Friday, December 23, 2011

A Year in Reading

This year I continued to focus a lot of my reading on books that I thought would help me teach my African American Voices class. Some of that reading included nonfiction books about the African American experience: Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism; Eugene Robinson's Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America; and Randall Kennedy's The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. All three were gripping, addictive reads.

Shortly after I read Robinson's book, I saw him speak as part of the St. Louis Public Library's Black History Month program. His talk, on the the role of African Americans in the Civil War, led me to Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. A more hardcore history book than I typically read, and somewhat tedious at times, the book nevertheless had some useful material that I ended up incorporating into a class on popular fiction of the post-Civil War era, in which I set up the stories of Charles W. Chesnutt as a corrective to the fantasies of white writers, exemplified by Joel Chandler Harris's "Story of the War."

I also read Gerald Early's new book A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports, as well as Albert Murray's 1970 The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. These were both stimulating books by first-class thinkers and writers. Less intellectually rigorous was Patrice Evans' Negropedia: The Assimilated Negro's Crash Course on the Modern Black Experience, a collection of glorified blog posts that made for entertaining bathrom reading but not much else.

Over the summer, I participated in another NEH Institute, this one on American culture as viewed through the lens of Motown and Jazz music in the years 1959-1975. It turned out to be quite fascinating, as well as a lot of work. Here's what I read; and here is what I wrote. Perhaps inspired by the course's emphasis on how music can be used to study culture, I ended up reading a number of books about black music: Gerald Early's One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture; Michael P. Jeffries' Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop; David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello's Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present; LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's Blues People: Negro Music in White America; and Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues.

I also read several famous African American autobiographical narratives, all of which were great: Richard Wright's Black Boy; the Autobiography of Malcolm X (I taught the 1964 chapter in class); Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (which I plan to teach next year in place of Toni Morrison's Beloved); and Langston Hughes' The Big Sea (which I'm going to have the students read for summer reading).

Among all of this nonfiction about African Americans, I did read a few important pieces of fiction: Toni Cade Bambara's 1972 short story collection Gorilla, My Love; Wallace Thurman's Harlem Renaissance classic The Blacker the Berry; and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (the only piece of fiction Malcolm X read in prison).

Of course, the most unforgettable novel I read this year was Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I read along with a number of my colleagues. You can read the blog I kept about the experience here. Afterward, I enjoyed reading Isaiah Berlin's illuminating Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History.

Early on in the year I also read Sherman Alexie's rather uneven collection War Dances; over the summer I re-read Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men for my school's all-school summer reading project (which culminated this year in a great student production of the play); and I also plowed through David Foster Wallace's posthumous manuscript The Pale King, which, though it is nowhere close to a coherent, finished novel, still contains some pieces of writing which rank among DFW's best. What a loss that he is gone.

So that brings me to the end of my tally of 2011's reading. As I look ahead to 2012, I anticipate spending more time with Tolstoy—reading some of his shorter works; as well as with Gogol—his novel Dead Souls. I'm planning on dipping again into Library of America editions of William Faulker and Zora Neale Hurston that I bought during the summer of 2010. I'd also like to read the short story collection Hue and Cry, by James Alan McPherson, who seemed to come up a lot in my AA Voices class this time around.

Beyond that, who knows?

As I wrote this post, I was a little surprised by how much I read this year (and I didn't even mention all of the Judy Blume and Roald Dahl I read to my daughters before bedtime). Part of me (and I fear, part of you, dear reader) wonders, Where did I get all the time to do this? Don't I have a life?

To answer those questions in order: I don't know, and, I think so.

I don't think I neglect my family to read. I do exercise somewhat regularly. I prepare my classes thoroughly and carefully, and grade papers promptly and conscientiously. In fact, much of what I've been reading lately is directly useful in my teaching.

Perhaps the biggest factor is that I watch almost no TV. Not that there's anything wrong with TV. A year or two ago I got completely addicted to The Wire and watched all 60 episodes in a month and a half. But somehow I just generally don't have the patience for TV, strange as that may sound. You have to have a quiet house to watch TV; you have to plop yourself down and passively observe a screen for a set period of time.

This may sound bizarre, too, but in the end I guess I read so much because it seems to me that reading is one of the best things that life has to offer.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Yorker Fiction 2011

This year the magazine published 48 pieces of fiction, of which I read 24. Here are my favorites, in chronological order. Not all of them are available online, but I have linked the ones that are:

The King of Norway, by Amos Oz (1/17)—an aborted romance on a kibbutz in Israel

Axis, by Alice Munro (1/31)—a great story about how lives can turn profoundly on a single moment; it just occurs to me now that this story would be an interesting companion to Margaret Atwood's "Stone Mattress," a sort of feminist "Cask of Amontillado" published in the final issue of the year

The Other Place, by Mary Gaitskill (2/14)—a disturbing story about men and violence

Paranoia, by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (2/28)—an eerie parable of race and class in America

The Trusty, by Ron Rash (5/23)—a convict attempts to escape from the chain gang

Home, by George Saunders (6/13)—a war veteran's struggles

Gravel, by Alice Munro (6/27)—a childhood trauma

Reverting to a Wild State, by Justin Torres (8/1)—tracing, in reverse chronological order, the devolution of a relationship

Tenth of December, by George Saunders (10/31)—a moving iteration of one of Saunders's favorite fictional structures: two characters, lost in their own worlds, who encounter each other out in the world

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander (12/12)—a take-off on Raymond Carver's famous story, this time about two Jewish couples, one ultra-conservative, the other quite secular

If you're curious, here are my favorites from 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Monday, December 5, 2011

More Talk About Raymond Carver

Nathan Englander, in an interview about his new story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," with an interesting comment about the differing versions of Raymond Carver's stories—the ones with and without the editorial cuts of Gordon Lish—which I wrote about here and here:

I did follow the debate, but from afar, taking it in with a sidelong I’m-already-decided kind of glance. I’m a compulsive re-drafter, and I’m pretty religious about the idea that in the end a story will find its final true form, and when it has found that form, that’s what the story was meant (in some fated way) to be. I did not read “Beginners,” but I do remember—and this is probably when I was studying in Iowa—reading “The Bath” after reading “A Small Good Thing,” Carver’s original exploration of the story. I just see them as two different works. They’re not in conflict to me. “A Small Good Thing” with its “Small Good Thing” ending cut, is a totally different experience. It’s not a different version of the same story, it’s a different story. I’d say the same feeling would apply to the other stories of Carver’s which have also been published in what Tess Gallagher calls, in The New Yorker article you reference, their “true, original” form. Simply, anything that puts more Carver stories into the universe, makes for a better (if more depressing) universe.