Rather than record the books I read in groups of 20 as I did last year, I think this time I’m going to track my reading month by month.
- Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon – I read Last and First Men several years ago, and quite liked it. Star Maker is a companion work, and references Last and First Men (which I think I enjoyed a bit more) several times. They aren’t novels in the traditional sense; these are philosophical fabulations of different ways human life, nonhuman life, and the universe itself could exist, stitched together with thin threads of narrative. One particularly interesting thing about Star Maker is how much time Stapledon devotes to explaining in detail concepts that have become very familiar in the last 100 years. For example, he devotes many pages of imagistic text to the changing appearance of stars as one travels closer and closer to the speed of light. The writing clearly expects a readership that’s never seen such things visually depicted. It’s rare to read cosmologically rigorous science fiction from before the space age, when these things began to be tropified, then commonly visualized. (While I own the physical copy of this book pictured above, I actually read this on my phone as an ebook, using the excellent app Marvin.)
- Off Course by Michelle Huneven – I read this on the strength of her previous novel Blame, which was among my favorites I read last year. Off Course is a novel of much narrower scope, following a woman with mildly fraught family relationships and an incomplete dissertation who lets a few years of her life disappear into a rural affair with a married man. An enjoyable read, but it didn’t blow me away like Blame did.
- Saga vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples – I could easily just repeat what I said for volume 3. I don’t follow comics the way I used to, but Saga awakens my old fervor. Like science fiction or fantasy or gorgeous artwork? Read it.
- On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch – The third novel by Disch I’ve read, and longer than the other two combined. This is a 1979 Bildungsroman set in a fairly recognizable satire of the future United States dominated by ecological disaster, urban economic collapse, and rural religious fundamentalism. Also, in this world, some people who sing while hooked up to a particular device can leave their bodies and psychically fly around. I find Disch’s writing fascinating, though I haven’t been able yet to exactly articulate why. Part of it just the manifest confidence and intelligence shining through the pages; Disch doesn’t apologize, doesn’t waste any time on bashfulness, and even his expository devices operate at a sprint. He was clearly among the most technically and verbally gifted writers of his era of science fiction, and yet his fall from the modern conversation is starting to make a kind of sense to me. Not because he isn’t worth being talked about, but because so far each of his novels have come to rest in my mind as somehow amorphous. Most books I’ve read sit in my memory as a sort of solid aesthetic crystal whose facets encompass the shape of my reading experience even as the textual details fade. Disch’s books, though, have blurry borders. The moments that sparkle in the mist are dazzling, but the formlessness is somehow mildly, naggingly dissatisfying. As is this description, even to me, because I nonetheless find his books fully compelling and intend to read more.
- Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce – Merritt left Iowa just before I arrived, and while we have many friends in common and were once both in the same reading, I don’t think we’ve ever actually met. But I thought the piece she read at our joint event was memorably great, and only ever heard good things said of her and her work during my years in Iowa City, so was excited to read her first novel. I consumed it in one go, mostly while sitting at a bar, which ended up feeling appropriate as this is a novel of sex and search for self definition set against a constant backdrop of the food service industry. This is a book that resists tidiness, moralizing, or resolution, and if you enter it expecting the glimmer of redemption to ever arc toward the horizon you will be disappointed. What’s on offer here instead is a sort of fierce snowfall, a four year blizzard of cutting fragments, each slice an attempt to figure out how to manage existing in the world.
- The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter – In my last year at Trinity University my attention began to swing away from physics and back toward fiction, and so I signed up for the undergraduate fiction writing workshop. My professor was Andrew Porter, a soft spoken and knowledgeable Iowa alumn who explained on the first day that he discouraged writing genre fiction in his classes, as genre fiction lacked the attention to character which he wished to cultivate. When I inevitably chose to try to prove him wrong, writing what would eventually turn into “Husbandry,” his enthusiastic reception of what I’d done completely won me over. Years later, when I wrote to let him know that one of his students had been accepted to Iowa, he could not have been more excited for me. Which is all to say: Andrew played a big role in shaping the path of my life, and I have been meaning to read this book for years. I’m kind of glad I didn’t get to it until now, though. These are quiet, unadorned stories of ordinary and largely suburban life, the conflicts mostly struggles of self definition. It is exactly the sort of writing I would have been least able to appreciate back in 2006, when I was indignantly launching zombies across the workshop table. Now though, post-MFA, I have a much greater understanding of space this kind of fiction occupies.
- Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill – About halfway through reading this book I realized that I had unconsciously decided, without ever previously articulating it to myself, that I would read everything Mary Gaitskill has ever published. To borrow a phrase, her writing is like an exposed nerve. Her stories are twitching and lucid and sharply felt, unsanitized and unsentimental, full of analytical language and twisting images that knot around emotions I find achingly familiar but wouldn’t have known how to begin capturing with words. This collection is an unflinching look at how impossibly, fractally complex sex and relationships are, even in circumstances where we tell ourselves they are straightforward. I think my favorites from this volume were the four part novella “The Wrong Thing” and the short story “Blanket,” which seems to me almost like an opposite direction companion piece to “A Romantic Weekend,” my favorite story from her first collection.
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – I was feelingly weirdly intimidated by long novels, as though, having decided I wanted to try to read 100 books this year, I feared I would only manage it by sticking to shorter works. That seemed like the kind of avoidant psychology which can spill from its container and paralyze you, so I decided the thing to do was commit to a giant brick of a novel. Wolf Hall turned out to be the perfect choice. It’s a historical novel focusing on Thomas Cromwell, a man who became a chief aide of King Henry VIII, but in my mind it’s Game of Thrones except all the people are real and instead of blood magic there’s clever banter. It’s easy to see why this won the Man Booker prize. I couldn’t put it down, and read it nearly straight through, stopping only to sleep, and that less than I should have. I was so absorbed, when I finished it I went immediately out and bought…
- Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel – The sequel to Wolf Hall, which also won the Man Booker award. This book picks up right where the previous one ends, and I continued my three day Mantel binge straight through to the end. Her writing is poised, layered, funny. I feel gluttonous reading these books, and moved to stay up until sunrise finishing them, which I discover my body doesn’t handle nearly as well at 31 as it used to. So thanks for making me feel old and busted, Hilary Mantel. Jerk.