Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

2 books offer just the right summer mix of humor and nostalgia

<em> Sandwich</em>
Harper Collins

Summer reading. For me, those words suggest an unhurried expanse of time to lose myself in a good story — fiction or nonfiction. Save the dystopian novels till the fall, please; right now, I want books that glimmer like fireflies with dashes of humor and nostalgia. I’ve just read two that fit those summery specifications.

Catherine Newman’s new novel is called Sandwich, after the town on Cape Cod where her characters have rented a cottage for one precious week every summer for the past 20 years. The title also winks at the situation of our main character, Rachel, nicknamed “Rocky” who’s “halfway in age between her young adult children and her elderly parents” — all of whom crowd into that ramshackle cottage.

In the opening scene of Sandwich Rocky’s husband, Nicky, stands paralyzed, plunger in hand, before the cottage’s single, overflowing old toilet. As Rocky’s vacation week progresses, other things also slosh and overflow: secrets; messy emotions, like anger and shame; and, as Rocky tells us, her own aging body:

Newman elegantly segues from Nora Ephron-like comic passages like that one to elegy. To return to the same place every summer, after all, is to be periodically brought up short by the passage of time. In the middle of the novel, for instance, Rocky uses another metaphor to describe her position in her family and this time her tone is infused with anticipatory grief:

Sandwich is my idea of the perfect summer novel: shimmering and substantive. One more aspect of Newman’s book deserves highlighting: like many other recent novels by best-selling female authors — I’m thinking of Jennifer Weiner, Ann Patchett and Megan Abbott — Newman introduces a storyline here about abortion. She writes about that contested subject — and the emotions it engenders — in a way that I’ve never encountered in fiction before.

 <em>When Women Ran Fifth Avenue</em>
When Women Ran Fifth Avenue

As a city kid who grew up in an apartment without air-conditioning, I have happy memories of seeking relief from the heat by wandering around grand New York department stores like Bloomingdale's, Macy’s and B. Altman. Julie Satow’s new narrative history, called When Women Ran Fifth Avenue, is a treat for anyone like me who yearns to time travel back to some of those palaces of consumption at the height of their grandeur. But even more revelatory are the stories Satow excavates of the women who presided over three of the greatest and now-vanished New York department stores: Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor and Henri Bendel.

Geraldine Stutz rescued Bendel’s in the 1960s — as shopping moved to the suburbs -- by turning its small size into an advantage: creating exclusive boutiques within the store that attracted customers like Gloria Vanderbilt, Cherand Barbra Streisand. Some 30 years earlier, Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor, who Life Magazine dubbed America’s "No. 1 Career Woman” revolutionized fashion by championing the sporty “American Look” at a time when French designers held sway.

But the stand-out figure of the trio is Hortense Odlum, a self-described “housewife” whose husband bought a near-bankrupt and “sagging” Bonwit Teller during the Great Depression and asked her to visit the store to judge it with a woman’s eye. One of her first smash successes was the introduction of a “hat department” on the main floor. In 1934, Hortense became the first woman president of an American department store.

Satow specializes in entertaining cultural histories — her previous book was a history of New York’s Plaza Hotel. Here, she intersperses descriptions of such wonders as Salvador Dali-designed window displays at Bonwit’s with accounts of the racism pervasive in these department stores.

For those readers immune to the allure of shopping or the shore, be assured that more of summer reading recommendations — especially mysteries and crime novels — are coming your way. You can also see what NPR staff and critics are recommending here.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.