I thought pretty seriously about posting on J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine during our families theme last month. But when we decided to talk about summer in July, it was the first book that popped into my head–for me, the quintessential summer book.
Maine is the story of the Kelleher family, told from four perspectives: thirty-two-year-old Maggie, pregnant and not too keen on telling her boyfriend the news; her distant mother, Kathleen; Ann Marie, a Kelleher-in-law, who wants everything just so; and Alice, the matriarch, who knows all and sees all and has been carrying around a painful secret for decades. Every summer since the 1940s, the family has retreated to a creaky cottage on the beach in Maine. There, they swim and they drink 5 o’clock cocktails and they blame each other for the past and they feel guilty… Just your standard Catholic family stuff, but with sunshine and sand.
This is a novel with a big, sweeping plot to get lost in, with characters you’ll get angry with and then miss after you turn the last page. It’s a smart look at family, at privilege, at what it means to be a woman in America. Bring it to the beach (or read it and pretend you’re at the beach) and enjoy.
Summer, as we’ve previously discussed, can be good for all kinds of reading, depending on your taste and your mood. Obviously, it’s perfect for perusing lovely, summery picture books. Or for chuckling your way through a ridiculous romp in the tropics. Or for thinking back to that one summer when everything changed. But summer can also be the time to pick up a nice, fat literary novel and get lost in it.
Maybe I just think The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a good summer book because summer is when I read it for the first time, but it really is the kind of story that makes you just want your life to stop until you finish, and for most people I think the best chance of that is sometime in August. But whatever. Read it in July, read it in January—the point is, read it. And be prepared to have your heart broken in that delicious, aching way any reader understands.
Honestly, I’m not sure what else to say. I could talk about the plot (a loose retelling of Hamlet set in Wisconsin), the characters (a mute boy named Edgar, his parents and his uncle, a dog named Almondine), or the writing (lyrical but propulsive, elegant but raw), but that wouldn’t give you a sense of the story, and for this one even more than for most novels, the story is what it’s all about. So I think I’ll just let David Wroblewski be the one to tell it.
I got This One Summer way back when it was still horrible polar vortex winter, and I think it just made the winter all that much more painful. Not just because it’s warm and lake-beachy and full of characters who spend all day running around in their bathing suits. Not just because it added insult to injury by being a graphic novel, so I had to look at these gorgeous pictures of water and cabins in the woods and sunshine.
No, this is a book best read in summer because it’s about the way summer feels. Like a time for big questions, for tectonic shifts in the order of the universe. Everyone has that one summer when everything changed.
This One Summer is about Rose and Windy’s that one summer. Rose has been going away to Awago Beach with her parents every summer for as long as she can remember. She’s always spent her summers playing with Windy, the slightly younger, slightly quirkier girl next door. But this summer Windy seems so much younger all of a sudden. And Rose’s parents aren’t getting along so well. And the girls’ usual summertime spying is more fraught than usual.
This book could feel mostly just nostalgic for childhood summers on the beach, but there’s more than just nostalgia here. This One Summer captures the magic of summer, yes, but it also captures the way summer, because of the way it’s set apart from the rest of the sloggy slushy year, throws those growing-up moments into sharp relief.
Yeah, this pretty much sums it up.
For me, it isn’t summer unless I’m reading Carl Hiaasen. Or, at least, it isn’t summer unless I have a Carl Hiaasen book on my bedside table. I read one of his books every summer, not because I don’t really really want to read more (because trust me, I do) but because I really really don’t want to run out any time soon.
I could, I suppose, pick a single Hiaasen novel to write about here, but that seems sort of unnecessary because in my experience, the wonderful things about a single Hiaasen novel are the wonderful things about any Hiaasen novel. So I figure I’ll just talk about those things for a while and then let you go off and discover their individual delights for yourself.
Carl Hiaasen writes comedic mysteries, somewhat in the vein of Douglas Adams’ comedic sci fi or Terry Pratchett’s comedic fantasy. All of his novels take place in southern Florida and revolve around corruption, greed, and the destruction of the environment. They are smart, pointed, endlessly hilarious and deeply satisfying. ‘Cause here’s the thing about the world of Hiaasen: corruption is everywhere (politicians, cops, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, you name it) and his bad guys are truly despicable, but his good guys are truly lovable, and you can be certain that by the end, everyone will have gotten exactly what’s coming to them.
Which is why Carl Hiaasen’s novels remain some of the most cynical and the most idealistic. The war may be endless, but the battles are always won.
You probably know Robert McCloskey because of Make Way for Ducklings, which is super famous (especially in Boston) because it’s adorable and because, fun fact, he got some ducklings drunk in his apartment and drew them.* However, he also wrote and illustrated a lot of other children’s books, most of which are fabulous summer reads.
We were talking about Make Way for Ducklings, but we didn’t feel like it was very summery, and we think that’s because it’s printed all in a single color, and that color is brown. But Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine are printed all in blue, which feels lighter and happier. And one of them is about picking blueberries in the country and the other is about clamming and eating ice cream on the coast, which feel pretty summery to us.
Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, on the other hand, is absolutely bursting with color, because Burt and his little fishing boat get swallowed by a whale and he needs to paint the insides of the whale’s belly with leftover boat paint to prompt some reverse digestion and achieve freedom.
We saved Time of Wonder for last because a lot of it is about the end of summer and the bittersweet feeling of packing up and returning to the pace of everyday life: “A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going.”
*This is not as horrible as it sounds. He just needed them to calm down enough so he could draw them.**
**Oh, wait. It’s still fairly horrible.
The neat thing about the concept of summer reading is that it doesn’t really have to mean anything at all. I mean, obviously the theory is that people spend at least some chunk of their summers lying on the beach, or beside a pool, or on a blanket in the park, and that they want a few nice, light reads to keep them company. Which, yes, sure, absolutely. But people are different, and the books they choose to relax them and entertain them and delight them are different, too. I know more than one person who brings Moby Dick to the beach every year. Another friend insists on unwinding with presidential biographies. And while our tendencies might not be quite so ambitious, we promise some variety of our own as we tell you about the books we treasure during these long, hot days.
We know we’re just two voices in a vast crowd of book people talking and writing about summer reads right now. And we know that browsing all the suggestions can be a bit overwhelming. But the sheer quantity and variety of ideas and opinions is a reminder of how much fun reading can be, and a demonstration of the myriad ways people use books to have a good time. So we figured, “Hey, it’s July. It’s 80 degrees outside. Maybe it’s time to throw our two cents into the mix.”
Oh, and this month, we’re linking to McNally Jackson in New York!