Of small-town murders, sex and the high seas | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Of small-town murders, sex and the high seas 

Summer ReadingCall it Manifest Destiny, call it frontier spirit--escapism has always been at the heart of American culture. From the first explorers of the East Coast to the first astronauts on the moon, from television-watchers to beachgoers to Internet junkies, what would we Americans do with our lives if we weren't always departing them?

Thus, it is with true patriotic spirit that The Independent puts out the "Summer Reading" guide every year. In the following pages, we'll show you 19 ways to escape the heavy summer heat--by embarking on a whaling ship, delving into the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, or experiencing the pain and triumph of a young girl's first sexual encounters. So choose your own frontier, and pack a cold drink and a comfortable chair. We'll see you when you get back.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, (Viking, 302 pages, $24.95). Talk about a book you can't put down! This one not only held my attention, it haunted me for days afterward. It's the true story of the whalers whose ship was rammed and sunk by a huge sperm whale in 1821, the event that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville's epic sea tale, Moby Dick.

The sinking of the Essex however, was just the beginning for the crew of this ill-fated ship. Adrift in three little boats with only a small stash of food and water (including two live tortoises), these 20 unlucky whalers drifted almost 4,500 miles in the Pacific Ocean, hoping to reach the coast of South America. Only eight survived to tell the truth of their three-month odyssey.

In the Heart of the Sea opened a window into the past, telling me things I'd never known about the whaling industry, the Quaker businessmen who fattened themselves on its proceeds and the whale-haunted island of Nantucket. It also made me ask myself just how far I would go to survive. Would I kill and eat, say, my cousin? The captain of the Essex did. Believe me, from now on, I'm not even getting on a ferry without a protein bar and a bottle of Evian.

Swimming Sweet Arrow, by Maureen Gibbon (Little, Brown & Co., 205 pages, $21.95). It's rare to find an author who can write explicitly about sex without being either sentimental or crude. But from the first startling sentences of Maureen Gibbon's debut novel, Swimming Sweet Arrow, it's clear that she is one of those writers. In this vivid coming-of-age story, sex is the prism through which Gibbon's working-class heroine, Evangeline Raybuck, views her relationships with her best friend June, her boyfriend Del and the other men who come her way. It's also the battleground on which she tests the limits of her powers. It's exhilarating to find a fictional female character who's in control of her desires--even when they lead her into dangerous territory. "Vangie" is able to look at her wounds and learn from them. "Like any scar, they tell a story," she says.

Gibbon's language is clean and sharp, and cuts like a knife through the usual pretensions and clichés about working-class life. In her book, we experience drugs, sex, dead-end jobs and atomized families from a distance that's only skin-thin. With an artistry as straightforward as the arrow in the title of her novel, this author gives new meaning to the idea that sex is a life force.

Trans-sister Radio, by Chris Bohjalian (Harmony Books, 342 pages, $24). "Gender dysphoria"--the clinical term for people who believe their sex at birth is in error. Allison Banks, Carly Banks, Dana Stevens and Will Banks--four people whose lives are inexorably intertwined by love's uncertainties and the absolutes of gender.

Bohjalian's story begins in small-town Vermont when Allison Banks, a divorced schoolteacher and mother of college-bound Carly, decides to take a summer course in film and literature. There, she meets and falls in love with her instructor, Dana Stevens. Carly, soon to depart for her first year in college, couldn't be more pleased that her mother has finally found happiness. On the other hand, Will Banks, Allison's ex-husband and Carly's father, is still secretly in love with Allison, and gets very upset by the possibilities of her romantic attachment to another man.

Dana is unlike anyone Allison has ever been with: attentive, gentle, kind and an extraordinarily ardent lover. Moreover, Dana cares just as deeply for Allison. There is just one big problem, Dana has always known that he is a woman, genitalia be damned, and very soon he will be having a sex-change operation and must tell Allison.

Can Allison still love Dana after surgery, and would that make her a lesbian? How will Carly feel? How far will Will's secret jealousy push him to react, even though he has remarried? Will the hometown go crazy? I loved this story. It made me think long and hard about some of my own prejudices about homo- or heterosexuality. "Perhaps love has absolutely nothing to do with sexual preference," Bohjalian writes. "Perhaps you just fall in love with a person, gender be damned." Read it and form your own opinion or prejudice.

Lost Girls, by Andrew Pyper (Delacorte Press, 385 pages, $23.95). The protagonist in this book is thoroughly despicable, and, from about page 30, you know who "done it" and what the denouement is going to be. But it's the process, not the outcome, that counts as Canadian first-time novelist Andrew Pyper tries to turn John Grisham on his head.

Bartholomew Crane--a coke-snorting, ethically challenged young Toronto defense attorney--is sent on his first murder case into the creepy wilds of small-town northern Canada. The defendant, a high school teacher charged with murdering two adolescent girls, is deranged, uncooperative and most probably guilty, but there's not enough solid evidence (e.g., bodies and eyewitnesses) to convict him. Instead of making short shrift of the prosecution's case, Crane undergoes several weeks of pre-trial mental trauma, induced by the hostility of the town, drugs, nightmares and hallucinations until he finally "gets" what the reader has known for 300 pages.

Primarily a novel of atmosphere and psycho-tension, Lost Girls is good beach fare for readers who want a little tour de force.

Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams (Pantheon Books, 338 pages, $25). The Garden of Delights, the 15th-century triptych by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, has captivated, inspired and confused many people, including its first owner, Spain's dour King Philip II. Terry Tempest Williams, once a devout Mormon, grew up with a reproduction of the triptych's two side panels, "Hell" and "Paradise," over her bed, placed there by her grandmother. Her obsession with the painting finally took her to Madrid's Prado Museum, where she spent years absorbing its every detail. The experience sent her on a spiritual trip of return to nature and the rejection of Brigham Young's institutionalized church in favor of the mystic religion of Joseph Smith, the Latter Day Saints prophet. The current Mormon elders get short and unsympathetic shrift.

If you can tolerate Williams' self-indulgent reveries, you'll find rewarding excursions and digressions into political, artistic and spiritual history. Spain's famous Altamira cave paintings, Philip II, Federico García Lorca, Joseph Smith and Francisco Franco are just a few of the subjects of her often quirky meditations.

There are about 40 pages of notes at the end, with page markings. To understand many of her comments, you must read the notes along with the main text. A small but sharp reproduction of the triptych is inserted at the end. Arm yourself with a magnifying glass--Williams always viewed the painting with binoculars--to see the details.

Soldier: A Poet's Childhood, by June Jordan (Basic Books, 261 pages, $20). For June Jordan, who grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn in the 1940s, childhood was a series of boxing lessons. Born to West Indian immigrants, Jordan is torn between her reserved and deeply religious mother and her father--an elevator operator hell-bent on making a soldier out of his little girl. Destined to raise a daughter who can pass as a "virtual whiteman" skilled enough to outsmart a sexist and racist world, he trains Jordan to "come to be a fighter and win sheself a life to be proud about." Once she starts fighting, she never stops, and we watch her battle everything from her father's inexplicable physical abuse to the wonders of first love.

In this memoir, Jordan delineates in direct and vivid prose the memories that comprise her first 12 years. For lovers of June Jordan's poetry and essays, Soldier offers a glimpse into the origins of this poet's voice. We see the seeds of her anger, her fighting spirit and her poetic sensibilities created in most vivid experiences of childhood. Written very much from the perspective of a child, in the lyrically gifted style June Jordan is known for, her story is at once charming and disturbing. In the end, Jordan emerges as more of a warrior than a soldier, equipped at a young age to fight for her life, her language and her voice.

Carp Fishing on Valium, by Graham Parker (St. Martin's Press, 227 pages, $22.95). The power-pop prince of color vinyl and acid Brit lyrics has turned into an author, following the rocker-writer wave of Nick Cave, Rosanne Cash, Marshall Chapman and Steve Earle. Parker--known for his dead-on irony and blistering tongue as a songwriter and performer in the 1980s--delivers some pretty cool stories in this collection.

The best one? Well, it's about this singer who gets a shot at fronting the Rolling Stones when Mick Jagger dies. Keith calls him up, he auditions and everything, only (are the kids out of the room?) he doesn't really "show" well on stage. He sings fine, knows all the words, has all the moves, the band just thinks he doesn't have the "fair-sized wad" that Mick had on stage.

As a songwriter, Parker slammed old girlfriends, the government, even his record company. As a writer, he chooses wonderful venues for his stories, mixing the words together with the same passion he had 20 years ago. I mean how can you not want to read a story called "Carp Fishing on Valium?"

Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic, by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books, 332 pages, $15.95). Lester Bangs had the best of times, Lester Bangs had the worst of times.

If the name Lester Bangs means nothing to you, skip this review, for I only want to preach to the converted. If you "studied" Rolling Stone but laughed out loud and paid more attention to Creem then this is your book.

Rock 'n' roll coursed through Bangs' veins almost as much as alcohol and Romilar. He was a great rock critic. The sheer energy of his writing--a cross between Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompson--blew away the rock-crit deities of Christgau, Marcus, and Wenner. Bangs loved the music, hated charlatans and was either writing, drinking or playing it loud every waking minute.

DeRogatis is a worthy biographer, too, assembling early 50 pages of notes, bibliographies and source lists. Every Bangs' story is included, along with lots of candid snaps with his heroes, Lou Reed, Bruce, Patti Smith and the Clash.

Before Let It Blurt was released, the publisher leaked copies of a Bangs' freeloading, rollicking treatise entitled "How to Be a Rock Critic." It created quite a buzz. You get that, too, as a bonus track in Let It Blurt.

Miles and Me, by Quincy Troupe (University of California Press, 189 pages, $19.95). Troupe teaches literature at the University of California at San Diego, but he is best-known as a poet. In jazz circles, however, Professor T gained immortality when Miles, the autobiography of trumpet king Miles Davis, was published 11 years ago. It's a fantastic book, brimming with Davis' unflinching profundity and trademark profanity, and Troupe justifiably won an American Book Award as the co-author.

A slimmer volume, Miles and Me could have been titled Son of Miles, because it chronicles the writing of the original tome. Troupe's kiss-and-tell frames less drama and--just maybe--more fun. By turns, Troupe's Davis is unsentimental, self-contradictory, brooding, sly and surprisingly funny.

The author befriended Davis during the trumpeter's golden years, long after LPs like Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew had achieved legendary status. Davis the hip senior citizen emerges as a cranky, world-class musician who speaks in a hoarse whisper. His homemade street-slang is devilishly funky, landing somewhere between bebop and hip-hop. In Miles' world, everybody's a "mutha," friend and foe alike.

Through Troupe's intimate gaze and accessible prose, the reader meets a behind-the-scenes Miles that few knew. The amateur painter. A serious fan of contemporary pop who dug Prince and was curious about hip-hop culture. And someone at times uncomfortable with his own physical make-up. According to Troupe, Miles fretted about disappearing hair and even the color of his skin--that trademark, deep-toned black on black. These telling moments of self-doubt soften the common perception of Davis as unapologetically arrogant.

Instead of the legendary musician, Troupe portrays a man, warts and all, and a rather likable one at that.

Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, by Linda Dahl (Pantheon Books, 463 pages, $30). Williams was the most important female instrumentalist in jazz. Now, that's the truth--but it misses the point. As revealed by Dahl's careful research and no-nonsense prose, Williams lived one of those rollicking American stories that had to be told. And Dahl tells it in style, culminating in the most endearing musical bio since David Hajdu's provocative portrait of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life. Through her soul-baring letters and interviews with those who knew her intimately, Dahl gets inside Williams' head.

The career of this virtuoso pianist began in Pittsburgh, where she once played for a Mellon family tea, and flourished on the mean streets of Kansas City during the wild and wooly Pendergast years. She became a swing-era star in Andy Kirk's 12 Clouds of Joy, yet later championed the next generation of players, the bad boys of bebop. Perhaps no other musician was on a first-name basis with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. Everybody loved Mary Lou, it seemed, except sometimes Mary Lou herself.

Prone to depression, Williams struggled to find inner peace through music and--later in life--God. She combined the two in boldly sketched compositions like Mary Lou's Mass and St. Martin de Porres. Williams sometimes schizophrenically gigged at both piano bars and cathedrals. That head-spinning juxtaposition of secular and sacred--plunking the devil's music on Saturday night, for instance, then praising God on high the next morning--was a riddle the pianist never solved.

Of particular interest to locals is Dahl's detailed description of Williams' final years as artist-in-residence at Duke University, where, it appears, she achieved a certain degree of happiness. "She was a spirit, a presence, on the campus that was very important," remembered former university president Terry Sanford. And Williams, in turn, adored her students.

"If they're not careful," the pianist confided to a friend, "they're going to love this music." I wonder if Professor Williams' kids realized that they were looking the entire history of jazz right in the eyes?

On the Beaten Path, by Robert Alden Rubin (The Lyons Press, 256 pages, $24.95). While making my selection for this year's summer reading, I was preparing for a two-week vacation in the Southwest. Being from the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky, I thought On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage would be perfect reading for my trip. Robert Rubin finds himself burnt out, needing new experiences and a change. He gets far more than he ever bargained for--and by reading this wonderful book, so did I.

Every year nearly 2,000 hikers set out on the full incredible journey from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine. To make what is known as a "thruhike," hikers must cover 2,100 miles of rough and unyielding terrain. One in 10 will actually endure the fatigue of body and mind, and hike the whole length. Rubin is successful in completing the trail, but more successful in rebuilding his personal spirit.

He launches his trip on April Fool's Day, full of energy, clean-shaven, smiling a cheesy smile. Along the way he meets an intriguing cast of characters and learns lots of skills. The Rhymin' Worm, Rubin's trail name, learns how to "Yogi" food from passers-by, live on Snickers bars, and fit in with the unique and isolated subculture of hikers on the trail. He ends his hike on Day 194 atop a mountain in Maine. His body is tired, scratched and bruised; his face is covered in a full beard--but he is refreshed in mind and spirit.

I thought this book would be a nice little journal of pretty trees and beautiful mountains. It was, but it offered so much more. As I completed my 2,800-mile road trip in a comfortable car, sleeping in hotels and dining at fabulous restaurants, I was exhausted. This man completed his incredible journey and found himself renewed. Maybe next time my plans will be different.

Places in the Dark, by Thomas H. Cook (Bantam Books . 245 pages, $23.95). It's 1937. A mysterious woman appears in a small Maine town on the coast. No one knows who she is or where she is from. Two brothers fall in love with her--the youngest a passionate man who follows his heart in all he does, the elder guided by reason and logic. A year later, one of the brothers is found dead in the woman's rented house. The woman has disappeared and the remaining brother is left to search for his brother's murderer--tortured by the thought that the culprit was the woman he loved.

In this novel, Cook has created a complex story about the emotions of the heart and where they take us. Though not for the easily distracted, the story has an unexpected twist near the end that reminds us that the obvious choice in any scenario is often not the right one.

If you enjoy mysteries and have the courage to struggle through the drier parts, Places in the Dark will reward you in the end with the final triumph of the human soul in its the search for happiness.

Deep South, by Nevada Barr (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 340 pages, $23.95). All the best mystery fiction combines many elements. Along with an engaging hero or heroine to solve the cunningly constructed puzzles, a good mystery brings to life a particular place and its peculiar characters, and often the story plays out in such a way as to allow the author to comment on current social issues. A little sex or romance improves the mix, and of course, all this must be seasoned with enough danger and suspense to heighten our enjoyment of the story as we consume it on our cozy couches and beach blankets.

Nevada Barr is one of the best mystery writers working today, and her latest featuring national park ranger Anna Pigeon may be her most absorbing tale yet. Set in the Natchez Trace, Deep South showcases Barr's wonderful writing about the natural world, as have her previous books, all set in national parks where Barr herself has worked as a ranger. From field ranger on Colorado's dry rocky Mesa Verde, Pigeon has been promoted to district ranger-boss lady--on the Trace in steamy Mississippi, and from Day One finds herself in a morass of mud, murder and muscular alligators, not to mention male chauvinism and the heritage and hatred of slavery and the Civil War. Whoo. Don't start this one late in the evening, or you'll be up all night.

Good Vibrations: The New Complete Guide to Vibrators, by Joani Blank and Ann Whidden (Down There Press, 76 pages, $8.50). Though it's best to read this one under a discreet, tent-like sunbonnet, Good Vibrations will definitely preoccupy you at the beach. The manual has a little of everything, including a brief historical overview, quaint dildo portraits and a Disneyesque epilogue that reminds its readers: Yes, love still does have to do with it. (Yeah, whatever.)

The book's breakdown of the, er, hardware acts as a timeline as well--with the dinosaurs first-up: The Electric Series. Though the authors promise that these plug-ins have unique charms, it's their casual mention of words like "electrocution" that might initiate a user's swift conversion to the battery-run ilk.

There are chapters on partner play, harnesses, and toys for men, but the most priceless gems are in the authors' pragmatic banter. When they get going about cleaning supplies and warranties, you might imagine this to be some text-based version of The Goddess meets Car Talk.

This book also features the second-best story in literature about "30 dildos." Though the version here can't quite top the hilarious one in Allen Gurganus' Plays Well With Others, it definitely gets a thumbs-up for gross.

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, by Tom Robbins (Bantam Books, 415 pages, $27.50). Lord, lord, where do we start? With our hero's sacred careening quest to release an aging, cryptic parrot into the jungles of South America--the Pope on the one hand, a pyramid-headed witchdoctor on the other, and all manner of weirdos, murders, saints and sweet innocents cavorting in the middle?

Or with our hero himself, who wears suits in the tropics and has hypnotic green eyes, an eternal inability to shut up, and a hell-for-neoprene swashbuckling trajectory matched only by the amazing effectiveness of his every gesture? Or with his penchant for young girls, or with the nun (yes, the nun) who manages to, hmmm, persuade him that there's nothing like experience (not your usual nun), or with the swirling brilliance that is Robbins' sweeping literary eclectic showmanship (you'll be shaking your head in wonder, yes, you will) in general?

If you've never read a Tom Robbins novel, I wonder if Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is a good place to start. But just because the ocean is vast doesn't mean you can't go splashing around at the edges.

Even if it activates your built-in mental preservation filters controlling decency, chaos, unbridled joy and super-heated plasma happiness, that five percent or so of Robbins' writing that still squeaks by will have the intended effect of unhinging your mental shutters onto a vast panorama: sex, religion, politics, the inner life, the outer life, the afterlife, it's all here. And there really ain't no explaining it. So you might as well lean back in that chaise lounge, let the heat soak into your brain and start reading. And bring something to drink, really drink.

The Sky Unwashed, by Irene Zabytko (Algonquin, 263 pages, $22.95). Marusia Petrenko, a widow in her 70s, has spent her whole life in the same Ukrainian village. She has lived through war and the excesses of the communist regime to become a doting grandmother, a nagging mother-in-law and a pillar in her little community. Her neighbors, like her, milk their cows and tend their garden patches, lamenting how the younger generation is falling away from the old ways. The catch is that the young people all work at the nuclear power plant up the road: Chernobyl.

The Sky Unwashed, Irene Zabytko's first novel, begins with the Chernobyl accident, but it is not at heart a book about disaster. Instead, it focuses on the life that goes on afterwards. The family in the novel splits when they become refugees. Marusia Petrenko's daughter-in-law Zosia hustles up a black-market existence for her children and herself in the cities. Marusia, however, quietly boards a train back to her village. It is poisoned and deserted, but she decides to spend her last days there. What happens then is fascinating and heartfelt fiction. Zabytko, a Chicagoan of Ukrainian descent, has a fine unsentimental style that makes reading her a pleasure, grim as her subject may be.

Headlock, by Adam Berlin, (Algon-quin, 265 pages, $21.95). Had to settle for the cheap local vacation this summer? Wish you could have gone to Vegas instead? Take the trip in style in Adam Berlin's first novel. Headlock's hero is Odessa Rose, a likable enough guy with a blunt, honest narrative voice that reads a little like Hemingway with a conscience. Rose is a young man just out of college, parking cars for a living in New York City. All he learned in school was wrestling. In fact, Dess' one talent in this world is for beating the living daylights out of other guys who look at him wrong. And once he gets started, he doesn't know how to stop.

Turns out, Dess' cousin Gary has the perfect job for him. Gary is 400 pounds of generosity and charm, packed behind the wheel of a brand-new Jaguar. He's also a professional gambler who owes the wrong people, bad. Dess and Gary hit the road for Vegas, eating and reminiscing their way cross-country as they plot to win all that money back. Looks like Dess' skills are going to come in handy soon.

The great thing about this book is that these socially challenged cousins like each other so much, you get to like them, too. One note of warning, though: Headlock is not for the squeamish. The violence is glorified, but it sure is graphic.

  • Our recommendations for summer reading.

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