06 January, 2017

The List: Reading October through December 2016

Jacek Yerka, Bible Dam

In the years since I started posting these reading lists, I doubt there's been one as illustrative of my crazily wide range, as a reader, than this. The Halloween season meant watching more TV, my November birthday meant more visits and phone calls with friends, and the holidays meant, well, more eating. Also, my early-morning reading time disappeared when Brett, my occasional workout partner, moved into the wing with me, eager to talk and stroll around before breakfast. By evening, more often than not, I'm too worn down to keep my eyes open while moving them across pages. Still, what books I did read are so wildly diverse as to make you shake your head in disbelief, wondering how the same guy enjoying books of poetry and literary criticism can also read comic-strip collections about a lobotomized cat who loves Star Wars

For several of these titles, I owe thank-yous to my ceaselessly thoughtful mother (who knows my literary tastes, insane though they may be, better than anyone) and the lady with the out-of-this-world hair (who sometimes spoils my appetite with cotton candy).

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James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War
Purveyor of current television's most consistently awful programming, Syfy astounded critics and me, premiering a high-value series last year, The Expanse, a well-written and capably acted space opera about a mining ship's crew and a hardboiled detective who get swept up in interplanetary political intrigue threatening every colony in the solar system. The series is based on these James S.A. Corey novels, a rare adaptation that's actually better than the source, and it's no Z Nation.

I'm picky about my science fiction, generally preferring the literary strains. Although big, loud, and prone to explode, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War aren't dumb. I was able to overlook Corey's repetitive use of a few go-to phrasings — characters muttering "something obscene" and smiling in a way that "doesn't reach [their] eyes" — more easily than the atrocious first chapters of Caliban's War, but all was forgiven in light of these books' edge-of-your-seat twists and turns, and their skillful pacing.

Berkeley Breathed, The Bill the Cat Story and Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope
Such is my Bloom County fandom that Bill the Cat would've had my vote in the 1984 presidential election, if only he hadn't died in that horrible cocaine-fueled car accident that claimed the life of an innocent prostitute. (It also would've helped to have been old enough to reach the voting-booth lever.) But Opus, Steve, Binkley, Oliver, Milo, Cutter John, and the rest of the gang kept me reading the strip. I was overjoyed when a new Bill was cloned, using the severed tongue found in the wreckage at the bottom of the cliff, and Berkeley Breathed's 2016 resurrection of this hilarious comic was an even more welcome return from the dead.

Leo Tolstoy (Lynn Solotaroff, translator), The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Anna Karenina's mannered tedium didn't affect me (precisely why can be read in this reading list post, from last year), but like the fever of a sudden illness, Tolstoy's little novel seizes the reader with life's profoundest, most harrowing drama — the one we've all got to face, eventually and in one form or another: the end.

This passage appears in chapter nine, describing the titular judge's deathbed thoughts:
And in his imagination he called to mind the best moments of his pleasant life. Yet, strangely enough, all the best moments of his pleasant life seemed entirely different than they had in the past — all except the earliest memories of childhood. Way back in his childhood there had been something really pleasant, something he could live with were it ever to recur. But the person who had experienced that happiness no longer existed. It was as though he were recalling the memories of another man.

The familiarity I have with this sentiment validates my own thoughts. At best, life in prison is a gimpy, fucked-up kind of living, and the gulf between who I now feel myself to be and the fragile, gullible young man first brought into this place is an unfathomable abyss of years. Some late nights, when I wake for no reason, it yawns like the grave. By bringing across the universal in the specific, Count Tolstoy succeeded here. What a book!

Ed Tato, True Stories of la Cosa Nostra: Poems

I don't know whether the family profiled in these poems is a fabrication, like the Spoon River decedents written about by Masters, or a real object of genealogical study. I don't know if it matters. As with The Spoon River Anthology, Tato's True Stories are more conceptually engaging than as poetry qua poetry. Was this Tato's intention? I don't know his work beyond this collection, and (although I'm on such intimate terms with his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, that I get to call it Larry) I don't know the man.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

I love this:
We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful ("she writes like an angel") is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing "beautifully" as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.

Wood's survey of literature's wide swath, from the Bible to John Updike, examining the mechanisms by which fiction does what it does, is a must-read for all serious readers who want to better understand fiction and its truths. 

Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer

The Gothic novel to top all Gothic novels — that's what Maturin, an Irish clergyman, set out to write in 1818. Not three years later, the publication of Melmoth the Wanderer met with outright vitriol from reviewers, one of whom accused Maturin of blasphemy, brutality, and "dark, cold-blooded, pedantic obscenity." In other words, this is good stuff.

Olivia Liang, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Having heard me summarize this utterly engrossing 2016 history/memoir/meditation on loneliness, which wends through the lives of artists from Andy Warhol to Henry Darger in its exploration of loneliness, my neighbor Jim rolled his eyes. "Oh, great," he said. "Hanging out with suicidally depressed artsy-fartsy people is what put you in this mess to begin with!"

Touché, Jimbo. Although reductive (and missing the point) my curmudgeon pal's quip had the effect of validating my enthusiasm for the book. Yes, I do have more friends and associates now than at most other points in my socially awkward life, but I still exist in a persistent state of what psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan defined as "the exceedingly unpleasant and driving experience connected with inadequate discharge of the need for human intimacy." We all do. To what degree, and in what way it's dealt — these are areas Liang crawls into and peers around. 

There are names here of varying recognizability: Billie Holiday, Edward Hopper, Josh Harris, David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo…. The Lonely City wends its way through the lives of these lonely souls, a path that reveals the ways in which we — human beings — live without that "discharge" the psychiatrist wrote about, the forms of our connections when we do have it, and the role played by society in perpetuating the exclusion of what Liang terms "unwieldy and strange" people. Her eye is keen, her mind is lucid, and the product of her studies is easily the best work of nonfiction I read all year.