Reading Lessons

I’d been happily wending my way through books week after week as part of a personal year-long reading challenge, when April arrived and brought a few surprises along with its traditional showers.

April was National Poetry Month, and to celebrate and fill in a (gawping) hole in my experience, I read an entire book of poetry. This was also the first time in a very long time (at least since college) that I devoured a book in one sitting (actually, I’m lying – I was prone).

Nothing wrong with either of these events except that I was so curious about the collection of Mick Imlah poems and so thrilled to read Jeanette Winterson’s memoir after hearing her talk about how reading led to her life as a writer that, the moment these two books arrived in the mail, I set aside my “assigned” weekly reading and plunged headfirst into my new acquisitions. And it took a while before I could get back into the frame of mind to pick up The Stolen Child again – this was the book I’d stolen time from to devote to the others.

It occurred to me that I own quite a few books with tongues hanging out of their pages, some marked a quarter of the way through, some half. The reason is that I lost steam, or my mood changed, or I developed fervor for a different book and just had to read it now, as I did with Imlah and Winterson.

It also struck me that while “assigned reading” – reading one book until it’s done, then picking up the next selection in an orderly fashion – seems almost too structured for free time or pleasure, there’s still value in the discipline. Up until April, it certainly kept me on track for this goal I’m hoping to achieve. I didn’t blow it, but I could’ve, and I recognize how I’ve fallen off course with other books before. So, just for this year, I’m going to try to read sequentially instead of the anything-that-strikes-my-fancy and everything-at-once approaches I usually take, and see where it gets me.

How about you? Do you organize your pleasure reading in any way?

Standard disclosure: I bought the first four books and received the last one as a free review copy from the publisher. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.


5 down, 33 to go!


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is the book I finished in one go. It arrived during a rare rainstorm in Los Angeles, the perfect evening to curl up with a great book while the heat radiated through a cozy room and the rain pitter-pattered on the roof.

If you’ve seen a review of Winterson’s memoir or read her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, you’re familiar with the outline of this story: Winterson was an infant when she was adopted by an evangelist couple. They lived hardscrabble in northern England, spent summers proselytizing, no books but the Bible allowed in the house.

I, too, was adopted within weeks of birth and about a year after Winterson was. Obviously, I grew up with a love of books – fully aided and abetted by my adoptive parents, who adored reading – and so this story was enthralling in its own sad and scary way.

Winterson had at least three coming-out episodes with her mother, a woman with no joy in her life, who took her religion far more literally than Winterson’s father appeared to. The first battle was over young Jeanette’s love of books and reading, the second was caused by her break with the church, and the third, which created a final, unrecoverable rift, over her mother’s refusal to accept Winterson’s love for other women.

She left home at 16, lived out of her car, and, despite years of struggle at school, became an autodidact, reading her way through the library’s fiction section from A – Z.

“I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me,” Winterson writes. “A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

The memoir examines these early years, up to Winterson’s arrival at Oxford, with an unexpected fair-mindedness. There is then an intermission of 25 years – a wise choice to skip the details, well-travelled by book reviews and profiles, of Winterson’s successful career as an author – with the story picking up again as she suffers a dark night of the soul.

Part of recovery involves searching for her birth mother; the book describes how frustratingly difficult and bureaucratic the effort is, despite the loosening of Britain’s privacy laws regarding adoption records.

I won’t spoil the ending for you. This is a sharply observed life, told with powerful economy (coming in at 230 pages) and language that has the ability both to stagger and uplift. Much of the memoir focuses on the ability of books to nourish one’s strength (or soul, as Mrs. Winterson might have it), create us, help us define our beliefs and values, and make us whole again when those beliefs are shaken.

I’m lucky enough to live within the listening area of public radio station KCRW, which beams Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm” to the world. He recently interviewed Winterson about Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and it was pure magic to listen to both of them talk about the transcendent nature of reading. (This is a 30-minute program.)

A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Straight has a remarkable facility for character voice. Through Moinette, 12 at the time the novel opens, she evokes the lives and experiences of slaves working the sugarcane plantations around New Orleans in the early 19th century.

The novel follows Moinette’s journey from Azure, where she was born to an enslaved mother and white father, to the troubled family that owns the de la Rosiere plantation, and, later, as she is sold to a young lawyer, Msieu Antoine, who has his own reasons for needing a beautiful young slave in his house. Moinette is only 18, and mother to a son by her former owner. She has been torn away from her fiercely protective mother, Tretite the cook, and all the other older women who looked after her and loses her son because Msieu Antoine cannot afford to buy them both.

“And now I was eighteen and had already collected memory people. Is that how the balance shifted for the rest of life, as Tretite has once tried to explain to me? She said you grew older and lived inside your memory, the things you saw and tasted and smelled in the past. My son hadn’t remembered me at all this time. Not until I said my name.”

This is Straight’s sixth novel and it weaves together historical fact (like the laws established by the Code Noir and the harsher treatment of both slaves and free people of color when Louisiana became an American territory) and wonderfully realized details of daily life, such as the way Spanish moss is boiled and dried to use as mattress stuffing and the ingredients that go into the laundry soaps that Moinette’s mother uses.

With the grace of a poet, Straight keeps the reader with Moinette through all the pain and suffering, the small acts of kindness and the fragility of existence along the rough edges of bayou.

Collected Poems by Mick Imlah
“His early death was an incalculable loss to poetry,” writes Alan Hollinghurst in the introduction to this collection, and one is left with an unexpected frisson, a curious combination of thrill and mourning after reading Imlah.

Hollinghurst, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and he dedicates his latest, The Stranger’s Child, (the plot of which revolves around a charismatic young poet, gone before his time) to Imlah. This led me to a remembrance by Hollinghurst in the English press and the desire to read at least one of the two books published during Imlah’s lifetime. It took a while, as neither Birthmarks nor The Lost Leader seem to be available in print. Selected Poems gathers examples from both with several unpublished poems.

I struggled with many of the later poems about Scotland, where Imlah makes detailed (and obscure, for the uninitiated reader) reference to ancient kings and battles. But elsewhere Imlah’s turns of phrase – “too burgled to speak,” “his eyes pin-clear, pleading” – helped me press on.

As Hollinghurst notes, “What dazzles and thrills throughout the thirty-year span of Imlah’s work is his inventiveness, the sense of a mind pondering and producing at any turn something wholly unexpected…”

You’ll encounter an evolutionist in his bathtub, short verses describing the counties of England, alcoholism compared to a birthmark, Quasimodo, Alfred Lord Tennyson, all those Scottish ballads, and two late poems for his children. Not your typical stuff of poetry, but all imaginatively handled, some in rhyme, others that read almost like newspaper reports or essays (with footnotes!).

Imlah was the poet I decided to read during National Poetry Month, and it’s a good thing because he’s put me in the mood for a quest (perhaps it was all those Scottish legends) for more, more, more.

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
While myths and certain aspects of science fiction intrigue me, fairy stories haven’t been a draw. So I approached this with trepidation and found a unique story that tackles the subject without being cloying or cutesy.

Donohue keeps the myths of stolen children part of the mystery – are the bands of changelings in the woods innocent fairies or hobgoblins and devils? Are the abducted children better off with the supernatural powers of changelings while a hobgoblin assumes human form and their rightful place in a family? Donohue explores all of these ideas, alternating chapters from the point of view of Henry Day, the stolen child, whom the changelings rename Aniday, and the sprite (a century-old abductee himself) who takes Henry’s place, finally allowed to grow to human adulthood, marry and have his own family.

The book is filled with longing and doubt on both sides, as the decades pass and the city spreads into the countryside, encroaching upon the woods, threatening the cyclical life of the changelings forever.

There are some fairly big slip-ups in the plot – a major discovery that happens twice, a big revelation that once out of the bag doesn’t make any sense, the changelings’ powers appear and disappear at the author’s convenience – and Donohue tends to tell us what characters are feeling rather than show us. The alternating-chapter structure means that the fairy story in the woods drags along with repetitive scenes in order to accommodate all the years it takes new-Henry to grow up. And the reader never really senses why Aniday, especially in the days and weeks after he’s first taken, remains with his captors rather than giving in to his homesickness.

However, Donohue does a good job of creating his own mythology of changelings and stolen children and there’s a good deal of tension between new-Henry and his parents, with the reader curious to find out just how much the Days know and whether or when they’ll act on their suspicions.

Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media, and Content Marketing by Lee Odden
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “SEO: It’s All about the Customer,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Listening that inspired me this week:

NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast features a lovely discussion about books and reading challenges.