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Words Worth

An Alternative Summer Reading List

Okan Arabacioglu

Sizzlin Summer 2006

Feelin' Hot Hot Hot City Paper's 2005 Sizzlin’ Summer Guide

Shore Lines Racial Disparity In An Eastern Shore Town, Then and Now | By Christina Royster-Hemby

Riding High A Baltimore Body Shop Has Been Trickin’ Out Cars For 100 Years | By Jess Harvell

Wish You Weren't Here A Guided Tour Of The Wire's East Baltimore | By Gadi Dechter

Slow Ride Taking It Easy On The Gunpowder Falls | By Michelle Gienow

Words Worth An Alternative Summer Reading List | By Bret Mccabe and R. Darryl Foxworth

Guerrilla Gardening An Adventure In Urban Gardening | By Shannon Dunn

Pit Stops The Unpleasantest Places to Do Your Business on a Roadtrip | By Emily Flake

Did Somebody Say Sizzle? | By Tom Chalkley

Skin Deep Dealing With the Dangers Of Basking in the Sun | By Kate Leventhal

Freezy Freaky City Paper’s Fourth Annual Search for the Coldest Beer in Baltimore

By Bret Mccabe and R. Darryl Foxworth | Posted 5/24/2006

As with Atkins and South Beach diets, Christian metal, and the mainstreaming of porn, American culture has an unbelievable knack for sucking all the fun out of the good things in life. Take the summer reading list, for example. Somewhere on that long road to the middle between junior high and reluctant adulthood, the summer reading list got co-opted by marketers, self-serving book clubs, and other supposedly good-for-us people—because it’s reading, you know—looking to make us buy shit. What was once an idea well of titles that might broaden the proverbial horizon became a specific set of subjects in the media cycle/best-seller list you need to know in order to make soporific small talk with some douchebag at happy hour. Worse, when anything “fun” slips into this niche—crime fiction, lighthearted contrivances such as “chick lit”—it’s blushingly accepted with that most insincere smile, the “guilty pleasure.” Thanks, but no thanks.

What follows is a list of 10 titles that aren’t exactly new, or popular, or well-known, or possibly even that readily available at chain booksellers. They are stimulating, lesser-known works by notable authors and little-known geniuses, books that exercise and entertain the brain that you can probably find at the library or used-book store. And we promise, we’re not going to request you finish by a certain date or ask you what you think the book’s themes are. But if you happen to bring up one of the below when we run into you at the bar—or some other title or author who slips through the mainstream cracks—first round’s on us. (Bret McCabe)

Lisa Crystal Carver
Drugs Are Nice: A Post-Punk Memoir
Soft Skull Press, 2005

America’s infatuation with drug-riddled memoirs was exposed thanks to the James Frey scandal. Honestly, Frey’s book shoulda been called A Million Little Pieces of Dog Crap, especially in comparison to this little-known gem. Prostitution, urination, white-nationalist boy toys, a neurotic Frenchman, the difficulty of single motherhood, and even some philosophical inquiries all crammed into one book. The former frontwoman for the freakish band Suckdog shares a life full of seemingly fantastical elements that not even Frey could invent. (R. Darryl Foxworth)

Martin Amis
Dead Babies
Cape, 1975

Amis’ Money gets the Time 100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to the present accolade, London Fields is the pyrotechnically gifted writer’s masterpiece, but this sleek sophomore effort is a grim display of bilious wit, unmitigated disgust, and pure evil. It’s also Amis’ most immediate book, equally thrilling and prone to flinging across the room. Some decadent young Londoners and Americans repair to a country house for excessive hard drugs and sex, occasionally encountering a band of anarchic conceptualists, and then, well, really bad things start happening. A middle-finger bayonet thrust in the eye sockets of the 1960s everything-is-permissive attitude and so-called transgressive fiction, Amis and his gargantuan ego were never more loathsome than they are here. That it still draws blood only makes his talent loathsomely entertaining. (BM)

Nathan McCall
Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America
Random House, 1994

Am I the only dude that remembers McCall’s appearance on Charlie Rose when Holler was all the rage? The image of McCall holding court with the stodgy, albeit eloquent, Rose is priceless. McCall was the Angry Black Man of the moment, and his book remains raw, explicit, and gripping—and there was Rose, the whitest of all white guys, sitting across from him. It made for good television, but McCall’s memoir, about a young black man overcoming racism and his own inner demons only to join the Washington Post newsroom, is even better. (RDF)

Dambudzo Marechera
The House of Hunger
Pantheon, 1978

Dambudzo Marechera was a human comet who came streaking out of late-1970s Rhodesia and, like most flammable spirits, passed from view way too early, leaving a behind a scorching body of work in his wake. Marechera was born dirt poor and was expelled from every school his fearless mind earned him entry to and, often, scholarships—including New College, Oxford. His 1978 debut, written when in his mid-20s, is a thematically taut noose of short stories about poverty, revolution-scarred Africa, and the daily schizophrenia of being the sharpest mind in any room inside a body immediately discounted by the color of its skin. Equal parts Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marechera’s prose is peacock-florid nihilism that erupts into mind-bombing surrealism. He died from AIDS-related problems in 1987, at the age of 35. (BM)

Paul Beatty
The White Boy Shuffle
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996

It’s been 10 years since Beatty introduced the world to black beach bum Gunnar Kaufman in this debut novel. This comedic coming-of-age tale by a funnyman poet is just too far out, as Gunnar might say. Consider some of Gunnar’s ancestors: a ballet dancer who volunteers into slavery to improve his craft; a slave who buys his freedom using money made by letting white folk rub his head for good luck; and the bastard who helped set up Malcolm X. Then there’s Negritude, the white chick with braids trying to get closer to her Nubian side. Yeah, far out, dude. (RDF)

Carson McCullers
Reflections in a Golden Eye
Bantham, 1941

Every former anti-social teenage misanthrope has a battered copy of this moody Southern woman’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and/or The Ballad of the Sad Café in their past somewhere. Those two popular works continue to overshadow the monstrous achievement of her second outing, a slim novella about emotionally combative men and women colliding on a confining Army base in the South. And McCullers richly creates this world in grueling efficient sentences as raw as exposed nerves. What’s mind-blowing is that this Raymond Carver-bleak and economical relationship evisceration was penned by a 22-year-old woman two years into her first marriage—before Carver was even born. (BM)

Octavia Butler
Doubleday, 1979

Just a few months after August Wilson left this realm, Octavia Butler did, too. Her passing is an opportunity for readers to get reacquainted with her superb writing and imagination, beginning with Kindred, which is like Back to the Future—but better and, well, blacker. Imagine that you’re a 26-year-old black woman married to a white dude and living in 1976 Los Angeles. Next thing you know, you’ve been summoned to antebellum Maryland by your great-great-grandfather ’cause he needs you to save his ass. Repeatedly. But why imagine when you can read Butler’s luminous prose instead? (RDF)

Ed Sanders
Tales of Beatnik Glory, Volumes 1 and 2
Citadel, 1990

Potheads and freak-folk fiends recognize Sanders as one-third of the Fugs; aging hippies prolly remember him as the publisher of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts and the proprietor of the Peace Eye Bookstore. In addition to his rabble-rousing antics, Sanders is also a damn solid writer, cranking out 1971’s fascinating The Family about the Tate-LaBianca murders, and in 1975 the first volume of this endlessly entertaining roundelay of 1960s countercultural moxie, Tales of Beatnik Glory. Hang with the peaceniks, dropouts, painters, poets, activists, groovy gals doing van jobs, and guys just looking to get laid and smoke some herb—and get inspired to skewer your own generation of fashionable radicals with as much humanity and verve. (BM)

John O. Killens
And Then We Heard the Thunder
Random House, 1963

Everybody has heard of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, so you’re not impressing anyone by quoting a line from Native Son or Go Tell It on the Mountain. No, if you really want to impress that black-culture aficionado in your class or at work, name-drop John O. Killens and his classic And Then We Heard the Thunder. This oft-forgotten, quasi-autobiographical novel involving a young black soldier’s fight against racial discrimination during World War II was nominated for the 1964 Pulitzer Prize, only to be rejected on “technical grounds.” Technical grounds, my ass. (RDF)

Charles R. Johnson
E. Handler, 1998

If not for the middle initial, award-winning author Johnson would have the most nondescript name this side of Mike Jones. Thankfully, there’s nothing ordinary about Johnson’s writing. In 1990, he became the first black male novelist to win the National Book Award since Ralph Ellison in 1953. More impressive is this 1998 novel about Chaym Smith, a meandering Korean War vet who shares a striking resemblance with civil-rights legend Martin Luther King Jr., and has the unfortunate job of being the big man’s stand-in. (RDF)

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