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Title Menu: 12 Hot Summer Reads

As the temperatures rise all over the world (2013 was hotter than both 2012 and every other year in human history; 2012 was hotter than both 2011 and every other year in human history, etc.), and as the sweltering season of summer dawns in its full frenzy over most of the lands Open Letters readers call home, our writers decided to double down, as it were. Rather than take the craven way out and conjure titles of ice and cold (or just scrap the whole idea and toddle off for yet another collective viewing of Disney’s Frozen), we’ve decided to embrace the sodden, scorching miseries of the season by finding books that reflect it. Here are the books of summer.
Greg Waldmann, Editor-in-Chief

nightsinarubaThe middle-aged narrator of Nights in Aruba, Andrew Holleran’s tranquil, meditative pendant to Dancer from the Dance, splits his life between New York, where he debauches himself in the baths and dance clubs, and Jasper, Florida, where his parents live a null existence, playing golf and fretting over evening newscasts. North or South, it doesn’t matter: he finds no peace.

It was only in transit between the two places, New York and Jasper, that I felt hope. It was only suspended between the two lives that I felt any calm at all, or possibility, as if in going from one cell to another, I might spy a means of escape.

His parents don’t know he’s gay, and on the face of it he is nothing like them, but he has discovered that sometimes the past doesn’t give us its children the freedom to choose. The church services, the lectures, the middle class dreams of his youth have boxed him in, and his amorous conquests in New York feel no more genuine than the soft motions of a quaint rural town, because “there was no point except pleasure in further love affairs; and to a puritan that can never be the point of anything.”

He finds himself drifting into reveries of his childhood in Aruba, when his father was wise, his mother was garrulous and boozy, and the land was mythical:

Silence and wind, sunlight and shade, were the alternate sensations of Aruba—and a great baking dry heat that sparkled on the ocean and dried the flats at Bushiribana into huge scales that resembled lily pads curled up at the edges in a drought.

As a boy his mother seemed a promise of things to come, but as a teen he knew that she was only chafing at the constraints of domesticity, gesturing toward a life she would never have. He fled, but the aged man is still his mother’s son, “travelling on the passport the two of us shared when I was young,” living with one eye fixed on the horizon. “I wondered,” he says, “if only in warm climates was there serenity,” but by now he knows that to someone leading a double life, the only real difference is the weather.

Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and host of Stevereads

dduneFrank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction masterpiece Dune, still so intelligently stunning even after half a century, begins, as its millions of readers will remember, with a climate change. It’s not the broad-ranging ecological kind that concentrated so much of Herbert’s concern so well in advance of the environmental movement but rather a tight-focused and plot-driven one: in the far-distant future of the novel’s setting, the noble house of Atreides – the Duke, his sultry concubine Jessica, his son Paul, and all their servants and retainers – have been ordered by the galactic Emperor to move from their homeworld of Caladan and take up residence on savage world of Arrakis, known colloquially as “Dune.” Caladan is a rich planet, a water-full world of green pastures and rainy winters. Dune, by contrast, is a forbidding place, an planet of endless deserts inhabited by gigantic sandworms and racked by storms unlike anything ever seen on Caladan, as an advisor explains to young Paul:

“That’s too cautious a word: bad. Those storms build up across six or seven thousand kilometers of flatland, feeding on anything that can give them a push – coriolis force, other storms, anything that has an ounce of energy in it. They can blow up to seven hundred kilometers an hour, loaded with everything loose that’s in their way – sand, dust, everything. They can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to slivers.”

The Atreides know they’re likely walking into a long-prepared trap (Dune’s previous noble-house rulers are their sworn enemies), but the Duke can’t decline the Emperor’s order, and besides: he’s scheming of harnessing the planet’s intractable elements – not just the blasting heat and aridity but the native population forged by such pressures. But the desert world hulks larger than anything in Herbert’s narrative, a setting of poised malevolence that manages to rumple even the ironclad self-control of the Lady Jessica as she discusses the place with the family doctor:

She glanced out to the right at a slope humped with a wind-troubled gray-green of bushes – dusty leaves and dry claw branches. The too-dark sky hung over the slope like a blot, and the milky light of the Arrakeen sun gave the scene a silver cast – light like the crysknife concealed in her bosom.

“The sky’s so dark,” she said.

“That’s partly the lack of moisture,” he said.

“Water!” she snapped. “Everywhere you turn here, you’re involved with the lack of water!”

The Duke hopes to save his family by utilizing “desert power”, and although the book’s plot quickly surges right past him, readers remain pleasantly trapped on Arrakis, watching as the blast-furnace of a planet forges all the story’s characters – most especially Paul – into new heat- and sand-sculpted shapes. Reading Dune again in 2014 – with the last ten years being the hottest ten years ever recorded on Earth, and with the planet’s deserts claiming more land every year than ever before – adds a topical urgency to the book’s enormous aesthetic attractions. Summer is coming, as it were.

John Cotter, Executive Editor

tropicmoonIn George Simenon’s slim, spare, and tightly wound Tropic Moon, one Joseph Timar, a clueless gallant from La Rochelle, journeys to Libreville in French Equatorial Africa in the year 1932 to take up a position with his uncle’s firm, “logging timber and selling cheap goods to the natives.”

It’s hot in Libreville. Timar wakes in “the animal clamminess of the sheets,” aware that even “the atmosphere was heavy”: there’s “not a breath of air outside. You couldn’t even hear the thin rippling of the sea.” The flatboat that’s set to take him downriver is in disrepair and his uncle’s firm is rumored to be on the verge of bankruptcy, so young Joseph takes a room at a local hotel and spends his days wandering through a town where “the heat wasn’t only from the sun: it rose from the ground, the walls, everything.” Indeed, so thoroughly does Simenon render the sweat and oppression of the town that heat seems to rise from the very pages of the book itself. The heat stuns the easily-stunned young Timar and clouds his mind, turning him to an ill-considered affair with the hotel’s owner Adèle, who convinces him to travel downstream to stake out a logging claim. He takes to drink, grows callous:

There was a feeling of exasperation and irritability, a sense of darkness in spite of the sun, and the feeling was most intense when it was hottest, when just lifting an arm made you break out in a sweat.

But Adèle’s motives are not clear or pure; the officials who had welcomed a well-set-up young man now shut their doors. He falls ill with Dengue fever, and is “brutally drawn into a nightmare.”
The crapulence and brutality of colonialism are limned in a few deft strokes and, Simenon being Simenon, we are provided with a mystery to boot. This is a sleek, feverish read, perfect for a summer afternoon indoors, all the windows open wide and the fans on high.

Sam Sacks, Founding Editor

thedesertIn 1898 John C. Van Dyke, an asthmatic 42-year-old art history professor from wealthy New Jersey stock, traveled to the American Southwest and began roaming the Sonora and Mojave Deserts with a pony and a pet fox terrier. The book that came from his wanderings, simply titled The Desert, is one of the greatest nature monographs ever written about the United States.

Van Dyke’s study is thematic rather than diaristic. He offers no account of his route (he seems to have been fairly aimless) and only occasionally references specific landmarks. He instead distills his years of observations into dense, glittering generalities, like this brief passage on the Southwest’s most famous bird:

The roadrunner is the mildest-looking and most graceful birds of the desert, but the spring of the wildcat to crush down a rabbit is not more fierce than the snap of the bird’s beak as he tosses a luckless lizard. He is the only thing on the desert that has the temerity to fight a rattlesnake. It is said that he kills the snake, but as to that I am not able to give evidence.

This is the tone throughout The Desert, by rapid turns scientific, connoisseurial, and ecstatic:

After the clouds have shifted into purple and the western sky has sunk into night, then up from the east the moon—the misshapen orange-hued moon. How large it looks! And how it warms the sky, and silvers the edges of the mountain peaks, and spreads its wide light across the sands! Up, up it rises, losing something of its orange and gaining something in its symmetry. In a few hours it is high in the heavens and has a great aureole of color about it. Look at the ring for a moment and you will see all the spectrum colors arranged in order. Pale hues they are but they are all there. Rainbows by day and rainbows by night!

Van Dyke fell ill with fever toward the end of his traveling, and traces of hallucinatory fervor color the fringes of his crystalline writing like desert clouds in sunset. The reverence and scrutiny of all good nature writing is apparent in this book, but there’s also a touch of the holy madness that deserts can inspire.

Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor and host of Novel Readings

childofthemorningMaybe it’s because the two places I’ve lived in the longest have been ocean-side Canadian cities — both cool, green places that rarely swelter under the sun — that I have always been imaginatively preoccupied with Egypt. I may never see the Valley of the Kings or the sand dunes of the Sahara in person, but reading at least lets me bask vicariously in their heated splendor.

The heroine of Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning rides her chariot across the hot sands of the Egyptian desert as if she owns them — which she does, more or less, as she is Hatshepsut, the only woman ever to rule as Pharaoh. Child of the Morning tells the story of her life from her pampered girlhood as the daughter of Thothmes I through her bitter marriage to her half-brother Thothmes II, and then her triumphant assertion of her own divine right to wear the Double Crown. “At last,” she reflects, “I am what my father intended me to be. . . My destiny is fulfilled. I am stronger than ever, more beautiful and powerful than ever, the first woman worthy to be Pharaoh.” The novel is taut with political intrigue and Gedge recounts the rites and beliefs of this ancient kingdom in fascinating detail. But the beating heart of the story is Hatshepsut’s love for Senmut, whom she meets when she’s still a child and he’s a humble acolyte in the temple. Through her patronage he becomes first a great architect then a noble and prince; his loyalty to her as his queen is as fierce as their mutual passion, which finds its ultimate expression in the great temple he builds for her:

She stopped, drinking in her masterpiece with greedy, worshiping eyes . . . Another hundred paces and the first ramp rose gently to the roof of the first terraces. Below it, on each side, the pillars stood in neat rows, letting the light flow between them and on into the echoing vastness of the first hall. With fifty paces more the second ramp rose. Again it led to the roof of another hall whose white pillars gleamed. It brought the eye to the final pillars of the shrines and on gently to the top of the hill, as if temple and valley and cliff were one, a strong and melllow harmony of natural stone and manmade melody.

When the glories and tragedies of Hatshepsut’s life are nearly done, she thinks of Senmut and hopes he waits for her beyond death — but she also reflects on the great gift of immortality his monuments have conferred: “I am not alone. I shall, after all, live forever.”

mrimpossibleIn Mr. Impossible, Loretta Chase gives a smart, sexy twist to a classic romance scenario. A strong-minded Victorian woman sets out across the Egyptian desert to rescue her kidnapped brother, along with a handsome reprobate she’s hired as her muscle. Inevitably, under the pressure of evading murderous grave robbers and rapacious antiquities collectors (not to mention the relentless sun) their wittily antagonistic banter turns to passion. The novel is funny, suspenseful, and pleasurably steamy. It’s also charmingly predictable — but not quite, because this romance turns on the hero’s appreciation of the heroine’s intelligence as much as it does on the physical chemistry between them. Until meeting Rupert Carsington, Daphne Pembroke has lived a double life, hiding her brains behind a conventional feminine façade while her brother takes the credit (and, as it turns out, the risk) for her cutting-edge scholarship. Rupert sees through her, though, and finds her revealed expertise as enticing as her creamy skin and green eyes. “I had a choice,” she tells him; “either give up my work or practice deception. I could not give it up,” she continues; “[but] a common harlot could not meet with more disapproval, scorn, disgust.”

“Maybe you were associating with the wrong sort of people.”

“What other sort is there?” she demanded. “The sort who laugh at intellectual women instead?”

“There’s the sort like me.”

No wonder that when he moves towards her, she “surrendered to the simmering heat between them.” What “intellectual woman” could resist a seduction that leads off with a tribute to her brains? Impossible indeed.

Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editorpedr

Welcome to Comala, a place that “sits on the coals of the earth, at the very mouth of Hell.” Juan Preciado arrives there in the dog days of summer, trying to fulfill his mother’s dying wish that he find his father, the eponymous Pedro Páramo, and “make him pay . . . for all those years he put us out of his mind.” What he finds is a literal ghost town, in which shades and memories mix like the broken fragments of the mirror, a town where the living have no place. Comala’s whispering dead tell the story of how Pedro Páramo dealt with loss by dealing it out to others, his fist tight enough to extract every drop of blood and honor from the people of Comala, and to destroy it when they did not love what he loved, and act as he desired.

Justin Hickey, Editor

In 1831, the brain of 22-year-old Charles Darwin was pulsating with curiosity about the natural world, invigorating him with an insatiable desire, as most geniuses will attest, to “feed the beast.” He knew he wasn’t going to find fulfillment in England as a priest, so he agreed to be Captain Robert FitzRoy’s social companion on the HMS Beagle, as it surveyed the coasts of darwinbeagleSouth America before looping west through the Southern hemisphere on a two year journey. Luckily for science, two years stretched to five, and Darwin’s gorgeously expansive journals, first published in 1838, became The Voyage of the Beagle. An excerpt from just about anywhere in the delightful, rambling travelogue reveals Darwin to be a brilliant not-yet-scientist capable of entertaining while informing, in eloquent prose characteristic of the Victorian era:

Another day, having placed myself between a penguin ( Aptenodytes demersa) and the water, I was much amused by watching its habits. It was a brave bird; and till reaching the sea, it regularly fought and drove me backwards. Nothing less than heavy blows would have stopped him: every inch he gained he firmly kept, standing close before me erect and determined.

He goes on to say that this species is also known as the jackass penguin, for the braying call it makes. But Voyage is also a primer on the strange Fuegian Indians of Tierra del Fuego (four of whom the Englishmen essentially abducted), giant mammal fossils, and of course the majestic Galapagos Archipelago. No student of science history—or lover of travel writing—should miss the work that launched Darwin’s career.

Colleen Shea, Contributing Editor

whartonsummerEdith Wharton’s Summer (1916) is set in small-town New England, “at all times an empty place,” but “at three o’clock on a June afternoon its few able-bodied men are off in the fields or woods, and the women indoors, engaged in languid household drudgery.” Its only heat is the dusty boredom of lives half lived.

In spite of her smothering surroundings, 17-year-old Charity Royall embodies the deep buzzing warmth of July and August. She is a blooming child of nature longing to escape North Dormer and her little job in its mouldering little library; she spends long afternoons stretched out in the grass:

Every leaf and bud and blade seemed to contribute its exhalation to the pervading sweetness in which the pungency of pine-sap prevailed over the spice of thyme and the subtle perfume of fern, and all were merged in a moist earth-smell that was like the breath of some huge sun-warmed animal.

A visitor to North Dormer, a young architect from the city named Lucius Harney, soon interrupts Charity’s earthy reveries, however. At first only friendly—Charity shows Harney all the old buildings in the area for his research—the heat between them grows as summer proceeds.

Charity imagines “the melting of palm into palm and mouth on mouth, and the long flame burning her from head to foot.” Their passion is soon consummated and “Under his touch things deep down in her struggled to the light and sprang up like flowers in sunshine.” Charity revels both in the pure animal pleasure of their trysts, and in her belief that the blazing sun of their passion shines on a world much larger than that of North Dormer.

It’s not long, though, before “Through all the heat and the rapture a shiver of cold ran over her.” The inevitable physical repercussions of their affair; her guardian’s alternately paternal and sexually predatory attentions; the town’s small, prying jealousy; Harney’s secret engagement to the inevitably well off and blue-eyed Annabel Balch—these forces, emblematic of the “cold autumn moonlight” in which Wharton’s novel ends, dispel the heat of Charity’s romance and dreams of escape. Still, for a short time, her youth burned and stretched and grew and knew happiness.

Lisa Peet, host of Like Fire

matthiessenlordDante had it right: there’s enough real estate in Hell to go around, depending on your definition of misery. Me, I can take the heat but not the humidity—when the air’s too damp to work up a proper sweat, and no breeze stirs, and the insects of the world rejoice. If I’m sent somewhere for my sins, it will be the jungle. And so Peter Matthiessen’s 1965 novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord holds every kind of steamy schadenfreude I could want in a summer read. It’s a tale of the battle for souls in the South American jungle: four missionaries sent to civilize a tribe of savages, two mercenaries hired to bomb them by the town’s crooked commandante, a vaguely reptilian Catholic priest, and the Niaruna Indians who wish to be neither converted nor killed, but who are ruinously vulnerable to both.

A great febrile brawl of a story, Mattheissen’s narrative feeds on conflict both physical and moral. To call it cartoonish would be reductive; it’s more like a strikingly drawn graphic novel, all bright sun and dark shadow. The book’s best-known image, co-opted by the 1991 film for its poster graphic, is of a lone Indian emerging from the forest to shoot an arrow at the mercenaries’ low-flying plane (scrawled on its side: Wolfie & Moon, Inc., Small Wars & Demolition). But At Play in the Fields of the Lord is full of these visual flashes. And the characters’ interiority is as swingingly action-packed as a knife fight (of which there are also several). The missionaries — two couples, one pair as beautiful as the other is homely — battle pride, lust, and crises of faith, while the mercenaries grapple with their consciences and pasts.

To all these descriptions you will want to add the word “sweaty.” Matthiessen’s characters and their moods are as defined by their perspiration as by their respective moral dilemmas: The missionary Quarrier has a “sweating tormented head,” the half-breed antihero Lewis Moon, tripping on the native hallucinogenic ayahuasca, “broke into a sweat and his hands turned cold as small bags of wet sand.” Even the landscape itself “steamed softly in the morning light, as if the earth were cooling still in some primordial gray morning.” Genesis 3:19 advises us that man’s fall has sentenced him to live by the sweat of his brow; At Play in the Fields of the Lord offers some of the many ways man can fall — and sweat. It’s how we’re designed throw off some of our body heat, sure. But you’ll be cooler for having read such a good hot story.

Elisa Gabbert, Contributing Editor

E! Entertainment by Kate Durbin (Wonder, 2014)e

An old friend of mine once worked as a “logger” for an MTV reality show; her job was to transcribe, in painstaking detail, the action in the raw footage. Kate Durbin’s literally hot-pink E! Entertainment reads like the conceptual novelization of a logger’s notes. There is no editorializing, just description (including footwear brand names, the colors of cocktails and nail polish) and faithful reproduction of “real” dialogue (that is, dialogue that really occurred on the shows, such as Mob Wives and The Hills, whether or not the scenes were staged). It’s boring, hilarious, gross, sloppy, and weirdly fascinating, just like the shows themselves. The continued popularity of reality TV reveals an uncomfortable fact: producers have figured out that cheaply made shows are still highly addictive. Durbin’s book manages to comment on that culture while still enjoying it with popcorn.

Steve Danziger, Contributing Editor

harrycrewsachildhoodHarry Crews grew up in a one-room sharecropper’s cabin in Depression-era Bacon County, Georgia. It was a place of abysmal poverty, and in A Childhood, a place of crude magic, drunken havoc, casual dismemberment, and enough mythological imagery – yellowed photos, captive blackbirds, children’s throats clogged with worms, the little boy sleepwalking in a cotton field, that same boy, paralytic, pulling himself along a fence, and later, emerging from a vat of boiling water, his skin and fingernails sliding from his hands to the ground – to fill most writers’ collected works.

“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple.” From this, a writer was born: Crews would look through a Sears catalogue and make up stories about the people inside, creatures from a strange world where everyone was whole. But still he knew “that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world.”

Crews was a prolific writer of fiction and essays, but here is his masterpiece, a portrait of the young artist emerging from a world where people seemed to survive almost in spite of themselves. He would become a man almost as outsized as the freakish characters he often created, but even his most erratic work was grounded in the lessons of Bacon County: your world takes pieces of you, and you take pieces of it, and the symbiosis of place and person makes for the tale worth telling.

Flickr photo by Paul Hocksenar