TERRY GROSS, host:
If, like book critic Maureen Corrigan, you crave a mental health break from the world of the here and now, you'll want to check out her summer reading list of books that will take you places while staying home. Time travels back to, among other places, pre-World War I England and the streets of old New York.
MAURREN CORRIGAN: When summer rolls around, I put on my shorts, equip myself with a water bottle, and hit the armchair. My summer excursions are mostly mental, thanks to my homebody temperament and to the shaky economy. Reading, however, is the ultimate small d, democratic vacation. It offers all of us, not only recession-proof adventure, but transport to times gone by that even the most luxurious outward-bound expeditions can't reach. These summer books - fiction and nonfiction about celebrated moments, figures and even foods of the past - will lift readers far, far away, out of the constricting realm of the familiar.
The most important washed-out summer vacation in all Western literary history took place in 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, her lover and husband-to-be, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont, were among the houseguests of Lord Byron at his villa. Rain kept everybody inside, and out of boredom; a plan was hatched to launch a horror story-writing contest. Mary won, hands down, the minute she started scratching out "Frankenstein."
Literary scholar Daisy Hay describes that infamous house party in her smart, engaging new book called "Young Romantics," which is a collective biography of that much-written-about web of poets and novelists.
Two things make Hay's book fresh. First, incredibly, she unearthed an autobiographical manuscript by Claire Clairmont that was moldering in the New York Public Library. Second, Hay's sympathies clearly lie with the young women of that unconventional circle, who had to pay a much heavier price for living out the ideals of free love. Claire Clairmont, for instance, had an affair with Byron and then bore him a daughter. By law, she had to surrender the baby to him. Byron farmed out the girl to a convent, where she died of a fever. No wonder Claire, in that newly discovered manuscript, damned the worshippers of free love who preyed upon one another and turned their existence into a perfect hell.
Free love worked out better for the dishy World War I poet Rupert Brooke, who wrote the immortal lines: If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.
Jill Dawson's acclaimed novel about Brooke, called "The Great Lover," was published in England last year and has just come out here in paperback. Its premise - based on biographical fact - is that the daughter Brooke had with a Tahitian woman in 1914 writes, in her old age, to the house in England where he once lived. A former housemaid who knew Brooke all too well writes back with her memories. Dawson's elegiac novel summons the bisexual, charismatic Brooke back to moody life.
All this ruminating on English poets in summertime is making me drowsy, so let's change locales and quicken the pace. The 1939 World's Fair opened in Flushing, New York, on a hot Sunday in April, and its slogan was: World of Tomorrow. The advent of World War II, however, put the kibosh on all the futuristic optimism the fair tried to generate with its introduction of such wonders as Lucite and air conditioning. In his forthcoming and entertaining new work of narrative nonfiction "Twilight at the World of Tomorrow," James Mauro takes readers into the years of planning for the fair, to its close in 1940.
Hot Dog Day was a popular event at the fair and, of course, by 1939, hot dogs had become the ultimate New York City street food. In her fascinating work of gastronomic history called "97 Orchard," Jane Ziegelman chronicles the lives and diets of five turn-of-the-last-century immigrant families, all of whom lived at that address, which now houses the New York City Tenement Museum. It was personally chilling for me to read that no other immigrant group arrived in the United States with a culinary tradition as skeletal as the Irish, due to subsistence farming and then to the Great Famine. It was chilling, in a different sense, to learn about the back-aching days of shredding, salting and pounding that went into the German ritual of making sauerkraut. It's great to savor the past, but these backward-glance books may also prompt you to give thanks for antibiotics, feminism and food processors.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. A complete list of her summer reading recommendations is on our website: npr.freshair - make that freshair.npr.org.
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