Musings on Summer Days & Six Summer Reading Suggestions

The twentieth century was cooler, metaphorically as well as literally.  It used to cool off at night.

But my mother loved her air conditioning:  “Don’t cool the outdoors” was her favorite imperative as people ran in and out.

We found many ways to escape the heat, since we didn’t like AC. We drank lemon Coke at Woolworths, or went to Things and Things and Things for frozen yogurt.  Sometimes we perched on the steps of the limestone buildings on the Pentacrest on the tree-lined campus.  The limestone was cool to the touch on hot days.  On the hottest days, we went to McBride Hall, which had a natural history museum, glass cases of stuffed wild animals lining the halls on three floors. Or we headed to the River Room at the Union, where we could sit all day without buying anything.

  And so as we head into a hot July, let me stop my musings, pray for  cool days, and  celebrate summer with some good escape books.  Here are some suggestions:

1.  I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith.  “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” is the first sentence of this charming English novel.  The observant narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, writes a lively diary of family life in a run-down castle:  her famous father, author of a Joycean masterpiece,  is either blocked or lazy; her stepmother, Topaz, a former model, communes with nature in the nude;  romantic Rose, the older sister,  longs for romance but knows no men; and the younger brother Thomas is still at school.   Naturally, comic romance drives the plot.  N.B. You can read about Cassandra’s Midsummer’s Eve rites in Chapter XII (p. 199 in the St. Martin’s paperback edition).

2.  The Portable Greek Reader, edited by W. H. Auden.  This anthology of ancient Greek literature, philosophy and history includes excerpts from Hesiod, Homer, Plato, the Greek tragedians, Aristophanes, Thucydides, all of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, but I keep it mainly for Auden’s introduction, which I reread.  I’m surprised by how many of these selections I read in Greek in my youth.  Auden does make a few odd choices, though.  Why include Plato’s little-read Timaeus in its entirety?  But it was fun to reread excerpts from Hesiod, and to rediscover Pindar. 

3.  Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge.  Allingham is one of the greatest Golden Age Detective Novel writers, and I love this one because it is set in a publishing house.  Amateur sleuth Albert Campion, who is rather like Peter Wimsey, is called in when one of the directors is murdered.  The suspect couldn’t possibly have done it. He’s simply too naive.  But then who…?

4.  The Murder of My Aunt, by Richard Hull. In this slight but entertaining Golden Age mystery, published in the British Library Crime Classics series, the crazed narrator, grumpy Edwin Powell, decides to murder his controlling aunt.

5.  The Shivering Sands, by Victoria Holt. In this mediocre 1969 novel, which I read when I was revisiting ’60s Gothics, Caroline investigates the disappearance of her sister, an archaeologist, by taking a job at the estate where she was last seen.  A bit formulaic, and certainly not to be read for style – but the last suspenseful 100 pages are truly Gothic!

6.  Darling Girl, by Liz Michaelski. I read an enthusiastic review of this modern retelling of Peter Pan.  I wish I were enjoying it more. The story is sinister, but it could do with some stylistic dazzle.  The basic plot: Holly Darling, the granddaughter of Wendy Darling – who knew Peter Pan – is a scientist and the CEO of a cosmetics company, with a complicated personal history. She was driving the car when she had an accident that killed her husband and one of her twin sons.  The surviving son has a rare blood condition.  And then her daughter, who has been in a coma for years, disappears.  Even if I don’t finish this, I assure you the daughter’s disappearance will be connected with Peter Pan.

Happy July 4 Weekend Reading!

Summer Charm:  “Mrs. Gaskell and Me” and “The Thin Man”

Every summer I  hunker down with a classic like The Tale of Genji, Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, or Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander.  It is an automatic affectation for me to pick up a weighty classic, while others pretend to read slim books with pink covers.   I have found that a classic from your Not Urgent List is best perused in the psychedelic heat while sipping an Arnold Palmer with a little umbrella in it.

Bu this year is different.  I do not have a reading list.  I have wept over scenes of protesters and police kneeling together on the news; and every time I cough I wonder, Is it the virus? 

And so I have not committed to a magnum opus–yet.

But let me tell you briefly about two charming books.

Nell Stevens’s Mrs. Gaskell and Me, published in the U.S. as The Victorian and the Romantic:  A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship across Time, is a splendid biblio-memoir. It is partly a historical novel about Elizabeth Gaskell, written in the second person; partly a memoir of Stevens’ Ph.D. research on Gaskell. In the novel, Gaskell struggles with accusations of immorality and libel in  her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which she later has to censor; longs to escape from her narrow-minded husband, a minister, in Manchester; and travels to Rome with her daughters, where she forms a romantic friendship with Charles Eliot Norton, an American writer and scholar.

Stevens’s book is not all fiction, or at least seems not to be.  Stevens interweaves a memoir of her own reading of Mrs. Gaskell , which an affair with a moody, selfish writer she met in an MFA program in Boston often impedes. Stevens is more frail than Gaskell, but we all have been obsessed with that moody guy in grad school, haven’t we?   Much of the book is enchantingly lyrical, and it is blessedly short.

I am a great fan of Dashiell Hammett’s noir screwball comedy, The Thin Man.  I agree with Dorothy Parker, who said:  “All I can say i say is that anyone who doesn’t read him misses much of modern America.” 

In The Thin Man, Nick and Nora, the most charming couple in a 20th-century American mystery, are enjoying their stay in a luxurious New York hotel, spending their time at speakeasies, parties, restaurants, and Radio City Music Hall.  The trouble starts on the first page when Dorothy Wynant shows up at a speakeasy and asks Nick, a former detective, if he can help her find her father, who was once his client.

And then a string of murders follows, and Dorothy’s mother, Mimi, finds the first body.  But since Nick knows Mimi is crazy and lies about everything, he does not take her story seriously. Not surprisingly,  the ex-cons, among them Studsy Burke, owner of The Pigiron Cub, are more honest than the upper-class neurotics and avaricious businessmen who demand  Nick’s help. 

You may have seen the excellent movie The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy. .  And of course he wrote The Maltese Falcon

I hope your summer reading is going well!

Covid-19 Summer Reading: Books for Local Trips

It’s summer!  Long, leisurely hot days divided between the lush outdoors and the domestic indoors. This is the summer of Covid-19, so  we will not camp on the shores of Lake Superior, travel to Pompeii, or explore a national park. But we will still have a shopping bag with books by the kitchen door, so we can riffle through it and grab a book for outside.  The odd thing is that my taste hasn’t changed much:   I spent a summer lugging around The Complete Jane Austen (Modern Library) when I was so young I could barely carry it.   Nowadays, I prefer to carry an individual copy.

Books get so tattered on the go that I recommend cheap books to stuff in your purse or book bag. But as you see I  break my rule with the first book on the list, which happens to  be new, but is very short and light.  

A LONG ESSAY.  I loved Coffee by Dinah Lenney, a charming little book in the Object Lessons series, published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic. Lenney, a writer and former actress,  is a coffee connoisseur.  She is so authoritative on the art of making coffee that she  “was suddenly having trouble letting anyone else make the coffee.” In this gorgeous essay, she describes her own experiences with coffee, that of her friends and family, compares the coffee culture in the U.S. to the more casual cups of coffee in France.  She also interviews experts on the history of coffee and the new artisan coffees. A perfect gift book!

THE CHEAPEST OF THE CHEAP.  Summer is a good time to catch up with the classics, but you don’t want to compromise your nice copies when you’re on the go.  Opt for the Wordsworth editions!  Though the covers  are rather strange and inappropriate–and I prefer the ’70s blue cover of The Professor to the 2012 black cover of Mary Barton— they are cheap and sturdy–under $5. You can pack them with your lunch and they’ll still survive.

BEAUTIFUL INEXPENSIVE  BOOKS.  Everyone adores Elizabeth Gaskell’s short novel Cranford, and Pride and Prejudice is the favorite of many Janeites.   A used copy of theattractive Vintage edition iof Cranford starts at  $4.50, and the colorful Modern Library paperback  of P&P is $8 new.

OLD FAVORITES.  On the left is Mary Wilkins Freeman’s stunning collection of stories (which I wrote about here), on the right are two mysteries,and you can’t go wrong with Simenon and Michael Innes. Be cheap!  Support used books!

Any suggestions for summer to-go books?  And do you prefer any particular publishers for outdoors reading?

So Many Books: What I’ve Been Reading & the “Should-I-Bother” Pile


I’m very much enjoying a new summer novel, Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder.  It is light, realistic, well-written, and comical, a literary novel that can double as a beach read.  Ginder is a master of fast scenes and witty dialogue in this adroit portrayal of a  family vacation in Greece.  When Sue Ellen, a classicist, accepts a gig lecturing in Greece, she isn’t entirely happy that the family is accompanying her.  She’s annoyed with her philandering husband and grieving  the death of Christos, a former lover who ran the inn where they’re staying.  Her husband, Dean a writer and creative writing professor, is worried about his next novel and, unbeknownst to her, is cheating on her again.   Their  son, Will, is in agony over a breakup with his boyfriend and has also plagiarized a short story. Then there’s  Eleni,  Christos’ daughter, about to sell the inn.  The novel is also a  kind of guide to Greece.  Delphi, Athens, Aegina…  Great fun.

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan by Stuart Palmer. This quick American novel, first published in 1941, is a Golden Age Detective novel. The amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers, is a New York schoolteacher on vacation in L.A. When a Hollywood agent recruits her as an expert advisor for a film about Lizzie Borden, she starts finding dead bodies, beginning with the scriptwriter in the office next door. Rollicking adventures, humor, and suspense:  I do hope I can find other books in this Miss Withers series. In Otto Penzler’s introduction, he compares Miss Withers to Miss Marple. This book is in the American Mystery Classics series, chosen and introduced by Otto Penzler.


L.A. Woman by Eve Babitz. I loved Babitz’s self-described confessional novel, Eve’s Hollywood (my post is here), but put aside L.A. Woman.  Some of it is a little bit coarse. For instance, the narrator Sophie’s dog, Tango, has a kind of affair with her on the bathroom floor.  And a friend gives Sophie advice on how to “give head”: “Spit,” Ophelia concluded, “That’s the whole trick to giving head. Just spit.” Okay, it’s funny but… not that funny. Should I bother?

Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. All of Georgette Heyer’s novels are elegant, witty, and very much alike. I enjoyed the first 285 pages of Cotillion, then lost the book behind a chair.   Eureka!  I vacuumed!  Heyer’s novels are billed as Regency romances, but they’re more like Regency comedies.  I  guarantee the girl will get the guy.  Should I bother?

The Magus by John Fowles.  This is always mentioned on summer reading lists. Last summer I read the first 300 pages.  It’s haunting and boring at the same time. Should I pick it up again?

What are you reading and what’s on your “Should-I-Bother” pile.

Summer Reading: In My Armor, on a Quest

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).

The worst of my beloved Dickens.

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. 

  1. Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a brilliant feminist retelling of Beowulf.
  2. Brad Leithauser’s The Promise of Elsewhere, an academic satire in which a professor goes rogue on vacation in Europe.
  3. Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day, a novel about two couples’ complicated relationships.
  4. Pam Houston’s graceful collection of essays, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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..
  3. David Means’s Instructions for a Funeral, a collection of short stories. Too verbose for me.
  4. 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.

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