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Book & Bottle #5: Summer Reads edition

Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.

August: the last gasp of summer and with it, the cherished idea of summer reading. The multi-week vacation to the beach where you devour books sounds wonderful but also mythical—at least I don’t know anyone who actually does this, although weekend newspapers and magazines would have you think it’s the norm. I suspect those summer reading roundups, including the what-and-where-the-great-and-good-are-reading-this-summer spreads, are convenient filler for when the journalists themselves are taking a break.

The bulk of my own summer reading happened back in June, plane-side rather than poolside thanks to an unusual spate of mostly work-related travel. Rather than devote this Book & Bottle to a single book as I’ve done in the past, I’ll do like the media and make this one a roundup of some of my favorite summer reads from that period, pairing literary libations with each. Join me here at the poolside of my dreams, where everyone gets a sun lounger, a drink with an umbrella in it, and a hardback so good you’d rather burn to a crisp than put it down to reapply the sunscreen.

Max Porter’s Lanny and Long Island Iced Tea

First up is Max Porter’s Lanny. I’ve been wanting to write about this book since I read it, but it was so good I immediately gave my copy away after finishing it to maximize my chances of having someone else to talk to about it. Set in an English village, it is perhaps the most quintessentially English thing I’ve ever read while simultaneously unlike anything I’ve ever read. The plot centers on the disappearance of a boy, the Lanny of the title, but I hope this doesn’t discourage parents wanting to avoid the vicarious anguish of the setup from reading it; this is not Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny.

While Lanny is at the center of the book, he’s more absent than the other characters, even before he disappears. Porter structures the book from the perspective of these other characters, including each of Lanny’s parents; Pete, an artist in the village who at the request of Lanny’s mom gives Lanny art lessons; and Dead Papa Toothwort. The last is a mythical presence at the center of the book: shape-shifting, eavesdropping, ancient English folklore come to life.

In the face of all this Englishness, my first thought about what drink to pair with Lanny was elderflower champagne. Years ago when I was living in an actual English village, I watched someone make it—on an episode of River Cottage I think—and always thought I’d like to give it a try. Cue visions of a quaint village show, a beribboned bottle of my wares on display next to the other competition winners: plum jam, a wonky brown loaf, a child’s cap knitted in the design of a Christmas pudding.

I never brewed my own elderflower wine, but on any given day in May or June I could have stepped outside our cottage in Gloucestershire, walked a block or two up the road and picked the eight elderflower heads the recipe calls for. Here in San Francisco, though, the closest thing to picking elderflower is ordering a cocktail with St. Germain. Perhaps Lanny would pair better with a traditional cider or perry—also very English, but something I could probably find at a Trader Joe’s.

And then I listened to David Naimon interview Max Porter, and I realized I had been getting this all wrong. Dead Papa Toothwort may be drawn from English folklore, but he’s far from the twee stereotypes of village life. He’s a throbbing hot mess, and Porter tells us as much in the first paragraph of the first page:

Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter. He lies down to hear hymns of the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detrivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fiberglass bath stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.

Dead Papa Toothwort is, of course, a Long Island Iced Tea incarnate. He could never be anything other than a Long Island Iced Tea, that garbage fire of gin, tequila, rum, triple sec, gin, and Coke that belongs in my personal history to my hometown southwest Florida Benningan’s (TGI Friday’s cooler cousin) in the early nineties, when I was in my twenties and gormless enough to embrace such a concoction. These days I fear the bartenders in San Francisco’s hipper establishments may eject you for attempting to order a Long Island Iced Tea, but I’ve done the legwork and am happy to tell you both the Cliff House and The Buena Vista still feature a Long Island Iced Tea on their cocktail menus. Should you be in town and in need of a bar in which to read Lanny, either of these tourist stalwarts (a label I use as a compliment) would serve you well.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Heineken

Ocean Vuong is a poet, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel. As someone who has struggled with poetry—a fact I use as an indictment of myself, not the form—I welcome when a poet chooses to write in a format that I find more accessible. (Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy, also comes to mind.) The genre of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a little more amorphous than the words “A Novel” on the cover might have you believe, but it was enough to trick my brain into believing we could read this thing.

This “thing” is anchored by the construct of a son writing a letter to his mother, who cannot read. It is about their lives as Vietnamese Americans in Hartford, Connecticut, and the lives of his grandmother and mother before in Vietnam. In the interviews I’ve listened to with Vuong (he is a compelling speaker, one of those rare writers who’s as eloquent off the page as on), he talks about the importance of writing their experience into the Western canon, of declaring that this experience too is worthy of literature. In one such interview, he drew a striking comparison to what Chaucer was doing with The Canterbury Tales, specifically

writing a new English with no standardized spelling at a time where the Latinate reigned supreme. He stubbornly said, English life in English is worthy, and I think I’m working in the same tradition.

A more contemporary precedent for what Vuong is doing here is Toni Morrison. In the wake of her death last week, I was reminded she did much the same thing for the black experience in America. Curiously, I had earlier been reminded of Morrison while reading this book, specifically through Vuong’s recurring use of the imagery of a herd of buffalo running off a cliff. The main character, Little Dog, and his grandmother, Lan, watch the scene on a nature program, and Lan asks Little Dog why he thinks the buffalo “die themselves like that.” Later, Little Dog asks the same thing of his lover. Finally, Vuong uses the imagery at the end of the book as part of a metaphor for what Little Dog is running away from and simultaneously embracing. I immediately thought of the ending of Song of Solomon, when Milkman also leaps and takes flight.

As for the what-bottle-to-pair-with-this-book question, when writing one of these Book & Bottle blog posts, I’ll either choose the book because it has something to do with booze—as in Anne Fadiman’s memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter—or look for how booze shows up in the text as a cue—as in the pruno-making on death row in Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. (I am, as my previous mention of my trouble with poetry may have clued you in, a rather literal person.)

In Vuong’s novel, opioid addiction plays an important role, but alcohol is less present. I was, however, struck by a scene where Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, drinks a single Heineken at a child’s birthday party and, with “her face the shade of raw ground beef,” begins to sing a morbid Vietnamese folk song. The lyrics feature a woman looking for her sister “among corpses strewn across sloping leafy hills.” Even though the song is in Vietnamese and none of the Americans at the party can understand the lyrics, Little Dog’s mom, Rose, is horrified, and tries unsuccessfully to get Lan to stop.

It is a scene that has extreme resonance today (and probably always) as our access to real-time news makes us hyper-aware of the extreme cruelty and injustice in the world, in the face of which we mostly just keep going about our daily lives pretending as if nothing has changed, or if it has, that it doesn’t affect us. Our response is not rational. In this context, Lan is not the crazy one. Lan is the only sane one at the birthday party, her single Heineken a portal to this breakthrough that looks more like a breakdown to everyone else. (See also: The hypersane are among us, if only we are prepared to look.)

Admittedly this has gone off-piste quite a bit from the fluffy idea of pairing a book with a drink, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that if a beer or some other intoxicant can give us a moment’s access to the pain and suffering in our world in such a way that might be transformative rather than destructive, then by all means consume it.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People and Delaware Punch

If you stuck with me this long, then I’ll keep my final recommendation short. Nafissa Thompson-Spires short story collection focuses on the contemporary lives of black people in southern California. Like Vuong, she was motivated by wanting to read experiences that reflected her own, including “more stories about awkward, nerdy black people,” as she explained in a recent interview. Two of my favorite stories are “Belles Lettres”, a bitchy epistolary between two mothers of children at a private school, and “Suicide, Watch”, which reads like an episode of Black Mirror.

The setting for many of Thompson-Spires’s stories is the Inland Empire, a huge metropolitan area east of Los Angeles. My mother grew up in San Bernardino, one of the cities of the Inland Empire, and I spent a lot of time there visiting my grandparents as a kid. Most people today know it from the mass shooting that took place in 2015; it is not the kind of place that typically shows up in Literature. And yet here they were, the place names of my summers: Baseline and Foothill, both streets that seem to run forever; Fontana; a mall in Montclair.

There was a thrill in recognizing in print these names seared into my childhood brain, markers as we drove the 10 Freeway the seventy miles east from LAX. I was reminded intensely of summer vacations spent at my grandparent’s house, where one of my finest pleasures was to go to the refrigerator in the garage (which, for reasons never explained, was not plugged in and always had a paper bag between the refrigerator and the door that you were supposed to put back in place after you opened it), retrieve a can of Delaware Punch, then drink it over ice from my plastic Disneyland mug featuring a decal of Donald Duck on its transparent base.

Delaware Punch was special, in part because it was nowhere to be found in Florida, the state where I lived at the time. (It’s still almost impossible to find now, save for Amazon where I found a 12-pack for $21.95.) If you’ve never had it, you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it’s the purple-red, non-carbonated, rocket-fuel-level-of-sugar fruit punch of every child’s dreams. And so for the question of what beverage to pair with Heads of the Colored People I’m going to go away from alcohol and suggest whatever drink is the one that reminds you most of your childhood, or of a place you loved—something from the canon of You, which is as worthy as anything in those other canons preceded by words that start with a capital letter.

Other books I’ve enjoyed this summer: