By the Book: Some savory reads for the summer

07/06/2011 10:51 AM |

I finally have an acceptable reason to dislike Philip Roth. I read “Portnoy’s Complaint” when I was a kid, because we all did, snickering at the “dirty” parts. There were interesting stories in “Goodbye, Columbus,” but I quickly tired of the later Zuckerman novels, and I don’t think it’s quite sporting for a novelist to engage his ex-wife in a public war of words as he did against the actress Claire Bloom, because the use of words is his profession, while hers is to say the words of others.

But now he has declared, in an interview with The Financial Times of London, “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. Why? I don’t know. I wised up.”

What does he mean that he wised up? He is now so wise that nobody else’s engagement with the craft that he has been practicing for 50 years is of any interest to him? People are allowed to limit their reading to what truly engages them, but if a man makes his living writing fiction, it seems the height of arrogance to not read it anymore.

England can give him their Man Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Literature and it won’t change my mind; I don’t like him and I won’t read his fiction.

So what fiction titles are going to be read this summer by interested and interesting people? Ann Patchett has a new novel, “State of Wonder,” that takes place in the Amazon jungle and in the world of pharmaceutical science, both extremely dangerous venues. Jean Auel has finally published “The Land of Painted Caves,” the long-awaited sixth and final book of the series “Earth’s Children” that started with “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” It hasn’t been getting unqualified raves from reviewers, but the faithful readers who slogged through the first five books will want to read this one regardless.

Kate Atkinson has a new novel, “Started Early, Took My Dog,” which continues with the exploits of former detective Jackson Brodie. Her books are genre-bending feats of literature that play with the conventions of murder mysteries or thrillers, neither condescending to them nor wholly being subsumed by them.

A first novel garnering a lot of favorable buzz is “Vaclav & Lena” by Haley Tanner. It takes place in Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community and involves young love and magic.

Then there’s “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain, which seems to be riding the same wave of zeitgeist nostalgia as Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris.” “The Paris Wife” is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, and features all those madcap American expatriates we meet in Woody Allen’s movie. Those characters also appear in two big, new nonfiction books that are flying off the shelves: David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” and “Americans in Paris” by Charles Glass.

I’m not sure I accept the idea of imagining, in a novel, a real person whose children or grandchildren are still around, but authors are definitely doing it. A few years ago there was ‘Loving Frank,’ Nancy Horner’s novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, which was well written but seemed to me like a violation of some sort. The Woody Allen film is delightful and obviously a fantasy, but these novels tread some boundary between fiction and nonfiction that troubles my librarian soul. However, it seems clear that this summer, when you’re not lolling in the hammock with one of these books, you should be learning to Charleston, having your hair bobbed or drinking absinthe while singing jazz in French. You’ve got to get with the zeitgeist, mon ami, and this season it is Paris in the ’20s.

More summer books for nonfiction lovers might include “Bossypants” by Tina Fey, a really, really funny woman. Sarah Vowell isn’t funny in the same way, but her new book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” is an idiosyncratic take on the history of Hawaii.

Summer vacations used to mean road trips, but now that we can’t afford the gas we could just read “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway” by the aptly named Earl Swift. While we’re thinking about gas and oil, let’s get busy with Carl Safina’s latest book, “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Blowout.” Mr. Safina is a neighbor, an East Ender whose previous books — “Song for the Blue Ocean,” “Eye of the Albatross,” “Voyage of the Turtle” and “The View from Lazy Point” — have won various honors and gotten him named one of the 100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century.

Summer is all about nature, which makes me think of Henry David Thoreau. There are some wonderful programs and exhibits at the North Fork Audubon Society’s Red House Nature Center in Greenport that are based on the writings of that amazing American writer. Thoreau’s cantankerous Yankee spirit was echoing in my head when I started reading “Tinkers” by Paul Harding.

“Tinkers” is a small book, a first novel by a former rock drummer. It hasn’t much of a plot or any suspense. The first sentence reads, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” and then the rest of the book, set in Maine, is his dying and his hallucinating. There are Indians, a nameless pond, a donkey named Prince Edward, a hermit, a tinker, a peripheral connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne and many, many clocks measuring time that is no longer linear for the dying man nor for the reader of this beautiful book. Maybe Americans can be transcendentalists.

Maybe reading fiction is how we can “wise up.”

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.