Summer Reading


Rebecca Finlayson
Assistant Professor of English

My reading life has been marked by two distinct periods: a year I spent in Paris as a graduate student and the three summers since I’ve had children. Both that year and those summers have shaped me as a reader of fiction, largely because they were both times in which I longed to escape into the English language and in narrative in general.

During my year as an ex-pat, I was surrounded by the French language, and often my only engagement with English came via The International Herald Tribune or e-mails from home. After a few months of these random and isolated “English” moments, I began to seek out more consistent opportunities to read and speak in my mother tongue. And this is when I first became a dedicated reader of fiction.

In Paris, there are a few English bookstores. Of course, for the shopper who wants to indulge in the novelty of a true Parisian “literary” experience, there’s Shakespeare and Co. situated along the Seine across from Notre Dame; for the no-frills buyer strolling west across the river toward the Champs Élysées, there’s the British conglomerate “WH Smith.” One sunny fall day, after visiting the American Embassy, I happened upon WH’s window, which reflected la Place de la Concorde’s magnificent obelisk, and saw within it a pyramid of “British” books. Resting at the top was Changing Places, written by one of Britain’s most beloved contemporary satirists, David Lodge.

To this day, I become nostalgic for that first time I opened Lodge’s book about two English professors—one American, one British—who trade jobs/colleges for a year. (It was the first of seven Lodge books I would later read.) And it’s not just a book for academics! Lodge chronicles the agonizingly humorous midlife crises and cultural missteps of the two main characters. He gives us Morris Zapp, the American in England, who seeks freedom from a marriage threatened by his history of infidelity, and the Brit in California, Phillip Swallow, who craves the more exposed, casual, and commercial United States. In the end (and it’s really not as trite as it sounds), we learn that we’re not all that different, despite living an ocean apart.

Lodge initiated me into a world of reading so much so that I was obliged to find a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore, one where I could buy and sell indiscriminately, reading as much as I wanted without losing much money. I was, after all, a grad student on a slim stipend. Eventually, I found such a shop tucked in between the hippity-hop streets just north of Montparnasse, the quartier where I lived and the literary mecca where Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein wrote 75 years before. Most of the appeal of this place was that you never knew what you’d find when you entered. So one day, I happened to buy what turned out to be my most favorite book ever, Mating, by Norman Rush.

For me, the achievement of Rush’s book is its point of view: The narrator is a woman conducting anthropological research for her doctoral dissertation in Botswana. I’ve never read a female voice as well-defined and as accessible as hers; perhaps it is because she compulsively tells us everything that happens to her, including falling in love with Nelson Denoon, an academic who has for years been the lone male in a female utopia in Tsau. The narrator and Denoon make Mating a love story, but their intellectual conversations and cultural projects make the novel a commentary on everything from religion and philosophy to politics and economy. For most of the book, Denoon’s utopia serves as the stage on which issues of justice, equality, history and fiction are engaged.

Returning to the States, finishing a dissertation on Shakespeare and eventually finding an academic job at Rhodes didn’t leave me much time for reading contemporary fiction. And it wasn’t until after our first child arrived that I realized how much I missed the comfort and diversion of reading novels. Now, every summer, between Goodnight, Moon for baby Evan and There’s a Wocket in my Pocket for big brother Graham, I gloss the book award lists and ask friends for recommendations. This past summer, while enjoying the beach, I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which had just won the Booker Prize.

I was at first reluctant to read the story of a young Indian boy adrift in the Pacific with only a Bengal tiger for company. I couldn’t imagine anything more boring or, frankly, more farfetched. And yet, the journey of Pi, the main character and narrator, and in particular its conclusion were profound and moving enough to make me reconsider and ultimately strengthen my values. It is a story about human faith—questioned, rejected, affirmed—and about storytelling. Pi relates to the reader the circumstances of his survival: the determination, suffering and joy that he experiences with his tiger while sharing only a 26-foot rowboat for more than 200 days. The two learn to fish, collect rainwater and fight off hungry sharks; they discover a deserted but carnivorous island; they even stumble on a sailor lost at sea himself. And in the end, as he is questioned by the men who find him, Pi shares with us the truth of the sea and of the world he has come to know.

Still at the beach (and avoiding a return to a storm-sacked Memphis), I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, winner of the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. An equally riveting story of fear and determination, Bel Canto invited me into its other worldly hostage crisis, where nothing is as a hostage crisis should be. The terrorists and hostages, all speaking different languages, learn to live and love together against a backdrop of the slow and steady hum of ongoing negotiations with the government. One of the central characters, Roxane Coss, is a world famous opera singer who uses her voice to harmonize the discord between and among her captors and friends. In spite of the hostage premise, the novel achieves an endearing “otherworldliness” that no one, including the reader, wants to leave.

Dwain Pruitt
Assistant Professor of History

As the History Department’s Atlantic World historian, my teaching and reading necessarily cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. The Atlantic World paradigm examines connections among political, economic and cultural developments in African, European, Latin American and United States history to present a more complete picture of the global forces at work in the Western hemisphere. This blending of traditionally distinct subfields into seamless narrative is brilliantly represented by Robert S. Harms’ The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. On the surface, the book recounts an insignificant slave ship’s unprofitable 1731 transatlantic crossing from France to Martinique and back. As the subtitle suggests, however, Harms realizes that the slave trade is best conceptualized not as the “Middle Passage” of an individual vessel but, rather, as “Multiple Passages,” the complex intersection of several “worlds,” cultures, desires and motivations. The Diligent is a long, but highly readable book that challenges narrow traditional representations of the slave trade.

I also recommend another “Atlantic” history, my colleague Jeff Jackson’s Making Jazz French: Music and Modern Life in Interwar Paris. This engaging study examines the process by which the French appropriated jazz. Jazz was doubly problematic for the French at the turn of the 20th century: Not only was it American, but it was also la musique nègre , the music of black Americans. Jeff’s portrait of this French struggle with race, the perceived sensuality of “black” jazz and French national identity is a lively, thought-provoking read that insightfully shows how the movement of African peoples and cultural forms across the Atlantic bridge created problems in the Old World, too.

For another, unusual perspective on American culture causing problems in the Old World, comics fans might enjoy Martin Baker’s A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. In 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent inspired considerable concern about the content of comic books, ultimately prompting Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency and the creation of a comics regulating authority, the Comics Code. Baker tracks the parallel British hysteria about American comics’ impact on children in the United Kingdom. For a study of the evolution of the Comics Code and the role of superhero comics in American popular culture, readers might consider Amy Nyberg’s Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code and Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America.

Siân Rees’ The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts tells the story of the founding mothers of Australia. Most were petty criminals sentenced to “transportation to parts beyond the sea,” forced permanent deportation. Rees’ account of 18th-century English urban crime and prisons and the hardships of shipboard life is graphic and engaging. You will never think of Carnival cruise ships the same way again! Lucy Moore’s Con Men and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld is an equally excellent social history of life and crime in 18th-century London.

Amateur philologists will be fascinated by Mark Morton’s The Lover’s Tongue: A Merry Romp Through The Language of Love and Sex. Morton traces the etymologies of the terms we use to describe certain body parts, acts and behaviors with equal parts erudition and irreverence. Now at least you will know where all the dirty words came from originally! Anders Henrikssen has compiled a collection of student history bloopers into Non Campus Mentis: World History According to College Students. You have seen such “histories” before, but this is the funniest yet. Finally, I recommend Lois Roney’s Academic Animals: A Bestiary of Higher-Education Teaching and How It Got That Way. Loosely modeled after medieval bestiaries, Academic Animals identifies and profiles the “18 ubiquitous faculty types.” Hours of summer fun will be had if you try to figure out who your campus Mules, Snapping Turtles and Manatees are!

I conclude with two completely non-academic recommendations. Neil Gaiman is a master of many forms. His recent prize-winning novel American Gods opens with an intriguing “Atlanticist” premise: When various peoples came to the Americas, they brought their traditional gods with them. Over time, these gods were abandoned, forgotten or stripped from conquered and enslaved peoples who were forced to become Christians. What if these gods did not die? What if they still exist and plot to become relevant again by going to war with the new American “gods” like the Internet? Do not miss Gaiman’s compelling analysis of the postmodern American spirit. Finally, Jim Butcher has created one of my favorite characters in recent sci-fi/fantasy literature, Harry Dresden. Harry is a perennially down-on-his-luck professional wizard who advertises his services in the Yellow Pages. He is on retainer with the Chicago Police Department and is often called in to investigate paranormal occurrences. Harry also interacts with a wide array of fantastic otherworldly creatures (my personal favorite: a randy disembodied spirit named Bob who lives inside of a skull in Harry’s basement). The five novels in The Dresden Files series to date— Storm Front , Fool Moon , Grave Peril , Summer Knight and Death Masks —are intricately plotted, hysterically funny and wildly imaginative!

Kathleen Doyle
Assistant Professor of Spanish

Although I haven’t quite finished it, I strongly recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This is the personal story of a literature professor who defied the strict limits placed on educators by Iran’s government by arranging a reading group of women who met to discuss major works of world literature. Nafisi’s recounting of some of their conversations is fascinating because of her students’ perspectives as seen in their interpretations and comments, and because it drives home the importance and power of literature and art in expanding the mind, the need for personal growth even in the face of great risk and a truly inspiring thirst for knowledge and understanding through interactions with texts and other readers.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is the result of this journalist’s unscientific experiment of trying to survive while earning minimum wage in a series of jobs. Her “undercover” experiences illustrate the nearly impossible odds stacked against this country’s working poor. This is not the cheeriest summer reading, but it certainly is thought-provoking.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s collection of stories Arranged Marriage was my introduction to this author (whose other publications have come to be some of my favorite readings, too). This series of poignant stories weaves a rich tapestry of the experiences of girls and women born (but not necessarily raised) in India. The stories are all quite different…some terribly funny, some sorrowful. What unites them is the fact that all the female characters in them experience East-West culture clashes or conflicts with women in their families when acceptable roles and definitions of femininity change from one generation to the next.

As a child who secretly harbored the desire to change my name to Laura Ingalls, I loved stories of pioneer life, and this interest has remained with me. Among my favorite novels are Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Ántonia because of their depictions of the daily struggles of the native and immigrant populations living in the American West and because of the author’s talent for creating beautiful landscapes. I have not traveled in the Southwest, but I’m hoping to visit Santa Fe sometime soon. When I do, I will take along Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop so that I can re-read it in the places where the novel takes place.

I can’t end a list of recommendations for summer reading without including at least one work by a Spanish author, so my last suggestion is Torn Lace and Other Stories by Emilia Pardo Bazán (translated by María Crisitina Urruela for the MLA’s series of translated texts). During the latter part of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, Pardo Bazán was an outspoken feminist and a prolific and popular writer of novels, essays and more than 600 stories. The translated ones included in this collection are typical of her talent for taking an apparently unimportant incident or momentary “slip” and making it highly significant to the story’s outcome. Like any great writer, she leaves many of her stories open to multiple interpretations, which always makes her works as much fun to teach as they are to read.

Ryan Byrne
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

The anticipation of summer reading unbridles within me a kind of literary insouciance. During the summer, I may read whatever brain candy I wish without fear of intellectual recrimination—or at least that’s the dream. The prospect of wistful leisure reading reminds me of a scene in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in which Nikolai Petrovitch looks forward to a morning spent alone with his beloved Pushkin. His son interrupts him, however, gently taking the book out of his father’s hands and replacing it with a dense Büchner tome on materialism. Nikolai sadly surrenders to his son’s admonitions that he improve himself and meekly begins the assigned volume, which is written, by the way, in German. So much for the dream. A tale of university students at home between school terms, Fathers and Sons may prove poignant for all those whose lives revolve around the academic year (especially if they have, or have been, children). Summertime is the perfect setting for intergenerational conflict and miscommunication. For one father looking forward to the peace that only self-indulgent, guilty-pleasure reading can bring, the end of term produces instead an irascible son armed with an elementary knowledge of philosophy and his befriended classmate who preaches the wonders of nihilism. Tough break. Whether parents of rambunctious third-graders home for summer or of college freshmen wielding the “danger of a little information” at Thanksgiving, readers will find that Ivan Turgenev feels their pain.

My loving wife quailed at the notion that I might recommend anything from Thomas Hardy’s oeuvre for what should be the literary season of comforting escapism. Still, there are probably enough readers invigorated by Schadenfreude —the sometimes private elation derived from the suffering of others—to form a coherent constituency. And good literature, one might argue, is all about being inclusive. Hardy did not believe in happy endings as a rule, nor did he countenance the refuge of hope in any form. No one ever came, he wrote, because no one ever does. For me, Hardy has always proved therapeutic on some level. No matter how grim life seemed, there was no way I reckoned it could ever punish me as perniciously as it did Hardy’s hapless victims. Don’t underestimate the healing benefits of catharsis. You might find it in Jude the Obscure , The Woodlanders , The Well-Beloved or pretty much any scrap of paper Hardy happened to scribble on. Although Hardy’s poetry is sometimes mercifully harmless, one can still imagine him doodling on his restaurant napkins images of Welsh tanners felled by typhus or coopers ever bereft of a single loving caress.

As a necrophilologist (a student of dead languages), I’m partial to words, words, words. Etymologies and word histories are the coin of my realm. One particular class of words that excites the imagination (or at least my imagination) is the venery. What is a venery? Come now, who among you has not slipped the occasional “pod of whales” or “murder of crows” into casual conversation? I refer, of course, to the term for the collective group of this or that animal species. Yet for every pedestrian flock of goats or pride of lions, there are those clowders of cats, skulks of friars, gobbles of millers, cajoleries of taverners, multiplyings of husbands (no doubt inspired by professed calls to duty à la Genesis 9:7), or impatiences of wives (no doubt a malapropism). James Lipton collected ancient and recently made-up veneries for his anthology, An Exaltation of Larks, which has enjoyed many reprintings since 1968. Veneries seem to have originated as hunting and breeding terms, but they have since survived in word games and inventive pejoratives. This treasure trove will not only appeal to the lexically adventurous; it may also spur the reader and friends to invent new and exciting collectives. How about a sack of Romans? A vicariousness of reality shows? As for my own guild, I will defer to Lipton’s suggested term, no matter that a gloss of philologists goes easily overlooked.

Umberto Eco, quite frankly, tips my apple cart. I would read his grocery list. I would probably reread it down the road along with other works in my recyclable bedside repertoire. Eco’s books cumulatively aim to show why we really needed the Age of Reason to hurry up and get here (and why we’re still waiting). It would be easy to laugh this off as the pedantry of an eccentric Bolognese semiotician, which it is, but that might be career suicide. In honor of Rhodes College’s first incarnation as a Masonic institution, give Foucault’s Pendulum a whirl. This satire of metaphysics, Hermeticism and numerological mysticism should appeal to those who see or imagine conspiracies in the woodwork, as well as to those who think the former are nuts. The Island of the Day Before is a gorgeous foray into nautical nonsense, the treacheries of memory and some scientific claptrap of the late Renaissance. No superfluous turn of Latin (in which Eco’s worlds swim) could pay proper homage to his stirring language, mirabile dictu , which animates the page, text and font with perversely contoured realism. And the lusciously wrought villainy! I hated the evil cardinal as much as any man ever hated an evil cardinal. Alternatively, one might pick up an old copy of The Name of the Rose. In the early 1980s, this was the “It Book,” which, as more than one critic has pointed out, enjoyed enormous popularity on end tables throughout America only to go largely unread on end tables throughout America. Time to dust it off. What threats do Aristotle’s lost treatise on humor pose to the pillars of Christendom? Eco’s enchanting, erudite thriller puts the lesser Da Vinci Code in its place. This is what real scholarly fiction looks like.