Break reading for credit (you wish)

We’re Yale students. We love to read. Don’t we?

In between rushing off to club meetings and hastily skimming readings for seminar, it’s easy to understand why pleasure reading falls by the wayside during the long slogs through midterms. But now Christmas break is upon us, and with it the paralyzing choice of flight-home reading. Don’t waste the break catching up on those books you never bothered to read for section in the first place — here’s scene’s syllabus for this holiday season.

AMST 101 Cocktail Party Chatter

Tired of deflecting questions about your post-graduation plans? Read “Tree of Smoke,” and you’ll be able to redirect the most awkward conversations to safer ground. Denis Johnson’s latest novel has all the hallmarks of a good conversation-starter: It won this year’s National Book Award, so most people will have heard of it; if they haven’t they’ll be too ashamed to admit it; and it’s set during the Vietnam War, so you can gauge your fellow conversationalists’ political leanings before you accidentally start a food-fight over Iraq. Even if you already have a job to brag about, this is worth a read for its account of the American experience and failures in that earlier war.

Recommended reading: In case Iraq does come up, you’ll want to be prepared. Read Washington Post reporter Rajic Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” for an inside look at the occupation.

FILM 361 Oscar Contenders

Before you head out to see “Atonement,” the Joe Wright-directed movie clearly gunning for Best Picture, be sure to read the 2001 novel on which it’s based. Reviews of the movie have been mixed, but Ian McEwan’s novel is nearly universally acclaimed. McEwan weaves a complicated three-part novel that is gradually revealed to be as much about the act of writing as it is about its purported subjects: Briony Tallis, her sister Cecilia and Cecilia’s lover Robbie. Who knows? You might even like the book more than the movie.

CR/D/F option: Reconnect with your childhood self and reread Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” before seeing the sure-to-be blockbuster.

LITR 763 I Only Read Classics

Disdainers of contemporary fiction are in luck this season — Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky just released their new translation of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” so you can be au courant without jeopardizing your reputation as a literary snob. The translators have been heralded nearly everywhere for their efforts to preserve Tolstoy’s style within a highly readable translation, just as they did with “Anna Karenina” a few years ago. If anyone has the temerity to ask why you hadn’t already read the Greatest Novel of All Time, just say you were waiting for their translation.

Extra credit: After you finish the original, try “The Bromfield War and Peace,” which cuts out Tolstoy’s pesky philosophical digressions and slims the novel to half its size.

ENGL 376 First Novels

Already a well-known short-story writer, it took Junot Diaz 11 years to complete his first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” In the three months since it was published, it’s garnered considerable acclaim, and emerged as a must-read book for the literary cognoscenti. On its surface, the novel is a bildungsroman of Oscar Wao, a nerdy, overweight Dominican-American teenager from New Jersey. But in the course of telling Oscar’s story, Diaz flits back in time to the early history of the Dominican Republic and the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who controlled the country from 1930 to 1961. Maybe it can count for history credit, too!

Recommended reading: Now that the writer’s strike has put “The Office” in reruns, check out Joshua Ferris’s debut novel satirizing cubicle life, “Then We Came to the End.”

CGSC 012 This is Your Brain on Music

You’re a Yalie who reads scene. Let’s face it, you probably slogged through Group IV (or Sc and QR) and fled Science Hill as soon as you could. But if you need to polish your “Renaissance man” persona just in time for those fellowship interviews, never fear — Dr. Oliver Sacks is here to make neuroscience comprehensible to the rest of us. You may already be familiar with “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” but Sacks’s latest pop-science entry is “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.” He’ll tell you everything you want to know about why “humans are a musical species,” with compelling anecdotes from his own patients and a New Yorker writer’s polished prose stylings to boot.

This course is cross-listed with the American Studies department for cocktail party credit.

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