That New New in Lit: Summer Reading Edition

Jacob Kaplan

Summer reading as an institution harkens back to the late nineteenth century; before that, people either read year-round or were philistines. In June of 1895, uber-librarian Linda Eastman, founder of the Cleveland Children’s Library League, compiled “a list of ‘best books in the library suitable for children’” and handed it out in schools. It was a publicity stunt, and it worked: kids came to the library. “Publicity of the library and its resources was a major goal behind the campaign,” writes one Stephanie Bertin, whose exhaustive 2004 Master’s thesis seems to be the go-to source for information about the origins of summer reading programs in the United States. Importantly, though, notes Bertin, “…the library promoted the league as especially good during the summer vacation for bringing children off the streets and encouraging them to read during a period when they may have little intellectual stimulation.” In the ensuing century, summer reading permeated the adult sector, dovetailing with a similar tradition called “beach reading,” and you can find myriad listicles dedicated to the choicest picks, now that you’re grown and it’s hot. This is one of them, although I want to preface it by saying that reading (fiction/poetry) because “it’s summer” and “everyone else is doing it” is a surefire way to wring the pleasure from the experience, an experience with potentially a lot of pleasure involved, one Francine Prose describes with chilling accuracy in the latest issue of Harper’s : “…allowing—inviting—another voice to speak to us, in silence.”

One of my favorite voices to invite of late has been the voice of Rebecca Curtis, a short fiction writer and nutritionist. Curtis published a collection in 2007 called Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money, which I just finished, and which is great: funny, deadpan, and sad. “They are scary and heartbreaking,” wrote George Saunders, of Curtis’s stories, “and after reading them you’ll see America differently.” She’s had a number of uncollected stories published recently, in Harper’s and The New Yorker and Vice, and a couple of older ones have been posted at muumuu house. Here’s a short short about an unhappy domestic situation, a man degrading a woman. Curtis is a sadist in the Vonnegutian sense (see item 6, “Be a sadist”); her stories are populated with inflicters and sufferers, and often inflicter/sufferers—characters who are at once pathetic and cruel. While that combination may not sound particularly becoming, it’s (unsurprisingly) easy to sympathize with. In general, Curtis does a good job with contradiction, at letting the beautiful and the ugly coexist, sometimes in the same sentence. “My boyfriend was a mild A-blood-type Libra who taught math to underserved third graders, brushed with Crest, and was fat and ate bagels, donuts, and cereal regularly,” says Curtis’s protagonist in “The Happi-Fork,” which was published in Vice’s 2014 fiction issue, and which you can read in its entirety here.

This past May I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Curtis in conversation with Rivka Galchen in the basement of McNally Jackson, a very with-it bookstore on Prince Street in Manhattan. Galchen recently wrote a collection called American Innovations that I mentioned in my last post, and the reading was to celebrate its publication. She talked about the inherent strength of the short form: stories can be more potent than longer works because they are surrounded by empty space, islanded, allowed to echo. But I was really there to see Rebecca Curtis, so when the reading ended I went to where she was, at a table with a pile of her books (Twenty Grand And Other Tales Of Love and Money) and I asked her for an autograph. “Ten dollars,” she said. I felt stunned; she looked me up and down, reconsidering. “Twenty dollars,” she said. But her face broke into a big forgiving smile, and so I sat down next to her and told her how important all of her writing was to me etc., etc., and she was very gracious with the praise, gracious with a touch of fatigue, and who wouldn’t have been fatigued by me, a fan trying (failing) to articulate his wonder. She signed my book for free. Later, out on the sidewalk, I opened to the title page to see what she had written. It said, “To Jacob. Have a great 2014. Best Rebecca Curtis.”

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Readings, then, can be a lot of weird fun, especially if you go up to the writer afterward and demand their attention. McNally Jackson hosts really good readings all the time, and I’m pretty sure they have air-conditioning. On July 10 at 7 p.m., for instance, you can see Emily Gould speak with Elif Batuman. Gould, the once co-editor of Gawker, the once victim of a miffed Jimmy Kimmel, wrote a novel called Friendship about two Brooklyn-dwelling women bidding farewell to their 20s. Gould co-runs Emily Books, an online indie e-book store with a subscription component.

And on July 30, also at 7 p.m., Paul Rome and Catherine Lacey meet in the McNally basement to read from their respective, highly-anticipated debut novels, We All Sleep in the Same Room and Nobody is Ever Missing. I haven’t read Lacey’s novel, but I can recommend her short fiction, a lot of which you can access here.

If book groups are more your speed, the participant angle, try the Kurt Vonnegut Book Group at Housing Works bookstore on Crosby Street in Manhattan. Says the website: “Housing Works Bookstore is joining forces with Vonnegut NYC—the New York chapter of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library—to present a spirited discussion group rooted in the essence of Kurt Vonnegut.” “Spirited” and “essence” have a seance vibe, but it’s probably just a bunch of interested, literary-minded people in a chair circle. The next one meets on Saturday, July 19, at 7:30 p.m., and the novel to-be-discussed is Vonnegut’s Galapagos.

But maybe you just want to be read to. Books Beneath The Bridge is a seasonal reading series held at the idyllic Granite Prospect in Brooklyn Bridge Park, and will feature the likes of Joanna Rakoff, Emma Straub, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Scott Cheshire, among many others; here’s the full rundown.

According to a perusal of Mellow Pages Library’s calendar, which looks not-totally-official, although looks often deceive, Aaron Burch, author of forthcoming fiction collection Backswing (July 15, Queen’s Ferry Press), will read Wednesday, July 16, on the premises. Check Mellow Pages’ Facebook page for eventual details.

Before he graces Mellow Pages, though, Burch will participate in the renowned Franklin Park Reading Series, on Monday, July 14th. Other authors, an exciting assortment, will also visit the little podium: Emma Straub, Tiphanie Yanique, Courtney Maum, and Boris Fishman. Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life, was recently on the Editors’ Choice list in the Sunday Book Review section of The New York Times.

Besides writing books, Aaron Burch also edits a wonderful lit-mag called Hobart, which I raved about in April, and which you read, because you take what I say seriously. Where should you turn next, lit-mag-wise? Turn to The Atlas Review, which is in its third issue. It’s handsome and affordable (half of The Paris Review’s current price-tag) and, most importantly, contains moments of real beauty. Standouts include Craig Morgan Teicher’s poems, especially “Which is the best part of the day?” (“…when you/wake in the middle/of the night and/realize you can/go back to sleep…”), and a piece by Sean H. Doyle called “This Clouded Heart.” Doyle writes about drugs and death and addiction in lean, fast sentences. But his work is full of feeling, too, and he confronts an often ugly past with admirable love and wisdom.

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story is that rarest of beast: a lit mag built on movie money. It shows; each issue is beautifully designed, tastefully curated, and pretty cheap. I bought the Summer 2014 issue for $8, a steal on the lit-mag price scale, especially considering the content. It’s impeccably guest-designed by Stephen Powers, and includes pieces by Jim Gavin, Jo Lloyd, Lena Dunham (!), and Alice Munro (!!). Munro’s story, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” is a reprint (the original was included in a book of the same name in 2001), and, in all fairness, takes the cake: Munro is an actual genius, a master of perspective and pacing and plot, in league with Tolstoy and Chekhov. If you haven’t read this particular Munro, buy Zoetrope for it. In a pretty different vein, Jim Gavin has a new piece in Zoetrope called “The Copy Chief,” about a once-gas station attendant who aspires to be a sportswriter. Gavin has a warm, easy tone, and “The Copy Chief” is funny and nostalgic and sad, and, really, it’s just as good a reason to read Zoetrope as Munro’s masterwork, now that I think of it. If you’re one of those people who actually goes to the beach to read (and not, say, gawk at the awful flesh parade, wade half-heartedly, and overeat), Jim Gavin’s story collection Middle Men would be a great book to bring along.

As long as we’re talking beach reads, I can’t recommend enough Ben Marcus’s latest story collection, Leaving The Sea, even though the beachiness of it pretty much begins and ends with the waves on the cover. The stories go from realist to not-realist (experimental) and back again in a dizzying arc; alienation and self-loathing abound. It’s all powerful writing, but the best sentence (of the book and of, so far, the year) has to be this one, from the story “First Love”: “In America the head sprouts either soft or coarse hair, features small apologies called eyes, and has a round mistake tunnel known as a mouth.”

There’s also Kyle Minor, who has done something really daring and special with his latest collection, Praying Drunk. It’s a series of interconnected, perspective-jumping tales about love and faith and mind-numbing tragedy. Rarely funny, but very good.

If you want funny, and fast, and, heck, Lipsyte-esque, read Virginia Konchan, and especially read “Nietzsche’s Daughter,” in Drunken Boat.

But if you’re one of those masochists whose idea of summer fun is a crack at Ulysses, remember that even Jung struggled under the weight of that tome: “I read to page 135 with despair in my heart, falling asleep twice on the way.”

Until next time!

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