Ask me: what should Michelle read next?

>> Wednesday, October 20, 2010

And now, here we are for the final question in last week's "Ask Shoulders Of Giant Midgets mailbag. The magnificent Michelle asks the Oracle:

What should I read next? It can't involve zombies.

Sadly, that would seem to preclude reading the recent Amazon horror bestseller Rigor Amortis, a collection of zombie erotica featuring the debut short story "Syd's Turn" from a young man who is certain to become one of America's leading literary lights if he can just finish another fucking story, what the hell is wrong with me, I had a bunch of stuff coming together for a spec story and then the whole goddamn thing turned to goo in my hands and now what the fuck am I supposed to do with this bleeding awful trainwreck I--


But seriously. What should Michelle read? That doesn't have zombies in it.

The best fiction I've finished recently, and the only non-comic thing I think I can recommend over the course of the past year,* is Margaret Atwood's The Year Of The Flood, a sequel to Oryx And Crake, which I haven't read yet. As far as I can tell and have been able to figure out, you don't actually have to read Oryx first: Flood is kind of a sequel, kind of not--Flood mostly covers events that happened parallel to the events in Oryx to mostly-minor characters introduced in Oryx, and then the plots converge near the end of Flood. Flood is just fucking brilliant, anyway, and I can't imagine that Oryx And Crake isn't worth a read, so if you haven't read them, go for it.

Oh--I suppose you might want to know what they're about (so as to demonstrate an absence of stray zombies); I sort of hate to give plot summaries, but I guess I can at least offer up the premise. In The Year Of The Flood presents the final years of North American civilization prior to the release of a bioengineered plague apparently intended to restore nature by removing the human race from the picture, from the points of view of several former members of a religious cult of radical environmentalists. Oryx And Crake (as I understand it, not having read it) actually deals with the people responsible for unleashing the plague in the first place. There are no living dead of any kind, though there are some horrifically sick people during the apocalyptic parts of the book and some pretty awful, mindlessly-violent people during the dystopian future parts of it. But really, best of all, Margaret Atwood's prose is just sharp, sharp, sharp. Seriously, you need to read these.

Also on the finished list is Don DeLillo's Point Omega, but it's a pretty minor work. It's good, mind you, great if you want to compare it to ninety percent of what's out there, but merely adequate if you want to compare it to most of DeLillo's other stuff. The places to start with DeLillo, in my view, are his earlier masterpieces White Noise or Libra (which may be the more accessible of the pair).

White Noise is a darkly funny, angsty account of a middle-aged academic facing the inevitability of his (and his family's) mortality. The title can be taken, I think, as a play on words: "white noise" (static) is a metaphor for death in DeLillo's novel, but you can also take the narrator's white, middle-class existential angst as amounting to little more than "noise" as well.

Libra is a fictional biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, folding verifiable events in Oswald's life into an account of an assassination gone wrong--the conspiracy in Libra is a plan for an attempted assassination intended to provoke Kennedy into a more right-wing stance, but, ah, certain nuances of the plan aren't adequately communicated to those who'll be pulling the triggers. That's not important, though: what Libra is really about is subjective versus objective realities, how communication shapes reality or how information is reality, about capital-m Meaning, about how secrets and lies distort what is real by altering what we think is real. Oswald may be a central shadow in all of this, a character around whom all these things orbit, but the book isn't really about him or, for that matter, the Kennedy assassination.

On the current list, and always to be recommended: I'm currently reading an old collection of T.C. Boyle stories, Without A Hero, and T.C. Boyle is hopefully somebody you already read and love. Any of Boyle's books, really, could be the next thing you read.

Other recommendations aren't coming to mind, or too many are--there are other writers I've pushed here and elsewhere, such as David Foster Wallace and Philip K. Dick. The best way to close, really, is to open the floor (which seems unnecessary, it's already open, but, whatever): gang, what should Michelle read next? (No zombies.)

*I am disappointed to say, as I look over my reading from the past year, that there are several books I've read or am reading that I really can't actually recommend. E.g. Mark Z. Danielewski's House Of Leaves is more interesting than good (to borrow a classic quip from Samuel Johnson, the book is both original and good, but the original parts are not good and the good parts aren't that original) and Alan Weisman's The World Without Us starts out with an interesting idea but becomes sort of tediously and dubiously preachy overall.

And then one of the best things I've read this year was a collection of short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke--but I don't know if a collection of English translations of an early-20th Century Japanese writer whose twin obsessions were his country's medieval literature and his own contemporary struggles with bipolar disorder have that broad an appeal. If so, please check Akutagawa out!


vince Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 12:27:00 PM EDT  

For fiction, I can recommend Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest - a very, very different book, but I loved it, and it's zombie free. I'm afraid all the other fiction I'm currently reading is Terry Pratchett books, thanks to Michelle and Jeri (I'd never read any of his work until this summer and they both recommended him.)

I can also recommend the following nonfiction books:

The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. A great look at the research that shows how our minds play tricks on us.

Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science by John Grant. The book reviews how ideology, religion, and politics have imposed themselves on science throughout history.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. Self-explanatory.

Warner (aka ntsc) Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 1:00:00 PM EDT  

Non Fiction, Volume I of the uncensored Mark Twain autobiography.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 1:03:00 PM EDT  

Is the uncensored Twain biography out already? I thought it was the ... oh... Today is the 20th.

Eric, re our discussion yesterday, I was REALLY thinking about getting that for you.

And in the interim, I've been reading Donna Leon and Georgette Heyer.

vendsman = They've got fancy names for all kinds of jobs these days

Eric Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 1:34:00 PM EDT  

I appreciate the thought, Michelle, but I'm still backlogged beyond belief on the reading front. :)

Random Michelle K Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at 1:50:00 PM EDT  

He's waited 100 years already, he can wait a few more for you to get around to reading it. ;)

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