Recommended Reading / Professor Jessica Burstein

Submitted by Henry J Laufenberg on

This edition of the UW English Department’s Recommended Reading features novels selected by Professor Jessica Burstein.  Dr. Burstein is an expert in modernism, and also teaches contemporary fiction.  Dr. Burstein’s knowledge of late-Victorian through contemporary anglophone literature is both broad and deep.  As such, the books she selects to teach make her graduate and undergraduate classes some of the most popular in the department.  Dr. Burstein has directed the English Department’s storied study abroad program in London for five years now.  As you certainly already know if you’ve had the pleasure of taking one of her classes or (lucky you) studying abroad with her, Dr. Burstein’s quick, sharp wit and clear, lively, original mind make her a favorite among students and faculty alike.  Thanks for the recommendations Jessica!

How to be both
Dr. Burstein’s first recommendation is HOW TO BE BOTH: “I think it's a good moment to be reading first person novels involving female protagonists—that said, the question of sex and gender is a beautiful question split open by the Scottish novelist Ali Smith’s How To Be Both. The book was issued in two formats, so how you read it depends on chance. There are two time frames: now, and 1400s Italy; two protagonists, a young girl named George and a (historical) painter named Francesco del Cossa, whose work I am now gaga about. This is also a novel about the line between art and life, and what parents give and leave their children, and how we make ourselves, and the difficult task of memory—with a very Virginia Woolf-like suggestion that our lives are connected to others in ways that exceed our knowing. It's none of my business, but I'd suggest you start with the contemporary moment/George part.”

swing time
Next we have SWING TIME, by Zadie Smith. “She's one of the smartest English writers (and essayists) we've got. This is about a pair of biracial kids in London and beyond; it's a coming-of-age novel.  It's time-specific, so au courant, but as the title suggests with its reference to the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, despite appearances, things like life, love, and art aren't always black and/or white. I've taught this and it's fun, serious, and troubling.”

Lastly Dr. Burstein recommends THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, by Claire Messud.  “She's one of the smartest American novelists we've got. It's about art and life and women and envy and anger--and the title alludes to Brönte's novel, so everybody's happy (or not). The opening page will either grab you by the throat or tell you you want to spend time elsewhere.  They are the best opening lines in a novel I’ve read in ten years. The last line is also … shall we say … bracing.  Unfortunately I can’t quote them fully here (or in The New York Times), but if you have a problem accepting female rage you should look for reading more demure. If on the other hand you want to read a gripping story of self-discovery and betrayal, Messud’s novel will also get you closer to other female artists like Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick along the way.

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