Liberal Arts - 32 Campus Drive
Missoula, MT - 59812
Faculty Top Threes
For our Summer 2012 installment, we offer a reprise of last summer's topic: we asked our literature faculty to tell us what they'll be reading this summer. So, once again, treat the following as recommendations or simply as snapshots of the faculty's cluttered nightstands!
- Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel. It’s been years since I’ve read Rabelais’ hilarious and scathing masterpiece, and I’m looking forward to once more entering his satiric, codpiece’d world. And, since it’s also great, I plan on re-reading Mikhail Bakhtin’s brilliant Rabelais and His World as a companion piece.
- Denis Johnson, Train Dreams. From the gigantic to a gem about the American West.
- What would a summer be without Georges Simenon? A sad one! This summer, it’s going to be Maigret and the Hotel Majestic (though I’m worried that nothing can match the peerless Lock 14), or another of the romans durs, perhaps The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (yet what could equal The Widow or Monsieur Monde Vanishes?).
- Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
This collection emerged from the BABEL Work Group, a loose confederation of medieval scholars dedicated to opening the field up, radically in some cases, to new disciplinary approaches, particularly non-historical approaches. I have a forthcoming essay in their journal, postmedieval, and thought I ought to read up on how medievalists were absorbing the ideas from ecocriticism and an emerging philosophical approach known as "object-oriented ontology."
- Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read.
I'm teaching and writing more these days about the possible critical engagements between neuroscience and cultural study, both literature and art. This fascinating book synthesizes research into the neural circuitry of the reading process, developing his "neuronal recycling hypothesis," which holds that the brain's reading circuits are adapted from genetic predispositions for shape and line discernment that evolved from our early primate ancestors.
- Erik Inglis, Jean Fouqet and the Invention of France. This is the first English-language biography of the major French painter of the 15th century, Jean Fouquet, whose brilliant re-interpretation of Italian perspective within the parameters of manuscript illumination pushed French painting forward, while also, according to Inglis, advancing a sustained argument for the political centrality of the French monarchy, coming out of the disaster of the Hundred Years War.
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road. I came late to the McCarthy party, but I plan to tackle The Road this summer. One reason for waiting: I needed to finish one of those books I never read that had haunted for years, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. I won't say it was a Road to Damascus moment or anything--I won't be abandoning medieval studies for Woolf or anything--but I think I will teach a portion of it in my "Brain and Literature" course this fall.
- The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. There are a handful of contemporary writers for whom my life must stop when a new novel appears, and Ondaatje may be at the top of the list (along with John Banville, David Mitchell, Julian Barnes and a couple others).
- Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. I've heard too many good things about this one for too long, and the summer months offer my only opportunity for reading a book like this.
- Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean. From the biography of an Egyptian queen to a biography of a dog! Well, what to say. I've also heard great things about this book, and having lost my beloved yellow lab, Lucy, in recent months, I guess dogs are on my mind.
This summer I chose 3 books to occupy my mind. I didn't just want to read them, I wanted to use them as a tool for thinking about thinking. All meta-like:
1. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
2. Winter in the Blood by James Welch and
3. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.
The first two are re-reads for me, but while reading Train Dreams early in the summer, I kept thinking about the other two. Together they form a neat study on what we might call interiorities, the speaking voice in dialogue with itself. The protagonist of each book actively questions what it is to be alive and to occupy a body in a specific place--and that place happens to be the West in each of them. Each also questions the role of social community at a variety of levels--the toll of living in towns, the obligation to neighbors, the obligations to one's own family and family legacy. And these pestering needs are pitted against the needs and desires of the individual self. And while that self often wants to be alone, in each book the ache of loneliness also looms large.
But what's most interesting in this triad is that each of these characters represents a different world view. Traditional depictions of characters of the West probably share more characteristics with the white, male protagonist in Train Dreams (although he's far from stock); Housekeeping depicts the perspective of a young woman and Winter in the Blood depicts a Native American man.
I'm still forming conclusions on what they show us, but I'm loving the experience of these three voices bouncing off each other and expanding my notions of the western novel.