Thursday, July 10, 2008

Summer Reading

I have great memories of summer reading. I read Jane Eyre on the beach when I was fifteen, visiting Florida for the the first time with my parents. Almost twenty years later, I read Valley of the Dolls on the beach in New Jersey; not quite as good, but just as absorbing. During another summer I took a train across the country and read Crime and Punishment; later in that trip, or maybe during a different one, I read the first four or five Sue Grafton mysteries. I had made up a fake identity that trip and lied about myself to the young fellow sitting next to me, who borrowed all the Sue Graftons and liked them quite a bit, as I did. But I didn't like the later ones in the series as much, maybe because I wasn't reading them under my false identity anymore.

These days, long out of school, I find my summers not too much different from the rest of the year, except for the week in August we spend with JR's family on the Jersey Shore. I always bring books on that trip, and they turn out to be the wrong books, and then I have to go to a certain tiny bookshop in a town called Harvey Cedars and buy all new books. Usually JR and the boys wait in the car while I hurriedly grab whatever, and it's always perfect.

So far, this year, finding extra reading time while the boys take their swimming lessons, I've been reading John Gardner's On Moral Fiction. Though I find his anti-experimental view a bit limiting, it's hard not to agree with a lot he says. So far my favorite bit is Lore Segal's introduction, though. She describes a time when writers got together at dinner parties and had heated discussions about the purpose of literature. I've been to a few dinner parties with writers, and things seem to be a lot less heated these days. Apparently William Gass once said, at one of these shindigs, that "on the page, the holocaust and a corncob have the same weight." Which caused fellow guest Cynthia Ozick to feel a bit faint, as you can imagine.

Recently I found myself over at Literary Rejections on Display, accidently running with a crowd bent on taking down Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and more recently More Than it Hurts You. I criticized an essay he wrote, other commenters followed up with digs at his author photo and the plot summaries of novels on Amazon and his biography, and now, feeling terrible about the whole thing, I went and bought his book. Which looks good and thick and pretty compelling: it's about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Whoa! I don't think I'll wait for the beach to read it.

What do you like to read in the summer?

17 comments:

Writer, Rejected said...

You don't need to feel bad because a few people say nasty things at LROD, RM. Your comportment was beyond reproach. Besides, we are starting an LROD reading group with his title first; so, in the end, book sales up, which mean Strauss wins. I think it'll be fun. I'm going to get my copy tomorrow. It looks like a good summer read.

Elizabeth said...

Classics! Somehow Turgenev and Eliot feel fresh in summer; in months when the light is low, they strike me as too heavy. I am certain it has to do with the academic calendar. Anyway, I have more of a head for the canon in summer (maybe a sense of more time to absorb?).

I recall reading Little Women several summers in succession in late elementary and middle school; I will always associate that book with the smells of chlorine, Hawaiian Tropic, lemon juice, laundry soap, and jasmine. As an adult, I tap "classics" I haven't read since college: Pynchon, Roth, Chandler, Cheever, Faulkner, Flaubert, etc.

Is there ever enough time? There is not.

jrlennon said...

I only seem capable of reading crime in the summer. I'll be reviewing a few here tomorrow...

bloglily.com said...

I loved that Strauss conversation, and want to be in the LROD book group, except every time I tried to leave a comment, I was dumped out. And I wasn't even going to leave a snarky comment, although I thought comparing the start-up of a bookgroup to the start-up of the Iraq war was a bit much.

As for good things in the summer, I am an Alan Furst fan, and there is a new one out that sounds pretty good, so I'll be reading that, when I can find it. (I put it in a "special place" after I bought it and, well, you know how that goes.)

I think Elizabeth's onto something about the canon -- somehow, in the summer you can forget that canonical books are important and read them like they're just good entertainment, which is how they were originally perceived anyway. We downloaded Huck Finn from audible.com recently, and it worked really well as a driving book, because it's a travel book too.

AC said...

If there's one author I associate with summer, it's Mark Twain. I remember reading Huckleberry Finn in bed on summer mornings, on pages that were soft with humidity, with cicadas buzzing outside.

These days I have a little game of picking one 19th century author each summer and reading 2 or 3 of their books. I started it because I thought I needed to ration the classics (at some point I'll have read them all, and there won't be any more). But then I realized that I forget the plots almost immediately, and it would take me 4 or 5 readings to really be sick of a book. So I'm not worried about a peak Victorian crisis anymore. Still, it's fun to have a plan. This year is Edith Wharton, so I'm looking for a copy of The Age of Innocence to start.

bigscarygiraffe said...

I've discovered a new love this summer: bar reading out loud (especially in Irishesque bars where a certain local named Ted walks around with a certain paper back stuffed in his certain pocket doing more talkin' than readin'). I think I want to recharge the revolution (because I'm so certain we're not the first to come up with it).

We read as many Borges short stories as possible. I'm a poet by nature and found myself unable (!) to read Borges out loud without sounding like a delightful and sometimes drunken John Berryman (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=fGIr7fGdo6o&feature=related). I'll let you determine my actual level of inebriation.

Mr. Saflo said...

As an adult, I tap "classics" I haven't read since college: Pynchon, Roth, Chandler, Cheever, Faulkner, Flaubert, etc.

"One of these things is not the like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong..."

rmellis said...

Do you mean Chandler? I'd argue that Chandler is edging into classic territory...

Mr. Saflo said...

I would hope not. The only case for Chandler that holds any water is that he wrote prettier prose than his peers, but since when is that enough?

k. said...

re: Chandler as a "classic" author... his influence is felt more acutely and is more widespread than many authors whom we have no problem thinking of as "classic." Look at contemporary (literary!) authors like Murakami, Chabon, Lethem, Oates, et al ... even Amy Hempel sings his praise! Personally, I think excluding him from the 20th-century canon is genre snobbery.

rmellis said...

Hm, I think Chandler's having more or less given birth to a genre, having withstood the test of time, and having been highly influential to many many later writers is probably enough.

He'd break your jaw for calling him "pretty."

Anonymous said...

I'm having a holiday reading problem at the moment. I'm in Florida and when I'm in America I need a particular kind of book (American, personally symbolic, something that I won't finish in two hours) and I find it really hard to get something that fits the bill. I find myself standing in a book shop thinking, if only I hadn't already read such and such - that's what I'm looking for. However, after a couple of false starts, I've just bought "Kavalier and Klay" and also "Angels". They look like they'll be pretty different but I have great hopes that they might be right. Anybody else have any suggestions?

Btw, I read "Mailman" by the pool in Florida. That's the kind of book I'm talking about.

Elizabeth said...

Hah! Of all the places I'd least expect Chandler's contributions to be questioned, it's here.

Each to his own. There are plenty of readers and critics who think his unique vision, voice, and artistry (of prose and form) nudged literature in a striking new direction; not the only direction, just distinct from what had come before. A new ray.

Cheers,
Elizabeth

rmellis said...

Hey, I like to think everything is questionable on our blog.

Anonymous: Welcome to the USA. I wont blow your cover.

Mr. Saflo said...

Well, I was really just teasing to begin with, but now that the snobbery blade has been drawn I'll try to defend myself.

The thing you notice about these arguments for the canonization of celebrated genre writers, the ones who were something more, the ones who "transcended" the genre (as though it were a club foot or something), is that they ride heavily on influence; and while I wouldn't object to a highly influential writer of disputable talent being deemed, I don't know, culturally important, a distinction must be made between this and great. A distinction must be made that keeps us from vaguely ranking Chandler along with Pynchon and Roth, not to imply that that was Elizabeth's intent. Obviously these qualities don't have to be mutually exclusive, but in Chandler's case I believe they are.

What I ask is that if we place Chandler among the twentieth century's literary greats, we look at him with the same critical eye that we do the rest, that we judge him on his own merits and faults. In so doing, of course, we'll start to see him fall apart: his prose is perhaps not as solid as once thought, his reliance on an inherently forgettable mystery to power his novels is frustrating, his unerring adherence to formula, crippling.

Dana said...

I usually spend my summers reading Young Adult books. I've been tearing through Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series for the last few weeks... I didn't know teen angst and vampires could be so intoxicating!

Alicia said...

I am doing some non-fiction reading. I went to Jamaica for the Calabash literary festival and began reading V.S. Naipaul's The Middle Passage. Naipaul is an interesting observer. I learned a lot about the West Indies though Naipaul is such a subjective reporter that I am going to follow-up with some other reading on the Caribbean.

Also, I have Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Henry James's The Golden Bowl on tap.