Summer Reading When It's Too Darn Hot To Do Anything Else
According to the Kinsey Report
Ev'ry average man you know
Much prefers his love-y dove-y to court
When the temperature is low,
But when the thermometer goes 'way up
And the weather is sizzling hot,
Mister pants for romance is not
'Cause it's too, too,
Too darn hot!
It's too darn hot!
It's too, too darn hot
—Cole Porter, Too Darn Hot
Summer is not my season.
I know there are certain people who are only too happy to follow their lizard natures — who, at the least rise in temperature, will start to shed their clothes and go bask in the sun. For myself, I would gladly trade all weather above seventy-five degrees for any winter day you could name, even if it meant snow up to my boots and winds cold enough to peel the skin off my face.
Is there anything to recommend summer? Flowers are nice, and summer fruit is the best, and... well, mostly it's just flowers and fruit.
Summer also contains those daily thunderstorms which develop in the late afternoon or early evening (usually at rush hour), when the black clouds come boiling from one horizon to the other like the Evil One inaugurating the Apocalypse. Lightning fractures the sky as if it were made of black glass, and we start to worry how close we are to being struck and roasted like a pork chop. Any vague notion that these storms will break the heat spell and cool things down is only an old wives' tale. The real point of all that wind-driven deluge is to pump additional humidity into the air and make the weather even worse than it was before.
It must be said that, when I was a boy, this sort of weather never bothered me. I would play outdoors in the blazing sun from dawn to dark without thinking about it. Sunscreen must have been an alien concept for me, as I vividly recall an endless cycle of burning and blistering. A little electric fan was all it took to get me happily through the night.
Being an adult has changed my attitude. If Cole Porter is to be believed, the activity suggested above is not the only thing to suffer when the weather is too darn hot. Even reading for pleasure can become problematic. The period from July to about mid-October is not the time to begin, say, that thousand page epistolary novel you never got around to in college. Also avoid any European novel in translation that is crammed with angst and existential despair.
What, then, do most people read during the summer months? Men, I believe, enjoy books about spies, guns, submarines, and women of loose morals. I will not presume to guess what women enjoy... but as a librarian I am aware of a recent trilogy of novels geared towards women, whose curious distinction seems to be that its female characters indulge in certain unusual proclivities. The library system now has well over a thousand holds on each of these books.
As you may have guessed, I am now going to recommend some novels that I have recently enjoyed and which make excellent summer reading. On the literary spectrum, they are well above Tom Clancy and Fifty Shades of Grey. They are also a far cry from Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. These novels should work equally well while lazing on the beach, sitting under a tree in the park, or huddling at home with a glass of iced tea and wearing as little as possible. They are all, needless to say, available at the library. After listing these titles, I intend to go into reverse hibernation in my air-conditioned cave and hope not to emerge until October. If I miss my wake-up call, someone please nudge me.
Peter Robinson, Before the Poison. Robinson's police series featuring Alan Banks is one of my favorites, but this new, stand-alone mystery is just as tense, compelling, and compulsively readable. After the death of his wife, a film composer returns from Los Angeles to his native Yorkshire. When he discovers that his isolated new home once belonged to a woman who was hanged for having murdered her husband, he grows increasingly obsessed by the case and sets out to prove her innocence. The story has elements of a classic English ghost story, a golden age mystery, and a vivid and terrifying war story, yet its tone and temperament remain thoroughly contemporary.
Meg Wolitzer, The Uncoupling. A story of sexual desire or, more specifically, its loss. The students of Eleanor Roosevelt High School (Elro) are putting on Lysistrata, the classic comedy in which the women of Greece are persuaded to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing them to put an end to the interminable Peloponnesian War. At the same time, a spell seems to be affecting the women of this suburban New Jersey community, creeping in on a cold wind and draining them of physical appetite. Men become miserable. Relationships begin to wither. This novel is funny, ferocious, and abundantly tender.
Hector Tobar, The Barbarian Nurseries. It is hard to think of some novels as anything but lived experience. While The Barbarian Nurseries is set in a vivid, multi-layered Los Angeles (a place we tried and true New Yorkers would rather not think about) and portrays the social divide between the ostentatiously privileged and the Mexican immigrants who serve them (two roles we will probably, fortunately, never play), the novel sneakily slips beyond its borders and becomes the world we actually inhabit, full of people we know. While we are appalled by the novel's wealthy family, we can understand the forces which make them what they are. But it is their nanny, stubborn, artistic, even-tempered Araceli, who is the moral center of the novel. When her employers leave home, each thinking the other has stayed behind, Araceli is inadvertently left in sole charge of the children. This ranks among the most unforgettable novels I've read all year.
Louis Begley. Schmidt Steps Back. This novel is the third and presumably last of a trilogy about wealthy widower and retired lawyer Albert Schmidt, now 79 years old. Schmidt lives in the Hamptons and spends his time overseeing a philanthropic organization run by his friend, the even wealthier Mike Mansour. The tone and temper of their adult friendship is one of the many joys of this book. On the dark side, Schmidt's beloved daughter, Charlotte, is still giving Lear's Regan and Goneril a run for their money, yet Schmidt stoically endures her contempt. Charlotte's mother-in-law, Renata, the unspeakable psychologist who made a play for Schmidt in the last book, is still around to torment him. And there is a new love in Schmidt's life, Alice, the widow of an old friend, whose courtship Schmidt approaches with all the cautiousness and uncertainty of a teenager. Like the previous installments, this novel is a triumph of characterization. Schmidtie, as he prefers to be called, can be cranky, appealing, magnanimous, selfish, considerate or thoughtless, yet he is always compelling. His voice dominates these novels.
Anne Tyler, The Beginner's Goodbye. Anne Tyler is one of my long-standing literary addictions. Her novels are comic, wistful, and humane, yet it is not hard to recognize the dark currents slithering around underneath the surface. Her settings are usually the pleasant middle class suburbs of Baltimore. Her characters are often people whose best years are behind them, whose relationships have become disconnected, who without being aware of the gradual change find that their subtle quirks have become decided eccentricities. Sometimes these characters hook up with other misfits to form surrogate families. Aaron Woolcott, at the beginning of The Beginner's Goodbye, is just such a character. Right after an argument with his wife, Dorothy, (the absurd kind that married couples often indulge in, in this case over a box of Triscuits), she is killed in a freakish accident. Aaron's sister and work colleagues attempt to support him, but he keeps withdrawing further and further into his shell of loneliness and grief. Then, one day, Dorothy appears again, standing silently at his side. She is not quite a ghost, yet not entirely a hallucination, either. Her otherworldly presence becomes the one thing which sustains him. This is a wise, funny novel about coming to terms with loss.
[Special Note: The date for my presentation "The Passionate Brontes: An Introduction to the Life and Works of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte" which I announced in my previous blog post has been changed. The new date is Friday, September 14th at 2:15 pm in the South Court auditorium.]