What We’re Reading This Summer

A good biography can be just as escapist as a novel, immersing the reader in the minutiae of a time, place, and character other than her own. Orlando Figes’s triple biography, “The Europeans,” illustrates the lives of his three subjects—the theatre manager Louis Viardot, the singer Pauline Viardot, and the novelist Ivan Turgenev—but also captures the galvanizing atmosphere of the nineteenth-century culture industry as Europe cohered into a unified entity. Gossip is the book’s hook: the Viardots and Turgenev are enmeshed in a long-term love triangle, with the older Louis tacitly accepting Pauline and Ivan’s enduring affair. Pauline, however, never seems to fully return the novelist’s love, and in old age the relationship settles into an emotionally intimate friendship. In the meantime, the three quarrel, split up across national borders, and cohabitate in various villas, ranging in location from the cosmopolitan German spa town Baden-Baden to Paris. In our own chaotic era, it’s comforting to read about how the throuple’s members persevered with their art amid various personal and geopolitical dramas. Figes is particularly good at pinpointing how the technological innovations of the century changed the world his subjects inhabited. The Viardots frequented cultural centers that became stops on the increasingly crowded U.K.-European tourist circuit, a beaten track reinforced by guidebooks produced by the London publisher John Murray—which, Figes writes, “did more than anything to standardize the experience of foreign travel.” Trains likewise brought disparate places—and the élites who lived there—closer together. At one point, Turgenev takes a disappointingly rainy and lonely seaside holiday in Ventnor, U.K., where he begins writing “Fathers and Sons.” Figes memorably describes the scene: “Turgenev sat down at the writing table in his room and began his masterpiece. He had nothing else to do.”
Kyle Chayka

Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black,” by Cookie Mueller

Semiotext(e)’s new, expanded edition of Cookie Mueller’s 1990 essay collection “Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black” is a portal into a world of radical freedom—into Mueller’s dive-bar pinball machine of a life and into her mind, thrown open to anything, “so open that at times I hear the wind whistling through it.” Mueller was, among other things, a Dreamlander, acting in multiple John Waters films (Waters described her as a “Janis Joplin-meets-redneck-hippie with a little bit of glamour drag thrown in”), an exotic dancer, a coke dealer, a house cleaner, a sailor, an “unwed welfare mother,” and, perhaps above all else, a writer of cracked, profound integrity and adventure. The volume begins when Mueller is fifteen, juggling two lovers: a hospitalized alcoholic teen-age boy, and a girl named Gloria, soon to be dead when rogue silicone from her implants reaches her heart. By eighteen, she’s in Haight-Ashbury, where a single day contains a run-in with the Manson girls (“like ducks quacking over corn”), an LSD-capping party, a demon-summoning ceremony, a Grateful Dead concert at San Quentin State Prison, a rape at gunpoint (she tricks her rapist into giving her a ride home and then jumps out of the car screaming, “That man just raped me”), and a dawn nightcap of cocaine, meth, and philosophical musings about the lost city of Atlantis. She moves to Provincetown, collects food stamps, and assembles a life of marginal glamour in a barely insulated saltbox filled with fellow-Dreamlanders. Nothing really scares her until childbirth, an event that makes her see a blood moon, constellations rising in fast motion, her body sawed in half. But by the time she’s in New York, in her thirties, she’s figured out that she just has to get home by dawn to wake her son, Max, up for school. Before Mueller died at age forty from AIDS-related pneumonia, she wrote a series of “fables”—one’s titled “I Hear America Sinking or a Suburban Girl Who Is Naive and Stupid Finds Her Reward”—and an unsound, affecting health-advice column for The East Village Eye. (In one of the installments of the latter, she urges readers worried about the AIDS epidemic to be compassionate and to “relax.” By way of precautions, she advises, “Keep your body very strong and don’t forget your sense of humor.”) Mueller’s unflappability, her refusal of stasis and self-pity, her hunger for beauty, her readiness to find it where few else would look—all of it adds up into a singular code for living, in which the worst thing a person could do is flinch.
Jia Tolentino

Manhunt,” by Gretchen Felker-Martin

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