Five Books That Have Summer Written All Over Them

Summer is actually my least favorite season (at least it has become so ever since I crossed that border from childhood), but here it is, back again, always sooner than I'm ready for it. Yes, it's a hot time, summer in the city, so my thoughts naturally turn to hot tomes. Maybe I should cool down with books like Edna Ferber's old classic The Ice Palace (ice-cold Alaska before statehood), or Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (my temperature goes down just thinking about the Everest disaster; I remember wanting to put gloves on when I read it), or Orhan Pamuk's Snow (a chilling study of a desolate Turkish town and its politics). Instead, in the summertime, I like to turn to those books that have summer written all over them -- not just in their titles. Here are some that have helped me get through the season.

1. Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury.
A great way to start the summer, because it's the most quintessentially summer book I know. For 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding in the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Ill. (for which you can substitute Anytown, USA, or at least you could some decades ago when I first read this classic), it's a magical season. To borrow Douglas's own labels, his summer is full of "Rites and Ceremonies" and "Discoveries and Revelations" and includes the luxuries of wild strawberries, front-porch swings, early evening games of kick-the-can and Mason jars of fireflies. Reading this book will slow you down. Bradbury chronicles a whole season of "June dawns, July noons, August evenings."

2. Summer, by Edith Wharton.
Among the lesser known of Wharton's books, but one Joseph Conrad called his favorite, Summer tells of a summer in the life of Charity Royall, set in a "sunburnt village." This is a deceptively simple story that raises complex questions and deals with complicated emotions -- the effects of pride, the implications of sexuality, the results of circumscribed possibilities, the power of traditions and the limits of responsibilities. A lot for one season.

3. The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden.
A dream-like story of the five thoroughly English, middle-class Grey children (ages ranging roughly from 7 to 16), whose mother decides to teach them unselfishness by taking them to visit World War I battlefields in France. Mother, however, falls ill, is hospitalized, and the children are left alone to deal with the foreign French and, at times, the even more foreign adults. Like the slow, hot summer, the book heats up, with the children observing and being influenced by the less-inhibited French. For the Greys, the greengage summer is a time to simultaneously take pleasure in and feel the pain of maturing -- physically and emotionally.

4. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn, and The Summer Game, by Roger Angell (and you could throw in David Halberstam's Summer of '49).
My father was Commissioner of Baseball in my hometown, and he taught me to love the game (as well as teaching me how to throw, catch and keep score), so I have always loved baseball books. Angell's is a collection of his writings on baseball from the New Yorker in the 1960s; Kahn's is narrower, dealing with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s. Halberstam focused especially on Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, at a time when baseball was truly the dominant sport in America. Going to a baseball game, preferably with my glove in my backpack and a scorecard for following the finer points, is always one of the highlights of my summers.

5. "Once More to the Lake," an essay by E.B. White.
Although this doesn't qualify as a book, I include it here in the hope that reading it might lead you to Essays of E.B. White (published in 1977), where it was reprinted after first appearing in 1941 in Harper's magazine. You can't go wrong with White. Everything he wrote speaks volumes, but here, in this depiction of one summer when White took his son to a lake where his own family had gone in his childhood years from 1904 on, is the essence of one man's memories of summer long gone: "Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end."

What books say summer for you?

-- Ev Small

By Christian Pelusi |  June 12, 2008; 10:20 AM ET Evelyn Small
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"King Suckerman," by George Pelecanos. Set in the weeks leading up to and culminating in the Bicentennial. A vivid evocation of D.C. in all its sweaty, violent glory.

Posted by: Lindemann | June 12, 2008 10:53 AM

An emphatic yes to "Dandelion Wine" -- that is such a book of summer. I always remember the bit about buying new sneakers (the narrator describes the squishy feel of them when they're just bought).

Posted by: C | June 13, 2008 11:57 AM

Oh, I love the E. B. White essay--as well as all of his essays. And, it's even better because Roger Angell (one of your other recommendations) is his stepson.

Happy summer and happy reading

Posted by: Judy Merrill Larsen | June 13, 2008 10:04 PM

"Dandelion Wine"--well, of course! I moved to Illinois to look for the lime-vanilla ice cream Douglas enjoyed (never found any).

Another book from my childhood always reminds me of summer: "Thimble Summer" by Elizabeth Enright. In the 1930s, Garnet Linden lives on a Wisconsin farm with her parents and brother. Money is tight, there's no rain, and the family needs a new barn. One day, Garnet finds a silver thimble near the river, following which the rains come and a loan for the barn appears. The rest of the summer is filled with interesting events, all of which Garnet ascribes to finding the silver thimble.

I think adults would enjoy Enright's beautifully controlled style. "Her shoes hurt her; and with aching feet and her bundle and empty pocketbook she felt like an old, old woman coming home from seeing grandchildren who didn't love her."

Similarly, Enright's description of summer heat has stayed with me for years: "It was like being inside of a drum. The sky like a bright skin was stretched tight above the valley, and the earth too, was tight and hard with heat."

Posted by: Sappho | June 15, 2008 5:07 PM

Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene -- another example of what can happen in the course of one season

Posted by: jean | June 15, 2008 7:00 PM

"Prince of Tides" by Pat Conroy. A terribly painful book, but powerful as well. It's one of those long books, placed in coastal South Carolina, completely absorbing, beautifully written - a definite summer get-away.

Posted by: Brian | June 16, 2008 9:35 AM

I just ordered the modern classic "The Sheltering Sky" from From the publisher:

"A story about three American travelers adrift in the cities and deserts of North Africa after World War II, "The Sheltering Sky" explores the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness and impassive cruelty of the desert."

Nothing says "hot", quite like a desert. (grin)

Posted by: JohnJ | June 16, 2008 10:16 AM

Julia Glass' "Three Junes" is a nice summer read. So is Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees".

Posted by: SML | June 17, 2008 7:56 AM

"Summer Sisters," by Judy Blume. It's one of her novels for adults, about the decades-long friendship between two girls, one wealthy and one working-class, who go to Martha's Vineyard together every summer. Blume does a great job of evoking the sand, the heat, the musty beach houses and the general feel of just hanging out the whole summer.

Posted by: KLeewrite | June 17, 2008 10:44 AM

Anything by Edward Abbey -- I re-read Slumgullion Stew every summer. His essays depicting his life in the deserts and canyons of the southwest always make me want to throw on a backpack and head out of civilization. My all-time favorite is an essay in Desert Solitaire called Havasu. For some reason this short, stark story is deeply moving to me and makes me feel renewed every time I read it.

Posted by: jessica | June 27, 2008 12:56 PM

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