Summer Reads

Jacque Kahn is the Academic Advisor and Administrative Coordinator for the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.


You know summer is just around the corner when book sellers and reviewers begin announcing their list of “summer reads” or “books for the beach.” You could argue that these lists are nothing more than a not so subtle marketing strategy that tells you nothing about the books themselves. But the suggestion remains—and I suspect that many readers take it for granted–that the reads will be lighter or easier, and, in some ways, of lesser value than the ponderous tomes we supposedly immerse ourselves in the rest of the year. I recall my childhood summers when my mother, who was simultaneously proud of and provoked by my habitual bookwormishness, routinely forced me to go outdoors to play like a normal child. I’d sneak my Nancy Drew—or my Penguin edition of Jane Eyre—under my shirt and perch myself in a densely leafed maple. It’s still true to this day: the only real difference between my summer reading and the reading I do the rest of the year is that I do it outdoors.

These days, labeling a book as summer reading is no longer the insult it once was. Attitudes about genre fiction are changing, and the pervasive study of popular culture in higher education, along with the rapidly dwindling number of academic holdouts who still believe in masterpieces with a capital M (or even literature with a small L) means that you can get college credit for reading Bridget Jones’s Diary instead of Pride and Prejudice. Still, certain class distinctions prevail. Even on the beach, you will always get more respect for reading Moby Dick over The Da Vinci Code. Whether you enjoy it more is an entirely different question.

Everybody's Fool by Richard RussoFortunately, entertainment and enlightenment are not mutually exclusive; I was as totally immersed in The Sixth Extinction as I am in a Louise Penny mystery. Still, there have been times in my life when I found myself agreeing with Michael Chabon, who, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, argues that fiction’s greatest gift is to satisfy the reader’s need to escape from the “ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation.” We’ve certainly had all of the above this year, and so, for the purposes of this entry, I’m going to recommend a couple of novels that might fall into the contentious category of summer reading. I’m partial to fiction set in small towns because it resonates with my own background, but this is only one of the reasons I’m a huge Richard Russo fan. His characters are as alive as your next door neighbors, and his plotting (and sub-plotting) hearkens back to some of my favorite 19th century novels. This summer I read his latest novel, (yes, by the pool) Everybody’s Fool. It’s funny and suspenseful and enormously entertaining: if that’s your criteria for summer reading, this is the perfect book.

You can read about the plot of Everybody’s Fool in an online book review; I’ll just say here that although Russo writes largely from the perspective of male characters, at times he, like John Irving, vividly bridges the gender gap. Ruth, the overworked owner/operator of a struggling diner, is fighting a losing battle with her husband, a hoarder ostensibly building a business repairing and reselling “broken worthless crap.” Ruth is the kind of wife who says out loud what other wives only think to themselves. “I’m dying to know,” she says to her husband when she finds him on the couch after her long workday, “why men have to take off their pants to watch TV.” Ruth daydreams about a vacation in Aruba, and pours over pamphlets with “enormous white white-tiled bathroom,” showers “with no door, nor curtains, just silver shower heads coming down out of the ceiling” and a “gleaming white vanity, perfect for a woman traveling alone. Because she certainly would be traveling alone. She had no desire to whatsoever to go there with Sully or her husband or any other man, including Brad Pitt. To allow a male into a bathroom that pristine would be a desecration.” I couldn’t help but think of Hemingway’s short story, and this passage as the working-class woman’s rejoinder to his “clean well-lighted place.” Of course there could very well be men who fantasize about clean bathrooms. It probably depends on how often they clean them.

Florence Gordon by Brian MortonMy other suggestion is a novel I actually read last summer, Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon. Morton’s dialogue is pointed and witty, and his chapters are rarely more than a couple of pages. Some of them, in fact, are only four or five lines– just one indication of his extraordinary skill as a novelist.

There are many things I love about Florence Gordon, not the least of which is that its heroine is a 75-year-old world famous feminist scholar. The opening chapter encapsulates the dilemma facing both Florence Gordon and Brian Morton: “Florence Gordon was trying to write a memoir, but she had two strikes against her: she was old and she was an intellectual. And who on earth….would want to read a book about an old intellectual?” In fact, Florence realizes, she has three strikes against her, because she is also a feminist: “If you’re an old feminist, anything you say, by definition, is strident and shrill.”

Florence Gordon is not exactly what I would call a feminist novel. At times Morton pokes good-natured fun at academic feminism (and academia in general); Florence herself, although independent-minded and intelligent, sometimes comes across as the caricature of the cantankerous, outspoken old woman. Still, I couldn’t wait to read what she’d say or do next, and the developing relationship between Florence and her teenage granddaughter will strike a chord with feminists young and old—or for that matter anyone who’s struggled with and learned from generational differences.

As somebody who works at Gender and Women’s Studies, I’m keenly aware that, although I’ve written about their female characters, I’ve just recommended two books by white men. I guess I’ll let myself off the hook this time, since it’s only summer reading. For the record, I’m on the public library’s waitlist for Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. I’m looking forward to reading these books, but sadly, it looks like I’ll be reading them indoors.

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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