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Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Schmantastic List of Fantasy: Fantastic-Schmantastic New Year's Resolution Books

Happy New Year, and happy first Thursday! It's officially 2014, which means that if I started college again immediately after graduating ... well, I'd be graduating for a second time this year. Yikes, that went by quickly. I'm to the point where I've been friends with people for spans of time that can be measured in decades. That's a scary milestone.
Still, 2014  is gonna be a kickass year, so I think we should all prepare to kick some literary ass. Which is why I now present to you:

The Schmantastic List of 15 Books You Should Read in 2014

These are the books that we've all heard about, that ever English major claims to have read, but that we never seem to get around to. This list is aspirational in nature, so I'm violating my rule -- I have not read all of these. So take a look, give yourself a hearty pat on the back for each one you've read, and add a few entries to your 2014 reading list.

The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allen Poe

This list will have a lot of one of the genres of genre fiction I frequently overlook: horror. I have a very weak stomach for horror. I get worked up easily and am more than a little squeamish. That said, there is so undeniably fantastic horror literature out there, and we can't ignore one of the horror masters, Mr. Poe. There is a lot to pick from, but The Fall of the House of Usher is the one work that I've been dying to sink my teeth into. It is a meaty short story, and perhaps Poe's most famous prose pieces. It is also the source of some criticism and contention, which makes it all the more worth the read.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

This is on my 2014 list, and I think it should be on yours too. Until recently, I didn't know really anything about this novel except that it existed and, of course, was the debut of the since culturally purloined Frankenstein's monster. But then around Halloween I caught a special that discussed the original monster, and I was intrigued. The monster is supposedly eloquent, deep and tortured. The idea of a philosopher-monster intrigues much more than the mute, seemingly unintelligent pop culture creature.

100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Now here's one I have read, and would re-read again and again and again. This is one of my all-time favorite literary genres: magical realism. This novel was my first encounter, and I was hooked from the beginning. The strangely beautiful, opulently lush work is full of macabre whimsy while being cloyingly corporeal. It's ... hard to describe. It is not shy, it is not overly concerned with reality. It is simultaneously visceral and aloof. It is an experience.

The Metamorphosis
, Franz Kafka

Here's a story we're all familiar with. We're well aware that "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself changed into a monstrous vermin." The story is a part of our cultural lexicon, much like Alice's rabbit hole, the fatted calf and Pinnochio's nose. Not to be a hopeless nerd or anything, but we're not all that different from TNG's Darmok (for those who don't care enough to click, the Darmok are an alien species that communicate entirely through allusion and metaphor). This is a story which, if we haven't read, we simply know from how much we have seen or heard it referenced and/or parodied. But 2014's the year to get back to the source and discover for yourself what exactly happens to Gregor Samsa.

Cat's Cradle
, Kurt Vonnegut

There is so much Vonnegut to choose from. But I'm going to go ahead and assume that many of you have already read Slaughterhouse Five and put forth this other favorite of mine: Cat's Cradle. While I love Billy Pilgrim's time jumping (and his name!), I think I love ice nine more. Much like most of Vonnegut's work, this sci-fi story is one part satire, one part allegory, and one part harbinger. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll flinch and you'll be weirdly uncomfortable with how relevant this feels.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
, Haruki Murakami

I can't mention a love for magical realism and not mention Murakami. His writing does not always feel accessible. As a matter of fact, this is the reason I've started and stopped no less than three Murakami novels. But not this year. Murakami's gift is undeniable, and I know will be well worth the effort. But this isn't a book that you blow-through so you can't jump into your next read. Be prepared to sit, think and take your time with this one.

House of Leaves
, Mark Z. Danielewski

I don't even know where to start with this one. I'm not a horror fan, I'm not really into the post-Modern but ... wow. Be prepared to sleep with the light on for a while. This novel (piece? work? I'm not even certain novel fits it) is a trippy mind-f*** that permeates all the way to your bone marrow. Whovians will be delighted to know that the horror-fest centers on a house that is bigger on the inside (oh god, I have goosebumps all over just saying it). The Tardis becomes a whole lot creepier after this read.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

They say this shouldn't be called "sci-fi", so maybe it's not really a genre-piece. Except that I think post-apocalyptic is pretty much it's own genre at this point, so I'm going with it.
And now, I'm going to be candid. I personally have very little desire to read this one. Not to be a total brat, but it just seems a little too male for me. Ugh, I hate myself for even typing that, but I did preface this paragraph with an assertion of my candid-ness. But that's kind of the point of the aspirational 2014 resolutionist's book list -- it's supposed to include things you might not otherwise read. I chose this book for the list because it has become a part of the English elitist's vernacular, and as an avid consumer of YA/NA fantasy I am constantly trying to prove myself fluent in the language.

The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

Obligatory snootiness! If the list wasn't going to include any Shakespeare, then it had to include some Marlowe, some Chaucer or (as it were) some Spenser. Otherwise how would you know that I actually did major in English?
Seriously, though -- I've got a strange love for The Faerie Queene. I love the bouncy meter, the unflinching singsong of the rhyme ... it's like Dr. Seuss for grown-up snobs. And the opening image burned hilariously into my brain, with the knight galloping on his steed and the Lady sidesaddle on her short white donkey scurrying it's legs as fast as possible to keep up, with the poor servant running behind carrying all the bags. I knew I'd love when I first saw that "Gentle Knight ypricking on the plaine [...]"

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

Have I read it? No. So everything I'm about to tell you has come to me through word-of-mouth and Wikipedia. What do I know about this novel? I know that Rushdie's use of magical realism is historically grounded, and allows him to capture and comment upon the effects of colonialism and post-colonialism in a manner blending satire and gravity. 

The Handmaid's Tale
, Margaret Atwood

I'm not going to argue with any Maragaret Atwood that you want to read, but I'm going to push The Handmaid's Tale because it is spectacular. This is worldscape done right, so this is an especially important read if you are writing a genre piece in an otherworld. The scape is laid out bit by bit through the journaling of Of Glenn. It's beautifully crafted and all very human, with a surprise at the end that, in less capable hands, might read gimmicky -- but achieves the rare status of enthralling.

The Turn of the Screw, Henry "The Master" James

OMG, you guys, THIS BOOK. We all have the novel that we could read again and again and never tire of. I have many of them. Harry Potter, for instance, will never grow old to me. And neither will The Turn of the Screw. I've read this novella more times than I have fingers, and still counting. It is eerie, dark and nearly impenetrable. What really happened in this story? It's a subject of much debate and, for some reason, I don't care. I won't give it away, but this novella, part horror story part crime novel, is a literary critic's dream of unreliable narrators, ambiguity and the ever fruitful story-within-a-story. But it's also just a damned good read.

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

We read this in my English class my sophomore year of high school, and it bears revisiting. I love Toni Morrison. The best word I can think of to describe her style is succulent. It's very tactile and sensory and fantastical. There was a wealth of choices when looking to Morrison's novels, and feel free to grab The Bluest Eye or Beloved instead -- but this is the novel that started it all for me. If you're at all unsure, just pick it up and try the first 10-pages. The opening is one of the best in all modern literature.

Childhood's End
, Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke is the King of Hard Sci-Fi. Look, I love Asimov -- but when it comes down to who is the most grounded, scientific and numbers-y of sci-fi writers it's Clarke hands down. And yes -- I mean numbers-y. As such, Clarke can be a hard read. The stories and the literary mechanics are fascinating, but you might occasionally feel like you're reading a physics textbook when you pick up a Clarke novel. But luckily for us, Childhood's End is one of Clarke's softer works, though this does nothing to harm its merit. A classic example of the 50s lust for sci-fi, Childhood's End wonders about humanity's future and offers a portrait of what may become of us once we become the creatures of luxury and effortless hedonism we long to be.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

No, you may not just watch Blade Runner. But before we even talk about this novel, let's take a moment to admire that title. It's amazing, isn't it? I'm also astounded that he got that title past his publisher. Dick is one of the most respected science fiction (or, pardon me -- speculative fiction) authors, and his compulsion to question reality was trailblazing and definitely exacerbated by psychedelics. As a professed genre fiction lover, it's a little bit self-defeating to admit they I have never read any Philip K. Dick before. But where 2013 was a year replete with fantasy, 2014 is bound to be the year for sci-fi. So let's tackle this landmark piece together.

So there it is -- the 2014 "I'm a real reader!" list. Don't forget to budget for some softball reads, too ... there's nothing like a little YA or some Douglas Adams to make the literature go down.

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