What are you reading?
That is a common question around the WHC office, and one that leads to fascinating conversation. We all have different tastes, which means we get a glimpse into other worlds by hearing what others are reading.
As is now tradition, we are sharing our Staff Summer Reading Picks. We would love to hear from you! What are you reading?
I just finished the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I love novels where the story is told by different characters, although in this one, there is an unreliable narrator which is used to “trick” the reader (as well as throw the detective off). This book was engaging because both of the lead characters were not persons for whom I felt empathy. In fact, I was wanting to see both of them get their just desserts because both of them were despicable people! Apparently, the author felt the same way, and delivered them to the most apt form of justice I could ever imagine.
It takes a lot of skill for an author to create abhorrent characters – and yet hook readers enough that they will stay with the book till the last page. I ended up carrying this one with me everywhere for about four days. I had to know what happened on the next page. My own life had to wait.
I am halfway through the the book Japanese Gestures: Modern Manifestations of a Classic Culture by Japanese scholar Michitaro Tada. This thought-provoking yet accessible and fun to read book is a compilation of a series of weekly articles that Michitaro Tada published in a newspaper column devoted to explaining the meaning of the gestures in Japanese culture. This book offer a popular approach to the anthropology of gestures and Japan’s cultural history without trivializing the most critical aspects of Japanese cultural Idiosyncrasies, or the intricate history of manners and social interactions in this very ancient culture. Michitaro Tada is also an expert in French literature. Because of this, many of his explanations draw from a comparative approach between Western and Eastern cultures. One fascinating example of the contrast between Western and Eastern mentality is Michitaro’s explanation about how most Japanese people perceive themselves and their fellow countrymen/women as all looking alike. He writes that most them feel comfortable with being compared to others, or even imitated. The high status and prestige given to imitation in Japan, Michitaro tells us, is part of this country’s long cultural tradition, and a striking differentiation from Western culture’s association of individualism with originality. As Michitaro suggests, in Japanese culture, notions of sameness and individualism are are complementary to each other rather than contradictory, Thus, the strikingly consistent and persistent use of a set of body gestures and facial expressions among Japanese people, many of them originating many centuries ago, if not millennia. You not need to be a Japanophile or a cultural anthropologist to enjoy this book. I highly recommend it.
If you are in the mood to read a perfect, classic novel – one that you can’t put down – then hurry to the library and treat yourself to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The characters are fascinating, utterly believable, and the sort that you won’t want to let go. The plot never stops, and the language is lovely in ways that made me glad I experienced Tess as an audio book read in perfect English accents. Some classics don’t hold up as well as we might hope. Tess is not one of them.
I’m a huge fan of Nick Butler. I got to know him years ago when he and I were both working at the same non-profit, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. I adored him as a person before I fell in love with his writing. His good heart comes through in the people and places of this collection of short stories, called Beneath the Bonfire. It is a wonderful read. Each of the ten stories introduces you to characters who feel familiar, like neighbors you’ve known in places you’ve lived. The collection is heartwarming, and a little heartbreaking, and will keep you up reading late into the summer night.
I’m halfway through two books that I’ve put off reading for too long. They represent a striking contrast in styles for books with a lot in common. I’m finally reading George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy, Game of Thrones, and finding it difficult to avoid spoilers as people talk about the television series, which I haven’t seen. The problem with wildly popular film versions of books is now I can’t imagine key character Tyrion without imagining actor Peter Dinklage’s mannerisms.
I’m also reading Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. While I’ve known the stories since childhood, I’d never actually read the original. Since I grew up on the Michael York version of D’Artagnan in the movies, I’m having a hard time not seeing him as I read. I’m enjoying the contrast between the two books, both dealing with matters of political intrigue in the royal courts, with the swashbuckling, dialog-driven Dumas tale serving as a good antidote to Martin’s darker ruminations on power. Next up will be Silver on the Road by a friend of mine, Laura Anne Gilman. It’s a heroic fantasy novel of a type I don’t typically read, but I expect to be pleasantly surprised.
I just finished a travel memoir that I really enjoyed written by a woman whom I’ve been following online for a while. Her name is Christine Gilbert and, like me, she has young children and loves to travel. She has a casual but determined attitude about life and tells great stories. Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish spans two years as she lives with her husband and first child (a toddler at the time) in China, Lebanon and Mexico. She knows that her goal to learn three languages from scratch is really ambitious, so she heads to Staples on her motorbike (in Thailand) for the necessary office supplies to map out her plan. How she manages to get the huge whiteboard she bought back to her hotel room gives readers insight into Gilbert’s indefatigable nature. Intermingled among her down-to-earth recounting of finding housing, interviewing tutors, and making mistakes, she shares facts about human language acquisition and the way our brains process language. The book was entertaining, but it has also given me new ideas about raising kids in a culturally complex world.
Leave a comment! We love to hear from you (and expand our bookshelves!).
You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for being part of the public humanities conversation in Wisconsin!