“Retelling the Tales” at Virginia Festival of the Book

Hillary Jordan, Rachel Unkefer, Margot Livesey, Sharyn McCrumb

Friday March 23 I was the moderator for a panel at the 2012 Virginia Festival of the Book sponsored by WriterHouse, an organization of which I am a founding member. This was a panel I initiated, after hearing that Margot Livesey’s new book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, was a reimagining of Jane Eyre. I had also read Hillary Jordan’s book, When She Woke, and knew that it was a reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, so a vision for a panel began to form. When I heard Sharyn McCrumb would be coming to the festival with her latest book, The Ballad of Tom Dooley, an Appalachian version of Wuthering Heights, I knew we had a winner.

We had a lively discussion, with a standing-room-only crowd in the McIntire Room of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library main branch. Some of the topics of discussion: retelling vs. reimagining, what is it about classic tales that make them grist for retelling, how each author navigated the question of how close to stick to the original story (Sharyn McCrumb included actual dialogue from Wuthering Heights, Hillary Jordan’s characters’ names are very close to those in the Scarlet Letter, Margot Livesey used the broad plot outline of Jane Eyre with some rearranging of characters and relationships).

Responding to a discussion about archetypes in classic stories, Margot Livesey characterized her novel as an orphan story and a pilgrimage story. Hillary Jordan described her book as an outsider story and a pilgrimage. Sharyn McCrumb’s book is a meticulously researched account of a true historical event. When describing the difference between writing history and historical nonfiction, she said nonfiction writers can “walk” through the events, where, as a novelist, she must “dance.”

And afterward, there were many books to sign.

Hillary Jordan, Margot Livesey, Sharyn McCrumb signing books. Author John Casey in the background.

My Favorite Comic Novels

I’ve had several conversations lately about comic/satirical novels and found myself wanting to recommend some of my favorites, but struggling to remember titles and authors. So, I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I’ve really enjoyed over the years. Next time I have that conversation I can point people toward this list. Keep in mind that by “comic” I mean “darkly comic.”

Bonus points: if you use the links to order them from Amazon.com, my nonprofit organization WriterHouse will benefit. Buy from your local indie, though, if you still have one.

I’ll try to keep adding to the list as I think of more. Comment below if you have suggestions for titles to add.

The Cool Book-Recommending Mom

Is there such a thing as a cool book-recommending mom? Because if there is, I might be one. My kids have always been big readers, and I kept them supplied with the latest and greatest by reading lots of book reviews. For a while, I was also their school librarian, so the other kids got the benefit of my obsessive searches for the really worthwhile books. Several of them would come to me every time they finished a book and asked me to find something else they would like.

At some point, my kids began to reject kids books and even young adult books. That was about the age of 10 or so. It was a bit of a challenge to find reading material for them in those “tween” years that was challenging enough for them intellectually but not grossly inappropriate for them emotionally.

The most fun has been since the oldest started high school, when I was able to recommend books that I really like and know they were old enough to appreciate them. They both enjoy reading fiction (although they’re not in the habit of it the way they used to be) and they usually ask me for a suggestion when they’re in the mood to read. Our reading taste has a lot of overlap, so this is fun for me and, I think, useful for them. I have several hundred linear feet of bookshelves in the basement where I store the fiction I’ve read. We go downstairs and I start pulling books out for them.

When my older son was in high school, the book recommendations extended to his friends. He would sometimes lend them books of mine (which I didn’t always get back) or give them titles to read. Occasionally when one of them was at our house we’d look at the shelves together and choose something.

A couple of days ago, my younger son had a friend over whom I don’t know that well. I was upstairs trying to fix a desk drawer when my son came into the room and said, “How about I work on that while you go downstairs and give N some book recommendations.” Recommending books is way more fun than fixing a drawer, so I handed over the screwdriver and headed down the stairs. We spent 15 or 20 minutes talking about what sorts of books he’d enjoyed in the past (Dostoyevsky, Ishiguro) and I tried to match him up with some new authors (Richard Powers, Donna Tartt). I’m looking forward to getting a progress report from him.

Virginia Festival of the Book 2010

Still getting caught up with WriterHouse business after having been gone a week and then caught up in the whirlwind that is Virginia Festival of the Book. I was on one panel and attended several others, and then there were the lunches, dinners, receptions, and finally the big program:  a reading and Q&A with Lee Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Colum McCann, and E. Ethelbert Miller.

These were four outstanding authors with four outstanding readings. Normally I get bored and fidgety when people read aloud, but this held my attention. Colum McCann was particularly riveting, even though I had read his book and so was hearing the text for the second time.

I was particularly proud of my sixteen-year-old son who waited in line to ask Colum McCann about a particular passage he remembered from Let the Great World Spin and then bought an extra copy of the book with his own money so he could have it autographed.

Reading at a Torrid Pace

My Shelfari account informs me I’ve read 6 books this year, which is outpacing my measly output (or would that be input?) of 37 books for the entire year of 2009. I must say I have been making more of an effort to make time for reading, and three big blizzards so far this winter have helped. I’m in two book clubs, which limits the number of books I get to choose for myself, but I compensate by pulling books from my gigantic “not yet read” pile in between. In addition, I am constantly getting books from my writing group. I used to get a lot of books from BookMooch, but that has slowed down considerably. I’ve apparently exhausted the supply of books I want to read from what’s available for mooching.