At present there are enormous snowflakes falling from the sky, almost joke-snowflakes because of their size and today’s date. It is April 23rd, eight days til May. In spite of this, it is time for the Annual Summer Reading List: Subtitle: Attempting The Impossible.
Do I cancel my Netflix account? Describe my project to a sympathetic doctor who can prescribe some legal mental stimulants? Probably I should stop thinking of hypotheticals and just start reading.
I’ve come up with 35 books to read this summer as I begin my thesis, teach a few different writing courses, and also try to chillax by the pool, so I’ve designed a few different categories of book:
I. Reading For Fun: On the Train, At the Pool, During Dinner, and In Bed:
1. Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton. I’ve just started this book and I have absolutely no distance from it because it brings back (in waves!) all my memories of high school swim team. What I like so far: the watercolor illustrations and the vivid descriptions of smell. One down, 34 to go!
2. Class A, Lucas Mann. Looking forward to hearing this classmate of mine read from his new book (on baseball!) tonight at our local bookstore. Signed copiez only Summer 2013.
3. Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee. I’m going off David Shield’s reading list here and also the recommendation of an esteemed friend. Fiction! South Africa! Crime! Violence! Drama!
4. Syzygy, Beauty, T. Fleischmann. This was totally on my reading list last summer and I failed. A fellow Iowa alum and, as I’ve heard, breathtakingly poetic short essays.
5. Tenth of December, George Saunders. Who isn’t reading this book this summer? I read the first story and it turned my brain upside-down longer than temporarily.
6. This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz. I’d honestly forgotten about fiction for a hot minute, last summer, by the pool, until I picked up an old New Yorker and started reading a short story by Junot Díaz. When I finished the story I looked up from the magazine and realized I had no idea where I was, who I was, or what I was doing at the pool. I hope these stories are as absorbing as that one was—and as invigorating as Oscar Wao was.
7. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem. A little slice of Brooklyn for my Iowa summer.
8. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust. I have a feeling that I won’t finish this monster of a book by the end of this semester and I am DETERMINED to finish it. One reverent, perfumed, long-ass sentence at a time.
9. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm. An attempt to replace my Law & Order SVU addiction.
10. The Balloonists, Eula Biss. My reading list has some grad school nepotism, but whatever. Gimme fragments, gimme memory, gimme essays that look like poems.
Keep reading, after the break—>
“Procrastination is just a way of challenging yourself to be a genius at the last minute.”
We’ve started calling them “safe spaces:” the inside of the empty noodle restaurant, or deep in the melee of discount bikinis at T.J. Maxx. The hamburger place across the river used to be one, but then the nighttime waitress was a student in my class, and the booth-style partition, offering anonymity while sitting, revealed upon standing an adult woman whose childhood antics had been the primary subject of my dinner date’s extended narrative.
There are hardly any safe spaces left. The vintage resale shop, the library, both Indian lunch buffets, the basement floor of the English Department, the organic food store, the bookstore’s cafe: none of these are safe spaces. Not even my own apartment. The walls are thin, and my voice has always been loud. Not even the sidewalk, any sidewalk: the ground here always seems to be listening, glistening now in the spring rain, ready to reflect any sideways glance. The ground here is damp and clay, waiting to catch the imprint of any misstep.
1/3 of the books, alongside the single white rose I got from a handsome prince, just kidding, the bookstore clerk, who was handing out flowers for National Book Day.
“A friend reads what I’ve been writing and says to me over coffee, “You’re romanticizing the street. Don’t you know that New York has lost seventy-five percent of its manufacturing base?” In my mind’s eye I stare into the faces of all the women and men with whom I interact daily. Hey you people, I address them silently, did you hear what my friend just said? The city is doomed, the middle class has deserted New York, the corporations are in Texas, Jersey, Taiwan. You’re gone, you’re outta here, it’s all over. How come you’re still on the street?
New York isn’t jobs, they reply, it’s temperament. Most people are in New York because they need evidence—in large quantities—of human expressiveness; and they need it, not now and then, but every day. That is what they need. Those who go off to the manageable cities can do without; those who come to New York cannot.
Or perhaps I should say that it is I who cannot.
Four-leaf clovers. I have one that somebody who always finds them gave me and one I found myself. Many children take a stem from one three-leaf clover and a stem and a leaf from another and tie the stems together, in full consciousness that it is not the same. I know that. When I was last at my wit’s end, I dreamed I parked my car on my way to my stabled horse and found the country roadside absolutely strewn with silver. It was also overgrown with poison ivy, vicious, three-leafed, shining. It was by no means a parable about capitalism and making money. I believe in both, and would not think of dreaming against either. Anyway, I do not dream in parables.
But poison ivy. May people, particularly children, have poison ivy very often, very badly. They speak of it. They do not forget it. But there is an outer limit, a kind that passes any question of degree. Those who have utterly had it instantly recognize each other—like the Jews and homosexuals in Proust. It has no dignity whatever. There are no poison-ivy heroes. As homesickness, at camp or school, can be a first intuition of death and bereavement, this creeping thing is most nearly a child’s premonitory sense of mortal illness. I had it once when I needed to be lead blindly to the school infirmary by a girl who had the flu. I put two fingers around her wrist so she could lead me. The next day there was a neat circle of poison ivy around her wrist. That was a friend. There are other such cabals, reverse elites of outer limit, junkies, sufferers from migraines, the truly seasick, soldiers’ fear in wartime, certain cramps. Many people suffer from cramps severely, turn quite silent, green, and shaky. Someone offers them a glass of gin. But there are cramps of an entirely other order, when even hardened doctors—knowing it is not important, only temporary, only a matter of hours—reach for the Demerol and the needle. It must be so in each lonely degrading thing from which one comes back having learned nothing whatsoever. There are no conclusions to be drawn from it. Lonely people see double entendres everywhere.
“I often wonder about the people who linger over trash baskets at the corners of the city’s sidewalks. One sees them day and night, young and old, well dressed, in rags—often with shopping bags—picking over the trash. They pick out newspapers, envelopes. They discard things. I often wonder who they are and what they’re after. I approach and cannot ask them. Anyway, they scurry off. Sometimes I think they are writers who do not write. That “writers write” is meant to be self-evident. People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.”
I read a lot of books about Egyptian burials as a child
the discoveries at Pompeii
she could never let her nails dry to a hard lacquer
what can I say, I need both my hands to pull on my jeans
How I feel sometimes after teaching.
At CVS I bought black sheer pantyhose, why not, good to have, just in case, they never last, one ragged fingernail and it’s all over, not that I have anywhere appropriate to present the translucent form of my calves to anyway, but the little egg-shaped carton is a nice reminder that such places exist.
I was greeted with high suspicion from the young pharmacist, maybe because I had my whole winter coat on. The idea was that if I was uncomfortably hot, I would prevent myself from lingering in the aisles and buying unnecessary items like sheer black pantyhose. It didn’t work. It did remind me that I’d taken the last of the little red sinus pills, and there I was presenting the off-brand pseudoephedrine ticket with my nearly-expired driver’s license. You know, the calling card you pluck from the shelf to imitate the action of buying?
There is definitely something to like about this intense regulation. It’s very un-American and therefore I feel that I am travelling. And with what little excitement I have these days, a certain excitement at being suspicious. What’s the address on the ID, asked the young pharmacist, holding it close to his nose, quizzing me. The license still has my New York address, so I felt doubly foreign, and eager to please, as though attempting to cross some fraught border.
The young pharmacist did not have enough seniority to approve my 24-count of sinus tablets, and while we waited, he said, they’re working to develop a pseudoephedrine you can’t extract meth from.
That’s great, I said, perhaps with a little more excitement than I meant. There was silence over my red basket of items as we waited for the manager. How many people came to this particular CVS hoping to redeem enough Sudafed tokens to cook up a batch of meth? Is nail polish an ingredient? Do you strain the cooked product through a layer of pantyhose cheesecloth? And oh my god, ziploc bags for sure, especially this small size. I know nothing—I couldn’t watch past the first episode of Breaking Bad because there was too much light brown, too much heat. Much too stressful, and as I can now attest, a simple trip to CVS is enough danger and excitement for me.
(1) Yesterday on the way out of my apartment building, I paused in the narrow stairway to greet a neighbor. “Be careful out there,” he said. My face must have blanched. I wouldn’t say I directly imagined a police standoff, but when he explained, “It’s raining—it might get icy,” I realized I had definitely reached for something worse.
(2) When we got to our hotel in Australia, we put down our things right away and went out to sit in the courtyard. The birds chirped and sang and cried out broadly. I got up from my plastic chair and went to see if I could find the cage.
(3) Even this microscopic spider surprises me, lowering himself centimeter by centimeter, each extraordinary leg grasping at the air until he reaches my desk, something about his little life disturbing in me a deep reserve of selfishness I had no idea was there.