A small consolation for the end of summer is the end of summer's required reading. At my house, just shy of Labor Day, we can almost declare victory. We have found and lost and found our school's list, and the kitchen magnets holding up the list, for the last time. There were the books attempted that fell by the wayside, snubbed as “boring,” or “too babyish.” The mysterious titles that for whatever reason didn’t seem inviting. And then somewhere along the way, the ones that became fast favorites and could be enthusiastically checked off.

My children, 10 and 15, tore through John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, Joan M. Wolf’s Someone Named Eva, and Francisco Jimenez’ The Circuit. Plus, in not-required reading, Wonder; Teenagers: An American History; Chiggers (a graphic novel); various mysteries involving cupcakes; and a biography of Betty Crocker.

True, as of August 30th, at least one mandatory book was not quite at the halfway point: uh oh. But I try not to get involved. My only rule, recently adopted, is that you can't stay up until midnight the night before school starts to finish your book. That's because you've done this every single year up until now, so this year is going to be different. Definitely.

But enough about my kids’ reading—what about mine?

My own summer list is much more important, at least to me. I’m a literary agent, and not only that, I’m an agent here at Pippin. I read for a living. What does a person like me, who is panning for nuggets of literary gold on a daily basis, choose for hammock reading? What could possibly meet my expectations? Every Memorial Day I envision an ideal book, a novel or hefty tome that will be transporting and unforgettable as I attempt to balance it while embedded in damp, stretchy rope. It better be something really good.

Alas, there was no actual hammock this year—and I hate to admit that I mostly read e-books, so there was no balancing act either. It’s kind of strange to have nothing visible to show for my efforts, no pages stained with salt, sand, rosé zinfandel…. Even so, I'm pleased with my choices. I succeeded in polishing off two long novels and some shorter books, devouring the big stuff in the concentrated two- and three-hour gulps that are the true hallmark of summer reading. I caromed through the shorties:The School of Good and Evil (a new YA); Skellig; The Virgin Suicides; Dream Gardens, a book about formal gardens; and a book on nutrition (no idea where that one is). The bigger books, in ambition more than poundage, were Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings.

I dove into American Gods during this summer’s hottest weeks, which was pretty perfect, since much of it takes place on sub-zero midwestern prairies and frozen lakes. If I imagine the elevator pitch for this book, it might begin: The gods have all been forgotten, and they are angry. There is so much more to this epic noir roadtrip, filled with con-men, Norse gods in cheap suits, and attractions like the Largest Carousel in the World (in Wisconsin), but I'm not even going to try to tell you.

The Interestings is another kind of American epic, weaving in and out of years from roughly 1974 to the present. If you were around in the 70s, you will love the details (“Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific” shampoo!). But to me it’s New York in the 1980s and 90s that is so beautifully captured it's almost eerie, when everyone in the newly prosperous city begins to seem coated with a “moneyed gleam, as if they'd been licked all over by the same magical dog." Such a smart, funny, and moving book: definitely hammock-worthy.

The end of summer was devoted to some favorite children’s books, in my childhood home in Washington, D.C. Sadly, my old bookshelf is the best place to find most of them these days. I'll pick just two here: The Sugar Mouse Cake, by Gene Zion and illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham, and The Black Sheep, by Jean Merrill and illustrated by Ronni Solbert.

I can attest that these books stand up to a hundred re-readings, so it’s hard to understand how they can have gone out of print. Beats me. Gene Zion is best known for Harry the Dirty Dog—also illustrated by Graham—and who doesn’t love Harry? But I say their Sugar Mouse Cake is right up there with it.

It tells the story of Tom, a lowly dishwasher in the Royal Kitchens who dreams of being a pastry chef. When he bakes the finest cake in the kingdom for a contest, mean rivals nearly make him miss his chance to win, until his talented dancing mouse Tina saves the day.

The happy resolution of this story is irresistible. I hope someday it will be back on bookstore shelves, and I see it has its own Facebook page, so I guess that's a start.

tom and mouse

The Black Sheep is a tragi-comic eco-fable about an island of madly sweater-knitting sheep, published in 1969. The sheep put great store in dressing for success, even if that means they work nonstop knitting sweaters to keep warm, since they sheared off all their wool.

black sheep

The black sheep, meanwhile, cares only about growing flower gardens, which turns him into an outlaw. Despite its many funny details, like the math word problems as the ewes knit and purl themselves to distraction, the sight of the black sheep walled off alone behind boulders always gives me a chill.

Jean Merrill is remembered for her brilliant novel The Pushcart War, about which a New York Times reviewer wrote, “It’s rare to find a book for young people with both a point of view and a sense of the ridiculous.” That could go for The Black Sheep as well.

Happy Labor Day. It's back to school and office. If you had told my 14-year-old, summer-lazy self, stretched out on the couch eating Whip ‘n Chill pudding and reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, that I would someday get to read novels for work, I would never have believed it. But that’s what I’m doing now, here at 110 West 40th Street—minus the Whip 'n Chill. Amazing.

Posted by elena at 10:08 AM Link to this post
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