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!