The heady summer months are upon us, granting us an opportunity to recharge from the school year and dive into something new. Coincidentally, July is also a great month for novels. So if your New Year’s resolution to read more didn’t make it past winter, now’s the perfect time to reup your commitment.
If your tastes veer towards the weird, “Notes From the Fog” by Ben Marcus (July 9) is the story collection for you. Marcus’s vision of the world is dystopian but rarely depressing, and his stories are often noted for their bizarre but consistent humor.
If your idea of fun is delving deeply into the maze of the human mind, Marcus’s stories deliver the goods. Flowing between science fiction and magical realism, they include such protagonists as a corporate drone who finds love from the enhanced glow of his computer monitor and a married couple whose work as architects leads them into an ethical quandary.
Some readers are reluctant to read short stories, but it’s always been my contention that a really good short story is even more impressive than a really good novel. Bite-sized literature can be a real joy, as well as pack a powerful emotional wallop, and is especially attractive to those readers whose busy summers keep them from extended reading periods.
Colson Whitehead has long been known as a writer who uses fiction to point out great injustices. Though some are long past, it’s important that we remember them so as to not repeat them. Whitehead’s newest, “The Nickel Boys” (July 16), is a brief, heartbreaking novel based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. The Nickel reform school is where they send kids who messed up, but not quite badly enough for juvenile hall. Its goal is to take naughty boys and mold them into upstanding men. It’s Florida in the 1960s, so while the school houses both black and white students, they are segregated.
An unmarked cemetery is discovered by archaeology students and the truth of what went on at Nickel becomes public. We learn about these horrors mostly through the eyes of Elwood Curtis. Elwood is a young black boy living with his grandmother; he is well-behaved and smart, certain that he will go to college and make something of himself. He stays out of trouble despite hard circumstances and adores Martin Luther King, Jr., until he’s caught up in something he had nothing to do with and is sent to Nickel to be “reformed.” The boys at the school aren’t like him: habitual troublemakers, mostly illiterate, abused by parents and now by their supposed caretakers, they are destined only to adulthoods full of failure.
Whitehead’s work to reveal the pernicious evil of places like Dozier is admirable and necessary. We are, he says, the creator of our own disease. Power corrupts, and the helpless people underfoot—people of color, children, women—take the brunt of the damage. People make mistakes and can be saved, but they cannot be saved by violence.
Removing a person’s personhood, stripping them of their dignity, does not create meek, rule-abiding men; it creates monsters. Like Whitehead’s other powerful novels, this is a book you won’t soon forget.
Set in Beirut, Lebanon, in the 1970s, a time of war and displacement, “Beirut Hellfire Society” by Rawi Hage (July 16), is a gorgeous novel about the people society leaves behind. Pavlov is the son of an undertaker, an initiate into the mysterious Hellfire Society, who take it upon themselves to offer an honorable burial to those who were denied it due to being nonconformist in some way. Upon his father’s death, Pavlov is asked to take up his work, participating in these funerals as well as other rebellious activities. In this new position, he meets people at the liminal edges of society, unconventional members of a fading community. Hage asks what we would risk to preserve our sense of dignity when war threatens all? Are there ideas worth so much that our lives are nothing compared to their survival? Hage’s answer weaves absurdity into gritty realism, crafting a magical novel that pushes the boundaries of what we consider sacred and profane.
I really loved J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” and his second book, “The Lager Queen of Minnesota” (July 23), is just as sweet. The novel features three women in the same family: Helen, the younger sister, became obsessed with beer as a teenager and manipulated her life so carefully she managed to start and maintain what became a hugely popular Midwest brewery; Edith is her older sister who was more or less cheated out of her inheritance and has lived a frugal, simple life baking pies for a senior living facility; Diane is Edith’s granddaughter, gifted but lacking options due to their financial straits, who discovers a talent for brewing craft beer.
Each of these three women narrates throughout the book, and Stradal does a great job of bringing them to life. The plight of Edith and Diane is palpable, and illuminates existing inequalities in America, but throughout, the love of beer permeates: yeasty, funky, sour, bitter, tasty beer. You don’t have to like beer to like this book, and Edith certainly doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop her from helping her granddaughter when help is needed. “The Lager Queen of Minnesota” is an enjoyable page turner, and yes, I cried at the end. This is another lovely novel from Stradal, perfect for when you want to read something uplifting, perhaps on the beach, perhaps on your couch, but definitely with a beer.