What I read when I’m not… reading

| October 4, 2011

The Surrendered, and Into the Wild

To complete my degree in Library and Information Science, I am working on a Capstone, for which I need to do a lit review.  For this, I’ve been reading lots of articles, mainly on open access institutional repositories, and faculty contribution rates.  I’ve discovered that the more reading I do for my project, the more I want to read… anything else. And so I’ve developed a guilty pleasure habit–during my long commuting hours on the subway, time I could efficiently spend reading academic articles scoured from the Library Lit database–I read fiction!  Or I read page-turning, easy to consume narrative nonfiction.  If you, like me, feel an aching desire to spend your spare time not doing your work, here is a quick list of pleasure reading.

Chang-Rae Lee, The Surrendered.

How I read it: a paperback copy I bought from an independent bookstore

Where you can get it: At Barnard and Butler, call number PS3562.E3347 S87 2010)

I first discovered this writer through a piece of his in the New Yorker, in the Thanksgiving issue last year.  He wrote a short non-fiction piece about hurting his mother’s feelings by demanding traditional American foods, rather than the traditional Korean foods his mother works so hard to recreate.  The most piercing image in the piece is his description of dropping an egg into his mother’s shoe one morning in rebellion, which makes her cry.  He’s not an easy writer to quote, because his sentences span multiple thoughts; they’re layered and complicated, and quite beautiful.  An example, from the aftermath of the egg incident: “It’s a jarring, bizarrely artful mess; boxed in Lucite, it could be titled “Stepping Out, 4.,” or “Mother’s Day Fugue,” but of course she can’t see it that way because she’s hollering, her morning robe falling open because she’s shaking so violently, stamping her foot.” The next time I wandered into my neighborhood’s community bookstore, I saw Lee’s The Surrendered and bought a copy (but you should grab it from Butler or Barnard). His prose, again, is exquisite, though I have to offer the warning that it’s a war novel, and some of the scenes are upsetting. A woman is dying of cancer and needs to re-unite with her long-lost son, who she believes is traveling around Italy.  She teams up with the boy’s father (her son doesn’t know who his father is) and sets off to find him.  Most of the novel is told through flashbacks, where we learn the deep and intense histories of both the woman and her one-time lover.  (Full review in the NYTimes)

I loved the novel so much I next read his first novel, which is also wonderfully written though not at all violent: Native Speaker.  (Bulter and Barnard Libraries both have this book too, call number PS3562.E3347 N38 1995).

And I also just read:

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

Where I got it: I’ve had this book for years, and hadn’t read it.  I finally pulled it off my own bookshelf.

Where you can get it: from Butler, call number CT9971.M38 K73 2007)

Krakauer is famous for his book Under the Banner of Heaven, an expose of a double murder committed by brothers who adhere to a small sect of fundamentalist Mormonism (I mention this mainly because you can read the book online from Gottesman, here.)  You’ve probably also heard of Into the Wild because it was released as a major motion picture, with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam (and can you believe it’s been 20 years since they released Ten, because I can’t.)  The gist of the plot is this: a young man from a well-to-do family donates the contents of his bank account to OXFAM, burns his wallet, and hitchhikes around the country for two years, leaving no message with his family, before he embarks on a fatal journey into the wilds of Alaska.  The movie version is riveting, and steers closely to the original text, but one main difference between the two versions is that Krakauer delves into the psychology behind the boy’s decision-making and compares the boy’s ideology with that of other famous nature-seeking young men throughout history, most of whom died on their personal missions. Reading it, you can’t help but root for the boy, even though the outcome is predisposed. He registers as heroically self-possessed, and his convictions bring up worthy philosophical questions about authority, the concept of wilderness (which is for the most part off-limits to trespassers), modernity.  Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives (if not frequently) yearned to veer off-course?  But over and over he alienates those who love him, and in terms of his survival, he frequently shrugs off any suggestion of help as though it would cheapen his greater goal, which unravels the longer you interrogate it–where does the line lie between instinctive survival and a willful invitation to death?  The book is hard to put down.