We flatter ourselves that our readers are smarter than the harried business-class types scanning the paperback racks at the airport. We also flatter ourselves that our anterior deltoids are breathtaking and poolworthy. But you know what? All the deltoid-enhancing incline presses in the world won’t make us look as pretty at the pool as a worn but well-loved copy of an awesome book.
At the same time, reading Marcel Proust in the months between May and September is trying way too hard, like wearing an ascot to a barbecue.
We asked six area writers for summer reading recommendations. The guideline was simple. The books had to be fun but meatier than the USA Today best-seller list. We were fascists in our dogmatic adherence to this guideline. Without pointing fingers, one of these local writers (whose name can be rearranged to spell CRAM TAINT OFT) suggested Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Nobody loves Thomas Pynchon as much as we do, except for Mrs. Pynchon, but Gravity’s Rainbow does not constitute fun summer reading.
Following are the suggestions and commentaries of these writers, and — because you’re clever and love word games — corresponding anagrams for their names.
Debra Di Blasi is the supercool author of the Thorpe Menn Book Award-winning Drought & Say What You Like and, most recently, The Jiri Chronicles, published in March by FC2 (an imprint of the University of Alabama Press). She’s a self-described “multimodal artist,” she lives in Kansas City, and BALSA BIRD DIE is one anagram for her name.
“I love J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories — they’re actually a threaded narrative, if you pay attention to the relationships. Salinger doesn’t always give you the connections between the characters. I read ‘For Esme, With Love and Squalor’ every couple of years. I really love Salinger, and I have no guilt about reading Nine Stories over and over and over again.
“I’d also recommend Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events — I like the darkness, but he also weaves learning into the narrative, using arch, funny definitions of words in the text. Plus, I think kids actually want to be scared. And that first line — ‘If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book’ — that’s so excellent because it makes you want to read it. Too bad for the parents who think it’s not good for their kids.
“Other than that, I like reading Sotheby’s Real Estate online — it’s a luxury real-estate Web site. I like looking at huge, ridiculous, luxury-priced homes that I’ll never be able to afford. And I read Vanity Fair. It’s a slicker, higher-brow People with better photography.”
Stanley E. Banks is an artist-in-residence at Avila University, where he teaches creative writing and African-American literature. A prolific poet and writer, he is the recipient of the Langston Hughes Prize for Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Writers Place Award. If you’re seeking an anagram for his name, look no further than ABSENT SKY ELAN.
“Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress is a lot of fun. The book is about Easy Rawlins. basically a private eye by accident, by necessity. He needs work and he gets entangled in a political intrigue. He’s searching for a woman — the devil in the blue dress.
“The message is about race and the color line. That’s the subtext, but it plays itself out in the concept of ‘finding your place’ — in black literature, there’s a theme about ‘passing.’ Lena Horne could pass. There was a racist element that would make a black person pass for white if they could. But if you do, you’re psychologically damaged because you don’t know who you are. That’s what Walter Mosley weaves into his murder mysteries — and it’s really entertaining because of the genre elements.
“It’s been awhile since I first read it, way back in the late ’90s. It just blew me away. You learn how racism has been turned inward, ’til you’ve got black folks that turn on one another. Walter Mosley deals with those issues.”
Matt Fraction is a Thomas Pynchon enthusiast and a rising talent in the comic-book industry. He’s the writer of The Five Fists of Science and Casanova, both published by Image, as well as the more interesting issues of Marvel’s Punisher War Journal. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, and his name can be rearranged to spell TACIT RAM FONT.
“Since Kurt Vonnegut died recently, that’s a pretty good excuse to review his body of work — Breakfast of Champions is one of those great, life-changing books. Plus it has illustrations, so it’s perfect for summer reading.
“I read it when I was 13 or 14, and it was given to me by the coolest art teacher I ever had — same guy who turned me on to the Clash and Iggy Pop. He gave me Breakfast of Champions as though it were a bag of weed and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody where you got this.’ Anytime I pick it up, I can’t simply browse it — I can’t stop myself from reading 50 to 100 pages at a stretch.
“I’d also recommend famed KC sellout James Ellroy. I think our town is much the sadder for his leaving. I love American Tabloid, and whenever I read it, it takes me about a week to shake it out of my head. I start writing in that voice — it’s like hanging around with somebody who has a really profound accent. It’s a great sleazy pulp novel but written by one of our greatest novelists. It’s completely compulsive, like potato chips.”
Gabriela Lemmons — or SENORA ELM GIMBAL, as she might be known anagrammatically — comes from a family of migrant workers. Influenced early by storytelling traditions passed down by her father, she performs her bilingual poetry and memoir as a member of Kansas City’s Latino Writers Collective, a group of poets and writers affiliated with the Writers Place.
“I read Mark of the Lion — it’s by Suzanne Arruda. She’s from Kansas. It’s the first of a series. It’s a mystery novel about a character named Jade del Cameron.
“It has mystery and adventure — the first novel takes place during World War I. It’s almost like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jade is an ambulance driver attached to the French army. There was a whole group of women who drove ambulances, picking up the wounded. Her boyfriend, David, is a pilot, and his plane is shot down. She goes to rescue him. Right before he dies, he tells her to find his brother.
“I am not a big mystery fan, but this captivated me. Arruda did the homework, lots of research. She learned to shoot a gun. She just came back from a research trip to Africa. She learned how to shoot a bow and arrow so she could portray it in a book. She used to be a zookeeper.
“In the early 1900s, women weren’t supposed to be doing these things. It wasn’t proper for women to be chasing around, trying to solve mysteries and have adventures.”
Brian Shawver is a novelist and an assistant professor at Missouri State University, where he teaches fiction writing. A graduate of the world-famous Iowa Writers Workshop, he is the author of The Cuban Prospect and Aftermath. Anagram: BRAINWASH REV.
“I’m sort of evangelical about the Flashman series. Have you heard of Tom Brown’s School Days? It’s a Victorian novel set in a public school for boys.
“The villain is a bully named Flashman. And this 20th-century writer named George MacDonald Fraser decided to write these novels where Flashman, the bully from these old Victorian novels, is the protagonist.
“He’s grown up to be a soldier and a hero, even though he’s still a pretty horrible guy. He’s completely repugnant but sympathetic, because it’s told in the first person. He’s always in the right historical place and time — the Crimean War, the Zulu War, all these pivotal moments in Victorian military history.
“Flashman’s always getting praise as a hero despite blatantly running from trouble and taking credit for other people’s heroism. Flashman and the Redskins is my favorite. Fraser is a history military buff, and the books have elaborate appendices. I can’t recommend them highly enough. People will thank you for introducing them to these books.”
Whitney Terrell was born and raised in Kansas City and educated at Princeton and the Iowa Writers Workshop. A writer-in-residence at the Rockhurst University School of Professional Studies, he is the author of the novels The King of Kings County and The Huntsman. THEREIN TRY WELL is one possible rearrangement of the letters in his name.
“I hope you’re mentioning Cross-X by Joe Miller. I read it and blurbed it when it was in galleys. Joe sold this book on the basis of articles he wrote for the Pitch, and it’s extremely well-done. It’s about the debate team for Central High School. It’s about this terrific debate team — the young kids and the coaches are basically abandoned by the school system. Joe’s portraits of these public-school kids who start beating these really good prep-school kids across the country are incredible. It’s not an Oprah book — the kids can be irritating and they make bad decisions, but all kids are like that. And Joe gets across how unpredictable they can be in a natural way. It’s an important Kansas City book.
“The book that I would recommend to a kid would be Catch-22. I recently got back from Iraq — I was doing an embed with some soldiers, a piece for The Washington Post. Just going through the bureaucratic process of getting to Iraq as a writer, dealing with people who have desks and never go outside the wire, that was the most revelatory thing to me about Iraq. Many soldiers will tell you Catch-22 is a completely accurate picture of how Army bureaucracy works.
“Most war novels — even anti-war novels — treat war seriously, as a serious, soul-defining, changing experience. In a way, as Tony Swofford says in Jarhead, presenting war seriously makes it attractive. The interesting thing is that [Joseph] Heller takes another tack by refusing to take it seriously. Yossarian’s no hero. It’s amazing that Heller wrote that book about the one war that everyone considers to be the most noble in our history.”