Arts & Culture

Summer reading

Four Yalie novelists suggest fiction to take to the beach.

Michael Sloan

Michael Sloan

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To the End of the Land 
Written by David Grossman (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen)
Knopf, $26.95

If winter is a time for rich, well-seasoned meals, summer is a time for robust, intensely captivating reads, books that won’t wilt in the August sun. In this spirit, I can’t imagine a more suitable or timely book to read this summer than David Grossman’s gorgeous, gutsy novel To the End of the Land. It has a heart as big as the sky and a kaleidoscopic plot with a cast of characters like none you’ve ever met before—at their center the incomparable Ora, a heroine whose passion, tenderness, and outrage will bore a passage through your soul.

It begins on the day Ora has been awaiting for decades: the day on which her younger son completes his required military service. But when he hears news of an imminent border offensive, Ofer reenlists in the Israeli army. Ora, recently estranged from her husband and older son, is overcome by grief and fear. Impulsively, she flees home for an extended hike in the company of a former lover, a man once held prisoner by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War. From their journey emerges the saga of their overlapping lives.

Grossman has dared to write a loving yet ultimately scathing story about trying to forge a decent life and raise a family—without losing one’s sanity or dignity—in a country where day-to-day existence is blighted by the paranoia of tribalism, the demands of a militaristic culture, and the perpetual threat of violence and war. This in itself is astonishing, at times even shocking. Yet what startled and moved me most of all (and delighted me, too) was Grossman’s profoundly authentic feel for the intimate emotions of a mother, particularly a mother of sons. I can’t resist invoking Tolstoy: call this novel War and Motherhood. There is, alas, no peace in sight.


National Book Award winner Julia Glass ’78 is the author of four works of fiction, including The Widower’s Tale, recently released in paperback.


Abbott Awaits 
Written by Chris Bachelder
LSU Press, $18.95

Abbott Awaits, the new novel from the prodigiously gifted Chris Bachelder, takes place over the course of a single summer in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. The principal characters are Abbott himself, a professor of something-or-other at an unnamed university; his pregnant wife; his young daughter; and the dog, who is afraid of the sound of toilet paper unrolling. Nothing much happens—and everything happens. At a pet shop, Abbott sees a hermit crab, the shell of which has been painted blue with a red B (for Red Sox fans). His daughter is frightened by the spectacle of a house being carried on the back of a truck. The plumbing backs up. A child is born.

A foundation of wisdom supports the witty, precise, short chapters of this novel. Here is Chapter 18 in its entirety: “Abbott would like to think he’s a good guy, and yet his wife is up there sobbing, and he’s down here with the superglue.” Twenty-four words, which is five more words than the chapter’s title: “All Observation, Darwin Noted, Must Be For or Against Some View If It Is to Be of Any Service.” This is the sort of prose that gives minimalism a good name.

A brief note on Chris Bachelder’s career to date. He earned his MFA at the University of Florida, where I had the privilege of teaching him and learning from him. His first two novels, Bear v. Shark and U.S.!, were published by Scribner and Bloomsbury USA respectively—two of the numerous major presses that, presumably, turned down Abbott Awaits, which was eventually picked up by LSU Press. Clearly an editor in Baton Rouge saw in the novel what so many editors in New York didn’t: the evolution of a promising young writer into a major voice in American literature, the improbable love child of Donald Barthelme and John Cheever. In an age that privileges the drum roll and the sonic boom, Bachelder’s soft voice sneaks up on you, delights you, breaks your heart.


David Leavitt ’83 codirects the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Florida. His most recent novel is The Indian Clerk.


The Ask 
Written by Sam Lipsyte
Picador, $25

Whenever an acquaintance recommends a writer based on his or her “skill with language” or “great use of words,” I immediately commit to never reading a line by said author. So often this particular vague praise seems to be code for a thrustless narrative with lots of the “lyrical … shimmering …” passages beloved of the elliptical blurbers and catalogue copywriters, only with big words thrown in to signal the writer’s erudition. So, I’ll skip any mention of Sam Lipsyte’s ripping, joyful prose when I recommend the The Ask, his latest novel.

Lipsyte’s vision reminds me a little bit of Bruce (I’m Losing You) Wagner’s. Lipsyte has the same sacred-cow-devouring fearlessness, the same immoderate, unstoppable appetite for satire, but in Lipsyte’s case the cynicism is hope’s byproduct. Also, “satire” is misleading. It’s such a spare, dry word, conjuring memories of that soporific week in high school English when one had to labor through A Modest Proposal,whereas Lipsyte’s novel is teeming with life, with lives; it’s juicy—even, sometimes, milky, as in the “hind milk smoothie” favored by clients of the Best Place, a “spa facility, birthing center, archery gallery …”

The Ask begins in the development office of a mediocre New York City university, or, as narrator Milo Burke refers to it, “The Mediocre University at New York City,” where employees labor over “asks” to get “gives” from donors. Milo, however, is “barely hanging on in development. I wasn’t developing.” To save his job, the Queens-dwelling father of toddler Bernie and estranged husband of Maura has been charged with hitting up a vastly rich old college buddy for the give of a lifetime. Internet music mogul Purdy Stuart, the rich guy himself, is a delightful new order of fiend, a devil for our times, but comes to feel as well like the ageless embodiment of the arrogant and entitled—a Tom Buchanan for the digital age. Similarly, Lipsyte sends up the touchstones of today—progressive preschools, reality shows, magazines for high-net-worth individuals—with a comedic eye and a coherence of vision and voice that feels definitive. It’s a wickedly entertaining book. The writing ain’t bad, either.


Caitlin Macy ’92 is the author of a book of short stories, Spoiled, and a novel, The Fundamentals of Play.



Father of the Rain 
Written by Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

Daley is the daughter of Gardiner Amory: graduate of Saint Paul’s and Harvard, charismatic and irresistible to men and women both, but a man whose life is centered around himself and his drinking—except when he’s turning on the charm trying to get something he wants. Daley yearns for a relationship with him. The novel follows her from early childhood to adulthood, a journey of growing up and longing. We watch her offer her father gifts of love, time, and attention, most of them ignored, but just enough of them acknowledged to keep her and the reader hoping.

Lily King’s writing is spiced with humor, keen insight, an eye for the weaknesses and nobility in us all. She has an especially keen eye for the eccentricities of the classic New England WASP and the assumptions and pretenses of class. She creates characters for whom you care and by whom you are delighted, even the self-centered father. He is, after all, totally charismatic. You want to love this flawed man and you hope, along with Daley, that someday he’ll get it and come around. But will he? The answer to this question depends in large part on the answer to the novel’s central question: when, if ever, do you stop trying?

Father of the Rain is the best sort of novel you can read for the summer. It is easy to get into and stick with, yet you can still feel virtuous because it explores deep, important, and all-too-common aspects of the human condition with consummate literary skill.

You won’t want to leave the shade for the water. 


Karl Marlantes ’67 is the author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. His nonfiction book What It’s Like to Go to Warwill be published in the fall.


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