The Best Non-Required Reading of the Summer

We know that you are all excitedly awaiting the arrival of the MAPH Core Syllabus.  As soon as it becomes available, we will send it to you via the listservs, and you can get going.

BUT.  While you’re still working on your tan and watching the new season of Jersey Shore (WHO else is obsessed, stand up), here are some recommended-non-required-absolutely-optional-but-if-you-take-my-word-for-it-you-won’t-be-disappointed books to keep you busy before Core starts.

Now…these skew toward my own interests in the contemporary short story, and especially the smaller scales of domestic/everyday/ordinary life.  If you’re interested in expansive historical novels….um…I’m not your guy….at least not on this list.  Plus, it’s still summer.  Who has the attention span for an entire freaking novel (let alone, you know, a blog post).

And, if you’re interested

Phil is actually (for whatever godforsaken, masochistic, misguided, probably-phd-application-related) reason reading Middlemarch.

Amelia just finished Life is a Miracle–a long essay by Wendel Berry.  She will next read something…a little…less serious.

Hilary and Maren are in a book club together and they are currently reading Royal Seduction and Duchess by Night


If your life is on fire, this is the book for you

1) Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

While Wells Tower spends the next year working on his first novel as a New York Public Library fellow, you can catch up on his monster of a debut.  In this collection, Tower focuses on the life and death of desire in exurban America.

I also recommend listening to the audio of Tower reading the title story.  Mainly, it’s just hilarious and horrible.  It is the tone of his dialogue that makes the works most compelling.  To hear Tower’s subtle North Carolina lilt adds another layer of…something.

Tower always jokes in interviews that he is a “relatively happy person,” but the despair and violence at the level of ordinary life in these stories captures the creeping sense of not-rightness that unfortunately seems to characterize of lot of our sentminents about “where America is right now.”  Dollar for dollar, I think Tower’s collection provides the most accurate picture of where American short fiction needs to go.

Something is definitely amiss.

2)  The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg

Long under-appreciated, Eisenberg has spent more than 20 years writing exclusively in the form of short fiction.

After winning a MacArthur Foundation Award last fall  (the prize commonly known as the Genius Grant), Eisenberg’s work was reissued in its sigh-inducing splendor.

I think she’s a New York writer to the core, and the most recent collection Twilight of the Superheroes takes on the task of trying to describe the particular weirdness of post-9/11 ordinary life in America.

Like Tower, Eisenberg writes unflinchingly about loneliness and failed-desires.  To watch the evolution of her style offers insight into the pathway from the kind of dirty-realist minimalist “stuff” that was going on in the late 80’s to whatever you want to call what’s going on now.  (On this question, I usually defer to my fearless preceptor and pomo master Adam Jernigan…initials “A.J.” not a coincidence)

The funnest time you can have in a funeral home

3) Fun Home

Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir is a must-read for anyone coming to MAPH to study literature.  For anyone who took Debbie Nelson’s fantastic class on Postmodern Autobiography last year (and got a chance to see Bechdel read at UChicago <3 <3 <3) knows that this National Book Award winner stays with you for a long time.

In Fun Home Bechdel, who recently retired her long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For, deals with the death of her father and the discovery of her own sexual identity.  The deliberate, almost rhythmic consideration of her father’s homosexuality is woven into the narrative in a startlingly moving manner.

If you can’t finish it, it makes a great paperweight!!

4) Nixonland

UChicago’s own Rick Perlstein writes incredibly long unfinishable books.  Nixonland really isn’t an exception (I certainly haven’t gotten through the whole thing).

But holy crap is this interesting–especially if you happen to be a Mad Men fan and want to read up on the sordid details of American life in the 1960’s.  I hope there are some other history dorks on their way to campus….

This is not a biography as much as it is a huge effort to capture the changing landscape of American politics and culture during that insane decade.

If nothing else, it’s a nice reminder that, no matter how bad things seem to be going right now, at least the National Guard isn’t being mobilized to contain a major American city every weekend this summer….

5) I don’t know much about Gary Shteyngart’s new novel Super Sad True Love Story beyond the fact that it has the most entertaining “Book Trailer” I’ve seen–and there are certainly more of these to come.  And lastly, I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t plug Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My MindShe’s so wonderful it almost hurts.

I’m missing a ton, and we’d all love more recommendations.  What’s on your reading list these days?

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