If you’re looking for a book to read this summer I’ve got eight recommendations for you, from short fiction to sci-fi, music criticism, novels and essays. Feed your head!
1.) Telegraph Avenue — Michael Chabon (2012)
“Telegraph Avenue” is the latest from American novelist Michael Chabon. The story is built around the racial, geographic, professional, historical, sexual and musical intersections of two San Francisco Bay Area families in the early 2000s. At the center of novel’s woven familial structure are Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, two friends whose vinyl record store business is failing while a chain music store owned by a professional athlete is being brought to the neighborhood ostensibly intending to revitalize the African American community in Oakland. Chabon’s handling of multifaceted, flawed and earnest modern characters is characteristically unparalleled in “Telegraph Avenue.” However, new in this novel is his handling of music. Chabon is an enthusiastic fan of genre fiction, science fiction and comic books — all of which he’s integrated into his fiction and non-fiction — and in “Telegraph Avenue,” music is presented as deftly and evocatively.
2.) Dune — Frank Herbert (1965)
Frank Herbet’s 1965 Science Fiction epic “Dune” is the first book of the franchise that eventually saw six titles by Frank Herbert himself, and many more posthumous titles by his son Brian Herbert. “Dune” is a space opera modeled on Shakespearean plays. The central story is one of rival familial/political dynasties fighting for control of the planet Arrakis — the only planet capable of producing the addictive psychedelic substance, “mélange” (spice), which allows for space travel. The planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune, resembles Earth’s Middle East both in topography and its natural monopoly on an essential substance (read: spice = oil). “Dune” is also a messianic story of Paul Atreides, the male product of a generations-long female breeding program, who eventually fulfills a prophecy and becomes a holy leader on Arrakis. As someone who had not read science fiction prior to “Dune,” the novel became an immersive mental-life experience, and the beginning of my interest in the genre.
3.) The Fortress of Solitude — Jonathan Lethem (2003)
In “The Fortress of Solitude,” author and MacArthur Fellow Jonathan Lethem blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction by integrating large doses of cultural and historical scholarship into a deeply personal story that covers multiple eras. “The Fortress of Solitude” is primarily the story of Dylan Ebdus, a white boy in the predominately black Brooklyn of the 1970s. Dylan befriends his neighbor Mingus Rude, and their story and the stories of their families in Brooklyn cover a wide scope of race politics, art, and the divergent lives of the characters that end up as California rock critics, prisoners, murderers and revered artists. Lethem focus heavily on music, as one of the central characters, Mingus’ father Barrett, is an ex-soul singer in cocaine-fueled decline. Lethem’s narrative affords him an entire chapter dedicated to the story of Barrett Rude Jr.’s career, presented as liner notes composed by Dylan himself — an entirely fictional but fervently scholarly telling of a lifetime of music making. Lethem’s imagination, attention to detail and inherently lyrical prose has made “The Fortress of Solitude” an instant favorite of mine.
4.) The Disappointment Artist — Jonathan Lethem (2005)
This non-fiction collection by Jonathan Lethem explores his cultural obsessions with music, literature and film. The narrative elements of the essays are closely built around Lethem’s bohemian upbringing in 1970s Brooklyn, the early death of his mother, his college dropout experience and his adult life as an author, living up to the lineage of a creative family. The essays in “The Disappointment Artist” reveal just how autobiographical his novel “The Fortress of Solitude,” published two years earlier, actually was. “The Disappointment Artist” functions as a sort of companion piece, or a thorough interview with the author of “The Fortress of Solitude” — whose main character Dylan Ebdus is unveiled to be an approximate version of Lethem himself, a motherless Brooklyn boy with an artist for a father and a vast internal life.
5.) How We Are Hungry — Dave Eggers (2004)
American author, editor and publisher Dave Eggers is best known as a novelist in the genres of fiction, non-fiction and memoir. He is also the founder of independent publishing house McSweeney’s, and co-founder of the non-profit literacy education project 826 Valencia. In this collection of short fiction, Eggers’ stories often focus on modern adventure and travel, and deliver a vitalistic, life-affirming message. There is an inherent speed and invigoration in his prose, marked by un-ironic exclamation points and serious yet self-aware titles like “You Shall Know Our Velocity!” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” In “How We Are Hungry,” his characters are impatient, electric and hungry. “Another,” is about an American in Egypt on an unofficial horseback tour of the pyramids, seeking some perfection but coming up empty each time. He exhausts his guide as they exhaust the landscape. In “Up the Mountain and Coming Down Slowly,” a tame and underachieving protagonist challenges herself to complete a deadly hike in Africa in an effort to subvert the expectations she’s earned herself. Eggers’ characters push themselves outside of their limits to reinvent their own characters through the resistance.
6.) Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste — Carl Wilson (2007)
“Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste” is Canadian music journalist Carl Wilson’s investigation of how people identify with and engage with popular art in the realm of taste. The book is part of the 33 1/3 series, which are books written by one author about one album. In keeping with the series’ conventions, Wilson’s album is Celine Dion’s album “Let’s Talk About Love” (1997). Wilson, an upfront detractor of Dion’s, initially gives her the benefit of the doubt and fully engages with her music and fans in an attempt to understand just how and why individuals organize themselves in relation to music. Wilson’s efforts quickly become an anthropological study with far-reaching implications for himself and anyone else who has exported their own identity into a piece of art, through either love or hate. I found Wilson’s writing to be amusing and commend him for making such a special, subversive occasion out of his 33 1/3 series title — a series typically comprised of love-letters by rock journalists to their favorite albums.
7.) Transactions in a Foreign Currency — Deborah Eisenberg (1986)
“Transactions in a Foreign Currency” is the debut collection by short story author Deborah Eisenberg. The stories in this collection are told from the perspective of young people in deteriorating and convoluted social situations. Her depiction of melancholic youth in “What It Was Like, Seeing Chris,” and her telling of destructive or else destroyed relationships in “Flotsam,” “A Lesson in Travelling Light,” and “Transactions in a Foreign Currency,” are vivid and unique in their ability to present sadness as an undecorated and unsentimental fact. Her characters are self-conscious and sober in the face of love and sex, and written with precision and humor.
8.) The Road — Cormac McCarthy (2006)
This post-apocalyptic novel by American author Cormac McCarthy details the journey of a father and son on a bleak and unpromising trek through a desolate, ruinous landscape years after an unnamed tragic event destroyed most of the life on Earth. McCarthy’s sparse dialogue, biblical prose and Southern Gothic leanings all work in service of the grim, survivalist mood of the novel. The only goal for the two characters is to survive long enough to follow the road South to the sea, where they are hoping only to continue their harsh existence.