Here we go. For full effect read this post aloud in a halting monotone.
Ali’s Smile – William S. Burroughs (1985)
Burroughs flirted with Scientology during the 50s and 60s only to end up disillusioned by it. Feeling some compulsion to set the record straight and to rectify whatever damage his support for the organization might have caused he set about writing a series of letters and articles attacking Scientology. This collects them all along with the titular story, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable as the non-fiction parts.
Here’s a link to the PDF.
Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye: From the Case Files of Warren Olson – Steven Leather (2006)
I found this book in an ex-pat bar. It’s trashy and loathsome, but compulsively readable like a tabloid, and I suspect it or books like it might have influenced Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. There’s a certain type of Anglo-expat guy you meet in Asia that’s obsessed with which women are or aren’t sex workers. This book’s like spending 270 pages listening to that guy regale you with his adventures. In every way he’s a guy standing atop the smoldering wreckage of his life, but the captivating part is hearing how proud of it he is.
There’s also something fascinating about well done sensationalistic hackwork. I could picture the author shuffling up the pages of this book and reselling it under some other title like Bangkok Streets: One Man’s Journey. Hell, even from story to story whole passages and sentences get recycled. So like I said it’s trash, but intensely readable.
Create Dangerously – Edwidge Danticat (2010)
The corner of the Internet where I reside made much of that Salon piece on Junot Diaz’s writing class syllabus. The article’s here if you want to read it. As someone always eager to hear book recommendations I made notes, which is how I learned of Danticat. Part memoir, part essay collection Danticat explores her role as a Haitian immigrant artist residing in the USA. It’s a great read and definitely worth tracking down.
“One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there.”
Immobility – Brian Evenson (2013)
I’ve liked other Brian Evenson novel’s quite a bit and think he’s a great short story writer. Seriously, read the “Ex-Father”. This book however was a disappointment.
A man wakes up in the dark with amnesia. Mysterious assailants torture him. He is tasked with a vague secret mission and must journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape to the place where the plot happens and all his (our) questions will be answered, except they’re not. So he has to journey back to the assholes that tortured him at the start and instead of answering his questions they torture him some more until they put him back to sleep and tell him all this will start all over again. At which point the book ends. It’s also one of those stories where the character’s intelligence appears to be dictated by whether or not the plot requires him to do something stupid or smart. It’s not good when books remind me of bad slush stories. This combined two types: “Character wakes in darkness. They have no memory. The torture begins.” And, “Character receives cryptic mission or message. They must journey to the place where the story is waiting for them.”
The Keep – Jennifer Egan (2006)
A literary novel that reads like a popular novel while commenting on popular novels, I couldn’t help but think of Stephen King as I read this. Two cousins reunite in Europe twenty years after a childhood prank changed their lives. Meanwhile a prisoner in jail for murder takes a creative writing class. The Keep’s multi-layered and metafictional novel, but also a decently plotted thriller. It’s worth checking out.
Last Evening on Earth – Roberto Bolano (2007)
Holy shit! This collection knocked my socks off! Plotless short stories that hinge entirely on mood, meandering character studies, and short cruelly humorous vignettes about a lost generation of Chilean expats. Great stuff! One of my favorites was the short character study “Henri Simon Leprince” about a disreputable writer in 1940s France who couldn’t shake his reputation as a shitty writer even as he helped political dissidents escape the German occupation.
Requiem – Graham Joyce (1996/2006)
A man-pained widower fucks his way into a nervous breakdown. He then fucks his way out. The Dead Sea Scrolls, Mary Magdalene, and djinn are also involved. As with the Evenson above, I read this without liking it. Joyce’s How to Make Friends With Demons, which shares some of the same concerns and tropes, is much better.
Stations of the Tide – Michael Swanwick (1991/2001)
I bought this book on the merits of the cover. Look at that thing. It’s great. Distracted man in suit with futuristic briefcase dwarfed by alien landscape. I love it. You can expect a 1 Book, 4 Covers post on this book. Anyway this is a weird, kinky science fiction novel about a bureaucrat hunting a renegade wizard on a planet that’s preparing for its regularly scheduled apocalypse. The ending is a bit fragmentary and hallucinatory but the ride is where the fun is. It’s also interesting to me that this books was exactly 100 page shorter than most modern SFF novels that I feel default to being at least 100 pages too long.
I think there’s an argument to be made that the shorter a novel is the more subversive, perception-altering potential it has.
Vacuum Flowers – Michael Swanwick (1987)
I read this book when I was 15 or 16. It made absolutely no sense. It also had this weird yellow Jane Fonda David Bowie Rebel Rebel cover. On reread this month, it only made a more sense because I’m better seeped in science fiction tropes. This is grand tour SFF set in a post-singularity transhumanist solar system of plug-in personalities, unbraked AIs, colonized comets, and other crunchy bit. Overall bewildering but enjoyable.
If You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland (1983)
A quick, enjoyable read. This book was first published in the 1930s and while it’s pretty light on particulars (it doesn’t offer any exercises) Ueland’s style is quite enjoyable. She’s a down-to-earth author with little concern for what is and isn’t literature. From her descriptions of students I don’t think Ueland taught in a university, but in a more informal capacity or in a community center. Anyway, not a bad writing book of the inspirational variety.
And last, I read Fritz Leiber’s novella Horrible Imaginings. This is one of those Leiber stories people don’t talk about, written when he was an old man living in a San Francisco rooming house. Any Leiber fan interested in his later work (especially if you like the amazing Our Lady of Darkness) should read this post by writer Marc Laidlaw. Anyway this is a pretty ugly story of the “porn-guilt” subgenre.
An old man, Ramsey Ryker, lives alone in a modern day San Francisco apartment building where he has recurring nightmares of being assaulted by hordes of monstrous miniature penises while immobilized in darkness. Later we learn he occasionally visits peep shows, and he’s become infatuated with a woman he’s glimpsed in his apartment building, a woman who may or may not be a ghost. The end let me down, but the creeping inevitable of all the rest of it made up for it, especially all the digressions on apartment trees and empty space.