14 October, 2016

The List: Reading July through September 2016

Maria Friberg, Still Lives #3

Surrounded by good books this summer, I nevertheless read less than usual. At times I felt guilty for letting so much worthwhile literature sit unregarded while I absorbed myself in other concerns (time-sensitive and fairly important though they were). There was a two-week stretch during which I only worked out once and didn't leave the housing unit for a single rec period — a pretty good indicator of my monomaniacal drive. But dammit, I got done what I set out to do.

As they so often do, my dear Mum, the good Lady Val, and Prospero's Tom Wayne collectively sent more books than my busyness allowed me to read before this quarter was up. I did my level best. Two still sit on my shelf as I type this. There's a temptation to take one up right now, but with the completion of my latest big project (HTML-related — don't even ask) I've felt the return of my muse and have been daily progressing on my long-unfinished novel, ignored these many months. The fiction on my shelf can wait a little longer.

* * * * *

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
The way it crackles with possibilities and breathes with Egan's multifarious, lifelike prose, I hardly wonder why A Visit from the Goon Squad won so many prestigious awards (National Book Critics Circle, New York Times Book Review Best Book, the Pulitzer). She created a veritable solar system when she wrote this novel, an intricate series of orbits — some closer, some farther distant — with her character Bennie Salazar in the role of its sun. Bennie's rise and fall and resurrection in the music business is the novel's ostensible plot. Leaping, skipping, shuffling, and spinning around years and continents, the book's numerous voices resolve themselves into a chorus by tantalizing degrees as their interconnectedness dawns on us, a brilliant and subtle affirmation of life's ephemerality and infinite potential.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
His luminous language always delighted me before, and this, Rushdie's second novel, from 1981, proves to be no exception. It won the Booker Prize then, and got voted "Best of the Booker" in 2008, probably because it's practically the Platonic ideal of a novel.

The story of Saleem Sinai, a "nine-fingered, horn-templed, monk's tonsured, stain-faced, bow-legged, cucumber-nosed, castrated […] grotesque creature," whose destiny and India's tragicomically mirror one another bore some superficial similarities, in its telling, to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. It's not derivative, though. Not by a long shot. And the only thing about reading Midnight's Children that I didn't like was the impossibility of ever reading it again for the first time.

César Aira (Katherine Silver, translator), Dinner
Twee turns sensational, then ruminative, in this novella by the prolific Argentinian, which landed flat, for me, after a perfectly nice setup: an aging bachelor and his mother, just back from dinner with a rich friend, return home and see live television footage of risen corpses slurping the brains of panicking townsfolk.

"Was it a nightmare, the result of a bad case of indigestion, poor television programming, or did something truly scary happen in Pringles that evening after dinner?" asks the back-cover copy. Thus the story plays fast and loose with certainties, dreamlike, in the manner of David Lynch films or Jesse Ball novels, only without those works' usual credulous perspective. Midway through Dinner, narration switches to an omniscient voice implying that what we're reading is only a dream, which robs everything that follows of any consequence (as well as my interest).

Amber Sparks, The Unfinished World: And Other Stories
Many short-fiction collections start strong as hell, then rapidly devolve into mediocrity…or worse. Not so, this one. The first story here risked losing my interest from the get-go. It took me two more before The Unfinished World, Sparks's genre-agnostic second published book, offered anything memorable.

By the collection's end, I understood why. Despite her often-ingenious premises — space-station janitors, Arthurian heroes resurrected to aid treasure-seekers, unrequited love between famous Victorian naturalists, an Eternal Library that physically houses abstract concepts — Sparks shines when her tales have room to spread out and develop those ideas' potential. She's competent at short-shorts and flash fiction, but since when does "competent" stir readers? The longer stories here, particularly the novella that lends the collection its title, are engaging, darkly beautiful pieces that lift The Unfinished World to another plane altogether.

Jon Duckett, HTML & CSS
Being locked away and denied computer use for an indefinite period hasn't dampened my interest in all things webby. CSS had yet to be widely adopted by web developers in 2001, when Missouri took me captive. XML was just coming into use. Flash held boundless promise. People still liked RealPlayer.

My, times have changed.

Once I got past the remedial opening chapters (this colorful book being an extremely beginner-friendly how-to), I had quite a few fun aha moments, taking me back to an uber-geeky past life when I could roll around in code for hours on end and not realize five minutes had passed. Nostalgia meets enrichment — it doesn't get much better than that.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Like Orwell's 1984, this novel deserves several readings per lifetime. (Both are on my list of forty favorite fiction works.) Vonnegut was a satirist nonpariel, and Slaughterhouse-Five is a fine reminder of how effectively humor communicates ghastly truths. His life's work consisted of fourteen novels, several story collections and plays, and some nonfiction, and although he was old when he died, in 2007, it seems like there should've been so much more.

So it goes.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas: A Novel
Wait, a novel? More like a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale, then back again. The connective tissue of these nested narratives is the lives of the souls the book follows, the echoes and repeating motifs occurring from one incarnation to the next. Mitchell does the voices and cleverly frames them so well, the recurrances strike the reader like lightning even though they're written as mere dejá vù.

Rainer Maria Rilke (Joan M. Burnham, translator), Letters to a Young Poet
Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke's six-year correspondence with an admiring unknown sparkles with wisdom and friendly tokens of affection, and it's so rewarding to read. I hesitate to say more. In his inaugural letter to his young acolyte, Rilke cautioned:
Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no words has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
These letters have long outlived their sender, their recipient. They endure for precisely the reasons art does, because they are art.

Robert Kirkman, et al., Outcast by Kirkman & Azaceta, Vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him
Highbrow to low-, my reading habits surprise even me at times. This comic was loaned to me, but don't be misled: I'm a true-blue comic-book geek from way back. Funnily enough, the last comic that I read was also borrowed from another prisoner, and it, too, was written by Robert Kirkman.

COO of Image Comics (Marvel and DC's only serious competition), and creator of, basically, every human being's favorite TV series, The Walking Dead, Kirkman's kind of a hot commodity at the moment. Until my friend Zach told me about Outcast, though, I was oblivious to its existence. (My subscription to Wizard lapsed a while back. I don't know if Comic Shop News even survived the '90s. I'm out of touch.) It's cool stuff.

The comic's laconic bits-and-pieces disclosure style would be familiar to Walking Dead fans. The similarities end there. Outcast is supernatural horror — The Exorcist meets Constantine. For all the demonic possessions, you'd expect more action, and my take is that twenty-two pages (the standard length of contemporary comics) is nowhere near enough for this story to gather its momentum. If I had picked issue #1 off the rack and perused it, I'd have left the shop with a back issue of Spawn instead.

The thing is, fans collect issues and read trade paperbacks like this volume, which collects the first six issues. Before I reached the end of Vol. 1, the only quibble I had was not being able to stroll over to Clint's Books & Comics, my old fanboy haunt, and buy Vol. 2.

A.C. Grayling, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible
During an appearance on The Colbert Report, Professor Grayling described his impetus for "making" this book, a distillation of hundreds of distinct philosophical works, as being a desire to see a single-volume secular guide to living a good, meaningful life. The Christians have their Bible, the Muslims have their Koran, the Hare Krishnas have their Bhagavadgita, and so on, so why shouldn't humanists have our own collection of parables, proverbs, histories, and general wisdom, just without all that supernatural stuff? Grayling acknowledged how ambitious, even arrogant, the idea sounds, and confessed that the end result falls well short of perfection, but it's nevertheless an impressive undertaking and an inspiring text to absorb. Who knows, maybe a couple of thousand years' edits, additions, and redactions at the hands of others will render The Good Book a monument of human brilliance, industry, and loving kinship. We have to start somewhere.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy, editors), The Blithedale Romance: A Norton Critical Edition)
Most high-school English classes have Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter on their reading lists. I dropped out of Lincoln College Prep before any introduction to the harrowing ordeal of Hester Prynne, and didn't get around to Hawthorne until last month. In keeping with my curious tendency to not begin with authors' better-known work, The Blithedale Romance is probably his most critically derided novels (one of his peers called it "the slightest and most colourless" of Hawthorne's novels). You might ask why I do this to myself; I might be at a loss to answer.

The Blithedale Romance is, for sure, a mess, heavy on overwrought Gothic trappings and! until a totally uncalled-for death scene near the end, light on action I've heard that Hawthorne wasn't the best at structuring his plots. No one warned me, however, that I risked physical injury by reading this book. Again and again I tipped bodily forward, nearly hurling myself off my bunk, dozing. Lying down to read was safer. It was also the reason I took weeks to read this book. Being horizontal only made me fall asleep faster.

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