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Books Acquired Recently

Abramović, Marina. Walk Through Walls: A Memoir. New York: Crown Archetype, 2016.

Abramović is my favorite artist, and I pre-ordered this book as soon as I heard about it via her Facebook page. I love how she inserts her body into her work, insisting that art is always in some way autobiographical. I am excited to see how she handles the genre of written autobiography. Judging from the dust jacket blurb, the book is more properly spoken of as autobiography rather than as memoir, as its subtitle claims, but memoir is so marketable these days that it is understandable (though not necessarily justifiable) why the publisher would choose to mislabel it.

This and Smith’s book were purchased from amazon.com.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed: “The Tempest” Retold. London: Hogarth, 2016.

I recently received this book, which is signed by the author, as a gift. Hogarth has a series of retellings of Shakespeare’s plays by contemporary authors. This is a genre Atwood has worked in before, and I enjoy the writing of hers that I’ve read, so I am optimistic that the book will be an enjoyable one.

Johnson, E. Patrick, ed. No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

Johnson’s anthology Black Queer Studies is an essential book in both the queer and African American literary critical canons, and a book that has had a significant impact on me as a scholar. Therefore, when I first heard about No Tea, No Shade, a follow-up collection, I ordered an examination copy from the publisher immediately.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.

I have loved Smith’s fiction since I first read White Teeth in a graduate school course eleven years ago. She is one of a select group of authors whose books I buy immediately without question (Nicholson Baker, Di Brandt, Samuel R. Delany, Don DeLillo [though he might be off the list now because his last book was so poor], Jonathan Safran Foer, Jeff Gundy, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, and Miriam Toews), and thus I pre-ordered this book as soon as I heard about it.

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Books Acquired Recently: Mennonite Literature Edition

Hedrick, Emily. True Confessions of a God Killer: A Postmodern Pilgrim’s Progress. Telford: DreamSeeker, 2014.

When this book was first released last year I heard about it and thought “Hmm, that’s an interesting title,” but I assumed it was theology (which is primarily what Cascadia, DreamSeeker’s parent company, publishes) rather than fiction, and thus didn’t pursue it any further. However, an ad for it showed up in my Facebook news feed, and it was convincing enough for me to buy the book.

Ruth, John L. Mennonite Identity and Literary Art. Scottdale: Herald, 1978.

This text basically founded Mennonite literary criticism. I first read it back in 2001 when I took a Mennonite Literature course in college. I decided to try to buy it in order to read it again because I have been writing more and more criticism on Mennonite literature. I was happy to be able to find a copy in good condition.

Both books were acquired from amazon.com’s network of independent booksellers.

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Book Acquired Recently: Roller Girls Love Bobby Knight

Hampton, Michael Wayne. Roller Girls Love Bobby Knight. Oregon: Artistically Declined, 2014.

A pre-order advertisement for this book showed up in my Facebook feed a few months ago, and I ordered it because I loved the title, and I also like to support small independent publishers (Artistically Declined Press’s website is here; I must say that it vexes me that they do not list a specific city of publication, only a state. But the book did come with a nifty “Books Are Better” bookmark). I love roller derby and thought it would be cool to read a novel about it. The self-proclaimed “novella” (it is only 108 pages) showed up in my mailbox today and I read it immediately.

Unfortunately, Hampton’s story is a dud at best and offensive at worst. The premise is promising: a down-on-her-luck single mother and her younger daughter arrive in a small Kentucky town where her older daughter has just bought an old skating rink in order to stage roller derby bouts; hilarity ensues. But the story is never interested in these women as people, only as tits-and-ass. If the book had been written by a woman, it would be a fun story of female empowerment, but written by a man the female characters are just exploitative cardboard cutouts. They love flaunting their fantastic curves, are super heterosexual (which is frankly not an especially accurate portrayal of the roller derby world), and are desperate to find men to complete them even though the men in their lives are all terrible. They all use language that reads like an Onion parody of the dialogue from Steel Magnolias.

It is clear that Hampton is trying to make some sort of aesthetic statement about fiction with these simultaneously overly stylized and utterly flimsy characters, but he fails miserably. The writing isn’t thought-provoking, it’s just, well, dickish. This is sad because the novella has the potential to be so much more. The resurgence of roller derby over the past twenty years is a significant social development that deserves to be chronicled in literature, and Hampton’s observation that “[c]hicken fighting, boxing matches, football games, if it’s got honest people hurting each other these folks will eat it up” is an astute one about the role of sports in American society (57). But he fails to consider these subjects in any kind of thoughtful manner, instead using them as props for his misogynist tale.

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Books Acquired Recently

I just received two books from a friend as gifts for my upcoming birthday. Both look intriguing and enjoyable, and I hope to read them over my forthcoming Spring Break.

Corin, Lucy. One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2013.

I recently heard about this book via a “Best Feminist Books of 2013” list on Facebook, and was immediately smitten with the title. The book itself is a beautiful object (as is normally the case with McSweeney’s publications), with an arrow cut out of the cover to reveal the title and author, as can be seen in the photograph below.

Jack, Belinda. The Woman Reader. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.

I have been interested in the history of readers since reading Ian Watt’s description of the eighteenth century English reading market in his classic The Rise of the Novel in graduate school. Jack’s book on the history of female readers will certainly feed this interest.

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The Ten Most Influential Books List

I recently participated in the Facebook meme that asks for a list of the ten most influential books on a person’s life. Here is my list with some brief comments:

1. boneyard by Stephen Beachy—This book showed myself to me in an exact way that I had never encountered before in literature. Queer and Anabaptist: two great tastes that taste great together.

2. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer—My favorite book until I read boneyard. I’ve read it over half-a-dozen times and it always makes me cry. The last line is heartwrenching: “We would have been safe.”

3. questions i asked my mother by Di Brandt—Really all of Brandt’s poetry, but this collection is the one that I read first and that stays the most vivid in my mind. Brandt gave me a model for how to be transgressive when I really needed one.

4. Sleeping Preacher and 5. Eve’s Striptease by Julia Spicher Kasdorf—These two books feel inseparable for me. Kasdorf was the first poet whose work I read that made me realize that poetry could be relevant to my life.

6. Rhapsody With Dark Matter by Jeff Gundy—I had the same reaction to Gundy’s work as I did to Kasdorf’s. (Also, it drives me nuts that “with” in the title shouldn’t be capitalized here. What a dumb rule. I think it’s a significant enough word that it should be capitalized, which is why I have done so.)

7. The Tides of Lust by Samuel R. Delany—This isn’t my favorite Delany novel, but it’s the first one that I read (I also did a dissertation chapter on it), and it was good enough to get me interested in all of the others. Delany is the author whose work has been most influential on my current thinking.

8. Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places by Laud Humphries—I read this while doing research for a paper during my senior year of college, and it completely changed my view of the world because it told me about a practice (i.e., anonymous gay sex) that I had no idea existed. It taught me to begin looking at the margins, because that’s where the really interesting, revolutionary stuff happens. It also helped me to see physical space in a new way.

9. The Blue Mountains of China by Rudy Wiebe—In hindsight, this was my first encounter with postmodern fiction, which is now my favorite kind of fiction. When I first read it, its ethical vision was extremely formative for me.

10. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok—This was the first text I read that explored the relationship between religion and art in a serious way. If I hadn’t read this book, the words of the poets mentioned above would have fallen on deaf ears.

Three observations on this list: 1. It is overwhelmingly Mennonite, showing that no matter how hard I try I just can’t get away, and 2. I encountered half of the texts while at Goshen College, which proves something about the importance of a good liberal arts education. 3. After a few days’ reflection, I still stand by the list’s accuracy. The only glaring omission is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine (But what would it replace? My first thought is Potok’s novel, but reading My Name is Asher Lev made my appreciation of many of the rest of the books on this list possible), which I actually think about more than any other book because of its chapter on public restrooms. Every time I go into a public restroom that I haven’t been in before (i.e., the restroom at my job doesn’t count because of how frequently I use it), I check to see whether it has a paper towel dispenser (and if so, what kind) or a hand dryer. The science of hand dryers has advanced a lot since the novel was written, and so sometimes they are better than paper towels, but I still generally agree with the novel’s argument in favor of the paper towels. Both options need to be well-designed in order to fulfill their function of getting one’s hands dry in a sanitary manner, though. It almost is not fair to compare them as entire categories.

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Does Facebook Make Us Unhappy?

This fascinating New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova surveys a number of recent studies about how Facebook affects users’ mood. Most of the studies argue that surfing Facebook tends to worsen our mood because it is a passive activity that often leads to jealousy regarding others’ lives. We are happy during the brief moments when we are writing and posting a status update, but the rest of our time on the site dissipates this pleasure. In other words, our time on Facebook often embodies the old bumper sticker that reads “Every time one of my friends succeeds, a little part of me dies.” How people use Facebook is so subjective that it is impossible to make conclusive statements about how it affects users, but the act of interrogating how it affects us is nevertheless an essential one. Konnikova’s article certainly makes me question how much time I spend on the site (generally between half an hour and an hour per day), and is worthwhile reading for anyone else who finds her- or himself making Facebook a central part of the day.

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Good Writing on Reading Digitally and its Consequences

I’m a bit behind on my PMLA reading, and I was reading the January 2013 (128.1) issue this morning, which includes an excellent suite of essays on “Reading in the Digital Age.” I’ve written here about these issues before, especially about my concern that we retain less and our brains get less exercise when we read digitally rather than in print, and the frightening long-term effects this will have on society. Thus it was nice to discover that such a prestigious journal is paying close attention to the subject. Here are some of the highlights:

My favorite article in the group is Naomi S. Baron’s “Redefining Reading: The Impact of Digital Communication Media,” which reports the results of several surveys she conducted measuring both students’ and the general population’s attitudes about reading digitally versus reading in print. I like the article because the survey shows that even students who have grown up with computers all of their lives realize that they prefer reading in print once they are asked to think about it. Respondents appreciate the physicality of reading books, even textbooks that they are planning on selling back to the bookstore at the end of the semester (which is another problem to discuss another time). They also say that they retain information much better when they are interacting with print texts, in part because they get distracted in electronic environments. The article also shows that more and more people conceive of reading as a search for specific bits of information rather than as an exploration fueled by intellectual curiousity. I admit that sometimes I am guilty of this in my research, going straight to a book’s index to find the passages that are relevant to my topic, but I also enjoy reading for pleasure rather than purpose, and I have grown intellectually just as much if not more via the former kind of reading as the latter. Baron’s essay is necessary reading for anyone interested in the life of the mind and how it’s evolving, and I am going to assign it to my students this autumn.

Michael Cobb’s intriguing article “A Little Like Reading: Preference, Facebook, and Overwhelmed Interpretations” examines what sort of reading act occurs when we “Like” something on Facebook. I am addicted to Facebook, and am glad to see that it continues to draw serious academic analysis. One of the most profound conference presentations I’ve ever heard was a presentation on Facebook as a form of autobiography at the 2010 MLA Convention. Seriously engaging with Facebook rather than simply dismissing it as a waste of time is essential because of its ubiquitousness, and Cobb’s essay is a superb example of this engagement.

Jim Collins’s essay “Reading, in a Digital Archive of One’s Own,” which is pro-digital reading, is a thought-provoking piece in part about how both sides of the debate are represented by unhelpful caricatures and how the debate problematically takes place as “an exercise in nostalgia, grounded in a discourse of inevitable loss” (212), and in part about how one’s digital playlist is a form of autobiography just like one’s library. Collins makes a good point about how those of us who are defenders of print media need to integrate the realities of digital reading into our viewpoint, though I don’t think he pays enough attention to the foreboding realities of digital reading described in Baron’s essay.

N. Katherine Hayles’s essay “Combining Close and Distant Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and the Aesthetic of Bookishness” argues that many recent authors (she also mentions B.S. Johnson’s classic The Unfortunates) have expressed concern about the future of the book by creating books that play with books’ traditional physical form. She offers a helpful, data-ridden analysis of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes as an example of this trend.

Lisa Nakamura’s essay “‘Words with Friends'” Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads” is also quite good for many of the same reasons as Cobb’s. She examines Goodreads as an important source of data on contemporary reading habits, but also notes that is important to keep in mind that such seemingly-innocent social networking sites function because users consume their advertising. They are cogs of capitalism in disguise.

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