Summer reading: Lizzie Skurnick on Katherine Anne Porter
For summer 2010, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles being released during the next three months -- they're a plethora of great summer reads.
At Jacket Copy, we're asking bookish types about their favorite summer reads of the past. Lizzie Skurnick is the author of "Shelf Discovery," a memoir of teen reading. She writes for Politics Daily, The Daily Beast, the L.A. Times, NPR and many other outlets.
Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?
Lizzie Skurnick: It's three books, but since I read them all concurrently in the same few weeks, I'm going to combine: Used paperbacks of the collected stories of Katherine Anne Porter, Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Hardwick.
JC: What year was it, and how old were you?
LS: It was the year 2000, and if I'm 36 on the verge of 37 now, I must have been 26, about to turn 27. (The fact that it's a decade later and the same month makes the math on this really easy.)
JC: Where were you?
LS: I was on a poetry fellowship in Prague, not all that long after it had become the Czech Republic -- so it wasn't flooded yet with tourists but there was still an Yves St. Laurent flagship store near Staré Město and everything.
JC: Why were the books significant to you then?
LS: I didn't notice it particularly at the time, but when I look back, I see that almost every story in each of the collections was about some alienated young woman alone in Europe, or some other foreign-seeming outpost. Turmoil and deprivation: Weimar Germany, Vichy France, etc. (I still can't forget the one where a girl spends the summer on a farm with German immigrants, and the wives all stand behind their husbands and serve them from the back while they eat.) There's also, of course, Katherine Anne Porter's "Theft," in which a mother steals a purse from a single woman who's not quite able to connect with men for her daughter, who is younger and is. I can't remember exactly what she says as she walks past her in the hallway -- something like, "You don't need it," in this very intense way that indicates she knows what she's doing is technically wrong but also philosophically right. It's horrible.
JC: Have you re-read the books?
LS: I haven't reread them, but I keep them with me every time I move -- next to each other, in fact, even though I do alphabetize. I do read Porter's "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" sometimes.
JC: Have you returned to that place?
LS: I haven't. I sometimes wonder what's happened to it. I read all the books in this bar called Pod Lubim that had just opened next to the university, and this waiter was always bringing me Becherovka and asking me to tell him about what was in whatever book I was reading, which was difficult considering he spoke three words of English and I spoke no Czech. It was sort of a bizarre place -- very sleek and modern, with very "arty" pictures of naked women all over the walls etc., but 35 cent Pilsner and surprisingly good food. One of my friends was obsessed with the name and finally determined it meant "Under the Trees," by the end of the trip. If that's not right, Czech speakers, please correct me. I was just inordinately proud to remember the name a few months ago. At least I think that was the name.
JC: Do you have any summer travel plans, and have you picked out any books to bring with you?
LS: I am going to both upstate N.Y. and Cape Cod -- and think actually I might reread these! I am also reading Paulina Porizkova's chick lit novel, so maybe this can be a whole Eastern European theme.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Lizzie Skurnick. Credit: Casey Greenfield