Edward Abbey once said that the best thing about finishing university was having the time to sit down somewhere and read a decent book. In many ways, Edward Abbey was a total prick, but no-one can really argue that the summer holidays are a great time to catch up on all that reading that you’ve put off while struggling with the hangovers that you’ve put off your studies for. So for the final 2007 issue of Salient old media, please peruse my humble suggestions for some books to check out this summer.
The only thing these books have in common is that I’ve read and enjoyed them this year. Apart from that, anything goes. Some are old, some are new, some I really should have read before. Some I already had. Whatever. Here, in no particular order, are my annotated suggestions for summer reading. Make of them what you will….
Cultural Amnesia – Clive James
The great thing about this book, is that on the off chance that you’re a complete cretin and don’t enjoy it, it’ll make a perfect wheel chock for your e18 tonne Mac truck. As for me, Cultural Amnesia is one of the highlights of the year, with James becoming one of my heroes on the strength of this book alone. Taking 100 or so historical figures he considers essential to our understanding of culture and civilization, James provides a brief biography, before presenting a quote from said figure. He then spends between three and 30 pages riffing on this quote, digressing, cross-referencing and diverting with breath-taking style and erudition. He writes so well that even when he’s completely wrong you want to believe him, and when he’s right you can only shake your head and start underlining. It’s not always easy reading, but it’s seldom very hard either. I think of this book as being like a magical dictionary. Open it anywhere and you’re going to find something that educates, challenges, and enlightens you.
The Discomfort Zone – Jonathan Franzen
This collection of personal memoirs by the author of the brilliant book The Corrections focuses on his formative years as an awkward boy growing up too slowly in the suburban Mid-West USA. I developed a brief obsession with Franzen this year, and it’s well worth checking out Strong Motion, How to Be Alone, and The Twenty Seventh City as well.
Falling for Science – Bernard Beckett
Beckett is a science teacher and novelist, with Falling for Science his first non-fiction book, the result of a year he spent studying on a Royal Society Fellowship. This is a clever book from a clever guy. Doing for popular science writing what popular science writing does for academic science writing (think about it), he manages to distill the history of scientific thought into one 250 page volume. He’s well-read, lucid, stylishly irreverent and funny. (My favourite line is from his chapter on evolution: “So, evolution eh?”). While he didn’t manage to convince me of his main thesis, Falling for Science is excellent introduction to scientific thought, and includes a great reading list.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
The novels of Jane Austen will shortly be crossed off the list of books I’m embarrassed not to have read. P&P is a good place to start. I wish I could marry Lizzie. That is all.
The Lazy Boys – Carl Shuker
I read this horrendously twisted piece of New Zealand writing in one torturously sleepless night. It’s been described as Scarfies meets American Psycho, and it’s better than both. “Days loom, pause, chuckle, and wait to loom some more” is a line that stuck in my mind, and fairly adequately describes the feel of the book. Never have I missed ye olde home towne of Dunedin less. A home game at Carisbrook is transformed into a scene from Inferno, and every insecure, embarrassing moment of high school/first year is brought back in excruciating detail. I’m looking forward to reading Shuker’s first novel The Method Actors, if I can ever find a copy.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna – Umberto Eco
‘History is a blood drenched enigma and the world an error’. Unlike the Shuker quote above, this bears little relation to the book as a whole, but it does illustrate the beauty of Eco’s writing, even after translation. Queen Loanna is equal parts thriller, mystery, surrealism and literary game. The references and allusions are endless, and part of the fun. I probably noticed about an eighth of them. Dealing with the concepts of memory, love and loss; Italian history and politics; coming of age; war; and literature, this is classic Eco – witty, erudite, and complex.
House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
Described as “distressingly scary” by Brett Easton Ellis of all people, House of Leaves should come with a sanity warning. Simultaneously a horror story, a wickedly ironic send-up of post-modernist writing, and a post-modern literature/typography experiment, this tale of a creepy shape-changing house and its demented victims is guaranteed to fuck with your mind.
I’m starting to sense the approach of a word limit, so I’ll finish things up here. I hope that you find something you like in this list, or at least have fun scoffing at my bad taste. The books featured here are just the first few that came to mind from what I’ve read this year. With more room to write I’d love to share my pulp/sci-fi obsessions of ‘07 (Alistair Reynolds, Richard Morgan, Iain M. Banks), or rave on incessantly about Dylan Thomas, Ian McEwan and Don Delillo, all of whom I’ve re-read in the last twelve months.
Never mind. Good luck for exams, enjoy summer, etc etc etc….