Summer Reading 2013
Sam Sacks, Editor-in-Chief
Roughing It is Mark Twain’s finest book. I say that because it is my favorite of his books, and because I’m pressed by deadlines, needful of content, and desirous of arresting the reader’s eye from its customary list-skimming. It seems unreasonable to want more justification than this when assessing a writer like Twain, much less when recommending his books.
He begins the 1872 account of his “variegated vagabondages” to the Nevada Territories (and eventually on to California) with a similarly indignant proviso: “This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.” That is by way of warning, if any warning were needed, that virtually every episode in this travelogue has been embellished, purloined, or fabricated from whole cloth. We follow Twain westward from St. Louis, encountering and ogling desperadoes, forty-niners and silver prospectors, Mormons, American Indians, politicians, newspapermen, and, during a journey to Hawaii, the requisite “bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea.”
Twain was under contract to write about these travels—many of which had taken place a decade previous—at a length of at least 600 pages (he felt enormous pressure to replicate the smash success of his debut The Innocents Abroad). To meet his quota, he seizes on any scrap of memory, overheard tale, curious newspaper clipping, shaggy-dog joke, or bit of local lore, and proceeds to unfold riff after riff of the most brilliant improvisational comic writing in all of American letters. There is nothing so minor or insignificant that he cannot transform into four pages of mock outraged haranguing. The manic exasperation quickly works you into a state of shared hysteria. In one chapter Twain describes the agony of hearing four different fellow stagecoach passengers relate the exact same tedious anecdote (naturally he reproduces it all four times—the man had pages to fill), and then holds forth on the anecdote’s terrible ubiquity in his ludicrously po-faced high style:
Within a period of six years I crossed and recrossed the Sierras between Nevada and California thirteen times by stage and listened to that deathless incident four hundred and eighty-one or eighty-two times. I have the list somewhere. Drivers always told it, conductors told it, landlords told it, chance passengers told it, the very Chinamen and vagrant Indians recounted it. I have had the same driver tell it to me two or three times in the same afternoon. It has come to me in all the multitude of tongues that Babel bequeathed to earth, and flavored with whiskey, brandy, beer, cologne, sozodont, tobacco, garlic, onions, grasshoppers—everything that has a fragrance to it through all the long list of things that are gorged or guzzled by the sons of men. I never have smelt any anecdote as often as I have smelt that one; never have smelt any anecdote that smelt so variegated as that one. And you never could learn to know it by its smell, because every time you thought you had learned the smell of it, it would turn up with a different smell. Bayard Taylor has written about this hoary anecdote, Richardson has published it; so have Jones, Smith, Johnson, Ross Browne, and every other correspondence-inditing being that ever set his foot upon the great overland road anywhere between Julesburg and San Francisco; and I have heard that it is in the Talmud. I have seen it in print in nine different foreign languages; I have been told that it is employed in the inquisition in Rome; and I now learn with regret that it is going to be set to music. I do not think that such things are right.
Of course, Twain concedes in his introduction that beyond all the personal narrative, the reader will find “quite a good deal of information.” He regrets this, yet it is undeniably true, and among the virtuoso rants are indelible (if highly subjective) glimpses of the Nevada silver boom, the early Mormon settlements in Salt Lake City, the political corruption in Carson City, and the Chinese population of San Francisco. The book is hilarious, keenly observant, gloriously inventive, and satisfyingly overstuffed. (And though it would make Twain himself furious, you can get a lovely edition for free on your e-reader.) Even so, I too now regret that I’ve had to provide so much argument in its favor, after all. Ignore all the information and just take my word that it’s great.
John Cotter, Executive Editor
Portland in the early days of this century is the setting of Vanessa Veselka’s droll and gorgeous Zazen, and yet not so, for the land she describes is torn by a hotter war than any America’s faced since the War of Northern Aggression. This Portland is a land of big box developments, standardized mini-malls like anonymity factories, and ominous financial towers in which land and lives are carelessly traded. Domestic terrorists are at large and everyone seems to be fleeing—to Mexico, to Asia, anyplace.
Everyone but Della, our hero, who works at a vegan coffee shop called Rise Up Singing (later purchased by yuppie upscalers, changed simply to “Rise,” and refurbished to look weathered). She dates a co-worker, worries about the future, flinches at loud sounds. Then the bathrooms in the New Land Trust are exploded by terrorists. Della, caught up in the madness, calls in false bomb threats, finally feeling as though she’s making a contribution to some kind of constructive disorder. Real bombs explode in the places she’s called.
Though a novel about the worst sides of both capitalists and ecoterrorists would, in lesser hands, be unremittingly grim, Vanessa Veselka’s prose takes us somewhere that could be called transcendent if it wasn’t so hauntingly familiar—the details of life you took in but didn’t consciously recognize at the time. Her lyricism does not require occasion. Like Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (see Greg Waldmann’s summer recommendation below) or as in the films of Peter Greenaway, the density of detail in each scene captivates, takes up every corner. There is funk and tinsel in this city, and Della’s eye travels over all of it. Even her toss-off paragraphs are stocked full, as when she wanders down the burned-out postindustrial part of town:
Someone told me there was a fleet of meth-heads in homemade boats crossing the river at night, sailing right up under the docks and stripping copper from the conduits. A Dunkirk of tweakers. I imagined them building a penny-colored palace in the hills with exploding processing plants and Guitar Hero going all the time.
She’s on her way to a charity event, an indie fundraiser thing she only halfway believes in. Every effort seems helplessly bound up with its own futility:
The event was a benefit for a media collective that taught underprivileged kids how to make chapbooks. On a table next to me were some of the books the kids made. I looked through them. They were full of basketball stars with guns and Spiderman cars, kids with blood drawn like tears. Slanted houses and sagging rainbows buckling in the blue sky. I couldn’t take it. Everyone was eating almond pâté.
This is a dense book that reads like a dream. Della, a former geologist, is helpless to make sense of the new landscape around her, but her wry and heartfelt efforts to do so win us over. She describes new brutalism with the poise of a J G Ballard but with a depth of feeling and humor that Ballard couldn’t aim for on his best day. We share her worry over the psycho-social effects of so much ugliness (political and architectural), and we’re with her, rolling our eyes through her and cringing with her, up to the end.
Is it a Summer read? Well, it’s a romance, a thriller, a detective story, and a fantasy. It’s also hauntingly real.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and Host of stevereads
Book reviewers sometimes exist in a weird kind of time-warp. Advance copies of books – some finished, some in galley, some just stacks of unbound pages – get circulated to what Gore Vidal called “the book-chat world” long before they show up on the front tables of the local evil chain bookstore. This arrangement might ultimately benefit the Republic of Letters, but it can make for awkwardly unhelpful moments face-to-face: after all, what can that book critic say if asked for a recommendation? “I just read something great – but it doesn’t come out for four months”? That’s not much help in the here-and-now.
Unless readers are poised on the edge of a summer season, in which case some long-term recommendations might just come in handy! Here are some forthcoming summer books guaranteed to keep the brain alive even during the hottest, laziest summer.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett (Viking) – It was only a matter of time until England’s oddly appalling “book town” Hay-on-Wye featured prominently in a mainstream novel, and here it is, kicking off the proceedings in Lovett’s beguiling debut. Antiquarian book dealer Peter Byerly, lost in grief over the death of his wife Amanda (their relationship plays out gradually in the book’s strongest plot-strand and strongly suggest that this author’s best strengths lie far afield of Dan Brown territory), gropes for his one unfailing source of consolation: books. He’s browsing through a very old book when he finds, tipped into its pages, a perfect portrait of his dead wife – and we’re off to the races. All veteran book-browsers have had the experience of finding something intriguing tucked into a book by one of its previous owners, and in The Bookman’s Tale, Lovett plays that experience at amplified, ‘summertime’ levels; Peter Byerly’s interest in that impossible portrait is not only personal but professional – it seems to hold a key to, oddly enough, the ongoing controversy about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays!
Shot All To Hell by Mark Lee Gardner (William Morrow) – The apparently mandatory garrulous sub-title of Gardner’s lean, hell-for-leather follow-up to To Hell on a Fast Horse reads: “Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape,” but if for some reason readers should be curious enough to want even more details, Gardner provides them aplenty in this thrilling minute-by-minute account of the Minnesota bank robbery in 1876 and the long chase that ensued. Gardner’s book is loaded with original research, but by far the biggest attraction here – the only justification for the effrontery of putting a work of history on a “summer reading” list! – is Gardner’s infectiously readable prose style. He’s somehow managed to adapt the lurid, irresistible rhetoric of the old “dime novels” (so many hundreds – thousands? – of which featured Jesse James) to the purposes of serious history. The end result will keep the reader enthralled, heat index or no heat index.
Robert the Bruce by Jack Whyte (Forge) – Whyte continues his “Guardians” series of novels dramatizing the lives of three great figures from Scottish history; he’s already done William Wallace in 2010’s The Forest Laird, and now he turns his attention to even more epic material, the life and times of Robert, king of Scotland, and victor of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. This was a fierce, larger-than-life figure, and it’s a life story that’s been fictionalized hundreds of times. Whyte has plenty of company (or competition), in other words, and he acquits himself marvelously here, backing his story with careful research and filling it with dialogue and set-piece scenes that only a veteran historical novelist could shape so well. Robert the Bruce is long – 600 pages in this long-delayed U.S. edition – and that’s also something of a heresy for a summer reading suggestion. But there’s scarcely one dull page in all its length – this is in many ways the single book Whyte was born to write. And if readers are only just finishing it as the days grow marginally cooler and the evenings come a bit earlier, so much the better: it’ll ease them into an autumn of World War II histories and improving accounts of the Council of Trent.
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor and Host of Novel Readings
Nothing annoys most academics more than being told how lucky we are to have “summers off.” “Off from teaching, maybe” we usually retort (some of us more politely than others) — but not from our other obligations, including those that keep our teaching fresh and current. Yet the myth persists, presumably because by and large we carry out this other work where nobody can see us. I had the sly thought, therefore, to recommend a couple of academic novels for your summer reading, so that while we are mostly out of sight, we are not out of mind. Be assured, however, that we are almost certainly not getting up to any of the shenanigans depicted in them … more’s the pity!
For reasons I don’t altogether understand, academic novels are almost always satirical (maybe it’s the professorial propensity for pomposity that brings it on?). That’s OK, though, because summer is a good time for satire: it’s refreshing, enlivening, like salt water. Still, I prefer my satire with a dash of sentiment, and thus both of my recommendations are sweetened with a little romance.
First up is David Lodge’s Nice Work, which is a rewriting of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 “condition of England” novel North and South. North and South is itself a rewriting, of Pride and Prejudice: Gaskell moves Austen’s story of misunderstanding, growth, and reconciliation from elegant Georgian drawing rooms to the grimy streets of Victorian Manchester. Gaskell’s heroine, Margaret Hale, is a clergyman’s daughter from the agricultural south who initially recoils from the rough people and harsh realities of the new industrial economy. Factory-owner John Thornton, in the meantime, makes no apologies for how he’s made his fortune — or for how he treats his workers. True to Austen’s formula, both Margaret and Thornton learn better, and their sparring courtship and eventual happy ending nicely signal Gaskell’s belief that better interpersonal understanding could bring about a peaceful end to England’s simmering class conflicts.
I love North and South, actually: you can stop right here and just read it if you haven’t already, and if your idea of a great beach book is one with long sentences, a social conscience, and plenty of barely suppressed eroticism. If you want to defer those substantial pleasures until you can enjoy them by the fire with hot cocoa, though, proceed to Nice Work, which brings Austen’s premise forward yet again, this time to 1980s Birmingham (known in all of Lodge’s novels as Rummidge). Our protagonists this time are Dr. Robyn Penrose, an English professor specializing in the19th-century industrial novel (a nice little bit of self-reflexivity there!) and Vic Wilcox, the managing director of an engineering company. Someone has the bright idea to improve town-gown relations by setting up a job-shadowing program, and the next thing you know, these two are in and out of each other’s business and showing all the pride and prejudice of their predecessors: Robyn thinks Vic is a materialistic boor, while Vic considers Robyn’s work teaching women’s studies and poststructuralism a frivolous waste of time. Where their conflict eventually takes them you can probably predict, but it’s plenty entertaining — and not a little edifying — following how exactly they get there.
Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs also pairs up professors with regular folks, though there’s less commitment to reconciling their differences and more to exploring their eccentricities. There are two main plotlines in Foreign Affairs: one is about Vinnie Miner, a scholar of children’s literature at an Ivy League college visiting England to research children’s schoolyard rhymes, the other about her junior colleague Fred Turner, in England to research the 18th-century writer John Gay. Vinnie accidentally and quite unwillingly befriends Chuck Mumpson, a well-meaning but (to Vinnie’s taste) rather loud and crass retiree from Tulsa. Fred, in contrast, becomes eagerly entangled with the flamboyant actress Rosemary Radley. Both are drawn in deeper and deeper, first socially then emotionally. Neither anticipates the surprising turns these relationships will take or how changed they themselves will be when it’s time to go home and face the new term. Research trips, it turns out, are not just about where you are: they’re also about who you are. Lurie’s novel is more whimsical and also more touching than Lodge’s: both will make you laugh and, occasionally, wince, but hers just might also make you cry.
Enjoy — and see you in September!
Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor
I used to think, with the armored seriousness of a would-be member of the literati, that there should be no such thing as “summer reading.” How frivolous, to think that one should break from communing with the mysterium in order to gobble down potboilers.
Actually, it’s pompous to use “one” when considering life in the hypothetical, and sophomoric to think that any “serious” book can match every setting. If one is parsing Kant on the shore, one is being masochistic, not ruminative. But summer reading need not mean a shiny new foil-embossed Brad Thor. And for people of a certain type, it’s possible to take summer reading quite seriously.
If you yearn to read on the sand and swim in the thick heat of August; if the heavy air and bare flesh make you think of lovers past and future; if your vacations from life inevitably end in its languid contemplation, then you, my friend, are a romantic, and I have a good book for you.
Andrew Holleran’s first novel, 1978’s Dancer from the Dance, is about the circuit queens and dancers of gay New York in the 1970’s, pre-AIDS, post-Stonewall, when drugs and depression took more than disease. But for Holleran’s dancers the real enemy is time. They come to Manhattan to live freely, and from the countryside (these are all rural boys) they take only possessions and that universal ideal, the dream, after the peculiar loneliness of their youth, of true love. But New York, their particular New York, of parties and clubs and the beaches of Fire Island, is too much for them: they become addicts – to dancing, to drugs, to easy sex, and as the years pass the dream grows more distant and needful. The city will not let them go.
At the center of it all is Malone, whom everyone desires, and who holds tightest to the dreams he brought with him when he ran away. “I had no idea who he was,” says our narrator, a nameless fellow traveler, “he was just a face I saw in a discotheque one winter; but he was for me the central symbol on which all of it rested.” Malone edges into the underground life. He falls in love with someone, but they drift apart when Malone realizes that in Manhattan there are a thousand someones and he can fall in love every night. Battered by his lover, Malone is sheltered by an old queen who takes him to the clubs, parties, bathhouses, and to Fire Island, where a great set piece closes the book on a double note of tragedy and possibility.
It’s not just nightlife the dancers revere, but the city itself, its granite and steel canyons and the play of the seasons on its buildings, parks and people. Holleran renders it all in beautiful prose, longingly, for the book begins after it ends; the aging narrator is nostalgic but tempered by a wounding irony. (This is why Scott Fitzgerald makes good summer reading, too.)
Dancer from the Dance is tragic and beautiful, but it is also very, very funny. Malone is its cynosure, the body around which its characters orbit and a walking metaphor for all its drama, but Sutherland, an aging veteran of the club circuit, is its greatest character (Holleran’s dancers spend years looking at faces across a room; they have full names, but like all mythical creatures, go by only one). A hyper-intelligent speed-freak, clotheshorse, muse, and gutter philosopher, he is to Malone and others a mentor and tour guide. He steals nearly every scene he’s in and he has all the funniest lines. Holleran juxtaposes swooning prose with blunt descriptions of sex, such as this passage, where the narrator is celebrating the boiling city as Sutherland returns from an encounter in a bathroom stall:
It got very hot very soon that summer—tremendous heat that made the East Village almost sensual for a spell: shadows, and breezes, and the sun beating down till dusk, when it broke up and rose in shimmering waves from the pavements toward the clear blue sky. The fire hydrants were open, gushing day and night. Peaches were ripe in the fruit stalls on Second Avenue, the streets south of Astor Place were empty at dusk, and every figure you came upon walking south shimmered for a moment in the distance, then materialized into a group of boys playing ball in a lot littered with broken glass. Even Sutherland, when you ran into him on Fifth Avenue after the office workers had rushed home for a game of tennis in the country before the light had failed, was ecstatic as he stopped to talk, after an afternoon in the men’s room at Grand Central, picking pubic hair out of his teeth: “Oh, my dear, there is no other time, no other time at all, but now, when the city is overripe, like a fruit about to drop in your lap, and all the young strockbrokers’ underwear is damp!”
Those commas lead us dumbly into his punch lines, and Holleran switches registers so fluidly we’re never quite ready for it; we’re jostled this way a hundred times and it never gets old.
Dancer’s themes are universal, and they have no expiration date, but you should read this book in the summer because summer is the best season for looking back. Autumn, as the narrator explains, is different:
Autumn always gave our lives an inexpressible undercurrent of hope, for winter meant, if not the promise of new love affairs, at the very least a change of clothes. How strange, how perfect, that one did in the end grow tired of summer, and long to leave the beach and see faces in the drama of early darkness once again.
photo by Anna M.