Archive for June, 2007

Last night Eunice asked me to come up with a list of books I think she should read, with brief synopses. I was instantly excited–this is exactly the kind of project I need to keep me busy this summer, as my job starts to wind down and I get ready to go back to school. And it is the perfect thing to include here on this site. You may see bits and pieces in this spot, but the whole list will exist as a separate page, ever expanding and updating. There are hundreds of books I can (and do) recommend, and as Eunice pointed out last night, almost every day of my life I tell at least one person about one book I think they should read.

And I’ll start right now:

Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent is a great piece of summer reading. The man is one of the funniest comedic writers I’ve come across–laugh out loud on the subway funny. The first of his books I read was The Lost Continent, which I picked up because it’s about the place where I was born: the great vast middle of the country. Bryson drives all over small town America, lamenting the loss of small town uniqueness as we move into the twenty-first century, and making hilarious observations about diner food, roadside attractions, seedy hotels, and the joys of driving a non-air conditioned old car down narrow, deserted country roads. This book made me fall in love, both with this country and with this writer, and set me on the path of reading everything he’s ever written. If you haven’t yet been introduced to this brilliant humorist you are sorely missing out, and I’d like to thank my aunt Karen for introducing me to him four and a half years ago. My life has been made better for it.

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Summer by Edith Wharton

When I finished Edith Wharton’s Summer, I slammed the book shut and turned to the boy in a huff: “This ending sucks!” I’m not one of those types who always wants a happy ending, but this heroine seemed to deserve so much better. Wharton created a truly unique character, one who so perfectly reflects the imperfections of human beings, it’s hard to let go and allow her such an imperfect ending. You want, just once, for someone so realistically flawed to get the white horse and the prince and to ride off into the sunset. Especially since you’re so relieved the author didn’t just kill her off or something, as so many literary heroines in Charity Royall’s predicament were punished in the early twentieth century.

Marilyn French’s Introduction in this edition helped me get over my initial disappointment. The Introduction is one of those that most certainly should be read after the novel itself, but it’s well worth going back to. French’s reading of Charity Royall’s character, and the place of a character like this in fiction of the time, is insightful, and brought me a greater appreciation of Charity and her author.

Wharton has always been one of my favorite writers because she does capture women so wonderfully. She had a nuanced way of exploring the restrictions of womanhood, and the emotional life that was all women were allowed. Her novels also shine a light for the contemporary reader onto the places where those same restrictions still apply. Summer, which was quite scandalous for its time, felt out what it was like for a woman who wanted to embody her own sexuality without giving up her dignity and self-worth. And while Charity’s ending belongs in no romance novel, she does, at least, survive. In fact, I didn’t realize how ingrained the literary custom of killing off wayward heroines is until I started realizing that I expected it, even from Wharton.

So while I might have slammed the book shut in disappointment on reading that last word, I quickly came to the realization that Summer truly is one of Wharton’s best novels, and one that shows her courage and willingness to realistically explore the things very few people want to, even now: people who aren’t perfect.

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I had to take a brief break from this book to read some fiction when the author started explaining radiocarbon dating and atomic properties. But Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution is a compelling, accessible account of evolution that would make any creationist freak out. Which is reason enough to read it, in my book.

I bought this a few years ago, and it sat untouched on my shelf because I am mostly afraid of science. What a shame that was! Dawkins is a terrific science writer, deftly turning complicated zoological and biological concepts into prose that is entertaining and enlightening for a liberal arts major like myself. This book traces a backwards path from humans through all vertebrates back down to the smallest life forms on earth, in search of the Most Common Recent Ancestor of all life on earth. He details where and how different species split, and each “rendezvous point” contains a Tale illustrative of some significant biological detail, about why we walk upright or how mitochondrial DNA evolved or what cauliflower can tell us about our circulatory system.

I can’t guarantee that I’m completely understanding all of this. There are certain portions that I just read, assuming that the information is being absorbed, if not perfectly assimilated. I’m not sure I could turn around to someone else and accurately explain everything Dawkins uncovers within these pages, but I can certainly turn around and recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in where we came from and why our bodies are the way they are. Dawkins’s goofy sense of humor and jabs at fundamentalists are the excellent icing on the cake that is an awesome narrative structure, concise and clear writing, and an endless stream of fascinating information that I have felt compelled to share with everyone while I’m reading. I think it’s irritating the hell out of the boyfriend, who just wants me to read something else already and stop telling him how the lowly sea sponge is related to him.

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