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Summer Reading Recommendations from the English Department 2021

Jo Carney

A book I read this year and would recommend…

You don’t need to be heavily invested in Shakespeare to appreciate these two excellent works: Maggie O’Farrell’s historical novel Hamnet and Keith Hamilton Cobb’s play American Moor. Both works—though in very different ways—provide correctives to some of the myths and prejudices perpetuated by centuries of Shakespearean bardolatry and historiography. Hamnet is about the death of Shakespeare’s only son at the age of eleven, possibly of the plague, and the deep grief suffered by his family; the novel also restores dignity to Anne Hathaway Shakespeare who has been unfairly characterized as an unwanted impediment to her husband’s creative genius. American Moor uses the premise of an actor auditioning for the role of Othello to explore the experiences of black men in America; it is a powerful call to examine how we think about each other and about our relationship to Shakespeare.

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

Two novels I’m looking forward to reading: Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were is about the environmental and social damage an American oil company brings to an unnamed African village—and how a hopeful younger generation finds ways to resist. The novel has been described as an “inspirational fable” and “a David and Goliath story for our times.” Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has been called “speculative cli-fi” and “dystopian eco-lit.” Maybe you’re thinking “been there, done that” but the reviews suggest that this promises something new and worthwhile—and always, sadly relevant.

 

Glenn Steinberg

A book I read this year and would recommend…

You would think that during a pandemic I would have had lots of time to read, but I’m further behind on reading than I think I’ve ever been before in my life. I don’t really have much to report in terms of books that I’ve read this year. I finally did at least finished one book that I had been reading for quite a while. It’s “The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest,” by Rick Darke. It’s a great book for garden design ideas if you have a lot of shade in your garden. It also has descriptions of wonderful native plants of the Northeast for shady spots. In addition, I’ve also been rereading various books of the Bible with a TCNJ faculty/staff Bible study. We’ve read the Gospel of John and the book of Wisdom, among other books. If you’re interested in joining us, send me an email (gsteinbe@tcnj.edu). Finally, it isn’t reading, but part of the reason that I’m so behind on reading is that I’ve been spending a lot of time watching Korean and Chinese TV shows on Netflix and Viki. I like listening to (and picking up) phrases from the Korean and Chinese languages (aigoo and hao le hao le, for example), and the cultural differences are fascinating. If you’d like some recommendations on shows to watch, I can give a lot of them (a sign of just how much I’ve been watching East Asian TV lately). I’d say start with something like “Abyss” (scifi mystery/thriller) or “Stranger” (procedural mystery/thriller). If you like campy horror, try “Sweet Home.” If you like action, try “The K2” or “Vagabond.” If you like feel-good, slice-of-life stories, try “Reply 1994,” “Love 020,” “Hospital Playlist,” or “Cheese in the Trap.” If you like quirky scifi/fantasy, try “Mystic Pop-up Bar” or “Uncanny Counter.” “Cheese in the Trap” is one of my very favorite Korean shows (about college students and relationships). Another personal favorite is the Chinese fantasy/martial arts series “The Untamed.” All these titles are available in Netflix.

 

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

Since I have read so little over most of the last year, I have an ambitious reading list for this summer. I’m planning to read “Four Hundred Souls,” edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. On the recommendation of many of my students and former students, I plan to read The Broken Earth trilogy of fantasy fiction novels by N. K. Jemisin. I also plan to read the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. In addition, I’ve heard about an interesting North Korean novel (“Friend” by Paek Nam-Nyong) that I’d like to read. I’m also looking to read the murder mystery “The Honjin Murders” by Seishi Yokomizo. As I said, I have an ambitious reading list this summer.

 

Felicia Steele

A book I read this year and would recommend…

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi: dream-like allegory with sentences that burst at the seams with beauty and magic. For non-fiction, I recommend isabel Wilkerson’s, Caste. It lays out a case for the usefulness of that term in understanding race in the US.

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: an Asian American Reckoning and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

 

David Blake

A book I read this year and would recommend…

The most exigent book I read this year was Ayad Akhtar’s novel Homeland Elegies. A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Akhtar has long been regarded as one of the most important chroniclers of Muslim American life. In Homeland Elegies, he adapts the genre of the personal essay to tell the wide-ranging story of his family’s life in the wake of 9/11, a life that gets more complicated when his father becomes an ardent supporter of Donald Trump. Akhtar never indicates what is fact and fiction, which gives his narrative a haunting, unreal quality. Another excellent read was Edward Schwarzschild’s In Security, a novel about a TSA agent struggling to raise his son as a single dad and interpret the many threats around him.

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

Sui Sin Far’s 1912 work, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, was the first book published in the United States about Chinese immigrants. Set in early 20th-century Chinatown, these interlinked short stories have just been published in a Penguin Modern Library edition. Annette Gordon-Reed is one the United States’ premier historians. Her new book, On Juneteenth, mixes memoir with history in a discussion of the history of slavery in her home state of Texas. I learned about this book from an excerpt published in The Atlantic about one of the first documented slaves in North America, a man named Estebanico brought by the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca in the 1520s.

 

Mindi McMann

A book I read this year and would recommend…

Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, Whereabouts, is a series of vignettes that follows a nameless narrator as she contemplates being alone. Of how that can be lonely, but isn’t always. And how we are always part of a community, even in our solitude. I’d also highly recommend Zoe Wicombe’s Still Life, which runs a fictionalized revisionist history of Thomas Pringle and Mary Prince to interrogate questions of authorship and legacies of racism and imperialism.

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

After several people I deeply respect recommended it, I’ll be reading Doireanne Ni Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. It similarly plays across time and space to examine women’s voices in Irish prose and poetry.

 

Jean Graham

A book I read this year and would recommend…

Christina Dalcher’s Vox, a feminist dystopia

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

  1. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, the first in a new series by the author of the Broken Earth series

 

Michael Robertson

A book I read this year and would recommend…

Climate change dystopias have become a popular genre in recent years. Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible may be the greatest one yet. You might want to brush up your Sunday School/Hebrew School lessons in advance—the novel is a short, powerful, magical mash-up of the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Lord of the Flies.

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

Recently I lived for a year on a block of handsome, white-stuccoed buildings in London. Across the street, an identical row of Edwardian buildings was interrupted in the middle by three ugly 1960s brick townhouses. What had happened? Any Londoner could tell you the answer: the block had been bombed during the Blitz. In Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford (author of the wildly entertaining novel Golden Hill) takes off from an actual event—the 1944 bombing of a Woolworth’s store in London—and imagines what life might have been like, had they survived, for the five children killed that day.

 

Lincoln Konkle

A book I read this year and would recommend…

“So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo. This was a very quick and easy read (in other words, it’s light on theory, heavy on personal anecdote, and the prose style was more personal than abstract).

 

A book I’ll be reading over the summer…

Of interest to fellow “Star Wars” geeks, “The Empire Strikes Back” volume of the “From a Certain Point of View,” series. This, like the others in the series, is an anthology of short stories based upon the plot but with various scenes told from a minor or invented character’s perspective. The volume based on “A New Hope” I have assigned 13 stories from in my “Star Wars” FSP the past couple of years. Another book I plan to read this summer is “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell (now out in paperback). It’s about the death of Shakespeare’s only son, which obviously had some influence on one of his greatest plays.

 

Kristen Luettchau

A book I read this year and would recommend…
 
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith – This book makes every reader grapple with the hidden history of the United States and helps us disrupt the narrative of what we may have been taught in the past, while forcing us to face our own privileges and experiences. If you are a fan of Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, please add this one to your to-read list!
 
A book I’ll be reading over the summer… 
 
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay – I already started it and haven’t been able to put it down. One of the best YA books I’ve read this past year and a National Book Award Finalist, this story follows Jay, a teenage boy who decides to return to the Philippines after his cousin is gunned down during the war on drugs. 
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