25 September, 2017

Twelve Books I Spent My Summer Reading

Never one to shy from an intimidating text, I'd had James Joyce's Ulysses on my wish list forever, until my friend Zach ordered a copy and loaned it to me. After slogging through those 800 pages of intermittent coherence, I handed it back to him with the pride of a wounded soldier returning from a decisive battle: I had faced the enemy and survived. PUSD ought to be declared a real thing, though, because I definitely needed a little talk therapy to work through my post-Ulysses stress.

Then there was a major fight and Crossroads was locked down for the better part of a week. By an astonishing stroke of luck, the prison library had just shelved a Virginia Woolf volume that included Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando — arguably her three best-known novels — and I'd checked it out a couple of days before my cell confinement began. A lot of guys deplore lockdowns, but I relished those days of silence, having every meal delivered to my door (although, cheese sandwiches do turn tedious pretty quickly), and being temporarily released from all obligation. It felt like a four-day hotel stay, except for the part where I had to bathe in the sink every night. At least the entertainment was top-notch: Woolf wrote gorgeously.

Some research for my eternal work-in-regress, the novel I seem incapable of writing, then led me through The Book of Hadith — sayings attributed to Muhammad in the Mishkat al-Masabih, selected by Charles le Gai Eaton. And because that was such a heady thing, I followed it with Marion Herbert's German translation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. I almost never read anything in German, so it's reassuring that my second-language literacy is still intact. Thanks to John A., for surprising me with the gift of this modern fable.

John also ordered me Umberto Eco's sinister quasi-historical fiction The Prague Cemetery (as translated by Richard Dixon), because he and I are both so taken with Eco's genius. The Prague Cemetery turned out to be my least favorite of his novels, but even Eco at his worst is better than many writers at their best, so thank you, John, for that.

A couple of fantastical reads followed — Jennifer Egan's vaguely Gothic novel The Keep and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde and Other Stories. Neither struck me as exceptional, but Stevenson's Scottish-dialect ghost story, "Thrawn Janet," succeeded on numerous levels and is highly recommended late-night reading for fans of supernatural tales.

My first experience with William Faulkner ended very well. I shut the cover of As I Lay Dying with a contented sigh. What a masterpiece! Faulkner surprised me by flirting with magical realism in this novel of poor Southerners' hardship. I'd supposed that his was a more terse, factual style of writing. In reality, Faulkner seems to me quite dreamily impressionistic. Marvelous stuff!

Switching gears, I moved on to a memoir. Missouri's governor, Eric Greitens, is the author of four books, including The Heart and the Fist, which details his extensive humanitarian aid work, training as a Golden Gloves boxer, Oxford University attendance as a Rhodes scholar, agonizing conditioning to become a Navy SEAL, and cofounding the nonprofit The Mission Continues with a friend. I came away with an affinity for the man I wouldn't have thought possible after seeing last year's campaign ads on TV — proof that politics exists in a different sphere of reality than the one where people actually live.

Then Nicholson Baker's novel Traveling Sprinkler proved an offbeat delight. (I'd expect nothing less from an author who once used for a novel's entire plot a businessman's trip up an office-building escalator. That book, The Mezzanine, was also a joy to read.) Thomas McCormack's thick-tongued advice, in The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, counterbalanced it. My mother gifted me the latter because, well, you just don't know where fresh knowledge is going to come from. At least she got it for cheap.

Gearing up for a slog through serious work in October, I didn't want to commit to any long-form fiction. The Best American Short Fiction 2014, despite being three years old, showed up on the library's New Books shelf and was just the thing. Jennifer Egan and Heidi Pitlor edited these phenomenal pieces from the usual assortment of magazines — Meridian to The New Yorker, and everything in between. The Best American series have yet to let me down, but the short-story collections are perennial sources of excellence.

There's also something to be said about having my morning coffee with RED MEAT, the collection of Max Cannon comic strips that makes up in flavor what it lacks in taste. Emily C. surprised me with this, and it was more fun than a mouthful of crickets. I did what I could to savor the strips, reading no more than two each day. I failed at restraining myself. RED MEAT is addictive. In the end, I binged, not even bothering with excuses. My nerves are a wreck from all that caffeine, but at least I had some good laughs.

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