Summer Reading Program

Daria is enrolled in the Summer Reading Program at our local public library. This year is her first year of hard-core summer reading. The program requires that she read 50 books by the end of the summer in exchange for a prize. We are about two weeks in and have nearly met the requisite book reading requirement. Most of the books we’ve read to her have been beginning Spanish readers (like the one about the baby whose name I can never remember) and Dora the Explorer books. Last night, my mother-in-law read her a book based on the movie Monster’s Inc. Daria fell asleep during the reading.  Having only listened halfway to the book while watching Michael Phelps win his 700th Olympic trial event, I have to say that I agree with Daria’s review of the text.

My summer reading program is getting off to a slower start. Given that my “summer” only officially began at 5:00 p.m. last Friday, I can’t really be blamed for being 47 books behind Daria. Also, some of her books are seriously SOOOO easy to read. I don’t want to brag, but my books are WAYYY longer and harder to read than hers. Also, also, I have been distracted by our new magazine subscriptions to Real Simple, O Magazine (don’t judge me), and The Atlantic Monthly (permission to judge reinstated).

And I just got an iPad. More on that to come.

So I thought I would wax eloquent on a few of the books I have already read, a few I hope to read this summer, one book I will not be finishing, and what navel-gazing about my summer reading choices means for my nascent blog.

The summer reading program book list falls into two main categories:

Summer Reading Books That I Read Last Spring

I purchased three books for the express purpose of putting them on the summer reading pile, then couldn’t wait and finished them off about a month ago. The first is:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver (her daughter) , and Steven Hopp (her husband)

This book details the Kingsolvers’ one-year foray into locavorism in the Appalachian Mountains. They grew most of their own food, and what they couldn’t grow, they gathered from a 100-mile radius. The book was masterfully written, as are all of Kingsolvers’ books (see Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, just to mention her titles that start with the letter P). The Kingsolvers’ effort made me want to be a better person, locavore-wise. I am working on eating more locally, but I do love the coffee (not natively grown near Eastern Oregon) and Kettle chips (which can be found in Salem, about 300 miles away) are, unfortunately, a diet staple. In spite of my failings as both a locavore and a human, the book is lovely, and I would recommend it to anyone who still has space left on their summer reading pile and yearns for fresh sweet corn, even in January.

Mink River by Brian Doyle

Mr. Doyle came to our campus and did a not-so-much-book-reading-as-super-charged-free-flow-storytelling session. I liked the very small bits he did read, and liked his story telling for the first hour, so I bought the book.  Aside from the long listing technique employed a bit too freely, the story of three generations of Native American and Irish families in Western Oregon was captivating and the prose lovely. It was the perfect cheating-before-the-summer-book-reading read, excessive lists aside.



Drawing to an Inside Straight by Jodi Varon

Jodi is my colleague, and we had a coffee/photoshoot one afternoon to catch up and get a new website photo for her, and during our chat, we started talking memoir. She has one published, and I don’t, and this is hers. After devouring hers on the plane to Louisville, I have decided to rescind my offer to let her read mine until I do a complete overhaul (see more below about my unpublished and woefully incomplete memoir). She grew up in Denver’s Jewish community in the 1960’s and spins a tale of two Jewish communities, her father’s Ladino-speaking Sephardi community from New York and her mother’s Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi community from Denver. If you are looking for a book about fathers that will help you figure out the one that you had, this is a good summer reading selection.


Books I Hope to Read This Summer

These are some books I have not yet read but am hoping to soon.

Language and Learning in the Digital Age  by James Paul Gee and Elisabeth Hayes

I need to write a book review of this for a journal by this fall, so this is a summer-reading priority. I can already hear the “boos” from the peanut gallery that I am listing “work” reading on my “summer” reading list, but I am eager to see what Gee has to say. I have only read portions of Gee’s other work, but at a glance, this doesn’t at all appear to be his typical writing style or depth. This book seems to be written on a very elementary level, at least the first chapter has been, so I am hoping to fly through this one and perhaps use it for my spring Digital Rhetoric class.

I will stop talking shop now. Back to the “real” list.


Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs

As evidenced by my Kingsolver selection above, I am a sucker for the “I tried something for a year and this is what happened” genre. I have also toyed with adding his Year of Living Biblically, to the summer reading list, but I would rather follow up with the Kingsolver “being a healthier human,” so I opted for this selection instead. I am hoping to be both entertained and jolted into actually hitting the gym and getting my Insanity body of early spring back again (further blog posts about the Insanity body and body issues to follow).



Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My single work of fiction I am choosing for my summer reading program is Gone Girl, both because it garnered rave reviews in two magazines I subscribe to that review books  (and will remain nameless because I have reinstated your license to judge based on my magazine subscriptions). I love reviews that talk about “dark surprises” and promise that the book will  “pull the rug out from under you” (much like chapter 9 of The Bell Jar where you realize not all is quite as it seems in Manhattan). So I am holding out hope that this book will deliver some escapist fantasy of the dark, rug-yanking kind.



And One Book I Will Not be Finishing

I won’t go through the trouble of posting a thumbnail for the cautionary tale of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. The book had so much promise when I yanked it off the public library shelf last Thursday: snappy title, good reviews, great cover photo of author as child carrying a beach ball. And so many people I like are named “Jeanette.” And she is British. I couldn’t lose.

However, one chapter in, I could see that this was clearly a follow-up memoir to try to explain the stories from the author’s successful previous work of fiction, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (which I haven’t read). Basically, the first few chapters, which are all I will be reading, are a mixture of 1) frequent references to Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (which was also a BBC mini-series) and what happens therein, 2) very short character sketches of her adoptive mother with the same repetitive themes (see “religious fanaticism,” “hypocrisy,” and “cruelty”), and LOTS and LOTS of telling about what love is and what life is and other phrases that go well with being verbs because they’re just those phrases that can only be distilled from a long life well-lived that we, unfortunately, won’t get to see any of.

So, in a nut-shell, this book breaks the “show, don’t tell” mantra of what makes compelling memoir. In short, I want to draw my own conclusions about the author’s life based on well-crafted stories that draw me into the action (see another Jeanette’s glorious book The Glass Castle, which is our university’s common reader selection for next year). I do not want to suffer through lines like “Happy times are great–yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass — they have to– because time passes” (24) delivered in one-and-two sentence paragraphs, like a slightly longer version of Chicken Soup for the Soul. What? Time passes? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

But, still, Jeanette has a book published, and I do not, so I guess I should give her some kudos for being one step ahead of me on the ultimate prize ladder of all academic careers: getting their  long-form paper-bound brain-wanderings recognized by a publisher.

Which brings me to the last topic of this LONG post (sorry about that…been thinking about this for awhile)…

What Jeanette Winterson Has Made Me Realize About Blogging

As some of you know, part of my “big girl” job consists of teaching writing and digital rhetoric. In my writing classes, particularly in my creative non-fiction courses, I encourage students to “pull back the curtains” in their writing and let the audience look through the window into their lives. Don’t just hold the curtains close and tell us what you’re seeing through that window using cliched aphorisms like “she meant the world to me” or “he was the love of my life.”  Sling those drapes open and let the reader see for ourselves that moment when you were three and you realized the universe is unfair at best and more than likely just cruel (read: use description to draw us into stories that we can interpret without your help, thank you).

This advice is great, I think, in print-based writing. But when I blog, I am suddenly very conscious of my “showing” and “telling”  in this new and instant media. Basically…

My Fascinating Life Stories + long-form, print text + years of fear = Very small possibility of real, wide-spread audience. Sure, I might some day draw together the courage to actually send out more than pieces of that memoir that sits as bytes and bits on my flash drive. And some crazy publisher might actually publish ANOTHER memoir about family struggles, loss, grief, and quirky tales of “growing up in _______.” But if so, who will read it outside of friends, family, and those people who might pick it up off the Dollar rack at the Big Lots? And the students to whom I assign it? Probably no one.


My Fascinating Life Stories + digital media + New iPad and ubiquitous internet access = Very good possibility of real, instant, and possibly wide-spread audience. Hmmm….I am probably going overboard here with the “wide-spread” part, but I looked at my “stats” today, and 38 people have read my previous posts. Which means that about 30 more people have read my late-afternoon online musings than have read the 15-year labor of my 150 page memoir manuscript. So…yeah.

What does this mean? Well, if I were a good author, following my own rules, I would leave it for you to interpret. But I am a hypocrite, so I will tell you. These two mathematical equations mean that I am struggling with the very boundaries that Clay Shirky mentions between content and media, the boundaries that the literate and semi-literate world once took for granted. We knew that letters were generally personal communications; books were  one-way communication from a single (or sometimes multiple) author(s) to a wide audience.

But what is the blog? Part journal, part broadcast medium? I can “publish” bits of my life instantly, and you can all write back just as instantly…tell me I am Nutty Bo-bo or what-have-you. And you can repost and Tweet and Facebook share with your friends, and they can tell me I am Nutty Bo-bo, or, even worse, they can tell me to stop being one of
“those mothers” who thinks her kid riding a balance bike is some kind of friggin’ miracle. And WordPress can instantly tell me how many people at least accessed, if not read, my posts.

If I published a book, I could put it on my vita, get a promotion, imagine that someone read it, and be done. Now, post-digital-media-revolution, bets are off.

What does digital media, and this blog,  do to the stories that I tell, and the “fascinating” parts of my life that are just hanging out there for-evers? What about my family, who compose the bulk of my funny stories? Do they want instant fame as a result of my ability to push-button “publish” for the masses that will, not doubt, start frequenting this blog? And what about selecting a banner for that page? HUH? What about THAT??? The pressure…of…a photo banner…

But I digress. In all actuality, the same people who would read my memoir, if it were ever out there to read, are probably the same ones reading this blog right now.

All this to say that I best get reading. My summer is really only one month long, and that month has already lost a day plus.

2 thoughts on “Summer Reading Program

  1. Stop thinking of this as an either/or universe….you’re supposed to write a fabulous blog, expand your audience via Twitter and FB shoutouts,and then publish your book. That’s when you’ll have at least 100 people to read your memoir, and you’ll delay it’s migration to the Big Lots rack (with all the time it spend as a NYT best seller).

    P.S. I hope you post a review of Drop Dead Healthy. I have Jacobs’ book, The Know-it-All: One Man’s Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World in my reading pile.

  2. Ha! I guess I am thinking either or. The blogging has made me rethink the meaning of audience and all the things I teach in my classes.

    I am hoping to test the Jacobs book on my iPad to see how well the Kindle app works. I have read that the new iPad gets really hot when you read for long periods of time. We will see….

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