On the Bookshelf

National Short Story Week

Quiet-The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Nothing Daunted – The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden

Meet my Rowdy Readers . . . finally!

Three of us have met, on and off but mostly on, for over 20 years.   We’ve read through kids growing up and away, marriages ending in divorce and death, sickness and health and various great times – both in our books and in our personal lives.

Two years ago the other two Rowdy Readers suggested we invite a fourth woman to join the group, one they both knew but I didn’t.  I wasn’t too crazy about allowing someone new into our established group, but I trusted them.  And she fit like, well, like a good title to our story.

We meet once a month to discuss our book – and we do discuss our book – politics, family and local gossip.  But only a little bit of gossip.  And our name befits our time together and the breadth of the books we read.

So meet my Rowdy Readers . . .

Susan – “a worm-herder and bookkeeper” is the bookkeeper at a branch of our local library, her pun intended.  On paper Susan is also a Master Beekeeper . . . but doesn’t actually have bees.  Yet.  My take?  Susan can comfortably wield any tool – kitchen, garden or workshop.  She is also one of the most generous women I’ve ever met.

Betty – “a lover of books, art, music, travel, and trashy talk and everybody’s story.”  Betty also taught English for over 30 years and has traveled widely.  She’s brought us gifts from China, Russia, Italy, France, British Isles, Africa and Belgium.  She began painting at age 65.  My take? Betty introduced me to one of my favorite movies when I most needed it.  She is a true Southern Lady and an inspiration as a woman full of life.

Nancy – “a retired Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist whose last position was with the Columbia (SC) Area Mental Health doing school-based therapy with middle and high school students.”  She’s now a care-taker for her mother, who is 102!  And her mom still lives alone in her own home.  Her mom’s church circle requested a memoir for the church, so Nancy and her mom recently finished that.  My take?  Nancy’s laugh is infectious and ever-present.  She has a gift of distilling a situation to its essence which is usually pretty funny or just matter-of-fact – but Nancy makes even that pretty funny.

Here are titles of several books we’ve read over the years.  I hope you’ll check some of them out and let me know what you think.  And if there are books we should consider, share!

Life of Pi               The Poisonwood Bible              Singular Pilgrim    

Anna of the Tropics     Round-Heeled Woman     A Woman’s Path

Madonnas of Leningrad       The Last Crossing    The Pearl Diver

In Country         #1 Ladies Detective Agency           Three Junes

The Secret Life of Bees           Housekeeping        Poets of Tolstoy Park

River Town      A Year of magical Thinking             Love Walked In

The Dew Breaker          The Other Side of You        Edgar Sawtelle

The History of Love        Let the Great World Spin       Innocent

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet          Angela’s Ashes

Let’s Take the Long Way Home      The Widower’s Tale    

Swamp Music    The Tiger’s Wife        Being There

And the one we’re reading this month, Nothing Daunted.  What are you reading?

‘Oh my gosh!’ was the phrase I repeated, often, while I read Rick Rothacker’s. Banktown: The Rise and Struggles of Charlotte’s Big Banks.  I kept interrupting hubby’s t.v watching with  “Listen to this. . .”

Banktown reads like a thriller or a spy novel with its twists and turns, clandestine meetings, and strange bedfellows who join to fight a common enemy.  There’s intrigue from both the world of business and the world of politics.

Two of the main characters aren’t human – North Carolina National Bank and First Union Bank.  Rick takes the reader through their births and growth into entities that were believed too big to get swallowed.  Even though we already know how the story ends, it’s the tidbits we don’t know and the compelling way Rick tells the tale that keep us reading.

The rest of the characters read like a financial who’s who – Hugh McColl, Ed Crutchfield, Ben Bernanke, Jim Cramer, Warren Buffet, Barney Frank, Tim Geithner, Henry Paulson, Jr.,  . . .  There is no ‘names have been changed to protect the innocent.’

My first ‘Oh my gosh’ moment arrived on the second page of Chapter 1.  Just after the Supreme Court upholds ‘regional bank compacts’ – a legal loophole banks used to cross state lines – the CEOs from the rival banks each target the same Florida bank for a merger.  They miss each other by a few short hours.  That was the beginning of the era of bank mergers and that incident sets the tone for the book.

As Rick says in his interview through A Writer’s Window, he used anecdotes, scenes and character sketches to flesh out the narrative.  Because of that, what could have been a dry, historical account of Charlotte’s banking, never is.

Another element that kept me hooked was reading from the vantage point of history.  Rick does an amazing job of weaving in pertinent dates and events that ground the narrative in its historical context.  One section that really brought this home was reading about all the drama behind the merger of First Union and Wachovia, then reading the union became official in New York on September 1, 2001.

The saga of the banks and its leaders continues and Rick is covering all the new twists and turns.  Banktown: The Rise and Struggles of Charlotte’s Big Banks is a must-read in understanding how that saga plays out.

I read Tracy Kidder’s, Strength in What Remains, right after reading another tale of coming to America.  What a difference!  I plodded through the first book, which shall remain title-less, thinking at some point there would be a glimmer of hope.  It never came.

In contrast, Kidder’s telling of Deogratias’ escape from Burundi while it was being torn apart by civil war, was filled with hope – no matter how desperate his situation.

We’re under the hospital bed with Deo as he listens to soldiers clearing rooms with their bullets.  We’re trudging along and watchful with him during his march with other refugees.  When he arrives in New York we want to reach into the pages and take him out of the park where he sleeps and ease his fears about being sent back home.

But Deo doesn’t need us to.  He has a few benefactors, but it’s his own determination to become a doctor that pushes him forward.

Hidden Power – Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History by Kati Marton was an eye-opener.  From Edith and Woodrow Wilson, to Laura and George W. Bush the reader gets an intimate look at the relationship between wife and husband, between First Lady and her President.

Marton weaves the political climate and the social practices of the day through her stories of the presidential families.  We see which women bowed to convention and became the symbols of other American women of their time.  We follow others as they bucked the system and used their position to make a difference for their gender.  And there were those who seemingly did both.  All Bess Truman wanted was to be Mrs. Harry Truman, but she was one of the most independent women to occupy the White House – when she occupied it!  She spent more time back in Independence, Missouri than she did in Washington.

Each First Lady had some level of influence on her husband, but none had more actual power than Edith Wilson in the last eighteen months of his life.  The Twenty-fifth Amendment guarantees that won’t happen again.

And the stories of the most recent couples – the Nixons to the Bushes – still unveil new tidbits, even in an age of television and the Internet.

No matter one’s political leanings, reading the behind the scenes workings of our First Ladies may relieve some concern about fewer women seeking actual political office

Thursday Poets’ Favorites

Earl: Well, unfortunately, I’ve read so many poets in my years, beginning as a teenager and continuing right up to today’s announcement of Kay Ryan’s winning the Pulitzer for her latest volume.  My list is long because there is something to love about many, many poets.  No order in my list, just my list: Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Frost, Ryan, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Whitman, Donald Hall, Paul Hostovsky, Susan Ludvigson, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, E. Dickinson.

Donna: Walt Whitman and Sharon Olds

Evelyn: Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and lots of different anthologies so I can get a taste for all kinds of poetry.

Julie: When I have the opportunity to actually sit with enough quiet to digest poetry, I usually pick up an anthology or journal and flip through until something catches my attention.  I am ashamed to say I’m terrible with names, so it takes a lot for me to remember a specific author, especially without having met the person.  That said, on my end table, I have a 2007 Kakalak, (a journal of North and South Carolina poets), History of My Heart by Robert Pinsky, Paternity by Scott Owens, and Punching Through the Egg of Space by Richard Allen Taylor

Iodine Poetry Journal

KB-H: When and why did you start Iodine Poetry Journal?  It’s an international journal –   what countries have been represented?  Do you see a difference in the kinds of poetry from various countries?  Tell us a little bit about Iodine.

JR: I started Iodine in 2000, a year after I started readings at Jackson’s Java.  I had been getting published in the small press, and I was looking at the various formats and styles of the magazines in which my poetry appeared.  I thought to myself, “I could do this!”  I went to Scott Douglass, founder and editor of Main Street Rag Publishing, who had published my work, and I asked what it would take to do this.  Before I knew it, I had a little 32 page saddle-stitched magazine with a non-descript red card stock cover with IODINE on the front of it.  I was quite proud of this little venture.  Most of the poetry that appeared in that first issue was work I heard local poets read at the microphones at Jackson’s Java.  The new issue is 86 pages long, perfect bound with a full color cover featuring one of my paintings on the front cover. 

Since then I have published many international poets from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Ecuador, India, Spain, Greece, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, South Africa, Nigeria, Italy, Ireland, England, Romania, Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Philippines, and probably a few other countries I’m forgetting.  I don’t see a huge difference in the type of poetry I get from different countries.  It’s mostly good free verse narrative, and subject matter isn’t that much different from what Americans write about – our lives, our families, people around us, etc., although depending on the social or political climate of a country such as Bangkok, when there was rioting going on about a year ago, the poet wrote in response to that situation.  I’ve read my share of work in response to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, tsunamis, war, etc.


KB-H: What is the most enjoyable and the most challenging aspects of choosing which poems to include in an issue?  What grabs you as an editor?

JR: I kind of touched on this earlier, Jonathan’s Window, I like fresh language.  I like work that makes me think, poetry that may challenge me, or make me laugh.  I like work that may challenge the reader.  I like work that captures a moment, or is so descriptive it just draws the reader in. 

I should also say that editing is a subjective process, so I don’t expect all our readers to like everything that is in an issue of Iodine.  I receive all kinds of comments on the magazine and on any given issue, so as long as our readers like enough of the magazine to support it, then I feel that I’ve done my job as an editor.  I do have associate editors who read and assist selecting work, but I put my final stamp of approval on it.  Conversely, if I’m on the fence about a poem, I will let one or both of them decide.  And of course I should mention their names.  Leslie Rupracht is my Senior Associate Editor and assisted me for quite some time.  Karen Thornton has assisted me for a few years as Associate Editor.  Emily Benton assisted us at one time and she is now working on her MFA at UNC Greensboro, and is Poetry Editor at Greensboro Review.

KB-H: What do you attribute to the success of Iodine?

JR: I think I will equate longevity with success.  In this context, I beat the average mortality rate odds in the small press industry when I hit five years.  I say that because there is a lot of work involved.  Often when  a few people decide to start a magazine, they don’t realize this, and at some point creative differences can cause it to fold, or just burn out or lack of commitment will ultimately lead to the end of a good periodical.

When I started this, I told myself I wouldn’t make any money doing this, and I was determined not to let it drive me crazy.  I was committed to it.  I wanted to be serious about it, but I also wanted to have fun with it, which is why I enjoy doing this.  Iodine Poetry Journal has published noted poets Joseph Bathanti, Rick Campbell, Fred Chappell, Colette Inez, Ron Koertge, Dorianne Laux, R.T. Smith, Shelby Stephenson, Virgil Suarez, among many other established and emerging poets.

One of our biggest accomplishments was in 2006 when Simon & Schuster published their Best American Poetry 2006.  Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, was guest editor for that year, and somewhere along the line he read through a copy of Iodine, and chose a poem, Found, by Ron Koertge, which had appeared in our Fifth Anniversary Issue.  After that our submissions basically quadrupled.  We receive thousands of submissions a year now.

KB-H: Would you list the poets you enjoy reading – past or contemporary?

JR: That can be quite a long list, but I’ll throw out some names:

Charles Simic    Louise Gluck    Robert Creeley   Mary Oliver   

E.E Cummings    Edna St. Vincent Millay   Donald Hall  Kim Addonzio

Jack Kerouac  Nikki Giovanni  Pablo Neruda  May Sarton  Robert Bly 

Sharon Olds  A.A. Ammons  Anne Sexton  Jack Giolbert  Sylvia Plath 

Alan Ginsburg 

There are just so many wonderful poets. Flip through the pages of Iodine, and you’ll obviously see some of my favorite poets as well.

On Martha’s Bookshelf

KB-H: Who are some of your favorite authors on your bookshelf?

MR: I love to read suspense and mysteries.  I started reading Mary Higgins-Clark, her novels and her memoir, Kitchen Privileges. Now I can no longer read her.  I heard Gwen Hunter say one time that while she is writing, she doesn’t read.  And I wondered about that until I realized that while I”m writing, I can’t follow a plot in a book, unless I’m reading someone/something very different from what I’m writing.  Like when I’m writing fiction, I can read poetry, but not suspense and/or mysteries.

My favorite authors now are Julia Spencer-Fleming, Louise Penny, as well as some old favorites, Gwen Hunter and Mignon Ballard.  Mignon was the first local author I read and I took one fiction writing class from her years ago.

I have started reading more Christian fiction.  I also like to read the works of authors I have met at conferences.

In poetry, I read a variety and have not really settled on a favorite.  To keep up with short fiction, I usually read The Best American Short Stories and The Best Mystery Stories that are put out each year.

Poets On the Bookshelf

While I remember the first poem I wrote, I don’t remember when, why or how I fell in love with poetry. It’s just always been.

In elementary school when the Scholastic Books and Weekly Reader book lists came around for ordering, I went for the poetry books. I still have Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and other modern verse, a couple by Carl Sandburg, and somewhere there is one by Leonard Nimoy – yes, Mr. Spock.

Looking at my shelves, I’m amazed at the number of poetry books I’ve collected over the years. Which poets sit on your shelves? If the poets you’re most familiar with are the same ones in my Major American Poets book – Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Dickinson, Crane, Frost, Pound, Millay and Auden – all great poets…but all dead, it’s time to meet some new ones.  Preferably meet poets who are still alive, or at least more recently dead.  My Major American Poets doesn’t even list the Harlem Renaissance poets, or the beat poets of the 50’s. Time to update.

Here is a short list of poets on my shelves. Each week my poet friends will supply their own.  By the end of April I hope you’ll weigh in with some of your favorites. Some of these are more well-known than others. You can read sample poems for most of them on-line or check your local library, but buying a book is better. Hearing poetry read aloud is the best, but that’s a post for Thursday…

Mary Oliver     Wendell Berry     Ted Kooser

Li-Young Lee   Nikki Giovanni   Rita Dove

Carl Sandburg   Sharon Olds   May Sarton

Mark Doty   Dana Gioia   Peter Meinke

Maya Angelou   Ron Rash

Cathy Smith Bowers    Vera Gomez   Dannye Romine Powell

Irene Blair Honeycutt   Ray McManus   Gil Allen

And here are some links to small, independent presses that publish chapbooks and books of poetry.  And remember, just enjoy.

Main Street Rag

Iris Books

In Something Missing by Matthew Dicks, Martin Railsback is a thief you can’t help but root for.  After all, he steals only what he needs and only what his clients won’t miss.  And sometimes what they’d only waste anyway.

Haven’t you ever reached for that second bottle of salad dressing in the pantry, positive you bought two, but when it’s not there you convinced yourself that well, maybe you hadn’t bought it?  Maybe you just thought you did.  Maybe it was Martin.

Martin’s OCD, attention to detail and almost savant-like intelligence allow him to pursue his chosen profession with precision.  For the reader, with humor.  His list of ‘clients’ are selected with specific requirements in mind.  They are investigated thoroughly before he adds them to his list, which he revises with routine frequency.  There’s always a sense of having to say good-bye to a friend when a client is removed.  Eventually Martin knows  his clients’ comings and goings, and their lives, better than they do.  And for some of them, that turns out to be a good thing.

Things go well until several minor mishaps disrupt and threaten his neat, predictable little world.  We get to watch how his mind works as he attempts to solve his dilemma.  And all the while we’re wishing him the best.

I read a reader’s guide from Random House for Something Missing.  Most of the questions were pretty standard, but I especially liked the last one.  “If you were going to pursue Martin’s profession, which houses in your neighborhood would you want to investigate?  Whose house are you most curious about?

The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo was a Rowdy Reader selection several years ago and I remember it as one of my favorite books.  All of us liked it, even though the reviews range from slamming it to praising it.  Are you seeing a pattern with our Rowdy Reader selections?  Does this say something about us Rowdy Readers?

I hadn’t read the reviews earlier so I did recently.  After I did, I wondered if we’d somehow got it wrong.  Did we miss something that seemed so blatantly obvious to some reviewers?  So this morning I spent two hours rereading the first half of the book – and I still love it.  I’ll finish the second half later today or tomorrow.

It’s 1948 in Japan and at nineteen years old, the main character is the youngest of the pearl divers.  It’s a job she’s dreamed about and knows is perfect for her, until a bruise turns out to be something more ominous.  She is banished to a leprosarium where her old life and family connections are erased.  She no longer has a past; her life and history begin the day she arrives in exile.

I admit, the first twenty-four pages sometimes felt a little disjointed, but not overly so.  It definitely wasn’t something that kept me from reading.  Those pages set up the girl’s love of the sea and what she loses.  The rest of the story is told through various artifacts found and cataloged once the leprosarium is closed.  Some reviewers didn’t like this device, I found it intriguing.

Each artifact is the subject of a vignette and offers a glimpse of life on this island of banishment, in all its ugliness and its unexpected hope.  We meet the other patients and how their lives intertwine with the young woman’s.  Among the artifacts are coins used only on the island, only by the patients.  There are significant photos, a comb, and …I don’t want to give too much away.

For me, the vignettes were more interesting than if the story had been told as a long narrative.  I think if a reader understands how this section is set up, the shifts in point of view and time frames won’t be a challenge.

Rose’s Garden by Carrie Brown begins four months after Conrad Morrisey’s wife, Rose, passes away.  Conrad comes alive in unexpected ways after he sees an angel in her garden.

I loved this book for several reasons.  The first is the simple, tight story.  Rose’s Garden is about Conrad’s awakening and how that affects the people around him.  He opens like one of Rose’s flowers – slowly and deliberately.

I can’t think of one character I didn’t care about.  Besides Conrad, there is the deceased Rose and her dead parents who are as alive and rich as the living inhabitants of Paradise Hill.  There is the young girl, Hero, and Rose’s friends the Pleiades.  There are others and each grows in some way.

Finally, I loved Ms. Brown’s writing.  It’s lyrical and poetic.  Her sentences sing in places and she wastes no words.

Rose’s Garden isn’t all sweetness and perfection, even for a village named Paradise Hill.  There are shadows of darker things throughout.  A shadow is all that’s needed.

The ending makes sense and that’s always a good thing.

I have Ms. Brown’s short story collection next to my chair waiting for my bookmark.

Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral,

by Kris Radish

I’m not sure what this says about my book selections, but Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral is another one that really split reviews between those who loved it and those who actually threw it away – as one reviewer did to keep anyone else from reading it!  From one source, out of 116 reviews: 37 gave it 5 stars, 35 gave it 1; 18 people gave it 4 stars, 15 gave it 2; 11 readers gave it 3.

Annie Freeman has died, but not before she leaves a letter asking four of her friends to scatter her ashes – not an out of the ordinary request.  But these four women don’t know each other, they only know of each other through their friendships with Annie.  And Annie doesn’t have one special place to leave her ashes, she has several.

Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral is a story about the love of friends and how far we go for them, the bond between women, and setting priorities.

Most of the negative reviews focused on the writing or, in their minds, the lack thereof.  To be honest, I don’t remember much about the writing itself.  I remember I laughed and I cried reading the book.  I recommended it to friends and it got me thinking about. . .

My friends.  There’s no way I could limit my scatterers to 4 – like many people I’ve been richly blessed with friends.  But like most of us, I have different circles of friends – family, my Rowdy Readers, my Cowgirls, writers/poets, high school, church, homeschool moms . . . . and not many circles overlap.  They all know different sides of me – sometimes that’s a good thing!

Where to scatter?  Could I come up with four or five significant drop zones?  Of course The Cottage would be one.  And my trustees would have to be willing to hop a roller coaster, as a handful of me would take a final ride off The Blue Streak at Cedar Point – an amusement park on Lake Erie.  After that?  I’m not sure.

How about you?  Where would you lead your friends to leave you behind?

The Three Junes, by Julia Glass

The Three Junes is a novel that connects three short stories that take place over three Junes, ten years apart.

It was interesting reading the reviews.  One woman was sorry her fireplace was gas, as she wanted to use the book as kindling.  Another gave it one star – because that was the lowest option offered.

The other end of the range was also given.  One reviewer called it, ‘uplifting, heartbreaking and beautiful.’  And it won the 2002 National Book Award so somebody liked it.

My Rowdy Readers read it and I liked it.

This is one book that influenced my writing, in two ways.  The first was Julia Glass’ illustration of how one false assumption, one misinterpreted observation or one misunderstood comment affects family dynamics for years.

It wasn’t like in a soap opera where one character purposely misrepresents a situation for his or her benefit.  In The Three Junes it was an innocent assumption, like many of us make every day, based on our own psyches.  Years later the character finds out he’d been wrong the whole time.  How that knowledge would have changed so many things.

I know the story is not a new one, but how the author made that revelation is the second way the book influenced me. She did it with one, seven word sentence.  It is the one sentence I remember out of the whole book.  It wasn’t a sentence of fancy words or flowery prose.  It didn’t take place within a dramatic confrontation or emotional moment.  They were simple words placed in the right character’s voice in the right situation.  And they changed the whole tone and direction of the story.

I remember thinking, ‘That’s the power I want my words to have.’

A common thought is that in order to be a good writer, one must be a good reader.

I believe my maternal bloodline flows with printers’ ink. One of my earliest memories is walking to the library with my mom.  My hometown library, a beautiful Carnegie library I’ll show you in a future post, was across the street from my grandparents’ apartment.  Grandma was also a frequent visitor.  Often when I think of either of these women, images of stacks of books next to their chairs, and bookcases double-parked with books come to mind.  Neither Mom nor Grandma was a writer, but they understood the joy of reading widely.  My chair and bookcases would make them smile.

So, On the Bookshelf will be all about, well . . . books!  I’ll share what books have made me laugh or cry – in a good way.  I’ll tell you about books that have made me think, introduced me to something interesting or affected my writing in some way.

Both my mom and grandma have passed away, but I still enjoy the company of women readers through my reading group, The Rowdy Readers.  The name implies certain things and you’d probably be correct in most whatever assumptions you’re making!  We’ve been reading together over 20 years.  I’ll write more about them later, but for now: Susan is a wormherder and bookkeeper; Betty is a lover of art, books, music, travel, trashy talk and everybody’s story; and Nancy is our mental health expert.  We are as diverse as our readings, so some of the On the Bookshelf offerings will be Rowdy Reader Selections.

I hope you’ll find a favorite chair, pour your favorite drink, find your reading glasses and check out some of the books On the Bookshelf.  And don’t forget to tell me what books are on yours and why you like them.

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