Summer Reading Diary: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

In Depth
Summer Reading Diary: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

The concept of the summer beach read has always been a bit foreign to me. In South Florida, where I’ve lived most of my life, summer is the worst season—too hot, too humid, too rainy to even sit on the beach, let alone read a book.

The daily storms that happen with damp consistency are the only remarkable thing about summer here; between July and the end of August, it rains nearly every day, typically between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm. It’s neither a light sprinkle nor the kind of rain that brings cooler weather; instead, the sun disappears behind rumbling black clouds and, for two hours, the sky flashes lightning and rain pours down, flooding drainage canals. After the storm, it’s still hot, and the early evening sun quickly returns, drying slick roads and reheating car interiors, guaranteeing that you will burn your thigh when you sit in it the next morning. The only evidence the daily storms leave is the rapid accumulation of mold on pool decks and windows and the (poisonous and invasive) toads enjoying a post-storm snack. Lauren Groff was right when she called Florida an “Eden of terrible things.”

Florida’s weather is probably why I associate summer reading with sticky ooze, viscous narratives, and a tinge of melancholy. I generally read a lot of medical histories, but during the summer, books about bodies and their fluids seem especially right. Last summer I read a bunch of books about pain, including Joanna Bourke’s excellent history, The Story of Pain. She contextualizes pain, not as a happening, but rather an event, “permeated through and through with the politics of power.”

I thought about that a lot as I began this summer reading the recent reissue of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2014 novella McGlue, ostensibly about a 19th-century sailor who may or may not have murdered his best friend (he can’t remember). But like much the rest of Moshfegh’s fiction, McGlue is as much about debasement—sexual, physical, mental—as it is about anything else. The novella’s title, taken from the narrator’s name, hints at the focus on fluids that punctuate the story; sticky blood, oozing sores, vomit, and cheap alcohol are as much the main characters as the two sailors the narrative centers on. I liked McGlue, in large part because Moshfegh is one of the few writers who is articulating a cohesive aesthetic, one that argues for the value of the debased instead of the high-minded or the sanitized. It seems especially cogent in the uncannily clean valley of Instagram. McGlue had me thinking about Georges Bataille, so I reread Story of the Eye, a novella that I hadn’t touched since it was assigned to me in graduate school a decade ago. I’m not smart enough to do this, but if someone could connect Moshfegh’s novels with Bataille’s theory of formlessness, I’d really appreciate it.

Next was Sarah Chaney’s Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm, which charts self-harm from its early modern manifestations, like self-castration and religious flagellation, to the late Victorian era, when the act was codified as a gendered expression of mental illness with a clear link to hysteria. Chaney is a meticulous historian and here she conjures up women who live on only as patients stored away in archives. There is Beatrice A., a “motiveless malingerer” admitted to the Royal London Hospital for sticking hairpins in her bladder, and 22-year-old Mary S., who was diagnosed with “hysterical mania” at London’s infamous Bethlem after she pulled nearly all of the hair from her head. Chaney isn’t much of a stylist, and reading the book can feel a bit like work at times, but her history, as well as the deftness with which she handles such large volumes of information, is compelling, particularly as it parses out how gender itself was central to determining what kinds of self-harm were (and are) disordered and what iterations were (and are) considered expressions of religion or intellect.

After that, I read Carmen Maria Machado’s forthcoming memoir
In the Dream House. Machado’s memoir recounts an abusive relationship through the lens of the fairytale, stopping to deconstruct everything from the history of abuse in queer relationships to Dr. Who to teenage awkwardness to religion. My description here doesn’t do Machado justice; In the Dreamhouse is wildly inventive, beautifully written, and extremely smart. It’s bound to be on every “best books of 2019” list and you should read it when it’s published in November. I also sped through Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth, a novel about the two weeks following the disappearance of two girls from a small Russian town. It’s less a literary true-crime novel than it is a novel about the narratives that create the sensationalism of true crime. Phillips doesn’t narrate the microscopic details of the girls’ kidnapping or hunt down the kidnapper, but instead explores the aftermath of the crime from the point of view of different townspeople. Here, xenophobia, racism, and sexism create the dead girl narrative (as one reviewer noted, “missing girls are dead girls”) and Phillips deftly dissects the dead girl narrative.

Finally, Sunday night, I finished Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a novel that’s part thriller and part fairytale narrated by an elderly Polish woman whose neighbors are mysteriously dying. It’s a magnificent book, maybe even better than Tokarcuzuk’s 2018 novel Flights. It also has this paragraph which I feel the need to share completely devoid of context:

It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Aliment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding.

Right now, I’m in the middle of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, which traces a 19th-century cholera outbreak in London and has been on my “why haven’t you read this?” list for a while. (Lifehack: always read one novel and one non-fiction book at the same time). Next up is Helena Janeczk’s The Girl with the Leica, a fictionalized account of the incredibly cool photographer Gerda Taro, followed by Patrick Redden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which has been looking at me from my bookshelf for the last few months.

After all of that, it should be late September, the rain will stop, the temperatures will reach the high 80s, and it will finally be time to go to the beach.

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