Marginalia/just for fun Reflections

Staff Summer Reading Roundup

Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Summer Reading

By UNO Press Staff

Emily Dalrymple, graduate assistant

My great summer tragedy, which I somehow manage to repeat every year, is that I never get to read as many books as I would like. This summer was no different, and yet I love my little pile of finished reads.

The first book on my list was M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains. A murder mystery, this novel follows a group of seven young actors as they begin their fourth and final year as students at the fictional Dellecher Shakespeare conservatory. This book was my ivy-covered daydream, and included a Gothic dormitory known as the Castle, a Halloween production of Macbeth, and lots and lots of Shakespeare-coded speech. If nothing else, I find myself muttering “sic semper tyrannis” much more frequently than before I read this novel.

Following If We Were Villains, I read both The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller. Both stories highlight characters from Homer’s epic poems the Iliad (Achilles) and the Odyssey (Circe). Told from the perspective of Achilles’ lover Patroclus, The Song of Achilles begins in boyhood and ends with the completion of the Trojan War. This novel sits in your stomach like a beautiful and devastating rock—I still can’t stop thinking about it (which is why I currently have a small mountain of Greek mythology and history books sitting next to my bed). Circe is similarly impactful, depicting the lonely, but powerful, existence of one of literature’s most famous magic-users. Both novels redefine our classic definition of heroes and monsters, creating tales that exist outside their original form.

Hmmm, upon reflection, it seems that my summer tragedy was a collection of books representing famous literary tragedies. Fitting.

Chelsey Shannon, editor

Since I read and re-read so much for work, I don’t always have a lot of bandwidth to read more for fun. But this summer found me back in my original bookworm form: seventeen books from June to August. Unlike my child self who would intentionally speed-read to wow relatives and teachers alike with my literary appetite (how wowed they were, I’m not sure…), what I’m really proud of here is the range of my summer selection: from revisits to classic favorites (To the Lighthouse) and nemeses (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), to sobering perennials like On Grief and Grieving and Codependent No More, to titles fueling my enduring interest in the life of Truman Capote (The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Capote’s Women)—along with some transporting romance (You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty) and queer Black feminist essays and interviews (Forty-Three Septembers, The Sex Lives of African Women) for indispensable good measure.

But most notable is my journey to reading A Finer Specimen of Womanhood: A Transsexual Speaks Out, a slender but groundbreaking memoir by Sharon Davis, the first Black trans woman to publicly transition in the state of Delaware and the first out trans Black American to publish a memoir. After seeing her mentioned on Twitter—along with the fact that, after this 1986 book, Davis pretty much disappeared from the public eye—I knew I had to read her work for myself. Out of print and not available for purchase anywhere I knew to look, the closest available copy came to me from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, via interlibrary loan.

From a publishing standpoint, Davis’s story reminds me of Delisa Newton, a Black trans woman who was profiled by Sepia magazine in 1966 and commemorated by the Neighborhood Story Project’s Queer Cartography poster series fifty years later. In the mid-twentieth century, trans women who were engaged by the press often dealt with their life stories being rendered as salacious, lurid, tragic, or all of the above. I’m happy that Davis was able to speak on her own life on her own terms in this memoir, and grateful that the ILL system is keeping her story from slipping totally out of circulation.

Abram Himelstein, editor-in-chief

When I was younger, I recoiled at the idea of summer reading. Books were the holiest texts to me, and the idea that I might want something lighter or easier for the summer was blasphemy. The seasons existed on a plane beneath the books.   

Age, parenthood, and the Internet have humbled me. Now I want the stories to sweep me away—away from the mundane familiar into other worlds. This summer I fumbled and found my way into three books’ worth of deep pleasure. 

We drove up to Vermont, and once we got there, it was mostly a world without cell phones for us; I wish I could claim that I willingly put it down, but mostly we were checking to see if our phones would work (they wouldn’t). After a few days I broke down, and we made a run for the bookstore. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I bought Tove Janson’s The Summer Book. Set on an island in the Gulf of Finland—a body of water I did not know existed—Sophia and her grandmother play and argue their way through the summer. The plot is scarce; it’s mostly the conversations between the very aged and the young as they try to enjoy and antagonize each other in equal proportions. It was stunningly familiar: echoes of our car rides (joy and bickering in equal measure) and of my daughter’s rambles with her grandparents. 

We pushed further north, to Nova Scotia, and the phones were not more functional. We asked around in Shelbourne, and they directed us to a house where a future bookstore was in crates. After poking around, I bought Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I am new to Gaiman, but this one was beautiful wrought—right on the knife’s edge of memory, magic, and childhood trauma. 

Our last book caught me surprise: The Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley, popped up on the New Orleans Public Library App. It was YA, maybe a bit past our ten-year-old, but she had just dipped into her first murder mystery, and so it was voted in. For eighteen hours we were mesmerized, eager to get back into the car and back into the world of Daunis, hockey, and meth in Sault St. Marie. We rode back to New Orleans through so much beauty, but we were gripped with fear for Daunis. Beautifully told.

Featured image by Royce Bair, courtesy of Flickr.

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