Summer is a season when people get hypersocial — with barbecues and neighborhood fairs, graduations and pool parties. In short, it's an especially trying time for those of us who'd rather stay indoors and read a book. My early summer reading list, therefore, takes the form of a loner's survival guide.
The nonfiction books on this list are filled with such marvelous facts and anecdotes; they'll arm you with a supply of handy conversational tidbits should you have to socialize. The letter collection and novels I'm recommending are so absorbing they'll give you the moral courage to draw the curtains, crank up the air conditioning and ignore all unwelcome invitations.
The Adventures Of A Curious Man
One of my happiest dinnertime memories from my 1960s childhood is of those nights when my mother would announce that she was "taking a vacation" from cooking. Out would pop the TV trays and a defrosted silver foil dinner of breaded haddock cut into two isosceles triangles, neon green peas and a smattering of tater tots. Yum. The dinner may have been Swanson's but the man to thank is Clarence Birdseye.
Birdseye was the father of frozen food and his extraordinary story — as an amateur inventor and world traveler — is told in a new biography by Mark Kurlansky, who himself might be thought of as the father of the historical food narrative given his bestsellers, Cod and Salt. This biography, called Birdseye, follows our man as he travels to Labrador in the early 20th century and discovers the trick, long known to the native Inuit population, of deep freezing trout and cabbages in ice and sea water. As Kurlansky points out, these days the "locavore movement" recoils from food harvested from far away, but Birdseye was "a nineteenth-century foodie ... who dreamed of making food industrial" and available to America's burgeoning cities.
The Mansion of Happiness
A History of Life and Death
Cryonic freezers are where Jill Lepore's new book, The Mansion of Happiness, comes to a dead halt. Lepore, who is an historian at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker (where parts of this book already appeared) has written an off-beat history of American ideas about life and death. Lepore's title, The Mansion of Happiness, derives from an early 19th-century board game that piously represented life as a voyage whose end was a return to Heaven. By the time American game innovator Milton Bradley revamped the game as "Life" in 1860, Lepore says, it was no longer imaged as "a race to heaven" but, rather, as "a series of [hard-nosed economic] calculations about the best route to collect the most points, fastest." This chapter, alone, on the history of children's board games speaks volumes about how American ideas of the meaning of life have mutated.
My Dear Governess
The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann
My Dear Governess is a surprising literary discovery that charts a life through letters. In 2009, the letters of Anna Bahlmann came up for auction: Bahlmann was an orphaned daughter of German immigrants who served first as governess and, then, companion to Edith Wharton for more than 40 years. One hundred and thirty five letters from Wharton turned out to be in Bahlmann's possession and they flesh out our vision of Wharton's life as a debutante, disappointed wife and determined writer. What's also illuminated here is the anxious, frugal life of a society governess: Bahlmann's clothing ledger for 1898, for instance, details a total expense of $290.24. That was a sizable chunk of change for Bahlmann to give over to dresses, gloves and ribbons in order to make herself presentable in high society parlors.
The lonely wise child who's the heroine of Jane Gardam's newly-reprinted 1986 masterpiece, Crusoe's Daughter, doesn't have to worry much about clothes: Polly Flint lives with her two maiden aunts in an isolated house near the Irish Sea. Not surprisingly, Polly is a great reader and she feels a special affinity with no-nonsense Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe's Daughter is Gardam's own favorite among her novels and Gardam reigns as my personal favorite among off-beat female British writers: she melds the desolate humor of a Stevie Smith and the crumpet-y settings of a Barbara Pym. Who else would dream up these adjectives to describe an odious vicar: "[P]ale flabby candlegrease Father Pocock with hands like a seal's flippers and a puffy pink sea-anemone mouth."
The Red House
Talk about a nightmare of enforced holiday conviviality! Mark Haddon's new novel, The Red House, is a kind of dark, contemporary British version of that cinematic chestnut, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. Haddon, who made a splash with his 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, conjures up the emotional discomforts that ensue when a wealthy surgeon invites his feuding sister, her unemployed husband and their kids to share a vacation house in Wales. Listen to this inspired stream-of-consciousness grumble from one of Haddon's unhappy vacationers:
"How strange this yearning for being elsewhere doing nothing. The gift of princes once, its sweet poison spreading....
And now you must do nothing for a week and enjoy it. Days of rest long past the point when we're rested, holidays without the holy, pilgrimage become mere travel, the destination handed to us on a plate, the idleness of the empire in its final days."
Welcome to summer, everybody.