Dear readers,

I had a birthday recently. When I mention this to friends and acquaintances, they look a little puzzled, a little hurt: did I have a party and not invite them? No, no party. In truth, something in me resists celebrating my personal anniversary with those who know and love me. I call it summer birthday disorder.

As a kid with a July birthday, I never got to bring cupcakes to school. By the time I was a teenager, my friends were either away working at the Jersey Shore or off doing some sort of summer program our guidance counselor said would look good on college applications. My calendar should have aligned with everyone else’s by the time I finished university, but I stayed too late at the party (I went to graduate school), further delaying actual birthday parties.

Several more years went by when I celebrated not with old friends but with new ones — mostly people I met in language schools in Russia and Eastern Europe. The American birthday song was replaced by the one sung by Gena the Crocodile, a popular character from the Soviet cartoon “Cheburashka.” It’s as melancholic a tune as you would want from the Russians: On a rainy day, a lonely crocodile leaves his job at the zoo (he is employed as a crocodile; in the U.S.S.R. everyone is a worker) and plays himself a birthday song to a solitary audience of a truck driver parked on his street. Yet he is joyful. “It’s worth a tear,” he sings, “that one’s birthday comes just once a year.”

I have read an analysis of this scene as subversive social commentary, the empty street a sly suggestion that everyone is waiting elsewhere in long Soviet queues for goods. Oh, I thought. I just assumed Gena had a summer birthday and was moved that a random truck driver chose to spend it with him.

I know that feeling. For a long time, I got used to hearing the Crocodile birthday song sung by people I had known barely a week before we suddenly started spending every day together — no small thing during the summer, when the days are longest.

Recently, I’ve settled into a less itinerant existence. I sign leases. I stay put all year long. I have a difficult time with it, though, this permanence. I find myself longing, especially as the weather gets warmer, for those bygone summers spent with strangers, for the sweet gesture of a person who does not know your last name making sure everyone arrives at that one bar around the corner from the language school at 8 p.m. to toast your birthday. I miss the concentrated intensity of those relationships that then evaporated so suddenly, just like time.

The only way back now, at least for me, is through fiction. Here are a couple of novels that give me that same rush of feeling, two slim volumes full of the symptoms of summer birthday disorder: a hot kind of loneliness, a cooling down of expectations, and when the temperatures clash — sharing an umbrella with a stranger, cheek to cheek.

Jennifer Wilson

Crime has a way of making travel writers out of its victims. Suddenly you find yourself being asked questions like: Where were you? Did you come across anyone unusual? Tell us everything you remember; even the most mundane detail might be significant in ways you do not yet understand. The novelist Vendela Vida seems to perceive this parallel acutely. Her books, which often combine the two genres — crime and travel fiction — showcase the way violence can transport a person out of the land of the naïve faster than any jet. Indeed, the antonym for naïve is worldly.

In “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” we meet an American woman traveling to Casablanca. Within minutes of her arrival at the hotel, the bag carrying her computer and wallet is stolen, along with all her identification. Not long after, our nameless traveler starts making an “inventory of lost contents” for the local detective, a list that might as well include her too. She is running away from some vaguely outlined personal disaster that occurred back home in Florida. Whatever it was triggered a divorce and a trip to Morocco she cannot really afford. “I’m a writer for The New York Times. I’m doing a travel story on Casablanca,” she lies to the police, hoping to scare them into finding her belongings. “I really don’t want to have to include this,” she adds, in the politely threatening tone of an American abroad.

Without money, she starts improvising, taking on new identities that take her further and further from herself — including, at one point, a job as a body double for an American actress shooting a movie in Casablanca. In other words, she will pretend to be another woman pretending to be someone else. While waiting for her scene to start, she grabs a book from the set. It is a collection of poems by Rumi. She starts reading:

You’re sitting here with us, but you’re also out walking
in a field at dawn. You are yourself
the animal we hunt when you come with us on the hunt.
You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you’re wind. You’re the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach. You’re the fish.

The poem captures the tension at the heart of the novel. Is this a story about sadness or adventure? Sometimes a life lived fully and voraciously can look like absence to the people you leave behind, and maybe, in a way, it is.

Read if you like: “A Separation,” by Katie Kitamura, “Intimacies,” also by Katie Kitamura, literary doubles, books about movies, making thought-out travel itineraries that you know/hope will fall to pieces
Available from: HarperCollins

Fiction, 2012 (with an English translation, by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, published in 2018)

I will read anything set in the taiga, the band of boreal forest that lies just south of the Arctic Circle. The taiga crosses continents. There is Siberian taiga and Canadian taiga, for example. We do not know which of these the detective in the Mexican author Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel “The Taiga Syndrome” travels to in search of a missing couple, a man and a woman. The specifics of nationality and language are kept vague; the detective struggles to understand her local translator when he attempts to speak her unidentified native tongue, so they use “a language that was not strictly his nor mine, a third space, a second tongue in common.”

The detective is actually an ex-detective who has since taken to writing novels, versions of her unsolved cases, where fiction now allows her to “recount a series of events without disregarding insanity or doubt.” Is it insanity that drove this missing woman and her new husband to the snow forest? Her first husband, who hired the detective, is convinced his ex-wife suffers from something called the taiga syndrome. “It seems,” he says, “that certain inhabitants of the taiga begin to suffer terrible anxiety attacks and make suicidal attempts to escape,” suicidal because they are “surrounded by the same terrain for 5,000 kilometers.”

The taiga the detective finds is not a repository for the myths we tell about remote places; it is, rather, a broken landscape, torn asunder by deforestation, extraction capitalism and the illegal enterprises set up to serve men in the logging industry.

The ex-husband is convinced his former wife wants to be found because of a telegram he received: “WHAT ARE WE LETTING IN WHEN WE SAY GOODBYE?” In Garza’s dark fairy tale of escape and pursuit across a dangerous forest, the Arctic is not pure and white as snow, and only a big bad wolf could read such a line as a bread crumb.

Read if you like: “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” the novels of Helen Oyeyemi, the adjective “phantasmagorical,” the adverb “desperately”
Available from: The Dorothy Project, the New York Public Library (once I return my copy)

  • Recite a recipe? In “A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page Over Seven Centuries” (2017), Henry Notaker writes about the popularity of cookbooks in verse, where rhyming recipes allowed for the instructions to be better committed to memory, at least in theory. Sometimes, it simply permitted poets to have a bit of harmless, delicious fun. From the German Romantic poet Eduard Mörike’s recipe for Christmas cookies: “Now put all this while it is hot/Onto a plate (but poets need/A rhyme here now, and therefore feed/The finished stuff into a pot).”

  • Get to the bottom of why so many people are obsessed with getting to the bottom of the ocean? In “Sinkable: Obsession, the Deep Sea, and the Shipwreck of the Titanic” (2022), the science writer Daniel Stone explores the public’s fascination with sunken ships and what attempts to resurrect the Titanic, an emblem of wealth and power, say about whose memories are allowed to sink and whose we refuse to let drown.

  • Listen to the latest on wax at a 1950s Harlem rent party? Rent parties emerged in Harlem during the 1920s, lasting through the Great Depression and finding a resurgence in the postwar era. Black tenants faced the dual burden of lower wages and higher rents. To avoid eviction, many, especially domestic workers, threw house parties, charging for admission. The poet Langston Hughes collected the invitations, which usually included a catchy rhyme, like this one: “You can wake up the Devil/raise all the Hell;/No one will be there to go home and tell.”

Thank you for being a subscriber

Plunge further into books at The New York Times or our reading recommendations.

If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to others. They can sign up here. Browse all of our subscriber-only newsletters here.

Friendly reminder: check your local library for books! Many libraries allow you to reserve copies online. Send newsletter feedback to RLTW@nytimes.com.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *