My 2021 summer reading list: five novels by essential authors

I came close to registering for a summer reading club with a New York bookstore, The Center for Fiction, whose emails and Zoom events I follow. The club event that interested me, however, sold out before I made up my mind, and the other one I liked had only two books out of several that intrigued me. So I decided to design my own summer reading list. It’s inspired by their selections, and by “inspired” I mean that I branched out, for example, choosing another book but by the same author on their lists. I also added a novel I heard about on NPR in an interview with independent bookstore owners. My selections are neither books I’ve been meaning to read, nor books sent to me by publishers, nor books I’m familiar with (excepting the authors). These are simply fresh, sparkling choices from the world of literature.

Plots here are paraphrased and quoted from the publishers’ descriptions on the backs of the paperbacks I plan to read.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1988 novel The Beginning of Spring enchanted me (I finished it last night), the story of Frank Reid who comes home from work one day to find his wife Nellie has left with their three children. Set in Moscow, where Frank’s British family established a printing company, the year 1913, the book takes off with the question of why Nellie left, why she sent the three children home to Frank (within 24 hours), and how Frank will cope. The seriousness of the situation is lightened by the author’s droll wit, at times laughably mocking, at others smartly twisted. I laughed out loud, while turning the pages quickly. Fitzgerald (1916-2000) began her remarkable writing career late in life, publishing 10 novels and three nonfiction books, winning the Booker prize for the novel Offshore and being short-listed for others, including The Beginning of Spring.

Dorothy West’s 1995 novel The Wedding takes place on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s in a community called the Oval, “a proud, insular community made up of the best and brightest of the East Coast’s black bourgeoisie.” Here the prominent Coles family gathers for the wedding of their daughter, Shelby, who instead of choosing a husband among the eligible men of “the right colors and the right professions” has fallen in love with a white New York jazz musician. “A shock wave breaks over the Oval as its longtime members grapple with the changing face of its community.” When I heard a Black independent bookstore owner talk about the book as her recommendation, I knew I wanted to read it. Like so many readers, I’d never heard of Dorothy West: “Her career is a rare, enigmatic mélange of obscurity, revival and longevity.” (via Whatever Happened to Author Dorothy West in The Guardian.) The Wedding is West’s second novel. Her first is The Living Is Easy. Author Dorothy West (1907-1998) was the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, artists that included Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel The Heat of the Day takes place during the London bombing raids of World War II. Many Londoners have fled to the countryside for safety, but some have remained, including Stella Rodney, who discovers her lover, Robert, is suspected of selling secrets to the enemy. She also learns the man who is following him wants Stella as the price of his silence. The Heat of the Day is listed as No. 69 in a 100 Best Books effort by The Guardian. It’s been praised as fiction that “brilliantly” and “perfectly” re-creates the tense and dangerous atmosphere of London during the bombing raids of World War II. Bowen (1899-1973) served as an air‐raid warden and worked at the British Office of War Information during World War II. (via The New York Times Bowen obituary) I’m ashamed to admit this will be my first Elizabeth Bowen novel of her much lauded and classic work; I’ve only read her collected short stories.

Edmund White’s 2007 novel Hotel de Dream tells an imagined story about American literary genius Stephen Crane (1872-1900), who’s best known for his American Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. He’s on his deathbed at the age of 28, dying from tuberculosis in England where he and his common-law wife have sought refuge from gossips about her past: Cora managed a bordello in Florida, the Hotel de Dream. Crane dictates what’s to be his last literary achievement, a novel about a boy prostitute in 1890s New York and the married man who ruins his own life to win the boy’s love. Author Edmund White is an Ohio author, born in Cincinnati, a prolific writer about gay life, the “paterfamilias of queer literature” (via The New York Times). Similar to my Elizabeth Bowen experience, Edmund White is an important author whose novels aren’t familiar to me; I’ve only read his nonfiction book The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris.

Colm Tóibín’s 2004 novel The Master was short listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. It’s a story about the great American author Henry James (1843-1916), whom most may know for his novels The Turn of the Screw and Portrait of a Lady. I didn’t plan this – Stephen Crane and Henry James, two great American authors fictionalized, on the list – but the thematic duality does intrigue me. A quote from the front pages of my paperback, from Booklist magazine, says: “Even the reader who knows little about Henry James or his work can enjoy this marvelously intelligent and engaging novel, which presents not on a silver platter, but in tender, opened hands a beautifully nuanced psychological portrait.” A description of The Master on the back includes this: “The emotional intensity of this portrait is riveting.” I’ve enjoyed Colm Tóibín’s novels House of Names, The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster.

3 thoughts on “My 2021 summer reading list: five novels by essential authors

  1. Thanks, I’ve been looking for some older classics. Your list fits the bill perfectly! Especially interested in The Heat of the Day as my past year’s reading has centered on Great Britain’s war years

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