01 October, 2015

The List: Reading July Through September 2015


Sarolta Bán


Among the reasons I like putting together these posts about my reading every three months is the revelation of unexpected patterns, digressions, and occasionally jarring contrasts that come to light when all the books I’ve been through are considered, one by one and as a motley whole. The timing of their subjects, too, is sometimes surprising.

In the wake of such major news items as the outing of the NAACP Spokane chapter’s president as white, the church massacre by racist creep Dylann Roof, and the much-belated lowering of the Confederate flag (we hope for good), my intention wasn’t to pick up two successive novels that meditate on American blackness — it just happened as a result of liking those authors’ previous work. And somehow it makes sense that I would progress from there to mysteries and science fiction (a stack of old Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, and Asimov’s issues finished out the month), genres that often challenge the reader with ideas only occasionally more outré than the concept of racism.

So: these “List” posts illustrate reading as Rorschach test. Reading as weathervane, too. Reading, also, as tarot, runes, bones.

My hearty thanks to Kristin S., Tom at Prospero’s, and Bridget S. this quarter, for sending me so many exceptional books. I can hardly wait to devour them all.

* * * * *

Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel
There’s too much here to neatly encapsulate. All of Lethem’s prodigious talents are brought to bear, and the story he’s set down swells with commensurate energy and scope. To call this a corning-of-age novel denies the complexity of its sociological perspectives. To say it’s about 1970s Brooklyn is to shrug off its sense of timeless intimacy. To zoom from its wide panorama to its addressing of racial identity or relations devalues its treasures. Although, to do any of the above would be technically accurate and therefore excusable. How do you write about a life? Obituary writers have their way, directed more by word count constraints than fidelity. Biographers have another, bound to a preconceived narrative arc. Lethem, with The Fortress of Solitude, gives us something altogether more vibrant, more meaningful, by way of Dylan Edbus and his friendship with Mingus Rude.

Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist: A Novel
On the strength of Zone One, Whitehead’s insightful zombie novel of a few years ago, I insisted on reading this, his debut novel, set in what could be an alternate-history Manhattan of the 1960s. I wasn’t disappointed. Whitehead’s prose is alive and his plotting deft. The story of Lila Mae Watson, this nameless metropolis’s first black female elevator inspector, getting swept up in political conspiracy — a game piece fought over by multiple feuding factions — has all the briskness of a beach read. But its uncanny way with irony and subtlety belie the book’s status as literary fiction.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (Edmund Wilson, editor), The Crack-Up
Before this, my familiarity with Fitzgerald was nil. The Great Gatsby, probably his most lauded work, might’ve been on the syllabus at my high school, but I left too soon to find out. Wide-ranging though my subsequent reading has been, it never included so much as his Benjamin Button. I’ve written here before about my tendency to approach from strange angles, not least (as is the hallmark of the autodidact) in matters of literature. Coming at Fitzgerald via his personal essays, letters, and unpublished notes, as they’re collected in The Crack-Up, often rough and rugged, is like ransacking the man’s bathroom — inspecting his medicine collection, checking his bathtub’s cleanliness, and itemizing the contents of his wastebasket. In other words, it may be the best way to get to know him.

Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Yet another writing project led me to reread this. The first time was at least twenty years ago. A Study in Scarlet, for anyone who doesn’t know, marked the world’s first encounter with Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t make his acquaintance until I was eleven or twelve years old, almost 100 years later, when another fictional character introduced us. My favorite TV series at the time was Star Trek: The Next Generation, on which the android Starfleet officer, Data, spent occasional off-duty hours role-playing Holmes mysteries on the Enterprise D’s holodeck. Because I strongly identified with Data’s social misadventures, it stood to reason I’d appreciate Holmes’s exploits, too.

As it turned out, we had a lot in common. Holmes
  • is an outsider;
  • is often misunderstood by those around him;
  • is passionate about his interests, to the point of being consumed, and ignores most everything outside their sphere, no matter how commonsensical or culturally relevant;
  • is begrudgingly acknowledged by others for his talents, but gets little or no reward for his successes;
  • lives a rich inner life;
  • has keener-than-average senses; and
  • plays the violin well, but only in private, for his own pleasure.
Because of how we met, it’s damn near impossible for me to think of the Sherlock Holmes adventures as anything but YA fiction. (Yes, even with the myriad obscure references and untranslated passages in French and Latin. And of course I’m only assuming there are no hidden allusions to Euripides and his Hippolytus in The Hunger Games. Correct me if I’m wrong.) It was kind of fun to revisit 221B Baker Street, though. They were some of the best research hours I’ve had in quite a while.

Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams
How might time behave, and what might its nature be, in other worlds? While working in that Swiss patent office, Albert Einstein certainly gave this question lots of thought, and from that was birthed his theory of time. What Alan Lightman does here is imagine, in essence, Einstein’s dream journal — all of the ways time might work elsewhere, and what life would be like for the people in those other worlds. Lightman presents these flights of fancy with a lyricism and sensitivity not often seen from scientists (he’s not only a novelist but a theoretical physicist, and I found Einstein’s Dreams to be echoed by another physicist’s lovely work, Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives). This book is a minor treasure, as a result.

Kevin Brockmeier, The View from the Seventh Layer
His breathtaking novel-in-stories, The Illumination, told me everything I needed to know about Kevin Brockmeier: that he possesses a near-supernatural sense of his characters’ inner lives, which are usually glossed over by lesser writers; that he understands how, more than by almost anything else, we are shaped by our flaws and pains; that he is able to tell a story without being limited by any particular genre, which resonates as deeply as a bell gong struck in the pit of your stomach. I knew these things. Reading The View from the Seventh Layer just strengthened my conviction.

Thirteen stories, about aesthetic rebellion, the value of unfulfilled desire, the meaning(s) of life, identity versus external perception, and the precious mundanities of existence make up this collection. It’s forty-three, if you count every possible iteration of “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story.” To paraphrase Donald Bartheme, I loved each of them, strange objects that they are, covered in fur, which broke my heart.

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves
If anyone in contemporary sci-fi could pull off a multigenerational epic spanning 5,000 years, it’d be Stephenson. He’s been toying with such grand visions for years — from the spans involved in his present-day/World War Two-era Cryptonomicon (itself loosely connected to his Baroque Cycle novels), to the temporally cloistered monks of Anathem. Spanning centuries seems to come naturally to his restless mind.

Even the most rigorous completist is bound to overlook a detail or two while wrangling five millennia of culture, language, and technology into fewer than 900 pages. I found a few minor points to quibble with (one of which, early in the story, I actually tweeted him about). For all I know, though, some of these were deliberate liberties Stephenson took, in the interests of plot or readability. In any event, Seveneves made for good summer reading.

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