Summer Reads from Vela

Books by women for the last glorious gasp of summer!

Rachel Kushner’sThe Flamethrowers

Sure, I was predisposed to like Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. The story of a perceptive yet impressionable young female narrator in 1970s New York is woven in with revolutionary Italians and themes of speed, geography, class and feminism – basically, right up my alley. But what took the novel to next level for me was the fearlessness with which Kushner writes. She skirts on the edge of something in this book; she takes risks. This isn’t a safe novel – some of the themes aren’t totally drawn out and at times even fall short – but it pushes the boundaries, and at the end of day, I think that matters more in writing. I have an immense amount of respect for this book, and reading it has encouraged me to take more risks in my own writing.

Claire Vaye Watkins’Battleborn

I’d been seeing Claire Vaye Watkins’ work around some of my favorite websites and getting stoked on it, so I picked up Battleborn the first weekend I was back in the States. It was a good investment, since these are the kinds of stories you can really dig into, read over and over. Her craft is impeccable and her themes are richly rendered with precision, nuance and unflinching insight. –Lauren

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names

NoViolet had been haunting me for a long time before I read her debut novel We Need New Names. First, I fell in love with her name. I didn’t know if it was her birth name or an invented one at the time I read her short story “Hitting Budapest” in the Boston Review. However, through a series of serendipitous events, over a year later, I had the opportunity to interview her, and found out she had taken on that name in honor of her mother, who died when she was a baby. In NoViolet’s Zimbabwean, “no” means “with.” WithViolet, withViolet, withviolet. Her novel is full of names like her own, ones pregnant with meaning that endear and intrigue you even before you know the characters. Divided into two parts, the novel is narrated by young Darling as she journeys through childhood in Zimbabwe and young adulthood in the United States. Darling’s voice is like a wild, uncontrollable laugh, one that is so strong that I want to keep on hearing it. —Alice

Elizabeth Scarboro’s My Foreign Cities

There’s a lot to admire in Elizabeth Scarboro’s memoir My Foreign Cities – its storytelling, its humor, its vivid evocation of the Northern Californian landscape – but I was most struck by its egolessness. Though I love memoirs, I often find even the best of them to be a touch self-absorbed. But Scarboro manages to get out of the way of her story, making it seem as though there’s a force more urgent and powerful than her memory behind its telling. Quickly turning its pages, I felt as though I needed to know the story of her first love, and the inevitable loss of him to Cystic Fibrosis; I needed to know the way their limited time infused their days with life; I needed to know Stephen – stunningly imperfect, hilarious, maddening Stephen.

“We were propelled a thousand miles an hour by the fact that when you could see death, life was yours in an entirely different way,” Scarboro writes about the period of time leading up to a lung transplant Stephen undergoes. The whole book is imbued with this sense that everything they did, from risky surgeries and endless hospital stays to an impromptu marriage proposal at the top of an Evergreen, was theirs completely, shared in the way that only two people who love each other deeply can share the world. Reading My Foreign Cities, I had the distinct feeling that Scaboro was sharing something precious with me, and that I shouldn’t take it for granted. Simone

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

I’ve been dipping into the classics this summer, which allowed me to finally read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I’ll admit – I came to this novel with a predisposed distaste for Wharton. I’ve read Ethan Frome and Summer, two novels set in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts – my home territory (the people who inspired Frome’s character were very possibly my mother’s relatives). I’ve always been sort of bitter about the blanket way she’s portrayed “the locals” through both these novels and her autobiography (Wharton herself had a mansion built in the Berkshires, a house she lived in for just a handful of years before moving permanently to Europe) – as hopeless, sometimes even imbecilic figures.

“You have to read her New York society novels,” a friend kept telling me. And so I did. I can’t say the result blew me away, or suddenly made me fall head over heels for Wharton. But I did fall captive to the story’s plot: Will the star-crossed lovers ever meet? Will Newland Archer, the main character, ever have enough gall to break free of Society’s ramparts, of which he grows increasingly disdainful? In The Age of Innocence, the reader gets a not-so-sentimental look into how turn of the century New York society functioned, down to what happened if a woman didn’t wear the right dress cut and colors to the opera.

Embedded in the narrative is an obvious scorn for such shallowness and the resulting gossip and societal persecution – although it’s difficult to tell if the scorn is her main character’s, or Wharton’s herself. Some of this scorn seems very surface, and it first it’s tempting to think, “Well, if this society is so shitty, then why stay a part of it?” But as the novel progresses, it dawned on me that lives were intertwined with society, that a divorce could ruin a woman – and not just because she was going to be bad-mouthed, but because she could end up destitute – or worse. Wharton reconstructs a fictional account of how life was a series of gestures, of appropriate rebuttals, of suitable coifs, of strategic marriages – not to mention a slew of infidelity, heartbreak, and looking the other way. I waited anxiously for moments in the novel when the characters were able to steal away into secluded houses or secret rooms (Wharton is the master of spatial metaphor), where they could have a private moment, and where they could, just for a moment, shed the ever-present gaze of society and just be themselves. Amanda

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

First of all, there’s an exclamation point in the title and an alligator munching the declaration “a novel.” Secondly, the opening pages refer to an alligator’s “icicle overbite,” and to tourists who “moved sproingingly from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitos, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs. They shushed and crushed against and cursed at one another; couples curled their pale legs together like eels, beer spilled, and kids wept.” Pale legs curled together like eels. This, for me, is what a novel can do: make us notice the most mundane and everyday details with thrilling, surprising language, so that when we take an afternoon walk after reading, everything – the trees, the people clustered at the coffee shop, the fire escapes – has sprung to life. And the joy of Swamplandia! is the exuberance of its language, which matches both the innocent optimism of its protagonist and the surreal landscape of a small theme park in South Florida swampland. The writing is outsized and unapologetic for being so, and what a relief after a long spell of nonfiction that, while gripping and important and so tightly put together, lacked the joy and reveling in language present here.

Plus, this is a great story for lovers of travel lit, containing all those luscious details of place. We are fully immersed here in the Everglades, with its saw-grass prairies and its invasive melaleucas and its endless canals that loop into thirst and madness. But hidden within the spectacular setting and prose is a coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old girl trying to preserve her childhood after the death of her mother. The trick of the novel is in the slowly revealed tension between her perspective – and our perspective as readers – and the reality of what has happened and is happening to her family. This tension builds throughout the novel, and the only sore point for me was an ending that I didn’t feel sufficiently dealt with the themes and questions raised in the body of the book. But I don’t regret having read, and wish I could spend more time swimming around in Russell’s glorious sentences. Sarah

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