21 September, 2018

Eighteen Books I Spent My Summer Reading

What better way to start the summer than with neuroscience? Longtime Pariah's Syntax followers know that I'm too big a book snob to fool around with thrillers, courtroom dramas, or anything by Dan Brown, which is why so few people recommend stuff to me — they think I'll snub their picks. At least this is my suspicion.

In any event, under my own advisement and typical degree of enthusiasm for promising reading material, I went all in on brain food (pun intended), with Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek, who pair neuroscientific fact with fictional flesh-eaters for educational effect. The Zombie Research Society should've been my first stop, looking for information to help me with my novel; although, I can at least boast that there's nothing I've written so far, using my existing knowledge of biological science, that needs rewriting.

I followed this kind-of fanciful material with a more grounded book by David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. If you want to know why schizophrenics can tickle themselves, why low-interest Christmas banking clubs are popular, or how real-time brain imaging can curb impulse eating, Incognito might be the book for you.

Despite my interest in the subject matter, neither of these titles thrilled me, unfortunately. Drown, on the other hand, the debut short-story collection by the peerless Dominican American author Junot Díaz was an unsentimental look at immigrant life, alive itself with Díaz's vibrant prose, that I finished in a day and a half. Its stories made me think seriously about the voice of one of my novel's characters, who's also bilingual. More than an excellent read, Drown also gave me the reassurance to stay true to that character's inner dialog, irrespective of which language it flows in.

With Milan Kundera's earthy and profound novel of ideas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (translated from the Czech by Michale Henry Heim), which masquerades as a love story, I shaved another book off of the "Reality Hunger" cagegory of my Amazon wish list. "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE," touts the cover of my 1984 edition, but I'd like to know how that happened. The book is internalized and ruminative. (I love its passages meditating on the concept of kitsch.) However sexy, the film has got to be a shallow simulacrum.

Next on my ''Reality Hunger" list was the Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Wow. When the seemingly freewheeling school-days narrative of Barnes's novel, having ratcheted up with a species of intrigue in the narrator's later years, lifted its final veil and lay bare the true import of all that'd come before, it nearly stole my breath away.

Moving down the list of Booker Prize-winners in the prison library, I lit on Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. It's a gorgeous, emotionally exhausting epic. Afterward, the conceptual majesty of Exit West: A Novel, by Mohsin Hamid, rejuvenated me. I'd read an excerpt from it in The New Yorker a while back and was still stunned by the beauty of this magical-realist tale of lovers on the run. Thanks go out to V.V., who ordered me this phenomenal text. Every page transported me.

And Emily: I know you selected the Kevin Brockmeier book Things That Fall from the Sky because it was on my wish list, but I really enjoyed critiquing its stories with you. In the end, it was almost like the first copy you ordered me hadn't even been destroyed in that Crossroads riot. Almost.

Kat the Human also got me a couple of books this summer. The first was the Raymond Carver collection All of Us. I can now say that I've read all of Carver's published poems. I might even be a better poet for having done so. At a minimum, some of his poems inspired new ones of my own, which, really, is how it always should be.

Back in July, when the blast-furnace heat absolutely drained me of any inclination to be outdoors, I sequestered myself with the fantastical imagination of China Miéville, which delivered me to worlds previously unthinkable (albeit no less miserable than mine). His 2016 novella, The Last Days of New Paris, a conceptual master stroke, I read in one night. His earlier, more deeply explored sci-fi novel Embassytown took somewhat longer and, surprisingly, pleased me less. Running low on Miéville novels to read, as I now am, feels like cause for worry.

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life misled me with that subtitle, which all but promises a collection of essays on the literary craft, by the venerable author and critic Joyce Carol Oates. It turned out to be a compilation of Oates's writings for The New York Review of Books, with a smattering of pieces from elsewhere. Of the former, her reviews, several read like stand-alone works in their own right: solid, entertaining, worth my time. But the book ends with three very blah boxing-related pieces, then a Lonely Planet essay, entitled "A Visit to San Quentin," that reads like what any moderately competent journalist could produce after a prison tour — not what I expect from a writer of Oates's caliber.

The young Londoner who authored What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories, Helen Oyeyemi, on the other hand, wowed me with these nine fantastic almost-fairy tales. She writes like a dream, lush and unsettling, and I'll be on the lookout for her other work, for sure.

Thanks to L.B., who follows @FreeByronCase on Twitter and likes all of my #ByronSays tweets (she's obviously too generous), a couple of surprise books came in August. In André Breton's short novel Nadja (translated by Richard Howard), the Surrealist offers a narrative of a relationship dubbed the epitome of Surrealism, the movement as a way of life. Funny, I was reminded, by passages like this one, of the kinds of romances I entered as a very young man:
[O]ne evening, when I was driving a car along the road from Versailles to Paris, the woman sitting beside me (who was Nadja, but who might have been anyone else, after all, or even someone else) pressed her foot down on mine on the accellerator, tried to cover my eyes with her hands in the oblivion of an interminable kiss, desiring to extinguish us, doubtless forever, save to each other, so that we should collide at full speed with the splendid trees along the road. What a test of life, indeed!
I used to think that interesting was everything, that anything less was as good as death. Breton writes, "It is by an extreme capacity for defiance that certain unusual people who have everything to hope and everything to fear from one another will always recognize one another.'' So of course I sought and found romances born of bizarrely destructive circumstances — but was my life, then, Surreal?

The other book that L.B. had sent was The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Great title, right? It's a quasi-memoir by David Shields, who wrote the book that recommended every title now listed under "Reality Hunger" in my wish list (and provided that category's name). The Thing About Life filled me with no small amount of existential dread, thanks to its barrage of actuarial data, but I'm fine with that. Sick, I know.

The second of the books sent by the aforementioned human, Kat, was another poetry collection, this one by Ann B. Knox. The listless, pastoral poems of Staying Is Nowhere did nothing for me, aesthetically, I'm sorry to say, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the gesture.

Much, much more to my liking was Zombies: A Cultural History, a surprise gift from an entirely different L.B., written by Roger Luckhurst. It wasn't materially helpful with my novel-in-progress but did enrich my understanding of the zombie genre/phenomenon in ways that'll doubtless improve the manuscript and (I hope) eventual book.

I finished out summer's last days wrapped in William Faulkner's sweltering world, with his breathless masterpiece Absalom, Absalom! — a gift from my mother (thanks again, Mum), who might know my tastes better than anyone.

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