A few weeks ago I was eavesdropping on a group of teenagers at the beach. When I tuned in, the alpha teen was in the middle of dropping a bombshell on his fellow teens. “You know how artificial banana flavor tastes nothing like real banana?” he was saying. “Well, ‘artificial banana flavor’ is based on the Big Mike banana, which was the dominant banana cultivar until the 1950s, when a plague wiped out the whole strain and it was replaced with Cavendish bananas, which is the banana we eat now. But the artificial flavor was never updated.”
The other teens received this news with interest. One of them wondered if it was even possible to taste a Big Mike banana these days. “No,” the alpha teen replied. “None of us will ever taste one. Isn’t that sad?” The other teens agreed: It was sad. (But also, not totally true — turns out you can order them online, like anything else.) After the beach, I went home and Googled “history of bananas” to fact-check the teenager, and he was correct about everything else. I also learned that Big Mike banana peels were highly slippery — which is where the “slippery banana peel” trope comes from. Anyway, this was the only beach incident engrossing enough to distract me from the following tomes, which says … something? Enjoy.
The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey by Bett Williams
Memoir, September 1
When I have a bonkers reading experience like this, my first instinct is to Google the author and try to figure out what her “deal” is. My second instinct is to wonder: “How is the system going to crush this book?” Let me begin by pleading with you not to judge it by its cover — a very cool cover, but potentially alienating to those opposed to a “hallucinatory” aesthetic. It is a memoir by a woman who lives in the Southwest, owns at least one outdoor bathtub, receives a diagnosis of “high-functioning autism,” battles an internet addiction (don’t we all), and becomes interested in the idea that a handful of fungus could fix or at least rewardingly massage her brain and soul.
Bett Williams combs internet forums and orders mushroom spores and marvels at all the freaks, herself included, who congregate in digital nooks devoted to psychoactive substances. “Growing feels like an initiation into a secret society of people you will never meet,” she writes, “where the only thing you are guaranteed to have in common is that you are now officially about to commit a federal crime.” What follows is a journey through the theatrics of romantic relationships, the intricacies of friendship, and the torture of writing, with bonus snippets about Williams’s morphine-addicted grandmother and a motorcycle-riding tai chi master in Paris who tells her that tai chi was developed by opium addicts because “there needed to be a martial art that stoned people could participate in.” Like any good memoirist, Williams performs surgery on herself and holds up each organ for inspection. (What does this one do? What about this funny-looking one?) There is no psychedelic bloviating. She thinks Michael Pollan is a dork.
This is a timely one in that it makes you wonder if a reasonable and informed use of certain substances might offset the alienating psychological effects of the pandemic. Wouldn’t it be nice to tap into a universal consciousness, harvest abundant love, communicate directly with houseplants, etc.? This is a book that requires you to “go with the flow,” but the flow is awfully inviting.
RIYL: Barbara Browning’s The Gift, Donald Judd, walking barefoot on soft grass, experimenting with supplements that have not been approved by any oversight body
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
Anthropologists are a natural subject for novelists, given that both careers require a person to be detail-oriented, language-obsessed, and beguiled by the act of social observation. I will always read a novel that contains an anthropologist as a main character; like Hall & Oates or bread & butter, the sum really is greater than the parts. This subspecies of novel is also a superb antidote to the claustrophobia of quarantine. If “armchair traveling” is your only option, why not go somewhere remote as hell? Such as, for example, the hills of northern Thailand?
Fieldwork is a super-fun anthropological mystery about delusion on a grand scale. Everyone is deluded! A deluded person murders another deluded person. A third person, also deluded, must figure out why. (He does, and the answer is satisfying.) A fictional tribe called the Dyalo are at the heart of all this; they are the subject of fascination to Western academics and missionaries, all of whom try to unravel the arcane rites and time-honed traditions of a people that would prefer to keep doing their thing in peace.
And hey, you know who else was deluded? The book’s publisher! In an article that appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wrote in despair about why such a great book as Fieldwork was cursed by its publisher with such a boring cover (I don’t think it’s that boring, but I’m no Stephen King) — which, in his reading of the situation, contributed to the book’s lackluster sales. Can we, the reading public, make up for it 13 years later? Probably not. But this is truly a book that has it all: mischief, melancholy, good fortune, bad fortune, animism, and an initial reception of criminal disproportion to its quality. “I picked Fieldwork up because I saw interesting words on the flap (fascination, taboo, sexual),” wrote Stephen King. Why not you, too?
RIYL: Underdogs, mountainous country, finger bananas, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, cleverness, acts of petty justice
If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan
Short stories, August 4
A study at the University of Pennsylvania from 15 years ago discovered that humans have something the study’s researchers termed “unit bias,” which describes the desire to finish consuming whatever portion of a thing they are given. So if humans are given a small Philadelphia-style soft pretzel, they will eat the whole pretzel. And if they are given a gigantic Philadelphia-style soft pretzel, they will also eat the whole pretzel. The eating is less a function of appetite than of a vague sense that the given portion is the “correct” amount to eat. Anyway, I believe a kind of “unit bias” was at work during the first decade of my adult reading life, during which time I strongly preferred novels to short stories. A novel simply struck me as a more satisfying unit of fiction to consume. The way I finally undermined this preference was — and I understand this reveals me to be an idiot — to reframe short stories as “miniature novels,” so that the satisfaction of reading a book of stories roughly equalled the satisfaction of reading a novel. This ability to fool yourself into liking things you previously disliked: Does it signal a lack of integrity or is it a survival skill? Dunno, dunno.
In If I Had Two Wings we have ten units (stories) by Randall Kenan, a much-decorated practitioner of several literary formats. As with Alice Munro, Kenan’s short stories have a terroir; in this case, not central Canada but eastern North Carolina. A pastor beats his wife’s lover with a belt in an IGA parking lot; a lady who works at a mortuary sits with a man whose wife has just expired; a plumber visits New York only to get embroiled in a prank orchestrated by (you won’t see this coming) Billy Idol. Many of the units are unconventional love stories spiked with acid moments. It is a deep and gentle book.
Note: It was announced that Randall Kenan died suddenly at the age of 57. What a loss. Let’s celebrate his life by reading his work.
RIYL: People-watching, Hemingway, Alice Munro, the word “vittles,” southern foodways
WHY DON’T YOU …
Embrace the scent of Northern California noir: earthy and complex, with notes of REDWOOD and SHARK-INFESTED ocean?
Read the new Lawrence Osborne novel about AMERICAN DEGENERATES living in foreign countries? You’ll feel like a saint in comparison!
Shimmy into NIGHTSHADE if your ringtone is the ELO song Evil Woman?
Trip on the new Susanna Clarke book if you want to get your mind bent but don’t much care for DRUGS?
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF whether this book deserved the $7,000 advance it reportedly received or perhaps something more like $2 million, which is what I would have paid if IF I WERE A PUBLISHER, which I’m not — perhaps for this very reason?
Allow Jaron Lanier to cure, or at least treat, your SOCIAL MEDIA ADDICTION?
Celebrate (whatever that means) back-to-school season (whatever that means) with a masterful collection of intertwined stories that take place in a single FRAT HOUSE? No matter what you think this book might be … it is, in fact, the opposite.
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