When a book is deemed a "good summer read", I tend to avoid it. "Summer reading" often indicates something light and quick and non-taxing (i.e. braindead); a book to have on hand and semi-committally peruse whilst on the beach, or having a picnic, or doing whatever else people do in hot weather. Not being a summery type at all (the only place I might witness sand or frisbee-throwing would be on a big screen in the air conditioned confines of my local cinematheque), and assuming you've finished the latest Harry Potter by now, I'll just go out on a limb here and offer you my pick for the best read of the season.
"Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules" is a fantastic collection of short stories (some classic, others deserving to be) selected and introduced by the great David Sedaris. In experiencing the joys within, you may use one or two more brain cells than you'd originally allotted… but I promise it won't interfere with your suntan too much.
Sedaris' very funny introduction explains his enthusiasm for these stories and writers and why you should like them as much as he does. "When it comes to music and movies, I'm still the same coward I was in the seventh grade. 'You liked that?' someone will say, and I'll take it all back," he writes. "With stories, though, I feel more self-assured, almost bullyish."
As well he should, because every one of these 17 selections is a shiny lil' gem. If Sedaris' intro and Sarah Vowell's sly epilogue (which explains that proceeds from the book actually benefit 826NYC, a non-profit that helps children develop their writing skills) aren't by themselves worth the $15, you also get some fantastic work by other recognizable authors (Flannery O'Connor, Tobias Wolff, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oates), and some great ones you may not've heard of (Richard Yates, Charles Baxter, Frank Gannon).
My favorite of the bunch is by someone named Jincy Willett, who definitely fell into the latter category for me and whose story "The Best of Betty" (told as a series of advice columns by their increasingly jaded author) is so deliciously, cruelly funny that it could have been written by Sedaris himself:
Just who the hell do you think you are?
I am 147 pounds of despair in a fifty-pound mail sack. Though overpaid, I groan with ennui beneath the negligible weight of your all too modest expectations, and when I fail to counter one of your clichés with another twice as mindless, I apologize, even though the fault, God knows, is yours. I am
I can't wait to discover more of Willett's stuff.
My second fave is the domestic-POV wartime story "Song of the Shirt, 1941", by the mighty Dorothy Parker. I love this excerpt:
To see her, so delicately done, so finely finished, so softly sheltered by her very loveliness, you might have laughed to hear that she was a working woman. "Go on!" you might have said, had such been your unfortunate manner of expressing disbelief. But you would have been worse than coarse; you would have been wrong.
A close #3 is Patricia Highsmith's "Where the Door is Always Open and the Welcome Mat is Out", about a busy, lonely New Yorker entertaining her Midwestern sis for a night. It's so Shirley Jackson-ish that I almost don't mind that an actual Shirley Jackson story didn't make it into the collection.
Oddly, Highsmith's story and Alice Munro's "Half a Grapefruit" both contain kitchen scenes involving major characters drinking whiskey… out of an old cream-cheese glass. I'm not kidding! Check it – here's an excerpt from the Highsmith, in which Mildred is taking a little break from those harried visitation preparations:
Mr. Sweeney had given her the whiskey last Christmas, and she hadn't touched it since she made the eggnog Christmas Day for old Mrs. Chevlov upstairs. The bottle was still almost full. Cautiously, she poured an inch into a small glass that had once contained cheese, then added another half inch, and drank it off at a gulp to save time. The drink landed with a warm explosion inside her.
"Dear old Edith!" she said aloud, and smiled with anticipation.
And the Munro:
There was a bottle of whiskey on the table. Billy Pope had bought it. The men drank it out of little glasses that had once held cream cheese. They topped it up with half an inch or so of water.
Peculiar, no? And speaking of "Half a Grapefruit" (from 1978), it actually references the similarly-themed 1922 Katherine Mansfield tale "The Garden Party", which appears just before it in this collection!
Rose had her schoolbooks on the counter and to shut out the household noises she was reading a story in her English book. It was a story by Katherine Mansfield, called "The Garden Party." There were poor people in that story. They lived along the lane at the bottom of the garden. They were viewed with compassion. All very well. But Rose was angry in a way that the story did not mean her to be. She could not really understand what she was angry about, but it had something to do with the fact that she was sure Katherine Mansfield was never obliged to look at stained underwear; her relatives might be cruel and frivolous but their accents would be agreeable; her compassion was floating on clouds of good fortune, deplored by herself, no doubt, but despised by Rose. Rose was getting to be a prig about poverty, and would stay that way for a long time.
She heard Billy Pope come into the kitchen and shout out cheerfully, "Well, I guess yez wondered where I was."
Katherine Mansfield had no relatives who said "yez".
There are odd little common threads like these throughout the delightful, hilarious, disturbing, heartrending stories of "Hercules", but I wouldn't give more away for all the beachtowels and sunblock in the world.