Why should summer reading be any different than winter reading? Why does everything need to be so seasonally specific? I don't know. It just does. Actually, scratch that. I do know why even reading is so closely related to whatever time of year it is. It's because everything moves slower in the summer—even our brains—and so the tangled, tightly woven plots that we don't mind plowing through in the winter are just too much for our minds to take when the newly hot weather dictates we expend as little energy as possible. Also, beaches. Being on the beach, preferably with something icy and alcoholic nearby, always makes me want to peruse a book or two. After all, reading by the water is a very particular pleasure (this does, of course, include bathtub reading, the very best kind of reading in the world) and it's one that requires a certain type of book. The following ten books are loosely themed as all being by Brooklyn authors, but beyond that all of these books—whether new releases or decades-old classics—are at least partly related to or evocative of either the summer or heat or love or laughter or death or sex or the sort of false fecundity that this season offers. I say false because, as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in This Side of Paradise, summer is "a sad season of life without growth." So live a little this summer, and read these books. Who knows? They might even help you grow in some small way, and allow you to get through this overripe time of year.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Adelle Waldman
Waldman's debut novel is about something that everyone knows a little something about: assholes. The asshole in question is Nate Piven, a Brooklyn writer, and is the kind of guy who doesn't think he's an asshole, even when he is straight-up called just that by an ex-girlfriend. Why doesn't Nate think he's an asshole? Oh, well, mostly because he's the kind of guy who will pay for an abortion, so how bad can he be? I mean, plenty bad, right? With Nate, Waldman has created an instantly recognizable to anyone-that-lives-in-Brooklyn-circa-now character who manages to be both completely relatable and completely reprehensible. One of the things that stands out most about this novel is that characters of both sexes are completely realized, something that just doesn't happen as often as you'd like. Plus any book that includes the following takedown is guaranteed to be a fun read: “I feel like you want to think what you’re feeling is really deep, like some seriously profound existential shit. But to me, it looks like the most tired, average thing in the world, the guy who is interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what you can’t have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere.” And summer is all about fun, isn't it? Fun and cruelty.
And Yet They Were Happy Helen Phillips
This book—Phillips's first—is a marvel. It's a collection of two-page stories, grouped into sections with headers like "The Apocalypses" and "The Helens." It roams wildly and beautifully while staying within the constraints of its chosen form. It also happens to include one of the most beautiful and brutal descriptions of summer that I have ever read. The following passage is from the story "We? #2": "In the park everyone is dehydrated. Like shipwrecked sailors who've finally reached land, everyone sprawls pathetically on the grass. Babies born in winter learn, for the first time, of sun. Skinny girls and fat girls pull up their skirts, revealing everything. Grass sticks to their thighs. The sky blue shirts of the college boys are soaked with Frisbee sweat. A teenager sits under a tree, struggles with his guitar, bestows upon everyone mismatched chords, a king throwing coins to the poor. Everyone is sunburned. A young man and a young woman lie side by side on the grass. Her heart swells, swells, shrinks, shrinks, swells, swells, shrinks, shrinks. Unaware of this turmoil, his heart plods patiently. Your joy—it shall be unbounded." See? Beautiful and brutal. In a word, perfect.
Sophie's Choice William Styron
So this book might not spring to mind as light summer reading fare, and of course, it's absolutely not light summer reading fare, but who needs more light in the summertime? Do you want to go blind or something? Also, Styron is not necessarily thought of as a Brooklyn writer, but he absolutely did live in Brooklyn, in Flatbush, in a house very similar to the one in which his fictional alter ego Stingo resides. Beyond what most people know this book to be about, Sophie's Choice also has an amazing opening which exposes what it was like to work in publishing in NYC in the 1940s (spoiler: unrewarding work for not much pay) and also has some amazing scenes set in Coney Island, that part of Brooklyn that still retains its "popcorn, candy apple, and sauerkraut fragrance" so many years later.
Money Martin Amis
Sure, Martin Amis might be totally over Brooklyn, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read this, one of his finest books, over the summer. Money is about duality, the duality of the self (Self), the duality of place, the duality of everything. And isn't that what we really wrestle with all summer long anyway? Extremes? The heat of the air outside, the chill of the air conditioner inside? The balance between work and play? Hedonism and relaxation? Are those two things opposite? Kind of, they are. I think. Anyway. Money. It's so smart and so funny and if you read it, you'll get to read this: "You can kill time in a number of ways but it always depends on the kind of time you're fighting: some time is unkillable, immortal.” Which, it's not a bad thing to think about what it really means to kill time as you lounge, book in hand, on a bright, blue summer day.
The Slippage Ben Greenman
Greenman's latest novel might seem at first to be a straight-up tale of suburban, married couple ennui, opening as it does with a bizarre backyard party during which one half of the hosting couple doesn't even make an appearance, but it diverges from any notion of what you think it might be and goes to a wholly unexpected and unsettling place. But back to that opening party, it's amazing how subtly Greenman manipulates what is a classic setting and gives the reader a sense of unease by incorporating a few off-putting details. That sense of unease—that lack of sure footing—continues throughout the book, giving everything an aura of the surreal, and making the reader feel like he or she is, in fact, slipping out of the familiar and into truly strange terrain. In other words, read this. Because if there's one time of year where you should allow yourself to feel unsettled, it's summer. Slipping in the summer is totally acceptable.
Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman
Look, if it's good enough for Marilyn Monroe to read in bed, then it's good enough for all of us to read on the beach. Also, I'm sure I'm not blowing your mind exactly with this suggestion, but when was the last time you read Leaves of Grass? Because if it was high school or some required American Lit class in the first year of college, then it's really time to read it again. And summer is the best time for this because Whitman writes like this about the sun: “Give me the splendid, silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling.” And he writes this about love: "If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.” And he writes this about loss: “I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone, I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again, I am to see to it that I do not lose you.” So lovely. Lose yourself in Leaves of Grass this summer. Do it for Marilyn.
The Middlesteins Jami Attenberg
Just released in paperback, this novel is a funny and dark exploration of family and food and love and highly choreographed hip-hop routines at bar mitzvahs. How can you not want to read this book while noshing on a lobster roll that's spilling out of its buttered bun. Totally not kosher, I know. This novel is so much more than just a bleakly humorous look at our constant need to fill the void; Attenberg imbues her characters with real dignity and humanity, and never allows them to be truly demeaned or descend into caricature. This is an ambitious book because it tackles life itself, but you know what? Just because it's summer, doesn't mean you shouldn't be thinking about, you know, deep thoughts. The Middlesteins will definitely have you questioning what it means to be part of a family, and how it is that we show our love—both to those around us and to ourselves. All in all, it's the perfect summer read from a great Brooklyn author, because it makes you think. And that's really all we've got energy to do this summer—think. That, and lift our gin and tonics up to take a sip.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen