From the Archives: Summer Reading 2012
In Sarah Orne Jewett’s miniaturist 1896 masterpiece The Country of the Pointed Firs, a young woman—our narrator—takes a summer retreat to the Maine coastal village of Dunnet Landing. She has rented out the unoccupied schoolhouse at 50 cents a week and there she intends to write. But she soon finds welcome distractions. There are visits from grizzled locals pleased to spill their philosophies and life sagas on virgin ears. There is the wild beauty of the rocky shore and channel islands. And most of all there is her burgeoning friendship with the wise old village herbalist Mrs. Todd, in whose house she’s boarding.
Usually, alert noticers of the natural world are also sensitive documenters of human behavior. Jewett is both, and the sly, incremental way she charts the unlooked-for friendship is one of the book’s chief pleasures. At one point Mrs. Todd receives a visit from her garrulous old friend Mrs. Fosdick, and the two proceed to reminisce and gossip over Oolong tea and fresh jam on toast:
“There [Mrs. Fosdick said], it does seem so pleasant to talk with an old acquaintance that knows what you know. I see so many of these new folks nowadays, that seem to have neither past nor future. Conversation’s got to have some root in the past, or else you’ve got to explain every remark you make, an’ it wears a person out.”
Mrs. Todd gave a funny little laugh. “Yes’m, old friends is always best, ‘less you can catch a new one that’s fit to make an old one out of,” she said, and we gave an affectionate glance at each other, which Mrs. Fosdick could not have understood, being the latest comer to the house.
With its limpid prose and episodic arrangement of village encounters, “The Country of the Pointed Firs” is an American cousin to Turgenev’s “Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook.” But Jewett’s book is a contained novel, structured to mirror the arc of a summer vacation—it moves from sweet discoveries to quiet emotional transformations to wistful goodbyes.
As the narrator makes those goodbyes and prepares to return to the city, she reflects, “There may be restrictions to such a summer’s happiness, but the ease that belongs to simplicity is charming enough to make up for whatever a simple life may lack, and the gifts of peace are not for those who live in the thick of battle.” A summer trip is a time when you need not tirelessly decide and act on things; you can be content to stop and see what is around you. “The Country of the Pointed Firs” is a product of such openhearted observation. There is more texture and feeling in the “simple life” Jewett depicts than in most books five times as long.
John Cotter, Executive Editor
Imagine a Paolo and Francesca so happy to find themselves eternally entwined they grin and gaze in one another’s eyes like dopey kids while all around them whirl the torments and the stinging wrath of hell. So live Sailor and Lula, hero and heroine of Barry Gifford’s 7-novel series which began with 1990’s Wild at Heart and ended in 2009’s The Wisdom of the Heart, now collected by Seven Stories Press as Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels. The books are full of violent death, curious conversations, lonely wails, and exceptionally deft and funny dialogue. The geography of the action does not veer much from the familiar turf of Coot Veal, a character in the fourth book, who “had never been farther away from South Louisiana than Houston, Texas, to the west; Mobile, Alabama, to the east; and Monroe, Louisiana, to the north.”
When we first come to meet them, Sailor is only just sprung from Pee Dee River work camp where he served two years for the manslaughter of Bob Ray Lemon. Mr. Lemon, you see, was bothering Lula. But Lula’s mother, proud daughter of the confederacy Marietta Fortune, stands less-than-pleased by their recoupling and so hires the gangster Marcello Santos and the science-fiction-writing P.I. Johnnie Farragut to separately track down the wayward couple and rescue Marietta’s besotted daughter. So a meandering chase ensues, and herein lies the pleasure of the text. Gifford is not a thriller writer—not even a crime writer, really, except in a postmodern sense. Instead of writing the kind of tale where the reader turns pages furiously to reach the climax (good guys gunning down or successfully evading the bad guys), Gifford distracts and surprises at every turn. No one shoots, stabs, or apprehends anyone they intend to. The bad guys are taken care of by accidental collisions, wrong-time-wrong-place robberies, and random muggings. Our heroes don’t always come out on top (the first book climaxes with Sailor’s arrest and imprisonment for a botched stick-up job in Iraaq, Texas). And much of the story consists of Sailor and Lula shooting the breeze from motel to motel. They never speak of anything pleasant (this is, after all, an infernal world) but the horrors of the outside can’t touch their world of two. The entirety of the chapter “Heat Wave,” from Wild at Heart, consists of one such conversation. Lula, in bed beside Sailor, speaks first:
“There’s lots of articles now about how many people, kids even, are gettin’ skin cancer? Cause the ozone layer is disappearin’. Seems to me the government could do somethin’ about it.”
“How’s that?” asked Sailor.
“Keepin’ us separated from outer space and all.” Said Lula. “one of these mornin’s the sun’ll come up and burn a hole clean through the planet like a X ray.”
Sailor laughed. “That ain’t never will happen, honey.” He said. “Least not in our lifetime.”
“It’s the future I’m thinkin’ of, Sailor. What if we have children and they have children? You mean you wouldn’t be upset if some big ol’ fireball loosed itself on your grandkids?”
“Peanut, by that time they’ll be drivin’ Buicks to the moon.”
There are stories inside stories in the Sailor and Lula books: one chapter (all of the chapters are under five pages in length and all of them are intriguingly titled) may divert itself into an eerie story by an aspiring Twilight Zone-type writer, the aforementioned Johnnie Farragut. Newspaper articles being read aloud (usually by Sailor, who is an addict) may occupy another. In the novel Sultans of Africa, for example, the chapter “After Hours” consists of one long transcribed television commercial for Spike & Buddy’s, a voodoo shack (“‘Mullahs, mullahs, mullahs,’ Sparky intoned. ‘You got trouble with the Christian Militia? Come on down!’”). What can’t be described via quotation is the suspense this creates. We never know what bit of vaudeville or viciousness will entertain us next, and so each chapter is effectively a vacation from the last, and no chapter is long enough to wear out its welcome. We turn the pages happily, grinning like Sailor and Lula grin at one another. What more could you ask of a summer read?
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and host of Stevereads
Even when the illusion is a lie, even when we’re all working all the time same as always, something about summer still wants to suggest freedom. Doubtless some of this comes simply from the seasons, since in the northern hemisphere winter used to be a time of severe, actually confining cold – so summer represented a new chance to enjoy life outside the carefully-heated home. And surely some of it comes from old memories of grade school, when the clock would wind down on the last day of classes, and three months of unstructured summer would beckon. By the present day, these things are indeed illusions – we’re none of us children anymore, and in Boston the mean temperature this last winter was 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But we still tend to imagine of summer differently from the rest of the year, and that most certainly extends to our reading. We set the season apart – either to tackle some classic we couldn’t face during the autumn or to surrender such ambitions and throw some cheap paperbacks into the summer tote bag.
Thinking about OLM‘s 2012 Summer Reading issue, I naturally thought of that tote bag: it’s an old bookstore truism that nobody likes lugging a stack of heavy hardcovers to the beach.
But there’s a new freedom this season, I reminded myself: nobody in their right mind is going to lug any books to the beach (or the mountains, or wherever) this summer. Instead, they’re going to bring their fully-charged and fully-stocked e-readers – the Amazon Kindle, the Nook from Barnes & Noble, the Sony Reader, Apple’s mighty iPad, or what have you – and they’re not going to worry about weight, or space, or worst of all, running out of books while on vacation. Suddenly, every book is a potential ‘summer’ book, so I can recommend titles that once would have been disqualified by sheer weight, let alone weightiness. Here are a few you might really like:
Pinstripe Empire by Marty Appel (620 pages!) – Former Yankees PR director Appel has written the latest – and incomparably the best – comprehensive history of the quintessential New York team, including everybody from Babe Ruth to Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson and more. In the absence of Darth Vader in a new Star Wars movie, this is the closest readers will come all summer to pure, unadulterated evil!
The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (640 pages!) – In smart, lively page after page and countless great anecdotes, Gibbs and Duffy dramatize for readers “the world’s most exclusive fraternity” – the company of modern Presidents of the United States, everybody from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, and all without the carping partisanship that will engulf us all at summer’s end.
Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith (950 pages!) – Years ago Smith gave us the only truly great biography of Ulysses Grant, and here he does an equally magisterial job with another soldier-turned-president, Dwight Eisenhower, managing to deepen and brighten the stereotypical picture of the 1950s complacent golfer-in-chief.
A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman (1008 pages!) – Foreman proved her born-storyteller talents with her amazing debut, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and she brings those talents to bear on this sprawling story of the many British subjects who travelled to America in order to take part (on both sides) in the American Civil War.
Four gripping tomes, ready for quick, cheap, and weightless downloading! Happy summer!
Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor
Like a lot of so-called serious readers, I don’t read any differently in the summer. The weather can change all it wants. My list of review copies, dust-covered classics and history tomes grows larger every year and I am forever catching up. If I feel like breaking for something light, I stop for a day and do that, and then I go back to the list. Humidity has nothing to do with it.
The exception to this routine is vacation, not summer, and I suspect that when most people talk about summer reading what they really mean is vacation reading. But however much it’s been sullied by the mass-market stereotype, the idea of vacation reading is a good one, especially for oh-so-serious readers, because in a way, it’s more about what you shouldn’t bring than what you should: only very strange creatures lug their copies of The Wealth of Nations to the beach.
When I travel, whether it’s to the sand or a new city, two kinds of books are always in my bag. The first is a volume about something completely unrelated to my destination, and wherever you go, it’s hard to find anything more different than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s London, even in London. Sure, there’s the Sherlock Holmes Museum, but London today is a clean city with an efficient subway system and gleaming new skyscrapers breaking out of its patchwork streets. There are hansom carriages but they are for tourists.
Holmes and Watson had sixty adventures together, and most of them follow the same formula. A visitor comes to 221B Baker Street with a mystery, and Holmes quickly deduces their character and occupation from a few little details – the worn elbow of an evening jacket, the knot of a bootlace. Watson, intelligent but no genius at detection, is our stand-in. “There is a delightful freshness about you,” Holmes tells him in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “which makes it a pleasure to exercise any small powers which I possess at your expense.” Those powers are not small, but Doyle never gives us a fair chance to match wits with the detective. Holmes notices things we don’t, and when he’s not impressing Watson with these details and chiding him for missing them, he’s withholding until the right moment, which is invariably the climax. And yet the formula works, every time. I know of nothing more comfortable to read than a Holmes mystery.
The second kind of book I carry is sort of the opposite: something, fiction or non, related to the place I’m visiting. This past March I traveled to Cape Cod with The Outermost House. In 1925 Henry Beston bought 50 acres of sand near Eastham, on the Cape, and built himself a two-room vacation home, which he named Fo’castle. From there the only visible sign of humanity is the Nauset lighthouse: “On bright moonlit nights, I can see both the whitewashed tower and the light; on dark nights, I can see only the light itself suspended and secure above the earth.”
The next year he travelled there for a fortnight, but a fortnight stretched into a month, a month into a season, and a season became a year. The creatures living nearby – the gulls “on the top of the beach in a long, senatorial row,” the insects who carve “fantastic ribbons” in the dunes – took on the air of friends, and the water, earth and sun became like gods – remote, fickle, indifferent, and beautiful.
In Beston’s time people were pouring out of the countryside, crowding into the roaring cities. He felt this great migration entailed a great loss, and that modernity begot a crooked view of nature and our own importance in it:
Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness… And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor and host of Novel Readings
That hushed, enigmatic opening still captivates me just as it did on my first reading of The Game of Kings more than three decades ago, drawing me immediately into the tangled, engrossing world of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. It’s the perfect escapist summer reading destination: once immersed in it, you’ll forget all about your job, your friends, your family, and all the other, duller books waiting on your shelves.
In this first instalment of the six-volume series (and trust me, once you’ve started on them, you’ll want to read them all), Dunnett’s charismatic anti-hero Francis Crawford of Lymond is alienated from his family by tragedy and outlawed from the court of Mary Queen of Scots for treason–alleged treason, that is. Lymond is determined to clear his name and be restored to his family, but tortuous complexity is the hallmark of Lymond’s psychology as well as of Dunnett’s plots, and his campaign suffers numerous setbacks, many self-inflicted, before the novel reaches its stunning dénouement. And by “stunning” I mean not just that the suspense is intense and the resolution emotionally gratifying, but also that Dunnett has built an adventure story of such intellectual richness that the final showdown is not only between people we have come to care intensely about but between ideas of real significance–ideas about nationalism and love of country, for instance, which had a specific urgency at the place and time Dunnett has chosen for her setting. Leadership, too, is a recurring theme: Lymond’s gift for inspiring loyalty (often in spite of himself) incurs costs for others that become debts of honor for him. It’s an unwelcome responsibility, one not to be borne lightly, but as he tells someone whose service to him proves fatal, he won’t “have the puny effrontery to waste what [she’s] done.”
Lymond’s constant struggle to reconcile the more reckless aspects of his personality with his conscience makes him a consistently fascinating figure, but the series is richly populated with people who made an indelible impression on me when I first met them, and who have lived in my imagination ever since. I actually proposed that we name our daughter “Philippa” after one of them: though you’ll meet her in The Game of Kings, you may not sympathize until Volume V, The Ringed Castle. By the end of Volume VI, Checkmate, you’ll be wondering why I didn’t insist on it.
The Lymond Chronicles are hardly light reading. They demand both patience and attention–because of the depth and layering of Dunnett’s period details, the seriousness of her historical and political attention, and the expectations she manifestly has of her readers’ capacity to cope with allusions across a vast range of literary materials in languages from Middle English to Old French to Latin: the epigraphs to each chapter in The Game of Kings, for instance, come from William Caxton’s 1474 The Game and Playe of the Chesse, which is itself a translation of a 13th-century work. (I learned this just now through Google–my approach to Dunnett has always been passionately, besottedly, readerly, rather than donnish. But if you want to know this kind of detail as you go along, there’s a Dorothy Dunnett Companion to help you.) There are a lot of characters (there’s a list at the front of The Game of Kings, to help you keep track) and the storylines are labyrinthine–but they are also surprisingly melodramatic. The combination of flamboyant imagination and erudition is electric, irresistible in the most old-fashioned page-turning way. OK, that’s it: I’ve talked myself into rereading the whole series myself this summer…unless I’m seduced away by the other editors’ recommendations.
Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editor
To call a book of poetry a “beach read” seems rather like an insult – diminishing the poet’s labor of condensing meaning down into its tightest form. But Craig Dworkin’s Motes demand to be read with some large body of water available for the reader’s contemplation. Here’s a representative poem, in its entirety:
obeying the leash laws
In a poem like this one, the sounds and meaning go by so quickly you might miss them, but if you take a second (staring out, perhaps, at a convenient bay), then the surprising wordplay of title and line resolve. Read, gaze, realize, repeat. Each poem here is a tidy nugget that rewards a little worrying. And one can’t help but be delighted when a moment’s puzzling transforms
sunny lemon tea time
back into Frere Jacques and its opening line. It’s the rare poem in this book that is longer than a title and a single phrase, but they all invite the reader to sit back and contemplate, without haste or anxiety, to revolve the words like the Rubik’s Cube that is pictured on Motes’ cover, enjoying the words as words, in all their sound and splendor.
There is no narrative here, no emotional arc, but these poems are playthings not easily discarded. Long after the first reading, they continue to evolve in the reader’s mind, and so have a much longer life than their length would imply. Summer can seem endless, but sometime we’ll awake from our gentle, pun-filled reverie. The matins will sound. But for now, I think I prefer sunny lemon tea time, don’t you?
One of the more distinctive characteristics of Shakespeare’s plays is the number of scenes – sometimes interposed so that important costume and scenery changes might be accomplished in the meantime – where two characters engage in a rapid-fire exchange of wit, in which each statement pings off of the last, ricocheting wildly from the topic with which the conversation began. Liz Waldner’s Play offers the same sort of dialogue, except that this time, the two conversants are a single person who teases, muses and remonstrates against herself.
Titles like “The Imagined Snake is the Sport of the Rope” and “The B&W TV Yields a Fuzzy Half-Hour of What Proves to Be Ally McBeal” give a hint of Waldner’s dry humor. But tongue is not firmly planted in the one-note cheek — her wordplay goes beyond mere fascination with words as such. There’s a spiritual tang to Waldner’s wit, as she quotes Swedenborg, the Bible, and makes multiple references to Hindu scripture and philosophy. The voice that emerges is a “whole” voice, that of a rounded personality.
Waldner’s dialogues are longish, fractured, and resist easy quotation, but here’s a representative bit from “The Real Genesis is Pleased to Stand Up”:
The beautiful day is here again
Bird song and a mist on the water?
All things pass and return
Darkness only lasts a night time
Better ask Geo. Harrison for lyric assist
And fat boy what ails him with his lash
I doubt, is what, but the day is beautiful and back
Like a good comedian, Waldner’s poems work because of their timing, they way they shade from the sentimental to the sarcastic, and call back to themselves across the length of the book. The first line of the first poem, “I say Bora-Bora” pops up again in “I Was/You Were Not Mistaken in Me,” a two-line rimshot of a piece:
I say Bora-Bora
Waldner’s work acts both as play in the sense of sport or fun, and play in the sense of drama unfolding. Audience participation is encouraged – and hardly avoidable. These poems engage the mind and the senses, and leave you with the brisk but quiet satisfaction of a good run.
Photograph by John Driscoll [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons