Tag Archives: Jonathan Safran Foer

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

Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. 1992. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

I had heard of this novel before, but did not become interested in it until I recently read Ann Cvetkovich’s discussion of it in An Archive of Feelings. I did not realize that Allison is a queer writer, and I look forward to investigating her work.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Here I Am. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

I love Foer’s first two novels, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and have been awaiting his latest with baited breath. I am terrified that it will not live up to the lofty standards of his previous work, much like how I love Jonathan Franzen’s early work and cannot stand to read a word that he currently writes. We shall see.

Waters, Sarah. Affinity. 1999. New York: Riverhead, 2002.

I love Waters’s work and have read Affinity before, but did not have my own copy. I’m currently writing about another novel, Christina Penner’s Widows of Hamilton House, that also deals with spiritualism, and decided I wanted to read Waters’s novel again.

All three books were purchased from amazon.com. I feel increasingly guilty about my amazon shopping, but I do not live near any good bookstores (because the likes of Barnes & Noble killed them all off, sigh).

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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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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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Theodora Keogh’s Meg

I just finished reading Theodora Keogh’s 1950 novel Meg, which is about the eponymous protagonist’s struggles with her entrance into womanhood in the year before she turns thirteen. I am generally not a fan of books that are primarily about children (two major exceptions are Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Miriam Toews’s The Flying Troutmans), but Meg is a thought-provoking, well-written book. It is a cross between Judy Blume and Lolita, with the salacious bits just titillating enough to keep the reader’s attention without causing them too much worry about Meg’s fate, and the more innocent parts genuine enough as to not verge into sappiness.

What impresses me most about the novel is how prescient it is about the enforced conformity of the decade that followed its publication. Nothing much scandalous happens (There are constant hints that something will–Will Meg be seduced by her best friend’s father? Will she be kidnapped by a child molester? and so on–but the only time the book lives up to its luridly suggestive cover is when Meg loses her virginity to a slightly older boy, an experience that is neither pleasurable nor traumatic for her. Her description of the experience is beautifully profound: “‘What did it feel like?’ She thought a moment as she buttoned on her blouse. ‘Well, it was as if there was no place and you were making one, only you never quite got to make it.'” [95]), but the book feels subversive simply because it portrays characters who are unsatisfied by the roles society assigns them and want something more. Unfortunately, as is par for the course in most 1950s pulp fiction, most of the characters are punished for their differences. The prostitute Miss Tracy is murdered by her pimp, and Meg blackmails her history teacher when she finds out that she is a lesbian in order to get a passing grade. Aside from this one act, though, the reader roots for Meg, and she happily gets through the book relatively unscathed, albeit wiser, and the reader knows that she won’t grow up to be the kind of adult drone which the novel writes against.

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