Last year, my wife, Liz, and I put our 1-year-old son, Gus, in the car seat and drove 500 miles to the beach. I had never been to the beach with a small child I shared primary responsibility for, so I didn’t know what to expect. On the off-chance that it was anything like going to the beach without such a child, I packed four books to devour while in the shade of the family umbrella. But, of course, instead of losing myself in the fictions of the eloquent, I spent my time baby-talking to Gus the reassuring truths of the ocean’s inability to swallow us all. (For a few more years, anyway.)
Liz and I have carved out time this year to visit the beach again, and my newsfeed is flooded with 2019 lists of hot beach reads, but I’m not allowing myself to get my hopes up. Even though Gus is a year older and will be less likely to scream-cry at the sight of the ocean, he is also infinitely more mobile. I won’t be able to get lost in a book for fear that he will run toward the ocean in search of the magic that lives within it — just like he’s seen Moana do time and time again. I spent last year convincing him that the ocean won’t swallow us all, and I will spend this year convincing him that it might if we aren’t careful. (I have learned that simplistic parenting — much like simplistic governing — sometimes requires spewing contradictions that tap into innate fear. Some day I hope to move beyond this tactic, but for now, it’s working.)
As much as we all envision ourselves on vacation in a deep literary trance for hours on end, summer days don’t work that way, especially for those of us with young ones to keep alive. Here are three books that may be flying under your radar — all of which have an Arkansas connection, and all of which are collections, and therefore a bit more forgiving of the inevitable toddler-adjacent interruption.
Kyran Pittman’s “Planting Dandelions: Field Notes From A Semi-Domesticated Life.” (2011, Riverhead Books)
PREMISE: Collection of essays about a Canadian divorcee who teams up with an Arkansan man she meets online for an adventure that quickly turns into living in Little Rock and raising three children.
MY TAKE: Even though this book came out eight years ago, I just got around to reading it and I will revisit over and over again as I reach each new stage of parenthood because I think the parts I will most appreciate will evolve as my child ages. Books like “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” tend toward the clinical, and made me feel ill-prepared for what I’d gotten myself into. Conversely, Pittman is easy to relate to. Her language is intelligent and playful, her wit is sharp, and she seems willing to follow her pen toward the most vulnerable of topics. This book probably gave me a better understanding of my wife’s experience in becoming a mother, and it certainly made me feel less alone as a self-doubting parent, if not as a human.
Angela Mitchell’s “Unnatural Habitats & Other Stories.” (2018, WTAW Press)
FROM THE PUBLISHER: “This collection of seven connected stories set in the Ozarks explores the relationships between people and place and the changing culture of rural America where now, with a growing crime culture, characters are forced to reevaluate their sense of right and wrong.”
MY TAKE: My book club unanimously agrees that we don’t like most of the characters in these stories, mostly because they are so convincingly Arkansan that we felt uncomfortable reading about the intimate and often cruel behavior of people we’ve seemingly known our entire lives. But just because we didn’t like the characters, it doesn’t mean we didn’t like the book. In fact, it’s because Mitchell writes so accurately about those fictitious characters that the stories draw me in. She seems, especially, to have a firm grasp of how to write along that thin line between the fragile vulnerabilities of a young Southern girl and the unyielding, yet sometimes misguided power of the Southern woman. Ruth Langmore of the Netflix series “Ozark” could easily live somewhere in these stories.
Dennis Vannatta’s “The Only World You Get.” (2016, Et Alia Press)
FROM THE PUBLISHER: “ ‘The Only World You’ve Got’ collects twelve new and previously published stories, all set in Arkansas. Dennis Vannatta takes us to strange yet strangely familiar places — a funeral home and a search for a genuine Patek Philippe; a field where a sky-blue Cadillac may be buried; an Indian reservation and the remains of a house. The characters we accompany to these haunts become anything but strange, though. Betrayers and betrayed, they are lost, lonely, fearful, hopeful, dangerous, some few even redeemed. They are all of us, living in the only world they’ve been given.”
MY TAKE: I have spent the bulk of my life in Arkansas and I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is about the way Arkansans talk to each other that makes them uniquely Arkansan, but it seems like Vannatta must know. Reading some of these stories made me feel like I was sitting at my great-grandmother’s dinner table in Prairie County, listening to my great uncles talk to each other using language someone from anywhere else might never understand.