I mock Summer Reading articles. I don’t know why I do.
The lists are usually of good new books. This year Alan Cheuse at NPR has recommended poetry for summer reading: three books by Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, and W. S. Merwin, and two by poets I don’t know, Brenda Shaughnessy and David Rakoff.
Janet Maslin at The New York Times goes pop with Stephen King’s Joyland and Carl Hiassen’s Bad Monkey, but also includes books I’ve never heard of, Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat, a collection of stories, and Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, “a novel about a status-conscious North Carolina family.”
I never particularly want to read the summer reading books. Some are good, some are bad, most reviewed aren’t as good as they say.
I prefer to choose my own books. I’m sure most of you know what I mean.
This vacation I am doing my share of summer reading. We bicycle in the rain every day because this is it, summer, and when else can we take long trips? But I find that when we arrive at the diner, I cannot read Anna Karenina. I finished it at home. Short books are best for the road.
And so here is a little bit about my Summer Reading.
I finished a wonderful Southern novel, Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms, which I found by chance at Barnes and Noble (and that’s why we need bookstores: I read no reviews of this book). Bender, who teaches creative writing at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has won two Pushcart prizes for her short stories. There is a rich texture to her observant, intense, lyrical writing.
If you liked Kent Haruf’s Benediction, you will probably enjoy A Town of Empty Rooms. It’s not that the plots are the same, but they are both stylishly written, with intelligence.
Bender’s poignant novel about a Jewish family who moves to a small town in the South begins:
She did not intend to steal anything that day. Serena Hirsch was walking through midtown Manhattan on her lunch break; it was one week since her father had died, and it was her first day back at work. It was a bright April afternoon, and people were gathered in loose, happy groups outside, sitting on concrete walls and benches, turning faces to the cool pale lights. Others seemed relieved, released from the confines of winter, certain of the damp promise of spring. Serena walked with the crowd marching down the sidewalk, hoping she would feel she was one of them again, but now the clear sunlight, the blaring cabs, and the groups gathered on the sidewalks all seemed to exist in some world that she did not inhabit. Her father was not part of this world anymore…
Her father had moved with his family from Berlin to the U.S. in 1936 when he was six: he told her she should always have something she could sell: he gives her jewelry. After her death she has a mini-breakdown and steals $8,000 worth of jewelry on her boss’s corporate charge card.
Fired from her job in marketing from PepsiCo and blacklisted, she moves with her husband, Dan, and two children to Waring, North Carolina. Everywhere there are signs like: If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats.
They are one of 100 or so Jewish families in town, and Serena is drawn to religion when she drives by the Temple. But Dan, who doesn’t want to be viewed as Jewish, longs to be accepted and won’t go ro Temple. He becomes a Boy Scout leader.
Things are crazy in the South for everyone. Their next-door neighbor, Forrest, a fulltime Boy Scout director, has quarreled with everyone in the neighborhood. Suddenly he becomes obsessed with their tree. There is nothing wrong with the tree, but he insists it is about to fall on his shed. And Dan is so worried about being ostracized and driven out of town that he cuts down the tree while Serena is at work.
At the temple things are crazy, too. The Rabbi, who is a mesmerizing speaker and wonderful to have on your side when Forrest starts a Bring Back Christmas to the Schools campaign, is also slightly manic, and alienates many of the old women in the congregation.
This beautifully-written novel is a pageturner, but it is also painful. Most of the characters are emotionally crippled in some way. One is sorry for the eccentricities that hurt them. One also realizes the life-affirming power of religion (for some, not for all).
Another new novel I’d like to recommend is Laura Lee Smith’s Heart of Palm. I wrote about it here.