Cynthia Callahan is an associate professor of English on the Mansfield campus. Her research involves representations of race and family in American literature, and she teaches American, African American, and multi-ethnic American literature courses.
What are your five favorite books and why?
The only way that I can narrow my favorites down is to name the books that I recommend most often.
The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, is the one I always push on people who want to know what they should read. It explores a historically accurate phenomenon—African American slave owners—in a fictional setting. It imagines the delusions and moral compromises that were a part of slavery and is challenging and beautiful.
David Simon’s The Corner is a nonfiction account of a neighborhood in Baltimore affected by the illegal drug trade. Simon weaves issues like underfunded school systems, crime patterns, and poverty into a story that focuses on a single family, and it helped me to understand the complexity of these social issues as well as their effects on the individual citizens living near “the corner.”
A new favorite novel is Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms. A member of the Chickasaw tribe, Hogan writes about a young woman who reunites with her birth family after having been raised in foster care. She gradually heals from earlier trauma as she works with her maternal family to fight economic development that will destroy their tribe’s economy. The writing is poetic, and the characters are compelling.
Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma has stayed with me, partly because I want to write the way he does and partly because he made me rethink my views on hunting. As a longtime vegetarian (who now eats chicken), I was never an advocate for hunting, but he makes a persuasive argument that every omnivore should participate in the death of an animal that she eats at least once. Of course, it will still be a long time before I’m slaughtering my own chicken.
Finally, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay explores the effects of the Holocaust on Jewish Americans during and after World War II. Although I’m not much of a comics person, I love how Kavalier and Clay channel their hatred of Hitler into their superhero comics. The novel is deeply sad and at times very funny.
What is the last book you’ve bought?
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
What’s your “guilty pleasure” – a book you love but don’t often talk about because it’s not “serious” literature?
To me, any reading is good reading, so no one should feel guilty. But I am definitely less proud of having read certain things, like the first Twilight book. My students kept referring to it in class, so I figured that I better know what they’re talking about. I did, however, draw the line at their other favorite reference, Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook.
What “important book” have you not read and why haven’t you read it?
Moby Dick. In theory, I’m sure I would like it. In reality, I can’t get past the first couple of pages.
What classic novel was a disappointment to you?
Lolita. I just couldn’t get enthused about it.
What genre of literature do you prefer to read (history, fiction, biography, etc) and why?
I love fiction. Many of my favorite novels to read and teach take advantage of fiction to imagine things that seem incomprehensible—for instance, the kinds of moral compromises that an African American slaveholder might have to make or the mindset of a Holocaust survivor. While the “truth is often stranger than fiction,” sometimes I think that only fiction can access the strange truths of human experience. My less lofty reason for loving fiction is escapism. I enjoy relaxing with mysteries, especially witty ones with minimal gore.
What magazines do you subscribe to and why?
I subscribe only to “Cooking Light.” When traveling, I’ll sometimes read “The New Yorker” or the “Atlantic Monthly.”
What are some of your favorite Web sites?
Slate, Vulture, and The Atlantic.