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Summer Reading Recommendations, Based Off of My Classes

July 20, 2018

This semester was the first time that I’ve taken classes that were only in my majors, English and Cinema Studies. As a result, I’ve never read more books in such a short amount of time in my life. I thought I would discuss some of the books I’ve read, because it was quite an eclectic collection that I would recommend for any summer reading list!

The first of my two English classes that I took this semester was called Narratives of the Maternal. We read several different types of texts in addition to books, including Donna Haraway’s "Cyborg Manifesto" essay, which I highly recommend for any sci-fi fans who want a theoretical framework to think about movies like RoboCop in. I don’t know why I hadn’t read the "Cyborg Manifesto" before taking the class, given that I have read and written about liminal beings such as cyborgs in relation to multiracial people in popular movies. But I’m glad I finally did, because I think it’ll be a text that I will return to frequently.

Aside from Haraway, here are some of the books I’ve read.

Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman: I wrote about this book briefly in a previous blog post, and I can’t say enough how much this book emotionally impacted me. The pain that Hartman discusses as an African American going to Ghana to study sites of the slave trade resonated with me as another person from several diasporas. I had to stop myself from reading it all in one night, because I found it so engaging. I highly recommend it to people who are also from diaspora communities, because it provided a lot of room for thought on what it means to be who we are outside of the places that our ancestors came from. I connected with it a lot because it addressed issues of belonging and the nature of the past that makes it so difficult to fully gain an understanding of who we are. 

Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: This book was WILD. It’s easily one of my favorite books that I’ve read in my time at Oberlin, next to Lose Your Mother. It’s also one of the most challenging books I’ve ever had to read, in terms of comprehension, which is a lot coming from me as a big Joyce fan. As a work of experimental literature, Dictée plays with the conventions of literary form (i.e. prose, poetry, personal letters and correspondence) by switching suddenly between them–often with no clear resolution–as it documents the immigration experiences of Cha and her mother from Korea, as well as the trauma of the Japanese occupation. One page may be completely written in poetry, but the next page may be grammar-less prose that’s about an entirely different subject. Additionally, Cha sometimes writes in French, mimicking verb exercises, and there are pages that have Korean and Chinese characters on them.

I’ve written two papers on Dictée, so it’s hard for me to not go on about everything that Cha does with the text (as much as I would love to because there’s so many awesome things that Dictée does). But perhaps the most enduring facet of Dictée for me was how Cha worked against popular conventions of what “Asian American literature” should look like. As an Asian American myself who finds herself greatly indebted to the work of writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, Cha’s unrestrained destruction of narrative literary form that forces the reader to work differently with the text than with a typical novel has shown me an entirely new avenue of expression. Some readers may find Dictée to be incomprehensible, but trust me, it makes sense. You just have to reach a little and be open to the changing nature of subject within the book.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki: It’s funny to follow Dictée up with My Year of Meats, because they are two very different pieces that fall under the same umbrella of “Asian American literature.” My Year of Meats was hard to read at times, but in an emotional way. It documents a single year in the life of a Japanese-American documentary filmmaker named Jane Takagi-Little as she works on a Japanese television program called My American Wife! that is sponsored by a big meat industrial company from the States. The goal of the program is to showcase “wholesome” American families (AKA white, heterosexual, and patriarchal households) to Japanese housewives in the hopes that they will buy American beef. But as Jane works on each episode, she becomes more and more disillusioned with the America that the studio wants her to present to Japan, and begins to rebel against the studio head’s wishes for the show.

Ozeki maintains a special focus on reproductive health in relation to the damaging effects of capitalism on people’s bodies. There were many times as I was reading the book where I actually said, “damn” because of the pointed critique that Ozeki was making about the interconnectedness of misogyny, racism, capitalism, consumerism, ableism, and the meat industry. It also spurred me to call my mom a couple times and talk to her about some things. There’s a Jenny Holzer piece that states, “ALL THINGS ARE DELICATELY INTERCONNECTED,” and My Year of Meats beautifully illustrates this sense of global, cosmopolitan culture.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett: This was one of the last books we read this semester. It was one of few books that I was unable to obtain through the bookstore, and I had to order it online, so I hoped that I would enjoy it because I was going to keep it anyways. The Mothers is a debut novel from Brit Bennett, and like My Year of Meats, this one also impacted me a lot emotionally. Following the friendship of two Black teenage girls, Nadia and Aubrey, as the former reconciles with her mother’s death, The Mothers is an intimate exploration into the notion of the maternal in the absence of one’s biological mother. Additionally, The Mothers is also a story of friendship, and the damaging effects of keeping secrets from people.

The story is mediated through a body of older women called The Mothers who act like a Greek chorus for the reader. They introduce each part of the story through the chapters’ beginnings, and take on this kind of collective consciousness that harkens back to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Read in conjunction with some of the other books on this list from the Narratives of the Maternal class, The Mothers provides a distinct approach to community and our roles in the places that we call home.  

The other English class I took this semester, The History and Theory of the Novel, was like a marathon of reading. We read one novel nearly every week, which was perfectly fine for me, because we were reading so many books that I felt that I should read at some point in my life. In reading at such an aggressive pace, I quickly learned how long it actually takes me to get through a book of average length (three hundred pages or so). It's a useful skill to know how fast you can read, especially if you're an English major. In the end, it felt satisfying to know that I was reading a book a week, because I have the tendency to begin reading books on my own, and never finish them (sorry, Mom). Now I don't really have an excuse, because I know that I can get through about fifty pages in forty minutes, so long as the book isn't Finnegans Wake

One of the cool things about History and Theory of the Novel was learning about, obviously, the history and theory of the novel. I feel really embarrassed saying this, but I actually didn’t know until I took the class that the novel hasn’t been around for very long. At the beginning of the semester, my sense of literary history was really vague, and I guess I hadn’t really probed the question of how English-language literature went from Shakespeare and then Tom Jones to, like, Jane Austen and Frankenstein. I suppose I have always taken the existence of novels for granted, because of how immensely popular they are today. I was shocked to learn that patriarchal English society in the early days of the novel, which was in the mid-to-late 17th century, condemned novels for “corrupting” the minds of young women.

What’s also wild about novels is that they completely changed the nature of what literature can be. The idea that a story such as Robinson Crusoe, which we read this semester, could be about a complete middle-class rando, instead of the moody Prince of Denmark, was a really big deal once upon a time! I could go further on about this topic, but I’m not going to for the sake of brevity, but I hope that what I have provided spurs some of your thinking into novels.

Here's a few books from this semester that I particularly enjoyed (Robinson Crusoe being not one of them): 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: I had never read Austen before taking this class. I know it's terrible, especially given that the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice is honestly one of my favorite movies ever. But in my defense, I got hooked onto the Brontës first, so that’s why it took me so long to finally read Austen. A few people in my class said that they hated her work, which surprised me, given that there’s a whole movie about women in a book club wondering “What Would Jane [Austen] Do?” as they go about their lives. Nevertheless, Northanger Abbey is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Most of the humor comes from the particular narrative perspective that Austen writes in, also known as free indirect discourse in case you’re interested, that leaves a bit of distance between the reader, the character, and the character’s actions. In a sense, I would compare it to an extensive use of wide shots in a movie. Wide shots of people interacting are known for being some of the most effective vehicles for humor (think the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films, or one of the last scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy when Peter Quill/Star-Lord starts a dance-off against Ronan the Accuser). From the generous perspective of the wide shot, character actions are largely relegated to the nature of whatever action that they’re doing. In other words, people can look more silly when their existence in the frame is magnified by their body doing a particular action. For instance, in Northanger Abbey, the creepy dude character of John is described as approaching his sisters on the floor of the ballroom, where he promptly “tells them that they are very ugly.” In this sense, Northanger Abbey doesn’t take itself too seriously.

What also surprised me about Northanger Abbey was how much I related to some of the awkward, teenage social interactions that the protagonist, Catherine, endures. If I had read this book when I was sixteen, I probably would have declared that the only person who understood me was Jane Austen, or at least until I read Jane Eyre the following year. Even though this novel is over two hundred years old, it's still a fresh read that isn't afraid to roast the silly conventions of high society. I now want to read more Austen, because few writers have made me audibly laugh as hard as I did when I was reading Northanger Abbey.

W.E. Sebald’s The Emigrants was another fascinating read, especially after having gone through Dictée for Narratives of the Maternal earlier in the semester. The Emigrants details life before and after the Holocaust in Europe for specific individuals. It mirrors the facets of a nonfiction account, with the inclusion of photographs and other documents, all while being a work of fiction. There is then a sense of mystery to how image and memory interact, and what the story is behind the original images that Sebald uses to juxtapose his text with. If you want to read a book that's genuinely unlike any other book you've read before, I would highly recommend The Emigrants. I’m sure that I’ll be re-reading this one for many years down the line, because I feel that there’s even more that I can get from this text.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was the only modernist text we read this semester. I’m a huge fan of modernism, because it often demands that I figure out what the heck is going on in the story, and the sense of perspective in Mrs Dalloway is something really special. It takes place in London after the First World War, and examines the psyches of high class Britons and the people they interact with. It’s difficult to describe, but Woolf manages to flow between different people’s consciousnesses seamlessly without ever committing to just one person’s perspective. Many of the people in Mrs Dalloway do not even know each other, and may pass by each other as strangers on the street, which creates a feeling of excitement when we’re able to deduce that one character is actually perceiving a character we had previously met before. It’s a cool way to approach writing a novel that, among other things, truly captures the zeitgeist of a city at a specific time. As someone who is from another big city, I think it approaches a question I’ve had from time to time of what the strangers around me are thinking about.

Currently, I've been working my way through some comics for the summer, as respite from the heavy reading load of last semester. When I've had some time away from my research, I have been reading Margaret Stohl's The Mighty Captain Marvel, as well as an omnibus of the original Fantastic Four comics from the 60s (to see what all the hype was about). In a twist of events, I also have been reading The Fellowship of the Ring in French, as a way to keep my language skills sharp while also returning to some Tolkien. In French, the title is, La Communauté de l'Anneau, and the French versions of things like the Shire (la Comté), Orcs (Orques), and Samwise Gamgie (Samsagace Gamegie) make for an entertaining reading experience. I was originally planning to read the entirety of Ulysses this summer, but I haven't been able to get a copy of it yet. Having now just typed that sentence, I think I'm actually just going to walk to Ben Franklin's in town and pick up a copy as soon as I'm done writing this. 

Happy summer reading! 

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