Although I didn't read as much this year as I did last year, it was still an interesting year in books. Here are my top 10 books this year with a short blurb as to why they made the list (as always, these are listed in the order I read them):

Susan Power, Sacred Wilderness. This was a new book that I taught in my American Indian literature class. I appreciated its emphasis on spirituality while still being a funny, redemptive read.

Joseph Harris, Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. This is a book that I read with my students in my portfolio class. It helped us understand a variety of ways in which we can use other people's ideas in our own writing. My students told me that they wished they had read this much earlier in the program since it deepened their understanding of how to use others' arguments to develop their own ideas.

David Treuer, The Translation of Dr. Apelles. This book. Wow. Good enough to include two years in a row (since I reread it this year). A gorgeous, postmodern novel that students in my American Indian literature class adored.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This was one of a couple of novels I felt I was way overdue in reading (another was Anne of Green Gables--which I had never read before). Interesting exploration of global dynamics after 9/11.

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda. It took me awhile to get into this novel, which had been recommended to me by a clerk at Birchbark Books (Louise Erdrich's bookstore in Minneapolis). The novel really took hold of me, though, enough that when I found out about the controversy surrounding Boyden towards the end of my reading, I was really disappointed.

Randa Jarrar, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali. I loved this collection of short stories written by my Fresno State colleague and friend. Randa has a unique voice: funny, insightful, timely.

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again. One of my students chose to do a unit plan on this novel in verse, so I decided I needed to read it. It's a thoughtful novel about the challenges of immigration.

Linda Lawrence Hunt, Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America. This historical examination of two daring women's journey walking from Washington to New York was fascinating.

Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down. A couple of students tweeted that this novel was a free download for a short time and that it was a quick read. Although I was grading, I stopped to read this fascinating examination of a teenage boy's response to his brother's death: the desire for revenge and stepping away from the cycle of violence.

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in MoscowThe last book I read this year. I really enjoyed this novel that I think was ultimately about friendship and ingenuity against the backdrop of 20th century Russian history.


One possession I cherish is the anthology of Shakespeare’s works that my mother used as a university student. Published in 1927 by The Literary Digest, it is tiny compared to the Riverside edition I used as an undergraduate. The book contains no annotation except for my mother’s name and the date, 1954, so it is curious to me that she held onto the book for so long. In contrast, my Riverside edition has highlights in two different colors and annotations that I am sure are direct quotes from my instructor about theme, character, and context. But my marginal notes also reveal an engaged reader who underlined both lines I loved and passages I thought were important.

I wonder if these two texts demonstrate how annotation is a relatively recent development in reading. I have books that I owned back before I was a university student and remember feeling that it would somehow deface the page to underline words or write in the margins. Perhaps this is because I bought very few books and so transferred my respect for library books to the texts I owned.

Today I attended a dance performance at the Oslo Opera House. I was intrigued by the description, a combination of Indian dance and music with Norwegian Black Metal. I bought a ticket, not quite sure what to expect.

Right from the start, the performance captured my attention. The narration explained that the Hindu call our current era "the time of darkness," a description that was echoed by the music of Vreid. The band members took the stage with their frenetic music, energizing the audience but also creating a serious, even somber tone. As two Indian dancers took the stage, there was a shift, but the shift was one of degree rather than tone. The dancers' movements, their use of their bare feet to drive the urgent rhythm of the music provided a continuation of the energy and chaos that the band had created. To this point, the performance was good, but with the emergence of Rukmini Chatterjee, the dancer who was also the choreographer, the performance took on layers of meaning that I didn't anticipate. Chatterjee is a mesmerizing presence; she communicates a strength and power that more than stood up to the driving rhythms of Vreid's music. Moreover, Chatterjee's facial expressions, which at times included eyes turned up so far that only the whites remained, reinforced the theme of darkness at the heart of this piece. Her strength combined with the anguish and pain that are part of both the ethos of heavy metal and the Hindu prophecies about the contemporary moment.

As the performance continued, I thought about the events of the last year in Norway, in which the issues of immigration and the shift to a more culturally diverse society have been key. Certainly one outcome of these challenges to Norwegian identity could be continued violence and conflict. And Questionings most definitely does not posit a "happily ever after" ending. Rather, it does what great art should do: provoke, challenge, and reveal. Yet, the piece also embodies the artistic and even philosophical shifts that can emerge from cultural collisions. As Norway deals with the aftermath of the events of June 22, 2011, it can live up to the stirring reaction of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg which drew from the traditions that have made Norway the home of the Nobel Peace Prize . . . or not. At least for me, that's what Questionings made me think about, in part, because it illustrated the ways that two strong cultures/traditions can be maintained side by side and even fused together in ways that don't lessen the power of either.

Chatterjee has a long relationship to Norway, according to her website, but she's from India and is a resident of Paris. Her work over the past decade has combined Indian dance with other types of music like flamenco and hip hop. I'm not sure what her intentions were in this collaboration, but, in my opinion, it was an incredible performance, one that I'll continue to think about.


I am endlessly fascinated with dystopian visions of the future. I just finished reading two novels by Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake and its sequel The Year of the Flood. Of course, Atwood is a master of this genre, authoring such dark novels as The Handmaid's Tale (which I couldn't put down when I read it "for fun" while in graduate school). In these novels, I find visions of the future that seem possible to me--the disintegration of society, the ubiquitous and malevolent influence of media and consumer culture, the "dumbward" spiral of humanity. Others may get hooked on futuristic visions of war and Battlestar Galactica style-conflict, but me? Give me the hopelessness of a broken world in which humanity struggles blindly to retain and revive its ideals.

In trying to identify what it is about these texts that so enthralls me, I've come up with a couple of things. First, I think that these texts reveal characters in unimaginable situations who must make difficult decisions--and that these decisions often reveal something about the self that these characters never knew before. Do any of us really know what we'd do if we were starving with no end in sight? Would we share what we have with others? Would we hide ourselves from view, selfishly eating whatever food we did find? I'd like to think that I'd be generous--to be honest, I'd like to think that I could continue to desire life even in such difficult situations. But do I really know how I'd respond? Do I really know what I'm capable of?

I think I'm also fascinated by these texts because they illustrate the classic good vs. evil conflict. In some cases, that conflict is internal, but in other versions, a pocket of heroic people fight whatever evil power has taken over the world (be it the dark majority, a lethal virus, evil institutions, etc.). In these dystopias, there is still hope--and the two sides are finely delineated. I'm drawn to the clarity of these visions--it's easy to root against zombies because they don't have consciousness, they aren't "human."

I don't want life to be this hard, but sometimes I do wish that it were this clear.

Spoiler Alert: Do not read further if you actually want to the see the irritating Black Swan.

I've been thinking today about autobiographical screenplays I could write. I started with the title Middle Aged Geek a narrative chronicling my movement from technological ignorance (think Natalie Portman as simpering, foolish White Swan) to competency (powerful Black Swan-like performance which, I hope, will not lead to an early demise). Or maybe I should write Cyberstalker, a noir thriller in which I'd gradually go crazy (yes, think Black Swan again) because of my paralyzing devotion to google. Or how about Intellectual Dilettante, a mannered, pretentious film (you know, like Black Swan) in which Natalie Portman (playing me) would submerge herself in a long, long string of ever changing academic pursuits punctuated by one scene in which she lets loose and actually lives life.

I have no point in this post, although I have to admit that Black Swan did give me a lot to think about--and I really did love that amazing Black Swan scene . . . I need a scene like that in my screenplay, Emerging from Seclusion, the story of how I re-integrated back into life after secluding myself because of a crushing disappointment.