No better time than a hazy, humid July afternoon to settle in on the porchwith a good book and your favorite iced beverage. Here's a sampler of coolreads for hot summer days.
What's a thirtysomething Londoner to do when her disaster of a quasi-boyfriend insists on spending beautiful summer days inside watching cricket with the curtains drawn? Bridget Jones, narrator of the comic-neurotic novel Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding (Penguin, $12.95), makes this observation: "The more the sun shines the more obvious it seems that others are making fuller, better use of it elsewhere: possibly at some giant softball game to which everyone is invited except me . . . or at some large public celebratory event, probably including the Queen Mother . . . to mark the exquisite summer which I am failing to get the best out of. Maybe it is our climatic past that is to blame. Maybe we [the British] do not yet have the mentality to deal with a sun and cloudless blue sky . . . . The instinct to panic, run out of the office, take most of your clothes off and lie panting on the fire escape is too strong."
Summer, winter, spring or fall, Bridget must deal with the woes of being a "Singleton" in a sea of "Smug Marrieds." But she never forgets to record each day's essential info: " 127 lbs., alcohol units 0, cigarettes 1/2 (fat chance of any more), calories God knows, minutes spent wanting to kill mother 188 (conservative estimate)." Light and frothy, a hit in Britain, Bridget Jones's Diary may be just the thing for those heat-frazzled neurons. Despite the ending's obvious homage to Pride and Prejudice, this is light, and light-hearted, summer reading fare.
The Hills Are Alive
Bridget Jones would be as out of place among the Alpine farm women of Rosanna Lippi's Homestead (Mariner, $12) as a peacock among a flock of chickens. While Bridget's drinking, smoking and calorie-counting, Anna, Johanna, Mikatrin and the rest are tending to animals, crops, children and menfolk on their homesteads in Rosenau, a fictional village in the western Austrian province of Vorarlberg. Lippi's novel, really a collection of 12 linked stories, begins in the summer of 1909, when a mysterious postcard arrives at Rosenau, a place so small that any mail is an event. Addressed to "Anna Fink, at the River's Bend, Rosenau," it bears the picture of a fancy resort hotel on Lake Constance, along with a message from a lovelorn stranger: "It has been so long. Please forgive me. I never meant it to be so long. Please have patience. Your Anton. P.S. Please write to me here, I am very lonely."
There is an Anna Fink in Rosenau, married and now called Bengato Peter's Anna (people in the region have clan names as well as last names). Though she knows no outsider named Anton, she claims the postcard. The act sets off an emotional tremor, not a dangerous one really, just enough to shake her domestic contentment a little. Her husband and family tease a little, disapprove a little. Slowly she drafts a reply, uncertain at first of the formal "book language" she hasn't used since her school days. Then "she forgot she was writing to a stranger, a man she had never seen: she imagined him love-struck, lonely, wearing a white linen suit and silk hat and smoking a carved pipe under the striped awnings of the White Horse Hotel. Slowly this image faded away into the paper under her hands until she could see much less of him than she could of herself, as a young girl, a bride, a mother, an aunt."
Later stories take up the tales of other Rosenau women, many of them related by blood or marriage to earlier protagonists. The narratives run from the teens and '20s on through World War II; the last two take place in the 1970s, the rural rhythms of the village undiminished. Homestead won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, in part because of its careful observation of the region's folkways and distinctive dialect (Lippi's English rendering is persuasive, never folksy-cute) -- clearly the result of the years the author has spent in the villages of Vorarlberg, studying local ways and speech.
The cool alpine meadows of Rosenau are a world away from 1920s Harlem, a hot time recaptured in the Modern Library's Harlem Renaissanceseries. The latest volume is The Opportunity Reader: Stories, Poetry, and Essays from the Urban League's Opportunity Magazine, edited by Sondra Kathryn Wilson (Modern Library, $14.95), and it's a feast of great writing from the period. Beginning in 1910, the New York-based National Urban League sought to aid "black migrants from rural areas by aiding them in securing sufficient education, employment, and housing. In essence, [its] objective was to help blacks acclimatize to the unfamiliar hardships of urban life," Wilson writes in her introduction. Under the editorship of Charles S. Johnson, Opportunity magazine, the organization's official publication, "quickly became an apparatus for jump-starting the Harlem Renaissance." During Johnson's tenure, the magazine published poetry, fiction, plays and essays by everyone from Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen to Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Alain Locke and Paul Robeson. A 1924 poem by Langston Hughes, "Our Land," longs for " . . . a land of joy/ Of love and joy and wine and song,/ And not this land where joy is wrong." Two years later, reviewing Hughes's collection TheWeary Blues, fellow poet Countee Cullen, while admiring, took issue with Hughes's experimentations: "Never having been one to think all subjects and forms proper for poetic consideration, I regard these jazz poems as interlopers in the company of the truly beautiful poems in other sections of the book. They move along with the frenzy and electric heat of a Methodist or Baptist revival meeting, and affect me in much the same manner. The revival meeting excites me, cooling and flushing me with alternate chills and fevers of emotion; so do these poems. But when the storm is over, I wonder if the quiet way of communing is not more spiritual for the God-seeking heart; and in the light of reflection I wonder if jazz poems really belong to that dignified company, that select and austere circle of high literary expression which we call poetry."
Wilson has also edited another in the Harlem Renaissance series, The Crisis Reader: Stories, Poetry, and Essays from the N.A.A.C.P.'s Crisis Magazine (Modern Library, $14.95), reviewed earlier this year in Book World.
If the heat's really getting to you and none of the above books seems likely to cool you off, try taking a dip in Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (Modern Library, $12.95). What could be cooler than this description of Wheeler's plane depositing her just off the Antarctic land mass: "When we landed and a crewman opened the door, it was as if he had lifted the lid of a deep freeze. Bloodless icefields stretched away to mountains below softly furred cumulus clouds, and ice crystals came skittering toward us through the blistering air. The Hercules had landed on the frozen sea between Ross Island and the Antarctic continent, and along the wiggly island coast land met solid sea in a tangle of blue-shadowed pressure ridges or the pleated cliffs of a glacier."
Wheeler's a fine companion for this chilly excursion, self-deprecating and able to find humor in almost any situation, even when she's waddling around like a penguin in "three layers of polypropylene, two layers of fleece and an industrial-strength parka . . . In those balmy days of summer when I first arrived the temperature hovered around minus five [degrees Celsius]." An earlier book of Wheeler's, Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile (Modern Library, paperback original, $12.95), has also just been published for the first time in this country. (It came out in Britain in 1994.) It was on the trip to Chile that Wheeler first set foot on Antarctica soil (ice) and was struck with a benign form of "polar madness": "Standing on the edge of the ice field in a wind strong enough to lean on, squinting in the buttery light, it was as if I were seeing the earth for the very first time. I felt less homeless than I have ever felt anywhere, and I knew immediately that I had to return." Cool stuff.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.