Off the Shelf: Summer Reading

June 4, 2010 — Several writers and professors at the University of Virginia have recently published books that could liven up summer reading, from stories about contemporary life to 19th-century American politics.

Deborah Eisenberg, professor of creative writing, "The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg." Picador

Since the publication of her first collection in 1986, Deborah Eisenberg has devoted herself to writing "exquisitely distilled stories" which "present an unusually distinctive portrait of contemporary American life," to quote the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her a "genius" grant last fall. This volume brings together "Transactions in a Foreign Currency" (1986), "Under the 82nd Airborne" (1992), "All Around Atlantis" (1997) and her most recent collection, "Twilight of the Superheroes" (2006).

Michael F. Holt, Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History, "Franklin Pierce – The American Presidents Series: The 14th President, 1853-1857." Times Books

Charming and handsome, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was drafted to break a deadlock at the 1852 Democratic convention. Though he seized the White House in a landslide against the imploding Whig Party, he proved a dismal failure in office.

Michael F. Holt, a leading historian of 19th-century partisan politics, argues that in the wake of the Whig collapse, Pierce was consumed by an obsessive drive to unify his splintering party rather than the roiling country. He soon began to overreach. Word leaked that Pierce wanted Spain to sell the slave-owning island of Cuba to the United States, rousing sectional divisions. Then he supported repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which limited the expansion of slavery in the West. Violence broke out, and "Bleeding Kansas" spurred the formation of the Republican Party. By the end of his term, Pierce's beloved party had ruptured, and he lost the nomination to James Buchanan.

In this incisive account, Holt shows how a flawed leader, so dedicated to his party and ill-suited for the presidency, hastened the approach of the Civil War.

Mark Edmundson (with audio)
University Professor of English, "The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll." Harper Collins.

After graduating from college in 1974, Mark Edmundson left his small Vermont campus determined to fulfill his destiny – a quest he knew involved rock 'n' roll and America's high court of mischief and ambition, New York City. Under the wing of a carousing, Marx-quoting friend, Edmundson moved into a grungy uptown apartment and embarked on a career lugging amps in a New Jersey arena for rock's biggest acts: the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and the Allman Brothers.

But as his first year after college wore on, Edmundson found himself increasingly at odds with life in his adopted city and drifted through a regimen of late-night cab driving and radical politics that left him cold and neglectful of the hopes he nursed back in school.

Prodded and enlightened along the way by a cast of rogue mentors – his "Kings (and Queens) of Rock and Roll" – Edmundson checked out of New York, detouring through the Colorado mountains (in a hapless attempt to reconnect with nature), and tending the front door of a Northampton disco (witnessing the death throes of the sexual revolution), before landing in Vermont to teach English at a progressive boarding school.

It's here that Edmundson began to grasp, with the help of the charismatic headmaster and the dazed student body, the inkling of a valuable lesson. It's here, rather surprisingly, that he found his "it": the perfect vocation – his slightly crazy, ideal way of life.

Kirkus Reviews called the book "a near-perfect memoir" and Edmundson "an honest, poetic and hilariously entertaining narrator.

"In this erudite, coming-of-age riot, the author deftly navigates the purgatorial rites of passage between university and professional life, developing insightful social critiques and candid self-evaluations along the way."

Ann Beattie, Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Creative Writing, "Walks with Men." Scribner.

Ann Beattie arrived in New York young, observant and celebrated (as The New Yorker's young fiction star) in one of the most compelling and creative eras of recent times. So does the protagonist of her intense new novella, "Walks with Men."

It is 1980 in New York City, and Jane, a valedictorian fresh out of Harvard, strikes a deal with Neil, an intoxicating writer 20 years her senior. The two quickly become lovers, living together in a Chelsea brownstone, and Neil reveals the rules for a life well-lived: If you take food home from a restaurant, don't say it's because you want leftovers for "the dog." Say that you want the bones for "a friend who does autopsies." If you can't stand on your head (which is best), learn to do cartwheels. Have sex in airplane bathrooms. Wear only raincoats made in England.

Neil's certainties, Jane discovers, mask his deceptions. Her true education begins.

"One of our era's most vital masters of the short form," according to the Washington Post, "Beattie brilliantly captures a time, a place and a style of engagement. Her voice is original and iconic."

John D. Lyons, Commonwealth Professor of French, "French Literature: A Very Short Introduction." Oxford University Press.

The heritage of literature in the French language is rich, varied, extensive in time and space, and appealing both to its immediate public – readers of French – and also to a global audience reached through translations and film adaptations.

The first great works of this repertory were written in the 12th century in northern France, and now, at the beginning of the 21st century, this literature includes authors writing in many parts of the world, ranging from the Caribbean to Western Africa.

This "Very Short Introduction" gives the reader a basic orientation to this literary world by focusing on texts (epics, novels, plays, poems and screenplays) that concern protagonists whose adventures and conflicts reveal shifts in literary and social practices. From the hero of the medieval "Song of Roland" to the Caribbean heroines of "I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem" or the European expatriate in Japan in "Fear and Trembling," these problematic protagonists allow us to understand what interests writers and readers across the wide world of French literature.