Summer: a good time to plunge into the ocean, or trek up a mountain. Or maybe do both at once, and try again to finish The Man Without Qualities.
If I fail once more, at least I can do it with a clear conscience, given that Robert Musil couldn’t finish the book, either, and he was a lot smarter than me. Here it lies on the nightstand, all 1,774 pages and 5.8 pounds. If I drop it on my foot, I’ll be able to add sick leave to my vacation time. That would put me right in the spirit of Musil’s protagonist, Ulrich, who knows a lot about mathematics, philosophy, psychology, engineering, military affairs, the arts of flirtation, and the cultural history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but doesn’t care to do much of anything. Meanwhile, during the narrative year when he and his society are busy idling, Europe ticks down toward August 1914.
I have a bad feeling that we’re also currently ticking down to something. I hope it’s going to be less of a catastrophe than World War I—but however it turns out, I want Musil to help me through the summer with his superb, uncompromising laughter.
I stopped by Powerhouse Arena recently—sadly, it’s closing soon!—and picked up Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which caught my eye on the staff-recommendation table because I’ve been meaning to read it for ages. (Staff-recommendation tables: another reason to mourn the loss of bookstores.) Not too long ago, I also bought Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, which I’ve heard great things about. (I particularly enjoyed Doree Shafrir’s profile of Flournoy for BuzzFeed.)
And I just finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which is the perfect summer read not only because it’s hard to put down but also because it depicts a dystopian future in which most of mankind has been killed by the flu, making it best-read on a beach somewhere far, far away from other humans.
In May, I walked into a bookstore and was dismayed to see that poet Jana Prikryl wasn’t there. Turns out I was, in eagerness, a month early for the release party for The After Party, her debut collection. Prikryl, also a senior editor for The New York Review of Books, has released some great poems over the last few years, in magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker, replete with unexpected images: “a truffle balanced on your sternum,” “the joints announce their new allegiances.” A few of those poems were excerpts from an epic called “Thirty Thousand Islands,” which depicts Canada’s Lake Huron in a polyphonic meander peopled by strange characters. It will appear unabridged in The After Party, and the parts I have seen so far left me clamoring for more. Her poems are documents of experience and vision and their own deconstruction in a tight, aesthetic package.
Over 80 years after his assassination in the State Capitol of Louisiana, Huey Long figures in the political imagination as no more than a lesser specter: When mentioned at all, Long is cursorily depicted as one of several quasi-fascist demagogues who once threatened the integrity of American democracy. There’s some truth to this caricature. Long was capable of rousing vast crowds with populist rhetoric; as Louisiana’s governor and then United States Senator, he flouted laws and customs that impeded the execution of his political program. Yet, as T. Harry Williams’s Pulitzer-winning 1969 biography of Long demonstrates, there was always more to Long than met the eye. Behind the blustering, folksy facade lurked a legal mind of the highest order and what can only be described as political genius: Compared to Long, no other elected official of the American left has ever risen so high and so quickly, nor posed a greater threat to capitalism. His triumphs and talents, along with his failures and flaws, deserve serious study during an era of left resurgence.
I’m about two chapters through Hua Hsu’s A Floating Chinaman at the moment. It’s about H.T. Tsiang, a Chinese-American immigrant writer who was too weird, both in his interests and how he wrote, to gain public appeal in 1930s New York. He hated Pearl S. Buck and Henry Luce, who were widely considered the experts on China, at the time—I’m looking forward to learning about how he tried to bring them down. It’s a great read for the big questions (who gets to claim authority on a subject, especially if it’s a place and you aren’t from, for example). And I’m relieved to learn that media blood feuds over identity politics aren’t my generation’s invention.
I’m also working my way through a field guide to Northeastern and Central American ferns.
Now that I’m working on an erotic novel of my own, I’ve been returning to James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime, which I was instructed to read several summers ago by a person who, at the time, understood me better than I understand myself. I didn’t read Sport until last summer, and I’m revisiting it now to see what it yields on a second turn, looking especially for motifs of projection and fantasy. Sport’s unnamed narrator—a useful device—describes for us an entirely imagined, feverish sex life between the two protagonists of the novel; I’m hoping to probe more closely how Salter’s narrator is constructed and how he functions in the book. After Sport? Light Years, Salter’s own favorite book—somehow, in the comedown from reading Sport for the first time, my vision was dreamy and blurred, as if I’d been out in the sun too long. I’d like to revisit that novel, too, with clearer eyes this time.
Click here for the first installment of our summer-reading guide.