2016 Book Report

by Dana Jerman

Hey there, my fellow Opinionated Apes,

Dana J of the creative writing blog BLASTFORTUNE.com here by invitation to address something I get asked about quite a bit.

Like many of you out there, I read voraciously. Books, mainly. The real kind, with bindings and pages. And primarily fiction, out of that.

Now, even if you’re prepared to set aside the time to engage in the slower pace of life it takes to read, sometimes it can be hard to know what to read. I went to college for Literature specifically to figure that out, and can enjoy reading about 2-4 volumes at a time on rotation, but I know that’s not everybody’s game.

With so much material out there, suggestions from friends and family can be tricky. In order to know what to read, you have to know what you might like.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve been in the classroom fussing over “The Classics”, so seeking new resources to discover new work and hidden gems has taken some vigilance. 

I’ve found The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction to be extremely valuable in this case. 

And since becoming an author with titles on Amazon, the website Goodreads.com has become even more useful than before as a social media platform for the consummate bookworm.

Moreover, if you enjoy owning books and find the public library perhaps doesn’t have enough of what you want, then a very, very good start is always your local used and secondhand bookstore. They are a dying breed of course, and therefore extra valuable. I work at one, and it affords me time to read (and sometimes work on poetry) AND they have the advantage of being places where you can find material with varying timestamps, out-of-print and collectable volumes, all within an affordable pricing structure. Not to mention some (hopefully friendly) personnel who are in the know.

If you happened upon the store asking for a recommendation(s), I would ask you first some key questions:

-What was the last thing you read and enjoyed?
-What sort of literature do you like? Mysteries? Biographies? Poetry?
-Would you prefer something brief or a bit longer?

SO! That said, staff-picks-style, here are a chosen few from what I’ve been reading lately…

You’ve Got To Burn To Shine by John Giorno-
(1993 High Risk Books. 192pgs.)

AND

Do Everything in The Dark by Gary Indiana-
(2003 St. Martins Press. 275pgs.)

I’m combining these two very different books because they contain top notch writing and have one strong common bond which makes them extremely interesting to me subject-wise: They have sprung out of the hard-charging gay underground of the City of New York.

John Giorno is a poet associated with the magnificent social sun of Warhol and his Factory in the sixties. Only a hairs’ breadth of time later do we find Gary Indiana, writing about a more wide-set and under-the-radar group of movers and shakers spread out across the strata of mania, sex, drug use, betrayal, AIDS and pulverized dreams.

Most of us could not be further from this world with how we’ve chosen to live our lives and make decisions. Which is why reading material like this could be chalked up to soap-opera folderol. Save for one thing: it is simply too readable, honest and beautiful to be dismissed as such.

Killer Line (Giorno):

“They’re a breakthrough!”

“I know, they’re so beautiful!” said Andy, really happy.

For me, it was blissful. The newest moment of spontaneous accomplishment. He’d done it again. Sex and death. The silver ‘Elvis’ paintings lay there radiating power. The deity perfectly arisen and the deity who made them arise.”

Killer Line (Indiana):

“Since I barely exist to myself, it’s painful to see my own nothingness reflected in the eyes of people I despise. I have never entirely believed that anyone takes note of my presence anywhere. I was the kind of kid other kids didn’t like, and if I got invited anywhere, I knew for certain if I arrived a minute late nobody would wait for me.”

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory-
(2014 Tor Books. 304pgs.)

Falling within the Science Fiction genre, but too the radical sub genre which explores pharmacology, psychology and the deepest natures of the experience we associate with “God,” (perhaps in attempt to reconcile Science and Religion) here, Gregory crafts a stunning story with extremely well-rounded characters by turns funny, questionable, highly intelligent and sexy. The science is grounded and cutting-edge, (ala William Gibson’s Neuromancer) and with a rewarding twist that provides the perfect closure, Afterparty is, as they say, “hard to put down.”

Killer Line:

“We seemed to be talking in a bubble of frozen time. We weren’t. The brain cannot stop the clock, or even slow it. The mind cannot, despite Roger Penrose’s cockamamie quantum theories, access a timeless, platonic realm of pure thought. The brain can’t even process data faster when under duress. That moment you slipped off the garage roof, and you seemed to hang in the air forever; that first kiss, when the planet shrieked to a halt and your heart composed symphonies between heartbeats; that endless, jellied moment you spent in the glare of the truck lights, your life scrolling past you? All illusions.”

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow-
(2010 Penguin Books. 927pgs.)

One day I woke up and realized I really knew zilch-all about our seminal founding father. Really. Somebody needed to give that Cherry tree story the ax. I realized that somebody had to be me.

If you’re not a big reader of biographies (like me) this may take you forever to consume. (Also me. It is over 900 pages after all.) Be not daunted, however, as the prose is astonishingly well-paced, witty and authoritative without being dry. You will finish this feeling like you got the chance to know the man, and with a gladness in your heart for the continued success of the American experiment.

Killer Line:

“Two weeks later the Congress ratified this extraordinary decision and allowed free blacks to reenlist. Plainly Washington had acted under duress. He urgently needed more men before enlistments expired at year’s end and feared that black soldiers might defect to the British. At the same time he was forced to recognize the competence of black soldiers. Whatever his motivations, it was a watershed moment in American history, opening the way for approximately five thousand blacks to serve in the Continental Army, making it the most integrated fighting force before the Vietnam War. At various times, blacks would make up anywhere from 6 to 12 percent of Washington’s army. Already the Revolutionary War was proving a laboratory for new ideas that operated outside the confines of the slavery system. Everyone felt the new force of liberty in whose name the colonists fought and recognized the flagrant contradiction of slavery. It was fitting that 1775 witnessed the formation of the first antislavery society in Philadelphia.”

The Roaches Have No King by Daniel Evan Weiss-
(1994 High Risk Books. 249pgs.)

Talk about a full-on romp. This story is begging to be a movie. I kind of hope it is and I just don’t know it yet.

It takes a special kind of bright, plot-driven yarn-weaving to make a cockroach into a reliable narrator. Weiss starts right from the beginning with ‘Numbers’, a bug weaned on the Bible and named for the chapter he fed upon, and ushers us along on a wild ride steeped in the drama of human and cockroach characters alike, complete with an encounter in the sewer system that is not to be missed.

Killer Line:

“Within a minute we were packed side by side, like a burnished xylophone, heads butting against the box, united for a noble purpose. I tingled, thinking that if apartment 3B lasted for a thousand years roaches will still say: “This was their finest hour.”

The above list includes exclusively male authors as you’ve probably noticed. To balance this and in closing I leave you with a healthy list of female authors of loads of compelling literature who are more than worthy of your time and attention.

Happy page-turning!

-
Ursula K. Le Guin
Octavia Butler
Mary Gaitskill
Elfriede Jelinek
Tove Jansson
Alissa Nutting
Jeanette Winterson
Colette
Katherine Dunn
Mary Shelley
Doris Lessing
Jennifer Egan
Anita Brookner
Audrey Niffenegger
Anne Rice
Sylvia Plath
Jacquline Susann
Audre Lorde
Marge Piercy
Virginia Woolf
Ann Quin
Dorothy Sayers
Jean Rhys
Gertrude Stein
Anna Kavan
Sharon Olds