Thursday, March 14, 2013

Susan Nance

Susan Nance is Associate Professor of US History at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada and affiliated faculty of the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare. Her new book is Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus.

A few weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading.  Nance's reply:
Right now I'm reading things that I hope will make my next manuscript materialize as readable and intelligent as possible. My new project is a history of rodeos and the various myths of the North American West they perform/ed. So I'm plowing through all the canonical big surveys of Western history like Richard White's It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West, Patricia Limerick's Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken History of the American West, Michael Johnson's Hunger for the Wild: America's Obsession with the Untamed West and Richard Slotkin's trilogy Gunfighter Nation, Regeneration Through Violence and The Fatal Environment, among others. These books are all monumental and very intimidating, thick books covering big time spans and diverse territories and peoples. Yet they all come up with a unified and profound argument that ties all that history together. Violence, poverty, hubris and inequality figure strongly in all their interpretations of the West, big themes I need to think long and hard about. They also remind me that we have known that our ideas of the West are myths for so long now that one must work very hard to add something new to this idea. So I have my work cut out for me.

I'm rereading Elizabeth Hess's book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. It's is a real page-turner and I am trying to understand how she achieves that by conveying interesting characters, especially human ones, in concise prose. I am not very good at that yet, and need to get better. (I just finished reading a bunch of turgid, prolix 19th-century horse racing magazines and my writing deteriorated accordingly -- so it's an emergency!) She also writes about a truly despicable episode in human-animal relations in a way that is very honest, but somehow not heavy handed or too depressing to bear. I've stopped reading more than one book (academic and trade books) because I could see how they were sewn together - nothing drives me crazier quicker than wading through a text whose construction is out in front. Hess's book is seamless, which is in part why it's so hard to put down, I think.

Lastly and for the same reasons, I'm also reading Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger's book, Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century, which is beautifully written, gossipy, sympathetic, well-researched, insightful and all about celebrities -- basically everything I wish my own writing could be.
Visit Susan Nance's website.

--Marshal Zeringue