Summertime, and the reading is … sleazy

Go ahead, race the masses to the bookstore for Goldie Hawn’s confessional A Lotus Grows in the Mud or chick-lit machine Jane Green’s latest, The Other Woman. Summer reading has a tendency toward the syrupy — after all, who wants to crack open War and Peace along with a cold one?

But a quick glance at the New York Times‘ current best-selling fiction list reveals slightly grittier tastes: Among the murder mysteries and detective series, there’s a new shocker by Chuck Palahniuk and an offering by Eric Jerome Dickey touted as “a sex-drenched melodrama.”

Is it possible that summer readers are planning a little R&R for their bodies — without sending their brains on vacation? Hoping to further that trend, Xpress presents a summer reading list not for the faint of heart. For our top small-press picks, read on.

Hypochondriacs beware

Drugs abound in Bee Lavender’s memoir, Lessons in Taxidermy (Punk Planet, 2005). Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of sex or rock ‘n’ roll with which to wash down the morphine.

“Truly, the only drugs I encounter come to me through a prescription or an IV,” the author tells a doctor as she’s being admitted for a stomach ailment.

Lavender, best known for her contributions to the alternative parenting world (the Hip Mama Web site and magazine and the recently released Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts), and for her fiercely lipstick-and-tattooed personage, is a bit of a medical marvel. She suffered through cancer of the lymph nodes, skin cancer, cysts in her jaw and a burst appendix (while her jaw was wired shut) — all simultaneously, and all by junior high school. Add double vision, a serious car accident and teen pregnancy … and that’s still just the beginning.

“I rode through the city smelling everything, the good and the bad, the lovely and the rotten,” she writes of the return of her sense of smell.

“The good and the bad, the lovely and the rotten” is an apt description of Taxidermy, a compellingly written book which, like a bad wreck, you can’t stop staring at.

Pretty dirty things

Author Lydia Millet manages the feat of creating not a single likable character in Everyone’s Pretty (Soft Skull, 2005) — and that’s what makes the novel so, well, likable.

“He smelled bad, very bad. Like a dead weasel would,” Millet writes of Dean Decetes, a ne’er-do-well pornographer who imagines himself the next messiah.

Add to the list of despicable personalities Dean’s wannabe-nun sister, Bucella; her sadistic Christian Scientist coworker; a desperate and lonely blond; and a teenage math genius-turned-runaway. While these five duke it out for shock value (Dean gets repeatedly beaten to a pulp, his sister crafts a love letter to her boss, the blond picks up a pirate and the runaway does everything a teenage girl shouldn’t), other lives intersect and, as often as not, meet untimely demises.

In a touching scene of sibling love, Bucella finds a comatose Dean on her lawn. “She leaned down and rolled him over. His face was purple, yellow and swollen,” the narrative reveals. “He blinked at her, then raised a blood-encrusted hand and dreamily picked his nose.”

Pretty, as in a pretty good antidote to too much bronzed and cellulite-free beach flesh. And it’s also pretty much a page-turner.

Hot and bothered

“When Alicia decided to become a bicycle hooker, her mother agreed to sell a ring that had been in the family for five generations,” begins Adios Muchachos (Akashic, 2001), by Uruguayan writer Daniel Chavarria. (No, it’s not exactly a new title, but it’s a favorite of the independent press, and it’s also on their sale list for summer readers.)

Translated into English by Carlos Lopes, the story is the fast-paced, lusty tale of a sassy Cuban prostitute. Disgusted by Castro’s politics, Alicia and her sly mother scheme to escape poverty by nabbing a rich foreign patron.

According to Chavarria’s bio, his passions include classical literature and whores — the later love proved by his steamy, graphic descriptions of Alicia’s skills. “There was nothing false about her performance,” he informs the reader. “This was a woman for whom sex was not a profession but a divine vocation … “

But, thanks to passion number one, the author also weaves a clever tale revealing crime, cunning, plotting, deception and what exactly money buys on a corrupt Caribbean island. Identities are assumed, confidences are betrayed and, through it all, Alicia peddles her bike — and her posterior.

Beauty secrets

Liposuction, Botox, extreme makeovers: If these implements of destruction don’t sound creepy enough, writer Laurie Foos takes it all one step further in Before Elvis There was Nothing (Coffee House, 2005).

Part spoof and part dark comedy, this is the story of Cass, a hair-replacement specialist, whom everyone agrees is one of the prettiest girls around. But, she harbors strange secrets: Her parents, Elvis fanatics, abandoned Cass and her sister Lena. Lena is severely agoraphobic and can’t leave the house. And, to make it all worse, Cass is growing a horn.

The sisters try to make sense of their lives, cataloging the items their parents left behind and making up stories about where the wayward Elvis fans have ended up. “We knew right away that the number sixteen was significant,” Cass relates as she takes inventory of used dental floss and empty black-hair-dye bottles. “Sixteen items for a man who died alone in a bathroom on the sixteenth day of August.

“Morbid, I know. But, then again, so were our parents.”

The tale — a cross between Frankenstein and the reality series The Swan — spins out of control when Cass’ pervert podiatrist boyfriend traps her in a hospital that Ripley’s Believe It or Not would’ve loved.

Between biting lines, Foos dares to ask the deeper questions about the importance of looks in a beauty-obsessed society — and whether or not the King is really dead.

Check for these titles at your favorite bookstore, or contact the following independent publishers:

Akashic Books, (212) 433-1875 or

Coffee House Press, (612) 338-4004 or

Punk Planet Books, (212) 433-1875 or (also try

Soft Skull Press, (718) 643-1599 or

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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