23 March, 2018

Fifteen Books I Spent My Winter Reading

Not that I believe in making New Year's resolutions, but I want 2018 to be the year I finish writing the novel that's often seemed doomed to languish in its folder since I started it, accidentally, in late-2012 (ack!). With resumption and completion of that project in mind, I hit the research materials early. Although somewhat dated, Elaine Sciolino's Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran gave me a better grasp of contemporary Iranian culture than any other source I'd found. (Thank you, Mum, for sending it.) Then I boned up on matters survivalist and scavenger-related, using generously given birthday funds: Emergency, by Neil Strauss, and the fascinating true story of one man's twenty-seven-year hermitage in Maine, Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods.

Breaking from this nonfiction jag, I tried to savor the novels sent to me by Lana C. three months back (which I mentioned in my fall reading overview). Books this good are hard to read sparingly. The Course of the Heart, a gorgeous metaphysical fantasy by the masterful M. John Harrison, whose work in SF never fails to leave an indelible impression on me, was quickly followed by Jesse Ball's compelling How to Set a Fire and Why. Ball has written so many surreal, dreamlike novels that this one's more straightforward story line surprised me…but not by any means in a bad way.

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl's Holocaust-survival-account-cum-existential-philosophy-treatise, validated many thoughts I've had about my life and how I share it with others. The Viennese psychiatrist's therapeutic method was familiar, in a way. Are all imprisonment experiences ultimately alike, psychologically speaking? Do those of us subjected to unjust sequestration have the same fixed number of possible responses? It certainly looks that way. But how inspirational Frankl's book is, just the same!

My friend John always sends me the sorts of uber-geeky books that no one else would. This time around, it was Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The long-defunct blog on linguistic concerns from dangling modifiers to hierarchical ontologies (you know, all the fun stuff) now exists only in part, in this paperback collection of posts that will interest virtually no one…except John and me. So, thanks for the gift, John.

The Vanishing American Adult, by prolific tweeter Senator Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, wasn't quite what his BookTV interview last year led me to believe. I expected a general-interest book of philosophy on living well and fully; I got a set of suggestions for parents hoping to inculcate character and a sense of meaning in their teenagers' lives. Still, the senator's greater points about what gives life substance and richness remain valid. Tidbits from his book fed into later thoughts that I had about how best to spend time, and about my visceral fear of squandering the minutes of my precious days.

A measure of my adulthood was temporarily relinquished for what came next. If you read my post on being an eternal and unabashed comic-book fanboy, then you can imagine the fun I had when I finally got to read the first Cerebus collection, by Dave Sim. There was an aura of legend surrounding the comic even in the mid-'90s, when my collecting peaked. This past December, the fortieth anniversary made my foray into the barbarian aardvark's realm kind of timely. Book One collects the first twenty-five issues — a two-and-a-half-year run — enough to see the art improve, the characters evolve, and a comprehensive world of magic and absurdity take shape. It was entertaining in a very different way from Daisuke Sato and Shouji Sato's zombie manga, Highschool of the Dead, loaned to me by Bobby and the Grub. (Astute readers will recall these wingmates of mine, from when I blogged about their handmade holiday-themed hanging heads, in last year's installment of "Halloween in the Hoosegow." They're into all kinds of nerdy shit, obviously.) It was my first manga and required some explaining. You read manga backward, I already backward, because they're translated from Japanese, but a few quirks of the genre had me asking questions. For instance, why the fixation on enormous breasts?


Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer) started out, "The Part About the Critics," like a dry cough. Some of this was comparative, I admit. It's worlds apart from the graphic novels above. But by degrees 2666 developed into a full-blown fever. My patience and resolve to turn all 900 pages were rewarded with a modern masterpiece that's by turns brutal, tender, baffling, and trenchant. Another translation, Coda: A Novel, is René Belletto's sixty-nine-page experimental work that, in my opinion, Alyson Waters needn't have wasted her prowess with the French language on. The book's basically a mélange of suspense, absurdist comedy, existential intrigue, and familial melodrama. Like I say about so much French cinema, Ça ne me plaît pas.

And finally, because short-form SF is a mode of a genre I'm apparently incapable of ever tiring of, I finished off the season with a couple of fat collections, the Al Sarrantonio-edited Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction and the phenomenal duo of David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best SF 17. The former was more of a mixed bag — maybe this is why it was a one-off anthology, rather than a series like the latter — but both carried me through the damp and dreary days of a waning, lackluster winter's end. Alternate history, extraterrestrials, interdimensional travel, near-future dystopias, the Singularity, and so on and so forth — all the themes and more. Imagining futures. There are worse ways to start a year. 

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