Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It's been years and years since I read a big, beefy, science fiction epic, and this one was awesome. Hyperion steals its frame story from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and gives it a bad-ass sci-fi twist. It's about seven people on a pilgrimage that may or may not determine the fate of humanity, but will almost certainly kill them. What I love best about sci-fi is its ability to explore ideas (pretty much a genre requirement unless you're going Cormac McCarthy's The Road route), and Hyperion has a lot of awesome ideas: a creepy-ass time-traveling God-monster named the Shrike (the subject of the pilgrimage); a colony on a distant planet built by poets, artists, and their benefactor, an old man named Sad King Billy; John Keats brought back to life as an AI; and so, so many more. The book is full of ideas that made me stop and go "Man, I wish I had thought of that first." That said, man this book is not well-written. My expectations are typically lower when I pick up a genre paperback (although they shouldn't be), and Hyperion is way above most similar novels in terms of writing style, but there were some serious tics that bothered me. Dan Simmons usually describes things very well, but he always has to give you a sense of the size. Or not a sense, really, he just tells you how many meters tall/long/deep something is. The shrike is three meters tall, the seas of Maui-Covenant are "hundreds of meters deep," the blades of the Sea of Grass are "two meters tall." I read one paragraph of description where he used the word "meters" fourteen times. FOURTEEN TIMES! He also just doesn't do subtlety. In a way that's good--I was in the mood for a big, candy-colored sci-fi extravaganza, and that's exactly what I got. All in all, I really enjoyed Hyperion, and will be checking out its sequel, Fall of Hyperion, when I get through my current stack. If you're a sci-fi fan especially, Hyperion is required reading. It won the Hugo and the Locus that year, and was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke award. Deservedly so.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. As a huge fan of Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, it's pretty pathetic that I haven't read this book until now. I've read a few of Salinger's short stories featuring the Glass family--which Anderson took as a model for his Tenenbaums--but in this novel (actually, it was originally published as a short story and a novella) the influence is pretty clear: the family of child prodigies, with a history full of disaster, suicide, and disappointment, who live in an eccentrically-decorated Manhattan abode. Sound familiar, Tenenbaum fans? It's amazing how Salinger can make neurotic bickering somehow beautiful. Listen to this passage, in which Zooey reacts to his mother telling him that he makes people nervous and is a bad conversationalist:
Zooey turned full around to look at his mother. He turned around and looked at her, in this instance, in precisely the same way that, at one time or another, in one year or another, all his brothers and sisters (and especially his brothers) had turned around and looked at her. Not just with objective wonder at the rising of a truth, fragmentary or not, up through what often seemed to be an impenetrable mass of prejudices, cliches, and bromides. But with admiration, affection, and, not least, gratitude. And, oddly or no, Mrs. Glass invariably took this "tribute," when it came, in bountiful stride. She would look back with grace and modesty at the son or daughter who had given her the look. She now presented this gracious and modest countenance to Zooey. "You do," she said, without without accusation in her voice. "Neither you nor Buddy know how to talk to people you don't like." She thought it over. "Don't love, really," she amended. And Zooey continued to stand gazing at her, not shaving.Damn, Salinger. You're my man. While this book is definitely awesome, do not jump into it without first reading Nine Stories. A brief introduction to the Glass family is useful, especially since the main characters of Franny and Zooey so often hide their deep understanding and affection for one another under abrasive witticisms and repetitive, one-sided arguments.
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. This is my summer reading list's concession to the hip and contemporary lit-crit scene. You need some cojones to subtitle your book "A Manifesto," but Shields pulls it off. Writers and academics, this is a must read book. Shields covers a lot of ground in this book, but the basic premise (or at least, what I took from it) is that because our mass-media saturated, internet-mediated consciousnesses are starved for "reality," we are drawn less to fictional work and more to work that presents (or claims to present) reality: memoir, reality television, documentary. Because of this, the novel, the scripted film or television show, the traditional play, etc. have been pushed out of the cultural spotlight. Shields talks especially about the novel, which, as he sees it, hit its peak relevance in the first half of the nineteenth century. Shields argues that these old forms have become so hopelessly mired in convention and genre expectations that they no longer reflect reality in any way--they give us only what we expect out of them. He calls for writers to enliven the novel by drawing on collage, a separation from traditional narrative and methods of characterization, and a kind of hip-hop inspired "sampling" of other works. To this end, about 98% of Reality Hunger is plagiarized from other sources, ranging from Joyce to James Frey to Eminem. Shields includes a note in the back that says Random House wouldn't allow the book to be published without an appendix that attributes the sources. Shields includes the appendix, but tells his readers that he isn't happy about it, that the point is that he shouldn't have to include the appendix, and he encourages his readers to use scissors to remove the offending pages. Through it's odd form and many of its arguments, Reality Hunger implies that we need to reconsider our notions of plagiarism and what is and is not considered original work. Although I disagreed with much of what Shields/his many sources had to say, I really enjoyed this book. I'm only scratching the surface of what Reality Hunger has to offer (I haven't even mentioned the section on the history of hip-hop and how it relates to his argument), so I really recommend you pick it up.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. After The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the excellent nonfiction collection Maps and Legends, I counted Chabon among my favorite writer. So I was a little embarrassed when I got into a conversation about him with a fellow MFAer and realized that I barely knew the work of the author I claimed to love. So this summer one of my reading projects is to read the entire Chabon back catalog. There are six novels and two short story collections I haven't read. Mysteries of Pittsburgh is his first novel, published back in 1988, and it's definitely first-novelly. There are a lot of ideas and quirky characters and shiny pieces of dialogue, but I felt like it failed to become more than the sum of its parts. I can't say I was really impressed. Skip this one.
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton. After reading Reality Hunger, I got interested in weird structures and fiction that includes chunks of reality. Important Artifacts and... is the chronicle of a relationship, which the reader sees through photographs and descriptions in an auction catalog. I read it in about two hours, and it kind of reminded me of reconnecting with an old friend on Facebook--you try to figure out who they've become by piecing together the evidence in photographs, wall posts, pages they've liked. There's a feeling of voyeurism, and sometimes weird glimpses behind the scenes. Early in the catalog, after Lenore and Harold have met, had a few dates, and exchanged letters and mix CDs, is a description of a handwritten note and envelope:
A note on St. Regis stationary, in Doolan's hand. Reads: "Please join me in room 1045. x L." 8 1/4 x 6 in.In the accompanying photograph, we can see that the inscriptions on the envelope have all been crossed out. There's a lot of stuff like that in Important Artifacts and..., and in a weird way, these things make the characters feel more real than straightforward prose would, I think. I picked this up because I was considering adopting a similar format (or rather, what I thought was a similar format) for my thesis. Still considering it, but I'm not sure how useful Shapton's book was for me.
Included in lot is a St. Regis envelope with various inscriptions on the back reading "Come to room 1045" / "Am in room 1045" / "Meet me in room 1045" / "See you in room 1045"
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon. Now this is more like it, Mikey C. His aforementioned nonfiction collection, Maps and Legends, is an appreciation of genre work and literary forms that don't earn the same cred as natural-realist fiction--comic books, sci-fi, mythologies, fantasy, detective stories, etc. Chabon argues that literary fiction would be a lot more entertaining to a lot more people (and would probably sell better) if it learned to play with some of qualities of genre fiction; and genre fiction would be more respectable if their writers used the same kind of no-bullshit cliche detector that literary fiction writers are trained to develop. Gentlemen of the Road is kind of Maps and Legends in practice--a beautifully-written, intelligent, erudite novel about two con men on an adventure in the Caucasus mountains in the tenth century. The sentences are gorgeous, the characters are well developed, and the history is handled exactingly, but the book never forgets that its primarily an adventure novel. There are cliffhangers and narrow escapes, disguises and reversals, and sweet illustrations by the guy who draws the comic "Prince Valiant." It's the most beautiful novel I've read that includes marauding vikings, decapitations, disembowelments, hemp-smoking scallawags, and an elephant that pounds one character into a bloody pulp. It's violent, smart, and really entertaining, and I wish I could build a time machine and give this book to my twelve year-old self. Definitely recommended.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. Back to reality (kind of) with Chabon's follow-up to Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Oh, PS, I'm not reading them in chronological order. Wonder Boys tells the story of the worst weekend of novelist Grady Tripp's life--his wife leaves him, his mistress is pregnant, his twenty-six-hundred page novel-in-progress still isn't finished, his pot addiction is mixing with his anxiety in unhealthy ways, and his editor is about to lose his job. And that's only in the first chapter. Things get much, much bleaker from there. Chabon keeps it light, mostly through Tripp's hilarious, embittered first-person narration--his wit never fails even when everything around him falls apart in ridiculous screwball ways. For me, Grady Tripp is right up there with Holden Caulfield and Humbert Humbert in the ranks of memorable first-person narrators. I don't want to say too much more about this book because I had such a freaking good time finding out how Grady Tripp's horrible three days unfolded and I wouldn't want to ruin it for you, dear reader. Check it out.
Werewolves in their Youth by Michael Chabon. It was weird coming back to short stories after reading so many novels, and I wonder if that didn't color my perception of Werewolves in their Youth. I didn't like this collection, with the exception of a few stories. Not really at all. This was published in 1999, after Chabon was a New York Times Bestseller two times over, and the stories in it were snapped up by the New Yorker, Harper's, and GQ. It was received well, and it comes up fairly often in MFA discussions of good collections. Maybe it's me? Regardless, I just wasn't into it. Chabon gives his readers massive chunks of exposition to contextualize his characters' struggles and seems to make a rule out of telling, not showing. I found myself wondering how some of these stories would be received in a fiction workshop. There were some bright spots, though. The title story is a classic, and "Son of the Wolfman," about a woman who decides to keep her baby conceived by rape, much to her infertile husband's chagrin, was very good. "In the Black Mill," a Lovecraft pastiche, is supposedly written by one of the characters from Wonder Boys, and it's a damn good horror story. The other stories have some good stuff in them, but just didn't do it for me. I'm curious to read his first short story collection, A Model World to see if automatic acceptances into the New Yorker and Playboy made Chabon lazy, or if this is just how he handles short stories.
Racing the Beam by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost. I picked up Racing the Beam because it relates to my thesis, which spends a little bit of time talking about programming for the Atari 2600. Racing the Beam is kind of a cross between academic critique, industry history, and technical elucidation. It discusses things like the Atari's MOS 6507 processor's relationship to the electron gun in CRTs, and in the same paragraph, it will go all academic and drop some Marshall McLuhan on your ass. What I found most interesting was the information about how early video games were programmed, and how Atari was a "code farm"--programmers responsible for video games that made the company tens of millions of dollars lived on a $20,000 a year salary and received no public or in-house recognition for their work, not even their name in the manual. The technical information will be useful for me, but it was hard to slog through. I can only read so much about assembly language compilers before my brain starts shutting down. Oh, one cool note: the title comes from a slang term that was popular among Atari programmers. Because the Atari only had 128 bytes of RAM (the computer I'm writing this on has about 23.5 million times more memory, ha!), the programmers couldn't store any information for later use. Everything had to be processed on the fly, literally as the electron beam lit up the phosphor on the inside of the television screen, hence their code needed to be fast and tight enough to "race the beam."
In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton. Franny and Zooey got me interested in learning a bit more about Salinger, so I picked up this literary biography. It is excellent, and if you're interested in Salinger, you should read it. I'm going to spoil the end a little bit, which I thought was the most interesting part of the book. Hamilton opens the last chapter by narrating his experience of finishing his Salinger biography (which, he tells his readers, differed greatly from the book we've just read) and sending it off to the publisher, getting galley proofs, doing publicity, etc. Then Salinger sued him for using snippets of his language from his personal letters. Salinger's letters were available in many different libraries and personal collections, unpublished and publicly available, and Hamilton and his publisher thought the court case was a slam dunk. After two years of verdicts, appeals, and counter-appeals, they lost, and Hamilton had to rewrite the book, exorcising material from Salinger's letters from it and emphasizing his conflicted three-part role of Salinger's fan, Salinger's biographer, and Salinger's legal opponent. It's a very interesting read.
So that's it. Those are all the book I read in May. I promise that next time I read a bunch of books in one month I'll keep the notes brief.