Summer Reading

Patricia Hampl

The memoir, always vulnerable to a gut-punch (too self-indulgent, too self-absorbed), has taken some extra licks lately. The James Frey fray, in particular, has occasioned much schadenfreudery in literary and not-so-literary circles, as the not-so-bad-as-he’d-like-to-be author of A Million Little Pieces has been outed as a fictionist, more wild in fantasy than in the life he alleged to be his own.

When a novel is bad, we toss it aside and search for another. But a bad memoir seems to call the whole genre into question, as if autobiography were, by definition, a doubtful enterprise. It is soggy with ethical ambiguity-what life, turned into “story,” also remains resolutely “nonfiction”? And while we’re at it, what exactly is “nonfiction”? As someone once said, memoir is really nonpoetry.

Yet the first-person voice has a valor-by turns tender and brash-that captivates. And it’s that clarion voice that tells the truth, conveying not simply a story but a mind trying to make sense of experience. The best memoirs-I want to say the most honorable ones-are really extended personal essays, books that attempt to sort out the lost loves of history, place, and childhood from the honest, if mystified, remove of a pondering adulthood.

Lynn Freed’s collection of personal essays, Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home (Harcourt, $22, 256 pp.), is the best book about becoming and being a writer to appear in too long. It’s also hilarious-when it isn’t being tartly wise and heartbreakingly vivid about her South African girlhood. In fact, that is one of Freed’s greatest gifts-the ability to be irreverent in our tediously pious times, without becoming either brittle or arch. Her humor turns on a dime into serious insight. And nobody has written as fearlessly (or mordantly) about the teaching of creative writing in American universities, a cultural subset that requires her acute eye. Nor has anyone made the writing life the adventure she does in these trenchant pieces that form a memoir of a life immersed in literature. Freed writes like an angel-a devilishly smart one.

One of the oddities of a good autobiography is that its success is often predicated on its ability to use the self not as a subject but as an instrument to illuminate the greater world. Where would our sense of life in the Stalinist Soviet Union be without the valiant memoirs by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned? How could white America begin to understand black America without The Autobiography of Malcolm X? We count such personal books as history, and we need them as cultural guides.

This is strikingly so for more recent memoirs that have emerged from the AIDS pandemic. Fenton Johnson’s Geography of the Heart (Scribner, $16.95, 240 pp.) is a powerful testament to love (the book follows the illness and death of his partner Larry Rose), but it is also a fascinating story of his Kentucky boyhood in a big Catholic family. Their property abutted Gethsemani monastery, Thomas Merton’s Trappist community, whose monks Johnson’s family befriended. Larry Rose, on the other hand, was the beloved only child of Holocaust survivors making a modest good life in sunny Southern California. Any such memoir is also bound to be a coming-out story, but Johnson’s book transcends even that cultural inevitability. His is, among other things, a classic American story of the kid from the sticks with dreams of the great world and great accomplishments (like Lynn Freed’s, his is a writer’s story). And finally it is an elegy and a pledge to the future, as the best memoirs must be.

It is significant that the word contemporary literary culture has instinctively chosen for such coming-of-age books is “memoir” and not “autobiography.” In spite of all the wrist-slapping about the egotism of writing about oneself, these books are not “self-life writing” (autobiography) but really attempts to capture the truth of memory, its bewitching vivacity caught in the web of time past. So that finally memoir is attached more profoundly to history than it is to psychology. We see this especially in books that come from experiences of “radical suffering,” as Terrence Des Pres in The Survivor described memoirs of the Holocaust and the Gulag.

This is true for all those magnetized by history, maybe especially those who have no story of their own but feel the traces in their family, almost in their genetic code. Annette Kobak’s memoir, Joe’s War: My Father Decoded (Vintage, $16, 464 pp.) is a mesmerizing account of an English daughter’s determined sleuthing of her father’s Mitteleuropa past through the cauldron of midcentury European history. The personal story is a page-turner, but at least as compelling is Kobak’s exacting research and re-creation of political history. This is memoir at its finest, in the service of understanding, the small lens of self and family opening brilliantly to the elusive lost world of our common history.

Patricia Hampl’s new book, Blue Arabesque: In Search of the Sublime, will be published by Harcourt this fall.

Lauretta O’Connor

Does “guilty pleasure” describe your idea of summer reading? If so, you may enjoy The Bishop in the Old Neighborhood (Forge, $24.95, 304 pp.), the latest in Andrew Greeley’s Bishop “Blackie” Ryan series. Blissfully full of every ethnic cliché from the urban Catholic past, the novel even has a truly tacky quasi-sex scene; and with the discovery of three mutilated bodies in the sanctuary of St. Lucy’s Church, it becomes a well-wrought police procedural. Greeley’s charm lies in his affection for people-Captain Huong, the tough-talking female police commander, half Mom, half Mao, is particularly entertaining-and for the City of Chicago. His novel abounds in humor, high spirits, and the certitude that life is good and God is great.

Don Bredes’s The Fifth Season (Three Rivers Press, $12, 312 pp.) lures us from Chicago to another notorious hotbed of murder and mayhem-Tipton, Vermont. Hector Bellevance is that staple of crime fiction, a disgraced cop (from Boston this time) quietly reconstructing his life in a small town. A decent man, handsome, with a good sense of humor and a bountiful vegetable garden: who could ask for anything more? (Many women, apparently, as his love life is erratic.) But Bellevance must abandon horticulture and return to sleuthing when a town father apparently commits two murders and vanishes into the woods. Bredes weaves a tangled, bloody, and exciting tale, the writing is terrific, and I absolutely loved it.

To round out this trio of mysteries, I would recommend Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water (Viking Books, $19.95, 224 pp.), a darkly humorous tale of ambition, betrayal, and greed under the hot Sicilian sun. Camilleri gives us the sleuth as sensualist. Where else but in an Italian murder mystery would the inspector pause to consume-or prepare-spaghetti with garlic and oil; fried red mullet; shrimp with lemon and garlic; even tender baby octopus? Pity the detectives in English mysteries, poor chaps, always grabbing a stale cheese sandwich and Nescafé. Yes, Salvatore Montalbano, the Sicilian police inspector-hero of Camilleri’s novels, has it pretty nice. He is chef, moral philosopher, and lover of the beautiful Livia; he’s a fearless, honest, and compassionate man with a palate every bit as subtle as his understanding of the world. As we watch him uncover the truth behind the death of a local politician, Camilleri envelops us in the scent and heat of Sicily, redolent of the sun, sea, and olive trees Montalbano loves. The Shape of Water serves up corruption and despair, honesty, and dignity, and an earthy relish for life, seasoned with a touch of bitter fatalism. It’s a tasty treat.

I laughed my way through The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs (Anchor Books, $9.95, 128 pp.), another small treasure from the eclectic Alexander McCall Smith, whose work includes best-selling mysteries, short-story collections, and children’s books. This amusing novel is the second in a trilogy starring Professor Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, author of the definitive tome on Portuguese irregular verbs and the most pompous scholar at the (German) Institute for Romance Philology. In a mistaken-identity plot whose zaniness defies summary, our hero, confused with a similarly named veterinarian, finds himself lecturing to hog and chicken farmers at the University of Arkansas, and later performing notably unsuccessful surgery on a dachshund. Mortified, he flees to Rome, where he has coffee with the pope and ends up being chased by a group of Coptic schismatics trying to steal the bones of St. Nicholas of Myra from their Patriarch, as a bevy of aggressively marriage-minded German widows keeps the pot aboil. Got all that? Just another day in the life of your typical philologist.

For a day in the life of your typical star defense lawyer, you can consult Edward Hayes’s vastly entertaining autobiography, Mouthpiece (Broadway Books, $24.95, 286 pp.). Hayes recounts unpromising New York roots: his childhood in a tough Irish section of Queens; his abusive, alcoholic dad; his saintly, long-suffering mother. Yet Eddie prevails. By dint of brains, hard work, ambition, gall, chutzpah, and street smarts, he climbs the ladder to Assistant D.A. in the Bronx, and onward to a lucrative private law practice. Curious by nature, an astute observer of the human comedy, Hayes is a fastidious dresser with a low-life vocabulary, a devout Catholic with a high tolerance for sleaze, a tough guy who still calls his mother “Mommy.” Sound like a character from a novel? Indeed. Hayes served as the model for Tommy Killian, the tough, fast-talking Irish lawyer in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. His account of his own rise to fame repeatedly violates that old caution, “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back,” and it’s fun watching him flail away. In the glow of newfound celebrity, Hayes rubs shoulders with Rudy Giuliani, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and Robert De Niro; marries a gorgeous super-model and becomes the lawyer for Andy Warhol’s estate; is driven into bankruptcy by double-dealing high-end thugs, but triumphs in the end. What a guy! Eddie doesn’t need the money, but buy this book anyway. You’ll love it.

If by now you’ve had your fill of light summer reading, you might turn to another memoir, Marian Fontana’s A Widow’s Walk: A Memoir of 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, $24, 422 pp.). Fontana, widow of a firefighter killed in the World Trade Center, writes movingly about love, loss, survival, and hope, documenting those dread days with remarkable candor and detail. The Fontanas were a close couple, loving parents of a young son, whose life together was destroyed on September 11-cruelly, their eighth wedding anniversary. Fontana, who became an activist on behalf of the survivors, captures not only the shock and disbelief of the first hours but also the emotional roller coaster that followed: the agonizing search for bodies, the endless funerals and political infighting, the clinging solidarity of survivors-and beneath it all, the “pain that runs deep and organic, to the center of the earth.”

Finally, in Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (Penguin Books, $14, 308 pp.), Geraldine Brooks, the Australian writer whose novel, March, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize, transports us to a Hobbes¬ian world where life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short-a seventeenth-century English village, besieged by bubonic plague, whose residents quarantine themselves from the world in order to halt the spread of a disease they see as a mark of God’s wrath. Loosely based on historical fact, the novel is sustained by the heart and moral strength of its narrator, Anna Frith. After the deaths of her husband and two small children, Anna enters into a complex and richly drawn relationship with Michael and Elinor Mompellion, a charismatic pastor and his gentle wife. The three support one another in trying to quell the fear aroused by the relentless death surrounding them. Brooks’s writing is inspired, her evocation of that long-ago world powerful and real. The redemptive ending she gives Anna’s journey may seem improbable, but by novel’s close, you care so much for Anna that you want it to be true.

Lauretta O’Connor, a former Commonweal office manager, lives in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Bridget Kelly

In the summer, spending more time outdoors-and shuffling reluctantly to work in more whimsical attire-we bubble with schemes for new hobbies, new explorations, new selves. But at the same time, the heat makes us sluggish, loath to do anything more than laze about in the sunshine. What better way to kick-start our summer renewal than to read about three people-two real and one fictional-who engaged an unexplored part of themselves and gained much more than they could have imagined.

Stefan Fatsis was considered “a good living-room player” when he began his quest to become a competitive Scrabble gamesman. In Word Freak (Penguin, $15, 384 pp.), Fatsis uses the tools of a journalist to weave seamlessly together three narrative threads: a history of the renowned board game, his own journey to the top of the field, and the bizarre culture of competitive Scrabble. His character sketches of competitors, such as Matt Graham, who pops scads of vitamins to keep his mind in shape, and a gastro-intestinally challenged man nicknamed GI Joel, are compelling as only portraits of the obsessed can be. Fatsis soon joins their ranks: one day, he realizes with shock that Scrabble has become the most important thing in his life.

From the incredible level of detail Fatsis provides, it is easy to understand why. Reading about the speedy volley of anagrams that takes place between players at meals is like watching a pro sporting event. While the knowledge that players exhibit may intimidate rather than inspire, portions of word lists and the occasional board diagram-printed in the book-provide insight into Fatsis’s efforts to become a Scrabble champ. Of more universal appeal is how this absorbing account speaks to the nature of passion-and addiction. Peering in on lives dominated by a board game, to the detriment of all else, prompts crucial questions: Should we feed or starve our obsessions? What draws us to our interests, what drives us to excel? Be prepared to dust off your Scrabble board-or badminton set, or tae kwon do belt-and look at it with a new sense of awe. Or fear.

Julie Powell, author of Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (Little, Brown, $23.95, 320 pp.), committed to a project that was more messy and more solitary than mastering a board game, but no less ambitious. On the cusp of thirty, Powell realizes that she always intended to become an actress, but actually has become a secretary. Her husband proposes cooking school as a panacea, but Julie comes up with a crazier, more cost-effective challenge. The novel, which grew out of a blog, details her attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This fast but touching read illuminates in bracingly frank language such essentials as chopping bones for their marrow (hint: ask the butcher), dealing with maggots growing under the dish rack, and inducing friends to eat multiple gelatin-based dishes. Since Powell identifies strongly with Child, who began cooking seriously at thirty-seven, the writer spices the narrative with whimsical passages that depict Julia Child’s home life.

Powell’s position at a federal agency dealing with the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center anchors the book historically and balances the levity with a subdued seriousness. It also suggests an implicit parallel between Powell’s transformative journey and New Yorkers’ continued efforts to rebuild their lives after September 11. Julie & Julia provides ample evidence that shaking up our lives is possible-if we’re bold enough to give it a try.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (Riverhead Trade, $14, 400 pp.) is the fictional story of a man who looks to his past to transform his present self. During Amir’s twenty-year absence from his childhood home, Afghanistan, he has harbored guilt over his treatment of his boyhood friend Hassan. When Amir learns that Hassan and his wife have been murdered by the Taliban, he returns in search of answers to the conflicts of his past-and to locate Hassan’s only son.

The Kite Runner is made more compelling by the complex characters Hosseini brings to life. They have an immediacy that lends the novel the sheen of memoir. While The Kite Runner has the pace of a thriller, the reader who struggles to slow down enough to savor Hosseini’s exquisite writing will be rewarded.

Much of the novel’s appeal lies in its depiction of a place much in the news, but in personal detail foreign to most Americans. Hosseini, building on his own memories of Kabul, leads us up and down the streets, with Amir the perfect guide. Amir’s journey to explore his past also provides a framework for readers to consider their own histories. While the vivid descriptions of cruelty and violence are disturbing, Amir’s unswerving look at these tough moments inspire us to tackle our own ugly regrets. To match the lightness of summer, we need the reminder Amir receives from a friend: “There is a way to be good again.”

If you’re in the mood to further explore this genre, there’s quite a selection, from a book on dating literally everyone who asks you out (Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Year of Yes) to a book on buying only the essentials (Judith Levine’s Not Buying It). But once you have soaked up the intense experiences of others, take a moment to brainstorm a personal challenge. I’ve already got mine: completing a triathlon. Most likely it will be the least demanding triathlon in the tristate area, but I will be working toward a great story of my own.

Bridget Kelly is a New York writer and former editor of the Yale Daily News.

Tanya Avakian

For those looking to expand their reading horizons this summer, I cannot recommend too highly the late Octavia E. Butler, who died last spring at her home in Seattle following an accidental fall. Her works are usually categorized as science fiction. Yet Butler, an African-American and a feminist of quiet determination, defied formulaic sci-fi while exploiting the freedom of the genre to take her usually female and nonwhite characters to places where mainstream fiction would tend to deny them. Kindred (Beacon Press, $14, 287 pp.), for instance, uses the convention of time travel to send its African-American heroine journeying to the antebellum South, where she experiences slavery firsthand. Parable of the Sower (Aspect, $6.99, 304 pp.) takes us to a believable dystopian Los Angeles as experienced by a literal empath, a woman for whom others’ pain is experienced physically. One of Butler’s last books was Fledgling (Seven Stories, $24.95, 352 pp.), an extraordinary vampire story that takes us beyond cliché to empathize with a race of alien beings that must feed on others’ lives to survive. These are a few of my favorites. But all of Butler’s work deserves to be read and reread often enough to help fill the gap left to us by her premature death.

Another great African-American author has been lost to us prematurely in recent years-poet June Jordan, who died in 2002 of breast cancer. Her brilliant poetry was published intermittently over the decades, in small collections that lent themselves to being showcased in mainstream media as the work of a “topical” or “activist” author. The full span of this writer’s genius can now be appreciated with the republication of nearly all her poetry in one beautiful edition, Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Copper Canyon Press, $40, 660 pp.). Though the activist impulse remains visible throughout, Jordan’s work in its complete form is certainly not narrowly rhetorical in its focus-certainly no more so than that, say, of the Cavalier poets of the seventeenth century, or of any other population subject to urgent political pressure. Far from being doctrinaire, to my mind Jordan’s poetry presents an accomplishment of the highest order.

Science fiction and poetry do not, at first glance, appear to have much in common with murder mysteries, but it gives me pleasure to recommend the Robin Light series by Barbara Block, beginning with Chutes and Adders (Kensington, 296 pp., out of print but available secondhand online) and continuing currently with Salt City Blues (Severn, $28.95, 263 pp.). Block’s heroine is, like the author herself, a Manhattanite transplanted to Syracuse, New York. But there the outward resemblances end; Robin Light runs a pet shop and works as an amateur private detective. Though Light is an agreeable heroine, with a chilling sense of humor and an acerbic compassion for her fellow human beings, the central character of Block’s novels is Syracuse itself. The strange upstate city with its grim weather, decaying neighborhoods, omnipresent university, and multiethnic population is rendered as deftly and as potently as William Kennedy’s Albany-a richly detailed setting that will be seductive even to those readers who are not devotees of mysteries. It’s only gravy that the mysteries are fun and sometimes eerie, with a supporting cast of feckless urban teens and other Salt City types, and an inevitable pet-related twist.

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s As the Crow Flies (HarperPerennial, $14.95, 848 pp.) is also a mystery, but at the opposite end of the scale in tone. It is more researched than many straight historical novels, though the action takes place only some forty years ago. The plot follows parallel tracks involving the murder of a grade schooler and high derring-do between British, Nazi, and American agents, on the one hand, and a young girl’s coming of age amid parental betrayal and sexual abuse, on the other. Like the author, Madeleine grew up on army bases around the Western hemisphere, and like many autobiographical stand-ins for their creators, this heroine becomes another kind of artist. She does not, however, become a painter or a musician: she becomes a standup comedienne (with Bugs Bunny as her heroine), and manages to solve the mystery while making her own journey toward healing and forgiveness. Though the plot occasionally overreaches, the writing is so engaging and Madeleine herself such a sympathetic protagonist that the reader is all but guaranteed to race to the book’s end.

Tanya Avakian, a librarian, lives in Delaware.

Lucy Madison

As a child raised by a family of beach-lovers and bookworms, I spent my adolescent summers sprawled on the shores of North Carolina, frying my freckled skin while plowing through the stack of books my parents treated me to at the season’s start. Of course, as I got older the need to work eventually took its toll on my languorous summer ritual; and these days, as something of an adult, I rarely enjoy even a weeklong trip to the beach. Nevertheless, I still savor the summer as the time of the year when good books were meant to be read. So here are three I recommend to anyone facing a long afternoon at the beach-or a long subway commute to work.

On Beauty (Penguin Press, $25.95, 464 pp.), Zadie Smith’s latest comedy of cultural-political errors, should qualify for anyone’s summer reading list. Smith’s celebrated debut novel, White Teeth, dazzled critics with its Dickensian exploration of the teeming life of immigrant London; and in On Beauty (longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize), she shows us she can do America, too. The novel studies the Belseys of Massachusetts, a multiracial, multicultural family of five: Howard, a hyper-intellectual British professor; his wife, Kiki, a kindly but unintellectual African-American homemaker; and their three children, who embrace an array of enthusiasms ranging from Christianity to political radicalism to hip-hop. Set in an elite university town outside Boston, the book explores the complex web of relationships that results when the Belseys’ lives become intertwined with those of Howard’s colleague and rival, Monty Kipps, and his family.

As in White Teeth, Smith has a tendency to catapult her readers through plot twists and turns at breakneck speed, yet, beneath the chaotic storytelling lie keen cultural observations and commentary. Her prose alternates effortlessly between hilarity and heartbreak, and she is deft enough to satirize the over-intellectualized world of an elite college campus even as she explores the intricacies of biracial consciousness within it. Despite a sometimes excessive ambition with regard to cultural coverage, Smith manages to tackle any number of subjects with surprising depth while giving a large and complex cast of characters their due. All this in a quick, funny, energetic read.

If On Beauty hurtles readers through a plot of Dickensian intricacy, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica (Pantheon, $23, 240 pp.) does almost exactly the opposite. The novel examines, with intense close focus, the friendship between Alison, a young model, and Veronica, the eccentric, occasionally caustic older woman she meets while temping at an ad agency in Manhattan. Gaitskill weaves her story through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in flashbacks and memories, from Paris and New York to New Jersey and finally San Francisco. By the time we meet her, Alison is middle-aged, sick, and destitute. Living alone, cleaning offices for cash, she often thinks of the past, and tries desperately to reconcile the powerful nostalgia she feels for her former life with the bitter state to which it has led her. The attempt takes her back in her mind to Veronica, who has since died of AIDS, and culminates in a belated and significant movement of understanding.

Gaitskill is the author of three previous books, including a highly praised collection of stories, Bad Behavior, many about young women caught in frank and sometimes bitter sexual dilemmas. What makes Veronica so compelling is the voice she brings to Alison, and the complexity of the characters she creates. There are neither heroes nor villains in Gaitskill’s fiction, but flawed characters trying to make sense of the mixed beauty and ugliness they see in the world and in themselves. Veronica could easily have become preachy, trite, or both, but Gaitskill’s starkly precise prose hews to an unapologetic, bruising honesty. Through the lens of a complicated friendship she examines memory and time, beauty and cruelty, sickness and vanity. And then she shuts up, and lets her readers do the rest. The result is maybe her best work yet.

Finally, there is Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners (Harvest Books, $14, 320 pp.), a book of short stories so tasty I could savor it all summer long. Link can be both hysterically funny and darkly, dreamily sad-sometimes within the space of one perfect sentence. This wonderfully strange compilation mixes elements of fairy tale and science fiction, folktale and fantasy, borrowing from alternate worlds in order to express the essence of everyday suburban struggles. In “The Faery Handbag,” a teenage girl loses her greatest love to the fairy-tale otherland of her grandmother’s history; in “The Hortlak,” two lonely drugstore clerks confront the zombies that wander their neon-lit aisles in the middle of the night. “Stone Animals” tells of a husband and wife who move to a big house in the country, only to realize that everything they own is becoming haunted.

Despite the magical sparkle, these stories are not actually about magic at all. Rather, they are fairy tales of marriage, love, and loneliness that Link endows with the rare quality of a dream you’re not quite sure you actually had. Her originality as a writer and storyteller will have you so entranced that, by the end, she might have you believing-just the tiniest little bit-in magic. And isn’t that, after all, what summer is really all about?

Lucy Madison, formerly Commonweal’s editorial assistant, is now assistant to the editor of Teen Vogue.

Published in the 2006-06-16 issue: 

Lucy Madison, formerly Commonweal’s editorial assistant, is now assistant to the editor of Teen Vogue.

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