Summer Reading


photo: summer reading
Julie Le with some of her summer students

Photography by Justin Fox Burks

Julie Le
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

One particular book that I love to read every summer is Being There by Jerzy Kosinski. This book has been adapted into a movie with the same title directed by Hal Ashby and starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. I have to confess I am attached to this book, not only because it has a great story line but it was also a gift from one of my high-school teachers when I first arrived to the States. In Being There, the main character, Chance the Gardener, is a very passive, well-dressed but simple-minded man. Chance is fed on schedule every day by the maid named Louise, the only person with whom he has social interaction. His knowledge of culture and society comes from watching television. Once he is forced to leave his walled-in shelter and discover the “real life” world for the first time, Chance aimlessly wanders the streets of Washington, DC. He encounters numerous interesting experiences, many of which are bitterly humorous, such as when he looks out of a car window and simply says, “This is just like television, only you can see much further.” One of my favorite quotes in this book is “Life is a state of mind.”

Since I was born and raised in two different cultures, I love to read books written by Asian-American writers. I am a huge fan of Amy Tan who is well known for her first remarkable novel, The Joy Luck Club. Tan’s writing focuses on the lives of Asian-Americans and the generational and cultural differences among them. She also concentrates on women’s experiences (especially, the tension between fate and self-determination). In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Tan tells a story of an immigrant mother, Winnie (or Weiwei), who reveals her 40-year hidden past to her American daughter, Pearl, who has never given much thought about her mother’s life in revolutionary China. Although the book begins slowly, the author delivers a memorable voice of a woman who has struggled and survived in a patriarchal society.

While we are on the subject of Asian culture, my next recommendation is Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind (Nhung Thien Duong Mu). If you know Vietnamese, you can read this book in its original form, but the beauty is not lost in English. Despite the fact that it was banned in Vietnam due to Duong’s political views, the book depicts a rich and exotic journey through the daily life and the complexity of Vietnamese culture in the 1970s. Through the eyes of Hang (the main character), we also come to learn the story of three women whose family is torn apart by a brother who puts the “new government” ideology above family loyalty. It is not just another “woman’s” book; male readers will find it enchanting, too.

Last but not least, as a chemistry professor, one of the main focuses in my teaching style is to provide a bridge between the theory of chemistry and well-known practical applications. Along with their written assignments, the students in my class are also asked to read some limited sections in “Connections to Biological Chemistry” in their Organic Chemistry textbook. For those of you who want to know more, I recommend John Emsley’s Vanity, Vitality, and Virility: The Science Behind the Products You Love. In everyday language, Emsley describes the nature and behavior of about 40 ingredients found in consumer products we depend on in our lives, ranging from lipsticks to antiaging creams, trans fat to vitamin C and baby diapers to Viagra (hence the last V in the title). Emsley ends his book by suggesting some solutions to the question of why people are now rejecting the benefits of chemistry. Although not too many technical terms are used in the book, it is not intended for leisure reading.

Marshall Boswell
T.K. Young Professor of English Literature

In the spring of 1990, I took a “leave of absence” from my Ph.D. program—actually, I quit—and moved to Miami to (ahem) Write My First Novel. Although I succeeded in writing (but not publishing) that novel, I did something even more important: I read. No longer constrained to read what my teachers and professors demanded, I moved exuberantly from book to book in an ecstasy of self-discovery that remains with me still. In fact, the books I read that summer, actually, that year—the persistent Miami sunshine makes me think of that entire period as one long summer—indelibly shaped my thinking, my world view and my own writing.

Fittingly, I inaugurated my new intellectual liberty with Philip Roth’s Letting Go (1962). A big, sprawling realistic novel equal parts Henry James and John O’Hara, Letting Go deals with a group of idealistic graduate students struggling with desire and duty, with freedom and familial obligation amid the vivid backdrop of 1950s Chicago. Readers familiar with Roth the postmodern provocateur will be surprised by the directness and emotional breadth of this amazing first book, but that’s exactly its charm.

After Letting Go, I moved directly, perhaps incoherently, to Marcel Proust’s massive In Search of Lost Time. Like countless intrepid readers before me, I had started Proust several times, to no avail. That summer, however, I pushed through Swann’s Way, the first volume of the seven-volume novel, until I hit “Swann in Love,” the self-contained novella that appears midway through that first volume like a burst of sunlight through a cloud. “Swann in Love” recounts with lyrical joy M. Swann’s irrational and incongruous love for the frivolous, but irresistible, Odette, and I realized, while reading it, that if I had simply read this part first, I might have stuck with Proust all those other times. As such, my advice to interested future Proustians is to begin at the beginning of Swann’s Way and read all the way until the narrator, Marcel, dips his petite madeleine into his cup of tea. Then, skip to “Swann in Love.” If you’re not hooked after that, then Proust isn’t for you. If you are hooked, however, then get ready, because, as a recent book correctly proclaimed, Proust can, and will, change your life.

Throughout my childhood, my father worked for the Kroger Co. As a result, grocery stores and supermarkets—the source of our family’s financial security, after all—have always been curiously magical for me, which may explain why I was so moved by John Updike’s perhaps over-anthologized short story, “A&P,” when I first encountered it in an undergraduate fiction-writing seminar. I asked my professor where I could find “more of this stuff” and he directed me to Updike’s 1962 story collection, Pigeon Feathers, my reading of which I can only liken to a conversion experience. Throughout that Miami summer I continued to hunt down Updike story collections, the best of which have recently been collected in The Early Stories: 1953-1975. A master of the form, Updike the story writer has few equals, for it is in the story that he distills to best advantage his considerable artistic strengths, including his exceptionally beautiful prose style, his knack for precise psychological insight and his seemingly effortless craftsmanship.

I read many more unforgettable books that year, but these are the three that continue to serve as coordinate points for my writerly ambitions. They also invoke concrete and vivid memories of summer reading—the best kind of reading there is.

John Planchon
Associate Professor of Economics and Business Administration

When I was asked to submit selections for summer reading, I began mentally to compile books, but I would add one and delete another, a process that did nothing to expand the list. Then, I had a breakthrough—no list, but a breakthrough. Most of the books I considered were from three genres: biographies, texts from my academic discipline and thrillers.

My reading affair with biographies began when I was very young. Every week my mother took my brother and me to the library. One week she led me to a bright orange set of books and told me to select three—that would be my reading for the week. And so, at three books a week, I began reading biographies. Eventually, I finished the bright orange set and was led to the next series my brother had read, the Landmark Series, identified by the Washington Monument on each book’s spine. Many years have passed since being introduced to the bright orange and Landmark Series books, but I remain an avid reader of biographies, finding them great studies of what motivates some individuals to achieve greatness and how explanations of greatness vary.

One of my favorite biographies is Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses by Régine Pernoud. This book is not for a reader seeking confirmation of the movie and TV Joan—part swashbuckler, part schizophrenic. Pernoud presents Joan through official chronicles, trial documents and letters. The facts present an extraordinary character who proclaims that all she has done has been at God’s command and that but for the grace of God she could have done nothing. Joan’s explanation of those facts has never been universally accepted, but to me one of the lessons of Joan’s life is that explaining her is not essential to admiring her. As Robert Bresson, the first French film producer to devote a film to Joan’s life, noted, one doesn’t explain greatness; one tries to attune oneself to it.

A second biography, Thomas Cranmer, by Diarmaid MacCulloch is winner of the 1996 Whitbread Biography Award. I was attracted to this book because Cranmer is the author of some of the most beautiful prose in the English language—The Book of Common Prayer—and partially because of his tumultuous life. MacCulloch traces Cranmer’s life with exacting footnoted detail as he guides Henry VIII through marriages and divorces and advances a new religious outlook. For more than 400 years, Cranmer has been cast as hero and villain, depending upon one’s explanation of the facts. However, as MacCulloch amply demonstrates, there is sufficient evidence to support either view of Cranmer, just as there probably is with most lives.

In my academic discipline, Explorations of Marketing in Society, edited by Gundlach, Block and Wilkie, is an excellent collection of 68 essays and research articles devoted to social marketing. They cover such topics as nutrition labeling at fast food chains, aggressive and predatory pricing, consumer protection in a global economy, college binge drinking and whether advertising makes kids fat. Though some articles are quantitatively based, many are accessible to those outside the discipline.

Finally, I must confess that I’m a simultaneous reader—I like to have a second or third book to read along with more demanding texts. These “books on the side” must have a fast-moving plot, an element of suspense and not require close attention. It’s not easy to find these books. So it’s with affection and admiration that I recommend Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle. The plot is fast-moving. There are surprises and twists, and one can read the book quickly without expending too much mental effort. That makes it a perfect companion to the books above.

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