Thursday, December 1, 2022

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

 Even though I keep a growing list of book recommendations from fellow readers and from the publications I trust, occasionally I happen upon one with no preconceived notions and it's a treasure. Most recently, I came across Pip Williams' novel The Dictionary of Lost Words. The story is set in Oxford across the time period of the publication of the first Oxford English Dictionary. The protagonist Esme has grown up in the Scriptorium, where her father words editing and compiling words, slowly from A to Z as slips pour in from across the English-speaking world. 

Anyone who read The Professor and the Madman already knows a little about the process. Williams' fiction, however, gives an inside look against a backdrop of the women's suffrage movement and World War I. Esme, raised by her father after losing her mother early enough that she never knew Lily, is tolerated as she hides beneath the table as her father works, inspecting the shoes of the meant who work there and gathering slips that fall unnoticed to the floor.

She begins to stow treasures in the trunk of Lizzie, the "bondmaid" (one of the almost-lost words) who is also her best friend and trusted confidante, despite their social differences. Esme, whom Lizzie calls Essie Mae, recognizes that "women's words" don't find their way into the dictionary, in part because they are not written--at least not in publications that matter. She starts her own collection.

Williams manages to address gender and class differences without becoming pedantic or preachy. The many secondary characters, including Esme's father and his fellow lexicographers, Edith Thompson (whom Esme calls Dieter), the family friend who writes her father and Esme from Scotland where she works on her own history books while contributing to the dictionary, Tilda, her actress-suffragette friend and her brother Bill who show her another side of the world, and finally, Gareth, the compositor who wins her heart before heading off to the battlefield.

Williams' novel achieves what historical fiction writers should hope for--a sense of time travel. She brings her readers into a time and place where her fictional characters interact with historical figures (the OED's Murray and Thompson) to shed light on the past.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

 Whenever I finish a book by Kate Atkinson, I realize I need to read all of them. Shrines of Gaiety was no exception. I was first introduced to Atkinson with Life after Life (published the same year as Jill McCorkle's wonderful novel of the same title). In that book, Atkinson was able to pull off her stunning plot twists--or splits--without coming across as gimmicky at all. The sequel Gods in Ruins, with the brother of the protagonist of Life after Life in focus, was just as cleverly plotted but in a fresh way.

I also found Transcription worth reading. I realize that while some books I read don't take root, hers stick with me, even small details. Her latest, Shrines of Gaiety, is set in post-WWI London. It opens with the release of Nellie Coker from prison on liquor license charges, returning like a celebrity to continue running her businesses--bars and restaurants servingas fronts for her other illegal endeavors. No motherly figure, Coker nonetheless has produced a number of offspring--two sons and four daughters--whom she is putting into position to run her shady empire, to mixed results.

Into her world, Atkinson introduces two runaway girls from York--Freda, an aspiring but mediocre actress, and her best friend  Florence, who comes from a better family but lacks street smarts. Atkinson introduces two other important characters--Gwendolyn Kelling, a nurse during the war now working as a librarian, and Frobisher, the London detective to whom she turns to help find Freda, the half-sister of her friend. 

Some have compared Atkinson's development of the novel's setting as Dickensian. She weaves small historical details through the story in an intriguing way. After King Tut's tomb was disturbed, for example, all things Egyptian are the rage, while much of London fears the curse unleashed in the process. She depicts the debauchery of young revelers, regularly throwing costume parties as an excuse to disguise themselves as Pierrot or as adult-sized babies, the disappearance of disposable young women caught up in Nellie's seedy business, and the levels of corruption of law officers.

What I enjoyed most, though, was Atkinson's ability to write one great sentence after another. She makes me want to underline in my hardcovers or call someone to read aloud. She makes me want to read something else she has written. 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Emma Straub: This Time Tomorrow


Time travel books and movies fascinate me. They always have. I love the anachronisms--the modern coin in Christopher Reeve's pocket in Somewhere in Time that sends him back, the Exxon map in the Wild West that baffles the locals as much as the rider's motorcycle in a movie from the 70s or 80s whose title I have forgotten. Stephen King's November 22, 1963 made me anxious when knowledge from the present world came into contact or conflict with the past. 

Emma Straub's recent novel This Time Tomorrow sets up the best kind of time travel suspense. Her protagonist Alice Stern (an art major like the last novel character I met) is not living the life she anticipated. Just turning forty, she's single, but not eager for her younger boyfriend to pop the question. After her mother left to explore her own new age interests, Alice was raised by her father, famous for writing Time Brothers, a cult favorite time travel novel that went on to inspire a popular TV series. As the novel opens, Alice's father is hospitalized with a less-than-hopeful prognosis. 

She is working at Belvedere, the same exclusive Manhattan prep school she attended in high school and visiting her father in the hospital when she is off work. After a birthday celebration with her long-time best friend Samantha, cut short by an emergency in home with one of Sam's children, Alice stops for drinks--too many drinks--and heads to her childhood home instead of returning to her apartment. 

[Spoiler alert!] When she wakes in her childhood bedroom on her sixteenth birthday, she begins a cycle of return visits. Exploring what her father's friends refer to as the "Baby Hitler" paradox--if you go back in time and kill baby Hitler, how will the future be changed?--Alice finds that small things she does or says in her past have sometimes unanticipated changes in the future.

For me, the greatest suspense in these novels comes when the characters arrive in a life for which they are unprepared, sometimes with a different family or career, and they have to bluff their way through until putting the pieces together. Most recently, I'd read Oona out of Order, another book with a time-traveling birthday girl, always landing in a different year of her life, sometimes more aware of the future than the immediate past.

In This Time Tomorrow, Straub maintains the suspense and the threads of the story, creating a portrait of love and friendship. The novel may leave readers wondering what they would change if they had one chance--or many--for a do-over.


Saturday, October 22, 2022

Stephen King's Fairy Tale

I haven't read all of Stephen King's works, but the more I read, the more I wonder why not. Misery was the first of his novels I read--during my postpartum period after the birth of last born. At the time, it was a nice diversion to what was on television: the Iran Contra hearings.

In recent years, though, I've read Mr. Mercedes and its sequels, November 22, 1963Billy Summers, and King's On Writing, which I consider a valuable contribution to writing on writing. One perk, too, is that some of my students who would not otherwise consider reading a book about writing will read a book about writing by Stephen King. 

As I read his works, and as I read about his writing from Stephen King fans, I realize that having more of his books under my belt would be rewarding since he has so many subtle self-references throughout. I know Billy Summers was set in part within view of the ruins of the setting of The Shining, and I am told that he weaves references to his previous works throughout November 22, 1963.

King's novels, always heft, require an investment of time. In print, they are suitable for doorstops. On audio, they are easily twice the length of the average bestseller. I suspect true King fans never complain about the length any more than Harry Potter fans might have wished each successive novel were shorter. No! Give us more.

King's latest novel Fairy Tale begins as a deceptively realistic coming of age novel, as Charlie Reade, a high school junior has survived his mother's death in a freak accident and his father's alcoholism and return to sobriety. The anomaly in the small town setting is Howard Bowditch's house, the rural Illinois equivalent of Boo Radley's house. Overgrown and unkempt, the house is also guarded by Radar, Bowditch's fearsome German shepherd.

Charlie's first encounter with Bowditch occurs when he heard the dogs plaintive barks and the softer sound of the old man calling out in pain. Despite his wishes, Charlie is hailed as a local hero for saving the old man, and an odd friendship is born as he takes care of the aging dog while the old man is in the hospital to repair his badly broken leg. 

But Charlie hears a strange sound coming out of the padlocked shed. Yes, this is a Stephen King novel after all.

Through strange revelations from the old man, Charlie learns of a portal to another world, a fantasy world. As he descends the spiral stairs to a land he learns is called Empis, the story begins to feel more like a Harry Potter story for adults. King creates a believable other world, even as Charlie--Prince Charlie--feels the tension between the two world.

When all is said and done, however, this is a story of how far boy will go for the love of his dog.


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Book a Day Challenge

 Disclaimer: While I refused to sacrifice reading for pleasure when I started my doctoral program, I have let it cut into my book updates here, which shames me. After all, one of the greatest pleasure of reading is sharing and discussing what I read with others. To that end, I plan to post a book note every day until I have posted about all the good books I've read since my last post. The posts will not be in order as I read the books but instead as the push their way to the front of my brain.

One of the books that caught my interest most recently was Margaret Verble's novel When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky. My interest was due impart to the setting of the novel, the early 20th century, when the Nashville Zoo was located in what is now the Green Hills area, near where I teach, in fact.

Two Feathers is a young Cherokee woman whose job at the Glendale Park Zoo is horse diving. The cast of characters includes Shackleford, whose company runs the zoom and whose family lives in Longview Mansion, right on Caldwell Lane near my campus. Two Feathers' closest friend at the zoo is Crawford, a Black employee who cares for her horse. Verble develops several secondary characters, such as Clive the zookeeper who is still haunted by his WWI experiences, a number of the young women who entertain crowds at the zoo, including two sisters two throw (and sometimes drop) plates. The antagonist Jack is obsessed with Two Feathers, spying on her from a tree near her window and even letting a monkey loose in the girls dormitory to tie him a chance to get into her room.

An interesting aspect of the novel is the way Verble weaves elements of magical realism into the narrative. Clive sees ghosts of his cousin who served in the war with him, and Little Elk, the spirit of a young Indian whose life was cut short, appears to several characters. The animals themselves are characters with personalities, and Two Feathers feels a particular link to them and empathizes with their suffering.

The peek into historical Nashville is a perk for those of us who live there. As I head north on Granny White Pike now, I think of the buffalo run that was once there. I'm planning to locate the old bear caves on Scenic Drive and Clive's stone house on Lealand Lane. 


Thursday, July 14, 2022

When the Fiction Reader Encounters Great Nonfiction


I may be losing my credibility as a reader who prefers fiction, but I keep finding memoirs and other clever nonfiction books landing on my stack and completely capturing my focus. Of course, I've been an Ann Patchett fan since I read Bel Canto. Since moving to Nashville where I can drop by Parnassus Books, which she co-owns with Karen Hayes, I find more reasons to admire her work and her advocacy for books and for authors. I bought her latest collection of essays These Precious Days (evoking "September Song") as soon as it came out, but for some reason delayed beginning. I know that when it's time, a book finds me. By sharing her own life, she opens up a world to readers. Asked which is my favorite, the answer would change on any given day.

She writes about her "three fathers," her home, books and authors she loves. One particularly tender story is the account of the time Tom Hanks' assistant moved into Patchett's house during COVID while undergoing a cancer trial. I also suspect that I am not the only person who finishes this book with a longer "to read next" list.

By no coincidence, I read Mary Laura Philpott's latest memoir Bomb Shelter, after hearing her speak at a Parnassus event. Rather than focusing on book sales, she took the time to raise awareness of the good work of Vanderbilt's Monroe Carrell Children's Hospital, where her son was treated after the sudden onset of epileptic seizures.

At the event, I also had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Jay Wellons, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Vanderbilt, whose first book All That Moves Us was released this month and merits a review all its own.

In a completely different vein, I have been recommending A. J. Jacobs' The Puzzler to anyone who, like me is obsessed with puzzles and word play. Jacobs, who may be best known for his earlier work of nonfiction The Year of Living Biblically, goes chapter-by-chapter through all types of puzzles. He starts with crossword puzzles, then discusses the New York Times' Spelling Bee, which has a surprising number of people waking in the wee hours and starting on the newest bee, published daily at 3 am EST. He also discusses the Rubik's cube, jigsaw puzzles, logic problems, and so much more. The writing is clever and the audiobook, which he reads himself, offers a pdf of the puzzles from the book that are difficult to translate into words. (He also includes some special puzzles at the end of each chapter specifically for audiobook listeners.) Since I blame crossword puzzles for slipping to third place in the 6th grade race for class rank and since I must admit that if I get up to use the restroom in the middle of the night, I check the spelling bee, this book spoke my language.

The End of Average by Todd Rose was recommended by a colleague who is ahead of me in our doctoral studies. For someone who is statistically challenged, this book was a reassuring consideration of how averages can be misused, to the detriment of students, work productivity, and even pilot error. 

Rose uses stories that are both interesting and true to draw attention to ways that an obsession with average has its drawbacks. This book served as a perfect companion to my favorite nonfiction book of the year Range by David Epstein. Rose, like Epstein, isn't ready to dismantle academic research, but her encourages readers to consider different perspectives. After all, he points out, no one is average.


Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel


One of the few disadvantages of reading voraciously is analogous to eating a many-course gourmet meal: it's difficult to savor one because of the conflicting details. That's a small lingering regret after finishing Emily St. John Mandel's latest novel Sea of Tranquility. With so many--and such varied--books I have read this summer, I feel the need to sit with this one a little longer.

Like Trust by Hernan Diaz, which I discussed in an earlier post, this novel makes me envious of the writer's sheer ability to weave and order a story like this. With the many characters over centuries, the author plays with historical fiction, time travel, and the impact of technology. From 1912 to the 23rd century, from Europe to the  New World to the second colony on the moon, Emily St. John Mandel pulls together a shared paranormal experience, plagues, book tours, and avant-garde film, without dropping a single stitch.

I confess that although I read (and loved) The Glass Hotel, I completely missed that the character Vincent in Sea of Tranquility was a character in the earlier novel. Perhaps this is good justification for literature tests asking students to remember names, dates, and places. When Jennifer Egan pulled a similar sleight of hand in Candy House and when Stephen King planted little details from The Shining in Billy Summers, (and should I mention David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks?) I was gratified to recognize the connection. Somehow, though, I want to re-read--or at least review--the original novel.

I've seen people ask on reading sites whether it's important to read The Glass Hotel first; I'd say, no. Honestly, it might be interesting to read it second to see if personal literary time travel works just as well. If only my list of what to read next weren't so long, I might do just that.


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

My Reading Statistics

 Okay, so the title is a ruse. I was trying to figure the best way to introduce my constant dilemma this summer, since I am taking Quantitative Research Methods, a six-hour statistics course. I have to decide whether to read for pleasure or to read for homework. I've learned to tackle a statistics assignment and then reward myself by reading something fun. The motivation and the payoff work for me.

TJ Klune's The House in the Cerulean Sea was a recommendation from a reading friend. The protagonist Linus Baker, an employee of the Department In Charge of Magical Youth, lives an ordinary life--if you can call it that--as a caseworker, inspecting orphanages that provide housing for quite extraordinary children. Then he receives an assignment that takes him to an island by the sea--which he has never seen before. His first glimpse at the children's files is enough to make him faint. While there, he learns to champion others who don't quite fit the norm--from a garden gnome to a phoenix. 

When Linus decides to take the children on a field trip to the mainland, where he knows to expect resistance, I was reminded of Pat Conroy, in The Water Is Wide, taking the children he taught to trick or treat and then to visit D.C. I also recalled the second Harry Potter book when Dumbledore explained to Harry that one doesn't have to carry around the weight of the "sins of the father." Klune's tale also shows that how we become family doesn't always follow the expected path.
                                                                                                                                Having read Euphoria and Writers & Lovers, I knew I would want to read Five Tuesdays in Winter, Lily King's latest book. This one is a collection of short stories that really deliver. From the first story, I couldn't stop reading. The first story drew me in. The second, the title story, set in a small bookstore, was a particular favorite. Many of the protagonists are young people  --or adults reflecting on events that happened when they were younger. Sometimes, the point of view shifts a little--and always in a satisfying way. The writing is clever, and the literary references are never gratuitous. I suspect I will be thinking about some of King's characters for a long time.

Hernan Diaz's novel Trust is one of those rare reads that had me recommending it to others  before I was even finished because I knew I would want to talk about it. Diaz starts with a beautifully written story, but then he shifts to what at first seems a disconnected narrative--until it doesn't. The shift from one perspective to another, from one writing style to another, completes a story, leaving the reader with the challenge of figuring out what is true. 

The center of the narrative is the stock market crash of 1929 and those who may have manipulated trading. This is the story of a marriage or more than one story of what may be the same marriage. It is also the story of a woman charged with ghost-writing the tale, leading her to search for the full story. 

The narrative structure feels less like a gimmick and more like a puzzle, as the reader follows the threads toward the truth.

Anne Tyler's novel French Braid follows three generations (at least) of a Baltimore family. Beginning with an encounter in a train station between Serena and her cousin Nicholas, Tyler tells most of the story as a flashback. She begins in the 1950s with a family trip to a lake cabin, where readers get to know the three children of Robin and Mercy, who will go on to make up the bulk of the story. As I read, I kept wondering about Tyler's title. Although the reference is brief, its significance is a powerful observation of the way our families are always a part of us. 

The characters that populate the novel are quirky and believable. As Tyler lets them grow older, then old, they become more of themselves. The  conflicts of the novel are subtle--sibling rivalry, imperfect marriages, awkward parent-child relationships--and always mitigated by love.

I think the likelihood of my continuing to read for pleasure this summer (and all year long) is statistically significant. 


Thursday, May 26, 2022

Nonfiction Choices of the Summer Reading List

I never deliberately balance my nonfiction reading with fiction, but I find that I work my way through more nonfiction these days than in the past. One book that drew my attention was The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation. I find that the diary itself holds up to re-reading every few years, and I have also read a number of books that fill in some of the blanks about the short life of this child whose writing was evidence of such a bright mind. I even enjoyed the novel The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, based on the false premise that Peter actually survived the war and lived to adulthood, keeping his past a secret in the U.S. Sullivan goes into some detail about the actual experience in that attic space, but goes further as a modern team followed up leads, using up to date technology, to determine who might have informed the authorities about their hiding place. While the conclusions are not absolute, the author and the team of investigators put forth substantial evidence about the guilty party. They also suggest that Otto Frank and Miep Gies also knew of the identity but ever revealed the information out of an instinct to protect the family of the person responsible.

 In a totally different vein, I enjoyed Carole King's memoir A Natural Woman, which follows her life, tracing her success as a songwriter and singer, as well as detailing her personal life. I am always shocked to be reminded just how young she and Gerry Goffin were when they began penning their mega-hits. Rather than a tell-all in which she spills the dirt on others whose paths crossed her, this book is usually generous to other she knew but sometimes painfully honest about her own life choices. Details of her performance as part of James Taylor's band was a stunning reminder of all the talented musical arts who supported one another during their heyday. The book begs for a companion playlist. 

Michelle Zauner's memoir Crying in H Mart, which began as a New Yorker essay explores the complicated dynamics between mother and daughter, compounded by culture. Zauner, the Korean-American lead singer of the indie rockers, Japanese Breakfast, particularly explores the strong sensory connection between familial ties and food. For book clubs that pair meals with books, this memoir provides a perfect culinary opportunity. After reading Lisa See's Island of the Sea Women and The Girl with Seven Names by Lee Hyena-seo, one fiction and the other non-fiction, I am beginning to crave kimchi.


Saturday, May 21, 2022

Summer Reading--While It's Still Spring

 Living on a school schedule, I love that my summer break starts in early May. I've always made an effort not to let my work get in the way of reading for pleasure, but summer always gives me a little more opportunity to whittle down my book stack.

Jason Mott's novel Hell of a Book alternates between the story of a Black writer (of a novel called, no coincidence, Hell of a Book) during his book tour, involving many strange encounters, including one he calls The Kid. In a parallel narrative thread, another young boy called Soot by bullies because of the comparative darkness of his skin, deals with school conflict and then witnesses his father's death. The narrative keeps readers speculating about the connection between the two stories. The story is both unsettling and originally told.

Jennifer Egan's Candy House lives up to expectations for anyone who read her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. The first novel certainly proved to be prophetic in the way technology would begin to eliminate our privacy--even of our thoughts. In this new novel, a scientific discovery is coopted by Bix Bouton for his company Mandala, offering people the opportunity to "own your own consciousness." Realizing that characters from the earlier book make an appearance in this one has me considering re-reading Goon Squad for continuity and to see just how much of what seemed far-fetched then is our reality now.

These are just a sampling of my fiction reading so far. Stay tuned for the nonfiction picks.


Thursday, March 31, 2022

Range by David Epstein: Good News for Generalists


I get the best book recommendations from people who know me well. Since I've started my new journey toward an Ed.D in Educational Leadership, I am reading a disproportionate number of academic texts. I love fiction. I love a good story. Somehow I must find a way to satisfy that urge too.

Recently, a friend I've kept up with who is also in higher education recommended David Epstein's book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialize World. I was barely into the book before I wanted to write a letter to the author and started thinking who needed to read the book along with me. 

I am an unapologetic universalist. (Well, I do apologize a little.) It says a lot that I have an undergraduate degree in accounting but have taught English for more than 30 years (not counting the time I spent teaching Lamaze childbirth and aerobics and selling real estate.) Even now, knee deep in my dissertation process, I find myself pursuing all my other interests. I'm still going to concerts, listening to great music, and writing about it. I mentor a student teacher, three young moms, and a thirty-something single who lets me borrow her cool jackets. I still sew, particularly handwork. 

Epstein opens the book Range with a side-by-side comparison of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Woods was primed for his golf career practically from birth; Federer tried out lots of sports. Things worked out well for both.

The book is full of stories that confirm what I've suspected all along. The best decisions are made, the toughest problems are solved with a variety of minds working together. Austin Kleon's books (such as Steal Like a Genius) would be perfect companion reads to this book.

Epstein reassures me that quantitative research alone cannot, should not rule the world. Ask those NASA scientists with "In God We Trust; Everyone Else Must Show Data" on the wall--and the Space Shuttle disaster on their resumes. 

What I loved most about this book is the opportunity to talk further about it. There are so many implications for the classroom, for example. I look forward to lots of ripe conversations as soon as my book people indulge me and check it out for themselves.


Monday, January 24, 2022

The School for Good Mothers: Amy Tan Meets Margaret Atwood


Even though some of the reviews had prepared me for the futuristic turn in Jessamine Chan's novel The School for Good Mothers. The author does not delay throwing the reader into the story on 39-year-old Frida Liu's "bad day," in which she leaves her fussy toddler daughter Harriet home alone to run for coffee, turning into a two-hour diversion. When the neighbors hear the girl crying and call the authority, the child is taken into protective custody and turned over to her father, Harriet's ex-husband and Susanna, the young Pilates instructor for whom he left Frida. Working with the same lawyer who represented her in the divorce, Frida meets challenges arranging chaperoned visits with her daughter with the social worker. She has to endure cameras placed throughout her apartment, part of a new program being test-piloted in the Philadelphia area. 

Even with the Big Brother atmosphere established before the court date, readers will still be shocked when Frida not only doesn't regain custody but is sent to a training camp for "bad mothers" on a former college campus. The women there are forced to chant, "I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good." The manipulation by the pink-uniformed attendants is unnerving, but when the women are issued robotic children simulating their own children for their re-education, the story takes a heart-wrenching turn for the creepy. 

Frida's interaction with the other women takes on the feel of women's prison, and her growing tenderness toward the "doll" child she calls Emmanuelle is testament to her yearning to be reunited with her own daughter. The difference in age and ethnicity plays a role in the dynamics. As the only Asian mother in the school, Frida is often odd woman out. 

In light of the current less-than-ideal system caring for child welfare, Chan's novel shows what can go wrong when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and experimentation ignores human realities.


The Feather Thief: Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

 January is off to a good start as I have read such a variety of books. One that fascinated and surprised me was Kirk Wallace Johnson's The Feather Thief, the true story of a heist at the Britain's Natural History Museum in the small town of Tring. Johnson was working to draw attention to the security and safety needs of Afghanis who had cooperated with U.S. Troops when this unusual story was brought to his attention during a fly-fishing excursion. 

He became obsessed with the story, starting with Alfred Russell Wallace, who spent years collecting rare and colorful bird species for the museum, while simultaneously with Darwin developing the theory of natural selection. After losing years of work when a fire broke out aboard the ship when he was returning with his collection, he returned to Malaysia to focus on the Birds of Paradise.

Johnson also provides historical background on the eventual movement to protect the beautiful but rare bird species after so many were collected for women's fashions. The account of a cape made from thousands of hummingbird bodies was enough to give me pause.

The anti-hero of the story Edwin Rist was a young American flute player studying music in England. His interest in music, however, was rivaled by his obsession with salmon flying tying. In that world, he was something of a prodigy. When he learned of the variety of feathers and bird skins stored in drawers in Tring, he broken in through a window and escaped with more than a hundred rare birds. (This is no spoiler alert, since the book opens with the heist.)

While it took the museum weeks even to know the birds had been taken, Rist was eventually brought to justice but let off with barely a slap on the wrist. Johnson, realizing many of the stolen birds were unaccounted for, took on the mission of tracking them down and finding the complete story. 

I knew about other art thefts--the Isabella Stewart Museum, The Scream, Mona Lisa, but this was a new story to me. Having recently read Rachel Joyce's novel Miss Benson's Beetle, about the search for a rare insect, this true story fascinated me with the drive to find unusual creatures in order to attempt to save them.


Saturday, January 1, 2022

My 2021 Annotated Reading List (Warning--A Long Post)

 2021 Reading List

Spoiler alert: This year, I couldn't just list the authors and books. I had to add some notes. I read fewer books than usual this year, since I'm in the middle of my late-in-life doctoral journey, but remembering what I've read what double pleasure.

Montimore, Margarita. Oona Out of Order—a good January read, since on Oona’s 1/1 birthday, she is sent to a different year, in random order.

Wetmore, Elizabeth Valentine. I would love to talk to someone else who read this one.

Rosenthal, Jason, My Wife Says You May Want to Marry Me. Be sure to Google the piece from NYT’s “Love Stories” to find his wife Amy’s essay that inspired this book.

Woodard, Colin. American Nations. This was a required reading for one of my courses this year that I found fascinating, particularly the idea that the U.S. is actually not one but several nations.

Dordal, Lisa. Mosaic of the Dark. (poems)

Harmel, Kristin. Book of Lost Names. There is no way to exhaust the stories from WWII. This one followed the story of a French girl who not only helped forge documents to help children escape Nazi-occupied France, but kept records of their real identities.

Applegate, Katherine. Home of the Brave.

Walters, Jess. The Cold Millions. I’ve read two or three other books by Walters—all different, all engaging.

Smith, Michael Farris. Nick. This novel builds the back story of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. Unlike a lot of novels told from another perspective, this one felt less derivative and could stand on its own.

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. The story of two sisters, one who chooses to leave, passing as white in a completely different world.

Saunders, George. A Swim in the Lake in the Rain. It’s hard to described just why I loved this book so much. It’s very much a reader and a writer’s book, using a selection of Russian short stories.

Haig, Matt. The Midnight Library. A lovely take on the ways one might sample the other possible lives.

Kozen and Kozen. The Trust about Leadership. Surprise! This one is a textbook.

Acevedo, The Poet X. This book that won the National Book Award for Young Readers tells the story of a young Harlem girl who finds her voice through spoken word poetry.

Schwartz, Harriet. Connected Teaching. This was a CTL book club selection at Lipscomb, and the author joined the last book discussion. We all needed to find ways to build stronger connections with our students, particularly when teaching remotely.

Lencioni, Patrick. The Advantage. This is another course assignment, dealing with how to build a cohesive team.

Charles, Janet Skeslein. The Paris Library. (See note on Book of Lost Names—another WWII novel). Based on a true story, the protagonist views Nazi-occupied Paris from the American Library there.

Shirer, Priscilla. Elijah: Faith and Fire. I enjoy Shirer’s “women’s Bible studies” more than most. She gets out of her own way and focuses on the Scriptures she is addressing.

Renkl, Margaret. Graceland at Last. I will write more about this essay collection by the Nashville-based NYT author, following on the heels of her lovely Late Migrations.

Lemmie, Asha. Fifty Words for Rain. This novel follows a young Japanese woman whose circumstances of birth send her away from her rightful family.

Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering. This was recommended by a friend whose reading judgment I respect. I find myself recommending it to anyone who wants to make the best of circumstances that bring people together, whether socially, academically, or otherwise.

Serle, Rebecca. In Five Years. If you knew how your life would end up in five years, would you or could you change it?

Bush, Tony. Theories of Organization Leadership and Management. Yep, another textbook.

Downs, Annie. That Sounds Fun. Reading this makes me wonder why people think it’s so hard to have fun.

Ripley, Amanda. The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way). This book, assigned in my International Education class was eye-opening. The appendix is useful for parents and teachers too.

Bowers, Cathy Smith. The Abiding Image. I loved this book by the former NC poet laureate. I remember her speaking about how the “abiding image” informs her poetry. This book is useful for anyone wanting to write, particularly creatively.

McCorkle, Jill. Hieroglyphics. I heard McCorkle and her fellow North Carolinian Lee Smith in conversation (facing Zoom trouble) during the Southern Festival of Books. I’ve never been disappointed by McCorkle’s novels. Even when I’m reading, not listening to an audiobook, I hear her distinct voice.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and the Sun. There is a subtlety to Ishiguro’s writing. This book, set in a future when families can select robots as companions for their children, is haunting.

Dare, Abi. The Girl with the Louding Voice. In her first novel, Dare deftly manages to allow her protagonist to gain her voice. I found it absolutely charming.

Cowan, Justine. The Secret Life of Dorothy Soame.  The author’s lingering bitterness toward her mother doesn’t get in the way of a true story well told, revealing a ugly side to altruism in London.

Reid, Taylor Jenkins. Malibu Rising. At first I had trouble engaging with this novel, fearing it was just another tale of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Learning the background from which the siblings at the core of this story emerged gave me more sympathy for them. 

Kline, Christine Baker. The Exiles. Baker manages to shift from one protagonist to the other in this novel of injustice in England, aboard ship, and in Australia’s penal colony.

Jago, Carol. With Rigor for All. This was a re-read for me, one I recommend for any English teacher. Jago is a leader in English language arts who learned in the trenches, teaching high school for many years. Every one of her books offers more than theory. I always find something I can take right into the classroom. 

Morganstern, Erin. The Starless Sea. Another mysterious, enchanted book for the author of The Night Circus.

Hager, Thomas. Electric City. This book was of particular interest to me, since I’m from the Muscle Shoals area, but his story of Henry Ford’s attempt to build a new Detroit in North Alabama would be of interest to anyone who likes nonfiction.

Lahiri, Jumpa. Whereabouts. Another collection of short stories from the author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies.

Schwab, V. E. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Sometimes immortality might be more a curse than a blessing, particularly when you could not leave a mark even on others’ memory. An interesting tale of a Faustian deal.

Berg, Elizabeth. The Confession Club. Berg is known for her novels of women’s friendships. I was far into this book before I realized that some of the characters from The Story of Arthur Truluv, one of my favorites by Berg, made an appearance in this book. 

Ellis, Helen. Bring Your Baggage; Don’t Pack Light. Sometimes, while reading this novel, I had the feeling like when I’m listening to a comedienne who comes on a little strong. It may be that sometimes the familiar feels a little uncomfortable.

Conley, Susan. Landslide. This novel pits responsibility as a mother against that of a wife. Kit’s husband is injured in a boating accident while away fishing to support them. The needs of her two teenaged sons pull her away from going to him.

Thorton, Chris Harding. Pickard County Atlas. This book was recommended by a friend and former colleague who always knows when a book is right for me. A Nebraska family deals with the unsolved disappearance of their son and brother, as the Sheriff deals with his own family’s past.

Anon. Epic of Gilgamesh. I taught this classic of world literature for the first time this semester. I found it especially interesting that it wasn’t unearthed until the nineteenth century and that pieces continue to be unearthed.

Chevalier, Tracy. Virgin Blue. This author builds the backstory to old works of art, bringing in a modern connection.

Jackson, Joshilyn. Mother May I. I honestly believe the best way to experience Jackson’s novels is by listening to her reading the audiobook. This tale of a kidnapping gone wrong keeps the suspense taut all the way through.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Book of Longings. I’ve heard others speak of a reluctance to read this story that imagines the perspective of a girl who marries Jesus. The author does a beautiful job of bringing readers to that world and developing strong female characters.

Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. This Haitian American author follows the interrelated story of daughters, mothers, and sisters.

Kooser, Ted. Splitting an Order. (poems) I have so much respect for Kooser, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and for his wonderful poems. This made me want to read more.

Morelli, Laura. The Night Portrait. Morelli weaves the stories of DaVinci and a Renaissance courtesan with the WWII story of a female German art restorer and an American soldier of Italian descent charged with protecting the Monuments Men.

Owens, Scott. Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming. I picked up Scott’s latest collection while I was back in Hickory for a visit, then had him to serve as guest poet for Black Dog Poetry Virtual Open Mic. This one lives up to the standard I have learned to expect from him.

Lowell, Catherine. The Mad Woman Upstairs. Attending Oxford, the last living relative of the Brontes deals with the heritage that can’t help but define her.

Osman, Richard. The Thursday Murder Club. This book was recommended by my dear friend, the late George Parks, a prolific reader who loved to talk books. I was delighted upon finishing the book to learn the sequel had just been released.

Ephron, Nora. I Remember Nothing. The late essaying and screenwriter, in this collection, deals with the all-too-real aspects of aging. I even learned to call that swirl that has appeared at the crown of my hair my “Aruba.”

Doerr, Anthony. Cloud Cuckoo Land. Anybody expecting another All the Light We Cannot See will be disappointed, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, Doerr goes back to ancient Greece and modern American in a tale that weaves mythology and science fiction into realism.

Awad, Mona. All’s Well. With the definition of an unreliable narrator this novel tells the story of a woman who has taken a job as a drama professor after an injury ends her own acting career. She is determined to produce All’s Well That Ends Well, even though her acting students prefer Romeo and Juliet. The element of magical realism brings in shades of “the Scottish play.”

Penny, Louise. The Madness of Crowds. Anyone who keeps up with my reading knows how much I love Penny’s novels. While this one touches on statistics in a way that would appeal to my professors and colleagues, I still insist that readers must start with the first book in the Gamache series, Still Life.

Osman, Richard. The Man Who Died Twice. Yes, as soon as I could, I read this sequel to The Thursday Murder Club.

Adams, Sara Nisha. The Reading List. A moving, well-written tribute to reading, libraries, and friendship, Adams develops the connections between Mukesh, recently widowed, and Aleisha, who works at his local library. I had read (and probably taught) all but one of the books on “the list” and will get to that one soon.

King, Stephen. Billy Summers. Whenever I read anything by King, I am reminded of what a good writer he is. His characters are layered and believable. It’s also fun that he always sneaks in little allusions to his other novels, in this case The Shining.

Towles, Amor. The Lincoln Highway. Towles is another author who never writes the same book twice. I have enjoyed (okay, loved) his other books, so I was eager to read this one. It’s a journey tale that takes inadvertent detours. Told in different voices, it incorporates Shakespearean and mythological allusions.

Dante. The Inferno. Reading this classic along with my World Lit I students, I found it so much more readable that I remembered. Like Paradise Lost, reading this work of literature adds to one’s cultural knowledge in myriad ways. 

Whitehead, Colson. Harlem Shuffle. For me, Whitehead is three for three. His protagonist in this story is trying to stay on the right side of the law, but just barely, with a strong sense of family loyalty.

Joyce, Rachel. Miss Benson’s Beetle. Not the VW Beetle, as I first imagined when this popped up on our book club list. Joyce’s characters are quirky but endearing, and they make the most unlikely journeys.

Harper, Lisa. How Much More. I'll confess this wasn't my favorite of Harper's Bible studies for women. The concept was a good one, but it felt disorganized and fragmented. Fortunately, the women in our class always brought rich discussion.

Jaswal, Balli Kaur. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. This would be a perfect book to pair with Adams’ The Reading List. For book clubs who like to serve book inspired food, these both require Indian cuisine (and a great cup of chai).

Coomer, Sandy. The Broken Places. This latest collection by my friend and Black Dog co-host is both painful and beautiful. Her ability to juxtapose is unparalleled.

Smith, F. Lagard, ed. The Daily Bible in Chronological Readings. This has been one of my favorite year-long journeys through the Bible. He pulls together the life of David and the Psalms he wrote on particular occasions, he groups Proverbs thematically, and he presents the harmony of the Gospels. I enjoyed it so much, it was one of my favorite Christmas gifts this year.