Thursday, December 30, 2021

Character-Driven Novels of 2021


One of my favorite books recently has been The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. The book, set in London, focuses on two main characters, with a charming cast of secondary characters. Mukesh is an older man, recently widowed, who discovers one of his wife's library books, The Poisonwood Bible, under their bed. He reads it to try to connect with her. The second main character Aleisha works at the library, though she certainly wouldn't consider the job a calling or even a career.

Her brother is the reader of the family, and the two of them awkwardly share responsibility caring for their mother, who suffers from mental illness. When Mukesh comes to the library, asking for other book suggestions, Aleisha initially brushes him off. However, feeling guilty--and not wanting conflict with her boss--she finds a book list someone has left behind and decides to read the books on it, beginning something of a book club for two with Mukesh.

Throughout the storyline, others find copies of the same list as well--To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, Cry the Beloved Country and more. Not only does the list bring together unlikely friendships, but each reader gets the lesson that seems to speak to him or her. Mukesh has to navigate new relationships with his adult daughters now that their mother is gone. Aleisha faces her own painful losses. What blossoms is a hopeful, mutually rewarding friendship in a story that explores the power of books and libraries.

I was introduced to Rachel Joyce's novel several years ago, and I particularly loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye and The Love Song of Queenie Hennessey. Joyce develops quirky, endearing characters and sends them on unexpected journeys. At the beginning of her latest novel Miss Benson's Beetle, the title character is that awkward stereotypical "spinster" school teacher, the one the students mock without really taking care not to let her see. In response to just such mockery, she quits her job and leaves, stealing a colleagues boots, and sets out to explore New Caledonia in search of the mythical golden beetle about which she had become obsessed as a younger woman.

Miss Beetle advertises for someone fluent in French to accompany her, striking out with each applicant. In desperation, she ends up taking along Enid Pretty, who arrives in a bright pink suit and hat as they board the ship. Only after they are underway does Enid confess the the only French she knows is bonjour. At first, both of the characters seem like such caricatures, but with subtlety, tenderness, and much humor, Joyce makes the characters come alive. Along the way, this mismatched pair alternate between the needy and the caretaker, the leader and the assistant.

The story will not make readers want to head out for a similar adventure, but like me, they may hope to see this funny little book come to the big screen. I'd cast the same lead actress for this book as I would for Olive Kittredge.

Several other books I've read at year end have been populated by unforgettable characters. The Man Who Died Twice, Richard Osman's sequel to The Thursday Murder Club managed to live up to the first novel. The four charter members are back with new crimes to solve. I hope he's already writing the next one.


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Reading the Classic with the Current Bestsellers

After teaching composition to first-year college students for five or six years, I had the opportunity to teach World Lit I this semester. Even though British Lit has always been my comfort zone, I jumped at the chance for some variety. Following the lead of my colleague who usually teaches the class (when he's not in London for the Study Abroad program), I focused on epic poetry, starting with Gilgamesh, which I paired with Robert Alter's translation of the book of Genesis from the Pentateuch. Then we read the Iliad and the Aeneid, immersing ourselves in the opposing sides and the aftermath of the Trojan War. We finished with Dante's Inferno (always making me think of a fellow in North Carolina who referenced the work: "...Dante's Inferno. Now who wrote that?"  Obvious answer: Dante). 

What I found, as did so many of my students, was that once you are tuned in to a classic work, you find allusions everywhere. Hardly a day goes by that the crossword puzzle doesn't have a clue related to Homer or the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods. Recently, I started reading the latest novel by Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway. I loved Rules of Civility, and maybe even more A Gentleman in Moscow. This book holds up to Towles' standards without resembling either book in the slightest.

Set in the 1950s, the novel follows Emmett Watson, a Nebraska boy, newly released from juvenile detention upon the death of his father. He and his younger brother Billy, upon learning their father left them over their heads in debt, decide to take the Lincoln Highway to California to start a new life. Billy dreams of finding the mother who left them a few years before, while Emmett plans to use the construction skills he learned before his life took a rough turn, to buy and repair dilapidated houses, selling them and starting again.

Their plans are interrupted by the arrival of two of his former juvenile inmates, Duchess and Woolly, who slipped out in the trunk of the car dropping Emmett at home. They are determined to take a detour in the opposite direction to collect Woolly's inheritance.

Billy's brother, a precocious boy and an avid reader, reads and rereads Professor Abacus Abernathy's Compendium of Heroes, Adventures, and Other Intrepid Travelers, providing inspiration and parallels to their journey. The young boy called Duchess has grown up with a father who was part vaudeville part Shakespearean actor, much of which has rubbed off on the charming trickster. Even their encounter with a railroad hobo named Ulysses didn't challenge the readers suspension of disbelief.

With Song of Achilles next on my reading stack, I look forward to another perspective on these old stories into which authors continue to breathe new life.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Festival Season--For Books Too

 Fall traditionally means festival season, with a number of my favorite music festival almost back to back in September and October. Usually, though, I look forward at least as much to the Southern Festival of Books, a splendid Nashville event held downtown between the Nashville Public Library on Church Street and Municipal Auditorium with book exhibits (and food trucks) of all kinds in between. 

This year's festival was moved to a virtual platform (with the recordings still available for those who missed them), and I'll confess that Zoom fatigue kept me from participating as much as I would have otherwise.

Nevertheless, readers have plenty to choose from right now. I dipped into some of the most recent releases in the past month. I started with Mona Awad's All's Well, a quirky novel with a decidedly unreliable narrator, Miranda Fitch, whose acting career (Shakespeare festivals, not Broadway) was cut short when she fell off stage during the sleepwalking scene in "The Scottish Play." She's left with debilitating back and hip pain, which certainly interferes with the job she has landed teaching theatre at a college where the drama budget is dwindling. 

She is dead set on staging All's Well That Ends Well, even though the students want to perform Macbeth instead. To complicate matters, she has to square off with the daughter of the school's biggest donor (whom she is always forced to cast in leading roles.) The plot moves between entirely believable (for anyone who's ever been involved in high school or college theatre) to implausible magical realism, including three men she encounters at her local bar who reflect Shakespeare's Weird Sisters.

Louise Penny's latest novel in her Three Pines series, The Madness of Crowds, just came out, moving immediately to the top of my book stack. Gamache and his family have returned from Europe. The novel is set just as the introduction of the Covid vaccines have restored hope, as a lecturer at the small local college is stirring up crowd furor. Statistic professor Abigail Robinson is the subject of an attempted murder on Gamache's watch. He and even more so his right hand man and son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir have to wrestle with their personal biases as they investigate the attempt and then a murder that follows. Penny weaves in the historical account of former McGill University professor Donald Ewen Cameron, who conducted horrendous experiments on patients in the 50s and 60s in the MKUltra project. She also introduces the fictional Haniya Daoud, a young female Middle Eastern nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her visit to the small village proves disquieting as well. 

One of my favorite recent reads has been Richard Osman's The Thursday Murder Club. Set in an upscale Kent retirement community, the novel has a delightful cast of characters. Central to the plot are the four residents who form the murder club, meeting weekly to try to untangle unsolved murders. Landing right in their laps is an actual murder that takes place just as the developer makes plant to expand the development and relocate the old cemetery, the resting place of the nuns at the former convent.

                                                               The characters manage to stay just one step ahead of the police,

though they intentionally involve a female policewoman newly transferred from London and relegated to serving coffee and making dull presentations on security at the senior center. Osman uses a variety of points of view, particularly the journal of Joyce, one of the newest members of the club. As Osman wraps up the plot in a satisfying way, he leaves the door open for future novels. The Man Who Died Twice, just released, is on my short list to read next.i

After his huge success with All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr has an easy instant readership for his newest novel Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anyone expecting him to do more of the same needs to reset expectations. This new novel doesn't resemble his earlier novel in any way--except that it is a beautifully written story with fascinating characters. I read it while teaching The Iliad, so the literary references to Homer and to all the many lost tragedies and comedies from that period of literary history struck a chord. 

Doerr's settings include medieval Constantinople during the attacks by the Sultan, Idaho from before the Korean War until 2020, and the late 21st century on board a spaceship headed away from the earth toward a planet believed capable of supporting human life. Cloud Cuckoo Land,  the fictional lost tale of the title, is a surviving codex by Diogenes, that weaves its way through all of the story lines, bringing the characters together: Omeir, a boy with a cleft palate forced to fight for the sultan; Anna, a girl raised in the abbey inside the city gates during the siege; Zeno Ninis, an unlikely octogenarian hero; Seymour, a socially awkward young man disturbed by the development of the woods near his mother's mobile home; and Kontance, onboard the Argo, the spaceship where she was born. The novel is, among other things, a beautiful elegy to all the lost texts.

With so many diverse books from which to choose, any reader can experience a reading festival of one. How much better, though, to be able to talk about these books with someone else.


Friday, September 10, 2021

Best of the Fiction Stack


A look back at my list of most recent books assures me that I've managed to keep a steady diet of good reading, even when I have more to read than ever for school. I have always enjoyed a book that gives a glimpse into the lives and work of great artists. Nothing enables time travel like a good book either. Laura Morelli's novel The Night Portrait follows multiple perspectives in two time periods: Much of the story takes place in Milan, Italy, during the 13th century, following Leonardo da Vinci and one of his few portrait subjects Cecilia Gallerani, captured by the master in "Lady with the Ermine"; the other storyline takes place during WWII, following Edith Becker, a German art conservator pressed into serve by Hitler's regime to locate works of art owned by wealthy Jewish families to add to the German collection, and Italian-American soldier Dominic Bonelli, assigned to guard the Monuments Men, who were working to protect art and architecture and locate stolen works.

I read the book Monuments Men before the movie was released and was particularly fascinated to learn that one of the real Monuments Men, Robert Posey of south Alabama, shares ancestors (named in the book) with my husband's family. 

Morelli weaves the story lines together smoothly. Edith feels guilty for her unwitting role in stealing art from private owners, particularly when she discovers that many pieces end up not in German museums but in the private collections of high-ranking Nazi officers. She decides to take the risk of keeping records of works taken, their owners, and their place of "safekeeping." Bonelli has a natural artistic talent, but questions putting soldiers in harm's way to safeguard art, not lives. His desire to return home to his wife and daughters, one he has yet to meet, exists in  tension with his realization of the importance of art to human beings.

Leonardo, caught in the intrigue of a palace where he is painting the mistress at the time the Duke weds, comes across as an interesting, multi-dimensional character. Cecelia's story is a variation of the that of many women whose future is decided by others, often fathers and older brothers. 

Another novel that kept me reading recently is Catherine Lowell's novel The Madwoman Upstairs. The protagonist Samantha Whipple is a young woman in her early 20s, the last living relative of the Brontes. Raised and educated by her father in Boston after her parents' divorce, she arrives at Oxford, where she is placed in a dorm room in the "Tower" in a part of the old school that is a regular stop on campus tours 

Having lost her father prematurely in a fire, she seems to be looking for the part of him left behind. While the world speculates about her supposed inheritance, Sam is baffled as one by one, his father's personal copies of the Bronte sisters' novels appear in her room.To complicate matters, Dr. James Orville, her tutor (or don) challenges her every idea about literature, while avoiding the Brontes as long as he can.

Though I haven't Googled for confirmation of my theory, as I read the novel, I realized that Lowell must have engaged in academic research on the Brontes. The novel has material that could, instead, have been a dissertation. Samantha's conversations during tutoring session with Orvilles, as well as in her interior monologue, explore a variety of interpretations of literature, the Bronte works in particular. She and Orville argue about reliability of narrators, the meaning of text, and the value (or lack of value) in reader response theory. All of the literary talk is supported by direct textual evidence, making me think of re-reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

Sam, the novel's protagonist is socially awkward, certainly missing opportunities to make new friends at Oxford in favor of following her own muse and trying to discover what her father wanted to tell her. Lowell incorporates some plot turns that require a willing suspension of disbelief. The romantic story line is less plausible. Teaching in a college environment myself, the teacher-student complications set me on edge a bit. Sometimes Samantha isn't even very likable--but she is curious, courageous, and willing to try different perspectives. I learned a few things about the Brontes and their works as well that 'd much rather have learned reading a novel than a dissertation.

I got the suggestion to read Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton from a former colleague who regular pops up in my messages with great book selections. I had trouble finding it at first because autocorrect had changed the title to Pickle County. The novel's main character Harley Jensen is a deputy sheriff in a small town in the Nebraska Sandhills still haunted by his mother's suicide. The story opens just as the patriarch of the Reddicks, a local family, decides to go ahead and have a funeral--without a body--for his son who disappeared years before, a crime Jensen's department has been unable to solve. 

Thornton also follows one of the Reddick sons, something of a reprobate who knows hot to get Harley's goat, and the other Reddick son's wife Pam, a young mother completely restless in her role as wife and mother. The unsolved murder and the disappearance of the elder Mrs. Reddick, long unbalanced, keep the tension and suspense throughout the story. The author deftly creates such a strong sense of place. Pickard County Atlas is a dark tale, but one that gets under the reader's skin. 


Friday, August 13, 2021

Mixing in Some Nonfiction

I know my reading choices throw the algorithms of all those sites trying to sell me books. I'm amused that because I bought a particular textbook (Surpassing Shanghai), I am suddenly inundated by books and articles related to education in China--a month after the course ended. Of course, six years later, Pinterest is still sending me moving tips (No thank you!). I don't need their suggestions for rehearsal dinners either.

Even when the book suggestions align with my reading tastes, they come along too late. I read through saying, "Yep! I've read that one...and that one....."

All summer, I've worked some nonfiction into my fiction mix. After the aforementioned course (Comparative International Education), I re-read With Rigor for All by Carol Jago (from Heinemann Publishers). It is the best kind of publication aimed at educators: one that can immediately put to use in the classroom. I have long known Carol from all the years I attended the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English. She writes based on her experience "in the trenches," teaching high school English. By the way, she is also  a voracious reader whose lists I seek out. In this book, one of the main points is that when schools teach challenging literature only to the "top students," while others are assigned books they can easily read on their own, the gap gets wider. Rather than stopping with a theoretical claim, she shares strategies for guiding all students through these texts.

Another favorite book I've discovered this summer is Electric City by Thomas Hager. The main story, set near my North Alabama home, is one with which I have been long familiar: Henry Ford's failed plans to build a 75-mile city along the Tennessee River, where agriculture and manufacturing would coexist in a way to benefit the many workers who would be employed in this "new Detroit." Hagar discovered the story and found an appreciation for the people of the Muscle Shoals area during a visit where he discussed a book he had written about fertilizer. (No, I haven't read that one.) His interest was piqued and he completed the research for this fascinating book.

Another book I've recommended both to other educators and to parents of school-age children is The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Interested in the P.I.S.A. results that show American students scoring far below nations with school systems as diverse as Norway and South Korea, the author visited American exchange students integrated into some of these other systems. The section of the book I found particularly interesting was the appendix, where Ripley explains how to recognize a first-class school. (Hint: watch the students, not the teachers.)

If you checked in for some fiction recommendations, hang on. I'll have those soon too. 


Thursday, July 1, 2021

June Reading


My June list of pleasure reading is usually much more extensive--but this is the first June in decades when I've been reading for classes I'm taking. My familiarity with comparative international education has been extensive, but doesn't make for scintillating book reviews.

Justine Cowan's memoir The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames was a book club pick, one I hadn't even heard about before it made our list. I'm glad it did. While the author herself is certainly an important character in this story, the focus is on her mother, whom she only learned later in life lived her childhood with the name Dorothy Soames.

Cowan describes her own childhood living with a demanding, emotionally abusive, enigmatic mother. She grew up resenting the woman, confused by her father's complicity and protection of his wife, and not close to her own sister.

When her mother gave her a manuscript of her story, Cowan didn't read it--until after her mother's death. What she learned sent her to England to uncover her mother's secret past. She digs into the history of London's Foundling Hospital, where children--usually illegitimate--were raised in factory-like precision. Her mother had been left there as a baby after her mother, a single woman without the means to raise her daughter, applied for her acceptance. The philosophy of the founders and those who worked there was that illegitimate children bore the shame of their parents and should be trained for a life of service--as maids, soldiers, or sailors.

During the course of her investigation, she not only uncovered her mother story, but also learned about the interesting history of the institution. Quite surprising was the appearance of Handel (who played The Messiah there to one of his first appreciative audiences) and Charles Dickens, who wove details of orphaned and foundling children into his novels.

While Cowan learned that after WWII the grandmother she never knew had been allowed to take home young Dorothy, she was unable to find anything about what must have gone wrong. Those pages her mother intentionally omitted. If this had been a novel, the author could have tied up loose ends. Since it is based on historical events, though, readers can at least be hopeful that those who care for parentless children now have learned much about how to help them develop into healthy, successful adults.

Having read and enjoyed Daisy Jones and the Six, I was eager to read Taylor Jenkins Reid's new novel Malibu Rising. As I began, I was afraid it was going to be a tawdry tale of the lifestyle of Malibu celebrities, opening on the fateful night of an annual party in a magnificent home overlooking the Malibu beach.  Instead, Reid weaves together the story of the children of Mick Riva, a Sinatra-like singer, and his wife June, whose family ran a local fish restaurant.

The house belongs to the oldest daughter Nina, a surfer turned swimsuit model, whose husband has just left her for another tennis player. Her two brothers Jay and Hud are a professional surfer and photographer, respectively. The youngest sister Kit is twenty but hasn't had a romance yet. 

While the story moves back and forth between Mick and June's on-again-off-again marriage and the children's progress to adulthood, the arc of the narrative moves toward the party, one they've given so long that locals who know about it show up without invitation. Reid manages to build a story that defied my expectations. Rather than delivering a version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Reid shows the survival of a family of children left to raise each other, each wanting something that wealth cannot deliver.

Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train, explores another type of transport this time. Her novel moves back and forth between England and Australia, when as a part of the British Empire it provided a place to send incorrigible convicts.

She begins with the story of Evangeline, a daughter of a minister who takes at position as governess after her father's death left her with no other options. She is seduced by the son of her employer, who leaves her pregnant and charged with theft of a ruby ring he gave her before leaving for Paris. She is convicted of theft and imprisoned, eventually loaded on the Medea, a boat filled with convicts headed for Van Diemen's Land, the penal colony. She develops a friendship with Hazel, a teen sentenced for stealing a spoon. The young girl had acquired folk medical knowledge and midwifery expertise from her mother, which stands her in good stead on the ship. 

In the secondary story line, Mathinna, a young native girl catches the attention of the British governor's wife, who takes the girl back home as a project--just as much one of her collectibles as the skulls and taxidermied animals in her parlor. While the exotic-looking girl can be dressed up and taught French, she doesn't live up to the woman's expectations and ends up in an orphanage.

Kline doesn't leave readers with a resolution tied up neatly. She doesn't make the writer's mistake of caring so much for her characters that she solves all their problems. Instead, she lets readers into the minds of clever, believable characters, some victims of circumstances beyond their control and others survivors.


Thursday, May 27, 2021

On the Summer Reading List


Navigating my book stack--literal and figurative--has me making hard choices. With so many new books coming out every day and only so much time to read, my selections are based either on access or whim. 

Abi Daré's debut novel The Girl with a Louding Voice is a charming story of Adunni, a 14-year-old Nigerian girl whose father arranges her marriage to an older man with two other wives in order to pay rent with the bride price. Before her mother's death, Adunni had attended school and was eager to continue, hoping some day to be a teacher.

Not only does she have to deal with the exploits of her husband, but she constantly faces the anger of his first wife. She is befriended by the second wife, but a tragic turn of events leads her to flee her village. She ends up a housemaid in Lagos. All of her wages go to the man who delivered her to Big Madam, and she is limited to one meal a day. In her new surroundings, she also has to fend off the unwanted attentions of her boss's husband Big Daddy.

The tide turns when she is befriended by a young wife who lives on the same street. Tia, a young doctor's wife, finds ways to help Adunni improve her English and apply for a scholarship that will liberate her from her circumstances.

Daré deftly handles Adunni's rudimentary use of English, playing well to the reader's ear. As Adunni continues her lessons, her English improves with believable subtlety. Daré lso introduces each chapter with facts about Nigeria, a nod to the book Adunni discovered in the rarely used library of the house where she serves as housemaid. The novel presents many facets of Nigerian life--the vast differences between village and city life, the persistence of elements of culture that are most harmful to young girls--child marriage and slavery in the guise of employment.

Another book I read this summer is Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun. My first introduction to Ishiguro came with that lovely, subtle story Remains of the Day. I've since read Never Let You Go and The Buried Giant. Ishiguro manages never to repeat a literary success. Each book stands alone. The title character of this novel is an AF (artificial friend) in what appears to be the near future. While some details suggest the story is set in American, it remains indefinite.  

As the book opens, Klara and her friend Rosa live in a store where, along with other AF merchandise, they await purchase. Manager rotates them in and out of the window, the prime location for potential selection by just the right child. Klara, recognized as perceptive and observant, is selected by Josie, a young girl with physical difficulties that often leave her unable to leave her room. Klara is her companion and monitor, alerting the mother or housekeeper when Josie shows disturbing symptoms. Klara also meets Rick, the only neighbor, a boy about Josie's age with whom the girl has planned a future. While Josie has been "lifted," Rick has not, limiting his opportunities for higher education. 

During a trip back into town with Josie, her mom, Rick and his mother Helen, Klara meets Josie's father and gets his help in an attempt to save Josie's life, a deal with the Sun, whom Klara personifies and to whom she appeals. The mother, under the guise of a portrait sitting, has a more bizarre back up plan. In many ways, the book can be read as a story of sacrifice and devotion as well as a glimpse into a more unsettling future.

Another book making the lists this summer is Rebecca Serle's In Five Years. This book plays with reality in a similar mode as The Midnight Library and Oona, Out of Order. In this novel, the protagonist Dannie Kohan has her life planned out. Her long-time boyfriend proposes and life is good. Then she falls asleep and wakes in December 2025 in another place with a man she doesn't know and a different ring on her finger. 

She wakes again back in 2020 and keeps the experience to herself as she builds her career, interacts with her best friend Bella, and postpones her wedding. When the literal man of her dream begins dating Bella, Dannie is intent on avoiding or at least make sense of the future she had envisioned.

The summer of 2021 offers such a wide range of reading, no two books alike. Each one I finish opens up the opportunity for the next book on my stack.



Thursday, May 13, 2021

Women's Roles in World War II.


I have seen a trend in literature lately of telling the stories of women's roles in World War II. The ones I've encountered recently run the gamut from pure fiction to biography. At least three of the books I've read recently are set at least in part in Paris. 

Kristin Harmel's novel The Book of Lost Names traces the life of Eve Traube, a Jewish girl forced to leave Paris with her mother after her father was taken on a roundup when the two women were out of their apartment. She has to forge their papers to leave, and her talent for forgery is recognized in the Free Zone, where the two women are staying as they wait to escape to Switzerland. She is recruited by the local priest to help forge documents for Jewish children being spirited out of France. 

The book opens with Eve as an older widow in American, spotting in a news report a book that had been discovered, which she recognized as the volume she used to keep a record of the children's real names, lest they be lost.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles follows the life of Odile, a young Parisian woman who ends up living as a widow in the U.S. As Charles' epilogue explains, the book is based on real lives of people who worked in the American Library in Paris during World War II. They took chances delivering books to their Jewish patrons after they were denied access to the library. 

Charles' book divides the focus between Odile and young schoolgirl Lily, a neighbor to Odile in Montana. Lily befriends the woman they consider mysterious, a friendship that grows after Lily loses her mother and finds herself with a new stepmother and young brothers.

Both the young Odile and Lily often behave in ways that make them less sympathetic. Odile's infatuation with a young man leads her to overlook his questionable behavior. Lily's immaturity sometimes causes her to act thoughtlessly toward others who trust her as well. The saving grace of the book is the story of some of the employees and subscribers of the American Library in Paris whose lives were intertwined as they faced life in Paris under German occupation.

Next on my list is A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, the story of Virginia Hall, an American woman who acted with great daring and valor as a spy during World War II, despite having to live with a prosthetic leg after injuring herself in a shooting accident. Purnell spent about three years researching the life of Hall, not only detailing her undercover exploits but the difficulties that she had to overcome because she was a woman. She was continually placed in secretarial position despite her ambition and her abilities. The film rights have been sold for the book which has the potential to become a film of high adventure.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

She's Still Reading: Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering


When I go silent here on this site, I can guarantee it's not because I'm not reading. Instead, life has gotten in the way! This has been quite a (school) year: I'm still teaching part time and also going back to school in an educational leadership doctoral program, so I am certainly reading plenty. Never fear, though. Yes, I am reading a lot of academic texts--legal and political systems and organizational theory this semester--but I still make time for pleasure reading.

I want to share a lot of the books I've read recently, but the one I finished yesterday has been on my mind the most. When I interviewed a friend (my son's eighth grade English teacher who now teaches at App State), she recommended a number of books, and I have them in my stack now.

The first, The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, isn't my usual literary fiction. Instead, she writes about how to make the most of any occasion that brings people together, from dinner parties or church small groups to business conferences. And it is anything but dry. This is one of those books that had me thinking of who else needed to read it before I had even finished it myself. (Plenty of people have gotten the texts and emails from me.)

Parker talks about how to begin well--and to end well. One can easily steal some of her specific strategies. She points out how we often get too caught up in the logistics (those Martha Stewart style lists) instead of the people. She explains how a host who takes charge of an occasion is acting generously. She even gives suggestions for helping people process conflict in a productive, healthy way.

Several of her points made me think of occasions that had not been optimized, but I'm happy to say that she also made me aware of people who handle gatherings well. Some of the techniques reminded me of the best of the Great Teacher Retreats I used to attend in North Carolina. Most of us have been to an occasion, whether business or pleasure, that was so good we wanted to bring some of it back with us when we "reentered" our real world. 

I felt the same way when I finished the book. I don't want to put it on the shelf and forget what I learned. Instead, I want people I know to read it too so we can put some of the strategies into effect. After all, I think we are all eager to gather again.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Midnight Library: When All the Books Are Your Story

 I don't think I'm the only reader who finds herself drawn to books with "library" or "bookstore" in the title--and there are plenty. My next month's book club read is The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, but this week, I finished The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, which has a most unusual library.

As the book opens, the protagonist Nora is having more than a bad day. As the narrator reveals, hours before Nora wants to die, her cat Voltaire is found dead, her boss at String Theory lets her go, and she learns her brother was in town without letting her know. Her attempt to take her own life turns out differently from the nothingness she may have anticipated. Instead, she finds herself in an unusual library, staffed by Mrs. Elm, the high school librarian who had been kind to her. Nora learns that every book, all green, is the story of a life she might have lived, had she made a single different choice.

Mrs. Elm gives Nora a look at the book of her regrets--a painful experience--and then facilitates her book choices that let her explore all the roads not taken: What if she had not quit competitive swimming? What if she hadn't left the Labyrinth, the band she had started with her brother Joe and his friend Ravi? What if she hadn't called off her wedding just days before while grieving over her mother's death? Indeed, what if she had become a glaciologist?

Haig deftly creates suspense for the reader as he places Nora in her alternate lives--in medias res--with no idea what has happened to this version of her days even minutes before she enters the scene. She learns to pick up clues to her life, often causing those closest to her to assume she has some kind of memory problem. The concept around which the novel is built, the butterfly effect, may not be a totally new idea in literature, but Haig delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that suggests that there is no perfect life. Life, at its best, is messy.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Anachronism as Plot Sequence: Oona out of Order

 I don't mind a gimmick in a novel if it is crafted well and if it works. Shifts back and forth between place and time are part of the challenge and charm of a good book.

Margarita Montimore's novel Oona Out of Order is based on the unlikely premise that a young woman finds herself living one year  at a time but out of sequence. With a January 1 birthday, each New Year's Eve as midnight strikes, she finds herself on another January 1. 

In the opening chapter, she's celebrating her upcoming 19th birthday at a party with Dale, the love of her life. They're in a band together with an offer to open for a bigger band in the coming year. She is torn between the opportunity and a year in Europe she's planned with her decidedly square best friend.

Moving from 19 to her forties is quite a shock. Some version of herself has the presence of mind to leave a letter for whoever shows up in the coming year. She finds most of the letters. In the first time travel she arrives in a splendid house--hers--with her mother and her assistant, the only two people who know her real story.

Along the way, she finds love and marriage but with the ominous foresight to know they won't last, but not why. For all the times we have wished we could go back in time, "knowing what I know how," Oona's story suggests it might not help at all.


A Sequel to the New York Times' Modern Love


I am an avid reader of the newspaper. The real newspaper, not the online substitute. My roommate Susan and I even subscribed to the Tennessean when we were living in the dorm in 1975-76. The delivery guy set in on our windowsill.

I read with scissors and a pen. Monday through Saturday, I read through and then finish the Sudoku, crossword, and cryptogram. On Sundays now, I get the Tennessean  and the New York Times: More puzzles and more word games, the NYT Book Review. Sometimes it takes me most of the week to get to all the parts I like. 

I've been clipping favorite columns for years, which  explains the four-drawer file cabinets in the closet downstairs. Among those favorite columns is the piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal printed in the "Modern Love" section of the Sunday Times in March 2017 entitled "You May Want to Marry My Husband. Written as a dating site ad, Amy published what was essentially a love letter to her husband as she experienced stage 4 cancer. The piece extended her wishes--even her permission--for Jason to go on living after her. She died just days after the piece was published.

Now Jason has written My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me, his memoir that is every bit a love letter back to Amy, celebrating their courtship, marriage, and parenthood. He describes how the two intentionally made lists--part of their style--of their high expectations for living their lives together. They made plans for how to parent long before their three children were born.

Without crossing the line into maudlin and sentimental, Rosenthal gives readers the behind-the-scenes look at a good marriage and a good life, disrupted but not destroyed by cancer. Choosing to live with  purpose and a plan before cancer struck prepared them for the rough road they traveled together to the end of Amy's life. 

Before, Amy was the author and filmmaker in the family, but Jason has not only written the book but has made the TED circuit, sharing his story. One of the jewels of the book is a bibliography of books he recommends for other widowers. 

For the record, even with Amy's permission to move on, Jason still hasn't encountered the woman who answers to Amy's singles ad.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Reading Variety Spices up the Winter


Anyone looking for a pattern to my reading would be hard-pressed to find one (unless I listed the textbooks for my educational leadership studies. Don't worry. I won't.)

In this new year, I have enjoyed such a variety of books. One that I was most eager to read was Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague. Set in Stratford-upon-Avon, the book moves back and forth between the years Shakespeare spent in London, leaving his wife and children behind, and the earlier years when as a young man, he met Anne Hathaway (called Agnes in the book, as her father addressed her in his will). The author drew upon the scant historical details we know to weave a good story.

Part of the story is told by Shakespeare's only son Hamnet, whose twin Judith falls sick while he is alone in the house with her. All his efforts to find help fail. His father is in London, working at his craft at the Globe Theatre; his mother is out gathering plants for the healing for which she is best known. Judith recovers; Hamnet does not.

The story stands alone for readers without a familiarity with Shakespeare, but it is enriched when you know a little about the man considered by so many the greatest writer who ever lived. O'Farrell doesn't use gimmicks in the story. Instead, she puts together what is essentially a love story and a family story. Readers who have visited Stratford-upon-Avon and toured the Shakespeare family home will find the book especially appealing. The author's treatment of the small detail from his will that causes the most speculation, leaving his wife the "second best bed" is handled credibly too.

Another favorite this year is Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove. This is the story of a bank robbery that goes wrong due to the ineptitude of the would-be robber. It turns into a hostage situation with a group of people attending a real estate open house in an apartment upstairs from the bank. The story shifts perspectives several times, from the robber to a woman waiting, she says for her husband to park the car, to one of the women caught in the apartment who apparently goes to open houses with no intention at all to purchase, mainly interested in the view.

One of the things I like best is that at one point toward the end of the story readers will need to go back to the beginning to check to see some of their earlier misperceptions. The ensemble cast of characters--the hostage taker, the hostage, and even the father-son team handling the case--live up to Backman's standards in his earlier books.

I try to revisit a classic every year, and this year the choice was made by my book club. We had a great discussion of DuMaurier's Rebecca last year and decided on Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. This was a ninth grade favorite. Now I wonder how I read it when I was fourteen. It is dark, but fascinating. I suspect that the movie version with Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff that came out that year was part of my fascination. (The scene I remember most is his return after the long disappearance, wearing a green velvet suit, the camera moving from his boots to his face. Ah! What a transformation.) The movie took a few liberties with dialogue, but I still remember Catherine's "I am Healthcliff" speech. I enjoy the points of view of Mr. Lockwood and the housekeeper Nelly Dean, holding the strange main characters at just enough of a distance to intrigue.

I may have to read Lin Haire-Sargent's reimagining of the Story: H: The Story of Heathcliff's Journey Back to Wuthering Heights. I read it years ago and it sent me back to Jane Eyre as well.

Another powerful read this year was
Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart. Set in Glasgow in the 80’s, this book reminded me a little of Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes). The title character is the youngest son of a cabbie who moves his wife and the children out of her parents’ home to a house in a declining area and abandons them. The older children make their escape to independence, but young Shuggie feels responsible for his alcoholic mother, believing that if he just loves her and looks after her, he can save her. Not a feel-good story, but very powerful and moving.

Another timely work of nonfiction is Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro. A writer herself, Shapiro submitted her saliva to on a whim and discovered that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father. She had always felt different, looked different, but had strong family connections, especially to her father. The story is very much her search for her identity.

One perk from reading a lot during the semester break was winning the "Book Binge" challenge on campus: The prize--a book bundle from Parnassus Books. Now I have quite a stack waiting for me when I take a break from reading about educational leadership.


Friday, January 1, 2021

My 2020 Reading List

I'm not sure how many years now I have been sharing the list of books I read. I have kept up methodically since 1997. That may be the year I read that Art Garfunkel has kept his list since he was 16.  As I finish books, I list them on my kitchen calendar (a gift from my son John each year). At year's end, I transfer to my Book-Woman notebook. 

The pandemic may have given me more time to read for pleasure, even though starting a doctoral program in August added to my non-discretionary reading. (By the way, I only listed one or two of those books, since a chapter or two may have gone unassigned). Still, I am pleased with the list--the numbers but the variety too. 

I did take on a "2020 Reading Challenge" from the Modern Mrs. Darcy website, which included a debut novel, a book by a local author, three books by the same author, and more. I've already written about several of these books over the past year, so I'll just include a blurb for each.

Without further ado, here's the list. Posts on a few specific books will follow in the next few days:

1. Ted Kooser, Poetry Home Repair Manual. I had read this wonderful volume by the former poet laureate before. I was reminded just how useful and practical it is for any kind of writer. I had hoped to see Kooser again in the summer's Christian Scholars Conference, but his health caused him to cancel even before the pandemic hit.

2. Anissa Gray, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. Gray appeared in a panel at 2019's Southern Book Festival, but it took me awhile to get to this story of a mother and her daughters from their different perspectives.

3. Jon Clinch, Marley. This alternative tale of the Christmas Carol story nudges me to go back and read Finn, his dark (I hear) tale of Huck's father.

4. Anne Bogel, Reading People. I enjoy Bogel's Modern Mrs. Darcy's emails and blog posts, as well as her books, usually book-related. This book gives a taste of a number of inventories of personality and temperament from Myers-Briggs to the Love Languages and the Enneagram. 

5. Kent Haruff, Where You Once Belonged. I discovered Haruff via his Plainsong and Eventide, which I accidentally read out of order. His subtle books with engaging characters stick with me. 

6. Yangsze Choo, The Night Tiger. This book recommendation came from my daughter-in-law, also a voracious reader. It follows a mysterious death, apparently by a tiger, through the eyes of a girl working at a dance hall, a secret she keeps from her mother.

7. Markus Zusak, I Am the Messenger. While this book is not at all like The Book Thief, Zusak demonstrates that he can tell more than one kind of story. A young man without much of a future receives a message informing him of responsibilities that change his life.

8. Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Cummins appeared at Parnassus to read from her novel within about a day of the pushback about whether or not she had the right to tell the story of a Mexican mother and child attempting to migrate to the United States. (Dead authors were probably spinning in their graves, awaiting the verdict on their on appropriation.) Personally, I felt she presented multiple perspectives in a way that should open up more dialogue and encourage readers to seek to understand.

9. Joshilyn Jackson, Almost Sisters. I've been reading Jackson's unquestionably Southern novels since Gods in Alabama. This year, I read three (as part of my reading challenge). This one had a hilarious scene when the narrator's grandmother, suffering from Lewy body dementia, lets loose with the truth at a church covered dish dinner. As usual in her books, the mood moves easily between funny and serious. 

10. Jojo Moyes, The Giver of the Stars. I read this book about the Kentucky pack librarians before I read The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek. I think Moyes' attempt to flesh out the Southern women was a weakness of the book. I have also heard a lot of suggestions that she borrowed some plot devices from the other book.

11. Tommy Tomlinson, The Elephant in the Room. I have loved Tomlinson's writing since he worked as a columnist for the Charlotte Observer. The piece that ran on his wedding day (which he includes in this book) is a valued part of my permanent files of great writing. The overarching idea of the book is Tomlinson's lifelong struggle with weight (which he is addressing sensibly and gradually), giving the book  title its double meaning. This is also a love story, in my humble opinion.

12. Mike James, The Journeyman's Suitcase. James was one of the featured readers in our Black Dog Open Mic Poetry series (before the pandemic pushed us to Zoom). I was pleasantly surprised that we had lived in NC at the same time and shared many poetry friends. I hope to read more of his poetry.

13. Malaika Albrecht, Lessons in Forgetting. I re-read Malaika's poems the follow her mother's Alzheimer's. I have given copies of this book to other friends who are navigating this same difficult path, this tender burden.

14. Robert Galbraith, Lethal White. When I read these novels by J. K. Rowling, under her pseudonym, I honestly forget she is the author. While the books bear no resemblance to the Harry Potter story, her writing, her characterization are just as strong. I love Cormoran Strike and his protégée Robin. 

15. Karen Thompson Walker, The Dreamers. When I heard Walker at the Southern Book Festival on the same panel as Anissa Gray, I had read her debut novel The Age of Miracles. I read this book in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and found eerie the parallels between the sleeping virus in her novel and the virus we were beginning to face. 

16. Kory Well, Sugar Fix. Murfreesboro poet Kory Wells read for the Black Dog open mic. I love her voice, when comes through in her poems on the page as well as they do when she reads them (so well). The cover on the book is a bonus too.

17. Kiley Reid, Such a Fun Age. Reid appeared at Parnassus Books (back when that was still happening live) to discuss her debut novel with Ann Patchett. The racial currents of the book are only a part of the tensions of this well-told story.

18. Dave Clayton, Jesus Next Door. One of the bright spots of the beginning of 2020 was Awaken Nashville, a season of prayer and fasting focusing on those who live around us. I believe this was great preparation for what hit us in March, when suddenly neighbors came out of doors for fresh air and met each other. This little book led us through the month. I'll read it again this year.

19. Kory Wells, Heaven Was the Moon. See #16. Reading one book of Wells' poems led to another.

20. Lily King, Writers and Lovers. My book club had read and enjoyed Euphoria, also by King. This story of a young aspiring writer, dealing with mounting college debt while waiting tables was completely different and completely engaging. 

21. Ken Follett, Notre Dame. Follett, whose novels have drawn attention to centuries of European cathedrals, wrote this slim volume after the terrible fire. I believe the proceeds are going to the repairs.

22. Michael McCreary, Funny, You Don't Look Autistic. This library "all read" is a young man's memoirs (nervy, he admits--writing a memoir in his early 20s). He manages to dispel stereotypes about autism in a humorous, human way. 

23. Kim Michele Richardson The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek. See #10. Another story of the packhorse libraries of Kentucky during FDR's administration, this also had me Googling the "blue people" of that region. Yes, they're real.

24. Charlene May, Roberta. Charlene May and her husband ran the guest house in Port-au-Prince when I traveled there with Healing Hands International a few years ago. She has written the story of Roberta Edwards, the amazing woman who kept all our efforts there coordinated as she ran a children's home for more than 20 children--before her senseless murder about six years ago. 

25. Elizabeth Spencer, Starting Over (Stories). This year, I made an effort to pick up the still-unread books on my shelf. This collection was one of my Lemuria Books First Editions Club selections.

26. Ann Napolitano, Dear Edward. I loved Napolitano's book A Good Hard Look (in which Flannery O'Connor appears as a secondary character). This is the story of a young boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in which his entire family died. He is dealing with his own survivor's guilt as his mother's sister's family tries to help him build a new life.

27. Jim Defede, The Day the World Came to Town. I have been fascinated by the story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who welcomed the passengers on planes diverted from the U.S. after the incidents of 9/11. Defede gives glimpses of the locals who showed hospitality above and beyond expectations and put faces on the passengers and crew whose lives were put on hold.

28. Daniel Woodrell, The Maid's Version. This is another of my Lemuria books I hadn't read yet.

29. Isabel Allende, House of the Spirits. This was a re-read as part of my book club. It had been long enough since I first read this novel that it was like a fresh reading. I was also pleasantly surprised to find Allende's phone number--written in her hand--from when my friend Kim and I talked to her when she read in Hickory, NC, several years ago. I know some people don't like magical realism--but I do. She does it well.

30. Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler. I loved News of the World (and look forward to seeing the movie), so I couldn't resist this novel the picks up with the story of a minor character from that novel. Set in Texas at the end of the Civil War, this one also produces a great old-time play list. 

31. Monica Wood, The One-in-a-Million Boy. I think I loved this book as much as anything I read this year. I'm a huge proponent of collection of oral history, which is one small part of this tender story of what begins as a relationship between a centenarian and a young Boy Scout but that touches his family as well.

32. Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle. I don't know that I'd ever read anything by Olsen but her much anthologized short story "I Stand Here Ironing." Sometimes I forget how much I love a well-written short story.

33. Sally Rooney, Normal People. Maybe "normal" is an overstatement, Sally. But the relationships between the characters in this novel certainly pulled me in. Isn't this a series?

34. Ben Lerner, Topeka School. This book goes a lot of different directions with the recurring theme of unintelligible speech, but the portray of high school cross-x debate competition is so spot on. Having spent at least five years of my life driving a van full of debaters around the country, I suspect Lerner has been on similar road trips.

35. Deborah Wiles, Kent State. This is one of the Parnassus Next selections of young adult fiction. Told in different voices, she presents the many sides to the story known to many mainly through the song by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. 

36. Kari Gunter-Seymour, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can't Be Seen. Kari has participated in our Black Dog open mics, so I was glad to discover her work. Now the Ohio poet laureate, she seeks out voices of Appalachian women poets.

37. Austin Kleon, Show Your Work. Kleon's little books are among my frequent recommendations. They can be read in a sitting and they just make good sense--in such a clever way.

38. Eleanor Estes, One Hundred Dresses. This Caldecott Medal picture/storybook is a good example of a children's book that speaks to adults on a different level.

39. Joshilyn Jackson, Never Have I Ever. This book by Jackson is the nightmare of a book club gone wrong. Anybody in one knows how one person with an agenda can hijack the process. This story is the extreme that might happen when a new neighbor decides to expose long-hidden secrets.

40. Shannon Riggs, Thrive Online. This book was one of the summer book clubs selections for Lipscomb faculty intent on making the best of our new reality--teaching with technology. Riggs' point is that online education doesn't have to be a second-best alternative but can actually be used to teach well. 

41. Annie T. Downs, Remember God. This book was "assigned" by a dear friend to a small circle of us who have tried to keep connections during the pandemic. Our assignment--by the end of the year to give a word to each other for 2021. Heaven knows we need a new one.

42. Allison Pataki, The Accidental Empress. This work of historical fiction tells the story of a second daughter who married the heir apparent to the Austro Hungarian empire. She found herself manipulated by her mother-in-law, who took control of her children. Further reading about the real Elisabeth (known as Sisi), considered the Austrian Cinderella, led to some very surprising facts about this woman's life.

43. Jane Gardam, Crusoe's Daughter. I had received copies of some of Gardam's novels a while back and finally read Old Filth, which I found a fascinating read. This story was also a great read, with setting a major part of the story for me.

44. Elizabeth Berg, The Art of Mending. This is another story of a family uncovering secrets during an annual family visit during the state fair. The protagonist works as a quilter, which provides a nice metaphor throughout the novel.

45. Linda Holmes, Evvie Drake Starts Over. Evvie, the main character of this story, is ready to make a change in her life, when circumstances are taken out of her hands. Through a friend, she is introduced to a baseball player who washed up, thanks to the "yips." Their relationship and her platonic relationship with the friend who introduced them are strained as they develop under the watchful eye of the local residents and family.

46. Truman Capote Breakfast at Tiffany's. I confess that I had never watched the iconic film based on Capote's novella that makes up part of this collection (which also includes my all-time favorite holiday story "A Christmas Memory.") I was surprised. I forgot to listen for strains of "Moon River."

47. Ruta Sepetys, The Fountains of Silence. Another of Parnassus Books' YA selections, this novel by Nashville author Sepetys easily crosses over into adult reading. Set in Franco's Spain, the story follows a young American with his diplomatic family as his interest in photography gets him caught up with a local woman who works as a maid, after her family loses status during political upheaval.

48. Mark Mills, Amagansett. This book had been recommended by teaching colleague years ago. The story takes place between two worlds--the local New England fishermen and the wealthy summer residents. The plot begins with a body caught in a fishing net and follows the policeman investigating and the fisherman who recovered the body.

49. Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel. From the author of post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, this novel follows a young woman who takes on a new identity through her relationship with a man who becomes caught up in a Madoff-type scheme.

50. Clare Clark, In the Full Light of the Sun. I love a novel that delves into the art world. This one focuses on paintings that may or may not have been painted by Van Gogh, through the lives of artists, collectors, and other art world personalities in Berlin during the Nazi rise to power.

51. Lisa See, The Island of the Sea Women. See's novels always feel a little bit like travel--or time travel. This story of the women of the remote Korean Island of Jeju who have been physically conditioned to dive for sea creatures in even the coldest conditions during Japanese occupation. 

52. Flower Darby, Small Teaching Online. This is the second book our faculty book club read to prepare for the inevitable online component of our teaching in the fall. I need to give a shout-out to our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) staff, who were ready to offer the support we needed.

53. Ron Rash, In the Valley. If Ron Rash writes it, I'm going to read it--fiction or poetry. This collection has short stories set in Western North Carolina, along with the title novella, a sequel to his novel Serena. He does not disappoint.

54. Marybeth Whalen, The Guest Book. This is the epitome of a beach read, the story of a young woman returning to the beach house her family used to visit annually--until her father's death. Trying to look beyond the relationship with the father of her daughter, she hopes to find the identity of the young man with whom she had exchanged messages and drawings in the beach house guest book. 

55. Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine. As I mentioned in my post about the one, Dandelion Wine is a perfect summer read--nostalgia, a little touch of magical realism, a coming of age story.

56. Sarah Clarkson, Book Girl. This book's title is deceptive. There is a depth to this literary memoir by Clarkson who studied at Oxford, a dream that began with her fascination with C. S. Lewis. I could probably spend a year reading through the book lists she provides.

57. Tim Mason, The Darwin Affair. I read this library city read on recommendation from my book friend George. It's a mystery that has Victoria and Albert, Charles Darwin, and Dickens in the background.

58. M. O. Walsh, The Big Door Prize. Walsh was part of the "big reveal" held online for this year's Souther Festival of Books. The book is dedicated to John Prine (one of this year's great losses). The title is, of course, a reference to Prine and Iris Dement's "In Spite of Ourselves." The chapter titles and even some minor characters are a great scavenger hunt for Prine fans in what is essentially a clever Southern story about a high school teacher and his wife who consider their dreams and question their life's potential. 

59. Camron Wright, The Rent Collector. This was another of my favorites this year an incredibly uplifting story set in a trash dump in Cambodia. Among other things, it's a story of redemption and second chances and an homage to the power of literature.

60. Andrew Cartmel, The Vinyl Collector #1. In what is evidently the first of a series, this is the story of a young man who seeks and sells rare vinyl records who is hired to find a particular album, leading him on a path of romance, danger, and intrigue.

61. Ron Rash, Raising the Dead. (poems) Reading Rash's story collection sent me to my poetry shelf to revisit this collection of poems. I recall his suggesting that he wrote novels so his publishers would let him release volumes of poetry. I'm glad they do.

62. Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman. I don't think I've met an Erdrich novel I didn't like. The characters in this book live up to the standard she has set. I recall teaching "The Red Convertible" to high school seniors and learning that one of the students and her mother went on to read other Erdrich stories and novels together.

63. Tim Peeler, The Birdhouse. (illustrated by Clayton Joe Young) Peeler is a friend and an excellent poet whose poems come from all kinds of inspirations--his love for baseball, his former job as a hotel desk clerk, and in this slim volume, his experience working in the community college. The speaker/narrator is a young woman going to college and rethinking her relationship with her husband. Most of the narrative and interior monologue take place during the time it takes for him to mow their property. Young's photographs are an ideal complement.

64. William Kent Krueger, This Tender Land. This story is told by a young man who has landed with his brother in a school for orphaned Native American boys after losing his parents. The cruelty of those charged with caring for the boys and the loss of a potential mother figure sends the boys, with a young orphaned girl and a friend left mute on an Mark Twain style adventure, bringing them into the circle of a traveling tent revival crew.

65. Louise Penny, All the Devils Are Here. The worst thing about finishing a Louise Penny is knowing I have to wait for her to finish writing and to publish the next in her Inspector Gamache series. As I have oft repeated, I tend to avoid mysteries and series, but these are the most literate stories with characters I have come to know. A friend told me, "I rarely cry over a book but this one made me week--with joy." Enough said.

66. Megha Majumber. A Burning. This disturbing narrative is set in Indian as a young girl by coincidence is accused of assisting in a terrorist train bombing and sentenced. All the people in her life who might help her avoid unjust punishment are self-motivated to do otherwise. 

67. Brene Brown, Dare to Lead. Since I've been studying leadership this semester, this book by Brown was a good companion read. I've often used her TED Talk "The Power of Vulnerability" in my composition class. I like her common sense approach and her self-awareness too.

68. Ann Mah, The Last Vintage. This book shifts back and forth between the present and the WWII past when a daughter is a party to her father's hiding of the family's special wine vintage. In the modern part of the story, a young woman related to the family spends time on the family's Burgundy  estate as she prepares to take the Master off Wine exam. She and the college friend married to her cousin find writings that convinces them a relative acted ignobly during the war.

69. Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom. Gyasi has drawn from her own story to create Gifty, the protagonist of this novel about a young woman whose parents immigrated to Huntsville, Alabama, from Ghana. She loses her brother to addiction, following from a sports injury, and goes on to do her post-doctoral work on the brain, spending her days observing and manipulating her lab mice and caring for her mother who suffers from depression.

70. Camron Wright, The Orphan Keeper. After reading The Rent Collector, my mother went on to read this other novel by Wright, also based on a true story. In this one, a young Indian boy is kidnapped by people running an orphanage that supplies children for adoption to Americans. The parents who adopt this boy are unaware for years that he had living parents. His marriage, a love match that has to overcome his wife's parents' desire for an arranged marriage, gives him the opportunity to search for his real story.

71. Wendy Cope, Two Cures for Love. (poems) When my cousin asked for British poets whose poems weren't so dark, I got this suggestion from another colleague. I'm glad I did. The poems are almost in conversation with other works of literature, sometimes playful, sometimes serious. Cope may draw from another poem's form or allude to other elements. While I wanted to pick apart the references myself, she provides explanations and elaborations in the appendix to the volume. Fun.

72. Richard Powers, The Overstory. This book kept coming up in other people's reading lists. It's hard to describe the book to others without just saying that it's a group of inter-related stories, all in some way about trees. It was one of the more powerful books I read this year.

73. Leman and Pentak, The Way of the Shepherd. This is one of the books I was assigned in my classes this semester. This book is presented as a secondhand telling of lessons in leadership, with the idea of passing along the lessons learned. The original "shepherd" is a mentor who shares his leadership secrets with illustrations from his avocation, raising sheep.

74. C. S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew. I had long ago read Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and and Wardrobe, but decided to work through the Narnia series in chronological order. Even the guy who checked me out at Krogers said he had given away several of his own sets.

75. Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. From the author of Daisy Jones and the Six, this is a story with a similar journalistic mode. A young journalist is given the opportunity to interview an aging Hollywood star who has kept private the truth of her real love life.

76. Lisa Wingate, The Book of Lost Friends. I checked out the audio of this book from the library, only to have it snatched off my devices after 14 days. I had to wait weeks to finish it, but I'm glad I did. It's another of those stories set in two times--1987 and immediate post-Civil War. In one story, a former slave is seeking her lost family, as are so many others. In the modern story, a beginning teacher finally engages her reluctant students by inspiring them to uncover their own family stories.

77. Lee Smith, Blue Marlin. I'd say the only thing better than reading Lee Smith's fiction is hearing her read it. However, on the page, it's so easy to hear her voice. I especially love that after the end of the story, she has an epilogue in which she distinguishes between the events in her fictional plot and those in her own childhood. That part is excellent instruction for any aspiring memoirist.

78. I.C. Robledo, Practical Memory. This book offers lots of tips for enhancing one's memory for day-to-day activities (as opposed to memory competition found in Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein.)

79. Will Shorr, The Science of Storytelling. Part writing advice, part literature study, part brain-based, Shorr draws from literary and cinematic examples for a compelling book I expect to read again. And again.

80. Carol Burnett, In Such Good Company. It's hard not to love Carol Burnett. As she revisits the years of her television show, she has such gracious remembrances of her co-stars and guests. To prepare for the memoir, she watched all the episodes of all the years of the Carol Burnett Show. I couldn't help thinking how fun it might be to watch them with her. This came close.

81. Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future. Known for his "multiple intelligences," Gardner focuses in this book on the "five minds" that should be developed--the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. Between the lines, Gardner answers the recurring student question: Why do I need to know this?

82. Taylor Mali, What Teachers Make. Poet and former teacher Mali gained fame through his piece "What Teachers Make," a somewhat angry response to someone's snarky comment about why anyone would teach who could be making more money doing something else. He has set a goal to inspire young people to choose to teach. This book is affirming for all of us who have stayed in a career more for love than money.

83. Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club Guide to Slaying Vampires. If I were grouping books, this one might pair with Jackson's Never Have I Ever, a look at all the ways a book club could go wrong. This one suggests not so much that one shouldn't invite a man to her book club--at least without learning it with the other members--but at least make sure he's not a vampire. 

84. Molly Guptill Manning, When Books Went to War. This book shared a slice of history with which I was unfamiliar, the printing and publication of American Service Editions, pocket-sized books sent to servicemen overseas during WWII. This is another great tribute to the power of literature.

85. Larry W. Phillips, Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Phillips has compiled all Hemingway had to say about writing from his novels, short stories, and letters to produce a unified little volume.

86. Billy Collins, Whale Day and Other Poems. How I enjoy spending a little time looking at life through Collins' unique perspective. I love his attention to detail, her quirky observations as he allows readers to peek over his shoulder.

87. Dani Shapiro, Inheritance. Maybe and 23 and Me need to come with a warning: You might find out more than you expect. We've all heard the stories if we haven't lived them ourselves, people who find surprise siblings or more branches on the family tree. Shapiro took the "spit test" on a whim and had to face a completely different family history.

88. Jon Meacham, The Hope of Glory. Historian Meacham put together a series of homilies he delivered from the final words spoken by Jesus on the cross. 

89. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  See #74. Working my way through the Narnia series. Another reason to avoid Turkish delight.

90. Douglas, Stuart, Shuggie Bain. This is a dark and moving story of a young boy who tries not only to survive but to save his alcoholic mother from herself. 

91. John Struloeff, The Man I Was Supposed to Be. (poems) Struloeff teaches creative writing at Pepperdine and was named poet laureate of Malibu. These poems portray a life different from that of the academic and with subtle strokes sketches a picture of a father-son relationship.

92. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. My book club selects a classic each year, and this is our 2021 choice. I'm not sure if I've read it since the ninth grade (when I fell in love with Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff in the movie.) I wonder how many freshmen still read this dense, dark novel. I loved it again.

93. Joshilyn Jackson, Someone Else's Love Story. My third read by Jackson this year, this book opens with characters' encounters during a failed convenience story robbery that turns into a hostage situation. The characters all end up facing some truths in their own stories.

94. Fredrik Backman, Anxious People. From the author of A Man Called Ove, this is another story of a failed robbery turned hostage situation (see #93). The two stories could not be any more different. Full of surprises, Backman traces the stories of the would-be bank robber, the hostages, a psychiatrist, and the father-son policemen trying to tear up the details of the apparent crime. Backman has a way of taking quirky, unlikable characters and making readers aware how much we all have in common.

95. Maggie O'Farrell, Hamnet. I have a fondness for books that explore what little we know about William Shakespeare. In this book, subtitled "A Novel of the Plague," O'Farrell builds on what is known about the bard and his family. Readers are given background on Anne Hathaway (known as Agnes in this novel, as her father's will referred to her), portraying her as a country girl with a kind of second sight and knowledge of nature and cures. William meets her when he is hired to tutor her brothers in Latin and marries her when she is pregnant with their daughter Susannah, displeasing his father the glove maker John. The narrative moves between their courtship and early marriage to the year when their son Hamnet, twin to Judith, is lost to the pestilence. People have long speculated about his long absences, living and working in London while his family remains in Stratford. The answers O'Farrell imagines are satisfying, as is her interpretation of the significance of the "second best bed" left by Shakespeare to his Wie in his will.

96. Sara Clayton, Walking on Unknown Roads. (poems) Needing to finish the year with a dose of poetry, I selected Clayton's collection, in three parts, with poems that come together to weave the stories of a woman's life and loves.