As the school year was crawling to a slow, hot, close I realised that I had not even had the energy to build a summer reading stack ( a task I usually adore). I turned to Facebook and asked friends to send me their recommendations. This is actually a brilliant exercise to take you outside of genre, comfort, and into books that may easily be overlooked or never discovered at all. Look out for shout outs to those who recommended the books that found their way in to my stack!
Here are the books that I devoured in the month of July!
Less was reccommended by my friend, Bonnie Creber. It was the perfect, lighthearted way to begin enjoying summer break. There were a few things appealing about this story– Arthur Less is a failed novelist who is celebrating his fiftieth; a wedding invitation to attend his ex-boyfriend’s wedding has him seriously reflecting on his life and his decisions. What ensues is a madcap tour around the world (accepting all of the invitaions and cobbling them in to a grand voyage). It is slightly silly, and then full of sadness and longing. It is written beautifully (it won a Pulitzer). Two snaps.
There is no Arthur Less without the suit. Bought on a whim, in that brief era of caprice three years ago when he threw caution (and money) to the wind and flew to Ho Chi Minh City to visit a friend on a work trip, searching for air-conditioning in that humid, moped-plagued city, found himself in a tailor shop, ordering a suit. Drunk on car exchaust and sugarcane, he made a series of rash decisions, gave his home address, and by the next morning had forgotten all about it. Two weeks later, a package arrived in San Fransisco. Perplexed, he opened it and pulled out a medium blue suit, lined in fuschia, and sewn with his initials: APL. A rose-water smell from the box summoned, instantly, a dictatorial woman with a tight bun, hectoring him with questions. The cut, the buttons, the pockets, the collar. But most of all: the blue. Chosen in haste from a wall of fabrics: not an ordinary blue. Peacock? Lapis? Nothing gets close. Medium but vivid, moderately lustrous, definitely bold. Somewhere between ultramarine and cyanide salts, between Vishnu and Amon, Israel and Greece, the logos of Pepsi and Ford. In a word: bright. He loved whatever self had chosen it and after that wore it constantly. Even Freddy approved: "You look like someone famous!" And he does. Finally, at his advanced age, he has struck the right note. He looks good, and he looks like himself. Without it, somehow he does not. Without the suit, there is no Arthur Less. (Greer, p. 25).
Ummm. This one was weird. Really weird. It’s hard to write about why I struggled with it. Suffice it to say, I felt weird reading it and wanted to hide it from my son when he looked over my shoulder while I was reading. The main character is relatably flawed, awkwardly vulnerable, and at a white-wine- guzzling-rock-bottom when her boyfriend leaves her and she uproots to house and dog sit in Venice Beach. She is terrible to her sister’s dog, I hated that part. She is cutting and pointed in her observations and summations about others. Again, made me uncomfortable, but okay. But the merman erotica? Just couldn’t get into it. Thanks to Jake Stillwell for taking me out of my comfort zone– but a miss nonetheless. Oh Snap!
Broder is best known as the woman behind the Twitter account @sosadtoday, which has six hundred and forty-nine thousand followers. Recent tweets include “in a threesome with anxiety and depression” and “unfortunately i’m very self-aware.” On her personal Twitter account, @melissabroder, she offers similar sentiments: “i’m gifted at finding ways to never seem like enough,” she wrote last month. She has also written four books of poetry, most recently “Last Sext.” In 2016, she published a collection of personal essays called “So Sad Today,” in which she grounded the universalized Internet sadness of her Twitter presence in concrete individual experience. She was twelve when she started dreaming about her family burning up in a house fire, thirteen when she started obsessing about the Holocaust. During adolescence, she could only orgasm when she imagined people vomiting. (The New Yorker, 2018.)
On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
A compassionate and unflinching queer coming-of-age story. Little Dog writes a series of letters to his mother in order to make sense of his place in the world. She cannot read a word of it. Vuong is a daring writer– he goes where the hurt is, creating a novel saturated with yearning and ache. He stares down the violence, trauma, and pain and somehow uncovers the innocence, compassion and tenderness. Loved every minute of this story. Two snaps.
In that room, among the Star Wars poster (Empire Strikes Back) peeling above his unmade bed, among the empty root beer cans, the twenty-pound dumbbell, one half of a broken skateboard, the desk covered with loose change, empty gum packets, gas station receipts, weed crumbs, fentanyl patches and empty dime bags, coffee mugs ringed brown with old water and joint roaches, a copy of Of Mice and Men, empty shell casings from a Smith & Wesson, there were no questions. (Vuong, p.110)
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
I loved this book! The quote on the cover reads: “It’s like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket. Simply perfect.”
Reccommended to me by my colleague, Gabrielle Maillet, she had said it had Schitt’s Creek vibes– and I ran with that! (Love me some Rose Motel feel goodery.) It did not disappoint.
Linus Baker is rule-following case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’s tasked with determining whether six dangerous magical children are likely to bring about the end of the world. Arthur Parnassus is the master of the orphanage. He would do anything to keep the children safe, even if it means the world will burn.
The House in the Cerulean Sea is a beautiful story with fantastical characters (a sort of blobby slug want-to-be-hotel porter; a bearded female gardening gnome; a fairy sprite; a wyvern; a werewolf crossed Pomeranian and the purported son of Satan, nicknamed Lucy.) They live on a beautiful, secluded island where the inhabitants outwardly hate them, make up stories and rumours about them, and hang signs that say: “If you see something, say something.” Arthur arrives determined to do his job and report back on the intricacies of the orphanage, the children and Arthur– but he is taken up by the magic of the island and the love of a family. A saccharine-sweet cotton-candy-novel. Love wins. Two (loud) snaps.
Humanity is so weird. If we're not laughing, we're crying or running for our lives because monsters are trying to eat us. And they don't even have to be real monsters. They could be the ones we make up in our heads. Don't you think that's weird?
West With Giraffes by Linda Rutledge
Another wonderful recommendation, this one from my colleague Catherine Tait.
Woodrow (Woody) Nickel takes us along for his journey of a lifetime to deliver two traumatized giraffes saved from a tumultous Atlantic crossing in New York to the San Diego zoo. Our 105 year-old narrator takes us back through the twelve-day journey that ever changed his life.
...I'm older than dirt. And when you're older than dirt, you can get lost in time, in memory, even in space. I'm inside my tiny four-walled room with the feeling that I've been... gone. I'm not even sure how long I've been sitting here. All night I think, stirring from my foggy mind to find myself surrounded by other old farts staring at a fancy TV. I remember the man on the screen talking about the last giraffess on earth and rushing over in my wheelchair to punch him. I remember being pushed back here quick and a nurse bandaging my bleeding knuckles. Then I remember an orderly making me take a calm-down pill I didn't want to take. But that's the last time I'll be doing that. Because right now, pencil in this shaky hand, I aim to write down one singular memory. Fast as I can. I could spend what I feel in my bones is my life's last clear hours to tell you of the Dust Bowl. Or the War. Or the French peonies. Or my wives, so many wives. Or the graves, so many graves. Or the goodbyes, so many goodbyes. Those memories come and go here at the end, if they come at all anymore. But not this memory. This memory is always with me, always alive, always within reach, and always in technicolor from deadly start to bittersweet finish, no matter how old I keep getting. And-- Red, Old Man, sweet Wild Boy and Girl-- oh, how I miss you. All I have to do is close my worn-out eyes for the smallest of moments. And it begins.
A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson
A great recommendation from my friend and former colleague, Janet Sloan. Eighteeen year-old Stella Sandell is accused of murder, and that changes everything.
The story is divided into three parts: the first told by the father, a pastor, who believes his daughter can only be innocent. The second part reveals the story from her mother’s view, a defense attorney, who believes no one is telling the truth. And finally from the perspective of Stella herself. Each shift in perspective is jarring–just when you think you understand these characters, the way others view them opens up new understandings of their skewed sense of reality. What lies will they tell (or believe?) to just be a normal, ordinary family again? Two snaps.
I believe this is deeply human. There's no understanding it if you've never experienced a direct and serious threat to yourself and your loved ones. You make irrational decisions and overstep boundaries as you never would otherwise. A person who can no longer flee must fight. (Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family)
Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey
Alright, alright, alright.
This was a blissful surprise. It was peripherally on my radar ( a few casual “you should read this”… had come my way)… and then I started listening to Dax Shepard’s podcast, “Armchair Expert” (recommended by colleagues and students alike) and while enjoying a sunny walk with my dog, Teddy, we listened to the interview with Matthew McConaughey. And then I bought a copy of Greenlights.
I love memoirs. And I absolutely love memoirs that start by saying they are not really memoirs. McConaughey opens this way:
THIS IS NOT A TRADITIONAL memoir. Yes, I tell stories from the past, but I have no interest in nostaligia, sentimentality, or the retirement most memoirs require. This is not an advice book either. Although I like preachers, I'm not here to preach and tell you what to do. This is an approach book. I am here to share stories, insights, and philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if you choose, subjectively adopted, by either changing your reality, or changing how you see it. This is a playbook, based on adventures in my life. Adventures that have been significant, enlightening, and funny, sometimes because they were meant to be but mostly because they didn't try to be. I'm optomistic by nature, and humour has been one of my great teachers. It has helped me deal with pain, loss, and lack of trust. I'm not perfect; no, I step in shit all the time and recognize when I do. I've just learned how to scrape it off my boots and carry on. (McConaughy, p. 3)
Reaching his fiftieth birthday, McConaughey became introspective and sat down with the diaries and journals he had been keeping most of his life. Within them he finds inspirational quotes, intricate poems, sketches and doodles, deep thinking, perceptive questions and sum-it-all-up bumper stickers that show who he was, who he became and who he has always wanted to be.
It’s a love letter. To life.
It’s also a guide to catching more greenlights – and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green too. It is simply delightful.
McConaugheyconsiders himself a storyteller by occupation, believes it’s okay to have a beer on the way to the temple, feels better with a day’s sweat on him, and is an aspiring orchestral conductor.
In 2009, Matthew and his wife, Camila, founded the just keep livin Foundation, which helps at-risk high school students make healthier mind, body, and spirit choices. In 2019, McConaughey became a professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as Minister of Culture/M.O.C. for the University of Texas and the City of Austin. McConaughey is also brand ambassador for Lincoln Motor Company, an owner of the Major League Soccer club Austin FC, and co-creator of his favorite bourbon on the planet, Wild Turkey Longbranch. Two (very exuberant) snaps.