Thursday, March 26, 2009

Reading Notes

Wow, I can't believe it's been over a week since I last posted. Things have been really busy lately -- more so than usual. But, I have been reading. I've finished the arc I received through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program -- Darling Jim by Christian Morek. I really enjoyed this one and will be doing a review soon, I hope. I've started reading Mrs. Dalloway's Reader by Francine Prose and Virginia Woolf. This book collects the full text of Mrs. Dalloway and also includes several short stories by Woolf, some of her diary entries and commentary from Francine Prose and others. I'm really looking forward to getting into this one. I've only read the introduction and the first of the short stories so far. I didn't realize it before, but Mrs. Dalloway began as a short story and eventually turned into a novel. I absolutely love both Francine Prose and Virginia Woolf, so this should be a treat.

For book clubs in April, I'm reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, and in honor of National Poetry Month, we're reading selected poems of Robert Frost. A literature professor from a local school is coming to discuss the poems at that meeting. I've never been a big poetry reader, but I've really started to like some of the poetry I've been reading. I think I was always just a little scared of poetry in the past. So,I especially like discussing the poetry I read with others.

Not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I've downloaded three literature courses from The Teaching Company recently. One is the History of World Literature. For this class, I'm reading The Epic of Gilgamesh. This book will also count towards my Year of Reading Dangerously challenge.

Right now the hardest thing for me is to decide what to read next. After I finished reading Darling Jim the other night, I was laying in bed literally surrounded by about 10 books that I was trying to choose from. My husband walked in the bedroom, looked at the pile of books on the bed, and turned around and walked back out smiling and shaking his head.

So, that's what I've been up to -- in addition to knitting and working, and... -- well, you get the picture. So, what are you reading?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Free Books!

Post edited: I'm extending this drawing until Friday at noon due to lack of participation. Since she is the only one who entered initially, Iliana will get her choice -- Godmother by Carrie Adams.

I mentioned a week or so ago that I received a prize from Reading Group Choices, and I wanted to pass some of those goodies on to you. I know you think I forgot, but I really didn't. So here it is. The following books will be given away via a random drawing. Please leave a comment on this post by Monday, March 23, at noon. I'll draw a separate winner for each of the five books. Anyone is welcome to put their name in the hat.

Trespass by Valerie Martin
With Violets by Elizabeth Robards
The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton
Domestic Affairs by Eileen Goudge (hardback!)

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

This book was the latest selection for the Cornflower BookGroup which held it's discussion online on this past Saturday. I haven't been a faithful member of this group but have enjoyed several of the selections when I've been able to fit them in at the proper time. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The edition I read is a beautiful copy from the Folio Society. The cover art and the illustrations inside are absolutely gorgeous. This is a short little book (my edition came in at 121 pages), which on the surface seems to be about nothing much at all. However, this initial impression is quite deceptive. My favorite thing about the book hands-down is the setting. Carr does a wonderful job of evoking a sense of time and place. The book is set in the small village of Oxgodby, a rural area of Yorkshire just after the end of WWI. Tom Birkin has come to Oxgodby to rescue an old mural in the local church, much to the dismay of the Vicar. When he arrives, Tom is still trying to cope with everything he experienced during the war, as well as the fact that his wife ran off. Tom begins the slow process of healing as he slowly immerses himself in the slow paced village life in Oxgodby. In addition to the beautiful setting, the quirky characters and some tough subject matter, there is also humor in this tiny little book. Reading this book made me want to slow down, which is definitely a good thing for me. Go on over to Cornflower Books and you can read what everyone else thought about the book. Most everyone liked it; though, there were a couple people who felt it lacked enough action for their tastes. For me, that is precisely what made this book enjoyable. For me, characters, setting and language always win out over plot any day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dysfunctional Families in Literature

This is a fun little Friday quiz. I don't know about you, but I do so love reading about dysfunctional families. Try your luck with this quiz. I got 9 out of 13 -- not too bad. How did you do?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Books About Books

This fulfills another category in the my Year of Mini Challenges for the nonfiction category. I had planned to read Three Cups of Tea since it was already a book club book for me, but I just couldn't finish it. It's a great story of what one person can do to make a big change, but I've heard so much about it, I felt like I already knew the story. The writing is not great, and I've too many other books waiting to be read. So I gave up after about 100 pages. Now, on to the books I did read. They are both books about books and how and why we read them, as well as how writers can learn how to write better by reading great books. The first book is How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom, and the other book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. I know that not one person that bothers to read this blog will find it at all weird that I have read and enjoyed these books. However, that's not been the case with the people I run into during my day to day life. In fact, I found myself more than once hiding the cover of the books when reading in public. I didn't want to have to explain AGAIN why a 41 year old librarian would want or need to read a book about how and why to read a book. It just doesn't make sense to those outside the book lover's realm, which sadly describes most of the people I encounter daily. Don't get me wrong, I am not surrounded by a bunch of illiterate people. On the contrary, many of them read and would say that they enjoy reading. However, none of them feel about books the way that I do or the way that many of you do.

My initial impetus for picking these books up in the first place was to learn to read more closely in order to wring everything possible out of the books that I read. Often when I read reviews of books that I've read or participate in book group discussions, I always find something that I missed or see something about the book in a new light. I think we've all experienced this. In fact, that's one of the reasons I love reading your blogs and participating in group discussions in the first place. I get more out of my reading when I do.

Well, you may ask -- did I learn anything from either of these books that will help me be a more attentive reader and get more out of my reading? The answer would be a resounding, yes. Though, I liked both books, I learned much more from Francine Prose's book, which was also written in a style that I much prefer over the Bloom book. Always a good indication for me of how much I like a book or how much I want to be able to recall is the number of book darts I use. Let's just say that I wouldn't be able to take the Prose book through a metal detector as it is now. I think I used almost an entire container of book darts in this book.

For the most part, I'm a fiction reader. I don't read a whole lot of nonfiction unless it's about books and reading or some related topic. There are a few exceptions occasionally but not very often. The reason for this is the language. I often find nonfiction written in a straightforward way in which language is used only to convey meaning. In other words, for me at least, the language isn't beautiful; it doesn't paint a picture for me; it doesn't transport me to another place or time. It simply relays information. That being said; however, I've learned that this certainly isn't the case for Francine Prose. I fell in love with this book and her writing style while reading the first few pages of the first chapter. I used 10 book darts in the first 12 pages. The first chapter is entitled "Close Reading." Prose begins with the question of whether creative writing can actually be taught. She doesn't really try to answer this question fully, but rather she looks at how she learned to write and how many other writers learned to write, as well and uses this as an example. She says on page 2,
"Like most -- maybe all -- writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books. Long before the idea of a writer's conference was a glimmer in anyone's eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors. They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?"

She continues on page 3 to describe what she means by close reading,
"I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction."

According to Prose, which makes perfect sense to me now that I think about it, we all began to read this way. As we gained more aptitude, we were able to read chunks of text at a time instead of decoding each word separately. This of course is necessary to be able to read anything of any length. However, it also makes it possible to miss subtle nuances that the author embeds in her book. Of course, it depends on what you're reading and why you're reading it as to how closely you want to read. A technical manual on how to put something together or make something work only needs to be read closely enough to pick out the crucial bits. However, a literary novel by an erudite author may require a closer reading in order to catch all the allusions, to understand all the symbolism, etc. That's basically what this book is about. In each chapter, starting with the smallest component of a novel -- the word -- and going on to the sentence in chapter 3, followed by paragraphs, narration, characters, dialogue, details, and gesture, Prose breaks down how to be a close reader. On the final page of chapter one, she describes a scenario in which close reading helped her in her own writing. She was writing a story and having a hard time figuring out how to make a violent ending seem natural and not forced. During this time, she was also teaching the works of Isaac Babel in one of her classes. As usual, they were reading his works one word at a time and breaking the story down in order to understand his choices and what each word signified for the story as a whole. In doing so, she realized that Babel often used "intense lyricism" directly before a scene of intense violence. "It's characteristic of Babel to offer the reader a lovely glimpse of the crescent moon just before all hell breaks loose. I tried it -- first the poetry, then the horror -- and suddenly everything came together, the pacing seemed right, and the incident I had been struggling with appeared, at least to me, to be plausible and convincing."

Throughout the rest of the book, she uses examples from some of the great writers to illustrate how to choose the perfect word, write the perfect sentence, put together a great paragraph, etc. Whether you're reader like me who wants to get more out of her reading or an aspiring writer, this is an excellent book. It is amazing what you can get out of reading if you take the time to slow down and look at it more closely. I know it's not possible to read everything this way or I'd only finish a couple books a year; however, for certain books, I think it is a shame not to slow down and delve a little deeper. After all, the author took all that time to embed these little nuggets of literary gold, the least we can do is take the time to appreciate them properly.

Before you think this post is never going to end, I promise I am soon coming to a close. However, I thought I should say a little something about the Bloom book since I mentioned it at the beginning of the post. It's a good book, but it's just not as good as the Prose book. He is more concerned with convincing people that they should read "the best" books. Of course, he goes on to tell you exactly which books are best and why he knows this. It's hard to argue with some of his choices, such as Shakespeare, but I just don't like being told what I should like and what I shouldn't. His writing style certainly doesn't read as fiction as does some of Prose's. He is a brilliant literary critic, and he includes some analysis of some really good pieces, but I just didn't find it as enjoyable or useful. I may have felt differently had I not read these two books so close together. If you're still with me at the end of this long, rambling post, I think that probably means that you feel about books as I do. If this is the case, I highly recommend Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

Friday, March 6, 2009

One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

This book fulfills categories in two of my reading challenges -- What's in a Name? and "a new to me author" from the Year of Mini Challenges. To fulfill the mini challenge, I am supposed to find information on this author and share it with you. So, here goes. Ron Rash was born in 1953 and grew up in upstate South Carolina, which is where this book is set. He went to Clemson University, which also gets a mention in the book. He currently holds the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University where he teaches the works of other great Southern writers like Lee Smith, Fred Chappell and Robert Morgan. This was his first novel for which he won the Novello Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award. Unfortunately, the book didn't garner the widespread publicity that it truly deserves. His latest book just came out, Serena. It is already gaining quite a buzz, and I think it will find a much wider audience. I hope it lives up to the quality of his first novel. If it does, book lovers all over the country are going to happily discover a great new author. Rash has also written short stories and a couple poem collections.

This book has everything a good Southern novel should contain -- love of place and a connection to the land, religious symbolism, ode to a fading way of life, superstition, and a fierce individualism. The story is set in the Jocasse Valley in upstate South Carolina just after the Korean War. The story is told from the perspectives of five different characters -- the Sheriff, the Deputy, Amy Holcombe, Billy Holcombe (Amy's husband), and Isaac Holcombe (the son). All we know at the beginning of the story is that Holland Winchester is missing. Holland is a rough, mean guy who has very few friends in the county, but he returned from Korea a hero. The Sheriff narrates the first chapter as he begins to try to find out what happened to Holland.

The story builds from there chapter by chapter as the main characters narrate their individual stories, and the reader begins to see how their lives are all interrelated. The book reminds me just a little bit of Robert Morgan's Gap Creek with its depiction of the land and how hard these people work to scrape a living out of the dirt. Another similarity and one of the reasons I really like the book is the chapters told by Amy and Billy Holcombe. I'm always fascinated to see the same events played out from the individual perspectives of a husband and wife. Rash does this particularly well. It would not have been near as good a story if he had left any one of these characters' stories out.

One of my favorite characters in the book is the Widow Glendower who lives alone in a remote area. She is a "granny woman" or midwife, and she practices herbal folk medicine. For all of these reasons, she is seen as a sort of witch. People seek her out when they are in desperate need of help, but at other times she is scoffed at or feared. The widow's speech exemplifies best some of the true Appalachian dialect that the author uses in the book. Amy Holcombe goes to see the widow when she and Billy have trouble conceiving a baby. However, once she conceives, Amy is scared to let the widow midwife for her as promised. She hopes she won't find out for fear that she may harm the child. I'm afraid to say too much more about the plot because I'm always scared I may inadvertently spoil it. However, I really feel like this is one of those books that transcends the plot. Don't get me wrong -- a great deal happens in the novel. However, for me at least, I don't think that is the most important part of the book. The characters themselves and their inner struggles are more important than the actual story. Why did she do that? How desperate would you have to be before making a decision like that? How could she keep quiet? The characters seem to be real. They're not one-dimensional stereotypes or archetypes. They exhibit all the characteristics that we all do. They're not always good, and they're not always bad. They have good intentions and still make terrible mistakes. That's what makes the readers heart ache for them. For me, that's what makes good writing.

It amazes me that this is a first novel. There is so much depth to it. It was a perfect book for our book club discussion last night. As I said earlier, the book is full of everything that makes Southern Literature its own genre. The focus on the land and the importance it plays in people's lives permeates the novel, as well as the fear of losing that land and thus a way of life. This drama unfolds in the forefront as the characters deal with the personal decisions they make and the hand that fate has dealt them. Carolina Power (now Duke Energy) is getting ready to flood the valley and all these people are being forced to move off land that has been in their families for generations. Unfortunately, this part of the story is all too true. There were many dams built in the Carolinas as part of the WPA projects following the Depression and WWII. Jocasse is just one example. Santee Cooper is another one that I'm familiar with, but I think there were somewhere between 7 and 9 dams built in North Carolina alone.

I can't wait to read his latest novel, Serena, and I hope that it lives up to this one. I rank this book right up there with the likes of the aforementioned Gap Creek and Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons when considering contemporary Southern novelists. I'm thankful that there are Southern authors that are continuing in that proud traditions begun by legends such as Faulkner and O'Connor. As it turns out, I'm going to get to meet Ron Rash because he is the featured speaker at the Pfeiffer Friends of the Library luncheon on April 7th. I hope he's as good a speaker in person as he is on the page. I'll let you know. I'll leave you with a quote from the book that mentions the Eden of the title:
"There was something deep inside him that money and fame couldn't cure. I reckoned it must be in a lot of us since his records were so popular. Lonliness was a word you could give it, but it was something beyond words. It was a kind of yearning, a sense that part of your heart was unfilled. A preacher would say it was man's condition since leaving Eden, and so many of the old hymns were about how in another life we'd be with God. But we lived in the here and now. You tried to find something to fill that absence. Maybe a marriage could cure that yearning, though mine hadn't. Drink did it for many a man besides Williams. Maybe children filled it for some, or maybe like Daddy even the love of a place that connected you to generations of your family."

Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

This book completes the 2009 Chunkster Challenge for me. I only signed up to read one chunkster. I'm really glad I chose this one, too. There is so much to say about this book. As usual, I found myself wishing that this was a book club book so I would be able to discuss it with a group of people. The book is really long, but it doesn't take that long to read it. The only complaints I've heard from some people is the fact that they feel the author could have left out some of the information on dog training. Surprisingly I wasn't bothered by that. I didn't feel like it was too much, at all. However, I did feel like the time that Edgar spent alone in the woods when he ran away was just way too long. However, that is a small complaint about an otherwise wonderful book.

The book tells the story of Edgar Sawtelle and his mother and father who raise a special breed of dogs on their Wisconsin farm. Edgar is born mute. He's not deaf, but he has never been able to make a sound. As a result, he develops a gift for observation. He sees things that others don't. I'm not just talking about the surreal here, although there is some of that. I mean that he watches people and understands things that many speaking people don't take the time to because they're too worried about what they're going to say next. As a result of his muteness and his being an only child, Edgar also develops a very strong bond with Almondine, the matriarch of the Sawtelle dogs. She has watched over Edgar ever since the day he was brought home.

Things begin to change for Edgar when his estranged uncle comes back to the family farm to stay with them. It's evident right away that there are unresolved issues between Edgar's dad and his uncle. We're not told what they are right away. Instead, we see things as they unfold just as Edgar sees them. I don't really want to go into too much more of the plot for fear of ruining the experience for others. Suffice it to say, this book has a little bit of everything. There are beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the land. There are secrets, lies and betrayals. There is a little magical realism, which seems perfectly plausible in this story. I didn't really see how the book was going to end until I was almost there. Some critics have made comparisons to Hamlet, which I can definitely see. I am left with a couple of questions regarding Edgar's mom. After reading a couple of interviews with the author, I discovered that he wanted it that way. He didn't want to tie things up neatly with a bow. He wanted the reader to be able to draw their own conclusions about some things. If you haven't read this one yet, you may just want to give it a try. It's well worth it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Books and Snow

I've been quite busy over the last week or so. I have several books that I need to review and so many more waiting in the wings. I have been meaning to mention the fact that I won a contest through They chose 15 winners to receive 15 books in honor of their (you guessed it) 15th anniversary. I was shocked when I came home from work one day and found the huge box. Believe it or not, I actually took pictures of the books.

The Safety of Secrets by Delaune Michel
Who by Fire by Diana Spechler
Things I Want my Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble
Brother I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
Songs without Words by Ann Packer
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
The Space Between Before and After by Jean Reynolds Page
Driving with Dead People by Monica Holloway
Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

The last one in this photo is a book that I picked up at the local Goodwill store. I have heard so much about Georgette Heyer and haven't read any of her work, so I was really excited when I found this. It's hardback and in really good shape, too.

If you're counting, you'll see that there are only 10 new books in these photos, and I said that I won 15. So what happened to the other books you ask? I decided to do some giveaways with the other 5 books. So, check back in the near future for some free books!

Now, on to the snow. Being in the Piedmont of North Carolina, we don't see a whole lot of snow. We may get a dusting once or twice a winter, and that's pretty much it. Needless to say, it's exciting when we get more than just a flurry. Most of this area got some snow, and it seems that we got the most in my immediate area. I think we had around six or seven inches. O.K., I can hear some of you now -- "That's not much snow!" Well, for us it is. I actually got a day off work on Monday due to the weather. It was absolutely gorgeous. It started snowing Sunday evening around 5:30 and continued throughout the night. When I got up on Monday morning, there was a beautiful blanket of snow covering everything. The best part is that the sun was shining and
the sky was a brilliant blue.