Midsummer Night’s Read

Beach Fare with an Edge

Come summertime, even the most voracious readers start searching for that perfect beach book—light in both tone and weight (for easy vacation portability), exciting enough to hold your attention through the web of blaring radios, with engaging characters that take over your sun-fueled fantasies. But relaxing doesn't necessarily mean shutting down the brain cells or turning your back on the darker side of life, so we've assembled an assortment of books that should provoke and amuse you through Labor Day and beyond. —Joy Press


Choke
By Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday, 294 pp., $24.95
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Mixing seedy-guy mentality with extreme self-loathing, Chuck Palahniuk's Choke puts a bleakly humorous spin on self-help, addiction recovery, and child-hood trauma, all explored from the perspective of his trademark sociopaths. Death-obsessed former med student Victor Mancini has issues, especially with his once manipulative and now terminally ill mother. Acting out, he cruises sex-addict groups for erotic humiliation, concocts a yeah-right money-making scam that involves choking in restaurants, and makes decisions by asking, "What would Jesus NOT do?" Choke covers some well-trodden ground—Palahniuk's scenes of Victor's job at a colonial America theme park read like George Saunders on an s/m kick—but his appetite for absurdity produces plenty of odd surprises. If Victor has sex with a doctor, will it cure his mother? What is his friend building with the rocks he collects as tokens of sobriety (i.e., not masturbating)? Choke's funny, mantralike prose plows toward the mayhem it portends from the get-go. But for all his muscle-trash nihilism, Palahniuk offers a glimmer of hope, as his skewed characters find new possibilities in the wreckage. Michael Miller


Fearless Jones
By Walter Mosley
Little, Brown, 312 pp., $24.95
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In Walter Mosley's noir universe, the smudged lines scantly separating the good guys from the bad are further confounded by the existential slippage of racism. Mosley's latest mystery, Fearless Jones, is set in 1950s L.A., where bigotry, both internal and externalized, saturates every layer of social strata. Paris Minton and Fearless Jones—a bookseller and a troubled black tough with a golden heart—are swept by circumstance into an underworld of gangsters, socialites, crooked cops, and Israeli functionaries, all searching for a lucrative Jewish bond previously filched by Nazis. Despite some occasionally hackneyed prose, Mosley scoots swiftly and engagingly through a wild, twisty, Maltese Falcon-like plot. The book's real strength, though, is in Mosley's depiction of the often brutalizing difficulties confronted by the book's leads; their very blackness ups the ante on classic noir's representation of heroic alienation, as well as the inventiveness required to overcome endlessly nasty obstacles. —Rick Levin


Smell
By Radhika Jha
Soho Press, 307 pp., $24
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Smellis a book about immigration, pungent odors, and animal sex. It's not often that a reviewer gets to write a sentence like that, but Jha's debut novel is a strange and mostly pleasing concoction of contrasting elements. Leela is a young Indian woman sent to live with relatives in Paris after the death of her father. The family—terrified that Leela will be infected by the Parisians' decadent and impure ways—traps her in their suburban high-rise, until an ugly run-in with her disappointed aunt forces Leela to flee. Left to her own devices, she is drawn to decadent Parisians, honing her feminine wiles through affairs with creepy men who prize her for her otherness. Leela's growing sense of shame reveals itself to her in the form of a "dark feral smell" that trails her wherever she goes; as she works her way toward fame and fortune as "the fusion food queen of Paris," Leela literally is sickened by the racism and the hunger for exoticism that draws men to her. An eerie and unusual coming-of-age tale, Smell suggests that a marriage between Judith Krantz and postcolonial theory might be more entertaining than you'd think. —Joy Press


Smile i-D: The Best From 20 Years Of i-D
Edited by Terry Jones
Taschen, 608 pp., $39.99

As style bibles go, the 20-year-old British magazine i-Dis something of an upstart, but its youth isn't the only thing that sets it apart from old broads like Vogueand Bazaar. Brash, irreverent, sexy, and not a little rude, i-D began in 1980 as a deliberately funky alternative to the established fashion glossies, celebrating London's postpunk street style and club culture with a fanzine's enthusiasm and a sociologist's dedication. Though this experiment in DIY publishing and radical graphic design has evolved into one of the world's most successful alterna-mags, it maintains its hipster edge by patrolling the margins of pop culture as well as scuffing up its inner sanctum. Like its local rival The Face, i-D is a voracious consumer and promoter of the new, and its uncanny ability to zero in on the next big thing (including prescient covers on Sade, Madonna, and virtually every top model) is matched only by a knack for discovering and nurturing young photographers (Nick Knight, Wolfgang Tillmans, Juergen Teller) and designtalent. With this in mind, Smile i-Dpresents the magazine's history as both linear chronology and graphic explosion. Even if the fuck-you anarchy of the original issues tends to dissipate toward the end, enough of its playful, spunky spirit remains to keep us hooked for all 608 pages. —Vince Aletti


Glue
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 Gluefollows 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


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


The Rackets
By Thomas Kelly
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 374 pp., $24
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Thomas Kelly understands the literary value of a well-turned cliché or two. In his new thriller, The Rackets, Kelly's rat-a-tat narrative is peppered with the blustery patois of New Jersey neo-gangsterism (plenty of Sopranos-esque ball busters and fat fucks) and shot through with all these delicious metaphors squeezed from the general fund of classic grit fiction (one tough is described as "two hundred and fifty pounds of human fuck-you"). Cinematic and completely enthralling, the suspenseful plot revolves around a college-educated son's decision to seek vengeance for the evil done his father, a Teamster whose stumping finally gets him whacked, and how, by the mob. The perspective skips smoothly among a cast of hard-boiled types—union stiffs, corrupt pols, pistol-whipping wiseguys, bighearted cops. What elevates Kelly's novel above the swarm is the old-fashioned crisis of conscience that spurs the action: Are violent means justified by honorable ends? Think Dostoyevsky with a hard hat and lead pipe. —Rick Levin

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