Across the Page: Smart Summer Reading

 
 

In several of the stories, July is able to bring her character’s life into focus with one distinct moment. The narrator of "The Man on the Stairs" wakes to the sound of an "intruder" in her home. The scene is distilled, moving outside the bedroom walls and into everything else that is truly wrong in the character’s world. As she listens to the painfully deliberate steps, her fear of dying turns to a fear of living, and suddenly when she says, "I was going to die and it was taking forever," she is not necessarily referring to the man on her stairs.

In the exceptional "Something That Needs Nothing," two young girls run away from home to live like adults — "anxious to begin our life as people who had no people." They find an apartment with an "ancient bed," which "was tremendously thrilling for one of us. One of us had always been in love with the other."

After trying to make ends meet, they begin prostituting themselves out to wealthy women — or one woman who can at least afford their services ("We hoped she was familiar with the work of Anaïs Nin"). When another girl comes between the two, the devastated narrator begins working at a porn shop stripping for men, and with the help of a simple wig takes on an entirely new identity.

Miranda July, whose film Me and You and Everyone We Know won several awards (including the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes ) in 2005, brings her distinct humor and style to each story in this unforgettable collection. It is an absolute must-read.

The Accidental by Ali Smith (Pantheon Books)

Openly lesbian author Ali Smith’s The Accidental uses the familiar narrative strategy of "a stranger comes to town." But that is the only conventional aspect to this brilliant novel, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award, which was recently released in paperback.

The Accidental is the story of how the Smart family’s lives are turned upside down when a woman named Amber shows up at their summer cottage in Norfolk, England. After initial confusion as to why she is even there, they finally accept her into their home, no questions asked, and each member places her on a distinct and often undeserving pedestal.

Eve Smart, a biographer of sorts, is convinced that Amber is one of her philandering husband’s students. Michael Smart, an English professor with a reputation for sleeping with undergrads, thinks Amber is here to torture him with her ambivalence. The Smarts’ son, Magnus, believes she is an angel sent to save him from the guilt of contributing to a classmate’s suicide. Their daughter, Astrid, is simply enamored.

Several of the chapters move forward in a traditional narrative style, while others circle back on scenes to offer an alternative point of view. When the perspective changes, so does the prose, often reflecting the character’s voice. Astrid repeats herself to reinforce her developing ideas about the world and her family; an entire section is dedicated to Michael’s self-indulgent poetry; Eve’s biographies are written as mock interviews with her subjects, all long dead, and thus her first chapter is a series of questions and answers.

Smith is an ingenious storyteller. A lyrical meditation on the word "beginning" can lead Astrid to obsess over everything from all the summers before she was born to the text messages she’s recently received from classmates — "HA HA U R A LESBIAN U R WEIRDO."

Magnus’ guilt-ridden spiral takes him from wondering how it would feel to be kicked to death by a bunch of kids hanging outside a chip shop — and thinking he might just deserve it — to losing his virginity: "Inside her was like going inside a boxing glove, or a room made of pillows, or wings. Magnus exploded into a billion small white feathers."

Smith’s prose can sometimes read like a screenwriter’s notes to the director. For example: "The sound of vacuuming stops suddenly. The French windows are open. The room fills with the sound of the garden i.e. birds etc."

Other times, she goes so far into the character’s mind it feels almost invasive: "Astrid feels her own bones underneath the warm breath, thin and clean there like kindling for a real fire. She thinks her heart might combust right out of her chest id est the happiness."

At one point, Amber warns Eve of the Scottish adage, "Be careful not to let folk over your threshold till you’re absolutely sure who they are." It’s a lesson each character learns all too well. Amber is the catalyst for major changes in the Smith family, but ultimately, like most "a stranger comes to town" tales, it is not about the stranger at all.

 

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