Saturday, July 9, 2011

4 Great Books For Summer

"We kept our friends at bay all Summer long,
treated the days as though they'd kill us if they could.
Wringing out the hours like blood-drenched bedsheets."
--The Mountain Goats, "Dinu Lipatti's Bones"

I've never understood people who say that summer is a time for easy reading. In large part, this is a consequence of being (until now) in school-- I have much more time and ability to tackle, say Ulysses in the middle of summer than I do in November (project this summer: a ton of Cormac McCarthy). And I don't read at the beach-- if I have to be outside during 105-degree Southern heat I am going to be underwater.

So these books will not necessarily be easy or light reads. But they will be reads that you should tackle in the next few months, before the heat breaks, while you're huddled inside whatever you can find with air conditioning, because these are books for which summer, heat, light, and the long slow days are going to feel beautiful and perfect. Books that will make you grateful for summer being here, even though, again, 105 degrees. Jesus, sometimes I wonder if I hate the South. Which leads us toooooo....

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Summer Type: Deep South
Summer Drink Recommendation: Mint Juleps. Like, just start around three and stop when you run out of bourbon.

This is a book that captures the hot, wet, Southern summer in absolute perfection. The overall frame story is Quentin Compson (the weepy sisterbanger of The Sound and the Fury) learning the history local legend Thomas Sutpen in his last summer at home before going to Boston (where, Faulkner enthusiasts know, he totally goes insane and kills himself).
The whole story unspools-- and is retold by a biased eyewitness, someone whose father was there, and two college roommates who are trying to make up a narrative that makes sense --in language that can best be described as sweaty. The book is dense and hot and tiring, containing the longest grammatically-correct sentence in the English language and constantly sprawling and spilling over the page. You can feel the heat and the oppressive humidity, from the way that the smell of the wisteria blossoms looms over the narrative to the languorous, dusty way that the novel opens:
"From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that-- a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers, because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which...became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes... ."
"I had a choice between making sentences shorter than a page or making moonshine out of my extra ink ribbon. I chose wisely."
 If you've ever spent a summer south of Virginia-- particularly in swampland --you'll know that feeling you're getting right now. It's the kind that makes you want to shut all the windows and fill your freezer with booze. It's the feeling that Faulkner lived every second of his life in, because works like this embody that dripping Mississippi heat like nothing else (and he was a chronic alcoholic).

Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion
Summer Type: Southern California
Summer Drink Recommendation: Ice-Cold Gin Martini, garnished with a Valium tablet

Play it as it Lays has the misfortune of being a pioneer in a genre that has held a lot utter shit: emotional stories of rich, mistreated housewives having emotional breakdowns. However, it's absolutely not to be compared with Lifetime movies or anything with Julia Roberts in it, because those don't have their main character coerced into an illegal abortion, cut off from the world by her divorce, attempting to arouse herself from her deadened stupor through meaningless sex, and being partially responsible for the suicide of their lover. Because those stories aren't written by Joan Didion.
"Oops, did I say something soul-crushing?"
Throughout Play it as it Lays you're essentially watching someone collapse in slow motion, all set against the background throb of a Los Angeles summer. One of the opening scenes-- in which Maria, the protagonist, is sleeping outside because she can't bear to sleep in the house that she shared with her husband, trying to convince herself that she's only sleeping by the pool because she's waiting for the heat to break --marks the first of a few times in the book you will probably cry a little bit at a scene that's ostensibly about the weather.

The whole book has, in so many of its scenes, Maria claiming she's doing something to escape the heat (drinking a ton, driving aimlessly through the desert for hours, focusing on the rattling of the air conditioner during an unspeakably traumatic scene), not fooling herself or the reader into thinking that the summer's what she's really running away from. It's an incredible portrait of post-60's America and the way that women were casually destroyed by normal domesticity, and that core bit of meteorology-- a city built in the middle of the desert and then filled with ice and air conditioning --is such a perfect metaphor for the delusion and denial that culture was built on.

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson
Summer Type: Tropical
Summer Drink Recommendation: Cuba Libres, starting at 9 in the morning.

This is really only quasi-fiction, as it draws very heavily from Thompson's own experiences and has a lot of autobiography to it. Then again, Thompson was only quasi-human, so there are a lot of better reasons to leave him off the list.
I'm leaning towards either a colony of scarabs in a hollow human suit or an incredibly complex practical joke by Richard Nixon.
The story is that of a young, aspiring journalist-- let's call him Punter X. Johnson --who goes down to San Juan, Puerto Rico because, and I quote:
"It was a pleasant place to drink, especially in the mornings when the sun was still cool and the salt mist came up from the ocean to give the air a crisp, healthy smell that for a few early hours would hold its own against the steaming, sweating heat that clamps San Juan at noon and remains until long after sundown."
 The novel is essentially a war between the forces of booze and heat, with the main characters trying to stay sober enough they remain human-- but only barely. After a while, the central plot (while, in the background, vastly more important things occur) becomes their drunken quest for ice. It's sweltering and angry, and it's incredible seeing a Thompson in his early 20's form the style and energy that would go on to define his work. Plus, it's as great an excuse for being in a perpetual haze of cold drinks for most of the summer-- it's not a problem, it's just so you can get into the minds of the characters!
"Relax -- This won't hurt."

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe
 Summer Type: Desert, possibly metaphysical
Summer Drink Recommendation: Lots and lots of cold, cold water.

I know a lot of my readers are probably Haruki Murakami fans. I know I am. If you are, the you need to read this book, which is the reason that "Japanese Magical Realism" is even a genre.

It's the story of a boring, suburbanite bug collector (Junpei), trapped by a woman at the bottom of a pit in the middle of a desert, where it becomes his duty to shovel sand constantly. The novel's incredibly distant and ambiguous as to how sympathetic we should feel for him-- as to whether it's so evil to force him to shovel the constantly-advancing sand to save a tiny desert village, when his life in the city forced him to do essentially the same thing. And as to whether the hope he feels-- and the attachment to the village that comes with it-- is Junpei growing and accepting that other people need him, or being broken Winston-Smith-style. It's pretty existential. It's kinda dark.
Just a little.
(Images from the really, really great film adaptation).
The detail and the setting are incredible and intense. You're going to feel sweaty and gritty by the time you get about three chapters in, and you're going to be incredibly thirsty from about page three. Don't read it at the beach, for the love of God, or you will want to start scrubbing yourself to the bone. The novel nails the oppressiveness  of the whole situation perfectly. The sand, the thirst, and the heat are a constant presence in the book, to the point that it will make you grateful that at least your summer isn't a perpetual, inescapable presence (and possible metaphor for capitalism).

And then there are the sex scenes, which are among the most unsettling in literature. Not just because a couple of them are a little, well... rape-y. Also because  they are gritty and sticky and sweaty and, well, covered in sand.
Um... spoiler alert, I guess. For those of you who thought that "man and woman trapped in the bottom of a pit" wasn't going to involve this.

(Next time: my thoughts on McCarthy's Blood Meridian)

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