Who says the readings for classes are boring? Not Bwog!

On the rare occasions that we actually have time to finish the readings for class, a lot of the time we’re surprised to discover that the piece was actually pretty darn interesting! If you’re looking for a new book to sink your teeth into this break, look no further than Bwog’s list of book recommendations:

  • Peste et Choléra (Plague and Cholera) by Patrick Deville: a fictionalized biography of Alexandre Yersin, the man who discovered the bacteria that causes the bubonic plague, among many, many other things. It’s one of those ~quirky~ books that melds literature and actual history and though it 100% has a “what’s colonialism?” problem (that ngl all of France has), it also has some beautiful, beautiful writing and a completely bizarre narrative style and the end made me weep over this weird scientist who like just wanted to be left alone….. yeah.
  • La Peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus: Don’t read this, because there’s still a pandemic happening. or maybe read it because there’s a pandemic happening. Either way, it’s one of the few books I’ve read for class that I would have actually read for pleasure. Wow!
  • La Princesse de Clèves (The Princess de Clèves) by Madame de la Fayette: Thinking of a courtly romance? It’s this book. It’s the epitome of this book. This was the first of those kinds of novels and it’s just completely off the walls.
  • Bisclavret by Marie de France: This is technically a short story but anyway. Everyone should read more medieval literature about gay werewolves.
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (with photography by Walker Evans): This book, which is a brick that I was forced to read in a week, essentially became one of my favorite books of all time, and pretty much everyone I know had heard me talk about it several times. On the surface, it’s a report on three white, tenant farmer families in the American South, documenting how they live their lives and their unique responses to the Great Depression/Dust Bowl. HOWEVER, this book isn’t just that: it is written almost entirely in a stream of consciousness, blending poetry with newspaper headlines, prayers with local gossip, dialogue with vivid description, all meant to unify the tenant farmers’ lives with those of everyone else on the world. In reality, it’s a book about the human experience! It describes how it feels to fall in love with strangers, how everyone has the same insecurities, how little things like fashion and toys make people happy, how we all choose to sleep together, and how–no matter who is in the grave–we all honor the dead and keep their memories with us as we live on. The poem “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” on the last page before the notes is a powerful, intelligent ending to a mammoth of the book, and this work of nonfiction is something truly interesting I have never seen before I took the class that made me read it. In short, this book is beyond incredible.
  • “One Culture and the New Sensibility” by Susan Sontag: There is more to Sontag than “Notes on Camp.” There is more to Sontag than “Notes on Camp!!!!” This essay (found in her excellent book, Against Interpretation) discusses American pop culture and modern art, specifically on how people need to broaden their definitions of “what art is” and the purpose of it. It’s the definition of, “art can be good because it produces an emotion” and denounces the attitude of “art is only good because it serves a moral purpose.” Overall, it’s quite forgiving on the things we enjoy, and it gives a lot of value to expression and using art as a means of capturing emotion. Oh, and Sontag is a really cool person. Read “On Photography” while you’re at it.
  • Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau: It described how different children that were raised in various class, race, and family life environments were raised very differently and exposed a lot of patterns within social identity and class. I learned a lot from it and it was one of the first longer pieces of Sociology that I’ve read!
  • Open City by Teju Cole: This book centers around a Nigerian man who moved to New York and is completing a psychiatry fellowship. Cole writes the novel such that all the dialogue is absorbed into the narrative and there are no actual quotation marks. The novel also has no substantial plot, a feature I thoroughly enjoyed about Open City. The book mostly describes his thoughts as he is meandering around New York City and involves various encounters with people he meets locally and abroad. The descriptions of the city streets are grounded and easy to follow. In other words, it seems very accurate and not described in the abstract. Overall, truly a great and unique book.
  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: This is just a must-read for anyone who is interested in queer narratives told in a lyrical way. It’s prose but it’s extremely poetic and has a really unique structure. I actually read it last year, before I had to read it for class, so I was really excited to get the chance to read it again!
  • La Ravissement de Lol V. Stein by Marguerite Duras: This book is another lyrical, modernist narrative of love and infidelity told from a unique perspective, with an inconclusive ending. It’s ultimately a bit troubling but definitely worth the read; it’s not that long!
  • Passing by Nella Larsen: I can’t believe I hadn’t read it before. It’s a novella so it’s definitely worth the read! It’s a narrative of race and gender in 1920s America; it’s simultaneously vital social commentary and a fascinating narrative that’s easy to get invested in! 
  • A World Apart by Gustaw Herling (warning: graphic): In this fictionalized autobiography, Gustaw Herling details his time in the Gulag prison system of the 1940s. Due to a bad twist of fate, Herling is arrested for wearing a pair of leather boots, and sentenced to five years of hard labor. But the book isn’t as much about Herling as it is about the people he observes. A quiet fly-on-the-wall, he is able to slip unnoticed between social circles and observe the patterns and behaviors of prisoners. With thematic chapters, each centering around a character or event, Herling paints a picture of the brutality and hardship of prison life. From prostitutes to former police officers, to doctors, Herling tells each story of each prisoner with snide humor and candor.
  • Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich: Svetlana Alexievich is a Nobel-Prize-winning journalist and oral historian. Spending the 80s onwards traveling around the USSR (and eventually, former USSR), she talked to hundreds of regular people about their experiences under the Soviet system. Her themes are dark: the Chernobyl disaster, children in Soviet orphanages, and veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War are just a few of her other topics. Secondhand Time shows the rippling effects of the Gulag trauma on a society. A wife left behind to face social stigma and poverty after her husband is sentenced. A former guard reckoning with his past deeds. A father who can’t connect with his children as they grow up in a post-Soviet world. Each chapter is a transcription of a real conversation, lightly edited for clarity, and reading chapter after chapter it really feels as though you’re talking to real people.
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: I am most definitely biased because I have memories of this book from when I was younger, but rereading it for class this semester just reinforced how magical the story is. Sour-faced and spoiled Mary Lennox has been surrounded by servants for most of her life, but when both her parents die, she is moved from her home in India to her uncle’s estate in Yorkshire. While there, she gets wrapped up in a mystery involving an old garden that has been bordered up ever since her aunt died (but where is this garden?). Not to mention she often hears crying in the hallway that no one else seems to pay attention to. Even when the mystery is solved, you’re still intrigued by Mary’s development as a character and all this makes for a wonderful, feel-good story that just pulls you in.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll: I’m sure plenty of people have read these (and, no, seeing the Disney movie does not count). But, in case you haven’t, I implore you to read them. The characters are mad, the nonsense nonsensical and “A Boat Beneath the Sunny Sky” (which is the closer to Through the Looking Glass) is quite simply one of the best poems ever written.
  • The Flick by Annie Baker: An award-winning play about three employees at The Flick, one of the last movie theaters to have not gone entirely digital. Baker handles the awkwardness of employees getting to know one another really well and the way that the relationships ultimately culminate into a shocking climax that involves betrayal is expertly done.
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh: Maureen has been looking after her mother for as long as she can remember and, frankly, she is sick of it. The arrival of an old friend, Pato, offers a chance of escape, but with Maureen’s mother determined to sabotage the relationship, can Maureen really have a happily-ever-after. A heart-rendering play that makes you both sad and angry in the same breath, McDonagh plays with tension really well.
  • “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders: A short story that, quite honestly, I’m still reeling over. In this world, prison is a lab, where the prisoners are made to test out drugs that make them sexually attracted to each other, talk a mile-a-minute, or reel over in pain. I love the way Saunders throws us into this world with little explanation and yet you’re given all the information you need. Another piece you need to read all the way to the end.
  • “The Finklestein Five” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (warning: slightly graphic): In a world eerily similar to our own, Emmanuel is forced to deal with life after the death of the titular five, a group who was killed via chainsaw by a white man who was allegedly trying to protect his children. Emmanuel is hyperaware of his own Blackness and the way everyone perceives him, but when one of his friends elects to join the masses of Black people that have been protesting the results, he has to make a choice about what matters to him more. A chilling story that feels especially relevant in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

look at all these books! via Bwog Archives