Because summer is associated with vacation – time off from school or work, a chance to lie around on a chaise lounge in the backyard or on a blanket on the beach – somehow, it’s also become a time associated with reading books that are lighter in subject. While the term “beach read” may summon to mind a fat paperback that keeps the pages turning, a book that gets sticky with food or wet with seawater, increasingly, publishers are releasing more substantial tomes in the summer, betting that a lot of readers will take advantage of time off in order to dive into a book that requires concentration.
I recently found three books that captured me, none of which qualify as traditional beach reads, but that I hope I will make it into suitcases this summer. Each tackles difficult topics with enormous grace, courage, and humor. They all approach the things that scare us – the fear of death, the fear of captivity, and the fear of losing someone close to us – in unique ways while speaking to the universal human in each of us.
Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old and the mother of two young boys when the tiny spot of breast cancer that she had been told would be easily treatable turned out to be a metastatic nightmare that would kill her. And yet, the book she wrote while facing cancer, The Bright Hour, is full of joy and sweetness. The tears that came to my eyes several times in the reading of this book were not tears of sadness as they were in recognition of the tiny joys that comprise a life, and indicated recognition that – as seemingly cliched as it may sound – that it’s those things that we realize we are going to miss when we are suddenly confronted with a fact that few of us want to face.
Riggs doesn’t write a chronological narrative. It’s not even a standard narrative, but rather a series of numbered sections, some as short as a paragraph, some that go on for several pages, that pick up on an event that happened during that day, or else reflect parts of the lengthy “conversation” that Riggs carries on with philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who is credited with inventing the “essay.” But Riggs also converses with one of her own family members; she is descended from American intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, and since Emerson had also read Montaigne, she comments on Emerson’s understanding of one of her favorite writers.
Lest I give the impression that Riggs wrote a book in which she spends all of her time in her head during the dying process, she also provides plenty to laugh about, including the birthday surprise that she and husband John arrange for their son Benny for his sixth birthday. Benny wants to be a “toll booth operator” when he grows up, so John arranges for Benny to spend the day working with the toll booth operator in the parking garage where John works. The story of how happy this makes Benny is funny and serves as one of those moments when the fact that Riggs will not live to see Benny grow up hits the hardest. She’s clearly a fantastic mother. Her deep-rooted skills as a writer allow her to make all of the aspects of what she is going through into a form of art.
Another talented writer who turns his common experience into something artful and wise is Sherman Alexie, the poet and writer whose poetry, short stories, and novels have been celebrated for three decades. His young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about a teenaged boy growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation while attending a white high school, has been challenged so often by parents that it regularly tops the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Book List.
In You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Alexie grieves the death of his mother, Lillian. In this memoir, he intersperses poems that he has written about her with passages in which he remembers the high points and low points of his relationship with a woman who was difficult. In one poem, he writes:
She was female, poor, indigenous, bright,
Commodified, hunted, and tape-measured.
She survived one hundred deaths before she died,
She was never thrilled by her endangered life.
And while Alexie’s grief comprises anger toward the woman who could carry a grudge for so long that she didn’t speak to her son for years, it also includes a tremendous sadness at the suffering his mother endured before she became his mother. He writes in gorgeous prose about both his parents – his father was Coeur d’Alene, his mother a member of the Spokane tribe – being orphaned even before they were born by the erection of the Columbia River dams, which prevented the salmon, the lifeblood of the tribes, from swimming upstream. There were no salmon to be found in the parts of Eastern Washington where his parents grew up. The tribes’ cosmology and religion were built upon the salmon, and the salmon disappeared from their lives, which Alexie sees as creating a great emptiness in his parents’ lives.
The same year that Alexie’s mother died, however, was also the year that he underwent brain surgery. His stories of the neurological nurse who took care of him provide a lot of humor in the midst of Alexie’s sadness. For example, it’s the nurse who records for him what he does while under the influence of anesthesia and painkillers, including the fact that he was “flirting with everything” – which included the MRI machine. He tells her he’s grateful for the information so that he can use it when he is writing, but he warns her in a facetious way that her telling anyone else the stories would be a violation of his HIPAA rights. But how he gets the nickname “the unicorn” while in the hospital is funny.
The third summer book that provides insight into our fears is the remarkable Hostage by Guy Delisle. At the beginning of this graphic biography/memoir, he says, “The events reported here occurred in 1997, when Christophe Andre was working for a humanitarian NGO in the Caucasus.” Andre dictated to Delisle the story of his kidnapping, and then he turned it into illustrated panels that turn out to be the best way to convey Andre’s ordeal.
One night, while sleeping at the headquarters of the NGO for whom he was working, Andre was kidnapped by men who took him into Chechnya. He spent almost the entire time that he was being held handcuffed to a radiator while sleeping on a mattress. He had no books, no one to talk to, no form of distraction during the time. The drawings convey the sparseness of the various rooms where he was held. Delisle only uses shades of gray and black and white as a means of getting readers to feel the monotony of being held captive.
Andre has an incredible memory of what happened to him during his months of captivity, and so, on the rare nights when his captors offer him something different – a cigarette, or the chance to wash himself – the reader feels the power of this break in routine. And because the captive spent all of that time in his head, we become enmeshed in his thought processes, so, for example, I found myself weighing for myself whether the rare opportunities when he could have escaped were worth taking that chance. Did I think it would be a good idea for him to try to run away? Or did it seem safer to wait for the negotiations that were taking place between his captors and the NGO to secure his release?
Toward the end of the book, when the solution to his captivity is at hand, I found myself frightened on Andre’s behalf. Even though it’s clear he survived his captivity because the book is proof of that, I had no idea whether he was injured in the last weeks before he was reunited with his family. The book is genuinely frightening in those moments.
But while Andre’s experience is relatively rare, that fear of being held captive, or of a loss of freedom, is a fairly common fear. The illustrations and the narrative are profound in their ability to evoke one’s own sense of autonomy. I felt the weight of the handcuff around my wrist, and could feel the slow burn of hunger that led to Andre’s loss of a significant amount of weight.
While there are plenty of summer reads out there, I’m glad that publishers are not holding off on offering to readers these kinds of choices. While we take vacations from work, our fears don’t take holidays. It’s good to read books that offer succor for those fears.