Grown-Up Stories: Winter Break Book Recommendations

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Reviewing new books, fun as it is, can actually feel pretty limiting, since often the books I most want to press into everyone’s hands and rave about are not new at all. But I have finally found (invented, actually) an occasion (this article) to convince my editors to let me talk up whatever books I want to. I’ve found it disappointing how few Swarthmore students actually read for pleasure during the year, and so I hope at least a few of these recommendations are taken. In reading’s defense I can only repeat the tired but true point that there is just something deeply sustaining about spending hours alone with a great book. Your recommendations are welcome in the comments section below (after all, I, too, need good reading material).

Pnin, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, 1957

Our hero, the bumbling Timofey Pnin, came to the U.S. to flee communist Russia before the novel’s start — and he never really seems at home here. He leads a mishap-filled life as an untenured professor of Russian at a fictional college: he rents rooms, searching in vain for one quiet enough for his liking; he cannot quite speak English properly; he is forever comically dropping and/or losing things; he sends depressingly passionate love letters to an ex-wife who uses him.

Even more intriguingly, there is another, creepier force at work: it is our narrator, identified as “Vladimir Vladimirovich N——,” who seems suspiciously like the book’s author and takes disturbing pleasure in Pnin’s misfortunes. Of course, so do we, and what is so brilliant is how Nabokov makes Pnin a hostage of his own comic story, makes us start to suspect that the narrator/author is holding up poor Pnin just for our ridicule, not giving him a chance to make his real case. Nabokov is fantastically playful, but it is a serious playfulness: this is a book with weight.

It is also, naturally, very well written. Here we find Nabokov’s playful language, his clever locutions, his famously minute descriptions. This is one of my favorite sentences (it refers to Pnin’s many rented rooms): “The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembles those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.”

Camera Lucida
, a memoirish, essayish book about photography by Roland Barthes (translated by Richard Howard), 1980

This book, a personal essay written in the grammar of ideas, is thoroughly French, frequently moving, sometimes difficult, and always incisive. Barthes was a philosopher and theorist, arguably the father of the cultural studies and literary theory that have, since his death, conquered almost all of the academy’s most respected humanities departments. But whatever you think of those fields (I do not think very highly of them), Barthes is very much worth reading. He has a remarkable intelligence and is a better writer than his many imitators (they take his beloved complex sentences, suck the delicate life out of them, leaving only dreary, difficult jargon, which they generally use to hide a lack of real thought); he is also less political than they are, preferring careful analyses of form to self-righteous pronouncements, and endearingly playful and witty.

Barthes lived almost his entire life with his mother, Henrietta. He wrote this book just after her death, and at its heart is Barthes’s desire to remember her through a single photograph—he seems to want to bring her back to life. Camera Lucida’s ideas flow from and tell us about his grief; not all of them need to be taken literally, but some do stand the test of time and seem worth more consideration in our age of rampant digital photography. I’m thinking of one in particular: that every photograph tells us a little bit about death. A photograph’s message is “this has been” (and thus will never quite be again). Slightly obvious, perhaps, as Barthes himself admits, but provocative nonetheless. It may be that our photography obsession is little more than a desire for our lives to have the fixedness, the eternality of a photograph. Think of those who post hundreds, even thousands, of photos to Facebook: there is no way that is necessary or even useful, but it may be somehow soothing. It is a sort of manic activity that seems, in some small way, to banish death (for if all life could be photographed, could be made into the “has been,” there would be no uncertainty; death would have, in a sense, already happened).


Just After Sunset, stories by Stephen King, 2008

Those who dismiss Stephen King out of hand as unserious or untalented or just a “genre” writer speak out of ignorance or pretentiousness or some ugly combination of the two. Yes, King is an entertainer, but he also captures life’s passions and, far more interestingly, its banalities, as well as any other living writer I can think of. Judging from his memoir On Writing, he himself may not really grasp the difference between those two poles of his writing—entertainment and moral seriousness—and sometimes I wish for a bit less of the former (fewer spectacular car crashes or bomb explosions or appearances by dead people or what have you) and more of the latter: more of those everyday moments he renders so expertly and in such wonderfully informal language. Still, King is far better than so many “literary” novelists; there are many breathtaking moments in this collection. My favorite story here is the opening one, “Willa,” in which King manages to merge his interests: he uses the supernatural in service of depicting regular old life.


Rattlebone, stories by Maxine Clair, 1994

Our story: simply that Irene Wilson comes of age in a black neighborhood in Kansas City in the 1950s. Clair found the perfect form through which to tell it: interconnected stories. Aging is defined by moments, memories, and Clair surely knows this. She has created a series of vividly drawn moments that amount to so much more than the sum of their parts.

Time and place figure prominently (and not just to gloomily remind us of the evils of racism); they are the touchstones of a young life, and Clair nicely draws on the details of this world to make Irene real for us. I read this book for school in tenth grade, and never forgot the way a mentally disabled neighborhood boy loves to eat mayonnaise out of the jar with his hand, or that he is suddenly taken away to be treated in some sad, sterile institution, or the way Irene’s harsh teacher October Brown has a “mark” on her face that inspires an awe-filled fear, or Irene’s growth and optimism as she goes through school, experiments with sex, sees her parents separate, and tries to figure out what to do with her life. Her story is, on the whole, a happy one.


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a memoir by Dave Eggers, 2000

Dave Eggers has lately won a great deal of acclaim for his novel A Hologram for the King, which is unfortunate, since it is a sorry, humorless, desiccated affair—its dull protagonist putters around in the Saudi desert for hundreds of pages, possibly providing some sort of commentary on “the way we live now” but never coming alive in the ways novelistic characters must in order to keep us reading—and since Eggers, in this memoir, his first book, showed such talent and such a wonderful sense of humor. The tragic story is that both of Eggers’s parents died in the winter of 1991-92, and following their deaths Eggers and his sister Beth had to raise their young brother Toph. Of course, Eggers does not want us to laugh at this (indeed, there are many inescapably sad scenes); rather, he uses humor sympathetically: to write about the living, and to better see himself.

Much in the book is cleverly self-referential (the title, for example), and though there might be a bit too much of it, the self-consciousness, like the humor, is around for good reason: it tells the story of Eggers’s struggle to write the book and infuses it with a sort of manic energy. This energy works its way into Eggers’s descriptions of almost everything, and it is the most subtle and poignant part of the book, because it is the truest. It is the energy that hides fear, an energy that would like to banish stillness and declare that anything is possible—it is the energy of those Facebook photo uploaders, the energy that wants to ward off death.


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