Anyone who has talked to me for more than, say, five minutes, probably knows the first book on this list: Moby-Dick. Why? Because it’s about everything! Love, grief, justice, power, gender, epistemology, language, disability, anger, belief, history, responsibility, humor, awe, identity, race—and that’s just the beginning. I’ll admit that I didn’t pick up this book by choice the first time (I had to read it in grad school), but now I pick it up regularly, and I really think you should, too. After Moby-Dick the choices get harder, but here are a few more books I read this summer that I think are worth your time and effort:
Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood: These two books are linked—two perspectives on a single set of events—and I read them side-by-side. These stories take us to a future riven by economic and genetic distinctions, and ask us to follow, and care about, the lives of characters living in different circumstances in that world. Global warming, genetic modification, the gap between the haves and have-nots, pandemic diseases, all these subjects (and more) are Atwood’s concern.
Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse: It tells the story of Toland Polk, growing up white and gay in a small southern town in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. The combination of image and text creates a compelling and profoundly human narrative about the intersections of the personal and political. Cruse’s book is a great example of the nearly unlimited potential of graphic narrative to address complex issues in more than black and white ways.
The Circus in Winter, by Cathy Day: Even if Cathy Day hadn’t just joined our English Department, I’d encourage you to read this wonderful collection of linked short stories. Set in the fictional town of Lima, Indiana (a stand-in for Peru, Indiana), these stories center around the Great Porter Circus, which makes its winter home in Lima. We see the lives of performers, clowns, animal trainers, and others linked to the circus by chance, desire, and heredity. At times funny, poignant, and heartbreaking, this collection is always humane and always fascinating.
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich: Too often American Indians are represented in American culture as artifacts of the past rather than as citizens of the present. One of Erdrich’s most important projects as a novelist has been to challenge that myth through her beautiful and unflinching depictions of present-day indigeneity. This book, set on an Ojibwe reservation and the nearby town of Pluto, North Dakota, reaches back to the past—the brutal murders of a white family near the reservation in 1911—but its attention is on the present as Erdrich’s signature style of multiple intersecting narratives and gorgeous detail fills in the whole story.