I’m a Bad Reader

I’m a bad reader.

I know I read “1984” in high school, and I’m pretty sure I finished “Lord of the Flies” and “Animal Farm” too, but these were purely out of necessity. In the Pre-Internet Days (insert Old Man Jokes here), we had to actually write our own book reports and not just copy a summary we dug up online, written by some kid in Ding Dong, Texas.

But other than maybe reading the first chapter of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or “The Hobbit” or “Dune” — because someone who didn’t know me well enough told me I’d love them — I really didn’t read. Like, ever.

I won’t bore you with the details of how it all came to be that I would not only start reading for fun, but how I also, inconceivably, began writing books of my own, but the reality is: I’ve discovered books that I love. And what I’ve noticed is that these stories never seem to be the ones others have recommended to me. Is this because they still don’t really know me well enough?

I’ve decided, however, that I still remain a pretty bad reader. I’m slow for one thing. I also love to re-read books. Also, if I find I have a quiet moment, I’m often trying to get some writing done too. Combined, these factors make it difficult to really put up the big numbers as far as my “Books Read” list goes.

I’m a picky reader, too. My favorite book is not going to be part of a series; it doesn’t always fall into a specific genre; and it’s usually by an author I hadn’t heard of before. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than discovering a book on my own and not only having it resonate, but finding myself looking forward to when I’ll read it again.

Below are six under-the-radar books that I adore; books I have re-read and will probably continue to until I’m dead. And even longer than that, if I can pull that off.

 

THE HOLLOW HOUSE, by Carlo Dellonte [2001]

“I felt no shame for the dreams I had left there. I saw no limits to what I could do to make them mine again. I had realized the Cliffs hadn’t changed who I was: on the contrary, they had given me the courage I needed to be myself.”

Synopsis: A young man is driving his car at night when a powerful storm forces him to stop at a bed and breakfast in a small fishing village. He has an encounter with the young woman proprietor. The next morning, the girl has disappeared, leaving the man regarded with suspicion by the locals.

This one I found when I was in Australia and looking through the bargain bin of a weird bookstore. Well, everything Down Under is weird, but a bookstore is one of the few things that can’t kill you in Australia, so there’s that, I suppose. As far I know, Carlo Dellonte has only written this one book, but “The Hollow House” is so rich in mood, mystery, and disturbing thoughts (it’s described as “a gothic tale of dark longings and fragile fantasies”), that I find it hard to believe Dellonte didn’t have another idea in his head somewhere.

The book is a slow burn, and there are enough moments when you’ll want to shake the main character’s head for not just getting out of that damn fishing village already, but it really is a pretty solid read.

I’ve read “The Hollow House” three times.

 

CHRONIC CITY, by Jonathan Lethem [2009]

“Don’t rupture another’s illusion unless you’re positive the alternative you offer is more worthwhile than that from which you’re wrenching them. Interrogate your solipsism: Does it offer any better a home than the delusions you’re reaching to shatter?”

I remember picking up Chronic City simply because of the cover. Yes, I do judge books by their covers, and anyone who tells you not to should have their head examined. I’m a sucker for anything New York, so the golden lights of Midtown office towers was enough to get me. When it turned out this Jonathan Lethem guy could also write like a Mofo, this quirky book quickly became a favorite. Wait, shouldn’t Mofo be spelled Mofu? I’m not cool enough to understand the Urban Dictionary sometimes.

Here, we have Chase Insteadman (former child star whose astronaut fiancé is trapped in space), Perkus Tooth (pot-smoking pop culture critic), Oona Laszlo (self-loathing ghostwriter), Richard Abneg (reformed activist), and rumours of a giant tiger roaming the city. None are really likable, but who needs another hero, anyway?

The action is fairly sedentary, and Lethem’s lexicon can make you give your head a shake and re-read sections at times. Some consider his work pretentious, but it strikes the right literary chord with me. It’s a fine blend of contemporary, hard-boiled, and magical realism. Lethem’s other writing is good, but “Chronic City” is the one that stands out for me.

I’ve read it twice.

 

THE COMA, by Alex Garland [2004]

“The dilapidation was not a memory but a representation of a poorly remembered past.”

Synopsis: After being attacked on the Underground, Carl awakens from a coma to a life that seems strange and unfamiliar. He arrives at his friends’ house without knowing how he got there. Nor do they. He seems to be having an affair with his secretary which is exciting, but unlikely. Further unsettled by leaps in logic and time, Carl begins to wonder if he’s actually reacting to the outside world, or if he’s terribly mistaken.

I remember reading this in one sitting and thinking I was pretty special. But it’s really no more than a 60-page novella, just bulked up by a lot of blank space and strange drawings.

The narrator is in a coma, struggling to get out, and as such, scenes and locales and memories all shift around at unsuspecting speeds. You may not get any firm resolution from this book, but you will experience something to pause upon, and mull over for a while longer.

I’ve read “The Coma” twice.

 

THE FROG KING, by Adam Davies [2002]

“Normally I say I’m a bookie but this time I say I’m a gay window dresser at Barneys so I can paw at her Miracled boob, faking like there’s a crumb there and I’m just helping her out, girlfriend, which at the very moment, of course, Evie returns like a conscience from the bar.

‘Wow, Harry, you really know how to take a girl out and make her feel like backwash.’ ”

Synopsis: A twenty-something young man in New York has to figure out life, love, careers, lexicography, and just why the hell he’s such a horribly unlikable character.

Harry Driscoll does not have many redeeming qualities (he’s broke, he’s drunk a lot, he’s a bit of a know-it-all, and he cheats on his girlfriend) but he’s undaunted and cocksure to the point where the reader almost wants to root for him. Almost. He just messes everything in his life up so easily and so gloriously, but that’s part of what makes this a fun read.

It has a very male-persepctive of living and loving in New York; I recall some of the minor characters being incredibly annoying (unintentionally, I believe); and the book can, at times, fall into the “trying a little TOO hard to be smart and witty” trap. But there’s so many great laughs here, and the dialogue is honestly some of the best I’ve ever read. Here’s a short excerpt from a scene where one character is listing Harry’s criteria for novels he hates:

“You hate anything with the word ‘chiaroscuro’ in it.”

“Especially if it’s used as a verb. ‘She was chiaroscuroed in the flickering light of the candle.”

“The same goes for women who are described as ‘elfin’ or ‘pixielike.’ ”

“This isn’t Middle Earth, you know.”

“You hate anything that uses the word ‘member’ for penis.”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“You hate novels that begin with a description of what someone is eating, or how their childhood smelled, or what they drive…You hate epiphanies. You hate reversals of fortune. You hate anything written by anyone younger than you are.”

“Boy, these are really piling up, aren’t they? I hate that.”

I’ve read this book probably three times, though not in a long time, so it may not hold up to my current and oh-so-very-refined tastes. Might be worth another read.

 

THE HORNED MAN, by James Lasdun [2002]

“The large flakes were few enough in number that I was aware of each individually as it drifted by, though the sky had a lurid, bruise-colored tone, as if it were getting ready to unleash something more serious.”

Synopsis: “The Horned Man” opens with a man losing his place in a book, then deepens into a dark and terrifying tale of a man losing his place in the world. A professor of gender studies tells the story of what appears to be an elaborate conspiracy to frame him for a series of brutal killings, and we descend into a world of subtly deceptive appearances where persecutor and victim continually shift roles, where paranoia assumes an air of calm rationality, and where enlightenment itself casts a darkness in which the most nightmarish acts occur.

Such a peculiar book. Lasdun’s writing is wonderful, so much so, I sometimes find myself lost in the prose, not knowing what exactly it was I just read. The same can be said of the book in its entirety. “The Horned Man” is not for those who want answers or illumination. By the time the final page is turned, you’ll probably find yourself with more questions than you had at any other point in the book. But that makes it the perfect candidate for a re-read.

This book is dark, unsettling, and is the epitome of the Unreliable Narrator. It is also unlike anything you’ll ever read.

I’ve read “The Horned Man” three times.

 

EARTH X, Jim Krueger and John Paul Leon [1999]

“When everyone is dead, what will I watch then?”

Should I throw a graphic novel in this list? Of course I should!

Synopsis: Great epics come along only once in a long while. Stories that push the normal boundaries and force the reader to think. Stories so powerful in message and so grand in scale that the guidelines by which such tales are usually judged are completely rearranged. EARTH X is one such epic. EARTH X explores the depths and heights of the Marvel Universe, from the roots of its humble beginnings to the peak of its ultimate potential. [Okay, that’s a terrible synopsis…]

Earth X” was a limited series Marvel Comics published back in the late 90’s. I picked it up because, at the time, I was picking up basically everything. Though usually, I would read everything, and then follow it up by saying, “Why in the name of Wolverine’s great hairy back am I reading all of this garbage?”

But this was different.

Let me first say I’ve never been a big fan of alternate world/alternate future tales in comics. With such a rich history of characters already, I feel it’s mostly a cop-out and a money grabber to just write a story where Spider-Man and the Avengers die and the villainous team-up of Boomerang and the Hypno-Hustler raze America and rule the world with iron boomerangs and guitars. There’s never any build-up or repercussions or future continuation. It just exists for a moment, before disappearing forever.

But again, this was different. It’s an incredibly massive tale, reaching into nearly every corner of the Marvel Universe. And it just feels huge. And important. And the art is gorgeous too. Ideally, readers should feel comfortable with a LOT of Marvel history before venturing into this one.

I’ve probably read “Earth X” four times now.

 

Now that you’ve heard a bit about my favorite re-reads (and that’s not even all of them), tell me some of yours.

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