Column: Summer Reading List 2010: The Fall

Once again, with the passing of Labor Day summer has drawn to its inevitable and mournful close. Children are heading back to school, work loads are heating up as vacations end and Portland has seen fit to send rain pouring on its residents’ heads with an almost Midwest-level intensity. I doubt we’ll see anything of that velocity, given that I’ve lived here two years and have yet to hear a single clap of thunder, but it’s entirely possible that my next spout of radio silence will be due to my apartment building being knocked down by a tornado and the ensuing waves of hipsters it scoops up.

Okay, that intro got a little off course, and I’ve got a lot to cover so we’ll move on. In any case, with the end of the summer also comes the end of my summer reading list, the ten titles I scooped up at the end of May to read through for a variety of reasons. Some of them were selected to clean the shelves off of titles that have gone unread for too long, some catch up on some new releases that my schedule rarely allows for, and one or two so I can revisit old classics to see what I’ve missed or forgotten since the last time around. And once again, I’m going to take some space to see how I did to evaluate my progress and some brief reviews on the titles I chose.

As I mentioned last year, these thoughts will vary in length due to the disparate amount of time spent reading particular titles, how much I enjoyed them or whether or not I plan to review in greater detail later on. Feel free to skim if you must, since honestly there was a bit of that here and there this summer as well.

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

To answer the question in advance: no, I did not manage to read the entirety of “Infinite Jest” this summer as I challenged myself to do back in the start of June. Yet more than ever, I’m convinced that this delay has nothing to do with the book’s quality, as this was one of the more rewarding attempts to plow through. I got at least 100 pages further than I ever have – hitting the 250 mark – and even learned to appreciate the convention of the footnotes. And I also found myself being more drawn into the characters and the chapters than has ever happened in previous readings – Hal Incandenza is rapidly turning into a great tragic figure, and the chapter on what you learn by hanging around a rehab halfway house is nothing short of brilliant.

But despite my raised esteem for the title and genuinely enjoyable reading sessions, I still couldn’t get further than 250 pages in, and I think I’ve finally figured out why: after those 250 pages of reading, I couldn’t tell you anything that had happened in the book. The cast and setting had been fleshed out a great deal, with scores of interesting characters and locations, but other than a drug deal here and there nothing had moved forward in a way that could be considered plot.

I’ve got nothing against a book taking its time getting to the action, nor will I begrudge an author setting the scene if that staging is done as well as some of “Infinite Jest’s” sections. The problem I have is that I could read two different novels in the time it took me to get to the quarter-mark in this one, and as well-written as it is the action just isn’t compelling enough to justify further investment of time at once. I’ll certainly finish it at some point – it’s too well done not to – but it’ll be in pieces over the weeks and months rather than one long stretch.

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

My sophomore effort into reading Russian authors (freshman being the exceptional “Novel with Cocaine”) proved to be one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the summer. I’ve always had a fondness for depictions of the Devil and his minions in literature, and this one earned a lot of favor very quickly with its rogues’ gallery of Professor Woland, Koroviev, Behemoth and Azazello. For no other purpose than their own amusement, they toy with the intellectual elite of Moscow, granting them an audience and seeming enlightenment before sending them to the sanitarium one by one. The Devil has always been the most interesting when he lets men damn themselves rather than go against them with force, and this book was loaded with interesting examples.

Beyond the Devil and his minions, the titular Master and Margarita offer a great deal to the story, though their time together never really seems to carry the intensity it should. The Master’s book on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ paints a wonderful picture of both ancient Judea and its tormented ruler Pontius Pilate, a novel-within-a-novel that pairs very well with the overarching story. And Margarita, called to serve at Woland’s great ball, showcases the free acceptance of  powers and depravity Satan can provide, hosting a dark carnival full of truly stirring visuals.

This may even turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve never paid much attention to who’s doing the translations of non-English works (as I’m sure I’ve said before, something’s always lost when you’re not reading in an author’s native tongue) but in the case of “The Master” it might matter as I’ve learned the translation I read (Mirra Ginsberg’s translation for Grove Press) is an incomplete one based on Soviet edits. So, when it comes time to reread, it might be in my best interests to seek out another other translations considered superior both by scholars and native Russian readers – and then revisit the original for comparison.

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

I said in my original list that the reason I picked this one was partially because it had been a couple of years since the last read-through, and partially because I’d had a few friends lambaste it for various reasons and I wanted to be in a position to defend it. Having read through it again, I will be willing to grant that I understand the points I’ve heard made over the years. Several of the characters are one-dimensional and occasionally border on stock, it spends a great deal of time on minutiae and might be a bit too heavy-handed in its symbolism.

But while I agree to understand those points, I have to reject each of them based on my counterargument: that the writing style is nothing short of pure art, and criticism is equivocal to picking on a Monet for being in an ugly frame. Fitzgerald toiled over “Gatsby” for years to get every word right, and it shows – the phrases and descriptions are note perfect, the garden parties depicted with an almost mystical energy. It’s long been said that Hunter S. Thompson typed out the entire book in his younger years and during periods of writer’s block, and after reading it yet again I’m starting to think that doing so would be a better assignment for English students instead of writing generic analysis.

So to those of you who attack “The Great Gatsby” or consider it a bad book, I make one of my rare declarative statements: you are wrong. Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal.

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

The first book I finished this summer, “A Man Without A Country” turned out to be vintage Vonnegut – my last Vonnegut reading was his novel/memoir “Timequake,” and this continued the vein of shorter pieces that boiled down his observations on life, love and America in a few very choice phrases. He spoke of being a child of the Great Lakes rather than the oceans (lakes I miss very deeply, being marooned out in Oregon), the creation of an axis to map the action in creative writing and his devotion to humanism as the rare faith that makes sense. This led to one of my favorite Vonnegut quotes, which I managed to work into his obituary I wrote in college: “Should I ever die, I hope you will say ‘Kurt is up in Heaven right now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

However, while reading the pieces I found it hard to shake that this book somehow felt more cynical, more negative than other Vonnegut works, even though much of it was still infused with the typical black comedy. There was a sense of resignation bordering on the fatalistic, that in sharing the twilight of his life with the George W. Bush administration and the rampant capitalism and pollution was about the last straw.  “I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren,” he says at one point, and after a while the viewpoint sinks in a bit too heavily for some.

But for all of that, it still maintained that streak of ironic philosophy he was so well known for – and which the book managed to crystallize with its art, each chapter peppered with full-page hand-lettered statements produced by Origami Express. These are statements of Vonnegut’s inestimable wisdom that could have been scribbled in his notepad and that belong on desks and frames, to be said to yourself when you feel a bit adrift or lost in thought. And in those occasions where everything is going right, heed his advice and say out loud: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

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

This one was last on the list due to a regular excuse – it wound up buried on a pile on the nightstand until mid-August – and at the time of writing, I’m only about 100 pages into it. That’s a shame, because it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite McCarthy books and one of the best ones on this list. Following the adventures of the simply named “kid” as he heads west and crosses paths with the most brutal cast of pioneers since “Deadwood,” the book paints the frontier in McCarthy’s signature style: absolutely gorgeous in its undeveloped openness, but unforgiving for any of its characters who don’t take the time to prepare for environment and residents.

And the title is so appropriate: the book has more blood than a keg party for lazy storytelling, and battle scenes that are without punctuation (even moreso than other McCarthy works) are an unflinching and ceaseless display of what happens outside of civilization’s aegis. This is a violent book, but even in its most violent moments there’s nothing gratuitous about it – this is simply how it is, and you either adapt or you die.

Every so often, my interest in a particular genre or era will be kindled by one book alone, and this case “Blood Meridian” has catapulted me into the Wild West. I have about two-thirds of the book left, and I can’t wait to read more.

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

2010 was a good summer for Swedish authors in the Chappell household, with both Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” finding their way off my shelves in the past month. I’ve already touched on “Tattoo’s” public presence in my recent Text-to-Screen (and “Let the Right One In” will get its attention next month) but independent of all that this book deserves the buzz and the praise it’s generated in the mainstream media. It’s a genuinely gripping and intricate mystery, with language that managed to be tense and exciting without ever becoming florid, and two sharply defined characters in Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (though to be fair, I award bonus points for any novel where the heroes are a journalist and a social introvert).

I could go into a more intricate analysis of the book – what was lost in translation, its visceral scenes of sex and violence, whether or not changing the title from “Men who Hate Women” was a smart idea – but there’s only one thing I feel I need to say. After a few shifts of reading I was near the the halfway point before putting it down, and after resuming it at a coffee shop I sat there for three hours straight until it was done, without once moving and tuning out all baristas and customers after ordering. And for a suspense novel, I don’t think there’s any more of a recommendation I can grant.

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

This book inspired a lot of spirited debate when it went through The Onion A.V. Club‘s Wrapped Up In Books discussion process, and having finished it I can say that the debate was well-deserved. This is one hell of a complex book, meshing Christian mythology and Nietzschean philosophy with the bustling world of New York city and the glitzy world of professional wrestling. It’s frequently over-the-top, written in a poetic style that directly speaks to the reader constantly, and is juggling so many threads that the main character’s frustration can carry over along with the narration. Duality is a constant theme in the book, so it’s not surprising that it’s sure to be one that polarizes readers.

But in that polarization, I’m on the end that enjoyed this one a great deal. It reminded me quite a bit of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” (and to a lesser extent Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision”), creating a cast of well-defined oddballs who are turned loose in a well-known American city and whose paths keep overlapping, often without their knowledge. Dobyns’ background as a poet means the language is occasionally misleading but never dull, and none of the philosophy specifics are exactly essential to the plot. It’s the big picture, the debate on duality and image that matters, and the story’s cast manage to illustrate that in at least a dozen different examples.

I enjoyed this one – and the attendant debate – so much that I’m actually preparing a longer Back Shelf Review on this one, so I won’t go too much further. Stay tuned!

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

For most people the summer reruns are something that you flip to when there’s nothing on and it’s not nice enough to go on an adventure, but for two years in a row now my summer reruns have deeply contributed to my appreciation of something I read in college. The first (and hopefully not last) volume of Dylan’s autobiography, the book paints a fascinating picture of Dylan’s time growing up in Minnesota and 1950s-60s New York City, deep in the small town and folk singer lifestyle. Dylan’s gift for language is on display here almost as much as his albums, and his voice describes the scenes with that indefinable voice that sounds more and more like America’s spirit the older he gets.

The book has also managed to kindle my interest in Dylan albums I wouldn’t normally seek out – chapters on the creation and production of New Morning and Oh Mercy takes up much more of the book’s narrative than I remembered in my last reading. I genuinely enjoyed the details he gave on generating songs like “Political World” and “Everything is Broken,” and it’s made me even more hopeful that the rumors that the next installment of “Chronicles” will have a similar chapter on Dylan’s legendary Blood on the Tracks.

Postscript: The Stragglers

Eagle-eyed readers will probably note that this list is incomplete. While this year turned out much better than the last one for finishing books, with my busy scholarly lifestyle there had to be some excisions – and this year’s happened to be Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” and Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists.” This didn’t have anything to do with their quality, but more to do with how heavily both were in demand. To save some money I put holds on both through my local library, but was so far down the queue on each that I wasn’t able to get them until it started getting cold out – so sadly, there was no Genre Fiction Immersion or Recently Critically Acclaimed on the above list.

However, to give this story a happy ending, at the time of writing this my holds have finally come through and copies of both “Boneshaker” and “The Imperfectionists” are now sitting on the table in front of me. This is good news for all concerned, as to make up for not giving the the deserved attention this summer, I’m moving them into the reviewing queue. Loyal readers can expect to see reviews of both titles up by the time I have to take them back, and see in greater detail just what I think about internal journalistic drama or Pacific Northwest steampunk zombies.

So, six out of ten finished, one abandoned, one in progress and two to come. Not bad. How’d yours go?

3 Responses to Column: Summer Reading List 2010: The Fall

  1. Patrick Fucking Waring says:

    Godammit Les, how many times do I have to tell you that Infinite Jest doesn’t start to make sense until page 300. You were so close! You didn’t even get to the main plot point, the titular film or “samizdat.” Hell you didn’t even get to the Eschaton match, which is undoubtedly the funniest fucking chapter in the whole book. Grr!

  2. What Patrick Fucking Waring said.

    Also, I’m glad you defend The Great Gatsby, I find myself doing the same far too often.

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