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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What We’re Reading
Rebekah Bergman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Reading Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing felt very familiar. Will, the novel’s protagonist, is a charismatic and passionate high school literature teacher whom the students adore. In the opening chapters, Will begins an affair with a student. I thought I knew where this was going. I was wrong. Maksik brings this premise to new territory and the surprises in the plot are a true delight. The novel, set in France in 2002, becomes almost a modern retelling of Camus’ The Stranger, a work Will’s students read for his class. Shifting between three narrators, the reader must consider different perspectives and accounts without the satisfaction of any one definitive answer. Impressively, Maksik makes this moral quandary incredibly relevant and real. He never loses sight of his characters, who are compelling and realistically flawed. As I questioned the morality of their choices I also cared about their fates and was truly sad to leave them at the close of the book.
Allyson Paty (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Lawrence Weschler’s biography of artist Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees follows Irwin’s artistic practice and interests over the course of his entire career. Irwin states that he “one day got hooked on [his] own curiosity and decided to live it,” and the book tracks the trajectory of Irwin’s thinking about formal elements art—beginning with questions of the canvas, figuration, and line, and gradually giving way to essential questions of light, space, and presence—which in turn informs the trajectory of his life. Originally published in 1982 and updated in 2009, the book grew out of a series of conversations between Weschler and Irwin, which gives the text a grounded, spoken feel. To see a life propelled by a continuing line of artistic inquiry is, I think, hugely seductive for a creative person working in any medium.
Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern): For me, the first weeks of the new year are dedicated to furiously reading all the books I didn’t get to in the year prior, a fug of guilt reading. And I’m glad I do this, because otherwise I might have missed Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People in the Trees, eclipsed by my excitement for the new Lorrie Moore. Yanagihara’s novel is loosely based on the life of Nobel prize winner Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, a brilliant scientist and convicted child molester, who adopted 56 children from the South Pacific and went to prison for raping one of his sons. Yanagihara’s Dr. Norton Perina, while hewing fairly close to those basic biographical facts, is far more than the sum of his parts. Styled as a memoir-confession written by Perina in prison as a series of letters to his mentee and sycophant Dr. Ronald Kubodera, the voice she creates is captivating and obliviously cruel. He narrates the discovery and inevitable exploitation of the fictional Micronesian nation of U’ivu (probably an even greater creation than the character of Norton himself; Yanagihara has an amazing imagination and sense of detail) and the discovery of the Selene disease, spread by eating a specific endangered turtle, that can prolong human life for centuries—at the cost of the mind. Everything that happens in the book blends the inevitable with surprise, like a line of falling dominoes: colonialism, exploitation, moral relativism, glory, and the cost of discovery.
Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Somehow, I made it to my thirties, and completed a master’s degree in writing, without ever reading Raymond Carver. “Ah, yes, very Carver-esque,” I would agree with my colleagues, “Definitely super Carver-like.” But, it was only when I discovered the masterful short stories of Charles Baxter last summer that my fiancé addressed his bookshelves and selected for me a simple blue and white book with a crazy-intense author photo on the front. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver contains stories from my childhood. They aren’t about my aunt’s toothless friend, Paul, who worked at a grocery store and brought us more charred soda cans than we knew what to do with after a fire burned milk and lettuce and the video rental section to the ground, and they aren’t about Paul’s girlfriend, Margie, who, after winning the “Ugliest Swimsuit” award at a water park a hundred miles from our house, also earned the whispered “Ugliest Woman” contest, according to my brother. But they are the stories of ordinary people living the kind of lives most people live, feeling the kinds of not-that-significant-in-the-grand-scheme but completely-valid-in-the-moment things people feel; they are glimpses into the lives of my neighbors, of your neighbors, of life within map dots all over the place. With simple, compelling narratives, Raymond Carver introduces us to ourselves, and that, my friends, is totally Carver-esque.
Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I’ve recently been re-reading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. I know most people instantly think: snoozefest! But judge away, internet people; I maintain that this medieval mystic’s literature is still fascinating and relevant stuff. Julian (we’re on a first name basis) is an adept and exquisite word smith. And her philosophical and theological struggles with her medieval world are strikingly similar to the ones I witness people working through on a day to day basis. Revelations offers everything, really: you can approach it as a source for quiet introspection or a thrilling exploration of one badass lady’s non-conforming ideology.
Alyssa Persons (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): Somewhere between high school required reading lists and a major in English Lit, I failed to read a word of James Joyce. Instead, I was left with a poorly-formed (and probably misguided) impression of the author and his work and was too intimidated to take a stab at reading anything by him. These days, I’m eating my words because I’m halfway through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I’m thoroughly embarrassed it took me this long to pick it up. For the remaining few who haven’t read it either, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that lays the groundwork for the technique and style Joyce continued to develop in his later work. So far, I’ve been completely engrossed, when I’m not feeling entirely confused and/or frustrated. This is what reading Joyce is supposed to feel like, right?
Alison Pezanoski-Browne (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): In Are You My Mother?, a follow-up to her acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home, Alison Bechdel turns her thoughtful, complex lens from her relationship with father to her relationship with her mother. Through prose and images, she weaves together storylines of her mother as a creative woman stifled by the weight her husband’s closeted sexuality, the work and life of groundbreaking twentieth-century child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, and Bechdel’s own history with psychoanalysis in order to cope with her life-long obsessive compulsive disorder. The result is an evocative depiction of how identity is formed by interlocking strands of thought, experience, relationships, and knowledge.
Victoria Savanh (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I fell hard and fast for Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, a novel filled with radicalism, counterculture, pop music, identity, and self-invention, spanning the 1970s through late 90s. With its energetic execution, passages seem to vibrate, beautifully written yet precise. All the theoretical ideas aside, the characters are real. There’s this mess of lives intertwined, consequences, loss. The narrators alternate, but the most satisfying storylines are Mary’s, an ex-radical with a fake identity, and her teenage son Jason’s, whose journal entries include analyzing pop music and bootleg recordings. “I wondered if my life was just going to be one immersion after another . . . unpopular popular culture infatuations that don’t really last and don’t really mean anything. Sometimes I even think maybe my deepest obsessions are just random manifestations of my loneliness or isolation . . . —no, it is beautiful to be enraptured. To be enthralled by something, anything. And it isn’t random. It speaks to you for a reason.” I have a feeling I’ll be quoting Eat the Document endlessly.