Call it gross overcompensation if you will, but I celebrated the end of my undergraduate days by constructing a sundry syllabus for myself to wade through this summer. Ever since my senior year of high school I've made a point of filling my lazy summer days with good books—though nowadays the movie theater vies with the bookshelf for my time.
I usually center my summer reading lists around one or two "projects", books requiring a bit more intellectual attention than your Girl on the Train or what have you; this summer marked the first where I added French literature into the mix (one does not just get to a Proust-reading level and then call it quits). And as always, a summer without reading a few books to disagree with or get riled up about is a boring thing indeed.
The Trial – Franz Kafka
Being the countercultural that I am (…), I tackled Kafka's parable of nightmarish bureaucracy before I had even read the Metamorphosis. (And then watched the fabulous Orson Welles film adaptation.) Read at the recommendation of my French literature professor; it's easy to see in Kafka's novel the prototype for similarly twisted tales by Camus et al.
The Screwtape Letters – C.S. Lewis
As a recent admirer of Lewis', I was not disappointed by what is considered his most famous work outside the Chronicles of Narnia. I can make no claims about the theological veracity of his depiction of devils, but his sly personalization of these maligned demons in the form of the lowly Wormwood and his fiendish uncle Screwtape makes at the very least for an amusing diversion—though at its best the book is a showcase for Lewis' perspicacious wisdom on the nature of temptation and faith.
Candide – Voltaire
Was it worth holding off on reading this staple of high school English classes long enough so I could read it in French? Perhaps. Droll as it is even in the original language, Voltaire's insights more often than not struck me as truisms—admittedly owing to the influence his trenchant satire has wielded on philosophical and intellectual discourse through the years. In any event, I got a kick out of his commentary on overly refined palettes, in light of how I've seen that phenomenon play out in film criticism.
Excellent Women – Barbara Pym
Fact: Barbara Pym is the best British author of high comedy you've never heard of until 15 words ago. At the insistence of another Barbara I stumbled into Pym's world of fretful churchwomen and anthropologists, a world that takes the trope of the crazy cat lady and, with a pleasant mix of humor and severity, refurbishes it into an agreeable sort of singledom. Given the immense pressures from society and culture nowadays to BE MARRIED AT ALL COSTS OMG YOU POOR UNMARRIED SOULS SUCKS TO BE LONELY FOREVER, Pym's sensible—though by no means sober—look at the single life renders celibacy and solitude enviable.
Arriving at Amen – Leah Libresco
Atheist blogger-turned-Catholic Leah Libresco is both a wonderful writer and a wonderful dinner party organizer (I was invited to one such kaffeeklatsch where the night's topic of conversation was the now-infamous Benedict Option). Leah's book is one of two tales of conversion on this list, though she structures her approach uniquely, so far as I can tell, around prayers and practices of the Catholic Church that have helped her grapple with her unexpected new faith. Many of the analogies Leah uses (and her healthy doses of Victor Hugo references) are ingenious, and while some certainly work better than others—the entire chapter on Confession a clear standout— they prove to be insightful even for the non-Catholic among us.
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite – William Deresiewicz
Remember when that article telling us all not to send our kids to the Ivy League made the rounds last summer? Well the article in question was an excerpt from a larger project addressing the aimlessness and anxiety Deresiewicz perceives as afflicting a great many of the elite liberal arts-educated snake people of America (read: me and my classmates, for one). On the level of surface arguments I can't say I disagree with his assessment of the consulting- and investment banking-crazed collegiate masses; he hits a lot of nails close to home, to mix metaphors. I am, however, rubbed the wrong way by Deresiewicz's attempts at a prescription for what ails my generation. Wielding George Eliot's Middlemarch as his Bible, citing the stories of numerous college students who have tumbled grief-stricken into his office, and insisting that small religious colleges can provide a better education than most U.S. News and World Report-certified top schools in the same breath as he denounces adherence to one's natal religious beliefs as obstacles to a truly fulfilling life (perhaps he should talk to Leah Libresco), Deresiewicz argues an undeniably compelling thesis. Where he comes up short is in his tendency to extrapolate a diagnosis from his own emotions and encounters with an admittedly small sample size of snake person college grads.
Spiritual Friendship – Wesley Hill
A celibate, gay Christian committed to upholding the Church's traditional sexual ethic is perhaps the last voice you would think could exist in this day and age. Yet Wesley Hill is only one of many such authors trying to get both Christian and secular worlds to understand that identifying as both "gay" and "Christian" need not be a contradiction. The first half of Hill's book, a primer the fluctuating role of same-sex friendship in Christian communities through the ages, did not do much for me—in part because I've already read so much about it on my own time. The second half, tackling a few more intense personal stories and wrestling with the difficulties of loving Christian relationships and the loneliness that can wrongly comes affixed with celibate life in the modern age, makes the book worth the read for anyone. An interesting, up-to-date, and complementary companion to Excellent Women to be sure.
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
My "project" this summer was Umberto Eco's hefty monastic murder mystery. After the notorious first hundred pages of ἔκφρασις, The Name of the Rose falls lock step into a recognizable mystery novel pattern. The catch is that this particular whodunnit is adorned with historically accurate (so we're told) theological debates. In the end Eco catfishes us in a way, and while I initially walked away with a bitter taste in my…brain…I've since settled down and feel confident in praising Eco on his ease with rhetorical and generic styles worlds apart from postmodernism's own.
Surprised by Joy – C.S. Lewis
The second of this season's conversion narratives follows a more straightforward trajectory. Confessing upfront that this book won't necessarily appeal to the same audience that found Screwtape fascinating, Lewis proceeds to give a fairly run-of-the-mill account of his early life, inclusive of his abandonment of theism and eventual conversion back to Christianity. It's enlightening as a biographical document and sheds some deserved light on Lewis' backstory for a Lewis admirer such as myself, though I must admit I prefer his more literary writings and essays of incisive wit & wisdom.
A Glass of Blessings – Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym: The gift that keeps on giving! Whereas Excellent Women concerns spinsterhood, A Glass of Blessings—set in the same novelistic universe as the former—brings Pym's anthropological eye to the despair that festers unawares in the seemingly mildest of marriages. At first I missed the charm of Excellent Women and the comfort to be found in Mildred, the oftentimes hapless narrator; as I dug deeper into Blessings, I began to better recognize its merits, ultimately finding it a more accomplished work for handling with such deftness the complexities of unhappiness amidst affluence and for arriving at great conclusions about having gratitude for the most unassuming of blessings.
Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay
Some people binge on Netflix; Tim binges on feminist literary criticism. Though I was disappointed that the book wasn't entirely comprised of laugh-out-loud essays in the style of Gay's insider exposé on competitive Scrabble tournaments, that isn't exactly what the title was advertising to begin with (or was it?). By Gay's admission I, too, am a bad feminist, at least depending on what definition of feminism we're working with. I'm frequently put off by the tyranny of microaggressions and the oppression olympics, as I've termed the concepts in conversations with friends; thus some of the essays were hit-or-miss, a few amounting to not much more than couchside observations on pop culture. Surprisingly, I found the essays on race and Hollywood to be the most enlightening, perhaps because it was in these pieces that Gay is least preaching to the proverbial choir.
Le nœud de vipères – François Mauriac
My other project of the summer was François Mauriac's masterpiece (I think? I'm not familiar enough with his corpus to know if this is The Definitive Mauriac Book) of early 20th-century French literature. Another conversion novel of sorts (okay, I lied about there only being two this summer), The Viper's Knot drops us headfirst into the angry, rambling correspondences of a frustrated lawyer, writing a prototypical LiveJournal rant to his wife to be discovered and read after his death. Coming from a provincial background and marrying into a Catholic dynasty with which he finds himself at constant odds, Louis finds himself in late middle age completely estranged from his wife and children and desiring comeuppance for the perceived grievances he's endured for decades. The choleric first half can be a slog, but the effort that goes into putting up with Louis for so many pages pays off magnificently in the novel's final chapters, a beguiling account of the conflict between Capitalism and Christianity raging in the narrator's heart.
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Contrary to what 17,000 Amazon reviews in the affirmative might suggest would happen, Anthony Doerr's addition to the World War II canon didn't strike my fancy. Doerr's take on a sort of Balzacian genre of writing insists on a stringently scientific, material vision of the world at the same time that it wants to flirt with the supernatural. The fantastical elements can be chalked up to the young age of its dual protagonists, though I'm not sold on whatever idea of reality Doerr is trying to sell. A good read for sure, but a good book that does not by nature make.
Hitchcock on Hitchcock – ed. Sidney Gottlieb
Alfred Hitchcock was the first director I glommed onto in my rapid descent into movie-watching madness. This compilation of (regrettably overlapping) essays and interviews with the master of suspense sheds some interesting light on Hitch's directorial vision and creative process, as well as his opinions of what makes for a good movie and the ideal responsibilities of directors and producers. I'm told the definitive book on Hitchcock is François Truffaut's compendium of interviews, so I suppose that's where I'll be headed next.