Scuppernong Bookshelf

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Auguries of August

How the eighth month portends literary greatness — and anguish

Serious people write books. Are these serious people predestined? Were they formed at the earliest age by a choice made by parents who unwittingly determined their futures in the act of naming? If you name your child “August,” echoing the name of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, after whom the month is named, are you not dooming them to a life of distinction, renown and acclaim? It must be so. For this month’s Scuppernong Bookshelf we look at writers who shoulder the burden of living up to the name “August”— as well as books that use our most venerable month in their own titles.

August Wilson was a poet before he was a playwright, and it shows in the way his characters speak. They’re not poetic in the usual sense, but the words have force and power and music that rises from deep within them. Wilson has been a luminary in the American theater scene for decades and Fences (Plume, Reissue, $18.96) remains one of his most moving and acclaimed plays. It’s the late 1950s, and laborer Troy Maxson struggles with changing times and shifting roles of New York life around him. Fences is a story of family, pride and the ways we struggle to protect those we love.

Allen Ginsburg called the poet August Kleinzhaler, “a loner, a genius.” Kleinzhaler’s book, Storm Over Hackensack (Moyer Bell, Ltd. $11.99 paperback), is largely about his wayward brother’s suicide, and much of his work is haunted by his brother’s death.

Augusten Burroughs’ latest memoir, Lust & Wonder (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99), tries to figure out the difference between love and lust. Good luck! But Burroughs is a master at finding the humor alongside the horror, and this book, much like Running With Scissors, uses the very personal for an exploration of universal struggles.

Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (Presidio Press, paperback, $7.99) is too engaging to be a beach read, too weighty to be summer reading, yet we recommend it as part of our August bookshelf all the same. If there ever was such thing as a historical page-turner, this is it. Tuchman explains the causes of WWI with strong storytelling that you’ll even find absorbing, even the smallest of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s crude comments. Like any history writer worth his or her weight in Pulitzers (this author has two), Tuchman reclaims the past by bringing long-gone historical figures back to life. Though some of her theories about the Great War have been debunked since the book’s original publication in 1962, the storytelling alone makes it worth reading today.  

If you are looking for something compelling, dramatic, heavy and yet still a quick read, look to the stage! The 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama and Tony Award Winner for Best Play, August: Osage County, (Dramatists Play Service, $9 paperback) by Tracy Letts, is an inside look at a family brought together by the disappearance of their patriarch. The play explores themes of grief, addiction, and changing relationships both familial and romantic through the eyes of remarkably tangible and complex characters.

And the most famous literary August of all, Light in August (Vintage International paperback, $12.59), by William Faulkner, has its own family troubles. Joe Christmas tries to find a place in his Mississippi despite his mixed race, and that’s not going to turn out well. Ralph Ellison offers: “For all his concern with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man. Thus we must turn to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatness of our classics.”

What happens when writers name their own characters after the eighth cycle of the moon? Nothing good it seems. We all remember what happened to Augustus Glump in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And things don’t end famously for Augustus Waters in John Green’s touching The Fault in Our Stars. Our advice: Name your children or your characters after other months; try June or July, or April or May. Things will turn out better, we’re sure.

Hot New Releases for August 2016:

August 2: American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday, $28.95).

August 9: Three Sisters, Three Queens, by Phillippa Gregory (Touchstone, $27.99).

August 16: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, by Amy Schumer (Gallery Books, $28).

August 23: Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Time Inc. Books, $27.95).

August 30: A Great Reckoning ( Chief Inspector Gamache Novel #12 ), by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, $19.92).  OH

Scuppernong Bookshelf was written by Martha Adams-Cooper, Gabe Pollak, Steve Mitchell and Brian Lampkin.

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