Randi Kreiss

Summer reading: To escape or go deep?


Of course, we have to have a summer to take up the subject of summer reading. Which reminds me of a great book about Krakatoa, the island that was blown to oblivion in 1883 when a volcano erupted, creating what became known as the year without a summer. The book “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded,” by Simon Winchester, explains that the massive volume of debris thrown into the atmosphere darkened not only what is now Indonesia, but much of the world, for months.

Anyway, we haven’t had a really sunny beginning to our summer. It has been a wet and gloomy spring, and sunshine has been scarce. If you’re having too many indoor days, you might pick up Winchester’s book and commiserate with the millions of people in the late 1800s who lived in the shade of Krakatoa.

I would put that book in the category of “escape,” and I would add a few others to the list for those reading to run away. Heaven knows, many of us have our traveling pants on. I feel as if I could possibly become one of those people who eventually combust from the pressure of awful news in the world and start screaming at the TV or running down the street with my hair on fire. When I was a kid, my escape from stress or distress was reading, and it still is. Still, it’s so hard to concentrate when I see glaciers the size of Rhode Island breaking off the Antarctic continent.

So, add to the escape literature “Beast in View,” by Margaret Millar. This quirky psychological thriller is part mystery and part period piece, the period being the 1950s. A kind of noirish story holds our attention while revealing the sexist and homophobic mores of the time. Serious stuff, but written in an entertaining style.

Also, pick up “Priestdaddy,” by Patricia Lockwood, the comic memoir of her childhood in a rectory as the daughter of a priest. She uses her own life as copy, and she gets why it would be an entertaining subject for those of us whose fathers aren’t priests and others whose Fathers are Fathers.

“Hero of the Empire” offers another dazzling escape. It’s the story of Winston Churchill’s early life and brilliant rise to power. By now you realize I don’t consider escape literature fluff or even necessarily fun. It might be, but it must be a story good enough to take us out of ourselves and our daily worries.

If distraction and escape are not possible, if you’re too consumed by the political and cultural moment, then just give in and read deeply and widely so you can broaden your base of information and at least understand why the world is going to hell.

Try “The Great Leveler,” by Walter Scheidel. In this well-reviewed nonfiction book, the author argues that only catastrophes like pandemics and great, violent upheavals like world wars can ever address economic inequality. Hey, you’re depressed anyway. Might as well be educated as to why.

“The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead, is another fine book that goes deep into our disturbing racial history and offers a window on why we find ourselves in this fractured society.

“This Beautiful Life,” by Helen Schulman, is neither escapist nor deeply probing. It is an absorbing, solid story about a family dealing with issues we talk about every day. The focus is on teenagers who struggle with the consequences of some very bad decisions.

“The Tenth of December,” on the other hand, is both escapist and deep. The short stories by George Saunders (author of the new, popular and weird “Lincoln in the Bardo”) are challenging, but you can do it. They require concentration and focus, and that’s a good thing, because it means you may be able to tune out the news. I cannot begin to explain the stories; they defy summarizing. But I urge you to read them and absorb what Saunders has to say about this American life.

“All Involved,” by Ryan Gattis, is great, I think, but not for everyone. It’s about the four days of rioting in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. It is written almost entirely in “gangsta.” ’Nuf said.

Finally, you can read any number of books about the rise of Donald Trump, the end of civility in America, the undermining of our democracy and the threat of totalitarianism. But if you truly want to examine the real possibilities of the past serving as prologue, try a nonfiction masterpiece, “ Hitler,” by Ian Kershaw. One critic called it “mesmerizing,” and said he was amazed by the number of opportunities when Hitler might have been stopped in his mad rise to power.

’Nuf said.

Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.