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BuzzFeed's Saeed Jones Recommends Books Of Transformation For Summer

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And it's summer - time to tackle all the books piling up on your nightstand, right? Well, Saeed Jones says let go of the guilt, and let your interests and curiosity guide your summer picks.

SAEED JONES: My booklist really reflects what I'm thinking about for that season. And for me, summer is usually about transformation. So those are the books I gravitate towards, where we get to see people on some kind of a journey.

CORNISH: Saeed Jones is literary editor at Buzzfeed and the author of the poetry collection "Prelude To Bruise." We asked him to share his picks for summer reading. He started with Maggie Nelson's memoir, "The Argonauts." It's a slim volume - just 143 pages.

JONES: It's deceptive, though. It's a short book, but she gets a lot in there.

CORNISH: And she has written many books of poetry and nonfiction. And help us understand the plot of this one.

JONES: Well, so "The Argonauts" is fascinating. It's part memoir. It's part cultural criticism and essay. She writes about motherhood in a queer way. Basically, at the beginning of the memoir, her partner, Harry Dodge, is continuing his testosterone treatments, and she herself is attempting to get pregnant. And so together as partners, they are both embarking on this transformation that's mirrored by the myth of the Argonauts itself. The Argo - the crew would replace different parts of the ship as they went along. And so by the end of Jason and the Argonauts' journey, they had a totally different ship than they started with. And so you see these two people going through a transformation together. And so it makes for a really interesting look at family.

CORNISH: Another memoir that you've brought us is the memoir of Dale Peck - "Visions And Revisions: Coming Of Age In The Age Of AIDS." And this is the activist writer probably best known for his work with the group ACT UP during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Tell us what draws you to this book.

JONES: Well, as a young gay man in my 20s, I was drawn to this book because it captures an experience that I haven't gotten to see captured on the page very often - what it was like for him to be a young writer, journalist and activist in his 20s, you know, making sense of his own relationships and hook ups and desires and questions when, as he says at one point in the book, it wasn't a question of who among his lovers or friends would be the first to contract HIV, but who, perhaps, would be the last.

CORNISH: We should note that this was during the period of 1981 to 1996, which is like...

JONES: Right.

CORNISH: ...Outbreak of AIDS to, say, the introduction of combination therapy.

JONES: Absolutely. And I think, you know, in this moment of this amazing cultural transformation that we're going through in our country and a lot of breakthroughs in LGBT rights, it's important to look back at this moment, you know, in the mid-'80s into the early '90s when people's literal survival was so precarious.

CORNISH: Now, I want to get to one other book. And I saved this for last because it's the big one.

JONES: (Laughter).

CORNISH: It's 700 pages. This is the book that you go into saying OK, I'm going to do this.

JONES: (Laughter).

CORNISH: It's called "A Little Life." It's by Hanya Yanagihara, and the plot is basically about four young men who come to New York City. You know, they're bright-eyed and ready to take on the world. And this is a pretty common plot. What's different here?

JONES: What's different is that as the novel progresses, it moves from being the story of four friends making it in the city with no money to this gravity. One of the friends has a past that included a lot of sexual abuse and trauma that he has not spoken to anyone about, even his closest friends. And he has this painful history that he's keeping in himself and it's only festering and getting worse. And so as the novel progresses, his silence begins to impact the life of his close friends.

You know, it begins as a very accessible, interesting, you know, great-for-summer read, and then you're pulled in to this incredibly moving meditation on male friendship. And also, I mean, as we've been talking about fluidity, race and gender and sexuality are pretty fluid over the course of the book, so, you know, some characters who maybe at the beginning you assume are straight, perhaps that's complicated later on.

CORNISH: Is there a sense that come summertime, you don't necessarily want to read a longer book, or do you think that this is the time to break it down into little bits and make your way through it without guilt?

JONES: Right? For me, I like to read longer books over the summer. You have a bit of leisure. You can kind of come to a book and go away. Often, I'm the kind of person that's reading several books at a time.

CORNISH: You read several books at once.

JONES: I do. I do. I'm so unfaithful.

CORNISH: What does that look like?

JONES: Well, I have a huge dangerous pile that I'm always tripping over of books by my bed and more books in the living room. And I'm just kind of picking them up, and usually, I just put one or two books in my bag a day.

CORNISH: It's also making me feel better because I feel deep guilt for not reading books straight through.

JONES: (Laughter).

CORNISH: I feel like I'm cheating on one book if I open another. You're giving us all permission to do that.

JONES: Oh, I'm so big on giving permission. I notice people bring a lot of guilt to reading. People often feel embarrassed that they're not familiar with some classic or they're late on some book that everyone is talking about at the moment. I really believe that books come to you when you and the book are ready to be together. And so sometimes that means you have to kind of take a moment and step away. That's what's great about books. You're always on time. You're always on time.

CORNISH: Well, Saeed Jones, thank you so much for speaking with us, and thanks for sharing your picks.

JONES: It was a pleasure.

CORNISH: Saeed Jones - he's literary editor for Buzzfeed and author of the poetry collection "Prelude To Bruise." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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