Summer begins with a stack of books

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stack of booksI haven’t taught a class since the last part of April, but it still hasn’t felt like summer. Something was missing. It wasn’t the hot weather; we’ve had plenty of that. It wasn’t the absence of a graduation ceremony; those have been happening all over the place. Things are planted, the air conditioning has been on and I haven’t had to “work” in over a month. But it still didn’t feel like summer. Enter the stack of books.

Escaping the slump

Every now and then, I find myself in a bit of a reading slump. Which isn’t to say that I’m not reading anything; I am always reading something. It’s just about how enthusiastic I am about what I’m reading.

Would I rather read my book than watch anything on tv? Does it become almost impossible for my husband to convince me to leave the couch (and my book)? Does getting up to eat something, let alone the fixing of something to eat, seem like entirely too much bother? Do I sometimes glance up from my book at the weather outside or the inside of my house and think to myself, “Where am I?” If the answer to any of these questions are yes, than I am into a book. If the answer is universally no, then I’m just reading.

It’s hard to predict exactly where you’ll be on this spectrum. The book has something to do with it, but it also has a lot to do with your own psychological state. Are you in a place where reading for 48 straight hours is what’s going to make you happy? This weekend, I was.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

From my stack of books, I started with Therese Ann Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I could tell myself that though I was not actually writing, I was at least reading about a writer’s life.

Z a novel of Zelda FitzgeraldThere is something so seductive about the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Something even more interesting about their lives as seen through the perspectives of the women they chewed up and spit out; this was what I loved about The Paris Wife and what’s also enjoyable about Z. And they did chew their women up and spit them out. It’s hard not to see it that way.

When I was younger, I thought if I was going to be a writer, there’d have to be some heavy drinking in my future. Some very bad relationships. Perhaps a suicide attempt. Perhaps a successful one. It all sounded like a bit too much. That generation of writers waged the most successful marketing campaign for the writing life ever. They are who we think of when we think about writing. Which is why I’m very glad for authors like Elizabeth Strout.

The Burgess Boys

I know almost nothing about Elizabeth Strout’s life. Really. Zilch. I’m guessing she’s from Maine. She appears to be married. I’ve seen her picture. She doesn’t look like a woman who stays out all night drinking in Paris or runs with the bulls. I could be wrong. She doesn’t look like a woman who produces amazing literature. But she is. I take comfort in that. I imagine her life is very ordinary, and so it is possible to produce great literature from within the safety of an ordinary life.

Her newest novel is The Burgess Boys. It’s the most exotic one yet, because there are Somali in it. Granted, they are Somali who live in Maine. It starts with one of the Burgess boys, the youngest of them, throwing a pig’s head into a mosque in Shirley Falls. And then what happens? Not as much as you’d think. Really, a pig’s head in a mosque is enough.

The Burgess Boys is, for me, the least Maine-ish of her novels so far. You travel to Maine. A lot of action takes place in Maine. But it is very much about Mainers who have somehow become lost from their Maine-ness. Living in New York City will do that to you–wipe the Maine right out of you.

The Burgess BoysThe Burgess Boys is no Olive Kitteridge. There isn’t even an Olive Kitteridge-like person. No Fat Bev. This is part of what makes it feel less Maine-ish. It’s not high concept either. You read a lot in publishing about the high concept novel. A lot of agents are looking for high-concept this or that. But here’s what I love about Elizabeth Strout: a pig’s head thrown into a mosque is arguably, high concept. But what happens afterwards–not so much.

At least not so much in the vein of high action. People walk around New York. They drive to Maine. They sit in cold houses. There’s a trial. Some infidelity. A lawsuit. None of this is as exciting as it sounds. Which is not to say it’s not engrossing enough to glue you to your couch for 24 hours. It is. But the novel glues you there with the characters, rather than with the amazingly improbable things that happen to them.

In the end, people do they best the can in Strout’s novel. They are flawed and sometimes unlikable, but they muddle through. Because I hope this is the way the world is and would certainly like for it to be, I appreciate this in a story. It’s a good way to start the summer.

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