Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Books for Readers #118
March 24,2009

(for the full version with lots of recommendations and news
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I sometimes think of myself as not reading very much anymore– and this is partly true, or at least psychologically true, because when I was a kid and teenager I lived much of my life in books. Truly, much of my experience came from books. Today, a larger portion of my experience comes from life, and I find people recommending books to me, and I get a panicked feeling that I will never catch up. I still read a lot, but I’m no longer the one who reads the mostest and the fastest. And where did I ever get the idea it was a contest?

These last weeks, between a lot of teaching (and student writing to go over), a lot of meetings of our local integration organization, traveling, and personal business, I’ve read three children’s chapter books that are part of the curriculum in the middle schools of Jersey City (this is related to one of my jobs). These are SWEETGRASS (Jan Hudson), A SINGLE SHARD (Linda Sue Parks), and SILENT THUNDER (Andrea Davis Pinkney). These are well done historical reconstructions that ought to give kids some insight into things they’re studying in school. SWEETGRASS is the story of a young Blackfoot Indian girl’s life at a time when enormous changes are happening to her people. It shows the heroism of daily survival. A SINGLE SHARD is about a thirteenth century Korean boy who wants to make celadon pots, and this book too honors the value of labor and craft. SILENT THUNDER is a solid escape-from-slavery novel.

Also a quick read was a Dennis Lehane novel, A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR. I like Lehane except for the portentousness of his tone. And I read the first two Robin Hobbs sword and sorcery novels, but I want to write about them later, as do I want to write about two histories of the Jews– not quick reads!

Let me say a little more here about one nonfiction book and two novels. The nonfiction book was very personal to me: WILL YOU MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE: THE CARTER FAMILY & THEIR LEGACY IN AMERICAN MUSIC by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg. It isn’t that I am such a huge fan, although I like their music, it's more like I've always felt the Carters were part of my family. The book is full of stories about the sources of Carter family (and other country) songs: borrowed from 19th century sheet music, from traditional ballads from Britain, new words to old hymn tunes, a little Mexican mariachi music mixed in by Mother Maybelle when the group was singing down around the border on a high power radio station. The music was all about community and tradition and borrowing and sharing– and then about broadcasting and big business. The Carters themselves are a wonderful example of people who both loved music and loved to perform, and then grabbed the opportunity to make money for their families.

For me, though, along with the innate interest and Americana of the story, there is the background of life in the Appalachians at the time of my grandparents. The Carters’ homeplace is just a couple of ridges over from Lee County, Virginia, where my father’s parents grew up, and over another couple of mountains from Wise County where my father was born. So this book, good in itself, had personal meaning for me.

Less personally meaningful, but a great favorite of mine is the work of the contemporary British novelist, Kasuo Ishiguro. I read his first novel, A PALE VIEW OF HILLS , set in Nagasaki and England. These are places from his real life, but the story is indirect and delicately moving. It is suffused with the sadness of the pale view of hills, of lost daughters, of family members who died off-stage in the American bombing of Nagasaki. There is a hint that someone may have done something regrettable before the war; there is the unanswered question of why Etsuko the narrator leaves her husband and father-in-law, and then why her children leave her. Things at the outer edges of consciousness taint the lives of the multiple parent-child pairs. There is one interesting technical/structural anomaly near the end in which for one passage the point of view switches from Etsuko to her friend Sachiko, and there is a hint that the two women are the same woman. I prefer things like this to be made clear, but Ishiguro is so good, I’m willing to go where he goes.

Finally, I had a rousing good time with another first novel, Jeanette Winterson’s ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT. This is an excellent combination of British Lower Middle Class realism with Winterson’s off-kilter literary experimentalism (although I don’t know if Winterson experiments so much as writes just exactly the way she sees the world). As the novel progresses, there are long passages of story telling in the voice of the main character, “Jeanette.” There is a retelling of a King Arthur tale and a story of a character called Winnet StoneJar, and lots of dream narratives. The more representational part was my greatest delight, however, as the narrator discovers first her religious calling in a woman-centric Pentecostal church, and then her sexuality, wildly unacceptable to the church family. The girl is feisty and smart and loving, and her mother is a terrifically colorful and engaging monster. Everyone eats oranges in the novel, but at the end, the missionary mother decides that the “coloured heathen” might prefer pineapples.

Who recommended this to me? I’m pretty sure the recommendation appeared in this newsletter– maybe it was Evelyn Codd who recommended it. I’ve also read SEXING THE CHERRY (the 1600's London story) and WRITTEN ON THE BODY.

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