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85 & Counting

10This month marks the 10th anniversary of my bookgroup. To say that the time has flown by would be an understatement.

Our original group of eight was formed by a few women I barely knew who had a goal of starting a book group focused on a simple premise: actually reading the books. At the time, the “bookgroups” our town was known for were more about socializing and imbibing than reading. This group, however, would allow no fancy food prep, gossip sessions, or hard alcohol—ok, maybe a glass of wine—but, more likely, some cookies and a cup of tea to accompany our literature. Am I making it all sound too nerdy? You’ll just have to believe me when I say these women are accomplished, personable and admirable people. I was proud they invited me to join their ranks.

The past 10 years have been busy for all of us. Between us, we have birthed babies, moved and/or remodeled homes, changed jobs, lost loved ones and earned degrees. We have celebrated birthdays and other major milestones. Some of our members have moved on, and some new folks have joined. For the most part, however, our group has maintained a core of constant and devoted readers who, despite what life has thrown our way, have managed to read and discuss no less than 85 books together.

Most of our book choices have centered on contemporary literary fiction, with an occasional classic or non-fiction work thrown into the mix. Part of the fun of a group is being introduced to unfamiliar titles and authors that become beloved, as well as exploring books that would ordinarily be out of your comfort zone. Five of my personal favorites are Sally Gunning’s The Widow’s War, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, JR Moehringer’s Sutton, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

I can honestly say as I scan our list of 85 books, each one has been made more memorable and meaningful to me as the result of sharing them with this group. Looking forward to another decade of great reading and discussion!

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Drawing Our Own Literary Maps

brooklyn magThe political maps I’ve been seeing all week during this election cycle reminded me of a different sort of U.S. map that my sister emailed to me a while back. That map was created by Brooklyn Magazine to find a literary novel that best evokes the essence of each of the 50 states. The creators acknowledge that it’s impossible to completely “capture the spirit of something so unwieldy as a state.” Agreed; yet, the visual of this map is certainly a pretty picture and the concept of finding the quintessential literary novel for each state is definitely provocative.

In looking at the map, the literary pairings of novels with states were curious to me. In particular, I had strong reactions to the choices for the two very different states where I’ve spent the bulk of my life: Kentucky and Massachusetts.

For Kentucky, the map shows Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved, which is an incredible work of literature with its backstory set on a plantation in Kentucky. I read it years ago and what has stuck with me so clearly from that book was the vivid and sometimes supernatural experiences of the characters, although the Kentucky depicted did not necessarily feel to me like the state that I knew so well.

I grew up in Kentucky, and for me, no writer captures the essence of Kentucky the way Wendell Berry does in most of his work. His use of language and character evokes a sense of places I’ve been and people I’ve known. As for a novel’s setting that portrays my hometown of Lexington a tee, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards would be my choice.

The map’s Massachusetts selection of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath caught me by surprise. In my reading of that masterful novel, I personally fixated on the events that transpired during the protagonist’s glitzy magazine internship experience in New York City. For me, Ann Patchett’s Run comes to mind when I think about a novel distinctly set in the Boston I have come to know well from living in the area for the past two decades.

Looking at the literary US map was an excellent reminder to me of how everyone brings their own experiences and associations to their reading. Part of what’s so great about sharing our reading experiences is learning what others find interesting in a book, and also learning more about ourselves in the process.

What do you think of this map? Do you have associations with certain states that jump out more clearly for you than these choices?

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Teen Time

TRW14_1000x200I have a newly minted teenager in the house, which is probably why the pronouncement of Teen Read Week from Oct. 12-18 caught my attention. If you haven’t heard, the Young Adult Library Services Association and Blink–a young adult imprint–have partnered to sponsor events at public libraries around the country designed to motivate teens to read.

My 13-year-old daughter happens to be an avid reader. Like most young teens, however, she’s extremely busy with school work and activities. She rarely has free time, and when she does, so many other outlets are vying for her attention–watching Netflix, texting friends, painting toenails, torturing little brothers, etc.–that sitting down to savor a book can fall pretty far down her list of ways to spend time.

As her mom, I find myself actively encouraging my teen to make time to read. Not only is reading a great way for teenagers to develop and expand their minds, but it also can offer a much-needed and relaxing escape from the constant barrage of social and academic pressures that hammer away at kids today.

In honor of Teen Read Week, my daughter and I have come up with a list of five must-read teen novels, in no particular order: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

Check out the list of 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels accumulated by NPR. What are your favorites?

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Back to the Grind

Back-to-SchoolThis summer, my two older kids went to sleepaway camp for a few very long weeks. I missed them, of course, but despite several big projects swirling around at home, I was able to devour some of the titles that had been piling up for months on my desk. Some favorites included Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay and Peony by Pearl S. Buck. I also read my friend Melissa Schorr’s sweet teen novel Goy Crazy.

I know many parents who view the end of summer with a sense of relief. Some of them work at jobs with a set schedule and struggle to find ways to transport their kids to activities during the days when school is not in session. Some stay at home and get fed up being a 24-7 activity planner for several months straight.

For me, the beginning of September felt a little more bitter than sweet last week as my three kids zipped up their backpacks and headed back to their three respective schools (pre-, elementary and middle schools). I will miss our relaxing summer days. And although I appreciate the abundant opportunities available to kids in our community, I also find the meticulous schedule juggling and seemingly endless chauffeuring around town to be a serious bummer. At least I can hope to read a few pages while I wait in the car for my daughter to finish her dance lessons!

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Boy Book Group

ImageOther than playing Minecraft and watching Modern Family, my 10-year-old son does not willingly remain still for more than 10 minutes at a time. This personality trait does not naturally gel with a love of reading books.
Teaching him to kick back and enjoy reading has been essential to me as a parent, so I have worked at it over the years by helping him seek out just the right books to hold his attention. His ideal reading material is suspenseful without being too scary, funny without degenerating into total stupidity, informative without being boring, and most important, not terribly sad. Death, zombies, deadbeat parents, kids being really mean to each other—this stuff sends him running for the hills. Finding his favorites has involved some serious research, often on my part.
When a friend invited him to join a bookgroup last year, I was thrilled. I thought, yippeee! Here would be a great source of cool kid-approved books and what fun it would be for the boys to have an excuse to get together.
Alas, the bookgroup did not work out the way I had envisioned. A few challenges arose right away. One was that this group of five to six boys ignited each other’s energy levels like wildfire. Before the adults could channel them into a meaningful book-related discussion, they morphed into a pack of rowdy monkeys—hooting, throwing snacks at each other, and bouncing off the furniture. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised by this behavior. We’d known these kids long enough to know how enthusiastically boys react to their friends, but our idealism had naively led us to believe we might be able to foster a meaningful discussion.
Another challenge was that scheduling times to meet was virtually impossible, with sports, music lessons, the needs of siblings, etc., all interfering with our desire to meet and talk books. This was the obstacle that inevitably broke us down, reluctantly abandoning this group reading endeavor for our boys.
Even so, I don’t consider our book group experience to be a failure. The few times we met, the boys introduced each other to appropriate and exciting books that they all read, if not cover to cover, maybe just enough to get a taste of a new piece of literature. Some book-related discussion happened, albeit maybe only a few hectic minutes worth, but that little bit most certainly still counts.
At this point, I am proud to report that my son is growing into an avid reader. His school participates in the Battle of the Books (www.battleofthebooks.org) program and his team has advanced to the fourth grade finals. When he came home from school yesterday to share how well his team had competed, he sported the same triumphant glow he has following a soccer victory. Perhaps there’s hope for another book group adventure?

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To Go or Not to Go, That is The Question

photo (7)Years ago in the dead of winter, my cousin Rachel dragged me out of my apartment and into an author’s reading at Shakespeare & Company’s former location on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I remember being hesitant to join her. I was exhausted after an incredibly long day of meeting deadlines and it was darned cold out. But, the event was happening about a block away from my building and the author was none other than John Irving. I had only read one of his books at the time: The World According to Garp. Although I had really enjoyed that quirky novel, I was reluctant to venture out. Did I mention how cold it was?

Rachel, meanwhile, had schlepped in from New Jersey and was so excited that she was practically crawling out of her skin. She had read each of Irving’s books up to that point—A Prayer for Owen Meany being her favorite—and in her mind, this event was not to be missed.

I don’t remember which of his books he was promoting at that particular reading, but I am so grateful to Rachel for pulling me out of my everyday routine to experience the magic that happened on that frigid night inside Shakespeare & Co. With too many eager readers jammed into a dimly illuminated, no-longer-in-existence space filled from floor to ceiling with books, books and more books, the great John Irving read from his work and shared background stories. It didn’t hurt that he looked and sounded more movie star than author. The whole experience was invigorating and made my subsequent reading of his novels spring to life in a way they otherwise may not have.

Reading the interviews with authors sometimes provided at the end of a novel can certainly provide insights into characters or settings that might be otherwise overlooked. Actually being in the same room with an author and listening to him/her discussing background and process, however, adds a whole other dimension. I would highly recommend it if the opportunity arises, even if it’s cold out.

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Group of Two

tumblr_m2qd6hagb11rtn4aio1_500When our three kids were very young, my husband and I used to bond over watching movies together after everyone went to sleep. Now that they’re a little older, the kids stay up later and seem to meander into almost all of our conversations. Our schedules are always jammed and it was getting to the point that sometimes weeks passed before we could have a decent chat about something leisurely of our own.
Last summer I decided we needed to find something for the two of us to do together before our relationship began to drift. Many ideas for new hobbies we had to toss aside immediately because of his travel schedule, and we didn’t want to impinge too much on our limited time as a family with the kids.
I came to the idea that the two of us should form our own exclusive bookgroup because we had been recommending books to each other incessantly over the years. We’ve always discussed our reading, but we’d never actually assigned ourselves a book to read at the same time.
We started off by picking two books, one fiction (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety) and one non-fiction (Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends). These were excellent choices and gave us much to discuss. I had initially hoped our book talk would be over dinner out, but we found we were so anxious to talk about our reading that our discussion was far less formal and the books kept working their way back into our everyday dialog.
Although several months have passed since we finished reading our first book choices, our agenda this weekend includes selecting our next book picks. Both of us feel that reading together has been beneficial for our relationship, but I guess that’s to be expected from a pair who fell in love in grad school once they pulled their noses out of their textbooks long enough to notice each other.

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A Love of Letters

A friend recently sent me back some letters that I’d written to her 20-plus years ago, just after we’d gone our separate ways following college graduation. I couldn’t believe she’d kept those tattered pages, and I was grateful that she’d shared with me this priceless look back at my 22-year-old self. The book mentioned in this post sounds like a nice way to remind us of the joy of old-fashioned letter writing in this age of email, tweets, etc.

Eleventh Stack

Some of you may be aware that today is Valentine’s Day. Personally, my immediate family and I are not practitioners in the arts of giving greeting cards, flowers, stuffed animals, chocolates and whatever else might come on this particular day. In fact, when I first found out I was scheduled for today’s post, I felt that I had drawn the short straw (have I mentioned I’m not a fan of this “holiday”?), but a recent read and the fact that this month notes the 23rd anniversary of the blind date with the man who eventually became my husband, has given me some fodder for today’s post.

Our partnership which began all those years ago, was way before the age of Skype, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, and thus our long distance (he in Pittsburgh, me in Cleveland) relationship’s success relied on land lines, the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes (before EZPASS!)…

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Little Coincidences

image001I always get a little chuckle out of those times when I find crossover between my reading life and my actual life. I thought I’d share one of those moments.

Over Thanksgiving this past November, our family hosted a German exchange student named Martje for the week. When my mother met her, she remarked: “You’re German but you have a Dutch name. You have the same name as the character from that book, oh, you know the one, she was wife of that Dutch farmer in the Midwest…” That vague description did not ring a bell with any of us, so I figured my mom’s faint recollection would remain buried within her own consciousness indefinitely.

About a month later, I was trolling around for books to read during the holiday break. My book group was on hiatus and I didn’t have anything pressing on my personal reading list, so I dove into that old trusty treasure trove—Pulitzer Prize winners that I had not yet had the pleasure of reading. Two esteemed female authors, Eudora Welty and Edna Ferber, jumped out at me as must-reads.

First, I read Welty’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize Winner The Optimist’s Daughter. It’s a relatively concise description of what happens when Laurel Hand, a middle-aged widow and successful businesswoman, is summoned home from Chicago to Mississippi to accompany her father through an operation on his eyes. I thoroughly enjoyed this slice-of-life view of clashing cultures, families, life experiences and timing.

Next, within the pages of Ferber’s 1925 Pulitzer Prize Winning novel So Big, I located the Dutch farmer’s wife my mom had remembered, Maartje Poole. This book was an incredibly gratifying experience. Not only did I appreciate the description of Selina Peake De Jong’s adventures as a school teacher turned farmer in the Midwest, I was able to identify the Poole family’s young matriarch as the Maartje who had remained at the fringes of my mother’s memory several decades after reading the novel. In reality, however, Maartje Poole bore absolutely zero resemblance to our young German exchange student. Even the spelling was different!

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Book review: Thank You For Your Service

This sounds interesting.

Book of words

”   … except for one thing that he has told no one, a dream he has been having ever since:
Harrelson, on fire, asking him, “Why didn’t you save me?”
The dream comes every few nights. He never dreams about the soldiers he did save, only about Harrelson, and only in that way. For a while he could handle it, and then one day, he couldn’t.”

“Thank You For Your Service” is an incredible book by journalist David Finkel that pays homage to veterans who are neither decorated nor fallen, but rather an invisible group of men who have sacrificed for the nation and fallen through the cracks, such as Tausolo Aieti who is quoted above.

The main focus of Finkel’s documentation is about soldiers suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and other psychological problems, which are the results of America’s participation in their two most…

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