The first real vacation days of summer are upon us, and we have five novels and memoirs we highly recommend to kickstart this unofficial season of reading. Some of the titles may seem a tad dark for the beach, like a memoir about late-stage Lyme Disease that will ensure you don’t forget to pack that Deet, a novel about a woman serving two life sentences, and a story collection that is chilling even by Southern Gothic standards. But considering the news, real and fake, these are all welcome escapes.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
How much does circumstance affect our happiness and achievement in life? For Romy Hall, who is serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years in a women’s penitentiary, unfortunate circumstances seem to have dominated her life.
Rachel Kushner’s main character in The Mars Room is not a fish out of water like in Orange Is The New Black, and no, you don’t already know this story. This is not the tale of how a privileged woman ends up inside a jail. Romy Hall is a former strip club dancer from San Francisco, with a young son, scraping by during the early 2000’s. The book flashes through Stanville, the women’s prison where Hall is living out her sentence; San Francisco, where she spent her raw childhood; and Los Angeles, where she briefly lived with her son. No matter the location, she suffers under an oppressive umbrella of poverty and the threat of violence. Along the way, we meet the family she’s made in jail, a conflicted GED teacher who sneaks in books, her fair-weather boyfriend, Jimmy Darling, her son, her mother, and her unhinged stalker.
The author excels at developing fringe characters and creating vivid time periods. Kushner’s last book, The Flamethrowers, sped along on a cocktail of motorcycles and art world glamour, while The Mars Room whispers the voices of invisible citizens tiptoeing past armed guards and sexual predators. It’s not a plot-driven page-turner, but The Mars Room is a slow boil that unflinchingly examines issues with the justice system and incarceration in this country. (more…) —Meredith Craig de Pietro
Florida, by Lauren Groff
I spent the first nine years of my childhood in Florida, and my memories involve exactly the kinds of things you associate with the Sunshine State, like sandy beaches and Disney World. But they also run wilder. I vividly recall my best friend’s mother slicing a snake thicker than her arm in half with an ax—on the way from the garage to the car. Armadillos ran around her backyard. Palmetto bugs climbed up my legs. And no doubt because it was the 80s, but also because the state seems to encourage recklessness, I witnessed a decent amount of drunkenness and domestic violence.
Lauren Groff’s new collection, Florida, picks up on the danger that runs just beneath the surface of this seemingly placid state and the outwardly stable lives of married couples, and amplifies the terror to a hallucinatory level. In one story, two sisters are abandoned on an island for day trippers and fishermen. In another, a boy is abandoned by his mother only to lose his father on a snake hunting expedition, and seems headed toward a similar fate. And resurfacing in a few stories are women who find that Florida’s brutal elements—its hurricanes and panthers—are easier battles than their distant and/or cheating partners. Even when Groff sets her stories far from her titular state, the darkness remains, with the occasional patch of light that shines in. This sort of chilling Southern Gothic fare is not what you might expect from Groff, but it’s a mesmerizing departure.—Nicole Davis
Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan
When we first meet Tom, arriving back in Ireland, his mind broken from trauma after three years under siege in Sarajevo, we see him kneel to check the contents of a battered metal box he has carried all this way. This object of reverence remains with him throughout the story, as the narrative circles in on its contents, the dark heart of his most painful memories. Reunited with childhood friends, Karl and Baz, the trio embark on a journey from Dublin to California to deliver Tom to an experimental PTSD clinic called Restless Souls in hope of saving him, and in the process, perhaps themselves. Haunted by the loss of the fourth member to suicide, the group of friends at the heart of the story are all lost in their own way, and we meet them with the dust of their youth’s shattered dreams yet to settle.
This is the terrain of Dan Sheehan’s stunning debut novel Restless Souls, an urgent and moving exploration of friendship, trauma and grief, that is also, improbably, very funny. Sheehan’s sentences have the power to break your heart one moment, and the next, to make you laugh, leaving you shocked at your own capacity to recover, just as the characters within the story somehow find joy within absolute despair. A family dinner to drown out the sound of the gunfire. A colony of sea elephants at a fractured moment on their road trip. It is the beautiful absurdity of existence, that even at its most bleak there will be moments of humanity and redemption.
It is a testimony to the strength of this story that I am left thinking about that box of Tom’s long after I’ve finished the book: how we all carry something with us through life, and these memories have the power both to bring us down and to save us.—Tyler Wetherall
To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine
Viv Albertine, the former guitarist for the legendary British female punk group the Slits, made a splash in the literary world in 2014 with her first-ever book, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, which chronicled her life through ‘70s punk rock; her retirement from music during the ‘80s and ‘90s as she embraced marriage and motherhood; and her comeback as a performer in her 50s. Critics were wowed by her eloquent yet unsentimental writing style. Now Albertine returns again with a second memoir, To Throw Away Unopened, and like its predecessor, it’s is equally brutal and devastatingly frank. The death of her 95-year-old mother Kathleen, which occurred ironically on the night of Albertine’s book launch for Clothes four years ago, serves as the frame for this new book. Less-music focused, To Throw Away Unopened examines dysfunctional family relationships within Albertine’s household during the author’s childhood, particularly involving her cruel and abusive father. In addition to recalling the past, Albertine looks at present-day issues such as feminism, sexism, and the challenges of dating and raising her daughter as a single woman—all of it quite fitting in the era of #MeToo. Memoirs by celebrities often have a tendency to sugarcoat things and have everything wrapped up in a neat little bow; To Throw Away Unopened isn’t one of those. It confronts the romanticized myth of the ideal perfect nuclear family in a way that is unsettling, realistic and honest.—David Chiu
Read more of David’s recommended summer reads here.
Sick by Porochista Khakpour
Porochista Khakpour was sick for years before she knew why, always, as she writes in her memoir, she felt, “I was born in the wrong body.” She’s been in physical pain her entire life, in her joints, her balance, in her insomnia, in panic attacks and tremors. Her memoir, Sick, is the story of her attempts to find out why, a travelogue for both an external journey that takes her from Iran to California to New York and Santa Fe among other physical locations in between, and an internal one, to find a name for the cause of the pain that’s made her feel displaced for her entire life.
She fled Iran as an infant with her parents during the 1979 revolution, settling with them in Southern California, but never quite feeling at home there, as an immigrant, a brown woman among white spaces. Her physical and emotional discomfort were so intertwined, doctors were more likely to suggest psychiatric options than treatment for what Khakpour ultimately finds is the cause of her misery: a rare, chronic form of Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness that attacks the body’s soft tissues leading to all of the ailments that confounded her and and her doctors for years.
Sick does not offer a neat narrative of triumph or at least of acceptance, that many similar medical memoirs tend to be. Khakpour admits that was the story she wanted to write, but her body wouldn’t allow it. Readers are better off for her raw honesty. As Congress continues to play Russian roulette with the American healthcare system, Sick should be required reading for lawmakers and doctors alike, who claim to feel, but maybe not truly understand, what it means to be chronically sick in America.—Ilana Novick (read her full review here)