Summer reading is readily associated with "light" reading (or, if all is truly lost, "lite" reading). Perhaps this is because concentrating in the heat is difficult. Perhaps it's because summer equals vacation equals lack of serious study (although summer reading also, must, connote for some the summer-reading lists of school days, aka Where The Red Fern Grows, et. al).
While I, too, often seek the perfect beach read for the imperative summer-beach trip, my standards have grown, in recent years, more erratic and difficult to categorize. I can't read truly junky books (like the abominable "Shopaholic" series that arrives in our offices on a weekly basis) but good writing about difficult topics (such as Pretty Bones) also can be a challenge. This year, however, perhaps "lite" reading should be avoided at all costs. Given the dire state of the current socio-economic-political-geosphere, who has time for frothery? More importantly, with global warming on the rise, rejecting more serious books when it's hot out could lead to year-round mindlessness-and who knows where that would lead? (Maybe in 2008 we can elect a house plant for president). With this in mind, here are a few suggestions for your summer reading list. Don't worry, they aren't really all that serious.
What's all this Deep Throat talk about anyway?
If the recent revelation of the Deep Throat true identity left you either yawning or scratching your head ***image2***and/or if the death of Hunter S Thompson failed to rouse you to either tears or drunken proclamations, then Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail of '72 deserves a perusal in the fearful, loathsome dog days of 2005. While many have read Thompson's Las Vegas tale (or, God forbid, seen the movie), this superior chronicle often is overlooked. That's a mistake. First off, it's the seminal example of Gonzo journalism (and, perhaps, the great-grandfather of the ubiquitous blogiverse). Second, it's a political reminder of where this country has been (although even Thompson, the greatest cynicseur of politicians around, might not have believed where we were going). Third, it's pretty damn funny.
Speaking of the '70s
Plenty of people will read Jane Fonda's My Life So Far without any plugging here, but I had not intended to be one of them. Books by and about celebrities normally rank in the Top 10 Reasons ***image3***I Think the World is Ending. But after catching bits and pieces of Fonda on various late-night and prime-time talk shows defending herself (a la "Hanoi Jane," revisited) with articulate grace (and after a copy landed on my desk), I figured, "what the hey." Others who choose to read Barbarella's bio won't be sorry. In addition to being well-written and engaging, Fonda's story has both enough personal candor and global insight to provide a happy voyeuristic experience of a huge star along with provocative and inspiring thoughts about how to live in the world regardless of whether you're a celebrity or not.
Booksigning 9:30 am Saturday, July 23. Garcia Street Books, 376 Garcia St., 986-0151
Having sworn off reading books about writing years ago (I find them, ultimately, to provide ***image4***the same false sense of accomplishment as that of books about dieting and exercising), an exception was made for Ellen Gilchrist's The Writing Life. Gilchrist is one of my favorite contemporary female southern writers (it's important to categorize these things), who won the National Book Award in the 1980s for her short-story collection Victory Over Japan. In recent years, Gilchrist began teaching creative writing at the University of Arkansas and these essays delve into that experience as well as many others. Gilchrist has a captivating unsentimental Zen-thing going and the book is a great jump-start to thinking about life, writing and creativity.
In some strange set of coincidences, the best two first novels I've read of late have a semi-symbiotic relationship. One is written by an Albuquerque writer but set in North Carolina and the second is set in Albuquerque and written by a writer from Pennsylvania. The first, The Laws of Invisible Things is by Albuquerque ER Doc Frank Huyler and is a dark, semi-existential novel about a doctor who loses a patient and the strange twists ***image6***and turns that occur as a result. The second, The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin, is a semi-existential story about a young graduate art student who returns to Albuquerque because something is wrong with her brother (who has joined up with a band of wanna-be eco-terrorists consumed with anger over wasted water on New Mexico golf courses). What these books have in common-in addition to being well-written-is that while they seem ostensibly plotted as mystery/thrillers, they both delve much deeper than one might expect.
Several, several years ago I was entranced by a first novel called The Archivist by Martha Cooley, which was a surprising story about an archivist of TS Eliot letters and the young woman who wants to read them. Cooley's second and recently released book, Thirty-Three Swoons, has, so far, met my expectations in that I CAN'T PUT IT DOWN. Unfortunately, I'M NOT DONE YET so I can't really give an authoritative description, so take these few keywords as a guide: dreams, Russia, perfumist, doppelgangers.
Madame Bovary's Ovaries, A Darwinian Look at Literature, has received attention ***image8***plenty and well deserved. For one thing, it has a breathtaking original focus-the application of evolutionary principles to famous literary characters. But what makes this book readily appealing is that one doesn't need to understand the former in any great depth (although a love of the latter definitely enhances one's reading). I would recommend pairing David and Nanelle Barash's book (they're father and daughter) with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It will make the chapter, "The Key to Jane Austen's Heart, What Women Want, and Why" that much more understandable, and perhaps spur a desire to plow through the rest of the Great Characters' round-up in this book.
You're on Vacation
Travel writing often is just the ticket in the summer-particularly when one is traveling. Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation might not be quite what you had in mind, but it will certainly stay on your mind after you read it. You may know Vowell from This American Life, for which she is a contributing editor, or from one of her previous ***image9***books (The Partly Cloudy Patriot being the most recent). Anyone who thinks The Left is humorless (or thinks its only comedians are Jon Stewart and Al Franken) needs to read this book immediately. Vowell traipses across the country to the various locales of famous political assassinations. But the book does more than recap how President Lincoln died. It uses both the travel and the historic events in question to examine and report on American politics and culture. Best of all, Vowell is a clear writer and a very, very funny one. Hers is the kind of book that makes the reader want to delve even more deeply into understanding what makes this crazy country tick.
And that Would Be the People
From Vowell, I went straight to my ***image10***bookshelves and began reading Volume 1, Part 1 of The People Shall Judge, which is a University of Chicago collection of important readings that helped form America and American policy. Particularly given this less-than-constitutional-era we live in, could there be any better time to revisit (or visit for the first time) some of the seminal writing that helped establish the US? Or, if that's not motivating, look at it this way. You'll be the only person on the beach getting tan while contemplating moral responsibility and the individual via Henry David Thoreau's On Civil Disobedience. It doesn't get any hotter than that.