Summer Reading List, 2016

June 21st, 2016 | Category: Reading Lists

If you’re like me, you haven’t even read all of last year’s recommendations, but here’s another great pile of pages to read! This year’s list boasts contributions from newcomers Rita Raley, Gerfried Ambrosch, Pat Cadigan, Emily Empel, Alexander Weheliye, André Carrington, Douglas Lain, Christina Henry, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, and Joseph Nechvatal, as well as veteran listers Janet Murray, Lance Strate, Peter Lunenfeld, Ashley Crawford, Lily Brewer, Dave Allen, Rick Moody, Alex Burns, Patrick Barber, Michael Schandorf, and myself.

Lily at Green Apple Books

Lily Brewer at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Pat Cadigan

Roz Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series hasn’t received half the attention it deserves. The first three books––Rituals (Plus One Press, 2012), Reflections (2013), and Resurrections (2014)––are available now and two more are coming. It’s the secret history of the world, told with so much wit and panache, that you’ll feel like your IQ went up a few points.

Occupy MeTricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me (Gollancz, 2016) is also not to be missed. It’s not a gentle ride, but you can handle it. This is a book for your wild side.

Paul McAuley has followed up Something Coming Through (Gollancz, 2015) with Into Everywhere (Gollancz, 2016). Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on what’s going on in the McAuley-verse.

Liz Williams is a writer who has been shamefully overlooked, even after she was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award. There are plenty of great books to choose from but if you’re wondering where to start, go with Snake Agent (Open Road Media, 2013), the first book in her Detective Chen mysteries. After that, you won’t need any help from me.

Finally… I spent the first four months of last year having chemo for my incorrigible cancer. The shortlist for last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award kept me entertained and thinking about things not related to carcinomas.

Those six books are:

Station Eleven took the prize but really, all six are winners. Trust me.

Rick Moody

Conjunctions 66: Affinity: Which I have a piece in, but that’s not why I want to read it. It’s a great issue, of one of the greatest literary magazines in the country, which is also now one of the longest-lived literary magazines.

Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others (Scribner, 2016): She’s one of my favorite stylists operating these days.

A Collapse of HorsesBrian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016): Brian’s technicolor stories of the West and violence and human psychology are always excellent, and always underrated, or not as well known as they should be. I’m excited to catch up on the recent stuff, which I know less well than the early stuff.

Dorthe Nors, So Much for That Winter (Graywolf Press, 2016): One of the truly great writers of Western Europe, and just now acquiring a bit of a following in the US. She’s Danish, but sort of half Woolf, half Welty.

J. C. Hallman, Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between Wiliam and Henry James (University of Iowa Press, 2013): Which is a book about the correspondence between the James brothers. I started it at the beginning of the semester, and really loved it. I want to finish.

Ben Ratliff, Every Song Ever (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): I hate most music writing these days, except that I love Ben Ratliff. I am tempted to buy almost everything he recommends, even the extreme metal stuff…

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Harper Perennial, 2008): Well, you know, a lot of people already know about this book. I know about it chiefly from reading Derrida, and last year I decided I had put it off long enough. I dip in and read a few pages, and then go and read the commentators some more.

Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq, Leg Over Leg (New York University Press, 2015): The first great Arabic novel, or so they say. But most of them haven’t read it. A book I have long aspired to. Hoping to get to it this summer!

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): Because I have now finished 1 and 2.

Rita Raley

I might be remiss if I began this list without mentioning the two new books in the Electronic Mediations series from the University of Minnesota Press, but I am genuinely excited about Yuk Hui’s On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) and Jennifer Gabrys’ Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (2016). In the wake of recent translations of Gilbert Simondon’s work into English, “technical objects” (emerging in part from the Industrial Revolution) are increasingly central to critical conversations in media and science and technology studies. Hui builds on Simondon and Heidegger in his philosophical account of the “digital objects” that constitute our contemporary socio-technical milieu, posing timely questions about the individuation of both objects and humans in relation to technical systems. Equally timely is Program Earth, Gabrys’s cultural and theoretical analysis of environmental sensing, which should I think be required reading for anyone interested in issues of media and environment. Ranging from spillcams to smart cities and participatory urbanism, Gabrys demonstrates with sharp critical acumen the extent to which “the earth” is programmed, monitored, experienced, and, one hopes, engaged.

Track ChangesBut the big academic text for me this summer is of course Matt Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016). I’ve been following along, as one does with a Kirschenbaum project, and reading around the edges, as with the recent piece in the Paris Review, but I’m eager to sit down and work through the thing itself.

I’m also looking forward to making my way through the formidable collection, Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2015), which follows from a ZKM exhibit a couple of years ago, and David Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry’s Ontological Implications (MIT Press, 2016). I have been teaching and studying Jhave’s work for some time, and I can’t wait to see the book-length treatment of what he calls TAVITS (text audio-visual interactivity). And the MIT book I want to insist everyone should read is Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy: For a Digital Posthumanities (2016). As Hall persuasively argues, it is not enough to develop post-theoretical paradigms when our various circuits of scholarly communication are still embedded in humanist practices. With a thorough account of the recent transformations in academic publishing, Hall challenges both individuals and institutions to develop models of knowledge dissemination better suited to our technological and socio-economic landscape.

Summer is for me the time for essay and short story collections. Like many I imagine, I’ve been tracking the development of some of the entries for the “Digital Keywords” project at Culture Digitally, and now I am eager to dip into the whole collection, out soon from Princeton University Press. Absent a new Alice Munro compilation (sigh), I’ve lined up Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, A Knock on the Door (FSG Originals, 2012), Aleksander Hemon’s The Question of Bruno (Vintage, 2000), and Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House, 2015) for August. And Lauren Groff’s story in the New Yorker last summer (“Ghosts and Empties“) has led me to pick up her novel, The Monsters of Templeton (Hachette, 2008).

Summer is also the time for comics and graphic novels. I want to start with Jeff Smith’s RASL (Cartoon Books, 2013), which I’ve not yet read, but then I’m looking forward to Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm (HarperCollins India, 2010), Ozge Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016). Last summer’s reads in this category are also worth a mention: Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future (Metropolitan Books, 2015) and Sydney Padua’s marvelous The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon, 2015).

And speaking of image-word experiments, I keep recommending Mark Z. Danielewski’s serial novel, The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015-), to anyone who will listen but I have to say it’s Volume 3: Honeysuckle & Pain (Pantheon, 2016) that seals the deal.

Alexander Weheliye

Here are a few books I’m looking forward to reading this summer:

Lance Strate

Here in New York, the Broadway musical Hamilton has been all the rage for the past year, so I have decided to start my summer reading off with The Federalist Papers, authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (Signet Classics, 2003, originally published 1787-1788 under the pseudonym of Publius). While we’re on the subject of authors with the initials A.H., my list also includes Ends and Means: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Ideals by Aldous Huxley (Transaction, 2012, originally published 1937).

I recently received a copy of The Book of Radical General Semantics by Gad Horowitz with Colin Campbell (Pencraft International, 2016), and I would want to read it under any circumstance, but all the more so because I recently became president of the New York Society for General Semantics. I also plan on rereading Lewis Mumford’s The Condition of Man (Harcourt, Brace, 1944). And I have heard great things about the recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015), so that’s on my list as well.

StoneFor scholars in the field of communication and media studies, Arthur Asa Berger is a familiar name, having authored many books on media and popular culture, and I look forward to reading his newest, Writing Myself into Existence (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2016). Regarding communication, I also have on my list Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015) by Sherry Turkle, a scholar often included in media ecology circles. And on the related topic of the study of time, I am also including Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Poetry books play a prominent and pleasant role regarding summertime reading (and the rest of the year as well), and this year my stack includes a collection by David Ossman of Firesign Theatre, Marshmallows and Despair (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015), and Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey (Andrews McMeel, 2015).

My son has recommended the work of playwright Jenny Schwartz, so I’m also including two of her plays, God’s Ear (Samuel French, 2009), and Somewhere Fun (Oberon, 2013). Finally, there’s a mystery novel I just have to read, Death by Triangulation by John Oughton (NeoPoiesis Pres, 2015).

Gerfried Ambrosch

Being an information junkie, I mostly read non-fiction. The last two works of fiction I have read were Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (Bantam, 1984), which I highly recommend (It’s a great summer read and a real page-turner), and, for research reasons, the Quran (not such a page-turner). The former tells the story of a chap called Alobar, an 8th-century Eurasian king, who, having escaped execution, is granted everlasting youth, finds a female companion with whom he shares this gift, and experiences many strange things over the course of several centuries. His extraordinary life story eventually intersects with that of a young waitress from Seattle and several other curious characters in this darkly humorous novel. (Come to think of it, the story told in the Quran is not dissimilar – minus the humor.)

The Righteous MindI don’t usually plan ahead in terms of a reading list (I studied English Literature and had to work through extensive reading lists for years…), but the two books that I’m currently reading are The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Vintage, 2013) and The Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), whose expertise is in ancient history.

Human morality, says Haidt, is highly intuitive. But we use reason to justify our moral intuitions, many of which are based on disgust and communal concerns about ‘sanctity’ and reputation. Thus, argues Haidt, our morality has its roots in our evolution as a tribal, cooperating species. A fascinating read!

I’m about halfway through Richard Carrier’s highly scholarly, yet captivating, book on the historicity of Jesus. The prolific historian presents a mountain of evidence suggesting that there never was a historical Jesus. One by one, he debunks every existing argument in support of the widespread belief that the cult of Jesus had to have originated from an actual historical figure, a hypothesis for which there seems to exist no evidence whatsoever.

The third item on my summer reading list – Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy by Ibn Warraq (Encounter Books, 2011) – should make for a superb read. The title says it all. Warraq, who is described as an ‘Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Koranic criticism,’ criticizes the ‘erosion of our civilizational self-confidence’ under the influence of such intellectual heavy weights as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. Controversial!

André Carrington

I’ll be talking about my own book on a few occasions this summer, so I’ll start there. My book is Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Speculative BlacknessI think people might be interested if they’re into African American/Black Studies, science fiction & fantasy, comics, representations of Black women, fan culture, or the politics of cultural production. Speculative Blackness analyzes gendered, sexual, generational, and global constructions of Blackness in speculative fiction—including science fiction, fantasy, and utopian works, along with their fan cultures—to illustrate the relationship between genre conventions in media and the meanings ascribed to race in the popular imagination.

Currently, I’m reading the graphic memoir Marbles by Ellen Forney (Avery, 2012) in order to supervise a student’s senior project in which it’s a primary text. I’ve had it for over a year, but I’m ready to read it now that it’s turned into a professional responsibility, too.

Next up will be the remainder of Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series. I’m on #46 now… I got Marvel Unlimited specifically to read this, and it’s been useful to catch up with other comics I’ve missed in the recent past. I’ll have more to say about this soon because I’m writing about it.

A couple novels I’ll be reading this summer are Minion (St. Martin’s, 2004) and Bad Blood (St. Martin’s, 2008), by the late L.A. Banks. They’re the respective first volumes of her vampire huntress legend and werewolf series. I’ve never had the constitution for horror before but I want to be able to handle it—I just read Daniel Jose Older’s novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine, 2015) and it was thrilling, but scary.

There’s some other horror/supernatural fiction I’m reading for research this summer, by Mervyn Peake, and a few stories that I’m hoping to teach in a Science Fiction course that are in my colleague Heather Masri’s expansive anthology. I’ve never been the best reader of short fiction, for some reason. But students do well with shorter texts, for obvious reasons.

I’m also really, really going to read this comics biography of Rosa Luxemburg (by Paul Frölich; Haymarket Books, 2010), really soon.

Emily Empel

As a professional futurist, I’m always astounded by the lack of female voices in future-orientated conversations, especially those highlighted in mainstream media. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with making a place for women to think and talk about the future. By some chance, I was asked to guest edit an upcoming summer issue of MISC (a journal of insight and foresight), focusing on women. I rallied a small group of women to join forces and we were able to explore what would happen if you sourced a future-view entirely from the perspectives of women. Our efforts resulted in the issue’s special feature, “The Future According to Women.”

This was all great, and for months, I enjoyed daily conversations with some pretty bad-ass women (over 40 of them). I didn’t realize how addicted I had become to these interactions until we finished compiling the piece—and I was left with the same feeling as after a breakup. Below are some books that I read immediately to mend my heart post-project. Naturally, they are all authored by women. Enjoy!

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedAlexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Editors, The Feminist Utopia Project (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2015): With 57 views of a wildly different future, this book is a nightstand staple. You’ll not only want to read a chapter a night (each penned by a different author), but you’ll also want to send a copy to all your friends and suggest starting an impromptu bookclub to discuss every chapter in-depth. There’s some seriously groundbreaking futuring hidden in this book. If you read it, tweet me your favorite vision of utoptia (@localrat). I’m always so curious what other people choose.

Nancy Jo Sales, American Girls (Knopf, 2016): Lest we forget that the future currently belongs only to the few, Nancy Jo explores how a lack of consideration in creating technology and a predominantly bro culture in the Valley is driving a cultural shift that takes power away from girls and their futures. Fair warning: this book will make your stomach turn. We hear about how powerful social media has been for driving social change, while Nancy Jo covers the counterview—writing about the status quo with a vengeance.

Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies (Simon & Schuster, 2016): I had to pick this book up after hearing it touted countless times on my favorite podcast, Call Your Girlfriend. As more of my friends partner off and marry, it’s fascinating to learn about how the role of single women has evolved over time. I especially love the chapter that equates single-lady friendships to long-term partnerships.

Peggy Orenstein, Girls & Sex (Harper, 2016): A must-read for any parent, friend of a parent, or friend of a teacher. I heard Peggy’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air and was blown away. Peggy critiques sex-positive culture, arguing that girls don’t have access to these interactions until later in adulthood. Her idea of multiple virginities is one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve read about in ages.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (Picador, 2016): Ever since devouring Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (a must-read classic), I’ve been very curious about this concept of loneliness and how it might manifest in a more digital and urban world. Olivia’s writing is hauntingly beautiful, and made me rethink our modern notions of progress and development.

Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (Picador, 2016): Motherhood is undervalued and important. So is the opposite: a woman’s choice to eschew parenthood. This collection of essays is honest, heartfelt, and not to mention, critical for understanding the future of women.

As I said, my breakup with “The Future According to Women” devastated me. If you have any other book recommendations, authored by bad-ass women, please don’t hold out. It will be a long summer otherwise.

Joseph Nechvatal

I suggest my sex farce poetry book Destroyer of Naivetés that was released last year on Punctum Books. Destroyer of Naivetés is an epic passion poem that takes up a position of excess from within a society that believes that the less you conceal, the stranger you become.

An audio recording of Destroyer of Naivetés will be released this year on the Entr’acte label out of Antwerp.

Christina Henry

I read two or three books a week – sometimes more if I’m not bumping up to the end of a writing deadline. I’ve got a stack of about 200 or so books that are waiting for me to read them, and yet I can’t stop buying new books to add to the pile.

What I read tends to depend on where I am in the writing process. I read a mix of fiction (all genres) and nonfiction, but I tend to read more fiction when I’m starting to write a book and more nonfiction when I’m finishing one – mostly because I don’t want another author’s fiction voice interfering with my own. I’m finishing up a manuscript now so there’s more nonfiction queued up than fiction at the moment.

Geek Feminist RevolutionKameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (Tor, 2016) is an immediate reading priority. I love her writing voice, and she’s the kind of writer that talks about issues I care about – feminism, geek culture, women in science fiction and fantasy among other topics – in a way that always has me nodding along saying, “Yes, that is true. Yes, that is all true.” I’m looking forward to reading this collection and recommending it to everyone I know.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves (Picador, 2016) was recently released in paperback. I’m very partial to history books that take a small slice of a historical event (like WWII) and put it under a microscope.

Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl (Knopf, 2016) is released the day after Labor Day (our unofficial end to summer), but it’s still one of my most anticipated new releases. Hiaasen’s sharp writing and dangerous wit make him one of my favorite writers. His books are full of insane, unpredictable characters that make me laugh out loud.

Alex Burns

This summer, I’m noting books on economic statecraft — the intersection of a state’s economic power, resources, and international financial markets — for possible future postdoctoral research. Robert D. Blackwell and Jennifer M. Harris’ War By Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft (Belknap Press, 2016) lays out a United States view of increasing liberal democracy in the world via investment and trade. Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell’s The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power (Princeton University Press, 2016) advances the thesis that newly powerful authoritarian states challenge the United States and threaten its international alliance structure. William J. Norris’ Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control (Cornell University Press, 2016) explores China’s contrasting approach which is rooted in a deep understanding of grand strategy and effective use of sovereign wealth funds. For a theoretical understanding of these dynamics David A. Baldwin’s Power and International Relations: A Conceptual Approach (Princeton University Press, 2016) is helpful. For translating economic statecraft insights into actionable trade ideas, Richard L. Peterson’s Trading On Sentiment: The Power of Minds Over Markets (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) describes why hedge funds use behavioural finance and sentiment analysis to arbitrage Great Britain’s Brexit vote on the European Union and other political risks.

Janet Murray

The book I am most excited about this month, and setting aside time to read slowly and take in at many levels — intellectual and existential — is Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky’s Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (MIT Press, 2015). It is an attempt to answer the title question in the face of the challenge from animal cognition researchers to Chomsky’s claims for a unique, innate, universal syntax processor in the human brain. Berwick, one of the world’s leading natural language AI experts, and someone I worked with at MIT on educational applications and have enormous admiration and respect for, supplies the computational model to support Chomsky’s revised and streamlined linguistic model for a minimal shared processor.

Why Only UsThe idea is that a small but powerful module is unique to us, and that its key function is to support the medium of human abstract thought. But this is more than a technical explanation of an arcane controversy in cog sci — it is a profound exploration of what it means to be human, what sets us apart from whatever we think may be going on in the minds of our primate close cousins and the feathered, furred, and finned members of our large extended family of life forms. It is a short book, lucidly written despite the challenging complexity of the argument. The logic is clear, and every page connects to a large body of research pro- and con- and every chapter opens up a new set of both disturbing and thrilling questions about who we are and how we came to be us. In some ways this may be the light side of the force that counters the better known and to me very foolish worries about the “singularity.” Kurzweil’s schema erases the difference between human and robot brain (except as matter of processing power), Berwick & Chomsky would move us further from the animal brain. It is, in my view, one of the signal projects of the humanities in the 21st century to help us understand our place in this new chain of being in which instead of the dumb beasts and angels to define our place, we have smart ravens on one side and even smarter computers on the other. I’m devouring this book in the hope of coming out the other end, whether assenting to or resisting their theory, with a much sharper map of this new territory.

Charles Mudede

Alfie Bown

My wife and I launched the Hong Kong Review of Books this year and its meant a huge number of exciting new books have passed through our hands. Picking just a few was difficult, but these would be a few of the stand-out books of the year so far that I’d recommend making special time for this summer. I’ve stuck to 2016 to make my choices easier.

Create or DieStephen Lee Naish, Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press, 2016): Frank Booth: is there a more interesting Hollywood icon, especially from the perspective of psychoanalysis? Naish’s book explores Hopper’s powerful character in detail, but goes far further, analyzing Hopper as actor, director, advertiser, artist, political activist and more, delving into every corner of the career of this fascinating man. Blending critical distance with personal account of Hopper’s influence on him, Naish’s book is a page-turner printed by a university press, maybe the only one…

Laurent de Sutter, Théorie du Kamikaze (PUF, 2016): As yet only in French, this is one to hope comes out in translation soon. De Sutter’s powerful argument is that suicide bombing, or “kamikaze” cannot be simply seen, as it so often is, as a sacrifice of personal life to serve a greater cause (i.e religious fundamental ideology), making it a giving up of identity. Instead, du Sutter claims that the act of “kamikaze” in fact belongs in the world of images. The act of kamikaze, for de Sutter via Debord, is about creating a visual image of explosion and spectacle, giving it a new meaning in relation to postmodern image-obsessed society.

Grant Hamilton, The World of Failing Machines: Speculative Realism and Literature (Zero Books, 2016): This book I was lucky to get a sneak peak at, and is to be published this summer. It applies the philosophy of OOO (Object Oriented Ontology) to literature, asking new questions about what kind of object a book really is. How do we relate to the book object in the way we do, and why? A very original book that makes readers reflect on themselves.

Slavoj Žižek, Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (Allen Lane, 2016): It may no longer be trendy to put Slavoj on your reading list, and there are those slamming Žižek’s comments on refugees today. But whatever your position, this book forces the important conversations about the current crisis that far too few people are having.

Coming just at the end of last year, I had to leave out two other texts that have been transformative for me: Steven Shaviro’s Discognition (Repeater Books, 2016) and Samo Tomšič’s The Capitalist Unconscious (Verso, 2015), both of which must be read.

Dave Allen

Where to begin? As always, I’ve left this to the last minute, so forgive me the short blurbs!

Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (Back Bay, 2016): What a riveting memoir; Mann describes her adolescent and adult life in excruciating detail. No stone is left unturned, including the hate mail she received after her photos of her children, undressed, were published in a New York Times article and review of her work. And then came the stalker. As Patti Smith wrote of this book, “Hold Still is a wild ride of a memoir. Visceral and visionary. Fiercely beautiful. My kind of true adventure.”

Jim Harrison, The Ancient Minstrel (Grove Press, 2016): When Jim Harrison passed away, we lost one of America’s foremost masters of the novella. The Ancient Minstrel consists of three such novellas. The opening story, from which the book takes its title, sees Harrison making fun of his own reputation, although some were not happy with his Author’s Note where he considers his own aging “…and feeling poignantly the threat of death I actually said to myself, “Time to write a memoir.” So I did.” The part that offended some readers was where he imagines dying after choking on a fishbone and sprawling in an alley — he is discovered by a female jogger who stands over him in shorts. I’ll not be the spoiler here, but suffice to say Harrison crosses the line in his own, inimitable style. He’ll be missed.

SPQRMary Beard, SPQR (Liveright, 2015): Growing up in northern England, I often visited a local ancient wall named after the Roman emperor, Hadrian. Hence its name — Hadrian’s Wall. Ever since I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome and the Romans. Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has delivered “a sweeping revisionist history” as the back cover blurb says. And it is true. As she herself writes – “Roman history is always being rewritten, and always has been; in some ways we know more about ancient Rome than the Romans themselves did.”

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (Vintage, 1990; 1925): This year I started to collect and read books written in the early to middle years of the 20th Century. That is how I discovered Willa Cather, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours, in 1923. (I’m amazed that I came so late to Cather’s work.)

The Professor’s House is a remarkable book. It follows a middle-aged professor whose life becomes disturbed when his wife takes on a new house for them to live in. The idea of moving unsettles him deeply, so deeply that he begins to assess his entire life from youth to adulthood. His realization that he must live alone comes to him quickly and disturbs him further — “…because there was Lillian, there must be marriage and a salary. Because there was marriage, there were children. Because there were children, and fervor in the blood and brain, books were born as well as daughters. His histories, he was convinced, had no more to do with his original ego than his daughters had; they were a result of the high pressure of young manhood.”

Two other early books that I highly recommend are by the author John Williams Stoner (NYRB Classics, 2006; 1965) and Butcher’s Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007; 1960). Stoner follows a very similar curve to The Professor’s House. Another college professor who’s life is upended by his work, marriage and eventually trying to make sense of his own destiny. Butcher’s Crossing is a lightly-veiled allegory for the Vietnam War. Both are powerful novels.

Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (McSweeney’s, 2016): I’m sure there are quite a few readers of this list that know of Diane Williams. They may also understand when I write that pinning down Williams’ work is not easy. Her latest book consists of 40 short stories, and by short I mean very short. Others have described her stories as “folktales that hammer like a nail gun.”

In a recent interview she was asked how she came up with the title. She answered: “The book’s title is taken from the story “The Little Bottle of Tears,” from the line: “How did all this end? Oh, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.” So then I must have thought, I am not sure — end, end — Why can’t it all begin with Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine as well?”

Why not, indeed.

And finally, these. All wonderful reads:

Lily Brewer

This May I started a road trip, alone, from Houston to Los Angeles. After three weeks on and around (the/I-)10 and while in LA, a friend and I ventured to one of the downtown coffee shops. Despite two counts of street harassment upon reaching the threshold, I noticed the space had all the accoutrement of Urban Coffeeshop (TM): an expensive espresso machine, an iPad checkout, prerequisitely uncomfortable, unpolished metal furniture with exposed soldering. But there was something unsettling about the place: The spaces in between the objects overtly reading “Coffeeshop” were too big, and the more I think of it, were growing. The A Field Guide to Getting Lostinfant succulent dryly planted in a lightbulb shell (clearly with no expectations of outgrowth) was an inch too far from the wall, not enough to be at risk of falling but still too close for comfort; two decoration cappuccino cups and saucers were slightly askance, off-center, and alone on an oversized; “reclaimed wood” shelf installed a half a foot too close to the ceiling to be useful but not so close as to keep up the illusion of its authenticity. I tried to attribute this spatial absurdity to the overarching, over-reaching psychology of the city, like it was a fake place, a coffee shop playing at being a coffee shop, a site of unsettled transience that will be gone within a year as construction drives up the surrounding property values while driving away the customers unwilling to pay the harassment tolls, the baristas, in between acting and writing gigs (why don’t they act for me a decent pour?) share the same transience as their market value shifts within the rifts in the walls.

Now unable to sleep knowing this spatial distortion exists and unable to blame it on the recently rediscovered gravitational waves rippling through contemporary science circles, this summer I try to work through this structural exaggeration through studies of space: in movement through it (Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost [Penguin, 2006] and Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life [University of California Press, 1984]); in geographical place (Maggie Nelson’s Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions [University of Iowa Press, 2011] and Alice Notley’s Culture of One [Penguin, 2011]); in the built environment (Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Vintage, 1992; 1961], Mike Davis’ City of Quartz [Verso, 2006], and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas [MIT Press, 1972]); and in material fragments (Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho [Vintage, 2003] and Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder [Soft Skull, 2005]). Perhaps I am road weary, but I’m unable to shake the effects of these uncanny, dimensional deviations and can read little else in what lies in my immediate vicinity.

Ashley Crawford

Don DeLillo Zero K (Scribner, 2016) and David Means Hystopia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): It has been said by others, but I will join the chorus and state that Zero K  is DeLillo’s best book since 1997’s magnum opus Underworld. While there have been a handful of booklets in between (Falling Man, Point Omega), they were little more than rough sketches towards this cooly executed masterpiece. With its futuristic underground “hospital” and the cult-like, cryonics-obsessed believers of The Convergence it tackles, along with other massive subjects, notions of the Singularity. At times it has the feel of science fiction in its cold, austere settings, but at heart it is a brilliant meditation on mortality. DeLillo has returned to his throne.

HystopiaDavid Means’ Hystopia is a strange, schizophrenic work. It carries an extraordinary premise. JFK has survived a number of assassination attempts and is in his fifth term as President. The Vietnam War drags on and hordes of psychologically damaged Vets are returning to America where they are treated with hallucinogens to “enfold” their traumatic memories via Kennedy’s Psych Corps, a new X-Files-like national entity devoted to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene. Many evade the system and run amok, burning the country and reenacting the worst horrors of the war upon unwitting civilians. It is a piece of metafiction with a novel within a novel, medical reports and other detritus. It begins with tonal streaks of J.G. Ballard and Don DeLillo and, others have suggested, David Foster Wallace. There are hints, in its metafictional readjustment of history, of Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle (where America lost WW2) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (where America won Vietnam, Woodward and Bernstein were murdered before revealing Watergate and Nixon is in his third term). There are powerful hints of the influence of other powerful Vietnam books such as Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Even the strange word used for the title, “hystopia” suggests an abundance of weirdness; the melding of “historical” and “hysteria” linked with “dystopia.” Even just the “hyst,” which according to the urban dictionary suggests “concentration breaker,” “mind robbing” and “subliminal thievery” suggests the worst excesses of this alternate 1960s America.

Unfortunately, despite the looming presence of a mass-murdering psychotic Vet, strange hallucinations, conspiracy theories and an America in flames, there are moments when Hystopia descends into what Ben Marcus famously dubbed, in his 2005 Harper’s attack on Jonathan Franzen, as “kitchen fiction” (indeed, quite literally in the rural kitchen scenes) or what Robert Hughes once suggested in Culture of Complaint as “bugs fucking to Mozart” in the Arcadian forest scenes. Means finds ways in which to avoid his own dystopian hell-hole by setting at least a third of the book in an idyllic, forested rural outpost and describing, in saccharine tones, the development of not one, but two love stories (this is balanced to a degree by a deranged mother who falls into fits of demented glossolalia.)

Mixing the dark with the soft dilutes the impact of an otherwise startling novel. The mix of the surreal with the syrupy means that Hystopia lacks the final bite of Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet or McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road. David Means needed to decide whether to remain in the Kitchen or in Armageddon. Still, this is a stunning read, if for the well-crafted premise and language alone.

Patrick Barber

My hopes for an eloquent, expansive summer reading list have been unceremoniously girdled, chopped, topped and limbed by Annie Proulx’s remarkable Barkskins (Scribner, 2016), a 700-page epic novel that follows two families through the colonization of North America and, concomitantly, the systematic destruction of that continent’s forests. I laid hands on this brick of a book just before a three-day weekend camping on the coast, where I was pleased to find that the kids are adept enough in entertaining one another that I was allowed several hours of nothing but reading: reading on the beach, reading at the campsite, reading in the tent. BarkskinsA doorstop such as this is not something one generally recommends for “beach reading,” but aside from the intimidating bulk, the book is (pardon the pun) pitch-perfect for vacation days where you can actually schedule in a couple hours of reading time. The only problem, of course, is that it will be over too soon.

Proulx wastes no time diving into her tales, and fans of her earlier work will recognize the seeming effortlessness with which she unspools great lengths of story. I’ve already read a few sections of this novel, trimmed and edited to short-story length for the New Yorker, but the excerpts didn’t foretell the magnificence of the book as a whole. Proulx’s way of mapping out her novel is deliciously gratifying: time moves forward in echoing blocks, so that we may read about the same passage of decades from two or three different perspectives, and the overlappping of the generations adds to the sense of reverberation as the events and characters trickle down through the years.

Compared to many of her earlier works, Barkskins is distinguished by more complexly and sympathetically drawn characters, and less of her signature brutality and suddenness (though such bluntness is still very present). Some characters have wonderful, loving lives, despite the rugged times and desperate circumstances, and the book in general carries more joy than the average Proulx. I’m presently about halfway through, and am sensing a reconciliation coming as the various families attempt to rebuild their timber businesses amidst an imminent colonial revolt and the expansion of their empires ever deeper into the continent. Along with the sadnesses that accompany the death and destruction of the various humans in the book, the most heartbreaking aspect is the slow, sure, wholesale eradication of the old forests of our continent, and the similarly relentless erasing of the First People who made their lives in those forests. Proulx takes no delight in this gruesome arc, yet her story depends on it. Leaning on thorough descriptions and well-turned visits into the psyches of the various characters, the author deals the cards of fate with a careful, yet impassive hand. That such a wondrously extensive tale feels flowing and effortless is a testament to Annie Proulx’s astonishing abilities as a storyteller and writer.

Some other books you should read this summer:

Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, 2015) Brutal, fascinating, and a whirlwind of voice and cadence. I am still working my way through this book, but the first section of it remains one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever experienced as a reader.

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (NYRB Classics, 2009): An explanation of natural farming from the Japanese contrarian who invented it. Fukuoka is mercurial and blunt, but his approach to plants and nature is open-hearted. After hearing about his techniques for so many years, I am enjoying reading about them in his own voice.

And three debut short story collections. All brilliant, yet flawed, and certainly worth your time:

Douglas Lain

The first thing to tackle on any summer reading list would be your guilt books. That is, not books that are guilty pleasures, but rather books whose presence on your book shelf makes you feel guilty because the title is so obviously worthy and yet it has gathered dust. For me the big guilt book would be Slavoj Zizek’s Less Than Nothing (Verso, 2013). This was Zizek’s much anticipated “big book on Hegel” from 2013. It’s 2016 now, the book is still sitting on my shelf in between The Parallax View (MIT Press, 2009) and Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011).  A few years back I finished reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1976), and this would’ve made a good follow-up if I’d read it promptly. Time to dust it off and tackle it now.

The Divine Madness of Philip K. DickAnother book that I’ll be reading this summer is Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick (Oxford University Press, 2016) a book I was assigned to read for the Hong Kong Review of Books. As a Philip K. Dick fanatic, and having read Lawerence Suttin’s fine biography Divine Invasions (Harmony, 1989) when that book came out 20 years ago, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what a clinical psychologist will make of the life and literature of Philip K Dick. The pull quote from the back of the jacket is fascinating, “Despite Dick’s paranoia, his divine madness was not a sign of mental illness, but a powerful spiritual experience conveyed in the images of science fiction.” I’m sure reading this will make me pine for my younger days when I was more prone to mysticism.

Jeff Bursey’s Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (2016) is a book I look forward to rereading as I try to promote it for Zero Books. Bursey is a Canadian novelist and literary critic and his book on outsider literature is due out from Zero on July 29th. I’ll be rereading this one because, of the titles due out in July, this one comes closest to sharing my own sensibilities. As a somewhat neglected novelist, I am glad to be publishing Bursey’s book on Matt Unt, Ornela Vorpsi, and Joseph McElroy.

On the political side of my summer, I’ve currently got Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom (Humanity Books, 2000) open on my nightstand. Dunayevskaya is a somewhat overlooked Marxist. She was Trotsky’s secretary for a time and then broke with him when Trotsky insisted that the Soviet Union was a “deformed worker’s state.” Dunayevskaya was sure that the Soviet Union was merely State Capitalist and her book on Marxism demonstrates that her insights were consistent.

When it comes to fiction I’ll be reading Geoff Nicholson’s 2014 novel The City Under the Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Nicholson is one of my favorite novelists. I recently interviewed him for Zero Book’s new line of books entitled “Advancing Conversations” and his first book Street Sleeper (Quartet, 1987) is a classic.

Michael Schandorf

When I was young, I read. All the time. But I didn’t really know how to read. Not really. My eyes scanned the lines. My mind made images. In middle school, in the 80s, I signed up for the Science Fiction Book Club. (I wish I still had all of those books. Even Anne McCaffrey’s dragons.) One of books that came from that association, and that left many images (but little solid) behind, was EonGreg Bear’s Eon (Tor Books, 2015; 1985). Those images lingered for decades. Earlier this year, I realized that the only non-academic (or at least not directly work related) reading I had done for what seemed like years was from the Finnegans Wake on my bedside table. So when I recently stumbled upon a rumpled paperback copy of Eon, I grabbed it. Then I found out it was part of a trilogy: Eternity, the sequel, and Legacy, the prequel. I slowly savored and digested all three over the next few weeks. Not only did the decades-old images from the first book match what I found when I returned to them, they were startlingly recognizable, tangy, and clear. Now, over the summer, I have a short stack of Greg Bear books to saunter through and linger over, including City at the End of Time, Slant, the novella Heads, and a collection of relatively early short stories, Tangents. I can’t claim to be a science fiction expert, but I’ve read a bit.

The most interesting thing, for me, about science fiction is how strongly it inevitably reflects the present. To get an idea of this, find yourself a copy of Tom Shippey’s Oxford Book of Science Fiction Short Stories (Oxford University Press, 2003) and read through history in the shape of the future. Feel the development of the collective imagination sculpted from the shifting present, from H. G. Wells’ hydraulic mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century, through the nuclear visions of mid-century, to the biological, neurological, psychological, and cyberpunk that tracked the changes, and the fears, of a century that hoped despite itself. Greg Bear’s work is largely part of the biological, neurological, and psychological exploration of the technological that came of the 1980s and 90s, a legacy of Cold War preoccupations that shifted into cyberpunk. And, having looked again, I can now recognize the influence it had on me. Bear is often fascinated not only by the evolutionary and technological extension of human neurobiology, but by the possibility of nonhuman psychologies, the intelligence of the viral or the plant-like. Slipping through such stories as a kid contributed significantly to my curiosity about differences in psychological perspective and the relations among perception, conception, and language. It’s a good time for such interests. Quite a lot of very interesting reading is surfacing about perception and conception beyond our traditional and convention blinders of visual bias, including Matthew Fulkerson’s The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch (MIT Press, 2013), Gary Tomlinson’s, A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity (Zone Books, 2015), and Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, & Simon Gottschalk’s The Senses in Self, Society, and Culture (Routledge, 2013). These will also season my summer, but I’m looking forward to curling up in the sunshine with my new, old, Greg Bear books, and wading again through future histories past.

Peter Lunenfeld

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last year as a fellow at the Huntington Library working on a book about the cultural histories of Los Angeles, so my list this summer focuses on Southern California. But, as former journalist turned studio hack Don Ryan wrote back in 1929, Los Angeles is the “city with the aspirations for the Los Angelicization of the world!”

To start, I’ll be reading (and in some cases rereading) the entirety of Kevin Starr’s multi-volume magnum opus, Americans and the California Dream. Starr is a national treasure, writing equally well on architecture as on literature, with an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and an open style that invites rather than repels lay readers. The series includes: Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 (Oxford University Press, 1986), Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1986), Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1991), Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1997), The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (2002), Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2003), Coast Of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2002 (2006), and Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (2011).

A Burglars Guide to the CityTo take a break from all this history, I’ll tackle Don Ryan’s Angel’s Flight (Boni & Liveright, 1927), the book from whence the quote above was pulled. It’s perhaps the first great novel from and of Los Angeles in the 20th century. Ryan presaged elements of Raymond Chandler’s noir on the one hand, and the dark satire of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust on the other, telling tales of the city as its boosterish Babbitts intersected with the seediness of downtown Los Angeles, decades before it became hipsterized into today’s real-estate friendly acronym, DTLA.

On my shelf is Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a new biography by Jeff Guinn. To complement this well-researched contemporary account, I’ll read Ed Sanders’ The Family, originally published in 1971, as a way to burrow further into the dark side of LA in the ‘60s. A member of a band called The Fugs as well as a poet, Sanders really catches the vibe of the era, and profoundly understands while remaining contemptuous of Manson’s descent into murder and madness. I’m looking forward to Emma Cline’s The Girls (Random House, 2016), a novelization from the other side of Manson’s pimpy grift. To round this out, I’ll take another look at Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Ace, 1991), which Manson had fellow cons at McNeil Island Penitentiary explain to him (Manson was not exactly a big reader), and from which he drew some of the rituals to which he subjected the Family and its hangers-on. From grokking to orgiastic water ceremonies, there’s a weird throughline from ‘50s science fiction to the Spahn Ranch (with a stopover in Dianetics and Scientology, but you’ll have to wait for my book for that story).

On the non-SoCal beat, I’m looking forward to A Burglar’s Guide to the City (FSG Originals, 2016) by bldgblog.com’s Geoff Manaugh, an innovative rethinking of urbanism and architecture via true crime. Speaking of true crime, I’ll be reading the most recent book of another historian’s life work, Rick Perlstein’s third volume of the story of the American right since the 1960s. Both Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Nation Books, 2009) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 2009) were rare books by a non-movement historian that conservatives were willing to acknowledge, and in some cases even admire, for their rigor and straightforward approach to the growth of the post-WWII right. Not so The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2015), which was insufficiently idolatrous towards the only elected president the Republican right likes to invoke from the last hundred years (TR was too anti-trusty, Coolidge and Hoover – well, they were Coolidge and Hoover, Ike kept taxes high and wasn’t enough of a war-monger, Tricky Dick was too crazy, Bush I wasn’t crazy enough, and Bush II while crazy, invaded Iraq instead of Grenada and tanked the economy to boot). Perlstein is a major guide to how we got to where we are now, with one of the two major parties of the 20th century having in the 21st nominated an ignoramus billionaire (millionaire more likely) reality television star, who is mentally unstable, racist, and misogynist, not to mention being a mutant orange rage machine. This is neither the Californian nor the American Dream, it is a nightmare which we must fight.

Roy Christopher

I’m anxiously awaiting the July release of Megan Abbott‘s next book, You Will Know Me (Little, Brown & Co., 2016). Her last three had me riveted all the way through. And too late for summer but eagerly anticipated is James Gleick‘s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016), which comes out in September (I got an advanced-reading copy, and it is awesome; more on that later). In the meantime, there are these:

discognitionSteven Shaviro, Discognition (Repeater, 2016): I do my best to read novels and biographies during the summer, but the research and the nonfiction creeps in anyway. In Discognition, Steven Shaviro parses the thick thicket of thinking using examples from science fictions of all kinds. Discognition explores the area between sentience and consciousness through computers, aliens, and slime molds, as well as several specific kinds of human—from philosophers to killers.

Doug Stanhope, Digging Up Mother: A Love Story (Da Capo, 2016): Stanhope’s new book, as it states right on the cover, is a love story and a memoir. If you want to know what he’s done since his last DVD or since the last time you saw him live, check Youtube. Most of this book happens before that was even possible. Many a buried back-story is unearthed here: Doug’s earliest days as a road comic, when he actually lived on the road – in his car; his stint as an innovative, master cold-calling telemarketer; one-nighters, hell gigs, middling, featuring, telling jokes to the elderly on a tour bus, and “making it” in all of its elusive meanings; many days and nights of performances, beverages, and substances. There’s quite a lot of the latter, and Mother is there for every phase, step, and bump along the way. [See my full review on Splitsider]

Rasheedah Phillips, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) (AfroFuturist Affair, 2014): Afrofuturist Affair creative director Rasheedah Phillips’ debut, Recurrence Plot (and Other Time Travel Tales) finds her applying an African concept of time. Using quantum physics as her fictional playground, Phillips reprograms our ontology with interweaving tales of temporal trials and travel. Also check out her edited collections, Black Quantum Futurism: Space-Time Collapse I: From the Congo to the Carolinas (2016) and Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice Vol. I (2015), featuring essays by Rasheedah Phillips, Moor Mother Goddess, Warren C. Longmire, Almah Lavon, Joy Kmt, Thomas Stanley, and Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani. I’m using these in research for my book Dead Precedents (Repeater, forthcoming) along with Jim Gleick’s new book and André Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press, 2016; see above), among others.

Since I spent the past several months finishing (read: “writing”) my dissertation, the following are all lying around my place in various states of unread:

Further Posting: