A Summer (or Fall) Reading List from Us to You
I don’t know about you, but I have tremendous resistance to gunking up my summer with to-do lists. Not that I don’t have them. An MQR summer reading list was at the top of my list, in fact. But summer in Vermont is hard earned, and hiking mountains trumped computer time. Then, there was a trip to Minnesota to help Bridget Beck celebrate her newest sculpture with poetry workshops and a reading in a corn field turned sculpture park; a show of my own to install at the Red Mill Gallery at the Vermont Studio Center; and finally, a move back to Georgia where I’ll finish up my dissertation this year. Now, lo and behold, the passage of Labor Day in the U.S. rules out white shoes till the spring, and college football tells me that it’s definitely fall even if it’s still a sweltering wet here in Georgia. While I can no longer conscionably offer you a summer reading list, the MQR blog contributors took their deadline more seriously than their editor did—bless them for it—and with apologies for my deadbeat-ness, I offer you a wonderful array of books to tempt you inside as the heat abates, and the leaves begin to turn. As the season moves toward a time when it’s cozy to cuddle up with a good book without the burden of a wandering eye begging you to head outside for summer fun, we hope you’ll make time for reading for fun. Our suggestions follow, and we hope that you’ll share your own summer/fall reading list with us (whether it’s actual or aspirational).
Since I’m spending much of my summer in Ann Arbor, writing and reading for the MQR, I want the books I read this summer to take me all over the world, a sort of literary “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Shortlisted for the formerly known Orange Prize and the Man Booker, Half-Blood Blues is set in Berlin and Paris during World War II. It follows a young, German trumpet player who is arrested in a Paris cafe. Even with all the reputable awards and nominations the novel has won, what really sold me is the last line of the synopsis from her website. “Half-Blood Blues is an electric, heart-breaking story about music, race, love and loyalty and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.”
Pym by Mat Johnson
Pym is a novel about an African-American, recently fired professor, who is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Pym promises to be a terrific read, featuring an all-black crew of six who follow Pym’s trail to the South Pole, on a ship.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Ok, I’ll be honest. I’m partly excited to read this because I watched a lot of Downton Abbey during the winter, and now I’m looking for any bit of British propriety that I can read, watch or consume. Small Island, of course, is not anything like Downton Abbey, but I had to mention the show nevertheless. Winner of the formerly known Orange Prize and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Small Island‘s main plot is set in 1948 and focuses on two Jamaican immigrants to Britain, the Great Mother country.
Seeing by José Saramago
I love José Saramago. Enough said. I’ve read his novel Blindness and Death With Interruptions, amazed by his sharp wit and his astute observations of society. Both Blindness and Death With Interruptions answered and explored these amazing fantastical situations: “What if everyone in a city lost their sight? How would this city run?” or “What would happen if Death took a vacation and people stopped dying?” Seeing is a sequel to Blindness where, in the same city as its predecessor, the majority of the city cast blank ballots. I’m excited to see what happens.
The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos
Written by a U of Michigan alum, Bakopoulos’ novel has all the elements of a great novel for me: family drama, dictatorship, love and resistance; not to mention it’s set in Athens and Paris. I’m excited for her debut novel and proud to be fellow a U of Michigan MFA student!
Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh
Shadow Lines has been on my must-read list for years and now that the author is coming to read at U of Michigan in the fall I have the perfect reason to finally set into this novel. It opens in Calcutta during the 1960s.
The Famished Road by Ben Okri
I bought this book last August right before classes started, and I’ve been so sad to see it on my shelf, waiting for me to read. Okri’s novel won the Booker a decade ago. The narrator, Azaro, is a spirit child who, in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria, exists between life and death. I’ll share the first paragraph and see if it captivates you the way it did me: “In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.”
The Grassing is Singing by Doris Lessing
I have very little memory of my grandmother, but I would have loved if she was somewhat like this. Nothing can inspire a reader more than a confident woman pushing 90: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuBODHFBZ8k. But, I suppose I should, at least also say, it takes place in Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) during the 1940s, when the nation was still a British colony.
Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller
Nora Okja Keller’s debut novel is the story of Akiko, a Korean refugee of World War II, and her daughter Beccah. The title speaks to the women who were forced to serve as “comfort women” to Japanese soldiers. “Comfort”, of course, being a strange and ill-fitting euphemism for the sexual violence these women were forced to endure. I will read this book when I’m most prepared for a good cry.
Follow The Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
This might be my most random reason for reading, but when I was in seventh grade my French teacher, for a reason I’m not too sure of now, had the class watch the film adaptation of this novel, called Rabbit Proof Fence. The novel and film follow the lives of three Aboriginal girls who escape from an Australian government settlement and make the trek of 1,500 miles back home.
Sad to say that I don’t think I’ll get much reading done this summer, but I hope this brief list will still prove useful. I guess it’s a kind of dream-list!
- New translation (& expanded edition) of Mythologies by Roland Barthes, trans. by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers
- All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
- Selected Essays of John Berger
- Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey (really!)
- Dog: Behavior, Evolution, and Cognition by Adam Miklosi
- Song of the Departed: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl, trans. by Robert Firmagem
—Ann Marie Thornburg
Sent while traveling through Turkey…
Monstress (Short Stories by Lysley Tenorio): His stories are totally original, many are built on fantastically bizzare, hilarious, and mystical premises, but speak sincerely and movingly about the pain and alienation of the Filipino-American experience… or really any experience that involves being from two disparate, seemingly irreconcilable worlds. (Side note: Tenorio came to UofM in the spring of 2012 and I had the opportunity to introduce him for his campus reading… and he’s incrediby articulate when dicussing his thought process while writing. I was so impressed with him that even if I didn’t love his stories as much as I did, I’d still read everything he wrote with hopes that some of those smarts would rub off on me.)
A Prayer for Owen Meaney (John Irving): I just finished this book. In my opinion, it’s one of the great examples of funny, poignant storytelling from a child’s point of view. And Owen Meaney’s dialogue is so memorable and enjoyable.
WANT TO READ
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: Apparently, this book is a dark he-said-she-said filled with confessions from a Midwestern housewife and her unhappy husband. I’ve been told it’s a well-written page-turner that is filled with (plausible) surprises!
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Just because I love Ann Patchett. (I’m still amazed by the floating narrative perspective in Bel Canto and find so much joy in reading her work.)
Is it unusual to have picked up The Wind in the Willows or Watership Down, even The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, for the first time at age twenty and to find oneself totally rapt? Perhaps, more importantly, is this evidence of a nostalgic escapism? At the same time I was reading these books I was also discovering the electric folk of The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and the wonderful mysterious community of posthumously dubbed ‘acid-folk’ bands who shared a vision of a Merrie England which never existed, which led me to Rob Young.
Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music is a study of the romantic spirit that pervades a great deal of English music from the 60s and 70s. As well as chronicling the bright-eyed psychedelia of the folk revivalists, he points to unusual connections that reveal a deep running seam, a history of many more variations on this fanciful revival of Olde England. The utopic visions of William Morris are aligned with the gothic nostalgia of bands like early Black Sabbath or the industrial noise experiments of Coil who courted a very pagan aesthetic. Pastoralism and faerie stories go hand in hand with midnight masses.
Ordinarily I’m not much for memoirs, but the two books I couldn’t wait to read once summer arrived were memoirs by two writers whose other work I have greatly admired in the past. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, who I first came to know as advice columnist Dear Sugar on therumpus.net, is an emotional, detailed account of Strayed’s hike up the Pacific Coast Trail in the wake of her mother’s death and the end of her first marriage. Oprah recently chose Wild as her first Book Club 2.0 pick, and I could see why: Strayed’s writing is raw, readable, relatable, and real. That’s four Rs, which means I liked it.
As a student worker in the Smith College archives some fifteen years ago, I discovered Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic about a group of lesbian friends drawn by Alison Bechdel. I was a loyal DTWOF reader until 2008, when Bechdel ended the strip in order to focus on her graphic memoirs. Her most recent, Are You My Mother? is a heady mix of autobiography, meditations on psychotherapy, and Bechdel’s attempts at understanding her mother. An impressive work, though I really wish she’d bring back the Dykes. I miss Mo and the gang.
On the fiction side, I’m in the middle of The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, which is a fun read. My pen is getting a lot of mileage from marking favorite passages (it’s a very quotable book, with gorgeously odd sentences and a satisfying mood of disquiet). At the beginning of the summer, I finished Monstress, a masterful short story collection by Lysley Tenorio. Lysley came to visit us at the University of Michigan this past March, and it was wonderful to get to meet him and ask him about his writing life. His short fiction is beautifully imagined, heartfelt, with just a tiny dash of strangeness. I highly recommend his book.
On my shelf waiting to be read: Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, Eileen Pollack’s Breaking and Entering, and Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrowers.
As the days dwindle down this summer, and present and anticipated responsibilities (and daily distractions) crowd in, the reading list (both for my graduate program, and for my own pleasure and edification) I ambitiously devised in May seems ever-more like a complicated musical score not created to be performed with actual musicians (or, if it is eventually performed, it is performed whole years after the composition was originally made). This evolving (and reality-tempered) list originally included re-reads and first-time adventures: Likeness and Icon: Selected Studies in Classical and Early Medieval Art by Hans Peter L’Orange, A Perfect Spy by John le Carré , Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray, Jesus Tales by Romulus Linney, History in English Words by Owen Barfield, The Master’s Muse by my former professor Varley O’Connor, Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove and Witold Rybczynski’s The Perfect House: A Journey with Renaissance Master Andrea Palladio. Now, perhaps appropriate to the above reflection on the accepted limitations (combined with a healthy dose of resistance and/or creative manipulations) to and of time, I have added one more: Slavoj Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes.