Ninety Degrees in the Shade: Ten Ways to Cool off with Books

Caroline-Gordon-2

Caroline Gordon, one of America’s coolest Southern writers.

We have fans whirling, drink pitchers of iced tea, and occasionally remember to close the drapes during the day.

I read only the coolest books in hot weather

There are three kinds of cool:

  • Books by cool writers.
  • Books set in winter or cold climates.
  • Books set in very hot summers.

So here is my list of 10 cool books (and my descriptions mostly come from my blogs).

Caroline Gordon The Women on the Porch 51XF3WC451L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_1.  Caroline Gordon’s The Women on the Porch  (1944) is a small masterpiece by a Southern Catholic writer, who was married to the writer Allen Tate–twice!  A contemporary of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, Gordon did not achieve their fame:  she is a quieter, more traditional writer. The Women on the Porch  is the story of a woman who flees her unfaithful husband in New York and goes home to Tennessee, where her female relatives live together without men.    In her novels, Gordon beautifully portrayed white Southern monied culture of the early-to-mid- twentieth century, when there lingered an immediate feeling of connection to the Civil War.

Jonathan Lethem chronic_city2.  Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.  This is one of Lethem’s best novels, set in a New York City where it is always winter.  It is slightly reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, which in turn is related to Petronius’ Satyricon (Trimalchio’s dinner party).  But Lethem laces his work with magic realism.  The narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a wealthy former child star whom we meet when he’s  doing a voiceover at a DVD studio). He doesn’t work much, he’s a charming ornament at people’s dinner tables, his astronaut girlfriend is literally lost in space (their romance is famous), and he lives off residuals from his ‘80s sitcom. He spends most of his time with s characters who live in a kind of alternative parallel city. The most fascinating is Perkus Tooth, a former pop culture critic for Rolling Stone who takes a shine to Chase when they meet at the Criterion Collection.Perkus seldom leaves his apartment and spends most of his time smoking dope (a kind called Chronic is his favorite), watching old films, listening to little-known CDs, and making paranoid connections between disparate aspects of the culture. Chase, a rather quiet socialite, is fascinated by him.  A great, completely absorbing novel!

minor-characters-joyce-johnson-paperback-cover-art3.  Joyce Johnson, one of the best writers of the Beat Generation, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir Minor Characters. She tells of growing up a rebellious young woman and then living in the East Village in the 1950s.  She was also Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend.

alexandria quartet durrell 2d3c616b7b5a141c46c9c2af280991564.  Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.  Set in Alexandria, Egypt, it is very hot.  The prose is moody and lush. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt. Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed. Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery. In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished..  Set mostly in Alexandria, Egypt, it is hot, lyrical, and deals with complicated sexual relationships.  The prose is moody and lush. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt. Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed. Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery. In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished.

snow country kawabata 41Pjx4jNUuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_5. Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country is a remarkable read.  Set in a mountain town with a hot spring, it describes the relationship between Shimamura, a married man, and Komako, a woman who learns to be a geisha. She loves him, but Shimamura is cold and insists that many of her activities, such as keeping a diary, are a waste of time.  He visits her very seldom, and we see her often falling into drunkenness at parties.  He is fascinated by another young woman whom Komako  dislikes but is reluctantly loyal  to.

6.  Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys, a stunning novel about the doomed Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott in 1912.

Beryl Bainbridge The-Birthday-Boys7.  Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal, a stunning novel about a doomed Arctic expedition.

Walker Percy TheLastGentleman8.  Walker Percy’s The Second Coming.  In this funny, beautifully written existentialist novel by one of the best Southern novelists, Will Barrett is the anti-hero, a middle-aged lawyer who has retired early in New York and moved back to North Carolina to play golf and…what? He isn’t sure. He is hallucinating on the golf course, falling down repeatedly, blacking out, and having flashbacks to his childhood. Death is on his mind, and no wonder. His wife has died, and he is living alone. Because of the petit mal seizures, he becomes obsessed with a childhood hunting trip on which his father “accidentally” shot both Will and himself. His father later committed suicide (by gun) in an attic in Mississippi. He becomes involved with Allie, a rich, brilliant young woman, considered mad by the world, who has escaped from a mental hospital and is living in a greenhouse. The two meet when one of his golf balls smashes a window in the greenhouse. And Allie gradually becomes stronger to take care of Will.

Clyde Edgerton night train 51wkTl3y53L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_9.  Clyde Edgerton’s charming, humorous novel, The Night Train, inspired by James Brown, Civil Rights, and friendship, is a small, deceptively simple novel. If you missed it in 3011,  and you missed it if you blinked, you should check out this Southern rock-and-roll classic.  Of course it’s not just rock: it’s also jazz, blues, and a bit of country. Set in 1963 in the small town of Starke, North Carolina, The Night Train is the story of a music-based interracial friendship between two boys who work in a furniture-refinishing shop. Larry Lime, the son of an unemployed father and a mother who works in a dog food factory, is black and a brilliant aspiring jazz pianist, while Dwayne, the son of the owner of the shop, is white, very liberal, and the leader of a small band.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce10.  Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land is a beautifully-crafted novel.  After an avalanche, a married couple find themselves eerily living in a deserted hotel.  They cannot seem to ski out of the village.

Zoe truly loves Jake, is charmed by everything about him from his beautiful eyes to his big ears, and describes his breath in the cold as “a faint oyster-colored mist.” The nature of love shapes this luminous novel, with its dream-like scens.  The plot is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife. A stunning novel.

6 thoughts on “Ninety Degrees in the Shade: Ten Ways to Cool off with Books

  1. I’m afraid it’s not warm enough in the UK to need to look out for ‘cool’ books, but I do like the sound of Caroline Gordon’s book. Definitely one to look out for.

    Like

    • It has been very hot here. Gordon is a great writer, and her books are in print, her stories through FSG and her novels in a Southern Literature Series.

      Like

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