The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Summer's Reading Log, pt. 1

I just finished my extra summer job at the university library--my responsibilities were to go through the "Fiction" collection and cull it in preparation for its integration into the general LC classification. The university had about 10,000 volumes in the collection, and foolishly entrusted me to be the one to say what should be kept, what should be tossed, and what should be put into a "Pop Fiction" collection.

The collection provided a fascinating, if heavily slanted, picture of the university as a whole. We're a Catholic school, emerging from a long history of being run (in every sense) by priests, and so the collection had a lot of Victorian-era inspirational boys' stories, second-rate Horatio Alger stuff for the most part. A bunch of saints' lives novelizations and "stocks and stones" kitsch (bonus points if you get the reference there). An interesting bunch of plantation literature--Page and his imitators, THE CLANSMAN, THE LEOPARD'S SPOTS, like that. And as the books got newer, I discovered that either the clergy or someone on the faculty bought every Cold War international-intrigue thriller on the market. Lots of complete sets of Victorian and Edwardian popular novelists, thirty-three volume sets whose last checkout date predated the Korean War. Beautiful books, many of them in great condition. I even found an autographed Gorham Munson.

The best part of this job was finding dozens of books I'd been intending to read but never got around to. I had been working my way through J.M. Bury's 1900 HISTORY OF GREECE, which I was liking, but I'm on a fiction kick after browsing many thousands of titles in the process of vetting the collection. Sabina Murray's THE CAPRICES was impressive--it had the current academic fascination with identity but didn't dwell on it to the extent that Ph.D.-crack like Jeanette Winterson does. I wasn't entirely convinced by Murray's touch with the grit of war, but really what the hell would I know about that. It wasn't clever, though, and I mean that in the best possible way--it wasn't self-satisfied or gimmicky.

I also worked my way through HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE, the Scottish novel by James Kelman. I had been intimidated by the reports I'd heard that it was entirely in Scots dialect--which it is--but after a few pages it wasn't difficult to hear. It reminded me of how listening to Willie Nelson records makes one start to talk Texan without consciously trying. I didn't like HOW LATE as well as I did Murray's collection, but I did think he did a great job of characterization. It wasn't particularly well plotted, which I'm sure wasn't the point, but still.

Another Booker Prize winner, Coetzee's DISGRACE, was really great. Tough--not hard to read, but hard to take. I hate the word "lapidary"--it gets used too often by pretentious book reviewers who don't want to say "Hemingwayesque" but who, like me, feel that one should show not tell--but it seems that this book deserves the term. Affectless. It made me want to read more Coetzee.

Currently, I'm working through Naipaul's A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS. I still don't know what I think of it. I'm impressed by Naipaul's certainty and control. He's a fine stylist, especially for what he's trying to accomplish (a realist novel in the old style with an objective narrator). I'll read pretty much anything that takes place in a foreign country, as anyone can tell from my list above, and Naipaul explains Trinidad well without making much of an effort too. I know it's reductive and probably just racist to immediately compare Naipaul to George Lamming--I know Lamming is from the Bahamas but I couldn't tell you how far apart the Bahamas are from Trinidad, it's probably the distance from Saskatoon to Guanajuato--but because I'm an ignant American I immediately compare the two. I prefer Naipaul, although Sir Vidia would probably scoff at my faint praise.

Looking forward to reading and teaching Wideman's DAMBALLAH. Living a few blocks from Homewood makes that neighborhood interesting, and we're thinking about sending the boy to school up there.

Also just finished Gerald Graff's PROFESSING LITERATURE. It's amazing. As I think about my next book, I'm looking to him as a model of how NOT to overload a narrative with the massive amount of research he's clearly done. My first book suffers from that, I'm afraid, and since this next one will involve more research (by orders of magnitude, I fear), I don't see how I can avoid that.


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