Across the Page: Summer Reads 2011


If you’re looking for some good summer reads to take on vacation or to the beach, check out the following books: Performance artist Karen Finley’s The Reality Shows, a hilarious and smart analysis of the last decade in American history; Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis, a Sapphic retelling of the Greek myth of Alcestis; and New York Times best selling author Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel Don’t Breathe A Word.

The Reality Shows by Karen Finley (Feminist Press)

Part of the “NEA Four,” a group of artists who challenged the National Endowment for the Arts stance on obscenity with a Supreme Court case in the ’90s, controversial visual and performance artist Karen Finley knows how to push social and political boundaries.

The author of several books (including the acclaimed Shock Treatment, a collection of former performances) Finley’s latest book, The Reality Shows, captures the last decade in American history through an impressive range of some of our most troubled public figures.

The Reality Shows features six performances: Liza Minnelli responding to the tragedy of September 11; Silda Spitzer, wife of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, trying to force clarity onto her shamed husband through couple’s therapy; the ghosts of Jackie Onassis and Terri Schaivo; and Laura Bush and Martha Stewart.

Finley’s writing is sharp, smart and very funny. The book also features original photos, drawings and a pink time line that captures the major headlines of the decade — starting with the launch of Wikipedia and ending with Obama’s official repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

If you’re not familiar with Finley’s work, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna’s foreword and Ann Pellegrini’s introduction provide relevant context about her background and impact as an artist. And when you’ve finished this book, go pick up Shock Treatment.

Alcestis by Katharine Beutner (Soho Press)

Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis is a riveting retelling of the Greek myth of Alcestis, the story of a woman who sacrifices herself to Hermes to order to save her husband, King Admetus, from death.

In Beutner’s original novel, Alcestis is a troubled and conflicted character whose motivation to enter the Underworld is not out of love or loyalty to her older and distant husband, but to be reunited with her long lost sister, Hippothoe, who died.

As Alcestis enters the Underworld and begins her search for Hippothoe, she is forced to face the consequences of her decision to enter this highly charged and passionate world of Gods. In the Greek myth, Alcestis is known as the dutiful wife, but here she is far more complex and layered.

One of the more interesting twists that Beutner adds to her retelling is that in the three days the Alcestis spends in Hades, she falls in love with the seductive Persephone, who earns her title as Queen of the Underworld:

“There is a story I have not told you, Alcestis,” [Persephone] whispered, leaning in so close that I could feel her breath flutter hot-cold upon my open lips. “Alcestis.” Her lips moved the same way they had with Hades beneath her and her eyes on mine. She bent and kissed my knee, and I felt her mouth steaming though the fabric of my shift.

The story, which is filled with unexpected twists, takes another turn when Heracles comes to save Alcestis and bring her back to Admetus. Whether writing about mortals or Gods, love or loss, Beutner’s writing shines. She takes the reader into this ancient world with lyrical and lush prose.

Alcestis is a dramatic and romantic story. Highly recommended.

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