Summer Reading


ShareThis
Translate


Photography by Justin Fox Burks

Rebecca Edwards Newman
Assistant Professor of English

Imagining summer pursuits on a rainy March afternoon in Memphis is not difficult for a native Briton. English summers are notoriously awash with rain and colder spells, inevitably duping the foolhardy and the hopelessly optimistic into putting on shorts and wading out in search of the sun. As a child, I learned from experience that books were a shrewd component in a successful summer: Regardless of the weather, they accompanied one indoors and out, a welcome escapism and companionship in the face of even the most persistent downpour. For me, Memphis in August poses a different set of meteorological challenges, but I look forward to a summer of reading for similar reasons. After the semester’s regulated diet of course texts, the opportunity of unbridled consumption across disciplines, genres and periods represents the best possible form of summer escape.

Taking the idea of unbridled gratification as its own point of departure, John Brewer’s The Pleasures of the Imagination is a brilliant social history of English culture in the 18th century. Despite its formidable scope, Brewer’s account offers an accessible and absorbing journey through the luxurious and scandalous world of 18th-century arts. For the uninitiated, this is a scene of struggling writers, artistic ambition and literary celebrity: a taste of our own cultural fascinations set against the backdrop of commercialization and the rise of an affluent and pleasure-seeking middle class. The principal player in this history is not Samuel Johnson, though he supplies his share of urbane and witty anecdotes, but rather London itself. Standing centerstage throughout this narrative, the city—with its coffee houses, fleapits, theatres and pleasure gardens—simultaneously appears as a glorious new “Rome” and a den of profligate waste. And so as Brewer regales the armchair tourist with samples of high life and low life, we see London and its artistic fascinations from multiple perspectives: the perfect combination of escapism and vibrant intellectual history.

A different kind of meditation on cities and perspective is offered in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a poetic fiction on the art of storytelling and the experiences of foreign travel. I first came across it one hot summer a couple of years ago, while struggling to control my rampant toddler in Rome, and its short, self contained meditations on the forms of the city kept me company during the heat of the day and the blessed release of nap-time. In his imperial garden, Kublai Khan, the aging Tartar emperor, is talking to Marco Polo about the cities the Venetian explorer has visited in his travels. It is sunset and the emperor is weary, troubled by the decay of his empire; in Polo’s descriptions, however, Kublai Khan finds a kind of diversion that intrigues him and holds off the onset of his own decline. With Khan, we journey through Octavia, the spider-web city that hangs from a net in a precipice; Esmerelda, the city of water linked by canals and cambered bridges; and 53 other places, each equally captivating and shaped by Calvino’s beautiful, lucid prose. There’s something profoundly reassuring for me in this text, perhaps in the suggestion that the finest journeys we make are through the worlds opened up by reading.

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is also about a journey, though this one takes place shortly after Indian independence in the early 1950s. It follows the story of four families and the various domestic and financial crises that beset them, cast against the backdrop of political tumult and post-partition division. What intrigues me about this text is its curious mixture of genres and concerns, woven skilfully into a narrative that takes as its central element a modified version of the Austen marriage plot. Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, travel across the country—from Bramhpur through Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow—in search of a “suitable boy” to whom Lata might be married.

Embedded into this quest is a series of conflicts—between parents and children, Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor, politics and the law—that dramatize a larger and more difficult project: that of finding stability in India. In many ways, this novel is a monument (and I don’t just mean in terms of its remarkable length) to a masterful achievement in narrative control. Encompassing rural and urban
customs, legal conventions, political history, romance and the intricate details of shoe manufacture, Seth offers a vision of provincial society that is both human and panoramic—a welcome hybrid of genres that throws the marriage plot into satiric relief.

Because so much of my reading and research focuses on 19th-century literature, modern fiction remains a kind of experimental delicacy that I reserve for rare moments. Last May, an old college friend passed on her copy of a recent British novel that she had picked up for the flight—Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell—and somewhat unexpectedly, in the midst of a Miami summer, I found myself cast back into an amalgam of early 19th-century history and Yorkshire, in north England, where I grew up.

The novel begins in 1806. England is locked in conflict with Napoleon and its subjects are immersed in genteel drawing-room politics, negotiating for personal power and a solution to the war in progress. Except this world, which carefully traces the historical movements that we know, is not the world we live in: It is hundreds of years since the acknowledged decline of practical magic (only critical historians remain) and England seeks one last practicing magician to revive its ailing national fortunes. Two contenders for that title emerge—Gilbert Norris and Jonathan Strange—and the dazzling feats that each performs in the service of national duty casts a fantastically subversive spin on military and political history. But while the prodigious magical elements in this story undoubtedly claim a substantial part of our attention, the novel also worked for me on a number of other levels. In the first instance, it is hugely original and enjoyable. I found its wry treatment of English pomposity hilarious and brilliantly tempered by Clarke’s skillful employ of the language and idioms of the early 19th century (the footnotes alone offer a consummate parody of Romantic-era scholarship). More interestingly, the novel also provides an allegory of many of the broader intellectual debates of the 19th century, not least the conflict between professional critics and “gentleman” writers, and the battle between those in favor of a regulated national art and those championing the sublime amorality of art for its own sake. Finally, if these aesthetic concerns don’t persuade you, the sheer entertainment of ships
made of rain, talking statues in York Cathedral and the real reason for Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, might just be enough to sustain you through the summer.

Loretta Jackson-Hayes
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a fictional account of the lives of biblical characters Jacob, the descendent of Abraham, and his wives and children. Unlike most accounts of these figures’ lives, this novel details their experiences from the perspectives of the women in Jacob’s camp. Narrated by Dinah, one of Jacob’s daughters, it illuminates the daily concerns of women during that time such as the advantages of being the first wife, the desire to bear male children and learning to live in harmony with other women. The novel details the positions and vocations of the wives, concubines and slaves in that patriarchal society. It also illustrates the travails faced by women of that era particularly during childbirth, which was often lifethreatening. Most interesting, however, is their understanding of the effects
of herbs on the body and their use of herbal preparations for medicinal and mischievous purposes. This story is told in such detail that it allows the reader to become a member of Jacob’s camp and experience the camaraderie of the red tent as well as travels to foreign lands. Reserve a block of time to read this one because once you begin, you will probably find it difficult to put down.

Fission is an account of the life and career of Jewish physicist Lise Meitner who aided Otto Hahn in discovering atomic fission. Their findings were used to develop the atomic bomb. Helga Königsdorf, a German physicist and mathematician, tells this story based on interviews that sheconducts with Meitner in her home office. However, at the times of the encounters, Meitner has been dead for 15 years. Strong hallucinogenic medications Körnigsdorf is taking to battle Parkinson’s disease are responsible for her ability to communicate with Meitner who details the adversities that she faced being a female scientist in a field that was almost exclusive to men. Not only was she a minority in that she was female, but she was also Jewish and was forced to flee Germany in 1938 and live in exile in Stockholm. There she was given no resources for her research, but continued to correspond with Hahn by letter while he continued on the project in collaboration with other scientists. She provided theoretical explanations for the results, and their work was published in 1939. Hahn later received a Nobel Prize for this work, but Meitner was overlooked because the Nobel committee didn’t understand her role since she was in exile. Meitner’s stories were inspiring to the narrator and helped her come to terms with the limits that were placed on her as a female scientist and the political restrictions she faced as a result of living in communist East Germany. Throughout the story the narrator asks life’s ultimate questions: “Have I done enough?” “Will it be remembered after I’m gone?”

Morrie Shwartz demonstrates how one can find satisfying answers to these questions in Tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson by Mitch Albom. Morrie is a retired sociology professor who has been stricken with ALS, a degenerative disease that eventually causes complete muscle failure. The story is told from the perspective of one of Morrie’s former students, Mitch, who revered Morrie as a professor and role model—so much so that he referred to Morrie as “coach.” Mitch enrolled in every course that Morrie taught, became very close to him before graduating, but lost touch while he pursued a career in journalism. Mitch learns of Morrie’s illness through an interview by Ted Koppel. Immediately, he travels to Morrie’s home where he “enrolls in the final course” on life. Morrie instructs Mitch on how to identify the important things in life and how to find dignity in death.

Recently, I have enjoyed reading Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer. This is a collection of short stories that are particularly appealing to me because as a mother of a two-year-old son, I don’t have lots of spare time; so a good, to-the-point short story that I can finish in an hour gives me instant gratification. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is modern fiction at its best. Z.Z. Packer is a brilliant writer who describes the characters and settings with subtle, but important detail, giving readers the impression that they know the characters personally. For example, one of the characters, Ray Bivens Jr., reminds me of several residents of my small hometown in Mississippi. Each story is set in a different place and is about very different people, but they are intertwined by a common thread—struggle. The stories are timely and thought-provoking, and they have helped me view some aspects of our society from a perspective other than my own.

Eric Henager
Associate Professor of Spanish

When it comes to choosing books for my own pleasure reading, my habits have changed in three significant ways during the last five years or so. First, the old system: Keep a continual list of titles that come to my attention; agonize over a priority sequence, moving to the top books whose topics I enjoy and/or whose reading might in some way enhance my professional reading goals; work down the rigorously organized priority sequence, always choosing the most essential book next. New system: get reason out of the process as much as possible and let serendipity take over a sizeable chunk of the game. I’m not certain that I have necessarily read better books under the new system than under the old. That’s not the point. The real improvement in the new system is that when I find myself in the middle of a truly bad book, I have far less cause to question my own powers of discernment to wonder if I’m just a sucker for an appealing cover and good literary marketing. It was, after all, primarily fate and not completely my bad decision-making that brought the boring book into my hands.

The second way my reading selection habits have changed is related to a change I perceive in Rhodes students or, more likely, an improvement in my ability to listen to them carefully. Over the last five years or so, several among the books to which a heavy dose of chance and a small dose of my reason have led me are books suggested to me by students. In my courses on contemporary Latin
American literature, students frequently make comparative references to books they have read for pleasure. Often they are books that I have not read myself. When this happens, I try my best to shut up while the student explains the content of the other book and its relationship to the one we’re studying, quietly make a note to myself, and check the book out of the library before the day is over.

Finally, in the last five years or so I have learned about the joy of picking a book to read to or read with my children. Most often they pick the books themselves, but once in a while I can convince them to read with me something that I think they might like. I have missed a few times on my picks. The Hardy Boys, for example, lasted for one book and two chapters of a second before the novelty wore off and the kids begged for something with adolescent wizards or adolescent spies. Apparently adolescent detectives aren’t as interesting as they were when I was a kid. A few of my picks, though, have scored big. And what is even more interesting for me is that a few of their selections that I was sure I would struggle to tolerate turned into reading experiences that were just as enjoyable for me as they were for the kids. More than once, I have reluctantly started a book with them then found myself arriving at page 100 convinced that, even if they were to lose interest, I would have to continue reading until the end.

What I give you here are the best from each category: books brought to me by chance, those which came to me by way of students’ suggestions, and those that I started to read for my kids and finished not knowing if I was reading for them or for me. I also throw in a few from that other category of books that somehow I managed to choose aided by nothing but my own decision-making instincts. I suggest that the best use of this only slightly annotated list is to choose one arbitrarily. Alternatively, you might give the list to any seven-year-old or five-year-old who happens to be around and let him or her pick for you.

Don DeLillo’s Underworld fell into my hands by pure chance. I was reading Roberto González Echevarría´s book about Cuban baseball on a plane and the person sitting next to me struck up aconversation about baseball books. He suggested that if I wanted a baseball book that was about everything but baseball, I should read Underworld. This 827-page brick might be a little heavy (in terms of both content and weight) to carry to the beach, but it is a great summer reading choice for that part of the summer in which you don’t have to move around too much. The novel opens in 1951 at the Polo Grounds the day of Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.” The narrative picks out of the crowd a kid, Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover, all but ignoring those who are the primary figures in most previous representations of the game. What the narrative doesn’t ignore is the ball that Thomson hits over the fence and into the crowd. The ball goes…well, that’s the problem…nobody knows for sure where the ball goes. And from there the narrative goes all over the place, the ball and the idea of the ball popping up now and then to hold together (sort of) plot elements that range from landfills to acts of random violence.

The two student suggestions I have most enjoyed during the last year are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (thank you to Mack Zalin and Erin Hebert). You’ve probably already read them...it seems that before my students brought me out of the dark I was one of the few who had somehow missed them. I had of course seen plenty of references to both but never previous to this year had cared to pick them up. Last semester, while teaching Las babas del diablo by Julio Cortázar, I underestimated the class’s previous experience with narrative techniques for moving beyond normal boundaries of time, Mack’s hand shot up and he suggested Slaughterhouse Five. This semester, I (apparently the slowest learner in the room) again set about discussing Mario Vargas Llosa’s Los cachorros as if its use of a private language code in youth culture were something brand-new that should knock the class down and make them gasp for air. Erin calmly suggested we spend some time comparing the story to A Clockwork Orange and then proceeded to write a comparative essay on the two texts.

My kids picked Hoot by Carl Hiassen because they thought the owl image on the front cover was cool. I read the jacket and its premise sounded a little goofy to me but the Germantown Public Library Children’s Department staff on duty that night gave it their blessing and they are to me like the popes of kids’ books so we checked it out. It’s about these kids who try to save some burrowing owls whose homes happen to be on land marked for construction of a pancake restaurant. One of their attempts to sabotage the construction plan involves putting small alligators in the port-a-potties. When a policeman arrives and identifies the problem, the foreman asks if the gators are big. The policeman’s reply, “I imagine all of ’em look big when they’re swimming under your butt,” is, of course, my kids’ favorite part. But it gets a lot better than that. Not all of the humor is built around toilets or the more private areas of the human anatomy. The story is light and maintains a crisp pace but somehow treats a few serious topics in a way that made my kids ask fantastic questions, and, best of all, there’s not one wizard in the whole thing.

I’ll close with two books I found on my own and one that my wife found for me. That I found the first two on my own is no great trick since they are books from my field, contemporary Latin America. That Alicia found the third is no great surprise either since she knows as much about my field as I do, if not more. If you liked Gabriel García Márquez´s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) but are ready for something different, you might want to move on from Macondo and read something from McOndo. The Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet would very much like for readers to know that literature from Latin America does not have to be set in a tropical forest and does not have to be populated by characters who levitate or who die more than once. The characters in his novel Mala onda (Bad Vibes) are rich kids who spend their time at shopping malls and McDonald´s and who (some of them at least) begin to wonder if the dictatorship their parents support is such a great idea. Laura Restrepo, a Colombian like García Márquez, also attends to a very different landscape than does her compatriot. Her novel Delirio is the story of a man who returns home from a business trip to find that his wife is in a state of delirium and that she is unable to explain what has happened to her. His questions lead him and her through a labyrinth of memory in which family secrets, national history and the drug trade are woven into a dizzying narrative that occasionally pushes the reader close to empathy for the crazed wife.

And speaking of wives, this time a very sane one—mine—suggested to me the book I most liked during the last year. Mario Vargas Llosa’s La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat) depicts the assassination of Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo from three perspectives: that of the assassins, that of the exiled daughter of a fallen-from-grace crony and that of the dictator himself. If you have an  overseas trip planned for the summer, the first 300 pages should just about cover the flight out, and the last 300 will take care of the flight home. I read it on a round trip to Nicaragua and still don’t remember if the planes stopped in Guatemala or Costa Rica or both. I was in the Dominican Republic with the characters.

Robert England
Associate Professor of Computer Science

When I was in high school, I attended a piano master class with famous Spanish  classical pianist Alicia de Larrocha. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember anything about the session except for one question and answer. Another student attendee asked Ms. de Larrocha if there was any chance of someone becoming successful in the extremely competitive field of classical music without being born with extraordinary talent. Our master teacher smiled and said, “Show me a person with talent and I’ll show you a lazy bum.” She said that true success takes hard work, patience and persistence.

There are dozens of clichés and truisms that reflect the same sentiment: Rome wasn’t built in a day, practice makes perfect, genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration—you can take your pick. However, I don’t believe that a short platitude can convey this important lesson fully and satisfactorily. If it could, then that would contradict the lesson itself, no?

My recommendations for summer reading are intended to provide examples, testimonials and motivation for the budding master craftsperson or would-be expert, regardless of the area of endeavor. If you read any one of these books, you might be inspired and eager to start your own journey of 1,000 miles. (Another cliché, I know.)

To top my list, I believe that there is no greater icon of the value of hard work than American inventor Thomas Edison. Paul Israel’s definitive biography Edison: A Life of Invention is both inspiring and exhausting. After reading this, you may well believe that Edison’s famous inspiration/perspiration quote gives too much credit to inspiration. Each of his incredible inventions—the phonograph, the movie projector, the light bulb and on and on—went through countless trials and errors before reaching any semblance of practicality or feasibility, and then Edison went back to work promoting his ideas to get financial backing for their production. If today’s culture of instant gratification has lulled you into assuming that any work of real genius must have somehow appeared from the ether after a mystical flash of brilliance, this book will debunk that misconception for you.

My second recommendation is about a music workaholic. As his life’s work, Conlon Nancarrow obsessively composed wildly complex music for solo player piano. He did this by meticulously marking out positions based on intricate mathematical relationships for all of the notes of a composition onto a paper player piano roll, like so many planar geometric constructions, and then laboriously punching each of the holes into the roll by hand. A single composition would usually take months to complete, and he finished fewer than 50 of these compositions in his lifetime. He worked in obscurity through most of his life, but now his work enjoys a cultish following among devotees of modern serious music and computer assisted composition. Kyle Gann’s book The Music of Conlon Nancarrow provides a brief biography of Nancarrow along with a detailed musical analysis of his compositions. This book can only really be appreciated if it is read in conjunction with studying (yes, that’s the right word) the works themselves by carefully and repeatedly listening to the CD recordings of Nancarrow’s complete Studies for Player Piano put out by the German label Wergo.

Next, if you’re in the market for a fascinating picture book that’s also an  engrossing read, try to find a copy of Realists at Work by John Arthur. Rather than being just another ponderous tome for the culture vulture coffee table, this book provides a rare and enlightening insight into the creative processes of some of the world’s foremost artists. When you read the interviews with realist painters such as Chuck Close, Neil Welliver and Ralph Goings and study the photographs that show how each of these artists painstakingly and incrementally develops a painting, you come to realize that the working methods that lead to the production of great art are as varied and personal as the works of art themselves. And none of these great painters is interested in shortcuts.

My own personal interests and academic bias compel me to recommend at least one computer book. My apology is that any person who fancies him- or herself to be well educated and tuned in to the world today must know at least a little about computers and technology. Granted, pursuing this knowledge can be a daunting task. The rows and rows of computer books that have flooded the shelves at the neighborhood super bookstore are quite intimidating. The good news for the uninitiated is that most of these books are hawking some language or technology du jour to the techno-geeks, and these books will be obsolete and forgotten in a few months. The basic concepts that lie at the core of the design of any modern computer are still essentially the same as they have been since the computer was invented, however, and with a little patience and persistence anyone can master them.

Charles Petzold is a world-renowned author and expert of computing. His huge technical volumes appear on the reference shelf of virtually every computer scientist. He wrote the book Code specifically to explain the great ideas at the foundation of computer science to people who wanted to understand how computers work but who were not experts in the field. He uses nontechnical language and many clever, intuitive metaphors to make even the more advanced concepts approachable, but there is no sugarcoating or handwaving. All of the core stuff is here. If you take the time to study this book, you will understand how computers work.

Finally, I believe that a good social relationship requires and deserves effort expended over time just as much as anything else that is truly worth having. After living with my dog Buddha for four full years, I suppose I should have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Buddology by now, but I freely concede that I still have a lot to learn. People whose opinions I respect very much have recommended that I read Cesar’s Way by “The Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, so I’ve included that on my own list of books to read this summer. Reading this book will be a labor of love, of course. Buddha is such a Good Boy!