Summer Reading List

Ok first off — I KNOW. I know summer is not over yet and it seems like an odd time for a wrap-up list. But the past week in the mornings and evenings there’s been that certain twang in the air, and I feel like the next book I read will land on the Fall Reading List. So then, here it is — the books I read this summer.

1. The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes by Check Wendig

The Blue Blazes is pulp fiction in the best sense of the term. Fast-paced, fairly violent, with a cast of rough-and-tumble characters with names like Mookie Pearl and Skelly. Chuck Wendig excels at creating slightly fantastical alternate realities, and this book is no exception — it takes place in a (literally) hellish underground beneath New York City. I do think I preferred Wendig’s Miriam Black series to this one (probably because I love that character), but this was still a fun romp.

2. American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This was a re-read. I hadn’t read it in a loooong time and wanted to freshen up before the Neil Gaiman reading. I’d remembered the clever storyline — downtrodden gods, an epic road trip, dark twists — but I’d forgotten something important: Neil Gaiman is a great writer. His style seems very simple and straightforward, and yet it still manages to be entirely beautiful and evocative. This time around I studied the writing a lot more closely, trying to analyze how he does what he does.

My only qualm — I somehow ended up with the tenth anniversary edition, which contains the “original” text, before Gaiman’s editor got to it. It was still a great read, but I’m a strong believer that a good editor only improves a story.

3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Of course after the Neil Gaiman talk I immediately devoured his new book. It’s a quick read (Gaiman started it with the intention of writing a short story). When people ask me how I liked it, the only word I can come up with is, “Lovely.” Our narrator is a young boy, and this book just so perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be a kid — both the everyday wonder of it, and the everyday pain of it. That combination actually makes it a bittersweet, almost melancholy read — but still, it leaves you happy. And the ending… mmm, it’s a really beautiful ending that made me think about the nature of memory.

4. Boneshaker

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I had been really excited about this one. I’d heard great things from a lot of people. So imagine my disappointment when I just couldn’t really get into it. And the frustrating thing is, I can’t pinpoint why. It has a lot of elements I enjoy — alternate histories! Seattle! a cool female lead! — but somehow it just didn’t add up for me. I’ll probably give Cherie Priest another try, because the writing itself was good. But yeah. Sorry, Boneshaker. You and I weren’t meant to be.

5 and 6. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood

These two are so entwined, it seems futile to review them separately. In short — OMG I LOVED LOVED LOVED these books. They’re the first two in a trilogy (MaddAddam, the final installment, comes out September 3), set in a dystopian future where humans struggle for survival. First up: Oryx and Crake.

Snowman is our narrator, a despairing man once called Jimmy before mankind suffered a horrible, catastrophic disaster. The nature of the disaster is not fully revealed until the end of the book, and the hints along the way lend such a sense of foreboding — it looms over everything. The hints and descriptions also make the book somewhat terrifying — it has so many parallels to our current political and environmental realities (in fact, Atwood herself always insists on calling it “speculative fiction”, not science fiction).

So of course after finishing Oryx and Crake, I had to pick up the next. The Year of the Flood is set in the same dystopian future, with roughly the same timeline, but we have different narrators: Toby and Ren, who live in a hippy-like commune called God’s Gardeners. Switching the narration gives the reader a “big picture” view of the disaster in Oryx and Crake. You could definitely read these books on their own — but man, you get so much from reading them together. Of the two, I’d have to say my favorite was Oryx and Crake — I loved the slow reveal, and also found Snowman to be a fascinating narrator. Plus, Oryx and Crake contained this, the most delicious of sentences:

It’s the fate of these words to be eaten by beetles.

Mmmm. Pure perfection. Can not WAIT to get my greedy little hands on MaddAddam.

7. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

So technically — I have not finished this one yet. I’m about a third of the way through. But I figure it’s summer, I’m reading it, it’ll go on the list. I’d been meaning to read George Saunders for quite a while, because all my fellow English-major nerds talk about what a fantastic writer he is. And it’s true — the stories I’ve read so far are amazingly well crafted. But oh man, are they depressing. Every single story has focused on a hapless protagonist whose life spirals downwards into despair. And I mean, there’s some hope. In some of the stories. But for the most part, man. I’m sure I’ll keep reading it, because the stories are so well-written. But it does remind me why, for the most part, I’ve forsaken the path of Serious Literature.

What about you? What books did you devour in the sun this year?

Sentences That Stick

Cold it was, and dark, when the vision came to her, for in the far north daylight was a gray dim time in the middle of the day that came, and went, and came again: an interlude between darknesses. — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

My friend Hannah and I were talking the other day about sentences — perfectly crafted sentences. The ones that make you fall in love with the author on the spot, regardless of the rest of the book. The rest of the writing could be crap, the author could be a total jerk — but you’ll always remember that one, breath-catching sentence.

(Side note: this makes me think of Hemingway’s relationship with Fitzgerald. A Moveable Feast has a long chapter depicting how annoying Hemingway first found Fitzgerald when they met. Then Fitzgerald gives him a copy of The Great Gatsby: “When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend.” Good writing, man — you’ll forgive a lot.)

Now, it’s one thing to be in awe of a sentence. But of course, as a writer, I want to study the Why. I want to know what makes that sentence tick and how to emulate it. Dissect it, name its components, do it myself.

The other writers are probably chuckling right now, because the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t always work that way. You can’t always pinpoint exactly why a sentence transcends its basic mechanics and works on a higher level. It speaks to you at the right place, at the right time. There’s the nutshell.

That Neil Gaiman quote — from American Gods, which I just re-read in anticipation of a Neil Gaiman talk tonight (!!!) — is one that’s hard to pinpoint. When I came upon it, I stopped and re-read it three times. Something about it is just beautiful to me. But when I sit down and try to analyze it — it all falls apart. Yes, it has a nice rhythm (“far north daylight” and “gray dim time” sync up nicely), but there’s nothing totally out of the ordinary there. Maybe it’s because I live somewhat north, and know what those long grey days are like. But that doesn’t really explain my gut reaction to it, either. No, if I try to break it down too much, it loses its magic. Better to just read and appreciate.

So how about you? Are there sentences that have ensnared you, that stick with you, that you read over and over again? Let’s share. I’m always greedy for more.