Every year we review dozens of books and publish several author essays, and a book excerpt or two, by Wesleyan alumni in the pages of Wesleyan magazine. With the holidays upon us, ’tis the season to take another look at just a handful of the many selections made by Wesleyan magazine Arts and Culture Editor David Low this year. Happy reading!
SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, by Becky Albertalli ’05. Clinical psychologist Albertalli has written a charming first novel about 16-year-old Simon Spier who is gay but hasn’t come out to his family and friends. Complications arise when a classmate, Martin, gets hold of some private e-mails and threatens to reveal Simon’s secret unless Simon helps him connect with a female friend. At the same time, Simon has been flirting in e-mails with someone hiding behind the name of Blue, whom he would love to meet in person. Albertalli’s often humorous storytelling succeeds in making the reader care about the everyday lives of teenagers. While she recognizes that it may be somewhat easier for a young person to come out in some situations and parts of the country than it was a decade ago, it is still traumatic and unsettling for a gay teenager to be treated as going against the norm while having to figure out whom to trust.
BECOMING A MOUNTAIN: HIMALAYAN JOURNEYS IN SEARCH OF THE SACRED AND THE SUBLIME, by Stephen Alter ’77. Alter and his wife, Ammeta, live in the hill station of Mussoorie, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he was raised by American missionary parents. Their relatively peaceful existence was brutally interrupted when four armed intruders invaded their house and viciously attacked them, leaving them for dead. The trauma of the assault and almost dying left Alter feeling like a stranger in the land of his birth, and he wonders if he will ever be able to write or walk again. In this spellbinding account, he shares the series of treks he undertook in the high Himalayas following his convalescence—to Bandar Punch (the monkey’s tail), Nanda Devi, the second highest mountain in India, and Mt. Kailash in Tibet. He hoped these walks would heal him mentally as well as physically and allow him to reconnect to his homeland and to nature. Kirkus Reviews writes: “The combination of realism and mysticism makes this a rich, satisfying memoir that plumbs the depths—and acknowledges the limits—of both man and mountain.”
CHORD, by Rick Barot ’92. Barot’s third poetry collection is graced by the elegant and rigorous language of his past two books as he masterfully bridges inner and outer worlds and connects personal experience with the universal. Barot comments: “I wrote the poems in Chord during a particularly intense period in American history: Post 9/11. The Iraq War. Obama’s election. As it has been for many, the last decade has meant for me a low-grade rage and anxiety, and often it hasn’t been low-grade at all, but a full-blown condition of living. The book is a record of that wounded time—a time, it’s worth noting, that continues in the present. In addition to the societal stresses that informed the writing of the book, there were also personal griefs during the same period that called a good number of the poems into being. The poems in the middle section of the book look back at my childhood in the Philippines, at family life, at intimate family losses. At the heart of the book, then, are nostalgia and grief.”
ANDY AND DON: THE MAKING OF A FRIENDSHIP AND A CLASSIC TV SHOW, by Daniel de Visé ’90. This highly entertaining book gives a unique perspective on the beloved television sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show, which has never been off the air thanks to syndication since it premiered more than 50 years ago. The book traces the production of the program and celebrates the friendship of the two stars of the show, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, who played, respectively, Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, who shared folksy conversations on the front porch in the idealized rural hamlet of Mayberry. The duo worked only five years together on their show but continued to stay in touch after Knotts left the show, maintaining a complicated friendship. De Visé (Knotts’ brother-in-law) writes: “Andy was a master entertainer and an occasionally brilliant dramatic actor. Don was a comedic great, his oeuvre a sort of missing link between the celebrated eras of Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen. Yet like all the best comedy teams, Andy and Don were better together than apart.”
SINATRA: THE CHAIRMAN, by James Kaplan ’73. In 2010, James Kaplan ’73 had a national bestseller with Frank: The Voice, an acclaimed biography which told the story of singer Frank Sinatra’s meteoric rise to fame, subsequent failures, and reinvention as a star of live performances and screen. In his new book, Kaplan continues the singer’s story, starting with the day after Sinatra claimed his Academy Award for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and had reestablished himself as a top recording artist. In a piece he recently wrote for The Wall Street Journal about his latest book, Kaplan comments: “I’ve studied and written about Frank Sinatra for 10 years, and though I’ve sometimes disliked him, I’ve never been bored with him. His best singing—of which there is a very great deal—still gives me goosebumps, every time. I believe that we will still be celebrating Sinatra, and listening to him, next year, and the year after that, and (as the title of another of his numbers has it) a hundred years from today.”
THE ARGONAUTS, by Maggie Nelson ’94. In her new memoir, Nelson combines autobiographical material and critical theory as she considers desire, identity, and normality and reveals the limitations and possibilities of love and language. Nelson recounts her romantic relationship with artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, and offers her views on pregnancy, childbirth, and the complexities and joys of family life. Nelson’s glimpses of her personal experience alternate with a rigorous exploration of what iconic theorists have said about sexuality, gender, and the institutions of marriage and childrearing. Among the philosophers, theorists, and intellectuals cited in her book are Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Donald Winnicott, and Jean Baudrillard. The New Yorker called the book “a moving exploration of family and love, but it’s also a meditation on the seductions, contradictions, limitations, and beauties of being normal, as a person and as an artist.”
OFF THE BOOKS: ON LITERATURE AND CULTURE, by J. Peder Zane ’84. This splendid collection brings together 130 columns by Zane when he served as book review editor and books columnist for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., for 13 years. The first six sections concentrate on reviews of classic and contemporary fiction and nonfiction, profiles of writers, and columns on the book business; several selections connect books to larger and literary cultural trends. The last six sections provide cultural commentary, touching on how books can help us understand the world around us, addressing such issues as 9/11, race, gay rights, the decline of high culture, and the rise of sensationalism and solipsism in society. In his introduction, Zane writes that his columns are “historical documents of a vanishing culture, evidence of a time when mid-sized newspapers recognized the value of literature. . . . Despite the assaults, onslaughts and indignities, books remain the vital core of our culture. They are the greatest tool humanity has devised to share deeply felt emotions and profound ideas publicly.”
Author Essays and Book Excerpts
THE LISTENER, by Rachel Basch ’80. In her latest novel, Rachel Basch considers how individuals conceal and reveal their identities. Her novel centers around a student and a therapist whose lives become surprisingly entwined. Basch discusses her creation of these two characters in her essay for Wesleyan magazine, My Characters, Myself.
FIND ME UNAFRAID: LOVE, LOSS, AND HOPE IN AN AFRICAN SLUM, by Kennedy Odede ’12 and Jessica Posner ’09. Kennedy Odede, who grew up in a Kenyan slum, began a youth empowerment group, Shining Hope for Communities. On a semester abroad, Jessica Posner joined Odede’s team and the two fell in love. Their book tells the story of their lives, their love, their work and dreams. Read a Wesleyan magazine excerpt from Find Me Unafraid.
NAGASAKI: LIFE AFTER NUCLEAR WAR, by Susan Southard ’78. In her masterful nonfiction work, Susan Southard takes readers from the morning of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, to today, recounting the first-hand experiences of five survivors, all of whom were teenagers at the time of the devastation. Southard shares her experience with hibakusha (“atomic bomb-affected people”) in her Wesleyan magazine essay, Life after Nuclear War: The Other Side of the Story.
For a complete selection of Wesleyan magazine book reviews from 2015, click here.