To celebrate the summer of 2017, we are pleased to present an ongoing series of reading recommendations/reminiscences by Goose Lane authors past and present.
Today: Jared Young (Into the Current)
This was supposed to be my summer reading list. It was curated in May, during a lovely half hour of browsing at Cover To Cover in Winnipeg, one of those wonderful used bookstores that is also a comic shop, which means the books are catalogued with a collector’s meticulous attention to insignificant detail: John Saul paperbacks stacked according to the colour of type on the spine; John le Carré novels arranged by geography, Europe to Africa to Asia to America—or maybe that was just my imagination. Nonetheless, the place smells like a wood-panelled, shag-carpeted basement—which is, I think you’ll agree, how all used bookstores should smell.
This list was built in consultation with my father and siblings, who I was in Winnipeg to visit for the weekend. “Oh, you gotta read Ruth!” my dad pleaded, thrusting a copy of Master Of The Moor into my hands with the enthusiasm of teenage hipster proselytizing on behalf of some cool EDM band: “Ruth is so good.” (He said this last part with his eyes closed, such was the ecstasy of thinking about how good Ruth Rendell was). How could I say no? Elsewhere in the aisles, scanning through skinny sci-fi paperbacks, I pulled out the ones with the weirdest titles and, from those, chose the two with the gaudiest cover art and most absurd plot descriptions.
I can think of no better hour than the one I spent, later that day, sprawled on my brother’s couch, in his cramped boiled-broccoli-smelling bachelor apartment (which, I think you’ll agree, is how all brother-apartments should smell), reading, one after another, the first chapters of my summer books. It was bliss. The whole history of literature seemed available to me in that diverse sequence of excerpts; like I could wrap my arms around it; like it was possible to read everything, to know everything.
Of course, reading lists never work out the way you mean them to.
Summer is for leisure. I still think of it as a break from serious, scholastic things. All those books one is supposed to read, the ones that are supposed to educate, aka. important books—those are books for the fall (even the publishing industry lives by this chronobiological rhythm). The books I chose for my summer reading were going to bring lightness and whimsy to the sunny months. With that in mind, I started with the two sci-fi paperbacks: The Stone God Awakens and If This Goes On.
The latter was a cool little collection of short stories, most of which were written in the mid 1950s, that speculate upon life as it would probably be lived in the distant future of the 70s and 80s. “If you want to know what he future holds for you,” the back jacket boasts, “this book holds some of the answers.” You might expect all sorts of absurdities about flying cars and robot butlers, and, along with them, ample opportunity to laugh, smirking, at those dopey prognosticators of the past. But some of the writers are surprisingly prescient. There’s a story from 1958 called “All The Troubles Of The World” about a giant computer called Multivac that collects information about citizens and uses it to predict the likelihood they will commit a crime. Of course it was written by Isaac Asimov.
I would list, among the other highlights of this book, the novella “The Climbing Wave” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which follows a crew of savvy space-people, descendants of Martian colonists, who return to earth to find it populated by lethargic farm folk with no interest in science or technology. It’s a cool story, and, having believed that I’d stumbled upon some unknown and underappreciated female sci-fi writer, and ready to take to Twitter with all sorts of progressive pronouncements about her talent, I visited her Wikipedia page and discovered that Mrs. Zimmer Bradley is (a) much better known than I’d realized, and (b) the subject of multiple sexual abuse accusations.
My research skills were put to better use after reading Philip José Farmer’s The Stone God Awakens. I am certain, despite a total lack of evidence, that it is the book that inspired the movie Avatar, because, my god, it might as well be the official novelization of the film. It’s the tale of a modern man (modern = 1970) who is frozen in time by some dubious chemical process and awakens ten thousand years later to a world inhabited by cat-people, who treat him as a deity, and whom he must struggle not to sleep with, because, you see, these are very sexy cat-people. Much of the story takes place in a gigantic tree – a tree the size of a continent – and though the last half of the book is sort of fetishistic in its description of the hero’s subjugation of inferior species, I enjoyed it. I’ve read Farmer before; just a few years ago, in fact. A book called Night of Light. I’d tell you what that one was about, and if it was any good, but I cannot recall, with any detail, either of those two things. Take from that what you will.
So, a good start to my summer reading list, right?
I was well on my way to diving into Georges Arnaud’s Wages of Fear—but then, one afternoon, while passing through Chapters on my way to Starbucks for an afternoon coffee, a book caught my eye. It was sitting on the Hot Fiction table, which I sometimes glance at for no reason whatsoever, certainly not to check if my novel has accidentally been placed there by some inept summer stock clerk. The book I saw there, though not my own, nonetheless caught my eye. Faded lime green, stacked type, an ornate botanical illustration beneath it all. I had never heard of this book. It was by an author I’d never heard of, either: Jeff Vandermeer (who, it turns out, lots of people have heard of, so there goes my credibility as a bibliophile). I did, however, recognize the plot description as the premise of a new film being made by Alex Garland, the wunderkind author-turned-filmmaker whose charmed career is the source of approximately 90-percent of my self-loathing and envy. So I picked up the book, which is called Annihilation, read the first few pages, found myself enchanted by the sparseness of the prose, the simplicity of the plot, and bought it. Over the next forty-eight hours, I swallowed it whole like a starving jungle snake. I rushed out immediately (this time to Perfect Books, a fine indie bookstore here in Ottawa) to buy the sequel.
Authority, the second part of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, has a terribly cool title, but is also, it turns out, terribly boring: a workplace drama fraught with all sorts of Kafkaeqsue bureaucratic banality and completely devoid of the Lovecraftian immensity of the previous volume (“Kafkaesque” and “Lovecraftian” in the same sentence = bibliophile credibility reinstated). Basically, if you’ve ever wondered what the Empire’s human resources department was up to while the Death Star was being built, it might be the book for you. I finished it, though. As a matter of principle. Yet I was so entranced by the magic of that first book that I bought the third chapter, Acceptance. It proved an even greater struggle; each time I picked it up, I felt I was being punished for my recklessness in abandoning my summer list.
Oh, poor Wages of Fear, with its stunning painted cover art and rad tagline (“Four men match wits and raw animal courage in a blood-chilling gamble with death!”), followed me everywhere I went, in the pocket of my backpack, just waiting to be cracked. And I certainly intended to crack it. But during my deep dive into Vandermeer’s trilogy, I needed a counterbalance, something to cleanse the palate, a bit of pickled ginger between bites. Something real. Something enlightening.
So I returned to a book I’d begun reading back in January, At The Existentialist Café, by the peerless Sarah Bakewell. I had lost my original copy during a reading at Another Story Book Shop in Toronto in the spring: to distract myself from the fact that we were supposed to start in fifteen minutes and every single seat in the place was still empty, I hid behind the back shelves, pulled out the book, and just sort of stared at the words; when the reading began, I must have set it down somewhere and it was swallowed up by Another Story’s eclectic, fairly-priced inventory. But, anyways, I bought another copy, and, as I glided towards the end, found myself slowing down, reading only a few pages at a time, a few paragraphs, not wanting my adventures with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and Martin Heidegger to end (spoiler: they all die in the end). The unfortunate side-effect of re-committing to that book, at least insofar as my summer reading list was concerned, was that it diverted me away from Ruth and the rest of them, and instead towards the works therein referenced; and so, in the wake of my philosophical studies, two books were added to the pile, both by Camus, who proved to be the sexiest and most easily emulated of the existentialists: The Myth of Sisyphus and The Fall.
As June came to a close, I was almost through the last few chapters of The Fall. But it was slow going. My summer brain was all loopy on wheat beer and fresh air and unable to parse the deep meaning in Camus’ frenetic, zigzagging prose. I fought through, though, just like I had with Vandermeer, knowing that once I was finished I could finally jump into Wages of Fear, and, from there, the rest of them.
A holdover from my winter reading list. A Christmas gift from my wife. The latest novel from one of my all-time favourite writers.
My excuse for not getting to Swing Time earlier was that it was simply too beautiful; the colours were blinding; the grain of the dust jacket thrilled my fingertips. Also, it was really big and heavy and I was loathe to lug it around everywhere in my backpack. But, mid-summer, we had a cottage trip planned, and while I typically reserve such breaks from serious life for the sort of genre stuff with which I’d already packed my summer reading list, I was compelled to bring along Zadie’s weighty tome, and, that week, in between dips with my daughter in the warm water of Danford Lake, I traveled between Central Quebec, 1980s West London, and contemporary East Africa. Swing Time proved to be the perfect companion to my early morning diet of coffee and double-chocolate Pop-Tarts. That big, heavy book was fully consumed in a matter of days, and, still basking in its afterglow, I feel I can make this claim with total confidence: there is no living writer currently working in the English language better than Zadie Smith. If you are reading this, you should stop immediately and go read Swing Time. If you have already read Swing Time, you should stop reading this and instead quietly contemplate the inconspicuous virtuosity of Swing Time.
Sadly, books must end. And so must weeks at the cottage. We are now past the peak of summer, on the decline. It goes by so quickly!—that’s what everyone says. But isn’t that the attitude of gluttons? In their blind greed they swallow whole a delicacy and then complain there isn’t more of it. The summer is always short, and it’s further shortened by our grandiose expectations of it. So I am trying hard not to be disappointed in myself for those books that remain unread at the bottom of my pile. I’ll get to them sometime, someday. And if I don’t, that’s fine, too.
This, now, is my actual summer reading list:
Like the summer itself these books seem to have slipped by too quickly. How could I have possibly read them all in such a short time? And how could I have read so few of them?
The good news is that there’s another month to go. And I’ve finally made headway into Wages of Fear. The pages are brittle, they smell like an old shirt, and the prose is somehow both rudimentary and flamboyant; it was only when I realized that it had been translated from French, and began to read it in a sort of French rhythm, that the effect of the book, so boldly gloated about on the front cover (“Brutal, Violent!”), finally hit me. Right now, on page 86, Gerard and Johnny are in the cab of their transport truck, deep in the jungle of South America, picking up speed, about to coast across a patch of dangerous washboard road, the nitroglycerin behind them a bump and jostle away from blowing them to smithereens.
Time may be short for them. For me, too. I still have six more books to get through.
Jared Young grew up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and currently resides in Ottawa. His short stories, essays, and reviews have been published around the world in places like Maisonneuve, The Millions, the Bangkok Post, TorontoStar, Ottawa Citizen, and more. His writing has also been anthologized by McSweeney’s.
You can read his work at The Jared Young Review.