21 June, 2018

Fifteen Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Last season's reading list ended with some speculative-fiction collections. The SF trend continued into this season, beginning with the tense, eerie China Miéville novella This Census-Taker. Miéville's novels, most of which I've read, have made him my favorite SF writer, edging out M. John Harrison by a mere hair's breadth (an irony, since Miéville's bald). This Census-Taker reminded me of why. It's as powerful as it is short, as vivid as it is obscure, as touching as it is unsettling — a perfect balance, especially since I don't want too much of any one thing while engaged in my own novelistic effort.

The next book I read was David Mitchell's 2015 novel, Slade House, which occupies a prominent place in the world Mitchell's built with his other novels, Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and so on. Their interconnectedness rewards ardent fans, but I wonder if Slade House isn't too reliant on that mythology. Newcomers might not appreciate this quasi-haunted-house story's grand climax, dependent as it is on the appearance of a very, very old friend to those in the know. Being in the know, I enjoyed every page.

Then NW: A Novel, by Zadie Smith, revealed the sort-of sordid world of British government-housing residents. That same week, Sigmund Freud's essay collection The Uncanny (as translated by David McClintock) offered up the Austrian psychoanalyst's examination of the mind's approach to strangeness. The latter was a delightful surprise gift from Emily C., whose curiosity about human psychology rivals my own and leads us to some truly great conversations. I absorbed the Freud book in two sittings, during the second-to-last institutional lockdown I endured before my unceremonious transfer from Crossroads Correctional Center. With my cellmate so present it was hard to shift my mind into novelist mode. I sublimated the urge to write and did some research instead — something old Siggy probably would've had a thing or two to say about.

Before that lockdown was lifted, I'd borrowed a Christopher Hitchens book from Crossroads' library. The late bon vivant wrote Mortality, a short collection of atheistic deathbed essays, over the agonizing months he languished from esophageal cancer. I tore through it in a night and, the following morning, picked up the most recent fantasy by Hitchens's friend and fellow member of the unbelieving literati Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which didn't stir me as much as Rushdie's previous novels have — but they can't all be masterpieces.

To wit: the good Lady V. indulged my deathless inner fanboy with the gift of Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's massively successful '80s-obsessed sci-fi adventure. My curiosity had been eating at me for years. Finally getting my hands on a copy, though, was a mixed bag. I can't remember another book that I liked so much even while wincing at its many flaws. Judicious editing would've caught the factual/continuity errors and, maybe, massaged the obnoxious exposition smoothly into the streamlined story line. Will Steven Spielberg's film version be as fun? I'll give it a watch, even though I'm leery.

Alternating between lowbrow and highbrow for a few days thereafter, I bounced between Stephen King's Desperation and Markus Gabriel's anti-"neurocentric" I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century (translated from the German by Christopher Turner) as my mood demanded. I'd never read any of King's horror, so my friend Jenna recommended that I jump right into Desperation to see what I've been missing. The Gabriel book was from my wonderful mother, who knows so well my tastes and ordered it from my Amazon wish list. No shocker here: the philosophy book's oppositional stance to the increasingly popular idea that the fatty goo of the human brain constitutes the mind made a deeper impression than the gore-fest. At least now I know what readers get from King's fiction that draws them back again and again, even though one round was quite enough for me.

Following the riot at Crossroads was another lockdown. About sixty hours later I was en route to a different prison altogether — time used for handwriting some long-overdue letters and cards to friends, and for reading. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from a Dead House (as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but commonly titled The House of the Dead) might not seem like ideal literature for someone under lock and key. It's Dostoyevsky's novelization of the eight years' hard labor he served, a political prisoner, in a Soviet gulag in Omsk, after sharing a letter criticizing Stalin. I was halfway through the book on the day of my transfer and finished Part Two on the opposite side of Missouri, the week after. Whether or not it's ironic that the novel ends with its narrator's escape I leave to minds more inclined to long associative leaps.

Having gotten a high enough dose of literary masochism to last me awhile, I picked up several pleasure-reads at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center as soon as I could: Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun (translated by Philip Gabriel), A Wild Sheep Chase (translated by Alfred Birnbaum), and the disappointing After Dark (translated by Jay Rubin); the late, great George Carlin's hilarious hodgepodge, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?; and Colson Whitehead's stunning speculative pseudohistory The Underground Railroad: A Novel. ERDCC's library is roughly three quarters the size of the one I left behind at CRCC, but there are enough books of interest on its shelves to pack these quarterly reading lists for a while yet.

One book that I began to read but, much to my own disappointment, abandoned after 149 pages deserves mention: Swann's Way. I had the best intentions. In truth, though, this first volume of Marcel Proust's seven-part Remembrance of Things Past, in which he writes in minutest detail and at great length about his childhood, recalled abruptly and all at once after taking a bite of a little tea-cake, was just too much for me to handle. It felt like a grind the instant its novelty wore off. Conceptually, I think it has value; as a readable work, though, I find it lacking. A pity. I really wanted to enjoy this one.

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