One can’t be grim and correct all the time. Even former academics read novels and memoirs now and again. Here are some favorites.
Baldwin, Shauna Singh. What the Body Remembers. New York: Anchor, 1999. Print.
A story of the partition of India and Pakistan as viewed through the eyes of Roop, a second wife, this novel moves between a Sikh household and the larger landscape of the region. Starting in 1937, with ornate descriptions of Roop’s village and of Sardarji and his first wife, Satya, and of Roop’s role as the young second wife he brings into the home to bear him the son his first wife cannot, the conflict between the women and the turmoil outside the home reflect against each other in a series of images both mirroring and not. Baldwin’s writing voice is evocative and compelling; her tale, even more so. I have read this book several times, simply to take pleasure in the lovely turns of phrase and the vivid descriptions it contains.
Belozerskaya, Marina. The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006. Print.
The use of exotic animals to assert and maintain powerful identities has a long and storied history. In this meticulously researched and intriguing book, Belozerskaya traces the presence and signifying value of animals, starting in ancient Rome and concluding with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the Chinese pandas in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. This isn’t necessarily a heart-warming compendium of fuzzy animal stories but it is quite interesting.
Note: Mei Xiang’s baby, Bao Bao, is the star of some truly precious Smithsonian videos: http://www.smithsonianchannel.com/sc/web/series/1003507/wild-inside-the-national-zoo/3411775/bao-baos-first-year
Dewoskin, Rachel. Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes in a New China. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Print.
This memoir is, in a word, hysterical. Rachel Dewoskin moves to China after she graduates and somehow finds herself playing the role of the mistress (“disanzhe”) to a Chinese man in Beijing in a popular Chinese soap opera. Her miscommunications and descriptions of Chinese conversational and cultural habits are absolutely scream-worthy in their humorousness. Granted, she is somewhat of a whiner at times, and some of her complaints are a little tiresome, but overall this is quite funny and well written.
Note: it actually is possible to find youtube video clips of this soap opera (“Foreign Babes in Beijing”) online. They are cheesier than an assembly line at the Velveeta factory. Myself, I prefer the book. Nonetheless, it’s still pretty amusing to actually see the videos that inspired the memoir.
Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. New York: Mariner Books, 2006. Print.
This is not a “fun” book. It is pretty grim, in fact. But it’s an engrossing story, related by journalist Timothy Egan, of the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s in the United States during the Depression. It combines interviews and meticulous research and reveals a storyteller’s voice that resonates. Anyone with an interest in Texas, New Mexico, and Great Plains region history would find this book invaluable but no matter your interest, be sure to have a box of tissues nearby. This is a book that will make your eyes water.
Friedman, Edward H. The Labyrinth of Love: Inspired by El Laberinto de Amor by Miguel De Cervantes. Newark: Juan de la Cuesta, 2013. Print.
As its title indicates, this original work is inspired by a famous piece by the author of the beloved Spanish novel Don Quijote. Here, Friedman reconstructs the story of three young women who escape from their homes dressed as men. Determined to find independence and self-individuation, the ladies interact with male characters, they role-play, they indulge in meta-discourse, and most of all, they make us smile and self-identify with them. Friedman’s rendering of this well-known play is laugh-out-loud funny and beautifully done whether or not one is familiar with the work that provided its inspiration.
Kostova, Elizabeth. The Historian. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. Print.
This is a combination historical novel and vampire story. It tells the tale of a young woman who is drawn into a search not only for her father but also for the “truth” about her family’s past. The subtitle that appears on the frontispiece (The Historian: A Novel) is indicative of the text itself; multi-layered, and heavily metafictional, the narrative moves back and forth between the so-called “truth” (the historical elements) and the whims and vagaries of imagination, fantasy, and legend. This is a lengthy book and one that anyone who likes history and/or elaborate narrative techniques will love.
Mora, Gilles, ed. Edward Weston: Forms of Passion. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.
Edward Weston (1886-1958) was an American photographer whose work included nudes, landscapes, close-up, and still life renderings of familiar objects and groupings. He was born in Chicago but is most famous for the period of time he spent in Mexico, where artists such as Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco lauded his work. Besides Weston’s artistic gifts and his association with other influential figures of his time, the photographer is also remembered for his association and love affair with Tina Modotti, an artist in her own right her served as one of Weston’s muses. This book, with reproductions of over 300 of Weston’s photographs and essays by cultural critics and photographers, makes beautiful coffee table book and an essential reference on the body and its artistic value within not only its historical framework of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, but also in its timelessness.
Mueller, Tom. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2012. Print.
After reading this book one will never buy budget olive oil again. Mueller traces the history of olive oil and focuses on contemporary chicanery surrounding the olive oil industry. Adulterated oils, oils that poison unsuspecting consumers, the industry and its might on one side; honest, olive oil producers and those who love the product and its milieu on the other. Who will win? Fortunately, Mueller also lists online sources for worthy oil in case good supplies are not nearby.
Poniatowska, Elena. Tinísima. Trans. Katherine Silver. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1995. Print.
This gorgeous fictionalized biography of the life of Tina Modotti includes photographs and narrative prose so rich and evocative that the words themselves almost constitute a visual work of art. Modotti (1896-1942) was a political activist, an actress, one of artist Diego Rivera’s models, and, probably most famously, photographer Edward Weston’s lover and muse. She lived an incredible life during an incredible time period, and Silver’s excellent translation of Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska’s rendering of it is spectacular.