A Season to Catch Up on Reading
Most years around this time, we ask The Times’s staff book critics what they’ll be reading over the summer. But book critics, when not reading, also spend the summer like the rest of us do: taking in movies, plays, ballets and the sun. So we’ve asked our book critics to tell us what other cultural offerings they’re looking forward to this season. And we’ve saved the “what you’re planning to read” question for The Times’s esteemed critics in other disciplines, bookish types all. Their answers are below. — John Williams, Daily Books Editor and Staff Writer
Ben Brantley, co-chief theater critic
Some names tantalize even in parentheses. For years, I’d been seeing Barbara Skelton cited in books about literary London in the 20th century, and every time she was mentioned, however tangentially, I knew that she was someone I had to spend more time with. She was a tart, taut writer; a High Bohemian; and a world traveler whose lovers and husbands included King Farouk, Cyril Connolly and the publisher George Weidenfeld. By all accounts she was more than capable of holding her own with both real and intellectual royalty. Now that I am finally in possession of her two volumes of memoirs from the 1980s (which apparently spare no one, herself included), I’m preparing to settle in for one sensational gossip session. Even their titles are bliss: “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Weep No More.”
Jon Caramanica, pop music critic
Best case: I’ll finally get to Kurt Loder’s “Bat Chain Puller: Rock and Roll in the Age of Celebrity,” a 1990 anthology of old Rolling Stone pieces on superstars in varying states of decline or disillusionment. Also, Youngdae Kim’s “BTS: The Review,” a collection of essays, conversations and criticism about the K-pop titans.
Worst case: I’ll glumly flip through the modern-design auction catalogs I pick up at the Strand for a couple bucks each, and lament the side tables and lamps I’ll never be able to afford.
Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic
Throughout the year, I amass a ton of books for an imagined summer “downtime” that never quite happens. A few items from near the top of this season’s stack:
“Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract,” by Philip J. Deloria. The Harvard historian writes about the self-taught Dakota Sioux artist Mary Sully (1896-1963), who was Deloria’s great-aunt and the great-granddaughter of the 19th-century painter Thomas Sully. The moment to savor her semi-abstract celebrity “portraits” (Albert Einstein, ZaSu Pitts), which combine a modernist spirit and Native American aesthetics, has arrived.
So has the moment for revisiting the writing of Andrea Dworkin, which I look forward to doing in “Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin,” edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder. Long dismissed for her antipornography views, she’s a brilliant powerhouse, an extreme voice for our extreme times.
And every summer I try to reread one Big Book from the past. This year, George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda.” She’s the best: wide-open generous heart, moral backbone of tempered steel.
Manohla Dargis, co-chief movie critic
I’m reading “Watch and Ward,” Henry James’s first novel, which I’m finding very surprising. Years ago, after opening and quickly closing “The Golden Bowl,” I decided that James wasn’t for me. I’d read a few of his other novels and stories, but had never gone deep. But after enjoying “The Aspern Papers,” which I read for a movie review I was writing, I reread “Washington Square,” choosing it mostly because I love William Wyler’s 1949 film version, “The Heiress.”
That led me to the Library of America’s collection of James’s first five novels (after I rewatched “The Heiress,” of course). When I commit to a novelist, I try to read his or her work chronologically, stopping only when I hit a book I don’t like. Hence “Watch and Ward.” First published in five installments in 1871 in The Atlantic Monthly (the Library of America edition reprints this version), it tells of a young man, Roger, who at 29 rescues and begins raising a 12-year-old orphan, Nora. It’s all quite ordinary until two years later, when Roger takes a new look at “the ripening companion of his own ripening years” and decides that he has a perfect wife-in-the-making. Ewww!
I’m only halfway through, and so far it’s as immersive and pleasurable as it is creepy, with a Pygmalion story that drifts unself-consciously (I think!) into “Lolita” territory. Some of the writing is so beautiful that I often reread sentences, but there are also passages so purple that they (and you) turn near-red from embarrassment.
Dwight Garner, book critic
My summer will begin officially on June 1, when visiting friends are taking my daughter and me to see Los Van Van, the great Cuban dance orchestra, at the Lehman Center in the Bronx. Also in June, the Drive-By Truckers blow in for six shows at the Brooklyn Bowl. Those guys are some of the best songwriters of our era, and their shows are glorious. I’ve seen them almost too many times to count.
I’m looking forward to catching up on theater I’m late to (“Hadestown,” “Hillary and Clinton,” “Ink”) and also eager for the director Amy Morton’s version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” with an all-female cast. (“Put that coffee down! Coffee’s for closers only.”)
I used to live not far from the Warwick Drive-In Theater in Warwick, N.Y., and I still like to visit. You can feast on a drive-in hot dog and fries and a Coke or bring in your own fancy spread and a bottle of wine. It’s a lot farther away now that I live in Manhattan — nearly a two-hour drive — but summer isn’t summer without a double-feature under the stars.
Jesse Green, co-chief theater critic
Plays on the page are ghosts of themselves; the texts of musicals even more so. Still, the current revival of “Oklahoma!” makes me want to read one of each. How is it that the musical’s libretto, by Oscar Hammerstein II, is still as shocking today as it was in 1943, when it altered the course of musical theater? Was it Hammerstein’s invention, or something he borrowed from his source, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” a not-very-successful 1930 play by Lynn Riggs? Reading the two in tandem, I hope to find out where the magic is buried.
Amanda Hess, critic-at-large
I don’t read many novels, but I love gossipy articles about people who write novels. Recently, though, I read a profile of a novelist that I enjoyed so much, it inspired me to seek out her work itself. The article was Judith Thurman’s 2017 profile of Rachel Cusk in The New Yorker, in which Cusk was so startlingly, inappropriately honest that I immediately tucked into her vaguely auto-fictional “Outline.” Cusk’s narrator, Faye, is similarly direct, but she operates with a catlike passivity that seems to turn listening into a kind of weapon. As a quiet person with a lot to say, I loved her. This summer I plan to read the next two installments in the trilogy, “Transit” and “Kudos.”
Wesley Morris, critic-at-large
Dan Jenkins died last March. Six months earlier, Burt Reynolds, the star of the hit movie based on Jenkins’s novel “Semi-Tough,” had died. It occurred to me that I had never read the book, despite buying a copy, losing it, then buying it again. So after this passing and misplacement, I’m going to read what my friend Bryan assures me is a very good novel, about professional football, by a peerless sportswriter. (The peerless part I already knew.)
“The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang, is one of those novels — about a woman pushed to the brink by a dream-induced dietary decision — that too many people have said they’re reading right now. So now one of those people has to be me. I’ve started it. And the only reason I’ve put it down is to type to you all that I’m reading it — and just doing that has got me going through withdrawal.
Judith Crist was part of that great era of American film criticism that was ready for the movies to crack open by the late 1960s. Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Susan Sontag and Renata Adler tend to overshadow her. I, at least, never turn to her for insight the way I do those other folks. And yet Crist could be so insightful. She saw what was happening by the mid-to-late 1960s as clearly as, say, Kael. She just perceived things differently, with different nerve and different guts. Whenever I see one of Crists’s books in a shop, I buy it and peruse it. This summer, I’m going to stick my straw into “The Private Eye, the Cowboy and the Very Naked Girl: Movies From Cleo to Clyde.”
I’m also planning to read “Hue 1968,” by Mark Bowden, “Dispatches,” by Michael Herr, and “In Retrospect,” by Robert S. McNamara. Recently, I was made aware of some family news involving my late grandfather and his son, my late uncle — well, it was news to me. It’s not worth going into here. But it involves the Vietnam War. And it came at a moment when people in my life were telling me that they were rereading different books about the war, none of which I’d read. Well, I read Herr’s novel so long ago that I may as well have not read it. You’re looking at this assignment and laughing. But I’m serious about it, even if it means republishing this same paragraph in a year.
James Poniewozik, chief television critic
Having just finished writing a book that required a ton of nonfiction reading, I’m glad to read fiction again. First, I’m going to punch one of the remaining holes on my Nerd Card by finally reading “Watchmen,” the dark superhero alternative history by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, held to be one of the greatest graphic novels. It’s also the jumping-off point for an HBO series later this year, so I’m still reading for work as well as fun. But, baby steps.
A.O. Scott, co-chief movie critic
A fat collection of poetry is the best summer reading. You can read a poem, doze off for a while and then read it again, or find another if you’ve lost your place. A single poet in bulk is an ideal houseguest, perpetually interesting and never demanding. Last summer I left Kevin Young’s generous and multifarious “Blue Laws” in the country. It and I have been through some weather since then, and I look forward to picking up where I left off. Or starting over.
Parul Sehgal, book critic
New York has beautiful ruins, especially the crumbling and very picturesque abandoned smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island that’s become a cat sanctuary of sorts. I’ll be there a lot this summer taking very slow walks with my cat-obsessed toddler, who likes to methodically inspect the talent.
There will be some beach days, too, I hope, and there are two documentaries I’m looking forward to, both out in June. “Nureyev,” directed by Jacqui Morris and David Morris, contains all kinds of previously unseen footage, including clips of Nureyev dancing in works by Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. And while Toni Morrison is perhaps our most famous living American novelist, so much about her remains enigmatic; “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is supposed to be an intimate look at her life, art and activism.
Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic
Whatever the season, it’s always hard to make time for reading actual books, as opposed to exhibition catalogs and sundry magazines and newspapers. This summer, I hope to finish some books started over the winter. Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is part of my ongoing project to better understand the tragedy of the Civil War; “The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein,” by Martin Duberman, a biography of one of the prime movers in modern art and ballet; and Mary Gabriel’s “Ninth Street Women,” which tells the lesser-known stories of some of the female painters of the New York School.
I also hope to read Don Winslow’s “The Border,” reality-based fiction that I expect will be as brutally enlightening about America’s venality regarding immigration as Winslow’s “The Power of the Dog” and “The Cartel” were about American culpability in the so-called war on drugs. After that I plan to escape with Vince Aletti’s stunning, just-published “Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines.”
Jennifer Szalai, book critic
My horror-movie-watching habits are seasonal: While I hesitate to watch anything with zombies in the winter (feeling trapped indoors by the weather makes for too much verisimilitude), I’m generally game to be terrified in the summer. Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” is billed as a “zombie comedy” — the trailer makes it look more funny than scary, and the cast (including Tilda Swinton as a swordswoman-mortician) is a big draw for me. I was thinking that one of the shuffling, decaying figures looked suspiciously like Iggy Pop — and sure enough, it is.
The fifth season of “Black Mirror” is coming in June — brilliant and unsettling technological dystopia that’s so close to our present moment that I can only bear to consume a single episode at a time. I’m also looking forward to “I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent,” the first museum survey of work by the Los Angeles artist Julie Becker, who died in 2016.
Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic
Summer vacation is a good catch-up time for books I’ve been meaning to read. In music, I look forward to the British conductor Jane Glover’s “Handel in London: The Making of a Genius,” released last year. I was delighted by her vividly written and astute 2005 book, “Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music.” And though I’ve read most of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, with his bleak take on social mores, class and entitlement, I somehow skipped “The Titan,” the sequel to “The Financier,” a riveting tale.