Monday, July 24, 2006

Books of summer

In the scheme of things, not much is going on. I’ve been diligently working at my research, and actually getting things done. In addition to the work of summer, however, I’ve been relaxing a little more than usual, and reading a reasonable amount. When medical school is at its craziest, I rarely have time to read for more than about 2 minutes before I fall into a zombie-like sleep. As such, this summer has been a wonderful reminder of all that is fantastic in the literary world. A disclaimer: I am a literary critic, but by no means a professional one… That being said, here’s my list, and some thoughts about it:

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

Truth be told I actually started reading this long before the summer started. But I didn’t have time to finish it until the summer really got started. Additionally, there’s something I should mention early in this post: I was a Spanish major in college and continue to love most things Latin-American (food, literature, dance, etc.). I definitely miss the freedom my undergrad education offered, and the literature courses I took. While I’ve found reading literature in Spanish a little too time consuming for my limited school year time, and my brain hasn’t been ready to work that hard this summer, I anticipate that as this list grows it may include some Spanish-language gems I’ve been just waiting to read… But I digress – I enjoyed Caramelo because it was a mystery, although not in the typical sense, but rather in the family sense. It had a host of both likable and horrible characters that I loved. Additionally, I feel somewhat at home with Mexican literary characters and settings, and enjoyed the chance to relive some study abroad experiences.

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

I’d never read anything by Julia Alvarez before, but Larry (Spanish professor extraordinaire) had recommended her books (and assigned her work in some of his classes that I didn’t take). This one was about a Dominican family, which I particularly enjoyed after traveling there over Spring Break. Although the narration took some getting used to (the story switches between sisters), I enjoyed it.

I, Carmelita Tropicana by Alina Troyano

Carmelita Tropicana may be my favorite performance artist of all time. Actually, I’m sure she is; she’s amazing. Before I break out in completely reverential tones, let me explain: Carmelita Tropicana is the alter ego of Alina Troyano and Carmelita is one of the most fantastic, fabulous and dare I say campy, Latina lesbians the world has ever seen. I highly recommend the movie on which she and her sister collaborated, “Your Kunst is your Waffen.” It’s amazing, and this book, which is a collection of her performance pieces, is also fantastic. I rarely laugh out loud when I’m reading and subject Alicia to a reading aloud of a particular passage, but I just had to share parts of this book.

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks

This book wholly appeals to the nerdy scientist inside (or on the outside too) in all of us. While recalling his memoirs, Oliver Sacks also recounts bits, pieces and sometimes very large parts, of the history of chemistry. This makes for an engaging read during the course of which I felt like I learned a great deal. I’m looking forward to reading more of Sack’s work.

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

This one is take on the Haitian experience, and I preferred it to How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (a story from the other half of the island). This narrative seemed much more personal, and went deeper emotionally. Although parts of this book were hard to read, and the book in its entirety deals with difficult issues, it is, to quote the summary on the back of the book (which I generally dislike, but am content to use here), a “passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence, in a novel that bears witness to the traditions, suffering, and wisdom” of this family. While the back of the book finishes “of an entire people” I think that the story is more personal than that. While it provides insight into some aspects of life in Haiti, it is a distinctly individual story heavily influenced by a cultural and national experience.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

On loan from a friend, this was a quick and delightful read. (This is a notable achievement given much of the subject matter.) Written and drawn by Alison Bechdel of “Dykes to Watch Out For” fame (well, fame within certain communities), the book (or maybe graphic novel? I think she calls it a “tragicomic.”) is autobiographical. I’m always impressed when an author (this would extend to the above novel by Oliver Sacks) is able to present memoirs or an autobiography without taking themselves too seriously, and even with some humor. Alison Bechdel definitely accomplishes this, and I had a great time reading the book.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Alicia recommended this one, with the caveat that she didn’t think I’d like it. She was wrong. But I can’t blame her for being unsure. Again, I found parts of the book hard to read, and sometimes disturbing, I couldn’t help but find the protagonist (Charlie) endearing, even when I was frustrated by him.

Right now I’m reading another book that I can’t mention yet, because I really don’t like it and I feel bad saying things like that about a book I haven’t finished. I’m usually pretty good and choosing books that I’ll at least enjoy getting through, even if I don’t love them, but I didn’t do a great job this time. Alicia is reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, an UM MFA graduate and winner of the Hopwood Award (a prestigious UM writing award). Apparently (according to my sister), my mom is also reading it. Both have given it rave reviews and I’m hoping to snag it before it makes its way back to the library.

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