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Summer reading

Now's the time to luxuriate in a good book

June 05, 2005|Susan Salter Reynolds

Where is it written that summer reading means bimbo lit? As if we get stupider when the weather gets warm. As if being horizontal means we can only follow recognizable plot lines. As if relaxing means not learning anything. No, summer reading is about filling gaps, getting to those books that one saves to savor. It's about augmenting our understanding of the world. It's about reading those profound, sensuous works of fiction and nonfiction that one doesn't dare read when there are deadlines to meet, trains to catch and meetings to stay awake for. I know many fine readers, for example, who chip away at Proust in the summertime because his work is so distractingly full of tastes, sounds and smells. Pick it up. Look at the clouds. Put it down.

Penguin has just published a manageable paperback edition of Mark Treharne's translation of Proust's "The Guermantes Way" (in parts, downright slapstick) that could get you through some long afternoons without tipping the hammock. And this issue of Book Review looks at tantalizing fiction that won't make you feel like taking a shower to remove excess pulp. I'm also looking forward to Daniel Duane's novel "A Mouth Like Yours" and "Willful Creatures," a story collection by Aimee Bender (both out in August). These California writers know how to make a reader suffer and laugh at the same time (perfect for summer).

As for nonfiction, I recommend a new Getty Publications edition of Euripides' "The Bacchae" (in which Dionysus inspires the women of Thebes to leave their husbands, sons and fathers), with luscious illustrations by Indrapramit Roy on handmade cotton paper, and a new translation of "The Georgics of Virgil" by David Ferry, perhaps the greatest celebration of nature, life and work well done. For your summertime science reading, there's Daniel Nettle's "Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile," coming in July from Oxford University Press. Nettle picks through the latest research in psychology, psychiatry and philosophy to tell us who the happiest people are around the world and why; how negative thoughts served evolving humans; and how the brain systems behind emotions and moods really work.

Summer is also an excellent time for anthologies (the pick-it-up, put-it-down principle), and I'm looking forward to Picador USA's "The Paris Review Book of People With Problems," with stories by Annie Proulx, Charles Baxter, Andre Dubus and others on jealousy, maternal delusion, extramarital passion and other unsolvable dilemmas. As part of an ongoing personal effort to understand the innermost thoughts of dangerously attractive men, I also recommend "The Letters of Robert Lowell," edited by Saskia Hamilton for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In letters to Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, to an Italian mistress and to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lowell's passions for Maine, for literature and for women are illuminated, almost unbearably. "I hardly see in the city," he wrote in 1969 of his prolific poetry-writing summers in Castine, Maine. "I don't know what I've added, but a crack inside me was filled.... Ah the going of the summer!"

Enjoy! May a crack inside you be filled! *

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