An Imaginary Curriculum: The Fiction Edition, Part the First

Which it’s a post where I take books generally accepted to be of Great Literary Merit and swap them for books found in–GASP–other parts of the bookstore. This is partly inspired by a conversation I had with a customer at my beloved bookstore gig at McNally Jackson. It left me wanting to rant a little bit, which I got out of my system here and won’t subject you to, but the gist was, a man was looking for “literature” for his 13 year old son and was pretty sure anything I was going to suggest that didn’t look like a classic wasn’t worth his time. But guess what, folks? That’s just lame. Suit up, because just in time for beach-read season, I am going to take you on a safari into the sci-fi/fantasy and kids’ sections, and you are going to LIKE IT!

You loved One Hundred Years of Solitude. Kate recommends Desolation Road by Ian McDonald.

I love Garcia Marquez. I remember where I bought my used copy of Love in the time of Cholera. I remember where I was sitting when, a few chapters in, I realized I was reading one of the most wonderful books I would ever encounter, and that I had discovered a writer I would love forever. (James Street, Ithaca, on the porch, if you’re curious.) I remember where I read One Hundred Years of Solitude (Ithaca and Maryland; it was the book I was reading when I moved home after college. The section on insomnia: Ithaca Falls. Much of the rest: upstairs bathtub in Maryland, yelling at younger brothers outside to leave me alone a la Ralphie with his decoder ring in the only room in the house where a kid could get some peace and quiet). I am trying now to remember if I had ever encountered such poetry, such elegance of imagery, before that, and maybe I had, but I can’t remember it now, so there you go. That’s the kind of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is, and that’s how much I love him. So I want you to know how seriously I take it when I say that Desolation Road is like One Hundred Years of Solitude set on Mars.

Does it matter that it’s set on Mars? Meaning, do you have to be a sci-fi geek, do you have to have loved Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles to get the poetry of Desolation Road? Nope, not if you’re the kind of person who can appreciate magic realism. Because that’s what McDonald’s science fiction is, at least in this book. Remember Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic? Can we, perhaps, use that to build a bridge between magic realism and science fiction? Discuss that among yourselves, but trust me that this book could sit comfortably on either side.

The town of Desolation Road is a red-planet Macondo that draws to it the strange and odd, lonely folk and runaways, schemers and dreamers of all walks of the bizarre. Each chapter focuses like a short story on one or a few of these people as they raise the town up, settler by settler, pairing by pairing and child by child,  out of the red sands of a remote, nonexistent stop along the Bethlehem-Ares Railroad where the angels are mechanical, greenpeople sometimes appear speaking prophecy, and the first rains in the history of the town are called down by a mysterious guitarist called simply The Hand.

There are deep themes here: family, destiny, urbanism, conservatism…but this is a summer reading post, so what really matters here, as far as I’m concerned, is that it is a beautiful, delicious, hilarious, bizarre, dark and exquisite work of literature, and conveniently enough, it’s also perfectly structured for beach reading. Each chapter brings you more or less to a decent stopping point for when the lure of the water is just too much to resist. And there is a second book, Ares Express, which I am saving for my vacation this year.

You loved The Jungle Book. Kate recommends The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

Come to the bookstore where I work on a day when I’m there, get me started talking about this book, and inevitably, ten seconds after I start rambling about all the wonderful reasons I love it, I’ll get all goosebumpy. Here’s the setup: a young toddler wanders out the open front door as his family is being murdered in their beds by a killer with a knife that we will come to know only as the Man Jack. The boy, blissfully unaware of what he has just escaped, wanders up the hill to the graveyard at the end of the street, where he is taken in and raised by the ghosts and spirits who live there.

As he grows up, the Man Jack continues to look for him, because it turns out the boy, now called Bod (short for Nobody) Owens, was the entire reason for the slaughter of his family. The boy has a destiny, and although the graveyard and its denizens have kept him safe, even the ghosts know that at some point he will have to venture back to the world outside the cemetery gates. The graveyard is safety, but the world is wide, and Bod, unlike his adoptive family, is alive. He cannot stay there forever.

Oh, the many ways in which this book is beautiful. It had me on the first page, when one of the boldest first chapters ever began with the words There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. Several chapters made me sigh with joy or sadness or go white-knuckled with excitement. There is a chapter called “Danse Macabre” that out of nowhere I find myself thinking about at random sometimes. And I remember having a sudden jolt of shock and realization at the point, while discussing with his guardian the danger of leaving the graveyard while he is still being hunted, Bod protests that it wouldn’t be so bad if Jack found him–after all, all of his friends are dead, so it can’t be all bad. Nooo, I thought, you don’t understand!

Oh, it’s just so good. And there are illustrations! And, like The Jungle Book (and, for that matter, like Desolation Road), each chapter is a fairly self-enclosed tale, so depending on your reading pace, this book can double as a useful timer to remind you to reapply your sunscreen. Chapter, sunscreen. Chapter, sunscreen. See how handy that is?

You loved A Wrinkle in Time. Kate recommends When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.

Another book I go goosebumpy when talking about at the bookstore, although I don’t manage to talk about it so much as rave incoherently for five minutes or so, but either my incoherent ravings still manage to be persuasive or people figure I’m crazy and the safest way of extricating themselves from the situation is just to buy the book and hope it keeps me from following them into the street shouting random reasons they and every person they know, adult or child, should read it.

Wow. That paragraph is just a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

When You Reach Me is set in NYC in the ’70’s. The setup is simple enough: sixth-grader Miranda is walking home with her best friend Sal when, seemingly out of the blue and for no reason, an older boy walks up to him and punches him in the face. This, for some reason, causes Sal to immediately begin to pull away from Miranda, leaving her alone and forcing her to seek out new friends among schoolmates she has never really bothered to get to know. Her mother is studying for an appearance on the $20,000 pyramid. There’s a homeless man who wanders her street laughing and muttering to himself. And then the first note shows up:


This is hard. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. 

I ask two favors. 

First, you must write me a letter.

Second, remember to mention the location of your house key. 

The trip is a difficult one. I will not be the same when I reach you. 

The book, which is a precise little jewel of storytelling, reads like realism but touches on science fiction and mystery. Among other things (many other things) it’s about friendship in unexpected places, and the ways that people turn out to be something more, and more complex, than they appear at first blush. The book itself is like that. I don’t know how it can be about so many things, and accomplish so many things so well, in such a short space of prose. It’s a deliciously elegant book, in the sense that equations and poetry and mechanisms and code can be elegant. And there go the goosebumps again. And–look at that, I’ve entirely forgotten to mention its connection to A Wrinkle In Time. You should probably just read it and figure that out for yourself. I think that’s a better idea with this book, anyway.

And that’s probably enough rambling from me for today. Anybody have any other great pairs like this that they could suggest?


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