Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.

 

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Creation

The horror of birth is oft lost in the profundity of creation.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein graphically explores the tension between the creator and creation or the parent and the child.  Equally famous is the birth of that novel:  a child-centric summer in Switzerland.  Byron fights to see his daughter while impregnating Shelley’s sister; Mary and Percy care for their second child, prepare for the birth of the third, and silently mourn the death of their firstborn; Percy defends a local nanny accused of murdering a child.  The melodrama of these Hideous Progeny was enacted by the Livewire Chicago Theatre company.

Mary creates her monster in an act of catharsis.  The play hints at that act but is content to focus on the raw emotions among the vibrant characters.  The actors do a fine job of balancing the outlandish behaviors with small scenes hinting at the pain hidden by those facades.  The flippant word games and sexual intrigues distract from the talent and intellect of the true life counterparts, but are easier to display.

Returning to the monstrous catharsis, the play provides a context for the novel’s readers and generates the core question:  who is the monster?  The dead firstborn child?  The petty traumas inflicted by the residents in that Swiss summer home?  The difficulties of artistic creation?  The risk of childbirth in that age?  The plight of intellectual woman in that era?  The burden of surviving as a child when your mother died in childbirth?

Mary Shelley was a surviving child and the mother of a dead child and of living children.  She eventually married an artist and was one herself.  She understood biological and intellectual creation.  Her articulate, human, and rage-filled monster symbolized complete creation and the struggle between parent and child or prey and predator.

The dance between prey and predator is displayed in shadow, puppet, and human animal form in Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, at the Cadillac Palace.  Her minimal use of dialogue and music provides a skeleton for the story.  The battles among animals are the bulk of the stage time.  Taymor’s shadows, puppets, and human animals continually stalk, restlessly prowling the stage.  There is no death; there is no creation; there is no angst; there is only the circle of life.  All beings participate.

Taymor’s interpretation of The Lion King deepens the moral lessons of the film and forces the audience to recognize its part in the circle.  The joy at the birth of Simba and sadness at the death of Mustafa are tempered.  The events are expected and are to be respected.  Each creature is subservient to this lifecycle.  Taymor evokes feelings of peace and belonging, where Shelley emphasizes the mystery and violence of birth and death.  Shelley and her creation are outcasts from their families and from society at large.  They are battle-hardened, showing the scars from their dances as both prey and predator.  The consequences of their wounds are on vivid display in the play and in the novel.

Artistically, The Lion King is a complete, thoughtful piece, based on slighter material.  Hideous Progeny struggles to humanize its strong personalities, though its source material is deeper.  Both plays and their complementary works challenge their audiences.  Is birth/death a comforting, cyclic inevitability?  Or are the complexities of birth/death too horrifying to ignore?

Everything Old

Now that I am escaping corporate life, I have to restart my brain cells.  Return to intellectualism and art.  I also need to revamp my writing skills.  PowerPoint has bastardized them.  At work, I am forced to use UK English conventions.  Not even good Economist rules.  Crappy Collins English dictionary rules.  Strunk and White are weeping.

My plan is to use this blog to brush up on the writing skills and log my intellectual/artistic endeavors.  Over the next year, I have to relearn French & Russian, improve my piano skills, read history books, study for the GRE, embroider, and endure my daily work life until grad school acceptance.  Fingers crossed.  If I win more than $20 million in the lottery, I reserve the right to chuck these plans and open a greyhound retirement home.  My real dream.

Off we go on our intellectual and artistic journey.  Still observing the rules of alrisha – tying together disparate topics to create a whole.