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Winter 2009

On My Bookshelf

kathy_mccartney_books.jpgHow does a busy woman who heads a prominent school of education decide what to read in her -- very limited -- spare time? Ed. asked Dean Kathleen McCartney that very question. Her answer? She gets a little help from her friends.

When it comes to leisure reading, I am quite susceptible to peer pressure -- and for good reason: I know many avid readers with good taste. If my friend Mil Duncan believes a book is a must-read, it appears as a gift in my mail. The last book she sent me was The Maytrees, Annie Dillard's new novel, with this note attached: "Dillard may just love Cape Cod as much as you do." I decided to read the book while vacationing with my family in Truro, Mass. The novel is set in postwar Provincetown and follows the courtship and marriage of Toby and Lou Maytree. Theirs is a story of deep connection, separation, and reunion. Dillard uses her descriptions of the landscape to reflect the Maytrees' love story, while the Cape becomes its own vivid character.

I have another generous friend, Lundy Smith, who also mails me books. I laughed out loud while reading Richard Russo's Straight Man, a send-up of postmodern academia. I resonated with Roland Merullo's In Revere, in Those Days, a coming-of-age tale of a working-class child. Last month, Lundy sent me a one-sentence e-mail: "Buy William Trevor's Cheating at Canasta today!" Currently, I am wandering through a dozen of Trevor's provocative short stories. I have always loved the short-story genre because good writers like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and William Trevor illustrate the complexities, contradictions, and pathos of human relationships with poignant dialogue. In one story, "The Room," a female character remarks to her lover, "Love makes the most of pity, or pity does of love, I don't know which. It hardly matters."

My husband's book recommendations are reliably good, perhaps because he has been a high school English teacher for 32 years. When I read Don Delillo's masterwork, Underworld, along with his senior class, Bill would pose literary riddles over dinner, such as how can an enemy bring us to deep completion, a thesis in the text. As a psychologist, I can usually handle a question like this. Metaphors are another matter, which brings me to poetry. Before I met Bill, I had never read poetry except in English class. Thanks to Bill, I now read poetry for its lessons of the heart. Last August we bought a signed copy of Mary Oliver's Red Bird, and we are making our way through the 61 new poems, which is essentially a book of thanks. Oliver is accessible to newcomers like me.

There are the long, pale dunes; on the other side
the roses are blooming, and finding their labor
no adversity to the spirit.

Now, you may have noticed that nonfiction is seldom on my bookshelf; perhaps I read too much of it at work. Recently, however, Mike Rodman, HGSE's director of communications, advised me to read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is now on my list -- I cannot resist a recommendation from a friend.