One of the first books I plan on reading this summer is Lydia Davis’ new collection of short stories, Can’t and Won’t. I recently heard Davis read at the Free Library in Philadelphia, and her stories invariably manage to be both oracular and hilarious. An entire story from Davis is sometimes only one sentence long. Here’s “Bloomington,” for example: “Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”
John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest)—arguably the finest series of novels in American Literature.
Fiction: —Life after Life, Kate Atkinson. All about the roads that could have been taken or, more to the point, all about the what-if when even the small life junctures might have been different. Title might be “life after life after life . . . ,” as the work reverts to the main character’s beginnings repeatedly and re-imagines different results. —The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. A very edgy work that merges a woman’s motorcycle escapades with art, romance, cross-country wanderings, and a European trek that flirts with violent politics. (Finalist for 2013 National Book Award.) —A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki. A lonely young woman bullied by her classmates and faced with dysfunctional behavior from her parents finds acceptance in her great grandmother’s Zen world.
Drama: —Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegria Hudes. An Iraqi war vet returns home to Philadelphia where he struggles to balance his life against PTSD and the dynamics of change and tragic circumstances within his family. (Winner of 2012 Pulitzer Prize.) —The Mountaintop, Katori Hall. Play imagines the last hours of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel on the night before his assassination. —Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gian Gionfriddo. One woman: committed homemaker. One woman: committed careerist. Each wonders if she made the right choice or if she can have it all. Solution: change places with each other. (Finalist for 2013 Pulitzer Prize.) —Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz. A writer returns home and announces to her parents that she is about to publish a memoir that reveals compelling family secrets. (Finalist for 2012 Pulitzer Prize.) —Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar. Work explores attitudes toward religion and, in particular, the conflict between modern life and the way faith challenges cultural mores. (Winner of 2013 Pulitzer Prize.)
I recommend War and Peace. It’s worth every hour (day, week) spent reading it and difficult to find time for once student life ends and summer vacations are no longer.
Asking me to pick just one is sort of like taking my son to the candy store and allowing him to buy a single jelly bean. Impossible! So how about three?
--Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way. I first read Proust on my Northampton porch in between junior and senior year of college, when a surprisingly well paying busboy position meant hours of daytime leisure. The easy pace of summer allowed me to linger in Proust’s sentences and that lingering was maybe the most immensely pleasurable reading I’ve ever done. (For what it’s worth, many people prefer Lydia Davis’s translation published by Penguin, but I’m partial to the earlier Moncrieff, Kilmartin, Howard translation published by Modern Library.)
--Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother. Living in the United States, it seems to me we can do one of two things: think long and hard about race and racism or, like Captain Delano in Melville’s Benito Cereno, work assiduously at making ourselves ignorant in the face of our own reality. Hartman is one of the most insightful living scholars of slavery, a descendant of slaves, and an enviable writer. She uses her memoir, Lose Your Mother, to describe her journey along a slave route in Ghana, allowing her personal experience to help her readers better understand our own location within the geography and history of the Atlantic slave trade. I’d heard people talk before about the “legacies of slavery” and even used the phrase myself, but this book made me realize I can only ever begin to understand the full extent of what these “legacies” entail.
--Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? A sequel to Fun Home, this graphic memoir describes Bechdel’s relationship with her emotionally distant mother in western Pennsylvania. I love it for its painfully unflinching look at the relationship between mothers and children. But I love it just as much for its exploration of the relationship between books and readers. Bechdel turns to books whenever she reaches an impasse in her life--in this account turning to the psychoanalytic writings of Freud, Jung, Winnicott, and Phillips. I recognize myself and many of my most avid students in her representation of reading as self-exploration, and I found that, like Bechdel and the reading she describes, I understood myself better once Are You My Mother? had come to a close.
--Those three, plus Teju Cole’s glorious Twitter feed.
My pick for a summer novel for our students is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s a beautifully written book full of interesting characters and ambitious ideas about time and history.
Two books come to mind. Neither is a book of poems, exactly, but both get pretty close to being poetry by being about it so lovingly. The first is Words in Air, a book that collects all of the letters written between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell . They lived thousands of miles apart for most of their lives, and this book, in some sense, isn’t just about their friendship, it is their friendship. The other is a book I just picked up for the first time: Madness, Rack, and Honey, which is a collection of quite playful lectures by the poet Mary Ruefle. I’m already stealing time to read it. Here is a representative moment, from a piece called “Short Lecture on Shakespeare”: “Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.” Isn’t that wonderful?
Two-Part Invention, by Madeline L’Engle, is a beautifully written memoir about an in-many-ways-wonderful 40 year marriage.
I’d highly recommend Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (about a group of Dublin creative writing students and their professor at Trinity College in Dublin) or her Tenderwire (an intelligent page-turner about a “reckless young musician’s obsession” with a very old violin). Claire Kilroy is one of Ireland’s best leading young writers—and she’ll be the 2015 Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies, so you can take a class with her!
My recommendation is James McBride’s Song Yet Sung. A brilliant story teller, McBride sets his penultimate novel on the eastern shore of Maryland in the 1850’s. And while the tale certainly asks readers to consider the concepts of slavery and freedom, it is as much an exploration of the contemporary moment. One of my absolute faves.
I’m going to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and finish Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I’ve had the Mantel books for a year and I’m desperate to read them and we just read her really witty and biting essay, “Royal Bodies,” in my Contemporary British novel class. You should read her essay if you want to have a different perspective on Kate Middleton’s, errr, body parts. Donna Tartt—because The Secret History is just so so good.
I’m interested in spy novels in part because my father was in intelligence, and I highly recommend the novels of John Le Carré (I’ve recently re-read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Beyond being page-turners (and more complex than simply good guys vs bad guys), I’m told that Le Carré’s novels give an accurate portrayal of the world of spycraft at a particular historical moment.
Consider reading The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I read this book over Christmas break and said to everyone who walked past me, “I just love this book.” It’s a great work by an important author—it won the National Book Award in 2012—but it’s also an addictive page-turner, a murder mystery, and an escape to a different world with a different culture. The Lit Fest novels this year were also excellent, especially Lord of Misrule and & Sons.
Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Set in a counterfactual future in which after losing the 6-day war, Palestinian Jews settle in Alaska, making a society alongside indigenous Alaskans, the novel explores worlds made of language as much as politics. Robin McKinley, Sunshine. Not literarily significant, perhaps, but beautiful in its own way. Psychologically nuanced, surprisingly delicate novel of vampires and pastry chefs. Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Mind-openingly wide-ranging study of the non-human as well as human facets of European-American encounter.