Summer Reading

THOMAS MALLON

I’ve reached a point in life where I need my glasses in order to find my glasses, which I never seem to leave in the same place twice. During the morning hunt for them, my unaided eyes pass over a haze of colors and oblongs that were once the legible spines on my bookshelves—a miscellaneous blur that seems somehow akin to the summer-reading recommendations I herewith offer. This small swirl of genres and sensibilities, five titles, is united only by my keen approval and the pleasant desire to put these books into others’ hands.

In the course of his too-brief life (192882), while struggling with debt and drugs and mental illness, Philip K. Dick published much of his startling science fiction in pulpy paperback originals. How odd—and satisfying—to see a quartet of his novels newly added to the august Library of America (Four Novels of the 1960s, $35, 830 pp.), whose Bible paper and bookmark ribbons make each volume in that series resemble a sacred text or at least a missal. The Man in the High Castle (1962), included in this new edition, is a tour de force of alternate history, inventing as it does a world in which the Germans and Japanese have won the Second World War and divided the United States into nervous spheres of influence. Dick focuses on an occupied San Francisco, whose imagined infrastructure is every bit as realized as anything in Pynchon, without the bulk and occasional self-importance [see John Garvey’s “A Real Gnostic Gospel,” Commonweal, May 4, 2007]. Particularly brilliant is the thought-language of the defeated Americans, who seem mutely to be mimicking the stilted English, shorn of certain pronouns and articles, that they’ve gotten used to hearing their conquerors speak.

Contemplating the America that actually existed around the time of Dick’s fantasy, Flannery O’Connor wrote to one of her correspondents that John F. Kennedy’s somber funeral might serve as “a salutary tonic for this back-slapping gum-chewing hiya-kid nation.” Literary figures come and go in The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22, 624 pp.), Sally Fitzgerald’s edition of O’Connor’s letters, but mostly it’s just “Me and Maw”—O’Connor and her widowed mother, Regina—on the farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, where Flannery, throughout her thirties, raises peacocks and writes her books while fighting off lupus and the deterioration of her bones. This self-described “hillbilly Thomist” views her illness with a detached bravery that the reader of her letters comes to view as a manifestation of grace. O’Connor explains her ACTH injections to the playwright Maryat Lee in 1958: “I owe my existence and cheerful countenance to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago Illinois at the Armour packing plant. If pigs wore garments I wouldn’t be worthy to kiss the hems of them.” The writer’s crustiness (“I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome”) is mostly a comic amplification of her clear-mindedness and integrity. Letter writing allows O’Connor to be herself, only more so. “In person I lack command,” she declares; but she can manage to show it “through the mail.”

Housebound though she may have been, O’Connor could project herself into the far possibilities of heaven, hell, and purgatory; it was only on earth that she couldn’t get around much. Bruce Chatwin, by contrast, trod most of the planet before his death, in 1989, at forty-eight, his most famous trip being the one he made in the mid-1970s to the southern tip of South America. Our own summertime—that region’s winter—is hardly the season for retracing his steps, but one can still accompany him in the pages of In Patagonia (Penguin Classics, $15, 240 pp.), as he searches for more of the Giant Sloth hide he remembers seeing a piece of in his grandmother’s dining-room cabinet. Once he’s more or less antipodal, Chatwin gets sidetracked by gauchos, tea-cosied British expats, and a “sect of male witches.” Like our own recollections of travel, Chatwin’s chronicle of his wanderings doesn’t always conform to literal truth or even plausibility, but his golden-haired glamour and connoisseur’s prose always keep a reader trailing after him. From his own books, and from Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, published here in 2000, Chatwin emerges as a poignant, mysterious figure, at home anywhere except inside his own skin.

My predecessor on this summer-books page, Patricia Hampl, went on to publish one of last fall’s best nonfiction books, a brief but abundant meditation on beauty and transport—in the mystic and emotional senses of the last term—called Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime (Harcourt, $22, 215 pp.). If Chatwin is freakish and opaque, Hampl is openhearted and approachable. Blue Arabesque proceeds from her life-changing youthful encounter, at the Art Institute of Chicago, with Matisse’s Woman Before an Aquarium, and though its mental and geographic narrative takes a reader to Cassis and Cairo, the book is never more exciting than when Hampl is back at home in her native St. Paul, a city she has done more for in literature than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her portrait of Doris Derman, “worldly mother of my first boyfriend,” a secretly troubled woman who introduced Hampl to the work of Katherine Mansfield, is sharp-eyed and deeply sympathetic. Whatever her flaws, Mrs. Derman remains, in a tribute paid to her by Hampl’s mother, “a serious reader,” something one can be, thanks to books like Blue Arabesque, even at the beach.

An oil painting—within a Cecil Beaton photograph—features on the cover of Frances Kiernan’s new biography, The Last Mrs. Astor (Norton, $24.95, 256 pp.). The book’s still-living subject, Brooke Russell Astor, is shown standing, a half century or so ago, before a group portrait of earlier Astor men and women. She herself came late to the name, when she was entering her fifties, after two other marriages, one happy and the other not. Following six years with Vincent Astor, she became his widow, and the story of how she spent the next four decades giving away his money is, in Kiernan’s capable hands, more interesting than most novels about great fortunes being amassed and lost. The foundation that Mrs. Astor ran, with white-gloved hands very much “on,” rendered life in New York City, from battered Bedford-Stuyvesant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, measurably more civilized. Intelligence and charm made Brooke Astor worth knowing from the start. Money made her splendid. She is now 105 years old and very frail. The needle’s eye will be opening wide to let her through.

 



MARIE PONSOT

For summer pleasure and refreshment, read poems. At play in the fields of joy you’ll find Jean Gallagher’s poems in This Minute (Fordham University Press, $18, 100 pp.) and Stubborn (Oberlin College Press, $14.95, 79 pp.). Both prize-winning books show by immediacy a full-souled sensibility of image and emotion. Gallagher’s reach is deeply contemporary. Her quick lyrics take in the given world transcendently. She sees everything.

Then there is the Irishman Paul Muldoon, leader of the dance. Wit-visored for modesty’s sake, he’s the victor in his gallant poetic tournament. Dexterous jester and jouster, Muldoon is bold, moving, and tender at will. His tenth collection, Horse Latitudes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 120 pp.), is brilliant. Note that at one crossroads of his edgy work are the poems of his rock lyrics. His rock group, Rackett, has a fine CD, Standing Room Only. Try it on.

Muldoon also has poems in a startlingly strong new anthology, Third Rail (Simon & Schuster, $12, 224 pp.), edited by Jonathan Wells and full of poems by major poets who take rock seriously, if giddily, as their subject. Among them are Edward Hirsch, Rita Dove, Philip Larkin, Billy Collins, B. H. Fairchild, and Yusef Komunyakaa. There is a foreword by Bono, the golden eminence of rock.

We need mindfulness. Tongue-tied as we are by foxy spin and sloppy e-mails, we need to go slow, one poem at a time. We need poetry’s bright, salvific language acts.

For loss, bliss, and outrage met and endured, try Lawrence Joseph’s Into It (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 80 pp.). Joseph, who lives near Ground Zero and had to be evacuated in the aftermath of 9/11, gives us our urban world anew, pressing words till they sing of both justice and mercy. He rescues us from smudge.

Try Hettie Jones, too. Her Doing 70 (Hanging Loose Press, $15, 92 pp.) is light and profound. She celebrates being a grown-up grandmother at seventy, with the young vigor of her lively mind. “To exist,” she reminds us, “is to stand forth.” You may recall her from her wonderful best-selling memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones. These tuneful poems are equally centered and engaged. She gives us ourselves, in our middle estate on middle earth, dealing with our stuff and nonsense (cars, clothes, scaffolded city streets, high skies, books, toolboxes), and learning from each other to do the best we can. I know of no other poet’s voice so at ease in welcoming the fact that we are all people of color, “looking / for bread but asking / for roses.”


 


 

RICHARD COHEN

It is hard to think of any reader of this magazine who would not enjoy N. John Hall’s memoir Belief (Frederic C. Beil, $24.95, 256 pp), yet be warned: it is the story of how a man not only left the priesthood but went on to lose his faith completely.

Jack Hall is one of the world’s foremost scholars on Anthony Trollope and Max Beerbohm: his biography of Trollope was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Born in 1933 into a nonbookish but staunchly Roman Catholic family (his mother, half German, had Bavarian Catholic roots), he describes himself as a “good Catholic boy” who studied at Seton Hall and thereafter at Darlington, referred to by his father as “God’s West Point” and known to its inmates as “The Rock.” Ordained in 1959, Hall served as a parish priest at three northern New Jersey parishes, but throughout was struggling with his faith. After a life-changing (though remarkably innocent) holiday in Spain in 1965, he knew that he was on his way out of the priesthood. Leaving the church came soon after.

Hall calls himself “a contented and cheerful nonbeliever,” and his memoir is, at one level, an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual account of how he reached his present atheism and of “the phenomenon of the will to believe.” What makes his account so readable is the quality of the writing: at turns convincingly honest, intellectually consequent, and unexpectedly funny, Belief is at its best recreating the world of 1950s American Catholicism, painting dozens of memorable portraits of the self-assured, well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) priests who held the line in the years before Vatican II. Hall eventually fell in love with a beautiful Ukrainian from New Jersey, and while still a priest asked her to be his wife. “She sat up, smiled, and clapped her hands just once.” Of his two spiritual advisers, one wrote to say Hall had “betrayed the only woman in my life, Mary, the mother of Jesus.” The other sent him a check for $200.

Hall and his wife for the next thirty-eight years (she died of leukemia in 2003) were married three times: once to satisfy the law; a second time at the Episcopal church in Greenwich Village, in a ceremony attended by their friends; and a year later in a Catholic ceremony, after Hall’s dispensation came through, so that they could be validly married “in the eyes of the church.”

None of the Halls’ celebrations seems on the same planet as those described in Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding (Penguin, $25.95, 256 pp.). In prepublication reviews, Mead’s first book has been likened to Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé of the funeral business, The American Way of Death, and certainly the greed, paranoia, and manic extravagance of the two industries are similar.

The first edition of Mitford’s book sold out in a single day and led to new laws to protect consumers. Mead, like Mitford, is English by birth and, as she admits, halfway through writing her book she herself got married. Her tone is more innocent and less angry than Mitford’s; not surprisingly for a staffer at the New Yorker, she writes with grace and is a sympathetic companion.

The figures she quotes for what Americans spend on weddings every year, feeding a multi-billion-dollar industry, are truly depressing, but even more so is the soullessness of what has become an exercise in consumerism. “What,” Mead finally asks, “was the point of expending all this time, effort, imagination, and money? What was the wedding for?” The brides she talks with evidently haven’t considered that question much. “They had become accustomed to thinking about the event in terms of floral decisions or styles of photography, with the larger purpose of the wedding a distraction.” Reader, be warned again: This is a horror story.

Mead’s husband George Prochnik has also just produced his first book, Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology (Other Press, $29.95, 480 pp.). Putnam (18361918) was a Boston patrician and an eminent American psychologist who became a friend and patient of Freud’s. When the great Viennese made his one visit to America in 1909, he joined Putnam and his family at their retreat in the Adirondacks, and thereafter the two men struck up a fruitful collaboration. Prochnik is Putnam’s great grandson, and makes good use of a wealth of previously private material not only to create a rich account of one particular family’s life but also to illustrate how psychoanalysis came to America and, to some degree, conquered it. As his boat first reached the East River, Freud turned to his companions (one of whom was Jung) and asked, “Don’t they know we are bringing them the plague?”

Prochnik’s opening sentence to his lively study is also a question: “Would Sigmund Freud have been able to make sense of America today?” He ends his book on an elegiac note: “The uncanny sadness of the American suburbs resembles a landscape from which a plague has receded without being reclaimed by any secondary tide of creation.” Mr. and Mrs. Prochnik, one feels, are mapping remarkably similar territory: just a hundred years apart.


 


 

MARY MARGARET C. NUSSBAUM

Often, the best new books are old. Patrick Hamilton’s recently reprinted novel The Slaves of Solitude (New York Review Books Classics, $14.95, 272 pp.) is set in London during the Blitz—a blacked, hunkering place where strangers collide on unlit evening streets. “The earth was muffled from the stars; the rivers and the pretty eighteenth-century bridge were muffled from the people; the people were muffled from each other. This was war late in 1943.”

The fronts in this story are domestic. As in Jane Austen’s novels, manners are a matter of morals, and the manners of the lonely residents of the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where much of the story takes place, are suffering fatigue. There is thirty-nine-year-old Miss Roach, our heroine, who was bombed out of London and now lives in the dreary boarding house where an “orgy of ennui” overcomes the lounge. Like her housemates, she knows the war—a slaughtering elsewhere—through rumors and privations. There are the newsreels before movies, and whisky is “off.” A lieutenant—one of a new population of men in boots—snags her heart in his “gorgeous American teeth.” The house is also a school, where a greeting on the stairs can have the weight of nuclear diplomacy. Here the antidote to war isn’t peace; it’s civility. And the antidote to a “dead-and-alive” existence isn’t safety; Roach is led back under bombs and into a theater—there a fairy defeats the monster.

Hamilton’s is an old-modern world (“make love” means woo), rendered in witty, buttoned-up prose. Though he was a lauded contemporary of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Hamilton’s work (save onscreen in Gaslight and Rope) is now mostly forgotten. The Slaves of Solitude is a wonderful reintroduction.

We enter our own world, distorted but made clear, in George Saunders’s brilliant In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead Books, $14, 240 pp.). In one of the first stories, a grandfather takes his beloved, flamboyant grandson to Broadway for a show. Their shoes are equipped with “Everly strips” that project interactive ads based on their “personal preferences.” The grandfather greets an electronics-hawking hologram of Gene Kelly, while the grandson is chastised for not owning a Nintendo. Ever since the Korean War, the grandfather’s feet have bled spontaneously. When he takes off his shoes, he and his grandson become unpatriotic outlaws. In this story and throughout In Persuasion Nation, what is at stake is the real and the human. We’ve elected to become cyborgs. Our myths are those of the market, set in places like the Mexicany land of Doritos, where omniscient, godlike narration emanates from a voiceover. Some readers have mistaken Saunders, a master of tenderness, for a cynic, but he asks our age: “Was selling what all this suffering was about?” Like Flannery O’Connor, he creates comic grotesques so that we might see.

“Ah, who can love the worker of her smart?” asks Ashley Capps in her debut poetry collection, Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields (University of Akron Press, $14.95, 69 pp.). That worker, who is both lord and lover, creates through a coffin birth, and then absconds, rendering a soul into a self who still traces the scab, telling her heart, “there / has been no incident.”

In the hunger that lingers, we “softer chemicals” are like the sailors in Capps’s title who mistake the sea for green fields and leap to their death, rejoicing. In her acutely and achingly observed world, the wings of the dead are broken and stuck with needles, and the living get tarantulas tattooed in the hollow of hacked-off breasts. For Capps, it is left to the mess of afterbirth—stars like sutures, groceries softening in their bags, an ant lifting a toenail clipping like a sail—to signify the sublime. “Here, it’s dusk,” she writes. “Big trucks grope the road / and carry the mystery somewhere else.”

The poet’s questions will not be answered, but they are urged toward consolation. “We are human and alone,” Capps writes, but a door opens; and a stranger gives welcome. “It’s been / a disaster,” he says, “without you.”

Capps’s language is clear and, though confessional, public. Other poets displace our words and make them strange—as S. A. Stepanek does in Three, Breathing (Wave Books, $14, 104 pp.). If Capps is haunted by an absence, Stepanek is haunted by a presence. Three, Breathing—dedicated, like Bach’s compositions, to the glory of God—is one continuous praying poem. It is a strange book, but one I recommend for the wildness it attempts. Like Augustine in his Confessions, Stepanek is facing away from the reader toward her love. She moves by anaphora, writing, “I am ashamed before the...” “I mourn...” “I run....” Each refrain enforces proportion: the speaker is small; the That that is all else is great and encompassing. Like Christopher Smart in Jubilate Agno, Stepanek is rapt, and like Whitman, she must catalog everything. In constract to these writers, Stepanek’s love is not in flesh but in air. Thus her motifs (delta, garage, dash, chair) accrue meanings that suggest her interior life more than our common life. Three, Breathing demands to be read either very quickly, in an ecstatic exhalation, or very slowly. This is not poetry to parse, but poetry to let wash over one, like sleep, or song.


Read more: Summer Reading recommendations from 2008, 2009, and 2010

Published in the 2007-06-15 issue: 
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Thomas Mallon is the author of seven novels, including the recently published Fellow Travelers (Pantheon).

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