Murder, hunger and alligator-wrestling

A few summer-reading recommendations inspired by spring’s moody weather

Book-cover detail from Karen Russell’s <i>Swamplandia!</i>

Book-cover detail from Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Summer reading list:
Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, by Janet Malcolm Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell Between Parentheses, by Roberto Bolaño Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton

Summer is certainly upon us, unleashing every day the sweat-streaked, high and dry valley heat we’re used to this time of year. But memories of recent unruly storms do persist, and rushes of unexpected wind bluster through our heated environs occasionally. Moods of mystery, haunted-ness, and anticipatory wonder that attend an enigmatic season are appropriately pervasive in a freshly published crop of books. Summer is traditionally a time for frivolous page-turners, and these recommendations are certainly engaging and provocative, but with a sprinkle of seriousness that elegantly match a warm but somewhat curious atmosphere.

Janet Malcolm, a long-time writer for The New Yorker, has made a reputation for herself as a sharp observer and reporter of injustice. While her work is primarily focused on “true crime”-style reportage, she also offers deep and innovative insights into the troubling nature of journalism itself. The first sentence of her 1989 study of true-crime writing, The Journalist and The Murderer, is a famous stunner: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Her unwillingness to hold back her discomfort with how journalism treats murder trials, or to excuse her own self from this scrutiny, and a deep love for literature and language continue to inform her latest, Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial. Largely concerned with the trial of a young woman accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband not long after he had been granted custody of their 4-year-old child, it is also of course the story of Malcolm herself grappling with the morality of her very project. It is precise, dark, daring writing.

Malcolm’s tale takes place against the backdrop of a distinctive place and culture, the Bukharian-Jewish community of Forest Hills, Queens.

Another writer who offers up fascination with a particular subculture’s rituals and preoccupations is the imaginative and delightful Karen Russell. In her first work, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2007), Russell produced a collection of highly acclaimed magical-realist short stories in which children are capricious, precocious things, undertaking strange adventures in the Florida Everglades. Now, Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia! seems to get bigger in its ambitions and subtler in its observations. It may be about a family of alligator-wrestlers, but it is far from aimlessly quirky or overly twee. Russell is a dreamer taking her readers into her wild dream by virtue of a remarkable facility with language. Swamplandia! should be a haunted and eerie but ultimately wonderfully rich place to lose oneself.

The late Roberto Bolaño’s last novel, 2666, was ripe with large, labyrinthian stories that unflinchingly examined humanity’s darker impulses, exposing some of the atrocities of violence taking place in the city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. A just-published collection of nonfiction essays, with the clever, distinctly writerly title Between Parentheses should further cement his literary reputation as an unparalleled thinker and humanist, and illuminate him further as a man with a charming, irreverent sense of humor. Writing on politics and literature, he can occasionally be brutal and almost cruelly merciless as he critiques and tosses off aphorisms, but he does it with such panache that you might admire his swagger.

There is a rawness, purity and simplicity in the prose found within Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s recent memoir Blood, Bones and Butter that echoes the reputation of the food of her New York restaurant Prune: unfussy, honest fare, served up with lots of personal devotion. Hamilton’s memoir tells, naturally, of her journey from some rough-and-tumble beginnings to an appreciated chef with a restaurant of her own, but is mostly concerned with poetic conjurings of food as a healer of wounds of the past and the many pangs of our everyday present. It’s a peculiar treat of a book that will pair nicely with our strange summer season.