Monday, May 12, 2014

Your Summer Reading List, 2014

Here is our first annual Mindful Pleasures summer reading list, a handful of books not necessarily light, but definitely enlightening. Read 'em at the beach. (Click on the titles to shop for the books at Jeff Bezos' humble little website.)

  1. Fado Alexandrino by Antonio Lobo Antunes
  2. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  3. A Sport and A Pastime by James Salter
  4. Crash by J. G. Ballard
  5. Birds, Beasts and Flowers by D. H. Lawrence
  6. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Why these books? I put Lobo Antunes' dazzling novel at the beginning of summer because it's the most difficult novel on the list--and also the most beautifully written. (The last book on the list is neither a novel nor difficult--it's sui generis and impossible.) Lobo Antunes, Portugal's greatest living novelist (and, in my opinion, Europe's), is a marvelous, provocative, original writer with a gorgeously metaphorical prose style and a musical understanding of novelistic form. Fado Alexandrino, which can be described as a Portuguese Sentimental Education combined with a Portuguese Ulysses, is probably his masterpiece. It's time for the English-reading world to discover him. Likewise, we need to (re)discover Delany, who might just be the unacknowledged Melville of our time (with the endless, legendarily difficult Dhalgren as his Moby Dick). Babel-17 is earlier and much shorter than Dhalgren, but also outstanding, a classic of 1960s New Wave science fiction that says interesting things about language, consciousness, gender and sexuality. James Salter's Mad Men-era expatriate novel is a surprisingly lyrical combination of Hemingway and Henry Miller. At first the prose seems almost too spare, but once you become accustomed to Salter's style you begin to appreciate its poetic, painterly effects. This novel also features one of the most unreliable narrators I've ever encountered, a compulsive fantasist whose unacknowledged homoeroticism (and, in one scene, racism) crucially inflects his perceptions, thoughts and elaborate erotic fantasies. Thus, Salter admirably brings to the surface of his narrative the unreliability and homoeroticism that Fitzgerald keeps implicit in the Nick Carraway-Jay Gatsby relationship. After Salter, we take a hairpin turn at 120mph and slam head-on into one of the strangest erotic novels ever written, Ballard's magisterial meditation on the eroticization of technology and the technologization of eros. David Cronenberg's film was good, but Ballard's book is both more disturbing and more beautiful. Today, when we seem to be losing the ability to think of technology as a problem, to question its effects upon us, Ballard's novel is more necessary than ever. As a kind of antidote to the world of Crash, we next turn to some of the most erotic nature poetry in English, Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers (also available in the big Penguin Complete Poems, which is pricey but worth it). At this point in my reading life, I prefer Lawrence's poetry to his prose, and Birds, Beasts... is probably his most impressive group of poems. Finally, summer's declining days bring us to the impossible sixth of our list. But how better to fall into fall than with a book that 'begends' with the fall "of a once wallstrait oldparr"? Come on. You've put it off long enough. It's time to finally plow through this monstrosity so linguistically complex that almost every word is a labyrinth of meanings and so lyrically composed that it can almost be sung. And perhaps that's the best way to approach the Wake. Think of it as the wordy music to the weirdest opera you'll never see. Think of it as Ovid with a lot more dick jokes. Think of it as the book that took the free play of the signifier to its ultimate limit at a time when Jacques Derrida had not yet outgrown his pedal car. Think of it as the alpha and omega of postmodernism. Just don't think too much about each individual word, or you'll never make it past page one. Read it aloud and let the music be the meaning. You'll be surprised by how much you understand--and how often you laugh (if you think something in the Wake might be a dirty joke, you are almost certainly interpreting it correctly). And if for long stretches you fail to understand Joyce's text... well, join the freakin' club. No one, I repeat, no one really understands Finnegans Wake. No one can. Academics chew at its edges and offer advice to potential diners, but the full meal would turn anyone into Mr. Creosote. Satisfactorily interpreting Joyce's linguistic smotherlode would take several lifetimes. Fortunately, the book is filled with local pleasures. On every page there's something funny, witty or beautiful. So relax. You'll make it through.

If you decide to accept my challenge and read all six books, please post your reactions to them in the comments section below. Enjoy.

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