City Paper's Summer Beach Reads

Alice Munro, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories” (Alfred A. Knopf)

My requirement for a good summer vacation read is tricky. I like to fall into a book, the way you stand backwards on the edge of a pool and free fall. And down under the water, as you plummet, everything is different—sound distorted, movement slowed, colors intensified—but still somehow familiar. I like books that do that—but I find them dangerous. I have tumbled into novels and missed entire vacations, foregone real life conversations with people I love because I couldn’t tear myself free of the novelist’s grasp, the characters’ loves. I couldn’t come up for air.

My solution to the quandary is short stories. And the modern, master storyteller is of course Alice Munro. In 20 short pages, she will drag you to the depths of any pool, creating a slow-motion, moody world that is both ordinary and yet totally unknown. She typically sets her stories in rural Canada, but not always, and there is no particular “type” of character she writes about because her profound understanding of human nature means just when you think you’ve figured out a character, Munro is going to throw you a curve.

The only common denominator among her hundreds of stories is the heavy fog of sadness that hangs over her characters—even the happy ones; they sense joy’s ephemeral nature. Here, I mention her book, “Hateship, Friendship,” but that is only because I recently reread ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ from that collection. In this short story, a husband is taking his wife of 50 years to a nursing home as her dementia advances—and he fights to keep her from falling further away from him. Time and a sense of loss tug at the husband, and the wife, and the reader. This reference to ‘The Bear’ is random; it just happens to be one of her more famous tales. Really, any of Munro’s hundreds of stories and 14 story collections will do, sucking you in—and down—and then releasing you back to the surface (and your vacation) to view the whole world differently. (Karen Houppert)

Amiri Baraka, “S.O.S.: Poems 1961-2013” (Grove Press)

This recently released collection of most of the late jazz poet Amiri Baraka’s poems sits near my bed, and when I can’t sleep or I’m feeling frustrated or need some inspiration, I’ll pick it up and open to a random entry and read and read and read. This, mind you, is my only demand of a “beach read,” not that it be “light” or “fun”—because fuck that—but that it be addictive. Sometimes, I’ll open to short snappy poem such as ‘In The Funk World,’ which reads in total, “If Elvis Presley/is/King/Who is James Brown,/God?” or a lengthy immersive one like the controversial, takes-no-prisoners 9/11 poem, ‘Somebody Blew Up America,’ where I’ll get stuck on a line such as, “Like an Owl exploding/ In your life in your brain in your self.” Or I end up reading something from his earlier, Beat-ish ‘60s work and then I tend to keep reading right through the entirety of books such as 1961’s “Preface To A Twenty Volume Suicide Note” or 1969’s “Black Magic” and the next thing I know, two hours have passed.  Five hundred-plus pages of unsentimental, hard-assed, sometimes offensive, often funny, revolutionary  poems. (Brandon Soderberg)

Anne Carson, “Plainwater” (Vintage Books)

The first half of “Plainwater”—poems and essays based on fragments by ancient Greek poet Mimnermos, paintings by 15th century Pietro Vannucci, Gertrude Stein, Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” and much more—is alternately heady, lucid, complex, and obtuse, and well worth exploring whenever. But the second half (also the book’s final section), titled ‘The Anthropology of Water,’ is a series of connected prose poems about relationships falling apart, in different ways. These stories of loss unspool in a little over a hundred pages; the main act involves a pilgrimage that the speaker is on with her lover, who she calls “My Cid.” They are on a journey to Compostela, but the reason why is never made explicitly clear. All along the way, she centers My Cid, observing him, bending and folding for him, occasionally (and optimistically) hinting at her own sorrow. “His voice is joy, his steps are joy, moved along like a waterwheel in water. While for my part I feel I have broken in half. Every pilgrim hits the mark in his own way.” On either end of this story are stories about a father with dementia and a brother who left home and never returned, making ‘The Anthropology of Water’ (among many other things) a record of relationships that have disintegrated. Take Carson’s opening line as a warning: “Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried. Father, brother, lover, true friends, hungry ghosts and God, one by one all took themselves out of my hands.” (Rebekah Kirkman)

D. Watkins, “The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir” (Grand Central Publishing)

City Paper contributor and friend to the paper D. Watkins’ memoir “The Cook Up” begins with the death of Watkins’ brother and mentor, Bip, and ends when Watkins decides to give up dealing. On the way it spans Baltimore, with stops at bougie jazz festivals, skeezy car lots off Route 40, snotty creative writing classes, and white boy-wasted parties at Loyola, as well as the nervy struggle of East Baltimore, of course. Linear but not exactly narrative and full of fascinating asides, rants, and Joseph Mitchell-like snapshots of Baltimoreans—I’m particularly fond of Dog Boy—it’s a quick read if you want to power through it and a dense, dizzying look at Baltimore if you luxuriate in each terse chapter. If Watkins’ first collection of essays, “The Beast Side,” a caustic piece of post-uprising literature, felt very much of-the-moment, then “The Cook Up” feels timeless and full-stop literary. (BS)

John Searles, “Help For The Haunted” (William Morrow)

Sometime this summer when it’s sweltering—and it will swelter eventually—“Help for the Haunted” by John Searles can give you a chill. Set in 1980s Dundalk, eerie in a TV movie kind of way, the story is told through the perspective of the youngest Mason, Sylvie, who witnesses the brutal murder of her demonologist parents Rose and Sylvester. Like Ed and Lorraine Warren, the demon hunters of Amityville fame, the Masons were connected to a case involving a possessed doll and, also like the Warrens, there is doubt whether the Masons’ or Sylvie’s stories are indeed true. John Searles makes his case for the Warren’s demonology and throws in a supernatural-tinged “whodunnit” mystery surrounding the haunted couple’s death. Having the story tied to Dundalk isn’t really pertinent to the plot, but it’s amusing, and grounds the story further for Baltimoreans deeply familiar with the area. (Athena Towery)

Maggie Nelson, “Bluets” (Wave Books)

In color theory exercises, we learn that our perception of color depends on what’s adjacent to it; that you can affect the shade, temperature, and intensity of any color by placing different colors next to it. That’s just optics, but what about the symbolism or “meaning” of color? Those are more subjective; we assign certain emotional weights to shades: orange can signal a warning, red can be fury or lust, a particular green might conjure sickness. What’s blue? Maggie Nelson’s 2009 book “Bluets” is at once an art historical research essay, a poem, a memoir, and a non-exhaustive, associative, jotted-down list of memories and histories of the color blue. Despite its structure—240 short, divergent, but interconnected points—Nelson never gets too lost in blue; she tells us about depression, loneliness, love, trauma, and obsession through her stories about blue. Blues come to her through gifts or “surprises in the landscape,” like rocks, or catching a glimpse of a blue tarp out the window. She doesn’t go out searching for or buying up blue things. “The little square junk of navy blue dye you brought me long ago, when we barely knew each other, folded neatly into a paper wrapper.” A couple of points later, she quotes the instructions for the dye: “‘Dip articles separately for a short time; keep them moving.’ I liked these instructions. I like blues that keep moving.” That much is clear: Her blues never stop moving throughout. (RK)

Max Zimmer, “If Where You’re Going Isn’t Home (Book One: Journey and Book Two: Of The World)” (Self-Published)

Bountiful, Utah, circa 1958, is probably the last place you’d expect to find yourself in the summer of 2016, sitting on a deck lounge. But go! Go with Shake Tauffler as he learns about his Mormon faith, and about Miles Davis, and that, ultimately, he’ll have to choose between them. After 35 years in gestation, Max Zimmer’s Shake Tauffler trilogy (of which only the first two books have been published) is a little-known masterpiece of American fiction: A coming-of-age novel about race, religion, love, and duty, it reads more like an unsentimental memoir in which all the emotion is left to the reader (Disclosure: Zimmer is a friend of mine). The frank and salty dialogue between Shake and his buddies reads truer than Stephen King’s best—and funnier. The passages describing Shake’s development as a trumpet player are some of the best writing about music—real music—ever written. (Rafi Zabor’s “The Bear Comes Home” had a few in this league). Shake’s journey away from his family, into the army, and then into the unknown is as suspenseful and action-packed as any you’ll read. But the writing here is so far above and beyond what you’ll find in the average paperback, so dense and slow-cooked, that you’ll savor it, over and over, awaiting volume three. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

Naomi Jackson, “The Star Side of Bird Hill” (Penguin Press)

“No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much,’” says writer and activist bell hooks. “No woman has ever written enough.” Maybe that’s why I’m a sucker for a story where the lives and thoughts of women are at the center. “The Star Side of Bird Hill” is the intoxicating tale of two girls, just on the cusp of womanhood, who are thrust out of their New York City home and into the Barbados community of Bird Hill, and the life of their mystical, all-knowing grandmother Hyacinth. The girls must grapple with the complicated lives of both their parents, their places in the community, and the women they will grow up to be. Jackson tells a tale where the men take a back seat and the strength of women is exalted. “The same way that your father’s people’s blood run through your veins, you have a strong line of women behind you,” Hyacinth tells granddaughter Dionne. “If they could still stand up after what they did and what had been done to them, you have more than enough legs to stand up on now.” (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

Yago Colás, “Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball” (Temple University Press)

Basketball is just the best sport. It highlights the importance of sensitive interplay between a group of individuals and also facilitates explosive, obnoxious moments of swaggy selfhood—it’s like jazz, really. It is also the most loaded and complicated of sports, forever at a crossroads of capitalism and race. Yago Colás’ book “Ball Don’t Lie” appreciates basketball’s visceral appeal but it also takes the sport seriously and wades through the many assumptions and “myths” of the sport with some assists from thinkers such as William James, Deleuze, and Nietzsche. Here, praise of teamwork over an individual’s virtuosity is questioned (along with the very idea that the point of the game is to win) and controversial figures such as Allen Iverson are recast as “insurgent[s],” and the recent Hall of Famer’s infamous crossover move is described as “beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical.” It’s a readable and endlessly quotable academic book—a rarity, really. If you know your basketball history, then “Ball Don’t Lie” offers up an alternative reading of key events, and if you don’t know your basketball history and you’re reading City Paper, it’s probably because you’re skeptical of sports hegemony. In that case, Colás’ take, which cuts through long-established readings, is a good place to start anyway. (BS)

 

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