Cooling It: A Serving of Summer Reading

By Stuart Mitchner

Summer reading generally signifies something light rather than, say, a novel with literary heft, a page turner with a purpose. Even at the best of times, with the pandemic in remission, you don’t take Proust or Darwin to the beach.

However, I know of a seriously literary novel that feeds your mind even as it cools and refreshes you, plus it comes passionately recommended by one of the great American critics. R.P. Blackmur (1904-1965) was 17, working in a bookshop and attending lectures at Harvard without ever enrolling as a student, when he was advised to “read something by Henry James.” So he went to the Cambridge Public Library, where he found the book that introduced him to the “ecstasy of reading”:

“The day was hot and muggy, so that from the card catalogue I selected as the most cooling title The Wings of the Dove, and on the following morning, a Sunday, even hotter and muggier, I began, and by the stifling midnight had finished my first elated reading of the novel …. The beauty of the book bore me up; I was both cool and waking; excited and effortless; nothing was any longer worthwhile and everything had become necessary. A little later, there came outside the patter and the cooling of a shower of rain and I was able to go to sleep, both confident and desperate in the force of art.”

Reading Against the Wind

One book I actually tried to read at the beach is Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. I was in Mykonos with friends, and we were sharing various paperback reprints of the novels in The Alexandria Quartet. I say “tried to read” because the sun was hot and dry, and the wind was blowing. The Dell paperback was gritty with sand and had to be held tight or else the Aegean gusts would have blown it away. There was a bonus of sorts in knowing that the author himself would be sitting a table or two away from us at the same waterfront cafe that evening. Durrell’s rich, lush, sexy prose was the essence of Greek island summer weather, the narrator writing of “a sky of hot nude pearl in mid-day” even in winter as he muses on “the lime-laden dust” of summer afternoons in Alexandria.

Circe and Achilles

During the year of the lockdown, thousands of vicarious travelers found the fastest route to Greece through the trade fiction paperback best-sellers by Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (Ecco) and Circe (Back Bay). Writing of Circe in the New York Times, novelist Claire Messud concludes that in spite of “occasional infelicities and awkwardnesses,” the novel “will surely delight readers new to the witch’s stories as it will many who remember her role in the Greek myths of their childhood. Like a good children’s book, it engrosses and races along at a clip, eliciting excitement and emotion along the way.” According to NPR’s Here and Now, Miller’s novel is “so vivid, so layered, you could get lost in it …. Whether or not you think you like Greek Mythology, this is just great storytelling. It feels cinematic.”

A World of Fiction

My wife recently devoured all five volumes of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles (Pan Books). I don’t use “devoured” casually since I heard the title as Cassoulet Chronicles the first time she mentioned it; and since she used to write about food and restaurants for this magazine, I continued hearing culinary music in the title until we saw the 2004 Masterpiece Theatre series recently resurrected on cable. Evidence that Howard has produced the reading club equivalent of a binge-worthy television series is the fact that my wife and the neighbor with whom she shared the experience went through five volumes in six weeks. Clearly, they are not among the readers Hilary Mantel has in mind when she says Howard’s novels can be “resisted by those who see the surface and find it bourgeois.” In her January 30, 2016 Guardian piece, the author of Wolf Hall goes on to suggest that the experience can also “be resisted by those who do not like food, or cats, or children, or ghosts, or the pleasures of pinpoint accuracy in observation of the natural or manufactured world: by those who turn a cold shoulder to the recent past.” But the books are valued by readers “open to their charm, their intelligence and their humour, who can listen to messages from a world with different values from ours.”

“A Natural Storyteller”

Another beloved book recently revived on Masterpiece Theatre is James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small (St. Martin’s), first published in Britain in 1970 under the title If Only They Could Talk. The seven books that followed became wildly popular worldwide, selling over 60 million copies. No surprise, the new miniseries was an immediate hit when it debuted in Britain last fall, drawing over five million viewers for each of its six episodes. What I’ve been able to read of the first volume online accords with the original 1972 New York Times review by Anatole Broyard, who calls Herriot “a natural storyteller because he is tremendously interested in everything and manages to invest his stories with that interest. When he is in a drafty byre in the wee hours of a freezing night, lying stripped from the waist up on a cold stone floor with his bare arm reaching as far as it will go inside a cow whose calf is stuck in a transverse position — we are there with him. We share his satisfaction, too, as his numbed hand finally gets a purchase on the calf and pulls it right. We taste the hot tea, the eggs and bacon, the grateful farmer’s wife gives him when the calf is safely suckling.”

The New King

Stephen King’s Later (Hard Case Crime) has a retro pulp cover that fits with the “old-school crime thriller” described in Booklist’s starred review. Writing in the New York Times, Charles Yu calls the new King “something of a genre hybrid: part detective tale, part thriller, with a horror story filling in the seams.” Later is “yet another example of King’s talent in building stories out of the materials of his choosing, and like so many of his creations, it’s remarkable how well the thing holds together. The pace and ease of reading, the ratio of familiar to new. A roller coaster … is still a roller coaster, and even if I’ve been on this ride before it doesn’t make it any less fun.”

Nomad Camaraderie

Most people reading Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland (Norton) this summer will have seen or streamed the award-winning film with Frances McDormand. According to author Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), “Today, as Bruder brilliantly reports, we have a new class of nomadic workers who travel in their RVs from one short-term job to another. There’s a lot to cringe at here — from low pay and physically exhausting work to constant insecurity. But surprisingly, Nomadland also offers its residents much-needed camaraderie and adventure, which makes this book a joy to read.”

Cooling Off with Gatsby

My first reading of The Great Gatsby comes to mind as a shorter, more accessible literary equivalent to R.P. Blackmur’s “cool and waking” encounter with The Wings of the Dove. For a start, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, out of all the great characters in American literature, has something cool and freshly conceived about him in contrast to the “deep summer” that engulfs the story, particularly its explosive, stiflingly hot central chapter. When Nick Carraway first sees Gatsby, there’s a touch of mystery in the moment. “The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw I was not alone — fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.”

An image typical of Fitzgerald’s elegant, crystal cool prose can be found in the longest, most momentous, and most oppressively hot chapter in the book. After referring to how in “this heat every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life,” Fitzgerald refreshes you with a single sentence: “The room, shadowed well with awnings, was dark and cool. Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans.”

Blackmur in Summer

R.P. Blackmur’s anecdote comes from his book Studies in Henry James (New Directions 1983), which has an unusually summery and unscholarly looking photograph of the author on the cover. He’s leaning forward on his elbows on a grassy cliff in Cape St. Mary, Nova Scotia, his shirt sleeves rolled up, a cigarette in one hand. He seems to be reading the sky. If I had to describe him in one word, I would say he looks cool. Very cool.