Summer Reading Roundup

Some of us at 1966 were able to get in some quality reading time during our summer break. Here are a few books we liked, new and old. Now we’ll be returning to our Fall Reading: submissions to the magazine.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau).

I have long been a found of Coates’ writing for the Atlantic, but only started reading this book in the days before Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers. Reading it that week provided me with a double-sense of deja-vu—both from my own memories of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and from Coates’ discussion of them. Written as a letter to his teenaged son about being black in this country, Coates’ prose is as elegant and moving as the system of white privilege is brutal and ugly. Coates’ love for his son and his people—“They made us into a race,” he reminds his son, but “We made ourselves into a people”—shines through every honest, beautiful, brilliant page. Readers should not look for comfort or simple answers in these pages, but may instead find a steely hope that through struggle against the system, one might regain the dignity and honor (but not the lives) that the “people who think they are white” have stripped away. KGC

Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku by David Davis (U of Nebraska Press).

Duke Kahanamoku has long been a sports hero of mine. What the book makes clear, however, is that Duke was also a moral hero for all time. Because of the ill-considered rules of amateurism in the early Olympics and discrimination against athletes of color, Duke was never able to translate his swimming and surfing fame into much more than subsistence living. And yet, he willingly became an ambassador and advocate for sport, Hawaii, her culture, and the Hawaiian people. He was generous to all who asked for his time and carried himself with dignity, kindness, and wisdom. Also interesting are Davis’ accounts of the early Olympics, especially the haunting Antwerp games that followed World War I, when, as they boarded their ship to Europe, the US team passed by stacks of freshly-offloaded coffins from the war and where athletes strolling in the battlefields outside of town came upon still-unburied remains. KGC

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Knopf).

The singular gift of this book to its reader is the chance to enter a brilliant scientist’s mind and to see the world (both natural and personal) the way she does. Jahren is an award-winning plant researcher, currently at the University of Hawaii, and through her memoir, we are able to understand just how difficult that kind of achievement in science is. She takes us through the unremitting hard work, disappointment, and loneliness of being a lead investigator, then allows us to experience the thrill of discovery and success. As the book makes painfully clear, our nation does not adequately support scientific research without clear commercial value. We also don’t give plants enough credit for being the absolutely fascinating and weird creatures they are. As much as I enjoyed Jahren’s personal story, I found her lessons on plants just as fascinating. The book was almost a perfect balance of what we love here at 1966—compelling story mixed with research that make that story more complex and relevant. KGC

My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offut (Simon and Schuster).

A man goes through his dead father’s things and learns more about him. The situation is more interesting if those things include a literal ton of pornography, most of which his father wrote. And the book becomes a compelling read if the son happens to be Chris Offut, himself a wonderful writer. What I appreciated most was that even though there was, in a sense, no mystery to the experience—Offut knew his father wrote pornography before he began—the book is laden with mystery. It is a mystery that relies not on the shock-value of pornography, but on a sensitive, intelligent author slowly excavating the mind of his dad—a distant, unloving father about whom the author knew very little. KGC

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti (Harper Collins).

Jessica Valenti’s is a vital voice and an important advocate for feminism. Through her column and internet platforms, she has introduced many readers, especially younger readers, to feminist issues. She has shown many women that they are not alone. And so, I wanted to like this memoir more than I did. Perhaps it was because I was already aware of many of the issues her story illustrates, but I was not moved by the book, even when I wanted to be. A subjective emotional response is, of course, not necessarily a measure of a book’s quality, but by the end of this book, it was what I found missing. Valenti’s experiences should be disturbing, painful, angering (and sometimes joyful)—and yet, by the end, all I felt was tired. As Dayna Tortorici at the New York Times notes, perhaps Valenti is tired, too. And she has surely earned the right to be, dealing not only with everyday sexism but also with the misogynist trolls of the internet. So, my lack of enthusiasm is perhaps a fault of the writing or perhaps it is actually one of its strengths (isn’t it good to show women are worn down?)—or perhaps it is only a result of my being a female reader who also lives in this culture. KGC

 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927; Harper Perennial 2015)

Now here’s something novel: fiction presented as creative nonfiction.  Thornton takes on the voice of a research CNF writer, searching for the meaning behind a fatal (and fictional) bridge collapse in 1714 Peru.  As might be expected from the guy who gave us Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, it’s a sprawling yet patient work.  He critiques attempts to impose religious significance on tragedies, but he does so with understanding and compassion; he writes of servants and nobility, actresses and nuns, all with equal tact; he depicts the nuances of daily interaction and the existential dread that can accompany it; he weaves a triptych of overlapping relationships and themes.  If it all sounds a bit precocious, his sincerity keeps it all in check.  It’s short, moving, and holds up great on its second read. RD

 

 

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