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gardens

In Chicago, we savor every warm sunny day in September. Last gasps of summer happen all over the globe, of course, but in Chicago each day of warmth and sun is one we soak up and store within ourselves. We’re like Lionni’s Frederick, who uses those rays to soothe his fellow mice during the bleak, cold months of winter.

img_0139Chicago’s motto is “city in a garden” and in these last summer weekends we insist on the outdoors: eating meals or sharing cocktails in city gardens, sunning and reading on roof decks, swimming fast in open-air pools, biking or walking the lakefront.

Eight of us dined at Piccolo Sogno, 464 N. Halsted St., a newish restaurant in an old space that holds Chicago’s prettiest and most spacious garden, anchored by a huge Spanish sycamore. Strange how a place can be both achingly romantic, for a couple, and accommodating to a crowd.

Later we sat in a private garden, our friends’ good dog at my feet. Deborah pointed to a climbing vine with heart-shaped leaves. My young daughter and I had started that moon flower from seed in March, and I’d been giving the tiny sprouts as hostess gifts during the spring. There it was, grown as tall as their house. The next evening it bloomed, gleaming white against the dark.

I curled up in a comfy chair set to my garden’s one square of sunlight the next day, where I finished Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep”. What a day; what a book. I’d chugged along for hundreds of pages, wondering how Roth’s simple tale would tie up. (It’s narrated by an overly-mothered boy whose father doubts his paternity). Wow. The climax is positively psychedelic; a cocktail of Whitman, Joyce, Ginsberg.

After another delicious dinner in a city garden — thanks Elaine and Dave! — I took our dog for his nightly walk. I passed an old home with a low-fenced yard open to the street. There, a group of friends sat at a red picnic table, lit by candles, enjoying dinner and a movie playing on an oversized screen. What a night; what a choice. “Stranger than Fiction”, a wonderfully told life and love story — set in Chicago.

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The New York Times ran a breezy piece recently about summer reads aimed at women. I turned to it excitedly: I’m a girl, I love to read. Surely there’d be something on the list for me. Nope.

What to read during the summer? Do we really seek out “lighter” reads in the warmer months? I don’t.

512j2j57yjl2Here’s a list of books I love that are by, for or about women.

  • The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, (Vintage, $15.95). Nothing and everything happens in this big read set in Osaka after World War Two. Clinging to ancient ways, two sisters try to place Yukiko in a proper, aristocratic marriage — increasingly difficult as she ages. Another sister brazenly takes on lovers. Lovely descriptions of various regions, and ways of life, in postwar Japan.
  • Anne Sexton: A Biography, by Diane Wood Middlebrook, (Vintage, $17.95). The poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was celebrated in her time for her confessional poetry. Middlebrook knows poetry and poets; her “reading” of Sexton’s poems is smart and digestible. This is a deeply affecting life story that reads more like a novel than the scholarly work that it is. (Recommended by my friend Jennifer.)
  • Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, by Victoria Glendinning, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, buy used). Vita’s gardens, homes, marriage, lovers, and writings made her a legend in her own time (1892-1962). Virginia Wolff was among her lovers, and Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle is said to be the most visited garden in all of England. I didn’t want this book to end: what a life! (Pressed on me by my friend Suzanne, lent in a plastic bag, bound by a rubber band.)
  • The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Shine, (Picador, $14). An ensemble piece set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. People, and dogs, get together, fall in love, and fall apart. A rich read, with a surprisingly sweet, and fitting, end.
  • The Great Man, by Kate Christensen, (Anchor, $14.95). A textured story of the women left behind after a famous artist’s death: his widow and their autistic son, his mistress and their twin daughters, and his sister, who’s also a painter. A window into the New York art world, and a rare depiction of older women. (Thanks, Jennifer, for recommending.)

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