New Reading

It's no secret that I like books, and one of my favorite tasks each year is choosing a few new works of American literature to read alongside my students as they write their research papers.  This spring I read four:

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)

Tennessee Williams choked to death on the cap of a pill bottle.  This play is just as tragic.  I actually consider his work a hybrid of drama and fiction: the stage notes are so descriptive and nuanced that it seems a little dishonest to call it a play.  From the introduction: "The sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay." See what I mean?

The Cider House Rules (John Irving)

I avoided this book for a long time, for two reasons.  One: the movie came out when I was in high school and it was immediately branded The Abortion Movie.  (After I read the book, I did watch the movie; it's terrible.) Two: I didn't realize it was written by the author of A Prayer for Owen Meany, one of my favorite modern works.  Irving has such a gift for plot that it rankles to hear people say that about J.K. Rowling.  So much wonderful background information is woven in throughout the novel; some is later inconsequential, some is later pivotal, and all is amusing and heartwarming.  I don't agree with the author's worldview, but then I rarely do, and that doesn't take away from its beauty and poignancy.

The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton)

Another terrifically depressing book.  I mean, a real downer. Beautifully written, but from the start, the reader is sure the heroine's fate will not be as rosy as she dreams.  The themes of society and status, augmented by carefully-schemed marriages, certainly don't brighten the prose, though the sparkling, descriptive language and rich inner life of the characters do.  If tragedy is your thing, look no further!

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

For some ridiculous reason, I'd never read any Hemingway until we went to the beach last winter and I brought along, fittingly, The Old Man and the Sea.  I was instantly hooked on his lean-but-weighty prose.  So I was all the more disappointed after reading this book, a Gatsby-eqsue portrait of a group of wealthy expats struggling to add meaning to their lives through relationships as empty as they are.  It's not a comedy, obviously, but not a tragedy either; the reader simply doesn't care enough about the characters to sympathize when their circumstances go awry.

My original list included Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), and Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson), but I haven't yet made it to those.  This summer. hopefully!