Summer Reading, Part II: Genre-Bending Selections

July 2, 2010 — "Read non-fiction." That's what English professor Ann Beattie, who teaches in the Creative Writing Program in the College of Arts & Sciences, told her fiction-writing students to do at the end of the spring semester in order to continue learning.

"Following my own advice, I'm finishing up 'The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism,' edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda," said Beattie, who sent an e-mail from Maine, where she spends her summers.

"I love anything that blurs genres," she said. "The anthology is great. Trust me."

She singled out an essay by Victorian writer Henry Mayhew, "Watercress Girl," which she said she plans to teach. She likens it to "oral history, yes, but also a way for Mayhew to break out of the constraints of newspaper writing, ingeniously. It is very 'literary' and we're not sure where facts end and 'art' begins."

Another book that blurs genres is Padgett Powell's "The Interrogative Mood." The book, she said, "at first masquerades as an amusing game (a novel entirely composed of questions), then builds so that the always-questioning character you meet, who never stops, exists as your created character; you instinctively begin to see who he is by way of what he asks," said Beattie, who just published the novella "Walks with Men." 

Switching to another form of writing, she recommends colleague Gregory Orr's "Poetry as Survival," which she called "very inspirational and informative." The book discusses many kinds of poetry and its uses through the ages. "Greg is so smart, he makes understanding seem easy," she said.

Benjamin Cohen, who teaches in the Engineering School's Department of Science, Technology and Society, recommends two novels with a journalistic slant, employing the technique of one character interviewing another.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on Benjamin Cohen's recommended reading:

"The Report," by Jessica Francis Kane, was so good, he said, he read it while walking to his office. Because he knows the author, he was able to read a proofreader's copy; the book is due to land on bookshelves in August.

"The Report" refers to a civil servant's report, written in the aftermath of an air raid in London during World War II – except the disaster wasn't caused by actual bombs, Cohen said. An unexplained incident killed people in an Underground shelter.

" 'The Report' is about the gentleman who ended up writing the report at the time, but you also get the story of somebody interviewing him 30 years later to ask about the report and how it came to be," Cohen said.

"The two stories together – one of them thinking ahead of the report being written and who was involved and why it happened and why they can't figure it out, and then the backwards view of how it affected people's lives afterwards and how to make sense of it – come together very nicely as the book goes along."

Cohen mentioned another book, "The Weather Fifteen Years Ago," by Wolf Haas, that features an interviewer talking to an author about his book.

" 'The Weather Fifteen Years Ago' refers to the character's ability to remember the weather every day for 15 years, which ties back to some summer love he had when he was on vacation," he said. "There's no actual story. It's just an interviewer asking the author about the book after the fact. She'll start off by saying, 'So tell me about the kiss that happens at the end of this book,' and then he says, 'Well if you want to ask that, I have to go back and explain what led up to it.' ... You have to infer the plot from their conversation."

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

Fiction based on historic moments also is on Jon Bowen's reading list this summer. Bowen, assistant to U.Va. President John T. Casteen III, plans to take up one of his favorite authors again, E.L. Doctorow. He'll read "The March," about Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's march across Georgia at the end of the Civil War. Doctorow writes a lot of stories set in the past, Bowen said, including "Ragtime" and "World's Fair."

"He creates these fictional worlds that just happen to include real-life figures who were living during those times, but without it having that clichéed feel that a lot of historical fiction seems to have," Bowen said.

He has also returned to his favorite journalist; he recommends anything written by William Langewiesche, who was the international correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly magazine and now works for Vanity Fair. Bowen is reading "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," published in 2003.

"It describes the process that occurred after the September 11 terrorist attacks when the World Trade Center towers were just a heap of twisted metal and crushed concrete ... by which the various authorities went about trying to untangle that mess, while also searching for bodies and all of the sensitivities that were involved," Bowen said. The book details how the police, fire fighters, construction workers and others worked together, most of the time cooperatively.

"Langewiesche is a great explainer of technical details. He's very good at giving a lucid explanation of very complicated matters," Bowen said.

Langewiesche, who is also a pilot, wrote "Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson," not just describing pilot Chesley Sullenberger's heroic landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, but especially examining the advances in and flaws of modern air travel and piloting.

Bowen admitted he likes authors who explain things he wouldn't otherwise experience. He recommends "War" by Sebastian Junger, who also wrote "The Perfect Storm." The writer spent 15 months embedded with an American platoon in Afghanistan.

Bowen was captivated by another book he read while researching for a speech he drafted for Casteen. Lee Alan Dugatkin's "Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose" might sound like a children's book, but it's not.

The book describes the debate between Thomas Jefferson and the French naturalist Georges Buffon, who claimed that America's flora and fauna were inferior compared to those of Europe. Buffon went further in his theory, saying that any living thing in America, including humans, would degenerate over time.

There was a serious side to the argument. "Jefferson was upset about this theory of American degeneracy because of the implications it had for political relationships and economic matters, such as free trade," Bowen said.

Jefferson, who of course disagreed with Buffon's theory, sought to have a giant moose captured, stuffed and sent to Buffon to prove the robust nature of the New World. The undertaking was full of problems, but you'll have to read the book to find out whether it was successful.

The Books

•    "The March" by E.L. Doctorow
•    "Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose" by Lee Alan Dugatkin
•    "The Weather Fifteen Years Ago" by Wolf Haas
•    "The Report" by Jessica Francis Kane
•    "The Art of Fact," edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda
•    "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" by William Langewiesche
•    "Poetry as Survival" by Gregory Orr
•    "The Interrogative Mood" by Padgett Powell