Summer Reading List

The end of summer draws nigh, but the heat shows no sign of slowing down. Coming off a string of 90 degree days which push closer to 100 with the humidity. Longing for the colors and temperatures of autumn, but now quite ready to say so long to vacation.

Today it’s another hot one, though slightly cooler–hanging in the mid 80’s–but the overcast skies push all the hot air down, trapping us inside. Perfect conditions for a flick. Watching Hard Times, the Depression-era Charlie Bronson street fighter film. Heard about it from a podcast interview with Goon creator, Eric Powell. Watching this, I can see a lot of similarities, especially between Bronson’s look and The Goon’s. James Coburn plays his “manager,” Speed. Nothing spectacular but it’s a good flick. Maybe I like it because of The Hustler. Same sort of story, but with pugilism instead of billiards.

Spent a decent chunk of time yesterday sweating behind a lawn mower. Weather and laziness prevented me from getting to the lawns for quite some time so the grass was extra thick. Had to go over it a couple times and was tapped out by the end of it.

But what’s summer break without a summer reading list–not really a list I made for myself, I just kept grabbing books as I heard about them.

The works of Benjamin Percy occupied the younger part of my summer. I first read about Percy in the Star Tribune. The article detailed his forthcoming apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark expedition, The Dead Lands. Immediately put a hold on the book through the library system but I was about seven on the list. I was drawn to his work though. Like me, Percy grew up on the west coast (Oregon) and later moved to the Midwest for the love of his life. Also like me, he acclimated to living in the Midwest self-identifying as a MidWesterner, capital M, capital W. And I really liked what he was able to get away with story-wise, successfully straddling the realms of literary and genre fiction.

When I earnestly started pursuing writing, one thing I heard or read repeatedly was that despite countless examples of solid top-notch work, genre fiction was not necessarily taken as seriously as “literary” fiction. Percy seems to have conquered or at the very least snuck past these falsities. While waiting for The Dead Lands, I checked out his short story collection Refresh, Refresh and his werewolf novel Red Moon. Both were excellent. Refresh, Refresh offered tales from central and eastern oregon. Men, women, and children living different lives. The stories were based in reality but ventured into new territory with the assistance of extraordinary circumstances.

Red Moon has werewolves. The whole novel hinges upon the existence of lycans. They exist as a result of a protein mutation, and their kind has historically been treated as second-class citizens. Because of this, there are lycan revolutionaries fighting and using acts of terrorism to achieve freedom. Percy uses this setting and these characters to explore terrorism, xenophobia, loyalty, betrayal, family, love, fear, and the unknown. The prose is superb. The ideas are grand. Doesn’t matter that it has werewolves. Saki used werewolves in his stories. Shelley had a monster. Stoker had vampires. Literature is literature.

I finally read The Dead Lands and I liked it even more than Red Moon. Post-apocalyptic tale. Reminiscent of King’s The Stand. U.S. collapses as a result of a plague. Stronghold in Missouri won’t let its citizens venture out despite a water shortage. Lewis and Clark follow Gawea to Oregon in search of a chance at life. There are no werewolves, but there are mutations and magic. Prose is still beautiful and the story tackles bigger ideas. Once again Percy demonstrates the literary merit of a “genre”-laden novel.

After reading Percy I moved on to John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I’m not much of a sci-fi guy. I like the flicks but never read much of the genre. His name kept popping up especially around folks like Chuck Wendig and Patrick Rothfuss. I enjoyed this one as well. Felt it had a nice balance of hard science and fantastical elements. I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series as I can find them. Moment of honesty: the majority of my books come from the library. I’d like to support authors more, but I can’t afford to buy all the books I’d like, so I hit up the magical ‘brary.

Next, I tackled Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I don’t think that it’s as good a novel as TKAM, it’s a solid piece of literature, and I think it helped Lee to write her masterpiece. The novel deals with a Scout in her mid-20’s returning home to Maycomb. She deals with a changing and growing hometown. I related to this. Every time I return to Napa, it’s a little bit different. This doesn’t bother me as much anymore, but I remember in college that it could be quite unsettling. Lee also tackles what it’s like to realize and accept the infallibility of our parents through Scout’s altercations with her father/hero Atticus Finch.

What I realized upon completing Lee’s novel, and looking back over my reading list for the summer and the year, is that the majority of books that I read are by middle-class white guys. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading books by these kinds of authors, but by only reading books by these kinds of authors, I feel I’m limiting myself and not getting to experience the world through different sets of eyes. Ultimately, I think I’m drawn to works written by middle-class white guys, because that’s what I am and who I identify with; unfortunately, I think these authors are read more than other types of authors because they are the ones pushed to the forefront of the market. I could be wrong, but I think non-white, non-male authors must have to work much harder to not only get published, but to get recognized. So I wanted to change this in my own life.

I picked up Miranda July’s The First Bad Man based on a recommendation by Ryan Adams’ Instagram Feed, and finished it in a matter of days. The protagonist is a middle-aged women who spends most of her time living inside her own head. Since a babysitting stint at the age of nine, she’s been obsessed with a baby she’s dubbed Kubelko Bondy. She’s in love with a much older man who serves on the board of the non-profit she works for. Her world is upheaved when she is “forced” to take in her bosses’ twenty-something daughter, who becomes a nemesis of sorts and the catalyst for the protagonist to change. I loved the story, but what I appreciated more was that I got a glimpse of how this woman (the protagonist) views the world.

After July’s novel, I ploughed through Jeff Smith’s graphic novel RASL. I love Smith’s Bone saga, and this much different, more adult novel delivers in a big way. Parallel universes. Tesla. Art thievery. Lizard faced G-Men. It’s a killer book.

This summer, I also added a new podcast to my library: Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter’s A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. This podcast rules. They talk a lot about the craft of writing, read works-in-progress, answer listener questions, and interview writers and musicians. Their podcast has effectively added to my reading list. I started reading Manuel GonzalesThe Miniature Wife and Other Stories, and even though I’m only a couple stories in, I’m liking it. Plane hi-jacking lasting 20 years, a shrunken wife wreaking havoc on her husband, and a fictional biography for clowns. Up next, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac by Sharma Shields and Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee. Again, great recommendations for some diversity in my reading.

Okay. I started this essay hours ago. Hard Times is long over. I’ve since watched The Frighteners and now I’m taking a look at the making of. I’ll probably turn in soon and catch a few more stories by Manuel Gonzales.

Goodnight.

Read wide. Read deep.

Broaden your horizons like a champ.

Huzzah.

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