Slow, sweet and spicy: Summer books to savor


by P. Gaye Tapp

How I do love a good book, especially  at this time of year. With the change in the weather comes a change in my reading habits. Summer reading should be lighter, brighter: not necessarily a “beach read,” but slow and sweet, with a soupçon of spice. These books promise to keep you cool wherever you are this summer.

Rosamond Bernier’s Some of My Lives (Farrar, Strous & Giroux, 2011) will transport you as she crisscrosses from Mexico to Paris to New York – all while wearing haute couture. As an editor for Vogue with assignments in Paris after World War II, her dishy, scrapbook-style memoir recalls encounters with Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Chanel, and her long-standing friendship with Leonard Bernstein. In France, Bernier establishes the first influential art magazine, L’OEIL, and launches what she considers to be her other great success: her marriage to love of her life, art critic John Dickinson. With Bernier we feel as if we’re eavesdropping, yet she keeps confidences too, managing to exude an elegant presence: Cool, collected, and always a lady.

About the same time Bernier was traversing the Continent, prolific writer Brit Beverley Nichols was writing the first in a trilogy about the restoration of a great house and its garden in post-war England.

Merry Hall (Workman, 1998) sparkles with a cast of characters who come and go as Nichols immerses himself in restoring the magnificent house, especially its garden.

After reading a battered first edition of the book, I started growing some wonderful lily specimens, inspired by Nichols’ own devotion, rather, worship for the flower. He writes: “Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with death. I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with all three at once. For a garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all of the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised.”

Over the years, I have collected all of his books, some first editions, filling in the missing ones with the Timber Press’s faithful reprints.

A trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York should always include a visit to see the Stokeses, I think. Who are they? They are Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, immortalized in John Singer Sargent’s grand portrait. It’s one of his most recognized and most intriguing works: Mrs. Stokes stands jauntily in the foreground with her hand on her hip; Mr. Stokes is shadowed and impassive in the background.

Jean Zimmerman’s Love, Fiercely (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) unravels some of the mystery about the Gilded Age-era painting of this couple. “Fiercely,” a.k.a. Edith Minturn, was the essence of the era’s well-bred Gibson Girl; independent and classically beautiful. I.N. Phelps Stokes was her shy counterpoint.

Sargent’s portrait was a wedding gift, originally meant to be a portrait of Edith. Sargent changed his mind and decided to paint them both after they rushed into his studio late for a sitting. Their casual clothes and slightly dishelved look captured the attitude of a new generation, and Sargent saw all of its possibility in the pair.

Zimmerman, captivated by the portrait, writes a vivid account of the couple’s lives, which adds even more intrigue to the painting.

The Light in Between by Marella Caracciolo Chia (Pushkin Press, 2013) is like the perfect breeze on a sultry day.

It tells the story about two unlikely lovers: Italian Princess Vittoria Colonna, wife of the Duke of Sermoneta, and the Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni. Their affair unfolds in the summer of 1916 against the backdrop of Lake Maggiore, Italy, and a small island there called Isolino, which is Vittoria’s retreat.

Chia’s exquisite narrative is captivating, especially when describing Vittoria’s love for her island, her gardens, and her house. The charismatic Buccioni sweeps in to her life with the force of his dynamic Futurist paintings, and while Vittoria suffers, she finds love, and don’t we all understand that?

The book Redeeming Features (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) places British author Nicky Haslam center stage; it’s his memoir, after all.

Haslam is like a very elegant cat with many lives and influential friends on hand to scratch his back. What hasn’t he done and done well? He’s been an editor, interior designer, social butterfly, and singer, not to mention a terrific story teller. Does it matter that he calls rocker Bryan Ferry or supermodel Kate Moss friend? Not in the least. His adventurous tales stand on their own.

The book, like its author, moves quickly, dropping names at lighting speed and whispering self deprecating sidebars just as readily.

From childhood to the present, Haslam has led an extraordinary life. At the moment,  he’s revving up a singing and video performance career and has written another new book about his country home. In this memoir, the best part of Haslam’s story telling isn’t what he tells – which is a lot – but what he leaves to the imagination.

There is always room to read one of the greatest – if not the greatest – American novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. With a new movie thrusting Gatsby into the 21st century, it may be time to meet the real – the original – Jay Gatsby.

Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, like that of his friend Ernest Hemingway, is so autobiographical it’s difficult to read about his characters, like Gatsby and Daisy, without thinking about the author and his wife Zelda.

The book’s characters are damned by their careless regard for life from page one, and Jay Gatsby is all too world-weary to give a damn. Except about Daisy. (Hey, Gatsby, She’s a lost cause. Run for your life!) 

If The Great Gatsby is simply an old story about love and loss, or even deeper, about redemption, then that is good enough for me. But it isn’t. And that’s why I suggest reading it again, or for the first time.

What purpose does the new movie serve? It reminds us that The Great Gatsby is a great American novel, and a flick is no substitute for the real thing.