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Burnt-out Summer Reads

By posted at 6:00 am on July 11, 2012 6

There is no greater way to spend your summer than flat on your back on the hot sand or in a chaise lounge by a pool (preferably with nearby waiters serving adult beverages). So while you’re laid out and baking this season check out these books whose landscapes and characters are bone-dry, desolate, charred, or wasted. The relentless emptiness, absence of morality, and anesthetized and vacuous characters will provide a different kind of “trashy” beach read.  The ennui will be a perfect complement to your cocktail.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

coverPlay It As It Lays follows the trajectory of Maria Wyeth, a burnt-out actress bouncing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert. The lovers, ex-husbands, and friends in Maria’s orbit take opiates and gin for menstrual cramps, rent apartments when the plumbing in their Beverly Hills mansion backs up, and wash up in motel rooms in the desert on the edge of movie sets.

Play It As It Lays is precise, highly controlled, and, at least on the surface, utterly devoid of emotion. Her narrators report, they do not emote. What distinguishes Didion’s work is the polarity of that highly controlled narrative voice set against the utter disarray — “disorder was its own point” — of the worlds her characters inhabit. In other words, Didion composes scenes of excess, disintegration, and violence using a voice utterly devoid of all three.

Polarities are Didion’s specialty — vulnerability and toughness, exposure and privacy, detachment and emotion, despair and hope — and her utilization of them injects her work with an extreme sense of pressure.

The emotional weariness of her characters and their sense of doomed fatalism belie not just a wicked survival instinct, but also a sense of hopefulness – albeit a hopefulness whose origins and presence they themselves do not understand. It is Maria, the infamously detached protagonist of Play It As It Lays who says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing. Why, [her friend] BZ would say. Why not, I say.”

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

coverCassandra Edwards, a brilliant, intense Berkeley grad student, is hell-bent on sabotaging her twin sister Judith’s wedding, and returns to her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to do just that. Cassandra’s first person narration is utterly spellbinding and it takes no effort for the reader to understand how Judith falls for Cassandra’s manipulative charm over and over again once we so easily do the same (think verbal pyrotechnics).

Cassandra is at once conniving, self-aware, frantic, irrational, despondent, lucid, adoring, and shockingly sympathetic. Her neurotic attachment to her sister as some extension of herself, their lush-of-a-retired-philosophy-professor father, and their willfully oblivious grandmother make for a family story like none other. As Cassandra discovers that that her force of will is not enough to keep the people she loves in orbit around her, her sense of order and ties to reality begin to crumble.

Baker’s writing, like her protagonists, is vivacious and funny as hell and the dialog is as good as it gets. Cassandra is totally nuts and incredibly sympathetic — and you will be completely enraptured by her.

Another Country by James Baldwin

coverI have a friend who a reads Another Country every year, and I can totally see why. This is a book that contains worlds, and has something new to offer up with each reading.

Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, Another Country centers around six people who are all, in some way, connected to Rufus Scott, a jazz drummer in New York City. Baldwin’s cast of characters leads us into the weeds of their lives, and we are privy to things that we should never see and won’t easily forget. Another Country is haunting and the pictures Baldwin conjures are searing.

Thematically, it touches on pretty much everything: race, sexuality, gender, class, passion, love, loss, grief, friendship. You name it, it’s in here. It’s a book about how we hurt and need each other in equal measure; the ways in which we entwine ourselves into the lives, and the bodies of the people we love. The things we pay for, and how we pay. The Washington Post dubbed this book, “An almost unbearable, tumultuous, blood-pounding experience.” And really that sums it up perfectly.

A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

coverBorn to movie star parents in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the unnamed narrator of A Way of Life Like Any Other grew up in the (kitschy) lap of luxury on the family estate, Casa Fiesta. “Was there ever an ass so pampered as mine,” he wonders at the outset of the novel? But the glory days are over. His parents’ careers have disintegrated and their marriage has come apart. In the wake of his former life this man-child struggles to make a path forward for himself.

A deadpan, cutting, and catty comedy of manners, O’Brien uses a razor sharp and devastating wit to talk about the world and the family his narrator came up in. A surprisingly moving coming-of-age story laced with a healthy dose of glitter and camp.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

coverThe only book on this list that has a sort of cooling effect, The Summer Book is an unsentimental series of vignettes that opens a window onto the lives of six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother who are spending the summer on a small island in Finland after Sophia’s mother dies. Pretty much nothing happens in this book: attention is focused on minutiae and things are handled from an emotional remove that we’ve come to expect from the Swedes. The writing is crisp and somewhat distanced and experiences are observed rather than felt; to wit:

Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. The can of kerosene is brought up from the cellar and left in the hall, and the flashlight is hung on its peg beside the door.

According to The Independent (London),” The Summer Book manages to make you feel good as well as wise, without having to make too much effort… [it] says so much that we want to hear in such an accessible form, without ever really saying anything at all.” If that’s not the perfect summer read, I don’t know what is.

Image via Stewart Butterfield/Flickr





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6 Responses to “Burnt-out Summer Reads”

  1. Jack M
    at 7:44 am on July 11, 2012

    Blood Meridian?

  2. nate knapp
    at 11:00 am on July 11, 2012

    No. Not Blood Meridian.

  3. Bethany
    at 12:14 pm on July 11, 2012

    I read Play It As It Lays the summer after I graduated from college and was blissfully unemployed. It’s the perfect book for reading in the park on an unbearably hot day.

  4. Nam Y.
    at 4:51 pm on July 12, 2012

    The trolls have been out full force this week. The more popular the site becomes, the worst it gets.

  5. Macartney
    at 12:12 pm on August 7, 2012

    Wholeheartedly also recommend Another Country. Vastly and scandalously underrated, it’s really Baldwin’s best novel.

  6. Maureen Murphy
    at 2:20 pm on June 13, 2013

    Nicolas Freeling began his career as a professional cook, before turning to writing crime novels. Suggest his hilarious set of books (The Kitchen Book/The Cook) which are like a prototype for Anthony Bourdain. Wiritten as sketches, with great accompanying illustrations.

    “He began writing during a three-week prison sentence, after being convicted of taking home some veal from a restaurant where he worked, though this was common practice in the restaurant trade.[citation needed]” [LOVE THIS! mam]

    (I accidentally posted this elsewhere – ib “Brainy Summer Reads” but it belongs here, perfect for accompanying a tall gin and tonic)

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