Summer presents the opportunity to tackle those major masterpieces you've never finished - or even started: Dante's "Divine Comedy," Tolstoy's "War and Peace," or that perennial favorite, Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." Whether or not you manage to finish, you'll certainly never regret the time spent reading any of these.
But summer also presents a pressing need, I've found, for some books that are, quite literally, lightweight. I don't mean shallow or insipid, but compact and light enough to cram into a suitcase, beach bag, or backpack.
What better way to impress fellow sunbathers than by brandishing a nice little paperback of The Genteel Tradition: Nine Essays by George Santayana. This edition features a brisk new introduction by Robert Dawidoff. "Don't take notes, for goodness sake, lose those yellow markers," counsels Professor Dawidoff. Good advice, for Santayana is a superb stylist, who expresses his ideas cogently and vividly.
At a time when many academic philosophers had pretty much abandoned writing anything that nonphilosophers could understand, the Spanish-born, American-educated George Santayana (1863-1952) meditated incisively, eloquently, and ironically on subjects of interest to the general reader. His reflections on American culture, politics, and religion influenced subsequent generations of American thinkers and still have the power to amuse, provoke, and enlighten.
Here he is on that extraordinary philosopher William James: "Thus the genteel tradition was led a merry dance when it fell ... into the hands of a genuine and vigorous romanticist, like William James.... James kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem, to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy.... He thought, with his usual modesty, that any of these might have something to teach him."
The poignant, modestly understated short stories and plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) in Motley Tales and a Play are among the best-loved and most highly esteemed specimens of their respective genres.
The seemingly effortless naturalness of Chekhov's creations was the supreme achievement of a master craftsman who was also a man of extraordinary sensitivity and compassion. Comic, sad, insightful, and truthful, his stories and plays provide an unforgettable portrait of ordinary middle-class life in late 19th-century Russia.
The New York Public Library Collector's Edition features Constance Garnett's classic translations of the stories and playwright David Mamet's rendition of "The Three Sisters," based on a literal translation by Vlada Chernomordik. Like all of the editions in this series, this one provides a brief biography, plus photographs, drawings, samples of manuscripts, and suggestions for further reading.
The Dublin-born playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, and wit Oscar Wilde was Chekhov's contemporary, although no one could accuse the flamboyant Irishman of being modestly understated. His story, however, was poignant, indeed tragic, culminating in his headlong plunge from social success and literary celebrity into scandal, humiliation, and prison.
After years in which his once-famous name was removed from theater marquees advertising his plays, Wilde - one might say - began staging a posthumous comeback. Among the most recent of the many biographies, critical studies, plays, and films about Wilde is a handy little book by Merlin Holland, himself the child of Wilde's younger son, Vyvyan Holland. Copiously illustrated with photographs, drawings, caricatures, paintings, and other charming mementos, The Wilde Album offers a concise, yet absorbing account of Wilde's life, combining scholarly accuracy with the special perspective of a grandson.
Anyone who assumes that terms like "cultivated," "sophisticated," or "gourmet" are synonyms for "pretentious" should become acquainted with the knowledgeable, literate, down-to-earth writings of M.F.K. Fisher. The author of such classics as "The Gastronomical Me," "Consider the Oyster," "Here Let Us Feast," and "With Bold Knife and Fork," Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher wrote with gusto and wit on the role of appetite, food, and taste.
"I grew up watching people curled up in armchairs, in pleasure and a certain kind of relief, reading Mary Frances's books," recalls Anne Lamott in her foreword to M.F.K. Fisher: A Life in Letters. Written over the course of 60-odd years, Fisher's lively epistles to family and friends, including her sister Norah, bibliophile Lawrence Clark Powell, Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich, and fellow food-lovers Paul and Julia Child, are just the kind of letters anyone would love to receive - or be able to write.
Open this collection anywhere, and a colorful description, an amusing anecdote, or a shrewd observation awaits you. Read through the letters chronologically and an engrossing story of the author's life emerges: her first taste of France, her years in Switzerland, her experiences as a mother, her stint as an English teacher in the backwoods of Mississippi, her remarkably graceful transition into retirement.
Forthright, wryly humorous, sometimes acerbic, but always filled with zest for life, Fisher's style expresses her character. On first going to France in 1929 as a young married woman, she has this (and much more) to tell her sister Anne, who was planning to join the newlyweds in the town of Dijon: "You might think it rather lonesome over here. There's absolutely no dating.... The only women who are out in public places with men are either well-rounded hausfraus or obvious prostitutes.... The only women in Dijon who dress as you and I do at home - carefully, swankily, with an eye for color and so on - are the harlots."
Fisher goes on to list the many things that might strike an American as disconcerting. "But," she concludes, "darling, you'll love it. It's thrilling, fascinating, marvelous.... Lamplighters are men who sing little songs to sell the candy they carry in trays on their heads, and hot chestnuts on streetcorners, and wonderful doorways and cathedral windows, and funny movies and revues and opera for almost nothing."
The striking black-and-white photos and accompanying text of A Welcoming Life: An M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook offer a kind of parallel portrait of this elegant and attractive woman over the many stages of her richly varied life. Fun-loving, stylish, yet imbued with a strong moral sense that led her to teach at a black school in Mississippi in 1964, Fisher was a venturesome spirit, but also a level-headed woman with a great deal of common sense. Neither the album-shaped "Scrapbook" nor the chunky tome containing her letters is light in physical weight, but both are delightfully diverting.
Readers in search of an absorbing story in which to lose themselves will find one in Julia Scully's Outside Passage: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood. This crisply written account of howling winds, frozen tundra, and subzero temperatures may also serve as the perfect antidote for the sun-weary.
"The clear days were worse than the stormy ones," Scully recalls. "The ice crystals hung in the frigid air, stinging your chin, your cheeks, your nose, leaving them numb. You tried to keep your mouth closed, to shut out the freezing air. On such days there was hardly a soul on Front Street, although the Eskimos stood around sometimes in their parkas and mukluks, not seeming to notice that it was twenty below zero."
The younger daughter of Jewish immigrants struggling to survive in Depression-era America, Julia Scully was seven years old when her despairing father committed suicide. The family was then living in San Francisco. Having previously found it easier to make a living in Alaska, Julia's mother, Rose, consigned Julia and her sister, Lillian, to a Jewish orphanage in San Francisco and headed north to Nome. Cooking for gold-miners' campsites and cleaning the houses of mine-owners' wives, Rose eventually earned enough to buy a roadhouse in Taylor, a town so tiny and isolated that it made Nome look like New York. She then sent for her daughters.
Scully, a former editor of Modern Photography magazine, paints a memorable picture of what it was like growing up on the northwestern frontier of what was then still the Territory of Alaska in the 1930s and the war years. Her book also provides an unusual take on a much-maligned institution: The orphanage where Julia and her sister stayed in San Francisco was clearly an exemplary establishment of its kind, offering a haven, not only for children who had no parents, but also for children of single working parents whose jobs made it difficult for them to look after their offspring.
But, above all, "Outside Passage" is an intriguing portrait of the dynamics of a small, but scarcely close-knit family, each of whom experienced the same things very differently, each, in a strange way, as isolated as the remotest village on the wind-swept tundra.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.
Neither the album-shaped 'Scrapbook' nor the chunky tome containing M.F.K. Fisher's letters is light in physical weight, but both are delightfully diverting.
MOTLEY TALES AND A PLAY
By Anton Chekhov
New York Public Library
387 pp., $18.50
A WELCOMING LIFE: THE M.F.K. FISHER SCRAPBOOK
Compiled and annotated by Dominique Gioia
119 pp., $35
A LIFE IN LETTERS: CORRESPONDENCE 1929-1991
By M.F.K. Fisher
Selected and compiled
by Norah Barr, Marsha Moran, and Patrick Moran
500 pp., $35
THE GENTEEL TRADITION: NINE ESSAYS BY GEORGE SANTAYANA
Edited with an introduction
by Douglas L. Wilson
University of Nebraska Press/ Bison Books
201 pp., $14 (paperback)
THE WILDE ALBUM
By Merlin Holland
192 pp., $19.95
Outside Passage: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood
By Julia Scully
219 pp., $23