Monday, September 14, 2009

What I Read on My Summer Vacation


In August, I went to Mexico for two weeks, where my husband and I climbed the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, ate at various street vendors without incurring digestive distress, snorkeled the Great Maya Reef, and drank far too many lagers with lime. (Normally, I am a Dogfish Head loyalist, and mostly loyal to their brews of 7% alcohol or better. After those heady, nutty, malty, hoppy brews, Mexican lagers really just don’t cut it … but if we’d had access to Dogfish beers in Mexico, it’s entirely possible we’d never have left.) Above is me, wandering the streets of Izamal, a really strange little town where all the buildings are painted gold. I felt like I was walking through a de Chirico painting--specifically, this one.

The first few days of the trip didn’t allow much time for reading (too busy snorkeling and trying to get into relaxed zone after mad cram to finish up work), but by day three I’d started into Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I don’t know how I managed to miss this book until now, as its blurbings were effusive and compared it to great poli-sci-fi like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It is a fascinating read, depicting a post-nuclear war world in which all scientific materials have been destroyed by people convinced that science was responsible for “the Flame Deluge.” Only fragments remain, and these are preserved by Catholic monks laboring in the desert to illuminate manuscripts that may be no more important than someone’s shopping list, but may be the blueprints for nuclear reactors. They are preserving materials they don’t really comprehend and have worked the material into an evolving "Catholic" literature. It’s funny, scary, and totally bizarre. I had heard of the book before, but never read it. I’m convinced that the only reason it doesn’t get more attention now is because the threat of nuclear oblivion that was the chief cultural fear during the Cold War (the book was published in 1960) now seems charmingly simple; the world is no longer split into two behemoths bent on destroying each other, but into a thousand factions that want to do the same. Between our changed thinking on nuclear stand-off and the scandals that have hit the Catholic Church, it’s hard to read the book in a 1960s mindset—but it’s still a great read.

Once I was done with Canticle, between sunburns and reef visits, I perused the lending library at the little beach house where we stayed in Mexico. It was like every beach house lending library, in that it was composed of bad thrillers and pirate-themed bodice rippers in which terms like “velvety orbs” and “downy mound” stand in for body parts. It is fun to do dramatic, out-loud readings of these books (especially if you add piratical “Arrrs” to the euphemism-laden love scenes), but they are not good reading. Not even good beach reading.

Granted, I think Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is great beach reading, so maybe my tastes run darker than most.

I actually got so desperate for reading material that I perused a few of the books at the beach house (Jeffrey Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll and Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good). The Deaver book was not my thing: all plot, zero characterization and subtlety; I could actually see the credits for the bad TV movie playing as the first scene went along. Harlan Coben, on the other hand, is a good writer; the book was funny, had a good voice; lots of thriller-standard plot twists but some real emotion humming underneath the surface. (Then, later, I read Coben’s Tell No One and was amused to discover the movie adaptation was way better than the book—more tender, more believable. The movie leaves out the book’s final plot twist and is much the better for it.)

I left my own copy of E.L. Doctorov’s Loon Lake at the beach house. Partially to improve the offerings there, but really because I had stuck with it for 200 pages and kept thinking it was brilliant and then annoying and then brilliant and then annoying and finally the annoyance won out and I stopped reading it. Normally I like Doctorov and like experiments with form, but in this case, the moves between the narrative and the modern poetry kept losing me. Perhaps my brain had been turned to goo by the sun. Maybe the next beach bum will have more luck.

Speaking of experiments in form, I discovered Anne Carson. Whoo boy. A few pages into her book, Autobiography of Red and I am cursing myself for not having found her earlier. Talk about exciting experiments with form.

I owe at least four people comments on their manuscripts and/or poems. I am sorry; I swear, I will read them. I’m hoping they’ll jog me loose from this writer’s freeze I’m in … got diverted from the novel by vacation, and am trying to dig back in now … mostly via painting, which is often a great way for me to refocus creatively.

That’s all the news that’s fit to blog. Will poke my head up again when there’s something worthy on the radar.

7 comments:

molly said...

i hear a lot of people like this book called "twilight". you could give that a shot.

M. C. Allan said...

Huh. Never heard of it. :)

M. C. Allan said...

Have you heard of this "Dan Brown" guy?

Anonymous said...

your paintings are lovely. i really like your color sense. i didn't realize this was one of your talents. ... fiona too recommends 'twilight' by stephanie meyer. i've heard this book called romeo and somebody is pretty good. -- mouse

Erin said...

What/where are you editing? Glad to see ED posts again. :)

M. C. Allan said...

Erin! I didn't know you were blogulating. Yay!

Aside from the same ol' editing dayjob, I SHOULD be reading the manuscripts of several old buddies, most of them Hollinsites you would know and who likely don't need any of my suggestions anyway due to their brilliance (the latter true, but also said in case they're reading and will be more inclined to forgive my slackassery.)

Anonymous said...

I love that photograph. One for the ages.