Often my reading habits follow criss-crossing lines with unexpected, often interesting, consequences. This is definitely the case these past few weeks.
I’m continuing to read Academically Adrift and appreciating the hardcore research on the academic behaviors of college students. In short, students are under-prepared and universities are failing to meet most needs. This research is validating my observations in the field. I routinely confronted these issues firsthand when teaching in the classroom, and now I’m writing a book that includes my observations and remedies to these problems. That is happening, slowly, but surely.
Next on my nerdy agenda: I joined a new book club because I needed more literary oxygen and book talk. It’s the Non-fiction Book Group at Falmouth Public Library. Wow—what a smart group of well-read, articulate folks. We just finished reading and discussing a book I probably would never have read on my own: The Road to Ubar by Nicholas Clapp. It’s a fascinating account of Clapp’s attempt to discover ancient ruins whose existence waiver between myth and reality. This book shows the power of intellectual curiosity and the rewards of the inquiry method in practice. Clapp, a documentary film producer, has a fire in his belly to learn all he can about this ancient community. It encouraged me to push beyond the text and check out other resources. The book, itself, was an adventure. And best of all, the book group members are a most welcome addition to my literary life.
This begs the question: “So what do I really want out of a book group?” I want to read a text that is challenging and have bright folks engage in a lively, smart discussion ABOUT THE BOOK. I don’t want it to be a food festival of recipes that are vaguely connected to the title and devoured by a book group that never cracked the book. Also, I’m finding that I want our monthly selection to be more than a leisurely beach book; I need it to stretch and expand what I can already do on my own. So, I’ve joined two new book groups—one non-fiction and one fiction—both run by my local libraries. The non-fiction Ubar selection was great—fingers crossed for the fiction choice which is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. I start that next week.
One literary device I really hate in books is cheap trickery. I found this to be the case in Barbara Shapiro’s, The Art Forger. This “novel” focuses on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. It reads as an interesting mystery that I thought was based on actual fact. Here comes the problem: the blurry line between fact and fiction. The author says it’s a novel, but includes so many “factual” details and references to reality that it reads like a true narrative of an actual event. It is about forging art, and the book itself is a forgery—how clever, no, how annoying. The end of the book reveals that most of what the reader thought was true, is not. Even the Boston Globe article that looked so authentic, is faked. Needless to say, I didn’t find it effective or satisfying. The last time I remember getting so irritated at a cheap trick was after I finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha and found out that the “geisha” was really a young man from Brookline, MA, not even a geisha in the family. Ugh!
My irritation about The Art Forger was not in vain. Several months ago, David and I made a day trip to the Outer Cape and back again. We stumbled upon Parnassus Bookstore, and I asked my favorite question: “What should I not leave today without buying? The wise salesclerk put a copy of Mrs. Jack by Louise Hall Tharp in my hands and said “You’ll love it.” Mrs. Jack is a biography–to my surprise–of Isabella Stewart Gardner: a smart, feisty, accomplished Boston woman who created the Gardner Museum. I am more than half way through this book, and it is unadulterated joy. Her life is worth reading about; the author’s voice and style are addictive. I try to read just one chapter a night before I go to sleep, and that is impossible…like chocolates, just one more, just one more. What a refreshing change from The Art Forger. I must revisit Parnassus Bookstore and ask for another recommendation.
Life is short. So many books, so little time. Be picky.