It’s Memorial Day, the first real day of summer.
We are obsessed with summer reading. What will we peruse? Classics or light books? Some prefer the Modernists; others the Victorians; others enjoy cute beach romances with cover art depicting Adirondack chairs. And I would too if I hadn’t already lost one of Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket novels—at the beach!
Summer is also an ideal time for long-term projects. You can read The Tale of Genji (did it), The Death of Virgil (spoiled my idea of Virgil, who is portrayed in the first 30 pages as a dying man ogling a boy fan), the worst of Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit), or Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (which I’m not as crazy about as most people).
But this year I have a far, far tougher quest: catching up with at least three books published in the last few years.
I’m in my armor, on my horse. I’ve got some books. Alas, the regrettably simple style of 21st literature is often colorless and dull. Blab, blab, blab: I like the classics. But this summer I’m going partially for new “pop,” new “literary, and “new” nonfiction. Maybe I can even read four new books.
Before I go on to trash new books, let me recommend some brilliant new books I’ve read this year.
- Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a brilliant feminist retelling of Beowulf.
- Brad Leithauser’s The Promise of Elsewhere, an academic satire in which a professor goes rogue on vacation in Europe.
- Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day, a novel about two couples’ complicated relationships.
- Pam Houston’s graceful collection of essays, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.
- Vita Nostra, a pretty good SF novel by Marina and Sergey Dychenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey.
And here is a list of mediocre new books I’ve read parts of but then rejected. This doesn’t mean they’re bad.
- The Heartland: An American History, by Kristin L. Hoganson. This history of the midwest by a professor at the University of Illinois has been well-reviewed—and kudos to Hoganson for taking on the Midwest! But it seemed narrow, concentrating almost entirely on research in Illinois, which doesn’t take into consideration the differences between groups of immigrants in different states or problems endemic to different landscapes. She does make interesting parallels between the Kickapoo Indians and itinerant pioneers. But ye gods! She devotes an entire chapter to the breeding of livestock. That’s where I gave up.
- All the Lives We Ever Lived, by Katharine Smyth. How could I not love a bibliomemoir about Virginia Woolf? But Smyth is too richy-rich for me. I tired of her father’s “varnishing the teak of the cockpit” of their yacht. I abandoned this book after 30 pages..
- David Means’s Instructions for a Funeral, a collection of short stories. Too verbose for me.
- Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room, a historical novel about Hedy Larmarr, the actress, and a Barnes and Noble Book Club selection. Actually, I finished this, but found it formulaic.
So on with the quest for great new books! The most-promoted new books will not necessarily be the best.