Midsummer Night’s Read

Beach Fare with an Edge

By Irvine Welsh
Norton, 469 pp., $14.95 paper
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With the Edinburgh housing projects circa 1970 as its launchpad, Irvine Welsh's Glue follows a group of friends from youth to middle age in the near future. The early chapters charting the boys' sex- and football-crazed teen years don't quite have the speedy smarts that Welsh is famous for. But what's lost in narrative drive is made up for in the development of characters (and the equally well-drawn dilemmas they have to face). The gripping and often hilarious adulthood chapters hinge to a certain extent on a code of behavior—always back up your friends, never talk to the police, etc.—that leads to one sensitive young man's tragic downfall. Back-stabbing friends and bad judgment aren't exactly new topics, but Welsh continues to approach them with a psychological discernment that's funny, emotionally resonant, and wise. Welsh has always been a moralist at heart—he's just not afraid of having a good time on his way to making a point. —Michael Miller

A beach-bound ballerina from Smile i-D
photo: Kevin Davies/i-D The Body Issue, June 1988
A beach-bound ballerina from Smile i-D

Appointment With Il Duce
By Hozy Rossi
Welcome Rain, 256 pp., $25
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In Appointment With Il Duce, set in 1930s Italy, novelist Hozy Rossi plies classic neo-realism with absurdist humor, elevating dentistry to a priestly status. Beppe Arpino, a dark-socketed, hunchbacked, insomniac youth with the nimblest fingers ever to grace a cello's strings, gives up his instrument and life in his rural village for the cosmopolitan city of Naples to fulfill his obsession with cleaning teeth. Surrounded by domineering men—a butcher, a priest, a pedagogue—eager to mold him into mini-me's, the seemingly innocent boy confounds them with acts of minor valor and fuguelike moments, as when stunned by a piece of music, he disappears deep into his imagination. Eventually Beppe falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy art collector during a rapturous moment peering into his beloved's mouth. Backlit by the encroaching swell of fascism, Appointment With Il Duce is a strangely charming twist on the Horatio Alger story, marred only by its inexplicable conclusion—something about being shot from a cannon. —Lenora Todaro

Looking for History: Dispatches From Latin America
By Alma Guillermoprieto
Pantheon, 304 pp., $25
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Looking for History opens with a dashing portrait of Eva Perón, playing the story of Argentina's passionate and hardworking first lady off of the rampant hagiography that sprung up in her wake. Alma Guillermoprieto is mostly interested in current affairs, but the Perón piece shows off her penchant for poking holes through political and cultural fantasies about Latin America. Her profiles of dissidents and politicians are informative page-turners that bristle with insight. She praises Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa's novels but cuts through his nostalgia and awkwardly people-pleasing run for the presidency. Her evocative piece on Vicente Fox, the unlikely candidate who broke Mexico's 71-year streak of PRI rule, presents a sometimes absurd, contradictory, and unoriginal political thinker who got by on his stubborn take-charge personality. The best essays here address Cuban prisoners and the tangled web of conflict in Colombia. Lucid takes on complex political situations, these reports aren't just a good read, they also convey a quiet anger much needed in U.S. coverage of Latin America. —Michael Miller

Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood
By Nancy Schoenberger
Nan A. Talese Books, 377 pp., $27.50
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Nothing sets the summer on fire like a juicy tale of privilege—especially when it's accompanied by genius, scandal, and eventual dissolution. Born into an Anglo-Irish dynasty, Lady Caroline Blackwood took up journalism at 18, but was quickly sidetracked by her romance with reckless artist Lucian Freud. Their marriage was tumultuous and short, but it provoked Freud into some of his most lyrical early work—and officially landed Blackwood with the title of muse. Pessimistic, tongue-tied, and later a sloppy drunk who neglected her children, Blackwood was nevertheless gorgeous and smart, and she attracted geniuses (Walker Evans and New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers among them) like flypaper. Blackwood went on to marry composer Israel Citkowitz and then poet Robert Lowell. Her deepening alcoholism and depression met Lowell's madness head-on, yet somehow they were good for each other's work: He wrote inspired poetry, her writing career blossomed. Blackwood apparently yearned to shrug off her reputation as "the muse of men"—she eventually wrote half a dozen books, including the Booker-nominated Great Granny Webster—but this biography concentrates less on the work than on Blackwood's tempestuous life and loves. —Joy Press

Black Lace
By Barbara Henning
Spuyten Duyvil, 93 pp., $12, paper
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Flirting with Bataille and invoking Kristeva, Barbara Henning plunges her beleaguered protagonist Eileen into the pitch of an existential crisis. "I want to suffer and laugh," says the liquored-up mother of a teen girl, distraught wife of a humdrum man, and lover of many a stray, bruiser type. This is Detroit circa 1970, and late one night Eileen skips out, forsaking any desire she might once have had for a regular family life. Chapters alternate between first and third person, between Eileen's "desire" journals and a poetically inclined narrator's pithy observations of her downward spiral from unhappy homemaker to barfly nymphet. Melancholy dominates. Abandonment prevails. Black Lace is a taut slip of a book for the brooding, alienated, soul-sick type for whom summer and sun bring little fun. —Lenora Todaro

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