Thursday, April 26, 2007

I can read!

The most glorious thing of this encroaching spring, beyond the sun and relative warmth (it's indicative of this past winter that seven degree celcius feels like the height of summer), is the loosening of time ... the freedom now to start reading that stack of books I've had to ignore these past few months. I have this past week been taking an hour or so in the morning with my coffee to simply read ... and between that and the sun streaming in through my living room window, it has felt positively decadent.

I have spent part of this semester using up the last bit of the startup grant MUN gives new professors; we're strongly encouraged to use it all by the end of our second year. And so, finding myself with somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1200 left, I've been putting mileage on my credit card ordering from

I love love love subsidized book-buying.

So anyway, I now have a massive stack of books to work through -- many of them pragmatic purchases in history or theory to fill holes in my library, some of them speculative buys toward possible courses I might propose in the future, but also a lot of texts I've either been meaning to read for some time or simply capricious buys that struck my fancy.

One of the courses I'm toying with proposing is a special-topics course tentatively titled "Postmodern Warfare." I've taught some texts and films under this rubric in the past, and last year presented a paper on the subject at our departmental colloquium. To give credit where it's due, at least part of this idea owes its genesis to Tim Blackmore's excellent book War X (which will certainly find its way onto the reading list), as well as his legendary course "Killer Culture" at Western.

At any rate, one of the books I've read this past week is Tim O'Brien's fiction/non-fiction collection of stories based on his tour of duty in Viet Nam, The Things They Carried. It's a haunting series of interlaced narratives following the members of his squad, their friendship and the inarticulatable experience of warfare. The title is also the title of the first story and refers to the massive amount of weight in terms of gear, weapons, and personal items the soldiers had to shoulder on their missions into the oppressively hot jungle; it also of course refers to the weight of the experience itself that the soldiers continue to stagger under after their tours.

(Also on the list to read is Tim O'Brien's novel In the Lake of the Woods, Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, Michael Herr's Dispatches and Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down ... all of which, should the course ever happen, will explore the blurry boudaries between memoir, fiction, journalism and myth in the representations of contemporary warfare).

I've also recently finished Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men ... and if you've never read McCarthy, you're denying yourself a rare pleasure. He's one of William Faulkner's heirs apparent, with spare impressionistic narratives set in the American South, most frequently along the Texas-Mexican border. No Country seems at first glance a typical potboiler in which a man stumbles across a drug deal gone sour in the desert, where everyone is dead and a case with two million dollars is there for the taking. And while it unfolds predictably in some ways, in McCarthy's hands what would otherwise be a formulaic narco-drama becomes something infinitely more terrifying and profound.

Incidentally, a film version directed by the Coen brothers is set for release in August. Holy crap. If the collaboration of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers isn't a recipe for something brilliant, then I'm quitting show business.

I'm also almost done Black Dogs by Ian McEwan. It's the story, presented as a memoir, of a long and difficult marriage, recounted by the estranged couple's son-in-law. McEwan is always astonishing, and this book is no different. I hate him for the understated elegance of his prose.

Anyway ... I'm ready to move on, and can't decide what to start next. The choices are:

  • Julian Barnes, Arthur & George
  • Anthony Swofford, Jarhead
  • Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son

Cast your votes! Polls close tomorrow at midnight ...


sarah said...

Hi Christoper, I just wanted to welcome you to Newfoundland. My aunt stumbled upon your blog, and forwarded me the link. I too am from Ontario, and have been living in this fascinating province for over three years now. I graduated from UWO also, MIT actually in 02.. Tim was, by far, the most influential and inspiring professor I've encountered. I accredit him with helping me find my voice. Well, I just wanted to welcome you to 'The Rock''s magic. Cheers, Sarah.

Anonymous said...

Is No Country for Old Men as similar to the film A Simple Plan as your synopsis makes it out to be?

Dallas said...

wow, subsidized book buying. I am very envious. Enjoy! I love Julian Barnes. Have you read his book Flaubert's Parrot?

Chris in NF said...

Sarah: Seriously? Cool. What brought you to The Rock? I miss MIT, both for the program and the students, having had the opportunity to teach a few courses there while finishing up my PhD. (After your time, though -- my first MIT class was winter 2003). Tim was one of the exmainers on my thesis defense, and he was amazing.

Jonny: it's similar to that and the various other stories involving random people happening across ill-gotten cash (Shallow Grave is the other one that leaps to mind).

Dallas: I've read everything Barnes has written except Cross-Channel and Metroland ... and of course, Arthur & George, which I'm looking forward to. Flaubert's Parrot is something I'm actually rather amazed I haven't taught yet.

I think however my two fave Barnes bits are both from A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters -- the retelling of Noah's Ark and "Parenthesis."

Swain said...

Swofford is excellent. It actually made its way into the endnotes of my thesis when I discussed the romanticization of World War II in discussion of the Gulf. (If you want to know how, you'll have to read my thesis. But I wouldn't suggest that.)
I'm sure you've already read it, but I'm working my way through Hedges' War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. In case you haven't read it, add that to your list of potentials. Fan-freakin-tastic.

Bronwyn said...

www.I remember reading a portion from "The Things They Carried" during Tamas Dobozy's 1080 class back in the fall of 2002. It just struck me as to how far I am from the time I spent at MUN.

Invisible Shield said...

having not read any of the above, I can't offer a suggestion- but just a shameless plug to say that Tim O'brien, whose writing is fantastic, teaches here at Texas State University these days. . .


Sharon McDonald said...

Having a lot of books to read can be very good when it comes to academic life. It can help stimulate the mind every once in a while that can really be a thesis help when doing thesis project. It can avoid problems and mistake in the long run.