Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer Reading Synchronicity

The books I read on my summer vacation last week seemed to all go together. I've had this experience before, but it's completely unplanned and always surprises me. I took the books that I took with me because they were in the library. The fact that they had surprising links to each other was a delightful synchronicity!

I started by reading Resistance by Owen Sheers, a book that imagines life in Wales in 1944 if the Allies hadn't succeeded in the Normandy invasion. The ending haunted me all week. I love alternate histories, so the premise didn't bother me as much as it has bothered some other people who reviewed the book.

Then I read one of the books on my 2009 Reading List, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, about the discovery of a rare manuscript. Brooks then weaves various chapters that tell the stories of all the people who have handled the manuscript. I enjoyed all of the various tales; she made a wide cast of characters come alive. One substantial chunk of the book dealt with characters living in the early years of World War II (hence the link back to Resistance). Like Resistance, the book spent considerable time with characters who must deal with some limiting circumstances, most of them through no fault of the character's own. And I found the description of various occupations fascinating, particularly that of the scholar who specializes in rare, ancient manuscripts. It made me want to quit my academic job and find another one.

The next book I read was set in more traditional academia: Susan Choi's A Person of Interest. It's about the set of events that unfolds when a Computer Science teacher at a Midwestern university receives a bomb in the university mail. The main suspect might be his office neighbor, an Asian man. Choi excells at using real events as the basis of her fiction (I loved her book American Woman which uses elements of the Patty Hearst kidnapping). Even though I figured out the mystery early on, it didn't destroy my enjoyment. Like People of the Book, part of the fun was in the intertwining parts of the puzzle and seeing how the author pulled off the stunt.

The next book was Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan, which I zipped through. It, too, was set in academia, as a young Slavic Lit professor works towards tenure, while trying to balance home life with a toddler, teaching, and research. Like People of the Book, it made me wonder about roads not taken. I have consciously chosen to focus more on my own creative writing and less on writing scholarly work about the writing of other authors, but this book made me yearn for my grad school days. Ah, to lose oneself in the library and to transport oneself back into another literary century!

I'm still working on the last book, Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills. It, too, explores creativity and the sacrifices that we make for our art (like Lady of the Snakes and like People of the Book), although she explores the world of Hollywood, and the other books do not. I need to plow through it, while I still remember who all the character are, since there's an extensive cast in this book.

What a treat, to have a stack of books and to read straight through them. How lucky I was not to have any of them turn out to be a dreadful slog. How lucky I was to be travelling by car, so that I could take a huge stack of books with me. How lucky I am to have a job that gives me vacation time and to have the ability to actually take my vacation time.

And now, back to my regularly scheduled reading of endless e-mails (only some of which have anything much to do with me) and the numerous documents that we're generating for our accreditation reviews and our various assessment documents. It could be worse, I suppose. I don't have any dreadful student essays to read--although reading dreadfully written documents by people who have gone to school and should know better than to make the horrible mistakes that they make is no picnic either.

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