The summer of 2020 is unlike those past—no traveling, no baseball games, limited beach and park time, if any, and none of the barbecues and gatherings under the sun that so define our idea of summer. With that in mind, here are some summer-themed reads, escapes reminiscent of summers past as well as subjects that speak to the new normal, and the new constant, of home.
Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perényi
Whether it’s a backyard or front, or a few pots on the windowsill or balcony, home gardening has seen a resurgence, and Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts is the perfect summer read for grower’s of every stripe. First published in 1981, the book consists of 70 short essays on a wide range of garden topics, and is a document of experience, with advice, opinions, and appreciations. Open to any page and you’ll find entries on such topics as Lawns, Tools, Hybrids, Artichokes, and something called a Belgian Fence, which turns out to be a method of espaliering fruit trees to create a fruit-bearing fence. Gardeners—and writers, for that matter—rely on the new, on the novel and the unexpected juxtaposition. So while Perényi’s expertise in the garden offers numerous growing tips, I find that it’s her gifts as a writer that make Green Thoughts one of my most valued books on growing.
Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro
Julia Fierro’s 2014 debut novel, Cutting Teeth, captures that sense of fleeting summer pleasure, as well as the pleasures and the challenges of navigating parenthood. On a Labor Day weekend, five members of a hip Brooklyn playgroup and their families arrange to spend the last days of summer in a beach house on the Long Island Sound, and the collage of personalities effectively heightens the novel’s careful arrangement of temporal and physical space. We grow to know each of these characters through the chapters that rotate among different narrators. Their anxieties, financial woes, their struggles and desires often run in conflict, heightened by the strictures that come with parenting young children. It’s this pressure that drives the novel, and in the course of the weekend, the characters come to see their lives differently.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan
In this Pulitzer-prize winning 2015 memoir, the ocean is a touchstone: it’s there as the author comes of age, during college, as a young man traveling the world to seek out the undiscovered locales where the best waves break, and returns as he ages, still surfing his beloved spots at age sixty. Finnegan relates this life journey with details that allow outsiders to grasp the author’s study of a subculture, and he does so with careful description that takes us into the experience. On the art of riding a wave—in no small part a humbling act of confronting a force of nature—Finnegan writes with a clarity that brings the experience alive. Whether you’ve grown up by the ocean or have never set foot in one, Barbarian Days is an escape, and a primer, on the physical sport of surfing, and living one’s life connected to water, waves, and the mystery of the surf.
The Oysters of Locmariaquer, by Eleanor Clark
Eleanor Clark summered in Locmariaquer as a child, and in June of 1961, she and her husband, the poet and writer Robert Penn Warren (whom she called “Red” and to whom the book is dedicated), arrived with their two children to rent a house and do some writing, but once in Brittany, Clark found herself fascinated by the area’s history of oystering. First published in 1964, the book is a biography of a place, of its history, science, literature, oyster cultivation, habitat, and the local life. Certainly this book is about oysters, from how they’re grown to how they mate, their eating habits, and who, throughout history has eaten them. But the account is also about Locmariaquer, its people, history, geography, and mythology, as well as the hard life that comes with oystering.
Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House, by Cheryl Mendelson
Home Comforts may be more apt now than ever, given how much time we’re spending home, and likely will be, for awhile. A philosopher, lawyer, occasional academic and bearer of that retro term “homemaker,” Mendelson has written a doorstop sized-volume. At over 850 pages, Home Comforts covers the basics of housekeeping and the finer points of everything from cooking, laundering, sewing, and furniture care to that rapidly disappearing art, ironing. “Housekeeping creates cleanliness,” Mendelson writes, as well as “order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home. Whether you live alone or with a spouse, parents, and ten children, it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.” That view of home speaks to the way we live now, and may be more timely than ever.