Summer Reading

What some notables are stacking on their beach blankets this year

Allan Gurganus
Allan Gurganus is the author of the novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, the story collection White People, and The Practical Heart: Four Novellas.

Notes on Summer Books Soon to Smell of Coppertone:

I turn fifty-nine this summer: the ideal age and season for rereading. Forgetfulness has benefits; how new all college classics seem! My most recent enthusiasm is for top-drawer second-rank short-story writers. I find that, both as a writer and as a reader, these relax me as might eating endless no-cal sushi. John O’Hara, Somerset Maugham, Booth Tarkington, Saki, Alfred Chester, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, H. P. Lovecraft, Sarah Orne Jewett, Aldous Huxley, all leap to mind. Graham Greene and V. S. Pritchett’s underrated short stories make ideal reading by the sea. Each cunning, hilarious, and sexy tale seems just long enough to warm you between chill bodysurfings. And I finally feel old enough to inhale Colette’s short novels Chéri and The Last of Chéri. I’ll now identify with the bruised vanity of the works’ aging courtesan, not—as long ago—with her pitiless and slippery young man.

My writing a novel concerning one Baptist church requires my reading all lyrics from the Broadman Hymnal (1940). Not since Dawn of the Dead has anything proved scarier.

Singularities: Landmarks on the Pathways of Life, by Nobel physiologist Christian de Duve, will prove the un-beachiest of my season’s nonfiction. This directly written work surveys life’s molecular cosmos, speculating on its true genesis. The lucid charts and (for me) difficult mathematical formulae promise to recall my college days, for good and ill. Finally, that done, I’ll take to the Atlantic a memoir by an artist I admire: actress Ellen Burstyn. Her new Lessons in Becoming Myself is no star turn and was not ghosted; it promises Burstyn’s full emotional range, her wrenching Detroit girlhood, and a long jolt of her unaccountable nimbus.

Ronald Steele
Ronald Steel’s books include Walter Lippmann and the American Century and In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy.

I plan to read Elaine Pagels’s Gnostic Gospels. The discovery of the Judas Gospel has reminded me that I’ve been meaning to do so for years. Not being religiously inclined, I’d like to know a lot more about the Gnostics and their emphasis on knowledge over revelation. They sound like my kind of guys. No wonder the Church repressed them.

Caitlin Flanagan
A staff writer at The New Yorker, Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books made up the great literary cycle of my childhood; my mother and I read them over and over, starting with Little House in the Big Woods and reading straight through The First Four Years before going back to the beginning again. But we never so much as cracked the cover of Farmer Boy, the author’s account of husband Almanzo Wilder’s childhood on a farm in upstate New York. A book about a boy? Who could care less? But now I have two little boys, who have proved themselves worthy fans of Laura’s childhood. It’s time for them, and me, to meet the other half.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, by Betty MacDonald. When I was a child, the Internet was unborn and the interlibrary loan was in its infancy. Thus, even if a Cragmont Elementary School student loved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic, and if she saw, right on the cover of both books, that there was another title in the series, there was no way for her to get her hands on it. A rumor developed within the tribe of Piggle-Wiggle fans at Cragmont that the library didn’t carry Farm because it wasn’t any good. This summer, my boys and I are going to find out.

Story of O, by Pauline Réage. Because if not now, when?

Dale Peck
Dale Peck is a novelist and critic. His books include Martin and John and Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction.

I’m heading to a writing colony for six weeks, so I’ve been carefully considering what to bring. Top of the list is Henry James’s Ambassadors. I’ve wanted to reread it since I read The Talented Mr. Ripley, which references it three or four times.

I’m reading Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul right now, and packing William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience to follow it up. And then I’ll leaf through a classic grammar called The Trivium, by Sister Miriam Joseph, because I want a more formal understanding of basic rhetoric. The one contemporary book I plan on taking is Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums.

Lynda Obst
A producer at Paramount Pictures, Lynda Obst is the author of Hello, He Lied: & Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches. Her movies include Sleepless in Seattle, The Siege, Contact, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Hope Floats, The Fisher King, and Flashdance.

This notion of summer reading presumes I have a summer of leisure in which to read at the beach or something, to which I say, Alas—or, in Hollywood parlance, As if. But if I do have such a summer, and can get away, I’ll take one or more of the following books, which I bought this year and which sit staring at me from my bedroom bookshelf, reproachfully.

I’m developing a sci-fi project with the astrophysicist Kip Thorne, involving wormholes, gravitational waves, and getting lost in multiverses. So that I can understand what we’re doing, I’ll browse/read Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages. When I get frustrated with that, I’ll pick up Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony, by Marcia Bartusiak, for the same reason. Since this has fewer equations, I’ll read more of it.

I’ve been dying to read A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz’s memoir of growing up in Israel. I admire his unblinking yet loving way of looking at his homeland, where I’ve never been, though it feels as familiar as my own neighborhood when I read anything he writes.

I’ll read Allegra Goodman’s Intuition—again—because like all her books, which I get the day they come out, it went by way too fast. Scientific fraud and self-deception intersect in this impeccably executed, graceful narrative. (I may foolishly try to make it into a movie, which it isn’t.)

Then I might read Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill. I actually found two separate copies in my house, so I must really want to read it.

Joseph O'Neill
A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Joseph O’Neill is the author of Blood-Dark Track: A Family History and the novels This Is the Life and The Breezes.

On a pebbled Turkish beach, I shall read: mournfully, That They May Face the Rising Sun, the last novel of John McGahern, who died this year; expectantly, a galley of a first novel by Katherine Min, Secondhand World (due out in October); and for the umpteenth time, and with an eye toward an epigraph for my novel-in-completion, my old copy of C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary, a rapturous memoir of West Indian cricket and so much more.

Tom Ford
The former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and formerly the vice chairman of the management board of Gucci Group, Tom Ford currently heads his own film production company, Fade to Black.

I’ll start with Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black-and-White Ball, by Deborah Davis. I’m lucky to have known Capote, and his Black and White Ball was one of the most talked-about social events of the sixties. In photographs it looks quite tame by today’s party standards, and of course there is something silly about a grown man being so obsessed with social standing and gossip. Yet the way that Truman manipulated people during this stage of his life is fascinating. This book covers the party, and the planning of it, in the most minute detail.

Another book I want to read this summer is Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. The two bloggers who wrote it discuss why the Democrats are losing elections, and what is necessary for them to regain control.

I would also like to read Broken Screen: 26 Conversations With Doug Aitken Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative, edited by Noel Daniel. For someone as interested in contemporary visual culture as I am, the artist Doug Aitken’s interviews with the likes of Robert Altman, Kenneth Anger, Matthew Barney, Rem Koolhaas, and Ed Ruscha are essential reading.

Then, for fun: The Diviners, Rick Moody’s satire on television, the entertainment business, and American culture; Lucy Ellmann’s hysterical-sounding Doctors & Nurses; and finally, The Accidental, by Ali Smith, about a stranger who manipulates and seduces the members of a family, and which sounds like an update of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Theorem.

Mona Simpson
Mona Simpson is the author of four novels, including Anywhere But Here and Off Keck Road.

This summer I want fun. I’m half-Syrian, so I want to read more about women in the Arab world, starting light, with Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, by Jean P. Sasson, and ending with journals written by Jesuits who taught in Syria during the 1930s and ’40s.

In August I often visit Wisconsin, where I spent most of my childhood. But this year I’m staying home, so I’ve ordered Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer, a girls’ book I remember reading in my teens, which is set in Wisconsin. It teeters on the edge of being a young-romance novel, then tips into something less fitted and lovely, with ragged edges, dangerous class differences, and real sex. I remember feeling scared, thrilled, and a little disgusted. When I absently searched for it on Abebooks, I discovered that the reading experience I thought was obscure, and exclusively my own (I’d never met anyone else who’d heard of the book), was dazzlingly common. The book has been continuously in print since its publication in 1942. And the author, who is still alive, now resides near me, in Palm Desert, where she writes restaurant reviews for The Desert Sun. She married another writer, whom she first met at an autograph party for Seventeenth Summer. Before his death, they reread Willa Cather together.

I did the rest of my growing up on the Westside of Los Angeles, less than ten miles from where I live now, and I think I’ll always write about it. So I’d like to read everything and anything written by a woman, dead or alive, who lived in this area code.

Finally, I want to dally over old hippie cookbooks—the kind that are not just collections of recipes but brief, allusive memoirs of the communes in which they were created—to find the ideal piecrust made without butter. One June long ago I ate pie every day in Montana, with my niece and her mother, in a diner just outside Glacier National Park. The waiters promised us that their secret ingredient was apple-cider vinegar.

Jed Perl
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. His most recent book is New Art City.

I find myself more and more drawn to prose written by poets. They bring a plainspoken clarity to wildly complex emotions and ideas. And in their letters, poets often speak with a casual eloquence that I find thrilling as a reader—and provocative as a writer.

In recent years, I’ve been immensely excited by The Letters of Robert Lowell, The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, and Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler. These books sent me back to Wallace Stevens’s correspondence. And I’ve just picked up a collection of the letters of Hart Crane, which I’m looking forward to reading this summer. After that it’s going to be Emily Dickinson’s. And what do I hope to find in all this other people’s mail? A loosening and clarifying of my own feeling for prose.

Edward N. Luttwak
Edward N. Luttwak’s nineteen books include The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire and Coup d’État. He has served as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.

I have just received an e-mail from Jon Bingen, one of Norway’s leading scholars. In his message, he makes the sensational allegation that John Maynard Keynes—the Muhammad Ali of economists—achieved his world fame by stealing the Greco-Teutonic monetary theory of the obscure Professor Knapp. Author of the untranslated and impossible-to-find Politische Theorie des Geldes, Knapp held that money is a living object that “makes people do things.” Here on the mountain pass to Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh, with not enough bandwidth to Google it and not enough oxygen to think clearly, I cannot tell if Bingen is joking or even if Knapp ever existed. But when I return to Delhi’s broad bandwidth, I fully intend to order the book and read it, and to expose Keynes as a fraud—in partnership with Bingen, of course.

Sally Singer
Sally Singer is the fashion news and features director at Vogue.

I’m a sucker for both doomed Green­wich Village love stories and Bay Area gossip, so it will be a treat to finally read Time Out of Mind, the diaries of the late Leonard Michaels.

To understand a little more about the historical antecedents to contemporary globalization, I’ll be reading Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis’s analysis of the New World slave trade.

Finally, I’ll be packing Julia Glass’s big fat new novel, The Whole World Over, because I’m always curious to see how a long-shot National Book Award winner (Glass won in 2002 for her first book, Three Junes) fares the second time around.

Terry Castle
A professor of English at Stanford, Terry Castle is a regular contributor to The Atlantic. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie.

First, from the Obscure-Brit-Lit Department: Mary Butts’s Taverner novels. (Butts—a now-mostly-forgotten experimental writer of the 1920s—was an opium addict, an occultist, a whacked-out bisexual friend of Aleister Crowley and Cocteau, a wickedly neglectful mother, an extraordinary prose stylist, and the ultimate casualty of her own enigmatic temperament.) The stories are murky and magical.

Then, on to Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, by Claire Harman (next to Boswell, my favorite biographer), and Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty (great sex scenes, I’m hoping, with Mrs. Thatcher in rubber fetishwear).

Finally, being a font-a-holic (thanks to myfonts.com), I also plan to read further in my ever-expanding collection of books about typography. Except reading here means just looking: when you’re obsessed with fonts, you can smugly ignore the content. Yay! Maybe, after two decades as an English teacher, I’m secretly tired of reading and don’t want to do it anymore.

Laura Ziskin
Laura Ziskin is a producer at Columbia Pictures and a former president of Fox 2000 Pictures. Her movies include the Spider-Man films, Pretty Woman, What About Bob? and As Good As It Gets. She was the executive producer of the 74th Annual Academy Awards.

I’m currently producing the third Spider-Man movie, and we are two-thirds through the shooting period. Consequently, I have little time to read for pleasure. (I’m an avid book buyer but a less avid reader, due to the lack of a thirty-six-hour day.)

About a year ago, my partner of twenty-one years, screenwriter Alvin Sargent, started to read to me at night, so my book consumption has dramatically increased. We’re reading all of Graham Greene and a lot of James M. Cain; have finished Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and a biography of Richard Feynman; and have abandoned some books a few chapters in.

Right now we’re in the middle of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson. I just bought Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, after being struck by the unanimously great reviews. I may wait until I finish shooting the movie to curl up and read it on my own. But more likely I’ll get impatient and ask Alvin to start reading it tonight.

Perry Anderson
An editor of The New Left Review, Perry Anderson is the author of numerous books, including Lineages of the Absolutist State and Spectrum. Britain’s New Statesman has called him “the most polymathic of all our contemporary thinkers.”

I will read Edmund Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace, his death-bed call for continuing, unremitting war on the French Revolution, after the twenty-eight-year-old Napoleon had led his armies to victory in Northern Italy. What apter seasonal reading, as conservative opinion in America debates double or quits in the Middle East?

Amy Hempel
Amy Hempel is the author of four collections of stories, including Tumble Home and The Dog of the Marriage.

I’ll read Torpor, by Chris Kraus, because I had so much fun reading I Love Dick, her boundary-blurring novel of obsession. I’ll read Bernard Cooper’s memoir The Bill From My Father, because I love everything he writes, and the essays he wrote about his father in Truth Serum are so moving and funny. I’ll continue reading Walter Kirn’s novel The Unbinding, as he writes it in real time for the online magazine Slate—because it’s so inventive and such a wild experiment. Finally, I’ll be rereading Grace Paley’s Collected Stories, because reading Grace Paley can make you a better person.

Sandra Tsing Loh
Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

I have so much reading to do all the time, there are spine-snapped books lying all over the house. In various crumb-filled nooks in the living room are the “for work” books, all the important female books, all the galleys, all the press releases. The most “fun” book gets to ride in style with me in my car’s passenger seat, Mother’s Little Helper, good for that amyl-popper boost when gaps of time open up between errands. Our master bathroom houses the slower-moving barges, the want-to-read if not need-to-know. On top is Camille Paglia’s poetry anthology Break, Blow, Burn—not the most ideal title for a bathroom book, but how it refreshes! In the kids’ bathroom, instead of bowls of lavender-scented potpourri, for guests we’ve thoughtfully placed David Kamp and Steven Daly’s Rock Snob’s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Rockological Knowledge and Fergus Henderson’s fascinatingly repellant cookbook, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating—everything you wanted to know about suet.

Anyway, the other night, my husband dropped his book on his night table with a bitter sigh, startling me. He was mired in the swamps of a boring biography … of Captain Cook. “Captain Cook?” I exclaimed. “How can you botch a biography of Captain Cook?” Somehow, the author had. My husband couldn’t quite put his finger on the problem. Was it the exhausting lists of provisions (heavy on salt pork)? The endless—somewhat inconclusive—trades with Fiji natives? At one point, fearing scurvy, Captain Cook orders his men to eat sauerkraut or face the lash. And that was it—what Mike had wanted was a grand seafaring adventure; what he’d gotten instead was a grim, colorless regimen of sauerkraut and flogging.

And just then, I knew what Mike needed for summer. No, not Endurance (fantastic but wintery) but—go back to basics—Hawaii, by James A. Michener. The gold standard of summer island epics. As I recall, it is fabulously lurid. The human sacrifices of naked sex-crazed Tahitians. Sexually repressed white missionaries who stink in unwashed wool. Japanese pineapple farmworkers drinking soy sauce to feign fever. Gambling Chinese lepers. Think of it, leprosy and gambling—excitable manipulation of mah-jongg-like pebbles, fingers falling off.

So for the husband, anyway, summer-reading problem solved.

Paul Kennedy
Paul Kennedy’s books include The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and, most recently, The Parliament of Man.

I will read Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels, at last! Friends have told me for years that this is the best and most realistic novel of the Civil War. I have resisted steadfastly, out of admiration and loyalty for Thomas Keneally’s remarkable Confederates. But this year Shaara will be read.

In complete contrast, I will also read A. E. Housman’s famously elegiac, deeply moving collection of poems: A Shropshire Lad. Since I hope this summer to walk again through England’s wolds and dales, it seems appropriate to be reading such pieces as “Bredon Hill” and “On Wenlock Edge.”

And because I’m starting a book on Kipling this summer, I shall begin at the end, with his late, massive work, The Irish Guards in the Great War—a tribute to his son, John Kipling, who was killed in the Battle of Loos, in 1915.

War and peace, indeed.

Beth Henley
Beth Henley is a playwright and screenwriter. Her works include The Wake of Jamey Foster, Control Freaks, The Miss Firecracker Contest, and Crimes of the Heart, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Her play Ridiculous Fraud premiered at Princeton’s McCarter Theater in May.

Although this sounds pretentious in the extreme, I’m actually going to read Saint Augustine’s Confessions (the first of six books for a great class I’m taking). The professor says, “Modern Christianity may begin here, but so do Proust and Freud.”

I’m also rereading Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. I read it for the first time this spring, and it still haunts me. Finally, I’m reading The Works of Melmont, by Snoo Wilson. This is an obscure book—only 1,000 copies were printed. But I know the author as a playwright: his heart is a wilderness of madness, and his mind is a dazzling joy.

The book I recommend to summer readers is Ron Rash’s World Made Straight. The language is beautiful, while the story is harsh, true, and relentless. A sublime read.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger
Dr. Laura Schlessinger hosts The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program, which is syndicated throughout the United States.

I’ll read, from 1967, Expert Dinghy and Keelboat Racing, by Paul Elvstrom. I’m the skipper of a thirty-foot racing boat in Santa Barbara, California—and this is the classic on “getting good.”

Throughout my one-woman show, In My Never to Be Humble Opinion, I make many (usually humorous) references to biology and how it affects human behavior. Therefore, I am revving up to read Genome, by Matt Ridley.

I also intend to read every book by James Grippando (I already have two under my belt).

Claire Messud
Claire Messud is the author of two novels, The Last Life and When the World Was Steady, and a volume of novellas, The Hunters. Her next novel, The Emperor’s Children, will be published in August.

Theft: A Love Story, by Peter Carey. Because I can’t not read a book by Peter Carey; and because I’m particularly excited to return to his Australia, to the backwater of Bacchus Marsh and the rather posher backwater of Bellingen, and to the lively, venal art world of Sydney. Carey is best known for his (wonderful) historical novels, but he’s in his glorious element when writing about the contemporary world, too. He’s a consummate storyteller with a wicked eye and a tremendous ventriloquist’s gift.

The Wind on the Moon, by Eric Link­later. This was one of my favorite books when I was a child—about the adventures of two little girls named Dinah and Dorinda, who can’t help being naughty for a whole year because the wind is on the moon. Link­later’s novel was begun as a tale told to his children, and it has that wonderful blend of fantasy and mundanity that children so adore. It’s very funny, too. My daughter is thrilled at the prospect of naughty little girls; and I am dead keen to revisit a world in which people turn into animals, befriend falcons and pumas (who have an unfortunate habit of killing the neighbors’ sheep), travel across continents in moving vans full of furniture, and dig their way out of impenetrable dungeons with the help of 100-year-old sappers.

Goya, by Robert Hughes. I began reading this marvelous and reflective biography just after my son was born, and had to put it aside because I couldn’t do it justice. I’ve kept it on my night table all this time in the hope that I could return to it with proper attention; and now, at last, that time has come. The artist’s transformation from painter of blithe society portraits to creator of agonized, fantastical, existentially profound canvases is one of art history’s great stories; and the mordant, brilliant Robert Hughes is a writer to read whenever possible. It’s a riveting pairing of author and subject.

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