Summer Reading: A Few Small Suggestions (and One 850-Page One)

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times has a lengthy list of summer reading suggestions, built on what the book section’s contributors are most looking forward to reading. My pick:

Exiles in the Garden by Ward Just (July 7): No novelist is more sensitive to the different moods of different cities than Just — his 2004 novel, An Unfinished Season, is a modern classic set in Chicago — so I’m eager to see how Vietnam War-era D.C. comes across in Exiles.

I could have gone on, and not only about Just, who deserves to be on the short list of great living American writers but has somehow failed to become a household name among the folks who care about such things. (It may be that Just is perceived as a “writer’s writer,” smart but esoteric, but that’s a limiting, unfair assessment. He’s highly readable, and even his Washington novels aren’t sunk in wonkishness.) There are plenty of books I’m either excited about reading or finishing, or which I’ve eagerly recommended to people in recent months. Among the 2009 books I’d suggest for the beach bag are Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, an entertainingly sinister tale of a love triangle in the Wisconsin wilderness; Gary Indiana‘s The Shanghai Gesture, a riff on old-fashioned Fu Manchu stories whose satire cloaks some genuinely felt concern about current-day helplessness in the face of globalization; George PelecanosThe Way Home, another morality tale about a neglected corner of D.C. life, this time the products of juvenile correctional institutions, that’s bolstered by its precise characterizations and Pelecanos’ increasingly stripped-down style; Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, a collection of elegant, ghostly, yet never melodramatic love stories set in Stockholm, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and other far-flung settings; Charlie HaasThe Enthusiast, an easygoing comic novel about an editor in the curious world of niche magazines; and Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s A Drifting Life, a magnificent sprawling memoir from the manga pioneer that explores the nature of creation, the business of art, and the frustrating path to self-awareness. (At 850-plus pages, that last one probably won’t work well for the beach bag, which probably speaks to my lack of knowledge about what works well for the beach. I’ve never been much for the outdoors.)

Like a couple of my Sun-Times contributor colleagues, I’m looking forward to Thomas Pynchon‘s Inherent Vice (though there’s plenty of Pynchon I’d like to get to before that one), but I’m just as interested in Colum McCann‘s portrait of New York City in the early 70s, Let the Great World Spin, Lisa See‘s Shanghai Girls, Glen David Gold‘s Sunnyside, Kevin Canty‘s story collection Where the Money Went, the re-publication of Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 cult novel, Nog, and Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement. That last one doesn’t come out until October, but that’s the funny thing about book reviewers—one of the best things about summer is looking forward to the books that come out in fall.

Forgotten Ladies

Longtime journalist and fiction writer Gary Indiana—his new novel, The Shanghai Gesture, sits in my to-be-read pile—uses his engaging if mind-zappingly Day-Glo blog to enthuse about Jane Bowles‘ 1943 novel, Two Serious Ladies, which he argues isn’t just a lost classic but indeed a “perfect book.” There are a couple of obvious reasons why the book seems to have fallen off the larger critical radar: Bowles’ career was overshadowed by that of her more famous husband, Paul, and its lesbian themes didn’t go over well with a World War II-era audience. Best as I can tell, the book is currently out of print in the U.S., though relatively affordable used copies are available (I’m considering this one, by virtue of its cover alone). (Update: Once again, a wise commenter corrects me, noting that the novel is included in My Sister’s Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles.)

But if there were problems with bad timing then, there are no excuses now. Indiana writes:

The structure of Two Serious Ladies has, as far as I know, no direct precedent in literature. Neither the lives nor the happenings in the two women’s lives are at all intertwined, nor do they “alternate” the way novels rich in subplots do. The book simply, abruptly, abandons Christina Goering in mid-¬novel, so to speak, and jumps into the story of the Copperfields in Panama….

Jane Bowles devised a brilliantly original technique to splice two almost completely disconnected narratives into perfectly harmonious movements of the same story. Each mirrors the other in ways that are both logical and inexplicable. Two Serious Ladies captures the haphazardness of human connections in a world of transience. The two brief moments of contact between its subjects constitute the book’s sole concession to “plot.” It’s the finest novel ever written by an American, actually, the only one I’ve never repeatedly picked up without reading straight through to the end.

The book certainly struck Bowles’ husband. As Millicent Dillon writes in A Little Original Sin, her biography of Jane Bowles, “Two Serious Ladies had a profound influence on Paul when he read it. As he himself says, it was the generating force that brought him back to fiction. And there is, in fact, in The Sheltering Sky a curious resemblance to Two Serious Ladies…. [Both] are novels that deal with the same basic themes: choice, sin, sex, and the spirit.”