Summer Reads

This Week’s Hot Reads: June 10, 2013

This week, from the women who conquered Paris and Tuscany to a man made—and ruined—by Wall Street. By Mythili Rao.

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woodsby Matt Bell

A marriage very darkly seen.

In Matt Bell’s brutally dreamlike debut novel, a young couple’s marriage is slowly consumed by darkness after a series of failed pregnancies. Gradually, the darkness extends its reach beyond the home they’ve built together into the woods and surrounding lake. Then, when things seem at their bleakest, one day the narrator’s wife produces a child—from where, though, the narrator is not sure. Her most recent pregnancy, he’s sure, ended early, like the others. Suspicion and anger overcome him. Turning his back on his wife and the child, he loses himself for hours on ending hunting in the woods. There, he ruthlessly kills off the small critters of the surrounding wilderness. Eventually he focuses his anger on the fearsome bear that roams the nearby woods and caves. Here, the novel turns fully into a nightmare. Prodded forward by the ghostly jealous voice of his first lost son, the narrator forges deeper into the surreal layers of his homestead. Is he in pursuit of resolution or revenge? Is the bear his enemy, or his ally? As the narrator descends deep into layers of memory and invention, the plotlines pushing his journey along grow tangled and gnarled. Bell has crafted a terrifying and entirely spell-binding story about what it means to be a husband, a father, and, more simply, a man.

The Girl Who Loved Camelliasby Julie Kavanagh

The courtesan who seduced Paris—and inspired Dumas and La Traviata.

Marie Duplessis arrived in Paris a penniless, unschooled young teenager. But by the time she was 19, she had conquered the city. A natural beauty with a talent for seduction, it didn’t take long for Duplessis to quickly figure out how to augment her sensual features with aristocratic fashions and manners. She was soon mingling with some of the greatest artists and writers of her time. Among her admirers were pianist and composer Franz Lizst and Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the famous author of The Count of Monte Christo and The Three Musketeers. Biographer Julie Kavanagh notes that Duplessis was also likely occasionally employed as a spy, too, delivering “little services” to various government officials. But politics and diplomacy interested her considerably less than society life. So she applied herself to a series of well-compensated sexual alliances that funded her rapid ascent up Paris’s social ladder. Once she had established herself as a highly sought-after courtesan, a strategic marriage made Duplessis a countess—further cementing her stature and independence. From the sordid scenes of her early childhood in Normandy to her slow, tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of just 23, Kavanagh underscores what made Duplessis such an object of fascination. Duplessis’s story has already been immortalized many times over—she is La Traviata’s Violetta and Marguerite in the younger Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias (just out in a new translation by Liesl Schillinger). In this new treatment of her story, though, Kavanagh takes pains to try to explore not just what others saw in her but also how Duplessis defined herself. What results is a warm portrait of the motivations and choices of an enigmatic woman who managed to both deeply embody and brazenly defy the conventions of her time.

Carnivalby Rawi Hage

A cab driver roams an unnamed city as its rambling poet of the freakish and weird.

Born in Beirut, Rawi Hage grew up in Lebanon and Cyprus before moving west, first to New York City and then to Montreal. His new novel Carnival is set in a city imbued with the gritty potency of all of these places and more. Narrated by a philosophical cab driver who goes simply by the name Fly, Carnival charts the dark streets of the grimy, corrupt city Fly calls home. Fly’s passion for books is matched only by his passion for creating elaborate, historically informed masturbatory fantasies. But the most defining quality of this orphaned son of circus performers is his abiding sympathy for the freakish and downtrodden elements of the city. Cab driving is just a job; Fly’s real calling is looking out for the strippers, prostitutes, drug dealers, transvestites, and mental-health patients he ferries around town. “I believe in others and in humans, and in a world of wandering and of constant change,” Fly tells the priest of a troubled passenger at one point. Street savvy but compassionate, mystical but agnostic and above all, brilliantly idiosyncratic, Fly is a rambling poet of sorts. Only late in Carnival does something like a plot emerge as Fly finds himself entangled in a series of senseless killings across the city. Here, fissures begin to appear in his cool exterior; the dissolution he has witnessed has worn on him. But all he can do is drive on.

The Buy Sideby Turney Duff

Sex, drugs, and Wall Street.

Turney Duff is not the first ex-Wall Streeter to pen a tell-all, but there’s something particularly likeable about the candid mix of braggadocio and humility he brings to The Buy Side, his new memoir of a 15-year career in finance. “It’s one of the great mysteries of the universe,” he notes. “Everybody says they want to know how Wall Street works, but the truth is, all they really want to hear is how much money I make—or how much I can make for them.” To his credit, Duff doesn’t just revel in how much money he made. He also explains how he made it (often, by ethically and legally dubious means). Even when he’s describing big trades or complex industry relationships, there’s a conversational, confessional, it-could’ve-happened-to-anybody quality to Duff’s writing. It helps that Duff has an eye for detail too. On using his house key to snort cocaine: “After a few big nights, sometimes it takes a couple of minutes to insert my apartment key into the lock because of the crusted powder on it.” Equally vivid are the moment his then-boss Raj Rajaratnam giggles at a highly lucrative trade made possible by a shadowy tip—or the moment Duff realizes his father is unable to operate the elevator to his $9,300-a-month TriBeCa rental. As boom-and-bust narratives come, Duff’s is no morality tale. It is, however, a much-welcomed addition to an ever-expanding genre.

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The Queen Bee of Tuscanyby Ben Downing

The charming story of the hostess who charmed Tuscany.

What is it that makes a life remarkable? In The Queen Bee of Tuscany, biographer Ben Downing (who specializes in 19th- and 20th century British society) turns to the figure of Janet Ross “as a heartening example of how much can be crammed into one’s allotted days, and of the degree to which the patient cultivation of friendships can improve them.” Downing emphasizes that on the surface, there are few early signs of distinction in Ross’s pedigree: She was not born into great wealth or a famous lineage and she received no special education. Hers is instead a story of the sheer force of personality. After moving to Italy in the mid 1840s, Ross immediately threw herself into life among the many British expats who had found a home-away-from-home there. In the next sixty years Ross spent in Tuscany, she firmly established herself as the doyenne of the region’s Anglo-Florentine colony—the queen bee of queen bees. At Poggio Gherardo, her house in the hills, she presided over Anglo-Florentine society, hosting greats like Mark Twain in her home. Downing’s richly detailed biography depicts a vigorous, formidable woman with a gift for cultivating relationships and an authentic love for her adopted home. Today, “Tuscany has come to stand for one version of the good life,” Downing notes. Ross’s life, in his telling, was utterly emblematic of this.