30 August
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Fiction Recommendations,Nonfiction Recommendations,Poetry Recommendations

The Books of Summer

Young Woman Reading—Gustav Courbert

Elvis Costello sings:

The sun struggles up another beautiful day
And I felt glad in my own suspicious way
Despite the contradiction and confusion
Felt tragic without reason
There’s malice and there’s magic in every season

Speaking of which, tell me it isn’t strange to be back to school, where oh where did the summer go? Still there are perks—and among them, it’s time for our bi-annual readers’ round-up, a list of recommendations from MPW faculty and staff—the best of what we read this summer—in the order in which they came in:

First up, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, “published about ten years ago,” says Gina Nahai, “it’s a great study of Voice. Four characters, all women, tell the story. They range in age from five to 40-something and each one is distinct and authentic and fascinating.”

Michael Price writes: “It’s been an all Robert Caro all the time summer for me; I listened to The Power Broker on audio and have plunged in to The Path To Power, the first volume of Caro’s biography of LBJ.”

From Brighde Mullins: “I’ve been reading Mary Gaitskill. I recommend reading her novel Veronica in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others—they are both explorations of the potential of others’ suffering to serve (merely) as schadenfreude. These are different approaches to the same ethical dilemma. Gaitskill writes like an angel-who-has-seen-it-all, Sontag’s clarity and wit are sublime.”

Howard Ho says, “I seem to have had a Chinese-American themed summer. I read David Henry Hwang’s hilarious new play Chinglish, which is notable for its very theatrical use of supertitle translations of spoken Mandarin Chinese that gets lost in translation. And MPW faculty member M.G. Lord let me borrow her copy of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (by Yunte Huang). Nominated for a Pen USA Literary Award, the book traces the Charlie Chan legacy from its roots in the real-life Chang Apana, a Hawaiian cowboy turned police detective, to his later fictional incarnation by novelist Earl Derr Biggers to the string of movies that were popular from the 1920s to 1940s. It’s a very quick read and engagingly touches upon many of the interesting historical landmarks which make Charlie Chan an enduring figure in American culture.”

And from Syd Field: “I hadn’t read James Lee Burke for a while so when Creole Bell was released I decided to read it. Amazing! The soul of a poet with razor sharp characters amid the smell and taste of of New Orleans.”

Amy Gerstler writes to say that she read “a lovely, sad and lyrically political epistolary novel by John Berger called From A to X.”

Kenny Turan recommends “the new novel by Norway’s Karin Fossum, The Caller. For my money, she is the best stylist of all current Scandinavian mystery writers, and the most chilling.”

And Tim Kirkman offers up James Joyce’s Dubliners. Although he, too, casts a vote for Robert Caro: “I’m working on a screenplay about a few weeks during the Johnson administration, so The Passage of Power has been an invaluable resource. It’s also a highly entertaining, informative and mammoth book. I’m still reading it!”

From Johanna Blakley: “I’m just finishing up Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It’s an oddly menacing story (not unlike Bolaño’s brilliant 2066) about a rag-tag bunch of Mexican and South American poets who are searching for God knows what: meaning? friendship? political truth? hot sex? I can safely say I still don’t get it. But I can’t stop reading it.”

Gabrielle Pina writes that “Red River by Lalita Tademy is a haunting and heartbreaking family saga about love, honor, and a devastating event that took place in Louisiana during the pre-reconstruction period of our painful history.”

And Cort Brinkerhoff says “the thing I read this summer that still haunts me is Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a deceptively simple play about ghost stories and the specters that linger in all our lives.”

From Sandra Tsing Loh: “This will NOT be a news flash, but nor do I turn away from work that is great and literarily definitive of its moment. What I loved about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is that it is a big male adventure book that’s wonderfully Melvillian, with more than a nod to James Michener (his Hawaii being a secret pleasure of many of us). As at times the zeitgeist of female fiction tends toward an anorectic, plotless East Coast preciousness (and God bless The New Yorker), the book’s massive success is wonderful news for Girl Writers of the West (never mind that some of us are 50!).

M.G. Lord writes, “Last summer I became atypically excited about new fiction. Two remarkable galleys arrived in my mailbox: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer and May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. Kramer (who is better known for writing “Thirtysomething” and adapting Maupin’s Tales of the City as a miniseries) has written an extraordinarily beautiful novel about a very 21st Century Manhattan family. Each character tells his or her own story, culminating in a tender, climactic exchange between a teenage boy and his father’s male lover. The book made me think of Salinger (except that Kramer’s vision is less dark) and, although it could not be more different in form, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. To ensure that my momentary optimism was tempered with despair, I next read A.M. Homes’ novel, expecting to pick it up for a few hours one Friday morning but being so riveted that I could not put it down until Saturday night. The book may be her bleakest…and her best. Both novels will be published in November.”

Dana Goodyear says, “I read Brenda Shaughnessy’s first book of poems, Interior with Sudden Joy, as a young editorial assistant, living in New York and wanting to write. It was a performance—arresting, stylish, witchy, and stone-cold frank—I couldn’t look away from. Twelve years later, she still has my attention. This summer I wrote to her publisher and asked for an advance copy of Our Andromeda, her third collection, which comes out in the fall. The poems are longer, more narrative, and tack closer to life, but the voice is the same: glinting, dark, tender, unafraid.”

And from Prince Gomolvilas: “Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a devastating portrait of a family forced to confront secrets and lies that most everyone—except for the memoir-writing daughter—wants to sweep under the rug. And David Henry Hwang’s refreshingly funny Chinglish addresses the very contemporary issues of business and transnationalism while wrapping them in classic themes like East vs. West, the perils of language, and the myriad ways in which we all (mis)communicate. What’s more, both plays will be having their Southern California premieres during the 2012-2013 theatre season—Other Desert Cities at the Mark Taper Forum and Chinglish at South Coast Repertory.”

(Hwang and Caro taking the lead…)

Judith Freeman writes: “I read, for the first time this summer, Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West—simply one of the best adventure stories ever told. And who knew that Lewis & Clark even had a dog with them, the remarkable Seaman, a Newfoundland, who made the entire trip, and was to Lewis such an important companion.”

And Bernard Cooper says, “I was under the false impression that Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was as charming as the movie starring Maggie Smith. I didn’t realize it was bleak and devastating, too; Spark foretells the deaths of each of Miss Brodie’s students just as the novel begins, so that the shadow of mortality hangs over every classroom scene and innocent blunder, deepening the story in stunning and unpredictable ways.”

Janet Fitch notes that she reviews everything she likes on Good Reads. “The book that really made it for me over the summer was Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences. Gorky was an keen observer with prodigious recall,” she writes, and then quotes from her review: “Gorky remembers so much that it seems he has looked at the world with eight or more eyes, evenly spaced around his head,” said the critic Viktor Shklovsky. He was largely self-taught, a proletarian writer who read enormously and remembered everything he read. His great, subtle and complex understanding of human beings, is reflected in his essays in this book, especially the ones on Tolstoy and on Chekhov–the best ever written on those two men, as men–and illustrates how their writing was in perfect keeping with their natures. His description of Tolstoy is a thing of beauty, his understanding of the heroic conflicts within the man, the techtonic plates of his inner contradictions that resulted in such great literature… and his portrait of Chekhov makes us love him as Gorky loved him. A treasure.”

She also recommends Brendan Constantine’s new book of poetry. Again, from Good Reads: “Poetry is the art of grabbing a fleeting moment of human truth and pinning it to the page in a perfect phrase, alive, iridescence intact. To compress broad experience into a crystalline memento, to pull the curtain aside on reality taking a shower–just a moment’s glimpse of its beauty and sorrow and perfection. Poem after poem, Brendan Constantine does just that in Calamity Joe.”

From Mark Richard: “Across Atlantic Ice (Authors, Stanford and Bradley)—a fascinating book using archeological studies, DNA testing, and paleoclimatic research suggesting some hardy ancient Solutrean peoples (from what is now Spain-France) came to the Americas 20,000 years ago in large ocean-going canoes under leather sails, possibly the forefathers of Clovis man. And after reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s (yes! yes! a former student!) excellent essay in the New York Times Book Review in June, I re-read Absalom! Absalom! (Faulkner) a book that simultaneously affirms and explodes everything I tell my students in our fiction workshop.”

As for me: I read Penelope Lively’s Passing On, in which she reveals the extraordinary inner lives of apparently ordinary people—examines the choices we make, the ones we don’t, and the courage it takes to live with them either way. And I could not put down Alice Mattison’s When We Argued All Night, an account of a friendship that lasts some 70 years, vivid, and true, and deep, and joyful, and sad. Like life, huh.

And what about you? What did you read last summer, tell us, please do…

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4 Responses to “The Books of Summer”

  1. Josh says:

    I had a great summer for reading. My book list was partially guided by Judith Freeman’s suggestions of novels relevant to my thesis.

    Among them:

    Jim Harrison’s DALVA and Russell Banks’s AFFLICTION both were enjoyable enough but not much more until I got quite attached to them and discovered their poignancy in the last 75-50 pages or so.

    Dan Chaon’s YOU REMIND ME OF ME was a great read on the themes of alienation and family.

    I’d read Tim O’Brien’s GOING AFTER CACCIATO in high school, but this time around it ripped off the lid of my head.

    I also read faculty member David Ulin’s THE LOST ART OF READING, which I absolutely identified with, was fascinated by, and ultimately found uplifting.

    Started the summer with Cormac McCarthy’s THE CROSSING, which was both more emotionally ravaging and intellectually engaging than maybe any other book I’ve read by him.

  2. Thanks for compiling this, Dinah. An excellent list–even though I doubt I’ll get to explore any of them this semester. Ah, perhaps, next summer….

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