THR Web Features   /   July 23, 2015

What We're Reading This Summer

Joseph E. Davis, Johann N. Neem, Jeffrey Guhin, Jay Tolson, B.D. McClay, Leann Davis Alspaugh, Joseph Kreiter, and James Rathjen

( Reading by Sally Rosenbaum; flickr.)

Hedgehogs have scattered far and wide for the summer—but we're determined to get through that stack of books. Here are some of the things we're reading. What about you?

Joseph Davis (Publisher, The Hedgehog Review)

My twenty-year effort to become a wine snob has been a failure, but I have learned one thing. The size and shape of the glass you use to drink the wine matters. An old friend, John Weiser, first surprised me with this idea, and sure enough, even I could taste the difference. Apparently this is a chemical thing having to do with how the aroma and the liquid reach your senses. I thought of this recently as I was rereading John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, the tragicomic story of one Ignatius J. Reilly—a failure to launch 30-year-old with, once you warm to him, a delightfully “medieval” (his word) way of seeing modern life—and his wacky encounters in the New Orleans of the early 1960s. I first read this best seller and Pulitzer Prize winner in a mass market paperback version. Recently, the local library sold me (for $1) a first edition of the hardcover, published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980. Now it has been a few years, but somehow the hardcover, despite the same words as the paperback, reads—I almost want to say “tastes”—better. What to make of this odd sensation? Perhaps it is the tactile difference, a point often made about the disparity between paper and screen reading. The hardcover, of course, feels, smells, and handles differently from the paperback. Or maybe there is a placebo effect at work—I expect more from a first edition, feeling closer to the author. Probably, though, this marvelously absurd book is simply working its magic on me, now as befuddled as the loopy characters Toole brings to life.

Jay Tolson (Editor, The Hedgehog Review)

follow Jay on Twitter: @jaytolson1

When summer arrives, and thoughts turn toward the pleasures of life, my novel-seeking mind always goes sniffing for something by Anne Tyler. Happily, this summer A Spool of Blue Thread lay waiting. It did not disappoint. Tyler’s work never does. My deep attachment to Tyler goes even beyond the pleasures of her texts. In fact, I don’t know whether I love Baltimore so much because I love Anne Tyler, or that I love Anne Tyler so much because I love Baltimore, although I suspect it’s much of both: a mutually reinforced love. Tyler’s imaginative ownership of Baltimore is so complete that I can’t visit its neighborhoods (Hampden or Roland Park, for example) or its stores (Eddie's Grocery, for one) without thinking of her—or, more exactly, of the wonderful Tyler characters, all existing as such odd angles to each other and to the world, who have inhabited and shopped in those very same places. Perhaps it was because I lived so long in the unreal metroplex of Washington, DC, with its single-industry obsessions, that I came to need Baltimore and Tyler. Both, or both combined, were powerful antidotes to the abstractedness that comes with living in that feverishly political place, Baltimore being, among other things, a palpably real city where many kinds of people work at many kinds of jobs, where classes, ethnic groups, and races mingle, not ideally, to be sure, but at least vividly. Tyler’s complex and subtle family dramas are usually rooted in this one dear, perpetual place, to borrow Yeats’s adjectives. And when I read Tyler, I always feel that I'm in that place as well.

Johann Neem (IASC Visiting Faculty Fellow)

follow Johann on Twitter: @JohannNeem

Why read fiction? Azar Nafisi, who read and taught novels to college students in Iran as moral oppression and fire squads terrorized her birthplace (described in her 2003 bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran), expresses just how vital fiction is to a democratic society in her recent book The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. Literature, riveting, complex and at times upsetting, is far from “aspirin for the soul,” and “sugarcoated stories with happy endings,” says Nafisi but rather a way to face trauma and see national character. Layering memoir and polemic with close readings of American hallmarks—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewisand The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersamong others—Nafisi reminds America of its connection to and need for humanities and book culture.

Leann Davis Alspaugh (Managing Editor, The Hedgehog Review)

In his essay “On the Value of Not Knowing Everything” from our summer issue, James McWilliams muses on the merits of wonder in an age that prizes rationalism: “Wonder might be integral to the humanistic worldview, but as a state of mind, it’s on the ropes.” This idea kept recurring as I read Somerset Maugham’s 1908 novel The Magician in which a surgeon and his betrothed have their lives ruined by an English necromancer. Arthur Burdon, the author’s alter ego, is a committed empiricist and talented surgeon, engaged to the beautiful Margaret, an aspiring artist. In Paris, they meet the sinister Oliver Haddo, a thinly-veiled portrait of English occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), and become entangled in a fatal revenge plot.

In the “Fragment of an Autobiography” that precedes modern editions of the novel, Maugham describes his style in retrospect as “lush and turgid” and burdened with too many adjectives and adverbs. Indeed, the novel begins ponderously and at times has the cloying air of aestheticism, but Maugham soon finds the equilibrium and facility that characterizes him at his best. It might seem hackneyed to pit a magician against a physician, but this kind of elemental conflict—intuition working alongside training, superstition in the face of education, and the extraordinary amid the quotidian—is what Maugham encountered daily in the medical profession. Although he didn’t practice medicine for long once he learned that he could make a living as a writer, Maugham translated much that is complex and inexplicable in human nature and illness to impressive effect in his fiction.

In this novel, Burdon tries to dismiss Haddo as a scoundrel and a charlatan, but gradually the surgeon recognizes that his own methods are inadequate to explain Margaret’s fascination for Haddo. “If my eyes show me what all my training assures me is impossible,” Burdon reluctantly admits, “I can only conclude that my eyes deceive me.” This leads him into dangerous territory toward exactly the kind of actions that would have delighted Crowley and the Thelemites, but excited the condemnation of Descartes and Bacon. Forced to face a side of his character that he thought buried beneath civilization and science, Burdon beats Haddo only by embracing the dark arts in order to recover something he had lost: “I began to remember vague, mysterious things, which I never knew had been part of my knowledge.” What Burdon has recovered is his capacity for wonder—something often unaccounted for in the modern empirical age.

B.D. McClay (Associate Editor, The Hedgehog Review)

I bought Renata Adler’s After the Tall Timber collection when it came out, but have had no time to read it until now. I like Adler’s two novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, and I admire the relentlessness of her prose style. Speedboat, which is really a novelized essay, was enough to overcome my general lack of enthusiasm for essay anthologies. Here’s an example:

It was hard to remember yesterday’s polemic, to determine whether today’s rebuttal was, in fact, an answer to it. Refuting arguments in order genuinely to refute them was an unrewarding exercise. A lot of bread, anyway, was buttered on the side of no distinction. God was not dead, but the Muse was extremely unwell.

(“Crazy admirable avoidance of the split infinitive,” said someone I know after reading this passage.) After the Tall Timber also contains Adler’s famous piece on the writing of Pauline Kael (“piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless”), which is by itself probably worth the purchase. Whether the rest will hold up remains to be seen, but I am hopeful. My other plan, inspired by this, is to spend my vacation reading all 1,248 pages of this Nancy Mitford collection.

(Editor’s note: BDM’s vacation is over, and she failed to read any of these things.

Jeff Guhin (IASC Postdoctoral Abd el-Kader Fellow)

follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffguhin

Havoc, in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennet is a brilliant novel about radical Protestantism and the plight of the remaining Papists in early modern England. The novel is timely in its damning counterpoint to Wolf Hall’s noble English Protestants, as well as, you know, ISIS. Bennet’s use of archaic language makes the book more immersive than most historical fiction, leaving the reader thinking about Romanists. Another wonderful book about religious fundamentalism is the hilarious and sad Book of Dave by Will Self, a 9/11 novel about a dystopia 1,000 years from now in which the dominant religion comes from the bitter, racist musings of a London cabbie named Dave (there’s ornate language here too: even a glossary of Dave-inspired words, like “fare” for soul).

I recently went on a haunted house kick, reading Stephen King’s The Shining, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. They’re all great, although Jackson’s is the first and best. The Martian by Andy Weir is a nerd’s dream: potentially life-ending problems solved with science!  I’ve always loved Ron Hansen’s work, and I finally picked up his debut collection, NebraskaI went to high school in Omaha, and the stories join the works of Alexander Payne and Willa Cather in finding something beautiful in a state that is often sublime and banal at once. Next on my list are Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (I’m a sucker for academic comedies), The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (I’m really going to finish it this time) and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In my remaining space, I could talk about the great non-fiction I’ve read, but I’ll instead insist that everyone read John Crowley’s Little, Bigone of the great American novels, period, which just happens to be about a family and some fairies.

James Rathjen, summer intern, The Hedgehog Review

follow James on Twitter: @rarthen

Generally considered the finest of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels, The Heart of Midlothian refers to Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth prison, a structure demolished around the time of the novel's publication in 1818, but one that lives on in a fictional setting. The novel begins with an actual historical event, the Porteous Riots, that unfolds in the shadow of the Old Tolbooth on a night in September 1736. While these events form at best a tenuous connection to the story, they enable Scott to have his own characters interact with historical figures, a hallmark of the historical novel genre which the author is credited as inventing.

Scott’s protagonist is Jeanie Deans, a young woman from a farm just outside the city of Edinburgh. Jeanie and her sister Effie have grown up with their father David’s strict religious convictions; while the sisters have moderated their views, the older Deans is a longstanding member of a radical Presbyterian sect known as the Cameronians. In the 55 years before the novel’s time period, the Cameronians have sworn off any allegiance to the monarch and therefore participation in any aspects of government; even the most basic processes such as court trials clash with David’s beliefs.

However, when Effie is put on trial for having a child out of wedlock and for its subsequent disappearance, the ordeal tests many aspects of the Deans’ beliefs. During the trial, Jeanie discovers how her religion's view of justice and morality forces her to provide the very testimony that convicts her sister. Both Jeanie and David, the latter of whom is portrayed as obstinate by Scott for at first refusing to attend the trial, come to realize that family ties should trump the unfeeling tenets of their religion.

Joseph Kreiter, summer intern, The Hedgehog Review

Cormac McCarthy may be one of the most surprising authors writing today. Known for critically acclaimed novels like Blood MeridianAll the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men (and their movie adaptations), McCarthy has been catching readers off guard since the 1960s. The Road, McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 2006, is set against a backdrop of the apocalypse but defies conventions of the “post-apocalyptic fiction” genre. Replete with grit, struggle, and emotional turmoil, The Road eschews sci-fi themes and images, declining to explain the nature of the catastrophe and focusing instead on those left to suffer its aftermath. The book is deceptively simple: few characters, widely-spaced events, and a setting as sparse and desolate as any McCarthy has ever imagined. Nonetheless, the novel is a compelling read, examining themes of the psychology of loss, grief, and isolation as they challenge fundamental questions about life and human nature. The Road is a novel of unsolved mysteries and faded memories, of gruesome imagery and heartbreaking dialogue, but one which provides profound insight into the human condition. McCarthy’s characters—a survivalist and his young son—exist in conditions very different from our own, but their struggles and their fears seem hauntingly familiar. At its core, The Road is a story of human connection, human strength, and human weakness, which transcends genre and setting to deliver deep, if often opaque, observations about the faults of our species and our desperation to overcome them. Although by no means uplifting, McCarthy’s novel about a man and his son facing the end of the world leaves an impression that is as long-lasting as it is unexpected.