10 April, 2012

The List: Reading January Through March 2012

If you’re acquainted with my conventional year-end postings of all the books I read in the previous twelve months, this sudden appearance of “The List in April should surprise you. I first posted a long alphabetical inventory of every book I could recall reading since my imprisonment — the period spanning from June of 2001 to that early 2008 date — after learning from a magazine piece about the practice of sharing reading lists. It seemed like a nifty idea. And a challenge: could I remember every title I’d read during those prior five and a half years? More recently, though, I’ve come to question the value of just tacking up a list of forty-some titles bereft of substantial comment or any critical insight.

Sure, there’s something fun about adding another line to my list as I close the cover of each book. Doing so adds to the feeling of satisfied completion. But then what? Who benefits? Certainly my friends like to know imprisonment hasn’t forced upon me crap books, but I prefer to think that there is more than a mere curiosity factor involved.

So we come to this list: ten books in three months. Except it isn’t only the length of this list that’s different. From here out, every book I read gets a review. This is bound to be more interesting and worthwhile for everyone. Followers of The Pariah’s Syntax who are avid readers (and few of you aren’t) may come away with recommendations to add to your own wish list, while I’ll get an acceptable excuse to monologue at great length about something I love (or hate, as the case may be).

* * * * *

Bill Brown, Dream Whip Issues 1-10
In this fat little DIY travelogue compilation from zine publisher Microcosm, the author — sketchbook aficionado, wandering poet, and lonely adventurer — muses on his sojourns across the widest expanses and teensiest pockets of North America. An index at the back lists such subjects as “coffee, black” (page 48), “dead people, machine for picking up voices of” (page 147), and life, as sweet, scummy bog” (page 210). Those for whom staying in one location very long is a spirit-crushing prospect will empathize when Brown, writing in third-person, muses, “His joints ached, and he wasn’t sure if they ached from too much wandering, or if they ached to be going again….”

Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti, The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City
It isn’t a how-to, doesn’t concern itself overtly with capital-P Philosophy, and tends not to dwell on “issues,” yet I found this compendium of superficially disparate essays/monologues/riffs oddly important. Throughout its seventy-two chapters — many of which are comprised of a single page — on topics as varied as partygoing, game theory, quitting smoking by wearing a suit, experimental music, and the virtues of miscommunication, Chairs delivers a sort of quiet profundity that’s well worth experiencing.

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
As a fan of PKD’s deft handling of the uncanny, I can scarcely believe how long it took for me to get around to this affecting, Hugo Award-winning alternate-history novel. Distinct from his blatantly sci-fi works, yet just as compelling (if not more so), this tale unfolds in 1962, in a North America under joint Japanese and German rule following a loss to the Axis in World War Two. With adroit balance, Dick mixes political intrigue with the deeply human, ultimately transcending these genre-defining elements by posing that eternal and quintessentially Dickian question: What is reality? It is a book, foremost, of ideas — the kind that Dick always wrote well.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
This was my first foray into the work of Germany’s treasured national poet. I found it a little trying. An epistolic romance (the story is primarily told in the form of letters to a friend) of the terminally lovestruck eponymous young man, it was a short tale that seemed to me too much a reminder of departed friends. I ought to have gotten my introduction to Goethe through Faust, instead.

Larry Smith (editor), The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure
My moment, “The Verdict,” appears on page 205 of this great anthology from Harper Perennial, which I blogged about back in February. Check it out.

Haruki Murakami (Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, translators), 1Q84
I ♥ Murakami. His straightforwardly surreal stories bring a contemporary tweak to the mold set by Kafka, and I’m a sucker for them.

1Q84 (the title refers to the year in which the story is set: a subtly different version of 1984) tells the tales, in alternating chapters, of a young Tokyo man and woman whose lives become increasingly intertwined through a convoluted series of seemingly random happenings. This being a Murakami book, the happenings aren’t random at all, of course, and over its 925 pages it becomes clear that almost nothing in the plot is accidental. Along the way are a dead goat, a town of cats, and a reclusive religious group that worships the mysterious — oh, but I’ve already said too much.

An instant bestseller in the author’s native Japan, it’s a pity the translation 1Q84 received for its English-language readers was “off” at times. A couple of stylistic inconsistencies that should have been caught by the editor bothered me, too, but readers less fanatically observant of such things won’t even notice them. I ♥ this book somewhat less than Murakami’s others, but it remains an enjoyable, enigmatic epic.

Timothy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation
The poems of Timothy Donnelly are, to my mind, thoroughly modern. Yet on the occasions he turns his thoughts to antiquity, writing about ancient Egyptian or Central American culture, as he does a couple of times in The Cloud Corporation, this modernity makes his subjects crackle with life. Other pieces in the book are not (to use a dirty word) confessional, but, when they veer into the realm of the personal, they vividly reveal. It’s all quite a feat.

I am endlessly gratified by the writer’s playful pragmatism. This trait is most on display in the poems that might crudely be called mash-ups — works that juxtapose bits of disparate text, such as fragments from an Osama bin Laden tirade and sequential lyrics culled from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. Such efforts make several appearances in the book. Where Donnelly impresses me most, though, is in his inspired originals. My favorite is “Fun for the Shut-In,” which takes its title from an article in a children’s magazine and runs with it like a pair of scissors, beginning straight away with the grimly manic initial stanzas:
Demonstrate to yourself a resistance to feeling
unqualified despair by attempting something like
perfect despair embellished with hand gestures.

Redefine demonstration to include such movement as
an eye’s orbit around the room; the pull of red
through drinking straws or the teeth of a comb;

random winces, twitches, tics; the winding of clocks
and tearing of pages; the neck hair's response
to uninvited sound, light, and the scent of oranges

where none in fact exist.
Could lines like these be written by a man who has never known the consuming madness of hyperawareness? I doubt it. At their best, these are exquisite renderings of dissolution (in every sense of the word); at their worst, they’re still delightfully clever wordplay.

Philip K. Dick (Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, editors), The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick
Truly, I got more than expected with this excerpt from PKDs 9,000-page search for meaning in psychosis. The author’s visionary experiences in early 1974 — in which he believed, among many other things, that God had exposed itself as a pink beam of light in his Orange County apartment, that he’d temporarily shared his mind with the biblical Apostle Thomas, and that the fictional worlds of many of his sci-fi books were literal depictions of reality — prompted much self-questioning. The Exegesis is the written account of that eight-year inquiry.

Probably never meant for anyone’s eyes but Dick’s, it’s fascinating as a glimpse into the inner thoughts of a man at odds with his own convictions and concept of the empirical. As a work of literature, however, it’s tedious and repetitive, with sporadic glints of brilliance occluded by all the surrounding crazy. one editor’s annotation sums it up: “We wanted readers to experience a bit of what it’s like to read the original manuscript, page after page after page. It wouldn’t be the Exegesis if there wasn’t too much of it.”

An exemplary passage by Dick, from page 761, reads
Ill bet I never figure it out; it may take centuries of human thought and work after the Ditheon superman (or God) comes into existence. We may be faced with the true ruling (and truly most advanced) life form on this planet, which the mono-psyche human could not apprehend. It is also possible that now we meet our Creator and the entity that has guided and directed and determined and caused our evolution, like the great black slab in 2001.
Dick died in 1982 without the answers he so fervently sought, and I never figured them out, either. After nine hundred pages of delirium about the I Ching, the book of Acts, Richard Nixon, secret Christian cults, government thought-control implants, and reality’s resemblance to a ham sandwich, my own dreams were taking on decidedly erratic themes. I was relieved to move on to…

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Just what the world needed: a light, funny novel about Armageddon. The plot of this farcical tale radiates outward from a mix-up at a hospital run by the Satanic sisters of the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl. On the night the Antichrist is to be switched with the just-born son of a wealthy and privileged American diplomat, there to be raised with all the resources he’ll ever need to secure his title as Destroyer of Kings, Sister Mary Loquacious accidentally replaces the wrong baby and forges the first link of a chain of confusion that has world-changing consequences.

As if to settle once and for all the old nature-versus-nurture debate, the Antichrist is raised without the corrupting influences of Hell while the perfectly normal boy with whom he was switched grows up being groomed by the most devilishly devoted nannies and tutors. When the latter fails to meet expectations (although, he’s evidently good at math), and the signs of the apocalypse begin nevertheless appearing, several parties with vested interest in the outcome — an angel and a demon, a practical occultist and a private in the Witchfinder Army, and four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” — figure things out and converge willy-nilly on an idyllic, unsuspecting village.

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
Like a nexus point of Victor Hugo’s squalid medieval Paris, the ingenious London of H.G. Wells, and Philip K. Dick’s psychedelic San Francisco, the city of New Crobuzon in Miéville’s books is a festering steampunk Babel. Its streets and dank alleys teem with bizarre residents the imagination balloons to accommodate — scarified, beflowered cactus-men; a race of scarab-headed women and their grublike male counterparts; gross little sentient waterborne blobs; an ostracized criminal class whose offenses are punished surgically, by way of catastrophic mechanical or animal grafts. The author’s bachelor’s in social anthropology informs him well, and he renders these denizens so evocatively that their impossible nature becomes believable, even common-seeming, as though the reader were surrounded by them daily.

The story here, in brief, centers around an unorthodox scientist the nature of whose work attracts a plea for help by a crippled creature from a distant land. In the ensuing research he does to mend the stranger, our man of science involuntarily unleashes something dark and arcane on New Crobuzon — something so terrible that the city’s much-feared militia cannot stop, and against which Hell itself will not intercede.

Miéville’s literary talents are prodigious. It’s no wonder why Perdido Street Station won the British Fantasy Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He writes with the versatility demanded of one whose work brilliantly defies anything as pedestrian and small-minded as genre boundaries.

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