It’s coming upon a full year since I took my sabbatical, and I suppose it’s pretty much over now. Aside from giving me time to write, this break also allowed me to do more reading than I normally could in the hurly burly of attending to a full time teaching load.
Here are the books I’ve finished in my year off, and a few words about a few of them (to be added to when I have time). I should say that I’m quite positive about the books on this list, mostly because I’ll never finish a book I don’t like, and I’ve leafed through many books and put them down partway through. Life and sabbatical years are too short to waste on bad reading.
So, all these books listed below detail some lovely experiences, time very much well spent in a year of writing frantically and reading leisurely. I’ll make more notes here and there on the books and try to have a sentence review for each later on, but for now I’ll leave the list here in case anyone wants a reading list for the summer. Feel free to comment by giving me writers and books you think I should read with the little time left this summer!
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. I reviewed the book on this blog – to see it, click the link. I should add here that Viet and I corresponded! He wrote me a very nice email in response to my query when he accepted my essay for publication on his excellent site, diacritics.org , and he has been encouraging in my attempts to get published.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
This was a pretty terrific read. I think it’s unfair for some to make the comparison of Whitehead’s novel to Morrison’s Beloved. Beloved is genius, breathtaking, heartbreaking, apart from anything out there. This novel is not an attempt to emulate that, but to tell a striking, similarly ambitious tale. What Whitehead has achieved with this book is truly commendable, a fictionalized but highly realistic rendition of the various societies of America at the time through the perspective of a runaway slave.
Train Dreams, Denis Johnson. A short masterpiece that captures wildness and the lonesome life. Terrifically spartan, writing like the whites of birches, ink thin, starkly beautiful.
Rabbit at Rest, John Updike. The fourth, last, and best of the Rabbit novels. I read the first Rabbit book when I was in my twenties, and I suppose I should really have waited to read this one when I’m in my fifties, because the text is marked with constant evocations of death and dying. Yes, Rabbit is sexist, racist, and all of that, but he’s also hilarious and fully a flawed being that is so essentially of a particular America. The book is also full of Rabbit’s love for home, landscape, and memory, and quick grip fear of and grief at seeing it all go.
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Bought this on my kindle because I was homesick for New England. Small town Maine life, and the arc of characters that live there. Strout’s writing reminds me a little bit of Alice Munro’s in their compression of lives and observations. Looking forward to reading more of her work.
Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang
A Good Fall, Stories by Ha Jin
I can’t believe I’ve avoided his writing until now. Spare prose with a simplicity that belies its depths. He’s also writing about the very aspects of immigrant America that I’m so currently interested in.
Love Like Hate, Linh Dinh
Night, Again, a compilation of contemporary fiction from Vietnam, edited by Linh Dinh
The General Retires and Other Stories, Nguyen Huy Thiep
I’m sad to say these three books were the only fiction I’ve read of contemporary Vietnamese literature this year. I loved Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrows of War, and am looking forward to reading others, but for now, these were all the books I had time for. I am not a fast reader, as you can see. Nor am I a particularly quick writer.
Linh Dinh’s writing is acerbic, dark, and sometimes absurdly funny. It’s hard writing to take sometimes, and you always get the sense that the endings given to certain characters will be unnecessarily harsh, but that’s life in the developing Vietnam, says Linh. Nguyen Huy Thiep’s stories are terribly grim. They capture a time immediately after the war when the lives of those that made it through were in some ways just as sad as their lives during the war. Greed, self interest, and deception are all central to the stories. Many end as you would expect, with a bathotic conclusion that moves on after great tragedy, reminds me a lot of the social realism of Naguib Mahfouz.
My Antonia, Willa Cather.
I reread Willa Cather’s novel this year because I had a couple of students I was tutoring who was being taught it in class. I loved My Antonia when I read it many years ago as a high schooler, and I still love its evocations of the prairies of the American breadbasket states now as an older teacher. I realize though, that it simply isn’t accessible to today’s young readers living in Asia, who have no actual experience or access to that sense of vastness of the American West, or even a tangible connection to wilderness itself. Books on nature are hard to sell to kids who have nothing to connect what they read to, other than to images on screen, already mediated.
Books and literature can point to wilderness, but there has to be a starting point. Words on their own can’t tangibly pull you to the wild when you’ve never been exposed to it. I loved Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Life On the Mississippi for their depictions of life on the grandest river of America, but they came alive to me because I had grown up next to the Saigon, and watched its ebb and flow, and visited my cousins on the Mekong Delta as a kid and loved to play on the waters there. If I had had my childhood planned out for me, with my hours locked on preparing for exams, or padding my resume for colleges, or attending endless tutoring sessions, and spent my free time on games or movies, then Twain’s novels would have held no meaning, no matter how beautiful the prose.
Where the Stress Falls, Susan Sontag
On Photography, Susan Sontag
Sontag is part of a group of women essayists that I always come back to, time and again: Didion, Sontag, Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf. I admit to never really having been drawn to the men in the genre. Emerson, Philip Lopate, E.B. White, John Updike, etc…
Sontag is my current favorite of all the essayists. Reading her thoughts on photography made me really wish she could provide some reflection on the phenomena of selfies now. She has tremendously illuminating ideas on the act of travel as it is affected by photography, and further thoughts on war photographs, on the truth and lies of the medium.
About Looking, John Berger
The Geography of Nowhere, Howard Kunstler
Walkable City, Jeff Speck (unfinished, currently reading)
Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio
Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat.
Another writer I’m surprised I’ve never read until now. This memoir of her uncle and father’s lives is so tautly, unsentimentally written. So many opportunities for the unbelievable arc of their lives and the harrowing, Kafkaesque experience at gaining asylum in America to veer into melodrama and maudlin reflection, but she coldly observes her uncle’s and father’s struggles in cold, objective prose, and the result absolutely breaks your heart.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov – reread. A stunning evocation of an idyllic childhood, his past and the persons in the circle of Nabokov’s radius of living who formed the strongest impressions on him.
Luxury and Rubble, Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, Erik Harms
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy. Enjoyable poems that I read to help with some students in the I.B. that I tutored. Liked them, wouldn’t really want to teach them.