WordplayReclaim private space this summer with booksKelly Davis
Disclaimer: Reading is a highly subjective experience, and writing that enthralls one person may put another to sleep. Hence, we can't guarantee that you'll love all our recommendations but maybe, while perusing the bookstore shelf for one, you'll stumble upon an entirely different and equally enjoyable read. >
This summer, CityBeat staffers will turn yet again their worn copies of Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger-hands down our favorite choice. Salinger's characters drink highballs and play tennis on Saturdays in Central Park, and women "lacquer"-not paint-their nails. And everyone says "chrissake." No one can touch Salinger when it comes to capturing the idiosyncrasies and twisted social norms of 1950s East Coast life.
If you find Salinger a little too bizarre ("masturbatory," some call it), Dawn Powell's homage to post-WW II New York, The Wicked Pavilion, is a little-known book by an almost-forgotten writer, revived in 1996 by the independent Steerforth Press. Powell explores the lives of a bunch of social oddballs from the vantage of a worn-out but habitually patronized café.
Another worthy collection of short stories is Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri's first published book every bit deserves the Pulitzer Prize she won in 2000. Nine short stories (is nine the magic number?) give Lahiri space to explore the intricacies of Indian culture and how it shapes, as well as distorts, the lives of immigrants and first-generation Americans. Read a story a day, and for eight days straight you'll have something to look forward to.
The Darts of Cupid comprises stories the now 87-year-old Edith Templeton wrote for the New Yorker from the 1950s through the 1970s. The women in Templeton's book are unflinching: they lack sexual inhibitions, think romance is a sham and aren't afraid to talk back to men. The title story, upon its publication in 1968, earned a reputation as the raciest story yet published by the New Yorker.
In sending along a promo copy of the book, Pantheon was kind enough to also include Templeton's Gordon, a semi-autobiographical account of her torrid love affair with a psychiatrist who got his thrills from forcing her to have sex in public but also demanded that she be his constant analysand.
Anna Sebold's The Lovely Bones is worth reading simply for Sebold's deft handling of the book's subject matter. Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is murdered by a creepy neighbor and her body cut up into little pieces. All the police recover is her elbow. Sound disturbing? Surprisingly, it's not in the least and that's what makes the book so brilliant. If you can overlook a slightly contrived plot twist at the end, The Lovely Bones is a fabulous read.
Shame on you if you haven't yet read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. The book recounts the year Ehrenreich, a journalist by trade, spent working low-skill, low-paying jobs in various cities. Time and again she finds that life's barely livable when you're making $7 or $8 an hour. While the message may be redundant and obvious, it's the people Ehrenreich meets along the way that makes her story worth telling.
If you've already tackled Ehrenreich, next in line, then, is Keeping Up with the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Society 1890-1930. Author Susan J. Matt explores how the troublesome emotions shifted from something to be ashamed of to something capitalist economy needs to survive. Matt chose that particular span of 40 years because of the emergence during that time of everything that drives us to spend: department stores, catalogs, magazines and advertising, not to mention designer knock-offs.
Another new notable in the non-fiction realm is Victor Davis Hansen's Mexifornia. In it, Hansen looks at California's failure to control its border with Mexico but also its resistance to view immigrants as anything more than cheap labor.
If you're in the mood to further explore what's wrong with American culture, pick up a copy of Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality. In the book's title essay, Eco, who's from Italy, takes a tour up and down the California coast and picks apart some of the very things we hold dear: Disneyland, Hearst Castle and the Madonna Inn are held up as grotesque fakes of reality, America's attempts to "establish reassurance through imitation."
For those seeking to escape reality (and hyperreality) Frieda Hughes-daughter of Sylvia Plath and British poet laureate Ted Hughes-takes the lives of mythical and historical figures and re-shapes them in verse in Waxworks. Her poetry is startlingly like that of her mother's. From "Medusa": If you could look away, / The song from the cathedral of her mouth / Would fall to the floor like a lie.
Another escape book is Jonathan Franzen's How to be Alone. Fourteen essays in 278 pages prove more manageable than The Corrections' 592 pages. Franzen's thesis is that Americans have forgotten the importance of solitude and introspection. Reading, he says, is the first step to reclaiming that private space.
If you haven't already heard enough on the topic, Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World looks interesting enough. Elshtain, a professor of ethics at the University of Chicago, posits that liberal academia and right-wing Christianity share one thing in common: a tendency to reduce discussions of war to overly simplified critique. While academics rail against their inability to speak their minds (all the while speaking their minds), the Christian anti-war movement has become too sentimental to be effective. No doubt Elshtain's opinions haven't exactly been embraced by her Ivory Tower cohorts.
Michael Lowenthal's second novel, Avoidance, isn't for those wanting light summer reading. Jeremy Stull is a Harvard grad student who takes a summer job as a camp counselor in Vermont. Jeremy is celibate and repressed, which might explain his research fixation on the Amish. Simplicity vanishes, however, when Jeremy falls in love with a young male camper. Lowenthal's strength lies in the skill with which he approaches the subject of sexual boundaries.
CityBeat is all a-flutter over Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. In it, Azerrad details the lives and times of what he see as the 13 most seminal indie bands, before indie became mainstream. Sonic Youth, Beat Happening, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag and the Replacements all made the cut.
Jazz fans should check out Richard Cooke's Blue Note Records: The Biography, which chronicles the history of this ultra-hip indie label.
A New Yorker review of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces notes the book's opening scene: "Frey begins... with an account of waking up on an airplane, at the age of twenty-three, with a broken nose, a hole in his cheek large enough to accommodate a finger, two black eyes" four missing teeth and lots of yucky stuff on his clothes. Thanks to a nasty crack habit, he has no clue what happened and why. Hence, Frey provides a self-obsessed yet intense account of how he kicked the habit.
CityBeat's short list of favorites...
The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
Valsalva's Maneuver by John Train
Eat the Rich by P.J. O'Rourke
Miles and Me by Quincy Troupe
by Joyce Carol Oates
Heart-breaking Work of
by David Eggers
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
Who's Irish? by Gish Jen
White Noise by Don DeLillo
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Hollywood by Charles Bukowski
Stranger in a Strange Land
by R.H. Heinlen
The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan