Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Discovering Louise Penny, or How to Expand My Must-Read Stack

For practical reasons, I'm reluctant to start reading books in a series--not because I don't enjoy them but because they tend to commandeer my reading time, elbowing other books out of the way. I couldn't wait to read all the Harry Potter books, and I wait for the next in Alan Bradley's Flavia DeLuce books. At least when I start reading a series as it's being written, I can keep up.  When I discover a series that already includes several books, I'm already behind.

Case in point: I had heard readers I respect mentioning Louise Penny's novels, but I just never knew enough to read one. Then a former colleague who knows my book tastes recommended her works. He said he had read them all. I started with Still Life, the first in Penny's Quebec Inspector Gamache novels. A murder mystery set in the small village of Three Pines, the story introduced a cast of characters in a little arts community. I know that strong characters pull me into a story, and the residents of this Canadian town are interested, vivid, and clearly drawn.

Best of all, though, Penny's writing is delightful.  Hers is not show-off literary prose; she just manages to put words together, to put words in her characters mouths--or heads--that I want to mull over. Since her characters care about art, poetry, books, and good food, the deft allusions are incorporated smoothly throughout the novel.

I made the mistake of picking up the next novel out of sequence, skipping ahead a few books just because of library availability, to A Long Way Home. Inspector Gamache was back in Three Pines, now as a resident of the little village. The plot has him helping Clara, one of the characters from the first novel, to locate her husband, from whom she has been estranged for just over a year.  Again, the art community is central, as is Myrna, the psychologist-turned-bookstore owner and the crotchety poet Ruth, this time with a pet duck.

I was able to read this one out of order, but I felt like I had been out of town for a long while, returning to find that I had a lot of catching up to do.  I decided to enlist my local librarians to make sure that I read the rest of the series in order. If only Inspector Gamache could solve a mystery for me: how am I going to read everything I want to read in the coming year--or years?

My 2015 Reading List

For years now, I've kept a record of the books I read, writing the author and title on my wall calendar and then tallying just before New Years Day. When I record them, I am often surprise by the ones that have left my memory completely--and the ones that will be stuck in my head forever. I've written about many of the books here on this blog through the year, but I still have some I want to share. I may have to add annotation to the list once it's complete.

While I lean toward literary fiction, my list includes a lot of poetry (and I feel certain there are other collections and chapbooks I've read that didn't get written down. I always keep a little poetry handy wherever I go.) Many of the books are written by North Carolina writers; many were written by authors I consider friends.

I love to see others' lists as well. I can check it against mine and then add title to my "to read" list. While I may have one more to add before midnight rolls around on Thursday, here's the list so far:

Books I Read in 2015

Shari Smith, I Am a Town
Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Kennedy
Alan Bradley, The Chimney Sweeper Comes to Dust
Katie Crouch, Girls in Trucks
David Nichols, Us
Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Effect
N. T. Wright, Simply Good News
Maggie Shipstead, Astonish Me
Jay Erskine Leutze, Stand up That Mountain
Terri Kirby Erickson, A Lake of Light and Clouds (poetry)
Beth Ann Fennelly, Tender Hooks (poetry)
Jane Smiley, Some Luck.
Katherine Howe, The House of Velvet and Glass
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on a Train
Beth Henley, The Jacksonian (play)
M. O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away
Tony Earley, Mr. Tall
Michael Beadle, Invitation (poetry)
Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On
Dorianne Laux, Facts about the Moon (poetry)
Jeffrey Slayton, This Side of the River
Liane Moriarty, The Last Anniversary
Dimitry Elias Leger, God Loves Hairi
Sarah Addison Allen, Lost Lake
Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park
Andrew Sean Greer, The Story of a Marriage
Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory
Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins
Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Rebecca McClanahan, Write Your Heart Out
Suzanne Hudson, In a Temple of Trees
Paul Acampora, I Kill the Mockingbird
Erik Larson, Dead Wake
Nick Hornby, Funny Girl
Kimberly Blum-Hyclak, In the Garden of Life and Death (poetry)
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant
Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You
Renee Knight, Disclaimer
Beth Moore, Beloved Disciple
Josh and Ryan Shook, Firsthand
Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
Rachel Joyce, The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy
Kate De Camilla, Because of Winn-Dixie
Roger Pinckney, Mullet Manifesto
Sharon Draper, Out of My Mind
Colum McCann, Translantic
Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night
Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
Celeste Ng. Everything I Never Told You
Kate Clanchy, Meeting the English
Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
James Michener, The Source
Ron Rash, Above the Waterfall
Paula McLain, Circling the Sun
Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep
Nellie Hermann, The Season of Migration
Lynn Adarrio, It’s What I Do (A Photographer’s Life of Love and War)
Meg Mitchell Moore, The Admissions
Ta Nehisi Coates, The World Around Me
Joyce Maynard, Labor Day
Libby Bray, Beauty Queens
Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family?
Robert Beatty, Serafina and the Black Cloak
Joseph Bathanti, Half of What I Say Is Meaningless
Fredrik Bartak, A Man Called Ove
Louise Penny, Still Life
Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
Colm Toibin, Brooklyn
Stephen King, Finders Keepers
Jojo Moyes, Me Before You
David E. Poston, Slow of Study (poetry)
Bruce Niedt, 24 x 14  (poetry)
Dannye Romine Powell, Nobody Calls Me Darling Anymore
Brant Hansen, Unoffendable
Megan Kaminski, Deep City (poetry)
Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
Laurie Kolp, Hello, It’s Your Mother (poetry)
Louise Penny, A Long Way Home
David Mitchell, Slade House
Scott Owens, Thinking about the Next Big Bang n the Galaxy at the Edge of Town (poetry)
Jojo Moyes, After You
Kim van Alkemade, Orphan #8
Matthew Neill Null, Honey from the Lion
David Baldacci, The Memory Man

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Always a Great Source for Book Recommendations: NCTE

For most of my teaching career, I attended the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English wherever it was held. Held the weekend before Thanksgiving, this conference felt like the teaching equivalent of a gospel tent revival, sending me home with a renewed enthusiasm for this profession I have loved. I always came home with practical ideas I could use in class the next Monday, Wednesday at the latest, and a head full of ideas.
I developed friendships at these gatherings with people who shared common bonds, especially those who loved books as much as I do.  Among all the practical sessions, I always made time for one guilty pleasure, a regular session called Readers Ourselves. In this session, participants talked about books we had read for pleasure, not for the classroom. We were given an index card (low-tech, eh?) to note any titles we mentioned.  Michael Moore, one of the facilitators, always gathered the cards with contact information and shared the final list with everyone. He started this sharing before internet, but now the list comes via email.
At another regular session High School Matters, one of the larger double sessions, roundtable discussions alternated with some keynote speakers, the rock stars of the English profession.  My friend Carol Jago, one of the most voracious readers I know, always shared a list of her book recommendations.  Eventually her husband started printing up book marks so participants could listen without having to write (and keep asking, “What did she say?”). I always knew I could trust Carol’s book choices.
I’ve missed the conference for two or three years now, because of school budget constraints, but Carol and Michael generously share their lists anyway. I, in turn, will share them here (with the ones I've read highlighted). After all, who doesn’t need one more book list?
Carol Jago’s List:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
David McCullough, The Wright Brothers
Kamil Daoud, The Meursault Investigation
Brian Turner, My Life as a Foreign Country
Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't, stories
Claudia Rankine, Citizen, An American Lyric
Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Readers Session – Minneapolis:

My Dear, I wanted to tell you – Louisa Young -- Historical fiction, WWI
The Hero’s Welcome – Louisa Young – Historical fiction, WWI
The Three-Day Road – Joseph Boyden – Canadian First Nations’ Soldiers in WWI
Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf – 2 small town neighbors who have lost their spouses –
want to spend nights together talking
Dead Wake – Erik Larsen (Nonfiction, the Lusitania Tragedy WWI)
How We Learn – Benedict Carey (cognitive science)
Burial Rites – Hannah Kent – Last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland
The Rosie Project; The Rosie Effect – Australian scientist w/ Aspergers
Longbourne – Jo Baker – Pride and Prejudice the servants’ stories
Accidental Saints – Badia Bolz-Webber – NPR featured-memoir of unorthodox
Lutheran minister
Learning to Swim – Sara J. Henry – A woman thinks she sees someone fall off a Lake
Champlain ferry-and jumps in to save the person – mystery novel
Dead Man’s Land – Robert Ryan – Doctor Watson in the trenches of WWI-Someone is
using the cover of war for murders (mystery)
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
The Wave – Todd Strasser
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
Hold Still – Sally Mann
How I Shed My Skin – Jim Grimsley
Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson
I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend – Martin Short
The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkinson
Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant – Roz Chast
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Derrick
Minds Made for Stories – Jim Newkirk
People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks
10% Happier – Dan Harris
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Kondo
The Gifts of Imperfection – Brene Brown
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
Hate List – Jennifer Brown
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline
The Devil in the White City – Jeff Larson
Gifted Hands – Ben Carson
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doer
The Lotus Eaters – Tatiana Soli
The Serpent of Venice – Christopher Moore
Waking Up White – Debby Irving
The Year of Lear – James Shapiro
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare – James Shapiro
Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Guernsey Literary and Sweet Potato Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer
Make It Stick – Peter Brown
How We Learn – Benedict Carey
Lila – Marilyn Robinson
The Girl With All the Gifts – M.R. Carey
Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Cannot Stop Talking
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Boys in the Boat
Submission – Michel Houelebeque
The Map & the Territory
The White Road – Edmund de Waal
My Struggle – Karl Ove Knausgaard
The Wright Brothers – David McCullough
Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Year of Lear – James Shapiro
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
The Awakening - Kate Chopin
One Thing Stolen – Beth Kephart
Vernacular Eloquence – Elbow
Being Mortal – Atul Gawande
The Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert
The Brothers Karamasov – Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation
The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories – Gene Wolfe
Embers – Sandor Marae – Two older men – once friends-Reconnect after 40 years –
story reveals the secrets that cause the 40 year break
Special Topics in Calamity Physics – Marsha Pessl – at its heart is a murder mystery –
just a remarkably different voice
Horrorstory – Grady Hendrix – An IKEA like store is the hellmouth
The Distant Land of My Father – Boo Caldwell – Historical fiction that takes place in
Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – Elizabeth Tora Bailey – Memoir , a quiet
book about a woman who accidentally becomes an invalid and begins to
nurture the snail who arrives with get well flowers – fascinating
Biography of Georgia O’Keefe – Mike Venezia
The Norton Book of Nature Writing – Finch,E Elder – Literary authors on nature and
philosophy. Leads to exploring other works by authors.  I just finished a book
by Sigurd Olson and one by Louise Erdrich
Elements of Style – E.B. White’s wit
Biography of Woody Guthrie – Joe Klein
Difficult Men – Brett Martin – The third golden age of television.  The backstory behind
The Sopranos, The Wire, the Shield and others.
Just Kids – Patti Smith – Patti and Robert Maplethorpe in NYC in the mid sixties to mid
The Three Arched Bridge – Ismail Kadare – Nobel Laurette and a different kind of
magical realism
The Prophets – A.J. Heschel – Shows transactional consciousness is as old as Amos
and Isaiah
Soul Dust – Nicholas Humphrey – scientific theory of the evolution of not just mind but
soul in warm blooded creatures as a magic theatre that creates attachment to
one’s own life, to others’ lives, and to life itself.  A scientific justification for
putting the humanities at the heart of education once again.
A Woman in Charge – Carl Bernstein
Hillary’s Choice  - Gail Sheehy – Shows the Clintons as good and hopeful people.
Primary Colors –
Self and Soul – Mark Edmundson
The Idiot and The Devils – Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Book Lists Abound!

It's that time of year when lots of magazines and newspapers and publishing their "Best  Book of the Year" lists. Today's New York Times Books Review boasts "The 10 Best Books of the 2015." They list five works of fiction, five nonfiction. In addition, they ask Simon Winchester in "By the Book" what was the best book he'd read so far. (He named Farthest Field by Taghu Karnad, a book he calls "so hearth-stompingly beautiful [he wants] all around to read it too.") Then on the last page "Bookends," sixteen other authors answer the same question.

By the end of the year, I always compile the list of books I've read, but by then, I will already have another huge list of books I want to read next. Already, I feel those unread books slipping up behind me, with a louder whoosh than "time's winged chariot."

Just a week ago, in the course of a phone conversation, Shari Smith (I Am the Town) told me, I just finished reading the best book I've read in a long time.  Stop reading whatever you're reading and read The Secret Wisdom of the Earth  by Chris Scotton." Guess what's downloaded on my iPad now? Yep.

As frustrated as I get by realizing the sheer impossibility of reading all (even most) of the books on my "to read" list, I keep adding to it. I know I've met "my people" when we start talking books and they pull out their list and jot down a few more titles.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Curious Incident Meets Neverwhere: David Mitchell's Slade House

No one can accuse David Mitchell of writing the same thing over and over. After reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet  and then Cloud Atlas, I couldn't imagine how one writer could accomplish two such distinct but intricate novels.

When I started Slade House, with the introduction of the first character, I felt as if I were back in the world of The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time by Mark Haddon, particularly since the first protagonist (or victim) introduced was a young boy obviously somewhere on the Asberger's spectrum. Then -- just like that, the book shifted to another character, and another. Suddenly, I felt like I was reading something by Neil Gaiman--Neverwhere or Anansi Boys.

Whoever this David Mitchell might be, he had me hooked in this fantasy tale of events that occur at Slade House every nine years as twin brother and sister Nora and Jonah bend reality and lure in individuals to prolong their lives.

Of the visitors to the unusual estate which improbably takes up huge space, though literally appearing between two city blocks, some are amusing, some annoying, and some quite sympathetic. Of them all, Sally Timms, visiting the house on Halloween night with her Paranormal Club from University, is the most sympathetic. I kept wanting to scream warnings.

And since the world created within the walls of Slade House doesn't play by the rules, the characters who find themselves there certainly have the odds against them.

Once I finished the book, I did a little reading about the other book by Mitchell I haven't read yet, The Bone Clocks, and I discover there are connections between the two works, particularly the 2015 visitor Marinus, a "horologist." Suddenly, I remembered running across the phrase "bone clocks" in the tale. In fact, the grandfather clock earned mention in each section of the tale.

Now I wonder if Mitchell will stay in this world awhile or if he's ready to move on to a completely different time and place.