So what did I do with my summer vacation? I read. (To be fair, I do this all year, not just during summer. I’m nerdy that way.) Even now, with school ramping up and the grading stack growing bigger, I’m still reading, juggling a few books at a time. (I like it that way, honestly — I think it’s good to have different books for different moments and moods.)
So what have I been reading?
I’d heard good things about The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor — a 1962 Pulitzer Prize winner — and I managed to find a copy in the used bookstore. (Really, how retro-cool is that cover?). It’s an achingly beautiful novel about a middle-aged priest, and his inner life, and his relationship with the Carmody family, headed by the irrepressible eighty-something patriarch Charlie. I don’t write fiction, so I have a very great respect for those who spin an original and compelling story, and every few pages I had to stop and think about how terrific the writing was. If you like car chases and cliffhangers this is not the novel for you, but if you like complex characterization and brilliant prose, go out and get this book. (Like, right now.)
Yeah, I’ll admit it: I got Rutherford Park at the library because the endorsement on the front cover compared it to Downton Abbey. (That’s called successful marketing, no?). It’s very similar; it takes place in 1913, in a grand big house in the country, and it has a wide cast of characters both upstairs and down. I enjoyed the story and the writing, although I never felt particularly emotionally connected to the characters; The Edge of Sadness wins hands-down in that area. But if a DA withdrawal is making you twitchy, be sure to check out this book.
I love a free book, and I love it even more when it’s a really really good one. That’s certainly the case with Holy is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present, which I won as part of a Goodreads giveaway. Carolyn Weber — an English professor, mom, and thoughtful Christian — writes beautiful spiritual essays on experiencing life through the lens of faith. She describes the delivery of her twins (a birth story of major drama and near-tragedy), her experiences getting tenure, her relocation from rainy Seattle to balmy Santa Barbara and the forging of a community of help when she needed it most, and she does it all with such effortless grace and insight. She’s great at tying her experiences to Scripture, as when she reflects on the story of Jonah during a beach visit with her kids. I’m halfway through and enjoying it immensely.
Years ago, I used to teach Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, about her summer spent interning at a New York fashion magazine in 1953. That’s why it was fascinating to read the new book Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. Winder interviewed the other college women who were interns with Plath, and what emerges is a fascinating look not only at the very young writer, but also at the culture of the early 1950s, which Plath embraced in some ways (she adored fashion) and hated in others (the gender roles of the time). If you’ve read The Bell Jar, you’ll probably enjoy and learn a lot from this book (which was no doubt published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death).
My Best Teachers Were Saints: What Every Educator Can Learn from the Heroes of the Church is one I’m working through slowly: not because it’s a tough read, but because it’s so good and so thought-provoking. Susan H. Swetnam looks at fifty-two saints — some were teachers, but many weren’t — and shares how their lives and stories can inspire different aspects of a teaching career. In the book, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is offered as an example of how meaningful work can heal us during dark days, St. Joseph is an example of how to accept and redeem the “grunt work” involved in teaching, St. Francis de Sales invites us to reflect on the value of challenging our students beyond what seems comfortable for them (or us). What makes this book so great is how “not-obvious” the insights are. Swetnam goes below the surface to mine the richest lessons from each saint’s story (she offers St. Bernadette of Lourdes as an example of learning to live with ambiguity, which is an aspect of the saint’s story I’d never pondered before). Even if you’ve read a lot of books on the saints (as I have, being a bit of a saint junkie) this book offers deliciously rich and new food for thought.
I worked my way through the entire Beverly Cleary canon when I was a youngster. Now that Matthew is six, we’ve been reading the books together, and they are every bit as good now as they were then. Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Beezus, Ramona — Matthew is loving them all. (One interesting thing: the books were written in the 1950s and 1960s, and contain references to payphones, typewriters, and boys with paper routes. If you’re reading them to your child, get ready to explain these obsolete things). In every other way, though, the stories are timeless. (Fun true story: my freshman year of high school, I wrote to Ms. Cleary, and she wrote back! — a handwritten letter which thrilled me to my bones.)
What have YOU been reading?