Alternate Routes: A Summer Reading Itinerary

June 25, 2014 | 5 books mentioned 1 5 min read


Summer is notorious for its beaches and barbecues and fireworks and picnics and poolside gatherings but to me it stands out most for being crosshatched with roads: meandering country roads but also interstates and tail lights and traffic jams and deserted highways, conduits for moving quickly across vast distances, between cities, passing church and house and field and factory at high velocity. Summers too are for reading, for harvesting shelves to fill long days and sweaty nights, in a hammock, a bed, a backseat, a fuselage, crossing rivers, oceans, continents. Countless pages bridge summer’s sprawl, fill its seemingly infinite unfurling, the illusion of which diminishes only as summer somehow has the gall to move on. I never can quite fathom summer’s end at its start, and so my reading lists stretch on endlessly, too, crammed with long novels too unwieldy for the demands of other seasons (for now: Musil, Stein, and Cărtărescu) and punctuated with shorter sprightlier works. I know now I’ll be lucky to make it halfway through. Even better if the books contain a kind of magic within—delights, supersaturated images, somehow dreamlike, intense. As if the vernal publishing gods anticipated this, they’ve delivered a slew of new books befitting such lists just in time for solstice. Here are a few that I’d recommend adding to yours:

coverDo judge Lisa Jarnot’s A Princess Magic Presto Spell by its cover, by its charming title written in pink, by its picture-book trappings—slim white hardcover adorned with a watercolor by Emilie Clark. This mythopoeic urban-pastoral mash-up incites the same vein of delight as Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” did when I was a child. Not that this book is concerned with childish things. Well, it is, but it isn’t. The poem dredges up all sort of dreck and muck alongside picnics and strawberries and fairies: rabid beavers and bodegas and boa constrictors and threat of economic collapse. Death “smells like the painting of a flower” and sadness is sandwiched between chickens and raspberry jam. Of writing, Jarnot says, “I like tripping so rainbows come out of mouth / I’m pregnant with guinea pigs and hamsters and trees.” It’s as if she, the poetic enchantress, spins words into magical worlds of cosmic glitter-dust matter.

coverShane Jones’s fabulist novel, The Crystal Eaters, is splattered with Technicolor crystal vomit and eye goo, with bodies leaking red, yellow, and blue; the sun wants to swallow the earth; and the indestructible city encroaches on the country like kudzu. Lives are measured in crystals, and each living entity enters the world containing a number that inevitably dwindles to zero, i.e., death. For comparison: humans contain 100, cats 39, ants 3, a flower 1. At its center is Remy, a young girl whose family lives near the crystal mines and whose mother is dying. She’s like Vardaman Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in that she’s grappling with her mother’s low crystal count, impending death, but hoping to stop it too. Narration jumps between characters, and we see Remy’s childlike imagination dealing with the unbelievable inevitable, “Mom can’t die because Mom is Mom, Mom can’t die because mom is a god, … , Mom can’t die because Mom is a dog, Mom can’t die because Mom is a god…” This crystal mining country is Jones’s own Yoknapatawpha County, a town with its own peculiar inhabitants and notions and schemes (such as a prison break in reverse). These fantastical trappings give way to deeper questions—about death, the nature of life, of what it takes to be remembered after you die.

coverBodies are anything but lucky in Kyle Coma-Thompson’s The Lucky Body. Bodies are punished, fooled, desired, and shamed, too. Atrocities are committed against them. The absurdist reduction in “A Thing About Mouths” depicts a world where mouths can be detached and hocked for money. Some stories are avant-garde reductions: “The Lost Dances” contains lost choreographies for Fluxus dances; the pithy gems in “Stories on the Half Shell” go down quickly, served in a half dozen plus one for good measure. Despite their avant-garde leanings, Coma-Thompson’s stories grapple with the artifice and ambition inherent to art, noting the fragility and failure of being caged within a body as well as its passing joys. In “A Town,” the town’s inhabitants and visitors become trapped within a small town, the inhabitants have nothing better to do than spend their time betting on who will enter. The story grows darker when the town’s perimeter shrinks, collapsing in on itself and its inhabitants too: “The sizzle of flesh and bone, parts of people to the front and back of you, an arm here, a foot there, a nose right down to the sinuses? Will the weeping and hot press of people against each other and the surprised shouts and pleas for help from the people outside the town quiet, as the limits shrink to hold only one or two or three people…” These stories drift through the night-shade like melancholic whispers, their darkness on par with Goya’s Black Paintings, their elegiac madness and dreamlike terror.

coverWho am I? What do I want to become? Questions of identity plague Ruth, London-based “green girl,” perfume-counter sales girl selling Desire at Horrid’s, in Kate Zambreno’s recently rereleased Green Girl. Ruth is lost, an American among Londoners, another face among the masses riding the Tube. When she’s singled out she’s merely surface, a beautiful girl playing out her doll-like role in a culture whose currency, especially for women, is all image and appearance. No one can see beyond her surface; and Ruth doesn’t know how to resist or negotiate her sense of self, or the source of this inner turmoil. Even Ruth’s creator—the narrator who plays auteur to the film of Ruth’s life—views her with a mix of admiration and disdain: “The green girl is often inarticulate. Speech littered with likes. She cannot translate the depths. (Are there depths? I am still unsure of her interiority. If I prick her will thoughts rush out or just a heavy mess of confusion?)” This culture of eyes and cameras and images, of marketing allure, of selling Desire, it’s all part of this grand machinery of consumption. Transcendence comes not from sex and self-obliteration but from digging deeper, from being seen beyond the surface. But how to not self-destruct when all she can see is her reflection? And what if there really is nothing there? Zambreno’s novel unfolds with a filmic quality, of scenes playing out with lyric intensity. Interspersed quotes divide scenes and provide refractions of Ruth’s dilemma as they’ve played out in literary and film history. The fragments form a more complete, kaleidoscopic view, such as this, from Clarice Lispector: “To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.”

coverClarice Lispector and Mary Ruefle are the two visionary, nearly shamanic literary talents whose work is the focus of Music & Literature No. 4, edited by Taylor Davis-Van Atta and Daniel Medin (also featured in this volume are the musical collaborations of Maya Homburger and Barry Guy). As author Rachel Kushner remarks in her essay, “Lipstick Traces: Clarice Lispector’s Radiant Nothingness,” there is no substitute for experiencing Lispector’s writing firsthand—the void she writes into, her philosophical inquiry, the way she explores our human implication in this “marvelous scandal” of life. But this volume comes close. Kushner writes of how Lispector’s fiction explores consciousness, “the alienating strangeness of what it is to be alive.” But this is just one facet. Lispector’s strengths are also what some may consider flaws: her lack of plot, that she “want[ed] every sentence of this book to be a climax,” (as she wrote in Agua Viva), and also her refusal to “fill the pages of a book with ‘facts.’” Mary Ruefle has an essay on Lispector in this issue, too. Ruefle writes, “To be nearer to the absent–the presence of the absence–these words don’t have much life in them but Clarice Lispector gives life to the idea when she writes, ‘What am I doing writing to you? I am trying to photograph perfume.’” The attempt to capture traces of the ineffable with language, to convey a particular experience of being in the world, this guides Ruefle’s work as well. Ruefle’s section includes poems, images of her erasure poems, essays about her work, and an interview. Her words of wisdom include: “everyone needs to waste time, it’s essential to Being, but most people let culture at large waste their time; as an artist I want to waste my time in my own way, in the kinds of ways that, for me, lead to making something.” Now that’s a fine excuse for summertime laze.

Image via Lnk.Si/Flickr

is the author of the novel, The Enhancers, forthcoming in fall 2022 from Meekling Press. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, and her stories and essays have appeared in Fence, New York Tyrant, Tin House, and Make Lit, among other publications. Read more of her work here:

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