Sunday, April 06, 2008

Some suggested reading

A rainy Sunday here in DC, and I'm looking through my stack of books (recently finished or in progress) to recommend the following:
  • Jane Shore, A Yes-Or-No Answer. Bias alert: Jane is my colleague (and friend) at GW. These poems, though, are some of her best -- and she is a writer of considerable talent. Autobiographical, funny, pained and beautiful. Last night I listed to Jane read from the book at my favorite DC bookstore. Quite an event: I keep hearing the words of the poems running through my mind, in her inflection.
  • Kathleen Biddick, The Typological Imaginary. I'm finally sitting with the book to work through it thoroughly. Tough going in parts, polemical, but quite a provocative argument about the relation between Christianity, seriality and temporality. I'm sure I'll be mentioning it here in the future.
  • James R. Simpson, Troubling Arthurian Histories. Eventually I'll compose my promised blog post on this one. A close look at a single romance by Chrétien de Troyes, but with ramifications for medieval studies far beyond that single work. Energetic, at times hilarious. Simpson is a brilliant writer.
  • Garth Nix, The Abhorsen Trilogy. Recommended to me by my son. Books 1 and 3 in this trilogy are so much fun, some of the best [adolescent-pitched] fantasy I've read. Dark and death-obsessed as well.
  • Ashley Crownover, Wealtheow. Crownover sent me a prepublication copy of her debut novel and asked if I'd mention it on the blog. It's Beowulf from Wealtheow's POV. Although it's not typically the kind of book I enjoy, and although it's not without its problems (Grendel's mother is particularly unconvincing), this was a book that I read in a sitting. Crownover is quite a story teller.
  • David Wallace, Premodern Places. I just reread this book cover to cover in anticipation of Kofi guest blogging about it. It's my favorite of David Wallace's works, and takes some artistic risks that pay off well.
What are you reading that's good?


Heo said...

Thanks for these; they sound interesting. I actually made a little wish before clicking on the Arthuriana link that the author would have chosen Erec et Enide. Yay!

Oh, and I'm going to explore that very bookstore tomorrow night! (Germaine Greer talking about Shakespeare's Wife.) Any advice on sections to peruse first, or parking tips?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

It's easy to get to the bookstore via Metro (walk from Van Ness) or via car (big parking lot in back, always lots of parking on nearby neighborhood streets). I'd just advise arriving early, because the bookstore -- while large by independent bookstore standards -- is not huge. A good thing about the readings is their intimacy ... but readings like the upcoming Jhumpa Lahiri one are too big to fit at the store.

Politics & Prose is a great place for contemporary poetry, fiction, and nonfiction (esp. progressive politics). Excellent children's section too -- and good cafe for doing work or not doing work. Not a destination for medieval titles or non-American history, though! Enjoy Greer, HwoCwaeth.

Liza Blake said...

Currently reading/writing on:

Jonathan Sawday's book on early modern machinery, Engines of the Imagination -- has some major flaws and plops down certain modern presuppositions on early modern machines, in my opinion, but has some very strong chapters (especially the one called "The Turn of the Screw") and leaves lots of work to be done, since he doesn't read any playwrights but Shakespeare!

Manuel Delanda's War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, a stunning exposition of the Deleuzian machinic phylum and war machine (laid out in the nomadology chapter of Thousand Plateaus), combined with chaos theory. The book, beyond its pleasures, is worth reading from a methodological standpoint -- both he and Latour are exemplars of how Deleuze can be used/applied/interpreted outside of "purely" philosophical contexts ...

After I finish this machinery project I'm starting one on early modern science fiction, alternate histories, and fetishes (trust me, these fit together in my mind), so am rereading, every night before bed, the "Contingencies" essay by Agamben (in this book), which MKH first turned me onto.

Also, lots of medieval cycle drama, Sacher-Masoch and Deleuze on masochism, Jonson's Sejanus and Tacitus, and Sade -- though those are all for class(es).

Karl Steel said...

Thanks folks. Much to add to my lists here.

I'll just give y'all what I read today:

The bulk of it: 20+ papers on Chaucer, which I wanted to return 10 days ago, until moving + a headcold intervened. This is the week to get out from under my grading. I dread it.

Misc blogs: nothing of note today, except this

Over dinner. Reread several chapter's of Doctorow's Ragtime, to accompany Forman's version, which ALK and I started watching last night. ALK and I are happy to be married to each other and not, for example, to our parents: we both love to read over dinner, and both grew up in households where this was discouraged. TV? Fine. Books: not so much so. Crud. Her dinner: she's rereading Possession for probably the 1,000th time.

Read several pages of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I should finish tomorrow: for Kzoo, I found this, "What many individual things have in common, or what constantly recurs in one individual thing, needs not be more stable, eternal, or deep than the particular. The scale of categories is not the same as that of significance....The world is unique. The mere repetition in speech of moments which occur again and again in the same form bears more resemblance to a futile, compulsive litany than to the redeeming world. Classification is a condition of knowledge, not knowledge itself, and knowledge in turn dissolves classification" (182). A wonderful find, that!

Before the much belated Spring break and the frenzy of its reading, I'll read read the Calarco and Atterton Continental Ethics Reader, and then Acampora's Corporeal Compassion, which at once looks to be very good ("it shows that our moral relationships and solidarity with other animals do not have to depend on how similar 'they' are to 'us' in terms of mental capacities or sentience") and suggests yet another ethics of recognition ("the ethical responsibilities that follow are fostered because we are all 'bodily beings' with common vulnerabilities and experiences"). I want an ethics of wonder, of mystery, of uncertainty. Am I going to have to build the damn thing myself?

Afterwards, if I have time: an article or two on the Shipman's Tale.

Unknown said...

Finally picked up some Steinbeck and am reading Grapes of Wrath for the first time. I would argue that the beginning is just as metaphysical as Proust's Swann's Way with way more grit. Great.

Eileen Joy said...

It may seem a little odd, but I told my department that I was a little "burned out" on teaching medieval literature, so this semester through next spring, I am mainly teaching contemporary literature [a course on the fantastic and slipstream], post/human literatures, and theory [with one course on Homer mixed in]. I am currently teaching the contemporary literature [fantastic/slipstream] course, which means most of my reading now [not counting "Lord of the Rings" for an interdisciplinary studies course] are in the contemporary novel/short story collection. The syllabus is here for anyone who is interested:

As with most of my courses, the readings are about 50% texts I've read before and 50% texts I've never read but always wanted to. And the big discovery for me [partly thanks to my colleague and friend Valerie Vogrin recommending him] has been the work of Kevin Brockmeier: the author of "The Brief History of the Dead," which I've mentioned here before, but also of the luminous short story collection which I am now reading with my students, "Things that Fall From the Sky." I would love to know what ALK and Karl think about Brockmeier, although having met ALK and discussed her fave writers with her, I just have this hunch she might say "blech," but who knows [I, by the way, share many of ALK's faves, but I also know enough, I think, about these faves--writers like A.S. Byatt, Andrea Barrett, Kazuo Ishiguro--to have a kind of hunch that ALK might think Brockmeier is a bit too, for lack of a better term, "sappy." I could be wrong. But while I was flying from Myrtle Beach to Saint Louis tonight [well, I'm still, in point of fact, in transit], I read his beautiful story "The Passenger" about a group of people who have lived their entire lives aboard a plane that has never touched ground and never will and on board which there are endless rounds of ginger ale and peanuts and long lines for the bathroom and whenever a child is born, the contents of the suitcase that suddenly appears in the overhead bin determines what they will be when they grow up [meteorologist? chemist? writer?]. The narrator himself was born on the plane. Here is one of my favorite bits:

"Dawn is rising, and the world is breaking open like a shell. We smell the coffee brewing like oil, like a fiesta, in the first-class cabin. We stir from sleep. The green panes of the the televisions break into light, their screens lamping over the seats as our dreams go glimmering away. Beneath me, the tips of drifting clouds open brilliantly. They look, the clouds, like some soaring firmament of architecture--solid and compact, unyielding. If I jumped from here, they would break my fall. I would brush myself off and salute this place as it roared away. I would drink deep breaths and drift through space. I would walk the cloud footpaths, swing wide the gates, and climb the cloud stairs to my bed in the castle. Sometimes I find myself thinking that I'm going somewhere, that all of this motion is indeed a motion toward, that into the trail we leave behind us, wrapping this world like a net, will fall our destination."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Reading at the table, Karl? Strictly forbidden in the Cohen house, except at breakfast. All four of us WANT to do it, and would ... but we figure there ought to be some times when we are pretending to be a normal family. Maybe that's the retro part of us: we always eat at the table, and we always dine with no TV or other media (other than music).

Eileen, I love that Brockmeier quotation -- definitely want to read his work now.

IndieFaith: I get the feeling Grapes was wasted on me because I read it when I was too young. Time to revisit.

And Liza ... you brainiac! Read some literature, would you?! My suggestion: Phillip Reeve's Mortal Engines, which I have just swiped from Alex. From the book jacket:

London is hunting The great Traction City lumbers after a small town, eager to strip its prey of all assets and move on. Resources on the Great Hunting Ground that once was Europe are so limited that mobile cities must consume one another to survive, a practice known as Municipal Darwinism. Tom, an apprentice in the Guild of Historians, saves his hero, Head Historian Thaddeus Valentine, from a murder attempt by the mysterious Hester Shaw -- only to find himself thrown from the city and stranded with Hester in the Out Country. As they struggle to follow the tracks of the city, the sinister plans of London's leaders begin to unfold ...

I bought it in Dublin several years ago and it looks really great. And it ahs machines. And devices. And the apocalypse. It's a Liza book.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: "Mortal Engines" sounds great. An idea I have for an upcoming course would be on post-apocalytpic literature and that sounds like it would be a fun option. Those kinds of books are actually a favorite genre of mine [I just ordered Jeanette Winterson's "The Stone Gods," which is one such novel as well].

Karl: I forgot to mention in my previous comment that a book you will want to pre-order, if you haven't done so already, is the following:

Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Ian Hacking, and Cary Wolfe, "Philosophy and Animal Life" (Columbia University Press, June 2008)

Here is the blurb:

--This groundbreaking collection offers a new way of thinking about animal rights, our obligation to animals, and the nature of philosophy itself. Cora Diamond begins with "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy," in which she accuses analytical philosophy of evading, or deflecting, the responsibility of humans toward nonhuman animals. Diamond then explores how the animal question is bound up with the more general problem of philosophical skepticism. Focusing specifically on J. M. Coetzee's book "The Lives of Animals," she considers the failure of language to capture the vulnerability of humans and animals.

Stanley Cavell responds to Diamond's argument with his own close reading of Coetzee's work, connecting the human-animal relation to further themes of morality and philosophy. John McDowell follows with a critique of both Diamond and Cavell, and Ian Hacking explains why Cora Diamond's essay is so deeply perturbing and, paradoxically for a philosopher, favors poetry over philosophy as a way of overcoming some of her difficulties. Cary Wolfe's introduction situates these arguments within the broader context of contemporary continental philosophy and theory, particularly Derrida's work on deconstruction and the question of the animal. Readers interested in animal rights, ethics, and the development of philosophical inquiry will greatly value this book, but it is also essential for critics interested in the role of ethics in Coetzee's fiction.--

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: and one other thing--I can't remember if I already sent this to you [brain lapse?], but Cary Wolfe shared with me a pre-pub. copy of his Introduction to the "Animal Life and Philosophy" book, so if you want a copy of that, just let me know.

Karl Steel said...

Yes please! That just about fills up my summer reading dance card.

Liza Blake said...

Hey now, all that stuff at the end is literature! And Delanda reads like a good novel, kinda (though not in the way Aramis does). Nevertheless, Barnes and Nobles is currently winging a copy of Mortal Engines my way, so we can, mayhap, talk about it later this month!

I was just asked how to go about historicizing pleasure -- any ideas? I'm thinking historical phenomenology might be one way into the question?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Pleasure is unhistorical (in the way that Gil Harris talks about the untimely). Or so says Kathy Biddick. Actually, I don't have any idea on how to historicize pleasure per se ... specific pleasures, yes, but pleasure itself, well, isn't that too vast/vague to possess a particular history?

RE: your reading, all I can say is: spoken like a true theory addict! We are staging an intervention! You will be locked in a room surrounded by Danielle Steel novels (which must be good, since she is Karl's older sister).

Karl Steel said...

You know I'm going to start finding Cohens where you don't want them.

A materialist history of pleasure might simply--haha--track what delights: serving boys to animal dismemberment, and so forth.