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Editors’ Picks: Heat Wave Reads

July 23, 2013

What grows best in the heat: fantasy, unreason, lust.

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Image from Flickr via ChrisGoldNY

This summer’s record-breaking temperatures have us feeling like we’re characters in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where “heat, gnawing at the mind’s divisions between fantasy and reality, made anything seem possible.” These are the things that flourish in the heat, says Rushdie: “fantasy; unreason; lust.” We agree. This is no weather for cool-headed meditations and stories of calmly reasoned action. This month we’re offering our sultriest, most fantastical favorites to get you through the summer swelter.

The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa, trans. Daniel Hahn

The Book of Chameleons is a postcolonial mystery story narrated by a gecko. For me, that was reason enough to pick up this short novel by the acclaimed Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa. But beyond this fantastic premise, Chameleons investigates the chimera of nationhood, a fancy that obscures difficult histories. Our gecko narrator, Eulálio, lives in the house of Félix Ventura, an albino hocker of new pasts for those looking to shore up their lineage. Both Félix and his customers live their fabricated pasts as if they are actually true, and in the process efface national memories that Angola might rather forget. “Memory,” Eulálio comments, “is a landscape watched from the window of a moving train.” In Agualusa’s hallucinogenic vision of Angola, the center does not hold, and the ever-shifting and -mingling boundaries between fact and fiction, history and forgery, complicate a nation’s conception of itself.
—Michael Rumore, Editorial Assistant, Fiction

***

Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

J.M. Ledgard’s slim second novel, Submergence, was (quite unexpectedly) the perfect book to spend an endless, miserable, sweaty New York City heat wave with. The epigraph for the book is taken from Thomas More’s The Supplication of Souls (1529) and reads: “Descendit ad inferna: that is to say he discended beneth into the lowe places. In stede of which low places ye english tongu hathe euer vsed thy word hel,” which can be informally translated to read “this is not a summer book.” Luckily, the heat index was registering at 105 degrees and Ledgard had me at “hel.” This stunningly written book intertwines the story of a British spy who is held captive in Somalia by jihadists; a bio-mathematician preparing for a dive into the deepest parts of the ocean in search of life; and the recollections of their brief, intense love affair. Submergence is certainly dark, and often concerned with humanity’s worst tendencies, but so much more than that. Ledgard, a correspondent for The Economist, manages to pull off a weird little non-linear book—one concerned with politics, violence, war, faith, science, philosophy and love—that is also a beautiful and deeply intelligent page-turner.
—Lisa Lucas, Publisher

***

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto, Trans. Michael Emmerich

This compilation of three short stories is composed in a dreamy and haunting prose. Each plot is slightly reminiscent of the last, as each are wrought with infidelity, death, and visits to and from the afterlife. Yoshimoto’s young female characters are subject to their own vices, often unable to intuit their own problematic relationships over the loved ones that surround them. Fans of Haruki Murakami novels will appreciate Yoshimoto’s own brand of surrealist fiction, as she weaves the unbelievable into all of her character’s relationships seamlessly.
—Haniya Rae, Assistant Art Editor

***

The Body: An Essay by Jenny Boully

The Body: An Essay is unreadable. Literally—the pages are blank. The book is comprised of footnotes to a nonexistent text, expounding the absent. Jenny Boully’s marginalia squirm away from genre or form: markings left in a library book from a previous reader, the tense inner monologue of an unloved lover, an exegesis on the nature of existence, a conversation overheard in a dream. “& yet why do I keep rereading what I have written, attempting to surmise what you might be inferring, wondering if you will understand me?” she writes, clawing at our need for the answer, our preference for static over silence. Uncertainty begets uncertainty, spinning out of control, until all that’s left is the aftershock of meaning. Strange, raw, and intensely familiar, Boully’s words instruct—and deconstruct with the same stroke.
—Emma Rosenberg, Intern, Guernica Daily

***

Fame Shark by Royal Young

You are the son of an artist. Will his fame outstrip yours or vice versa? And is fame—the shallow, talentless variety—something you can achieve? Or, in the end, want to? While these might seem surface level yearnings, this memoir reaches into the territory of heartache with exquisite snatches of dialogue from the author’s immediate family. As much as father and son war, their bond is ever present. During their teenage years the author and his brother take turns shielding each other from their parents—the very definition of loyalty, and subsequently, love.
—Erika Anderson, Editorial Assistant/Social Media Director

***

The Lost City of Z By David Grann

New Yorker staff writer David Grann’s story of getting obsessed with a Victorian era explorer who was himself obsessed with finding an ancient city in the heart of the Amazon is wonderful in its compulsiveness. The two men go questing through the jungle in search of the past with such overheated and passionate fanaticism that you’d think the past was a very pretty girl. I’d recommend it any time of year, but I especially enjoyed reading it last summer, in a lawn chair in a roasting Midwestern yard, because I could take solace that at least I wasn’t marching fanatically through the steaming jungle.
—Rachel Riederer, Editor, Guernica Daily

***

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

Legend has it that Buddy Bolden lost his sanity at the moment he invented jazz; the famous coronet player combined the rhythm of the blues with the melody of spirituals, and as punishment for mixing the sacred with the profane, the devil took his mind. Legend is all that is left of Bolden, and in this beautifully fragmented novel, Michael Ondaatje adds to the myth in Coming Through Slaughter by rewriting the story of the jazz pioneer using fiction to tell the truths history can’t. Backdropped by the brothels of New Orleans’s Tremé district at the turn of the century, Ondaatje spins tales of Bolden’s lust for music, women, and life around the few true remaining facts. As schizophrenia and alcoholism take their toll on Bolden in his final months, the Booker Prize-winning author shows off his virtuosity with the structure of the story splintering into erratic echoes of Bolden’s addled, yet brilliant mind. In searching for the last remaining ghosts of the father of jazz, biography becomes autobiography as Ondaatje realizes that stories and histories are often blurred beyond distinction and that the search for others is always conflated by the search of self.
—David Foote, Editorial Intern

***

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano trans. Cedric Belfrage

“We made love spinning through space, a savory, saucy ball of flesh, a lone, hot little ball shining and steaming with juicy aromas as it turned and turned through Helena’s dream and through the infinite void and fell as it spun, gently falling to the bottom of a huge bowl of salad.” How else to ride out a heat wave but by making love, or making salad? Or by reading Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s collection of vignettes, The Book of Embraces, translated in 1991, which conjures up absurd, wrenching, evocative moments via poetry, political commentary, history, autobiography, and myth. There are oppressive dictatorships, family tragedies, fiestas, love affairs, and enough human twists and turns to get you through the summer.
—Andrea Jones, Managing Editor

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