Summer Reading that Doesn't Insult

By Emily Petrone

I ought to preface this post by admitting I am perturbed to write it. I am presently on vacation at the beach, and I was forced to retire indoors so as to type up this positive screed. I am annoyed, not that my duty drew me away from the glistening sun, as my sheltered New York skin certainly appreciates, but that my writing wrest me from my reading – a far more egregious offense. 

The annals of my life might best be described as bursts of activity gleaned from the brief interludes between books. It thus surprises me that our great governess, Commerce, only recognizes one season of the year – out of four! -  which might be spent reading.  Each year, we are inundated with Summer Reading Lists, and each year, I am disgusted. These presumptuous lists insult my intelligence, my good taste, my ambition, and certainly my sex. As if a gruesome, misogynistic, Scandinavian murder mystery was synonymous with “vacation.” As if Jodi Picoult and Emily Giffin were the modern-day Bronte sisters.  Eat, Pray, Love? Gag, Retch, Piss.

So I ignore these obscene suggestions, and I follow my own instincts. If those instincts need guidance, I lift a title from my latest New York Review of Books, which properly respects my intellectual capacity.  Herewith, my beach reading:

-I began by tackling an old first-edition that has been sitting on my shelf for years, beckoning me. Written by the great Robert Penn Warren, Flood is the story of a screenwriter from Tennessee who returns to his small hometown to make a big Hollywood movie about it, right before it’s lost beneath the rising tide of a government dam project. I’m from the valleys of Tennessee; I’m a screenwriter; I have deep and serious Environmental Morals. It’s perfect! Except it’s not. Fifty pages in, and I can best describe it as self-indulgent, flatulent prose. 

It’s the unfortunate result of a great writer designating his first-person protagonist a great writer. Seeing the narrator as equally tortured and insightful as the author, Warren drowns us with pseudo-profound inner monologues. The character is too busy thinking clever thoughts to take any clever action.

And if you think I object because I again sense a comparison with myself, YOU CAN SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS.

-Following an excellent review in the NYR, I bought Allen Shawn’s Twin, and I am so glad I did. It’s the heartbreaking/warming memoir of his life with an autistic twin sister, who was sent away from his prominent New York family and institutionalized when she was eight. An illuminating introduction to the world of autism, Twin treads lightly on the devastating effect Mary’s separation – not illness– had on Allen. 

It’s not full of anger and regret. Rather, it’s a story of family acceptance and of growing one’s heart to accommodate the deficiencies of others, handicapped or not. Its only flaw was Allen’s tedious habit of reducing his every personality trait and behavior to his twinness. His book is his effort to reconnect with his sister, and, at times, his conclusions seem to grasp for something slightly out of reach.

-Finally, I am plowing through a classic reissued by The New York Review of Books’ publishing arm. The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim, must have been the Sex and the City of its day, if SATC featured undersexed, Edwardian-era women whose inner turmoils were more interesting than their sexual exploits. 

In short, it is everything and nothing those pernicious summer reading lists think women should be reading at the beach. I am engrossed but reluctant for it to end - I packed no more books, and I have three more days of vacation. Nevertheless, I cannot resist the lure of the exquisite printed page. So, if you’ll excuse me . . . 

Fri, 12 Aug 2011 10:39 (GMT+01)
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