Column: Reading List for Summer 2010

With the passing of Memorial Day, once again summer is rearing its well-tanned head to offer the promise of Adirondack chairs and rum-laced lemonades on the patio – and it can’t come soon enough in my opinion. Living in Portland, spring has consisted of the occasional insanely nice weekends bookending weeks of weather that alternate between constant light rain, partly cloudy days and moments of sun – often changing three times during my fifteen-minute drive to work. I’ve begun barricading myself in my apartment most days, refusing to emerge until the region makes up its blasted mind about what mood it wants to be in for the day.

Fortunately, the bunker approach has allowed me to scheme heavily about what books I intend to take outside, as well as have the time to sort through the contents of my shelves to see what needs to be read before more books can be acquired. And given the positive feedback and linking last year’s reading list inspired, I present once again to devoted/interested readers my literary earmarks for summer 2010. In the time between lists I still haven’t become famous enough for my recommendations to inspire legions of sales, but if you own these titles and want to mark them as recommended just sketch a fedora and highball glass on the copyright page.

1. The Wordy Mammoth: “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace

Where’s Wallace? Where’s the boy, String? Oh, wait, there it is – still taking up a prominent place on my nightstand underneath the coaster for the evening’s bourbon. Yes, in the twelve months between lists I still have not moved “Infinite Jest” into the completed column, confounded both by its epic length and the fact that its massive footnotes are a Tonya Harding to the kneecap that is my reading experience. There have always been a long list of recommendations for this book from friends and other critics, and my admiration of Wallace has grown after reading his essay collection “Consider the Lobster,” but it’s never been able to capture my attention for long enough to make a respectable dent.

We’re going to take another stab at it this summer however, owing in part to my discovery of the Infinite Summer book group established last year, devoted to plowing through the title from June 21st to September 22nd and engaging in regular roundtables. Sadly, it won’t be continued this year (at least the site gives no indication) but I like the idea of setting a schedule on such a large reading project and balancing with other titles. About 82 pages a week for three months, interspersed with reading the site’s archived discussions, sounds like a completely practical way to spend part of the summer.

2. The Classical Education: “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov

While I consider myself fairly well-rounded as a reader, spending time with the more established genres and the esoteric curiosities, I’ve never really gotten into the Russian authors to the extent I feel I should have. Despite their towering critical reputation amongst countless writers and at least one Russian book resolutely sitting in my top ten books of all time, I’ve never been motivated to seek out a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky for casual reading or edification. I’m honestly unable to explain it, unless it’s some sort of a cultural gap or Russia-focused racism that extends only to their printed word.

But I always pride myself on being willing to put a few new bricks in the wall, and to take my next step into Mother Russia’s library “The Master and Margarita” seems like a good start. Filled with anti-Stalinist messages, cutting satire and the always reliable use of the Devil, it’s regarded as one of the greatest novels of the last century and managed to inspire a personal favorite song. Also, it’s far shorter than the sprawling epics that exemplify classic Russian literature, and since I picked up a nicely aged paperback from a small shop in Eau Claire, WI while visiting my brother a couple of years ago it won’t be hard to find a copy.

3. The Recently Critically Acclaimed: “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman

A curious tangent relates this to the previous pick. Having heard about an interesting title on Russian authors on the New York Times Book Review podcast (which you all should listen to), I went to their website to find the original review when I was confronted with Christopher Buckley’s glowing review of “The Imperfectionists.” Being one of my favorite columnists and critics (and a one-time review subject), I pay close attention to Buckley’s words, and when he calls a new release “alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching… assembled like a Rubik’s Cube,” I sit up and take note.

I did a bit more reading into the title, and not only has it been positively reviewed by other venues whose critical opinions I respect, but the plot circles around a topic very dear to my heart: my beloved newspaper industry and the esoteric characters who make it up. It appears to be assembled in the piecemeal style I find attractive in some novels, more like a collection of short stories, allowing for easier access and reading in spells without breaking the flow. Watch this space for a very likely review of my own.

4. The It’s-Been-A-While/Argumentative Support: “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

In one of the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, his white knight P.I. is on assignment in Los Angeles and wanders into a bookstore, picking up a copy of “The Great Gatsby” because he simply has to reread it every few years and it’s time again. And this summer, I share Spenser’s mentality – having not read the book in at least a year and a half – and have decided it’s time to delve back into the world of single dreams and green lights. I’ve always been impressed by the inhuman grace Fitzgerald has for choosing the right words, and the Gatsby story is a narrative in literature’s highest tiers.

My motivation is also driven by the way several people I know have reacted to pinning the word “classic” on the title, culminating in a string of “Gatsby”-bashing on my Facebook page when I attributed a page of it to my current mood. The general sense seemed to be that it was seen as an “overrated piece of shit” (per my friend Liam) and with so much time since my last reading I couldn’t mount a proper defense. So this read will allow me to see whether I continue to stand in stalwart defense or if I find my views shifting to the realm of parody.

5. The Genre Fiction Immersion: “Boneshaker,” Cherie Priest

As the above four titles probably indicated to you, my reading habits tend to skew towards books that are classified as straight literature rather than falling into any specific genre. However, I do believe in a balanced literary diet, and enjoy the occasional dip into genre fiction, and seeing “Boneshaker” prominently displayed on the best-seller shelves at Powell’s peaked my interest. With alternative history fiction (post-Civil War Seattle), a zombie plague and airships galore all included, it looks like a cocktail of elements to fire off all my geek cylinders.

It won’t be the only steampunk book I read this summer (amongst others, Quirk Classics’ “Android Karenina” is next on the reviewing slate to see how the nascent series proceeds) but it does seem to have the purest devotion to its subject and widest offerings. Plus, it’s the winner of the 2010 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award for Best Science Fiction Novel by a Northwest Author, and I support my local authors as much as my local businesses.

6. The Essay Collection/Later Years Offering: “A Man Without A Country,” Kurt Vonnegut

With half my list already devoted to full-on novels, I figure it’s about time to break it up and add something more fitted to my busy lifestyle. As my excuse for not reading “Infinite Jest” goes, I do a lot of reading on the go, and a book that can be read in chunks without breaking the flow is usually the default choice to carry around. “Consider the Lobster” recently filled that role, as did Sarah Vowell’s “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” and The New York Times“Writers on Writing.”

This summer’s shorter selection is “A Man Without A Country,” the last book published in Vonnegut’s lifetime (the posthumous “Armageddon in Retrospect” being the last Vonnegut book proper) in which he unleashes his trademark cynicism on the Bush administration and other failures of our time. Beyond practical length, it’s got several supporting arguments in my sphere: I read his other later years novel “Timequake” in recent months and found it invigoratingly clever, and TLOTE’s own Carrie Lorig gave it rave reviews upon its initial release back in 2006. Vonnegut may not have had a chance to grade this one in comparison to his other works, but I have a suspicion it’ll hold up well.

7. The Modern Classic: “Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West” Cormac McCarthy

Having checked “The Road” off the list after last summer had come and gone (just in time for the stirring film adaptation), my admiration for how Cormac McCarthy wields the English language has only increased. His excision of quotation marks and apostrophes, his spartan prose, his incredibly strong characters and plots – all of them have led me to dub him not only the spiritual successor to William Faulkner but our greatest living writer.

And while I have spent a good deal of time with McCarthy, I haven’t yet gotten into the work widely considered his magnum opus. “Blood Meridian,” the saga of a teenage runaway who took up with a notorious gang of scalp hunters, has been praised not only as a wonderfully bleak interpretation of the concept of America’s manifest destiny, but also one of the finest novels of the 20th century. It might be a little bit too dark for a summer read, but the fact that I’ll be able to take long walks outside afterwards should offset any potential psychic scarring.

8. The Posthumous Blockbuster Read: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Stieg Larsson

This is a party that’s gotten a lot of buzz over the last few years but it’s one I find I’ve come a bit late to. For those unfamiliar, author Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist known for his campaigns against against right-wing extremism, who died of a heart attack in 2004. He left behind three novels he wrote after work for his own pleasure, novels that have come to be known as The Millenium Trilogy and which have since sold 27 million copies worldwide. (For a better grasp on his story, read this excellent piece from The New York Times Magazine.)

Given that we all need a good thriller for summer beach reading, and last week’s release of the third volume “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” it doesn’t seem like there’s a better time to get started with the trilogy. Additionally, with a well-received film adaptation making the rounds in the smaller indie theaters, it’s perfect fodder for an upcoming Text-to-Screen Ratio. If Swedish filmmakers have proven anything, it’s that they can make virtually perfect films when they look to books for source material.

9. The Book Club Attractant: “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” Stephen Dobyns

With my local book groups fragmenting for varied reasons, I’ve been on the prowl for a new source of recommendations and discussions, and I think I’ve found one in The Onion A.V. Club‘s Wrapped Up In Books online book club. Having been a part of the Literature and Libations book group back in Madison, I know for a fact that the A.V. Club has terrific taste in books (I learned of “Geek Love” and “The Savage Detectives” through there), and as I mentioned with Infinite Summer, the more written discussion there is about a book the more invested I get. Unfortunately, with my existing schedule I haven’t been participating on time – I’m always reluctant to show up without doing my homework.

However, I did manage to pick up a gorgeous hardcover version of the March title “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” for only $5 at Powell’s before the deadline passed, and while not reading it on time it seems a shame to let it go to waste. Described by the group’s moderator as a mix of “fairy-tale mythos, Nietzsche quotations, and the World Wrestling Federation,” it has the prerequisite oddness and strength of ideas I’ve come to expect from A.V. Club selections. Plus, the original discussions are all archived on their website, giving a sound resource to fall back on between chapters.

10. The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “Chronicles: Volume One,” Bob Dylan

The only category making an appearance from last year’s list, this choice meshes with the recent reactivation of my Bob Dylan appreciation. With the legend’s birthday last week I decided to throw on a few of his albums in tribute, and I found that my conception of what his albums mean has matured over the years (though I remain forcefully convinced of the superiority of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”). As such, I’m interested to see what his book will mean a few years after the first read.

I once said of the book that it “read like [Dylan] blended his best albums with Jack Kerouac,” and unlike several of my opinions this one hasn’t changed over time. It doesn’t provide any tell-all details of his life or illuminate his songwriting process, but fans have come to expect cryptic replies over the years in exchange for the sheer depth of what Dylan provides to his listeners. I have my doubts that we’ll ever see the two additional volumes that have been promised for this series – Dylan being Dylan, after all – so we’ll have to see if this one will be enough.

While I didn’t get through more than half of my list last year, I’m more optimistic about this year’s selection, given the fact that I have most of these titles on hand already and have lived in Portland long enough to pick out the best spots for reading outside. What’s everyone else thinking of?


3 Responses to Column: Reading List for Summer 2010

  1. nick thomson says:

    HEY, I’m glad you’re going to get around to Blood Meridian. It’s totally worth it.

  2. Talena says:

    I read Boneshaker recently and really enjoyed it. The author definitely earned her Hugo award. I bought it so let me know if you’d like to borrow it.

  3. […] – this year’s installment can be found right here, and here’s the lists from 2009 and 2010. Given how much more time I’m spending with television these days, and how AHC has thankfully […]

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