Saturday, June 23, 2018

June 23-24, 2018: Crowd-sourced Beach Reads

[For this year’s installment of my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to revisit favorites from different stages of my life, all of which would make for fun additions to your summer bookbag. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the nominations of fellow BeachReadStudiers—add yours in comments, please]
AnneMarie Donahue shares, “Luckiest Girl in the World, Bob (YA lit), Hate List (YA lit), Ink.”
Michael Giannasca writes that he “bought the Outlander series and Less.”
Andrew Joseph Pedoda nominates Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth.
Maranda Fluet shares her own most recent book, Parallels!
Paige Wallace goes with Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, and adds, “oh, and also, I'm Just Happy to Be Here by Janelle Hanchett. She's the author of the Renegade Mothering blog (but she isn't everyone's cup of tea) and she may or may not be a grad school friend of mine; it's a great read if you don't mind laughing hysterically one minute and sobbing uncontrollably the next.”
Andrew DaSilva writes, “For fiction The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and The Pigman by Paul Zindel. For non-Fiction The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic Shore by Robert Finch and The Kerner Report aka The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” On the Kerner Report, Jeff Renye shares this follow up resource.
AnneMarie Donahue also responds, writing “I teach The Pigman, the kids love it! I read [Zindel’s] My Darling, My Hamburger and was blown away!”
Andrew later adds, “I know I already made some suggestions but here are three more. The Outermost House by Henry Beston, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Shadows in the Asylum by D.A Stern.”
Jenny Fielding shares, “Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Humans by Matt Haig, The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick, and You Are Not a Gadget by Jarod Lanier.”
Olivia Lucier writes, “The Night Circus—great mix of 2nd and 3rd person story telling, plot twists, poetry, and the imagery is breathtaking.”
Chile Hidalgo highlights The Glasgow Trilogy by Malcolm Mackay.
Tamara Verhyen writes, “Trying to make it the summer of poetry. Starting with Milk and Honey.”
Anne Holub nominates There There by Tommy Orange.
Nancy Caronia shares, “I'm actually reading a memoir, The Bosnia List from 2014. I have a feeling the experience of this writer could soon be ours.”
Patricia Ringle Vandever goes with Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.
Tom Murray writes, “If this is for the boys, check out John Christopher's WHITE MOUNTAIN trilogy, a sci-fi series about aliens who attempt to enslave humanity. The first book, THE WHITE MOUNTAINS, will surely grip its readers. When I ran a children's bookstore I gave a money back guarantee on this title for any kids around 8 or 9. I sold over 100 copies and no one ever came back with complaints.”
Kent Rose highlights “The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash—great historical labor-related novel!”
Kelly Stowell goes with The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas.
Quintin Burks shares At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill.
Tim McCaffrey highlights, “I'll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. Chilling.”
Lara Schwartz writes, “I just finished Tigerman by Nick Harkaway. Crazy good.”
Sue Wells shares, “The Overstory! This is an amazing book, and weeks later I'm still looking at trees differently.”
Tina Powell Tweets out “Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.”
And my Mom Ilene Railton nominates The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other Beach Reads you’d nominate?

Friday, June 22, 2018

June 22, 2018: Beach Reads: The Day of the Locust

[For this year’s installment of my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to revisit favorites from different stages of my life, all of which would make for fun additions to your summer bookbag. Share your nominations for Beach Reads for a crowd-sourced weekend post that doesn’t mind some sand between the pages!]
On a book that reminds me how excitingly far I still have to go.
From the names for the degrees—Master of Arts, Doctor of Philosophy—to the purpose of the PhD dissertation (and its accompanying oral “defense”), and certainly through the last few decades’ evolving emphasis on hyper-specialization within academia, the demonstrated purpose of grad school (at least in English and the humanities; this may be less true for the sciences) would seem to be to achieve a significant level of mastery over one’s particular subject and focus. There’s obviously good reason for that, especially since graduate students are professors in training and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a professor to have some significant mastery of his or her field (particularly in an era when students and their families are paying so much to be educated by those professors). But at the same time, this perspective on grad school can make it seem like the key to being a successful scholar is to have all the answers, to know just how you would analyze any given text or event or question, to never admit that you don’t know or are still trying to figure out what to make of something.
If I were ever tempted to feel that way—although of course I’m far too humble, not to mention talented and good-looking, to do so—I had the good fortune during grad school to encounter plenty of correctives, in the form of works that left me at a loss and forced me to recognize how much American Studying is a lifelong learning kind of pursuit. At the top of that list would have to be Nathanael West’s novella The Day of the Locust (1939), a work that within its 150 pages manages to be a bildungsroman about a young arrival to Los Angeles, a funny and biting satire of Hollywood, a gritty socially realistic novel of the Depression, a psychological study of gender and sex, and an apocalyptic cautionary tale in which religion, celebrity, popular culture, and violence yield the titular plague—among other things. In the conclusion to my weekly analytical post about the novel in the grad class where I first encountered it, I was simply left reciting the eternal question, voiced so eloquently by Marvin Gaye and slightly less eloquently by the Four Non-Blondes: “What’s going on?” Can’t say I have any more definitive of an answer today than I did then.
Does that mean I should have failed my defense, been laughed out of grad school, am now outing myself as the phoniest AmericanStudier this side of David Barton? I don’t think so. First of all, I’m not giving up on analyzing West’s novel—quite the opposite, I’m excited to keep figuring out what I want to say about it, and in particular to get the chance at some point to teach it and participate in some communal such analyses. Second, and more broadly and importantly still, the day I pretend like I’ve got this whole AmericanStudying thing figured out will be the day you all should reach through your computers and slap some sense into me, Cher in Moonstruck style. Both AmericanStudies and public AmericanStudies scholarship are, it seems to me, not about having all the answers—they’re about learning as much as we can to be sure, from our sources and our texts and our histories but also from each other; and then about continuing to ask the questions that allow us all to keep learning, to build a communal perspective on our national identity and history, culture and community, that are as complex and evolving as America itself. Works like West’s have helped me to do that for sure, and I’m very appreciative.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other Beach Reads you’d nominate?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

June 21, 2018: Beach Reads: The Kingdom of Matthias

[For this year’s installment of my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to revisit favorites from different stages of my life, all of which would make for fun additions to your summer bookbag. Share your nominations for Beach Reads for a crowd-sourced weekend post that doesn’t mind some sand between the pages!]
On the book that helped open my eyes to a new career opportunity.
One of this blog’s most overarching threads—indeed one of its central purposes, but also one I have explicitly discussed on multiple occasions—has been my evolving perspectives on and goals for a career in public scholarship. To some degree this has been a last decade or so development in my thinking, and one I could trace to the shift from my first book (which was based on my dissertation and as such constructed almost entirely for an academic audience) to my second (which I hoped, and still hope, could interest American Studiers outside the academy just as much if not more as those inside; check it out and see for yourself, wherever you are!) and more and more fully into my third and fourth and beyond. Yet as I’ve made this shift in my thinking, I’ve been greatly helped by the many strong examples of public American Studies scholarship I’ve encountered throughout my life—and one that particularly stands out is Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America (1994).
I read Johnson and Wilentz’s book as a freshman in college, in a History and Literature (America) sophomore tutorial that included a ton of great scholarly works: John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive, Christine Stansell’s City of Women, and David Hollinger’s Post-Ethnic America, to cite only three. Yet The Kingdom of Matthias stood out, as it’s able to combine some of the strongest features of each of those exemplary works: it’s a narrative history every bit as compelling as Demos’, is grounded in as extensive and thorough research and citation as Stansell’s, and feels as relevant to big American questions and narratives as Hollinger’s (particularly when Johnson and Wilentz get to their climactic reveal about Sojourner Truth, about which I’ve blogged previously). This is a book that reads quickly and compellingly while introducing its audiences to a great deal of specific sources and history, that does justice to a bygone era and subject while feeling fresh and relevant to our contemporary moment, and that highlights a far-too forgotten set of American histories and identities without feeling the slightest bit didactic or antiquarian.
Books are only part of the future of public American Studies scholarship, of course; as might be obvious, I’m also a big fan of blogs, websites, conferences and colloquia, and many other ways American Studiers can connect and converse about these key questions. But the truth is that what makes a great public scholarly book great parallels very directly what produces the best of all those other forms of scholarship; that means all those things in the last paragraph’s closing sentence, but it also and most directly means this: that it be unique, based on meaningful research and knowledge and analysis, and able to connect to other American Studiers and what’s important to them. Content that’s worth our time; authors with something genuine to contribute; an awareness of audience and ability to connect to those audiences. Might seem like a simple enough equation, but getting it right, well, that’s the trick (and one I’m most definitely still working toward). To my mind, Johnson and Wilentz got it exactly right—even if it took me a few years to really appreciate that college lesson.
Last Beach Read tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Beach Reads you’d nominate?