Department of English
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient: Written in beautiful, poetic prose and carried by a host of memorable and empathetically drawn characters, the novel offers a new look at European history from the Renaissance to a moment near the end of the Second World War. Set in the ruins of an Italian villa and moving between there and North Africa, Ondaatje’s novel engages European art as emblematic of Western civilization by exposing the intersections between aesthetics and violence.
Toni Morrison, Beloved: The most flawless and fully realized novel I know; one that I continue to read. Here the relationship between literary form and content seems perfect. Every reading foregrounds new layers of the text’s structural and thematic genius. On the most overt level it is a story of U.S. slavery, trauma, racism and the relentlessness of memory. Morrison shows how this is a story of all of us. The novel engages a multitude of themes, one of which suggests that we will live fuller, more meaningful lives by constantly confronting and (re)integrating the horror and pain of our shared and individual pasts.
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace: Against the backdrop of a transforming South Africa an English professor in Cape Town has an affair with one of his students. But this is no longer a world in which white, educated, heterosexual men are allowed to do as, how, and with whom they please. Intellectually, philosophically and even in terms of sex and sexuality, history has arrived to collect its dues. Read together with Philip Roth’s The Human Stain which appeared a year after Coetzee’s book, it is clear that male privilege feels itself besieged on a transnational scale.
Keri Hume, The Bone People: This highly original novel introduces one of contemporary literature’s most unforgettable “butch” characters. Hume resists all pressures to feminize her central Maori character, instead overturning many of our presuppositions about femininity, masculinity and childhood, and how we organize our relationships to each other and to the world. There is magic to the defiant and transformative ways the English language of Niue Zeeland is used in this book.
Michael Cunningham, The Hours: Alternating the stories and connections between three women’s lives at different points in the 20th century, the novel asks us to consider what has changed and what remains constant for women over time. Virginia Woolf, creating her novel Mrs. Dalloway, provides this novel’s central conceit. How, over extended periods of time does art imitate life and vice versa? How do the constant struggles around sexuality and gender equity impact us all? The novel is crafted in sparse and elegant prose that renders slices of ordinary life quite unforgettable.
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children: If Morrison’s Beloved is the most “flawlessly realized” novel I know, then Rushdie’s may be the most “spectacular” as well as the most “ambitious” of the unforgettable texts I’ve read. At exactly midnight on the eve of India’s independence from Britain and the creation of the state of Pakistan, 1,001 children of national liberation are born. Rushdie uses one of these children—one who develops the gift of facilitating telepathy between himself and the other 1,000—to narrate the story of the first 30 tumultuous years of Indian nationhood. This novel was created by a staggering imagination, and it changed world literature in English forever.
Assistant Professor of Chinese
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Growing up in the Jiangnan (literally, “south to the river”) area of China, I always spent part of my summer reading about and visiting classical Chinese gardens in the region. Involving traditional Chinese philosophy, ethics, religion, painting, calligraphy, literature, architecture and horticulture, a classical Chinese garden is a microcosm of Chinese culture. In addition to being admired works of art, Chinese gardens are also fascinating because they are at the same time valuable pieces of real estate. Therefore, I greatly enjoyed reading about the “beauty” of the Chinese gardens and studying how the aesthetic meanings were translated into social experience and sensibilities.
The Chinese Garden: History, Art and Architecture by Maggie Keswick is one of my favorites. When the book was first published in 1978, it was among the first book-length attempts in English to explore the meaning behind Chinese gardens. I highly recommend this book because in a scholarly, yet highly accessible way, Keswick traces the origin and development as well as the principles and techniques used in creating Chinese gardens. In doing so, she particularly focuses on the key elements of the gardens—rocks, water, plants and architectural features. Now in its third edition, the book is accompanied with rich illustrations where readers gain an intimate glimpse of this unusual form of art and living.
If you find Keswick’s book interesting, you probably will be equally fascinated by the next “reading,” which is actually the award-winning website of Yin Yu Tang (a Chinese residence) at PEM (Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts).
Built by a Huang merchant in Anhui province around 1800, eight generations of the Huang family had lived in this house compound until the mid-1990s when the house was abandoned. The remaining members of the family sold the house to the PEM, and it was dismantled, shipped from China to Massachusetts and rebuilt at the museum in 2003. I have visited Yin Yu Tang a couple of times only to find the allowed 30-minute tour time is not nearly enough for one to truly appreciate this compound. The Yin Yu Tang website features a detailed deconstructed view of the orientation, structure and ornamentations in the house. Visitors can take a virtual tour of the house with audio narratives and see incredible detail, including a faded Chinese wedding symbol on one of the doors. I’m guessing some of you will want to take a trip to PEM after viewing this wonderful website. Don’t forget to make reservations beforehand as the tour frequently sells out.
Another book I have enjoyed reading repeatedly is Six Records of a Floating Life. In this memoir, Shen Fu, a young Chinese poet and painter who lived at the beginning of the 19th century, describes with great tenderness the trifles and idylls of his time with his wife, Yün. Yün’s admirable balance between her passions for life and her duties as a traditional Chinese wife has led many critics to reckon her as “the most adorable female image in Chinese literature.” Troubled by Yün’s premature death, Shen Fu tells and retells the significant events in their lives in different chapters, each time in a different light. Finishing the book, one can’t help but wonder if his memoir writing is actually like one of the practices the couple takes great delight in doing—hiding the puttied joints in the miniature stone mountain, an eternally unsuccessful self-deception.
In addition, I highly recommend a film from Ang Lee’s “Chinese father trilogy”— Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). This film tells the lives of a widowed Chinese master chef and his three daughters in modern-day Taipei. As the film progresses, each daughter embarks on a romantic relationship (and, actually, so does the father!) and finds there is a surprise around every corner for the family. I love this film for its finely-tuned drama, spontaneous comedy, seasoned dialogues and unexpected little twists. Most important, the film is compelling for its portrayal of Chinese ethical relationships, especially between father and daughter. If you like this film, you may also enjoy the other two titles in this trilogy—Pushing Hands (1992) and Wedding Banquet (1993).
Happy reading and happy summer!
Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Environmental Archaeology
Department of Anthropology and Sociology
When I arrived at Rhodes last summer, I had just moved from rural Massachusetts where lush deciduous forests, rolling streams and mountains were all around me as I conducted field and lab research related to the field of paleoethnobotany, the study of human use of plants in the past. As I have shifted to my new Memphian life-ways, I have come to fully embrace my new urban landscape. I have therefore selected readings that suggest how, regardless of where you live in the United States or around the world, you can come to fully appreciate and understand the cultural and environmental choices we have made through our history. So if you are interested in understanding cultural choices associated with plants, food and sustainability—this reading list is the one for you.
I start this journey with a book written by Colin Trudge. The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter. This book provides an essential backbone to start a journey to appreciating the tremendous growth in our basic Western knowledge of plants, specifically trees. Trudge presents the reader with an eloquent biography of 60,000 different tree species and how they are the key players on our local, regional and even global stage.
Learning about trees within a humanistic narrative offers a unique opportunity to weave together the beauty of trees, their utility and even their agency in our constantly changing globalized landscape. You will appreciate the life of the tree and its major roles within our highly modified landscapes as a source of food, fuel and architectural and religious inspiration. Perhaps Trudge hopes the readers will recognize the synergy that exists within our humanistic and scientific knowledge of these plants in order to address how we ourselves live and tackle the major environmental problems of our contemporary world.
The second book deals with how our cultural use of plants, such as wild weeds and domesticates, has shaped the evolutionary trajectory of our diet. In Ancestral Appetites, Kristen J. Gremillion draws upon the archaeological record from 7 million years to the present day to highlight the vast reserve of cultural knowledge associated with gathering, harvesting and processing plants. Through various case studies, she discusses how we as humans have the cultural capacity of choice and explores the ways we encode and direct those choices. The book imparts a deep understanding of how “fad” diets related to restricted choices, such as the paleo diet, are just contemporary nostalgia. Gremillion demonstrates that our food choices throughout history have been (and still are) extremely complex and adaptive—the central lesson of her book is that our use of plants for food is a continuing story of dietary diversity and adaptability.
Ancestral Appetites is a great stepping-stone to the next book, which is a contemporary analysis of our food systems. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan, explores our modern-day food landscape through three different lines of food production: industrialized food, organic food, or the food we forage/grow for ourselves. Pollan calls into question the choices that we make as individuals by detailing their political, economic and social implications. After digesting the engaging content in the book, you will certainly be re-evaluating your own cultural choices.
Another book, Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology, by Sarah McFarland Taylor, may gently push you (if the other three have not) into a more engaged and environmentally conscious existence. It focuses on the lives and motivations of a growing number of Roman Catholic sisters who are creating community-supported organic gardens, building alternative housing structures from renewable materials and adopting green technology such as composting toilets and additional “green” ways of being. This book is fantastic for learning more about environmental activism, different perspectives of nature, feminism, social justice and how religion can be an important resource for solving today’s environmental problems.
These four books have certainly opened my eyes and shaped my environmental perspectives and choices. I hope they provide you with some food for thought. What better time than now to learn plants, food and sustainability? Enjoy, and happy reading!