Fall off the shelves
It’s too cold for the porch at night and too hot for the slopes during the day. What’s a person to do?
Here are five suggestions to encourage thoughts of heading indoors and settling down with a good book.
Lisa Teasley’s Heat Signature (Bloomsbury) is equal parts noire-inflected thriller, road novel and rearview consideration of the anatomy of memory.
Sam Brown is a nurse living among the almost-shantytowns around Joshua Tree in the southeastern California desert, channeling—without knowing exactly why—July, his mother who was brutally raped and murdered some 15 years earlier.
He’s got troubled friends, a pesky, yet well-intentioned, stepfather, and a heading-toward-a-dead-end relationship with his pole-dancing girlfriend complete with diamondback tattoos winding up one of her legs. When he hears of the imminent release from prison of his mother’s killer, he decides it’s time to light and hits the road, heading up the coast to Oregon.
Although his trek is populated with more than a few willing women, he can neither escape his current dilemmas nor find answers to what’s haunted him all these years. Teasley deftly weaves together chapters that trace Brown’s odyssey with ones that reconstruct his mother’s life, leading to a confrontation with both the circumstances and perpetrators of her death.
The anomie, moral instability, of Teasley’s characters is acutely conjured—as Sam notes, “all of life is profoundly disappointing"—and their stutter-step eloquence takes us along on a ride through the complex psychological debris of the past to an emotionally candid assaying of love and loss, one that suggests that, even now, beauty might lie ahead.Every reading list ought to have at least one poetry suggestion on it, and my candidate for that is Light & Shade: New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press) by Tom Clark, a generous collection that offers an overview of the poet’s 40-odd year career.
His deceptively casual lyrics are intensely in the here-and-now, evoking modern painters, baseball, Bob Marley and a variety of landscapes—Santa Barbara’s fortune palms to Wyoming’s oil fields and Marin’s beaches. They’re also deeply reminiscent, elegiac and wryly metaphysical, watching both the skies and the sad weather of Clark’s own feelings.
The acrid humor of playfully juxtaposing high and low is a taut wire to walk, and few do it as well as Clark. Drawing his title from Keats, the poet notes that lyric poetry is a selective play of light emanating from a single fragile source, illuminating some things while leaving others in darkness—the shadow play of death’s immanence in life.
In Clark’s hands, poetry is indeed that: a collection of moments, days that can’t ease us, textured and shimmering, here and then gone. Elsewhere, Clark says that it seems he has not yet succeeded in shutting up. That is good news for us.Field of Darkness(Mysterious Press) by Cornelia Read is another thriller worth checking out. Madeline Dare—a former debutante, now upstate New York reporter—is not one of those who can be happy anywhere, especially in Syracuse, 1988.
She’s waiting for her quasi-farmboy-inventor husband to perfect oil-rig drilling tools while writing about the varietals of state fair cuisine when she is drawn into the 20-year-old murders of two hippie girls. After finding her own wealthy cousin’s Vietnam-era dogtags at a local farm auction, her initial desire to exonerate him pulls her deeper and deeper into a series of family intrigues, new murders.
Read’s darkly funny plot zips along, and this debut novel is saved from the perils of the whodunit genre by her sassy, smart dialogue and wittily barbed observations: The city of sore excuse is filled with garbage blanc; she remembers things while they are still happening, vujà dé; her money’s so old it’s gone; mealtime conversation is like watching Fellini movies with Tom Wolfe on acid.In Read’s darkened field, the ghosts of history are in the background, in the overlooked details and the negative spaces.
A Brief History of the Dead (Pantheon) by Kevin Brockmeier is a quasi-futuristic novel set in the really near future, perhaps the day after tomorrow. Humanity consists of the living, the dead who are still living in the memories of those alive, and the dead and forgotten.
A nameless city (with a certain resemblance to New York) is inhabited by the recently departed who are there—living almost familiar day-to-day existences—only as long as they remain in someone’s memory. “The blinks,” a rapidly spreading viral pandemic, brings many new arrivals to the city; then the population begins to rapidly disappear as fewer and fewer of the living are alive to remember them.
Portraits of life in the city alternate with the tale of a young woman trapped in an Antarctic research station frantically trying both to escape and remember everyone she’s ever met. Although he doesn’t quite succeed in weaving the two stories together, Brockmeier does manage to craft an intricate and compelling metaphor, an allegory on the importance of memory remaining before we’re pulled into whatever’s next.Last up here is a travel book of sorts, The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall (North Point) by Lawrence Osborne. In this literate peregrination, the premise is that the essence of contemporary travel —attempts at finding yourself while in the presence of the “other"—is a total sham.
There were something like 25 million travelers in 1950, a number that hit more than 700 million in 2002. What all these pilgrims have found is that the exotique—otherness—has expired, and traveling is pretty much just a trek through simulacra after simulacra.
These days, the principal occupation in most parts of the world is feeding and entertaining other touristic humans. With that clearly said, Osborne sets out on a six-month journey over the Asian Highway—from the Middle to the Far East, from Dubai through India and Thailand (some interesting weird tourist “clinics” there) to Papua, New Guinea.
This is not by any means a guidebook—we get histories of the Grand Tour and the anthropological assessments of Margaret Mead and Claude Levi Strauss, among others—but rather a series of idiosyncratic encounters, leavened with Osborne’s sardonic but self-deprecating, dry British wit.