What our faculty are reading
Robyn Malo, Associate Professor of English
Right now, I’m about halfway through The Orenda, a novel by Canadian author Joseph Boyden, who is of Irish, Scottish, and Anishinaabe descent. Set in the seventeenth century, The Orenda is a novel of historical fiction about the incursion of European peoples into the New World and the eruption of war between the aboriginal peoples already there. Boyden’s setting is an area of what is now Canada populated, in the seventeenth century, by tribes of the Huron (Wendat) and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) nations – and by Champlain and the French who wish to milk the land and its people for all they are worth. The story is narrated from three perspectives: Bird, an important figure in the Huron nation; Snow Falls, Bird’s adoptive daughter, an Iroquois girl; and Christophe, or Crow, a Jesuit working maniacally for the conversion of the Huron peoples with whom he lives. Its tone is, of course, elegiac, as it laments a world that has long passed away, and as we watch the future – our own moment – unfold. Boyden is sometimes uneven as a novelist, but here, he is mostly very good; and Bird, in particular, is a gripping character, vividly illustrating a way of life that we so thoroughly eradicated. It is a convicting novel, to say the least.
Venetria Patton, Head of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Professor of English and African American Studies
I had been meaning to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and had even picked-up two copies, but when my son asked me if I had read it I was spurred into action. I gave him one of my copies and I pledged to read the other. I’m not sure why I dragged my feet so long, it wasn’t a long book and it was a national book award winner, which had received rave reviews. When I finally began reading, I could see why Toni Morrison deemed it required reading—it is a beautiful reflection on race in our society, but in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown it was also painful reading. Written to his son in the aftermath of the non-acquittal in Brown’s slaying, Coates seeks to articulate both the fears and dreams of raising a black boy to manhood. The book resonated with my own concerns about raising a black son who could so easily lose his life in a society socialized to see him and those like him as threats. However, the book was also in many ways a tribute to black institutions, particularly Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Coates writes reverently of his time at Howard University, which he refers to as “The Mecca.” While it is clear that his time at Howard was nurturing, it is also clear that “The Mecca” is not a safe space that can protect young black men, such as his classmate killed at the hands of police. Coates does not provide any easy solutions in his book, but his ruminations should prompt many thoughtful conversations.
Mike Johnston, Associate Professor of English
For Christmas, my parents bought me John Simpson’s The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the “Oxford English Dictionary”: A Memoir, and I almost had it finished before the end of the break. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) Simpson discusses his time working for the OED, starting all the way back in the 1970s, when they were finishing up the supplement to the first edition, through the launch of the second edition (still in print) to the launch of the web version. Throughout, Simpson pauses over words with particularly rich histories and walks the reader through changes in that word’s meaning. For example, I learned on p. 10 that our word juggernaut comes from the Indian festival of Jagannath, which is itself a Hindi name for the god Vishnu. English speakers mistakenly took the name of Vishnu himself for the cart on which an idol of him was carried, and thus juggernaut entered our language as the word for a large vehicle, eventually taking on its current metaphorical meaning of anything that comes with force. These are the sorts of cultural narratives written into our language’s history that I love exploring with my students in ENGL 327 (English Language I: History and Development). But it was also really cool to be reminded that the OED was not given unto us by the gods, but rather is composed of human editorial decisions, made by the likes of Simpson himself. This book helped to put a human face on the OED, the most powerful tool for understanding our language. Finally, I think our English majors would really enjoy this book because it can inspire: Simpson himself was an English major. His life story reminds us that the world is full of possibilities for those with a degree in English. You may not end up following in Simpson’s footsteps as the most powerful arbitrator of the most powerful language in the world, but the places an English degree can take you should always surprise and amaze.
Kristina Bross, Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean of Research and Creative Endeavor (Honors College)
I’m reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. The work is critically acclaimed, a National Book Award finalist in 2014. The plot begins with a catastrophic flu pandemic, and it cycles between the initial moment of outbreak and the civilization that has been pieced together by survivors 15-20 years later. In that future, the novel follows a troupe of actors and musicians as they travel from settlement to settlement, performing Shakespeare’s plays. Their motto: “survival is insufficient.” Here is a book that asserts that everything from graphic novels to King Lear are necessary for survival, and those implicit arguments are wrapped up in a sci-fi novel, a genre many would dismiss! In this time of dwindling support for the humanities, this motto seems appropriate in and out of the world Mandel has imagined. The persistence of Shakespeare after the apocalypse triggers questions about great art and an enduring canon of literature, and the book’s travelling troupe of actors could profitably be compared to Elizabethan troupes performing in Shakespeare’s own day, or even contemporary itinerant players, such as the Stone Soup Shakespeare company, which tours much the same route covered by the players in Station Eleven, our own Midwestern parks and towns.
Ryan Schneider, Associate Professor of English
Set mainly in 1950s Chicago, Matt Ruffman’s Lovecraft Country is the story of an African American family whose imaginative links to the pulp fiction of H.P. Lovecraft shape their responses to segregation. Ruffman blends starkly realistic moments of black-on-white racism with Lovecraftian tropes—including time-and-space travel, shape shifting, magic, and ghosts—to create one of the most entertaining and insightful books of the year. Lovecraft County is a gut-wrenching yet triumphant narrative of life in an openly racist society—a novel that brilliantly shows how a commitment to imagination and creativity can effectively unmask and challenge the worst horrors of human behavior.
Bradley Dilger, Associate Professor of English & Director of Introductory Composition
I'm reading a lot of grant proposals, since I'm writing quite a few these days, and I hope to tune my writing accordingly. In support of the Crow project, I'm reading essays on interdisciplinary collaboration (Bronstein, 2003; Petri, 2010; Gooch, 2005, others), trying to look not only at writing studies but also into other fields. I've also started reading the second edition of Rita Malenczyk's A Rhetoric for Writing Program Administrators in preparation for writing a review for Composition Forum. That collection is very well organized and I'm glad to see books from Parlor Press getting the attention they deserve.
Nush Powell, Associate Prof. of English & Director of Graduate Studies
To prepare for the amazing Dragons course I'm team-teaching with the equally amazing Prof. Armstrong, I've been re-reading Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown and Ursula LeGuin's The Other Wind for the first time in decades, although both are old favorites. It's interesting revisiting McKinley with so many years of learning under my belt—the magic of an outcast young woman let loose in a library and teaching herself to be, essentially, a master chemist, horse trainer, and dragon fighter is still there, but as a younger reader I completely missed the colonial underpinnings to the setting here and in The Blue Sword, its sequel. As for LeGuin, it's sadder and more beautiful than I remembered; she really is—to use her preferred term—an "American novelist" like no other.
James Saunders, Professor of English
I am reading The Great Gatsby. Beyond being impressed with Fitzgerald’s writing style and insights into the human condition, I am especially appreciative of the novel for how it helped me to understand why Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, why my student Karolina Duran became Carol Durning, why Floyd—my gay cousin—became straight, and why James Weldon Johnson’s narrator (in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man) sold his birthright to become white. Thank you, F. Scott Fitzgerald, for your fabulous presentation of Jay Gatsby who, in a previous life, had been the yearning-for-acceptance James Gatz.
Elaine Francis, Associate Professor of English and Linguistics
I’m reading Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt. In her book, Holt tells the real story of a group of women who worked as ‘human computers’ for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1960s, and later as computer programmers and engineers for NASA space programs. The book is very well-researched, including lots of fascinating details about how these women calculated the capabilities of various kinds of rocket engines and helped launch space probes to the moon, Venus, and Mars. Holt also does a wonderful job capturing the amazing life stories of these women, who faced many obstacles to career advancement (such as being fired for pregnancy!) and strove to gain proper recognition for their work in this male-dominated world of aerospace engineering. It’s a very compelling read.
Brian Leung, Professor of English & Director of Creative Writing
“With my right eye I’m reading The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by Huan Hsu. My left eye is on Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. The former is a true life treasure hunt where, along the way, Hsu unearths his Chinese family’s cultural history nearly lost to time. As a Chinese-American, he’s just distant enough to see a contemporary China forging into modernity while grappling with the fact that its past is still, well, present. And the Shteyngart? I’ve gone through a stretch of wonderful, but humorless books. His writing is anything but humorless. If you see me on the quad outside Heavilon holding a book and laughing out loud, you’ll know what I’m reading.”
Derek Pacheco, Associate Prof. of English & Director of Undergraduate Studies
“I’m currently re-reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) for the 423nd time. I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. And I still choke up when (SPOILER ALERT) Thorin whispers these dying words to Bilbo: ‘If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.’ I can’t wait to read this book with my daughter, who is already a fan of elevenses.”
Shea Kerkhoff, Visiting Assistant Professor of English Education
Currently, I am reading All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. This young adult novel weaves together the stories of two teenage boys from the same part of town… The book tackles a sensitive and timely issue, one of police and communities of color relations. While completely fictional, seeing the all too realistic story from two perspectives is helping me process my thoughts on contemporary social and political issues. What is great about this book is that I don’t have to process these thoughts alone. All American Boys is part of the Global Read Aloud, so I am reading this book with thousands of people around the world and discussing via Twitter #GRAAAB.
Angelica Duran, Prof. of English (British literature), Comparative Literature, and Religious Studies
“The two most recent books I’ve read have been related to public library or other book club events: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (2015). It was so nice reading Eyes, which I had read over 30 years ago as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, and seeing how relevant the themes remain. Plus, since then, I’ve visited some of the U.S. states (like Florida) where it’s set, so I was able to imagine the story much better. I also really liked Vowell’s catchy writing style as I read about the Greater Lafayette area’s French namesake, and I was pleased to know that she got her facts straight (yes, I checked ... and, yes, I did make sure to eat a French pastry during some of my reading time).”
Richard Johnson-Sheehan, Prof. of Rhetoric and Composition
“Right now, I am reading How Cancer Crossed the Color Line (2011) written by Keith Wailoo. This November, Wailoo will be our keynote speaker at the annual Cancer Culture and Community event, at which we will also launch our Medical Humanities program in the College of Liberal Arts.
In his book, Wailoo offers an amazing exploration of the history of cancer, starting in the early twentieth century and working toward today...I wouldn’t call this book light reading, but it is accessible and illuminating. For me, this book reveals in a rather powerful way how institutional racism works under the surface, even when medical providers and activists want to believe they care equally about the needs of all communities.”
Melanie Shoffner, Associate Prof. of English Education & Curriculum and Instruction
“What I’m reading: Promise Not to Tell (2007) by Jennifer McMahon. McMahon’s novel slips between past and present, weaving childhood betrayal, an unsolved murder and a parent’s mental decline into a suspenseful and poignant story of guilt and redemption. I enjoy mysteries embedded in the human condition, devoid of ghosts except for those we create for ourselves. McMahon didn't disappoint.”