Today marks the first day of fall classes at my university, which inevitably means I will soon be overwhelmed by the extensive reading list that accompanies upper level English courses. I literally have thirty-five required books for the semester. Thirty-five. But don’t get me wrong, I’m exceptionally excited for my classes this semester. I’m taking British Literature from 1900-1945, Narrative Theory, American Detective Fiction, Chapbook Publishing, and The Illustrated Narrative. With lots of required reading in my future, I thought I would take this time to talk about some of my favorite reads from the summer.
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This book is probably one of my favorite things I read this summer. It takes place in the aftermath of an epidemic that wipes out most of the world’s population and forces society to revert to a more primitive style of living. The story follows a traveling Shakespearean acting troupe that has an unfortunate run-in with a misguided religious fanatic. What originally drew me to this book was the Shakespearean acting troupe, but what kept me drawn into the novel was the style of narrative. The narration is nonlinear and told from multiple perspectives, which forces the reader into a role of constructing the plot.
- The Dinner by Herman Koch. The Dinner is another novel whose narration really captured me. This book was on a list of recommended reads for my narrative theory class. Again, the plot is nonlinear and told largely through flashbacks. The present in the novel takes place at a restaurant, and what I found really interesting about the text is that its progression corresponds with the courses of the meal. In other words, instead of being divided into parts or books, the text is divided up by course. The plot follows two families and a conversation they are having over dinner about their children. Like Station Eleven, the nontraditional narrative style of The Dinner forces the reader to piece everything together and discover the tragedy that has occurred. The novel also has somewhat of a psychological aspect as well in its morally ambiguous characters and ominous undertones Koch evokes before the reader is even aware of the novel’s conflict.
- The First Forty-Nine Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway. About a year ago, one of my friends came across a collection of some of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories while she was browsing a used book store, and knowing how much I love Hemingway, picked it up for me. This summer, I finally got around to reading it. I really enjoy Hemingway’s writing style and how he can say so much in so few words. Also, though there are 49 short stories in this particular collection, they aren’t entirely separate entities. There are certain characters, places, and events that carry over into other stories. I tend to prefer short stories that feel like snapshots of fleeting moments that could have been taken from a larger work, which I believe Hemingway does extremely well, particularly in this collection.
- The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. I read this play for a class I took this summer called The Uncomfortable Shakespeare, which explored the aspects of Shakespeare’s plays which were perfectly acceptable in Early Modern society but that a modern audience finds to be troublesome. The Merchant of Venice contains primarily issues of race and religion. When analyzing the plays through the lens of the uncomfortable, one must question whether Shakespeare was drastically ahead of the thinking of his time or simply playing devil’s advocate. He humanizes the “othered” characters to a degree that was virtually nonexistent among his contemporaries. Check out the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, and you’ll see what I mean. Although the play is called The Merchant of Venice, I tend to sympathize most with Shylock, the outsider, the “undesirable.” Throughout the play, Shakespeare explores the concepts of justice and mercy and who is allowed to experience those things. The icing on the cake for me was being able to see this play performed in Stratford by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was performed in modern dress with a completely bare stage, except for a giant pendulum in the background. I could go on and on about the production, but I will suffice it to say that it was one of my favorite stage performances I’ve ever seen.
- A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen is known as the father of modern drama and a major founder of realism and Modernism in drama. In one of my classes last semester, we briefly discussed Ibsen and his impact on works written for the stage. Furthermore, one of my favorite novels makes several allusions to Ibsen, so I decided I should check him out. A Doll’s House is his most famous work, so that’s the one I went with. It explores gender roles and freedom in marriage. At the time, the ending was critiqued as scandalous and antithetical to what society believed at the time to be a woman’s disposition. Overall, it is an interesting commentary on femininity and masculinity, their relationship to one another, and the roles that accompany each one.
What did you read this summer?