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What I’ve been reading, № 4

21.May 2015

More lapsing for this totally irregular feature. March and April were not the easiest months ever. Alas, sheer exhaustion and course reading and grading kept me from doing much fun reading at all. However, work reading was also really, really fun this semester. Here’s what it looked like:

For class:


I’ve never been a Kurt Vonnegut fan. I always lumped him in with Kafka and Salinger and the other whiny men authors that all the teenage boy nerds I was friends with in high school liked – i.e. NOT FOR ME. This is, to my shame, the only book of his I’ve read. What’s funny is I spoke with him more than once while he was a writer in residence at my college and I really liked him. I saw him speak publicly a couple times and found him witty and intelligent. And yet, I didn’t read him. Anyway, fast-forward to last year when I was conceiving of the Sci Fi class I just finished teaching – everyone recommended this book to me. And, boy, were they right.

This book is engaging and funny and strange and very, very challenging. It imagines the serendipitous path that evolution will lead humans down over the course of the million years after a mass extinction event wipes out almost all humans. BUT! Galápagos is not your standard post-apocalyptic fare. It’s witty and sarcastic and rambly and really fun to read. Highly, highly recommend.


I already wrote about this last year, but it warrants mentioning again. It’s a book that really does bear rereading. Also, I interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson with a couple of my students this spring and he’s delightful. Go buy his books.

The Year of the Flood

The love I have for Margaret Atwood is deep and abiding. Know that. This is the second book in her MaddAddam trilogy and follows the faith, actions, and movements of a small apocalyptic environmental religion as they brace for the “waterless flood.” It features a canon of environmental saints, hymns to the greatest and smallest creatures and religious justifications for both maximum handwashing and minimum showering. I really really love it and highly recommend it, but I think that Oryx and Crake is probably the best of the three in this trio. Start there, continue to this one and prepare to be somewhat disappointed by the third, MaddAddam.

Der Richter und sein Henker (and in English: The Judge and His Hangman)

I’ve read this one before, but thought I’d mention it here. It’s a good mystery and well suited to those brushing up rusty German or just learning to read German novels for the first time. Set in Switzerland just after World War II, it follows the convoluted investigation of a policeman’s murder and features political intrigue both local and international. I haven’t read it in English, but I assume it translates well. Good beach reading, maybe?

For work, but also for fun:

Written on the Body

One of my students wrote a truly stellar thesis largely on this book. Until now, I had only read Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and have always suspected I’d love every word she writes, but this confirmed it. This is a wonderful, visceral, funny, and strange feminist novel of love and relationships and loss. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and moments from that book will stay with me for a very, very long time.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

This one had been on my list since it came out (TWELVE years ago), but who ever has time for a 1,000+ page novel? Well, another of my students wrote a thesis in which this book featured prominently, so I was on the hook to read it. And thank GOODNESS I had to read it. What a wonderful, beautiful, fully realized strange other world this book inhabits! I’m not going to lie: there were times when I thought hundreds of pages could have been cut and nothing would have been lost, but the last hundred pages or so demonstrated the necessity of every word that came before! Immensely satisfying. Also, it’s about to be a BBC miniseries, so you REALLY should read it before watching. Really. (Also don’t skip the footnotes.)

For fun:

Rambunctious Garden

This one is different to everything above. Non-fiction, environmental(ist) writing. The subtitle is “Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” which tells you just about everything you need to know. I was just discussing yesterday how the writing is a bit grating (it constantly seems to shout “I TOLD YOU SO”) but that the optimism of the message is a relief after reading a lot of doom & gloom environmental hand-wringing (which is also totally valid and right). Basically it proceeds from the assumption that any proposed pre-human environmental baseline is false and that the constant demonization of “invasive” species and attempted preservation (via intensive intervention) of “pure” ecosystems is unproductive. It’s aggressively non-anthropocentric, which is a good thing, but I always worry a bit about factions in the movement. Can we really afford the amount of infighting that things like non-native species inspire? Anyway, it’s a good thought-provoking read and it IS nice to see a young woman making such a forceful intervention in the environmental discourse. </endacademicese>

Finally: Summer is here! 

I have a whole big program of reading planned for the summer – some for work, some for fun, some for my own edification. If you have recommendations, leave them in the comments! Categories I’m especially interested in:

  • Awesome, mind-blowing books by women (e.g. Wide Sargasso Sea, anything by A.S. Byatt)
  • Literature dealing with/set in/about Ireland
  • Really great contemporary German literature
  • Really great literature dealing with the environment
  • Non-fiction that’s as engaging as The Orchid Thief (No substance abuse memoirs, please. I’ve read enough of those.)
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