What We’re Reading
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a helicopter mom not in possession of her emotions must be in want of a good book. So a couple of weeks ago as I visited my freshman daughter at Ole Miss, I stopped in at the storied establishment in downtown Oxford called Square Books, where I found a remedy for my forlorn heart: Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. This book is a compilation of lectures that Borges gave in 1966 when he was a professor of English and North American literature at the University of Buenos Aires. The lectures were subsequently recorded and transcribed for posterity. Readers get a sense not only of Borges’ scintillating intellect, but also his love of literature, his sense of humor, and his whimsy. Really, you might ask, how could a series of lectures on Anglo-Saxon epic and elegiac poetry, eighteenth century English biographical writing, and nineteenth century English criticism possibly ameliorate a mother’s happy loss of her daughter to university life? Well, it is also a truth universally acknowledged, that a helicopter mom not in possession of her emotions, must be in want of a good friend. As a full-time instructor here at The University of Alabama, teaching can at times be a lonely task, like parenting. Since I teach the same material in Borges’ lectures, I find great solace in his capacious and highly personalized lectures. Here is course content, but also rarified digressions. Here is analysis, but also sheer pleasure in the text. Here is literary historical context, but also modern correspondences. Essentially, here is a joyful voice in the classroom; here is great pedagogy. Blind at the time these lectures were presented, Borges affirmed that teaching was one of the few delights remaining to him. As he said, “I love teaching, especially because when I am teaching, I am learning.” As I have found myself transitioning from parent to professor, Borges has been a friend indeed.
Earlier this year writer Ben Marcus praised the work of British novelist Tom McCarthy on Facebook. Thus I thought I would give McCarthy a try and I read the novel Remainder. It is a modern fable told from the anonymous perspective of a man who has received several million pounds from a legal settlement after nearly dying from a vague accident. As the narrator slowly falls into a state of mental illness McCarthy satirizes how far a decadent culture will go towards fulfilling a wealthy person’s wishes no matter how eccentric they are. For example, an exorbitant amount of money is spent recreating the smell of fried liver in a lower apartment. As a writer, it is encouraging to see new fiction published that seems so “unmarketable” from a merchandising perspective.
I’m currently teaching two texts that complement each other. Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy is the story of her father’s trek from Somaliland, back and forth across the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea, and finally to the UK during the 1930s and 40s. Set against the backdrop of WWII, the narrative blurs the ground between biography, memoir and historical novel to produce a moving portrait of what it means to come of age as part of a diaspora. I’m teaching it for my class on diaspora and world literature, in which we have also read The Belly of the Atlantic by the Francophone writer of Senegalese origin, Fatou Dioume. This novel blurs the line between fiction and autobiography through the figure of the exile.
Sometimes reading for pleasure can be a tricky thing: a lot of academic books are not exactly “fun” to read, and when you do step outside and read something for fun, those books can often feel fluffy and pointless. The clear exception has to be “The Trouble with Post-Blackness,” edited by Houston Baker and Merinda Simmons. While Baker’s name is familiar to academics everywhere, Simmons is an emerging scholar in the field of critical theory–and one who just happens to have not one, but two UA connections: she is a former graduate of our program and an Associate Professor of Religious Studies. The collection has useful essays from a variety of scholars, but I appreciate the nuance and playfulness of Baker and Simmons’ introduction as they frame the discussion of “post blackness” and its problems beyond the scope of the academy. I cannot recommend this fine collection enough.
And since we are in the realm of Halloween, I am still working my way through “The Boy who Drew Monsters” by Keith Donohue–well, actually, I read it out loud to my partner on car trips. This horror novel is a finely crafted slow burn about a young boy’s obsession with monsters and the crisis of a family structure under attack from the inside. It’s one of the few horror novels I’ve read that’s managed to captivate me with its narrative arc and character-driven chapters. I am still not finished with it, partly because I don’t want it to end. If you like scary stuff, you might pick this up and enjoy the journey, too.