Those lazy, hazy, crazy days

A time to get away from it all — including family, a long move to Maine, and a curious trip to Sweden

(Matthieu Forichon)
By Brock Clarke
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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Every summer, for more than a century, we Clarkes have flocked to our ancestral lake home in north-central Connecticut, where we ignore each other and read books. Since I left the Northeast 12 years ago (first for Clemson, S.C., then for Cincinnati), I’ve been almost exclusively reading and rereading Muriel Spark’s brilliant, bitterly funny, ingenious novels during the summer.

However, I won’t be spending much time at our lake house this year. Instead, my family and I will be moving to Portland, Maine, and then after that traveling to Sweden. Which doesn’t mean I won’t be ignoring my family this summer; it just means that I’ll be ignoring them in different places. And since I’ll be ignoring them in different places, it makes sense that I’d ignore them for different books, too. I’ve already started. For instance, instead of helping everyone prepare logistically and emotionally for our move, I’ve begun reading books by people I’m leaving behind or have already left behind (my Clemson friend Keith Lee Morris’s new story collection, “Call It What You Want,’’ and my Cincinnati friend Leah Stewart’s new novel, “Husband and Wife,’’ and after that I’ll start rereading excellent novels by writers who live in Portland (Justin Tussing’s “The Best People in the World’’ and Lewis Robinson’s “Water Dogs’’). I hope Justin and Lewis are reading this and see my mentioning their names and their books as a sign of heartfelt admiration, which it is, and not as a transparent ploy to win their friendship, which it also is. Because the truth is, I could use some friends, especially since, as of this moment, I don’t know a soul who lives in Portland.

Why, then, you might be wondering, am I moving to Portland? Am I moving to Portland because of its great restaurants, its beautiful neighborhoods, its fine public schools and museums, its miles and miles of lovely coast? No. I’m moving to Portland because 15 years ago I read a marvelous novel called “The Bird Artist’’ by Howard Norman, a book so cheerfully and thrillingly bleak that it made me want to visit Nova Scotia, even though the novel is set in Newfoundland, and when I finally visited Nova Scotia 10 years later, I loved it so much that it made me want to move to Portland.

All of this is proof of my common sense, and not the opposite. For instance, I loved the Newfoundland of “The Bird Artist’’ for reasons — its thrilling bleakness, for one — that probably wouldn’t make me love it as much outside the novel, and I didn’t want to ruin the novel or Newfoundland by actually going there. But nor did I want to remain a stranger to the Maritime Provinces. So I went to Nova Scotia, which I expected, being less northern, would also be less bleak, although still thrilling in a bleak, northern, maritime, provincial way. It was. I loved it. But as everyone knows, you cannot fall in love with a place on vacation and expect to move there and love it just as much, any more than you can love a novel and then visit a place the novel is set and expect to love the actual version as much as you loved the novelized version. This is a sure way to get your heart broken. So I decided to move to Portland, which was close enough to Nova Scotia to be thrillingly bleak, but also close enough to my lake house and my birthplace (Springfield, Mass.) to be considered home, even if I didn’t know anyone who actually lived there.

Anyway, the aforementioned books should last me until the moving truck comes and hauls away our stuff. But as everyone knows, a move is always a trying experience, and if you’re moving with children, as I am, then things can be especially tense, and a smart mover will have a plan in place to ease the tension, which is to say, a bunch of books on hand to help him ignore the people around him who are so tense. My first week in Maine, for instance, while my family is freaking out over which couch should go in which room and what bedroom has to be painted what color, I plan to load my younger son into a stroller and walk him around Portland until he falls asleep and then, while he’s sleeping, read Jennifer Egan’s new novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.’’ I should have read Egan years ago: Every time I’ve read a review of one of her previous four books, they sounded like books I would love. And so does her new book, a novel about aging musicians and record label execs that seems, from the opening chapters, funny, bitter, and heartbreaking. A lot like Muriel Spark’s fiction, come to think of it.

There’s only one potential problem with Egan’s novel: It’s relatively short, and I’m certain there will be some residual new-house tension to ignore after I’ve finished reading it. Luckily, I’ll have Aimee Bender’s new novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake,’’ to turn to. Unlike Egan, I’ve been reading Bender’s fantastic (in both senses of the word) fiction for years and am already a big fan, and nothing about her new book (narrated by a girl who is able to divine the emotional states of people by eating the food they’ve made) suggests I’ll feel otherwise after reading it. Like reading Spark, I suspect reading Bender’s new novel will be, for me, the perfect summertime thing to do. Because part of the attraction of summer is that you get to do the things you already know you like to do, like read a favorite author, or swim the Australian crawl, or drink gin.

Speaking of gin: We tend to drink a lot of it at our lake house in the summer, and after the inevitable tension of our move to Portland, some gin drinking will definitely be in order. And since we will be at our lake house for a week between our move to Portland and our trip to Sweden, we’ll be able to do our gin drinking there, as seems proper. It also seems proper that, when I’m not drinking gin at our house in Connecticut, I’ll be reading Rick Moody’s new novel. Moody, after all, has been saddled with the reputation as the Bard of Fairfield County, Conn., which, as anyone in my family will tell you, if you’re foolish enough to ask them, is an entirely different part of Connecticut than “our’’ part of Connecticut. But Moody does not deserve this reputation: He might be best known for his Connecticut novel “The Ice Storm,’’ but his fiction is widely varied in form and setting, and his new novel, “The Four Fingers of Death’’ (about a hack writer whose sick wife’s future health hinges upon his successful novelization of the horror movie “The Crawling Hand’’) promises to be his wildest and best book yet. Besides reading the novel at my lake house, I also plan to bring it with me on the day my older son and I make our annual pilgrimage to the Student Prince Cafe in Springfield, where, between watching World Cup soccer games, my son and I will eat our sausage platters and read our books — me the new Moody, my son the abridged comic book versions of the classics that I read when I was his age. Periodically, I will ask him how he’s liking whatever book he’s reading, and he’ll ignore me. Just the thought of it fills me with so much love for him I can barely stand it.

By the time I’ve finished Moody’s novel, it should be time to go to Sweden. There’s something about traveling to another country — especially in the summer — that makes you feel as if it might be possible for you to be a different person, and with that in mind, I’ll be reading, on the plane, Kevin Canty’s new novel, “Everything,’’ which is set in Montana and is about, among other characters, a stoic guy who fishes. I’ve always wanted to write about, and be, one of those guys, and have never come close to actually pulling it off, but Canty’s novel gives me hope that that’s about to change, that I might finally become a new writer and person, the way the tubby beer-swiller swears he’ll finally take up yoga, and the vegan ornithologist begins to imagine herself in a duck blind wearing cammo and holding a 12-gauge.

And then, finally, we’re in Sweden. Given my reasons for moving to Portland, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m going to Sweden because I’m planning on writing a novel set in Denmark. Who knows what I’ll find in Sweden once I get there; who knows whether I’ll write the book I think I’m going to write. But at least I know what book I’m going to read while I’m there: Howard Norman’s new novel, “What Is Left the Daughter.’’ I’ve read far enough into the book to know that I love it as much as “The Bird Artist,’’ and also to know that it’s set in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia! Just thinking, and reading, about it makes me want to move to Portland all over again.

Brock Clarke is the author of four books of fiction, with a fifth, “Exley,’’ a novel, to be published in the fall. He can be reached at