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.