For days and days it seemed as though it would never stop storming; but now, the summer seems interminably hot and still. Either way, one feels justified in spending weekends inside the cool, conditioned air of the house and fixing cold suppers, heavy on summer produce, with as little kitchen work as possible. I use the reasoning that one must not "heat up the house" with even the smallest flame. Of course, the house is a cool 72 degrees, but I do not like to cook in the summer. There are beverage changes as well: red wine gives way to tall, cool drinks they used to call "libations" down South, made with mint and simple syrup and a stiffener of some sort - juniper laden, floral-filled gin being my favorite stiffener at this time of year - and a splash or two of fizzy water or a tart juice. There are also long ago memories of summer being the best time for reading - on the front porch, or under a tree on the grass, memories of getting lost in Oz or carrying mugs of ale to a black-hearted pirate, or hanging on for dear life in the jump seat of a blue roadster as Nancy Drew raced into danger with me in tow.
There was a pattern to my summer reading then, and so there is now. I would like to think that the pattern evolved as I got older and grew more sophisticated in my tastes. But to be honest, during this season I still love a swashbuckling tale of gold doubloons and pieces of eight, or a trip to a fanciful kingdom found only in the imagination.
The atmosphere of Savannah is just right for such tales, dripping as it is with Spanish Moss and marsh smells and the sudden startling shriek of sea birds. Later in the year, as fall descends upon the North, the whippoorwill will migrate to the southeast and add their haunting music at dusk; that will be the perfect season for ghost stories and Charles Dickens. But for now, it is summer in the South, and in Savannah the summer reading palate usually includes Flannery O'Connor, or Carson McCullers, or Pat Conroy. Reading them at this time of the year just seems a perfect fit.
I pulled down my Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor last Sunday. It's missing its lovely dust jacket that I still remember so well, which bore the image of a peacock. The binding, however, is a sturdy green fabric that I think might be referred to as "library binding," but I am not quite sure. Mine is a first edition, purchased when I was 23. The fact that the dust cover is missing bothers me - not because it devalues its monetary worth - but because I liked it so much. I am hoping that somewhere, in a trunk or stuck in a cardboard box of keepsakes, I will find it one day. I find it hard to imagine that I would throw it away, even if tattered. Flannery O'Connor was from Savannah, and she, like the lyricist Johnny Mercer, is revered in this part of the world. The pages show the browned edges of age, but surprisingly they are not at all brittle. The spine is in fine shape, and the front and back covers are uncracked.
The air was heavy on Sunday, even at that early hour of the morning, but it was just cool enough to tolerate sitting in the shade of the oak trees and tall pines. When I remember summer reading as a child, I always remember myself outside. And so, outside I read "Everything That Rises Must Converge." It is difficult to read more than one O'Connor story at a time...at least for me. They are too magnificent. Rich and dense as, I imagine, the literary equivalent of eating duck liver (never having actually eaten duck liver). Foie gras, that is, not just plain ordinary duck liver, but the really serious stuff. They must be read and then thought about...and then thought about again. You must give them a "slow think." Too rich to fill up on all at once, you risk becoming dizzy and unsteady on your feet if you do not to approach with moderation. "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" will chill the soul. I don't think I could face it on a dark or brooding winter's night. To do so might even be dangerous. But I feel quite safe to read it on a early summer morning, in dappled sun, with morning birds singing.
I had a list of books I wanted to read this summer. They all reflected my taste and made me comfortable. But the thought suddenly occurred that it would be wise to shake things up a bit. Expanding horizons is what books are all about, after all and I was far too set in my ways, which can be lethal in a person of a certain age. And so I went to the library and walked the stacks looking for something as far off my standard reading radar, and as totally alien to my taste in books, as possible. I passed quickly by Jasper Fforde, and Agatha Christie, and would not let myself get distracted by Dashiell Hammett or Robert Louis Stevenson. All easy summer reading. All authors I love. My library is small by library standards. And although it has interesting material, there is not a huge selection. Rarely will it have more than one copy of a book, and there are often waiting lists. In addition, not knowing what one is looking for makes it difficult to find it. So I wandered around a bit, looking puzzled. But...wait...Voila! I found two: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. A Western! I have never read a western novel - ever. And The Boleyn Inheritance, by Phillipa Gregory, an historical novel. I love history. I have a degree in history; but, I am not a particular fan of the historical novel. "Historical Novel" is, to me, an oxymoron. To my way of thinking, there is historical fact and then there is fiction. I borrowed each on audio book and couldn't wait to put one of them into the CD player as soon as I jumped in the car. I started with the historical novel, which I am enjoying a great deal, and will ease myself into the western. I am surprised at how anxious I am for The Boleyn Inheritance to be finished so I can start Zane Grey. It hadn't occurred to me before, but reading a western novel seems quite fitting for summer. Although, to be quite honest, I am already feeling a certain nostalgia for buccaneers and buried gold, and miss hiding in the apple-barrel with Jim Hawkins aboard the Hispanola listening to the pirates talk mutiny. "Haaar". There she goes, disappearing over the horizon...sails full blown.