21 December, 2018

Nine Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Continuing through the surprise package of books From Lori B. (mentioned in my last reading-list post), I finished Bram Stoker's lesser-known Gothic horror, The Lair of the White Worm. It's basically a reworking of Dracula, with a serpentine female villain. There's good reason the novel is all but forgotten, but I was grateful for Lori's gift just the same. The subject matter helped put me in the Halloween spirit I love (and love writing about, as I did here, in October) so much.

Karen Russell's cutely uncanny 2007 debut story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, didn't contribute to the Halloween mood as much. Maybe if her protagonists weren't all children.... On the other hand, the stories of Sylvia Jackson that appear in Dark Tales are unsettling in the best possible way. Jackson had such a knack for conjuring eerie atmosphere amid familiar settings. On par with ghost-story maestro M.R. James, she was truly a master of the uncanny.

Next, I moved to nonfiction. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World might sound hyperbolic, but Jane McGonigal addresses her subject in a reasoned, almost philosophical way, analyzing games' (mostly video games', but also party games' and ARGs') methods of bringing people real happiness and fulfillment. Using a fascinating cross-discipline approach, she culls from positive psychology, historical studies, and other seemingly disparate areas, to bring her subject into the reader's grasp. This book actually helped me to feel less guilty about all those hours of my life lost to The Sims (a phenomenon the journalist Clive Thompson dubbed gamer regretin a 2007 Wired article).

Then I read these stirring words, written by Friederich Nietzsche in the late-1800s, which encapsulate and typify a large chunk of his philosophy:
I have often asked myself whether I am not more heavily obligated to the hardest years of my life than to any other. As my inmost nature teaches me, whatever is necessary — as seen from the heights and in the sense of a great economy — is also the useful par excellence: one should not only bear it, one should love it. Amor fati: that is my inmost nature. And as for my long sickness, do I not owe it indescribably more than I owe to my health? I owe it a higher health — one which is made stronger by whatever does not kill it. I also owe my philosophy to it. Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit, as the teacher of great suspicion which turns every U into an X, a real, genuine X, that is, the letter before the penultimate one. Only great pain, that long, slow pain in which we are burned with green wood, as it were — pain which takes its time — only this forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and to put away all trust, all good-naturedness, all that would veil, all mildness, all that is medium — things in which formerly we may have found our humanity. I doubt that such a pain makes us "better," but I know that it makes us more profound.
Substitute "wrongful imprisonment" for his "sickness," and the thought could well be mine. With The Portable Nietzsche, another of the books from Lori B. (whom I now thank once again), I was finally able to finish my quest to read all of the philosopher's major works. That it happened in the lead-up to my fortieth birthday, a period during which I felt particularly speculative and pensive, was a fortuitous bit of happenstance.

Joy Williams was not a writer whose work I knew before November. At some point, somewhere, I must've read a highly favorable review of The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, because it had been on my Amazon wish list for a while. That another vendor had a better price for it isn't the point; I bought it and was bowled over. Williams's style is deceptively spare, even simplistic-seeming at first, as she tells her subtle, disjointed tales. Short declarative sentences accrete, butting against each other until texture emerges and the reader very suddenly goes, "Wow." There's so much going on here. I reread several stories, just to see how Williams pulled them off.

Although The Encyclopedia of Coloured Pencil Techniques, by Judy Martin, was inspiring and helpful, the other birthday gift Emily C. sent was a genuine treasure. The Sandman Omnibus, Volume I collects the first thirty-seven issues (plus Sandman Special #1) of the classic lush fantasy comic written by Neil Gaiman. The series and its spin-offs, taken in total, comprise a high-water mark in the world of graphic novels.

The first time I read The Sandman was by candlelight in my bedroom, a pale seventeen-year-old waif in all-black and eyeliner. I smoked clove cigarettes as I turned the pages. My pet rat sniffed at each new issue as I laid it reverently on my desk. The stories were enrapturing. Those nights felt like a fever dream. Twenty-three years later, rereading it in a place of often smothering reality, The Sandman proved no less transporting. Thank you, Emily.

Finally there was Jesse Ball's A Cure for Suicide: A Novel, a gift from my mother. (Thanks, Mum!) Unless he's published another in the last three years, I've now read all but one of his peculiar novels. You might call me a fan. A Cure for Suicide was structurally and conceptually unique, while (delightfully) borrowing certain elements from other Ball novels. Despite what the title implies, the book's got nothing to do with recalling from the dead those who've taken their own lives. Rather, it's a beautiful little love story about two very hollowed-out people who find themselves, after a fashion, in each other. Ball's off-center version of romance is one I don't merely tolerate but actually relish.

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