'Til Your Eyes Bleed & Your Ears Explode

61 Books You Really Should Read & Have Read To You

by Michael Barrett

4 October 2013

Aggressively Strange and Off the Deep End

19. Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash—Appalachian stories of vigorous incidents dating back to Civil War. People die in these stories or they are saved. The formula is that if the protagonist (and the reader) has reason to be apprehensive about the outcome, there will be relief and grace. If they feel reason to be confident, they’re tripped up.

Aside from that karmic predictability, the stories are excellent, and the variously accented performers chosen for each story give a rich listening dimension that I wouldn’t feel on the page, especially the great simple heartfelt story told by a janitor at a college. His wife is a waitress, and the highlight of their day is when they clean up at a hospital where they can Skype their daughter in Afghanistan and learn she’s okay for one more day. I cried, and much of it was the reader’s broad curved voice, a voice that lives to suffer and endure and put our complacencies in their place. It’s a story that briefly made me a better person; I’ll take that where I can find it.

20. Also a variety of reader voices are recruited for the stories in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Her novel Swamplandia was wacky-realism of a girl’s Florida coming-of-age that dismayed me by being read aloud by an actual child, even though it’s clearly being recalled from an adult perspective.

This collection was more satisfying to me and more daring. The stories are aggressively strange and off the deep end: an old codger vampire sucking lemons in Italy, a Japanese girl in the Meiji Era sold into becoming a silkworm (this calmly horrific story would have been at home in Kij Johnson’s book—see #34 below), an Aboriginal boy Down Under finding that seagulls steal knickknacks from the future.

The best story is told by a masseuse who becomes haunted by her professional relationship with an Iraqui War veteran whose awful history is tattooed on his back—a brilliant literalization. I find this a more haunting, pointed and successful exploration of PTSD, its ancillary social effects, and broader cultural responsibility for war than the Powers novel above (#13), and I’m pretty sure Russell never served in the armed forces, so I’m reminded that just as fantasy is often more valid as “truth” than documentary, so is imagination sometimes better than experience at creating literature. Not always, of course.

21. The Magician King by Lev Grossman immediately revealed itself as a sequel to something I haven’t redd but engaged me enough to keep listening despite the narrator’s self-deprecating smartass tone while discussing his adventures in a magical land famous from children’s books that turns out to be real. In the last book, he became one of the kings of this land and lost someone he loved.

Now he goes on a Quest because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do in these things (and that’s how it’s put). The engaging part is the command of pace and invention, conveyed in a vivid visual manner. There’s also a parallel flashback narrative about one of the queens and how she learned her style of magic. It’s self-consciously Harry Potter for grownups.

22. The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison is two calm, magisterial Michigan novellas, one about a 60-year-old ex-painter-turned-academic in the process of becoming an ex-academic-turned-painter after “going home” and returning to his “first love” (literal and spiritual), and the title story a strangely random and mysterious tale of a 17-year-old boy obsessed with swimming around his island farm and discovering water babies (as in Charles Kingsley’s morbid Victorian children’s novel), which is a sinister miracle at best.

Both stories anchor the central character amid a galaxy of well-sketched relatives and friends (such as the academic’s emotionally distant bird-watching mother), weaving in lots of memories and thoughts and High Culture references. The stories make a good contrast, although this can’t be elaborated without giving too much away besides the obvious age/youth difference. Both men are obsessed with what is beyond themselves, which is also what is within themselves.

Books on Paper

23. Destroy All Monsters by Greg Hrbek is a collection of stories that won the Prairie Schooner Prize sponsored by that literary magazine. These tales are written in standard contemp lit style, understated while now and then reaching for elegance, often crossing into fantasy. For example, the first story (which also appeared in Best American Short Stories) is “Sagittarius”, about a family dealing with the fact that their newborn is a centaur. We can say it’s hopeful after a cathartic violent sacrifice. The last story, also hopeful, is about a man who deals with his infant’s death by sending some DNA for a do-it-yourself golem kit.

One story, set in a future after San Francisco was vaporized and against a backdrop of endless Middle East war with a draft, is about new ethnic alliances and suspicions among kids as an ex-soldier adopts a Muslim war orphan. The title story, though named after a Japanese monster movie, is actually about the filming of an earlier movie called Monster Zero and its American star Nick Adams, who’s going through a divorce while cruising bathhouses and wondering how his Oscar-nominated career is suddenly in decline. One of the most interesting stories is completely non-fantastic, about an incident on a Japanese island during WWII where many inhabitants killed themselves as the Americans landed.

24. Busy Monsters by William Giraldi. Breathless narrative in light brash tone mixing modern argot with quaint archaisms, as told by an eccentric columnist who transcribes his romantic odyssey chapter by chapter and publishes in a weekly magazine, so that everyone he meets is au courant and offers constructive criticism on the previous chapter. Episodic tale touches on encounters with bizarre characters and various monsters (Bigfoot, Loch Ness, aliens, giant squid) without actually crossing the line into fantasy while he flounders and vents about his girlfriend leaving and how to win her back. One of the monsters is a violent lesbian!

The acknowledgments thank someone for finding half a novel and making him finish, and I perceive that the last half is a more conventional race to a “happy ending” with less of the dark undercurrents that began with the hero driving south to kill somebody in Chapter One. Maybe he didn’t quite finish the same book.

25. Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert—Very fast read in very short chapters, told by octogenarian woman who writes obituaries for the local smalltown paper and deals with mundane family issues while the town’s in an uproar about a child who supposedly was kidnapped but nobody is sure she really existed. It’s also tied in with a children’s writer modeled on Lemony Snicket but whose popularity echoes J.K. Rowling, and references to this series are a motif. (Other recent novels are about children’s novels, e.g., Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton.)

The book never answers the questions it opened with and doesn’t so much end as stop. The writer has apparently been writing these quirky “midwest gothics” in which likable characters touch on real issues of aging, disappointment, etc. Feels like Anne Tyler lite (not intended as a slam).

26. Birds of a Lesser Paradise collects contemporary stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman. First-person women tell simply described stories of heartfelt, often screwed-up relations to parents, children, lovers, and animals, usually all in the same story. One story is about a woman who shut herself in protracted childhood on her beloved dad’s wildlife camp, her tenuous affair with a visitor, and being forced to confront dad’s mortality. A story set in 2050, about taking care of a 90-year-old father with dementia, “resonated” as they say.

The author comes from North Carolina, moved to New England, and is married to a veterinarian. Guess what. These stories about North Carolina, New England, and vets. A surprising number mention vinyl siding. The best two or three are piercing (a reviewer’s word I’ll use without shame here). I’d call these “aching” stories but I mean they make you ache, and they generally justified the blurbs. However, when I kept reading all the way through, they were all less of the same and began to make me wonder why I’m reading stories, or why so many at once.

Best in show: A single woman’s journey to a zoo with her son to see if she can provoke a parrot that used to be her mother’s to speak in mom’s voice. This is occasion to remember their pained moments of the mom’s last widowed years, the arguments and resentments that stick in memory more strongly than other things, the fact that mom loved that bird and the daughter hated it (implicitly for usurping unconditional love). A moment halfway through, as she wonders if her precocious boy will treat her as she treated her mother, triggered my imagination as I elaborated on it as a scene for a movie, bringing myself to tears. (This story is included in a recent Best American Short Stories.)

27. Tales of the New World by Sabina Murray, Australian-born writer who won Pen/Faulkner Award for her previous collection. These intelligent historical tales about real-life explorers require more than imagination. They take research! Indeed, they almost define “intelligent” stories: structured in little chapters, the prose balanced between not too fancy, not too minimal, a bit bloodless in their intellectual approach, the figures a bit ironized and mummified. You’re learning something carefully reckoned, an act of empathy with a modern perspective. Reminded me of Joanna Scott’s excellent collection Various Antidotes or of Andrea Barrett, who blurbed this author before. (Also compare with #59 below.)

Subjects include Victorian woman Mary Kingsley, who traipsed through Africa; the historian companion of Magellan who passed through the Straits to the Moluccas and died by savage island politics; Balboa upon a peak in Darien (before Cortes); Murray’s own father writing a thesis on the earliest report of a Greek who explored Africa; an essay-tale on Jim Jones (with errors, despite thanking her fact-checker); a pirate/privateer who inspired Defoe, Swift and Coleridge; a disgruntled Aztec governor appalled by Montezuma; and Chekhov on the island of Sakhalin—yes, the very same trip referenced in Murakami’s novel above (#7). That brings up influence and confluence, and with so many oceans involved, perhaps effluence.

28. Next up, two historically interesting science fiction satires. Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large, his first novel, is premised on the amazing idea that if God (“the Absolute”) is immanent in all matter, such that matter consists of its material and its immaterial God element, then the arrival of nuclear power would mean that as matter is converted to energy, the by-product or “waste” would be the immanent Absolute element, which then is loosed upon the world. I was reading this as the news was full of the discovery of the “god particle”, the energy that binds atoms. The story patiently unwinds a history of world war and apocalypse as everyone’s notions of the Absolute, now validated (as blind men touch the elephant), causes miraculous holy armageddons.

29. Black No More, by George Schuyler, later a rather unfortunate black conservative gadfly, is in a Library of America collection of Harlem Renaissance novels (two volumes). It posits a process that de-pigmentizes people and follows the satirical behavior of ex-black characters who exploit a racist movement against the procedure; white bigots who don’t realize they have black ancestors; changes in fashion as it’s suddenly the rage to darken yourself and too-light people are regarded with suspicion, etc. It’s not Twain, but it’s interesting in its relentless way.

30. The Town that Forgot How to Breathe by John Harvey is yet another horror-fantasy partly channeling The Shining (see also #9 above) in the plot-thread about a man separated from his wife, taking their daughter to Newfoundland town for summer just as the sea starts giving up centuries’ worth of her dead and there’s an epidemic of out-of-work fisherman (economic depression) who stop breathing autonomically (they must do it consciously or die) and drift into anomie and amnesia (“What am I?”).

Said paterfamilias broods on his failure (presumably as he’s possessed by another ghost) and starts getting murderous impulses against his family, conveyed through disassociated hallucinating prose. Follows many characters (shades of Salem’s Lot), including crazy old lady with “the sight”. The little girl has it, too, and chats with little girl ghost next door. Lots of innocent gifted threatened children in these books about the nuclear family in crisis under economic duress.

This begins like a beautiful sinister dream, justifying blurbs by J.M. Coetzee et al, then starts getting a little bogged down in too much story and not enough. The chapters are the days and nights of the week of crisis. It ends with a Luddite fantasy of the town giving up electricity because the waves interfere with ghosts and such and drive us crazy. And that reminds me of books I haven’t redd by James Howard Kunstler (World Made By Hand is the first) which imagine a post-power return to some pre-industrial fantasy after the world falls apart so much that apparently nobody can even go to a library and look up how to build a generator, and it smells less like a warning than a wish.

And now I see the similar fantasy in ads for the TV series Revolution, where the crossbow-shooting young hottie declares “When the world lost its power, I found mine.” This is a hell of a reactionary impulse, the opposite of Ray Kurzweil’s “technology will transform us” future.

31. I check out many books because they’re short. For example, Connie Willis’ All About Emily is a witty, breezy novella told by a Broadway actress (lots of musical trivia) who encounters a bright-eyed young android in a plot explicitly fashioned as a variant of All About Eve. The robot wants to be a Rockette, but prejudice is against her until they learn how to spin the publicity.

32. Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith, for another example, is a collage of short image-and-sensory laden chapters about a day in the life of a young library woman who’s interested in a soldier boy, mixed with her memories of life so far: Alaskan girlhood, hippie parents, her sister, her fetish for the past (old clothes, photos, etc.) and all things passing. Actually pretty good, and shouldn’t have been longer.

33. For a third example of a novella published as a book, and therefore gratefully checked out by me, John Scalzi’s The God Engines is a quasi-baroque grotesquerie crossing a Star Trek world with Lovecraft: in a galactic theocracy, captured gods are harnessed to power starships by folding space, but the times are a-changing. A very curious literalization of how we use our “gods” (faith) for power, enslaving them in the hopes they won’t enslave us, or how we become slaves to our own dwindling power sources.

34. The bizarre and persnickety tales, like bottled ships, in Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees include old Asian fables (a fox woman seduces a human) and future planets (though of backward cultures), often testifying to the survival of women in the face of random violence. The opening divertissement, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”, is like if Steven Millhauser had a vagina.

Humor also figures in “Schrodinger’s Cathouse” and the 18th Century pastiche “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” (a type of parrot). The title story has a woman stung by a bee and suddenly making a beeline across country until she finds the literal mid-air river of bees, which she follows to its/their source with her dying dog.

The longest tale, the prize-winning novella “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, is concretely described surrealism, a slowly and carefully put-together tale of a methodical introspective architect on a world where lands are divided by literally unfathomable mist-seas that can only be crossed at peril. He kind of likes the equally taciturn and inward beauty who pilots the boats. Both love their jobs, the crossing more than the result. Rich and strange. Perhaps best of all is the final story, about what happens when dogs start to talk and find themselves abandoned; they gather in parks and tell trickster myths while society wonders how to handle them.

Apparently, Johnson publishes in fantasy and SF mags because they’re the only ones who’d have her, though New Yorker should be so lucky. The Publisher’s Weekly starred review (blurbed on the back) calls them “sometimes off-putting, sometimes funny, and always thought-provoking” and there are also blurbs from Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula Le Guin, who not coincidentally also publish at Small Beer Press. I may have to look into this publisher more thoroughly; they also do Kelly Link, who’s been on my curiosity list, and I see they have a collection by Geoff Ryman, author of Was, a cult novel about the impact of The Wizard of Oz on various characters including Judy Garland.

35. You know how you pick up a book, and it’s not only festooned with praise, but the first several pages of blurbs reveal that the author has been putting out acclaimed and award-winning books for years and you still weren’t aware of it? Such is my case with Caitlin R. Kiernan, who knows the right people and they all redd her The Drowning Girl in advance and showered it with compliments. As soon as I began, I realized here was a pleasure to read, not homework driven by my restless quest for finding something. This was it, a book in which you needn’t ask yourself if you wish to continue because you just plunge in and lose yourself via ontological orgasm, and it’s a little scary for it.

It’s narrated by a young medicated schizophrenic lesbian who’s keeping a journal in installments as therapy to explain a ghostly event that happened two years ago and whose ramifications are ongoing, and which she can’t be sure she remembers properly because she’s always contradicting herself and digressing, except the heavily allusive and well-redd digressions of course aren’t really digressions and are just as fascinating as the story she doesn’t want to tell. Postmodern with bells on, and wrapped around a cracking story.

36. It kept resonating with another monstrously acclaimed book I was listening to (wait, this should be in the CD section—oh too bad) that has similarities yet is completely different: Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief. Wow, what a gracefully written work. The first half is a college tale of the narrator picking up a mysterious girlfriend and a creepy bohemian hanger-on and an air of foreboding. That’s a typical contour, made remarkable by its sheen of “realism” rippled by odd uncanny details and always expressed in elegant Updike-besotted descriptions and tropes.

Updike can be the curse of writers (as can Carver), but it’s a blessing when they pull it off. We realize the narrator is just as odd as the people he meets, and perhaps that’s why he meets them. The second part shifts to when he’s suddenly much farther along in life. It belongs in the well-trodden, always intriguing tradition of “double” or “doppelganger” tales.

37. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine. A bitterly comic novel narrated by drifting female English grad, 25, an outrageous master of rationalization, who falls in obsessive love with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and uses it as inspiration to change her life—for the worse. An absurd early scene in an establishment called The Pet Library, where you check out animals like books, is one of the funniest things I’ve redd in years, and many later lines had me yipping and barking with laughter. Nasty, cruel-ish and short.

One problem: it begins with our triumphantly unself-aware anti-heroine declaring that now that her adventures are over, she’ll write them down, so we’d expect it to end somewhere beyond the existential writerly place where she stops. In that last chapter (really this is no spoiler), she first returns the book to the library and later sets forth on a voyage with a map, which includes the library on it. I would have suggested that turning in the book be reshuffled to the last thing she writes about, thus at least closing the circle which began with how she acquired the book. But she didn’t ask me.

38. Necropolis by Santiago Gamboa, supposedly narrated by the writer himself, finds him going to a strange conference on memory and biography in Jerusalem while the city’s being shelled in a siege, and he transcribes the speeches of the various attendees as well as investigating the mystery of one guest’s death. He refers not only to the Decameron but a thousand other books and writers, including a long hilarious paragraph in which he catalogues the books he’s taking to read at the conference, which had many names meaningful to me (including Adalbert Stifter, referenced in #7 above) until he gets to the punchline that there’s never time to read at conferences, anyway. This work falls into that decadent but sophisticated and flattering literary category, a meta-story for readers, with plenty of sex.

39. History of a Pleasure Seeker comes from the ridiculously acclaimed and handsome young South African Richard Mason, who has even used his literary and prize money (while attending college) to found a charity for underprivileged kids. Clearly I should hate him. This novel is an elegant variant of Jane Eyre, if Jane were a bi-sexually confident male in early 20th Century Amsterdam. (Reader, I banged her.)

It comes to a satisfying resolution of its story about being a tutor to a child with what we now call OCD in a rich family’s hothouse of schemes, then keeps going as if afraid we won’t wait for the sequel and embarks on the next story that lands him in the middle of a situation dangling until a next volume. This one, too, has a lot of sex, and of course is much the better for it.


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