This week’s reading:
Born to Buy, Juliet Schor
Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
Greenwitch, Susan Cooper
The Grey King, Susan Cooper
Silver on the Tree, Susan Cooper
The Gunslinger, Stephen King
The Drawing of the Three, Stephen King
The Waste Lands, Stephen King
Wizard in Glass, Stephen King
Wolves of the Calla, Stephen King
Song of Susannah, Stephen King
The Dark Tower, Stephen King
The Storyteller’s Daughter, Cameron Dokey
Excellence Without a Soul, Harry R. Lewis
Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank
A Shortcut in Time, Charles Dickinson
The Best Military Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century, ed. Harry Turtledove with Martin H. Greenberg
Restless, William Boyd
Seven Japanese Tales, Junichiro Tanizaki
Lots of re-reading here! I unpacked about sixty boxes of books, setting aside things I particularly wanted to revisit, which is how I ended up rereading both the Cooper and the King series. The rest of the books are mostly new-to-me, and ranged from quite good to terrific. Even though it’s been just over two weeks since I’ve posted a reading list, I’ve had very good luck with choosing books. I do want to read more non-fiction, but fiction is just so delicious to me!
Actually, the two non-fiction books I read were both quite good, even though I had to read them with a bit of a skeptical eye. Juliet Schor’s an economist who writes about day-to-day economic decisions about work and consumption. This book was her take on advertising directed at kids, which is a topic that always makes me roll my eyes a bit. It’s hard to write about without being preachy, and Schor tends to the preachy at the best of times. (Actually, The Two-Income Trap which I read a few weeks ago had an excellent critique of her just-consume-less approach to economic policy. I think there are good reasons to work less and consume less, but I resent being told so by someone in such a hard-working, high-paying, prestigious position.) On the other hand, Schor does an excellent job of outlining the current situation of kids and marketing culture. Some of the individual chapters are a little eye-roll-inducing, but she brings together her argument at the end to conclude that marketing to kids has changed our entire culture of childhood, and that that’s a very problematic thing. It’s worth reading if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
The other non-fiction I read (wow, only two out of twenty!) was Harry Lewis’s Excellence Without a Soul. Now, I admit to being biased, since he was my college advisor, but I found the book to be a profound and thoughtful and highly critical look at higher education in this country. As someone planning an academic career, I’ve often asked myself what the purpose of higher education should be. While Lewis focuses on the undergraduate experience rather than on graduate students or on research, but I found his answers compelling. His idea of the purpose of undergraduate education is that it’s about forming character and teaching people to be full adults. What I really liked is that he admits that other answers are possible, but that he thinks the problem with higher education in America right now (particularly at elite universities) is that they don’t have any real agenda. Colleges face tough decisions around topics ranging from athletic scholarships to disciplinary measures to degree requirements, and if colleges don’t have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve in making decisions about these topics, then other stakeholders who have a clearer agenda will be the ones who get served by those choices.
Fictionally, there were a couple of stand-outs too. I’ll admit to being completely enamored with King’s Dark Tower series; it’s beautifully crafted, a heady and wholly American myth-making endeavor. While it falls down in places (parts of the last two books are a bit incoherent, as King tries desperately to keep his vast apparatus under control), it’s on the whole an impressive piece of storytelling. King’s world - a post-apocalyptic fantastic Western, a world which has “moved on” - is unbelievably compelling to me. I could read almost anything set in this universe and love it. But the story itself is really nicely done, too. It’s not quite horror, though parts of it are horrific. It’s ultimately a quest story, but one in which the questors must sacrifice more than they ever dreamed possible. King is fantastically good at forcing his characters to make painful choices, and you believe it when they suffer for their dreams.
The other real joy was Restless; I’d never heard of Boyd before, but now I’m going to grab everything he’s written and devour it. I couldn’t put this book down. It’s the story of an elderly widow in 1976 who must admit to her daughter that she was a spy for England during WWII, and the consequences for both of them of that revelation. It’s bitter and fruitful and devious and lovely, the story of one woman learning to fear and another learning to trust, and I would recommend it to just about any of you folks out there.
I also liked the Tanizaki stories, but that was hardly a surprise. I’d been hearing for years about how I should read him, and I finally got around to it. What I didn’t know was how haunting and eerie his stories would be: just for example, a music teacher forces her most brilliant pupil to blind himself as part of their highly twisted relationship.
Oh, and The Storyteller’s Daughter was a not-bad piece of Scheherazade fiction. The book itself was okay, but the title totally made me want to write something from the point of view of Scheherazade’s own children. That could be really cool.