Johnny Cash, Glen Sherley and Kristen Lamb

Image of Kristen Lamb's "The Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World"
Kristen Lamb’s “The Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World”

A Loose Connection: Folsom Untold and Rise of the Machines

I took a long walk while listening to Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album. I wanted to listen to Folsom because I’d recently read Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (great stuff!) a novel about women in prison. Strangely though, the story of Johnny Cash, Glen Sherley, and music in Folsom connected to the book I’d just finished, Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World by Kristen Lamb. Rise helps authors create their brands through social media.

Image of book cover "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner

Folsom appeared to me to have good examples of Lamb’s assertion that creatives will find connectors in unexpected places. These connectors can change the course of their careers.

Image of "Folsom Untold" audiobook

Johnny Cash and Glen Sherley at Folsom Prison

In 1968, when Johnny Cash played and recorded live the concert that became the album At Folsom Prison, his career was waning. It was his idea to do concerts in prisons. Generally, his handlers thought that would be a disaster. One music producer, Bob Johnston (famous for working with Bob Dylan), decided to go ahead with it.

Fortunately for Cash, one of his best friends was the minister Floyd Gressett, who also worked at Folsom. Gressett knew a prisoner in Folsom, Glen Sherley, who had written the song “Greystone Chapel” about the chapel at Folsom. Gressett smuggled out a copy of the song and played it for Cash. Cash practiced it that night and played it as the last song of his Folsom double concert the next day. It was a hit with the prisoners and one of the popular songs from the album.

Four Loose Connections Restart a Career

This unexpected turn of events—that required someone in the music business who could get Cash a concert gig in Folsom, a prisoner there who was writing songs, and a minister who knew this and could get the music to Cash—depended on the sort of loose connections that Lamb suggests we all have whether we realize it or not.

Johnny Cash asked the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to work to have Glen Sherley released. How did Cash know Reagan? He didn’t know him well, but before the Folsom Prison concerts, Reagan heard that Cash was rehearsing outside Sacramento and went to have pictures taken with him. Another loose connection. That was enough. Sherley was released, but with the stipulation that he had to live with Cash. He did.

Sherley later became a member of Cash’s band and had success in the country music business in his own right. This is not a perfect fairytale. Sherley died by suicide in 1978. HIs Wikipedia entry is just a short paragraph stating that he was unable to adjust to life outside of prison. According to Folsom Untold, Sherley’s drug addiction was insurmountable and may have been the reason for his suicide.

Seizing the Day

Digression: I also just happened to finish reading The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison. If you’ve been a pretty straight arrow all your life and worry that you have no drug or alcohol induced creativity, read it. Jamison discusses how deeply creative people (John Berryman being a significant example) have been stunted by addiction, much as it seems Glen Sherley was.

Think of the loose connections that returned Cash to stardom in the country music scene and that gave Glen Sherley the opportunity to leave prison and become a singer/songwriter. The right music executive, the minister who worked in prisons, the prisoner who happened to have written a song, the governor who happened to have taken photos with Cash. These are not deep connections. And yet, they worked together to create At Folsom Prison, Cash’s greatest achievement.

Image of Victoria Waddle peeking out from behind the nook "Rise of the Machines" by Kristen Lamb

A Few Notes on Sources

Note: Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album is an Audible Original, so if you want to listen to it, go here. It’s less than two-and-a-half hours long. I was able to listen to it in a single long walk. It happens to be a February pick, so if you are an Audible subscriber, you can get it for free if you download it in the next ten days.

Kristen Lamb’s discussion of salespeople, mavens, and connectors and is based on Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion in The Tipping Point. I’m a fan of Gladwell’s work and discuss it here and here.

Writing Inspiration from The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

If you are looking for writing inspiration, read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. It’s about writers, how they relate to one another, and how they engage with the larger world. It’s a great read for anyone who is writing just now.

The narrator of The Friend is grief stricken over the suicide of her friend and fellow author, a man who was her mentor and writing teaching decades earlier. Though she lives in a tiny apartment, and is not particularly a dog person, she is talked into adopting the dead man’s Great Dane.

Writing Inspiration from Dogs and Men

While the presence of the dog influences how she reflects on the death (Great Danes do not live long and this one, Apollo, is already middle aged), most of what she reflects on is the value of writing, whether authors are valued in society, and many of the current ethical issues surrounding authors and college professors. Is it OK for people to write outside their own experience? What of male writing teachers who have relationships with their students? Are they predators? Are they bad writers? Is it OK to use the lives of friends in your writing? (Reminding the reader of Anne Lamott’s famous words: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”) There are no answers given, but the ruminations on these subjects will be familiar, and it’s nice to engage without screaming or being screamed at.

Writing Inspiration from Quotes

Another reason for writers to read this novel is that it is full of quotations from authors, as well as some discussion of the lives of famous writers. If you are stuck for new ideas, you might find some of these stories and quotes inspirational.

If you happen to love dogs, that’s a bonus. I was looking through reviews of The Friend on GoodReads. It seemed that people who aren’t writers thought the novel was OK, but had too much rumination by the narrator. Some complained that they’d been led to understand The Friend was a book about dogs, and there wasn’t enough about dogs, that Apollo rarely appears in the book. Honestly, there’s a lot of discussion of the dog, who does appear quite frequently (but he is not anthropomorphized, so maybe that was their real issue).

I think these responses point to the reality that the people who will give The Friend five of five stars are writers, readers of serious fiction, and literary hopefuls. That’s you. And those who awarded it the National Book Award this year.

The Friend is such a lovely work. Read it.

For more literature based writing inspiration, check my post on The Buried Giant.

Writing Prompts from “The Buried Giant”

Use Quotes from Reading for Writing Prompts

I’ve come to think that some of the best writing prompts are the things we underline in the books we read. I’ve decided to periodically post some of my underlining here. The nice thing about using quotes from books is that you don’t need to have read the book in order to use the quote as a prompt—the point is to just let your own imagination take the thought forward. SO—I’m starting with my most recent read—The Buried Giant.

I had the good fortune to receive The Buried Giant as a Christmas gift from my son. I missed it when it was published three years ago, but I’m so glad I got to read it now. If you haven’t read it, check the link for my review.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Perhaps there had been a time when they lived closer to the fire.

It was just such an idea that would drift into Axl’s mind as he lay in his bed during the empty hours before dawn, his wife soundly asleep beside him, and then a sense of some unnamed loss would gnaw at his heart, preventing him from returning to sleep.

A part of him felt sure that if, at this moment, she were awake and talking to him, whatever last barriers remained between him and his decision would finally crumble.

On a sunny day, provided the wind was not strong, it was a pleasant place to pass the time.

When I was outside just now, doing my best to remember all that I could in the stillness, many things came back to me.

No light thing to leave a place you’ve known all your life.

Our memories aren’t gone for ever, just mislaid somewhere on account of this wretched mist.

The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?

I would the boy witness all that unfolds, just as I was often made to do at his age.

Or was it just that his memory had become coloured by subsequent events?

Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?

I don’t forget the beast, sir. I merely consider this gateway before us.

This circle of hate is hardly broken, sir, but forged instead in iron by what’s done today.

He climbed the side of the boat and let himself fall into the water. It was deeper than he had anticipated, coming above his waist, but the shock of it took his breath only for an instant, before he let out a warrior’s bellow that came to him as if from a distant memory.

The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness.

Writing Prompts from Other Reading

I just posted about finding writing inspiration in The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. It, too. has fun quotes and ideas you may find useful.

May your mind roam!

Independent Bookstores: I Do Like Them

Say! I like this intriguing book!           

Outside a bookshop in Ireland (I think it was in Galway.)

I do! I like it, take a look!
And I would read books in a boat.
And I would read them with a goat…
And I will read them, in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree.
They are so good, so good, you see!
So I will read them in a box.
And I will read them with a fox.
And I will read them in a house.
And I will read them with a mouse.
And I will read them here and there.
Say! I will read them anywhere!
I do so like to read good books!
Join me, join me, take a look.

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss)

Book Buying

A recommendation from the staff at Cellar Door Books

It’s lucky for me that someone had the idea to give herself the online moniker ‘book slut’ before I thought of it. It wouldn’t fit my teacherly imagine. But it’s a pretty good description. Better, though, that I imagine myself a character from Dr, Seuss, one who, when he finds out how great something is, he just can’t keep himself from it.

Books are that addiction for me. And because of this, I’m no purist about where I find them. If I have a sudden desire to have a book

When my sons were reading Earthsea, I impulsively bought it to join in. Their comment: You got the edition with the terrible book cover art.

immediately, I order it on Amazon. If I am shopping in a mall—a very rare occurrence as there’s little that I hate so much as shopping—I stop by the Barnes and Noble and pick up a book in order to make the trip worthwhile. I was a teacher librarian for over two decades, and it was convenient to put books on hold and have them come to me. I’m a big fan of audiobooks because I walk, sometimes for hours a day, and think that’s as good a time as any to be ‘reading.’ I like the narrators’ interpretations of the works. I like listening to poetry read by the author, an experience that I might not otherwise have had. So I have an Audible account. 

Independent Bookstores

A Cellar Door Bookstore purchase.

But when it comes to finding a good book, landing my imagination in unmapped territory, my favorite place to buy is at an independent bookstore. The fact that I have to go out of my way to find one makes the experience feel purposeful, an anticipated pleasure. So I was saddened to read recently that a bookstore I have often gone out of my way to visit—Cellar Door Books in Riverside—had a children’s program disrupted by people who didn’t think it should have been taking place.

Independent bookstore visits can culminate in connections. I have two friends that live in Northern California, and we meet up once or twice a year. Often, we end up in Santa Cruz because—well, who doesn’t want to be in Santa Cruz? Before beginning our adventure, we always stop first at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I once had a wonderful conversation there with a stranger. I had just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and was recommending it to my friend. She was deciding whether she should get the 900-page book in a single volume, or go for the box set of three paperback sections. (She got the box of paperback sections.) While I was telling her what a strange and wonderful book it was, a woman standing near us excused herself and said she had overheard our conversation. Did I like Murakami? Other than 1Q84, I had only read the much shorter Norwegian Wood. However, I knew he was famous for another very long work, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The woman pulled the book from the shelf. “If you liked 1Q84, you have to read it too.” She talked about her own experience with Wind-up Bird. I don’t remember what she said. It was her palpable passion for the work that made me add it to my purchases. An online recommendation for the tome wouldn’t have made me put it in my shopping cart.

Used Books from Independent Bookstores

I’m sorry that there’s no independent bookstore close to me. My sons are

Claremont Forum Bookstore purchase (1992 edition)

grown and when they are visiting, we frequent the wonderful Claremont Forum Bookstore, which sells used books to raise money for the Prison Library Project. Since it’s located next to a number of restaurants, we always go book shopping there while we wait to be seated for dinner on busy evenings. And we always find something to buy. I usually try to find books that are out of print or whose author is deceased. Because, while I love supporting a good cause like the Prison Library Project, I also love supporting living authors—who almost never make a living wage from their writing. So buying their books new matters.

Independent Bookstores: Events Worth the Drive

Cellar Door recommendation/purchase

The independent bookstore I have the chance to visit most frequently these days—one where I can purchase new books and support their authors—is Cellar Door Books. I can’t really call it local. It’s thirty miles away and, on weekdays, the traffic between me and it is horrendous. But I find myself in Riverside periodically because I volunteer with the Inlandia Institute, a nonprofit that supports and promotes literary activity in the Inland Empire area of Southern California.

When I am nearby, I go over to Cellar Door to get a book. I’m not personally known to the staff. But every time I have been there, someone has helped me to find a worthwhile read. I’ve talked about the sort of books I like, about what I’ve read lately to give the bookseller an idea of my reading tastes. Sometimes they recommend something I’ve read, an experience that tells me they’re listening, that they are homing in on what I’m looking for. When I tell them why I liked the particular book they are recommending, the next recommendation is usually the one I go home with.

The recent tragic murder of eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh brought to mind books I’d purchased last spring at a ‘think tank’ event I attended at Cellar Door. Authors Jo Scott Coe and Larry Behrendt were there in conversation about their books, respectively Mass: A Sniper, a Father, and A Priest and Sacred Dissonance.

Mass and Sacred Dissonance, purchased at a Cellar Door Bookstore event.

Mass is about the 1966 University of Texas (Austin) mass murder, including the story of the murderer’s history of domestic abuse and Catholic upbringing. As a Catholic who left the church for the final time (it was a long, complex breakup) over the sexual abuse coverup, I wanted to hear the authors converse about it. I arrived early and bought Mass. The event began, and as the evening continued, I heard more about Sacred Dissonance. Behrendt wrote it with co-author Anthony Le Donne as a series of back and forth essays discussing the religious identities and cultural boundaries of Jews and Christians. The goal of the two authors was to provide a model for addressing the past and challenging the present. I realized I needed to purchase it as well.

Fight for the Opportunity

Cellar Door Bookstore again!

Having the opportunity to thoughtfully engage with the ‘other’ is a way through thinking of people as just that. So it’s a shame that the event recently disrupted by a few community members was a drag queen story hour for children. (Here’s a quick report on what took place.) These are popular across the country, in both bookshops and libraries.

Before I was a teacher librarian, defending the right to stock edgy YA fiction, I was a high school English teacher. Every once in awhile, a parent would object to a class reading assignment. I had no problem with that as parents do make decisions for their children. I reasoned that it wasn’t the end of the world if a teen didn’t get to read The Catcher in the Rye. It was pretty much a good YA novel before YA was a thing, and so it appealed to teens. I wasn’t even big into making students read something like Fahrenheit 451 if their parents objected to a book—that was a bit too smug for me. Instead, I’d talk to the librarian about a similar book with no foul language (innocent days, those!).

What did surprise me, however, is that parents always objected to content they hadn’t read. My son can’t read The Crucible because it encourages witchcraft. My daughter can’t read [the Washington Irving short story] “The Devil and Tom Walker” because it’s Satanic.

Yeah—promoting Satan in the classroom is what got me up and out the door on those early mornings.

I often wondered if they might have had another opinion if they had perused

I had to buy multiple copies of this bumper sticker at Bookshop Santa Cruz for all my friends that teach 9th grade English–and To Kill a Mockingbird.

the work before making a judgment. When I heard about the disruption of the drag queen story hour, I wondered what the protesters would have thought if they had just sat down to quietly and respectfully listen.

Maybe they wouldn’t have changed their minds. To them, it was a moral issue. And like store owner Linda Sherman-Nurick, I agree that if they do object, they don’t have to come. It was the same with parents of my students—I didn’t mind if they wanted another book for their own child; it was when they started thinking that they could usurp the authority of other parents to raise their children and choose their books and experiences that we’d get into it.

So from experience, I know that books and discussions about them are worth fighting for, as is working to understand people in all their variety. Independent bookstores are integral to these experiences. I’m glad that Cellar Door will continue to have drag queen story hour. My kids are grown, but I might have to show up anyway.

Treat Yourself to Independent Bookstores Everywhere

Don’t go to an independent bookstore just because it’s a good thing to do. Go to treat yourself, to indulge more completely in your bibliophilia. Check the schedule and attend a special event, be a part of the community of literary conversation. If there is an independent bookstore close enough to you—lucky, lucky you!—join one of their book clubs and connect with other readers in deep discussion.

Yes, I’d read a book anywhere and with anyone—fox, goat, mouse, acquaintances, best friends, colleagues, drag queens. If a drag queen happens to enjoy the same book I do, that’s exactly the person I want to sit down and discuss it with.

Horror: The Haunting of Hill House, Lovecraft and More

Multiple Horrors

We didn’t begin with Shirley Jackson or the Haunting of Hill House this week. My sons and I started our email conversation about an article in the LA Review of Books on how authors are reimagining H. P. Lovecraft. The article discusses the racist elements in Lovecraft’s work and what modern writers try to do to correct the stories. (You can read the article here.)

Because I like to read some of the same stuff that my kids have read—I like talking to them about their reading experiences—I had once listened to an audiobook collection of Lovecraft stories. I was walking in a wilderness area as I so often do. It was a weird combination of a sense of balm (the oaks, pine and deer) and a sense of foreboding. I remember that Lovecraft had mad world-building skills. I remember cold spaces, spooky and empty and yet fill of ancient alien beings . And then I pretty much forgot most of the details of all of the stories because I’m at the age where I do that. If the work isn’t in the top ten percent of my all-time reading or if I am distracted (“Squirrel!”), I don’t usually reconsider it.

Can It be Corrected?

The article about the inherent racism of Lovecraft’s work started a conversation about whether works of literature—even the pulp fiction that Lovecraft wrote, could be corrected. They had some interesting answers.

“I agree that Lovecraft’s stories are rooted in xenophobic fears. A lot of people try to deny that, but they’re so deeply integrated that there isn’t much left if you try and wish them away.”

“If you want to reclaim art for yourself, you’ve got to make your own, and show your own themes to be as aesthetically powerful as your opponents’, not ‘fix’ art using Anglo-Saxon moralizing from the top down.”

I tend to agree with the last statement—that someone writing to fix serious issues in works of fiction ends up with a little didactic morality tale. It’s best to abandon that project and start with a fresh idea. As my eldest son pointed out, “The aesthetic power precedes any moralizing or rationalizing about it, and so art that’s made in this way will usually turn out pretty bad. . . . The sanitization of Lovecraft has no artistic impulse.”

Reimagining Horror

But what if the impulse is not to sanitize, but simply to try to recreate the emotional power of the work?

My son mentioned that John Carpenter’s The Thing is based on Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” “The connection is so loose that it’s no longer recognizable as cosmic horror, but it’s basically a perfect movie because it plays by its own aesthetic rules. Re-Animator is a similar case, but with comedy.”

Reimagining The Haunting of Hill House

I had to make the connection here to the Netflix 10-part series I am currently watching.

It’s based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House and has the same title. Yet it is a story that honors the original while deeply departing from it. If you’re unfamiliar with the novel, here’s an overview I wrote several years ago on the School Library Lady blog: 

New cover of "The Haunting of Hill House" advertising the Netflix series.
New cover of “The Haunting of Hill House” advertising the Netflix series.

The Haunting of Hill House is creepy in the best sense. Jackson is known as a master of horror and plot twists. If you’ve read her short story “The Lottery,” you’ll have an idea of what she can do with the unexpected, the shock factor.

Here, four young adults are selected by Dr. Montague, an occult scholar who wants his research taken seriously, to spend a few weeks in Hill House. The house is reported to be haunted, and no one who has rented it has ever stayed more than a few days. Nonetheless, they always give rational reasons for leaving, as if they think people will find them crazy if they admit to the haunting.

Of the four young people, Eleanor, grabs the attention of the reader immediately. She has had to care for her ailing, unappreciative mother until her mother died. She is bound to her sister and her sister’s family and must share a car with them. Eleanor, who has been selected to stay at Hill House because she had a documented event with poltergeists in her childhood, feels that the trip will be a chance to break free of the patronizing behavior of her sister and her sister’s husband. When they refuse to allow her to take the car, Eleanor drives off early in the morning before anyone else wakes. The reader wants her to escape, and cheers her through her trip toward the house.

Once she arrives, she befriends the others. It looks like she is finally going to get what she desires from life. But Hill House isn’t haunted in the traditional sense of having ghosts. It is a personality of its own—and it wants Eleanor. Though all the others see the evidence of this, they pull away from Eleanor, accusing her of creating some of the frightening and bizarre episodes.

And for someone as fragile as Eleanor, dealing with the house alone is more than a challenge.

The Haunting of Hill House is pretty short—a few hundred pages—and Jackson doesn’t waste your time with extraneous detail. What starts as a very ordinary trip and an opportunity to find friends ends in spine-chilling creeps.

What Netflix Gets Wrong–and Right

In the Netflix series, the group of ‘investigative’ adults have been replaced by a family with five children who are living in the house in order to flip it. Both the novel and the series deal with the psychology of the characters and how the past evoke responses. In the case of the novel, the main character’s past is the basis of her response to the house. In the TV series, the characters’ past experience with the house is the basis for their behavior after they get out of the house.

What is lost is that the book’s character is an adult woman who is single, unwanted, and infantilized. It’s clear she’s trying to assert herself, beginning with taking the car (which belongs half to her and half to her sister) when she has been explicitly commanded not to. But, of course, since this is horror, the result is disastrous.

The adults in the TV series are trying to assert themselves too—often against one another in sibling rivalries—but the story loses the portrayal of the treatment of women and what I believe is the author’s feminist message.

In the TV series, the parents appear sort of loopy and negligent for remaining in the house when the kids are clearly traumatized. (Just as for the reader of the novel, the viewer can’t tell which experiences are real and which are imagined.) Also, the series has many ghosts. While the theme that the house itself is malevolent is maintained from the novel, the series tosses in too many jump scares that push away from this thesis. 

I like to sew:  My entry in the library ‘Day of the Dead’ skull contest.

So both the novel and the series are good. (Well, actually, the novel is great.) Ultimately, though, the series is an entirely different story. The fact that the house is identical to the one in the story or that some of the characters have the same names doesn’t mean a lot. It’s just a nod to influences, which I think all creative work is. Maybe that’s all a writer need do. It’s probably what you should do.

The Haunting of Hill House is Brilliant because Shirley Jackson is Brilliant

Reading the work of Shirley Jackson is a great exercise for writers, not only of horror, but for those seeking to accurately portray the psychological states of their characters—so I assume, all writers.

Here’s a wonderful article in The Guardian that discusses why The Haunting of Hill House is brilliant. You can use this after you’ve read the book to help you think about your own work. A little taste:

“Jackson was the first author to understand that ‘houses aren’t haunted – people are’, says [Joe] Hill. ‘All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,’ he says. ‘In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.’

“[Andrew Michael] Hurley says: ‘The menace of the house is subtle and insidious and when it does appear, you realise that it was there from the start. Hill House is far more than just a “haunted house” story. Quite what it is, or what it means, is as changeable as the house itself.’”

If you’re like me and have to wait long minutes between Trick or Treaters on Halloween, take the time to introduce yourself to Jackson’s work—then pat yourself on the back for getting some author work done.

Try a Few Jackson Short Stories

The New Yorker freely offers stories from old issues. Recently it highlighted three Jackson shorts in a newsletter: “The Lottery” from the June 26, 1948 issue. While “The Lottery” was read widely in high schools a few decades back, it no longer is. If you’ve missed it, it’s a must for how to create horror out of the absolutely ordinary, out of a clear, promising day. (The story resulted in more mail than the New Yorker had ever received about a work of fiction.) 

If you’re already familiar with “The Lottery,” try “Paranoia” from August 5, 2103 or “The Man in the Woods” from April 28, 2014.

For more on the best of horror, Electric Literature put out a list of ‘spine-tingling horror’ that includes a description of each choice, and, of course, includes The Haunting of Hill House

Finally, as you ready to write your own scary story, The Writer Magazine has lots of tips here.

Happy Halloween!

Try a Family Book Club

Many of our choices and a note from my son about buying one of them for me.

People joke about their love of the wine and food, but book clubs are essentially a great experience because we get to discuss one of our favorite things with some of our favorite people. I’ve participated in book clubs with both my friends and my students, but having a family book club with my adult children has been the best experience of all, one I highly recommend.

Family Book Club

It’s tough to have a family book club when kids are younger, especially if there is a spread of years in the children’s ages. You can’t read a young-adult novel with an elementary school child. Yet a ‘chapter book’ ensures that older siblings quit from boredom.

So here’s to one of the best things about having survived the teen years: thoughtful exchange is finally possible. You can read anything you’d like without worrying about its appropriateness. Your kids can pick the books, and you’ll learn something about them through their choices. Your discussions will be much more satisfying than, “Yes, I also noticed the pictures in ‘Goodnight Moon’ darkened as the night wore on.”

I have three adult sons. We came upon the idea of a family book club because we often found ourselves discussing Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” during our dinner conversations over college holidays. Many themes — race, belonging, the autonomy of the individual, and more — would take us deep into the night.

Selecting Books for the Family Book Club

It was my job to pick the first book. Since all my sons had read “Invisible Man” in high school, I wanted to connect to another book they were all familiar with through school, Camus’ “The Stranger.”

Author Kamel Daoud had recently published “The Meursault Investigation,” which narrates an Arab perspective of “The Stranger.” Scenes mirror those in Camus’s work, so a recent reading of “The Stranger” is helpful. One of the best conversations my sons and I had about “The Meursault Investigation” was on the protagonist’s shift to an existential philosophy of existence – his strange embrace of Camus. The book reviews we’d read skipped this, focusing solely on the effects of colonialism on the colonized. This led my sons to declare that book reviewers don’t actually finish the books they review.

Next, I picked a book by an author that I wanted my kids to read — “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” by Salman Rushdie. Shorter than other novels I’d read by Rushdie, it has qualities my sons love in books: playful language, mythic characters (in this case, jinn or genies) and philosophical quandaries. This one- thousand-and-one-night clash between light and darkness was a perfect choice.

High on our success, we decided to try David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” This was our first (epic) failure as we couldn’t get through it, and our only discussion was on an essay-length footnote. Taken back, I asked my middle son, a serious fantasy fiction reader, to pick something we’d all enjoy. He selected “Lud-in-the Mist” by Hope Mirrlees. I love this tale of a town bordering Faerie land. The characters are as fully developed as any in literary fiction. The world-building evokes wonder. As someone little acquainted with fantasy, I was delighted with the new genre which also took me back to Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market.”

Thinking on our success with otherworldly elements, we next decided on the surrealistic “Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories” by Bruno Schulz. Schulz’s life and his death at the hands of a Nazi officer are compelling in themselves, illuminating his ability to imagine strange creatures invading a home while family members become unhinged. Our family conversations centered on the ways magic realism affected the lives of the characters.

Sometimes You Win . . .

We are currently having a rough go with “Mistress of Mistresses” by E. R. Eddison, an author described by Tolkien as “the most convincing writer of invented worlds” that he’d ever read. “Mistress” is a highly symbolic fantasy written in the 1930s. My oldest son thinks it makes too much of outmoded ideals of the Nietzschean superman. My middle son loves it because of the symbols and archetypes, ones that I find too unlike real people — women who represent Aphrodite in perfect beauty, intelligence and grace, for example. My youngest son read the first four pages of the purple prose and said, “I’m done.” My husband never started it because it isn’t on audiobook. The disappointment of my middle son is palpable. He wanted us to connect to ideas that are meaningful to him, and we failed to do so.

Oddly, many of the books have one thing in common — commentary by Neil Gaiman, as if he has read every fantasy and surrealistic novel available. So I take that as my cue. Next, we’ll read Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology,” which, based on our experience thus far, I expect will be a complete success.

If you have any suggestions for a family book club selection, please let me know.

(Published yesterday in the Southern California News Group papers):

Want to know how your relatives think? Start a family book club

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Literary Quality YA

Movie tie-in book cover for "The Miseducation of Cameron Post"The film The Miseducation of Cameron Post based on the  YA novel of the same name won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. I’m naive enough about the judgment of critics to think that this meant they would all like it. So I was sorry to see that a few of my trusted review sites didn’t like the film . (Rolling Stone review and New Yorker review.)

I was also glad to see on Rotten Tomatoes that those reviewers were not in the majority—most of the reviewers liked the film, both for performances and storyline.

A Thoughtful Lesbian Protagonist

The real reason I want people to like the film is so that they will read the book. It’s a good chance to experience a lesbian protagonist who is able to hang on to her self-esteem and sense of person despite some lousy odds. Several years ago,  I gave a book talk to our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance about the history of LGBT YA lit. I chatted up several of the books I’d enjoyed. One of the girls in attendance said she wished there were more LGBT YA novels with female protagonists. I hadn’t thought about that, so I went back to look over our collection, and the male protagonists appeared about twice as often as female, so the student certainly had a point. Cameron Post was a welcome addition.

The release of the film reminds me to go back to the novel now and offer some advice to YA writers—if you haven’t read this book, do it. It’s a wonderful example of YA lit that is quality literature. The writing is excellent. While I love YA fiction in general, I can’t say that most of the novels contained top notch writing. The Miseducation of Cameron Post shows a YA writer what is possible.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is Quality YA Literature

I reviewed the novel on School Library Lady in 2014 when I first read it.  Following is what I had to say about it–today I might think less about younger readers as things change:

Cameron Post and Irene Klauson have always been best friends. They do everything together including all those things they shouldn’t do, like shoplift. And there’s always been an edge to their relationship because they compete with one another. So when they are twelve years old and they decide to practice kissing, there’s nothing particularly strange about that. But what they both discover is that they like their kisses and want more. Cameron Post is realizing that she is a lesbian, and it seems that Irene is too. They are already thinking about being careful, keeping it a secret, and looking for an

opportunity to do it again.

The night following their discovery, Cameron is staying at Irene’s house. Irene’s father wakes her up in the middle of the night and tells her that he has to take her home. Have the girls been discovered? They are so worried. But, unfortunately, the news is much worse than that. Cam’s parents have been killed in a car accident at Quake Lake in Montana. Ironically, this very lake was created in an earthquake decades before, and Cam’s mom had just coincidentally escaped it.

Cameron’s life is pulled apart. Although she still has her much-beloved, oddball grandmother (mother of her father) to help take care of her, her mother’s sister, a recently reborn Christian, gives up her own life to take care of Cam. And worst of all is the thought that keeps running through Cam’s head—she’s glad that her parents will never know about her kiss with Irene. And she believes that the kiss itself may have been the cause of her parents’ death—a punishment. And so the guilt begins.

As Cameron grows into her teen life, she also grows more distant from Irene, who has become wealthy and leaves for private school. She hangs out with mostly guys, who dare one another to do dangerous things and spend a lot of time smoking dope. She now has Lindsey, a girl from Seattle, that she competes against in swimming. Lindsey is openly gay and much more knowledgeable than Cam. She makes Cam feel the stultifying nature of her life in eastern Montana and in the Gates of Praise church (which is always shortened to the acronym GOP—and, yes, I was amused). At GOP, Cam often hears sermons against homosexuality. She’s surprised one day when she hears her aunt having sex with her boyfriend—after all, that’s one of the sins on the GOP list. Why are the standards for the two different?

With Cam exploring and working out her sexuality, you can pretty much figure she’s going to get caught. Her downfall is a beautiful girl of her dreams, the super popular Coley, who is also a member of the GOP church. A girl with a boyfriend, one who is either secretly bisexual or at least is exploring. When the two are caught, Coley hurls all of the blame on Cameron; her betrayal, as we see it later, is breathtaking.

Once caught, Cam’s life is again turned upside down. She is sent away to God’s Promise, a conversion therapy school/camp. Up to this point, the novel has been very good. But at God’s Promise, it soars. There Cam has no privileges until she earns them. She has to deal with her roommate ‘Viking Erin,’ who wants her conversion to work. But she also makes a few great friends and still manages to get up to no good.

Guilt is a major theme of this novel, beginning with that first kiss between twelve-year olds. The big question that hangs over all the ‘disciples’ (students) at God’s promise is whether their conversation therapy will work. There’s no evidence that it does and the psychic price that the students pay is high—even tragic in some cases.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post in the High School 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a literary-quality novel. The characters are well drawn—no stick figures here, including Cam’s Aunt Ruth who does love her, feels that Cam’s ‘problem’ may be as much her fault as it is Cam’s, and who truly believes that she is helping Cam by sending her to God’s Promise.

I did worry a bit reading the book because Cam is such a pothead and has several other bad traits to boot. Obviously, I’m not someone to promote drug use, but I think that with all the issues in Cam’s life, her behavior is pretty realistic. The intimate and sexual scene are well done. They aren’t gratuitous nor are they pornographic. Nevertheless, this is a book for mature readers, and I think high school rather than younger YA readers are the audience.