When we were thinking of who we wanted to ask for a summer reading list, our minds went straight to P. T. Smith. We follow him on Twitter and you should, too. He’s constantly making us think and providing us with wonderful, under-the-radar book recommendations. Thank you so much for sharing your list, P. T.
P. T. Smith is a reader and writer living in Vermont. He coordinates the Best Translated Book Award.
The season has been the most I’ve thought about what makes for a summer read in more than a minute. Then Literary North asked me to contribute a post and I thought about it some more. I am no further along than I was before. A summer read is a book you read during the summer. A beach read is a book you read on a beach. The one thing I have figured out: summer is a time for a drifting, languid mind. So maybe the books should have something like that, a book that itself drifts, or lets you.
The Torrent, by Anne Hébert, translated by Gwendolyn Moore
Anne Hébert’s debut, The Torrent, is my current summer read. I finished the title novella by Sterling Pond, and then the first story at Hender’s in Waterbury. Written between 1938 and 1962, this is the book that began the career of a Quebecois master. It was an oppressively hot day, where air wraps around your whole body, pressing against that layer of sweat covering every inch of you. Fitting for reading anything by Hébert. Her characters are oppressed, unable to breath or think, by the forces constraining them: mothers, fathers, the church, a convent, wives, doctors, the basic struggle to exist. In “The Torrent,” a young boy lives far outside a small community in Quebec, lives alone with a brutal mother who wants to order every bit of his life…and the story takes a devastating, brutal turn, and does not look back. Hébert is always intense, and always brilliant. Most of her work is out of print in English, but not all, so start with Kamouraska. For a little more on her, and my love for her, see my post at Three Percent.
Searoad, by Ursula K. LeGuin
I’ve been reading story collections this summer. They’re suited to lots of starts and stops: read a story, go swim in the lake or the stream; hike to a peak, read a bit before turning around; read a story and throw the toy for the dog; just nap in some sunny grass and attempt to read one. These interlinked stories from LeGuin aren’t SF or fantasy, but a portrait of an imaginary coastal vacation town in Oregon. We meet families, broken and not, we meet lovers, we meet lonely people, we meet people with more hope than regret, and those with more regret than hope. LeGuin does not create perfect people, but complex people, some better than others, with precise attention, care, fierceness, and love. LeGuin is tender towards all of these people, even when plainly laying out their damage, and the damage they do.
These Festive Nights, by Marie-Clair Blais, translated by Sheila Fischman
In 1995, Blais published a novel translated into English as These Festive Nights. It was the first in a ten-volume series, called Soifs, with the last book published in 2018 and not yet translated. It’s a summer read because I’m making my way through the translations at an achingly slow pace, so one of them will probably be a summer read again next year. They’re also summer reads because Blais is from Quebec, but an American citizen who makes her home in the Florida Keys. Much of These Festive Nights is set in the Keys and on beaches. It’s a book where heat exits. These novels are stream of consciousness, and if you ever wanted a modern-day version of Virginia Woolf (with longer sentences), where the scale of characters she’s portraying is absolutely massive, then Blais is for you. She has a vision, and it’s one I’ve seen nowhere else. It’s a mural of contemporary life, with the minds and thoughts of characters separated by distance, time, age, class, race, politics, life and death, coming together, meeting, interlocking, and reacting in the same sentence. Blais takes on the justice system, the KKK, AIDS, art, poverty, police violence, sexuality, marriage, sex, gender roles, love, boredom.
History. A Mess., by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, translated by Lytton Smith
This just came out this month. It’s the first novel by Pálsdóttir. It’s terribly playful, smart, fun, and dead serious in subject. Open Letter has published three books by Pálsdóttir’s husband, Bragi Olfasson. I mention that only because of how much this book has in common: it’s a short, quirky book that takes an unconventional approach to narrative, with a narrator who is obsessively caught up in their own thoughts and anxious paranoia; scenes are often visually hysterical; and something is going terribly wrong, and getting worse. But History. A Mess. is also just better than his last one, and the mind of a woman obsessing over what others think of her might be different than the mind of a man doing the same. Here, a woman makes a ground-breaking historical discovery, puts in years of work on a book about it, and finds out she made a huge, and obvious, mistake. Follow her as she tries to make a decision on how to handle it, interprets every little word and action of all her friends and family without talking with anyone to confirm her interpretation. It’s fun and light until too many things go wrong, and Palsdottir has lots to say about the role of women in history and art, and the narrator is unceasingly aware of the responsibilities, the unfair burdens, that rest on women who undertake or study that work now. It’s also a novel about the relationships between women, friends, mothers.
The Invented Part, by Rodrigo Fresan, translated by Will Vanderhyden
I’m rereading this to prepare for the sequel The Dreamed Part, coming in November. It first read it two summers again, and it saved me. I wrote about that for Three Percent. The first section has parents reading on the beach, enjoying vacation, while their child swims and ponders what exactly a vacation is, what it does. If you’re over the age of say, five, you probably have nostalgia for summer. This is a book of memory and nostalgia, but it is smarter and deeper than those movies and shows that do little more than sell nostalgia. He must reference these things because they are part of what gives his world meaning, and how any understanding is passed on. Fresán loves classic rock, pop culture, literature, toys, anything resembling creativity and storytelling. Time is malleable in the summer; memory, time, narrative, all of it is malleable in The Invented Part. A book where you make slow progress, taking time with each sentence, yet you don’t look up from the page, and time is gone. Nabokov + Pynchon but add in a generous and joyous desire to connect. It brings me out of the heaviness of life to bring me back, lighter, like summer can.