Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Off the Beaten Bookshelf #1

Periodically I plan to profile a book or two that you might have missed among the 250,000 others that are published in the United States every year. The books that I will profile are unique and a bit quirky and just generally off the beaten path (or, as I say, off the beaten bookshelf). You might not find these books on your small-town library shelves, but they're in print and available online. I recommend them!

Tonight I'll mention two books. The first was published last year to some good notices and I took a chance on it because it deals with Africa, and I'm a nut for most memoirs or novels of Africa. This one, The Unheard by Josh Swiller (Holt Paperbacks, 2007), is a memoir about Swiller's deafness and how it impacts his tour as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, a republic in southern Africa just north of Zimbabwe. I read it last December and it still sticks with me!

Swiller takes what could be a very maudlin story (a deaf guy in Africa... OK, so what?, you might think) and weaves it into a heartfelt and compelling narrative about the challenges of being an outsider in a very political village in northern Zambia. You'll also enjoy learning about the inner workings of the Peace Corps. What's great about this story is that Swiller's deafness is by all means not the greatest of his challenges in Africa. The simple rudiments of everyday life in a foreign context are brought into sharp relief in a unique and thought-provoking way. And to top it all off, Josh Swiller happens to be an excellent storyteller... I couldn't put the book down. Although there are times of frustration, and I don't necessarily agree with Swiller's level of involvement in some of the political battles of his village (which are nonetheless the kind of ethical issues that anthropologists face all the time), you'll find this is a terrific read that hopefully will give you pause to think during the hectic holiday season.

A completely different book is Trickster in Tweed: The Quest for Quality in Faculty Life by Thomas Frentz, a distinguished professor of communication at the University of Arkansas (Left Coast Press, 2008). I will start by giving the disclaimer that Frentz was my teacher in a non-major course in autoethnographic writing that I took one semester when I had a brain freeze and thought that signing up for a communications class would be a good idea. As it turns out, Frentz's class--like this book--was full of surprises, hilarious anecdotes, and surprising wisdom.

Frentz's short but erudite book blends stories from his personal and professional lives, suggesting that the two are intimately and inextricably connected and can influence one another often in unexpected and unintended ways. He sees himself as a kind of "Trickster," a mischief-making character who uses humor to destroy the stodgy structures of the academy (and of "real life!") without destroying other people. As he admits, this is not always an easy task, for there are many roles one may assume other than the trickster--the shepherd, the sheep, the wolf. Too often, Frentz had been the wolf, always at the ready in a situation to show a little fang. But the Trickster-outlaw is a more comfortable persona and one that fits him well.

In this book, Frentz also expands the horizons of autoethnography by using his personal quest for Quality as an illustration and formative story for the reader. We are with him through a few stories of a challenging upbringing; through various tenure denials and professional triumphs; through his own cancer diagnosis and the loss of his dear spouse. It's some tough emotional material dealt to us in a palatable, understanding hand. No need to be an academic to read or enjoy this book, though, as it is largely jargon-free and has a narrative arc. It is in a sense a memoir that is often (and often at the same time) heartbreaking and hysterically funny. I think most general readers would enjoy it, especially as he draws on the very-popular work by Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance.
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PARTING WISDOM: "...Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now." - Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet