Each summer, Rhodes magazine asks three faculty members to share their summer reading list. As can be seen by their diverse methods of presentation, the faculty who chose this summer′s books reveal the breadth of intellectual discovery and curiosity among the members our community.
To me, summer is a break, time with family, but also a new adventure, and an emphasis on a new project or different kind of work. Summer also seems to have its own life cycle, and so I have sorted my reading suggestions by month.
May brings vacation—the long awaited break!—but also the juicy prospect of completing a special project over the summer. My first recommendation is Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O′Keefe by Laurie Lisle. For most of her life, each summer O′Keefe left New York and her photographer husband Alfred Stieglitz behind for new scenery and experiences out west. In 1929, she bought a Model A Ford and learned to drive—by all accounts she liked to drive very fast—and would take extended camping trips with a friend, her cat, and her paints, off-roading into the Navajo Nation to create some of her most famous landscapes. If this book doesn′t get you geared up to use your summer for traveling, focusing on your work, and learning new things, nothing will!
June reminds me of lengthy visits with family. Perhaps because the visits are not centered around a holiday, they seem to force more authentic relationship maintenance. My second recommendation, Kevin Wilson′s The Family Fang, is about a family where the mother and father are performance artists who have always involved their children in their art. But as the children become adults, rules are redefined and loyalties questioned as they, along with the police, try to solve a mystery. At its heart, the book is a dissection and reaffirmation of the modern nuclear family. The existential crisis the adult children experience may hit close to home for our recent grads, as it did for me.
Since I was fifteen, my grandmother and I have both read the new works of John Irving and discussed them together. I particularly remember beginning to read A Widow For One Year because it begins with a rather adult situation—a young man, 16 years old, who takes a summer job as a writing assistant and falls for the writer′s wife. The book opens with a rather graphic scene, and as you could imagine, I was nervous about discussing that particular aspect of the book with my grandmother, but I was so hooked by the story that I couldn′t stop reading. There are situations that literally will make you laugh out loud, but the book also discusses loss, disappointment, and new beginnings so deftly that I have returned to it several times throughout my life.
In August, summer in the south can begin to feel oppressive—creeping kudzu or a broiling and deserted concrete jungle. I suggest A Confederacy of Dunces, set in the sweltering New Orleans summer, or The Great Gatsby to complement the realization that summer romances and unfinished projects that O′Keefe inspired in May must go into a drawer so that you can prepare for the seriousness and purpose that autumn brings.
Ernest L. Gibson III
Be it the tortured relationship I hold with American history or the more natural propensity for wrestling with the absurd, my summer reading selections tend to be dark. I have found that there is something paradoxically seductive about a work of literature that challenges the sun′s omnipresence and forces the reader to enter the realm of the tragic. Even more, one finds that reading "dark" literature during this season of warmth beckons new readings of triumph, where the reader surprisingly discovers moments of beauty basking in the throes of tragedy. And it is in the spirit of rediscovery that I recommend the following novels for summer reading:
Invisible Man by Ralph Waldo Ellison. Winner of the National Book Award in 1953, Ellison′s first novel continues to resist the constraints of time and prove that it is easily one of the best works of the 20th century. The novel traces an unnamed African American male′s pursuit of identity in a world plagued by racial, political, and social schisms. The tragedy of this work emerges as the protagonist learns the futility of flight and the eternality of itinerancy in a world constructed to deny one control over his/her own visibility. Despite this "dark" epiphany, the power of Ellison′s language coupled with a constellation of symbols offers the reader one of the most moving literary meditations on the nature of human longing.
Another Country by James Baldwin. Published in 1962, Baldwin′s Another Country unsettles the reader in an unapologetic exploration of the frailty of human friendship. Chronicling the life of a jazz musician, Rufus Scott, the novel highlights the absurdity of race in a post-WWII America and the inevitable dance between black manhood and tragedy. If the reader allows himself/herself to be vulnerable, Another Country exposes the detrimental fear of loneliness and the salvific power of intimacy. It demands from its reader a willingness to renegotiate Western notions of race, gender, and sexuality within a larger question of love and sacrifice.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Motivated by a New York Times article shorter than this summer reading selection, Capote pushed the novelistic genre by publishing a work that detailed the disturbing murder of four in the town of Holcomb, Kansas. Scripted with a perverse literary gentleness, the nonfiction novel delves into the psyches of the murderers to uncover the profound relationships between friendship, crime, and madness. Given the unavoidable historical truth, Capote challenges the reader to transcend his/her sense of morality in a brilliant manipulation of human pathos.
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. One of the most acclaimed American science-fiction writers, Octavia Butler became the first in her genre to win the MacArthur Fellowship (Genius Grant). Her fifth novel, Wild Seed, is a noted precursor to afrofuturistic literature. Written as a piece of speculative fiction, the novel explores the complicated relationship between two immortal beings, Anyanwu and Doro. Once the reader settles into the layered metaphor(s) of this work, Butler′s narrative becomes a gripping journey into a captivating darkness replete with allusions to slavery, systems of patriarchy, and modernity. Furthermore, Wild Seed brilliantly employs the fantastic to make legible the unreadable facets of race, gender, and sexuality. As a summer reading, this piece of science fiction promises the reader something for the mind as well as the heart.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, Toni Morrison′s Beloved stretches the limits of language to creatively capture one of the darker moments in American history. Through a reimagination of the story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave unwilling to reconcile black motherhood with the peculiar institution of slavery, the novel reveals the complexity of human tragedy as it weaves historical fiction into gothic horror. Morrison, writing with a pen seemingly anointed by the gods, remembers, rewrites, and re-racializes the Greek mythological figure Medea into a narrative of love, heartache, suffering, and healing.
Jonathan Fitz Gerald
My summers are both exciting and intense. When I′m not conducting experiments or analyzing data, I am preparing for conferences, classes, or grant deadlines. There is not a lot of time for pleasure reading. When I do get that chance, I am looking for brain candy to freshen up my mental state before pouring my energy back into science. My more erudite friends describe my book choices as "the Dunkin Donuts" of the world of literature… but who doesn′t like donuts!? I just want to laugh or to learn something fun with my summer reading.
To Laugh. I′m more prone to find an author I like and then read everything they′ve got. Neil Gaiman, for instance, can take you on a dark, fantastical voyage. My favorite of his works is American Gods. Less appreciated is that he once teamed up with Terry Pratchett of DiscWorld fame to write Good Omens. Personally, not a fan of Pratchett… but, combined, they produced the funniest novel ever. If you can, imagine an apocalyptic version of The Goonies filled with a cast of Python characters. I try to read this once a summer, and I am still so very happy that no one has ruined it for me by making a movie. Another author that tickles my summer funny is Christopher Moore. He′s like a PG version of Tom Robbins and has authored such classics as Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff and Blood Sucking Fiends: A Love Story. His novels take characters from established genres, then reimagine them as "the guy next door" in neurotic modern settings. For a first run at Moore, I recommend A Dirty Job. This year, though, I′m anticipating a book he recently wrote about the color blue, Sacre Bleu.
To Learn. Ever since I was an undergraduate, I have challenged myself to learn something new each summer. The topics have varied, from juggling, to cooking a new type of cuisine, to knitting. The only consistency is that it is always something fun and has typically involved getting a lot of books on the subject. This summer I′m excited to try and learn HTML5 game programming. With the new additions in Web 2.0, all you need is a computer and a digital camera, and you could be starring in your own version of current web games. For myself, I′m looking to generate some new online activities to enhance learning in my biology courses. I′ve scouted ahead and found a couple of gems that make understanding HTML5 very easy. First, there are two Head First books from O′Reilly Media, HTML and CSS, 2nd edition and HTML5 Programming. If you′ve never tried making your own web pages from scratch, these two books explain the basics with fun projects. From there, David Geary′s Core HTML5 Canvas gives you all the tools you need for some serious web apps. Pascal Rettig′s Professional HTML5 Mobile Game Development takes a "learn by doing" approach and gets your feet wet with some pre-built games. If you feel like picking up this challenge with me, send me what you create. Who knows? Maybe Rhodes would be up for hosting a student/alum created game page.
Enjoy your summer reading!