09 January, 2014

The List: Reading October Through December 2013

The Tuesday pick-up trips I make from my housing unit to the property room are thrilling, as filled with expectation as a child’s Christmas morning. If I know a package is coming, I’ll sleep fitfully the night before, eager to open my eyes and dimly see the narrow white slip of paper in the cell door. If it’s there, I’ll clamber quietly down from my bunk and, squinting, hold it up to the sliver of light that comes in from across the walk, hoping the printed text reads:

CASE 328416
04C 00247
If it’s not, I’ll check the clock at the head of the bed, reassure myself that it’s still too early for passes to have been doled out, then fade once more into sleep. 

A guard opens envelopes and boxes in front of me and writes their contents in my file. They’re handed through a little window, along with a receipt. I like to wait until I’m back in my cell before I study any books received, riffle pages, admire design and cover art, smell paper, run my finger down spines. Eventually I’ll get down to actually reading, but the initial experience I have with a book is always sensual, drawn out like a slow-burn courtship.

For as much joy as books provide me, I wonder now why and when I stopped using these introductions to “List” posts to publicly thank everyone generous enough to enrich my day-to-day with reading material. I hardly need to comb through previous posts to realize it’s been too long. Thank you to Mum, Lady Val, John A., Rosie M., Timothy Green at Rattle, Crabby Becky, and the Poetry Foundation, for the pleasure of printed matter this quarter.

* * * * *

Samuel R. Delany, Nova
At some point midway through this tale of interstellar adventure, I became aware of a weird habit I have. Nova is Delany’s ninth novel, written when the author was just twenty-five. It garnered great praise from critics. But it’s not the Delany work I was recommended. That would be Dhalgren, a much-lauded novel I’ve seen classified as sci-fi, magical realism, and something called slipstream fiction. Dhalgren’s still in print and not much different from Nova in price so why did I order the latter instead of the former? And why is this something I actually do often with authors whose writings I don’t yet know?

Some of my recommendation rebelliousness can be blamed on my skepticism — the same trait that makes me immune to sales pitches, unmoved by church hymns, and weird about accepting gifts. People go so buggy for all sorts of insipid bullshit. (Look at Two and a Half Men. Actually, no, don’t.) The author whose book does a number on critics or one of my trusted friends may have simply gotten lucky; one positively reviewed work could be a fluke. By choosing to read something else by the same author, I feel as though I’m doing my research, digging deeper, dragging the literary lake.

But isn’t that what you’re supposed to do only after you’ve read something impressive? Whose first William Golding encounter begins with The Inheritors rather than with Lord of the Flies? Who, after being urged to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, adds The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to his wish list instead? Me, that’s who. And rather than experiencing Delany’s praised literary achievement, which I was assured meets Byronic standards, I went for the space opera of Nova, which (sorry, Sam) doesn’t.

It’s not Delany’s fault. Nova’s take on an intergalactic society is a true product of its era — a forgivable shortcoming of much science fiction — and was probably compelling to readers in its pre-Star Wars, pre-Star Trek, pre-Stargate period. Now, though, it seems too much a relic, a relic worth studying if you’re into digging up writers histories... except most readers aren’t archaeologists.

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Dead presidents resurrect in the bodies of horses on an isolated farm. Girls contracted to manufacture silk in a Japanese factory find themselves metamorphosed into fuzzy worms who eat only leaves. A scarecrow four teens find lashed to a tree in the city park bears an uncanny resemblance to a disappeared schoolmate the boys used to bully.

Karen Russell’s stories play so beautifully within their realms of fantasy, obliterating notions of what genre is and should do, and I have yet to find one of them — printed in this or any other publication where her fiction’s appeared — that fails to delight. Vampires in the Lemon Grove confirms that I’ve got to read her debut novel, Swamplandia!, before I read any deeper into her lesser known works.

Richard A. Lanham, Style: An Anti-Textbook (Second Edition)
Thorough and eminently readable, Style amounts to a book-length jeremiad against the inattention to style in American college courses. It astutely points out how odd this is, considering the United States’ supposed desire to teach its citizenry prose composition. Lanham bemoans what he calls “The Books” — prescriptive texts, such as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, full of dos and don’ts for the writer and would-be writer — which he says are either ambiguous or focus too much on clarity to give students an understanding of what vibrant, meaningful prose does. He makes his (mostly) valid points with verve and aplomb.

I got the recommendation for Style from Professor Brooks Landon’s Great Courses lecture series, Building Great Sentences, which I can’t say enough good things about.

David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
Appropriation and the defiance of genre (AKA literary theft and disregard for fact) are the core values spoused by this brilliant work, which itself is a largely plagiarized, difficult-to-classify volume calling for a wholesale rethinking of what we, readers and especially writers, prize in literature. I couldn’t shut up about Shields’s cri de coeur the entire time I was mulling over its twenty-six chapters, and it’s hard to convey how profoundly they affected me. The inherent impossibility of factual recollection, the myth of originality, the limitations imposed by narrative — these struck me as radical ideas when I first read them, yet, on reflection, make more practical sense than what’s at play in most contemporary literature, which stagnates in boring, outmoded principles. There’s a lot to absorb here. I’m keeping Reality Hunger around for a second read. I think I’d be a fool not to.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
Write a one-page narrative without using a single punctuation mark (it won’ be grammatical, but that’s the point). Write a single sentence of 250 to 400 words, which tells a narrative. Write three separate narratives using first-person perspective, all describing the same scene or event.

Sound like your idea of a good time? They did to me, and were. I think writers of all skill levels will appreciate Steering the Craft, whether they’re after a worthwhile creative diversion, a jump-start for an idle mind, or a healthful stretch of writerly muscles.

Zubair Ahmed, City of Rivers
I opened this book, the third title (I believe) in McSweeney’s Poetry Series, to its title page and was tipped over by the sight of the poet’s actual signature there, in pen that bled oh-so-slightly through, with the date written as “01/18/13” — eleven months, to the day, before I held the book in my own hands. This happenstantial tidbit made my reading of City of Rivers immoderately serious, for it hammered home a point casual readers often let slip by unnoticed: these words were set down by a person who wanted what he had to say heard. I listened closely.

Ahmed was born and raised in Bangladesh — a shithole, by my understanding — and came to the States in 2005, while still in his teens. But what this group of the young poet’s work represents is less the immigrant experience (as if there could be only one!) than simply experience — of growing up where animal corpses rot in the streets, where leather factories foul the air, and where seven months of monsoon rains will not wash away the ash and dust that cling to everything, to everyone. Cities other than Ahmed’s native Dhaka make appearances in these poems, but in their shadows and sunrises lurk the memories of home, inescapable as his own skin.

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