Read It Again, Sam

 As this year comes to an end, you may be looking back at those books you read; maybe you’ll consider reading them again?

In his essay for the New York Times Book Review – Read It Again, Sam –  David Bowman identifies famous authors who reread books – for inspiration, for motivation, to identify a structure to follow, to discover nuances, or just in awe of great writing…

“The biographer and novelist Edmund White {notes}: ‘I reread in order to remind myself how good you have to be in order to be any good at all.’ “

Stephen King regularly rereads The Lord of the Flies and The Lord of the Rings; Helen DeWitt (The Last Samurai) started her rereads with The Nancy Drew Series; Patti Smith, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction rereads An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, reasoning that rereading is a necessity, echoing a familiar complaint of mine:

“…I get so absorbed that upon finishing I don’t remember anything…”

 I shy away from rereading most books, preferring to move on to the next adventure.  If I do reread a book, I may understand more or “build impressions.”  I may even remember more as I finish reading a second time, but I agree with French literary theorist Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text:

“…{rereading may cause pleasure}, but not my bliss: bliss may come only with the absolutely new…”

Do you have books you regularly reread?

National Book Award Winners 2011

National Book Award Winners for this year were announced at a ceremony hosted last night in Manhattan by John Lithgow:

Award for Young People’s Literature: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Award for Nonfiction: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt – “how a 15th century book lover was the catalyst for the Renaissance’s rediscovery of classicism.”

Award for Fiction: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward – “12 days in the life of a poor African American family attempting to weather Hurricane Katrina in coastal Mississippi.”

Award for Poetry: Head Off and Split by Nicky Finney

Books to Talk About

The book review section of the Sunday New York Times has a full page ad that caught my eye – from the publishers at Knopf Doublday – 9 books to read and discuss.  I’ve read and reviewed five of them, dismissed one, and waiting for the other three to make it to my library system.

Have you read any?

Waiting to Read:

Inside Out and Back Again

Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of Fate.
This year he predicts 
our lives will twist inside out…
The war is coming
closer to home.

A young girl escapes the war in Vietnam in Thanhha Lai’s National Book Award finalist Inside Out & Back Again.  Written in verse, Lai’s poetry follows the escape of a young Vietnamese girl, Hà, from her war-torn homeland to her new home in Alabama.

Lai offers poetic images of the conditions on the escape boat, the rescue by the Americans, the stopover in Guam – poignantly told by a little girl, who is at once angry, afraid, and hopeful as she waits with her family to be sponsored…

“We wait and wait,  but Mother says a possible widow, three boys, and a pouty girl make too huge a family by American standards.”

Hà struggles to acclimate to new surroundings in Alabama with a new language, reciting the rules as she learns verbs and endings – “so this is what dumb feels like” – nothing to the humiliation of being put on display at church by their sponsors.

“No one would believe me..but at times..I would choose..wartime in Saigon..over..peacetime in Alabama.”

Over a year, Hà and her mother become more assertive, determined to not just survive but to reclaim their lives.  Lai’s poetry gives a sharp, focused image to their struggle, as told by an angry fourth-grader, and clearly offers insight into the daily challenges of starting over.

Chime – the real National Book Award Finalist

After the National Book Award committee’s very public mistake – identifying the wrong book as one of their five finalists – I wanted to read the book that almost missed out for a clerical error.

Fran Billingsley’s Chime is a fantasy with a teenage witch as the heroine. When not spouting Old World jargon, Briony produces intuitive gems that will ring true with teens struggling to go past childhood, into a new world of being grown-up. Briony carries heavy baggage in her attractive frame: her mother died in childbirth, her twin sister is mentally disabled, her father is emotionally distant, and her stepmother blamed her for everything – pouring guilt and fear into Briony’s susceptible mind before mysteriously dying of arsenic poisoning.

When handsome and personable Eldric arrives from London, teen romance and first love seem inevitable. Eldric’s father is the engineer assigned to drain the swamp – where most of Briony’s otherworldly creatures live. Draining the swamp will also change the town, not a popular concept with the citizenry who would prefer not to participate in the Industrial Revolution.

If the power of anger and wishing evil can cause bad consequences, Briony may be a witch, as she believes – thanks to her stepmother’s cruel indoctrination. Billingsley cleverly creates a feisty character that could influence the action with or without supernatural powers, and she sprinkles the story with imaginative creatures that only Briony can see and communicate with.

Billingsley sets the action at a time when women with red hair are hanged for being witches and uses rural English period language that is difficult to follow at first. The plot sometimes get lost in the translation. But, the story has a universal appeal with a satisfying ending, and a main character worth knowing. Chime deserves it nomination.