What the English Faculty Is Reading
As this academic year winds down, The Mirror and the Lamp asked the faculty about what books made the biggest impact this year, and what they are looking forward to reading this summer.
Dr. Alisha White
Midwinter Blood by Marcus Sedgwick was so fascinating and spooky. Part mystery and part star-crossed love, I had no idea it was based on a Nordic myth until a very bloody end.
This summer I am reading Schizo by Nic Sheff. It sounds like a fascinating missing persons mystery that comments on discrimination against people with mental illness.
–Alisha White, Ph.D.
Dr. Merrill Cole
The book that affected me most this year is one that has affected me for the last 20 years, one of the most important books of my life, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration
. I am teaching it in two classes this semester, and I have an article forthcoming this month, “Uncapture This Image,” which deals with Wojnarowicz’s writing and visual art in the context of Dada photomontage. Close to the Knives
belongs to the genre of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road,
but spoken from the perspective of a gay man with HIV, it offers an implicit counterdiscourse to Kerouac’s heterosexism, racism, misogyny, and lack of political vision. Close to the Knives
is also stunningly beautiful writing.
I am very excited finally to be able to teach the new course I proposed a few years ago, English 359, Topics in LGBT Literature. My topic for the fall course is The Queer American Novel. I deliberately chose a few novels I have not read, but have been wanting to read: Sarah Shulman’s Girls, Visions, and Everything; and Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows. I can barely wait to reread Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. And I get to return to my all-time favorite novel, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood.
Barbara C. Harroun, M.F.A.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal, which she wrote as a 21 year old attending Iowa’s Writer’s workshop. I read this, followed by her collected short stories. Her last entry is my favorite. It reads:
My thoughts are so far away from God. He might as well not have made me. And the feeling I egg up writing here lasts approximately a half hour and
seems a sham. I don’t want any of this artificial superficial feeling stimulated by the choir. Today
I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch
oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.
I love the dramatic finality of the entry, which reminds me of the blanket statements I often made with such flourish at that age, and I love her gluttonous consumption of cookies and erotic thought, and I felt so for her. I found myself hoping she swam in both cookies and sexual fantasy and that they sustained her, knowing that I am now the age she was when she died of lupus, and knowing in fact there was so much left to say of her. In the hospital, as she went about the business of living and dying, she hid her handwritten stories under her pillow so the doctors wouldn’t take them, and “Prophets & Poets” a mini PBS documentary reports she was editing one of her stories after last rites were administered. One biographer interviewed credits writing with keeping her alive. The reading experience was one where I often felt I had no right to be reading these entries, and yet this slim journal, which contains the actual handwritten, oft misspelled entries in the second half of the book, allowed me insight to her collected works that I might not have had otherwise, and allowed me to truly re-read, with new eyes, stories that I had read countless times. I suppose it allowed me to re-see the writer, the artist, the human being too. My reading list is so long. Topping that list is Redeployment by Phil Kay. My reasons are simple–it won the National Book Award, my brothers are both Marines(as is the author), and many of my students have been transformed by war.
–Barbara C. Harroun
Dr. Bill Knox
The novella The Non-Believer’s Journey by Stanley Nyamfukudza, 1980. Set during the Zimbabwe war for independence, the anti-hero Sam, a teacher, faces his ambivalence toward the conflict, ultimately leading to a dead end. Increasingly discontented with work, drink, and sexual adventure, he returns home for the funeral of his uncle, a victim of the war, and is forced toward a decision about his role in the national struggle. The ending, at once violent and inconclusive, makes a strong case for the absence of middle political ground, a place not possible for selfish individual action in the disappearing status quo. The writing itself is simple and direct, unblinking in its treatment of how race, politics, family, tradition, sex, and intentionality can all be sources of victimization.
This summer I am planning to read a collection of stories Here, There, and Elsewhere: Stories from the Road by William Least Heat-Moon, 2013. Many years have passed since I read Blue Highways so I am curious to learn what directions his writing has taken. Maybe I’ll take it with me on the road!
Dr. Everett Hamner
Marilynne Robinson, Lila
. This 2014 National Book Award finalist takes place in the same Iowa landscape and character universe as Gilead
If I had to put my money on a
novel that is likely to be widely taught and studied a few decades from now, this triptych would be near the top of my list. It is exceptionally clean, unsentimental writing about the nature of love, grace, and other topics that when mentioned in a book review typically send me fleeing to Flannery O’Connor.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora. My Robinsons are not related, and I’d picked the books before I noticed the last names. This hard science fiction novel should be understood as a descendent most directly of KSR’s Mars trilogy from the 1990s and his mammoth, experimental novel of a few years ago, 2312. This Robinson is the boldest, least naive, and most complex of contemporary utopian thinkers, and if one appreciates political nuance and is not easily intimidated by scientific precision, this should be a highlight of 2015 (once published in July).
Dr. Dan Malachuk
The book that has most affected me this past year is Henry James’s The Ambassadors
because of its dense but moving portrait of people trying to lead examined lives.
A book I hope to read this summer is Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.
Dr. Shazia Rahman
This past year, I read Audre Lorde’s memoir Zami
for the first time. Her beautiful prose is important because she lays out the ways in which her identity is at the intersections of
disability, sexuality, race and gender. I was especially moved when she couldn’t stand the U.S. any longer and wrote of leaving to live in Mexico and the joy she felt there as a woman of colour who was no longer a minority.
This summer I plan to read Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. I’m looking forward to reading it so that I can learn more about Pakistan’s tribal region close to the Afghan border.
Dr. Marjorie Allison
I’m not sure which books affected me the most, but two favorites were Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel, recently named the Tournament of Books winner! It is
post-apocalyptic but with the twist of a pandemic. It was a bit unsettling to read in the midst of the ebola hysteria, but a great, challenging book, and it involves a roving band of Shakespearean actors. What could be better? My second pick went up against Station Eleven
in the tournament (am I getting too mainstream?!), and is All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr. It is WWII and involved a blind French girl and a young German boy in “parallel” storylines, and radio transmissions about science and philosophy. Brutal, engaging, a page-turner.
I have no idea what I will be reading. My best picks tend to be discovered at Third Place Books in Seattle–their staff has great taste in literature and their “staff picks” section always has interesting choices. Often their choices work their way into my classes.
Dr. Bill Thompson
Thomas Geoghegan’s recently published Only One Thing Can Save Us is a beautifully (the adjective is inadequate) written collection of essays about the direful state that labor finds itself in due to the neo-liberal ascendancy. Geoghegan is a labor lawyer based in Chicago. While the book is about unions, the “only thing,” mentioned in the title is a new sense of belonging to and being beholden to something other than ourselves. Unions are about the common good, not the good of individuals to the exclusion of all else. He points out that Unions really are anti American if being “American” is defined as everyone out for themselves individualism. It is one of those rare books that communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner without dishonoring the ideas’ difficulty. It is also an inspiring book. It angers me and makes me want to do something to stop this madness.
This summer? I will once again lead the Espionage Book Club. We will start with Joseph Karon’s highly reviewed Leaving Berlin–
which in spyland no one ever quite
manages to do. Then maybe one of the classic Graham Green novels. I also have a raft of books on neo-liberalism. WIU is a neo-liberal institution and I want to better understand the cancerous logic of neo-liberalism. I am currently making my way through Wendy Brown’s densely illuminative Undoing the Demos: Neo-Liberalism’s Stealth Revolution
. If you want to understand WIU or, for that matter, Berkeley, read this book. Next up is Ettiene Balibar’s Equaliberty
and Hartmut Rosa’s Alienation and Acceleration–
one of those books that is said to be caffeine for the brain. Finally, I am also reading Henry James’ The Bostonians
, and finding it shocking. I am pretty sure I will be reading it into the summer.
Dr. Bonnie Sonnek