no spoilers here--and I found myself driving down the road sobbing.  Most people who know me can attest to the fact that I am not much of a crier.  Tender heart. Dry eyes.  In this story, though, something happened to a character that touched me most because of the effect on another character.  Only after I finished this lovely book did I find that it was the sequel to Plainsong.  Both books center around a young girl who becomes a single mother, but the characters I loved the most were two brothers--both single--who worked together on their farm.  At the request of a local teacher, they took in this girl whose family had thrown her out, and they cared for her until her baby was born, even though they had no experience at all.

In the second book Eventide, the young girl goes to college, taking her child with her, but maintains a relationship with these two gentle men. Haruf brings readers into Holt, Colorado, and introduces them to the ordinary but unforgettable citizens who live there. 

In his last novel Benediction, set in the same town, the characters of these two books appear in the background.  I felt a bittersweet pang of remembrance at each mention.  Now I feel a strong urge to look for his other works, just to be sure I haven't missed a gem.

In the meantime, as I'm gathering a stack of books for a friend who just returned her last stack I lent her by mail, I know I'll have to be sure to include Plainsong. It's one of those rare books I feel comfortable recommending to all of my reading friends.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

As Seen on TV--If You Watch TV

When I get book recommendations from my younger son, I pay attention. He hasn't always been a big reader, but he often finds books through television series and films.  During Dick's hospital stay, even though I had other books I might have read, I decided to try his suggestion first--Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers, which has been made into a series somewhere on television.  The story begins shortly after a strange worldwide occurrence in which people randomly vanished.  Some believe the Rapture has occurred, while others can't believe this could be true in light of some of the people who were taken and some who were (to borrow the phrase) "left behind."

The story is primarily centered in Mapleton, a small American town, where lives intertwine.  Cults have emerged, drawing in a variety of people--a mother who lost her daughter, her best friend who leaves behind a family intact. A self-proclaimed religious leader draws followers until his own ego and desires bring about his downfall. A woman whose whole family disappeared becomes something of a martyr--until her husband's infidelity emerges.

A reviewer for Chicago Sun-Times compared the story to "Our Town" and someone in Entertainment Weekly called it the "best book about The Rapture since the New Testament."  I kept thinking of Karen Thompson Walker's young adult novel Age of Miracles, a story of an inexplicable "slowing" of the world's turning, affecting all human life.

Since the series is still running, I don't want to reveal any spoilers, but this book is an interesting treatment of an idea that keeps making the literary rounds--maybe even all literature:  Something happens.  Now what do we do?


Thursday, November 20, 2014

I get emails all the time with book suggestions.  One of the electronic book apps I use offers suggestions for me, but they are invariably books I read long ago. If it's so easy to know everything about me on the internet, it seems they should score more with books I would love, not that I did (or did not) love.

Every day, one of those emails offers free or cheap eBooks.  Sometimes they don't merit a second glance; sometimes they are classics I have loved for years. Every once in awhile, I'll buy or download one I know nothing about, strictly because of the title, the brief synopsis, even the cover (so there goes that old axiom.)
Suitcase Filled with Nails:  Lessons Learned from Teaching Art in Kuwait  was one I bought with no prior recommendation.  That it combined two of my interests--art and teaching--with the chance to learn something new about a part of the world so unfamiliar to me was a strong point.

Just because a book makes it to my iPad doesn't mean I am certain to read it--not immediately at least. The same, of course, is true about my personal library in general.  I could only hope to live long enough to read all the books I have fallen for--sometimes in a weak moment.  I could stay busy for years without adding anything new to the list.

This book jumped out at me, though, during our long stay in Carolinas Medical Center. I needed to read electronically, to avoid having to turn on an overhead light. There are no nice little reading lamps in most hospital rooms.  Most rooms are so bright they could be seen from outer space.

Wakefield is an American woman--a married woman--who left her home to take a teaching position at a university in Kuwait.  If she'd had a clue about the red tape and human obstacles she would face once she arrived, she might not have gone at all.  Her experience in academia trumps any of the worst stories I've heard here in the States.  Over the course of time, though, she learned to deal with the roadblocks or to fight through them.  As a result, she develops strong bonds with a group of female students, many from affluent backgrounds, trying to complete their educations.

If I've had problems with academic integrity, I know at least that my students are not forcing their families' servants to complete their projects.  Wakefield gives an inside view of the politics of Kuwait after U.S. military involvement. She also shows on a smaller scale how the Sunni-Shiite conflict affects individuals--in a college setting.  I was also struck by some of the irony she revealed in the young women's clothing requirements or at least expectations in a Muslim country.

In the book, she manages to deal with women's issues, animal rescue, academic competitiveness, religion and politics--putting human faces on what are often abstract issues.

Now I'm wondering what other gems I've downloaded that I should not overlook.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What's With All the Long Titles?

For years now, I've kept a running list of the books I read. First I mark them on my wall calendar, and then around New Year's Day, I transcribe the list into a little book I've had for years.  During my husband's recent hospital stay--which ended up lasting at least twice as long as we'd expected--I found that reading was one of the few ways I could pass time even in the wee hours when I couldn't sleep. I could crawl under my minimal cover on my plastic couch/bed and read by the light of my iPad.

I had read IQ84 by Haruki Murakami, a strange, artfully crafted book, so when I saw his latest novel--and heard what a sensation it had caused within a week of publication, I was eager to check it out.  But I could never remember the title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. 

I've had similar trouble with name in books before. I remember that when I read James Michener's Poland,I had the hardest time distinguishing between the characters because their names were--well--Polish. Lots of hard consonants, not so many vowels.  I finally had to make a chart for myself in the back.  But this was the title of the book, and since I was reading a eBook, I couldn't as easily flip to the cover.

Fortunately, this didn't keep me from enjoying this strange little novel, focused on a protagonist who had been part of a group of five friends--three boys, two girls--in high school, only to return home from college and to be told he was no longer welcome in the group.  He was given no explanations.  

He had always been unusually fascinated with trains and train stations, and he had ended up in a career designing stations--or actually remodeling them. Because of the rejection, he rarely returned to his hometown, making excuses to his family.

Eventually, during the early stages of a dating relationship, he reveals this story to the woman who tells him he must find out the answer to their rejection. She does a little internet search and locates all but one of the girls, and he seeks them out, going as far as Finland to seek out one of the girls.  The explanation ends up being based on a false accusation, a story all of the surviving friends have long ago realized was not even true.

As quaint as the story may be, Murakami manages to reveal the interior of a man who, like most people perhaps, judges himself more severely than others do.  Even the coincidence that his four friends have a color in their names, which he does not, has distorted significance to him--even though his own name refers to making or creating.

Like his earlier novel, this book saturates readers with a sense of place; it feels both foreign and familiar.  I found myself more likely to empathize with Tzukuru than to become frustrated with the way a teenage disappointment has shaped his life.  Maybe that's because I accept the idea that we are all shaped by those early experiences, as he was, and maybe we all need someone to prod us on to pilgrimages of our own.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lots of Time to Read, Few Brain Cells to Concentrate

As some of you know, I have spent the past week at Carolina's Medical Center where my husband had valve replacement surgery. This post isn't about that, since anyone who knows us know where to find updates (good news over all). Ironically, with a lot of time spent waiting, I have done less reading than I would have expected. (The same goes for paper grading.) Concentration hasn't been my strong suit. Interruptions are par for the course.

Still, I finished the audiobook I had in the car, Bill O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln, my October book club selection Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret, Alison Kemper's second YA novel Dead Over Heels, and a nonfiction work Suitcase Filled with Nails: Lssons Learned Teaching Art in Kuwait by Yvonne Pepin Wakefield.  Meanwhile, I am turning to the appropriate chapters in The Patient' Guide to Valve a Replacement Surgery.

I will post my response to each when I get settled in. For now, I must decide what to read next while we continue to "hurry up and wait."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Who's Minding the Children?

My first introduction to Smith Henderson's Fourth of July Creek came via a recommendation by Wiley Cash, who had appeared as our featured author during the Laurette LePrevost Writers Symposium here at the college where I teach.  Since Cash's books feature dark, evil characters, I wasn't expecting moonlight and rosebuds.  I never actually wish for moonlight and rosebuds.

Before I could make up my mind, the book appeared on my doorstep as my Lemuria First Editions Book Club selection, and my own book club decided to read it.

The novel set just as Reagan is elected president, focuses on Pete Snow, a social worker in Tenmile, Montana, a very small, very rural community with a fair share of hard cases.  Henderson opens the novel as Snow arrives to help police sort out a domestic disturbance, and he finds one of the children on his case load handcuffed beside his mother after both of them were separated during a vicious physical fight.  Cecil, the teenage son, poses a great challenge to Snow, but he feels equal concerned for the little sister he finds hiding in her closet upstairs.

As he tries and fails over and over to put Cecil into a better home situation, even the kindest foster parents find themselves pushed beyond their limits. 

Then a young boy, suffering from malnourishment and inadequately dressed for the cold weather, is brought to Pete's attention.  Benjamin Pearl, Snow learns, lives in the woods with his father Jeremiah, a religious fanatic waiting on the world to end, hammering holes through the heads of presidents on coins he then circulates through the surrounding towns. 

Concerned about Benjamin, Pete works to gain Jeremiah's trust, while also keeping his own brother's whereabouts from the Parole Officer his brother assaulted.  As Henderson's protagonist, though, Snow is no simple idealistic do-gooder. Interspersed chapters reveal the whereabouts of his young teenaged daughter Rachel (who prefers to be called Rose), told to an unidentified interrogator. As she leaves for Texas with her mother, separated from Pete after her adultery, she ends up living with little parenting and disappears from home--"wyoming" she calls it--prompting her mother to call Pete for help finding her.

Pete's own back story reveals his evident tendency to alcoholism and violence.  When he begins a relationship with Mary, another social worker, he learns that she carries around even more emotional baggage than he does. 

Never heading toward a storybook ending, Henderson's characters are left, instead, looking for a best-case scenario, or at least the lesser of two--or more--evils.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Little Light Book Chat

I won't post about my most reason book club selection unit after our discussion tonight, but I found myself at the point again, trying to decide what to start next.  In the meantime, I picked up One for the Books by Joe Queenan.  I had made it through the first couple of chapters but stopped for another book I was working on; this afternoon, I picked up at the next chapter, in which he discusses his own peculiar habit of reading not just one or two books at a time but thirty-something.  I was more pleased and relieved that ever that his was the very book I had laid aside for a brief respite. Now if it takes me years to finish, I won't have to wrestle with guilt.

I do want to suggest his book, however, to other book lovers, rabid, voracious readers.  He confirms what I've suspected all along: there is more than one way to enjoy reading.  His way doesn't have to match my way.  (It doesn't.)  I don't have to grow defensive with others who find eReaders somehow a distant second to "real books."  These discussions always have me imagining manuscript snobs thumbing their noses at William Caxton back in the English Medieval Period.  I proudly confess that I take my literature anyway I can get it.  I generally have at least one "real book" going, another on my iPad, and one in the car CD player. If someone agreed to sit at my side and read aloud, that would be fine too.

One more note I have to add on the off chance that the person to remain nameless here might some day venture here to my blog.  I struck up a conversation with a woman taking an art class with me.  The two of us showed up to work on our projects while we had some free time to use the press.  I made reference to my book club, and the woman, fairly new to the area, asked me to what club I belonged. When I explained it was one I had helped begin more than ten years ago, she said, "I started going to a book club as  [place to remain nameless to protect whomever], but they read A BOOK EVERY MONTH! I just don't have that kind of time."

"Mmmm.  Really?" I was, for once, speechless.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

J.K. Rowling by any other name. . .

I have long ago admitted that I might never have read the Harry Potter series if it had become so wildly successful before I met Harry.  I am skeptical of fads.  I am so glad, though, that I was introduced to the first book before my opinion could be tainted by pop culture "trending now."  Though I am not usually drawn to fantasy, I loved these books.  I particularly loved Jim Dale's audio versions, which left me sitting in the garage many afternoons, unwilling to stop mid-narrative.
When Rowling came out with her first book after the series A Casual Vacancy, I read it, and while it was rather dark, I still found it well written. 

For some reason, though, when I heard that she'd been "outed" as the author of The Cuckoo's Calling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, I didn't rush to the bookstore.  I was almost wrong again.  This novel and its sequel The Silkworm, with their protagonist Cormoran Strike, have many of the traits that I liked in her series.

Strike, her protagonist, is a failing private detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan.  Although his father is a famous aging rock star, he goes out of his way not to trade on the fame.  The first book opens as Robin Ellacott, a young female temp shows up for work, an expense Strike does not need, at the same time a client comes to the office asking his help proving his supermodel sister did not commit suicide. 

Strike is a large man with a boxer's profile, thick kinky hair, and as a result of his uncomfortable prosthetic leg, a pronounced limp. Robin, newly engaged and attractive, has always wanted to work as a detective. As she works herself into more of a partnership, Rowling leaves unanswered questions (Just why did she leave university suddenly without her psychology degree?) that promise more novels to follow.

While some reviewers suggest the novels would not have had the success had the real identity of the author remained a mystery, I see enough of Rowling's clever character development and quirky insight into human nature to entire readers.  She develops the narrative, leaving room for readers to speculate, before unveiling the mystery behind the crimes Strike investigates.

Just as Cuckoo's Calling trots out a long list of potential killers before the truth is unveiled, in The Silkworm, in which a writer is found ritually murdered in the same way described in his recently completed, but unfinished novel, the potential suspects are many.  Students of Elizabethan revenge tragedies will enjoy the epigrams at the beginning of each chapter-from Webster, Dekker, Johnson and more.

Best of all, while the stories kept me interested, I was able to put the author's identify, even her presence, out of mind as I read, moving easily into Strike's London.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thelonius Rising: NoLa Survivor Tale

Most of us who consider ourselves avid--even voracious--readers are often asked we get the titles of books we read. The answer is complicated. We have our own web of fellow readers whose taste in books we trust.  We know which publications we can count on giving us a reliable nod to the "next new great book."

More than anything, I love to discover a book before it hits the mainstream.  I read and recommended The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (still on my short list of favorites) before OPRAH read it. 

This summer, among my the serendipitous brown envelopes that find their way to my mailbox was a box with a bag of emergency candles and a copy of Judith Richards' novel Thelonius Rising.  Opening in New Orleans just before Katrina hits, Richards' story follows nine-year-old Thelonius Monk DeCay, raised by his grandmother after his mother dies and his father leaves.

A natural showman, he and his friend Percy dress down, and dance in Jackson Square for tips from tourists.  He is befriended by an old, colorful historian Quinton Toussaint, who protect their spot for performance and who introduces Monk to a homeless man who suffers from mental illness.

Living in the Lower Ninth Ward, Monk, his grandmother, and neighbors are caught unprepared by the sudden rise of waters when the levees give way.

In a second line of her narrative, Richards introduces Donna, the aunt Monk never met, sister to his long-missing father.  Charged with finding the boy and his grandmother, she ignores caution and heads toward New Orleans, joining forces with a reporter for a local tabloid who helps her in her search.

The novel does what dozens of newspaper articles didn't do:  it brings readers face to face with the people caught in the disaster.  Rather than focusing on the failure of politicians at every level, Richards allows readers to care genuinely about the individuals affect by the winds, water, and the aftermath. 

As I read--almost nonstop on Saturday--I was already seeing the scenes in my head.  I'm wondering just how long it will take for someone else--Oprah or Spielberg?--to have the vision to take this story to the big screen.  I'll bet the soundtrack will be dynamite too.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Club Winner: All the Light We Cannot See

One of the advantages of being in a book club is the chance to read books I might not otherwise have considered.  Our group is not as structured as others in existence.  I love to quiz readers about how they organize, how often they meet, what they do when they gather, but most of all, how they select a book to read together.  While there are books on which I refuse to waste my time (and there's no need to name names here!), I am open-minded, especially when offered the chance to talk about a book afterwards. 

Over the years we've been a group, we've read novels, short stories, and nonfiction.  We find that we particularly enjoy historical fiction.  When some of our favorite authors publish, we are certain to select that for at least one of the next month's selections.  We don't plan more than a month in advance-- I can't even imagine setting a reading schedule for six months or a year at a time--and we often select more that one book.

Our most reason book under discussion was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, set alternately between Germany and France during WWII. Having taught the Holocaust course on my campus, I've read many books from this period, both fiction and nonfiction.  I don't deliberately set out to read "another Holocaust book," but the stories are fascinating and the possibilities are endless.  

This novel moves between two main characters, Marie-Laure, a French girl, blind since she was six, raised by her father, who is responsible for the keys at a Paris museum.  The German boy Werner, orphaned when his father was killed in the mines, has been raised with his sister in an orphanage, where he discovers an aptitude for working with radios. 

Marie-Laure and her father are forced to evacuate Paris when the Germans arrive, and find themselves seeking refuge in Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast with her father's brother and the maid.  The father, who has always constructed little puzzle boxes for her, carves a miniature set of the town for her fingers before he is called back to Paris, arrested on the way.

Werner, meanwhile, is admitted into an exclusive school, where he witnesses great cruelty before he is drafted into the German army at sixteen. His responsibility for tracing secret radio broadcasts by citizens of Allied countries, bring his path and Marie-Laure's together.

Doerr's depicts some of the most ruthless, self-seeking individuals, the often-unnoticed people who show great bravery through small acts of subversion, and those like Werner who must wrestle with  conscience while seeking self-preservation.  His lovely detail set me down in the rooms with his characters, hearing the scratchy recordings being broadcast, seeing the rubble, and feeling the tiny puzzle box house under Marie-Laure's fingers.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Life After Life

I'm sure a little research could tell me whose book entitled Life After Life came first, Kate Atkinson or Jill McCorkle. I read and loved Atkinson's novel with it's circling plot that explored the world through alternate possibilities for the main character, looking at how the world might have changed had she never been born or had she met an untimely death through one of a number of possibilities.

Jill McCorkle's novel, though different in so many ways, also follows the lives she describes not in an unbroken chronological way but through a series of perspectives, moving back and forth through time.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to attend the North Carolina Book Festival in Chapel Hill during which McCorkle, fellow NC author Lee Smith and singer-songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matreca Berg gave a four woman reader's theatre version of their musical, Good Old Girls. The show presents vignettes from the point of view of a variety of women of all ages.  (I recall one song:  "Don't let me get pregnant. I just came to dance.")  My favorite part, though, presented the experience of a woman who found herself in the nursing home, which she calls "this school for old people," right after her husband's death. It was, in turns, hilarious and heart-breaking.

This novel Life After Life not only shares the setting--a facility ranging from hospice care to assisted living and cabins for more independent seniors.  She opens with Joanna, a woman who has returned to her hometown Fulton, NC, after many years away, taking a job sitting with people as they near death. While rumors abound that she has been through serial marriages, she's actually been married three times--once to a man her parents thought perfect for her, once to a grieving widower who needs her help with his children in the year after his death--until he falls in love with someone else, and a man dying of AIDS she meets after his dog rescues her from a suicide attempt. That marriage, one of convenience on an interesting number of levels, gives her live new purpose.

As she records the last days of her patience, McCorkle shares their lives as well--the town's long-time third grade teacher, a holier-than-thou busybody, a former literature teacher, and two of the most interesting residents--a Boston woman in good health who decided after her husband died to move to the town where her former lover had live and died and a man feigning Alzheimer's so his son won't insist on keeping him at home and moving in with him.

In addition to the elderly residents, McCorkle's cast of characters includes a young girl living right across the cemetery from the facility, escaping her parents' fighting by spending time with Sadie, the former school teacher, and a single mother--tattooed and pierced--who does the residents' hair and nails and hides her own secrets.

Throughout the novel, McCorkle weaves the stories together, balancing the light, humorous sections with tender and even dark ones.  The book makes good on the promise implied in her earlier vignette, convincingly presenting the life still left to live in those final years.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Prolific Mr. King

While I'm not one of those readers who devour everything Stephen King writes, I do find myself drawn to his books every now and then. Unlike many of the prolific popular writes, King is actually a good writer.  One of his books I've enjoyed most, in fact, was his On Writing: A Memoir on Craft.  A child of the sixties, I also enjoyed his time travel novel November 22, 1963.

I'm not sure exactly why I decided to read what I believe is his latest Mr. Mercedes, but I am glad I did.  The protagonist of the book, a recently retired detective, could easily be played by Clint Eastwood, even though the two bear no physical resemblance.  Older, alone, and out of shape, Bill Hodges may be suffering from depression as his life revolves around daytime television.  When he receives a letter from the man claiming credit for a mass murder, driving into a line of people who've been waiting since before dawn for a job fair, Hodges doesn't react the way the so-called Mercedes killer hopes he will. Instead of goading Hodges to commit suicide, the letter gives him a sense of purpose.

King also introduces his three dimensional characters to what might otherwise have been a formulaic detective story.  Stubborn but self-deprecating, the "ret det" manages to find unlikely romance, he builds his friendship with Jerome, an Ivy League-bound African American teenager who, in addition to helping with his yard work, also serves as his techie.  They also help to look beneath the surface of Holly, an emotionally unbalanced, childlike forty-something, allowing her to use her prodigious skills  to help solve the crime before Mr. Mercedes can kill again.

The plot itself has a cinematic pace, but the interpersonal relationships, and especially Hodges' recognition of the human tendency to misjudge people who are simply unlikeable give the novel layers that appeal to pickier readers.  The real horror in this story is the realization that evil may lurk within those who, on the surface, look the more normal and ordinary.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Painting Through Plot Twists

When I'm on a reading jag, as I usually am in the summer, I inevitably detect odd connections between dissimilar books.  Nothing about the tone of the narrator and protagonist of Peter Heller's novel The Painter would be mistaken for that of Courtney Maum's I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You.  The writing style and the plot are nothing alike, but both are the story of artists who experience a tension between what they want to paint and what sells.

Jim Stegner, the bearded, outdoorsy protagonist of Heller's novel, has made his mark as a painter in the Southwest--but he seems an unlikely success. A recovering alcoholic still reeling from the death of his teenage daughter, he opts for a reclusive life, escaping alone to fish. He's served time for attempted murder of an alleged pedophile who makes egregiously inappropriate remarks about the daughter, and then after conflict with a hunting guide who abuses horses, Stegner is the number one suspect in the man's death.  He gets out of town and heads to Santa Fe to complete a commission his agent has agreed to, painting the two young daughters of a wealthy patron, not the kind of art he has in mind.

In the real mystery and conflict of the novel, it isn't a whodunnit. Instead, readers find themselves pulling for Stegner (whom his neighbors call Hemingway) not just to avoid a return to prison but to get his life back on track.

I had read Heller's earlier novel The Dog Stars, an even darker post-apocolyptic novel of a man's attempt to survive after disaster has decimated the population of the country, possibly the world. That novel's main character, also a fisherman, is also torn between his desire for companionship and his mistrust of other people.

Courtney Maum's novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, on the surface, bears no similarities to The Painter except a main character, an artist experiencing commercial success in a style he finds least appealing to him. Richard Haddon, a British artist educated in the States and married to a beautiful French woman, experiences the seven-year-itch as their romantic marriage has settled into the day-to-day normalcy of parenthood, and he gets caught up into an affair.

He has idealistic dreams the kind of art he wants to paint but ends up producing a series of "keyhole" paintings of rooms in his life.  The one painting that sells is the one he least wishes to relinquish--a painting of a blue bear he completed for their baby daughter, a sentimental favorite for him and his wife.

His wife Anne-Laure, aware of the affair--which the other woman broke off to marry someone else--finds a letter from the woman during a visit to her parents, tells her parents everything, and sends Richard away.  During the time away from her, he develops an unlikely friendship with a British fellow traveler--happily married--and spends time with his own elderly parents, who also give him a glimpse into the tenderness of their long marriage.

He goes to great lengths--often in awkward situations--to try to save his own marriage.  In the meantime, he comes up with his an idea for a controversial art exhibit in response to Bush's attack on Iraq, such a departure from his keyhole paintings his agent allows, even encourages him to seek another venue--where he sets up washing machines to launder letters--solicited from people everywhere--in oil.

Maum balances Richard's angst with humor, allowing readers to hope for his success without making his wife the villain in the story. It's so easy to like this goofy, flawed man that I found myself hoping Anne-Laure would give the poor guy a chance--with or without the painting of the blue bear.


Friday, August 15, 2014

To Live and Die in L.A. (Lower Alabama)

Today I took one of those quizzes on Facebook (the kind I usually avoid, sure, but when I have to choose between working on my class syllabi for next week or taking Facebook quizzes, I wouldn't even be surprised to find myself choosing "What kind of vegetable are you?") This one was testing whether or not I was a true North Carolinian.  I passed with flying colors.  It wasn't exactly a measurement of critical thinking, since most of the questions focused on state bird, Cheerwine, and the Carolina-Duke rivalry. It didn't take a brain surgeon--or even middle school North Carolina History.

If you know me, then you know that I live in North Carolina, I love North Carolina, but I'm an Alabama girl--not from LA (Lower Alabama) but from North Alabama.

That makes me unquestionably Southern too.  This summer, I was blessed with the sporadic arrival of books in my mailbox from River's Edge Media, a small press out of Little Rock, Arkansas, with the most creative publicity I've seen from any publishers. The Shoe Burnin' collection I reviewed earlier in the summer arrived first. I've followed it with two books from contributors.  First I read All the Way to Memphis, a collection of short stories by Suzanne Hudson. Her stories brought together a roll call of all ages--heavy on kids--living on the edge of abuse, disappointment, and death.  Whether set in barrooms,  behind the jailhouse, or on the road between Mississippi and Memphis, the stories put off a kind of Southern heat, provoke a level of discomfort that keeps a reader turning pages.

Next I read Waffle House Rules, a novel by Joe Formichella, Hudson's husband and the editor of the Shoe Burnin' stories.  Set in Penelope, Alabama, near Fairhope, the charming South Alabama town where the two reside, the novel brings together a cast of local characters, including "the Phils,"  four indistinguishable coffee house regulars, Big Bob, an out-of-towner who keeps returning after getting his RV stuck in the parking lot of the Waffle House on his way through town, and a pair of sisters who, as the book opens, say goodbye to Dr. Jimmy Ryan, by tossing wishbones into his grave.

Moving back and forth between the present and the Jimmy Ryan's childhood, when he was the only survivor of a family automobile accident on their way to a local Halloween celebration, Formichella paints a picture of this part of the state, eager to distinguish itself from Mobile.  He delves into the idealistic but failed beginnings of Fairhope. Most of all, he celebrates the telling and untelling of stories, shaped by wishfulness and forgetfulness--and maybe a little kudzu.

While the authors obviously inhabit a region nurturing to writers, their styles differ distinctly.  (As a side note, when I read Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Nicole Krauss's History of Love, I made immediate connections between the books' style and structure before I had any idea they were married.) Both Hudson's and Formichella's books invite comparison to other Southern writers who transcended "regional" levels.  One can imagine crossing Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon with Fannie Flagg's Whistlestop Cafe and throwing in just a dab of Slingblade to produce these fascinating, unforgettable characters.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Road Trip Listening: Fiction and Nonfiction

With my twenty-five-minute drive each way during the school year, I get a little crazy without an audiobook. When I have a long drive during the summer, it's even more imperative. On my recently trip to Alabama to visit family, I had two quite dissimilar books.  First, I listened to Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club, a most interesting story of the wives of the first set of astronauts--Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and more, and a couple of the generations that followed.

I've always been interested in the space programs, especially since I grew up a hour from Huntsville.  I loved Michener's Space, and I have watched the movie version of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff more times than I can count.  Much of what I learned in Koppel's book goes beyond those stories.  My favorite line from The Right Stuff was Grissom's wife calling him a "squirming hatch blower," a detail I use in comp class when we discuss "loaded language."  The incident--which cost Mrs. Grissom a visit to the white house and one-on-one with Jackie Kennedy was interesting from her perspective.

I wasn't totally surprised to learn how much pressure these women endured to keep up a front of the perfect family--even though the powers-that-be turned their heads when many of the astronauts were carrying on with the "Cape Cookies," as the astronaut groupies were called.

Even though the author tells so many different stories, she clearly differentiates between the women. She reveals the friendships and rivalries, as well as the fears they endured. This far removed from the early days of space flight, it's easy to forget that these astronauts were going into untested waters--basically sitting on top of explosives.

The glimpse into the way presidential politics played in the space race was also interesting to me.  LBJ, by the way, did not get a very favorable depiction. Jackie Kennedy came across as more human than usual.

By contrast, Diane Setterfield's novel Bellman and Black is a dark story, almost Faustian in tone.  Setterfield, the author of the bestseller The Thirteenth Tale, weaves a fascinating story of William Bellman, who inherits his uncle's textile manufacturing mill, despite his questionable birthright. Young Will shows an early interest and ability, while the rightful heir, his uncle's son, chooses to live in Paris, trying to live an artist's life.

The novel opens when the boy, his cousin and two friends--at nine or ten are playing in the woods and Will shoots and kills a rook.  Throughout the novel, between the story itself, the narrator gives mythical and historical information about rooks, particularly some of the collective nouns used to describe them. Although Will builds a successful industry, he loses close friends and family members, and at each funeral he catches a glimpse of a man in black that no one else seems to notice.

When tragedy strikes a hard blow to Bellman's own family, he encounters the mysterious man during his grief and they end up striking some sort of bargain.  While Will doesn't exactly remember the details of any agreement they must have reached, he goes on to tackle another hugely successful venture, all the while losing touch with his prior life and self.  The book serves as almost a parable, but the author is never so heavy handed as to spell out the lesson explicitly for the reader--or even for Bellman himself.

By the end of the ride--and the final CD, I'd explored everywhere from the English countryside to the surface of the moon, and I was ready to see where books would take me next.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Memoir and Truthiness

This summer, I've been taking a flash memoir writing class online, so as I am writing and reading about writing memoir, I become more aware of all the memoirs I encounter in my reading.

As much as I've enjoyed Sherman Alexie's writing, I'd never read all the way through The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven until this summer.  I've taught one of the stories "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" in English 113.  When I completed my National Boards certification back in 1999, a suggested reading, viewing, and listening list was provided, and Smoke Signals, the movie based in part on this book.

I guess I'm glad I waited because I ended up with the 25th anniversary edition of the book, with an introductory interview of the author by Jess Walters, author of Beautiful Ruins and The Financial Lives of Poets, both books I enjoyed immensely.  I learned that Walters grew up close to the reservation where Alexie lived, and the two have known each other for years. Alexie also adds his own introduction in which he addresses the idea of memoir.

When Alexie spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University this spring, he referred to one event in his sort-of-memoir, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  In the real event, he became angry when he realized how old his new math book was (It had his mother's name in it.) and threw it at the chalkboard.

"In the book," he told the audience, I hit my teacher with it, which was much more satisfying."

Memoir and autobiography don't even claim to be the same thing, but authors have choices to make about what to include, what to omit, when to take license to make a story complete--or interesting--without misleading.  Memoirists--unless living their entire lives on a deserted island--must also consider the reactions and responses of other people in their lives.  Even without intentionally distorting the truth, one writer's account will vary from someone else's, even though both may have been present and paying attention.  Jane Hertenstein, the author of Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir, cited a story I had heard recently about a professor at Emory who asked college sophomores to write down the details of the Space Shuttle explosion right after it occurred.  Two years later, when he asked the same students to provide details on this incident, he found their accounts varied greatly from their early narratives.

This only confirms what most of us know if we pay attention:  our memories operate through a filter. While we probably can't recall every detail--and especially every conversation--the challenge is to tell our own stories in a way that attempts to make sense out of the biggest details of our lives.  Alexie never pretends to provide a flawless factual account, but he certainly writes the truth.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sunday's New York Times Book Review section had a small column entitled "The Great Y.A. Debate of 2014" referring to a recent Slate article whose author not only admitted to not weeping at the end of The Fault in Our Stars but also suggested that adults should be ashamed of themselves for reading books written for children. All I can say is, "Oh brother."

The article quoted opinions from both camps--those who feel adults shouldn't be ashamed of their reading choices and others, such as A. O. Scott, the Times movie critic, who referred to the "problem" as "the cultural devaluation of maturity."

Would it please the court to examine the "adult" bestseller list, where the hundred and fifty shades of gray keep making their appearance?  Even the euphemism "adult language" in reference to movie profanity gives cause for pause.

What makes a work of literature YA?  S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (written when she was fifteen, yet a consistent favorite among teen readers) is often hailed as the first real YA novel, but if a book with a young protagonist or narrator is automatically considered Young Adult Lit, then there goes Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dandelion Wine, and Catcher in the Rye.  Sometimes books in the categories seem to have fewer explicit gratuitous sex scenes.

If adults must feel shame or resort to brown paper covers in order to read some of the best books that are slotted into this category, I'd suggest they start with The Book Thief, and after reading this summer's hottest YA movie The Fault in Our Stars, either check out other books by John Green, or move on the Rainbow Rowell.  My favorite this summer has been E. Lockhart's We Were Liars.  The Interestings by "adult" author Meg Wolitzer or Karen Russell's Swamplandia might also fit the bill.

In my humble opinion, with so many people skipping the book altogether and going straight to the movie or the HBO series, I'm just happy when people choose the book.  End of debate.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Blog Tour in Progress

 Welcome to my leg of the blog tour!  While I've been blogging for quite awhile, I hadn't realized how many of my former favorite bloggers have stopped altogether or at least taken a hiatus. I've enjoyed exploring who IS still out there writing and sharing.

 I was asked a week ago to join this endeavor by one of my fellow "Baker's Dozen" poets S.E. Ingraham.  She is one of several "good friends I've never met"--poets who got to know one another through our common interest in writing.

She is a retired mental health consumer, pens poems from the 53rd parallel where she lives with the love of her life, as well as a very old wolf/border-collie. Recently she's had work published in a number of online and print journals: Poetic Pinup Revue; Free Fall Literary Mag; and from kind of a hurricane press: Tic Toc, Something's Brewing, In Gilded Frame, Storm Cycle-the Best of 2012 and 2013, to name a few. She continues to work on chapbooks, and has  more plans for publication.  Ingraham won 2013's Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry contest, but her fondest accomplishment is a side-walk poem that will leave her words "written in stone" on a walkway near where her grandsons live. Her work can be found on her blog:

1. What am I currently working on?

While I have other blogs I use sporadically, I have been keeping up this one for several years now.  The name  Discriminating Reader came from Margaret Comer Epperson, who was my elementary school librarian, as well as my best friend's mother. Not only was she always sending good books my way, but I often monopolized her time on library day, needing her help to find just the right book.  I would tell her how much I had loved Charlotte's Web or Island of the Blue Dolphins, and ask her to find me another like them.  When she signed my yearbook in the third grade and wrote "to a very discriminating reader," I asked her what that meant.

"Some day, little girl," she told me, "you'll understand."

And I did.

For many people reading is a solitary pleasure, but I enjoy talking books. And since I get more time for reading (for pleasure at least) during the summer months than I do during the school year, I have tried to stay current with my book posts. This has been a great reading summer.

Although some people are reading purists, I will take my lit anyway I can.  I usually juggle at least one "real book" (paper and ink) simultaneously with an eBook on my iPad and an audiobook in the car.  The only disadvantage of audiobooks I've found is that I often don't know how names or places are spelled.  (This also helps me understand why some of my students can't spell: they don't read, so they don't actually SEE words.)  I thought at first that an eReader would help me curb my book collecting, I don't see a big change.  In fact, when I really love a book--even one I listen to on audio, sometimes I feel a need to own a copy.  This was the case this summer with Zevin's The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.  I knew that even if the author hadn't provided a list of all the  books mentioned at the end, I could at least create one myself.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I know there are other book blogs.  I check several myself, especially when I want to know what someone else has said about a book I particularly liked.  Some of the readers whose taste I have come to trust will blog about their favorites, providing me with fodder for my "must read" list.

The main difference is that my blog is about the books I read--not anyone else.  I rarely post negative reviews. Long ago, I remember a local journalist saying something similar about community theatre.  There's no point in writing a bad review.  Unless a book is SO bad I would want to warn others against it, I don't see the point.

I do occasionally include a post on a reading related topic that isn't a review of a specific book.  Since we have several venues for writers to read their works in my general vicinity, I sometimes add notes of those occasions.  One in particular I remember was Junot Diaz, who spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University's Visiting Writers Series.  He was one of those writers I have liked even better after hearing him speak.

Concerning the books I discuss: My reading list is eclectic to say the least. As to the "discriminating" part of my title, I just won't read some books even if they are on the bestseller lists.  I'm contrary enough that sometimes I avoid books (or series) simply because everyone else is reading them.  I shudder to think, though, that I might have missed the Harry Potter series for that reason if I hadn't learned about them before they became such a phenomenon--and that would have been a disaster.

While I prefer fiction--literary fiction--and poetry, I also find myself reading quite a bit of nonfiction.  My own teaching leads me to some topics.  In the past couple of years, I have team taught humanities courses on the Holocaust and on the South.  These two topics alone give me more reading options that I could ever exhaust.

3. Why do I write/create what I do?

I love the unlimited options of creativity. I post on this particular blog because I have so many people asking me what I've read lately and what they should read.  (How many others of you out there have a gynecologist who makes books notes on your chart during an annual pap smear?) I have always loved "talking books." I have letters exchanged with a friend when I was in fourth of fifth grade, and they all include reviews of whatever Nancy Drew book she had just finished.

I also spend a lot of time writing--poetry, fiction, nonfiction.  Right now I'm taking an online Flash Memoir class taught by Melanie Faith.  My "cuz" Sandy is the only other student.  We will have to fight for Valedictorian status.  I'm also working on art projects begun during my Photoshop class in the fall and my Printmaking class in the spring.

I have also had the opportunity to take several art classes at the college where I teach, so I have been adding to my skills and pastimes--photography, Photoshop, and printmaking, for example.  I have learned in these classes some lessons that apply to everything I do that involves creativity:  Take the time necessary to get it right. Try new things. Don't be afraid to start over.  Learn from the best.

How does your writing/creating process work?

For my Discriminating Reader blog, the writing goes quickly.  In fact, in much of my writing, first drafts come quickly.  When I am writing fiction, memoir, or poetry, revision is of utmost importance.

I always try to include a book cover picture, and I try not to give away any spoilers.  I don't always write about books in the order that I read them.  Sometimes I love a book so much that I want to start blogging about it before I'm even finished, hoping I'll convince someone else to join me in reading so I can be sure of having someone to discuss it with me when I finish.

I sometimes like to write about two books together.  I love how reading causes what my friend Steve would call "cosmic" coincidences.  Connections are everywhere.  I could probably develop book charts similar to those for "Six Degrees of Separation."

I have a couple of other blogs that I let flounder or hibernate then resurrect as needed.  My "Alabama Tarheel" site sometimes gets pressed into service for specific writing challenges.  I also have another "Since You Asked" blog where I've posted some of my art work from classes.  This blog tour might be just what I need to get those back on track too.

I'm "tagging" three other blogger friends who will be posting next week--Monday, June 30. I decided to go for a variety of content. Be sure to check them out:

Jane Harrison is an artist who recently retired from teaching art at Caldwell Community College with me. She blogs at She not only works on her art at her home with a scenic view in Happy Valley but spends time at the Penland School for Crafts where she will be teaching Mixed Media with Encaustic  from September 21 to November 14. She recently exhibited her work at the Mica Gallery in Bakersville, NC, and delivered a commissioned a large commissioned piece.

Margo (Jodi) Dill now lives in Seattle, Washington.  Her blog is called "It's Always Something."  Jodi has been a writer, she says, "since she was able to hold a pencil." She has worked in journalism, both in school and locally.  She has gone on to work as a travel writer and poet.  Her books include a memoir,  Nothing Gold, and a novel, Sing, and Don't Cry.  She has a current novel project in the works.  

Writer Shari Smith, a North Carolina native, now lives in Fairhope, Alabama, and maintains a blog called "Gunpowder, Cowboots and Mascara." In addition to her piece in The Shoe Burnin': Collections of Southern Soul, she has been published in Thicket Magazine,Wildlife in North Carolina, Western North Carolina (WNC), The Draft Horse Journal, O. Henry Magazine and Pinestraw Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel and a work of non-fiction, building a fence and in a mortal brawl with weeds along the creek bed.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Nonfiction Makes Its Way to the Screen

 Two of my summer books this year have been nonfiction works with an extended life.  I had been interested in the movie Monuments Men when I heard about it (but somehow have never found time to view it yet) because I've always had a real interest in some of the stories of art theft and destruction during war, especially WWII.

I'd read The Forger's Spell, the story of Han van Meegeren, whose forgeries made their way into the private collections of Goering, Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, a story set in the Hermitage when the Russians were diligently working to move their art works to save them from the Germans.  (I had first read the lovely poem "The Curator" by Miller Williams that introduced me to the fact that the pictures had been moved but the empty frames left hanging.)   Other books that had piqued my interest:  Thousand Splendid Sons by Hosseini, which described some of the ancient statues and other art destroyed by war, and Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna, in which I first learned that treasures of the the National Gallery were removed and hidden at the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, during the war.

In Monuments Men, readers are introduced to a number of major players. At first they seem like a lot of keep straight.  When I consider trying to accomplish their goal, though, the number seems far too small. They had few resources and had to make up their game plan as they went along, trying to protect churches, cathedrals, sacred texts and priceless artworks.  Many of these works were endanger simply because of their proximity to war, but as Hitler and the Nazis had specific plans to take any Germanic arts back to Hitler's home for a new museum, the threat increased exponentially.

One of my surprises came when I learned that one of the Monuments Men was Robert Posey, from a poor farm family in Alabama.  He not only played a big role in this effort but went on to work (as an architect) on the Sears Tower in Chicago.  The men involved in this project came from diverse backgrounds and seemed to work together effectively (which doesn't always happen in this kind of assignment.)  The author also pinpointed a number of citizens who played a huge role in saving or finding artworks.

At the end, while I celebrated the discovery of thousands and thousands of works--Rembrandts, Vermeers, huge altar pieces, and more--I had to wonder about all the art that was lost--or the art stolen from Jewish families that still haven't made their way back to rightful owners.

In a completely different vein, Orange Is the New Black, the true story of Piper Kerman's experience in women's prison on a ten-year-old drug charge, has become a huge television hit.  I had no idea it was based on a true story.  Kerman, a blue-eyed blonde twenty-something, the well-educated daughter of an upper middle class family, describes her actions that led to her fifteen year sentences and incarceration in Danbury, CT.  While not as dramatic, violent, and "sexy" as the television show is reported to be (I'm not a TV person. OK?) the story is fascinating.

Despite seeming completely out of her league, Kurman learns more than survival skills. She takes care of her body and mind, while learning to befriend her fellow prisoners and to stay out of trouble with the prison CO's.

An article in a recent Rolling Stone reports that Kurman is now working for prison reform.  Anyone reading the book can certainly see areas that need fixing.  She also shed a lot of light on the ineffectual way the legal system deals with drug law enforcement and the lack of genuine focus on reform in prison.

Kurman's books has the narrative structure of a good novel, and I enjoyed her honest self-appraisal in the book.  While I admired her self-discipline, I hope never to need a prison stint to accomplish personal growth.  I look forward to her future ventures into writing.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Books Appearing in the Mailbox, Shuffling My Reading List.

Books affect me in so many ways. I read some that I can't wait to finish, so I can pass them on to someone else.  I've written authors fan letters in the middle of a book. Sometimes a book doesn't stick with me (The Chinese food metaphor words--you're hungry again in no time.) Others haunt me.

Some books taunt me:  YOU could never write a book this good, they whisper.  Others take me places (and times) I might never visit otherwise.  Some make me care about ideas and issues I didn't before.  Some books make me laugh out loud; some make me cry.

When I started reading The Shoe Burnin': Stories of Southern Soul, I wanted to have been at the party, that first gathering years ago when the firewood ran out and old shoes started going into the fire--with one stipulation.  Each one deserved a story.

Eventually, some of the original players and others they've net along the way came together to share their stories.  Sometimes shoes play a key role, but at other times, a reader will have to look for them, the way moviegoers learned to watch for Hitchcock's cameo in each film.  Edited by Joe Formichella, the collection contains fictional tales, memoir pieces, poems, and on the CD that comes with the book, songs and spoken word pieces.  Often the lines blur between fiction and nonfiction. As Jennifer Paddock notes in "Burning Blue," "the more you remember something the less accurate it becomes."

Some of the names I knew personally. North Carolina singer-songwriter Michael Reno Harrell shares stories from his life that explain how he ended back in music, how he wrote one of the first songs he recorded, and how he learned empathy.  Hickory poet Scott Owens has a piece, and Ed Southern, director of the North Carolina Writers Network, tells a story of two Carolina men who decide to go help with the cleanup and rebuilding in Alabama after the last round of devastating tornados.  Novelist Suzanne Hudson (In the Dark of the Moon; In a Temple of Trees) is represented, as is North Carolina native Shari Smith transplanted in my home state of Alabama.

The short pieces could have been read in any order (and I've found myself going back to several of them), but Chuck Cannon's "Holding onto This One, " which closes the collection, read like it was written by someone who'd been living his life right beside mine, particularly the memories of growing up as the child of the preacher of a conservative Southern church.

Someone else reading may be struck in different ways by the pieces in this collection, but any writer--Southern or not--will have to exercise great restraint to avoid leaving pencil notes in the margins.  And I dare say that any reader will look at shoes just a little differently from now on. I would swear mine have started reminded me of their stories too.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Caring for Your Books--REALLY Caring

While I still have a growing number of books about which I plan to post this summer, please allow me to take a little side trip here today. Here's the back story: I just returned from the National Great Leaders Summit at the Kanuga Center in Hendersonville, NC, the site of the annual Great Teachers Seminar as well.  The Great Teacher Movement alone deserves more than a simple blog post. Suffice it to say that I spent three and a half days in a most pleasant setting with some of the finest people in the world from eleven states.

Our ages, experiences, and personalities varied widely--made evident by the "sorting" activities conducted.  One glaring difference related to technology use. No surprise.  David Gottshall, the founder of the Great Teacher Movement 45 years ago, has never owned a computer.  Some of the younger members of the group, teachers earlier in their careers, were actively using technology the whole time, taking notes on their iPads, quickly Googling on their phones when a question arose.

One of the activities of Great Teachers is to share a book of influence.  As one might imagine, books play a huge role in the life of educators, not just those of us in the English/Language Arts fields.  On the last day, as we shared from our selections I noted a few things that made me think--and laugh.

First, one or two of the people in attendance had borrowed a "clean" copy of their books, rather than sharing their own raggedy, coffee-stained volumes.  Ironically, those books drew less perusal than the ones with paperclip markers and sticky notes.

As we shared, the first couple of people who chose to read a selection from their phones or iPads had "technical difficulties": the page was there, then it wasn't.  Scroll. Scroll. Scroll.  David Sherrill of Texas was exuberant, cheering and holding up a paper copy and turning easily to a page.  When Kay Crouch shared from her paperback copy of The Ugly American (so old it had a fifty cent price tag), she admitted to feeling a little embarrassed at the secondhand copy's condition when she shared it on the book table.

 Discussions developed about how our favorite books often showed those signs of use.  The picture here hardly does justice to some of those books I've read--and taught--over and over.  My copies of Cold Mountain and Huck Finn are rubber banded. The covers hang on Watership Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Separate Peace--to name just a few. I could buy new copies--and I often do in order to have a copy to share--but these often-read copies are priceless to me.

Several years ago, one of my book clubs (Book-of-the-Month, I believe) sent members, gratis, a slim paperback copy of Dirda's How to Care for Your Books.  Ahhh! I thought. This is just for me. I don't just care for my books; I love them.  But no!  The book was obviously intended for book collectors, not book readers (which should have eliminated BOMC readers, since those editions are rarely collectible, I would imagine).  He told tips for not creasing spines, not getting food or drink anywhere close to a book.  It really boiled down to this one simple bit of advise: For heaven's sake, don't READ your books.  You'll devalue them.

Oh well.  I think my books enjoy more of a form of tough love.  I read and re-read them, sometimes leaving them open, face down (gasp!).  Not only do some of them bear coffee stains and the occasional crumbs, but DNA tests might also find evidence of tear stains.

I write in my books.  I often flip to the inside back cover of a book I am re-reading in order to make a note--the page number and a snippet of lines I like--only to find I had noted the same passage earlier when I read the same book.  When I loan books, I let readers make their own notes. I often ask them to sign a date my books they read.  I even more strongly encourage them to RETURN the book when they are finished.  Those notes may render the book less valuable on the open market, but they infinitely more valuable to me.  My books provide a journal of my life incomplete in any diary.  They crowd my shelves--double rows in places--and they pile up on every surface, but oh, how I do care for them.