It’s chilly and dreary and the dead of winter. Here in Maryland, kids and teachers have probably been sleeping with pajamas inside-out and spoons tucked beneath pillows, to no avail. January is long gone and February is half over, yet no snow.
On a happier note, I was asked to serve on the One Maryland One Book selection committee (how’s that for a non sequitur?). This year’s theme? Friendship.
Since I came a bit late to the committee, I didn’t submit suggestions; however, I was privileged to participate in the Top Ten selection process and the January meeting. January is when the Top Ten list gets whittled down to the Top Three. And what a fun way to spend a day! Librarians and writers and teachers and professors and other humanities folks—my favorite sort of people—talking about books. Like, seriously talking about them, but in a respectful and thoughtful manner.
The committee meets in a lovely building downtown, a sunlit space that is filled with astoundingly beautiful plants in the large windows and a massive table in the center of the room. Gathered around are smart people who love good books. Yep, it’s my idea of heaven. The fearless leader of this literary endeavor is Ms. Andrea Lewis. Man, is she ever organized! Start to finish, it’s a finely tuned machine, thanks to Andrea. She kept us on track and made the day fun.
If you’re looking for a way to conquer the winter blues, head to your library or bookstore or one of those other places I’ll refrain from mentioning here, and check out the books on this list. You don’t have to be from Maryland to read them, obviously.
The Top Choice for One Maryland One Book will be announced the second week of March, and Andrea has promised she’ll answer a few questions for that blog post. I’m attaching the link here in case you’d like to know more about One Maryland One Book. You can learn more about the selection process and browse the list of past winners.
So many books, but not nearly enough time! Every year I set big goals for reading, and every year I fall short of said goal. In 2019, I read 38 books, and it’s very tempting to fudge here and say I read 40. There are two nearly finished books in my queue (City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson). There’s also a collection of poetry I’ve been savoring one poem at a time (A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires). Over the summer I read a large stack of books on frogs, but I’m too lazy to find that list.
I’m not ranking or rating or ranting about any of these works. I’m simply listing them. Some I liked. A few I didn’t. At least two books on this list changed me in significant and hopefully lasting ways. One book made me laugh out loud. A lot. That same book also made me cry. It was the best work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time, in fact. There are weird books on this list and smart books and sweet books, too.
Books keep me afloat when I’m sinking. They make me feel less strange or maybe more so for liking them. Books nearly always help me feel less alone on this life path. So, instead of ranking or rating or ranting, I’ll just say thank you to all the writers for showing up and getting the words on the page and to all the unsung heroes in publishing who helped these books find the light.
Here’s to another year of reading, folks. My 2019 list is in the order read.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Greener Pastures by Charlotte Locklear
What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey
In Pieces by Sally Field
Calypso by David Sedaris
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
Because of Winn Dixie (again) by Kate DiCamillo
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
Maid by Stephanie Land
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
South and West by Joan Didion
Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key
Blubber (again) by Judy Blume
Eleanor Oliphant Gail Honeyman
Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson
The Snail Darter and the Dam by Zygmunt Plater
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo
Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me by Les Carter
Time to celebrate a very special person in my life, writer, teacher, mentor, friend extraordinaire Charlotte Renner Locklear. Rewind to many years ago, 26 to be exact. I was fresh from a two-year stint working in college admissions and eager to begin a teaching career in public education. In my new school, I had the privilege of meeting Charlotte.
To me, she was everything a teacher should be—smart, tough, kind, compassionate, funny, humble, warm, and supportive. Instantly, we hit it off, and when it came time for me to complete my student teaching, she served as my mentor.
Each day I’d teach my classes (technically Charlotte’s classes) and after dismissal, we would retreat to an office across the hall. We’d eat lunch together and go over my lesson plans. Again and again, day after day, Charlotte would ask the same question: “What’s your point?”
Young and feeling a bit defensive, I would reply (likely with some inane response), and Charlotte would persist. “Yes, Suzanne, but what’s your point?” Every lesson required an objective, a motto I came to live by in the classroom. It was a good way to establish my own roadmap. Why was I teaching this particular lesson? What was my point and purpose? What would the kids know and be able to do at the end? As a writing teacher for many years, it was abundantly clear that concepts couldn’t be mastered in a day, maybe not even in a lifetime, but it was worthwhile to try. Having a point made sense. It still does, both in teaching and in writing.
What’s my point here? you might ask. I’m getting to it, I promise.
Over the years Charlotte and I became close friends. When I left my previous school to write and be home with my daughters for a while, Charlotte would stop by after work. We would talk books and school and lessons and child-rearing. Mostly, we talked about life, however, and you could see our friendship wasn’t merely work related. It was lasting.
To say Charlotte encouraged me as a teacher and writer would be a true understatement. She was a champion. She cheered me on when I needed it most. She read my works-in-progress. She called me out on my stuff, too. She tough-loved me through the pain of losing my mom. She was there. She still is, I am so grateful to say.
Charlotte “retired” from teaching many years ago, and since a number of folks have tried to apply the R word to me, I’ll just say it’s a term I resist. First, I didn’t retire. I quit my job. I may teach again or I may not. And Charlotte hasn’t “retired” at all, either. She is still teaching. She gives her time teaching English at her parish to non-native speakers. I feel certain she is still teaching her grandsons and son and daughter-in-law, though I haven’t reached out to them personally to ask. More than likely, she’s still teaching her siblings and husband. I know for sure she is still teaching me.
Not only is this post to give thanks for a decades-long friendship with a woman I truly admire and love, it is also to celebrate the next chapter in Charlotte’s working life. A book. A book ten years in the making. TEN. Charlotte has written and published her family’s complex and intriguing history. If this is where you’re thinking Another’s family history so doesn’t apply to me, keep going.
When I first settled in for a 302 page read, I was worried and nervous. I had to give back to a woman who had so generously given to me, but it was someone else’s family history. How interesting could that be? Very, as it turned out. A few pages in and I was hooked. I devoured. I cried. I nudged my husband and read him passages or remarked, “Charlotte is such a good writer! This is so good!” More than once while reading, I texted Charlotte to point out parts I found especially moving or interesting. To be honest, I was astounded that Charlotte had managed to put her family’s long and complex history on paper and make me love it so. It was, in fact, a feat.
Poignant, factual, and well written, Greener Pastures is a history of the Renner and Kopp families, but it’s more than that. It’s a good story. Charlotte captures so intelligently the experience of her ancestors, Germans from Russia who migrated to North America toward the end of the nineteenth century and eventually settled (and prospered) in the western United States and Canada. Settling in a new land requires tenacity and grit, and Charlotte so deftly conveys this point. Think Willa Cather or the Little House books.
As our nation continues to grapple with policies and practices and attitudes toward those crossing our borders, Greener Pastures serves as a kind reminder: we are all from someplace else.
Thank you, Charlotte, for continuing to share your many talents with us. And thank you for being a true friend.
You can order Charlotte’s book on Amazon. I’ve included the link here.