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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What We’re Reading
Devon Walker-Domine (Open Bar Intern): Among my current reads is Adrian Oktenberg’s The Bosnia Elegies, a staggering work that, through the adept merging of journalistic and poetic styles, succeeds in conveying the vastness and complexity of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, both on a national and a personal level. The loss of a loved one, of a voice, of a personal history–these come together to form the collective loss of a moribund nation, and Oktenberg fearlessly and gracefully expresses this by imbedding in the very structure of her lines the patterning of loss and the visual representation of separations as they are coming into existence:
Nobody obeyed the command to kneel
some made a rush some stood stark and straight
a few fell at once living and dead lay mingled together
Here she lays the map of a fractured nation like a transparency over broken communities and the individuals composing those communities. This kind of imagery essentially prohibits readers from maintaining an indifferent perspective, bringing them so close to the genocide that it can no longer remain a distant and vague outline of tragedy.
This is not a read for the faint of heart: its focus is set unwaveringly upon the fragile chain of instances composing human life, particularly as it exists against the backdrop of violent political upheaval. That said, if you can handle the unflinching gaze at humanity in conflict with itself, the reward is great. These are definitely some of the most stunning and intricately woven poems I have read in quite some time.
Lance Cleland (Murder Mystery Dinner Detective): An ordinary man who found himself embroiled in extraordinary circumstances. This is all I want said of my life. As such, I find myself constantly dipping back into the pool of spy novels I loved as a young reader. The first leisurely sunny day spent at the park will always find me with a paperback in hand, chasing German submarines, double-crossing the voluptuous, and trying like hell not to get my drink spiked in an underground Prague bar.
Eric Ambler’s Journey Into Fear never crosses the border into literature in the way a good Greene or le Carré treatment can, but his novel is damn good fun nonetheless. An English civil servant on his way home from Istanbul gets roped into an international arms race. Escaping an attempt on his life, our ordinary hero finds himself isolated at sea with a multinational cast of secondary characters (a seductive nightclub dancer, her seedy, Marxist husband, a mysterious tobacco importer!), who may or may not be on board to kill him. Sprinkled in amidst all the thrills are some genuinely sharp critiques of the British Empire, as well as some humorous asides about female persuasions. But make no mistake, Ambler is here to take you from A to B in as entertaining a manner as possible.
Journey Into Fear is a classic set up, executed perfectly. I hope they say the same thing about me someday.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’m reading Rosie Schaap’s Drinking with Men: A Memoir right now, a memoir about her love of bars, specifically the neighborhood joint where one stops by after work for a glass, maybe to check in with regulars, maybe just to have a drink. She grew up in these places, in a lot of ways, with her gateway to a shall we say “altered” community being her time as a teenage Deadhead. (Her account confirms much of what I assumed to be true during a brief Dead-curious period in my freshman year of college, symbolized by my sporting a rawhide ankle bracelet hung with bells. But that’s not important right now.) There’s something in the way Schaap approaches the subject of drinking that I find oddly bold. That seems counter-intuitive. Americans really like to drink, we know, and I live in Wisconsin, which has elevated it to a religion. Maybe it is just the fact that Schaap is happy to discuss drinking not as an epicurean pursuit, not so much about the libation itself, but the process, the ritual of consuming alcohol, the place and company of that imbibing. As much as many of us love a drink, I do think most of us tend to couch it in other terms, like gastronomy or sports or an addiction narrative. But sometimes, this book reminds you, it’s just a part of community life.
Holly Laycock (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): I have spent the past two weeks consciously trying to pace my reading of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman to prolong its delicious strangeness. The surreal world O’Brien creates follows a nameless man who commits a murder for money, and then slips into a dreamlike existence where police barracks change shape, policemen turn sound into energy, and bicycles violate their riders, all to little fanfare. He is also accompanied by another character named Joe, who to the best of my interpretations is his soul, and who often provides some comic relief on this bizarre journey. To tell what kind of journey this is would spoil the outcome of the book, so I will simply say that you should read it when you’re really ready to hunker down. No text has gotten me so far outside of myself, and so far enmeshed in its wobbly parameters for quite some time, and I’m only sorry that it’s not longer.