TERRY GROSS, HOST:
For some people, the perfect summer getaway involves the beach, the mountains or a trip to far off lands. But for others, the perfect getaway only requires the imagination. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has some early summer recommendations for armchair vacationers.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Summer is a season when people get hyper-social 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. 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. 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 19th-century foodie, who dreamed of making food industrial and available to America's burgeoning cities.
Cryonic freezers are where Jill Lepore's new book, "The Mansion of Happiness" comes to a dead halt. Lepore, who is a historian at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker where parts of this book have already appeared, has written an offbeat 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 about the meaning of life have mutated.
"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 a governess and, then, a companion to Edith Wharton for more than 40 years. 135 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. "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: pale flabby candlegrease Father Pocock with hands like a seal's flippers and a puffy pink sea-anemone mouth.
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 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 where we've 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.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. We've posted her list of books for summer reading on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr @nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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