Monday, March 30, 2015

Why I Need a Community of Readers

March is nearly over, but I am just now getting around to reading the books (all signed) I received from my family at Christmas.  Most weren't surprises, since I am anything but subtle in my hinting. These books have waited, moved back and forth between my nightstand, book shelves, and end table, while pushier books (and reams of student essays) elbowed their way to the top of my obligatory reading list.

This weekend, I finally got to begin (and finish) Tony Earley's newest book, billed as a novella and short stories. The stories, most of them realistic and set in a fictional area lying somewhere in North Carolina near Earley's home Rutherfordton (or as the locals call it, Rufft'n).  Some of the story lines and character lists overlap, in different times. In the title story, a young bride, newly pregnant, left alone in her remote home as her husband works away during the week and returns home each weekend, becomes an older woman in a later story "Just Married" that supplies denouement to the her earlier years.

The story "Cryptozoologist" I had heard a few years ago when Earley read here in Hickory, when he pointed out that a story needed "three things" to come to live.  Two of his three, as I recall, were Eric Robert Rudolph (called Wayne Lee Cowan in the story) and a skunk ape, the Appalachian version of Bigfoot.

However, the last story in the collection"Jack and the Mad Dog" had me torn between rushing to finish (so I could read it again, more careful, more analytical) or calling other people, insisting they read it immediately and then call me back, or maybe writing a fan letter to Earley.  The protagonist in the story Jack (yes, that Jack, he reminds readers, the mythical giantkiller and climber of bean trees).  In this story, Earley has woven folktales and clever, subtle literary analysis.  Jack encounters all the cast of all his stories, as well as (spoiler alert?) Tom Dooley, playing a cameo role, Jack's competition as central character in their area of North Carolina.

Sometimes when I read a novel or short story, I catch myself thinking, "I could do this. I could have written this story."  Not so with this Jack tale.  The clever use of language, or literary elements, humor, irony--it's all the demonstration of more art than craft.  I laughed out loud, but usually at some clever twist or bit of wordplay Earley had worked into the story.  Juggling, weaving--any metaphor falls short to describe the magic of this particular story.

I'm afraid that I, like Jack, may have to keep reading and re-reading, at least until I find someone else ready to talk about the story with me.  I may have to pay Mr. Earley a visit.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

I Can't Like 'Em All

Years ago, a local journalist in my hometown said that one should never write negative reviews of local community theater.  He believed it existed in another realm from Broadway, where picks and pans make or break.  Community theater only happens when amateurs--local dentists, teachers, mothers, choir directors, and yes--aspiring actors--spend their time to make a little magic.

If the audience bears the burden of the "willful suspension of disbelief," then the critic should go a step further and offer the benefit of the doubt.  I am a huge fan and patron of local theater, and I have rarely--almost never--thought a performance was so bad I wished I could slip out. Only once, in fact.  More times than not I have laughed and cried--sometimes at the same time.

I usually suspend similar generosity to book reviews, following the old dictum, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything."  I read enough excellent books that it seems a waste of time to spout off about the others.

But there's always that once. Our reading group decided to read Katherine Howe's The House of Velvet and Glass, particularly since the author was appearing locally for a reading.  The blurbs mentions that the book opens aboard the Titanic, another strong pull for me. I love those stories (though not the movie). 

On my tablet, the book was 581 pages. I'm not a speed reader, but I manager to get through a generous number of books each month. This one took me two months. Two months.

While the author moves readers on and off the Titanic (but not all the way through the final tragedy) as well as back decades before to Shanghai, where one of the characters appears as a young Boston sailor given his foreboding first experience with a crystal ball and addictive hallucinogenic drugs.

The main character Sibyl, the daughter and older sister of two of the ill-fated Titanic passengers, seems bound for spinsterhood, slipping off to seances when she's not trying get her brother--that ne'er-do'well rascal--out of trouble.  I found the characters difficult to like or to believe.  I highlighted some of the conversations because I wanted to know if anyone else found them as unlikely as I did.  When I reached the epilogue (and discovered a number of other documents in something of an appendix), I was both surprised and relieved to have reached the end, leaving Sibyl in the arms of her first love (now widowed and returned from war with a puckered but noble scar across his face).

The deus ex machina appeared in the form of a two-year-old boy--a "ball of fury," I believe he was called--four time in two pages. I'm not sure the gun fired in act five was actually on the mantle in act one.

I leave with this disclaimer:  I have so many other books I'm itching to read right now, so maybe the time wasn't right for this book--at least not for me right now.  But I finished it.  All 500-something pages.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Jane Smiley: Simplicity and Subtlety at Its Best

Sometimes I love a novel that just knocks my socks off, takes my breath away; at other times, though, I enjoy gentler fare.  Even though the midwestern plains are far removed from my own experience, I find myself drawn to works set there over and over again.  Often the understated language, the simple and delicate story line sneaks up on  me. 

Kent Haruf's Plainsong and Eventide were both that kind of novel, so subdued at first until I found myself surprised, loving the gentle characters.  This new novel, too, is reviving comparison to the works of Marilynne Robinson. 

I hadn't read Jane Smiley in awhile. I had first read her A Thousand Acres right after I taught King Lear for the first time, and I had ventured into other of her works.  Some Luck, which I learn is to be the first of a trilogy, is set in Iowa and begins in 1920 in the infancy of Frankie Langdon, the son of Methodist Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna Vogel from a German Catholic family.

Year by year, as the family grows, Walter and Rosanna grown into themselves, dealing with the usual hard work of farm life, as well as the devastation of drought and the Depression.  Their brood illustrates the old adage, "No two children are born to the same parents."  While Frankie--eventually calling himself Frank--is a dependent, sometimes deceiving child, his brother Joe seems weaker, less confident.  Their beautiful baby sister Lillian, born after the accidental death of little Mary Elizabeth, shows more self confidence--sometimes surprising the whole lot of Langdons.  Henry and Claire, born later, find their own places and personalities. Claire, in fact, born after Rosanna has moved past hyperparenting, becomes her father's favorite.

Rosanna's sister Eloise, who lives with them awhile, goes on to marry a Russian Jewish communist--just before the McCarthy Era.  Smiley manages to step up close to her characters while places them against the backdrop of their world--World War II, political changes, motor cars, trucks, and tractors replacing horses.

Smiley's writing rarely provides laugh-out-loud moments, gasps, or sobs.  Instead, she shares those small personal moments, observations of daily life that make her characters real to readers: marital relations in midlife, a child's loss of a stray dog he wanted for a pet, the death of a friend during college.  Her characters. during daily survival, manage to find love, to build good lives with honest hard work.

After turning the last page, I'm pleased to know there will be more to come.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Girl on a Train: Here's to Unreliable Narrators

Since I've been struggling through some less than satisfying books lately, it's high time I mention a recent bestseller than kept me hooked.  Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train is getting a lot of attention, even drawing comparisons to Gone Girl.  Rachel, the protagonist, is the girl of the title, a woman whose marriage ended, at least in part, because of her alcoholism, a problem she doesn't really try to hide, though she certainly tries to fight it. She lost her husband Tom, as well as her job, but she keeps riding the same train in to work so the friend who has let her stay at her house--and who moves between pity and disgust--won't know she isn't working.

The train usually makes a daily stop by the street where she once lived and where Tom now lives with his new wife and their baby--particularly painful since Rachel was never able to have a baby, a problem that certainly played a part in her other problems.  She avoids looking at her old house, her old life, but becomes obsessed with a woman she calls Jess (really named Megan) and her husband.  She builds intricate fantasies about their life, but then witnesses another man there with "Jess"--just the day before the woman is reported missing.

Rachel finds herself drawn to the case, remembering only bits and pieces of her own activity the day of the disappearance.  Hawkins weaves in the story of Megan's life with her husband, as well as that of Anna, Tom's new wife.  It is Rachel's story, though, that draws readers' uncomfortable sympathy.  I had to empathize with her friend with whom she stayed as I had to sit back and watch some of her damaging decisions.  When she's questioned by the police, I wanted to help her answer the questions in a way that would make them want to believe her, rather than scorn her.

Unlike Gone Girl, as I read this book, I genuinely wanted Rachel to be safe and sober, to have a better life. While Hawkins maintained suspense by withholding the identity of the real villain in the book, I didn't worry that Rachel might be at fault, only at risk.  I wanted her to take care of herself, since she seemed to have almost no one else. While Megan was beyond saving, I wanted to believe Rachel was not.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When to Quit: Reading and Guilt

I know some people who have a hard and fast rule about finishing any book they start. No exceptions. Others have assured me there are guidelines: To find the minimum number of pages you must read before giving up on a book, you must deduct your age from one hundred. I've assigned enough required reading to know that taking choice out of the reading equation multiplies the reluctance. I have also pressed on through a long, slow exposition to discover a great payoff.

When my mother handed me her copy of James Michener's Centennial, she warned me that I had to get through the first couple of chapters about rocks and buffalo.  She was right.  Eventually, I even understood why he had found it necessary to tell me about those two topics.  When I taught Cold Mountain to AP English students, I had to nudge them to get through the first two chapters because I knew that in the rest of the chapters, they would discover the threads he was subtly weaving into his narrative.

The cartoon page "Sunday Funny" in this week's New York Times Magazine hit the nail on the head. I'm glad to low I'm not the only avid reader who feels angst occasionally.  I find myself stuck right now, in the middle of a book I am reading for book club (which I should have finished two weeks ago but, in fact, still have 300 pages left), and I just can't get through it.  I won't mention the title because someone else may love the novel.  (By the way, I know not everyone loves Michener, but I do. Or did. So there.)  Meanwhile, I've returned two books on CD, one after listening to five discs, because I just didn't care what happened next.

I don't know how listening time translates to the 100 minus your age rule, but for now, I figure there's no way I get to all the books I want to read.  I see no sense in wasting time. Until I find a good audiobook, I'll be listening to music.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mississippi Mecca

One of the perks of teaching English, for me, is the chance to attend conferences across the country.  I've always found myself rejuvenated and energized after spending a few days sharing teaching ideas, brainstorming solutions to our common challenges, and yes--talking about books with people who love books and encountering authors who might have written the next good book I might teach in class.

Mid-February I went to Jackson, Mississippi, with four of my teaching colleagues to attend the conference of the Southeast Region of Two-Year College Associate (TYCA). The local committee had obviously worked hard to put together a great conference. Since the organization was celebrating its 50th birthday, we were invited to "Party Like It's 1965."

In addition to the sessions, the conference featured authors.  Husband-and-wife team Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly read from their novel The Tilted World, and Jessmyn Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in 2011, read from The Men We Reaped, the story of the death of brother and three other young black men from the same town.

Since the other four members of my group had not been to Mississippi before and weren't sure they'd have a chance again, we planned our trip so that we'd have time to visit sites connected to two very important American authors.

We visited the home of Eudora Welty the day we arrived and were treated to a wonderful tour, with a most excellent docent Cynthia Lyons provided plenty of stories and details along the way.  I felt quite at home, especially with the stacks of books on every conceivable surface, a decorating trend I much prefer.

I've always been as much a fan of Welty's superb memoir One Writer's Beginnings as of her fiction, so the memorabilia and the film that wrapped up our tour satisfied nicely.  Ms. Lyons told us that as long as Miss Welty was in good health, she was often seen at her front door.  In fact, as long as she could, she would sign books people brought by, and when health prevented such generous hospitality, people would leave their books on the porch, and she would sign and leave them for retrieval later.

My musician friends from nearby Madison also met us at Brent's Drugs, the little soda shop that appears in the movie The Help, and later showed us other areas from the movie.

At the end of our conference, we rode north toward Oxford to visit Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, that other literary giant of Mississippi.  We were lucky enough to have my friend B.C. Crawford joining us, pointing out other sites of local interest in Oxford as well.

We arrive at Rowan Oak during a deluge.  We had to scurry up the tree-lined drive to the house. Inside we were given a little brochure and told to guide ourselves.  Evidently, the surviving members of Faulkner's family have been less generous with details and artifacts, so the home was a bit more sparse than Welty's.  In our group, we discussed the potential of producing a podcast for the house tour, especially when we saw the pictures from Faulkner's daughter's wedding and recalled the apocryphal story that he had told her, nodding toward the crowd assembling for her nuptials, "You know they're here to see me, not you. Right?"

Of course, a visit to either Jackson or Oxford would have been incomplete without visits to the two wonderful independent bookstores. Since I've been a "First Editions Club" member at Lemuria Books for years, I was pleased to see the actual brick and mortar store in Jackson. Then in Oxford, after a perfect lunch at Ajax Diner, we visit Square Books, taking time to look at all the signed author photographs.

I wonder sometimes what math teachers or science teachers do at conferences. Do they stand in line at book signing? Make pi jokes?  Share scantron tips?  They can't have as much fun as we English instructors do when we're out on holiday.