Bear with me: A lot of undergraduate students end up writing theses to conclude the best four years of our lives (college, supposedly).

But I completed (and finally printed, bound and turned in) my English thesis earlier this week, and am only now emerging from my writing-induced fog. The scruffy, unwashed types wandering down from Kerrytown or out of FedEx Kinko’s toward the bars Monday afternoon were most likely not overenthusiastic students getting a head start on St. Patrick’s Day, but members of the thesis cohort finally emerging from the library and into the true bliss of second-semester senior year, blindly turning to the sunlight after one last, brutal all-nighter, like the cave dwellers of Plato’s allegory.

Let me be indulgent with this column, one last time. I am graduating soon, from this university and from the Daily. Don’t worry. And OK, I’m not exactly using this Plato allegory to its fullest — I’m just borrowing its imagery. But hopefully I’m not returning to the cave of ignorance, or the cave-like basement of Ambrosia for further line-editing of hard copy drafts, anytime soon.

In my thesis, I explore how the particular socio-historical space that is post-apartheid South Africa plays into the narrative of J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Disgrace” as well as readers’ volatile reception of the novel in South Africa and abroad.

“Disgrace” tells the story of a white South African professor who, after having an affair with a student (who can be inferred to be non-white), loses his teaching post and moves to his daughter’s farm in the country. Soon after he arrives, the farm is attacked in a seemingly random act of violence. Three black men rob the house, assault the professor and gang-rape the daughter. Since its publication in 1999, discussion of the novel has been dominated by issues of race and, more specifically, accusations of racist writing, with some of the strongest criticism of the novel coming from Coetzee’s South African contemporaries.

I will spare you further detail about my project, except to say that, perhaps as an effect of spending so much time preoccupied with the politics of place, I found myself reading books for pleasure that were also, in their own way, concerned with place. Even if not dealing with the politics of a particular time and locale — implicitly or explicitly — the fiction and non-fiction I’ve been drawn to lately has made me rethink my conceptions of cities like New York, Beijing and Los Angeles.

Some current favorites are below for those of you also interested in writing where the setting becomes its own character (or also have a bit more free reading time at this point second semester.)

First up are “Miami,” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and essays on New York and Los Angeles by Joan Didion — Didion is a writer to whom I return again and again, despite (or perhaps because of) the demands she makes of her readers by sharing the most lovely and uncomfortable moments of her emotional life. Didion’s prose is evocative enough that the anxiety of Howard Hughes is palpable in just her description of his film lot.

“Netherland,” by Joseph O’Neill — O’Neill’s broken love letter to post-9/11 New York, told from the point of view of a Dutch banker whose British wife has (with their young son) left him and his adopted city. There’s more to it than that (including cricket, the Chelsea Hotel and childhood in The Hague), but O’Neill’s precise rationing of adjectives in describing the commute into, out of and around the boroughs and neighborhoods by various modes of transportation was what won me over to a book I wasn’t prepared to love.

“Ask the Dust” by John Fante — For those who love Charles Bukowski, a writer whose work oozes L.A., note this: Bukowski said of John Fante that he “was my God.” Written from the point of view of Fante’s alter ego, struggling writer Arturo Bandini, the novel unveils a particular experience of L.A. in the 1930s depicting the professional and romantic struggles of the protagonist.

“Beijing Coma” by Ma Jian — In his fiction of a young man left in a coma for 10 years after being shot during the crackdown on the student democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Ma Jian captures the sweaty details of what went on in Beijing the weeks before those photos of students in the path of army tanks went around the world.

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