Summer Reading in the City

By Stuart Mitchner

No beach for me. Right through my teens into my twenties, I summered in the city. Better to be simmering in Manhattan than summering in Bloomington, Indiana. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” is a great song, sheer euphoria, especially when you know they’re singing about the Apple: “Been down, isn’t it a pity/Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city.” Down is right: “All around, people looking half dead/Walking on the sidewalk hotter than a match head.” I never thought “it’s a pity” that “the days can’t be like the nights.” I just headed for Central Park or Washington Square.

No air-conditioning cools my memories of New York summers. Whether in walk-ups on Christopher or West 87th or East 53rd, the windows were open, the hydrants were gushing, the kids were splashing, and I was reading and sweating. But of course, reading is cool in itself. You can bask in a book, suck oxygen from it, get drunk with it. It’s your best friend, your companion, your pet. It’s also a pleasure to watch someone in the act of reading on a summer’s day. Like the barefoot girl stretched out in Central Park in John Cuneo’s charming May 6 New Yorker cover. She’s leaning on her elbows over an open book while her snoozing dog uses her for a cushion, head back, paws hovering above the volume it seems to have been reading as it dozed off, a whimsical touch that suggests the fate of all summer-drowsy readers; soon enough the girl herself may nod off, her head pillowed in the open book.

Some Hard Choices

As for what to take with you this summer, hardcovers cost more and weigh more, while paperbacks have the advantages that prompted the lords of publishing to create them in the first place. I don’t do ebooks or audibles, but they, too, have obvious advantages.

Beginning with hardcovers, a brand-new novel by Titusville resident Ellen LaCorte, The Perfect Fraud (Harper Collins $26.99), promises to keep you wide awake. Kirkus Reviews says “This is a dark, dark thriller, and the villain is absolute. But alternating voices allow for a more nuanced building of tension …. LaCorte delves deeply into horrible things that humans do — and, as in life, not all evil is punished — but still offers hope and healing in the end.” According to Publishers Weekly, “Mysticism and medicine intersect with dramatic results in LaCorte’s accomplished page-turning debut …. Those who like a dash of the supernatural in their thrillers will be well satisfied.”

A book of interest to fans of Harper Lee and true crime fiction who might want to read it while rereading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf $26.95) “explains as well as it is likely ever to be explained why Lee went silent after To Kill a Mockingbird.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Michael Lewis goes on to suggest that it’s in Cep’s “descriptions of another writer’s failure to write, that her book makes a magical little leap” and “goes from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.” 

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (Nan A. Talese $28.95) is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which has found a new generation of readers thanks to the Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss. The sequel begins 15 years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the testaments of three female narrators from Gilead. It also comes with a message from the author: “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”

Paperback Possibilities  

Among paperbacks, there’s Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Back Bay $15.99), winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In a New York Times Book Review notice, Christopher Buckley says, “Laughter is only a part of the joy of reading this book. Greer writes sentences of arresting lyricism and beauty. His metaphors come at you like fireflies.” Less is “excellent company” and “no less than bedazzling, bewitching, and be-wonderful.”

The 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, already in paperback, is Richard Powers’s The Overstory (Norton $18.95), which novelist Ann Patchett calls “The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period.” For Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, “Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition …. He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma.”

One the most critically acclaimed novels in recent history, Tommy Orange’s debut work of fiction There There (Vintage $16), now available in paperback, has aroused excited responses from other novelists, including Colm Tóibín (“Sweeping and subtle … pure soaring beauty”) and Louise Erdrich (“Welcome to a brilliant and generous artist who has already enlarged the landscape of American Fiction”).  A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, the author was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.

Reading Manhattan

My favorite books about New York range from Henry Roth’s epic of the Lower East Side, Call It Sleep, to Patti Smith’s caffeinated West Village memoir M Train. Ultimately, no author has done more for Manhattan and Central Park than New York City native J.D. Salinger, who was born 100 years ago January 1, 1919. Millions of readers have come to the city for the first time in The Catcher in the Rye and had their first view of Central Park through the eyes of Holden Caulfield. I’d like to think that even with the skyline surrounding the park becoming disfigured by high-rises devoid of beauty or character, someone will still be summering under a tree reading a Central Park story like Salinger’s “The Laughing Man,” or, better yet, one of the new pieces about the Glass family he was working on for 40-plus years in New Hampshire. It’s too bad that his centenary isn’t being celebrated with the publication of new work, or, at least, with his extraordinary summer camp novella, “Hapworth 16, 1924.” At least Little Brown is planning centenary editions of his published fiction.