Maybe it’s the lethargy, the idle day drinking, or the increased awareness of physical sensation caused by synthetic crop top against sweaty skin, but long days under a hot sun seem to make for a popular backdrop to narrative abstraction, existential mediation, and cultural critique. Yeah, everyone’s publishing summer reading lists, but reading about summer (and all the angst, scandal, and frustrated possibility the months of lead-up anticipation seem to lend it) is just as good as trying to get through Anna Karenina for the fifth year in a row. Unfold that beach chair, rub in your sunscreen, and truly relax with some challenging explorations of class, race, and the dark side of female sexuality, all set in the most overrated season of the year.
SUMMER OF HATE BY CHRIS KRAUS
Best known for her feminist epistolary novel I Love Dick, Kraus brings her fast-paced style of ficto-criticism to the sunny climes of Los Angeles and New Mexico during the Bush years in Summer of Hate. Although certainly not not realist, Kraus' willingness to criticize and blunt prose feel like important departures from traditional narrative, though plot here is certainly not lacking: it’s a story about a professor/cultural critic who goes to New Mexico to escape a dangerous dom she met online and who subsequently almost kills her, and then she begins a love affair with her recently paroled property manager.
SAVAGE COAST BY MURIEL RUKEYSER
Last year, Feminist Press published an experimental autobiographical novel about a woman whose train to Barcelona is stopped for several days in baking heat as Spain descends into Civil War; it was written in the 1930s and resoundingly rejected for both form and content. Saying nothing (well, except this) of the narrator’s compartment-side affair with a German political exile during their train’s sweaty, days-long breakdown, the protagonist’s developing political radicalism in the face of fascism, or the “savage” death scenes, Rukeyser’s style – impressionistic, avant-garde, and often verging on the poetic – doesn’t make it hard to see why the hyperbolically conservative Cold War intellectual culture would have rejected her – or why she’s so appealing today.
THE GOALIE'S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK BY PETER HANDKE
Translated into English from German, Handke’s existential crisis novella takes on a particularly Austrian sense of disorientation, alienation, and anxiety as its protagonist plays a game of Wander Around-Wander Around-Murder Randomly that has drawn comparisons to Kafka (what’s going on around him is confusing) and Camus (what’s going on inside him is confusing).
THE BEACH BY ALEX GARLAND
What you probably know as a try-hard blockbuster tanker starring Leonardo DiCaprio wearing a necklace began as a perceptive, page-turning debut novel that really is better than the movie. The cult book questions the prototypical young backpacker’s faith in “escape through travel” by plopping his wanderlusty protagonist and band of wide-eyed “global citizens” in Thailand, where their hopes of finding truly unique, authentic experiences (while conveniently working on their tans!) are pretty quickly dashed.
TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA BY RICHARD BRAUTIGAN
Brautigan’s writing is best approached with a willingness to let its surreal weirdness close in around you; like the heat, it’s just going to be there. It’s hard to say what this book is about, exactly, though most critics are quick to make it clear it’s not trout fishing. It feels like a countercultural camping trip that draws a lot on nature – both as a confluence of absurdity and as a setting for confluences of absurdity to lead to profound observation.
NW BY ZADIE SMITH
Smith’s unequivocal best work is a modernist examination of urban London set in the unnaturally hot summer of 2010. The city’s unseasonable warmth is mentioned about as much it would be in reality – often – and like Smith’s other narratorial asides (“That was the year people began saying ‘literally.’”), the way she and her characters respond to the world is totally accurate, and a good point of entry for readers intimidated by the book’s fragmentary structure and multiple voices.
TAMPA BY ALISSA NUTTING
The humid horror of many-an American child’s summer vacation is the background for Nutting’s raunchy examination of a female pedophile that has been compared to Lolita… and that book also uses the summer heat as an excuse to let its vulnerable under-age characters show some skin and taunt the frothy-mouthed protagonist.
SUMMER OF LOVE: A TIME TRAVEL BY LISA MASON
If you couldn’t finish Vineland, Pynchon’s post-modern pseudo-lament for a long-gone Californian counterculture, try Mason’s lite sci-fi version – it’s got time travel, for a prescient critique of technology à la DFW. As usual, a high-stakes plan to save the world from some futuristic doom drives the plot, not least because of its inextricable linkage to the era-crossed love story at the novel’s core. And there are wacky names!
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME BY ANDRÉ ACIMAN
Hot in both literal and figurative senses of the word, Aciman's debut is the classic life-changing summer holiday romance story that most can only call bittersweet. As attraction builds to tension breaks to passion stretches to obsession charged with fear, the 17-year-old who comes of age and the grad student who is surprised/excited/scared/sad about his role in it act as the pillars for an in-depth examination of desire, plus, yes, hot soon-to-be-man-on-man action.
SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL BY HERMAN KOCH
Bitter, combative, and steaming with rage, frustration, and anger, the Dutch novel translated into English this year is compulsively readable despite its protagonist’s frank hideousness. Koch’s main character belongs in the Michel Houellebecq school of misanthropy, and the darkness of the narrative makes for a painfully sharp contrast against its sunny Mediterranean setting.
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