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The Faculty Recommends

By James J. Miracky, S.J. 

James J. Miracky, S.J.Teaching a book one loves to undergraduates can be a risky undertaking. The results can range from exhilaration, when the students are energized and enlightened by the work, to desolation, when they are bored or just don't "get it." Fortunately, I have experienced more booms than busts in teaching my literary favorites. What follows is a list of contemporary works that have been especially effective with and appreciated by Holy Cross undergraduates. 

Waterland by Graham Swift (Vintage 1992). This has probably been my favorite novel to teach at Holy Cross. It is a detective story, coming-of-age romance, historical epic, and meditation on history-as-storytelling, all in one. Set in the Fen Country of England and narrated by Tom Crick, an about-to-be-sacked history teacher whose wife has just kidnapped a baby, this Booker Prize-nominated novel is a complex and poignant account of Tom's attempt, via his-story, to draw together some of the strands of his personal and family background in order to make sense of his present-day crises. 

Come to Me by Amy Bloom (HarperPerennial 1994). A finalist for the National Book Award, this collection of short stories by a psychotherapist presents a great challenge to my students. Bloom takes up unconventional and sometimes disturbing psychosexual situations (e.g. incest, adultery, potential sexual abuse) and uncovers the humanity (and even moments of beauty) that can be found in the midst of moral failure. Teaching this book has yielded some of the best literary and moral discussions I have experienced in class. 

Midnight's Children (Penguin 1991) and Shame (Holt 1997) by Salman Rushdie. Both novels are demanding texts which are among the finest examples of postcolonial fiction. Each is a hybrid novel of Eastern and Western traditions, set in India/Pakistan at the time of their independence, that mixes elements of myth and fantasy with fragments of historical and political events to produce a wonderful serio-comic narrative that raises important questions about colonialism, racial and religious purity, and contradictory representations of "the truth." 

The Wellspring: Poems by Sharon Olds (Knopf 1996). This is an emotionally wrenching yet inspiring collection of poems that covers all of the hot topics undergraduates (and all of us) relate to: family, love, sex, rebellion, death and more. Olds has an acute sense of details and an expressive way with imagery in her work, and her series of poems on relating to one's parents is especially moving. 

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (Penguin 1991). O'Brien's book of short stories relating events surrounding the Vietnam War is a triumph not only of war fiction but also of postmodern narrative. Blurring the lines between fiction and the "facts" of his war experience, O'Brien's tales of battles fought and comrades lost thrive equally on love and hate, horror and beauty to get at "truths" about war that defy human logic. I get a kick out of seeing students wrestle with the gray areas of these stories, which resist the desire for neat explanation or resolution. 

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill (Methuen Drama 1985). This British play has a wonderfully topsy-turvy quality about it, as it moves from a dinner party attended by a group of notable women from history and literature from across the ages (e.g. the legendary Pope Joan, Japan's Lady Nijo, and Chaucer's Patient Griselda) in Act I to a Thatcher Era showdown between two sisters who have followed radically different careers and roles as women in Act II. Taking up the contentious question of the "proper" role of women in past and present societies, the play generates much heated debate over gender expectations and offers no easy solutions. 

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika by Tony Kushner (Theatre Communications Group 1993-1994). Winner of multiple awards, including the Pulitzer and the Tony, this two-part epic play has probably generated the most surprising positive responses from my students. It is an ambitious and controversial work that contemplates the place of justice, compassion, and hope in the era of Ronald Reagan and AIDS. Populated with one of the most eccentric casts in a long time, including drag queens and angels; rabbis, Mormons, and WASPs; and even the adversarial Ethel Rosenberg and Roy Cohn, the play's combination of philosophical speculation, religious myth, and wickedly funny dialogue makes for a thought-provoking read and a thoroughly engaging dramatic experience. 


James Miracky, S.J., is an assistant professor of English at Holy Cross. Miracky received his Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University. His specialty areas include 19th and 20th century British novel, history and theory of the novel, and modern and contemporary drama. 


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