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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Call and Response

I've written before about how I made it out of school without encountering a lot of the classics. One such book is "Jane Eyre." In fact, I had never read any of the Brontes until I read Charlotte's novel. I wonder if I can possibly express to you how deeply I got in to this book. I followed the characters. I was Jane. I loved Rochester. I was fully present in this novel and could barely put it down. But reflecting on it made me think about the appeal of the classics. What is the draw of the literary canon? Is it that these books are all just "that good" and have managed to stand the test of time? I rather doubt this as "good" is really subjective and I've read a great deal about how "Jane Eyre" is not a technically good novel (we don't have to go into why I disagree with that, do we?). I have a feeling that the more true answer lies in the canonical books as cultural touchtones.

Reading a book like "Jane Eyre" would be enjoyable in a vacuum. It is a good book on its own terms but more than that (for me, anyway) is being able to stake my claim in the novel's cultural landscape. I don't find that I get the same satisfaction in reading modern "it" novels as I do from completing a classic. I'm not as interested in the discussion surrounding the current ubiquitous titles. I wonder why that could be? I imagine it must have something to do with the history of the discourse. The classics have years of study and written response to them.

One way in which the classics have a cultural leg up on the front list is in parallel texts. I mentioned "Jane Eyre" specifically not only because I enjoyed it but also because I read it along with Jean Rhys 1966 novel "Wide Sargasso Sea." Rhys' novel is a modern response to Bronte's and tells the story of the other Mrs. Rochester. A direct literary response like this will not be found for a current popular title (books tend to take a while to write and such) and it can add so much to the earlier work. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is a feminist, anti-colonial look into Jane Eyre's world and it will make you look at the characters within an entirely different light. A close reading of a text will give you a look at the characters but to have someone else rearrange and re-imagine them can open doors of understanding that may have previously been closed. I definitely felt that way about these two novels (though nothing could put a damper on my irrational, romantic love of Rochester ... I admitted it was irrational!).

Flavorwire recently put together a list of 11 parallel texts that's worth checking out. Many of these have been added to my TBR pile. Anyone interested in taking over my bookstore duties? I just want to stay home and read this summer!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

SIBA's 2011 Book Award Winners

Cavalier House Books is a proud member of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. SIBA is awesome; it's one of those resources that my customers don't really hear about but that helps me to function as a better bookseller everyday. When John and I opened the store we were so excited to join SIBA, and we've basically been excited about it ever since. From the yearly tradeshow to the camaraderie between our regional bookselling peers ... it's just fantastic.

So having said all that, I would like to share with you this year's SIBA Book Award Winners followed by a short quote from the nominating bookstore. To be nominated by for an award the book must be southern in nature (either written by a southern writer or dealing with a southern topic/setting).

In the Children's Category: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Catlin will touch your heart. What more is there to say?” –Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC
In the Young Adult Category: Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Oh, this story brings back memories!” –Two Sisters Bookery in Wilmington, NC
In the Fiction Category: Burning Bright by Ron Rash
Ron Rash can’t write a false word.” –Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, NC
In the Nonfiction Category: The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family by Jim Minick
A captivating look into a couple’s efforts to create an organic blueberry farm in Central Appalachia. . .sit back and savor the sweetness of his blueberry story.”—Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC
In the Poetry Category: A House of Branches by Janisse Ray
These poems are about waking up, looking around at the world, and discovering how to live within it.” –Kathryn Stripling Byer
In the Cookbook Category: Southern My Way: Simple Recipes, Fresh Flavors by Gena Knox
Gena’s cookbook shows quicker ways to make traditional southern dishes from a fresh angle!” –Page & Palette in Fairhope, AL

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson made a somewhat hasty decision to go for "A Walk in the Woods." He'd already committed to walking the Appalachian Trail (to friends and neighbors, to his publisher, etc) when he began to research the trail. By then he had to go through with it and (thankfully) write a book about it. Bryson is at his best in the beginning of the book when he is nervous and uncomfortable while traveling with his long lost friend, Katz. It's then that we get lines like this: "All the books tell you that if the grizzly comes for you, on no account should you run. This is the sort of advice you get from someone who is sitting at a keyboard when he gives it. Take it from me, if you are in an open space with no weapons and a grizzly comes for you, run. You may as well. If nothing else, it will give you something to do with the last seven seconds of your life."

I really like that side of Bryson, when he's funny and a bit sarcastic but not too snide. To me Bryson always feels like he is reveling in his discomfort - as though the draw to his books is more what he didn't enjoy about an experience than what he did. And that's totally great, as long as it's funny. It's when Bryson becomes too biting or complains too much that reading becomes a drain. Thankfully, that's relatively absent from most of this book. Instead we hear that, "there is nothing more agreeable, more pleasantly summery, than to stroll along railroad tracks in a new shirt." He seems to have genuinely enjoyed his time on the trail. To have really gotten something out of becoming a "mountain man."

I couldn't help but be a little proud and a little jealous. Hiking the trail is definitely not for me. I love nature. The beauty, the austerity, the solitude. But I'm terrified of it as well (as I am terrified of most things). At the height of his discomfort during one of his hikes Bryson begins to worry that he might die even as he knows that he is in a safe situation. He starts to worry about how much he's worrying. "Presumably, a confused person would be too addled to know that he was confused. Ergo, if you know that you are not confused then you are not confused. Unless, it suddenly occurred to me - and here was an arresting notion - unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel, early symptom of confusion." And that my friends would be my thought process in the woods, which is exactly why I would not survive.

I can't neglect to mention how much we learn from "A Walk in the Woods." Of course, this book is the story of Bryson's walk, but he also packs it full of interesting history about the trail itself as well as the Forest Service (who knew bureaucracy in the woods would be such a bad thing?) and the general failings of the American people and government when it comes to nature. Also, he's got an unhealthy interest in the people who have died on the trail, and if you thought I wasn't going to attempt this 2,200 mile hike before, well, imagine me now. I really enjoyed "A Walk in the Woods." The book is full of pitch-perfect trademark Bryson, and in the end I feel that I have "gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of the woods."


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