Summer Reading, Augustly: What to Read Over Labor Day


Much like twelve-year-olds, publishers get busy during the school year and spend summer months making forts out of pillows. But despite the summer malaise, a stalwart bunch of non-chick-lit titles fought their way onto shelves this month: Most prominently, David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, which got plenty of attention, and for good reason. But if you’ve heard enough about Carr and his needles, peruse these five promising specimens instead, perhaps over a cool late-summer holiday cocktail.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Lee Israel (Simon & Schuster, 127 pp., $19.95)

Ex-forger, ex-letter-purloiner, and ex-con Lee Israel tells all in this deliciously canny little book. When Israel (formerly a feted biographer) found herself on welfare and unable to pay her cat’s medical bills, she began visiting libraries, stuffing famous people’s letters into her socks, and trading the epistles for cash. Soon Israel was writing letters of her own, using vintage typewriters to knock out faux-correspondence from the likes of Louise Brooks, Noel Coward, and Dorothy Parker. And until the FBI came knocking, Israel pulled it off. When The Letters of Noel Coward was published last year, guess whose letter was included?

The Last Theorem
Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl (Del Rey, 299 pp., $27)

British sci-fi author Sir Arthur C. Clarke hinted that The Last Theorem would be his final work. And indeed it is. Back in March, a few days after reviewing proofs of the novel, Clarke died at the venerable age of ninety, leaving co-author and fellow sci-fi giant Frederik Pohl to see the book through to publication. Hit by a dearth of inspiration and the onset of illness, Clarke had enlisted Pohl to invigorate Last Theorem; together, the writers produced this novel about a Sri-Lankan math whiz who discovers a shorter proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. The book features appearances by the CIA, aliens, and an elevator that travels into space. Clarke is notorious for having come up with the idea for space stations, so don’t knock those space-elevators.

Dirk Wittenborn (Viking, 416 pp., $25.95)

Attic Greek lesson for the day: the word pharmakon means both ‘remedy’ and ‘poison’ (and also ‘artificial coloring’). Tuning in to the ambiguity of the Greeks, Dirk Wittenborn’s third novel, Pharmakon, describes an experimental depression drug that turns out—wonder of wonders—to be both remedy and poison. Said drug is messed around with by Dr. Friedrich, a Yale psychologist, who administers the stuff to a woeful undergrad. After reveling in 1950’s Yale, giving off (as The New York Times points out) a David Lodge academic-high-jinks vibe, Pharmakon segues into the story of the shrink’s son, a likely Wittenborn surrogate (the writer’s father was a big-deal shrink himself). Like Dr. Friedrich’s pills, Pharmakon successfully imparts “that tingling sensation…”

Slavoj Zizek (Picador, 272 pp., $14)

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (the z’s are pronounced as in zhuzh, as in what Queer Eye did to sleeves) tackles Abu Ghraib, 9/11, and other brutally pertinent topics in what he calls a “bric-a-brac of reflections on violence.” Violence is heavy stuff, and it’s not a handy gift for the faint of brain (Zizek’s chapters get names like “Antinomies of Tolerant Reason”). But it also promises not to be a boring, unfathomable slog: The pages are tiny, Zizek’s syntax is clear, and humor occasionally shines through. Even Terry Eagleton, genial captain of the Literary Theory for Dummies team, called Zizek a “formidably brilliant exponent of psychoanalysis, indeed of cultural theory in general.”

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir
Haruki Murakami, Translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 192 pp., $20)

Murakami takes a jog down memoir-y lane in this slim volume about the Japanese writer’s obsession with long-distance running. The book is a debut venture into the genre for Murakami, whose novels Norwegian Wood (2000) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) (plus scores more) have earned him a devoted following among fiction-readers. Detouring into Murakami’s thoughts on writing itself, Running likens no-nonsense marathon training to the discipline required of a novelist. Speaking of discipline, Geoff Dyer of The New York Times ripped Murakami a new one, bemoaning the fact that Running‘s descriptors seem to be wandering aimlessly around, as though shot up with horse tranquilizer (as in “pretty decent,” “sort of laid-back,” “kind of confused”). Could it just be the translator? —Ruth McCann