Do you have a guilty pleasure book?
I do! I have a fascination with literary historical fiction like Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. There’s something fun about feeling like you are rubbing shoulders with the literary greats and listening to the secret whispers of ancient mysteries. And who doesn’t like a mystery?!
What is your favorite genre? Which do you avoid?
Gothic literature. As a child of the 70s, I grew up watching Scooby Doo. I’m convinced that these Saturday morning cartoons paved the way for my future fascination of Romantic Gothic novels like The Italian by Ann Radcliffe and The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. I love how the supernatural themes of innocence caught in a corrupted world circle through time and resurface in designs like epistle novels and frame stories, caught in whispered conversations in works like Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. We can see it peak into other modalities like art and film paralleling director William Friedkin’s The Exorcist inspiration from the painting The Empire of Lights by René Magritte and, of course, those gothic, Georgetown steps. And yes, I’ve visited them and traced my way down to the Potomac!
What book is currently sitting on your nightstand?
My mother recently visited Ireland and brought me back a book, Library of Trinity College Dublin that shows images of The Book of Kells (c. 800) as well as Robert MacFarlane’s The Lost Words: A Spell Book. (My favorite word is eit - placing a quartz in a stream to sparkle in the moonlight and attract salmon - and teine-biorach – a flame running across the heather in late summer.) I also have a copy of Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s companion journal to their cookbook Run Fast, Eat Slow, because I rarely pick up.
What’s the last great book you read? The last book you recommended to everyone you know?
I have to switch directions here. Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse opened the door to a different time and culture. The novel is based on diarist and interview of Japanese victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. The level of detail and weaving together of lives shows a more personal insight into the effects of the bombing on citizens of both the city and the surrounding countryside where young women were interrogated by prospected in-laws, least they show themselves to be infertile due to radiation exposure.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, what, where, how).
I love books. Old books with a slight smell of mildew. New books with crisp pages. Children’s book and coffee table books full of bright photography and artwork. I have fond college memories of studying in the musty old building (turned into the law library when the new pyramid building was built) at University of Tennessee, hidden away from the light of day and the sound of students hustling home from classes. I also enjoy finding small, locally owned bookstores when traveling – The Island Bookstore (Corolla, NC), a historic cottage with a double-decker porch and natural, grayed-patina cedar siding; Booksmith (Haight St., San Francisco), with colorful chalk advertising and handwritten synopses stuck onto shelves; or Capital Hill Books (DC) a side-street off of Pennsylvania Avenue where the bathroom doubles as the foreign Language Room.
What’s the most interesting thing that you learned from a book recently?
Reading Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I learned that silvery moonlit eels hurrying to the sea might crawl across land to get to water sources that takes them to the salt waters. Her description reminded me of Rime of the Ancient Mariner when he blessed the sea snakes “unaware.”
What book might people be surprised to find on your bookshelf?
My great-grandfather wrote a documentation of rattlesnake roundups in southern Georgia. Creatures of Mystery by Gray Meek sat on my grandparents’ shelf and then my father’s shelf. As a child I used to pour over the sepia pictures of men dressed in overalls armed with flashlights, sacks and hooked sticks ready for the chase. Stories of daring and danger with a touch of delight and respect for the “little fellows” burned into my imagination. While my love of folk stories grew, my fear of snakes did as well. Great-grandaddy was never quite able to get me to share in his delight. (Gray Meek was a rural postmaster in Georgia who spent his evening out back of his house in a self-built log cabin to write by the light of an oil lamp.)
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you the most?
As a kid, I remember being caught up in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and then running along the creek side with my pet German Shepherd, Kam, pretending we were Karana and her wild dog, Rontu. Years later living in California, I visited the Santa Barbara Mission to find out the story the novel was based on was true. The real Karana (Juana Maria, a Nicoleños native) lived at the mission after leaving San Nicolas Island.
Have your reading tastes changed over time?
My bookshelf sections are a reflection of all my shifts. I keep small sections for each of the interests that I’ve always doubled back to. My academic sections are full of texts from my dissertation and earlier studies: Harold Bloom, Louise Rosenthal, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, Madeleine Grumet, Stanley Fish, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes. I have sections from my master gardener years: Michael Dirr on hydrangeas and Mrs. Whaley’s Garden full of Charleston’s noisette roses and camellias. Further sections hit on cooking (from Shalane Flanagan to Michael Pollan to Joanna Gaines), female pirates (Grace O’Malley, Ching Shih, Mary Read), regional ghost stories (Alexandria’s female stranger’s unmarked tomb, Alice Flagg at Murrell’s Inlet, and all the copper miners of Jerome), to national parks (of which I really recommend the hysterical reviews by non-parkies - Subpar Parks: America's Most Extraordinary National Parks and Their Least Impressed Visitors). Each grouping of books represents a different side of me and a different part of my life.