What We’re Reading

watercolor painting of a shell

Kirstin Bone:  I decided to take this semester for a bit of fun reading (being fresh out of grad school, my brain has appreciated the mental vacation). In that spirit, I have been reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series throughout the semester. The series has surprised me: I had expected it to be light reading I could breeze through without a worry, and boy was I wrong! Riordan manages to weave a lot of complex mythology, including imagery from Euripides’ Medea, into an engaging narrative that was both accessible and multifaceted. Now if I could just get all my grading done I’d be able to read the last book in the series…

Nathan Parker:  Right now I’m reading John Ashbery’s poetry collection The Double Dream of Spring. One compelling idea in the collection, if I’m reading it correctly, is that there are two Springs in our lives: the one we seek to earn and achieve via pursuit, e.g. Lolita, the White Whale, Scrooge’s silver and gold, etc., and the one we learn to receive. For this second Spring, the free one, the real one, to come to us, Ashbery says gently that the first dream of Spring must die!

Ahab says in Moby Dick, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.” His soul, seeking satisfaction (Spring) via vengeance, is bound.

The “White Whales” and “Lolitas” in my life and in my friends’ and family’s lives have created only anguish, fatigue, emptiness and disappointment. In a later collection As We Know Ashbery writes that “Grace, in the long run, is what poetry is.”

I hereby promise to get off the “iron rails” of my obsessive pursuits and cautiously turn my head to the left. . .to the right. I wonder if Spring can be a state that is not pursued and acquired, but instead is received.

Juan Reyes: My Honors College class (Latino Identity in Contemporary American Literature) keeps me wonderfully busy exploring all kinds of fresh novels, memoirs, and poetry collections from/about the Latino experience. As preparation for every semester, I review a bunch of books I can use for the course. Currently, I’m reading Ilan Stavans’s The Disappearance, a three-story collection that includes the novella “morirse está en hebreo.” Stavans styles himself as a no-nonsense story-teller, and his language is as direct as it gets. There are something like a dozen characters, and Stavans weaves their gossip, ambitions, and superstitions around an elder’s death. The old man, Moishe, from an outsider’s perspective, dies suddenly on a daily walk. Gradually, the days and months before his death are told and then retold by the people closest to him during the rituals and proceedings after his death. Interestingly, one particular anecdote is retold several times, suffering a revision of details with each telling: days before he died, Moishe, failed to see his reflection in the mirror. Some characters have him fainting in their versions. Others have him suffering a heart attack. Others have him enacting some ritual to clear his eyesight in the bathroom, others in the kitchen. Generally speaking, no one was there to see it, and some of the variations lie in Moishe’s own varied renditions to his closest friends. Additionally, Latino narratives that emphasize a religious or anti-religious sentiment too often use Catholic tropes as a backdrop. Stavans disrupts this trend by exploring the anxieties of a Jewish community in Mexico City, a part of Latino culture that is rarely explored. Regarding style, I’m particularly enjoying Stavans’s refusal to employ narrative breaks to indicate transition. Instead, Stavans just rolls through changes in scenery or character perspectives without spacing to signal a shift. The white space is a device that calls attention to structural artifice, and Stavans’s aversion to it in his novella is itself a tonal statement: moments barrel into one another much like the characters in his day-to-day scenes do, and readers are asked to keep up with the mess. After all, nothing about memory and storytelling is ever as neat as white space breaks lead us to believe.

Cassander L. Smith:  On my nightstand are two books. The first is NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which is the story of a young girl who travels from her home somewhere in the southern region of Africa to live with her aunt in Detroit. It’s a great read so far mainly because the author has managed to capture the child narrator’s voice in such a way that it conveys simplicity and nuance. The narrator is precocious; she knows it. She does not apologize for it. At the same time, she is utterly naïve. That tension in her character keeps me reading. The novel gets especially fascinating when the narrator moves to America, and we see the American Midwest cultural and geographical landscape through the eyes of a precocious-naïve tween. The other book is Alice Munro’s short story collection Dear Life. When she won the Nobel Prize for literature a couple months ago, I was reminded of how phenomenal she is and that I haven’t read her work in a while. It’s been nice to reconnect with her prose. Munro’s writing is especially beautiful to me because she renders character interiority better than any other writer – besides maybe Toni Morrison.

Deborah Weiss:  My job is terrific in a lot of ways—who wouldn’t like to get paid for reading great books? Of course, there are a lot of other things involved (grading, committees, research), but reading, writing, and talking about books is the core of the job.  A lot of the books I teach I know very well and have taught many times. While I think I do a good job with these in the classroom, my approach to them is so overly familiar and professionalized that sometimes I forget what it is that gives them their emotional appeal. So I try when I can to teach books I’m not as familiar with–books I haven’t read before, or haven’t taught, or books that are considerably outside my area of specialization, which is the eighteenth-century novel.  EN 343—“The Novel to 1900” allows me to cycle novels in and out and to assign different books each time around. I do this to keep the course fresh, but also to allow myself the pleasure of new reading. This semester I’m teaching several novels for the first time, and one I had never read before this summer—Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. My experience with Kim demonstrates the value of always finding time to read new books, as well as the importance of keeping an open mind about literature. Before reading it this summer, I had frequently had occasion to tease my husband about the Kipling poems he had memorized when he was young. All I knew about Kipling was that he had a reputation for being an egregious supporter of the British Empire and a writer of adventure fiction for adolescent boys. I read the novel over the summer, to prepare to teach it in the fall, and I have to say, I have never been as surprised about a novel as I was about Kim. I loved it. This story about an Anglo-Irish orphan boy growing up on the streets of Lahore (now Pakistan) who lives a double life—British and Indian, child and man, Buddhist novice and imperial spy—captured my imagination completely. While I certainly did read it analytically as I went, I was also able to appreciate it more emotionally than I do the books in my area of specialization and the books I teach over and over. When Kim had to leave the lama he assists as his chela (novice), I cried.  Then I cried several other times, once, even, on a plane to Albuquerque. I hope my students love it as much as I do. We’ll have to see how many of them admit to crying.

Image Credit: Ashley Chambers