End-of-summer reads

I wait all year for summer. I did as a child, growing up in suburban New Jersey. Summer meant freedom from coats and boots and car culture. I rode my bike to the pool, swam and raced all day, ate a deli-sandwich downtown. With my mom we bought peaches and tomatoes from the farm stand. 

Now that I live in Chicago I savor summer even more. Winters are hard, bitterly — often dangerously — cold. Summer provides early morning walks to the lake, outdoor yoga at the Zoo, lap swims in the sun, reading in my back yard. 

Too, summer is my time at Pythonga. Others enjoy spring fish and autumn hunting. For me, late July through Labor Day there is a time for sun, swims, saunas, walks, hikes. Always, Pythonga is a place for me to read, at length, uninterrupted.

I was in Pythonga over Labor Day for summer’s last blast. (As I write this it’s 85 degrees and humid in Chicago.) Our friends hosted a canoe race and beach picnic; we played Scrabble and Giant Jenga at night; we hosted a pizza and cocktail party. The water was too cold for long swims but when we were hot from a hike or the sauna it was fun to jump in — and out! 

Here’s what I read and enjoyed:

If This is a Man, The Truce, by Primo Levi.

As a young Jewish man in fascist Italy, Levi was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. These books are the story of his unlikely survival in the camp, as it was emptied, and during the journey home. It’s a classic (first published in 1958, recently reissued) because Levi takes us into every day life in the camp and elsewhere: how what when they ate, where they slept, how they bathed. We understand the labor, the cold, the ill-fitting shoes, the flimsy clothing. Illness is a ticket to the infirmary, its warmth, its clean sheeted beds — and survival, when others who are weak are sent to the gas chambers. 

Levi lives — how? The journey home is also fraught. Will he and his Italian mates ever return? 

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

My friend Deborah and I were returning to our Old Town neighborhood from a long lakefront walk. Deb lamented that “no one has yard sales anymore.” Just steps after she mentioned it, we came upon a yard sale in a garden on Wells Street. A young couple was ridding what they could: they were heading to London School of Economics. Among the dresses and wrapping paper and coasters, we found books. I grabbed A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr, for Deborah, who’d never read it. She pulled Zeitoun for me; I’d missed it. 

Glad I got to it. Eggers rarely disappoints and this one’s a doozy, deeply reported and fluidly told. It reads like a novel. It’s the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans. He’s married, a father, a painting contractor and owner of rental buildings. When Hurricane Katrina overwhelms the city, Zeitoun stays, sleeping on his garage roof, canoeing flooded streets so that he can help trapped residents and dogs. (His wife and children evacuated.) A Muslim, he sees this work as divine; he has been chosen. He won’t leave. Then he and his friends are arrested for looting, they’re jailed, and held — by whom? Do they think he’s a terrorist? Why can’t he make a phone call? 

The Stranger in the Woods, the Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Michael Finkel

A Pythonga friend pressed this book in my husband’s hands. “There’s something about this that reminds me of you.” A hermit? Upon reading this entrancing tale, I know what she meant. That’s because FInkel explores the value and history of being alone as he tells the hermit’s fascinating tale.

For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived in the Maine woods. He stole all of his needs — food, clothing, batteries, booze — from nearby summer homes and camps. This book is the story of his capture and re entry into the every day world. 

I thought this would be a creepy read; it’s not. It’s enlightening. 

Ah, summer: I’ll miss your healing rays, your bounty.


Also in the blog

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