Not All Summer Reading Needs To Be Mindless Fluff

In the first pages of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway recalls the beginning of his life in New York after graduating from college and serving in the Great War: “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer. There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air.”

I’ve always agreed with him on at least one point. There is so much to read. And the summer is the perfect time to do it. There’s something about summertime…The season has taken on a sort of mythical significance in the American consciousness. It’s a time when the living is easy. A time of sea and sand and late setting, early rising, sun. A time for travel. A time of aimless, unfilled hours. A time of freedom

Whether you plan on using that freedom to catch some rays, seek refuge indoors from the less celebrated summer scourges of humidity, insects, and sweat, or to board buses and airplanes in pursuit of new sights, why not pick up a book? You’ve got the time.

But where to start? There are so many options. I don’t subscribe to the theory that the only appropriate books for summer consumption are mindless fluff. For many of us, life slows down a little in the summer. That frees up mental space to take in serious subject matter. I do, however, like my summer reading to take place in the same season I am currently enjoying. I especially enjoy works that take place during a summer that proves to be a pivotal point in at least one characters’ life, for better or worse. These are books that are perfect for lazy afternoons of air-conditioned splendor.

Summer is also a good time to plunge headlong into a mystery series. As dark and wintery as some of them may be, they’re usually gripping page turners that fly by in a few hours or days, which makes them a perfect choice for times when you may be distracted by beach ball incursions or garbled, loudspeaker  announcements in distant airports where your jetlagged mind is wandering.

Here are a few of the best of both subgenres that I suggest reading as the mercury rises and the days expand.

The Great Gatsby

After bringing it up in the opening sentence, you didn’t think I’d leave this one off the list. Or maybe you did. It is not, after all, a quick, beach read. It is, quite simply put, a classic – one of the closest things we have to the Great American Novel. Many will remember it from high school English class, but it’s the perfect time for a re-read. Told through the lens of a young mid-Westerner who goes to New York City to “learn the bond business,” this is the story of the titular Gatsby – a fabulously wealthy man with a mysterious past whose parties are the talk of the town – his love for the beautiful and careless Daisy Buchanan, and his quest for the green light at the end of a dock, or at least everything it represents. The action unfolds in the summer of 1922, a summer that started so full of hope and promise for the narrator. It’s an American tragedy, made beautiful by the jazz-infused elegance of Fitzgerald’s writing. The last paragraph is one of the most haunting passages ever written.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

In a similar vein is Michael Chabon’s first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. This story is told by Art Bechstein, a young man idling away his first summer after graduating from college. The season is rescued from tedium by a glamorous and charismatic group of new friends he meets during his final visit to the library as a student. He falls hard for them in the following months in the way people do when they’re on the precipice of adulthood. It captures those somehow simultaneously vague and vivid first few months many of us spend getting our bearings after graduation, but in Chabon’s hands, it becomes epic and haunting as he strips through robust exteriors to fragile cores. In fact, I’ll just sit back and let one of the most talented writers of our age sum things up for you. “When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness – and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.”

Telegraph Avenue

I am firmly convinced that you can’t read too much Michael Chabon. He packs so much emotional and intellectual strength into dizzyingly graceful prose. I lived a few blocks off Telegraph Avenue in the flat borderlands where Berkeley and Oakland merge when I was a graduate student, but, even if I hadn’t, I’d feel like I had after reading this novel. Set in my old neighborhood in the summer of 2004, Telegraph Avenue is anchored around two families bound together in a tangled, East Bay web. The husbands are co-owners of a failing record store facing complete ruin and the wives are partners in midwifery who have landed in a tricky situation. The novel explores their intra and inter family relationships and the connections forged, missed, and thrust upon them. Chabon conjures the place perfectly – its charms and foibles alike – and fills its verdant and fragrant streets with flawed but loveable characters rough hewing their ways as they will through an eventful end of the season. Particularly compelling are Julius Jaffe and Titus Joyner – the teenaged sons of those central couples.  The novel opens with the two boys in the grips of an evocative and scene setting summer moment: “A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summer-time Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.”

Namedropper: A Novel

I’ve never read a novel that captures eccentric teenaged girlhood more perfectly than Namedropper. Viva Cohen – precociously clever, but deeply uncommitted to her schoolwork – is drifting through her final year of high school, cutting class to try on makeup at Harrods, watch films in theaters that only show old classics, and read Truman Capote stories in cafes. The walls of her bedroom in the North London home she shares with her gay uncle Manny are plastered with pictures of silver screen icons. Her best friends are Ray, a pop-star who helms the second most popular band in Britain, and Treena, a flawless and reckless classmate. When the school year finally ends and summer begins, Ray offers to take Viva and Treena to Los Angeles with him as he promotes his new album in the United States. During the vacation, Viva temporarily calls cut on the movie of her life and experiments with just living it. The results are mixed. “I spent the summer break being rather than seeing. I hate it. I don’t remember anything at all…The details aren’t there because I was…I was too busy to make notes.” But it ends on an up-note. The writing is so sharp and funny throughout, you won’t be able to put it down.

 Ian Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries

Edinburgh, Scotland looks like a storybook city with its castle over the cliffs and narrow, winding streets. But underneath all those grand trappings, there are dark and oily veins that occasionally pull in victims before spitting them out dead. And no one plumbs those dark and oily depths in search of their killers more thoroughly or effectively than John Rebus, a boozy but brilliant detective with the Lothian and Borders police. The story of Rebus plays out over a lengthy series of procedurals that span decades and provide ample insight into the internal workings of a man who understands how thin the line between himself and the figures he stalks through seedy bars and misty streets really is. One of the things that sets Rebus apart from other cynical, fictional detectives who live alone and smoke and drink too much is his clever wit and surly sensitivity. Don’t start with Knots and Crosses, the first book in the series. You should read it eventually, but it’s one of the weaker entries in the series and they don’t need to be read in order to be understood. The Falls, Fleshmarket Alley, and A Question of Blood are amongst the best. The books often touch on real world trends and became particularly good after Rebus was joined by Siobhan Clarke, a talented young female police officer. Their relationship is complex and tender, and the dialogue as they trade ideas about cases and suspects crackles with energy.

PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh mysteries

Adam Dalgliesh started solving crimes in 1962 in Cover her Face and kept at in until 2008’s The Private Patient. Police methods, technology, and society changed dramatically over those decades, but Dalgliesh’s clear-eyed detection never did. Open minded and appreciative of his surroundings, the Cambridge educated Dalgliesh was also an award winning poet with a finely tuned understanding of language and the human psyche. Unlike many of the best mystery series that take place in a single physical area that becomes a character almost as important as any of the humans who dot its surface, Dalgliesh’s cases take him all across England. PD James wrote skillfully about all these different locales. And, hey, maybe some of these books will serve as inspiration for your next summer’s travels.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe mysteries

If I asked you to imagine the archetypal private eye and describe the way he dressed and talked, you’d tell me about Philip Marlow. A true original who made all the subsequent clichés possible, Marlowe set that noir sleuth archetype. He was the first fictional detective to say things like “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”  A bit of a wise-guy, too disenchanted to be a romantic anymore, but with the husks something like it still rustling around somewhere under the scotches, Marlowe roamed the sun-bleached streets of Los Angeles in search of darkness. This series is a must for fans of mysteries in particular, but also for fans of literature in general. The works rise above the level of genre fiction with genuine literary merit.  Running through them all is a deep current of loss. No one writes with quite the same dryly wistful sadness as Chandler in his Philip Marlowe novels. And boy did he know how to end a book. On the final page of Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe emerges from Los Angeles City Hall and looks out across a city not yet choked with smog.  “It was a cool day and very clear,” he says. “You could see a long way – but not as far as Velma had gone.” The Big Sleep ends in the same elegiac tone. “On the way downtown, I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.” In both books, Marlowe has just cracked the cases. But he doesn’t celebrate, because he knows there will always be another crime to solve and another person he’ll never see again.

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